"Today the concept of truth is viewed with suspicion, because truth is identified with violence. Over history there have, unfortunately, been episodes when people sought to defend the truth with violence. But they are two contrasting realities. Truth cannot be imposed with means other than itself! Truth can only come with its own light. Yet, we need truth. ... Without truth we are blind in the world, we have no path to follow. The great gift of Christ was that He enabled us to see the face of God".Pope Benedict xvi, February 24th, 2012

The Church is ecumenical, catholic, God-human, ageless, and it is therefore a blasphemy—an unpardonable blasphemy against Christ and against the Holy Ghost—to turn the Church into a national institution, to narrow her down to petty, transient, time-bound aspirations and ways of doing things. Her purpose is beyond nationality, ecumenical, all-embracing: to unite all men in Christ, all without exception to nation or race or social strata. - St Justin Popovitch

Thursday 26 April 2018


Sisters Anna, Veronica and Helen with me

Last night and today we had the great privilege of a visit from three "Sisters of Mercy" from the Russian Orthodox Convent of St Elizabeth the Royal Martyr in Minsk, Belarus.   They were on a tour to sell products of St Elizabeth's Convent to support their work among physically and mentally handicapped children, handicapped adults, those who have come out of mental hospital, those out of prison and alcoholics.  I had been looking forward to their visit ever since my abbot, Fr Paul, gave me the news after I had returned from Peru.  I am still in a happy mood after their visit and am looking forward to the next time I visit Belarus.

Because God is Love and the Christian life is a sharing in his divine life, God manifests his life in the world where Christian love is exercised.  

"A new commandment I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so also you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you love one another.” (Jn 13, 35)"That they may be one, as thou Father in me and I in thee, may they be one in us that the world may know that thou hast sent me. (Jn 17,)"   

The Church is visible to the world only in so far as Christian love is visible: without Christian love, the Church plays power games like any other institution and is seen by the world as nothing special and so it renders God's presence opaque to the world.

It is the function of Christ's body on earth to make God's presence in Christ  visible but, in every generation, there are people for whom this is their special vocation.

 In the 19th Century, Father Damian did this by sharing his life with lepers in the leper colony of Molokai. 

Robert Louis Stevenson visited Molokai in 1889 shortly after Saint Father Damien’s death (April 1889). He spent eight days there assisting Sister Marianne Cope (also canonized) with the lepers (much to her chagrin, for the author himself then had TB and could have easily  contracted the disease in that weakened state). Not long afterwards (actually four years before his own death in 1894), Stevenson came to the defense of Father Damien in a scathing letter (well worth his literary skills and flair for righteous sarcasm), an Open Letter it turned out to be, to a Presbyterian Rev. Mr. Hyde of Honolulu.  Hyde had viciously calumniated Father Damien, soon after the saint’s death, in a letter to an inquiring fellow Presbyterian minister, a Rev. Gage, that was subsequently published that October, 1889, in an Australian newspaper, the Sydney Presbyterian. The reason that Gage had inquired of Hyde for information about Father Damien was that the whole world was then praising the deceased priest’s  charity and heroism. Stevenson (himself a Presbyterian) had read that letter while staying in Australia. That same paper refused to carry the famous writer’s rebuttal. That is why Stevenson published it as an Open Letter which, on account of his prestige, was read everywhere in the English speaking world. He affirmed that he had an obligation in justice to defend the good name of the priest of Molokai. (Catholicism.org)
 Father Damien challenged the anti-Catholicism of Mr Hyde by the quality of his love because it is the kind of love that manifests the presence of the Holy Spirit, and, as St Irenaeus tells us, "Where the Holy Spirit is, there is the Church."

The Sisters of Mercy also impressed the world and manifested the true nature of Catholicism by their incredible work in educating the poor, in and nursing the sick among the most disadvantaged and suffering.  In the 19th century no situation was too difficult nor job too dangerous for them.  In fact, Florence Nightingale  invited them to nurse the troops in the Crimean War. Their reputation as nurses under fire, as people of incredible strength of character, self-forgetfulness, courage and practical love, both at the front in the war and in the United States under the most adverse conditions, was an inspiration to others.  Soon there were Anglican Sisters of Mercy, Lutheran Sisters of Mercy and, later on, even Russian Orthodox Sisters of Mercy.  Like Mother Teresa of Calcutta and her sisters in the 20th Century, they demonstrated to the world that the Gospel is not just words but a lived reality in which people on earth become a window into heaven.

