...we are made a spectacle unto the world, and to angels, and to men. We are fools for Christ's sake. (I Cor. 4:9-10)
One of the principal values in reading Lives of Saints is that these are men and women with whom we can identify and in some small measure emulate, striving towards those virtues which they so brilliantly reflect. By contrast, one might question the utility of describing the extreme and even scandalous behavior of these fools-for Christ, whose path to salvation is so foreign to our own. In fact, the purpose here is not to provide examples for emulation; in this age of spiritual immaturity and fakery this would invite disaster. Rather, it is to jolt our rational sensibilities, our devotion to what is "reasonable," so coveted by our Western culture, and to open our eyes to Christianity's essential otherworldliness. These Lives serve as a stark reminder that, as bishop Theophan the Recluse wrote, "the spiritual world is such a realm into which the wisdom of this world does not penetrate."
Foolishness-for-Christ’s-sake is considered to be the most difficult of Christian spiritual exploits. It is frequently misunderstood and, if undertaken outside the will of God, is a sign of spiritual deception, or ”prelest”. St. Seraphim of Sarov, who himself manifested on occasion certain traits of this 'holy folly', warned of the peril of embarking upon such a path without a special call from the Lord. The primary purpose of such an undertaking is to intensify humility and thereby to defeat the demon of vainglory, who avidly preys upon those richly endowed with spiritual gifts, those well advanced on the ladder to perfection. These ascetics feign madness, deliberately provoking others to make fun of them and offend them; they are voluntary martyrs, dying to the world, to what is considered "acceptable" and "reasonable,'' for the sake of a life hidden in Christ, a realm which lies above the level of purely human understanding. By their strange behavior and enigmatic words--they often speak in riddles and parables---these chosen ones of God also serve as living reminders of the transcendent aim of life. It has been noted that they appear in Christian societies at times of spiritual laxity: when piety has become mere habit, when Christian love runs shallow and people's hearts are not illumined by the grace of God.
For obvious reasons the “podvig” of foolishness-for-Christ is not a common phenomenon; within the Church's rich hagiographical depository, there are relatively few fools-for-Christ: St. Andrew of Constantinople, St. Basil of Moscow, St. Xenia of Petersburg, Blessed Feofil of the Kiev Caves... It is striking, therefore, to find in Russia's Diveyevo Convent a succession of holy fools, "blazhenni," not unlike Optina's "golden chain" of God-bearing elders.
The first fool-for-Christ of Diveyevo was blessed Parasceva Semyonovna Meliukova. In blessing her on this path, St. Seraphim told her to undertake it only after his death, a time of troubles for the Convent, in order to defend the truth. After barely a week she collapsed under the strain--which gives one an idea of the spiritual stamina necessary to bear it successfully. Nine days later she died.
Still in her lifetime there settled in Diveyevo another fool-for-Christ, Pelagia Ivanovna Sembrenikova.Pelagia_the_Holy_Fool copy As a young married woman she visited St. Seraphim, who conversed privately with her for a long time. On parting, the Elder bowed to her and said, "Go, Matushka, to Diveyevo and defend my orphans. God will glorify you there." And he handed her a prayer rope. As she walked away, a young monk standing outside the elder's cell asked him who she was. "Trust God, Fr. John," replied the Saint, "this woman whom you see will be a great luminary for the whole world....She is Pelagia Ivanovna, from Arzamas."
On returning home, Pelagia Ivanovna began acting as though she had gone mad, running around Arzamas and shouting inanities. For several years she endured unspeakable torments from her relatives: her husband locked her up, beat her, chained her to a wall, and finally abandoned her altogether. Half-dressed, she spent freezing winter nights on a church porch. But she remained unshaken, encouraged in her exploit by another fool-for-Christ living in the same town, who evidently guided her.
After four years of this harsh' life, she was sitting one day in the road when a Diveyevo nun of considerable spiritual experience came up to her. "You've been acting crazy here long enough; it's time you came to us in Diveyevo, for this is pleasing to God."
In Diveyevo Pelagia Ivanovna continued her tormenting struggle. She deliberately visited the cells of those nuns who were rather severe and didn't like her, and vexed them no end. For example, she would bring into their cells rocks, clay and all kinds of dirt, patiently enduring in return verbal abuse and sometimes even beatings. No one understood her. She was considered to be an ordinary crazy woman and quite unbearable. Only young Mother Anna was patient and loving with her, and for forty-five years Pelagia lived in her care. The blessed one straightway loved the young nun for her kind heart, but she sometimes provoked her as well. For example, she would throw rocks into a clay pit filled with water and come home covered with mud, and Mother Anna would have to wash and change her. She did this constantly. Mother Anna kept all her recollections about the blessed one's life in Diveyevo. Finally, the following incident served to open everyone's eyes.
