"I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else."
C. S. Lewis

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Blessed Xenia of St. Petersburg



O
ur venerable Mother, the Blessed Xenia of St. Petersburg, c. 1719–1730 – c. 1803. Early in her long life Xenia had been married to an army colonel who drank himself to death. Soon after his funeral, she began giving away the family fortune to the poor, a simple act of obedience to Christ’s teaching: “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you have and give it to the poor … and come, follow me.” In order to prevent Xenia from impoverishing herself, relatives sought to have her declared insane. However the doctor who examined her concluded Xenia was the sanest person he had ever met.

Having given away her wealth, for some years Xenia disappeared, becoming one of Russia’s many pilgrims walking from shrine to shrine while reciting the Jesus Prayer. Somewhere along the way during those hidden years, she became a Fool for Christ. When Xenia finally returned to St. Petersburg, she was wearing the threadbare remnants of her late husband’s military uniform – these are usually shown in the icons of her – and would answer only to his name, not her own. One can only guess her motives. In taking upon herself his name and clothing, she may have been attempting to do penance for his sins. Her home became the Smolensk cemetery on the city’s edge where she slept rough year-round and where finally she was buried. Xenia became known for her clairvoyant gift of telling people what to expect and what they should do, though what she said often made sense only in the light of later events. She might say to certain persons she singled out, “Go home and make blini [Russian pancakes].” As blini are served after funerals, the person she addressed would understand that a member of the family would soon die. She never begged. Money was given to her but she kept only an occasional kopek for herself; everything else was passed on to others.

When she died, age 71, at the end of the 18th century, her grave became a place of pilgrimage and remained so even through the Soviet period, though for several decades the political authorities closed the chapel at her grave site. The official canonization of this Fool for Christ and the re-opening of the chapel over her grave in 1988 were vivid gestures in the Gorbachev years that the war against religion was truly over in Russia.

Why does the Church occasionally canonize people whose lives are not only completely at odds with civil society but who often hardly fit ecclesiastical society either? The answer must be that Holy Fools dramatize something about God that most Christians find embarrassing, but which we vaguely recognize is crucial information.

It is the special vocation of Holy Fools to live out in a rough, literal, breath-taking way the “hard sayings” of Jesus. Like the Son of Man, they have no place to lay their heads, and, again like him, they live without money in their pockets (thus Jesus, in responding to a question about paying taxes, had no coin of his own with which to display Caesar’s image). While never harming anyone, Holy Fools raise their voices against those who lie and cheat and do violence to others, but at the same time they are always ready to embrace these same greedy and ruthless people. They take everyone seriously. No one, absolutely no one, is unimportant. In fact the only thing always important for them, apart from God and angels, are the people around them, whoever they are, no matter how limited they are. Their dramatic gestures, however shocking, always have to do with revealing the person of Christ and his mercy.

St. Xenia's grave is in the Smolensky Cemetery of St. Petersburg. It has been marked by an ornate chapel since 1902. She was canonized by the Russian Orthodox Church on February 6, 1988. Her feast day is January 24.




O   O   O 


-Extract from the Holy Fools chapter of Praying with Icons (Jim Forest, Orbis Books). Please visit IN COMMUNION, website of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship. http://www.incommunion.org/

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Where Love is, There God is Also




I
n the city lived Martin Avdeich, a shoemaker. He lived in a basement, in a little room with one window. The window looked out on the street. Through the window he used to watch the people passing by: although only their feet could be seen, yet by the boots Martin Avdeich recognized their owners. He had lived long in one place, and had many acquaintances. Few pairs of boots in his district had not been in his hands once and again. Some he would half-sole, some he would patch, some he would stitch around, and occasionally he would also put on new uppers. And through the window he quite often recognized his work. Avdeich had plenty to do, because he was a faithful workman, used good material, did not make exorbitant charges, and kept his word. If he could finish an order by a certain time, he accepted it: if not, he would not deceive you—he told you so beforehand. And all knew Avdeich, and he was never out of work.

Avdeich had always been a good man; but as he grew old, he began to think more about his soul, and get nearer to God. 

From that time Avdeich’s whole life was changed. His life became quiet and joyful. In the morning he sat down to work, finished his allotted task, then took the little lamp from the hook, put it on the table, got his Bible from the shelf, opened it, and sat down to read. And the more he read, the more he understood, and the brighter and happier it was in his heart.

Once it happened that Martin read till late into the night. He was reading the Gospel of Luke. He was reading over the sixth chapter; and he was reading the verses:

“And unto him that smiteth thee on the one cheek offer also the other; and him that taketh away thy cloak forbid not to take thy coat also. Give to every man that asketh of thee; and of him that taketh away thy goods ask them not again. And as ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise.” 

