Category Archives: St. Maria Skobtsova

Essays and other content related to life of St. Maria Skobtsova

The Challenge of a 20th Century Saint, Maria Skobtsova

St Maria Skobtsova of Paris

by Jim Forest

 

Mother Maria Skobtsova — now recognized as Saint Maria of Paris — died in a German concentration camp on the 30th of March 1945. Although perishing in a gas chamber, Mother Maria did not perish in the Church’s memory. Those who had known her would again and again draw attention to the ideas, insights and activities of the heroic nun who had spent so many years of her life assisting people in desperate need. Soon after the war ended, essays and books about her began appearing in French, Russian and English. A Russian film, “Mother Maria,” was made in 1982. Her canonization was celebrated in May 2004 at the Cathedral of St. Alexander Nevsky in Paris. Among those present at the event was Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger, archbishop of Paris and Jewish by birth, who subsequently placed St. Maria on the calendar of the Catholic Church in France. One wonders if there are any other saints of post-Schism Christianity who are on both the Catholic and Orthodox calendars?

We have no time today for a detailed account of her life. I will only point out that she was born in Riga in 1891 and grew up on a family estate along the Black Sea. Her father’s death when she was fourteen was a devastating event that for a time led her to atheism, but gradually she found her way back to the Orthodox faith. As a young woman, she was the first female student at the St. Petersburg Theological Academy. In the same period she witnessed the Bolshevik coup and the civil war that followed. Like so many Russians, she fled for her life, finally reaching Paris, where she was among those who devoted themselves to serving fellow refugees, many of whom were now living in a state of destitution even worse than her own. At that time, she worked with the Student Christian Movement.

The tragic death in 1926 of one her daughters, Anastasia, precipitated a decision that brought her to a still deeper level of self-giving love. In 1932, following the collapse of her marriage, her bishop, Metropolitan Evlogy, encouraged her to become a nun, but a nun with an exceptional vocation. Metropolitan Evlogy blessed her to develop a new type of monasticism — a “monasticism in the world” — that centered on diaconal service within the city rather than on quiet withdrawal in a rural context.

In a time of massive social disruption, Mother Maria declared, it was better to offer a monastic witness which opens its gates to desperate people and in so doing to participate in Christ’s self-abasement. “Everyone is always faced … with the necessity of choosing between the comfort and warmth of an earthly home, well protected from winds and storms, and the limitless expanse of eternity, which contains only one sure and certain item … the Cross.”

It was clear to her that it was not only Russia which was being torn to shreds. “There are times,” she wrote, “when all that has been said cannot be made obvious and clear since the atmosphere around us is a pagan one and we are tempted by its idolatrous charms. But our times are firmly in tune with Christianity in that suffering is part of their nature. They demolish and destroy in our hearts all that is stable, mature, hallowed by the ages and treasured by us. They help us genuinely and utterly to accept the vows of poverty, to seek no rule, but rather anarchy, the anarchic life of Fools for Christ’s sake, seeking no monastic enclosure, but the complete absence of even the subtlest barrier which might separate the heart from the world and its wounds.”

She saw that there were two ways to live. The first was on dry land, a legitimate and respectable place to be, where one could measure, weigh and plan ahead. The second was to walk on the waters where “it becomes impossible to measure or plan ahead. The one thing necessary is to believe all the time. If you doubt for an instant, you begin to sink.”

The water she decided to walk upon was a vocation of hospitality. With financial support from Metropolitan Evlogy, in December 1932 she signed a lease for her first house of hospitality, a place of welcome and assistance to people in desperate need, mainly young Russian women. The first night she slept on the floor beneath the icon of the Protection of the Mother of God. A small community of co-workers began to form. To make room for others, Mother Maria gave up her own room and instead slept on an iron bedstead in the basement by the boiler. A room upstairs became a chapel.

The first house having become too small, in 1934 the community relocated to a three-storey house at 77 rue de Lourmel in an area of Paris where many impoverished Russian refugees had settled. Now, instead of 25 people, the community could feed a hundred. Stables in back became a small church.

The vocation of hospitality is much more than the provision of food, clothing and a place to sleep. In its depths, it is a contemplative vocation. It is the constant search for the face of Christ in the stranger. “If someone turns with his spiritual world toward the spiritual world of another person,” she reflected, “he encounters an awesome and inspiring mystery …. He comes into contact with the true image of God in man, with the very icon of God incarnate in the world, with a reflection of the mystery of God’s incarnation and divine manhood. And he needs to accept this awesome revelation of God unconditionally, to venerate the image of God in his brother. Only when he senses, perceives and understands it will yet another mystery be revealed to him — one that will demand his most dedicated efforts…. He will perceive that the divine image is veiled, distorted and disfigured by the power of evil…. And he will want to engage in battle with the devil for the sake of the divine image.”

By 1937, there were several dozen women guests at 77 rue de Lourmel. Up to 120 dinners were served each day. Other buildings were rented, one for families in need, another for single men. A rural property became a sanatorium.

From a financial point of view, it was a very insecure life, but somehow the work survived and grew. Mother Maria would sometimes recall the Russian story of the ruble that could never be spent. Each time it was used, the change given back proved to equal a ruble. It was exactly this way with love, she said: No matter how much love you give, you never have less. In fact you discover you have more — one ruble becomes two, two becomes ten.

Mother Maria’s day typically began with a journey to Les Halles to beg food or buy cheaply whatever was not donated. The cigarette-smoking beggar nun became well known among the stalls. She would later return with a sack of bones, fish and overripe fruit and vegetables.

Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh provides an impression of what Mother Maria was like in those days: “She was a very unusual nun in her behavior and her manners. I was simply staggered when I saw her for the first time. I was walking along the Boulevard Montparnasse. In front of a café, there was a table, on the table was a glass of beer, and behind the glass was sitting a Russian nun in full monastic robes. I looked at her and decided that I would never go near that woman. I was young then and held extreme views.”

Mother Maria felt sustained by the opening verses of the Sermon on the Mount: “Not only do we know the Beatitudes, but at this hour, this very minute, surrounded though we are by a dismal and despairing world, we already savor the blessedness they promise.”

Life in community was not easy. Conflicting views about the relative importance of liturgical life were at times a source of tension. Mother Maria was the one most often absent from services or the one who would withdraw early, or arrive late, because of the pressing needs of hospitality. “Piety, piety,” she wrote in her journal, “but where is the love that moves mountains?”

Mother Maria saw blessings where others only saw disaster. “In the past religious freedom was trampled down by forces external to Christianity,” she wrote. “In Russia we can say that any regime whatsoever will build concentration camps as its response to religious freedom.” She considered exile in the west a heaven-sent opportunity to renew the Church in ways that would have met repression within her mother country.

For her, exile was an opportunity “to liberate the real and authentic” from layers of decoration and dust in which Christ had become hidden. It was similar to the opportunity given to the first Christians. “We must not allow Christ,” she said, “to be overshadowed by any regulations, any customs, any traditions, any aesthetic considerations, or even any piety.”

Russians have not been last among those enamored with theories, but for Mother Maria, all theories had to take second place. “We have not gathered together for the theoretical study of social problems in the spirit of Orthodoxy,” she wrote, “[but] to link our social thought as closely as possible with life and work. More precisely, we proceed from our work and seek the fullest possible theological interpretation of it.”

While many valued what she and her co-workers were doing, there were others who were scandalized with the shabby nun who was so uncompromising in her hospitality that she might leave a church service to answer the door bell. “For many in church circles we are too far to the left,” she noted, “while for the left we are too church-minded.”

In October 1939, Metropolitan Evlogy send a priest to rue de Lourmel: Father Dimitri Klépinin, then 35 years old. A man of few words and great modesty, Fr. Dimitri proved to be a real partner for Mother Maria.

The last phase of Mother Maria’s life was a series of responses to World War II and Germany’s occupation of France.

Her basic choice was the decision to stay. It would have been possible for her to leave Paris when the Germans were advancing, or even to leave the country to go to America, but she would not budge. “If the Germans take Paris, I shall stay here with my old women. Where else could I send them?”

She had no illusions about Nazism. It represented a “new paganism” bringing in its wake disasters, upheavals, persecutions and wars. It was evil unveiled, the “contaminator of all springs and wells.” The so-called “master race” was “led by a madman who needs a straightjacket and should be placed in a cork-lined room so that his bestial wailing will not disturb the world at large.”

Paris fell on the 14th of June. With defeat came greater poverty and hunger for many people. Local authorities in Paris declared the house at rue de Lourmel an official food distribution point.

Paris was now a prison. “There is the dry clatter of iron, steel and brass,” wrote Mother Maria. “Order is all.” Russian refugees were among the high-priority targets of the occupiers. In June 1941, a thousand were arrested, including several close friends of Mother Maria and Fr. Dimitri. An aid project for prisoners and their dependents was soon launched by Mother Maria.

Early in 1942, with Jewish registration underway, Jews began to knock on the door at rue de Lourmel asking Fr. Dimitri if he would issue baptismal certificates to them. The answer was always yes. The names of those “baptized” were also duly recorded in his parish register in case there was any cross-checking by the police or Gestapo, as indeed did happen. Fr. Dimitri was convinced that in such a situation Christ would do the same.

In March 1942, the order came from Berlin that a yellow star must be worn by Jews in all the occupied countries. The order came into force in France in June. There were, of course, Christians who said that the law being imposed had nothing to do with Christians and that therefore this was not a Christian problem. “There is not only a Jewish question, but a Christian question,” Mother Maria replied. “Don’t you realize that the battle is being waged against Christianity? If we were true Christians we would all wear the star. The age of confessors has arrived.”

In July, Jews were forbidden access to nearly all public places. Shopping by Jews was restricted to an hour per day. A week later, there was a mass arrest of Jews — 12,884, of whom 6,900 (two-thirds of them children) were brought to a sports stadium just a kilometer from rue de Lourmel. Held there for five days, the captives in the stadium received water only from a single hydrant. From there the captives were to be sent to Auschwitz.

Mother Maria had often thought her monastic robe a God-send in aiding her work. Now it opened the way for her to enter the stadium. Here she worked for three days trying to comfort the children and their parents, distributing what food she could bring in, even managing to rescue a number of children by enlisting the aid of garbage collectors and smuggling them out in trash bins.

The house at rue de Lourmel was bursting with people, many of them Jews. “It is amazing,” Mother Maria remarked, “that the Germans haven’t pounced on us yet.” In the same period, she said if anyone came looking for Jews, she would show them an icon of the Mother of God.

Fr. Dimitri, Mother Maria and their co-workers set up routes of escape to the unoccupied south. It was complex and dangerous work. Forged documents had to be obtained. An escaped Russian prisoner of war was also among those assisted, working for a time in the Lourmel kitchen. In turn, a local resistance group helped secure provisions for those Mother Maria’s community was struggling to feed.

In February 1943 Mother Maria, her son Yuri, Fr. Dimitri and their collaborator Ilya Fondaminsky were arrested by the Gestapo and sent to the camp at Compiegne.

In December, Yuri and Fr. Dimitri were deported to Buchenwald concentration camp in Germany and from there to Dora, 40 kilometers away. On the 6th of February, Yuri was “dispatched for treatment” — a euphemism for being sentenced to death. Four days later Fr. Dimitri, lying on a dirt floor, died of pneumonia. His final action was to make the sign of the Cross. His body was disposed of in the Buchenwald crematorium.

Mother Maria was sent to Ravensbrück in Germany, where she endured for two years, an achievement in part explained by her long experience of ascetic life. “She was never downcast, never,” a fellow prisoner recalled. “She never complained…. She was on good terms with everyone. Anyone in the block, no matter who it was, knew her on equal terms. She was the kind of person who made no distinction between people [whether they] held extremely progressive political views [or had] religious beliefs radically different than her own. She allowed nothing of secondary importance to impede her contact with people.”

By March 1945, Mother Maria’s condition was critical. She had to lie down between roll calls and hardly spoke. Her face, a fellow prisoner Jacqueline Pery recalled, “revealed intense inner suffering. Already it bore the marks of death. Nevertheless Mother Maria made no complaint. She kept her eyes closed and seemed to be in a state of continual prayer. This was, I think, her Garden of Gethsemani.”

She died on Holy Saturday. The shellfire of the approaching Red Army could be heard in the distance. We are not certain of the details of her last day. According to one account, she was simply among the many selected for death that day. According to another, she took the place of another prisoner, a Jew. Jacqueline Pery wrote afterward: “It is very possible that [Mother Maria] took the place of a frantic companion. It would have been entirely in keeping with her generous life. In any case she offered herself consciously to the holocaust … thus assisting each one of us to accept the Cross…. She radiated the peace of God and communicated it to us.”

We now know Mother Maria as St. Maria of Paris. Her commemoration occurs on July 20.

Every saint poses a challenge, but Mother Maria is perhaps among the most challenging saints. Her life is a passionate objection to any form of Christianity that seeks Christ chiefly inside church buildings. Still more profoundly, she challenges each of us to a life of a deeper, more radical hospitality, a hospitality that includes not only those who share our faith and language but those whom we regard as “the other,” people in whom we resist recognizing the face of Christ.

Mother Maria was certain that there was no other path to heaven than participating in God’s mercy. “The way to God lies through love of people. At the Last Judgment I shall not be asked whether I was successful in my ascetic exercises, nor how many bows and prostrations I made. Instead I shall be asked, Did I feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick and the prisoners. That is all I shall be asked. About every poor, hungry and imprisoned person the Savior says ‘I’: ‘I was hungry and thirsty, I was sick and in prison.’ To think that he puts an equal sign between himself and anyone in need…. I always knew it, but now it has somehow penetrated to my sinews. It fills me with awe.”

We can sum up Mother Maria’s credo in just a few words: “Each person is the very icon of God incarnate in the world.”

* * *

A more detailed account of the life of St. Maria of Pais is posted at:

http://www.incommunion.org/2004/10/18/saint-of-the-open-door/

A collection of links about her, and those who worked with her, is in this section of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship web site:

http://www.incommunion.org/st-maria-skobtsova-resources/

* * *

Jim Forest is international secretary of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship . He is also the author of numerous books, including “Silent as a Stone: Mother Maria of Paris and the Trash Can Rescue,” and wrote the introduction to “Mother Maria Skobtsova: Essential Writings” (Orbis Books, 2003).

* * *

Jim Forest
www.jimandnancyforest.com

* * *

date: November 8, 2011

Taking Up the Cross

by St. Maria Skobtsova

Left: Cross-bearing Theotokos painted by St. Maria Skobtsova of Paris

We must seek authentic and profound religious bases in order to understand and justify our yearning for man, our love of man, our path among our brothers, among people.

