I began this poem on my 30th birthday this year, and finished it while in Assisi several months later. Since then I’ve returned to it often as a touchstone, a reorientation point, and I felt it would be appropriate to share now as we pass ”the still point of the turning world” (T.S. Eliot) and head into a new year.
May it be a year of journeys, and a year of returnings. May it be a year your soul ripens and expands into new and beautiful wings.
She is stirring a pot of lentils over the makeshift fire, sun setting through the barbed wire fence behind her. He mends a broken tent, evidence of the last police raid.
How many months? she is asked over and over by those who seek her shelter.
In this no mans land, the child is her talisman: proof that past and future are connected by some thin, elastic thread she need not understand. She accepts their place in the trailing wilderness of happenings. The stars leap out of the dark.
Before she sleeps, she will turn her face eastward, making the sign of the cross with her whole body, child rising and falling with her in these simple movements. Her eyes, a vessel of knowledge and fortitude. Her face to the exact spot where, by morning, the Day will break in the coming of a new light.
This design has been a labor of love for a place and a people I care for deeply. Whether or not you buy the Maria, I hope you’ll consider any gift that supports those searching for safety this holiday season.
PS: If you’re like me and you need some ideas of how to creatively style a square scarf, may I suggest this blog post, or this one?
“Our relations with people should be an authentic and profound veneration.”
In 1937, a woman was living in Paris at 77 Rue Lourmel. Her name was Elizabeth Pilenko, but after professing monastic vows only a few years earlier, she had received the name Mother Maria. Eventually, she would be known as “Maria (or Marie) of Paris”.
Mother Maria had been forced to flee Russia with her family during the Revolution, and was one of the many Russian immigrants trying to make a new life in France. She saw the widespread poverty and despair among other Russian immigrants, and soon after professing monastic vows, she rented her first home to offer as a place of hospitality.
Soon other homes followed, some for men, some for families, some for elderly women. But the hub of religious and social activity remained 77 Rue Lourmel in Paris. Here over 120 meals were served daily, and several dozen guests lived at any given time. Religious services and regular prayer times were held in a converted chapel, and weekly philosophy and theology discussions were held in the evenings.
“If our approach to the world is correct and spiritual, we will not have only to give to it from our spiritual poverty, but we will receive infinitely more from the face of Christ that lives in it, from our communion with Christ, from the consciousness of being part of God’s body,” Mother Maria wrote. And: “I would say that we should not give away a single piece of bread unless the recipient means something as a person for us.”
Ben and I were first introduced to Mother Maria about two years ago, and were deeply imprinted by her life and witness. She combined an uncompromising commitment to active service with a incredibly thoughtful mind. Not only did she spend hours doing the menial tasks required for the homes, but she spent time writing articles and poetry, creating religious art, and participating in theological and philosophical discussion groups. She was committed to the dignity of all people, and retained a sense of joy and creativity even in the midst of much suffering. Eventually, she was sent to Ravensbruk for aiding Jews and died there in the gas chambers. But even there, before her death, she continued organizing discussion groups, creating art, and giving away her rations to those who were more in need.
“The way to God lies through love of people,” Mother Maria wrote. “Our neighbor’s cross should be a a sword that pierces our soul…this is the measure of love; this is the limit to which the human soul should aspire to.”
“However hard I try, I find it impossible to construct anything greater than these three words, ‘Love one another’ —only to the end, and without exceptions: then all is justified and life is illumined, whereas otherwise it is an abomination and a burden.”
We are constantly challenged by her words, and yet her words and life have also been a beacon for us. So last weekend we took the opportunity of a few days off to make a pilgrimage to 77 Rue Lourmel. We had heard that a small street built nearby had recently been named after her, and it felt important for us to spend a few minutes in this place where she gave so much of her life and energy.
The original house of hospitality on Rue Lourmel is no longer there. As you can see, in its place is a tall apartment building with shops on the bottom floor. But as we arrived, we were surprised to see a plaque by the apartment’s entrance, commemorating her work and the lives of those who worked alongside her.
From a spur-of-the-moment desire to bring some kind of gift, something beautiful we could offer, we had brought along a bunch of lilac roses. We sat for a few minutes in front of her home in prayer, then left a few there below the plaque. Then we continued around the corner, onto the small street recently named Rue Mere Marie Skobtsov.
Here there was a larger sign, explaining the identity of the woman for whom this street was named. This quiet street was full of trees and natural beauty, and home to a retirement community — which seemed very fitting. In a certain sense, it is still a place of hospitality, dignity, and welcome.
As we sat there again in prayer, I felt charged with life and excitement for the months ahead. I sensed a glimmer of the joy written on her face in one of the only surviving photographs of her. And I knew in that moment that her life’s witness was not just about dying to self, but of discovering the hidden spring of life.
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!
(Orthodox Prayer for Mother Maria’s feast day)
Every good death is a witness to a beautiful and true vision of life. And yet visiting the site of Mother Maria’s religious life made it all the more real to me that she has not simply died, but lives. She has reached a union and communion with God that was the goal of her life of love on earth.
As we lay down our last rose and walked away that day, I felt rising in me a clear sense of invitation. I see more than ever that is an open door I can choose to walk through every day – and it is entirely my free choice. Whatever is behind it, I know it is the door of love. I pray that each day I have the courage to say yes and walk through in joy.
“In communing with the world in the person of each individual human being, we know that we are communing with the image of God,” Mother Maria once wrote, “and, contemplating that image, we touch the Archetype — we commune with God.”
