Hands Across the Water

Russian nunIn the small hours of a July night in 1918, Elizabeth Fyodorovna Romanova was thrown into a mine shaft by members of the Cheka, the Bolshevik secret police force that would later become known as the KGB. As both a member of the royal family and a nun of the Orthodox Church, Sister Elizabeth was doubly hated by the anti-imperial and anti-religious revolutionaries who had just taken power in Moscow. Beneath her full length alabaster white habit, she wore about her neck a medallion given to her personally by the czar, an icon with the inscription “Not Made By Human Hands.” It was all she owned as she dropped forty feet into the pit.

When the executioners heard her struggling after what they had intended as a fatal fall, they threw another nun in after her. From above they heard Sister Barbara land with a splash—the mine had several feet of rain water puddled at the bottom—but then the noises of life continued: coughing, crying, praying. Down went the other royal captives of the Cheka: five full grown men and two boys, dropped one by one down onto the battered bodies of the two nuns below. When they could still hear stirring, the guards threw a grenade down the hole. It exploded, and for a long moment everything was silent. Then, according to later testimony of one of the guards, Vassili Ryabov, “From beneath the ground, we heard singing.”

The guards were terrified. The intellectuals of the party had no use for the church, but grunts from the countryside that they were, the men responsible for doing away with Elizabeth Romanova had a deep connection to the faith of Mother Russia in all its gloomy glory. Hearing the consecrated voices drift out of the darkness, they looked at each other and wondered what to do. It only took a moment before they decided to fill the mine shaft with brush and set it on fire.

“They were singing ‘Lord, Save Your People,'” Ryabov said. “Their hymn rose up through the thick smoke for some time yet.”

When both the song and the fire were finally extinguished, Ryabov and the other guards hastily filled in the hole and went on their way.

Grand Duchess Elizabeth—Ella, to her friends—was a princess of the German aristocracy who married into the Russian royal line; she has become most famous however as one of a group known as the New Martyrs: those killed for their Orthodox faith by recent regimes in Russia, China, and Serbia. Numbers of the New Martyrs vary, especially since some in the church venerate as martyrs every last soul murdered from the Bolshevik revolution through the reign of Stalin, which would put the number somewhere around 20,000,000.

The Orthodox Church is even more taken with the idea of martyrdom than the Catholics are. Note for example the very Russian phenomenon of the “Church on Blood.” When a revered person is murdered for reasons even loosely associated with the faith, up goes a church on the very spot where his or her blood met the ground.

Obviously very few of those twenty million martyrs have had a church built for them, or are even remembered at all. Not so Elizabeth Romanova. The church on blood practice did not exist during the years of communist rule—years in which the faith was replaced by a government controlled facade—but she became so beloved after her death that she was smuggled out of Russia to a place where her memory, and her bones, might be preserved.

Ella can now be found—most of her, anyway—in the Convent of Saint Mary Magdalene high up on a hill overlooking the walls of Jerusalem’s Old City and the Mount of Olives Cemetery, which tradition holds is close to the site of the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus prayed the night before his crucifixion. Though the convent is a long way from Mother Russia, it was for Ella a sort of homecoming. She had visited Jerusalem once while alive and was so taken by it she arranged for the construction of a permanent community of Orthodox nuns. She was not yet a nun herself at that point; in fact she was not even Orthodox. She was the Lutheran bride of a Russian prince. Soon after her trip to Jerusalem she converted, and not long after her husband’s death, she took the veil.

It was this story—the story of her life, but moreover the story of her death, the story of her traveling bones—that led an American seeker to give up her plans for medical school, convert to Orthodoxy herself, and move halfway around the world to become a California-born Russian nun.

“I went to Berkley,” she tells me as we chat in the courtyard before the convent church. “You can find everything there. Every -ism under the sun. I tasted every little pot.”

A petite woman made to seem much larger by her black and bulky habit and veil, Mother Catherine talks very quickly, not like the serene nun she seems before she opens her mouth, but like the earnest undergraduate still lurking somewhere deep in her habit. Clothing aside, it is not difficult to imagine her among the hippie shops of Telegraph Avenue. Quite pretty in that way that only veiled women can be, she has a slow walk that seems an extreme act of the will, as if trying to contain a natural bounce in her step. She has a twin sister, she tells me, who is a television actress in New York. Her twin recently had a small part as the pretty wisecracking friend on the sitcom “The King of Queens.” Imagine the perky neighbor character on a sitcom one day decides to show up wearing a full length Muslim hijab: that’s what Mother Catherine looks like. Her smile surprises me every time it shines out from her somber Russian garb.

“I remember going to the different Hindu ceremonies, and I went to Seder dinners,” she says. “It was all very nice, but not for me. The Catholicism of my youth was so devaluated, too. It didn’t hold my attention. Then a friend took me to Easter vigil, at midnight, at an Orthodox Church in San Francisco, and I met this nun.”

