Nun Kassiani (Kupalenko) I met the Belarusian nun Kassiana (Kupalenko) on a social network, which isn’t common for us, but this is the case when Facebook pages became a platform for the most serious of conversations. Therefore, I had the idea of having a conversation with Mother Kassiana ... about monasticism? Yes, but not only that. And not so much even about monasticism, but about the choice, about determining your spiritual path. Monasticism, a monastery—that’s one option; and for every one of us, whether a monk or a layman, it’s sometimes important to see how another person made their choice.
But, before moving on to questions and answers, I should say that Mother Kassiana is the abbess of the episcopal dependency of the Monastery of St. Paisios the Athonite that is under construction in the village of Olzhevo in the Lida Diocese. She was born near Vitebsk. She was tonsured as a riassophore nun at the St. Euphrosyne Monastery in Polotsk, and as a stavrophore nun at the dependency. She lived in Greece, studying theology at the University of Athens. The monastery is named for St. Paisios—the first and only one not only in Belarus, but anywhere in the Moscow Patriarchate. The abbess and the small community of sisters are building it from scratch. And thanks to Facebook, we’re always in the loop about this difficult construction project. In her pictures, sometimes Mother’s in an apron with a paint roller, sometimes in a mask over a stack of boards, treating them with a fire-retardant compound, and often—surrounded by friends and guests of the monastery (of which there are many!) or with the monastery dogs—their beloved Ipa and Naida. The sisters and pilgrims of this monastery, which is being born before our eyes, have to live in Spartan conditions for now … but in true love.
—Mother Kassiana, why a monastery? Is it really not possible to live with God in the world? Or maybe it comes completely irrationally and doesn’t need any arguments?
—I made the decision to follow the monastic path when I was very young. But it was completely my decision, as meaningful and conscious as possible at that age. It wasn’t made under the influence of anyone else’s opinions. It’s quite funny and even fun for me to compare the views I had then about many things with my views today. It’s normal—none of us are standing still; we’re all moving somewhere. But it remains an enigma and mystery for me how it happened that I made such an important life decision at seventeen, which I never regretted later.
Like everyone, I’ve had my temptations in the monastery. There were very difficult periods. In the 1990s, our monasteries were far from places of serene monastic life. There were many conflicts in our life and things that were completely incomprehensible to me, so young and passionate. And yet, no matter how many rakes I walked over, no matter what I burned, no matter what bitter disappointments I experienced, I remained steadfast in one thing: No matter what, I wanted to be a nun. I’ve always felt the beauty of this life. It inspired me, and I understood that this is absolutely the path for me, that there is only one door before me; I don’t need anything else, and I won’t find myself in anything but monasticism. It’s hard to understand with your mind, sure, but it’s true. I guess that’s what a calling looks like. I think this is the hand of God specifically in my life, the providence of God, an answer to those searchers, prayers, and attempts to understand my place in life, which began very early for me.
I wasn’t one of those young people who abruptly, radically changed their way of life in becoming a monastic—from a very secular to a very ascetic life. I grew up in a believing family; from childhood I would go to the Polotsk Monastery on vacation; it was all quite consistent, although I won’t say it was quite predictable, based on my very lively character. I liked this environment, these people; I was well aware that they live by different laws and rules. They try, in any case, despite all their shortcomings and imperfections.
—Did you have any doubts, hesitations, moments of indecision, even weakness? Where is the line where they end? I remember one bishop said to me: “Everything is cut off immediately after a tonsure.” But does it happen that everything isn’t cut off even after a tonsure? That thoughts come: Is this really the place for me?
—By the grace of God, it turns out I was absolutely in my place. I love the monastic life too much to have any serious hesitations. But moments of weakness, cowardice, fatigue—everyone has those, and it’s not only completely normal, but these are also incredibly useful periods in the spiritual life. I understand that we all really want joy, inner harmony, and unshakable peace of mind. I want it too. But if a person seeks this not with the help of some substances that slow down all the processes in the body and give a false sense of self-confidence, but with the help of those means that the Gospel provides, then this is always a very serious work on yourself. And doubts, hesitations, moments of indecision, and weakness are a very important part of it; they help us look at things soberly. In moments of weakness, you see yourself very well: without self-admiration, without any regard for status, position, or others’ opinions about you. You see that you’re simply poor and wretched.
