“Night” is a book by Elie Wiesel about his experience in the German concentration camps. “One day,” writes Wiesel, “as we returned from work, we saw three gallows… The SS [guards] seemed more preoccupied, more worried, than usual. To hang a child in front of thousands of onlookers was not a small matter. The head of the camp read the verdict. All eyes were on the child. He was pale, almost calm, but he was biting his lips as he stood in the shadow of the gallows… ‘Where is merciful God, where is He?’ someone behind me was asking. At the signal, the three chairs were tipped over… Then came the march past the victims. The two men were no longer alive… The child, too light, was still breathing… And so he remained for more than half an hour, lingering between life and death… Behind me, I heard the same man asking: ‘For God’s sake, where is God?’ And from within me, I heard a voice answer; ‘Where is He? This is where – hanging here from this gallows…’”
Where is God when a child is shot in Newtown or hung in Auschwitz or killed in an American drone air strike or for that matter dies of cancer? I don’t know. There is no answer.
Talk of God giving humans free will and thus allowing us to face the consequences of our choices solves nothing. If the creator could intervene personally when it came to the magic tricks in the Bible like making the sun stand still for a day in a battle, he could have done something about that child gasping out his young life. He didn’t. Theology that tries to paper this horrible fact over with explanations about why there is evil is nothing but nervous blather.
But I take comfort in the fact that sometimes a person of immense courage follows Christ to a cross. Such acts point to a God that had the empathy to share our fate. Sometimes one person’s example gives me hope that following Christ might be the path that leads us out of the hell we’ve made, even if I’ll never know why we’re here in the first place, let alone why God didn’t just make things simpler, better, faster rather than taking the slow path of gradual ethical evolution.
Mother Maria’s life makes her someone for me to look to for guidance as to how to redeem the irredeemable. “Mother Maria of Paris is a saint of our day and for our day; a woman of flesh and blood possessed by the love of God.” So wrote British intellectual and Orthodox bishop Harold Bloom. Born to a prominent Russian Orthodox family, Mother Maria (then known as Elizaveta Pilenko), renounced her religious beliefs at age fourteen when her father died. She later became a committed atheist and Bolshevik. In 1910 she married and was actively involved in literary and revolutionary circles. By 1913 her marriage ended in a divorce. When the anti-communist White Army took control of the town she was in they put her on trial as a communist. The judge was a former teacher of hers and Mother Maria was acquitted. The two fell in love and were married. Mother Maria and her husband fled Soviet Russia and arrived in Paris in 1923. By then Mother Maria was involved in both theological studies and carrying on social work amongst impoverished Russian exiles. Her second marriage also dissolved.
Mother Maria began her journey back to Christianity because, as she would later explain, “Christ also died. He sweated blood. They struck his face.” After getting to Paris, her Orthodox bishop – aware of her work on behalf of the poor and her failed marriages — encouraged her to take vows as a nun, something she did only with the bishop’s promise that she would not have to live in a monastery. In 1932, Mother Maria took the monastic Christian name Maria and made her rented house in Paris into a place that became a hybrid of commune/homeless shelter/intellectual/theological salon and a food pantry rolled into one. As Jerry Ryan wrote (in a review of Mother Maria Skobtsova: Essential Writings), “Many were scandalized by Mother Maria. This woman had been twice divorced, had an illegitimate child by another man, had leftist political sympathies and was an eccentric. At her becoming a nun she took the name of Maria in memory of St. Mary of Egypt, a prostitute who became an extreme crazed ascetic.” Mother Maria continued to scandalize. Her habit was filthy with grease from the kitchen and paint from her workshop. She would hang out at bars and had no patience with long Orthodox liturgies, and found strict ascetic fasts impossible to keep.
As Olivier Clement writes in the preface to Mother Maria Skobtsova: Essential Writings, “If we love and venerate Mother Maria it is not in spite of her disorder, her strange views and her passion. It is precisely these qualities that make her so extraordinarily alive among so many bland and pious saints. Unattractive and dirty, strong, thick and sturdy, yes, she was truly alive in her suffering, her compassion, her passion.”
Mother Maria wrote, “In our time Christ and the life-giving Holy Spirit demand the whole person. The only difference from state mobilization is that the state enforces mobilization [to care for people], while our faith waits for volunteers. And, in my view, the destiny of mankind depends on whether these volunteers exist and, if they do, how great their energy is, how ready they are for sacrifice.”
Mother Maria dismissed people like me who are preoccupied with our spiritual life and so-called personal relationship with God. She said that my sort of spiritual narcissism must be abandoned if one truly loves. Christian egocentrism is a contradiction in terms, she said. In her essay called “Types of Religious Life” Mother Maria denounced the church’s institutional structures, rituals, even esthetic beauties, as dead ends. Mother Maria also dismissed “trends of social Christianity … based on a certain rationalistic humanism [that] apply only the principles of Christian morality to ‘this world’ and do not seek a spiritual and mystical basis for their constructions.”
After the fall of France to the Germans, when the order from the Germans and the collaborationist Vichy French government requiring Jews to wear the yellow star was published, Mother Maria wrote this poem entitled “Israel.”
