The Love of God and Neighbor: The Life of Saint Maria Skobtsova— Connecting Liturgy and Ethics

This past Saturday I attended a premier of a documentary film of the life and work of Mother (now, Saint) Maria Skobtsova. She was martyred at the Ravenbrück concentration camp during World War II and is now recognized as a saint in the Orthodox Church along with other “outstanding personalities of the spiritual history of the Russian émigration in France” (Act of Canonization) for her witness to the faith.[1] For her, the essence of the faith was the love of God and neighbor. The film used her life, work, and her emphasis on the connection between liturgy and ethics as a foundation for introducing the story of three, present-day women and the impact that Mother Maria has had on their own lives and ministry… This past Saturday I also watched the real-time coverage of others who died for their faith. In this case, they died at a synagogue in a Jewish neighborhood of Pittsburgh by the hands of a lone gunman who targeted Jewish people particularly. As the growing divisions and anxiety within our society continue to amplify our fear of the other, we may ask the same question of Jesus as the scholar in Luke (10:29), “Who is my neighbor?” Perhaps, we can learn something from Mother Maria’s example.

We know little of the actual life of many of the saints of the Church. In most cases we rely on hagiographic forms that can often be reduced to caricatures. But with Saint Maria Skobtsova we have an embodied personality—an intellectual, a divorced woman, a political revolutionary, and towards the latter part of her life, a nun. She was a woman who could be frank, outspoken, strong willed and even sometimes, quarrelsome. She was a monastic who defied conventional norms, among other things, smoking in public! She was someone who was shaped by the events of the 20th century—two world wars, forced emigration from her Russian homeland, and abject poverty—and who would subsequently lead a life of prayer, but one in the world, dedicated to helping others. Her code of practice was based on the recognition of the dignity of all people created in the ‘image and likeness’ of God. We are all called to venerate the image of God in our neighbor. For her, it was essential to put oneself in their place. This understanding of what is means to love God and neighbor would form the basis for her life and ministry.

Mother Maria (Elizaveta Yurievna Pilenko) was born in 1891 in the small town of Anapa near the Black Sea. As the child of the landed gentry, she had a university education and became part of the cultural élite of St. Petersburg. She counted among her many friends and acquaintances well-known writers, poets, and political thinkers at the time. They would spend hours discussing politics, economics, and theology. As a result of these interactions, her interest in theology deepened and she became the first woman to take courses at the Ecclesiastical Academy at the Alexander Nevsky Monastery. She married young, had a daughter, Gaiana, but soon divorced. She subsequently remarried and had a son, Iura, who was to work with her throughout her life as well as a daughter, Nastia.

Forced to emigrate from her homeland amid revolution and war, she (as did many other Russians) made her way to Paris. It was here that her life would radically change. Like many recent immigrants, she lived in poverty. She could no longer afford to lead a life of ideas. She had to survive in this new milieu. Many around her succumbed to the harshness of their new life, either by disease or resorting to alcohol and drugs to cope with their new surroundings. Her youngest child succumbed to the former. The death of Nastia affected her greatly. She would later write that there are two kinds of mourners, one for who time heals or dulls the pain and the other who sees the tragedy as a visitation from God. For her, it was the latter.

Before the war (WWI), her life was filled with poetry, fiction, and political, social, and theological questions. Although she was to continue to write and discuss and debate social issues and theology, her life after the war was spent in action. Her work with the Russian Student Christian Movement put her into contact with many of the impoverished outcasts of the Russian emigration. It was from this contact that she lived out her theology. In serving others, she would strive to balance care, sobriety and love, meeting the spiritual as well as the physical needs of those in her care. Her model was the early monastics of the Church.

But could monasticism be a framework for her life? She was convinced that a new type of monasticism was necessary for the émigration, with a concern for the world as its focus. For her, the ethical imperative of the liturgy demanded that it be carried into the world. She called it the “liturgy beyond church bounds” (Pearl of Great Price, p. 42).

Her base of operations was the House at Rue de Lourmel. It was here that she provided a fixed address for those needing one to qualify for governmental assistance; cooked and served dinners to the many hungry, being mindful not to just give out charity but to empower them as much as possible; and provided counseling to those in need. In addition, it was the site of much discussion and debate about theology and the issues of the day. Furthermore, because she believed that the Church must take on the responsibility of social service, she helped to found a group apart from the Russian Student Christian Movement dedicated to doing so called Orthodox Action. (All of this might remind us of the work of Dorothy Day.)

All were worthy of her efforts—all were her “neighbors”— not just those of the Russian émigration. In the years leading up to World War II and after the occupation of France, her philanthropy extended to the many Jews in need of assistance as well. In addition to helping to feed those needing food, she also was an active member of the resistance movement, smuggling Jews to safe locations and in some cases, facilitating the falsification of baptismal certificates. Describing her work during this time she said, “If we were true Christians we would all wear the Star…” (Pearl of Great Price, p. 113). However, it was because of this work that she was arrested and eventually sent to Ravensbrück concentration camp.

In many ways, her life in the camp was no different from her life outside the camp. She still led prayer services, discussed theology, gathered food for others, attended to their other physical needs as well as provided spiritual and emotional support. She devoted her life to the other. Eventually, she laid down her life totally for the other, consciously stepping into the crowd of those selected for “extermination” at the camp thus taking the place of someone else. She was taken to the gas chamber on 31 March 1945 (the eve of Easter Sunday and as WWII was ending in Europe).

Mother Maria sought to connect the liturgy of the church with the liturgy of our lives. For her, all people were her neighbor. She not only sought to connect the love of God and neighbor, but following the commandment of Jesus to his disciples—“to love one another as I have loved you” (Jn. 13:34), laid down her life for her neighbor.

May we have the courage to follow her example in life and, if necessary, in death.


[1] They were canonized by the Ecumenical Patriarchate on 16 Jan 2004.

(Iconographer: Janet Peters)

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