“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. Personal almsgiving and the most wide-ranging social work are equally justifiable and necessary. 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.”
– Mother Maria of Paris
My Own Personal Totally Arbitrary Summer Reading #2: Pearl of Great Price: The Life of Mother Maria Skobtsova 1891-1945 by Sergei Hackel.
Let me just tell y’all about Mother Maria.
Her life was one big long sacrifice of personal serenity. She was unapologetically possessed by the love of God, and was, as my friend put it, the perfect balance between adorable and badass. Biographically, she’s summed up thusly: “Mother Maria Skobtsova was a nun of the Orthodox Church who was born into a Russian aristocratic home but who died a martyr’s death in one of Hitler’s concentration camps. In the intervening years, the vicissitudes of life led her through two marriages, childbirth and childrearing, and exile from her homeland–until she became an unconventional nun, devoted to the service of the destitute and the despairing in Nazi-occupied France during WWII. Mother Maria was eventually consigned to Ravensbrück concentration camp because of her support of the Jews in Paris. There she continued to help those around her up until–and even by means of–her own death. Now canonized by the Orthodox Church as St. Maria, she demonstrates how to love the image of God in each person, even when surrounded by hatred, undiluted evil, and brutality.”
So there’s that. Although she’s famous for the concentration camp part of her life, I think her life as barrier-breaking social-working nun is way more interesting and incredible. It was her sustained life of faith in that vocation that made the concentration camp part of her life possible, not to mention that her experiences with losing children (to death and to other circumstances) familiarized her with death in a most personal way long before that. I find Mother Maria to have lived one of the most fascinating lives I’ve ever heard of. Her story is amazing because she happened to run into history – the Russian Revolution of 1917, the 20s and 30s Paris we hear so much about, and the horrors of WWII – but yet she knew despite all her intellectual convictions that it was the relationships between individuals, and between God and His creations, that really mattered. In the midst of a big-picture world, she understood that we have to work on the brushstroke level if we want to get anything done. I just love her. She imagined everything complexly. (And, yeah, I’m always going to be partial to the kickass nun type. It’s just that I had so many of them in Catholicism and it’s nice to see an Orthodox one join the party!)
When she talked about the death of her daughters, she said the most beautiful things: “People call this a visitation of the Lord. A visitation which brings what? Grief? No, more than grief: for He suddenly reveals the true nature of things.” She talks about the grieving process: “A person may maintain himself on the plane of eternity by acceptance of the new order [revealed]. There is no binding necessity to relapse into everyday life.” That’s probably the one thing Mother Maria never had – an “everyday life.” She reminds me of St. Francis de Sales’ teachings in that way, that ordinariness is made extraordinary by extraordinary love. I like that.
Her ministry was wonderfully Christian because it was so human in the way Christ was. She describes it thus: “What is needed here is not religious preaching, but the simplest thing of all: compassion.” I know the frustration she writes about, though, when she acknowledges how much there is to be done and how little she is able to accomplish: “The world, try as one might, will not fit in one heart.” (I may or may not have put the book down at that point and said aloud, “Mother Maria, I KNOW THAT FEEL!”)
She often wrote of that “broad and all-embracing motherhood” which imagines the feminine spiritual genius so fantastically complexly. Oh, thank you, Maria. She said of those she cared for: “I speak for them as mother (by Your will) and shoulder their temptations as my own.” She’s giving, and wonderful, and brilliant. She had practice being a mother, and so she became a mother to all the world. I have practice being a daughter and sister, and I think I’m a lot better at the latter. So you might call my current station in life just that – to be a sister to all the world. It’s deliciously ironic in one sense because of capitalization and my past, but it’s also just the simplest truth of how we can look at ourselves. We are called to see everyone as they truly are, as our brothers and sisters – in humanity, if not in Christ. (And no matter your faith, you’ll come to find there is no difference.) Maria just describes so well how you are meant to carry this out: “Love nothing more than God,” as she professed, but in that you become free enough to love everyone else as they deserve. It’s kind of mind-blowing and I can’t explain it well at all, but I just like her very much.
Maria was a poet her whole life, and though her poems (at least in English translation) aren’t my favorite, she does have one line that really packs a punch. In reflecting on her monastic profession, she writes: they “took away my patronymic / making me God’s child.” I just enjoy that. Let’s carry on.
Her monasticism wasn’t very traditional, to put it mildly. She understands that the nesting instinct, as it were, manifests itself in monasticism to some degree: monks and nuns “establish a kind of spiritual family” and that makes sense. But she denounces that as out of keeping with the purpose of their vocation: “Everyone is always faced…with the necessity of choosing between the comfort and warmth of an earthly home…and the limitless expanse of eternity, which contains only one sure and certain item. And this one sure and certain item is a cross.” She was a fiery writer, and her declarations on this subject are no exception. “Our times are firmly in tune with Christianity in that suffering is part of their nature….They help us genuinely and utterly to accept the vow of poverty, to seek no rule, but rather anarchy, the anarchic life of the 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 bounds.” She sums it up, “At present monastics possess only one monastery, the whole wide world.” (Yeah. I’m all about this. And when the Catholic and Orthodox Churches reunite – and yeah, they will – I hope this is how Orthodox monasticism and Catholic religious life synthesize: into an anarchic life of the Fools for Christ’s sake. Monasticism in the world. Because what was Jesus Christ if not a monastic in the world?)
All her life she was made to defend this way of life. “Meet him and stand by him in toil and in sweat of thy brow….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 equals sign between Himself and anyone in need….It fills me with awe.” It’s hard to argue with someone that genuine.
Despite the seeming impossibility of some of her social work (“oh, let’s open another home for homeless Parisian Russians this week” – that’s, um, an indirect quote), she was totally confident in the providence of God. “You think I am fearless. It is not that. I simply know that this is needed and that it will exist.”
