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Theology 52: The Life and Miracles of Blessed Xenia of St. Petersburg

January 9, 2014

Book coverThe Life and Miracles of Blessed Xenia of St. Petersburg (Great Ascetics of Russia) is a 79 page stapled pamphlet and I’ve read it before, so it was naturally my first choice for the daunting list of 52 books of theology I had set myself to read this year.

When I was received into the Orthodox Church, one question like most converts is what name to pick, because the tradition is to be named for a particular saint whose namesday then becomes your namesday, and far more important a date than your own birthday, a tradition that is a lot easier to admire than put into practice, especially with small children who are wondering why they don’t have a birthday like other kids.

I had mostly settled on St Hilda of Whitby who is pretty rocking as a woman of administrative brilliance, teaching and nurturing and founding entire communities. I had been reading a lot of Ellis Peters too.

My priest told me the week before that I was going to be named Xenia after St Xenia of St Petersburg, here was her icon and that was that.

There isn’t much in historical records about St Xenia, but there are a fair amount of stories and traditions recorded shortly after she died, as she had already become known locally as a Fool for Christ saint.

This little book is split between about 20 pages at the front detailing what is known of her life and the stories collected – not all, because I’ve heard some more such as when she kicked over a big vat of expensive honey in the marketplace, and walked off leaving behind the bewildered and angry shopkeeper who finally saw a festering rat revealed at the bottom of the vat – but it is a good account of her life, with notes on what is recorded and supported, what is by way of memory and story.

Icon of St XeniaThe second part is a compilation of stories from people who prayed to St Xenia for help. During her life and after she was known to give help for children, marriages, homes and jobs – the ordinary things of life. These stories range from a few paragraphs to several pages, and are all by different writers.

The book is typeset, a copy of an older pamphlet. The stories end in the 1970s. There are two black and white illustrations in it of St Xenia’s icon and her grave in Smolensk cemetery. It is, as far as I know, the only book about St Xenia translated or written in English, and well-worth getting. 

There is a novel – The Mirrored World – which I plan to read soon as part of this – based on her life as well.

And what came of reading this:

  • I ended up wondering about the practices of Molieben and Panikhida referred throughout the story, and learned that a Molieben is a service where intervention is asked, often addressing a particular saint, for help, a form of public shared prayer. A Panikhida is a memorial service that includes much of the same service as a Molieben, but is meant as prayers for the departed.I plan to ask the priests I know more about the practical part of these services, because I’ve only really seen the Panikhida, and occasionally blessings for people going to travel or who are ill, that were at the end of regular liturgy services.
  • I was reminded again how much I resist the supernatural element of miracles. I do not believe in a “two-story” universe, and I profoundly believe in science and integrating those two is a struggle. I’m grateful for the gift of mystery in orthodox theology – how does bread and wine through communion become the blood and flesh of God? A mystery! And with miracles, I know and yet I don’t.
    Pratchett in Small Gods is how I mostly cope: “Weeping statues, and wine made out of water, a mere quantum-mechanistic-tunnel effect that’d happen anyway if you were prepared to wait zillions of years. As if the turning of sunlight into wine, by means of vines and grapes and time and enzymes wasn’t a thousand times more impressive and happened all the time.”
  • I thought about the Smolensk cemetery where St Xenia is buried and for the first time, started to seriously think about going to St Peterburg on a pilgrimage. Friends of mine have gone on pilgrimages, but I am a solitary and lazy creature, so the thought of getting up at four am to go to a monastery and stand outside for a few hours then eat dry bread and go to another church and stand for many hours is not compelling. But they speak with such joy of their pilgrimages, and reading about the chapel over her grave, closed up during the communist era so that people would stand around it quietly praying and slip little scraps of paper with prayers into the cracks on the walls – I begin to think yes.
  • I thought about one of the common threads in the stories told about her interventions, that people turned to ask for help only when they were nearly homeless, or in despair, and that the saints are such a ragbag lot of people. You’ll have an illiterate shepherd next to a scholarly prince next to an ex-courtesan nun. Yet in all their lives, there’s something that answered to God. It’s hard sometimes to think of the God who made galaxies and is eternal, or even Christ who was human as well, for our own grubby petty problems.
    The saints are in our company though, people who lived and struggled and floundered, and to ask a woman who was born wealthy and by all accounts, fairly empty-headed before being widowed early and then lived on the streets, begging and jeered at – she’s the kind of Saint you would ask in for a cup of tea, and talk to her and listen because her life was so much more and still, the same fabric as our own.
  • I love St Xenia. That was probably the one thing I learned most from re-reading this. I don’t know why my priest chose her, but I am grateful he did because I love her. I have several icons of St Xenia, including a tiny one from her chapel in Russia, and I stop and pray before them at least once a day. She is part of my day, the first saint I turn to ask for help, and someone whose courage and love serves as a guide in my own life. I love her so much.
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