How a 10th c. Viking Girl Completely Changed the History of the Present World

Homily from the Feast of St. Olga, St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco Russian Orthodox Mission, Lewisburg PA, 7/11/7530 (7/24/2022 on the civil calendar).

Above: Nikolai Bruni’s 1901 Grand Duchess Olga

During Vespers last night for today’s Feast of Saint Olga we heard readings about two courageous women of the Bible, the Judge Deborah in the Book of Judges, and Judith in the book bearing her name. Judith cut off the head of the Assyrian General Holofernes, with whom she had ingratiated herself as essentially a secret agent for Israel. Holofernes was leading forces of the idolatrous Assyrians against the people of God. The Judge Deborah, with Barak, led the Israelite tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali to victory against the likewise idolatrous Canaanite forces commanded by General Sisera. He then was killed in his tent by a female former ally, Jael. Of his defeat, the memorable translation in the King James Bible says, “the stars in their courses fought against Sisera.”

That phrase “Stars in their Courses” was used by author Shelby Foote for the title of his famous account of the Battle of Gettysburg in the American Civil War. Foote said he used the biblical phrase to refer to how everything seemed unexpectedly to go wrong for the Confederate Army as it invaded our Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, as if a higher mysterious plan was at work.

General Robert E. Lee’s own secret plans accidentally had fallen into the hands of Union Generals in advance. The opposing armies blundered into each other in Gettysburg mistakenly, ultimately to the South’s strategic disadvantage. Unexpectedly J.E.B. Stuart and Lee’s Cavalry essentially went on a joy ride for days and went missing when he needed them crucially before the battle for intelligence. The failure of the Confederates on the first day to consolidate control over the high ground was an unusual blunder as larger Union forces traveled toward the battleground. On the third day, Lee’s command for Pickett’s Charge was an uncharacteristically huge miscalculation given Union firepower. In short, even though General Lee to many seemed the superior commander of all involved in the battle, Foote noted that it seemed that in various dimensions the Southern army was pushing heedlessly against a higher Providence at work. Holofernes must have felt the same way when at home in a drunken stupor he felt the blade wielded by Judith, from whom he had not expected such an attack, ending in an instant of surprise the Assyrian military advantage over the Israelites, by an “unknown” factor.

The ancient and most likely Christian philosopher Boethius had a metaphor for the way in which a higher Providence and human effort work in synergy. He called it the Wheel of Fortune, which is the origin of the name of the TV gameshow, but really unrelated.

Boethius, a philosopher operating in what is called the Hellenic-Christian synthesis of the Late Antique world, argued that all of life’s circumstances throw us around like a wheel here on fallen Earth. But the struggle for virtue in conjunction with God’s grace brings us closer to the center of the wheel, which symbolizes God’s Providence and Theosis or union with God’s uncreated energies. The closer you get to the hub, the less you are thrown around by the circumstances of life. The old American saying God helps those who help themselves is a bit stripped down from Orthodox theology but conveys an aspect of this, although in the case of St. Olga and others whose influence stretches across generations, it would be truer from an Orthodox standpoint to say that God helps those who help others.

I bring this up because of our commemoration today of Saint Olga of Kiev. Her name is derived from the Viking name Helga, and indeed she was of Varangian or Scandinavian background in the realms of Kievan Rus, of which the name Rus itself, the core for the name Russia, is also Viking-derived. She lived in tough times. Widowed when Slavic forces murdered her husband, she assumed leadership of the realm and ruthlessly revenged him, earning the respect of all. Then she chose to adopt Christianity, according to tradition while on a diplomatic mission to Constantinople. In any case, she built close relations between what we today call Byzantium, the Christian Roman Empire based in the East, and her realm. In the process, her life and faith formed a crucial link in the Christianization of Russia. Who would have expected from the violence of the times in Kievan Rus that, through the seeds she helped to plant, it would become Christian successor to Byzantium, and ancestor realm to one of the great Christian powers in world history, the most influential Orthodox Christian country in the modern world?

St. Olga was tough, but touched by the beauty and power of our Lord Jesus Christ she bowed before Him. She was disappointed though in her failure to convert her family. But like many a grandmother in Orthodoxy, babas and yiayias alike, she left a legacy and planted a seed that would bloom with the conversion of her grandson Prince-Saint Vladimir the Great, who initiated the actual large-scale conversion of what became Russia. Patience must have her perfect work, as our Lord Jesus tells us in the Gospels. The design of God, like the stars in their courses or Boethius’ wheel, often comes totally unexpectedly. The harsh avenger Princess Olga became the Equal to the Apostles in the history of the Christian Church. The harsh realm of Kievan Rus became nurturer of the Christian faith that later bloomed in Muscovy, which on the edge of wilderness, and (like Byzantium before it) on the edge of both Europe and Asia, became known as a result as an Orthodox “Third Rome” following the fall of Constantinople. The monastic influence of hesychasm from Byzantine Mount Athos and the Holy Land would flourish in the forests and steppes and even the caves of Russian realms. From there in fact ultimately would come the resistance of Russian Christians to atheistic Communism and its persecution of Christians, the greatest such persecution of history. This in turn, ultimately if indirectly, led to the founding of our humble little mission in America’s Northern Appalachia. Thanks be to God, with also appreciation to Saint Olga, Equal to the Apostles; please pray to God for us!

Above: St. Olga by Nesterov

She was a tough leader, and God works in a mysterious way, as the old English hymn put it. So His Providence did for Deborah and Judith and for so many in the Bible history of which we unworthil through our Lord’s Church have become a part ourselves, just as St. Olga did too through her conversion and the effect across generations.

The Anglican writer Madeline L’Engle in the mid-twentieth-century suggested a figure for how God’s Providence works in another dimension from ours beyond regular space-time, in her book A Wrinkle in Time.

Another way would be to think of two points on a piece of paper. What’s the most direct way between them? Some would draw a straight line. But try folding the paper so the two points are on top of one another. This illustrates the extra-dimension of God’s Providence beyond our ken.

Let us like Saint Olga not be afraid of being tough in our ascetic struggle as Orthodox Christians, in our effort to live in synergy with God’s grace, for in this way we find ourselves increasingly living and moving in God’s Providence, in which we can expect the unexpected for good. We all need to do this, for our salvation, and for that of our children and the generations beyond, just as Saint Olga did for a nation and more importantly a Church, in becoming even one of the ancestral founders of our humble mission here. That was not just tough but loving and faithful. Let us make sure that we know the stories of spiritual ancestors like her, Deborah, and Judith, and that our children know the stories of our family tree in the Church as well. Verily, the Bible and the Lives of the Saints are “ for Orthodox Christians.” So may we all be aware of and experience the mysterious pattern of the workings of God’s grace. It is like a wave that we as Christians in effect surf, a wave carrying us forward to our God from the beginning of time.

Through the prayers of our holy Fathers, Lord Jesus Christ our God have mercy on us, Amen.

About the Author:

Deacon Paul Siewers serves at St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco Russian Orthodox Mission Church in a northern Appalachian valley of central Pennsylvania. He also works as associate professor of Literary Studies at Bucknell University, where he is adviser to the Orthodox Christian campus community and directs the Bucknell Program for American Leadership. His blog only represents his own views.

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