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“Mass – up hill” the blown-over sign announced.
Being a simple minded over focused spotty-faced spike I decided that I needed to be at church on August 15th 1974. Having escaped from Whitby YHA where I was working during a vacation from University, I had ventured to Robin Hood’s Bay on a beautiful but windy North Yorkshire day.
I was greeted by Mother Katherine who told me that they were staying in Saint Bede’s R C House until their own monastery was finished. Mother Maria was resting upstairs and Mother Thekla was digging potatoes at the Monastery a few miles away.
“But you aren’t Anglicans nor Romans are you?”
“No – we are Orthodox.”
A few days later I met with Mother Maria and Mother Thekla. The three of them sang “It is meet to call Thee Blessed…” before a wonderful potato based lunch of huge proportions.
Many of us found out eventually that Mother Thekla loved digging potatoes, cleaning the goat shed, tending the graves because this meant she had her very own space and it wasn’t invaded or taken over; even to the end Mother Thekla was incredibly shy.
My love of Orthodoxy was confirmed on that day in Robin Hood’s Bay yet in the desert of Northern England I struggled to get anywhere with the Orthodox Church which did not involve learning a special church form of either Greek or Russian or travelling to London for 2 years of “education”. Mother Thekla suggested that a few important things could be learned in Greek or Russian but as we lived and worked in the UK then services would surely all be in English one day. Well, they certainly were at the Monastery where translations were in full swing and wonderful exploration
“Holy God, Holy Strong, Holy Deathless have mercy on us.”
From that day on I saw the progression of The Monastery’s ikon corner from “up hill”to the stable in a remote farm which was converted into a beautiful church, a printing works, a goat herders paradise with the cleanest goat shed this side of Whipsnade Zoo and Goat Cheese manufacturing.
Mother Thekla always maintained that Babinka (Katherine) was my favourite. Mother Thekla so loved to tease. The monastery’s baby was what I was called after my reception into the newly formed Greek Church in Middlesbrough; I was aged 21. John Tavener was another late-orthodox-onset-monastery adoption-baby. This is exactly how Mother T saw the few of us who managed to brave the storms to get there; children, for we were there to be protected, nurtured and educated.
Putting aside her shyness, Mother T would feel free to ask favours. Do you know anyone who wants to buy a Printing Press? Can you drive us to Oxford for Easter? Do come for the liturgy at Christmas – we have bought sausages. Chris dear – you simply must come a help us deal with Fr… a Roman priest – do you think he will be daft enough to ask us what time we get up in the mornings? (he did). She may have been shy but she also had a mischievous twinkle of the eye and an ability to make those around her guffaw while she remained quiet and aloofly calm.
I think that Mother T would agree that I am faced with a simple paradox; how can one write an obituary for someone who remains so real.
One does not have to travel very far through Mother Thekla’s words to be hit by the constant reality of her faithful life. God is real of course and therefore so are the mysteries and therefore so is faith and prayer. The reality of the Orthodox faith was exactly that at the Monastery and Mother Maria, Mother Katherine and Mother Thekla latterly, worked tirelessly to present this in english to the faithful.
Mother Thekla could be stern and occasionally quite blunt in her dealings with people who simply did not grasp what it is meant, for example, to be natural in church. I was constantly called an idiot and marched into Mother Maria’s room for a lesson – usually ending up in them telling me how to stroke Nimmy, the wondercat, without getting scratched and where the THE Monastery was in relation to Whitby Abbey and the Paraclete – a wonderful geographic-theologic triangle for debate, though the north window.
Hell was a reality for Mother. She once tearfully confided that she felt that the most frightening thing which ever happened to her was being incarcerated after a medical misdiagnosis. The loss of her Monastery and many treasured possessions, including her little dog Kip, was a dreadful trial for her. Mother had it in her heart to forgive and forgive she did. “Who am I to look at the crucified Christ on Holy Friday and not forgive?"
Who – indeed?
Marina Scharf was born during the revolution in Russia the day after Nicolas II, and the royal family was murdered. Baptised as “a horrid sight”(her brother Andrew claimed) in a flower vase, the family escaped to London eventually but without her father. He miraculously appeared to them again many months later after jumping onto a coal barge bound for Newcastle from France.
