It causes me pain to look back at my life before coming to Saint Elisabeth Convent: memories of my past are still overwhelming. The burden of bitterness, sin and impiety in my past life is still heavy. But now I have the strength to forward. I have been at the Convent for eight years, and I feel that I am making progress. I wish I had progressed more, of course, but I have a sense of direction, and that is reassuring. I thank the Lord for giving me the vision and understanding of my future.
My father Arkady was a military officer. He is now departed. My mother was a teacher in kindergarten. We moved around a lot and had lived in many places in Kazakhstan and the Ural Mountains. We settled in Belarus only when my father retired at age 45.
In my rocky teenage years, I learned from my parents, abruptly, that they had adopted me. We were in the middle of an angry argument. It was over my curfew hours. My mother had let me go out with some friends. One of them took me on a long ride on his motorcycle, and I was several hours late. They had worried about me and were angry at my disobedience. And so they cried, “When we adopted you, we did not expect that you would treat us like that." Now I understand my parents better, but at that moment I was shocked. I could not believe my ears. It was summer, and we were staying with my grandmother. I went around and asked my grandmother’s neighbours. Everybody knew. Our next-door neighbour even told me how it happened.
That incident turned me into a troubled teen. I was headstrong and rebellious. I partied all the time and went away from home for several nights in a row. That frustrated my parents even more, and finally, they said to me, "You will be eighteen soon. Find yourself another place to live." Now I know that my parents had been going out of their way to help me, but simply did not know what to do. But back then I was too short-sighted and selfish to see that. So when I turned nineteen, I left them to live on my own. I packed my things and left them a note. To make it even more painful for them, I wrote, “I am going away to live independently and learn from my mistakes, as you advised.” By that time, I already knew that I would have to do hard work. I had done poorly at school, and I did not have a profession.
I went looking for a job that would offer food, a good salary and many days off work. The Lord gave me what I wanted. I worked 24-hour shifts with three days’ rest. I had a good salary. It was in a long-term care facility for senior citizens in Nesvizh. It was large with multiple buildings and annexes; some of the patients were bed-ridden, others were in better shape. I had never done anything like that before. I had my doubts at first, but in the end, I decided to give it a try. And so my work I began. I worked there for five years. I washed and fed my patients - they were as helpless small children. I worked hard most of the time. Sometimes, however, I would slacken off. At times, I would come in late after an overnight party, or not turn up at all.
I had the feeling that the Lord was softening my heart by letting me care for these people. Some of them had been abandoned by their children, others came from prison, and after two or three years, I learned to sympathise with them. All the people in my care - the whole ward - became like family to me. I realised my responsibility to them and tried to help them as much as I could.
I also approached my parents several times to make peace with them. I came to their door and rang the bell. They went to open the door but closed it immediately in my face when they saw me. I understood that I would have to wait more - they were still hurting.
I met a young man and married him. He was generous and affectionate, he loved me a lot, but I turned his life into a nightmare. I cried at my wedding because I did not love him. I understood that he was very good and that I would be safe and secure with him. But it did not take me long to understand that it was not enough to be happy. My expectations were not met, and I was trying to fill the gap elsewhere.
I was working in a hospital when I heard a calling from the Lord. It happened after one of my late-night adventures when I had not come home for the night. I woke up in the morning and said to myself, "I am tired of this life. What am I going to say to my husband? Will I lie to him again? If I do not love him, why did I marry him in the first place?" I hated myself and I felt ashamed.
It was winter. I was walking in the street, and a cold wind was blowing in my face. I stopped and I realised that I needed to see a priest, and if I did, I would feel better. I went to church to look for the priest. But it was a small town, where they serve liturgy only on weekends. It was Wednesday, and I understood that I may not find him there. But I had made up my mind, and I was determined to follow through on my decision. My obstinacy does not usually lead me to anything good, but this time I was resolute not to go home until I found a priest. I needed to confess. Before I knew it, I arrived at the church.
The doors were closed. An elderly lady was walking by, and I asked her if she knew where to find the priest. She advised me to reach him at his home but warned me that I would have to walk far across the park. I went and found his house. I rang. His wife opened the door. She had the face of a saint. I was crying, and I could not say a word. "Have you sinned, child?" she said to me warmly.
"Yes, and I need to see the priest."
“I am afraid he is not at home. He has gone to baptise a child; you have just missed him.”
I went back, found father Alexander and told him what was on my mind. "Let us now go together to the pulpit under the icon of the Saviour and pray for your situation to be resolved," he offered. We prayed. I left the church with the feeling that it was going to be all right. I ran back as if I had wings.
Father Alexander told me about the sacraments and asked me to come to the church regularly. I started going to church, but I was too impatient - I could not make myself stand through the end of the service. I would come, light a candle and run away. I asked Father Alexander, "Father, how can I learn to stand through the service?” He answered: "The enemy goes out of his way to drive you away. Cheat on him!"
