The fire within.
Updated: Feb 9, 2020
I arrived at 4:15 pm.
I didn't want to get there after sunset, although the drive was easy. No traffic - except three cars passed me by, and only once I hit the breaks to let a cat cross the road. In the first village, a child was trying to get on the peak of the hill, and his bike made everything harder than usual, it seemed. Or the big bag-pack he was transporting from one place to another was slowing him down. He tilted his head towards backward, making sure he had enough time to overtake a parked car. He tucked down tight and bent his elbows, but the wind slowed his process. I could tell by his facial expression that he is cunningly clever - the sly smile specific to boys who have done naughty things and haven't been caught. Or if they were caught red-handed, the punishment was easy and insignificant, and one could still find a gleam of mischief in their eyes. He was around 12 years old and reminded me of Nica and his childhood stories. I smiled when I looked at him and turned the volume up on the radio. "So take a look at what you've done / 'Cause baby now we got bad blood / Now we've got problems / And I don't think we can solve 'em."
In the next village, two neighbors were discussing a burning issue. The man was on the left side of the street and had a strong opinion on the matter, as shown by his hands up in the air. The woman across from him, so on the right side of the road, was wearing a long, dark cardigan over her dress, and the plain black cotton kerchief kept her head warm. She had a hard broom in her hands, the one made of twigs tied together on a long handle, and her rushed movements stooped her posture. At some point, more out of a visible annoyance, she straightened up and peer in his direction. The man from the other side took off his dark green beanie and waved, as a last attempt to catch her attention. It seemed he had forgotten that the woman's work - the sidewalk sweeping - is important for the village's general aesthetic.
I said an imaginary goodbye to the woman and continued singing out loud: "Band-Aids don't fix bullet holes / You say sorry just for show / If you live like that, you live with ghosts / If you love like that, blood runs cold."
The sign road showed that I will have to turn right and follow another countryside road. I was not on a strict schedule, and I enjoyed that feeling of freedom. I looked at the sky and thought to myself it's an excellent way to end the year. I wanted to stop to take a picture, but I was in too much awe to make a pause. So I kept driving forward, looking towards the sun that soon was about to go down.
I left my bags on the back seat after I parked the car and opened the big wooden door. I entered the courtyard with hope and content, searching for someone to talk to.
"God bless," said a ringing voice.
"God bless," I answered back. "I'm looking for Maica Mina."
"Ooooh, she was eaten by a fox."
"All of her?" I asked, laughing. "Are you sure there's not at least half of her left?"
"Okay, she's around here somewhere."
We were near the kitchen and the woman I was talking to asked with the same steady voice.
No answer. The lights were on, so someone should have been in the kitchen.
"Who's there?" She asked again louder.
"Us." Said at the same time four voices.
And one face appeared after the drapes were out of the way. And then another face and then one hand opened the windows. It was hard to understand which hand was whose and I looked at the three heads that were smiling at me.
"She," and the woman pointed at me, "wants to talk to Maica Mina."
"Maica Mina is resting, what is this about?"
"Well, I want to spend a couple of nights here. I was wondering if today is a good day to come. I didn't call beforehand."
"So, you want to spend New Year's Eve with us?"
"I would like that very much."
"Oh, how much joy. How much joy! Of course, you can stay. Are you hungry?"
"I'm fine. Thank you."
The smiles from the kitchen were genuine, and I didn't know how to react, so I just stood there, staring. It was like seeing old friends - or family - whom you haven't seen in ages and are happy to see you. But I haven't met these women before, and this joy they were experiencing was something new for me. It wasn't politeness or fake smiles. It was gratitude, the type of gratitude that touches your heart too. After I understood that, I smiled back, and one of them showed me the way to the church. "You will wait there until Maica Mina comes to talk to you. The room is too cold to be in at the moment. You can read something in the church for a bit, and at six, you will have dinner. How does that sound?"
"It sounds like a good plan."
I said hello to the sister in the church, and the same joy inundated the space between us. "You're here for the mass?"
I nodded in agreement.
"How much joy!"
I received a book about the life of a saint, and a couple of minutes later - ten or twenty, or maybe more - someone asked me from afar what am I reading. I explained in a loud voice, and then she asked: "Where are you from?"
I couldn't see her face - the church was in complete darkness, and a few candles were throwing a soft glow, and my reading lamp was only illuminating my book.
