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Saved by a simple handkerchief

· The presence of hermitesses in the history of the Russian Orthodox Church ·

 The “desert”, the pursuit of absolute remoteness from men and of continual closeness with God, entered into Russian spirituality in the 10th century, when a young and barely civilized country like the Kievan Rus’ embraced the Gospel, and together with it received a rich and deep spiritual and theological culture from Byzantium: only 33 years after the baptism of its people, the priest Hilarion sought the desert outside the city walls, in a cave on the slopes of the hill that sloped toward the Dnieper. From there the great Monastery of the Caves of Kiev was born, which today still remains the spiritual center of Orthodoxy.

After Hilarion the monastic life constituted one of the centres of gravity of Russian history, as witnessed by many saintly lives and by the splendid monasteries which still remain (there were 1025 before the revolution); but within it the eremitical life, especially for women, always deliberately remained hidden, like a deep heart that keeps the body alive but does not wish to be revealed. Often, in fact, there is no evidence even of its existence. After all, the desire of the hermitess was precisely to hide herself completely from the world in order to be known only to God, and so it was. Only in a few cases has the name of a holy hermitess come down to us, such as Dosifeja, who lived in the 18th century under male guise, and who as a spiritual “father” even blessed, among many others, the young monk Seraphim, who would go on to become the great Saint of Sarov.

However, the life of prayer and the total self-offering of these unknown hermitesses, though they failed to leave significant historical evidence, built up the life of the Church from deep within by strengthening its spiritual power and ensuring its continuity in time of great trial, the Revolution of 1917. At that juncture in history, the role of these women was so essential that a Russian Orthodox Bishop could say that the salvation of the Russian Church was not due to klobuk (i.e., to the high headdress of the monks), but rather to the simple handkerchief with which the faithful women used to cover their heads. When the October Revolution swept away institutional church structures, upset systems, closed monasteries and scattered believers, the time of the hermitesses returned who were already prepared to live anywhere, hidden, without relying on structures, and who were ready to live even in absolute poverty, and to hide themselves in the new, vast desert of atheistic Soviet society that violently expelled all forms of religion.

Among the records of those shot under Stalinist terror in the 1930’s are often found women of simple appearance, who are registered only as “semi-literate” and “homemakers”, “waitresses”, “cleaning ladies”: only today, after long and time-consuming historical reconstructions are we able to recognize them as nuns who continued to live their vocation scattered amid the world.

Fr. Aleksandr Men’, a great and luminous evangelizer who was killed in 1990 - perhaps the last martyr of the dying regime - recounted that his baptism and spiritual growth had occurred under the shadow of the monastery of St Sergio of Radonež, in the little town then re-baptized Zagorsh in honour of a Bolshevik leader, where several priests and nuns lived in hiding. However, during the war, when death from disease or arrest had literally taken away all the monks and priests, the only point of reference remained Mother Marija, a secret nun. “I was often a guest of Mother Marija, who left an indelible mark on my destiny and spiritual life. A woman of great ascesis and prayer, one did not find in her the bigotry, traditionalism and narrow-mindedness that are often found in those who wear the habit. She was always filled with Easter joy, totally surrendered to the will of God, immersed in the world of the spirit, she reminded me a little of St. Seraphim and a little of St. Francis of Assisi. Mother Marija had the gift of openness: to people, to their problems, to their pursuits, she was open to the world”.

It was from her hands that Fr. Men’ received the mission of preaching Christ to Soviet men, and to men today who, chained to a horizontal world, no longer feel a longing for Another.

Marta Dell’Asta

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