The saints are our intercessors who stand before God’s throne and pray to the Lord for us sinners. Their righteous lives are models for us, which, alas, are often unattainable. And not everyone is vouchsafed by the Lord to be acquainted with a saint.
Nun Theophania (Nekislaya) was a spiritual child of the Venerable Kuksha of Odessa (feasts: September 29 and December 24). On September 29, 1994, Metropolitan Agafangel of Odessa and Izmail headed the ceremony of uncoveing his relics. It was St. Kuksha who once foretold young Valentina (Mother Theophania’s secular name) that she would become a bride of Christ (that is, a nun).
“I was tonsured in 1959 at the Pochaev Lavra. For me this is one of the best places on earth. My friend, now Nun Athanasia, and I were tonsured together. I received the name Theophania in honor of Empress Theophania—right on December 29, her feast-day. I remember that day perfectly well: how we had been waiting for it, preparing and worrying. I remember everything—every moment. And then, having become nuns, we prayed all night long at the Lavra. How wisely the Lord arranged my life!”
Valentina Vasilievna Nekislaya was born in the small town of Osipovichi of the Mogilev region (now in Belarus) in 1936. In her family her father had the strongest faith. He used to reproach his wife Olga when she went to church for the Liturgy after having breakfast, saying that she should go to church without consuming any bread or water, even if she was not going to take Communion. This rule was adopted for life by his wife and three daughters: the eldest one Nadezhda, the middle Valentina and the youngest Veronika. The parents were almost jailed because they attended church and took their children with them.
“I loved to sing and dance. And one day, just before Pascha, we decided to go to the club to dance. At that time the authorities would do their best to prevent people from going to church. I promised my mother that I would dance a little and come to the Vigil. I kept my promise and came to our church. Then my interest in dancing was cut short and I haven’t danced since. The authorities wanted to jail my parents and even sent agents from Minsk, believing that they were forcing us children to pray to God. But no one was forcing us—we ourselves wanted to pray. I have always worn a cross and never taken it off.
“When I came to church and they began to sing the Cherubic Hymn on the kliros, I suddenly felt very bad. The enemy does not sleep. The devil probably said, ‘Fancy that! She has decided to go to church instead of dancing!’ Apparently he didn’t want to set me free. But the priest came out of the altar, began to read the Gospel over me, and I felt better. I have sung in the choir my entire life. Remarkably, I had a good voice and ear for music, but I had no musical education. When my sister and I would enter the church we would make three prostrations in front of each icon, and before leaving we would make three prostrations as well. I had the fear of God, and the Jesus Prayer flowed like a stream.
“When the Great Patriotic War (1941–1945) broke out, my father wanted to send us from Belarus to the Odessa region of Ukraine (where he hailed from), but we only managed to travel halfway, stopping at the village of Vesely (now in the Rostov region). We spent all the years of the war with my mother and sisters there, in labor and prayer.
“My father Vasily went to the front in the first days of the war. For four whole years he fought the Nazis. He returned safe and sound—only the palm of his hand was slightly injured. He would say that whenever their battalion went into battle—the Germans were ferocious, and the losses colossal—he nevertheless seemed to be invisible to death, which remained stranger to him. The Lord and the Theotokos protected him. I would sometimes wake up at night and see my mother in tears, kneeling in front of the icons, asking for help from the saints. And we prayed. The Lord instantly hears a child’s prayer!
“I was scared only once, when the Germans set fire to our hut; but our local men extinguished the flames quickly. The Lord had mercy on us: I did not see the horrors of war and did not starve.
“I did not do well at school. Math was hard for me: I did the easiest sums, but my friends helped me do difficult ones, and sometimes I just copied their answers. But I wrote a good hand. I only studied for five years and then was transferred to evening school. And there was no time for studying there because suitors wrote letters to me. But the guy I liked didn’t pay any attention to me. At first I wanted to marry an officer (I liked men in uniform). Once I arrived in Kiev, I saw seminarians and decided that I would marry a seminarian. But that was only in the beginning. I went into a convent, saw the monastic clothing, saw the sisters and realized that I wanted to come to the convent, that I wanted to be a nun. But one day I almost got married. A seminarian courted me. His name was Stefan: he was from the city of Rivne, and he loved me very much… But my heart was not in marriage and I understood it was not my path.
“I went to Father Kuksha of Odessa for advice (he was canonized as a venerable confessor). I stayed with him for three days, attending the Liturgy every day, and then went to the sea with his blessing. Batiushka prayed for me all that time. And one day he gave me Communion and said, ‘You will be a matushka. You will.’ And then he raised his hands, and I heard the most desired words: ‘You will be a bride of Christ.’ Now I’m weeping as I’m telling you this... It was such a joy. The venerable man gave me a prayer rope and taught me to pray with it. As I slept at night, I would pull on the prayer knots and repeat the Jesus Prayer, ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ Could I have done it myself? It was thanks to batiushka who prayed for me!
“As soon as my seminarian Stefan heard that we would not get married, he fell ill and lay in bed for three days. Later when I came to the Lavra I saw him with a young lady, and once he spotted me in the crowd he immediately ran up to me. While I did not want to hurt him, I wanted to be with the Lord. And then he married that lady Vera and they had children. His brother Ivan became Vladyka Irinei.
“Between 1958 and 1962 I lived in the Pochaev Lavra where we served the pilgrims. I was on my feet all day long, but I was never tired. I didn’t miss a single Midnight Office service, which would begin around five in the morning. It is both sweet and hard in the monastery. Every evening I read the akathist hymn at St. Job of Pochaev’s relics. I kissed his limbs, and his cap was put on my head. One day I saw a dream, in which St. Job rose from his shrine, crossed me and said, ‘I am praying for you there.’
