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A Fool for Christ - Mother Maria Skobtsova's faith was pas sionate, severe, even insane

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  • Fr. John-Brian
    A fool for Christ - Mother Maria Skobtsova’s faith was passionate, severe, even insane http://www.ncronline.org - Reviewed by JERRY RYAN National Catholic
    Message 1 of 1 , Feb 5, 2004
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      A fool for Christ - Mother Maria Skobtsova’s faith was passionate, severe,
      even insane
      http://www.ncronline.org - Reviewed by JERRY RYAN
      National Catholic Reporter, February 6, 2004

      When, during Great Lent of 1932, Metropolitan Evlogii received the monastic
      vows of Elisaveta Skobtsova at the church of St. Serge Institute in Paris,
      many were scandalized. After all, this woman had been twice divorced, had an
      illegitimate child by another man, had leftist political sympathies and was
      an original by any standard. At her profession she took the name of Maria in
      memory of St. Mary of Egypt, a prostitute who became a hermit and extreme
      ascetic. As a religious, Mother Maria continued to scandalize. Her “angelic
      habit” was usually stained with grease from the kitchen and paint from her
      workshop; she would hang out at bars late at night; she had little patience
      with the long Orthodox liturgies, and found the strict and frequent fasts a
      burden. And -- horror of horrors -- she even smoked in public in her habit!
      Her canonization process has been initiated by the Orthodox church. Her
      “essential writings” constitute the latest book in the Orbis series of
      Modern Spiritual Masters.

      Jim Forest introduces this volume with a biographical sketch of Mother
      Maria. The book consists mainly of articles published in obscure magazines
      and one long text discovered only recently. This is not stuff for the
      faint-hearted. The charity that Mother Maria proposes as an obligation of
      Christian life is severe, absolute, uncompromising and insane. We must love
      others as Jesus loved, without reserve, in an utter and unconditional
      self-sacrificing of everything. We must follow the Son of Man not only to
      Golgotha but beyond -- to the very depths of hell where God is absent. We
      must be willing, as was St. Paul, to be separated from Christ so long as we
      can see our brothers saved. For we are not alone before God. As members of
      the body of Christ, each of us shares the fate of all; each of us is
      justified by the righteous and bears responsibility for the sins of sinners.
      This means taking upon oneself the crosses of all: their doubts, griefs,
      temptations, falls and sins.

      And Mother Maria leaves us no wiggle room: “It goes without saying that it
      seems to every man as if nothing will be left of his heart, that it will
      bleed itself dry if he opens it, not for the countless swords of all of
      humanity, but even for the one sword of the nearest and dearest of his
      brothers. ... Natural law, which in some false way has penetrated into the
      spiritual life, will say definitively: Bear your cross responsibly, freely,
      and honestly, opening your heart now and then to the cross-swords of your
      neighbor and that is all. ... But if the cross of Christ is scandal and
      folly for natural law, the two-edged weapon that pierces the soul should be
      as much of a folly and scandal for it. ... All that is not the fullness of
      cross-bearing is sin.” This is, of course, sheer madness -- the madness of
      the Eternal Wisdom, judged and condemned, spat upon and mocked, abused and
      humiliated, making his the sins of all and descending to the place of the

      Mother Maria has no patience with those who are preoccupied with their
      “spiritual life” and their personal relationship with God. It is precisely
      this spiritual life that must be lost, given in sacrifice, if one truly
      loves. If this is not given, tongues and prophecy are useless, faith and
      martyrdom are in vain. Christian egocentrism is a contradiction in terms. He
      who seeks to save his soul will lose it. There is no room for complacency or
      self-righteousness. These are idols that must be destroyed. There is a gift
      to be given and it must be a total gift -- “thine own of thine own.”

      What applies to individuals applies also to the church. In her final essay
      on “Types of Religious Life” (which really concerns types of piety), Mother
      Maria examines certain aspects of the church’s inner life and the danger of
      a fascination with its institutional structures, rituals, esthetic beauties
      and ascetical practices as ends in themselves to the detriment of a
      relationship to the Living Christ whose image is found in every person.
      Although she refers directly to the Orthodox church, her words are equally
      valid for all Christian churches: “The eyes of love will perhaps be able to
      see how Christ himself departs, quietly and invisibly, from the sanctuary
      that is protected by a splendid iconostasis. The singing will continue to
      resound, the clouds of incense will arise, the faithful will be overcome by
      the ecstatic beauty of the services. But Christ will go out onto the church
      steps and mingle with the crowd: the poor, the lepers, the desperate, the
      embittered, the holy fools. Christ will go out into the streets, the
      prisons, the low haunts and dives. Again and again Christ lays down his soul
      for his friends ... and so he will return to the churches and bring with him
      all those he has summoned to the wedding feast, has gathered from the
      highways, the poor and maimed, prostitutes and sinners ... and [they] will
      not let him into the church because behind him will follow a crowd of people
      deformed by sin, by ugliness, drunkenness, depravity, and hate. Then their
      chant will fade away in the air, the smell of incense will disperse and
      Someone will say to them: ‘I was hungry and you gave me no food …’ ”

