Everyone believed “in their souls”
I came to believe at the age of ten, although there was no special background to it. We were an ordinary soviet family. We lived in Leningrad. My father was a party member and an associate professor at the conservatory; my mother was a concertmaster. However, everyone believed “in their souls.”
My father was a very good, kind man. Once they told him, “This student sings in a church choir. We’re going to kick him out of the conservatory: He’s a disgrace to the name of “soviet student”. When he comes to take your exam, you have to give him a “2”.”
The man came for the exam and gave a “5” answer; my father gave him a “4”. He later said, “I’ve never been able to forgive myself that I went against my conscience and gave him a ‘4’ instead of a ‘5’.”
The Lord granted my father not long before his death to turn in his party card and depart for another world without that load.
How I came to God
At our house we had an old, pre-revolutionary Pantocrator icon of the Lord standing on the dresser. I remember one winter I went up to the icon and suddenly I had a strong feeling of assurance that God exists. No one taught me this—faith came on its own. I didn’t tell my parents anything about it but started praying. My first childhood prayer was for a puppy.
Then my father had to take entrance exams in Pskov, so we went there as a family. We decided to go to the Pskov Caves Monastery on a sightseeing tour. As soon as we got there, I really wanted to go to a monastery, although I knew nothing about it at that time.
In those years, the now-departed elders Archimandrite John (Krestiankin) and Archimandrite Adrian (Kirsanov) were still laboring in the monastery. It didn’t work out for me, a child, to meet with them of course; I didn’t even know they existed, but the whole monastery atmosphere was filled with prayer and grace. Again, I said nothing to my parents, but the thought of going to a monastery tightly fused itself to my soul. To me it seems like my coming to God and entrance into Church life was a real miracle and the mercy of God towards me.
The mystery of the Cross
When my parents found out that I believe in God, their friend, who they apparently trusted, offered to take me for confession and Communion. My parents agreed, although they themselves didn’t go to confession and Communion. So I went to my first confession; I was thirteen, but out of fear I couldn’t utter even a single word. Then I said something and batiushka covered me with his epitrachelion. After confession and Communion I felt very light and very happy. I was choked up with tears from happiness, as if some huge weight had been lifted from me.
I started reading the lives of the saints and became engrossed in these lives. The story of the holy apostle Andrew the First-Called especially touched me. I read about how he wanted to tell his torturers about the mystery of the Cross, and they mocked him and laughed: “Now you’re going to experience this mystery of the cross for yourself!”
The apostle hung on the cross for three days, was glad to suffer for Christ and gave this joy to the people. In the example of the holy apostle Andrew can be understood the joy of a monk who goes to the monastery for tribulation, and to Golgotha in the end, because through these sufferings he is united with the Lord.
When I left for the monastery, I didn’t think about what day it was, but then I realized it was the day of the memory of the holy apostle Andrew the First-Called.
My first experience of prayer
Once, when I was sixteen, I went to my parents’ dacha. My mother and father usually always took good care of me and met me and accompanied me, because the road to the dacha lay through a forest and the places there were deserted. But this time no one met me, as if my parents had suddenly forgotten about me.
The summer had already ended and it was quickly getting dark. The people who had gotten out at the same bus stop as me headed in the opposite direction, and I was left completely alone amidst the dark woods on a deserted country road. The forest breathed dampness and strange and frightening rustlings and sounds could be heard everywhere. I was such a homebody, and suddenly I found myself alone in the dark of night.
This was my first experience with praying the Jesus Prayer. I was already a believer and was planning to go to a monastery, but I had never seriously prayed with my whole heart, gathering all the strength of my soul. And here, frightened, I began to pray fervently. And I realized: The Lord can cover and protect us from every fear and fright. There’s nothing fearful with the Lord. I flew down the road as on wings, fearing nothing.
Optina Pustyn Monastery
My parents were worried about me and my decision to go to a monastery. My mother convinced me of the need to get checked for a tumor (I often suffered from headaches). She took me to the hospital and left me in one of the departments. When I looked around, I saw epileptics and the mentally ill all around me. Then the attending physician told me that the examination showed me healthy. It was only then that I realized: My mother was worried I had gone crazy.
