January 24, 2018

Becoming St. Xenia: A Study of Sanctity and Madness

By Troy J. Thomas

The holy fool saints of Russia have a legacy for being heroes to the Russian people and an enemy to the Russian state. There is a multitude of captivating literature pertaining to this tradition as the Russian Orthodox Church has a large number of adherents, second only to the Roman Catholic Church. I find Russian Orthodoxy to be nuanced and the cultural significance of their saints to be rich. Soviet life and Bolshevik attacks on the church organization in the early twentieth century have created gaps in the continuity of literature due to the difficulty in publishing Russian Orthodox literature during times when printing was banned. However, literature that is readily available includes engaging narratives, folk tales, and appraisals that illustrate how dynamic the culture is. Through my work, I discuss one piece of this Orthodox tradition by looking at the perceived sanctity and madness of Russian fools-for-Christ’s sake. We must examine the multitude of relationships with regards to the holy fools, Russian Orthodox establishment, local communities, Muscovite cults, western adherents, and tsars.

The origins of the modern Russian Orthodox holy fool saint are from Greek Orthodox holy fools called salos. The holy fool fell out of favor in Greece and reappeared further east in Kiev and Russia where the Russian word for holy fool is yurodivy. The usage of the term yurodivy must be  taken in context because of the varying partisanship of individuals using the word and the overtones they may have applied to the holy fool. In Russia, the yurodivy were spoken of as pokhabyi with reference to the sincere act of holy foolishness. Prevailing opinions regarding the holy fool had wild swings as the fickle marketplace of Russian sainthood caused a large variance in the authority of the yurodivy. Throughout Russian history, laypeople and church leaders spoke of these quirky saints with reverence one day and with disdain the next.

When their authority was high, adherents revered many holy fools and when their authority was low, adherents tended to revere few holy fools. Narratives about the yurodivy were replicated and retold at times of cultural need, the seventeenth century is regarded as the holy fool’s height of authority in Russia. These years of popularity soon led to a surplus of prospective saints — the reverent use of these terms within the church dissipated during the early eighteenth century. The word pokhabyi, previously used out of respect for the holy fools, shifted to connote the ‘indecorous’ and ‘scandalous’ behavior of these prospective saints. Prospective saints and their hagiographers had to adapt existing models of holy fool saints to find success in times when holy fools were disenfranchised. Xenia of St. Petersburg was an individual who evolved the prototype of the Russian ‘holy fool’ to fit her eighteenth century St. Petersburg audience . Despite the Orthodox establishment’s condemning views of holy foolery she became a popular yurodivy revered by cults of peasants that saw her as a hero. Xenia developed an exuberant following during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries despite the fact that in 1731 — the year of Xenia Grigorievna’s birth — holy fools were threatened by the government-run Orthodox Synod and prohibited from showing themselves in Russian Orthodox congregations .

The Russian Orthodox Church has venerated around 30 saints in Russia whom are categorized as yurodivy, or fools-for-Christ’s sake. They were canonized due to the public’s perceptions of madness, renunciation of all that is worldly, and their self-deprecating asceticism. Acts of self-denial and madness were seen by the saint’s cult as abounding feats of asceticism capable only by those who are sanctified by God. Holy foolishness has been considered as a spiritual gift where sincere humility is displayed through self-deprecation alike to that of Christ, sincere holy fools were revered as “God’s people”. Xenia is an example of such a saint whom is still popular with Orthodox adherents and scholars today; scholar Sergey Ivanov refers to her as the ‘transvestite saint’ of St. Petersburg.