Archpriest Oleg Vrona, the rector of the Church of St. Nicholas in Tallinn, Estonia, recalls his life and ministry in Pukhtitsa-Holy Dormition Monastery, its wonderful inhabitants, and the good lessons that can be drawn from meeting someone who condemns only one thing—himself.
In the Cell. Mother Paisia. Pukhtitsa, 1988. Alexander Shilov Old, small, rail-thin, and nimble; a broad and rapid gait; talkative—she wouldn’t pass you by, but would always stop for at least a few words; open and friendly, but also straightforward, for which, it was said, Mother Paisia (Naumova, 1913-1990) was disliked by some of the sisters.
This is basically the image of Mother Paisia that I have in my mind today after so many years. I ask myself: Why do I remember Mother Paisia better than other sisters from that time, when I began serving in Pukhtitsa Monastery as a deacon? I think it’s because she was especially friendly to my wife and me from the very first days that we arrived at the monastery.
Perhaps, my or my wife’s communication with Mother Paisia would have been the same as with many of the other monastery sisters, that is, mostly brief and on some specific matter, if not for one circumstance. The door and two windows of Mother Paisia’s cell looked out onto the part of the monastery cathedral where the altar is, where there is still an impressive metal door leading to the sacristy and altar. Priests and deacons who either were late to the service or for some reason didn’t want to go through the whole church to get to the altar often used this door to enter directly into the altar form the courtyard—or, conversely, to exit the altar directly to the monastery courtyard without chancing being stopped by anyone in the church, when they either had no time to talk or didn’t want to meet with anyone. However, here you had to pass by another “cordon”—the cell of Mother Paisia.
Thanks to its location, Mother Paisia’s cell was an excellent observation point for her, giving an exhaustive picture of the daily movement of clergy through this small but important part of the monastery. However, I don’t want to give anyone the impression that Mother Paisia just sat at her window from morning till evening out of boredom, or sauntered about her cell, watching who was going where, looking for an excuse to talk.
Like every other sister of the monastery, Mother Paisia alternated work and prayer throughout the day, because idleness, that is, empty time, according to monastics, is the worst enemy of man. Therefore, in the monastery, according to my observations, there was always enough work for all the sisters, whether young or old. Thus, we’re just talking about those few hours of rest in the cell, which are as necessary for monastics as work and prayer. It’s only natural that the older sisters require more time to regain their strength than do the younger sisters. Thus, if on a weekday the younger sisters disperse to their obediences after the Midnight Office and a hasty breakfast, then the older sisters usually stay for Liturgy, then have breakfast, then go to their obediences, without rushing off at breakneck speed. So, Mother Paisia would return to her cell after Liturgy, and if it was a warm time of year, she would open both windows and set an old charcoal-powered samovar on the windowsill.
And when you would leave the church through the altar, without even looking in that direction, you could guess by the pleasant smell of smoke from the charcoal that Matushka was in her cell preparing for tea. If Mother’s white summer apostolnik1 could be seen at the samovar at that time, then it was impossible not to stop for a minute or two at this hospitable window. Sometimes during the conversation, the nun Nikandra, who lived together with Mother Paisia, would silently come to the window, smile meekly, and having said hello, would immediately disappear again into the mysterious depths of the cell.
A special accessory that Mother Paisia had on her samovar, which invariably evoked smiles from anyone who happened to see this rather antiquated tea party, was a chrome boot. Placed on the samovar pipe as on a soldier’s foot, the boot would dance about merrily under the hand of Mother Paisia, from which the samovar began to puff portentously, reminiscent of a general on the training ground. It’s said that once upon a time some savvy soldier in damp, inclement weather had the thought of taking off his boot and placing it on the pipe of the camp’s samovar to fan the poorly-burning fire.
The question of where Mother Paisia got the samovar deserves to be investigated, I think. Sometimes one of the future sisters, leaving for the monastery and cutting all material ties with the world, could, nonetheless, take something with them to the monastery that would be useful for everyday life. One woman who was accepted at Pukhtitsa already at an advanced age managed to drag a large nightstand with her, earning her the nickname in the monastery, “Maria with the nightstand.” As for Mother Paisia, if we consider that she joined the monastery when she was fifteen, then it’s hard to imagine a young girl running away from the world to the monastery with a samovar in her arms. Most likely, she inherited this old samovar either from her monastery eldress, or from one of the sisters of the monastery. And it wasn’t necessary to teach people of that time how to use a samovar, especially since she was from Prichude, where the charcoal samovar is still honored in our time.
In any case, it remains an indisputable fact that before breakfast, according to Mother Paisia herself, she had to drink two or three cups of tea to, as she put it, “rinse out the intestines.” Of course, no one could think to judge Mother Paisia for such an innocent affection for the samovar, or for the fact that she knew how to heat the banya [Russian bathhouse] well. One nun talks about a time when she, then just four or five years old, went to the monastery banya with her mother. Having arrived, Mother Paisia quickly took the child in her arms and, assuring the mother that she knew what she was doing, led the child to the sauna. Having placed the child on some shelves inside the sauna, Mother Paisia began to hit the child with a birch branch,2 saying: “Don’t get married! Don’t get married!” It should be said that the child was very domestic and raised in a family with a strictly religious way of life, such that at four or five years old, the girl still didn’t know what it meant to get married. “Don’t go where?”3 the child wondered, inhaling the aroma of the fresh branch and trying to understand with her child’s mind the essence of the elderly nun’s instructions; but she didn’t understand. However, it is remarkable and worthy of attention that this “banya instruction” of Mother Paisia had far-reaching consequences. When the girl grew up, she didn’t want to get married, but went to the monastery.
