Nun Alexandra, from Montenegro, has been with us since 2014. Today, we ask her to share her thoughts about monasticism and tell us how her life experiences influenced her choice of monastic life.
As we read in the Holy Scripture, “we must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God,” (Acts 14:22). How did the hardships in your life bring you closer to God and His Kingdom?
My family has had many difficult periods. We have lived in immigration and in poverty, and have survived in a war. When I was two and my sisters 4 and 5, we emigrated from the former Yugoslavia to the United States. We lived in New-York for eight years. We were learning to live in a different country and a strange city, and we had a hard time. Our father was working long hours to feed and support the family. My mother was looking after us. She was in poor health, so she was spending a lot of time in hospital. When she was not around, my father also had to look after us after a difficult day at work. I turned 11 in 1999, and we returned to Montenegro, which was then a part of Yugoslavia.
Shortly after, the war began. I remember this time as if it was yesterday. My father went to the army. A Yugoslav army base was only a few minutes’ walk from our home. On our way from school, we often heard sirens and ran to a bomb shelter. When it became too dangerous on the ground, we relocated to the basement of our house. We lived in constant fear. It was a time of great hardship. We had no money for food. We also feared for our future – we did not know what was going to happen to us.
The war ended, and life began to go back to normal. Our wartime hardships seemed to be over, but my personal sorrows came in their place. I was rebellious, and would not listen to my family who wished me well. I left my home to live on my own. It was not like running away. I came and said: "I am leaving to live independently before I decide what to do next." I completed my studies at s university and found a job at a hotel. All of that time, I was in constant struggle with myself and my circumstances.
When I felt sad, I went out with my friends. But that helped little. I was lost, and I could not find a way out, and then I found God. Today, I often go back in my memory to my life in the world. I cannot imagine today how I could live my life without the Lord, the confession and the Eucharist. They are the most important things to me now. At the Convent, I always go to church when I am sad, and this is my best consolation.
Each of us meets God in our own way, and many have vivid memories about it. Tell us about your meeting with God.
In the past, I often used to see churches in my dreams. There were no people in them – just the buildings. To me, God was not some almighty being who came to save us, but more like a person like you and me; I was having conversations with Him and sharing my thoughts. That first relationship with God ended; my encounter with Him was brief.
I moved out of my parental home, but I kept a close friendship with my cousin. One day, he called and asked me to come to his place. When we met, he said to me: “You should go to church for a confession and a communion.” I was sceptical. I did not know why I needed it or what it was going to change. Yet he insisted: “Trust me. Let us go to Father Predrag, Dean of the Church of the Resurrection of Christ.” I could not imagine how I could share with a stranger my secrets during a confession. But my brother was not backing down. “You must go. The priest will not tell anyone. Your confession is between you and him." I did not know what was going to happen. Yet when I took communion the next morning, I felt relieved. After the service, my brother took me to the church store. He bought me a folding icon of the Saviour and the Mother of God and said: "When you have difficulty, open up the icon and say what is on your mind to the Saviour and the Theotokos".
Many would say that one does not need to become a monastic to be saved. What brought you to choose this path?
When my father knew that I had found God he offered me to take the next step – staying at a monastery. He did not mean me to become a monastic. He just offered me to live at a monastery as a guest to break the routine. I imagined a monastery as a place full of nagging old women. But my father insisted: "What old women? They are sisters in Christ. My best friend's sister, Darya, is a nun, and she is living there. You will to meet her, stay there for a month, and maybe longer if you like it.” I agreed, and my father dropped me off at the Monastery of Saint Petka 160 kilometres from Belgrade.
They gave me a small single room. Nun Darya came and said to me, "The Liturgy is tomorrow, and tonight we will go to a confession. One of the monastery’s clergy was Father Georgiy. He was kind and good-natured. He became my spiritual father for some time. I was the only worldly person who was allowed to enter the monastic cells and the refectory. The people at Saint Petka Monastery became like a family to me; I saw Nun Darya as my mother and Father Georgiy as my father.
My father was hoping that I would meet a pious, god-loving man there and marry him. As for me, I was becoming less and less willing to marry as time passed. Right before the Feast Day of Saint Paraskeva of the Balkans on 27 October, I had a conversation with Father Georgiy. “Father, I always wanted to become a police officer,” I said. - "Police? We have a whole army of God’s warriors here. Your place is among them.” I felt God’s will revealed to me through him.
How did you choose to become a monastic at Saint Elisabeth Convent?
I made up my mind to follow the way of monasticism, but I could not decide on a monastery. In 2014, right before Epiphany, I met a priest from Russia. He was serving at a Serbian church and asked me to a worship service. “Come join us,” he said. “Bathe yourself in the holy spring, pray before the icon of the Holy Martyrs and ask for their intercession. You might expect to hear some guidance from the Lord after the Liturgy tomorrow. I see you are having difficulty making a decision.” So I bathed myself in the spring and asked the Holy Royal Martyrs for their intercession.
The rest happened quickly. By some miracle, I reached the web-site of Saint Elisabeth Convent that had just opened and saw the phone number of Nun Magdalena. I had a desire to talk to her. So I did.
"This is novice Alexandra calling. We met at Tuman Monastery. Is there a possibility of coming to your Convent? To visit, and perhaps to stay there if I liked it?”
“You should get the blessing of the Convent’s spiritual father Andrey Lemeshonok”.
“But where can I find him?”
“He is now at a book exhibition in Belgrade”.
So I arranged to travel to the Church of Saint Savva after the Liturgy for a meeting with Father Andrey. But Nun Magdalena called me again and said: “Father Andrey said you could go straight to Minsk and meet him there in a few days”.
Growth in the spirit is the essence of monastic life. What does growing in the spirit mean to you? What goals have you set for yourself?
As monastics, we are called to subject our desires to the rules of the Convent, and to live by these rules all of the time. You do not advance in the spirit just because you are wearing vestments. You have to do a lot of inner work. In our withdrawal from the world, we should be careful not to allow our spiritual assets from the world to diminish. Remember, you do not have to wear a monastic gown to become a saint.
In Serbia, there is a saying: when you are a novice, Christ holds you by the hand all the time, but he once you become a monastic, He will let go a bit to let you do your work. My mother, who had not even been churched, always said to me: “If you want God’s help, you should first do your share of the work”. She was right.
Each evening, all the sisters ask each other for forgiveness. When I first was this order at the Convent, it seemed very unusual. But then I thought, “How beautiful!” To me, spiritual warfare is a fight for your chance to remain a decent person.
We are fighting to keep alive the love among us. If I have offended another sister or condemned her, I ask for forgiveness and restore the love. In this way, we stay united. The Holy Fathers wrote, “Cover the transgressions of your brother, and the Lord will cover yours”.
The one habit that I am asking the Lord to help me learn is to bear with the infirmities of another, just as they are bearing with mine. It is easy to embrace and accept someone you like, but it is far more challenging to do something for a person whom you have difficulty accepting; to help that person despite the inner struggle; to give love in the ultimate sense of the word.
In the context of the debate on Christianity and modernity, the spiritual father of Saint Elisabeth Convent Archpriest Andrey Lemeshonok shares his views on the challenges of becoming and remaining a Christian in today's world.