Beyond Fear: The Therapeutic Role of Saints

[Talk given in Moscow at the Church of Sts Cosmas & Damian and at the Conference “Memory, Forgiveness and Reconciliation” in March 2013.]

Jim Forest & Andrey Cherniak at the Church of Sts Cosmas & Damian in  Moscow in March 2013
Jim Forest & Andrey Cherniak at the Church of Sts Cosmas & Damian in Moscow in March 2013

I often think of a remark made by Metropolitan Anthony Bloom, who led the Russian Orthodox Church in Britain for many years: “We should try to live in such a way that if the Gospels were lost, they could be re-written by looking at us.”

Not many of us do well in becoming living translations of the Gospels, but there are those who do so in a remarkable way. From time to time the Church canonizes some of those who provided heroic examples of Christian discipleship.

Why does the church canonize certain people? It is certainly not for the sake of those who are honored in that way. Canonization is not for them but for us who are still struggling in this world. The memory of their works and lives needs to be passed on from generation to generation in order to encourage others — for example us — to follow in their footsteps. It is one of the ways the Church declares, “This is sanctity. This is the path to eternal life.”

To make sure we remember, the Church gives us a calendar of saints that serves as a memory device. Each day of the year, we are invited to recall certain names and from time to time may be inspired to explore the events that lie behind a particular name. These stories are not only challenging but healing. Most of all they help heal us of the fears that so often hold us prisoner. St Paul remarks that the love of money is the root of all evil; one might add to that the driving force behind the love of money is fear — fear of death, fear of poverty, fear of powerlessness, and finally fear of the Other. The Greek theologian, Metropolitan John Zizioulas, observed:

“The essence of sin is the fear of the Other, which is part of the rejection of God. Once the affirmation of the “self” is realized through the rejection and not the acceptance of the Other — this is what Adam chose in his freedom to do — it is only natural and inevitable for the other to become an enemy and a threat. Reconciliation with God is a necessary pre-condition for reconciliation with any ‘other’.”

Saints are people whose lives are not fear driven and who are able to embrace the Other. As we discover saints with whom we can identify in some way, especially if the saint’s life is told credibly, we find ourselves freer to follow Christ. The saint’s choices help bring the Gospels to life and can inspire us to open doors that fear had locked.

The majority of saints are martyrs — people who gave up their lives in bearing witness to Christ’s resurrection and the paschal values of the Kingdom of God. It seems no single country has produced so many martyrs as Russia. It did so mainly in the twentieth century during the Lenin and Stalin years. Poland also produced numerous martyrs during the same century, some because of Hitler, others because of Stalin.

There were also many “new martyrs” in West. Let me briefly speak about two of them, Mother Maria Skobtsova — now St Maria of Paris — and St Alexander Schmorell. My wife and I had the privilege of attending both of their canonizations.

Let’s look first at Mother Maria, or Elizaveta Pilenko, as she was earlier in life. Born in 1891, she grew up in the south of Russia near the town of Anapa on the shore of the Black Sea. Her parents were devout Orthodox Christians whose faith helped shape their daughter’s values, sensitivities and goals. As a child she once emptied her piggy bank in order to contribute to the painting of an icon for a new church. But her father’s death in 1905, when she was fourteen, so upset Liza that for a time she no longer believed in God.

When Lisa was fifteen, Lisa, the family moved to St Petersburg where she found herself drawn to groups advocating radical social change, but found that the people who talked about change did very little to help those around them. “My spirit longed to engage in heroic feats, even to perish, to combat the injustice of the world,” she recalled. No one she knew was actually laying down his life for others. She and her friends also talked about theology, but their theology floated in clouds far above the actual Church. There was much they might have learned, she reflected later in life, from any old woman praying in church.

Little by little, Liza found herself drawn toward the religious faith she thought she abandoned after her father’s death. She prayed and read the Gospel and the lives of saints. It seemed to her that the real need of the people was not for revolutionary ideas but for life in Christ. She was beginning to embrace a truth that the French writer, Leon Bloy, put in these words: “There is only one sadness: not to be a saint.”

