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