As I was working on revisions to my novel, Cherry Bomb, yesterday, I came across this scene from the protagonist’s visit to a monastery. It’s been several years since my last visit to Holy Dormition of the Mother of God Monastery in Rives Junction, Michigan. For about a decade I visited once or twice a year and also participated in numerous icon workshops at the monastery. I drew heavily on those experiences when writing the related chapters in my novel. Although it’s a work of fiction, art really does imitate life. The monastery has built a new chapel since my visits there in the 1990s and early 2000s. My descriptions reflect memories of the old chapel.
I set the monastery in North Carolina, rather than in Michigan. If there are any Orthodox monasteries in North Carolina, any resemblance is purely coincidental, although there is a universality within the diversity of the monasteries I’ve visited both in the U.S. and in other countries.
I thought I’d share one short excerpt from the novel today. It’s written through the eyes of Mare, the young graffiti artist who ends up studying art at SCAD (Southern College of Art and Design) in Savannah, Georgia. She’s at the monastery to take an icon workshop. I hope the scene takes you to this beautiful spiritual haven in your imagination. It’s truly a holy place.
The scene could have been playing out in ancient Romania or Greece or Russia. But this was 1984 and she was in an Orthodox monastery in the mountains of North Carolina. How surreal! Her eyes searched the faces of the sisters as they rose from their prostrations to sing the evening hymns. The sun made its final appearance of the day, shooting polygons of light through the amber panes of the narrow, deep-set windows in the chapel, and illumining the gold leaf halos of the icons and the faces of the nuns. Even their ears and the lower parts of their chins were covered by the black habits, so that only inverted triangles of flesh were visible, like white theatrical masks. No traces of makeup smoothed the blemishes of the young or the wrinkles of the old. And yet there was a subtle, clear-eyed beauty that emanated from each one. No colorful gloss plumped their lips, which appeared small, turned in on themselves, like the mouths painted on the icons that filled the walls of the chapel, quivering on the verge of Mona Lisa smiles, as though they had just tasted something delicious or they were trying to keep a secret.