Toward the Endless Day:
The Life of Elisabeth Behr-Sigel
Author: Olga Lossly
Translator: Jerry Ryan
Publisher: University of Notre Dame Press
Release date: 2010
“Vers le jour sans déclin”
was first released in French in 2007
History – Byzantine & Orthodox
Religion & Theology – Christianity
MY THOUGHTS ABOUT THIS BOOK
Until 1582, all Christians used to celebrate Easter on the same date. That year, a new calendar was adopted in Western countries, leading then Catholics and others to calculate the date of Easter in a different way from the Orthodox, who kept to the original calculation.
Henceforth, some years, in 2017 for instance, Easter is celebrated by all on the same date.
This year 2016, the Orthodox Pascha will be celebrated on May 1st! Therefore, as our Catholic brothers and sisters are almost done with Lent, today is actually the very first day of Lent for Eastern Orthodox Christians.
I’d like then to wish a Blessed Great Lent to all Eastern Orthodox Christians, on this “Clean Monday“.
This is another interesting difference: whereas the beginning of Lent is on Ash Wednesday for Catholics, when they receive on the forehead a dark mark made of ashes to remind them of death, the Great Orthodox Lent starts with Clean Monday (Καθαρά Δευτέρα): along with a service of mutual forgiveness the day before in Church (Forgiveness Sunday), they are invited today, through a strict fast, to start this blessed liturgical time with a “katharsis”, a cleansing of their conscience and renewed love.
I chose this day to present to you a unique person, in fact the most important woman Orthodox theologian of the 20th century. She happens to have lived most of her life in France. Unfortunately, she is not too well known in the United States, not even among Orthodox Christians, even though Towards The Endless Day, her biography, was already translated and published in English six years ago!
I have read writings by Elisabeth Behr-Sigel for many years, mostly in French. The last book I read by her was her own biography of a great spiritual master, Lev Gillet, who used to sign his books “A Monk of the Eastern Church”. I presented one of his books on this blog.
Elisabeth was able to write his biography (Lev Gillet: A Monk of the Eastern Church) thanks to their long and deep friendship. It was interesting to revisit this aspect of her life in the biography of her own life, and indeed many pages are dedicated to their sometimes complex and difficult relationship. Many excerpts of their letters are included. I’d like to quote two short passages of these, which show Father Lev’s amazing wisdom:
We make a mistake by asking ourselves whether we should do this or that. The real question is: should I be this or that? What we will do is the result of who you are. Let your action be the necessary expression of who you are!
Cast out from yourself all the dark nights, all the fog. Set yourself up in a sun-filled landscape, the landscape of the light of limitless love.
Olga Lossky met with Elisabeth Behr-Sigel many days to collect information for this biography.
She does an amazing job at retracing the difficult circumstances of Elisabeth’s youth, and how the historical situation fostered in her openness to others and the desire to reach with them union and communion. Looks like in those days, the ecumenical dialogue was so much more reaching than it is today, at least in the United States!
This inner mission started with her conversion to Orthodoxy at 24, after meeting with Russian émigrés, though she was born to a Protestant father and a Jewish mother! And she worked at that goal, at so many levels, to her very last days.
During her long life (1907-2005!), this very smart woman, while raising a family and struggling with her husband’s disease, was at the heart of the Orthodox reflection of her time on hot topics, such as the place of women in the Church, to name but one.
She was, above all, a theologian of the Incarnation, centered in the possibility that we might encounter Christ in the midst of our fallen lives.
In her introduction, the author highlights that Elisabeth’s life was “dominated by a single and permanent question: How do we live our faith in God at each instant through all the choices and events that we must confront?” (p.XV).
Elisabeth’s numerous academic works, steeped in patristics and spirituality, helped others discover the richness of the Russian Church and its saints.
This biography is also amazing at presenting Elisabeth interacting with all the major Orthodox theologians of her time, and how instrumental she was, for instance at the first French speaking Russian parish in Paris, at St Sergius Institute, etc.
