Greek Orthodox Nuns Live Life Of Prayer In Mountains Of Washington

Author: Anna King
Date Published: 05/28/2008
Publication: OPB News (Oregon)
The sisters of St. John paint religious icons to sell in their caf
The sisters of St. John paint religious icons to sell in their caf
The sisters of St. John support themselves by selling bakery items, coffee and artwork in their caf
The sisters of St. John support themselves by selling bakery items, coffee and artwork in their caf

Did you know there’s a place in the Pacific Northwest where people only speak Greek, eat Greek food and pray all day for the salvation of the world?

In the pine-dotted mountains just north of Goldendale, Washington, 18 women live in a different time. It’s called St. John The Forerunner Greek Orthodox Monastery.

Correspondent Anna King lived in the monastery for two days to bring us this story.

Anna King: So I am looking at my phone here and it’s about 8:38 p.m. and I am headed to bed because I’m getting up at four in the morning which is when the services start. Umm.

The only thing is that the sisters get up at like 2 a.m. and start doing their own prayers in their own room in prostration before they get up and do services at 4 a.m. so I feel kind of lazy getting up at 4 a.m. but I am going to go to bed now.

SOUND: Cell phone alarm

Anna King: When my cell phone alarm went off at 4 a.m. I was so sleepy I accidently used a tube of face cream as toothpaste. After washing my mouth out and pulling on a long dress and a headscarf, I headed through the dark woods to the chapel for morning prayers with the nuns.

SOUND: Nuns singing

Anna King: These 18 women at St. John sing songs with words and melodies that haven’t changed since the Byzantine era. And they live a simple life of rigorous work and prayer. There’s no T.V., there’s no radio and there’s no idle talk. Even as they work or eat they pray to Jesus for their own salvation and that of everyone else.

Sister Iosiphia: I think the main thing that the monasteries have to offer is prayer for the world.

Anna King: This is Sister Iosiphia.

Sister Iosiphia: I don’t think there can be anything more powerful than monks and nuns — young men and women — staying up in the middle of the night sacrificing their sleep and their comforts to pray to God for all of the people in the world. Which there are so many various problems and so many various needs that everyone has. I don’t think there could be a greater offering to the people and the community than that.

Anna King: Many of the faces I saw peeking out from the black head wraps were young. Iosiphia wouldn’t say how old she is but appears to be in her late twenties.

SOUND: Sisters singing

Anna King: This monastery in the mountains is young too. It was started 13 years ago when a local doctor donated his property to the Greek Orthodox Church. Three nuns from Greece came to establish St. John. The rest of the sisters here are recruits. Many of them don’t have any Greek heritage, and some are even converted Protestants.

St. John is one of 18 Greek Orthodox monasteries overseen by a Greek priest named Elder Ephraim. The priest-monk has attracted some controversy.

In fact, several Web sites criticize his monasteries, likening them to a cult. But all of the women at St. John say they choose this life. It’s a choice generally made soon after high school.

Next to Sister Iosiphia sits Sister Ephraimia. She’s wearing nearly identical black clothing. The only bare skin sticking out are their faces and hands. Both say they found the monastery life by themselves.

Sister Ephraimia: Most people probably would say that it’s something that starts to grow in their heart little by little and it gets bigger and bigger until you just know that this is what you want to do. It’s like the love of Christ grows and grows until you are ready to make that decision.

Sister Iosiphia: Just like how do you know when you want to get married or who you want to marry? It’s a mystery. There are millions of people in the world, but something draws you to that life and to that certain person. It’s the same thing for us. Something draws us to this life and to a certain monastery.

Anna King: The commitment to be a nun or a monk is life-long. And even Orthodox families can feel frightened or confused when a daughter or son decides to join up.

The nuns typically don’t visit their families, but they do have a guest house so the families can come visit them. One of the parents I met there is Donna Young from Wasilla, Alaska. She comes here at least twice a year to visit her daughter who is a nun.

Donna Young: I was really nervous about having her go to take on a really different life than I was used to. I wondered how it would be or how we would relate to each other. But the sisters have made our family feel like this is our home. So we feel really close. When we come here to visit it’s just like coming to our second home.

Anna King: This home is a busy one. Visits with family are squeezed in amid chores and prayers.

SOUND: Kitchen noise, peeling onions

Anna King: The sisters receive some donations but they also work to support themselves. This day the nuns peeled tubs of onions to make traditional Greek food to sell in their cafe. They paint religious icons. And they make pastries, soaps and candles to sell on their Web site.

Anna King: But I mean do you guys miss anything from the outside world like waterslides or pizza or you know movies?

Sister Ephraimia: No

Sister Iosiphia: You find the fulfillment here with everything. And like we said it’s heavenly joy. And that can’t be compared with anything to the joy on this earth which is very vain and temporal. And our joy, our goal is for the eternal joy which we start to feel from here.

Sister Ephraimia: You get a little taste of paradise then what would you want with the world after that. It’s like it’s nothing. The world is our exile and it’s just our journey home to paradise here.

Anna King: The sisters are praying that they will earn enough money to build more spacious housing and a bigger chapel soon. That would create more room for more sisters to join them in their life of solitary work and prayer.

SOUND: Sisters singing second song