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St. Patrick’s Challenge to Nationalism

by Pieter Dykhorst

This is how we can repay such blessings, when our lives change and we come to know God, to praise and bear witness to his great wonders before every nation under heaven….I testify in truth and in great joy of heart before God and his holy angels that I never had any other reason for returning to that nation from which I had earlier escaped [Ireland], except the gospel and God’s promises.

—St. Patrick

Few saints are as well known or have so much written about them as Saint Patrick, patron saint of Ireland. The body of work attributed to the very real 5th century Christian missionary and saint of that name is so large––and the historical record suggests that much of that work took place over significantly more than the span of one lifetime––that some scholars suggest there must have been two Patricks or that some unknown contemporary shared the work.

The St. Patrick we know, on whom the legend is based, did leave behind a written record that tells us a great deal but far too little to confidently describe his accomplishments. Patrick’s own words suggest that while all of the astounding growth and success of Christianity in Ireland in that period may not be directly attributable to him, his work laid the foundations for much of it.

Patrick left us two documents––a short biography and a letter––that provide a brief sketch of his life, a number of clues about the nature and scope of his ministry, and considerable insight into the nature of his faith, theology, and character. The wide-angle picture they give of his life and ministry offer few details, and together they wouldn’t fill half an issue of In Communion.

Most of the legend of St. Patrick comes from hagiography written down more than a century later. They connect the dots Patrick provides for a more robust picture of his life. But they also conflate his story with what was done by others who came after him. Much in them may be taken as reliably descriptive of Patrick and his life but cannot be taken as factual without additional evidence.

A third narrative informing contemporary notions about Patrick is the popular cultural fiction full of fun things like green beer, leprechauns, and pots of gold.

The Irish are not alone in surrounding an important historical figure with a popular mythology. The society without such mythologies probably does not exist. Patrick is on our cover in this issue for two purposes. Without begrudging Patrick his place in Irish hearts, we want to rescue him from being a saint merely for the Irish and restore him to the whole Church for all to venerate. By getting to know each other’s saints, we engage in bridge building and are drawn into a richer Orthodoxy and away from our tendency to remain too comfortably settled in our jurisdictional, cultural, or ethnic ghettos.

The makeover of Patrick from Orthodox saint to national patron also serves to exemplify how Christians may over time fall prey to erroneous thinking about not only our collective cultural and historical identities but also our Christian identity. By the 15th century, St. Patrick was only one of about thirty-five “pattern day” saints (patrons) in Ireland, albeit possibly the most important. He become Ireland’s Patron Saint when he was made the emblem of Irishness at the rise of Irish nationalism beginning in the 18th century. By teasing Patrick’s narratives apart, we find in him a father of the faith to the Irish around whom they may gather for celebration, but nothing like a national hero.

Very late in his ministry and near the end of his life, Patrick wrote his two documents. They clearly suggest he didn’t write much else, at least not earlier and nothing that might have been intended as a record. His very short Confessio was written self-consciously to the posterity of his Irish children in the faith, and the Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus was written against the chief of a band of murdering and plundering slavers who raided the Christians under Patrick’s care. One may feel a natural skepticism toward autobiographical sketches, but while Patrick’s words erect a bare biographical framework, they convey a profound and believable humility. Reluctant to tell his story, he seems more compelled to talk about God’s faithfulness, his own unworthiness, and his great love for his Irish children in Christ.

Patrick’s confession begins “My name is Patrick. I am a sinner, a simple country person, and the least of all believers. I am looked down upon by many.” And then in one short paragraph, he offers nearly all of what he eventually gives us of the bones of his biography:

My father was Calpornius. He was a deacon; his father was Potitus, a priest, who lived at Bannavem Taburniae [somewhere in Roman Britain]. His home was near there, and that is where I was taken prisoner. I was about sixteen at the time. At that time, I did not know the true God. I was taken into captivity in Ireland, along with thousands of others.

Image of Dumbarton Castle. One theory of Patrick’s origins holds that he came from near Dumbarton in present day Scotland. No one knows where Bannavern Taburniae was.
Image of Dumbarton Castle. One theory of Patrick’s origins holds that he came from near Dumbarton in present day Scotland. No one knows where Bannavern Taburniae was.

He tells us that his story would be long if he told his “each and every deed” in Ireland. But he doesn’t; instead, his biography is really a lengthy confession of God:

So I am…a refugee, and unlearned. I do not know how to provide for the future. But this I know for certain, that before I was brought low, I was like a stone lying deep in the mud. Then he who is powerful came and in his mercy pulled me out, and lifted me up and placed me on the very top of the wall. That is why I must shout aloud in return to the Lord for such great good deeds of his, here and now and forever, which the human mind cannot measure.

So be amazed, all you people great and small who fear God! You well-educated people in authority, listen and examine this carefully. Who was it who called one as foolish as I am from the middle of those who are seen to be wise and experienced in law and powerful in speech and in everything? If I am most looked down upon, yet he inspired me, before others, so that I would faithfully serve the nations with awe and reverence and without blame: the nations to whom the love of Christ brought me. His gift was that I would spend my life, if I were worthy of it, to serving them in truth and with humility to the end.

Only after several paragraphs does Patrick offer just a little more detail about his circumstances. We learn that he and the many with him were taken because they “deserved this, because we had gone away from God, and did not keep his commandments.” He describes his life as a simple shepherd and tells of hearing God’s voice prompting him to escape, which he did after six years; about his years-long journey to return home again; and how he eventually returned to Ireland ––again being directed by God in visions––probably in his forties and over the strong protest of his family. Patrick’s Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus is similarly written in the style of a confession but with a more practical purpose. A lament for the killing and plundering of Christians and an encouragement to his beloved suffering Irish children in Christ, he begins the letter with these words:

I declare that I, Patrick, an unlearned sinner indeed, have been established a bishop in Ireland. I hold quite certainly that what I am, I have accepted from God. I live as an alien among non-Roman peoples, an exile on account of the love of God––he is my witness that this is so…. The truth of Christ stimulates me, for love of neighbors and children: for these, I have given up my homeland and my parents, and my very life to death, if I am worthy of that. I live for my God, to teach these peoples…. With my own hand I have written and put together these words to be given and handed on and sent to the soldiers of Coroticus. I cannot say that they are my fellow-citizens, nor fellow-citizens of the saints of Rome, but fellow-citizens of demons, because of their evil works. By their hostile ways they live in death…. They are blood-stained with the blood of innocent Christians, whose numbers I have given birth to in God and confirmed in Christ.

After descriptions of Coroticus’ crimes, encouragement to the suffering Irish Christians, and a defense of his ministry, Patrick ends with a purposeful appeal:

I ask insistently whatever servant of God is courageous enough to be a bearer of these messages, that it…be read before all the people, especially in the presence of Coroticus himself. If this takes place, God may inspire them to come back to their right senses before God. However late it may be, may they repent of acting so wrongly, the murder of the brethren of the Lord, and set free the baptized women prisoners whom they previously seized. So may they deserve to live for God, and be made whole here and in eternity. Peace to the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

It would be surprising if “each and every deed” of Patrick’s life were not repeated, did not become legendary, and did not also evolve by the time they were written down. by his own testimony, Patrick converted thousands, preached all over Ireland, and had dealings with kings and chieftains––he tells of one king who was quite unhappy when his daughter, guided by Patrick, became a nun. There were also conflations, fictionalizations, and inaccurate attributions. We learn from the legends, for example, that Patrick founded monasteries, faithfully taught about the Trinity to a pantheistic culture, and wrote certain poems and prayers that have survived. Likely he did found monasteries—he wrote of the many Christians under his care who entered monastic life—though no historical proof exists that he founded any, and he gives clear evidence that he faithfully taught the Orthodox doctrines of the Trinity, though historians doubt he used the shamrock to do so. It wouldn’t be surprising if he wrote prayers and made contributions to liturgical practice, yet historians doubt he wrote the ones attributed to him, and none others any longer exist.

he ruins of Slane Abbey, where legend claims Patrick lit a Paschal fire in defiance of the local king, who in admiration of Patrick’s devotion allowed him to continue preaching. Slane Abbey is one of many monasteries possibly founded by Patrick.
The ruins of Slane Abbey, where legend claims Patrick lit a Paschal fire in defiance of the local king, who in admiration of Patrick’s devotion allowed him to continue preaching. Slane Abbey is one of many monasteries possibly founded by Patrick.

Some of what is handed down is wholly fiction. He didn’t drive snakes from Ireland. Scientists who know tell us there is no evidence there have been any in Ireland since at least the last ice age, though banishing snakes may be metaphor for converting druidic folk to the worship of God in Christ. Patrick didn’t convert all of Ireland––that was mostly accomplished by the 14th century. He didn’t bring Christianity to Ireland and wasn’t the first Christian bishop—Christianity reached the island about a hundred years earlier and at least one bishop preceded him. Probably he was also not the only bishop in Ireland during his lifetime.

It remains for the skeptic to believe, however, that Patrick is not central to the story of the Irish Church, for no matter how sparsely documented are the lives of certain figures, popular culture never escapes their influence or fails to form collective memories of them. When those memories are later recorded and work done by Patrick’s spiritual children and grandchildren is attributed to him, the credit isn’t wholly misplaced. Knowing better the true story shouldn’t diminish him. The man who spent himself for the Irish “so that you may have me for yours,” and who “traveled everywhere among you for your own sake, in many dangers, and even to the furthest parts where nobody lived beyond, and where nobody ever went, to baptize and to ordain clerics or to bring people to fulfillment” remains worthy of collective commemoration of Christian faithful everywhere.

