Celibacy and Foolery — Xenia of Saint Petersburg

Today, we’re making a different sort of addition to our celibate profiles series. The subject of today’s post is a person about whom very little information is available. So that our readers can easily draw from the examples we write on for this series, we try to profile individuals and groups for whom lots of background and resources exist even if they are difficult to find. Nonetheless, we find this saint particularly inspiring and wanted to share some of our thoughts.

Saint Blessed Xenia of St. Petersburg, born Xenia Grigoryevna Petrova, was canonized in the Russian Orthodox Church in 1988. She lived in the 18th century, but her exact birth and death dates are unknown. Very little is known of her early life. She was married to a court chorister who reposed when she was 26 years old, and rather than remarry or live a life typical of widows, she entered into voluntary poverty and spent the rest of her life roaming the city of St. Petersburg wearing her husband’s clothing. All historical records of her life indicate that she was committed to depending upon God for her every need to the point of rejecting assistance offered by her family. During her life, people came to admire her commitment to prayer and simplicity. Those who knew her saw her as an example of what it means to value closeness with God over material goods. According to her story, she was gifted with the ability to forsee certain events such as death. Very soon after she reposed at the age of 71, visitors to her gravesite began to report that the earth covering her body brought healing for illnesses of all kinds.

Xenia is an example of an ascetic “Holy Fool.” Holy Fools are people who reject certain social norms and show that life can be lived differently. We note that Xenia eschewed traditional counsel after her husband died, choosing to model unwavering reliance on divine providence. For many people, Xenia’s choices were madness. Why would a young widow choose to forgo various kinds of social supports available to her? Holy Fools are people who do outrageous things. Oftentimes, they rely on foolery as a way to hide their holiness from others: who would seek spiritual counsel from a person regarded as insane? We remember certain Holy Fools because, invariably, their holiness has shone through and people did seek their counsel and view them as models of devotion. Throughout the Christian experience, there have been many known Holy Fools. St. Paul wrote that foolishness is often a part of following Christ when he told the Corinthians, “We are fools for Christ’s sake, but you are wise in Christ. We are weak, but you are strong. You are held in honor, but we in disrepute.”

Xenia is notable for many reasons. First, her name is often translated to mean “stranger.” The way she lived her life bears witness to how Christians are called to live as strangers in a foreign land. Second, we chose to profile Xenia because she lived a very unusual vocation that included marriage and one of the most peculiar forms of asceticism. What little we know about her marriage aligns with the appropriate social norms of Russia at the time. Yet, Xenia undoubtedly sensed that God was calling her to live differently. She cast aside the social protections afforded to young widows and even broke certain gender norms. Women at Xenia’s time would not have been seen wearing men’s clothing. It was equally unheard of for women to take to wandering the streets voluntarily. People who are inspired by Xenia remember her because of how her life unfolded after her husband reposed rather than before. She is not the only person we’ve featured who entered into a celibate way of life after having been married. It’s easy to write off people like Xenia as “probably mentally ill.” But diversity among celibate vocations both past and present, including the vocation of the ascetic Holy Fool, give us insight into how strange and mysterious Christian living is meant to be in the first place.

Christ calls us to a different way of life where the last is made first, the first is made last, and not everything was are asked to do can be explained rationally. Today, as was probably also true in most past generations, non-celibate people sometimes think of celibates as mentally ill, crazy, or otherwise abnormal for having chosen a different way of life than marriage — or at least a different way of life than non-celibacy more generally. And when we add sexual orientation into the mix while discussing vocation, rationality, and mental health, there is no shortage of people — including other Christians — who are quick to refer to LGBTQ celibates as individuals suffering from psychological disorders. So what is the point of bringing up an example who is, in multiple respects, a stranger — a person about whom we know so little, and much of what we do know is about her unusual behavior? Remembering Xenia helps us to recall that most people live out their vocations quietly and simply, and in the midst of others who hold far greater social status than they do. We would also posit that most people live out their vocations with a degree of oddity, whether that oddity is apparent to the entire world or not. Xenia reminds us that living a vocation is not about doing great things, but is about being obedient and trusting in God’s ability to provide for our needs.

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6 thoughts on “Celibacy and Foolery — Xenia of Saint Petersburg

  1. Excellent point about “oddity.” I keep mine hidden, except when I am with a few safe friends, but the oddness is often only tentatively revealed, and then with humor. That may be why I have been taken by Xenia’s story. She is a kind of secret hero for me in that she followed her inspiration no matter what. I feel a steady though often weak drive towards God, but it is confined by a kind of cowardice (the human condition?) and need to fit in–even, surprisingy, with the very church group where i first met her. But that too is probably part of the oddness of faith. It is manifested in so many different, sometimes seemngly contradictory ways, despite the simplicity and clarity of its meaning. Thank you for this reflection.

    • Oftentimes, we’re closest to the people we feel safest sharing our oddities with. Thanks for connecting oddity and vulnerability.

  2. “…living a vocation is not about doing great things, but is about being obedient and trusting in God’s ability to provide for our needs.”

    Yes! So often we look for “success stories” but obedience is so much important to God than our accomplishments. Thanks for sharing this.

  3. You always seem to write exactly what I need! Could almost be a sign…

    In all seriousness, this is wonderful not least because I’m glad to have another saint to pray for me! It’s also a reminder that sometimes being a Christian means being foolish to the church community as well as to the World. I think it’s why your approach to all of our Faith (not just celibacy) as one of Calling is so helpful, though not without its own difficulties.

    I’ve been thinking a lot of late about celibate relationships (the meaning and context of sexual attraction vs non sexual attraction, the model of celibate relationships as sanctification etc etc) but focussing on the relationship as a calling (an act of foolery, almost), rather than a duty or something that can be strictly categorised and explained is quite powerful.

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