Next year mom heard that one could be very well lodged at Văratec, some of her colleagues were there and came back very well impressed. That was one of the Romanian monasteries that had as rule the “life on self” (viața de sine) as opposed to what most of the Orthodox and all Catholic monasteries lead “life in common” (viața de obște). The second way is well known from books and movies, the nuns and monks live in seclusion sharing most of the activities: eating, working, praying, the chores of the monastery. The “life on self” monastery is actually a village, larger or smaller depending on the number of nuns who owned houses and historically depending on the lands donated to the monastery by medieval or later nobles. One, two, three nuns share the same household and work together in a relatively strict discipline and hierarchy. You can often see an old nun that leads the house-farm and one or two young novices living together and making the things to get done. A few of these monasteries accepted paying guests. My grandmother wrote then a very dignified and nice letter to the Patriarchy to ask for us to be accepted there.
You didn’t really need the Patriarchy acceptance, anyone could just go to the monastery and ask if there is any nun that could lodge them. My grandmother still thought it would be better if we had an official recommendation mentioning some of her ancestors. The nuns were all friendly and kind to their guests, but they would not accept anyone who seemed suspicious from any point of view and no single man. You were given a room and the nuns would clean after you, they would also cook anything you would like to buy from the local market using their own vegetables. They would have asked for sugar, flour, oil since they produced very little liquidity and they couldn’t afford to buy those things from the market.
The drive from Piatra Neamț to Văratec was an enchanted trip. All around you the hills were rounded with smooth untouched hardwood forests that filtered the light creating a vaporous world that would remind me of Lizuca and other fairy tales characters. Then the road would cross Văratec village and end at the monastery gate, a large white building with the bell tower arch smoothly engulfing the road. To the left there was another path leading up on the hill where many other nuns houses laid and at the corner, the post office. In front of it children and women were selling woodland strawberries.
We used to have small bushes of these small fruits back in the days when we still lived at Hălmagiu. They were the certain sign that the winter was definitely over. They loved the shadow and the coolness of the mountainsides. In the forest you may see clearings covered in these low bushes not much higher than your ankles, all green like any other plants around, but when you bent down to see closer you’ll discover the small red and white small fruits so fresh to the palate that there is a good chance you’ll find yourself still hunting for them after hours when your back starts hurting. They had a hidden sweetness with a delicate, subtle perfume that you couldn’t feel if your nose wasn’t right next to them. They would leave your senses craving after each and every one, never satisfying you, more a temptation than a real food. Compared to them the fat, sweetly smelling strawberries we found at times in Bucharest markets seemed vulgar. The wood strawberries were hard to preserve as their decay started in a couple of hours after gathering so seldom you could see people making any preserves of them. These people were selling them in small paper twists often made of written school notebooks. I don’t think we ever passed them without buying one.
The middle of the monastery was an oval centered on the main church circled by an alley contoured by thick flower layers. All around it there were the main buildings: the abbess’ house, the museum, the refectory (used mostly at holidays to feed visitors), the house of chamberlain mother where we were lodged, the chancellery, all low white buildings drawn in green waves of vegetation with other waves of flowers in front of each of them. Yellows, reds and oranges would explode every other step you took on the alley. We visited the monastery in spring, summer and autumn: somehow the glorious exultation of flowers never ended. Most villages I’ve seen were good friends of flowers, I still remember the best flower garden of our Hungarian pharmacist friend back in Hălmagiu. If not a flower garden at least some pots in front of the windows. But I have never seen such a powerful outburst of colors like in the Romanian nuns monasteries.
The church itself, bright white with 2 cylindrical towers didn’t seem completely separated from nature, more like a natural form somewhere between the trees and the flowery bushes. On the West side was the main entrance, on the East corner a seated statue of a princess of old times, Safta Brancoveanu[i] who distributed all her wealth to various Christian and humanitarian institutions to end as a nun in this monastery.
As we arrived for the first time we timidly presented us to the gatekeeper. “From Bucharest, said that one, and where is your car?” We laughed politely while in his sight, then guffawed freely when out of his sight. A car? Why, all Bucharest people were supposed to own cars? Only later we understood what sort of visitors the monastery had, at least those who inhabited the houses next to the main church. We had taken a bus like everyone else, but in the years to come we realized it wasn’t that expensive, instead much more comfortable to take a taxi from Piatra Neamt.
