We entered Great Lent. This Sunday, the Orthodox Church celebrates the “Triumph of Orthodoxy”(cf. Russian “Торжество Православия). Some prefer to speak of the Sunday of Orthodoxy (in Greek: ἡ Κυριακὴ τῆς Ὀρθοδοξίας, in Arabic: الأحد من الأرثوذكسية /al’ahad min al’urthudhuksia, Hebrew: rishon shel ha’ortodoksiya-emuna yasheret/יום ראשון של האורתודוכסייה-אמונה ישרת.
Traditionally, this first Sunday of Great Lent focuses on the living memory and actions of Moses, Aaron, the Prophets. The Forty Days of fasting and return to the reinvigorating power of the Lord allow the believers to apprehend human call to living and be fruitful. Indeed, on this day, the Church commemorates the acceptance of the icons as “Sacramentals” that, for the Christians of the East, testify for the divine and human nature of Jesus of Nazareth, born in Bethlehem, condemned and crucified, risen from the dead in Jerusalem – Whose life-giving Presence introduces each living soul, breath, body made of skeleton, bones, muscles, born to live to grow and give fruit.
It is not a time for quarrels, disputes. We are done with them. They will continue, but we are called to show the beauty of the “Ekklesia/εκκλεσια”, i.e. the Lord calling out to all without exception. As the Great Lenten prayer of Saint Ephrem states: “Yes, O Lord and King, grant me to see my own faults and not to judge my brother, since you are blessed to the ages of ages, ” thus, how can we judge those we see in the “image and the likeness of the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and Earth”. This image mirrors the way the Lord called Nathanael, the true Israelite, as he saw him under the sycamore. He called him and all the followers to come to understand the value of all ages.
The decision concerning the validity of the icons was taken in AD 823. This traces back to the time of the one Catholic (open to the whole, totality) and Orthodox (True Faith, Glory of Faith). It is what is proposed to us each year. It challenges each of those who want to respond with true faith about the veracity of the pleroma. This is particularly true these days as faith, jurisdictions, individuals, hierarchs, clergy and laity, societies, economics are deeply shaking, drifting away from each other, suspecting each or some, clutching to what they think they are.
I propose a new version of the article I had written on Mother Maria (Skobtsova) of Paris. She is a guide to maintain our connection to faith, pardon, true service of the Brother. She accomplished this in new ways in the dire times from the Bolshevik revolution till her sacrifice at Ravensbrück. She focused onthe dignity of human icons, real human existence, decency. She appeared as person and a special “all over the map” nun who never excluded anyone. So let’s “come and see”.
Mother Maria Skobtsova was canonized/glorified on January 16, 2004, celebrated with her companions on May 1 and May 2, 2004 at Saint Alexandre Nevsky Cathedral (Paris). She was recognized as a “Just among the Nations” (Yad VaShem since 14/01/1985).
Elisabeth Yuirevna Pilenko was born in Riga, now the capital of Latvia, a renowned cosmopolitan city of the Russian Empire where lived the Russians, the Baltic Latvians, the Germans and a large Jewish population lived in ambiguous socializing togetherness or ancient patterns of exclusion. The Israeli biologist and rabbi Yeshayahu Leibowitz was born there. Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the last and famous Rabbi of Lubavitch stayed there for a while.
Mother Marie Skobtsova belonged to the Russian aristocracy. Her father had left with the family to Anapa, then to Crimea and died too quickly. After the first upheavals of the revolution in 1906, she settled in Saint-Petersburg, with her mother, Sofia Borissovna, who lived in Paris until her death in 1962 and reposes at the Russian cemetery Sainte Geneviève-des-Bois.
The young Elisabeth entered the paths of socialism and revolutionary action and was seduced by atheism. Like many Russian believers, it naturally moved from the Marxist path to the Christian faith, as much later – for other reasons – Soviet citizens rallied the Church during the fall of communism. Elizaveta Yuriyevna was also the first female student at St. Petersburg’s Faculty of Theology …
At eighteen years-old, she unexpectedly married the lawyer Dimitri Kuzmin-Karavaiev, a socialist-revolutionary sympathizer and atheist at the time of their union that lasted only three years (1910-13). Their child, Gaiana (Daughter of the Earth), was born after their divorce.
