I suppose it all began with a group of pious ladies who decided to do something about a mental hospital in Minsk. The Soviet Atheistic Empire had come apart, and the newly independent state of Bylorussia was enjoying religious freedom and believers were trying to express their commitment to Christ in the quality of their love. Perhaps because of an atheistic philosophy which sees no value in the mentally sick, there were few institutions more inhuman in the Russian Communist territory than their mental hospitals. Even when they were well run, they were places where people abandoned their mentally handicapped relatives to a purposeless and boring existence, unloved and forgotten. This brings us to the pious ladies and their mental hospital in Minsk. This group of deeply Christian women decided to bring Christian love into the local mental institution. Some became constant visiters, some went to work there. They combined their commitment to the mentally sick with assistence at the Divine Liturgy and devotion to the Jesus Prayer. They called themselves "the Sisterhood of The Glorious New Martyr, the Grand Duchess St Elizabeth", a member of the Russian Royal Family who had herself founded a sisterhood, and to whom they had a devotion. As their numbers swelled, so did their works. They widened their service to include other hospitals, care of ex-prisoners, children's orphanages, drug addicts etc. Quite obviously, they were being blessed by God.
One sure sign of God's blessing was what happened in 1999, when some of their members embraced the monastic life and founded a convent without breaking their ties with the sisterhood. The monastic community of nuns, ten years later, now numbers seventy four, twenty four of whom are novices. They have the same aims as the Sisterhood; and their monastery is a hive of activity. They make furniture, candles and liturgical vestments, and they have an icon studio, producing wonderful icons with great skill and devotion. They have been joined by a host of carpenters, artists, craftsmen and other experts, and they also have a farm. In all these activities the ex-prisoners, ex-addicts and mental patients join in according to their abilities. Of course, these nuns have a life centred on prayer, and the Liturgy and Divine Office are superbly celebrated, while they seek the eucharistic Lord in the depths of their heart in the Hesychast tradition with the Prayer of Jesus. Some of the men who came to collaborate have taken up a monastic life and are waiting for ecclesiastical permission to officially join the monastic order, though they are already living the life.
Rather than simply repeat what the nuns say in their web-page, I direct the reader's attention to:
Of course, all this costs money, and they sell what they make, not only in Bylorussia, but in other parts of the world. They come to England and have close ties of friendship with the Monastery of St John the Baptist, an Orthodox monastery in Essex. Its address is: The Old Rectory, Tolleshunt Knights by Maldon, Essex CM9 8EZ United Kingdom, a community also steeped in the Hesychast tradition. Also - may God be praised - they have formed a warm friendship with my monastery at Belmont Abbey. They visit us two or three times a year; and our abbot has been a guest with Fr Dyfrig at their abbey in Minsk In these selling trips abroad they do not realize what a wonderful advert for Orthodoxy they are. While remaining firm in their Orthodox faith, they are intelligently open to others; and their spirituality shows through their actions without any effort on their part, not only in their prayerfulness, but also in their jokes and good humour. Their friendship is one of God's gifts to my community.
Of course, I live far away from all this, in distant Peru; but there are two aspects of their life that are highly significant, even for me in darkest Peru. The first is that their religious vocation arose out of the communal life of a dedicated group of lay people, to such an extent that they cannot understand their present vocation apart from their close identification with the lay group from which they have sprung and to which they still belong. This pattern we see being repeated again and again; and it seems to me to point to the future. I celebrate Mass every week for the "Cenacle", a community largely made up of ex-drug addicts, ex-alcoholics, people who have suffered various kinds of personal problems, and who have looked for a solution to their problem at Lourdes or Medjugorje. They find a solution to their problem in a Christian community that is based on giving rather than in receiving, according to the teaching of Our Lady in Medjugorje. There are now several thousand members all over the world. Although originally people were there for several years, the movement produced religious vocations, with sisters who work and identify themselves with the lay members of the movement. They have recently had their first ordinations to the priesthood. There are now four Cenacle priests, and there will be more soon. Just across the valley from our monastery are the "Servants of the Presence of God" which is a semi-monastic community of sisters which combines adoration with work among the poor and suffering. They too arose from a lay movement in France called "Point Coeur". North of Lima there has just been founded on December 8th in 2008 a new Cistercian community of nuns that has its roots in the Neo-catechumenate, a lay movement. I shall visit them when I get back to Peru. This seems to indicate that the problem of vocations is solved among laypeople who are truly dedicated, and that religious and lay life benefit when lay people and religious mutually support one another.
Another point struck me when I was concelebrating in the Liturgy of St John Chrysostom for the Eastern (Julian Calendar) Epiphany. In that rite, the recitation of the Creed is connected with the kiss of peace. We only mutually understand our Christian faith so that we can recite together the Creed in one voice when we love one another. "Faith is knowledge acquired through love", when "love" is the love of God by which he brings us into harmony with himself in Christ. For centuries before the schism, the Latins and Greeks failed to love one another, so they ceased to understand each other. Much is made, and quite rightly, of the crimes the Franks committed against their Greek brethren; but this sometimes hides from Orthodox people the fact that the Greeks loved the Latins as little as the Latins loved the Greeks. Apart from a few saints like Maximos the Confessor,there was no mutual understanding across the cultural divide because neither side even bothered to understand each other's language, and neither bothered to make the effort to love the other. We now have the tragedy of two sister churches (Declaration of Belamund) which enjoy the same faith, but not the same understanding of that faith. To change Bernard Shaw's remark about England and America, it can be truly said that Catholicism and Orthodoxy are two great Churches divided by a common Faith. The only way back, the ONLY way back, is through love; and love is the evidence of the presence of the Holy Spirit. When we truly love one another, other problems will solve themselves. Let us not criticize our brethren until we are sure that we are ready to die for them. Only when we love them as Christ loves them, love them so much that we can see through their eyes and listen with their ears, being able to see ourselves as they see us, and all this in Christ, only then will our dufferences be understood by both sides in the way that Christ sees them.
The convent in Minsk is but a drop of water in the ocean, a speck of sand in the desert,but they are what Mother Teresa of Calcutta called "ambassadors of God's Love." Whether it is to the drug addicts, alcoholics, mentally handicapped in Minsk or to Catholic monks in Hereford, they show love of a kind that manifests the activity of the Holy Spirit. As such, they are learning to love us, and we are learning to love them. We live in exciting times!!