The Russian film “Mat’ Marija” (director Sergej Kolosov, Mosfilm 1982)
links assembled by: Michael Maillard, Berlin
The Russian film “Mat’ Marija” (director Sergej Kolosov, Mosfilm 1982)
links assembled by: Michael Maillard, Berlin
Mother Maria Skobtsova, Martyr of Sobornost
By Matthew Franklin Cooper
On the 31st of March, we celebrate the dies natalis of Mother Maria (Skobtsova), a beloved martyr and witness to Christ among the Russian émigré population in France. Her “Essential Writings” are particularly recommended during this Lenten season, as her essays, though brief, are spiritually and personally challenging on a number of levels. My apologies in advance to my readers – but if I quote Mother Maria directly once too often herein, please understand that it is not due to a lack of reflection on my part so much as an awe of the depth of her work, that I cannot bring myself to express her ideas better than she expresses them herself.
The association Jim Forest of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship (which hosts a considerable collection of resources on her life and works) makes between her and Dorothy Day is not at all coincidental. Her life, like that of Dorothy Day, was decidedly not what one might expect of a saint, though of course no two saints are ever completely alike. Mother Maria Skobtsova, in her youth, had been a member of the left-populist, peasant-driven Socialist-Revolutionary Party which had been outlawed by Trotsky, and lived its fate in an all-too-personal way. She narrowly avoiding execution in late 1917 after her party was disbanded, later became deputy mayor of the small town of Anapa in Krasnodar, was captured by the White Army and put on trial as a Bolshevik, and saved again from the gallows by Daniel Skobtsov, a judge who would become her second husband. Their family fled first to Georgia, then to Yugoslavia, and finally to Paris. Even though she had no taste at all for Marxism after her run-in with Trotsky, and though she abhored the brutalities she witnessed in the Russian Revolution, as Olivier Clément writes, she ‘became a Christian without ever having stopped being the socialist revolutionary, an intellectual of leftist bent’.
Her exile and the tragic death of her daughter to illness led her to take monastic vows which, though canonical, were nevertheless highly idiosyncratic. She lived the ‘new monasticism’ in an unfurnished rented house, amongst her fellow émigrés in the world, which she took to be her cloister. She dedicated herself to an active nonpossession, and kept the door of her house always open to the poor, the unemployed, the sick, the orphaned, the homeless, the mentally-ill; she gave of herself and everything she had to those who needed her help. She also organised discussions on philosophy and on the Orthodox faith from her house, and she maintained close friendships with a number of people in the Russian émigré community of Paris: the philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev, her confessor Fr. Sergey Bulgakov, and the historian Georgiy Fedotov. During the Second World War, her house became a refuge for Jews, and she and Fr. Dmitri Klepenin, another spiritual son of Fr. Sergey Bulgakov and the chaplain of her house, would give baptismal certificates to Jews who sought to flee the country. Eventually the Gestapo shut her down and sent her, along with Fr. Dmitri, her son Yuri, and her friend Ilya Fondaminsky – all of whom eventually met their martyrdoms in Nazi concentration camps. Mother Maria was sent to Ravensbrück, and was eventually put to death in the gas chambers. It is said in some of her hagiographies that she took the place of another woman, a Jew, who had been assigned to be killed that day.
During her life and in her martyrdom, the faith she lived in service to the poor and the faith she discussed in the émigré circles were one. She was devoted to the Mother of God, and even painted a variant of the ikon of the Mother of God Akhtirskaya, portraying the Holy Theotokos embracing the crucified body of Christ her child. Perhaps drawing upon her own experience of losing her daughter, she offered her motherly kindness, as a nun, to a suffering world without reservation or exception. She was insistent that the love of God could be lived only through a radical openness to the sufferings and the struggles of one’s neighbour – that only through keeping the second commandment of Christ in the Gospel could the first even become possible. And throughout her writings, she holds up and defends from a Patristic basis the Russian religious-philosophical idea of sobornost’, of radical dynamic community which is at the same time freeing and completing of the person who participates in it.
Her writings attest deeply to how her radical Socialist-Revolutionary ideals stuck with her. She gave up the idle hope that human revolution could achieve anything on its own terms, but she never gave up hope that all things could and would be achieved through Christ. Indeed, in her essays, she excoriates both capitalism and communism by name for their mutilation and violent enslavement of the human person, and ends up advocating something that looks very much like distributism:
In fact, mankind has enough experience of the two opposing systems of coercion and violence. The old coercion of the capitalist regime, which destroys the right to life and leaves one only with the right to labour, has recently begun to deprive people of that right as well. Forced crisis, forced unemployment, forced labour, joyless and with no inner justification—enough of all that. But try going to the opposite system. It turns out to be the system of communist enforcement: the same joyless labour under the rod, well-organised slavery, violence, hunger—enough of that, too. It is clear to everybody that we must seek a path to free, purposeful and expedient labour, that we must take the earth as a sort of garden that it is incumbent upon us to cultivate. Who doubts that?
Her leftist bent extends to her personal ethics as well as to her social ones. She is highly critical of the tendency she saw within the Church to withdraw into one’s own shell of piety, to take only the vertical beam of the Cross descending from God to the individual man, and to leave behind the horizontal beam which embraces the other men and women around him as well. For Mother Maria, not only the crass and obvious impiety of greed, but also the much more subtle and insidious impiety of a philanthropy that is only seen as an occasion for the improvement of one’s own virtue or an exercise for the good of one’s own soul, is a form of selfishness which runs contrary to the Gospel. She writes:
A person should have a more attentive attitude to his brother’s flesh than to his own. Christian love teaches us to give our brother not only material but also 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 organise 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 exactly the same, whether he acts on an individual or a social level; what matters is that his social work be based on love for his neighbour and not have any latent career or material purposes.
