Orthodox America


Holy Nuns of Royal Blood


Students of Russian History are familiar with the scene from the life of Tsar Peter I in which he compels his sister to take the veil in order to stifle her competing ambitions-which only highlights the general impression that female royalty who ended their lives within the walls of a convent entered these saving enclosures for reasons other than a true vocation. In fact, nearly thirty princesses are listed in the menalogia of Russian saints from the 10th to 17th centuries, many of them monastics. Of these, four were given the name Evfrosinia at their tonsure. The Life of St. Evfrosinia of Moscow (Ý July 7, 1407) appeared in OA #109. Here are the Lives of the other three.

Saint Evfrosinia of Polotsk  May 23, 1173

St. Evfrosinia, the Princess Predislava, was the daughter of Prince George of Polotsk, a city in the north of what is now Belorus, near the Latvian border. An intelligent child, she was still young when she began reading the Holy Scriptures. This firmly drew her mind and heart to God and when, in spite of her protests, her parents made arrangement for her marriage to a certain prince, she ran away to a convent, where the abbess was a relative of hers, and begged to be tonsured. Abbess Romana was reluctant in view of the girl's youth-she was only twelve-and fearing to incur the wrath of her father, but it was evident that the girl's love for Christ was deep and sincere, and the abbess finally acquiesced. The young princess was accepted into the monastic ranks with the name Evfrosinia. Her parents were grieved by the news of their daughter's tonsure, but she told them they had greater cause to rejoice, seeing her betrothed to the Immortal Bridegroom, Jesus Christ.

The young nun entered eagerly into the life of the convent, fasting, praying and working. She forsook all thought of her earthly rank and gladly submitted to the other nuns. Her garden of virtues matured rapidly and she received a blessing from the bishop of Polotsk, Elias, to settle in a separate cell in the church of St. Sophia. There she led a secluded life of prayer and fasting, emulating the Mother of God in her concentrated devotion to the Lord. She occupied her free time with copying church books, which were sold and the proceeds distributed to the poor.

One night an angel appeared and led her out of the city to a small wooden church dedicated to the Saviour. "The Lord wants you to live here," he told her. "Through you the Lord will bring many to salvation here." Bishop Elias had a similar vision and gave the land to St. Evfrosinia for a convent.

The Saint became a spiritual mother not only to her nuns but also to many lay people. She was granted the gift of discerning who was suited to the monastic life, and motivated four relatives to enter the convent. She persuaded her father to send her younger sister Gradislava that she might teach her to read the Scriptures. Gradislava fell in love with the monastic life, and St. Evfrosinia tonsured her with the name Evdokia. This upset the parents, and they came to Evfrosinia to protest. "What have you done to us! You have added one sorrow to another. First you abandoned us, and now you have taken our second beloved child from us. Is this why we brought you into the world, why we raised you, that even before death you would clothe yourselves in black and lock yourselves into a monastery, depriving us of all joy?!" The Saint consoled her parents with words from Holy Scripture, thereby easing their sorrow.

With the rapid growth of the convent, the Saint set about constructing a new stone church-and God helped her. There lived in the vicinity a master-builder who was awakened early one morning by an insistent voice: "John, get up! Go and take charge of building the church of the

All-Merciful Saviour." He thought St. Evfrosinia had sent for him, but she recognized it as a divine summons and urged him to obey the voice. "This is God's doing!"

The church was nearing completion when the supply of bricks ran out. The Saint spent the night in prayer, and in the morning the oven was discovered full of fired and already cooled bricks.

The Saint built another church dedicated to the Mother of God. Taking advantage of ancestral ties with the Paleologue dynasty, she sent valuable gifts to Emperor Manuel of Constantinople, boldly requesting an ancient icon of the Mother of God for her new church. The devout emperor had heard of St. Evfrosinia's spiritual accomplishments and granted her desire. In this way the wonder-working Hodegitria-type "Korsun" Icon came to Russia. (Later, in 1239, when the daughter of Prince Briacheslav of Polotsk married St. Alexander Nevsky, she took the Icon with her to Toropetsk, near Pskov, and there the Icon remained, on the iconostasis of the Resurrection Church.)

After forty years in the convent, St. Evfrosinia fulfilled a life-long desire to go to the Holy Land. A great crowd of people came to bid her farewell, mourning as if at a funeral. The Saint entrusted her convent to her sister, Nun Evdokia. Her brother David and her cousin, Nun Eupraxia, accompanied her on the journey.

