Mother Maria Skobtsova died on Good Friday, 1945, in Ravensbrck concentration camp near Berlin. The “crime” of this Orthodox nun and Russian refugee was her effort to rescue Jews and others being pursued by the Nazis in her adopted city, Paris, where in 1932 she had founded a house of hospitality.
The following essay was written in 1937 and discovered in 1996 by Helene Klepinin-Arjakovsky in the archive of S.B. Pilenko. The Russian text was published in the summer of 1998 by the Paris-based journal, Vestnik, No. 176 (II-III 1997), pp. 5-50, and is also posted on the St. Philaret web site.
In this world there are two kinds of love: one that takes and one that gives. This is common to all types of love — not only love for man. One can love a friend, one’s family, children, scholarship, art, the motherland, one’s own ideas, oneself — and even God — from either of these two points of view. Even those forms of love which by common consent are the highest can exhibit this dual character.
Take, for example, maternal love. A mother can often forget herself, sacrifice herself for her children. Yet this does not as yet warrant recognition as Christian love for her children. One needs to ask the question: what is it that she loves in them? She may love her own reflection, her second youth, an expansion of her own “I” into other “I”s which become separated from the rest of the world as “we.” She may love in them her own flesh that she sees in them, the traits of her own character, the reflections of her own tastes, the continuation of her family. Then it becomes unclear where is the fundamental difference between an egotistical love of self and a seemingly sacrificial love of one’s children, between “I” and “we.” All this amounts to a passionate love of one’s own which blinds one’s vision, forcing one to ignore the rest of the world — what is not one’s own.
Such a mother will imagine that the merit of her own child is not comparable with the merit of other children, that his mishaps and illnesses are more severe than those of others, and, finally, that at times the well-being and success of other children can be sacrificed for the sake of the well-being and success of her own. She will think that the whole world (herself included) is called to serve her child, to feed him, quench his thirst, train him, make smooth all paths before him, deflect all obstacles and all rivals. This is a kind of passion-filled maternal love. Only that maternal love is truly Christian which sees in the child a true image of God, which is inherent not only in him but in all people, but given to her in trust, as her responsibility, as something she must develop and strengthen in him in preparation for the unavoidable life of sacrifice along the Christian path, for that cross-bearing challenge which faces every Christian. Only such a mother loves her child with truly Christian love. With this kind of love she will be more aware of other children’s misfortunes, she will be more attentive toward them when they are neglected. As the result of the presence of Christian love in her heart her relationship with the rest of humanity will be a relationship in Christ. This is, of course, a very poignant example.
There can be no doubt but that love for anything that exists is divided into these two types. One may passionately love one’s motherland, working to make sure that it develops gloriously and victoriously, overcoming and destroying all its enemies. Or one can love it in a Christian manner, working to see that the face of Christ’s truth is revealed more and more clearly within it. One can passionately love knowledge and art, seeking to express oneself, to flaunt oneself in them. Or one can love them while remaining conscious of one’s service through them, of one’s responsibility for the exercise of God’s gifts in these spheres.
One can also love the idea of one’s own life simply because it is one’s own — and enviously and jealously set it over against all other ideas. Or one can see in it too a gift granted to one by God for the service of his eternal truth during the time of one’s path on earth. One can love life itself both passionately and sacrificially. One can even relate to death in two different ways. And one can direct two kinds of love toward God. One of these will look on him as the heavenly protector of “my” or “our” earthly passions and desires. Another kind of love, however, will humbly and sacrificially offer one’s tiny human soul into his hands. And apart from their name — love — and apart from their outward appearance, these two forms of love will have nothing in common.
In the light of such Christian love, what should man’s ascetic effort be? What is that true asceticism whose existence is inescapably presupposed by the very presence of spiritual life? Its criterion is self-denying love for God and for one’s fellow man. But an asceticism which puts one’s own soul at the center of everything, which looks for its salvation, fencing it off from the world, and within its own narrow limits comes close to spiritual self-centeredness and a fear of dissipating, of wasting one’s energies, even though it be through love — this is not Christian asceticism.
