Orthodox America

  “They Shall Be One Flesh…” - Sergei Alexandrovich and Elena Alexandrovna Nilus

Sergei Alexandrovich Nilus is a well known Russian Church writer whose narratives provide a splendid literary montage of Holy Russia in the 19th and early 20th centuries. He was also responsible for bringing to light St. Seraphim's conversation with Motovilov On the Acquisition of the Holy Spirit. The following account, however, focuses not on his literary achievements but on his relationship with his equally remarkable wife. It is not a Life but a series of sketches, illustrating their godly marriage and the heartwarming Christian ambiance it engendered 

Sergei Atexandrovich Nilus was born in Moscow in 1862, to a family of well-to-do landowners. Like their milieu, the family was possessed by the spirit of the times, i.e., materialism and extreme liberalism. They scorned everything to do with the Church. Young Sergius' upbringing followed along these lines, but cold rationalism was foreign to the child's nature. God had given him a burning heart, and he divided his affection between his nanny and the family estate, Zolotarevo-both of which he loved "to tears".

    As he grew older, his godless upbringing bore its fruit. He always received bad marks in catechism classes, and once he came to confession shamefully drunk. In his fourth year of high school, aware that he was unprepared for his exams, he gave a vow to go to "Trinity-Sergius" [Lavra] and there to cross himself "with both hands and feet"... But the vow was forgotten until there occurred a miracle which reminded him that he was an oath-breaker. This happened after his graduation from university when, as a court magistrate in the Caucasus, he was horse-back riding on a mountain road strewn with sharp rocks. He spurred on his horse when it stumbled and turned in the air, throwing the rider onto the rocks. Such a fall was sure to be fatal. But by a mercy of God, both horse and rider escaped with only minor bruises--a miracle which prompted the recall of his childhood vow.

      When he arrived at Holy Trinity Lavra, a monk first guided him around all the significant places of the monastery and then took him to St. Sergius' reliquary, where a general service of intercession was being held. Sargei Alexandrovich began to pray fervently to God. Lifting his eyes, he looked at the Saint's schema under the glass, and trembled, as he beheld on the cloth the living visage of the Saint looking at him sternly. Through his fervent, penitent prayers, the Saint's expression became less stern and soon disappeared.

      Even this time, however, the transformation which Sergei Alexandrovich experienced in his soul was not definitive. He could not break free of his slavery to the passions. His full conversion occurred somewhat later, at the feet of St. John of Kronstadt, to whom he was directed by a chance fellow traveller, Fr. Ambrose, the treasurer of Liutikov Monastery and former cell-attendant who shared in the last five years of the righteous life of that great God-pleaser, Elder Ambrose of Optina.

      It was February, and there was a bitter frost. Nilus traveled to Kronstadt with a bad cold: he was feverish and had lost his voice, and he made the trip in an open cab, wearing a light coat easily penetrated by the wind: He risked his life, but his need to see St. John was insuperable. Nilus later described his experience during confession with the Saint. When asked a question, he writes, "I couldn't make a sound in reply; my throat Was completely constricted. Helpless, bewildered, I simply looked at Batiushka in despair. Fr. John gave me the Cross to kiss and laid it on the analogion and then, with two fingers of his right hand, he ran them over my throat inside the collar of my shirt, three times. Instantly my fever left me and my voice returned, fresher and purer than before. It is hard to express in words what went on at that moment in my soul!...

      "For more than half an hour, standing on my knees at the feet of the longed-for comforter, I told him of my sorrows; I opened to him my sinful soul and repented for everything that lay like a heavy stone upon my heart. It is difficult to expose oneself before God in front of a witness, to overcome this difficulty, to renounce one's pride--this is the very essence, the mysterious and healing (with the help of God's grace) power of confession. For the first time I felt with all my soul the sweetness of this repentance.

      "...Only after this heartfelt confession with Fr. John did that faith--which so stubbornly refused to come to my soul, despite my evident conversion at the relics of St. Sergius- -come to dwell in my heart as a bright flame. And I became conscious of myself as a believer and as an Orthodox Christian."...

