Tag Archives: St. Maria of Paris

Serving the Poor: Beyond Food, Clothing, and Shelter

by Julia Demaree

For where two or three are gathered in my Name, I am there in their midst. 

–Jesus (Matt. 18:20)

Our mission statement is simple and challenging: “Emmaus House, an Orthodox Christian ministry, welcomes all to offer hospitality, healing, and hope in solidarity with the poor and the homeless. We are inspired by the Gospel: in breaking bread together, we recognize the presence of Christ.”

Emmaus House is in central Harlem, lodged in a run down but homey, four-storied brownstone in Mount Morris on a vastly gentrified street. Our building houses one live-in, non-salaried directress, one live-in volunteer, one board member who overnights weekly with her dog, two cats, and an unknown number of wild, outdoor cats. Volunteers offer food and clothing to those in need three days a week and provide referrals, especially for housing, and we take turns responding to the “stranger at the door.” A former resident does our office work and we hope to find a neighborhood handyman to help respond to the creaks and groans of our old house.

We are an old community sprouting new wings, ever mindful of the tremendous legacy of our deceased founder, Fr. David Kirk, while staying responsive to the gifts of the community’s new members and the problems endemic to serving the poor.

We are a Christ-Centered Ministry where we strive for the ideal of St. Maria of Paris: “There is not and there cannot be any following in the steps of Christ without taking upon ourselves a certain share, small as it may be, of participation in this sacrificial deed of love. Anyone who loves the world, anyone who lays down his soul for others, anyone who is ready, at the price of being separated from Christ, to gain salvation for his brothers is a disciple and follower of Christ.”

Passersby  often ask about the meaning of Emmaus. The word is printed on the bright red awning jutting over our first story windows. Most of them don’t crane their necks to look up to see the Orthodox cross nailed to the facade. If they approach the door, they’ll see a festal icon in a wooden box. If they come into the vestibule, they’ll be greeted by a large icon of “Christ made without Human Hands.” And then if they walk down the hallway and turn right, they’ll enter our Orthodox Chapel, “Christ of the Homeless.” The chapel’s freshly painted golden walls hold remnants of chant, sad stories of broken lives, shards of abated anger, and messy details of relationships gone amiss. While sitting on the wooden bench, names get added to our prayer list, the Mother of the Street icon becomes a parting gift-in-hand, and both parties feel the power of healing from time spent together in a sacred space.

We welcome all to taste and see the Orthodox world through these tangible gifts and grace-filled moments. We remain mindful of how Fr. David provided Muslim residents with prayer rugs and a private area for their prayer times during the day. Emmaus continues to carry on under this flag of openness to all as we labor under the Christian non-negotiable statute of unconditional love in service to all—Christ in every face.

In the Spirit of Community: When Father David Kirk passed in May 2007, a few board members wanted to turn his legacy into a foundation claiming they couldn’t imagine Emmaus House without him. Some of us fought to keep Emmaus going as a ministry, and the twelve residents that had cared for him during his six years of failing health attempted, with some supervision, to keep the community intact while they continued to serve the poor for two more years. In 2009, a lack of funds and escalating house tensions forced the doors of Emmaus House to close. It was shattering for the residents, who in spite of their many difficulties, had come to define themselves as family. They still stay in touch with each other and with Emmaus by phone and email.

Then came the long, lonely wait, that “dark night of the soul” that is wont to hit us when we are living with absolute uncertainty. It was a year spent purging the house of its years of collected debris and praying for some signs of new life. Jim Forest sent an encouraging email saying that while he was sorry about the closing, he knew that Emmaus would rise again like a phoenix out of the ashes as it had done many times in the past. We were also laboring under the immense shadow of Fr. David and the layered legacy that was associated with his Emmaus House. We focused on honoring his last two wishes: to carry on as a community serving the poor and to call on Orthodox people to engage in works of mercy.

Slowly, very slowly, signs of life began to reappear, like tiny green plants emerging in a Lenten Spring. Passersby asked if the house was going to reopen. Neighbors left bags of clothing at our doorstep. An African-American man asked why we had a white Christ posted out front, didn’t we know where we were? (Good point. We put up a better icon). City Harvest began delivering fresh, recycled food. Our summer intern visited a prisoner and a shut-in elder. An auntie happily told us about her readiness to resume baking the peach pies she used to bake for Fr. David. Our traveling kitchen crew delivered hot soup to the homeless on the street. Former residents dropped in to visit and help. New volunteers began to appear and make commitments. The neighborhood needy came for recycled food and clothing. Orthodox priests brought youth to Saturday workdays, blessed our house, and held prayer services in our chapel. Urban and suburban Orthodox laity brought large bags of clothing to give away. Two pilgrims drove six hours roundtrip from Pennsylvania to our doorstep with a truck full of clothes and canned goods.

