Stories of self-discovery and growth as told by our sisters

An exercise in self-discovery at the beginning of the Great Lent

Monastic and lay sisters

The Great Lent is the time for repentance, abstinence and spiritual growth. We cannot make progress without looking into our inner world to learn who we are. We need to look inward, not for our finite lives, but our salvation in eternity. The Lord has offered His ultimate sacrifice to make our salvation possible. The rest is up to us. Will we answer His calling, or continue with business as usual?

At their gathering on the first week of the Great Lent, the monastic and lay sisters of Saint Elisabeth Convent shared their insights and experiences of looking into their inner world. What did they see? What goals did they set for themselves, and by what means did they achieve them? Here are some of their first-person accounts.

Father Andrey Lemeshonok: the true heroes work hard to transform themselves from within

We look inward, and we begin to comprehend the bitter legacy of the biblical Adam. We realise its burden when we start a family or join the monastery. It is easy to be good, noble, humble and generous when we are on our own. As soon as we take responsibility for others, we find that we are not as righteous, generous or pure in the spirit as we imagined.

Consider, then, the magnitude of the challenge for the monastic sisters. People call them "matushkas", or "mothers" in Russian. They hold them to incredibly high standards of love, spirituality, humility, and meekness. But the monastics are keenly aware of the gap between expectation and reality and the long journey ahead. They acknowledge their deficiency with humility. Nevertheless, they live with the inner confidence of their victory, and this is already a significant achievement.

We are all difficult characters. Some people will go on for hours about their sinfulness. Not all of them, however, will begin to transform themselves, live simply and do their jobs with humility. Yet they are the real heroes.

Nun Tavifa Biriukova

Nun Tavifa (Biriukova): inspired by the anticipation of the Pascha

I always find it a challenge to enter a debate with someone with a different view from mine. I cannot attack my opponent, a sister, head-on. I cannot imagine telling her up-front that she is wrong, or has no idea what she is talking about. I feel the duty to listen and show understanding. I look for the right words to make her question her position. To me, it is quite a feat. I feel like I am standing on the edge, only a hair's breadth away from giving in. At the same time, I feel powerless to win he over because I lack confidence, have too little understanding of the truth, or cannot bring it across clearly and lucidly. To me, the debate becomes a formidable trial, from which I do not always emerge with distinction.

Instead, I come out with the sense of not showing enough inner strength. And that makes me lose my inner peace, balance and power of endurance. During the Lenten period, I feel this inadequacy very acutely.

But the Great Lent is distinct from all the other times because I believe in the rejuvenating power of the Pascha. To me, the Pascha is a beacon that lights my way, gives me the strength to go forward and direct my thoughts towards Christ. It is an inspiring time when my outward actions support my inner growth. Even a minor effort to constrain my desires benefits the body and relieves my soul. For all of us, it is a time of introspection and contemplation.

Sister Tatyana Gorodnikova

Sister Tatyana Gorodnikova: honing my skills at prayer and withholding judgment

We used to visit hospital patients, but now we cannot do so freely because of the quarantine restrictions. Yet these visits were a memorable experience. We spent all our time talking to the sick and reassuring them. The Lord rewarded us generously with the ability to recognise Him in others and the sense of inner growth. To continue my service to others, I joined the sisters to work at the stalls.

Our daily lives are full of routine errands and tasks. One succeeds another, leaving us too little time to stop and pray. My new obedience has been a great blessing in that regard: it gives me plenty of opportunities to pray. My prayers are my window on the beauty of the world and other people.

Here is a prayer that came to my mind recently, "Return to me, O Lord, the virtues that I lost in my transgressions." Saying it inspired me to reach out to all the people with my love. Once I was standing at the stalls in a central shopping centre. Crowds of shoppers were passing by, and not a single one stopped. Uncontrollably, tension was building inside me. I almost began to judge the people for being so callous. But then I prayed and felt the touch of God's grace. People continued passing by, but I found myself praying for them with love, and there was not a trace of condemnation in my heart. That way, my experience of introspection taught me some helpful spiritual skills.

