The Gospel teaches us that our circumstances do not exist by chance but instead by intention for our good (Ephesians 2:10). Today, we talk to Nun Elisabeth from Germany about her progress towards God, the Orthodox Faith and monasticism. The numerous life events that she encountered in her progress seemed like coincidences at first, and it was not until much later that she came to realise the Divine wisdom that stood behind them. By following God's will, we always stay on course and realise the wisdom of being thankful to Him for all things that He allows us. We asked Nun Elisabeth how this principle worked in her life.
Nun Elisabeth, you were born and grew up in the German Democratic Republic, where the attitude to the Church and religion was largely the same as in the former Soviet Union. Everyone was being told that progressive people did not need the Church, and only the weak and the unfortunate would go there. Nevertheless, you found God in the times of the German Democratic Republic. How did it happen?
Indeed, I came to God under the GDR, and I thank the Mother of God for it. With her help, I eventually discovered the Orthodox faith. It all began when I was ten years old. As a class, we went on a field trip to Wechselburg, an ancient pilgrimage destination where the Mother of God appeared in the 15th - 16th centuries according to Church Tradition. A 12th-century Catholic monastery is located there. We were playing near the monastery when we noticed a niche nearby, and in it stood a sculpture of a woman. On the walls around her were affixed many plaques expressing gratitude to the Mother of God. One of them said, for example, The Mother of God healed me from my illness.
The image of the Mother of God touched and moved me deeply. At that moment, I did not know her as the Mother of God, but I thought to myself, 'She has helped so many people, maybe she could help me too?' And so the Virgin Mary became my mother in heaven. Like many other children would talk to their mothers, I would talk to her.
Then I started going to Church. My older brother brought me there. He was fond of organ music, and they played it in Lutheran churches. He was taking me to church with him to listen to it. Sometimes, we stayed after concerts for the bible readings and prayers. I saw the image of a man of the cross, I found out Who He Was, and I discovered Christ. I saw the people pray at Church, and I began to pray, too. My prayers were honest and direct. I was not afraid to share with God what was on my mind. I asked Him for peace in my parental home.
Then when I turned twelve, I lost several people who were dear and close to me. Each of them was special, nice and beautiful. So I was asking myself, "How could it be that someone dies, and his life ends with that? How can it make sense?" So I asked God to help me find the answers. And as I was looking, I was learning to love and trust Him. Soon after coming of age, I took baptism as a Catholic on Easter of 1983.
It is said that someone who lives in God has a very different life from someone who does not. Do you feel that this might apply to you? How did knowing God change your life?
People who meet God do so in their unique ways. My meeting with God happened in the evening. Before I met Him I knew that He existed, that He had resurrected and was Triune. But that evening, I had faith in it. I believed it with all my heart. He became the Living God. It was as if I had seen His light. My world changed a lot. He filled it with goodness and beauty; it began to make sense. The chiming of the church bells has reminded me about this moment ever since.
My meeting with God changed my life. I finished school and went to university to become a teacher. But in my senior years, people began to say to me, "How can you teach children and still believe in God?" I was in my fourth year, and I had already written half of my diploma work. Still, I had to change my profession.
Yet, when I came to God I also understood that nothing in this life happened by chance, and all events in our lives have some meaning and purpose. We may not understand them immediately, but they will become clear to us eventually. For example, when I abandoned my studies at the university, I thought: "Why did I study Russian if I am not going to teach it?" "Why did I learn English and French at school?" But as a nun at the Convent, I can translate English and French texts. I have been able to put my skills to good use.
Here is another example. After I converted to the Roman Catholic faith, I visited meetings of Catholic student fellowship. We often had visits from learned men, priests and university professors. One of the professors showed us the Icon of the Theotokos of Vladimir and told us all about it. I recalled my first encounter as a child with the Mother of God and thought: "Now this must be the true image of my mother in Heaven." I was also impressed by Andrey Rublev's Holy Trinity Icon. I bought both icons, and I prayed before them fervently. I became interested in Orthodox Christianity and would read about it everything I could get hold of. Perhaps it was this encounter that eventually led me to become an Orthodox Christian.
Which of your life events convinced you of the truth of the Orthodox faith?
My life was going its ordinary course. I left the university, moved to another city and took a job at the hospital of the Carmelite monastery, working with special needs children. I left the monastery a year and a half later and moved to Berlin. I worked as a nurse in a hospital. While working at the hospital, I also studied correspondence at a medical college and a theological institute. Also, I taught Sunday school at a Catholic parish. After completing my studies, I joined a small Carmelite monastery near Frankfurt.
Yet, unbeknownst to me, this chain of seemingly accidental events was guiding me to my eventual conversion to Orthodoxy. One of the priests told me about Jesus' prayer and showed me how to combine it with my daily readings from the Gospel. My monastery had a close relationship with the theology institute of the Jesuit order in Frankfurt. One day, a professor of liturgics of that institute came and gave us a talk about the Divine Liturgy according to the Eastern rite. He also conducted it in German for us. I felt as if this liturgy had lifted me above the earth and elevated me to Heaven. It became clear to me that as long as the Divine Liturgy was celebrated for Heaven, all other aspects of church worship should also convey to us the aspects of the Kingdom where we all want to be.
