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The Priest and the Professor

A young man has discovered that he didn't have to choose between his calling to the priesthood and his love for teaching and for Romanian literature.  

by Polina Cupcea 7 May 2019

The autumn of 2014 had passed, then winter, and then came the spring of 2015. The Orthodox monk Vasilisc was still adjusting to his new job as professor of religion at the middle school in the northeastern Moldovan village of Saharna Noua, located in the Rezina district. At first, the students had been cautious about welcoming him. They saw him as a “menacing ogre” with a thick beard and black priest robes. But the young monk managed to win them over through a number of interactive methods. Every lesson, he would bring along a laptop, projector, and colorful worksheets.

 

Another autumn passed, then winter, and then came the spring of 2016. By now, Vasilisc had settled into his new role. Having gained such mastery in the use of new technologies, he found some of his colleagues started coming to him for help. Meanwhile, the students looked forward to their religion classes. “Aren’t we having religion classes today?” the students would teasingly ask him, although they knew their course schedule by heart.

 

With autumn already underway, Vasilisc received a new offer – to teach Romanian-language and literature classes. The news struck him like lightning. He, a Romanian-language professor? No, that could not be! Although he had studied linguistics, although he wrote poetry, although he loved to read, although he had always dreamed of being a professor, this offer from the middle school’s head seemed far-fetched. Teaching religion was one thing, teaching Romanian was something else. No!

 

A Day in the Life

 

The lesson bell sets in motion the students who are lingering in the wide corridors of Saharna Noua middle school. The older ones take their time, exchanging glances in which you can see the signs of budding love. The younger ones, like true warriors – dust-covered, sweaty, and disheveled – swallow their battle cries as they walk into their classrooms, with their heads down.

 

Vasilisc walks quickly across the school’s courtyard, around the tools and construction materials. He wears blue pants and a sweater, and his shoulder-length hair is hidden under a black hat. He walks into the newly painted building, which holds several classrooms on both sides of a narrow corridor. In one of the rooms, dimly lit by a few lightbulbs, his ninth-grade students are waiting for him to start the Romanian lesson.

 

The school's courtyard

 

He connects the projector to the laptop, passes out a number of dictionaries, which thunk heavily onto the woodwormed school desks, then stands in the middle of the classroom, cracking his fingers in preparation. He scrutinizes his audience for a few seconds, then begins with enthusiasm. “Good day, dear students! Our theme today is love. More precisely, today’s lesson will be a comparative analysis between the poem ‘The Lake’ by Mihai Eminescu [a romantic author considered to be Romania’s national poet], whom we’ve recently spoken about, and ‘Until late in the evening, waiting for a girl,’ by [Romanian modernist poet] Nichita Stanescu.”

 

The professor then launches into a flood of ideas about love. The students quickly join in, their associations flying out as fast as the rattle of a sewing machine: “family,” “trust,” “children,” “understanding,” “harmony,” “respect.” “Christianity” shyly shows up at one point. The monk laughs, revealing his white teeth. “We will leave religion for another time.”

 

Wielding a piece of chalk, he listens intently, alert for new words to write on the blackboard. He suddenly turns towards the student who made the last association. “All the same, I will write down ‘Christianity’ next to ‘love.’ Good job, Adrian. Good job, everybody, your ideas are very good. I’m proud of you.”

 

At a certain point, a bit embarrassed and strangled, a voice from one of the desks in the back mentions “physical love.” “Because the poem ‘The Lake’ has the lines: ‘She would appear from between the reeds/ And gently fall on my chest,’” explains the student making this connection.

 

The monk rushes to the blackboard to write down this idea, but realizes from the silence in the classroom that he is facing a delicate situation. He turns toward the students, who are staring at him, and tells them, laughing heartily, “Very good. Bravo! I will write this down in a moment.” Everybody smiles, their cheeks as red as peonies.

 

The next part of that day’s lesson is reciting “The Lake.” The professor promises his students that, if they are active in class, he will give them good grades at the end of the course. Galina – a dark-haired, slim girl with glasses – flawlessly recites the stanzas, putting herself at the top of the class. Encouraged, and yet unsure, other students raise their hands.

 

Vasilisc surrounded by students

 

Then the professor rolls up the sleeves of his sweater. It’s time for him to take the stage and recite the Stanescu poem “Until late in the evening, waiting for a girl.” Nervous, he runs his fingers through his thick beard, and then through his slicked-back, coal-black hair.   

 

The water beats at the shores of night

Spreading cold, gray circles.


