The Hermitess Photini {discussion one}

Today is our first book club discussion of The Hermitess Photini! Yay!Just a few guidelines before we begin:

  1. Some of you have emailed me or commented on facebook that you’ve finished the entire book. That’s awesome! Just please keep in mind that members were only required to read through page 72, so no spoilers. We’ll only discuss what happened in the assigned chapters.
  2. Be courteous and respectful of others opinions. While opinions will differ and certain things might/should be debated, the discussions need to remain friendly and professional.
  3. From now on, I think it would be fun for each member to come up with one question. It should be open-ended and debatable, but specific enough to promote a focused discussion. This will help keep the conversation well-rounded, instead of it being based on my perspective alone. Email your questions and I’ll choose several of them for each discussion.
  4. Don’t be afraid to ask questions! If you’re not familiar with a term or saint or whatever, please ask. We’re all here as a family, hoping to learn and grow together.
  5. My thoughts are below, some of them just things to ponder, others are prompts and questions for you to answer. The questions are bold and italicized. Answer one of them or all of them in the comment section for others to read and discuss. Feel free to comment on anything mentioned in this post, even if not a “question”.

That being said, let’s begin!

Whenever I read about hermits or ascetics, I’m amazed at how little we really need to survive. On page 44, she mentions some of the things she took with her into the wilderness; “a spade, a knife, an earthen cooking pot, a small axe, and a little wheat and legumes for planting.”

That passage got me thinking about what I would take with me, if I were in her position. I would take a few of my prayer books, my bible, a prayer rope, holy oil, an icon, blanket, several different knives and utensils, pot, drinking glass, some rope, a flour mill, water purifier, various seeds (non-hybrids, lol). The mere thought of only having those possessions listed both scares and thrills me. What would you take with you?

On page 29, Fr. Kallistratos said to the others about Fr. Joachim’s appearance, “Ah! You must have found some treasure [that is, a hermit] on the other side! Don’t you see how his face is shining with joy?”

We often read about saints or people encountering the Grace of God, from either a vision of God Himself (Moses on Mt. Sinai) or by getting a taste of that Grace from some holy person. Have you ever met someone that made you feel the way Fr. Joachim felt after his first encounter with Photini; like you’ve discovered a treasure?

I’ve obviously never experienced a moment where my countenance changed, but I get that same feeling every time I visit Geronda Ephraim in Arizona. The first time I met him I was eighteen years old and knew basically nothing about the church, despite having been raised in it my entire life. He had come to a local church to hear confessions (this was before he established the two monasteries currently in Florida). He doesn’t speak English, and my Greek isn’t very good, so there was another monk there to interpret. I told him my confession and he asked me if that was it and I said yes. I really thought it was, so I knelt down for him to place his stole over my head and read the prayer. But while I was there, kneeling at his feet, he looked at me with such a loving and tender expression that it felt like he was my grandfather; like I knew him my whole life. He moved his prayer rope rapidly between his fingers and began asking me very detailed questions about things I’d done in my life, things I had honestly forgotten all about. Things I had passed off as “not a big deal”, but were sins nonetheless, things I had never told anyone. After he asked several questions, I began to cry. I had no idea why I was crying, he hadn’t said anything to upset me, my spirit was just so overwhelmed with God’s grace that I couldn’t control myself. I had this peaceful, overflowing feeling inside of me and it lasted for several days. It was the first time I had ever experienced something spiritual. It was also the driving force in my seeking out the teachings and beliefs of the Church. That confession began my journey into true Orthodoxy.

Photini’s friend Sophia remarked (pg. 24), “Oh no! Those nuns are all hypocrites. Don’t you know, Mr. John? No good girl ever goes and becomes a nun. Only ugly ones that nobody wants to marry go to a monastery, supposedly to become saints!”
Do you think people still feel this way toward others becoming monastics/clergy? Why?

I would have to say yes. I’ve heard people make comments about monastics in particular, sadly, quite similar to Sophia’s thoughts. I think the main reasons for this are fear and lack of faith. Most people who feel like that do not understand the impending judgment into eternity we will all face, so they can’t understand why someone would give up their entire life for something so intangible. Those that do understand, I think just have a natural fear of change, maybe a fear of losing that child, grandchild, or whoever to a monastery or the difficult life of a priest who takes responsibility for countless souls and tasks.

