Learning From St. Maria Skobtsova of Paris
Fr. Luke A. Veronis
What can we learn from a nonconformist, chain-smoking, twice divorced Russian nun who scandalized many people with her non-traditional behavior? People in church circles sometimes found it hard to relate to Mother Maria Skobtsova, better known as St Maria of Paris, whose feastday we celebrate this week on July 20th. They found it difficult because of her radical, revolutionary spirit. At times this nun would skip her monastic church services in order to scour the streets of Paris looking for food to feed the homeless. She admittedly felt just as comfortable sitting among the so-called sinners of the streets drinking a beer at some pub with them as she would talking deep theology with her ecclesiastical colleagues. Her black monastic garb was often unkept and dirty from traversing the streets of Paris scraping up enough food to feed the hundreds of hungry mouths who came to her hostel daily, mouths that represented the rejected and sometimes despised of society.
She placed a priority in seeing Jesus Christ in the faces of each and every poor and hungry person she met. She would treat them with dignity and respect, offering them an abundance of unconditional love! In fact, she would say that she saw the image of Christ just as much in these marginalized people as she saw the image of Jesus in the icons that she painted or embroidered to adorn her church.
Metropolitan Anthony Bloom of blessed memory, the spiritual giant and former Metropolitan of Sourozh, once shared his first impression or her. “She was a very unusual nun in her behavior and her manners. I was simply staggered when I saw her for the first time in monastic clothes. I was walking along the Boulevard and I saw in front of a café, a table with a glass of beer and behind the glass sitting a Russian nun in full monastic robes. I looked at her and decided that I would never go near that woman. Of course, I was young then and held extreme views.” Metropolitan Anthony would later in life come to deeply respect and revere Mother Maria!
Before she ever became a nun, she was a part of the revolutionary circles of St. Petersburg in the early 20th century. She discussed and embraced Marxist ideologies and thought only revolution would bring about the fundamental change that Russia needed. Once the revolution began, however, she quickly realized not only the shortcomings but the extreme danger and evil in the actual Bolshevik revolution, a revolution which violently attacked countless innocent people and held a satanic hatred toward the Church and all its people.
So she rejected the actual revolution, while always holding on to a radical and revolutionary spirit. Her friends in leftist circles found a kindred spirit, but found it difficult to reconcile her radical spirit with her firm commitment to traditional faith values and beliefs, as well as her deep devotion to the church.
Throughout her life, she walked in tension with these two worldviews of her monastic calling and her revolutionary spirit. She eventually discovered that the best way to connect her theological convictions with her radical spirit was by dedicating her life to serving those who lived in the margins, those who were the lost, the poor, the forgotten, the despised of society.
In the process of this discovery, this charismatic figure readily denounced hypocrisy whenever she saw it, especially when she witnessed the people of the Church who chose not to see the image of God in their suffering neighbor. Mother Maria boldly challenged those in the church who compartmentalized their love of God and separated it from their love of neighbor. She criticized those who loved the beauty of Christ in the icons of the church, yet who wouldn’t see the beauty of Jesus in the distorted and defaced human icon of the most marginalized person in society. She insisted that a follower of Christ cannot separate the love of God from the love of our neighbor, especially the most marginalized neighbor!
Mother Maria’s compassion, empathy, and understanding of love for others came not only from her theology - she was the first woman to study theology at St. Petersburg Theological School before the revolution and wrote some beautiful theological treatises – but maybe came more so from her difficult experiences of life. She lost her father when she was 14 and went through some years of questioning the reality of God. She experienced the horrors of violent revolution and came close to death. She lost everything from a comfortable, aristocratic life and tasted the uncertainties of being a refugee. She married twice and had two failed relationships. She experienced the death of her first young child, and then later the death of an older child. In fact, her third child would eventually die in the concentration camps around the same time that Mother Maria herself died. She entered France as a poor immigrant and later lived through war and the Nazi occupation there.
Each of these extremely challenging experiences didn’t leave her bitter and angry, broken or hopeless. To the contrary, each of these difficult trials helped her understand better the mystery of life, with all the good and evil it brings, with the unique struggles and challenges, the uncertainties and problems. By living through so much tragedy and sadness, she came to empathize with others who faced their own heart-rending tests in life. She would see the marginalized immigrant, the suicidal refugee, the homeless alcoholic, the mentally disturbed person who suffered from PTSD, and every other person that society wanted to label and reject or discard, she would see as a darkened, distorted icon that needed restoration. Mother Maria would see through the brokenness, she would look underneath all the grime and filth and see a hidden, beautiful icon that she believed could be renewed, brought back to its original beauty. And even if the broken person themselves couldn’t believe that, still Mother Maria would treat them with the respect, dignity, kindness and love that they deserved as a child of God.
Communing with the stranger. Communing with the outcast. Communing with the immigrant and refugee. Communing with the marginalized. Communing with the least of our brothers and sisters. Communing with the other, no matter how different and strange and lost and broken they may appear. For Mother Maria, each such communion was communion with Jesus Himself. She equated every human interaction as communion with the Divine, and this is the most important and lasting legacy she leaves to the Church!
“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 Christ 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.”
As we honor and celebrate the unique life and inspiring legacy of St Maria Skobtsova of Paris, we could say so much more about her life, including focusing on how she sacrificed herself to save numerous Jews and Jewish children during the Nazi occupation of Paris, and then how she valiantly and faithfully endured her time in the Ravensbruck concentration camp, even at the end offering her life to take the place of another Jewish prisoner who was to be sent into the gas chambers. Yet I want to conclude with the focus remaining on her clear understanding that one cannot love God if we don’t love our neighbor. And our neighbor is anyone in need, the marginalized, forgotten, often broken and despised immigrant, refugee, homeless, hungry, naked, imprisoned person.
“To think” Mother Maria once wrote, “that Christ puts an equal sign between himself and anyone in need.”