      Sergei Alexandrovich was grievously tormented by the loss of his beovved "Zolotarevo". It proved to be a crisis in his life which tore him from his accustomed foundation. Henceforth he gradually moved away from "this world," and became a seeker after the "heavenly city' The Lord led him towards this goal m gradual stages, through alternate sorrows and spiritual consolation. 

      A joyous event soon afterwards was his meeting with his future wife. Elena Alexandrovna Ozerova, in contrast with Nilus, was raised from childhood by her pious mother in strict obedience to the Church. From the age of thirty, her spiritual father, Protopresbyter I. Yanshm, forbade her to participate in worldly life. Her life was devoted to caring for her elderly father and to good works. She was a trustee of one of the "Patriotic" schools, founded in the last century by Empress Elizabeth for orphans of the Patriotic War; there, in addition to sciences, the young women were instructed in trades. She was also a trustee of the Rozhdestvensk medical assistant courses for women, and it was here that she met Nilus who was visiting the directress of these courses.

      During the Russo-Japanese War Elena Alexandrovna worked in the Winter Palace together with Empress Alexandra Feodorovna. Here she developed a close acquaintance with the Empress, who offered Elera Alexandrovna to become the Red Cross representative in Tsarskoe Selo and to take charge of all her charitable organizations. This was in 1905-6.

      The Niluses were married February 3, 1906 in Petersburg. The crowns were held by general D.A. Ozerov--brother of the bride, and Raphael---an elderly valet who had served in the family for forty years. They both wept, certain that Elena Alexandrovna was: committing a folly.

      Their plans were that Nilus enter the priesthood and become a village priest in Volhynia. His parish and date of ordination were already set, and all seemed to herald a cause for rejoicing. The newlyweds complemented one another remarkably. For example, thanks to Elena Alexandrovna, her husband's artistic talents surfaced. As a young girl she had studied art and knew the technique, but she tacked talent. He had learned only to draw in high school, and that was limited to pencil sketches. When she taught him how to work with color--the results were some beautiful studies which lived and breathed: they conveyed a sense of perspective, the expanse of fields, air, sunshine.

            As for Elena Alexandrovna she blossomed inwardly and became still more kindhearted. Although she was not beautiful, she was pleasantly attractive. She was older than her husband by seven years. Thanks to her-exceptional mind, her spiritual refinement and highly cultured development, Elena Alexandrovna made a singular impression. She was a treasure and stronghold in everything regarding Christian duty, and she never argued with her husband, who possessed in her a firm support.

      At that time Sergei Alexandrovich still bore signs of his former good looks--in spite of his broad, graying beard. An interesting conversationalist, a wonderful musician who retained vestiges of a once good voice, he was--thanks to his warmth and affectionate manner towards everyone--a very charming personality. This was a guileless, captivating man who possessed a truly childlike simplicity.

      But Petersburg society regarded him and this marriage in an entirely different light: a general consensus was formed that he was an adventurist who had married one of the Empress' favorites--an older maid of honor--and was becoming a priest in hopes of entering the ranks of the court clergy with the aim of wielding a politically reactionary influence.

      Within this society there arose an unbelievable furor, chiefly fueled by an article in the paper "New Times," in which Sergei Alexandrovich's past life was laid out in the most abominable terms; he was characterized as the worst libertine. In fact, the story of his past was the following:

      Nilus was still a youth when a neighboring landowner, a distant relative, fell in love with him. This woman s husband was paralyzed; she had several children and was 18 years older than Nilus. From this affair a son was born; he was adopted and raised by Nilus' father, and received a good education. Natalya Afanasievna was wealthy, but although she wanted for nothing, she continued to frustrate all Nilus' efforts to marry. She was not yet a widow when Nilus broke off ties with her and finally got married. It was then that this story surfaced in the guise of the most unbelievable scandal, as it was portrayed in the "New Times" article.

