“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.”
Here in my home state of Oregon, wildfires have become enormously destructive the past few weeks and caused many to flee their homes. I’ve been meditating this week on two related images: the burning bush (which in traditional iconography is seen as a symbol of Mary) and the flight of the Holy Family to Egypt. This poem is written on behalf of, and mostly from the perspective of, all those who must flee home – whether because of war, wildfire, or any other danger.
There is a call to prayer that broadcasts from outside my window. Generally it comes about three times a day. You can’t miss it.
It goes like this: First, you hear the pained but incoherent words of an older gentleman – intoxicated, unwell. He is my neighbor. We’ve passed each other on the street, but I’ve never been able to find out his name. The words get louder. Then they culminate to the loud and anguished wail, “Oh, God!”
I don’t know what to do with a cry like this. No matter the inducement, it obviously comes from a place of deep, deep pain. We’ve done what we could to reach out to this neighbor. When friendliness failed, we called the non-emergency police line and asked for a welfare check. Some would say he does not want help; I would argue that the help he needs is not available. Either way, it does not feel like enough. And every day, when I hear his voice in the same inflection, “Oh, God!”, I find my heart responding, Hear our prayer. Like the voice crying in the wilderness, like the anguished prophets of old, like the prayer of all the desperate blind and lame. Lord, have mercy.
Last night, shortly after one of these calls to prayer, we read Psalm 31 aloud. The first six verses are very familiar to me, as we pray them before bed several times a week. But when we reached verse ten, I immediately saw in my mind’s eye the face of this neighbor. Have mercy upon me, O Lord, for I am in trouble.As we continued, I could almost hear his voice reading aloud with me. I have become a reproof…among my neighbors; my acquaintances are afraid of me, and those who see me in the street shrink from me.
Then suddenly, it shifted. I became filled with the sudden realization that this was Christ’s psalm, that He was praying it along with me, and through me, that it was His voice who identified with this suffering. And in a flash I saw that this meant that my neighbor was showing me the face of Christ.
Who am I, after all I read of the ways God works in the world, to doubt that this neighbor of mine is closer to the heart of Christ than I will ever be? Who am I, after claiming to follow a Savior who was “despised and rejected by men,” who had “no place to lay his head,” to fail to see the image of this Savior who is before my very eyes?
Instead, with Christ, I will pray these words over both of us: My help has been in you, O Lord; I have said, “You are my God.” … save me for your mercy’s sake.
Let me not be confounded, O Lord, for I have called upon you.
I wrote these words just hours before stepping onto a plane and flying thousands of miles to Kilimanjaro, Tanzania. When it finally touched down on the dark, humid runway, my first immediate, frighteningly honest thought was, “I’m not ready.”
I tried to talk myself out of it. I knew it really didn’t matter whether or not I was ready – I was here, and there was work to be done, people to care for – love to be learned, right? But the truth is, my brain and body knew the truth. I wasn’t ready.
What would it mean to be ready? Even after three trips to Tanzania, I have no clue. Every trip confronts me in the exact same and yet entirely different way – with my dependence on comfort and pleasure, my physical weaknesses, and my social and spiritual ones. I am confronted by how little I have to offer, how much I must receive. I am confronted by my smallness.
Every trip I try to seek out where God is alive and working in these communities. Like a spiritual easter egg hunt, I’m seeking the scent of life, the glimpse of hope and promise. On this trip, I waved the white flag for one entire week. “God is here, God is working,” I wrote. “But I feel like extra baggage.”
It always takes me a while to remember that this feeling of smallness, of being inconsequential, is actually a good thing. In fact, it’s kind of the point. While my job with an international nonprofit is arguably an important one, the truth is that when I leave the community in two weeks, I did my job well if nobody notices the difference. The leaders I serve and support, they are the ones who are investing in these communities for the long road ahead of them. If, when I leave, they feel seen, heard, and empowered – if this equips them to do their job well in the year ahead – then I have succeeded at strategic smallness. Even better if I can work myself out of a job, help them support and encourage each other even more in the year ahead.
I am here for two weeks, but they live this. That reality stares me in the face every time I visit. It’s not about building anything that lasts for myself. When I’m gone, they don’t have to miss me. When I accept this, then I am free to encourage and empower others without worrying about myself. Because the bigger point is: If Edward was gone, what would that mean for the community? If Sypora burned out, how would that affect teachers?
Exactly one week after I arrived in Tanzania, I sat in a circle with eighteen young women pouring out their hearts about all their wrestlings with God. I looked into their eyes as they shared how they felt forgotten or overlooked by God, and struggled with doubts about unanswered prayers. I heard their pain as they told stories of how their trust was broken by others – so how could they truly trust that God is good? I held each story as a precious jewel in my hand. After a week of smallness, I could truly look in their eyes and tell them they were not alone, that sometimes glimpses of God’s goodness could be found most brightly in the eyes of one another. Together, we – the beloved family of God – carry each other and so fulfill the love of Christ.
