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Candle Workshop of St Elisabeth Convent: Stories of the Way to God

Candles, Prayer, and Redemption: Stories from the Candle Workshop

candle workshop

The candle workshop is a place of intense heat, both from the working temperature, which is typically between 35 and 40 degrees and from the continuous operations that define the entire candle-making process. It is managed by a group of brothers residing at the Convent's farmstead, each responsible for a specific stage. Any disruption at a single stage can bring the entire process to a halt.

“To keep the workshop going, the brothers must work at a consistent pace with a peaceful mind,” explains Ruslan Filipyonok, the workshop leader. He spares no effort in fostering this environment. The day begins with a prayer, and throughout their work, the brothers are accompanied by church hymns.

Brother Ruslan, the machine, wax

Brother Ruslan, the machine, wax

The production line is about to spring into action, and Ruslan gives a brief pep-talk to his team.

“Do not put your hands into the hot wax tank or introduce foreign objects. The material reaches temperatures of 73, 95, and 130 degrees,” He gives each brother a set of specific tasks, communicated in concise and seemingly cryptic instructions: “Chop 300 kg of eighties, 200 kg of hundreds. Denis, Vitalik — cut, Volodya — number three.”

The candle-making process unfolds in a series of steps. The wick is wound onto frames before being placed on the line, which the brothers refer to as the "carousel." As the frames are lowered into the tank filled with molten raw material and raised back up, the process resembles the graceful flapping of bird wings. Once the desired volume of material is achieved, the frames are cooled before the candles can be cut. Finally, the candles are packed and prepared for distribution.

Wick winding on frames
Wick winding on frames

Wick winding on frames, carousel

The workshop produces candles in an array of sizes, shapes, and grades. Paraffin candles serve as the economy option, while those made from wax represent a more luxurious choice.

”In candle making, one of the challenging aspects is in preparing the raw materials,” explains Ruslan, as he opens a large tank with melted wax, which looks like honey. “This is a working tank into which the candle is immersed. Next to it are two preparatory tanks. For a wax candle, the raw material needs to be prepared: brought to a certain temperature, filtered, and allowed to settle. Wax is a product of bee activity, and besides the wax itself, it contains various small particles that should not get into the candle. For a second or third-grade candle, a multi-component composition must be prepared.”

Ruslan continues: “It takes a day to prepare the wax for the candles. What we are going to work with today will have been finished yesterday. If there is a power outage and the composition no longer has the required temperature, the entire process will come to a halt in one way or another.”

Melted wax
Melted wax

Melted wax

Brother Vladimir: “There is no room for loneliness over here”.

The first step in making the candles is winding the wick onto the frame. There are about 20 different types of wick used in the workshop, each suited for a different type of candle. The right type of wick must be used for the candle to burn as needed.

A brother tells his story
A brother tells his story

A brother tells his story

Brother Vladimir is in charge of winding the wick onto the frame.

“The foreman comes up and tells me to make a “single”. And I twist here and here as he had instructed,” explains Vladimir. Then he attaches the wick to the end of the frame, presses the button, the frame rotates, and the wick is wound very quickly. He hangs the frames in a designated location.

The wick is wound
The wick is wound

The wick is wound

“This is one of the most responsible operations,” Ruslan explains, “although, at first glance, it seems like nothing special, as the process is automated. But if the wrong wick is selected, the candle will not burn as it should. The step of winding is also very important, as the candles could stick together during immersion if it is not done right. That is if the brother does not do his job right, we will not get any candles. If he makes a mistake, it cannot be corrected.”

When Brother Vladimir is done winding the frames, he takes a break from the process.

