My family spent our summer vacation this year at a monastery. It was quite a surprise to my brother and me when Mom and Dad told us where we were going. My brother is only five and he had never heard the word monastery before. As a matter of fact, he thought Mom said, "monster-soary" and he got all excited thinking that we were going to visit a fantasy land. I'm ten and I had heard of monasteries but I really didn't know that to expect,
We arrived on Monday afternoon. A nun greeted us at the door and showed us the church before taking us to our rooms at the guest house. The church was rather tiny - much smaller than our parish at home. It had no pews but "stalls" around the walls, The nun explained that the services are quite long and the stalls make standing a little more comfortable. The stalls have a little seat that drops down for the parts of the service when the nuns can sit.
The walls of the church were covered with large icons. The nun told us she would speak to my brother and me about the meaning of each icon later in the week. I could recognize three of the icons which we had already studied in Sunday School.
My brother and I really liked the guest house. There are four bedrooms and lots of hiding places. Because there were other guests, our family stayed together in one big room, called St. Herman's room. The other rooms are named for St. Innocent, St. Juvenaly and St. Peter. They are all Orthodox saints who lived in America. St. Peter [the Aleut] was a little boy who died as a martyr. My brother and I peeked into St. Peter's room. It was very tiny and had an icon of St. Peter in it.
My family went to Vespers. The church was quite dark and lit only with candles. All the nuns went to the Abbess and kissed her hand and then went to their places in the front of the church. The nuns took turns reading and singing. One nun served in the altar like an altar boy! One tiny old nun who doesn't speak much English stayed in the back of the church and silently read her prayers in Romanian. She offered me her little stool to sit on. I enjoyed watching the nuns during the service. They wear long black robes and some have a black rope around their wrists. I wasn't sure what that was.
After Vespers all the guests ate supper with the nuns. During supper, the Abbess answered our questions. She said the rope around their wrist is called a prayer rope. Actually, it's not a real rope but a string of knots. It is worn by nuns to remind them to pray all the time, Sometimes they` say a very short prayer for each knot. She taught me the words of the prayer: "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner." I noticed at supper that the nuns didn't talk much. I think maybe they were praying silently.
After supper one of the young nuns took us for a walk to the cemetery. We saw some very beautiful flowers and said a short prayer at the graves. Nuns and priests are buried there.
Later at night, the nuns were going to have another service but Mom and Dad thought we were too tired and put us to bed. I wondered what it was like to pray in the church so late at night. I bet it's like Pascha/Easter - that's the only time I go to church so late at night.
One afternoon a nun asked for a blessing to teach me how to make a prayer rope. She explained that in the monastery everything has to be done with the Abbess' blessing - that means you have to ask permission. Making a prayer rope is pretty hard but the nun helped me make three knots. By the end of the week she helped me make a little blue prayer rope of my own.
At lunch one day the Abbess gave my little brother a blessing to eat his cake before he finished his soup. I don't think my mom liked that blessing but in a monastery the Abbess is in charge of everything!
My brother really liked the monastery. He helped the nuns ring the big bells before the services. In the evening he was trying to catch fire flies while a nun watered the garden.
The nuns work pretty hard. Everybody has a job and I got to help a few of them. I liked weeding the flowers. The nun I was helping told me that the flowers are planted for the Mother of God. The Mother of God likes to visit monasteries. We never saw her but everybody knew she was there.
One day I helped a nun dry dishes. It was a real nice day and I wanted to hurry up so I could go outside. But the nun taught me that all the work in the monastery is very important because it is done for Jesus Christ. Then I tried to dry the dishes real well to make Jesus happy.
It was fun helping the nuns but my mother told me sometimes I should play by myself because sometimes the nuns like to be quiet and pray while they work. I wondered how anybody could find so much to talk to God about. Later I asked a nun and she said that you can talk to God about anything, just like you talk to your best friend, but prayer isn't just talking; sometimes it's nice just to be quiet and listen to God. I never thought of it that way before.
On Thursday, my parents and I went to Confession to the monastery priest. The priest is very tall. I was a little scared but he explained everything to me and I understood more about loving God. I think everybody at the monastery loves God because it is such a very special place.
My brother and I were very sad on Saturday when it was time to leave. I started to cry, The nuns hugged me and invited me to come back again. They said they would pray for me and my family. Every night I pray for the nuns. I can hardly wait to visit them again.
Reprinted with permission from Life Transfigured - A Journal of Orthodox Nuns, Vol. 23, #2, Summer 1991, pp.15-17, published by the Orthodox Monastery of the Transfiguration, Ellwood City, PA.
© 1998 by Orthodox Family Life and the original
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