—I recall the work of Bishop Hilarion (Troitsky), The Unity of the Ideal of Christ. The author insists that the requirement for the individual in Christianity is one, uniform, that there is no gradation; like when people say, this is how much is required of a layman, but much more is required of a monastic. Genuine love for Christ, Bishop Hilarion argued, knows no gradations. God is waiting for man to come to Him fully, whether monastic or layman. There is no difference here. Monasticism is taken on by those who do not rely on themselves, but seek special help and protection on the spiritual path. Do you agree with Vladyka Hilarion?
—The difference between a monastic and non-monastic is not in who’s better or more spiritual. It’s not two different paths, but one, inasmuch as Christ is one, and He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. There are not two different Christianities. Christianity is one, but we are all different, and God loves us all, together and individually—every one of us. Some achieve nothing in monasticism, while some achieve much in the world, and vice versa.
But you have to be very careful in all these things so as not to harm anyone. The holy fathers say that discernment is the queen of the virtues, because if we act without discernment, falling into extremes, then many of our intentions, even the best ones, will not only come to naught, but can cause harm—both to ourselves and others. Every person has his potential, his own reserve of strength, and his own measure of podvig.
For example, I am concerned about a trend that was emerging already in the 1990s, when the Church was beginning to revive: There would be a normal, artistic, lively person with whom it was interesting to talk and to be in his company. Then he would “come to faith,” as they say, and that was it—he’d be lost. He’d become unsociable, taciturn, completely joyless, loving nothing and no one, doing everything only for the “salvation of the soul.” He’s not a monk, but he’s as if not living in the world; he is a stranger everywhere, fixated on himself, a wanderer and a hermit with a living wife and young children, who need a responsible and attentive father and husband just like they need air. And he calls this the “salvation of the soul.” If this is the fruit of a “genuine” spiritual life, it scares me. I am certain that this is not what Christianity is about. And we have to remember that people in the world have their own responsibilities before God and one another, while a monastic’s responsibilities are a little different.
—You were tonsured at a very young age; your life had just begun. Youth and monasticism—is this a good, joyful combination? When your whole life is before you, and this whole life is spent in a monastery, is that happiness? How you do remember your monastic youth now?
—Youth and monasticism are a very good combination, in the sense that it’s always easier to actively work on yourself spiritually and to acquire the skills of the monastic life in your youth. It’s the same in family life too. Some Greek monasteries only receive novices up to the age of thirty. They believe that after that, a person has already developed as a personality and it will be very painful for him to radically change something in his life. So why put insurmountable obstacles before someone? Going to a monastery is not the same as moving to another city or getting a new job. It means radically changing your life, even if you were a fully practicing Orthodox before entering the monastery.
Regarding happiness and joy: I don’t want your readers to get the false impression that monasticism is all happiness and joy, although I know many monastics who want to show this side of monastic life. I’m not partial to it. I tend to look at things and try to soberly show them to others if they ask me about it. After all, it would be strange to live life in a continuous euphoria and not taste true sorrows and woes. I don’t think there are such people anywhere, either in monasticism or in the world. No one has promised us such a life: In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world (Jn. 16:33).
You need a lot of courage in a monastery. As one abbess whom I greatly respect says:
“When novices come to us, we tell them not only about the joys of the monastic life, but also about its difficulties.”
A monastery has its own monastic consolations and its difficulties. The monastic life is a life above nature; it is a serious battle, a serious labor. Because we are all people, we are burdened with shortcomings, character traits; it’s not at all easy to polish all of this, and without God’s help it’s nearly impossible. Those who enter this path will find a variety of different states that are understandable to a monastic, but to tell about it as one answer to a question is impossible, and is it even necessary?
How do I remember my monastic youth? It was not easy and not so monastically serene as is written in some books. I became a nun in the 1990s, when everyone had a lot of enthusiasm, but you had to completely arrange your spiritual life in the monastery yourself. I wasn’t ready for that. For some reason I thought someone would be taking care of me, someone would take an interest in my inner peace, that it would be interesting and important to someone. But no one was up to it then, and no one was to blame—that’s just how the times were. There probably still are monasteries where no one is especially interested in anyone, with people living parallel to one another. I hope we will get past this one day.
