Mother Maria Skobtsova

1,

Looking at the book ‘Essential Writings’ [Orbis Books, 2003], and finding my reaction to her writing mixed= she is definitely a child of the Daemonic, a woman of passion of heart, yet the Eastern church’s traditional theology is so biased towards Eros, and the soul, that Mother Maria creates a lot of confusion in trying to stretch Eros language to convey the truth of the Daemonic.

2,

Something Karin Greenhead said about many Christians is true of ‘Lisa’ as well. Her life began serving this worldly Eros — referred to in the Chinese proverb, “If you give no help to others, you are wasting those prayers to Buddha” — but ended being overtaken by the Daemonic: her daughter died and this wrecked her marriage, she re-examined her life and became more radical in ‘love the brother as the self’, and this produced, finally, her martyrdom at the hands of the Nazis. Her Cross came about because she was protecting, and saving, Jews in Nazi occupied Paris. She helped all the Jews who came to her monastery to escape by printing false documents for them showing they were Russian Orthodox Christians! To other Christians who described the plight of the Jews as ‘not their problem’, Lisa replied in her customary robust way, pointing out that intervening for the sake of the Jews at whatever risk to oneself was the only Christ-like thing to do. Naturally, the Nazis found out what the monastery was up to, and when confronted, Lisa made no secret of it, nor did she accept their offer to stop doing it and live. She told them she was doing what Christ would do in the situation, and could not desist– to their jeers. The Nazi interrogators were offended by any suggestions that Christians should care about Jews, much less make the ultimate sacrifice for them.

Lisa understood the ontological roots of Eros as maternal, implicitly, in her interpretation of loving the neighbour as mothering them. But there was little in Eastern Orthodox tradition to support how she wanted to change the contemplative monastery into an active fountain caring for and seeking to nourish the dereliction of the city, except for a few scattered quotes from the desert ascetics [Macarios of Egypt; Ephrem the Syrian; St Isaac the Syrian] that she admitted were relatively rare compared with the avalanche of ascetic statements that exemplified the danger of ‘spiritual egoism’, pride about spiritual gifts and accomplishments, and indifference to the world and its injuries. Mostly she uses an Eros language– urging us to engage in a total pouring out of the riches of the soul for the brother and sister who need them, rather than clinging to them as one’s own possession and wealth of personality, and thus stressing giving away not only bread but also the very qualitative jewels of the soul to the impoverished world crying out for both; only occasionally does she refer to the heart as the organ of fire capable, in its kindling, of the ultimate sacrifice. She is passionate but has none of the existential words required to convey the passion of heart enacted by Christ’s Cross.

The words that convey passion are drops of blood on a white page.. This became her life, and thus as is always the ultimate with passion, her deeds spoke where her words could not. And like too many Russians, she veers slightly toward masochism in her attempt to portray the self-abnegating, humiliated, Christ. The Greeks, of course, do not do this at all, and the Russians overdo it. If you could put Kazantzakis and Dostoyevsky together.. The Russians are too influenced by the Roman Catholic kind of sick masochism, with more than a touch of Oriental fatalism; and Lisa’s writings sometimes plunge into that murky pool. Understood from the nobility of heart, humiliation and abnegation is not something to be sought, or valued in itself, but is a cost to be paid, for love. Our love should not be fixed upon the Reversal necessary to achieve redemption; our love is for what redemption can accomplish, and because of love, we will pay the cost. The first is reversed, and becomes the last.. The ruler is reversed and becomes the servant of all.. The king is emptied, mocked, spat upon, and killed, because of his love for the people; because this love has no limit, and cannot be stopped, it accepts what must be inverted, turned upside down and turned inside out, to do its task. Anyone who starts loving humiliation, and abnegation, as ‘glorious ends’ rather than costly means, has entered the pathological illness of masochism.

The Reversal is a measure of how far kingly nobility will go, to die for the redeeming of the people. ‘You don’t take my life, I give it’, is its spirit. This energy is pure, and clean. Masochism is impure and dirty. It distorts something clear, strong, and profound.

The truth about the Daemonic is, no one seeks it. The Daemonic finds us, against our desire and against our natural will. It shatters and destroys us, to remake us only by initiation into the deepest level of suffering in all humanity. Here is Lisa’s account of the Daemonic, though she never uses the term; this comes after sitting in vigil with her daughter Nastia in hospital for a month, to no avail, for the girl dies=

After the death of someone you love, “the gates have suddenly opened onto eternity, all natural life has trembled and collapsed, yesterday’s laws have been abolished, desires have faded, meaning has become meaningless, and another incomprehensible Meaning has grown wings on their backs..”

The ‘Meaning’ whose dragon wings grow on the backs of the futility of all meanings is Daemonic. Lisa goes on=

“Everything flies into the black maw of the fresh grave: hopes, plans, calculations, and above all meaning, the meaning of [one’s] whole life. If this is so, then everything has to be reconsidered, everything rejected, seen in its corruptibility and falseness” [pp 17-18].

