Second Address: Mother Maria Skobstova

This is the second of three addresses given by Fr. Christopher Snook at Evening Prayer in the Chapel in the last week of August 2019, commenting indirectly on Jean Vanier’s From Brokenness to Community. This address was delivered on Tuesday, August 27, 2019.

Mother Maria Skobstova, known to Orthodox Christians since 2004 simply as St Mary of Paris, died shortly after being transferred from Ravensbruck Concentration Camp in the winter of 1945 to a camp for the ill shortly before the end of the Second World War. Incarcerated in the camp as a result of her relentless efforts to shelter Jews in Paris during the Nazi occupation, Mother Maria lived by all reports in the camps as she had lived in the world. She convened discussion groups at the end of long days of labour for example, which one survivor notes, “rekindled in us the flame of thought, which barely flickered beneath the heavy burden of horror.” She led reflections on the New Testament, concluded evening gatherings with Compline, sacrificed her food rations to keep others alive, and by some reports was finally selected for death having offered herself in place of another prisoner. In one of her final messages to friends and family she says: “My state at present is such that I completely accept suffering in the knowledge that this is how things ought to be for me, and if I am to die, I see this as a blessing from on high.” 

In 1945, with the Russian Army advancing, the German authorities exacerbated the already intolerable living conditions in the camps. The population of each block in Ravensbruck, for example, was increased from 800 to 2500. Lengthy roll calls, insufficient clothing, negligible food rations – all conspired against the health of Mother Maria. “People slept three to a bunk,” recollects one survivor. “Lice devoured us.” 

Increasingly unable to stand without support for roll call and “infested with lice … her eyes festering”, Mother Maria was selected for the gas chamber on Good Friday in 1945. She was born to eternal life on Holy Saturday. 

Last night, Fr Alfred Delp offered us two words to serve as touchstones for our thinking about life together in the coming year at the College. The first was a simple and homely image: Light the candles, he told us, and in so doing discover that we are lamps on the road home for one another. Then he went on to tell us to trust life, because we do not live it alone. Jean Vanier helped us understand both of these sayings of Fr Delp’s, reminding us on the one hand that love has less to do with our shining on others and more to do with our discovering the hidden light in each other and, on the other hand, by teaching us once again that it is trust in life that is most difficult in a world where we both suffer betrayals and betray. It is fidelity to one another in community that tills the soil of our hearts so that we may learn to trust. This evening we turn our attention to another great figure of the 20th century, Maria Skostova, to ask of her two words that might in their turn become part of the fabric of our life together this year.

Like Dorothy Day, whom we will meet tomorrow, Maria Skobstova’s early life hardly anticipated her end. The child of devout Orthodox parents, the death of her father when she was fourteen led her to conclude that there was no God. Soon afterwards she became involved with the radical movements of early 20th century Russia, especially its literary intelligentsia. But her engagement with the creative class of St Petersburg left her frustrated. There was in it, she observed, no active love but only theorizing. As an early marriage ended leaving her with one child, Maria was increasingly drawn to Christ though not yet willing to assent to the notion of God’s existence. Christ at least, she thought, had suffered for the people. And so she wrote, strongly condemning her peers: “He also died. He sweated blood. They struck his face … [while] we pass by and touch his wounds and yet are not burned by his blood.” Eventually she began to pray and returned to the faith of her childhood, becoming the first woman accepted to study theology at the academy in St Petersburg. Maria returned to her hometown at the beginning of the First World War, eventually becoming deputy mayor after the Russian Revolution of 1917. During her early religious experiments she came to be convinced that the primary discipline or ascesis of the Christian life was not self-mortification by fasting, vigils, and self-denial, but the ascesis or discipline of one’s neighbour. As St Antony the Great observed: “Our life and our death are with our neighbour. If we gain our brother, we have gained God. But if we scandalize our brother, we have sinned against Christ.” Maria married a second time and, eventually, fled Russia for Paris, arriving in 1923 expecting a second child. 

The year 1926 would prove decisive relative to Maria’s future vocation. Her youngest daughter contracted meningitis and Maria stayed at her bedside for an entire month. Reflecting on the experience of those long, dark hours, 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 words, ‘Love one another.’ so long as it is love to the end and without exception. And then the whole of life is illumined, which is otherwise an abomination and a burden.” No amount of thought will ever result in any greater formulation than the words, ‘Love one another’, so long as it is love to the end and without exception. And then the whole of life is illumined, which is otherwise an abomination and a burden. Following her daughter’s death, Maria felt a new vocation emerging – to be mother for all and to all. 

As her second marriage came to an end, she began to work in earnest for the student Christian movement in France. In 1932, her search for a vocation in which to love “to the end and without exception” was fulfilled when she was professed a nun – twice married, beer drinking, and cigarette smoking. Paradoxically, Mother Maria was convinced that the only way to be in the world and not of it was to tear down any and all barriers between oneself and others. Love’s excessive reaching out towards the neighbour demonstrated its other-worldliness, for in this world, she argued, we close ourselves off one from another, protecting, isolating, and annexing as much as we can for ourselves. She took the habit only having first been promised that she would be free to imagine a new monasticism, one that paradoxically retreated from the world by stepping into it for it is in the neighbour, she argued, that we find Christ. And so 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 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.

