“O uncorrupted Virgin, thou Bride of God. . .”

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This magnificent icon of the Virgin Theotokos and Christ Child appears above the apse of the Great Church of Constantinople, Hagia Sophia (today preserved as the Ayasofya museum in Istanbul).

The featured prayer is the opening of the long, beautiful Compline supplication to the Theotokos.

Take a minute after reading this prayer to ponder the theological depth of these words in particular: “O undefiled, untainted, uncorrupted, most pure, chaste Virgin, thou Bride of God. . . who. . . hast linked the apostate nature of our race with the heavenly. . .”

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Metropolitan Jonah hosted as one of three keynote speakers at the 2013 Orthodox Fellowship of St John the Baptist International Conference

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The presenters and attendees of the Orthodox Fellowship of St John the Baptist’s 2013 summer International Conference gathered on the lawn outside the main residence of the historic Hayes Conference Centre in Swanwick, Derbyshire for this group photo.

Two weeks ago, from the 12th-14th of July, a group of British and American Orthodox hierarchs, scholars, clergy and interested laity gathered on the beautiful grounds of the historic Hayes Conference Centre for a summer conference. Located in the idyllic country parish of Swanwick, Derbyshire in central England’s East Midlands, this magnificent estate was an ideal gathering place for one of the world’s preeminent annual Orthodox conferences.

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A central courtyard in one of the main buildings of the historic Hayes Conference Centre, sporting a fountain and a life-size chess board.

 

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The Conference Centre boasts magnificent grounds typical of historic estates in the lush East Midlands of rural central England.

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Looking toward the main house, built in the 1850s as a private gentry residence.

The Hayes Conference Centre was the site of this year’s Orthodox Fellowship of St John the Baptist annual summer conference. Triennially, this resident weekend conference becomes a major international gathering, and so it was this year, with the theme of the conference being “The Liturgy: the Entrance into the Kingdom”. 

As the OFSJB website maintains, 

The Fellowship was founded in 1979, and works with the blessing of the pan-Orthodox Episcopal Assembly for the British Isles and Ireland. It enables English-speaking members of the many Orthodox Church Traditions in Britain and Ireland to come together and through prayer, discussion and mutual friendship, deepen their commitment to, and understanding of, the one Orthodox Christian faith. 

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The conference hierarchs, clergy and laity gathered to celebrate the divine services in this beautiful hall.

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Vespers in the chapel.

As this conference poster indicates, Metropolitan Jonah joined two noted British Orthodox lecturers in delivering keynote presentations, while His Excellency Metropolitan Kallistos (Ware) of Diokleia also participated in the gathering as a friend and guest of the Fellowship, in whose activities he has been closely involved since its 1979 inception.

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Numerous Orthodox books were on sale at the conference.

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The conference speakers and attendees gathered in this beautifully lit central conference room. Metropolitan Kallistos sits to the right in the foreground, Metropolitan Jonah to the left, and Archimandrite Zacharias in the middle.

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Presenting on Friday evening, 12 July on the subject of “the Liturgy as a means and a place where we exchange human life for Divine Life” was Archimandrite Fr. Zacharias (Zacharou), the spiritual father of the Patriarchal Stavropegial Monastery of St John the Baptist in Essex. Archimandrite Zacharias himself is the biographer and disciple of the Monastery’s founder, the venerable Elder Sophrony (Sakharov) of blessed memory; Elder Sophrony was the disciple and hagiographer of my patron saint, Silouan the Athonite.

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Archimandrite Zacharias (Zacharou) of the Essex Patriarchal Stavropegial Monastery of St John the Baptist, under the omophorion of His All Holiness Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople and New Rome.

According to the conference programme, Metropolitan Jonah presented his lecture, titled “For Thou hast brought us up to heaven and endowed us with the Kingdom to come”, on Saturday morning, July 13.

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Metropolitan Jonah presenting his lecture.Image

That afternoon Dr Andreas Andreopoulos, Reader in Orthodox Christianity and Programme Leader of the MTh degree in Orthodox Christian Studies at the University of Winchester, presented his topic, examining the theological depth and beauty of the words “For All and in All”. Dr Andreopoulos is the author of numerous articles and essays on Orthodox spirituality, and the author of several books, including This is My Beloved Son: The Transfiguration of Christ, with a foreword by Metropolitan Kallistos, and The Sign of the Cross, with a foreword by Khouria Frederica Mathewes-Green. 

Early Sunday morning, the two hierarchs Metropolitans Jonah and Kallistos con-celebrated Matins and the Hierarchical Divine Liturgy together, with Metropolitan Jonah delivering the homily. The conference concluded at three in the afternoon the same day.

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Metropolitans Jonah (left) and Kallistos (right).

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The two Metropolitans con-celebrating Divine Liturgy on the morning of Sunday, 14 July.

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Metropolitan Jonah blesses the worshipers with the dikirion and trikirion (double and triple candlesticks signifying the two natures of Christ and the Holy Trinity).

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Metropolitan Jonah offered the morning homily.

 

 

Archimandrite Fr. Zacharias on “Human Relationships in the Light of Christ”

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Published on Dec 4, 2012 (the one year anniversary of my reception into the Orthodox Church), here is a beautiful video of a spiritual talk, “Human Relationships in the Light of Christ”, given by Archimandrite Zacharias on the 8th of November 2012 at the house church of the St Andrew’s Orthodox Christian community in Edinburgh. I was greatly blessed to have been able to worship with this wonderful community during my extraordinary semester studying at the University of Edinburgh.

