by Tudor Petcu
Tudor Petcu is a Romanian writer, graduate of the Faculty of Philosophy, University of Bucharest, Romania. He has published a number of articles related to philosophy and theology in different cultural and academic journals. His work focuses on the evolution of Orthodox spirituality in Western societies as well and he is going to publish a book of interviews with Westerners converted to Orthodoxy. In this article, he interviews Bev Cooke, a Canadian writer who converted to Orthodoxy.
TP: Given the fact that you are one of the most well-known orthodox thinkers and writers in the West, I think it would be very good if you could introduce yourself and present the way by which you have discovered the Orthodoxy. Why have you chosen the conversion to Orthodoxy and how do you understand the Orthodox spirituality as a way of living?
Bev Cooke: Thank you very much for those kind words, but I’m really not as famous or as wise as you say! There are a lot of people who are much wiser, and I learn from them every day!
I was born and raised in Toronto Ontario, Canada and was baptized into the Anglican church. My father, the son of a Protestant minister, was a tolerant and gentle atheist who actually taught me a lot about Christian behaviour – he was one of the gentlest, kindest, most accepting and loving men I’ve ever known. My mother left the Anglican church when I was about five (I don’t know why, she never told me). So I grew up in a very secular household, but was always conscious of God and of needing His love, His mercy and his presence in my life.
In my teens, I hung around with a group of Catholic kids, attended mass and the youth group, and almost converted until a kind and wise priest advised me first to explore my own faith, and then decide if I should be Catholic. So I did, and the plan to convert ended up being put on hold for over twenty years and I ended up Orthodox, not Catholic. I was, for a long time, happy and fulfilled in the Anglican church, even though I felt, on a very deep, almost subconscious level that something was still missing – there was a depth I couldn’t reach, somehow. I was frustrated with how weekly the faith was – we went to church but were not ever instructed in praying every day, in taking our faith out of the nave and living it, of taking the essence and some of the ritual out into our own homes and day to day lives. I was fascinated by the way Jewish homemakers had prayers for all their activities, for example, and wondered why Anglicans didn’t have that as well. I wanted to find the transcendent in the every day, and the western faith didn’t seem to have that depth to it or even know that God could be found in a tulip, or a sunset or in the smile of a child or an old woman on the street.
Eventually, I moved from Toronto to Victoria, British Columbia, to attend university. There, I met my husband and in 1983, we married. He was an agnostic, who I think was searching, and about two years after we married, he came to accept the Christian faith. He was baptized and confirmed in the Anglican church. But even as he did join the church, it was changing, and neither of us were happy with the changes. Not because they were changes, per se, but because in a rush and desire to become a “socially activist” and relevant church, it seemed as though the Anglicans were leaving God behind – that he was becoming distant, less and less the author of our existences, more and more just a kind of “fuel” to power up members for their busy social activism and work. (Which is not to say social activism is wrong – it’s not. We need to work for justice and right in the world, but not at the expense of forgetting the ground and purpose of our being.)
I found the Orthodox faith through some friends of mine who converted. I had known Donna since high school – she was my first writing partner, and we used to comment on each other’s work consistently. Her husband was a priest and was ordained to the Orthodox priesthood after they converted. They were assigned to a parish in a city not far from the city I live in. We visited back and forth, and I remember very clearly the first time I attended Liturgy in their church, how strongly I felt as if I had come home.
The Anglican church was still, in my and my husband’s opinion, getting further and further from God, and the spirituality there was getting shallower and shallower. It felt as if I was dying of thirst and dehydration, and all I had there was a puddle that came up to my ankles, and was dirty and muddy, so I couldn’t drink, and I couldn’t immerse myself in the water. Then I found the Orthodox faith, and it felt as if I had fallen into a bottomless pool of clear, cold silky water that soaked into every pore of my body and soul, bringing it back to life. I’m still submerged in that pool and don’t ever plan to surface!
My joy in this faith is that it pervades every corner of my life and my being. I remember once asking my Anglican spiritual director, why do we obey the commandments? If salvation is a gift, a free gift just for loving God, then what’s with the rules and the laws? He told me it was to say “thank you” to God – which felt like not the right answer at all. What I found in the Orthodox faith is that it’s not about rules. It’s not about sin being rules that are broken, and grace being rules that are kept. It’s about sin separating us from God and grace being in His presence, under his wings and being granted ineffable mercy. It’s about getting closer to God, of submitting my will to His, of learning to love and follow him and be his handmaiden more and more deeply every day.
