How a visit to a holy place can change one’s life

Our defining moments are our chance to embrace God

March 23, 2021

nun olga velikaya

My journey towards God began a long time ago, in 2005. I was finishing my postgraduate degree. I was preparing to defend my dissertation and was not taking much interest in matters of faith. As I remember this time now, I cannot believe the miracle that happened to me. I set out for a journey of many years to recover my true self. It was a miracle from God.

It all began when my mother came home from work and offered me a trip to Valaam Island with a group of religious travellers. They were going for two weeks and were planning to do obediences there. It was August, and I was free. I had been to Karelia several times before and fell in love with its subtle beauty. So I agreed. As a child, I used to spend my summers with my grandmother, and she would take me to church for communion. Otherwise, my knowledge of Orthodoxy was limited. However, this did not stop me from taking the trip.

valaam monastery

Pskov-Caves Monastery, Russia

I approached the leader of the group. I had not covered my hair, and I was wearing trousers. She gave me a surprised look but agreed to take me on board. The next thing I remember was the bus with the travellers - about twenty of them. They were talking, and the words they were using were new and unusual to me. They spoke of "monks", "elders", and "communion". Little did I know then that Valaam Island would become my defining moment that divided my life into 'before' and 'after'. I was not thinking about it then - I was trying to read the prayer book borrowed from neighbour and learning to get the stresses right. At last, we landed on Valaam Island. After a four hour sail across Lake Ladoga, I finally stepped on the quay of the Valaam Monastery.

karelia valaam

Valaam Island, Karelia

God shed on us His infinite grace. We worked at Valaam's famous gardens. For years, monks and visitors had been bringing bags of soil to put on top of the island's barren rocks. At last, a miracle happened - apple trees, black currants and gooseberries took root and bore first fruit. Outside the Skete of All Saints, which women could only enter on feast days, we were tending to the grapes. I still remember vividly the eyes of the people working next to me. The atmosphere and the company were very different from what I had seen and become used to before.

God puts all things through a sift to catch out the small grains of gold. On Valaam Island, I took my first communion after many years of living outside the Church. For the first time in my life, I took my confession. I remember well the three sins that I repented before the priest. I had committed a lot more than these three for sure, but I was so anxious that I forgot to mention them. My faith was reborn.

nun olga velikaya with parishioners

I returned from the trip glowing with the light of God's presence, His silence, and His fullness.

All too often, we live our lives without knowing that they are not our own. Our Lord Jesus Christ is their true master, and He alone can give meaning to them. He brings us the gift of faith and the promise of eternal life. Knowing all this is a blessing. It is equally a blessing to live their truth, practice our faith and have our fundamental questions answered. It is a thrill to know which way to follow.

valaam church

Valaam Monastery

I returned home, and I remember the eyes of my mother when she met me with the question, 'How did it go?' I was speechless. I knew that my whole life was going to change fundamentally, That I had let God into it and heard His word. Afterwards, I spent a lot of time doing the hard inner work of introspection and self-improvement. Three years later, I joined Saint Elisabeth Convent. I was ready to leave the world behind me.

I am a conventual. To me, this title is more precious than all the honours and awards of this world combined. I am learning to live with God, to hear His voice in a cacophony of voices and sounds. I have opened up to Him. I am in conversation with Him all the time. I feel the need for prayer as much as I need the air to breathe. I am living a fulfilling life, for I have embraced in it the miracle of God. He is guiding my progress and showing me the way.

nun olga with sisters

"I wish to spend every minute thanking God for all the things that He has bestowed on me. I hasten to repay His generous gifts, however inadequately, by serving Him and His needy children. The Lord has shed on me His infinite mercy. I never thought for one minute that I was engaged in some extraordinary feat. My life is a joy; through His infinite mercy, I have experienced no sorrows."

Holy Royal Martyr Elisabeth Romanov

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