There must be no barrier, she would say, between our hearts and the “world and its wounds.”  

Jean Vanier makes the same observations, of course, most notably in his remarkable large work, Community and Growth. Echoing Mother Maria observation that we are all of us images of God but veiled or distorted, he writes: “There is a part of each of us which is already luminous, already converted. And there is a part which is still in shadow. A community is not made up only of the converted. It is made up of all the elements in us which need to be transformed, purified and pruned … To love people is to recognize their gifts and to help these unfold; it is also to accept their wounds and be patient and compassionate towards them.” 

In the intervening years between Mother Maria’s profession as a nun and the beginning of the Second World War, Maria founded a number of houses or shelters for women, families and men, including soup kitchens to feed the hungry. These homes also included discussion and study groups, tending to the needs of both body and soul, with speakers drawn from among the theological luminaries of mid-20thC Russian orthodoxy – Bulgakov, Berdyaev, Fedotov. But the last phase of her ministry and life would begin in 1939, when the priest Dimitri Klepinin was appointed to her homes. Paris fell to the German army in 1940, and Mother Maria’s work shifted to include the care of political prisoners and their families. At their primary home, Fr Dimitri regularly issued false baptism certificates to Jews in danger of deportation, and after a mass arrest of over 12000 Jews (destined eventually for Auschwitz), Mother Maria worked both to comfort and feed incarcerated families and to smuggle children out of the stadium in which they were being held in garbage cans. 

In 1943, Mother Maria’s expectation that her work would be noticed by Nazi authorities became a reality. Her son Yura was arrested along with Fr Dimitri. A portion of the priest’s interrogation remains: If we release you, asked the interrogator, will you give your word never again to aid Jews? Fr Dimitri replied: I can say no such thing. I am a Christian and must act as I must. After striking him, the interrogator continued: “How dare you talk of helping those swine as being a Christian duty!” Fr Dimitri responded by raising the pectoral cross that he wore over his cassock: Do you know this Jew? he asked. Both Fr Dimitri and Mother Maria’s son would later die in a concentration camp.  

Last night, as we’ve heard already, Fr Delp gave us two sayings with which to build a trellis on which our life together might blossom: “Light the candles wherever you can, you who have them,” he said. “They are a real symbol of what must happen … if we want to live.” And he went on to say, “Trust life … for we do not live it alone.” This evening Mother Maria offers us at least two more words that might be part of the foundation of community making in our College: love one another, she says, so long as it is to the end and without exception. This is no doubt a daunting task. The living of it will be full of errors and mistakes. But of course, Maria made this statement not in the first instance because she knew she was capable of this love, but rather because she understood that she required a love that would be for her “to the end and without exception.” This is why Jean Vanier’s claim that Jesus is in the poor and the wounded, crying out in them his own “I thirst”, is so radical a vision of human community – it means the love we seek, that can seem so far removed and distant, in fact draws near to us in the Christ who we meet in one another’s need. Again, in Community and Growth, Vanier writes: “Jesus calls his disciples not only to serve the poor, but to discover in them his real presence, a meeting with the Father. Jesus tells us that he is hidden in the face of the poor, that he is in fact the poor….. [People] in distress are therefore … a source of life and of communion.” 

Love to the end, says Mother Maria. But she goes on to say that exercising this love for one another depends on a kind of revelation. To love anyone to the end we must know what they are. And for Maria, we are icons, each of us hung or mounted in the world as a window on heaven – we are icons whether we are in a café, in the classroom, in a bread line, even in a concentration camp. As she wrote: “…in the person of each individual human being, we know that we are communing with the image of God, and contemplating that image, we touch the archetype – we commune with God. … Our relation with people should be an authentic and profound veneration.” Our relationship with people should be [a]… profound veneration. 

Strikingly, what this veneration means is that precisely at the moment I reach out into the world to do good I discover the good in the face of another reaching out to me. Maria writes, “If our approach to the world is correct and spiritual, we will not have only to give to it from our spiritual poverty, but we will receive infinitely more from the face of Christ that lives in it, from our communion with Christ, from the consciousness of being a part of Christ’s body…. this mysticism of human communion is the only authentic basis for any external Christian activity, for social Christianity.” 

Let me conclude for this evening with an image of Maria’s that might have been written about the Chapel’s liturgical life and which, I think, illuminates something of the significance of how Maria can shape our life together. Commenting on the liturgy of the Orthodox Church, she writes: “During a service the priest does not only cense the icons of the savior, the mother of God, and the saints.  He also censes the icon-people, the image of God in the people who are present.  And as they leave the church precincts, these people remain as much the images of God, worthy of being censed and venerated.” Light the candles; trust life, says Delp. Love to the end, says Mother Maria; burn the incense of your prayers before the image of God in your neighbor – venerate one another. Amen.