He thought about this, and was about to go to bed, but he felt loath to tear himself away from the book. And he began to read further in the seventh chapter. He read about the centurion, he read about the widow’s son, he read about the answer given to John’s disciples, and finally he came to that place where the rich Pharisee desired the Lord to sit at meat with him; and he read how the woman that was a sinner anointed His feet, and washed them with her tears, and how He forgave her. He reached the forty-fourth verse, and began to read: 

“And he turned to the woman, and said unto Simon, Seest thou this woman? I entered into thine house, thou gavest me no water for my feet: but she hath washed my feet with tears, and wiped them with the hairs of her head. Thou gavest me no kiss: but this woman since the time I came in hath not ceased to kiss my feet. My head with oil thou didst not anoint: but this woman hath anointed my feet with ointment.” 

He finished reading these verses, and thought to himself, Thou gavest me no water for my feet, thou gavest me no kiss. My head with oil thou didst not anoint.” And again Avdeich took off his spectacles, put them down upon the book, and again he became lost in thought.

“It seems that Pharisee must have been such a man as I am. I too apparently have thought only of myself—how I might have my tea, be warm and comfortable, but never to think about my guest. He thought about himself, but there was not the least care taken of the guest. And who was his guest? The Lord Himself. If He had come to me, should I have done the same way?”

Avdeich rested his head upon both his arms, and did not notice how he fell asleep.

“Martin!” suddenly seemed to sound in his ears.

Martin started from his sleep: “Who is here?”

He turned around, glanced toward the door—no one.

Again he fell into a doze. Suddenly he plainly heard, “Martin! Ah, Martin! Look tomorrow on the street. I am coming.”

Martin awoke, rose from the chair, and began to rub his eyes. He himself did not know whether he heard those words in his dreams, or in reality. He turned down his lamp, and went to bed.

At daybreak next morning, Avdeich rose, made his prayer to God, lighted the stove, put on the cabbage soup and the gruel, put the water in the samovar, put on his apron, and sat down by the window to work.

Avdeich was working, and at the same time thinking about all that had happened yesterday. He thought both ways: now he thought it was a dream, and now he thought he really heard a voice. “Well,” he thought, “such things have been.”

Martin was sitting by the window, and did not work as much as he looked through the window: when anyone passed by in boots that he did not know, he bent down, looked out of the window, in order to see not only the feet but also the face. The house-porter passed by in new felt boots; the water-carrier passed by; then came alongside of the window an old soldier of Czar Nicholas’ time, in an old pair of laced felt boots, with a shovel in his hands. Avdeich recognized him by his felt boots. The old man’s name was Stepanich; and a neighboring merchant, out of charity, gave him a home with him. He was required to assist the house-porter. Stepanich began to shovel away the snow from in front of Avdeich’s window. Avdeich glanced at him, and took up his work again.

Avdeich sewed about a dozen stitches, and then felt impelled to look through the window again. He looked out again through the window, and saw that Stepanich had leaned his shovel against the wall, and was either warming himself, or resting. He was an old, broken-down man: evidently he had not strength enough even to shovel the snow. 

Avdeich said to himself, “I will give him some tea. The samovar must be boiling by this time.” 

Avdeich laid down his awl, rose from his seat, put the samovar on the table, made the tea, and tapped with his finger at the glass. Stepanich turned around, and came to the window. Avdeich beckoned to him, and went to open the door.

“Come in, warm yourself a little,” he said. “You must be cold.”

“May Christ reward you for this! My bones ache,” said Stepanich.

Stepanich came in, and shook off the snow; he tried to wipe his feet, so as not to soil the floor, but as he did so he tottered and nearly fell.

“Don’t trouble to wipe your feet. I will clean it up myself: we are used to such things. Come in and sit down,” said Avdeich. “Drink a cup of tea.”

Avdeich filled two glasses, and handed one to his guest; while he himself poured his tea into a saucer and began to blow it.

Stepanich finished drinking his glass of tea, turned the glass upside down (a custom among the Russians), put upon it the half-eaten lump of sugar, and began to express his thanks. But it was evident he wanted some more.
“Have some more,” said Avdeich, filling both his own glass and his guest’s. Avdeich drank his tea, but from time to time kept glancing out into the street.

“Are you expecting anyone?” asked his guest.

“Am I expecting anyone? I am ashamed even to tell whom I expect. I am, and I am not, expecting someone; but one word has impressed itself upon my heart. Whether it is a dream, or something else, I do not know. Don’t you see, brother, I was reading yesterday the Gospel about Christ, the Little Father; how He suffered, how He walked on the earth. I suppose you have heard about it?”