My mother started going around to well-known priests to consult with them about my going to a monastery. A spiritual father respected by everyone, Archpriest Vasily Lesynak (1928-1995), was serving in St. Petersburg in those years. When my mother took me to Fr. Vasily, she was certain that he, a wise man, would dissuade me, a young girl, from the monastery, and she advised me to seriously listen to his words.
But Fr. Vasily didn’t try to dissuade me. He took me by the chin and looked deep into my eyes, as if into my soul. I had only just begun to think about my sins, to notice them, and to notice my arrogance. Fr. Vasily told me, “It’s nothing, you’ll be fine, only not right away. Gradually.”
Then he walked away, not saying another word. I asked my mother, “Are you satisfied?”
“What can I say…” she replied.
But I myself was joyous and glad.
The monastic path
My mother was advised not to hold me back anymore but to allow me to live in a monastery to figure out whether it was for me. After all, there are many difficulties, tribulations, and temptations in a monastery. The Scriptures say, My son, if thou come to serve the Lord, prepare thy soul for temptation. Set thy heart aright, and constantly endure, and make not haste in time of trouble. Cleave unto him, and depart not away, that thou mayest be increased at thy last end (Sir. 2:1-3).
The monastic path isn’t for everyone, for sure. It is only for those whom the Lord Himself calls. Without this calling, it is difficult to withstand all the trials.
I arrived at the monastery in 1992; I was eighteen. I received the riassaphore tonsure in 1996, and the full monastic tonsure in 2002. Of course, this was very early—usually they don’t tonsure nuns so early, but I came to the monastery so young.
The power of blessing and obedience
My father and mother died of cancer. My mother had already started going to church and communing by then, and before her death I called for a priest to come see her to give her Unction and Communion. She died suffering, but she lay in her coffin with a joyous smile, as if meeting with some family and friends.
My father was a Catholic, and when he got sick, I was very worried: How will I pray for him? The abbess blessed me to go see my father and find a priest to unite my father to Orthodoxy. I thought to myself that it was completely impossible to fulfill this blessing: My father would not agree. But I went to see my father in St. Petersburg for the sake of obedience; there I went to the Valaam dependency and told the first hieromonk I met about my problem.
He went with me. We arrived; my father was lying down. We went in, greeted him, and then the priest started speaking with him and I left the room and started reading the Psalter, barely hoping for my father’s consent. Suddenly the priest came out and said, “Come in, your father wants to tell you something.”
I entered the room and my father said to me, “My daughter, this batiushka and I have found a common language, and I agree to be united to Orthodoxy.”
Then I returned to the monastery and later learned that my father called this priest two more times, confessed, communed, and departed to the Lord. My spiritual mother, who prayed for my father and I, told me after his death, “You see, and you didn’t believe your father would agree…”
And I was again convinced of the power of blessing and obedience to a spiritual guide.
How St. Ambrose answered a prayer
Once, before the revolution, some monks from Optina were sent on obedience to the Maloyaroslavets Monastery, and in 1992, many of the first sisters of the monastery also arrived from Optina. The rebirth of the famous monastery, the center of Russian spiritual life, led many young people to Optina Monastery who desired to zealously serve the Lord. The brothers remained to labor there, but pilgrims, desiring to be saved in the monastic rank, were usually blessed to the go to women’s monasteries that had also been reborn after many years of devastation.
The future abbess of the St. Nicholas Chernoostrovsky Monastery Matushka Nikolaya fervently prayed to St. Ambrose of Optina to send her sisters, at least five, and the saint answered her prayer: Thirty young women went to Matushka from Optina, most of them at the same time. It was a real miracle! I was one of these thirty.
The Lord looks upon the will of man
Before entering the monastery, some of the girls went to see Blessed Lyubushka for a blessing in Susanino, a village near St. Petersburg. In response to a question about choosing the monastic path, the eldress didn’t answer definitively, saying only, “As you wish!” making it clear that the Lord does not enslave anyone; we have free choice and can be saved both in the world and in a monastery. The Lord looks upon man’s will and his desire to renounce all things worldly for the sake of love of God.
Some of the young pilgrims quickly understood that monasticism was not their calling, but some remained in the monastery and received the monastic tonsure.
