Mother Gavrilia (Papayannis)

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.

Gavrilia 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.')

Gavrilia 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.

The Sayings of Mother Gavrilia 

 

  1. Any place may become a place of Resurrection, if the Humility of Christ becomes the way of our life. 
  2. You may sleep, as long as you are in a state of watchfulness.
  3. There are some who stay awake for a few, and some who stay awake for all.
  4. Orthodox spirituality is knowledge acquired through suffering rather than through learning.
  5. Do not wish for many things, whether they are within or out of reach. Instead, take care to sanctify the little you have.
  6. To learn how to love God: this is the one and only Education.
  7. There is nothing cheaper than money.
  8. Better Hell in this world than in the other.
  9. It is not what we say, but what we live. It is not what we do, but what we are.
  10. I put on the Rasson (Monastic habit) and do not speak unless I am asked. The Rasson speaks.
  11. If you have love for all the world, the whole world is beautiful.
  12. Someone said that a Christian is he who purifies love and sanctifies work.
  13. Our purpose should be to have the Paraclete* in our heart, even when we have the... Parasite in our head.
  14. We become a reflection of Heaven by saying: 'Thy will be done on Earth as it is in Heaven'.
  15. He who loves is not aware of it, as he is not aware of his own breathing.
  16. When doors are open in Heaven, they are also open on Earth.
  17. When the mind is not distracted by worldly matters and remains united to God, then even the 'Good day' that we say becomes a blessing.
  18. By saying 'no' and by refusing, we forfeit our purpose.
  19. We must not 'exist' in the presence of the other person, who is God's 'image and likeness'.
  20. In the early steps of our life we need the presence of someone we love. As we advance, the One, God, fills us with His Love and Joy so much that we no longer need anyone. The soul does this at the beginning because she does not know yet Whom she loves, and thinks it is this or that person.
  21. Many times what God expects from us is the intention rather than the act itself. Our readiness to follow His Commandment is enough for Him.
  22. Jesus Christ gave us the golden mean: both alone and with others.
  23. When God created us, He gave us Life and breathed His Spirit into us. This Spirit is Love. When love deserts us, we become as dead as corpses. We are not alive any more.
  24. A Christian must have reverence for the Mystery of Existence in everyone and everything.
  25. To reach the state of non-existence, love and love and love until you identify yourself completely with the Other One, whoever this may be at the time. Then, at the end of the day you may ask yourself: Is there anything I want? No. Is there anything I wish 'No. Is there anything I lack' No... So, that's it!
  26. The spiritually advanced person is the one who has reached a state of non-existence and has deeply understood that whatever happens to him is either because God Wills it or because God Permits it.
  27. True inner progress begins only when a person stops reading anything but the Gospel. It is only then that, united with God through the Jesus Prayer, he can hear God's Will.
  28. Never wish for anything but the Will of God and accept with love any trials that may come your way.
  29. Never identify a person with the wrong way in which he is treating you, but see Christ in his heart.
  30. Never ask:"Why has this happened to me" 'When you see somebody suffering from gangrene or cancer or blindness, never say: "Why has this happened to him"' Instead, pray God to grant you the vision of the other shore... Then, like the Angels, you will be able to see things as they really are: Everything in God's plan. EVERYTHING.
  31. A wise man said: If you are to live only for yourself, it would have been better if you had not been born.
  32. A person's most vulnerable spot is found in much talking and discussing.
  33. To be meek is to wish never to have a guilty conscience.
  34. When thoughts of passing judgement on another person cross your mind, pray God to take them away at once, so that you may love this person as He does. Then God will help you see your own faults. If Christ were visible, could you have such thoughts?
  35. If you do not like somebody, think that you see Christ in that person. Then, you would not even dare utter a word of criticism.
  36. We must love people and accept them in our hearts as God presents them to us. It has been thus ordained by the Lord Himself and by the Orthodox Tradition.
  37. No one should become the servant of another man. We are only servants of God. 'For ye are bought with a price', says the Apostle (1Cor.6:20). Therefore, there should be no servility in human relations.
  38. What we say remains in Eternity.
  39. Only when you are perfected in Love can you reach the state of Dispassion (Apatheia).
  40. Only those who act without true love face adversities.
  41. The faculty of judgement (Krisis) comes naturally to man. Criticism (Katakrisis) and reproval spring from malice. Discernment (Diakrisis) is a gift from God and we should pray for it. It is essential to our protection and progress.
  42. The life of the Church extends beyond moral discipline and religious duty. It is the transcendence of Morality to Spirituality.
  43. An irresolute person does not participate in life.
  44. When we must be helped, God will send someone to us. We are all fellow-travelers.
  45. The voice of God is silence.
  46. Whoever lives in the Past is like a dead man.Whoever lives in the Future in his imagination is naive, because the Future belongs to God. The Joy of Christ is found only in the Present, in the Eternal Present of God.
  47. Our destination is to worship God and love our fellow-men.
  48. We find happiness and peace only by living according to God's Commandments.
  49. The most essential act of Philanthropy is to speak well of our fellow-men.
