What made you decide to convert to Orthodoxy?
“That is a difficult question to answer. In a sense it was the culmination of a long and sometimes agonising journey and in the end I only converted because I absolutely had to, because my salvation depended upon it, because I would not be able to stand before God with any degree of integrity if I didn’t.”
Macrina was brought up in a strongly Evangelical Protestant home and even in her childhood she was aware that she was not entirely comfortable with many Evangelical beliefs. She became an Anglican in her first year at university and gradually drifted to the more Catholic side of the Anglican Church, eventually becoming a Roman Catholic six years later.
Were you entirely happy with your religious choice?
“In retrospect, I am inclined to say that I should have become Orthodox at that point. In fact, I remember reading Metropolitan Kallistos Ware’s The Orthodox Church shortly after I became Catholic and thinking to myself: “But this is it!”
Although what she read seemed like the fulfillment of everything she believed, this was her first exposure to Orthodoxy and there was no Orthodox Church nearby. As in most cases, she assumed that it was something just for Greeks or Russians. Deep down she assumed that she was too critical a Westerner to become Orthodox. Also, she was doing a Master’s Degree in Theology at this time and had been exposed to the critical ethos of much Western liberal academic discourse and although she sometimes had problems with this, still she was not able to submit to anything as traditional as Orthodoxy.
Why did you become a nun?
“After a few years of interspersing post-graduate degrees with working with Church organisations I finally entered a Cistercian monastery. Although a sense of religious vocation had been around earlier, in a sense this was also a recognition that the sort of theological problems that I had been wrestling with – particularly concerning the relationship between tradition and various critical movements in twentieth century theology – couldn’t be solved in an abstract academic setting, but needed to be lived in a life of prayer and obedience.”
Macrina entered the Cistercian Order, who are a reform of the Benedictine order and found that what drew her to the monastery was the same thing that would ultimately draw her to Orthodoxy — nothing other than the basic Christian Faith, as it was taught by the Fathers and has been preserved in the Church.
What effect did this life as a nun have on you?
“Of course, something happened to me while I was in the monastery that was to call into question many of my earlier assumptions and which was to send me into something of a crisis. I gradually discovered that something was shifting inside of me and I became increasingly disillusioned with the polarised nature of contemporary Catholicism and felt uncomfortable with both the conservatives and the progressives. I was also increasingly realising that the right belief was important and so this led to quite a lot of inner tension as the Rule of St Benedict taught us to “put nothing before the love of Christ” and yet I realised that one cannot have Christ without His Church.”
Eventually the crisis came to a head and she knew she had to do something but it was a rather complicated situation as she was living in a foreign country. Macrina left the Cistercians and stayed for several months in an Orthodox monastery in the Netherlands, then later she went to another Orthodox monastery in France. She was blessed by many good and caring people along the way and all those who prayed for her but it was also a difficult time of great upheaval.
Macrina feels that she would not have been able to persevere if it were not for the simple knowledge that the only reason for doing it was because of Christ Himself.
What is your present situation?
She initially thought she should stay in Europe for a while as there is so much more Orthodox presence there and she had a spiritual father in France. However, the legal situation was difficult and she was thwarted at every turn and eventually she returned to South Africa and then everything else more or less fell into place.
“I came back to a job as a bookbinder – it was a skill that I had learnt while in the monastery and proved useful now that I had pretty much burned my bridges in terms of my previous qualifications. This also brought me to Cape Town, having previously been in the Pietermaritzburg area. Now that I am here at last, I have felt really welcomed in the Church.”
Does Orthodoxy work for the youth?
“We live in a consumer society in which even religion has become an item that is judged on how well it works for me and this tends to be seen in a very superficial and short term way. If one looks at some Christian groups, and particularly at some things that are directed to youth, worship seems to be reduced to entertainment. Such things may provide cheap thrills in the short term, but they cannot satisfy our hunger for God in the long term.”
“I’m no expert on youth and – rather to my horror – am beginning to feel decidedly middle aged! But I am very wary of the sort of trends among some Christian groups that have led to a sort of “dumbing down” of the Liturgy in an attempt to appeal to the youth.”
“Liturgy requires an effort and we need to really immerse ourselves in it and take it seriously for it to do its work on us. But I think that it is quite insulting to younger people to suggest that they cannot do this.”
“I’m not saying that nothing in the Church should ever change. Some superficial things do change, but they generally change slowly, and any change should be deeply rooted in the Tradition and not simply based on a pragmatic appeal to what people apparently want. There is a saying that whoever marries the spirit of the age will soon be a widow and it seems to me to be relevant here.”
Macrina says there has been quite a reaction in the Catholic Church in recent years in which it is precisely the youth who are demanding a more traditional Liturgy and lamenting how much of their heritage was lost in some drastic changes that occurred in the sixties and seventies.
What is most precious or meaningful to you about Orthodoxy?
“Orthodoxy for me is simply nothing more and nothing less than basic Christian faith. It is the presence of Jesus Christ in His Body the Church”.
“People sometimes tend to think that people become Orthodox because they like the music or the icons, or because the Church seems exotic and “foreign.” I even had people assuming that I became Orthodox because I was attracted to “Byzantine spirituality” – whatever that is! The reality is that there is only one Church and for the first millennium it was present in the West as well as in the East. Being Orthodox does not mean being foreign or “Eastern,” it simply means being Christian.”
Is the language a barrier to being Orthodox?
“I was actually received into the Church in a French-speaking Russian Church, having previously had much of my exposure to Orthodoxy in a Dutch-speaking monastery. I only really encountered Greek when I came back to South Africa.”
“One of the things that had put me off Orthodoxy initially was the way it is so tied up with ethnicity, but I also knew that that is not the heart of the Church.”
However, language is an issue and one of the reasons why Macrina has gravitated to the Church in Robertson is to fulfill her need to be able to understand the services. This is particularly true of the hymnography and particularly for feasts, for everything that we believe is to be found in the liturgical texts.
“ I don’t think that this is only an issue for converts, but it is a challenge that the Church faces in various places around the world, including in Greece and Russia where the liturgical language has become very different from the language that people understand and speak. It’s not my place to say what should be done, but it is a challenge that the Church faces and I know that, for myself, it is important to be able to immerse myself in the liturgical texts.”
What are you working on now ?
“Well, my life is in a bit of flux at the moment. Since the beginning of this year I’ve been renting a building near to the Church in Robertson, which I’m hoping to develop as a place of prayer and retreat, although exactly how that develops must still become clear.”
“ But I’ve still been working in Cape Town and only going there on weekends and have discovered that living in two places is not so simple and that I have been trying to do too much, so things have developed quite slowly. In a couple of months I’m going to be stopping my job and moving to Robertson full-time.
Macrina is hoping to support herself by private bookbinding work, which she hopes will free her up for more time for Church-related things and perhaps some more writing. She has been quite involved in launching Evangelion, and also with the new Orthodox website.
“I’ve been trying to do too much this year and so need to regain a certain balance and a more regular life. Beyond that, we must see where God leads.”
Compiled and edited by Pepe Sofianos.