Yandex Metrika
Interview with Fr Andrey Lemeshonok of Saint Elisabeth Convent

"Have Faith and You Will Be Saved"

Fragments from the interview with Archpriest Andrey Lemeshonok of Saint Elisabeth Convent.

Fr Andrey about his youth

I was unbaptised. My upbringing was steeped in communism, both through my parents and grandparents. But God led me to the Church. It was not a random event. You step inside, and suddenly you're enveloped by God’s love. One moment you’re living on one plane, and the next you see beauty in everyone around you, unexpectedly. We are all inherently beautiful, we just take it for granted. This sudden awareness of beauty, this wholeness in everyone — it touched me deeply.

God touched me with His love. I did not fully understand what it was. But I wanted it to last. So I took baptism, and I entered the Church. I saw everyone in there as holy. It felt like a glimpse of Heaven, not the church ceiling. Back then, in Soviet time, it was quite difficult to get baptised: young men were often turned down. So, in 1977, I was baptised secretly, by night, in the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in Minsk.

The moment I changed, everyone considered me sick. They couldn't grasp it. I had a wife and child already, but my parents thought I’d gone off the deep end. My father was a high-ranking official at the Communist party school, while I was working as a guard at the church. He ended up losing his job because of me. I was branded a traitor. It was a very serious situation, filled with tragedy. I felt terrible for my father, but I couldn’t turn back. He pleaded, “Just leave the Church, we’ll get you a good job.” But I couldn’t leave it anymore, it was my life now.

After baptism, everything changed for me. The world seemed different, new and radiant. It was a miracle. For 21 years, I had been walking around blind, and then suddenly I could see! Grace was strong then, and everyone appeared saintly. But then the trials began. These same people I saw as saints, well, they didn’t always measure up. The saintliness faded.

Encounter with Elder Nikolai Guryanov

I actually resisted going. An acquaintance practically dragged me there. I kept saying, “I don’t want to go.” I guess I had lost that initial grace of God. But the moment I laid eyes on him, I was enveloped by Divine love again. Through him, I saw God, the light of God’s love radiating from him. It pierces your heart, a light unseen by our physical eyes. That’s when the joy returned.

There was a time when I truly wanted to leave Church, to walk away from it all. But God’s embrace was stronger. He holds you tight, and when you try to break free, He holds you even tighter. I fell into condemnation, criticizing everyone, from priests all the way up to the Patriarch. “Everything is wrong,” I thought, “hypocrisy everywhere!” So I go to Father Nikolai and unload on him, “The Church is a mess, everything is…” He listens, then just smiles, wraps his arms around me and gives me a kiss, saying, “You are a happy man”.

… Now if I start seeing flaws again in people I try not to trust myself. I try not to believe the negativity, but it’s a constant struggle. God’s grace is a gift, but it can fade. You have to work for it, at least put in some effort.

… In my younger days, I used to visit him constantly, for a long time. I was drawn to him. I viewed him as a source of wisdom. Once, I asked him, “Father, when will the world end?” He was very ill at the time, lying down. He looked at me and said, “You know what, we’ll live long and happily.” That response came from a completely different plane of existence. It was love speaking to me. After that, I lost interest in those questions — when the world would end, when prophecies would be fulfilled. Love is the core of human life. God is love. Everything else — the constant fuss, the unnecessary questions — pales in comparison.

Building a church with no money

It looked like madness. Sheer madness! Building a church with no money? It is like trying to build a house for yourself without any funds. Impossible, right? Yet, here we are, building a church.

Father Nikolai simply gave us five roubles and said, “People will contribute.” But it was not like waving a magic wand. It was incredibly difficult, a constant struggle. But we were driven by inspiration, especially the young sisters — some still studying, others fresh out of university. They were filled with enthusiasm. And there were the sick people.

Father Nikolai’s words were, “You will be saved through the prayers of the sick.” Through their prayers, not because we were anything special.

Indeed, for a long time, we had a remarkable ministry — visiting the psychiatric hospital and orphanages. We felt God’s presence with us, a sense that these forgotten people needed Him. No one else seemed to care, but God did. And that is where we belonged, doing this work.

We also visited the second general hospital, and a small group of us began to form. People were drawn to serve. Then, one day, we went to see Father Nikolai again. He looked at us and said, “Here come the white nuns,” even though there was not a monastery yet.

Father Nikolai blessed us. And honestly, I believe it was his blessing, his prayers, and of course, the support of Metropolitan Philaret that made everything possible. We would not have anything without them.

