“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.”
Can we love
of our poverty?
Is this joy enough
For one moment
we are startled
as pigeons crest
over our heads
A calling forth
to the abandonment
To the gorgeous uncertainty