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 tiny room beneath the stairs near the kitchen. These places of refuge became overflowing and cramped with people living there like herself, cast upon the world with no support. Early each morning she would traverse the Paris markets, begging for leftover vegetables, fish and bones to make soup. In the evenings she often visited those in mental institutions in Paris. She met there people in trauma, suffering shock or depression or who simply couldn’t speak the language. She wrote poetry, saying:
I hear their intermittent laughter-tears
and their demented speech.
Though overwhelmed by bitter grief
I want to give my life for each.
And this takes me straight to the heart of my second point: sobornost.
She wrote: ’I think the fullest understanding of Christ’s giving himself to the world, creating the one Body of Christ….is contained in the Orthodox idea of sobornost … in communing with the world in the person of each individual … we commune with God.’
Sobornost is that personal experience of being physically present, prepared to be vulnerable to another person, and when it comes to welfare, not simply being a giver of handouts. Sobornost is when a group of people come together as a communal organisation, not a mechanical organisation. There are stories of Mother Maria sitting up late into the night listening to people’s problems and trauma. ‘It is not enough to give’ she said, ‘we must have a heart that gives.’ Hers was a theology of community based on mutuality and interdependence. She wrote: ‘No one is to become for us a routine cipher whose role is to swell statistical tables’ There was nothing soft here either; the mutuality was based on adulthood and integrity.
She was a woman who believed that in ‘communing with the world in the person of each individual we commune with God.’ For her ‘each person is the very icon of God incarnate in the world.’ An avowed atheist at the age of 14, it was much later that the Theotokos, the Russian icon of Mary, Mother of God, as both suffering human at the foot of the cross but also Queen of Heaven, brought her back to her faith. But even as a nun she remained unconventional, spending more time arguing politics, drinking and smoking well into the night rather than conducting liturgy or being contemplative. She became God-motherly. Fr. Lev Gillet recalls her once saying, after coming back from trying to encourage people homeless in the Paris slums to come back to her hostel: “I would like to swaddle them and rock them to sleep.”
Like ours, Mother Maria’s life became circumscribed and limited. But unlike ours, the restrictions imposed upon her were for the wrong reasons - the respect for personhood and culture was denigrated and sought to be annihilated; for us, it’s so that the health and wellbeing for each and every person can be protected in community. Her life has become a testament that however small our terrain becomes, we have the innate capacity to draw on the cross and the compassion in God to seek out and serve those who are now feeling marginalised and in most need at this time, and stand with them as ‘fellow wayfarers in Christ.’
I am your message. Like a torch toss me into the night.
So that everyone will see, suddenly know
What it is that you want from humanity
And what sort of servants you send out to gather the harvest.
(From ‘Modernism, Motherhood and Mariology: The Poetry and Theology of Elisaveta Skobtsova’, by Natalie Ermolaev, Columbia University Dissertation, 2010 p 175.)