Schema-Abbess Ariadna – A Beacon of Faith and Love
Not too many years ago, the Abbess of a convent of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, a woman of righteous life, was delivering a sermon in the convent church on the feast of the Dormition of the Most Holy Mother of God. With tears she entreated her nuns and pilgrims who had come for the feast to accept entirely, and wholeheartedly what the Church hands down to us, taking such pains to preserve this tradition sacredly all these centuries -- and not to choose for oneself what is 'important' and what is 'dispensable'; for by making oneself wiser than the tradition, one may end by losing the tradition." (from the Introduction to The Orthodox Veneration of the Mother of God, St Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, Platina, 1978)
Fr. Seraphim Rose was a young convert when he stood listening to this sermon. Years later he wrote anonymously of the impact it had on his soul as he realized that, "In that instant the tradition was being handed down to him, not from books but from a living vessel which contained it." He subsequently encountered, in person or through reading, many who held degrees in Orthodox theology and who expounded eloquently on the subject, "But in none of them did he sense the authority of the simple Abbess who had spoken to his heart." For all their learning, they "did not convey the feeling or savor of Orthodoxy as well as a simple, theologically uneducated Abbess." (Ibid.)
This "living vessel" was Schema-Abbess Ariadna of the Convent of Our Lady "Of Vladimir" in San Francisco, who reposed this year on June 6/19, after a long illness. She was 96.
Abbess Ariadna was a simple woman, but she had a strong character. The beginning of her monastic path was especially rough, and she soon developed an endurance for hardship and an unreserved reliance on God and His Most Pure Mother. She began life as Augusta Michurina, the daughter of a wealthy merchant who died when she was still a young child. In the summer of 1917, just months before Russia was convulsed by revolution, her mother died, and the orphaned Augusta, seventeen years old, entered the convent of St. John the Theologian in the Perm diocese of central Russia. The righteous Abbess Rufina was particularly warm and attentive to the young novice, and did all she could to relieve her grief. Between them a dose bond was forged, which strengthened as Augusta matured. When' in 1919 political circumstances forced Abbess Rufina to leave the convent, August was one of four novices who accompanied her east, to Novo-Nikolaevsk. There, some kind people helped them obtain permission to establish a community dedicated to Saints Mary and Martha. An affiliated orphanage and nursery took care of 150 children. But the godtess regime's destructive tentacles snuffed out this good beginning, too. Abbess Rufina, together with Novice Augusta and another sister, squeezed with forty other passengers into a boxcar for a grueling journey still further east, to Vladivostok. The trying conditions were aggravated when the two sisters contracted typhus, forcing them to disembark in Chita. When they were well enough to join their abbess, they found her health broken by the physically heavy labor she had undertaken in exchange for lodging. The two sisters first earned money doing laundry, but gradually less strenuous work was found: quilting and other handiwork. Benefactors helped them to acquire property near the city cemetery, with permission to use the cemetery church. No sooner, however, did the community begin to flourish than it was again uprooted.
Her staff in one hand and a bundle in the other, Abbess Purina reached Harbin with her sisters in June 1923. A grave illness confined her to her bed for nine months, leaving her two, still young companion-strugglers to shoulder the many responsibilities of establishing a monastic home in a foreign land. The greater part of this burden fell to novice Augusta. They were financially destitute. Living in a small apartment, they had no fuel and scarcely any money for food, let alone for medical care. It appeared that God was giving them to know by experience the troth of the Apostle's words: "In our weakness lies God's strength."
In 1924 the community was able to move into less cramped quarters. New monastic aspirants joined them and, with the blessing of Bishop Methodius, a convent was established and dedicated to the Tikhvin Icon of the Mother of God. It was renamed the following year when God granted the community to witness a great miracle: the renewal of an icon of the Mother of God "Of Vladimir," which took place on August 12/25, 1925, in the hands of Abbess Rufina. It had been a rather dark icon in a rusted tin frame. Intending to give it away, Abbess Rufina asked Sister Augusta to fetch it from the wall of the altar. She did so and handed it lo the abbess, who promptly exclaimed, "Look, look! A miracle! The icon is renewing itself!" The sisters and lay people who happened to be present there in the church gathered around and watched awestruck as the face of the Mother of God, which had been so dark as to be scarcely discernible, grew lighter and brighter. In a matter of minutes, the icon was so transformed as to appear newly-painted, while the tin frame shone as if it had just been polished. Only a few dark spots remained, a reminder of its former condition. The icon became a focal point of the' convent, which was renamed in its honor. It also became a source of numerous miracles, and was a great consolation for the sisters, strengthening their faith that the Mother of God was invisibly guiding their community.
In 1927 the novice Augusta was made a rassophore nun. Four years later she received the full monastic tonsure with the name Ariadna.
