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 ones 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
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
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. Peters
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
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 Gods will. With time, her
simplicity and inner peace touched her husband, and be began to think there must be
something powerful in Orthodoxy. To Aleksandras 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
womens 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 Felixs 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.
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.
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 Gods Kingdom in them
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 Elisabeths holiness had transformed his life.
- 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?
- 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 husbands
conversion during her lifetime and she cautions about trying to measure ones
- 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?
- 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
- Holy Women of Russia is available from St
Vladimirs 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,
and editor of Jacob's Well, the Newspaper of the Diocese of New York and New
Jersey, Orthodox Church in America.