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Word Magazine December 1998 Page 5-10
WOMEN SAINTS AND THE NEED FOR APPROPRIATE ROLE
MODELS FOR GIRLS TODAY
By Elaine Gounaris Hanna
IS THERE A PROBLEM?
What images do our daughters see today that are being presented to them as normal or appropriate models for life? Are they attracted to the figures of the entertainment and sports worlds? Do your younger ones adore the Spice Girls, whose target audience is the 8-12-year-old set? Do they imitate their gestures and gyrations? Do they want to emulate their looks as well, with their heavy make-up and scant, tight clothing?
Do your daughters drool over Leonardo DiCaprio, whose character in the movie Titanic has an affair with an engaged woman and paints a nude portrait of her? Do they consider that “romantic” or acceptable because the two characters were “in love” with each other?
What do they see as normative in dating or marital relationships or even just plain human relations when they watch Dawson’s Creek, Melrose Place, or Beverly Hills 90210?
What are they being told when they listen to the music, movie, TV, and sports figures who use, condone, or even glorify drugs, filthy language, and violence?
What message do our daughters hear when the boys refer to a certain kind of undershirt as a “wife-beater?”
What views of marriage, propriety, integrity, and honor are they seeing when the President of the United States commits adultery time and time again, and then lies consistently about it? What message do they hear when a large portion of the American people seems to think that Bill Clinton’s moral character has nothing to do with his ability to be a good president, a good leader?
What view of marriage, motherhood, and family is presented to them when they observe the lives of some of the popular female entertainers today? Whoopi Goldberg has had several abortions. Jodie Foster recently gave birth to a deliberately planned baby out of wedlock, and has not named the father. Great numbers of other prominent women are divorced and many are living with boyfriends. This is a phenomenon we see not only in the entertainment world but increasingly in our own neighborhoods and within the families of our children’s schoolmates and playmates.
With all of these images and more bombarding our daughters today, we have, as Ricky Riccardo would say, “a lot of ‘splainin’” to do. Over the past year I’ve had to do a lot of explaining to our now nine-year-old daughter. We’ve had to have many discussions about these things she’s been seeing and hearing. And quite frankly, I’ve had to talk about things I wasn’t ready to talk to my little girl about!
Our Ladies’ Aid Society here at St. George in Indianapolis has also seen this need to do some explaining to our daughters about what is good, right, true, appropriate, and well-pleasing to God — and what is not. We see it as our responsibility to assist our daughters by providing for them some good, desperately needed role models. We hope and pray, of course, that we ourselves are role models for them, but we need divine help as well. So together, in our meetings, we studied the lives of a number of women saints. After serious consideration and prayer, we decided to ask St. Thekla to become the patron saint and guardian of our Ladies’ fellowship, as both a representative of all the women saints of our Church and as a model to place before our daughters.
It is now time to tell our daughters the stories of the women saints of the Church who bore witness to Christ under every conceivable circumstance. They were rich women, poor women, former prostitutes, virgin martyrs, empresses, deaconesses, seamstresses, healers, noblewomen, peasant women, young, old, wives, mothers, monastics, women from all walks of life.
St. Thekla was born in Iconium of eminent pagan parents. She was betrothed at the age of eighteen to a young man. At the same time, St. Paul had come to Iconium with Barnabas to preach the Gospel. St. Thekla had the opportunity to listen to St. Paul for three days and nights. She became a Christian and vowed to live her new life as a virgin, in asceticism, so that she could dedicate her entire life to Christ. Her mother, enraged that Thekla had spurned her betrothed, beat her, starved her, then turned her over to the judge and demanded that Thekla be burned. The judge sent her to be burned, but God preserved the saint from the flames. Thekla then followed St. Paul to Antioch. There, attracted by her beauty, an elder in the city tried to take her by force. Thekla refused him, so the man dragged her before the judge and denounced her as a Christian. She was thrown to the wild beasts, but they would not harm her. Amazed, the judge released her. She then began to preach the Gospel and brought many to Christ.
With the blessing of St. Paul, she retreated to a solitary place near Seleucia where she lived for a long time in asceticism. God granted her the gift of healing, which she used freely, thus bringing many to the Christian faith. The doctors in Seleucia were jealous of her healing power, so they sent some young men to assault her, hoping that if she lost her virginity, she would lose her miraculous healing power as well. Thekla fled, but seeing that the young men were about to capture her, she prayed to God for help in front of a gigantic rock. The rock opened and hid her. This open rock became the cave in which she spent the remainder of her life and eventually became her tomb.