To everyone's consternation, Pelagia Ivanovna began running every day to the local tavern. Through her God-given gift of discernment she knew that the owner of the tavern was diabolically inspired to murder his innocent wife. But she told no one about this. And so, late one night, thinking he was alone with his wife, the tavern owner raised his knife to kill her. At that very moment the blessed one, having hidden behind some kegs, jumped out in front of him. "You fool, what are you doing?!!" she shouted. The fear of God seized the guilty man. He dropped the knife, and the blessed one, having accomplished her mission, ran off. The next day the tavern owner came with his wife to the convent and, with a contrite heart, related all that had happened. From then on, peace and concord established themselves in his home, and the blessed one ceased going to the tavern. At the same time, the sisters' attitude towards her changed: they understood that among them was a genuine ascetic.
Gradually, Pelagia Ivanovna began to manifest other spiritual gifts, especially the gift of directing souls. All the sisters came under her spiritual guidance, and she had quite a number of spiritual children among the laity as well. As for the abbess, she did nothing without consulting the blessed one, and only with the abbess did the blessed one converse normally, without acting the fool.
The painter, M. P. Petrov, was a living example of that grace-filled action through which she directed people's hearts to the way of salvation.
Returning from a trip to Mount Athos, Petrov stopped in Sarov and Diveyevo. He was taken to see Pelagia Ivanovna. His first impression was oppressive. Pelagia did not respond to his questions; she sat by the door, all hunched up, with huge fingernails and toenails. He had been at the Convent about a month when, acquiescing to the persistent urging of the sisters, he rather reluctantly decided to go see her again.
"When I entered," related Petrov, "she got up and, drawing herself to her full height, began running about the room laughing; then she ran up to me and hit me on the shoulder: 'Well?' That arm had long pained me as a result of palsy, but after that hit the pain instantly subsided and disappeared altogether. I was overcome by a kind of panic and stood speechless, shaking with fright. She then proceeded to tell me all about my past life, including amazing details which no one but I knew about. She even related the contents of a letter which I'd sent that day to Petersburg."
Astounded, Petrov fell to his knees and kissed her hand. From then on he became her earnest visitor and admirer.
"She pulled me from the depths of hell", he said later.
Before her repose on January 30, 1884 (O.S.), she was granted to receive the Holy Mysteries from angels, as witnessed by Mother Anna. After her repose she was seen in a vision, kneeling before the Most Holy Mother of God together with St. Seraphim. Blessed Parasceva Semyonovna called her "a second Seraphim," and she became known as “Seraphim's Seraphim."
During this time there lived in Diveyevo yet another fool-for-Christ, Natalia Dmitrievna--"Natashenka". Little is known of her background, other than that she came from a peasant family of the Orenburg province. At first, she too sorely tried the nuns' patience---she would stand by the choir, her head uncovered, and make faces--and she would have been evicted had not Blessed Pelagia appeared in a vision to one of the senior nuns with a paper on which was written in large letters: "Do not touch Natalia; she is assigned to live here!"
It was generally believed that she had been secretly tonsured in Kiev and, judging from her behaviour and way of life, she had been directed by the elders onto an exceptionally difficult path. Weeks, even months at a time she would spend in the hay shed - a shelter consisting of little more than a roof—in winter, summer, good weather and bad; she ate little and on fast days nothing at all; she never combed her hair, never bathed and changed her clothes only once a year---on the Feast of Protection; she never lay down to sleep but rested in a sitting position. She would spend whole days in church and never missed a service. Her obedience was to read the Psalter at night. One of her most striking peculiarities was her habit of moving sideways, and always along the same path or floorboards. She insisted that visitors not come up to her directly but that they take steps backwards and forwards for several minutes while reciting, "Theotokos and Virgin, rejoice..."
This evidently allowed her time to pray for the Lord's guidance, and also prepared her visitors to receive her advice. Unlike many "holy fools," who spoke in riddles, Natashenka was very clear and direct in her counsel. Her wisdom was profound.
To the ordinary person, these "eccentricities" seem senseless, bizarre, idiotic, irrational. But it is for just this reason that the elder prescribed them-in order to vanquish human reasoning, self-will, and, with the help of such a harsh obedience-intolerable for most--to force a complete renunciation of the world, a complete turning inward, into the heart where the Kingdom of Heaven is to be found. Few have the spiritual eyes to see the real meaning of such severe exploits. Worldly people are horrified by their utter and deliberate neglect of personal hygiene; some even think they must find this pleasurable, although it is rare that a person can tolerate such bodily filth. The very fact that it disgusts people and that it is so unbearable constitutes a real struggle and shows that the ascetic has subjugated his carnal passions by the spirit and celebrates victory in the sweetest feeling of love for Christ.
