I was baptized an Orthodox Christian as an infant in Romania, on Palm Sunday. Romania was under Communism until my teenage years, but it lingered for decades afterwards: a brutal, oppressive regime, with persecution of religion, re-education, and the institution of fear. Despite all of that, by the grace of God, the majority of the people got baptized, buried and were able to say, “Hristos a înviat! Adevãrat a înviat!” (“Christ is Risen! Truly He is Risen!”) while cracking the red eggs on Pascha. With what joy and boldness we would say those words!
I also remember being able to say the name of Jesus and His sweet Mother, who were shown to us in the “pictures” (the word icon was rarely used). I would follow my grandma with a lit candle as she would incense all over the house or go to church with koliva in her basket—a petite woman with a very determined walk. She used to say, “They took everything I owned. What else can they do? My soul doesn’t belong to me, so they can’t take it.” The word God was not used very often; people were cautious to protect their families.
A very important and precious moment of my Orthodox journey is Pascha. We used to go to my dad’s house about one hour away from the city. Then at night, we would quietly and in the dark get in the car, drive a few villages further away to a church to get Pasti (the blessed antidoron), quietly return home and once inside the house would crack eggs with a loud voice saying “Christ is Risen!” Candles and vigil lamps were the main source of light in the church, and so the icons and the walls had the air of incense, of holiness.
After the fall of the Communism, the faith started to be more open, although it would take time to leave behind the fear of looking towards a church and actually entering inside of it or crossing ourselves. A few years later, an opportunity came for me to emigrate to the United States. I packed the pocket-sized Akathist books (useful to carry or conceal in the past), icons, baby bottles, and winter clothes, and moved to Auburn, Alabama. It was quite a transition and the toughest part was the lack of an Orthodox church in Auburn. The closest was Holy Transfiguration GOC in Columbus, GA. A few years later, again packed my icons, Akathist books, schoolbooks and hurricane-rain umbrella (!) and moved to Oregon. My daughter was of elementary school-age and we attended an OCA church.
My heart was longing for the dear monasteries and churches in Romania. By the grace of God, I was able to go back twice, to Sihla for St. Teodora, to Sihastria for Elder Cleopa and Paisie, to Petru Voda for my dear Elder Justin and the Monasteries he founded in honor of the Prison Martyrs, Father Calciu, Roman, and the other known and unknown saints.
I first came to St. John 4 ½ years ago, by searching the map for a church closer to my house. I was born into Orthodoxy, but I still needed a map. As I was sitting in the left back corner with my daughter, we both commented on the love that we felt surrounding us, radiating throughout the church, the narthex, through the doors. I just wanted to grow long arms so that I can hug everybody and be hugged by all the saints from around us. St. John’s has been a blessing in our lives. Love is the word I would use to describe St. John’s. Especially important, I also believe that St. John’s Monastery and Gerondissa Efpraxia with the dear sisters are the pillars of our community, and the place where my soul finds peace and strength.
I am still an infant on the path to Orthodoxy, a journey that I start today, each morning, only through the prayers of our dearest saints and angels, our sweet Panagia and by the mercy of our Loving God. Please forgive me.
With love in Christ, Carmen Ephraimia