Sister Lyubov, please tell us how you turned to God?
I turned to God thanks to my daughter’s rebelliousness. She was obstinate and caustic. It suddenly dawned on me that no one could help: regardless of how much I yelled at her, punished her, and scolded her, she wasn’t going to improve.
I began praying every day. I would walk to my workplace, breathe in, and simply say, “Lord save and protect my daughter! Guide her to the right track…”
On an Easter eve during perestroika, the TV broadcasted The Gospel According to St. Matthew by Pier Paolo Pasolini. I was fascinated by historical films. I watched it, and it got me thinking. If all its characters—Pontius Pilate and King Herod—were real, then Jesus was real, too. That was how faith started growing in my heart.
That was what I thought: Jesus Christ was the only man in history titled “Saviour of the World.” Neither Mohammad nor Buddha got that title. I wasn’t sure what the fact of the Lord’s death on the Cross had to do with my life. And then it struck me: “He died for you!” For us… It means that He died for me, too!
Humans are always looking for God throughout their lives. Humans are looking for the meaning of their own existence. When I got married and gave birth to a child, my purpose seemed evident: to raise a good and decent person. However, little by little it became apparent that, first of all, no one is capable of rearing a decent person single-handedly. And secondly, if the soul is immortal, then hell also exists… Consequently, one has to live in such a way so as not to get into it. It must be noted that many people begin their journey to God from believing in hell because it often begins here on earth.
Even now, I live in apprehension that life without God is a tragedy, and life with God is tragedy with a happy end. You know that God exists and that He saves people. Pray to Him and do your best to follow the chosen path. Naturally, it isn’t always easy… A Christian walks on a tight rope. Personally, I tread the rope. I fall every time I have a sinful thought or word. The Lord brings me back to my feet. The Communion is the rescue hook.
It seems that your journey is a constant search of meaning. Why did you turn to Orthodoxy?
I used to think that all religions and denominations had the rights to exist. However, I decided: If the Lord destined me to be born in the Orthodox Russia, it means that I shouldn’t protest. I should take this route. After my baptism and upon reading works by the Holy Fathers, I became convinced that the Orthodoxy is the truth. I was so happy!
When did you get baptised?
I was baptised when I was forty-three. I’m from Siberia. I was born in Ulan-Ude, Buryatia, in a regular family. My father was a teacher of mathematics, and my mother was the director of a shop. They were divorced. My dad wasn’t baptised. I pray to Holy Martyr Warus for the repose of his soul. My mum got baptised, and the Lord took her to his Kingdom a year after that.
I was baptised in Ss Peter and Paul Cathedral. In fact, it took me a while to get to church: I was always busy working at home and on my dacha. But then I fell ill.
I was admitted to Hospital No.2. Our sisters and Father Andrew came to that hospital and visited the ill. One day, I came to Father Andrew Lemeshonok and said that I wanted to take communion but I wasn’t baptised. He looked at me in surprise: “Why don’t you get baptised?” “Well, sometimes I don’t have time, and sometimes money.” He replied in a soft voice, “Come and I’ll baptise you.” He scheduled the time. What do you think? Did I come?
When I blurted out to my husband, “Tolik, let’s get baptised together! In Novinki!” he unexpectedly protested. “Oh no! Not in Novinki! It isn’t a prayer-filled place yet! We shall go to the venerable Saint Peter and Paul Church, also known as St Catherine’s Church.” That was how we got baptised together. I didn’t realise that Father Andrew was probably waiting for me at the specified time…
It was thanks to the Sacrament of Baptism that I was healed. I could barely walk and I couldn’t run. I felt as if my legs wore heavy chains. Doctors diagnosed me with obliterating arthritis of lower extremities. They told me that it was an incurable disease. The only thing that I could do to mitigate it was hospital treatment twice a year…
After my baptism, I suddenly felt that I could run. I couldn’t fathom what happened. My pain was over… I had my second ultrasound, and the doctor grumbled, “Why do you come here if you’re fine? Why do you waste my time?” “What do you mean? I came to you because my doctor in the hospital sent me. It wasn’t my decision.” He looked at me and said firmly: “You ain’t got anything!”
I had been very loud and domineering but after my baptism, everything changed: I could no longer shout and yell. I was reading works by Holy Fathers and found out that I was to behave differently with my husband because he was the head of the family. It wasn’t okay to yell at him. However, I still like to order people about (laughs).
You see, women in our country have taken up too many responsibilities. The responsibilities are too heavy for them. Women don’t possess enough spiritual power to live in peace, harmony, and love. That is why families are broken. It happens because women aren’t Christians. I have to admit that I’m not a true Christian yet but I’d like to be one.
How did you find yourself in Belarus?
I married a guy from Belarus. I studied in East Siberian Technology Institute to become an economist. When I was in my first year, I joined a student construction team and we went to a distant part of the region to earn some money. My would-be husband was on an expedition trip there. Buryatia was serviced by Minsk forest construction expedition for some reason. It was a common practice in the USSR to mix people like that. I think it was intended as a way to preclude people from getting too fixed on local issues and to let them see the whole country. My husband was in love with Siberia, Buryatia, and Russia…
Do you remember the day when you decided to become a sister of mercy?
We had a church wedding one year after our baptism, in 1999. I began attending talks by Father Andrew Lemeshonok. Praise the Lord! I could have easily been deceived by the devil during that time of my newfound faith. I believed I could fly… I recall myself standing at a bus stop and predicting the next bus. And I would succeed most of the time! Thanks to Father Andrew, I stopped listening to my intuition and became more down-to-earth. Meetings with Father Andrew are fantastic!
