The Remarkable Life of Mother Gavrilia

Mother Gavrilia Papayannis
Mother Gavrilia Papayannis

Seen from a distance, today’s world of Orthodoxy may seem like a stack of different coats: you have Russian Orthodoxy, Greek Orthodoxy, Serbian etc., all with distinct traditions and styles. However, below this great variety and diversity runs the stream of the living water of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

The life of Mother Gavrilia of Greece bears witness to this deeper tradition of the Breath of Life. She testifies to an Orthodoxy without borders, a love that encompasses the whole world.

Born in Constantinople in Asia Minor on October 2, 1897, Avrilia (as she was then called) was a lively and sociable child. Whenever guests would ring the door of their house, little Avrilia would beg her mother not to open it so that she herself could welcome the guests and hear their news. At school, she would tell her many friends about her adventures and the wonderful people she met. She particularly loved her mother and, as the youngest of four, she was greatly loved by her brother and sisters.

The young Avrilia had a particular love for geography. As a child, she would look at the map of the world for hours and dream about all the places she wanted to visit. Later in life, this wish of her heart was answered when she became a “playing ball of the angels,” traveling to the ends of the earth.

After studying philosophy and botany (as the second woman to attend university in Greece), she went to England, where she would later learn physiotherapy. Already at this stage of her life, she practiced the Gospel teaching of non-possession, depriving herself of the security of a bank account. Once during a job interview her new employer asked her what her bank account was, and she answered that her bank was in Heaven. To which the interviewer responded that with such a good Banker, they would certainly employ her!

While Avrilia was very talkative as a child, in England she learned the art of silence. Taking care of a certain Miss Bright, a famous feminist and suffragette, Avrilia soon learned to “shut her mouth” and confide all her thoughts in Christ and the angels. Whenever she would start to tell Miss Bright anything of her personal life, the woman would simply continue reading and completely ignore what our young Avrilia was saying. Mother Gavrilia would later bring this art of silence to perfection when thousands of people would share their heart with her and she, as a silent witness, would listen to their suffering with undivided attention.

After her time in England (where she was a nurse during World War II), she went back to Greece and started practicing physiotherapy. She must have been around forty years old at the time when we see how, through the course of her life, she gradually brought her practice of non-possession to perfection. As in in England, where she didn’t have a bank account, in Greece she would always give the money she received for her physiotherapy treatment to the poor. On her door, she often hung a bag of food for the hungry. And she gave free physiotherapy to those who couldn't afford it.

In her office she had a big icon of Christ washing the feet of His disciples, and she observed strict silence during the sessions. The only ones talking were the patients who, feeling Avrilia’s love and attention, would pour out their hearts to her. There is a touching story of a young boy who, even though his feet were healed, pretended to still be in pain because he loved Avrilia's presence so much.

In this period of her life, Avrilia would pray the Jesus Prayer as she worked, only ever talking about herself when she was asked a question. Once a theologian asked her why she was so concerned with feet and not with the heart of man, to which she simply responded, “From the feet to the heart!”

Mother Gavrilia at Baba Amte's Leper Colony
Mother Gavrilia at Baba Amte's Leper Colony

 At around the age of fifty, Avrilia’s mother died. This must have affected her deeply, as her mother represented Love itself to the young Avrilia. After her death, Avrilia spent a night in prayer, and through the entire night she experienced the Uncreated Light of God. After this, her life changed completely. Avrilia gave up her physiotherapy practice, sold the little she had (just a few books) and prepared to take off for the calling she had in her heart: India.

Now Avrilia had never been to India, nor had she been particularly attracted to it, but she knew in her heart that that was where God wanted her to go. It is at this stage that she brought her practice of non-possession to perfection, taking Christ's words “sell what you have and follow Me” most literally.

Mother Gavrilia recounts how, during this period of her life, wherever she went to church, she always heard the same Gospel passage being read: “Go, sell what you have, give to the poor, and follow Me.” This was the sign that allowed her to set out on the Great Adventure of her life.

Through a series of providential encounters, Avrilia found herself in the ashram (Hindu monastery) of Sivananda, a famous guru at that time. Here Avrilia became known as “Sister Lila of Greece.” While living amongst the followers of an alien religion, Sister Lila never fell into the dangers of syncretism, nor did she ever fall away from Christ. She simply loved everyone around her.

Once a young monk of the ashram, Chidananda by name, was left unsatisfied with the advice of the elder. Being a monk only for a few years, he had gone off to the world for a gathering. There he burst into anger, unable to resist the temptations of this world. Back at the monastery, the monk asked his elder what had happened and the elder said, “Anger, too, is for humans.” Desperate for a more fulfilling answer, Chidananda went to Sister Lila and asked her advice. Sister Lila answered that when living in seclusion, it is sometimes easy to forget our sinful state. When the anchorite returns to the world, he sees where he is at spiritually and can then go back to his mountain to improve. She also gave him a copy of the Philokalia, which greatly benefitted the young monk. Later in life, when he became the elder of the community, he always advised Europeans visiting the monastery to read the Philokalia, seeking wisdom in their own tradition.