Archimandrite Zacharias (Zacharou) is a spiritual father at the Monastery of St John the Baptist in Essex, UK. He is a disciple of Elder Sophrony Sakharov, founder of this monastery and one of the most significant Orthodox elders of our times, himself a disciple and biographer of my patron St Silouan the Athonite. Based upon the authentic spiritual legacy of his own spiritual father, Fr Zacharias has written some of the most important books on Christian spirituality available today.

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On Marriage and Family Life: Invaluable Notes by New Martyr Empress Alexandra Feodorovna

“Our love for each other may be sincere and deep on sunny days, but it is never as strong as on days of suffering and sorrow, when all the previously hidden richness of the soul is revealed.”

-Empress Alexandra Feodorovna

I first came across this extraordinary article some months ago by way of its republished link here on Pravmir (Orthodoxy and the World), a superb website maintained in English by the Russian Orthodox Church. I cannot describe the utter amazement and spiritual joy which moved within me as I read the Empress’ reflections and observations on matters of crucial importance to any Christian: marriage and family life. I can only wonder in awe at what a wonderful, godly and extraordinary marriage Sts. Nicholas and Alexandra so clearly lived, and pray that I may someday be such a loving husband as the Emperor was for his wife, and blessed with so wonderful a wife as was the Empress for her husband.

 

This is the official engagement portrait of the young Nicholas and Alix, who, once chrismated into the Orthodox Church, took the name Alexandra. Her family and friends continued to call her "Alix" or "Alicky", and her husband reserved for her the pet name "Sunny".

This is the official engagement portrait of the young Nicholas and Alix, who, once chrismated into the Orthodox Church, took the name Alexandra. Her family and friends continued to call her “Alix” or “Alicky”, and her husband reserved for her the pet name “Sunny”.

One of the official portraits of the young couple. Their marriage is one of history's greatest love stories.

One of the official portraits of the young couple. Their marriage is one of history’s greatest love stories.

To me, more than any other saints or historical figures, the Royal New Martyrs embody the Christian mariage idéal, one born of love, patience and deep affection, and grounded in numerous expressions of kindness and trust, abiding friendship, the spiritual rock of pious faith, and constant, mutual self-sacrifice for the other, in whom each saw reflected the image of God. As the Empress writes, with the couple trusting in God’s providence to guide them in all things, 

“. . . patience and love overcome everything, and two lives unite into one – a nobler, stronger, fuller, richer one, and this life will continue in peace and tranquility. . . In this manner two lives will unite into a single life, and in such a marriage each other’s thoughts, desires, feelings, joy, sorrow, pleasure, and pain will be shared.”

Nicholas II and Alexandra 2

The Empress’ profoundly Orthodox Christian spiritual formation and education breathes through each sentence like a quiet, steady spirit, her Orthodox soul acting in harmony with her intellectual expression of mind. Given the Empress’ obvious talent as a gifted writer and poet, even aside from the profound contents of her writing, every sentence she writes is eminently quotable, worth jotting into a journal or notebook and pondering with your spouse or hopeful spouse.

Even from a non-Orthodox or even a secular perspective, numerous observations in this wonderful collection of the Empress’ thoughts read like more refined and thoughtful versions of the bits of advice for husbands and wives which many Christian pastors and non-Christian self-help gurus offer today. Here are just four brief examples: 

“Another secret of bliss in married life is attention to each other. The husband and wife should constantly show signs of the most tender attention and love for each other. Happiness in life is made up of individual moments, of small pleasures – a kiss, a smile, a kind glance, a heartfelt compliment, and countless small but kind thoughts and sincere feelings. Love also needs its daily bread.”

“The main requisite in a family is unselfish love. Each spouse should forget his own ego and dedicate himself to the other person. Each one should blame himself and not the other person when something goes wrong. One needs to possess restraint and patience, since impatience can spoil everything. A harsh word can delay the merging of the spouses’ souls for months. There should be a desire on both sides to make the marriage a happy one and to overcome everything that stands in the way of such a goal. The strongest love has the greatest need of daily fortification. Most unforgivable of all is precisely rudeness in one’s own home, towards those whom we love.”

 

 “You should fear the least sign of incipient disobedience or alienation. Instead of acting in a restrained manner, the husband or the wife says an ill-advised or careless word, and suddenly a small crack appears between these two hearts that up to now have been one whole, and this crack widens and widens until the spouses find themselves torn apart forever. Did you say something thoughtless? Ask forgiveness immediately. Did a misunderstanding arise between you? It does not matter whose fault it was, but do not allow it to stand between you even for an hour.”

 

“Refrain from quarreling. Do not go to sleep with a feeling of anger in your heart. There should be no place for pride in family life. You should never coddle your feeling of injured pride in scrupulously trying to determine precisely who has to ask forgiveness. Those who love truly never engage in such casuistry, but are always ready to give in and apologize.”

Here, Empress Alexandra (far left) sits with her husband (standing next to her) and her grandmother Queen Victoria (1819-1901, r. 1837-1901) on one of the Imperial couple's many visits to England. To Queen Victoria's left, standing beside her is her son and heir, Edward, Prince of Wales, the future Edward VII (r. 1901-1910).

Here, Empress Alexandra (far left) sits with her husband (standing next to her) and her grandmother Queen Victoria (1819-1901, r. 1837-1901). To Queen Victoria’s left, standing beside her is her son and heir, Edward, Prince of Wales, the future Edward VII (r. 1901-1910). I am not sure which of the Grand Duchesses is the infant here, but plausibly it could be Olga, the eldest, as there are no other babies present.


