Monday, August 3, 2015

A Challenging Saint: Mother Maria Skobtsova

Icon of St Maria of Ravensbruck

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

For those unaware of the remarkable twentieth century Orthodox saint, St. Maria of Paris/Ravensbruck (+1945), I made a modest attempt to introduce her to the parish at large at yesterday's Liturgy through the form of the homily. 

Saint Maria, commonly known as Mother Maria, is actually commemorated on July 20. Together with the Venerable Martyr the Grand Duchess Elizabeth (July 18th), we encounter in these holy martyrs two of the most extraordinary women of the twentieth century.  Both bore witness to Christ under truly horrific conditions, the Grand Duchess Elizabeth dying at the bottom of a mine shaft into which she was flung by Bolshevik thugs in 1918; and Mother Maria dying in a gas chamber at one of the notorious Nazi concentration camps, that at Ravensbruck, in 1945.  (From the beginning, Mother Maria understood the Nazi threat, referring to it as a "new paganism").

In this short meditation, I am going to further concentrate on Mother Maria, and point out here that she was glorified/canonized by the Ecumenical Patriarchate in 2004, together with her son, Yuri; her priest, Fr. Dmitri Klepenin; and the religious philosopher, Ilya Fundaminsky, a Jewish convert to Orthodoxy.  These saints also perished in concentration camps, at Dora,  Buchenwald and Auschwitz  respectively.

Below, you will find some links to excellent material of a detailed nature outlining Mother Maria's unique path through life. Above is one of many wonderful icons that have been written of her since her glorification, depicting her standing before the gates of Ravensbruck.
In addition to writing poetry, Mother Maria was a writer of very trenchant essays and we are now fortunate enough to have a fine collection of them translated into English under the title, Mother Maria Skobstova, Essential Writings. The essays are introduced by a solid thirty-page biography of Mother Maria, by the book's editor, Jim Forest.

Mother Maria's essays are highly recommended.  But to read Mother Maria is to place oneself in the vulnerable position of being not only challenged, but convicted.  She had an uncompromising understanding of the Gospel and adamantly refused to soften its proclamation of the Cross.  A characteristic passage, would be one like this, from her essay "On the Imitation of the Mother of God:"

What is most essential, most determining in the image of the cross is the necessity of freely and voluntarily accepting it and taking it up. Christ freely, voluntarily took upon Himself the sins of the world, and raised them up on the cross, and thereby redeemed them and defeated hell and death.  To accept the endeavor and  responsibility voluntarily, to freely crucify your sins - that is the meaning of the cross, when we speak of bearing it on our human paths.  Freedom is the inseparable sister of responsibility.  The cross is this freely accepted responsibility, clear-sighted and sober.  (Essential Writings, p. 64)

This is why Olivier Clement, in the Preface to this collection of her essays, could write this about Mother Maria:

Her immense, forceful, and passionate vitality expressed itself in a surge of love.  Her love was not increasingly calm, but crucified; it expanded into infinity and was transformed into spiritual  motherhood...  Later she would see the prototype of this love in the love of the Mother of God at the foot of the cross, contemplating both her son and her God in the Crucified Jesus.  In the same way, she said, we have to discern in the face of everyone both the image of God and of the Son who was so compassionately given to us.  This was the theme of her last icon at Ravensbruck. (Essential Writings, pp. 7-8)

There is no doubt that Mother Maria was considered a controversial figure, strongly criticized in her lifetime and afterwards.  Her approach to monasticism was very unconventional and she never spent time in a monastery once she was tonsured a nun. Her life of cross-bearing service she described as "monasticism in the world."  Jim Forest speculates that it was this type of unconventionality that may have delayed her official recognition by the Church until the beginning of the twenty-first century, even though she died a martyr's death on behalf of others.  Again, it is Olivier Clement, who stated that the life of Mother Maria was seen by many as "one long scandal" - she was a former socialist revolutionary who was twice-married for starters, and she "remained an intellectual of leftist bent" throughout her life.  Olivier writes further:

This nun, who denounced most monasteries as mediocre substitutes for family life, scandalized many committed to solitary contemplation and carrying out the "works of God."  For Maria, it was a matter of renouncing all comfort - whether it was a soothing liturgy or the peace of a cloister - to completely dedicate herself to a life of poverty and love for others.  She immersed herself in a form of abasement similar to the abasement of God, who became human because of love.  (Essential Writings, p. 7)

Clearly, not someone everyone can fully emulate! With her passionate and intense nature, perhaps she failed to understand that about others.

Be that as it may, we can summarize her approach to the life of a Christian as primarily one of service to "the other" by an oft-quoted text from her writings:

The way to God lies through love of people.  At the Last Judgment I shall not be asked whether I was successful in my ascetic exercises, nor how many bows and prostrations I made.  Instead 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.  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 equal sign between himself and anyone in need... I always knew it, but now it has somehow penetrated to my sinews. It fills me with awe.

That may come across as an "uncomfortable" reminder, but one of the most spiritually deadly temptations for us today is to remain in our "comfort zones."

- Fr. Steven
Resources for further reading on St Maria of Paris:

Pearl of Great Price: The Life of Mother Maria Skobtsova, 1891-1945, by Sergei Hackel.

Articles and Resources from In Communion:

Numerous icon images here:

There is also this insightful article by Fr Peter Preble:
Engaged Monasticism: Mother Maria Skobtsova and Twenty- First Century American Orthodox Monasticism

Children's Book on Mother Maria:
Silent As A Stone: Mother Maria of Paris and the Trash Can Rescue

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