A day in the life of a nun


Dimiova MonasteryMy grannies despaired when, long ago, I strayed from Nonconformity into Greek Orthodoxy, and I fancy the august ancestors still have occasion to eye me beadily from above; I even imagine their semaphore signals.

'What do you think she's up to now, Doris?'

'Search me, Harriet. Focus that telescope. And let me know.'

The latest episode involved Monastic Retreat, which a friend and I resolved to undertake together: it was capable Marjory who found the person to contact and petition the Bishop. His Eminence declared that we had to consult the convent's priest: a kind of ecclesiastical security clearance.

We found the papas at his other scene of operations, the church of St John the Theologian, a tiny place perched on a hill in the middle of the Taygetus Range. The locals had gathered to venerate their icon of St Mary Magdalene, bearer of myrrh, Apostle to the Apostles, whose Feast Day it was. The Saint, swathed in bright summer flowers, gazed serenely from her outside stand.

Inside, Papasotiris, resplendent in red and gold, was reciting the liturgy basso profundo, assisted by a layman great of girth and beard, who looked more like a Barbary pirate than a churchgoer: one could imagine a cutlass clamped between his teeth. Another basso was singing the responses and training a talented boy of about 12, bespectacled and very earnest, who was showing extreme dedication, for chanting Byzantine psalms is like learning a demanding foreign language.

Marjory and I waited our turn to speak to the priest at the end of the service. Although we had been promised two nights at the designated convent, Papasotiris took one look at us and decided, we thought, that the frail foreign vessels would not be able to cope. Oxi, he said, firmly, and went on to describe the multiple difficulties of the monastic life. But, he said, we could go for a day, as long as we went by arrangement, and could be there for the liturgy, which would start at 7am.

We were to dress as modestly as possible; we should also be aware that the nuns maintained silence for part of the day. We nodded and agreed, like obedient children.

Greeks believe in balance, so that after spiritual needs, bodily ones are always attended to. The groaning board is a feature of such occasions, and so there we were, high up in the mountains, eating multiple souvlakia with heaps of salad and baked potatoes, and drinking beer, all before 11am.

Suddenly I felt two pairs of eyes boring into my back. I swear. And could imagine the signals.

'She's drinking, Doris!'

'Not for the first time, Harriet, but we knew that.'

'What's next, then?'

'Another adventure, I suppose. She will persist in having them, won't she?

'But sit tight, Harriet: we might learn something.'


They might have learned something, the grannies: I certainly did.

Being at the Dimiova convent at 7am meant getting up at 5am; we managed it, and set off through ravishing landscape and along a road that in itself was a test of faith. On arrival we presented our offerings of watermelon, grapes, loukoumi (unacceptably translated as Turkish Delight), bottled water, and assorted biscuits. The austere nun who greeted us soon became like a quietly excited child as she investigated the various bags.

Greeks do not seem to go in for the convention of spiritual directors, and so we simply observed the routine, while learning something about the history of the convent and its miracle-working icon of the Panagia, thought to date from either the seventh or eighth century. The icon, painted in the Glykophyloussa or Mother of God of Tenderness style, with the Virgin cradling her son in golden-gloved arms, has a wide dark stain on almost half its face. During the iconoclastic era this Constantinople Panagia had bled when slashed by a knife. But the son rescued his mother, and so the icon eventually reached Greece.

The church dates from 1700, but the convent itself has a history of destruction and catastrophe at the hands of invaders like the Franks and the Turks. Then there was the severe earthquake of 1986, and my firefighter son was among several units that saved the establishment from the 2007s fires. Places have stories to tell.

Our lives are stories, too, and indeed Canadian Margaret Atwood maintains that God is an author: if so, he wrote a riveting narrative line for the Abbess. During the last war, the then Bishop was responsible for the many orphans in the town. He solved the problem by placing the little waifs and strays, of whom the Abbess was one, under a certain plane tree. Anybody was free to choose one or more children to rear. And so the Abbess was taken to the convent at the age of about two, so young that she did not know her name. Because she was rescued on a Sunday, she was named Kyriaki (after Our Lord) and Platonopoulou (daughter of the plane tree).

