[This is the review I wrote for Amazon at Matushka Constantina’s request (an honor, Matushka!) and I’m reproducing it here. The Scent of Holiness by Matushka Constantina Palmer is available from Amazon and from Conciliar Press.)
Having visited both men’s and women’s monasteries I can attest to the fact that while they are similar in many ways, each has its own “flavor” or character. Most of the books written about Orthodox monasticism are written about men’s monasteries. The fact that The Scent of Holiness was written by a woman about women’s monasteries is significant and a welcome addition.
Matushka Constantina spent considerable time visiting several women’s monasteries in Greece. She grew to know the nuns well and in the end was very much an “insider”. She is therefore able to give us a unique perspective on the day-to-day life in an Orthodox women’s monastery. The nuns are not plaster saints but ordinary women “working out [their] salvation in fear and trembling.”
More importantly, through the numerous vignettes we are able to glean some of the simple lessons monasticism has to teach us. Lack of curiosity, humility, self-knowledge, control of thoughts, and obedience are a few of these priceless pearls.
Matushka is careful to point out that never during her stays was she deliberately “taught” by the nuns. They always taught by example or by relating stories of their own.
Not everything in the book is serious, far from it! In the course of her time in Greece Matushka was learning Greek and there are several humorous anecdotes in which this elementary knowledge played a part – to the great amusement of the nuns. My favorite by far is the story of the “dark animal that walks in the air.”
Reading The Scent of Holiness is akin to visiting a monastery yourself. You will find yourself unable to put it down and when you finally emerge, blinking in the daylight, you will not be quite the same person who picked up the book. I cannot recommend it highly enough.
Matushka Constantina blogs at Lessons from a Monastery.