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St. Xenia of St. Petersburg

St. Xenia of St. Petersburg by Br. Robert Lentz, OFM

Artwork Narrative:

Saint Blessed Xenia is one of the most popular saints of the Russian Orthodox Church. She lived in the eighteenth century and most probably belonged to the lesser nobility.   She was 26 years old when her husband suddenly died one night during a drinking party. His unexpected death shattered her personal world and caused her to re-evaluate her life of comfort and privilege.

She began giving away all her money and possessions to the poor. When her relatives accused her of mental illness, trustees of her late husband’s estate examined her and ruled that she was perfectly sane and had every right to dispose of her property as she chose. For 8 years she disappeared from St. Petersburg, perhaps learning from a monastic elder about prayer and the spiritual life. When she returned to St. Petersburg, she had embraced the life of a Fool for Christ.

She wore her late husband’s dress uniform and insisted that everyone call her by his name, as she wandered the streets of the poor districts of the city. In the beginning people simply laughed at her. Street children tormented her by throwing mud and rocks. Gradually they realized she was not a simple beggar and began inviting her into their homes or giving her alms. She would accept nothing but copper pennies, however, which she distributed to the poor. She became known for her clairvoyance and her readiness to help anyone in need.

She died on January 24, 1796, when she was 71 years old. People began visiting her grave to pray for her help. In spite of Communist persecution, they continued to do so throughout the 20th century. Her fame has spread beyond the borders of Russia, and she is now beloved throughout the Orthodox world as a patron saint of the poor and all those in need.

Her feast day is January 24.

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Xenia Grigorievna Petrova was the wife of an army officer, Major Andrew Petrov. After the wedding, the couple lived in Saint Petersburg. Saint Xenia became a widow at the age of twenty-six when her husband suddenly died at a party. She grieved for the loss of her husband, and especially because he died without Confession or Holy Communion.

Once her earthly happiness ended, she did not look for it again. From that time forward, Xenia lost interest in the things of this world, and followed the difficult path of foolishness for the sake of Christ. The basis for this strange way of life is to be found in the first Epistle to the Corinthians (1 Cor. 1:18-24, 1 Cor. 2:14, 1 Cor. 3:18-19). The Lord strengthened her and helped her to bear sorrow and misfortune patiently for the next forty-five years.

She started wearing her husband’s clothing, and insisted that she be addressed as “Andrew Feodorovich.” She told people that it was she, and not her husband, who had died. In a certain sense, this was perfectly true. She abandoned her former way of life and experienced a spiritual rebirth. When she gave away her house and possessions to the poor, her relatives complained to the authorities. After speaking to Xenia, the officials were convinced that she was in her right mind and was entitled to dispose of her property as she saw fit. Soon she had nothing left for herself, so she wandered through the poor section of Petersburg with no place to lay her head. She refused all assistance from her relatives, happy to be free of worldly attachments.

When her late husband’s red and green uniform wore out, she clothed herself in rags of those colors. After a while, Xenia left Petersburg for eight years. It is believed that she visited holy Elders and ascetics throughout Russia seeking instruction in the spiritual life. She may have visited Saint Theodore of Sanaxar, who had been a military man himself. His life changed dramatically when a young officer died at a drinking party. Perhaps this officer was Saint Xenia’s husband. In any case, she knew Saint Theodore and profited from his instructions.

Saint Xenia eventually returned to the poor section of Petersburg, where she was mocked and insulted because of her strange behavior. When she did accept money from people it was only small amounts, which she used to help the poor. She spent her nights praying without sleep in a field outside the city. Prayer strengthened her, and in her heart’s conversation with the Lord she found the support she needed on her difficult path.

When a new church was being built in the Smolensk cemetery, Saint Xenia brought bricks to the site. She did this in secret, during the night, so that no one would know.

Soon her great virtue and spiritual gifts began to be noticed. She prophesied future events affecting the citizens of Petersburg, and even the royal family. Against her will, she became known as someone pleasing to God, and nearly everyone loved her. They said, “Xenia does not belong to this world, she belongs to God.” People regarded her visits to their homes or shops as a great blessing. Saint Xenia loved children, and mothers rejoiced when the childless widow would stand and pray over a baby’s crib, or kiss a child. They believed that the blessed one’s kiss would bring that child good fortune.

Saint Xenia lived about forty-five years after the death of her husband, and departed to the Lord at the age of seventy-one. The exact date and circumstances of her death are not known, but it probably took place at the end of the eighteenth century. She was buried in the Smolensk cemetery.

By the 1820s, people flocked to her grave to pray for her soul, and to ask her to intercede with God for them. So many visitors took earth from her grave that it had to be replaced every year. Later, a chapel was built over her grave.

Those who turn to Saint Xenia in prayer receive healing from illness, and deliverance from their afflictions. She is also known for helping people who seek jobs.

—Excerpts from Blessed Xenia of St Petersburg, Orthodox Church in America