JERUSALEM: 22 August 2009
Nun Magdalena, Oldest Resident of Gethsemane Convent, Has Reposed
The life of each man is like a book that one can read in its entirety only after death. The final page ends, and before us lies the narrative of a single soul that has completed its sojourn in this earthly vale.
On 1/14 August, the oldest resident of the Gethsemane Convent, the Nun Magdalena, known and beloved of all, departed this life. On this important day, when the Church glorifies the Cross of Christ and bows down before it, this most praiseworthy mother reached her victorious end. She had spent her entire life in the convent, and was like a living history of our community.
Little Mariasha was brought to Abbess Maria (Robinson) at the Gethsemane Convent in December of 1946, at the age of eight. Mother Magdalena reposed several days shy of her 71st birthday, having spent 62 years in the convent, a rare occurrence, especially in our times. Much can be said and written of her. But we will confine ourselves to casting light on the principal events of her life's journey.
Having been a pupil at the Bethany School for a time, Mariasha was brought to the kleros of the Gethsemane Convent. The girl possessed a marvelous voice and quickly learned to sing and chant in Slavonic, though she was not Russian. Mariasha was born in Palestine, to the family of an Arab priest. Growing up under the wise direction of Abbess Maria and the Nun Barbara (Tsvetkova), and receiving, for all intents and purposes, an English education (for Abbess Maria was an English woman), Mariasha (for that is what they called her) very quickly displayed an aptitude for the monastic life, and her path was clear: she would become a nun. One day, Metropolitan Elias, who had once bestowed the miraculous Gethsemane Icon upon our convent, arrived at Gethsemane from Lebanon. When he had been greeted by the abbess and was offered hospitality in her quarters, he saw a little Arab girl dressed in a cassock. Calling her over, he set his hands on her head and said: "The spirit of monasticism is upon her." And this monastic spirit was clearly evident in the ensuing years. Mother Magdalena became a living exemplar of it. But in what does the spirit of monasticism consist? It is, first and foremost, the burning of the heart with a holy love for God. Having received from the Lord a gift—a beautiful voice—she became his singer, as the Prophet David puts it: "I will chant unto my God for as long as I have my being." Chanting is a labor, for it entails standing prayerfully before God in church. Through the chanters the whole Church prays: they are Her mouth. And the mouth of Mother Magdalena was ever open to glorify God. She was always the first in church, never skipping even the most ordinary of services. Providing an example of the zealous observance of the monastic rule, she set the tone not only for the kliros, but for the whole convent. Love for everything churchly, the ability to perceive in the divine services the profundity and beauty of Orthodoxy, a lively participation in the rhythm of the Church—all this was her life. How often she would exclaim: "How wisely the holy fathers have arranged everything!" She did not blindly follow what was prescribed, but delved into the meaning of it and responded to it all in a heartfelt manner. How she loved the Great Fast, Passion Week! We never saw her indifferent; she always breathed the life of the Church, its feast-days. Everything was vibrant, even in her spirit.
She was tonsured into monasticism at the age of 18, receiving the new name Nadezhda (Hope). Three sisters were tonsured together at the same service, and were named Faith Hope and Love. And in the homily addressed to the newly tonsured, it was said: "And you, Nadezhda, are the hope of our community." And it must be noted that she did indeed justify this hope.
In addition to the kliros, the Nun Nadezhda was the cell-attendant of Abbess Maria; and after the latter's death, to Abbess Barbara. She was a skillful seamstress, made candles, baked prosphoras, and was an excellent cook. She was obedient, well-mannered and loving—truly an ornament of the convent; and is remembered as such by countless pilgrims. They would into Jerusalem during the day, and when they returned to the Gethsemane Convent, they would go went of all to Sister Nadezhda. She was extraordinarily welcoming and open. And as the years passed, these traits grew into genuine Christian virtues—magnanimity, mercy, love.
Having spent 30 years as a nun, Sister Nadezhda made her monastic vows and was tonsured to the mantia. Having chosen her as His bride, the Lord gave her a beautiful name—Magdalena—wedding her forever to the Church of St. Mary Magdalene, in which her voice sounded forth every day. Having become Magdalena, she received another, greater gift of love for God and her fellow man. She told us herself how during the three nights she spent in church after her tonsure, she could not sleep, her spirit burned so within her. And since sleep was not possible, she chanted. Her tonsure to the mantia took place on the eve of the Transfiguration of the Lord, 5/18 August 1986, and was performed by the then Archbishop Laurus.
As choir conductor, Mother Magdalena prepared carefully for the services. She always chose the pieces ahead of time and held rehearsals. She was attuned to the typicon, which she greatly loved and always studied. She loved the canons to the Theotokos chanted at Compline and always knelt down to listen to them. In general, she would sit in church only when appropriate, despite exhaustion and pain in her legs. She preferred to stand and go to her cell to rest with a clean conscience than to rest during the divine services. She never permitted herself to sit during the reading of the epistle at Liturgy. She was very strict with herself. She prepared carefully for the Mystery of Communion, reading the appointed rule in good time and without haste.
Our relations with others are the most exact proof of our spiritual growth. Mother Magdalena never pushed anyone away; she tried to be reserved and patient with others' shortcomings, showing neither the displeasure nor dissatisfaction that might naturally manifest themselves in relations with certain people. The trait that most characterized her was gentleness. She found within herself the power to support you and encourage you, even when this was difficult for her own soul. By the end of her life this gentleness had become an inalienable part of her, as was good will. She had compassion for all. Sometimes you would come, complaining about someone and wanting her to support you in your condemnation, but instead you would find condescension toward others, refusal to condemn, sympathy and a desire to correct. And you would depart ashamed and corrected.
