by John Brady
This piece first appeared in In Communion, the journal of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship.
The roster of 20th-century saints includes some who lived very public lives — such as Russia’s Royal Martyrs — and not a few who strove to live ‘hid with Christ in God.’ Saint Silouan of Mount Athos might have passed without a worldly trace if God had not sent Archimandrite Sophrony to record his life for our benefit. Likewise, Mother Gavrilia (+1992), an undoubted Saint (not yet officially glorified) of the Church, lived only to love and serve God in humility — ‘not to exist’ as she herself said. By God’s providence her spiritual daughter and namesake, nun Gavrilia, has assembled for us a radiant biography and collection of the Gerondissa’s sayings, Ascetic of Love, which may prove to be one of the great spiritual testaments of our time.
Avrilia Papayanni was born in 1897 to a wealthy Greek family in Constantinople, which remained her home until 1923, when the family was deported to Thessaloniki as part of the infamous ‘exchange of populations.’ Avrilia entered the University of Thessaloniki as the second woman ever to enroll in a Greek university. Though the path to worldly distinction seemed open to this intelligent, unconventional and privileged young woman, she chose another way: in 1932, responding to a command (as she later described it) of Christ Himself, she moved to Athens to live alone and work in nursing homes. She then traveled to England (arriving with one pound to her name) and studied physiotherapy in London. In 1947 she opened her own physiotherapy practice in Athens. Already her nearly-unique path of combined service and hesychia was beginning to emerge: though she had many wealthy clients, she donated her services to the poor, said the Jesus Prayer constantly during her treatment sessions, and healed many by her prayers, often using her medical procedures as ‘cover’ for her wonderworking intercession.
In 1954 her beloved mother died. The moment was a pivot in her life: she wrote that her mother’s death ‘severed the last tie that had kept me bound to normal, material life on this Earth. Suddenly I was dead… I was dead to the world.’ She spent that entire night awake, her room filled with a blinding radiance coming from the icon of Christ. Within a year she had closed her therapy practice, given all her money and belongings to the poor, resolved to live in absolute poverty, and (now aged almost sixty) headed for India with no plan, but a strong sense that Christ had called her there. (In this time of heightened enmity between Islam and the West, it seems a miracle in itself that only fifty years ago she traveled alone, by bus, from Jordan through Iraq and Iran, to India — and that at every stop she was invited to enter the local mosque to ‘pray to her God.’)
Avrilia arrived in India with one dress and a Bible (her only reading at that time) and stayed for five years, at first giving free physiotherapy to lepers and the poor at several clinics and ashrams. She worked and mingled freely with Hindu gurus and protestant missionaries, making no distinctions in her loving openness to all. A casual reader of her biography might fear that she was careless or syncretistic in her Orthodox faith, but a closer reading will put any such concerns to rest. Throughout her years away from Orthodox churches or contacts, she kept the fasts strictly and never prayed with non-Orthodox, Christian or not. (When invited, she would answer ‘I do not pray aloud and never in company. I pray alone or at Church… but do come and tell me your news over a nice cup of tea.’) The only example that I have found of her ever speaking severely to anyone came when, on a speaking tour, a protestant made a disparaging remark about the most holy Theotokos. Mother Gavrilia immediately took aside the person in charge and said ‘Brother, I am sorry but I must tell you that as of tomorrow I will no longer be with you… I cannot hear such words for Her, Whom I love most after our Lord Jesus Christ.’ Suitable apologies were forthcoming, and the tour continued.
Toward the end of her time in India, the same Voice that had called her to give her life to the poor led her to spend eleven months in eremitic solitude in the Himalayas . During this time she received the call to monastic life. In 1959 she entered the Monastery of St Lazarus in Bethany, where she was tonsured a nun after a three-year novitiate, receiving the name Gavrilia.
