Mother Maria Skobstova: The Unorthodox Orthodox Saint

 “Piety, Piety, but where is the love that moves mountain?”

~ St. Maria

Mother Maria happens to be one of the most unconventional Orthodox saints to have ever lived. Having born in the early decades of the twentieth century (1891) in Russia, she witnessed two World Wars and the Russian Revolution. Growing up in such a turbulent and chaotic milieu is that which shaped the course of her theological acumen. Her journey from an atheist[1] to an Orthodox Nun – beyond inspiring – is the blatant expression of the magnetic charm of the Cross of Christ. Being drawn to the Left under the aegis of Socialist Revolutionary Party in her teenage, at a time when Russian Religious Renaissance was at its rise, she eventually grew weary of the shallow and interminable discussions of its progressive intelligentsia.[2] By the time she found in Christianity – especially within its monastic discipline – the true sense of justice that she was seeking for, she personally was impetuously married twice, divorced and a mother of three children.

Despite having left the Socialist Party she was always a Revolutionary and it was this revolutionary zeal that drew her to Christianity in which she found the ideals and actions of the former to be transfigured and fulfilled. As she admits; “By the name of Christ, by the Cross of Christ, the hammer-and-sickle can be given their authentic meaning.”[3] This unquenchable thirst for justice and compassion towards the world is what led to her internment and death (assumed to have taken the place of another prisoner) in the Ravensbruck Nazi Concentration Camp in 1945. Mother Maria was canonized as a saint in 2004 by the Ecumenical Patriarch. Such is the socio-political backdrop against which we are to understand the life and writings of this avant-garde Orthodox poet, intellectual, theologian, nun and martyr. I endeavour to very briefly delineate four of her major theological convictions.

1. Monasticism at the Heart of the World

Mother Maria’s monastic profession before Metropolitan Evlogy, “in order to give myself unreservedly for social service” underscores the fact that she took up monasticism not to flee the world but to more proactively engage with it. She spearheaded a contemporary monasticism, upholding the radical demands of the Gospel, which forsook the privilege of the walls of a monastery. This was not an innovation, as it may seem, but was practiced by the early Fathers of the Church especially St. Basil the Great who fostered a similar form of “engaged monasticism” with an urban character.[4]

The revival of this form of monasticism was inevitable in her time when the world was being torn apart by the ordeals of wars. Hence she fervently asserts; “Today there is only one monastery for a monk – the whole world.”[5] Challenging the traditional monasteries she further remarks; “A monastery is like a spiritual sanatorium: we do not all have an incontestable right to it. There is more love, more humility, more need in remaining in the world’s backyard, in breathing its bad air, in hungering after spiritual food – sharing all these burdens and all the world’s anguish with others, lightening them for others.”[6]  Because she nurtured a “monasticism in the world” she had a particular devotion to yurodivy the fool for Christ[7], for she wrote; “we will become fools in Christ, because we know not only the difficulty of this path but also the immense happiness of feeling God’s hand upon what we do.”[8]

2. The Sacrament of the Brother

Mother Maria deeply believed and strived to translate liturgy into life. She yearned to “ecclesialize” or “Christify” the world for she writes; “The churching of life is the sense of the whole world as one church, adorned with icons that should be venerated, that should be honoured and loved, because these icons are true images of God that have the holiness of the Living God upon them.”[9]

Her relationship with Christ was hinged on a strong sense of social accountability something she might have garnered from her involvement with the Russian Student Christian Movement, an Orthodox association in Paris and her fondly fascination towards Dostoevsky who remarked; “We are all responsible for everyone else but I am more responsible than all the others.” Her Home of Charity at 77 rue de Lourmel, a house for all, sheltered (not only those who knocked but she actively sought the homeless) the victims of the war and the outcasts especially the Jews. There she spent her early morning hours “scrounging for and cooking food; she scrubbed floors and toilets; slept under the stairs; smuggled food to starving families; created and signed false documents (baptismal certificates); hid children and families at risk and spirited them away to new hiding places etc.”[10]   

