Mt. Athos, in popular treatments, is often described as a “male enclave,” a place where no woman has set foot in a thousand years (this is not actually true). The exclusion of women from the Holy Mountain is deeply offensive to some (cf. European Union) and is imagined as a bastion of machismo in a cassock. It is therefore strange to discover, when you visit the Holy Mountain, that the central figure in its life is a woman: the Mother of God. She is described as the “Abbess of the Holy Mountain.” It is her icon, Axion Estin, that has the place of central honor in the course of the year (she is carried from the Protaton Church to visit the surrounding monasteries on Bright Monday). Indeed, I believe the Holy Mountain would be a place of deep distortion were the Theotokos not given such prominence. There is no wholeness for human beings that is not also a wholeness of male and female: “It is not good for the man to be alone.” (Gen. 2:18).
I have seen some recent conversations (and heard presentations at conferences) that ponder the influx of young men into Orthodox Churches in America. Spiritual pundits draw various conclusions about the phenomenon (some even suggesting that credit should be given to podcasters and bloggers!). I give credit to the providence of God that is always at work in all things drawing all things together into one (Eph. 1:10). But, of the things that God means to draw together into one, I take it to be pre-eminent that the union of male and female is chief among them.
One conversation that I’ve heard has asked the question, “What do young men need to learn?” It is, unfortunately, only half the question. We cannot teach men apart from women. If masculinity is disordered, femininity will be distorted as well. The destruction of men and women has been a constant by-product of the sexual revolution of the past century and the present. It only ever asked half a question and offered answers that destroyed the very context of our existence. We are a deeply disordered society – and this at the most fundamental levels.
The sexual revolution was constructed with the dynamics of criticism. What had gone before had flaws, injustice, unaddressed oppressions, and foundations in a variety of false narratives. To point out the flaws and deconstruct the edifice is easy work. To build something better, something true, something whole, is hard work, indeed, and it has received almost no attention. Building a civilization is among the hardest tasks that human beings ever undertake. Destoying them can be the work of an evening.
Karl Stern, in his classic work, The Flight from Woman (1965), spends time discussing the difference between scientific knowledge and poetic knowledge. There are many ways to frame this distinction. “Scientific knowledge” describes knowledge that is “outside” of us: such as objective, verifiable, experimental results. “Poetic knowledge” (by far the harder to describe) refers to the knowledge we have from the “inside.” It is what we know because it is us, or because we have a participation in its life. Scientific knowledge gives us an ability to master and control the world around us. It also gives us a knowledge that is “alien” to us.
…poetic knowledge is acquired by union with and attachment to the object; scientific knowledge is acquired by distance and detachment from the object. (p. 74)
Living in a world of machines can be wonderfully abundant but lonely and isolating. Even when we study other humans, with scientific knowledge we place them in a category that we loathe: that of objects.
Poetic knowledge is a reality seeking for a name. Its difficulty in finding an apropos name is itself indicative of its very nature. We all have it, we cannot live without it, and we have a hard time describing it or defending the conclusions that it presses on our reality.
We want to live in a beautiful world while finding ourselves in a world designed for profit and manageability. We want empathy from the people around us, but discover that having to explain what we mean (much less to actually ask for that quality) defeats the very purpose of our desire. The machines in our world will not try harder simply because we are having a bad day.
I suggest Stern’s book to anyone wanting to explore this distinction further. Fr. Tom Hopko held it in great regard and recommended it.
But all of this brings me back to the problem of male and female in the life of the world and in the life of the Church. Hopko once opined that issues surrounding male and female would be a profound source of heresy in this century – one that would mark our time the way Arianism marked the 4th century. His words were prescient. I believe that the problem is compounded by the fact that we are considering something that is largely rooted in “poetic knowledge.” Though it is certainly the case that there is a fairly straight-forward biological definition of male and female (despite the present confusion maintained by some), stating a biological fact doesn’t even begin to address the mystery.
We are embodied beings and we cannot experience the world in a disembodied form. To describe our bodies from the outside (scientific knowledge) says nothing about what it is like to actually be that embodied person. This becomes yet more complex when the reality of who and what we are extends beyond my body and encompasses the bodies that are around me. For the terms “male” and “female” have no meaning in and of themselves – they are relational terms. Thus it is true that men cannot know what it is to be male without, in some manner, knowing what it is to be male-in-relation-to-female. The same is true of women. In perhaps the most tortured passage in all of St. Paul’s writings he says (profoundly):
… man [is not] independent of woman, nor woman independent of man, in the Lord. For as woman is from man, even so man also comes through woman; but all things are from God. (1 Cor. 11:12)
Poetic knowledge comes in a patient act of listening and reflection. It is often spoken in signs and symbols. In the life of the Church the story of Adam and Eve are profoundly intertwined with the story of salvation itself. Male and female are not just bits of biological necessity – they are sacramental elements in the wonder of theosis.
Modern Christianity has largely followed the lead of the culture. We have listened uncritically to the messaging of what it means to be male and female (largely derived from concepts grounded in consumerist and modern philosophies) while ignoring the poetic knowledge of the tradition. Thus, we have a genderless Jesus saving men and women as though they were genderless drones (which is pretty much what the world wants – “worker bees”). Modern theologies treat the mother of God and the entire drama of Christ’s nativity as nothing more than an “arrival” story, without any consideration for the full nature of what is taking place.
Mary’s conception of Christ is first foretold in Genesis: “And your seed will bruise his head” (Gen. 3:15). The coming of the Messiah, as prophesied in Isaiah, is specifically told in terms that engage human sexuality: “A virgin shall conceive and bear a child” (Is. 7:14). These, and other such references, are not incidental, but integral to our salvation.
By the same token, our own humanity (how is this not obvious?) is the story of generations of conceptions and births. We do not exist as genderless worker bees, but as embodied, engendered human beings, male and female, and the mystery of who we are cannot be spoken without uttering that very same mystery.
It is not accident, nor a product of some historical prejudice, that the priesthood of the Church is borne by men (and only a very few men, at that). Neither is it an accident that the Mother of God holds such a central place in the liturgies and piety of the Church. The poetic reality of our being, particularly our being as justified, sanctified, deified human beings, is drawn forth in the poetic imagery and speech of the Church. It speaks to the heart when the heart can hear it.
What shall we do with young men? What shall we do with young women? What shall we do with the rest of us as well? We must sing the Lord’s song, and sing it well, until the generations of the moment and of the years to come can begin to hear that it is the song of their true lives. It is God’s love song to us all, sung in a human key. It is also the key of the Divine, but only the most silent hearts can hear that.
I have more to say on this, but it will have to wait.
This sentence stood out for me:
“ The machines in our world will not try harder simply because we are having a bad day.”
Mind you, the GPS on my iPhone apologized to me the other day: I guess it got an upgrade. Your point still stands.
So many confusing and misleading and pointless things have been said on the subject of male and female and how they relate. I look forward to reading more of your thoughts.
Hello Fr Stephen
Alienation is the Devils work (Diabolo – Divider)
It seems we have become first alienated from God, then Creation, then one another
The Male Female Alienation seems to be that division at the core of our being, of our earthly life. After all it’s where we all come from . . .
And yes, the Stern book is most enlightening
Lord have Mercy
I hoped to find the reason women, except for Our Lady, are excluded from the Holy Mountain, but did not. My guess is that it is traditionally so the men won’t be distracted in a worldly way from their work of prayer. Is that correct?
Thank you for your insightful and inspirational writings.
It will be difficult to “say” anything on the subject. I think it is an exceedingly important conversation, and probably one of the most difficult conversations. It’s the sort of thing that you cannot very well argue about – in that it is a conversation that comes out of a mutual understanding and experience. I am able, for example, to have this conversation with my wife, whom I’ve known for some 50 years (married for 47). Of course, we’re at a place in life that half of our conversations don’t even need words.
If I had something to suggest up front, it is that that I believe the life of the Church, in its fullness, is an expression of the revelation of male and female. We as sinful members often mess it up – but it’s there if we are able to listen, to see, to be patient, and to understand.
I do not believe that there is anything about the Church that needs to be changed (certainly not at this time in the world), and that the Church, if anything, is in great danger during this particular period.
In my book on shame that is coming out next February, I’ve got a chapter that draws heavily from C.S.Lewis’ book, That Hideous Strength, particularly in certain aspects of male and female. I know that the topic is deeply enmeshed in shame and that it can thus only be healed by profound humility.
“Can we bear the shame of being male and female?” would be one of the ways I would put the question. Unless and until we can and do, our present morass will only deepen and become yet more toxic.
It is, ostensibly to avoid distraction and temption – and, openly-stated, to reserve the singular place of the Mother of God on the Mountain. There are, of course, many very outstanding women’s monasteries in Greece and elsewhere throughout the Orthodox world. I would say (having been to the Holy Mountain), that those who reside in women’s monasteries are not missing anything by not visiting the Holy Mountain. In the long run, each of the monasteries there is really just another Orthodox monastery. We create something of a “mystique” about such things that is more on the level of “tourism” than on the level of reality.