If we had time, I would tell you all that happened to her during the revolution and the civil war — the collapse of her first marriage, the beginning of her second, her becoming a mother, her near execution, the three-year journey into exile that took her to Georgia, Istanbul, Yugoslavia, and finally to Paris, which she and her family reached in 1923. By then she was the mother of three.

In the hard winter of 1926, her daughter Anastasia died of influenza. This tragedy marked a major turning point in Liza’s life. It became clear to her that she must devote the rest of her life to Christ’s commandment, “Love one another.” It was to be a love without exceptions. She felt called to become “a mother for all who need maternal care, assistance, or protection.”

In 1930, Liza was appointed traveling secretary of the Russian Student Christian Movement, work which put her into daily contact with Russian refugees in cities, towns and villages throughout France. It was in this period of life that she began to envision a new type on community, “half monastic and half fraternal,” which would connect spiritual life with service to those in need, in the process showing “that a free Church can perform miracles.” She had come to understand that Christ was present in the least person. “We ought to treat the body of our fellow human being,” she wrote, “with more care than we treat our own.”

Her bishop, Metropolitan Evlogy, aware that Liza’s marriage had collapsed, was the first person to suggest to her the possibility of becoming a nun, not a nun living away from the world and its problems, but in the middle of Paris, helping people who had no one to turn to. If the diaconate for women had still existed, probably he would have ordained her to that role. In 1932 Liza was professed as a nun. For the rest of her life she was known as Mother Maria.

From the beginning, Mother Maria’s plan was “to share the life of paupers and tramps.” With financial help from her bishop, she rented a house. Donated furniture began arriving, and also guests, mainly young Russian women without jobs. To make room for others, Mother Maria gave up her own room and slept in the basement. Mother Maria’s credo was: “Each person is the very icon of God incarnate in the world.” With this recognition came the need “to venerate the image of God” in each person.

It was far from an easy life. Often there was no money at the end of the day, but then the next morning one or several gifts arrived. Mother Maria sometimes thought of the old Russian story of the ruble coin that could never be spent. Each time it was used, the change given back proved to equal a ruble. It was exactly this way with love, she said: No matter how much love you give, you never have less. In fact you discover you have more — one ruble becomes two, two becomes ten.

Mother Maria was certain that there was no other path to heaven than participating in God’s mercy. As she wrote, “The way to God lies through love of people. At the Last Judgment I shall not be asked whether I was successful in my ascetic exercises, nor how many bows and prostrations I made. Instead I shall be asked: Did I feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and visit the sick and the prisoners? That is all I shall be asked.”

The last phase of her life was a series of responses to World War II and Germany’s occupation of France. The work of Mother Maria and her community of co-workers greatly increased and so did the dangers they faced. Early in 1942, Jews began to knock on the door asking Father Dimitri Klepinine, chaplain of the community, if he would issue baptismal certificates to them. The answer was always yes. The community assisted countless Jews and others in danger in finding safe places of refuge.

In July came the mass arrest of 12,884 Jews. Almost 7,000 Jews a stadium for bicycle races not far from Mother Maria’s house of hospitality. Thanks to her monastic robes, she was able to work for three days in the stadium, managing to rescue a number of children by enlisting the aid of trash collectors who smuggled the children out in trash bins.

Early in 1943, the long-expected event happened: Mother Maria was arrested along with Father Dimitri, her son Yuri and one other friend and collaborator, Ilya Fondaminsky. All four of them died in concentrations camps.

Mother Maria was sent to the Ravensbrück camp in Germany, where she endured for two years. One fellow prison recalled that Mother Maria “was never downcast, never. She was full of good cheer .… She was on good terms with everyone. She was the kind of person who made no distinction between people no matter what their political views might be or their religious beliefs.”

By March 1945, her condition was critical. The last day of her life was the day before Easter. The shellfire of the approaching Russian army could be heard in the distance. Accounts vary about what happened during the last hours of her life. According to one, she was simply one of those selected to die that day. According to another, she took the place of a fellow prisoner, a Jewish woman.

