Contributed by Carmen Cox. Check out more of their posts from this summer here.
Recently, I met a Serbian woman who was kind enough to share with me a bit of her personal experience with God and Greek convents. I usually have a small amount of reservation when people share their self-perceived religious experiences; most of the time they sound like they’re either reading from a script or just really, really crazy. But she did not sound like either.
About a week or so ago, I went on a hike with my DukeEngage group in Fruška Gora, a mountain near Novi Sad in northern Serbia. We were to hike up to two monasteries, tucked away between trees and creeks and bugs. One of our hiking guides was Tamara and along the way, she began to tell me of how she unintentionally ended up living in a convent in Greece for a year. The circumstances were more than a bit horrible. She told me that she had only gone for holiday to Greece but once she tried to return home to Serbia, she found that she could not enter her country due to the violence that had erupted. (Unfortunately, I cannot remember what the exact circumstances were- if the events she was referring to was perhaps the NATO bombing or the ethnic cleansing that was taking place in Kosovo or something else entirely. What is perhaps even more unfortunate is the fact that there were a number of violent outbreaks that had occurred in Serbia during the 1990s to which she could have been referring.)
She went on to tell me that a convent in Greece offered her a place to live for as long as she needed a place to stay. It was, understandably, not an easy transition; although she described herself as religious, it was still a radical change to anything she had experienced before and the knowledge of what was happening in her home country must have made it even more difficult. Tamara did not have many people to talk to as she did not know how to speak Greek and the nuns in the convent did not know Serbian or English. The nuns did not see talking as much of a virtue so they were not particularly chatty anyway. However, Tamara said they were considerate enough to bend this rule so that she could at least try to learn some Greek while she was there.
Tamara described the whole experience as a spiritual adventure. She did not tell me much of the almost certain loneliness she must have felt, the worry for her family in Serbia. Rather, she described the kindness of the nuns and the peace she was able to find despite all the ugliness and violence she must have grown all too aware of.
She said two things in particular that stuck out to me. The first was that there was a lot of laughter in the convent. I found this to be quite surprising and it made me realize how skewed my idea was of the environment of convents, probably thanks to Hollywood movies and the lack of cheery experiences I had in Catholic Sunday school while growing up. Convents to me were always places that never had proper lighting and faces as stony as the walls that trapped them from the outside world. However, despite the quietness of the nuns, the time they took to dedicate to praying and reading and writing on a daily basis, Tamara said that they were very funny people. They were witty, Tamara said and they were smart. She told me that they “did not make jokes that were so dumb.” I suppose leaving the convent and entering a world where reality television exists must have been quite disappointing in that regard.
The second thing she told me seems almost stupidly obvious, but for whatever reason, it resonated in my mind to something worth overthinking. She said in an unintended philosophical moment that “If one believes in God, they must also believe in the devil.” I guess part of why her words seemed so powerful was realizing how much she must have understood them. At such a young age, no older than what I am right now in fact, she was placed in such a strange juxtaposition between the outbreak of tangible hatred back home and the pursuit of God in a place she could not leave. How much bigger did the world grow in that one year? How much uglier, how much more beautiful, how much stranger?
Tamara left me with my mullings of our conversation once we reached the monasteries. Of course, it was a beautiful place. Beyond the frescoes and welcoming smiles of the monks, there was also a simplicity, a quietness, a peace within the walls that people from the outside world can’t help but appreciate. It felt like a place to rest, both in the obvious physical sense as a break from our hike but also as a break from everything that exists to distract us. I imagine people in the monastery are left with not much other than themselves and God, whatever or whomever He, She, It or They may be.
I wondered how Tamara felt to be in the monastery- did she have a feeling of returning? Was there any sense of nostalgia or did the background of her whole experience taint it with too much sadness? I cannot really be sure, but I think she must have a deeper appreciation that things like monasteries and nuns and religion exist.