I have a prayer corner, which I pray in every day, and that I walk past when I come into my office to work (which is where I spend most of my time.) The cycle of the year – the feasts and the fasts – keep God and faith constantly in my sight, and I’m never for a moment allowed to forget that first of all, I am His – his slave, his handmaiden, and it’s up to me to be to my family and my world His representative to them. Needless to say, I’ve probably done far more harm than good, but the joy is that He forgives, He is merciful, He loves me (and us all) with an immeasurable love and He can bring good out of the harm and damage I do, and every day, every moment is another opportunity to submit my will to his, to walk in His way, to fall down and get up and repent and to see every one around me as His icon, whom I am to treat the way I would treat Him.
TP: You have written a very interesting book about the princess Ileana of Romania which was very successful in our country through all the information about her given by you but before discussing the personality of this Romanian princess, I would like you to say some words concerning your interest in the Romanian Monarchy. What impressed you most during your researches in Romanian Royalty? How would you describe the importance and the role of the Royal Romanian Family among the others Royal Families in Europe?
Bev Cooke: I think it was Queen Marie and King Ferdinand’s devotion to duty and the joy they took from doing the job they had been given that entranced me. And Queen Marie’s passion for life. She loved life and she felt deeply, both joy and hurt, happiness and heartbreak, and she dove into being Queen with her entire being. Neither of them were born Romanian, and while they were both of royal blood, there was no family connection to Romania, and other than King Ferdinand’s becoming King Carol I’s heir, no possible way they would have become rulers anywhere else – they would have been royalty who had no real occupation.
They could have spent their lives doing whatever they wanted to, without regard for anyone else. Yet they accepted King Carol’s invitation (if it could be actually called that! <g>), and devoted their lives to fulfilling their roles to the exclusion of all else, and very much saw themselves as the mother and father of their country. It wasn’t easy for them – for King Carol, especially, I think, so the fact that he never shirked his duty, no matter how badly suited for it he was, very much impressed me. Ileana once said that she thought her father would have been much happier as a botanist, not a king. But I think they both fell in love with the country and the people and instead of their work being an onerous, hated job, they embraced it and truly loved working, as best they could, for their adopted nation. I know they agonized over the troubles Romania faced, both from within and without, and agonized also over their own choices and decisions about the running of the country. They passed that sense of duty and responsibility and that love – for life and for her country – onto Ileana. They remind me, in many ways, of the British King and Queen – Queen Elizabeth and King George VI, who also worked tirelessly for their people, and provided leadership during some of Britain’s darkest times.
Throughout the 20th century, our perceptions of social stratification changed radically (not just then, of course, the changes had been coming for a very long time) but it reached a kind of boiling point throughout the last two or three centuries, and gradually, the role of the monarchy especially in the 20th century, it seems to me, has become more and more, first ceremonial, and now, in many places, especially in North America, seen as anachronistic and outdated (which is a shame in some ways. I’m something of a romantic, and love the monarchy for its tradition and position.) But beyond that, I think, by assuming the more ceremonial aspects of the head of government, they do a valuable service for those who hold the actual power. I think also, that they are a valuable symbolic presence – they can, in many ways, personify the country, and its ideals, even if their actual persons don’t quite live up to the ideals all the time.
They provide a visual representation of the nation, both to the people of the country and to those outside the nation that is removed from the day to day messiness that Presidents, Prime Ministers and heads of state must endure. The Romanian royal family was spared this erosion, since they were toppled from their positions by the Russian invasion and the Communist takeover, which was far more painful and damaging to them, but even so, neither Ileana, nor, it seems to me, King Michael, ever forgot their positions, and worked as they could to bolster, encourage and support both the emigres and the refugees, and worked as much as they could for the overthrow of the Communist regime. In that, they had an unparalleled opportunity to show the best side of royalty – the self-sacrificial devotion to duty, country and people that, because of the way things happened in other parts of Europe, the royal families there didn’t have a chance to do once the second world war had ended. I’m not really knowledgeable about the royalty of Europe, but it seems to me that they more or less gradually have moved into the background – they are still honoured and respected, but they live much more as private persons than does the royal family of Britain (that may just be because my exposure is predominantly to the British royal family, not to the other royal families of Europe, though).
TP: In my opinion the personality of princess Ileana of Romania could be described in the following way: a life of struggle, a ray of light and I think you understand very well what I mean by saying that. It is correct from your point of view to understand her life and personality in this way?
