AN INTERVIEW WITH THE ABBESS OF ST.ELISABETH CONVENT: THE LORD GIVES EACH PERSON THEIR OWN MINISTRY.
An interview with Abbess of St.Elisabeth Convent, Euphrosinia
Abbess Euphrosinia, the Mother Superior of St Elisabeth Convent, was tonsured in honor of St Euphrosinia of Polotsk, the heavenly patroness of Belarusian land whose name means «joy». St Euphrosinia is one of the most highly venerated saints in Belarus, considered to be the patroness of arts and sciences. It may be for this reason that the most creative people of this country come to this convent in order to serve God with their talents in the numerous workshops of the Convent. Other people whom the Convent helps to return to the right track come here for rehabilitation. In an interview with our magazine, The Monastic Herald, Abbess Euphrosinia speaks about her path to becoming an abbess; about her obedience in the mental clinic; about some distinct features of her community, which has been oriented towards helping people since the very beginning of its existence; as well as about freedom and creativity in a monastery, false Christianity, various faces of monasticism, and true culture.
St Euphrosyne of Polotsk
Noah's Ark in Minsk
The Russians have always perceived monasteries as beacons of salvation or as Noah's Arks. In this respect, St Elisabeth Convent in Minsk is a real shelter for people who suffer because they lack proper guidance in life. However, can the Convent help everybody?
We're going through hard times when unemployment rates are soaring and people do not have jobs to support their families. This is why they come to work in our Convent. We provide jobs for about 1,500 people. It's surprising how the Lord finds something to do for everyone. More often than not, these people are very far from the Church. After they begin to work in the Convent, they gradually become practising Christians, confess, and take communion.
When the government allocated a plot of land with a demolished farm, a rotten-through cowshed and a ruined horse stable for us in early 2000s, we were shocked: the Convent was being built, and we feared we wouldn't be able to manage a farm in addition to it. My obedience at that time consisted of visiting drug addicts in the psychiatric hospital. Many of them had nowhere to go after the course of treatment. That was how our farm turned into a shelter for drug addicts, and some time later, homeless people or former prisoners started to come there.
In other words, there is a place for everyone in your Convent, isn't there?
There are many mansions in our Father's house (smiles). The Lord says, «Him that cometh to me, I will in no wise cast out». (John 6:37). On the other hand, people are corrupt nowadays: they cannot tolerate any criticism and retort immediately, "Where's your love you used to boast of?" That is the hardest thing to bear.
Take, for instance, the brothers from the rehab. A person may have spent years on the street but as soon as he comes to the Convent and gets plenty of food and sleep, he begins to feel and behave like a hero. I'm guilty of that, too, I have to admit. It seems that if you have come to the Convent, you should serve God and wash everyone's feet, but we aren't satisfied: this sister said this, that sister looked at me like that, and so forth.
The older generation is different. Those people lived in scarcity and were grateful for every penny. On the contrary, we have everything we need, like new and comfortable dormitories. This is an enormous disadvantage: we've got spoiled by abundance, and this is where all our problems begin. I read that in a convent in Moscow in the past people would bring bags of potato and hang them on the doors of nuns' cells, so the nuns ate only as much food as they had donated. Compare this with us who have everything at hand. This is why our efforts today should be aimed at spiritual practice.
Yes, we present-day Orthodox are spoiled by the splendor of our churches and by the comfort, typical of many monasteries today. Many monastics admit it.
The beauty of our churches is a sermon. When an individual comes to a monastery and sees this beauty, he can't but be impressed by it, and so he gets attracted to the Church and to God.
Your Convent is open to the world. In Russia, we are used to monasteries that are isolated from lay people, but your Convent is different. Doesn't this openness harm the monastic sisters, what do you think? How can they combine active help to other people and prayer? How do you find the balance?
The Lord gives everyone their own ministry. I feel that our Convent is what it is thanks to God's Providence about us. We have nuns, lay sisters, mentally challenged people, and socially vulnerable brothers and sisters who stay in our rehabilitation centers. The Lord brought us together, so this must have been his will.
You don't need to become a recluse in order to fight the sin inside you. The beast that sits inside you is expressed in conversation through conflicts and disagreements. At the same time, when we serve people, we receive God's grace. When your life is limited to your church and your cell, all passions rise up inside your soul. Not everyone is able to stand up against such spiritual struggle.
When our Convent was in the very beginning, there was a question if the nuns should visit the psychiatric hospital or not, and our spiritual father Archpriest Andrew stated, «If you have to sit in your cells, you will hit the ceiling». It doesn't mean we should abandon the cell, you know. It seems to me that there is no contradiction.
