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A bridge between East and West

· ​Spirituality ·

“God writes straight on our crooked lines”, Élisabeth Behr-Sigel used to like saying. This sentence fully illustrates the path she took as an Orthodox woman theologian whose complex life, which spanned the entire 20th century, contributed to building a bridge between the Christian traditions of the East and of the West.

Born in Strasbourg in 1907 to an Alsatian Lutheran father and a Jewish mother from Bohemia, Élisabeth was baptized and brought up in the faith of her father. For the little girl who had grown up in the German culture, the reannexation of Alsace by France in 1918 constituted a first cultural and linguistic break, for she was suddenly plunged into a French-speaking world while she saw her young German friends expelled from the land in which they had grown up. From this childhood at the junction of two countries and two religions Élisabeth was to preserve her deep curiosity about all that was different, as well as her desire to have peoples enter into dialogue with one another.

As a teenager Élisabeth went to the camps of the Fédé (Federation of Christian Student Associations) where she met figures such as Suzanne de Dietrich and Pastor Marc Boegner, who reawakened her to the reality of faith in Christ. The young woman then decided to study theology, but since she was unable to enrol in the Protestant faculty of theology in Strasbourg which was reserved for men, she took a course of philosophical studies. In 1927 she was part of the first group of women admitted to sit on the benches at the theology courses. There she met several Russian Orthodox young women who had escaped from the Bolshevik revolution. It was under their influence that she discovered the theology of the Church of the East and of Orthodox thinkers, such as Chomjakov and his ideal of catholicity.

Thanks to a Fédé congress in Paris, Élisabeth had the opportunity to take part in an Orthodox Easter celebration at the Institut Saint-Serge. She was deeply impressed by it. The following year, in 1928, she decided to continue her theological studies in Paris to become better acquainted with that Church of the East which she found so deeply attractive. She thus had the opportunity to go regularly to the first Orthodox French-speaking parish, whose parish priest was Fr Lev Gillet, a former Benedictine monk who had been through Uniatism and had chosen to join the Orthodox Church. Fr Lev, of Western extraction, was the right person to enable the young woman to discover the Eastern aspect of Christianity. Following his example, in 1931 Élisabeth decided to enter the communion of the Orthodox Church.

However, this decision to join a Church in which to discern her personal journey towards Christ was not accompanied by a rejection of the denomination of her origins. While throughout her life she continued to deepen her knowledge of the Orthodox tradition, the future theologian set herself to making the riches of the Eastern Church accessible to a Western public. Far from any form of proselytism, the aim of this approach was to contribute to re-establishing dialogue between the two poles of Christianity whose historical divisions have often been the result of a lack of mutual understanding due to different cultural and linguistic horizons. Moral rectitude combined with great intellectual rigour was to enable Élisabeth to carry on a demanding dialogue alien to any simplification or doctrinal compromise and which did not fear to go to the heart of delicate problems in the search for paths of reconciliation.

In 1931, shortly after her adherence to the Orthodox Church, Élisabeth went to Berlin to undertake her university research on the different types of Russian holiness. There she witnessed the rise of Nazism and the growing enmity between two peoples to which she felt she belonged in equal measure.

Élisabeth Behr-Sigel

On her return from Germany in 1932, Élisabeth did not fear to respond to the call of a small Protestant parish in the Vosges which had long been without a pastor. Aware of her own specific confessional position, the young woman did not administer the sacraments and limited herself to the tasks with which – in the context of great spiritual poverty – she knew she was invested through the royal priesthood conferred upon her by Baptism. This unique experience ended in 1932 when she married André Behr, a Russian immigrant chemist whom she had met in Strasbourg.

Élisabeth settled with her husband in Nancy where she was to remain for more than 35 years. There she divided herself between looking after her family – she had three children – and teaching German and later philosophy, the activity with which she earned her living, in addition to her theological research. As a theologian she animated a small ecumenical group made up of some of her neighbours. During the Second World War this group became a hotbed of spiritual resistance and supported the clandestine activities of each one of its members (the Behrs concealed a little Jewish girl. For Élisabeth the war years were a period of intense living, as she testifies in the diaries she kept during this period which show how Christ’s presence was a real support in her trials.

After the war, and parallel to her teaching, Élisabeth began a doctoral thesis centred on the figure of the 19th-century Russian theologian, Alexander Bukharev. This monk, who returned to living in the world after opposing his hierarchy, championed an urgent dialogue between the Church and contemporary society, an urgency, however, which the ecclesial authorities of that time failed to understand.

Sensitive, like Bukharev, to the need to actualize the Gospel message so that it might be proclaimed and understood here and now, Élisabeth committed herself to various projects which aimed to inculturate in Western Europe the Orthodox faith introduced by the various waves of immigrants. In 1958 she took part in the refoundation of Contacts, the principal journal in French of Orthodox theology and spirituality. In the 1970s she was also one of the promoters of the Orthodox Brotherhood in Western Europe. This was a body which strove to bring Orthodox of every ethnic origin together in order to reduce the cultural gaps associated with the various waves of immigrants so that they might all become aware that they belonged to a single Church. In this spirit the Brotherhood organized great pan-Orthodox congresses to ensure that people could meet one another.

It was only in 1968, now retired, that Élisabeth Behr-Sigel could fully devote herself to her favourite field which was theology. Having moved to the Paris region after her husband’s death, she multiplied her articles and lectures in both Orthodox and ecumenical spheres. At the meetings of the World Council of Churches, at the Institut supérieur d’études oecuméniques, of which she was Vice-President for more than a decade, everywhere she contributed to advancing theological reflection in order to encourage the encounter between Christians of different traditions. She likewise continued to combine the intellectual level with the daily implementation of the Gospel message, at the heart of her parish and in her environment, in tune with the Orthodox of different origins and Christians of other denominations.

Élisabeth also contributed to making known the great figures of the theological school of Paris, such as Fr Serge Bulgakov, Paul Evdokimov and also Fr Lev Gillet, figures whom she had known in her youth. She was particularly committed to reviving the memory of Mother Maria Skobstova, a Russian woman religious who had founded a centre in Paris in the 1930s which took in the poorest people. Mother Skobstova died in the gas chambers of Ravensbrück in 1945 for having saved Jews, and was canonized in 2004, becoming St Maria [Marie] of Paris.

Particularly sensitive to the subject of the role played by lay people in the Church, and more specifically by women, Élisabeth Behr-Sigel questioned herself on the way in which each person can exercise his or her charism in the community. She also took up the challenge of questioning herself on the possibility of the ordination of women in the Orthodox Church. Here Élisabeth opened a new field of theological reflection which was to make it possible to change mentalities in this sphere and to recover the original meaning of the notion of priesthood. Most of her published works were to focus on this theme.

It was in the twilight of a full life, on her return from a series of lectures in Great Britain, that at the age of 98 this theologian fell asleep into eternal repose. In addition to numerous intellectual heirs of various nationalities, their diversity resembling her own, she left us the image of a woman in love with the Good News of the Gospel who was not afraid to tackle the most sensitive theological issues, such as ecumenical dialogue and the ordination of women, in order to propose daring responses which were nevertheless fully part of the Church’s tradition. 

Olga Lossky

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