Just then a woman who had been subject to bleeding for twelve years came up behind him and touched the edge of his cloak.
The word, “cloak” always brings me back to this story in the bible, this story about the bleeding woman who touches the cloak of Jesus. She believes in the healing. She wants it. She needs it. When I was on the road to chrismation there were a number of things that held me back, one of which was a practice I’d heard about that women were discouraged from taking communion while bleeding. It earned it’s own chapter in my book so I’m posting a bit of that chapter as my blog entry today.
excerpt from “Nearly Orthodox: On being a modern woman in an ancient tradition”
From Chapter 8: Body and Blood
Surrounded by a deep gilded background, a sea of gold, the icon of the Theotokos of Vladimir often does not seem to see me there, standing near her during Vespers, in the quiet, in the dim light of Holy Trinity Orthodox Church. She looks beyond me, further ahead, past the place where I stand and into the pale future—hers, mine, ours. The cheek of the Christ child presses her face. He is in need. He is needy. His arm is wrapped around her neck, pulling her to him. “Look here,” he says. I know those words; I know that hand on my neck, that cheek against my own.
When I make eye contact with her now that I, too, am a mother, I see something new in this woman. No longer Queen of the Universe and untouchable, I see her now, weary and fully woman—body aching, bone tired; even the Son of God has a child’s needs and wants. Even the bearer of God’s Son has a mother’s needs and wants. She wants him to be healthy. She wants him to be happy. She wants him to get married, grow old and wise. Somehow in her heart she knows this will not happen. Somehow in her heart she knows that her fears for his future are both commonplace and cosmic.
When I go to her now, when I light the candle nearest her on my own icon stand at home and kiss her icon tenderly every morning, I am thinking about my children and about my fears—for them, for me, for us all. When I go to her now in the early morning hours, she sees me and we know each other. She gives me the “it’s going to be all right” look I find myself giving to the harried mother in line at the grocery store, with children climbing on her back and her shopping cart, clinging and pressing their faces into her cheek. “Look, here. See me,” they say. When I go to her now and kiss her icon tenderly every morning, I am thinking of that harried mother in line at the grocery store, and I am thinking of the woman who has never been that harried mother in the grocery store but always yearned to be, and I am thinking of the woman who has no need or desire to be that harried mother in the grocery store line, and I feel all of them in my skin, in my lips as I kiss the icon. We are, all of us, in this together, and Theotokos, God-bearer, touches my face and tells me in no uncertain terms that we are alike. We are all alike.
MY INNER PUNK ROCKER IS A FRAUD. MY inner punk rocker puts on a brave face, frozen sneer and eyebrow arched, but she is afraid too, afraid of being shunned, rejected, left out. She is willing to stare the lion down, not because she thinks she’ll survive, but because she has no other choice, backed into the corner of the cage she built for herself. My inner punk rocker has kept me alive and protected even as she tips her hand time after time. She bristled at the suggestion that Orthodox women cannot accept communion when they are bleeding, the suggestion that a woman is unworthy, unclean, unwelcome merely based upon her God-made biology. So I calmed her down and dug for the reason behind the doctrine.
The roots of the practice begin long before the birth of Christ. It is Old Testament, it is Israelites wandering in the desert. The Hebrew word is tuma. English could not find a word for it, and so the word “unclean” became attached, but the essence of tuma is not dirt, shame, or filth. The essence of tuma is loss.
The Hebrews understood the body, the life, the essence of things in terms of loss and grief far better than most, and so tuma was the body of one who has died but also the body of the woman who has given birth. Where life had been, the essence of God resided; the space is holy ground, even after the life is gone. The body of one who has died has seen the essence of life escape it. The Holy exits this vessel. This is the loss.
The body of a woman who has given birth has seen the essence of life multiplied, grown, and departed from her. The Holy leaves a space in her not yet refilled. The woman who moves through the cycle of fertility, the possibility of new life creation that is unrealized, suffers that same loss. The potential of life is there; when that passes, this is the loss. For a time, she is repaired, she is renewed, she is filled again. She is too holy to touch because she is under reconstruction, readying for the potential of holy creation in herself once again.
In the Garden, I imagine the man lying there on the sand, staring at this new creature who is like him, who is nothing like him, this mysterious thing. Adam had no way to know that men would always find women as mysterious and magical as he found Eve. She, being creator as well, could make people of his modest offering. She, being mystical, was curious enough to ask about the forbidden fruit. She, being woman, was able to participate at a biological level in bringing God into flesh, the word whispered into her body just like that first day of the world, the Word whispered into the darkness of her quiet womb; too holy to touch until that very moment, too holy to touch while she carried the Word, too holy to touch after He breathed the air outside her body for the first time. So then, Theotokos—God-bearer, word-bringer, ordinary woman—she is all of us, speaks for all of us who are bleeding, all of us who have bled and waited and labored and grieved.
She knows, as my inner punk rocker knows, that I am always bleeding, I may always be bleeding in one way or another. She knows I am the woman on the road, reaching desperately for the robe of Christ. I can see Him turn at that touch, as if the healing energy began to unweave from his DNA, from His skin, from His robe the moment the thought came into my head and out from my lips, my arm outstretched: “I’m tired of bleeding.” The healing was ready, I was ready, He was ready; too holy to touch. He found me there, along the road, and the road found me bleeding, and the road found me healing.