The first trials
Many who came to our monastery at the beginning of the 1990s experienced the same feeling of inexpressible happiness, despite living among the ruins. The sole residential building then had two big cells where up to fifteen people could fit. There were two rows of “soldier’s” iron beds standing there. We could only dream of closets and tables; I had nowhere to put my icons and I put them on an old ragged chair near my bed.
We had no hot water or central heating for several years, and there were no facilities. We were soon donated pink quilted jackets, and we would walk together in these strange jackets and not take them off, even in our cells, because winter was very cold there.
The land all around us is holy
We began to dig gardens; it was difficult to do it too, and not just because digging up a garden is not the easiest task for young and mostly urban girls. The thing is that we were stumbling across brick debris, trash, and even shells everywhere. While working around St. Nicholas Cathedral, we even unearthed some human bones, and the Lord alone knows who the remains belong to—whether they were former inhabitants of the monastery or defenders of the Motherland… The abbess said many times that although our monastery had no relics, the land all around us is holy, because it was watered with the blood of the defenders of the Fatherland in 1812.
The wonderful St. Nicholas Cathedral was defiled, the walls were streaked with curses, the windows were knocked out, freezing drafts roamed around the cathedral, and the crucifix in the center of the dome was covered with traces of gunshots. The old-timers told us how a dance floor had been built over the holy spring and Komsomol members had their dances there, and the locals planted a garden and dug up potatoes in the monastery cemetery.
How the Lord sent us our “angels”
In the fall of 1993, on the eve of the feast of the Archangel Michael, the ceiling collapsed in our sole residential building (now for schemanuns), with beams flying from the upper common cell to the lower. We weren’t able to move the heap of debris with our womanly strength, but the Lord sent us our “angels”: Brothers from Optina Pustyn “just so happened” to be driving by. Without any hesitation, they cleared out all the debris, then served the festal All-Night Vigil and left.
The first nuns had many difficulties, but you can’t imagine what joy, what grace the Lord granted us to feel! If not for this grace, few would have been able to bear all the troubles and deprivations of the first years of the monastery’s restoration. Since then, the monastery’s first sisters have learned in practice what joy self-sacrifice brings, and what peace of mind and calm is brought by obedience.
And funny little incidents didn’t pass us by: Everyone knows about the zeal not according to knowledge of neophytes. Once two young novices decided to test out the power of the sign of the cross—in secret from the older sisters, of course: They fried a toadstool on a small stove, made the sign of the cross over it, and ate it in halves. The Lord was merciful to the neophytes—they got off with just a visit to the hospital.
Now I understand how unprepared for the monastic life we were: young, self-willed, important, proud, fancying ourselves very intelligent and spiritual. Some of the nuns were previously part of the hippie movement: They gave all the sisters nicknames and dragged fur toys behind themselves. Wretched people, infected with the passion of addiction met up, seeking salvation from spiritual death in God and in the monastery. We all had a very high opinion of ourselves, so we were very far from the monastic virtues of humility, obedience, and meekness. Spiritual babies.
The skete in the village of Karizha was opened already in the first year of the restoration of our monastery. The skete is located near the wonderful Holy Protection Church where they have the venerated icon of the Bogolyubskaya Mother of God. This skete is connected for our first sisters with a time of a great spiritual upsurge, a “spiritual spring,” when the Lord gave us to taste the sweetness of obedience and self-sacrifice. All the sisters tried to take the most difficult things upon themselves to help one another. Many of them are now abbesses in other monasteries or elder sisters.
The following happened during my stay at the skete: During my nighttime rule, closer to morning, some strange things started happening: Someone was knocking on the outside wall of the house. We went around the house, sprinkling it with holy water. I, then a young woman, thought, “Apparently our ‘hesychasm’ has reached such a measure that we’ve attained to being tempted by barabashki”—like Athonite fathers, or the heroes of the paterikons. Now it’s funny to recall such thoughts, but what would you think if a knock began on the wall from who knows where during your morning rule?
