Mother Maria Skobtsova
Mother Maria Skobtsova is perhaps the most unconventional saint to grace these pages — a brilliant, chain-smoking, twice-divorced, left-leaning nun with an enormous heart. Like Mother Teresa of Calcutta, Mother Maria went out into the streets of Paris, seeking the destitute and bringing them home to care for them.
Elizaveta Pilenko (nicknamed Liza), was born in Latvia in 1891. Her wealthy parents were devoutly Orthodox and taught her about the faith from childhood. She took to Christianity naturally — by the time she was seven, she asked her mother if she was old enough to become a nun. But when she was a teenager, her father died and her faith crumbled. “If there is no justice,” she said, “Then there is no God.”
Orthodox theologian Metropolitan Anthony Bloom's first impression of Mother Maria: “On the table there was a glass of beer and behind the glass was sitting a Russian nun in full monastic robes. I looked at her and decided that I would never go near that woman.” (Later on he was more favorably impressed with her and enthusiastically supported her canonization.)
Like many of the martyrs in this book, she felt the desire to sacrifice her own life for others from a young age. As a teenager in St. Petersburg, she was drawn to intellectuals and revolutionaries but disillusioned by their lack of action — they did not seem to understand the reality of dying for a cause; instead, they dwelt in the more abstract realm of ideas.
Figure 15-1: Mother Maria Skobtsova
In 1910, when she was 18 years old, she married Dimitri Kuzmin-Karaviev, who was an alcoholic. This marriage only lasted three years. During these years she gave birth to her first child, Gaiana, published her first book of poetry, Scythian Shards, and began to feel the desire to study theology. She was accepted at the then all-male theological academy of the Alexander Nevsky Monastery in St. Petersburg.
Mother Maria said: “At this moment God is visiting his world. And the world can receive that visit, open its heart — “Ready, ready is my heart” — and then in an instant our fallen lives will unite with the depths of eternity.” — from the essay Insight in Wartime.
As World War I was beginning, she moved back to her family's country home in the south of Russia. She began to feel convinced that Christ really did exist.
In 1918, after the Bolshevik Revolution, she was elected deputy mayor of Anapa. When the White Army took control of Anapa, the mayor departed and she became mayor. She was accused of being a Bolshevik, and put on trial. The judge in the trial, Daniel Skobtsova, saved her life and she and he were married shortly afterward.
When she was pregnant with her second child, she, Daniel, Gaiana, and her mother fled the country. In Georgia, she gave birth to her son, Yuri, and in Yugoslavia she gave birth to her second daughter, Anastasia. The family arrived in Paris in 1923.
The Death of a Child
In 1926 the entire family developed influenza. Everyone got better except for Anastasia, who grew thinner each day. She was finally diagnosed with meningitis, and for almost two months her mother sat by her bedside, unable to cure her daughter, watching her deteriorate.
Anastasia died on March 7, and Liza's second marriage collapsed shortly after that. Her son Yuri went to live with his father. A few years after Anastasia's burial, a more permanent spot opened up in another section of the cemetery. As Liza followed her daughter's coffin, she re-experienced many of the earlier emotions from her daughter's death. She also felt the stirrings of a new vocation. “I became aware of a new and special, broad and all-embracing motherhood,” she wrote.
Tensions often arose between Mother Maria and the two nuns who assisted her. She was often late to services or missed them entirely because of the demands of hospitality. She also rushed out of services to answer the doorbell, refusing to neglect those in need. Her two sister nuns eventually left to form a more traditional convent.
In 1935 her other daughter, Gaiana, died suddenly. These two deaths dramatically altered the course of her life. She longed to care for those who struggled most intensely — drug addicts, recent immigrants, and those who were mentally ill.
Her bishop encouraged her to become a nun, but she was only willing to live a consecrated life if she could continue to be engaged with the people she cared for. Her husband eventually granted her an ecclesiastical divorce and she became a nun.
A “Bohemian” Convent
With the support of her bishop, she obtained a home to share with those who needed a place to get back on their feet. Her home also became a place of theological discussion and debate. To make room for more guests, she slept in the basement beside the boiler on an iron bedstead. Two years later, she rented a larger home at Rue de Lourmel. She could now serve meals to one hundred instead of just twenty-five. Over the years she rented several other properties so that she could care for more people.
During World War II, many Jews came to stay with Mother Maria and the priest who had been sent to assist her, Fr. Dimitry Klepinin. Mother Maria was also able to gain entrance to a stadium where many Jews were being held. For three days, she sought to bring comfort, to care for children, and to distribute food. With the help of garbage men, she was also able to smuggle four children to safety in trash bins.
The story of Mother Maria's rescue of these children from the stadium has been vividly retold for children in the book Silent as a Stone: Mother Maria of Paris and the Trash Can Rescue, by Jim Forest and illustrated by Dasha Pancheshnaya, published by St. Vladimir's Seminary Press.
Mother Maria was arrested on February 10, 1943. After some time in transitional camps, she spent her final days at a camp in Ravensbrück, Germany. There she was a source of inspiration for many, leading theological discussions and remaining cheerful even as her health failed and she needed to be held up by other prisoners for roll calls.
On March 30, 1945, Holy Saturday, her life ended in the gas chambers. Before she died, she asked a fellow prisoner to memorize this message for her loved ones. “My state at present is such that I completely accept suffering in the knowledge that this is how things ought to be for me, and if I am to die, I see this as a blessing from on high.”