A fragment of the Sisterhood Meeting…
Archpriest Andrew Lemeshonok (reads aloud a note): “Good evening, dear Father Andrew, dear brothers and sisters! I suggest that we talk about monasticism tonight, and more specifically, about what helped our sisters to choose this path. I would like our sisters to share their memories, to tell about the circumstances of their coming to the Convent and their first days here. What do they think monasticism is about, as far as their life in the Convent goes.” So the sisters are invited to share their experiences: what they have seen, what they have realized, how they have changed. There is a couple of names mentioned here. The first one is Nun Maria
Nun Maria: How I came to the Convent? Honestly, I remember much more vividly how I found myself in the Sisterhood. It was a much more vivid…
Archpriest Andrew Lemeshonok: …transition.
Nun Maria: Yes, a transition into a new life. It was a new stage in my life, and it was full of grace and joy.
Archpriest Andrew Lemeshonok: Can you tell us about this stage?
Nun Maria: I used to be a difficult personality. I studied in a university. I behaved in a strange way… Too weird, yes.
Archpriest Andrew Lemeshonok: Were you pretending to be weird or was it natural for you? Was it like what young people do nowadays? The stranger, the trendier.
Nun Maria: Well, yes, but my weirdness was too special, not actually typical of the youth. When I almost hit the rock bottom, I went for a confession to Father Andrew in SS Peter and Paul Cathedral. It was almost at night. It was there that a miracle happened: I realized that God is love and that He lives… My conscience changed completely in just one second, and I could see everything — people, my life, and myself — in a different way. In short, I had a radical transition: it all happened in one moment. It was after that moment that the people who had known me (my fellow students, my parents, my acquaintances) could no longer recognize me…
I was praying, “Lord, please give me many friends”. You know, in a child-like manner. So when I was a sophomore, I was admitted to the Sisterhood. I believe that those years were the happiest in my entire life: I had everything I needed – friends, grace, and love. I found a new life; I finally began to live, because before that I only had bitter feelings and protest. When I found myself in the Sisterhood, everything became very good. The Convent brings another set of recollections: it was another stage, a very painful one. Generally, the first year of our Convent was a difficult time. I prefer to recall the grace I had in the Sisterhood, it has been my refuge ever since, I think…
Archpriest Andrew Lemeshonok: What did you figure out for yourself in the Convent? I mean, you came here, you were a postulant, a young and inspired person. You spent one year here, then another year… You had to get firmly rooted on this Church tree, that was why you had to endure misunderstandings, struggle, tears, and suffering. However, it was not for no reason; it made you stronger. I found trouble and sorrow. Then called I upon the name of the Lord (Ps. 116:3-4). Now you are more or less an experienced nun. What have you learned, what have you understood, what have you seen?
Nun Maria: It is hard to say exactly what I learned. Perhaps, I learned to make sure that I never leave people alone when they face problems. When I feel bad, I can be terrified and say, “I don’t actually want to suffer and sympathies.” For example, the situation with Tanya. Even now, I feel guilty because I could not be close to her in the most difficult time of her life. I took a step back. My instinct of self-preservation was stronger than my moral obligation…
You see that you are still weak and you hope that the Lord will help you, and that when you deal with another person, and things go bad, unbearably bad, you still must not be faint-hearted.
Honestly, I have yet to learn this skill. I spare myself and I do not trust God. One must have the experience of victory. That is, if at least once in your life you had this little experience of winning, next time it will be easier for you to believe that you will manage to survive with God’s help. Now, I have only had the experience of failures.
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Archpriest Andrew Lemeshonok: Whenever you are in for struggle, you suppose that you will lose as usual, right?
Nun Maria: Yes, you think, I am bad, weak, and unable to do anything.
A sister: Can I ask you a question? Mother Maria, you said that you were weird when you were younger. Young people are weird nowadays, too. What would you advise their parents to do? How would you at that time prefer the people around you to deal with you?
Nun Maria: I will be honest: I am a person who, when I get to a certain point, no one can help me on the mental, on the human level. God must act. All I need in such moments is to feel God act through my spiritual father, to see that the Lord heals me. Only after that, humans can help me. Otherwise, it is all in vain.
The same sister: What did your parents do in such situations?