      There could be no more talk of ordination. The Nilus couple wanted to disappear from Petersburg, where relatives and acquaintances avoided them as if they were outcasts. Tying up their affairs in the city, the Niluses chose as their retreat the remote Babaevsky Monastery on the shores of the Volga, where the ever-memorable Bishop Ignaty Brianchiannov had spent his last days. On the way they met with an unexpected joy: one of their fallow passengers on the boat was Fr. John of Kronstadt. He was acquainted with both of them and tried, with his affection and kindness, to compensate for the slanders and offenses inflicted upon them by Petersburg society. He approved and blessed their marriage and told Elena Alexandrovna that she would never regret her dccision. And indeed, Nilus treasured and loved his wife as a gift sent from God. One couldn’t imagine a closer union and a more compatible couple. 

    Nilus had often spoken to his wife about the well known Optina Hermitage. During the several months he had spent there in preparing for the priesthood, he had become a changed man; it was for him his spiritual homeland. Elena Alexandrovna had never been there, and in the summer of 1907, she suggested they go together. They arrived not long before the Feast of Definition. The next day was the feast of the Icon of the Saviour 'Not-Made-by-Hands". Nilus wrote in his diary:

      "We attended the late Liturgy. After the dismissal my wife and I were preparing to leave by the southern door. And there, in front of the Kazan Icon, we were met by one of the elders, Hieromonk Sergei. He gave us his blessing, and then said, unexpectedly:

      ' 'What a pity, Sergei Alexandrovich, that you live so far away!'

"'What do you mean?'

"'Well, you see, we have in mind to publish Optina leaflets, similar to the Trinity leaflets.              If you lived nearby, you could be our co-worker 'What's there to hinder this?' I said. 'Thanks be to God, we are free people, and are not tied down by any worldly obligations. If there could be found a place for us here--we are yours.' '

      As it turned out, there was a sizeable house belonging to the monastery, located just outside its walls. It had been built by a certain Archimandrite Juvenaly in the late 1870's. Ten years later he was appointed to another diocese, and apart from serving occasionally as a short-term summer residence, the house was left vacant. There the Niluses spent almost four years; it was for them an earthly paradise.

      Best of all was the opportunity to frequently, attend the monastery services, and to be closely guided by an elder. The Niluses' spiritual father was Elder Barsanouphy. (He confessed them together, knowing that they kept no secrets from one another.) At that time Elder Joseph was still living, and there were many other righteous ascetics among the monks: Abbot Mark who had been tonsured by the great Elder Moses, Fr. Joel, Fr. John (Salov), blind Fr. James, the future Elder Nektary... As a literary artist, Nilus deftly impressed their holy and shining images on the pages of his Optina diary, a remarkable portrayal of Holy Russia later published under the title: On the Banks of God's River.

      The book was not composed solely of monastic portraits. Besides their association with the Optina monks, the Niluses became acquainted with many of the pilgrims who visited the hermitage.. Among them was Abbess Sophia of the Protection Convent in Kiev, who at that time was superior of a small monastic community, "Joy and Consolation." There was also Elena Andreevna Voronova [see OA, Vol. 11, No. 2], and her helper Natalia Ivanovna Yevreynova, who succeeded her as head of the prison mission. Like Elena Andreevna, she was a righteous woman. The mother of a large family, she had been secretly tonsured. She had the gift of healing eye diseases, a gift which she exercised with the blessing of Elder Barsanouphy...

       A large dining room ran the length of the Niluses' manor house. Sitting at the hospitable table, one found a diversified company of pilgrims: here was Mafia Nikolaevna Maximovna, wife of the governor-general of Warsaw, drinking tea next to some simple peasants; here there were no class distinctions, all felt part of one spiritual family here there reigned a sincere, Christian altitude The Niluses were able to unite people, surrounding them with their hearthfelt love. 

     Their life at Optina promoted the development of a keen spiritual perception. The reality of the spiritual world was manifest with a clarity unknown to people of their world. "their life was so saturated with prayer that one could scarcely wonder at the daily revelation, of God's Providence. A striking illustration appears in Nilus' biographical narrative.