For two years I stewed in my own juices, but then I realized I couldn’t go on like that and I had to do something. In some inscrutable way, I wound up seeing Fr. Kirill (Pavlov), and he blessed me to turn to one igumen in the Lavra. He took this blessing very seriously and did a lot for me in terms of spiritual guidance over the course of many years, until his death.
But, despite all the difficulties, I am overwhelmed with a sense of deep gratitude—to God for all His blessings, and to people whom I meet on my journey, every one of them teaching me something. I am inspired by this very difficult and heavy monastic life. It happens sometimes that you’re inspired not just by joy and delight, but by difficulties you overcome, and trials and challenges. This is all a very interesting school of life. And I really like everything that’s interesting.
—In what ways is it more difficult for a monk than layman, and in what ways is it easier?
—I don’t know. I don’t have enough experience of life in the world. I don’t know about family life, because I wasn’t married, so it’s hard for me to compare. I think a good and deep person can only understand what they have experienced. It can be incredibly difficult, simply catastrophic for someone anywhere, whether in the world or in a monastery. Both can have situations where, for whatever reason, a person can’t cope with his difficulties, gets confused, and breaks down. There are people who have eight children and can still arrange their life so there’s always lots of joy and love in their home, while someone else can’t handle one child, and the family falls apart. There are those in monasteries who are dissatisfied with everything and everyone and there are others who are happy and blessed. Everything depends on the person’s attitude, on his ideas, on his internal resources, and much more. It’s good when everyone has their own place, doing their own thing, but not everything is so simple in life.
—Is there a problem of spiritual guidance for a modern monastic or layman who aspires to a genuine spiritual life? The godly man ceaseth (Ps. 11:2), “There are no elders,” “there are no real teachers,” “everything is in the past”—are these complaints justified?
—About “everything’s in the past”: I’m not an emigrant in the present; I have a permanent place of residence here, for as long as the Lord gives me. And I really like this place. Everything suits me, including our modern saints and sinners, our elders and teachers, our opportunities for spiritual guidance, and in general all the absolutely unique opportunities that we have today, that our parents could only dream about. I like everything a lot; I see many opportunities and I really love life.
Yes, spiritual guidance is very important for a monastic. And I believe there are enough spiritual fathers in our Church today who have experienced a lot and can help others. They don’t resurrect the dead, as some might expect, they don’t turn water into wine and don’t multiply fish. And why should they? Medicine is well developed today, people live quite long, and you can buy everything you need in the supermarket. But they’re discerning and experienced enough to give us advice on how to stay on track.
And let’s be honest—which questions do we usually look for answers to, complaining about how “the godly man ceaseth?” “I’m discouraged,” “I had a fight with my neighbor,” “I didn’t read my evening prayers,” “I sleep in church,” “she said that I said…” What kind of saint do we need to resolve such “highly spiritual” questions? If they exist somewhere, let them take a break from this endless chatter and pray for us, and if we bother them, then only for important questions. In this way, the ratio of beneficial effects will be much higher.
We just have to turn our brains on a little bit, muffle our emotions, pull ourselves together, and not make problems out of nothing, and not wear out these poor batiushkas, many of whom are already terribly overloaded. We have to finally grow up. Set the right priorities, resolve the key issues of your spiritual life with your spiritual father and that’s it—get working. The most difficult thing is to work: to implement in your life what your spiritual father told you, what you read in smart books; to be able to hear and try to do. That is, to be practitioners.
I’m convinced that we can learn from everyone if we want to. As soon as someone is ready for a lesson, they will certainly find a teacher. But whoever doesn’t really want to learn something remains the same, because opportunities pass him by. Ecclesiastes tells us: When he that is a fool walketh by the way, his wisdom faileth him (Ecc. 10:3). I don’t want to make myself look too smart here, I just want to say that nothing’s stopping us from looking back sometimes to see if we’re missing an opportunity to learn something.