I wondered if using that topic as the lede paragraph would distract from the rest of the article. I will restate and emphasize, however, that were the Mother of God’s presence there (as woman as well as person) not as profound as it is – the monasteries would be impoverished to the point of starvation and delusion. Men cannot be whole without women (and vice versa). But marriage is not the only conclusion to be drawn from such a fact.
Fr. Thomas Hopko once said that he did not know of a single male saint who was not in a profound relationship with a woman (if you search the record carefully enough).
Also, during WWII, and the Greek Civil War following, there were refugees of both sexes on the Holy Mountain if memory serves me correctly. The necessity of charity is the greatest rule of all.
I patiently await your further insights, Father.
Thank you for addressing this painful situation.
I assume that the “pain” you are referring to is the pain that exists between male and female (it’s certain become a common part of the toxicity in our culture).
The Scriptures in Genesis describe a broken sort of relationship between man and woman. Much darker is the war between women and the adversary (it’s so noticeable in Genesis that it is spoken to the woman, “I will put enmity between your seed (the demons) and her Seed (Christ). There is something of the demonic, I think, that has darkened our relations with one another in our days – a mistrust, a hatred, a drive to re-write all narratives, etc.
The enmity and its poisons seem to be leaking into a great confusion and a sort of madness.
Again, I do not think that any of this can be healed with simple argumentation and such. It calls for the healing of our selves and our “re-making” according to the image of God.
This is wrought in us in the fulless of our life in Christ (particularly as it is made known to us in the Orthodox life). I once commented at a forum on the topic of marriage (it was sponsored by an Evangelical seminary) – that I didn’t think that our present turmoil could be healed without the profound insights of monastics (and, even then, only a few of the rare ones). There is a rupture within us in our culture. True masculinity and true femininity have become rare things. I believe that find their truth in the mysteries of the Church (all of them).
I confess to be fumbling around in this – searching for words.
Years ago, when my wife and I were entering Orthodoxy, and I was preparing to be ordained (as Orthodox priest), the missions director was visiting in my home, talking to us. To my wife he said, “Your role in the parish is to be the Theotokos.” It was an outlandish statement which we could only marvel at and wonder about.
That was now nearly 25 years ago. My wife (who had been an Anglican priest’s wife for 20 years prior to all that) has been an Orthodox priest’s wife for all this time. In our very Southern parish, she is affectionately called, “Mother Beth,” (rather than “Matushka,” or “Presvytera,” or the ethnic titles that are common). And she is just that: a mother of the parish. We’re retired now, so she’s kind of a grandmother, I suppose.
But when I reflect on her life and role, I, indeed, see the markings of “Theotokos” that the missions director was describing at the time. But, she couldn’t be that if the Theotokos were not who and how she is in the parish. Mary makes it possible.
In the same way (and this is a mystery), Mary is a key part of our redemption, particularly our redemption as female and male. And it is in light of her, together with Christ, that we see male and female revealed in the Church.
It’s not really something that we talk about – nor – perhaps – should it be. It should be lived. Currently, it is the world and its cultures that are trying to tell us what men and women are (and they’ve done this for a very long time). We’re listening to the wrong voices.
So, may God give us grace to hear what is being spoken to us in the silence of the Church.
Dear Fr. Stephen,
Your text has given me holy goosebumps. It has evoked sadness regarding our current human situation and failed attempts to perceive the depth of the mystery: “male and female He created them”. May God grant you further discernment since the Holy Spirit seems to have focused the lens so sharply and clearly in your poetics. May the Theotokos intercede on your behalf on the Feast of her Nativity.
Thank you for this insight, Father.
It seems there is not only only an ignorance of the “poetic knowledge of the tradition”, but a very pervasive (and at times, convincing) false poetic knowledge that rages in its place.
As the days grow darker, it’s hard not to become discouraged when thinking about it all. Especially when I reflect on the ways in which my own heart has been impacted (who can escape but by God’s grace?).
I can only pray that by God’s mercy I will continue to cling to the belief that beauty will save the world.
Thank-you Father for these reflections. I have followed your blog for many years.
I wonder if, as in the struggle to describe the mystery of the Godhead, the Early Fathers used apophatic reasoning, that a similar apophatic reasoning might be helpful in the ‘definition’ of woman. If this is plausible, then as much as can be said about the mystery of what a woman is via poetic reasoning (As you well describe in this reflection), by using apophatic reasoning we might simply say that a male, in the biological sense cannot be a woman. Describing the mystery of a human person (male and female) is immense project, and much of that description overlaps whether male or female, but because we are created beings, might it suffice to say apophatically, that a male (biological) cannot be a woman (mystery), nor a female (biological) cannot be a man (mystery).
Just a thought.
Blessings, Rev. Brian Candow (ANiC)
Father, as someone who has been tossed to and fro across the political spectrum seeking some “worldly” way to address these issues with compassion for everyone involved, I have experienced the struggle to speak of these things out loud. A few years ago, I was standing in church and praying, “I will not speak of Thy mysteries to Thine enemies,” I realized that I was going about it all wrong. Not that I believe the people around us are enemies of God; but there is a confusion that has been created through falsehood by the enemies of God. I know the confusion all too well myself. “I will not speak of Thy mysteries…” has become a common prayer for me when I feel the urge now to speak up. Not that I always succeed. It’s a struggle.
I think you hit the nail on the head when you encourage silence. I was encouraged all my life to be loud. To stand up for what I believe in. To “speak in the face of evil” and so forth. So much so that being silent can even be a shameful experience at times – as though I’m betraying others (God or my neighbor) by not “speaking the truth” on their behalf. I used to be afraid that if I was silent, then the status quo would have its way with us, and all things would fall apart.
I no longer believe this to be true. Experience has taught me otherwise. I have never regretted remaining silent. I have often regretted speaking. Especially on sensitive issues that can trigger difficult emotions related to pain, shame, and a complex history of injustices perpetuated by broken people. Repentance, love, and compassion (and mostly in silence) seem the only sure path forward. But it’s a difficult thing to overcome the decades of training to be noisy, and the guilt associated with “not speaking up.”
Brian and Nathan (I’ll cover both comments),
First, it is certainly true as Brian notes that a biological male cannot be a woman, nor can a biological woman be a man. The confusion around this in some quarters is rooted in a false ideology of the notions of male and female and the reality of human sexuality. In many ways, the confusion is itself the fruit of many false assumptions that settled in place and were quietly embraced as the “sexual revolution.”
It is also true, as Nathan notes, that there’s been a lot of hurt, a lot of injury and shame mixed into our cultural treatment of human sexuality. All of that makes it easy to say hurtful things (even when they’re true).
The silence I am suggesting is not simply to refrain from speaking, but an active silence that listens in order to understand a mystery. We live in a culture whose primary inheritance is secular protestantism. It is married to the notions that came out of the industrial revolution and consumer capitalism. None of those things offers a profound insight into human nature. Instead, they offer a shallow individualism, a utilitarian notion of being human (“what do you want to be when you grow up?” means “what do you want to do?”), and the reduction of sex to pleasure (at least in the sexual revolution). Today, sex is being morphed into consumerist notions of “identity” that simply has no transcendent reference. It’s an emptiness – even for those not claiming a special, or new identity. It is the picture of a culture collapsing in on itself (and make no mistake – this is what is going on).
On the other hand, cultures have collapsed before. If the present culture were not to collapse, it would suggest that it’s actually good and healthy (which it is not). Goodness abides. Emptiness collapses.
I believe that the traditional teaching of the Church in sexual matters (as in other things) to be a settled matter, not something that should be subjected to speculation and change. Such actions are having devastating effects where they are taking place. Nevertheless, that teaching is quite minimal and does not represent the depths of understanding that are embodied in the reality of the Church’s liturgies and piety.
It would be a mistake, for example, to presume that the Church honors the Mother of God simply because of her role in the Incarnation. That would be nothing more than a sort of modern version of utility. “We honor her because of her great usefulness.” No. The Genesis material (chapter 3) points towards a transcendent role for Woman that is finally fulfilled in the Virgin. Those prophecies are utterly bound up in the coming of the Messiah. Even in Christ’s crucifixion, a “sword pierces her soul” as well. She is no where simply used and then tossed aside. When St. Simeon the Elder finally saw the Messiah, as had been promised to him, it was in the arms of His mother.
I think that there is probably no mystery of our own personal being that is more important than the mystery of male and female, of child and mother and father, of man and woman as husband and wife, as monastic in the marriage of heaven.
So, though we may remain silent (because good words and right words are hard to find), we do not remain ignorant. We cannot know God and not know ourselves, nor can we know ourselves and not know God. To all of the saints, and to Christ our God, we say, “Who am I? Who are you?”
