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Newsletter, October-November 2017

Diakonia in persons. Part 1

Margarita Nelyubova, a staff member of the Moscow Patriarchate Department for External Church Relations (DECR) and coordinator of Russia Round Table, presented this report at the 13th International church-public and academic conference in Vladimir, November 9 to 11, 2017

Diakonia is usually defined as a church social service or a service of mercy. The word 'diakonia' (from Greek διακονια) is translated as service but not in the sense of the church divine service or worship but in the sense of service to another who needs help.

Diakonia is one of the three fundamental services of the Church: leiturgia - worship service, martyria - witness to God, and diakonia - works of mercy, which mutually condition and complement one another and closely intertwine with one another.

Let us try to clarify this relationship. The Church's calling is to bear witness to Christ before the world (martyria) and to proclaim to all people His Gospel of the Kingdom of God, His Good News of love, brotherhood and salvation. And this witness should be manifested in Christian diakonia, in the life of Christians and their communities, in their service for people's needs, in their concern for the well-being and salvation of their neighbours. Thus, Christian diakonia organically and indissolubly is linked with Christian witness to Christ. But the liturgy is the summit to which the Church's whole work including witness and diakonia, aspires. At the same time, the liturgy is the source from which the Church draws strength for all kinds of service. The liturgy has several dimensions: the service of God and the service of people, while diakonia is called 'liturgy after the liturgy', which means that the liturgy as a service of people, once it is over, continues in diakonia.

Diakonia is not just doing good works, charity, philanthropy but is an active and practical expression of Christian mercy and love.

In the first place, it is the fulfilment of the gospel's commandment to love our neighbours, given by the Saviour: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another (Jn. 13: 34-35), that is, diakonia is the sacred calling and moral duty of each Christian (Jn. 13:34).

Therefore, Christians are those who fulfill (or are subjects) of diakonia. Its objects may include not only Christians but also people of other faiths or non-believers regardless of their ethnic or other background.

Diakonia is different to secular social work that is carried out by state or public organizations and private persons.

While secular social work on the whole philosophically reflects on problems through the lens of 'man-society-state' and 'man-the surrounding world', in the philosophy of church social work the triad of 'man-society-state' includes God.

This peculiarity of diakonia or church social work conditions its use of instruments, methods and organizational principles it applies. It also conditions the important aspect of motivation - the faith.

The tasks, goals and methods of achieving them in secular social work and in diakonia do not always coincide.

Diakonia cannot be regarded as an addition to secular social work in the sense of gratuitous voluntary help where state and public organizations lack for funds. Its primary goal (and criterion of the assessment of its efficiency) is not to achieve public convenience (as, for instance, in state social work) but spiritual and moral good.

There is organized and private diakonia. Examples of organized diakonia are houses for the elderly, orphanages, hospitals arranged by monasteries, parishes or church workers at various stages of Christian history. Today, however, we will speak about personal diakonia.

Personal diakonia is a duty of each Christian. The Church has preserved for us the memory of a great number of saints who are glorified for not only their fasting feats, who became martyrs for their faith, who brought the light of faith to whole nations, but also those who have set us examples of love of our neighbours. The Church has specially honoured some of the people of God by calling them 'merciful'.

Among them is St. John the Merciful, Patriarch of Alexandria (d. 620, mem. November 12). In the beginning of his patriarchal service, he arranged a census of the beggars and the miserable in Alexandria, who proved to be over 7 thousand. He fed them daily at no cost. Two times a week he would come to the doors of the patriarchal cathedral and receive all the needy, sorting out frictions, helping the resentful, distributing alms. Three times a week he would come to hospitals and help the sick. He is often depicted standing on the church porch and distributing alms. He gave away a considerable part of the church treasury to ransom war prisoners.

St. Paulinus the Merciful the Bishop of Nola (d. 431, mem. January 23) came from a rich noble family. At the age of 20 he became a Roman senator, later a consul and governor of Campagna. At the age of 25 he came to believe in Christ, sold his estate and distributed the money to the needy. Together with his wife he adopted and raised poor orphans and later founded a monastic community in Nola and was elected Bishop of Nola. He was notable for his humanity and compassion. During the Vandal invasion, he spent the church treasury to ransom captives, and when the money was used up, he himself entered into slavery in place of a son of a poor widow. When it was disclosed who he really was, he received freedom not only for himself but also asked to set free all the captives and returned to his homeland together with them. He also won fame as builder of churches and poet. Associated with his name is the beginning of the use of bells in church to summon the faithful to divine services.

