Christ called on all Christians to live in the world without being of the world. They set high standards of piety and drew many to the faith by presenting to them examples of a pious life, as warriors in a spiritual struggle against our inner enemy. Empires fell apart. Revolutions and pestilences changed the course of human history. Amid widespread despair, many Christians set themselves an even higher standard of Christian life by promising God to live in celibacy, prayer, obedience, poverty and fasting, in a hermitage or in communities called monasteries. In our time, this tradition is still alive.
In the last weeks of the Great Lent, Mother Euphrosyne, the Mother Superior of Saint Elisabeth Convent, was interviewed on Belarusian Television about the meaning of monasticism and monastic life in our time. How do people become monastics? How is Saint Elisabeth Convent different from the other monasteries? What do the ancient monastic vows mean to us today? These were some of the questions discussed.
The interview takes place days before the birthday of Mother Euphrosyne, and we all join in wishing her a happy birthday and many years of life.
In this day and age, in a world that objectifies the female body, encourages people to take their liberties and eulogises gender equality, these women in black garments, guarded and circumspect, may seem to others like visitors from another planet. They are monastics, the brides of Christ, the women who vowed to spend their lives in seclusion, celibacy, obedience and prayer, and they continue to surprise the world with their life choices. Every so often, a secular man or woman will wonder, "Why are they doing it? What caused them to forego the happiness of family life, of being a mother, and other joys of womanhood?" Some believe that people come to a monastery after some personal drama. Others view monastics as misfits who could not find their place in the world. Some even go as far as condemning monastics for trying to hide behind monastic walls from the hardships of life. Only a handful will be inclined to think that these women are motivated by their heartfelt desire to serve God, with no fears or reservations, in full conscience and with love at heart. Volumes have been said and written about monasticism, its origins and roots and the attractions of this way of life.
The guest of our show, "the power of faith" is Mother Euphrosyne, Hegumeness of Saint Elisabeth Convent in Minsk.
Welcome, Mother Euphrosyne.
Thank you for coming. Rather than having a conversation about the life of Saint Elisabeth Convent, I suggest that we focus more on monasticism and the inner world of a monastic. Thank you for your willingness to discuss this challenging but exciting topic.
Let me start with a personal question if you do not mind. How did you become a monastic? How did it happen in your life? What brought you to monasticism? How did you make the decision? What did you take into consideration? When did you feel that you were ready, and how did you progress as a monastic - first as a nun, then as the hegumeness. Share with us some of your perspectives.
What brought me to monasticism? Nothing in particular. I was living in the world like everybody else, but some aspects of my life made me uncomfortable. I was looking for something different, but I did not know what it could be. I was searching, And I had been searching from my school years, perhaps. I had no figures of authority. People were saying one thing, thinking another and doing something very different. I came from an unbelieving family, where the name of God was never mentioned. There was no single event or circumstance that brought me to the Convent. There were many.
You say you come from an unbelieving family. How did you first come to church? What was your motivation? Tell us more about this moment.
On my first visit, I did not even enter the Church - the Metropolitan Church. A friend was having a wedding there. I did not come in. I chose to stay outside together with the other guests. We all waited patiently for the end of the ceremony. Only later did I have the feeling that I needed to be at church. I visited one church, then another. Then came that memorable moment. It was on Forgiveness Sunday. I had a feeling of guilt before my family and friends. I was in this state of mind. After several more visits, I met some sisters of charity in white garments. Father Andrey Lemeshonok, the confessor of Saint Elisabeth Convent, was then an on-call priest at the church. I approached him, we had a conversation, and I joined the lay sisterhood. That was in January 1997, one year after Metropolitan Philaret, Primate of the Belarusian Church, gave his blessing for the first sisters to join. That opened a new chapter in my life. I received an obedience. I began to visit the patients of the mental health clinic receiving treatment for drug dependence. As soon as I joined the sisterhood, I knew I was in the right place and had found my calling. It felt like... coming home. I had the sense that I had always belonged there, and there was not a trace of a doubt or hesitation. Gradually, my obedience led me to become a monastic.
That sense of belonging - and the inner peace that you experienced then - are they with you still? Have you ever regretted your choice in your moments of difficulty?
Regrets? I never had any regrets, but I have had some difficult times because there is always an ongoing struggle within us. God gives us a lease of His grace that lifts us above the ground. But sooner or later, He puts us back on our feet to teach us how to walk. As you learn, you may fall many times and scratch your knees. But there can be no learning without the pain. The source of our pain is the sin that distorts our nature. It lives within us, and it has not gone anywhere.
