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The Royal Path to God: The Orthodox Monastery of the Transfiguration

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None of us lives to himself and none of us dies to himself. If we live, we live to the Lord and if we die we die to the Lord, so then whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s (Romans 14:7)

— Inscription on the grave of Mother Alexandra, founder of the Orthodox Monastery of the Transfiguration

In the previous article we took a look at St. Tikhon’s Monastery — the first Orthodox monastery in America, located in northeastern Pennsylvania, which has remained a spiritual center to this day.

Pennsylvania, it turns out, is also home to another Orthodox first in America — the first women’s monastery, the Orthodox Monastery of the Transfiguration, in Ellwood City, north of Pittsburgh. It is also the first monastery in America to celebrate the Divine services in the English language, although many others do now as well.

The Orthodox Christian faith maintains the highest, noblest conception of mankind — we are called to recapture the likeness of God lost at the Fall, and to continue to grow in it — eternally — ever growing closer to God, Who is Himself eternal. And this greatest of callings is open to everyone, both men and women, equally. Orthodoxy has a long and venerable tradition of women giving themselves entirely to serving the Lord in holiness, both in monasteries and in the world.

Indeed, the New Testament (Luke 2:36-38) itself preserves for us the memory of the Prophetess Anna, who spent her life in prayer and fasting in the Temple, giving us a prototype of the millions of women monastics that were to come in Church history.

And women saints are among the most beloved in the Orthodox Church. No saint is more revered in Georgia than St. Nina, the Equal-to-the-Apostles missionary who brought the Christian faith to their land, and in Russia no saint is more beloved than St. Matrona of Moscow, the blind wonderworker of the 20th century. In the entire Orthodox Church, no saint is greater, more honored, more revered, than the Mother of God herself, to whom we turn for help after God Himself. None have given themselves more fully to service to Christ than His own mother.

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How sad and shallow the shrillness of the modern feminist movement appears in light of Orthodoxy’s 2000-year Tradition of elevating women to the very right hand of God. We are fulfilled as people by Christ Himself, not any worldly conceptions of “equality” that only deny the uniqueness of femininity. God desires to give us incomparably more than our earthly conceptions can even begin to imagine.

And the Mother of God’s example continues to bear fruit in America at the picturesque 96-acre Monastery of the Transfiguration, among other places. Women have been dedicating themselves to God there, with oaths of poverty, chastity, and obedience, since the monastery was founded in 1967.

Another striking fact about the Monastery of the Transfiguration is that its founder was no simple woman, but a princess from the Romanian royal family. The founder and first abbess Mother Alexandra was Princess Ileana, the youngest daughter of King Ferdinand and Queen Marie, born in Bucharest in 1909. She lived a life of luxury, and she lived a life of deprivation and persecution, and finally she lived a life of quiet contemplation.

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Just as Orthodoxy holds men and women equal, so it holds princes and paupers equal before God. Everyone, no matter their lot in life, has the same calling, and God requires the same self-sacrifice of all. Princess Ileana visited soldiers with her mother during World War I, just as did her cousins in the Russian royal family, and she later established several hospitals to serve soldiers, villagers, and everyone in need of help.

Following a life that saw her bearing six children and being forced into exile in several countries around the world, she focused her lifelong sacrificial ministry into the monastic life, the highest calling an Orthodox Christian can take up.

Her monastery recently celebrated its 50th anniversary, where the head bishop of the Orthodox Church in America, Metropolitan Tikhon (Mollard) praised the monastery’s history and sisterhood as “a living example of prayer, hospitality, and monastic obedience to the Orthodox Church in America through integrity of life, sacrificial service and liturgical beauty,” and his accolades are no exaggeration. I have many times been the grateful recipient of this sacrificial service, and have many times delighted in the beauty of the Church services there.

Princess Ileana’s decision to take up the monastic habit and become Mother Alexandra highlights the simplicity and peace that is often missing from modern American life, or at least the dominating image of it. She had known wealth and power, but when she lost it through the political violence of Second World War, she didn’t pine for it, but only went deeper into the simple life lived for others. Of course, there are plenty of kind-hearted people in America, ready to help a neighbor at the drop of a dime, but at the same time, we cannot deny that the image of a princess-turned-monastic surely rubs against the prevailing tenor of American life, where the search for money, power, and fame is the norm.

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Mother Alexandra/Princess Ileana reposed in 1991, but her monastery continues to flourish, opening its doors to monastics and pilgrims who are seeking spiritual peace and consolation. In this, her memory endures more truly and deeply than had she given herself over to wealth and fame.

In addition to the church and living quarters, the monastery also has a cemetery, where Princess Ileana/Mother Alexandra is buried, where pilgrims can seek her Heavenly intercessions before God. It is also home to a two-mile trail system, offering pilgrims a peaceful walk through scenic woods, and a stop by a waterfall. The whole atmosphere is one of stillness and prayer.

The cemetery is also the final resting place of Fr. Thomas Hopko, one of the most visible figures in 20th century American Orthodoxy. He taught and served as dean for many years at St. Vladimir’s Seminary in New York, and served the Transfiguration Monastery community in his retirement. Fr. Thomas was a kind soul and an engaging preacher, and the sisterhood greatly loved him.

The current abbess Mother Christophora and the sisterhood are always ready to take in and serve guests, both materially and spiritually. The Church services at the monastery are sung and celebrated prayerfully, filled with the selfless spirit of Mother Alexandra and the ancient Romanian Orthodox Tradition that she carried within her.

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For more information on the Orthodox Monastery of the Transfiguration, visit their website at http://www.orthodoxmonasteryellwoodcity.org/home.

Author: Jesse Dominick