The nun, Mother Catherine explained, had been named for Elizabeth Romanova. One day this Sister Elizabeth shocked the young woman she was then by asking, “What is first knowledge?”

It was a very Zen master thing to say, but this was Berkeley, where even the Orthodox nuns are Zen masters on the side.

“First knowledge?” she asked.

Sister Elizabeth went on to tell her that everything she had learned in school was only third knowledge. Second knowledge, granted through scripture and the church, was better, but still not the real thing. First knowledge, the nun said, was direct knowledge of God.

“Who had first knowledge?” she asked.

“Saint Elizabeth Romanova,” the nun told her, then shared with her young friend the story of the princess thrown down the mineshaft, and the singing that came up from the ground like an unquenchable spring.

The girl Mother Catherine was at the time decided she desperately needed this kind of first knowledge, the kind that could lead a broken body to find something worth praying for in even the worst circumstances. Broken bodies, it turns out, are something she knows well.

“And now we’re here together,” Mother Catherine says as she leads me into the convent church, the place where most of Saint Elizabeth now rests.

“She’s as tall as I am,” Mother Catherine tells me. “I know because I laid down beside her.”

“When was that?” I ask.

“The last time we opened her up.”


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Ella’s reliquary has been opened many times since her departure from Moscow. Her route from Russia was not the most direct. For reasons of politics and logistics, she came by way of China, where legend has it the monk charged with transporting her regularly had to take her out of her shipping box and rebury her in a hastily dug ditch so she would not be found. More than once, for added protection, he slept atop her shallow, temporary grave. When she finally reached Jerusalem she was entombed in the crypt of the convent church, where she lay untroubled for more than fifty years.

In 1981, things began to get interesting again for Ella’s bones. That was the year she was glorified—declared an official saint of the Orthodox Church—a process which, like Catholic canonization, requires an official inspection of the body. Glorification is a big deal to the entire church, and so to some in the Orthodox community it did not seem right that a place with so few members of the faith should get to keep such a popular saint. To mollify orthodox elsewhere in the world, Ella’s hand was removed and sent to New York. The nuns of Saint Mary Magdalene convent brought the rest of her up from the crypt and put her in a place of honor beneath icons which were said to weep myrrh from time to time.

It could be said that it was the beginning of her third career. Having been a princess and then a nun, she was now a saint, which has better job security but risks unimaginable in any living occupation. As a Russian saint especially, Elizabeth’s body had some work to do, for there was a vast and painful rift between various factions of those who claimed it as holy.

This is where it gets a bit arcane. At the time of Elizabeth’s death, the Russian Orthodox Church was as unified and monolithic as the bulbous spire atop Mother Catherine’s convent. That changed in the wake of the revolution, and since then the church became more divided by the year. Until recently, the Orthodox Church Outside of Russia has maintained cautious and contentious relations with the Russian Orthodox Church. Regarding the latter as tainted by decades of communist state control, the Church Outside of Russia has long been suspicious of the church back home. Meanwhile, the Orthodox Church in Russia has likewise considered the so called émigré church a less orthodox form of orthodoxy. That’s the funny thing about orthodoxy: lacking a clear definition by any but its own turns, “orthodox” tends to refer mainly to all the ways those who are not wholly in are unquestionably out.

The difference of opinion wasn’t only in the minds or pulpits of the church members or priests. It came to a head in Israel not long after Mother Catherine arrived.

“They approached us about the relics,” she says. “An Orthodox religious society first approached our synod of bishops and asked if they could bring Saint Elizabeth to Russia and take her around to the villages. They had done something similar with the skull of John the Baptist.”

“So the bishops agreed, in part. They opened the body up and took a piece of the relics for them to take. It’s a very big deal when this happens. The bishop was fully vested, they opened the top of her case, and he reached in a removed a small section, from here,” she said, and moved a hand along her own side.

“He did the same for Sister Varbara. We made a special reliquary for the pieces out of some of the wood from the coffins they were brought in.”

“When the Russians came they said okay, Will we need a private plain to bring the relics, or how are we going to do it?”

“And the bishop said, Well, you don’t need a plane. It’s just in this box.”

The box in question was about the size of a shoe box for a pair of clown shoes; far less impressive than the two marble sarcophagi where the bodies reside in the church.

“The Russians looked at the box and said, ‘No, no. We want the whole body!’

“The bishop said, ‘The whole body! Sorry. They’re just too precious to us. We don’t see this working.’

“Okay, the Russians said, how about their heads?”

This request the bishop also turned down. But soon a compromise was reached.

They remembered that there was another, larger piece of Ella—her hand—in New York.