The nuns' principal occupation was interior prayer. At the same time, they could not ignore the many Russian refugees who came knocking at their door seeking relief from the chaos and anguish of lives battered by revolution and civil war. The convent became a refuge for homeless, elderly woman, and in 1932 construction began on a wing for housing orphan girls. These worldly intrusions would have been detrimental to the community were it not for the harmonizing influence of prayer. Nocturnal services, in which the All-night Vigil with akathist flowed directly into the Divine Liturgy, attracted crowds of people and left an indelible impression.
Prompted by multiple requests, Abbess Rufina left Harbin in 1935 to establish a similar spiritual haven in Shanghai, leaving Mother Ariadna in charge of the Harbin community.
In the summer of 1937, Mother Ariadna received word that Abbess Rufina was gravely ill. She felt bound by her responsibilities to remain in Harbin, but one sleepless night she beard Abbess Ruffna's voice: "Gutyka [a diminutive of Augusta], hurry!" She reached Shanghai just in time to spend a few days with Abbess Rufina before her blessed repose on the Feast of Dormition, August 15/28, 1937.
It was Abbess Rufina's will that Mother Ariadna, as the senior nun and her closest assistant, take her place as Superior of the community. She knew her plans for the Convent -- and she also knew that the Convent was in a precarious state, for everyone involved had relied heavily upon Abbess Rufina. Turning with fervent prayer to the Mother of God, she calmly accepted this burden which had unexpectedly fallen upon her not yet strong shoulders. Her conviction that the work of God must not and would not collapse, wordlessly reassured the sisters and children of the orphanage now in her charge. Fired with determination, she proceeded to galvanize the community into action, compiling a list of accomplishments no less than impressive. The workshops increased their activity -- dress-making, applied arts; a commercially successful dairy was opened (the convent had a farm outside the city), a knitting factory. Besides providing the convent with financial stability, it enabled the orphan girls to acquire practical job skills. The convent also produced spiritually instructive leaflets and brochures.
The nuns' principal efforts, however, were directed towards beautifying the church, which began to serve as a house of worship for hundreds, even thousands of Russian emigrants. The church was renovated, new icons were added, and, with the harmonious singing of the nuns and the girls, the services imparted a feeling of deep spiritual contentment.
'For all her labors, Mother Ariadna was elevated to the rank of abbess, on November 26, 1938. On that occasion, Archbishop Methodius bestowed upon her a gold pectoral cross, and the nuns presented her with a staff.
Having been an orphan herself, Abbess Ariadna devoted a great deal of her time and attention to the girls of the St Olga's orphanage. She made sure they were well-dressed and well-fed. Occasionally they would receive invitations for dinner at someone's home. Matushka would herself check that their dresses were ironed and that their socks did not have holes, and she would remind them to behave modestly, to eat with their mouths closed, to finish what was on their plates and not to ask for more. The girls were so well brought up and had so many advantages -- they were taught foreign languages, music, singing, handicrafts -- that many outsiders assumed it was a private school and not an orphanage.
The-girls were taught good work habits, and Matushka instilled in them the importance of being conscientious. In assigning a girl to mop the corridor and stairs, she would give her a small knife or toothbrush to get into the corners. She demanded thoroughness and did not tolerate slipshod work.
Money was scarce, but even in hard times, during the war years, at Christmas and at Pascha Matushka Ariadna always managed to come up with some treats for the orphans. She went herself to persuade grocers, who donated ham bones and meat trimmings, which were made into a soup -- a real treat after the monotony of rice with noodles. Small bags under the Christmas tree were filled with nuts, fruits, candy, and a little present: a pencil, a toothbrush, a hairclip; trivial by today’s standards, but to the girls these were treasures,
The Abbess placed great emphasis on the girls' religious upbringing, constantly holding before them the example of the Mother of God. She would often say to the children, "Turn to the Mother of God, as if to your own mother. Tell her your troubles. She is kind and merciful and she will hear you." Once she wrote to one of the pupils, "How it pains me to hear that you've been quarrelling. How will you be able to look the Mother of God in the eyes when you die? After all, we're all going to die, we're not going to live forever!" She taught the girls always to behave as if they were in the presence of the Lord Jesus Christ. "If you are troubled by bad thoughts, or you are afraid of something, say to yourself the Jesus Prayer"; "If you've lost something or you have some difficulty, recite the Creed." When the girls misbehaved, they were made to sit on a bench and recite in unison the Jesus Prayer for fifteen minutes.
Morning and evening prayers, each a half hour, were an invariable part of the daily routine. During the years of the Second World War, the nuns and the girls took turns around the clock -- an hour each -- reading the Gospel and Psalter. One former pupil, then a three-year old girl who lived in the Abbess's cell, recalls how, in wartime, Matushka would bring into her cell the wonderworking Vladimir Icon. In the stillness of the night, the girl could hear her weeping and entreating the Mother of God to protect them, to help them get coal and bread, to console those unjustly imprisoned.
