Loving the “Difficult” Loved One:
A Study in the Beauty of Holiness

Fr. John Shimchick / Reprinted from: Jacob's Well, Fall 1997 / Winter 1998

“Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness” (Ps 29:2).

“Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends” (Jn 15:13).

“But to the rest I, not the Lord, say: If any brother has a wife who does not believe, and she is willing to live with him, let him not divorce her. And a woman who has a husband who does not believe, if he is willing to live with her, let her not divorce him. For the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified by the husband; otherwise, your children would be unclean, but now they are holy” (1 Cor 7:12-14)

“Do not let your adornment be merely outward -- arranging the hair, wearing gold, or putting on fine apparel -- rather let it be the hidden person of the heart, with the incorruptible beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is very precious in the sight of God” (1 Pet 3:3-4).

Abba Poemen said, “There is no greater love than that a man lays down his life for his neighbor. When you hear someone complaining and you struggle with yourself and do not answer him back with complaints; when you are hurt and bear it patiently, not looking for revenge; then you are laying down your life for your neighbor.”

Maybe they are Orthodox Christians who, for whatever reason, are no longer interested in matters of faith. Perhaps they are not Orthodox or even Christian at all. How does one love and care for family and friends -- recognizing them as persons in the unique Orthodox way -- when they do not share the same belief? St. Paul, in the passage above addressed to husbands and wives, encouraged the believing spouse to help “sanctify” their unbelieving spouse. But is it necessary to preach Christianity or even Christ to the non- believing spouse or friend? And what about the situations where the spouse or friend is not passive about their unbelief, but on occasion or frequently seeks to belittle or discourage the believer from practicing their faith? What can one do with and for such people?

St. John Chrysostom said that love by its nature seeks the desire “to appease and extinguish those who are inflamed by anger, not only by enduring nobly, but also by soothing and comforting” (Homily on 1 Corinthians). He mentioned in the same place that it is also possible to find those who “live on earth as if it were heaven, everywhere enjoying a calm and weaving ... innumerable crowns” and that we should “implant love in our own souls that she may produce for us many blessings and that we may have her fruit continually unbounding -- the fruit which is ever fresh and never decays.”

St. Peter suggested that women should develop not just their outward physical appearances but “the hidden person of the heart.” This study will present the lives of two women who understood such difficulties with those they loved and went about developing that “hidden person.” It should be noted that while St. Peter’s image and the examples presented are of women, this image and the lessons from their lives are just as valuable for men. Also, in speaking about difficult people it is assumed that physical abuse is not taking place.

Aleksandra Filippovna Shmakova (1809-80) was raised within an aristocratic Orthodox family in St. Petersburg. After receiving an excellent education in the city, she was married at the age of 15 to a wealthy Baltic Russian nobleman, Karl Andreevich Fon-Roze, who was a Lutheran. Though she eventually grew to care for her husband, a certain spiritual discontent began to develop. Her life took on more ascetic practices and she became concerned over the salvation of her husband. As her life aquired a greater strictness, her husband became more critical of her behavior and her faith. Brenda Meehan describes what happened next:

Feeling constricted in her spiritual life and sadly at odds with her husband, she thought of leaving him and entering a convent. She sought out spiritual counselors, holy men and women who could help her carry out her plan. But she found that none of them counseled her to leave her husband and enter a monastery. To a person, they believed it wrong for her to leave her husband, since she might be the cause of sin both for him and for herself.

Instead, they urged her to live in peace with him. She should pray earnestly and have faith that God eventually would arrange things for her salvation. Aleksandra did not like this advice, but nonetheless submitted to it. She continued her good works of visiting the poor and imprisoned and lived simply, trusting in God’s will. With time, her simplicity and inner peace touched her husband, and be began to think there must be something powerful in Orthodoxy. To Aleksandra’s great joy, he converted to Orthodoxy, taking the name of Nikolai. (Holy Women of Russia, p. 82)

They lived together, now both dedicated to God. Upon his death Aleksandra started a women’s religious community where she eventually, taking the name of Mother Angelina, became the abbess.

Elisabeth Leseur (1866-1914) grew up in a wealthy French Roman Catholic family. Upon her marriage to Felix, she lived a happy and successful life, traveling and enjoying the comforts of her age. But eventually Felix lost interest in the Catholic Church and began to try to discourage Elisabeth from practicing her own faith. At one point it seemed that he had succeeded and she gave up. But then a spark was reignited within her and she began reading the Scriptures and other religious books and made the acquaintance of several important spiritual guides. She was determined to pray for Felix’s salvation and his conversion, but knew that it would have to be done in a secret, non-belligerent way. She kept her spiritual life, which sadly she could share with few, hidden within her diary. In it she acknowledged one of her resolutions:

First my duty to my dear husband: tenderness that has not even the merit of duty, constant care to be useful and gracious to him. Above all, to be extremely reserved concerning matters of faith, which are still veiled to him. If a quiet statement should sometimes be necessary, or if I can fruitfully show him a little of what is in my heart, that must at least be a rare event, done after careful thought, performed in all gentleness and serenity (p. 116).

