The Surprise of Belarus

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September 24th 2018
Published: October 10th 2018
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We are having a break this rainy Monday, which is appreciated since so many on this tour are sick. The coughing and sneezing and various aches and pains spread quickly through the bus, especially since many do not cover their coughs and sneezes, even though all of us are adults. Our immune systems are getting a strong workout anyway, going from sunshine and 80s/28 (Fahrenheit/Celsius) in Moscow (such a gift this time of year!) to chilly rain and 40s/8 (F/C) in the space of one day. Add in three new countries so far, plus sick people on our bus, and everyone's immunity is quite challenged. I've spent this down time packing, trying to catch up on insidiously, continuously accumulating emails, taking Echinacea root tincture prophylactically, and giving my raincoat and boots a chance to dry out, but I think I'll still have time to take a brisk walk along the beautiful river here before we all congregate again for our next exciting activity.

Yesterday's ride was long, travelling from Moscow to Minsk, Belarus. I was sad to leave Russia, at least the big city Russia presented to foreign tourists. Minsk is a surprising little jewel of a city, in a country very few people could locate on a map. My friend Linda and I went out walking last night after dinner, ambling across one of the bridges spanning the river and along a lovely walkway that seemed to follow the lights along the water forever, and on a Sunday night the city was full of young people, active, beautiful, and seemingly happy. Something good must be happening here in Belarus.

Minsk was almost totally destroyed during WWII, so everything we see here is very new. With a population currently at two million, it has a metro system that is expanding as the city continues to grow, and its climate seems to be similar to where I live in central Maine with delightful summers and long, cold winters, although our region of the world typically gets feet and feet more snow than Minsk ever does. The people speak Russian, but have their own money, the Belarussian ruble. Our program director, Malcolm, lives in Minsk with his wife and three year old daughter, plus I have recently learned that one of the women in the chorus I sing with at the University of Maine was initially from Belarus. Our world is smaller than we think; human connections between and among countries abound.

This morning, after an orientation tour of the most important memorials, buildings, and parks, several of us went to St. Elizabeth's convent on the outskirts of the city. The #18 bus will take you there if you choose to go. Built only in 1960 (I believe this is true, but I could not verify the date), the church looks much older. Its grounds are wooded, flowers still blooming, and even in the rain I found the surroundings welcoming, peaceful and very beautiful. If my recollection is correct, St. Elizabeth's, in addition to creating all their beautiful mosaics, stained glass, and handicrafts which can be bought both in their shop and through a catalog worldwide, ministers to children who have handicaps, as well as to adults who have disabilities, offering help for addicts, alcoholics, and the "socially fragile." Our guide here was lovely Sister Olga, a very sweet, glowingly happy young woman who met us to take us on a tour of their stained glass mosaics workshops, their churches, and to see the large baptismal pool. Adults are baptized here, being fully immersed in warm water in a pool decorated with mosaics made right on the convent's grounds. She invited us to feel the warmth of the water; several of us let our hands dabble in the pool before helping her to lift the wooden cover, also made here at workshops, back over the baptismal water. The whole of this convent compound is exquisite, from the intricate mosaic ceilings, to the lovely landscaped grounds, to just happily breathing in the fresh wet air here, to Sister Olga herself. I have met only a few truly holy people so far in my lifetime, being blessed by both Pope John Paul II and the Dalai Lama; actually I've been blessed by many more spiritual or supposedly holy people in many countries and in many faiths, but those two jump to my mind when I think of what "holy" means. Very few people are open enough to exude total happiness, compassion, and love, and both John Paul II and the Dalai Lama do, or did. John Paul II always cared about others, no matter in what country they lived; his compassion for all was easily and almost physically felt. And when I met the Dalai Lama in Boston several years ago the first thing I saw him do was to play a prank on his fellow monks, walking behind them and lifting their hoods up, covering their heads and faces as they all sat ready to speak to the waiting audience. The monks did not respond well, but the Dalai Lama laughed and laughed, thoroughly enjoying his own little joke. Life for him is obviously precious. And here, in Belarus, there is Sister Olga. I believe she is holy too, an extraordinarily happy, spiritual person; she simply says she has found the work she is meant to do and where she belongs. Before Sister Olga left us on this tour, for us to explore more on our own and perhaps to buy Russian Orthodox items from their internationally well known convent shop, she and I embraced, each touching something familiar or recognized in the other. In no way am I suggesting that my journey is anywhere nearly as evolved as hers, but I felt blessed simply being in her happy presence.


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