Xenia Verbitskaya is a sister of mercy of Saint Elisabeth Convent. She has been with us since the beginning of our sisterhood. Together with Father Andrey Lemeshonok, now our spiritual father, she visited patients of the cancer ward at Minsk's city clinic No. 2. We interviewed her about the experience of her ministry and its purpose and meaning.
You were among the first of our sisters of mercy involved in our ministry among hospital patients. In your view, what is its purpose, meaning and significance?
We began our ministry among the cancer patients of Minsk's hospitals. At that time, everyone was equating cancer with a death sentence; medical practices were not as advanced then as they are now, and people felt as if they were standing with their backs to the wall. The people we were helping were in despair, and our goal was to bring them to make a step towards God and the salvation of their souls.
I came to the sisterhood of Saint Elisabeth from the sisterhood at the Minsk Episcopate of the Belarusian Exarchate, active since the late 1980s. I was doing my obediences in the paediatric cancer centre in Borovlyany, a suburb of Minsk. At that time, people from all over the Soviet Union were coming there to have treatment. Whole families would come, husband, wife and children. The dormitory for the parents was at the Polytechnical Academy. Together with the other sisters, we were bringing fruit for the children, colouring books on biblical themes; we arranged holidays and celebrations, and tea parties and read to the children extract from the children's bible. It was not something that lasted many hours; we just wanted to bring in some detraction, to draw their attention away from their illness. When I came to work at the women's cancer ward of the City Clinic No. 2, I also sensed widespread despair and hopelessness among the patients and their great unmet need for spiritual support. The coming of the sisters and the priests made a lot of positive difference. We were there for the patients, and we were together with God. Even a short prayer was enough to give us the strength to comfort every patient and find the right words for them. The priests came to hear their confessions and commune with the patients, but it was as of God himself upon them. Hope returned to many, and the despair left. Some received a new lease of life from the Lord.
My service at the hospital was full of miracles. The hospital administration had issued strict rules about visitation, and we had to be out of the wards by 8.30. We came at six and visited as many as twenty wards, and sometimes Father Andrey was the only priest with us. The Lord gave us the time to commune all the patients, including the very sick and the dying. Sometimes, a patient who was lying unconscious would come round when Father Andrey entered, open his eyes and confess, and surrendered his life to the will of the Lord.
Beyond the hospital, you have also performed obediences at other places of the Convent's ministries. How were you preaching the message of hope and God's love in these ministries?
When my life circumstances changed, I had to leave my obedience at the second clinic and accepted others. I have worked at the monastic store, the shop and the herbal workshop. Sometimes, people could not take the load off their heats at their confession with one of the priests, so the sisters of charity became their sympathetic listeners, bringing comfort, reassurance and confidence that a solution to their life difficulties was within reach. I often heard from the people: "Even when we just go by and do not drop in, we feel reassured when we see that you are there and ready to share your kindness and generosity with us."
Pursuing your ministry often requires a tremendous effort of the soul and heart. How is it possible to keep yourself from succumbing to your weaknesses, falling into despair, and keep the sense of closeness and community among the sisters?
To me, the sisters are my kindred spirits. There is no need for lengthy explanations - they will understand before you begin to speak, and with time the closeness among us only grows. Our infirmities, weaknesses and despair can diminish our trust in the Lord at times, but we work hard to prevent this from happening.
Prayer is our most important weapon. Each of our days starts with Jesus' prayer. The Lord replenishes our strengths and helps put the difficulties that all of us might have into perspective. We also pray together for the needy, the sick and the inform. Some months ago, we prayed for a sick little boy whose grandmother came to see us at the monastic store. He was diagnosed with an advanced form of blood cancer when he was two years of age. The doctors were wary of performing surgery. They believed that his chances of surviving it were too low. The Lord heard our prayers and answered them with His boundless mercy. The boy had the surgery, and it went well. His grandmother told us that his eyelashes had begun to grow back. To hear the good news about the boy was a great joy for us. The Lord is near, He hears our prayers, and He will listen to our pleas.
Some of our readers are still looking for God and meaning in their lives. What might you share with them?
My ministry among the patients with cancer at the second clinic made me realise the shortness of time. Of all our goals and aspirations, we must pursue the most important ones. Here is what I say to both children and adults: "Beware of wasting your time and effort on small things. Do not lose your sleep over every problem; time will deal with most. Aim for the most important things; follow your goal and gain power over your life circumstances. The Lord is reaching out to the heart of every man and woman, always hoping for an answer. He shows us the alternative - a life where there is no place for desperation."