"So it is you! You're here."
And then I recognized Maica Mina.
"I'm so happy!"
"You said I could come to spend some nights here. So here I am."
"I did. You're here more than a couple of hours then?"
"If there is a place for me here, yes."
"Of course there it is. Come, I'm going to show you to your room! You'll need to make the fire in the stove furnace. These are the guest rooms. There's no central heating here. And the bathroom is here; there's no hot water unless we make the fire and..." She looked at me to see if I was bothered by these inconveniences.
I wasn't. "All good. I'm here to pray."
I knew it's not going to be easy, but when I heard that one of my favorite priests is officiating, I was determined to stay for as long as I could.
The only problem was that I was going to have a roommate, a woman I met at dinner time. She had a long, thin, pointed nose, and the pale blue eyes weren't balancing her long face. I could only read pain, suffering, and discomfort in her. She was around 75 years old, and I didn't want to make any type of conversation. I was there to pray, and nothing more.
"I'm fasting, so the meal has to be vegan," she said to the nun who brought us food.
"Everything is vegan," the sister replied.
It's not like in a convent you have the meal of the day or get to pick from a fancy menu. You eat what's on the table, or you don't, the rules for guests are simple. "Ciorba de cartofi" was the first meal. Tasty, but not delicious - potatoes, water, oil, and some herbs.
My soon-to-be roommate asked me to taste the second course - rice with potatoes - and see if it's vegan. "You can tell from the taste," she said. She was staring at me, wanting to find a clear answer, so I didn't repeat what the nun who brought us the food already said.
"It's rice with oil and salt, and here are some pickles. All vegan."
I ate a bit, although it wasn't delicious by any means.
"Can I have tea?" My roommate asked after finishing the meal.
"Here's some dessert. Also vegan." The sister said.
"Uuuhm, the food was delicious," my roommate added after she received her tea.
"Delicious, you say?! It's only rice; I wouldn't call that delicious." The votaress concluded.
I only said "thank you for dinner" and grabbed a piece of "cozonac."
And now the story began to be unwrapped. My roommate told me that she was sick for the Christmas holidays, and probably God is punishing for her sins. I didn't ask why or how, but she didn't care. She had a story to tell, and I was her only audience.
<how could I know anything about her?!? I just met her. Agh.>
"...so I didn't receive any visitors and decided to eat the oranges by myself."
<what a boring story>
"But I don't think they were fresh, and I ate them all. It was more than a kilo."
"So I think God is punishing me for my sins. My sins."
<Again with the sins. No! Don't put this on God. You decided to eat one kilo of not-so-fresh oranges. God gave you free will; He didn't force you to eat anything. Your decision!! Yours and only yours.>
"But I shouldn't have eaten them all. But they were sweet. But not fresh."
<I'm sorry, you must confuse me with your diary. Why do you think I care about your bad eating habits? Are you looking for medical advice? For compassion? For me to say: "I'm sorry you got sick for Christmas?!" I won't give you anything that you so needy demand.>
"Next time you'll buy from another supermarket." That's all I said. It was my first evening at the convent, and I didn't want to allow anyone to ruin this for me. I was there to pray. And hopefully to find some answers.
<again with this you know. I do not know and don't want to know.>
"... I'm going to go up and lay down for a while."
<...I wanted to do the same.>
"The room is still cold, though. We just made the fire," I said.
"I don't care."
There was still a bit of smoke inside the 5sqm room, and I wanted to open the small window for some fresh air. She disagreed.
"But there's smoke inside," I argued.
To no prevail.
"But cold air will come from outside. It's freezing," muttered the stranger woman.
"Winter is like that." <duuuh! Am I talking to a five-year-old?!>
I wasn’t allowed to open the window, and she insisted on putting another log in the ceramic furnace.
"There's no more room for another wood. I will take care of it later."
"Oooh, excuse me. I didn't want to offend you. I just want to make sure we have burning coals for when we get back. And the more coals, the better."
"You can't put everything at once in, plus, I will be here before the mass, I will make sure the fire will be burning continuously."
"But, the ceremony starts in 15 minutes."
"No, it starts in two hours and 15 minutes. It starts at 21:00."
"Ooh, so there's enough time for a nap. Did you come by car?"
"I did, yes." I heaved a sigh, which might have been called a groan if one was paying attention.
