Bitter News and Danger
The days rolled by, and we began to know the nuns better. Although wearing the same kind of monastic clothing, just like lay people, each nun was so different in character! In-between services, and obediences, I suddenly realized I hadn’t phoned home yet. While at first being super annoyed with my parents for sending me here, the feeling had almost disappeared. I put phoning home on my to do list.
Late Friday night, after Evening Prayers, Faith and I retired to our cell. As we read in our beds, someone quietly knocked at our cell door.
“It’s me, Marina!”
Faith let her in, and Marina flopped down cross-legged on the floor and gazed at us pleadingly with puppy dog eyes. “I’m starving! Let’s go on a midnight raid and pillage the kitchen! It’s almost Saturday, and ice cream is legal in 20 minutes!”
I was keen, but Faith looked appalled. “We can’t! We can’t steal ice cream… in a convent! What’s the flavour?”
“Mother Thecla and Sister Anna bought a humongous tub of Salted Caramel from their shopping trip to town the other day.” Marina purred, sporting a wicked smile.
Faith groaned in agony. Resolve buckling, she glanced around the room helplessly, and spied the cooling pot of herbal tea we had brought into our cell earlier.
“And the winner is…” sighed Marina, already knowing the answer.
“Let’s just visit,” Faith negotiated… “And have some cold herbal tea, instead.”
“Yum. Whatever. OK.” Marina was ticked.
There was a spare cup in the room for Marina, and both Faith and I still had some tea remaining in our cups. We turned out the lights and sat together on the floor in front of the open window. A refreshing breeze carried soothing sounds of rustling leaves and chirping crickets. A nearly full moon played tag with the passing clouds.
“Do you think there are bears around here?” Faith whispered, slapping a mosquito on her arm.
“Don’t kill it, it’s just trying to live!” scolded the Sphinx. “Yeah, right, tons of grizzlies are lurking behind each and every tree out there… Oh man, chocolate, I need chocolate,” muttered Marina.
“But… I bet there are rattlesnakes in the brush, though, for sure.” I affirmed.
We all ducked in unison, hearing a large moth, or a bat, the size of a pterodactyl swoosh into the room circling it a few times, before flopping its way out the open window again.
“Guess we should close the window.” said Faith.
“Duh.” Marina would have been rolling her eyes.
“Hey, um, weird question here, but has Mother Julitta ever said anything bizarre in passing, to you guys?” I asked.
“I’ve heard she rarely speaks,” said Marina.
“No, I mean it. Mother Julitta whispers weird things to me. It totally creeps me out. It’s like she knows what I’m thinking, or doing, or something!”
“That’s crazy,” dismissed Faith. “Mother J. is probably going all senile. We should be kind to her, and pray for her.”
The crickets chirped.
“Well,” I yawned, tiring of this, and swigging back the last of the cold tea, “We’ve got Morning Prayers in a few hours, so let’s hold fast, and pack it in!
Next day, after lunch, Sister Maria brought out an unopened tub of salted caramel ice cream. Relieved and proud we hadn’t raided the kitchen last night, I watched in dismay as Mother Matrona spooned the ice cream into her used tomato soup bowl. Everyone else did the same, monastery-style.
None of this fazed Faith, although Marina had one eyebrow quirked unnaturally high, looking as astonished as I felt. Needless to say, my dessert portion was much smaller than usual!
Our afternoon obedience was to dust and vacuum the little convent church near the main gates before the upcoming evening’s vigil service. It was a pretty little church, used mostly in summer, or feast days, or when extra pilgrims came to visit. Otherwise, the convent typically used the house chapel.
Before helping Faith and Marina clean, I picked a bouquet of wild flowers and brought them into the church. There was a fresh vase already placed beside the main icon stand. Somebody beat me to it. I took my flowers back to the convent and bumped into Matushka as I went into the house chapel.
She spied the bouquet. “How lovely, will you put some in the church as well? We haven’t had a service there for over a month as we’ve been using the house chapel.”
“But Matushka, there is already a fresh vase of flowers in the church!”
It turned out nobody had placed a fresh vase of wildflowers in the church. Sister Maria had placed one there a few weeks before, adding some holy water to the vase, and they had all miraculously remained fresh.
The nuns weren’t surprised at all. “Oh yes,” said Mother Antonina matter-of-factly, “Things like that happen sometimes.”
I needed some scrap paper and was directed to the kitchen. Wanting to speak a bit more with Mother Antonina, I asked about her life before she came to the convent, and how she decided to be a monastic.
“Well,” she smiled mischievously, “I was once engaged to two men.”
“What!” I blurted out, “At the same time?”
“No,” laughed Mother Antonina. “At different times… My wise Baba once counselled me… Measure twice or thrice, but only cut once!”
I pondered that.
