A couple years back Salon ran a story asking if millennials would become nuns. The implied answer was a big fat no. American nuns have been on a demographic slide since the sixties, and the remaining population skews senior.
But then earlier this month the New York Times featured a story about the surprising number of college-educated millennials seeking life in the cloister. It’s no groundswell, but it’s still encouraging. And I wonder what might be done to increase it further.
Few people in our culture of self-gratification can imagine a life of self-renunciation. We need models. And thankfully, Eric Metaxas’ newest, Seven Women, contains two monastic exemplars. One, Mother Teresa, is world famous. But the second, Mother Maria Skobtsova, is far less known. Hopefully, Metaxas’ compelling portrayal will help turn that around.
A very unlikely nun
For a nun, Maria’s story is more than a little unconventional. At Bishop Anthony Bloom’s first encounter with her, Maria sat at a cafe table with a beer. She was often seen shambling around the Paris market in her tattered habit, cigarette perched on her lip, haggling for deals. And she kept company with the lowest of the low.
That was her calling. Twice divorced, she knew the meaning of God’s mercy and desired only to share it with as many as she could muster. The number was not small.
Her backstory is the stuff of Russian novels. Born into a wealthy family in 1891, her father died when she was young, and the shock of the loss drove her to renounce her faith. Mixing with smart and fashionable of St. Petersburg, she published poetry, married a Bolshevik, and distressed over the state of the city’s beleaguered poor. But idealism couldn’t save her marriage, which ended in 1913.
The following year she moved to her family’s estate on the coast of the Black Sea with her daughter, Gaiana. Headstrong and independent, Maria was politically active and eventually became mayor of the town of Anapa as a single mom. She also rediscovered her faith, which informed her activism. “[T]he Christian,” she said, “is called to social work.”
The problem for Maria was that she was too conservative for the radicals and too radical for the conservatives. After the start of the Russian Revolution she found herself arrested and tried by the anti-Bolshevik party and only escaped conviction because of a kindly judge, Daniel Skobtsov. The two married within months of her acquittal.
With the Revolution in full swing, life in Anapa became impossible. The family fled, swelling in the sojourn. By the time they settled in Paris in 1923, Yuri and Anastasia had been born.
And now the obvious question: How did this wife of two men and mother of three children become a nun?
Not good, but revolutionary
It started when Anastasia succumbed to a wasting illness and died in 1926. The family, already strained, was devastated. Maria and Daniel separated and eventually divorced. But out of the devastation Maria’s calling to help the downtrodden was renewed.
Refugee life was terrible, especially for the Russians. Work was scarce. Despair and alcoholism was rampant. Maria saw herself as uniquely suited to help, to rescue, to comfort these victims and misfits. She would be, she said, “a mother to all.”
The proposed path was monasticism. Metaxas recounts the conversation with her bishop, Metropolitan Evlogy. “I could never be a good nun,” she protested. “I know,” he said. “But I want you to be a revolutionary nun.”
And so she was. There would be no convent for Maria. Her monastery, as she said, was “the whole world.” Several houses and a chapel were set up to shelter and serve those in need. Maria worked tirelessly, Gaiana and Yuri aiding the effort. In addition to painting icons and leading religious discussions, she cooked, counseled, and combed the streets looking for anyone she could help.
“[E]ach of us,” she wrote, “is faced with the demand to strain all our forces, not fearing the most difficult endeavor, in ascetic self-restraint, giving our souls for others sacrificially and lovingly, to follow in Christ’s footsteps to our appointed Golgotha.”
Maria’s appointment emerged as World War II began and the Nazis seized control of Paris. The only response was obvious.
A martyr for our own time
Maria and her associates began working with the French Resistance, hiding Jews, forging records and papers, anything to foul Nazi aims. She was brazen. “If the Germans come looking for the Jews,” she said, “I’ll show them the icon of the Mother of God.”
The Gestapo knew something was afoot, but it took time to foil the plot. When they finally did, the Nazis dragged Maria and her coconspirators—including her son Yuri—off to prison.
Metaxas paints a brief but moving account of her two-year confinement in the Ravensbrück concentration camp. She was, as he says, a beacon, bringing hope to people in utter despair. She led prayers and Bible study, fed people from stores she smuggled away, and radiated hope to any and all.
But while her hope was invincible, her body was not. The trauma of the camp took its toll and she became increasingly frail. “Though she was unable to stand for roll call,” writes Metaxas, “she traded some bread for thread so she could embroider one last icon.” It depicted Mary holding a crucified Christ. Before she could finish, she was taken to the gas chamber where she died on Great and Holy Saturday.
Her exemplary life has since been hymned and heralded. The Orthodox Church now venerates her as a saint, and Yad Vashem lists her among its Righteous Gentiles.
What shines through in Metaxas’ account is the striking relevance of Maria’s life to our own time. “Her life,” he writes, “was messy and complicated, as most of ours are messy and complicated.” Yet we find not only grace in her example but also the activism, inspiration, heroism, and hope-filled commitment so needed in our world today.
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.