Spending time with Elisabeth through this book, I regretted having taken so many years to choose Orthodoxy myself (20 years!). It would have been wonderful to meet this woman, and actually our paths almost crossed so many times in so many places!
But as Father Lev and herself highlight many times in the book, to each his or her own path, and the Lord speaks in different ways to each. But for sure the mission common to all is still, as Gabriel Matzneff says:
How to be worthy of our baptism,
how to put on Christ fully,
how to live according to the Gospel,
how to become beings of light,
how to transmit to the world this deposit of truth found in the Orthodox Church and which the world needs so badly?
The book ends with an extensive bibliography and index.
It is also rich with references to many other Orthodox books I want now to read or reread.
EN DEUX MOTS :
Remarquable biographie de “la grande dame de l’Orthodoxie” du 20ème siècle. Une intellectuelle toute ancrée dans son quotidien, elle reste un témoin capital de l’importance de l’Incarnation et de son appel à nous conduire vers plus de compréhension mutuelle et de communion. Un message dont notre monde a de plus en plus besoin.
VERDICT: Essential biography of the most important woman Orthodox theologian of our time. Of interest to all desiring to rediscover the richness of Incarnation and how it can lead us to communion with others, a goal so necessary to our current world.
WHAT IS IT ABOUT
Elizabeth Behr-Sigel (1907–2005) was one of the most important Orthodox theologians of the twentieth century. For seventy years she helped her church, dispersed and uprooted from its cultural heritage, adapt to a new world. Born in Alsace, France, to a Protestant father and a Jewish mother, Behr-Sigel received a master’s degree in theology from the Protestant Faculty of Theology at Strasbourg and began a pastoral ministry. It lasted only a year. Already attracted by the beauty of its liturgy and by its characteristic spirituality, Behr-Sigel officially embraced the Orthodox faith at age twenty-four.
During World War II her family (husband André Behr and their three children) lived in Nancy, France, where Behr-Sigel taught in the public school system. She later referred to this time as her real apprenticeship in ecumenism, when people of different traditions came together in opposition to Nazism, hiding Jews, and providing escape routes.
After the war she took advantage of courses at St. Sergius Theological Institute in Paris, where she later joined the faculty. Behr-Sigel also taught at the Catholic Institute of Paris, the Dominican College of Ottowa, and the Ecumenical Institute of Tantur near Jerusalem. She wrote and published books in Orthodox theology, spirituality, and the role of women in the Orthodox Church. In her retirement she continued to work on behalf of women and of the ecumenical movement. Her ninety-fifth birthday was celebrated in a Carmelite convent in the presence of two Orthodox bishops, a Greek Catholic Bishop, the vicar generals of three Catholic dioceses, and several eminent Protestant pastors.
Published in 2007 in France as Vers le jour sans déclin, this biography, by the Orthodox writer Olga Lossky will bring to English-speaking readers of all religious persuasions the life and career of a remarkable and admirable woman of faith. Behr-Sigel fully cooperated with this biography, meeting with Lossky weekly during the last year of her life and gave Lossky access to her journal and personal letters.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Née en 1981 à Paris,
a grandi en Dordogne
dans la maison familiale de Ladornac
et est allée au collège et au lycée à Terrasson,
avant de se déplacer en France et dans le monde
pour les besoins de ses études.
Titulaire d’un DEA de lettres obtenu à Toulouse,
elle est aujourd’hui installée à Paris avec son mari et sa fille.
Elle est l’auteur de deux romans paru chez Gallimard,
« Requiem pour un clou » (2004)
et “La révolution des cierges” (2010),
d’articles publiés dans la revue « Le chameau et le chas » (Journal de la jeunesse orthodoxe)
et d’une pièce de théâtre, « Lourmel, 26 octobre 1936 ».
Olga Lossky is Vladimir Lossky‘s grand-daughter and and Nicolas Lossky‘s great-grand-daughter.