Our memories are a crucial part of our spiritual selves. We draw our inspiration from the people and places that changed our view of the world and our lives. For hundreds, if not thousands, the time spent at the Convent, and the memories of it are a treasure held dear to their hearts.
On 22 August, we celebrated the birthday of our Convent. On that day, the Metropolitan of Minsk and Slutsk Philaret of blessed memory performed monastic tonsure on its first three sisters and gave his blessing to the establishment of Saint Elisabeth Convent.
I first came to the Convent thirteen years ago, in August 2008. I stood at an all-night vigil in plain clothing. Mesmerised, I was looking at my sisters in Christ. In their black vestments, they appeared solemn and distant. Compared to them, I imagined myself small and superficial. To me, everything was new - the atmosphere, the people and the obediences. Little did it occur to me then that I would be taking my tonsures, just like these other sisters, only a few months later?
I cherish my memories of places and people. I remember my first impressions of Father Andrey Lemeshonok, a tall and bulky man who seemed strict and demanding. Yet, under his thick beard, he was hiding a smile, and there were sparkles in his eyes. How many more times would I look into them again, at my confessions and anointments. With his sometimes tired eyes, he was reading my heart. As he looked at me, he always glowed with sympathy and acceptance.
As I look back into my past and exchange memories with the other sisters, I realise that we all have some significant other who steered us with his advice, word, or example towards a path of spiritual progress, distinct from the way of this world. To me, Father Andrey was my significant other.
I remember approaching him for his blessing to become a labourer at the Convent. I already knew by then that I wanted to stay there for good, but I was afraid of being turned away. Father Andrey looked at me with surprise and listened to my request. Noticing the mother superior passing by, he called out to her: "Look, here is a sister who wants to join the monastery. Would you like to talk to her?"
That conversation with Mother Superior is also something that I remember fondly. Words, actions and appearances shape our perception of a person. It was the first time I had encountered a nun so closely and had a conversation with her. We were sitting on a bench outside the Church of Saint Elisabeth. I did not know how to address her. Confused, I was trying to explain what I could and could not do in the world and why I wanted to dedicate my life to God. I was trying to explain how important it was to me. I was impressed by her patience and simplicity. She listened to me with great attention, never interrupting me once.
Occasionally, she asked me questions. When I finished my confused account, she sighed and said, "Whoever comes to me, I will never drive away." That same evening I settled in a cell and covered my hair with a black kerchief.
With time, the treasure box of my memories grew. Singing at the worship services impressed me a lot. It was musical and harmonious. I remember the joy of standing at the Church of Saint Elisabeth, filled with majestic light. Nun Agrippina, my cellmate, was amazingly accepting and welcoming. She spared no effort to make my adjustment as smooth as possible. She asked me to remember my first day at the Convent. In my darkest moments, I returned to my memory of that day, and its brightness and warmth gave me the strength to carry on.
Many things have changed since those days, along with most other aspects of our lives. To me, the Convent is more than the beautiful churches, the ringing of the bells, prayer and everyday work. First and foremost, the Convent are its people. The people who live here are one family. Good families have the custom of gathering together to share their joys and sorrows. Our monastic sisters and lay sisters have separate gatherings. These meetings warm people's hearts, heal them with an atmosphere and sympathy, acceptance and engagement, despite being emotional or explosive at times.
By tradition, each new sister is asked to introduce herself. I remember the great difficulty with which I opened up to all the other sisters. Still, I had not prepared and speech and spoke from the heart. Despite my fear, I had trust in others people. I trusted God, my spiritual father, and my sisters in Christ. Perhaps my ability to trust was crucial to my success in monastic life. Many believe that breaking with the world makes one a monastic. That is a common misconception. Breaking with the world and joining a convent is the easy part. Imagine a seedling replanted in a new place. It takes a lot of time and effort for it to take root and flourish. Sometimes a lot more than expected. It also takes patience, perseverance, and faith.
The Convent is the place I like to be. It is beautiful in any season. I like it in the autumn when gold-coloured leaves fall to the ground and the special paleness of the Autumn sky. I like it in the summer, when we celebrate our second Pascha, by honouring the memory of Saint Elisabeth Romanov and the Holy Royal Passion-Bearers. It is lovely in the winter with its heavy snowfalls. Yet perhaps the most beautiful season at the Convent is the spring - the soft light and the quiet voices of the readers at the churches during the Lenten period, and the repentant prayer of Saint Ephraim the Syrian. It was no accident that the first three monastic sisters took their tonsure at that time.
For the sisters taking tonsure is filled with a special blessing from the Lord, Who comes to each sister to offer them His reassurance. Anyone who has attended this sacrament will agree that these moments are unforgettable. Tonsure is the moment when we die for our old lives and are born again with a new name to a new life. From that moment onwards, the life of each monastic sister belongs to God alone; she surrenders voluntarily to the embrace of our Lord, stronger, most reliable and more loving than one could ever imagine. By tradition, the newly tonsured sisters spend several days and nights at the church. Who could ever know what happens in the heart of a new nun during those days? It is a secret known to her and the Lord. It is a mystery that changes a person from within and remoulds her entirely.
Monastic life is a journey of discovery. Paging through my old diaries and photo albums, I was always fascinated by the magnitude of the change in me. "With the Lord, one is never bored," one sister said to me one day. She was right. Never before had my life been so full and exciting as it has been at the Convent. With an honest heart, I now call the Convent my home. And home to all the others around me.
May the Lord save and protect the Convent for the years to come!
By Nun Olga (Velikaya)
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.