"I have no connection to my city, and I want to leave tomorrow."
"I'm not leaving so soon, and I'm sure you can find a ride, just pay attention to the people tomorrow. Ask around."
"So you're staying? Until the 2nd? Or 3rd?"
"I don't know yet. It depends." <and I don't want to tell you. Why do you need to know!?!>
I turned off the light not before she complained that the room is so cold, she needs to put her black woolen coat on the cover to have more layers on her. I didn't need a narrator as her bed was 50 cm away from mine, but she didn't care.
"Can you please wake me up if I don't hear the bells?"
"Sure. I put the alarm at 8:30 pm."
I answered politely, and in a low voice, because I made a promise to myself - no one will ruin this night for me.
Two hours later, I called her name twice before she woke up and told her I am leaving for the mass. It was 8:50, and I was ready to pray.
The ceremony started at nine sharp, and the church was covered in darkness. Only the candles threw some light, and the choir of the convent began singing. The first two hours flew by as I was singing and praying and watching the show of lights that was going on. Some prayers were said with all the lights on, some only with a small candle next to a book and some with a small and centered light, that was coming from the ceiling. It was all beautiful. The lyrics, the calm and warm voice of the priest, the high pitched voices of the choir. At 23:30, we went to our first blessing. As we were waiting in line, the murmur of short prayers was musical. And then the second mass started. It lasted two hours more, and I was exhausted at the end. It was still lovely, no doubt, but I am no longer used to praying late at night. I only wanted to sleep and keep the peace I found in my soul.
Back in our room, we returned to 26+ degrees. I couldn't breathe, so I waited for my roommate to go to the toilet and opened the window. Fresh air rushed to my face, and I was genuinely excited. I pulled a 9 to 2. I started 2020 praying. My roommate came back after I closed the window, and she complained that the church wasn't warm enough.
"I disagree, I had to take off two layers," I said in a very calm voice.
"No," she insisted. "It was cold. And I didn't take a vest, as you did. And you had two pairs of socks. I didn't think about this. It's hard to carry so many layers when you're not coming by car."
"The vest is my brother's; it's longer at the back. And the car is not mine. And yes, I did bring two pairs of socks, as it is winter and -10 degrees." Again, I had the feeling I'm talking to a child. But then...
"If you may allow, tomorrow I want to wake up earlier to pray. And the church doesn't open before 8:30. I'm afraid I will wake you up."
"I'm pretty sure it does. You can go to church at 8."
"No, it doesn't open. I was here..." and she continued talking and I stopped listening.
<She will not ruin my joy. It's not like I can stop her from waking up early, but she will not ruin my happiness.>
I turned my back to her, hoping she will turn off the light soon. She was on her phone, but I wanted to get as much sleep as I could. I fell asleep in a heartbeat but woke up in those five and a half hours of sleep a couple of times. She went to the bathroom, making a lot of noise while exiting and entering the room, she snored lightly - but when you're 50cm away, you hear everything. I heard her jaw clenching and plate moving in her mouth, but luckily I fell back asleep. When the morning came, the noise was louder: the undressing and going to the bathroom and looking for the book of prayers; and then the light on, precisely in my face. I was sleeping in the bed next to the inner wall, and the lightbulb was on that wall. I looked at the clock: "7:48." I was awake for at least 20 minutes, and I used every piece of energy I had not to get annoyed. I didn't want to consider her options or why she decided her time is more important than mine. I just didn't think. I got dressed and went out the door without saying good morning.
The church's bells rang at 8 am, and that meant the church was calling us to prayer time. I didn't even tell her that. I didn't care that I was right. I just wanted to pray.
I found it harder to concentrate during the four hours of ceremony, and the church was full. In the beginning, my roommate was sitting next to me, and I dreaded that but wished she will move or someone else will come between us. I didn't want to move. I found my praying spot, and I was the first to arrive in the space near the small windows. Thoughts flew throughout my head as a reminder that the new year is here. During the night ceremony, I was in another world, a world with happiness and blessings. But during the day, as more people arrived, I remember all the things I need to do. So every time my thoughts were wandering, I gently returned to prayer. It was demanding, as the lack of proper sleep kept making me yawn, but I was determined to stay awake. I was there to pray.
