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To love fully is to empty oneself

02 July 2021

Rowan Williams examines Mother Maria Skobtsova’s work on love of neighbour


IF WE are to be tools in the hands of God for the transformation of the neighbour, the birth of Christ in them, love must be in the strictest sense disinterested. This resonates with the overall priority of dissolving the fictitious and dangerous role ascribed to the isolated ego with its own determined wants and goals.

The love of neighbour is thus a radically kenotic affair: we are to struggle in our loving for the genuine well-being of the other, and so must struggle both with our own instinctive self-serving fantasies and also with the other’s draw towards self-serving.

The key tension is that in order to love disinterestedly, without “mercenary” intent, we have to attend with all our energy to the particularity of the other: the last thing disinterested love can be is a blandly undifferentiated benevolence.

Love bows down before the divine image in the other, before the unsearchable mystery of personal uniqueness. Any love that leaves untransformed the ego’s approach to love as a job to be done, as an individual achievement, is bound to stop short of a truthful recognition of the divine image, and so will never engage with the reality of the other: it will more and more “de-realise” the other (to borrow a term Mother Maria* does not herself use), and so will contribute to my own isolation from reality, my own de-realisation.

alamyMother Maria Skobtsova

Thus a solidarity resting on sameness is bound to collapse into the logic of the unredeemed ego: it will seek to create a homogenised object for benevolence, the repeated, imitative “selves” of a standardised multitude, and in doing so will solidify the separation of the ego from its objects.

This is why it is essential to work on one’s own “inner world”, scrutinising and monitoring it for signs of false inwardness, the powerful impulse to protect and quarantine the soul.

The adoption of passionate partisan views and tactics is always a mark of such an impulse, which is why this sort of partisanship must be so firmly resisted — not that our love should be (in the usual sense) “dispassionate”, but it should be free from the urge to determine and dominate the other’s reality.

But in fact what Mother Maria is talking about is “dispassion” in the classical Greek Christian sense of freedom from self-regarding and self-serving impulse; when this is purged in the soul, we are prepared for the encounter with the fathomless other.

And this purgation is part of the “terror” that she points to in the obeying of the second great commandment, which is the terror appropriate when faced with the living God. It becomes increasingly clear why she so insists on the unity of love of God and love of neighbour, and so strongly underlines the inadequacy and ultimate deceptiveness of thinking about love of neighbour as a duty performed to illustrate a general obedience to divine commands.


ONCE again, we are reminded that the ego that has God as its desired object, the satisfaction of its individual longing and adoration, or the ego that is “passionate” about its own ascetical performance, is exactly the same ego as the one that has earthly and physical gratification as its object; what is necessary is the transfiguration of the desiring subject, which happens only, so she implies, when the “Marian” awareness of solidarity comes into focus.

The true personhood of the other whom we love is generated and brought to birth by the kenotic event of our immersion in the Body of Christ, our being bound into solidarities far beyond what we could ever have chosen.

Living in this condition, we are constantly giving place, giving space to each other. It is not that we have to renew over and over again some individual act of accepting the crucifixion of our passions and fears; more that we have to learn the habits that will unblock the reality that is always already at work in us, the connectedness into which we have been baptised, which is a connectedness with the entire human world and (consequently) the entire world of time and matter in which we live and out of which we ourselves are born.

And the active undertaking to think oneself into the “inner world” of the neighbour is the most serious element in our ascetical life; it is this which constitutes the active “adoption” of the neighbour, with the goal of opening up the life of Christ in that neighbour.

To be, as Mother Maria says, “more attentive to [our] brother’s flesh than to our own” means recognising that we must see our brother or sister as involved in the world just as we are — that we must see them precisely as “flesh”.

The clear-minded discernment of the actual needs experienced at this level is the basis of asceticism — and Mother Maria grants that even theoretical analysis has its place here to the extent that it is free from our own ambitions and focused solely on those needs and the practical response to them.


THIS attention to the sheer physical otherness, the toughness of embodied pain and privation, is the beginning of that more complex asceticism that strips us of our fascination with the story of our own passions, chastens our uninvolved curiosity about others, and readies us for imaginative entry into the standpoint of another.

And in this many-layered accompaniment of the suffering other, the Christian genuinely reflects the many-layered work of Christ: “He gave his flesh to be crucified, He suffered in His human soul, He gave His spirit into the hands of the Father.”

And at the same time, this is complemented by the Marian experience of standing helplessly under the cross: Mother Maria seems to be suggesting that this Marian moment is in fact a crucial element in prompting our growth in the intelligent and deliberate attention involved in the conscious bearing of the cross with and for others; as if (though again Mother Maria does not say this in so many words) the Marian sense of being overwhelmed from outside by the presence of the other’s pain is one of the things that displaces the ego and its self-oriented projects — including the self-oriented project of “doing good” or “serving the neighbour”.

The “terror of the other” begins in the simple invasion of our selfhood by the pain of the neighbour; but it is a necessary element in our learning what Mother Maria likes to call “nonpossession”.

And only in that “nonpossession” do we properly recognise the true sense of the personal, the inaccessible and impregnable dignity, mystery, and elusiveness of the human other, and, ultimately, all others, sentient or not.

That which claims attention at this depth or with this totality is “functionally divine”, acting towards us as a sign of God. When we have begun on the path of nonpossession we are able to see the world for what it is, not as a series of mirrors for the self.

“Terror” is an appropriate response to the extent that loss of control over our environment is bound to terrify. And if, as Rilke said, “Beauty is only the beginning of terror,” Mother Maria implies that, from another perspective, terror is the beginning, if not of beauty exactly, then of truthfulness.


*Mother Maria Skobtsova was a poet, nun, and member of the French Resistance during the Second World War. She died in the gas chamber at Ravensbrück concentration camp on Holy Saturday in 1945.

This is an extract from by Looking East in Winter: Contemporary thought and the Eastern Christian tradition by Rowan Williams, published by Bloomsbury Continuum

(£20 (Church Times Bookshop £16); 978-1-4729-8924-6) (Books, 25 June).

Listen to Rowan Williams talk about the book on the Church Times Podcast

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