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Tuesday, 25 September 2012

MY VISIT TO ST ELIZABETH'S CONVENT IN MINSK - 2: FATHER ANDREI

Father Andrei was born in Belarus in 1956 when Belarus was part of the Soviet Union, and he grew up without any religion.   He became a kind of hippy and delved into Eastern religions and philosophy, looking for the truth, and he found it in Orthodoxy.   He went to drama school but dropped out after the first year, taking up the task of being night watchman in a Minsk church.  He also became church cleaner and sang in the choir.   In those Communist days, when Belarus was a part of the Soviet Union, there were never enough priests to go round; so that, although the church was in a central position, often there was no priest to whom people could take their troubles.   In the absence of a priest, the church cleaner became the person who listened to their woes and gave advice.   He married and, sometime along the way, chose a spiritual father, a Father Nicholai about whom you will be learning more.   After some years, Andrei went and did his studies for the priesthood nd was ordained around 1986.

Father Andrei began to serve as a priest in the cathedral of St Peter and Paul in Minsk, and soon he had a number of women of different ages who adopted him as confessor and spiritual teacher.   In 1991, Communism collapsed in Russia; and in 1993, the KGB attempted a coup and, after a dramatic stand-off between unarmed people and the military in the centre of Moscow, after the Patriarch of Moscow invoked the patronage of the Blessed Mother of God,, the coup collapsed and Communism breathed its last as a dominant force in Russia.   Belarus became an independent country.

One black mark on the Communist regime's record was the way they treated prisoners, the mentally ill and others who were economically unproductive people in society.   There is a huge psychiatric hospital in Minsk that deals with every kind of mental illness, both long term and short, for people of every age.   The fall of Communism opened the possibility for the Church to to enter this world of boredom and suffering.   When a couple of Father Andrei's penitents raised the possibility to found a sisterhood like the one the Grand Duchess Elizabeth opened in Russia before the Revolution, the priest's mind reeled at the challenge.   There was no money, no land, no influence, no means of achieving this holy ambition.   It was time to go to see his spiritual father, Father Nicholai who lived on an island in the wilds of Russia.   The staretz blessed Father Andrei's project, gave him three roubles, a negligible amount, as the start of a fund to finance the foundation of the sisterhood.

The sisterhood began in 1994 and their centre was the Cathedral of St Peter and Paul, and they started to visit the National Psychiatric Hospital in a systematic way, concentrating on the spiritual and mental progress of the patients who were of all ages and many different forms of mental illness and, with some, brain damage and lack of development.   The sisters came from many walks of life and were of different ages.   Some were married; some held responsible jobs; some were university students who gave up university in answer to the Call.   Some were full time, and some were part time, according to their different commitments.   All found in Father Andrei a wise and effective spiritual father.   They received permission from the hospital authorities to build a "small church" in the hospital grounds.   No one predicted that by 2008 there would be a monastery with four very beautiful churches.   To finance their work the sisters begged in the street, in the metro stations and in other places where people meet together.   They were called "white sisters" or even "white nuns" because of their white pinafores and veils.   They look a little bit like nurses of the 1st World War or "active" Catholic sisters.
Here are the "Sisters of Mercy" or "White Sisters" in the early years, when they were with Father Andei (with clerical hat and vestments) who was attached to the Cathedral.   The priest in pectoral cross is the Dean of the Cathedral.  The nuns'  community had not yet been founded.



1999 is the next year of significance for the project.   Some of the white sisters took the monastic habit.   This involved Father Andrei in a far greater commitment.   In the Orthodox Church, the spiritual father makes all major decisions relating to the spiritual life of the community and of  the individual nun; and to be able to do this  he had to see each one individually at least once a week as well as to preside over a community meeting every week and another with whie sisters (Sisters of Mercy) and black sisters.   Staring with about twenty nuns in 1999, it has received ten to fifteen new people every year and is now one hundred and one sisters, including around twenty novices.


You can see the back of Fr Andrei's head.   With him is the Russian Orthodox archbishop in Geneva who is visiting.   A white sister is speaking.   Both black and white sisters are here, but the white sisters take greater prominence in the Sunday evening meeting after the Akathistos in honour of St Elizabeth, the royal martyr.   The nuns have their own meeting with Fr Andrei on Wednesday evening.


Although he is not the only priest working in the St Elizabeth Community's various projects, he does concern himself with the spiritual welfare of all those with whom the Community comes in contact.   There is the Farm and two homes for men and one for women.  Ex-prisoners, drug addicts and alcoholics have a weekly opportunity for confession and communion at a Divine Liturgy which, at least when I was there, he celebrated.   Here is a photo.  It is clear from interviews in a documentary film that the Community has published that people who had lived on the edges of society have found God here.


Father Andrei also celebrates Mass in the huge hospital next to the monastery.   In one part, there is a room that has been turned into a chapel.   One sector of the room, at right angles to the corner, has been constructed into a sanctuary with an iconastasis.  Sisters, black and white, form the choir, so that the Divine Liturgy is both solemn and intimate at the same time.    Even more intimate was the Divine Liturgy celebrated in another part of the hospital, where they celebrated in a room normally used as a consulting room.   There was no iconastasis; a temporary altar was used; the icons of Christ and the Mother of God were on little tables on either side  behind the altar; and, in the corner, on top of a table, was a fairly large triptych of wood, with rows of icons: I supposed it to represent the iconastasis that wasn't there.   "I love attending the Divine Liturgy here.  Everything is so simple, and you and see everything that is goes on!" exclaimed a white sister to me.   It struck me from those words that she would find the way we do things at Belmont as refreshing as I find the Orthodox way!    The Liturgy did have a beauty all of its own.   The very fact that it was attended by these mental patients, some showing evident signs of their disability, added rather than detracted from this beauty.   Of course, Father Andrei heard confessions beforehand on both occasions.   I would think that hearing confessions is one of his main occupations for penitents of all shapes and sizes.  

 Here is a photo of the celebration. Father Andrei is giving communion and the vested man with a monastic haircut and his back to us is an altar server: there was no deacon.

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All this and being the Spiritual Father of the whole monastic movement of Minsk!!   Father Andrei is an extraordinary man.   You have only to look at the size of this project which, besides the nuns and white sisters, gives work to around two thousand people.   Next to the monastery, across a narrow road, is a large building which Father Andrei plans to be a primary school where children are taught the Orthodox Faith.   There are, as yet, no plans how this can come about, and some told me that such a project is impossible, that the most that can be hoped for is that it can be used as a Sunday school and centre of catechism; but I have met these Christian visionaries before, like the founder of Jospice in Liverpool: they calmly say, "If God wants this to be done, then God will find a way", and He does.   They really believe in Divine Providence.   They jump before they look, because they know that they are blind anyway and know God will guide them.   They walk on water, confident that God will sustain them.  They find joy in desolation, because they know that God loves them.   This is not a sanctified irresponsibility: it is simply a fact that after a long, hard road, they have truly placed their will in God's hands, at least for some of the time, so that the Spirit and they act in harmony and their very weakness becomes imbued with the Spirit's strength.   I believe that this is the only explanation for the extraordinary fruit of his efforts, for the spiritual energy, the generosity, the kindness and the constant love that are characteristics of the whole enterprise.  Father Andrei himself would probably put all this down to the blessing he received from Father Nicholai right at the very beginning and in the intercession of Our Lady, St Nicholas of Bari and St Elizabeth, the royal martyr.   All this is probably true as well.








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