Becoming a Nun to Win My First Love’s Heart
I was 14 years old, at my new high school in Russia, looking into the eyes of the boy who would own my heart for the next six years.
He wasn’t an athletic, muscular type with a big stature; quite the opposite, actually – very slender, not very tall, with straight blond hair, the sweetest disarming smile and the most beautiful deep brown eyes, made specifically for drowning me.
He was the best in the physics class and was making plans to major in physics at a Moscow university, but much more importantly to me, he had a very soft and gentle disposition and an irresistible romantic side – he loved literature, love stories and poems. He also went to church.
When I first heard about it, I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it as it was quite uncommon in the post-Soviet Russia to come across regular church goers, especially among young people, but then I decided that that made him even more romantic, appealing and enigmatic.
To be closer to that boy, I decided to do something that no one in my family had ever done before – I decided to start going to church myself! I asked the boy if one day we could go together so that he could show me around; he was happy to oblige.
I began attending Sunday service every week. It started at 8 o’clock in the morning and lasted about four hours – almost until noon; there were no chairs inside and we all had to stand the whole time. I had to wear a long skirt or a dress and cover my hair with a scarf; there was no air-conditioning and often it became very hot and stuffy with all the people and the burning candles and incense, but I didn’t care, of course – I got to stare at the back of the boy’s head for four hours and we also often walked home together. I was literally in heaven!
The problem that I ran into, however, was that the service contained multiple rituals in which all the parishioners were expected to participate in some special ways at particular times, and I felt like an elephant in a china shop, not knowing what, when and how to do.
On the way back home, I began asking questions about it and the boy recommended some literature sold at the church. He also said that I was supposed to read the Bible and use the daily prayer book every morning and evening, and that I had to memorize several prayers by heart and say them regularly throughout the day.
I started buying and studying various church materials. There was so much to learn and I was absorbing it all like a sponge. Very quickly, I became completely immersed into this new world – all the Russian Orthodox church traditions, procedures, guidelines, rules and rituals. I was dying to learn everything as soon as possible because I desperately wanted to be a good believer for myself, for God and also for the boy. I wanted him to be proud of me. VERY proud! And this was when the thought came that I had to become a nun!
When I recently shared this story with a friend, she asked me the most logical question in the world: “How on earth would becoming a nun have put you closer to the boy that you loved? What would THAT have done for your relationship?”
I laughed very hard, realizing for the first time in twenty years the total absurdity of the idea, but at the time it made perfect sense…
While growing up in Russia, I was conditioned to believe that life was difficult, unfair and very painful; it was a constant everyday battle, a struggle with no happy endings, including in the area of love. Especially in the area of love.
All the Russian literature that my friends and I had to study from early age (Pushkin, Lermontov, Bunin, Turgenev, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky…), the Russian music that I played in my piano classes (Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, Rimsky-Korsakov…), the Russian ballet, opera, movies, plays, folklore, pop songs, radio programs, TV shows… – every single thing seemed to convey the message that love was extremely important in one’s life, but at the same time provided very few examples of “happily ever after.” Most love stories were dramatic or even tragic and portrayed extreme emotional pain.
With the repeated message that “It is better to love someone who doesn’t love you back than not to love at all,” that “It is a poor and unlucky person who has never experienced love in his or her life,” with the consistent glorifying of love suffering in the Soviet/Russian and even the foreign art that was finding its way to my country, my young and impressionable mind concluded that “love equaled suffering” and “one was blessed and very lucky to experience that suffering/love.”
Having recently become interested in Joseph Campbell’s work, I got curious to see when exactly in my childhood, this twisted understanding of love and life got imprinted on my brain, and I was shocked to realize that it’s not just one thing and not just one point in time – EVERYTHING I was surrounded with taught love as pain, suffering and struggle…
My sister is an artist and I grew up surrounded by pictures: hers and by famous artists. The picture at which I stared for years going to bed and waking up in the morning was by Vasili Pukirev – “The Unequal Marriage” – a depiction of a very unhappy young girl being forced to marry a much older man, all captured by the artist who was madly in love with her and who was present at the wedding and also in the picture.
