In Memory of Nun Alexandra
Early on the second day of the Nativity of Christ, on the Synaxis of the Most Holy Theotokos, Joseph the Betrothed, David the Prophet and King, and James the Brother of the Lord, our sister, Nun Alexandra (lay name Natalia Borisovna Parfenova), reposed in the Lord. Mother Alexandra bore the obedience of the Convent Librarian for the last few years and was known to many of our pilgrims with her gift of empathetic love and the ability to listen and give consolation. Her monastic biography was fairly common and uneventful: she joined Lesna Convent on September 18, 1983, tonsured to the rassaphore on the feast day of the Lesna Icon, October 2, 1988, and assumed the minor schema on November 6, 1996, when she was given the name Alexandra in memory of Holy New Martyr Empress Alexandra. But these 22 years of monastic obedience were the culmination of a complicated life and lengthy search for the true meaning of life.
Mother Alexandra was born on June 6, 1921, in Kiev. Though she was baptized as an infant, she did not receive a religious upbringing and was far from the Church. She noticed the religious life of her native city only during the German occupation, when the widespread reopening of churches had begun. Mother Alexandra remembers that she found herself at the first divine service in the cave church of the newly-reopened Kievo-Pecherskaya Lavra.
She studied biology, and all her life loved everything that lived: not only people, but plants, birds, fish, insects, animals. Like many scientists, through the study of creation she came to know the Creator.
By the end of the war, Natalia Borisovna's family fled to the West, to Germany, to the Russian DP [Displaced Persons] camps. A poverty-stricken, hungry, homeless refugee life followed, in temporary barracks, with the threat of forced repatriation to the Soviet Union looming overhead, with no prospects for the future. At this time, Natalia Borisovna began consciously believing, and her gradual introduction to the life of the Church began. She fondly remembered Archbishop Nathaniel (Lvov, +1984), who preached among the second wave of Russian émigrés, and the Gospel he gave her as a gift remained with her until her last days.
At the time, she married Sergei Tarasov, and soon bore a daughter. A second child, a son, died in infancy. She followed her husband's lead and joined the patriotic anti-communist organization NTS [ Narodno-Trudovoy Soyuz: People's Worker's Union], and it was in the ranks of this group that she spent the remainder of her professional days. Natalia Borisovna joined the editorial staff of Grani [Borders], and over the course of 20 years, from 1962-1982, was the Editor-in-Chief of this magazine, which covered literature, art, science and socio-political discourse; it was practically the sole free widely-distributed Russian-language journal of the Cold War. At first the magazine published the works of Russian émigré authors, but by the end of the 1950's, manuscripts from the USSR began to appear, eluding the Soviet censors. As one of the editors noted, Natalia Borisovna's list of writers sounds like an encyclopedia of Soviet literature: Solzhenitsyn, Voinovich, Maximov, Vladimov, Grossman, Shalamov, Strugatskiye, Gorbanevskaya, Okudjava, Galich… Some fifteen hundred manuscripts were smuggled out of the USSR during this period.
At the same time, the typical Russian émigré life continued: she participated in parish life in Frankfurt and took her first steps in the spiritual life under the church rectors Protopriest Leonid and Protopriest Dimitri; she participated in the Russian scout organization ORYuR ; she married a second time, to Mikhail Parfenov; she reared her children (three daughters), then her grandchildren. Her "first love" of nature and animals and her "second love" for literature gradually led Natalia Borisovna to understanding the Wellspring of all true creation and art, and her years of service to creation and creativity proved insufficient; she wished to devote herself to the Creator Himself.
Natalia Borisovna made two pilgrimages to the Holy Land, traveled to Lesna Convent for the first time, and began to think of the monastic life. Departing for the monastery became possible after the death of her second husband and her retirement. "How lucky you are," said the author Yulia Voznesenskaya as she bade her farewell, "at your age people set aside their work and retire to grow flowers and strawberries, but you, having established the most serious, the most important Russian literary journal in the world, you are suddenly beginning a new life—and what a life!"
Despite her age, Nun Natalia began monastic life as a simple novice, undergoing all the obediences and "dirty" work: kitchen duty, refectory service, cleaning, garden work. I remember how bewildered her old friends and former colleagues were when they saw her emerge from the kitchen with a washbucket, joyfully swabbing the floor. "Natasha, couldn't you work in the library here, or in the office, let's say?" they would say with alarm.
Novice Natalia learned to read on the kliros and delved into liturgical texts. She had a special love for the Psalter, and we read the prayers over the reposed from her own copy, all marked with notes and scribbles in her own hand. She read a great deal of patristic and ascetic literature. Her favorite religious writer was St Gregory the Theologian, and it is worth noting that she died during the Nativity period, when the Church repeats the prayer "Christ is born, glorify Him…" that is, words from the Epistle of this holy bishop.
Not everything went smoothly in the monastic life of Sister Natalia. With her ardor, her customs, the daily schedule she had long established, it was not easy for her to submit herself, to humble herself, to act not according to her own will but in obedience and silence. There were misunderstandings, there were quarrels, conflicts, hurt feelings. Not everyone understood her love for nature and creatures. But as the years passed, everyone came to love Mother Alexandra for her ardor and zeal—qualities which essentially were the expression of her fervent love for God and mankind. This always remained with her, it was always first and foremost with her, and in the years that followed it drew a great many pilgrims and visitors to her. Having lived a complicated, and, as she saw it, not always proper, life, she knew firsthand the complications of émigré life, the problems of family and child-rearing, having herself endured divorce, the death of a child, many illnesses and failures, she was not only to listen and give advice, but share her own personal experiences and errors, and make it understood that for laypersons, and not only for nuns and "spiritual" people, the solution is always in the Church of Christ: in prayer, through participation in the Mysteries, in striving to understand the will of the Lord and in living according to His laws.
Mother Alexandra considered her final years the happiest of her life. She often regretted that she did not join the monastery in her youth. It bothered her when she was asked to talk or write about her years with Grani , it had already moved so far into the past, it had become so secondary to her. She often suffered illness and frequently thought of death, and consciously prepared herself. She feared becoming a burden to the sisters, and prayed that she would die in the Convent, after communing of the Holy Mysteries of Christ.
The Lord heeded her prayers. Making confession and communing together with her sisters on the Eve of the Nativity, she joyfully greeted the holiday, congratulated Mother Abbess, the nuns and pilgrims. Early the second morning of the Nativity, she died quietly and peacefully. Her monastic rule book lay hear her, and her right hand lay on her chest in the position of crossing herself. Although we know that she returned to the "Fatherly embraces," our sisters and her relatives and pilgrims will dearly miss her knowledge and experience, and her comforts, her kindness, warmth and caress.
Eternal memory to you, our blessed sister of good memory!