An Endangered Sensibility

Elisabeth Behr-Sigel was an important Orthodox theologian with a particular interest in the place of women in the Orthodox Church. She also showed what it means to live in a truly ecumenical way. She died in 2005 at the age of ninety-eight. Her personal journey encompassed two world wars and major changes in every Christian church.

Toward the Endless Day, her story, was written by Olga Lossky, a novelist and the great-granddaughter of the Orthodox theologian Vladimir Lossky. Behr-Sigel had no interest in writing her own biography, but was happy to share many Saturday lunches talking with Lossky, who was also given access to her papers and letters. The result of the time Lossky spent with Behr-Sigel and with her written work is a fascinating account of a life that uniquely reveals a sensibility in danger of being lost to us, one we need to retain, or recover.

Behr-Sigel was the child of a French Lutheran father and a Jewish mother. Raised as a Protestant, she was drawn at an early age into ecumenical dialogue. Serving the church attracted her, and her theological studies brought her into contact with Orthodox theology, and with Fr. Lev Gillet, who often wrote under the pseudonym “A Monk of the Eastern Church.” (Behr-Sigel wrote his biography many years later and gave it that title.)

Gillet had been a Catholic Benedictine. He was drawn to Orthodoxy, but felt that in conscience he would not be able to become Orthodox if it meant renouncing anything. Metropolitan Evlo-gy, the head of the Russian Church in France, invited Fr. Lev simply to serve the liturgy with him. In this way Lev Gillet entered communion with Orthodoxy. Fr. Lev was put in charge of a Francophone Orthodox parish in Paris. Like Behr-Sigel, he was devoted to ecumenical dialogue. They became close friends, and something more: their love was certainly chaste, but intense, complex, and not always pleasant (some of the unpleasantness having to do with Gillet’s sometimes difficult personality). Its genuineness, and their profound mutual respect, is a moving part of her life, and his.

At about the same time Behr-Sigel entered the Orthodox Church she met her future husband, André Behr, a chemistry student. His health was fragile, and he struggled over the years with alcoholism. They had three children, and for much of the time Elisabeth was the main support of her family.

As she completed her theological studies, Behr-Sigel was asked to serve as an auxiliary pastor in a Reformed parish, even though she was known to have joined the Orthodox Church. She took on the work, and loved it. As an auxiliary pastor she was not asked to preside at the Eucharist (celebrated infrequently in the Reformed parish), and she preached only in ways that were consistent with Orthodoxy. This sympathy with a full Christian vision—the assumption, sadly not universal among the Orthodox, that Protestants and Catholics really are Christians—was central to her life and lifelong vocation.

Fr. Lev had moved from his duties at the Francophone parish to serve as chaplain at the Lourmel homeless shelter founded by Mother Maria Skobtsova-, who died in the Ravensbrück concentration camp, where she had been sent for giving aid to the Jews. Mother Maria, canonized in recent years by the Russian Orthodox Church, had the support of Metropolitan Evlogy, although it was clear she wasn’t concerned with official recognition of any sort, and Behr-Sigel was profoundly affected by meeting with her and the larger Lourmel community. Years later, in 1988, Behr-Sigel would learn that all her maternal relatives had been deported, and had died in concentration camps. Anyone familiar with Irène Némirovsky’s Suite Française will recognize the picture of France during World War II presented in this book.

Toward the Endless Day offers a thorough account of Behr-Sigel’s writing, retreats, friendships, and steady, patient, and consistent defense of the place of women in the church (an issue that bored her at times). And we are offered quotations that reveal her own struggles: “I don’t think that any Christian of our times, unless he be a saint, has not flirted with absolute atheism, experienced as an abyss at his side.”

Behr-Sigel’s defense of the possibility of the ordination of women was met by many of the best Orthodox theologians with respect, if not with agreement. Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh (Anthony Bloom), a friend for many years, was particularly sympathetic. What impresses one about the greatest Orthodox theologians of her time is their lack of fear of modernity. This was true of Bulgakov, Florovsky, Meyendorff, Schmemann—and of Behr-Sigel. There has been a turn away from this in some quarters, toward a defensive, fearful Orthodox fundamentalism, and it exists in some form in Catholic and Protestant circles as well.

This raises a question: What was it about France in the period between and following the two world wars that caused such a flowering of theological talent and cross-fertilization between Catholics, Orthodox, and Protestants? Some other parts of Europe participated, but France was especially prominent. Much of the thought that bore fruit in the ecumenical movement, in the Second Vatican Council, in Orthodox liturgical reform in the Americas and in the mission field, in the rediscovery of patristics and the liturgical pluralism of the early church—all this could be found in many writers, Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant. The period could be the subject of a book, perhaps one by Michael Plekon, who edited Toward the Endless Day and knows the period well.

In many ways Toward the Endless Day is a labor of love—on the part of Olga Lossky; of Jerry Ryan, a Catholic and a frequent contributor to Commonweal who knows Orthodoxy well and was a friend of Elisabeth Behr-Sigel; and finally of Fr. Michael Plekon, who also knew her. All of them love the spirit she exhibited and the atmosphere that nourished it—an atmosphere we need to breathe again.

Published in the 2012-04-06 issue: 

John Garvey is an Orthodox priest and columnist for Commonweal. His most recent book is Seeds of the Word: Orthodox Thinking on Other Religions.

Also by this author
Same-sex marriage

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Must Reads