Maria Skobtsova: Woman of Many Faces, Mother in Many Ways
By Fr. Michael Plekon
There are few figures in our time as radical, as unusual, as complex and rich as Elisabeth Pilenko, who later in life upon her monastic tonsure would become Mother Maria. (The best biography of her is Fr. Sergei Hackel's Pearl of Great Price, Crestwood NY: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1981). Born in 1891 in Riga to a family rooted in Ukrainian aristocracy, she was a promising poet, an amateur painter and craftsman, a theological student in St. Petersburg when women studying theology were virtually unheard of. She became entangled in the revolutionary movement, frequented the literary circles gathered around the poets Alexander Blok and Vyatchcheslav Ivanov.
She married impetuously when young, had a child and then saw the break-up of this first impulsive relationship in divorce. During the turmoil of the revolution in Russia she served as mayor of her family's ancestral country village on the Black Sea, Anapa. There she was put on trial by the retreating White Army for sympathizing with the Bolsheviks. Not long after she almost was executed along with other alleged counter-revolutionary sympathizers and escaped only when she bluffed a close connection to Lenin's wife. With thousands of others she made the exile journey west, and in circumstances of almost unbelievable poverty and discomfort managed to reach first Istanbul and then Paris. During the actual trip in exile, she married again, this time Daniel Skobtsov, who had been the military judge before whom she appeared on trial in Anapa. Two more children came from this marriage, a daughter who was to die as a child of meningitis in Paris and a son who was to die in the concentration camps with the last chaplain of her hostel, Fr Dimitri Klepinin.
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 holy table. I will be asked whether I fed the hungry, clothed the naked, visited the sick and the prisoner in jail. That is all I will be asked. (in T. Stratton Smith, Rebel Nun, Springfield IL: Templegate, 1965, p. 135.)
Liza seemed to fit in nowhere in her time or world. Or perhaps she fit in everywhere. She married impulsively, passionately. She doted upon her children, even if briefly. She experienced as did many other exiles a poverty she had never known earlier in life. Liza was drawn away from family and from intellectual life toward the many suffering people around her in thew Russian emigration. Trips ostensibly to give educational presentations almost immediately became intimate exchanges of pain, really counseling and care of a pastoral sort. But there was no place for women to do diaconal work. True the widowed Duchess Elisabeth, recently canonized as a martyr, formed a community of nuns who cared for the ill and abandoned outside Moscow in pre-Revolutionary days. The only models of churchly life the new Mother Maria saw were traditional convents that had escaped the Revolution in Estonia and Latvia. For these she had no identification, little sympathy while there was such urgent need, such suffering.
Thus, from her monastic profession in March of 1932 and for the next twelve years until her arrest and deportation to the Ravensbruck concentration camp where she would eventually die in the gas chambers, she would live an unusual existence as nun, diaconal worker, counselor, administrator of several residences, not to mention fundraiser, cook, and writer. With the blessing of that extraordinary bishop of the Russian diocese in Paris, Metropolitan Evlogy, she fashioned in her own way what he had perceptively suggested, namely her monastery became the world around her. She was to establish several hostels for the homeless, helpless, the ill and marginal in Villa de Saxe, Rue Lourmel and Noisy-le-Grand, with support from a number of the leading figures of the emigration.
Christ, in ascending to heaven, did not raise with himself the Church on earth. He did not halt the course of history. Christ left the Church in the world and the Church has remained as a small portion of the yeast which makes the entire dough rise. Put differently, within the limits of history, Christ has given the whole world to the Church and she has no right to refuse to spiritually lift the world, to transfigure it. And for this, the Church needs a powerful army, and this is monasticism. (Le sacrement du frère, ed. & trans. Hélène Arjakovsky-Klépinine, Paris/Lausanne: Cerf, 1995, p. 126)
Mother Maria came to see that monastic life is nothing if not the incarnation of love for God and love for the neighbor. In the very history of monasticism, she suggests, as the movement spread to different geographical areas, with different climates, cultures, languages, even foods, as a living reality monasticism adapted to its new environs. It found ways to flourish outside of the deserts of the near East and the provinces of the Byzantine empire. Lenten fare of the Mediterranean such as olives and humus give way to potatoes and "kapusta" (sauerkraut) in the North, just as the palms branches become pussywillows.