Saint Elizabeth’s partial trip back to Russia was a huge success. Thanks in large measure to the devotion the return of her hand inspired, the church of old has come back to life in the formerly communist country. A shrine has been built on the site of the mine shaft; some have said it is as if she has been down there singing all along.


Inside the church, Mother Catherine leads me to the right of the altar. Ceramic tiles echoes with our footsteps; it is a vast space usually filled with the convent’s nuns and the occasional Russian tourist. At this hour it is empty but for the two of us and an older nun who keeps peeping around a column as she cleans the floor, sweeping the same square foot the entire time I am there.

“Here she is,” Mother Catherine says, as we arrive at a glass topped box about as tall as a bar. I look down through the glass and see a tiny shroud-covered body. She may have been the size of Mother Catherine in life, but she seems much smaller now.

“She’s the reason I came here,” the young nun says. “When I read her life story, I was so touched. I liked her boldness, her character. She was just so sure of her path. She didn’t go around things. She went through things. I admired that she could put everything else aside and try and see what truth is. Even in death; even after being thrown down the mine shaft, she found a reason to sing.”

All of this, she soon tells me, had much more immediate connection to her life than simple inspiration.

“When I was 16,” she explains, “I got hit by a car. That’s what helped me to make the decision to come here. I had been looking for first knowledge before I knew what to call it, because I had been so close to death.”

“It was serious, then?” I asked.

She nods gravely.

“I flew forty feet up and over,” she said. “I was walking across the street and a car came out of nowhere. This woman was intoxi—” she starts to say intoxicated, but then finishes more directly, “she was drunk. She ran right through the stoplight and changed my life forever.

“It made me think about all what I should do. For a while I thought it was medical school. I wanted to open a clinic of my own. To own a big building in San Francisco that would have a day care on one floor and medical treatment on another, caring for the whole family.

“But then it happened again. I was driving on the highway, on my way to church, when a car rammed into me and threw me into the highway divider. Other cars just kept ramming into mine; my pelvis was crushed. For the second time in my life they told me I’d probably never walk again.

“That’s how thick I am—it took two of these things to get my attention. Not long after, I came here, not to join. Just to pray. I prayed in the church with Saint Elizabeth’s relics: ‘Okay, go ahead,’ I said. ‘I don’t know what to do, I’m just here to see what God wants from me.'”

We are standing there now leaning against the coffin, standing and talking for so long it’s easy to forget what—who—we are leaning on. She tells me more about her work, her life, her joy at having moved from a famously easygoing place to a city that is as difficult to live is as everyone says.

Just then we hear actually singing. Chanting really. Somewhat tinny. I look around to see where it’s coming from.

“Hold on just a sec,” she says. A cell phone appears from within the folds of her habit. My first thought: She has pockets? My second: Where can I get that ring tone? My third: It is like song from a mineshaft, floating out from the dark cloth where she has hidden her broken bones.

She chats quickly and quietly, making plans for community work she is doing in the Old City that day. As soon as she hangs up, she gets down to the business of telling me what she most wants me to know about the place of relics in her life and in her faith.

“When you venerate or kiss or show reverence to an object or the body of a saint,” she says, “you give that veneration not to the body itself, but to what the body represents. Just like a photo of your mom or dad or someone you love. You don’t talk to that photo, but that photo  translates your thought to that person. That’s what we do with those relics. We don’t pray to Saint Elizabeth’s bones; we pray to live the kind of life those bones lived, and to die the kind of death that is sure enough to find a reason to pray even at the very end.”

As our conversation winds down we wander away from the coffin, back out into the courtyard over looking the Old City. Only then do I notice that that Mother Catherine’s slow way of walking seems to hide a limp. I ask her if she still feels affects from her various accidents.

“Yes,” she says. “but this isn’t from that. This is from the cancer.”

God, it seems, has recently thrown her down another hole. Crushed her again with the body’s endless capacity for fragility. With her recent diagnosis, she will continue to pray from the darkness, but she is also pragmatic about it. Just a month before, she traveled to New York for treatment. She stayed with her twin sister, the television actress, and saw a bit of what life might have been.

“Did you stop to see Saint Elizabeth’s hand while you were there?” I ask.

In her smile there is a spark of life that seems impossible in such a world, in such a body. But there it is.

“You know I didn’t even think of it!” she laughs. “We have most of her here, so I guess I’m spoiled!”

© 2009 by Peter Manseau from Rag and Bone: A Journey Among the World’s Holy Dead. Published with permission of Henry Holt and Co.

Peter Manseau is the author of Songs for the Butcher's Daughter, Vows: The Story of a Priest, a Nun, and Their Son and, most recently, Rag and Bone: A Journey Among the World's Holy Dead. He founded Killing the Buddha with Jeff Sharlet, and the two wrote Killing the Buddha: A Heretic's Bible. Follow him on Twitter @petermanseau.