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Mother Maria’s path through the waters

· ​Artists ·

There are two ways: one way you tread on dry land. You do what is right and reasonable. You measure, you ponder, you consider. However, the other way crosses the waters. You can neither assess nor judge. You must only believe without stopping. An instant would suffice for you to sink.

Nikolai Berdyaev described Mother Maria as “one of the 20th century’s most extraordinary women”. She was a painter, a poet, a revolutionary and an exile, a mother and a nun, a witness of Christ until her death in the concentration camp of Ravensbrück on 31 March 1945. With regard to Mother (mat’) Marija (Skobtsova), [Mother Maria Skobtsova], born Elizaveta Pilenko on 8 December 1891, we know – above all and rightly so – of her intellectual and ecclesial dedication in the Orthodox diaspora, of her unusual monastic parable, and of the way she saved Jewish children during the Nazi occupation.

“Angels playing the trumpet”

Yet in Mother Maria her religious as well as her poetic and artistic vocations, inextricably intertwined, were mirror images – from the top to the bottom – of one and the same life, almost as if it were a walking on water….

In St Petersburg Elizaveta frequented the troubled milieu of the intelligencija [intelligentsia] in the Silver Age, she developed a passion for revolutionary ideals and felt “completely atheist”, and she painted and wrote poetry (her first volume of poems, Schegge scite, was published in 1912). While she was in middle school she made friends with the great Alexander Blok who dedicated several poems to her:

“When you are on my way, / so vital, so beautiful, / so tormented, / speaking only of sad things / thinking of death, / loving no one / and scornful of your own beauty / … / I dare think anyway that you are only fifteen”.

She married the writer Dimitry Kuz’min Karavayev (1885-1959), she painted and exhibited her paintings alongside prestigious names (Mikhail Larionov, Natalia Goncharova, Olga Rozanova). Very few works from those years have survived; they include a collection of water-colours rediscovered in 1980 that are suspended between symbolism and the avant-garde: King David, The Temple Interior, The Meeting of Anne and Elizabeth, the Shepherd....

At the outbreak of the Great War her first marriage failed. “Necessity made me leap upwards”, Elizaveta writes in her poem Ruth:(1916). “Through a will unknown to me I went back downwards. As a pilgrim I move towards the sunrise. The mystery that attracted me from on high has been revealed to me: ‘unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. I have ceased to see in order to feel by touch, not to measure the road with reason alone, but to follow it slowly and with love”.

A Cossack official, Daniel Skobtsov, who had fallen in love with her, helped her to emigrate and became her second husband. The death of their youngest daughter, Anastasia, in 1926 marked a profound crisis which was to lead her to live separately from her husband by mutual consent and to wear a monastic habit.

She continued to write essays, poetry and plays. She travelled through France to help the most deprived Russian immigrants. We find an echo of this in her collection Poems, which came out in 1937 in Berlin. A copy of it, found among Daniel Skobtsov’s letters in the 1980s, contains the artist’s own drawings in the margins.

At their feet I throw life / It burns others’ suffering. / They drink the chaff with water / And bitter is the honey of their work. / One man is dying on his hospital bed / Another on his bench drains himself / Of the burden of the year’s memories. / Sadness and oppression with no way out. / Work and ever more effort. / No one on earth will show / the broad way to heaven. / Thoughtless offspring, where are you running to? / To the factories, to the worksites, and then? / Listen, in heaven the weapons are clashing / There are wings there, spears and thunder. / Not here on earth among us. /No, the war of living did not arise here. / The flaming Prince of the Heavenly Militia [Archangel Michael] shines with fire before the hosts.

“There are solitary ways which do not intersect with other ways”, Mother Maria wrote in those years. “And there are ways that exist as if they conditioned each other’s existence. One of these ways is the way of the earth... And through weariness, sweat, blindness and piety the earth is holy”. At a time which had seen the sudden collapse of the thousand-years old Russian Christianity under the breaking waves of the Revolution and which in the West had experienced the spread of Nazi totalitarianism, the faith too was called to live radically in this world. In this extreme experience, the Gospel word is purified, it enables us to 


discover depths not yet understood in radical fidelity to the earth, in burning proximity to the man who has denied God:

There milk and honey flowed / And juicy must in the vats / But here, fall and flight, / Snow in the fields and fire in the veins. / I was given a blessed lot / Delirious in rent garments. O Russia, O most wretched Canaan, / I shall not leave an inch of earth. / I lie in ashes and with my forehead on the ground. / I grow in your arid clay. / A handful of crushed stone, a clump of dust / kneaded with me into a single flesh.

In a poem of her last years, Mother Maria speaks of two ways: one crosses the dry land, the safe road of what is “right and reasonable”, the road of morality and customs. But in a time when every foundation of human coexistence is teetering, in which beneath human ideologies and ideals the infernal abysses of the mystery of evil gape open to wreak their work on history, this road leads nowhere. It is necessary to take another road, which the pure gaze of poetry glimpses when it speaks the impossible words of love. It is a way that “crosses the waters”, ploughs through the sea in the tempest of history, where henceforth human reason has no more resources to guide our footsteps, when “you can neither assess nor foresee”: this is the way of faith, of the entrustment to love and to nothing else.

Adalberto Mainardi




St. Peter’s Square

Feb. 19, 2020