Nun Maria: No, you see, they were doing everything they could — I mean, they did not send me packing, well, and they were patient and hopeful. They could not do much more than that. Each person is different, so I cannot say… Perhaps, you could help other children if you act in a different way.
Archpriest Andrew Lemeshonok: Children need a good thrashing, don’t they?
Nun Maria: They tried beating me, they tried everything. As a result, I ran from home when I was sixteen. You had better not risk using corporal punishments in such cases.
Archpriest Andrew Lemeshonok: A carrot instead of a stick is a better choice, perhaps?
Nun Maria: No, Father, no. Honestly. If the Lord had not showed me his miraculous help, nothing would have helped me. Only a miracle could save me. The Lord showed his mercy towards me.
Archpriest Andrew Lemeshonok: Thank you! Now the floor goes to Novice Xenia.
Novice Xenia: Speaking of what brought me here, I think it was the beauty that I saw. In fact, I used to read many lives of the saints when I was a child, and it was such an inspiration for me to read about the saints who lived in monasteries or in a desert or in the woods. How they worked hard to become holy. It was so beautiful, you know: they lived, struggled, and became saints…
I also remember the Sunday School of SS Peter and Paul Cathedral. There was a teacher in the prep group (I was seven at that time) who told us a lot about the saints. I remember her well. Later I went on a pilgrimage to Polotsk with the same Sunday school class, and I remember that journey, too. I can say that as soon as I learned that monasteries and monasticism exist, I dreamed of living like that.
Archpriest Andrew Lemeshonok: Especially since your mum did not prevent you from doing that, right? She took you to church often, didn’t she?
Novice Xenia: Yes, she did.
Archpriest Andrew Lemeshonok: Was it really important?
Novice Xenia: You know, when you are a child, you are not aware of it and, perhaps, you don’t realize it at all; you just go to church because there are other children like you, and you sit together in the classroom and listen to what is being said. That is, I did not think whether it was normal or not, it was natural. It remains in my memory. When you grow up, you certainly remember it.
Archpriest Andrew Lemeshonok: So you came to the Convent. What have you realized, what have you seen, what have you learned? For how many years have you been here?
Novice Xenia: Two years and a half.
Father Andrew: Two and a half years. You see, it’s a lot of time already.
Novice Xenia: I have many recollections from my childhood, not about my life in the Convent but about how we started visiting the Convent. I remember Nun Martha being a lay sister, painting the walls near the boarding home for adults; I remember us going to the hospital unit. I was eight, I believe. Then, generally, I recall the choir. I started singing in the choir when I was thirteen, and I learned a lot during the rehearsals. I simply looked at the sisters, how they talked with each other; I got to know their characters and remembered it… I liked this community and it was interesting for me.
Archpriest Andrew Lemeshonok: So it was the environment you grew up in, right?
Novice Xenia: Yes, it was. Speaking of what I have learned here… I don’t know, it seems to me (at least, I hope so) that God chooses each person. I have seen it happen with other people so I dare hope that He chose me, too. If you keep doing simple things right, you will get the expected result.
Archpriest Andrew Lemeshonok: Well, yes. You came to the Convent, doing what you’d read when you were a child: you stay in the Convent and you expect to become a saint. Of course! Well, is there any other option? Why should people come here, if not to become saints, why do they come to the Convent? Just for fun? Just to live here? I don’t think it is worth the effort. So anyone who has children or grandchildren willing to become monastics, tell them that they should go to the monastery as early as possible, preferably when they are 17. As soon as they graduate from school, they should come to a monastery. It is because the older you become, the more difficult it is to make this step. A nun who had been in the Convent since she was 12 told me that this is the best age, when a child is no longer really a child but is placed into the conditions, as Xenia has said, into the environment that really shapes them. When a person grows up in a secular and sinful environment, when she is wounded by sin, it is very difficult to learn how to live differently. It is very difficult, they have to suffer a lot. An individual cannot become a different person at once, that is natural. Thank you.
Nun Anfisa: As soon as I came to church in Vileyka and got to know the faithful, I almost immediately went on a pilgrimage to Polotsk, where I discovered the beauty of the church and at the same time the beauty of monasticism. I must have immediately become unable to imagine my life without it, although it took me a long time of study and participation in the parish life before I came to the Convent.
