St. Nectaria, Schema-Nun, of Russia
Little is known to us of the monastic life of St. Nectaria. To understand what little there is is possible only through an acquaintance with her life in the world.
St. Nectaria’s father, Count Boris Petrovich Sheremetiev, was a close friend and collaborator of 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. 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, was the widow of the Tsar’s uncle, Lev Kirillovich Narishkin. She was very attentive to the moral upbringing of her daughter Natalia, who referred to her as “my gracious mother.” Natalia was only 14 when her mother died, and she wrote that this grief was “the beginning of my troubles.” She had already lost her father, who died in 1719 when she was only 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. At 16, she became betrothed to a handsome man, 22 year-old Prince Ivan Alexeevich Dolgoruky, a favorite of Tsar Peter II and the brother of the Tsar’s fiancée, Princess Catherine, who showered Ivan with all kinds of favors. Natalia became acquainted with Ivan only after their betrothal, but she came to love him, as she herself wrote, for his “sincere and pure-hearted love.” The imperial family, as well as ambassadors and society’s most illustrious representatives, attended their engagement on December 24, 1729.
“In my spiritual immaturity” she wrote, “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. When she heard the news, Natalia fainted. When she came around, she repeated, “Alas, I am lost! I am lost!,” as though foreseeing her fate. Her fiancée came to her, and together they mourned the death of the Tsar. They vowed to remain “inseparable until death.” Through the window Natalia 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 couple, and they opposed his coming to Russia. He was a cruel and vengeful man. Rumors began circulating that Ivan and Natalia were to be exiled. Natalia was advised to break off her engagement should her fiancée 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 nearby property. The young couple were married in the local village church. They planned to go to Moscow to visit their relatives, but a decree came ordering the entire family to a distant village, 800 miles from the capital. After a difficult journey lasting three weeks, they arrived at the 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 captives were then ordered to Berezov in distant Siberia. Of those close to her, Natalia was accompanied only by her old French governess. In Berezov they were confined in a stockade; allowed out only to go to church, and were forbidden all correspondence and visitors.
Unfortunately, Natalia’s notes ended with her arrival in Borezov. She lived there for 11 years. She had children, but they all died in infancy except two, Dimitri and Michael, who eventually returned with their mother to Moscow.
In 1739 tragedy again struck the family. As a result of a false denunciation, Natalia’s husband, Ivan, 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 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 Natalia erected a church dedicated to the Nativity of Christ. In St. Petersburg she settled in her brother Peter’s house. The Empress tried to comfort her with invitations to the court, but Natalia ignored them all. In society Natalia was even more unhappy. In 1753, after her youngest son had married, 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 Dnieper River.
“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 Borisevna, ‘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, Yaroslav Governor 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.
Nectaria fell asleep in the Lord on July 3, 1771, and was buried at the entrance to the Cathedral of the Kiev-Caves Lavra.
By permission of www.orthodox.net
Translated from Russkoe Pravoslavnoye Zhenskoe Monashestvo, XVIII-XX v., Jordanville, 1985