The next twenty years were a heady mix of monastic quietude alternating with speaking tours, three years of missionary service in East Africa, and another three years in India working with Fr Lazarus Moore’s Orthodox community. Archimandrite Sophrony asked her to become abbess of his women’s monastery in England, but she declined — one of the few times that she refused any of the calls to service that repeatedly drew her away from her increasingly-cherished silence and solitude.
In 1979 she was given free use of an apartment in Athens that over the next ten years became known to her disciples as the ‘House of Angels.’ Here she would spend half of each day in prayer, receiving no one, the other half in counseling and healing a stream of visitors. In her last few years she moved to a hermitage in Aegina, then to Leros, where she received the Great Schema in 1991 and reposed in peace the following year.
Her biography includes (but does not emphasize) a startling series of miracles: a sudden, complete healing from the last stages of Hodgkin’s disease, regeneration of a lens after cataract surgery, out-of-body travel to Mt Sinai, to name a few — but, as one of her spiritual children told me, the most significant miracle for those who knew her was her own presence and her all-pervading love for all. As Nun Gavrilia wrote, ‘Mother Gavrilia’s entire life, which was a hymn to the Lord, became thanks to Him, a burnt offering, a holocaust to His love.’
The sweetness and openness of Mother Gavrilia’s character was fed by a quiet but constant askesis and awareness of the rigor of Christ’s commandments. (I was brought up short by her statement that the Christian religion ‘is for the very few.’ By the standards to which she held herself, I am very far from being one of those few.) Even as she extended herself without reserve to serve others, she felt the relative smallness of her service. While living at the New Jerusalem Monastery in Greece (1967, aged 69) she offered free physiotherapy to residents of the Russian Old People’s home. She wrote ‘You can imagine my joy at being here and treating these aged people… I joke and laugh and see their mournful faces change. What a pity all is so temporary… Unless Joy comes from within — that is from its Source — it does not last. As soon as I leave, it is as if I had never shared His Joy with them. Here I understand the words of Christ: My joy I give unto you: not as the world giveth…’
Mother Gavrilia’s life obliterated the inane distinctions that we so often make between prayer and service, contemplation and action. She had no theories about the Church, society, the Christian life, or anything else. Her only ‘program’ was to love with the love that proceeds from complete abandonment to Christ, and to act as that love dictated. At one time this might express itself in ‘social action,’ at another time in secluded hesychia. The difference was immaterial because the Source was the same.
One of the most valuable portions of Ascetic of Love is a luminous collection of ‘Sayings.’ I can find no better way to close than to quote the first and last of these:
Any place may become a place of Resurrection, if the Humility of Christ becomes the way of our life.
Come, let us be silent.
The Gerontissa Gabrielia (Gavrielia) was born in Constantinople (Istanbul) on October 15, 1897 to Helias and Victoria Papayannis. She was the youngest of four children.
She grew up in the city until her family moved to Thessalonika in 1923. She went to England in 1938 and stayed there throughout the Second World War. She trained as a chiropodist and physiotherapist. As a result of her services to her fellow citizens during and after the war, she was honored by the English government with the offer of citizenship, an honor she politely declined.
In 1945 she returned to Greece where she worked with the Friends Refugee Mission and the American Farm School in Thessalonika in early post-war years. Later she opened her own therapy office in Athens until 1954. In March of that year, her mother died and the office was closed. Sister Gabrielia left Greece and traveled overland to India where she worked with the poorest of the poor, even the lepers, for five years. She worked with Baba Amte and his family who built and organised village-communities for the lepers of India. She accepted no reward for her services, trusting always in God’s providence.
In 1959, she went to the Monastery of Sts Mary and Martha in Bethany, Palestine, to become a nun. When she arrived she asked Fr. Theodosius the chaplain for a rule of prayer. Fr. Theodosius was somewhat surprised to find that she could read liturgical Greek. Fr. Theodosius said, “The great elders that we hear about no longer exist. I certainly am not one. You came here to save your soul. If I start giving you rules, you will lose your soul and I will as well. But here is Fr. John. He will be your elder.” So for her first year in the monastery he set her to reading only the Gospels and St. John Climacus. (It should be noted that at that time ‘The Ladder’ had not been published in Modern Greek.)