The social element of Christianity is, indeed, for her so inseparable from the core of Orthodox spirituality and the Gospel message, that she even criticises those Christians of like mind to her, who base their actions and their programmes not on the basis of an authentic Orthodox Christian (or Catholic, or Protestant) witness but instead upon the false ground of secular humanism.
The most doubtful, disputable and unsatisfying thing about all the concepts of… ‘social Christianity’… is their secondary character, their incommensurability with the idea of Christian life understood as communion with God. … All the trends of social Christianity known to us are based on a certain rationalistic humanism, apply only the principle of Christian morality to this world, and do not seek a spiritual and mystical basis for their constructions.
To make social Christianity not only Christian-like but truly Christian, it is necessary to bring it out of flat soulfulness and two-dimensional moralism into the depths of multi-dimensional spirituality. To substantiate it mystically and spiritually. It seems to me that this coincides precisely with what Orthodoxy—which has not yet spoken in this area—can and must say; it will give greater depth to Catholic and Protestant attempts to turn a Christian face to the world.
Throughout Mother Maria’s work there is always this similar challenge. Typically of Russian religious philosophy, Saint Maria places upon herself the demand of complete commitment, and will brook no compromises or comfortable lies. The Christian life is not truly or fully Christian until it ‘faces the desert’, an image to which she, being well-versed both in the Desert Fathers and in the ‘holy fools’ of the Church, continually returns. The reality of the Russian exile haunts her every page, and she is keenly aware of it. She writes with very few comforts for those Orthodox exiles who want to withdraw and take refuge in the old trappings of the state, of ritual, or of the æsthetic forms of Church life; she calls them instead – lovingly, but insistently – to the radical witness to Christ’s life and death in their own lives.
And yet there is also all too much in Mother Maria’s writings to discomfort and disorient those who are expecting to see in her a liberal and an œcumenist. She was neither. Early in her life she was a penpal of the arch-traditionalist Ober-Procurator of the Most Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church himself, Konstantin Pobedonostsev; Olivier Clément alludes that it was from him that she learned the personal ‘love of neighbour as opposed to love of those far away’. The three authors she alludes to most fondly are Aleksei Khomyakov, Fyodor Dostoevsky and Vladimir Solovyov, and it’s clear that she has absorbed much of their romantic-conservative Slavophil temperament. She has some notably harsh words for ‘godless and giftless… cool, uncreative, imitative… secular democracy’, which in her mind amounted to a form of ‘mystical totalitarianism’.
In the fog of the Second World War, she sees straight through those who claimed – and indeed, still claim in modern times, in the case of the EU and NATO – to be ‘defending the right cause, fighting for the liberation of national minorities, or for the federal organisation of Europe, or for democracy’. Not only does she bluntly say that these things are ‘not enough’, but she deliberately likens them to those pitiable flights of fancy to which Dostoevsky’s Underground Man was prone, and further posits that no one truly wants to or should die for such milquetoast abstract ideals: ‘your life is greater and your death is greater’ than the sum total of these things. The personalism-in-sobornost’ Mother Maria insists on cannot be reduced to such paper-thin abstractions. She speaks with dismay of the ‘religious League of Nations’ whose highfalutin, carefully-worded statements of unity were totally inadequate to halt the advances of fascism and Bolshevism – both ideologies which she deems, referring to the Brothers Karamazov, to be ‘Smerdyakovism enthroned’. And she has some critical things to say – perhaps, from the point-of-view of many readers here, too critical – of Pope Pius XI, whose ‘diplomatic subtlety and refinement’ in addressing German Christians she deemed fatally ill-suited to the spirit of the times, and whom she likens to a ‘sympathetic acquaintance at a funeral’ who is unaware of how the gates of eternity opened at the cataclysmic catastrophe being faced by Europe.
And perhaps under the influence of Solovyov, she sees in consistent pacifism ‘something egoistically vegetarian… which makes one sick at heart’. In truth, she rejects, just as Chesterton and Solovyov do, the idea of wars of choice, pre-emptive wars, wars of aggression; she holds the ‘motivation of the robber’ to be utterly incompatible and at odds with the Christian life. But ‘much more complicated’ for Mother Maria, ‘is the question of enduring war, of passive participation, of war in defence’. She is not unaware of the terrible human and civilisational costs of war, and clearly sympathises with the pacifist denunciation of the same. But her maternal compunction is what leads her to pity the most powerless in war, as well as those who come to their defence, and it is what leads her to point to God’s presence even in the worst desolation.
Mother Maria’s understanding of freedom is complex in a similar but perhaps obverse way to her thoughts on war. Clearly she is influenced here by her reading of Dostoevsky: freedom is a vital necessity to the Christian life; in all things free participation is called-for, and there is no part of the Christian life that can be forced. Her excoriations of capitalism and communism for their totalitarian demands on the human person are evidence enough of the value she places on freedom, rightly considered. And yet at the same time, she understands what a terrible thing, what a privation, the prescription of the ‘freedom’ of exile has been for the Russian émigrés. ‘We have lost our weightiness,’ she writes, ‘lost our corporeality, acquired an enormous mobility and lightness, become unbound… we are almost like shadows.’