We lodged in the chamberlain mother’s house and our holiday started. Before every service one nun would surround the church while striking her semantron with a small mallet. In the silence of the monastery the wooden percussion resounded strange and out of this world. I still wonder how much of the semantron melody was learnt and how much was a free variation because it never sounded quite the same and some nuns seemed to have more skill than others. Soon after the sounds were heard groups of nuns would rush towards the church. We didn’t wake up that early as to go to the church in the morning and I don’t think the semantron managed to even wake us up but in the evening we went almost every day. The service was normal, like in any other churches, but the music had a powerful charisma, the nuns voices created a harmony we only found in concert halls before.
Little did we know how new all this in Varatec was. We had noticed how young was the abbess, contrary to the feeling you had, seeing Bucharest churches populated only by old people, but we didn’t know even half of the story. From 1948 to 1959 a series of presidential decrees emptied the Romanian monasteries. First they made an apparently sensible law forbidding minors, people who didn’t graduate their first 7 grades, and convicted persons to join a monastery. What the law didn’t say was that the monasteries were a refuge for many political convicts, that most of the peasant population had graduated maximum 4 grades and that a lot of times monasteries were the best choice for orphans, out of the wedlock and abandoned children.
The next decree forbid straightforward men under 55 and women under 50 to join any monasteries, and even so only if they previously gave up to their pensions. The law never once worried that a 55 years old monk who would give up his pension (which represented at the end of the day his lifelong contribution to the “state pensions fund”) would have no source of cash whatsoever because monasteries weren’t paying a salary for the mere fact someone wanted to be a member.
The decrees not only aimed to destroy any monachal life but it challenged the constitution by being applied retroactively and strongly reinforced by the Police and Securitate. Therefore most of the monks and nuns (around 4700 people the documents say) had to leave their convents without any clear direction to go.
Without our knowledge we were witnessing a sort of silent revolution. Nobody abrogated those decrees until late 2009 but the young abbess, supported by the Patriarch was silently rebuilding the abbey under a forgetful eye of the authorities who were using the monastery themselves to prove to foreigners the freedom we were all enjoying.
The Patriarch himself was a hybrid. If you remember the little story of my grandfather ordering a locksmith to cut the chains around the feet of Gheorghe Gheorghiu Dej, the same Dej, together with another communist, evaded in 1944 from a prison and were hidden for some days in the house of an Orthodox country priest. As early as 1945 that particular priest was step by step promoted to a position where he could follow the actual Patriarch Romania had all through the war. By 1948 the 83 old Patriarch dies and the newly “prepared” one follows. He was supposed to support without hesitation the communist regime indications and even to tighten our connections with Moscow.
Still without being a dissident or straightening the church position in any way, he did protest against the decrees and slowly encouraged the clergy to avoid, dodge or even disobey the law. For example many of the nuns had their own house within the monastery, their own property. Consequently whether the law named them “nuns” or not, the law couldn’t oblige them to leave it, as they couldn’t force them not to follow the rites in the privacy of their own homes. On the other side a lot of monasteries had large weaving, wood processing, printing and painting workshops. For a first step these were administratively separated from the abbey, as independent, and the ex-monks or nuns continued to be hired in them.
By 1974-80 when we spent our holidays there, the monastery was back in full function and didn’t even need to pretend the workshops weren’t theirs. It is also true that the state made good money out of the work of their hands selling their carpets, paintings and other art items for hard currency. Another considerable revenue source for the monastery but also for the state were the museums. Since the abbeys were some of the oldest repositories of ancient documents, in folios and printings, of medieval ritual clothes and objects, their museums were encouraged to become bright and open touristic attractions. It felt bright but at the end of the day, at least the abbess and some other few educated nuns knew it was all illegal, tolerated activity.