As I read Chapter 16, Search for a Monastery, I wondered how liberating it would feel to give away everything and not be tied down by social obligations (and networks). I cancelled my personal facebook page a couple of months ago and immediately felt a huge weight lifted! I can’t pinpoint why exactly, I just know if felt good, one less worldly obligation. What are your thoughts on that? How much is too much when it comes to worldly obligations? how do you decipher between what is worth it and what isn’t?

Photini also confesses that she thought about continuing to protect herself by dressing as a man and sneaking on to the Holy Mountain. Of course, she quickly realizes that even if she got away with it, she would be disgracing herself and violating a law the Holy Fathers decreed. I’m not sure this is a discussion question, but I have to confess I’ve had that same thought myself. It was fleeting, of course. :) So women, confess. How many of you have thought about that? And guys, is the Holy Mountain a place you would ever want to visit?
On page 42 of that chapter Photini thinks, “Just look, I am all alone! My mother has passed away, and so has my father; I have no siblings or relatives! Why should I stay in the world? Why don’t I go into the wilderness? And whenever God wills, let Him take my soul…If I harm my soul and am deprived of our Lord Jesus Christ’s presence, what good was it for me to be born into the world at all?”

Wow. How I wish I thought that way! I think that passage is a good reminder that no matter how devastating certain events in our lives may truly be, God does everything for the benefit of our salvation. It’s a calming thought…

On pages 46-47, St. Mary of Egypt appears to Photini and tells her to have courage and Christ will continue to strengthen her. This made me think about how blessed we are to have the intercessions of the saints. At our supplication they rush to our side and aide!

When I’m asked by non-Orthodox friends why we need saints, my {nutshell} answer is usually this, “Christ is the king of a kingdom, right? Just like in earthly kingdoms, the king has many servants who have specific jobs and being a part of the king’s court is a prestigious honor! The king could do everything himself, but he doesn’t, why would he? In our Church it works the same way. Christ is the king, we are all his servants. But those who prove their faithfulness, become a part of His court, each receiving a specific job from Him. It’s not that they are in any way equal to the king, their power is only given to them by Him, their job a gift from Him that. If we were approaching an earthly king with a request, we would take someone with us, preferably someone who was part of his court who was known and loved by Him, to help persuade him to fulfill our request. It’s exactly the same thing when we ask the intercessions of the saints.”

In the chapter entitled Lunch in the Cave, they talk about how Fr. Joachim brought Easter eggs to the hermitess. She was overjoyed at this, telling him she hadn’t eaten an egg in six years! When he asked why, because there was an abundance of various bird eggs around, she told him it was because she didn’t want to grieve the mother birds who entertained her with their singing. She goes on to talk about the different birds and their singing and what a beautiful thing it is to be out there alone with nature. I thought about the last time I took a quiet walk. It had been so long ago! I decided to pack the kids up and take a short walk up the street. It may not have been very quiet, but we looked for different birds and wildlife and tried to stay quiet enough to hear them sing. Why not take a walk and appreciate the beauty around you today?

I also loved how they cracked their eggs and gave the Paschal greeting to each other like we do at Pascha. What a sweet gesture. To read more about how this tradition began, click here.

The Hermitess Photini’s daily prayer schedule included the Jesus Prayer, Matins, Vespers, Compline, the Hours and as many metanoias/prostrations as she could do in an hour. Which of these things could you begin to incorporate into your daily prayer schedule? *It is always a good idea to discuss these things with your spiritual father, as well.

On page 65, Father Joachim asks her how she knew certain thoughts were from the devil and she responds, “I realized to some extent that they were from the ‘hater of good’ because they created an inner turmoil…” What do you think about that? Do you think it’s a good way to try to distinguish where your thoughts are coming from? I had asked an elder about an incident someone I know was having with an icon. Every day, this person would wake up and the icon would be face down on the floor in the next room. She would pick it up, kiss it and return it to her dresser. The next morning, the same thing would happen. She didn’t know if it was the devil playing tricks on her or if the saint was trying to tell her something, so she asked me to ask this elder. The first question he asked me was, “How does she feel when this happens? Is she afraid or is there a peace present?” I told him she was afraid and he said, usually that is a good general rule. Of course, these things should always be discussed with your spiritual father because the devil is very cunning and can trick those of us who are inexperienced in those matters.