She stayed in Bethany for three years. In April, 1962, word came that Patriarch Athenagoras of Constantinople sought to send an Orthodox monastic to Taize in France. Sister Gabrielia went by way of Taize (she spoke fluent French from childhood) to America.
By 1963 she had returned to Greece. She was tonsured to the Small Schema by Abbot Amphilochios (Makris) on Patmos in the Cave of St. Anthony under the Monastery of the Annunciation just before she and the nun Tomasina left again for India. Elder Amphilochios was enthusiastic about the idea of a nun who would be open to the active outreach in the world. Once in India she spent three years in Nani Tal in Uttar Pradesh where Fr. Lazarus (Moore) was the priest and where he consulted the Gerontissa in his translations of the Psalter and the Fathers. Between 1967 and 1977 she traveled in the mission field of East Africa, in Europe, including visiting old friends and spiritual fathers Lev Gillet and Sophrony of Essex. She returned again to America, and briefly to Sinai where Archbishop Damianos was attempting to reintroduce women’s monasticism.
She traveled extensively, with much concern and broad love for the people of God. Some of her spiritual children found her in Jerusalem beside the Tomb of Christ; others found her on the mission field of East Africa. In the 50s and 60s she was a spiritual guide and comfort to thousands of people all over the world. She would pray for all of them by name in her daily rule of prayer.
For years, beginning in about 1977, she lived hidden in a little apartment, the “House of the Angels” in Patissia in the midst of the noise and smog and confusion of central Athens. This modest apartment was a place of refuge for all of those who would visit her seeking a word of comfort.
In 1989 she moved to Holy Protection Hermitage on the island of Aegina, close to the shrine of St. Nectarios. There, she called the last two of her spiritual children to become monastics near her, and there she continued to receive many visitors. At the start of Great Lent in 1990 she was hospitalized for lymphatic cancer. She spent forty days in the hospital, leaving during Holy Week and receiving Holy Communion on Pascha. To the amazement of her doctors, further tests revealed the cancer had miraculously disappeared.
The Gerontissa finally withdrew to solitude. With only one nun as a companion, she moved for the final time in her life, to the island of Leros. There they established the hesychastarion of the Holy Archangels. Only in this last year of her life did she accept the Great Schema at the hands of Fr. Dionysius from Little St. Anne’s Skete on Mount Athos. He came to give her the Schema in the Chapel of the Panagia in the Kastro on the top of Leros.
Gerontissa Gabrielia passed from this world on March 28, 1992, having never built a monastery. Over the years, six of her spiritual children did become monastics, but never more than one or two were with her at a time. Only the angels could count the number of lives that God touched and changed through her. Her biography and collected writings were published in Greek in 1996, through the work of her last monastic daughter and the contribution of many, many others who held the Gerontissa dear.
Anyone who knew the Gerontissa realized that God has not left us without His saints, even down to the present day. The few words recorded here scarcely suggest the clarity and love of her soul. Words are only the tools of this world; the wonder of the Gerontissa was wrapped in the mystery of the silence of the world to come.
She never sought a reputation. She never allowed anything about her to be published during her long life and only allowed her children to take photographs in her very last years. Those whom God touched through her called her Gerontissa; she never made herself anything but the nun Gabrielia.
She was humility and love incarnate.
Elder Amphilochios (Makris) – tonsured her into the Great Schema, on the island of Patmos in the “Cave of St. Anthony”, belong to the Monastery of the Evangelismos, before she and another nun Tomasina left for India.
