Natalya Orlovskaya, a sister of mercy, has worked for thirteen years at one of our church stalls in the city. She has the talent of comforting the desperate and grieving. According to Natalya, this talent is a gift from God. By finding God, she also acquired the ability to rejoice in Him like a child and project it on everybody else. We talked to Sister Natalya about discovering God and how it can bring happiness to our lives.
You say that your conversion brought back a child's joy to your life. Tell us more about your childhood, its joys and its lessons.
I spent my childhood in Karelia, a most beautiful part of Russia. I lived with my grandparents in a small town amid forests and lakes. Even now, I enjoy walking in a forest. I am enchanted by the silence that makes me feel the closeness of God. A trip to the forest is a nice way to slow down, stop and reflect and have some quiet time alone. We miss these moments a lot in our lives.
I stayed in Karelia until I was eight. I learned from my grandmother the habit for industriousness. I am also an avid reader, for which I am thankful to my grandfather. I learned to read when I was five, and at eight I knew how to make pies and knit woollen stockings and mittens.
My grandfather was frank, honest and open-hearted. She survived the war and the blockade, raised four children, and looked after me.
I remember one incident from my childhood from which I learned some valuable lessons. My grandmother was very good at knitting and weaving. She let me watch her and learn from her. I was working on a knitting project, but with little success. Angered and frustrated, I threw my work on the floor. But my grandmother picked it up and said, calmly, “Undo it and try again.” That way, she showed me how important it was to persevere and overcome difficulties.
When I was in grade 2, my parents took me from my grandparents and we went to live in Ukraine. Soon, my father and mother divorces, and I began to live with my stepfather. I had a hard time adjusting to my new situation. It seemed like a wall had arisen between me and my parents. My cherished dream was to enter a university, acquire a useful profession and achieve something in my life. I believed in my abilities, and I had great ambitions. In my heart, however, there was a deep void. I could not trust anyone. I had almost lost all hope of finding someone worthy and decent in my life. I was looking hard.
Looking back at my childhood years, I understand one thing: I had let too many hurts and too much bitterness build up in me. They are poison to the soul and a barrier to a good life. No one can enter the Kingdom of Heaven with a bitter heart. Little by little, the Lord was helping me to shed my burden, and life was becoming easier. With time, I was learning to understand the people at whom I had taken offence. The Lord opened my eyes to their reasons. Gradually, the bitterness was giving way to pity, and I forgave. I now understand that it was God’s grace acting in me.
Christians believe in God’s providence for every person. How did His Providence become a reality for you?
The understanding of God’s providence came unexpectedly. My ambitions finally began to materialise, and I seemed to be getting from my life all I wanted. I had graduated from upper secondary college in Ukraine and decided to try my luck in Moscow. I wanted to enter university and build a career. And so I achieved what I wanted. I became a student of the Army University of Foreign Languages. I also met a young man who later became my husband. I loved him with all my heart, and we married eventually.
However, while I was in my first year at university, I was diagnosed with a serious kidney problem. The doctors gave me three years. They said it could be five if I started treatment without delay. I had a spate of hospitalisations in the emergency ward.
Realising how vulnerable I was, I looked back at my life. I was shocked at how many grievances I had against other people. I condemned many. I saw evil in them. But what about me? Was I any better?
When we are reminded about death, we usually react defensively: “It is not my concern, but somebody else’s” But when I faced my new reality, I realised that I would soon stand before God. I questioned myself “What will I have to show Him for my life? What good things have I accomplished?” It was a very sobering experience.
At that stage, I prayed, “Lord, people tell me that You exist. If so, please help me! Doctors have told me that I have three more years to live. If they are right, please let me transform and become purer at heart."
Soon, I was hospitalised with an acute kidney problem. I completed a medical test, and the doctors gave me the news that I never expected. “Did you know that you are pregnant?” Earlier, they had told me that I would not be able to become a mother. I came for my prenatal visit, told the doctor about my kidney problem, and the doctor said, “There is no problem. You are healthy.” My illness was gone. I was going to become a mother. God exists. My healing was His miracle. From that moment onwards, I began to take Him seriously and went to church.
My husband was still unchurched, but he was willing to take baptism. His birthday is on 30 September, the feast of the holy martyrs Faith, Hope and Love and their mother Sophia. He was baptised at the church dedicated to these saints. We had our church wedding there, too.
God had enlightened me, and I was happy. I knew that the Lord was not fiction. He is real, ad He exists. I also noticed that the world was full of good people who trusted in Him and saw the Truth. My conversion to the faith filled my life with great joy. I felt happy as if I had returned to the happy years of my early childhood. It reminded me of its multiple ecstatic moments, like digging through the deep snow to go outside back in Karelia. My coming to the Orthodox Church revived in me the joy of being a child and made me a happy person.
What brought you to the sisterhood, and how did being a sister of mercy impact your life?
