​The saint of the month - Only the Gospel

2017-11-02 L’Osservatore Romano

On 16 January 2004 the Holy Synod of the Patriarchate of Constantinople canonized Mother Maria Skobtsova, an extraordinary woman motivated by a strong thirst for authenticity, rebellious against any kind of conformism.

Elizaveta Yurievna Pilenko, known as Liza, was born in Riga in 1891. During her adolescence she lived in St Petersburg where she received a refined intellectual education. She was passionate about literature, art and also politics. At the age of 18 she married a socialist intellectual: in her ingenuous desire to help everyone, she wanted to save him from alcholohism. She left him three years later, nauseated by the worldly life of St Petersburg, by the nights spent talking of art, poetry and politics, and by the drinking and smoking…. She therefore returned to her father’s estate at Anapa on the shores of the Black Sea, keen to be close to simple people. In the following years she lived for a while in Moscow and then again at Anapa; when the war broke out she returned to St Petersburg. The infinite discussions on the reform of Russian society did not lead to any real changes for the poor; indeed, the war was a source of further suffering and wretchedness.

In her wish to deepen her faith Liza asked to take courses at the Theological Academy. A woman in 1915 who wanted to study theology! Her request was rejected; Liza did not give up and presented herself for the examinations as an external candidate.

When in the poem she dedicated to the Biblical figure Ruth, Liza writes “A wise husband is not for me, nor is the destiny of an ordinary wife. My route is an arid path and my back is burdened by a heavy wooden cross”, she is perhaps unconsciously speaking of herself. More time was required before she reached full awareness of her vocation; for the time being she was still involved in political activity in the ranks of the revolutionary socialist party and when she was only 26 years old she found herself elected Deputy Mayor of Anapa. Amidst the chaos of those months she endeavoured to govern with firmness and moral integrity. Upon the arrival of the White Army, the false accusation that she was a Bolshevik sympathiser brought her a death sentence from which she was saved thanks to Daniel Skobtsov, a White Army officer [acting as judge] who was fascinated by the young woman. They were to marry a few months later and their wandering as exiles in foreign lands began at once. They finally settled in Paris.

Despite the harsh conditions of life as an exile and the immense sorrow caused by the death of her youngest daughter at the age of only four, Liza was not idle. She was very soon entrusted with a leading role in the Russian students’ Christian Movement, which led her to travel throughout France in search of Russian exiles, especially the poorest and the sick. Yet she found the time to write, embroider and paint, as well as taking courses at Saint-Serge Orthodox Theology Institute.

In 1932, a few days after obtaining an ecclesiastical divorce from Daniel Skobtsov, Liza pronounced her monastic vows. She took the name of Mat’ Marija (Mother Maria), drawing inspiration from St Mary of Egypt, the prostitute who became an example of passionate love transformed into ardent love for the Lord.

The author Lisa Cremaschi was born in Bergamo in 1952. She is a Sister of the Community of Bose. She devotes herself to translating texts of the Fathers of the Eastern Church and is also involved in preaching activities in parishes and in religious communities. Her publications for Edizioni Qiqajon include: Nella tradizione basiliana. Donne di comunione [In the Basilian tradition. Women of communion] (biographies of nuns of antiquity); Comunione con Dio e con gli uomini [Communion with God and with men] (on the teachings of Dorotheos of Gaza).

In times of great changes in the world Mother Maria also wanted a radical change in monastic life. “We are not permitted to abide by the traditions of the past, we cannot limit ourselves to repetition” in “an obstinate wish to reassert the old forms at any cost in spite of the changing situation”. It is necessary to understand the demands of the times, adhering to reality and to a history that changes. “The fundamental principle of ascetics is a deep simplicity, a heart that dilates without limits”. We cannot save ourselves on our own.

With regard to one of her articles entitled The Mysticism of Interpersonal Relations, Mother Maria said: “It’s the theme of my life…. Innumerable guides and instruction manuals exist on the relationship with God, whereas nothing has been written on the mysticism of the interpersonal relationship. The way of God’s love passes through the way of love of one’s neighbour and no other way exists”. It is impossible to separate the sacrament of the altar from the sacrament of our brother or sister”.

Mother Maria fought all her life against every form of idolatry, that of power and that of ideologies, but especially against those subtle forms of idolatry which are concealed in a religious life, “idols more subtle, more refined, the cult of my family, of my art, of my creativity, of my way, of my grandiose ‘order of life’”. What is left? The Gospel!

The house in Rue Lourmel, to which she moved the hostel for poor women which she had set up, became a place which took in the poor, the sick and the unemployed. She tried to help each one and had words of comfort for all of them. In the meantime painful trials succeeded one another: the death of her first daughter, the departure of the nuns who lived with her, exasperated by her spirit of independence and by her intolerance of any rule. However there were also some people who let themselves be fascinated and attracted by her enthusiasm, such as Fr Dimitri Klepinin who became the hostel’s chaplain.

Under the Nazi occupation, Mother Maria spared no efforts to hide Jews. She said: “There is no Jewish problem, there is a Christian problem…. If we were genuine Christians we would all put ourselves under the yellow star”.

Arrested by the Gestapo on 8 February 1943, Mother Maria, her son Yuri and Fr Klepinin were to be deported. Mother Maria died at Ravensbrück at the end of April 1943.

One might perhaps be perplexed by such a “disorderly” life, but it was precisely this “disorder”, her passion constantly translated into compassion, which made Mother Maria an extraordinarily lively and extraordinarily holy woman. 

Lisa Cremaschi of Bose