Censers of Flesh and Bones

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I behold a strange, most glorious mystery: heaven- the cave, the cherubic throne-the Virgin, the manger-the place where Christ lay. The uncontained God whom we magnify in song”.

In a manger of love our Jesus was born, and in a cave he chose to visit our humanity.

By his descending, the Lord experienced all our weaknesses except for the sin. He did not chose the scepters or the sofas of the rich in order to preach the salvation, but the womb of a Virgin. He put us on so that we could put Him on. He dwelt in a cave so we may become citizens of Heavens. Jesus came looking for the humanity that was wounded with Adam and strayed with Eve. His incarnation reminds us of dispensation. It is the stamp of the divine love that looks for censed souls, like Mary’s, that spread  Creator’s scent worldwide. This is the case of Virgin Mary, the censor that spread the light of God for the mankind.

Let us put ourselves, just once, and see how this girl fulfilled the will of God, and how She became an example for us in all our troubles, even 2000 years after the coming of our Lord.

Mary was not one of those earthly “mighties”. But She was a mighty in Her prayer. She was not of a high class, but a girl of a humble love Who obeyed God’s order. She did not complain thinking about Her reputation, and She was not ashamed of getting pregnant of the Holy Spirit. Mary, the Galilaean, did not complain of the distress that happened in those days, which  looks like the distress that takes place nowadays. On the Contrary, She was armored with God. She was not ashamed of Her Son’s Cross, but She accompanied Him to the Golgotha, and She cried, just like us, over the tyranny of the falsehood.

Mary is one of many, who see the nails of falsehood being beaten in truth’s body just like those nails which were beaten in Jesus’s hands. But Mary did not deny Her God the way how some of us do today seeing how darkness overwhelming the light. She did not ask: where is God? Cannot He watch the sorrow of my heart? But, She said: God is the strength of my heart. Surely, Mary is a human, just like us. And surely, we may cry just like Her. But the strength and the uniqueness of this Virgin is the fact that She did not let the sorrow to overcome the hope. She was not afraid of putting her hope in God. And we are called upon to behave the same way in these difficult days in which we pass as humans, community, country and the whole East.

We are called upon nowadays to be united, and to follow the example of Virgin Mary and all the disciples. Their unity was mixed with an undoubted hope in God Who had victory over death. They buried fear because of their unity and love. And we are called upon, as much as possible, to bury our afflictions by keeping the unity of souls and hearts regardless of the geographical distances. Antioch is those hearts that are tied to Jesus. Before these bounds egoism, races, cracks and disputed melt out in order to make Jesus shine on the front.

We, as the Christians of the East, are called upon to contemplate in Jesus Who did not incarnate in days better than ours. Because of His love we put on His name first in Antioch, and with the power of His Cross our ancestors lived on this land. We are on it and we come from it. We were born from its womb and we will be buried in it. We are staying here, and we will carry our cross following the example of our Lord. And to those who abduct our people and bishops we say: We are a part of this East. In it we live together with our brothers from all religions. We won’t spare an effort to remain in this land defending our history and existence.

We pray today for the peace in Syria, and for stability in Lebanon. We pray for the suffering East, for the bleeding Palestine. We pray for the homeless, for the displaced, for the lost, for the abducted and for the martyr. We pray to Virgin Mary to send peace to the souls, because it is the seed of peace on earth. We pray to protect all Her abducted children, amongst them the two bishops of Aleppo Youhanna Ibraheem and Boulos Yazigi. We pray to Her to be with our people everywhere bestowing humanity the mercy of the Child of peace and the father of mercies.

Oh Jesus, Who descended to us as a Child. Come and fill us with the abundance of your mercy, keep our children and parents. Come and stay in the cave of our souls and trim our thoughts with Your holy light. Oh Jesus, whose presence filled us with peace, bless our life. Calm with the power of Your silence every disorder, fear and turbulence. Teach us to chant together: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men”.

 
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Appropriately, the most soul moving Christmas messages this year have been issued from the parts of our planet where Christians are most prosecuted!

