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Τετάρτη 25 Ιουλίου 2012


Interview with Irina Karpovich, a sister of mercy

July 18 is the day of the holy martyr Grand Princess Elisabeth who is best known on the Russian soil because of her deeds of mercy. She left the world where she had high standing and went to another world, the world of the needy and the suffering. Many years passed since St Elisabeth reposed in the Lord but the good works she started are going on and many Christians continue to remember her. For instance, a Sisterhood and a Convent in Minsk are named after her. The sisters of mercy, also known as “white” (lay) sisters, follow in the footsteps of their heavenly patroness by helping the ill and the suffering today. Over 70 sisters and brothers have their obedience in the National Centre for Mental Health.

“People who undergo treatment here need other help, i.e., spiritual help, beside medical assistance,” the sister-in-charge of the National Centre for Mental Health Irina Karpovich believes. “Who is able to provide this spiritual treatment? The Heavenly Doctor.”

Many of the “white” sisters have regular jobs in other places beside the Sisterhood where they may be good specialists or even top managers. However, this fact does not prevent them from talking with the mentally challenged on equal terms, helping them to get to know God and to draw closer to Him. Irina has been a member of the Sisterhood for nine years. Three years ago she used to combine her duties in the Sisterhood with a secular job of a private company CEO. She used to keep the fact that she was a sister of mercy in secret. “I did not hesitate for a single moment,” Irina says. “I just did not know how I could explain the reasons why I do that to my unbelieving colleagues. Finally, I gave up hiding. Once our company founder made an appointment with me on an evening when we were going to have confession in the unit of the hospital I was in charge of. I asked him to move this appointment to another date, and when he asked me why, I answered, “I am a sister of mercy, I visit the mental clinic and we have confession there on Wednesdays.” He was very surprised and muttered, “Yes... I see... Okay!”
“A couple of years ago, a friend of mine asked me why I go there. She choked when she heard my answer, “There is so much love!” How can I explain this to someone who has never visited the hospital as a sister of mercy in order to hear and answer, to support and to tell the patients about God's presence? No, this hospital is in no way different from what you can see on TV but “there is so much love!” Sometimes you cannot force yourself into going there but each time you return from this obedience, you feel that “there is so much love!” It is hard to understand if this love is “thanks to” or “in spite of”... “Thanks to,” I suppose. In general, there is no “love in spite of...” at all.

Not all patients are willing to communicate, especially if they are in the state of depression. A person may be lying on their bed and staring at the wall without uttering a single word. S/he does not want anything, s/he is unwilling even to get up, wash their face, dress and eat, respond to our greetings, and this condition may go on for weeks. There was such a patient in one of the hospital units. Our sister did not make attempts to stir her up or to irritate her with questions but would simply say hello, say a short prayer for her, leave a hard candy for her and go out. In the meantime, that woman was discharged from hospital, and the sister of mercy who had visited her met her in public transport. That woman thanked the sister for her care and said, “You know, that hard candy helped me to recover so much!” Even a hard candy might be important if it is an expression of attention and compassion.

The primary task of a sister of mercy is to prepare the patients of the hospital for confession and communion. This is not always easy because there are people of various beliefs and convictions here. Irina told us that it is here where heterodox people often become Orthodox. Irina became Orthodox when she was 39. “I remember that I used to be a self-confident and proud person since my childhood. There was no God for me, I thought the priests were puppeteers, a church was a bad theatre and the faithful... oh, I did not know how to call them.”

“I was 30-something when I decided to take a closer look at the phenomenon of faith. Lots of people endured torture because they were reluctant to renounce their faith in the “non-existent” God. How could I explain that? I bought the New Testament and tried to read the Psalter. It was totally impossible to understand. I started reading the Gospel but I could not even appreciate its artistic value; I forced myself into reading it. I was driven by my ego: how come that I do not understand any of those things so many different people living in different places and in different times have in common? I read it for six years and almost learnt it by heart but I still could not understand it.

