The Church calls monasticism the angelic life. It is our foretaste of the world to come, where people neither marry nor given in marriage, but live as sons and daughters of God and the Resurrection. From the times of the Apostles to the present day, millions have taken this route, by giving up their possessions and estate, renouncing the ways of the world and following Christ.
The service of monastic tonsure begins with the words Make haste to open unto me Your fatherly embrace, for as the Prodigal I have wasted my life. The monastic life brings us to make fundamental changes to our way of life like the Prodigal Son changed his life when he realised his wrongs and returned to his father to ask for forgiveness.
How can you decide if the monastic life is right for you? What struggles to expect? And how to succeed in your spiritual journey? Find answers to these and other questions, supported by examples from the lives of notable monastics, Belarusian monasteries and Saint Elisabeth Convent. You may find it useful if you are considering the monastic life, or contemplating a journey to a monastery or convent.
Monastic life is a mystery to many. Secular people sometimes see it as voluntary imprisonment. Many cannot understand what can motivate someone to give up the pleasures of life that most consider normal, like family get-togethers or entertainment. Popular imagination often pictures monastics as sad, unsociable and introverted simply because their lives are so different from everybody else's.
Becoming a nun later in life
A lot of these sentiments come from secular art, literature and film. For example, the English 19th-century writer Ernest Christopher Dobson wrote these lines about a nun:
Calm, sad, secure; behind high convent walls,
These watch the sacred lamp, these watch and pray:
And it is one with them when evening falls,
And one with them the cold return of day.
The stanza most likely refers to contemplative monasticism as practised in the Catholic Church, specifically to its most stringent form, the cloister. A cloistered nun takes the solemn vows of poverty, celibacy, and obedience. She makes them in public. They are non-retractable and must be pursued to the highest standard. For example, the vow of poverty means giving up all her personal possessions and inheritance.
She is a member of a contemplative monastic order like the Carmelites, the Bernardines, Poor Claires or Dominican Nuns and resides in the enclosure of her convent. She does not leave her domicile without a serious reason, and it is rare for outsiders to meet her in public.
Dominican nuns, photo from lindenopnuns.org
Prayer and meditation is her primary job. That way, she witnesses to others the power of prayer and shows with her example how a relationship with God can change our lives and inspire others in their faith. She finds great joy and fulfillment in answering this vocation. Secular commentators often overlook this aspect and prefer to pay attention to more visible and sensational details.
Therese de Lisieux, a saint of the Roman Catholic Church and a cloistered Carmelite nun, touched the lives of many without ever knowing or speaking to them. People far beyond her native France call her lovingly the little rose. She took her vows at age 15 and kept a diary of her spiritual journey. In her writings, she showed a way to discern the presence of God in every person, situation or seemingly insignificant moment of our lives. She also revealed how one can learn to trust God in a childlike manner. That way, she fulfilled the mission of her life to make God loved.
As she was dying of tuberculosis in 1897 at age 24, she was certain that her service for the world would continue in eternity. She explained: After my death, I will let fall a shower of roses. I will spend my heaven doing good upon earth. I will raise up a mighty host of little saints. In 1997, Pope John Paul II declared her the Doctor of the Church in recognition of her simple and practical spirituality that enlightened many hearts.
In the Catholic Church, not every woman who takes the vows of poverty, celibacy, and obedience becomes a nun: most remain religious sisters. For example, in the United States, there are only 1160 cloistered nuns out of over 11,100 religious sisters.
Most religious sisters dedicate themselves to a social ministry and are called apostolic. For the apostolic sisters, prayer and contemplation is not their first role. They pray privately and communally but concentrate on some form of service to humanity. Education, nursing, and helping the poor and marginalised are some of the most common ministries.
Unlike nuns, apostolic sisters take simple vows. They may return to the world if they choose, and some vows may be less stringent than for nuns. For example, an apostolic sister may own property, but may not use it to generate an income.