They travelled first to Constantinople, where St. Evfrosinia was received with honor by both Emperor Manuel and Patriarch Luke. After venerating many of the city's holy relics and icons, they continued south to Jerusalem. There St. Evfrosinia made a point of going first to the Lord's Sepulchre. She left there a golden censor and gave other gifts to the Patriarch and various churches as she made the rounds of all the holy sites, reverencing the great spiritual treasures.

One day she prayed fervently at the Holy Sepulchre that she be granted to die there in the Holy Land. Returning to her quarters in the "Russian" convent, she suddenly fell ill. Regretting that she had not had time to bathe in the Jordan, she sent her brother to get some of its water, which she drank and poured over herself. An angel appeared to her and told her that her earthly sojourn was soon drawing to an end and that a blessed repose was awaiting her in the heavenly kingdom. The Saint was jubilant. She made arrangements to be buried in the monastery of St. Theodosius, where already many righteous women were buried, including the mothers of St. Savva and the unmercenary physicians Ss. Cosmas and Damian. Her illness lasted about two weeks; St. Evfrosinia peacefully reposed two days after partaking of the Holy Mysteries, on 23 May, 1173.

The threat of the Moslem Saladin's advance forced many Christians to leave the Holy City, and in 1187 Saint Evfrosinia's sacred remains were taken first to Accra and then to Kiev, where they were honorably ensconced in a niche of the Far Caves' Annunciation Church. Various appeals were made to have the relics returned to Polotsk, but it was only in 1909 that such a transfer was approved, thanks to the active interest of Tsar Nicholas in the case. In Bright Week, 1910, the reliquary began its journey north by steamer along the Dniepr, inspiring a tremendous outpouring of religious fervor in the cities where it stopped along the way. From Orsha the reliquary was carried forty miles to Vitebsk and then to Polotsk. Among those present for the celebration were St. Elizabeth the Grand Duchess, Grand Duke Konstantine Constantinovich and the Queen of Greece. It was a royal welcome for a royal saint.

Soon after the Revolution St. Evfrosinia's relics were removed by the God-hating communists and blasphemously displayed in a local museum of atheism. With the coming of the Germans, believers were able to move the relics into the Holy Protection Church. Two years later, in 1943, the relics were returned to their former resting place in the Polotsk convent church of the Saviour where, to this day, frequent prayers of supplication and thanksgiving testify to the unwaning devotion of the Orthodox faithful to this holy princess and bride of Christ.

Saint Febronia-Evfrosinia of Murom  June 25, 1228

The right-believing prince Peter began his reign in the city of Murom in 1203. Once he fell grievously ill and a young maid, Febronia, skilled in the use of herbs, was called to treat him. The prince fell in love with this beautiful and meek daughter of a beekeeper, and when, with her help, he regained his health, he married her. The proud boyars objected to the peasant princess, and demanded the prince abandon her. When the prince refused to violate the sanctity of his marriage vows, the boyars compelled the royal couple to leave the city. Sorrowfully, they departed in a boat along the Oka River. Soon, however the wrath of God descended upon Murom, and the inhabitants repented and entreated the return of their prince and his wife. Both devoted themselves to works of piety and charity, and they were held in great love and esteem by the people. They died on the same day, June 28, 1228, after receiving the monastic tonsure with the names David and Evfrosinia. They were glorified in 1552, and are venerated as patrons of newly-weds, having suffered for the sanctity and inviolability of marriage.

Saint Evfrosinia of Suzdal Sept. 25, 1250

St. Evfrosinia was the eldest daughter of Prince-Martyr Michael of Chernigov. Her parents, childless for many years, had prayed fervently at the Kiev Caves Lavra, and when their prayers were answered they took their daughter there to be baptized. She was given the name Theodula, "servant of God"; her sponsor was the abbot himself. Her father undertook to instruct her in the Holy Scriptures, entrusting the rest of her education to his close friend, the boyar Feodor. As a child, she saw a vision of the Last Judgment: a sea of fire and paradise; the Most Holy Mother of God called her to share the blessedness of the righteous, and the Lord Almighty held in his hand the Book of Life. In another vision she was shown the monastery of the Caves and its monks, glorifying God in song. The young girl reflected upon the blessed state of those who on earth were already like unto the angels, and, in the world to come, inhabitants of paradise, and she was inspired by a desire to join them.