I didn’t know anything then, and honestly, I still don’t. We ourselves didn’t have any desires, any ambitions. We simply wanted to follow God’s will. And God blessed us. It was a true miracle.

It wouldn’t have been about building something grand or impressing others. There’s no room for arrogance here. It’s incredibly difficult to live with God when you’re riddled with sin. People come to you with their tragedies — they want to give up on life, their families are falling apart, betrayed by everyone. And you have to tell them, “Keep living! Fight! Get back up!” But you yourself are lying down. It’s all very difficult. It’s a constant dying. In this constant dying, there is a wound in you that is always sore and never heals. But how can you truly understand someone’s pain if your own wounds did not hurt?

When I see shortcomings here and there, it is easy to get discouraged. You can try to sugarcoat reality, but I believe the bitter truth is ultimately better. We can tell ourselves we’re good people, but we’re not. That’s the point — the Lord does not gather the good or the positive, He gathers those who are. And as the scripture says, “God’s power is made perfect in weakness.” We constantly remind ourselves, “If it’s God’s will, it will be done.”

Take the Ark Cultural Centre at our Convent, for example. During the pandemic, everything shut down. People had no income, borders were closed. How could we keep going? But God, I believe, was telling me we wouldn’t stop building the Ark. We’d keep building, even though some said we were out of our minds.

The Farmstead for addicted

They offered us this land, and I said, “We don’t need it, we haven’t even finished what we have here.” But God had other plans. These were people struggling with addiction, and they needed help. I remember arriving, seeing everyone strung out on drugs, and thinking, “What am I even doing here? This is awful.” And it’s not easy now. We have between 150 to 200 people there. Because everybody else rejects them. Prison is their only other option.

You have to understand — these were hardened criminals, repeat offenders, dangerous people. And here we were, with these fragile young nuns. There was even a moment when the riot police surrounded the place, a whole bus full of them with rifles. We had no idea what was going on! There was just a nun and a child. Some of these men had abandoned their children back then, they didn’t want them. We tried to help those children too, placing them in families whenever possible, because that’s a better environment for them. So, when these men saw this scene unfold, they asked, “Who’s protecting you?” The answer? “No one. God’s love protects us.”

The Convent’s workshops and studios

… Speaking of miracles, here’s an interesting one. A couple had struggled with infertility for ten years. They desperately wanted children, and finally decided to commission an icon from us. When they came to pick it up, the woman was already pregnant! They were expecting a baby girl.

Our workshops started when I served at the Peter and Paul Cathedral. A Sisterhood (of lay Sisters) had gathered there, and university students would come to me for confession.

First, we opened a sewing workshop, then an icon-painting one, and finally, a mural and mosaic workshop. They all worked in a basement in Novinki mental hospital, and that’s where it all began to grow.

But of course, we needed funding. I approached banks one after another, but they kept turning us down. I felt so ashamed, begging for money like that. But God has a way of providing, sometimes in unexpected ways.

Our core principle is “whoever does not work, shall not eat.” Everyone needs to earn their keep, contribute, and work hard.

Our Monastery shouldn’t just be a place for ‘black’ (monastic) sisters, but also for the people who work for us. It should be a community of black and white — the Monastic Sisters and the Sisters of Mercy, along with the lay people who work here.

And the work we do travels far. We take on projects all over the world. Right now, we’re even going to France under Belarusian license plates — can you imagine that? Or maybe Belgium, somewhere like that. I see this as a form of preaching.

People ask us, “How do you live there?” Here’s an interesting story that just happened recently in America.

An American man, a big, healthy guy, comes up to one of our Sisters and asks, “How do you feel about Lukashenko?” She says, “Good.” Then he asks, “How about Putin?” She says, “Good” again. Then he reaches into his wallet and pulls out a donation for us.

That’s the difference between people and politics. The Sister was scared, thought she was about to get beat up! But these people, they understand. There are sane people in the West who understand everything that’s happening with us, and what has happened. Thank God for that.

And I believe the work our Monastery does — the artistic endeavours of our Sisters and Brothers, the ceramics, the mosaics — all these works travel across Europe, even reached Australia. This labour of love connects us all. It is not about business, it is about spreading love. That’s the core principle.

April 08, 2024
Views: 666
Ratings: 5/5
Votes: 9
1 month ago
A wonderful and inspirational interview. Thank you, Father Andrey, for sharing your life and faith experiences. May Jesus continue to bless you and Saint Elisabeth Convent.