Also, let us pause and take a moment of appreciation for the awesome Polish Parisian baker who supplied free bread to Mother Maria’s houses for years. That is all.
The controversial nature of her monasticism was compounded by the fact that her social work was for her “liturgy beyond church bounds,” or more accurately, “liturgy projected from church to world.” She didn’t attend Liturgy daily, but rather as often as she could and occasionally just for parts of it; she had too much work to do. That was frowned upon by many, but her work benefited because of her total dedication. She wasn’t “skipping,” after all. She was radiating with the peace of God. Radiating. I mean, that speaks to a serious interior liturgy. Don’t want to mess with Mother Maria. She’s doing fine.
What’s all sorts of fantastic about Mother Maria is that she had “an unsullied faith in man, in his likeness to God, in the ultimate and incomparable value of the human person,” as she wrote. She took her job seriously. She was working for the incomparably valuable creation that was the human person, the icon of God. Like other Russian migrants in Paris, her commitment was compounded by the sense of urgency that stemmed from her having escaped death by revolution. “We are required to be worthy of our freedom, which means that we have to impregnate it with the maximum creative energy, to fire it with the most genuine spiritual zeal, and to transform it into action, into the ceaseless work of love.” She was pretty straightforward about it. “It is clear to me now: either Christianity is fire or there is no such thing.” But she did not at all consider herself special. She knew that her call to serve in such a radical way was in fact “the only vocation given by Christ,” who was and is “Himself persecuted.”
Mother Maria and her friends, all intellectuals and poets and whatnot, contain a really important lesson – especially for me. She articulates it well: “I am intensely aware at present that any theory, however remarkable, is inevitably less valuable and less needed than any practical work, however unspectacular. The concrete situation is the one whose demands I experience most acutely and before all else.”
She wasn’t about impersonal handouts, though. For her, as it should be for all, charity was just that: charity, a synonym of love. She was part of the group that founded Orthodox Action, where she declared, “I would say that we should not give away a single hunk of bread unless the recipient means something as a person for us.” She was the best sort of demanding in that way. Orthodox Action would state in their mission that they were guided by a conviction Mother Maria shared, that “man is God’s image and likeness, the temple of the Holy Spirit, the incorruptible icon of God.” I mean, if you go about your daily business acutely aware of the fact that you and everyone around you is an immortal creation of the perfect love that we call God, it changes things. It changes everything.
And that’s really what Mother Maria – like Christ – is all about.
Our vocations, Mother Maria writes, are always going to be influenced by the circumstances – time, place, “status” – into which we were born. But that’s entirely the point. “In the context of spiritual life, there is no chance.” God meant for you to be exactly what you are. He determined the “what.” It’s the “how” that He wants to shape, but He gives us the power to sculpt that part of it. He gives us the material and we make the art. Recognizing how pertinent our life and times are is crucial to an understanding of what a vocation is. Being called to marriage or monasticism is one thing, but your environment and talents and the things that are happening in the world. Turn on the news. It’s not happening to “them.” It’s happening to us. The headlines in the newspaper are every bit as much a part of your vocation as the church God placed you in or the family you were given. THE WORLD IS RELEVANT. THIS IS YOUR LIFE AND IT’S ENDING ONE MINUTE AT A TIME. GO DO SOMETHING.
Sorry. I have a lot of feels on that subject, shockingly.
As someone who resents having to choose between Catholicism and Orthodoxy I feel like Mother Maria gets me. She says it well: “We must scrupulously distinguish Orthodoxy from all its décor and its costumes. In some sense we are called to early Christianity.” Early Christianity, guys. It’s a thing! “We can feed the hungry, comfort the disconsolate, engage in discussions with those from whom we differ, but never and in no respect have we the right to serve a false understanding of Orthodoxy….We must not allow Christ to be overshadowed by any regulations, any customs, any traditions, any aesthetic considerations, or even any piety. Ultimately Christ gave us two commandments: on love for God and love for people.”
Let us pause for a second moment of appreciation for the fact that Jacques Maritain and Mother Maria knew each other. Let us contemplate the sheer awesomeness that was present in the room when they met. That is all. (Commence entirely inappropriate historical shipping.)
Yet more badassery from Mother Maria: “If the Germans come looking for Jews, I’ll show them the icon of the Mother of God.” (Her friend Fr. Dmitri would respond to German interrogation about whether he was hiding Jews by saying “oh, wait, I do know this Jew” and pointing to the crucifix around his neck. The whole group of ’em were total bosses.)
Also I’d just like to mention the moment when Daniil Skobtsov, Maria’s second (former) husband, visited her in the concentration camp. Or at least he tried to – she’d been sent elsewhere. But I love that despite their differences, they really loved each other. And despite his fairly terrible parenting skills, he really loved his family. In the movie in my mind about Mother Maria, that’s my favorite moment, and she’s not even there. It just shows what an impact she had on those around her, and especially those who loved her back.
As for her perfect-looking preparing-for-the-priesthood-in-a-concentration-camp swagmonster that is her son Yuri, who wrote letters from the camps about how strong the faith community was and didn’t even mention how much pain he was in from the freaking furuculosis, let us just say: I cannot even. (He’s talking about preparing for priesthood in a concentration camp, and all he has to say on the subject is: “As if there could be anything better.” Go away, you perfect human being.)
Last thing about Mother Maria – she was greatly influenced by her brilliant friend Berdiaev and they had this idea of the impossibility of the existence of eternal evil. I find this intriguing because it means that eternity is an inherently good quality. I don’t know that I agree with them, but I find it fascinating. Something to think about. It certainly explains her point of view that all evil is a temporal reality, thus her attitude in the concentration camps. She’s all kinds of amazing.