Maria Skobtsova

A similarly radical view of the Gospel's call to transform the world in love is found first and foremost in the life and writings of Mother Maria Skobtsova (Hackel 1981). One of the most colorful and original figures in the Orthodox Church in the modern era, Elisabeth Pilenko, as she was born, was a gifted poet and part of the circle of the Russian poet Alexander Blok. She was involved in the political turmoil of the Russian Revolution, may have been involved in the plot to assassinate Trotsky, and was herself nearly executed by both the Bolshe viks and the White Army. She was married twice, both marriages ending in divorce, and had three children. After flight to the West, she became deeply involved in providing basic humanitarian aid and counsel to impoverished Russian émigrés, both in the Russian Christian Student Movement and in another service organization, Orthodox Action. The death of her youngest daughter in 1931 from meningitis was a turning point, a moment of conversion. She asked to be admitted to monastic life and, despite some reservations on the part of colleagues, her bishop, Metropolitan Evlogy, did receive her vows, tonsure her and clothe her in the habit on the first Sunday of Lent 1932.

Mother Maria's life was incandescent. She was creative in arguing that monastic life in our time needed to find its modern location and form. If indeed such life was a sign of the presence of God's kingdom in society, then monastics should, as their predecessors did, live the life of the Gospel in the world, serving God by their prayer and by loving the children of God. She had in mind the practical service of suffering people by the desert monastics and the location of many early monastic houses in such urban locations as the Studios monastery in Constantinople and the Basiliade in Caesarea. Incessantly in her writings, Mother Maria stressed the indivisibility of the love of God and the love of the neighbor. Her essays, written in the minutes she could steal from her work, are filled with perceptive observations on the stress of the pace of modern life, and the complex consequences of political upheavals such as the Russian Revolution, then the Great Depression, and finally the Second World War. Before her monastic profession, her life was already committed to service. She traveled around France, visiting and counseling émigrés, raising funds for their assistance, seeking better governmental welfare services, and working to secure retraining and rehabilitation for them. After entering monastic life she rented large residential units both within Paris and in the suburbs, to set up, first at Villa de Saxe, then rue de Lourmel and Noisy-le-Grand, hostels for the homeless and suffering, living centers for the sick and aged. She hoped to attract other women to this monastic life of service, but her colleagues were few and temporary. She had a formidable personality which some could not tolerate. There was a kind of undeclared war between her and her first chaplain, Fr. Kiprian Kern, who could not adapt to her way of life, yet she was also blessed with two very discerning chaplains, Frs. Lev Gillet and Dimitri Klepinine.

Echoing Basil the Great, Mother Maria put her reading of the Gospel's social ethic bluntly. "At the Last Judgment I will not be asked whether I satisfactorily practiced asceticism, nor how many prostrations and bows I have made before the altar. I will be asked whether I fed the hungry, clothed the naked, visited the sick and the prisoners in jail. That is all I will be asked." In her reflections on the "second commandment," that of loving the neighbor as oneself, Mother Maria concluded that, just as one was to love God with one's whole mind, heart, and will, the two commandments were really one (Skobtsova 2003: 45-60). In an essay written in 193 7 but never published and located again by Fr. Dimitri's daughter Hélène and her son Antoine, "Types of Religious Lives," Mother Maria conducts not only a theological but also a social-psychological examination of how faith and life are connected, or not, in the social world around her. (Skobtsova 2003: 140-86). She presents ideal types in a probing analysis that is extremely precise in capturing some of the various "styles" of religiosity in the Orthodox Christians she knew. She delineates aesthetic, ritualistic, ascetic, and peculiarly Russian-cultural "types" of religiosity. Of greatest relevance here, though, is her sketch of the simpler, more radical approach one finds in the Gospels and in the lives of many saints. A "peculiar law" seems to be at work, she wrote, quite the opposite of the calculus of everyday life. Rather than being impoverished by every dollar or hour I give away to someone in need, in reality I receive back even more than I give. And what I do not share, what I rather try to hoard, hide, protect, even increase in worth, actually slips away from me, is consumed, as if burned up. The response of so many (in the 1930s) to the people and society around them - to unemployment, homelessness, hunger, the breakup of marriages, families, psyches - namely, to retreat to the movies, the café, was a further tragedy. To want to escape the suffering of others said much about the disappearance of the heart, the loss of community and humanity. One could retreat as well not into jazz or alcohol but into liturgical chant, lives of saints and rituals.