More than eight hundred girls passed through the doors of St Olga's orphanage.
As communism's militantly godless ideology marched upon China, the Convent was forced to relocate, and in 1948 Abbess Ariadna arrived in San Francisco, bringing with her the wonderworking Vladimir Icon of the Mother of God. Gradually the rest of the nuns and some of the orphans were able to join her, establishing what was the first Russian Orthodox Convent in North America. (For health reasons, some of the elderly nuns were not admitted to the US and settled in the Protection Skete in Canada, a gift to the Convent from Archbishop Ioasaph.)
On the tenth anniversary of her investiture as abbess, in November 1948, Abbess Ariadna was awarded a jeweled pectoral cross. "God grant," said Archbisho Tikhon in his congratulatory remarks "that here also, the Vladimir Mother of God Convent continue in the tradition of the ancient monasteries of our homeland."
And so it did. Here its principal outreach was the printed word. From their presses came calendars with daily readings from the Holy Fathers, spiritually edifying brochures, greetings cards and a series of booklets -- A Beacon of Love -- which Abbess Ariadna dedicated to her righteous "Aroma,' Abbess Rufina. They also published a number of books: The Horologion, The Monastic Cell Rule, various Lives of Saints, Akathists, and others. In addition the nuns made candles and baked prosphora, which they supplied to local churches. The nuns also continued to work with chil0ren: in 1963 a church-school was opened, dedicated to Saint Stephen of Perm.
By the late 40s, thanks to the mediation of Saint John (then Bishop of Shanghai), most of the Shanghai Russian colony had been safely evacuated from China and was in the Philippines awaiting resettlement. Abbess Ariadna took an active part in sponsoring many of them in their bid for immigration to the United States. The convent, in addition to providing the newcomers with spiritual and moral support, assisted many of them financially -- often anonymously. One Russian woman, an artist, had settled in a frugal one-room apartment and was just able to make ends meet when the entire apartment house went up in flames, leaving her homeless and without any means of livelihood: still unfinished paintings, paints, brushes -- all was lost. She found temporary lodging with some acquaintances and was desperately wondering what to do when a gentleman came and handed her an envelope, leaving before she could ask any questions. In it was money; there was no note, no indication where it was from. Only years later did the woman discover that it had come from the Convent. Abbess Ariadna, on learning of the woman's plight, had responded immediately with true Christian charity, which directs all glory and gratitude to God.
It was on Abbess Ariadna's initiative that in 1952 a "Brotherhood of Orthodox. Zealots" was formed with the aim of strengthening the faith of Orthodox Christians and distributing material assistance to the needy. The convent also organized lectures and discussions on topics related to the Faith.
Abbess Ariadna's principal responsibility, however, was the spiritual development of her nuns. Like Abbess Rufina, she schooled them in the age-old monastic tradition of unquestioning obedience and interior prayer. She frequently reminded them to speak less and listen more, to avoid idle talking, they were to ask a blessing before engaging in any activity; they were not to visit one another without a blessing; they were always to tell her their needs -- both spiritual and physical; before entering another's cell they were to say the Jesus Prayer and wait for the responding "Amen"; when difficulties arose, they were to endure and pray: "Prayer will nourish you. God Himself will teach you." She also stressed the importance of respect for one's elders and those in authority.
In 1988, Abbess Ariadna celebrated her golden jubilee, fifty years as abbess, a remarkable and rare achievement. The occasion was marked by a hierarchal Divine Liturgy concelebrated by the Chief Hierarch, Metropolitan Vitaly, and Archbishop Anthony of San Francisco, in the presence of the Myrrh-streaming Iveron Icon.
In 1990, Archbishop Anthony tonsured Abbess Ariadna to the Great Schema. A year later she had a stroke which paralyzed her right side and deprived her of speech. She amazed doctors by her tenacity, but after surviving a grave illness in 1993, she gradually weakened. A heart-attack on June 17, 1996, warned the nuns that death was imminent, and two days later they were gathered around their abbess, reading akathists and passages from the Paschal service, when she quietly departed for eternity.
Abbess Ariadna guided the community with a strong hand and sometimes gave the impression of being severe. However, to the many who knew her, she was a beacon of faith and love. While the strict life of the convent and its location in San Francisco's tough Mission District has inspired few aspirants and the community has dwindled, Abbess Ariadna's legacy u the age-old monastic tradition which she so faithfully maintained and conveyed -- has provided the seeds for a revival which even now is budding forth. In this age of spiritual decline, this is a great tribute indeed,
Based upon an article, in Russian, compiled by one of the Abess's admirers.