The life of Margarita Tuchkova (Naryshkina) assures us that love never dies, but survives our most bitter losses. It shows us how overcoming grief with humility can make us rich in heaven. With her example, the Lord opens our eyes to the value of life and the meaning of death. The love for our spouses and families leads us to much greater love, of God and our neighbour.
Her life was a fascinating journey from happiness on earth to glory in heaven, from human goodness to sainthood. That is not an easy path to follow. It leads us through suffering, deprivation, and death for the world. But the ultimate prize that awaits us at our point of destination is our eternal joy and the light of His divine glory.
Finding true love and happiness in marriage
Margarita Naryshkina was born in 1781 to rich and noble parents. She grew into a most beautiful young woman with a slender figure and adorable green eyes. She had received an excellent education and was an excellent singer. With her background, character and talents, she could choose from many good suitors, but she married a young aristocrat by mistake. With all his art and cunning, he stoked up her passion, and Margarita, a naive and inexperienced youth of sixteen years, gave in. It did not take her long to realise that she had married a gambler, drunkard and woman-chaser. He did not hide his depravity and wanted her to live his life. For several years, she played a happily married woman in public. Finally, rumours about her husband’s sinful ways reached Margarita’s parents. Her father used his influence to arrange a divorce, and soon the young woman reunited with her parents and returned her maiden name.
While she was still married to her first husband, she met a young officer named Alexander Tuchkov. They fell in love at first sight, but Margarita broke off the relationship because she was still married. When she became divorced and was back in her parental home, Alexander asked for her hand in marriage without delay. He was a wealthy nobleman in good standing, and Margarita loved him with all her heart. However, her parents refused to bless their marriage, fearing that Margarita might be setting herself up for another mistake. Alexander went abroad and continued to write to his beloved.
On his return to Russia four years later, he approached Margarita’s parents again, and they blessed their union. In 1805, Margarita, aged 25, married Alexander Tuchkov, 27. She was happy at last. But great trials were lying ahead. She received the first omen at the door of the church where they married. An old man, a fool-for-christ, approached her with an unusual gift. “Maria, let me give you this staff!” – he said to her. Surprised, she took it, but she never realized what it meant until much later.
“What God has joined together, let not man separate”
Throughout the nineteenth century, Russia was involved in many wars, one on the back of another. It fought with Prussia, then with France and Sweden. As a high-ranking officer, Alexander took part in every war. Unwilling to part with her beloved, she followed him in every campaign, wearing the uniform of an aide-de-camp.
In her letter to Tsar Alexander in 1808, she wrote: “I implore you to permit me to accompany my husband, Major-General Alexander Tuchkov, in the Swedish campaign. My love for Tuchkov matters all the world to me, and as an expression of this love, I wish to serve the throne and my homeland together with him.” The Tsar was impressed by this letter and granted his permission.
During battles, Margarita worked at hospitals, caring for the wounded, reassuring the dying and giving away food to the poor and needy. The soldiers called her their guardian angel.
The Tuchkovs had their first son in 1808, but he died before he was one year of age. Their second son, Mikhail, was born in 1811. He lived, and his parents loved him greatly.
A vision of a loss
In 1812, war came to Russia again. It was with Napoleon. Napoleon’s army was advancing fast. Soon, it reached Smolensk, and Alexander Tuchkov was dispatched to the city. Margarita travelled with him, planning to continue onwards to Moscow. On her way, she saw a bad dream that haunted her many nights after. Her father stood with a priest holding her little son Kolya in his arms. Behind them was a poster with some text in crimson letters. It said, “Borodino will change your life.” Margarita was afraid. She took it as a bad omen portending her husband’s death. Her husband reassured her. Like everybody else, he did not yet know about Borodino, the site of the major battle between the French and Russian armies where tens of thousands would die.
Nevertheless, he asked his wife to take the holy vessels from the battle church, so that the enemy would not get them. She also took the relics, including the Icon of the Saviour not made by Hands. That was the last time she saw her husband alive. He embraced her and their son and gave them his blessing.
Already in Moscow, Margarita returned home after an afternoon service and saw the exact scene from her dream: her father holding her son on his arm, and a priest was standing next to him. She cried with pain and passed out.
Overwhelmed with grief, tormented with uncertainty
She lost her husband, and could not come to terms with it for a long time. When Napoleon finally left Moscow, she went to the scene of the battle at Borodino to look for the remains of her husband.
An old schema-monk accompanied her as she walked across the field, still laid with the bodies of the soldiers. Finally, they reached the presumed location of her husband’s death. The schema-monk was saying prayers for the dead and sprinkling the bodies with holy water, as the widow was looking at thousands of faces to find the remains of her beloved.
She never found her husband’s body. Still, she sold all her jewellery to build a chapel. She wished to build a church but was out of funds. In 1816, she wrote another letter to the Tsar: “Nothing will bring relief to my grief other than my undertaking to build a church on the sacred site where my husband lost his life.” The Tsar sent 10,000 roubles, and the construction began. The widow bought a house close to the temple where she could stay on her visits to oversee the progress of the construction. In 1820, the church of the Saviour at Borodino was finished and consecrated. The icon of the Saviour Not Made by Hand became its main relic, and it began to work miracles.