The new abbess was the first one with a theological degree, with years spent in Jerusalem at the Romanian Mission, a clever, educated and stern personality who managed to create a working monastery in a communist country where, formally at least, she shouldn’t been able to lead even an hermitage. I am convinced that she had to be a cunning politician, at least in her early years to get to graduate theology first and then manage to be sent to Jerusalem. A nun wasn’t just sent to the seminary because she wished so, or just because she was clever. But no matter her politics, it was enough to see the nuns’ everyday faces to realize how much good she brought to these people.
Because that was probably the first and strongest impression that stroke you when entering the monastery: their faces. They weren’t roaming on the alleys to see them all the time. Actually nuns, excepting the museum guide and those who were selling candles, weren’t too kin to chat with visitors. But coming from Bucharest, it was strange to meet so many smiling figures. The normal person on the city streets was serious and a bit grim. These nuns somehow were not living in the same world with us. And I am not talking about brainwashed idiots. Don’t imagine elated absent figures praying all day long, please.
All of them were working hard. The chamberlain mother with many others was working straight on the field all day and came home only at evening full of dirt and dust, others were weaving their carpets, others doing the house chores. Many were spending hours in the music school. Their praying was so discrete that you wouldn’t happen to see any of them executing any ritual outside her room or the church. I can’t remember any of them trying to assassinate us with Bible quotes or even bringing our faith in discussion. It was the way of life they had chosen and they were literally happy with it in the same way only few teachers, doctors and engineers were in the big city. Certainly happier than most bureaucrats or people in small unintended jobs, even if same tired in their evenings.
Once people started to know them closer, and in such environment it was unavoidable a lot of times, some became disillusioned because nuns are not saints, nor angels, some of them liked to gossip, there are among them some who try to bully others which in a society based on ritual obedience isn’t that hard after all. There are some who cannot entirely abandon their laic habits. I remember somewhere I met a nun who couldn’t make herself to forget smoking. There are others who try to get power. They are just humans. They did chose a different life style, a life style valid though for thousands of years, and a life style that by itself alone didn’t ever transform the human nature.
The chamberlain mother had two helpers: sister Natalia and sister Rodica. Sister Natalia became one of my best friends over time and when she moved to a different monastery we followed her and spent our holidays there. Sister Rodica was extremely young, probably 17-18, remarkably beautiful and eager to laugh. Years later I found out that sister Natalia always wanted to be a nun and when her family decided to marry her by force she went through the marriage ceremony and ran the same evening to the closest monastery. She could barely write a letter but she was clever and had an impressive wisdom and calm in all her doings. She must’ve been around 30 when we first met her. She was following the music school of the abbey and when she moved to Dragomirna (the other monastery, more to the North) she started giving herself lessons. She had a profound knowledge of Byzantine monodal music and its notation and a clear, defined voice with a particular timbre. She could decipher the hardest music sheets and people came to her for explanations. When for some reason she was forbidden to give these lessons in Dragomirna she started making audio cassettes with the service songs and sometimes explanations which she gave to the younger sisters who wanted to learn.
At any rate I was only 8 and sister Natalia found somehow the time and pleasure to chit chat with me while doing her chores. She was a tall, slender, bony figure with bright eyes and wonderful Moldavian accent. After a while she taught me to sing Our Father, a different variant from those sung in Bucharest, extremely interesting for me. Mom added some voice control lessons. She had studied canto as a teenager and knew how was best to breath, where from your body to direct the sound, how to get even low notes from a child breast.
At that time I had an incredibly thin voice due to the recent removal of my tonsils. One of my mother’s favorite funny stories was that during some evening we lost one from the other. Most probably mom chatted with some nun while I was wandering away. Looking around and not seeing me anymore mom worried and started shouting after me: Nora, Nora! I wasn’t too far, still in the center of the abbey and I heard her. So I started to shout back: Here, here! But because of my unusual sharp thrill mother didn’t think that was me, or that was a human voice for that matter. She took it for some bird noise as many birds were singing now their “evening prayer” (as my grandma used to say). As a result she panicked completely for some minutes until I managed to get back to her.