“My last fiancé, Justin, well… he proposed many times, but for some reason I kept saying no. Justin was handsome, had a good job, and went to church. When he proposed again, I finally said yes. His elderly mother came to visit from out of town. I hadn’t met her yet.” Mother Antonina sighed sadly. “Justin treated his mother terribly. He was so rude, I couldn’t believe it! I thought, if Justin treated his own mother this way, he would surely treat me either the same, or even worse, after we were married! I quickly broke off our engagement. As time passed, after realizing I could easily live without him, I discovered I really hadn’t truly loved him in the first place. I think I was just in love with being in love. I continued in my job teaching for awhile, but knew something crucial was missing in my life. I occasionally visited a convent near where I lived at the time, and each time it went it felt like I had come home. After a few visits, I stayed longer, and longer each time, and eventually was blessed to become a novice, because it was there where I found what my soul had truly yearned for. It felt like home. As a monastic, I am “married” to the Perfect One.” Lost in thought for a moment, Mother Antonina inclined her head to me, and continued on her way to the sewing room.
Since I was going to prepare for Confession, I needed scrap paper. I was used to writing on a crib sheet, to help me remember various sins, (otherwise I usually blank out, and remember a whole bunch of things later). I went to the kitchen as Mother Antonina suggested, and found an old convent grocery list. Turning it over, the back of it was completely blank. “Perfect!” I thought, “Although I certainly won’t need that much space!”
I met Father Andronic, at the Saturday night vigil in the little church. Father Andronic was the monastery’s elderly spiritual Father. He lived at the far end of the convent property. His wild hair reminded me of a lion’s mane, and he seemed quite gruff.
When I went up to venerate the Gospel during Matins and receive his blessing, Father Andronic quickly bounced his hand up just when I bent over to kiss it, and ended up giving me a fat lip. I knew he couldn’t have done that on purpose, but I was really annoyed. It even hurt to sing. When I whispered this to Faith during service, she giggled and said she meant to warn me. Censing the church, Father glared at us over his glasses.
Since I had prepared for Confession that evening, I knew I would now have to add the sin of annoyance to my ever increasing list.
After vigil I was surprised to see all the nuns swiftly vacate the church. I knew they were also going to take Confession, so I followed outside to see why they left in such a hurry.
“You’ll soon see for yourself!” Abbess Everild chuckled, and escorted me back inside the church, “You’ll go first. Let me introduce you to Father Andronic. You will need to speak slowly and clearly to him, as he is very hard of hearing.”
Father Andronic peered at me over his glasses. “Ah! Is this daughter of Alexa?” Father bellowed.
Matushka nodded, and shouted “YES! And Victor!”
Father Andronic knew my parents?! Who would have thought?
“By the way,” she said off to the side, “When receiving Father’s blessing, either air-kiss his cuff, or kiss it quickly!” Matushka cautioned.
“Too late, he’s already clouted me!” I moaned. Matushka turned, and left me alone with the old priest. Father Andronic glared down at me over his glasses, and I hesitantly stepped up to the analogion.
Flustered, I crossed myself in front of him. Father Andronic’s gaze softened. “I am NOT icon yet.” Then he pointed gently over to the Blessing Cross and Gospel on the analogion.
Knowing he had a slew of other confessions to listen to, I placed my right hand on the Gospel. Quickly bowing my head, I fished around in my skirt pocket for the list of sins I had jotted down that afternoon on the back of convent scrap paper.
“So, WHAT sins?” Father shouted in my ear. He startled me and I dropped the list. My fat lip began to throb as I bent down and hastily scooped up my sin list. Placing my right hand on the Gospel again, I peered down at the impious inventory, and took a deep breath to start, right when Father shouted again. Rattled, I knew I would have to start before he shouted, and we interrupted each other again.
The first thing that appeared first on my list of sins was cat food? What? Cat food?
Oops. Wrong list. Wow! Although I did remember that Ksusha’s cat’s can of Fancy Feast dinner looked pretty enticing by the end of Great Lent this year… it was only a fleeting thought. Good thing we’re not our thoughts! I turned the paper over and found my real sins scribbled on the back of the convent’s old shopping list. I took a deep breath again; hoping the nuns outside couldn’t hear… and said as loudly as possible … “Pride!”
“Pride! Father, pride!”
“PRIDE?” hollered Father Andronic.
“YES, PRIDE,” I hollered back, withering a little. And so, on it went. Although Father was very helpful with his advice, I hoped the nuns were way out of hearing range. After confession, I quickly ducked, air-kissed his cuff and received his blessing. I thanked Father Andronic hoarsely, and realized he hadn’t been glaring at me at me at all. He was just trying to see me over his bifocal glasses. I was glad (?) the sin of being judgmental was already included on my list. It usually was.
