Most of us spend the better part of our lives accumulating the wherewithal to lead a good life here on earth. How few of us seriously follow the Lord’s admonishment to lay up for ourselves treasures in heaven. The life of the venerable woman Matrona Naumovna is a striking example of this Gospel precept: "For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also."
As a child Matrona was given to bear a heavy cross of constant deprivation and sorrow. In spite of her youthful years, however, she was not crushed by the burden of her misfortunes. She possessed a courageous and vigorous spirit which enabled her to overcome the various trials she encountered along her path of life. Her sensitive and self-sacrificing nature was enlivened by such warm compassion towards her neighbor that another’s sufferings made her forget entirely the wretchedness of her own circumstances.
Matrona was born in 1796 into the family of a poor sexton in the Russian town of Yelets. The early death of her father further impoverished the family which came to know only too well the feeling of hunger. The despairing mother gave one son to be brought up by a peasant. Another son was ill and lay motionless from birth. Overwhelmed by grief, the mother departed this world, leaving the 7-year-old Matrona to look after her sick brother. The young girl went into the streets begging in the name of Christ and helping wherever she could in exchange for some food. In this way she spent three years until her brother died.
A neighboring couple took pity on the orphan and, being childless, they took her in as a daughter. Soon, however, they began to have children of their own, and Matrona was no longer allowed to call them mother and father and was relegated to the position of servant. All the household chores lay upon her young shoulders: she looked after the children, stoked the fire, washed the clothes, took care of the animals. In summertime she had the added task of working in the fields. It was her nature to be hardworking, and even in rare moments of free time she did not give herself to amusements customary to her age, but occupied herself with weaving or spinning.
In her loneliness Matrona thought of the future. She prayed to the Mother of God to guide the course of her life. She was a pretty girl and had no lack of suitors, but marriage had no place in her heart. An eldress, who lived as a recluse in a nearby convent, supported Matrona in her desire to remain free from attachment to an earthly love. Matrona wanted to enter a convent, but the eldress counseled her instead to go to Zadonsk. Following her advice, Matrona made a pilgrimage to Zadonsk. Then she returned to her work as a servant.
When she was 26, Matrona fill ill and became subject to fainting spells. Not wishing to be a burden, she asked to be released from the household where she had labored unmurmuringly for 15 years. Matrona suffered for three years before she received healing at the grave of St. Tikhon of Zadonsk.
Returning to Yelets, she again asked the eldress Melania about entering a convent. “Better to go to Zadonsk,” said the eldress. “There you will give shelter to pilgrims and feed orphans.”
Matrona was not a little surprised at the words of the eldress, as she herself had nowhere to stay in Zadonsk. In answer to her unspoken doubts, the eldress replied: “Have faith. It’s true, no one there knows you now. The time will come, however, when you will be known in Moscow and beyond. Do not doubt, but pray and believe!”
Matrona arrived in Zadonsk as a thin, pale, and penniless pilgrim. She had no place to stay, and even in bad weather she slept under the open sky. But she did not ask for alms, preferring to trust herself to the prayer of St. Tikhon. Two hieromonks heard of her situation and persuaded an elder woman to give Matrona a room in her home.
As soon as she had a roof over her head, Matrona began to invite pilgrims and beggars and to offer them the food given her from the monastery trapeza, satisfying herself with whatever was left. Desiring to obstruct her God-pleasing labors, the evil one roused to jealousy the woman in whose house Matrona was staying - to such an extent that she sometimes even prevented Matrona from entering. This grieved Matrona only because she had no place to offer hospitality to the many poor pilgrims who flocked to the Zadonsk monastery. Undaunted, she invited her guests to sleep in the yard. Then the monastery elders decided to help her and bought her a small cottage just outside the monastery walls. It was only large enough to fit six people; Matrona herself often spent the night sitting on the threshold. The evil one persisted in his efforts to discourage her; she was even subjected to beatings by the town bailiff on account of her collection of “outcasts.”
With the deaths of the two hieromonks who had done so much to help her, Matrona made a pilgrimage to the holy monasteries of Kiev in the Ukraine and Solovki in the far north. She then returned to Zadonsk to continue her work which began to expand in answer to her prayers.