old Harlem,At the same time we were encouraged by these developments and alarmed at how the exclusivity of the gentrification process was destroying the presence of community that had always defined Harlem. On our block, there was no longer any stoop-sitting, a gracious tradition from the south that allows for catching up with and watching out for one’s neighbors. Most of the community gardens had been reclaimed by the city under the ruse that they would be used for low income housing. Signifi-cantly, old timers noted that the new-comers wouldn’t even make eye contact with them when they passed by them on the street. Apartment dwellers and home-owners felt betrayed by their local politicians and were outraged that our local community board was no longer an open forum for all. It all came to a head when 125th street, the heart of the old Harlem, was rezoned for commercial purposes.

We started hearing more and more eviction stories, and of the scare tactics being used against people who had paid their rent faithfully for years. More and more long- time Harlem residents were becoming marginalized and, with rising rents, could barely make ends meet. Merely nodding off on a park bench could lead to an arrest or humiliating harassment. In the early stages of gentrification, Fr. David asked repeatedly whether Emmaus should relocate to where the poor really were, suggesting Camden. Today, we would answer him that there are plenty of disenfranchised people left to serve in Harlem, folks who are trapped in a city with fewer and fewer options and whose powerful leaders are doing all they can to turn the island into a “gated community” for the wealthy.

So, Fr. David, we are still in Harlem. Currently, we are a gaggle of prayerful individuals who are trying to address the vast inequalities of what Dorothy Day called “the dirty, rotten system.” We pray that we have the discipline to do the inner work to receive the “gift of community.” We realize that going to church on Sunday is not necessarily the same as being part of a daily community in which we give up a lot and take responsibility for things that we might not otherwise want to bother with. There, we have to make commitments to other human beings and no longer define ourselves as individuals, but as members of a body where all of the parts learn to fit together. As we progress, then, we are striving to be both a “community of resistance” to those who would like to see “undesirable” people just disappear as well as being a “community of hope” to these quietly desperate people.

Fr. David once wrote, “Jesus, the broken man, remains beside us on this road to Emmaus. Holding me in his hands, He gives thanks, and He broke me and gave me to my sisters and brothers, who in turn, sent me out to help feed the crowd.” By our name, Emmaus, we are mandated to “break bread” (Luke 24:13), and indeed we do, in small clusters of diverse people sitting around our old dining-room table under the gaze of the large icon of the Ugandan martyrs. We actually received a small grant to host “fellowship dinners” so that people from different backgrounds have an opportunity to experience their commonality. And we wait patiently to be able to receive the body and blood of Christ in our chapel, “Christ of the Homeless,” on some Sunday morning. For this, we pray.

Works of Mercy: “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself” (Luke 19:13). hen the choice of our white Christ was challenged by our nomadic friend, ben Israel, I replaced it the next day with a Coptic image of Christ with text that read: “We are our brother’s keeper.” Could it be that these two acts were “works of mercy”? He gave me the gift of “enlightenment” in a neighborhood that easily sees the white person as a “do-gooder,” while I gave him back the gift of “acknowledgement,” in appreciation of his sensitivity training.

For the most part, when we hear about performing a “work of mercy” we think of giving a needy person our extra jacket or a hot cup of soup and slice of bread, and if we’re courageous, we might even add in a mattress for the night. Materially speaking, the poor need the help of the rich who live with excess and secure rest night after night, having their physical needs met—indeed, often over-met. There can be no argument about what to do for the person who is cold and unprotected on the street on a wintry night. There can be no argument about providing the mother, trying to raise five children in the shelter system, with food and clothing. We must always be ready to provide on this material, survival level for those in need. For this, we need to be in a constant state of prayer, and to practice mindfulness.

At Emmaus, we try to use creativity and sensitivity when we address these most basic human needs. One hot day, two of our male volunteers began offering cold glasses of lemon water to the people waiting in line for their food bags, a simple act of hospitality that elicited many a thankful smile. Every two or three days, a former Emmaus resident, who is now homeless and on the street, comes to exchange his dirty clothes for a set of clean clothes we have washed for him. He is not ready to give up his addictive lifestyle but he wants to keep a connection with us, and with his memory of Father David. Even though our act is minimal, it is helping to build a relationship with him, giving us an opening to talk to him about making a change. On another day, a knock from a “stranger at the door” came from a woman looking for a change of clothing for a one-legged man who lives in his wheelchair on the street. When she returned, she picked up clothes for his girlfriend, work clothes for herself, and the container of clothes we had set aside after her first visit. In her, we have an example of the poor serving the poor.