St. Martin the Merciful the Bishop of Tours (d. circa 400, mem. October 12) is called Merciful, too, for his charity and care of the poor. He served in the military under Emperor Julian the Apostate (361-363) and was distinguished for his valor. When the barbarians attacked the empire, St. Martin, at the emperor's order, went out of the city together with his unit to battle them. When he met a freezing beggar on the road he cut up his military cloak in two and gave half to the beggar. At night, the Lord Jesus Christ appeared to him, clad in the half of his cloak, and promised a victory over the enemy and it soon occurred so. Later Martin became Bishop of Tours. He kept taking care of the sick, poor and hungry and was dubbed Merciful for it.

None of the saints enjoyed such posthumous glory in the Christian West as Martin of Tours did. Evidence to it is thousands of churches and settlements bearing his name. In France alone there are 230 communes and over 4000 churches dedicated to him. In medieval France he was a national saint. His basilica in Tours was the greatest religious center in Merovingian and Carolingian France; his cloak (Lat. cappa) was a state shrine of the Frankish kings. They used to take it with them on military campaigns. For keeping it, a special building was constructed in Paris, called 'capella' (from cappa) and the priest responsible for keeping St. Martin's cloak was called chaplain.

There is an opinion that the blue colour of the French tricolour is the colour of St. Martin's cloak (by the way, the red colour is devoted to St. Dionysius, the founder of the Abbey of Saint Denis). In the French language there is the phrase ete de la Saint-Martin (St. Martin summer, i.e. Indian summer). The devotional tradition says that when in November St. Martin's body was brought for burial to the River of Tours, flowers exploded along the way like in summer.

The Christian tradition also venerates other merciful saints:

St. Bonifatius the Merciful the Bishop of Florence (5th cent., mem. December 19);

Ven. Theophanes the Merciful of Gaza (mem. September 29)

Righteous Philaret the Merciful of Anmia (d. 792, mem. December 1);

Holy Martyr Zotik the Feeder of Orphans, Presbyter in Constantinople (4th cent., mem. December 30;

St. Sampson the Innkeeper (circ. 530, mem. June 27).

The life of each of them has been an inspiring example of Christian service of mercy for many centuries.

There are outstanding ascetics who are closer to us in time. They chose the service of mercy as the goal of their life. Among them is St. Elizabeth Feodorovna Romanova (1864-1918) who left a bright imprint on the history of the Russian State and Russian charitable work and who has become in the modern time a symbol of the revival of church diakonia.

Combined in her life were seemingly incompatible things. Ella of Darmstadt, the second daughter of Grand Duke Ludwig IV von Hessen-Darmstadt and Princess Alice, and a granddaughter of Queen Victoria of England, she became Russian Grand Duchess Elizabeth Feodorovna, who came to love her new homeland with all her heart, selflessly served it and suffered martyrdom in it.

She was Lutheran by origin and was named after the Catholic St. Elizabeth of Thuringia (13th ņent.), who was canonized for her charity feats and whose example inspired the Grand Duchess throughout her life. She embraced Orthodoxy consciously, not as a duty and later was canonized by the Orthodox Church.

In 1884, when she was preparing for marriage, Europe boasted two beauties - Elizabeth of Austria and Ella of Darmstadt. Her refined manners, charm and beauty made high society admire her. A few years later, however, she would take the vows of Sisters of the Cross, begin real monastic life and devote herself to the sick and the destitute.

She was to live in Russia for 34 years. Seven years after the marriage, she converted to Orthodoxy and learnt Russian so well that spoke it almost without an accent.

After she married Grand Duke Sergey Aleksandrovich Romanov and came to Russia in 1884, she fully merged into high society and, as her high position required, was engaged in charitable work first in St. Petersburg and, after her husband was appointed Moscow governor general in 1891, in Moscow. In her husband's estate at Il'inskoye near Moscow, she did much to relieve the lot of local peasants.

After her husband's death, when he was assassinated by revolutionary I. Kalyaev in 1905, she began a new, lonely but extremely busy life, dedicating the rest of it to charity.

The scope of the charitable work carried out by Elizabeth Feodorovna was incredible even for the beginning of the 20th century when the Russian philanthropy experienced an era of flourishing.

Elizabeth Feodorovna took part in 154 charities, contributing her own funds, helping to attract benefactors by using her high position in society and organizing numerous charitable, as they say today, fundraising activities, such as fairs, lotteries, collections of offerings, etc. She herself established a great number of charities, patronized them and closely followed their work.

It is difficult to find a sphere of social service that would not be embraced by her patronage. Here is a list of her duties:

  • Honorary chair of the School's house for fostering orphans of killed soldiers and of Moscow City College.
  • Chair of the Elizabethan High School for Girls.
  • Honorary member of Blind Association, of Moscow branch of the Royal Russian Music Society and the Lifeboat Society.
  • Chair of the Palestine Society.
  • Patron of the Sivtsev Vrazhek Military Hospital, the Committee for Military Hospitals, the Committee for Mobile Churches and Hospitals in Moscow, etc.

