I wouldn’t have thought it possible, but somehow I had never heard of this book until receiving it in the mail as a gift – and I’m so grateful I did! Come Follow Me is a collection of entries, chronicling Mother Casiana’s year spent living in the Holy Monastery of Varatec in Moldavia, Romania in 1984. Similar to my own book, The Scent of Holiness, in some ways, it offers us a glimpse into the everyday life, work and prayer regime of the sisterhood of Varatec Monastery (a sisterhood that numbered 350 individual nuns).
In the pages of Come Follow Me Mother Casiana not only invites us to take a look at the monastic way of life in Varatec Monastery, but she also takes us with her own pilgrimages to various monasteries and celebration of feast days in Moldavia. The book is, although short in length (just shy of 200 pages), is full of details concerning the life of the sisters at this particular monastery in Romania.
I appreciated getting to know the cycle of work and prayer at the monastery as the seasons come and go. And I especially liked getting to know some of the sisters and Abbess Nazaria – to the extent we are able to know her person through reading about her. Here is one of my favourite insights into her character:
“‘It’s impossible. We simply cannot have snow on the ground for Pascha!’
“When Mother Abbess Nazaria said this at the end of March I smiled to myself thinking that, after all, there is not much one can do about the snow if God continues to send it to us. It seemed that almost every day, we were shoveling newly fallen snow off the pathways. There were even several areas within the monastery courtyard where it was piled higher than the buildings themselves.
“The day after Mother Abbess had firmly stated that the snow must be gone before the Feast of the Lord’s Resurrection, it began to melt.” (Come Follow Me, p. 34)
One of the most prominent differences I noticed between monasticism in this particular monastery and what I experienced in Greece was that at Varatec Monastery some nuns have different spiritual mothers depending on whether they live in a skete outside the main monastery with one or more sisters, or whether they live at the staretia (the cenobium if I understood correctly) with the Abbess. In Greece sisterhoods function as one family, with one mother (for the most part). The practice of having various sketes, each with a spiritual mother and one or more disciples, is not commonly practiced in Greece – or at least not in the places I visited. This aspect of monasticism in Moldavia was unique to me and reminiscent of the monastic way of life on Mount Athos, where various sketes are attached to larger cenobiums but each has a spiritual father independent of the abbot.
One of the greatest similarities between monasticism in Moldavia and monasticism in Greece was the mutual love and support shared between monasteries: “It was clear that there was no sense of rivalry between the monasteries; in fact, I found the exact opposite to be the case. Each monastery does all it can to help the other: this help is expressed in various forms: domestic help as in cooking and serving food on special occasions; sending a choir of monastics to sing at a service; priest-monks serving for another monastery; offering of whatever other talents and gifts are available… The monasteries continually support, help, and encourage each other in a true spirit of Christian brotherhood. When one community suffers, all the other monasteries feel the pain as well; when one community experiences a great joy, the others join in that spiritual exultation.” (Come Follow Me, p. 92).
There are many interesting, as well as uplifting, passages and stories found in this little book. Some stories are reminiscent of those found in The Scent of Holiness and some are different. My book was from the perspective of a layperson, and although I received endless amounts of love and attention from the sisters, I was – at the end of the day – only a guest. Mother Casiana, on the other hand, was a member of the sisterhood, having been tonsured a nun at Varatec. Her stories are told with a unique perspective from within the community. I’m grateful she shared her experiences with us, so that those of us who have never traveled to Moldavia can have the opportunity to taste of the holy waters of monasticism in Orthodox Romania.
Whether it is Greece or Romania, or some other far off – or not so far off – place, we all have churches and/or monasteries we consider to be our spiritual homes. But it is also nice to be given a glimpse of the place someone else calls “home”. In her closing paragraph Mother Casiana, who, after one year in Moldavia returned to America and now lives in a monastery in Colorado, writes: “God has given us holy places throughout the world which we can visit and toward which we can direct our thoughts and our hearts… Like St. Peter on Tabor, we, too, long to remain in those holy places… Though I was prevented from doing so, I echo the words of Saint Peter at the Transfiguration, ‘Lord, it was good for me to be there.’” (Come Follow Me, p.181) And it was good for us to “be there” through Mother Casiana’s detailed descriptions in her book.