A description of an Englishman's visit to the Convent of Mercy of St Martha and St Mary, founded
by St Elizabeth in Moscow, taken from 'The Way of Martha and the Way of Mary',
by Stephen Graham, Macmillan & Co, London 1915
One Sunday I went to the convent of St. Martha and St. Mary in the Bolshaya Ordinka on the other side of the Moscow river. It is a wonderful institution, belonging to the new Russia and yet being part of the old, a young dainty stem with leaves sprung from the rugged many-wintered tree of the Russian Church. Like St. Vladimir's Cathedral at Kief, its beauty lies not in any antiquity or ruin. It is a new institution; it is served by young people; and has new life, new interest, and ideals. It is the convent of which the Grand Duchess Elizaveta Federovna, the widow of the Grand Duke Sergius, whose murder was contrived by Azef the Jewish agent-provocateur during the revolutionary period, is the abbess.
The remains of the Grand Duke were deposited at the shrine of St Alexey, and praying there, the grief-stricken widow promised herself, her life, and her estate to God. The beautiful sister of the Empress found her way from desolation and the tomb to a bright and spacious and yet devoted life, and she was consecrated and took the veil.
One of the first deeds of her new life was to purchase a building site in one of the poorer parts of the city, and to have it consecrated for the building of a convent and churches. A temporary church was put up and services took place from the first. The first plans were realised in 1907; the sisterhood was already formed and had begun work by February 1909. The Grand Duchess is the abbess and there are about a hundred sisters. Every one is young, every one is active. No woman over forty can enter the sisterhood, no one also who is weak physically or likely to be unable to perform the arduous labours for and among the poor which the sisters impose upon themselves.
The convent combines in its ideal the imitation of both Martha and Mary. Each sister dedicates herself to "God and her neighbour." She would sit at Jesus' feet like Mary, and be occupied with many things like Martha. But certainly the idea of Martha and service stands first in their minds. Their religion is the religion of good deeds. They visit, clothe, comfort, heal the poor, and all but work miracles, flowers springing in their footsteps where they go. They receive and consider thousands of letters and beggars. They perform work which is often left to the municipalities and Care committees in the West, but the work is much more fruitful since it is done in the Name of Christ rather than in the name of reason. In some convents the sisters are divided into Marthas and Marys, and there is a question when a new one takes her place - a Martha or a Mary? But in the Martha Marinskaya all have to be Marthas. Each sister has a specific calling and name, e.g. the letter-writer, the purchaser, the guest-receiver: there are medical sisters, church sisters, kitchen sisters, and so on.
The service in the convent church is open and free. All and sundry may go in. And yet necessarily one is in a way a guest, a visitor. It is a very gentle and delicate experience to stand on the stone flags of the wide church beside fifty or sixty maidens in white and avow allegiance to the same emblems, praise the same splendid Creator and God.
I came to the service, but I also wished to satisfy a desire to see the frescoes and wall-paintings by Nesterof. The rood-screen, the apse, and the sides have been painted by that great artist, and two or three of his most beautiful pictures are the surface of the walls.
There is a large picture, the whole width of the church, a presentment of Holy Russia at the margin of a birch forest; plains and folding valleys and uplands and broad acres in the distance. In the foreground bright green grass thick with purple labiate and yellow rattray, an opening in the forest, delicate silver birches on each side and tiny pine trees, seedlings of pine-trees. In the opening all manner of characteristic Russian "poor folk" gazing, praying, kneeling, crying. For a haloed Christ stands among the birch trees and receives all who will come to Him.
The Russian peasant believes that Christ wanders on his roads -
the heavenly King
Our mother Russia came to bless
And through our land went wandering;
and he is quite right, believing that. The thought, almost by itself, constitutes the idea of "Holy Russia."
The most beautiful picture in the church is the dedicatory Martha and Mary - "The Master is here and calleth thee" - a panel in front of which stood a sister all in white like a statue, little candles in front of her, a stout six-feet wax candle beside her.
A tall and portly priest with long hair, whimsical and gentle, took the service - Father Mitrophan; and he walked to and fro, now with the people, now behind the sacred gates. A score of sisters in black veils and with black crowns on their heads sang in the choir. A sister stood at a counter by the door and sold candles. A congregation of sisters, fashionable visitors, peasants, working-people, and beggars grouped themselves miscellaneously in the wide, open, light-filled body of the church. Of course there were no seats. It was pleasant to be there; there was good air, a fragrance occasionally of flowers, and a sense of young women in a certain mood towards God. We sang, assented, crossed ourselves, bowed. The sixty sisters all in white prostrated themselves, and there was a billowy flood of white linen on the floor. And the black choir sang, gently, pitifully, sweetly, exaltedly, with pale voices. It was their church, their temple. They expressed themselves there as a maid expresses herself in her private room at home. The gentle Nesterof paintings pertained to them specially. They were chosen by them.
In the midst of the service in come the convent waifs, children of the childless, two dozen little boys in green blouses, two dozen little girls in blue frocks and drab pinafores. And they stand in the midst of the church. They are so small, they might be the children of dwarfs.
Father Mitrophan comes out to deliver his sermon, and we all move up closer towards the altar rails so as to hear him. He is higher than we, and looks a shepherd with a flock about him. A gentle sermon: "You have parents in the flesh, you have also parents in the Spirit. There are earthly families, there are also spiritual families; worldly intercourse and heavenly intercourse. Our parents bore us and then as soon as convenient brought us to the font to give us back to God. The parents were not present at the baptism because they were only parents of the flesh, but the guardian angels were present because they were parents of the Spirit. Today is the day of St Afanasief and of St. Sergey, spiritual fathers, to whom we must look for guidance and love. What do they teach us? Why, first of all, to do things, to work. What a worker was St Paul, for instance, writing fourteen epistles. We mustn't be lazy! We shan't get anything without making effort. Fast day comes; we say it doesn't matter much, we'll eat ordinary fare. It's time to go to church; you say to yourself, 'No, no, don't need to,' and you take a stool and a book of church verses and sing to yourself pleasantly and comfortably. No, no, it won't do. The Fathers of the Church didn't go lazy like that, or where should we be ... "And so on, in a sententious manner and sing-song tone, nodding his head and pronouncing many of his dicta in a colloquial tone of voice like an old woman saying proverbs. He had an Orthodox voice. There is such a thing in Russia, a voice and manner in which the Church and the Church service are reflected. It communicates itself to the worshipper and is often a superadded grace of personality in a man or woman, a certain Byzantinism in expression, a holding oneself like a figure in a fresco.
Amen! A crossing of ourselves; the sermon is ended. The crowd about the altar breaks up, and we spread ourselves out in the fresher spaces of the church once more, and the pale singing of the black-robed choir recommences as the conclusion of the liturgy is sung. The sixty sisters prostrate themselves together in a billowy mass once more. Worshippers cross themselves before the altar and go out. The Communion bread is taken and the service is over. The waifs march out; we all come out.
It is good to have been at prayers with the sisters, just as if one had spent a few hours in perfect mood in a garden. It took my mind back to a morning in an immense London church when I came in late and was taken up and put in a seat just underneath a picture of the Virgin. At the Virgin's feet were armfuls of lilies. I had a sense, I have it now - all flowers are flowers at the feet of the Virgin.