How can we find peace with God despite our misfortunes and keep our relationship with Him? How can we understand and follow His will? Novice Elena Yudina shares her experience and talks about her progress to monasticism.
Tell us about your family and its role in supporting your spiritual growth.
My mother, Natalya Yudina, is a piano teacher and my father, Vladimir Yudin, is a military officer. I was born in a closed Siberian city Zheleznogorsk, with a large military nuclear plant inside a mountain. Every resident needed a pass to enter the city.
My parents went to the same class at school. After finishing school, both went to college. My father finished a military college, and my mother a college of music. They married soon after graduation. My father served in many places all across the former Soviet Union. My mother humbly followed him to his every posting.
I come from a large family. Every one of us was born in a different city. I was born fifth, and I am the youngest of them.
I grew up in a loving family. My father and mother never had any arguments. I understand now that they may have had some differences or misunderstandings, but they never let them develop into an argument. At weekends, we would all come together to cook dinner and share it. Then we would sit on our parents' bed to read storybooks. Frequently, I did not want to sit quietly and listen. I wanted to run around. But everybody else was busy reading, and I had no choice but sit quietly and listen. That way, I developed the habit of taking other people's wishes into consideration, which proved to be very useful at the Convent. Standing at a worship service at church today, I sometimes feel like sitting down. But I keep standing because everyone else is also standing.
Growing up in a large family formed in me a distinct perspective on life. It taught me to share, make concessions, and listen to others. The love and support of my parents lay a strong foundation for my personal growth. For this, I am very grateful to my parents. As a monastic, I share a cell with three other people with their set of needs and preferences, like three astronauts from different planets. The interpersonal skills that I had learned in my family are still helping me greatly.
How did you establish a relationship with God, and how did it evolve?
My family was non-religious, but I have been drawn to God ever since I was a child. I felt His presence, His closeness all the time, and I sensed a connection to Him. I trusted in Him like a child, fully and unquestioningly. My faith in him was like a fire burning in me in some inexplicable way.
The church in our town was based in a converted house trailer. They sounded a blow bar at the beginning of each new service. I was about five years old then. It was Pascha. Back then, I had little idea of what it was. But I liked walking on the ice of the puddles in my rubber boots. I step on one of the puddles. The ice cracks and I see something glisten at its bottom. I bend over and pick up an icon of the Mother of God with a cross at its back. I ran cheerfully towards the church.
Afterwards, I came to my mother and said, "Mum, why do not take me to the church to be baptised?" My mother did not know what to say. My sisters laughed at me and holy roller. But inside myself, I was confident that I was doing everything right.
When I turned twelve, my mother died. She was only forty-seven years of age. I became angry with God. I offered him a bargain: He takes me but brings my mother back. I lay down on my bed waiting for Him to take me. But he did not. That made me even more aggrieved. "You do not take my bargain. I do not need you, then," I said to Him as if slamming the door in His face.
At sixteen, I had developed a life-threatening medical condition. I had been to different hospitals. My only hope was a very high-risk surgery. My doctor was willing to take the risk, but all her colleagues were against it. They said that my chances of survival were one in a hundred. Yet my doctor was unafraid. She came to my ward, told me everything about the risks and asked for my decision. The surgery went fine. I woke up in intensive care. My doctor entered my ward. She kneeled and embraced me, tearfully. "It was a success. What a miracle!" she said. It was the Bright Week.
I took baptism before the surgery. I was still in conflict with God, so it was more my concession to Him than my genuine desire. As I realised many years later, God never abandoned me, He always cared and He protected me. - He never stopped helping me. But I continued to reject Him. I am still ashamed of having treated Him this way.
Ten years after my conscientious break with God, at 22, a moment of crisis arrived in my life. I felt as if I was standing with my back to a wall. The burden of my sins was crashing me, and I was in great anguish. I wanted to come back, but I was not sure how. A woman at work gave me a book by John Krestyankin. It was about preparing for a confession. I began to read it, a few paragraphs at a time and came to realise the degree of my guilt before Him. I felt very much like the Prodigal son, who understood the need to return but could not get himself to go back because he had once left Him. I began to prepare for my first confession. The Lord always sees the state of a person's heart and never remains indifferent. When the day of my confession came, I stood before a priest and could not make myself utter the first word for a long time. This was the beginning of my return to God and the church. I visited the church that was closest to my work. One day, I opened the door and saw a monk coming towards me with an incensory. Our eyes met. "I wish I had a spiritual father like that monk," I said to myself. The monk's name was Archimandrite Platon, and I eventually became his spiritual child.
How did you decide to dedicate yourself to monastic life?
From a secular perspective, I was doing quite well. I had completed a good school. I was working and receiving a decent salary. I was living in Moscow and working in an office in the centre of the city. God gave me many talents. I was independent and smart and could find a solution event to some of the most difficult problems. Even the hardest of situations would not make me lose my concentration and self-control. Nothing seemed to break me.