The Irish have succeeded in making Patrick their own, though he is not considered something like an Irish ethnic forebear. He became one of the most successful symbols of national identity anywhere by simple inclusion in the common national narrative. Patrick was one of many saints celebrated in Ireland when his feast day was taken over by parades, all things green, Guinness beer, and rousing music and fun prose. Over time many other elements of Irish identity were included—the Blarney Stone, Leprechauns, pots of gold—as St. Patrick’s Day evolved into a celebration of all things Irish.

As is very often the case among expatriate communities, Irish emigrants were among the most vocal advocates not only for creating and preserving a coherent and distinct Irish identity but for championing the political cause of the motherland. The keenest boosters of Irishness and Irish independence from Britain were found in America in the 18th century where the first St. Paddy’s Day parade took place in New York City as part of the nascent Irish Nationalist movement.

As the Irish formed communities in America, they began for the first time to think of what it meant to be Irish in the midst of others. Most had never thought in terms of ethnicity or national identity. Being Catholic became subordinate to being Irish as they sought to build and preserve their cultural distinctiveness. Over time, Gaelic culture became the matrix of Irish identity, in contrast to English culture. As the narrative of Irish cultural nationalism secularized, so did Patrick. Nobody seemed to notice that the saint was being erased from the page.

Despite being a driving force in most civic and international conflict, nationalism is much misunderstood. Irish nationalism is but one form, and Patrick provides but one example of a figure being co-opted in a nationalist project. Americans do not think of themselves as nationalistic, yet America broadly fosters a Civic Nationalism of a politico-credal sort even while other forms of nationalism flourish among a variety of groups, among them the messianic, religious nationalism of some Evangelical Protestants in which America is God’s chosen among the nations of the world. Americans often confuse patriotism with nationalism but they are not the same thing at all 1. One need not be a patriot to be a nationalist or a nationalist to be a patriot, or one may be both. Orthodox too hold to a variety of nationalisms, some of them are overtly religious while others are less so.

Bridal Party on the Hardanger, by Norwegian Romantic Nationalists Adolph Tideman and Hans Gude, is an example of 19th century Norwegian art commissioned to strengthen the notion of Norwegian separateness in Scandinavia in a bid to split from union with Sweden. The boat is carrying a group dressed in “traditional” Norwegian garb who are leaving a church. The imagery mimics Orthodox conceptions of the Church carrying the saints in an alien and hostile world.
Bridal Party on the Hardanger, by Norwegian Romantic Nationalists Adolph Tideman and Hans Gude, is an example of 19th century Norwegian art commissioned to strengthen the notion of Norwegian separateness in Scandinavia in a bid to split from union with Sweden. The boat is carrying a group dressed in “traditional” Norwegian garb who are leaving a church. The imagery mimics Orthodox conceptions of the Church carrying the saints in an alien and hostile world.

Among all forms of nationalism, religion remains the most powerful tool in any nationalist identity-building project because of the nature of religious belief. Religion is primary to believers’ sense of being human in the world. With religion at the core of understanding about the world and self and how all things relate to one another, religion becomes a handy cornerstone of collective-identity building around which many nation groups are formed. Who we are (personal ideas of identity are not possible without collective identity—it is the matrix in which personal identity is formed) unconsciously infuses every thought and perspective and thing with meaning so that we may say culture—that which defines the parameters and content of collective identity—becomes as water is to a fish, something not noticed until it is either threatened or absent or until something in stark contrast is presented as an alternative. When our culture—that is to say our collective being—is threatened or challenged, it’s existential primacy becomes immediately apparent as we instinctively defend it as we would our lives. Religion thus is often usefully the key element, albeit only one, of a complete montage of cultural components built together to form the being of each member of a national group from birth.

Religion-infused cultures abound. Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant countries (examples: Greece, Spain, USA) with long histories of Christianity being a dominant culturally formative factor could not be imagined without their Christianized character, regardless of whether or not any or most of their citizens still think of themselves as Christian. A couple of good examples of Christianity being consciously used to create an exclusive national identity, with varying degrees of success, would be in the increasingly influential narrative of America as a Christian nation uniquely blessed by God or the Greek nationalist project that conflates ancient Hellenic history with Byzantine Orthodox history to create an exclusive Orthodox Greek nation. Religion so used becomes the defining element of a nation-forming group’s identity. Their cultural particularities become the evidence of God’s blessing––the standard of good citizenship––and the means by which his blessing is maintained. Religious nationalism in any of many forms is the most obdurate and formidable of all nationalisms, Orthodox nationalisms being good examples rather than exceptions. Orthodox Christians often understand nationalism to be the same thing as ethnophyletism, which is the conflation of ethnic, or racial, and Orthodox identities to form nation groups that form the basis of both Church and State. The manifestations of this in the Balkans in the late 19th century—think principally of Greece or Bulgaria—was the cause of a Holy and Great pan-Orthodox Synod in Istanbul condemning this kind of nationalism in 1872. Orthodox who now routinely condemn ethnophyletism often remain nationalists of another type. But the nasty treachery of all nationalistic thinking is that it always makes us exclusive.

An example of non-ethnophyletic nationalism with religious dimensions among Orthodox is the Arab Nationalism of the Syrian Ba’ath party (forming around cultural “Arabness” with language as the primary identity marker) and which is held by large numbers of Syrian Orthodox Christians. A recent statement posted to the Antiochian Orthodox Patriarchate’s website in the name of Patriarch John X,2 states that “The Church of Antioch and all the East for the Greek Orthodox makes a point to affirm at all times that it is a daughter of the nation and is the abode in which they reside.” In the statement, the Mosque and the Church are linked as equal sister-daughters of the nation of Syria. In the Arab nationalism of the Syrian Ba’ath––as distinct from the Iraqi Ba’ath, which they split from in 1966––one is first a Syrian Arab and then either Orthodox or something else. Arab, Syrian, and Orthodox are thus conflated in a way that is not only wrong but much contested by other Syrians, Arabs, and Christians.

Not all difference is exclusive, however, and the warmth we naturally feel for our own cultural heritage is part of being human and is the natural consequence of how we are formed socially, culturally, linguistically, and generally in our whole-world view. The normal cultural differences that exist between groups are generally never intended to divide. The real problem of nationalism among Orthodox, however, is not in so benign a thing as the cultural preference of “Cristos anesti” over “Christ is risen” or “Krishti ungjall” or in enjoying plum pudding over baclava or in certain ritualistic preferences during the Divine Liturgy: while these things may naturally provide distinction as between families, they need not be divisive. The problem manifests when there is conflict or when difference forces the kinds of choice that expose competing allegiances and we begin to fight either to defend our difference or to elevate it. The contorted apologetics for the Syrian and Russian governments common among Arab and Russian Orthodox that fly in the face of fundamental Christian values is the result of such conflated loyalties.

One evidence of conflated Orthodox and national identity is the very modern phenomenon of making saints national heroes or national heroes saints. something that by its nature is divisive within the Kingdom of God and should be anathema to the Church but is instead common!

A common manifestation of softly held or unconscious nationalist sentiment is an elitism that sometimes makes others feel less “Orthodox” for being of another jurisdictional, ethnic, or cultural group because of the way we cleave to our national identity. The division of the Orthodox world into cultural and ethnic jurisdictions has created what some call Orthodox ghettos (ghetto implies separation not poverty) wherein a monolithic way of being Orthodox that results in isolation is created by the conflation of our own customs with the Orthodox faith. Visitors to Orthodox parishes should not be made to feel they must first, or even also, become Greek, Serb, Russian, or Arab to become truly Orthodox. Looking to the future, American Orthodox should avoid creating a similar attitude that elevates a version of culturally American Orthodoxy over other forms––something many are already promoting.

When Christ sent his disciples out, he called them ambassadors, people who represent the interests of one state to the leaders of another. Ambassadors who are confused in their allegiance are likely to be called spies and may be stripped of their citizenship rights, imprisoned, and often executed, as are citizens who switch sides to serve the interests of a rival state. It shouldn’t surprise us that the earliest missionaries usually found themselves in courts and before kings declaring their allegiance to God and were commonly martyred for it. Christ did not tell his disciples “You should not serve two masters”; he said “You cannot.” For, when you serve the one, you automatically oppose the interests of the other: you must choose. Ultimately, attempting to simultaneously serve two rival interests merely makes one useless to both. When the released Syrian and Lebanese nuns of Mar Thecla monastery contradicted the widely held perspective among Orthodox that they were being mistreated during their captivity, they were branded by the Church as traitors to Syria and unfaithful to the Church3. The conflated loyalties of the Church leaders in this instance promoted their national loyalty and compromised their spiritual sense.

When we consciously choose to exclusively serve Christ, we cultivate our Christian-ness to be a culturally transformative force rather than guarding it as part of our inherited cultural identity. Our lives are neither gift nor extension of anything earthly: we are not merely products of a history stream and so we do not owe our primary allegiance to any other product of history, such as a nation-state.

He made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined their appointed times and the boundaries of their habitation, that they would seek God, if perhaps they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us; for in Him we live and move and exist, as even some of your own poets have said, ’For we also are His children’ (Acts 17:26-28).