A few other thoughts I had while reading…

  • I love the verse quoted from Hebrews 13:5, “I will never leave thee or forsake thee.” (pg. 45)
  • I never realized St. Mary of Egypt’s relics were never discovered.
  • It was neat to read how the animals would stop to listen to her chant. We read about these peaceful encounters many times in the lives of the saints, like St. Seraphim of Sarov with the bears, and my patron saint Sevastiane with the lions.
  • I love how she said she was the happiest person on earth because she was delivered from world’s complications. (pg. 67)
  • Fr. Joachim prayed to St. John of Damascus to help him understand the Scriptures.
  • God doesn’t need us, we need Him.
  • Her heart prayed even when she was sleeping.

What parts of the book did you enjoy or not enjoy?

In the book Path to Salvation, St. Theophan the Recluse wrote,

“Often one text will warm the spirit for more than a day. There are lives of which the mere remembrance is enough to inflame zeal. There are also passages in patristic writings that inspire. Therefore, we have a good rule: Write down such passages and save them in case your spirit needs to warm itself later.”

So, as we continue reading, why not keep a notebook and pencil handy and write down the passages that warm your spirit?

The next reading assignment is to read the remainder of The Hermitess Photini. Also if you’re going to participate in the optional readings of Counsels from the Holy Mountain, please read the first chapter, On Salvation and Paradise. We’ll begin discussing these readings next week, on roughly April 6. We’ll also begin reading our next book, The Purple Mantle that day. :)

**PLEASE NOTE: OrthodoxChristianChildren.com is offering a 20% discount on book club titles for members. Please see this post for details…

Comments

  1. I thought about things I might take, and my list would have been longer than hers. I am a little spoiled but imagine I could eventually whittle away at the list. (It would be tough, though)I like to think that I trust God, but when it would come to putting all of the trust she put in Him, would I really do it? I liked reading her story because it reminded me of how much more simple I could make my life, and would therefore have more time for God.

  2. Oh Katherine, my list of what I would take if my house caught on fire is much longer than the things I mentioned. Funny, how none of those things are for my survival. When I imagined my list, I thought of only enough to fill a suitcase with. :) I think the simplicity of her life is what drew me to this book again. It is quite inspiring…

  3. Sylvia, what a great list of discussion questions! I wish we could do this in person!! I cannot sit long enough to type out answers right now (three children are calling me! lol) but I look forward to writing out some thoughts tonightToni

  4. As to the "Do you think people still feel this way toward others becoming monastics/clergy?" I would say yes! Not everybody though but plenty of people think this way. I have 2 relatives who chose the monastic way and I have heard ridiculous comments from acquaintances and even relatives. (and they are not ugly, LOL)

  5. I have definitely heard comments like that for those entering religious life. I have also heard the opposite, though, that the ones who would make the best spouses become religious: hence the term "Mr.-What-a-Waste" being used for seminarians. Ugliness is definitely not a factor of becoming a religious: a Benedictine, Mother Dolores Hart, was an actress who shared Elvis' first on-screen kiss and was engaged before she followed God's plan and entered the convent.The hermitess' descriptions of her encounters with wild animals were beautiful and inspiring. They reminded me of many stories of St. Francis of Assisi (although he is definitely not the "tree-hugger" many make him out to be nowadays), such as preaching to the birds or taming the wolf of Gubbio. The role of animals in God's plan is just an interesting concept: one episode I recall is how the Trojeručica icon reached the Chilandri Monastery on the Holy Mountain due to the mysterious intervention of a donkey.I would definitely love to visit the Holy Mountain, though I do not foresee myself ever having the resources to do so (if only I had been more aware of it before visiting Greece last year!).I feel like if I entered the wilderness, I would bring even less items, possibly only a Bible, some prayer books, a prayer robe, and some icons. I have a bit of a fascination with the monastic life, especially the eremitic life, but I feel God's calling me to marriage (and I am also deeply in love with my girlfriend).Anyway, there are long answers to multiple questions (and I still want to write more). Thank you again for starting this book club, and God Bless!