She led a bohemian life in the whirlwind of violence, breaking with her aristocratic backgrounds. Elisabeth regularly attended the literary salons of the capital of a then-crashing empire, published her first writings that made her known and quite appreciated at the literary level. (“Scythian Shards / Скифские черепки”). A life of impetuosity while the Russian Empire was drifting into ruthless collapse.
The poetess was driven by passion that often overcomes the Russian soul? She fell in love with the poet Alexander Blok, for whom she wrote odes, poems and letters even in emigration. The poet never answered to her fervor.
She planned to assassinate the leader Lev Trotsky when he suppressed the Socialist-Revolutionary Party. She subsequently moved to the south of Russia and became the Mayor of the city of Anapa (Krasnodar region).
She had not murdered Trotsky … They met in Paris as the revolutionary leader was en route to Mexico City where he was killed in 1940. Trotsky asked her if he could help her. “Of course! you can! Please pay this bill!”, she replied. Trotsky-Bronstein gladly accepted to pay.
Men ! They were always a source of vibrant appeal for this passionate and seducing woman. In 1918, it was unheard of for a young woman of the aristocracy who had chosen the revolutionary left-wing people to take the lead of the Anapa town hall … The anti-Bolshevik White Forces entered the city. She should have been tried and sentenced to death.
By some chance or Providence, the judge had been her teacher… They fell in love or, at least, shared a touch of mutual survival spirit, quickly got married and left Anapa. Elisabeth Pilenko, ex-Kuzmina-Karaeva will keep forever the surname of her husband, the Koban Cossack Daniel Skobtsov.
The path of emigration was perilous. The emigrants had to sell their last possessions. As a result, poverty, insecurity, human vacuum, numerous people had to flee the bankrupting mother country. Thus was the fate of these thousands of refugees and early migrants of the 20th century. They abandoned their social status whilst knowing how to keep their rank and their cultural stand in dire conditions.
Mrs. Skobtsova was pregnant with a second child when with Skobtsov, her daughter and her mother the clan took the road of a vagabond exile from Georgia – her son Yuri was born in Tbilisi – in Constantinople then to Serbia (birth of his daughter Anastasia). The family arrived in Paris in January 1924.
Misery? The 20th century was deeply impacted by vast migrations. Young, old, wealthy, aristocrats, poor and unemployed lost everything, often with the utopic hope that their statelessness would end in some very near future that lasted a century.
Most arrived somewhere… without nationality, others piously preserved an imperial or already Soviet personal document. They were scholars, doctors, scientists, uneducated people who were accompanied – as always – by Orthodox, Armenian, Georgian or a lot of Jews. Imperialists who hoped for the return of the Czar, anarchists, communists, socialists, freethinkers.
Elizaveta Yourievna chose, by some tender Slavic realism, to help the poor of the poorest.
The Saint Sergius Institute was created on a hill of the 19th arrondissement, in place of an old Lutheran temple. A space where flourished with dynamism and ineradicable poverty, the teachings of the Russian Orthodox tradition, a fertile reflection, theological courses attended by students and free auditors. Elizaveta was much interested in the courses and got in contact with Father Serge Bulgakov. He became her spiritual father and she met with the many members of the clergy and Orthodox faithful. Paris was then the breeding ground for Russian Orthodoxy in exile.
Saint Francis of Assisi had introduced himself naked to his bishop. Elizaveta Skobtsova gradually abandoned herself to the divine call, devoting all her forces to her stateless compatriots who had become the bearers of the first Nansen passports guaranteed by the Law of the Republic (her sister Eudoxia and others acquired French citizenship).
