One would be hard-pressed to find a history textbook that would mention the blessed Xenia of Saint Petersburg, commemorated by the Russian Orthodox Church on 6 February and 6 June. Conversely, almost any history book will cover the life and actions of Napoleon. Both individuals lived at approximately the same time, at the turn of the nineteenth century. Yet are these two figures so vastly different in their historical significance as the history textbooks might suggest?
The actions of Napoleon and his and their historical implications were impressive indeed. His invasions left hundreds of thousands dead and thousands of churches destroyed. In Russia and elsewhere in Europe, they changed the lives of millions. His influence on culture and spiritual life was also extensive. His character and ideas are visibly present in the works of the Russian classics, such as Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. As Raskolnikov, the hero of Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment, was axing the unscrupulous pawnbroker, he was asking himself "Am I a trembling creature or do I have the right?" - a question of a truly Napoleonic scale.
The life of the Blessed Xenia is also well documented. A young widow who lost her husband at 26, she took upon herself the feat of a fool-for-Christ. She forsook her estate and roamed the streets of her native city wearing red and green. She was derided and mocked, and she never stopped her prayer. For her long-time feat - unappreciated by the world - Xenia received a precious gift from God. She acquired the ability to help people in difficulty and brought welcome changes to the lives of thousands.
She had a special talent for helping people find marriage partners and establish happy families. On her visit to the home of the Golubev family, the blessed Xenia said to their seventeen-year-old daughter, "While you are making coffee in your kitchen, your husband is crying over the grave of his wife at Okhta Cemetery. Go comfort him. Why are you waiting?" Embarrassed, the young woman did not know how to respond, but the blessed Xenia insisted, and she listen. At the cemetery she caught sight of a man, a doctor. His wife had died in childbirth. He was grieving over her death and lost consciousness from crying. The Golubevs went to comfort him and became his friends. A year later, he made a marriage proposal to their daughter, and they lived happily ever after. She helped so many more people establish happy families that she earned herself a name for being an architect of people's lives.
Napoleon was buried at Les Invalides in Paris. Tourists flock to his tomb of red porphyry on a pedestal of green granite. But no one comes to his grave to pray or make a supplication. Today, Napoleon looks more like a museum exhibit or a wet specimen of history. His present-day significance is negligible. His biography is at best a story source for a second-rate film or a mediocre book of a beginning writer.
The grave of the blessed Xenia is different. For over two centuries, visitors to her grave have received healing and practical help in seemingly intractable life problems. On one occasion, Saint Xenia appeared in a vision to an alcoholic and commanded, "Quit drinking immediately! My grave is awash with the tears of your mother and wife. Needless to say, that man never touched alcohol anymore for the rest of his life.
Each day, thousands of people come to her grave to beg for her intercession and ask for help. They put their pleas on paper. Garlands of these white notes adorn the interior of her chapel at all times. Hundreds and millions have invoked her name. But who has left a single note at the luxurious tomb of Napoleon of red porphyry on a pedestal of green granite?
Among the scholars of history, social history is gaining prominence. It is a growing field that looks at the lived experience of the people, the small deeds that changed their lives, the role of the rank-and-file individuals in the historical process.
It is a mistake to think that the rich and powerful have a monopoly on making history. Historical narratives on television often do not represent true history. Ultimately, history unfolds in our hearts. We make history as we advance to purity in our prayer, repentance, humility and endurance. The more we work on our progress, the greater is our role in history.
The blessed Xenia was not a monarch or an army commander; she did not lead millions into battle. She prayed, fasted and humbled herself; she forgave all wrongs without reservation, and ultimately left a deeper trace in human history than Napoleon himself.
History books do not say much about it, but the teachings of Christ in the Gospel speak volumes. "What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?" The examples of Napoleon and Xenia confirm the truth of these words.
History is not made in the Kremlin or White House, Brussels or Strasbourg. It is unfolding right before our eyes. It is happening in our hearts when we dare to open it up to God and people.
Hieromonk Simeon (Tomachinsky)