Speaking about the reality of our temptations or trials... Some may not believe it. But if God exists, so, too, must its antipode. They say that monastics have an acute sense of this reality, and they tend to be more vulnerable to attack than the rest of us. Does this ring true to you?
As an Orthodox Christian, I disagree. Any Christian - monk or layman - is vulnerable in the same way, all can come under attack. The enemy of the human race is keen to see our demise and lead us away from God. We are all in the fight - even unbelievers, although they may not realise this. But a believer is more conscious and more aware of this ongoing struggle.
Why would someone join a monastery? As you said earlier, many monastics take time to reach some degree of spiritual maturity. So when someone becomes a monastic, how does that happen?
It is beyond explanation. There is no way we can understand it rationally, it is a lived experience. It is like asking why we fall in love or why we marry. My mother told me about a handsome young man. He was going out with her but married another woman who looked very ordinary. Everybody asked him what he had found in her. But he answered, "If you saw her with my eyes, you would understand." The same is also true for coming to a monastery. It is a mystery of one's relationship with God, and a calling from Him. The Lord Himself tells us, "you did not choose me, but I chose you!" He says so to every Christian. Monasticism is a calling from God. No one can succeed in monasticism without it.
Do you know of any people who took their vows but changed their minds later?
Sadly, that happens. It happened to people before, it is happening now and will likely happen in future. A battle is raging in our hearts, and there will be casualties. Some people make a promise to God, and break it. It saddens God, and is a bitter tragedy for the person.
Where do most temptations come from - from outside, the secular world?
It varies. Some people cannot endure their spiritual battle and break. But the enemy persists. He knows our soft spots and strikes at them. When we do not confess some sin and do not repent of it, we make our enemy stronger. We may seem immaculate in our behaviour, we may outwardly obey every rule, but still, be vulnerable within. But even then our position is not hopeless. The Lord is always waiting. Sometimes, the people who leave come back. Some return decades later. They repent, and The Lord welcomes them back.
Is that a possibility, too?
What is more important for a monastic - to liberate their soul or to exercise vigilance and self-control?
I doubt if one can have freedom without self-restraint. But what do we see around us? People are free to do what they like. The result? Six-year-old children now get to decide who they are - a boy or a girl. If we wish to remain human, we must have limits, we need to continue our inner struggle with the enemy within ourselves. Myself included. Freedom without self-restraint will be an end to our humanity. Once man turned his back on God, he broke all ties with Him. But no man can live without Him. Many unbelievers with moral principles think they have made themselves who they are. In truth, they are living good lives by the grace of God and His Divine intercession. They have His grace because someone else is praying for him - privately, at churches or at monasteries. It is perhaps for the sake of these prayers that the Lord still keeps our world under His protection. He protects us so we hold on to our humanity.
How many of the sisters had a family in the world but left it behind to become monastics?
Some did. Most of our sisters are middle-aged women. Some are widowed, others divorced.
But when a very young woman approaches you, do you discuss with her the implications of their decision, and how it may clash with the natural desire of many women to marry and have children? Do you have these discussions and talk through all these things?
Certainly, by all means. Monasticism is a major life decision, and no one should take it lightly. Everyone should think carefully about what they value and what kind of life they want. As monastics, we must do everything in our power to help them be honest with themselves about their reasons and life goals. But whatever we decide, we still cannot escape the inner struggle. Even when we have made the best, most thoughtful and considered choice, the enemy will still send us temptations. In this struggle, we strengthen our will and determination to proceed.
What is your position on the role of women - lay, not monastic, in the family? The Church teaches women to respect their husbands, and the patriarchal tradition magnifies their roles as mothers and home keepers. But the modern world sends women a different message. It teaches them to struggle with men for equality, and push for an end to the restrictions on their choice of occupation. Some choose to become the breadwinners, leaving their husbands to keep the house. What effect is this having on women?
Emancipation is underway, and its results are already in plain sight. Sadly, it does not seem that this change has made women any happier.
Women might do better if they looked to the Mother of God as their role model. She did not push for her rights, but carried her cross and pursued her life mission with humility.
People come to you. They join your monastic family with its set of rules and traditions. But people are people, and they have their moods, their ups and downs. Occasional differences of opinion or misunderstandings might escalate into disputes or bitterness. How do you address these situations?
Like any other family, we may have our moments of difficulty, disagreements and misunderstandings. These things happen. They teach us to find and overcome weaknesses in ourselves because the causes of our disagreements lie in our hearts. This applies to monastics, but also the laity and the world. The same commandments are given to all Christians, monastics or laymen.