“If I start telling you my life story, it would take me at least three days to finish,” begins Brother Vladimir as he folds his arms on his chest, exposing a tattoo with the names “Volodya” and “Sveta” and a cross. “I made it as a juvenile,” he explains. “Volodya is me, and Sveta is my wife.”

e-cookbook

At 20, I went to the army, served in the railway troops in the Far East, near Vorkuta, and built BAM, a railway line in the Far East. It was still under Brezhnev... I punched a boss in the face and ran away. I would have been a fool to stay. I already knew I wouldn't be given a month for what I had done. And I was 20, with a wife at home and a newborn child. I wanted to see my child, so I ran to Moscow. They caught me and gave me eight years. I served, was free for a month, and again went to prison. I got released. I've been free for two months. My wife and I were walking through the park in the evening, and we met three drunks who started harassing us. I had a little knife in my pocket that I had never taken out before, but I had to use it then. I cut two of them, the ambulance took them away, and one ran off. I was protecting my wife and paid the price. It was my third time, and I got sentenced to 12 years. I served my sentence in Belarus. When I had already done eight out of the twelve years, my case was sent for investigation, and I got released. I came back home and told myself “Enough,” I cut off all ties, and I haven't been in those places since 1998.

Vladimir, the machine, and the wick

Vladimir, the machine, and the wick

When my wife died, I turned to drinking to cope. We had been together from 1973 to 2009, despite my three stints in prison, during which she patiently waited for me. After her passing, I couldn't bear to stay in the apartment where we had built our life together. My relationship with my daughter became strained, and she moved out. I was left with a profound sense of loneliness. I found employment at the “Zhdanovichi” market, where I heard women talking about the monastery. Intrigued, I decided to visit and eventually sold my apartment.

Though I was baptized as a child, I did not believe until 1973 at the age of 19. Before I went to the army, we were renovating our flat, and found a small cross, and then I asked my mum if I had been baptized and put it on. I did not understand anything yet: I'm baptized, so what? I didn't go to church. I started going to church regularly only after coming here.

Brother Vladimir

Brother Vladimir

There is no room for loneliness over here. Work has been a source of comfort for me. While I used to attend church infrequently, I now find myself drawn to it more often. As I approach my 70th year, I am aware of the fragility of my health and have earnestly prayed for more time, and I would be prepared to buy some (smiles). My days begin at 8:30 am and often extend until 10 pm or even midnight, as I dedicate myself to serving the Lord through my work. Sometimes, I begin at 5:30 and do not finish until 1 am.

I pray a lot, knowing that I have committed many sins. When I was young, I felt I did not need prayer. Now I regret many of my youthful actions and wish that I could turn back time.

Cooled frames with candles

Cooled frames with candles

Brother Dennis: “No church can be imagined without candles”

Brother Denis approaches the cooled frames and cuts the candles with a heated knife. He does it quickly and skilfully, with precise movements. The candles, cut from the bottom frame and tied with a wick to the top one, begin to sway like a curtain in the wind. As the frame is cleaned of the adhered wax, the wax falls into a special box, to be reused in future cycles.

Periodically, Denis notices bumps and irregularities on the candles. Then he bends the end upward so that the brothers who do the packaging notice the defect. A proper candle should be even. “What the Lord drew our attention to, and anything that catches the eye is already a defect. We do our work for God,” says the brother. Then, without interrupting the cutting process, he begins to talk:

“I've been here for about two years. I have worked in the candle workshop for about four months, but before that, I spent about a year and a half on the farm doing everything they asked me to do: feeding the animals, cleaning and looking after them. I am interested in whatever job that comes my way. And I find the candle-making process very exciting.

The burden of responsibility is sometimes overwhelming, as we know that people will hold a candle that we have made as they stand before God. A candle is not just an object — even when making something as simple as a brick, it is essential to put a part of your soul into it. If not done well, the brick will crack and the wall will fall. I believe the same approach should be taken with everything in life. A candle is a symbol of prayer, a symbol of light and life; no church can be imagined without candles.

If I start to feel bored or restless during the task, I know it's time to take a break. It's better to step away and do something else than let it interfere with the quality of my work. In my previous job on the farm, I experienced this and now I try to apply this principle in the workshop, taking on as many tasks as possible to learn and grow.

Many would suggest that you took on this obedience simply because you had no choice. How would you respond?

“Some people might feel forced into their responsibilities, but that's not the case for me. At 16, instead of pursuing further education, I chose to work on a construction site and found it interesting.”

Brother Dennis is at work

Brother Dennis is at work

I am a city kid. I was born and raised in Borisov, but after the army, I moved to Minsk and rarely visited my hometown. My parents divorced, and while my mother moved to a new apartment with her new husband, I stayed in my place.