As I read each line, I became more and more aware that I was reading not only the incredibly astute, compassionate, and self-aware observations of a very well-educated and sophisticated Empress, but also, the prayerful revelations of a living Saint. How can one read words such as these, and not know, not discern as clear as the sun rises in the morning sky and sets in the evening, that this Empress as a profoundly holy woman whose life – along with that of her husband – radiated with an inner nobility and long-suffering kindness borne by the grace of God?

This sketch shows the moment at their joint coronation in which Nicholas II, already crowned with Catherine II's Great Imperial Crown, moves forward to place the smaller consort's crown on his wife's head. Moments before this scene, the Emperor would have briefly lifted off the crown which he had just placed on his head, and touched it to his wife's forehead, symbolically joining her to his exercise of the monarchical power entrusted to him by God.

This sketch shows the moment at their joint coronation in which Nicholas II, already crowned with Catherine II’s Great Imperial Crown, moves forward to place the smaller consort’s crown on his wife’s head. Moments before this scene, the Emperor would have briefly lifted off the crown which he had just placed on his head, and touched it to his wife’s forehead, symbolically joining her to his exercise of the monarchical power entrusted to him by God.

Here are several more beautiful observations which the Empress has left for all generations to read. 

The Empress writes here on the subject of a husband’s constant fidelity. May all men strive to follow such wise counsel, which comes from a wife whose husband adored her to the very depth of his being:

“When the beauty of the face fades, the shining of the eyes dims, and with age come wrinkles, or when illnesses, sorrows, and cares leave their traces and scars, the love of a faithful husband should remain just as deep and sincere as before. There are no measurements on earth that are capable of measuring the depth of Christ’s love for His Church, and not a single mortal can love with the same depth of feeling, but nevertheless each husband must do it to the extent that such love can be recreated on earth. No sacrifice will appear too great to him for the sake of his beloved.”

On the mutual care and devotion which a husband and wife should have for each other, especially during times of trial and difficulties, the Empress observes:

“Both the husband and the wife should give to each other the best in each of them. . . Heavy work, difficulties, cares, self-sacrifice, and even misfortune lose their acuteness, bleakness, and severity when they are softened by tender love, just as cold, bare, and rugged cliffs become beautiful when wild vines entwine them with their green garlands, and exquisite flowers fill all their cracks and crevices.”

On how to create and sustain a peaceful, loving home, which is the joint responsibility of the entire family, but especially the mother and father:

“Each home has its own trials, but peace reigns in a truly loving home and cannot be upset by any worldly tempests. The home is a place of warmth and tenderness. At home one should speak only with love. Such a house can nurture only beauty and gentleness of character. One of the misfortunes of our times is that quiet family evenings are being pushed out by business, amusements, a whirling social life.”

The Empress comments extensively on the holy work of raising children in a loving, warm home. Note especially the last two sentences, and this, more than anything else, perhaps encapsulates the Emperor and Empress’ view of themselves: their roles as Emperor and Empress of Russia were secondary in importance to that of father and mother to their beloved children:

“It is a great art to live together, loving each other tenderly. This must begin with the parents. Each home is like its creators. Refined natures produce a refined home, while a coarse person creates a coarse home.”

 

“Each wonderful thought that comes into a child’s mind afterwards strengthens and ennobles his character. Our bodies age against our will, but why should our souls not remain forever young? It is simply criminal to suppress a child’s joy and force children to be gloomy and full of self-importance. Very soon life’s problems will lie upon their shoulders. Very soon life will bring them anxieties, cares, difficulties, and the burden of responsibility. So let them remain young and carefree as long as possible. Their childhood should be filled as much as possible with joy, light, and merry games.”

 

“Parents should not be too embarrassed to play and horse around with their children. Perhaps in those moments they are closer to God than when they are engaged in what seems to them to be important work.”

I will describe what she writes no further, but I simply urge you to read these incredible words for yourself, and then, if you are so moved, as I was, to then share them with as many people as you are able. Were every Christian married couple in the world to follow the Empress’ exhortations here, I am convinced that adultery, abuse, and painful divorces would fade from among Christians. 

Tsarina Alexandra Feodorovna

Most Holy Empress Alexandra, passion-bearer and New Martyr of the Church, pray to God for us!

Profound examples of holiness: the Royal Martyrs in their own words and through the words of those who knew them

In 1905, twelve years before Emperor Nicholas II’s abdication and three years from his own repose, St John of Kronstast, who had served as confessor to Nicholas II’s father Emperor Alexander III (r. 1881-94, d. 1894), spoke these prophetic words:

“We have a Tsar of righteous and pious life. God has sent a heavy cross of sufferings to him as to His chosen one and beloved child, as the seer of the destinies of God said: ‘Whom I love, those I reproach and punish’ (Rev. 3.19). If there is no repentance in the Russian people, the end of the world is near. God will remove from it the pious Tsar and send a whip in the person of impure, cruel, self-called rulers, who will drench the whole land in blood and tears.”

