Orthodox women rarely, if ever, bear the name "Susanna." Yet our Church recognizes three martyrs of that name, celebrated on December 15, May 24 and June 7. Of this trinity of Susanna's one is the most unusual and interesting. The dramatic life of St. Susanna the Holy Martyr (December 15) is summarized by the title with which St. Nikodemos Hagioreites identifies her: "Susanna the Saint and Holy Martyr who dressed like a man and was renamed John."
This remarkable Susanna was born in Palestine sometime in the fourth century. Her mother was Jewish, her father a Greek pagan devoted to the ancient gods of Olympos. Child of a mixed marriage and conflicting traditions, Susanna rejected the faiths of both parents. She became a Christian and was baptized, it is recorded, by Bishop Silvanos.
After the death of her mother and father, Susanna began a new life. First she distributed her inheritance among the poor and freed their female and male slaves. Then she cut her hair and put on men's clothing. She went to a male monastery in Jerusalem where she was tonsured a monk and took the name "John." Because of her "many virtues" John was made the archimandrite of the monastery. For twenty years Susanna lived the austere life of an ascetic, denying self and seeking union with God. During this time no one suspected that the exemplary archimandrite was in fact a woman, belonging to the sex biblically described as the "weaker vessel" (I Peter 3:7).
It was then commonly believed that women were inferior to and more sinful than men. Therefore women could not attain the same degree of holiness achieved by men. For this reason devout women sometimes concealed their sex and became "women monks." The case of Susanna is not unique. The list of Orthodox saints includes a number of "women monks:" Eugenia (December 24); Pelagia (October 8); Marina (July I 7); Euphrosyne (September 25); Anastasia (March 10); Apollinaria (January 4); Athanasia (October 9); Anna (October 29); Matrona (November 9) and Maria (February 12). These mothers of the church were all women of great piety and faith.
Finally, a false accusation against Archimandrite John led to the discovery of her true identity. The Bishop of Eleutheropolis came to the monastery to investigate the scandal caused by the unjust charges against the model monk. And Susanna told her secret to two virgins and two women deacons. When the bishop learned that John was a woman, he was "astounded." His astonishment, however, did not cloud his judgment.
Susanna had broken the biblical command that women should not cut their hair (I Corinthians 11:5). She had also violated canons of the church which forbade women to wear men's clothing and to go to male monasteries.
Despite these "transgressions" of custom and church laws, the Bishop of Eleutheropolis did not punish Susanna. Rather, he ordained her to the holy diaconate. In the words of St. Nikodemos Hagioreites, "echeirotonisen auten diakonon."
Deacon Susanna then left the monastery in Jerusalem and returned with the bishop to his diocesan see in Eleutheropolis. In the years preceding her martyrdom she worked many miracles there.
One day Alexander the provincial governor came to Eleutheropolis to offer sacrifices to the pagan gods. On hearing this, Susanna went to the temple and with her prayers toppled a god's statue. Her deed and confession that she was a Christian cost Susanna her life.
The angry governor ordered Susanna's arrest. She was put in jail, tortured until she died. Thus ended the life of a courageous woman, Susanna the Deacon and Martyr. Called by the Holy Spirit to holiness and service to God and the Church, Susanna the Saint and Martyr who dressed like a man and was renamed John violated man-made laws, conventions and taboos. By her life and death Deacon Susanna proved that anti-woman prejudices are unfounded, unjust and unchristian. We may discriminate against women, but the Holy Spirit does not.
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