Bev Cooke: I think so. Ileana was an extrovert, and loved people. But her training, and I think her personality was such that she made the best of whatever situation she was in and her main focus was, by virtue of her extroversion, on others, on being useful, helpful, a leader, and an example. Her faith, also, which was definitely encouraged and nurtured and supported by her parents, bolstered this part of her personality. Her life was one of amazing difficulty, hardship and heartbreak, yet, with the one exception of her breakdown in South America, after they were exiled, she never crumbled under it and often was that ray of light to which others were drawn. Even after she became a monastic she continued to offer that ray of light through her struggles (her problems didn’t end when she took the veil – her health, never good, got worse and she was in severe pain for most of the last part of her life, and had numerous physical issues that debilitated her). She apparently had several spiritual children, the Bishop of the Romanian American church was one of them, in fact (if it hadn’t been for her, he wouldn’t have become a priest, I’ve heard), so yes, a life of struggle, but perhaps because of that, a definite ray of light.
TP: What exactly determined you to write a book about the princess Ileana of Romania? I am asking you that because generally the different writers or historians all over the world prefer to write introductive or detailed books about some other major figures of the Romanian Royalty such as King Charles I or King Michael whose destiny was a very impressive one.
Bev Cooke: Until my editor asked me if I’d be interested in writing about her, I had never even heard of her. So I started doing some research, and at the very first, I was skeptical – a princess who becomes a nun? I had the stereotyped images of a pleasure loving, worldly princess more absorbed in her wardrobe and her hairstyles and her social engagements than someone praying and attending liturgy and being a devout Christian. But in about two days, I radically changed my opinion and wanted to learn a lot more about this woman! She was anything but the silly, air headed princess of my ignorant stereotype, and if anything, her position was the exact opposite of the fairytale, pampered princess. I liked this woman and wanted to learn more about her and tell her story!
TP: Thinking about your researches in the Romanian Royalty and about your book about princess Ileana I would be tempted to address the following question: which was in your opinion the most important role played by princess Ileana in the Royal Romanian Family?
Bev Cooke: She was the stalwart, the bulwark, the steadfast presence who never wavered or crumbled. Because of tensions and divisions in the family – between King Carol the First and Ileana’s parents, the older children were badly damaged. None of them, it seems to me, from my research, adopted the same attitude and resolve to be the head of their country, and to assume the duties that Ileana did and in some ways, they seemed to revel in thwarting and disappointing their parents. I know that she and Queen Marie were very close all their lives, and I think she may have tried to be the bridge between the older siblings and the parents. I also know that she and her elder brother Carol were very close for a long time and that they shared a very special relationship – with her, he could relax and play as he had never been allowed to as a child, and I think she was deeply, deeply hurt later in life when her popularity and her choice to follow her parents’ call to duty evoked in him a miserable, hateful jealousy. I know she tried to act as a spiritual and moral parent to some of her siblings, although how successful she was at that is questionable, but I remember reading letters to her brother Nicky concerning some of his choices and how those were not the best choices he could have made, either from a practical standpoint and a moral, spiritual one.
TP: Do you think that the main characteristic of princess Ileana of Romania was actually the missionary behavior given her actions during the period when Romania was invaded by the different enemies, especially by Germans?
Bev Cooke: The first time they were invaded, she was a child, so not then – she was, I believe about 7 when the family had to leave Bucharest for the Jassy. Later, during the second world war, she was in Austria until Carol was forced to abdicate (remember, he had virtually exiled her upon her marriage to Anton) and she didn’t return for anything other than short visits until 1943. But definitely, her work with the Romanian wounded was missionary! Especially since it’s clear, from her memoirs, that she felt she was given far more than she ever gave in that work, which usually means that the person is actually far more effective than they think.
After she got caught in the border closing in 1942 (I think it was), she remained in Romania until her exile, living at Bran castle, as you know, through the last of the war and the Russian invasion and the Communist takeover of Romania. But while she never preached her faith, as far as I know, she worked tirelessly for her people and was observant in her faith. (When she lived in Austria, she used to day dream about establishing a monastery in the mountains near her home, once the children were grown and on their own). She established and had built and stocked and ran and nursed in a hospital – she helped people who were targeted by the communists, she hid them, found alternate work for them, in some cases, hired them for her own staff. She built a chapel and put her mother’s heart in it, and worshipped there, and prayed there frequently.
She put herself at risk for her people, and endured all kinds of awful rumours about her supposed “collaboration” with the communist regime. I think, even that she was labelled one of the “Red Aunts” and there were rumours that she had an affair with a high-ranking government official (although I never ran across any kind of proof of that) when what she was doing was using her position and all the diplomatic skills she’s learned to get supplies and concessions for her hospital, her patients and the people. She suffered a break with King Michael for a time because of the vicious lies and rumours that circulated about her, and I know it broke her heart to be so distanced from him. So, in her life, in her deeds and actions and the stand she took and maintained – yes. She lived the life we are supposed to live, selflessly and tirelessly, trusting in God to bring her and her family and her people through, doing the duty she was taught to do, and because of the faith she held so deeply and truly and she had a positive impact on hundreds, if not thousands, of people.
