Mother Superior Euphrosyne
Mother Superior Euphrosyne of St. Elisabeth Convent took her tonsure under the name of Euphrosyne, in honour of St. Euphrosyne of Polotsk, the protectress and intercessor of Belarus (the name "Euphrosyne" translates as "joy"). In our first conversation with Mother Euphrosyne, we asked her to tell us how she became Mother Superior of the Convent, to talk about the life of the Convent, which has dedicated itself from its very beginning to help others.
Traditionally, a monastery has always been seen as a beacon of salvation. What does this mean to your Convent, and how does this fit into its mission?
We are living in difficult times. Finding work and a decent livelihood is an uphill struggle for many people, so some are coming to work here. We give work to about 1,500 individuals. Through the providence of our Lord, everyone finds a way to put their talents to good use. Most of the people who come are quite remote from the Church. Little by little, they begin to return to its fold and take part in the church sacraments.
In the early 2000s, the Convent acquired a parcel of land with a run-down horse stable and a cattle shed. We were very apprehensive. We still had not finished building the Convent, how were we going to run a farm? At that time, I was doing my obediences at the mental hospital in a ward for drug users. Many had no place to go when they were discharged. Thus the farmstead became a shelter for the recovering drug users, and eventually for released prisoners, the homeless and other vulnerable people.
The Lord gives generously (smiles). He has said: whoever comes to me I will never drive away (John 6: 37).
Your Convent seems very open to the outside world. Could this kind of openness be harmful to the sisters? How successful are they in combining prayer worship with helping others? Where do you find the middle ground?
There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. The fact that the Convent is the way it is now is deeply providential, in my view. Our family includes monastics, sisters of charity, mental patients, and our brothers and sisters in situations of vulnerability who are given shelter at our farmsteads. The Lord has brought us all together; this must be providential.
Should our monastics continue to make regular visits to the mental hospital? We asked ourselves this question at the beginning. Our spiritual father, Andrey Lemeshonok remarked: "Try locking yourselves up in yourselves, and many of you will run amok. But do not get me wrong: I am not calling on you to leave your cells altogether." To me, there seems to be no contradiction in this advice.
Here is one example that Father Andrey likes to give to illustrate his point. A holy father was walking in the streets in the company of several bishops when they met a nice looking harlot. The father looked at her for so long that the bishops were embarrassed. Afterwards, he said to them: “I wish that we could work just as hard on making our souls pure as she has been working to make her body look nice!" He prayed for that woman a lot, and eventually, she also became a saint.
One does not have to become a recluse to fight the enemy within oneself. Our enemy manifests itself in the way we communicate to others when we have disputes and disagreements. However, by being of service to others, we also receive the grace of God. Conversely, by spending all of our time at our cells and at the church, we make ourselves extremely vulnerable to our passions. Standing up to them is a challenge that may become unbearable to many.
I have been reading letters by Father John Krestyankin, and he said the same thing: today's monastics should not be living as recluses when so many people need their help to strengthen their spirits. Doing this work is our service to God and not something that we have sought of ourselves. We cannot imagine ourselves in isolation from the people. The people are reaching out to us, we must embrace them.
Our choice to be open to the world is not free from risks, I agree. However, I find it quite remarkable, that the sisters who travel to fairs with the products from our workshops always come back jubilant and joyful, as if they had never left the Convent in the first place; they are full of life, and their lives are filled with God's presence. Conversely, some other sisters may remain bad-tempered, depressed and difficult to please all of the time without ever leaving the walls of the Convent.
How strict is the statute that governs the life of your Convent?
In my opinion, it is not very strict. However, this does not make our lives any easier. It gives us a lot of freedom, but the most difficult thing for any person is to learn how to use it wisely. We are not telling our sisters: don't go there, don't do that. For many monasteries, it is common practice for the mother superior to assign the daily chores to every monastic. This makes a lot of sense. However, this is not something that is feasible at our Convent. For example, if a sister is working at the legal department, I cannot give her instructions, as she has her own schedule and list of things to do. The same is also true for the nuns who work at the supported employment centre.
In the secular world, freedom is revered and cherished. You say it can be a burden. In your view, what makes it so difficult for people to use their freedom wisely?
Unlike the generations before us, we are living in abundance; our monastics reside in nice rooms in a recently built compound. The Orthodox faithful of today have become used to the splendour of our churches, and to everyday comfort, and this is true for many monastic communities and monastics.
I read a book the other day about the history of a monastery in Moscow. It contained an impressive description of a monastic sister's daily ration in the past - a small bag of potatoes that was hung outside the door of the monastic cell. The size of each day's meal was as generous as the donations from the people.
