My next stop: Suzana Monastery. The Suzana Orthodoxe Convent, hidden in a forest of beeches on the road of Valeni-Cheia gladdens the hearts of those who visit by the tranquillity that reigns here. This monastery now has 62 nuns who share in community prayer and work. I am invited to stay 3 days here. Lets see now how I can survive in a place where no one speaks English and I understand (little) their native language but cannot speak it!
The Suzana Monastery of nuns took refuge along the Teleajenului stream, some 40 km from Valenii de Munte, at the highest point of the foot of Bobul Mare. The waters of the Teleajenul, Stanca and Iepurasul come together at this monastery in the form of a cross and run off together as a single stream. From above, the settlement looks like a tiny village, a cluster of houses stuck together, as if they were afraid of flying away in a storm. The houses are attractive and well kept.
A few stories with some elderly nuns
AT THE MONASTERY, EVERYTHING HAS A PURPOSE…”Leave us be, says an elderly nun, as we have no time for posing in magazines. We have a lot of work.” She then disappears into the abbey to announce the arrival of some…guests. Out comes the Mother Superior …”Please, do come into the living room and have a syrup drink.” A homemade syrup made of caramelized sugar is brought in with glasses of water.
“Our monastery is not very well-off,” says the Mother Superior. “We work hard, there are few young nuns and quite a number of very old nuns who need our constant care like young children …”
Someone knocks on the door. A nun curtseys and kisses Mother Superior’s hand. Snatches of words, choked by timidity: “Mother Superior…the bell…blessed.”
The girls come to the monastery from places you cannot even imagine, from all over the country. They come from Sighetul Marmatiei, from Moldova. But they do not all stay here, some cannot get used to life in a monastery. First they must learn about order. The monastery has its own rules, its own system, and none can do as she pleases. And then these girls have to be taught some skill, to be useful, and they learn to weave carpets”.
HOW LADY ARSICU SURVIVED THE STORM. Suzana Arsicu, the monastery’s founder, raised a church of beams. The wealthy woman was from Sacele, in Ardeal, and this was her way of thanking God for having saved her from a storm. She was the monastery’s first Mother Superior.
The church, whose Patron Saint was St. Nicholas (Dec 6), lasted one century and was replaced by another. At that point the church council decided to change its patron to the Mother of God whose anniversary is celebrated in summer, on the 15th of August, and the monastery can be more easily reached during that season than during the winter religious festival with the snows. On the eve of the dedication, however, the sky got covered with clouds, the streams overflowed from their beds and flooded the valleys. The torrent took everyone who came for the feast by surprise, washing away all their bags, their habits, their books and their holy paraphernalia. They all escaped unharmed, and instead of holding a dedication they held a mass, to thank God for having averted the danger. They then decided that they would not change the patron Saint for the church, and celebrate on December 6, the anniversary of St. Nicholas.
Today’s church was raised between 1880-1882, during the time of a Mother Superior named Natalia Perlea. She kept the same patron, and no one has ever thought again of changing him. The monastery has another tiny church, Paraclisul, built during the time of Mother Superior Tomaida Perlea.
THIS IS MY HOME. The story of a nun: “This cannot really be called a community life, as we have little work in the field where we might meet. It is more of a solitary life. Each nun receives a house for which she is responsible. Some have novices, and when these become nuns in their own right, they take over the house. There are two or three nuns to every house. There is enough space.
The monastery courtyard is wide open, but the buildings are stuck together in such ways that the space is compact, built to last. This house and that one over there are the settlement’s oldest, dating back to around 1860. That over there is a guesthouse. It does not have a lot of rooms. From time to time officials come here and then can be befittingly received. The nuns put people up in their homes. All of them rent out rooms. But if there were some sort of organized tourism it would be difficult to keep the visitors and the monastery’s daily routine apart. There would be people coming and going in the courtyard, in the church. If we had a guesthouse separate from the monastery, things would be different.
The green house is mine. This house in which I have received you is the abbey, as the inscription shows above the door, but the green one is mine.”
NOTHING IS POSSIBLE WITHOUT HARD WORK. “I came to the monastery in 1940. Now I am 79 years old. In 1990, I offered to step down. I told them: “Perhaps you want a younger nun.” But what would a younger nun do with such a burden on her shoulders? It is a great responsibility.
The nuns earn a little money from their icons and candles…The money does not go far, as everything is expensive these days. The church walls were painted, and look how they are peeling . A company from Bucharest did the job, but they did not scrape off the old paint.
Other than that, there are some hayfields that are in the care of the people. Half belongs to them and half to the monastery. We grow potatoes as nothing else grows around here because of the weather. It rains, it is chilly…And the fruit does not last long here because of the rain.” Two nuns put aside the forks with which they were gathering grass and begin talking. The man with the scythe watches them silently.
“We used to have seven cows, but now we have five. There is a lot of work, but everything requires toil. Now we bring everything we need to the monastery by car, but for a long time we even carted things on our backs.
The work would be impossible without the help of people of means, who make contributions.” These people of means paid some workers whom the Mother Superior met at a dinner at the Archbishop’s. “Now we have some craftsmen building paths, and only when this work is finished can we send for someone to cut the grass, which has grown very long.
PEOPLE WANT TO COME STAY WITH US. The oil painting in the church is the work of Master Petre Nicolau, an apprentice of Gheorghe Tattarescu. The monastery also owns a collection of icons painted on wood and glass, numerous old books and other religious objects. The icons are finished with gilded silver.
An 18-year-old nun leads a group of children around the man-made miracles. There is not enough light, and the nun who serves as guide and is wellgrounded in modern civilization explains that the neon bulb is 60 watt while tha starter is only 20. “They need to be the the same to light properly.”
The children have written their comments in the 48-page guest book at the entrance: “This monastery is truly special,” “I visited this beautiful monastery,” “I enjoyed this visit so much as I saw very old and special things”. Mother Superior Singlitichia Marin mentions, “We must get another guest book, a real one.
For the time being the monastery has no priest. There is a priest who comes to hold services, but he is not employed permanently. He is a young priest, too young. A priest who serves at a monastery of nuns should be older. One will eventually be hired, as the need becomes evident. This is another problem that requires resourcefulness.”
On major holidays we hold services from 7:30 p.m. to around midnight. People come from town, from Valeni, even from Ploiesti, to get married or to baptize their children. At first we were criticized, and were asked why we allow people from outside the parish to come here. I replied: “What should I do? Turn them away at the gates of the monastery? The church cannot do this. You do something to encourage them to come to you, so that they no longer want to come here.” After that no one said anything anymore.”
INSIGHT, Summer 2001
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