And yet it is a privation in which an even more terrible and urgent call is present: the call to again live the Gospel in a meaningful and creative way, without seeking refuge in the pieties of a motherland they no longer lived in, and without succumbing to the ‘spiritual philistinism, spiritual mediocrity, lukewarmness’ of the deadening liberal culture sheltering them. Even more so than when the first Russian monks set out into the wastelands of Siberia, she comprehends the call to a ‘new monasticism’ among the Russian émigrés in the streets and apartment complexes of the totally-foreign cities in which they’ve landed. But even as she sympathises maternally with the plight of her fellow émigrés – ‘hard as it is to say to impoverished people, “become still more impoverished”’ – she still holds forth bluntly the ‘inner command’, that ‘our God-given freedom calls us to activity and struggle’.
And Mother Maria was active and struggled to the very last. She was, as Jim Forest rightly notes, a great comfort to those who were imprisoned with her in the ‘hell’ of Ravensbrück. Even in a place where human dignity had utterly stripped away from everyone, even in a place where – to borrow Forest’s description – obscenity, contempt and hatred were as commonplace as hunger, illness and death, Mother Maria provided the inmates with a family and a refuge. She once again organised discussion circles and kept evening prayers, brought French and Soviet prisoners alike together, and shared even what little food she got with those who had still less, until her health failed and her friends would not allow her to give away any more.
Mother Maria pointed to God’s presence even in the worst of places and in the worst of times; in many instances, she herself was a great testament to that presence. She lived under regimes of great turbulence, depravity and cruelty. Yet, in spite of them, she witnessed throughout to a much higher ideal worthy of struggle: that of the Kingdom of God as realised in sobornost’.
As witnesses of truth and preachers of piety,
Let us worthily honor through divinely inspired chants:
Dimitry and Maria, George and Elias,
Who have borne the sufferings,
The bonds and unjust judgment,
In which like the martyrs
Have received the imperishable crown.
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Matthew Cooper is a parishioner and choir baritone at Saint Sava’s Serbian Orthodox Church in South Saint Paul, Minnesota a father of two, a former English teacher and now a data analyst working in the field of higher education. He has published articles online at Solidarity Hall, Christian Democracy Magazine, Oriental Review and Front Porch Republic, and runs the blog The Heavy Anglo-Orthodox. A slightly different version of this article was first published in The Dorothy Option.
* * *
by Jean-Claude Larchet
ALTHOUGH IT IS natural and usual to love those who love us and to do good to those who do good to us (Mat.t 5:46-47; Luke 6:32-33), to love our enemies is distasteful to our nature. One can say that it isn’t in our power but is an attitude that can only be the fruit of grace, given by the Holy Spirit. This is why St. Silouan the Athonite writes, “The soul that has not known the Holy Spirit does not understand how one can love one’s enemies, and does not accept it.”
The starets repeatedly says that love of enemies is impossible without grace. “Lord, You have given the commandment to love enemies, but this is difficult for us sinners if Your grace is not with us…. Without God’s grace we cannot love our enemies…. He who has not learned to love from the Holy Spirit, will certainly not pray for his enemies.” On the contrary, St. Silouan always taught that this attitude is a gift of the Holy Spirit: “The Lord has commanded us to love our enemies, and the Holy Spirit reveals this love to us…. When you will love your enemies, know that a great divine grace will be living in you.”
This grace does not suddenly erupt in the soul, but rather shows itself in a divine pedagogy, where taking into account the weakness and the difficulties of man, the Holy Spirit progressively teaches him to love and teaches him all the attitudes and ways which will al-low him to do so. “The Holy Spirit teaches us to love even our enemies…. The Holy Spirit teach-es the soul a profound love for man and compassion for the lost. The Lord had pity for those who were lost…. The Holy Spirit teach-es this same compassion for those who go to hell…. I could not speak about it if the Holy Spirit had not taught me this love…. The Lord taught me love of enemies.”
The grace of the Holy Spirit shows to him who possesses it the way to love his enemies. But it also reveals to him the foundation of this love: the love of God for all people and His will to save them. “No man can know by himself what divine love is if the Holy Spirit does not instruct him; but in our Church divine love is known through the Holy Spirit, and that is why we speak about it.” Grace also “gives man the capacity and the strength to love his enemies, and the Spirit of God gives us the strength to love them.”
Starets Silouan insisted that because love of enemies is a fruit of grace, it is essentially only through prayer that it can be obtained. Several times he urges us to “ask the Lord with our whole being to give us the strength to love all men.” He also advised to pray to the Mother of God and the Saints. “If we are incapable [of loving our enemies] and if we are without love, let us turn with ardent prayers to the Lord, to His Most Pure Mother, and to all the Saints, and the Lord will help us with everything, He whose love for us knows no bounds.” The starets confessed that he himself constantly prayed to God for this. “I continuously beg the Lord to give me the love of enemies…. Day and night I ask the Lord for this love.” Wishing in his universal love for all men to receive such a gift, he links them to himself in his prayer. “Lord, teach us through Your Holy Spirit to love our enemies and to pray for them with tears…. Lord, as you prayed for your enemies, so teach us also, through the Holy Spirit, to love our enemies.”
Yet obtaining the grace to love one’s enemies presupposes other conditions.
