Patriarch Aleksy II begins a four-day official visit to France on Monday, his first as Head of Russia's Orthodox Church. He'll be meeting religious and political leaders, including French President Nicolas Sarkozy.
There are about 200,000 Orthodox Christians living in France. For them the Russian Patriarch’s visit is the event of a lifetime.
St Silouan Monastery is a stronghold of the Orthodox faith in France. It's run by Father Simeona, a French monk.
About 15 years ago Father Simeon felt a calling. “I bought a building after quitting my job in a bank and selling my apartment. There were three or us there to begin with. I hardly had any money. We bought these ruins and then we moved in. Bit by bit we built the monastery with our own hands,” he remembers.
The monastery has been named after St Silouan. Legend has it that he spent 37 years on top of a pillar preaching the word of God. His relics are kept in the monastery. A community of 17 monks and nuns live and worship there.
One of them, Mother Thaiss, went on a lengthy spiritual journey before finding Orthodoxy. She spent decades of her life as a Catholic nun, before getting interested in Hinduism. When she turned 50 she finally left the nunnery and went on a pilgrimage to the Alps, where she found a grotto. There she began to read theology books. She says she stayed in the grotto for 20 years and came across writings on Orthodoxy.
“I felt immediately that I should turn to Orthodoxy because I didn’t want to abandon my relationship with Jesus – who didn’t feature in Hinduism. In Orthodoxy I found both Jesus and the closeness with God that is a major part of Hinduism,” Mother Thaiss said.
The monks and nuns pray twice a day. The services are unique. In the Russian Orthodox Church they are conducted in old-fashioned Russian, and the congregation always stands. Here the services are in French and the worshippers are seated.