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Nicholas himself made a similar observation about his fate when speaking to his Prime Minister Pyotr Stolypin. In his diary, Stolypin noted with some degree of incredulity that Nicholas spoke these words without any hint of alarm or distress. This must have taken place sometime before the latter’s 1911 assassination at the Kiev Opera House in the presence of the Emperor and his eldest daughters, the Grand Duchesses Olga and Tatiana. Immediately after the assassin, Dmitri Bogrov, shot him twice, causing panic to erupt among those around him, Stolypin calmly rose from his chair, removed his gloves and unbuttoned his jacket, exposing a blood-soaked waistcoat. He sank into his chair and loudly exclaimed “I am happy to die for the Tsar” before motioning to Nicholas in his imperial box to withdraw to safety. Nicholas remained in his position, and in one final gesture Stolypin bowed to his sovereign, blessing him with a sign of the cross and saying “May God save him!”. Bogrov then attempted to stab Stolypin, but tripped and was subsequently caught and hanged.

“I have a premonition. I have the certainty that I am destined for terrible trials, but I will not receive a reward for them in this world… Perhaps there must be a victim in expiation in order to save Russia. I will be this victim. May God’s will be done!”

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Nicholas II smiling in a signed photo taken in 1898, his fourth year on the throne.

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A signed portrait of the Empress from 1899, five years into her reign with Nicholas II.

According to Anna A. Vyrubova, the Empress’ closest confidante, best friend and lady-in-waiting, in Her Majesty’s Lady-in-Waiting, p. 171 (reprinted in Orthodox Word, St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, Platina, Ca.,  Vol. 34, No.5 (202) Sept-Oct, 1998,p. 215), a Russian holy woman by the name of Maria blessed the Empress in December 1916 when she visited her cell and foretold her eventual martyrdom:

“In December of 1916, Her Majesty traveled from an emotional rest to Novgorod for a day, with two Grand Duchesses and a small suite.  She visited field hospitals and monasteries and attended the Liturgy at the St. Sophia Cathedral. Before her departure the Tsaritsa visited the Yurievsky and Desyatina Monasteries.”

“In the latter she visited Eldress Maria Mikhailovna in her tiny cell, where the aged woman had lain for many years in heavy chains (this was self inflicted – Editor’s notes) on an iron bed.  When the Tsaritsa entered, the Eldress held her withered hand out to her and said, ‘Here comes the martyr, Tsaritsa Alexandra!’  She embraced her and blessed her.  In a few days the Eldress reposed.”

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In 1917, the venerable St. Metropolitan Makary (Макарий) Nevsky of Moscow beheld the Savior speaking to the Tsar in a vision:

“You see,” said the Lord, “two cups in my hands: one is bitter for your people, and the other is sweet for you.” In the vision the Tsar begged for the bitter cup. The Savior then took a large glowing coal from the cup and put it in the Tsar’s hands. The Tsar’s whole body then began to grow light, until he was shining like a radiant spirit. Then the vision changed to a field of flowers, in the middle of which Nicholas was distributing manna to a multitude of people. A voice spoke: “The Tsar has taken the guilt of the Russian people upon himself and the Russian people are forgiven.”

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As the First World War dragged on with mounting casualties and no conclusive end, causing a decline in morale and furthering discontent among those disposed toward revolutionary sentiment in the armed forces and urban factories, the Empress and her older daughters continued to serve actively as hospital nurses. Numerous historical accounts of the Empress’ life during the war years, especially the memoirs of the women who perhaps knew her best, her dear confidantes the Countess Anna A. Vryubova and Baroness Sophie von Buxhoeveden, recall her dedicated service in the blood and disease-filled hospitals of wartime Moscow and St. Petersburg.

Despite that Nicholas and Alexandra disliked her cousin, the blustering Kaiser Wilhelm II, and had decidedly English cultural sensibilities (Nicholas II and Britain’s King George V were first cousins, as their Danish mothers were sisters, while the Empress Alexandra and her older sister Ella, the Grand Duchess Elizabeth, had grown up at the court of their grandmother Queen Victoria), as the war dragged on, communist and anarchist groups working to subvert the monarchy and undermine the war effort at the same time began to circulate pamphlets and scrawl graffiti attacking the Empress as a German “imposter”, “traitor”, “spy”, and worse. According to this superb Pravmir article from May 2006 on “Tsar Nicholas and His Family”,

As soon as the war broke out, the Empress and the four Grand Duchesses (Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia) became nurses; and hospitals were opened at Tsarskoye Selo, near the family’s residence, where wounded soldiers were brought. They worked long hours, diligently and tirelessly following the commandment of Christ to visit the sick, since “inasmuch as ye have done it unto the least of these My brethren, ye have done it unto Me” (Matthew 25.30).

Anna A. Vyrubova, the Empress’ closest friend, wrote: “I have personally seen the Empress of Russia in the operating room, assisting in the most difficult operations, taking from the hands of the busy surgeon amputated legs and arms, removing bloody and even vermin-ridden field dressings.” Vyrubova says that she was a “born nurse”, who “from her earliest accession took an interest in hospitals, in nursing, quite foreign to native Russian ideas. She not only visited the sick herself, in hospitals, in homes, but she enormously increased the efficiency of the hospital system in Russia. Out of her own private funds the Empress founded and supported two excellent schools for training nurses, especially in the care of children.”

Unsurprisingly, this is the same Empress who wrote in her diary at some point during that fateful year of 1917, “In order to climb the great heavenly staircase of love, we must ourselves become a stone, a stair which others will climb.”

In this deeply moving poem to Empress Alexandra, “To My Beloved Mama”, which she composed at Tsarskoye Selo on April 23, 1917, just over a month following her father’s abdication, the 22-year old Grand Duchess Olga wrote:

“You are filled with anguish.