  6. Great thoughts and discussion Sylvia, thank you. I am always amazed at how little we actually need to really LIVE and survive – how many of our belongings are superfluous. I could probably catch myself saying the phrase "I NEED (this, or that) at least a few times per week. Do we really need all of this to live a happy life ? Does having all of the extra "stuff" in our life make it more difficult to be good Christians ? I think it's true in a lot of ways. I think everyone would agree there would be more time for appreciating nature and becoming more comfortable in the natural state of the world if we had less to distract us from it. We would pray more. Read more. We would be able to dedicate more of our time to glorifying God and would be able to "seek FIRST the Kingdom of God" ! If you asked me last week, I would have said I have a pretty simple life. My family and I live in a small, simple house. We eat simple foods that I cook. We do not have an over-abundance of "stuff". Our closets are not busting at the seams. And, so on. But when I think of it in terms of the hermits, and compare it to the Photini …my, oh my…I am almost embarrassed by all that I have. In my "small, simple" house, we still each have our own beds/mattresses to lay on (that are NOT made out of grass). Pillows, blankets and fans that blow from the ceiling. We have doors and windows to keep those annoying little mosquitoes and larger creatures too ! I can regulate the temperature in my own home….and even the temperature of the water. Yet there are ascetics EVEN TODAY that have NONE of that. They live long lives that they have dedicated to God. I can barely even comprehend that, in all honesty. Perhaps, it is hard for me at this point in my life to even imagine it because that would mean that for me, I would have to imagine I didn't have a husband and 2 beautiful children. Maybe, just maybe, it would be different if that were not the case. Oh, if only I could have just an ounce of their Faith ! I have to say that I never thought about the fact that some people may feel that people actually become monastics or clergy because they are "ugly" or not worthy to be married. Interesting. I wouldn't think it was so common. On the other hand, I think that once people DO become monastics/clergy, etc. that their priorities are truly shifted away from the material world. I think it takes such strength. I remember one time when I met a certain nun for the first time and was sitting very close having a conversation. I couldn't help but notice that she had the same shape/type eyebrow that I have. Why did I notice such a stupid thing ? Because it has been something that has been in my thoughts for my entire life – or, at least since I became a teenager and I discovered tweezers. Once I realized that I didn't have to deal with that "weird little curve" on the inside of my brow, I became a professional tweezer. I would even carry tweezers with me in my bag, because everyone knows that the car mirror in the outside light is the BEST place to find those stray eyebrow hairs or those pesky little hairs that do NOT belong on our chins ! And here was the BEAUTIFUL woman, with the most charming smilie and saintly voice…and she probably hadn't thought of that eyebrow since she came to the monastery ! How liberating ! I admit that I still care about my brow and think it is unsightly – but I deal with it once a week and refuse to look in the car mirror to see it anymore ! Baby Steps ! Loving the book so far. I have many other thoughts – but will have to continue them, hopefully in the morning ! Looking forward to seeing everyones thoughts so far.

  7. I pray to one day be worthy to meet Geronda Ephraim. Lord have mercy.To be quite honest, I feel I am surrounded by Saints and Angels, but among those there are a few who evoke even more feelings of love and of gratitude to even be a part of their lives. Glory to God!I am absolutely loving this book. Thank you so much for this opportunity.

  8. Unfortunately I couldn't join you all in reading this book because I don't have it. I couldn't really buy it since I'm constantly begging my husband not to buy any more books because we need to somehow take them all back to Canada when we leave. So I just wanted to say I love reading everyone's comments and opinions. God willing I'll join in for the next two books.

  9. I agree, Syliva, what a great list of questions indeed.I found that at first I was a bit puzzled at Photini's dressing as a boy and found that a bit difficult to understand. It occurred to me as I was reading, though, that it was a way for her to take up her cross and deny herself and to defer any attention to herself and her beauty.I have never heard that attitude about people who go into the monastery, but then I've also never really experienced a youth in my parish take up the monastic life.Like you, one of the things that struck me was the way that the natural world was important to Photini, the nature that fed her and nurtured her and how she was in tune with the feelings of the animals around her, and the plants that grew there. I loved that and how the cycle of the daily prayers was so important to her and she made sure that she served them. That is definitely something that I struggle with – half the time I'm doing my morning prayers as I'm throwing on my clothes. Sigh.