      "July 7, 1909...Last night I had a heavy attack of a suffocating cough. Just what I deserved! It was from smoking, a habit which I cannot break; I've been smoking since my third year in high school and now I am so penetrated with this accursed nicotine that it has undoutedly become an essential part of my blood. A miracle is needed to tear me from the claws of this vice. I haven't enough willpower to do it myself. I tried to kick the habit I didn't smoke for a day, two ,days--but the result was that I became irritable, angry, and this new sin was more bitter than the first Fr. Barsanouphy forbade me even from making such attempts, limiting my daily portion to fifteen cigarettes. (I had previously smoked without counting Later Fr. Barsanouphy wrote: "Your hour will come, and you will stop smoking." Regarding this same habit, Fr. Joseph said to me: "Hope, do not despair: in good time, God willing, you will quit.!' And, according to the word of the elders, this miracle occurred. It happened in the following way:

      "I lived with my friend, my God-given wife, 'soul in soul,' as they say, in the full sense of the Gospel words; i.e., in such a way that we were not two, but one flesh. The great mercy of God was granted us from above on account of our profound and firm faith in the Mystery of Marriage, which we both approached with fear and trembling Then, in June, 1910, my wife fell seriously ill, and neither the Optina medical assistant nor the summoned doctor could identify the nature of her illness: in the morning she appeared to be almost well, but as soon as evening came her temperature rose to 40. And so it went on for a week, another, a third! I saw that my joy was melting before my eyes, like a wax candle; at any moment imagined she would flare up for the last time and be extinguished. And my orphaned heart became filled with a great, an immeasurably great distress and grief. I fell down before the Smolensk Icon of the "Mother of God, which stood in the corner of my study, and I wept, pouring forth my anguish and distress and speaking to Her as it the Icon were alive: 'Mother, Queen, my All-blessed Theotokos! I believe it was You who gave me my angel wife. Save her for me, and in return I vow before you that I will never smoke again. I give this vow, and yet I know that I cannot fulfill it through my own powers, but not to fulfill it would be a great sin; therefore, help me!'

      “This was about 10 o’clock at night. Having prayed and calmed down somewhat, I approached my wife’s bedside. She was sleeping; her breathing was quiet, regular. I felt her forehead: it was damp but not hot. My sweet darling was sound asleep. Glory to God, glory to the Most Holy Mother of God! In the morning her temperature was 36.5, in the evening--36.4, and a day later she was up as if she had never been ill. As for myself, I forgot that I had ever smoked, although I had been a chain-smoker for thirty-three years and my entire organism was so saturated with the cursed tobacco that I couldn’t live without it, not for a day, not even for a minute. Was this not a miracle of the Hodigitria?' 

      It was the Niluses' fervent desire to remain in Optina to the end of their days. In moving there, they had asked their spiritual father to give his blessing for this. But to their dismay he told them they would only spend a few years there. And indeed, scarcely more than three years had passed when the Evil One stirred up a scandal which resulted not only in the Niluses having to leave their beloved "Juvenaly Manor," but also in Elder' Barsanouphy's "deportation" to another monastery. A contributing factor here was the arrival of Natalie Afanasievna, now in impoverished widow, who begged Nilus to take her in. Elena Alexandrovna generously took pity on the elder woman and soon conquered her initial hostility with her angelic kindness and solicitude. They spent several years under the same roof

         Moving north to Valdai, Nilus feared that he would have to abandon his work ' On the Banks of God’s River,' but there, too, life was rich with spiritual impressions and encounters with people devoted to the Church. People came to see them from all parts of Russia; they received letters... And Nilus continued casting his nets--with great success. One of their visitors, a student at the time, recalls the quality of their life in Valdai:

       "The Niluses' house stood in a beautiful, deserted park, which sloped down to the lake. Here was a small wharf where boats were moored. Women operated the ferries, carrying passengers primarily to the Iveron Monastery, situated in the woods on the island in the middle of the lake...