"I would love to, but how?" I said.
"Which part of the service do you enjoy most?" "The prayer “Lord our Father"
"Well, challenge yourself to stay until the prayer. Say to yourself, “I will stay until the prayer, and then go." After the prayer, say, "I will stay until the next prayer."
I followed his advice and stayed for the whole service. It was my first full liturgy. When it came to the communion, I was so exhausted that I took it automatically.
I found peace and calm at the church. I began going to Father Alexander regularly. He never moralised. He was closer than a parent. I could tell him things I would not tell my mother or father. He covered it all with his love.
As for my husband... I could not stay with him. Some say, marry first, love will come later. But it is not about me. We divorced.
I found a well-paying job in Moscow, and I went to work there. It was at a VIP spa resort in the middle of a beautiful forest. I had more money than I could spend, and so I had the idea to enrol in a university. I joined a singing programme. I wanted to become a pop star.
But the Lord intervened in my plans. I became very ill, went to the hospital and had surgery. After the surgery, the doctors told me that I would not have children anymore. My life turned around completely. I questioned myself again about what I wanted in my life. A career in show-business, money, fame - how much did they matter to me? So I went to my teacher and withdrew.
While in Moscow, I often visited the grave of Saint Matrona of Moscow. On one of my trips, I came across a disc with Nun Juliania's pilgrim's songs. I bought it. For the first time, I bought myself a disc with religious music. It was called "heartfelt singing". I kept listening to it over and over. On the cover, it said it was recorded in Minsk. I thought how nice it would be to hear the choir live. - A year later, I returned to Belarus, and I went to Saint Elisabeth Convent to attend the church choir festival "Majestic voice". My wish came true - I heard Nun Juliania's festive choir live, and enjoyed it very much.
On my next visit to the Convent, I noticed a wanted poster. The Convent was looking for people to work at its bookbinding studio. I called, and they invited me for an interview. My first working day was a ball. I understood that I had found myself a home. I felt peace in my heart. I was ready to settle down.
I seriously considered joining the Convent. I prayed to know God's will. Father Andrey Lemeshonok became my confessor, and I came to trust him. I somehow believed that God would let me know His will through him: should I stay in the world, or choose monasticism? Father Andrey did not advise me directly. He just asked, "What keeps you in the world?" I took it for his blessing.
I remember coming to my first gathering of monastic sisters. Everyone was wearing black, and there was a rumble in the room. The enemy raised his voice again, "What do you have in common with these people?" But my steadfastness helped me once again. "No, I am not leaving. I am staying to the end," I said to myself.
Finally, the meeting was over. I put on the black garments. They showed me to my cell, which I shared with Nun Tamara, and told me to get ready for confession. But I went into a corner and began to cry. Nun Tamara was perplexed. She could not understand why I was crying.
“Are here against your will?" she asked.
"Why are you crying, then? You can get up and leave any time." I calmed down and said, "It must be my past bearing down on me". She said to me, softly, "Nobody is keeping you here against your will. The gate is open. You can leave any time." I calmed down.
For many years, I felt bitter with God. Why did not He give me my biological father and mother, like everybody else? Why did He let me grow up in adoption? I pretended that I was addressing these questions to myself, but in fact, I was grumbling at God. When my mother knew that I was at the Convent, she asked, "How do you like it there?" I said to her, "I would have joined after school if I knew it would be so good."
The Lord has put me through many trials. He let me meet many different people and learn how to build relationships with them. If I had come at 20, I would not have stayed. So he did not let me come at 20 but at 37. He is leading me, and I am following.
After I received the blessing to become a monastic, I came to my parents in a black kerchief. I was very impressed by the reaction of my father. He had been a military officer all his life, and he served with distinction. He said, "You know that you have made a life choice. It is like joining the army. It is not a job, but a service. I served honourably. I hope you will, too."
Nun Tamara (Ignatovich) is the person who rings the bells of our Convent's Saint Nicholas Church. We asked her to share her thoughts about her obedience and its importance for churchgoers.
In the final part of the interview Mother Superior of St. Elisabeth Convent discusses the ways and means of maintaining the unity of the monastic family.
Nun Rebecca (Pereira): I became a monastic to bring salvation to my soul. In this sense, the meaning of monasticism is the same irrespective of your location - Belarus, Serbia or Brazil.
Cutting off their own will, the sisters go through changes until finally a new personality is born, a follower of Christ, a nun.
Schema-monk Piotr (Piotr Polyak), who departed to God in 2011, lived a difficult life and knew many falls and victories over sin. At all times, he had genuine trust in God and was committed to serving God and the people.
By learning to understand and accept people of all sorts in any condition, I am growing - in faith, trust, hope and love. I am putting my sorrows into perspective and find my experience invaluable and therapeutic.
A doctor, nun Maria (Litvinova) advises people on how to stay healthy and how to respond to disease. The topic of our interview with her today is Christian attitude to health, and how it may be relevant in today's world.