Orthodox America

  Spiritual Heroes – Abbess Philareta of Ufa

Through various publications, the English speaking world is gradually becoming acquainted with the great monastic fathers and elders of Holy Russia, especially those of such renowned monasteries as Optina and Valaam. Almost nothing, however, is said about those abbesses and nuns who made equally important contributions to the flowering of monasticism and the dissemination throughout society of the Christian ideal. Few people realize that women' s convents by far outnumbered men's monasteries. Women struggled just as manfully in the spiritual arena and were found on all paths of the monastic life, whether as hermits, in desert sketes, or in large convents. Some struggled in obscurity while others enjoyed the patronage of some pious members of high society. But whether the convent was large or small, rich or poor, the common goal of union with God produced a spiritual fragrance which attracted and encouraged many on the path to salvation.

    The Annunciation Convent of Ufa was among those well known for the high spiritual caliber of its nuns. Such was the fruit of its foundress, Abbess Philareta, who was herself a disciple of St. Seraphim of Sarov and the great Glinsk Elder Philaret. An account of her life is included in the Glinks Patericon from which it is condensed below for the edification of our readers.

     Stephanida Stephanovna Bychkova, the future Abbess Philareta, was born in 1807 into a churchly family of some means. Her mother was illiterate and often asked the children to read aloud from the Word of God or to relate the Scripture readings heard in church. At the same time she accustomed them to work. Stephanida, the middle daughter, was especially characterized by her piety, although she had a very lively nature which sometimes got her into trouble. At the age of 10 she was entrusted to a very pious and well-educated woman who gave her a solid foundation in the basic learning skills as well as various forms of handiwork. Every morning after her prayers, Stephanida would read the life of the day's saint and then answer questions.

    When she returned home after four years, her parents began to think of finding her a suitable husband, but already the young girl had conceived a secret desire to become a nun. Not daring to say anything to her parents, Stephanida turned with burning tears and prayer to her guardian angel and the Queen of Heaven. By God's Providence, circumstances so arranged themselves that soon all thoughts of marriage were set aside. Stephanida' s younger brother John fell seriously ill and suffered for two years with a leg ailment until some nuns from the Seven-Lakes Hermitage came to the village with the wonder-working Smolensk Icon of the Mother of God. The young boy fell down before the icon in heartfelt prayer. As the icon was lifted over him, the suffering boy suddenly experienced a complete cessation of the pain. In gratitude for such a miracle, the parents allowed Stephanida to accompany the icon back to the Hermitage where she stayed for a month, working at various obediences, This experience only confirmed her desire for the monastic life.

     Soon she obtained her parents' blessing to go with a friend on a pilgrimage to Kiev. On the way they stopped at Sarov where they were warmly received by Fr. Seraphim. He told Stephanida that she should go to Ufa where there would be a monastery; there, he prophesied, she would become an abbess and find salvation. He then directed them to go to Glinsk to see Elder Philaret. This they did on their return from Kiev. The clairvoyant Elder exhibited a special warmth towards the young traveler Stephanida whose spiritual father and director he became.

    Home again, Stephanida received permission to join a group of young monastic aspirants who lived in a house built and supported by her parents. The exemplary life of this small community was brought to the attention of the bishop who blessed their endeavors and appointed Stephanida to be in charge. In 1832 the growing community was moved to a larger house in the cityof Ufa. Two of the sisters were sent to St. Seraphim's Arzamas convent to learn needlework and other handicrafts. Returning to Ufa, they shared their knowledge with the rest of the sisters and soon the community earned a good reputation for the high quality of its handwork.

    It was not long before the sisters outgrew their new location. At the sometime the bishop felt the community should be recognized as a convent, When the matter was brought to the Holy Synod for approval, however, regulations demanded a large sum of money as provision for the convent, and the sisters were left with no money with which to buy land. In her distress, Stephanida turned to Elder Philaret who at once set about writing recommendations. Money was collected, but still the Synod's Ober Procurator would not grant permission for the opening of a convent. In St. Petersburg, Archimandrite Palladius urged Stephanida to pray before the relics of St. Alexander Nevsky: "Our saint was a warrior and through his prayers you will soon obtain what is necessary."

    The sun had not yet risen on the following day when the Ober Procurator called for Stephanida. That night St. Alexander had appeared to him in a dream and asked sternly why he did not want to open a convent in Ufa. The Ober Procurator immediately promised to arrange everything, which he did.

    On her return from the northern capital, Stephanida stopped in Glinsk to ask Elder Philaret to which saint or feast the convent should be dedicated. He advised her to wait until she had received the papers from the Synod officially granting permission, and then to name the convent after the first feast of the Mother of God which fell thereafter. He also gave her a rule of typica for the convent. Following this counsel, the convent was dedicated to the Feast of Annunciation. That same year, 1838, Stephanida was tonsured with the name Fhilareta and within a short time appointed abbess.

    Under her capable and most wise supervision, the convent soon began to flourish, both inwardly-in the spiritual life of the nuns, and outwardly--in the building of a church, living quarters, a candle factory and mill. The Church authorities recognized the high calibre of the nuns, several of whom were appointed as superiors of other convents.

    Abbess Philorata was an example to all, both in her ascetic life and the love and care which she exhibited to her nuns. The convent in Ufa became a shining beacon whose light penetrated the distant Siberian wilds where other convents were established, taking the same typicon of Elder Philaret.

    The unsleeping enemy of our salvation was greatly angered by such God-pleasing work and caused a storm of lies and calumny to befall Abbess Philareta. She was even dismissed from her position as abbess and many nuns were punished for supporting her. But she did not complain and meekly bore the cross of persecution, finding comfort in prayer before an icon of our Lord's Crucifixion. And God did not leave her unconsoled. Once she heard a voice from the cross: "Look at Me: I was nailed to the Cross without any clothing; but you are both clothed and free." Within four months Abbess Philareta was summoned to St. Petersburg where she was proven an innocent victim of slander. She was then appointed abbess of a convent in Peltava where she spent the next ten years. Under her able direction this convent also began to flourish and this again roused the anger of the evil one. Abbess Philareta was accused of misappropriation of funds and, although she was soon exonerated, it was too difficult for her to remain there any longer.

    It was out of love for His faithful servant that the Lord permitted the righteous abbess to drink the bitter cup of suffering. This draught cleansed her of those passions and weaknesses which are the common lot of human nature. All those difficulties helped her to mature spiritually so that when she returned to her beloved convent in Ufa, she was able to function as an eldress, dearly beloved and highly respected by ali the nuns. The devil continued to harass her as before, but Abbess Philareta conquered him through humility. She loved to repeat the words: "It is good that the Lord has humbled me."

    As she neared the end of her earthly pilgrimage, Abbess Philareta was vouchsafed to see in a dream the Most Holy Mother of God who promised never to leave her. The eldress foreknew the very day of her death and prepared herself by receiving Holy Communion and Unction. At peace with everyone, she bid all the nuns farewell before the Lord took her to himself on the 2nd of March, 1890, at the age of 83.

    Thus ended the life of the righteous Eldress Philareta, the disciple of the great St. Seraphim and the holy Elder Philaret of Glinsk. Through her prayers may the Lord have mercy also upon us sinners. Amen.