Although the sprinkled knocking began every day at about four in the morning, I was delighted at the idea that it was barabashki. But a few days later, the elder sister, Mother Arsenia, dispelled my “dreams.” It turns out it was our dog in the yard, waking early in the morning and impatiently banging his tail on a pipe in anticipation of breakfast. When we tied him up, the knocking stopped. I was very disappointed. At that time, it was hard for me to understand how many passions, how many “barabashki” live in my own heart.
“Behold, the Bridegroom comes at midnight”
Our clergy were faced with an unthinkably difficult task: To make out of us, whatever shape we were in, spiritual warriors—nuns. Only the Lord could help. We all remember our tonsures, how we waited, prepared ourselves, and went to the abbess in her cell to receive directions while the sisters were gathered behind the doors with candles, waiting for you to come out as a tonsured nun. We would go into church behind the formation of sisters with the song “Behold, the Bridegroom Comes at Midnight;” during a tonsure, the worldly man dies, and a new man is born—with a new name, having dedicated yourself to God. The nighttime akathist and the days passed entirely in the church when we just became nuns—this happens only once in a lifetime!
“God and the soul—that’s the whole monk”
There was a lot we had to understand and learn. In the world we loved to make friends with our contemporaries, and were used to feeling sympathy for those whom we liked and avoiding those who for some reason, perhaps even insignificant, we didn’t like. Being young girls, we often enjoyed idle talk and loquacity, merely talking, we loved to chat and even gossip. Now we have learned to understand that worldly friendship is not appropriate for nuns: When you begin to single out one sister and feel partiality towards her, you thereby deprive the other sisters of your love. We have learned to understand what the words of St. Theophan the Recluse mean: “God and the soul—that’s the whole monk.”
Labors and temptations
The years passed. There were plenty of labors and temptations. When we learned to sing Znamenny chant, our detractors commented: “They howl like wolves.” Someone said our monastery services were Catholic because they’re too long. Someone accused our monastery of strictness, another reproached us because the monastery does not welcome friendship but demands equal attitudes towards all sisters, and another was sick of obedience—she really wanted to become a nun and at the same time live in the monastery as in the world—according to her own will.
During the reading of the Paterikon, we were touched by the stories of the humility and patience of the fathers who out of obedience even watered dry sticks that then blossomed with beautiful flowers. If you were to suggest something like this to a modern girl, from a city, with a high education—just watch that stick fly, and the elder right after it.
The fruits of obedience
A quarter century has passed since we came to the monastery. All of the sisters from the first call are now mature people. Those who were twenty-five then are now fifty. Have we changed? Of course! Have we become what the Lord wants us to be? We only try, work, ascetically labor—and we will labor unto the end of our monastic lives, and the Lord Himself will evaluate our fruits.
Interestingly, by the way, about the Paterikon: Our sister, Nun Evstoliya, was sent on obedience to Rozhdestveno, where she cultivated the garden, overcoming her reluctance to live and work there. And there it happened that a completely dry stick sprouted in the greenhouse and gave fruit.
Over the years of my monastic life, I have repeatedly seen how the Lord helped in difficult situations because of our obedience; on the road, somewhere far from the monastery, you always seem to catch some transportation at the last minute; there are people who, ready to fix a car broken down in the path or suddenly “disperse” traffic, resolving your seemingly hopeless situation. But the most amazing fruit of obedience is how the sisters change—how they grow spiritually.
Every Nativity and Pascha we would go to the Trinity-St. Sergius Lavra, to our spiritual father—Elder Schema-Archimandrite Michael (Balaev) (1924-2009). We have remembered his instructions our whole life:
“If you spend all your time in commotion, scurrying, or in the cab of a car, then who can take the Jesus Prayer from you?!”
“The monk’s path is to constantly take on more and more burdens and pain. He is like a horse upon which is placed first one pebble, then another—a little heavier, then a third… And moreover, not a single pebble is removed.”
“Batiushka, what happens when the horse kicks the bucket?”
“Then, to the Kingdom of Heaven!”
Sometimes we complained about some disruptions, inevitable when many sisters share a common life since such disruptions occur even in your blood family. We would whine to Batiushka when it felt like we were suffering an undeserved offense: “Batiushka, where is the truth?!”
The elder would answer our complaints: “What truth?! Your truth?! But God has His truth. It’s in your being humbled.”