      'I arrived in Valdai June 29, 1916, on the feast of the holy Apostles Peter and Paul, and was unexpectedly plunged into an extraordinary atmosphere which words can scarcely convey.. I will say only this I had had occasion in my life to meet good Christians, but such a life of faith, of such profound, living evangelical spirit as I saw here, I had never before encountered anywhere, nor would I afterwards. The Niluses' relation to others--in spite of the troubles they suffered--was so simple, so honest, heartfelt and affectionate; it exuded such light and warmth that I could not but immediately submerge myself with all my soul into this joyous, cozy, love-filled atmosphere. Here there was nothing false or contrived: this was the way the Niluses were; this was their life, their spirit. Daily they read the Lives of Saints and were penetrated by their frame of mind. I spent six weeks in this wonderful house, and this time put such a strong stamp on my soul that the cumulative impressions of the rest of my life could not efface it." 

      Elena Alexandrovna's niece, the future Elena Yurievna Kontzevitch, was a young woman of 20 when she first visited Valdai in the fall of 1913:

      "I left about noon and arrived in Valdai shortly after 4 o'clock in the morning. It was still dark when, by the light of lanterns, I stepped off the train, and I immediately found myself in the broad, familial embrace of my dear, elderly aunt and uncle, who had come to meet me in spite of the early hour.

      'That night, or rather that morning, we didn't go to rest but talked and talked--endlessly: beginning by lamplight and continuing into the daylight. In the morning they showed me around the house.

      'The principal room was the study-cozy and old-fashioned, with heavy, stuffed armchairs and a divan arranged about a round table with a lamp and partitioned off from the door by Chinese screens. In the corner could be seen an enormous icon of the Hodigitria Mother of God. At one window stood uncle's desk, where so much of his life took place, his work. The walls were hung with portraits and other art--the work of the master and mistress of the house,..

       'The other remarkable room was their bedroom, half of which had been transformed into a chapel. There were many icons; some of them were old, family icons. Most striking of all was a wondrous image of Christ, as if alive, wearing a crown of thorns--the work of an unknown Italian artist....There was also a captivating icon portrait of St. Seraphim, painted by some Diveyeva nuns. Vigil lamps burned in front of the icons.

       "A special feeling of peace and coziness emanated from these two rooms. Never again and nowhere in my life did I encounter such a soothing, peaceable atmosphere. The other rooms -a dining room and two guest rooms--did not bear such a personal stamp.

      "This time I only stayed about a month in Valdai. The weather wasn’t particularly conducive to taking walks. I sat in the study in one of the armchairs opposite aunt with some work or a book in hand. Sitting at his desk, uncle turned to my aunt: "This girl doesn't bother me; she knows how to be quiet, like you." I didn't find the silence burdensome; on the contrary, I was delighted by this old world atmosphere, the affection and love of my relatives. After all, there are different kinds of silence: one is cold, dry, oppressive, rooted in a feeling of alienation and differing opinions; and then there is the opposite, when there reigns a perfect understanding, an inner harmony; then words are superfluous."

      Life for the Niluses in Valdai was rich and fruitful. The nearby Iveron Monastery, with its holy things and spiritually attuned monks, although it could not replace their beloved Optina, was for them a source of comfort and joy. With the coming of the Revolution, however, "normal life" ended and "history" took over. 

      At the very outbreak of the Revolution, the Niluses were providentially invited to move south, to the estate of Prince Vladimir Zhevakhov (the future Bishop Ioasaph). Fortunately they agreed- and were spared the famine and terror which soon swept the north; their local friends all perished.

      Preparing for an uncertain future, the Niluses received a blessing from the diocesan bishop, Archbishop Theophan of Poltava, to establish a church in the top floor of their house. Abbess Sophia of Kiev, whom they knew from Optina, took an active part in setting up the church and sent some of her nuns to help out. The altar was separated by a screen partition covered with dark blue satin trimmed with silver galloon. The icons of the Saviour and the Mother of God were in silver rizas and framed with the same galloon. Vigil lamps were suspended in front of them. A curtain served for the Royal Doors. The Niluses were both readers and singers; others joined them, forming a choir. Most people came to this church only irregularly, But still, they were drawn to the services and obtained spiritual consolation. When times were hard, those who came brought provisions.