I attended the Divine Liturgy once a month, and then more frequently. I would go on pilgrimages. I made Orthodox friends. I remember Lyudochka, a friend of mine, ask me, “Have you read the prayer rule?” “What do you mean?” She stared at me in terror, “Don’t you read prayer rules?” She showed me the prayer book with morning and evening prayers. I turned a couple of pages and asked in disbelief, “So… do I have to read all those prayers?”
I forced myself to read the prayers until I finally learned them by heart. Now I have another problem: I get up in the morning and start jabbering thoughtlessly. I know I have to think about the words that I utter. No one needs mechanical repetition.
It has been twenty years since my baptism but Orthodoxy keeps revealing its secrets to me all the time. First, I regarded myself to be a baby, and then an adolescent. Now I’ve grown up and I have to judge myself accordingly… Nevertheless, I’m still excited that I am an Orthodox. Our country’s greatest treasure isn’t oil or gas. It’s the Orthodox faith.
I worked in the Ministry of Statistics. I was a good specialist, a reputable expert. Little by little, I was feeling less and less thrilled by my job. I was more and more isolated from the corporate culture: I was tired of and uninterested in their parties and retreats.
I summoned up my courage and asked Father Andrew if he could let me become part of the Sisterhood. He blessed me at first but then paused and added, “If your husband agrees.”
My husband didn’t agree. Instead of feeling upset, I decided that I had to pray harder if I wanted to become a sister of mercy. It is a great God’s mercy to be part of the Sisterhood, after all. I frequented the Akathist to Grand Princess Elisabeth, kissed her icon, and prayed a lot. One year later, my husband conceded. The Lord allowed me to become a lay sister… Grand Princess Elisabeth is the exemplary sister of mercy, and who am I?
Currently, you carry out your duty in the TB clinic. What is your motivation to visit the sick and risk your own life?
I was ill with tuberculosis myself. I fell ill with that disease in 2005 for the first time. It was in the TB clinic that I saw how few sisters there were. Two sisters of mercy had to visit all the patients of that clinic. Honestly, when I was discharged from the clinic, I was adamant in my decision never to return there again. And then I had a relapse, and then another one… That was how I started helping the sisters. When you know the illness from your personal experience, you have a more committed attitude to it, and you understand people better. Drugs used to treat tuberculosis are bad for one’s mental faculty. It’s unbearable. If you take the pill, the only thing that you can do is lie down helplessly.
What does your obedience in the clinic consist of?
It mainly consists of helping the patients to prepare for confession. Sometimes I bring food or other things to the people whom no one visits… People spend up to six months in the clinic, and it’s hard to subsist on hospital food. We bring them clothes, too. Most of the time, we simply talk with them. Of course, I’ve got to be extremely cautious and polite. People have various experiences. There are former prisoners and homeless among them. They are battle-scarred and traumatised. What do I know about them, standing there clad in white… Sometimes I’m seriously shocked to realise how different my life is…
There was a girl in that clinic. Her father was an alcoholic and he had started a fire in their house. She fell ill with tuberculosis due to severe stress. In spite of that, she took communion. Thank God she recovered at last. I even gave her some money to buy tickets home because she didn’t have any.
I had to bathe some patients, too. I bathed an old lady. I cooked pelmeny for her. Her daughter had abandoned her but as soon as she heard that her mother was entitled to an isolated dwelling, she started to like her again. Naturally, I cannot judge that daughter.
Are you afraid of talking with new people? Are you anxious about the impression that people get after they talk with you?
No, I’m not. I used to be afraid of talking with people when I was young but now I’m not. The Lord acts through me when I do my duty. It is thanks to him that I can find rapport with other people. People sometimes turn to the faith while they stay in hospital. They begin attending church after their recovery. Metamorphoses like those occur most often with the patients who are put in charge of the chapel.
There is a chapel in honour of Saint Luke (Voino-Yasenetsky) in the clinic. His wife died of tuberculosis, and he was a doctor so it’s obvious that you should always pray to him before any surgery, and everything will be fine. Don’t be afraid. When I fractured my spine, I prayed to him before the surgery, and it was successful.
Is it possible to teach oneself to love others?
You’ve got to exert yourself and ask God to spread your heart. I always ask the Lord to endow me with a merciful heart. It has happened to me twice after communion: I was standing in church and feeling that I loved all those people and that they were precious to me without exceptions. It makes me even more acutely aware of the fact that I’ve never loved anyone for real, other than with God’s help. Only the Lord can instill genuine love into one’s heart.
When you go to the clinic, you have to fill your heart with good thoughts. Those people are in trouble. Seriously. Some of them are alcoholics. Some of them are former drug addicts. If you pity people, they feel it and open their hearts to you immediately, especially when they are alone in their wards. It’s much easier to be open when you’re talking face-to-face.
When you learn about the suffering that they had to endure, your heart softens, of course. It could have been your son, your daughter or sister. The only way you can help is by praying for God to make them believe and lead them into the Church.
Is it hard work or delight to be a sister of mercy?
It’s both. It’s joyful labour and effortful joy. There are moments when I can barely make myself go to the clinic but I compel myself to enjoy my visit, and return home happily. If I don’t feel any changes, it means that I did something wrong, e.g., found faults with somebody or uttered something with a shade of irritation, and I’m therefore obliged to confess and take communion and ask those whom I wronged to forgive me. Generally, I’m so happy to work in the Convent! Grace is still active in me. I enjoy doing my job in the clinic and in the warehouse. I go downstairs to the warehouse and see icons everywhere… That’s our world! That’s the Orthodox state!
Interview by Maria Kotova
July 14, 2018
St. Elisabeth Convent