From the Sayings of the Gerontissa
Assorted short sayings
1. Every place may become the place of the Resurrection. It is enough that you live the humility of Christ.
2. As for sleep, keeping vigil is enough.
3. There are people who are vigilant about some things, and there are people who are vigilant about all things.
4. Not a knowledge that you learn, but a knowledge that you suffer. That is Orthodox spirituality.
5. Do not desire many things–more than you have, that which is far away. Rather, seek to take care of what you have so as to sanctify it.
6. One thing is education: that we learn how to love God.
7. Nothing is cheaper than money.
8. Better hell here than in the other world.
9. It is not that which we say, but that which we live. It is not what we do, but what we are.
10. I put on the raso (the monastic habit), and I don’t say anything unless asked. The raso speaks.
11. If you have love for the whole world the whole world is beautiful.
12. Someone said that the Christian is one who purifies love and sanctifies activity.
13. We desire our freedom. Why? In order to be slaves to our passions.
14. Conference: When good-for-nothing people gather and decide that nothing can be done.
15. The aim is that even when we have the parasite in the head . . . we have the Paraclete in the heart.
16. We become a replication of heaven with “May Your will be done on earth as in heaven.”
17. One who loves does not notice, just as one does not notice that he breathes.
18. When the doors of Heaven are open, so the doors on earth are also open.
19. When the mind (nous) is not scattered in worldly things and is united to God, then the “Good day” that we say becomes a blessing.
20. Every rejection and negativity destroys our work.
21. We must not exist before every image and likeness of the Other.
22. In the beginning of our life we have need of the presence of another to love or befriend. As we progress, the One–God–fills us with such love and His joy that nobody at all is needed. All of this longing for another the soul does in the beginning because it still doesn’t know Whom it loves and therefore thinks it needs a certain person.
23. God often does not desire the act but the intention. It is enough that He sees you are willing to do His command.
24. Jesus Christ gave the golden rule: alone and with the other.
25. When God created us, He gave us life and breathed His Spirit into us. That Spirit is Love. When we lack love, we become corpses and are altogether dead.
26. The Christian must respect the mystery of the existence of everyone and everything.
27. To reach nonexistence, love, love, and love—and so identify completely with the Other, with every other. Then at the end of the day you ask yourself, “Do I want anything? No. Do I need anything? No. Do I lack anything? No.” That’s it!
28. The spiritually advanced person is the one who arrives at a place of no identity and who has understood in his depths that whatever happens is the will of God or by the permission of God.
29. Only when the person stops reading otherbooks except the Gospel does he begin to make real interior progress. Only then, united with God through the Prayer, can he hear the will of God.
30. Never desire anything but the will of God, and receive with love the evil that comes to you.
31. Do not respond to a person with the evil he brings you, but see Christ in his heart.
32. Never say, “Why has this happened to me?” Or when you see someone with gangrene or cancer or blindness, don’t ask, “Why did this happen to them?” But ask God to give you the vision of the other bank of the river. Then you will see with the angels as it is in fact: Everything is according to the plan of God. Everything!
34. If we want to be good monastics, we must at every moment think of God before monasticism. Otherwise we will not become good monastics.
36. Our most vulnerable spot is found in many words and discussions.
38. When you have thought of critcism . . . judging others, ask God to take hold of you at that hour so that you can love that person as He loves. Then God will help you see your condition. If Christ were visible, could you criticize?
42 What we say remains to eternity.
43 Only when you are perfected in Love can you arrive at dispassion.
48. When needed, God will send someone to us. We are all fellow travelers.
49. The language of God is silence.
50. Whoever lives in the past is as if dead. Whoever lives in the future in his fantasy (or imagination) is naive, because the future belongs only to God. The Joy of Christ is found only in the present, in the Eternal Present of God.
59. Better to say the Jesus Prayer aloud than not at all.
66. Worry is for those who do not have Faith.
67. Anxiety and worry is for those who don’t have faith.
68. Love is only on the Cross.
68. Love is only found on the Cross.
69. Relationship is difficult when “I” stands above “You”.
70. As God loves you, so does He love your enemy.
71. Do you want to pray? Prepare to answer God secretly.
74. We should arrange to live in the world like the oil and the water in a vigil lamp, which do not mix and thus are in and for God. In the world, but not of the world.
