To learn to be an Orthodox Christian is not just a manner of proper belief, but also of proper action. So it is not enough to study theology and read the right books. We also have the example of Orthodox saints who have struggled before us, and emulate their examples. I find the lives of modern saints particularly valuable in this regard- they are some challenges we face in modern times that those living in the early centuries A.D. never had to experience.
St. Elizabeth the New-Martyr might be the most prominent of the 20th-century saints. Her life story is compelling, tragic, and thoroughly modern. She was a covert from the Lutheran church, a German noble wife of a Russian duke and sister of Empress Alexandra (wife of Tsar Nicolas II). St. Elizabeth lived and worked in the tumult of the First World War and the Russian Revolution. After the tragic death of her husband, St. Elizabeth left her life of privilege and comfort and instead became a nun, and founder of a unique monastic community that focused on healing the sick and helping the forgotten poor. Alas, she was killed shortly after the communists took control of Russia.
St. Elizabeth the New Martyr does not appear much in secular history books, despite how close she was to the events of the Russian revolution. This is a pity, because her story is remarkable! There are a lot of valuable primary sources in this book. Since she was a royal, a lot of her letters to friends and family were preserved. These range from fanciful writings to her grandmother, Queen Victoria, as a young girl, to deeply profound spiritual meditations written later in her life. Ms. Millar reproduces a lot of these letters verbatim, and they are a wonderful personal perspective to life in the tumultuous late 19th and early 20th centuries, and also a unique glimpse as to how the thinking of a Godly woman matures from childhood to martyrdom. Ms. Millar also provides documents about the running of her Sts. Martha and Mary convent, and the tireless work the sisters did on behalf of the poor and ignored.
Liubov Millar has written a wonderful biography. I love how much joy permeates the pages of this book, which on the fact of it, tells a really tragic story. St. Elizabeth grew up as a princess, is widowed at a young age, has everything she built and worked for destroyed by the communists, and ends up dead in an abandoned mine pit. We see the raw pain that she goes through, but also how it compels her to go out and heal the suffering of those around her. We feel the cruelty of her tormentors, but also the depth and sincerity of her forgiveness.
I feel privileged to be able to read this story 20 years after the end of the cold war, to read in the book’s epilogue how her labors of love and kindness inspire imitators today in Russia and in the whole world, while the Soviet Union has become a forgotten relic. In our age, where the forces of cruelty and violence seem no less formidable than in St. Elizabeth’s time, her story is a crucial reminder that God is still sovereign, and those seemingly futile acts of faith, hope, and love will win out in the end.
St. Elizabeth’s story is one that all Orthodox Christians should know, and Ms. Millar’s book is a wonderful account.