What is the criterion that can be used to define and measure the various pathways of human life? What are their prototypes, their primary symbols, their boundaries? It is the path of Godmanhood, Christ’s path upon earth. The Word became flesh, God became incarnate, born in a stable in Bethlehem. This alone should be fully sufficient for us to speak of the limitless, sacrificial, self-abnegating and self-humbling love of Christ. Everything else is present in this. The Son of Man lowered the whole of himself — the whole of his divinity, his whole divine nature and his whole divine hypostasis — beneath the vaults of that cave in Bethlehem. There are not two Gods, nor are there two Christs: one who abides in blessedness within the bosom of the Holy Trinity and another who took on the form of a servant. The Only-begotten Son of God, the Logos, has become Man, lowering himself to the level of mankind. The path of his later life — the preaching, the miracles, the prophesies, the healings, the enduring of hunger and thirst, right through his trial before Pilate, the way of the cross and on to Golgotha and death — all this is the path of his humiliated humanity, and together with him the path of God’s condescension to humanity.
What was Christ’s love like? Did it withhold anything? Did it observe or measure its own spiritual gifts? What did it regret? Where was it ever stingy? Christ’s humanity was spit upon, struck, crucified. Christ’s divinity was incarnate fully and to the end in his spit-upon, battered, humiliated and crucified humanity. The Cross — an instrument of shameful death — has become for the world a symbol of self-denying love. And at no time nor place — neither from Bethlehem to Golgotha, neither in sermons nor parables, nor in the miracles he performed — did Christ ever give any occasion to think that he did not sacrifice himself wholly and entirely for the salvation of the world, that there was in him something held back, some “holy of holies” which he did not want to offer or should not have offered.
He offered his own “holy of holies,” his own divinity, for the sins of the world, and this is precisely wherein lies his divine and perfect love in all its fullness.
This is the only conclusion we can come to from the whole of Christ’s earthly ministry. But can it be that the power of divine love is such because God, though offering himself, still remains God, that is, does not empty himself, does not perish in this dreadful sacrificial self-emptying?
Human love cannot be completely defined in terms of the laws of divine love, because along this path a man can lay himself waste and lose sight of what is essential: the salvation of his soul.
But here one need only pay attention to what Christ taught us. He said: “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross.” Self-denial is of the essence, and without it no one can follow him, without it there is no Christianity. Keep nothing for yourself. Lay aside not only material wealth but spiritual wealth as well, changing everything into Christ’s love, taking it up as your cross. He also spoke — not about himself and not about his perfect love, but about the love which human imperfection can assume — “Greater love has no man than he who lays down his soul (AV, RSV: life) for his friends” (Jn. 15:13). How miserly and greedy it is to understand the word “soul” here as “life.” Christ is speaking here precisely about the soul, about surrendering one’s inner world, about utter and unconditional self-sacrifice as the supreme example of the love that is obligatory for Christians. Here again there is no room for looking after one’s own spiritual treasures. Here everything is given up.
Christ’s disciples followed in his path. This is made quite clear in an almost paradoxical expression of the Apostle Paul: “I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brethren” (Rom. 9:3). And he said this, having stated: “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Gal. 2:20). For him such an estrangement from Christ is an estrangement from life not only in the transient, worldly sense of the word, but from the eternal and incorruptible life of the age to come.
These examples suffice to let us know where Christianity leads us. Here love truly does not seek its own, even if this be the salvation of one’s own soul. Such love takes everything from us, deprives us of everything, almost as if it were devastating us. And where does it lead? To spiritual poverty. In the Beatitudes we are promised blessedness in return for being poor in spirit. This precept is so far removed from human understanding that some people attempt to read the word “spirit” as a later interpolation and explain these words as a call for material poverty and a rejection of earthly riches, while others almost slip into fanaticism, taking this as a call for intellectual poverty, the rejection of thought and of any kind of intellectual content. Yet how simply and clearly these words can be interpreted in the context of other evangelical texts. The person who is poor in spirit is the one who lays down his soul for his friends, offering this spirit out of love, not withholding his spiritual treasures.
Here the spiritual significance of the monastic vow of renunciation becomes evident. Of course it does not refer just to material renunciation or a basic absence of avarice. Here it is a question of spiritual renunciation.
What is the opposite of this? What vices correspond to the virtue of renunciation? There are two of them, and in real life they are frequently confused: stinginess and greed. One can be greedy but at the same time not be stingy, and even extravagant. One can also be stingy but not have a greedy desire to possess what is not one’s own. Both are equally unacceptable. And if it is unacceptable in the material world, it is even less acceptable in the spiritual realm.
