Lives of Consecrated Service

IN MOST TIMES AND PLACES other than our own, traveling was not a recreational pursuit. It was a venturing into the unknown: Were the roads safe from kidnappers, from wild animals, from any danger? Will people receive us or rob us? There were serious reasons why our prayers always had petitions for “those who travel by [air,] sea and land…”

The godly response to travelers was to welcome them and offer them hospitality. In Genesis 18 we read how the patriarch Abraham literally ran to offer hospitality to the three travelers who appeared at his campsite: “Then the Lord appeared to him by the terebinth trees of Mamre, as he was sitting in the tent door in the heat of the day.  So he lifted his eyes and looked, and behold, three men were standing by him; and when he saw them, he ran from the tent door to meet them, and bowed himself to the ground,  and said, ‘My Lord, if I have now found favor in Your sight, do not pass on by Your servant.  Please let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree.  And I will bring a morsel of bread, that you may refresh your hearts. After that you may pass by, inasmuch as you have come to your servant’” (Genesis 18:1-5).

Catherine de Hueck Doherty

Throughout history, extending hospitality was considered a way for ordinary Christians to encounter Christ. The late foundress of Madonna House in Ontario described how this impacted her childhood in pre-Revolutionary Russia: “My father was in the diplomatic service, so he entertained all the diplomatic corps at our home in Petrograd one evening. Big deal: tea and wonderful trays of cakes, and 250 people. Suddenly the butler opened the door and said, ‘Christ at the door, sir.” Well, the French ambassador’s wife dropped her cup; she had never heard anything like that.

“My father and mother excused themselves from the 250 VIPs and walked into the next room. There they found a wino at the door. My father bowed low to him and opened the door. My mother set the table with the best linen and served him herself with my father’s help.”

Catherine was about nine at the time and recalls asking, ‘Mommy, can I serve the gentleman?’ Her mother replied, ‘No, you were disobedient last week; you can’t serve Christ when you are disobedient.’”

“Now that’s my background,” Catherine wrote in her autobiography. “That’s how we were taught.”

Catherine was to make hospitality a way of life. Fleeing the Communist takeover of Russia, Catherine and her husband, Basil, emigrated to the West where they would prosper. By the time Catherine was in her thirties, she had re-discovered Christ in the poor. During the Great Depression, she spearheaded the founding of several houses of hospitality in Toronto, New York and Chicago. In 1947 she established Madonna House in Combermere, Ontario, which grew to be a community of clergy and laity numbering about 200. They receive guests from all over the world and help them make the Madonna House spirit their own. Over the years, twenty “field houses” – mini Madonna Houses – have been opened in North America, Europe, and Asia. The spirit of hospitality Catherine learned as a child had touched the world.

Catherine expressed her spirituality in a document called “The Little Mandate,” a distillation of the Gospel which she believed that she had received from the Lord Himself. It reads: “Arise – go! Sell all you possess. Give it directly, personally to the poor. Take up My cross (their cross) and follow Me: going to the poor, being poor, being one with them, one with Me.”

Asceticism of the Open Door

A similar spirit of hospitality characterized the life of another Russian émigré of the same period, Maria Skobtsova, sometimes known as St Maria of Paris. Maria was born into an upper middle class family in Riga, Latvia and grew up on the family estate on the shores of the Black Sea. The first woman admitted to theological studies in the Russian Orthodox Church, she had fled the Bolshevik revolution along with other members of her family, and settled in Paris, one of the many destitute Russian émigrés in that city.

In 1932, after the death of a daughter and the collapse of her marriage, Maria was encouraged by her bishop to develop a “monasticism in the world,” centered on diaconal service within the city, rather than on withdrawal from it. Funded by her bishop, Maria rented the first of several houses where she would house, feed and clothe other émigrés like herself. A small community of co-workers began to form and the first house was exchanged for a larger property. Within five years Maria had acquired other dwellings to house families, men and the sick.

Maria’s lifestyle did not fit the traditional pattern of monasticism in the Russian Orthodox Church.  “For many in church circles we are too far to the left,” she once noted, “while for the left we are too church-minded.” Maria explained her work, not in sociological or political terms, but in the light of the Gospel. “Everyone is always faced,” she wrote, “with the necessity of choosing between the comfort and warmth of an earthly home, well protected from winds and storms, and the limitless expanse of eternity, which contains only one sure and certain item … the Cross.”

Maria continued her work in Nazi-occupied Paris, ministering to some of the many Jews outlawed by the Nazis. “If we were true Christians,” Mother Maria wrote, “we would all wear the star. The age of confessors has arrived.” Maria was eventually arrested along with her son Yuri, a co-worker, and the community’s chaplain, Fr Dimitri Klepinin. They would all die in Nazi concentration camps. Appropriately enough, Maria breathed her last on Good Friday, 1945.

Metropolitan Anthony Bloom Recalls…

One of St Maria’s first jobs as a newly arrived émigré was as a traveling lecturer employed by the Russian Student Christian Movement. Metropolitan Anthony – then one of the students – recalls this incident:

“She went to the steel foundry in Creusot, where many 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.”