After her time at the monastery, Sister Lila went to the leper colony of Baba Amte. In him, she recognized the Gospel of mercy lived to its fullest, even though he and his family were not at all Christian. As a wealthy lawyer, Baba Amte had given up his entire fortune to devote his life to the poor. Wherever he went, the face of a leper he once saw would not leave his mind. So he knew that he was meant to care for all those whom the face represented. For the rest of her life, Mother Gavrilia would always refer to Baba Amte as her “true family.” 

Another great friend of Sister Lila was Yehuda Hanegbi, an Israeli writer and Jewish believer. With him she shared a great spiritual life, and we know many details about her life from her letters to him and to a Greek woman, Helen Virvou. 

The many places where Sister Lila lived and the many adventures she experienced (a tiger in the jungle!) are too numerous to recount here. Let us just mention that after a blessed period as a recluse in the Himalayas, Sister Lila felt the call to become an Orthodox nun. It is remarkable that despite her spiritual inclination, she had never thought of becoming a nun until then – nor had she ever visited a monastery. She even had such a strong dislike for anything black that she begged her parents to allow her to wear dark blue after their funeral during the period of mourning. Again, through a providential encounter, Sister Lila knew where God wanted her to go: to a monastery in Bethany. But she had no money, as she always vowed to be completely penniless. Then her friends in India, who weren’t rich either, came to her and said, “Instead of offering this money at our temple, we offer it to you so that you can be a nun for your God.” 

Mother Gavrilia in Africa
Mother Gavrilia in Africa

 After having been tonsured a nun under the name of Gavrilia (from “Gabriel,” for she had a particular veneration for the angels), a new period of her life opened up. As a nun, Mother Gavrilia travelled back to India. Though she was afraid that the habit would distance her from her people, her friends in India felt even closer to her, because now they were all monks.

From her time in England, though, Mother Gavrilia knew that she was not called to stability (a word she had learned from her spiritual father, Lev Gillet). So her time in India didn’t prove to be permanent and, by providence, Mother Gavrilia began to travel the world.

Africa, India, France, the United States, Switzerland: just a few of the many countries she visited. Though she didn’t have any money, she always said “YES” to whatever invitation crossed her path. She was often called to accompany people to a hospital in another country, and so it would happen that she visited several different countries in one week. In the States, she was asked by the Protestant missionary Stanley Jones to speak about the Jesus Prayer. There she also met Martin Luther King and Eleanor Roosevelt. Mother Gavrilia greatly supported King’s mission and would often emphasize the following saying:

Mother Gavrilia and St Sophrony
Mother Gavrilia and St Sophrony 

Unless you reach the point where you feel that you and the other are ONE – any other: the Black man from Africa, the Indian, the Chinese, the Muslim, the Jew, the Christian – unless you become conscious that we are all children of God, unless you feel that, Truly – with a capital T – then… you are still a slave!

 Her own life testifies to the degree to which she exemplified this teaching. For her, the whole of humanity was one big family: the family of mankind. Or, to use the words of St. Sophrony – who invited Mother Gavrilia to become hegumen of his sisterhood in Essex (which she declined) – she bore the “whole of Adam” in her heart.

Returning to Greece, Mother Gavrilia became a spiritual mother in the “house of the angels” on Medeias Street, Athens. Many would seek her counsel, and we see in this period the transfiguration of her time as a physiotherapist. “Now,” Mother Gavrilia told a theologian friend, she would go “straight to the heart” of those who visited her.

According to a touching story, she once heard someone knocking at her door in the middle of the night. It was a very tall African, and she welcomed him in and treated him to some chocolate. The next morning, the people in her flat went to her in anguish, saying that somebody had been knocking on their doors all night long. Mother Gavrilia had welcomed the stranger and found the figure of Christ in him.

Though she was Greek Orthodox, Mother Gavrilia completely transcended the limits of country and religion. She truly saw Christ in everyone she met, and this allowed her to open her heart to the whole world. The Great Love to which she testifies opens the door to a stream of Orthodoxy that may sometimes seem forgotten: the great teaching that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female, but all are one in Him. By bearing the whole of mankind in her heart, Mother Gavrilia wholly embraced the “New Adam,” Christ, so that her entire life became a witness to Him. To Whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.

Thirza Buijkx

Co-Editor, In Communion

See also our earlier article on Mother Gavrilia by John Brady: “Mother Gavrilia: A Holocaust to His Love,” In Communion (October 2004).  

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