The answer to that is a life-long journey of healing.
I like what Nathan has said above, re: silence. It’s been a growing personal conviction that the “morality” of the Church, her values, her essentials, I’m not even sure what I’m trying to describe – cannot be understood without a thorough acceptance of Christ and the Cross. People these days begin with rights – “what is mine?” – while the Church begins with the Cross. So there might not be much benefit in me trying to explain to someone why the Church holds certain views about (for instance) male and female, if the listener is not first willing to lay their life down before Christ, accept Him as Lord, and pick up the cross He has for them.
Shifting gears (but, I believe, still on the general topic addressed in your blog), it appears that in some ways our world is more moral than it has ever been. (People in general are certainly willing to be more judgmental!) My wife and I were discussing how much better children are treated today vs. what she had experienced in the 1960s and 1970s. And last week I read an article about a major figure in popular music who has been excused by four women (well, one of them is “fluid”) that he acted inappropriately toward them sexually-speaking. The person in question is a “rock star,”and for just about my entire life it was assumed that rock stars would act inappropriately and women (certain women, at least) were fine with that – and few batted an eye at it. These days we’re hearing that it should not. These are both GOOD developments – better treatment of women; better treatment of children. Yet the overall context of these improvements leaves me wondering about the viability of these improvements. Within the overall confusion about gender, the confusion over when life begins, the overall attempt at MAKING PEOPLE BETTER but without Christ – the “good” developments seem doomed and are likely to become weaponized at some point. (That point already being past, it appears.)
These thoughts are still rather sketchy in my mind; I’m not sure I’m making sense.
Looking forward to hearing more from you on these topics. Thank you for your ministry.
Your observations about the “morality” of our culture are spot on. We have become as moral as Puritan New England in the 1640’s or so, and for the very same reason: we are currently in the midst of a “religious revival” that has no God – only an ideology. You can’t argue with religions, on the whole. And, in the name of religions, people can do almost anything.
Morality, when it stands alone, is the most dangerous substitute for true religion.
I wholeheartedly believe that what you’ve written is true, Father. When I think of silence, I often think of confession. My father confessor is often silent when I confess. I is a silence that makes me feel safe, like I can tell him anything. And I’ve had to tell him some difficult things over the years. I could never have made some of the confessions I have without knowing the safety I’ve known in his silence.
But he does speak, too. And when he does, I treasure the words he speaks. They are normally very brief and to the point, and they stick out. They are also always very kind and help to guide me.
That’s the silence I had in mind. My impulse to speak up almost always comes from a place within me that isn’t “safe” – it’s a place of my own pain, hurt, anger, or perhaps most often fear. I believe that matters of sexuality are also settled within the Church. And I want those who are struggling with these issues to find the peace that exists within the Church in regard to who we are in relation to Christ, His Saints, and His Kingdom. We cannot compromise on these matters – but it seems of paramount importance to me that we create a space in which people can find healing in safety. It seems that silence has an important role to play in that regard.
Thank you, Father.
Very well said. I agree. I was only taking care not to be misunderstood.
As a scientist, I find this conversation helpful. I find it helpful because it well articulates the Western-culturally constructed dichotomy of pitting “science” knowledge against “poetic” knowledge.
I’ve mentioned in the past this dichotomy is not inherent in human knowledge itself but an artifact of the culture that has authored the modern current of scientific praxis (secular Protestantism). Indigenous cultures I’ve been in contact with and lived in do not need such separations, such dichotomies, because their conceptualization and practice of ‘science knowledge’ have ‘poetic knowledge’ embedded within them.
Nevertheless, I have been inundated and inculcated within the scientific discipline, and I have to actively work hard against the presumptions promulgated within it. This is especially so as I teach within an institution that strives to serve indigenous communities.
I, too, look forward to your continued work on this topic.
People these days begin with rights – “what is mine?” – while the Church begins with the Cross.
I have often told people that when we speak of “rights”, we do not speak in Christ. God and His Church speak in terms of the “value” of humanity, not of “rights” associated with being human. I find it a useful distinction to keep in mind.
It would be a mistake, for example, to presume that the Church honors the Mother of God simply because of her role in the Incarnation. That would be nothing more than a sort of modern version of utility. “We honor her because of her great usefulness.” No. The Genesis material (chapter 3) points towards a transcendent role for Woman that is finally fulfilled in the Virgin. Those prophecies are utterly bound up in the coming of the Messiah. Even in Christ’s crucifixion, a “sword pierces her soul” as well. She is no where simply used and then tossed aside. When St. Simeon the Elder finally saw the Messiah, as had been promised to him, it was in the arms of His mother.
This observation is very wonderful, Father! I would love to hear more of it. Or is there a book you can recommend that ties the transcendent role for Woman in the prophecies and fulfillment in the blessed Theotokos?
Thank you for highlighting Father’s words and your compelling question. It drew me back to the iconic picture Father Stephen used. Sometimes a picture (or icon) is indeed worth a thousand words. For some reason, I love this picture, perhaps because it depicts the vulnerable yet confident baby Jesus (our Lord’s self-emptying incarnation), the quiet yet formidable (God-given) strength of the Theotokos, and the loving relation between them.
Regarding the honour we attribute to the Theotokos (Panagia), in contrast to her utility.
The central Orthodox prayer is “Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me the sinner” and no less important is “most holy Theotokos save us”.
I think is was St Nikolaos Kavasilas who said that Panagia does not save, but no one is saved without her. It is only through Panagia that every man becomes familiar and intimate (οικειοποιείται) the savior Christ according to the measure of his purity.
Is Panagia the perfect example of what God aimed in creating Man in His “likeness” ?
The Panagia is certainly an exemplar, but I do not want to speak of her in isolation from Christ.
I’ve found myself in conversations about female clergy and the Orthodox position. It is claimed by some that there is a negation of the equality of men and women with male only clergy. But I asked, “When we grow more fully into God’s Image, does that make us more male or more female or neither?” And this is where, to me, the objection fails. It is not as if St. Paul doesn’t realize he’s said, “there is no male or female,” and yet ordination/the laying on of hands, is to men. But I’ve found that the “complementarianism” of Evangelicals doesn’t fully resolve anything. I can’t think of anything more masculine than a monk, or more feminine than a nun/female monk. I usually point out to people that in Paul’s time people were already going Vegan and opposing marriage by the same logic – that there was something inherently inferior or wicked about it, and this likely to Gnostic influence. He is careful to uphold both marriage, eating whatever as long as it’s to the Glory of God, and the freedom not to eat, not to marry, and has a preference. Paul presupposed the goodness of the Creation but also realizes that it is groaning, is in “travail” as Jesus said. If marriage is good, then a feminism that negates men, or a masculinity that negates women, is off the table and anathema. If food is to be received with thanksgiving, then you can’t call it wicked. Yet eating meat and marriage are not necessary or ideal in the Age to Come. Some try and live the Age to Come life now (instead of their “Best Life Now” – taking a stab at prosperity preachers), and Paul prefers this though won’t demand it. He might prefer that everyone abstain from meat but doesn’t enforce this. The ideal is upheld but not enforced at the expense of the goodness of Creation. Liturgically it follows, or could, that male clergy follow the ideal just because Christ is the ideal Man/Priest/Mediator/etc. But also, that Christ’s maleness, does not negate female in any way.
What I mean is, there is no contradiction in Paul that the Creation is good, marriage is good, meat is good, if it’s received/done to the Glory of God – and – another ideal, no meat, no marriage, as He is our true food (versus laboring for food that does not last) and He is our true Bridegroom. Neither makes the other bad or inferior but one recognizes the future now. In the future, we will have one Priest, Christ (as we already do) and we will live as new in Him, therefore the ideal is to image this while at the same time upholding there is no male or female, Jew or Gentile, etc.
I don’t know if I got off track, but I think there is a connection between St. Paul’s preference for the “heavenly life” now, which is reflected in the monastery, and his ongoing affirmation of the goodness of Creation which makes room for continuing to marry/eat, and that this “now” Paul and the “later”, eschatological Paul (which can’t really be divided) might be the overall basis for male clergy. When you add on the fact that it is impermissible for a monk to call meat evil, or marriage evil, I think the argument builds and becomes why the practice has not changed, as Paul’s words form the Tradition. Now add on the fact that we believe the liturgy is the meeting of heaven and earth, that Christ is “in our midst”, that the concern for Canon was always, what is worthy to be read in the presence of God, and liturgically, we are invited to the Ideal, not to something less. And this not to say females are less, not at all, but that Christ is, and will be, our Priest forever, after the order of … In this way, maleness and femaleness, as to there being no “male or female”, no marriage in the next world, no meat, are fulfilled in Christ, and to display this ideal, liturgically, in the presence of God, requires a priest to be the closest analog possible. And this would also be the reason for a real women’s presence in the life of the Church outside serving the liturgy.