Mother Magdalena suffered for many years from diabetes. And in her later years this disease intensified, leaving its dread traces upon her body. Lesions that refused to heal appeared on her feet and legs. The pain increased, and in the final few months became constant and debilitating. She suffered especially at nighttime and sleep became fitful. This had a negative affect upon her heart, which developed arrhythmia. Congestive heart failure ensued. On the feast of the Myrrh-bearing Women she had her first heart attack. Having survived it, Mother Magdalena was forced to take strong medicines, which themselves had a deleterious affect upon her overall health. She grew weak in body yet continued strong in spirit. But she would weep more often than usual. She who had supported everyone for so many years found herself in need to support, of help and rest. There appeared several Simon of Cyrenes, to whom the Lord made it possible to bear the cross in her stead. First and foremost was her cell-attendant, Paula, who honored her as her mother (she had entered Bethany at the age of four and later the convent). She became the faithful, indispensable helper of Mother Magdalena in all her needs.
Several of the sisters tended Mother Magdalena, the wrappings of whose legs had to be changed every day. She suffered from diabetic foot problems—her toes began to develop gangrene, and she was fearful that they would have to be amputated. But by God's mercy the process was halted. The Lord does not permit trials beyond our ability to bear. Everything was given according to her strength, yet much was given. Her final six months were truly marked by suffering. Mother Magdalena could walk until the last day of her life, but they had to carry her into church on a stretcher, because she did not have the strength to climb so many stairs.
On July 29th, an appointment was made with the doctor for further examination. Mother Magdalena was brought to the hospital, and almost immediately had a heart attack there: her heart stopped. We marvel at the providence of God. Had this happened at the convent, we would have lost her earlier. But the merciful Lord worked a miracle like that of the resurrection of Lazarus. That day her heart stopped seven times before they managed to revive her. It seemed that there was no hope left. A stimulator was applied to the heart, but only externally; an operation was essential in order to regulate it within the body. Mother Magdalena was adamantly opposed to such an operation, but we persistently strove to persuade her, and eventually she consented. The operation was scheduled for August 2, the feast of the holy Prophet Elijah. We all prayed, but Mother Magdalena most of all, beseeching the holy Prophet Elijah to heal her. And a miracle took place: the surgeon postponed the operation, and the following day they sent her home from the hospital, , on the very eve of our patronal feast of St. Mary Magdalene. How great was our joy! We understood that if little time remained for Mother Magdalena to live, she should not die in a hospital bed, but in her own cell, surrounded by her own community. And this is what happened.
On the very day of the feast, August 4, they brought Mother Magdalena to church on a stretcher, and she took Communion on her nameday in her own church. On each of the following ten days, she received Communion in her cell. When she had been in the hospital, Mother Magdalena had had a dream, and told us about it: "Fr. Dimitri [who had been the Chief of the Russian Ecclesiastical Mission, a great expert on the Typicon, and was well loved at the convent] came to me. This was the second time he had appeared to me during my illness. He handed me a large cross and said that he and I had to greet the bishop." When asked which one, Mother Magdalena replied: "Our Vladyka Mark. I told him that it is not appropriate for me to greet the bishop with the cross, but he instructed me to do so. And so, I went out to greet Vladyka Mark and gave him the cross; and he took it, kissed it and gave it back to me." This was a remarkable dream. In it the Lord clearly revealed the day of her death. On August 2, Vladyka Mark arrived in the Holy Land, heading a group of pilgrims from Germany. Vladyka served three times in Gethsemane: firstly, on the patronal feast; and secondly, on the feast of the Hodegitria, our miraculous icon, when we process around the whole convent with the icon. We brought the icon also to Mother Magdalena. To see how she wept, bidding farewell forever to the holy icon, was extremely moving. Thirdly, he celebrated the Liturgy on August 14, the feast of the Cross and the first day of the Dormition Fast. The group of pilgrims was to fly out that night. After the Liturgy, Vladyka Mark went to Mother Magdalena, and they managed to speak together for a time. Then followed the blessing of the cells, and the priest went to Mother Magdalena's cell and sprinkled it with holy water. Afterwards, they gave her a cup of holy water, and she drank a little. Several minutes later she quite unexpectedly gasped and fell into an unconscious state from which she never emerged. Two and a half hours later, her heart ceased to beat forever. All the sisters gathered around her, and two priests read the prayers at the departure of a soul. The canon to the Theotokos was sung, and other hymns. At 11:15 in the morning, the great bell tolled, announcing to all the death of our Mother Magdalena. Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His saints!
Vladyka Mark stayed until the following day and presided over the funeral, for which a multitude of the faithful gathered. Bishop Agapit of Stuttgart arrived that night and served the first Liturgy for the departed. Two bishops from the Patriarchate of Jerusalem attended the funeral—Vladykas Timotheos and Amvrosios. Thus, four hierarchs sang Mother Magdalena to her rest.
Her hands, so beautiful during her life, remained soft and white until the end. Not the least hint of corruption emanated from her coffin, despite the August heat.
Those who had prayed remained behind for a long time, standing by her grave in the shadow of the olive-trees. The sense of loss continued to the following day. We understood that our bond with the old, historic Gethsemane, a most important link in which was Mother Magdalena, had vanished, never to return. We remain, those who lived next to her and with her; but can we continue this song that poured forth from her ardent heart? Eternal be your memory, our dear Mother Magdalena!