Princess Elisabeth of Hesse and by Rhine, later Grand Duchess Elizabeth Feodorovna of Russia (Russian: Елизавета Фëдоровна Романова, Elizabeth Feodorovna Romanova; canonized as Holy Martyr Elizabeth Feodorovna; 1 November 1864 – 18 July 1918) was a German princess of the House of Hesse-Darmstadt, and the wife of Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich of Russia, the fifth son of Emperor Alexander II of Russia and Princess Marie of Hesse and by Rhine. 
She was a granddaughter of Queen Victoria and hence a maternal great-aunt of Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, the consort of Queen Elizabeth II.(Wikipedia)

 The young princess grew up to be very beautiful, and at the age of nineteen, married a Grand-Duke of Russia, Sergei Alexandrovich. Through Elizabeth’s marriage, her sister Alexandra was to meet and marry another Russian, the future Tsar Nicholas II. On moving to Russia to live with her husband, Elizabeth, who had always loved God, was soon drawn to Orthodox Christianity, intuitively perceiving the deep spirituality of the Russian Orthodox Church. Sorrowfully accepting the disapproval of her Lutheran relations, she converted in 1891.

In 1905, as civil unrest grew in Russia, Elizabeth’s husband was blown to pieces in an explosion by an anarchist assassin. Amazingly, the day after the murder, Elizabeth went to the prison and forgave the murderer, fervently urging him to repent of his crime. To the complete incomprehension of those around her she even tried, albeit unsuccessfully, to secure him a reprieve from execution. The tragedy was a turning point in Elizabeth’s life. Her husband’s death was a solemn reminder of the fragility of all human life, and she abandoned completely the luxurious life of a royal dignitary.

After much prayer and soul-searching, she decided to found a monastic community, the convent of Sts Martha and Mary at her estate in Moscow. The convent, which opened in 1909, was funded by the sale of all her precious jewels. It was a place of prayer and practical service, with two churches, a hospital and dispensary, lodging house, orphanage, library and soup kitchen. The sisters also worked with the poor and sick in the slums of Moscow. Elizabeth lived a very self-denying lifestyle, eating only bread and vegetables, and always rising in the middle of the night to pray, and to check her patients, so that she never had much of a chance to rest herself. 

The Russian Revolution in 1917 led to a terrible persecution of Christians. Churches and monasteries were destroyed and priests, monks and nuns tortured and killed. Against the advice she was given, Elizabeth chose to stay in Russia, and to face the inevitable fate of an abbess and member of the royal family- martyrdom. This came the following year, when she was imprisoned at Alapayevsk with other members of the aristocracy. One of the novices, Sister Barbara, would not leave her spiritual mother and stayed with the abbess despite being warned of the consequences. Thus Barbara chose death rather than desertion.

After four months on 5 July 1918, the night after the murder of the Tsar and his family, the prisoners were thrown into a shaft at a disused iron mine. None of them were killed by the fall, but were preserved by God to audibly sing hymns. Even the attempts of the soldiers to finally end their lives using hand grenades were unsuccessful, and the singing continued for some time, despite burning brushwood being thrown down the shaft.
© Russian Ecclesiastical Mission in Jerusalem. 05 August, 2013

When the bodies were recovered a few days later by the White Army, Elizabeth’s was found to be incorrupt, the fingers placed together in the traditional position for making the Sign of the Cross. One of the other prisoners, John, was found beside her with her monastic veil wrapped around his injured head as a bandage. By this, the former grand duchess expressed her love and care for others, even in the last moments of her earthly life.

We now jump to the time when Communism collapsed and grace rushed in to fill the vacuum.  Reference to a fuller account of that story can be found here.

I suppose it all began in 1994 with a group of four 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 Belarus 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 visitors, some went to work there. They combined their commitment to the mentally sick with assistance 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" or just "Sisters of Mercy" in remembrance of St Elizabeth.