The love of enemies is completely bound to the love of God. We have seen that the principal foundation for the love of enemies is the love that God shows to all His creatures equally and His will that all people should be saved. Christ gave us a perfect example of such love throughout his earthly life. The love of God leads man to accomplish His will and to imitate Him as much as possible, and so also to love his enemies. The starets thus noted that he who does not love his enemies shows that he has not learned from the Holy Spirit to love God.
To love one’s enemies is also tightly bound to humility. The starets often associated these two virtues, pointing out that almost all the difficulties we encounter in loving our enemies are linked with pride, from which flows the afflictions that follow upon insults: hatred, bad temper, spite, the desire for revenge, contempt for one’s neighbor, and the refusal to forgive and to be reconciled.
But even while pride excludes the love of enemies, love excludes pride. “If we love our enemies, pride will have no place in our soul.” Further, it is the link between humility and love of enemies that proves the presence of grace and the authenticity of love. “If you have compassion for all creatures and love your enemies, and if at the same time you judge yourself the worst of all people, this shows that the great grace of the Lord is in you.”
Indeed humility is the indispensable condition to receive and keep the grace that teaches us to love our enemies and gives us the strength to do so. The starets advises us, if you “humiliate yourself, then grace will teach you.” On the other hand, “pride makes us lose grace…. The soul is then tormented by bad thoughts and does not understand that one must humiliate oneself and love one’s enemies, for without that, one cannot please God.”
The starets sometimes also stressed the role played by peni-tence in connection with humility. “Regard yourself the worst of men,” he advises. Doing so mani-fests an attitude of great humility, which by its nature implies peni-tence. He who counts himself the worst of men necessarily thinks others better than himself and will judge and blame himself without the need to judge and criticize his enemies, for he tends to estimate them better than himself.
St. Silouan also exemplified another aspect of a penitential attitude, that of asking God’s for-giveness each time one has not loved one’s enemy. “If I judge someone or look at him angrily, my tears dry up and I fall into despondency and again I start asking the Lord to forgive me, and the merciful Lord forgives me, a sinner…. Through such an attitude, by which the soul humbly recognizes before God its faults and shortcomings and obtains from Him forgiveness, an opening can be made that becomes bigger and bigger for grace and unceasing progress in love. As to a total absence of compassion for enemies, it shows the presence and the action of an evil spirit; sincere repentance is the only way to be freed from it.”
This insistence on prayer, humility, and penitence shows that, although St. Silouan recognized the determining role the action of grace plays in acquiring love of enemies, he did not neglect the role played by the efforts we must make. The starets was very conscious of the importance of our initiating action. “I beg you, try,” he states, “In the beginning, force your heart to love your enemies.” The efforts one makes must manifest themselves generally with focused intention and constant good will, stretched toward the realization of God’s command. God will not fail to respond to such effort.
For the person who feels discouraged by such a demanding task, St. Silouan reassures him. “Seeing your good intention, the Lord will help you in everything.” The starets who felt in himself so acutely human powerlessness and weakness seemed to think constantly of these words of the Apostle: “I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength” (Phil. 4:13) and witnesses in his own experience the mighty help that everyone can receive from God.
LOVE IS AN interior disposition that cannot be described adequately, but one can specify conditions and manifestations. In this way it is possible, by close attention to the wisdom of the Fathers, to define different steps in the love of enemies, from the most elementary to the highest. What follows is such a list of twenty-six steps that serves to summarize St. Silouan’s teaching on the love of enemies. This classification in steps does not of course pretend to establish a rigorous hierarchy. Some attitudes can be considered as being on different levels but each attitude more or less implies the others. Thus love, particularly this most difficult of all loves, may be analyzed in parts but in the end is a disposition that exists as a whole and is indivisible.
The first step, says St. John Chrysostom, is not to be the first to cause harm.
The second step is not to take revenge in the measure one has suffered.
While the two first degrees do not seem to concern the love of enemies, they are its preconditions. The tendency to attack one’s enemies or to take revenge is instinctive and spontaneous, and receives its approbation from the Old Testament law of retaliation when taken in its most literal meaning.
The third step is not to take revenge at all, but to leave that to God, as the Apostle Paul said: “Recompense to no man evil for evil” (Rom. 12:17); “Avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord” (Rom. 12:19). St. Isaac the Syrian gives the same advice: “Let yourself be persecuted, but do not persecute. Let yourself be crucified, but do not crucify. Let yourself be insulted, but do not insult.”
The fourth step is not to resist. This attitude was advised by Christ: “But I say unto you that you resist no evil” (Matt. 5:39).
The fifth step is not to be irritated by what our enemies do to us (St. Maximus the Confessor, Centuries on Charity 1:38, 2:49), but to bear, to show patience, to endure all we are made to suffer, following the example and exhortation of the Apostle: “Being persecuted, we suffer it” (1 Cor. 4:12), and “For ye suffer if a man bring you into bondage, if a man devour you, if a man take of you, if a man exalt himself, if a man smite you on the face” (2 Cor. 11:20).
The sixth step is not to get inwardly upset about insults, abuse, trials and affliction that our enemies make us suffer, or as St. Simeon the New Theologian puts it: “not to turn a hair during trials and to have an equable and uniform attitude towards those who abuse one face-to-face, who accuse, persecute, condemn, insult, spit, or even to those who make a show of friendship and behind one’s back act in the same way that they can’t completely hide.” We must add that this can happen on different planes, as this attitude also has different steps. On the lowest step it can be allied to contempt, and so be the opposite to love; one step higher it can be allied to indifference, and so still not be in accordance with love; on a higher plane it can show that one has attained impassibility, and higher still, be allied to true charity.