The Irish rightly love Patrick for his sacrificial work of building up the Irish Church, a legacy that lasts into eternity. But the very inclusion of Patrick in the Irish nationalist mythology diminishes him and casts a shadow over a saint who belongs to the whole Church everywhere and everywhen. It is a fundamental aspect of being human that we are defined by others, though at times in our development we are allowed to choose by whom. Like the apostle Peter, Patrick chose his identity in Christ. In answering Jesus with “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” Peter was given his own identity. It was in his recognition—by the Father’s revelation—of Christ that he was captured and transformed into a citizen of God’s Kingdom to be eventually martyred by Rome, the symbol of earthly citizenship.

Patrick willingly became a servant of “the nations” to whom he was sent from his home in Britain—there was no Ireland then, only the chaos of competing kingdoms just the other side of the Roman frontier. By the 4th century, a primitive Irish was widely spoken but a variety of Celtic languages were still common. Patrick saw an island in need not of “civilized” culture, Imperial rule, or a strong local king to bring lasting stability but the gospel. He went to share the gospel with “the nations to which the love of Christ brought me” at the end of the world, where he thought he was. Nationalism is a modern phenomenon, but it is possessed by the same sick spirit as tribalism, culturalism, ethnicism, imperialism, and so many other isms. Only as each of us discovers our full and true identity in an encounter with Christ, the Son of the living God, will we find the cure for the sickness of nationalism.  IC  [wpanchor id=”footnotes”]

 

Footnotes:

1. Simple working definitions: Patriotism is the natural love for one’s own country; nationalism is a political philosophy that claims statehood belongs primarily to distinct and exclusive national-identity groups. Click HERE for information on the OPF resource on nationalism, For the Peace from Above. Also search our website for more resources.
2. The full statement may be found on our website in Arabic HERE and in English HERE. Ba’athism is a socialist Arab Nationalism that conflates numerous identity groups to form the fiction of a Syrian nationality for the purpose of creating a secular state of Syria. Michel Aflaq, an Antiochian Orthodox, was a founder of Ba’athism. Hafiz Assad was its champion, and like Bashar today, was ruthless in eliminating competing political parties. The current civil war is the continuation of that struggle. The Antiochian Orthodox Patriarchate supports the Assad family and its nationalist ideology, though they may not be Ba’athist––Patriarchal statements often reflect more general Pan-Arab nationalism. 3. From the Patriarchal statement referenced in footnote 2.

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Competing nationalist narratives in Syria create false dichotomies that force people into mutually exclusive identity groups.

2 Christian muslim magic carpet cartoon

Ba’athist nationalism creates a Syrian identity that falsely conflates Christian and Muslim as sister-daughters of the nation. Sectarian nationalists of various kinds manipulate and exploit religious difference to divide and create conflict.

2 steeple minaret cartoon

Advice on Peacemaking from the Saints

A selection of challenging quotations for meditation assembled by Alexander Patico, secretary of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship in North America

First Century

For he is our peace, who has made us both [Jew and Gentile] one, and has broken down the dividing wall of hostility. … He came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. … Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather set aside wrath, for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, declares the Lord. Therefore if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him drink.

St. Paul

Let us praise with reverent hymns of peace the Divine Peace. … God is the fount of all peace, who joins all things together in an unity without confusion. … There is no need to tell how the loving-kindness of Christ comes bathed in peace. Therefore we must learn to cease from strife, whether against ourselves or against one another, or against the angels, and instead to labor together even with the angels for the accomplishment of God’s Will, in accordance with the providential purpose of Jesus who works all things in all and makes peace, unutterable and foreordained from eternity, and reconciles us to Himself, and, in Himself, to the Father. Concerning these supernatural gifts enough has been said with confirmation drawn from the holy testimony of the scriptures.

Dionysius the Areopagite

Second Century

They [the Christians] love all men, and they are persecuted by all. … They are put to death, and yet they are endowed with life. … They are in want of all things, and yet they abound in all things. They are dishonored, and yet they are glorified in their dishonor. They are evil spoken of, and yet they are vindicated. They are reviled, and they bless; they are insulted, and they respect. Doing good, they are punished as evil-doers; being punished, they rejoice, as if they were thereby quickened by life.

Mathetes

What, then, are these teachings in which we are reared? “I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven, who makes his sun to shine on the evil and on the good, and sends his rain on the just and on the unjust. … “Who [of the pagan philosophers] have so purified their own hearts as to love their enemies instead of hating them … and to pray for those who plot against them? … We cannot endure to see a man being put to death even justly. … We see little difference between watching a man being put to death and killing him. So we have given up [gladiatorial] spectacles. … What reason would we have to commit murder when we say that women who induce abortions are murderers, and will have to give account of it to God?

Athenagoras of Athens

“For out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. And He shall judge among the nations, and shall rebuke many people; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” And that it did so come to pass, we can convince you. For from Jerusalem there went out into the world, men, only twelve in number, who, by the power of God, proclaimed to every race of men that they were sent by Christ to teach to all the word of God. We who formerly used to murder one another do not only now refrain from making war upon our enemies, but also, that we may not lie nor deceive our examiners, willingly die confessing Christ.

St. Justin Martyr

Third Century

The question is now whether a member of the faithful can become a soldier and whether a soldier can be admitted to the Faith … how will a Christian do so? … The Lord, by taking away Peter’s sword, disarmed every soldier thereafter. … We [the Christians] started yesterday and already we have filled the world and everything that belongs to you the cities, apartment houses, fortresses, towns, market places, the camps themselves, your tribes, town councils, the imperial palace, the Senate, the Forum. The only thing we have left to you are the temples. We can count your armies; there is a greater number of Christians in a single province! What kind of war would we, who willingly submit to the sword, not be ready or eager for … if it were not for the fact that according to our doctrine it is more permissible to be killed than to kill.

Tertullian

Nothing is so characteristically Christian as being a peacemaker. … I cannot persuade myself that without love to others, and without, as far as rests with me, peaceableness towards all, I can be called a worthy servant of Jesus Christ.

St. Basil the Great

It is well known that Jesus was born in the reign of Augustus, who brought the mass of mankind under a single sovereignty. The existence of many kingdoms would have hindered the spread of Jesus’ teachings over the whole world because everywhere men would have been forced to serve in the army and go to war on behalf of their country How could this peaceful teaching, which prohibits a man from avenging himself even against his enemies, have gained sway if the whole world situation at the time of Jesus had not been made more peaceful,

Origen

God, in prohibiting killing, discountenances not only brigandage, which is contrary to human law, but also that which men regard as legal. Thus participation in war will not be legitimate to a just man; his “military service” is justice itself. … What are the interests of our country, but the inconveniences of another state or nation? that is, to extend the boundaries which are violently taken from others, to increase the power of the state, to improve the revenues all which things are not virtues, but the overthrowing of virtues: for, in the first place, the union of human society is taken away, innocence is taken away, the abstaining from the property of another is taken away; lastly, justice itself is taken away, which is unable to bear the tearing asunder of the human race, and wherever arms have glittered, must be banished and exterminated from thence. … How can a man be just who injures, hates, despoils and puts to death? Yet they who strive to be serviceable to their country do all these things.

Lactantius [tutor of Crispus, the son of St. Constantine the Great]

The loud trumpet, when sounded, collects the soldiers, and proclaims war. And shall not Christ, breathing a strain of peace to the ends of the earth, gather together His own soldiers, the soldiers of peace? … He has gathered the bloodless host of peace. … The trumpet of Christ is His Gospel. He hath blown it, and we have heard. “Let us array ourselves in the armor of peace, putting on the breastplate of righteousness, and taking the shield of faith, and binding our brows with the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.” So the apostle in the spirit of peace commands. These are our invulnerable weapons: armed with these, let us face the evil one. … If you enroll as one of God’s people, heaven is your country and God your lawgiver. And what are His laws? You shall not kill, You shall love your neighbor as yourself. To him that strikes you on the one cheek, turn to him the other also. … The Church is an army that sheds no blood.

Clement of Alexandria

The world is soaked with mutual blood. When individuals commit homicide, it is a crime; it is called a virtue when it is done in the name of the state. Impunity is acquired for crimes not by reason of innocence but by the magnitude of the cruelty. … Man is killed for the pleasure of man, and to be able to kill is a skill, is an employment, is an art. Crime is not only committed but is taught. What can be called more inhuman, what more repulsive? It is a training that one may be able to kill, and that he kills is a glory … they adorn themselves for a voluntary death, wretched they even glory in their wicked deeds.

St. Cyprian of Carthage

Fourth Century

I am a soldier of Christ. To fight is not permissible for me.

St. Martin of Tours

Both the Emperor’s commands and yours [person in authority] must be obeyed if they are not contrary to the God of heaven. If they are, they must not only not be obeyed; they must be resisted.

St. Euphemia

It is good to live in peace, for the wise person practices perpetual prayer. … However, you should realize that as soon as you intend to live in peace, at once evil comes and weighs down your soul through accident, faintheartedness, and evil thoughts … attacks your body through sickness, debility, weakening of the knees, and all members … dissipates the strength of soul and body, so that one believes one is ill and no longer able to pray. But if we are vigilant, all these temptations fall away.