I have a really good friend, a priest, a man of rare spiritual disposition, who was looking for an elder, a teacher for himself, but it didn’t work out. However, he is an absolutely amazing and interesting person who knows how to learn and gain something from anyone and everyone. He doesn’t hesitate to tell anyone, and even me: “I learn from you too.” But what can he learn from me? And believe me, his spiritual life is very rich and interesting. And for me, a monastic, it’s very interesting and edifying to discuss many topics with him—even the monastic life, although he is of the white clergy.1 Everything depends on the person, on the quality of his soul, his openness to this world, his desire and ability to learn. I think our problem is not so much with the fact that the godly man ceaseth as with the fact that a serious attitude towards life, our deeds, and responsibility for these deeds “ceaseth.” We don’t often think about how much we act according to the Gospel. We all really love smart and spiritual conversations, but few people get to the real thing, and therefore we don’t work for a result.
Often, communication with a spiritual father boils down to the desire to have a heart to heart with someone kind and bright. The Church is koinonia, and fellowship is a very important part of life of the Church, but it seems to me there is a danger of covering over the important matters with too much chatter, a danger of some self-deception. I think that many of us today are experiencing a deficit of lively, interesting, and meaningful communication on spiritual topics. We have to find an outlet, to create platforms for such communication. By the way, the laity have good platforms for this in social networks. But it doesn’t seem quite right to me to try to satisfy this need just with communication with a spiritual father.
In general, I must say that I’m not a fan of being preoccupied with yourself, of constant introspection, detailed self-management; I believe there are abysses in the soul of everyone that are better to close and not stir up unnecessarily. I read somewhere that humility is not when you think less of yourself, but when you think about yourself less. You have to focus your attention on something really constructive, do something useful and interesting for you, wherever you are. We must go to the light, and it will expel the darkness from our souls; but to plunge into darkness in order to see the light—that doesn’t happen.
—What supported you in your most difficult minutes, or maybe even days or even years—prayer? Your spiritual father? The warmth and love of the sisters? The example of the holy ascetics?
—Everything depends on why these difficult moments came into my life. In some cases, it is very important for me just to be alone in my cell, to be quiet, to read (including about the holy ascetics), to pray. In other situations, the support of those close to me helps. I am fortunate: I have several such “co-workers.” They are smarter, more experienced, stronger, and more discerning than me. And I know that, at any time of day or night, if necessary, I can always rely on them, to get reasonable advice coming from their loving hearts, and help and simple human support, which we all need. This is an incredible piece of luck in life. Of course, the love of the sisters and all these people, a love which I do not deserve, but which they very generously share with me, is very strengthening and supportive.
I am grateful to everyone whom I meet on my path in life—for their attention, their help, and their support. I am now the abbess of a monastery under construction in a rather difficult region. I have to ask people whom I don’t know at all for help, and they respond. They lend a hand in the most difficult moments of my life, and continue to stand with me and as if say: “Lean on us when you need to—we’re here.” It’s very touching.
I should say that sometimes I’m inspired by things that are very unexpected for many people, and I am grateful to all these people who, without knowing it, have passed along the edge of my life and taught me something.
I can be inspired by a young woman with bright makeup and a flashy manicure, dressed “improperly,” standing by an icon of the Savior and talking to Him as if she, not I, has lived half her life in a monastery and seriously studied theology, experienced many of the properties of God, and knows something most important about Him.
A young boy sleeping sweetly on a bench in church—as if in the arms of God—speaks to me very strongly and convincingly. A reserved adult man, for whom it’s difficult to cry even from great emotional pain, even at his mother’s funeral, weeps like a child at the feet of the Heavenly Father at his first confession. A middle-aged woman at the Sunday service, in a bright outfit, seemingly not suitable for her age, is in fact dressed for a meeting with God in the best that she has.
I like to see how a person communicates with God on the wave of his soul and his heart, in accordance with his wishes, and not by protocol, not according to the tract, “How to Behave in Church,” although I understand that the tracts are also necessary, but for whatever reason they don’t inspire me. A priest standing at the analogion, confessing people: Have you ever noticed how they are transformed, how beautiful their faces become under this weight of human imperfections? They are real wayshowers, calling Divine grace upon us and uniting us with Heaven. They are wonderful!
And a priest standing at the altar with his hands raised to Heaven? I’ve seen this at every Liturgy for several decades, and I can’t look at it indifferently, without getting a lump in my throat.
I really love nature. The tender spring greenery inspires me and speaks of the Creator no less convincingly than the Gospel of John. This is everything in our life—the melodies of the very Heaven to which every soul is drawn, even that of an atheist, I am sure. It’s just that some try to conceal this pull within themselves, and sometimes they manage to.