Put another way, today the monastic has to struggle for what is essential, for the very soul of monasticism, rather than the abstraction of the external forms of this life, creating new ones...Monasticism is necessary but most especially on the road of life, at its very heart. In reality for the monk or nun, there is only the monastery of the whole world. Here is the "newness" of the "new monasticism," its meaning, cause and justification! And it is important for the monastic to grasp this quickly. There are many who must, despite their fear, become innovators. What is new here is not so essentially for the sake of novelty but because it is inescapable...(Le sacrement, p. 121).
There was no desire on Mother Maria's part to disparage the traditional patterns of monasticism, it is simply that today they have become almost a luxury inaccessible to most who seek God. It would be like the preferred sanitarium in the mountains, with fresh air, good food, exercise. How many who are ill must content themselves with tiny stuffy rooms in tenements, with the food of the poor? So too with the Church today.
Left here in the world by Christ, the Church is but a small morsel of the yeast that can raise the whole batch of dough. Christ has given the whole of the world and its history, she argues, to the Church. How can the Church refuse to build up this world spiritually, to transfigure it? And monasticism has been placed in the Church as a powerful corps, a veritable "army" to help in this transformation.(Le sacrement, p. 126)
The classical vows of obedience, chastity and poverty professed by the monastic define monasticism, for Mother Maria, not the details of monastic life, the riassa/robe or buildings. Monastic practices are for her the "historical envelope," which can change, which always has but relative value as the means by which one lives out the monastic vocation in the vows.(Le sacrement, p.127) Obedience promised to God and enacted towards a superior, particularly in Eastern monasticism to a spiritual father/mother or starets, elder in many cases will today be lived out also as obedient service to Christ through the work of the Church in the circumstances of modern life (Le sacrement, p. 131).
In particular, the monastic's vow of poverty, the wisdom of God and the surprising way of the Kingdom will place the monastic in and with the poor of the world. It should be noted that Mother Maria's entire monastic experience was rooted in the chaos and suffering, the turmoil and poverty of the Russian immigration in France during the great Depression and then in the days of occupation in WWII.(Le sacrement, pp. 141-146) As in historical situations of the past, for example the cases of many of the desert fathers and mothers, later that of SS Sergius of Radonezh, Nilus of Sora, and Francis of Assisi, monastics worked not only to support themselves but also to clothe, shelter and feed the suffering.
For Mother Maria, poverty or "non-acquisition" should not be limited to the material plane but deepened. One who is materially poor can be a treasure source of spiritual gifts.(Le sacrement, p.132) In fact, being "poor in spirit" is more precisely what is vowed by the monastic and such is the sole pathway of the common life of the catholic entity which is the Church. (Le sacrement, p. 133) To be "poor in spirit" is to be able to say with Christ, "Father, into your hands I commend my spirit." The monastic does not preserve what is essential safe in some kind of "interior cell," but in fact as the older saying has it, gives away what is essential, sacrificially, as did Christ on the cross.
All of this leads to one thing, the necessity of the monastic being active in world outside...in all forms of activity such as social work, and welfare, spiritual assistance... consecrating his/her force to the work, to the humanity of Christ in others, not acquiring but dissipating, giving away recklessly for the glory of God (Le sacrement, p. 134).