 

 

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Drunk on Delusion, Sober in Despair

His Body a Prayer a Crossbeam

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St Kevin and the Blackbird (1996)

By Seamus Heaney

And then there was St Kevin and the blackbird.
The saint is kneeling, arms stretched out, inside
His cell, but the cell is narrow, so

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One turned-up palm is out the window, stiff
As a crossbeam, when a blackbird lands
And lays in it and settles down to nest.

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Kevin feels the warm eggs, the small breast, the tucked
Neat head and claws and, finding himself linked
Into the network of eternal life,

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Is moved to pity: now he must hold his hand
Like a branch out in the sun and rain for weeks
Until the young are hatched and fledged and flown.

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And since the whole thing’s imagined anyhow,
Imagine being Kevin. Which is he?
Self-forgetful or in agony all the time

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From the neck on out down through his hurting forearms?
Are his fingers sleeping? Does he still feel his knees?
Or has the shut-eyed blank of underearth

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Crept up through him? Is there distance in his head?
Alone and mirrored clear in love’s deep river,
‘To labour and not to seek reward,’ he prays,

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A prayer his body makes entirely
For he has forgotten self, forgotten bird
And on the riverbank forgotten the river’s name.

*
The Spirit Level (1996)

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The Irish poet’s and Nobel Laureate’s, Seamus Heaney’s, extract from his Nobel prize speech, drawing a parallel between his labour as a poet in modern society and Saint Kevin’s labour of love, “to labour and not to seek reward”:

“Which is why for years I was bowed to the desk like some monk bowed over his prie-dieu … Then finally and happily, and not in obedience to the dolorous circumstances of my native place but in despite of them, I straightened up.  … I shall try to represent the import of that changed orientation with a story out of Ireland.
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This is a story about another monk holding himself up valiantly in the posture of endurance. It is said that once upon a time St. Kevin was kneeling with his arms stretched out in the form of a cross in Glendalough, a monastic site not too far from where we lived in Co. Wicklow, a place which to this day is one of the most wooded and watery retreats in the whole of the country. Anyhow, as Kevin knelt and prayed, a blackbird mistook his outstretched hand for some kind of roost and swooped down upon it, laid a clutch of eggs in it and proceeded to nest in it as if it were the branch of a tree. Then, overcome with pity and constrained by his faith to love the life in all creatures great and small, Kevin stayed immobile for hours and days and nights and weeks, holding out his hand until the eggs hatched and the fledglings grew wings, true to life if subversive of common sense, at the intersection of natural process and the glimpsed ideal, at one and the same time a signpost and a reminder. Manifesting that order of poetry where we can at last grow up to that which we stored up as we grew.” (1)

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St Kevin of Glendalough, Wonder-worker of Ireland (also Coemgen, Caoimhghin, Coemgenus, and Kavin) is a Celtic saint, venerated in the Roman Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Anglican Communion. He was the abbot of Glendalough Monastery. He was born in 498, and fell asleep in the Lord in 618 at the age of 120 years. His feast day is celebrated on June 3. The icons suggest St. Kevin’s preference for the life of solitude, penance and prayer of a hermit, and also his affinity with nature and his love for animals and birds.

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The well known story of the black bird in his hand is a verbal image of his reverence for creation, while the fawn at St. Kevin’s feet is a symbol of his own gentle peaceful nature. … The deer recalls the providence of God who through a doe provided milk for a child Kevin had fostered, and at the same time reminds us of the deer in the psalms, who is the image of the soul that yearns for God – the living water. … The salmon again emphasizes for us the care of the Creator who provided for the monks of the nearby monastery, a salmon sufficient for their daily meal. It also recalls that the fish (ICTHUS) is an ancient symbol of the incarnation of Christ. … The cow highlights God’s providence, since it is recorded that a white cow brought milk each day to feed the infant Kevin.  … There is also the otter that rescued Kevin’s breviary from the lake and retrieved it undamaged and brought him fish also brought fish for his monastery. (2)

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Sources:

(1) Excerpt from Seamus Heaney’s Nobel Lecture. For the full text go to  http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/laureates/1995/heaney-lecture.html

(2) http://www.glendaloughhermitage.ie/hermitage/st-kevins-parish-church/icon-of-st-kevin-caoimhin/ and http://orthodoxwiki.org/Kevin_of_Glendalough

Die Before you Die

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“If you die before you die, you will not die when you die” (Greek Orthodox monastery)

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“… This week, I noticed a pattern in popular music of our time that I had not noticed before. It was something I heard in song lyrics. I’ll quote some for you from a few different songs:

So cut me from the line / Dizzy, spinning endlessly / Somebody make me feel alive /
And shatter me. (Lindsey Stirling / Lzzy Hale, “Shatter Me”)

Don’t let me die here / There must be something more / Bring me to life (Evanescence, “Bring Me to Life”)

How can the only thing that’s killing me make me feel so alive? (Parachute, “She (For Liz)”)

I could lie, couldn’t I, couldn’t I? / Every thing that kills me makes me feel alive. (OneRepublic, “Counting Stars”)

Do whatever I’m yours / Do whatever I’m sure / Anything, anything, anything, anything to feel alive (Jhené Aiko, “Drinking and Driving”)

When everything feels like the movies /Yeah, you bleed just to know you’re alive (Goo Goo Dolls, “Iris”)

Those are from six different songs. I could quote lots more like this, but this sample should suffice. These are all popular songs from the radio.

So what is the pattern? There are two things here. First, there is a cry out to be made to “feel alive” or to “come alive.” I did a Google search on a large popular song lyrics website, and there were nearly 1,100 songs that mentioned wanting to “feel alive.” Almost 1,300 used the phrase “come alive.” 100 used the phrase “bring me to life.”

I started clicking around when I saw this pattern and looked at the full lyrics to a few dozen songs. And the second pattern I noticed was that this language of wanting to feel alive was often paired with language about death and/or violence. For many of these lyricists, the key to feeling “alive” was first to die, to feel the pain of violence or to commit violence.

… So what is the point of this little tour through pop music? This is just one way of taking the temperature of our culture, of getting a sense of where we are as a people. There is a sort of anesthetization of life these days. We’re always trying to feel better, to feel entertained, to feel alive. And our pop songs sing about violence—even self-violence. And the movies and TV get more graphically violent. And the consumption of pornography is nearly off the charts. And we watch wars in other countries on TV as a perverse form of entertainment. …

Compare all this violence with Apostle Paul’s words: “I bear in my body the brand-marks of the Lord Jesus.” …  Into our culture of virtual violence and screaming out for the feeling of life come these words of the Apostle Paul: “But God forbid that I should boast, except in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through Whom the world is crucified to me, and I to the world.”

It’s not clear exactly what Paul means when he says that he bears in his body “the brand-marks of the Lord Jesus.” But he is probably speaking of his own suffering, that he has been physically wounded for his confession of faith. Paul is no stranger to violence. He feels pain. He is beaten. He is thrown into prison. He will be beheaded. Paul knows about violence. He knows about death.

… Paul embraces the death of the world! And he embraces his own death. But not because he just wants to feel alive. He embraces death because he knows that in the crucifixion of Jesus Christ is life. He embraces death because he knows that he himself must be crucified with Christ so that his death can be joined with Christ’s death.

This is the paradox of our great hope as Christians—that we seek life, just like the pop songs! And we seek death and even violence, just like the pop songs! But it is not just any death or any violence that brings us life. It is the suffering and death of Jesus, to which we join our own suffering and death by repentance, by confession, by the sacraments, by love.

… The pop songs get it right, but not quite right. There is more to life than merely “feeling alive.” Life is not found in mere violence and death. Life is found in sacrifice and resurrection. Life is found in Jesus Christ, and in His Cross we therefore glory. Like Paul, we boast. Like Paul, we are crucified to the world, and the world is crucified to us. And death is slain. And we are made truly alive. And with Christ we will rise from the dead.”

