Driving Away from the Monastery in a Snowstorm

Tervo pilgrimage 1

I was 33 years old before I made a pilgrimage to a monastery in my own country. Before then, I had visited numerous monasteries in the country of Georgia: Gareji, Saparo, Martqopi, and also Pechora in Russia, and I loved them very much. At that time, they were just coming back to life after the Soviet period. I could not understand why someone would stay isolated and pray all day, but I did find the idea attractive. 

Now I was brought up Catholic, and there is a thing called Catholic guilt. Even if you cross over to Orthodoxy, it's very hard to take the Catholic guilt out of you. This is a specific kind of guilt, and it involves feeling very uncomfortable that you never visited Ireland, but most especially because you never became a nun.

I had so many thoughts about becoming a nun, and I felt uncomfortable about all of them. At that time, I was single and working as a nurse-midwife. Was I refusing God's call by not becoming a nun? That would be a very heavy sin. 

If I became a nun, then I could get my spiritual life in order. Someday off in the future. No need to worry about it right now. 

Or maybe I would turn out to be one of those super holy people who became a saint, and then I'd do miracles and that kind of thing. I knew these weren't the right thoughts for a future nun. 

In addition, I wanted to be the abbess, the one in charge. I did know that you are not supposed to join the monastic life planning to be the abbess. You are actually supposed to be aiming to give up your own will, not exert it. On the other hand, if I lived there many years and was never chosen to be abbess, I'd feel left out and unappreciated. That idea made me anxious too.

My priest said, “If you have a call, you'll know.” But I didn't know if I knew or not. Maybe I was getting a call but wasn't paying attention. Was it possible that God was calling me to be a monastic, but I was refusing to listen? More anxiousness. So I put off the whole question and didn't pursue visiting any monasteries here at home.

One time a Georgian lady came to our church–she was doing a graduate degree at a nearby university. When I found out she was Georgian, I jokingly asked her, "Do you know my Nestan?" Nestan is my close friend, my koumbara, with whom I lived when I was an exchange student. I am godmother to her daughter, who is named Lizi after me. To my shock, the new lady knew Nestan, and we became friends. Her name is Nino (a Georgian variation of Nina).

For Nino, it was completely natural to visit a monastery. I actually did not know about the Orthodox practice of visiting a monastery regularly for spiritual refreshment. I thought either you go there to stay or you don't. Nino chose Holy Myrrhbearers Monastery in Otego, New York, and off we went. 

The first time we went, it was fall, around harvest time, and we helped in the garden. It was way out in the country and very pretty, just one big building containing everything, including the chapel. Nino got to stay in a little room next to the altar, while I had an ordinary guest room. We helped read during the services, and the whole experience was wonderful. The nuns wore denim habits, and we had lunch with them, and we all talked and laughed together. 

There was a prayer walk around the property, and Nino and I walked and watched the sheep and goats that the nuns were raising. One time one of the sheep got a bucket on its head and went around baa-ing, and all the other sheep followed it around baa-ing too. Mother Raphaela let me try to milk a goat, and I found that I could. In the house, the nuns had a cat whose hind legs were partly paralyzed; the nuns used to hold its tail up so it could walk upright. It was very touching how much love and care that cat got. The nuns told us that women visitors who had been through trauma felt able to talk about it when they helped care for the cat.

Nino asked for an “obedience” from Mother Raphaela; she gave us the task of putting greeting cards into bags to be sold by the monastery store. We soon finished this, sitting on the sofa in the reception area, and Nino decided it was too easy. She practically pushed the nuns out of the kitchen and took over the cooking. I believe the nuns were a little startled, but Nino produced sumptuous meals with ease, so that's how we went on.

The second time we went, it was winter. I still did not have an answer about becoming a nun, but by this time, I was engaged. 

My fiancé said, "You're coming back, right?" He was only partly joking.

The monastery was deep in snow. Once again, Nino and I took on some work and shoveled a path outside. It turned out we had taken over the obedience of one of the nuns! That was not a good thing to do, but we were forgiven, and that’s how I discovered that nothing happens in the monastery without the abbess's direction.

I once again loved and enjoyed our time at the monastery. It was so beautiful there, and the structure of their lives was so perfect, the rhythm of the services without anything blocking them.

I loved it very much, but as we stayed on, it became clear to me that it was not my place. The monastery was not for me. I finally understood that marriage was the thing I was meant to do. Wordlessly it occurred to me that I had never felt the calling to be a nun because there I didn’t have that calling.

Somehow this certainty was suddenly so strong that I felt we needed to leave right away, and Nino and I ended up driving off through a snowstorm. Mother Raphaela practically ran after us, worried that it wasn't safe. It really wasn't. But the relief of having that certainty was so great that driving through the snow with Nino was exhilarating!

Presvytera Elizabeth Scott Tervo is a native of Boston and her publications include Eve in the Time Machine, a poetry collection (Basilian Media, 2023), and The Sun Does Not Shine Without You, a memoir, published in the republic of Georgia (Azri 2021). Her poetry and stories have appeared in Ruminate and the New Haven Review among others, and won a prize at Inscape. She is the coordinator of the Doxacon Seattle Writers Group for speculative literature and Christianity. 

Tervo pilgrimage 2