Russia 1918 - England 2011
“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 House until their 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 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 struggled to get anywhere with the Orthodox Church which did not involve learning a special church form of either Greek or Russian. 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 said 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 Thekla 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 Nicholas 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 for 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. Father Stephen visited her each week and shared with Ann 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.”