SKOBTSOVA, MARIA . Mother Maria Skobtsova (1891–1945) became a very unusual sort of Russian Orthodox nun in 1932. She did not join a monastic community or withdraw from her secular milieu, the Russian émigré community of France. Instead, she defined her way as "monasticism in the world."
For a nun, this lifestyle had little precedent in modern Orthodoxy and Mother Maria did not intend to set a new trend for others to follow. She needed and demonstrated a great deal of dedication, responding pragmatically to people's suffering rather than simply accepting a convent rule. As she put it, she saw "the true image of God in the human being [ … ] the very icon of God incarnate in this world" in each of the individuals she helped.
Mother Maria often criticized traditional Russian convents as inward-looking and defensive. This criticism provided the basis for her mystery play, Anna, composed in the late 1930s.
Mother Maria believed that monasticism should be reconsidered as a part of the revival of the Russian Church abroad, newly liberated from its former state-imposed constraints. She wrote, "we have no enormous cathedrals, no encrusted gospels or monastery walls." Rather, her Church had been granted "awe-inspiring freedom,'" which could compensate for every kind of earthly deprivation.
She addressed this topic in vivid lectures, many of which were published. One 1937 discourse, not published until sixty years later, provoked much comment, both among Russian émigrés as well as among residents of the former Soviet Union.
Mother Maria's disdain for tradition appears all the more curious, however, considering that her childhood friend K. P. Pobedonostev (1827–1907) promoted conservative values in his role as the Over-Procurator of the Church's synod. Mother's Maria's relationship with Pobedonostev resulted from her family's elevated social position. But her social standing did not cause her to value her lifestyle and privileges of which the Russian revolution, as well as her impending exile, would eventually deprive her. Early in 1917, even before the state required it, she had donated a significant proportion of her lands to meet her former tenants' needs. This action supported her membership in the Socialist Revolutionary Party, which she had joined that year. In 1918 she was elected mayor of Anapa, a tribute to her respect in the community. Although the Russian civil war of 1919 ended this appointment, her moderate socialism and her Christian concern for the needy survived. Both those attitudes comprised "Orthodox Action," the movement that she founded and led in 1936 and that later sustained her work in France.
Mother Maria was always concerned with individuals. She feared the most efficient organizations might lose that emphasis: "I would say that we should not give away a single hunk of bread unless the recipient means something as a person for us." Although she was consistently compassionate, she eschewed sentimentality.
Throughout the 1930s, Mother Maria housed and supported people who were "restless, orphaned, poor, drunk, despairing, useless, lost whichever way they went, homeless, naked, [and] lacking bread." She founded a series of homes to provide food and shelter. Perhaps her principal achievement, however, was to counteract despair. As she noted, such endeavors required her to experience what the other feels, "to become all things to all people," to work long hours, and to maintain a rich reserve of good cheer.
In this way, Mother Maria became "a mother for all, for all who need maternal care, assistance or protection." She had expressed this intention after the youngest of her three children died in infancy in 1926.
She was married twice, in 1910 and in 1919. During her first marriage, Mother Maria aspired to a literary career. Her poetry became popular in the literary world of St Petersburg, and her poems that were published in 1912 and 1916 are again in print. She continued to write poetry during the Russian emigration. From 1916 on, her concerns were largely religious, yet after she became a nun, she did not want her poems to be published. The death of her elder daughter in 1936, however, prompted the publication of her later verse, much of which contains revealing statements of devotion that are convincingly her own. She continued writing in this vein, on stray scraps of paper, for years afterwards.
In addition to writing poetry, she also created art using canvas and wood, furnishing the chapels she founded with her unconventional embroideries and icons. The German occupation of France (1940) exacerbated past social problems and imposed unprecedented limitations on the Jewish population. Mother Maria and her colleagues sheltered Jews at her homes and safeguarded many of them by listing them as members of her parish. She also arranged to transport them to safer destinations.
The Nazis arrested Mother Maria and her colleagues in February 1943. But her confinement to the Ravensbrück concentration camp enabled her to minister to companions in distress. Her work was unalloyed by any fear of death. On Good Friday, 1945, although she was not chosen for extermination, she volunteered to take a fellow prisoner's place and was executed.
A collection of Mother Maria's Russian writings is given in Elizaveta Kuz'mina-Karavaeva and Mat' Mariia's, Ravnina russkaia, edited by A.N. Shustov and E.A. Polikashin (St. Petersburg, Russia, 2001), but all her theological prose is omitted. As of 2004, a critical and comprehensive edition of her Russian works in five volumes was being compiled and edited by T. Emel'ianova (Moscow, Russia). A selection of her theological articles is available in English as Mother Maria Skobtsova: Essential Writings, translated by R. Pevear, L. Volokhonsky, and others (Maryknoll, New York, 2003). Sergei Hackel's biography of Mother Maria was first published in 1965, and it later appeared in a revised edition as Pearl of Great Price: The Life of Mother Maria Skobtsova, 1891–1945 (London and Crestwood, N. Y., 1981). The book includes extracts from her writings and has been published in German, Russian, Italian, Greek, and Finnish.
Sergei Hackel (2005)
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