Monday morning I was at work and my partner said, Catea, do you want to go to the church with me? I had just been thinking about how I had yet to visit a church in Moldova (not fully true; I went to a Catholic one once during PST - but I hadn't seen the inside of any Orthodox ones), so of course I said yes.
It was a holiday of some sort, which Google couldn't help me find the name of, so I'll just have to describe it and you can imagine.
We started by going to the well in the churchyard. Maria (my partner) had a jar that she filled up with water. Then we went inside the church, after she crossed herself at each door (I've noticed that while it is very common for people here to frequently cross themselves, she does it more often than anyone else I've seen).
There were many people inside, all standing and facing the front of the church, which I couldn't see very well from the back. Jars, buckets, water bottles, and other containers full of water lined the walls. Maria set down her bag with her jar of water in it and went over to a table near the entrance to buy candles. She left me where I was and went to a stand where she could light the candles and set them in a holder. She returned to me and we stood for a while. There was a group of about four people singing near the front, but it was hard to understand what they were singing about. Probably God? Seems likely, anyway.
People would enter the church every so often and most would go over and buy candles to light. It seemed hard to get to the candle holders after buying them because of how full the church was, but people persevered and made it up there somehow to light the candles.
Then Maria told me, Now I'm going up there and they'll put a cross on my forehead. Do you want to come with? So I thought it was some sort of Ash Wednesday thing and I said sure, because, why not. Figured I'd just be a month early for Ash Wednesday. She made me put my bangs under my hat so my hair didn't get messy. Everyone shifted around then, and people made lines going up toward the front, so we got in one of them.
Men came past us and at first I thought it meant the men got to go first, but they were actually just collecting the flags and going out with them. So we waited in line, and the line took us through some.. artifacts, for lack of a better term? Bibles on stands and icons and such, that most of the women bent down to kiss before crossing themselves and moving on to the next one. I just observed this part while making my way through the line behind Maria.
I didn't see anyone with a cross on their forehead, despite our being relatively near the end of the line. I saw the women kissing the priest after he painted something on their foreheads and I hoped I wouldn't be expected to do that, which luckily I wasn't. We got up to the priest and Maria was first. The priest painted her forehead and then she stepped aside and stood next to me. I put my one leu on the table (she had given me the bill and told me to put it on the table - I suppose it served as a place for the priest to set his jar of whatever he was putting on foreheads and as a donation pile) and the priest and I looked at each other..
He looked at Maria and said, Who is this? Maria proudly told him that I was an American, and that we have a volunteer. He said, Is she Orthodox? No, she said, Catholic. (This is what people understand I am, even though I tell them it's just kind of like Catholic.. So, whatever.) Then he asked if I understood Moldoveneasca or Russian, and she said I knew Moldoveneasca. He looked at me and said, Would you allow me to paint your forehead with this? So I said yes and he dipped his paintbrush into a jar and put a cross on my forehead. Then I realized that of course it was some type of oil, and that's why I couldn't see it on anyone.
This whole time I'm still wondering what the water is for, but it appears that we're leaving the church so I'll never find out.. Until I realize that it's not over.
We go outside and now the pathways are lined with people's buckets and jars of water, so Maria sets hers down out there and leads me away from it to the side of the church where there are 13 men standing in a line with rifles. Just when you think it can't get more interesting...
She tells me not to be afraid when they shoot their guns; paper will fall and people will rush to pick it up. But this doesn't happen for quite some time. First the priest comes out to the well and there is more singing and praying. The men who had come to get the flags are there by the well holding them. Then something is said and the men start loading their rifles. Something else is said and they fire the rifles three times, with time in between for people to gather the paper that falls. It seems to be a mixture of old documents, toilet paper (I can tell because there's pink in there), and scraps of newspaper, maybe. Whatever it is, people are very excited to get it. Maria says that her niece called her from Italy and told her to get some. I asked at least three people what the purpose of the paper was, and all I got is that you're supposed to put it near where you sleep.. But I don't know why. Unsolved mysteries, volume 264.
Then we move back over near Maria's jar of water and stand there. The priest comes by with incense, walking around to pass by everyone and their water. Then he comes back around, accompanied by a man carrying a bucket of water. He has a bouquet of dried basil that he dips in the bucket and then shakes over the containers of water, making sure drops get in every single one. He also shakes it at the people, which means of course I get a big spray launched at me. #blessed? He also breaks off sprigs of his bouquet of basil and gives them to people. Some people had brought their own basil and set it with their buckets. After he was done with the holy water, the service was over, but Maria told me to wait while she went to the priest to get a sprig of basil for the office. (Note that while I wrote this, I had filler words for "basil" because I did not know what the plant actually was until I asked just now, days later.)
I asked what they would do with this now-blessed water, and Maria told me that people would drink a little bit in the mornings - not every morning, but occasionally. She mentioned some other uses that I didn't quite understand, and said something about giving it to the animals perhaps.. So I'm really not sure on that either.
The church was really beautiful inside and I hope to get to go again maybe when there isn't a service to just look around at all the paintings and things.
Essentially, I went to this church service and I have no idea what happened. No, I know what happened, just not why or what the significance of anything was. Which I guess is par for the course in Peace Corps Moldova. I know that the next day was the day for Saint John the Baptist, but I don't know if these two events were related or not.