For seventeen years, Olga Shipilo, a sister of mercy, has collected donations for Saint Elisabeth Convent in the streets of Minsk. She told us how she came to God and found comfort in her sorrows, and how her obediences at the Convent taught her not to lose heart in adversity. Here is her story.
I felt the presence of God in the beauty of human relationships
In my childhood and adolescence, God was rarely mentioned or talked about. But I always felt His presence when the people around me treated each other with love and respect. Through my work at school and kindergarten, I have met with some believers. They never spoke about God, but I could recognise them by their behaviour. Some are now my friends. I will gladly say to them when we meet: "It is so good to see you hug you!"
One can read the presence of faith in a person's eyes, purity, honesty and integrity. As children, my brother and I used to spend their summers with my mother's parents. My father had great respect for my maternal grandmother. He named me Olga in her honour. The in the village loved her. They visited her often and brought us treats. She was bed-ridden for eight years, but she always welcomed us with hugs and kisses. She used to gather us around her bed, to say our prayers. We read "Lord our father", and several others. That way, he taught us how to love and glorify God. My paternal grandfather was an elder at his church. Others addressed him respectfully, "father". When he died, all the villages sang at his church funeral.
My parents were also my role models for tact and consideration. My mother is a junior school teacher, and my father taught geography and physical education. They were always careful not to discuss others or settle their differences in our presence.
At work, they always treated me with respect, and I never heard a single rude word. Once an intoxicated man tried to say something rude to me, but my colleagues stopped him and told him to apologise. He listened immediately.
I regret that our children and grandchildren have not experienced the joy of positive human relationships like we did, that they have not known the same beauty and joy. With my sister, we worry about their future. We wish to protect them from mishaps and evil. We pray for them and lay all our hopes on God.
I raised my daughter by myself - I did not get to marry and start a family. I met my daughter's father as a student. When I graduated and returned to my home village, he continued to write letters to me for some time. I went to work in my school, together with my parents. Six years later, when I moved to Minsk, I bumped into him in the street. We started seeing each other, and in 1985, I had my daughter.
He promised to marry me, but never kept his word. He was coming and going all the time. My daughter had grown by then, and we moved to live in a hall of residence. We were managing, more or less, financially. My brother was helping me to the best of his ability. By my daughter's father? I helped him out when he was in trouble, from my small maternity benefit. I pitied him.
My years of sorrows and broken promises brought me to God. By the time of my first confession, I felt embittered towards that man. I shared my grief with the priest. In my heart, there was a strong desire for revenge. But the priest said, "Don't. Do not confront or condemn him." So I forgave and went on with my life.
My service at Saint Elisabeth Convent
An acquaintance, Sister Lydia, who was already doing obediences at Saint Elisabeth Convent, advised me to attend Father Andrey Lemeshonok's talks with the laity. After one of these talks, Father Andrey gave me the blessing to attend the sisterhood meetings and later to go out into the streets with a donation box. My first posting, in 2005, was at the Komarovsky Market in central Minsk. In the beginning, I was afraid, but the other sisters cheered me up, and I began to feel more confident.
The sisters of mercy in the streets give reassurance to the people. People come to us to share their sorrows. They ask us for guidance and thank us afterwards. There are exceptions, of course. Some people can be quite threatening. Standing in an empty underpass, where can we run? At these moments, I would feel nothing but fear. When the Lord allows us such temptations, priests advise us to say a prayer. Prayer deals with the fear. It reminds us that God is always near.
I remember a man who came to me regularly to knock on my box. At times, he would stalk and follow me home. He had some illness, I believe. There was a lot of wrath in him. I tried to talk him out of it, but our talk would escalate into an argument. So I learned to keep silent. In general, my obedience at the Convent taught me to have courage and not to lose heart.
Feeling the presence of God's love and the power of communal prayer
I am happy to be a part of the Sisterhood of Saint Elisabeth Romanov. It offers great opportunities for spiritual growth and multiple service options. At the Convent, the power of the prayer is magnified. I am indebted to all who have been near at my obediences in different churches, but nowhere have I felt the power of communal prayer more intensely than at Saint Elisabeth Convent. God has endowed me with versatile gifts through the prayers of my brothers and sisters at the Convent and my kin.
At the sisterhood and convent, I rediscovered my greatest treasures in life - love, understanding, support and reassurance. Many a time, the love of the sisters and priests proved salvific. They opened my eyes to the love of God. In our lives, we go through many stages. At times, I feel too exhausted to come to the Cup, but communal prayer gives me the energy to proceed.
At some point in my obedience, I was offered to substitute for a sister at a stand in a shopping centre in a southwestern suburb of Minsk. I still remember her with great warmth for her sympathy and support when I was in great difficulty. Sadly, she is no longer working at the Convent - she had a tragedy in the family and had to change jobs. But I have remembered her all these years with gratitude and affection. But I regret not calling her and telling her that in person. Too often, we are so overwhelmed by our daily routine that we forget to say to people we care about how much they matter to us in our lives.
Growing in the faith
A senior sister once said to me, "When hesitant in your faith, say the Creed." By putting our whole trust in the Lord and accepting Him with our hearts, we can ride out any storm. I listened to the senior sister, and I realised after some time that prayer can add incredible strength to our faith.
Now I hear answers to my doubts in every line of my prayer; I read them in the church calendar or in a book I read; I hear them in the sermon of our priests. I find answers everywhere. Perhaps I had not noticed them before because I was not ready. I was too centred on my perspective, but not on the word of God. Our hearing depends on our ability to open our hearts and minds, and our desire to know God's will and obey it.
That taught me the important distinction between the attitudes of the flesh and the movements of the spirit. Putting one's private desires first, and acting as we please comes from the flesh. But when we challenge ourselves to understand and accept things that run contrary to our momentary wishes, we are on our way to living in the spirit. We can make progress in our spiritual lives only by strengthening our faith. Being faithful is hard work, but where we make an honest effort, the Lord will come to our help.