Sister Marina Sergeyeva

Sister Marina Sergeyeva: let us obey our spiritual fathers

Recently, many of us watched the film "Where are you, Adam?" In one of its episodes, a confessor cried for his spiritual children, "I am taking another cross upon myself." That reminded me about my first meeting with my confessor, Father Andrey Lemeshonok. I was waiting to see him in the lobby of the Church of Saint Nicholas, and I watched the following scene. Two sisters, one in black and the other in white, were waiting impatiently for him to come. They were my namesakes. Finally, Father Andrey arrived. The first sister came to him and said, "Father, please send me to the farmstead; I do not want to stay here any longer, I am too uncomfortable." "Marina, go back to the church and pray. The service has not finished," he replied. "But I do not want to go back." "Go back and pray," he insisted. The other sister said, "But who are you to tell me what to do? Why should I listen to you?" I had not met Father Andrey before. Perhaps the Lord was trying to enlighten me about my thoughts and attitudes, and their potential consequences. Like the other two sisters, I would not listen to others or recognise any authority.

Finally, Father Andrew took leave of the two sisters, sat down next to me and asked, "What is your name?" "Marina," I replied with a sob. "You have not come to me with the same problem as the sisters before you, have you?"

Many people nowadays neglect their prayers and do not submit to authority, Lent or no Lent. I have the same problem, but I also have the time, will and means to deal with it. Still, I cannot bring myself to focus fully on my prayer or give it all my heart. I take the blessing of my spiritual father for each day. If I let myself take too many liberties, I know I will begin to slacken off. I will end up lying in bed instead of praying.

My experience has taught me to value the relationship of absolute trust with my confessor. In it, you withhold all judgement, positive or negative. It rests on full confidence and nothing else. Confessors know their spiritual children in and out. And that makes it a great feat to open up to God “the special you" in the presence of someone who knows you well. We all need a spiritual father whom we will obey, and ask for his blessing before making a decision. They can help us avoid a lot of mistakes. In the film "Where are you, Adam" the scene of the spiritual father crying for his children made me feel deep remorse. For this Great Lent, I have resolved to become more trusting and obedient.

Here is another remark from the film that motivates me in my resolve: "Imagine your life as a multitude of steps, and each day as a certain number of steps that you must walk. Then, out of a journey of a hundred steps, your would complete only three, and God would make the remaining ninety-seven for us.”

Let us listen, pray and work hard. Just think how much God loves us. I am a child of God, and He is leading me forward with His love alone. I realise the extent of His absolute love and the unlimited gifts He has bestowed on me, and I repent.

Father Andrey Lemeshonok

Father Andrey Lemeshonok: we cannot have the spirit without giving our blood

Most of us will have watched the film «Where are you, Adam?». The scene with the monks pushing their wheelbarrows reminded me about the days when I was working twelve-hour shifts at the Metropolitan Cathedral in Minsk. Pushing cartloads of cement and mixing it was physically enduring. I rested for 12 hours and returned for another twelve-hour shift. Despite being hard on me physically, this work was truly liberating. I did nothing else but work and rest, and that left me no time or space for untoward thoughts.

Hard physical work is useful for any monastic who wishes to break free from their passions. After taming one’s passions, one begins to grow spiritually. How is it possible to make spiritual progress without hard physical work? How can we have the spirit without first giving our blood?

The Lord has great wisdom. First, he gives us training and preparation. Only then does he let us go out into the open sea. Where are we sailing? Where can we go safely when sharks are all around us? But as we proceed, we realise that our greatest danger is not the sharks. It is our complacency, our love of idleness and our reluctance to shed our sweat and blood to sustain ourselves.

The Lord is our teacher and guide to His kingdom. He comes to us when we are at our lowest physically and spiritually. He touches us and changes us to the core. How wonderful! God's power is manifest in weakness. The Great Lent renews our spiritual life and changes our circumstances. Hopefully, we will all be able to realise our full potential for growth in this finite life.

March 08, 2022
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