Father Andrew often quotes an episode from a well-known biography of a holy hierarch, when bishops met a beautiful prostitute on the street one day. That holy hierarch gazed at her for so long that other bishops were embarrassed. After a while, the holy hierarch said, «If only we put as much effort into the embellishment of our souls as she does to make her body look appealing!» He prayed for that whore, and later she became a holy nun.
You know, I read letters by Father John Krestyankin where he says that nuns and monks nowadays should not confine themselves to the cells. So many people today need spiritual help! It was the Lord who entrusted this ministry to us: we did not look for it. So we cannot isolate our Convent from the people. If they come here, we have to accept them.
Yes, you're right, we may lose something important. However, I would like to point out that when the sisters, who travel with products made in our workshops and take part in various exhibitions, return to the convent, their faces are bright and happy, as it they never left their cells: they're filled with life and God's grace.
And vice versa, a sister who is in the Convent all the time, may be gloomy and hard to please.
The spiritual father of your Convent repeatedly emphasizes the need for unity, the communion of the nuns, the «white», i.e. lay sisters, and the Orthodox in general. Was it the original plan for the Convent?
It developed naturally because the Convent was born of the Sisterhood. There was no special order or edict that a convent was to be built on this place. There were some sisters of mercy who had their obediences in the mental hospital, and in the meantime they decided that they wanted to live together. When we started building St Elisabeth Church, no one even thought about establishing a convent, but one year later, in August 1999, we performed our first tonsure. This day is considered to be our Convent's birthday.
«The Blessing of Your Parents Shall Always Be With You»
Mother, how did you find yourself in the Sisterhood? What brought you there?
By that time I worked as an aide in the operation theatre at the Institute of Oncology. I liked my job very much and studied to become a nurse. One of the nurses at the Institute of Oncology was a churchgoer and invited me to go with her. That was how I started going to church.
Unlike today, there were few easily accessible spiritual books in the 1990s, so I remember how I copied the prayers by hand. The first church books I read were The Mystery of Faith by the Rt Rev Hilarion (Alfeyev) and writings of St Silouan the Athonite. I read a book about St Sergius of Radonezh for the first time in Church Slavonic, as if I already knew this language. I understood everything.
I took communion for the first time in 1994, on Pascha Sunday, in the Church in honour of Holy Apostles Peter and Paul. Father Andrew served the Akathist to the Holy Martyr Elisabeth Fyodorovna in that church on Sundays, followed by meetings of the Sisterhood in the parish office. Coming to church for the Akathist, I looked at the sisters of mercy with awe: there were about ten of them by that time, and they were very different from other parishioners.
After the first meeting that I attended together with Sister Tatiana (currently Nun Tamara), Father Andrew blessed me to wear the white vestment of a sister and told me that they needed nurses in the boarding home. That was how I started working in the boarding home and visiting drug addicts in the psychiatric hospital as a sister of mercy. I was 26 at the time.
Do your family members go to church often? How did your parents react to the path you chose to take in life?
My mum wrote a letter to me, saying that, «Whatever you chose, your parents' blessing will always be with you». My parents weren't observant Christians at that time.
The mental hospital is near the Convent, the patients attend services in the churches, and the sisters take care of them. Living side by side with such people must call for a certain kind of personality, full of patience, doesn't it? How do the nuns get used to it? Do some sisters have issues with this or they deliberately choose your convent out of the desire to serve people?
First of all, yes, sisters know where they come. Secondly, almost all nuns used to be sisters of mercy who came to the Convent from the Sisterhood. «White» sisters continue to become nuns but today there are other sisters who come directly to the Convent, and even from other countries: we have sisters from Montenegro, Serbia, and Poland. It is a natural process for us; we don't pay too much attention to it. Of course, things may be tough for the sisters at times. However, we have monastic meetings in our Convent on a weekly basis. These meetings are an immense help for the sisters.
Unity That Gives Birth to Salvation
Speaking of meetings, your Convent has a very popular website with lots of useful information, including recordings of meetings of the Sisterhood since 2008, where sisters sometimes share their personal discoveries on their road to God. These recordings are very useful and edifying, I must admit.
We have had the meetings of the Sisterhood since the beginning of its existence, and we added meetings of monastic sisters as soon as the Convent was founded. Nuns attend both kinds of meetings. Additionally, we hold meetings of the Monastic Council every week. The meetings of the «white» sisters and the nuns focus on dealing with everyday problems, discussions, sharing opinions and personal insights. These meetings are essential for us: they are a continuation of worship where we all gather around the Chalice.
