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Maria Skobtsova: Twentieth Century Martyr

And I will continue along this wide grain field

I was called in life to be a shearer

To reap with my hasty hands

The harvest of earthly hearts.

(From the Poems of Mother Maria, ‘The Russian Plain: poems, mystery-plays, prose, and autobiographical fiction, letters.’ Edited by A.N. Shustov. Translated by Natalie Ermolaev. St. Petersburg, Iskusstvo, 2001)

In the last two weeks our Victorian State Government’s Stage 4 response to the pandemic here in Melbourne has made the lives of many us feel smaller. Our actions now are more circumscribed, our geographical movement restricted. The familiar street terrain now feels like our only terrain. At the same time, the digital world has expanded, screens and social media thread us in to a wider context: with friends, family, news about the spread or control of the pandemic. So our vision shifts between the small, circumscribed physical, and the expansive view presented to us on screen. More intensely now do we experience that gap between the minutiae of the everyday we touch, and the far abroad we cannot reach. 

In the Australian Anglican cycle of Prayer on Friday 14th August, we remember 20th century saints and martyrs, and it’s Maria Skobtsova, or Mother Maria, I am moved to say a few words about here. Listening recently to her life story in a Youtube talk given by Rowan Williams in 2018, I remembered years ago we sold in St Peter’s Bookroom a children’s book about the story of a radical Russian nun living in Paris during the occupation. In 1942 when the Nazis rounded up thousands of Jews she managed to enter the Winter Sports Stadium where they were being held before deportation to the camps, and brought them food, and with the help of garbage collectors, smuggled out many children in garbage bins. She also, together with her chaplain Fr Dimitri, forged baptism certificates for Jews in order to help them flee the country. But I’m sure that fact was in this book.

Mother Maria was born Russian Orthodox into a wealthy aristocratic family in Latvia in 1891. She died on Good Friday, March 30th, 1945. We understand that she voluntarily took the place of another woman who was panic stricken in line for the crematorium at Ravensbrück. When Mother Maria was first taken there she found 16,000 other inmates stuffed into living quarters that should have only accommodated four thousand. 

So, what’s the story here between her birth and her death? During her life she very much came to live with that sense of the cross of Christ being, she said, both horizontal and vertical; horizontal in that we live in chronological time and vertical because our vision can be taken up to glimpse the eternal. There are three points here I would like to draw out from Mother Maria’s life. She was a woman, who lived increasingly in a world that for her became more circumscribed and limited, but despite the ongoing loss and intense suffering she both witnessed and personally experienced herself as a refugee and especially with the loss of her three children, she only increased in that sense of the vertical love of God streaming into the world, seeking out, embracing the lost, the lonely and welcoming them especially into God’s household.  Firstly, Mother Maria increasingly dedicated her life to working with the poor and marginalised; secondly, she emphasised that the way to do this was to see each person as a ‘fellow wayfarer in Christ,’ with that sense of what Russian Orthodoxy terms sobornost, conciliarity, catholicity and; thirdly, in this social work and mutuality of relationship, turning to God is central.

The impressions of poverty Mother Maria (then Lisveta) witnessed when she was a young woman with her mother in St Petersburg never left her. Much later in Paris, after one broken marriage, and another that was floundering, she actively sought to bring aid to the poor and dispossessed, who were initially the Russian refugees fleeing into Paris and later in the 1930s the Jews, fleeing from Germany and Eastern Europe. Eventually she opened two hostels and her own rented house became a convent, with a small chapel. She slept in a tin