We are fortunately free to choose and define the way we serve, so we are not beholden to governmental time constraints nor eaten alive by bureaucratic accountability. We bow to no agendas of discrimination. The burden, then, falls on us to monitor our behavior, question our motives, catch our shortcomings, talk through our differences. Our style is to take our time with people, keep the encounter fresh with caring and possibility, and to reach out to all in some small way, especially to the most needy.

Often just having someone listen with respect is taken as a generous gift. “For the Christian there is no stranger,” wrote St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, born Edith Stein. “Whoever is near us and needing us must be ‘our neighbor’; it does not matter whether he is related to us or not, whether we like him or not, whether he is morally worthy of our help or not. The love of Christ knows no limits. It never ends; it does not shrink from ugliness and filth. He came for sinners, not for the just. And if the love of Christ is in us, we shall do as He did and seek the lost sheep.”

Sometimes we are the lost sheep, the supposed caregivers, the ones who want to “serve the poor.” One can feel a sense of power and safety from the caregiver’s seat, the vulnerable seat being reserved for the receiver. Often we shy away from the receiving position because it is easier for us to serve if we slip into the “us and them” paradigm. It’s a place to avoid looking at our own “poorness,” shortcomings, and fears. We have much to be taught by the poor. They are often the humble ones, stripped down and kept marginalized by our greedy culture. We try to create occasions to talk with them about their lives, to glean their wisdom, and affirm their sanctity.

Transforming Ourselves: “All human nature vigorously resists grace because grace changes us and the change is painful” (Flannery O’Connor, The Habit of Being). God would have us make changes in ourselves. He gives us the gift of pain so that we will accept our shortcomings, thereby acknowledging our need for Him through others, and in doing so, He brings us closer to Him. The overall curve of our life journey should be to turn away from darkness, where we dwell in pain and isolation from others and from Him, and to move towards the light, which brings peace because in the light we are naked again, wearing our birth clothes and approaching a state of innocence. Then we are graced with a homecoming.

Chapel of Christ, the homelessThe unresolved pains of our childhood, those hidden dark places, easily get triggered in a community setting. We often “act out” from the unresolved wounds of our younger self. My Chinese teacher once told us that “if someone’s behavior bothers you, then it is your problem.” Surely not, I thought, in some cases it is so clearly the fault of the other person. Blaming and judging others is a hedge for us to hide behind, a way to avoid taking full responsibility for our own behavior. He was telling us to take that pivotal moment of discomfort as a challenge to grow. Working through painful moments of conflict with each other is the true challenge of the work of Emmaus House. We are all broken in some way and we need the palpability of a community setting to be forced to engage in this process. Personal growth rarely happens in a vacuum. We must strive to serve others from the place of being a whole, healed human person.

When we hide or turn away from our pain, it can be from shame or in fear that others will see our unworthiness. The truth is that we are all unworthy, and it might just be the eyes and ears of the other that might provide the insight or support that moves us along toward wholeness. It might be that the touch of their hands provides us with the moral support to pull us out of our doldrums. Christ told us that it was the work of our hands that would help finish the work that He began. Let us fight to keep engaged and open to the fruits of this work. For this work, we have to be brave hearts and fearless warriors. To work with the poor, we have to be willing to value pain, to claim it as an asset, and to experience it as Christ-centered and God-given. Through the gate of pain we can enter into the deep waters of experience with others and reach for the shore of love.

My heart always skips a beat when I engage with folks on the street whose marginal lives are so exposed and whose lives are held by such fragile threads. They do not have the luxury or the wherewithal to hide or to camouflage their poverty, their disappointments, and their desperation. Life is proclaimed on their faces, in their body smell, in their empty pockets, and in their outstretched hands. I tend to move closer to them so that some of their vulnerability will rub off on me, inform my life of the need for humility, and the need to beg for love. The essential, unadorned accoutrements of life are spread out on the sidewalk between us and I am awed by these encounters every time. I confess, that as a former street artist, I am often drawn to the individuality and the resourcefulness of their physical presentation. Often I can sense a lost talent that got derailed by the relentless demands of a cruel world, some bad luck, or perhaps an inability to focus from early in life. Yet strands of creativity break through in their dress and the way that they approach. Let not our over-sanitized condition impede us from the feast of seeing and loving Christ in every face.