Three years ago, a book titled How We Live and How We Should Live: A Dialogue of Contemporary Christians, which contains excerpts from the meetings held in 2006-2011, was published by the Publishing House of the Convent. The spiritual father of the Convent, nuns and lay sisters share their experiences and spiritual knowledge. They discuss questions that are relevant for every Christian. Again, unity is the central point of these meetings because it is thanks to unity that the great salvation is born, as Archimandrite Sophrony (Sakharov) used to say.
We appreciate Father Sophrony very much. That's right, it is for the sake of unity that we come together.
I'm not aware of any other way to remain close, kind and thoughtful of each other. It is easier to understand a person who expresses his thoughts.
I recall monastic conferences for abbots and abbesses in Moscow. The Most Rev Theognost keeps calling upon and invoking the audience to ask questions and not be silent. We have similar situations when Father Andrew has to ask us, «Sisters, why are you silent? Don't you have anything to worry about?» (smiles)
Have you been to SS Martha and Mary Convent of Mercy, established by Grand Princess Elisabeth Fyodorovna, during your trips to Moscow?
I happened to visit this convent during the Nativity conference in January of this year. It goes without saying that the presence and the love of the Holy Martyr Elisabeth, whose name our Convent also bears, is visible there. By the way, there is an icon of St Sergius (Serebryansky), the confessor of SS Martha and Mary Convent, in our St Elisabeth Church.
Mother Euphrosinia, have you and your sisters found the answer to the question «How should we live?» on the cover of that book?
We are looking for the answer. You have to spend your entire life searching for the answer, it seems.
Freedom and False Piety
Do you have a strict charter in your convent?
I don't think it is strict. In my opinion, having freedom and learning how to use that freedom is the hardest thing to do. We don't have limitations on where you can or cannot go. There is a good tradition in many convents for the abbess to assign daily chores to the sisters every morning. We can't do that because our daily schedules are imposed on us by the very nature of our obediences. For example, how can I order a sister who works in the legal department? They have specific work to do and fixed business hours. Or take the House of Love of Labour, where they have certain special schedules, too.
What do you take into account when you assign duties? Do you ask the sisters what they would like to do?
Naturally, I factor in everything: their talents, inclination, and wishes. This is, again, a sign of our time. People in the past used to do what they were told to do without much consideration. Today, you ask a sister, «Where would you like to work?» Perhaps, we have no other option, at least, that's what many people say…
This is one of the reasons why we have regular meetings. It is during these meetings that we are able to discuss not just our daily issues but also deal with conflicts and disagreements, like you would expect from a family. You see, there is nothing worse than false piety, rigidity, and stubbornness. I mean, when one says «Forgive me», «Bless me» but secretly despises everyone.
It is not a secret that lack of shared vision is a real problem for many monasteries. Why do people come to us? Because we have a spiritual father, and there is no conflict between the abbess and the spiritual father, which is very important. In fact, this is the most important thing. When people in a monastery start to take sides — one is for the abbess, another one is for the spiritual father — it's tragic.
How to prevent it? Who is to blame?
Everyone is to blame. Nevertheless, the abbess and the spiritual father are to blame first of all.
Can the sisters of your Convent approach you directly with their problems?
Sure! We have a simple, family-like way of doing things. At least, we would like it to be that way and do our best to ensure it.
How do the sisters contact the spiritual father of the Convent?
Father Andrew is in the Convent every day, except Thursday. He spends more time here with us than at home with his family. That's why, apart from his own children (who are adult already), he has 111 children-nuns. He is like a father for us.
One of the sisters likened Father Andrew to a monk.
He even has a cell in the Convent. He serves in the Convent on an almost daily basis; he hears the confessions of all sisters and many parishioners twice a week; he has meetings with «white» sisters, nuns, parishioners, and people who undergo treatment in our rehabilitation centres.
The «Least Interesting» Person
Currently, there are nine churches in the Convent, and yet another church is planned, the fourth church on the territory of the Convent. Is the main cathedral of the Convent — the Church in honour of the Reigning icon of the Mother of God — not enough for everyone willing to take part in worship?
When the Church in honour of the Reigning icon of the Mother of God was being built, we thought that there would be enough space for everyone — it can accommodate 1,200 persons. However, many more people come to the Convent now, especially on feasts: people have to stand outdoors on Palm Sunday and Pascha, and there were about 1,500 people who took communion.
Interior of the Church in honour of the Reigning icon of the Mother of God
This church is impressive, of course, just look at the mosaics!
I read a story about SS Martha and Mary Convent in your magazine. There was a woman who criticised the sisters of this convent in the comments, saying that walls are easier to build than the spirit. The reporter invited that woman to come to the convent and see for herself how it is organised before criticising. People criticise us, too. They call us «merchants» or «Euronuns». You can take any exalted idea and distort and slander it.
