The Sacred Monastery of Saint Nina, Abbess Aemiliane said, is set up in a way that allows the sisters to be at the ready to serve others — a lifestyle that mirrors the ways of angels.
“Angels look at God and are happy and they chant praises. But if they have a mission, or if God sends them somewhere, somebody needs something, then they immediately … [are] free to go,” she said. “So our whole life is set up so that we’re completely free, we don’t have to think what to put on. We don’t need anything for ourselves so we can just respond if necessary.”
Abbess Aemiliane serves as the head of the monastery nestled on a beautiful 130-acre property in Union Bridge. Saint Nina’s serves as a home and much more to a small group of Orthodox Christian nuns. Started in 2012, the monastery is part of the North American Diocese of the Georgian Apostolic Orthodox Church.
While the sisters’ lifestyle allows them to swiftly care for those in need, they are not idle in the meantime. The nuns engage in a range of activities — woodworking, beekeeping, coffee roasting, gardening, caring for their chickens, sewing, and making skin balms and oils.
The sisters are each responsible for certain obediences, or works, said Abbess Aemiliane, and develop their talents through education. A key piece of the monastery’s framework is teamwork among the sisters.
In all that they do, the abbess emphasized the sisters’ focus on prayer, for every person and for the salvation of the world.
They offer everything that is broken to God to be healed, she said.
“We bring our pains, our problems, our sins, our failures, our worries — we don’t actually have worries, but other people have worries — all the tragedies, also the hope, the thanksgiving, the joy, the miracles that happen to people, their victories in their personal lives, and all of these things we offer, all these things, we gather them all up in our own persons and our own hearts, and we offer them.”
On one particular day this past July, parts of the monastery hummed with the noises of playing children.
Saint Nina’s welcomes visitors and, on that occasion, Sylvia Tsakalos and other parents had brought their children to the monastery. Tsakalos, who attends Saint Mary Antiochian Orthodox Church in Hunt Valley, said the group included returning visitors and newcomers.
Some of the children had been busy exploring and playing. They had collected chicken eggs, discovered insects and dug for small “rock crystals,” Tsakalos said.
“The kids feel at home here, you know. They play, and they love seeing the animals and collecting the eggs,” she said.
For the adults, the monastery offers a chance to attend a worship service and “get our minds off of the worldly things,” Tsakalos said. Sisters will come talk with a group or one-on-one. People will sometimes seek advice for something specific they’re facing, she said.
It’s normal for people to bring heartfelt needs or problems to the monastery, Abbess Aemiliane said. At Saint Nina’s, visitors feel they will be safe, supported, encouraged and loved unconditionally.
The monastery sees people of a range of nationalities and ethnicities, who have immigrated from or have family roots in countries such as Syria, Greece, Georgia, Russia and Romania, she said. Among the families who come are those with “martyric stories.” Some have faced persecution. She described their “amazing heroism and faith and just goodness.”
Holding her 2-year-old daughter, Nikki Hanson said she and her family try to visit the monastery once a year; her husband is the abbess’ godson. On this visit, their three children would be baptized. The monastery is a special place for the family, who lives in Oklahoma. At Saint Nina’s, they not only get to see the abbess but also find a chance to get away from the fast pace of everyday life, while their children explore the property and enjoy the church services.
The monastery also holds a residential summer camp for children from around the ages of 8 to 15 who come from a number of states as well as other countries. The children learn about their faith and nature; electronics are not allowed. Abbess Aemiliane said that with their electronics out of the equation, the children become more present to one another. The sisters have heard from parents that the friendships the children form at the camp are stronger than those made outside it.
Working toward a common goal
Abbess Aemiliane was among the monastery’s original four sisters who traveled from Greece. They were invited to found Saint Nina’s by Patriarch Ilia II, the head of the Georgian Orthodox church.
Monasteries like Saint Nina’s aren’t common in the country, she said, though their number has grown. The abbess said that among Eastern Orthodox immigrants, young people weren’t encouraged in the past to become monks or to found monasteries because there was a great need for pastors and priests in parishes. Many people who wanted to become nuns or monks went abroad to monasteries in countries such as Greece, Syria and Russia.
At Saint Nina’s, the sisters’ ethnic backgrounds are diverse, including Antiochian — a group that includes Syrians and Lebanese — Russian, Ukrainian and Palestinian. Others, like the abbess, are American and don’t have families who are Orthodox Christian. Instead, they discovered the church and found what they were looking for.
In the early afternoon that same July day, the monastery’s church was quiet and peaceful. The Orthodox worship services held in the church involve Byzantine chanting, a style of singing hymns.
At the front of the church stands a wooden partition called an iconostasis that holds icons of Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary, St. John the Baptist and St. Nina. The royal doors in the partition lead to the altar behind it. Someone goes into the altar only for a reason, the abbess said. “There’s a sense that I am approaching him who is beyond me and who is the source of all life and breath and goodness.”
In the Orthodox Christian tradition, icons can also serve as connections, either with a person or event. “It’s not a photograph, it’s not supposed to be a naturalistic thing,” she said. “It’s symbolic, but it’s also an actual concrete point of connection with whatever is represented, or whoever.”
Because people were made in the image of God, Abbess Aemiliane said, each person is a holy icon. But there is work to do, she went on, to become not just an image but to become like God as well.
The sisters are working toward that likeness.
Finding her calling
The sisters, who also form a choir, gathered that day in one of the houses at the monastery to sing several songs. Their voices rang with clarity and sweetness as they sang in English, Greek and Georgian.
The sisters are all multi-talented, Abbess Aemiliane said.
Sister Stavriane is skilled at felting, particularly making hats worn by the sisters and priests. She used to cook every day, but with other sisters taking up the task, she typically cooks on the weekends only.
She joined the sisterhood at the monastery about five years ago. As a sophomore in college, she went on a mission trip to Greece, where she visited different Orthodox Christian monasteries and encountered the sisterhood. Sister Stavriane, who grew up in Tennessee, had never thought about becoming a nun before, she said, but that trip sparked a feeling that stuck with her.
“I was like, ‘How could I possibly want to do anything else with my life besides serve God in this way?’” she said.
As soon as she graduated from college, she came to the monastery.
She described the sisterhood as her family. She said the sisters sometimes face a really challenging day — such as a day when they host a large group of people — but it serves as “a really beautiful opportunity for everyone to pull together and just work together.” And at the end of that kind of day, she said, she sees how much God helped the sisters.
“It’s really wonderful to live with people who … all have the same goal in mind. So we’re all making mistakes, but then we’re all trying to repent and trying to ask forgiveness and trying to become who Christ really wants us to be. I think that’s what’s really special … having that … unity.”