The very title of the posthumous collection of Mother Maria's writings, Le sacrement du frère/The Sacrament of the Brother, accurately summarizes not only her view of the Christian life in general but very much her passionate conviction about monasticism in the modern era. It is taken from St. John Chrysostom's saying that after the liturgy, there is a another liturgy, celebrated not on an altar of stone or wood but on the altar of flesh and blood, that of our neighbor, hence the "sacrament" of the brother and sister." Very similar, if even stronger expression of what might be called Mother Maria "agapic" vision both of Christianity and monastic life is put forward the recently found manuscript of an essay from 1937, "Types of Religious Lives," published last year in the Paris-based Russian journal Vestnik, 176, II-III, 1997 and translated by Fr. Alvian Smirensky and published in Sourozh, 74 & 75, 1998). After a penetrating look at the various spiritualities" of her fellow Orthodox, an examination that is exact and even ruthless, she dwells upon the "evangelical" type of spiritual life, this being a radical return to the Gospel, and not the associations we would currently bring to the adjective. The core of the Good News is love, God's love for us, our love for him, and our love for each other. Love of God and of the neighbor are so entwined, so much part of the same reality that they cannot be separated or pitted against each other. One cannot love the neighbor without loving God, something our own recent past still struggles to comprehend. But equally, it is not possible to love God without loving and serving our brother and sister. What is distinctive and even disturbing in Mother Maria's passionate words is the further demand she recognizes in the commandment of love, namely that one deny oneself. It is not enough to renounce as monastic do in their vows, control over material things. The Gospel's demand cuts even into the life of the spirit.
Renunciation teaches us not only that we not greedily seek advantages for our soul but that we not be stingy, that we always be extravagant in our love, that we achieve a spiritual nakedness, that our soul holds nothing back, that we not hold back anything sacred and valuable which we would not be ready to give up in Christ's name to those who need it. Spiritual renunciation is the way of holy foolishness, folly in Christ. It is the opposite of the wisdom of this age. It is the blessedness of those who are poor in spirit. It is the outer limit of love...According to material laws... if I give away a piece of bread, then I became poorer by one piece of bread...(and by extension) if I give my love, I have become impoverished by that amount of love, and if I give up my soul then I become completely ruined and have nothing left to save...According to the law of the spirit, every spiritual treasure given away not only returns to the giver like an unspent ruble but it grows and becomes stronger. He who gives receives back in return; he who becomes poor becomes wealthier. ..In turning away from the exclusive focus upon Christ in a genuine act of self-negation and love, one offers himself to others...then one meets Christ himself face to face in the one for whom he offers himself and in that communion he unites with Christ himself...the mystery of union with man becomes the mystery of union with God. That which was given away returns. The love which was expended never diminishes the source of that love, because the source of love in our heart is Love itself, Christ...Here we are speaking about a genuine emptying out, in a partial imitation of how Christ emptied himself by becoming incarnate in humanity. We must likewise empty ourselves completely, becoming, so to speak, incarnate in another human soul, offering to it the full measure of God's image which is contained in ourselves. ("Types.")
It is not just in the pages of the New Testament that Mother Maria perceives this image of God's self-emptying love, becoming what we pray for the other. For her, it is present and constantly revealed in the Eucharist. Raising the Bread and Cup after the consecration, the celebrant or deacon sings: "Your own of your own, we offer You, on behalf of all, and for all."
If...this sacrificial and self-giving love stands at the center of the Church's life, what then are its boundaries, its limits? In this sense one can speak of the whole of Christianity as of an eternal offering of a Divine Liturgy beyond church walls...It means that we must offer the bloodless sacrifice, the sacrifice of self-offering love not only in a specific place, on the one altar of only one temple but that the whole world, in this sense, becomes the one altar of the one Temple-and that we must offer our hearts under the species of bread and wine, so that they may be transformed into Christ's love, that he may abide in them, that they may become hearts of Godmanhood, and that he would give these hearts of ours as food for the world, that he would commune the whole world with these sacrificed hearts of ours, in order that we would be one with him, that we not live but Christ would live in us, incarnate in our flesh...("Types")
Mother Maria was not able to gather a monastic community around her for very long, both her chaplains and her sisters eventually chose other locations or were compelled by the economic and social conditions to go elsewhere. It is no discredit to say that her own singular personality and lifestyle may have played a role.
