Terry Mattingly

Terry Mattingly

The first nun the Bolsheviks threw into the abandoned mineshaft was best known as the Grand Duchess Elizabeth Feodorovna, the sister of the Russian Empress Alexandra.

After the 1905 assassination of her Grand Duke husband, Elizabeth became an Orthodox nun, giving away her wealth to build hospitals and orphanages. She was executed in 1918, along with others linked to her doomed brother-in-law, Tsar Nicholas II.

When the nuns didn’t drown, a soldier used a grenade. He later testified, “we heard talking and a barely audible groan. I threw another grenade. And what do you think — from beneath the ground we heard singing! ... They were singing the prayer: ‘Lord, save your people!’”

Finally, there was silence. The body of St. Elizabeth the New Martyr was buried in 1920 at the Church of St. Mary Magdalene on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem. Her life inspired many, including her grieving niece, the Greek Princess Alice of Battenberg. Alice was the great-granddaughter of Queen Victoria of England and the mother of Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, and for 73 years the husband of Queen Elizabeth II.

The complicated history of the royals, past and present, loomed over the short, dignified funeral for Prince Philip in St. George’s Chapel, Windsor — with only 30 mourners due to COVID-19 restrictions. The prince’s liturgical choices shaped an Anglican rite that stressed images of service, eternal hope and the beauties of God’s creation.

The man many Brits called the “grandfather of the nation” was born on the Greek island of Corfu in 1921, the fifth child and only son of Prince Andrew of Greece and Princess Alice. He was baptized Greek Orthodox, before his life was rocked by wars and revolutions that shattered his family.

The young Prince Philip ended up in England, his father landed in Monte Carlo with his mistress, and his mother, inspired by her martyred Russian aunt, became a fervent Orthodox believer. Citing her claims of visions and the gift of healing, her family forced her into mental asylums. One doctor — Sigmund Freud — ordered her sterilized.

Eventually Princess Alice returned to Greece and, as a self-proclaimed Orthodox nun, donated what wealth she had to feed the poor during Nazi occupation. She secretly protected Jews and was eventually honored by Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust center.

It’s a complicated story. During yet another Greek revolution, Alice escaped to England. She had been born in Buckingham Palace and she died there in 1969, after two years with her son, along with Prince Charles and her other grandchildren. She is buried, as she requested, in the Mount of Olives church near St. Elizabeth the New Martyr.

There is evidence that, late in life, Prince Philip began a private journey to explore his roots, including visits to Mount Athos, the rocky Greek peninsula that is the heart of global Orthodox monasticism. Observers noted that when making the sign of the cross, he gestured in an Orthodox manner — from right to left.

During a 2011 visit to Buckingham Palace, Metropolitan Hilarion of Russia gave Philip an icon of St. Elizabeth, his martyred great-aunt. In a condolence letter to Queen Elizabeth, he said Philip “told me literally the following: ‘I became an Anglican, but I remained Orthodox.’ ... With great warmth, he recalled his visits to the Holy Mount Athos. He told me about his Orthodox roots.”

Prince Charles also has frequented Mount Athos. One Athonite monk told The Guardian newspaper that there is “no question” that Charles is “Orthodox in his heart. Sadly, he is very constrained by his position.” The Prince of Wales has maintained ties to the Vatopedi Monastery and, like his father, to the Friends of Mount Athos.

There was one clear sign of this complex heritage during the funeral. Prince Philip had requested that, just before his body was lowered into the Royal Vault, the choir sing the famous Kiev setting of the Orthodox Kontakion of the Departed.

“Give rest, O Christ, to thy servant with thy saints: where sorrow and pain are no more; neither sighing but life everlasting,” the singers chanted. “Thou only art immortal, the creator and maker of man; and we are mortal formed from the dust of the earth. ... All we go down to the dust; and weeping o’er the grave we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.”

Terry Mattingly leads GetReligion.org and lives in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is a senior fellow at the Overby Center at the University of Mississippi.

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