Saint Seraphim of Sarov thus described the significance of their service: "Few duties at church are more important than these. The Lord appreciates highly even such small tasks as wiping the floor of His temple. His servants enter the church and do their work with great awe, trepidation, and unceasing prayer. What else can be more beautiful than working on the church floor? What can surpass it in greatness and significance? What does one have to fear within its walls, and what can bring more joy to one's heart, spirit and mind than being at the Church, with the Lord and Saviour is in our midst?"
They are the first people we meet as we enter the temple of God. They welcome every parishioner and newcomer. They take their questions, educate them about the church sacraments and advise them on the ground rules. They give directions to visitors who ask to see the duty priest, the prioress or almoner. They perform multiple housekeeping duties, like cleaning, washing, wiping the candle stands or polishing the chandelier. Every one of these jobs, however small, are deeply meaningful to our custodians, making them a part of a greater cause. They take no rest on holidays or weekends when the services are longer and more numerous. They are their busiest days.
Nun Valentina (Galtseva) had been the chief custodian of our churches for many years. She is responsible for all our five churches, making sure that they are well adorned and properly cleaned up for each service. She has five helpers assigned to the five churches. She says that her job requires her to pay attention to her inner state, especially when working around the altar. In her line of duty, she deals with multiple temptations. Losing the sense of awe and piety and treating her service as an everyday routine are perhaps some of the gravest. She deals with it by worshipping at church regularly, praying incessantly, keeping vigilance and participating in the Holy Sacraments of the Church.
Church custodians have given guidance to many lost souls. One former church custodian remembers helping a young woman find God. She was small and slender and had blonde hair. She looked like an adolescent, but her eyes were crying with pain, loss and a sense of emptiness. She called out to our custodian from the church floor and tried to tell her her story, but was too agitated and incoherent. As the custodian listened, she knew that she could help the woman if she could convince her to stay at the church. The woman stayed. She learned how to wipe the candlesticks and icons, and they had long conversations in the process. Eventually, the woman learned the order of the church offices and began to attend church worship. She confessed and took her first communion at Saint Elisabeth Convent. Her journey to God was not quick or easy, but she was a woman of great strength and character. For several years, she remained a parishioner of our Convent, and now she is a lay servant at a male Stavroprigial monastery in Russia.
Some people find God when they help us as volunteers. They come and ask us to give them some work. Most of the time, custodians refer them to one of our churches. But first, they will listen to their stories. Typically, people share with them their grief. More rarely, they come to express their gratitude to God. They expect us to listen, give advice, offer our prayers, direct them to a priest or help prepare for a confession. Sometimes, a lasting relationship develops, and people return. They find God, acquire hope, and become our parishioners. Some came to us with tearful prayers of gratitude to God for healing them from a long-term illness or for giving them a child. Many of their stories challenge our notions of the possible.
One visitor to the Convent told us about the miraculous conception and birth of their family's fourth child. They already had three children, all girls. When his wife was pregnant with their last girl, doctors told her not to attempt another pregnancy as it would put her life at risk. She even had surgery to prevent a future pregnancy. But they still wanted a boy and did not stop praying to God. When the man was on business in Belgium, he walked into the church of the Prophet Elijah, and cried out to God tearfully, "Help me O Lord..." God heard their prayers. Soon, they conceived. It was a boy, and they called him Ilya. The doctors did not know what to say. "You couldn't conceive, but it happened!" - they exclaimed.
Nun Pheodosia, the custodian of our church of St. John of Shanghai, shared this story.
"I knew a nun from the Convent of Mary Magdalene in Jerusalem. She had been sending us icons and incense with the pilgrims. I wished to send her something as a gift, too, but could not find anyone who would deliver it to her. One of our parishioners was going on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. I got in touch with her, and she agreed to take a package. We arranged that she would call me in advance to give me time to get the blessing. I decided to send the nun some biscuits from the Convent's bakery.
It was Saturday, and I was preparing for the all-night vigil when I received a telephone call from my acquaintance. She told me to expect her for the second liturgy and prepare the package. I was not sure how I was going to put it together at such short notice? I attended the vigil, then went for the first liturgy and took communion. I felt calm and peaceful, and not in the mood to hurry to get the package ready. So I went to the shop outside the Church of the Reigning Icon to ask if they had anything to offer.
Inside, I met Nun Anna with several bags of biscuits in her hands. She told me that a brother in Christ had donated them. He asked Nun Anna to distribute them among the sisters. I told her that I was putting together a package to send to Jerusalem. She handed me the bags with the biscuits and asked,
"Will you make a prayer note for that brother then?"
"Write down the name, I will not remember it," I responded.
She called the brother. His name was Sergey. He came, and she said to him, "Go ahead and write a prayer note for Jerusalem." His face was glowing with joy. He told us that he needed that prayer badly. His hands were shaking with excitement as he wrote the note. I thought to myself, "How providential! Everyone gets what they asked for. I have the biscuits, and Sergey the prayer."
The service of our church custodians may be invisible, but they have seen God's power manifest itself in His response to their heartfelt prayers and multiple miracles.
The obedience of a church custodian is deeply rewarding and uplifting. The custodians’ familiarity with the details of the church architecture, the order of the services and other aspects of worship add to the fullness and beauty of church life.
Yet perhaps the most impressive outcome of their work is the well-lit church. Like the bride of Jesus Christ, she stands in full splendour ready to meet her groom. Preparing a church for a service takes time and effort, but the brilliance of its interior gives our custodians a sense of endearment, joy and belonging to the kingdom not of this world. All of this is deeply rewarding and gives them the courage and strength to proceed with their good works.
Nun Olga (Velikaya)