I love life, and people, and I want to believe that I love God too; at least, I try. And I feel the need to be grateful to God and people for everything that I have in this life. We are all connected to one another, and we all owe each other love, mutual help, and support.
—How do you understand, or how have you experienced, the words: My strength is made perfect in weakness (2 Cor. 12:9)? The spiritual path is not just monastic—it is always the path of knowing one’s own infirmities. How are they known?
—You fell, you’re lying down. You tried to get up, but it didn’t work. Well, then at least turn around and lie in the direction of your goal, until God’s help comes. That’s how they’re known. It’s harsh, severe, chilly, lonely. But it teaches you a lot. You’ll be more careful next time. So our faith in our beloved selves decreases, so all deceptions with the prefix “self” fade away.
—You’re a joyful person—no one who knows you doubts this. Were you always like this or did you have to grow into the joy? Can you say that your monasticism is a path precisely to joy?
—I began to really love and appreciate life after experiencing a series of trials and losses. Strange, isn’t it? Some people become sullen and withdrawn, some get angry at the entire world, but I had this kind of effect. The grass has become greener, smells brighter, sounds louder, and every day, every encounter has become incredibly meaningful. But even before that, I was always a rather positive person. Apparently, I inherited my mother’s optimism: I absolutely cannot be in a depressive state. And if some people can create, write books, create some kind of masterpiece in such states, then such states simply destroy me. I’m an optimist in life. And even if I slip into despondency and sadness for very objective reasons, then my psyche immediately begins to look for a way out of this state: prayer, the right thought that will pull me out, the right book, support from those close to me, and so on.
Is my monastic life a road to joy? Do you know what I fear most? I fear forgetting how to rejoice. It seems to me that if this happens, then I’m finished as a nun, immediately. My monasticism will end, internally at any rate. Joy is what makes me alive. I’m petrified when I meet people who cannot rejoice anymore—it’s just some green grass, birds singing, the spring rain, the fact that a stranger waved to you from a passing train—people who have faded eyes and a very old, tired heart. I think it’s scary, and it shouldn’t happen to anyone. I don’t want to throw around any big words, but I’ll tell you what I have learned over the many years of my, let’s say, mediocre monastic life: Christ is joy. Sorrows and difficulties exist, and it’s impossible not to have them, but He is here with us. He is near, and nothing can frighten and break a person who feels and understands this, who has discovered Christ for Himself.
—Nevertheless, I would like to ask you to tell us a little bit about yourself: what kind of family and environment you grew up in, how you found faith, how you came to monasticism? Your brother also chose this path, correct?
—I was born in a normal soviet family. My father was educated as a teacher and my mother also worked in a school for a while. My parents actively sought faith and discovered Orthodoxy in the 1980s.
I received the Orthodox faith from my parents along with the gift of life and the concepts of what is good and what is bad—along with a system of Christian values. The leading role in all of this belongs to my father, a man with a complex character and a complex fate, but very much clinging to Christ. From childhood I was very independent in my views. And my views, including on the spiritual life, on this or that Church event, certainly didn’t always agree with how my parents saw things. It was impossible to pressure me—such methods didn’t work. I even half-jokingly asked my parents if I was a doorbell baby in our family. My father and I still argue a lot, and our points of view are often polar opposites, but the main thing is that we are united in one thing—the Orthodox Church is our mother, and Christ is the center of our lives.
Since childhood, I have spent all my vacations at the St. Euphrosyne Convent in Polotsk. I really liked it there. When I came of age, I realized that all my ideals, interests, and desires were precisely in the realm of the monastic life. Outside of this life, I felt like I was in an airless vacuum. This is the sphere, the realm of life where I, it seems to me, fit quite harmoniously and which fills my existence with meaning and content to the very end. The center of this life is Christ. I was certain of that then, and still am. Then I somehow suddenly realized that I was at that age and status where I could allow myself the unthinkable-for-many luxury of dedicating my entire life to God. It’s silly to keep looking if you’ve already found what you’re looking for.
For those who love St. Paisios and want to help build the St. Paisios Monastery in Belarus, donations can be sent via Paysend to the card 676280389088913210 of Anna Sokolova.
Donations from Russia and CIS countries can be sent to the Sberbank card: 67628038 9088913210 Anna S. (Анна С.)