My coming to the sisterhood was another example of God’s providence. We settled in Minsk, my husband’s birthplace. I paid attention to the lay sisters standing at the Chuch stalls in its streets. Anyone could approach a sister and ask her a question. I talked to one of the sisters named Olga at a stand in a grocery store close to where I lived. She stuck me with her kindness and sympathy. They were majestic and almost divine in their white vestments.
My maternity leave ended, and I started looking for a job. I came across a job advertisement on the net. They wanted someone to sell honey at the stalls. No job experience was required. The employer promised to teach the worker all the necessary skills.
The advert gave the address of Saint Elisabeth Convent. I asked myself, “Why not give it a try?” I joined the Convent’s team, and I began to sell honey at one of the city's amusement parks. They gave me a table and a large umbrella and supplied me with boxes of honey and medicinal herbs to sell. I worked at the stalls through the summer.
At the end of the season, I called my contact person at the Convent asking if I could stay and do some more work. In October, Nun Tamara takes me to a stall at a shopping centre. In addition to honey, I was selling icons. I would need to wear vestments to be there. “But I am not a sister of mercy yet,” I said. “No problem. Go to Father Andrey and ask him for his blessing.” Father Andrey was happy to see me. “So they invited you to join? Good news. Good luck with your work," he concluded. So I had the vestments made for me.
I used to have multiple friends, but when I found God, they drifted away. The transition was a difficult time for me. The break-up of my old friendships saddened me at first, but the Lord put me among my sisters in Christ, and I am happy. I thank Him for the joy of being with them and the life that we share.
How does your work at the sisterhood bring you joy?
I worked at the shopping centre stalls for three years, and unexpectedly, a sister invited me to work at a stand in another location, taking prayer notes and accepting donations. It was my opportunity to share with many people the good news about God. - I have been working there for ten years.
In my new position, I needed to do a lot of reading. Every day, I was reading the Synaxarion, the writings and teachings of the church fathers. It was an enlightening experience that gave me answers to multiple questions. A new question arose, however, sending me looking for more answers. I was happy to share my discoveries with others, and I had the chance to do so. Many people from the neighbourhood approached me to talk about the Lord and ask about my views and experiences.
It is a nice feeling to watch the seeds of faith in people's hearts grow and take root. I felt rewarded. The Lord was planting His seeds through me. It gives me the sense of life, the satisfaction of being a good servant of the Lord. Sometimes, people ask me questions and do not know what to say. Still, to my surprise, I can come up with clear and coherent answers. I do not see this ability as my own but as a precious gift from God.
How did the sisterhood contribute to your personal and spiritual growth?
Looking back at my years in the sisterhood, I realise many things. My joy of the Lord gives me the energy to live. I want to be a happy person, and I cannot be happy without living with God. Without the Lord, we drown in a sea of our passions and sorrows, and no money, entertainment o worldly achievements can bring us relief. In my life, I had my moments of darkness, when I was standing at the edge. The Lord pulled me out of the darkness, and I am thankful.
He showed me the power of His grace in my most difficult moments.
Admittedly, I have my moments of inner struggle. I have difficulty being humble and obedient. The Lord comes to our help and transforms us from within when we desire to do so. God’s grace is our only source of joy. We need His grace to give others genuine love.
His grace is at work when someone who comes to church in a dark mood goes home full of light, forgiveness and love. With His grace, we can find ways to overcome our most bitter conflicts. It helps us view them from a different angle, with consideration, love and attention to others’ positions. With it, we sidestep our ambitions and ask others for forgiveness. One can be a hundred times right, but if peace is our goal, saying sorry can do more to take us there. Humility has great power. Humility brings joy from our Lord.
The Lord knows how to guide us. He is like the wise gardener who picks out the weeds and lets the good things grow in us. I am hopeful that with God’s help, the tree of my spirit will bring good fruit.
At Saint Elisabeth Convent, Olga Shipilo has served as a sister of mercy for seventeen years. She explains how her service taught her courage, love and forgiveness
December 7, 1996, is a special date in the history of our Convent. It was on that day that the Sisterhood in honour of the Holy Martyr Grand Princess Elisabeth was established.
Sister Alevtina Daneluk: "I read stories to children. Their magic excited their imagination, and we all celebrated the victory of good over evil."
Sister of Mercy Tatyana Schastnaya has worked behind the church stalls of Saint Elisabeth Convent for almost fifteen years. We talk to Sister Tatyana about overcoming difficulties and dealing with sorrows.
We look back at the history of the lay sisterhood in Honour of The Holy Royal Martyr Grand Duchess Elisabeth, which gave rise to our Convent.
Sisters of our Convent share their stories of when and how they heard the Lord and responded to His call. The third story about the way to God shared with us Sister of Mercy Raisa Shulga.
Sister Raisa Shulga: “It is a great blessing that God had called me here and brought me to faith without sending me the sorrows I could not bear. The sisterhood and the convent are my way, my life and my meaning to it.”