Early in her long life Xenia had been married to an army colonel who drank himself to death and who may have been an abusive, violent husband. Soon after his funeral, she began giving away the family fortune to the poor, a simple act of obedience to Christ’s teaching: “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you have and give it to the poor … and come, follow me.” In order to prevent Xenia from impoverishing herself, relatives sought to have her declared insane. However the doctor who examined her concluded Xenia was the sanest person he had ever met.
Having given away her wealth, for some years Xenia disappeared, becoming one of Russia’s many pilgrims walking from shrine to shrine while reciting the Jesus Prayer. Some- where along the way during those hidden years, she became a Fool for Christ. When Xenia finally returned to St. Petersburg, she was wearing the threadbare remnants of her late husband’s military uniform – these are usually shown in the icons of her – and would answer only to his name, not her own. One can only guess her motives. In taking upon herself his name and clothing, she may have been attempting to do penance for his sins. Her home became the Smolensk cemetery on the city’s edge where she slept rough year-round and where finally she was buried. Xenia became known for her clairvoyant gift of telling people what to expect and what they should do, though what shesaid often made sense only in the light of later events. She might say to certain persons she singled out, “Go home and make blini [Russian pancakes].” As blini are served after funerals, the person she addressed would understand that a member of the family would soon die. She never begged. Money was given to her but she kept only an occasional kopek for herself; everything else was passed on to others.
When she died, age 71, at the end of the 18th century, her grave became a place of pilgrimage and remained so even through the Soviet period, though for several decades the political authorities closed the chapel at her grave site. The official canonization of this Fool for Christ and the re-opening of the chapel over her grave in 1988 were vivid gestures in the Gorbachev years that the war against religion was truly over in Russia.
Why does the Church occasionally canonize people whose lives are not only completely at odds with civil society but who often hardly fit ecclesiastical society either? The answer must be that Holy Fools dramatize something about God that most Christians find embarrassing, but which we vaguely recognize is crucial information.
It is the special vocation of Holy Fools to live out in a rough, literal, breath-taking way the “hard sayings” of Jesus. Like the Son of Man, they have no place to lay their heads, and, again like him, they live without money in their pockets (thus Jesus, in responding to a question about paying taxes, had no coin of his own with which to display Caesar’s image). While never harming anyone, Holy Fools raise their voices against those who lie and cheat and do violence to others, but at the same time they are always ready to embrace these same greedy and ruthless people. They take everyone seriously. No one, absolutely no one, is unimportant. In fact the only thing always important for them, apart from God and angels, are the people around them, whoever they are, no matter how limited they are. Their dramatic gestures, however shocking, always have to do with revealing the person of Christ and his mercy.