Orthodox America

 A Sweet Savor Nun Irene Myrtidiotissa  

Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.

The nature of love is to be self-sacrificing.  Walk in love, enjoins the Apostle Paul, as Christ also hath loved us, and hath given Himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweetsmelling savour (Eph. 5:2). Just so, the saints-those who manifest Christ's sacrificial love-are a sweet savor of Christ unto God (II Cor. 2:15).  Beyond the poetic imagery, the fragrance which emanates from the relics of numerous saints miraculously illustrates this fact for us sensible creatures in a very real way.  Just decades ago, the blessed remains of Nun Irene Myrtidiotissa, exhumed three years after her repose, were found bathed in myrrh, the sweet fragrance of a life sacrificed for another.

Irene Demetra Pateras was born March 17/30, 1939, the third child of an affluent Greek shipping family from the island of Oinoussi. True to her name-"Irene" in Greek means "peace"-the girl had a serene and meek temperament, although in matters of faith she did not hesitate to stand up for her convictions. The family was living in Alexandria, where six-year-old Irene attended a Roman Catholic school.  One day she was taken, against her parents' express instructions to the administration, to church to receive Communion. When she refused the wafer offered by the priest, he tried to reassure her. "It's all right," he said to her. "We're all the same."  "In that case," replied the plucky Irene, "you come to St. Sophia's [the Greek Orthodox Church] to commune. Then I'll receive Communion from you."

The family had moved back to Athens when, in 1952, Irene's father, a former sea-captain and prominent member of the community, became seriously ill. It was a year before doctors diagnosed Hodgkin's disease, a progressive, ultimately fatal illness, causing painful inflammation of the lymph nodes, spleen and often the liver and kidneys.  Irene loved her father dearly, and her sensitive soul could not bear to see him suffer.  She begged God that she be given this cross instead of her father, that the illness pass to her and that her father be relieved.  With her generous, unselfish soul, she reasoned that the family needed her father more than they needed her, and that he could still do so much good for other people through his philanthropic deeds.

Two weeks later Irene developed a fever.  "Perhaps," she asked her mother, "I have the same illness as Papa?"  Her mother assured her daughter that was not the case, wondering what had given her such a strange notion. Irene had always been quite healthy, and the family assumed she had caught a flu.  When, however, days passed and the fever did not abate, she was taken to a hospital.  Among Irene's visitors was the high school principal. When her mother thanked him for the honor of his visit, he said that the honor belonged to Irene; the school was proud to have a student of such fine character.

Irene's illness was first diagnosed as rheumatism.  She did not respond to the treatments and her condition worsened; she lost twenty-two pounds. Then a biopsy of fluid from a neck gland revealed-Hodgkin's disease.  Her parents were told but decided to keep the truth from Irene, and when Irene again asked if she had her father's disease, her mother said no.  The doctor at the Hirsland Clinic in Switzerland, where her father was being treated, was bewildered; in 10,000 patients with Hodgkin's, he had never encountered two cases in the same family.  To deflate Irene's suspicions, the family decided to consult another blood specialist in London.  Before being examined, Irene inadvertently saw her diagnosis, which had been written up by the Swiss doctor. When her mother asked why she looked so sad, Irene replied, "It's nothing, Mama.  I am only human.  It will pass." Later, however, she confided to her sister, that she was upset that she had not been informed at the beginning, so that she could focus her life accordingly. She told her sister that she had prayed to God to take on her father's illness, and was surprised at how quickly God had answered her prayer.  Soon it all came out into the open, and the family began discussing with Irene arrangements for her funeral, as naturally as if they were making plans for her wedding.

Meanwhile, her father's pains ceased, as did the radiation treatments, and the disease miraculously remained in remission until his daughter died, five years later.  He was profoundly affected by his daughter's sacrifice, and grieved for her sufferings, but he accepted this development together with the rest of the family, as being for the greater glory of God.  Irene rejoiced.

The Pateras were a devout family, and Irene was a pious girl, but now she became more consciously focussed on her spiritual life. Daily she read the cycle of services and concentrated her reading on lives of saints and patristic texts. Her sufferings made her even more tender-hearted towards others in their misfortune, and she consoled many through her letters and prayers.  Unaware of this herself, she told her spiritual father, "I have a stone in my heart. Pray that that stone would soften, so I might acquire love."

Far from feeling sorry for herself, Irene considered hers to have been a privileged life.  She said to her mother,  "As soon as I get sick, immediately we get on an airplane and go to Switzerland.  'This way, Miss Pateras; here you are, Miss Pateras.' Clean sheets, a good bed, the best medicine, the most advanced therapy.  Mama, don't you remember when we visited the hospitals in Greece and saw the patients in beds lined up in the corridor calling out, 'Nurse, nurse!' and nobody would pay attention to them?  Weren't they people? What answer will I give [at the Judgment]?" She felt that others, given her advantages, would have become saints.  Her refined conscience safeguarded her humility.

In 1960, Irene spent forty days at the convent of St. Menas on Aegina. The Elder Ieronymous lived in a nearby hermitage, and she had many occasions to visit him and receive his instruction and counsel. He gave her to read The Ascetic Homilies of St. Isaac the Syrian.  When she had finished, he asked if she had understood what she read, and she admitted with characteristic humility and simplicity, "No." The Elder had her re-read the book, and the next time she came to him with notes.

