At the Last Judgment I will not be asked whether I satisfactorily practiced asceticism, nor how many bows I have made before the divine altar. I will be asked whether I fed the hungry, clothed the naked, visited the sick, and the prisoner in his jail. That is all I will be asked.1
Mother Maria Skobtsova did not live what one usually thinks of as the ideal monastic life of constant prayer in quiet solitude. Even after she was tonsured a nun she lived and was active "in the world." Her first marriage ended in divorce and she separated from her second husband in order to devote herself to Christian charity. At times she could be quarrelsome and strong-willed. Nevertheless, she put the good of others before her own. Her life, replete with mistakes and shortcomings, is one with which we can identify. As Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh writes of her, "Mother Maria is a saint of our day and for our day: a woman of flesh and blood possessed by the love of God, who stood fearlessly face to face with the problems of this century."2 In the face of great adversity and the threat of personal danger, she remained steadfast in her faith and in her devotion to helping those less fortunate. Although some of the details of her life are less than saintly, she was indeed a living example of the greatest love - to lay down one's life for one's friend (John 15:13).
Born Elisabeth Yuriseva Pilenko in 1891, in the small town of Anapa near the Black Sea, she counted among her many friends and acquaintances well-known writers, poets, and political thinkers, among them Alexei Tolstoy and Alexander Blok. Her philosophical discussions with some of the great thinkers of the day led her to a deeper interest in theology and she became the first woman to take courses at the Ecclesiastical Academy at the Alexander Nevsky Monastery. This early interest in social issues led her to become more and more involved in politics. Because of her close association with the Social Revolutionary Party (she even made a plan to assassinate Leo Trotsky), she was eventually forced to flee Russia, ending up in Paris by way of Georgia, Yugoslavia, and Turkey.
In Paris she lived in abject poverty, living on the money she made by selling trinkets. It was there that she was introduced to the Russian Student Christian Movement (RSCM) and became friends with the Russian intelligentsia emigres such as Serge Bulgakov and Nikolai Berdayev, with whom she discussed her favorite topics - politics, economics, and theology.
In 1932, after separating from her second husband, she was tonsured a nun and took the name Maria (Mary of Egypt). She quickly became friends with Father Lev Gillet, and worked together with him operating a community house in which they ran a soup kitchen, provided meeting space, and ministered to refugees, alcoholics, and tuberculin patients. Her decision to live a monastic life in the world was a conscious one - "I want to create a new form of nun life, a life in the world"3 - a decision that was supported enthusiastically by Metropolitan Evlogy who told her, "I would like you to be a revolutionary nun.4 The monastic life, for Mother Maria, had to be an active one. Because she firmly believed that the Church must take on the responsibility of social service, she helped to found a social service group called Orthodox Action.
Mother Maria continued to do what she could to ease the pain and suffering of those around her even under the extremely adverse conditions of the Occupation in Paris. Although the danger to her personal safety increased daily, she never stopped helping those who needed it most, including many Jews. As the persecution and imprisonment of the Jews in Paris grew, Mother Maria helped to smuggle in food to those already in the camps. Eventually, she became involved with the Jewish Resistance in Paris and began hiding Jews in her home.
Because she was so well known in Paris as a defender of the poor and persecuted, and because of her defiant attitude toward the Nazis, it was perhaps inevitable that Mother Maria herself was finally arrested and later imprisoned. Working alongside other inmates she endured great physical hardship that took its toll on her health, and eventually resulted in her death. Yet throughout it all, she remained steadfast, true to her calling, and uncompromising in her love for God and her fellow human beings.
Even though Mother Maria's decision to live and work in the world as a monastic was unusual, it was not a decision that was rooted in arrogance and self-will, but rather it was an answer to a unique call to serve actively in the world. As Metropolitan Anthony states,
The Spirit of Truth which dwelt in her led her to criticize sharply all that is deficient, all that is dead in Christianity and, particularly, in what she mistakenly conceived to be classical monasticism. Mistakenly, for what she was attacking was an empty shell, a petrified form. At the same time, with the perception of a seer, she saw the hidden, glorious content of the monastic life in the fulfillment of the gospel, in the realization of divine love, this she understood, this she lived for. This is also what she died for.5
May Mother Maria be an example for us, wherever we are, to answer our calling to serve God in whatever way we are asked. May we too be living witnesses to the good news.
A judgment will take place before my death.
I shall be judged, and mercilessly judged.
They'll take away my fine monastic garb, the sisters will upbraid me, enumerate my sins, appeal to law.
I shall be sentenced to be burned and thus shall be professed once more.
- Unfinished poem by Mother Maria