Later I came to Minsk, to the SS Peter and Paul Cathedral, and began attending Father Andrew’s talks and heard that there was a Sisterhood and that there was going to be a convent soon. It was then that I felt it was the right place for me to be, my calling, and there was no other place to look for.
Archpriest Andrew Lemeshonok: What have you understood after staying in the Convent for some time? Which are some of the discoveries you have made? Did anything change inside you, in your way of seeing things? What are the results of your life in the Convent? What have you learned?
Nun Anfisa: Well, I am in the process of learning. I continue to learn the lessons I started learning before I came to the Convent. For me, monasticism means mastering the skill of living a genuine life; a genuine life is the life of the heart and is intrinsically related to living together with other people. Monasticism is, perhaps, about the purity of one’s heart.
I have learned that I have to humble myself down and learn a lot, and that this is the most important thing there can be.
Archpriest Andrew Lemeshonok: Do we need our entire lives to learn it?
Nun Anfisa: Yes, we do. The more you live, the better you can see how weak you are.
Archpriest Andrew Lemeshonok: Have you experienced a spiritual victory? Nun Maria has not, and she is upset because of that.
Nun Anfisa: Well, I cannot recall some huge feats. However, I recall the words of St Silouan the Athonite who said that there are numerous miracles in the Church but the greatest miracle is when one has an evil heart and then suddenly this evil heart transforms into a kind heart, that is, when the Lord triumphs in one’s heart. I remember several times when the Lord worked such miracles with me, too.
Archpriest Andrew Lemeshonok: That is, your evil heart suddenly became kind.
Nun Anfisa: Yes, all at once the light of love would shine after I struggled for a long time.
Archpriest Andrew Lemeshonok: Did you draw inspiration from it to keep struggling?
Nun Anfisa: Of course, this is like Pascha!
Archpriest Andrew Lemeshonok: Thank you! Now let’s listen to what Nun Menodora has to say.
Nun Menodora: I also remember very vividly how I came to the Sisterhood and the time I spent there. Novice Xenia has said that she used to be dreaming about some spiritual feats; on the contrary, I had never thought I would become a nun. Nevertheless, the Lord has brought me here. It must be because I, too, recognised the beauty that shone forth through monastic sisters. I stayed in the blue cabins near the Convent during the second half of my fourth year at the university and during the entire fifth year. Even there I did not plan to become a nun; I had not reached a final decision. After I encountered the sisters, I simply could not imagine a different life for myself. I am until this day grateful to God that they tolerate me in this community.
As far as my family is concerned, I was always devoted to home life, I was very affectionate to my parents and my family. Prior to my coming to the Convent, I was afraid I could not live without them. I remember how I defended my diploma, and Father Andrew sent me home for a week in order to make a final announcement to my parents that I was going to the Convent to become a nun. I went there, afraid that my mother would cry. Father Andrew assured me, “Go home and do not fear anything.” So my mother was seeing me off and crying hard – and she is a person who cries very rarely, I cannot even remember seeing her cry – now she was carrying my bag and tears were flowing from her eyes. For some reason, I was calm and almost heard a voice saying, “Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.” I thought, “She is crying now because she cannot understand anything at all.” Certainly, she had to cry a lot during my first year at the Convent but now she is a happy person; she is happy that I am a nun and she wishes her second daughter had taken the same road, too.
I remember the first night I spent in my cell. It was the only time when I cried and thought, “How can I live without my mum?” The following day, it was over and I do not remember if I ever missed my family again. The Convent is my family; I must have become a nun precisely because I felt that this was my family. I hope that this fact will keep giving me strength.
Archpriest Andrew Lemeshonok: What have you learned in the course of your life in the Convent?
Nun Menodora: I think I have learned that monasticism means forgetting oneself.
Archpriest Andrew Lemeshonok: Thank you! Nun Athanasia goes next.