Even though her thought about a renewed monasticism may superficially sound like a call for rejection of the contemplative and liturgical life lived apart, in favor of a life of radical social action for the poor and suffering, such an appraisal is not completely accurate. Her own charismatic vocation was to put herself limitlessly at the disposal of those in great need, usually with the help of volunteers raising funds, gathering food and preparing it, sheltering the homeless, emotionally crushed and other wounded souls in her hostels. She eventually worked with her chaplain and fellow martyr Fr. Dimitri Klepinin, to provide documentation to hide French Jews during the Vichy government's round-up. She even went out to the Vélodrome d'Hiver to be with the thousands of Jews held in horrendous conditions in this cycle racing park in July 1942.
Not only in a time of great suffering due to revolution and displacement, economic hard times and war, she held a radically incarnational understanding of Christian discipleship. To love Christ was to love and serve him very concretely, in the face, in the arms of the marginal, even repulsive, needful other. But to judge Mother Maria to be simply an evangelical activist would be to overlook her thoroughly eucharistic spirituality, her profoundly ecclesial soul, her "becoming prayer." (Paul Evdokimov) Reminiscences of Mother Maria describe her radiant, attentive presence at the liturgy, in conversations with others both at cafes and at her hostels, also with energy enough to contribute essays to the periodicals of the émigré community, now our avenues to her person and ideals. Mother Maria affirms the monastic desert as the heart of God who is "Love without limits," as her friend and sometime chaplain Fr. Lev Gillet, the "monk of the Eastern Church," put it, but she could not separate this love from that of the neighbor. As Metropolitan Evlogy, her bishop, the one who received her profession and encouraged her unusual form of life said, her monastic place would be the "desert of human hearts."
Mother Maria also points us to a fundamental reality, one particularly obscured in continuous disputes about "modernism" and "traditionalism" in the Orthodox Church, namely that the Christian's commitment is not primarily to a heritage, to structures of the past nor even to visions of the what the future should be. Rather, each Christian, monastic or cleric or layperson, is called to real life, life in the Church and the world as we find it, an encounter with God, oneself, and the neighbor in need. The echo of St. Seraphim of Sarov is unmistakable here: "That I am a monk and you are a layman is of no importance...rather that we are both in the light of the Holy Spirit...Acquire peace, and thousands around you will be saved."
In short, for Mother Maria, this was the true Gospel - metanoia, that is, the profound transformation of oneself and the world through love, prayer and work. The Russian Revolution, she wrote many times, produced terrible sufferings, wrecked havoc upon the Orthodox Church. Yet, paradoxically, it (as well as other catastrophes like the forced emigration, the great Depression and even WWII) could be seen as gifts from God, radical liberations from so much weight. These horrors also free us, she insisted, to once again know God and ourselves and each other simply, directly. And then, as today, the situations of our world free us to be the heart and hands of Christ for the neighbor. As Metropolitan Anthony (Bloom) has said, "Mother Maria is a saint of our day and for our day, a woman of flesh and blood possessed by the love of God, who stood fearlessly face to face with the problems of our century." She pushed the traditional borders of monasticism and church life well past their former limits. Everything about her, her personal life and relationships, her audacious ideas spoken or put down in writing, even the statement of her clothing and demeanor as a "monastic in the world," all pushed the envelope hard but did not break out of it. As so many of her friends and colleagues in the Russian emigration, Fr Sergius Bulgakov, Nicolas Berdiaev, Metropolitan Evlogy, she dared to live within what another, Fr. Alexander Elchaninov called the "absolute freedom" of Orthodoxy. As a first witness of our century, truly a "living icon," her life and deeds put that freedom and courage before each of us, both as defiant challenge and loving invitation.