      From abroad letters came with offers to help the Niluses leave the country. But apart from having no money, they felt it was not right to abandon their church, where the Lord and the Queen of Heaven had appointed them "guardians, watchmen, readers, chanters and lamp-lighters." 'There is no way," wrote Nilus, "that we can change our assignment; we must stand at our Divine post until the Lord Himself clearly indicates4hat our mission is finished, or until our death..,"

      The Niluses were too well known to escape the notice of the new, godless authorities. The net began to tighten. Meanwhile; however, .their Christian love continued to prove its strength. One of their guests at Linovitsa later wrote:

     “In their house there reigned the grace of God; one could sense it upon entering. There was always an atmosphere of joy; no one ever quarreled. SA. Nilus had a gift of burning love towards one and all. While I was there it happened that a Bolshevik commisar came to look at the house. Of course, he did not remove his cap; he had an insolent manner and was very crude in his behavior. SA. showed him around the whole house and took him into the chapel on the top floor. They were there for a long time. S A.'s wife decided to have a look and saw that the Bolshevik was crying m the embrace of her husband.. S.A. himself was weeping Evidently he had been able to find words which had melted his heart..." 

       In 1923 the Niluses were banished from Linovitsa, and it was only through a miracle that they were not executed. Already getting on in years, the couple began to lead a life corresponding to the uncertainty of the time, 'We don’t think about what is to become of us," wrote Nilus in a letter abroad "Let us commend ourselves and one another and all our lives unto Christ our God."

      In August, 1924 Nilus was arrested--no reason, no interrogation; But God was merciful. Describing her husband's circumstances in a letter to her sister, Elena Alexandrovna wrote: "He is calm, as always, cheerful... Only one thing grieves him--the separation from me. We've never been separated before, not once..."

      Soon, however, Nilus was transferred to Kiev where conditions were stricter. He became quite ill and after five months was released. The couple settled temporarily in a women s convent. Once again, they felt as though they were in paradise. It is just the life we love," Wrote Elena Alexandrovna "We have a nice room, and--and for nothing! We have only to cross a small courtyard to get to church where there are daily services, splendid, with two choirs and two priests--one better than the other....Everything seems like old times, so you can understand how blessed we are. They show us love in every way and bring us so much that there's no place to put it...." Sergei Alexandrovich added: "My head is spinning from all the impressions we have and are experienced. Now with this head and with all my heart I have become absorbed in contacts with people of the same spirit with us ...There aren't enough hours in the day to fully and worthily take advantage of this and the more so because Great Lent is here and a lot of time is spent at services." 

     Nilus was arrested a second and a third time, and the strain eventually told on his health. A friend arranged for the couple to move in with his father, a priest who lived in the country They hoped that Nilus would get well in the fresh air. But he never recovered. He died January 1 (o.s.), 1929. Elena Alexandrovna wrote to her niece in Paris, assuring her that she needn't be anxious over the fact that Sergei Alexandrovich had died suddenly as though without the necessary preparation. “He was a doer of unceasing prayer-, which was for him like breathing" And truly, already many years before his death, one could observe his left hand fingering a prayer rope which he kept concealed in his jacket pocket. Elena Alexandrovna herself constantly said the Jesus Prayer, and even at night in her sleep, she felt at times its movement in her heart.

      After her husband's death, Elena Alexandrovna moved back with Natalia Afanasievna, whom she supported for the next four years by giving foreign language lessons When Natalia Afanasievna died, Elena Alexandrovna wrote: "Understand, I thank the Lord that He granted me--if years ago I caused her much grief--to live with her these last four years, to care for her and bury her...So it was meant to be; this is how the story of our life was meant to end."

      Elena Alexandrovna herself died peacefully on April 10, 1938.

(Translated and compiled tram the Introductory Life of Nilus in Volume II of On the Banks of God’s River; Orthodox Christian Books & Icons, San Francisco, 1969.)