Theology, Women in the Church

A Forgotten Orthodox Woman Theologian Myrrha Lot-Borodine and the Mystical Theology of Deification

Published on: June 13, 2023
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Four women were particularly prominent in Orthodox theological circles in Western Europe prior to World War II. Mother Maria (St Maria of Paris) (1891-1945) is well known, especially since her canonization 2004, for her devotion to assisting the poor in inter-war Paris and Jews during World War II, and her challenging articles on spiritual and theological subjects. Julia Reitlinger (Sister Joanna) (1898-1988) was an iconographer who wrote her theology in color. She was a spiritual child of Fr. Sergius Bulgakov, and, after her return to the Soviet Union in 1955, of Fr. Alexander Men. Nadejda Gorodetsky (1901-1985) was active in the Russian Orthodox community in Paris in the late 1920s and early 1930s. She moved to England in 1934 and taught at Liverpool University. She is known especially for her still authoritative studies The Humiliated Christ in Modern Russian Thought (1938) and Saint Tikhon of Zadonsk: Inspirer of Dostoevsky (1951). Myrrha Lot-Borodine (1882–1957) came to France for studies in 1906. She completed her doctorate in medieval studies in 1909 and married the French medieval historian Ferdinand Lot (1866-1952). She specialized in medieval romantic literature (“courtly love”), on which she published six highly regarded books and translations of medieval literature into French, and numerous articles.

Beginning In the late 1920s Myrrha Lot-Borodine participated actively in Orthodox and ecumenical theological circles, with particular interest in mystical and ascetic theology. She contributed to the ecumenical theological colloquia organized by Nicolas Berdyaev and published over thirty articles, mostly in French, some in Russian and German, on the patristic doctrine of deification, the Mystagogia of Maximus the Confessor, Symeon the New Theologian, Nicholas Cabasilas, sacramental theology, grace, the gift of tears, spiritual aridity, beatitude, and the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception in an Orthodox perspective. She translated works of Symeon the New Theologian and the Mystagogia of Maximus the Confessor into French and edited a series of her published articles on Nicholas Cabasilas, published as Un Maître de la spiritualité byzantine au XIVe siècle: Nicolas Cabasilas (A Byzantine Spiritual Master of the Fourteenth Century: Nicholas Cabasilas) (1958). Her articles on deification, grace, and beatitude in the Christian East were republished as a book in 1970: La Déification de l’homme selon la doctrine des pères grecs (The Deification of Man according to the Doctrine of the Greek Fathers) (Paris: Le Cerf, 1970).

Myrrha Lot-Borodine’s writings and participation in theological fora in the 1930s and after World War II had a powerful impact on both Orthodox and Catholic theologians, especially the leaders of the neopatristic trend in Orthodox theology and of the Catholic ressourcement-nouvelle théologie movement, which became the central theology of the Vatican II Council. In his glowing introduction to the reprint of Myrrha Lot-Borodine’s essays on deification, Cardinal Jean Daniélou recalls their strong influence on him: “These articles were decisive for me. They crystallized what I was seeking, a vision of humanity transfigured by the divine energies…I recall how I was stunned when I read her essays. I am indebted to them for having oriented my first research on the mystical theology of Gregory of Nyssa.”

Myrrha Lot-Borodine’s academic interests spanned two distinct cultural and spiritual worlds, medieval courtly literature, and patristic mystical and ascetic theology. For her, these two spheres were united by love: divine love as the source and inspiration for human love, echoing and aspiring to attain the highest reaches of human endeavor, unity with the divine and the infinite, deification. She did not produce a written work which united these two spheres, but shortly after her death a collection of her essays on courtly love and the medieval mystical quest, especially the legend of the Holy Grail, was published under the title De l’amour profane à l’amour sacré (From Profane Love to Sacred Love). 

Myrrha Lot-Borodine was unquestionably one of the most influential Orthodox theologians of her generation and she should rightfully be considered one of the pioneers of neopatristic theology, together with Georges Florovsky and Vladimir Lossky. Yet, with the exception of Fr. Andew Louth (who has written about her on several occasions), she is largely ignored in Orthodoxy, especially English-language Orthodoxy. Why? We can only speculate. Because, having come to Paris in 1906, she was not a member of the first wave of Russian emigrants fleeing the revolution and the civil war, and thus remained somewhat of an outsider in interwar and postwar Russian Orthodox circles in France? Because she married a Frenchman and was well established in French academic and social life? Because she remained outside the Orthodox Church until the late 1920s? Because she wrote almost all her theological writings in French? Because neither her agnostic husband nor any of her three daughters were Orthodox? Because she was so highly regarded in leading Catholic theological circles? Because she was a woman in a world of men? Because her theological interests and orientation were closer to those of Florovsky and Lossky than to Sergius Bulgakov and the St. Sergius Institute? It was likely a combination of several factors that accounted for the lack of due recognition among her Orthodox compatriots, and for subsequent neglect.

A recent biography of Myrrha Lot-Borodine (in Russian) by Sr. Teresa Obolevitch may help to increase her profile in contemporary Orthodoxy; an English translation is underway. But astonishingly, none of Lot-Borodine’s writings is published in English translation; her book on deification is published in Romanian and in Italian, but not in English. The theology of Myrrha Lot-Borodine has yet to be studied in depth, as well as her impact on the development of Catholic and Orthodox theology. She pioneered a patristic approach to theology already in the early 1930s, at a time when Florovsky was still formulating his neopatristic project and Lossky was engaged in the struggle against sophiology. In her deification articles of 1932-33, she refers to “mystical theology,” which Lossky later incorporated into the title of his classic book—indeed, the schema of The Mystical Theology of the Orthodox Church (1944) is based on the doctrine of deification (theosis), on which Lot-Borodine had written so eloquently a dozen years earlier. Lossky (who acknowledges few of his modern sources) refers in The Mystical Theology to Lot-Borodine’s article on the gift of tears, but he does not mention her far more important articles on deification.

It is time that Myrrha Lot-Borodine is properly recognized as a major Orthodox theologian of modern times.

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About author

  • Paul Ladouceur

    Paul Ladouceur

    Adjunct Professor at the Orthodox School of Theology at Trinity College, University of Toronto

    Dr Paul Ladouceur teaches at the Orthodox School of Theology at Trinity College (University of Toronto) and at the Faculté de théologie et de sciences religieuses, Université Laval (Quebec). His areas of research, teaching and writing are primarily Orthodox theology, ecclesiology, and spirituality s...

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