For the first time, Paris, France and Western Europe got many emigration media and news papers (“La Pensée Russe/Русская Мысль”, “La Russie Illustrée/Иллюстрированная Россия). The young woman devoted herself wholeheartedly to the assistance of the poor, the sick, the alcoholics and drug addicts, a whole world living in extreme privation. Her daughter Nastia [Anastasia] died in 1926, a very cruel experience that profoundly affected her and gave her a spirit of penance and the desire to live in a more conventional way.
She joined the structures born of exile, like the Christian Action of the Russian Students that continues today its activities. In 1927, she developed a missionary service to the poor. She traveled around the country, visited the orphans, the poor – there were many among Russians who were often not prepared to live abroad.
This hectic life led Elizabeth to drift away from marital life. Her son Yuri left to live with his father, Daniel Skobtsov, and the future nun divorced according to the Orthodox canons while Little Gaiana was boarded to Belgium.
Orthodoxy does not know the many religious orders of Catholicism or Anglicanism. To become a monk or a nun, a person makes a personal, irreversible choice, common to all monks alike. It is not necessary to live in community, even if monasteries exist or small skits which shelter two or three religious.
Elizabeth Yuriyevna advanced towards a peculiar form of monasticism. It would be dangerous, especially nowadays, to consider her as an “atypical personality”. Any monastic call is exceptional because it transcends any will or structure while giving density to the ecclesial life of the local Church where he is incarnated.
She saw her “monastery” as embodied in the beings, real assistance to the needy, those considered as the “rubbish” of the society without distinction of sex, origin, religion, social status. There were intellectuals and prostitutes. She could drink alcohol, smoke, go to fashionable cafes. She was intrinsically a free woman, which often caused some scandal whilst her spontaneity could disturb traditional believers.
Metropolitan Euloge was convinced of Elisabeth Y. Skobtsova’s monastic call. He would have preferred her to live in a small community and not run to help the needy as an autonomous nun in the city. He had perceived the personal singularity of a woman with a seemingly sinuous, distended path who will finally find her unity and coherence in a consecration coming from the depths of her life journey with the flavor of a true generational prophetic inspiration. The monastic tonsure is simple in Orthodoxy: the bishop hands a scissors four times to the novice who returns it to him so that he cuts her hair in the shape of a cross. No commitment signed. God and His angels are witnesses of the individual offering.
Traveling one day on a train with Mother Marie, Metropolitan Euloge, showing her the forests and the countryside through the window, said : “Here is your monastery! “. She was consecrated on March 16, 1932 in the church of the Saint-Sergius Institute in Paris. Thanks the sagacious insights of the Metropolitan, Elizabeth became Mother Mary: the name placed her under the protection of St. Mary the Egyptian, the repented woman of Alexandria, who spent her life in the desert. The fifth Sunday of Great Lent recalls each year this holy on the road to Easter.
Mother Marie found companions, aimed at founding “convents”. She felt soon quite lonely. She was a strong woman, a brave one as suggested by Proverbs 31, 10: “Eshet ‘hayil / אשת חיל = the virtuous woman, fighter, who will find her …”. It is a form of solitude inhabited by service and the most open love of others. In this, she was this rare pearl, definitely appreciated even if she often suffered of misunderstanding, critics, despise. She knew how much she was a free woman whose freedom was inspired by personalities like Fyodor Dostoevsky and Vladimir Soloviev’s.
Mother Marie lived in several arrondissements of Paris. The Russian emigrés worked in the factories, as in Boulogne-Billancourt. She dwelt in the 15th, the 8th districts (Rue de Saxe) or in the Eastern part of Paris where the Saint-Sergius Institute is located. Mat’ Maria was crossing the capital pulling a cart of food that she used to pick up at Les Halles early in the morning.