And warnings sound from two different sides. On one side, the humanistic world, even as it accepts the foundations of Christian morality in inter-human relations, simply does not need any further deepening, any justification that does not come from itself. This world keeps within three dimensions, and with those three dimensions it exhausts the whole of existence. On the other side, the world connected with the Church also warns us: often the very theme of man seems something secondary to it, something that removes us from the one primary thing, from an authentic communion with God. For this world, Christianity is this relation to God. The rest is christianizing or christianification.

We must be deaf to these two warnings. We must not only suppose, we must know that the first of them, coming from a world deprived of God, destroys the very idea of man, who is nothing if he is not the image of God, while the second destroys the idea of the Church, which is nothing if it does not imply the individual human being within it, as well as the whole of mankind.

We must not only be deaf to these warnings, we must be convinced that the question of an authentic and profound religious attitude toward man is precisely the meeting point of all questions of the Christian and the godless world, and that even this godless world is waiting for a word from Christianity, the only word capable of healing and restoring all, and perhaps sometimes even of raising what is dead.

But at the same time, perhaps for centuries now, the Christian soul has been suffering from a sort of mystical Protestantism. Only the combination of two words carries full weight for it: God and I, God and my soul, and my path, and my salvation. For the modern Christian soul it is easier and more natural to say “My Father” than “Our Father,” “deliver me from the evil one,” “give me this day my daily bread,” and so on.

And on these paths of the solitary soul striving toward God, it seems that everything has been gone through, all roads have been measured, all possible dangers have been accounted for, the depths of all abysses are known. It is easy to find a guide here, be it the ancient authors of ascetic books, or the modern followers of ancient ascetic traditions, who are imbued with their teachings.

But there is also a path that seeks a genuinely religious relation to people, that does not want either a humanistic simplification of human relations or an ascetic disdain of them.

Before speaking of this path, we must understand what that part of man’s religious life which is exhausted by the words “God and my soul” is based on in its mystical depths.

If we decide responsibly and seriously to make the Gospel truth the standard for our human souls, we will have no doubts about how to act in any particular case of our lives: we should renounce everything we have, take up our cross, and follow Him. The only thing Christ leaves us is the path that leads after Him, and the cross which we bear on our shoulders, imitating His bearing of the cross to Golgotha.

It can be generally affirmed that Christ calls us to imitate Him. That is the exhaustive meaning of all Christian morality. And however differently various peoples in various ages understand the meaning of this imitation, all ascetic teachings in Christianity finally boil down to it. Desert dwellers imitate Christ’s forty-day sojourn in the desert. Fasters fast because He fasted. Following His example, the prayerful pray, virgins observe purity, and so on. It is not by chance that Thomas Kempis entitled his book The Imitation of Christ; it is a universal precept of Christian morality, the common title, as it were, of all Christian asceticism.

I will not try to characterize here the different directions this imitation has taken, and its occasional deviations, perhaps, from what determines the path of the Son of Man in the Gospel. There are as many different interpretations as there are people, and deviations are inevitable, because the human soul is sick with sin and deathly weakness.

What matters is something else. What matters is that in all these various paths Christ Himself made legitimate this solitary standing of the human soul before God, this rejection of all the rest – that is, of the whole world: father and mother, as the Gospel precisely puts it, and not only the living who are close to us, but also the recently dead – everything, in short. Naked, solitary, freed of everything, the soul sees only His image before it, takes the cross on its shoulders, following His example, and goes after him to accept its own dawnless night of Gethsemane, its own terrible Golgotha, and through it to bear its faith in the Resurrection into the undeclining joy of Easter.

Here it indeed seems that everything is exhausted by the words “God and my soul.” All the rest is what He called me to renounce, and so there is nothing else: God – and my soul – and nothing.

No, not quite nothing. The human soul does not stand empty-handed before God. The fullness is this: God – and my soul – and the cross that it takes up. There is also the cross.

The meaning and significance of the cross are inexhaustible. The cross of Christ is the eternal tree of life, the invincible force, the union of heaven and earth, the instrument of a shameful death. But what is the cross in our path of the imitation of Christ; how should our crosses resemble the one cross of the Son of Man? For even on Golgotha there stood not one but three crosses: the cross of the God-man and the crosses of the two thieves. Are these two crosses not symbols, as it were, of all human crosses, and does it not depend on us which one we choose? For us the way of the cross is unavoidable in any case, we can only choose to freely follow either the way of the blaspheming thief and perish, or the way of the one who called upon Christ and be with Him today in paradise. For a certain length of time, the thief who chose perdition shared the destiny of the Son of Man. He was condemned and nailed to a cross in the same way; he suffered torment in the same way. But that does not mean that his cross was the imitation of Christ’s cross, that his path led him in the footsteps of Christ.

What is most essential, most determining in the image of the cross is the necessity of freely and voluntarily accepting it and taking it up. Christ freely, voluntarily took upon Himself the sins of the world, and raised them up on the cross, and thereby redeemed them and defeated hell and death. To accept the endeavor and the responsibility voluntarily, to freely crucify your sins – that is the meaning of the cross, when we speak of bearing it on our human paths. Freedom is the inseparable sister of responsibility. The cross is this freely accepted responsibility, clear-sighted and sober.

In taking the cross on his shoulders, man renounces everything – and that means that he ceases to be part of this whole natural world. He ceases to submit to its natural laws, which free the human soul from responsibility. Natural laws not only free one from responsibility, they also deprive one of freedom. Indeed, what sort of responsibility is it, if I act as the invincible laws of my nature dictate, and where is the freedom, if I am entirely under the law?

And so the Son of Man showed his brothers in the flesh a supra-natural – and in this sense not a human but a God-manly – path of freedom and responsibility. He told them that the image of God in them also makes them into God-men and calls them to be deified, to indeed become Sons of God, freely and responsibly taking their crosses on their shoulders.

The free path to Golgotha – that is the true imitation of Christ.

This would seem to exhaust all the possibilities of the Christian soul, and thus the formula “God and my soul” indeed embraces the whole world. All the rest that was renounced on the way appears only as a sort of obstacle adding weight to my cross. And heavy as it may be, whatever human sufferings it may place on my shoulders, it is all the same my cross, which determines my personal way to God, my personal following in the footsteps of Christ. My illness, my grief, my loss of dear ones, my relations to people, to my vocation, to my work – these are details of my path, not ends in themselves, but a sort of grindstone on which my soul is sharpened, certain – perhaps sometimes burdensome – exercises for my soul, the particularities of my personal path.

If that is so, it certainly settles the question. It can only be endlessly varied, depending on the individual particularities of epochs, cultures, and separate persons. But essentially everything is clear. God and my soul, bearing its cross. In this an enormous spiritual freedom, activity, and responsibility are confirmed. And that is all.

I think it is Protestant mysticism that should follow such a path most consistently. Moreover, in so far as the world now lives the mystical life, it is for the most part infected by this isolating and individualistic Protestant mysticism. In it there is, of course, no place for the Church, for the principle of sobornost’, for the God-manly perception of the whole Christian process. There are simply millions of people born into the world, some of whom hear Christ’s call to renounce everything, take up their cross, and follow Him, and, as far as their strength, their faith, their personal endeavor allow, they answer that call. They are saved by it, they meet Christ, as if merging their life with His. All the rest is a sort of humanistic afterthought, a sort of adjusting of these basic Christian principles to those areas of life that lie outside them. In short, some sort of christianification, not bad in essence, but deprived of all true mystical roots, and therefore not inevitably necessary.

The cross of Golgotha is the cross of the Son of Man, the crosses of the thieves and our personal crosses are precisely personal, and as an immense forest of these personal crosses we are moving along the paths to the Kingdom of Heaven. And that is all.

Mother Maria Skobtsova died on Good Friday, 1945, in Ravensbr ck concentration camp near Berlin. The “crime” of this Orthodox nun and Russian refugee was her effort to rescue Jews and others being pursued by the Nazis in her adopted city, Paris, where in 1932 she had founded a house of hospitality. On the 16th of January 2004, the Holy Synod of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Istanbul resolved that Mother Maria and three of her collaborators, Fr. Dimitri Kl pinin, Yuri Skobtsova, and Elie Fondaminskii should be added to the church calendar. On the 1st and 2nd of May 2004, there were services at the Cathedral of Alexander Nevsky in Paris to celebrate the newly recognized saints. The essay reprinted here is part of a longer text included in Mother Maria Skobtsova: Essential Writings, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky and published by Orbis Books.

From the Fall 2007 issue of In Communion / IC 47

Books About St. Maria of Paris

Because of tools recently added to the Orthodox Peace Fellowship web site, for the first time we’re able to see what sections and pages of the web site are being used most intensively. We are pleased to note a great deal of traffic in the section of the site devoted to St. Maria Skobtsova and her collaborators, canonized just a few years ago:

incommunion.org/contents/mother-maria

Here one finds a plethora of biographical material, icons and photos, texts by Mother Maria, and related material.

Another sign of growing interest is the availability of three English-language books about Mother Maria.

The latest addition to the Mother Maria library is a handsomely illustrated children’s book, Silent as a Stone. Jim Forest’s text relates the true story of how Mother Maria and the community to which she belonged along with a number of brave garbage collectors, managed to rescue a number of Jewish children whose families had been arrested in Paris in the summer of 1942, when most of France was occupied by Hitler’s armies.

The book gives both young readers and their parents a potent glimpse of the courage of Orthodox Christians in a situation as challenging as Christians faced in the second or third centuries. Like so many Christians of the early Church, Mother Maria, and several of those serving with her, paid for their witness with their lives.

Dasha Pancheshnaya, the book’s artist, has brilliantly brought to life the faces and places important to the story. The publisher, St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, is to be commended for a finely made book that gives young readers a vivid idea of what it means to follow Christ in dark times.

The book includes a helpful afterward for older readers and parents that relates the astonishing life of Mother Maria, whose death occurred in a German concentration camp on the eve of Pascha in 1945.

“Silent as a Stone,” comments writer Heather Zydek, “captured the attention of my little ones from the moment we began reading the beautiful story together. The rich prose and artwork combine seamlessly to tell a captivating story of survival, hope, and the deepest faith in God’s power to provide for those who call upon him in earnest. Part Holocaust history lesson, part hagiography, part inspirational tale, the book illumines this brief chapter in Mother Maria’s life in a way that will cause readers young and old alike to crave more stories about this wonderful modern saint.”

At the same time that St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press brought out Silent as a Stone, the same publisher reissued Fr. Sergei Hackel’s long-out-of-print biography of Mother Maria, Pearl of Great Price. The biography makes fresh the challenge Mother Maria and those who worked with her pre-sent to Christians living in a culture of fear and violence. The reader is challenged to live a life centered in hospitality and the works of mercy.

“On behalf of others,” writes Metropolitan Anthony Bloom in the book’s foreword, “Mother Maria sacrificed her personal serenity. Since her life was completely interwoven with the destiny of her contemporaries, their turmoil was hers. And yet she was not swept away by it. She was anchored in God and her feet rested on the Rock…. Mother Maria is a saint of our day and for our day.”

Last but not least, there is Mother Maria Skobtsova: Essential Writings, published by Orbis Books. The book’s editor is Hlne Klepinin-Arjakovsky, daughter of St. Dimitri Klepinin, the priest who worked closely with Mother Maria and who also died in a German concentration camp. The preface is by Olivier Clment, the introduction by Jim Forest.

While Mother Maria is best known for her unstinting hospitality to people in need or in danger, in fact she was also a theologian. Before the Soviet Revolution, she had been the first woman to be admitted to classes at the theological academy in St. Petersburg. Her most important writings, long available only in French and Russian, are at last available to the English-speaking world. The translations are the work of Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, best known for their editions of Dostoevsky, Gogol, Chekhov and Tolstoy.

Mother Maria’s great theme is that we must love others as Jesus loved, without reserve, with unconditional self-sacrifice, following the Son of Man even to the depths of hell. As members of the body of Christ, each of us shares the fate of all; each of us is justified by the righteous and bears responsibility for the sins of sinners. This means taking upon oneself the crosses of all: their doubts, griefs, temptations, falls and sins.

“It goes without saying,” Mother Maria writes, “that it seems to every man as if nothing will be left of his heart, that it will bleed itself dry if he opens it, not for the countless swords of all of humanity, but even for the one sword of the nearest and dearest of his brothers…. Natural law, which in some false way has penetrated into the spiritual life, will say definitively: Bear your cross responsibly, freely, and honestly, opening your heart now and then to the cross-swords of your neighbor and that is all…. But if the cross of Christ is scandal and folly for natural law, the two-edged weapon that pierces the soul should be as much of a folly and scandal for it…. All that is not the fullness of cross-bearing is sin.”

This will seem to many sheer madness. It is in fact the madness of the Gospel, the madness of the Cross.

Mother Maria has little patience with those who are preoccupied with their “spiritual life” as if it were lived without attention to those among whom we are placed by God, as if we lived outside of history.

What applies to individuals applies also to the Church. In her final essay on “Types of Religious Life” (which really concerns types of piety), Mother Maria examines certain aspects of the church’s inner life and the danger of an obsessive fascination with its institutional structures, rituals, esthetic beauties and ascetical rites as ends in themselves while ignoring Christ, whose image is found in every person.

* * *

from the Summer 2007 issue of In Communion / IC 46

* * *

Silent as a Stone: Mother Maria of Paris and the Trash Can Rescue

by Jim Forest and illustrated by Dasha Pancheshnaya

Silent as a Stone memorializes the life of Mother Maria Skobtsova, an unconventional nun who aided the persecuted Jewish people in occupied France during WWII.

Confronting the horror of Nazi brutality, Mother Maria devised an ingenious plan to save Jewish children destined for extermination camps: Paris garbage collectors, upon her urging, hid the children in trash cans and whisked them to safe havens outside the city.

Mother Maria, for her selfless rescue activities, perished in a gas chamber in Ravensbrck camp in Germany in 1945. Today, she is among the “righteous gentiles” honored in Israel and a canonized saint in the Orthodox Christian Church.

Silent as a Stone captured the attention of my little ones from the moment we began reading the beautiful story together. The rich prose and artwork combine seamlessly to tell a captivating story of survival, hope, and the deepest faith in God’s power to provide for those who call upon him in earnest. Part holocaust history lesson, part hagiography, part inspirational tale, the book illumines this brief chapter in Mother Maria Skobstoba’s life in a way that will cause readers young and old alike to crave more stories about this wonderful modern saint.” — Heather Zydek, author of Basil’s Search for Miracles

“In the spirit of Allen Say’s Grandfather’s Journey and Patricia Polacco’s The Keeping Quilt, Silent as a Stone conveys the hope and heartbreak of life in a bite-size form that children can manage. Stunningly illustrated and tenderly told, Silent as a Stone tells the story of three unforgettable lives and the countless lives they touched. Mother Maria, Yuri, and Fr. Dimitri serve as examples to us all — and especially to our children — who must find the path of love through our broken world.” — Jenny Schroedel, author of The Blackbird’s Nest: Saint Kevin of Ireland and The Everything Saints Book.

