Christina Dietl is one of the many guests whose story offers to look at St Elisabeth Convent from a different angle. Catholic, born in Austria, Christina studied theology in Greece, Thessaloniki. There she met Orthodox students. After a while she started to attend services in Orthodox churches, and her graduation thesis also had to do with Orthodoxy. We asked Christina a couple of questions during her stay in the Convent. In this interview she shares her impressions of Orthodoxy in Belarus.
Christina, how did you learn about St Elisabeth Convent?
I heard about the Convent from an employee of CARITAS, a Catholic Church charitable organization in Austria. She works for the Diocese of Linz and knows Eastern Europe and Russian-speaking countries quite well. She’s already visited St Elisabeth Convent, looked around and liked it. It seemed very interesting to her. That’s why she advised me to come here, get in contact with the Convent and find out whether I could come and stay for a while, as I’m interested in Orthodoxy and the Russian language.
What confession do you belong to?
I am Roman Catholic.
What makes you so interested in Orthodoxy?
It is a long story, but I can say this interest arose when I studied theology in Greece, Thessaloniki in the Department of Orthodox Theology for 6 months. I got acquainted with orthodox students, visited church services, and my graduation thesis was to do with Orthodoxy. This interest remained, and I decided to improve my knowledge of the matter in the Russian speaking countries.
And how did you decide to come to our Convent and not some other monastery?
I got in touch with the Convent after that CARITAS employee recommendation. I wished to visit an Orthodox convent as I wanted to get a deeper understanding of Orthodoxy, and I thought I should write an E-mail first. Besides, I was very interested in the Convent’s charitable activities. I got an answer that I could visit the Convent, and I should come for five days in February to look around and decide whether I’d want to come again for a longer period of time. So I did that, and then decided to come here for three months.
What obedience in the Convent did they give you for these three months? What are you occupied with?
I am glad I have an obedience that makes me feel really helpful. I feel that I can actually contribute to the common cause. I work in the International Communications Department where translations from Russian into different European languages are made. For instance, I translate the Convent’s web-site and various texts and videos into German.
Have you attended any services in St Elisabeth Convent? Did any of them stand out? Perhaps, some festive ones?
Yes, I attend services here quite often. I like attending them very much. They differ depending on the time of day and day of the week. There are several different services on a Sunday. A mixed choir of men and women signs during one of them, and a choir comprised only of men chants at the other. It is very unusual. In Greece, for example, one can only hear men’s singing. And here there is such a diversity. I like listening to the mixed choir that performs chants in various traditions. And it is very touching when the parishioners sing “Our Father” and the Creed together. I was surprised that when the whole church chants, the deacon can also act as a precentor at the service. In our Catholic Church it is not the case, and I find it captivating. Everything is chanted, and it is another unique feature of the Orthodoxy.
Sisters take care of the patients of boarding homes for children and adults. Have you been there? Can you tell us anything about that?
I have been to the boarding home for the people with peculiarities of physical and mental development many times. And every visit was very touching. Despite the fact that I’m new there, people came up, greeted and hugged me gladly. The love you get there is not obvious in today’s world. That is why communicating with these people is something special: they accept you as you are.
I know you’ve visited our rehabilitation centres at the farmsteads. What is your impression of this activity, of this way of helping people?
The work that is being done here is enormous, I bow before these people. As far as I have understood, there aren’t that many places in Belarus where one could go to for help if he or she sees no way out of a difficult life situation. For them having an opportunity to go to the Convent and get help is extremely important. In my opinion it is essential that convents carry out such missions, as it’s hard to imagine the Church without ‘serving your neighbour’.
Have you been to the farmstead for men or for women?
I have been to the farmstead for men once and visited the women’s farmstead three times. There I have seen churches and other buildings. There are horses, dogs and cats – total over 80 animals in the shelter… It’s incredible how the Convent takes care of both people and animals.
What about Belarusian people or culture impressed or surprised you the most?
For me as an Austrian girl coming to Belarus was very interesting. Belarus is not well-known in Austria. People know Russia and Ukraine, but generally have no idea about Belarus. Most people don’t know where it’s situated and think it is part of Russia. So many are surprised when someone says he or she is traveling to Belarus. They know nothing about life and people here. That is why I decided to come here.
I am lucky to have met many interesting people, especially in the Convent but also in the city, people are very friendly towards me. I like being here very much. Certainly, the Stalinist-style buildings and houses from the Soviet times look unusual to us. But there are a lot of parks in Minsk, nature is given much importance, it is very nice.
Do the Belarusians differ from the Austrians a lot?
In general, the Slavs make an impression of being more reserved. So sometimes it’s a bit difficult to bond with them, but anyway they are honest and hospitable people. The Austrians may be more open but not as friendly. And it seemed to me our willingness to help is something to be improved.
What will you tell your family and friends after coming back home? Are there any particular impressions and knowledge you would like to share with them?
Anyways, I will tell them that Belarus is a country worth visiting. I feel like our people are not too interested in Eastern European countries and don’t go there often. And I try to object to that, as I think our future could be here, in Eastern Europe. I will tell them about my personal experience, how people were always kind to me and willing to help. I’ll tell that there’s a lot to see in Belarus and that it’s a beautiful country.
Would you like to wish something the people who work here?
I was glad to find out that a lot of people find shelter here in the Convent. It is a place where they can turn to and feel at home. It is obvious that many people come here, not only on Sundays but on workdays too, they just want to be around the Convent. I am glad that it is so and there exists such a place which came into being relatively recently. And it’s wonderful that after the communism time faith has blossomed again, and people can practice it freely and openly. So this is heartwarming to observe – even in comparison with Europe – as we haven’t had a communism period in Austria. I wish the Russian Orthodox Church and Orthodoxy in general to find ways of mutual understanding and communication within the intra-Orthodox dialogue, especially concerning the questions of independence.
And the last question. Would you like to come to the Convent or to Belarus again?
Surely, I hope to keep in touch with the Convent. I have found a lot of friends here, and I hope to be able to make your Convent better known in the German speaking countries and thus help its ministry, as many people in the Convent helped me a lot. I was welcomed here with kindness and provided with everything I needed. Certainly I am interested in the convents and churches in other Russian speaking countries. And I would also like to visit Russia.