After the assassination of her husband in 1905, Grand Duchess Elizabeth took the opportunity to withdraw from society and devote herself more fully to prayer and charity -- wherein she found not only solace but a deep sense of fulfillment and joy. The idea came to her at this time to found a community combining monastic principles and active service to the needy. In February 1909, she settled with a few sisters onto an estate on Bolshaya Ordynka Street in Moscow, thus establishing the Martha-Mary Convent of Mercy.
This type of community was unknown in Russia, and its novelty provoked certain misunderstandings -- as did the Grand Duchess' decision to enter upon such a life. Her younger sister, the Empress Alexandra, and Tsar Nicholas were naturally concerned for her. The following letter (one of a hundred extant letters the Grand Duchess wrote to the Tsar between 1886-1916), written to allay their suspicions, serves also to reflect her exceptional Christian character and sincere humility.
The reader will remember that English was not the Grand Duchess' native language; we have chosen not to highlight her errors with the use of "[sic.]". Words she wrote in Russian are translated in brackets. The underlining follows her original -- Ed.
18 April 1909
Thanks so very much for your long letter full of kind beautiful advice and in which I perfectly agree and understand -- only would like to answer and show you a little of my inner life so that you may know that part which rarely we speak about.
You mention the [spirit of deception] into which alas one can fall and of which often with Serge we have talked about. He with his large heart and tact whilst I was protestant never forced his religion upon me and found strength to bear up in this grief of not seeing me in his faith, thanks to [Fr. John], who told him "Leave her alone, don't speak about our faith, she will come to it of herself" and thank God it was so. Well, Serge, who knew his faith and lived in it as perfectly as a true Orthodox Christian can, brought me up and thank God warned me against this [spirit of deception] you talk of. My nature is too calm to be carried away in that direction, but yet one must always be on one's guard as 'he devil slips in when we least expect.
Another question you mention and which I must have not well explained or you did not quite understand that I [guide myself, not under the influence of a priest]. I meant to say that the priest did not influence me in taking up the life I am now leading, as when I well thought it out I spoke to him and..,
One can't believe that I alone, without any outer influence
decided this step -- which to many seems an unbearable cross I have taken up.
And which I will either regret one day, throw over, or break down under. I took
it up not as a cross -- but as a road full of light God showed me after Serge's
death and which years and years before had begun in my soul. I can't tell
you when -- it seems to me often that already as a child there was a longing to
help those who suffer. Above all those who have moral sufferings and always more
and more it grew in me, only being in a position where our duty was to receive,
to see heaps of people, to give receptions, dinners, balls and ... it could not
fill entirely my life, other duties having to go before.
You can't agree to these [major changes in life] -- only think, to me it was no
[change], it little by little grew and took form and many, many who followed all
my life and know me well here, were not astonished, taking it only as a
continuation of what before had begun and that is how I took it. I was taken
aback when a whole battle broke out to prevent me, to frighten me about the
difficulties -- all with great love and kindness, but with utter
incomprehension of my character. You find ["nevertheless, I find that
you could have done more good in your previous position'']. I can't say if you
are right and I wrong, life and time will show and certainly I am not worthy of
the unboundless joy of God letting me work this way - but I will try and He who
is all love will forgive me my mistakes, as He sees the wish I have of serving
Him and His. In my life I had so much joy -- in my sorrows so much unboundless
comfort, that I long to give a little of that to others. I could
write pages and pages, and yet it is difficult to put on paper all I feel. I
long to thank and thank every minute for all God gave me and long to bring Him
my feeble gratitude by serving Him and His suffering children. Oh,
this is not a new feeling, this is an old one which always
was in me. God has been so kind to me.
Another question you mention, ["one must be under spiritual guidance"]. How right and true. Until now I have unluckily not met the ["experienced elder"], but in spring I had before your letter already decided to go to him. He is at the church near St. Serge -- [Zosima Hermitage]. Aleksei is his name and only comes out Saturday and Sunday to confess.... For myself I find an immense and touching help in three of the [abbots], they consider me be longing to them, give me advice and.., which is a great help. And except that, there are the Metropolitans Tryphon and Ariastaste who are now my masters whom I see and who have serious talks with me. I have also worldly workers whose advice I look for, and please don't think that I imagine I can do and decide all alone. Every question I think and talk out and then of course being the master decide trusting in God to guide me.
You both dears pray for me even if you find 1 am mistaken, pray that once
the step is taken God may guide me to do right. I have heard so much
about your [bishop Theophan] and long to know him and talk to him, ask him to
pray for me, please. I fear so you think I am proud and self-satisfied,
that I interiorly puff myself up with satisfaction of creating
something grand. Oh, I wish you knew me better. I know Alix imagines I
allow people to call me a Saint -- she said so to my Countess O. I -- good
gracious -- what am I, no better and probably worse than others. If people may
have said foolish exaggerated things it is my fault, but they don't say it to my
face, they know I hate flattery as a dangerous poison. I can't
help people loving me, but then you see I love them and they feel it. I try to
do my best for them and people can be grateful although one must never expect
it. I don't one minute think I have taken up a "podvig.' it is a joy,
I don't see my crosses nor feel them because the unboundless
kindness of God I have always felt -- I long to thank Him.
The few sisters I have are good girls and very religious but all our work is founded and lives in religion. The priest guides them, we have three times a week admirable lectures to which outside ladies also come. Then at prayers in the morning he reads to them a text out of the New Testament and says a few words of guidance and... I look after them, we talk. The meals they take without me except on feast days, Easter and our church feasts, maybe oftener. We all take tea together, the priest and his wife too and it ends by a talk about religion... Later we will have, like in the convents, a big trapeznaja and one will read Saints' lives and like the head nun I will appear sometimes to assist and see if all is as I wish. There is a good deal of convent in our life which 1 find indispensable, we even have some ex-nurses recommended by their superiors, girls recommended by [elders] and.., so that you see from all good sides we have sympathy and help. /.../
Forgive my impossibly long letter, please read it with Alix and if anything else you want to know, or where you find I'm going wrong, I will be so grateful for your advice or remarks. Forgive me, both of you. I know and feel, alas, I worry you and perhaps you don't quite understand me, please forgive and be patient with me, forgive my mistakes, forgive my living differently than you would have wished, forgive that I don't often come to see you because of my duties here. Simply with your good hearts forgive, and with your large Christian souls pray for me and my work.
Ever Your loving old Sister and friend,
Reprinted from Materiali k Zhitlyu.,, Moscow 1995
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