TP: I couldn’t avoid in our dialogue to make reference to the spiritual personality of princess Ileana of Romania. Actually, for me this is the most important and relevant aspect because of my passion for spirituality, and particularly for Orthodoxy. There is in Romania a very important literature about the spiritual revelations of princess Ileana and, as we already know, you have a very impressive book about princess Ileana as an orthodox nun. So, my question is a very simple one but so necessary for me: what represents in your opinion princess Ileana through her orthodox personality? I mention that the initial question I would have preferred to address was: what represented in your opinion princess Ileana for the Orthodox spirituality in America but I guess this is not a right questions.
Bev Cooke: It’s a perfectly right question! She had a deep, deep faith, and she was solid in it all her life. She taught her faith, here in North America, both by talking to people and holding classes and workshops and by living it. In America it was vital because many of the Romanian immigrants and the descendants of immigrants had almost completely lost touch with much of their faith. As the mothers of her convent told me, once she had become a monastic and was wearing the habit, she was at a gathering of Romanian American Orthodox and was politely told that the
“Catholic church was down the street, sister. We’re Orthodox here.”
They were so distant from the meat and heart of their faith that they had forgotten that the Orthodox had a monastic tradition as well, and none of them remembered how strong that tradition had been in their home country. Her very presence was a lesson in faith to them, and one of the biggest, most important things she did was to open the monastery, not only to offer a life of contemplative faith to American Orthodox women, but to reach out to the larger Orthodox community, to offer them a place to come and find a closer, deeper relationship with God. That is still one of the most important things the monastery does. They go out into the world, to give talks and educate people about Orthodox spirituality and faith, and they actively invite people to come and visit, to spend some quiet time with God, away from their everyday cares and problems.
Ileana, I think, was always conscious of the presence of God, and was always open to His teaching. When King Carol II refused her permission to come into Romania for the memorial services for her father, on the fifth anniversary of his death, she was heartbroken, devastated. But she related in her memoir that at the worst of her depression about it, God touched her and showed her that it was only He who mattered, that this was something He suffered with her but the ultimately, His presence in her life, and how she used this hurt to draw closer to Him was what mattered. It was a major step forward for her spiritually, and it was part of what sustained her during and after the exile. She was able to see that the closer we are to God, the more we become like Him, but, paradoxically, the more we become ourselves, more particularly us. She seemed to find the balance between doing and being – her faith was equally rooted in the spiritual contemplation of God and in the active work in the world, which is something I think is in very great imbalance in the world. We tend to think of either being “spiritual” OR of being active and doing things. We forget that both are necessary. The relationship is that of an AND, not an OR. We must BE spiritual, AND we must also DO in the world. She demonstrated that balance of a deep, contemplative faith that also was expressed in her service to others.
TP: In one of my previous questions I was saying that King Michael is the main Romanian royal figure present in a lot of works and books written by different western historians. You know very well his story of life, his exile by which he has been trying to denounce in West the communist and soviet aggressiveness which destroyed Romania as a country and not least the Romanian elites. Is it correct to say that King Michael of Romania was a some kind of hero during the World War II, that he shortened the World War II by six months?
Bev Cooke: Ah. This is something I can’t speak to. Yes, I think he was a hero, is a hero. His decision to support the Allies after he ascended the throne must have been agonizing for him – he was acutely aware of what it would mean, and what it would cost, with the USSR on the border and an ally, and it must have torn him apart when his worst fears came to life, as they invaded and supported the communists in Romania. While he lived in Romania during the communist regime, he stood as firmly as he could between the communists and his people, and I believe he tried as much as he could to protect them from the ravages of the invasion and the takeover. I believe he, both as a symbol of his country’s history, past and structure, and with what power the monarchy had, stood firm and used his power as best he could to separate Romania from the evil of the Nazi regime, as well as from the communists.
But for ending the war earlier, I cannot say – I do not have enough knowledge of the war or of how the various alliances worked together and in conflict to even begin to form an opinion.
This interview is one of many that will be published in the book “The rediscovery of Orthodox heritage of the West” by Tudor Petcu, containing interviews with different Westerners converted to Orthodoxy. It will be published in two volumes and the first one will appear by the end of this year.