While she painted and embroidered beautiful icons and vestments, Mother Maria nevertheless thought that Christ, entering into the splendor of such worship, would eventually work his way out the church door into the square, the streets outside, where his suffering children were. The Gospel's true force propels Christians out from the eucharistic liturgy and sanctuary into the liturgy of loving and serving the neighbor in everyday life. Mother Maria realized that what she was proposing ran directly counter to ordinary human orientation, counter to our fundamental love of self, then of those closest to us and those most like us. Yet what she read in the Bible about the absolute quality of God's love and his desire that we love in the same manner transcended all these fences of love. The divine form of love will make even the parent see the image of God not only in one's child but also in other children, in other people and their situations. By giving we receive. What we give is not lost but returns many times over, enriching us.

Mother Maria was both loved and reviled in her own Russian community and church. Cutting short her stay at the services to prepare meals, making early morning trips to the meat and produce markets at Les Halles to beg leftovers and day-old items, visiting the cafés to find the lonely and the homeless hanging on to their glasses of cheap wine so as to enjoy the shelter and warmth - her lowering of herself to the level of the unfortunate, in the example of Christ, made her an embarrassment to many of her contemporaries. Reminiscences of her by some notable émigrés contain a mixture of disparaging comments on her nonconformity and passionate nature as well as profound regret at having kept a distance, at looking down on her unusual life of service.

During the Nazi occupation of France, Mother Maria actively assisted many who were targeted by the Gestapo for roundup and the death camps. Fr. Dimitri issued many baptismal certificates to protect Jewish people by incorporation into the community of his parish. Mother Maria fed, hid, and helped other Jewish neighbors to flee. She ministered herself to those held in the Vélodrome d'Hiver during the hot July days of 1942. In the end, she, her remaining son Yuri, and Fr. Dimitri were arrested by the Gestapo and sent on to death camps, where all died. Mother Maria took the place of another woman in a wagon headed to the gas chambers at Ravensbruck, and the camp records note her death on March 31, 1945, Good Friday, just weeks before liberation by the Russian army. She is honored as one of the "righteous among the Gentiles" at Yad Vashem, and many recognize her as a martyr of our time.

Although politically astute and experienced enough in social action to identify the economic and structural causes of dislocation, poverty and war, Mother Maria also understood that the only authentic form of love was that given to an actual person before one. While earlier in life she spoke and worked for reform at all levels of state and society, she eventually formulated what might best be called a personalist social ethic. The Incarnation of God meant, as her confessor Fr. Bulgakov saw it, the "humanity of God." Mother Maria sought to put into action as well as into words the human counterpart of this, namely human care for the other in the manner of God: indulgently, freely, without reservation or demand. Was her work essentially radical philanthropy or charity, with no real political dimension? Quite the contrary, for she was profoundly aware of the reality of the state and its institutions and power. In assisting the suffering, she utilized all the available resources in the French welfare system. During the war, the residents of her hostels were engaged in practical tasks such as preparing clothing for troops and organizing medical supplies; under the occupation the hostel dining rooms fed the neighborhood hungry, using government rations and public funding. She countered the effort to round up the Jews of Paris, and even in the Ravensbruck camp opposed the machinery of death with small but powerful gestures. Her last embroideries were of the Allied invasion of Normandy in the style of the Bayeux tapestry and of the Mother of God holding Jesus not as a child but as the crucified one, the God who makes himself one with all who suffer.

