I’ve recently finished reading Olga Lossky’s biography of Elisabeth Behr-Sigel, Toward the Endless Day. It is fascinating and very well written and I may write more about some of the issues that it raises for me again. However, one thing that struck me, and which I thought would be worth making available to a broader public, is a letter that Behr-Sigel received from Mother Eudoxie, the foundress of the Monastery of the Protection of the Mother of God in Bussy-en-Othe, in 1957.
This interested me for two reasons. The first is that in some circles Mother Eudoxie is probably best known for not having got on with Saint Maria Skobtsova. While I don’t want to in any way detract from the holiness of Saint Maria, I remember that when I first read her biography a number of years ago, despite my admiration for her I felt a secret sympathy for Mother Eudoxie who seemed to appear in a less-than-entirely favourable light! The second reason is that I spent a couple of months in Bussy when I was in transition in recent years and it remains a very important place for me. No doubt some of Saint Maria’s criticisms of traditional monasticism were coming out of particular experiences or contexts, but what comes through in Mother Eudoxie’s description, and which I also experienced in Bussy, and elsewhere, is that the authentic Tradition does not exclude being open to the world and to those in need. In any case, this seemed worth making available online.
I just received your letter, which was forwarded to me here, in Switzerland, where I arrived more than four months ago. I remember you very well and our meeting at M[other] Maria’s place [the Lourmel shelter, prior to the war]. I’ve read your book on Russian holiness.
I’m sorry not to be able to attend the meetings of your ecumenical group [in Nancy] since meetings of this sort interest me very much. I can reply to the questions you ask but, give the time limits imposed by circumstances, I can’t meditate sufficiently on my answers or formulate them as well as I would like.
I left Russia in 1932, where I had made my monastic profession in a small convent – clandestinely, since this was already prohibited by law. I began to wear the habit only when I came to France. At the beginning, I lived with M[other] Maria [Skobtsova], who was dreaming of a new vocation for monasticism, and since there was nothing else, I began to collaborate with her. Her ideal was the active life and social advocacy. Unfortunately, she didn’t have any fondness for the liturgical offices or any knowledge of the Orthodox monastic tradition, and yet it is tradition that links us to the principle goal of monasticism: the transformation of the carnal being into a spiritual being, the purification of the heart by every means – self-denial, obedience, in brief, life according to the Gospel. Activity should be based on this fundamental premise. M[other] Maria practiced a lot of authentic denial herself, but she refused to believe that the traditional means for attaining it were efficacious. This gave our life with her an aspect of disorder, of arbitrariness. In the end, I wasn’t able to continue. I went to England where I had good relations with Anglican convents and, with their help, I got enough money to found a community in France. The beginnings were very difficult. Finally, a friend gave us her property in the Yonne: a big country house, a large garden, and two fields outside the village. We have been there for ten years. At this moment, we are fourteen sisters, a chaplain, and several persons whom we lodge and who help us with our work. During the summer we have boarder; in winter there are a few old women who stay with us on a permanent basis and whom we take care of. They pay us, and it is our only income, which enables us to receive all sorts of exceptional cases: a mother with two small children, abandoned by her husband; sick people without any means; old women who do not yet have their papers to be able to enter rest homes, … sometimes abnormal persons. People know we are there and that they can send someone to us only if we have enough room. As you can see, we do not have a defined activity.
Now, as for the convent itself. We are, of course, faithful to tradition. Orthodox monasticism is perhaps closer, in the way it is organized, to the Benedictines of old, in the times when they cleared the land, when they formed cultural centers in an uncivilized Europe, when you couldn’t be a specialist, when you had to take care of all the needs of the neighbors. The inner structure is also similar. A convent is an independent family, under the protection of the bishop. The abbess is the indisputable head until her death, and it is her personal inspiration that forms the spirit of the community. But only the spirit, because there are fixed rules. The origin of these rules goes back to the Stoudion monastery of Constantinople. There are fundamental rules that have been laid down by the ecumenical councils. But in all that, there are varieties in the details and they form the body of the traditions of a given monastery. We had to begin with everything up in the air and in very difficult conditions. I adopted the rule of a convent in western Russia along with another rule from a Carpathian convent, modifying both according to the circumstances. These circumstances were, above all, the psychology of the novices, who were no longer young and with whom you can’t be too rigorous about matter of fasting, vigils, etc. All that is very flexible, and I take advantage of the leeway offered by tradition. Our sisters do everything themselves. They tend the garden and the two fields, which give us our vegetables; we have two cows and some chickens. We have to take care of the old women, do the housework, sing the Daily Office. All that requires a lot of physical strength – and it also has a spiritual goal that is called “the obediences,” which should be carried out with prayer in one’s heart…
The inner life of the sisters develops under the inspiration give by the Daily Office and the spiritual direction they receive from their superiors and confessors. Since our chaplain is a member of the “white” clergy who is unfamiliar with the monastic tradition, I occasionally invite a priest-monk for spiritual direction, and it is he who professes the sisters.
According to the canons, the age for profession is forty, so the primitive and regular (rassophor) novitiates last a long time. There are exceptions, but these depend on the judgment of the abbess.
Sometimes, Western Christians do not understand that, in our concept of monasticism, which is that of a perfect Christianity, a single monastery embraces all sorts of different lifestyles within it walls: from those active in projects on the outside to contemplatives, and all the intermediary states. All that is individual, as are all human souls. Everything should be dominated by love, which is the true goal of the Christian life; monasticism is just one of the paths toward this goal.
Obviously, in our times there are many areas of activity where we could deploy our talents: the translation of the Daily Office into French (one of our sisters is Greek but culturally French), into English (we have a former Anglican who used to be a journalist and the literary editor of a publishing house on the Continent) – all that is very interesting but, unfortunately, there aren’t enough of us; we have all the manual work that need to be done just to subsist, and we don’t have young people willing to commit themselves to the religious life. We feel useful, people seek us out for different reasons, but what do you want us to do?
Let’s go back to the essential: Tradition is steadfast; the goal of monasticism is to give new birth from the old self in us, and that is why a new name is given u when we make our profession. The goal is to purify the heart by fighting against the passions; the means are the vows of chastity, obedience and poverty and the task of imitating the model given us in the life of the Lord; and the true shaping of the soul comes about through the life of the Community, where we all share the heaviest and most disagreeable tasks – all the novices go through that. Later a place, an obedience, is found for each according to her talents. I hope you understand my French, which is far from perfect, even though my father was French. If you need more particulars, please let me know; this letter is more like a rough draft. Pray for me…
P.S. The oral recitation of the Jesus Prayer enters into all of that, obviously. But we still don’t feel able to attain the summit.
From Olga Lossky, Toward the Endless Day, 110-113.