The first few lines sound awkward. The next ones follow on just as clumsily, as if he is reading it for the first time. The monk laughs at his own mistakes, and laughter spreads through the students as well. He reads two more lines and stutters again. He apologizes, breathes, and carries on.

 

For the final stanza, as if for a finale, he stumbles once again. Cheerfully, he smiles and winks at the students: “Please try to do better than I did.”

 

The rest of the lesson revolves around the poem. The professor asks his disciples to split up into groups of four, then into groups of two, and then to work individually. He gives them colored worksheets, asks them to use their dictionaries to look up and write down the unknown words in the poem. He also asks them to fill in their worksheets.

 

And he greets with child-like joy every answer from his students, regardless of its correctness. He encourages every student with a “Bravo!” or a “Thank you!” – sometimes even before they finish speaking.

 

With Ghenadie – a tall, thin student who seems immersed in his textbook – the teacher persists with questions, trying to draw the student out. Having sensed from the very beginning that Ghenadie is not in the mood for class, Vasilisc intentionally involves him in every task. “There you go, Mr. Ghenadie. Please, let us have some of your thoughts on this.” Irritated, the student growls something in a low voice. The monk pretends he didn’t hear, and asks him to repeat it.

 

The young man is left in peace for a few minutes. As soon as he thinks he's out of the professor’s claws, he suddenly hears the dreaded voice again. “Mr. Ghenadie, it seemed to me that you raised your hand. Please answer the question.”

 

Those who look like they want to keep Ghenadie company in his apathy are energized with a “Come on, come on, like this, keep going! You can express yourself very nicely, and yet you're shy about explaining your opinions!”

 

When the time for the assignment of homework comes, Vasilisc lifts his hands like a conductor and explains what they have to do: “For next time, I expect to see you come prepared with a list of love poems written by Eminescu and Stanescu.”

 

He pulls at his beard, gazing tenderly at his students. “Thank you for this class.” He then turns toward Ghenadie, and adds, laughing, “For your answers and your participation today in class, I will say 10 rosaries tonight in my monastic cell.” Everybody bursts into laughter, even Ghenadie.

 

Vasilisc

 

Once the lesson is over, the middle school’s director, who has been in the classroom the entire time, comes up and admonishes him gently: “You see, Father? And you were afraid to teach Romanian!”

 

The Road to School

 

All unknowingly, Tamara Peru, the principal of Saharna Noua middle school, lured Vasilisc back to a field he ran away from in his youth, before he took the monastic orders, when he was simply Vasile Donica.

 

“In August 2014, I briefly met him at a gathering, and I really liked his way of thinking,” she says. “He is very wise. I asked him to come and work as a professor of religion. It’s a blessing to have him among our school’s teaching staff.”

 

The monk gave his all. Each lesson had a PowerPoint presentation, which left his colleagues in awe. He would miss sleep for nights on end, looking for ways to capture his students’ attention. According to Vasilisc, “I did all I could not to lose them, and to spark their interest in my lesson. And I reaped the results once the students started stopping me in the corridors to ask me how to join my class, which is an elective.”

 

His classes started to be attended more and more frequently by the principal herself; that kept the monk on his toes. “One day, I asked her: ‘Mrs. Peru, why do you keep such a close eye on my lessons? Is it because I’m falling short?’ And she told me that she came to learn. I would also look over some paperwork for her, some things related to school management. We would spend a lot of time on that after classes,” the monk remembers.

 

His managerial capabilities saw him promoted to the position of deputy principal in the 2015/16 school year. Recalling her fears about offering him the position, Peru says, “Nobody wants this position. It’s a lot of work for little pay. I thought of him because he already knew how to do the job. His colleagues listened to him, and held him in high esteem. He knew how to do a lot of things, especially using a computer. On the other hand, I was afraid of sinning by taking a monk out of the monastery. Wouldn’t it make him crazy, as they say, if I took him out in the world? He chose his path in life, a path based on prayers.”

 

Still, the desire to have a deputy was too great, so the principal came up with a plan. This started with getting Vasilisc’s permission, before she paid a visit to the abbot of the Saharna Monastery.

 

“I went there and said that I needed Vasilisc to fill this deputy position. He [the abbot] wasn’t against it. And then I thought I should formalize the position, given that he had a lot of work to do at the monastery, being the abbot’s left hand. A few days later, I visited the abbot again and told him: ‘I cannot put up with this situation anymore. I will take Vasilisc with me to school tomorrow. And I will leave you this official notification,” Peru says, recounting the details of her “acquisition.”

