+ July 3, 1771
The 18th century reforms of Peter the Great spurred Russia's technological advance and her spiritual decline. In particular, his insistence on European standards hastened the secularization of Russia's aristocracy. In its ranks, however, were those who continued to cling to the Orthodox world-view--men of noble soul and women who eschewed the worldly pleasures, frivolous occupations, gossip and scandal which commonly attended their class, and pursued instead 'the way of holiness '. Below is the Life of one of these women. She did not engage in any spectacular spiritual exploit, but through patient endurance and faithfulness to Christ she joined the myriad of saints and righteous who, gathered from every class and every age, shone forth upon the Russian land and made it worthy of being called "Holy".
Little is known to us of the monastic life of Nun Nectaria. To understand what little there is, to appreciate its significance, is possible only through an acquaintance with her life in the world.
Her father, Count Boris Petrovich Sheremetiev, was a close friend and collaborator of the reforming Tsar Peter I. At the same time he was true to the best qualities of the Russian past and to the discipline of the Orthodox Church. He was devoted to the Tsar without fear or flattery, and refused, in spite of the Tsar's anger, to condemn the unfortunate Prince Alexis Petrovich. The Tsar, in turn, valued and respected him for his lofty spiritual and intellectual gifts, while the people loved him for his generosity and kindness. Upwards of fifty needy people a day were fed at his table. At his estate of Borisovk in the vicinity of Poltava, he founded the St. Boris-Tikhvin convent in accordance with a vow given before the battle of Poltava. His second wife Anna Petrovna, nee Saltykova, was the widow of the Tsar's uncle, Lev Kirillovich Narishkin. She was very attentive to the moral upbringing of her daughter Natalia, who refers to her in some notes as "my gracious mother." Natalia was only 14 when her mother died, and she writes that this grief was "the beginning of my troubles." She had already lost her father, who died in 1719 when she was but five years old.
Natalia Borisevna grew up to be worthy of her parents. After her mother died she spent two years in complete seclusion in the home of her brother Peter, consciously habituating herself to a life of solitude. At the age of 16, however, she became betrothed to the most dashing bachelor of the time, the handsome 22 year-old Prince Ivan Alexeevich Dolgoruky, a favorite of Tsar Peter II and the brother of the Tsar's fiancee, Princess Catherine, who showered Dolgoruky with all kinds of favors. Natalia became acquainted with Dolgoruky only after their betrothal, but she came to love him, as she herself wrote, for his "sincere and pure-hearted love." The imperial family, ambassadors and society's most illustrious representatives attended their engagement.
This took place December 24, 1729. "In my spiritual immaturity" she writes, "it seemed to me that the rest of my life would go on like this. I didn't know that in this world there is nothing enduring. My happiness was short-lived; it lasted only from December 24 to January 18. For these 26 days I suffered for the next 40 years." On January 18 Emperor Peter II died from smallpox. The moment Natalia Borisovna heard this, she fainted. When she came around, she repeated, "Alas, I am lost! I am lost!" as though foreseeing her miserable fate. That same day at evening her fiancee came to her, and together they mourned the death of their benefactor. Then and there they vowed to one another to remain "inseparable until death." Through the window Natalia Borisovna tearfully watched the funeral procession. Soon thereafter the new Empress Anna triumphantly entered Moscow.
Natalia's foreboding proved justified. The Empress's favorite, the Baltic nobleman Biron, was an enemy of the Dolgorukies, and they opposed his coming to Russia. He was a cruel and vengeful man. Rumors began circulating at once that the Dolgorukies were to be exiled. Natalia was advised to break off her engagement should her fiancee become victimized. She later wrote, "What kind of conscience would allow me to eagerly follow after him when he enjoyed a high position and then to reject him in his misfortune? I couldn't accept such counsel, and made up my mind to live or die together with him. Through all manner of adversity I remained faithful to my husband, and now I will tell the plain truth: in the midst of all these misfortunes I never regretted having followed him. God is my witness: loving my husband, I bore everything and supported him as much as lay within my power....What has become of well-wishers, of friends? They have all left us to please the new favorite..." ...Two elderly relatives accompanied Natalia from Moscow to the Dolgoruky's property not far away. The young couple was married in the local village church. They were planning the next day to go to Moscow to present themselves to their relatives, but a decree came ordering the entire family to a distant village, 800 versts from the capital. On the way they were stripped of their service medals. After a difficult journey of three weeks, they arrived at their village, halfway to their assigned place of exile, but it was not long before an officer and soldiers rode up and placed guards with bayonets at all the exits to the village. The same day they were ordered to Berezov in distant Siberia. Of those close to her, Natalia Borisovna was accompanied only by her old French governess. In Berezov they were confined in a stockade; they were allowed out only to go to church, and were forbidden all correspondence and visitors.
Unfortunately, Natalia Borisovna's notes end with her arrival in Borezov. Here she lived 11 years. She had children, but they all died in infancy except two, Dimitri and Michael, who returned with their mother to Moscow. In 1739 a new trial struck the family. As a result of some denunciation, Ivan Alexseevich was taken to Novgorod where he was quartered. He died courageously, as a Christian. When they cut off his right hand he 'said; "I thank Thee, O Lord." As they cut off his left leg he continued, "for Thou hast granted me," concluding, when his left hand was severed, "to know Thee, O Lord!"
Natalia Borisovna learned of her husband's fate only when Empress Elizabeth Petrovna, who ascended the throne in 1741, restored her freedom and her former rank. Over her husband's grave she erected a church dedicated to the Nativity of Christ. In Petersburg she settled in her brother Peter's house. The Empress tried to dispel her grief with invitations to the court, but in vain. In society Natalia Borisovna was even more unhappy. In 1753, when her youngest son had grown up, she finally retired to the Kiev-Florovsky Convent. There, at the age of 45, she was tonsured and given the name Nectaria, and in 1767, having prepared herself through monastic labors, she took the great schema. It is said that before her tonsure she threw her engagement ring into the Dneiper.
"The next entry in her notes," writes her biographer Archimandrite Leonty, "makes evident the writer's Christian sensibilities and indicates the purpose which she had in writing about her sorrowful life: 'Lord, give me strength', writes Natalia Borisovna, 'to explain my misfortunes, that I might describe them for those who want to know, and for the consolation of those in sorrow, so that, remembering me, they would be comforted. For I was one who spent all my days in misfortune and experienced everything: persecution, exile, poverty, separation from loved ones, everything imaginable. I do not boast of my endurance; rather, I boast in the Lord's mercy, in that He granted me strength to endure, even now. It is impossible for a mortal to bear such bitter ordeals unless he is strengthened from above by the power of the Lord. Just consider my upbringing and my present state.'..."
Her grandson, the Yaroslav governor, Prince Ivan Michailovich Dolgoruky, writes in his memoirs how as a child his parents took him to visit his grandmother at the Florovsky convent. The memory of the profound peace which surrounded her remained with him for life. She was always surrounded by many people.
Schema-nun Nectaria reposed July 3, 1771, and was buried at the entrance
to the cathedral of the Kiev-Caves Lavra.
(Translated from Russkoe Pravoslavnoye Zhenskoe Monashestvo, XVIII-XX v.; Jordanville, 1985)
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