The Female Spiritual Elder and Death: Some Thoughts on Contemporary Lives of Russian Orthodox Saints
In contemporary Orthodox hagiography a special type of saint has emerged — blessed female spiritual elders (blazhennye startsy should not be in italics here). In some respects this form of sainthood is a successor to the traditional “fools for the sake of Christ.” Yet the staritsy have their distinctive features, chief among them the saint’s possession of an incurable disease such as blindness or motor function disorders. The meaning of these ailments can be interpreted as a sign of permanent liminality and the person’s divine election. The disorder indicates that while alive the female elder also belongs to the world of the dead (or the next world). The creation of these iconic narratives can be seen as an attempt to democratize the hagiographical canon by including folk religious motifs and images. This “folklorization” of the genre of church hagiography expresses the idea that the Orthodox faith has deep roots in popular religiosity and therefore can be accessible to common people.