Sister of charity Galina Goncharova
As a sister of charity, you are doing your obediences at the care home for adults with mental and neurologic disabilities. Many find this place too intimidating to even visit. What empowers you to come here regularly, and how important is this obedience to you?
I became a sister of charity eight years ago in the fall. As I was looking after the less fortunate, I noticed their remarkable ability to enjoy the ordinary events of their daily lives - the good weather, a meeting with someone, or even a minuscule gift. They have the talent of being true and loyal, to be good friends, and to show love. I realised how much I could learn from them. In the way my brothers and sisters are treating their neighbours, I saw examples of relationships that were free from any traces of deception and pretence and were filled instead with trust, support, compassion, sharing, and prayer. We are a Christian family whose strength has been tested over time and our shared experiences. If I were to leave this family under the weight of the difficulties of my own life, or because of my own weaknesses and limitations, the family would remain, but I would lose out a lot, and miss it very much.
I am here to be a servant, a servant of God. Being here gives me a break, if only for a few hours, from the pressure to be in control, to achieve and worry over unimportant things. God's grace fills my heart with peace and inspiration and gives me the power to face any challenges that I may encounter. Sometimes, only a few moments by the side of a sick person can be a healing experience for both, if you spend them in peaceful prayer, in freedom from the noise within, and from the impatience and irritability of the spirit.
You speak of your obedience as a way of serving God. How did you meet God? How did it change your life?
I came to God as a mature person, at age 41. I was raised in the atheistic tradition typical for the Soviet period. Although I did not know God, I listened to my conscience and was attracted to poetry, music, and art.
I grew up in Mogilev, and there was only one active church there in my time - the Church of the Elevation of the Cross next to the city market. My beloved grandmother would travel here every Sunday and on feast days from a distant part of town. Every Easter, she would walk back home from the late-night liturgy for many kilometres until the morning. Back then, this meant very little to me. Today, I am deeply touched by her faith and her devotion to God.
I approached my conversion with two conflicting feelings. On the one hand, I was almost crashed with the heavy burden of my sinful ways, and felt that I was losing my sense of direction in life; on the other, I had a strong desire to bring purity and order back into my life I had the hope of seeing light at the end of the tunnel. God gave me His helping hand, as my soul, which knew no God was crying out to be saved.
Through His providence, I met Father Igor, who brought me, through our discussion of Andrey Rublev's icon "Trinity" to accept the idea of God's existence and His providence of the world. As the conversation developed, I took the courage to make a confession and repent for the sins that had been burdening my soul for many years. On the next day, I took my first communion. I felt very inspired and liberated.
Sister of charity Galina Goncharova
As many church fathers wrote, the presence of God fills one's life with a new meaning and puts it on a firm foundation. How did your understanding of the meaning of life change after meeting God?
In our lives, we encounter many trials and difficulties. They do not become any less numerous with our conversion. We just learn to see them as something that God allows us for the benefit of our salvation. This understanding gives us the confidence and power to address them.
My life is not an exception in this regard. My first deep pain in life is the loss of my father. My mother and father divorced when I was five years old. My father was drinking. He was going downhill very quickly. He could not stop and was suffering greatly. He understood that his family, children, and his very life were at stake, but his passion and sin prevailed. He died in an accident when I was eight.
To ease the pain of the loss, I studied hard at school to keep myself busy. At eight, I also went to music school and learned to play the violin. After finishing grade 8, I entered the musical college in Mogilev.
At age 19, I left my home to become a student at the Belarusian Conservatory in Minsk. I found myself completely unprepared for my independence. I was living in a world of literary heroes and sentimental phantasies and was totally unequipped, defenceless, and unarmed to face real life. Not knowing how to cope with failure created the perception of being caught in a cycle of hopelessness. I felt pessimistic and helpless. Any action that I was taking seemed to make my situation worse.
I married a fellow student in my course during my final year. I got I job that I was enjoying very much, but I could not become a mother. The long and painful testing and treatment failed. My husband left me for another woman, with whom they had a boy and a girl. The demise of our marriage was very painful for both of us. I tried to find consolation in experimenting with different belief systems. My bookshelf was filled with books on dieting and the Carma. My mind became congested with an eclectic mix of philosophical teachings, yoga practices, and wellness rituals.
This was not helping, and I was falling deeper and deeper into depression. I was trying to pretend to others that I was a successful and self-sufficient woman. I was going to the gym and the swimming pool, going on shopping sprees, visiting beauty parlours, and pursuing casual friendships.
My meeting with Anatoly, my new husband, was truly providential. It was a gift from God and the beginning of my return on the path of salvation and meaningful life. With our encounter, I began to recover the firmness of the spirit; I discovered what it meant to be in a secure and mutually supportive relationship, which is the dream of so many women. Where I was in doubt, he projected confidence, and where I was fearful, he reassured me.
We began to read the scriptures together. Religious texts, icons, and a prayer book appeared in my library. My hungry heart was absorbing the pure word and wisdom of these books.
I consider it a true gift from God the years of living with and caring for my husband's daughter Sonya for four years while she was a student at the music school. Our time together was a chance for me to feel the joys of parenthood. Today, Sonya is a student at the Gnesins school in Moscow. But we have been close friends ever since, and hope to remain so in the future.
Sister of charity Galina Goncharova
How did meeting God change your work and your relationships with your students?
I have been teaching music ever since my graduation from the conservatory at the Akhremchik college of music and arts, a fine institution where I have always felt inspired and appreciated.
My conversion made me realise even more acutely that every one of my students, no matter how talented or persevering, is a gift from God for which I should be thankful. My teaching is also a part of my service to God, and my growth as a person. In 2007, I formed a musical ensemble which I called "Consonance". I think that this name is truly symbolic; it underlines the harmony that reigns within the group and the value of each of its members.
When I accepted my obedience at the care home, I brought my students there several times. They performed in front of the patients, and they enjoyed the music greatly. They also brought with them toys, candies, and home-made cookies to share with their audience.
Since 2016, the group "Consonance" has been a regular participant in the annual festive concert dedicated to the feast day of the Church of the Blessed Xenia of Saint-Petersburg. We also perform at the Convent's arts festivals. These performances add meaning to my work and are particularly important for my students who, are learning important life lessons in mercy and generosity.
When the bomb explosion happened in Minsk’s Oktyabrskaya metro station in 2011, you and your husband were close to ground zero but escaped unharmed. How did this dramatic life-or-death moment impact your life views, and why do you think would God allow these things to happen to some people?
Only moments separated us from certain death. We were lost in the smoke of the blast but found each other alive a few minutes later. It was as if the Lord had taken us up in His arms and carried us away from the ground zero. But He also let us feel the closeness of death, reminding us about the fragility of human life, in which every day could be the last.
I recall the lines from Psalm 91: no harm will overtake you, no disaster will come near your tent. For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways; they will lift you up in their hands so that you will not strike your foot against a stone."
Perhaps the Lord allows this to happen to us so we would appreciate the true value of things that we had previously been taking for granted. So we can, at last, find the time to attend to the needs of our family and loved ones; so we realise our imperfection and direct our efforts and our prayers to the One who alone can bring is to perfection and fill our lives with true joy if we have the will to change it. I am hopeful that this will happen in my life someday.
The Convent’s compound and churches were built in a remarkably short time. How did this miracle happen? Sister Yulia Kostukevich shares her insights in the second part of her first-person account of our history.