I just see our maleness and femaleness being fulfilled in Christ, and that it is in this sense that there is no male or female. It is not that Christ becomes non-binary, but that He is the fulfillment of both, and the Jew and the Gentile, the slave and the free, etc. Maleness or femaleness, as it relates to inclusion in Christ, is gone, same with Jew and Gentile, but in Him, and as His Bride, we become more like a true Bride, and He becomes more truly to us, our Bridegroom. And this may be why we identify so closely, or wish to, with the Theotokos, her being the exemplar bride. We become more Bride in the New Age, Christ is realized as more the True Bridegroom, but for now, until this is new reality, the analog of male priest continues, until Christ is fully experienced as our High Priest and our priests vanish in the reality of the True Priest.
In one sense, liturgically, we are all the Bride, but the priest analogs the High Priest. The Bride mimics and wishes to become more like the Theotokos, and eventually the priests will take the place of Bride (which they already are) with all of those Just/Resurrected. But Christ will be Bridegroom, as He is the same yesterday, today, and forever, and fully human. If Christ retains and upholds his humanity forever, and if we are to analog the “future life” now, then we will all become more Bride-like in the New Age, not more masculine – but Christ remains Bridegroom. Therefore, the connection of male monks and male clergy with the Theotokos is expected, true to Tradition, as it is understood their “clerical status” is temporary but their Bride status is eternal.
So, to ask for female clergy is to ask for something less than “New Creation” as we will all be Brides. There is no misogyny in the logic whether there is real misogyny that occurs or not.
Thanks for the time if you respond,
I’m focusing on this statement you wrote because it seems to point to the reasoning in you’re writing. It looks like you’re talking to Vegans who oppose marriage, and perhaps you are classifying them as a group in opposition to Orthodox values. Being vegan is not a lifeway in opposition to Orthodox values. Also, someone might view marriage as not for them, which is not opposed to Orthodox values. Last, someone might be both vegan and uninterested in marriage. That, too, is not in opposition to Orthodox values.
However, I often hear politically motivated conversations that link veganism with liberal progressive political stances, and some vegans might fall into such ‘camps’. But some conservatives are vegans who perceive themselves as Christians and belong to Christian groups and are fully committed to the institution of marriage.
Last, while I do not desire to start contentiousness, there have been female deacons in Orthodox history. And I witness conversations discussing that history and what it means for Orthodoxy today. I’m not taking a stance for or against such conversations in this comment. But I note that history and these conversations, and I’m not so quick to dismiss these conversations as out of bounds of Orthodox values. However, in the arguments for or against female deacons, I have read polemics that resemble modernist perspectives and the contentions and tensions present in this culture, which do not seem to reflect deep roots in Orthodox lifeways.
Father, please forgive me if I’ve opened a can of worms. I’ll not say more because I believe I’m out of my depth. I haven’t been Orthodox long enough to draw conclusions or take stances. There is such a mystery in the relationship between man and woman. I’ve been married for more than 30 years and still have much to learn.
Dee of St. Hermas,
I’m not equating vegans and celibates, just the rationale in Paul’s opponents that the physical world was bad and the spiritual world good. Gnosticism goes both ways: it raises the spiritual at the expense of the goodness of Creation or, it makes what is done with the body superfluous as the soul gains the priority along the exact same reasoning. Vegans who think meat is murder, and monks who think marriage is dirty both fall under a similar error if they are Christian. A Christian cannot deride monasticism either as they are not equating the physical world with garbage, but desire to live the heavenly life (to get a head start perhaps) now.
I have zero interest in progressive (regressive really) takes but in correcting them. If the deaconess was as it is claimed, a sort of guard against immodesty/temptation when Baptisms were done in the nude (and if catechumens were separated by sex) then unless we go back to nude Baptisms and non-co-ed catechumenates, I can’t see the logic. It’s a similar argument based on soteriology. I’ve asked my Presbyterian friends whose churches are toying with a return to the deaconess; if they will start believing in exorcism, Baptism in running water in the nude showing your old self washed away and a new robe being clothed in Christ’s Resurrected Life, and Chrismation, etc. If the deaconess was crucial in this role due to their catechetical ability, to assist another woman in the nude while being Baptized and Chrismated, then we affirm that role in its context. But without the context returning, and it ended for good reasons, then the role/job/what have you is obsolete – specifically as it relates to that role and not as to other roles.
I’m not wanting to go down the rabbit trail of the diaconate. My late Archbishop once said, “Sometimes things disappear for a reason. ” I assume that was the case (and not that the Church became more patriarchal, etc.). It’s also unclear whether there was ever a liturgical role (such as doing litanies) for women deacons. I’ve seen no evidence for that. The arguments, at present, that I’ve seen, in almost all cases, is only about having women deacons for the sake of having Women deacons – and I think that’s a mistake – particularly in a culture that has deep confusions about the concepts of male, female, equality, etc. In terms of modernity – there are very strong arguments not to do this any time in the near future. There are, however, possible exceptions out there based on various cultures. Modern culture, as far as I can see, cannot make such a case. Indeed, the number of parishes that have no deacons at all way out number the few that do. Which is also interesting.
I have a couple of questions.
“If the deaconess was as it is claimed, a sort of guard against immodesty/temptation when Baptisms were done in the nude (and if catechumens were separated by sex) then unless we go back to nude Baptisms and non-co-ed catechumenates, I can’t see the logic. It’s a similar argument based on soteriology.”
What do you mean in the last sentence (what is “it” and how is it “based on soteriology”)?
“If the deaconess was crucial in this role due to their catechetical ability, to assist another woman in the nude while being Baptized and Chrismated, then we affirm that role in its context. But without the context returning, and it ended for good reasons, then the role/job/what have you is obsolete…”
Would you for similar reasoning do away with the portion of the Divine Liturgy in which catechumens are told to depart?
Moreover, you premise that this assistance was the only crucial role of the deaconess. Does that seem reasonable on its face? That is, a woman would become a deaconess solely out of considerations of female modesty? On the one hand, that seems to squander the office (i.e., if women *can* serve as deaconesses for such a passing reason, then prohibiting them in general from service based only on gender has no ironclad basis but does deprive the Church of their positive abilities). On the other, why would the early Church involve women in the great sacrament at all for such a minor reason as modesty, if deaconesses otherwise would be anathema?
This is not to say I have an opinion. I am only an inquirer and hardly qualified to weigh in on what the Orthodox Church ought to do structurally.
As far as vegans, my opinion on much is that, if we were all to be (and worship) exactly the same, there would be no need for so many of us.
Matthew Lyon – I recently read The Ethics of Beauty by Dr. Timothy Patitsas. It is probably the most profound book I have read in my entire 52 years of life. The author has an entire chapter on the male-female gender issues we are facing as a society. His discussion really helped me to understand why only men can be priests in the Orthodox Church. It is an expensive book, but worth every penny.
Well, I guess we’re going to discuss this.
It is not true that deaconness only existed in order to baptize nude women. It was certainly a liturgical function that we have good records for. What we don’t have, apparently, is any reference to them serving in the Divine Liturgy in the manner of the male deacons. So, it is quite possible that the only thing the two ministries have in common is a similar name. Nevertheless, the female diaconate disappeared.
A very recent book on all of this, that I thought was well-researched, is The Disappearing Deaconness.
Frankly, most people only have opinions on this matter, with little more than hearsay on the actual history. I suggest reading that above referenced book (and digging into its references) if any are seriously interested in the question.
But, I do not particularly care for us to trade opinions on the matter. It is, however, something that gets discussed at the highest levels within Orthodoxy. There are champions of the “cause,” some of whom champion other things that are quite troublesome. As I’ve noted earlier, if someone could point to any purpose in the female diaconate other than being a representational thing about women – then it would be of note. If it’s only about representation – then I think it is a bogus concern. The priest in the Church is not a “male” representation – but an icon of Christ (who is Incarnate as male). Our “identity” notions within this culture are poison and devoid of theological merit. It is rooted in wrong understandings of our humanity. If those are the only terms being used to think about this issue – then it is not worth discussing.
There is, as noted in my article, a profound mystery in our male and female existence. It is pretty much the case that the modern world is worse than clueless on the topic. Our culture is profoundly sick – and one of its primary areas of disease is in the realm of human sexuality. I look for no wisdom within those sources.
I apologize for my contribution toward a subject you prefer not to have your blog veer into. What I have been wanting to ask about is the image you have used on this post. I like it quite a bit, but my understanding of icons is they are not at all interchangeable with art. Is Vasnetsov’s work considered iconic, or is it too individually expressive of the artist?
Thank you for your answer and any other thoughts you wish to express about choosing it.
There is a specific soteriology that goes with Baptism as spiritual warfare/detachment from this world/death/Satan, and at least one role of women as Deaconess was within this frame. Now, we have not rejected this “frame” but to my knowledge no one is Baptized nude anymore except for infants.