  50. I could not get worried, even if I tried. When we worry it is as if we say to God: "I do not agree. You don't do things right". Besides, this is sheer ingratitude.
  51. To speak in the presence of Beauty is superfluous. It disturbs its harmony.
  52. Through the invocation of the name of Christ, we batter our Ego.
  53. It is the oil-lamp of our soul that must be always lighted, burning forever.
  54. We are the first to feel the joy we give to others.
  55. Better a prayer of the lips than no prayer at all.
  56. Let God intervene between you and your purpose, instead of letting your purpose intervene between you and God.
  57. The agony of dying is the effort made by the soul to free herself and run towards the Lord.
  58. Correspondence is the only way that combines solitude and company.
  59. Miracle is the normal course of events according to God's Will. What we call a Miracle is only what is natural to God.
  60. If we meet with an adversity, let us not ask who is to blame. Because the blame is only ours. We shall find the reason if we ask for it in our Prayer: perhaps we have not loved enough, or we have disobeyed another Commandment, or we have mishandled the situation, or we have moved faster than we should, or we have relied on the wrong person.
  61. When we lose something, let us say: 'In this manner, Lord, deliver me also from any evil thought I may have for my neighbour'.
  62. Anxiety is for those who have no Faith.
  63. Love is only on the Cross.
  64.  Human relationships become difficult when the �I� stands above the �You�.
  65. God loves your enemies as much as He loves you.
  66. Do you want to Pray? Prepare yourself to meet the Lord in secret.
  67. By God's Permission some people become instruments of the Power of Darkness for our own testing and progress.
  68. You must not get upset, because a restless heart drives away all Help.
  69. If one can live in the world and yet not mix with it - just as the oil and water do not mix in the oil-lamp - then he can live in God. He is in this world but not of this world.
  70. We are all vessels, sometimes of Light and sometimes of Darkness.
  71. Keep your mouth shut in the hour of crisis, when a problem is acute. Do not say anything, because you may regret it a thousand times. Instead, tell it to the Angels so that they may place it at the Lord's Feet, and pray the Lord for an Angel of Peace to calm your soul.
  72. Sometimes people ask for your advice or instruction, so that they may put the �blame� on you afterwards if things go wrong. Quite probably though, whatever you say will be ignored, in which case it will all be a waste of trouble.
  73. When the 'I' breaks and becomes 'You' and the 'You' also breaks so that they may both become 'He', then we all become 'His'.
  74. If you ever feel fear in your heart, close your eyes and say the Jesus Prayer: 'Lord Jesus Christ have mercy upon me'...
  75. Only when we are still, do we give the Angels an opportunity to do something.
  76. Do what you must do, and God will do what He must do.
  77. When you feel a fluttering in your heart, a deep yearning for something, this will come true after a lapse of time determined by God.
  78. We ourselves cannot get rid of any of our faults. He takes them away from us, one by one.
  79. We should ask God everyday to break our will and make it His, so that we may become as He wants us to be.
  80. We must not 'surrender' to His Will. This is what soldiers do. We, who are His Children, must offer Him our own will along with all our being - in whatever pitiful state we may be - and tell him: �Lord, take all my faults and imperfections and set them right�.
  81. The Grace of God comes when we raise our hand. It is Faith that draws God's Grace to us. God is 'pouring down' His Grace, but where is the hand reaching out to receive it? Instead, we are wearing hats or carrying umbrellas...
  82. If a foreigner speaks evil of Greece and the Orthodox Faith, do not identify the man with his words. Still, never speak to him about such significant events like the discovery of Holy Relics and other miraculous things that happen here.
  83. You must not talk about persons who are absent.
  84. We live in Vanity, and believe that this is life. How pitiable we are!
  85. O Lord! Forgive us if we sometimes walk in pride, like little cockerels that think they are great.
  86. Poor human beings! We consider the perishable as Immortal and the Immortal as non-existant.
  87. Poor onion! It also offers what it can.
  88. How beautiful is the 'Mystery', the 'Sacrament' of Tomorrow!
  89. A person takes his lesson only once. If he does not learn the first time, it means that there is something wrong in his subconscious which prevents him from doing so.
  90. The Lord said: Whoever wants something, believing, he will receive - As long as the request is in accordance with God's Commandments, that is to say, with Love.
  91. Do not deny others the crumbs falling off your table from the Bread of Life which is given to you whole by the Lord. So many hunger and thirst for Love, like Lazarus who fed on the crumbs falling off the table of the rich man.
  92. We have no right not to reflect the Light of the Lord. Nothing should be left in the shade, 'under the meal-tub'.
  93. Everything has two sides, like a two-edged knife. What creates today, destroys tomorrow. 'Let him understand, he who may understand'.
  94. Some of the sailors on a ship may quarrel and fight each other, but the ship sails on and reaches its destination. The same is true of the Church, because Christ Himself is at the helm.
  95. If you knew that you are not Here, you would be There.
  96. Love alone is enough to make a miracle happen. Neither Prayer nor the Komboskini (Prayer rope) have such power.
  97. Experience has taught me that no one can help anyone, no matter how strong his wish and love may be. Help comes only in the Hour of God, from the One.
  98. We are useful only when we do not exist for ourselves. And vice versa.
  99. We must not take decisions on behalf of others. We should leave this to the Angels for they always find the best solution.
  100. Like Simon of Cyrene, we must be always ready to rush to the help of our fellow-man.