Similar to nuns, apostolic sisters also join religious orders, also known as congregations, societies or institutes. Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, Sisters of St. Joseph, Sisters of St. Francis, Society of the Holy Child Jesus, and Medical Missionaries of Mary are some of the most renowned.
Mother Teresa of Calcutta, a saint of the Catholic Church, spent most of her life as an apostolic sister. Until 1950, she was a part of the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary, dedicated to education. In 1950, she established an order of the Missionaries of Charity. Its main ministry was to give free services to the poorest of the poor.
An apostolic sister is reading to poor children,
photo from https://www.facebook.com/apsistersstjohncebu/
Today, the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary runs multiple literacy programs, provides spiritual guidance, counselling, and operates shelters for homeless women. It operates approximately 150 schools worldwide, with over 70,000 students, and is an outspoken advocate for social justice and world peace.
The Missionaries of Charity now cares for refugees, former prostitutes, the mentally ill, sick children, abandoned children, lepers, AIDS patients, the elderly and convalescents. They have volunteer-run schools to teach abandoned street children and run soup kitchens. These services are free of charge, irrespective of religion or social status.
As the Holy Fathers teach, monasticism does not exist for any particular purpose in this world. "From the beginning, the goal of monasticism was to follow Christ in the desert, singing hymns and psalms and waiting for the coming of our Lord," writes an anonymous author of The History of Egyptian Monks.
From an Orthodox perspective, the ultimate calling of monastic life is to attain perfection in the Lord through prayer, fasting and ascetic deeds. All monastic life is "contemplative" in this sense: Orthodox monks and nuns live the same life of prayer for all. Historically, Orthodox monasteries have also engaged in almsgiving, teaching, nursing, working with the poor, and many other vocations but never consider them the sole purpose of monastic life.
Orthodox nuns at a Lenten service
Even without religious orders, the Orthodox Church practices different styles of monastic life. In general, some monasteries are more liturgical, others are more ascetic, still others have a mystical tradition, and some emphasise spiritual guidance and openness to the world. Different styles of monasticism have evolved organically under the living grace of God.
With its centuries-long traditions of Orthodox Christianity, Belarus shows many examples of this variety in female monastic life. Its oldest convent, dedicated to the Saviour and Saint Euphrosyne, was established in the 12th century in the city of Polotsk. Its founder, Saint Euphrosyne of Polotsk, copied books and painted icons, and taught these skills to others. Education, enlightenment and arts have remained a strong component of the convent's ministry to this day. It is an active publisher of religious literature, a host of cultural events and a centre of Christian learning.
The history of the Barloklabovsky Convent of the Holy Ascension begins in the 17th century. A few decades after its establishment it became a magnet for pilgrims when it received a miracle-working icon of the Mother of God (later named Barloklabovskaya). According to tradition, the icon was travelling to Moscow on a cart. As it was passing the Convents church, the cart stalled, and could not move any further until the icon was offloaded and placed in the church. Since then, Christians have flocked to Barloklabovsky Convent to venerate the relic and pray with the nuns. It has provided a place of refuge for the faithful a place to lay aside all earthly cares, and seek spiritual guidance and refreshment.
The Barkolabovsky Holy Ascension Convent of the Mogilev Region, photo from sb.by
Another seventeenth-century convent, dedicated to Saint Nicholas the Wonderworker, attracts residents and visitors to Mogilev, Christians and non-Christians. Its baroque-style churches and chapels and 17th-century frescoes impress spectators. One of its best-known attractions is the gilded iconostasis: no two of its details are alike, which, as the artists had intended, should represent the diversity of God's world. The beauty of art and architecture has inspired many to contemplate the meaning of their lives and the place of God in them.
For the faithful, the Convent is a place of pilgrimage and prayer. During Soviet rule, the Convent was closed down, and its buildings were used as a holding prison under Stalin. The sisters pray intensely for the peace of the souls who perished there. During the canonization of Tsar Nicholas II by the Russian Orthodox Church in 2000, a portrait of Tsar Nicholas II was miraculously discovered. It was later consecrated as an icon and is now kept in the left wing of the Convents Saint Nicholas Church.