Nun Athanasia: It was God’s love that I felt, perhaps, throughout my entire life that brought me to the Convent. The very moment I decided to come to the Convent, I felt as if I had wings and could fly. Personally, I consider monasticism to be the most genuine thing there can ever be in life, and the longer you stay in the Convent, the better you can see that you should devote yourself to God. Of course, you will run into some resistance: your ego will rebel against it all the time but you are fully aware that there is only one way, and the boundaries you have set are constantly dwindling. As I used to say, there are certain moments when you feel as if you are a rod in God’s hands, a God’s rod. You may even be unable to explain this, perhaps, because you are frightened and you understand that it’s going to be painful but on the other hand, you want it to happen because God reveals to you something radically different from what you have learned so far. When you are in the Convent (at least, this is true for me), the Lord allows me to feel such unity that I could not be able to feel in the world. I did feel it but here it is both completely different and much more profound… I don’t know how to explain this, Father, you simply have to feel it.
Archpriest Andrew Lemeshonok: Do you mean the depth of life that you cannot feel while you are in the world (for you are part of this world)? It is just impossible, isn’t it?
Nun Athanasia: Yes, it is impossible. It dawned on me only after my monastic tonsure.
I remember the evening when Father Andrew blessed me to become a novice. Nun Maria was the prioress at that time. She hugged me so welcomingly. “That’s it,” she said. “You are one of us now.” They ushered me to my cell. When I entered it, I had a feeling that the Lord had given me everything I needed. I felt so rich! That is, I no longer needed anything at all: Neither food nor, frankly speaking, sleep. I simply realized that I had found everything I needed. Of course, later there used to be sorrows and difficult moments. However, that first night in my cell was a very happy one. God allowed me to feel that I finally found what I really needed.
Archpriest Andrew Lemeshonok: Well, what have you figured out in all these years? What have you learned?
Nun Athanasia: First of all, I am very grateful. I thank God that I came to this Convent and that we have you, Father, because I had a wrong perception of monasticism before I came to the Convent. One can read many books and listen to many edifying sermons but it is here that you see it for real. There was a period in my life when I had illusions and dreamed about monasticism but this was wrong. It is only when you struggle, fall and rise up again, that something real is born.
Nun Lubov: My path to the Convent might appear uncommon, or maybe it will resonate with some people, especially those with children. It was my son who brought me to the Convent and to God in general: he took my hand and led me to my baptism, to my first confession, and even to the Convent with a suitcase, saying, “Mum, this is the best place in the world.” Even though I was ready for this move, this was the joy that we — a mother and a son — had in common. My son had been an obstacle on my road to God, but then, thanks to God’s mercy, everything was settled down: God took his rightful place in our midst, and a new life began for both of us.
Currently, my son also helps me when the going gets tough. He supports me but our relationship is now different. Today I cannot say for sure that it was my son who brought me to God. I was brought to God by the believer who had found the faith through a very hard trial. Today I fully entrust his fate to God and can live and work in peace, knowing that he is in reliable hands.
What did I learn in the Convent? I have learned that I have a lot to do, that I have little time, that the time is dense.
I used to dream about a big family. I could not imagine how one could have so many children: you can adopt five or even ten children from an orphanage. But I wanted more. I did not understand what I was dreaming about, I thought about marriage and about having a very big family. I wanted it so badly and so sincerely that I even did not pray, did not ask God for it because I did not know how to express it. See what a family the Lord has given to me! Could I have dreamed of it?! I did not know these words: “convent”, “family”, “sisters”. How many of them do I have now? One hundred? One hundred and five? How much He has given to me, how abundantly! If you love or want to love each sister, the more sisters — and not just sisters but all people you meet — there are, the more this love will grow. Sure, this is very difficult.
Archpriest Andrew Lemeshonok: You are incharge of the church booth. The people who visit our Convent, they come to God, and your first word is very important for some of them, especially the newcomers. Perhaps, we should see them as children, too?
Nun Lubov: You know, I used to think that this is one of the easiest obediences. Many people still think it is, because it seems that there is nothing special about it, not much effort is needed. I would like to say that I ask God every morning to grant me three things. One is to prevent me from thinking that I am better than the people who approach me, that I am a know-all (and I am at high risk for being one, because I am by nature and by profession a teacher, and I love teaching). Secondly, I ask the Lord to keep me against ascribing His glory to myself. And finally, I ask Him to be the One who meets His own people, who comforts them, and to keep me from being an impediment for such an encounter.
When I remember this, the Lord does His work. The Lord cannot do bad, the only thing I must do is stop messing with what He does. This is very hard. It is very hard but it is very pleasant to meet people. People are drawn to God and absolutely love our Convent. I hear so many kind words about our Convent, about our priests and our sisters! This is a great joy. We have one heart and are united in spirit.