In the summer of 1993, Archpriest John Borisov came to us and for seven years until his death heard the sisters’ confessions and helped the abbess with the spiritual nourishment of the nuns. Batiushka was a spiritual man and well understood the atmosphere of the monastery and would sometimes say that the “wind was walking” here, meaning that we had relaxed and our jealousy had faded. Before death, Fr. John received the monastic tonsure and his matushka was also tonsured into monasticism.
“We have to send you to the barn!”
When I first came to the monastery, I felt unimportant, I was often sick, and I was thin and weak. I was dealing with it all. Now I think it was largely connected with my spiritual condition, because now, although my former illnesses have not retreated, I’ve received strength and energy and endurance from somewhere. Glory to God!
And then, when I was eighteen, they put me on obediences that weren’t very heavy, not connected with physical labor. But I really wanted to be like everyone. For some reason, I really wanted to work in the barn. I was born in Leningrad, I was a city girl, but I was drawn to animals, to nature.
One time at confession, the priest started scolding me and exclaimed, probably not seriously, but maybe to scare me: “You need to be sent to the barn, to be more edified!”
I suddenly burst into tears because until then they hadn’t taken me there.
How my desire came true
The Lord fulfilled my desire and my obedience in the barn became a good spiritual school for me, bringing spiritual benefit. Firstly, the animals taught me. For example, we mustn’t fight with any of the sisters, and, being in a state of battle, you go to the barn and the cows feel everything and might even kick. It’s dangerous with cows in general. They’re huge, massive animals. If you approach them the wrong way, they might even hook and gore you with their horns.
The cow doesn’t intend to attack and injure its master, of course, but if it has mastitis, it might not allow milking. Or you bring it a bucket of water, and it gets excited, making sharp movements, and it can inadvertently hook you with its horns. You have to be careful and always approach animals with prayer and in a good spiritual state.
Mother Georgia was the eldest nun at the barn; she knew very well how to deal with the animals and was completely fearless in any situation, and very decisive—and the cows could feel this and obeyed her.
How important peace and prayer are
Once, when I was already the elder sister in the skete, I got in a fight with Sister Georgia. I thought I was right, and she was certain of her correctness. You know how it is. Everyone in a fight thinks he’s the right one. Mother Georgia stayed at the skete and I was sent on my turn with another sister to feed the cows. Being in a bad mood after the fight, I also squabbled with my partner, and now I don’t even remember why.
Agitated, angry, and without prayer (it’s very hard to pray when you’re angry and offended), we went to feed the cows. We had twelve adult animals and five calves. Had we been in our usual, calm, attentive, focused state, perhaps the following sad events would not have happened.
When the calf is removed from its mother’s udder, the cow and the calf quickly forget one another, and the adult animals often arrange some “hazing.” They might injure, shove, and push their young. You have to keep a careful eye on the herd. But we were distracted, upset, and absorbed in our grievances and emotions, and weren’t keeping track: The cows found some tasty grass, and one of them shoved a calf right into the river.
It was still young and foolish. Its head was on the surface, it was swimming somehow, but with difficulty, and it was already clear that it wouldn’t hold on for long. I went down to the river, but I couldn’t get close to it to pull it out of the water. I had a terrible picture in my mind: A drowned calf floating belly-up in the river, and us standing there and seeing him off with a look. Taking the opportunity, the herd ran off to other people’s gardens. In general, we needed some help!
I had to urgently call Sister Georgia for help, although we had fought. She was busy at another obedience and easily could have answered: “Take care of it yourself! How am I better than you? What am I, a lifeguard?! What a weak girl you are.” But, of course, Mother Georgia didn’t say that and immediately rushed to help us. Having quickly realized what to do, she managed to tie the calf’s hooves under the water with a rope, and we pulled it closer to the shore. When the baby felt the support, it began to save itself and got out onto the grass.
It was a good lesson for me. It seems like you fight with someone, you judge someone, you raise your voice… But in fact, the Lord showed by external events how dangerous it is to transgress the Divine commandments, and how important peace and prayer are.
