Since the beginning of modern times, monastic spirituality has had to face both extreme fundamentalism and extreme liberalism, or in postmodern times, relativism. One reason is an incomplete or incorrect understanding of the human person and human identity. Mother Maria Skobtsova (1891-1945), an Orthodox nun who left Russia after the 1917 revolution and settled in Paris, represents a monastic spiritual journey that moderates both fundamentalism and extreme relativism. She was creative and innovative in her spiritual journey, but at the same time she held onto the spiritual values of the Christian tradition of the past that, in a new context of exile, did not lose meaning. We can find inspiration for a non-fundamentalist but rooted monastic spirituality not only in Mother Maria’s life and actions but also in her theoretical presuppositions for the monastic journey, especially her understanding of the human person as made according to God’s image and likeness and her notion of human identity.
The fundamentalist notion of the human self affirms a strong identity. Postmodern liberal identity, on the other hand, is fluid and often unstable. Fundamentalist religious identity plays strongly on collective identity and thus denies to a certain extent individuality and authenticity. Postmodern liberal consumerist identity, however, seeks only individualism and authentic experience but often without a profound understanding of the past. Here, Mother Maria offers a position that moderates the two extremes: first, she speaks of collective identity as sobornost, but only together with the authenticity of individual identity; and second, she affirms rootedness in the past, but combined with dynamicity and the possibility of adapting Christian identity to the contemporary context—bringing it into the present.
For the exiled Mother Maria, identity was a crucial theological question. Russian émigrés lost not only their homeland but also their culture. In exile, she no longer felt any connection between her identity and the “big names” of Russian Orthodoxy such as Khomiakov and Solovyov. Everything was in doubt. Here she echoes the difference between the Latin meaning of persona and the Greek prosopon: in exile she needed to wash all the “make-up” from her face, like a stage actor. An émigré’s identity consisted of their conscious self, knowledge of God, and the love of God. However, losing all external stability, the “make-up” of the motherland and the Russian Orthodox Church, did not mean losing her roots. On the contrary, a “clean face” brought the freedom to rely on her own cooperation with God and on the Church, not as a structure but the Church that is always within us. Holiness is not therefore the primary aim of the Church, it is not just more “make-up” on the face of the Church; rather, it blooms and blossoms, especially in times of great difficulty. For this reason, she criticizes an identity that is based on stylization, which simply perpetuates dead customs; rather, only authentic spiritual fire carries any weight in the religious life. New souls require correspondingly new expressions, without “make-up,” to become real persons and attain the likeness of God.
To relativize identity based on stylization, based on the right make-up, Mother Maria calls for the revival of the tradition of the yurodivy, the fool for Christ. The life of the fool for Christ unmasks all false holiness that hides true identity behind the make-up that covers not just the face but sometimes the whole body, as do, say, the garments of a monk or priest. To use iconographic terminology, the fool for Christ calls for an inverted perspective on reality that uncovers every hypocrisy and reveals Christ’s truth. A fool shows us how not to possess even the identity based on our own holiness, how to invert the wisdom of the world, to turn our own wisdom into the wisdom of Jesus Christ. To be a fool for Christ is to give up all possessions, including the inner possession of ourselves. To be rooted in Christ means to lose the self, but not for one’s own sake: the fool for Christ serves as a model of service to the world.
The rooting of our identity in Christ is possible only because we are created according to God’s image and likeness. Even here Mother Maria is aware of the danger of a fundamentalist-style clinging to a one-sided concept of this image. To bring otherness and openness into this teaching, she also introduces a ‘more spacious’ and hence more complete image of a human being, which integrates the ‘stranger’ within oneself and which thus becomes the site of an encounter with the other inside every individual. Like her spiritual father Sergei Bulgakov, she suggests that in a person’s own most authentic being, there always exists the Child-Mother dyad. Her short work “On the Judgment of Solomon and on Motherhood” is the basis for her sophianic teaching about people. In her view, deep inside every person is an icon of the mother of God with the Child, the revelation of the bi-une mystery of God-manhood. This bi-une image is a starting point for an understanding of human solidarity with others. As Jesus Christ suffers on the cross, so his Mother co-suffers; she co-feels, co-experiences with him. Analogously, we participate in two life destinies, that of the Son and of the Mother. By these archetypes, people orient themselves on the spiritual path, not only freely choosing their own cross, but also helping others with theirs. Salvation as creation thus comes through the Mother of God and her Son. This bi-united image of God in human beings was reflected in Maria’s social work. She authentically embodied this “mystical base of human communion” and as a mother to those in need, worked with Russian refugees stricken by all the painful consequences of life in exile.
To moderate the two extremes of identity, Mother Maria works with the biblical teaching that people are created according to God´s image and likeness, which helped her understand identity both as a given, according to God’s image in human beings, but also as a dynamic and on-going process of deification. This identity is both created by God and creative, as people are not mere copy machines but free co-creators with God. For Mother Maria, God´s image according to which we were made is always bi-united and opens a space for our deification only by helping us on our journey with God to others. By not being mere masks or closed off in their own identity, but being more like the fool for Christ, people are able to remain rooted deep in the God-man and avoid any anxiety about where they belong, none of which has to be in contradiction to an authentic, individual spiritual journey.
This article is dedicated to Sister Irina and Sister Fiva from the Monastery of Gradac in Serbia.
A longer version of this essay was originally presented at an international conference on “Orthodoxy and Fundamentalism,” organized by the Institute for the Study of Culture and Christianity and the Volos Academy for Theological Studies and co-sponsored by the Orthodox Christian Studies Center of Fordham University on May 10-12, 2018 in Belgrade, Serbia. The article is supported by Charles University Research Centre Programme No. 204052 on Theological Anthropology.
Kateřina Bauer is a senior researcher at the Ecumenical Institute, Protestant Theological Faculty of Charles University in Prague.
Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.