      This does not imply a rejection of traditions and usages. In another essay,
      “In Defense of the Pharisees,” Mother Maria underlines the necessity of the
      collective memory of past blessings and the need for securities and points
      of reference. During certain historical epochs, of persecution or even in
      times of relative stability and in the absence of prophecy, adherence to
      traditions could be the predominant note in the life of the church, its
      anchor and guarantee. But this fidelity to the past must not become a
      paralyzing slavery. History is constantly presenting new challenges, and the
      church must be free to receive the prophetic gifts when such gifts are given
      and renew itself accordingly. Faced with modernity and bearing witness to
      the Gospel in our contemporary world, the church cannot let itself be bound
      by archaic and irrelevant structures.

      Mother Maria’s view of the Christian life is anything but horizontal. She
      has no use for “trends of social Christianity ... based on a certain
      rationalistic humanism [that] apply only the principles of Christian
      morality to ‘this world’ and do not seek a spiritual and mystical basis for
      their constructions.” The gift of oneself to others must be rooted in an
      intense and loving communion with the Son of God “who descended into the
      world, became incarnate in the world, totally, entirely, without holding any
      reserve, as it were, for his divinity. … Christ’s love does not know how to
      measure and divide, does not know how to spare itself.” Our love should not
      be any different.
      In her writings, Mother Maria expresses what she tried to live. After taking
      her monastic vows -- which she saw as a means of committing herself
      irrevocably to her vocation within the church -- she rented a building that
      became her monastery, a soup kitchen and a refuge for the rejects of
      society. It resembled a Catholic Worker house more than anything else. One
      observer described the “monastery” as “a strange pandemonium; we have young
      girls, madmen, exiles, unemployed workers and, at the moment, the choir of
      the Russian opera and the Gregorian choir of Dom Malherbe, a missionary
      center, and now services in the chapel every morning and evening.” The
      monastery hosted lectures and discussions with speakers from the St. Serge
      Institute. Mother Maria’s very intense, mystical and personalist convictions
      did not prevent her from organizing on a larger scale. She founded a
      sanatorium for impoverished Russians suffering from tuberculosis and was
      instrumental in the launching of Orthodox Action with its multiple
      charitable works.

      When the German armies occupied Paris, the monastery of Mother Maria became
      a refuge for persecuted Jews until escape routes could be found. For those
      who requested them, false baptismal certificates were provided. The Nazis
      eventually discovered what was going on. Mother Maria, her son Yuri, the
      monastery’s chaplain and its lay administrator were detained and sent to
      concentration camps. Only the lay administrator would survive. Those who
      knew Mother Maria in the camps bore witness to the courage, hope and
      optimism she imparted to others in the worst of conditions. The date and
      circumstances of her death are uncertain. There were reports that her name
      appeared on a list of those sent to the gas chambers on April 31, 1945, and
      that she offered herself in the place of a young Polish woman -- but that
      has not been fully established.

      Maria Skobtsova is, indeed, in the tradition of those fools for Christ who
      call the church to its essential mission, who strip aside illusions and
      delusions, a sign of contradiction to all that is human prudence and human
      “decency.” She challenges us in our complacency and self-satisfaction, our
      half-measures and sterile piety. She brings a sledgehammer to the
      all-too-prevalent contemporary search for personal fulfillment, harmony,
      peace and satisfaction in religion. But she would not be Orthodox if death
      and suffering were to have the final word -- for it is precisely by
      descending into hell, losing himself among the godless, that life vanquished
      the dominion of death; where life has entered, death can no longer exist. It
      is from the tomb that the glory of the resurrection shines forth.
      Some of Mother Maria’s poems would have been a fine complement to these
      pages for she was, in fact, a poet rather than an essayist and the fire that
      consumed her found a more intense expression in her poetry. It is to be
      hoped we will one day have an English translation of these works.

      Olivier Clement did the preface to this book. His final paragraph is worth
      citing: “If we love and venerate Mother Maria it is not in spite of her
      disorder, her strange views and her passion. It is precisely these qualities
      that make her so extraordinarily alive among so many bland and pious saints.
      Unattractive and dirty, strong, thick and sturdy, yes, she was truly alive
      in her suffering, her compassion, her passion.”

      Jerry Ryan is a freelance writer living in Chelsea, Mass., and has worked
      more than 20 years as a janitor at the New England Aquarium. National
      Catholic Reporter, February 6, 2004
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