For the suffering of others.

And no one’s grief

Has ever passed you by.

You are relentless

Only toward yourself,

Forever cold and pitiless.

But if only you could look upon

Your own sadness from a distance,

Just once with a loving soul-

Oh, how you would pity yourself.

How sadly you would weep.”

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The Grand Duchess Olga Nikolaevna as a young girl.

These are the qualities of a saint, ones which the young Princess discerned in her own mother. Grand Duchess Olga, clearly a beautifully gifted writer possessed of praiseworthy talent as a poet, evidently perceived the devastating combined impact that her father’s abdication and the Tsarevich Alexei’s incurable hemophilia continuously wrought on her mother’s emotional, physical and spiritual health.

As the following letter from the Princess indicated, Grand Duchess Olga, as the oldest of the children in the Imperial Family, consciously served as a kind of envoy for her beleaguered parents to the outside world beyond their prison walls:

“Father asks the following message to be given to all those who have remained faithful to him, and to those on whom they may have an influence, that they should not take revenge for him, since he has forgiven everyone and prays for everyone, that they should not take revenge for themselves, and should remember that the evil which is now in the world shall grow even stronger, but that it is not evil that will conquer evil, but only love. . .”
~ Grand Duchess Olga Nikolaevna, writing from Tobolsk in the Urals during the Royal family’s exile there in summer 1917, about a year before their brutal execution.

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Emperor Nicholas II sawing wood with Alexei during the Imperial Family’s winter at Tobolsk.

The change in the Grand Duchess’ tone is remarkable: from an already highly perceptive young woman, it is evident that the several harrying months spent under house arrest confined to a few small rooms at the old Governor’s House in Tobolsk had caused the close-knit Imperial Family to keep a more eternal perspective. We read of a young woman both clearly aware that her words would eventually be read by many people who heartily supported the Romanov monarchy and the cause of their liberation from the Bolsheviks, and acutely aware that her father abhorred the continued bloodshed of the civil war between Whites and Reds.

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Nicholas’ exhortation for his supporters to refrain from further bloodshed in the cause of his liberation is at first glance surprising (though not when we take into consideration the Emperor’s profound concern for his people, whom he loved as much as he did his own children), and indeed, extraordinary, all the more so given the successes so many White army forces were having against the Bolsheviks at the time the Grand Duchess wrote this letter. One can only infer that the Imperial Family were permitted to receive little to no news of ongoing political developments outside the walls of their prison. Nonetheless, for the former Emperor and Autocrat of all the Russias to write that “he has forgiven everyone and prays for everyone, that they should not take revenge for themselves”, one comes away with a clear sense that the Imperial Family anticipated their eventual martyrdom.

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The Imperial Family depicted in traditional Russian costume as New-Martyrs and Saints of the Orthodox Church.

Reading the following poem, another one beautifully composed by the Grand Duchess Olga, its meaning is unmistakable: by the time that she wrote these words, it is certain that the Imperial Family expected to be martyred. The Princess’ poem here is both hymn and dirge, a psalm of praise and one of sorrow and fear, but above all, a canticle of deep faith and a discernment of God’s will in all things. True of saints’ writings, we see that the centrality of the Princess’ poem is not her dwelling on her own anguish or horror at the thought of a potentially agonizing death, or lamentation at the thought of her earthly life cut short so abruptly, but a profound trust in God’s providence that His purpose guides all things and that, ultimately, He would work good out of evil.

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I do not know how many months or weeks before her death the Grand Duchess wrote this haunting poem, but I come away thinking that it is truly astonishing – and almost unheard of today- for a young woman my age to be so accepting of a possibly imminent death or any manner of torture. So long as the Imperial Family, with God’s aid, continued to endure and persevere in faith, withstanding all evil and, above all, forgiving “our neighbors’ persecution”, the Grand Duchess prays, above all, to receive strength to “pass the last dread gate” into eternal life.

Grant us Thy patience, Lord,

In these our woeful days,

The mob’s wrath to endure,

The torturer’s ire;

Thy unction to forgive

Our neighbors’ persecution

And mild, like Thee, to bear

A bloodstained Cross.

And when the mob prevails

And foes come to despoil us,

To suffer humbly shame,

O Savior aid us!

And when the hour comes

To pass the last dread gate,

Breathe strength in us to pray,

Father forgive them!

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Here is a beautiful quote from Saint John the Wonderworker (1896-1966) on the Emperor, which the younger saint said in July 1963, the 45th anniversary of the martyrdoms:

“Why was Tsar Nicholas II persecuted, slandered and killed? Because he was Tsar, Tsar by the Grace of God. He was the bearer and incarnation of the Orthodox world view that the Tsar is the servant of God, the Anointed of God, and that to Him he must give an account for the people entrusted to him by destiny, for all his deeds and actions, not only those done personally, but also as Tsar. . . Thus did the Orthodox Russian people believe, thus has the Orthodox Church taught, and this did Tsar Nicholas acknowledge and sense. He was thoroughly penetrated by this awareness; he viewed his bearing of the Imperial crown as a service to God. He kept this in mind during all his important decisions, during all the responsible questions that arose. This is why he was so firm and unwavering in those questions about which he was convinced that such was the will of God; he stood firmly for that which seemed to him necessary for the good of the realm of which he was head.”

 Holy Royal Martyrs, pray to God for us that He may save our souls!