Once I caught a cold and stayed in bed for a couple of days. I was lying and reading books. All of a sudden, with no visible reasons, I was gripped by the feeling of repentance. I suddenly saw how many evil things I had done, I saw how dark my soul was and I could not live with it anymore. A friend of mine told me that I should go and confess my sins. I rushed to my mother, “Mum, I need to go to confession!” - “In a Catholic church?” - “No, in the Orthodox church!” - “Then you have to become Orthodox first because you were baptised in the Catholic Church.”

So I went to SS Peter and Paul Cathedral. I was afraid that as soon as I step into the church, the priests would attack me and begin to brainwash me. It turned out that they did not; in fact, they hardly even noticed me. I cried for a while and decided to stay because it was God who I had come to, not other people. I learnt that I was in need of Holy Chrismation and that I had to attend several lessons of catechism taught by a priest before that. It was then that I took the Gospel from my book shelf again. It seemed to me that this time the Gospel swung wide open and welcomed me in. When I was reading it, I felt a strange feeling of the presence of Christ, as if I was standing in the midst of the people listening to Him. My faith came as a revelation. When God touches one's soul, this is evident.

Then I was chrismated, confessed and took communion; I was overwhelmed by the totally new feeling of absolute freedom and understanding that I can and will no longer live without Christ, without His Church and the Sacraments. This is not a one-in-a-lifetime experience: each new day brings more experience.

I started visiting the talks of Fr Andrew and he became my confessor in about a year since I became Orthodox. I thank the Lord that he blessed me to become a member of the Sisterhood and to carry out my obedience in the mental clinic.”

If we read the biography of the heavenly patroness of our Sisterhood, we will notice that she had not been born Orthodox. Saint Elisabeth was born to a Protestant family but later she came to realise that Orthodoxy was a better fit for her than Protestantism. Irina recalls how one of the female patients of the National Centre for Mental Health was attending both an Orthodox church and a Protestant congregation because the latter provided material assistance to her. Recently, she confessed it and told Irina about it, saying that she came at peace with her soul after that.

It is rather difficult for a person who stays in this hospital to confess and take communion. Sometimes an individual struggles with God, grudges and does not want to humble himself. A sister of mercy has to be patient and pray for that individual so that the Lord would teach him and soothe his pain. Nevertheless, the majority of the patients of the National Centre for Mental Health look forward to the visits of a priest and to the confession; many of them share their impressions and observations with the “white” (lay) sisters and tell them how they change after the communion and what grace they can feel. Some people have to stay here for a long time, and their relatives grow tired with them; but God cares for everyone, He welcomes all. Some people confess and take communion in the hospital for the first time in their lives, and then, when they are discharged, they continue to attend church, change their lifestyles and begin a new life with God.

There is a separate building within the walls of the Centre for the people who committed crimes under the influence of extreme emotional disturbance. Our sisters visit them as well. It is common knowledge that many people regard such activity useless because they are certain that such people cannot be changed. However, do you remember who was the first to enter the paradise? A thief. He had no time to do anything in order to make up for his bad actions; all he did was honestly repent and say that he deserved the punishment he had to endure and call upon God. Everybody today needs prayer and repentance. Even the Grand Princess Elisabeth prayed for the assassin who murdered her husband and called for his repentance.

Irina recalls how they told her on the very first day of her obedience in the hospital, “If it is too hard, you are free to stop doing it.” “How could I stop?” she says. “However difficult things would be for us, these people suffer much more than we do, and they need not only medical assistance but also spiritual support. Some of them need a kind word, some need a kind look, some need to feel that they are not abandoned nor forgotten. It is often said that a word can kill and a word can cure... The Scripture says, Bear ye one another's burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ. (Galatians 6:2)
Regardless of the difficulties that the “white” sisters have to face today, they know that their heavenly patroness, the holy martyr Grand Princess Elisabeth, keeps praying for them. They ask her for help and feel her support seeing what fruit their ministry bears and how useful it is for other people. Their ministry transforms human lives, and it inspires and strengthens their hearts in all circumstances.

By Helena Gulidova
Translated by Fyodor Vaskovsky

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