St. Thekla is called “The Protomartyr among Women.” Usually we think of a martyr as someone who has died for Christ. Yet St. Thekla lived to a ripe old age and died a peaceful death. So what does “martyr” mean in her case? The word martyr is a Greek word, which means witness. A Christian martyr, therefore, is someone who witnesses to Christ in his or her life.
St. Thekla the Protomartyr witnessed to Christ in every facet of her life. Let us look more closely at her life and see how it might apply to our daughters today. First, she spurned paganism — and the society it created — and accepted Christ. We might be tempted to say here, “We don’t live in a pagan society, so this does not apply to us.” But in reality, what is a pagan society but one in which other deities are worshiped? Can we honestly say that our American society worships the one, true God? Probably not. We live in a society dominated by the media, where the appellation “Christian” applied to a politician, entertainment or other public figure usually is offered in a pejorative tone. The term “Christian” has come to mean a crazy, far-right, narrow-minded, mean-spirited, unenlightened bigot! How do we teach our daughters to respond to this? Do they have to hide being a Christian to avoid ridicule or even persecution in school? Or have we taught them to courageously stand up for their beliefs and to be unashamed of being a Christian? In many places our daughters are being assailed for being Christians and for having Christian values, standards, and morals.
It is not so far-fetched to say that we live in a kind of pagan society where the deities of money, power, sex, drugs, violence, and immorality are being preached and worshiped daily. We need to fortify our daughters, to steel them against these unchristian standards, and lead them to emulate St. Thekla in her steadfastness in repelling the relentless onslaughts against her and in her firm resolve to proclaim Christ as her Lord and Savior.
Next, St. Thekla chose to live her new Christian life as a virgin in asceticism, in order to serve her Lord fully. Certainly, I hope, we all agree that virginity before marriage is absolutely essential for a Christian! But what can we say about the monastic life? Is that for our daughters? Some of us might say, “Definitely not! We want our daughters to marry and have grandchildren for us.” But, I would say, let us instead teach our daughters to be open to the possibility that God may have chosen them for the monastic life. It is not a life for everyone, but it is the life chosen by God for some. Let us not discourage our daughters from this path if it is the one God has chosen for them.
Thirdly, St. Thekla, having been granted by God the gift of healing, gave freely of that gift to others, without asking for anything in return, thereby bringing many to Christ. All of us, in fact, including our daughters, have been granted some gift or even many gifts by God. How we use that gift is important. Do we teach our daughters to use their gifts purely for self-gain or self-gratification or do we encourage them to use their gifts to benefit others, to serve the Church, and to glorify God as did St. Thekla?
Another woman saint I would like to look at is the deaconess Olympias, who was considered St. John Chrysostom’s closest friend. Seventeen of his extant letters are addressed to her from his exile from 404 to 407. His letters to her are fervent, pastoral and theologically profound.
The role of a deaconess in those days, as a full-time church worker, was to assist the bishop in the baptism of women, to visit Christian women in their homes, to manage the charitable work of the Church, and to tend to the pastoral and spiritual needs of the women in the Church.
The historian and Bishop Palladius tells us about Olympias’ life. She was of noble birth. She had been orphaned young, then given in marriage at age eighteen. Within a short period of time she was widowed. Palladius claims the marriage went unconsummated. When the Emperor Theodosius heard of her widowhood, he tried to convince her to marry a relative of his. She refused saying, “If my King had desired me to live with a male He would not have taken away my first husband. But He knew that I cannot make a husband happy, so He liberated him from the bond and me likewise from the most burdensome yoke, and He freed me from subjection to a man, while He laid on me the gentle yoke of chastity.” So Theodosius ordered her property held in trust until she became thirty. She thanked him for relieving her of the burden of possessions and suggested he distribute it to the poor and the churches. Seeing that he had done no harm to her by his action he returned her property to her. Then Archbishop Nektarios ordained her as deaconess well below the canonical age of forty. She gave her wealth liberally to Nektarios, as well as to many other bishops, clergy, virgins, and ascetics for their needs and for the Church. St. John Chrysostom, who succeeded Nektarios, perceiving that she bestowed her goods liberally on anyone who asked her for them, and that she despised everything but the service of God, advised her to bestow her wealth on others more prudently and economically.
She and her companion deaconesses were well loved by Chrysostom. He alone was permitted to visit them in their monastery, and he did so regularly. Olympias prepared for St. John his daily provisions and sent them to him through the end of his life. After John’s exile to Constantinople, Olympias was accused of having set fire to the Church of Hagia Sophia and the nearby Senate house in protest. “Great fortitude was evinced in the midst of these calamities by Olympias, the deaconess.” When brought before the perfect to answer the charges she replied, “My past life ought to avert all suspicion from me, for I have devoted my large property to the restoration of the temples of God.”
