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To be given a year to spend as one chooses is clearly an unreasonable expectation, but for the sake of hypothetical situations I would say that I would spend that time around Russia’s monasteries, helping rebuild those that a rise in awareness is reconstructing from the dirty and broken ruins of a Soviet epoch that, for example, even came to use some of Russia’s churches as warehouses. And so now, across the nation, churches, monasteries, chapels are being shaken by the hands and warmed by the breaths of clergymen and common folk alike, communally rebuilding both a physical structure and their faith.
There was a day this past summer while I was staying with my grandfather in the Russian town of Lesnoy that I traveled with my mom to visit the female monastery at Jotkov. It was founded at the beginning of the 14th century, but in 1932 the government proceeded to strip the central church of all its marble and silver fixtures, and turned the grounds into a tractor repair shop. The cemetery was destroyed, the bell tower torn down, and the ruins slowly overgrew with bushes from within. Only in 1992 did the monastery begin slowly coming to life and functioning again.
Surprisingly, most of the reconstruction, including the painting, some of the woodwork, the furnishing, and even some of the building, is done by the nuns themselves. These women also farm large pastures, harvest crops from their orchards, fish in the nearby river, take care of their livestock, and package hay, in addition to running a convent, a church, an icon workshop, an orphanage, and managing to remain an incredibly isolated community.
Monasteries across the nation have also taken to welcoming pilgrims who wish to help for a week, a month, even a year. A friend’s father chose to volunteer for a week in a small, rural monastery in central Russia, and returned recommending the trip as an unparalleled spiritual experience. He also warned that, because the physical work is arduous, and the food strictly follows fasting cycles, one must undergo a mental and emotional preparation for the efforts such an undertaking requires.
Given the chance, I would choose spend a year staying at monasteries that need hands for gardening, painting, etc. The goal would be to do more than just wake up early, attend morning mass, and leave for a day of physical labor, though that would certainly be the daily routine; I’d wish to test my physical and spiritual strength, to widen my perspective of religion, of life, to become a part of the monastery way of life their efforts, their work, their hope.
Such an existence, carried out in harmony with nature, God, and the unaffected rhythms of life seems difficult indeed, but rewarding and purposeful for those seeking to both help and discover. It is when we allow the meaningless, trivial things to glide away, when we stop the yearning, the longing for that which we think is missing, that we allow ourselves a glimpse into the truths of our existence.
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