The next location on the agenda after the Guatemala trip was the Czech Republic. I had hoped to travel straight there without returning to England in between, but it transpired that the cheapest option was to fly back to Heathrow with the rest of the team and then to fly on to the Czech Republic early the following morning – so that’s what I did. Not wanting to pay for a hotel room for the 7 hours between the flights, I picked a nice spot on the grass outside Terminal Four and lay down to sleep for a few hours. I woke to find two policemen standing over me, asking why I was there. I mumbled sleepily that I had just returned from Guatemala and was about to leave for the Czech Republic in a few hours. They looked suspiciously at me and asked to see my tickets. I showed them my printed schedule of the year and my boarding pass from the flights back from Guatemala, and they asked why I hadn’t booked into a hotel between the two flights. I laughed and told them that a local hotel would cost more than my flights – it seemed an extortionate amount of money to a stingy eighteen-year-old – and they told me that they do not allow people to sleep on the grass outside the airport. They asked me to go and sit inside the terminal. I was tired and frustrated but I went inside as they had asked, and sat for the remaining few hours waiting to board my flight to Prague. It was nowhere near as comfortable as the nice soft grass outside, and seemed much noisier too.
[On the plane on the way to Prague I found myself wondering which college to apply to for the following year. I had narrowed down the options to my two favourites and was confident that I would be offered a place at both if I applied. In Guatemala in the Short-Term-Coordinator’s house I had seen a prospectus for one of the colleges that I had in mind, which I had found surprising and a little off-putting because of my difficult relationship with this woman. Now on the plane to the Czech Republic I was wondering about it again and asked God for some sort of sign. Just as we landed in Prague there was a large banner displaying the name of the other of the two colleges, advertising a film that had the same name!]
When I got to Prague I was met by my friend and translator whom I had previously met in England. She had invited me to come and visit her, so I had decided to make a month-long trip of it and see if there was somewhere I could volunteer. The plan my friend had devised was that I would help out in two churches, for two weeks in each. When I arrived, though, I discovered that one of the churches had recently endured a huge conflict and had split into two smaller groups, and that since it was such a difficult and sensitive time they did not want a foreign stranger coming to visit. The other church had had a mixup of dates and most of the members were away at a summer conference during my time there so did not need a volunteer to help with anything.
As a result, when I arrived the two of us began looking around the nearby towns and villages for any organisation that might want a volunteer to work for them for a month, one who speaks no Czech. We were turned down a number of times, understandably, and eventually came to a Roman Catholic monastic community who were very welcoming to both of us, who offered free accommodation and food for us on the condition that we live and work alongside the monks and nuns.
The community there was absolutely wonderful. They did not reject me or turn me away for not being Catholic, as one other monastery that we had visited had done – and they treated us as part of the family, which felt like such an honour. Communication was somewhat difficult – the woman in charge (the ‘head nun’…?) spoke some English as did two younger monks, but everybody else seemed only to speak Czezh and a little French. My translator was often with me but not all the time, and I had many embarrassing moments when I was being asked to do something but could not understand what it was that I was being asked to do. Even so, I felt wonderfully accepted and loved in the community. I also gradually began to enjoy my lack of ability to communicate. I am an external-processing extrovert and love talking to people, so it came as a bit of a shock to not be able to chat with people. Over time, though, I began to enjoy talking to myself and to God (in my head) without needing to express myself outwardly.
For the first two weeks of my stay the two of us lived and worked there, with one or two day-trips into Prague to see the sights. For my final two weeks in the country we had planned to go and visit my translator’s family. However, one or two days before we were due to leave for the family visits I was asked to attend a one-off meeting in the office of the priest in charge, with various monks and nuns present. I wondered what this meeting could mean, wondering if perhaps they were going to ask me for money because I had stayed there for free for the two weeks as I was invited to do.
In the meeting my translator and I were thanked for the ways in which we had helped out over the past two weeks, and my translator was wished a pleasant journey to visit her parents and siblings. Then the ‘head nun’ expressed that the community would love it if I would be willing to stay with the community for my remaining two weeks in the country. She said that the community had appreciated my being there and would like me to stay longer if I was able. What a shock this was to me! Although they had not in any way treated me as a burden, I had assumed that the extra challenge of my being there was a chore for people: that of communicating with me in gestures and risking miscommunication every day. I thought that they were probably looking forward to being rid of me, because they would have one less thing to think about or struggle with. But they asked me to stay. They seemed so genuine, so full of love. After checking with my translator, I agreed to stay for the remaining two weeks, and those present looked very pleased. I went away and cried quietly after the meeting, feeling so welcomed and accepted and wanted despite the language barrier and all the associated challenges.
