Lay sister Yelena Pozharitskaya has been a part of our family for over a decade. She came to our icon casing studio to work as an embroidered, and after seven months, she took charge of it as a senior sister. We invited Sister Yelena to talk about her service to God and others, her workshop and plans for spiritual and personal growth.
Can we begin with some background on the icon casing studio where you are the sister in charge? How does it serve its customers?
We make rizas for small-sized icons.
A riza is more than just a protective casing. It is our gift of gratitude the to saint depicted in the icon. In gratitude to the divine image of the icon saint, people have sacrificed worldly treasures - gold, silver, emerald and precious stones. These treasures have transformed into beautiful art objects that add to the beauty of the perfection of the icon image.
Have you noticed gold and silver items deposited before the icons of the Saviour or the Mother of God in some churches? People have sacrificed them in gratitude for some miracle, such as conceiving a child or healing. Eventually, these pieces will adorn a riza. Three icons in the churches of our Convent have rich rizas - of Saint Nicholas the Wonderworker, the Mother of God of Kazan, and the Mother of God "Undrinkable Chalice". Just imagine how many lives have changed through prayer before these icons.
Many say that once consecrated, an icon begins to live a life of its own. For ten years, an icon may travel from one exhibition to another until some person sees it and says, here is the icon I have been looking for all my life." I do not believe, however, that it is the choice of an individual. Rather, it is the other way round: saints choose us by entering our lives.
How would you describe your key mission as the sister in charge of the studio?
I see it as my primary role to maintain an atmosphere of prayer, harmony and love in our team. No icon, riza or piece of embroidery can be created without prayer. Expertise matters, but prayer always comes first. No master can create a masterpiece unless he prays. Our studio is like a temple of God; we all leave our troubles at the gate. Now that is an ideal situation, of course. But starting our day with the morning prayer rule can help us come close to this ideal. Through prayer, we become attuned to work. It brings us into a creative mood.
It promotes understanding, sympathy and effective teamwork. With prayer, we can accomplish more with fewer people. A warm and loving atmosphere among the lay and monastic sisters and brothers motivates everyone to work well for the glory of God.
Every person in our studio is like a piece in God's prayer bead. Everyone is a vehicle of God's grace. We must work hard to be kind to each other and keep peace in our hearts. This loving and peaceful spirit is more than silence in the room.
Admittedly, the offer to take charge of the icon casing studio was unexpected. I kept silent about it for two weeks. I did not even tell my husband. I expected him to be sceptical about my ability and readiness for the task. But when I finally told him, he replied, unexpectedly, "Congratulations on your achievement!" His reaction reassured and empowered me.
Would you be willing to tell us more about your husband? Does he work at the studio, too? And how has your marriage helped you in your life and work?
My husband came to work at the studio full time before he even noticed. He was always there to help me with technical problems. He always gave a hand when we needed to lift something heavy or get a ride to the city. He liked the atmosphere and stayed. Today, he is a most valuable member of our team. My husband is a graduate of the Arts Academy. He is proficient in design and photography and has worked in advertising for over thirty years. Today, he is responsible for the final stages of icon production. He brings them to perfection and puts them in Rizas.
When he joined the workshop, he was not going to church. Men's ways to God are different from women's. They tend to emphasise logic and reason and often reject things that do not fit into their mental pictures. But my husband has changed a lot. In his discovery of God, he has had many doubts and overcame a lot of distrust. But he has found God, and he is my trusted friend, partner and husband.
We went together for an all-night vigil and stayed through the end. By the time the service was over, I realised in my heart that we were one spirit. This experience of the unity of spirit now guides every aspect of our lives, our very natures. Father Artemy Tonoyan once said to us, "It is rare for spouses to come and join each other in prayer. Your accomplishment is impressive, and it is your greatest treasure." We both know it and do our best to keep it.
How did you come to God?
As a child, I wanted to be a ballet dancer or at least a figure skater, but I became a painter. I went to an art school, and then to an art college. I married and had children. Yet I always had the feeling that my life was like sailing in a raft down a violent stream with little control. There was almost no God, but it was all filled with art.
Painting, music, film and cinema took all our time and attention. Around the kitchen table, we could talk of nothing else. I expected the beauty of art to fill my life with meaning, but somehow it did not happen. My life took a turn for the worse, and I fell into a long-term depression. I was so depressed that I had barely enough energy to keep in contact with the people from my closest circle. They were my husband, children, and my cousin, but not my mother. It was my cousin who eventually brought me to church.
It happened on a winter night. I came, and I heard the loud ringing of the church bells. It startled me, and I suddenly realised that my depression was retreating. That visit was my turning point. The church bells awakened my soul.
I came to church at the end of the 1990s when I was forty years of age. It took me another eight years to make my first confession and take communion. When I finally gathered my courage to confess and commune, my cousin said to me: "After your first confession and communion, God will reward you with some gift." Three days later, I knew what it was. In the Cathedral of Sts. Peter and Paul, the plaques near some icons have prayer texts in Church Slavonic. I could always read the texts, but I could make almost no sense of them. But that time, I read every text with full understanding and correct word stresses. Words began to have meaning for me.