95 Years Later: Commemoration of the Romanov Imperial Family, Russia’s Royal New Martyrs

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95 Years Later: Commemoration of the Romanov Imperial Family, Russia's Royal New Martyrs

Ninety-five years ago in the remote village of Yekaterinburg, which straddles the Urals between Europe and Asia, one of the most heinous crimes in modern history occurred. In a small basement cellar in the house formerly belonging to a local Russian merchant by the name of Ipatiev, a family and four of their loyal friends were murdered.

The Ipatiev House in Yekaterinburg as it looked at the time of the murders.

The Ipatiev House in Yekaterinburg as it appeared at the time of the murders.

Early in the hours of July 17, 1918, local Soviet commanders acting under direct orders from Lenin and the senior Bolshevik leaders brutally executed Russian Emperor Nicholas II, his wife Empress Alexandra Feodorovna, and their 5 children, the Tsarevich Alexei Nikolaievich and the Grand Duchesses Olga, Maria, Tatiana and Anastasia. The four loyal servants who had stayed with the Imperial Family til the end shared their fate.

These summary executions, conducted in secret, were not a sudden, spontaneous attack by unrestrained, unprovoked communist citizens who simply despised the Tsar; the murders of the Imperial Family could only be carried out on Lenin’s express orders as an urgent act of utmost political expediency to save the Communist revolution. By mid-July, the pro-Tsarist White Russian army was only days from Yekaterinburg, and Lenin knew that were the Imperial Family to be freed from their jailers, their appeal to millions of Russians could not be underestimated.

Regardless of whether or not Nicholas II would or could have re-assumed the imperial throne, which in 1917 he had abdicated on behalf of not only himself but also his hemophiliac son, the reality is that, in Lenin’s view, the Russian Revolution could not be secure so long as the former Emperor and Autocrat of all the Russias lived. Thus, rather than permitting the Emperor and his family to live quietly as private citizens, as the French republicans (initially) did to King Louis XVI in 1791, and the Chinese republicans did to the last Qing boy-emperor Pu Yi in 1911, the Bolshevik leaders resolved that the Emperor, and his entire family, must die as “enemies of the people”.

So it came to be that, without any trial, public or private, nor the liberty to appeal the sentence, the quiet, pious, and unfailingly kind man who had reigned as the last Tsar of Russia was shot in cold blood along with his wife, a beloved granddaughter of Britain’s Queen Victoria, and their four beautiful daughters and tragically ill only son.

The Imperial Family in happier times aboard the imperial flagship yacht Standart.

The Imperial Family in happier times aboard the imperial flagship yacht Standart.

The soldiers enlisted to do the deed performed their task with barbarous inefficiency; only the Emperor died immediately when the bullets struck him, while (according to most of the accounts provided by the assassins) the Tsarevich died very soon after. The poor Empress and her daughters, who carried many kilos of precious jewels sewn into their clothing and thus did not perish immediately from the hail of bullets, were bayoneted and shot at point-blank range. The last to die was the maid, Anna Demnova, who apparently survived the hail of bullets as she had fainted. Returning to consciousness, the shocked woman exclaimed aloud “I’m alive! God has saved me!”, drawing the notice of the assassins, who promptly turned on her. By most accounts, she attempted in vain to defend herself using a small pillow.

Remarkably, this spot today is a place of pilgrimage, the old Ipatiev house having been torn down on then local Communist Party leader Boris Yeltsin’s orders in 1977. Today, a beautiful cathedral to their memory stands on the spot where this entire family was massacred along with their most loyal friends who refused to desert them.

Yekaterinburg's Cathedral on the Blood, dedicated to the memory of those New Martyrs - the Imperial Family and their four attendants - who died at the site on July 17, 1918.

Yekaterinburg’s Cathedral on the Blood, dedicated to the memory of those New Martyrs – the Imperial Family and their four attendants – who died at the site on July 17, 1918.

In 1981, the Russian Orthodox Church in exile (ROCOR) glorified (canonized) the murdered Imperial Family and their servants as New Martyrs and “passion-bearers” who went to their deaths with great courage and who lived exemplary lives of service and fidelity to the Orthodox Christian faith.

Ten years later, following the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe and the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church undertook a period of detailed inquiry into the lives of the Imperial Family to discern whether or not they should truly be considered Saints by the universal Russian Church. After nine years of careful review, in 2000 the synod of bishops of the Moscow Patriarchate at last approved the glorification of the Imperial Family and their servants as New Martyrs alongside St Elizabeth the Grand Duchess, Empress Alexandra’s sister, and her attendant nun Varvara (Barbara), who both the Church Abroad and the Church in Russia already universally recognized as Saints. My godmother was present at Christ the Savior Cathedral in Moscow for the glorious services of commemoration and thanksgiving.

For the past two decades, the Russian Orthodox Church has presided over an extraordinary process of rebuilding and revitalization which continues to this day. Embodying the resurrection of faith across Russian society in the wake of the fall of communism are two glorious buildings: the rebuilt Christ the Savior Cathedral, the mother church of Moscow and seat of the Moscow Patriarchate, and the magnificent memorial cathedral in Yekaterinburg raised to the honor of God and His thousands of New Martyrs who died under the Soviet regime. This cathedral, formally dedicated to all saints but most commonly known as the “Cathedral on the Blood”, stands as a testimony to those who died on that very spot in July 1918, in the dark cellar of that fateful merchant house in rural Yekaterinburg. Above all, both cathedrals stand today as a visible sign of Orthodoxy’s triumphant endurance against the forces of Marxist-Leninism.

