Orthodox Outlet for Dogmatic Enquiries


Mother Thekla

Scholar and Orthodox nun who provided spiritual inspiration and words for the composer John Tavener

Source: THE TIMES / Saturday August 27 2011



Mother Thekla co-founded the Orthodox Monastery of the Assumption in North Yorkshire. A considerable scholar, she became best known in the wider world as the muse of the composer Sir JohnT avener. As well as providing the spiritual inspiration behind much of his music, she also supplied the words to many of his best- known pieces.

Mother Thekla was born Marina Sharf in 1918 at Kislovodsk in the Caucasus. The family was of Jewish descent, her mother having converted to Christianity. (After the Second World War her brother Andrew returned to his Jewish roots; an expert on Byzantine Jewry, he became a professor at Bar-Ilan University in Israel.)

Marina was born at a time of turmoil caused by the Russian Revolution. Crossfire in the streets prevented her parents taking her to church, so she was baptized in a flower vase, an episode that Mother Thekla liked to relate.

The perilous circumstances in Russia prompted her father, a barrister, to take his young family to England. There they lived in Richmond, Surrey, and later in Chelsea. Marina was educated at the City of London Girls' School, and went from there to Girton College, Cambridge, where she read Part I of the English tripos and then Russian for Part II of the modern languages tripos, graduating in 1940.

Elizabeth Hill had two pupils that year, the other being Dimitri Obolensky; Mother Thekla always maintained that she should have been awarded a first, but only one was given - and it went to the learned Russian prince.

During the war, she served in RAF Intelligence (1941-46), partly in India, and then worked in the Ministry of Education , before taking up a teaching post at Kettering High School in 1952, where she soon became head of English. It was there that she met Marilyn Wood, first as a schoolgirl, and then as her colleague, Marilyn was to become her oldest and closest friend.

Marina's life changed in 1965. On her way to a retreat at the Anglican abbey of West Malling, she attended the Divine Liturgy at the Russian Cathedral in Ennismore Gardens, and there saw Mother Maria, "a real nun". Mother Maria (born Lydia Gysi) was living at West Malling, and Marina met her again there, and knew that she must herself become a nun with Mother Maria.

Mother Maria had been professed by Bishop (later Metropolitan) Anthony Bloom, and had for 14 years lived in the Anglican enclosure at West Malling.

Two Orthodox nuns was felt to be too many, however, and soon after her profession, Mother Maria and Sister Marina found themselves setting up the Monastery of the Assumption at Filgrave in Buckinghamshire.

The Anglican nuns, and Michael Ramsey their visitor. had feared that two Orthodox nuns might attract recruits from their own ranks - and with reason for a few years later Dame Mary Thomas, the novice mistress at West Malling, became convinced that her vocation lay with the nuns in Filgrave.

That year, 1970, Patriarch Aleksi of Moscow died, and the nuns felt that their link with Russia had died with him; they therefore sought admission to the Ecumenical Patriarchate. In 1971 their monastery changed its canonical allegiance, and Sister Marina became Sister Thekla; in the same year Thomas joined them as Sister Katherine. Two years later Mother Maria was found to have cancer. With her death imminent - she eventually died in 1977 - Sisters Thekla and Katherine sought to preserve her heritage by setting up a publishing venture, the Library of Orthodox Thinking. The title was deliberate, the sisters wanted to present Orthodoxy not as a system of thought opposed to the West, but as a way of thinking, rooted in their way of life and prayer. Mother Thekla spoke of "the one innermost battlecry of the monastery, the austere demand of refusing to discuss what is not lived, and the impossibility of living up to this ourselves: back into the revolving wheel of repentance. Face God, not Man."

Mother Maria's doctoral thesis had been on the Cambridge Platonist Ralph Cudworth, and a monograph of hers on Cudworth was an early pamphlet in the library. Other works of Mother Maria's followed, and then works by Mother Thekla on Shakespeare (Hamlet: The Noble Mind), on Keats (John Keats: The Disinterested Heart) and on George Herbert, as well as translations of liturgical texts, and the Psalms, translated from Hebrew by Mother Maria, which were used by the nuns in their worship. The sisters were seeking what one might call an acculturation of Orthodoxy within English culture. Mother Thekla also edited Mother Maria. Her Life in Letters (1979). Mother Maria's imminent death also led the sisters to seek a more inaccessible situation for their monastery. They found it in old farm buildings at Normanby, just south of Whitby, several hundred yards down a track off the road to Scarborough. There, under the shadow of St Hilda, the Monastery of the Assumption was re-established in 1975- three nuns and Nimrod, the cat.

Maria died in l977 and Katherine died in 1986. In that year Archimandrite Ephrem (Lash), who had served as priest for the monastery during his time as a lecturer in Newcastle (1979-84), returned from Mount Athos, and became chaplain to the community: a single nun, Mother Thekla.

It was while she was at Normanby that Mother Thekla became an inspiration for Tavener. She suggested the words for what became the Song to Athene, and wrote the texts for his opera, Mary of Egypt, and many of his choral works. She was the inspiration for one of his most popular works, The Protecting Veil. They were joint authors of a volume, Ikons. Meditations in Words and Music (1994) The fame she acquired from her association with Tavener led to two works of hers being published: The Dark Glass (1996) and Eternity Now (1997).

Mother Thekla remained the only professed nun at the Monastery of the Assumption; various people sought their vocation there, but none of them persevered. In 1994 she was joined by an American nun, Sister Hilda, who Mother Thekla hoped might succeed her. In the event, Sister Hilda alienated Mother Thekla's friends and Mother Thekla found herself expelled from her own monastery on the alleged ground of senility. She was rescued by the sisters of the Anglican Order of the Holy Paraclete, who welcomed her to the infirmary at the Abbey of St Hilda in Whitby.

She was buried at Whitby on August 16. At her funeral several of Taveners pieces were performed, including a new one: They are All Gone into the World of Light.

Mother Thekla, Orthodox nun, was born on July 18, 1918.  She died on August 7, 2011, aged 93.


(c) The Times 27/08/2011

Article published in English on: 14-11-2013.

Last update: 14-11-2013.