The Holy Dormition-Sharovkin Monastery
Now I am the elder sister of a St. Nicholas-Chernoostrovsky Monastery dependency—the Dormition-Sharovkin Monastery. We are restoring the church, we pray, and we labor. It’s amazingly beautiful here. At one time, in the vicinity of Peremishel, not far from Kaluga, there were so many monasteries that this place was styled Monastirschina—the land of monasteries.
The monastery church served as a parish until it was closed in 1937, although it had the status of an historical monument of federal importance.
Keepers of the faith
During the years of persecution against the Church, the faith was kept by our babushkas [grandmothers]. One of our babushka-parishioners, Evdokia, remembered how her unbelieving co-workers would physically catch her on fasting days or before the Great Feasts of the Church and pour vodka into her mouth so she couldn’t go pray in church. They mocked her faith. Then her godless husband told her: “It’s either me or God.”
Evdokia didn’t renounce God and her husband kicked her out, pregnant.
I found this babushka—she was very meek and humble and everyone turned to her for prayers. We were present at her funeral; her face was alive, pure, smooth, like a baby’s. Her daughter is now our loyal parishioner. She told us that her mother saw her guardian angel.
Indeed, our babushkas were true podvizhniks—their faith endured all trials and oppressions. You would think that now, when there is no persecution, every believer would be like that, but how strong is our faith?!
In the Chernoostrovsky Monastery labors one such podvizhnik, Schemanun Maria (Kapalina). She is 101. She raised and educated four deeply believing sons: Metropolitan Kliment of Kaluga and Borovsk, Metropolitan Dimitry of Tobolsk and Tyumen, Archimandrite Vasily (now reposed), and Archpriest Nikolai, now Hieromonk Paphnuty.
Mother Maria once recalled that in the 1930s, a “black raven” would carry people away by night, and before sleep everyone asked forgiveness from one another very sincerely, wholeheartedly. They could have been arrested and sent to camps then just for believing in God, and parents would never see their children again. Everyone knew this and everyone prepared for it.
Once while visiting his mother, Vladyka Kliment told several of the sisters of the monastery about his family. Mother Maria taught all four of her sons to always help her, and they grew up very caring. When she was seriously ill, near to death, all four brothers prayed for her, and their mother not only recovered, but has stayed with us until today.
I remember how zealously she prayed when she was younger.
How the goat found us a benefactor
We have a small farm at the Dormition-Sharovkin Monastery with a vegetable garden and goats. One day one of our goats gave birth to kids—very cute, but capricious. Once they were grazing by the road and a pilgrim walked by who would occasionally come to visit us and the holy spring. One curious kid ran up to the passerby and he was touched and rubbed its head. The baby liked this caressing very much, and when this man moved on, the kid screamed shrilly, with an almost childlike voice.
This brother decided that the animal was crying from hunger, and he was upset because of this. A little while later, he called me and said with a resolute voice: “I brought a bag of cabbage and a bag of carrots for your kids, so they won’t die from hunger!”
And I answered, “Forgive me, please, but our kids are not starving. They are still very young and still feed on their mother’s milk. But if you allow us, we will eat your carrots and cabbage, because we have absolutely no vegetables and the shelves in the basement are completely empty.”
This brother was very surprised and allowed us to eat the carrots and cabbage, and since then he has been a benefactor of our monastery and has repeatedly helped us with vegetables.
Request for help
There are eight of us sisters in the Dormition-Sharovkin Monastery. After we experienced the difficulties of the first years of the rebirth of the St. Nicholas-Chernoostrovsky Monastery, we were no longer scared to face difficulties and inconveniences, being in the ruined Sharovkin Monastery. But there are many difficulties. We need to restore the unique church and the entire monastery ensemble and carry out complex restoration work. Thus we ask you for help—at least something small and unburdensome.
We have a wonderworking icon in the Dormition Church—of the Most Holy Theotokos “Blessed Heaven,” which many faithful come to with their sorrows and requests, and so we will pray zealously for all of our benefactors. God bless you! Names for prayers can be sent by SMS, emails, and letters.
Sberbank card: 5336 6900 0714 2617 Daria Dmitrievna Vorobieva
Our site: http://sharovkin-monastir.ru/
Come visit us!
How to get to our monastery: http://sharovkin-monastir.ru/cometous/