Although perishing in the gas chamber, Mother Maria did not perish in the Church’s memory. Soon after the end of World War II, essays and books about her began appearing, in French and Russian. There was also a Russia film. Two biographies were published in English, and little by little her essays were made available in Russian, French and English. In May 2004, along with the three others arrested with her, she was canonized at the Cathedral of St Alexander Nevsky in Paris. The 20th of July each year as the day of their remembrance. One finds her icon in more and more churches, a veneration that not only crosses jurisdictional lines but lines of ecclesiastical division. The cardinal-archbishop of Paris attended her canonization. She is the one Orthodox saint of modern times who is on the calendar of the Catholic Church in France.

Now to say a little about another saint who died in the same period, Alexander Schmorell, who grew up in Munich and was executed there.

Were this conference happening in Germany I would not need to tell very much of his story. Alexander Schmorell was one of several Munich University students who, in the Hitler period, formed an anti-Nazi resistance group known as the White Rose. Today it would be hard to find a German over the age of twelve who hadn’t heard of the White Rose and wouldn’t recognize the names of Schmorell and the other five core members, all of whom were guillotined in 1943. Hundreds of streets, squares and parks are named in their honor. Postage stamps have celebrated their memory and movies have been made that put the drama of their lives on the screen. In Munich there is a museum in their memory. Alexander Schmorell is the first of the six to be formally recognized as a saint, an event that was given a great deal of news media attention in Germany.

But for us who are non-Germans, the White Rose martyrs are not so well known. What did they do? What makes them patrons of inter-Christian dialogue, and even dialogue that reaches beyond the borders of Christianity to other faiths?

In the spring and summer of 1942, while a medical student at Munich’s Maximilian University, Schmorell and two fellow students co-founded the White Rose. Schmorell was a member of the Russian Orthodox parish in Munich where he attended the Eucharistic Liturgy regularly; friends recall he always had a Bible with him. The other two founders were also devout Christians — Hans Scholl, a Lutheran, and Willi Graf, a Catholic. Before long several others joined, including Hans Scholl’s sister, Sophie. At age twenty-one, she was the youngest member of the group and its only woman.

Why did the group christen their endeavor the White Rose? It was a name proposed by Schmorell. The reference was to a story by Dostoevsky, Schmorell’s favorite author. In one chapter of The Brothers Karamazov, “The Grand Inquisitor”, Christ comes back to earth, “softly, unobserved, and yet, strange to say, every one recognized Him.” He is suddenly present among the many people crowding Seville’s cathedral square, the pavement of which is still warm from the burning of a hundred heretics the day before. At this moment it happens that an open coffin containing the body of a young girl is being carried across the square on its way to the cemetery. They pass Jesus. “The procession halts, the coffin is laid on the steps at [Christ’s] feet. He looks with compassion, and His lips softly pronounce the words, ‘Maiden, arise!’ and she arises. The little girl sits up in the coffin and looks round, smiling with wide-open wondering eyes, holding a bunch of white roses they had put in her hand.” This merciful action completed, the Grand Inquisitor, having witnessed the miracle, orders Christ’s arrest. He is outraged at the boundless freedom Christ has given humanity.

In this remarkable story, the white rose serves as a paschal symbol, a sign of Christ’s victory over death. The adoption of the name White Rose was the group’s way of declaring their Christian conviction that He who has defeated death can also lift us from our graves — not only the grave to be dug at the end of our lives but the grave of fear so many of us live in here and now.

What the White Rose members did was simple but astonishingly dangerous: they wrote, mimeographed and widely distributed a series of leaflets that called on ordinary people living in Hitler’s Third Reich to resist Nazism. This was civil disobedience at the most hazardous level.

How did a handful of students find the courage not only to open their eyes so widely to the hell which Germany had become, but decide it was worth risking their lives to call on Germans to take part in resistance?

First of all it came from the completeness of their faith. For them Christ was not a mythical figure from the past whose bones were carefully hidden by his disciples in order to pretend his resurrection. He had given himself for the life of the world and on the third day had truly risen from the dead.