75. We are all containers; sometimes of the Light, sometimes of the Dark.
80. Only when we are “still”…not busy-bodies…busy-bodying…caught up in many activities… do we give the angels an opportunity to do something.
81. You do what you should, and God will do what He should.
93. How beautiful is the Mystery of Tommorrow!
95. The Lord said: “Whoever wants something, believing he will receive. It is enough that the request is in agreement with the Commandments of God, that is with Love.
100. If you knew that you are not Here, then you would be There.
101. In order for miracles to occur, it is enough that we love. Neither prayer nor komboskini has such power.
102. My experience teaches me that nobody can help anyone, no matter how much they wish to of they love. Help comes only from God when it is His time.
103. When we have God always in mind, then God has us always in mind. (When we think always of God, God thinks always of us.)
105. We are only useful when we do not exist for ourselves, and the opposite.
106. We must not make decisions for others. Leave them to the Angels and they will find the best solution.
107. Never forget that you are His.
108. Like Symeon of Cyrene we must be ready to run to the help of our fellowman.
109. If you seek assistance from someone who is busy, he will do it for you, not the indolent and the lazy.
110. Woe to me if I do not love.
111. Three things are needful. First Love, Second Love, Third Love.
112. The fasting of a diet is so easy when one wants to slim. And so difficult is the Wednesday and Friday fast when the Church wants it.
113. In the Church we should always sit in the same place, for the Angels.
114. After the Liturgy, we should sit in the Church so long as we can, for the Angels
115. When we are talking and someone interrupts us, we should not continue. It means that he should not hear that which we would have said. The Angels do thus.
116. He who does not want to see anybody is not human.
117. Nowhere are we ‘forever’. (We are never anyplace “forever”.)
118. Whatever happens to us is only our own fault.
119. Every morning, on the new page we open, we sign the blank. Whatever God wills, let Him write. (Every morning open a new page and put your signature on the blank. Whatever God wants, let Him write.)
120. When we pray we should lock our door.
125. If you do not reach the point of despair, you will never see the Light.
136. Be still and know…There is no greater school than this kind of stillness of the mind.
137. The only true joy is freedom from worry.
150. Christ said to us: Go and make disciples of all nations. And we – hushing up – what do we do?
179. The most powerful prayer is the Epiclesis of the Divine Liturgy.
183. Love is a bomb the destroys all evil.
192. The other day a lady asked me what would happen with the ‘toll booths’ after death. I said to her, ” I will tell them the Light of Christ shines to All! You however are in darkness and I don’t see you!”
194. The greatest part of my prayer here and for years now is Thankgiving. What else should I ask, when I have everything?
199. God put the sense in the head. Why? Do you know? So that we can not see ourselves. Yes! So that we see only the other and love only the other. And so that we see ourselves only in the eyes of the Other.
243. Some want to go to the Resurrection without passing by way of Golgotha.
244. Because the Christians could not put in practice the Gospel while living in the world, they fled. That’s how they became the first monastics.
259. Every person is ‘sent’.
267. Our soul is a Divine Breath. Our body is His Creation. In the whole of us we are the icon of God.
290. Day and night let us bless God for the gifts He gives us.
291. Few words, much love. To all. No matter who they are.
Only one thing do I know that I have always, and it is not pride, nor fantasy, but that which I have day and night, wherever I find myself–three things: first, Faith; second, Faith; third, Faith. That’s all! Nothing else can I say to you. It has directed all my life. When we believe and someone says, “Do you want to come to Lebanon with me?” I say, “Yes.”
“How do you say Yes to everything?”
I say yes because I believe that if it is not for my good God will make it so that the No will come from the very one who invited me. Some paper will not be ready, or something will happen.