After the mass, I met a dentist who knows my father well. I went to him a couple of times when I was a child, and I remember him calling me "doll" all the time. I said hello and hugged him. We exchanged pleasantries, and he said laughing, "I can't believe it's still you. You're the same baby doll."
"I did change a bit, though. I wore braces, and my teeth are all aligned." And I smiled broadly.
He laughed and wished me a good year ahead, not before asking me if I'm married.
"No, I'm not."
He looked a bit disappointed, as he always wished me good and now he was afraid I'm not happy. I smiled as we both know marriage doesn't always equal happiness.
"But I will take care of myself in Germany, I promise," I said and then returned to the line to receive the blessing. The priest asked me why do I look so familiar. I explained with a smile.
"Is your name Anca?"
"You look shorter and younger," he laughed.
"I would like to talk to you if you have time later. I'm here all day. Pax huic domui."
"Et omnibus habitantibus in ea," replied the priest in a lower tone.
And he found time, so we talked and made some jokes, and I confessed it's been too long since I asked for his advice. I had this whole speech prepared, but I heard myself talking about something else instead. I wanted to ask about spiritual awakening and means of climbing the stairs to heaven, but I spoke about my career, my friends in Berlin, my job, and my wishes. But then he asked me about my romantic relationships, and I shrugged my shoulders. I didn’t want to talk about that, but he asked and I started confessing.
"I haven't found anyone to make it worthwhile. The first one I cared about thinks he's better than me because he has a Ph.D. and I only have a master degree...and the second one, well, he didn't want to have a family with me. And I don't want to waste my time...and, and..."
I paused because I knew he knew, and it was no point in hiding: "...and the last one I was in love with is a liar. He doesn't find anything wrong with lying as long as it benefits him...and I don't understand how one can and likes to live in a big pile of lies." I sighed, remembering what Dostoyevsky once wrote:
"Above all, don't lie to yourself. The man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to a point that he cannot distinguish the truth within him, or around him, and so loses all respect for himself and for others. And having no respect he ceases to love."
He didn't say a word, and I was trying to find mine. We had this conversation a couple of years back, I quoted Fyodor and the priest quoted the bible. But in this moment, it seemed that silence was saying more than words could ever tell.
<I wanted to tell him how much his prayers helped me, I tried to tell him how I became a better human since he last saw me. I wanted to thank him for his unconditional support. I couldn't open my mouth and speak. If I would have said all of that, then more should have been said. And that "more" meant we will have to go back to our first conversation, when I confessed that I can’t stand liars and hypocrites. I can’t stand them to the thin line of hate. And if I start hating someone then I hate myself for caring bad feelings in my heart and then I’m in a incessant pain. I rather spend my time cultivating love than hate.>
"How many times should I forgive?" I asked after a while.
"70 times 7, Ioana. Forgive as much as you want God to forgive you."
<I wanted to tell him that I forgave enough until now.>
But as he could read my mind, he continued: "Oh, Ioana. If you knew how much God forgives us...you wouldn't ask this question. It's like someone owns me 10 euros, and I don't want to forgive this debt. While I know I own God billions."
It didn't seem fair to me. I am a good person. A good person and God should take notice of all the good things I've done. The priest looked at me with kindness and repeated the example with money. He knew I was troubled.
"It's hard, though... it's hard to forgive sometimes."
"I know it is." He smiled again.
Our talk was cut short by another woman named Ioana, and the priest went into his room to get some rest.
I also went to my room and I enjoyed being by myself. I replayed the whole conversation with the priest - it was an intense talk; and I was thankful for being there. On the 1st of January the ceremony started at 10pm and lasted until 4am. It was too much for me and I went to sleep long before the nuns did. But I was there to pray before going to sleep.
That was my plan for New Year’s Eve and the goal for New Year. To pray more and to love more.
Having a roommate again reminded me that we can not escape people, no matter where we go. There are some that come into our life for a brief moment and we get to decide how much we connect with them. I was reminded that the plans we make at home are not the same in the outside world. And I’m learning how to be thankful for that. I wasn't expecting such an incredible welcoming experience, although it’s not my first time in a convent or a monastery. But I know for certain that prayers are powerful and strangers can bring peace into your soul.
I know there is mercy and love in this God-given world. And I found out that being next to God is similar to the moment when you sit in front of a fire in winter - you are just there in front of the fire. You don't have to be smart or anything. The fire warms you. And God loves you. And how lovely it is to be loved.