When I was 25, I lost my mom, and now my father is ill. I visit him often, cheering him up and helping him as much as I can. I hold no resentment towards my mom; in fact, I feel grateful to her. Being left alone spurred me to take action, to find work. I believe that life has been my most influential teacher. Nowadays, I see so many young people who can't even fry an egg for themselves. I think that having everything and living in comfort isn't good for the soul; it makes you complacent. People often change for the worse. Everyone wants a better life, to earn more and faster. And when things don't work out, they blame everyone around them without looking at themselves.

Denis packs finished candles

Denis packs finished candles

What brought me here? I ended up at the farmstead because I was living through a difficult period and was looking for a sense of peace. Honestly, I did not have a place to live. I sold my apartment, gave the money to my wife, and then we got divorced. There are countless stories similar to mine. After that, I lived in Russia for seven years, had an accident, and returned. I started working at the Convent first in construction and then in the refectory.

My grandmother baptized me when I was six. It was a difficult time for the faith; the priest came to our apartment, and I remember being submerged in a whole bathtub of cold water with my head fully immersed.

I've always felt drawn to the church. In any city I travelled to for work, I would visit a church.

- Do you feel that God is looking after you now that you are here?

- Certainly. I feel not only God's care but also His incredible help. I do not think I would have survived without Him. I had a tumultuous youth, enjoying going out and drinking. There was a time during my stay in the Convent when I grew bored with the routine. I drank and was asked to leave. So I left and lived in the world for a year and a half. The contrast was immense, even in facing everyday problems. However, when I visited the monastery for a Sunday service, I felt an inexplicable tranquillity that made me reconsider. Matushka welcomed me back with open arms, and I returned. The atmosphere here at the farmstead is even more serene than within the monastery walls; it's quiet, and structured, and as long as you perform your duties, everything falls into place.

Brother Dennis arranges the candles

Brother Dennis arranges the candles

“I strongly believe that lighting a candle when entering a church is essential. How can one come to a church and not hold a candle? To me, it's a way to connect with God. Every person has an innate attraction to fire; as children, we were captivated by the flames of a bonfire, and now, in the church, we're drawn to the candle flames. I light a candle for those who have passed on, hoping to ease their journey on the other side — for my mother, grandmother, and everyone. I also pray for the health of my father and those dear to me.

Even amidst a great number of personal problems, I come to Church and leave with a sense of ease, calmness, and sometimes even with a smile on my face”.

And you don't ask for anything for yourself at all?

When it comes to my personal needs, I don't feel the need to ask while lighting a candle. I'm healthy, alive, and engaged in an obedience that I am passionate about. What more could I ask for? I believe that the Lord sees everything, and all our needs are known to Him. I've observed that when I used to ask for things, I seldom received them. But after I stopped asking, the Lord gradually provided. I believe that if something isn't working out for you presently, it's simply not the right time for it. When the time is right, the Lord will provide. But even if He does not, it will still be for our own good.

Brother Dmitry: “I know I have a Father”

“I’m a tell-tale orphan, what more can I say?” exclaims Brother Dmitry as he declines to share his story initially.

He oversees the final stage of the process, carefully packing the cut-up candles into boxes, ensuring they meet the required weight, and labelling the variety and number. As the brothers bring him frames with candles, he swiftly removes them, cutting their wicks with a knife blade. This task has become second nature to him, and he claims he can do it even with his eyes closed. Upon trying it myself, I find the candles still soft and warm in my hands, and their scent is comforting.

Final stage of the process, the cut-up candles

Final stage of the process, the cut-up candles

“I have been here for eight years now, and I truly find joy in my work," says Dmitry as he continues with the candles. “I do as I'm instructed, and if I don't know how, my superior will show and teach me. I'm grateful for his guidance. In the past, I didn't always understand things or know how to do them, but when I came to God, I realized the importance of working honestly.”

I am now 45, and I am an orphan. My mother died, and my father lost parental rights. There were five children in my family, but they were separated. My oldest brother was taken by my grandmother, while the youngest sister was adopted by my grandmother's sister and moved to Kuban. Me and my other siblings ended up in an orphanage and then a boarding school. I studied there until the 9th grade, after which I pursued vocational training as an electrical installation technician. The state provided me with a one-room apartment, and I went on to work in my profession at MAZ for about a year and a half before switching careers to become a bus driver. However, I later fell into a dark period, turning to alcohol. I left the bus depot and took to drinking. Why? I knew nothing better, and my friends were only drawing me deeper into the abyss.