 

But she still needed the blessing of the Department of Local Education, because she wanted to make sure that nobody would reproach her for putting a monk into an administrative position. “The head of the department didn’t know what to tell me. She replied: ‘Let’s not go off the deep end and make the school too religious. As you know, with this cultural sensitivity now, we shouldn’t antagonize people of other religious faiths.’ ”

 

Vasilisc during a lesson

 

Peru was conflicted. Meanwhile, in the course of some of her continuous professional development, she came across a representative of the Ministry of Education. “I asked if it was an impediment for a monk to be a deputy in a middle school. And this lady answered: ‘Is it bad if a member of parliament is gay? Why shouldn’t a monk be in a school? We accept that.’ Let me tell you, this answer gave me wings,” the middle school principal recalls, filled with emotion.

 

After officially taking up the baton and becoming deputy head, Vasilisc the monk got involved in various extracurricular activities: he accompanied students on a trip to monasteries in neighboring Romania, organized a seminar about the Christian vision of ways to keep a family together, and at Christmas he organized a group of carol singers, who went and sang about the birth of Jesus to lonely old people.

 

But the new duties also got him involved in less than “Orthodox” situations. “As a manager, you sometimes have to raise your voice. There are arguments. So I would go back to the monastery and pray: ‘God, don’t make the world go crazy because of my behavior.’ What I meant was that I was afraid my behavior would make people disgusted with the church, would make them turn away from God and say: ‘Ah, but I know about these priests and this church.’ And I am very much struggling to promote a different image of priests and of the church.”

 

Still, Vasilisc was even more skillful at teaching religion, so he was promoted to a higher rank. He would sometimes hear grumbling from parents who didn’t really like it when their children came home and reprimanded their parents for going too rarely to church. However, with time, people became more at ease with the situation.

 

And so the autumn of 2016 arrived, which was when Saharna Noua middle school found itself without a Romanian teacher.

 

Responding to the emergency, Peru asked colleagues all around the Rezina district, and tried to lure back professors who had retired. She had no luck: nobody wanted to come back. “I didn’t know what to do. The summer holidays were about to end, classes were about to start, the exams were approaching, and we couldn’t find a Romanian teacher,” the director says.

 

That is when she thought of Vasilisc the monk. She approached him – and was rebuffed. A fierce struggle between the two of them ensued. Neither of them wanted to give in. “I asked him very, very insistently, to start teaching only eight and ninth grades, because I had asked elementary school teachers to take charge of the other grades. Although they didn’t specialize in the subjects, I asked them to save the day. And him – with a lot of difficulty, I persuaded him. He has duties at the monastery, he is also deputy head at the school, and that requires a lot of work, not to mention that he also teaches religion ... It was a complicated situation,” Peru explains.

 

The young monk ended up a professor of Romanian because of a teaching staff shortage that Moldova has been facing for years. During the 2016-2017 school year, out of 76 Romanian language and literature graduates, only nine went on to teach. The next year (2017-2018) – the same has happened: only six out of 116 graduates.

 

For Vasilisc the monk, teaching Romanian was and continues to be a true challenge. “I don't know if I'm succeeding in teaching Romanian. Even now, there's much I don't know. I have many more things to learn.

 

“This is my second year teaching, and I feel more confident in my skills, but last year I couldn’t sleep at night, I spent all my time studying. Not to mention that the Romanian textbooks are so weirdly phrased. If I ever meet the author, I will say: ‘Do you know what kind of textbook you came up with?’ It doesn’t help at all! It contains stupid tasks, and, if you assign those to children, you get no results!” the professor confides.

 

'The Priest and the Professor'

 

More or less consciously, Vasilisc the monk has spent all his life wavering between religion and Romanian. And one assignment from his schooldays has come to seem like a prophecy. “I remember it as if it was today. It was during Romanian class. I had to write about what I wanted to be in the future. I wrote in my notebook: I dream of becoming a priest, but I will be a professor.”

 

He is Jesus’s age right now, and he has spent three decades among the saints, the smell of incense, and flickering candles. He was around three years old – in his home village of Zahoreni, in the Orhei district of central Moldova – when his unofficial “grannies,” Duta and Filusca, initiated him into the mysteries of faith. They would lead him by his little hand to church, and they would never miss a service.

 

“They would teach me to repeat after the choir, to make the sign of the cross, to learn prayers. Once I learned how to write, I would transcribe prayers into a notebook, from Cyrillic into Latin script. Those were books that I borrowed from Granny Filusca.”

 

His schoolmates thought he was weird, and that prompted two nicknames: the Priest, and the Professor.