God is here. God is working. And maybe, after all, this was exactly the school of love I needed – a reminder that in the midst of my smallness and weakness, He will carry me. He will carry us all.
The scent of life wafting through the open doors of all our eyes will never see.
If I were to paint you one picture that I hoped you would carry through your life, it would be this:
The golden November light slants through a large, elegantly curved window onto a small wooden table. Behind the table is a person facing the window, their entire being lit up by the dancing rays. Arms lifted, they raise their cupped hands to the heavens in offering. And inside their hands is the entirety of the world. Continue reading →
All of us wrestle with suffering. Our own, the suffering of others, or a tangled interconnectedness of the two.
It is a good thing that we work to ease the suffering and pain of others. This isn’t what we were created for. At the same time, we are also helpless in the face of so much suffering. We don’t know what to make of it.
But if we’re willing, we can let it remake us.
This is what I find so beautiful about redemption: that in the end, the same God who weeps with us in our suffering also uses that suffering to transform and refine us. Even when we cannot change the circumstances, we can allow ourselves to be formed by them. In that vein I’d like to share my next poem with you: a blessing for the suffering.
When the world was enchanted, shot through with the presence and power of God.
When nothing was “just” bread, “just” water, “just” music.
Today, by contrast, we live much like the Apostle Thomas. Unless I can see it with my eyes, unless I can prove it with data or brain scans, unless I’ve come to this conclusion by studying chimpanzees, I won’t believe.
After all, it’s just words. Just bread. Just water.
But what if we’re wrong?
What if the two are not mutually exclusive? What if something as simple as water, or words, or even air is the doorway into the most real reality there is?
What if the physical world is the very place we were created to connect with God?
You see, our souls and brains have a body. It was never God’s intention to simply create a mind as much as to create a man. Yes, we must learn about God – we are called to love Him with our whole heart, soul, mind, and strength. But of we believe we can simply think our way to God, to holiness, then we have no idea what it means to be truly human.
Because we’ve been trained for several centuries now not to see the world as enchanted, trying to see it any other way can feel like putting on a pair of glasses you don’t really need – they may be cool, but they seriously distort reality and end up handicapping more than helping us.
But may I suggest that in reality, we are suffering from a severe case of near-sightedness? And because we can’t see all that we can’t see, we’ve convinced ourselves that it’s not really there?
It would take a long history lesson to go into the many ways the enlightenment period and the advance of technology has seriously shaped our society – including our Christianity. The sheer number of books and articles written to scientifically defend the faith is just one example of how much pressure we are under to produce facts and data in order to believe.
I’m not here to discount the importance of education, research, learning, or data. These things certainly have a good place and point us towards God. But I also can’t help but think of the many times God has defied the “laws” of nature in the past. How He confounds the wisdom of the wise and never, ever works like we would expect. How the literal definition of being God is being outside of “reality,” of our human definitions and limitations. God may have created data and science, but He also transcends it.
At the risk of getting in over my head, let me get to the point: For thousands of years, humans experienced the world as enchanted – that is, shot through with the spiritual world. (It’s also worth noting that I’m writing to a very Western audience here, as there are still plenty of places in the world where this is the case). We have lost something very precious by throwing this away with all of the superstitions and animism and idol worship that we (rightly) don’t endorse in the Church. We have flattened the world to our five senses and squinted so long in nearsightedness, we’re blind to all that we can no longer see.
But what if we could train ourselves to see the world with different eyes? What if we could step through the doorway and see everything in three dimensions again? That is exactly what we must habituate ourselves and our spirits to do. If you remember my blog on liturgies last year, this is also one of the reasons we have been drawn to liturgical and contemplative prayer.
A trembling membrane is all that separates us from the world beyond our sights. The problem is, we’ve been living another way so long, it isn’t easy to remember this. It takes intentional focus to “stop squinting” and see life with a new lens. But when we do, we live differently. We go through our days tangibly conscious of the loving presence of God – whether or not we “feel” it. A smell, a sound, a familiar touch – all of these become a way we not only appreciate the world, but commune with God.
This is why I started the Pilgrimage Poetry Project. I want to challenge myself to practice this way of seeing the world. I want to go through my day with an unbroken conversation with my God, and that means I need to show up and pay attention to the world and the people around me.
I want to notice my days, savor the gifts they bring, and learn from them. Mostly, I want to remain attentive to the whispers of the Spirit in my own heart. And maybe someday, I can be present with others in their questions and their search for wholeness, and I can help them listen to the whispers in their own heart as well.
But it starts with my own work, my own transformation.