I kept drinking until I committed a crime. I asked someone for money to buy myself a drink, but they refused, so I took it by force. I spent three years behind bars, and I was not paying for my utilities all that time. So when I was released I received an eviction notice. So I became homeless. I spent around a year or a year and a half in the street. I would wander around during the day and spend the night in some entrance hall. Sometimes I helped on a construction site — carrying out garbage, and stacking bricks — and they gave me money for that. When you drink to forget, you don't even want to eat. Only God is left for you. Now I understand…

Once I helped a person, and he paid me for a large amount of work. I went to the store, bought vodka, drank, and when I crossed the road, I was hit by a car. People later told me that I flew like a ball, and blood was splashing, but I stood up and ran another 50 meters, then fell. I survived. I woke up in the hospital: my hands were stitched, my leg was broken, my jaw too. I couldn't understand who I was, or where I was. But only then did I fully believe in God. I realized He had saved me. He gave me back my life so that I would live it according to His will, not mine. I used to think I was a superhero, but in fact, I am nobody. God gave me this cross to bear.”

A pile of candles and a box

A pile of candles and a box

After I left the hospital, I wandered around the city and met an acquaintance. We sat down to drink, and he told me about the farmstead, that I could go there, and they would help me. I didn't believe it: how come? I believed in God, that He exists. But I couldn't believe that I would come and say, “Hello, I have nowhere to live, take me,” and they would give me work, housing, and feed me. But I agreed; the acquaintance brought me to the Convent.

At first, I lived in a trailer and worked as a cleaner, then they put me on guard duty. Once, on a day off, I drank, and they transferred me to the farmstead. I started there at the sawmill. Now I work hard and do everything Ruslan tells me. And if he tells me to sweep the floor, I take a broom and sweep, without saying, “Why me, why not someone else?”

Packed candles are placed in a box

Packed candles are placed in a box

I already believed in God; I feel Him inside me. I know that He exists and brought me here. I know that if I have difficulties, He will always help and take care of me. The main thing is to at least follow His commandments: “Do not steal,” “Do not kill, do not offend others, love your neighbour as yourself, and do not think that you are higher, smarter, or better.

When something doesn't work out for me, I repeat silently three times: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.” When I came to the workshop, I read over the worktable words about how the grace of the Lord dwells on those who recite this prayer. It had been hanging there before me; I read it and understood that I was doing the right thing, that this prayer brings grace and clears the path.

Brothers in Prayer

Brothers in Prayer

“The accident I got into was the providence of the Heavenly Father, the Lord God. He knew that I was already in the clutches of a demon. I grew up as an orphan and lacked many things, and I thought that I could and should take from the other people who had been raised in families. I thought they were arrogant and always puffing themselves up, and that gave me the right to treat them as I wished.

— If you had believed in God in your childhood, in the orphanage, would your life have changed?

— Life would have taken a different turn, I'm sure. The attitude toward people would have been different.

— And now, do you feel like an orphan?

I know that I have a Father, but He's above. And He will never abandon me. He knows where I am, and what's happening to me, He knows wishes me harm, and He guides me so that I don't take a criminal path but work. Then everything will be fine for me.

— And does God forgive all the mistakes made before meeting Him?

— Yes. He doesn't forget; He just forgives and lets you know that you shouldn't do wrong. Each of us makes mistakes; we are all sinners. But He loves everyone.

By the machine

By the machine

Brother Oleg: “I feel that I am doing something for people that pleases God”

Brother Oleg is a foreman on the second line, where they make paraffin candles. This line operates at night because it requires a cold environment, whereas the daytime line operates with a greenhouse effect.

The nightline is a drum machine through which the wick continuously passes. Filers — special holes — calibrate the layer of paraffin composition that adheres to the wick. After several passes of the wick, the candle reaches the required thickness. The long “spaghetti,” as the brothers call it, goes under the guillotine and is cut to the necessary length. Candles are bundled into coils and melted to create a protruding wick for easy lighting.