When Natasha grew old, she ceased her foolishness. She died in 1899, having spent more than fifty years in Diveyevo.
Not long before Pelagia Ivanovna died, she saw from her window a woman coming towards her from the convent gates. She shouted at her, shaking her finger threateningly. The woman stopped. "Is it still too early, mother?" she asked. "Early," answered the blessed one. The woman bowed low and left as she had come. She would return periodically for extended visits and, after Pelagia Ivanovna died, she remained there to live. Who was she? Her name in holy baptism was Nadezhda, but everyone knew her as Pasha of Sarov, or Parasceva Ivanovna. Years earlier, after enduring frightful trials, she had gone on pilgrimage to Kiev; on her return she had begun to act the fool and call herself Parasceva. It was therefore surmised that in Kiev she had been secretly tonsured and the elders had guided her onto the path of foolishness- for-Christ's-sake.
At first she undertook this “podvig” in a village, then she went to live as a hermit in the Sarov forest. Tall, thin, sun burnt and barefoot, wearing a man's shirt, she resembled St. Mary of Egypt. Like St. Seraphim she was beaten up by robbers who left her in a pool of blood.
In Diveyevo Pasha straightway took Pelagia Ivanovna's place as spiritual directress. The abbess likewise consulted her in every undertaking. The sisters called her "Little Mother," and, like Pelagia Ivanovna, she had many spiritual children among lay people. In contrast to Blessed Natalia, Pasha was very clean and liked everything to be tidy. She loved to wear bright colors. Her bed was covered with fat pillows and dolls. She herself rarely used it. In her spare time she would knit socks or crochet while saying the Jesus Prayer --for which reason the items she made were much coveted.
When the Royal Family came to the Diveyevo Convent at the opening of the relics of Saint Seraphim, July 19, 1903, Blessed Parasceva foretold the birth of their son, Tsarevich Alexis. Before they arrived she prepared a large boy doll, which she gave to the Empress. (She often prophesied using dolls, as did Elder Nectarius of Optina). The Tsar, after speaking with the blessed one, said that he had visited and spoken with many holy people, and all of them had received him as Tsar, but only Parasceva Ivanovna received him as an ordinary person. After this the Tsar corresponded with the blessed one through a special courier. Not long before her death she answered the Tsar’s last question with the words, “Sir, leave the throne yourself.” The blessed one would cross herself before a portrait of the Tsar that hung in her cell, and daily made a prostration before it, in spite of being already ill and so weak that her cell attendant had to assist her in getting up. In 1914, while praying before the portrait, she said, 'There's not much time left now for our dearest one." Several times the blessed one called the Tsar a martyr and said, "This Tsar will be higher than all the other tsars." She died in 1915 at the age of 120.
Pasha's successor was Maria lvanovna, a clairvoyant and wise spiritual directress. She had a spiritual son, Michael Ar...ov, with whom she often joked. Once Misha's cousins, nuns, came to Diveyevo to see Maria Ivanovna. They asked how Misha was doing. "He's gotten involved with a gypsy," she told them. The sisters worried, and at the next opportunity they asked their cousin, "You must tell us what's happened to you?” Surprised, Misha asked, "But what could have happened?" "Maria Ivanovna told us that you're involved with a gypsy." Misha began to laugh and then explained that he hadn't smoked for many years, but not long ago he succumbed to the temptation; he bought a pack of "Gypsy" brand cigarettes and started smoking again.
Soon after the Revolution Maria Ivanovna began to use really terrible, foul language. She did this for a number of days. The nuns who lived with her couldn't bear it and would leave the house from time to time to get some relief. Finally, they could tolerate no more and began to rebuke Maria Ivanovna, "How can you use such foul language?! Parasceva Ivanovna never did that." The blessed one replied, "Under Nicholas she could speak nicely, but try doing that under the Soviets!"
Blessed Maria Ivanovna died in 1927.
(Translated and compiled from Russian Orthodox Women's Monasticism by Nun Taisia, Jordanvllle, 1985; St. Seraphim of Sarov by Dr. A. Timofieyvich, Novo-Diveyevo, 1953; A Chronicle of Diveyevo Monastery, St. Herman of Alaska Monastery, 1978; "The Fools for Christ of Diveyevo", a samizdat at-tide translated by Nun Evfrosinia; and "Blessed Pelagia Ivanovna, Fool-for-Christ," in Nadezhhda, Vol. 12, Possev, Frankfurt).