Interview with Mother Anastasia, the Abbess of Devič Convent
You said there are six sisters in your convent now?
Yes, there are. One of the sisters is young, I am middle-aged like one other sister, and three sisters are older than me. I have been here since the autumn of 1968, and the older sisters have been here since 1957 or even 1953.
How did you find yourself in this convent?
I was born in central Serbia. There was a nun in this convent from my native land of Valjevo. She was visiting her relatives, and when she was about to return to the convent, I decided to go with her..
Why did you choose this convent?
It happened as a matter of course. I had long wanted to become a nun. It was unusual for a would-be novice to take a tour of convents in order to choose the one that suits her best. If a girl wanted to become a nun, everything depended on who she would meet. She would go to the convent which her spiritual adviser had chosen for her, and she would remain at that convent forever.
So it was out of obedience?
Yes. I was twelve at that time. As I grew up, I used to think a lot, and finally I came to the conclusion that I would like to remain in this convent forever. My path inevitably led me to this convent. Of course, I was looking for the meaning of life as hard as I could when I was 12.
What was the convent like at the time when you came here? How many sisters were there?
There were twelve of us. Two more girls came from my native land a while later. However, one of them abandoned monastic lifestyle later, and the other one is now in another convent, not far from Valjevo.
What was the rule of life at the convent at that time?
Those were hard times, the times of Communist persecution. Monasteries and convents had many difficulties, we had to work very hard. Lay people also worked hard, especially peasants and farmers.
We had 18 hectares of arable land, just like now. We used to employ paid labourers in order to plough the land at that time, but later, when the regime softened its grip on religion, the faithful would come and help us.
Each time has its advantages and disadvantages. People were choosing the monastic life wholeheartedly in those days, and it was hard to imagine anyone who left her convent, especially the one that was one's first convent. One thing we knew for certain: one must never even think of leaving her convent.
What is the life at the convent like now?
You see, we now cannot have a special rule because there are too few of us here. However, we stick to the general monastic rules, we celebrate matins and vespers, we make crosses and prayer ropes, which we send to other monasteries and convents on the pilgrim trail.
Is the exit from the convent restricted for security reasons?
We do not have absolute freedom of movement. We can travel as far as Mitrovica but we do not feel at ease, like in a free and safe country, we cannot stay anywhere for a long time.
We have only recently begun our monastic life. Please tell us what do you consider to be the most important in monasticism.
It is hard to say what is the most important. It is vital that we understand that if we decide to follow Christ, we must never give up. If only we follow this rule, everything else will be added unto us. It is very difficult to struggle with doubts, and proper sequence of doing things is essential. It is a very crucial thing to know during the moments of temptation that we must stand up to it. This is very important. It is during these hard moments (sometimes they even do not last long) that we are prone to mistakes. For instance, we are sometimes ready to leave our monastery and go to another monastery – if not abandon monastic life altogether – even due to a minor and insignificant quarrel, although things will not be different there, or anywhere, for that matter.
Our convent is big. There are numerous workshops and lots of obediences… It is hard to maintain inner peace. What can we do?
We should take care of ourselves because we do not know the scope of our responsibility for other people. First of all, we will bear responsibility for ourselves.
Unfortunately, sometimes there is too little time to pray the monastic prayer rule or to attend church services……
You see, if someone is tired because of doing something really useful, this is tantamount to prayer. With that said, we should be careful not to look for justification of neglect, not to justify ourselves when we are not really tired. You know, sometimes people start paying too much attention to their physical condition, “Oh wait, I’m tired and it hurts…” If this is really so, it is justifiable because it is the consequence of his or her effort.
What can we do with the prayer rule then?
We should make sure that we are not too lax about our prayer rule because otherwise it may lead us too far. If we do not accomplish everything that we had to, we should feel guilty but not depressed.
I often think that it is extremely difficult to live in accordance with monastic vows…
Abbess Anastasia near the convent demolished by Albanians.
This work is not important in itself. For example, if we travel somewhere and have God on our minds, it does not matter if we read an akathist during that trip or not. We can read an akathist formally, while having our thoughts wandering far and wide. However, this formal effort can also be useful. A saint told his disciple, “Read the prayers aloud, my son.” – “Father, I do not understand anything.” – “You just have to go on reading, my son.” This is meaningful in some respect but it is wrong to place too much emphasis on it. On the other hand, the results will be seen later, so the process is also essential. You see, even if our thoughts ramble far and wide while reading, it does not mean that this will always be true of us. In the meantime we will read this or that prayer again, and perhaps be more focused and be more capable of grasping what we read.
