The Nun Whose Monastery was the World
Fr. Michael Plekon
"We like it when the "churching" of life is discussed, but few people understand what it means. Indeed, must we attend all the church services in order to "church" our life? Or hang an icon in every room and burn an icon-lamp in front of it? No, the "churching of life" is the realization of the whole world as one great church, adorned with icons— persons who should be venerated, honored, and loved, because these icons are true images of God that have the holiness of the Living God within them.
We cannot see the Church as a sort of aesthetic perfection and limit ourselves to aesthetic swooning. Our God-given freedom calls us to activity and struggle. And it would be a great lie to tell searching souls: "Go to church, because there you will find peace." The opposite is true. She tells those who are at peace and asleep: "Go to church, because there you will feel real anguish for your sins, for your perdition, for the world's sins and perdition. There you will feel an unappeasable hunger for Christ's truth. There, instead of becoming lukewarm, you will be set on fire; instead of pacified, you will become alarmed; instead of learning the wisdom of this world you will become fools for Christ." 2
Mother Maria, born Elizaveta Pilenko in 1891 in Riga, Latvia was a precocious child, a favorite of the lay overseer of the Russian Orthodox Church Pobedonostsev. She was gifted in drawing, painting, poetry among other fields, and was among the first women allowed to study theology at the St. Petersburg Academy. Her literary talents drew her into the circles of the great writers Alexander Blok and Vyacheslav Ivanov. She was the first woman mayor of her family's country home-town, Anapa, on the Black Sea. Politically engaged, her loyalties shifted in the turbulent first decades of the twentieth century. She was put on trial by the retreating White Army and came close to execution by the Bolsheviks as a counterrevolutionary. Only a feigned connection to Lenin's wife saved her in the latter case. An early marriage ended in divorce, as did a second with the White Army officer, Daniel Skobtsov, who tried her for revolutionary crimes. Three children, Gaiana, Nastia and Iura, came from these marriages, and of these she would lose Nastia as a child to meningitis, Gaiana dying as a young adult back in Russia and her only son, Iura, packed off to a Nazi work camp and premature death there.
A Bohemian, artistic, nonconformist character, she was remembered by several, (including Metropolitan Anthony Bloom, Sophie Koloumzine and Elisabeth Behr-Sigel) with mixed feelings of admiration, affection and sadness. Drawn to assist the poor and suffering in the Russian émigré settlements of France, she received monastic tonsure and habit from Metropolitan Evlogy after the end of her second marriage. He said that the world and its suffering people would now become her monastery. She would put into practice "Orthodox Action," the name of the group of which she was a founder. In hostels, first in villa de Saxe, then in Rue de Lourmel and with a nursing home further out in Noisy-le-Grand, she created houses of hospitality, where meals, shelter, fellowship and counsel were available to any in need. In every one of these hostels the chapel, the altar, the Eucharist were the the heart of the work of service of the neighbor. Mother Maria spent much time cooking for her people. She also made beautiful vestments and icons for the chapel. She was always a participant in the Divine Liturgy, but would leave other services early or miss them entirely to assure there was food on the table. She put no opposition between Mary and Martha. She could make no distinction between the love of God and of the neighbor. The two great gospel commandments were for her in reality just one invitation to love:
Christ gave us two commandments: to love God and to love our fellow man. Everything else, even the commandments contained in the Beatitudes, is merely an elaboration of these two commandments, which contain within themselves the totality of Christ's "Good News." Furthermore, Christ's earthly life is nothing other than the revelation of the mystery of love of God and love of the neighbor. These are, in sum, not only the true but the only measure of all things. And it is remarkable that their truth is found only in the way they are linked together. Love for man alone leads us into the blind alley of an anti-Christian humanism, out of which the only exit is, at times, the rejection of the individual human being and love toward him in the name of all mankind. Love for God without love for man, however, is condemned: "You hypocrite, how can you love God whom you have not seen, if you hate your brother whom you have seen" (1 Jn 4.20). Their linkage is not simply a combination of two great truths taken from two spiritual worlds. Their linkage is the union of two parts of a single whole.