The seventh step is to consider offenses as a gift, to rejoice about them, and to thank God for them. He who has reached this step understands the meaning of these words of Christ: “Blessed are you, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake” (Matt. 5:11). The Fathers advise us to consider the person who offends us as a physician providentially come to cure our souls of its diseases, particularly pride and vainglory. They emphasize the profit one can gain from what one is made to suffer. St. Zosima said, “If someone remembers a brother who has hurt, injured, or insulted him, he must regard him as a doctor and benefactor sent by Christ. If you get upset in these circumstances, it means your soul is sick. Indeed, if you were not sick, you would not suffer. So give thanks to this brother, for through him you know your illness. Pray for him and receive what comes from him as medicine sent to you by the Lord.” St. John of Gaza writes, “If we are just, the trial sent us [by our enemies] is for our progress, and if we are unjust, it is for the remission of sins and our improvement; it is also an exercise and a lesson in endurance.”
The eighth step is to offer yourself voluntarily to suffer offenses. This attitude is advised by Christ and recorded for us in the Gospel. “Whosoever shall strike thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also” (Matt. 5:39).
The ninth step is to want to suffer more than one is asked to endure.
The tenth step is to feel no hate for those who ill treat us.
The eleventh step is to feel no rancor, wrath, or re-sentment towards our ene-mies. St. John Climacus wrote, “Charity is first of all to reject every thought of enmity, because charity thinks no ill” (1 Cor. 13:5).
The twelfth step is not to accuse our enemies, not to criticize them, not to speak ill of them, not even to reveal the harm they have done to us.
The thirteenth step is not to despise them.
The fourteenth step is to feel no trace of aversion or repulsion towards them.
The fifteenth step is not to feel the slightest bitterness towards them or to the memory of what they have done to us nor the slightest sadness.
The sixteenth step is not to judge them at all and only to consider one’s own faults. This in answer to Christ’s teaching to “Judge not, that ye be not judged…. [and] Why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye” (Matt. 7:1-3)?
The seventeenth step is to sincerely forgive them. This attitude makes us worthy to petition God for the forgiveness of our own faults as the Lord taught us, asking “And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors” (Matt. 6:12), and shows that we take seriously the words of Christ that “if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you” (Matt. 6:14). This forgiveness in its highest form does not even remember what one has suffered. St. Simeon the New Theologian notes that in this degree, love of enemies consists in “covering with total oblivion what one has suffered” so that we “think of nothing that has happened, whether the persecutors are present or absent.”
Still these seventeen first steps don’t take us into what is love proper although they form indispensable conditions and preparatory stages one must pass. Love is not simply the absence of enmity but rather is superior to it. In this respect St. Maximus the Confessor writes, “To feel no envy, no wrath, no bitterness towards the offender does not yet mean to have love for him.” One can, without any love, avoid rendering evil for evil because of the commandment. Not to hate someone does not yet mean to love him. One can feel for him something between the two that is neither love nor hate. It is the following steps that will bring us to real love.
The eighteenth step is to strive to be reconciled with one’s enemies as ordained by Christ: “First be reconciled with thy brother” (Matt. 5:24), “Agree with thine adversary quickly, while thou art in the way with him” (Matt. 5:25). By this attitude we show a desire for union that is the foundation of love, contrary to which is the tendency toward division and separation.
The nineteenth step is to feel pity and compassion for them. This attitude is in answer to Christ’s counsel, given in the context of His teaching on the love of enemies. “Be ye therefore merciful, as your Father also is merciful” (Luke 6:36). This is how St. Isaac the Syrian describes him who has real compassion for all beings in creation, and so also for his enemies: “When he thinks of them, and when he sees them, tears run from his eyes. So strong and so violent is his compassion, and so great is his constancy that it wrings his heart and he can’t bear to hear or to see the least harm or the slightest sadness in creation.”
The twentieth step implies renouncing being avenged by God but also wishing that He will not punish our enemies. The Apostle’s instruction––“Avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath, for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord” (Rom. 12:19)—seems to have been given to beginners hardly able to give up their own revenge. This twentieth step consists positively in wanting God to forgive our enemies, to keep and save them.
The twenty-first step is to pray to God for them. This attitude is in answer to Christ’s command to “pray for them which despitefully use you and persecute you” (Matt. 5:44, Luke 6:28). It is evident so far that praying for enemies is implied, but to this point, it has been a means of avoiding and being purified from undesirable attitudes like hate, spite, resentment, and pride. In the higher stages, prayer is no longer for oneself but for the other: it leads to compassion and to love for the enemy and permits positive attitudes to develop and strengthen. It consists in asking God to take pity on him, forgive him his sins, save him, and give him what is best. A sorrowful heart and tears are the sign that the prayer is deep, sincere, and motivated by real compassion. St. Isaac the Syrian writes “He who is compassionate prays tearfully, at all hours, for the animals without reason, for the enemies of truth, and for all who harm him, so that they be kept and forgiven.” “He who loves his enemies,” says St. Maximus, “will even suffer for them if the chance is given to him.”
The twenty-second step is to have affection for them. St. Simeon notes that at this level love consists in “loving them from the bottom of the soul, and more still in engraving in oneself the face of each one of them, to kiss them impassibly as true friends with tears of sincere charity.”