The Imperial Family always fascinated me growing up, and I read anything I could find on Russian history, art history books on St Petersburg and Moscow, and the First World War. Upon becoming Orthodox, my godmother, who has also had a lifelong interest in Russia, shared with me many fascinating, beautiful stories about the Imperial Family, which she in turn read over the years and heard from Russian friends, as well as one of her mentoring professors in college (who would share these precious stories with her students). My godmother found out many years later that this favorite Russian professor of hers had been at the Imperial Court.

I am deeply blessed to have this invaluable window into history from my godmother’s stories. In a way, I feel as though I have intimately come to know the Imperial Family, these holy passion-bearers, for the truly kind, pious, and extraordinary individuals they were in their earthly life. As laudable Saints in the eternal Church which lives in the heavenly realm, these royal New Martyrs intercede on behalf of all the faithful today who ask their prayers to God. Holy Passion-bearers and Imperial Martyrs, pray to God for us!

Pro-Morsi extremists vow to bomb everyone opposed to them, targeting Christians for special retribution

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This disturbing footage (published on YouTube on July 4) is taken from a pro-Morsi demonstration in Egypt after the Egyptian military intervened on behalf of the millions of Egyptians who demanded an end to the increasingly authoritarian rule of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.

While addressing the main executor of the military action against Morsi, the armed forces’ commander-in-chief General Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, one visibly furious man who supports Morsi vows that the ex-president’s supporters will become ‘martyrs’ and a ‘new Taliban’, suicide bombers that will target secularists, Christians, Shiites (whom the man refers to as non-Muslims), and all other perceived enemy forces.

Later on in the video, an equally furious woman covered in a black burqa and niqab vowed to burn her fellow Christian citizens, to whom she ascribes a collective responsibility for the widespread support the action against Morsi enjoyed from the Coptic Orthodox community, Egypt’s largest religious minority. Evidently this woman who completely hides her face and refuses to reveal her name feels comfortable venting her fury, threatening her Christian fellow citizens, “We will set you on fire!”

If the views put forth by the two raving psychopaths shown in this video bear any resemblance to typical Muslim Brotherhood supporters of ousted Egyptian President Morsi, which I hope very much is not the case, then this faction is openly threatening mass murder. The two individuals featured in this video are inciting terrorism and treason without shame or fear of any consequence. I hope that the transitional Egyptian police and military authorities will take measured, deliberative actions to contain them.

Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood supporters are unsurprisingly angry that the military ousted him with the unified support of a majority of their fellow citizens. There is no question that, from a prima facie reading of Egypt’s suspended constitution, the army’s move was illegitimate. Yet the legitimacy of the constitution, which bears heavy Islamist influence, has never been a given, and many Egyptian citizens never accepted it as legally binding.

Rather than behaving like uncivilized brutes, threatening mass suicide bombings or railing against the Christian minority whom they despise, angry Morsi supporters would do well to ask themselves: why was Egypt’s first democratically elected president so incompetent or so hated that he was not permitted to complete one term in office? Why, furthermore, was Morsi overthrown with broad support from across the Egyptian political and religious spectrum?

By threatening to blow up and set fire to their fellow (Christian) citizens, Morsi’s more fanatical supporters validate their opponents’ portrayal of them as a violent, terrorism-supporting group. Wildly claiming that Morsi’s opponents would somehow bear the blame for having incited them to such mass violence, Morsi’s radical supporters sound like abusive spouses and parents (or children with anger management problems) who blame their victims for inciting them. If their words weren’t so deeply troubling, when one thinks of the possible actionable violence which may come from them, they would be laughable, dismissed as the ravings of madmen.

The logic of would-be terrorists and their supporters (a vocal minority among ousted Egyptian President Morsi’s more extreme partisans) seems to be something in this vein: Egyptians elected Morsi at the ballot box during a political revolution, and somehow this means that Morsi, who ruled with arbitrary power, repeatedly clashed with parliament, and was unwilling or unable to stem sectarian violence directed mainly against Egypt’s Coptic Christian minority, could only be removed through the ballot box.

It seems to me as though the Brotherhood is far more upset to have lost its political power than it is at the thought of an Egyptian president having been deposed before he could serve out his first term.

Mahatma Gandhi on abortion

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Mahatma Gandhi on abortion

This quote appears in Krishna Kripalani’s biography of the celebrated Indian intellectual, spiritual figure, civil rights leader and independence activist, “All Men Are Brothers: The Life and Thoughts of Mahatma Gandhi.”

This fascinating article contains additional information and historical notes on leading Indian intellectuals, philosophers and Hindu leaders who have condemned abortion, beginning with the Great Soul himself.

President Obama refers to Wendy Davis’ filibuster as “something special”

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“Something special is happening in Austin tonight” – these are the words of one of President Obama’s recent Tweets.

For the President of the United States to write about any place-specific event being “something special”, one might assume that he is either campaigning in a town that is part of a crucial county during an important election, speaking at a memorial service for someone he deeply respects, or reflecting on something which he considers to be of great national importance. The President does not simply throw around endearing, praiseful language such as this without reason; for him to call any event “something special”, he has to see it as important and worthy of praise. Most of all, he has to believe that his response is expected.

Bearing this in mind, I was thus all the more disturbed by the President’s choice [or one of his staffer’s – I don’t know if the President actually writes his own Tweets, though, giving his well-known folksy speaking style, I wouldn’t be surprised if he actually wrote this one] to refer to Texas state senator Wendy Davis (D-Fort Worth)’s infamous filibuster as “something special”.

