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Seven Women and the Secret of Their Greatness

by Eric Metaxas

“They turned the world upside down” is the phrase that came to mind as I read Eric Metaxas’ book Seven Women and the Secret of Their Greatness. Seven Women (2015) by Nelson Books is a luminous and fast-paced read which features short biographies of these exceptional women: Joan of Arc, Susanna Wesley, Hannah More, Saint Maria of Paris, Corrie ten Boom, Rosa Parks, and Mother Teresa.

Eric Metaxas is well known as the author of the New York Times best sellers Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, (2010), and Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery (2007). In the introduction to his book Seven Women, Metaxas stated that after writing the two weighty biographies mentioned, he didn’t plan on writing any more long biographies, but then he realized, he could write shorter ones. What followed was the book Seven Men and the Secret of Their Greatness (2013). After Seven Men came out, Metaxas relates, he received many requests to write a similar book about women. Seven Women and the Secret of Their Greatness (2015) is the result of those requests.

Again in his introduction to Seven Women, Metaxas addresses the problem of choosing the women about whom he would write. Friends suggested that he should include women famous for being the first to do what men had already done, for instance, Amelia Earhart for her solo flight across the Atlantic, or Sally Ride’s accomplishment as the first American woman in space. Metaxas rejected this idea. He says, “When I consider the seven women I chose, I see that most of them were great for reasons that derive precisely from their being women, not in spite of it; and what made them great has nothing to do with their being measured against or competing with men. In other words, their accomplishments are not gender-neutral but are rooted in their singularity as women.” For Seven Women, Metaxas ultimately chose “… people whose stories I found most compelling and inspiring.”

Of the women listed, the individual whose story was completely new to me was Saint Maria of Paris. Saint Maria’s story is complex, fascinating and inspiring. Metaxas writes, “Her life was messy and complicated, as most of ours are messy and complicated. By breaking every mold in which we would put her, she shows forth the beauty and the full throated reality of the Christian life in a way that few in history have ever done.” Metaxas adds this comment as he begins the story of Saint Maria of Paris. “I wished to include this great woman because many of us know Christian heroes from the Protestant and Catholic traditions, but few of us know the heroes of the Orthodox tradition.”

Saint Maria of Paris was born Elizaveta Pilenko in Riga, Latvia in 1891, and was reared in a devout Orthodox home. After her father’s tragic death, Elizaveta endured frequent moves between Latvian and Russian cities, finally settling in Paris in 1923. Prior to 1923 Elizaveta’s life had been filled with difficulties, including war, grave illness, two troubled marriages and two divorces. She was blessed with three children, but experienced the tragedy of losing her youngest daughter. Then in 1932, upon the urging of two of her spiritual advisors, Elizaveta (Pilenko) Skoptsova became a nun. Adopting the name Mother Maria, she served the poor Russian émigré population in Paris. “Thus began,” writes Metaxas, ” a different kind of nun’s life, one that would shock some and that would profoundly bless others.” For the next 10 years Mother Maria established homes in Paris which provided care for destitute Russian women. As she became more aware of the needs of the community, she broadened her outreach by establishing residences for struggling families and single men.

Mother Maria did not fit anyone’s idea of a nun. She dressed in ragged monks robes, sometimes smoked and drank, and wore old men’s shoes. In this excerpt from Seven Women, Metaxas describes Maria’s calling then quotes Maria as she comments on her non-traditional monastic life: “She saw herself and all Christians as charged by God to live out the true faith in action and not to let the dour voices of mere traditionalism quench the fire to serve God by loving and serving others. ‘We cannot cultivate dead customs–only authentic spiritual fire has weight in religious life…[O]ur God-given freedom calls us to activity and struggle… [W]e will become fools [for] Christ, because we know not only the difficulty of this path but also the immense happiness of feeling God’s hand upon what we do.’ “

When World War II broke out in Europe 1939, Maria immediately recognized the threat to the Jews. “She was one of the rare Christians who saw that the fate of the Jews and Christians, indeed all of humanity, were inextricably intertwined,” writes Metaxas. Because of this, Maria hid numerous Jews in the homes that she had established for Russians in dire need. She was eventually arrested for harboring Jews, and died in Ravensbruck in 1945, just months before the end of the war. In 1985, Mother Maria was listed among the Righteous Gentiles by Yad Vashem for her heroic efforts to save Jewish lives. She was canonized by the Orthodox Church in 2004.

What secret of greatness does Saint Maria of Paris have, and share with, all the other excellent individuals in Seven Women? I believe it is that they took Christ’s admonition to “Love God and love your neighbor” seriously. They put flesh, their flesh, on that great commandment, then went into their neighborhoods and lived it out.

Author Phil Yancey has some very discerning commentary in his book Vanishing Grace (reviewed here in July of 2015) regarding the type of “radical service” that identifies the ministry of Saint Maria of Paris and others like her:

“Dorothy Day used to say that we should live in such a way that our lives wouldn’t make much sense if the gospel were not true. Not everyone feels called to radical service, of course. Yet ordinary Christians must live in a way that differs from the surrounding culture or our message will never get a hearing.

“Herein lies the most solemn challenge facing Christians who want to communicate their faith: if we do not live in a way that draws others to the faith rather than repels them, none of our words will matter.”

If you are looking for a book that will inspire you, your family or your church fellowship to “turn the world upside down” in the name of Jesus, Seven Women and the Secret of Their Greatness certainly fills the bill. There is plenty of evidence in Metaxas’ book that the women featured knew how to communicate their faith in a way that changed the world for the better. Hopefully their examples will induce us to do the same.