Returning home to Psychiko, a suburb of Athens, Irene moved into a basement room, which had been remodelled as a monastic cell.  Although she considered the high calling of the monastic life to be beyond her capabilities, she was increasingly withdrawing from the world into a life of prayer. She asked that all her worldly clothes and accessories be given away, and wore a simple grey dress.  Later, she wore only black.  Eldress Matrona of Chios came to live with Irene, and her presence contributed to the monastic atmosphere that defined Irene's life even then.  Her intense physical sufferings, which she bore with rare fortitude, scoured her soul, making it shine with an otherworldly tranquility and joy apparent to all who had contact with her.

Irene, however, desired to embrace monasticism in its fullness.  In the fall of 1960, Fr. Panteleimon, now Abbot of Holy Transfiguration Monastery in Brookline, came to visit, being already well acquainted with the family and its devotion to the Church.  Encouraged by her mother, Irene finally asked him if it would be possible for her to become a nun, in view of her inability to perform the monastic rule. Fr. Panteleimon assured her that in such cases the patient and unmurmuring acceptance of suffering replaces prostrations, fasting and other ascesis. Overjoyed, Irene requested that the tonsure take place in three weeks, on October 26/Nov. 8, the feast of St. Demetrios the Myrrhgusher, her patron saint.  The disease had progressed to such an extent-doctors thought she might die within a matter of days, even hours-that others suggested the tonsure be performed earlier, but Irene was confident that God would grant her more time. On the eve of the feast, Fr. Philotheos Zervakos and Fr. Panteleimon, her sponsor for the tonsure, came to serve the vigil in the Pateras' beautifully appointed house chapel.  Irene was experiencing severe pains and a racking cough, and so Fr. Philotheos told her to stay in bed and, when the time came in the service for the tonsure, they would come downstairs and perform it there in her room.  When, however, the vigil began, Irene quietly got out of bed and took the small elevator upstairs to a room next to the chapel, where she followed the service.  Just before it came time for the tonsure, she entered the chapel and, disregarding her pains and extreme exhaustion, went around the chapel, making a full prostration before each icon.  During the service, Irene's cough subsided and, in spite of her exertions, she began to feel better. She was clothed in the angelic schema with the name Irene Myrtidiotissa.

For two weeks after her tonsure, Mother Irene felt almost well, a blood test confirmed the marked improvement in her condition, to the amazement of doctors.  Suddenly, however, on November 8/21, her pains began again, excruciating pains, and she was taken to the hospital.  Relatives and spiritual acquaintances kept vigil at her bedside as it became clear that her departure was imminent.  Early in the morning of November 13/26, her mother called those in the house to come quickly to the hospital. Fr. Philotheos also came.  Everyone stood around Mother Irene's bed in prayerful silence.  The previous day she had told a friend, "If you want to see your neighbor again, come tomorrow very early, before sunrise." Her words were prescient.  Just as the sun was brightening the sky, Mother Irene went peacefully from this world to meet her Heavenly Bridegroom. Her body was taken home where it was prepared for burial.  The funeral was held that same day, at the Holy Convent of St. John the Theologian in Holargos, a suburb of Athens.  There was such a feeling of joy among those present that one priest wondered aloud if it wouldn't be appropriate to chant a Resurrection service.  She was buried in the convent cemetery, her body being placed directly into the earth without a coffin, according to the Greek monastic custom.

Three years later, in the same tradition, Mother Irene's remains were exhumed.  After Liturgy on the feast of the Mother of God "Myrtidiotissa" (Sept. 24/Oct. 7) 1963, Father Panetleimon and other monks and clergy went with nun Irene's mother to the cemetery, taking with them a box into which to transfer the bones.  In digging down, however, they found her remains to be completely intact and fragrant.  They were carried in a sheet to the convent, where the overjoyed nuns sang Resurrection stichera, and then taken to Mother Irene's cell in Psychiko.  There, nuns from the convent washed and dressed them in her riassa.  They were appropriately laid to rest in a reliquary in a chapel of the Annunciation Convent, which the Pateras family had founded in Oinoussai, the island where they had been born.

When Mother Irene had been prepared for burial, her father looked upon her serene countenance and said softly, "You closed your eyes, my child; now my pains will begin again."  They did. He died on the Feast of St. Nicholas, December 6/19, 1966, three years after receiving the monastic tonsure, for which he was well prepared after living for fourteen years with the constant thought of death. After his repose, his wife, at the urging of Elder Ieronymous of Aegina, also entered the angelic life. Following the instructions of the Elder, she assumed the duties of abbess at the Convent of the Annunciation.

The idea for the establishment of the Convent came in 1959, when the Pateras were at the Hirslanden Clinic with Irene.  It was constructed with astonishing rapidity.  The portable icons were executed by the eminent iconographer Fotios Kontoglou, who encouraged the Pateras in their holy undertaking. The convent follows the Old Calendar and the ancient Typicon of Saint Savva.

(Condensed from The Convent of the Annunciation of the Theotokos, Oinoussai, Chios 1988, in Greek with English supplement, illustratred, with an introduction by Photios Kontoglou.)