Grand Duchess Elizabeth of Russia: New Martyr of the Communist Yoke (L. Millar)


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.


Chosen for His People: A Biography of Patriarch Tikhon

The only canonical Orthodox church in Malaysia today is a Russian mission in downtown Kuala Lumpur, practically under the shadow of the Petronas twin towers. The Moscow patriarchate gave us the building, sent us a priest-monk and a few nuns to help run the services, and supports us in many other ways.

I am very grateful that our small community receives this help, and very grateful that the Russian church is in a position to support Orthodox Christians all around the globe. Things were very different a few decades ago.


Chosen for His People (by Jane  Swan) is a biography of St. Tikhon, Patriarch of Moscow during the communist revolution. This is the only complete biography of St. Tikhon written in the English language. I found this fact very surprising, as St. Tikhon was of great importance in 20th century Russian history, as the man who led the Russian Orthodox Church through the first persecutions of the Soviet communist regime.

The book is short- 117 pages, not including the very extensive endnotes and bibliography. It is more than just a hagiography, rather, Swan makes a good effort at historical rigor, and a lot of the statements and stories in the book are sourced.

Given the short length of the book, St. Tikhon’s early life and ministry are covered very briefly. The focus is on his Patriarchate from 1917 to 1925, a time of great turmoil and transition in Russia. The communist revolution deposed a devoutly Christian Tsar and installed an atheist government that was hostile toward the church, and sought to undermine it at every opportunity. The book chronicles with great detail St. Tikhon’s struggles against the enemies of the church, both within and without. St. Tikhon had to deal with the state’s slander, the murders of clergy and the confiscation of church property, but also with collaborationists in the church, opportunist clergymen who sought to empower and enrich themselves by siding with the Soviets.

The book paints a very humanizing picture of a simple, humble man, called to an impossible task in the most trying of circumstances. We see St. Tikhon’s courage in the face of great  adversity, and deep compassion for his country and its people. We see his great faithfulness and prayerful perseverance despite deteriorating conditions and physical frailty.  At its core, his is a story of a man refusing to give up, refusing to be cowed, standing up for Christ and His church in its darkest hour.

As with a lot of stories set in Russia, this is a depressing read. The Soviets eventually get St. Tikhon deposed as Patriarch,  and at his death Christianity  in Russia remained under grievous threat.  Nevertheless, the church survived and endured, and has now outlasted the Soviet regime. We see Christ’s words fulfilled- “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”

I am grateful that I can read this book 100 years after the events transpired, so I can see now that St. Tikhon’s sacrifice, and the martyrdoms of countless thousands of bishops,priests, monks, nuns, and laypeople like him in the past century were not in vain. Half the people who worship with me in our Kuala Lumpur church are ethnic Russians- those around my age are the first generation for whom the Soviets are but a faded memory. I am thankful for the opportunity to partner with them in building our little Russian Orthodox mission, and in some small way honoring the legacy of St. Tikhon and all those who suffered with him.

St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco

Today, July 2 (June 19 in the old calendar) is the feast day of my patron saint, St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco.

This post is a little tribute to him. But first I would like to explain the role of the patron saint in Eastern Orthodoxy.  The Orthodox church places a lot of importance on the idea that the spiritually mature Christians should help out the Christians who are just beginning their journey. This emphasis on mentorship manifests itself in several different ways. For example, instead of the best man and maid of honor in Western weddings, in the Eastern rite the bride and groom have a “sponsor couple”, an older married couple who are supposed to help, support, and pray for the newlyweds and they work through the struggles and joys of marriage.

The patron saint is another way where the church gives us guides for our spiritual journey. Each Orthodox Christian has a patron saint, whom we are supposed to have this mentor-mentee relationship with as well. They are our role models, guides, intercessors (we believe the saints pray for us even in death) and friends.

Brief biography

St. John was born in Kharkov, Russia (currently Kharkiv, Ukraine) in 1896. He served in his early life as a monk, priest, and a teacher in a Serbian high school, before being consecrated as bishop of the Russian Orthodox Diocese of Shanghai in 1934, a very tumultuous time in China.

There are remarkable accounts of his 15 or so years in Shanghai. He lived an extremely simple life, for instance walking through the streets barefoot in the winter during the Japanese occupation. He was extraordinarily dedicated to prayer, to the point that he barely slept. He performed great deeds of mercy and compassion during a time where there was a great deal of suffering. He founded an orphanage and frequently visited those in hospital and in prison. There are also many accounts of his gifts of clairvoyance and miracle-working from this time in his life.

Ultimately, with the communist takeover of China St. John was forced to flee with his church. Five thousand of them were refugees for a while in the Philippines, until St. John managed to lobby successfully for the right for them to settle in the United States.

In 1951, St. John was assigned to be Archbishop of the Archdiocese of Western Europe, headquartered in Paris, and then in 1962 to the Diocese of San Francisco. He passed away in Seattle on July 2, 1966, and his miraculously incorrupt remains lie in Holy Virgin Cathedral in San Francisco.

A modern saint

The first thing that struck me when I first heard about St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco was how strange his appellation was- Shanghai and San Francisco are two cities 10,000 kilometers apart! His life was an interesting juxtaposition. He was in some ways thoroughly immersed in our modern, globalized age, with a ministry spanning three continents and a proficiency in several different languages. But in other ways he seems as if you had picked up a man from the 2nd century A.D. and plopped him in the 1950s.

Very often Christians in our age make the excuse that the challenges and distractions of modernity make it impossible to surrender our lives as completely to God as the early Christians did. St. John shows us that this excuse is weak, by living a life of uncompromising simplicity, faithful prayer and joyous love in the 20th century, even while facing many thoroughly modern hardships. And we see all these wonders, healings and miracles appear in response to his prayers, as they did in the church of Acts!

With faith and love do we all honor thy memory today, O heavenly man and earthly angel; for thou was a true desert-dweller amid this greatly turbulent world. Having mortified all the passions, thou didst attain spiritual heights hard to see, and wast truly a most splendid miracle in the midst of the darkness of this age. Wherefore, we marvel at thy great glory in heaven, and with compunction we celebrate thy glorification.