  10. How little we need to survive: There is something about having a simpler life that draws me to do the same. Anytime we visit a monastery we don't take much with us…there is no tv or other electronic distractions & yet we never seem "bored". Whereas at home I'm constantly getting the "I'm bored" from my kids. Something about being outdoors with God's creation…we dont' get that a lot in the city. Not sure what I would "take" w/me…prayer rope perhaps or perhaps I'm too attached to things. I did learn a small lesson this year. Last June we had to renovate our basement…took all our stuff out and stored it in the garage. I thought I purged but still had a lot of stuff left behind. Our project didn't finish till Oct..then w/school and the cold setting in (and the fact I didn't have the funds to buy furniture for storage and didn't want to settle) decided to wait till we could and kept the stuff in the garage. Well its nearly a year later and havent needed any of that stuff…how liberating! Currently planing to make a big purge in our household (a summer project) and sell/ donate many "things". Will not have to buy furniture to hold onto stuff we don't really need. Dont' think I have had any moments of feeling or encountering the Grace of God… my life is not quiet enough to allow it. I love visiting the monastery in PA and it does allow me to regroup somewhat and perhaps that is a small sense of that. I do occasionally hear remarks since we visit the monastery frequently…something along the lines of be careful not to go too much so your girls won't be taken from you. Can you believe it! It's frustrating to think that this is such a "bad" or "wrong" thing. I too was puzzled about Photini dressing as a boy, I kept thinking did she identify herself as a boy? All in All, I was amazed at how strong/ brave she was to give everything up. Being alone scares me …I can't comprehend what drives these ascetics to do just that…it must be something powerful!Even though a lifelong Orthodox Christian I'm just learning all about our faith and am truly thankful for this Book Club…thanks Sylvia.

  11. I'll be honest, the first time I read this (over 10 years ago), didn't think twice about her father dressing her like a boy but this time I did. I think with everything going on in today's society made me trip over that a bit this time around. But it was very common back then for parents to dress their girls as boys while traveling, etc. There were too many risks for little girls back then, especially if they could not stay at home with their mothers. So I do understand it as a protective measure. Christine, vanity is always such an issue for me too! When we take trips to monasteries far away from us, I always bring a hand mirror since they have none there. I do notice that I don't use it much while I'm there but just knowing I can if I need to makes me feel better. I'm sad, I know. :( Lord have mercy!Olga, I do believe that people say that about your girls. I remember when the monastery in Saxonburg opened several girls from our community left to become nuns and the gossip around town was just ridiculous. The girls were either accused of being rejects of society, or incapable of finding a husband, or if they happened to be beautiful, they must have been brainwashed. Such hurtful things were said of those precious people. Of course, at the time I was young and just took it all in. It wasn't until I experienced them for myself that I began to realize how misguided and demonic really, those statements were. Now that we moved to live near the two monasteries here, people will often joke with me about my boys becoming monks. When I respond with "God-willing" they look at me like I'm crazy. Or flat out tell me so, but if God would call one (or all) of them to the monastic life, I wouldn't be happier! That being said, monastic life isn't for everyone and the monastics here (and the holy fathers) always say that there are two roads which lead to salvation, monasticism and marriage. :) Both are equally challenging and rewarding. It's obviously much more difficult to stay grounded in the Faith while living in the world. There are certainly times where I would love nothing but peace and quiet and time to pray and contemplate but I couldn't imagine my life without my family. Glory to God for all things. That's where those week long pilgrimages to the monasteries come in. They provide that quiet time that I need. And Olga, it's so true. My kids love going to the different monasteries even though they never have more to play with than a coloring book, crayons and a few books. Less is definitely more! :)I'm excited for you about your basement project! I've been reading through the book Organized Simplicity and s l o w l y getting rid of things from every room that I don't need. I'll need to do this half a dozen times to actually get rid of everything, but baby steps… Donating those first few bags of "stuff" felt amazing though!