Amma Theodora

If force is used, I cannot meet it. I shall be able to grieve, to weep, to groan; against weapons, soldiers, Goths, my tears are my weapons, for these are a priest’s defense. … I ought not, I cannot resist in any other way, for to flee and forsake the Church is not my way, lest any one should suppose I did so from fear of some heavier punishment. You yourselves know that I am wont to show respect to our emperors, but not to yield to them, to offer myself freely to punishment, and not to fear what is prepared for me. … Some ask whether, in case of a shipwreck, a wise man ought to take a plank away from an ignorant sailor. Although it seems better for the common good that a wise man rather than a fool should escape from shipwreck, yet I do not think that a Christian, a just and a wise man, ought to save his own life by the death of another; just as when he meets with an armed robber he cannot return his blows, lest in defending his life he should stain his love toward his neighbor. The verdict on this is plain and clear in the books of the Gospel. ‘Put away your sword, for every one that takes up the sword shall perish by the sword.’ What robber is more hateful than the persecutor who came to kill Christ? But Christ would not be defended from the wounds of the persecutor, for He willed to heal all by His wounds.

St. Ambrose of Milan

We, a numerous band of men as we are, have learned from His teaching and His laws that evil ought not to be requited with evil, that it is better to suffer wrong than to inflict it, that we should rather shed our own blood than stain our hands and our conscience with that of another. An ungrateful world is now for a long period enjoying a benefit from Christ, inasmuch as by His means the rage of savage ferocity has been softened, and has begun to withhold hostile hands from the blood of a fellow-creature.

Arnobius

Praying against one’s personal enemies is a transgression of law. … How great punishment must they deserve, who, far from themselves forgiving, do even entreat God for vengeance on their enemies, and as it were diametrically transgress this law; and this while He is doing and contriving all, to hinder our being at variance one with another? For since love is the root of all that is good, He, removing from all sides whatever mars it, brings us together, and cements us to each other. … To conquer enemies does not render kings so illustrious, as to conquer wrath and anger. For, in the former case, the success is due to arms and soldiers; but here the trophy is simply your own, and you have no one to divide the glory of your moral wisdom. You have overcome barbarian war, overcome also Imperial wrath! … Just as maniacs, who never enjoy tranquility, so also he who is resentful and retains an enemy will never have the enjoyment of any peace.

St. John Chrysostom

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.” Who are these children? Those who show forth in their own life the characteristic of the Divine energy. … This work He ordains also for you, namely to cast out hatred and abolish war, to exterminate envy and banish strife, to extinguish from within resentment of injuries smoldering in the heart. … For as light follows the departure of darkness, thus also these evil things are replaced by the fruits of the Spirit: by charity, joy, peace, benignity, magnanimity, all the good things enumerated by the Apostle. How then should the dispenser of the Divine gifts not be blessed, since he imitates the gifts of God and models his own good deeds on the Divine generosity? … But perhaps the beatitude does not only regard the good of others. I think that man is called a peacemaker par excellence who pacifies perfectly the discord between flesh and spirit in himself and the war that is inherent in nature, so that the law of the body no longer wars against the law of the mind but is subjected to the higher rule and becomes a servant of the Divine ordinance.

St. Gregory of Nyssa

Fifth Century

I have heard that there were two old men who lived together for many years, never quarreling, and that one said to the other, “Let us also pick a quarrel with each other, even as others do.” His companion answered, “I don’t know how to start a quarrel.” The other man answered and said to him, “Look, I will place a brick between us and will say, ‘This is mine,’ and then you say, ‘It is not yours, but mine’; and from this quarreling will begin. They placed a brick between them and one of them said, “This is mine,” and his companion answered and said after him, “This is not so, for it is mine.” Straightaway the other replied and said to him, “If this be so, and the brick is yours, take it and go.” Thus they were unable to quarrel.

Sayings of the Desert Fathers

Sixth Century

Remembrance of wrongs is the consummation of anger, the keeper of sin, hatred of righteousness, ruin of virtues, poison of the soul, worm of the mind, shame of prayer. You will know that you have completely freed yourself of this rot, not when you pray for the person who has offended you, not when you exchange presents with him, not when you invite him to your table, but only when, on hearing that he has fallen into bodily or spiritual misfortune, you suffer and weep for him as for yourself.

St. John Climacus

Seventh Century

“But I say to you,” the Lord says, “love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, pray for those who persecute you.” Why did he command these things? So that he might free you from hatred, sadness, anger and grudges, and might grant you the greatest possession of all, perfect love, which is impossible to possess except by the one who loves all equally in imitation of God. St. Maximus the Confessor

Ninth Century

You detach yourself from the cross to which you have crucified yourself alongside the Savior if you go and attack your brother.

St. Theodore Studite

Eleventh Century

Above all things: do not forget the poor, but support them to the extent of your means. Give to the orphan, protect the widow, and permit the mighty to destroy no man. Take not the life of the just or the unjust, nor permit him to be killed. Destroy no Christian soul, even though he be guilty of murder.

St. Prince Vladimir, Equal-to-the-Apostles

Fifteenth Century

Our head, Christ our God … does not tolerate that the bond of love be taken from us…

St. Mark of Ephesus

Eighteenth Century

If the matter is solved with war, you will suffer much destruction. … If they find silver in the street, they will not bend down to take it. But for an ear of wheat, they will kill each other trying to take it first. … In the city [Constantinople], so much blood will be spilled that a three-year-old calf will swim in it. … After the war, a man will have to run half an hour to find another human being to join him in fellowship.

St. Cosmas the Aetolian

Nineteenth Century

God is fire that warms and kindles the heart and inward parts. And so, if we feel in our hearts coldness, which is from the devil … then let us call upon the Lord and He will come and warm our hearts with perfect love not only for Him but for our neighbor as well. … You cannot be too gentle, too kind. Shun even to appear harsh in your treatment of each other. Joy, radiant joy, streams from the face of him who gives and kindles joy in the heart of him who receives. … Never condemn each other. We condemn others only because we shun knowing ourselves. When we gaze at our own failings, we see such a swamp that nothing in another can equal it. That is why we turn away, and make much of the faults of others. Instead of condemning others, strive to reach inner peace. Keep silent, refrain from judgment. This will raise you above the deadly arrows of slander, insult and outrage and will shield your glowing hearts against all evil.

St. Seraphim of Sarov

Twentieth Century

It is easier for a feeble straw to resist a mighty fire than for the nature of sin to resist the power of love. We must cultivate this love in our souls, that we may take our place with all the saints, for they were all-pleasing unto God through their love for their neighbor.

St. Elizabeth, the New Martyr

The bodies of fellow human beings must be treated with greater care than our own. Christian love teaches us to give our brethren not only spiritual gifts, but material gifts as well. Even our last shirt, our last piece of bread must be given to them. … The way to God lies through love of other people and there is no other way. At the Last Judgment I shall not be asked if I was successful in my ascetic exercises or how many prostrations I made in the course of my prayers. 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. … Christ’s love does not know how to measure and divide, does not know how to spare itself. Our love should not be any different.

St. Maria of Paris

Should we, Christians, embark upon the way of vengeance? Let this not be! Not even if our hearts would break from the … oppressions inflicted upon our religious feelings, our love of our native land or our temporary well-being, even if our feelings would infallibly tell us who and where our assailant is. No, let better bleeding wounds be inflicted upon us, than that we move to revenge … against our enemies, or those whom we take to be the source of our suffering. Follow Christ! Don’t betray Him! Don’t fall into temptation. Do not allow your own soul to perish in the blood of vengeance. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

St. Tikhon, Patriarch of Moscow

Twenty-First Century

If we live as people of God, there will be room for all nations in the Balkans and in the world. If we liken ourselves to Cain who killed his brother Abel, then the entire earth will be too small even for two people. The Lord Jesus Christ teaches us to be always children of God and love one another. We should remember the words of St. Paul: “If it be possible, as much as lies in you, live peaceably with all men.”

Patriarch Pavle of the Serbian Orthodox Church

Any Georgian who kills another person shames his nation.

Patriarch Ilya of Georgia

Today blood is being shed and people being killed in South Ossetia, and my heart deeply laments over it. Orthodox Christians are among those who have raised their hands against each other. Orthodox people, called by the Lord to live in fraternity and love, confront each other…

Patriarch Aleksy of Russia

Winter 2009 issue of In Communion / IC 52

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The example of five saints

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

Becoming the Gospel: the example of five newly recognized saints

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

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

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

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

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

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

mmaria3

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

stalexis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mother Maria of Paris: Saint of the Open Door

Mother Maria Skobtsova
Mother Maria Skobtsova

On January 18, 2004, the Holy Synod of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Istanbul recognized Mother Maria Skobtsova as a saint along with her son Yuri, the priest who worked closely with her, Fr. Dimitri Klépinin, and her close friend and collaborator Ilya Fondaminsky. All four died in German concentration camps.

by Jim Forest

“No amount of thought will ever result in any greater formulation than the three words, ‘Love one another,’ so long as it is love to the end and without exceptions.”

Those who know the details of her life tend to regard Mother Maria Skobtsova as one of the great saints of the twentieth century: a brilliant theologian who lived her faith bravely in nightmarish times, finally dying a martyr’s death at the Ravensbruck concentration camp in Germany in 1945.

Elizaveta Pilenko, the future Mother Maria, was born in 1891 in the Latvian city of Riga, then part of the Russian Empire, and grew up in the south of Russia on a family estate near the town of Anapa on the shore of the Black Sea. In her family she was known as Liza. For a time her father was mayor of Anapa. Later he was director of a botanical garden and school at Yalta. On her mother’s side, Liza was descended from the last governor of the Bastille, the Parisian prison destroyed during the French Revolution.

Her parents were devout Orthodox Christians whose faith helped shape their daughter’s values, sensitivities and goals. As a child she once emptied her piggy bank in order to contribute to the painting of an icon that would be part of a new church in Anapa. At seven she asked her mother if she was old enough to become a nun, while a year later she sought permission to become a pilgrim who spends her life walking from shrine to shrine. (As late as 1940, when living in German-occupied Paris, thoughts of one day being a wandering pilgrim and missionary in Siberia again filled her imagination.)