What is your view on punishments? Do you use any punishments? Families discipline their children for wrongdoings, are there any consequences for monastics, and if so, what are they?
People nowadays have a short temper and take offence more easily than before. We inflict punishments on ourselves by facing the consequences of our inappropriate actions and our persistence in them. Nowadays, we tailor our reactions to every person. Sometimes, a warning about the consequences could suffice, and no further action may be necessary. Today, it is no longer possible to use punishments like before. It comes from the family and the education system - children nowadays listen to their parents and teachers much less than before. I was like that, too, and now I face the consequences. I asked for my mother's blessing to become a nun in a letter. She wrote back to me and said yes. Later, when I took Father Andrey's permission to visit her, she met me in tears. I said, "Why are you crying, mother? Haven't you given me your blessing?" She replied, "But I had no choice. If had I said no, would you have listened?" It was difficult at first. But my mother is a gentle and humble person. With time, she was happy with my decision. She departed to God as a Christian. My mother and father confessed and took communion before their departure. They did not become regular churchgoers because they only found God in their advanced years. But they departed as Christians. I am thankful to God for that.
In monastic life, material things may matter less than they do in the world, but women will be women... Are some of your sisters tempted... to use cosmetics, for example? Or some other worldly embellishments?
Not that I know of. It could be a misunderstanding. One sister, for example, changed the design of her inner cassock - she took it in. But these are very rare examples. They just do not fit into monastic life. Before joining the Convent, people are given plenty of time to reflect, ask around and learn about the rules. Living as a monastic is different from life in the world; and things that are fine for a worldly woman become irrelevant and unnecessary for monastics. Such as cosmetics. Now that's laughable. If anyone wants to use cosmetics, why would they join a monastery? There are no rules against cosmetics in the world. They can use it as much as they please.
You are open to the world. You maintain an extensive network of contacts. You run many projects and pursue a variety of initiatives. So how would you describe the purpose of your monastic lives? What is your mission?
Our Convent is distinct from many others, and God has a special plan for it. Life in the other monasteries is different. They have long histories. At some point, they were closed or destroyed but were rebuilt in recent decades. They had had time to establish their traditions. So when they rebuilt them, they sought to return to their roots, original practices and prayer life. But we started from a blank page. We built the Convent in the open space- there was nothing in it. Most sisters were recent converts at the beginning of their journey. They were doing obediences in the sisterhood and ministering among the hospital patients. Every monastery and church has some famous relic - a miracle-working icon, or a particle of a saint. But to us, our most precious treasure is the hospital patients who are reaching out to God. They come in contact with us, and many find God. We consider it our biggest achievement. Our ministry does not rule out the basic mission of any monastery, prayer for the world and the people. Angels illuminate the lives of monastics, and monastics pass their light on to the laity. We live to shine for others and illuminate their way. This task seems impossible, but it is pleasing to God. I feel His blessing and help in this ministry, and so we proceed with it. If it were not compatible with our purpose, or not pleasing to God, the situation would have been different. God would not have abetted something with which He disagreed. But so far, we have felt His grace and blessing. New sisters are coming, and many people are finding God.
Is people's interest in monasticism increasing, or has it plateaued? What is your perception?
I think it has peaked. People's interest in monasticism picked up in the 1990s, after the 1000th anniversary of the baptism of Russia.
When you encounter an atheist, what is your reaction? Do you try to convert him gently to the faith? Some of them are quite determined. What do you do then? Step aside? Which do you think is best: let people learn from their mistakes, or engage with them to bring them to the faith?
It depends. Some people should just be left alone. Others, who are more interested and responsive, should be helped and offered guidance. Without the grace of God, nothing will work, however hard you try. God never forces any person or brings him to Himself by force.
Does that apply to children? When a child is small, one can take them by the hand and bring them to church. But this tactic will not work for an adolescent. So should older children be allowed to follow their paths?
Certainly. Children and adolescents are distinct personalities. God respects their free will, too. If he accepts the choice of a monastic who broke their vows and left the monastery, why should not He respect the decision of an adolescent?
What is your greatest wish, your innermost desire, your greatest ambition that gives meaning to your life? If so, would you be comfortable sharing it with us?
I have a dream. I have it in my heart. Let me put it this way: my innermost desire is to stay with Christ and live with Him in eternity. And will dedicate my whole life to its pursuit.
Thank you very much for this interview and for being so open with us. Let me wish you and your sisters in Christ good health in the body and spirit, and fulfilment of your best wishes.
God bless! Thank you very much!