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150 happy women

By Yevgenia Podberezina, Vechernaya Riga

You can tell a happy woman by her eyes. Sister Joanna's beaming blue eyes and gentle smile make her face look beautiful. In her worldly life, accustomed to French perfumes and a diversity of clothes she felt neither beautiful nor happy. This former journalist has obtained peace and freedom behind convent walls

I once saw a program about the Pühitse convent on TV. I was astonished by the harmony and soundness of everyday life that poured out on me from the screen. And at the same time a phrase was racing through my mind: "She entered the convent for unrequited love..." I wondered what else if not devastating unhappiness could make a woman reach such a decision. Female and journalistic curiosity led me to the Holy Hill in Estonia - that is the translation of Pühitse.

Visiting Our Lady

The place is situated near the border and the convent was not founded there accidentally. According to legend, a beautiful barefoot woman in blue - the Blessed Virgin Mary herself appeared there on a sunny summer day in the middle of the 17th century. She blessed this plot of land, after which a healing spring spurted there, threw a heavenly look at the dumbfound peasants and vanished in the sun's rays. Under an oak the Blessed Virgin left an icon as a material reminder of herself, which is still kept in the convent. And from that day on miracles have been taking place in Pühitse. The water from the healing spring has cured the ailing and the feeble. Embracing the oak under which the Virgin Mary left the icon may treble one's vigor and strengthen one's spirit. And no one who has plunged into the healing spring in cold weather has ever fallen ill.

"Four years ago when I was leaving for the convent my family was watching The Bold and the Beautiful on TV. And now they are still watching the same stupid soap opera."

With the help of one of the most eminent Orthodox priests Father John from Kronstadt, a convent was founded there 110 years ago and the nuns themselves built an impressive church on the hill. Pilgrims from Russia have always come to this part of Estonia. Marina Tsvetayeva's sister Anastasia Ivanovna, who almost reached the age of 100, believed that she obtained strength and spiritual harmony from regular "visits to Our Lady". The nuns tell pilgrims that the Blessed Virgin appears in the convent for several minutes every night at exactly 2 o'clock and that several times she has been seen by sisters serving at night.

I need no shores of Canada.

At the moment Pühitse convent houses approximately 150 nuns. The majority live here permanently, others serve in different parts of the world - from Russia to Jerusalem. "Here just like in the army you are taught everything. To build a stone wall and to bake bread, to pickle cabbage and to milk cows." says a nun while laying the table for us. Indeed, always, even in lean war times, any guest, tramp, refugee has found here bed and board. The food is simple but unusually tasty - everything is made on firewood with water from the healing spring and with love and prayers.

To stay in Pühitse forever is very difficult - there is enormous competition among the women who have decided to leave their worldly lives and enter the convent. I do not belong to very susceptible people but having got off the bus I at once felt the special atmosphere of this place, which is beautiful in all seasons. Regardless of their being confirmed atheists or believers, pilgrims experience here peace and serenity, and happy thoughts.

The nuns at Pühitse include doctors and artists, doctors of science and agriculturists, musicians and former students of the University of Latvia. They live long at the convent - the average age of the nuns buried in the Pühitse graveyard is from 80 to 90 years.

The nuns are kind but reserved; not all of them engage in conversations with pilgrims - they are entirely devoted to their inner lives. Or maybe they are afraid to have their spiritual harmony, obtained with such difficulty, shattered. Sister Joanna, who I was very much willing to talk to, categorically refused to tell me what had made her enter the convent. "Everything depends on God's will," that is the reason. I got to know from others that she had come to the convent together with her 16-year-old daughter. In her former life she had been an international reporter, had spent long years together with her husband in the USA and Canada. Apparently, some spiritual crisis or disappointment in her chosen profession had led her to the convent.

When the soul flies

Young Sister Vitalija is more talkative. Her story is also unusual. She is a Latvian and grew up in a large family of atheists. She turned to faith herself and was baptized in Lutheranism: "Soon I started feeling that Lutheranism did not offer me the wholeness of spiritual life - there is no confession, no icons. I was attracted to the interiors of Orthodox churches, divine services and the beauty of choir singing. And I converted to the Orthodox Church, baptized my younger brothers and sisters. My parents just wondered and laughed."

The girl with poor knowledge of Russian but who did not miss either morning or evening services and regularly attended confessions and received Communion was noticed in the church. The young parishioner shared her worries with the priest - the younger sisters and brothers were growing up and refused to obey her, rarely prayed. "Do not pressure them. Think of your own soul," the priest said. "Maybe your path is to serve God."

Sister Vitalija is responsible for flowers and plants - that is her service. There is much work to be done - the whole territory of the convent has to be covered with flowerbeds before summer sets in, the graveyard and the church of the convent have to be decorated with flowers.

"I am happy - I have got into one of the best Orthodox convents, into Pühitse," she says. "In the beginning it was difficult - everything around was unfamiliar, I didn't know Russian well. But later I got used to it. Now and then I go to Riga to do shopping and visit my family. They are leading such boring lives! Four years ago when I was leaving for the convent they were watching The Bold and the Beautiful on TV and now they are still watching the same stupid soap opera."

I asked sister Vitalija how a good-looking healthy girl could reject the happiness of being loved, having a child, a family?

"We only think that we have the freedom of choice. Our Lord has led me here, therefore it is my destiny and in worldly life I wouldn't be happy. People betray each other there all the time, but Christ's love is together with me always. You can't understand what it means - to be aware of being chosen. In my prayers I address the Creator himself. Do you know what it is to feel your soul flying?"