A local well-to-do merchant lost his beloved son, and wished in his memory to support a work of charity. He offered Matrona the ground floor of his house and moved her cottage into his yard, so that she could have a refuge where she could go and pray. A number of young women were inspired to join Matrona in her work, and for 19 years they labored together for the sake of Christ. Then God provided them with a house of their own.
Once Matrona saw in a dream the holy hierarch Tikhon who blessed her, gave her a loaf of bread, and said, “It’s time, Matrona, for you to have your own place.” He pointed to the north side of the monastery and added: “That’s the spot where you must build a guest house for the poor.” This dream was repeated on three consecutive nights.
Matrona went to the place indicated in the dream and tearfully wondered how she was ever to accomplish such a task. As she stood there, a man approached her and said that he was a stone mason; he offered his services while agreeing to be paid at a later date. Someone else unexpectedly sent a large sum of money, and soon other help began to arrive so that she was able to construct all the walls, but the roof was still lacking when she ran out of funds. Just then, Matrona discovered a roll of gold pieces left by an unknown visitor. Thanking God for her mysterious benefactor, she was able to complete the construction.
When in August, 1832, the relics of the holy hierarch of Voronezh Mitrophan were opened, the number of pilgrims multiplied - and the work of Matrona became even more indispensable. She was firm in her insistence that no one be turned away. “God has an abundance of everything,” she would say. “He nourishes us with His loving-kindness. Let us likewise be merciful and benevolent towards others.”
Matrona manifested exceptional self-sacrifice towards those who fell ill with cholera. She tried to alleviate their sufferings in every possible way; she called priests to the beds of the dying, bought coffins and saw that those who died in poverty and without relatives were given an ecclesiastical burial.
Pilgrims, beggars, the sick, the dying, foundlings and orphans - there was no one whose needs Matrona ignored. Even while alone in her cell, she would prepare bandages for the sick, or sew shirts. She gave out towels, kerchiefs, woolen socks, gloves, shoes and all sorts of clothing. In turn, God always met her needs - at times in the most unexpected ways.
Once Matrona managed to get into debt over a large purchase of flour. She fell to her knees, begging God to help her through the prayers of St. Tikhon. Exhausted, she fell into a light sleep there on the floor and saw in a vision three hierarchs who said to her: “Just as you fell into debt in order to feed paupers and strangers for Christ’s sake, so we will not abandon you!” From icons she recognized the holy hierarchs Mitrophan of Voronezh, Dimitri of Rostov and Tikhon of Zadonsk. Not long afterwards, a cossack officer came to her and said: “You shelter pilgrims. Pray for me!” He thrust a packet under the tablecloth and left. It turned out to be money in the very amount needed to pay off the debt.
Matrona was constantly in prayer. Many came to her for a word of counsel or consolation. Merciful towards the weaknesses of others, she was strict with regard to herself, voluntarily enduring the same deprivations so familiar to her as a child. She was already confined to her cell when, on April 1, 1844, she was secretly tonsured with the name Mary.
Not long before her death, which she foresaw, Matrona gave away her house to the monastery. Another house and a piece of land she designated for the continuance of her work, requesting that a convent be founded there in honor of the Icon of the Theotokos, “Joy of All Who Sorrow.”
The last few months of her life were spent in reclusion. Matrona died on August 17, 1851, after a long life of much labor and many trials. Indeed, from an earthly standpoint it would seem that fate had been most unkind to her: orphaned in conditions of extreme poverty at such a tender age, left to care for a sick brother, then beset by years of hard work and loneliness in her youth. But she overlooked her own grief and hastened to help others, always sensitive to the words of Christ: "Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these My brethren, ye have done it unto Me" (Matt. 26:40).
What a profound understanding she had of the Christian life, what power of love! One cannot recall the self-sacrificing life of this righteous woman without bringing into focus one’s own spiritual poverty and negligence. May we draw inspiration from her example to put into practice - however meagerly - Christ’s law of love in our own lives.