 

“The Priest” was “because I was the most religious out of all my friends. I would drop everything to go to church, and on a Saturday evening or on the eve of a religious celebration, I would go to the evening service. My mother would yell after me: ‘You’re getting ready to leave again!’ I would answer: ‘Mommy, it’s a sin to stop children going to church!’”

 

And he was “the Professor” because he was passionate about Romanian and about reading, especially sci-fi. He devoured The Amphibian Man and Planet of the Apes out in the fields while he was watching over grazing cows or turkey hens, and then, in the evening, “when my parents were sleeping, I would light the candle and read perched on a bed on top of the heating stove,” he says.

 

Interior of an Orthodox monastery

 

He would borrow books from his Romanian teacher, Ecaterina Josan. In time, the future monk fell in love not only with his professor's vast library, but also with her teaching methods.

 

“Her lessons were very interesting and different from the others,” he remembers. “Modern teaching methods were not in use at that time, but she had an intuitive understanding of them. I might have fallen in love with this subject because of that as well. I had a slate behind my house, and it was easy to write on it in chalk, so I’d steal chalk from school and do my homework on my own. And I’d imagine I was in front of a classroom full of students. This is why I chose to go to the Pedagogical College in the city of Orhei [40 kilometers north of Chisinau] after finishing ninth grade.”

 

Josan was astounded when her former student announced his decision, and couldn't help warning him that a teaching job was like an acting one – its true nature differs from the appearance of it.

 

Years on, Josan praises her former disciple. “He was a curious child, religious and gentle. He was different from other boys, and didn’t spend much time in their company, but in the company of girls instead. I noticed his interest in Romanian during my classes. If he couldn’t do something on his own, he would ask me how to do it.”

 

It was during college that the young man started wavering between education and faith. The death of his father, in his first year of studies, shook him to the core. Although he says they weren’t very close, his death still wreaked havoc on his soul. He lost all motivation, and was on the brink of leaving school. In the end, his college advisor managed to bring him back onto the path of faith.

 

And the path became clearer after he graduated from the Department of Linguistics, a distance learning department of Tiraspol State University, located in Chisinau.

 

He was feeling alone, forlorn, self-doubting, and without anyone to support him. His mother wasn’t someone he could trust. “She took a lover one year after my dad’s death, and that made us grow apart.

 

“I wanted to die. I had the feeling that I would never do anything right in my life. I didn’t know which way to turn. The salary of a young professor was miserly. Besides, it was only then that I realized how difficult is for a man to achieve results in teaching. And how would I support a family? I talked to my former professors, and they told me to avoid this field –  especially because the education system had become the subject of endless, unpredictable reforms.”

 

The Saharna monastery

 

The person who shook him out of his numbness was Father Irinarh from the Saharna Monastery. They had known each other for a long time, because the recent graduate had frequently visited the religious establishment. “He saw the state I was in. He proposed that I should come to the monastery for a couple of months, to help him, and for me to get back on my feet, morally speaking. And to decide what to do after that.”

 

That was how two months turned into years. At first, for a year, Vasilisc acted as Father Irinarh’s assistant. “A bit like a servant in a monastic cell. I would do the ironing, including the ecclesiastical clothing. After this, for a year I took care of the pigs, the chickens. At the same time, I would also frequent the monastery’s church.”

 

After taking care of the animals, something seen as a trial period for young, aspiring priests, he rose to the rank of rasofor – “when you’re a half-monk.” And, seven months later, he became a monk.

 

“For those who understand, becoming a monk is a calling from God. I don’t regret walking down this path at all. I also became a priest a few years ago – I can hold services and perform liturgies. At the monastery, every Sunday there are three priests holding the service, and I would always try to be the third one, because I needed this connection to God. This gives me strength.”

Back to the Grindhouse

 

After the Romanian-language course, the young man has two free hours, so he goes back to his office – a small room that he furnished as he could, given the state it was in when he came there. He still has trouble due to five little mice that live in his cupboard, but otherwise he is happy with the results.

 

He sits down at the table and reviews his teaching material. He has been preparing for the lesson since 4 a.m., but he says, “right now I am learning it in more depth.” When the school bell announces the break between classes, the professor gets up. He is also the advisor for sixth grade. “I'm going to check on them, otherwise they start beating each other up, cutting each other up.”

 

The children are happy to see him, and he inspects them. After that, he looks around the classroom, to make sure that everything is in complete order. “How about you straighten that tablecloth,” the monk says when he sees the last desk in the middle row. Seeing that no one rushes to do it, he does it himself.