How can we keep the grace of our monastic tonsure within our souls? Sometimes it is very problematic to allocate time for contemplation about our sins,to take a closer look into our souls, because all we have time to think about is our daily obedience.
Yes, but you still have some time left because everything we do is for God's sake. If we spade a field, we know that we spade God's field, and this is prayer already. We are here in order to enjoy the fullness and the richness of everything that the Lord created.
Sometimes resolving a spiritual problem is quite complicated and one has to search for the right answer a long time...
If we always have our final goal in front of our eyes, if we are always eager to achieve it, everything else will seem (and, in fact, be) transient. I believe that every person has certain blessed moments when everything is easy. We should remember those moments when we are in for hard times and hope for a happy return to this blessed state, until we are granted the Everlasting Bliss. I do not think that there is anyone who would never have experienced it, even among the lay people who are less focused on their spiritual life. This bliss is revealed to us both to support us in our struggle and to make us responsible: we will not be able to justify our neglect if we have already received the proof of the eternal bliss. However, no one could possibly expect this blessed state to be permanent. Perhaps, we will reap the fruit of our labour when we grow old. When one is still young, everything is bound to change: sometimes there is consolation and joy, and sometimes there are hardships.
We may find ourselves in a situation when we have no spiritual advisor around. However, we still have the examples of the Holy Fathers. In the times of turmoil, the great spiritual counsellors ask, “What does God teach you?” It means that there is no clear advice.
Father Sava from the Gorioč Monastery told us that he had been called up for military service when he was young. He went to his elder to ask what he should do in the Communist army: there is no such thing as fast there... His spiritual father answered, “Act according to what God teaches you.” They spent a lot of time talking, and Father Sava asked his elder about fasting in the army again. The answer was the same, “Act according to what God teaches you.” They went on talking, but Father Sava was uneasy about his problem so he asked the same question again. His spiritual father replied again, “I have already told you that you should act according to what God teaches you.” So he went to the army (the term of military service was two or three years back then). He told us that he always managed to fast somehow: sometimes it was very difficult and impossible to do because of strict control but generally there was always a way out. His friends helped him; they would exchange their foods for his. That was how he went through the military service. When he returned to his elder, the latter told him, “If I had told you that you had to keep on fasting, you might be tempted to say that it would be impossible. You would be really depressed to have trespassed the commandment. If I said, “Of course, you won't be able to do everything you have to,” you would be negligent and would not make efforts to fast. In fact, you did just what you had to do.”
“MINSK IS IN OUR MIDST!”
“Blessed is he who deserves the eternal life. His birth was not in vain.” This is a quotation from a poem by Petar II Petrović-Njegoš, the ruler of Montenegro in the 19th century... These are the words I would like to use as I begin my story about our Father Luke of Cetinje, Dajbabe and Belarus. These were the words that our ruler of old used to establish the law for us, poor and oppressed, yet Christ-loving Montenegrins: “Bear your crosses and follow Christ...”
Father Luke, whose name literally means “light”, was tonsured in front of the relics of the brave Peter I of Cetinje whom God had glorified, as well as in the presence of the right hand of St John the Forerunner and a particle of the Holy Cross. He used to visit St Elisabeth Convent in Minsk several times.
He visited the Convent for the first time when he had the obedience of accompanying a delegation who brought the right hand of St John the Forerunner to Minsk. This visit left a deep impression on the soul of Father Luke. The way how His Eminence Philaret, Metropolitan of Minsk and Slutsk, met him - “glorifying St John” - filled Fr Luke's heart with joy. He told me afterwards that he had not expected such warm welcome.
When he returned from Minsk and told me that it was as though he had been in paradise, I also began visiting this Convent. It was his first visit to Minsk that opened the doors of the Convent of Saint Elisabeth to me.
Ядранка Ускокович When I heard that the only obedience there is “to love one another”, I went to Minsk in 2010, with God's help. My first encounter with Father Luke was a blessing to go to the “Pure Russia” (that was how Fr Luke saw your country). He was right because “all things are clean unto the clean ones.”
When I returned he met me with his arms wide open and greeted me saying, “Minsk is in our midst!” and I replied, “It is and it will be!” Then I saw how much he loved your Convent and all of you. Father Luke used to tell me that he had been very surprised when Father Andrew invited him to the sanctuary in order to concelebrate. He was a little spellbound from happiness. After the service, he addressed the faithful in Serbian saying that he came from a remote country. Father Andrew added, “... but it is close to our hearts.”