A few weeks ago, a man got on the train and I immediately averted my eyes.
His torso was bare and dirty and full of scars. There were disfigurements on his arms that looked like they had been slashed in many different ways. His hair was “Jesus hair” – long and brown and disheveled. And it dawned on me, more slowly than I like to admit, that this man was once again the presence of Christ in my midst, carrying a dirty blanket onto the train.
I wondered what he had survived. I wondered how he got to be so strong and resilient and what his childhood was like. I wondered if he knew anyone, anyone at all, that cared about him like I care about my husband or my brother. Did he know deep down in his soul that he would leave an irreplaceable hole behind when he died? Or had the world been telling him for years that he was entirely disposable, entirely on his own?
And now that I recognized Christ on the train, what was I supposed to do about it? This is the question that has always haunted me, the question I can never reconcile with the reality of my life. I was carrying no cash, no food, nothing I could give to him as a token of beauty or understanding. He was not facing me, so I had no opportunity to meet his eye and offer a smile. And if I did, would he receive it well? Would he take it as unintended pity or some other message? If I came up to him from behind, would I be perceived as a threat?
Questions like these roll around my mind for the two stops he is on the train. And then, just as suddenly as he got on, he got off. And that was that.
In the end, I did nothing. This man will never know that, for three or four minutes, he was the presence of Christ to me. He will never know that of all the people I saw that day, he most resembles the body of the Savior I love and follow.
One of the agonies of my life is that there is no shorthand for deep connection. If only there was a simple, recognizable sign that I could make towards everyone who crosses my path, a sign of blessing and recognition, a sign of respect for all they carry. A sign that I see them as a survivor, as an irreplaceable human soul and an immortal miracle of creation. A smile is the only thing that gets close to this intention. But the truth is that there is no shorthand for the kind of love and wonder that heals the wounds of a human soul. It requires the history of a relationship, not merely a moment of compassion.
Last week while visiting family in Atlanta, my husband and I had the chance to visit the National Center for Civil and Human Rights. At the end, we found ourselves in a small, dark room, reading glass cases of Martin Luther King Jr.’s early rough drafts and handwritten notes. I realized how often I have merely read this great man’s work in snippets or quotations, and missed the greater context of his vision for human brotherhood.
Learning to recognize the presence of Christ in the people around me is critical. But simply recognizing it is not enough. For if I truly believe that my life is inescapably intertwined with the lives of those around me, caught up in the same network of mutuality, then any suffering of others is my own.
This is what should compel me to not just pass by others with eyes of compassion, but create opportunities for relationship and true communion. Each time I miss an opportunity, I wonder what I could do differently next time. Each time, it puts a greater fire in me to say “yes” when the opportunity presents itself.
Moments like these compel me once again into seeing the individual within the masses, seeing the soul within the body, and remaining open to the icons that walk among me every day.
This summer Ben and I hope to spend a few months volunteering at the Maria Skobtsova House in France, offering sanctuary and hospitality to refugees. Theirguests are amongst the most vulnerable from within the refugee community, a particular welcome being offered currently to women and women with children.
If you’re interested, you can learn more about their work here.
One of my hobbies during COVID has been teaching myself textile and pattern design. I then discovered ArtofWhere, an ethical fabric printing business that can turn those designs into gorgeous scarves! Today I’m launching my collection for the first time, and I’m so excited to support the work of the Maria Skobtsova House at the same time. 100% of the proceeds from these scarves will go to support the work of the Maria Skobtsova House.
You’ll find scarves and more through my artist’s link here! Here’s a sneak peek of a few of my recent designs:
It’s fun sending new creations out into the world, but it’s even more fun to support an organization I believe in so wholeheartedly. If you are able, I hope you’ll consider supporting the Maria Skobtsova House!
“If someone turns with his spiritual world toward the spiritual world of another person,” Orthodox martyr Maria Skobtsova once reflected, “he encounters an awesome and inspiring mystery…He comes into contact with the true image of God in man, with the very icon of God incarnate in the world”.
For those in the faith, we hold to Scripture’s teaching that man was made uniquely in the image of God. The Church Fathers recognized that this imago dei gave man a specific role and dignity in the created world. “When you see your brother, you see God,” Clement of Alexandria wrote in the 2nd century, a statement echoing the words of Christ in Matthew 25: “whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”
But the question remains: if each person we encounter is truly an image of God, what could possibly be an adequate response? How can we authentically “receive all as Christ,” as St. Benedict commanded?
I spent a lot of time thinking about this question the year I met Mama Anna. Wrapped in traditional Maasai fabrics and wielding one of the largest smiles I have ever seen, she carried herself with assurance and a good deal of no-nonsense spunk. Even though she told me herself that she had never lived beyond that few hundred miles of rural Tanzania, I could imagine her hoisting herself in the same confident manner right down Wall Street, swinging her slender walking stick, finding the whole situation immensely entertaining.
We share maybe five words in each other’s language. To hear her story I asked questions in English, which were translated by my colleague Philip into Swahili, who then asked another young woman, Maria, to translate from Swahili into Maasai. Mama Anna would reply, and the whole game of telephone would reverse and begin again. Our conversation was stilted to say the least, yet I found myself fascinated by the other half of the story written across her lively face. Its deep lines told of years of hard labor under the burning Tanzanian sun; the set of the mouth was the patience of a woman to whom silence had often been called for; and yet the eyes were young and mischievous, full of determination and hope. When she spoke of her desire to see the children in her village have a school, she glowed with purpose. Now this is a woman, I thought, who is fully and entirely alive.