Source: Road from Emmaus blog

By Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick

http://blogs.ancientfaith.com/roadsfromemmaus/2015/09/13/you-bleed-just-to-know-youre-alive/

Solitary and Naked Before God

... If we decide responsibly and seriously to make the Gospel truth the standard for our human souls, we will have no doubts about how to act in any particular case of our lives: we should renounce everything we have, take up our cross, and follow Him. The only thing Christ leaves us is the path that leads after Him, and the cross which we bear on our shoulders, imitating His bearing of the cross to Golgotha.

[And that is all]

It can be generally affirmed that Christ calls us to imitate Him. That is the exhaustive meaning of all Christian morality. And however differently various peoples in various ages understand the meaning of this imitation, all ascetic teachings in Christianity finally boil down to it. Desert dwellers imitate Christ’s forty-day sojourn in the desert. Fasters fast because He fasted. Following His example, the prayerful pray, virgins observe purity, and so on. It is not by chance that Thomas Kempis entitled his book The Imitation of Christ; it is a universal precept of Christian morality, the common title, as it were, of all Christian asceticism.

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El Greco – Christ Embraced the Cross (detail) (1587-96)

I will not try to characterize here the different directions this imitation has taken, and its occasional deviations, perhaps, from what determines the path of the Son of Man in the Gospel. There are as many different interpretations as there are people, and deviations are inevitable, because the human soul is sick with sin and deathly weakness.

What matters is something else. What matters is that in all these various paths Christ Himself made legitimate this solitary standing of the human soul before God, this rejection of all the rest – that is, of the whole world: father and mother, as the Gospel precisely puts it, and not only the living who are close to us, but also the recently dead – everything, in short. Naked, solitary, freed of everything, the soul sees only His image before it, takes the cross on its shoulders, following His example, and goes after him to accept its own dawnless night of Gethsemane, its own terrible Golgotha, and through it to bear its faith in the Resurrection into the undeclining joy of Easter.

[And that is all]

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Here it indeed seems that everything is exhausted by the words “God and my soul.” All the rest is what He called me to renounce, and so there is nothing else: God – and my soul – and nothing.

No, not quite nothing. The human soul does not stand empty-handed before God. The fullness is this: God – and my soul – and the cross that it takes up. There is also the cross.

[And that is all]

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El Greco — Christ Carrying the Cross (1587-96)

The meaning and significance of the cross are inexhaustible. The cross of Christ is the eternal tree of life, the invincible force, the union of heaven and earth, the instrument of a shameful death. But what is the cross in our path of the imitation of Christ? How should our crosses resemble the one cross of the Son of Man? For even on Golgotha there stood not one but three crosses: the cross of the God-man and the crosses of the two thieves. Are these two crosses not symbols, as it were, of all human crosses, and does it not depend on us which one we choose? For us the way of the cross is unavoidable in any case, we can only choose to freely follow either the way of the blaspheming thief and perish, or the way of the one who called upon Christ and be with Him today in paradise. For a certain length of time, the thief who chose perdition shared the destiny of the Son of Man. He was condemned and nailed to a cross in the same way; he suffered torment in the same way. But that does not mean that his cross was the imitation of Christ’s cross, that his path led him in the footsteps of Christ.

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Detail from the Crucifixion from the Isenheim Altarpiece, circa 1512-16

… What is most essential, most determining in the image of the cross is the necessity of freely and voluntarily accepting it and taking it up. Christ freely, voluntarily took upon Himself the sins of the world, and raised them up on the cross, and thereby redeemed them and defeated hell and death. To accept the endeavor and the responsibility voluntarily, to freely crucify your sins – that is the meaning of the cross, when we speak of bearing it on our human paths.  … The free path to Golgotha – that is the true imitation of Christ.

[And that is all]

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Crucifixion, by Titian, circa 1555

This would seem to exhaust all the possibilities of the Christian soul, and thus the formula “God and my soul” indeed embraces the whole world. All the rest that was renounced on the way appears only as a sort of obstacle adding weight to my cross. And heavy as it may be, whatever human sufferings it may place on my shoulders, it is all the same my cross, which determines my personal way to God, my personal following in the footsteps of Christ. My illness, my grief, my loss of dear ones, my relations to people, to my vocation, to my work – these are details of my path, not ends in themselves, but a sort of grindstone on which my soul is sharpened, certain – perhaps sometimes burdensome – exercises for my soul, the particularities of my personal path.