С монахом Василием в Свято-Елисаветинском монастыре
С монахиней Верой
Each visit of Father Luke to Minsk was full of grace. He told me that a five-year-old girl named Barbara pleaded with the Lord to allow him to come here again. And then a miracle happened! Just a couple of days passed when the Metropolitanate of Montenegro and the Littoral received a letter of invitation for Father Luke to come to Minsk.
В Свято-Елисаветинском монастыре When he told me that he was going to Minsk again, I was very glad. I told him, “See how they love us! There are no limits for God's love!” His love was the answer to your great love. He followed Christ whom he faithfully served with all his heart and mind and with a joyful liturgical song.
His clean eyes saw everyone as clean and holy. He loved and appreciated Father Andrew very much. He used to say that Father Valery and Father Sergius were “the souls of his own soul.” His soul was so simple and pure that he used to say that all the deacons and monks will go to the Heaven! He could not find the words to speak about the Sisterhood of the Convent, and the rite of forgiveness among the sisters was a revelation to him!
Общение с сестрами Свято-Елисаветинского монастыря
С дьяконом Артемием в Свято-Елисаветинском монастыре
С мальчиком Мишей в Троице-Сергиевой Лавре He said, “Mother Augusta loves you very much, Mother Athanasia sent you some sweets, Joanna of Decani sends an icon of St Elisabeth to you, Novice Alla sends you a CD...” What can I say about the fact that they managed to make a vestment for him in just one night! He could not believe that. His soul was like the soul of a child. Often, he was hit hard because of his patience, joy and light. He was a friend to both the rich and the poor.
Христос Воскресе, отче Лука!
Father Luke went to the Lord peacefully, with a radiant face and a prayer rope in his hand.
I am exceedingly grateful to the Lord that He allowed Father Luke to visit your Convent, And that everyone, guards, sisters of mercy, novices and nuns alike, loved him. Thank you for praying for him! We should not be sorrowful because of Fr Luke's death. Let us rejoice that the Lord decided to take him to the Heaven.
Translated by Fyodor Vaskovsky
Photos by Nun Helena (Strashnova), Novice Alla (Prokudina), Svetl
FEELING HIS LOVE...
Since 2004, the city of Brest in Belarus has become known not only as the city where the famous Brest Fortress is situated but also as the place where Yulia Nestsiarenka, the quickest female runner in the world, lives. Mass media have informed the public what her way towards the Olympic gold medals was like: countless training sessions and constant self-improvement... However, few people know that not long before her triumph in Athens, Yulia visited the Pochaiv Lavra, and this was her first pilgrimage and her first steps towards the Church.
Yulia recalls, “The sports event that I had to take part in was really important for me, but when I was standing in front of the holy relics, I did not dare ask the Lord to grant me a victory and an award... I simply asked Him to help me to go through all this. Even now I remember how I felt after my pilgrimage to Pochaiv: I had a feeling that the world around me had changed, I fell in love with this gracious place, and I wanted to bring everyone to Pochaiv so that they could feel what I felt. Before I went to the Olympic Games, I confessed, took communion, and asked a priest to bless me.
When I reached the finals, I was totally worn out and very exhausted. Nevertheless, I reminded myself of my native country, of my relatives and friends rooting for me. I continued to think that I should not dare ask God about anything so I said, “Thy will be done, O Lord.” Later I realised that these were the most important words in my entire life. The Lord performed a miracle. Needless is to say that I had done a lot of training and made many efforts, and my coach had also done a lot to help me win but I believe that it was the Lord who granted me the victory at the Olympic Games in Athens because everything happens according to His will. There are many miracles in the life of each individual but unfortunately not everyone is able to acknowledge it: some people believe that these miracles are mere coincidences, while others consider these miracles to be the result of their own hard work. There are few people who can thank God for the miracles that He makes.
Yulia Nestsiarenka is now a parishioner of St Nicholas Garrison Cathedral in Brest, which is located in the Brest Fortress. “I have been a parishioner of this church for several years already, and I try to have the Lord on the first place in my life,” she says. “It was hard for me at first to understand how one could love the Lord more than his own parents, children, friends, and himself. However, now I come to realise that all our relatives and friends are a gift from God, and it is He who gives us everything we love and appreciate; this is why we ought to have Him in the centre of our lives.”
Yulia has many Orthodox Christian friends and acquaintances. They also contributed to her spiritual development and her becoming a practising Christian. For instance, the Belarusian athlete made a pilgrimage to the Pochaiv Lavra together with Jana Zareckaja who sings in a church choir. Yulia has also visited Diveevo, the holy places of Serpukhov and Smolensk, the Holy Trinity–St Sergius Lavra, and even St Basil of Ostrog Monastery in Montenegro. The Olympic champion regularly goes on pilgrimages to the holy springs, monasteries, churches, and shrines, both in Belarus and abroad.
