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Reflections on the funeral of Mother Thecla PDF Print E-mail

REFLECTIONS

OF HIS EMINENCE ARCHBISHOP GREGORIOS OF THYATEIRA

AND GREAT BRITAIN

ON THE OCCASION OF THE FUNERAL OF MOTHER THEKLA (MARINA SHARF),

HELD IN THE CHAPEL OF THE ANGLICAN PRIORY OF ST. HILDA

AT SNEATON CASTLE (WHITBY)

ON TUESDAY, 16th AUGUST 2011

 

When I returned from Cyprus last week, it was with deep sadness that I learnt of the repose of Mother Thekla (1918-2011), the last surviving sister of the Monastery of the Assumption in Normanby (North Yorkshire), who for the previous seven years had been so devotedly cared for by the Anglican Sisters of the Holy Paraclete in their Infirmary here at Sneaton Castle.  I had known her since 1971 - the year in which the little monastic sisterhood at Filgrave in Buckinghamshire had received permission from Archbishop Antony (Bloom) to leave the protection of his diocese and place themselves under the omophorion of the Oecumenical Patriarchate's Archdiocese of Thyateira and Great Britain - although, naturally, I got to know her better when I became archbishop in 1988.

 

Of course, when I first knew them there were only two sisters - Maria and Marina (as Mother Thekla was then known), although these two sisters were later to be joined by Sister Katherine; and it was due to the talents of these three that the Monastery became a spiritual powerhouse - not only in the practice of monasticism but also through the numerous publications - under the general title of 'The Library of Orthodox Thinking' - that flowed from the sisters' pens.  Books relating to Orthodox Spirituality and prayer, to literary criticism, books of poetry and translations from the Hebrew.  Mother Thekla wrote assiduously and became known in certain circles for her magisterial work on aspects of the theology of George Hebert - and it is for this reason that one of his hymns was sung during her funeral service.

 

Mother Thekla, then known as Marina Sharf, had first come in contact with Mother Maria on the Feast of the Assumption in 1965, at which time Mother Maria was living as an Orthodox nun with the Anglican Community of St. Mary's Abbey at West Malling in Kent.  With the help of the Abbey (with which all three sisters were associated throughout their Monastery's existence), a house was found for Mother Maria and Sister Thekla at Filgrave, where they settled as 'Spiritual Mother and disciple, the tradition of the desert', living a life of near silence, with day and (often) night being given over 'to the work of the heart and of the mind'.

 

Shortly before the Monastery moved from the Home Counties to the North Yorkshire Moors, Sister Thekla (as she was then) wrote about how the Orthodox Monastic Vocation had been put into practice in Buckinghamshire (Orthodox Monasticism in Bucks, ODM - The Oxford Diocesan Magazine, December 1974, p. 13).  With her characteristic humour, she pointed out that the Monastery was to be found "in the heart of Bunyan countryside, with Cromwell just round the corner".  The Sisterhood consisted of "three women, all British by nationality: one born Swiss, one born Russian, and one born English; all three nuns in the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople!"  Referring to the monastic tradition, Mother Thekla wrote: "I can only tell what I was taught in the stillness of those years".  She is referring to her early years with Mother Maria.  "I was taught the meaning and work of repentance, that is, the growing into the attitude - in spite of every lapse until death - which recognises the failure within oneself, not even as much in the sin committed, as in the very being.  I was trained even ruthlessly in the recognition of the sin of double ignorance; and I was taught the joy, which nothing can shake, of the acknowledgement of the limitation of human reasoning; and, hence, the glad freedom of the mind which can work to the uttermost of its own limits without fear of trespassing into the Divine."

 

However, the encroachment of Milton Keynes meant that the small Community at Filgrave felt that they needed to move, which they did following their patronal feast in 1974, choosing a farmhouse on the North Yorkshire Moors in which to establish themselves.  There, their work of prayer, study and manual work continued.  Mothers Maria and Katherine reposed in the Lord, and Mother Thekla alone remained - on occasions joined by others, sometimes on her own. Her co-operation with the Orthodox composer, Sir John Tavener, brought her fame beyond the world of Orthodox Monasticism.  Sir John had read the translations of the texts of the Great Canon of St. Andrew of Crete and the Life of St. Mary of Egypt published by the Monastery, and "he was particularly struck by the introductory commentary to The Life of St. Mary', written by Mother Thekla.  After some hesitation, he contacted her, and thus began a collaboration by telephone and post.  Indeed, it is said that he did not actually meet her face to face until 1986.