As for catechumens departing, I wish all the churches practiced this. There are numerous reasons why it is entirely practical and puts our soteriology on display. One, the Lenten practice of fasting is in part, to prepare alongside the catechumen; it’s not just about dietary restriction. We re-live the desert with them. Two, there is no clear-cut imagination of what someone is preparing for without a division. And it’s not a division that makes the catechumen less but acknowledges the great gift of Holy Baptism/inclusion in the Church, in and with the Eucharist. Three, the laity know who’s who, and this would hopefully engender hospitality and kindness – along with helping you realize the gift of inclusion, a reappreciation of our faith, etc. It’s like having babies around, it’s happy, you want to teach them and be helpful, you appreciate new life, etc. I’m a convert and wish there had been a more formal catechumenate. Catechumens are different from inquirers, yet they are equated somehow it seems.
I’m not reducing the role of the Deaconess, I’m really not. And I wasn’t trying to start a discussion just that there is no contradiction in Paul’s “no male and female” and still affirming gender. I was more testing on Fr. Freeman if I was on the right track. I did mean to qualify with, “If the role…”. As to vegans I’m not sure why I was confusing. Meat being bad and marriage being bad are both referenced in the same passages on the same logic and Paul confronts them both. But it is most explicit in 1 Timothy 4:1 Now the Spirit explicitly says that in the last times some will depart from the faith, paying attention to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons, 2 by the hypocrisy of liars, who are seared in their own conscience, 3 who forbid marrying and insist on abstaining from foods that God created for sharing in with thankfulness by those who believe and who know the truth, 4 because everything created by God is good and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thankfulness, 5 for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer.
“The hypocritic liars” in this example insist on something like a vegan/vegetarian diet and a rejection of marriage.
The following are from the LEB
Matthew 22:30 For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels of God in heaven.
Luke 20:34-36 And Jesus said to them, “The sons of this age marry and are given in marriage, 35 but those who are considered worthy to attain to that age and to the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage, 36 for they are not even able to die any longer, because they are like the angels and are sons of God, because they are sons of the resurrection.
Hebrews 13:4 Marriage must be held in honor by all, and the marriage bed be undefiled, because God will judge sexually immoral people and adulterers.
Ephesians 5:25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for her; 26 in order that he might sanctify her by cleansing her[g] with the washing of water by the word; 27 in order that he might present to himself the church glorious, not having a spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but that she may be holy and blameless. 28 Thus also husbands ought to love their own wives as their own bodies. The one who loves his own wife loves himself. 29 For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as also Christ does the church, 30 because we are members of his body. 31 “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.”32 (This mystery is great, but I am speaking with reference to Christ and the church.) 33 Only you also, each one of you, must thus love his own wife as himself, and the wife must respect her husband.
8 So then, the one who marries[g] his own virgin does well, and the one who does not marry her will do better.
I Cor 7:39 A wife is bound for as long a time as her husband lives. But if her husband dies, she is free to marry whomever she wishes, only in the Lord. 40 But she is happier if she remains thus, according to my opinion—and I think I have the Spirit of God.
2 Cor. 11:2 For I am jealous for you with a godly jealousy, because I promised you in marriage to one husband, to present you as a pure virgin to Christ.
So, you get both an affirmation of marriage and a “there is no male or female”. The husband is specifically told to model Christ to his wife which is interesting in itself. But his overarching goal is to present a “spotless bride” to Christ. There is economy now, and it’s not because the physical world is evil, but that our desires are disordered prior to Resurrection. Marriage is to be held in honor, yet he prefers people remain unmarried. Really, I don’t have much to add to my former comments. I stand by them for now. Paul’s “now” and Paul’s “later”, one is good/honorable/not to be derided in any way, and one is our future life in the Resurrection. What other logic would be Biblical/Tradition for a prospective monk than, essentially, “Start living life in the Resurrection now.” But if a person does this, it doesn’t come at the expense of gender or marriage. So, when talking about clergy, male clergy, and we have this “mind” present in the NT, what would warrant or “give the okay” to the deaconess as participatory in the altar? The reason there is no precedent (and this was my point in the post) is connected to the “now” and the eschaton. We display the reality of the eschaton liturgically; it is necessary based on our soteriology. If in the eschaton Christ is Priest and no one else is, which is what we should want, then later there are no men or women standing in place of Christ because Christ is “all in all” (Col 3:9-11). What is often disregarded is that Paul combines no “male and female” with “slave or free” and “Jew and Gentile”. The issue is more far-reaching that gender. The issue is human alienation due to sin, much of which traces back to Babel.
Sorry to be so long, but I think there is a line of reasoning not utilized. It may not be persuasive, but it is “logical”/according to the mind of Scripture. The larger “Babel” situation in Paul, larger Gospel which cannot prioritize male/non-slave/Jew as God shows no partiality, and the larger “future Age” combined, leave a different logic for male clergy than, “It was always done this way.” And it is based on soteriology and an eschatology with complete continuity with that soteriology.
I will have to investigate this further, but, if deaconess did arise due to the need to “avoid every appearance of evil” (I Thess 5:22), to give no cause for suspicion, then even if the role developed, when the practice of nude baptisms was gone, a function was gone. I don’t think that’s controversial, it’s just which came first and I don’t know. But – early Christians were accused of cannibalism you know – there was no lack of accusations, and the removal of the dismissal of the catechumen or allowing the catechumen or someone else to remain during the Eucharist was due to the same principle, avoiding any appearance or even the suspicion that something “fishy” was going on. By the same logic, to avoid the suspicion of cannibalism, a practice stopped, not such a stretch to think that nude baptisms might cause a similar situation??? I can hear it now, “They impregnate unsuspecting women in our rivers, or they drown unsuspecting women in a ritual sacrifice in the nude.”
Last, it is my belief that those who are promoting the return of the deaconess have gotten their cues from Protestants as they have no real reason for denying women since typically: they have no altar, no Eucharist in terms of real Body, real Blood; and another soteriology/eschatology. They started changing due to cultural pressure, but that Protestant soteriology already in place operated on a different logic. In short, I think you need to be Protestant and have Augustinian soteriology to consistently argue for the return of the deaconess. For them, likely, they have no liturgical appreciation for heaven and earth meeting. It’s like an elevated greeter. And if that were true, there would be no objection most likely. It’s the altar that changes the conversation and Whose altar it is. But they have none of this, and then – my guess – Orthodox borrow from them.
Esmee La Fleu,
Thanks for the suggestion!
I’ll not say more about deaconnesses. On the dismissal of catechumens – a not unusual practice is worth noting:
In a number of parishes (mostly OCA), during the prayers for the catechumens, the catechumens come forward, the priest opens the royal doors, and steps out and gives them a blessing or prays over them. Then, turning to the altar and re-entering, he (or the deacon) pronounces the dismissal of the catechumens, and they return to their places in the congregation.
This began (with the bishop’s blessing) in a number of our mission churches and has since spread, so that I see it rather widely. It is an action that matches with the words, even though it is not the original action. But, it “makes sense.”
In the Greek Archdiocese, and the Antiochian, most often the prayers for the catechumens are omitted – a common practice in those jurisdictions.
I think this is a good practice. Thanks for your comments. I’ll buy the book you recommended soon.
To just add one more thing, I’ve served as a deacon in a Presbyterian church. Deacon there is more like parish council member. It’s almost totally analogous. On what basis would you leave women out of a parish council? You wouldn’t. But if you equate deacon with parish council, or people who vote on expenses, or people who organize church workdays, do some accounting/deposits – then yes – why in the world would you make this a men-only thing? It would look unnecessarily misogynistic. So, they start with a wrong imagination of the deacon in the first place, due to a false narrative of early church history where they bypass the real concerns of what the liturgy was/is (the early church was decidedly liturgical and had no less seriousness than the Temple, more most likely) having traded that view for a made-up, anachronistic, idea of modern house churches as what the early church was, and those who are educated better to know what the role really entailed liturgically don’t communicate this to the average person. It is discussed at assemblies, elder meetings, seminaries, the presbytery, etc. Ask any Protestant if they knew that early Baptisms were in the nude, try pastors first (too weird for them). But it’s much more the average zealot who advertises for the misogyny using Protestant views of Scripture.
But how can Protestant churches argue back when the door is wide open for individualistic interpretation methods? They can just quote Paul as they look more misogynistic. But why was Paul, Paul? This they answer wrongly, as they assume him to be the teacher of Original Sin and Guilt, Penal Substitution, Law versus Grace, works versus faith, etc. – they’re already wrong about the most important things in Paul and the Gospels. And then, when you want to dissuade the concerns of misogynistic accusers, you start with deaconess, it’s the first movement. But the problem all along was a confused/heretical soteriology. Everything hinges on a right soteriology. Where’s Babel? Where’s Devil? Where’s Jew/Gentile? Where’s uncleanness as exposure to death? Where’s theosis? All missing having been traded in for Original Sin and Guilt. Then, when Orthodox ecumenicists pick up the logic (which they must to renegotiate with Bible/Tradition), they co-opt Protestant principles that are already incompatible with the early church and with Orthodoxy. I hold out that some may be curious about deaconess with purer motives than embarrassment, but these honestly curious people usually listen to the Church, and not force the Church into becoming their audience.