When she was fourteen, her father died, an event which seemed to her meaningless and unjust and led her to atheism. “If there is no justice,” she said, “there is no God.” She decided God’s nonexistence was well known to adults but kept secret from children. For her, childhood was over.

When her widowed mother moved the family to St. Petersburg in 1906, she found herself in the country’s political and cultural center — also a hotbed of radical ideas and groups.

She became part of radical literary circles that gathered around such symbolist poets as Alexander Blok, whom she first met at age fifteen. Blok responded to their unexpected meeting — Liza had come to visit unannounced — with a poem that included the lines:

Only someone who is in love

Has the right to call himself a human being.

In a note that came with the poem, Blok told Liza that many people were dying where they stood. The world-weary poet urged her “to run, run from us, the dying ones.” She replied with a vow fight “against death and against wickedness.”

Like so many of her contemporaries, she was drawn to the left, but was often disappointed that the radicals she encountered. Though regarding themselves as revolutionaries, they seemed to do nothing but talk. “My spirit longed to engage in heroic feats, even to perish, to combat the injustice of the world,” she recalled. Yet no one she knew was actually laying down his life for others. Should her friends hear of someone dying for the Revolution, she noted, “they will value it, approve or not approve, show understanding on a very high level, and discuss the night away till the sun rises and it’s time for fried eggs. But they will not understand at all that to die for the Revolution means to feel a rope around one’s neck.”

Liza began teaching evening courses to workers at the Poutilov Plant, but later gave it up in disillusionment when one of her students told her that he and his classmates weren’t interested in learning as such, but saw classes as a necessary path to becoming clerks and bureaucrats. The teen-age Liza wanted her workers to be every bit as idealistic as she was.

In 1910, Liza married Dimitri Kuzmin-Karaviev, a member of Social Democrat Party, better known as the Bolsheviks. She was eighteen, he was twenty-one. It was a marriage born “more of pity than of love,” she later commented. Dimitri had spent a short time in prison several years before, but by the time of their marriage was part of a community of poets, artists and writers in which it was normal to rise at three in the afternoon and talk the night through until dawn.

She not only knew poets but wrote poems in the symbolist mode. In 1912 her first collection of poetry, Scythian Shards, was published.

Like many other Russian intellectuals, she later reflected, she was a participant in the revolution before the Revolution that was “so deeply, pitilessly and fatally laid over the soil of old traditions” only to destroy far more than it created. “Such courageous bridges we erected to the future! At the same time, this depth and courage were combined with a kind of decay, with the spirit of dying, of ghostliness, ephemerality. We were in the last act of the tragedy, the rupture between the people and the intelligentsia.”

She and her friends also talked theology, but just as their political ideas had no connection at all to the lives of ordinary people, their theology floated far above the actual Church. There was much they might have learned, she reflected later in life, from “any old beggar woman hard at her Sunday prostrations in church.” For many intellectuals, the Church was an idea or a set of abstract values, not a community in which one actually lives.

Though still regarding herself as an atheist, little by little her earlier attraction to Christ revived and deepened, not yet Christ as God incarnate but Christ as heroic man. “Not for God, for He does not exist, but for the Christ,” she said. “He also died. He sweated blood. They struck His face … [while] we pass by and touch His wounds and yet are not burned by His blood.”

One door opened to another. Liza found herself drawn toward the religious faith she had jettisoned after her father’s death. She prayed and read the Gospel and the lives of saints. It seemed to her that the real need of the people was not for revolutionary theories but for Christ. She wanted “to proclaim the simple word of God,” she told Blok in a letter written in 1916. The same year her second collection of poems, Ruth, appeared in St. Petersburg.

Deciding to study theology, she applied for entrance at the Theological Academy of the Alexander Nevsky Monastery in St. Petersburg, in those days an entirely male school whose students were preparing for ordination as priests. As surprising as her wanting to study there was the rector’s decision that she could be admitted.

By 1913, Liza’s marriage collapsed. (Later in his life Dimitri became a Christian, joined the Catholic Church, and later lived and worked among Jesuits in western Europe.) That October her first child, Gaiana, was born.

Just as World War I was beginning, Liza returned with her daughter to her family’s country home near Anapa in Russia’s deep south. Her religious life became more intense. For a time she secretly wore lead weights sewn into a hidden belt as a way of reminding herself both “that Christ exists” and also to be more aware that minute-by-minute many people were suffering and dying in the war. She realized, however, that the primary Christian asceticism was not self-mortification, but caring response to the needs of other people while at the same time trying to create better social structures. She joined the ill-fated Social Revolutionary Party, a movement that, despite the contrast in names, was far more democratic than Lenin’s Social Democratic Party.

On a return visit to St. Petersburg, Liza spent hours visiting a small chapel best known for a healing icon in which small coins had been embedded when lightning struck the poor box that stood near by — it was called the Mother of God, Joy of the Sorrowful, with Kopeks. Here she prayed in a dark corner, reviewing her life as one might prepare for confession, finally feeling God’s overwhelming presence. “God is over all,” she knew with certainty, “unique and expiating everything.”

In October 1917, Liza was present in St. Petersburg when Russia’s Provisional Government was overthrown by the Bolsheviks. Taking part in the All-Russian Soviet Congress, she heard Lenin’s lieutenant, Leon Trotsky, dismiss people from her party with the words, “Your role is played out. Go where you belong, into history’s garbage can!”

On the way home, she narrowly escaped summary execution by convincing a Bolshevik sailor that she was a friend of Lenin’s wife. It was on that difficult journey of many train rides and long waits at train stations that she began to see the scale of the catastrophe Russia was now facing: terror, random murder, massacres, destroyed villages, the rule of hooligans and thugs, hunger and massive dislocation. How hideously different actual revolution was from the dreams of revolution that had once filled the imagination of so many Russians, not least the intellectuals!

In February 1918, in the early days of Russia’s Civil War, Liza was elected deputy mayor of Anapa. She hoped she could keep the town’s essential services working and protect anyone in danger of the firing squad. “The fact of having a female mayor,” she noted, “was seen as something obviously revolutionary.” Thus they put up with “views that would not have been tolerated from any male.”

She became acting mayor after the town’s Bolshevik mayor fled when the White Army took control of the region. Again her life was in danger. To the White forces, Liza looked as Red as any Bolshevik. She was arrested, jailed, and put on trial for collaboration with the enemy. In court, she rose and spoke in her own defense: “My loyalty was not to any imagined government as such, but to those whose need of justice was greatest, the people. Red or White, my position is the same — I will act for justice and for the relief of suffering. I will try to love my neighbor.”

It was thanks to Daniel Skobtsov, a former schoolmaster who was now her judge, that Liza avoided execution. After the trial, she sought him out to thank him. They fell in love and within days were married. Before long Liza found herself once again pregnant.

The tide of the civil war was now turning in favor of the Bolsheviks. Both Liza and her husband were in peril, as well as her daughter and unborn child. They made the decision many thousands were making: it was safest to go abroad. Liza’s mother, Sophia, came with them.

Their journey took them across the Black Sea to Georgia in the putrid hold of a storm-beaten steamer. Liza’s son Yura was born in Tbilisi in 1920. A year later they left for Istanbul and from there traveled to Yugoslavia where Liza gave birth to Anastasia, or Nastia as she was called in the family. Their long journey finally ended in France. They arrived in Paris in 1923. Friends gave them use of a room. Daniel found work as a part-timer teacher, though the job paid too little to cover expanses. To supplement their income, Liza made dolls and painted silk scarves, often working ten or twelve hours a day.

A friend introduced her to the Russian Student Christian Movement, an Orthodox association founded in 1923. Liza began attending lectures and taking part in other activities of the group. She felt herself coming back to life spiritually and intellectually.

In the hard winter of 1926, each person in the family came down with influenza. All recovered except Nastia, who became thinner with each passing day. At last a doctor diagnosed meningitis. The Pasteur Institute accepted Nastia as a patient, also giving permission to Liza to stay day and night to help care for her daughter.

Liza’s vigil was to no avail. After a month in the hospital, Nastia died. Even then, for a day and night, her grief-stricken mother sat by Nastia’s side, unable to leave the room. During those desolate hours, she came to feel how she had never known “the meaning of repentance, but now I am aghast at my own insignificance …. I feel that my soul has meandered down back alleys all my life. And now I want an authentic and purified road. Not out of faith in life, but in order to justify, understand and accept death …. No amount of thought will ever result in any greater formulation than the three words, ‘Love one another,’ so long as it is love to the end and without exceptions. And then the whole of life is illumined, which is otherwise an abomination and a burden.”

The death of someone you love, she wrote, “throws open the gates into eternity, while the whole of natural existence has lost its stability and its coherence. Yesterday’s laws have been abolished, desires have faded, meaninglessness has displaced meaning, and a different, albeit incomprehensible Meaning, has caused wings to sprout on one’s back …. Before the dark pit of the grave, everything must be reexamined, measured against falsehood and corruption.”

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

Liza devoted herself more and more to social work and theological writing with a social emphasis. In 1927 two volumes, Harvest of the Spirit, were published in which she retold the lives of many saints.

In the same period, her husband began driving a taxi, a job which provided a better income than part-time teaching. By now Gaiana was living at a boarding school in Belgium, thanks to help from her father. But Liza and Daniel’s marriage was dying, perhaps a casualty of Nastia’s death.