These two commandments are two aspects of a single truth. Destroy either one of them and you destroy truth as a whole. In fact, if you take away love for man then you destroy man (because by not loving him you reject him, you reduce him to non-being) and no longer have a path toward the knowledge of God. God then becomes truly apophatic, having only negative attributes, and even these can be expressed only in the human language that you have rejected. God becomes inaccessible to your human soul because, in rejecting man, you have also rejected humanity, you have also rejected what is human in your own soul, though your humanity was the image of God within you and your only way to see the Prototype as well. This is to say nothing of the fact that a human being taught you in his own human language, describing in human words God's truth, nor of the fact that God reveals himself through human concepts. By not loving, by not having contact with humanity we condemn ourselves to a kind of a deaf-mute blindness with respect to the divine as well.3
The outlines of her life are becoming better known from Fr Sergei Hackel's biography, Pearl of Great Price, as well as Laurence Varaut's recent life,4 and essays by Hélène Arjakovsky-Klepinine, Elisabeth Behr-Sigel, Jim Forest among others.5 Her monastic day consisted of prayer in church but more so the works of lovingkindness for the suffering and forgotten: scavenging for food at bakeries and markets, cooking, listening to her residents' troubles, trying to find them jobs and lodging, and forays in the evenings to cafes in search of the homeless and desperate. Many of the essays from which selections are taken here stem, as Antoine Arjakovsky points out, from an ongoing conflict about what shape the Christian life should take, a debate in which she engaged in print with Fr Sergius Chetverikov, chaplain of the Russian Christians Student Movement. Then as today, her ideas are incendiary. Over against the classical spirituality Fr Chetverikov championed, very traditional in its emphasis on personal prayer rules, asceticism, liturgical services and in particular, the linkage of church, faith and Russian identity, Mother Maria's rebuttal is radical, fearless and with challenging theological arguments. In an essay, "A Justification of Pharisaism," she rejects the subservience of the Church to any political authority, any ethnic or cultural context.6 She thus condemns the subordination of the Russian Church under not only Peter the Great but all other rulers and governments, the Soviet included. She criticizes the myth of "holy Russia," while at the same time revering the great lights of the Russian tradition. She bases her radical love for the neighbor in the first place, on the Gospels but then on the prophetic example of Nilus of Sora, Sergius of Radonezh, Seraphim of Sarov, on the evangelical poverty of Joseph of Volokholamsk's ideal of "non-possession," of the monasteries serving the poor and suffering. She is polemical about the monastic life of her time: isolation from the world, a comfortable life while many nearly starve, an individualistic pursuit of holiness, obsession with rules and details of tradition, characteristics of Orthodox piety more generally that she examine at length in "Types of religious Lives."7
Yet she has many constructive contributions, all of them rooted in her vision of the Incarnation as God embracing humanity, with the invitation to us to do the same This affirmative view is to be found in essays such as "The Second Gospel Commandment, "Love without Limits," and very powerfully in her essay "On the Imitation of the Mother of God."8 The Incarnation, God's becoming human through the Virgin Mary, was her dogmatic foundation. The Incarnation must then be lived out, put into practice by those who bear the name of Christ. In so doing they continue Christ's work. They "Christify," bring all creation into Christ.9
If a person is not only the image of God but also the image of the Mother of God, then he should also be able to see the image of God and the image of the Mother of God in every other person. In our Godmaternal soul not only is the birth of the Son of God announced and Christ born, but there also develops the keen perception of Christ's image in other souls. And in this sense, the God-maternal part of the human soul begins to see other people as its children; it adopts them for itself... insofar as we must strive to follow her path, and as her image is the image of our human soul, so we must also perceive God and the Son in every person. God, because each person is the image and likeness of God; the Son, because as it gives birth to Christ within itself, the human soul thereby adopts the whole Body of Christ for itself, the whole of Godmanhood, and every person individually.10
In July, 1942, almost 7,000 Jewish citizens, over 4,000 of these children, were rounded up by the Vichy government as part of the Reich's infamous "solution" of the "Jewish problem." They were held in summer heat at the Velodrome d'Hiver, a cycling stadium in Paris without food and limited water and facilities. Mother Maria was there day and night, bringing food, consoling, according to reports, smuggling out some very young children in garbage pails. One of her chaplains, Fr Cyprian Kern, found her personality and way of life very much at odds with ecclesial tradition, while another, Fr Lev Gillet, recognized in it the very work of Christ and joined her activity. The same was true for her last chaplain, Fr Dimitri Klepinine. And when the Gestapo came to arrest her for hiding Jews in her hostels, they took Fr Dimitri off as well, for he had completed baptismal certificates to protect them and defied the interrogating officer by pointing out Jesus' Jewishness. Both Mother Maria and Fr Dimitri (as well as Iura, her son) died in Nazi camps, the men from dysentery and pneumonia and slave labor, she volunteering to take the place of another woman being sent to the gas chambers on 31 March 1945, Western Holy Saturday, just weeks before Ravensbrück's liberation by the Allies. In 2004 the four were made saints by their church, the archdiocese of the Russian Orthodox Church in Western Europe.
While Mother Maria's urgent sense of the gospel command to love and serve the neighbor might appear to have dominated her activity, this is not accurate. She continued her primary craft of writing, and the YMCA Press in Paris has published volumes of her essays, poems, plays and other pieces. A website has collected photos of Mother Maria as well as of the icons and vestments she embroidered and painted.11 Her rambunctious personality, nonconformist life and radical dedication to serving the poor seem to be the stuff of which heroes are made. It was not necessarily viewed as such in her own time and milieu. Several of her colleagues who were quite sympathetic and supportive of her efforts at best had mixed feelings about her and her work. To still others she was a scandal, with her explosive demeanor and ragamuffin crew. The nuns who joined her eventually left for a more traditional monastic setting. Few came to her defense when arrested by the Gestapo. Today her writings still evoke criticism and not everyone is able to recognize her as a saint. Metropolitan Anthony (Bloom) of Sourozh has written that in his youth and pride, he was embarrassed by her life and work. Yet, he had the courage to recognize both her idiosyncrasies and her witness, calling her a "saint of our day and for our day."
1 Maria Skobtsova, "The Mysticism of Human Communion," in Mother Maria Skobtsova: Essential Writings [= MMS:EW] (Maryknoll NY: Orbis, 2002), 78-9.
2 "Under the Sign of Our Time," MMS:EW, 113.
3 "Types of Religious Lives," MMS:EW, 173-174.
4 Mère Marie (Paris : Perrin, 2000)
5 Hélène Arjakovsky-Klepinine, "Le joie du don," in Le sacrement du frère (Paris: Cerf, 2001, 15-69); Elisabeth Behr-Sigel "Mother Maria Skobtsova 1891- 1945," in Discerning the Signs of the Times (Crestwood NY: St Vladimir's Seminary Press, 2001), 41-54; J. Forest, "Mother Maria of Paris," in MMS:EW, 13-42.
6 MMS:EW, 114-120.
7 "Toward a New Monasticism I & II," in MMS:EW, 88- 101.
8 MMS:EW, 43-58, 94-101, 59-72.
9 "Types of Religious Lives," in MMS:EW, 181-184.
10 "On Imitating the Mother of God," in MMS:EW, 68- 69.
11 Cf. http://incommunion.org/?page_id=868. Also http://www.ikons.info/