The actions of the White Rose also drew inspiration from a brave sermon given by August von Galen, Catholic bishop of Münster, in which he denounced Aryan racism and the Nazi euthanasia program that resulted in killing those regarded as unfit or unproductive. “These are men and women, our neighbors, our brothers and sisters!” von Galen declared. “Poor ill human beings. Maybe they are unproductive, but does that mean that they have lost the right to live? … If one adopts and puts into practice the principle that men are entitled to kill their unproductive fellows, then woe to all of us when we become aged and infirm! … Then no one will be safe: some committee or other will be able to put him on the list of ‘unproductive’ persons, who in their judgment have become ‘unworthy to live.’” (Von Galen spent the rest of the war under house arrest and was listed by Hitler for eventual execution following the anticipated Nazi victory. In 2005, von Galen was beatified by Pope Benedict XVI.)

The first White Rose action was clandestine distribution of von Galen’s sermon, a sermon which had been reported in no German newspaper.

In the first leaflet of their own authorship, the group declared, “It is certain that today every honest German is ashamed of his government. Who among us has any conception of the dimensions of shame that will befall us and our children when one day the veil has fallen from our eyes and the most horrible of crimes — crimes that infinitely outdistance every human measure — reach the light of day?”

The second leaflet contained the only known public protest by any German resistance group specifically against the Holocaust: “By way of example we want to cite the fact that since the conquest of Poland 300,000 Jews have been murdered … in the most bestial way. Here we see the most frightful crime against human dignity, a crime that is unparalleled in the whole of history.” (In light of the final Holocaust death toll, the estimate of 300,000 seems relatively small. The same month the leaflet was published, June 1942, the “final solution to the Jewish question”— factory-style mass murder — began to be implemented.)

Theology not only motivated the group but was expressed in their texts. “Every word that comes from Hitler’s mouth is a lie,” declared the fourth leaflet. “When [Hitler] says peace, he means war, and when he blasphemously uses the name of the Almighty, he means the power of evil, the fallen angel, Satan. His mouth is the foul-smelling maw of Hell, and his might is at bottom accursed. True, we must consider the struggle against the National Socialist state with rational means; but whoever today still doubts the reality, the existence of demonic powers, has failed … to understand the metaphysical background of this war. … We must attack evil where it is strongest, and it is strongest in the power of Hitler.”

There were six White Rose leaflets in all. With each, circulation widened, distribution mainly in plain envelopes with typed addresses sent in small quantities from widely scattered post boxes. To get the leaflets into Austria, Schmorell made train trips to Salzburg and Vienna.

For nine months the Gestapo failed in its efforts to find those responsible for the leaflets. It was only on February 18, 1943, as Sophie and Hans were leaving copies of the latest leaflet in the atrium of their university, that they were spotted by a custodian and the Gestapo summoned. Another member of the group, Christoph Probst, was arrested soon after. Four days later the three they were both tried and beheaded. Probst was baptized a Catholic just a few hours before his death. Three other arrests and executions followed. Alexander Schmorell and Kurt Huber were beheaded on the 13th of July, Willi Graf on the 12th of October.

In his last letter to his family, Schmorell wrote: “This difficult ‘misfortune’ was necessary to put me on the right road, and therefore was no misfortune at all…. What did I know until now about belief, about a true and deep belief, about the truth, the last and only truth, about God? Never forget God!”

Thanks to a witness, we have an account of his last words: “I’m convinced that my life has to end now, early as it seems, because I have fulfilled my life’s mission. I wouldn’t know what else I have to do on this earth.”

At Schmorell’s canonization last year at the Cathedral of the New Martyrs and Confessors of Russia, the icon carried into the center of the church shows him as the tall, brown-haired young man he was, wearing the white robe of a physician with a Red Cross arm band, his left hand raised in a gesture of greeting, the other holding a thin blood-red cross with a white rose. He is standing against a gold-leaf background representing eternity and the kingdom of God.

Schmorell and his co-workers, in common with countless other brave Christians of the past century, provide an example of ecumenical witness to Christian values that transcends theological disagreements, encourages common action by Christians despite ecclesiastical divisions, and warms the climate for dialogue aimed at expanding areas of agreement and obtaining greater Christian unity. Those who follow the way of the Cross, not in theory but in praxis, are more likely to find the love that opens locked minds and institutional hearts, the love that breaks down the dividing wall of enmity.

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