Feeling driven to devote herself as fully as possible to social service, Liza, with her mother, moved to central Paris, thus closer to her work. It was agreed that Yura would remain with his father until he was fourteen, though always free to visit and stay with his mother until he was fourteen, when he would decide for himself with which parent he would live. (In fact Yura, found to be in the early stages of tuberculosis, was to spend a lengthy period in a sanatarium apart from both parents.)

In 1930, the same year her third book of poetry was published, Liza was appointed traveling secretary of the Russian Student Christian Movement, work which put her into daily contact with impoverished Russian refugees in cities, towns and villages throughout France and sometimes in neighboring countries.

After completing a lecture in some provincial center, Liza might afterward find herself involved in confessional conversations with those who had come to hear her and who sensed that she was something more than an intellectual with a suitcase full of ideas and theories. “We would embark on frank conversations about émigré life or else about the past …. A queue would form by the door as if outside a confessional. There would be people wanting to pour out their hearts, to tell of some terrible grief which had burdened them for years, of pangs of conscience which gave them no peace.”

She took literally Christ’s words that he was always present in the least person. “Man ought to treat the body of his fellow human being with more care than he treats his own,” she wrote. “Christian love teaches us to give our fellows material as well as spiritual gifts. We should give them our last shirt and our last piece of bread. Personal almsgiving and the most wide-ranging social work are both equally justified and needed.”

“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.”

Metropolitan Anthony Bloom, who later became Russian Orthodox bishop in London, was then a layman in Paris where he was studying to become a physician. He recalls a story about Mother Maria her from this period that he heard from a friend:

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

While her work for the Russian Student Christian Movement suited her, the question was still unsettled in her life what her true vocation was. She began to envision a new type on community, “half monastic and half fraternal,” which would connect spiritual life with service to those in need, in the process showing “that a free Church can perform miracles.”

Father Sergei Bulgakov, her confessor, was a source of support and encouragement. He had been a Marxist economist before his conversion to Orthodox Christianity. In 1918 he was ordained to the priesthood in Moscow, then five years later was expelled from the USSR. He settled in Paris and became dean at the newly-founded St. Sergius Theological Institute. A spiritual father to many people, he was a confessor who respected the freedom of all who sought his guidance, never demanding obedience, never manipulating.

She also had a supportive bishop, Metropolitan Evlogy Georgievsky. He was responsible from 1921 to 1946 for the many thousands of Russian expatriates scattered across Europe, with the greatest number in France. “Everyone had access to him,” recalled Father Lev Gillet, “and placed on his shoulders all the spiritual or material burdens . . . . He wanted to give everyone the possibility of following his or her own call.” Metropolitan Eulogy had become aware of Liza through her social work and was the first one to suggest to her the possibility of becoming a nun.

Assured she would be free to develop a new type of monasticism, engaged in the world and marked by the “complete absence of even the subtlest barrier which might separate the heart from the world and its wounds,” Liza said she was willing to take such a step, but there was the obvious problem of her being married, even if now living alone. For a time it seemed the obstacles were insurmountable, as Daniel Skobtsov did not approve of his estranged wife taking monastic vows, but he changed his mind after Metropolitan Eulogy came to meet him. An ecclesiastical divorce was issued on March 7, 1932. A few weeks later, in the chapel at St. Sergius Theological Institute, Liza was professed as a nun. She was given the name Maria.

She made her monastic profession, Metropolitan Eulogy recognized, “in order to give herself unreservedly to social service.” Mother Maria called it simply “monasticism in the world.”

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

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

From the beginning Mother Maria’s intention was “to share the life of paupers and tramps,” but exactly how she would do that wasn’t yet clear to her. She lived in a room made available to her by Lev and Valentina Zander as she contemplated the next step in her life.

That summer she set out to visit Estonia and Latvia on behalf of the Russian SCM where, in contrast to Soviet Russia, convents and monasteries still flourished. Here she had a first hand experience of traditional monastic life. The experience strengthened her conviction that her own vocation must follow a different path. It seemed to her that no one in the monasteries she visited was aware that “the world is on fire” or sensed that the times cried out for a new form of monasticism. In a time of massive social disruption, she wrote, it was better to offer a monastic witness which opened its gates to the desperate people living outside and in so doing 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 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.”

Mother Maria had a particular devotion to saints who were classed as Holy Fools: people who behaved outrageously and yet revealed Christ in a remarkable way — such Holy Fools as St. Basil the Blessed, whose feast on August 2nd she kept with special attentiveness. An icon she painted contains scenes from his life. The Holy Fools were, she wrote, saints of freedom. “Freedom calls us to act the Fool for Christ’s sake, at variance with enemies and even friends, to develop the life of the Church in just that way in which it is most difficult. And we shall live as Fools, since we know not only the difficulty of this way of life, but also the exaltation of sensing God’s hand on our work.”

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 on was a vocation of welcoming and caring for those in desperate need. She began to look for a house of hospitality and found it at 9 villa de Saxe in Paris.

Metropolitan Eulogy remained deeply committed to Mother Maria’s activities. When she had to sign the lease and had found no other donors, he paid the required 5000 francs. On another occasion, riding in the Paris Metro with the bishop, she voiced her discouragement about problems she was then facing. At that exact moment the Metro exited a tunnel and was bathed in the light of day. “You see,” said Metropolitan Eulogy, “it is the answer to your question.”

The house was completely unfurnished. The first night she wrapped herself in blankets and slept on the floor beneath the icon of the Protection of the Mother of God. Donated furniture began arriving, and also guests, mainly young Russian women without jobs. To make room for others, Mother Maria gave up her own room and instead slept on a narrow iron bedstead in the basement by the boiler. A room upstairs became a chapel, its icon screen painted by Mother Maria, while the dining room doubled as a hall for lectures and dialogues.

In time the house soon proved too small. Two years later a new location was found — a derelict house of three storeys at 77 rue de Lourmel in the fifteenth arrondisement, an area where many impoverished Russian refugees had settled. While at the former address she could feed only 25, here she could feed a hundred. The house had the additional advantage of having stables in back which were now made into a small church. Again the decoration was chiefly her own work, many of its icons made by embroidery, an art in which Mother Maria was skilled. she saw the new property as a modern Noah’s Ark able to withstand the stormy waves the world was hurling its way. Here her guests could regain their breath “until the time comes to stand on their two feet again.”

Her credo was: “Each person is the very icon of God incarnate in the world.” With this recognition came the need “to accept this awesome revelation of God unconditionally, to venerate the image of God” in her brothers and sisters.

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

By 1937, there were several dozen women guests at 77 rue de Lourmel. Up to 120 dinners were served each day, normally soup plus a main course that included meat plus plenty of bread supplied gratis by a sympathetic baker.

Mother Maria’s day typically began with a journey to Les Halles to beg food or buy cheaply whatever was not be 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.

On rue de Lourmel she had a room beneath the stairs next to the kitchen. Here on one occasion a visitor found her collapsed in an arm chair in a state of exhaustion. “I can’t go on like this,” she said. “I can’t take anything in. I’m tired, I’m really tired. There have been about 40 people here today, each with his own sorrow and needs. I can’t chase them away!”

She 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.

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

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

It was no virtue of her own that could account for her activities, she insisted. “There is no hardship in it, since all the relief comes my way. God having given me a compassionate nature, how else could I live?”

In addition to help from volunteers, in 1937 another nun came to help: Mother Evdokia Meshcheriakova. Later Mother Blandina Obelenskaya entered the community. There was also Father Lev Gillet, thanks to whom the Liturgy was celebrated frequently. Father Lev lived in an outbuilding near the stable until his departure to London in 1938.

Yet 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 Evdokia, who had begun her monastic life in a more traditional context, was not as experimental by temperament as Mother Maria. As the community had no abbess, there was no one to arbitrate between the two. For Mother Evdokia, though always in awe of Mother Maria’s endurance and prophetic passion, the house at rue de Lourmel was too much an “ecclesiastical Bohemia.” Mother Maria’s view was that “the Liturgy must be translated into life. It is why Christ came into the world and why he gave us our Liturgy.” (In 1938 Mother Evdokia and Mother Blandina departed to establish a more traditional monastery at Moisenay-le-Grand.)

Mother Maria clung to her experiment. “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 with in her mother country.

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

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. Of paramount importance, “We must not allow Christ to be overshadowed by any regulations, any customs, any traditions, any aesthetic considerations, or even any piety.”

Mother Maria’s difficulties at times made her feel a terrifying loneliness. “I get very depressed,” she admitted. “I could desist, if only I could be convinced that I stand for a truth that is relative.”

She was sustained chiefly by those she served — themselves beaten down, people in despair, cripples, alcoholics, the sick, survivors of many tragedies. But not all responded to trust with trust. Theft was not uncommon. On one occasion a guest stole 25 francs. Everyone guessed who the culprit was, a drug addict, but Mother Maria refused to accuse her. Instead she announced at the dinner table that the money had not been stolen, only misplaced, and she had found it. “You see how dangerous it is to make accusations,” she commented. At once the girl who stole the money burst into tears.

“It is not enough to give,” Mother Maria might say. “We must have a heart that gives.” If mistakes were made, if people betrayed a trust, the cure was not to limit giving. “The only ones who make no mistakes,” she said, “are those who do nothing.”

Mother Maria and her collaborators would not simply open the door when those in need knocked, but would actively seek out the homeless. One place to find them was an all-night café at Les Halles where those with nowhere else to go could sit as long as they liked for the price of a glass of wine. Children were also cared for. Part-time schools were opened at several locations.