Two triangles, a star,
The shield of King David, our forefather.
This is election, not offense.
The great path and not an evil.
Once more in a term fulfilled,
Once more roars the trumpet of the end;
And the fate of a great people
Once more is by the prophet proclaimed.
Thou art persecuted again, O Israel,
But what can human malice mean to thee,
who have heard the thunder from Sinai?
The children’s book, Silent as a Stone, St. Maria of Paris and the Trash Can Rescue, tells the story of Mother Maria’s rescue of Jewish children. Her home was near the cycling stadium of Vélodrome d’Hiver where the Jews were held on their way to deportation. The book is based on firsthand accounts of what Mother Maria was able to accomplish during her visits to that stadium in the terrifying days of June 1942. As those who had been rounded up awaited transport to the camps, Mother Maria used her status as a nun to bring food to those waiting for transport and then smuggled some of their children out of the stadium in trashcans. This was taking place while Mother Maria continued to help the Jews who managed to come to her house to escape.
On February 8, 1943 the Germans “pounced” at last. They arrested Mother Maria, her son Yuri, her priest Father Dmitri, and their helper, Elia Fondaminski. Father Dmitri was interrogated by Hans Hoffman, a Gestapo officer. A portion of the interrogation has been preserved, as transcribed by the ever meticulous Nazis.
Hoffman: “If we release you, will you give your word never again to aid Jews?”
Father Dimitri: “I can do no such thing. I am a Christian and must act as I must.”
(Hoffman struck the priest across the face.)
Hoffman: “Jew lover! How dare you talk of helping those swine as being a Christian duty?”
Father Dimitri: (holding up the crucifix from his cassock): “Do you know this Jew?”
Mother Maria was sent to the Ravensbrück concentration camp. Prisoners who survived have shared some of their memories of their time with her: “She exercised an enormous influence on us all,” wrote one survivor after the war, “No matter what our nationality, age, political convictions — this had no significance whatever. Mother Maria was adored by all. The younger prisoners gained particularly from her concern. She took us under her wing. We were cut off from our families, and somehow she provided us with a family.”
On Easter Saturday, 1945, Mother Maria took the place of a terrified woman who was about to be sent to the gas chamber. She died in her place. Another account makes no mention of Mother Maria taking anyone’s place that day. Either way she was sent into the gas chamber. Irrespective of what happened in those final moments Mother Maria was a martyr who died because she had saved others.
Christ’s suffering cuts a door in the wall of our mortal prison. Those who emulate Christ’s compassion to the point of death point us past death to life. Just because we can’t explain the mystery of our joy in the midst of such a short mortal life doesn’t mean that joy is an illusion. I say the Nicaean creed in our Orthodox church. I say the words “I believe” this and that. I say these words in good conscience because saying I believe is not the same as saying I know. I don’t. Words fall short. I don’t know what words such as “Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father” mean. Then again I don’t know what the words “I love you Genie” mean either when I tell my wife of 43 years together the truth. I say those words with all sincerity but also in ignorance of their ultimate truth. Those words too are only metaphors for something that is indescribable. What I know is that I have seen Genie forgive me. What I know is that my heart beats faster when we’re making love and I look into the mystery of Genie’s face that’s literally ever young to me. Logic tells me that my wife is actually sixty. How can both facts, Genie being ever young to me yet also aging both be true?
The point isn’t what does the actual historic Genie Schaeffer really look like at any one point in her life but the deeper meaning of the power of love and how it transforms her in the eyes of her lover. The truth about how I see Genie is as real as any scientific measurements a dermatologist might take while preparing to do fractional resurfacing to lessen the effects of sun damage. Both truths – the dermatologists’ and mine — are equally real. Genie is actually ever young to me. She’s also actually sixty. The dermatologist has his science to prove a point about the aging of Genie’s skin. I have the truth of a forty-three year love affair to offer her as an equally valid fact.
Certain expressions of beauty seem to have prophetically pre-existed their creators just as love seems to pre-exist consciousness. It’s as impossible for me to imagine a world without my wife Genie’s love or without the music of Bach, Mozart or Duke Ellington as it is to picture life evolving without water. It’s as impossible for me to imagine that life would be worth living if it were not for the example of mother Maria and people like her. What we’re all waiting for in this sick irony bound society of ours is an expression of spiritual value that fits with evolutions’ key directive: become conscious and use that consciousness to embrace meaning, truth, beauty, love and goodness.
When we lose hope we’re seeing everything, as it were, from the “dermatologist’s” point of view and not through the eyes of love. Christ’s death and resurrection – however we interpret those words – is a means of freeing us from the anguish over our eternal survival. Our desire for some sort of guarantee of eternal life and fundamentalist “descriptions” of heaven are self-defeating. It is putting faith in our imagination rather than in God’s. This is the same mistake we make looking to physical and literal remedies to stop the aging process. If Genie was fixated on the literal aging process, she’d be more in the grip of mortality than ever, not less. The best and truest remedy is found in my eyes not in a dermatologist’s science. The best hope for eternal life is not theology but the love we feel for others. Our hope is that love predates creation and thus that our God sees us as ever young.
Join me and many others at the Wild Goose Festival this August!