As with Job, this pulverizing ‘wound of the Daemonic’ leads to repentance, but not repentance as people usually understand and practice it, but a repentance that expresses a more radical plunge into the deep of the heart, as happened with the righteous Job who repented of not having had any heart in his previous life of the goodness and flowering of Eros. He gave it away, he shared it all, he knew the purified as distinct from the impure desire for the real Eros, yet Job still repented. He repented because he had never even remotely known the heart. Disaster drove him deep into the heart, and he repented never having known, nor used, the heart. Repenting was Job’s first act of passion. So it was for Lisa.

In her desolation over her daughter’s death, she came to realise that she had never known “the meaning of repentance, but now I am aghast at my own insignificance..” This means aghast at never having had, nor acted upon, the deeper heart. “I feel that my soul has meandered down back alleys all my life.” This means that without the heart, there is no arrow in the bow to hit the real target of the purpose for existing in this world. “And now I want an authentic and purified road.” This means, having confronted the absence of heart through the Daemonic blow that befalls us as a fate, the person wants to regain the heart and live out and act from its passion. Nothing flimsy will do, nothing contrived or half and half will suffice. The absence of heart reveals the powerful urge toward having, and doing, a heart. This becomes the first prayer of passion. Let me refind the lost heart, and I will not betray it, nor flee its exactions, as I did when not knowing..

Lisa continues, saying she wants this new beginning “not out of [any lingering] faith in life, but in order to ..understand, and accept, death” [p 19]. Eros: life, light, joy. Daemonic: death, dark, suffering. Lisa has plunged in. The Daemonic always destroys our ‘faith in life’, before it resurrects a different basis for loving life; it pushes us down into the ‘black inexplicable pain’ that embraces death as the constant companion, the pervasive darkness wherein nothing adds up, and the suffering that is harsh and inarticulate, strangled in the throat.

She immediately has a sense of the radicalism of love revealed only in the Daemonic= “No amount of thought will ever result in any greater formulation than the three words, ‘Love one another’, so long as it is love to the end, and love without exceptions” [p 19]. That is the heart passion, broken and reforged in the Daemonic, ‘going all the way to the end of the line’, and ‘going all the way for all, with no exclusions.’ Only the Daemonic can supply that muscle of love. Lisa hears her heart start to beat, like a wild music coming from far away, for the first time in her life.

3,

Lisa states the Daemonic again, and without naming it.

She refers to our age as one in which people are drawn to ‘idolatrous charms’, but goes on to the more fundamental reality of the suffering that consumes the world when you scratch the surface=

“But our times are firmly in tune with Christianity in that suffering is part of their nature. They demolish and destroy in our hearts all that is stable, mature, hallowed by the ages and treasured by us” [p 24]. The Daemonic destroys our hope in God, life, everything. This inaugurates us into a different path, a way of poverty, and a way of anarchy, where there is no ‘rule.’ This is the beginning of becoming a Fool for Christ, a reversal person, a sacred clown. After the Daemonic strikes, what was up is down, and what was down is up. There is no longer any up; it is fallen far down into the abyss. Only in the down do we feel intimations of a new rising, a new ‘stepping up’ for a new reality. In this reality, there will be “the complete absence of even the subtlest barrier which might separate the heart from the world and its wounds” [p 24].

This last is the second great revelation of the Daemonic. In the Daemonic, the heart and the world are bound together, and cannot be unbound. No world, no heart. If a heart, then the world.

Lisa realised, thanks to the blow of the Daemonic which ended her earlier life, that in each human being is the mystery of a spark of God, and only when this is felt, seen, understood, will another mystery be revealed, that in each human being the image of God in them is distorted, and held captive, by an evil power.

Upon this paradox is hinged the whole work, and suffering, of the Daemonic for redemption..

4,

Americans thought they could start from year zero and create a perfect nation. But you can’t. It needs radical, fundamental, change of heart– and that only comes through the Daemonic wound.. Communism was a good idea, and very close to the Jewish prophetic revelation on social justice– but it failed because it could not, and did not, change the human heart at any underlying level. We try to live and act for the truth, and sometimes we attain some stature of righteousness, but until the Daemonic sword pierces our heart, we are not even aware of, and certainly do not repent for, the failure of heart that has let down our passionate calling to the world. This is more than repenting of sins, flaws, faults. We confront the stark reality that we have always been more shallow than we previously thought; we confront the painful reality that we have refused to take up the burden and honour of the heart because of seeking something we ‘treasure’ more than the way of heart in the world, and therefore will not let go.. The heart has an idol, a treasured idol, it holds on to, which blocks it ever coming to life in action. For some people, the treasure is something flimsy, just rubbish [like ‘wanting to be a celebrity’ nowadays]; for other people, it may be a more subtle block, like some kind of idealism, or romanticism, that prevents coming down to earth and confronting things as they are.. Indeed, it may be something ‘good’ that the Daemonic takes away from us because it obscures how terrible things really are at depth, and how marvellous they could become if transformed at depth.

