For centuries monasteries have been the cause of a certain human fascination, often mixed with mystery and legend. However, the choice to completely change one’s lifestyle to another, seemingly more limited and regulated, raises questions as it is a remarkable phenomenon. Let us also not forget that the «normal» lifestyle, focused on family, house, car, money making, and permanent occupations, is based on even more rules, just more complex ones. Also, accepting a monastic life is not always an individual choice.
The documentary Diary of a Bride of Christ by Marta Smerechynska gives us a unique chance to follow up on one of these decision-makers in an intimate way, as the filmmaker is the sister of its protagonist, the young nun Nastia. After an initial reaction of shock to her sister’s decision, Marta decided to follow her to the monastery in order to understand those who did the same. She sought to do so without prejudice or fixed ideas since she also doubts her «normal» life and filmmaking.
In the Greek Catholic Church, consecration rituals are visually quite harsh. The women have to go on the ground and lie on their stomachs, with all members stretched out. But besides this martial moment, Smerechynska also lets us be part of a joyful, singing and playful community, marked by smiles and jokes, where everything is shared, and daily work is wholly integrated into easy-going togetherness. Also, self-irony isn’t missing here. In fact, it’s not difficult to understand why people choose such a form of life in dignity. To live the daily struggle, the aggressivity and exploitation that «normal» life inherits, one is forced by the obligation of permanent reorganisation to survive and be protected. In the monastery, the tasks are simple and acted in cooperation.
In the monastery, the tasks are simple and acted out in cooperation.
On the other side, Marta starts to realise that she missed many important moments to understand her sister, her worldview, her questions and doubts, and especially her tears, which she captured in their common childhood room. Coming from Argentina but now living in a newly founded monastery in Ukraine, Nastia has accepted «the call». This personal call from Jesus is an essential moment for all nuns. It is based on a deep feeling of guilt facing all that Christ has already done for them. Based on this guilt, one of the nuns formulates her decision: «I had to give him my whole life. It’s the least that I can do for him». Or even more radical: «There is no life without Christ». Some of the nuns came, as Smerechynska discovers, very young to the monastery; one was only twelve years old.
After accepting the call, everything feels correct and fixed. Finally, the pressure and fear of renunciation and loss are overpassed. But, of course, it would have been the task of another documentary to analyse the groundings of these impressions and guilt inputs fabricated by the Christian religion itself. Marta and her older sister Nastia are the daughters of a priest. Expectations had been implanted in them from the beginning.
This personal relationship with Jesus takes an even stronger and stranger form because Christ is the «bridegroom» of the nuns in a strict and intimate sense, about which they often even have problems to talk about.
The joyful and, at times – not in a pejorative sense – childish collective appearing being together is amazing. But it is also controlled by a strict and suggestive daily rhetoric focused on sacrifice, where any egoistic or egocentric intention should be excluded. Again, this strong and suggestive orientation system can be helpful for those confronted with challenging existential problems in their former lives.
Smerechynska’s intention carefully captures the nuns’ emotional and mental moves and drives. We don’t learn anything about its economic founding or the church’s organisation structures, the financing of buildings and daily life there besides that, the nuns are asked to go out to ask for money, promising to pray to the donor’s family members and friends, whose names they note. Also, all aspects of living sexuality are excluded from Smerechynska’s work.
Only in one scene does Smerechynska open up to more problematic possible implications of such intimate personal religiosity. During a highly emotional festivity, the nuns pronounce, in a martial way, their will to fight for the «Lord: I will raise my sword aloft highly as my Lord uses it. No one ever defeats Him». We can discover here the germs of a possible religious fanaticism deserting the path of all, including love.
Nastia and Marta are quite young. Nastia will soon leave the Ukrainian monastery to follow up with religious studies in Italy. Many posed questions are still open. It would be joyful to follow them in the future.