Perhaps naively, given the escalation of the ongoing “culture wars” which show little sign of causing any real engagement between polarizing and opposing worldviews, I never expected that I would see the U.S. head of state single out a state senator’s filibuster against a state bill which would have outlawed abortions at the fifth month of pregnancy (20 weeks). It is truly astonishing for the President to laud Senator Davis’ work as “special”. As jarring as it is to read such a statement coming from the President, ultimately, no one should be surprised, given that this is the man who wished God’s blessing upon Planned Parenthood, that infamous federally-funded political group which, yes, does provide many low-cost and free health services to women, while also serving as the nation’s largest abortion provider (what a sickening word in this context, as if obtaining an abortion were comparable to obtaining a new wireless telephone network or Internet provider!).

I tend to refrain from posting directly about political topics on here for various reasons, the most obvious one being that, as a university student, I have ample opportunity to discuss domestic and international politics with friends, professors and colleagues both offline and on that medium which has become so ubiquitous in most people’s lives today, Facebook. I don’t follow President Obama’s Twitter account, but I came across this image, and it so disturbed me that I decided to print-screen copy and save it as a Paint document in order to showcase this particular Tweet for all the world to see.

This is so far the only time in my life that a Tweet has actually made me sick to my stomach. It is truly sad to see the degree to which President Obama is either enslaved to the demands of what I have taken to calling progressive liberal orthodoxy (of which the cause of safeguarding a woman’s “right to choose” is a core tenet, underlined by the general desire to ‘liberate’ women to be the absolute masters of their own bodies, even if this means opposing bans on partial-birth abortion), or the degree to which he genuinely believes in its creed. I am filled with so many different thoughts, ranging from disgust to shock, but most of all, the horror that I voted for him in 2008. Did I really once believe that this man offered a vision that could somehow unite the country and move the country “forward”? Granted, I am from New York, a liberal state which the President carried with a super-majority in both 2008 and 2012, so it is not as though my vote in 2008 was of any consequence, and of course, one vote makes no difference in a contest decided ultimately by unelected presidential electors, yet it truly amazes me that, only five years ago, I enthusiastically supported this man and his agenda.

Most people in the United States and, I imagine, millions of people across the globe are well-aware of President Obama’s position as one of the most vocal and consistent advocates for “abortion rights” in political history. Even so, it is shocking to read that he considers a female state legislator’s obstructionist filibuster in defense of a woman’s “right” to terminate a developing life inside her at up to 20 weeks as “something special”. Of course, the full Tweet bears examination, and in its concluding hashtag, #StandWithWendy, we can infer why President Obama really sent out this Tweet: he (or his political handlers) feel a deep indebtedness and sense of obligation to be seen to publicly support and encourage all aspects of the progressive feminist movement, of which Planned Parenthood is at the forefront nationwide.

In this short hashtag, inserted to instantly generate positive feedback from the President’s progressive supporters connected to him through Twitter, we can read just how clearly the President and his team of advisers value their connection to the progressive feminist movement. When one considers this, it comes as no surprise that, evidently, President Obama doesn’t consider the tens of thousands of abortions which happen each year in Austin, TX to be “something tragic”, or “something awful” which our society needs to collectively respond to and work to reduce. Instead, he feels a strong sense of obligation to respond to praise Senator Davis’ speech as “something special”.

Perhaps you are wondering why I have been so particularly disturbed by this one tweet, when the President’s position on this issue is well-known. I have written on here previously on the subject of abortion from a Christian existentialist perspective (the logical conclusions that, to be fully “pro-choice”, you must inevitably assert that you do not believe in your own right to exist, for your mother’s right to abort, had she wished to do so, would have trumped this). Yet the audacity of the President’s Tweet, his callous and complete indifference to the terrible reality that even contemplating abortion is an agony for most women, let alone his complete disinterest in pushing for commonsense reforms to fix the nation’s domestic adoption program, struck a chord within me.

This president cannot truly see abortion as a “tragedy”, as he referred to it in one interview during his presidential candidacy in 2008, but he genuinely does not care about reducing abortions. He cares very much about the opinion of that minority of female voters who identify as progressive, but for the silent witness of millions of unborn babies, he cares not at all.

This legislation in Texas also disturbs me on a very personal level: I was born at 5 and a half months, 24 weeks. I weighed 1 and one-half pounds, and could fit in my father’s hand. The best doctors available all assured my parents that my twin brother Sean and I would both die, or be severely physically and mentally handicapped for life. I spent the first months of my life in an incubator in a neo-natal unit. While my brother sadly did not survive, here I am, with no physical or mental disabilities or ‘marks’, save some scars from the tracheotomy and open heart surgery from when I was an infant thought to be dying.

I am, by God’s grace, a living testament that someone who entered this world almost four months early can not only survive, but thrive beyond the best doctors’ expectations. But to President Obama, my very entrance into this world at all is an unexpected outlier, an anomaly that clashes with his worldview: my mother could have had me, but he would be equally fine with her having decided, for any number of reasons, that she just didn’t want to go through with it. To this day, in New York State, a woman can abort her developing baby up to, and past, the point at which I entered this world. This thought alone is alarming. But what is most alarming is that this President, who claims so often to value consensus-building and dialogue, couldn’t be bothered to try to make it easier for women considering abortion to look to the alternatives. Instead, he prefers to Tweet his support for a woman who crusades against the developing lives of those in the womb at the very gestation when I entered the world.