Translated from the French by Jerry Ryan (Notre Dame; University of Notre Dame Press, 2010)
Never before have I understood the idea of meditating on the inspiration and example of the ‘saints.’ But Elisabeth Behr-Sigel, modern day saint of the Orthodox church, has definitely got under my skin. She lived through the entire twentieth century and is the quintessential Western woman – a mish mash of ethnic and religious backgrounds but steadfast in her adult identity as a Western convert to Orthodox Christianity. I’ve written something about her theology previously, which you can review here.
There are two particular connections with Elisabeth’s life that I’ve been reflecting upon.
First, her career path as a woman theologian was convoluted by both personal and global distractions and it is tempting to think that if she’d been free to devote more time to theology and less time being the bedrock for her family (or staying alive during the second world war) she might have had a greater influence. Her work as a theologian really took off in her ‘retirement’ from mothering and teaching after her husband died: then again, her ‘retirement’ was forty years long! There have been times in the last few months where I’ve felt a bit discouraged at the particular circumstances of my life and I’ve been rebuked by Elisabeth’s example. She pursued her passion for theology amidst the most trying of circumstances, and she certainly didn’t have the benefits of global broadband access! I don’t think I would have persisted through the agonisingly slow pace of research in the 1930s and 40s.
Elisabeth’s determination to live life to the full, including all her ‘responsibilities’ as mother, wife, daughter and neighbour, under girds her theological work. It is a determination articulated through the Orthodox notions of ‘theosis’ – of participating in the life of the divine so as to become more and more like Christ over one’s lifetime, and experience an unfolding union with God through the holy spirit. It is the determined life of holiness. The biography offers vivid witness to an entire life spent with Christ – through the initial excitement of youth and conversion; the spiritual dryness of difficult years; reward for faithfulness through inner peace and external integrity; passionate maturity; and glorious union with God and all that she has known as Love on the last day. May the Lord find me as faithful on my final day.
The second aspect of Elisabeth’s life which is inspiring, comforting and challenging (all at the same time) is her relationship with ‘Father Lev.’ Twenty years her senior, they met when Elisabeth was first seduced by the beauty of Orthodoxy as a young woman studying theology at Strasbourg University. Father Lev was a missionary of sorts, who was first rector of the first French-speaking Orthodox parish in Paris. Their friendship formed over a mutual passion for ancient Orthodoxy engaging with the new world of the West and a life-time of correspondence commenced. Father Lev and Elisabeth were never lovers, Elisabeth was ‘called’ to the vocation of family and Father Lev was ‘called’ to the vocation of a monk. However, after the death of her husband (a difficult man who suffered from alcoholism and spent regular periods hospitalised or unemployed) Elisabeth and Father Lev negotiated a complex intimacy of soul mates, clear that they were ‘in-love’ and equally clear that their love would not proceed along the usual lines of such affection. Elisabeth was in her 50s by this time and Father Lev in his 70s! They lived in separate countries and maintained their separate lives, as life had ordained for them. Elisabeth’s happiness was in knowing the spiritual fruit of union with God – observed in both her life and that of her soul mate. She was determined that their’s would be a ‘higher’ union, consummated with Christ on the ‘endless day’.
How quickly we reduce passion to sexual intercourse! How skeptical we have become about a person’s capacity for celibate wholeness! Elisabeth’s example brings me great joy because it testifies to an erotic-spiritual fulfillment available to every person regardless of life circumstances. There is a photo of the two of them around the time of their greatest intimacy: I knew they were in love from first glance, I didn’t have to read it in the story – it was there in Elisabeth’s smile and Lev’s easy posture. Olga Lossky doesn’t idealise this situation; undoubtedly their holy intimacy was maintained through tremendous effort, anguished determination and hours of prayer. But I am glad that their testimony stands unadorned, open to criticism yet confident in it’s own integrity.
I wish this biography was a little better written. I don’t know enough to know whether it’s in the original text or the translation, but it could do with a decent editing! It’s the first time I’ve ever been inspired to ‘write a book myself one day’ utilising the extensive archives of Elisabeth’s personal correspondence. For now, all I can say is, I am so glad to have met this amazing woman.