  12. Sylvia: Thank you so much for starting this book club. I'm enjoying the book very much so far. With respects to society's feelings towards those who enter the monastic life, I don't necessarily hear that men and women go into it because they are ugly. I have heard from time to time that some people go into monasticism because they might be struggling with internal conflict of some sort that they are having a hard time resolving. One aspect of the book which I had trouble with was Photini's dressing as a boy when she was very young. I understand that the reason was for protection. But there was also a section of the book where she went to a toy store with her father and she picked out toys geared more towards boys than girls. It made me wonder if she had trouble integrating the male and female sides of her personality, especially since she did not have a maternal figure growing up. In other words, it made me wonder if she felt more like a boy than a girl and whether she had any unresolved feelings if she did feel this way. One aspect of the book which really impressed me was not only the simplicity of her life, but her resourcefulness to use the little she had to provide for herself—using grass to make an entryway to her cave, using grass to tie her hair back, using grass to make a bed for herself, using a rock as a chair. I admire her very much for this. I am not very resourceful in my life, and this was very inspiring. I've enjoyed every part of the book so far. I liked getting to know her early life and background—I did not expect that much detail. And I enjoyed the details of her life in the cave as it really brought home how much little we need to survive in life and made me impressed by how a little resourcefulness with the few things you have can go a long way.

  13. I so wish I'd found your beautiful blog before today!Your book club looks amazing; your questions are so insightful. I'm always looking for new books, and both this and the Purple Mantle look great. Thank you for doing this!

  14. Sylvia, thank you so much for starting this book club. I love this little book about the hermitess Photini. What a gem! So much story in such a little package. I've always found the desert fathers and mothers to be inexhaustible sources of inspiration and wisdom.I found Photini's backstory to be very interesting. I completely understand her father dressing her as a boy at all times. As a man who lived during the domination of the eastern Mediterranean by the Ottoman Turks, I can imagine the worry and concern a single father would have for his only daughter. He seemed to be preparing her for his eventual falling asleep in the Lord. Perhaps he quieted some of his own fears of leaving an unprotected (societally & physically) young girl by making everyone around them believe she was male. As others have posted, I do wonder what type of confusion this caused Photini.How wonderful to see someone live happily with so few material possessions. I personally have been so affected by living in our consumerist, materialistic society, that I'm not sure what I would take. It must be extremely liberating for the spirit to depend fully on God's providence. I so admire the hermetic lifestyle and I feel like a tiny neophyte amongst such giant prayer warriors as Photini.To live in harmony amongst God's creation and to have one's life ordered by the natural rhythms of prayers & seasons….what could be more glorious!?!

  15. On the subject of "stuff"…. I struggle so much with managing our "stuff" — and I do it poorly! I think when it comes down to it, we have a responsibility for the things we own — which is why I spend/waste so much time organizing the kids (abundance of!) toys/legos, etc. We SHOULD take care of our things. But that is also why, I concluded this week, we should have as FEW things as possible lol. We have such a generous family, much of what we have we didn't even buy ourselves, which makes me feel ungrateful/wasteful when I think about giving it away or selling it for so little compared to what it was bought for…. I still don't know how to reconcile that. But I do feel better thinking about another family/child making use of something that would otherwise be unappreciated here or go entirely unused in storage. Like some of you, I really paused over Photini's gender issues…. Though it struck me as important to notice that instead of using that struggle as an excuse for sin, she worked within her situation to find her unique path to salvation. That is to say: if she couldn't continue the ruse of being man into adulthood, but didn't feel comfortable being a woman (as that would mean she would have to be married etc), she found an appropriate and safe alternative lifestyle: celibacy for the glory of God. I think we can all use that same methodology in approaching our own struggles. If my children are (seemingly!) never going to sleep through the night, rather than a) resent them or b) ignore them somehow, I could c) embrace the night-wakings as a spiritual struggle and opportunity to pray at night, show them quiet tender love, etc. (I am not saying that I accomplish this consistently, but it is something I am trying to do!) more more more to say, but I'll stop now and go tackle a few of the boxes in the basement while I'm inspired ;-)Toni

  16. It's hard to understand the negative feelings toward monasticism when so many of our Saints were monastics.

  17. I agree, Maria. I think many people don't realize that many Saints were monastics.

  18. Have I missed the last of the discussion on “Hermitess Photini”?

    • No, Irene! I’m going to post it within the next day or two. I’ve been working on the redesign and thought it would be a bit confusing to have a discussion around all the construction. :)

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