The twenty-third step, then, is to begin to wish and do them good. This attitude is in answer to the commandments of Christ to “bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you” (Matt. 5:44; cf Luke 6:27-28), to “love you your enemies and do good” (Luke 6:35), and “as you would that men should do to you, do you also to them likewise” (Luke 6:31). These commandments the Apostle repeats, saying, “Bless them which persecute you, bless and curse not” (Rom. 12:14), “Provide things honest in the sight of all men” (Rom. 12:17), and “Therefore if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him drink” (Rom. 12:20). In their behavior, the Apostles show the attitude “being reviled, we bless” (1 Cor. 4:12).
When a man who was being ill-treated asked him how to act, St. John of Gaza had only one answer: “Do good to him.” St. Isaac advises to “Show the greatness of your compassion by rendering good to those who were unjust to you,” and he writes that “it is a great thing to do good to sinners more than to the just.” St. Maximus teaches that one only really loves when one is able to “return naturally good for evil” and that “to be capable of doing good to those who hate us is only given to perfect spiritual love.” Love, then, does not only consist of doing good to our enemies, but also in thinking well of them.
The twenty-fourth step is to consider those who harm us in the same way as those who do us good and to love them in the same way. St. Barsanuphios teaches that one must manage “to consider he who strikes as he who caresses, he who despises as he who esteems, he who insults as he who honors, he who afflicts as he who consoles.” More than all the Fathers, St. Maximus advises us to treat all men equally and to love them all without making any difference, friends or enemies, just or sinners. He wrote, “Blessed the man who can love all men equally…. He who is good and impassive, by the disposition of his will, loves equally all men, the just for their nature and their good disposition, the sinners for their nature and with the compassionate pity one has for a fool wandering in the night.” He adds that “perfect love loves all men equally. He loves the virtuous as friends, and the depraved as enemies…. If you detest some people and feel for others neither love nor hate, if you love these but moderately and those very much, know by this inequality that you are still far from perfect, as [perfect love] loves all men equally.” Indeed “the friends of Christ truly love all beings.” St. Isaac the Syrian gives the same teaching: “Consider all men, whether unbelievers or murderers, as equal in good and honor, and that each one by his nature is your brother, even if without knowing it he has wandered from the truth…. Compassion,” he says “is a sadness born from grace; it feels for all beings with the same affection…. He who loves all beings equally, with compassion and discernment, has reached perfection.”
The twenty-fifth step is to treat our enemies in the same way as our friends. “He who really loves his enemies,” writes St. Simeon, is capable of “receiving them too as friends at meeting for meals, without at all returning to the past.” St. John Chrysostom says the same: “We act towards them who have harmed us as towards real friends, and love them as ourselves.”
The twenty-sixth step is to love our enemies not only as ourselves, but more than ourselves. Charity, says St. Maximus, “leads harmoniously to this praiseworthy inequality through which each prefers his neighbor to himself, as much as in the past he wanted to push him to the side and put himself forward.” In the Apophthegmata, we read that the monks of Sketes in the desert west of the Nile Delta sought to love their enemies even more than themselves.
Again, the enumeration of these steps does not estab-lish a formulaic method or lay out a strict progression one must follow in a precise order, but instead they lay out a mosaic comprised of the many lessons St. Silouan learned in his own life. Our classification is mainly peda-gogical; it tries to help us understand that the love of enemies has many compo-nents, that its acquisition is the result of numerous de-mands and is only possible after a gradual and coordinated interior effort. It also wishes to stress that there are different levels of quality and of intensity that some, who haven’t fought long to reach them, will barely understand.
But, if one examines the teaching of St. Silouan on the love of enemies, one notices that while he is not unaware of the elementary steps, he mostly considers the higher levels. This confirms what we have already said, that the teaching of the starets is the expression of a personal experience at the highest level of spiritual life.
For the person as yet unable to love his enemies, St. Silouan teaches that at least he must not hate them, curse them, or snub them, and must refuse thoughts of anger against them. In that way at least progress is made towards love.
The love of enemies implies that one not only must bear the afflictions that they make us suffer, but also that one suffers them with joy for God’s sake. It also implies correlatively that one thanks God for all these afflictions. As we have seen, they contribute to our spiritual progress and for this reason must be received as a providential gift of God for our salvation.
The love of enemies also implies that, face-to-face with the violence one suffers, one should maintain peace of soul and body. In other words, not only must one not show irritation in return, but one must not even become agitated. Starets Silouan also recommends that in learning to not accuse his enemies, one must not think badly about them or even judge them at all. Rather than accuse others, we must feel guilty ourselves.
For the starets, the love of enemies supposes that one forgives them their offenses and prays for them. But forgiving is not yet loving; prayer can precede love and not yet be a manifestation of it. “When I was still in the world, I liked to forgive with all my heart,” he said. “I forgave easily and I liked to pray for those who had offended me, but when I came to the monastery, while I was still a novice, I received a great grace and it taught me to love my enemies.”
St. Silouan sees compassion as one of the principal dimensions of the love of enemies. Such compassion consists first of all in feeling pity for them. This pity is partly a result of being conscious that those who harm us or want to do so have a sick soul and act under a demonic influence. In this condition, they suffer profoundly. To the question, “How can a subordinate keep a peaceful soul if his superior is a violent and bad man?” the starets answers, “An irascible man endures great suffering caused by a bad spirit. He suffers torment because of his pride. The subordinate must know this and pray for the sick soul of his superior.”