It is popularly accepted that her main creations were the Elizabethan Society and the Ss Martha and Mary Convent.

In 1892, Elizabeth Feodorovna established the Elizabethan Charitable Society for care of newly born babies of helpless parents and personally directed it. This society united a whole network, as they would put it today, of projects dealing with care for orphans. She was among the major benefactors of the society, donating to its development over 60 thousand roubles (60 074 rbls, 18 kopecks). In total, she raised 1 million 211 477 roubles 20 kopecks. For the 20 years, the society facilitated 2021 adoptions, some 3000 children were placed in day nurseries, and 2569 children of the peasantry were hosted in temporary summer nurseries - in total up to 7500 children. The results of the society's work exceeded all the initial expectations.

In 1907, Elizabeth Feodorovna purchased a house and a plot of land in Bolshaya Ordynka Street and established a Ss Martha and Mary Convent of Mercy, devoting to it most of her time and money.

In 1910, there were 18 sisters in the convent; in 1913 they were 97. The work of the sisters consisted in support for the poor, the sick and those who suffer. The main area of their work was medical aid to the population, houses for children and care for the needy as well as religious education.

They served in the convent's free institutions: a hospital, an outpatient clinic, a chemistry, an orphanage, a Sunday school, a library, a sewing shop, a soup kitchen for the poor, a house for hectic women. The sisters visited doss-houses, clothed the homeless, provided them with shoes, treated them and got employment for the needy. They gave medical aid to mates of the notorious doss-houses of the Khitrovka market place and placed children in orphanages.

For the short time of its existence the convent managed to involve hundreds of young women in the work of charity and aid to thousands of those who suffered.

In speaking separately about the Martha and Mary convent's medical service, it should be mentioned that for their time it was an exemplary healthcare institution.

From March 1909 to November 1910, the hospitals and the outpatient clinic provided free treatment with free medicines for 1500 poor people. The high level of the medical aid given in the hospital is testified by the fact that an effective laparotomy operation was performed on one of the Most High members of the Romanov Royal Family.

With the beginning of the Russian-Japanese war, Elizabeth Feodorovna organized a Special Committee for Aid to Soldiers, provided the wounded and sick with free accommodation. Elizabeth Feodorovna formed several hospital trains, opened a hospital for the wounded and organized special social security committees for widows and orphans of those who were killed in action.

During the First World War, she was actively involved in the assistance to the Russian Army including wounded soldiers. She also sought to help war prisoners who overcrowded hospitals and, as a result, was accused of complicity with the Germans.

In the convent, the Grand Duchess lived a life of an ascetic, sleeping on a wooden bed without a mattress, often no longer than three hours, eating quite moderately and holding strict fasts. During the night she got up for prayer and then made a round of all the hospital wards, sometimes staying at the bed of the critically ill till dawn. She herself nursed virtually doomed patients.

In 1918, after the socialist revolution of 1917, Elizabeth Feodorovna refused to leave Russia. In summer 1918, she was put under arrest and exiled from Moscow to Perm. In May 1918, together with other members of the royal family and her cell-attendant Sister Varvara, she was thrown down a mine at the outskirts of Alapaevsk.

Three months later, after the city was occupied by Admiral V. Kolchak's troops, the bodies of the martyrs were extracted from the mine. Elizabeth Feodorovna's body remained partly uncorrupted. With great difficulties her friends took her body to the city of Chita and then to China, and in January 1921 she was buried at the church of St. Mary Magdalene in Jerusalem at the foot of the Mount of Olives - the place where she had wished to rest in peace.

Officially the Martha and Mary Convent was closed in 1918. The Cathedral of the Protecting Veil functioned till 1926.

In 1992, the Bishops' Council of the Russian Orthodox Church canonized Grand Duchess Elizabeth Feodorovna and Sister Varvara as honorable martyrs.

Her image has been placed on the western fa?ade of Westminster Abbey, among the 20th century martyrs. There are several Orthodox convents and churches dedicated to the Grand Duchess in Belarus, Russia and Ukraine.

Highly attractive and convincing is the image of the Grand Duchess herself as a representative of the royal house - a beauty and successful society woman and at the same time an active private initiator, organizer and benefactor who took the church vows of charitable service. She is an embodiment of the idea of integration of various forms of charity as well as a personality who managed to change the contemporary customary ideas of social service and charity and the role of women in church and society. In the modern time, St. Elizabeth has become a symbol of the revival of diakonia in Russia and after her canonization a heavenly patroness for all who work in this field.

To be continued

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