Fortunately for the community, their prudent business manager, Fedor Pianov, formerly general secretary of the Russian Christian Student Movement, at times intervened in cases where a trusted person was systematically violating the confidence placed in him, as sometimes happened.

Turning her attention toward Russian refugees who had been classified insane, Mother Maria began a series of visits to mental hospitals. In each hospital five to ten percent of the Russian patients turned out to be sane and, thanks to her intervention, were released. Language barriers and cultural misunderstandings had kept them in the asylum.

An inquiry into the needs of impoverished Russians suffering from tuberculosis resulted in the opening in 1935 of a sanatorium in Noisy-le-Grand. Its church was a former hen house. Her efforts bore the unexpected additional fruit of other French TB sanatoria opening their doors to Russian refugees. The house at Noisy, no longer having to serve its original function, then became a rest home. It was here that Mother Maria’s mother Sophia ended her days in 1962. She was a century old.

Another landmark was the foundation in September 1935 of a group christened Orthodox Action, a name proposed by her friend, the philosopher Nicholas Berdyaev. In addition to Mother Maria and Berdyaev, the co-founders included the theologian Father Sergei Bulgakov, the historian George Fedotov, the scholar Constantine Mochulsky, the publisher Ilya Fondaminsky, and her long-time co-worker Fedor Pianov. Metropolitan Evgoly was honorary president. Mother Maria was chairman. With financial support coming not only from supporters within France but from other parts of Europe as well as America, a wider range of projects and centers were made possible: hostels, rest homes, schools, camps, hospital work, help to the unemployed, assistance to the elderly, publication of books and pamphlets, etc.

Mother Maria’s driving concern throughout the expansion of work was that it should never lose either its personal or communal character: “We should make every effort to ensure that each of our initiatives is the common work of all those who stand in need of it,” she wrote, “and not [simply part of] some charitable organization, where some perform charitable actions and are accountable for it to their superiors while others receive the charity, make way for those who are next in line, and disappear from view. We must cultivate a communal organization rather than set up a mechanical organization. Our concept of sobornost [conciliarity] commits us to this. At the same time we are committed to the personal principle in the sense that absolutely no one can become for us a routine cipher, whose role in to swell statistical tables. I would say that we should not give away a single piece of bread unless the recipient means something as a person for us.”

She 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.

Russians have not been last among those enamored with theories, but for Mother Maria, theory always had to take second place. “We have not gathered together for the theoretical study of social problems in the spirit of Orthodoxy,” she wrote in 1939, “[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.”

Yet time was also given to abstract inquiry. Sunday afternoons were normally a time for lectures and discussions at rue de Lourmel. Berdyaev, Bulgakov and Fedotov were frequent speakers. In addition there were courses set up during the week, including sessions of the Religious-Philosophical Academy that Berdyaev had founded.

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 to the duty of hospitality that she might leave a church service to answer the door bell. “For church circles we are too far to the left,” Mother Maria noted, “while for the left we are too church-minded.” Those on the left also saw no point in efforts to relieve individual cases of suffering, still less in time given to prayer. One must rather devote all one’s efforts to bringing about radical social change. There were also supportive friends, Berdyaev among them, who had little understanding of her monastic vocation, though for Mother Maria this remained at the core of her identity. “Thanks to my being clothed as a nun,” she commented, “many things are simpler and within my reach.”

In October 1939, Metropolitan Eulogy send a new priest to rue de Lourmel: Father Dimitri Klepinin, then 35 years old. He was a spiritual child of Father Sergei Bulgakov, who had also been one of his teachers. A man of few words and great modesty, Father Dimitri proved to be a real partner for Mother Maria. [photo of Fr Dimitri at right]

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

It would have been possible for her to leave Paris when the Germans were advancing toward the city, or even to leave the country to go to America. Her decision was not to 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 the Nazi threat. 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.”

“We are entering eschatological times,” she wrote. “Do you not feel that the end is already near?

Death seemed to rule the world. “Now, at this very minute, I know that hundreds of people have encountered death, while thousands upon thousands more await their turn,” she wrote at Easter in 1940. “I know that mothers wait for the postman and tremble when a letter is delayed by more than a day.” But she saw one gain in all this: “Everything is clearly in its place. Everyone must make their choice. There is nothing disguised or hypocritical in the enemy’s approach.”

Paris fell on the 14th of June. France capitulated a week later. With defeat came greater poverty and hunger for many people. Local authorities in Paris declared the house at rue Lourmel an official food distribution point — Cantine Municipale No. 9. Here volunteers sold at cost price whatever food Mother Maria had bought that morning at Les Halles.

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

Early in 1942, their registration now underway, Jews began to knock on the door at rue de Lourmel asking Father Dimitri if he would issue baptismal certificates to them. The answer was always yes. The names of those “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. Father Dimitri was convinced that in such a situation Christ would do the same.

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

In March 1942, the order came from Berlin that the yellow star Jews 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.”

She wrote a poem reflecting on the symbol Jews were required to wear:

Two triangles, a star,

The shield of King David, our forefather.

This is election, not offense.

The great path and not an evil.

Once more in a term fulfilled,

Once more roars the trumpet of the end;

And the fate of a great people

Once more is by the prophet proclaimed.

Thou art persecuted again, O Israel,

But what can human malice mean to thee,

who have heard the thunder from Sinai?

In July Jews were forbidden access to nearly all public places. Shopping by Jews was restricted to one 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 the Velodrome d’Hiver 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, while ten latrines were supposed to serve them all. From there the captives were to be sent via Drancy 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.

Father Dimitri, Mother Maria and their co-workers set up routes of escape, from Lourmel to Noisy-le-Grand and from there to other, safer destinations in 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.

On February 8, 1943, while Mother Maria was traveling, Nazi security police entered the house on rue de Lourmel and found a letter in her son Yura’s pocket in which Father Dimitri was asked to provide a Jew with a false baptismal document. Yura, now actively a part of his mother’s work, was taken to the office of Orthodox Action, soon after followed by his distraught grandmother, Sophia Pilenko. The interrogator, Hans Hoffman, a Gestapo officer who spoke Russian, ordered her to bring Father Dimitri. Once the priest was there, Hoffman said, they would let Yura go. His grandmother Sophia was allowed to embrace Yura and give him a blessing, making the sign of the cross on his body. It was last time she saw him in this world.

The following morning Father Dimitri served the Liturgy in a side chapel at rue de Lourmel dedicated to St. Philip, a bishop who had paid with his life for protesting the crimes of Tsar Ivan the Terrible. Fortified by communion he set off for the Gestapo office on rue des Saussies. Interrogated for four hours, he made no attempt to hide his beliefs. A fragment of their exchange survives:

Hoffman: If we release you, will you give your word never again to aid Jews?

Klepinin: I can say no such thing. I am a Christian and must act as I must. (Hoffman struck Klepinin across the face.)

Hoffman: Jew lover! How dare you talk of helping those swine as being a Christian duty!

(Klepinin, recovering his balance, held up the cross from his cassock.)

Klepinin: Do you know this Jew?

(For this, Father Dimitri was struck on the face.)

“Your priest did himself in,” Hoffman said afterward to Sophia Pilenko. “He insists that if he were to be freed, he would act exactly as before.”

The next day, February 10, Mother Maria was back in Paris and was also arrested by Hoffman, who brought her back to Lourmel while he searched her room. Several others were called for questioning and then held by the Gestapo, including a visitor to the home of Father Dimitri. His wife, Tamara, sensing the danger she was in and aware that she was powerless to free her husband, left Paris with their two young children, one four, the other six months old. The three survived.

Arrested a week later at rue de Lourmel, Mother Maria saw her mother for the last time. “We embraced,” he mother recalled. “I blessed her. He had lived all our life together, in friendship, hardly ever apart. She bade me farewell and said, as she always did at the most difficult moments, ‘Mother, be strong’.”

Mother Maria was confined with 34 other woman at the Gestapo headquarters in Paris. Her son Yura, Father Dimitri and their co-worker of many years, Feodor Pianov, were being held in the same building. Pianov later recalled the scene of Father Dimitri in his torn cassock being taunted as a Jew. One of the SS began to prod and beat him while Yura stood nearby weeping. Father Dimitri “began to console him, saying the Christ withstood greater mockery than this.”

In April the prisoners were transferred to Compiegne, and here Mother Maria was blessed with a final meeting with Yura, who crawled through a window in order to see her. In a letter Yura sent to the community at rue de Lourmel, he said his mother “was in a remarkable state of mind and told me … that I must trust in her ability to bear things and in general not to worry about her. Every day [Father Dimitri and I] remember her at the proskomidia … We celebrate the Eucharist and receive communion each day.” Hours after their meeting,Mother Maria was transported to Germany.

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

In a letter Father Dimitri sent to his wife, he reported that their church was “a very good one.” It was a barrack room transformed, as many other unlikely structures had been in the past. They even managed to make an icon screen and reading stand.

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

On December 16, Yura and Father Dimitri were deported to Buchenwald concentration camp in Germany, followed several weeks later by Pianov. In January 1944, Father Dimitri and Yura — now in striped prison uniforms and with shaved heads — were sent to another camp, Dora, 40 kilometers away, where parts for V-1and V-2 rockets were being manufactured in underground factories. Within ten days of arrival, Yura contracted furunculosis, a condition in which large areas of the skin are covered in boils. On the 6th of February, he was “dispatched for treatment” — a euphemism for sentenced to death. Four days later Father Dimitri, lying on a dirt floor, died of pneumonia. His body was disposed of in the Buchenwald crematorium.

