Hospitality is one of the elements of the Benedictine Sisters’ contemplative order. The sisters have been trying to respond to community needs for almost a year. That is how long this congregation has been operating in Solonka village near Lviv. Through praying, support, and actions, they sought to help anyone in need. The war added an even greater workload to the sisters. “In our community, we immediately turned up our responsibilities and realized that we must carry out our mission more zealously: pray, sacrifice, and serve even more,” said Sister Bernadette, a nun. The monastery’s doors opened for people fleeing the horrors of war, and the sisters deployed their support front.
The Ukrainian Catholic University’s “Little Stories of a Big War” project aims to introduce the world to the hundreds of human destinies that the war has empowered. Having lost everything, they grew in faith and found their true selves. We will talk to Sister Bernadette about new experiences, the desire to improve, and cherishing love.
What did your ministry look like before the war? How has it changed? When did you realize you needed to help more?
We are a newly established community. Our ministry has been operating for just one year. We were looking for an answer to the question: “How can we help the people we live with besides praying?” Prayer may seem like inaction to some people on the outside, but it is of great value to God and to people in need. Initially, we wanted our monastery to be a place of prayer and seeking God for those who pursue solitude and community prayer. And we succeeded. We invited people to recollections, “Desert Days”, and seclusion. People from Lviv, Solonka, and the surrounding villages joined us. A man who lives 150 km away had been coming for a long time. This is how we served.
The war changed everything. All brothers and sisters, i.e., every community member, understands that we must be open to people’s needs. We realized that many people would be fleeing from Russian bullets and missiles and decided to make our monastery a refuge for them. In less than two weeks since the beginning of the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine, many people fleeing the horrors of war have passed through our monastery. They stay here to rest and then continue looking for a safe place. We try to serve these people. We try not to deny those who ask for shelter in our monastery, although we increasingly understand that the needs are greater than our capabilities. There are many more people than our monastery can accommodate. We have small rooms without special amenities. Nevertheless, people receive the necessities : a roof over their head, warmth, and food. People are understanding of the conditions that we have here.
At first, many people stayed for a few days and then looked for relatives in Germany, Slovakia, and Poland. This stage has passed. Now people are coming who have nowhere to go and nowhere to return, so they stay with us longer. We do not know what awaits us. Together we pray for an end to this war, and then we’ll see.
What strikes you most about the stories of the people who came to you?
You know, when I listen to their stories about the horrors they witnessed, I feel empathy. Here in Solonka, we have not experienced this. Even our sisters from Zhytomyr did not. We have air alarms, but, thank God, there were no bombs. However, while listening, I experience all this together with these people. Every time we hear that Zhytomyr is under shellings and the city is being destroyed, we experience real fear and real war. And I am very impressed by how the Lord cares for people who find themselves in those circumstances and helps them get to us, how He brings them out of that hell. Through these people, I find confirmation that we are now on a good mission. Their fatigue, exhaustion, fear, and uncertainty are immense and irresistible… But still, the Lord is with them. He leads them and cares for them. The people who were with us got back on the road with some hope. The monastery is an oasis of peace and tranquility that we create so that everyone can be at peace and meet God.
We believe that we should keep the rhythm of ordinary life, despite constant bustle, further troubles, and everything happening. The power of nuns is to be faithful to their vocation. And for me personally, this is a new challenge: how to combine these two realities: my vocation of fidelity to God and service to those who need it. I think that with God’s help, we are achieving this. Our community has become very mobilized. Brothers and sisters from Zhytomyr have joined us, and now we are all together with these people in need, creating one big family.
Do the people who come to you grow in faith? Have you changed?
I do not know these people so closely, but I can see that they find peace with us. After sleeping, eating, taking a shower, and satisfying basic human needs, they can look towards the future with greater hope. Although, without a doubt, anxiety and uncertainty are still there. But I think that our atmosphere of moderate silence and joint prayer are a great help for them.
I do not see any change in myself yet. It may take longer for me to look back and see what has changed.
What is the hardest thing for you now? What are you missing?