While most other convents in Belarus were closed during Soviet rule to be reopened later, Saint Elisabeth Convent is a new monastery. It was built in a wasteland in a Northern suburb of Minsk, and multiple hospitals nearby - including one of Belarus' largest mental clinics, a tuberculosis dispensary and long-term care institutions for the disabled - defined its first service mission: to care for the needs of the sick and offer them spiritual direction. With time, its social ministry expanded to include giving shelter and work to disadvantaged men and women at its farmsteads, visitation of disabled adults and child patients in long-term care institutions, a school, and home-care services for the sick and elderly.
Consecration of the Convent's St. Elisabeth Church
Our ministries and prayer life are modelled in large part on the Marfo-Mariinsky Convent in Moscow. The Holy Martyr Elisabeth Romanov, our patron saint, established it in the early 20th century after the tragic death of her husband to devote herself to the service of God and the poor. Its sisters, aged 21 to 40, took the oaths of poverty, celibacy and obedience, but, unlike nuns, could return to the world and marry if they chose. In 1911 the Convent operated a hospital for poor women and children, a home for poor women, a free pharmacy, a Sunday school for adult women, a library, a soup kitchen and a free hostel. All were run by the sisters. Its guiding principle was to be not of this world, and at the same time live and act in the world to transform it.
The history of Saint Elisabeth Convent also began with the lay sisterhood. In 1996, a group of lay sisters began to visit the patients of one of Minsks general hospitals and the mental clinic to tell them about God, the Holy Sacraments of Confession and the Eucharist. The first twenty sisters received the blessing to wear their habits in December of that year, and the sisterhood was named in honour of Saint Elisabeth Romanov. In the summer of 1997, the blessing was received to build the first church near the mental health clinic in Novinki. Many volunteers came to help.
The Convent itself came into being in 1999 when the first three sisters were tonsured. Our family now includes monastics, sisters of charity, mental patients, and our brothers and sisters in situations of vulnerability who are given shelter at our farmsteads. We have opened more than thirty workshops, making over 400 different products offered at fairs and online. The sales support a substantial part of our ministries and provide a livelihood for our workers.
First sisters of the Convent being tonsured
Recently, interest in monastic life has grown, particularly among the more educated believers. We are sometimes asked if it is possible to live in a convent without being a nun. It is a practice of many monasteries – including ours - to allow women who wish to see of the monastic life is right for them to spend an extended time periods in a community to see if it is right for them. While it is generally possible to become a nun after a marriage or divorce, an active marriage, the presence of dependent children, unpaid debt, or a pending trial or criminal investigation constitute some of the obvious prima facie circumstances that disqualify a candidate for the monastic profession. These and other practical questions are governed by the regulations on monasteries and convents of the Belarusian Orthodox Church. They also give guidance on the rules and requirements for being a nun, and becoming a nun later in life.
At times, we receive questions like this: "I am disenchanted with the folly and vanity of this world. I have failed in life, and lost my job, home, family, and health. I do not know what else to do. Should I become a nun?" The Lord may allow us sorrows so that we can hear and accept His will. Sometimes, people lose things they hold dear but find new meaning in the monastic life. However, monasticism is not a way to escape or run from the problems of this world. Rather, we choose monasticism to run to Jesus.
Nun Antonina Semenova
Monastic life is a calling. It is also a major life decision. How does one go about making it according to God's will? For Mother Euphrosyne, the choice of the monastic life brought her inner peace. She recalls: "I realised that I had come where I belonged, that I had found what I was looking for. I felt like I had always belonged here, there was no inner struggle, and it felt like a homecoming."
Many reconsidered the meaning and purpose of their lives before they decided to become nuns. Novice Elena Yudina observes: "I now know that I am living to reach the kingdom of God. Looking back, I find every event in my life deeply providential - even the sins that God allows me from time to time."