 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.  There are now over 300 Sisters of Mercy, not bad for a community that only began in 1994!!

What is more: two sisters of mercy adopted the monastic habit in 1999 and they are now an abbey of around a hundred nuns with four impressive churches and the same number of liturgical and professional choirs that have made records and won prizes.  Very early on, the community opened a workshop for iconography and attracted painters of icons from all over Belarus, as well as from foreign countries.  Soon, some of the male artists put on the monastic habit, so there is now a small but growing community of monks.  If that were not enough, many lay people, men and women, married, single and celibate, have been attracted into the various activities of the convent and work and pray there permanently.  Some have gone on to the seminary and some have become deacons and priests attached to St Elizabeth's Convent, but many are content to remain ordinary lay people who, in their various ways and in different degrees are "brothers" and "sisters" of the convent.  
inmates of the home for ex-prisoners etc
after the Divine Liturgy in their church

As if this variety were not enough, there is a home for ex-prisoners, ex-mental patients, alcoholics and vulnerable adults.  One inmate was in prison for twenty eight years for multiple murders. On my visit I met a layman who lives as an inmate even though he belongs to none of the categories for whom the home exists: he just likes the simple life they lead. This community has its own beautiful church, and the Divine Liturgy is celebrated every Sunday with the opportunity for confession.  In the last two years, another home has started, this time for females who need such a place.   Its church is still under construction.   All these are "brothers" and "sisters" of the wider community that is St Elizabeth' Convent.

In this video, filmed at the 15th anniversary of the nuns' convent, already with a hundred nuns (called locally "black nuns" because of the colour of their veil) and a few monks - the "sisters of mercy" are called "white nuns" and are 300 in number and six years older.   They live at home with their families.  Some are married but most are not.  Wearing the habit obliges them to live a strict Christian life, and they work full time in the work of the convent.
15th anniversary of St Elizabeth's Convent

The Path of Love 
(An Introduction to the life)

The White Angel of Minsk

(Feast of St Elizabeth the New and Royal Martyr)

I did not knowThe Other Land: A Conversation with Fr. Andrei Lemeshonok

On this land, in this transient world, we often look for something, we want something – but we ourselves do not know what. We grow confused, we get scared, we condemn others, we act out… Our soul goes through many such states. It’s good if these states pass quickly, without finding a place in our hearts. But something else can also happen: we begin to be led by sin, which cuts us off from the light. If we do not ask for God’s help in time, we can lose our minds. But just what is a “mind”? Who in this world is intelligent and who is bereft of reason? When do we act rightly: when we laugh or when we cry? These are difficult questions, and finding answers for them is also difficult, but we will try to do just that with the help of Archpriest Andrei Lemeshonok, spiritual father of  the St. Elizabeth Convent in Minsk.

Fr. Andrei, what is the “other land”?
Archpriest Andres Lemeshonok

The other land is Paradise, which man lost when he lost God. The church building is Heaven on earth. We might say that a church is that other land. If someone becomes a church himself, the land of his body changes. Look at the saints: their bodies are saturated with God’s grace, the source of life; we venerate their holy relics because they possess God’s love, which doesn’t die. The other land is one in which there is neither death nor sin, but where God is present and where God’s blessing is on everything.

Who lives according to the laws of the “other land” in this world?

At some moment, or at some period in his life, everyone probably comes into contact with this land. People who seek God also seek this land, this foundation upon which eternal life can already be built – life in which there is neither pain, nor sorrow, nor sighing, but where God will be in all things. For the time being, we’re battling with ourselves, with the world, and with this temporal land, which is constantly drawing us in and closing us off from Heaven and from one another as we wander in the shadow of sin. Unfortunately, that’s the way people live. Not many people can imagine that there’s anything else: another land, another life, different criteria and goals of life. Most likely, a Christian will find it: God will find him and reveal it to him. But later one has to fight for it, to work hard, and not turn aside or go with the crowd, which might be following the broad paths.

You have a great deal of experience providing spiritual care for people living in homes for the mentally disabled. Where do you see the “other land” in their lives?