3. God-motherhood

Ever since the demise of her daughter, which was a watershed in her life, Mother Maria strongly felt a maternal instinct towards the world as she writes; “I feel that the death of my child obliges me to become the mother of everyone.”[11] She found her maternal feeling expressed fully in the Archetypal Motherhood of Theotokos. That “everyone is an image of Christ” is a grand narrative but Mother Maria stretches it further by stating; “Every man is also the image of the Mother of God, who bears Christ in herself through the Holy Spirit. In this sense every man deep inside is this bi-une icon of the Mother of God with the Child, the revelation of this bi-une mystery of Godmanhood.”[12]

Drawing inspiration from the tradition of the Middle Ages i.e. the merging of the cross and sword, Mother Maria conceptualizes a brilliant icon where the active suffering of the Christ on the Cross becomes inseparable from His Mother’s passive suffering. She eruditely notes; “The Cross of the Son of Man, accepted voluntarily, becomes a two-edged sword that pierces the soul of the Mother, not because she voluntarily chooses it, but because she cannot help suffering the sufferings of her Son.”[13]

Furthermore, Mother Maria goes to the extent of appropriating the Mother of God from an ecological vantage point by identifying Her as the “Moist Mother Earth”. She observes; “The earth of Golgotha with the Cross set up on it, piercing it, the earth of the Golgotha red with blood – is it not a mother’s heart pierced by a sword? The Cross of Golgotha, like a sword, pierces the soul of the Mother-earth.”[14] Mother Maria proposing an eco-theology in which the entire creation is humanized in and through Mary reckons; “The fundamental meaning of the path of Sonship, the sacrifice of the Son, is to redeem His Mother and in Her all of creation, the Moist Mother Earth.”[15]

4. Maternal Theology

Mother Maria wrote two impressive polemical essays viz. “Birth and Creation” and “On the Judgment of Solomon and Motherhood” that bolstered her maternal theology. The former one was to counter the anti-procreative misogynist strain of thought of Nikolai Berdyaev[16] while the latter was to accentuate the sanctity of maternal body and experience which were contested by her spiritual father Sergius Bulgakov.[17]  Mother Maria takes a Christological vantage point in responding to Berdyeav (who prioritizes creation over birth) by emphasizing the birth of Christ instead of Him being created. In fact in His dual birth, Christ “confirmed a certain primacy of the cosmic beginning, the primacy of birth over creation.”[18] Reacting to Bulgakov who sabotaged the procreative agency of women, Mother Maria reclaims the reverence and the creative power of maternal body; “The mother creatively produces a child from her own body, the father recognizes and ‘adopts’ it as his own; the mother perpetuates the ‘organic unity’ of the world, while fatherhood accepts it. Her role is more active and creative, his is more passive.”[19]

To conclude, Mother Maria was truly a versatile Nun who embodied the Christian faith in its purest form encompassing all its radical demands. She was someone who reminded the Church of her apostolicity i.e. her nature of being sent/commissioned to the world. She educated us that we go to church not to be at peace but to realize our complacency for in the church we are confronted with an “unappeasable hunger for Christ’s truth” which in turn creates in us “a desire to become the fulfiller of God’s design in the world, a tool in His hands, a means and not an end.” She boldly affirms;

“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, clouds of incense will still rise, the faithful will be overcome by the ecstatic beauty of the services. But Christ will go out on to 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 hospitals, the low haunts and dives. Again and again Christ lays down his soul for his friends.”[20]

In Christ

Dayroyo Fr. Basil

[1] After the death of her father, when she was fourteen, she found her life to be in the abyss of meaninglessness. She thus wrote; “If there is no justice, there is no God.” Mother Maria Skobstova, Essential Writings, Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky trans. (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2003), 14. 