Nun Olga Velikaya discerned her calling after several years of deep soul-searching to understand the true will of God. She explains: "Our Lord Jesus Christ is the true master of our lives, and He alone can give meaning to them. I knew that my whole life was going to change fundamentally, once I had let God into it and heard His word. Afterwards, I spent a lot of time doing the hard inner work of introspection and self-improvement. Three years later, I joined Saint Elisabeth Convent. I was ready to leave the world behind me."
Nun Olga Velikaya
The choice of monasticism is also providential. For Nun Magdalena, from Eastern Poland, her decision was an extension of her church and prayer life. But nothing is preordained. Many monastics come from non-Orthodox or non-religious families. For example, Nun Rebecca grew up in Brazil, a Catholic country. When she converted to Orthodoxy, her father was sceptical and did not want her mother to become Orthodox. Years later, her father became an Orthodox priest, and her family accepted her choice of monasticism.
One's spiritual journey does not stop when one joins a monastery. It only begins there. It takes us through four formal steps of monasticism, which are the same for men and women.
The first is the novice. Novices live in the monastery under the spiritual direction of a spiritual father or mother. The next step is the rasa-bearer (ryasophore). The status of rasa-bearer signifies more formal acceptance into the community. The rasa-bearer can wear her first monastic habit, the robe, but can still change her mind and return to the world if she wishes.
The profession of monasticism starts after tonsure to the small schema. At this stage, a nun receives a new name and may wear a habit with the sign of the cross, the veil and the mantle. A nun in the small schema vows to remain at her convent in lifelong obedience to her spiritual father and abbess.
The final rank, the great schema, is reserved for a select few because it implies the strictest observance of the monastic vows, normally by living in seclusion and constant prayer. At this ultimate stage, a nun is again given a new name.
At present, there are 120 women residing at Saint Elisabeth Convent in all monastic ranks.
Tonsure to the small schema
There is no way to tell how long it could take an individual monastic to advance in these ranks. Progression is decided on a case-by-case basis by the monastic's spiritual father and abbess of the convent, and it is never rushed to give the candidate enough time to check their resolve.
A monastic's journey to perfection in the Lord often involves setting goals and assessing progress periodically. Nun Elisabeth, a German, is learning from the Lord the difficult art of humility. She admits: "Learning is tough. There has always been a part of me that said that my achievements in life were of my own making and that I should be proud of myself."
For Nun Olga (Velikaya), the goal is to grow in faith, trust, hope and love. This means learning to hear, accept and love all sorts in any kind of clothing or condition. "I share the impossible burden of my task with Christ, trusting that He knows the needs of every person and seeing myself as only an instrument of His intercession," explains Nun Olga.
Monastics will agree that the single greatest impediment to growth in the spiritual life is our self-centeredness. As the spiritual father of Saint Elisabeth Convent archpriest Andrey Lemeshonok tirelessly repeats in his sermons, the monastic calling is about dying for the world and the self by abandoning the ways of the world. It is also about taking up the Cross and following the Lord, as we grow in Him.
Archpriest Andrey Lemeshonok
Becoming a nun is a major life choice. As with any decisive move, we are best off when we fulfil God's will, not our own, and we know what it is. We are least likely to do His will if we act on the spur of the moment, out of bitterness or desire to escape the sorrows of the world.
Becoming a nun is the beginning of a new chapter of our spiritual growth. We come to wage a struggle with our worldly passions. We cannot defeat them by ourselves, without God's merciful assistance, but setting our spiritual goals and assessing progress is useful.
Monasticism is a calling from the Lord. It is a great mystery, and it is a true blessing if you have been able to discern it. But as we have shown, not all monasteries are the same. Talk to your confessor, check your resolve, and visit several communities to choose the right one for you.
But even if you know that the monastic life is not for you right now, a visit to a convent can be most beneficial. It is your opportunity to join the other monastics in prayer and contemplation, partake in the sacraments and take spiritual direction. Your visit can help you look examine your life from a different angle, rise above your everyday troubles and find the courage to take difficult decisions. It may become a fully empowering experience.