I also realised the organic connection between Jesus'prayer and the Gospel readings with the liturgy. All three formed a unity and constituted the plenitude of spiritual life. Little by little, it was becoming clear to me that I could no longer remain a Catholic and that I was on my way to becoming an Orthodox. On the Feast of the Holy Trinity - which is so special to me - I became an Orthodox. Two years later, I was tonsured as a conventual and became a monastic in the world in a parish of the Russian Orthodox Church in Germany.
You became a member of the Russian Orthodox Church. Was it in any way connected to your previous exposure to the Russian language and culture?
Certainly, and this is a perfect demonstration that in the life of a Christian, nothing happens by chance. I began to study Russian at secondary school - in grade five - and I loved it very much. At university, I majored in the Russian language and geography. I was reading a lot. Among my favourites were the works of Dostoyevsky, such as the Karamazov Brothers and The Idiot. At the gatherings of our Catholic student fellowship, we discussed at length his Legend of the Grand Inquisitor.
In my third year at university, I went on an exchange programme to Russia, and there I found my spiritual homeland, in Sergiev Posad. I knew that the author of my favourite icon of the Holy Trinity - Andrey Rublev painted it here, as a monk at the Holy Trinity Monastery. I wanted to see the originals of his icons. So one cold January afternoon I made it to the monastery. There were no people inside. Finally, I noticed a monk at a distance. He was entering a chapel. Pulling together all of my courage, I asked him gently where the Icon of the Most Holy Trinity voice. He replied in a soft voice and showed me the way to the Church of the Holy Trinity.
There, I found the icons that I was looking for. It felt like finally coming home. It was as if grace had descended on me. I felt as if time had stopped, and I had an encounter with eternity. I had a vision that I would return here someday, come into the church and bow before the relics of Saint Sergius of Radonezh. It came true, after fourteen years. I spent three weeks in Sergiev Posad, attending the morning worship service with the brothers, venerating Saint Sergius' relics, and praying before my treasured icon of the Holy Trinity.
You took tonsure with the name Elisabeth, in honour of our patron saint, Elisabeth Romanov. Was that coincidental?
It was providential. I was tonsured as a conventual with the name Anastasia. After a few years, nearly all of the churchgoers in my Parish were Russian, as many people from Russia were coming to my city. In 2001, the sisters of Saint Elisabeth Convent came for an exhibition. From them, I learned about Saint Elisabeth - the Holy Royal Martyr Grand Duchess Elisabeth Romanov. Her life, purity and simplicity impressed me greatly. Another thing that struck me was how willingly she turned her back on her past life and dedicated herself to the service of the sick and needy. She vaccinated patients and assisted at surgeries.
In 2003, Archimandrite Mitrofan tonsured me as a nun with the name Elisabeth - in honour of Saint Elisabeth Romanov. Normally, one does not get to choose their name in monasticism when they take their tonsure, but I asked to be tonsured with the name of Elisabeth. I felt spiritually connected with the saint. I was born 100 years later, but the date of my tonsure coincided with the date of her conversion to Orthodoxy. Like Saint Elisabeth, my conversion to Orthodoxy was conscious and well-considered.
Finally, you joined Saint Elisabeth Convent in Minsk. What were the events that brought you here?
When I first saw father Andrey, I was lost for words. I took him for John of Kronstadt. To me, they looked very alike. I love this saint, and I enjoy reading his work "Life in Christ". I read about John of Kronstadt, and Saint Silouan of Mount Athos. I realised that we stand on the same foundation and nourish ourselves from the same spiritual springs.
I came to Minsk for the first time in 2017. I arrived in time for the vespers. Spiritually, I felt like I was home. I was in an exalted state of prayer, like never before. My first visit to Minsk lasted ten days, and when I returned here two years later I already had my mindset on staying. I asked father Andrey Lemeshonok for his blessing to stay... and joined Saint Elisabeth Convent in 2019.
I was given obedience at the Department of External Relations. I worked as an interpreter, accompanied foreign visitors and conducted guided tours. I also performed other obediences, such as working as a nurse at the school. Before the epidemic, I visited the disabled children at the care home three times a week to give them aromatherapy sessions. The children always waited for me. When I was ill and could not come for two weeks, they met me with great enthusiasm and a question, "What happened? We have been missing you!"
With God, our past is not an accident, and neither is our future. Where do you think the Lord is guiding you in life? To which new heights?
Throughout my whole life, I never lost my confidence in God's love for me, despite all my stumbles and falls. I used to smoke for a long time. I tried to quit several times, but the habit always returned. Yet the Lord never abandoned me. He shed his blessings on me generously and guided me gently towards the right path.
Today, He is teaching me humility, and learning is hard. There has always been a part of me that said that my achievements in life were of my own making, that I should be proud of myself. But in fact, I owe it all to Him, He found me, I would never have achieved anything by myself. My whole life was His gift to me. I must learn to be humble and to give Him thanks.
I am hopeful that when my earthly life end, I will stand at the right hand of God. What will I find there? The Book of Revelation describes it very well. To me, time and space will not exist in Heaven, it will be a completely different state. While we are living on earth, we elevate ourselves to Heaven at the Divine Liturgy. We accept into us the Blood and Body of Christ and partake of a feast that has no end. That way, we have a foretaste of heaven while still on earth.
There was a time in my life when I desponded a lot. It was so difficult for me to tolerate someone or something... Reflections on the sloth by nun Mstislava (Gorodnichuk).