A final letter from Yura, written at Compiegne, was discovered in a suitcase of his possessions returned from the camp to rue de Lourmel:

My dears, Dima [Father Dimitri] blesses you, my most beloved ones. I am to go to Germany with Dima, Father Andrei [who also died in a concentration camp] and Anatoly [Vishkovsky]. I am absolutely calm, even somewhat proud to share mama’s fate. I promise you I will bear everything with dignity. Whatever happens, sooner or later we shall all be together. I can say in all honesty that I am not afraid of anything any longer. . . . I ask anyone whom I have hurt in any way to forgive me. Christ be with you!

Mother Maria, prisoner 19,263, was sent in a sealed cattle truck from Compiegne to the Ravensbruck camp in Germany, where she endured for two years, an achievement in part explained by her long experience of ascetic life. She was assigned to Block 27 in the large camp’s southwest corner. Not far away was Block 31, full of Russian prisoners, many of whom she managed to befriend.

Unable to correspond with friends, little testimony in her own words has come down to us, but prisoners who survived the war remembered her. One of them, Solange Perichon, recalls:

“She was never downcast, never. She never complained…. She was full of good cheer, really good cheer. We had roll calls which lasted a great deal of time. We were woken at three in the morning and we had to stand out in the open in the middle of winter until the barracks [population] was counted. She took all this calmly and she would say, ‘Well that’s that. Yet another day completed. And tomorrow it will be the same all over again. But one fine day the time will come for all of this to end.’ … 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.”

Another prisoner, Rosane Lascroux, recalled:

“She exercised an enormous influence on us all. No matter what our nationality, age, political convictions — this had no significance whatever. Mother Maria was adored by all. The younger prisoners gained particularly from her concern. She took us under her wing. We were cut off from our families, and somehow she provided us with a family.”

In a memoir, Jacqueline Pery stressed the importance of the talks Mother Maria gave and the discussion groups she led:

“She used to organize real discussion circles … and I had the good fortune to participate in them. Here was an oasis at the end of the day. She would tell us about her social work, about how she conceived the reconciliation of the Orthodox and Catholic Churches. We would question her about the history of Russia, about its future, about Communism, about her frequent contacts with young women from the Soviet army with whom she liked to surround herself. These discussion, whatever their subject matter, provided an escape from the hell in which we lived. They allowed us to restore our depleted morale, they rekindled in us the flame of thought, which barely flickered beneath the heavy burden of horror.”

Often, Pery wrote, she would refer to passages from the New Testament: “Together we would provide a commentary on the texts and then meditate on them. Often we would conclude with Compline… This period seemed a paradise to us.”

Yet, as was recalled by another prisoner, Sophia Nosovich, Mother Maria “never preached but rather discussed religion simply with those who sought it, causing them to understand it and to exercise their minds, not merely their feelings. Whatever and however she could, she would sustain the as yet incompletely extinguished flame of humanity, no matter what form it took.”

The same former prisoner wrote that “it was not submissiveness which gave [Mother Maria] strength to bear the suffering, but the integrity and wealth of her interior life.”

And all this happened in what Mother Maria described not as a prison but as hell itself, nothing less, a bestial place in which obscenity, contempt and hatred were normal and where hunger, illness and death were daily events. In such a climate, many opted for the numbing of all feeling and withdrawal as a survival strategy while others, in their despair, looked forward only to death.

“I once said to Mother Maria,” wrote Sophia Nosovich, “that it was more than a question of my ceasing to feel anything whatsoever. My very thought processes were numbed and had ground to a halt. ‘No, no,’ Mother Maria responded, ‘whatever you do, continue to think. In the conflict with doubt, cast your thought wider and deeper. Let it transcend the conditions and the limitations of this earth’.”

One prisoner even recalled how Mother Maria had used the ever-smoking chimneys of  the camps several crematoria as a metaphor of hope rather than being seen as the only exit point from the camp. “But it is only here, immediately above the chimneys, that the billows of smoke are oppressive,” Mother Maria said. “When they rise higher, they turn into light clouds before being dispersed in limitless space. In the same way, our souls, once they have torn themselves away from this sinful earth, move by means of an effortless unearthly flight into eternity, where there is life full of joy.”

Anticipating her own exit point from the camp might be via the crematoria chimneys, she asked a fellow prisoner whom she hoped would survive to memorize a message to be given at last to Father Sergei Bulgakov, Metropolitan Eulogy and her mother: “My state at present is such that I completely accept suffering in the knowledge that this is how things ought to be for me, and if I am to die, I see this as a blessing from on high.”

In a postcard she was allowed to send friends in Paris in the fall of 1944, she said she remained strong and healthy but had “altogether become an old woman.”

Her work in the camp varied. There was a period when she was part of a team of women dragging a heavy iron roller about the roads and pathways of the camp for 12 hours a day. In another period she worked in a knitwear workshop.

Her legs began to give way. At roll call another prisoner, Inna Webster, would act as her crutches. As her health declined, friends no longer allowed her to give away portions of her own food, as she had done in the past to help keep others alive.

Friends who survived recalled that Mother Maria wrote two poems while at Ravensbruck, but sadly neither survive. However a kerchief she embroidered for Rosane Lascroux, made with a needle and thread stolen from the tailoring workshop at last came out of the camp intact. In the style of the medieval Bayeux Tapestry, it was a depiction of the Allies’ Normandy Landing in June 1944. Her final embroidered icon, purchased with the price of her precious bread ration, was of the Mother of God holding the infant Jesus, her child already marked with the wounds of the cross.

With the Red Army approaching from the East, the concentration camp administrators further reduced food rations while greatly increasing the population of each block from 800 to 2,500. “People slept three to a bunk,” a survivor recalls. “Lice devoured us. Typhus and dysentery became a common scourge and decimated our ranks.”

By March 1945, Mother Maria’s condition was critical. She had to lie down between roll calls and hardly spoke. Her face, as 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 Gethsemane.”

In November-December 1944, she accepted a pink card that was freely issued to any prisoner who wished to be excused from labor because of age or ill health. On January all who had received such cards were rounded up and transferred to what was called the Jugendlager — the “youth camp” — where the camp authorities said each person would have her own bed and abundant food. Mother Maria’s transfer was on January 31. Here the food ration was further reduced and the hours spent standing for roll calls increased. Though it was mid-winter, blankets, coats and jackets were confiscated, and then even shoes and stockings. The death rate was at least fifty per day. Next all medical supplies were withdrawn. Those who still persisted in surviving now faced death by shootings and gas, the latter made possible by the construction of a gas chamber in March 1945. In this 150 were executed per day.

It is astonishing that Mother Maria lasted five weeks in the “youth camp,” and was finally sent back to the Jugendlager to the main camp on March 3. Though emaciated and infested with lice, with her eyes festering, she began to think she might actually live to return to Paris, or even go back to Russia.

That same month the camp commander received an order from Reichsfuhrer Himmler that anyone who could no longer walk should be killed. While such orders had been anticipated and many already killed, the decree accelerated the process. With the help of Inna Webster and others to lean on, Mother Maria managed to continue standing at roll calls, but this became far more difficult when groups of prisoners were ordered into ranks of five for purposes of selecting those to be killed that day. Within her block, Mother Maria was sometimes hidden in a small space between roof and ceiling in expectation of raids in which additional “selections” were made.

On the 30th of March Mother Maria was selected for the gas chambers — Good Friday as it happened. She entered eternal life the following day. The shellfire of the approaching Red Army could be heard in the distance.

Accounts are at odds about what happened. According to one, she was simply one of the many selected for death that day. According to another, she took the place of another prisoner, a Jew, who had been chosen. Her friend Jacqueline Pery wrote afterward:

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

Although perishing in the gas chamber, she did not perish in the Church’s memory. Survivors of the war who had known her would again and again draw attention to the ideas, insights and activities of the maverick nun who had spent so many years coming to the aid of people in desperate straights. Soon after the end of World War II, essays and books about her began appearing, in French and Russia. A Russian film, “Mother Maria,” was made in 1982. There have been two biographies in English and little by little the translation and publication in English of her most notable essays. A 22-page bibliography of Mother Maria-related writings has been assembled by Dr. Kristi Groberg.

Controversial in life, Mother Maria remains a subject of contention to this day, a fact which may explain the slowness of the Orthodox Church in adding her to the calendar of saints, an event that finally occurred in 2004. Her day of commemoration is 20 July. While clearly she lived a life of heroic virtue and is among the martyrs of the twentieth century, her verbal assaults on nationalistic and tradition-bound forms of religious life still raise the blood pressure of many Orthodox Christians. Mother Maria remains an indictment of any form of Christianity that seeks Christ chiefly inside church buildings.

* * *

The main part of this essay is the introduction to Mother Maria Skobtsova: Essential Writings, published by Orbis Books. The principal source of biographical material used in this text is Fr. Serge Hackel’s book, Pearl of Great Price, published in Britain by Darton Longman & Todd and, in America, by St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press.

Jim Forest is editor of In Communion, co-secretary of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship, and author of various books, including Praying with Icons, Ladder of the Beatitudes, Confession: Doorway to Forgiveness, and The Wormwood File: E-Mail from Hell.

See also our other pages in the St. Maria Skobtsova category.

text as updated July 8, 2004

Becoming the Gospel: the example of four saints

by Jim Forest

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

mmaria3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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