As far as my monastic experience is concerned, I have not yet had it. I mean, one must have a nun’s soul to be a real nun. I have a long road in front of me. Everything is too superficial; it seems that I start everything all over again every day. If there is a beginning, there can be no end. Given that I came to the Convent at a not-so-young age, and started, as Father Andrew told me on that day, my life “from scratch”, imagine how I have to get younger and younger every day, with this new life. This life is hard but very happy.
Archpriest Andrew Lemeshonok: The question is, then, why didn’t you just stay at home, in full and mutual understanding with your beloved son, go to church, look after your grandchildren and take them to church with you. What else would anyone need? This is harmony. And suddenly you go to the Convent and begin a totally different life.
Nun Lubov: Yes, it is a totally different life. You see, if I stayed at home… For some people this may sound weird and funny but I have come to the Convent in order not just to become a nun but also, first of all, to become a true Orthodox Christian, a good Orthodox mother, and a good Orthodox grandmother. Only then will I become a nun because at home, everything is different: there are so many troubles and issues to resolve. Here I can spend more time bringing up my children, for instance, I can share my own experience with them. Loving my son at home and loving him while being a nun are two different things. I would like my son to perceive me as a nun. This would be great. I am also happy that the Lord, in his mercy, has granted us this chance.
I cannot even fully comprehend his mercy, I cannot accept it because it is more than my human power can bear. This nonrefundable God’s love towards us humans who can never pay for it is indiscernible by reason, it is beyond the control of the heart, it is higher than anything on the earth. God loves us for no reason whatsoever, although we do not deserve it.
Archpriest Andrew Lemeshonok: As Archimandrite Tikhon, the vicar of the Pskov Caves Lavra, put it, “Lord, save me for no reason. I don’t deserve it but I still ask you to save me.”
Nun Lubov: Yes, that’s what I wanted to convey: there is nothing we can do to make ourselves worthy of salvation. The more I work and toil, the deeper I see the greatness and the power of this love.
A sister: May I ask you a question? Mother Lubov, you worked as a sister of mercy in the Hospital No.1, didn’t you?
Nun Lubov: Yes, for many years.
The same sister: May I remind you something? I was in hospital, and you were a janitor there. All patients used to say, “Whenever she is on duty, she comes and cleans everything up so well and…”
Nun Lubov: Oh no, please, don’t…
The sister: Why not? What Sisterhood were you in?
Nun Lubov: I’d like to bring up a different topic. I spent seven years working there. Five years, no, seven years have passed since that time. Today there are icons in each ward, at all nurses’ stations, in the halls – and it makes me happy. Priests distributed the communion to the ill very actively. It was a great place, like the heaven. I fell there due to my pride…
Seven years of my work passed like one day. A janitor’s work is tough. The rector of my parish church blessed me to nourish the ill spiritually in my hospital unit. Everything was fine, I did not worry about anything, I don’t understand how I could be so relaxed, and what this life was like. That place was my convent. I clearly did not understand much. But the Lord protected me.
However, they started to insult me, they said that someone had fallen because I wiped the floor too carelessly, whereas I had wiped it twice… Well, they began to persecute me, the Lord allowed that. So one day, six and a half years into my job, I was walking down the corridor and thought, “Imagine, there are eleven hospital buildings and hundreds of staff here but there is no one like me, and they are opposed to me.” That was the thought that led me to disaster. Even today, I have this high self-esteem, like Nikon (Vorobyov) who said when he returned from exile, “I returned from the exile and I still had a high self-esteem.” You see, it was my pride, my vainglory.
So after all that, six and a half years into my ministry in the hospital, the persecution reached its peak, so I had to relocate to another unit, where I spent half a year. The conditions there were even more difficult, I was not even allowed to enter the wards – people were hostile towards Christ. However, the head doctor of that unit helped me.