On the other hand, this pity results from the knowledge that he who causes harm and is opposed to the truth or doesn’t know it, lives aloof from God, deprives himself of His gifts, wanders far from the way to salvation, and is heading for the plains of hell, the beginning of which he already suffers here on earth. “The soul has compassion for enemies and prays for them because they have wandered away from the truth and are going to hell…. A good man thinks, ‘each man who has wandered far from the truth is going to his fall,’ and this is why he feels pity for him…. He who has been taught by the Holy Spirit to love will suffer all his life for those who don’t save themselves. Many tears run down his cheeks for mankind, and the divine grace gives him strength to love his enemies…. They are to be pitied who don’t know God and are opposed to Him––my heart suffers for them and tears run down my cheeks. We can clearly see both Paradise and the torments––we know this through the Holy Spirit, and the Lord Himself said, “the Kingdom of God is in you” (Luke 17:21). So eternal life already starts here on earth, and the eternal torments too start here.”
We see here that pity is accompanied by compassion, that it consists in suffering what others are suffering as if one felt it oneself, in showing true solidarity with them in their suffering, in putting oneself in their place in their troubles. Such is an authentic and unlimited love. The starets gives us an example of his own compassion that is deeply lived, is accompanied by pain and tears, and is permanent. It is as deep as what one feels for one’s loved ones when they are in pain or trouble. “The Lord teaches us to love enemies in such a way that we will feel compassion for them as for our own children.” We must, says the starets, be compassionate not only for our own enemies and the enemies of truth, but for the demons who suffer infernal pains for turning away from God and denying Him in their voluntary deprivation of heavenly goods, their refusal to love God and to be loved by Him. “Taught by the Holy Spirit, one will feel com-passion even for demons, for they are separated from goodness, they have lost humility and God’s love.”
For the starets, compassion for enemies is linked to the compassion one must have for all creatures without exception: “One must feel compassion for every person, every creature and all of God’s creation.”
“The Spirit of God teaches us to love all that exists, and the soul feels compassion for each being, and also loves enemies and pities demons, because in their fall they were detached from the good.” Compassion makes no exceptions. “There are people who wish damnation and the torments in the fire of hell for their enemies or enemies of the Church. They think in this way because they haven’t learned from the Holy Spirit to love God. He who has learned love weeps for the whole world! You say, ‘Let him burn in the fire of hell!’ But I ask you, ‘If God gave you a good place in Paradise and that from there you could see in the fire the man to whom you wished this torment, wouldn’t you feel pity for him, whoever he is, even if he is an enemy to the Church?’ Or do you have a heart of metal?”
The starets felt so much pity and compassion for those who have to endure the sufferings of hell because he had himself experienced the beatitude of Paradise and the dreadful wretchedness of hell, and he knew the painful distance that separated both. For him, the love of enemies implies wishing and doing good to them. He who loves his enemies wants what is best for them—that they should repent, know God, and obtain the grace of salvation. “We must only have one thought,” says St. Silouan “that all be saved.”
Another factor of the love of enemies on which St. Silouan insists is prayer. “It is a great work in God’s eyes to pray for those who offend us and who make us suffer.” For the starets, prayer for and love of enemies are intimately connected. “The Lord has given on earth the Holy Spirit who teaches the soul to love our enemies and to pray for them…. Lord, teach us through your Holy Spirit to love our enemies and to pray for them with tears…. Lord, as You prayed for your enemies, teach us also, through the Holy Spirit, to love our enemies…. The soul that has been taught to pray by the grace of God loves with compassion all creatures, and especially man.”
Prayer indeed awakens in us love for our enemies, and at the same time results from love and is a witness to it. Prayer not only awakens the love of enemies, the love of enemies awakens prayer.
Praying for enemies first permits one to obtain from God the grace to love them. “One can only love one’s enemies through the grace of the Holy Spirit. That’s why, as soon as someone has hurt you, pray to God for him…. To have a peaceful soul, one must get used to loving him who has offended us and to pray immediately for him. The soul cannot have peace if it doesn’t with all its strength ask the Lord for the gift of loving all men.” But prayer is also what permits us to retain the grace of loving enemies once it has been obtained. “The man who hasn’t been taught by the Holy Spirit to love will certainly not pray for his enemies.” The pity and compassion that one feels for enemies, conscious that they have wandered away from God, are deprived of divine goods and are heading for their ruin, lead one to pray for their escape from the ills they will have to suffer. They also lead one to pray to God for them to repent and turn away from their bad ways, for them to know him and be saved. “The Lord has given on earth the Holy Spirit who teaches the soul to love enemies and pray for them so that they will be saved. That is love…. The man who carries in him the Holy Spirit has a heart full of compassion for all of God’s creatures and especially for the people who don’t know God or are opposed to Him and who for this reason will go into the tormenting fire. He prays day and night––more than for himself––for them all to repent and know the Lord…. ‘Lord, all peoples are the work of Your hands; turn them away from hate and wickedness to repentance so that they all may know Your love.’” IC
Jean-Claude Larchet is professor of philosophy and a specialist in Patristics living in France. This is a section of a longer essay published in Buisson Ardent by the Association Saint-Silouane l’Athonite in the society’s journal (Maxime Egger, secretary, Le Sel de la Terre, 79 avenue C-F Ramuz, CH-1009 Pully, Switzerland). The translation was made by Mother Lydia of the Orthodox Cloister of St. John the Forerunner in The Hague.
