For today, I offer the life story of Venerable Righteous Princess Saint Evfrosynia of Polotsk, whose feast day we celebrate on May 23 (June 4). The following biography by Alexander Medeltsov originally appeared in The Bronze Horseman, but the following version is from Saint John the Baptist’s newsletter. As you read it, consider how modern people think about Christianity’s supposed subjugation of women, the medieval estimation of knowledge and education, and the place of women in the Middle Ages.
It would be impossible to envision the spiritual life and culture of Belarus and its Orthodox Church without St. Evfrosynia of Polotsk. A princess, abbess, and outstanding educator, she is greatly remembered by its people.
The renowned ascetic, one of the most erudite people of her time, lived in the 12th Century, during the great epoch of pre-Mongol Rus’. It was a time in which the people of the ancient Russian State accepted the Orthodox Faith, and consolidated it not only not in themselves but in monuments of architecure, literature and art.
During that period, Polotsk, with its churches and monasteries, and its episcopal throne, was a great center of education and book production. The Nikon Chronicle relates that Prince Isyaslav of Polotsk (+1001) “was devoted to reverence for books.” In running chronicles produced in Polotsk, events were recounted by those who had been actual eyewitnesses to them.
It was here that, in about 1101, Predslava, later to receive the name Evfrosynia of Polotsk, was born. She was the daughter of Prince Georgi and the granddaughter of Vladimir Monomakh. As a child, Predslava developed a love for books. Monastics taught her to read and write. Her “Life” describes her extensive abilities and her striving after scholarly knowledge. In the prince’s residence there was a large library, consisting predominantly of religious books, but also containing secular literature.
When she was 12 years of age, her parents decided to give her in marriage. However, Predslava chose a different path for herself. On learning of her father’s intentions, she said to herself, “If I marry, I will be unable to rid myself of the sorrows of this world.”
Without telling her father or mother, Predslava went to the monastery and received monastic tonsure. There was no doubt as to the name she was to receive upon tonsure: It could only be Evfrosynia, a name that means “joy,” in honor of St. Euphrosyne of Alexandria. Prince Georgi made a number of attempts to have his daughter return to secular life, and wept over her as if she were dying, but her father’s tears could not sway her from her decision. As her “Life” relates, she remained at the monastery, in obedience to the Abbess and the Sisters, and surpassing them all in fasting, prayer, and night vigils, “gathering up her good thoughts in her heart, as a bee collects honey.”
In the monastery, Evfrosynia dedicated herself entirely to learning. In the book depositories of the Fathers of the Church, she would discover the works of Roman and Byzantine Theologians, Slavic luminaries, and chronicles.
After spending several years in the monastery, Evfrosynia moved to the Sophia Cathedral, where as it says in her life, she “began to write books with her own hands.” She wrote down her own instructions and prayers, and translated Greek-language works. Evfrosynia taught people to love one another, to be kind-hearted and not to permit themselves envy, strife, hatred, or evil passions. Erudition and literary talent were characteristics present in her writings. A sermon she addressed to nuns has come down to us: “Here I have gathered you together, like a hen that gathers her chicks under her wings, and with a happy heart I care for your salvation and teach you, in hopes of seeing the fruits of your labors. I have already sown so many words of God’s teaching in the field of your hearts, but those fields do not remain in place, and do not bloom with virtues and perfection. I implore you, my sisters, become pure wheat of Christ, and be ground on the mill-stones of prayer, humility and pure love, so that on the Feast of Christ, you might be sweet, fragrant tobacco [flowers].
She greatly expanded literacy in Polotsk, first establishing a women’s monastery, and then a men’s monastery, in which there were scriptoria. From those sciptoria, books were distributed throughout the land of Polotsk. Schools had existed there before the coming of Evfrosynia, but her establishing of new monasteries and her educational activities gave new impetus to the spread of education. Thanks to Evfrosynia, many of the people of Polotsk were able to attain literacy, and not only the wealthy, but also the common people. Both in curriculum and in teaching methods, Evfrosynia’s school was one of the most advanced of its time.
With reverence for all that was beautiful, Evfrosynia became the first patron of the arts in the Principality of Polotsk. In the 1150s, at her direction, a local architect named Ioann erected a Church of the Savior along entirely new architectural lines. By the way, Evfrosynia was not simply the talented master’s patron, but also his advisor, assistant, and inspiration. The Church of the Savior, or the Savior-Transfiguration Church (often also called the Savior-Evfrosynia Church), became the masterpiece of the Polotsk architectural school. This magnificent monument of antiquity continues to amaze, both for its elegance and for the soundness of its construction. How many centuries have passed, how many wars have roared through, and yet Evfrosynia miraculously continues to protect it. Even today, it can tell us a great deal about the Saint’s outlook, for in the church frescoes, we can see the figures spiritually near and dear to her.
Evfrosynia of Polotsk is also remembered as the patron who ordered a masterpiece of ancient Russian art, a Cross made in 1161 by the Polotsk master-jeweler Lazarus Bogsha. There are no earlier Crosses like it in Rus’, and later ones are all to a greater or lesser extent copies of that holy object. Rare materials - precious stones, gold, silver, and enamel, on a foundation of cypress wood – were all utilized in fashioning the Cross. Unfortunately, through a series of events [during World War II], the Cross made by Lazarus Bogsha was lost.
In 1992, when the Millenium of the Polotsk Diocese and of the Orthodox Church in Belarus was being celebrated, it was decided to recreate the Cross. On August 24, 1997, Metropolitan Philaret of Minsk and Slutsk, Patriarchal Exarch to all Belarus, blessed an exact copy of the Cross of St. Evforsynia. Currently, it is kept in the Polotsk Cathedral of the Savior-St.Evfrosynia Women’s Monastery.
Throughout her life, Evfrosynia never abandoned the idea of visiting the holy Christian sites. In 1163, she left Polotsk and set forth on a journey. Upon reaching Constantinople, she visited the Church of the Holy Wisdom [Hagia Sophia], about which so much had been told in Rus’, and she received the Patriarch’s blessing. Everywhere, she was warmly greeted as an honored guest. In late April 1167, she reached the city gates of Jerusalem. However, she did not remain in the Holy Land for very long. She soon fell ill, and in May 1167 departed to the other world. Thus concluded the earthly path of the great ascetic and englightener, Venerable St. Evfrosynia of Polotsk. She was interred in Jerusalem, at the St. Theodosius Monastery of the Most-holy Theotokos.
In 1187, when Jerusalem was taken by Egyptian Sultan Salahuddin, Russian monks who were leaving Palestine removed the relics of St. Evfrosynia, and brought them to the Kiev Caves Lavra. In 1901, the remains of St. Evfrosynia were transferred to the Savior-Evfrosynia Monastery she had founded in Polotsk.
In 1547, Evfrosynia of Polotsk became the first woman to be canonized as a Saint by the Russian Orthodox Church.
With her strength of spirit and her educational activities, she raised up the level not only of her native Polotsk, but of all Belarus and the Orthodox Church.
Quite a different commemoration for “V Day,” no? The decadence and idiocy of our contemporary society cannot and will not last, but the prayers of Saint Evfrosynia will endure. May she petition the Lord for the true enlightenment of Christians and of their neighbors everywhere.