I retired on the day I was 55. I was exhausted physically due to the fact that I did not understand many things, I bit more than I could chew but the Lord had still preserved me. I retired, and now I think, why am I afraid of asking for a blessing to visit the hospital? I somehow feel that my retirement and abandoning the hospital altogether was some sort of betrayal. However, I started to visit the Convent daily and participated in the meetings here, and I got to know all the nuns. One day I approached Father Andrew and asked him for a blessing. He answered, “Would you like to stay in the Convent?” I was literally unable to utter yes…
The sister: I stood up because I have something in mind. Do you mind asking Father Andrew to bless you to visit the adjacent mental hospital? We used to listen to you until midnight. How did you manage to get home after midnight, I don’t know. The bedtime in the hospital started at 10pm, and then people would say, “Our janitor is going to come and visit us today!” The well-educated woman would come, and we would listen to her, I mean, to you. You would leave after midnight, while we kept discussing what you had said…
Nun Lubov: Father?
Archpriest Andrew Lemeshonok: Alright. The last one is Postulant Veronica.
Postulant Veronica: I have attended church since the time I was a child. My parents sent me to a Sunday School of SS Peter and Paul Cathedral. That was how, praise the Lord, I grew up to be a fifth-grade pupil. And then my mum stopped going to church.
Archpriest Andrew Lemeshonok: Your mum had been our sister of mercy and visited a hospital unit. What about you?
Postulant Veronica: I always followed my mum, so I stopped going to church like she did. It lasted for some… five years. I was in my teens. I went through partying and false friendships. It does leave scars, anyway… Xenia (we lived not far from one another and went to the same music school) managed to pull through this period but I… I am still ashamed of myself…
Archpriest Andrew Lemeshonok: She would go to church, while you were going to a party, huh?
Postulant Veronica: Well, yes. And then, praise the Lord, when I was in the tenth grade, thanks to my aunt’s prayers — she was in the Sisterhood — I returned to the church. I remember her come to our house and invite me to go to the church with her, but I was annoyed, “Why is she calling me?” because I knew that I had to go to a confession and repent. Nonetheless, praise the Lord, I gradually started to return to the church, attend services, confessing and taking communion.
Seeing God act within one’s heart, changing it little by little, is fascinating. It is barely noticeable but gradually you begin to understand the worship when you listen to it, one word at a time. It penetrates into your heart. You begin to understand prayers, then your outlook starts to change and many things no longer interest you.
As far as my coming to the Convent is concerned… I was very eager to become a full time undergraduate student, I was willing to study but I did not pass. So I went on working in the Convent. That was God’s Providence, of course. Praise the Lord. So I had to study part time and I spent six years studying and working in the Convent at the same time. By then, I was already a member of the Sisterhood, by God’s mercy. I was unsure which path to take in life but I never disregarded monasticism. That is, I considered both options – either family life or monastic life. I was in doubt which of these to follow.
Archpriest Andrew Lemeshonok: When a guy looked at you, you’d start to think of family life. When he turned away, you’d begin to consider becoming a nun, right?
Postulant Veronica: Sure, it took me a long time to weigh in all the pros and cons and to make up my mind because I did not want my becoming a nun to be caused by not being able to get married.
Archpriest Andrew Lemeshonok: Yes, that’s depressing. Absolutely depressing.
Postulant Veronica: Exactly. So step by step you come to realize that nothing in the world interests you anymore. I spent time with pious sisters, walking and talking about spiritual matters. That is, something in my soul was drawing me closer to God, albeit imperceptibly. I was very undecided but suddenly it dawned on me that I had to go and ask Father Andrew for his blessing to become a postulant in the Convent. I would probably never dare do that.
Archpriest Andrew Lemeshonok: Do you regret doing so?
Postulant Veronica: No, I don’t. Naturally, I cannot give the final verdict about what monasticism really is. One thing I know for sure: I fear to spend all my life living in the Convent and not to be saved in the end. I would very much like to get saved in the end and to be God’s friend, as Elder Silouan says in his book: you know, when God replied to a monk that all people who call upon his Name even once in their lifetime will be forgiven. The monk was surprised, “Why then do we need to suffer so much, living an ascetic life and praying all the time?” The Lord replied, “Those who suffer for My sake, they will be My friends.” This is what I want to achieve and ascend to that level in the Convent.
A sister: How did you mother react to your decision?
Postulant Veronica: My mother? Well, she looked glad. She let me go and blessed me. Of course, this is a transition and a breakup. I am currently in the process of getting over it. It is difficult but you have to get over it in order to move on to a higher level.