[15 August 2010]
Elizabeth Behr-Sigel, the subject of Olga Lossky’s biography, Toward the Endless Day, written in French and translated into English by Jerry Ryan, was by any measure a remarkable woman. She was born in 1907 and died in 2005 and embodied fascinating tensions which she managed to synthesize into a coherent life and a coherent life of thought.
She was both French and German, born in Alsace, which was still attached to Germany, though she was always most comfortable writing and speaking in French. She was born to a Lutheran, Christian father and a Jewish mother. As she entered university she was drawn to the study of philosophy. However, she became more and more active in her Christian faith and interested in theology.
In a theological world very dominated by men at the time, she became one of the first women admitted to study theology at the University of Strasbourg. In fact she was also appointed as an assistant pastor in the Reformed Church in the early-‘30s. This was noteworthy for two reasons. It was quite rare for a woman to be a pastor in those days and she had already converted to Eastern Orthodoxy. At that time she had her feet squarely in two camps: though she was entirely devoted to and convinced of the truth of Eastern Orthodoxy she had a sympathy for, a feeling, for Protestant theology and church life which she never outgrew.
She was a devoted and traditional mother and wife (though married to an alcoholic and difficult husband), but was a pioneer and standard bearer for a more enlightened view of women in the church. She was a traditional Christian in a church that valued tradition greatly but spent much of her time questioning blind allegiance to tradition.
In addition to these contradictory aspects of her life, Behr-Sigel was simply a brilliant academic thinker and writer. She was a leader in bringing the treasures of the Russian Orthodox church to the attention of the West especially in Europe. She was an integral part of the burgeoning, émigré, post WWII Russian orthodox community in France. She became an expert in eastern Russian monastic thought and sprirituality. She taught at St. Sergius Theological Institute in Paris, and at the Catholic Institute of Paris, as well as the Dominican College of Ottowa, and the Ecumenical Institute of Tantur near Jerusalem.
These varied positions and experiences testify to her passion for the ecumenical movement and her efforts to build as many bridges between various branches of the Christian faith as she could. Lossky’s biography makes clear that most often this was done on a personal level. She enjoyed being with and having discussion with all sorts of Christians.
Behr-Sigel was also a advocate for more thorough academic and theological look at the place of women in the church. The Orthodox church of the ‘40s through the ‘60s was a very, very conservative place. Behr-Sigel led a charge to re-envision what the place of women ought to be in the Orthodox church. Her approach was rooted in the theology of the Orthodox church’s own ancient sources. She maintained a difficult tension in trying to be faithful to a tradition by seeking to change its expression in the life of the church. As this biography shows, she was often misunderstood and often criticized as a radical.
Despite tracing all her formal accomplishments, the greatest strength of the book is allowing the reader to get to know Behr-Sigel personally: in the midst of raising her family during the ravages of war time France, facing economic and emotional difficulties, in seeking an authentic relationship with God in and through her church’s liturgy and piety. Lossky relies heavily on Behr-Sigel’s journals, which give candid glimpses into her interior state of mind. Her journal writing though spare, (at times no more than note taking) breathes with a sharp humanity and spirituality. Her experiences in WWII are the high point of the book as she, born of a Jewish mother, finds herself in Nazi occupied France. Here is one selection from her journal at that time:
My soul is dry and I can no longer find my old spark. Getting old. All the same it is nice to lie down on the warm moss covered stones in the middle of the afternoon and be cradled by the shivering and murmuring silence of the pine forest.
And then you have to return to everyday life with the errands for provisions, the lines, the tickets, whatever has to be done to stave off hunger.
The black market here. Mlle M. swaps some eggs and a bird for a pair of stockings. She gave two pairs of sandals for a ham.
Persecution of the Jews. For me this is like a wound I carry on my body. The yellow star. But this is still nothing. One day at 6am, they came to round up all the Polish Jews. They tore children from their parents and sent them to different concentration camps, the children to one and the parents… to another. They will go to work in Poland or the Ukraine. These are real modern slaves.
What if they took my children from me! And not to be able to do anything. To be a powerless witness to this unleashing of barbarianism. The world has plunged into hatred.
More than ever we Christians are strangers and pilgrims on this earth… The rest is silence as Fr. Sergius Bulgakov writes.
What stands is the communion of prayer and charity by the grace of the Holy Spirit.
It’s passages such as these that animate the book. Behr-Sigel was an academic but one that recorded an authentic and often passionate interior life. In integrating these two separate spheres of her life, Lossky has drawn a full picture of a very significant female Christian theologian.
One must caution that the book centers on Christian theology. Its world view and concerns are those of a genuinely Christ-centered piety with a strongly, institutional, churchly focus. This is no reason to avoid the book, in fact, it may be a good reason to pick it up as many today are strangers to such embodied and concrete expressions of spirituality. That said, however, it can be dry and erudite at times as Lossky seeks to fill in every detail of Behr-Sigel’s intellectual achievement.