When I was young (probably 5 or 7 or 10), I lived in the same apartment with my paternal grandmother. She owned the place, a three bedroom apartment in the South of Bucharest, and this was the best she could offer to her children so she lived with her son, his wife and four children, her daughter, her husband and her newborn son. I was the eldest of the four children. At some point in my childhood, my aunt moved out and my youngest brother and myself shared a bed with grandma. Every night, head on the pillow, in the dark quiet of our home, I watched grandma get ready for bed, sighing as she sat on the edge of it, tired from the hard work of the day, taking care of such a large and needy family, and praying. She had a lamp I can picture clearly today: it was cross in a bulb, it was electric, orange and black and it was positioned next to the icon of the virgin, blackened with time and probably prayer breath. Grandma would get ready for bed, sit , put her hands together under her chin and whisper: “Our Father who art in Heaven … “.
It was the 80s, in communist Romania, we were not a religious family. We had never gone to church as a family (my maternal grandmother used to sneak my youngest brother and I at times but I really don’t have a vivid recollection of that), Christmas was a celebration of some sort of feast – whatever my father found in his endless hours, out in the cold, in a line, or fighting for some meatless bones. I don’t remember the notion of God, the Divine, Jesus or Mary talked about in school (God forbid! haha, pun intended) or at home.
I was 12 when the communist regime was overthrown (the overt one that is). And people were so happy, out in the streets, cheering – I wasn’t entirely sure why. After all, I took great pride in being a “pioneer” – the communist scouts of those days – it meant I was special. I took it very seriously. And all of a sudden, my grandma’s prayer at the edge of the bed, in the dark and quiet made its way to the middle of this crowd, to the center of town, to the loud voices of so many.
When you grow up with no education around the concept of divinity, but you hear of a God mentioned in certain circles and language expressions, you make your own representation. “Our Father who art in Heaven” must be like … my father. So God became someone to fear. Someone to please. Someone whose whims could never really be anticipated but had to if you wanted to be safe. Someone who struck you when you were wrong – and you prayed for just the thunder and not the beating.
I was 22 when I got married. In church. Nobody in the wedding party – that I knew of – was a church goer but “this is how it is done”. The priest spent no time talking to us – would he have seen we were loveless and clueless? We had no vows – not that we would have known what to say to each other… . We took part in a ceremony we did not understand – all I remember was my worry of whether the priest destroyed my hairdo with the crowns that in the orthodox religion are placed on the heads of the bride and groom at some point in the ceremony.
I was 23 when, one winter, mom called to tell me that one of my brothers was a heroin addict and that started the frenzy. For years after, desperate, depressed, anxious and afraid I travelled churches and monasteries in a constant search for meaning, for support and for peace. Through seven years of infertility, through discovering I am in a hopeless, loveless marriage, through my first, scariest and most traumatising nervous breakdown, through my tumultuous wonderings, I entered church after church, fasted, went to confession, took communion, learned the liturgy by heart, read the prayers, became someone else, hoping that somewhere down the line lied the belonging, peace and salvation. I gave credit to men, the priests, who had no idea about the body, mind and soul of a woman and either looked at me with the wrong hunger in their eyes, or with an ironical smirk on their face as if they were talking to a stupid child or, and I am not entirely sure what is worse, lifted a judgmental eyebrow, telling me that everything is happening because I don’t fast enough, because I don’t pray enough, and that yeah, I may not love my husband but it is my duty to lead both of us to salvation by sticking in this marriage and tending to him. Last century much?
I was 35 when I decided that going to hell was an easier thought to bear than living this life or loneliness amidst “my” people, quiet desperation and a panic nobody saw or cared much about. When I divorced my husband of 12 years, the father of my son who was five years old, to join the only person who ever saw me and loved me warts and all, my current partner, a woman, I heard it all. It was almost like a desperate bickering attack of someone who felt I was slipping through her fingers: she is the devil, you are under a spell, you will go to hell, so will your son and six more generations after him … I will spare you the rest … . I actually remember locking myself in the bathroom at work, looking at myself in the mirror and asking myself my eyes locked on my eyes: going to hell or living without her? It took half a second to conclude, without a single ounce of doubt, that living without her is already hell. So I had nothing to fear. Been there, done that.
I have found belonging, peace and support in ways I never thought were possible. Ten years down the road I still marvel at the changes this choice brought in me. It was almost like my roots were nearly dead and I replanted the flower of me in new, nourishing soil, took the plant from a corner in the shade where it was dying of thirst, moved it to the sun and allowed it to drink. And little by little, my entire life reflected that: I was a better parent, my mind opened for more learning, I healed physically from ailments I knew would be with me forever, I grew in my work and my emotional balance and I became less afraid of the demons who had for a lifetime terrified me from every corner.
Two weeks ago I found kindred spirits in The Chapel and I am giving divinity another try. I still feel the need of community and prayer. But there is only one voice that I am willing to listen to now – that small, faint one inside that whispers. It always tells me the truth. And when it whispers “this is it”, I know I found what I am looking for.