Once Mother Paisia put an old-fashioned clock next to the samovar. “The mantelpiece,” she explained to me in a matter-of-fact tone, as if the fireplace and the clock on the mantelpiece were an integral part of a monastic’s cell. Opening the back door of the clock, Mother Paisia took out a small key, and you could hear the characteristic creak of the spring being compressed for a few seconds, and then the clock began to play a melody that reminded me of Dargomyzhsky’s Melancholy Waltz.
“What song is that, do you know?” I asked Mother Paisia.
“I don’t know who wrote it. I just know it’s called ‘Past Tense,’” Mother Paisia replied wistfully, and suddenly gave herself over to recollections.
“There used to be a pilgrim, an old woman from Tallinn that often visited me,” she said. “She usually asked me to let her listen to this song. She would listen and weep. ‘Why are you crying?’ I would ask her, and she would tell me, ‘This melody speaks to me about my past. My life has passed me by without me noticing.’”
“By the way,” Mother Paisia continued, “I have another clock like this, but with a different song.”
And walking away from the window, Mother Paisia immediately returned with clock in hand—exactly the same as the first one.
“Do you like it?” she suddenly asked me, and without waiting for an answer, she said to me, laughing, “Well, then it’s time for me to part with it.”
With that, Mother Paisia handed me the clock. I stood at her window confused, holding the clock in my hands and muttering something about how she shouldn’t have parted with such a rare clock, especially since she probably had some personal, some kind of memories connected with it. But she remained adamant in her decision, and she did it with such ease, as if she was just waiting for an opportunity.
When Mother Paisia turned seventy-seven, she started to complain more and more about her infirmity and weakness, and in the end, the priests had to come commune her in her cell. And one time, the monastery priest came to commune and suddenly heard:
“I’m going to die today. Call the abbess.”
Although the experienced priest didn’t notice any clear signs that the patient already had one foot in the grave—she was very talkative and inwardly cheerful as always—he immediately conveyed Mother Paisia’s wishes. As the sisters said, having heard that Mother Paisia was preparing to die, either doubting the veracity of the nun’s premonition or herself being ill, the abbess couldn’t go, but sent her closest assistant, Mother Georgia (Schukina). How shocked Mother Barbara was when Mother Georgia returned after a few minutes and reported, with a sense of urgency, that she had found Mother Paisia already lifeless.
The news that Mother Paisia had reposed immediately after Holy Communion instantly flew around the monastery. The sisters marveled and felt the joy that we sometimes feel for a loved one when we see that he or she, a humble worker, is suddenly rewarded with a very high award.
I remember that in those days, when you could talk with Mother Paisia by the samovar with the boot, it seemed to me that her whole life in the monastery was some kind of endless vacation for her in her native element. Now I understand that my ideas about the life of the sisters and Mother Paisia in particular were very superficial. Besides, who can comprehend every nun’s struggle with the passions?
Oddly enough, it was Alexander Shilov’s portrait, “In the Cell. Mother Paisia. Pukhtitsa, 1988,” that helped me see Mother Paisia from the other side of her monastic life. She looks out from the portrait with the eyes of a person who knows everything about the ups and downs of life and about “the one thing needful.” Looking at her familiar features, I tried to remember if I’d ever seen Mother Paisia as she was in the portrait. Yes, perhaps a few times. One time was when she, talking about monastic vows, took the edge of her cassock in both hands and shook it, saying: “We’ll have to answer before God for these skirts.” Another time was when she mentioned in conversation that, in her opinion, there wasn’t a single sister in the monastery who hadn’t at least once gone and stood by the monastery gates with a suitcase, intent on leaving the monastery forever. However, she didn’t clarify if this was only in her thoughts, or whether this had really happened with the sisters.
I also remember with what respect Mother Paisia spoke about the “old” sisters, as she called them, who were examples of the monastic life for her. It was always with a special love and solemnity that she pronounced the name of Mother Ekaterina (Malkov-Panina, glorified as Blessed Ekaterina of Pukhtitsa in 2018). And how could you bear the burden of the monastic life without someone to take an example from?
However, perhaps it happens that there can be someone who gives such an example but we don’t want to notice them. I once had occasion to get to know a certain singer in a choir in Leningrad. He often went to the Pskov Caves Monastery, and every time he returned, he would enthusiastically tell me about what a wonderful monastery it is and what amazing monks they have there. But I soon began to notice that the more he praised the monks of the Caves Monastery, the more he would talk disdainfully about the priests at the church where we sang. In the end, he started claiming that all the local priests were “spiritually dead, but the Pskov Caves monks are a completely different matter.” After a while, this singer left for the monastery, although, for some reason, not to Pechory,4 but to another one. One time I went to this other monastery and saw him there. He was already a hierodeacon by this point. Throughout his conversation with me, he constantly expressed dissatisfaction with the monastic order, and the abbot, and his obedience. He spoke approvingly only about the monastery’s food. He even started talking about the Pskov Caves Monastery with disdain, which he had previously so admired. I later learned from our mutual acquaintances that this hierodeacon got addicted to wine and stopped being obedient to the abbot. He died suddenly, when he was about forty.
Similar stories that we find on the pages of the ancient patericons and in modern life tell us how important is the virtue that Mother Paisia possessed: to discern a high example of monastic life in those living with you—in this case, the “old” sisters of the monastery—considering yourself spiritually quite immature in comparison, or better yet, just a beginner.
It’s been a long time since the samovar with the boot appeared in the window of the cell where Mother Paisia once lived, but anyone who knew her, passing by this cell, will look to her window, smile, and say to themselves:
“How wonderful they were—these ‘old’ sisters!”