At the Rue Lourmel she rented a home for the reception of the poor and the sick. A place open to all without exception. Father Dimitri Klépinine became the rector of the “home-monastery”. Both founded the “Orthodox Action”, a relief organization for the poorest. Their activities never stopped throughout the war, becoming an extremely active group of resistance. Sofia Pilenko, the mother of the nun, opened a “penny” home, linked to the Orthodox Action, in a mansion domiciled at 42, rue François-Gérard (Paris 16th), thus at the Russian Catholic Church of the Most Holy Trinity where Mgr. Georges Rochcau was ordained in the Byzantine rite, in 1943, for the service of refugees. He was the co-founder of Secours Catholique with Mgr. Jean Rodhain.
Mother Marie sheltered people suffering from tuberculosis and sent convalescents to a resting place, in Noisy-le-Grand, run by Mother Anastasia.
She unceasingly worked with Father Dimitri, assisted by her son and Russian Jew Ilya Fondaminsky. It would be unfair not to mention the presence of Father Lev Gillet who prematurely left for Great Britain.
In February 1943, Yuri, the son of Mother Marie, was arrested by the Gestapo, while the premises of the Rue de Lourmel were ransacked. They soon arrested Father Dimitri Klépinine. As the gestapist asked him why he helped the Jews, the priest showed his cross with Jesus Christ and answered “He too was a Jew”.
On February 9, 1943, he was transferred to Compiègne with Mother Marie and Yuri. The two men were quickly sent to the Dora camp while on 23 February, Mother Marie was transferred to the Ravensbrück prison camp. Ilya Fondamensky, member of the Orthodox Action and ACER, an essayist and historian who had married the daughter of the famous tea merchants Vyssotsky, companion of the first hour of Mother Mary, was arrsted in Compiègne. He was baptized just before he was sent to death (testimony of the historian Georges Wellers, Yad VaShem Institute).
Mother Mary wrote a lot of poems. She also wrote a lot of icons – the usual expression of Byzantine faith – apart from the canonical norms used in the Russian Church. She similarly made remarkable works of embroidery, swiftly and natural artistic inspiration. However, “as we read her texts, contemplate her embroidery or her icons, sealed with some naivety and dilettantism, defects are not important … Perhaps because we discover in her works the shudder and Mother Marie’s ardent prayer Marie. Thanks to this, we unconditionally forgive both the eclectic style and the inequality of execution. (Xenia Krivocheine).In the end, Mother Marie appeared as an eccentric if not “offbeat” nun: she never turned to be estranged to the human beings. In Western Europe as in Ravensbrück, she mainly showed a personal spirit of hope and a kindness that was attacked by some reproaches and denigrations expressed by her numerous enemies.
Her first husband, Dimitri Kuzmin-Karavaiev, had become a Russian Catholic Byzantine rite in Moscow, in the parish of Father Vladimir Abrikosov, ordained by the Venerable Metropolitan Andre Sheptytsky who had helped Metropolitan Euloge to arrive in France … He was ordained priest of this Church of Eastern Rite as Jesuit at the Rue Raynouard, living just a stone’s throw away from the home of Rue François-Gérard, where the mother of the nun and Father Georges Rochcau were working in their own entities … In short, these unnoticed Russian Eastern Christian believers and the future Metropolitan Anthony (Bloom) of Sourozh, were working, in a dangerous context, for the benefit of the refugees, later called “Displaced Persons”.
At Ravensbrück, Mother Marie showed the deeply rooted spiritual and human forces of her monastic appeal in the way she assisted the deported women. Basically, her life definitely shows how the role of women evolved during the 20th century. It deals with a question of liberation, of her in-born sense of freedom, mixed with vigorous insights of courage. In this respect, she got very close to the experience of her Russian and Soviet compatriots.
At the camp, she gave lectures, she prayed, which was strictly forbidden. She made embroidery works with electric wires and a needle stolen from a guardian, the executioner of the camp. She used to make and distribute gifts as, for example, her needleworks. It took so much time to make them. She als oused to give her own bread so that others get more to eat.
Xénia Krivochéine : site dedicated to Mother Marie of Paris, http://mere-marie.com/.
Jim Forest: Mother Maria Skobtsova: Essential Writings (Modern Spiritual Masters)