Friday, July 6, 2012

BLESSED XENIA PETERBURGSKAYA: The Mad Widow

First: love the questions and comments my last post got! Please keep 'em coming; just because I take forever to respond doesn't mean I've forgotten or don't care.

Now to business! Eve asked a great question: "Were there ever married holy fools?"

I started writing this hours ago and it's turned into a beast of an answer, so I'm going to break it up into a series of meandering posts. Because I'm doing this for my edification as well as yours, I'm letting myself go off on tangents (within reason)-- I'll try to include a tl;dr summary at the beginning of each post and a master one at the end when I've exhausted the ten different essays I'm going to write in the course of answering this question.

TL; DR Version of "The Mad Widow"
- St Xenia became a fool-for-Christ following her beloved husband's death, possibly in an attempt to "compensate" for the fact that he died suddenly with neither Confession nor Communion
- Xenia's adoption of her husband's name and clothing after his death can be read as a harbinger of her theosis; in taking on aspects of his life she empties herself and obliterates her ego (think about that next time you see a crowning at an Orthodox wedding!)
- that Xenia's love for her husband is a driving element of her narrative makes hers an unusual vita; most female vitae include virginity chosen at a young age, forced or abusive marriages, or say very little about the husband at all
- love of the poor and love of man-made beauty need not preclude one another (hiya Calvinists)
- Orthodox glorification isn't exactly the same as Catholic canonization but I won't tell you why til you're older

Essential Russian!
iurodstvo  - holy foolishness
klikushestvo  - a shrieking ailment indicating witchcraft/sorcery-induced demonic possession 

BLESSED XENIA PETERBURGSKAYA: The Mad Widow
Transliteration note: in my opinion "Kseniya" makes much more sense than "Xenia" (from the Russian Ксения), but "Xenia" is the standard English transliteration, so out of respect for local tradition (read: *search optimization*) I'll stick with that one.

Upon seeing Eve's question, I thought immediately of the widow holy fools, like the famous St Xenia of Petersburg. St Xenia gave away all of her possessions and wandered the city as a beggar after her husband's death sometime in the mid-18th century. I actually had the great privilege of visiting the chapel built over her grave in Smolensky Cemetery in Petersburg in 2010.

Часовня Ксении Блаженной, Смоленское Кладбище, Санкт-Петербург
St Xenia's Chapel, Smolensky Cemetery, St Petersburg (source)
"WHOEVER KNEW ME, PRAY FOR MY SOUL THAT HIS OWN MAY BE SAVED"*
St Xenia's Chapel

Blessed Xenia is the patron saint of Petersburg and is especially beloved among women, who pray to her for intercession in family troubles. While being a wife or mother is never simple, in a country whose gender balance is still recovering from a century of warfare, where less than twenty years ago life was so difficult that male life expectancy plummeted to 56 (and even today is ten years below that of western European countries), where alcoholism kills millions every year, and children begin drinking heavily before high school, the cross women bear as the rock of family and society must be especially heavy. 

When I was there, the line to simply touch the walls of the small chapel was incredibly long-- women, young and old, all in head scarves, some with children, some with canes. I remember one woman posing a sickly young boy on crutches in front of the chapel for a photograph-- I can't know because I didn't ask her, but if she'd been documenting a pilgrimage for her parish I wouldn't have been surprised; many people travel from great distances to visit the shrine. Many light candles, some leave prayer notes-- I have been to few pilgrimage sites, and don't know whether that is common practice in Orthodoxy, or a particularity of supplication at St Xenia's Chapel (my instinct suggests the latter).

From the parish blog of the Righteous St John of Kronstadt Orthodox Church**:
"В советские времена в часовню нельзя было попасть – доступ поклонникам был закрыт, но люди все равно шли, прикладывались к ограждению с верой. С тех пор сохранилась традиция – поклонники обходят здание часовни с молитвой, прикладываются и целуют стены."
(Translation mine, proceed with caution.)
"In the Soviet era, it was forbidden to go into the shrine - access was closed to worshippers, but people went all the same, venerating at the fence [built by the Soviets to keep people from the chapel -TKB] in faith. Since then the tradition has been preserved - worshippers go around the chapel building to pray, venerate, and kiss the wall." 
Not every saint gets her own chapel, much less before she's been officially glorified (see below), but it is an honor perhaps especially worthy of St Xenia, who herself assisted with the construction of a church in the very cemetery in which she would later be buried. At night after the workmen had gone home, she would either bring large stones to the construction site, or carry the stones meant for the highest levels to the top of the scaffolding (depending on which vita you read). I like this story in particular because it illustrates that asceticism and appreciation of beauty need not contradict one another-- she herself went about in rags, ate little, and gave constantly of herself, but also dedicated her energy to building a new house of God in a city already full of them. Extremism in the pursuit of beauty is no vice!

