Friday, March 9, 2012

Monastery visit

There’s a convent on the outskirts of Minsk. We pass it occasionally, and our friend Malcolm passes it often. He’s a tour guide, and he’s trying to figure out how to entertain his clients when they stop for two nights in Minsk. This is the first year he’s talked his company into planning more than a stopover in Minsk as groups roll westward from Russia and he’s toiled at some length over the details. What seemed simple at first, entertaining guests in a city we both love, turns out to be harder than I guessed. Malcom is challenged by context, since he’s adding Minsk into a tour which already includes examples of things he’d otherwise show here. Today he invited us along as he tested an idea which looks quite promising.

Saint Elizabeth’s Convent only opened thirteen years ago, and it’s still growing. It serves a nearby mental hospital where people are treated for problems ranging from alcoholism to anorexia. Feeling that too many patients are released before they’re 100% ready to return to regular life, the church founded this adjacent women’s monastery. Novitiates learned stone carving, mosaic work and fresco techniques in order to decorate their buildings, and then they took in “graduates” from the mental hospital as apprentices. Although some of these craftsmen are still at work on monastery property, they also serve other churches by preparing mosaics and other details for installation at new churches elsewhere.

We greatly enjoyed our tour, particularly thanks to a very kind guide. Sister Yoanna spoke slowly and clearly for us, knowing that we’re fairly new at speaking Russian. She beamed sincerity, devotion and love for humanity. Naturally we all stayed on our best behavior for her. This paid off halfway through the tour, when she got special permission for us to enter the workshops. I particularly enjoyed the mosaic workshop for its display of craftsmanship and for the detailed demonstration of how they assemble the stones on palates first and then transfer them to a vertical surface. And I was very touched by the icon workshop. The nuns paint the icons in a tower turret, apart from everybody else. If they come to work in a bad mood, they don’t paint anything, but rather go down to the chapel and pray for forgiveness. Once their hearts are at peace they return, intending to convey that peace in the icons they paint. I’m still thinking with considerable appreciation about our time in the turret.
So, I think Malcolm is satisfied that he’s got an interesting tour to offer his clients. And, I’m confident that Alla and I will include the convent in any future tours we give to friends and family who come to visit us here. He found something pretty special.

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