I want to talk a little about a very modern woman who lived through revolution and occupation by enemies. She showed Christ throughout. Part of her attraction is that she is modern and lived in the West, but, apart from the fact she is a wonderful example, I cannot help thinking of her in a situation where our brothers and sisters are also facing danger in war, even if we call it an uprising. In difficulty and danger she followed Christ and did not give way to hate.
The basic back ground to the life of Mother Maria of Paris (St Mary as she is now) is as follows.
She was born in 1891 in Latvia - then Russian. Her father died when she was a teenager, and she was an atheist. In 1906 her mother moved the family to St Petersburg where she became involved in radical intellectual circles. In 1910 she married a Bolshevik. During this period she was actively involved in literary circles and wrote much poetry. By 1913 her marriage had ended. She moved with her daughter to Southern Russia and by this time was drawn back into Christianity. She was still active politically (and indeed considered assassinating of Trotsky). In 1918, after the Revolution she was deputy mayor and then mayor (after the white Russians arrived) of Anapa in Southern Russia. The White Army put her on trial for being a Bolshevik. However, the judge was a former teacher of hers, Daniel Skobtsov, and she was acquitted. Soon the two fell in love and were married.
Political changes forced them to flee with their family. Maria was pregnant with her second child at the time. Finally they arrived in Paris in 1923. She dedicated herself to theological studies and social work. In 1926, one daughter died of flu, her other was at boarding school and her son was with his father. Her son Yuri was later to rejoin her. However, her marriage was falling apart. She moved into central Paris to work directly with the needy.
Her bishop encouraged her to take vows as a nun, something she did only with the assurance that she would not have to live in a monastery, secluded from the world. In 1932, and with her husband’s permission, an ecclesiastical divorce was granted and she took monastic vows. She then kept open house for all who needed her, and a chaplain was appointed. She would buy cheap food or beg for it in the markets of Les Halles. Later the family was instrumental in helping and hiding Jews, and this was to lead to herself, Fr Dimitri her chaplain and her son being arrested and sent to a concentration camp.
She could (by all accounts) be headstrong and determined and she was adamant with her bishop that she was not going to be any sort of enclosed nun. That she was previously an atheist and had two failed marriages means she was hardly the sort of saint we sometimes read about who seems to have been full of grace from early childhood! Yet, she was clearly reconciled to Christ in repentance and benefited from obedience and confession within the Church. She did indeed achieve sanctity and it is widely reported that when she died in Ravensbruck she did so in place of another woman selected that day for the gas chamber. It was Holy Saturday 1945. She was formally recognised along with her son, chaplain and a good friend of hers, as a saint in 2004.
Now the theme of these homilies in Great Lent has been repentance, and sometimes we have seen major sins repented of. St Mary of Egypt is a prime example. Of St Mary of Paris. I quote: - “Her life, replete with mistakes and shortcomings, is one with which we can identify.” Atheism and failed marriages are not unusual aspects of the human condition. What Mother Maria showed is a determination to follow Christ and by His Grace she showed major repentance, a turning back to God, indeed a striving to follow Him as far as she could. There was no apparent compromise in what she did and what she was prepared to face once her life was centred on Christ. Just as when the Theotokos said “yes” to the Archangel and accepted what was to follow on from her decision, so St Mary of Paris was to accept what followed. She did not stop her study and intellectual life and it must have been a stimulating house to visit by all accounts. It was indeed a centre for discussion as well as for practical help. Theology and social work were linked as they should be.
Smuggling Jews and helping them shows that she understood very well the terrible situation under the German occupation of France, yet there is not a shred of evidence that she ever said anything against the German troops or even Hitler. She resisted evil of course but did not hate. Rather she seems to have shown love and tolerance to all. It was said of her in by someone who knew her in the camps that a former prisoner - “it was not submissiveness which gave [Mother Maria] strength to bear the suffering, but the integrity and wealth of her interior life.” It was her life in Christ, her spiritual strength that shone through.
I paraphrase St Mary now - Christ can strengthen us, in Him we can transcend the natural and no longer to be subject to law, even the law of nature. She understood the aim of theosis, of being transfigured by God. Of course she also recognised this means accepting the Cross, whatever it is we are called to bear - to follow Christ. “Christ freely, voluntarily took upon Himself the sins of the world, and raised them up on the cross, and thereby redeemed them and defeated hell and death. To accept the endeavour and the responsibility voluntarily, to freely crucify your sins – that is the meaning of the cross, when we speak of bearing it on our human paths. Freedom is the inseparable sister of responsibility. The cross is this freely accepted responsibility, clear-sighted and sober.”
There are some words of hers which sum up Christianity in action. It also sums up Great Lent, which is not just a period of abstaining from some foods but a preparation for service. They take us back to the Sunday of the Last Judgement. They take us also to the life we are called to live in the light of the resurrection.
“At the Last Judgement I will not be asked whether I satisfactorily practised 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.”
The saints are wonderful examples. Mother Maria has much to teach us, not least about serving Christ.