When I thought I was done for the day at camp, listening to music, studying Russian, a counselor would pop into my room and take me to an unexpected activity.
One evening it was the nightly disco, thumping music blaring, a whirl of motion. I had heard the music before but thought it was just the teenagers cranking it up! It was that, and more. Another time I was led to an American couple from Alabama who were adopting a Ukrainian child. Another time I was asked to help judge the natural habitats the children had built for a project: houses made out of branches (huge branches gathered from the forest), fences out of twigs, paths out of acorns, gardens out of wildflowers. All incredibly beautiful. Some judge I made!
One night after I had fallen asleep, Iryna barged into my room, turned on the lights, and said I had to wake up at 5:00 a.m. because we were going to the monastery in the mountains. She motioned to my clock and made sure I set the alarm. "Wear a skirt, no pants." Beyond that, I didn't get the details. "But I have to meet with the kids," I mumbled. "Not tomorrow. Tomorrow you join children for a very special day."
The next morning some 30 of us boarded a bus for a 3-hour ride through fields of wheat and sunflowers to Svyatogorsk and CBYATbLIE ROPbl, Sacred Mountain. Stunning: the terrain, the river, the domed churches built along the mountainside.
When we got to the monastery grounds, we snacked on fresh tomatoes, cucumbers, cheese and bread, and then got ready to go to the church. I had no idea what to expect.
It turns out that this took a lot of loving preparation. I became absorbed in a Ukrainian ritual. The women and girls pulled out dozens of colorful scarves, mostly sheer and gauzy. They wrapped the scarves around their waists if they were wearing jeans or pants, and covered their heads. Now I understood what Iryna had told me the night before. But I never knew there were so many ways to tie scarves!
Natasha (one of the counselors in charge of taking care of me for the day!), reached into her bag and pulled out a pretty blue and green scarf. It was for me. She wrapped it carefully around my head. Now we were all ready to approach the church with reverence and respect. An elaborate ritual, a solemn moment.
Heads covered, children and counselors in a somber frame of mind, we entered the grand church. We stood under a huge gold and crystal chandelier, surrounded by icons, exquisite art and architecture. Ukrainian Michelangelos had done their work and it was breathtaking. A priest's voice boomed through the sound system. The bells tolled.
Beauty and awe. "The Ukrainian Vatican," Iryna called it. A sense of the sacred enveloped us, the bonds of Ukrainian culture and tradition. I joined in the moment. I lit a candle and prayed for my family and friends back home I loved and missed, and for my country, for Ukraine. It was unexpected. I felt blessed.