 

During her lifetime, Mother Thekla was described as "not at all what most people would expect a nun to be.  She wears the traditional black habit and veil, but has a proud, commanding presence and dark, knowing eyes set in a craggy Russian face, which comes alive when her great smile relieves the fearful intimations of first appearances."  (Lifting the Veil: The Biography of Sir John Tavener by Piers Dudgeon, 2003, pp. 158-9)  Whether everyone would have described Mother Thekla in this way is a moot point.  As I know from personal experience, she could be absolutely charming, warm and delightfully argumentative.  She clearly knew what she wanted, while at the same time being totally dedicated to her Orthodox Faith.  Did she mellow with the passing of years?  I think not.  She remained indomitable to the end and - perhaps - irascible as well.  Even during periods when her friends found themselves consigned to outer darkness or beyond, there was something about her that made them retain their love and respect of her; and, of course, great reconciliations were to follow in due course.  One thing that certainly did not change was her love of animals and their response to her.  The last time I came to visit her at Sneaton Castle, she insisted on taking me to see the donkeys for which she cared with maternal solicitude.  Others will remember the goats at Normanby or the cows.

 

So, let us give thanks to the Lord for the life of Mother Thekla.  She was privileged to have enjoyed a very long life, exceeding the Biblical and Royal Age and living the age of the Charity of the Creator, Who granted her over nine decades of earthly life.

 

During these years, she worked hard to be found worthy of her temporal existence.  She trained to be a teacher (and later taught at a Girls' School in Northampton); she worked hard to ensure the freedom and protection of this country and all the world threatened by the Nazis and Fascists of the first half of the 20th century (and, indeed, she is reported to have served in India where she carried out intelligence work with the Royal Air Force).  In the 1960s, she decided to abandon the earthly life and its pleasures and she became a nun, dedicating herself and her wealth of talents to spiritual things - fighting the good fight under very difficult circumstances.

 

She remained steadfast to her vows as a nun, although in many ways it might be said that she failed to fulfil her diverse wishes and goals.  However, we can say one thing with certainty: she was a very fervent, proud Christian human-being, one who never lost her trust in Christ.  So let us give thanks to our Creator, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, one God in Trinity, Who gave her so many talents which she, as a faithful servant, offered for the glory of God.

 

We can also say with certainty that she was a talented person, one inspired by the lives of holy men and women, by the theological thought of the great Fathers of the Church and the thinkers of monasticism and of her time.  She was not afraid, like a true Orthodox thinker, to speak her mind and express her thoughts, a gift which made her an important Christian thinker of our times. This, I believe, is one of her special contributions to Orthodox life in this country, in particular.

 

Now, she lies before us.  As the Hymnographer of the Church stresses, she 'blossomed like a flower' but has now been 'cut down like grass'.  "Now all the body's organs are idle, that a little while ago were active; all useless, dead, insensible; for eyes are dimmed, feet bound, hands lie still and hearing with them, tongue is locked in silence, is entrusted to a grave; truly everything human is vanity." Through the poet of the Church, she speaks to us: "As you see me lying without voice, without breath, .... I am on my way to the Judge, with Whom there is no respect of persons; for slave and master stand alike before Him, king and soldier, rich and poor, with the same rank; for each will be glorified or shamed in accordance with their own deeds."

 

Many years ago, Mother Thekla wrote that the services of the Orthodox Church brought her 'in their outspoken theology of worship into the whole Community of Saints'. However, there would come a time - it is now, as we are gathered around her coffin - "when there will be no more time, when (she writes) I will stand alone before Christ, Judge and Saviour. The minute, beyond the minute, we cannot comprehend, but we believe it will come, person to Person, and we pray the prayer of the Person, the prayer of the End-point, unceasingly, whatever else we may be doing, always longing to wake in the morning with the sweetness of the sound: 'Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.'"

 

This was her belief and rule of life in a nutshell. She lived embraced and surrounded by a life of prayer. She dedicated a great part of her life to promoting the Orthodox Faith in communion with our Mother Great Church of Christ, the Oecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, which today - through me, its bishop and representative in this country - prays for the forgiveness of her sins as it commits her fleshly body to the earth from whence it came and her soul to the Mercy of Almighty God.

 

So, let us pray for the repose of her soul and mind and body. I am sure that her being will be at peace and rest within the bosom of the Kingdom of God, which kingdom was related and in many respects was realised by our Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, Who became the Son of Man and the Saviour of every human being who entrusts himself to this life.

 

Thekla the Nun and Abbess, who lies here with beauty, yet without speech and movement, awaits the judgement of her Creator, to Whom she devoted herself and Whom, in her own way, she tried to make known to contemporary man.

 

May the memory of Thekla the nun, erstwhile abbess of the Greek Orthodox Monastery of the Assumption, be eternal and may she be at peace with herself and Almighty God. May she be reunited with her sisters in the monastic profession, and may the earth to which we commit her lie gently upon her as her soul hurries on its way to meet her Creator.  Amen.

 
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