From that moment onwards, her life revolved around her son and the newly built church. But her losses did not end. His father died in 1825, and less than a year later she lost her beloved son. Her mother reposed in 1827. She lost all her family and settled at Borodino permanently. She was grieving, and people often found her unconscious at the graves of her loved ones.
“My days and nights are becoming alike: matins, liturgy, and vespers; some meaningless housework, a short prayer, and the long hours of the night. I am bored with life, but I also fear death. Our Lord’s mercy and love is my only hope, to the end of my life!” Her long days filled with deep grief and despair continued with no end in sight until she met Metropolitan Philaret of Moscow. That meeting brought her a glimmer of hope.
She had heard about Metropolitan Philaret before. He was ordained the Archbishop of Moscow in 1821, and his sermons brought relief and healing to many grieving war widows. She had also heard his sermons, and some had touched her heart. So when Philaret sent her a personal invitation to visit him at Saint Trinity and Sergius Lavra, she accepted. As she was waiting to be seen at the reception, she met another widow with three adult sons. The Metropolitan called her in, she entered and exclaimed in bitterness and resentment, “Why has God taken all my family? Why has not He left any of my kin?” Philaret replied with sternness, “Perhaps because you have not been humble enough!” Tearful, Margarita stormed out of his study and took off to Borodino immediately. Later that evening, the Metropolitan came to see her at her home. He apologised for his harsh words. That started a cordial friendship between them.
“Find comfort in comforting the less fortunate”
Eventually, Margarita chose the Metropolitan as her spiritual father. Together, they worked hard to resolve her grief and despair. When she lost her son, the Metropolitan wrote to her: “Two years of excruciating, desperate grief is a sufficient price paid to the world and the flesh. Are not we told not to grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope (1 Thessalonians 4:13)? <…> There is no sorrow in the Kingdom of Heaven, and no one can enter it with sorrow. <…> Help the poor and needy in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ the poor, and find comfort in comforting the less fortunate.”
Margarita listened and established an almshouse at the Church of the Saviour at Borodino for the war invalids. She also opened a school for orphaned girls. She gave shelter to the poor and widowed, and young women who had lost hope of marrying. She called the new establishment the charitable community of servants of God at the Church of the Saviour at Borodino.
Monastic and hegumeness
Eventually, the Metropolitan wrote less about overcoming grief and more about monastic life. He did not hurry her with taking tonsure. It was not until 1838 that the widow Margarita Tuchkova became nun Melania. Two years later, the metropolitan tonsured nun Melania into the mantle with the name Maria, and she became the Hegumeness of the Monastery of Christ the Saviour at Borodino. Only then did she understand fully the meaning of the strange gift from the old man, a fool for Christ, that she received at her wedding. Metropolitan Philaret wrote the first set of rules for her monastery that emphasised incessant prayer for the Christ-loving warriours who laid their lives for their faith, Tsar, and homeland.”
Keeping the peace and letting love reign
As a monastic, she put her past life behind her and concentrated fully on her service to God and others. Her health deteriorated from wearing chains under her garments in the first years of her service as Hegumeness. At the insistence of the Metropolitan, she stopped this practice. She only wore chains for short periods and on special occasions. For example, the hegumeness would put on her chains when a sister confessed to a grave sin. “Pray for forgiveness, and I will pray with you,” she would say, with chains concealed under her clothes.
The inner peace that reigned in her heart spilled over to the rest of the monastery. An atmosphere of peace and love reigned throughout, which she worked hard to keep with her labours and prayers. She was too humble to spend money on a fully decorated Hegumeness’s Seat. Instead, she sat on a modest bench placed near a furnace. In times of shortage, she would reassure the sisters: “Do not worry. The Lord will provide for us. The meal is modest, but the choir is wonderful!” She treated every sister as of she was their mother. Some nuns left and returned several times, but she welcomed them with all her heart, again and again. She never criticised the sisters, but only praised them, calling herself “their sinful Hegumeness”.
Repose and veneration
After 20 years of her service as Hegimeness, a wonderful choir was formed, and a bell tower was completed. A residential compound was built, and a large church of Saint Vladimir grew up on monastery grounds. In the last year of her service as hegumeness, she developed dropsy, which gave her great pain. She reposed peacefully on 29 April 1852, and many grieved at the news of her departure. Her honourable remains were laid to rest at the Church of the Saviour Not Made by Hand. The holy remains of the Abbess were buried in the Church of the Saviour Not Made by Hand, and several accounts of miracles connected with her remains have been recorded since her repose.
The Monastery of the Saviour at Borodino reopened in 1992. Its residents still pray incessantly for the soldiers of the homeland, living and departed. Not coincidentally, many of its visitors are newlyweds. They come to venerate the relics and remember the one whose whole life became a vivid example of never-ending love.