PRECIOUS STONES ADORNING THE RAIMENT OF THE BRIDE
On Orthodox Glorification
Entire essays could be written on this alone, but for now I'll say simply that overall the Orthodox approach to numbering the saints is more decentralized and less defined than that of the Catholics. I was shocked when I first found out that Xenia hadn't been glorified until 1988 (to be fair, in 1978 by ROCOR, but that, too, is quite late). Her figure has loomed large over Russian history and culture since not long after her death around 1800; pilgrimages to her grave site began in the 19th century, and attachment to her was so strong that not even Soviet Leningrad could erase her from the hearts and memories of the faithful. I haven't looked into her case specifically, but from what I've read about the institutional glorification of other saints, the Church seems content to observe "local" veneration for quite long periods of time before beginning any official proceedings. Unexpected blessing of this approach: we can watch scenes from St Xenia's 1978 glorification service on Youtube!

FOR HIS SAKE: Sacrificial Foolishness?
Unusually for a female saint, the vitae are very clear that she loved her husband very much; some even imply that her holy foolishness was prompted by mad grief. Even more curiously, she responded only to her husband's name (Andrei Feodorovich); some stories say that she went about in his clothes. While she was not glorified by the Russian Church until 1988, veneration of her among the people is said to have begun even during her lifetime. We do know that by the end of the 18th century, locals referred to the street on which she and her husband had lived as Petrov Street, which was her husband's surname.

Some vitae say that taking on her husband's name, as though she had completely forgotten her own (and perhaps she had), is an illustration of the depth of her humility (see: kenosis); others feel less of a need to editorialize. Unfortunately I'm only looking through what's quickly available online, so I can't find out for how long that particular theory's accompanied her vita. I can say the adoption of the husband's name is quite idiosyncratic and not something I've seen elsewhere, although there are many stories of holy women in which either their birth names are not given, or no name is given at all (sometimes, in fact, as a story grows in popularity, an anonymous saint will be given a name, as with the Egyptian monk we now revere as Isidora).

An element sometimes emphasized in Xenia's story is that her husband died unexpectedly while drinking at a party and in a state of sin (without having taken the Blessed Sacrament). Some write that it was Xenia's concern for the state of her husband's soul that drove her to such fervent prayer, others that the suddenness of his death gave her eyes to see the frivolity and selfishness of her life and the strength to change course.

THE OLD BALL AND CHAIN: Of Witches and Wives
More typically widow saints (as relayed in the vitae) were forced into marriages against their will, or express no particular feelings about their husbands at all-- their deaths are rarely portrayed as joyous events, of course (a subtle tone of relief is sometimes conscioned), but as welcome developments giving the widows the freedom to pursue a more perfect holiness.

Holy foolishness among women, whether married or not, deserves examination in its own right, particularly in a country some of whose rural populations maintained belief in sorcery past the Revolution. The problem of klikushestvo (the shrieking ailment) in particular comes to mind. As Linda Ivanits explains in Russian Folk Belief, klikushestvo is "primarily a woman's condition characterized by howling, cursing, and falling to the ground during the liturgy, in the midst of church processions, or in the presence of icons, incense, and other religious objects," and usually signifies demonic possession brought on by malevolent sorcery. It was considered distinct from "hysteria" by peasants and doctors alike, and did not merit the same treatment. 

Not all holy fools were prone to loud outbursts or wild displays in church, but some certainly were. According to Ivanits, klikushestvo was a well-known ailment in villages throughout the Empire, with records of klikushi (shriekers) going back to the 16th century.   

The difficulty of distinguishing holiness from sin is almost definitionally present when studying iurodstvo, but concerns about witchcraft, hysteria, and the suspicion with which female wanderers must have been regarded makes those who were known as holy fools during or shortly after their lifetimes all the more incredible. Even the gift of prophesy, often cited to legitimize the holiness of the fool (and which Xenia, for example, is always noted to have had), was far from universally regarded as one given by God.

COMING SOON 
"WILDFLOWERS OF GODRebellion and the Iurodivaya"
Potentially but not definitely including some or all of the following (and probably some things not even listed)...
  • Hell's Angels? the inherently transgressive nature of iurodstvo
  • All the world's a stage: transvestitism among the saints
  • That ain't a tiara: marriage and martyrdom in Orthodoxy
  • Neither Jew nor Greek, neither Cuban cigar nor light cigarette: why aren't there more female saints?
As always, questions and comments wholeheartedly encouraged!

*"Кто меня знал, да помянет мою душу для спасения свой души." - carved on St Xenia's gravestone.

**Didn't even notice the name until I looked to link back! Dear Batiushka John really is everywhere. This is, interestingly, a Moscow Patriarchate Church in Hamburg, Germany, with quite an interesting history
"In 2004 the Gnadenkirche [Grace church] church in the center of the city came to [converted to; joined] our parish. The miracle of gaining a large congregation in our own home in Hamburg was made possible by longstanding good relations between the Evangelical Church of Germany and the Orthodox Church of Russia. The parish bought the church land in Hamburg and transferred it for a nominal fee - 1 euro." (В 2004 г. церковь Гнаденкирхе в центре города перешла нашему приходу. Чудо обретения многочисленной общиной своего дома в Гамбурге стало возможным благодаря давним добрым отношениям между Евангелической Церковью Германии и Православной Церковью России. Приход выкупил земельный участок под храмом у города Гамбурга, а само здание было передано за символическую плату – 1 евро.) 
The story of both this building and the parishes its housed is fascinating to me; remind me to do a post focusing on it soon if I forget!

1 comment:

  1. As regards the transliteration issue I will only register the fact that before Peter the Great, the Cyrillic alphabet had a xi.

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