“Indeed I have,” replied Stepanich: “but I'm an ignorant man and not able to read.”

“Well, now, I was reading about that very thing—how He walked upon the earth: I read, you know, how He comes to the Pharisee, and the Pharisee did not treat Him hospitably. Well, and so, my brother, I was reading yesterday about this very thing, and was thinking to myself how he did not receive Christ, the Little Father, with honor. If, for example, He should come to me, or anyone else, I think to myself I should not even know how to receive Him. And he gave Him no reception at all. Well! While I was thus thinking, I fell asleep, brother, and I heard someone call me by name. I got up: the voice, just as though someone whispered, said, ‘Be on the watch: I shall come tomorrow.’ And this happened twice. Well! Would you believe it, it got into my head? I scolded myself—and yet I was expecting Him, the dear Lord.”

Stepanich shook his head, and said nothing: he finished drinking his glass of tea, and put it on the side.

“Come, now, have some more tea,” said Avdeich; but Stepanich made the sign of the cross, thanked him, turned up his glass, and arose.

“Thank you, Martin Avdeich,” he said, “for treating me kindly, and satisfying me, soul and body.”

“You are welcome; come in again: always glad to have a guest,” said Avdeich.

Stepanich departed, and Martin poured out the rest of the tea, drank it up, put away the dishes, and sat down again by the window to work, to stitch on a patch. He was stitching, and at the same time looking through the window, all the while thinking of Him and His deeds, and his head was filled with the different speeches of Christ.

Two soldiers passed by: one wore boots furnished by the government, and the other one, boots that he had made; then the master of the next house passed by in shining galoshes; then a baker with a basket passed by. All passed by; and now there came also by the window a woman in woolen stockings and peasant-made shoes. She passed by the window, and stood still near the window-case.

Avdeich looked up at her from the window, saw it was a strange woman poorly clad, and with a child: she was standing by the wall with her back to the wind, trying to wrap up the child, and she had nothing to wrap it up in. The woman was dressed in shabby summer clothes: and from behind the frame, Avdeich heard the child crying, and the woman trying to pacify it; but she was not able to pacify it. Avdeich got up, went to the door, ascended the steps, and cried, “Hey! My good woman!” 

The woman heard him and turned around.

“Why are you standing in the cold with the child? Come inside where it is warm: you can manage it better. Right in this way!”

The woman was astonished. She saw an old man in an apron, with spectacles on his nose, calling her to him. She followed him. They descended the steps, entered the room: the old man led the woman to sit upon his bed.

“There,” says he, “sit down, my good woman, nearer to the stove: you can get warm, and feed the child.”

“I have no milk for him. I myself have not eaten anything since morning,” said the woman; but, nevertheless, she took the child to her breast.

Avdeich shook his head. He brought out some bread and a bowl, and poured some cabbage soup into the bow. He took out the pot with the gruel, but it was not done yet; so he spread a cloth on the table and served only the soup and bread.

“Sit down and eat, my good woman, and I will mind the little one. You see, I once had children of my own; I know how to handle them.”

The woman crossed herself, sat down at the table, and began to eat, while Avdeich took a seat on the bed near the infant.

Avdeich sighed, and said, “Haven’t you any warm clothes?”

“Now is the time, friend, to wear warm clothes; but yesterday I pawned my last shawl for a twenty-kopek piece.”

The woman took the child and Avdeich rose, looked among some things, and succeeded in finding an old coat.

“Now!” said he, “it is a poor thing, yet you may turn it to some use.”

The woman looked at the coat, then at the old man! She took the coat, and burst into tears: and Avdeich turned away his head; crawling under the bed, he pushed out a little trunk, rummaged in it, and sat down again opposite the woman. And the woman said, “May Christ bless you, little grandfather! 

“Take this, for Christ’s sake,” said Avdeich, giving her a twenty-kopek piece, “redeem your shawl.” She made the sign of the cross. Avdeich made the sign of the cross, and went with her to the door to see her out.

After a while Avdeich saw that an old apple-woman had stopped right in front of his window. She carried a basket with apples. Only a few were left, as she had nearly sold them all out; and over her shoulder she had a bag full of chips. She must have gathered them up in some new building, and was on her way home. 

One could see that the bag was heavy on her shoulder and she wanted to shift it to the other shoulder. So she lowered the bag upon the sidewalk, stood the basket with the apples on a little post, and began to shake down the splinters in the bag. And while she was shaking her bag, a little boy in a torn cap came along, picked up an apple from the basket, and was about to make his escape; but the old woman noticed it, turned around, and caught the youngster by his sleeve. The little boy began to struggle, tried to tear himself away; but the old woman grasped him with both hands, knocked off his cap, and caught him by the hair.