The downside of the abundance that we enjoy today is our self-indulgence, which is a source of many problems. Increasingly, people are becoming less prepared to hear even the faintest criticism of themselves. Immediately, they will respond: “And where is your love?” This is the hardest thing.
Take some of our brothers at the farmstead, for example. Some may have been wandering around for many years before coming here, but they will feel as if they are heroes just after having slept enough in a clean bed and having had regular meals for so many days. I see some of this happening to me as well. At first glance, anyone who comes to the Convent is supposed to be ready and willing to serve God, to wash others' feet; instead, we often start to grumble at our sisters for saying something that we did not like to hear or for giving us the wrong look. Today, our daily needs are well taken care of, so our main efforts should be directed within ourselves, towards our self-improvement.
People find it hard to accept from monastics minor human weaknesses such as anger or impatience. In an ideal world, this would be the right thing to expect, but in most cases, sisters are still quite far from being angels. Why is this so difficult for so many people to accept?
It is unreasonable to expect all of us to be like Saint Poemen the Great or Sergius of Radonezh. Saint Ignatius (Bryanchaninov) said that in the old times monastics used to be the pillars of faith. However, the Christian faith back then was also a lot stronger. Most people were praying regularly and lived more virtuous lives.
I am the Mother Superior of this Convent, but what chance did I have to grow as a Christian? I grew up as a wayward teenager who never listened to anyone. I came to Church, the Lord embraced me, cleaned me up and even made me a monastic and let me serve as Mother Superior. It takes a lot of time to learn the right way. We serve in the best way we can, and we are learning. We have made a lot of mistakes, but the Lord has not turned away from us and continues to give us His help despite our remarkable ability to botch nearly everything we do.
Pursuing your ministry must take a special kind of person and require a lot of patience. How well are the sisters responding to this challenge? Are they finding it difficult, or do they see it as a part of their conscious choice to become monastics and serve other people?
Indeed, coming to the Convent is a conscious choice for every sister, and all of them know the expectations. Furthermore, almost all of the nuns who were tonsured in the first years of the Convent are former sisters of charity, and they were members of the sisterhood before becoming monastics. Many of the newly tonsured monastics were lay sisters; some of our monastics came from abroad. As of today, we have nuns from Montenegro, Serbia and Poland. We do not see this as anything extraordinary or unusual, but rather as a normal development.
When you assign the obediences, what do you take into consideration?
We consider many things, such as ability, talent, and motivation, among others. And the fact that we do so is also a hallmark of our time. In the old times, a monastic was expected to accept and complete obedience that he had been assigned without asking any questions. Today, we tend to ask sisters before giving them obedience: “Sister, what would you be interested in doing?” This may have become the only possible approach to assigning tasks to monastics, as many will agree...
At present, there are nine churches at the Convent; there are plans to build a tenth church, which will become fourth among the churches located within the monastic compound. Has the main church of the Convent, the Church of the Reigning Icon of the Mother of God, become too small for churchgoers?
When we were building the Church of the Reigning Icon, we thought that there would be enough room for everyone - it can accommodate as many as 1200 people. We welcome a lot of visitors. Many come during feasts; on Palm Sunday and at Easter, we have people standing outside, and about 1,500 take communion. The Church of the Reigning Icon is very impressive. Its beautiful mosaic alone is worth a separate visit.
The brilliance of the churches serves to teach the Truth to the people. The people who come to a monastery and see all this beauty will be impressed and motivated to come to Church more often and to build a relationship with God.
Honestly, we were impressed by the number of people attending the worship even on weekdays; it is Friday night, and an Akathist and the Church of the Reigning icon is full. Are they mostly people from the neighbourhood?
Not all of them for sure. Many come from other parts of Minsk, and even from other cities.
What attracts people to the Convent?
Finding God's grace. Also, people know Father Andrey and are very fond of him. All of our achievements are the product of his effort and leadership. He is pushing ahead, and we are following. He is keeping all of us on our toes.
We are always mindful, however, that our activity and projects are not ends in themselves. Take the example of Reverend Moses of Optina; the other monastics grumbled a lot when he launched the construction of a guesthouse despite the lack of money in the monastic treasury to complete it. But he was doing it for the people. The construction created jobs and livelihoods for many individuals and families. The same is true for our convent. The world has changed, and so have the circumstances, but in essence, things are still the same.
When I was 8, I suddenly realised that God existed. I can’t explain how exactly. It wasn’t a vision or something. There wasn’t anything mysterious about it. All of a sudden, it dawned on me that God was real.