Renunciation teaches us not only that we should not greedily seek advantage for our soul, but that we must not be stingy with our soul, that we should squander our soul in love, that we should achieve spiritual nakedness, that spiritually we should be stripped bare. There should be nothing so sacred or valuable that we would not be ready to give it up in the name of Christ’s love to those who have need of it.
Spiritual renunciation is the way of the holy fool. It is folly, foolishness in Christ. It is the opposite of the wisdom of this age. It is the blessedness of those who are poor in spirit. It is the outer limit of love, the sacrifice of one’s own soul. It is separation from Christ in the name of one’s brothers. It is the denial of oneself. And this is the true Christian path which is taught us by every word and every phrase of the Gospels.
Why is it that the wisdom of this world not only opposes this commandment of Christ but simply fails to understand it? Because the world has at all times lived by accommodating itself to the laws of material nature and is inclined to carry these laws over into the realm of spiritual nature. According to the laws of matter, I must accept that if I give away a piece of bread, then I became poorer by one piece of bread. If I give away a certain sum of money, then I have reduced my funds by that amount. Extending this law, the world thinks that if I give my love, I am impoverished by that amount of love, and if I give up my soul, then I am utterly ruined, for there is nothing left of me to save.
In this area, however, the laws of spiritual life are the exact opposite of the laws of the material world. According to spiritual law, every spiritual treasure given away not only returns to the giver like a whole and unbroken ruble given to a beggar, but it grows and becomes more valuable. He who gives, acquires, and he who becomes poor, becomes rich. We give away our human riches and in return we receive much greater gifts from God, while he who gives away his human soul, receives in return eternal bliss, the divine gift of possessing the Kingdom of heaven. How does he receive that gift? By absenting himself from Christ in an act of the uttermost self-renunciation and love, he offers himself to others. If this is indeed an act of Christian love, if this self-renunciation is genuine, then he meets Christ himself face to face in the one to whom he offers himself. And in communion with him he communes with Christ himself. That from which he absented himself he obtains anew, in love, and in a true communion with God. Thus the mystery of union with man becomes the mystery of union with God. What was given away returns, for the love which is poured out never diminishes the source of that love, for the source of love in our hearts is Love itself. It is Christ.
We are not speaking here about good deeds, nor about that love which measures and parcels out its various possibilities, which gives away the interest but keeps hold of the capital. Here we are speaking about a genuine draining of self, in partial imitation of Christ’s self-emptying of himself when he became incarnate in mankind. In the same way we must empty ourselves completely, becoming incarnate, so to speak, in another human soul, offering to it the full strength of the divine image which is contained within ourselves.
This it is — and only this — which was rejected by the wisdom of this world, as being a kind of violation of its laws. It is this that made the Cross a symbol of divine love: foolishness for the Greeks and a stumbling block for the Jews, though for us it is the only path to salvation. There is not, nor can there be, any doubt but that in giving ourselves to another in love — to the poor, the sick, the prisoner — we will encounter in him Christ himself, face to face. He told us about this himself when he spoke of the Last Judgement: how he will call some to eternal life because they showed him love in the person of each unfortunate and miserable individual, while others he will send away from himself because their hearts were without love, because they did not help him in the person of his suffering human brethren in whom he revealed himself to them. If we harbor doubts about this on the basis of our unsuccessful everyday experience, then we ourselves are the only reason for these doubts: our loveless hearts, our stingy souls, our ineffective will, our lack of faith in Christ’s help. One must really be a fool for Christ in order to travel this path to its end — and at its end, again and again, encounter Christ. This alone is our all-consuming Christian calling.
And this, I believe, is the evangelical way of piety. It would be incorrect, however, to think that this has been revealed to us once and for all in the four Gospels and clarified in the Epistles. It is continually being revealed and is a constant presence in the world. It is also continually being accomplished in the world, and the form of its accomplishment is the Eucharist, the Church’s most valuable treasure, its primary activity in the world. The Eucharist is the mystery of sacrificial love. Therein lies its whole meaning, all its symbolism, all its power. In it Christ again and again is voluntarily slain for the sins of the world. Again and again the sins of the world are raised by him upon the Cross. And he gives himself — his Body and Blood — for the salvation of the world. By offering himself as food for the world, by giving to the world communion in his Body and Blood, Christ not only saves the world by his sacrifice, but makes each person himself a “christ,” and unites him to his own self-sacrificing love for the world. He takes flesh from the world, he deifies this human flesh, he gives it up for the salvation of the world and then unites the world again to this sacrificed flesh — both for its salvation and for its participation in this sacrificial offering. Along with himself — in himself — Christ offers the world as well as a sacrifice for the expiation of our sins, as if demanding from the world this sacrifice of love as the only path toward union with him, that is, for salvation. He raises the world as well upon the Cross, making it a participant in his death and in his glory.
