a Model for Practical Healing Ministries Today
Elisabeth was born in 1864, daughter of Grand Duke Louis IV of Hesse-Darmstadt and Princess Alice, daughter of Queen Victoria. Although their domestic life was simple, almost to the point of austerity, the children did travel and visited their relatives in Germany and England. Queen Victoria chose their governess, herself, a certain Miss Jackson, so Elisabeth was at home in both German and English. Awareness of suffering and a sense of responsibility about it came to Elizabeth from her mother, who took her older daughters with her when she went to visit the wounded of the Austro-Prussian war.
Biographers place a great deal of emphasis on the fact that by her late teens Elisabeth had become a woman of exceptional beauty. She was adored, it is said, by Wilhelm of Prussia, the future Kaiser, but in June 1884 Elisabeth married Grand Duke Serge of Russia, brother of Alexander III and uncle of the last Tsar, Nicholas. Her younger sister, Alexandra, later married Nicholas, so Elisabeth was sister in law to both of the last two Tsars of Russia
As a bride of the Russian royal family she entered a world of great splendour - and simmering political turbulence. (Indeed the rumblings of revolution gave her English and German relatives considerable reserve about the marriage.) Elizabeth was a “success” in the court, beautiful, elegant, graceful and good humoured. Her husband, however, was not popular and there was gossip about an unsatisfactory marriage. My impression however, is that Elisabeth deeply loved her husband, which I think is proved by her reaction to his death.
For those of us who are converts to Orthodoxy it is a delight to know a saint who was herself also a convert, and to know that she shared the joys, and sometimes, sorrows, that are part of that process. Elizabeth’s entrance into the Orthodox faith in 1891 met with hostility from her father and brother. Her letters to them defending her decision give little indication of her reasons, except for the paramount reason of feeling that to remain a Protestant to prevent family conflict while feeling Orthodox in herself would be “lying before God and man” . As far as I know there were absolutely no political pressures on Elisabeth to become Orthodox (although it was a condition for her sister to marry Nicholas). I believe that her later life and written spiritual testimonies show that her conversion came from a profound experience and love of Orthodox Church life that she encountered in Russia.
During the same year as her conversion to Orthodoxy her husband was made Governor General of Moscow and the couple moved to that city. Elizabeth was now “first lady” of Moscow and dinners, balls and state functions became, as she said: “not just pleasant but very necessary” . According to one biographer, the Grand Duke Serge lacked the gifts necessary for governing Moscow; in fact she calls the appointment “disastrous”. Politically reactionary and lacking in imagination about how Russia could change politically, he made many enemies and little constructive headway in a worsening, unstable political situation.
In 1905 Grand Duke Serge was killed by a bomb thrown by a terrorist. Elisabeth was on the scene within minutes. With her own hands Elisabeth began gathering the pieces together and placing them on a stretcher. The disintegration of his body was so great that even during his funeral, people were bringing in pieces that they had found blown onto surrounding buildings, and placing them in the coffin. (This gruesome experience sadly makes her a particularly modern saint I think, to us for whom such terrible things are only too familiar items of our news.) Her husband’s remains were placed in the crypt of the Chudov Monastery, founded by St Alexis of Moscow, and Elisabeth kept vigil there during the nights before the funeral. She tells us that during these nights she received inspiration from St. Alexis himself to dedicate the rest of her life to God and her neighbour and to “establish a convent, ‘obitel’, in the service of Christ’s love”.
Before talking about how she did this specifically, I’m going to fast-forward to the end of her life.
The latter years of the First World War must have been exceptionally painful for Elisabeth. Nearly ten years of heroic hard work in the service of the sick and suffering were behind her. As the war went increasingly badly for Russia, the German members of the royal family became popular scapegoats said to be in league with the enemy, with a hot line from the Kremlin to the Kaiser himself! Mobs rallied outside Elisabeth’s convent shouting against the “Hessian witches”. It’s also impossible to know all that the 1917 revolution meant to her: the apocalyptical attacks on churches and the political upheaval that also meant personal catastrophe for her immediate family.
It was difficult for the Bolsheviks to touch her: a movement that claimed to champion the people did not look good removing someone who stood so clearly for the people. However, in the spring of 1918 she was arrested. Together with Sister Barbara and six other members of the imperial family she was taken to Alapaevsk, north of Ekaterinburg in Siberia, where they were kept under house arrest in a disused school. On 18th July they were taken to the head of a disused mine and simply thrown down it. Grenades were thrown down after them. In fact the martyrs did not fall to the bottom of the mine, but onto a timber platform and logs jutting out from the side of the mine, where they died of hunger and exposure. Eyewitnesses spoke of the sound of hymns from the Divine Liturgy coming from the shaft during the first part of this ordeal. When the bodies were removed from the mine it was found that Elisabeth had used her veil to give first aid to one of her companions.
