Last week SPC C and I visited an Orthodox monastery that has been firebombed several times in years past. The nuns who live there are quite old and vulnerable. However, they've got a number of large, rather intimidating dogs guarding the place in addition to the Soldiers who guard the gate down the hill.
Some of my guys were there for a few days, taking their turn at keeping watch over the entrance to the property.
The walk up the hill to the monastery itself was muddy and slippery. The road took us past burned-out buildings, one of which looked as though it might have been a refectory, and another, the monastery's extern chapel. Workers (not present while we were there) are obviously building new buildings, including what I suspect is a new extern chapel.
We saw a guard tower made of sandbags erected atop the monastery wall. That's not something I'd ever imagined seeing at a community of religious women. Then again, now that I'm thinking of it, I guess I'd never thought of concertina wire and a place like that at the same time, either. There was a lot of concertina wire surrounding the enclosure.
We also slogged past an old cemetery in which the gravestones had been broken. It was a very sad sight.
There's a very steep ravine running alongside the road; at the bottom of the ravine is a small mausoleum. Most of the rest of the guys braved the narrow path down to the mausoleum, but I stayed up top because the NCOIC of the guard detail wanted me to meet with the Mother Superior, if she'd consent to speak with us.
It took some doing to get the attention of the nuns. ("They're pretty deaf," explained SSG S.) While we were banging on the door to the cloister, our interpreter pointed out the stone plaque next to the door (see lower left corner of the photo, above) that had been defaced during the attacks on the compound.
The Mother Superior finally showed up, and was a bit curt with SSG S, until he made it clear (through the interpreter) that I'm a Catholic priest. She relaxed visibly, which I wasn't expecting, and we chatted a few moments before she invited us in to see the nuns' chapel (the façade of which can be seen in the center of the photograph directly above). SGT S could not have looked more surprised. Neither could I.
The nuns don't permit photos, so I didn't take any while I was inside the monastery walls. The chapel was tiny, and very old (rather like Mother Superior, actually), and still had soot over all the walls and ceiling from the firebombing. Only in the minuscule chamber off and behind the sanctuary did one fresco remain visible, and it had been seriously damaged by the flames.
While we were in that room, I asked Mother Superior (though the interpreter) whether I could sing something. She looked a little surprised, but assented. I sang a setting of Psalm 42 I particularly like, and the very live acoustics of the building coddled the melody into something rather ethereal.
I felt honored and humbled to be praying in that place.
SSG S, who'd left his sidearm with one of the other Soldiers just stood in the chapel doorway, but didn't really enter. "I really wasn't sure what to do, so I didn't want to do something wrong," he later told me. "Mother Superior had never been very cordial up to that point, and being invited into the chapel was the last thing I ever expected."
As we were leaving the church building, one of the gargantuan guard dogs appeared, but fortunately Mother Superior was able to get him to back off. I'm sure the animal weighed almost as much as I do. Nice doggy! (Especially from a distance.)
A few days later, after my guys had come back to Post from that mission, SSG S saw me in the DFAC (dining facility) and came over to speak with me. "I'm not sure what exactly did the trick, Sir," he said, "but every other time I dealt with her after you came, she was actually friendly to me. Thanks!"
Blessings and peace to one and all,
Fr. Tim, SJ