[And that is all]

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If that is so, it certainly settles the question. It can only be endlessly varied, depending on the individual particularities of epochs, cultures, and separate persons. But essentially everything is clear. God and my soul, bearing its cross. In this an enormous spiritual freedom, activity, and responsibility are confirmed. And that is all.

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… There are simply millions of people born into the world, some of whom hear Christ’s call to renounce everything, take up their cross, and follow Him, and, as far as their strength, their faith, their personal endeavor allow, they answer that call. They are saved by it, they meet Christ, as if merging their life with His. …

The cross of Golgotha is the cross of the Son of Man, the crosses of the thieves and our personal crosses are precisely personal, and as an immense forest of these personal crosses we are moving along the paths to the Kingdom of Heaven. And that is all.

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Taking Up The Cross

By St. Maria Skobtsova  

  • The first icon on the left is Cross-bearing Theotokos painted by St. Maria Skobtsova of Paris

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Mother Maria Skobtsova died on Good Friday, 1945, in Ravensbr ck concentration camp near Berlin. Maria’s real life is more incredible than any fiction! The “crime” of this influential painter, poet, social activist, 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 essay reprinted here is part of a longer text included in Mother Maria Skobtsova: Essential Writings, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky and published by Orbis Books.

Source: https://incommunion.org/2007/10/27/taking-up-the-cross/

For her life, look at: https://orthodoxcityhermit.com/2015/09/23/mother-maria-of-paris-saint-of-the-open-door/

Like a Russian Novel

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A very unlikely nun

For a nun, Maria’s story is more than a little unconventional. At Bishop Anthony Bloom’s first encounter with her, Maria sat at a cafe table with a beer. She was often seen shambling around the Paris market in her tattered habit, cigarette perched on her lip, haggling for deals. And she kept company with the lowest of the low.

“She was a very unusual nun in her behavior and her manners. I was simply staggered when I saw her for the first time in monastic clothes. I was walking along the Boulevard Montparnasse and I saw: in front of a café, on the pavement, there was a table, on the table was a glass of beer and behind the glass was sitting a Russian nun in full monastic robes. I looked at her and decided that I would never go near that woman. I was young then and held extreme views.”

That was her calling. Former-revolutionary, twice-married, twice divorced, cigarette-smoking, poet, painter, theologian, nun and martyr-saint, she knew the meaning of God’s mercy and desired only to share it with as many as she could muster. The number was not small.

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Her backstory is the stuff of Russian novels. Born into a wealthy family in 1891, her father died when she was young, and the shock of the loss drove her to renounce her faith. Mixing with smart and fashionable of St. Petersburg, she published poetry, married a Bolshevik, and distressed over the state of the city’s beleaguered poor. But idealism couldn’t save her marriage, which ended in 1913.

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The following year she moved to her family’s estate on the coast of the Black Sea with her daughter, Gaiana. Headstrong and independent, Maria was politically active and eventually became mayor of the town of Anapa as a single mom! She also rediscovered her faith, which informed her activism. “[T]he Christian,” she said, “is called to social work.”

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The problem for Maria was that she was too conservative for the radicals and too radical for the conservatives. After the start of the Russian Revolution she found herself arrested and tried by the anti-Bolshevik party and only escaped conviction because of a kindly judge, Daniel Skobtsov. The two married within months of her acquittal.

With the Revolution in full swing, life in Anapa became impossible. The family fled, swelling in the sojourn. By the time they settled in Paris in 1923, Yuri and Anastasia had been born.

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And now the obvious question: How did this wife of two men and mother of three children become a nun?

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Not good, but revolutionary

It started when Anastasia succumbed to a wasting illness and died in 1926. The family, already strained, was devastated. Maria and Daniel separated and eventually divorced. But out of the devastation Maria’s calling to help the downtrodden was renewed.