I have identified two areas where I want to take more confident steps. The first is a more conscious prayer. I’ve been working on this my whole life. I now clearly understand that prayer is convincing only when you are aware of God’s presence with you. My prayer is a conscious prayer of presence. The second area is the path of love being expressed explicitly in specific situations to specific people. It is not easy, but I know that I have no other way. When I meditate on the path of love for God, my neighbor, and myself, I always return to the truth that it is a return to God. I ask God to give me love, which I can then pass on to people. This is the kind of school where lectures are practised every day. The most important thing for me is not to get off, not deviate from this love path.
Why does the Lord allow people to die? Why does He allow what they have to go through?
I don’t ask God, “Why?”. It is wrong. If the Lord allows something, He knows why. I never complained to God. His will remains a secret to me. It is often so painful that innocent children and families die. But the mystery of human and divine will remains. The Lord must have made various warnings. But nothing can be changed, at least for now.
One person has stuck to his ideologies, setting his own incomprehensible goal that he wants to achieve for the whole world. He rides with tanks, weapons, and murders, and the Lord remains helpless. I do not want to dive into theology. There is a stone that the Lord cannot lift. And this is the stone of human will. The Lord has given everyone freedom of choice. And we will probably be able to understand this mystery in heaven when we have more opportunities to know God’s truth. I sincerely believe that it is not God’s fault in this situation but the free will of a particular person. I do not believe that the Lord did not toil in the soul of the man who started it all. God could not but act. But humanity lacked to respond to this call of the Lord. We see the consequences.
How do you feel about the Russian occupier now?
I ask God for hatred not to arise.
I do not feel much love for Russians. I just have a feeling of regret for them. It’s even hard for me to find a word… I’m astonished at how stubborn a person can be in evil. I believe that it is not only the fault of humans. People were exposed to total evil. And it’s awful. However, I am glad that people still pray for the Russian people during the services, for the salvation of enemies from this nation and our nation. Prayer continues, and the true face of our land, our Ukraine, is revealed. People are still open to saving other people.
What can stop this war?
Only the Lord. Nonetheless, we must pray and ask God for this gift of peace. I am not a politician, but I believe that if we, Ukrainians, unite together in prayer in one pursuit of God, the Lord will listen to us. How long will it take? History has shown that this can be a long time. However, I believe that it will not be a year or two, three, or five, but it will end sooner.
Sometimes I hear testimony from various perspectives that not everyone experiences the war as one should. Most Ukrainians open up and retain humanity, but unfortunately, not all. And there must be an awakening of such humanity in every heart of a Ukrainian, and then victory will come sooner.
What has changed in the daily schedule regarding new people present in the monastery?
We manage to keep the usual rhythm. We pray at the same time we were accustomed to before, but now we are attracting more people. Many people who do not believe in God came to us, for instance, from Zaporizhzhia and Kharkiv. Now they also want to take part in worship services. All brothers and sisters who have their own responsibilities are now united by another common duty to serve these people. Cleaning, cooking, laundry, and making beds are daily needs. This is the rhythm our community follows to perform our ministry. But the strength of our charisma is to hold on and fulfill our calling even in these circumstances.
Do you think that the relationship with the people you have hosted will last for a long time?
It is hard to foresee the future. I do not know what awaits us. We have families who have nowhere to run. We will be looking for something. But there is no doubt that some kind of connection remains.
Not only relatives, acquaintances, acquaintances of acquaintances, but also ordinary people who learned about us through the coordination centre started to arrive to us.
I asked myself, “Why does the Lord put these people in my life path and put us, as nuns, in their life paths?” One family from the Luhansk Oblast was a big surprise for me. They planned to stay with us for a long time but decided to go further the next day. Before leaving, they waited for me after the Liturgy. We had such a farewell as loved ones usually have, although all I did for them was take them into a room and show them where everything was. That was enough to create a strangely deeper connection. They went abroad and promised to come to us again on the way back. And I will always remember this family.
We pray for everyone who stays in our monastery, but sometimes some people and families leave an especially memorable mark.
Has anything changed in the monastic community’s relations, mutual gestures, rules, and responsibilities?
We used to have common joint meetings. Now we spend more time serving people, and we do not have the opportunity for such communication. Apart from the fact that we serve others all the time, there is no place for meetings because IDPs occupy it. But sisters miss this interpersonal communication. This is essential to us because it is the strength of our Benedictine communities. Therefore, I think that we will have such a gathering next Saturday or Sunday.
Interviewers: Natalia Starepravo and Petro Didula
March 9, 2022
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