The little boy was screaming and the old woman was scolding. Avdeich lost no time in putting away his awl; he threw it upon the floor, sprang to the door—he even stumbled on the stairs, and dropped his eyeglasses—and rushed out into the street.

The old woman was pulling the youngster by his hair, and was scolding, and threatening to take him to the police. The youngster defended himself, and denied the charge. “I did not take it,” he said: “what are you beating me for? Let go!” 

Avdeich separated them. He took the boy by his arm, and said, “Let him go, Granny; forgive him, for Christ’s sake.”

“I’ll pay him out so that he won’t forget it for a year! I am going to take the little rascal to the police.”

Avdeich began to entreat the old woman.

“Let him go, Granny,” he said, “he will never do it again. Let him go, for Christ’s sake.”

The old woman let him loose, and the boy tried to run, but Avdeich kept him back.

“Ask the Granny’s forgiveness,” he said, “and don’t ever do it again: I saw you taking the apple.”

With tears in his eyes, the boy began to ask forgiveness.

“Good! That’s right; and now, here’s an apple for you.” Avdeich got an apple from the basket, and gave it to the boy. “I will pay you for it, Granny,” he said to the old woman.

“You ruin them that way, the good-for-nothings,” said the woman. “He ought to be whipped so that he would remember it for a whole week.”

“Oh, Granny, Granny,” said Avdeich, “that is right according to our judgment, but not according to God’s. If he is to be whipped for an apple, then what do we deserve for our sins?”

The old woman was silent.

Avdeich told her the parable of the ruler who forgave a debtor all that he owed him, and how the debtor went and began to choke one who owed him. The old woman listened, and the boy stood listening.

“God has commanded us to forgive,” said Avdeich, “else we, too, may not be forgiven. All should be forgiven, and a thoughtless youngster especially.”

The old woman shook her head, and sighed.

“It's true enough,” said she; “but the trouble is that they are very much spoiled.”

“Then we who are older must teach them,” said Avdeich.

“That’s just what I say,” remarked the old woman. “I myself had seven of them—only one daughter is left.” And the old woman began to relate where and how she lived with her daughter, and how many grandchildren she had. “Here,” she says, “my strength is poor, and yet I have to work. I pity the youngsters—my grandchildren—how nice they are! No one gives me such a welcome as they do. Aksintka won’t go to anyone but me. ‘It’s Grandmother, dear Grandmother, darling Grandmother.’” And the old woman grew quite sentimental.

“Of course, it is a childish trick. God be with him,” said she, pointing to the boy.

The woman was just about to lift the bag upon her shoulder, when the boy ran up and said, “Let me carry it, Granny: it is on my way.”

The old woman nodded her head, and put the bag on the boy’s back. Side by side they both passed along the street. And the old woman even forgot to ask Avdeich to pay for the apple.

Avdeich stood motionless, and kept gazing after them; and he heard them talking all the time as they walked away. After Avdeich saw them disappear, he returned to his room; he found his eyeglasses on the stairs—they were not broken; he picked up his awl, and sat down again to work.

After working a little while, it grew darker so that he could not see to sew. He saw the lamplighter passing by to light the street lamps.

“It must be time to make a light,” he thought to himself; so he fixed his little lamp, hung it up, and betook himself to work. He had one boot already finished and, turning it about, examined it. “Well done,” he thought to himself. Then he put away his tools, swept off the cuttings, and cleared off the bristles and ends. He took the lamp down and placed it on the table, and took the Gospels down  from the shelf. He intended to open the book at the very place where he had yesterday put a piece of leather as a mark, but it happened to open at another place. At the moment Avdeich opened the book he recollected his last night’s dream and as soon as he remembered it, it seemed as though he heard someone stepping about behind him. Avdeich looked around and saw in the dark corner, it seemed to him, people standing. He was at a loss to know who they were. And a voice whispered in his ear, “Martin, Martin! Did you not recognize me?”

“Who is it?” uttered Avdeich.

“It is I,” replied the voice. And stepping forth from the dark corner came Stepanich, who smiled and vanishing like a cloud was seen no more.

“And it is I,” said another voice. From the dark corner stepped forth the woman with her child. The woman smiled, the child laughed, and they also vanished.

“And it is I,” continued a voice. Both the old woman and the boy with the apple stepped forward, both smiled, and then they too vanished.

Avdeich’s soul rejoiced. He crossed himself, put on his eyeglasses, and began to read the Gospel where it happened to open. And at the top of the page he read:

“For I was an hungered, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in.”

And on the lower part of the page he read this:

“Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me” (Matthew 25).

And Avdeich understood that his dream did not deceive him; that the Saviour really called upon him that day, and that he really received Him.

O  O  O

Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910)