I hope this at least makes some sense. Valuing highly the role of women (in many ways Christianity invented women and children as it relates to their context- people forget this) while saying, the Altar is served by men, realizing that in the eschaton Christ is Priest, is congruent with a high view of women and “there is no male or female.”
Thanks for the stimulation,
Dee, et. al.,
I too love this Icon! I have it on my desktop and, although I used to change the desktop background fairly often, I have not done so since I put this Icon on it.
Thank you for your responses, Matthew.
Putting aside the question of deaconesses, I will say that I personally observe and respect the dismissal of catechumens when it occurs. But yes, I’ve also heard the reasoning for why it was instituted and that it is not really required anymore.
“And it’s not a division that makes the catechumen less but acknowledges the great gift of Holy Baptism/inclusion in the Church, in and with the Eucharist. ”
This just came to me after re-re-reading this post and comments:
It seems to me, since Woman was created from Man’s rib, and Man is born of Woman, that we–men and women–are inextricably connected by design and at Divine wise cause–It is not good for Man to be alone. At the Fall, we have not only rejected God, but rejected each other, trying to sever that connection. Perhaps in the last century this attempt at disconnection has been celebrated and writ large, but it is our primordial failing. “Always has been,” as the meme says.
It explains a lot.
Forgive me if this just restates what everyone is saying.
Thanks for your response. I don’t have a reference in front of me, but I’ve at least heard that catechumens were often believed to be genuine Christians. It’s not until Christianity becomes easy that the catechumenate or monasticism gives rise (at the normative level). In our day, when being Christian often means nothing, or worse, affiliation with politics or bare morality without Christian love (as Christian love is morality), I think the catechumenate makes a whole lotta sense. And usually, for people like me who were baptized elsewhere and will not experience rebaptism, the catechumenate might help you feel the weight of what you are embarking upon. That’s not to say that without it, it is not taken seriously. I always recommend (whatever that’s worth) that before Chrismation or Baptism that the person read the Baptismal liturgy. I have found that most all the converts I’ve known never did. I’m convinced that the Baptismal Liturgy is a real key to understanding Orthodoxy. The warfare mentality is right in the face. A cross is put on you to bear, not to wear as my former priest would say.
All the best to your endeavors,
Catechumens are considered members of the Church. For example, should they die, they receive the same burial as members. It is a period of preparation, but a period “within the life of the Church.”
The early Church generally had a three-year long catechumenate, with frequent exorcisms and such. The instruction during the preparation period was generally moral in nature (cf. the Catechetical Sermons of St. Cyril of Jerusalem). It was preparing people to behave like Christians. Following Holy Baptism, there was a period of further instruction called the Mystagogical Catechesis, in which the newly-illumined members received instruction in doctrine and the Holy Mysteries. We also have examples of such instruction from the writings of the Fathers.
In time, the catechumenate wanes in that the Empire had largely become Christian and Baptism was largely a matter of baptizing infants. Missionary areas of the Church have treated the catechumenate in a variety of ways. It has been undergoing a rebirth in the West on account of so many converts.
But, some of the practices of the early catechumenate were dictated by the nature of the persecuted Church (such as keeping doctrine secret, etc.). Today, with services streaming online for all to see, it would be rather quaint to try to do things as they were in that period simply for the sake of doing it that way. This is not the nature of Tradition. The Orthodox Church is the true Church – and not an attempt to be the “ancient Church” in the manner of some Protestant experiments. We are the same Church as the ancient Church and do, as they did, what is appropriate to our situation at present for the sake of the gospel.
Hi Fr Stephen I have a question about bearing a little shame. Can people bear shame without God ? Brene brown has written about shame and vulnerability but not always connected it as explicitly with spiritual life. But can you explain how’s it’s connected with God and salvation ? If someone has healthy shame are they “saved” ? Thanks
Indeed, Byron, it has a powerful impact! I’m grateful Father Stephen uses it from time to time. For some reason, it reveals the closeness of the Theotokos to me.
Thank you. I’m not thinking we should do something because it’s old, but I see that that may be a real temptation for some. I wasn’t aware about Christian burial, but it makes sense. Your comment though reinforces the view, with John 1 being read at Pascha, that illumination is real by the Spirit. I’ve come to see Baptism/Chrismation/Exorcism and Eucharistic participation as the answer to the bondage of the will and this reinforces it more.
On the practice of Orthodox catechumens leaving the service before communion: I did this voluntarily when I was a catechumen. And I returned once the communion service ended. Sometimes I sat outside the doors and listened for the cues (hymns) to return. For whatever it is worth in this conversation, I found such practice edifying. My priest suggested that I read the pre-communion prayers during this interlude, and I did this, too. And when I was baptized and chrismated, the experience of the service and receiving the Eucharist is beyond words to express. Simply put, with a burning heart, in awe and wonder I received our Lord Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit.
Christ is with us!
Lest I be misunderstood, the holy Trinity is one. I received my baptism in the holy Trinity.
Reflecting on what is in my heart when I gaze at this picture, I think it might be that I sense a kind of vulnerability in the Christ-like image of my own heart, like the seeds that fall on the path. And there is the Theotokos, holding steady our Lord in my heart. I hope that this isn’t some sort of delusional imagery on my part. We often ask her for her protection and this image seems to emphasize that capacity in her.
Dee, I agree. I won’t try to pinpoint it but there is something about this Icon that speaks deeply to me.
I once asked my Priest about the practice of Orthodox catechumens leaving the service before communion and he replied that it is not necessary now but may be again in the future.
I came across this verse in Deuteronomy recently. Chapter 22:5
“A woman shall not wear men’s clothes neither shall a man wear women’s clothes.”
I confess to not knowing the clothing of that age.
However in this age, both men and women are wearing pants. Once I was in a restaurant and headed to the ladies room. I was wearing pants at the time. The usual signs confronted me: A figure wearing a skirt and a figure wearing pants. My mind saw pants and headed to the pants door, when all of a sudden I caught myself. I really should go in the one wearing a skirt even though I was wearing pants.
But finding casual skirts’ and dresses these days is a frustrating experience. The racks are filled with cocktail dresses and pants and tops ad nauseum. The main pants are jeans and tights. Not even nice slacks. But casual skirts and dresses are very hard to find, at least where I shop.
There used to be an adage that clothes make the man. I checked that out on the internet and learned that in classical Greek it is, ”The man is his clothing.’ How do our clothing choices affect who we think we are?
Clothing is obviously something that changes throughout time and cultures. I think the wisdom of the Scripture is simply that we should work at being what we are rather than what we are not. And, I admit, that’s not always easy.
It is, of course, made more complicated by the fact that we live in a consumerist culture that would love to do nothing more than sell us lots of stuff whether it’s good for us or not.
Your restaurant conundrum could have been yet more complicated had you been in Scotland.
Thank you, Father. I am still new to Orthodoxy and am being received this Christmas. I have a Protestant background and went to a Protestant seminary. I’m still trying to piece together how the Orthodox church views women so my reply is mostly rooted in a different background. Therefore, I apologize if any of this come across as a misrepresentation of the church.
I really enjoy your nuanced writing and wanted to know if you can point to another blog or resource for me on this topic:
I think many Christian women don’t deny the value of being bearers of men and the ability to have children; that this is a sacred thing. But what we really want to know is if we’re also valuable beyond that. Are we valuable and loveable for being thinking beings with our own personalities? Is who we are as a person cherished or is it merely in our relation to birth giving and caring for men that makes us holy at the exclusion of much else? I never felt like any church I’ve been in has talked about our value for just being our unique selves…in the same way men are. It’s not lost on me that Mary is an impossible standard for us. In some ways, her adoration is often used as license to ignore any of our cries to be seen. The shame-based identity you talk about is very prominent here. Christian women want to know if the church finds us valuable as our own entities with the ability to create, learn, and feel. There was a time when women weren’t even permitted to learn. We can’t deny that the message, for a long time from the church, has sounded like we are merely vessels. Even if this is a holy and profound thing; that hardly reassures. I may as well not even be myself; being just any woman is enough. We long to hear the church champion for who we are not just what we can do in relation to men. For those of us who also happened to be raised without that sense of self, we are starving to find refuge in the church and are afraid to find the same message.
Can you point to a resource that may help give me clarity in this matter?