Educated at City of London School for girls, Marina rather fancied a stage life. She auditioned for RADA but decided on teaching after graduating from Cambridge with an MA in English and Russian. During the war years she worked in Bletchley Park – on Enigma. She then worked for the Ministry of Education and Senior English Mistress at Kettering Girls High School. Influenced by God she became a “secret” nun visiting Mother Maria in St Mary’s West Malling where Mother Katherine was the Anglican Novice Mistress. Mother Maria with Thekla and Katherine appealed to Archbishop Anthony to set up a convent and he thought that the life would be too hard. Appealing to Archbishop Athenagoras they won their first Monastic home near Milton Keynes before being chased away by a developing and expanding golf course. They moved to Normanby near Whitby in sight of the ruined great Abbey in 1974. There were irregular liturgies when Fr Kallistos, Fr Simeon (Ephrem), Fr Wladimir could get to the Monastery. Later in the Monastery’s history Father Ephrem lived, for a few years, in a separate part of the buildings and services then were far more regular.
In her final years at the Infirmary of the Order of the Holy Paraclete in Whitby she saw many visitors and old friends. She was cared for by a team who loved her and teased just as much as she did them. She taught them some Russian words in exchange for her learning some Whitspeak. She was often tired and occasionally frail but she loved to be at the Liturgy in Saint Anne’s House in York celebrated by Father Stephen and surrounded by those she loved and those who loved her. Father Stephen visited her each week in Whitby and shared with Mother‘s dearest friend Ann “my Ann” as she would say – taking Mother to and from the York church. She loved them both dearly and “didn’t know where she would be without them.” In many ways these were perhaps the most settled part of her life. It was very comforting for us all to know that she was safe.
Mother Thekla will now re-join her two desert sisters at Saint Hilda’s Priory – a truly tangible reality. Also in reality Mother has gone from this life to the life which knows no age and yet will still be there for us when we need her. She leaves us not just a wonderful legacy of orthodox wisdom in words; many of us have been and will continue to be influenced by Mother Thekla’s stunning intellect and devout practicality. A truly inspirational figure, may she always be for us an anchor on the other side.
I can now however imagine her twinkling
“Is this all I am worth – not even three pages of A4? Really! – I ask you”
Mother Thekla - Eternal Memory!
I understand that you are on the way to becoming Orthodox. I know nothing about you, beyond the fact that you are English.
Before we go any further, there is one point I should make clear. I have not been told why you are about to convert, but I assure you there is no point whatsoever if it is for negative reasons. You will find as much “wrong” (if not more) in Orthodoxy as in the Anglican or Roman Churches.
So – the first point is, are you prepared to face lies, hypocrisy, evil and all the rest, just as much in Orthodoxy as in any other religion or denomination?
Are you expecting a kind of earthly paradise with plenty of incense and the right kind of music? Do you expect to go straight to heaven if you cross yourself slowly, pompously and in the correct form from the right side? Have you a cookery book with all the authentic Russian recipes for Easter festivities? Are you an expert in kissing three times on every possible or improper occasion? Can you prostrate elegantly without dropping a variety of stationery out of your pockets?
Have you read the Gospels?
Have you faced Christ crucified? In the spirit have you attended the Last Supper – the meaning of Holy Communion?
Are you prepared, in all humility, to understand that you will never, in this life, know beyond Faith; that Faith means accepting the Truth without proof. Faith and knowledge are the ultimate contradiction – and the ultimate absorption into each other. Living Orthodoxy is based on paradox, which is carried on into worship – private or public.
We know because we believe and we believe because we know. Above all, are you prepared to accept all things as from God?
If we are meant, always, to be “happy”, why the Crucifixion? Are you prepared, whatever happens, to believe that somewhere, somehow, it must make sense? That does not mean passive endurance, but it means constant vigilance, listening, for what is demanded; and above all, Love.
Poor, old, sick, to our last breath, we can love. Not sentimental nonsense so often confused with love, but the love of sacrifice – inner crucifixion of greed, envy, pride. And never confuse love with sentimentality And never confuse worship with affectation.
Be humble – love, even when it is difficult. Not sentimental so called love – And do not treat church worship as a theatrical performance!
I hope that some of this makes sense,
With my best wishes,
One time Abbess of the Monastery of the Assumption, Normanby near Whitby.