Silent as a Stone is an incredible resource for the Orthodox Christian community to learn about the heroic and courageous deeds of Mother Maria. Saint Vladimir’s Seminary Press should be commended for bringing this story to light and honoring Mother Maria with such a beautifully illustrated and inspiring book.” — Rachel Kamin, Director, Temple Israel Libraries & Media Center

“Mother Maria is a saint of our day and for our day; a woman of flesh and blood possessed by the love of God, who stood face to face with the problems of this century.” — +Metropolitan Anthony Bloom

AUTHOR

Journalism and peace work have been major ingredients in author Jim Forest’s life. He is secretary of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship and editor of its journal, In Communion. He is a recipient of the Peacemaker Award from Notre Dame University’s Institute for International Peace Studies. He is a prolific writer of inspirational, historical, and bio-graphical books, most recently of The Wormwood File: E-Mail from Hell. Jim makes his home in Alkmaar, Holland, near Amsterdam. He is father to six children and grandfather to four. Silent as a Stone is his third children’s book.

ILLUSTRATOR

Dasha Pancheshnaya was born in Moscow, Russia in 1980 and immigrated to the United States with her family in 1991. She holds a BFA in Illustration from the Fashion Institute of Technology and presently participates in various disciplines of visual art including graphic design and illustration. Influenced by Russian artists of the nineteenth century, masters of the Italian Renaissance, and Art Nouveau, she currently is a student of the Prosopon School of Iconology.

ISBN 978-088141-314

Link to Purchase >>>>

Post-Holocaust theology

The relevance of Western post-Holocaust theology to the thought and practice of the Russian Orthodox Church

a paper given at the second conference on ‘Theology after Auschwitz and the Gulag’ (St Petersburg 1998)

by Sergei Hackel

published in Sobornost 20:1 (1998); Sobornost is the journal of the Fellowship of Saints Alban and Sergius (1 Canterbury Rd., Oxford OX2 6LU, England UK; fax +44-1865: 316700; +44-1865: tel 552991; e-mail: [email protected])

It was more than thirty years ago, but I remember her well, or at least I remember her feelings well. She had come to her hotel administrator’s desk in the centre of Moscow, and she had passed the Moscow synagogue en route. She had noticed a goodly gathering of people at the entrance. She had not found this disturbing. If you have a synagogue, then people must pass in and out. No, what she found offensive was their good cheer and their laughter. How can they dare to laugh on our streets, she asked me fiercely, when it was they who caused the Germans to invade?

At least she knew that Jews were special victims. This was not officially admitted even during wartime. On the contrary, the facts were craftily disguised or denied. No one will forget the official reluctance to commemorate Babii Iar. Even when a memorial was finally erected it avoided mention of up to 70,000 Jewish victims by reference to ‘Soviet citizens’ who had perished there. Earlier, a unique monument to Jewish victims of the Nazis which the Jews of Ponary (Lithuania) had dared to erect at the end of the war was simply destroyed (1952).

Nor were the Soviet authorities any less restrictive when the war was still in progress. In vain did Solomon Mikhoels try to arrange for mention of specifically Jewish casualties by the Soviet media as the holocaust proceeded.(1)

There was a rare gathering in Moscow of 3000 people in March 1944 when Mikhoels, Feffer and Ehrenburg were able to speak openly about Jewish sufferings. Ilia Ehrenburg and Vasilii Grossman nearly broke the official silence by the preparation of a comprehensive book on these sufferings, which was even set in type. But in 1948 the book was suppressed and all the printing plates destroyed.(2)

A symposium on the subject of this silence (which curiously did not extend to every novel in the period) was published by the Z. Gitelman last year (1997).(3)

Gitelman’s work demonstrates how thoroughly the programme was conducted. In effect it was a silent counterpart to the Nazi massacres. For both sides sought to display a world which was Judenrein, ‘free of Jews’.

It was never easy to find words for the sufferings of the Shoah, that Tremendum, to borrow Arthur Cohen’s term. But here were not only survivors who found difficulty in expressing their experience. Here was a whole social system which dismissed or distorted it.

In due course there was an additional reason for suppressing memories of Jewish massacres. A proportion of the local Slavic population (and not only Slavic) participated in the extermination of their Jewish neighbours. The Nazis themselves liked to emphasise such things in their reports. One of these, referring to the killing of 229 Jews in Khmel’nik, speaks of an event which alone might explain Jewish distrust in such post-Shoah dialogues and reconciliations as I shall be discussing later. Einsatzkommando 5 reported in 1941 that ‘the reaction of the population here in Khmel’nik to the delivery from the Jews was so strong that it resulted in a thanksgiving service’ (presumably, a moleben).(4)

The role of experience

In our discussions last year there was a natural division of our inquiries. When we spoke of theology ‘after Auschwitz’ our concerns were largely based on western and central Europe. The peoples of the former ussr had their own experience over a much longer period, which we designated ‘gulag’. In the process, we largely ignored the vast numbers of people in the Soviet Union who also experienced Nazi rule. So we ignored the Shoah as something which was experienced by our immediate forebears, whether Jews or Gentiles. It is only by redressing that balance that we might face problems of the post-Auschwitz period as our own in the simplest most ‘domestic’ sense. If the preceding centuries could have allowed any one of us Orthodox to sing in that Khmel’nik moleben we have to ask with particular urgency how that could ever come to be, and –even more important — how recurrence must for ever be prevented. Not that absence from the moleben would have been much better. Passivity provides no answers to urgent moral problems. At Khmel’nik and countless other such places the only Christian response to the anguish of the Jews should have been to risk one’s own well-being, even one’s life, in support or defense of the victim.

Could righteous gentiles point the way?

The Israeli authorities have taken the lead in perpetuating the memory of those non-Jews who risked and often lost their lives in the defence of Jewish victims of the Shoah. They are known as righteous gentiles. Each righteous gentile is commemorated with a tree on the outskirts of Jerusalem at Yad Vashem.

Where are the equivalent trees in Russia? Or at least the lists of righteous gentiles? The thoughtful but ill-fated speech which Patriarch Aleksii ii delivered to a largely Jewish audience in New York (it was in 1991) at least touched on the subject. He was able to mention just one Kievan priest, Aleksii Glagolev, as an example of self-sacrificing work in this sphere. He might also have mentioned Fr Aleksii’s wife, Tatiana, since they worked together. In any event, both husband and wife survived. The patriarch also mentioned two persons who were martyred, a priest and a nun. But both of these had to be borrowed from the martyrologies of the Russian emigration: Fr Dimitrii Klepinin (1900-44) and Mother Maria Skobtsova (1891-1945). It cannot be and should not be the case that no further names of Russians, Belorussians or Ukrainians are waiting to be added to this so far humble list.(5)

Rather should we endeavour to enrich it, and so enrich ourselves. Oral historians should hasten with this task to amplify the archives. And these themselves may well have failed to yield their treasures since the appropriate questions were not being asked.

Many opportunities were missed, and deliberately missed, in earlier times. Thus on 2 November 1941 a representative of the Russian Orthodox Church, Metropolitan Nikolai Iarushevich, was invited by its atheist (albeit formally Orthodox) persecutor Stalin to take part in the Soviet state commission charged with the investigation of Nazi war crimes in the occupied territories of the ussr. He was also required to express his outrage at the invaders’ bestial acts. In the process he was to dwell almost exclusively on anti-Orthodox outrages, in line with Soviet propaganda needs. But the mass-extermination of the Jews was not to be discussed by him. So neither could he draw attention to any of the righteous gentiles.

He stands in stark contrast to Metropolitan Andrei Szeptycki. of the Greek Catholic Church in Nazi-occupied L’vov. In 1942, ignoring all risks to his position and his life, he did not hesitate to confront the Nazi leadership with an unprecedented and utterly unvarnished protest against the treatment accorded to the Jews. For he addressed himself to Hitler and also, separately, to Himmler. Among other things he issued a heartfelt pastoral letter to his flock, ‘Thou shalt not kill’.(6)

Here was a righteous gentile of the first order, who also risked his life in sheltering potential victims of the Shoah under his own roof. Likewise he encouraged his Greek Catholic monastic communities to offer their support. All this needs to be acclaimed and pondered.

Difference in apprehension

As we learn more about the Shoah east of Poland, the image of the Shoah as something rooted and developed in the west will be dispersed. In the process we could give room for a creative reassessment of the past, and allow the Shoah, even now, to act as catalyst. This could redefine our potential and transform our expectations. Jew and Gentile might be enabled and encouraged to relate to one another with new openness and commitment, not least the Jew and the Orthodox Christian of the former ussr.

Decades of censorship and news-management in the former ussr have not only prevented Jews and Christians from taking this plunge. They have also prevented citizens of the ussr (as they then were) from gaining a proper under-standing, even any understanding, of western developments in this sphere.

Yet it is these very developments which demonstrate the potential for post-Shoah reassessment of inherited and age-old attitudes to Jewish-Christian relations. It is gratifying to report that such reassessment has involved many different Churches in the west in recent decades, many. But I need to be selective. So I shall limit my remarks to the Roman Catholic Church.

These remarks in turn will prompt me to turn to the Orthodox Church, and to the Russian Orthodox Church in particular, seeking to establish what comparable developments might be encouraged there.

‘Might be encouraged’, I say, as if we were free to accept or deny other proposals which sound equally valid. In fact we may find that our choices emerge as moral imperatives. And we would ignore them at our peril.

The making of Nostra aetate

Similar imperatives were faced by the Roman Catholic Church in modern times, and even in advance of the Shoah. But it was the Shoah which contributed the most powerful motivation. For it is after the Shoah that ‘we have to make every effort of cleansing Catholic thought of any residue of religious anti-Judaism or anti-semitism’, as Cardinal Willebrands has recently noted. And this is ‘because we have seen the abyss of horror into which hatred for the Jewish people exploded in our midst in Europe’.(7)

But it was not only because this abyss of horror had been seen: it was also because the Catholic world was accepting responsibility for teachings and attitudes which helped to provide the context, even the ‘justification’ (in inverted commas) for the horror. Had not a Catholic bishop in Slovakia responded to the personal appeals of a rabbi and his people in 1942 as they faced the threat of ‘deportation to the east’ with words about the justice of their plight?

It is not just a matter of deportation. You will not die there of hunger and disease. They will slaughter all of you, old and young alike, women and children at once. It is the punishment you deserve for the death of our Lord and Redeemer.(8)

The Second Vatican Council of the years 1962-5 sought to eradicate the words and concepts which could lead to this kind of un-christian, indeed anti-christian, withdrawal of love from people. And any suggestion that the Jews were responsible for the death of Jesus — the Jews collectively at the time and, even more outrageously, the Jews collectively for ever — was soon to be dismissed. Likewise withdrawn was the all-too-familiar accusation of deicide.

For so many centuries, and even in our own [insisted the bishop of Texas at the council], Christians have hurled this word against the Jews, and because of it they have justified every kind of horrid excess, […] even their slaughter and destruction. It is not up to us to make a declaration about something philosophical but to […] damn a word which has furnished so many occasions of persecution through the centuries. We must tear this word out of the Christian vocabulary so that it can never again be used against the Jews.(9)

In any case the term is inappropriate, argued Cardinal Bea in an anonymous article which he wrote on the eve of the council, when it seemed no longer certain that the question of the Jews would find its due place on the agenda. Not least is it inappropriate since ‘the circle of true actors in the drama [of Christ’s crucifixion] is restricted [and] the Jews who then lived dispersed throughout the world cannot be accused of the grave crime of deicide, still less their descendents through history’. But it is inappropriate most of all since the alleged perpetrators must have ‘acted in ignorance’ (and these words are attributed to St Peter [Acts3:17]): according to St Paul these same perpetrators ‘did not recognise Jesus, or understand the words of the prophets […]’ (Acts 13:27).

In any case, as Bea hastens to point out, ‘deicide can only be imputed to those who committed it [while] knowing clearly the divine-human nature of Christ.(10) Whereas the apostles themselves lacked clear knowledge of his nature even at a later stage.

In the event, the council’s impressively compact decree on the subject, Nostra aetate, was less concerned with problems of the past than with prospects for the future. These prospects were enhanced by the overwhelming support which it gained at Vatican ii — no less than 1763 voters were in favour, 250 against.

Thus the decree became part of that wide-ranging aggiornamento which the future Pope John xxiii had already anticipated in 1957. ‘You have probably heard the word aggiornamento repeated many times’, he had written to his then diocese of Venice. ‘Well, Holy Church, who is ever youthful, wants to be in a position to understand the diverse circumstances of life so that she can adapt, correct, improve and be filled with fervour’.(11)

By way of a corollary it could be said that without the necessary adaptation, correction and improvement, fervour could be lacking and faith itself distorted or depleted. As to the diverse circumstances of life which demand the understanding of the Church, these could not but include the Shoah, the anguish and the decimation of the Jews.

Dialogue

The Nostra aetate deliberations and decisions had their own internal logic and justification. But it is important to note that they are also the fruit of dialogue with at least one representative of the Jewish people. Indeed, had not a Jewish scholar suggested that such a project was desirable it might not have proceeded at the time or pace that it did. It is particularly gratifying to us at this conference that the Jewish scholar in question, Professor Jules Isaac (1877-1964), was acting on behalf of the International Council of Christians and Jews (iccj), one of the major sponsors of our present meeting. Moreover, it was an agreed statement from the first iccj conference of 1947 which he put before Pope John xxiii at their fateful meeting of 13 June 1960: this was itself the fruit of inter-religious dialogue.

No sooner had Pope John received the document than he passed it into the hands of his trusted friend Cardinal Augustin Bea, the first president of his new secretariat for promoting Christian unity. The dialogue was to continue. By October that year, Cardinal Bea had arranged a meeting with the president of the World Jewish Congress, Nahum Goldmann. And Bea was to be the principal promoter of Nostra aetate and all that followed from it (1965).

I stress the idea of dialogue since it is an important element in the preliminary procedures. But it is an equally important element in the proposals and the promise of the council’s text itself. Having established (in the council’s words) that ‘the spiritual patrimony common to Christians and Jews is […] so great, this sacred synod wishes to foster and recommend that mutual understanding and respect which is the fruit above all of biblical and theological studies, and of brotherly dialogues’.(12)

The dialogue and its effect

The Christian-Jewish dialogue proceeds until this moment, and we ourselves take part in it. In the Catholic world it was realised early in the day that it must be wide-ranging, if not all-embracing, that its success must depend on the careful definition of concerns and targets. Cardinal Willebrands was soon to issue Guidelines and Suggestions for Implementing the Conciliar Declaration Nostra aetate […].(13) That was in 1974.

