Sunday, October 7, 2012

Mother Maria Skobtsova. Mother Maria - a saint of our day.

Someone said to me the other day, "Do you mean that the Orthodox would ordain a person who had lived a dissolute and sinful life?! Someone who had believed in heresy?!"  In her puritanical grasp of Christianity, sins ruin a person for life. There is not room in her thinking for a Saint Augustine of Hippo, or Saint Symeon the New Theologian, or Saint Moses the Black, or a host of others. For her Jesus' words to the Pharisee must be meaningless, when speaking of the sinful woman who washed his feet with perfume and dried them with her hair, "who is forgiven much, loves much" and the fact she is called Saint Mary Magdalene must be a mystery. This is the story of a modern Magdalene:  

She was beautiful and through the stories of Corrie Ten Boom she stole my heart. 
Mother Maria Skobtsova (1891-1945) known as, Saint Mary (or Mother Maria) of Paris, born Elizaveta Yurievna Pilenko, Kuzmina-Karavayeva by her first marriage, Skobtsova by her second marriage was a Russian emigre, poet, Orthodox nun, a member of the French Resistance during World War II and martyr under the Nazis.

Did you get that, first marriage, second marriage, twice divorced, a spoiled jaded and ambitious girl from a rich family, suspected of not being and most certainly not the typical "honorable woman." She found her faith, before she needed the strength of it, but when she needed that strength it was there and create a beautiful and humbling witness. Orthodox and Greek sources never tell of her friendship with Corrie Ten Boom and her sister, Betsie, when they prayed together and ministered to the other prisoners at Ravensbruck. I was blessed to hear the story from Corrie's own lips, spoken quietly to me, when I was a bitter young man. 

The name of Mother Maria is fast gaining recognition as one of the most fascinating religious figures of the twentieth century. Her early life mirrors so many of us in the generations next. She has been canonized a saint in the Eastern Orthodox Church. What the large Orthodox Churches will not tell, is that she was first recognized as a saint in the tiny jurisdiction of Orthodoxy where I was a priest. My Bishop was her most ardent supporter. Afterwards other "Churches" of Orthodoxy followed suit. 

Born in 1891 in Riga to a family rooted in Ukrainian aristocracy, she was a promising poet, an amateur painter and craftsman, a theological student in St. Petersburg when women studying theology were virtually unheard of.  In 1910 she married a Bolshevik Dimitri Kuzmin-Karaviev. During this period of her life she was actively involved in literary circles and wrote much poetry. Her first book, Scythian Shards, was a collection of poetry from this period. Her latter collections "Ruth", "Yurali" followed. By 1913 her marriage to Dimitri had ended. During this time, however Elizaveta, gradually came to accept Christianity with increasing religious devotion. But Elizaveta was still deluded and I can't help but think as was so popular at the time, influenced by heresies of Theosophy, the sweet words upon which communism grew.

Elizaveta was a member of Party of Socialists-Revolutionaries and even planned the assasination of Leon Trotsky, however was later talked out of this idea and moved to Anapa. She was elected a deputy mayor of Anapa, and when the White Army took control of Anapa, the mayor fled and she became mayor of the town. A Female Major - this was all "revolutionary."

The White Army put her on trial for being a Bolshevik. However, the judge was a former teacher of hers, Daniel Skobtsov, and she was acquitted. Soon the two fell in love and were married. Two more children came from this marriage, a daughter who was to die as a child of meningitis during her exile in Paris and a son who was to die in the concentration camps.

The political situation changed and Elizaveta her daughter, mother and her second husband fled the country. They traveled first to Georgia and then to Yugoslavia. Finally they arrived in Paris in 1923. Soon Elizaveta was dedicating herself to theological studies and social work.

In 1932, with Daniel Skobtov's permission, an ecclesiastical divorce was granted and she took monastic vows. In religion she took the name Maria.