A quick answer would be to look to St. Macrina, the sister of St. Basil the Great and St. Gregory of Nyssa. Both considered her a greater theologian than themselves and to be their teacher. Though this was not “formal” in the sense of an ordained position – it was – and remains – a definitive response to anyone who might seek to denigrate the gifts of women – as persons, as thinkers, as teachers, etc.
She obviously was quite learned. We could multiply her example any number of times over.
I do not know what sources you are using that describe women as being forbidden to learn, study, etc. No doubt, there have been places and regimes that did such a terrible thing, but it has never been the teaching of the Orthodox Church. Every human being, regardless of gender, is of infinite value as person. That is the faith of the Church.
However, we live in a culture that has been laboring under the unrelenting propaganda of the sexual revolution, coupled with various versions of feminism that have shown repeatedly that historical facts can be distorted so long as they serve the needs of that propaganda. Indeed, it’s hard to get good, reliable information in the present atmosphere of our culture.
“We long to hear the Church champion [women] for who we are and not just what we can do in relation to men…”
Whatever the Church says today, it speaks into the maelstrom of a very vicious, often anti-Christian, ideology. It’s difficult in that atmosphere not to sound like we have agreed with the attacks on the Church and are trying to prove them wrong. I cited the book, Flight from Woman, by Karl Stern. Written in 1965, by a Catholic author and noted psychologist, I thought his treatment has some interesting merit.
I do not think men or women should be considered in isolation from each other. We cannot speak of men or women separately without diminishing the fullness of what it means to be human. One of the failure of modern feminism has been to seek to define women without thinking about men. In large part, the project has often simply used a male model of being human as the standard for what women should be (employment, careers, etc.). Indeed, one of the stated purposes of the sexual revolution and the advent of the pill as birth control, was to liberate women from the consequences of sex (pregnancy) just as men were biologically free from such consequences. Of course, the result has been terrible for everyone concerned.
But, I get your point. It’s hard amidst all the sounds of our culture to hear what the Church might be saying with regard to women. We do not say enough, we do not say it loud enough. It is there.
Interesting in our present times. Perhaps one of the most prolific Orthodox writers and teachers in English-speaking Orthodoxy is Frederica Matthewes-Green. I look as well at the very large number of women writers who publish with Ancient Faith. Probably more women than men!
Orthodoxy should not be confused with the various Protestant, Evangelical, etc. groups. Our history is just not the same.
I have a 22-year-old daughter, and we have many such discussions. She is okay with calling herself a feminist, whereas I’ve read enough Orwell to not be very comfortable with any “-ism.” In a recent talk with her, I expressed pretty much the same thought as Father Stephen’s “I do not think men or women should be considered in isolation from each other. We cannot speak of men or women separately without diminishing the fullness of what it means to be human.”
To be sure, there is something uniquely positive about each, but when the two are set up in a zero-sum contest with one another, to my mind it is just another manifestation of the temptation to view others as less than ourselves in God’s love. It is as pernicious as all such divisions, whether they be ethnicity, class, citizenship, or even our abilities.
You asked for a resource, so I’ll mention Father Hopko’s “The Orthodox Faith,” Volume 1. Quoting from it:
“The hostilities and competitions between man and woman that exist in the present world are not due to their respective ‘modes of existence’ as created by God. They are due rather to sin. There should be no tyranny of men over women; no oppression, no servitude. Just as there should be no striving of women to be men, and to hold the male position in the order of creation. There should be rather a harmony and unity within the community of being with its natural created order and distinctions.”
Father Hopko goes on to compare the relationship to the Trinity Itself in that, whereas the Three Divine Persons are not identical, They are perfectly equal.
I have three daughters and interesting discussions, as well.
My closest friend, confident, and advisor in all things, is my wife. I have known her since I was 19 years old. We were in college together and were married in my Junior year. She is extremely well-read. I trust her opinion more than anyone I know – in the sense that I trust her judgement, her discernment, and her discretion. I have never made a spiritual decision of any consequence that was not utterly mutual. I frequently think that I would not have become Orthodox without her – in that her resolve was far greater than my own.
We can only describe the last 60 years as something of a social disaster. That doesn’t mean that we were a social utopia prior to that. Rather, it is that the educational experiments, the economic experiments, and the social/sexual experiments have produced terrible results.
The single greatest measure that I have in mind is the health and well-being of children. First, nearly a third of all children conceived in most of that period were aborted. That’s a terrible outcome. But so many policies have conspired against healthy, stable families. Children at present are in a nightmare of confusion on so many fronts. I base that particularly on conversations with young mothers and fathers and their experience with their publicly educated children. Some things can be traced to bad decisions being made about the nature and use of technology.
Another singular failure of our culture is seen in our problem of pornography. It is an epidemic and there are no laws to curtail it. I will say no more about it but the cumulative effect on the culture is as bad as war (or worse).
We lack political leadership – inasmuch as we are governed by very corrupt people and endure a very corrupt set of governmental functions. The tax code is a perfect example of bad government. The tax code is over 6,000 pages long, and the commentary and directions are another 75,000 pages. It’s actually typical of the modern system. It is simply destructive of virtue.
I come back to something that Justin referenced, commenting earlier on a different article: there is no model for how to create a “just” society or government in Orthodox thought. We have existed under every conceivable form of governance. What is the case, I think, is that there can be no just society that is not made up of virtuous people. Thus, the answer to virtue is again found in the life of the parish. It is Jesus Himself who gave us the Church. He did not give us a government. He gave us the Church.
Whatever we are, and however we are to live as Orthodox Christians, we do so within and through the life of Christ give to us in the Church. It will not be perfect but it will be the life of grace.
I think of my ancestors (and those of most of us). Mine would have been Anglo-Saxon and Celtic peasant/workers. We weren’t royals or rich (still aren’t). As such, most of them, men included, would not have been able to read. If you’ve ever lived on a farm then you know that everybody works – side, by side – men, women, and children. My parents were picking cotton in the fields of the South starting at age 4.
Much that we discuss today viz. education, employments, etc., really only describes less than 200 years of history. It’s a reflection of the modern economy. We still haven’t gotten it right as far as I can see. But, even then, pretty much only clergy, doctors, and lawyers were educated beyond what we would call high school. But one of the earliest novelists in English (without a college degree) was Jane Austen, whose work still stands the test of time. And she was not alone.
Modernity is both the inventor of many of the ills we criticize as well as the “critic” of many things in the past (and often uses a mythological treatment of history rather than the facts). Most modern criticisms of the past are simply self-serving arguments for why we think we know more and are better and wiser at everything. That’s simplistic and not true.
But, I return to the life of the parish. Some parishes do it better than others. But I’ve not been in any healthy parish in which the leadership and dynamism of the congregation wasn’t a cooperative effort of everyone – men, women, children. That’s what’s normal.
As far as wives go, I am coming up on the 14th anniversary of losing Catherine’s mother, and I count her along with the children we made together uppermost as personal proof of God’s undeserved love toward me. Perhaps she only kept her struggles more to herself than I have, but she also was far better at evidencing her faith in her daily life.
Likewise and having met and conversed with your wife, I can believe all your praise of her as more than the custom of a loving husband 🙂
Michaela, thank you for your question. I’m adding into this conversation as a convert but not from prior Protestant or Catholic background.
I have had some of the questions you have raised. And I have a habit of separating “official” statements, that is of Bishops or synods from common everyday behavior. If I may, I offer a personal perspective: The American culture, it seems, has not been particularly conducive to presenting a favorable/healthy image of women. Neither has there been healthy cultural support for the needs and aspirations of women. There are multiple examples of the negative results or sour fruit from that cultural tendency. It also has been rather poisonous for people of color, other ethnicities, and other cultures, as well. Needless to say, we don’t have a lot of saints in the Orthodox Church, but we do have some. As a result, whatever is commonly appears in the US culture appears with some regularity in the Orthodox Church in the US, especially in congregations with many converts, with some exceptions. Many of us carry our baggage, whatever it might be, into the Church, whether we like it or know it.
My mother was not white but Florida Seminole. She was raised in a traditional culture that was matrilocal and matriarchal. Nevertheless, when I was a teenager and women’s liberation became a theme in the local news, and in particular, bra-burning, I turned to my mother and asked her for her thoughts. Her first response was to laugh. Then she said these were the issues of a class of white women. My mother was not necessarily a learned woman. She attended school until ninth grade. She thought I would be doing very well if I managed to graduate from high school.
I sincerely believe (partly due to my familial background and partly due to my inculcation into Orthodox Christian culture) that the truth of our relations to each other are for more complex, mysterious, and beautiful than what the US culture (media) has a tendency to convey. From time to time, as a commentator I push back against some perspectives expressed in this blog regarding the outlook upon women and “Women’s Issues” that the American culture defines and expressed as an Orthodox view. Typically such expressions evolve from political media rather than from Orthodox traditions.