There are now only two nuns in buildings designed to hold 100. Sister Christina took her vows at 20. When I asked the reason, she gave me a penetrating look and said simply, 'The Panagia called me.' Marjory mentioned the loneliness, and the outside world. 'Why would we be lonely?' asked Sister Christina in genuine bewilderment, while Abbess Kyriaki announced emphatically that she would rather someone plunged a dagger in her heart than be forced to leave Dimiova. The canary believes the cage is good and beautiful, Papasotiris, formerly a businessman, remarked, ambiguously.

While Patrick White wrote that all lives are lived in the cage, the monastic cage is not one I could ever cope with. But retreating from the world for even a day made me examine my own story, with its various plots and leitmotifs. And I like to think the grannies, suspending their disbelief and engaging in distance learning, have been reading along with me. 

Gillian Bouras headshotGillian Bouras is an Australian writer who has been based in Greece for 30 years. She has had nine books published. Her most recent is No Time For Dances. Her latest, Seeing and Believing, is appearing in instalments on her website

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Thanks Gillian. I loved reading this. Three years ago, my better half and I travelled to Europe and visited Greece. We hired a car in Athens and drove to Meteora (a novel could be written about the car journey alone!). It is an unforgettable place and one I'd like to revisit. But I agree with you in that the monastic cage is not one I could ever cope with. Too much of a softy!
Pam | 03 October 2012

Interesting article, Gillian. For what it's worth a Romanian Orthodox priest in London I know, who recently visited Greece and stayed on Mt Athos, thinks that Orthodoxy in Greece is in an extremely parlous position and hopes that his country doesn't go the same way.
Edward F | 03 October 2012

Loved reading this Gillian! Truly enchanting.
Anna Roins | 04 October 2012

Loved this Gillian. But would you have lasted a full weekend?
Kerry and Jim Harley | 05 October 2012

...hullo,Gillian,I just read your article-great.As usual,it set me remembering all the years,on 14th August,that Peter,his sister& I made our little pilgrimage to Dimiova,the day before all the crowds arrived.About 1928,Peter's mother took him,as a baby,to the convent on 15/8,& waited for the first person who offered to be the baby's godfather.That was the usual practice if there was no potential godparent,& the baby was a "rihtos",literally "cast" or "thrown".The mother chose the name,Panayiotis,after the Holy Mother,& the "Dekapentavgosto", 15/8,became my Peter's name day,so it was "de rigeur"to make the visit to Dimiovah every year that we visited Greece,so that meant 17 times we negotiated that narrow, twisting, mainly unsealed,heartstopping track.Do you agree,or am I being cowardly?I'm sad that there are only two nuns remaining.On our last visit,2006,there were several elderly sisters,the grounds & gardens well-tended...have you visited Ellona convent in the central Pelopponesus?Quite spectacular,clinging to the side of a mountain,the nuns clear-eyed & very switched-on,wanting to know what sort of a life we lead in Australia& approving when we told her we were Christians.....memories,Gillian.I'm looking forward to your next article-keep well..Evangelia...
evangelia dascarolis | 05 October 2012

Reading this charming account of your pilgrimage rekindled memories of some of my own, the first ever being to the Monastery of Profitis Ilias, in the foothills near Delphi, in autumn, with mist and low cloud swirling over the road and the sound of sheep bells and goat bells tinkling somewhere amid the vapour. When we found Profitis Ilias, the three occupants, an elderly monk and two younger nuns, loomed out of a garden made ghostly by mist, and treated us, a family of foreigners, to thimble-sized glasses of raki, oranges and sweetmeats. One of the young nuns presented my six-year-old son with an icon of the Virgin, which of course had been blessed. Such a warm memory - just golden.
Jena Woodhouse | 08 October 2012


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