Mother Maria made a rented house in Paris her "convent." It was a place with an open door for refugees, the needy and the lonely. It also soon became a center for intellectual and theological discussion. In Mother Maria these three elements-service to the poor, theology and intellectual-political activism went hand-in-hand.  The next twelve years until her arrest and deportation to the Ravensbruck concentration camp where she would eventually die in the gas chambers, she would live an unusual existence as nun, diaconal worker, counsellor, administrator of several residences, not to mention fundraiser, cook, and writer. She was to establish several hostels for the homeless, helpless, the ill and marginal in Villa de Saxe, Rue Lourmel and Noisy-le-Grand, with support from a number of the leading figures of the emigration.

When the Nazis took Paris in 1940, Mother Maria, and the members of her community chose to remain in the city to care for those who had come to count on them. As Nazi persecution of Jews in France increased, the Orthodox community's work expanded to include protection and care of the most helpless. Eventually, this work led to the arrest of Mother Maria her associates.

The Nazi were holding Jewish Children in a stadium, awaiting transfer to the work camps. She repeatedly invaded the stadium, and rescued many.

Mother Maria was sent to Ravensbruck concentration camp. When Corrie Ten Boom arrived, it was discovered that Maria had managed to smuggle in a crucifix, and Corrie a New Testament. Maria is a "bit player" in the background of Corrie's stories, the strong sidekick always there.

When the allies were a few miles away from Ravensbruck, the guards, destroying evidence, slated their Jewish concubines and bastard children for the gas chamber. Mother Maria's last act was to take the place of a Jewish concubine who was pregnant and was being sent to death in the gas chambers. In an act worthy of Jesus Christ himself, slip into the cue taking the woman's place and voluntarily died for her and her child. "What you do to the least of these, you do also to me."

"A woman of flesh and blood, Elizaveta Skobtsova, Mother Maria is considered to be a saint of our day a living icon, who stood fearlessly face to face with the problems of our century". (Metropolitan Anthony (Bloom))

Mother Maria and her companions were glorified by the Holy Orthodox Catholic Church in 1997, and the Patriarchate of Constantinople in 2004.

The first time I heard this prayer, I thought of Mother Maria, and she remained on my heart for years along with the prayer:

O Jesus, meek and humble of heart, hear me.
From the desire of being esteemed,  Deliver me, Jesus
From the desire of being loved, Deliver me, Jesus
From the desire of being extolled,  Deliver me, Jesus
From the desire of being honored,  Deliver me, Jesus
From the desire of being praised,  Deliver me Jesus.
From the desire for being preferred to others, Deliver me Jesus.
From the desire of being consulted, Deliver me Jesus.
From the desire of being approved,  Deliver me Jesus.
From the fear of being humiliated,  Deliver me Jesus.
From the fear of being despised,    Deliver me Jesus.
From the fear of suffering rebukes,   Deliver me Jesus.
From the fear of being falsely accused, Deliver me Jesus.
From the fear of being forgotten, Deliver me Jesus.
From the fear of being ridiculed,  Deliver me Jesus.
From the fear of being wronged, Deliver me Jesus.
From the fear of being suspected,  Deliver me Jesus.
That others may be loved more than I,
Jesus grant me the grace to desire it.

That other may be esteemed more than I                                                   Jesus grant me the grace to desire it.  
That in the opinion of the world, others may increase, and I may decrease
Jesus grant me the grace to desire it.

That other may be chosen and I set aside                                                     Jesus grant me the grace to desire it.  
That others may be preferred to me in everything                                         Jesus grant me the grace to desire it.
That others may become holier than I, provided that I may become as holy as I should.
 Jesus grant me the grace to desire it. Amen

What is the Glory of Healing Salvation, but to IN the Body of Jesus Christ become strong even by the experience of our previous sinful lives.  Many are molded for their singular vocations even years before they find faith and surrender their lives to HIM. 


  1. I have just read the account of Mother Maria , I am also half way through reading the biography of father Arseny.I think my ego may be shrinking. !

  2. Saints among us in our lifetime... thank you for sharing this great news of God's love through his children on earth...

  3. What a blessing and a comfort Mother Maria's story has been to me! I had lived a rebellious life for many years before finally heeding the Lord. I struggle so much with self-reproach and regret over my past. Mother Maria and your wonderful article have given me hope. With all my heart I thank you! God bless!


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