Palladius wrote extensively of her in reply to his deacon’s queries about this illustrious Deaconess. The Bishop explained that Patriarch Theophilos of Alexandria had persecuted Olympias because she took in monks whom he had expelled. Palladius claims that in her actions she “imitated her Lord.”
St. Olympias spent the last years of her life in exile in Nicomedia. Since her death, her relics have given rise to many miracles. As a kind of testament to her, in one of his letters (#6) to her, St. John Chrysostom had said, “Now I am deeply joyful, not only because you have been delivered from sickness, but even more because you are hearing adversities with such fortitude, calling them trifles — a characteristic of a soul filled with power and abounding in the rich fruits of courage. You are not only enduring misfortune with fortitude, but are making light of it in a seemingly effortless way, rejoicing and triumphing over it — this is a proof of the greatest wisdom.”
What can our daughters emulate in St. Olympias? First of all, St. Olympias was one tough cookie, with a sharp wit and sense of humor. She didn’t crumble under pressure, but bore her persecution courageously, even though it was not only unjust but was initiated by a Patriarch, not a pagan! Nothing in the world could stand between her and her Lord. She allowed nothing to deter her from serving her King.
This brings us to a second facet of her life, which our daughters can emulate. St. Olympias devoted herself professionally, as it were, as a deaconess, to the service of the Church. She was a professional career woman in the Church, so to speak. More and more opportunities for women to work in the Church are opened up today. A good number of Orthodox women now are theologically educated and are working full or part-time for the Church as pastoral assistants in parishes, as teachers in parochial schools and seminaries, as theologians, as church administrators and as social workers and psychologists in service to the Church. Instead of devoting their lives to careers outside the Church, we could encourage our young women prayerfully to consider working for the Church.
Let’s look now at the life of a woman saint who was married. St. Nonna with her husband, St. Gregory the Elder, and their children, Gregory the Theologian, Caesarius and Gorgonia, were all saints. Holiness runs in families! We learn about St. Nonna from St. Gregory the Theologian. He spoke of his mother in his funeral orations for his sister and father. His sister, St. Gorgonia, had died in middle age, leaving behind a husband and five children. His father, St. Gregory the Elder, died around the age of one hundred. St. Gregory the Theologian compared his parents to Abraham and Sarah of the Old Testament and declared that his mother even surpassed Sarah. They were, he wrote of his parents, “of one honor, of one mind, of one soul, yoked in the pursuit of virtue and of fellowship with God.” They were equal in all things. They were paradigms of virtue for their children. The beauty, harmony and camaraderie of their marriage were unsurpassed. Nonna, he says, was not only her husband’s “partner, but what is more marvelous, even his leader, drawing him on to the highest excellence by her actions and her words.” She had even brought her husband, who had been raised in a heretical sect (called the Hypsistarii) to the true Christian faith through her own character, admonitions, fervor for godliness, fasting and prayer.
She was concerned not with the beauty of her body but with that of her soul, of “restoring … the divine image within her.” She gave liberally to the poor because she believed that to give only enough to cover their needs served to remind them of their poverty and robbed them of their dignity. “She excelled in both the thrifty management of her household and in the pursuit of godliness.” The prosperity of her household increased through her wise management. Yet she was also able to offer herself completely to God by avoiding things that were not holy and by dedicating herself to prayer, fasting, almsgiving, psalmody and vigils. “She allowed neither aspect of her life to interfere with the other but, rather, made each one confirm and strengthen the other.”
She also trusted God fully. St. Gregory marvels, “It was quite an undertaking on her part to promise me completely to God before my birth, without worrying about what the future would bring, and to offer me up immediately after I was born.”
He also tells us something about her, which is encouraging to me in my own daily struggle. “Some of her virtues,” he says, “she displayed early in life; others she acquired gradually throughout her life.” She was not born holy. Rather she spent her whole life growing closer and closer to God, maturing little by little, through her daily life and struggles. And her struggles did indeed prove fruitful. Not only has she been recognized as a saint of the Church, but through her holy influence, her husband and three children have also walked the path of holiness.
There is much in her story that girls of today can emulate. She married and had children, something most of our daughters will do. But the kind of marriage she and her husband had is worth taking a good look at. Her husband was a Christian, but not Orthodox. Rather than leaving him to his own beliefs, she encouraged him, day after day, to seek the truth of Orthodoxy, not to be satisfied with the partial truths and outright errors of his heretical sect. She prayed for him, fasted and taught him. Our daughters must be bold in this way as well. Our daughters need to know that it is not enough to marry a Christian man but also to proclaim to him the truth of Orthodoxy and, with love, prayer and fasting, to bring him to the Orthodox faith for a harmonious family life.
