Holy Mothers of Orthodoxy

by

Eva Catafygiotu Topping


Reflections of an Orthodox Feminist

countless generations of women. To deny its existence or influence is an attempt to deny history, to stonewall. Acknowledged or not, it survives, surfacing in contemporary discussions of women's "special ministries" befitting their "special gifts" and in drawing distinctions between "masculine" and "feminine" vocations. If indeed God is spirit and must be worshiped in spirit, one has to ask what gender has to do with Christian vocations, liturgy and service.

The daughters of Eve, the first sinner, have, nevertheless, been part of the church from the beginning. Before Pentecost a woman, St. Photeine, the woman at the well, brought Christ the first converts. The record of women's contributions can be read in the lives of Orthodoxy's galaxy of female saints. Across the centuries many women have proved faithful unto death, from St Thekla, the first woman martyr, St. Paul's mathetria who preached and baptized, to the neo-martyr Chrysa (October 13), martyred in the eighteenth century. Our haloed heroines are listed in church calendars and their lives are recounted in the synaxaria. They include apostles, deacons, evangelists, prophets, missionaries, church mothers, ascetics, miracle-workers, builders of churches and convents, conveners of ecumenical councils, confessors as well as martyrs and great-martyrs. Because of their sex, however, women saints are less known and receive less honor than their brother saints. This was brought home to me dramatically when my parish church was dedicated. During the consecration (enkainia) the female saint whose name the church bears was barely mentioned. No relics of a female saint were included among those placed in the altar of St. Katherine's Greek Orthodox Church. And there was no female participation in the dedicatory ceremonies.

Orthodoxy's women saints, moreover, did not entirely escape the stigma attached to their sex. The hymns written in honor of women saints document the vigor and durability of our sexist tradition. In the corpus of Greek hymns to women saints there is hardly one that did not denigrate the female sex. They contain innumerable references to "female weakness" the "shame of women" the "rottenness" of "female nature." In their hymns the church poets faithfully echoed orthodox androcentric teachings and dogmas.

Like the Fathers, the hymnographers never fail to connect the female saints with their first mother who is also the first sinner. Adam and his delinquencies, however, are not mentioned in hymns to male saints. From hundreds of available examples one will suffice. The long hymn by Demetrios in honor of "Our Holy Father Andronikos and his wife Athanasia" (October 9) will illustrate how sexist prejudice tempers praise. The hymnographer praises Athanasia for being a good wife. She is not a bad wife like Eve, whose disastrous advice led Adam astray. Next, Demetrios compliments her for not allowing the "emptiness" of her nature to weaken her determination to achieve holiness. Finally, he commends Athanasia for dressing like a monk. Male grab will aid her liberation from her female nature (MR 1, 368, 371). Backhanded compliments like these are a predictable feature of hymns to female saints, the most glorious and the obscure alike.

The highest compliment which the hymnographers can bestow on saints of the "inferior" sex is that they have succeeded in transcending their femininity and have become men. In his hymn to St. Mamelchtha (October 5), a Persian convert who was stoned to death, an anonymous poet honors her as theophoros and staurophoros. At the same time he vividly evokes the standard pejorative image of women. Addressing Christ, he exclaims, "How great are your works, O incomprehensible Savior. For you gave her strength to escape completely from her rotten and weak nature." (AHG II, 31).

St. Zenais (October 11), a kinswoman of St. Paul, did not get better treatment in the hymn by St. Germanos I (ob. 733), Patriarch of Constantinople. Zenais was a skilled physician, an apostle who "taught the word of truth," and an ascetic. Her eulogist congratulates her for success in "masculine struggles" and for victories won by the "masculinity of her mind" (AHG II, 90, 100). Apparently only males were blessed with minds.

In the androcentric scheme of things humanness meant maleness. Spirit, sanctity and goodness were identified with males; the females, body, corruption and sin. To be female was somehow to be less than human, to lack human wholeness. And so a desert mother, the Abbess Sarah, took offense when a desert father called her a woman. She responded to the insult, "A woman I am in sex, but not in spirit" (PG 65, col, 420D). Another time she returned the insult, calling the desert fathers women.

From Eve's oppressive legacy to women only one of her daughters was excluded. Mary, the human mother of God, escaped the "disfiguring shame" of her sisters. She is exalted above all creatures on earth and in heaven. Greek theologians and church poets form a single choir to sing her superiority, especially to all other women. She is likewise unique among women. In hundreds of hymns to the Theotokos she is proclaimed to be "beyond nature," "above women," "alone among all the generations of women."

In Eastern Christendom the Theotokos enjoys semi-divine honor. She is celebrated on five major holy days. Byzantine hymnographers strain language and symbols to describe