It was only the first of such documents to guide practitioners into the disparate but equally important areas of discourse, among them (i) dialogue itself, (ii) liturgy, (iii) teaching and education, (iv) joint social action.

The task of all practitioners was made the more difficult and the more necessary by the need to wean each other and oneself from centuries of prejudice and misrepresentation — ‘the past spirit of suspicion, resentment and distrust’ as it was described in a joint Catholic/Jewish statement of 1992.(14)

But every schoolroom through its teacher, just as every parish though its preacher, could benefit from this gigantic undertaking and, moreover, take it one stage further. The remark of Robert Daly to the effect that ‘”Removing anti-Judaism from the pulpit” is, in this post-Holocaust era, one of the most profoundly urgent of Christian tasks’ could be extended to every corner of public life.(15)

All the more impressive is the operation (some of it, in the words of John Pawlikowsky , requires ‘major surgery’)(16) since Roman Catholics, no less than Orthodox, are the heirs and guardians of an immutable deposit of faith. However, in no way should this deposit of faith be treated like the gospel talent which is fearfully buried in the ground. As Pope John xxiii put it in his own words at the inauguration of Vatican ii, ‘Our task is not merely to hoard this precious treasure, as though obsessed with the past, but to give ourselves eagerly and without fear to the task that the present age demands of us — and in so doing we will be faithful to what the Church has done in the last twenty centuries’.(17)

It was in this spirit that the Catholic Church was enabled to reestablish its profound, indeed genetic links with the Jewish world of its Saviour, to bypass the polemics of the first centuries, even though these found their reflection in scripture, and, perhaps most important of all, to reconsider — even to reject — supersessionism. Formerly, it would have been accepted that the Christian Church is the New Israel, which overshadows or displaces the Israel of old. More and more is it realised now that this theory was long ago rejected by its supposed originator, St Paul. ‘Has God cast away his people?’ asked the apostle rhetorically in Romans 11:1, and straightaway dismissed the thought, ‘Of course not!’. For ultimately, as Paul argued, ‘the gracious gifts of God and his call are irrevocable’ (Romans 11:29). Judaism thus has its own integrity, holiness and promise.

The Orthodox perspective

How is any of this heard or heeded in the Russian Orthodox Church? The Church begins with a disadvantage, which I have already described — ignorance of the Shoah. The Shoah as such has therefore not prompted any reassessment of the situation. But there is a second disadvantage. In marked contrast to the positive attitude of the Russian Orthodox hierarchy to the Roman Catholic Church at the time of Metropolitan Nikodim of Leningrad and Novgorod (1929-79), the Moscow patriarchate has little enthusiasm for its sister-Church in the West. Neither the latter’s alleged missionary outreach into Russia, nor its support of Greek/Ukrainian Catholics in the Ukraine have endeared it to the Russian Church. Apart from anything else, the gradual withdrawal of the Moscow patriarchate from ecumenism provides yet another reason for the weakening of links with Rome. So the Catholic developments of which I have spoken remain distant and indistinct for many of its members.

There is another disadvantage, which should also be a challenged: endemic anti-semitism, of which there were powerful reminders at last year’s conference in this city, and not only in the unofficial interventions.

All the more need, therefore, with all these disadvantages, to consider what the Russian Orthodox Church, the Orthodox Church as a whole, might one day reform.

But as I write that word I realise that there is yet one more disadvantage. In contemporary Russian church circles the very word ‘reform’ is itself used with extreme reluctance, not least because the disreputable reformers and renovators (obnovlentsy) of the 1920s and 1930s are then remembered: their reforms were secretly supported by the communist party in order to polarise and diminish the appeal of the patriarchal Church. This is enough to provoke cries of neo-renovationism (neo-obnovlenchestvo) the moment any scrutiny of received tradition is proposed. But this is hardly an argument in itself. Nor is it to the point, since the original obnovlentsy did not concern themselves with Jewish/Christian relations.

Tradition reconsidered

No reform in Orthodox church life would be conceivable without scrupulous consideration of scripture and tradition. But such consideration should not be hampered by unscholarly fears and inhibitions. There is a simplistic tendency to believe that scripture and tradition are both equally immutable, that hardly an iota can be changed or added for fear of heresy and/or damnation. Yet if truth is to be highlighted, safeguarded or restored, no amount of iotas should be allowed to stand in the way. And that regardless of their apparently venerable age.

The iotas are indeed many, and collectively they are therefore important. Some of them must be seen as impediments to a meaningful dialogue between our faiths. Nevertheless it is important not only to identify the negative factors in the situation but to place them in perspective. Certainly, doctors learn from symptoms. But mere suppression of the symptoms will not lead to health.

Exegesis

Even so, certain symptoms need to be discussed. Several of them are to do with limitations in our understanding of the gospel texts. These limitations are of two kinds.

The first involves a superficial or selective reading of the text itself. This allows the reader to conclude that the Jews crucified Christ. In order to do so he needs to ignore vital parts of the narrative concerning Pilate and the Roman administration, whose responsibility it was to sentence and to crucify this special prisoner – like any another, if it comes to that.

But the reader may be helped in this selective reading by the phraseology of books like Acts. Thus, according to Acts 2:36, St Peter speaks on the first Pentecost to a Jewish audience about ‘this same Jesus, whom you crucified’. This ‘you’ is emphatic. Elsewhere in Acts (3:13-15; 4:10; 10:39) its author makes similar assertions. And this despite the fact that he allows the occasional reference to ‘lawless men’, by whose hand the actual deed was done (2:23).(18)

And this brings one to the second type of limitation. Russian Orthodox New Testament scholarship has hardly begun on the task of determining the impact which contemporary disputes made on the writing and editing of sacred texts. Yet here is an example of that impact. The early Christians determined their separateness from Judaism ever more firmly as the first century drew to its close. This may have been a defensive reaction against increasing pressure and persecution of Christians by their former brethren in the Jewish faith.

Hence the repeated (usually negative ) use of the term ‘the Jews’ in the latest of the gospels, that of St John. There are no less than seventy mentions of ‘the Jews’ by him, and nearly half of these are derogatory. Under their influence ill-oriented readers could easily overlook the fact that Jesus himself is a Jew, that his mother is Jewish, that all his apostles (not only Judas) are Jews, that his teaching is deeply rooted in Judaism. As Russian scholarship begins to convey the authentic image of Jesus the Jew to preachers and teachers of this land, the Christian basis for dialogue with Judaism could be rediscovered.

Homilies against the Jews

For the present the teachers and preachers are deflected from taking even the preliminary steps towards such dialogue by those who developed the early, first-century, anti-Judaic polemic into something even more overt and strident.

By the fourth century, Christian rhetoric depended as much on stereotypes as reason. There were many who used this rhetoric to disparage all residual links or sympathy with Judaism or with Jews. A Gregory of Nyssa will not hesitate to speak of the Jews as ‘murderers of the Lord, murderers of prophets, rebels and full of hatred against God [ ]’. Indeed, ‘they resist God’s grace, they repudiate the faith of their fathers’. Thus, they are nothing but ‘confederates of the devil, offspring of vipers […], Sanhedrin of demons, accursed, utterly vile […]’.(19)

But best remembered since most strident is St John Chrysostom in his ‘Homilies against the Jews’ of 386 and 387. In Chrysostom’s submission, it is God himself who has abandoned the Jews, not least because they have crucified his Son. Therefore they were justly punished. ‘You Jews did crucify him,’ he insists. ‘But after he died on the cross, he then destroyed your city […], [and] scattered your nation over the face of the earth’. Let no one harbour delusions about the sacredness of synagogues: ‘God is not worshipped there’. Do Christians not realise, asks Chrysostom, that the synagogue is now nothing other than ‘a brothel, a strong-hold of sin, a lodging-place for demons, a fortress of the devil, the destruction of the soul, the precipice and pit of all perdition […]’? For ‘here the slayers of God gather together […], here God is blasphemed, here is the Father ignored, here the Son is outraged, here the grace of the Spirit is rejected’.(20)

It could be said that Chrysostom’s arguments are slight and that his rhetoric is dated. Furthermore the inter-religious problems of fourth-century Antioch, where he preached, can hardly concern us now. But there is a popular misconception which allows such fathers of the Church to be heeded still, regardless of the obvious limitations of a given set of texts. It is not for simple members of the Church to question the wisdom or sanctity of the fathers, they argue. After all, it is they who determine tradition. Therefore their utterances have a peculiar weight. To all intents and purposes, they are not far short of infallible. So we should not question, let alone dismiss them.

There are two other impediments to dialogue, two different expressions of the anti-Judaic mode of thought. One of these is latent in church life. The other is possibly most prominent of all. Both concern the Orthodox Church as a whole.

Canon law

Orthodox canon is too often taken to have permanent implications and effect. Too little is it realised (notes Archbishop Peter L’Huillier) that it is ‘sometimes only a knowledge of the historical context [which] permits us to affirm that, despite its formulation, a canon law has an application strictly limited to a moment in church history’. Or to a period in church history, one could add.(21)

Hence no one has questioned the retention of the ruling made by the council in Trullo (692) which required the segregation of the Jews and Christians: ‘Let no one […] have any familiar discourse with them [the Jews], nor summon them in illness, nor receive medicine from them, nor bathe with them’.(22)

In no way should Christians recognise their sacred meals, least of all partake of them. According to the mid-fourth-century council of Laodicea, ‘It is not lawful to receive unleavened bread from the Jews or to be partakers in their impiety’.(23)

Liturgical concerns

More serious, since potentially more influential, are the Orthodox services for Holy Week. These provide a poetic gloss to such laws, a liturgical conspect of anti-Judaic thinking in the early Church. The texts date back to the early middle ages and they could be Palestinian in origin. They may be used uncensored to this day.

The matins service for Good Friday gives a particularly convincing picture of Jesus as victim of the Jews, who accordingly deserve the designation ‘deicides’ given to them by the authors of these texts (‘deicidal assembly’ [bogoubiits sobor] or ‘company of deicides’ [bogoubiits sonmishche]).

‘Here is what the Lord says to the Jews’, reads this shameless invention.

My people, what have I done to you? By what means have I dismayed you ? I have given sight to your blind, cleansed your lepers, raised the cripple from his bed. My people, what have I done to you? And by what means have you repaid me? For manna you have given me gall, vinegar in return for water. In return for love you have nailed me to the cross. [you have nailed me to the cross]. I can bear no more. I shall call my nations [=gentiles] and they shall glorify me together with the Father and the Spirit. And to them I shall grant eternal life.(24)

Here is the displacement theory in its fulness. The Jews are the crucifiers and the deicides. And it is the Gentiles who receive eternal life. Meanwhile, as the preceding readings have already urged, the Jews should expect their deserts: ‘recompense them according to their deeds [dazhd’ im Gospodi po delom ikh], for they have vainly arraigned thee’.(25)

All the more regrettable is this petition since it might well have been understood by many of the worshippers: the Slavonic is not so far removed from Russian as it is elsewhere in this linguistically demanding service. It could therefore have been misinterpreted as a simple call for revenge. Although Thursday and Friday of Holy Week were not so often days of violence in pre-revolutionary Russia, there is no doubt that ‘traditionally the worst time for pogroms was Easter’.(26)

This was demonstrated to the full at Kishinev in 1903. But such seasonal pogroms have not ended yet, as was seen last Easter night at the Jewish cemetery of Smolensk. Thus can ill-motivated piety result in evil deeds.

An Orthodox Good Friday service has only the authority which accrues to it through centuries of use. It required no major council of the Church to bring it into play, and it requires no major council to prune it or displace it once for all. Such reforms have sometimes been proposed, not least by the Greek theologian Hamilcar Alivizatos (1960). But the service is with us to this day.

Myths of ritual murder

Finally, who would ever have expected that medieval fears of ritual murder should have survived in our midst? Yet such is the society in which we live and such our Church.

Let me mention two examples of such survivals. It is not easy for the most authentic of the Soviet period’s new martyrs to be canonised. Even so dedicated a man as Metropolitan Petr Polianskii was canonised only last year, sixty years after his execution. As for the canonisation of Mother Maria Skobtsova, it is not even on the agenda. Yet it is many a year since a little-known child, Gavriil, has occupied a place in the Russian Church calendar without any formal canonisation, simply because a plain secular court in the Belostok area decided in 1690 that he had been killed and therefore martyred by the Jews (ot zhidov ubiennyi is the usual phrase for such things). His day is commemorated with enthusiasm year by year in the place where he met his death. The service of the day repeatedly makes mention of the Jews who, so it is alleged, did away with him for ritual reasons of their own.

This is a regrettable survival. But even more regrettable is the indication given by the present chairman of the Holy Synod’s commission on canonisations of the Moscow patriarchate that Jewish ritual murders need not be discounted. For when the question arose in connection with the death of Nicholas ii and his family, the chairman felt bound to consult experts at the Moscow Theological Academy on the subject. He was to receive an ambiguous reply, which went as follows. The trial of Beilis (1913) had ‘failed to prove’ that ritual murders could exist among the Jews. In any case, this particular murder had ‘few of the characteristics’ associated with such killings by those people who [none the less] accept that they take place. Furthermore, ‘nothing is known about the religious affiliations of those participants in the murder whose origins were Jewish’.(27)

In no way can this be treated as a declaration that no such thing exists. And so we have to treat the myth of Jewish ritual murders as yet one more impediment to dialogue between the faiths. The more so since these conclusions were accepted without demur at the Moscow bishops’ council of 1997.

How far to go

We have a long way to go. As yet the Orthodox of Russia have been able to learn little from the Shoah. It has certainly moved them no nearer to the Jewish people. It has given them no insight to the meaning or the beauty of their faith. In the process they have failed to understand the fullness of their own.

We should not say that we lack the prospect of a council open to the Holy Spirit. At any rate, a Great and Holy (=Ecumenical) Council has been promised for some years. Yet we lack the scholarship, humility and persistence to reach beyond familiar norms even in the preparation of the council. Still less are we prepared to consider, let alone to take, hard conciliar decisions in this sphere. For each stage of this process we shall need much daring.

Against the day when we dare to take decisions we should also be prepared to implement them, however arduous that task will be. The Catholic experience is there to guide us in this field. But first we need to dare.

Only if we proceed beyond the various symptoms I have mentioned will we generate this daring. Thirst for recognition of and by the other must play a leading part in this. If only we could take seriously the words of the Greek metropolitan Damaskinos at the conclusion of the third international conference of Jews and Orthodox Christians (1993), would we be moving in the right direction. For [Orthodox] Christianity recognises in ‘the theology, anthropology and cosmology of Judaism basic elements of its own corresponding teaching’, said Damaskinos. And this is confirmed ‘by a sincere respect not only for the Old Testament, but also for the spiritual experience of the chosen people in the divine plan of man’s salvation’.(28) The spiritual experience of the chosen people (as he might have added) which includes the Shoah.