However, I was still too far from God, and my achievements seemed meaningless and insignificant.
My personal life, too, was filled with indecision and uncertainty. On the one hand, I wanted a family, and I prayed to God to send me a husband. On the other, I was also drawn to a secluded life of prayer. At that time, I had no one to ask for advice. My father told me to decide for myself. "You are old enough," he said. But I still could not make up my mind. I wanted to know God's will. I prayed to God all the time asking Him to reveal it to me. "May Your will be done, not mine. Let me know what I should do," I pleaded.
Soon, I met a young man, a churchgoer, and we travelled to his spiritual father for his blessing for our marriage. He gave me a warm reception, despite his reputation for being very strict. But he did not give his blessing. I did not know what to think. "What should I do now?" He answered cordially, "Be a servant of God. Sing for the Mother of God," he added. "She will provide for all your needs. and provide for you."
Soon, I came across a book on the life of Saint Matrona of Moscow. It had an akathist and some prayer texts. My churching was only beginning, and at that time I did not know a single saint. Something made me open and read the book. Impressed, I prayed to Saint Matrona vehemently before going to sleep, "Saint Matrona, I am all alone. Please help me, give me an indication of what I should do." Saint Matrona responded that same night. In my dream, she hugged me. Unexpectedly, my finance vanished. Matrona turned around and waved her hand towards a church with a black dome and multiple stars.
My spiritual father was also guiding me gently towards monastic life and waited patiently for me to make up my mind. Frequently, when I came to him for my confession, he would say, laughingly, "which monastery do you come from?" - One day, I took the courage to share with him my sadness at my inability to join a monastery. I said, "Father, I cannot understand why you are not giving me the blessing." "Me? You have my blessing," Father Platon responded. At last, I realised what he was saying. "Do you mean that I have your blessing?" "Of course!" he explained.
I was overwhelmed with joy. I travelled to my father to ask for his blessing. I came to him and said, "Father, may I have your blessing to join a monastery?" He cried. He said that he did know anything about monasteries, but he trusted my judgement. So I got his blessing, too.
You were born in Russia and lived there for the greater part of your life. How did you find yourself at Saint Elisabeth Convent in Belarus?
God had given me multiple signs. One night, we were travelling with a friend to visit the Novodevichiy Convent in Saint Petersburg. It was getting late. We decided to use the remaining time to venerate the icons. Suddenly, I felt that the woollen scarf that covered my head was all wet. It was the lamped oil from one of the icons. I turned around and asked my friend, "Do you remember from which icon?" "The icon of Saint Elisabeth," she replied smilingly. I typed "Saint Elisabeth" in the search window on my phone, and the search returned "Saint Elisabeth Convent, Minsk".
So for the next winter break, we travelled to Minsk. We went for the evening service at the Church of Saint Nicholas at Saint Elisabeth Convent. There were a lot of monastics at the church. The Convent was beautiful during Lent. The service went on for a long time. As I was standing at the Great Vespers sermon, I felt as if all the sounds had disappeared, and heard a distinct voice telling me, "This is your home, you should stay here."
After all these years, I had instilled in myself the fear of disobeying God's will. So I prayed to Him. "Are You saying this?" I asked, tearfully. "Did I not misunderstand You? Did You mean it?"
I came home feeling as if I was carrying a baby under my heart. Just like a mother would protect her baby, so was I shielding my newborn faith. I felt like being alone, prating, reading the Psalter and the Gospel all the time.
Tell me more about your life at Saint Elisabeth Convent. What are your goals for your progress as a monastic and for your spiritual growth?
When I came to stay at Saint Elisabeth Monastery and started to sing in the choir, I immediately faced some serious temptations. No matter how hard I was trying, I was not singing in tune, despite my perfect sense of pitch. It was as if my voice was living a separate life from me. Many a time, I felt tempted to leave the choir, but I always remembered the words of my first confessor, "Be a servant of the Mother of God." That stopped me from acting rashly. I hung on as an exercise in humility. I was telling myself to stay and keep on serving.
From my first day, I worked at the publishing house. Eighteen months later, they assigned me to the embroidery workshop to work as a designer. There, I quickly mastered the design programme, and I enjoyed my work very much.
Throughout my time at the Convent, I have been ill a lot. In my first year, I sustained two major surgeries. I broke my leg and wore plaster for a month. I had a fishbone stuck in my throat, and I suffered from a kidney problem. Still, I never stop thanking God for all things. Pains and sorrows are a necessary part of any spiritual journey. It is like a small child adjusting to nursery school. I have been adjusting all the time, overcoming pains, doing my best and praising God for everything that comes.
I think that I am blessed to be here. I aim to reach the Kingdom of Heaven. I am learning to give others God's ultimate love and mastering the art of humility. I find all the events in my life deeply providential. Even the sins that God allows me from time to time have a meaning. As I repent some of them, I learn to be sympathetic to others and refrain from judging them.