Anyway sister Natalia asked me if I wouldn’t like to sing “Our Father” on Sunday mass in church which I accepted enthusiastically. Like many Orthodox people, we usually didn’t attend the Sunday mass in its entirety, mainly because it’s very long (several hours), it implies standing most of the time (and my mother suffered from varicose), and usually happened in a crowded church where little oxygen was left to be breathed especially for people 45 inches long. The abbey church on Sunday was much more crowded than the Bucharest ones. Not only the nuns and visitors were present, but tens of people living around the monastery would dress in their best clothes and come to the service. Nobody was wearing those days the Romanian traditional costumes except on television, but for the Sunday service you could see a good number of people, mainly men, dressed in their traditional and probably ancient hats and sheepskins over incredibly white shirts decorated around the wrists.
When time for Our Father came sister Natalia gave me a nod and I started singing as loud as I was able. Soon I started to realize that from the right choir there were voices accompanying me, deep manly ison as if produced by a single note on a double bass. The melody which wasn’t too flourished and seemed pretty straight when I sung it on my own, all of a sudden got complexity and depth from the contrast between the thin child voice and the profound sound of the ison, all multiplied by the church resonance. I finished the song without failure and I saw two or three young monks in the right choir smiling. Sister Natalia told me then they were Greek theology students visiting the monastery and they decided to accompany me.
The church was though only some 20% of our life there. Every day we would stroll around seeing more of the abbey that was stretched over several hills all covered in the small nuns households, each with its flowery bursting front garden and it’s vegetables back garden. There were two other smaller churches, each a history lesson in itself, because they were made by old nobles who lived centuries ago in those lands. My favorite place was the river and my own little dam. As you left the monastery center using the back door and walked over a small hill there was a thin river flowing in complete solitude. The woods weren’t far, the last houses of the abbey were maybe 1500 feet behind, we seldom met anyone there. Just the river, the stones and the birds voices from the forest edge. I could have spent days there. And I probably did. I built a full dam and played with the water that gathered in a pond after my brave construction was finished but I am not very sure what occupied my time to that extent that I was asking mom over and over to go there.
In the evening we got to see other people hosted at the same chamberlain mother. Mom was delighted. She got to meet the widow of a well-known Romanian novelist (Ionel Teodoreanu) and the daughter of another famous writer (Mihail Sadoveanu). I liked them and particularly Mrs. Teodoreanu was nice to me. I remember the tiny old lady teaching me how to braid a wreath of daisies that grew wildly everywhere. However obviously I was too young for them so my best friend remained sister Natalia.
The next year we came together with the family of one of my mother’s colleagues. They had a boy smaller than me and we easily became friends. They lived on the hill in one of the nuns houses, we were again at the chamberlain mother’s house. Together we became more daring. At first we crossed the birch forest to reach the closest abbey: Agapia (Built around 1642). It was organized similarly to Varatec. The church was the main stop there as it was painted by the most famous Romanian painter, Nicolae Grigorescu when he was only 20 years old. The paintings respect only in part the Orthodox painting canon, their depth and the faces reminded me more of the Catholic religious representations I’ve seen in Bucharest at Sf. Iosif cathedral or in my many art albums. Mom was ecstatic and never ended explaining to me all we were seeing, from the differences in conception to the models who were actual monks, nuns and villagers contemporary with the painter. There was even a self-portrait as prophet Daniel.
Armed with several jars of rose petals jam we had bought from the nuns, we continued our walk to the Agapia Veche abbey, a smaller, monks monastery deep in the mountain. This time we, the kids, weren’t that happy anymore as our legs started to hurt. Among the monks there was a famous chiropractor and the boy’s parents wanted him to try and help straightening his legs. The little monastery felt mysterious. No woman was allowed to remain there over night and they didn’t accept long time visitors. My mom’s colleague and her husband went to visit the chiropractor and I was quite terrified by the shrills the boy was giving off during the session. I am not sure if it helped him but for sure it didn’t do anything bad since he is still alive and very healthy as I speak. Someone told me there a fuzzy legend about their first church which for some hidden, unknown sin had sunk slowly. Only some tower top remained to remind them. The new church was erected and women were forbidden ever since to spend the night on the abbey grounds.
The walk through the white forest to Agapia was though the best part of our expedition and we did it again all the way to the rose petals jam source or just aimlessly wandering through the forest admiring the place.
[i] Baneasa Safta Bracoveanu, rough equivalent of an earl or duchess