Today I am ninety years old–may you live so long! I read again and again and again in the Gospels, and I see something strange. Jesus Christ comes and says to the Apostles, “Leave now what you have and follow Me.”
Now, if they said, “And who are you? Why should we lose what we have? Why should we lose our profit? Where will you take us? What will you do with us?”—if they had said that, what would have happened? They would have remained in darkness.
They said Yes to some Unknown who came and said, “Throw all that away!” Why? Because they believed in God, and they waited for the One who would say to them, “Come!” And that was the beginning.
Because if we say No, what will happen? . . . One or the other: If you believe, you will walk on the water like St. Peter. If you are scared–Bloop! Nothing else.
Through all my life it has been like that. They called me to the strangest and most distant place in India. One night they sent me a message: “Come and see someone who is sick.” We started out in an ox cart driven by some shepherd boy. And as we were going up the mountain in the forest, what do I see above us? Two eyes shining, a tiger. What do you say then? “Lord have mercy on me, and may Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”
So I closed my eyes and saw that written within me. Because He said to us, “Why do you worry? Why do you worry? Even the hairs of your head are numbered!” Why worry? Faith is lacking. May we have faith.
Once when I was there where I was, some foreign missionary came and said to me, “You may be a good woman, but you’re not a good Christian.”
I said, “Why?”
“Because you have been here so long and you only go about speaking English. What local languages have you learned?”
I said to him, “I haven’t managed to learn any of the local languages, because I travel a great deal from place to place. As soon as I learn one dialect, they start speaking another. I’ve only learned ‘Good morning’ and ‘Good evening.’ Nothing else.”
“Bah, you’re no Christian. How can you evangelize? All the Catholics and Protestants learn all the local dialects in order to . . .”
Then I said, “Lord, give me an answer for him.” I asked it with all my heart, and then I said, “Ah. I forgot to tell you. I know five languages.”
“Really? What are these five?”
“The first is the smile; the second is tears. The third is to touch. The fourth is prayer, and the fifth is love. With these five languages I go all around the world.”
Then he stopped and said, “Just a minute. Say that again so I can write it down.”
With these five languages you can travel the whole earth, and all the world is yours. Love everyone as your own–without concern for religion or race, without concern for anything.
Everywhere are people of God. You never know if the one you see today might tomorrow be a saint.
388. Come let us be silent.
When in truth we appreciate the gifts which God gives us, we don’t have time to seek anything else. We run to say thank you. Thank you, thank you, thank you. We see a person … thank you. We see a flower … thank you. We see a glass of milk … thank you. For everything … thank you. And such a joy comes into our life, that many do not understand even if they are close to us; What is all this! They said to me once in England: “What’s happening? Why are you so cheerful?” “Because I am alive and I see you!” Have a good day!
— Holy Protection, Aegina, 1989
It’s not for us to decide when we should or should not receive communion. It is not easy to see ourselves clearly, especially on our disordered side. For that there must be the Spiritual Guide. There must be Sacred Confession which will draw out of us whatever should not exist in us.
—Leros, January 1, 1991
The Lord said to His disciples: “Soon you will all scatter and leave me alone, but I am not alone because My Father is always with me”. The same with us, if we think about it. We are never alone. As soon as we turn to Him in a glance of our mind, we’ll find ourselves in the appropriate condition toward Him first, and then toward our fellowman. That is, if we want something, some enlightenment, immediately we run to the Gospel. (Certainly at the time when there is no suitable person.), that is my start. In the Gospel is Eternal Life, that is, Himself. God gave us our conscience: His Gospel. In this conscience we always find an answer. . . . Another thing that helps a great deal, as we know, is frequent prayer. It’s not something that should be in words, neither in thought. The Prayer is not something we do: it is a condition of soul. And wherever you find yourself, whatever you are doing, in whatever circle you are, your soul can be found in the condition of Prayer. For the soul is from God. Next, when it is helped with prayer and the Jesus Prayer to be united with the Holy Name, then it continues, whatever you do.