Nikodim of Belgorod. Maria of Olonets: Desert Dweller of the Northern Forests. Wildwood, CA: St. Xenia Press, 1981; Platina, CA: St. Herman's Press, 1996.
This little book is a biography of a 19th-century Russian hermit who lived in the northwestern province of Karelia in Russia, bordering Finland.
A strong and self-sufficient tradition of eremitism in Russia, going back at least to the original work of Nil Sorsky and the "desert-dwelling" hermits in the 16th century, was revived in the 19th century. Except for students of this era, documentation is diffuse and not well known.
This story of Maria of Olonets is of interest in focusing on the life and trials of a woman. Women hermits have always had the additional burden of justifying their interest in eremitism because of traditional roles in the family and society, a perceived physical and emotional weakness, and their absence in hierarchical ecclesiastical bodies of authority to make their cases known and viable. Hence, while the story of Maria of Olonets is inevitably entangled in hagiographical elements, the outlines of her life and spirituality is nevertheless clear and compelling, fitting into the broader history of eremitism in Russian Orthodox history.
The image of the vast Russian forests as equivalent to the desert of the early Christian desert fathers and mothers is a standard one in Russian spiritual thinking. The historical tension between church and monastery carried over into the relations between monastery and hermitage. The long-standing notion (absent in the West) that church authorities must yield to Elders such as starets and hermits is positively revolutionary in Christianity.
Nil Sorsky and his followers were dubbed "non-possessors" because of their literal adherence to the Gospel counsel to own nothing -- in contrast to the practice of the Church and monasteries to own lands, rents, and serfs, and to enjoy state support and private benefices as well. This antagonism over the subject of possession never abated.
Although the Russian Orthodox Church and the monasteries extirpated the non-possessors in the course of the 16th century, the dispute flared up in the schism of the Old believers, many of whom entered the "desert" as individuals and families and in the regular surreptitious and self-imposed exile of hermits finding scattered support among sympathetic priests, monks, or bishops. This is the larger context of the persecution of hermits in 19th century Russia -- which is not, however, detailed in this book but which underlie the forces at work in the life of Maria of Olonets.
The childhood of Maria exemplifies the childhood of saints. She is reserved, obedient, but willful in a distracted and spiritual way. Her mother urges her to join the village girls at play and Maria quietly obeys, but later when asked what songs the girls were singing replies that she does not remember because she wasn't paying attention. When a pilgrim-wanderer (the word would be strannik for either term) visits the household, Maria sits for hours, rapt attentively to every word, and begs to stay listening past her bedtime. She fasts beyond the prescribed days, explaining to her mother that she has not eaten her supper because she is not hungry.
As Maria grows into adolescence, and as her reputation of piety spreads, it is clear that she has no interest in marriage, but neither does she want to enter a convent. She is aware of desert-dwellers and admires only them. Visiting elders advise Maria's parents to consult her famous uncle Father Isaiah, founder of the St. Nicephorus Hermitage on Vazhe Lake.
About hermitages there are anecdotes that will ring familiar in hermit literature, and about St. Nicephorus, too, there are stories. For example, a bishop visits intending to ordain a pious brother, who, upon hearing it, flees to the hermitage garden and lies there undiscovered until the bishop leaves. One brother, Theophan, always advises younger brothers to "let go and cut off," meaning one ought to not cling to thoughts and to cut off reacting to things. But while imbibing the spirituality of these visiting elders, Maria continued to ponder her future.
Upon her father's death, Maria movesdwith her mother to a small cabin on the family grounds, among trees and garden. Both now "sought to go away from the tumult of family life and to serve the one God in solitude." Maria now undertook a pilgrimage to Kiev, where she met Anna. Anna was of the same pious heart as Maria but was a runaway serf with no expectation of either entering a monastery or establishing a family life. Maria invited Anna to live with her self and her mother in their cabin. When Maria's mother passed away a year later, Maria and Anna set out for St. Nicephorus Hermitage to seek Fr. Isaiah's advice about a desert dwelling.
Isaiah tells the women that he had recently brought an elderly woman in from a forest hut because she could no longer live alone and now resided in a guest house of the monastery. In this hut five miles into the monastery forest, Isaiah placed both women, pledging that he would conceal Anna from the authorities. Thus begins the eremitical life for Maria and Anna; they are soon allowed to live in separate huts to fulfill their desire for true solitude.
A description of the dwelling, dug half-way into the earth in a little meadow clearing of pine trees, is indicative of the quarters of many desert dwellers.
The hut was only seven feet square, with a little glass window and an earthen floor, and it resembled more a grave than a human habitation. In the right corner, facing east, there were two boards attached together along the wall for sitting and for a bed for rest at night.
Monastery workers burned out the stovepipe dampness, and Father Isaiah gives the hermits and icon and three books: an old Slavonic Gospel, the Psalter, and the "Horologion" (equivalent to the Western "Book of Hours").
As for dishes, from the monastery guesthouse there were taken one kettle, a clay pot for cooking soup, one large wooden cup, two wooden bowls, two spoons made of linden wood, a hollow wooden bowl and a basin and metallic holder for the splinter lights, and two pails with a stick for carrying. He [Fr. Isaiah] also left a shovel and an axe apiece. Water during the wintertime could be taken from snow, and in the summertime it was obtained from a stream in a ravine which was quite a distance away from the hut. Their whole store of food consisted of a half sack of rye flour, a sack of potatoes, oatmeal, a half jar of salt and a few onions. The Elders instructed his fasters how to grate dried moss and, by mixing flour with it, to bake bread from it in case the flour should run low. As for oil, they completely forgot about it and having remembered it, they agreed to consider it as a luxury for desert food.
After the death of Fr. Isaiah in 1852, conditions for the hermits worsened quickly. The remainder of the book is essentially a chronicle of these troubles. Ecclesiastical authorities harassed the hermits with excessive regulations, eventually culminating in destruction of their quarters and exile from the diocese. For a while, Maria wandered alone, a homeless beggar. She traveled alone to the Caucasus region, where she found a new refuge in a cave.
The low and narrow cave in a gorge of the Caucasus Mountains was like a real cavern, such as those in which the ancient saints had worked out their salvation. ... The walls of the cave were earth and remained constantly loose from the moisture outside. For heating, a small stone stove was built of the local bricks. In place of a bed there was a woven mat. Stumps from the native trees took the place of a table and benches.
Not far away was a swift-running mountain stream. A generous benefactor offered flour and buckwheat for Maria, arranged by Fr. Isaiah's successors.
But the hardship of sustaining life and health in such a damp place, especially in winter, was too formidable, even for the perseverant Maria. When political turmoil at last subsided in the St. Nicepohorus Hermitage, Maria was restored to a wilderness hut again in her homeland of Olonets. But having journeyed by foot from the Caucasus she was considerably weakened. The new hermitage was her last one, and she died soon after.
The booklet of 100+ pages adds short accounts of Fr. Isaiah, Anna (or Anastasia of Padan), and a certain "Farmer Peter." Although not different from many books published in popular series of saints' lives which inevitably lack documentation or historical context and which reproduce hagiographical material uncritically, the book is nevertheless an edifying defense of eremitism and hermits.