How profound is the resonance of these words of the Eucharist: “Thine own of thine own we offer unto thee, on behalf of all and for all.” The Eucharist here is the Gospel in action. It is the eternally existing and eternally accomplished sacrifice of Christ and of Christ-like human beings for the sins of the world. Through it earthly flesh is deified and having been deified enters into communion again with earthly flesh. In this sense the Eucharist is true communion with the divine. And is it not strange that in it the path to communion with the divine is so closely bound up with our communion with each other. It assumes consent to the exclamation: “Let us love one another, that with one mind we may confess Father, Son and Holy Spirit: the Trinity, one in essence and undivided.”
The Eucharist needs the flesh of this world as the “matter” of the mystery. It reveals to us Christ’s sacrifice as a sacrifice on behalf of mankind, that is, as his union with mankind. It makes us into “christs,” repeating again and again the great mystery of God meeting man, again and again making God incarnate in human flesh. And all this is accomplished in the name of sacrificial love for mankind.
But if at the center of the Church’s life there is this sacrificial, self-giving eucharistic love, then where are the Church’s boundaries, where is the periphery of this center? Here it is possible to speak of the whole of Christianity as an eternal offering of the Divine Liturgy beyond church walls. What does this mean? It means that we must offer the bloodless sacrifice, the sacrifice of self-surrendering love not only in a specific place, upon the altar of a particular temple; the whole world becomes the single altar of a single temple, and for this universal Liturgy we must offer our hearts, like bread and wine, in order that they may be transubstantiated into Christ’s love, that he may be born in them, that they may become “Godmanhood” hearts, and that he may give these hearts of ours as food for the world, that he may bring the whole world into communion with these hearts of ours that have been offered up, so that in this way we may be one with him, not so that we should live anew but so that Christ should live in us, becoming incarnate in our flesh, offering our flesh upon the Cross of Golgotha, resurrecting our flesh, offering it as a sacrifice of love for the sins of the world, receiving it from us as a sacrifice of love to himself. Then truly in all ways Christ will be in all.
Here we see the measurelessness of Christian love. Here is the only path toward becoming Christ, the only path which the Gospel reveals to us. What does all this mean in a worldly, concrete sense? How can this be manifested in each human encounter, so that each encounter may be a real and genuine communion with God through communion with man? It implies that each time one must give up one’s soul to Christ in order that he may offer it as a sacrifice for the salvation of that particular individual. It means uniting oneself with that person in the sacrifice of Christ, in flesh of Christ. This is the only injunction we have received through Christ’s preaching of the Gospel, corroborated each day in the celebration of the Eucharist. Such is the only true path a Christian can follow. In the light of this path all others grow dim and hazy. One must not, however, judge those who follow other conventional, non-sacrificial paths, paths which do not require that one offer up oneself, paths which do not reveal the whole mystery of love. Nor, on the other hand, is it permitted to be silent about them. Perhaps in the past it was possible, but not today.
Such terrible times are coming. The world is so exhausted from its scabs and its sores. It so cries out to Christianity in the secret depths of its soul. But at the same time it is so far removed from Christianity that Christianity cannot, should not even dare to show a distorted, diminished, darkened image of itself. Christianity should singe the world with the fire of Christian love. Christianity should ascend the Cross on behalf of the world. It should incarnate Christ himself in the world. Even if this Cross, eternally raised again and again on high, be foolishness for our new Greeks and a stumbling block for our new Jews, for us it will still be “the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Cor. 1:24).
We who are called to be poor in spirit, to be fools for Christ, who are called to persecution and abuse — we know that this is the only calling given to us by the persecuted, abused, disdained and humiliated Christ. And we not only believe in the Promised Land and the blessedness to come: now, at this very moment, in the midst of this cheerless and despairing world, we already taste this blessedness whenever, with God’s help and at God’s command, we deny ourselves, whenever we have the strength to offer our soul for our neighbors, whenever in love we do not seek our own ends.