When I first visited such a home, I felt that something was off. One breathes differently, hears differently, sees differently… there is some other dimension. And then I understood that there’s no evil in these people. There’s sin – but, you know, like the sin of children. Sin might manifest itself in a child and he might act up – but there is no cunning or deceit, no inner buildup of sin. He right away, forgets, forgives, and goes on playing. He doesn’t live with this sin. But with an adult, the heart grows callous and becomes filled with sin. One can’t overcome the passions one one’s own. One needs help, one needs the Holy Church, one needs the love that allows one to take a deep breath, to break free from one’s ego for at last a moment, and to visit that other land. That’s probably the most important thing.

How do people from that “other land” commune with God?

Like children ­– simply. In terms of development, many of them resemble children of the ages of five to seven. They aren’t bothered by the problems that cause stress for adults. Their behavior can be crude and one shouldn’t idealize these homes – these people are ill – but their illness has in a way preserved and shut them off from this world, while the walls of the homes give them shelter. They lead a different life, which is probably what keeps their souls from being damaged by sin.

They seem crazy to people, these unfortunate people, but for God they come first. If they believe, they believe sincerely, without analyzing or twisting things around, without thinking things up in the way that so-called “normal” people do, who are always getting confused and who torture themselves with doubts, conjectures, and a constant psychic tension that isn’t from God. This kind of life is temporal and human, but not real. For us to be like people who are ill, we need holiness. We need to evolve back into children, but not through primitivism or artificial simplicity, but through the labor of soul and mind. We think, struggle, and seek God; and, through knowledge of this world, we arrive at what we’ve lost by becoming adults, having gone off to a far country where this land is always trying to bury us, to close us off from God’s world and from one another. Therefore, of course, when God is present in someone, he becomes very simple.

How can one learn to do this?

I think that one needs to spend one’s entire life learning this. We have God as a physician, helper, and teacher; we have His love, which makes us capable of overcoming the attractions of this world and resolving all its problems, because in God is the fullness of life. One can’t claim that the first-created people before the Fall were philosophers or sages. They simply lived in God, and in this was the fullness of life they later lost. Unfortunately, they weren’t ready for simplicity, purity, and a right life. In order to arrive at it, humanity probably had to go through many generations in which people suffered and died in hopelessness.
Residents of a Home for the Mentally Disabled in Minsk.

One person says: “I want a car, I want to go to some resort, I want glory and health, I want…” But another person understands that this is all nonsense, and says: “I want there to be peace in my soul and light in my eyes. I want to live eternally. I want to become a human being!” Everything that is sinful and inauthentic is transient, artificial, and deadly. We’re not idealizing these homes. The illness is real. But this illness, this suffering, cleanses their souls and makes them different; it changes them.

But some people say: “Living is easier for people who are abnormal.” What can you say to this?

But here it’s hard to tell who’s normal and who’s abnormal. I think that a believer might have the experience of one minute when he was truly alive. If there was no such moment, then it means there was no life – no real life. It means we’re still clinging to illusions. There are people who spend their entire lives like that, not because God treats them differently than others, but simply because they don’t need it. At some point, their soul couldn’t respond, it couldn’t see the beauty; it became frightened, it hid and lost heart, because drawing nigh to God condemns one to suffering. There are few people who live in this world – who live on those “swine husks” on which the world feeds – that want to taste the life of the holy God-pleasers who suffered, struggled, and were always battling for another land.      

‘Would you like to pray day and night, to suffer for Christ, and to die for Christ?’

‘No. I do believe, but I don’t want to become a fanatic; that’s already too much, it’s not for me. My level of Christian life means lighting a candle, writing a commemoration sheet, perhaps fasting and receiving Communion occasionally. I’m a simple person…’

There used to be a Soviet person; now there’s some other unknown kind of person, but still someone of this world. But when God touches someone, he can no longer be like everyone else. He understands that there’s another life and another land, but you’re digging around in your earthly affairs and problems like a mole. These, too, are necessary, but what does the Lord say? But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and His righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you (Matthew 6:33). What does the Church do? It says: “Let us lift up our hearts!” The Church tries to lift us out of this garbage dump in which we’re trying to find something. We’re like bums rummaging around, trying to find something in this trash, some piece of metal. People think of themselves as being strong, rich, noble ­– but this entire life is a garbage dump. The emperor has no clothes! But everyone’s applauding and saying: “Everything is find and good!” Isn’t this some kind of show? Isn’t this a crazy house in which we’re living? But this is acceptable; everyone lives like this. This is what people are taught from generation to generation, so breaking out from this world is very difficult, if not impossible. But God gives man grace, by which he moves and breaks out. There’s no other way we can break out. Sin lives in me, in my every cell; I’ve been taught by sin, I’ve been taught by this world. How can I live?

