I met a monk once on a hillside by an apple orchard.
My relationship with the divine is that of a distant acquaintance but occasionally I bump into it like meeting an old schoolmate at the grocery store. My aunt on the other hand seeks out these acquaintances. She lives in the Carpathian region of Ukraine and during one of our family visits there she drove us to a tiny monastery near her town to introduce us to her friend.
When I first met him he mistook me for a married woman — I was fourteen at the time and already too tall for my age. He had apologized with the sheepish smile of a young boy and clasped my hand in an awkward but warm greeting. Maybe he was trying to get a laugh out of me but in Ukraine people do marry young.
Becoming a monk means leaving behind your old name and taking on a new one. I knew him as Benedict. He had an unfailing steady calmness about him, the way he moved and spoke drew people in.
His room in the monastery was small and modest but he did have a computer. It is a strange contradiction in the countryside where people might ride bicycles to their fields with a hoe attached to the back and a cell phone in their pocket. Modernity is like a cat squeezing itself into the unlikeliest of places.
Under his sofa Benedict kept stores of “nastoyka” in glass jugs. They say it’s good for the stomach but I’m not sure if it does anything but burn your taste buds off. He offered it to us and I watched the adults throw back a shot each and follow up with a pickle. I tried licking a spoonful myself and was put off of vodka for a solid five years.
I remember someone asked me if I could sing and that strange feeling of being put on the spot in front of a stranger you already respect without reason. I recalled the first two lines of the only religious hymn I knew and sang with a voice straining to please. Afterwards, he gave me a CD of traditional Christmas carols but his approval meant even more.
He showed us around the monastery and we ate borsch in their mess hall. The church that stood between their lodgings and the village cemetery had been built by their own hands. It was not beautiful but it sat right with the landscape, as plain as field daisies. When we stepped inside there was only an old woman there, bent to the ground.
Kneeling down alongside my father, aunt and cousin I was far from enlightenment. The metal clasps on my sandals dug into the soft flesh behind the bone of my ankle and my back ached from hunching over. The air smelled of chalk covered walls and something that might have been ceremonial oil. There was a red embroidered towel draped over the tops of our heads and I tried not to think of where else it had been.
I knelt on the floor of this church with its hollow cupola and talked to myself. For me, prayer is like poetry, churches like art galleries and gods are like metaphors. Religion does not properly translate into my world view.
Coming out of the little church I felt relieved to unbend, smelling the oncoming rain in the air. Before me, a scraggly apple orchard trailed down the slopes in neat rows. The lonely shrine with its silver domes stood between thin birches, surrounding it like a rickety fence. It seemed to wane against the sky.
To the southwest, the Romanian mountains broke through the horizon line. There was a white church nestled in the green carpet of their hills. From where we stood we could watch the rain fall on their roofs. The sky was like a moth eaten quilt with patches of light breaking through and running sunbeams over the valley below us.
Benedict stood beside us and talked in one long murmur that made my mother tongue sound like a smile. It’s been too long, almost a decade, and I’ve forgotten what we talked about standing there on that hilltop. Only a memory lingers, a kind man with a gentle voice like faded frescoes and the hard-tilled beauty of my homeland. I remember nothing but the feeling of wholeness.
I have not been there since.