After this my translator left, leaving me with a small catholic Catechism in English to help me understand some of the strange customs and traditions that I was not used to. Throughout our stay I had been asking her many questions about why they did certain things and what the different symbols meant, and she would go and find out the answers for me from the nuns whenever she didn’t know. So when she went away she bought me this catechism to help me understand more about some of the symbols, traditions and beliefs that were alien to me – and, surprisingly, I thoroughly enjoyed reading it.
In the community I was amazed by the sense of love that was tangible there among the people. It was clear that they really cared about each other and seemed completely unselfish. As monks and nuns they did not wear the usual monastic gowns that one might expect, but instead wore fairly plain, normal clothes that were shared by everyone – nobody had his or her own wardrobe. They also wore wooden cross necklaces, about two inches long, as a symbol of their monastic lifestyle. And instead of being an introspective and closed community, they spent a huge amount of time going out and serving in their area – identifying people who were struggling in various ways and doing practical things to help out. They also put on regular events and retreats for people, so the building where they all lived – where I was staying – was often full of people.
They loved to have fun, too. I went on lots of outings with the nuns, to social places such as community centres and pubs, where the nuns felt very much at home at would laugh and chat with anyone and everyone. We had film evenings and games nights in the monastery itself too. I shall never forget watching Batman Begins (in English, with Czech subtitles) and eating popcorn and chocolates with a group of giggling nuns. Playing charades with them was a lot of fun, too, and staying there did not feel at all like what one might imagine of a monastery. It was in no way quiet and serene – except in the Chapel – but fun and full of life. The monks and nuns, although sharing everything, felt very much like ‘normal’ people except for their immense care and compassion and strong desire to serve each other.
Their faith in God, too, was very inspiring. On one occasion there was a group of about fifteen boys in their late teens or early twenties who had come to the centre for a day of sport-related activities (mainly football), and it happened to be a Friday, the day that the weekly groceries were due to arrive. However, that morning the groceries did not arrive, so the nuns became a little stressed and agitated over what they were going to eat for lunch and what they were going to feed the guests. There was nowhere near enough food left in the house to feed the monks and nuns, let alone this group of young men as well. The van belonging to the monastery was away on an errand and there was no other vehicle available to drive to the shops to buy more food; nor were any shops or supermarkets within walking distance.
The nuns concluded that all they could do was to cook what little food they had and feed the visitors very small snack-meals, and the monks and nuns would go hungry until the evening – by which point the groceries might have arrived. So we prepared the food, knowing that it would not be enough to sustain the guests, but there was little else that we could do. Once the food was cooked and ready, we placed the two trays of food into the enclosed pulley system that went between the upstairs kitchen and the dining room below, and one of the nuns prayed over it. Another nun was downstairs ready to distribute the food to the tables where the young men were seated. What happened next has baffled me ever since. The visitors somehow all ate and were full, and then once they had left the room we went in to clear up after them. We found that not only were there leftovers on every table, but that there was enough food left over for the twenty-odd monks and nuns to have large lunches AND eat more for dinner that evening! It was very strange – there seemed to be a huge amount more food left over than what we had prepared to begin with, but it was the same food as what we had prepared. All the food that was on the tables had come out of the hatch where we had placed it in the kitchen above – and nobody was quite sure what had happened. At first when we went in to clear up there was quiet confusion, with puzzled expressions on everyone’s faces, and then the nuns began asking each other questions and looking between the tables and the hatch – and then after a while began talking in quiet excitement, whispering and giggling with huge smiles and raised eyebrows in obvious amazement. All the nuns seemed quite bewildered but very happy and thankful to God.
During my last weekend with the community, there was a huge party to celebrate one of the nuns making a lifetime commitment to their community. There were speeches, hugs, prayers, many colourful decorations and a vast amount of food – it was wonderful. And after all that I had experienced over the course of my month there I found myself thinking about the possibility of joining the community too! I figured, however, that my boyfriend probably wouldn’t appreciate it, and of course I had other priorities.
A year after the trip I heard from my translator that she had joined the community and was living there, training to become a nun, because she was so deeply impacted by the two weeks that she had been there as my translator! However, after living there for a few years she instead ended up marrying one of the young monks who was there, who is now a church pastor. I am still in touch with both of them. Wow, how life changes! After the trip I also kept in touch with the ‘head nun’ who spoke some English. She later moved to Poland and served a monastic community in the same ‘order’ as this one, and I went to visit her there for a week shortly after finishing the ‘Gap Year’. Wonderful people.