When choosing a patron saint or when you are adopted by one, you may not know in all the ways they will be a support to you throughout your earthly journey. This certainly has become the case with my ‘second name saint’, Mother Maria Skobtsova. I first heard of her during my time as a catechumen as she was recently canonized in 2004 and her writings were being published online. The turbulent historical period surrounding her life in Russia and France, her work with the poor Russian diaspora in Paris, her bravery in aiding the underground network to smuggle out Jewish refugees, her writings about the faith, all of these actions drew me to her as a saint who would understand my motivations in life. What I did not expect was how I would share in her personal suffering.
I am divorced.
When I joined the Orthodox faith, I joined as a wife with a husband who also wished to live the Christian life. Then, three years ago, he suddenly chose to leave everything: the faith and our marriage. As my friends, both in daily life and through social media can attest, I have been very careful to not discuss the details surrounding his choices. This is still a living person for whom I pray out of obedience and with the hope he may come to repentance. I do not hope for a reconciliation, only that he may not be harmed in whatever I may do or say. Any more discussion about the circumstances is uncharitable.
Liza Pilenko was born and raised as an Orthodox Christian, but the young woman was attracted towards Bolshevism and atheism in her teens. She spent most of her time with young visionaries, artists, and political malcontents of early 1900’s St. Petersburg. At age 18, she married Dimitri Kuzmin-Karaviev, a member of Social Democrat Party. She wrote poetry and taught at a factory. After three years of marriage and while pregnant with her first child, Dimitri left her. Liza returned to her family home where she lived during WWI and the Russian civil war. Her interest in Christianity renewed at this time and as the dark clouds of war and unrest closed in she knew that, “God is over all!”
Her second marriage to Daniel Skobstov came about in a dramatic fashion. Liza became the acting mayor of Anapa when the town’s Bolshevik mayor fled when the White Army took control of the region. The Army thought she was a Red, though she spoke in her defense that she had no political allegiance other than, “I will act for justice and for the relief of the suffering. I will try to love my neighbor!” Daniel was her judge that day. He spared her execution. Liza returned to thank him. After several days, the two got married.
The family fled Russia, eventually finding refuge in Paris in 1923. Liza joined the activities of the Russian Student Christian Movement and sought out ways to serve her neighbors. A major turning point in Liza’s life was when their young daughter, Nastia, died from the complications of influenza in 1926. Liza turned to her faith in God more deeply. She saw her motherhood expanding, even as her older children sought education away from home. Her work with the Russian refugee community grew; she rolled up her sleeves and earned their trust through practical service. Liza also published a collection of lives of the saints. Daniel and Liza separated, with her moving into rooms with the workers. She desired to dedicate herself towards building a new monastic vocation in the poor districts of Paris. It was only when Metropolitan Eulogy visited Daniel, that he consented to an ecclesiastical divorce. Liza became Mother Maria.
The double edged sword that modern saints bear as their witness is having more details recorded about their lives. On the one side, this helps us who bear their names, feel more kinship with them because of all the aspects of their personalities which shine through the anecdotes. Mother Maria was known for enjoying cigarettes and a stout glass of beer in street side cafes. She spoke as an equal with the mongers in the markets where she begged food in Paris. Her directness, her unqualified charity and hospitality, her command in doing what was right no matter the cost, all endear her to those who are only a generation away. I could very well ring a bell at her doorstep and know she would welcome me with open arms.
The other side of the sword, however, is using these anecdotes to become too comfortable with a saint in their fallen humanity. The spiritually immature may think, “This saint had these foibles or propensity towards sin, therefore, I am excused in the same behavior and I will turn out alright.” We can see a person living with a malady and not see the suffering involved with a cure or the management thereof. Someone may walk with a limp as an adult, but they began life unable to crawl or stand. Years of pain, rehabilitation, and even surgeries can bring about the ‘miraculous’ in our physical bodies. This is no less true in our souls.
Is it better to know less about a saint’s life than more? Like the seed of the Gospel, it depends on the hearer, whether a few sentences or a whole book is profitable. The example of Mother Maria, with her struggles through war and upheaval, the death of a child, and the ending of two marriages, that the greater the challenges in life, the greater the response in living out holiness in the world. God forbid we should face the same sorts of calamity and evil as was visited upon the Russian and European peoples in the 20th century! Even so – in the face of dread darkness – the light of one nun who refused to turn away her neighbor in need and to spare another’s life with the payment of her own is worthy of all the words written by her and about her. The words we write about the saints are our gift of eternal memory, whether many or few, to their faithfulness in Christ.
Troparion (Tone 4)
You became a bride of Christ, O venerable Mother,
And offered your body and soul to Him as a living sacrifice.
You exposed the evil side of humanity’s ways
By allowing the light of the Resurrection to shine forth from you.
We celebrate your memory in love.
O Martyr and Confessor Maria
Pray to Christ our God that He may save our souls.
Kontakion (Tone 6)
You became an instrument of divine love, O holy martyr Maria,
And taught us to love Christ with all our being.
You conquered evil by not submitting yourself into the hands of the destroyer of souls.
You drank from the cup of suffering.
The Creator accepted your death above any other sacrifice
And crowned you with the laurels of victory with His mighty hand.
Pray fervently that nothing may hinder us from fulfilling God’s will
Because you are a bright star shining in darkness!