Another expression resounds like the words of St. John Chrysostom:

Let him see the fruit but not the sap, my life but not the faith that transforms it, the light that is in me but not a word of Him who brings it to my soul; let him see God without hearing His name. Only on those lines, I think, must I hope for the conversion and sanctity of the dear companion of my life, my beloved Felix (p. 116).

Then she also stated:

When we feel impotent against hostility and indifference, when it is impossible to speak of God or the spiritual life, when many hearts brush against ours without penetrating it, then we must enter peacefully into ourselves in the sweet company that our souls never lack; and to others we must give only prayers and the quiet example of our lives. ... All our explanations, words, and efforts are not worth the feeblest ray of the Holy Spirit in enlightening a soul, but they may obtain all of His light for this soul (p. 146).

There is little suffering that can compare with this: to love, and to be repaid with hatred or at least hostility; to dream of doing good for someone, of giving part of oneself, and to find that this person does not appreciate you, judges you unfairly, and misunderstands everything about you. What should one do then? Not be unjust in return; remember that the Master suffered misunderstanding and contempt; and, without reproaches or sorrowful thoughts of self, continue to speak, act, and love, not to gain the affection denied us, but in the higher and supernatural thought of charity (p. 231).

More than others I love these beings whom divine light does not illuminate, or rather whom it illuminates in a manner unknown to us with our restricted minds. There is a veil between such souls and God, a veil through which only a few rays of love and beauty may pass. Only God, with a divine gesture, may throw aside this veil; then the true life shall begin for these souls.

And I, who am of so little worth, yet believe in the power of the prayers that I never cease to say for these dear souls. I believe in them because God exists, and because He is the Father. I believe in them because I believe in this divine and mysterious law that we call the Communion of Saints. I know that no cry, no desire, no appeal preceding from the depths of our soul is lost, but all go to God and through Him to those who moved us to pray. I know that only God performs the intimate transformation of the human soul and that we can but point out to Him those we love, saying, “Lord, make them live” (pp. 54-55).

Christ must live in us, that we may give Him to others (p. 218).

Let us never expect to see the result of our efforts for souls. It is good not to know it, for if we did know it, pride in doing good, the most subtle pride of all, might follow. Let us confide to God the disposing of the prayers, sacrifices, and efforts that we offer Him, and with no thought for what we have already done, let us continue to work and to act for our brothers, for souls, and for the coming of God’s Kingdom in them (p. 219).

We should make each day a resume of our whole life by filling it with prayer, work, and charity (p. 219).

A simple contact can sometimes be the best sermon; a spark can start a great flame (p. 219, My Spirit Rejoices).

Gradually, Felix stopped treating her in such a difficult manner and as she became weak due to illness he even began to admire her peacefulness and strength. After her death, Felix discovered her diary and saw how she described his treatment of her and how concerned she remained for his salvation. Shortly after this Felix returned to Communion with the Catholic Church, eventually even becoming a Catholic priest and assumed a ministry of sharing how the beauty of Elisabeth’s holiness had transformed his life.

For Discussion:

  1. What are the similar features in how Aleksandra and Elisabeth developed the “hidden person of the heart”? What were the “fruits” of their lives? What was it that seemed to be most impressive to their husbands?
  2. Try to identify those whom you care about, but with whom you are not able to share your Faith. Remember them in prayer, keeping in mind that “success” in our prayer (at least, our definition of success) is not the issue. Elisabeth never saw her husband’s conversion during her lifetime and she cautions about trying to measure one’s efforts.
  3. Consider the kinds of possibilities for growth and conflict that can develop as spouses begin to take their faiths seriously. How can the possibilities be nurtured and the conflicts be overcome?
  4. How can one have a total commitment to God and still be a loving spouse, father, and friend? Or rather, how does having a total commitment to God make it possible to be a loving spouse, father, and friend? Reflect on this verse: “If anyone comes to Me and does not hate his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and his own life also, he cannot be My disciple” (Lk 14:26). Complete this verse with Mk 10:29-30.


  • Holy Women of Russia is available from St Vladimir’s Seminary Press (+1.800.204.BOOK).
  • My Spirit Rejoices can be ordered from Sophia Institute Press (+1.800.888.9344).

Fr. John Shimchick is the pastor of Church of the Holy Cross, Medford, NJ
and editor of Jacob's Well, the Newspaper of the Diocese of New York and New Jersey, Orthodox Church in America.

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