[2] Her major reproach towards these revolutionaries was based on their reluctance to actively participate in the sufferings of their brothers and sisters. Hence she writes; “They will value it, approve or not approve, show understanding on a very high level, and discuss the night away till the sun rises and it’s time for fried eggs. But they will not understand at all that to die for the Revolution means to feel a rope around one’s neck.”  Mother Maria Skobstova, Essential Writings, 15.

[3] Mother Maria Skobstova, Essential Writings, 86. She further continues; “The Christianization of Communism implies the destruction of its very heart: its coercion, its violence, the dictatorship of the proletariat, the party hegemony of selective communist rule.” Mother Maria Skobstova, Essential Writings, 87.

[4] This is expressed in St. Basil’s Longer Rules. “According to the Longer Rules, monastics were expected to practice a trade such as carpentry, masonry, or blacksmithing; this required that monastic communities be located near cities rather than in remote locations, giving Basil’s monastic vision a decidedly urban flavour. Income derived from these occupations was to be used to assist those in need.” St. Basil The Great, On Social Justice, C. Paul Schroeder trans. (Crestwood: SVS Press, 2009), 36.

[5] Mother Maria Skobstova, Essential Writings, 94.

[6] Mother Maria Skobstova, Essential Writings, 95.

[7] Katerina Kocandrle Bauer writes; “Mother Maria calls for the revival of the tradition of the yurodivy, the fool for Christ.  The life of the fool for Christ unmasks all false holiness that hides true identity behind the make-up that covers not just the face but sometimes the whole body, as do, say, the garments of a monk or priest. To use iconographic terminology, the fool for Christ calls for an inverted perspective on reality that uncovers every hypocrisy and reveals Christ’s truth. A fool shows us how not to possess even the identity based on our own holiness, how to invert the wisdom of the world, to turn our own wisdom into the wisdom of Jesus Christ. To be a fool for Christ is to give up all possessions, including the inner possession of ourselves. To be rooted in Christ means to lose the self, but not for one’s own sake: the fool for Christ serves as a model of service to the world.”

[8] Mother Maria Skobstova, Essential Writings, 24.

[9] Mother Maria Skobstova, Essential Writings, 81.

[10] Helen C. Theodoropoulos, “The Mother of God in the Writings of St. Mother Maria Skobstova” in Greek Orthodox Theological Review 60/1-2 (2015), 165-172 at 166.

[11] Mother Maria Skobstova, Essential Writings, 8.

[12] Mother Maria Skobstova, Essential Writings, 69.

[13] Mother Maria Skobstova, Essential Writings, 67.

[14] Mother Maria Skobstova, Essential Writings, 67.

[15] Quoted in Natalia Ermolaev, Modernism, Motherhood and Mariology: The Poetry and Theology of Elizaveta Skobtsova (Mother Maria), (Ann Arbor, MI: ProQuest, 2010), 158.

[16] Nikolai Berdyaev continuing the anti-procreative tradition of Solovyov remarks; “The creative might of individuality diminishes and falls apart in childbirth… Birth takes away energy from creativity. The creative genius is antagonistic to the elemental force of procreation, it is hard to reconcile it with childbirth.” Quoted in Natalia Ermolaev, Modernism, Motherhood and Mariology, 114.

[17] Bulgakov’s system of thought not only prioritized male over female but also negated the intrinsic procreative authority specific to females. He reduced women simply to a giant womb. He writes; “Motherhood differs in essence from fatherhood, only the latter begets; Motherhood is not begetting but only having in the womb, life-carrying of the already begotten, the already sown fruit.” Natalia Ermolaev, Modernism, Motherhood and Mariology, 127.   

[18] Natalia Ermolaev, Modernism, Motherhood and Mariology, 118.

[19] Natalia Ermolaev, Modernism, Motherhood and Mariology, 130.

[20] Quoted in Andrew Louth, Modern Orthodox Thinkers: From the Philokalia to the Present (Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2015), 123.

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