What brought you to the Convent and its studio?
I first heard about the Convent from a sister in my local supermarket. Her name was Elena, Elena Lenkovets. She had a lot of kindness in her eyes and a completely different view of the world. I was impressed. She did not have the fears and misgivings typical of most secular people. I came to her often to ask questions. She answered with warmth and simplicity, and her eyes always glowed with love.
One day, I saw a notice next to her. Saint Elisabeth Convent was looking for young artists to train as iconographers. I was well past my youthful years, but I still asked Sister Elena if I should give it a try. "Certainly," she answered. Immediately, she called a number and announced, "I have asked, and they are expecting you for an interview.
On my way to the Convent, I was trembling with inner fear. Still depressed, I was too closed and Self-centred. They did not take me. Yet I continued to travel to the Convent for Akathists and gatherings of the sisters, while Sister Elena was not giving up her effort to help me find a job there. At one of the gatherings, she introduced me to Nun Anfisa (Ostapchuk). Nun Anfisa agreed to take me as an embroiderer at the icon casing studio.
My first project was the rizas for the Icons of the Saviour and the Mother of God, and it was a challenge. Soon, I had blisters on my fingers, but the patterns were not turning out well. I blundered, started again, and did it many times. I was too inexperienced and had no habit of prayer. Still, I liked the result. It looked beautiful to me.
I worked as an embroiderer for seven months and liked my job a lot. I found it inspiring and exciting. The more I honed my skills, the more freedom I felt in my hands. Soon, I began to design my own patterns. That obedience changed my life, again. Finally, I received the blessing to take charge of the studio.
How has your relationship with God changed in all these years?
In earlier times, I used to feel the grace of the Spirit fill my heart. Coming to work was always a joyous and exciting moment. I would not say that this grace has disappeared. I think it is more a problem with our inability to receive it. We must keep the ability to feel God's presence in our lives and to do so, we must be sceptical of the secular world and not allow its temptations to enter our hearts. All the things we hear and see will change someday.
But we should always lay our trust in God. Last year, the studio closed for a time, and we were all confused. I was afraid that we might not put our team together again. At that point, I was offered a place at the church stalls. That was a very different job demanding great depth, integrity and sensitivity. People bring us their sorrows, but we cannot afford to despair.
The Lord has placed me among exceptional people. I am happy to have them as my friends. The unity among us brings down all barriers and empowers us to overcome multiple challenges. We find strength in each other and our Lord.
How have these ten years changed you as a person, and how do you see your future spiritual growth?
Ten years is a long time in life. I am now a very different person from the one I was when I came to work here ten years ago. I cannot be certain, but I still hope that I have become stronger in the spirit. Today, I view many things with greater calm than I used to because I have learned to pay more attention to the essence. Still, I trust people and believe them as much as I did before. I think the change in me has been largely positive; it is good to have an intelligent mind that pays attention to essential details.
I have also learned to be more patient. However, I also understand that exercising patience without humility increases your risk of a nervous breakdown or an uncontrolled show of emotions. We cannot understand how this transition happens with reason alone. It is an act of God. Only with time do we realise that we have learned enough humility to accept one's situation and reality. But we can only do so by trusting God. The more we do our will, not God's, the more mistakes we will make.
Some days in our studio can be hectic. The telephone never stops ringing, and we have to answer calls all the time. Tensions mount, and the atmosphere quickly becomes tense. Only by the next morning do we begin to appreciate the blessing of our busy day: we answered every call, and talked to every caller constructively and respectfully. "Beautiful are your ways, O Lord!" I say to myself. - The Lord is always in our midst.
My work at the studio has taught me to project God's love on others, New people who come to work with us find it easy to adjust if they can love others. Without love, they will not succeed. It is all God's work, not ours. We have had some talented iconographers at our studio, who had come to impress others with their skills. But the life of our studio is governed by a different set of laws. Trust in the Lord and the sense of family is the key to success.
Ever since its establishment in 1999, the workshop has specialized in painting icons and other works using crushed minerals and semi-precious stones instead of paint.
Skilled artisans work side by side with the disadvantaged residents of the monastic farmsteads.
Even the non-Christians often get fascinated by the Orthodox hand-painted icons. Many get interested in this art form after seeing the famous icons painted by St Luke, which depict the Mother of God.
The tradition to put icons in Rizas, or covers, comes from Byzantine and the Kievan Rus. Their artisans designed the processes for producing icon covers from precious metals, reserved for the most revered icons.
This is a workshop with an extensive portfolio, upholding the centuries-old traditional techniques based on the use of smalt, a unique material of opaque glass.
The main product of the textile and felting workshop are original hand-made toys.
Ever since its launch, the workshops’ craftsmen have been making pieces of great beauty and magnificence.