I chose these three remarkable Orthodox Christians of our time solely for the insightful things they wrote about the Christian understanding of social and political life in the modern era. Even more importantly, I present them for the example of their work and existence. Their lives embody the characteristics of the Eastern Orthodox perspective I described earlier. In their lives, each one was politically and socially active. Sergius Bulgakov served in the Second Duma and in the Great Council of Moscow in 1917-18. Mother Maria served as mayor of her hometown of Anapa in the Revolution and was almost executed by both the Bolsheviks and the White Army. Paul Evdokimov participated in the Resistance and then in the providing of service to the suffering, as did Mother Maria. They never denied the need for political change, for government's just and humane treatment of its citizens, and all three recognized the monstrous possibilities of a totalitarian state in our time. Their love for the neighbor and serving of the suffering was, however, direct and personal, not restricted to the dimensions of theory or plans. Despite the power of evil they saw unleashed around them, both in the Russian Revolution and in World War II, they nevertheless could not lose the vision of transformation that they saw in Christ and the Gospel.

Embedded in the vision of these three extraordinary Orthodox Christians is freedom, a concept explicitly discussed by their colleague and fellow Orthodox Christian, the philosopher Nicolas Berdiaev. To encounter the other and the world with the mind of Christ, with the heart of God, also means so respecting the neighbor's freedom that there can be no possibility of threat, coercion, or harassment. On the contrary, all three put into practice, in veneration for the freedom of every person, what they absorbed from their prayer and study: the force of the "humanity of God." Though they were born and raised in an authoritarian Russian state and society, though they knew well the excesses of legalism, ritualism, and control in their church, these three - and, as it turns out, many of their fellow émigrés - came to see that love transcends every law and reveals the perfect freedom of the children of God (Plekon 2002). This freedom they recognized to be the material from which a reformed and renewed society and state had to be crafted. Never rejecting the world, the social arena, culture, the arts and sciences, their theological vision saw the raising of all these aspects of human life into the beauty of the kingdom of God. Theirs was at once a perspective fully human, humane, and divine.

There is no single Orthodox social and political theology, given the diverse character of Orthodox Christianity, extending over so many centuries and localized in so many countries, now including western Europe and North America. The lives and work of Fr. Sergius Bulgakov, Paul Evdokimov and Mother Maria Skobtsova nevertheless embody some of the most basic and singular of Eastern Orthodoxy's understandings of the world and life in it. Orthodox Christianity is marked by the vision of the eternal kingdom of heaven and the beauty of God's transcendence. Yet Orthodox Christianity, contrary to assumptions, does not flee the world or condemn it as essentially evil. Rather, intensely aware of God's creation of all things as good and of the entrance of God into creation by the Incarnation of Christ, one should embrace the world as the only place where the drama of salvation occurs. The church, as the outreach of the kingdom of God, seeks to transform the world again into God's good creation. The pitting of the Western Christian passion for social justice and activism against the East's alleged other-worldly passivity is quite false. Many recent examples bear witness to this, the lives of these three and so many others: the efforts of monastics, Patriarch Pavle, the monk Fr. Sava and others to bring peace in the former Yugoslavia; the leadership and intense activism of Archbishop Anastasios of Tirana (2003) and of scores of clergy and lay volunteers in rebuilding Albania; the efforts of the Hosanna Community of lay people, many disciples of Fr. Alexander Men, in introducing social outreach to the young, the homeless, the imprisoned in Moscow and surrounding areas; the recognized effectiveness of the International Orthodox Christian Charities (IOCC) in providing disaster relief worldwide. The examples of Orthodox Christians working "for the life of the world" could be multiplied.

There is no form of government blessed in particular by God. Every form can serve if the rule of love is followed, if human dignity and freedom are respected. Politics and culture are indispensable arenas for Christian discipleship, but all work leads to the kingdom. The human person is a microcosm, at once the glory of God's creating, the object of God's redeeming love, the agent of this transforming compassion for the rest of the world. In sum, Orthodox Christianity treasures the encounter of the divine and the human wherever this occurs.


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