Such beliefs would allow him to appreciate and emulate the gesture of the future pope John xxiii in the days when Nostra aetate could hardly be envisaged. It was 1960, and he was still patriarch of Venice. A delegation of Jews had come to see him. He approached them with poignant words of welcome: ‘I am [Joseph] your brother’.(29) For here were long-lost kinsmen. Here were tears at the prospect of their reconciliation.

endnotes:

1. L. Rapoport, Stalins War against the Jews (New York and Toronto 1990), p.250, n.3 (but Rapoport casts doubts on the story).

2. L. Rapoport, Stalin ‘s War against the Jews (New York and Toronto 1990), p.78. The Ehrenburg/Grossman book, entitled Chernaia kniga, was only to appear in Israel several decades later (Jerusalem 1980). Ukrainian edition (in two volumes), Zaporozhe 1991. ET The Black Book (New York 1981).

3. Z. Gitelman, ed., Bitter Legacy (Indianapolis 1997). Among the novelists who dealt honestly with the plight of the Jews were V. Grossman (1943) and I. Ehrenburg (1948). T. Valednitskaia managed to publish her work on the Lvov ghetto, Solntse s vostoka, in 1946, but its sequel was never to appear.

4. Quoted in R. Headtand, Messages of Murder: A Study of the Reports of the Einsatzgruppen of the Security Police and the Security Service, 194 1–1943 (London and Toronto 1992), p.114.

5. On Glagolev see Chernaia kniga (1991), ii 67–71. On Maria Skobtsova and Dimitrii Klepinin see Sergei Hackel, Pearl of Great Price (London 1981), pp.98–149.

6. Pis’ma-Poslannia Mitropolita Andreia Sheptyts ‘kogo [..]chasiv nimets ‘koi okupatsii (Saskatchewan 1969), pp.222–31.

7. Johannes Cardinal Willebrands, Church and Jewish People (New York and Mahwah, NJ), p.169.

8. Quoted by I. Greenberg, ‘Judaism and Christianity after the Holocaust, Journal of Ecumenical Studies 12 (1975), p.525. The response could perhaps be related to the passage INTERNET: Thessalonians 2:14–16, the authenticity of which is widely doubted.

9. Quoted in J.H. Miller, ed., Vatican II: An Interfaith Appraisal (Notre Dame and London 1966), p.358.

10. Quoted in Willebrands, Church and Jewish People, p.58. 11. Quoted in P. Hebblethwaite, John XXIII: Pope of the Council (London 1984), p.264.

12. Text of Nostra aetate in Willebrands, Church and Jewish People, p.205.

13. Text in Willebrands, Church and Jewish People, pp.211-19.

14. ‘Joint Statement on the Shoah and Antisemitism (Prague 1992) in Willebrands, Church and Jewish People, p.250.

15. H.C. Kee and I.J. Borowsky, ed., Removing Anti-Judaism from the Pulpit (Philadelphia and New York 1996), p.50.

16. Ibid., p.35.

17. Translated (from the original [uncensored] Italian) in Hebblethwaite, John XXIII, p.431.

18. As John Pawlikowsky has noted, ‘Jesus was killed by some Jews and some Romans, but Christians have played up Jewish involvement [..]. Historically, Romans probably had more to do with the death of Jesus than the Christian scriptures lead one to think (quoted in Removing Anti-Judaism from the Pulpit, p.98).

19. PG 46:685.

20. John Chrysostom, Logoi kata Ioudaion v.1, i.3, vi.7 and i.6 (ET P.W. Harkins [1977]).

21. P. LHuillier, The Church of the Ancient Councils: The Disciplinary Work of the First Four Ecumenical Councils (Crestwood NY 1996), p.8.

22. A Select Library of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, second series, vol.14: The Seven Ecumenical Councils (RP Grand Rapids 1979), p.370.

23. Ibid., p.151.

24. Triodpostnaia (Moscow 1992), matins for Great Friday, antiphon 12 after the fourth gospel reading. Translation into English mine. For ‘deicides see ibid., third sticheron for the beatitudes and ninth canticle of canon, verse 1.

25. Triodpostnaia, antiphon 11 after the fourth gospel reading.

26. P. Kenez, ‘Pogroms and White ideology of the Russian Civil War in J.D. Kiler and S. Lambroza, ed., Pogroms: Anti-Jewish Violence in Modern Russian History (Cambridge 1992), p.306.

27. Doklad o rabote Komissii Sviashchennogo sinoda (MI) po kanonizatstii sviatykh nad voprosom o muchenicheskoi konchine Tsarskoi Sem ‘i: predstavlen Mitropolitom Juvenaliem na zasedanii sinoda 10 oktiabria 1996.

28. Sobornost/ECR 15:2 (1993), p.63.

29. The actual words may not have included the name Joseph (hence the square brackets), but the greeting was preceded by some words about Josephs tearful encounter with his brothers (Genesis 45:4). Hebblethwaite, John XXIII, p.193.

posted August 26, 1998

The Asceticism of the Open Door

by Mother Maria Skobtsova

This is an extract from an essay, “The Second Gospel Commandment,” in Mother Maria Skobtsova: Essential Writings, published by Orbis. The book’s editor is Helene Klepinin Arjakovsky, daughter of Fr. Dmitri Klepinin, co-worker with Mother Maria, who died, as she did, in a concentration camp. The translation is by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.

“The sign of those who have reached perfection is this: if ten times a day they are given over to be burned for the love of their neighbor, they will not be satisfied with that, as Moses, and the ardent Paul, and the other disciples showed. God gave His Son over to death on the Cross out of love for His creature. And if He had had something more precious, he would have given it to us, in order thereby to gain humankind. Imitating this, all the saints, in striving for perfection, long to be like God in perfect love for their neighbor.”

“No man dares to say of his love for his neighbor that he succeeds in it in his soul, if he abandons the part that he fulfills bodily, as well as he can, and in conformity with time and place. For only this fulfillment certifies that a man has perfect love in him. And when we are faithful and true in it as far as possible, then the soul is given power, in simple and incomparable notions, to attain to the great region of lofty and divine contemplation.”

These words from St. Isaac the Syrian, both from the Philokalia, justify not only active Christianity, but the possibility of attaining to “lofty and divine contemplation” through the love of one’s neighbor — not merely an abstract, but necessarily the most concrete, practical love. Here is the whole key to the mystery of human relations as a religious path.

For me these are truly fiery words. Unfortunately, in the area of applying these principles to life, in the area of practical and ascetic behavior toward man, we have much less material than in the area of man’s attitude toward God and toward himself. Yet the need to find some precise and correct ways, and not to wander, being guided only by one’s own sentimental moods, the need to know the limits of this area of human relations — all this is very strongly felt. In the end, since we have certain basic instructions, perhaps it will not be so difficult to apply them to various areas of human relations, at first only as a sort of schema, an approximate listing of what is involved.

Let us try to find the main landmarks for this schema in the triune makeup of the human being — body, soul, and spirit. In the area of our serving each of these main principles, ascetic demands and instructions emerge of themselves, the fulfillment of which, on the one hand, is unavoidable in order to reach the goal, and, on the other hand, is beyond one’s strength.

It seems right to me to draw a line here between one’s attitude toward oneself and one’s attitude toward others. The rule of not doing to others what you do not want done to yourself is hardly applicable in asceticism. Asceticism goes much further and sets much stricter demands on oneself than on one’s neighbors.

In the area of the relation to one’s physical world, asceticism demands two things of us: work and abstinence. Work is not only an unavoidable evil, the curse of Adam; it is also a participation in the work of divine economy; it can be transfigured and sanctified. It is also wrong to understand work only as working with one’s hands, a menial task; it calls for responsibility, inspiration, and love. It should always be work in the fields of the Lord.

Work stands at the center of modern ascetic endeavor in the area of man’s relation to his physical existence. Abstinence is as unavoidable as work. But its significance is to some degree secondary, because it is needed mainly in order to free one’s attention for more valuable things than those from which one abstains. One can introduce some unsuitable passion into abstinence — and that is wrong. A person should abstain and at the same time not notice his abstinence.

A person should have a more attentive attitude toward his brother’s flesh than his own. Christian love teaches us to give our brother not only material but spiritual gifts. We must give him our last shirt and our last crust of bread. Here personal charity is as necessary and justified as the broadest social work. In this sense there is no doubt that the Christian is called to social work. He is called to organize a better life for the workers, to provide for the old, to build hospitals, care for children, fight against exploitation, injustice, want, lawlessness.

In principle the value is completely the same, whether he does it on an individual or a social level; what matters is that his social work be based on love for his neighbor and not have any latent career or material purposes. For the rest it is always justified — from personal aid to working on a national scale, from concrete attention to an individual person to an understanding of abstract systems of the right organization of social life. The love of man demands one thing from us in this area: ascetic ministry to his material needs, attentive and responsible work, a sober and unsentimental awareness of our strength and of its true usefulness.

The ascetic rules here are simple and perhaps do not leave any particular room for mystical inspiration, often being limited merely to everyday work and responsibility. But there is great strength and great truth in them, based on the words of the Gospel about the Last Judgment, when Christ says to those who stand on His right hand that they visited Him in prison, and in the hospital, fed Him when He was hungry, clothed Him when He was naked. He will say this to those who did it either on an individual or on a social level.

Thus, in the dull, laborious, often humdrum ascetic rules concerning our attitude toward the material needs of our neighbor, there already lies the pledge of a possible relation to God, their spirit-bearing nature. ❖

A biographical essay about Mother Maria is posted on the OPF web site.

The example of five saints

Jim Forest’s talk for the Sourozh Diocesan Conference in Oxford, presented 31 May 2004

Becoming the Gospel: the example of five newly recognized saints

My theme, becoming the Gospel, is inspired by a sentence from Metropolitan Anthony:

We should try to live in such a way that if the Gospels were lost, they could be re-written by looking at us.

These few words seem to me the underlying theme of all his books, lectures and sermons. To be a Christian is to devote one’s life to becoming the Gospel. The Gospel exists so that each of us can make of our lives a unique living translation of its stories, sayings and parables. Like no other book in the world, it is meant to be lived, to be lived in such a way that those who have not read the text might guess at least its major themes simply by knowing those who are absorbing the text into their lives.

Orthodox ritual goes to great lengths to draw our attention to the Gospel. This small book, containing only the texts of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, is enthroned on the altar. It is something we bow toward and often kiss. Side by side with the Cross, it is before us when we confess our sins. Held high, it is solemnly carried through the church in procession every week. It is decorated with relief icons. During services, it is not simply read but chanted so that the words of the Gospel might enter us more deeply.

Only a degree less important in the life of the Orthodox Church is our close attention to the lives of the saints, that is to those people who, to a remarkable degree, in some way became the Gospel. Each saint provides a unique translation of the Gospel. Each saint not only helps us see what the Gospel is about but also how diverse are the ways in which a person can become the Gospel. Each saint throws a fresh light on how the Gospel can be lived more fully in the particular circumstances of our lives.

I would like to look at the example given by several newly glorified saints: Alexis Medvedkov, a priest who died in 1934; and Mother Maria Skobtsova plus three others closely associated with her: the priest Dimitri Klépinin, her friend and collaborator Ilya Fondaminsky, a Jewish convert to the Orthodox Church; and Mother Maria’s son, Yuri. On the first weekend of May, in the Cathedral of St Alexander Nevsky in Paris, their names were added to the Church’s calendar of saints.

mmaria3

Their glorification was an amazing celebration of Orthodox unity. Archbishop Gabriel presided at these services, assisted by our own Bishop Basil and by Bishop Silouan, representing the Romanians. There were also priests and deacons from various jurisdictions. The cathedral was crowded as if for Pascha. One of the priests was Serge Hackel, whose biography of Mother Maria, Pearl of Great Price, was a factor in starting the process that culminated in the canonizations. Appropriately, Fr Serge wore a chasuble that had been made by Mother Maria for Fr Dimitri, who, incidentally, was ordained a priest in this same cathedral.

stalexis

I start with the least well known of the five, Father Alexis Medvedkov. Born in Russia in 1867, he went to seminary and afterward became a reader and choir director at a St Petersburg parish. He felt unworthy of the priesthood but finally, encouraged by St John of Kronstadt, accepted ordination. He was sent to serve a village 60 miles from the capital. As was the case for many priests, his meager salary was not enough. Side by side with his neighbors, he worked the land. Yet he also lived a life of mind and spirit, saving money to buy the writings of the Church Fathers. He was a parent as well — he and his wife had two daughters. His pastoral zeal was recognized — in 1916, age 49, he was made an archpriest. Then the next year, in the aftermath of the Bolshevik Revolution, he was arrested, tortured and sentenced to death. Remarkably, his eldest daughter succeeded in freeing her father by offering herself as a hostage in his place. The effects of torture, however, remained with him for the rest of his life. Because of nerve damage, his right eye was always open wider than his left.

In 1919 the entire family managed to escape to Estonia where Fr Alexis worked in a mine and then as a night watchman. In 1923 he became assistant priest at a local parish, also helping in the parish school. In 1929, following prolonged illness, his wife died.

After this heavy blow, he was invited by Metropolitan Evlogy in Paris to come to France. He was sent to the town Ugine, near Grenoble, to serve as rector of St Nicholas Russian Orthodox church. A local factory employed 600 Russian immigrants.

He often celebrated the Liturgy on weekdays as well as Sundays and feast days. He was known for how carefully he intoned each word when he stood in the sanctuary. After services, he would stay on to do memorial services and meet whatever other needs were brought to him by his parishioners, never charging money.

His congregation proved difficult. The parish council was dominated by secular-minded lay people of a military background, men used to giving orders, whose main interest was politics. Some harassed Fr Alexis during services. Some were abusive. When insulted, he replied with silence. He patiently endured the criticism of those who regarded the services as too long or criticized him for not dressing better.

His health declined — doctors diagnosed cancer of the intestines. In July 1934, he was taken to hospital. His died on the 22nd of August. On the advice of a physician who warned that Fr Alexis’ cancer-ridden body would rapidly decompose, he was buried in a double coffin.

His parishioners, even those who had been hostile, came to remember him as an exceptionally modest man, shy, full of gratitude, prayerful, outgoing, compassionate, slow to criticize, eager to forgive, generous with what little he had, who never turned his back on anyone in need.

A friend who visited him during those final weeks of his life recalled him saying: “In my parish the true parishioners are the children … and if those children live and grow up, they will form the inner Church. And we too, we belong to that Church, as long as we live according to our conscience and fulfil the commandments … Do you understand what I mean? In the visible Church there is an invisible Church, a secret Church. In it are found the humble who live by grace and walk in the will of God. They can be found in every parish and every jurisdiction. The emigration lives through them and by the grace of God.”