Yulia got to know about St Elisabeth Convent in the summer of 2012. A friend from Serbia came to Jana so she asked Yulia to help her show the holy places and tourist attractions of Minsk and Brest. Together they visited St Elisabeth Convent where Yulia got to know Nun Magdalene who left an indelible mark on Yulia's soul. Yulia visited our Convent several times thereafter, and she managed to meet Nun Magdalene again during her pilgrimage on foot to the Holy Mount of Grabarka. It was then that the famous athlete got to know other sisters of our Convent.
It was Jana again who invited her to this pilgrimage, and they travelled together. Yulia recalled that Nun Magdalene came from Poland so she was looking forward to meeting her somewhere in the booths selling church goods. Her guess was accurate; better yet, Nun Magdalene also remembered Yulia and Jana.
It might seem that a pilgrimage on foot is an easy task for a person who can run 100 metres in 10 seconds. Nonetheless, Yulia confessed that it was the most difficult pilgrimage for her. “I had anticipated some hardships because the day before our trip I was so depressed that I did not want to go anywhere and see anyone. Despite that, I made up my mind to go to the pilgrimage. On our first day, I was apathetic, depressed, and maybe to some extent even indifferent to what was going on around me. There were pilgrims from Poland walking side by side with me but I do not know Polish... Jana was walking in the front row and singing aloud together with other pilgrims all the time. So I was alone with my thoughts, so to say. My emotional and physical state changed several times during the walk. Although I do regular workouts and my body is well trained, this walk was very hard for me: it seemed to me that each cell of my body ached but I still tried to walk forward because I realised that I was doing this for Christ's sake and that everything that happened to me was just a temptation. Cars were provided for those who could not continue their ascent but I decided that I would use them only if I could no longer make even a single step; fortunately, this never happened. We walked just seventy-six kilometres (47 mi): thirty-four kilometres (21 mi) on the first day, twenty-five kilometres (16 mi) on the second day, and seventeen kilometres (10 mi) on the third day. As we approached the Holy Mount of Grabarka, I felt so excited; it was as if I did not walk but flew... like a bird. Having experienced such a blessing, I learned why this pilgrimage is held every year on the feast of Transfiguration: an individual climbs this mountain carrying his cross, his sins, his problems and needs; and his soul is cleansed and truly transfigured as he walks up.”
Once the pilgrims are on top of the Holy Mount of Grabarka, they get down to their knees and crawl around the church three times. Yulia knew about it so she had taped up her knees in advance to avoid pain but she still could not avoid it altogether. There was a young family with a 1-year-old baby among the pilgrims. Yulia saw the parents carry the baby and crawl around the church on bare knees, and she could not help crying because she knew how painful it was. At the same time, Yulia was very happy when she saw this family. She recalls, “This episode moved me deeply and I am certain to remember it forever. I am happy that the Lord allowed me to see such a family. After we erected all our crosses on Grabarka, when the service was over, I wished my family had been there to share this moment with me, and I hope that, God willing, this dream will come true next time.” Yulia adds, “My family supports me in everything I do. When I told my relatives about this pilgrimage, they could not contain tears. 'You are our hero!' they said. Now we all are glad that our cross stands on the Holy Mount of Grabarka.”
Unfortunately, Yulia has had to encounter various temptations not only on her spiritual journey but also in her sport career: she had a trauma and could neither participate in the London Olympics, nor get ready for the World Championship, which was held in Moscow earlier this year. In spite of that, she is no longer distressed about it because she knows that the Lord has given her the opportunity to visit holy places, to acquire a different world outlook, to get spiritual insight and to feel His love.
September 19, 2013
CONCERT IN FRANCE
It has been two months since the Monastic Choir of St Elisabeth Convent toured Western Europe: the Netherlands, Belgium, France, and Luxembourg. The programme of their concerts consisted of two parts. The first part featured church chants; the second part consisted of spiritual hymns and canticles. The sisters were warmly welcomed everywhere they went... A man named Marc Guichard who was present during one of the concerts in Seichamps, France, recorded a video of this concert. We decided to post this video to our website to let you feel the atmosphere at the concerts.
THERE WILL BE MORE FROM ST ELIZABETH'S NEXT WEEK
Those in black veils are nuns of the convent, while those in white veils are Sisters of Charity. Founded in 1994, there are now 300 Sisters of Charity; founded in 1999, there are now 100 nuns.