Refugee life was terrible, especially for the Russians. Work was scarce. Despair and alcoholism was rampant. Maria saw herself as uniquely suited to help, to rescue, to comfort these victims and misfits. She would be, she said, “a mother to all.”

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The proposed path was monasticism. Revealing is her conversation with her bishop, Metropolitan Evlogy. “I could never be a good nun,” she protested. “I know,” he said. “But I want you to be a revolutionary nun.”

“[S]he went to the steel foundry in Creusot, where a large number of Russian [refugees] were working. She came there and announced that she was preparing to give a series of lectures on Dostoevsky. She was met with general howling: “We do not need Dostoevsky. We need linen ironed, we need our rooms cleaned, we need our clothes mended — and you bring us Dostoevsky!” And she answered: “Fine, if that is needed, let us leave Dostoevsky alone.” And for several days she cleaned rooms, sewed, mended, ironed, cleaned. When she had finished doing all that, they asked her to talk about Dostoevsky. This made a big impression on me, because she did not say: “I did not come here to iron for you or clean your rooms. Can you not do that yourselves?” She responded immediately and in this way she won the hearts and minds of the people.”

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And so she was. There would be no convent for Maria. Her monastery, as she said, was “the whole world.” Several houses and a chapel were set up to shelter and serve those in need. Maria worked tirelessly, Gaiana and Yuri aiding the effort, Father Lev Gillet serving as the ‘convent’’s chaplain for many years. In addition to painting icons and leading religious discussions, she cooked, counseled, and combed the streets looking for anyone she could help.

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“[E]ach of us,” she wrote, “is faced with the demand to strain all our forces, not fearing the most difficult endeavor, in ascetic self-restraint, giving our souls for others sacrificially and lovingly, to follow in Christ’s footsteps to our appointed Golgotha.”

Maria’s appointment emerged as World War II began and the Nazis seized control of Paris. The only response was obvious.

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A martyr for our own time

Maria and her associates began working with the French Resistance, hiding Jews, forging records and papers, anything to foul Nazi aims. She was brazen. “If the Germans come looking for the Jews,” she said, “I’ll show them the icon of the Mother of God.”

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* Two triangles, a star,

The shield of King David, our forefather.

This is election, not offense.

The great path and not an evil.

Once more in a term fulfilled,

Once more roars the trumpet of the end;

And the fate of a great people

Once more is by the prophet proclaimed.

Thou art persecuted again, O Israel,

But what can human malice mean to thee,

who have heard the thunder from Sinai? * 

The Gestapo knew something was afoot, but it took time to foil the plot. When they finally did, the Nazis dragged Maria and her coconspirators—including her son Yuri—off to prison.

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During her two-year confinement in the Ravensbrück concentration camp, she was a beacon, bringing hope to people in utter despair. She led prayers and Bible study, fed people from stores she smuggled away, and radiated hope to any and all.

But while her hope was invincible, her body was not. The trauma of the camp took its toll and she became increasingly frail. “Though she was unable to stand for roll calls, she traded some bread for thread so she could embroider one last icon.” It depicted Mary holding a crucified Christ. Before she could finish, she was taken to the gas chamber where she died on Great and Holy Saturday.

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MOTHER MARIA OF PARIS: SAINT OF THE OPEN DOOR

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Sources: http://blogs.ancientfaith.com/joeljmiller/maria-skobtsova/

https://incommunion.org/2004/10/18/saint-of-the-open-door/

http://jimandnancyforest.com/2006/08/mothermaria/

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*Maria’s own poem reflecting on the symbol Jews were required to wear during WWII*

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* * If you are interested in more details about Maria’s activism, inspiration, grace, heroism, and hope-filled commitment, so needed in our world today, please visit: https://incommunion.org/2004/10/18/saint-of-the-open-door/

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For ST. MARIA SKOBTSOVA RESOURCES, on her life and writings, please go to: https://incommunion.org/st-maria-skobtsova-resources/