It was a life of ordinary sanctity — small deeds of holiness performed day after day that were either taken for granted or ridiculed. He might have been entirely forgotten had it not been for a decision by the Ugine town council in 1953 to build flats on the site of the cemetery. The remains of those buried in the old cemetery were moved. On the 22nd of August, 1956, precisely 22 years after Fr Alexis’s death, workmen came to his grave and found that his double coffin had entirely disintegrated but his body, priestly vestments and the Gospel book buried with him, had not decayed.

I have left out many details of his life, but you see the main lines: great suffering, endurance, patient service to impatient people, belief in the face of disbelief, an uprooted life, the early death of his wife, his own hard death, a love of prayer, a constant witness to God’s love — and then a sign after death that served to resurrect his memory and inspired the decision that this humble priest ought to be remembered by the Church. The memory of the Church is the calendar of the saints.

Now let me speak about the four others glorified in Paris this month.

The central figure is Mother Maria Skobtsova. Born in 1891 and given the name Elizaveta, she grew up near the Black Sea and later in St. Petersburg. Her childhood faith collapsed following her father’s death, but as a young adult her faith was gradually reborn. Liza prayed and read the Gospel and the lives of saints. While regarding herself as a socialist, it seemed to her that the real need of the people was not for revolutionary theories but for Christ. She wanted “to proclaim the simple word of God,” she told Alexander Blok in 1916. She was the first woman to study at the theological institute in St. Petersburg. After Lenin’s forces took power, she narrowly escaped summary execution by convincing a Bolshevik sailor that she was a friend of Lenin’s wife.

One of the many refugees who fled Russia during the civil war, by the time she reached Paris in 1923 she had finished one marriage and started another and was the mother of three.

One child, Nastia, died very young — the kind of death that visited many Russian families struggling to survive in France in those days. Liza’s monastic vocation is partly connected with Nastia’s death in the winter of 1926. During her month-long vigil at her daughter’s bedside, Liza came to feel how she had never known “the meaning of repentance.”

[N]ow I am aghast at my own insignificance …. I feel that my soul has meandered down back alleys all my life. And now I want an authentic and purified road. Not out of faith in life, but in order to justify, understand and accept death …. No amount of thought will ever result in any greater formulation than the three words, ‘Love one another,’ so long as it is love to the end and without exceptions. And then the whole of life is illumined, which is otherwise an abomination and a burden.

After Nastia’s burial, Liza became aware, as she put it, “of a new and special, broad and all-embracing motherhood.” She emerged from her mourning with a determination to seek “a more authentic and purified life.” She felt she saw a “new road before me and a new meaning in life, to be a mother for all, for all who need maternal care, assistance, or protection.”

In 1930, she was appointed traveling secretary of the Russian Student Christian Movement, work which put her into daily contact with impoverished Russian refugees in cities, towns and villages throughout France.

She took literally Christ’s words that he was always present in the least person. “Man ought to treat the body of his fellow human being with more care than he treats his own,” she wrote.

If someone turns with his spiritual world toward the spiritual world of another person, he encounters an awesome and inspiring mystery …. He comes into contact with the true image of God in man, with the very icon of God incarnate in the world, with a reflection of the mystery of God’s incarnation and divine manhood. And he needs to accept this awesome revelation of God unconditionally, to venerate the image of God in his brother. Only when he senses, perceives and understands it will yet another mystery be revealed to him — one that will demand his most dedicated efforts …. He will perceive that the divine image is veiled, distorted and disfigured by the power of evil …. And he will want to engage in battle with the devil for the sake of the divine image.

Metropolitan Anthony, then a layman in Paris studying to become a physician, recalled a story about her from this period that he heard from a friend:

[S]he went to the steel foundry in Creusot, where a large number of Russian [refugees] were working. She came there and announced that she was preparing to give a series of lectures on Dostoevsky. She was met with general howling: “We do not need Dostoevsky. We need linen ironed, we need our rooms cleaned, we need our clothes mended — and you bring us Dostoevsky!” And she answered: “Fine, if that is needed, let us leave Dostoevsky alone.” And for several days she cleaned rooms, sewed, mended, ironed, cleaned. When she had finished doing all that, they asked her to talk about Dostoevsky. This made a big impression on me, because she did not say: “I did not come here to iron for you or clean your rooms. Can you not do that yourselves?” She responded immediately and in this way she won the hearts and minds of the people.

While her work for the Russian Student Christian Movement suited her, she began to envision a new type of community, “half monastic and half fraternal,” which would connect spiritual life with service to those in need, in the process showing “that a free Church can perform miracles.”

Father Sergei Bulgakov, dean of the St. Sergius Theological Institute and her confessor, was a source of support and encouragement. He was a confessor who respected the freedom of all who sought his guidance, never demanding obedience, never manipulating. Another key figure in her life was her bishop, Metropolitan Evlogy. He was the first one to suggest to Liza the possibility of becoming a nun. Assured by him that she would be free to develop a new type of monasticism, engaged in the world and marked by the “complete absence of even the subtlest barrier which might separate the heart from the world and its wounds,” in March 1932 Liza was professed as a nun and received the name Maria. Her goal was to create a model of what she called “monasticism in the world.”

Here again there is an interesting impression by Metropolitan Anthony if what Mother Maria was like in those days:

She was a very unusual nun in her behavior and her manners. I was simply staggered when I saw her for the first time in monastic clothes. I was walking along the Boulevard Montparnasse and I saw: in front of a café, on the pavement, there was a table, on the table was a glass of beer and behind the glass was sitting a Russian nun in full monastic robes. I looked at her and decided that I would never go near that woman. I was young then and held extreme views.

Mother Maria’s intention was “to share the life of paupers and tramps,” but how she would do so was not yet clear. She knew that it could not be a life of withdrawal from the sufferings of the world. “Everyone is always faced,” she wrote, “with the necessity of choosing between the comfort and warmth of an earthly home, well protected from winds and storms, and the limitless expanse of eternity, which contains only one sure and certain item … the cross.”

With financial help and the encouragement of Metropolitan Evlogy, she started her first house of hospitality. As the building was completely unfurnished, the first night she wrapped herself in blankets and slept on the floor beneath the icon of the Protection of the Mother of God. Donated furniture began arriving, and also guests, mainly unemployed young Russian women. To make room for others, Mother Maria gave up her own room and instead slept on an iron bedstead in the basement. A room upstairs became a chapel while the dining room doubled as a hall for lectures and discussions.

When the first house proved too small, a new location was found — a house of three storeys at 77 rue de Lourmel in the fifteenth arrondisement, an area where many impoverished Russian refugees had settled. While at the former address she could feed only 25, here she could feed a hundred. A stable behind the house was made into a church. The house was a modern Noah’s Ark able to withstand the stormy waves the world was hurling its way. Here guests could regain their breath “until the time comes to stand on their two feet again.”

As the work evolved, she rented other buildings, one for families in need, and another for single men. A rural property became a sanatorium.

Donations were given and quickly spent, yet the community purse was never empty for long. She sometimes recalled the Russian story of the ruble that could never be spent. Each time it was used, the change given back proved to equal a ruble. It was exactly this way with love, she said: No matter how much love you give, you never have less. In fact you discover you have more — one ruble becomes two, two becomes ten.

She enjoyed a legend concerning two saints of the fourth century, Nicholas of Myra and John Cassian, who returned to earth to see how things were going. They came upon a peasant, his cart mired in the mud, who begged their help. John Cassian regretfully declined, explaining that he was soon due back in heaven and therefore must keep his robes spotless. Meanwhile Nicholas was already up to his hips in the mud, freeing the cart. When the Ruler of All discovered why Nicholas was caked in mud and John Cassian immaculate, it was decided that Nicholas’ feast day would henceforth be celebrated twice each year — May 9 and December 6 — while John Cassian’s would occur only once every four years, on February 29.

Mother Maria felt sustained by the opening verses of the Sermon on the Mount: “Not only do we know the Beatitudes, but at this hour, this very minute, surrounded though we are by a dismal and despairing world, we already savor the blessedness they promise…”

Of course she had her critics. The house on rue de Lourmel, some charged, was an “ecclesiastical Bohemia.” There should be more emphasis on services, less on hospitality. But Mother Maria’s view was that “the Liturgy must be translated into life. It is why Christ came into the world and why he gave us our Liturgy.”

She had an unusual opinion regarding exile. In her view, far from being a catastrophe, it was a heaven-sent opportunity to renew the Church in ways that would have met with repression in her mother country:

What obligations follow from the gift of freedom which [in our exile] we have been granted? We are beyond the reach of persecution. We can write, speak, work, open schools …. At the same time, we have been liberated from age-old traditions. We have no enormous cathedrals, [jewel] encrusted Gospel books, no monastery walls. We have lost our environment. Is this an accident? Is this some chance misfortune?… In the context of spiritual life, there is no chance, nor are there fortunate or unfortunate epochs. Rather there are signs which we must understand and paths which we must follow. Our calling is a great one, since we are called to freedom.

She saw expatriation as an opportunity “to liberate the real and authentic.” It was similar to the opportunity given to the first Christians. “We must not allow Christ,” she said, “to be overshadowed by any regulations, any customs, any traditions, any aesthetic considerations, or even any piety.”

In September 1935 Orthodox Action was founded. It was a name proposed by her friend Nicholas Berdyaev. In addition to Mother Maria and Berdyaev, the co-founders included the theologian Father Sergei Bulgakov, the historian George Fedotov, the literary scholar Constantine Mochulsky, her long-time co-worker Fedor Pianov, and Ilya Fondaminsky, who had once had a post in the Kerensky government — one of the three others canonized with her. Metropolitan Evlogy was honorary president. Mother Maria was chairman. Its projects included hostels, rest homes, schools, camps, hospital work, help to the unemployed, assistance to the elderly, and publication of books and pamphlets. By now many co-workers were involved.

While many valued what she and her co-workers were doing, there were others who were scandalized with the shabby nun who was so uncompromisingly devoted to the duty of hospitality that she would leave a church service to answer the door bell. “For church circles we are too far to the left,” Mother Maria noted, “while for the left we are too church-minded.”

In October 1939, Metropolitan Evlogy sent a priest to rue de Lourmel: Father Dimitri Klépinin, then 35 years old. He had been born in Russia in 1904. He came to Paris from Belgrade in 1925 to study at the St Sergius Theological Institute. Like Mother Maria, he was a spiritual child of Father Sergei Bulgakov. A man of few words, great modesty and a profound love of the Liturgy, Father Dimitri proved to be a major partner in Mother Maria’s work.

The last phase of the life of Mother Maria and her co-workers — these now included her son Yuri — was shaped by World War II and Germany’s occupation of France.

Paris fell on the 14th of June 1940. France capitulated a week later. With defeat came greater poverty and hunger for many people. Local authorities in Paris declared the house at rue Lourmel an official food distribution point.

Paris was now a prison. “There is the dry clatter of iron, steel and brass,” wrote Mother Maria. “Order is all.” Russian refugees were among the particular targets of the occupiers. In June 1941, a thousand were arrested, among them Ilya Fondaminsky, a close friend and collaborator of Mother Maria and editor of various Russian expatriate journals. His long delayed baptism occurred within the makeshift Orthodox chapel at the prison camp in Compiegne. He died at Auschwitz the following year.

When the Nazis issued special identity cards for those of Russian origin living in France, Mother Maria and Father Dimitri refused to comply, though they were warned that those who failed to register would be regarded as citizens of the USSR — thus enemy aliens — and be punished accordingly.

Early in 1942, Jews began to knock on the door at rue de Lourmel asking Father Dimitri if he would issue baptismal certificates to them. The answer was always yes. The names of those supposedly baptized were duly recorded in his parish register in case there was any cross-checking by the police or Gestapo. Father Dimitri was convinced that in such a situation Christ would do the same.

In June the Jews of occupied France were ordered to wear the yellow star.

There were, of course, Christians who said that the anti-Jewish laws being imposed had nothing to do with Christians and therefore this was not a Christian problem. “This is not only a Jewish question but a Christian question,” replied Mother Maria. “Don’t you realize that the battle is being waged against Christianity? If we were true Christians we would all wear the Star. The age of confessors has arrived.”

In July Jews were forbidden access to nearly all public places while shopping by Jews was limited to one hour per day. A week later, there was a mass arrest. Nearly 13,000 Jews, two-thirds of them children, were brought to a sports stadium less than a mile from rue de Lourmel where they were held for five days before being transported to Auschwitz.

Mother Maria had often regarded her monastic robe as a God-send in aiding her work. Now her nun’s robes opened the way for her to enter the stadium. Here she worked for three days trying to comfort the children and their parents, distributing what food she could bring in, and even managing to rescue a number of children by enlisting the aid of garbage collectors and smuggling them out in trash bins.

The house at rue de Lourmel was bursting with people, many of them Jews. In this period, if anyone came to the house searching for Jews, she would show them an icon of the Mother of God.

Father Dimitri, Mother Maria, Yuri and their co-workers set up routes of escape to the unoccupied south — complex and dangerous work. An escaped Russian prisoner of war was also among those assisted. A local resistance group helped secure the food that was needed.

On February 8, 1943, Nazi security police entered the house Lourmel and found a letter in Yuri’s pocket in which Fr Dimitri was asked to provide a Jew with a false baptismal document. Yuri was arrested, and Fr Dimitri the next day. Under interrogation he made no attempt to hide his beliefs. Called a “Jew lover,” he responded by pointing to the cross he wore. “Do you know this Jew?” he asked. For this he was struck in the face.

Mother Maria’s arrest followed. At first she was confined at the Gestapo headquarters in Paris in the same building where Yuri, Father Dimitri and their co-worker of many years, Feodor Pianov, were being held. Pianov later recalled the scene of Father Dimitri in his torn cassock being taunted as a Jew. One of the SS officers began to beat him while Yuri stood nearby weeping. Father Dimitri consoled him, reminding him that “Christ withstood greater mockery than this.”

In April they were transferred to Compiègne. Mother Maria was able to have a final meeting with Yuri. Hours later, Mother Maria was sent in a sealed cattle truck to the Ravensbrück camp in Germany. In a letter Yuri sent to the community at rue de Lourmel, he said his mother told him “that I must trust in her ability to bear things and in general not to worry about her. Every day [Fr Dimitri and I] remember her at the proskomidia … We celebrate the Eucharist and receive communion each day.”

“Thanks to our daily Eucharist,” he reported in another letter, “our life here is quite transformed and to tell the honest truth, I have nothing to complain of. We live in brotherly love. Dima [Fr Dimitri] … is preparing me for the priesthood. God’s will needs to be understood. After all, this attracted me all my life and in the end it was the only thing I was interested in, though my interest was stifled by Parisian life and the illusion that there might be ‘something better’ — as if there could be anything better.”