The drum machine
The drum machine

The drum machine

Oleg is preparing the line for the night shift. Today he will need to make half a ton of candles.

“I've been here in the candle workshop since November last year,” he says. “In general, it will be three years on the farmstead in July. Before coming here, it was business as usual. I worked in construction, had a family, two sons; got divorced, started drinking, ended up here, and that's it. I couldn't cope with emotions; alcohol helped. When something bothered me a lot, I lost my temper, and for me, alcohol was the only way to relieve nervous tension. I drank and thought there were no problems, but when you come to your senses — hangover, and you realize that all the problems are still there. It's a chain reaction, it wraps around you...

“I drank heavily, started to lose myself, my life was on a downward spiral. I had to do something. For three or four years, it was like this: sometimes I found a job, then drank and lost it, and so in a circle. It's almost the same for everyone who gets into alcohol. My ex-wife called and said there was a place I could go. I said, “Buy a bottle for me — I'll go.” She bought me a bottle, I drank it, and we went. I didn't even realize where I was going, or what kind of place it was. We drove into the Convent, they told me to go to the farmstead. And that's how it stayed.

Preparing for work

Preparing for work

“Frankly, there's a pullback. To live here, you need to be a true believer, and I doubt it. Constant prayers are difficult for me. At first, you get used to it, then it starts to annoy you. You write a statement, go to the city for a day or two, start drinking again, but what's next? Where's the guarantee that I won't end up under the fence? I'm already used to the farmstead, so I come back.

Here, one looks at life more simply. You see what kind of problems people have, and you understand that everything is still good for you. It's quieter here, there are fewer temptations, and there is prayer and routine discipline. I feel that I am doing something for people that pleases God. If you approach the work with love (even though it seems like high-sounding words), responsibly, and with diligence. I think God sees it. I do my job, and that's it.”

Decorating candles

Decorating candles

Brother Andrey: “I know that God exists, I believe in Him”

In a small attic room, artistic decoration of candles is performed on the blanks made below. Here, they assemble sets of wedding candles, festive candles, and candles for baptism.

Brother Andrey is sitting at the table and decorating festive candles. He repeats specific movements for each candle: winds wax onto its end, rolls it, adds a coloured ribbon, presses with his fingers, and presses a cross onto it. He makes over a hundred candles a day. He has been in the workshop for a little over two months.

“You won't believe it, I spent seven years at the farmstead, working as a milker,” Andrey shares. “In the world, I worked as a meat packer, and they immediately put me in the slaughterhouse here. Then I settled on the farm. It's much more interesting with animals, but also more challenging, honestly — each has its own character. You have to watch over them like over children. A cow that's eight years old is still like a child: wherever she wants to go, she goes. Once she wants to leave the field, she takes off, comes to the farm, lies down in the shade, and we spend two hours looking for her...

They tell me they're my goddaughters; I, in turn, have attended to the birth of many calves, about 250. Of course, they recognize me. But there's no time to miss them; you need to make these candles — dear me! After milking, feeding, and driving the cattle in and out, I used to come out nervous, wanting to be alone. And here, I sit and work calmly; I can be in my thoughts all day. It's simpler here; the job isn't stressful.

I was asked to leave the farm after I got drunk. I was on a common obedience when I was offered to work at the sawmill, and then at the candle workshop... Why did I start drinking? Good question (laughs). If I knew, I'd answer right away. I am an alcoholic, that's why. And how did it start? With one shot of vodka. Do you think there were any stresses, or family troubles? No. I drank once, or twice, then in the company of others. I didn't start drinking right away, I did it slowly, gradually. Then there was a summary dismissal for drinking at work and loss of job.

I have been hospitalized in the narcology ward four times. In the hospital, they detoxify patients with sedatives, the treatment course is 14 days. Pills, walks... You come out, and you start drinking again. The last time, at the narcology clinic, they suggested that I go to the farmstead. I packed my things and went.

A festive candle

A festive candle

At first, I felt out of place; I thought there were some crazy people here. It's hard to fit in immediately after living in the world. In the world, if you wanted something, you took two rubles from your pocket and bought a drink. But here, I can't do anything without a blessing. To visit my daughter, I need to seek a blessing.