In a very pure sense, the Daemonic stabs our innocence, takes away the child in us who will not accept the world just as it is; the ultimate death in us is that of the child– for the sake of freeing a truer adult.

Passion is the existential ‘growing up’ most people refuse..

The Daemonic kills the child, sacrifices the child, for the sake of a new kind of adult rarely seen in the world, yet this spiritual maturity is more vulnerable than any child and more bold than any adult. The Daemonic’s most unacceptable offence to us is its refusal to protect the childlike– as we demand from all our gods as the sine qua non of their being any sort of divinity to us; instead, it permits innocence to be given away to worldly experience, for the sake of what William Blake called ‘organised innocence’, or holiness, at the end.

5,

There is a huge difference, despite a direct connection, between humanity as guilty, and humanity as tragic. Deeper than our guilt is our tragedy. The repentance in Job, as in Lisa after her daughter died, went beyond arguing over our degree of, and culpability for, sin; it recognised our profounder tragedy, and embraced it. For the heart which can easily be puffed up about nothing, this is a genuine humbling, a reduction to nothing. Yet from this we are initiated into the tragedy of all humanity, and end up weeping not for ‘my’ fall, but ‘our’ fall, the throwing away of our heroism of heart into the dirt, selling our birth right for trash. From this will be resurrected a different kind of fighting for redemption, a joining of Sword and Cross, of pathos and thymos, in a reforged passion that is ‘confident of its foundations’, and therefore can accept whatever hand it is dealt.

The key transition, however, is to accept our share of the suffering that afflicts all of humanity, and not to resent the Daemonic blow that befalls us, and initiates us into our portion of the common fate. What we have to carry, as our share of the universal suffering, is what we can redeem. The Daemonic is not to be sought, but as the Jews well understood, it is to be avoided at all costs for as long as possible. False seeking of the Daemonic generates that excessive humility, and sick love of taking punishment, so often noticed among Christians, but rarely seen among Jews. Nothing falsifies Christ on the Cross as much as pretending we want to be Reversed, and thus are seeking crucifixion, seeking sorrow, seeking heavy weights, seeking calumny from others, and the like. Even Christ prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane to be spared the Reversal of the Daemonic. No one can seek this Reversal, though Paul said he gloried in its infirmities and pains because it brought him closer to the mystery of the Cross. But he spoke as a learner, a person learning the Reversal who did not pretend to easily welcome it.

Many people stricken by the Daemonic resist its attack, and get stuck; they do not realise there is a way to work with it, from within its bleakness. This is what Job discovered, after coming through the ordeal of moral accusation [you must have done something wrong, the Jewish judges insisted] and existential despair [curse God and die, his wife urged] that pulled him in different directions before he could finally acknowledge that his existence was in the hands of the Daemonic. None the less, Job arrived at a place neither of these judgemental, nor hopeless, stances could reach.

Thus, the Daemonic is not to be avoided once it bites, but it is not to be sought. The Reversal that passion accepts to make its sacrifice is to be borne, nobly, but cannot be turned into an excuse for adopting weak stances such as passivity, surrender to evil rather than fighting it, fatalism. ‘Turn the other cheek’ does not mean becoming the hundred pounds weakling on the beach who lets the bullies kick sand in his face. It means, rather: be so absorbed in and committed to the purity of what you are doing in the heart with your life’s action, if people maliciously slander you for this, if people revile and renounce your love and want to punish you for putting your money where your mouth is, then do not react in kind, but if they hit your right cheek, then give them your left cheek also to be hit as a statement that nothing will stop you from accomplishing your heart’s calling from God. The call to action is too vital to be distracted by defending yourself or replying in kind to people’s misunderstanding and mistrust; just get on with it. Don’t justify yourself; don’t defend yourself. This is the inherent aggressiveness of turning the other cheek. You cannot stop me by one punishment intended to break my spirit, so by all means, I offer you the second punishment. Unbeknownst to us who ‘care’ so much about the reaction we arouse in other people, this is spitting in the face of the devil. Turning the other cheek, like the Cross, is an act of defiance in the face of intimidation, and every other evil that is heaped upon the heart when it really loves the world with passion.

6,

The way of passion, and the heart that is deep, is not for children.

‘The Lamb of God sacrificed before the world was made’ is the basic promise by God to redeem the world through the sufferings of the human heart, led by the Messianic example, and indwelt by the mysterious and powerful Spirit. God too, before we do it, has let his Child go, for the sake of something greater and deeper, on the far side of the child’s injury, offence, moralistic judgementalism, and abject despair.

As ever, the Jewish rabbi Lionel Blue is soothing towards something that is in reality very raw. He recently said on the radio=

You might as well give God your problems– he’s got everything else.