"The essence of the Christian life is rooted in giving. The more we give, the more the Lord will bestow upon us, both in this life and in the life to come."
Priest Rodion Alkhovik
Within the walls of the psychoneurological boarding centre No. 4 in Minsk resides a community of special individuals. Their intricate diagnoses have destined them to a life within a state institution, where possessions are scarce, and routines are rigorously enforced, governing their meals, medical procedures, and sleep. Despite the external regimentation, these people harbour an inner life — by God's Providence, even a spiritual one.
Established on November 25, 2013, a house church dedicated to the icon of the Mother of God "the Merciful" now graces the boarding home. Regular Divine Liturgy takes place here, offering all residents the opportunity to partake in the Sacraments of the Church.
These sacred services not only reveal the miracle of God's love but also fortify those dedicated to serving in this sacred space — the priests, sisters, and brothers of St Elisabeth Convent.
In our conversation with Priest Rodion Alkhovik, the spiritual guide overseeing the Convent's service at the boarding home, he shares insights into his personal journey towards this ministry and reflects on the profound experience of ministering to those who endure suffering.
As a young person, I looked for meaning. I was focused on sports, played football, and attended a specialised physical education class. I was motivated to succeed. However, after completing high school, I comprehended that worldly achievements couldn't satisfy the deeper needs of my soul.
Gyms gained prominence toward the end of the 1980s. I was weak and skinny, and could only manage one pull-up, so I began going to the gym. The 90s were a time of commerce, with people buying and selling. Although I knew it wasn't the most important thing, I also wanted to make some money. For anyone who completes their education and wants to be self-reliant, material independence is usually the first thing you strive for. But after reaching that goal, I realised that this was not fulfilling and I needed to search for something else.
So, I continued my quest. Moreover, I started to gather a group of fellows who were unemployed. I began to read literature, exploring areas like astronomy, astrology, psychology, healthy living and some modern trends. I also took up cold water swimming as a way to temper myself, while continuing to play football. During the 1990s, numerous individuals were without employment, which allowed for leisure time.
A few of my male acquaintances would consume alcohol during these hours, but it did not pique my interest. Instead, I sought something meaningful and captivating. Eventually, my mother began attending spiritual talks with a priest, so I started listening to tapes of spiritual talks with Father Andrey Lemeshonok and going to St Peter and Paul's Cathedral in Minsk.
My mother's responsibilities at the Sisterhood included attending to a vending spot with religious materials. Once she asked me to assist her in setting it up. I came dressed in sportswear and helped out. Soon, I was already engaged in operating such a showcase and aided the Sisters' ministry at the hospital.
I became close with Saint Elisabeth Sisterhood. It was unlike the rest of the world, where people pursued their own interests and tried to accumulate wealth, and where material things dominated relationships.
Here, I witnessed blissful people who did not need anything for themselves. They willingly devoted their time, standing on the street with donation boxes or visiting patients in hospitals, often for long hours. However, everyone appeared to be happy.
When I joined the Sisterhood, it comprised only a small group of around 25-30 individuals, fostering a profoundly warm atmosphere. The soulful, gracious silence and peace enveloped me, aiding in the quest for answers and the discovery of my inner self.
In my youth, while still dealing with the uncertainties of my own path and the broader purpose of human existence, I found myself drawn to this community. Witnessing a dedicated group of people committed to sacrificial service for their neighbours was transformative. No one inquired about monetary compensation; rather, each person worked wholeheartedly, understanding that their efforts contributed to a shared mission.
Fr. Rodion with the sisters
When our youth group, Sunday school, and summer camp were organised, I was very interested in them. I visited the camp annually. One year, I was thinking of pursuing a catechist course and shared these thoughts with my confessor Father Andrey. He suggested, "Why not join the seminary?" I followed his advice.
Later, it became clear that entering the seminary was essentially an application for the priesthood. That was it. I completed my studies in the seminary and academy, got married and became a priest. After my ordination, I began to serve at the Convent.
As time advances, the exuberance I once termed "joyful madness" diminishes. In childhood, it manifested in the freedom and camaraderie found in playing football — a source of sincere, spontaneous emotion. Later, the discovery of joy expanded through learning to swim and the gratification derived from visiting patients in hospitals or boarding facilities.
Engaged daily with people and their challenges, I realise my happiness, acknowledging that I lack nothing.
I cherish conversations and social interactions, yet I tread carefully. While seeking to assist, the risk of unintended harm looms when proffering advice or enforcing rules. A keen sensitivity to each individual is paramount, recognizing the vast differences in each person's circumstances.
Serving others demands dedication and sincerity; without these, harm may outweigh good, which is always discernable by others. Mere presence in a church does not guarantee flawless actions and intentions.
Fr. Rodion during Easter Procession
The boarding home for individuals grappling with mental illnesses is a unique sanctuary where we — priests, sisters from St. Elisabeth Convent, and volunteers — encounter the grace of God.
The residents' lives mirror those of monastery dwellers. Similar to monks, they embrace communal living devoid of possessions, engaging in prayer, work, and adherence to a set schedule. Remarkably, they also pray with profound reverence and joy during services, especially when partaking in Holy Communion.
In our lives of freedom, we often struggle more than these resilient people to connect with spiritual life, to pray, and to maintain reverence for sacred matters. Unfortunately, we can grow accustomed to the holy, gradually losing the initial joy found in divine services.
Within the boarding home, a sense of familial connection flourishes. Here, we experience a warmer welcome than some may receive in their own homes. The residents eagerly embrace visitors, offering hugs and kisses, inquiring about home life, providing heartwarming solace during challenging times.
This is why I frequently encourage those facing despondency to witness firsthand how prayer sustains joy in such trying circumstances. It serves as a catalyst for a shift in perspective on life. Many, inspired by these encounters, develop a desire to visit the boarding home and be in the company of its extraordinary inhabitants.
Every encounter, every moment spent with the residents of the boarding house is treasured. They exemplify the profound gratitude, love, and appreciation a person can embody. This sense of fulfillment evolves into a necessity for us; in fact it appears that we (brothers, sisters, and priests serving here) require it even more than these folks need us. Within these walls we find nourishment for our spirits, deriving joy and grace, establishing a profound sense of a second family.
* Fr. Rodion's mother is now Abbess Daria, Mother Superior of the Holy Annunciation Women's monastery in Slonim (Belarus).