I was baptized, as is proper, an Orthodox Christian. I went to the church when I felt like it. Here, it was challenging to attend church according to the schedule; I didn't understand why I deserved this punishment. If I wanted to communicate with God, I would come myself; there's no need to drive me with a stick. But now I'm used to it. Of course, I can oversleep, and be lazy. If I were ideal, I wouldn't need this lamp (points to the desk lamp. — Ed.), I would shine on my own.”

— Have you ever thought about leaving?

— Well, where can I go now? There's a saying: “It's better where we are not.”

I know that God exists, and I believe so. Although in some situations, one might think: where have You gone? But still, I believe that He exists.

“My dream is for the workshop to live like a family”

“Here, all the brothers are completely different,” Ruslan Filippyonok, the workshop leader, joins the conversation again. “My dream is for the workshop to live like a family. You know, when the husband pulls in one direction, the wife in another, and gradually the fullness of the small church 'steers' towards the golden mean. The husband and wife don't let each other go to extremes. If the brothers don't argue, don't impose their opinions, but support each other, listen to each other's opinions, and consider the possibility of being wrong, then it will work.”

Brother Ruslan, the workshop leader

Brother Ruslan, the workshop leader

“The estate provides all the opportunities for a person to overcome physical dependence, and then the question is about sobriety, alertness, and keeping oneself in shape. I believe one of my tasks is to train this kind of resilience in them. I try to create the most favourable conditions for work. We periodically have picnics, and barbecues — on Easter, on the Day of the Holy Spirit — we talk on free topics, and this atmosphere helps and brings us closer.

Here, the work is not easy. And in terms of discipline, I am very strict. I am strict with myself and try to teach people to be strict with themselves. People who misbehave are transferred to new obediences. When someone is in their comfort zone, it becomes familiar, convenient, and sad things often happen. Therefore, a shake-up and a gradual increase in responsibility are needed. If you pile a lot on a person right away, not everyone can handle it.”

A brother explains the specifics of the work in the workshop

A brother explains the specifics of the work in the workshop

“If God did not act in this workshop, its existence would defy an explanation. And if God exists here, then a sacred place is never empty: the Lord will bring the right person for whom this obedience will be beneficial in his situation. It's a matter of trust in God. Blanket forgiveness relaxes a person, and makes him careless. This is my conviction, but I may be mistaken...

A week ago, I had to part with the foreman, who was doing a significant piece of work, and today I am doing this work myself. For me and my family, it's a burden. But when you change a brother's obedience, and he leaves the workshop, it's a signal for vigilance. At the same time, I worry a lot about the departure of each brother. And I root for them in every way. I had a very sad experience. When I came here as the leader, one brother was working here. He didn't like the organization of work in the workshop, eventually started drinking, and I fired him. He asked to come back to the workshop, and I refused him, although I had no anger towards him — I thought it would be a bad example for others. Then I relented and offered him to come back, but he didn't come. And after some time, he drank somewhere, and he was killed. I understood that perhaps everything would have been different if I had taken him back to the workshop at that time... And now, every time before dismissing a person, I go through all this again, think, weigh, consult with the priest, and ask God for guidance. It's not easy for me.”

“I see many brothers here, if not all, from whom I have something to learn and take. I believe they will correct and save me here. Despite certain difficulties, that they occasionally fall, that I want more from them than they do, I am very happy that they are here. I am more than confident that if they were in the world, many of them would not be alive, and it's not clear in what condition they would leave…”

A brother packing candles

A brother packing candles

Brother Anatoly is the local sexton. When I ask him what he does here, he replies, “It's not me doing it; it's the Lord working through my hands.” He has been working here for six months. When he is free from his main obedience, he packs candles and cleans the floor. He says he doesn't like to be without work; he always needs to do something.

Brother Anatoly declined to talk to me, but at the end of the day, he came up and quietly put a candle in my hand. ЭHold it, please,” he says. Later, I was told that I could take the candle with me. I took it to be a symbol of light and also of prayer and life.

Preparation of a candle set

Preparation of a candle set

Interviewer: Olga Demidyuk

Photos: Evgeny Prokofiev

February 01, 2024
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