For nine months the three men remained together at Compiègne. “Without exaggeration,” Pianov wrote after being liberated in 1945, “I can say that the year spent with [Father Dimitri] was a godsend. I do not regret that year…. From my experience with him, I learned to understand what enormous spiritual, psychological and moral support one man can give to others as a friend, companion and confessor.”

On December 16, Yuri and Father Dimitri were deported to Buchenwald in Germany, followed several weeks later by Pianov. In January 1944, Father Dimitri and Yuri were sent to another camp, Dora, about 20 miles away. On the 6th of February, Yuri was “dispatched for treatment” — a euphemism meaning sentenced to death. Four days later Fr Dimitri died of pneumonia.

A final letter from Yuri made its way to rue de Lourmel:

I am absolutely calm, even somewhat proud to share mama’s fate. I promise you I will bear everything with dignity. Whatever happens, sooner or later we shall all be together. I can say in all honesty that I am not afraid of anything any longer…. I ask anyone whom I have hurt in any way to forgive me. Christ be with you!

At Ravensbruck, Mother Maria endured for two years, an achievement in part explained by her long experience of ascetic life. A fellow prisoner who survived recalls how Mother Maria she would discuss passages from the New Testament: “Together we would provide a commentary on the texts and then meditate on them. Often we would conclude with Compline… This period seemed a paradise to us.”

By March 1945, Mother Maria’s condition was critical. On the 30th of March — Good Friday, as it happened — she was selected for the gas chambers and the following day entered into eternal life. The shellfire of the approaching Red Army could be heard in the distance.

Regarding her last day, accounts vary. According to one, she was simply one of the many selected for death that day. According to another, she took the place of a fellow prisoner, a Jew. Her friend Jacqueline Péry wrote afterward:

“It is very possible that [Mother Maria] took the place of a frantic companion. It would have been entirely in keeping with her generous life. In any case she offered herself consciously to the holocaust … thus assisting each one of us to accept the cross …. She radiated the peace of God and communicated it to us.”

Five saints — a humble priest who died of cancer, and four victims of one of the ideological insanities that destroyed so many millions of people in the 20th century.

Father Alexis of Ugine gives an example of the priesthood that from a distance seems in no way remarkable, yet his entire adult life was illumined by the Gospel. He reminds me of St Nicholas.

In Mother Maria, Fr Dimitri, Yuri Skobtsov and Ilya Fondaminsky, we see an extraordinary example of what perhaps could be called “the sacrament of the open door.”

Recently my wife asked me what is the most important thing in our house. I thought for a moment, then mentioned certain books and icons. “No,” she said, “it is the front door. Everything depends on how we open the door. Everything depends on hospitality.”

It was a startling thought. I’m sure all the newly canonized saints said very similar things many times. Indeed in one of her essays Mother Maria uses the term “the asceticism of the open door.”

Controversial in life, Mother Maria remains a subject of contention to this day and I expect this controversy will continue even now that she has been recognized as a saint. While clearly she lived a life of heroic virtue and is among the martyrs of the twentieth century, her verbal attacks on nationalistic and tradition-bound forms of religious life still raise the blood pressure of many Orthodox Christians. St. Maria of Paris, as perhaps she will now be called, remains an indictment of any form of Christianity that seeks Christ chiefly inside church buildings.

All saints show us in certain ways what it means to become the Gospel. From such people, even if we knew nothing at all about the words of Christ, we could guess the outline of Christ’s teaching simply by the example given by these dedicated followers. Each of their lives provides a translation of the Gospel into the circumstances of their vocation and time.

All saints, whether from the first century or from our own era, provide a living witness to the Beatitudes, the foundation of which is Jesus’ declaration that “blessed are the poor in spirit.”

“Blessed” — not a word one finds in headlines nor does it often appear in conversation. In the Greek New Testament, each Beatitude begins with the word makarios. In classical Greek makar was a condition associated with the immortal gods. Kari means “fate” or “death,” but given a negative prefix the word means “being deathless, no longer subject to fate.” Being deathless was a condition both inaccessible and longed for by mortals. It was because of their immortality that the gods were the blessed ones.

In Christian use, makarios meant sharing in the life of God, the ultimate joy. There is no higher gift. We are not simply capable of an abstract awareness that God exists, an infinitely remote Being whom we can faintly glimpse through an intellectual telescope. In the kingdom of God, the blessing extended to us is nothing less than participation in the communion of the Holy Trinity. It is being received into God’s immortality. It is being blessed with qualities that seem humanly impossible.

Understood in this way, the word “blessed” might be translated “freed from death” or “risen from the dead.” To be blessed is to participate in Christ’s resurrection. Risen from the dead are the poor in spirit. Risen from the dead are they who mourn. Risen from the dead are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness. Risen from the dead are the merciful. Risen from the dead are the pure of heart. Risen from the dead are the peacemakers. Risen from the dead are those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness.

To be risen from the dead is not simply a condition of the life to come. It has to do with our lives here and now. And this is what we see in each of these five saints: living in the kingdom of God even though the world has plunged itself into hell.

Let me finish by reading aloud one last passage from Mother Maria:

The way to God lies through love of people. At the Last Judgment I shall not be asked whether I was successful in my ascetic exercises, nor how many bows and prostrations I made. Instead I shall be asked, Did I feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick and the prisoners. That is all I shall be asked. About every poor, hungry and imprisoned person the Savior says ‘I': ‘I was hungry and thirsty, I was sick and in prison.’ To think that he puts an equal sign between himself and anyone in need…. I always knew it, but now it has somehow penetrated to my sinews. It fills me with awe.

Note: The principal source of biographical material used in this text is Fr. Serge Hackel’s book, Pearl of Great Price, published in Britain by Darton Longman & Trodd and, in America, by St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press.

Icons of Saints Maria of Paris and those canonized with her plus prayers

Here is a small collection icons of St. Maria of Paris and those canonized with her. The Tropar and Kontak for the feast day of the four saints, July 20, are at the bottom of this page.

Above, an icon painted in 2007 by John Reves in Austria. (Mounted prints of this icon are available from Come and See Icons: http://www.comeandseeicons.com/m/opf01.htm.)

Above Icon by Father John Matusiak 2009

432

This icon was made in 2008 for Archbishop Gabriel of Comana, Exarch of the Ecumenical Patriarch. The iconographer is Patricia Fostiropoulis. The icon size is 30.5 x 40 cm.

The icon below, used at the services of glorification at the Cathedral of St Alexander Nevsky in Paris on May 1 and 2, 2004, was written by Maria Struve, who personally knew the four saints. This is scanned from the card given to all who were present for the glorification. Note that the background color of the actual icon is more cream than orange.

canonization icon

 

icon of St Maria Skobtsova of Paris (iconographer: Olga Poloukhine )

 

A new icon of Mother Maria by the Deacon-iconographer Paul of the Monastery of Pervijze in Diksmuide, Belgium.

Above, an icon of Mother Maria by the Deacon-iconographer Paul of the Monastery of Pervijze in Diksmuide, Belgium.

Mother Maria of Ravensbruck

Above, an icon painted in 2006 by Patricia Fostiropoulos in London. The icon is at the Orthodox parish in Lewes, Sussex, England,

Above: Iconographer Macha Struve is based in Paris.

Below, An icon commissioned by Fr. Michael Plekon and painted by John Reves.

Below, an icon of Mother Maria by Janet Peters.

St Dimitri Klepinin of Paris

was the priest working closely with Mother Maria. Like her, he died in a concentration camp. The icon is on the wall of the church in the Monastery of the Protection of the Mother of God in Bussy, France.

A large set of icons and photos relating to the four saints is here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/jimforest/sets/72157594152181792/

Tropaire, ton 1:

Par les souffrances que les saints ont endurées pour Toi
sois emploré, Seigneur,
et guéris toutes nos maladies:
nous t’en prions, ô Ami des hommes.

Tropar – Tone 1:

Through the sufferings which the saints have endured for Your sake,
O Lord, we beseech You
to heal all of our infirmities,
O Good Friend of Man.

Kontakion, ton 8. Sur: Commes premices:

Comme témoins de la vérité, et prédicateurs de la piété,
honorons dignement par des chants divinement inspirés
Dimitri, Marie, Georges et Elie,
ayant supporté les liens, les souffrances et l’injuste jugement,
et que par les martyre ont reçu la couronne inflétrissable.

Kondak – Tone 8:

As witnesses of truth and preachers of piety,
let us worthily honor through divinely inspired chants:
Dimitri, Maria, George and Elias,
who have borne the sufferings,
the bonds and unjust judgment,
in which like the martyrs
have received the imperishable crown.

* * *

Here are the Troparion and Kontakion for St. Maria from an Orthodox Church in America publication–Saints in Times of Trouble–published by the OCA. You can find the entire document here: www.iglesiaortodoxa.cl/revistas/saints-in-trouble.pdf

The booklet provides an activity book for children.

Troparion (Tone 4)

You became a bride of Christ, O venerable Mother,
And offered your body and soul to Him as a living sacrifice.
You exposed the evil side of humanity’s ways
By allowing the light of the Resurrection to shine forth from you.
We celebrate your memory in love.
O Martyr and Confessor Maria
Pray to Christ our God that He may save our souls.

Kontakion (Tone 6)

You became an instrument of divine love, O holy martyr Maria,
And taught us to love Christ with all our being.
You conquered evil by not submitting yourself into the hands of the destroyer of souls.
You drank from the cup of suffering.
The Creator accepted your death above any other sacrifice
And crowned you with the laurels of victory with His mighty hand.
Pray fervently that nothing may hinder us from fulfilling God’s will
Because you are a bright star shining in darkness!

* * *

Becoming the Gospel: the example of four saints

by Jim Forest

We should try to live in such a way that if the Gospels were lost, they could be re-written by looking at us.

mmaria3

These few words from Metropolitan Anthony Bloom were the underlying theme of all his books, lectures and sermons. To be a Christian is to devote one’s life to becoming the Gospel. The Gospel exists so that each of us can make of our lives a unique living translation of its stories, sayings and parables. Like no other book in the world, it is meant to be lived, to be lived in such a way that those who have not read the text might guess at least its major themes simply by knowing those who are absorbing the text into their lives.

Orthodox ritual goes to great lengths to draw our attention to the Gospel. This small book, containing only the texts of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, is enthroned on the altar. It is something we bow toward and often kiss. Side by side with the Cross, it is before us when we confess our sins. Held high, it is solemnly carried through the church in procession every week. It is decorated with relief icons. During services, it is not simply read but chanted so that the words of the Gospel might enter us more deeply.

Only a degree less important in the life of the Orthodox Church is our close attention to the lives of the saints, that is to those people who, to a remarkable degree, in some way became the Gospel. Each saint provides a unique translation of the Gospel. Each saint not only helps us see what the Gospel is about but also how diverse are the ways in which a person can become the Gospel. Each saint throws a fresh light on how the Gospel can be lived more fully in the particular circumstances of our lives.

I would like to look at the example given by several people newly recognized as saints: Mother Maria Skobtsova plus three others closely associated with her: the priest Dimitri Klepinin, her friend and collaborator Ilya Fondaminsky; and Mother Maria’s son, Yuri. On the first weekend of May, in the Cathedral of St. Alexander Nevsky in Paris, their names were added to the Church’s calendar of saints.

Mother Maria Skobtsova was born in 1891 in Latvia — then part of the Russian Empire — and was given the name Elizaveta. She grew up near the Black Sea and later in St. Petersburg. Her childhood faith collapsed following her father’s death, but as a young adult her faith was gradually reborn. Liza prayed and read the Gospel and the lives of saints. While regarding herself as a socialist, it seemed to her that the real need of the people was not for revolutionary theories but for Christ. She wanted “to proclaim the simple word of God,” she told Alexander Blok in 1916. She was the first woman to study at the theological institute in St. Petersburg. After Lenin’s forces took power, she narrowly escaped summary execution by convincing a Bolshevik sailor that she was a friend of Lenin’s wife.

One of the many refugees who fled Russia during the civil war, by the time she reached Paris in 1923 she had finished one marriage and started another and was the mother of three.

One child, Nastia, died very young — the kind of death that visited many Russian families struggling to survive in France in those days. Liza’s monastic vocation is partly connected with Nastia’s death in the winter of 1926. During her month-long vigil at her daughter’s bedside, Liza came to feel how she had never known “the meaning of repentance.”

“Now I am aghast at my own insignificance,” she wrote. “I feel that my soul has meandered down back alleys all my life. And now I want an authentic and purified road. Not out of faith in life, but in order to justify, understand and accept death …. No amount of thought will ever result in any greater formulation than the three words, ‘Love one another,’ so long as it is love to the end and without exceptions. And then the whole of life is illumined, which is otherwise an abomination and a burden.”

After Nastia’s burial, Liza became aware “of a new and special, broad and all-embracing motherhood.” She emerged from her mourning with a determination to seek “a more authentic and purified life.” She felt she saw a “new road before me and a new meaning in life, to be a mother for all, for all who need maternal care, assistance, or protection.”

In 1930, she was appointed traveling secretary of the Russian Student Christian Movement, work which put her into daily contact with impoverished Russian refugees in cities, towns and villages throughout France.

She took literally Christ’s words that he was always present in the least person. She wrote:

If someone turns with his spiritual world toward the spiritual world of another person, he encounters an awesome and inspiring mystery …. He comes into contact with the true image of God in man, with the very icon of God incarnate in the world, with a reflection of the mystery of God’s incarnation and divine manhood. And he needs to accept this awesome revelation of God unconditionally, to venerate the image of God in his brother. Only when he senses, perceives and understands it will yet another mystery be revealed to him — one that will demand his most dedicated efforts …. He will perceive that the divine image is veiled, distorted and disfigured by the power of evil …. And he will want to engage in battle with the devil for the sake of the divine image.

Metropolitan Anthony, then a layman in Paris studying to become a physician, recalled a story about her from this period that he heard from a friend:

She went to the steel foundry in Creusot, where many Russian refugees were working. She came there and announced that she was preparing to give a series of lectures on Dostoevsky. She was met with general howling: “We do not need Dostoevsky. We need linen ironed, we need our rooms cleaned, we need our clothes mended — and you bring us Dostoevsky!” And she answered: “Fine, if that is needed, let us leave Dostoevsky alone.” And for several days she cleaned rooms, sewed, mended, ironed, cleaned. When she had finished doing all that, they asked her to talk about Dostoevsky. This made a big impression on me, because she did not say: “I did not come here to iron for you or clean your rooms. Can you not do that yourselves?” She responded immediately and in this way she won the hearts and minds of the people.

While her work for the Russian Student Christian Movement suited her, she began to envision a new type of community, “half monastic and half fraternal,” which would connect spiritual life with service to those in need, in the process showing “that a free Church can perform miracles.”