Our widespread activity and construction projects aren't goals in and of themselves. Do you remember how monks criticised St Moses of Optina when he decided to build a new guest house while the treasury was empty. He was doing it for the sake of visitors. It was thanks to this construction project that lay people could earn money and feed their families. We have the same situation, it's just that the world is different, circumstances are different, but in general, things aren't any different at all.
His Beatitude Alexis II visited Minsk in 2008. It was him who consecrated the Church in honour of the Reigning icon of the Mother of God. It was his last visit to Belarus and his last consecrated church. In order to commemorate this event, craftspeople who work in the Convent made a special «pencil», which His Beatitude used to put his name on a clay panel in that church. Mother Abbess, do you have some impressions of this visit to share with us?
It was a historic event for our Convent. I recall it with great delight; I have only bright memories of that day. We all had been looking forward to seeing the Patriarch, so all our sisters were present in the Convent on that day. I remember how, when we were meeting the Patriarch, the nuns lined up outdoors, as usual, while the white sisters stood inside the church. It was truly beautiful and solemn. When Patriarch Alexis entered the church and saw the whole church occupied by sisters wearing white (there were about two hundred sisters of mercy at that time), he was struck with amazement: he had not expected it.
Frankly speaking, we were pleasantly surprised to see so many people in the church on weekdays: the Church in honour of the Reigning icon of the Mother of God is packed with people even on Friday night, during the Akathist. Are the majority of these people local to this neighbourhood?
No, most of them come from other parts of the city or from other cities and towns.
What do you think makes people come to the Convent?
Perhaps, this is due to the fact that God's grace abides here. Beside that, they like our spiritual father, the Rev Andrew Lemeshonok, very much.
Everything we have now is thanks exclusively to his inspiration. He sets everything in motion, and we follow his lead. Father Andrew keeps us awake and makes sure we don't sit idle.
Yes, his vigour is something we can attest to. We have already experienced this «generous wash by Father Andrew»: he approached each person in the church after the Akathist and generously sprinkled them with holy water two or three times. We have never seen anything like this before. You wake up immediately, and that was great because we were sleepy after travelling by train…
Yes, you're right (laughs)! Our spiritual father is a creative person. The sisters who come to the Convent are talented and creative, too. I'm the least interesting person in our Convent. I'm not sure you will be able to make an interview out of my answers.
Anyway, the Lord has put you in charge of a convent with such an active social ministry. Abbess Sergia (Konkova), the Mother Superior of Diveevo St Seraphim Convent, told us in an interview that being an abbess is a cross. Based on your words, can we assume that it truly is a cross for you?
Apostle Paul says in 1 Corinthians 1:28: «And base things of the world, and things which are despised, hath God chosen, yea, and things which are not». I can only say that I have to humble myself down. Being an abbess is a straightjacket and a huge responsibility for me. You become as quiet as a lamb, even if you don't want to do so. In fact, I realise that another person should be the abbess instead of me but God knows best. I sometimes wish someone would let me out of this straightjacket and give it to somebody else (smiles).
As far as I know, there was a different Mother Superior in this Convent at first. She didn't spend a long time in this capacity, did she?
Yes, our first Mother Superior had been the Senior Sister of the Sisterhood, but they appointed me to this post in March 2000, a year after the Convent was founded. The previous Mother Superior was dreaming of an isolated cloister but it wasn't like that since the very beginning. There are several hospitals and a boarding home nearby, and our sisters visited the ill but many other people needed our help, too. Our first Mother Superior did not want the nuns to visit the ill. By the way, her dream of a quiet convent has come true: today she is in a isolated and quiet place.
On the contrary, the Lord led me to becoming a nun via the Sisterhood, and I don't quite get it why a monastic cannot help the ill and tell them about Jesus. Sometimes people find it hard to ask a priest for advice with regard to their personal issues; they find it easier to tell a sister about them, and then the sister sends them to a priest, to church, and explains the need to confess and take communion.
In a word, this is what I mean when I say «practical Orthodox mission».
Mission, yes. I will even go so far as calling it an apostolate. Yes, we do spoil everything but the Lord acts through us for the sake of the people, you see? The sisters tell me how God teaches them during their obedience and helps them to say the right words.
A Catholic saint Mother Theresa said that she was «a pencil in God's hands».
It turns out that you need these people, not vice versa; it isn't you who helps them — it is they that help you. You simply can't comprehend how you lived in this world without it.
