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A Gallery of Thoughts on Arts, Culture and Orthodox Christian Spirituality

Elizabeth Feodorovna: Life as a "Road Full of Light"

"... My dear children, thank God, you have received communion: as one soul, you all stood before the Saviour. I believe that the Saviour was on this Earth with you all, and during the Last Judgment this prayer will again be before God, like your mercy toward each other and toward me. Oh, how you are perfecting yourselves in salvation now. I can already see the good beginning. Only do not lose spirit and do not falter in your pure intentions, and the Lord, who has temporarily separated us, will spiritually strengthen us. Pray for me, a sinner, so I should be worthy of returning to my children, perfected for you, so we could all think how to prepare for life eternal ... "

This is the last letter of the Great Duchess Elizabeth Fiodorovna to the sisters of the Martha and Mary Convent of Mercy in 1918. The Home of Mercy, one of the main protagonists of Bunin's "Pure Monday," is still there, on Bolshaia Ordynka. Only now, on the one-way street it is hard to park. There's a McDonald's next to the metro station Tretiakovskaia. Nearby is the State School for Pop and Jazz. It is often called "college," but the word "school," with the more pre-revolutionary, noble nuance, sounds more organic on Bolshaya Ordynka.

The narrator of "Clean Monday" came here. He wanted to enter the monastery, but the janitor "blocked his way," warning that "the Grand Duchess Elzbeth Fedrovna is there now ..." The hero shoved a ruble to the janitor; he "sighed meekly and let him pass". But the narrator had hardly "entered the courtyard when icons and banners from the church appeared, and, all in white, thin-faced, in a white head cover with a golden cross sewn on the forehead, slowly, with a large candle in her hand, the Grand Duchess ... "

Reading the "Pure Monday" again and again, I am struggling over the riddle, what - what specifically - so amazes the reader and the narrator (and probably Bunin himself) about this image, which will put not a period, but an ellipsis at the end of the story...

They say that no artist who painted a portrait of Grand Duchess Elizabeth Fiodorovna felt satisfied with his work. Her beauty - dazzling in reality - eluded when they tried to transfer it to the canvas.

And contemporaries, who knew the princess personally said that there are only two beauties in Europe - both are called Elizabeth: Elizabeth of Austria, the wife of Emperor Franz Joseph, and Elizabeth Fiodorovna, the wife of Grand Duke Sergei Aleksandrovich, the Moscow Governor-General, the brother of Emperor Alexander III. Perhaps that's why the ingenious Bunin does not describe her face - her eyes? lips? cheekbones? - because this beauty is only perceptible between the lines, in the very spirit of the image, and to try to convey it in words means to shatter it.

It seems that the mystery of this beauty lies in the path which Saint Elizabeth took before the moment when the narrator and the reader of the "Pure Monday" beheld her at the head of the procession. One could say said that all the main points on this path - like her beauty - were inexpressible.

... Inexpressible is the love toward Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich. They, married spouses, lived like brother and sister - and Elizabeth Fiodorovna could not even imagine a life without a husband, reluctant to part with him even for a minute.

... Inexpressible is the mercy toward the terrorist Ivan Kaliaev - the revolutionary who threw a bomb into the carriage of Sergei Alexandrovich on February 18, 1905. Elizabeth Fiodorovna collected the remains of the beloved body scattered by the explosion with her own hands. And on the third day after the murder, she came to Kaliaev's cell. He said: "I did not want to kill you, I saw him several times at a time when I had a bomb ready, but you were with him, and I did not dare to touch him ..." - "And you did not realize that you killed me together with him?" She came to tell Kaliaev she forgives him and that Sergey Alexandrovich himself - she knew for sure! - also forgives him from heaven, but the terrorist replied that he does not need forgiveness.

... Inexpressible is the devotion toward the foreign country of Russia, with which she, German princess Elizabeth Alexandra Louise Alice of Hessen-Darmstadt, not only fell in love, but accepted as her destiny and God's Providence. In 1917, German diplomats offered to help the Grand Duchess leave the country, but she replied that she would share all the trials with her new homeland.

.. Finally, inexpressible is the depth of comprehension of the Orthodox faith and its origin in the German princess who received a Protestant education unclear. Unlike her sister - Alix, who became the wife of Emperor Nicholas II and therefore obliged to accept Christianity, for St. Elizabeth the transition to the new faith became a personal, meaningful and, moreover, a long-suffered decision. In a letter to her father, she wrote: "... You say that the external splendor of the church fascinated me. In this you are mistaken. Nothing external attracts me nor does the worship itself - but the foundation of faith. External signs only remind me of the internal ... I am converting from pure conviction; I feel that this is the supreme religion ..." Saint Elizabeth immediately felt that faith without deeds is dead, and deeds without faith are futile. From this grew the idea for the Martha and Mary Convent of Mercy, where sisters, following the example of Mary from the Gospel on the one hand would turn to the spiritual life, and, following the example of Martha from the Gospel on the other - would provide active help to all the needy and destitute (Luke 10: 38- 42).

It was at this very point - a few years before the revolution - that Grand Duchess Elizabeth Fiodorovna was seen by the narrator of the "Pure Monday" at the head of the procession. Could he have unraveled the beauty of this woman, who had already experienced so much, but who was to experience even more? The reader in this sense is more knowledgeable than the narrator: he knows what will happen to her later, and can, therefore, speculate about the real beauty of the Grand Duchess - that internal (and therefore inexpressible) beauty which only saints emanate.

Saint Elizabeth and her seven companions, among them Grand Dukes and one of the sisters of the Martha and Mary Convent, Barbara, were thrown on July 18, 1918 by the Bolsheviks into the abyss of an abandoned mine near Alapaevsky. The local residents would hear prayers from the mine for some time. When the White Guards later found the bodies, they will see that the fingers of the right hand of the Grand Duchess and the nun Barbara are folded for the sign of the cross. Saint Elizabeth will not fall to the bottom of the mine, but onto a ledge at a depth of fifteen meters. Next to it, the body of Grand Duke John Konstantinovich would be found, his head tied with a headscarf from the monastic attire of the Grand Duchess.

Once Saint Elizabeth called her life with all the tragedies and tribulations "the road full of light."

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