“And in early 1961 the persecution of the Church resumed. We were given twenty-four hours to leave the monastery. I was offered three alternatives: to get married (a policeman tried to court me there), leave Pochaev, or go to prison.
“When I lived in the Lavra, I had a girl named Alexandra baptized there. I became close friends with her mother Olympiada (they were Muscovites). So I remembered them and decided to go to the capital. So I ended up in Moscow. My sister was buried in Pochaev—she hit her head, which caused a tumor, and she eventually died there... Although our mother came to us, she couldn’t nurse her daughter back to health.
“At first, I attended the Church of the Dormition of the Mother of God in Veshnyaki (Moscow) and then served there for eight years. I sang and led the choir and knew the Typicon well. I know the services well. Father Pavel Maximov, the rector, taught me everything. Batiushka used to say, ‘You are like a candle on a candlestick for me.’ I wanted to join Pyukhtitsa Convent and live there. I was taken to Eldress Valentina, but she did not bless me to enter it—I don’t know why, but perhaps because there are many sorrows in convents. She said, ‘The abbess can do as she pleases, but I won’t bless you to join.’ Thus I was blessed by the Lord to work my salvation in the world. So I remained a nun in the world.
“I devoted forty years to All Saints’ Church near the Sokol metro station. It is one of the few churches that were never closed in the USSR. There, too, I sang in the choir, cleaned the candlesticks and did everything that was needed. For sixteen years out of forty I served in the Holy Dormition Church, attached to All Saints’.
“When I came to the Serp & Molot (‘Hammer and Sickle’) factory, they told me that there were jobs in the workshop, but I would have to work every day. Since I had little time (I needed to go to church), I asked whether there was an option for me to work one day on and three days off. They answered, ‘Yes, but only as a front door security guard.’ So I worked there for fifteen years. I would be on duty for a day and then run to the church to sing.
“For four years I sang in the choir of the Church of the Icon of the Savior, ‘Not-Made-by-Hands’, in Perovo. When I first saw it, it was, of course, a sorry sight. There was no floor, the walls were black, and there was no serviceable road near it. But now it is such a warm snow-white church! Services were not celebrated daily there, so I attended the Church of the Icon, ‘Joy of All Who Sorrow’, in Ordynka. On Saturdays I went to the Vigil at the Theophany Cathedral in Yelokhovo. They sang so wonderfully there I could never stand without tears. I visited Jerusalem three times thanks to good people. I prayed in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and visited all the holy sites there, but I realized that it doesn’t matter where you pray—the Lord hears us everywhere! All you must do is pray, and that’s hard. Oh, how the evil one fights with us! I heard from the fathers that from four to five in the morning prayer is ‘golden’, and from five to six—’silver’. But getting up at night is very difficult. Your eyelids droop and you can hardly keep your eyes open. But I get up and pray. The Lord gives me strength. I read a chapter from the Gospel, from the Epistles, and the akathist to the Dormition of the Mother of God.
“Sometimes I dream about my elder sister. Although she would sometimes go to church and take Communion when I asked her, her faith was weak. She is dead now, and I can see her in dreams standing up to her neck in the water, and I am on the shore, unable to help her. It’s a nightmare…
“I have lived a long life, and I understood one thing—most importantly: You should pray and hope for the help from the Mother of God and the Lord. He will sort out everything and will never abandon you!”
P.S. Nun Theophania fell asleep in the Lord on May 5, 2021, in Bright Week. At the funeral service a parishioner of the church in Perovo, Oksana Nazarova, said that she was introduced to Nun Theophania by... St. Kuksha of Odessa, and a little later St. Amphilochius of Pochaev sealed their acquaintance. This happened under the following circumstances.
“About two years ago I read a book given to me about Venerable Kuksha of Odessa, about whom I had not known or heard anything before. Batiushka’s Life, along with the accounts of miracles of healing that occurred to many people through his prayers, overwhelmed me. From his Life I also learned about Venerable Amphilochius of Pochaev, with whom he struggled together in the Pochaev Holy Dormition Lavra for some time. And soon after reading this book, and after my first prayerful petitions to St. Kuksha, the Lord had mercy on my seriously ill mother (lesions of the skin and the veins in her legs) and helped her. Shortly after my mother had been discharged from hospital, I was returning from a church service and unexpectedly entered into a conversation with Mother Theophania, whom I had not personally known before. She told me she herself had had the same disease as my mother, and that before coming to Moscow she had lived in the Pochaev Lavra and confessed her sins to St. Kuksha of Odessa. She also knew St. Amphilochius of Pochaev, who blessed her and gave her advice regarding the treatment of her disease. And when I realized that, I immediately felt unbelievable joy and awe at the same time. There was joy because a person who personally and quite closely knew two saints of God was praying with us in the church. And there was awe because saints are so close to us, especially when we call on them for help. And, being in the Kingdom of Heaven, they unite people here on earth so that we can help each other and glorify the Lord with good deeds. The Lord called Nun Theophania to Himself in Bright Week. And her forty-day journey from the day of her death—May 5—went through the feast-days of St. Amphilochius of Pochaev (May 12) and St. Job of Pochaev (May 19). For me, this demonstrates that indeed to God all people are alive, that it is no coincidence that the Lord calls people to Himself on the days appointed by Him. And He gives us Heavenly intercessors, who love us and are loved by us in the earthly life, to help us pass the forty-day journey in the other world.”