The “Souls in Motion” Model for Hospitality: There is no greater act of hospitality than Mary’s reception of the living Christ into her womb. Before I started working in Harlem, I had read Susan Sheehan’s fascinating 17-year history of a mental patient, with the pseudonym of Sylvia Frumpkin, that appeared as a four part series in The New Yorker, called Is There No Place on Earth for Me? I was struck by how this title is resonant with Christ’s brief stay on earth as he went from town to town, with no place to lay his head, often encountering heavy resistance to his words and very presence. I was undone by the chaos and the untouchable aspect of Sylvia’s plight and her mother’s inability to secure sustainable help for her daughter. This study primed me for the next chapter of my life.

In 1987, my friend Louise Rosenberg and I assembled a creative studio, which we called “Souls in Motion,” for the adult psychiatric clients attending a day Rehabili-tation Program in Harlem called CSS (Community Support System), just seven blocks north of Emmaus House. Louise and I, with the help of others, tried to respond to the Sylvia Frumpkin dilemma by providing a safe haven that offered folks an opportunity to get back in touch with the creativity that lay buried under childhood traumas that often led them to an adult life of addictions and mental illness. We invented a magical room that was a fulcrum of hospitality for the creative spirit: for painting, gardening, sewing, writing, relationships, acting, meditating, philosophiz-ing, listening, animal caretaking, and any other modality a person could dream up. We were focused on reawakening the creative energy that had lain dormant for years, potential that was just waiting for a wave of fresh air and an open door with permission to go through it.

The umbrella for our studio was CSS, a program that was exemplary of the outpatient facilities set up when patients were being released from mental institutions in the late 70’s. From the beginning, CSS was known for being a program with “soul” and offered a high quality of life to people who usually had to settle on third best, if they even managed to get past their invisible status. CSS was well known in the world of mental health as a family-oriented program. When patients broke the rules, they would be asked to leave, but they were always invited back for a second and third chance. This was the same philosophy of repentance and forgiveness that Fr. David followed at Emmaus House.

Hospitality became a way of life at Souls in Motion, and more and more the studio took on the character of a community, with people expressing their gratitude in a myriad of ways: hugs bookmarked all personal encounters, clients scheduled hospital visits to hospitalized clients, talking out differences often took place in front of the icons in the altar closet, custom drawings were made as gifts for other clients or staff members, epitaphs were written eulogizing the brief lives of our studio animals, client advocates accompanied less articulate clients to their appointments (Fr. David’s “the poor taking care of the poor”), homemade pies were baked and brought in for birthday celebrations, memorial services were held for those who had passed, and gospel singing filled the room during after-hours and for special occasions. When official guests toured our studio without response to it, we suspected they couldn’t be in touch with their own creativity: The space was infectious with spirit!

After twenty-four years, Souls in Motion closed its door last November. We continue to talk of trying to turn it into an independent, non-profit organization. In the meantime, Emmaus House has inherited some of its physical artifacts and is looking at ways each day to embody its spirit, as quality of life for the less fortunate has become such a precarious commodity in these times. Indeed, it is questionable if most people even know what “quality of life” or “sacredness of life” mean in our desensitized war and consumer driven country.

The philosophy driving Souls in Motion runs parallel to how the person is viewed in Orthodoxy. As children of God, we are asked to develop and share our gifts and to learn to love and respect self and neighbor on our road to our Maker. Serving is the work of a lifetime and our teachings come from the actual people and situations that God puts in our path. We articulate our philosophy with the following modest list of priorities as we continue to develop our ministry of service:

To define ourselves as members of community

To break bread together

To work in solidarity with the disenfranchised

To share our wealth with the needy and serve the poor generously

To exchange our life stories

To tolerate and appreciate our differences

To commit to healing our childhood wounds

To resist hoarding things, space, time, or people

To use our gifts freely and creatively

To answer the knock of the stranger at the door

To pray for peace in ourselves, in others and in the world

To create a community center for the poor

May we all be blessed in our efforts to serve unceasingly.  IC

Julia DemareeJulia Demaree is the director of Emmaus House. The “ragpicking” philosophy of Abbe Pierre and Fr. David Kirk still define Emmaus today and has helped shape Julia’s longtime fascination with the things that, by societal standards, fall into the “discarded” category as gold nuggets to be transformed into beauty and meaningfulness. If you wish to contact Julia or to make a donation in support of Emmaus house, write her at: [email protected]

The drawing of Emmaus house facing the opening page of the article was done by Julia’s son, Julius Wood Norman.

After Fr. David Kirk’s passing in 2007, when the future of Emmaus House was much less certain, In Communion carried two articles about his life and ministry at Emmaus House, one in Summer of ‘07 and one in Spring of ‘08 (issues 46 and 49).

 

❖ IN COMMUNION / issue 64 / Spring 2012

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.