Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Mother Maria Skobtsova, A True Human Being

Mother Maria Skobtsova
My next selection for this month's "Women Who Rock" is Mother Maria Skobtsova, an Orthodox Christian nun who is best known for toiling ceaselessly in the German occupation of Paris and subsequently dying in the Ravensbruck concentration camp gas chambers in 1945.

Born Elizaveto Pilenko in December 1891, "Liza" as she was known prior to becoming a nun, fled the political turmoil of Russia and eventually found herself, along with her mother, her second husband and three children as refugees in Paris in 1923.    Her eldest child was born in Russia to her first husband, a marriage that ended in divorce, and the second two children were born "on the run"  between the years 1920 and 1923. Her new life in France was one of  many hardships and deprivations, and to make matters even worse, the youngest Skobtsova child, Nastia, became extremely ill and died at the tender age of 3 in 1926.  Here is a note written by Liza at the time of Nastia's death:

For years I did not know, in fact I never knew the meaning of repentance, but now I am aghast at my own insignificance [...].  At Nastia's side I feel that my soul has meandered down back alleys all my life.  And now I want an authentic and a purified road, not out of faith in life, but in order to justify, understand and accept death [...]. No amount of thought will ever result in any greater formulation than the three words, 'Love one another', so long as it is [love] to the end and without exceptions.  And then the whole of life is illumined, which is otherwise an abomination and a burden. [from papers collected by Mother Maria's mother Sophia Pilenko]
Her life in Paris continued on after Nastia's death, and over the course of the next several years, her second marriage more or less fell apart and Liza, in her sufferings, drew closer and closer to God. Finally, in 1932, following her heart's longing, she entered the monastic ranks of the Orthodox Church and became Mother Maria.

Mother Maria was what you would call an "unconventional" nun.  She was known to have a beer and a smoke and she did not always keep to the prescribed schedule of services of the monastic life.  Additionally, she was still raising her son Yuri and her eldest child, a daughter, made the poor and worrisome decision to return to Russia where she soon succumbed to disease.  Because of these worldly matters and cares, a few people believed that she should not have taken on the monastic life, and she was making "light" of the serious decision to live as a nun.  Whatever the opinion, ultimately it was the monastic robe that opened many doors for her.

Upon becoming a nun, Mother Maria worked day and night scraping up money and food to help the needy in Paris.  She slept in the basement or in a closet so others could have a bed.  She opened a school and she sought out the homeless.  Mother Maria never accepted "no" for an answer and always managed to find whatever it was that was needed at that given moment. For eight years, she toiled serving humanity in this manner. However, it was during the fall of Paris to the Germans in June 1940 that her efforts became even more courageous.

From 1940-1942, Mother Maria, along with her son Yuri, Fr. Dimitri Klepinin and Ilya Fondaminsky, continued not only to help the Russian refugees but now the suffering Jews as well.  In July of 1942, there was a mass arrest of 12,884 Jews where a little more than half of those arrested were brought to the Velodrome d'Hiver, a stadium for bicycle races, which was not far from Mother Maria's charity house located at 77 Rue de Lourmel.  Mother Maria, using her monastic robes as an excuse to get into the stadium, was able to comfort the Jewish children and their parents and she distributed any food she could bring in.  The children's book Silent As A Stone chronicles Mother Maria's rescue of a few of these children by smuggling them out in trash cans.  After 5 days in the stadium, all the Jews that remained were sent to Auschwitz, and now Mother Maria became an person of suspicion with the Nazi occupiers.  Mother Maria and her companions courageously continued their work until their own arrests for aiding the suffering Jewish people in 1943. Yuri and Fr. Dimitri were sent to a camp named Dora, and Mother Maria was sent in a sealed cattle truck to Ravensbruck.

Mother Maria spent the final two years of her life in this concentration camp supporting those around her.  She was described by a fellow prisoner as "never downcast, never.  She was full of good cheer, really good cheer.  She was on good terms with everyone.  She was the kind of person who made no distinction between people no matter what their political views might be or their religious beliefs."  [from the afterword of Silent As A Stone, see below for details]  Finally in March 1945, a month before Ravensbruck was liberated by Soviet forces, Mother Maria, prisoner number 19,263, was executed in the gas chambers. 

Soon after the end of WWII, Mother Maria's essays and books became public and in 2004 Mother Maria was canonized as a saint in the Orthodox Church along with her companions. Mother Maria is also honored as being among the "Righteous Gentiles" in Israel.

There is SO much more to her story.  I recommend both the children's book Silent As A Stone written by Jim Forest and the biography Pearl of Great Price: The Life of Mother Maria Skobtsova 1891-1945  written by Sergei Hackel.   Both are found at SVS Press and Amazon. 

What I love so much about Mother Maria is that she was a regular person who had lived, at least to society's warped standards, an imperfect life.  She was twice married, she liked to drink beer and smoke cigarettes. Additionally, she was a woman who suffered.  She was forced to leave her homeland, two of her children preceded her in death, and she was under the constant eye of the Nazi authorities. Can you blame the woman for wanting a drink or a smoke?  Some of her written spiritual reflections actually have cigarette burns on them. 

Most importantly, for me at least, was that Mother Maria didn't use her past sufferings as an excuse for denying the small still voice of God that resounded in her heart to love every human being.   She carried on for the love of God and the love of humanity.  She wasn't scared or filled with any sort of doubts.  She wasn't a coward.  She was a true human being. 

And as much as I would like to say YOU ROCK!, I find myself feeling this phrase to be a bit disrespectful.  So humbly I ask you St. Maria Skobtsova, lover of God and lover of mankind, to pray for us here in this world that we may have your same tenacity and courage to carry out the Lord's desire for us to love one another.


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