 

The children are impatient to tell him about all their hijinks and all their disjointed ideas. He listens attentively to each one of them, and gives them advice. When he is leaving, he tells them, “Please be still and don’t do anything stupid.” And then he adds to himself, “They are going to tear this school apart.”

 

Back in his office, he sits down in front of the laptop again. He makes some small changes to the lesson plan, prints out some worksheets, removes some bibles from the shelves. He bought those bibles out of his own salary and donated them to the school. “I feel more at ease teaching religion than Romanian. But after today’s lesson, I am starting to fall in love with Romanian, too.”

 

The school bell announces the last break of the day. The monk calls in some students from the class for which he is the advisor, and asks them to help him carry the bibles and the projector. On his way to the building nearby, where he teaches Romanian, one of his disciples boasts that he read all the way up to Chapter 13 of the Gospel of St John. “You deserve a bravo!” the professor tells him.

 

For the lessons that are closest to his heart, the monk wears his priestly robe. The same ninth grade students await him, but the religion class passes in a more relaxed manner than the Romanian one. With the same interactive methods, with the same disarming sense of humor, Vasilisc the monk directs a 45-minute-long foray into the world of Lent.

 

Although visibly tired, the students are just as active as for the other class. Even Ghenadie is getting involved. “This is such a good day! It must be to make up for the rain outside, eh?” the professor cannot help joking. When some students seem tired, he encourages them, reminding them that he doesn’t grade participation in this class. He neatly writes down everyone’s answers on the blackboard.

 

The lesson comes to an end with everyone reciting the prayer “Our Father.” Vasilisc thanks the students for having been so inspired, and for arguing their opinions so well. The students thank him back.

 

His classes are among the most eagerly anticipated, because, according to Ana, a student: “it is easy to take his classes: he explains on the spot if you don’t understand, and he has a sense of humor.” Ana adds that she initially thought he was a harsh man with a stern face, but nowadays she sees him as her friend.

 

This impression is shared by one of her colleagues, Stanislav, who says that he understands very well the themes that his teacher discusses in class. “The professor is open. I like his lessons, he explains things very well. I didn’t get along with the previous professor. I had grades of 5 and 6 as well. But thanks to the priest, I started learning and got an 8!” [The grading scale runs from 1 to 10, with 10 being the best, and 5 being a passing grade].

 

*  *  *

 

Tired and perspiring after the religion class, Vasilisc starts working on his administrative duties, while munching two apples and a handful of walnuts. He finishes a number of reports and lesson plans, and at around 4 p.m. he gets ready to leave. He still has an hour until evening prayers, enough for him to change clothes and eat.

 

He says goodbye to his colleagues, and rushes towards the place he has been calling “home” for the last few years. Between the middle school and the Saharna Monastery, it is two kilometers uphill in the morning, and two kilometers downhill in the afternoon.

 

Around 8 p.m. he returns to his monastic cell and to his master’s thesis, The Founding of the Orthodox Church in Moldova. He decided to pursue a master’s degree at the suggestion of Metropolitan Vladimir, the head of the Moldovan Orthodox Church. When Vasilisc was ordained, he was asked about his studies. “The abbot at my church said that I went to the pedagogical college, and then I studied linguistics. He was trying to praise me. But Metropolitan Vladimir said that I needed to undertake theological studies, too.”

 

While working on his thesis, Vasilisc takes breaks to make calls to the middle school’s principal, remembering that he is due to draw up the plan of extracurricular activities for the following month.

 

Nowadays he rarely goes to the controversial Thursday evening services [at the monastery], where exorcisms sometimes take place. He doesn’t like what happens there.

 

Around midnight, the muse knocks at the door of his monastic cell, and then the pains of creation keep him up until morning, when he decides to go to sleep ... but not before posting his 30th poem on his Facebook page. He admits that he is a fan of Romanian poets George Bacovia, Eminescu, Stanescu, and Adrian Paunescu. These are poets that he didn’t enjoy that much before. “I’m growing up,” the monk says of himself.

 

After settling at the monastery, he had never thought that he would embrace a professor’s job. He sees the religious establishment as an inseparable part of his future, although in close connection to education.

 

“I’m not sure if I can still live in seclusion, because I now have the taste for being with people. In addition to teaching, there are many moments when I act as a missionary, as a sermonizer of God’s word. Faith is everything to me.”

Polina Cupcea is a reporte, photographer and the founder of Oameni si Kilometri, where this article was originally published in Romanian. Photos by Polina Cupcea. Translated by Ioana Caloianu.
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