The next day was Abbess Everild’s Saint’s Day, and we were invited to sing in the nun’s choir. During Divine Liturgy, Faith and Marina sang alto, and I was placed beside Mother Seraphima, a kind, compassionate, but tone-deaf soprano. I soon experienced a descriptive word which my parents sometimes used to describe certain things, podvig… a huge spiritual effort. I forced myself to try and focus on the service instead of fuming over Mother Seraphima’s voice, and was mystified that Mother Thecla the choir director couldn’t seem to hear her! Instead, Mother Thecla looked blissfully happy, as if she heard angels singing!
Over a festive lunch, Father Andronic and Matushka Everild heatedly discussed the mystery casserole we were crunching on. It was possibly a bean dish donated a decade ago by a pilgrim. It was definitely freezer burnt, tough and rubbery, but… waste not, want not!
“Beans? Old?” bellowed Father Andronic, scowling. “TOUGH! Very TOUGH!” roared Father Andronic, shaking his great lion’s mane. “Cooked TOO long!”
“DONATION beans!” Matushka explained.
“Ah! OK, then VERY good!” conceded Father.
The Saint’s Day Cake however, was delicious, and we all sang Many Years to Matushka and congratulated her.
I phoned home after lunch. Mom was resting and couldn’t come to the phone. I spoke with Dad to let him know I was well and enjoying myself. He seemed both happy and sad at the same time. I asked him to give Mom my love. He said she had a surgery date, and wanted to talk to me. I promised to call back on Tuesday.
I took a deep breath. “Dad?” I asked, “I know Mom’s not feeling well and has had bunches of tests for things, but what’s actually involved with her surgery?”
He hesitated. “Your Mom wants to tell you herself.”
“Dad, please just tell me. I need to know. I’m ready to know.”
So he did.
I felt sucker-punched. “Okay. Love you Dad.”
“Love you too, hon.”
I found Matushka and asked if I could be alone with the holy relics in the chapel for awhile. She nodded with understanding, and patted my shoulder gently as she left.
For a long time I stood quietly in the house chapel beside the reliquary. It’s always been for me hard to ask for help. I never asked for help. I like to do everything my own way. It dawned on me that even though God already knows what I need, maybe I also needed to humbly ask Him, too!
I venerated all the relics and knelt before them. Calling all to name to the best of my memory, including my own dear saint, I also especially implored the Great Martyr and Healer- St. Panteleimon, to pray to God to help my mother. “Save my Mom, God, please save her, do what is best for her.” I whispered, “Thy Will be done, dear God, please save her! Oh, Mom, I’m so, so, sorry!”
My selfishness and lack of concern, peppered with denial, must have deeply hurt Mom… Especially the way I acted before I came to the convent. Hot tears dropped silently upon the reliquary glass.
Matushka found me an hour later emotionally spent and swollen-faced. She handed me a hanky and looked deep into my eyes. “We know the problem. Now let’s get to work on the solution! Tomorrow we will have a service of supplication… a Molieben for your mother! Never forget my dear, that with God, all things are possible!”
Father Andronic led the Molieben for the health of my mother. We all sang the responses and prayed together. I knelt while Father Andronic read the Holy Gospel over me. I felt protected, and could feel the uniting power of the group come together, as we prayed with one heart and mind. “That’s the Holy Spirit,” Faith said later.
After service I thanked Father. He smiled kindly, remembering he had met my parents when they visited the convent, many years ago.
“GOOD couple,” Father reminisced. “STRONG faith. VERY Important.”
Matushka asked if we would like to go on a hike and see more of the property. Once outside, we were given walking sticks of straight, sturdy wood. Mother Stephania and Sister Juliana came along for the walk too. The five of us were led by Matushka.
We traipsed along and veered off into the dark tangle of woods. A raven called out raucously, and an errant branch reached out and scratched my cheek. The path was narrow and the ground uneven. I was glad for the support of the weathered walking stick. However, even with her stick, poor Faith tripped over an unseen rock and crashed down hard, with a yelp.
Wearing an exaggerated theatrical expression, Marina raced over. Narrowing her eyes, she sneered down at Faith, and yanked her up onto her feet, “We keep you alive to serve this ship… So row well and live, forty-one.” she rasped melodramatically.
“Wow. Gee. Thanks a lot, Squintus,” Faith muttered under her breath, smiling.
Marina and all the nuns burst out laughing at this baffling exchange.
“What ‘ya call her?” I asked Faith.
“It’s from Ben Hur!” giggled Mother Stephania.
“Ben-who?” I wondered aloud.
“Ben Hur is a him.” Sister Juliana called over her shoulder. “The old 1959 classic movie version, very tastefully done… surprised you haven’t seen it!”
I put it on my to-do list along with solving the Mother Julitta mystery.
