I’ve been re-reading Sergei Hackel’s biography of Mother (now Saint) Maria Skobtsova, Pearl of Great Price: The Life of Mother Maria Skobtsova, 1891-1945. I may write again on some of her perspectives on monasticism (which evoke somewhat conflicting responses in me). But for now I note something that has also struck me in other books I have read in the last year or two, notably in Gillian Crow’s biography of Metropolitan Anthony (Bloom) of Sourozh, This Holy Man: Impressions of Metropolitan Anthony, namely the really desperate situation of the Russian émigrés in France in the period between the first and second world wars. It is easy to wax lyrical about the theological fruitfulness of the theological renewal associated with the emigration – and it certainly was fruitful – and yet, certainly for me as a westerner reading books in translation, it is all-too-easy to forget both that it was Russian and that occurred against the backdrop of appalling social dislocation and need.

This connects with something I was sometimes conscious of in the Netherlands, namely, the strange combination of proximity and distance between the past and the present. I lived for years in a building that had been occupied by the Hitler’s troops during the Second World War, and in a community that had lost two of its sisters to the Nazi camps. On many days I walked past a memorial to them. And yet that past somehow seemed very remote and I was sometimes struck between the contrast between it, and the affluence and apparent security of the present. Not only did the past seem remote, but I had to consciously remind myself that there are also people today in similarly desperate situations. We can somehow domesticate both the past and those aspects of the present that would otherwise be threatening to us, keeping it at a distance, whether by interpretive strategies, border controls and the way society is organised, or simply by self-centredness.

Being back in South Africa it is in some ways more difficult to escape this as one cannot go very far without being aware of desperate social need. But we too – or let me speak only for myself, and say I too – can too-easily forget the horrors of the past and find ways of trying to escape the challenge of the present. And in that context it may be reassuring, if challenging, to realise that the theological fruitfulness of the Russian emigration also occurred against a similarly challenging background.