Since childhood, however, Princess Theodula had been betrothed to Prince Mina of Suzdal, and at the age of fifteen she was sent to Suzdal to be married. The girl did not wish to marry, and en route she prayed to the Mother of God, "betrother of holy souls," that she might become a bride of Christ. On arriving in Suzdal she learned that her fiancée had suddenly died. Theodula did not return home, but asked to be admitted to the Convent of the Deposition of the Robe, founded in 1207 just outside the city walls. The abbess had had a revelation concerning the princess's arrival and acceded to her request. She was tonsured on September 25 with the name Efvrosinia, in honor of St. Evfrosinia of Alexandria who is commemorated that day. Her parents received the news of her profession as God's will and did not protest her decision.

The new nun spent most of her day in prayer, in church and in her cell, applying herself at night to the study of the Scriptures. She fasted strictly, going whole weeks without eating, drinking only some water. At first she was plagued mercilessly by demons, but she persevered in prayer and eventually they stopped tormenting her. The abbess told her, "Without the demons' attacks, there would be no tried warriors for the kingdom; furthermore, the Lord allows those who love Him to endure temptations in order that their virtues might be manifest."

As a nun St. Evfrosinia did not occupy any position of authority, but her life and ascetic deeds greatly enhanced the community's reputation; it developed into one of the best convents in Russia, both in its ascetical and liturgical life. It was her idea to divide the convent: one half was for virgins and the other for widows. The city women would attend services in the Church of the Holy Trinity in the widow's half, while girls would attend the convent's main church, Of the Deposition, located in the virgins' half. Here St. Evfrosinia read and sang on cliros; she had a magnificent voice. She was also appointed to deliver homilies on the Holy Scripture and to give instructive talks to the sisters and the city girls, many of whom, under her inspiration, left the world to become nuns. At the outbreak of an epidemic in Russia, the Mother of God appeared to St. Evfrosinia and granted her the gift of healing. A girl, Taisia, whom she healed, entered the convent together with her mother. Later, after spending some time in silence, the Saint was also granted the gift of foreknowledge. She foretold the imminent repose of the abbess, and the martyric death of her father, slain together with his faithful boyar Feodor on a visit to the Horde in 1246.

Once, a Suzdal resident asked permission to see the Saint. He was amazed at her emaciated appearance, at her ragged clothing. The Saint answered his thoughts: "A fish on ice, sprinkled with snow, does not spoil or stink of decay; it even becomes tastier. So, too, if we monastics endure the cold we become stronger and we shall be pleasing to Christ in incorruptible life." Responding to his request for a word of instruction, she said to him: "Listen, Christ-lover! Fortunate is that household whose masters are devout, fortunate is that ship which is guided by an experienced captain; fortunate, likewise, is that monastery whose monks are abstinent. But woe to that house whose inhabitants are ungodly, woe to that ship which lacks an experienced captain, woe to that monastery in which there is no self-denial; the household becomes impoverished, the ship smashes against the rocks, and the monastery is abandoned. And you, beloved by God, be charitable, to your household servants first of all, and if you want to share your abundance with us here at the monastery, send only olive oil, candles and incense. And that will be sufficient for us." After this talk, the man, who previously had been hard-hearted, changed completely and became very kind.

Not long before the Saint's repose, Suzdal was shaken by an earthquake, at which time she saw the heavens open and the Most Holy Theotokos, together with the saints, entreating the Son of God. Then her martyred father appeared to her with his boyar Feodor and told her of her imminent death. She began to prepare herself. After a brief illness, she partook of the Holy Mysteries and prayed: "Glory to Thee, O Holy Trinity! Our hope, Most Holy Mother of God, help me! O Lord, into Thy hands I commit my spirit!" And, crossing her hands, she peacefully departed this life on September 25, 1250.

Very soon after her repose miracles began occurring at her grave, and in the 16th century she was formally glorified. During the service a mentally deranged man was led up to her relics. His mind restored, he said, "I see moisture on the icon." And indeed, the image of the Saint was covered with what looked like dew. St. Evfrosinia's incorrupt relics were kept in the cathedral church of the Deposition Convent.


Sources: Lives of the Russian Saints by Nun Taisia, Jordanville, 1984; Russian Orthodox Readings, "Holy Orthodox Princess", 1990-8, Moscow; Bogomater' by Ye. Poselyanin, St Petersburg. "The Life of St. Evfrosinia of Polotsk" by Nun Barbara in Pravoslavnaya Zhizn, 1959 #5, Jordanville. "Velikoe Shestviye Sviatini" in Vestnik Belorusskovo Exarkhata, 1990 #2, Minsk.

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