As we emerged from the trees into a vast expanse of green pastures dotted with grazing cattle (the nuns rented out the land in the summer), I caught my breath, for it was a study in serenity. We walked slowly across the meadow heading for the woods on the other side.
Glancing back at the cattle, I shattered the idyllic scene by shouting ahead to Matushka… Proclaiming how sorry I felt for these poor beasts, because some people eat them. Matushka walked away faster, and seemed not to have heard me.
“Wait for it….” snorted Marina to Faith, “The Prokeimenon in the 9th Tone…!”
I sniffed indignantly, glared at the girls and yelled even louder at Matushka’s retreating back, “And… I’ve stopped eating red meat, because cattle have such beautiful, expressive eyes.”
Marina and Faith groaned in unison, and mockingly batted their eyelashes at me, taunting, “Bully! Bully for you!”
Something happened at the far end of the pasture. A sharp cracking noise like the sound of a large tree limb crashing, spooked the cattle. The herd stampeded directly towards us. The ground literally shook, and I stood stock-still, stunned. Feeling like I was trapped in a bad dream Matushka’s piercing voice awoke me to reality.
“Run!” shrieked Matushka, “Run to the trees!”
We tore towards the closest edge of the woods. Although I can sprint quickly, my feet felt leaden and I began to panic. Matushka grabbed me in the nick of time, and swung me in behind her. The tree trunks were small and scrubby, not offering much protection, but they were better than nothing. We crouched behind them and watched the stupid beasts careen past us, down the very path we had just come from. I wielded the walking stick out like a spear, ready to jab anything that dared come near.
“You ingrates!” I bawled after the fleeing cattle. I was furious for them to do this after we faithfully water their troughs each day!
Mother Stephania and Sister Juliana each had Faith and Marina each planted protectively behind them. Faith and Marina heaved gasps of relief.
Matushka crossed herself quietly, then looked at us all and laughed merrily. “Well… life is never dull at the convent!”
With the danger over, we too, burst out laughing.
“And, you know what? Hamburger is back on my menu!” I vowed.
We hiked on adrenaline for another hour without incident. It was fun and we chattered about everything as we walked along. I mentioned to Matushka about Mother Seraphima’s singing, and how hard it was to sing beside her. Matushka paused for a moment and simply said I was very blessed to have stood beside Mother Seraphima today, as her soul is so prayerful. God would surely hear her soul singing, over someone who might pridefully be able to carry a tune. I wasn’t sure if that was a general analogy, or aimed directly at me, but it was worth consideration.
We stopped and rested on an old, gnarly tree stump. Matushka talked a bit about the convent’s history and her life before she came to the convent so long ago.
“Tell us about your monastic name, Matushka,” asked Faith.
“Well, as you know, England was originally an established Orthodox county. It was in fact, several centuries ahead of other now well-known Orthodox countries. I am named after St. Everild, a 7th century Anglo-Saxon saint. She founded a convent in Everingham, Yorkshire, England. St. Everild came from nobility, and fled home to become a nun. We have some things in common… but that’s another story, for another time. St. Everild eventually gathered a large community of some eighty women.”
Matushka paused thoughtfully and continued, “When we enter monastic life, we leave our old self behind… including all the old joys, sorrows, virtues and sins. We start a new life, seeking to find a new relationship to all things and people in Christ… to Whom we vow our life. The taking of the monastic vow and habit are but a repetition and intensification of our baptismal vows.”
Matushka fingered her prayer rope. “One of the Optina Elders, St. Barsanuphius said: Before us all stretch out different paths, and for a few, it is the monastic way. But not all people are capable of going into a monastery; and if a person doesn’t have this desire, they shouldn’t force it.”
We absorbed this silently for awhile, and then I interrupted the tranquility. “Excluding the stampedes, it seems so peaceful at the convent. Is it always like this?”
Matushka sighed, “Abbess Thaisia of Leushino sums it up very well… If you think to find paradise on earth, even in a monastery, then you are very mistaken. Paradisiacal blessedness does not, and cannot exist on earth… because we were not created for earth; but for heaven.”
Marina cleared her throat, “Well, I DO know that this is the first time in a long time, I can hear myself think!” At first I didn’t like it… but now it’s like reconnecting with an old friend.” Then Marina added shyly, “It’s also day number three… without a cigarette!”
We all enthusiastically chimed our support, and Matushka quoted another saint. I can’t remember who it was, but he had called cigarette smoke the devil’s incense. It was then I noticed Marina’s only remaining face piercing was a tiny nose ring. Although I don’t care for piercings at all, her tiny nose stud winked prettily in the sunlight.
With humble gratitude and shining eyes, Marina asked for our continued prayers. “Please pray God releases me completely from the addiction of nicotine. It’s becoming very, very hard to kick the habit.”
“This too shall pass,” whispered Matushka working her prayer rope.
© Barbara Bruce