Because I am flawed and fall way short of the example of the Theotokos, sometimes I look for benchmarks, so to speak, among the women saints, those who have lived lives with some level of nearness to my own. St Olga (not yet canonized) of Alaska, St Mary of Egypt, St Kasianii the musician, St Marcaria, St Theodora, St Gobnait.
St Gobnait was a beekeeper and by tradition threw bee skeps at mauraders attempting to steal livestock. (She is my patron saint, since I’m a beekeeper too)
Dear Michaela, I’m a woman chemist with grown children. I honor your questions and encourage you to continue to ask questions as you have and in the way that you have. Our world encourages an adversarial stance. But we Orthodox are encouraged to listen to each other with authentic love and generosity. May God bless your entering the Orthodox Church, embraced by the love of Christ.
By the way, stick with this blog. : )
Correction: I meant to say St Macrina, the saint Fr Stephen mentioned.
Dee, my wife and I have an icon of Blessed Olga in our bedroom. Her simplicity and faithfulness in daily living are an inspiration.
Indeed, Michael! She’s a favorite of mine. I have her icon at home and at my office at school.
Thank you, Dee, for this and for so much else. I credit St. Olga of Alaska for preening the life of my dear grandson, Eli, during a very dangerous pregnancy. I met her granddaughter who is also named Matushka Olga, and she took my request for my grandson and his mothers pregnancy to the grave of St. Olga. He is now six years old and a great delight to the heart of his grandfather.
To Fr. Stephen,
Thank you for your clarity and pointing out that the Orthodox church has a different history in regard to the treatment of women. I am not a feminist and was raised with a complementarian view and so it’s been difficult to staddle how I feel sometimes as a woman between what I fear the church may say and the extreme messages of our culture. I think it is also important not to view the sexes in isolation; I think I’m more concerned that there is a lot of emphasis placed on what women do instead of who they are. Does it matter that I am me as well as being a woman in God’s plan or is my ability to bear children and nurture men my only value? In that view, being me is meaningless; I could just be any woman. I think your answer is “of course not!” And I appreciate that and the examples of women you gave. Every child wants to know they have something within that is valuable; not just what is physically present.
To Mark: Thank you for your suggested resource! I’ve heard good things about Hopko. I love that you and your daughter can discuss these big issues together. There’s a lot of impact a father can have on his daughter’s concept of value and womanhood. Thanks also for the quote. I crave that kind of nuance about how we are to relate to each other.
To Dee: Your perspective is such a wonderful one; the women’s movement did not extend to minorities. In my studies as a therapist, we learn that the most marginalized population in America is a black female. I’m very encouraged by your words and can feel your compassion. Thank you for that. I think the discussion women want to have is so crucial and yet it gets lost in the political landscape and taken over by the women who are becoming antagonistic towards men or deny our differences. It always makes me fear that bringing up the conversation will only make others ship me with that camp. There are so many of us Christian women who do not want to move with that culture but still want to know “do we matter for who we are?” The controversy has made it difficult to meet each other and take a look at what’s really being desired; which for me is not exertion over a man or to be exactly as they are…but to feel that I am being cherished not only for my womanhood but for my ‘personhood.’ Thank you for your reply; it was very understanding and the personal nature of it was much appreciated.
What a wonderfully clarifying comment. The desire to know “who I am” as person (apart from the question of a male or female role) is utterly essential to being human – to being Christian. I believe the answer to the question is found knowing God – in the very depths of the heart. We we know ourselves only to the extent (maybe even exactly to the extent) that we know God. It’s pretty much the subject of the book I’ve been working on (out soon). Entitled: Face to Face: Knowing God Beyond Our Shame. It’s also about knowing ourselves beyond our shame. The truth of who we are is hidden –
I think I was a bit “triggered” (as they say) when your question was framed in terms of “being a woman.” That is a “collective” question rather than a “personal” question.
St. Maximus the Confessor once described male and female as “energies” of the human person – meaning a means or manner of expression. It’s not nothing, but the expression is still not the person themself. In that sense, the Mother of God is a role model for all human beings – who she is is revealed to her in her utter humility: “Behold the handmaid of the Lord, be it unto me according to your word.”
For each of us, the truth of “who we are” is hidden. It is discovered not by being told the answer, not by inventing or choosing the answer, but in our self-emptying (by grace) in the loving presence of God. A major part of the Church’s role in this is to be the kind of place and the kind of people in which and among which we can learn to safely practice that self-emptying. What that looks like is as varied as individuals.
That a woman might find some portion of that in child-bearing and nurturing is no more surprising than that a man might find some portion of that in caring for a woman and a child, etc. Those are just normal human activities. But it might be found in any number of other activities.
I would say of child-bearing, etc., that it is a paradigm or a type – in that it has been done so many times, in so many places, by so many people, and is deeply, biologically wired in us, that it provides (even for those who do not bear children) something of a source of reflection, much like the Scriptures themselves. I will never face a giant with only 5 stones and a sling-shot – but I still reflect on the story of David and Goliath.
I also reflect on child-bearing because it is a Scriptural type and it’s as instructive for men as it is for women.
Lastly, I think this is a great mystery for all of us and we are only just beginning to see it unfold. Part of our humility is embedded in our patience. There are many things that I have only begun to see in these, my last years. I wish I had seen them many years ago – but I probably wouldn’t have known what I was looking at.
It is interesting that you mention black females – some of the strongest, most wonderfully complete women I have ever known were black females. That they have been marginalized by the culture is what it is. We are not fulfilled or transformed by what the culture does to us. God has been making Himself known to the marginalized for all of history. It might be that the most spiritually impoverished people in our culture are those whom the culture has marginalized the least.
Hello, Fr. Stephen. I know you have read history. Is there something particularly about modernity that strikes you so horrible that just to endure is success? Do you forsee any sort of “end” to modernity and if so what does it look like?
Thank you, Fr. Stephen! That was a comforting reply. I read your blog on toxic shame and it felt very validating and like medicine for the soul. I am eager to read your book when it comes out!
Modernity is, relatively speaking, so “cushy” and immune to certain forms of suffering, that it sounds truly curmudgeonly to complain about it. What I think is that, despite all of our prosperity, it is corrosive to the soul. We are soul-sick and have built a culture on death, but refuse to admit it.
I think enduring it consists in “saving your soul.” It’s more than possible, and many people do it. It’s just that it’s easy to sort of doze off and enjoy the comfort around us and forget to be truly human.
I suspect that if modernity “ends,” it will be through radical economic collapse. I have no gift for prescience – so I don’t know if or when such a thing happens. I do know that empires do not last forever. America has become decadent in a number of ways that are concerning. At present, depending on who’s in charge, there is at least half the population that would cheer to see the nation collapse. Then the other party gets elected and they switch sides. But it’s a serious business when about half the population isn’t actually committed to a civilization.
What I do know and believe is this: the providence of God is at work in all things. The times we live in are the times for which we were always created. As such, we can give thanks always and for all things.
I do not want to be a curmudgeon. But, my writings on modernity are of a piece with those of GK Chesterton, and CS Lewis, and any number of critics of modernity. Indeed, I cannot think of any serious Christian thinker of the last 200 years, whose writings I would commend to anyone, who was not deeply critical of modernity. It’s not the technology or the science – it’s the soul-lessness. There has always been technology of a sort and science of a sort. They are not modernity. Modernity resides on Wall Street, in Hollywood, and in Washington (and many little outposts in between). It resides in most universities and public schools. It produces all of our advertising.
It “ends” all the time. Someone goes to the doctor and comes home with a diagnosis of cancer. Modernity has a way of collapsing whenever it’s confronted by such reality. When I was a hospice chaplain, few of our conversations had anything to do with modernity. They would have been comfortable in a medieval parlor. Everytime we do “real” things, modernity is diminished – for modernity is a make-believe story about the world.
Stanley Hauerwas has said that “the project of modernity is to create a people who believe that they have no story except the story they chose when they had no story.” Such a story is meaningless. Here’s a brief sample: https://m.facebook.com/watch/?v=380567926956411&paipv=0&eav=AfYF46cWcmPjrI_Mdrnqibnl7gSleww-BOD8ro7yC_XGW5ZppauTSbndQV6_UX0wH-Y&_rdr
Modernity ends whenever we admit that God has called us to be a part of the Jesus story. We are chosen and our lives only have meaning in Him.
Christian women want to know if the church finds us valuable as our own entities with the ability to create, learn, and feel.
Michaela, I would only add that I am amazed at the humanity of the women in the parish I attend. I don’t know how the parish could reflect God without them…. I am reminded of how it was said that the grandmothers carried the Church during the trials presented by the Soviet Union.
So many things in Orthodoxy are, as Father notes, “hidden”. The Church has a habit of not shouting everything from the proverbial mountaintop (I think it a good habit). Don’t let that depress you; it’s worth the searching to see how deeply women (and men) of all “stripes” are valued by God. And I assure you, it’s there for the finding. I hope this is helpful and encouraging. May God bless your entry into the Church!