Here Elisabeth’s story has a remarkable and wonderful development. A monk who was present when the bodies were removed from the mine set himself the task of taking the bodies to safety. He had coffins made and began an unimaginable two-year journey across Siberia to China. When the bodies arrived in Peking the coffins were opened and Elisabeth’s body was found to be incorrupt. From there, the bodies of Elisabeth and Barbara were taken to the Holy Land and buried in the Church of St Mary Magdelene on the Mount of Olives. This is a really extraordinary example of God’s providence. Not only has Elisabeth found her final resting place in a place she knew and loved, and once expressed a desire to be buried, but also the faithful have been given her relics. What a joy it was to hear of the taking of her relics to Russia earlier this year, with bishops from the Moscow Patriarchate and the Church outside Russia leading the veneration together.
So - what did she do specifically? Her original intention was to reintroduce the order of deaconess as she rightly understood that the work of her sisters to be essentially diaconal rather than monastic. She travelled to Germany to study the work of deaconesses in the Lutheran Church. She also came to England and visited Anglican monastic communities who worked in the East End of London. The Holy Synod turned down her original plan fearing that it was too innovative and contained a “protestant leaven”. A revised plan again met with reservation and finally her brother in law established the community by his own personal decree. Although the Holy Synod could not agree to her plans, she did receive consistent support from individual bishops. She was, for example, consistently supported by Metropolitan Vladimir of Moscow, (later the first of the new martyrs of the Russian Church).
So she gathered together a group of women who would begin to bring relief to those suffering in poverty in Moscow. The community was dedicated to Martha and Mary, (in that order). In February 1909 Elizabeth bought an estate on the Great Ordinka in which she established a hospital, including an operating room, a pharmacy and outpatients room and an orphanage. Elisabeth and her sisters received training in nursing and cared for the sick themselves. There are numerous testimonies of her dedication to the sick; often treating the most distressing conditions herself and sitting whole nights with these patients to comfort them.
Later Elisabeth started to visit the notorious Kitrov market area, bringing help in acute poverty and wherever possible rescuing very young girls from prostitution. Almedingen gives a hair-raising description of the conditions there and notes that these come from personal memories. She worked in Moscow during the winter of 1921-22. Her English chief’s comment on Khitrovka and its “amenities” was that the worst slum in Liverpool or Hull seemed paradise by comparison. This area was a “no go area” for the police and Elisabeth’s visits there caused paroxysms of anxiety for those responsible for her safety.
The community began in 1910 with 6 sisters, had increased to 30 within a year and continued to grow. Elisabeth had the highest regard for the monastic life but was quite clear that her sisters were not nuns. The blessing they received on entering the community was a form of dedication, and not a tonsure. She insisted on plenty of sleep and food for the sisters because of their hard physical work. Her own regime was ascetic. She hardly ate anything other than vegetables and after a full day of hard work, often spent a large part of the night in prayer.St Elizabeth(New Martyr)(scenes) copy
Elisabeth wrote a short text about the work of her sisters. I believe that it touchingly represents Elisabeth herself, her personality as well as her faith and aspirations. Each chapter begins with an icon reproduction, a verse from a liturgical text, a verse from scripture and then the appeal: “Brethren, pray for us!” It is fundamentally an appeal for prayers for the Martha Mary “obitel”, an appeal made, as she says, in the spirit of the first Christian communities who supported each other in mutual prayer. The main themes are resurrection, consolation in suffering and the cross. Elisabeth’s spiritual roots in the scriptures are striking.
The booklet begins with a meditation on the sisters Martha and Mary and their exchanges with Christ just before the raising of Lazarus, placing the faith of the sisters firmly in the context of the resurrection. The Mother of God is placed at the centre of the community’s life – as the first Christians sought consolation at her side after Christ’s resurrection. “These all continued with one accord in prayer and supplication, with the women and Mary, the mother of Jesus and his brethren." Acts 1:14”.
The third chapter is headed “Yet not I, but Christ lives in me” and contains the text: “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God. For just as the sufferings of Christ flow over into our lives, so also through Christ our comfort overflows.” (II Cor 1:3-5) I believe this is a key text in understanding Elisabeth’s inspiration. Another key text is: “Bear one another’s burdens and so fulfil the law of Christ” (Gal 6:2) and introduces a passage in which she says: “It is true that there is a certain amount of struggle in the true spiritual life, but often, even on earth, it is crowned with inner peace and joy. In the beginning, when the cross lies heavily on our shoulders, we remember the words the Lord said to His disciples: ‘If any man will come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me’ (Matt.16:24).
With meekness we have to take it upon us, and then, O wonder, (‘My yoke is easy, and my burden is light’ Matt 11:30) and the cross, under whose weight we thought we would collapse, little by little falls from our shoulders, and it now appears standing in splendour before us. We grasp it with both hands, as it slowly raises us up to Heaven. Those who know this experience love their cross, “and in carrying it are made joyful”. She refers to the fathers of Optina, particularly Farther Amvrosy, and stresses the importance of their guidance. I believe the text clearly shows the formation of these fathers with its emphasis on stability, steadfastness, patience and deep humility.