Fr. Sergei Bulgakov, dean of the St. Sergius Theological Institute and her confessor, was a source of support. He was a confessor who respected the freedom of all who sought his guidance, never demanding obedience, never manipulating. Another key figure in her life was her bishop, Metropolitan Evlogy. He was the first one to suggest to Liza the possibility of becoming a nun. Assured by him that she would be free to develop a new type of monasticism, engaged in the world and marked by the “complete absence of even the subtlest barrier which might separate the heart from the world and its wounds,” in March 1932 Liza was professed as a nun, receiving the name Maria. Her goal was to create a model of what she called “monasticism in the world.”

Here again there is an interesting impression by Metropolitan Anthony of what Mother Maria was like in those days:

She was a very unusual nun in her behavior and her manners. I was simply staggered when I saw her for the first time in monastic clothes. I was walking along the Boulevard Montparnasse and I saw: in front of a cafe, on the pavement, there was a table, on the table was a glass of beer and behind the glass was sitting a Russian nun in full monastic robes. I looked at her and decided that I would never go near that woman. I was young then and held extreme views.

Mother Maria’s intention was “to share the life of paupers and tramps,” but how she would do so was not yet clear. She knew that it could not be a life of withdrawal from the sufferings of the world. “Everyone is always faced,” she wrote, “with the necessity of choosing between the comfort and warmth of an earthly home, well protected from winds and storms, and the limitless expanse of eternity, which contains only one sure and certain item … the Cross.”

With financial help and the encouragement of Metropolitan Evlogy, she started her first house of hospitality. As the building was unfurnished, the first night she wrapped herself in blankets and slept on the floor beneath the icon of the Protection of the Mother of God. Donated furniture began arriving, and also guests, mainly unemployed young Russian women. To make room for others, Mother Maria gave up her own room and instead slept on an iron bedstead in the basement. A room upstairs became a chapel while the dining room doubled as a hall for lectures and discussions.

When the first house proved too small, a new location was found — a house of three storeys at 77 rue de Lourmel in the fifteenth arrondisement, an area where many impoverished Russian refugees had settled. While at the former address she could feed only 25, here she could feed a hundred. A stable behind the house was made into a church. The house was a modern Noah’s Ark able to withstand the stormy waves the world was hurling its way. Here the guests could regain their breath “until the time comes to stand on their two feet again.”

As the work evolved, she rented other buildings, one for families in need, and another for single men. A rural property became a sanatorium.

Donations were given and quickly spent, yet the community purse was never empty for long. She sometimes recalled the Russian story of the ruble that could never be spent. Each time it was used, the change given back proved to equal a ruble. It was exactly this way with love, she said: No matter how much love you give, you never have less. In fact you discover you have more — one ruble becomes two, two becomes ten.

Mother Maria felt sustained by the opening verses of the Sermon on the Mount: “Not only do we know the Beatitudes, but at this hour, this very minute, surrounded though we are by a dismal and despairing world, we already savor the blessedness they promise.”

Of course she had her critics. The house on rue de Lourmel, some charged, was an “ecclesiastical Bohemia.” There should be more emphasis on services, less on hospitality. But Mother Maria’s view was that “the Liturgy must be translated into life. It is why Christ came into the world and why he gave us our Liturgy.”

She had an unusual opinion regarding exile. In her view, far from being a catastrophe, it was a heaven-sent opportunity to renew the Church in ways that would have met with repression in her mother country:

What obligations follow from the gift of freedom which [in our exile] we have been granted? We are beyond the reach of persecution. We can write, speak, work, open schools …. At the same time, we have been liberated from age-old traditions. We have no enormous cathedrals, [jewel] encrusted Gospel books, no monastery walls. We have lost our environment. Is this an accident? Is this some chance misfortune?… In the context of spiritual life, there is no chance, nor are there fortunate or unfortunate epochs. Rather there are signs which we must understand and paths which we must follow. Our calling is a great one, since we are called to freedom.

She saw expatriation as an opportunity “to liberate the real and authentic.” It was similar to the opportunity given to the first Christians. “We must not allow Christ,” she said, “to be overshadowed by any regulations, any customs, any traditions, any aesthetic considerations, or even any piety.”

In September 1935 Orthodox Action was founded. The name was proposed by her friend Nicholas Berdyaev. The co-founders included the theologian Fr. Sergei Bulgakov, the historian George Fedotov, the literary scholar Constantine Mochulsky, her long-time co-worker Fedor Pianov, and Ilya Fondaminsky, the editor of various Russian expatriate journals who had once had a post in the Kerensky government. Metropolitan Evlogy was honorary president. Mother Maria was chairman. Its projects included hostels, rest homes, schools, camps, hospital work, help to the unemployed, assistance to the elderly, and publication of books and pamphlets. By now many co-workers were involved.

While many valued what she and her co-workers were doing, there were others who were scandalized with the shabby nun who was so uncompromisingly devoted to the duty of hospitality that she would leave a church service to answer the door bell. “For church circles we are too far to the left,” Mother Maria noted, “while for the left we are too church-minded.”

Following the departure for England of the first chaplain, Fr. Lev Gillet, in October 1939, Metropolitan Evlogy sent another priest to rue de Lourmel: Father Dimitri Klepinin, then 35 years old. He had been born in Russia in 1904. He came to Paris from Belgrade in 1925 to study at the St. Sergius Theological Institute. Like Mother Maria, he was a spiritual child of Father Sergei Bulgakov. A man of few words, great modesty and a profound love of the Liturgy, Father Dimitri proved to be a major partner in Mother Maria’s work.

The last phase of the life of Mother Maria and her co-workers — these now included her son Yuri — was shaped by World War II and Germany’s occupation of France.

Paris fell on the 14th of June 1940. France capitulated a week later. With defeat came greater poverty and hunger for many people. Local authorities in Paris declared the house at rue Lourmel an official food distribution point.

Paris was now a prison. “There is the dry clatter of iron, steel and brass,” wrote Mother Maria. “Order is all.” Russian refugees were among the particular targets of the occupiers. In June 1941, a thousand were arrested, among them her friend Ilya Fondaminsky. His long delayed baptism occurred within the makeshift Orthodox chapel at the prison camp in Compiegne. He died at Auschwitz the following year.

When the Nazis issued special identity cards for those of Russian origin living in France, Mother Maria and Father Dimitri refused to comply, though they were warned that those who failed to register would be regarded as citizens of the USSR — thus enemy aliens — and be punished accordingly.

Early in 1942, Jews began to knock on the door at rue de Lourmel asking Father Dimitri if he would issue baptismal certificates to them. The answer was always yes. The names of those supposedly baptized were duly recorded in his parish register in case there was any cross-checking by the police or Gestapo. Father Dimitri was convinced that in such a situation Christ would do the same.

In June the Jews of occupied France were ordered to wear the yellow star.

There were, of course, Christians who said that the anti-Jewish laws being imposed had nothing to do with Christians and therefore this was not a Christian problem. “There is no such thing as a Christian problem,” replied Mother Maria. “Don’t you realize that the battle is being waged against Christianity? If we were true Christians we would all wear the Star. The age of confessors has arrived.”

In July Jews were forbidden access to nearly all public places while shopping by Jews was limited to one hour per day. A week later, there was a mass arrest. Nearly 13,000 Jews, two-thirds of them children, were brought to a sports stadium less than a mile from rue de Lourmel where they were held for five days before being transported to Auschwitz.

Mother Maria had often regarded her monastic robe as a God-send in aiding her work. Now her nun’s robes opened the way for her to enter the stadium. Here she worked for three days trying to comfort the children and their parents, distributing what food she could bring in, and even managing to rescue a number of children by enlisting the aid of garbage collectors and smuggling them out in trash bins.

The house at rue de Lourmel was bursting with people, many of them Jews. She told Berdyaev that, if anyone came to the house searching for Jews, she would show them an icon of the Mother of God.

Father Dimitri, Mother Maria, Yuri and their co-workers set up routes of escape to the unoccupied south — complex and dangerous work. An escaped Russian prisoner of war was also among those assisted. A local resistance group helped secure the food that was needed.

On February 8, 1943, Nazi security police entered the house Lourmel and found a letter in Yuri’s pocket in which Fr. Dimitri was asked to provide a Jew with a false baptismal document. Yuri was arrested, and Fr. Dimitri the next day. Under interrogation he made no attempt to hide his beliefs. Called a “Jew lover,” he responded by pointing to the cross he wore. “Do you know this Jew?” he asked. For this he was struck on the face.

Mother Maria’s arrest followed. At first she was confined at the Gestapo headquarters in Paris in the same building where Yuri, Father Dimitri and their co-worker of many years, Feodor Pianov, were being held. Pianov later recalled the scene of Father Dimitri in his torn cassock being taunted as a Jew. One of the SS officers began to beat him while Yuri stood nearby weeping. Father Dimitri consoled him, reminding him that “Christ withstood greater mockery than this.”

In April they were transferred to Compiegne. Mother Maria was able to have a final meeting with Yuri. Hours later, Mother Maria was sent in a sealed cattle truck to the Ravensbrück camp in Germany. In a letter Yuri sent to the community at rue de Lourmel, he said his mother told him “that I must trust in her ability to bear things and in general not to worry about her. Every day [Fr. Dimitri and I] remember her at the proskomidia … We celebrate the Eucharist and receive communion each day.”

“Thanks to our daily Eucharist,” he reported in another letter, “our life here is quite transformed and to tell the honest truth, I have nothing to complain of. We live in brotherly love. Dima [Fr. Dimitri] … is preparing me for the priesthood. God’s will needs to be understood. After all, this attracted me all my life and in the end it was the only thing I was interested in, though my interest was stifled by Parisian life and the illusion that there might be ‘something better’ — as if there could be anything better.”

For nine months the three men remained together at Compiegne. “Without exaggeration,” Pianov wrote after being liberated in 1945, “I can say that the year spent with [Father Dimitri] was a godsend. I do not regret that year…. From my experience with him, I learned to understand what enormous spiritual, psychological and moral support one man can give to others as a friend, companion and confessor.”

On December 16, Yuri and Father Dimitri were deported to Buchenwald in Germany, followed several weeks later by Pianov. In January 1944, Father Dimitri and Yuri were sent to another camp, Dora, about 20 miles away. On the 6th of February, Yuri was “dispatched for treatment” — a euphemism meaning sentenced to death. Four days later Fr. Dimitri died of pneumonia.

A final letter from Yuri made its way to rue de Lourmel: “I am absolutely calm, even somewhat proud to share mama’s fate. I promise you I will bear everything with dignity. Whatever happens, sooner or later we shall all be together. I can say in all honesty that I am not afraid of anything any longer…. I ask anyone whom I have hurt in any way to forgive me. Christ be with you!”

At Ravensbrück, Mother Maria endured for two years, an achievement in part explained by her long experience of ascetic life. A fellow prisoner who survived recalls how Mother Maria she would recite passages from the New Testament: “Together we would provide a commentary on the texts and then meditate on them. Often we would conclude with Compline… This period seemed a paradise to us.”

By March 1945, Mother Maria’s condition was critical. On the 30th of March — Good Friday, as it happened — she entered into eternal life. The shellfire of the approaching Red Army could be heard in the distance.

Regarding her last day, accounts vary. According to one, she was simply one of the many selected for death that day. According to another, she took the place of a fellow prisoner, a Jew. Her friend Jacqueline Pery wrote afterward:

“It is very possible that [Mother Maria] took the place of a frantic companion. It would have been entirely in keeping with her generous life. In any case she offered herself consciously to the holocaust … thus assisting each one of us to accept the cross …. She radiated the peace of God and communicated it to us.”

Four saints, all victims of one of the ideological insanities that destroyed so many millions of people in the 20th century.

In them, we see an extraordinary example of what perhaps could be called “the sacrament of the open door.”

Recently my wife asked me what is the most important thing in our house. I thought for a moment, then mentioned certain books and icons. “No,” she said, “it is the front door. Everything depends on how we open the door. Everything depends on hospitality.”

It was a startling thought. I’m sure all the newly canonized saints said very similar things many times. Indeed in one of her essays Mother Maria uses the term “the asceticism of the open door.”

Controversial in life, Mother Maria remains a subject of contention to this day and I expect this controversy will continue even now that she has been recognized as a saint. While clearly she lived a life of heroic virtue and is among the martyrs of the twentieth century, her verbal attacks on nationalistic and tradition-bound forms of religious life still raise the blood pressure of many Orthodox Christians. St. Maria of Paris, as perhaps she will now be called, remains an indictment of any form of Christianity that seeks Christ chiefly inside church buildings.

All saints show us in certain ways what it means to become the Gospel. From such people, even if we knew nothing at all about the words of Christ, we could guess the outline of Christ’s teaching simply by the example given by these dedicated followers. Each of their lives provides a translation of the Gospel into the circumstances of their vocation and time.

Jim Forest is secretary of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship. This is a shortened version of a talk delivered at the Sourozh diocesan conference held in Oxford in May. The main source of biographical material used in this text is Fr. Serge Hackel’s biography of Mother Maria, Pearl of Great Price, published in Britain by Darton Longman & Trodd and, in America, by St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press.

A cloud of witnesses

Mother Maria Skobtsova
Mother Maria Skobtsova

There is probably no other journal in the English-speaking world that has paid so much attention to Mother Maria Skobtsova, Fr. Dimitri Klépenin and those associated with them as In Communion. Many members of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship have hoped we might live to see the day when these models of hospitality and courage would be officially recognized as saints and become part of the Church’s calendar. Thus it will be no surprise that a substantial part of this issue is given over to the canonizations that occurred in May at the Cathedral of St. Alexander Nevksy in Paris, a church well known to the four new saints. It was here that Fr. Dimitri was ordained a priest. When the icon of the four was carried into the church many were weeping with paschal joy. May the example given by these four brave disciples help us to be better witnesses to the Gospel.

It seems appropriate that this issue also includes a new translation by Fr. Paul Schroeder of an important text on hunger and famine from St. Basil the Great, who responded not only with word but action to the urgent needs of others, no matter what their belief or condition. It is remembered that in times of crisis he could be found at work in a soup kitchen clad in an apron. “Give but a little,” he taught, “and you will gain much; undo the primal sin by sharing your food.”

We are grateful to Timothy Beach for his reflections on the future of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship and look forward to hearing reader responses. This issue also includes a moving account of the impact of the Liturgy on a recent convert to the Orthodox Church, Mary Ward.

We once again appeal for your help to keep the Orthodox Peace Fellowship going. Subscription payments alone are not enough to pay the bills. Especially now that we have a staff person on each side of the Atlantic, we need to substantially enlarge our base of support. Please send a donation.

— Jim Forest, OPF co-secretary