My favorite book when I was little was a children’s story by an American writer Shel Silverstein “The Giving Tree,” in which the tree happily gives away everything it has to the boy who keeps coming back for more: its apples, its branches and eventually its trunk. The “chorus” of this story, with which every chapter ends after the boy takes more and more of the tree to never give anything in return or even say a simple, “Thank you,” is, “And the tree was happy.”
The story that I fell in love with when I got a little older was “The Snow Queen” by the Danish writer Hans Christian Anderson. It is a story of a young and very brave girl who travels to the end of the world all by herself, experiencing many hardships and challenges, to thaw the frozen heart of the boy she loves.
Another example is a Russian rock opera that most Russians know and love and that breaks my heart every time I hear it. It is called, “Juno and Avos” and is based on a true story of 1806. “Juno” and “Avos” are the names of two ships that a 43-y.o. Russian nobleman and explorer led to the west coast of the US. There he was visiting with a Spanish governor, and just before his departure, he was invited to the governor’s daughter’s 16th birthday party. They both fell in love at first sight and got engaged, but the man had to leave to receive the Emperor’s permission to get married. He promised to return. Unfortunately, he became ill during the trip and died after reaching Russian land. His fiancé received the news in a year, but refused to believe it and continued waiting for her beloved. She waited for 35 years!!! At that point she was provided with a detailed account of her love’s death and there was no doubt left in the accuracy of the information. Then she joined a convent in Monterey, CA, and took a vow of silence. She died 15 years later. The cross on her grave in the San Francisco area says, “I will never forget you” on one side and “I will never see you again” on the other…
Let’s not forget Anna Karenina – one of the books I had to read in high school, in which a woman who falls in love, experiences its highs and lows and ends up killing herself by throwing herself under a train… These are just some of the ideals and standards for love with which I was growing up. There were many, many other tragic love stories like that…
No wonder that the thought of my becoming a nun in the name of love made perfect sense to me at the time! – If you are not supposed to ever be with the person you love, if you are expected to just be grateful for the love feeling in your heart, if love always comes with pain, suffering and unfulfilled dreams and desires, then there is nothing abnormal about loving someone from a distance!..
There were no convents in my home town or anywhere near it, but there was one in my university city; thus, the opportunity presented itself when I finished high school and moved to that city to go to university.
I went to the convent and asked the very first nun I saw how I could become a nun myself; she told me that the initial step was to write a letter to one of the monks in a Moscow monastery. He was believed to be a saint, “who spoke to God on a regular basis,” and I had to get God’s permission and blessing to become a nun through him before the process could begin.
She gave me the address, so I went home and wrote a letter, in which I was asking the monk if it was God’s will for me to become a nun. I was 17 years old.
After mailing the letter, I waited impatiently for several weeks, then the response arrived. My heart was pacing while I was opening the envelope with shaking hands – my future was inside it! You can probably guess what it was…
The letter said that I was to go into the world and live my life there…
I couldn’t believe my “bad luck” and had to reread the letter several times to let the meaning sink in! The nun had warned me that there was no “appeal process” and I would have to accept and do exactly what I was told…
I was completely crushed and heart-broken! I cried and wept. Then I felt angry and misunderstood. Then I cried more. And more. Then I got on with my life, graduated from the university, started my first job, moved to the United States, and on and on it goes…
One important thing that I have done recently, though, is become aware of and drop my fascination with self-sacrifice in love and in life. I am not choosing unrequited love for myself anymore. I am not choosing pain, suffering, unhealthy attachments, longing, clinging, needing, being addicted to someone or giving away my power. The “happily ever after” is my new choice, and I am absolutely fine with no more drama in my life.
How about you? What love story are you choosing for yourself? Have you ever examined your most favorite love songs and movies for repeating patterns? Do they represent the way you would like your personal life to unfold?