BLACK AS SIN and white as snow. That was Abba Moses, the 4th century, desert Saint, known not only for the dark color of his skin, but the deep stain of sin from which he was eventually cleansed and declared by his Bishop to “be wholly white.” A conspicuously large man with a particularly violent nature, he was once the leader of a gang of thieves, a carouser, and a brawler. Today, the region of Northeast Africa he once called home remains a tough neighborhood, without sufficient resources, and plagued by people who share Moses’ nasty disposition.Also known as St. Moses the Ethiopian, he was for a time a slave in Egypt. Nubia,Egypt, and Ethiopia (Moses was by one account, Nubian) together covered an area with a length nearly equal to the distance from San Francisco to New York, or from Gibraltar to Kiev, so it is difficult to say exactly where Moses was from, but we know from tradition that his robber gang traveled up and down the Nile, near the vicinity inhabited by the desert monastics. It was in the valley Wadi al-Natrun, then known as the Scetis Valley (from which we get skete as a type of monastic community), that Moses sought refuge from authorities seeking to capture him. And it was here that he would slowly convert to Christianity and eventually die a saintly Father of the desert Christians.
In the Sayings of the Desert Fathers (also collected under various other titles),we find many stories of the life and words of Abba Moses. Two aspects of his life commend him to us and bring him to the pages of our journal. One is the nature of his life and conversion, notably that he struggled mightily and long with his violent nature, even as a monk, but eventually became known for his non-violence. The second is that he is African, and he is here today to draw our attention to his home in East Africa where millions in Ethiopia, Kenya, and Somalia suffer from violence,disease, and famine.
Moses the man was once the furthest thing from Moses the Saint. An escaped slave, by one account dismissed for theft, he led a gang of 70 in marauding the countryside. In another account, he sought revenge on a man whose barking dog kept him from an intended robbery. He swam the Nile and found the man gone—hiding buried in the sand—so he killed two of the man’s sheep, swam back across the Nile with them, butchered them, feasted, and walked 50 miles to rejoin his gang.Several accounts note how for years he struggled with temptation to return tohis robber life after he had chosen the monastic way. Once, while alone in his cell,four robbers attacked him. He whipped them, tied them up, slung them over his shoulders and took them to the church where he dumped them, declaring that it was un-Christian to harm them and inquiring what to do with them. When the attackers found out who he was, they repented and joined the community.The Sayings include several stories of Moses’ struggle to keep his peace. In one account, he was insulted and abused but did not respond. When asked if he was as calm on the inside as he appeared on the outside, he replied simply no. Another time,a monk asked his own spiritual father, with specific reference to Abba Moses’ habitual outward calm, what was the value of outward peace if there was no inward peace. The simple reply was that while not perfect, outward calm prevented harm and facilitated God’s grace to others.
An aspect of Moses’ learned humility is captured in a story in The Sayings of the Desert Fathers and is found on the icon on our cover. The story comes in a few form sand recounts a time when Abba Moses was asked to come help settle a disputes involving an offense committed by another brother. St. Moses refused. Eventually,he was prodded to come, so he arrived with either a basket or a sack on his shoulder width a hole in it, trailing sand behind him. When asked what this meant, he replied,according to a different version, “My sins run out behind me and I do not see them,and today I am coming to judge the errors of another.” At his words, the brother was forgiven, restored, and the meeting dismissed.
A deeply moving account tells of the day when “the barbarians” came to the monastic valley and Abba Moses was warned to flee. He refused. He told the monks under his care—the same number as his gang of robbers in his earlier life—to take care for themselves. They asked him again, would he flee? He stood his ground. They asked why, and he responded, neither hostile as in his past nor hopeful with the memory of when the four attacked him in his cell and were captured for Christ, but with clarity of understanding: “I have been expecting this day to come for many years past, so that might be fulfilled the command of our Redeemer, Who said, ‘Those who take up the sword shall perish by the sword.’” He welcomed the visitors on that day to his community, and they killed him, along with the seven who stayed with him. His witness to us is not one of a gentle temperament, not one of naïve hope that those who do not live by the sword shall live long and in peace, but that faithfulness carries a price, as does sin. On that day, St. Moses exhibited outward calm but stood with perfected, inward peace. To some, St. Moses is appropriately the patron saint of non-violence.
But St. Moses is with us in this issue of In Communion for another reason. Quite simply, as he learned kindness, generosity, and hospitality during his long struggle to overcome his own violence and gluttony, he calls to us with a plea to share in prayer and hospitality with those who suffer in East Africa under the worst drought in decades. This has been much in the news, and we have included an item in our own news section, so no more will be said here. We ask simply that each of you would pray with St. Moses for the people of East Africa, that they may find peace and provision for their bodies and souls. And, if you are able and choose to, please consider contributing to International Orthodox Christian Charities (or to any other reliable charity you might prefer), which is working in the region to alleviate immediate suffering and on long term solutions to mitigate the impact of the natural draught cycles that affect the region. Feel free to share your thoughts and experiences,perhaps even a prayer, with the Fellowship on our blog.
❖ IN COMMUNION / issue 62 / October 2011
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.”
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A more detailed account of the life of St. Maria of Pais is posted at:
A collection of links about her, and those who worked with her, is in this section of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship web site:
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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).
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date: November 8, 2011
Mother Maria on the Internet: In Various Languages
Mother Maria on the Internet: In Various Languages
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
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:
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.
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from the Summer 2007 issue of In Communion / IC 46
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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
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.
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.
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