In the midst of Nazi-occupied Paris, an independent-minded Russian Orthodox nun lamented that Christians were not equipped to meet the challenges of the moment. “I look everywhere and nowhere do I find anything that would point to the possibility of a breakthrough from material life to eternity,” wrote Maria Skobtsova in an essay titled “Insight in Wartime.” She did not see around her any forms of Christian life that had the “right voice, the right pathos, the kind of wings” to stand against the terrors of the era.
Skobtsova herself was perhaps the exception. Born in 1891 under the czar, she had by the 1940s been a Bolshevik, a poet, and a refugee. She was almost killed by both White and Red armies during the Russian Revolution of 1917. She fled Russia after briefly serving as the deputy mayor of Anapa, a city near the Black Sea. In exile she returned to the Orthodox faith, and in 1932 she became a nun.
She refused, however, to take up residence in a convent or traditional religious community. Issuing a thoroughgoing critique of monasticism, she insisted that she would seek instead “to share the life of paupers and tramps.”