One of your nuns remarked that if you didn't visit the ill on Pascha, you have missed something and your joy isn't full.
Exactly. One needs to share joy with someone else. If you want to be happy, you shouldn't spare yourself, and God will grant you everything you need a hundredfold. You should try to notice your neighbour and share something with them because you can only be happy if you give something away.
Mother Euphrosinia, you said that you had your first communion on a Pascha. Is the Paschal joy of a monastic different from that of a lay person, in your opinion? Do monastics have a unique experience of this main Orthodox holiday?
Pascha is a transition. It seems to me that no one on Earth experiences it to the fullest — neither monastics, nor laypeople. However, even if you aren't happy on this holiday, your soul is still touched by the Resurrection.
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You Simply Have To… Die
St Elisabeth Convent in Minsk is famous for its active educational and cultural outreach. The Three Parables film series and chants by the Festive Choir of the Convent, conducted by Nun Juliania (Denisova), the precentor-in-chief, have gained widespread popularity. When this choir came to Moscow for the first time, we, then students of the Orthodox university, were greatly impressed; later, spiritual songs by Nun Juliana were sung practically by the entire Orthodox world. Documentaries The Precentor and The Nun about her path to becoming a nun were a hit, although critical voices were also heard. There was a similar situation with Hieromonk Photius (Mochalov) who won at The Voice TV show. Mother Euphrosinia, what do you think about creative self-expression by monastics?
It wouldn't happen if it weren't useful. No one treats Nun Juliania like a celebrity here. It is just a given to us. There was some negative feedback after The Nun, but mostly it was positive.
Does she as a nun find it difficult to cope with increased attention? She woke up to become famous; people ask her for autographs. A book she had written prior to becoming a nun has seen the light recently.
She definitely finds it a hard thing to deal with, and she admits it during our meetings. That's how I look at it: you can do nothing, sit in your cell, never express yourself in any way, hide from the world, but your pride won't disappear because you can consider yourself great even if you don't do anything. The less you do, the greater you imagine yourself to be. On the contrary, this situation reveals everything that is hidden, especially pride and vainglory.
Order a copy of the DVD The Nun
When someone takes the veil, she dies for the world. How do we understand these words correctly, if the monastic carries out her mission in this world? I don't mean dying for the world per se; I'm trying to infer that monastic living may be as diverse as it gets. Our perception of monastic life is often one-sided: a monk is thought to be a person who doesn't talk to anyone, doesn't smile, stares at the ground and sits in voluntary confinement.
Of course one can read many books and find far-fetched quotations, but the truth is that monasticism has had various faces since the beginning. For example, St Joseph Volotsky and St Nil Sorsky had different callings but the same purpose, so they had no problem dealing with one another, they liked one another. There were three hospitals and a dedicated church for the mentally ill in the monastery of St Theodosius the Great who is considered to be the founder of coenobitic monasteries.
If our Convent was established in a remote village or in the woods, we would live there praying and working with our hands. Nevertheless, the Lord founded this Convent here, where there are so many ill people in need of support and love.
People are reluctant to forgive a monastic who has simple human weaknesses. They imagine that he should not be annoyed or get angry, as if he were dead. Ideally yes, that's how it should be. This is our goal but we haven't become Angels yet. Why is it so difficult for some people to understand it?
You can't expect us to be like St Poemen the Great or St Sergius of Radonezh. St Ignatius (Bryanchaninov) said that monastics were superhuman in the ancient times, but the lay people were stronger in faith, too: they prayed and lived in piety .
Where do I as an abbess find the necessary experience to be like them? I was a lazy and disobedient girl who came to church to be purified, cleansed, adorned by the Lord who blessed me to become a nun and then an abbess. You can’t learn everything at once. This is why we serve God to the best of our abilities and we learn all the time. We make many mistakes and surprisingly enough, given our unique ability to mess everything up, the Lord still manages to build something.
You Simply Have to Love, this song by Nun Juliania (Denisova) that many people consider to be their favourite song, lists the virtues that lead to salvation. In fact, all of these virtues boil down to one: you simply have to... die. Is such genuine, authentic monasticism possible nowadays?
Of course, it is. Everything depends on how the person responds to God’s calling.
Monastyrskii Vestnik (The Monastic Herald)
Interview by Christina Polyakova
June 26, 2016
 “What can you demand from monasteries if the world sends corrupt people to them, if they are surrounded by immorality, if immorality dominates them? This wound is healed only by death.”
“Many people complain about monastics, and go searching for their flaws. However, monastics are a barometer that stands in a remote and isolated room and accurately shows the weather outdoors.” (St Ignatius Bryanchaninov. Letters to Various People, vol.7).