One needs to repent… 

Real repentance is a revolution, an inner revolution; it’s a change of life, when one becomes different.

It is probably at such moments that the soul wants to give thanks to God. But how? How can one give back to God? 

Create in me a clean heart, O God… Everything that God gives him, he can give back. One can’t give back anything of one’s own. One doesn’t own anything, not a stitch. Not everyone understands that to love someone is a gift of God; that to believe is a gift of God; that humility and patience are also gifts of God. One can only give one’s ego, which nobody needs. What can we give back? Our heart. What condition is it in? God gives so much to us, but we lose it and do not give thanks. We’re at war with God; we argue with Him, we want to prove our point to Him. But God humbles Himself, because He loves us. If we want to love someone, we need to look at how God treats us, and then treat our neighbors likewise.

Can we actually do this? Of course not, so long as we’re egotistical and self-absorbed. We want people to feel sorry for us, to love us, to value us; we want God to give us presents. “Lord, help me! I want this, and this, and this…” But we rarely hear these words: “Lord, take my life and do with me as Thou wilt; only do not leave me!” One almost never hears of people who say: “I am so grateful to God for everything; I’m so happy that I found Him!” Hundreds of people come and grumble: “Everything’s wrong; nothing’s the way it’s supposed to be; everything’s awful.” In this world, in this land, everything’s become so twisted and distorted by sin! But we don’t see this, because we’re part of this sinful life. Breaking away from this part and opening our eyes is difficult, because we’ll turn into idiots. After all Dostoevsky’s “Idiot” was a good character! This person seemed to be saying normal things, but everyone thought he was an idiot.

This is not unlike our life. One can view Christianity as a kind of tradition, or one can view it as something entirely different: as a new life, a new land. But then you’ll be superfluous in this world; the world won’t accept you; it will fight you. Is it worth the fight? “Perhaps I’ll just put up with it. Why should I bother more than anybody else? Everyone’s being rude – why shouldn’t I? Just think, no one can see what I’m thinking.” But a believing person suffers for every thought because he sees how dark he’s become. He sees how a thought has entered him – now how will he get rid of it? He feels pressure, and the further one goes the more pressure there is. Is this easy? No. But one doesn’t want to live any other way. The Lord gives us everything: His love and beauty. The Church gives us everything that is beautiful. Everything that’s inspired has a timeless quality. We need to inspire our life; but we are tired and faint-hearted; we feel sorry for ourselves and therefore we’re all standing in place – but let’s hope for Pascha!

Interview conducted by Dmitry Artiukh.

Father Andrew Lemeshonok celebrating with adults in need at their hostal

A "selfie" of Anton, a lay associate, white sister Olga, and myself 
during my visit in September, 2012

Anton is preparing to go to Canada in May to spread the taste of Orthodoxy by singing in a Minsk choir and selling products from St Elizabeth's Convent.

White Sister Tatania (left) organised my wonderful visit
 with another sister

(On the left) Ivan Nichoporuk, a lay associate, who helped me a lot on my visit, has since married and entered a seminary and has about a year to go.  Very bright indeed, one of his favourite authors is G.K. Chesterton.  We keep in touch.  (He is in the vestments of an altar server)

I believe that the most significant component of the "New Evangelisation" is not what we do but what we allow Christ to do through us by our humble obedience.  One of the chief means is to allow Him to build Christian community with us as his instruments because, where we gather in His Name, there He  is in our midst.   What He does then is up to Him and, once more, we obey.  St Elizabeth's Convent is a stunning example of the "New Evangelisation" at work.  Like the Sisters of Mercy and Fr Damien building community among the lepers in the 19th Century, like Mother Teresa and Taize in modern times, the hand of God is visible to the eyes of faith in this Belarusan convent.

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