Once Nonna’s husband accepted the Orthodox Faith, he, too, excelled in his faith, and the two of them, in effect, engaged in a kind of competition with one another. They did so not in the business, political or other professional sphere — as the world would tell women today is their right and obligation — but in the spiritual realm. This kind of competition does not cause the fighting, backstabbing, alienation or harm so prevalent in the worldly spheres. Rather, the atmosphere of spiritual competition is one of encouragement, where a husband and wife urge each other on, praying for one another, and rejoicing in each other’s progress on the path to holiness. This is the kind of marriage for which our daughters should be preparing themselves.
Nonna also managed “to do it all,” so to speak. She managed to advise her husband, raise and educate their children in the faith, run a well-managed household, saving enough to give liberally to the poor, especially widows and orphans. Yet she still had the time every day, without fail, to pray at length, read Scripture, chant the appointed psalms and often to keep vigil through the night. We need to teach our daughters that they, too, can do it all — that they can be “superwomen” — not in what the world tells them is important, but rather in what God deems essential.
As we have said, St. Nonna was not born this way. Nor did she become this kind of woman overnight. Rather, she worked continuously throughout her life to become well-pleasing to God. Our daughters can learn something from this. We live in a society where so much is instant, fast, immediate. All the world’s problems are solved in a half-hour sitcom. Fast food service is around every corner, and short cuts in every arena are prevalent; but there are no short cuts to spiritual growth. Spiritual growth takes time. It is a life-long struggle. It takes both great ascetical effort and the grace of God. Let’s teach our daughters from the example of St. Nonna that their spiritual growth, which should take precedence over everything else in the world, will take place over their entire lifetime, and nothing need discourage them in this.
Finally, St. Nonna did something that a number of women saints did. She dedicated her child to God even before he was born. This is something we need to remember and must also teach our daughters. Children are a gift to us from God, but not the kind of gift that we keep for ourselves and do with what we want. Rather, the kind of gift God has given us in children is that which we dedicate to Him, mold and perfect, as best as we can, in His Name, and give back to Him for Him to guide on the path to holiness.
St. Anna, the mother of the Theotokos, was another such mother. When she was old and beyond the age of child-hearing, God gave her this precious gift, a daughter, whom Anna dedicated to God even before her birth. When Mary was two, her father Joachim wanted to fulfill Anna’s promise to dedicate her to God, but Anna said, let’s wait another year until she is three, so that, when we give her to God, she will be old enough to remember that I am her mother. So when she was three, Mary was led to the Temple where her parents left her. Once a year Joachim and Anna would visit her, and God granted her the grace to remember who they were. You know the rest of the story, of course.
The salient point here, to press upon our daughters, is that someday they will have to let go of their children — not let them go to follow their own path, or the path desired for them by their parents, but to follow the path God has chosen for them. Certainly it will not be the same path that the Theotokos followed, but it is absolutely certain that God has laid out a path to holiness for each one of them, and it is our obligation, as parents, to let them go and to urge them along that path.
St. Sophia is in the same category. Sophia, whose name means wisdom, deliberately named her three daughters Faith, Hope and Love. St. Sophia was a devout Christian who lived during a time of great persecution under the Roman Emperor Hadrian. She had been widowed shortly after the birth of her third daughter. With her three children, she was brought before the magistrate and ordered to renounce Christ and offer incense to the pagan deity Artemis. If she refused, she was told, she would be forced to watch her three young daughters die a horrible death. Imagine the anguish this mother must have gone through! Yet she summoned the courage to remain faithful to Christ and encouraged her daughters, aged twelve, ten, and nine, to endure, saying, “Your heavenly Lover, Jesus Christ, is eternal Health, inexpressible Beauty and Life eternal. When your bodies are slain by torture, He will clothe you in incorruption, and the wounds on your bodies will shine in heaven like the stars.” The three little girls bravely suffered tortures and finally martyrdom. God in His great mercy granted their mother Sophia to fall asleep in Him three days later to be reunited with her precious daughters in His Kingdom.
How many of us could endure to sacrifice our children for the sake of Christ? All of us, I hope, but it would be the most difficult and agonizing decision we would ever have to make.
Our society is constantly calling upon us to renounce Christ in one way or another. Perhaps not in so dramatic a way, but, in a sense, society is also asking us to sacrifice our children. The temptations may be subtle or seemingly insignificant, but, in reality, they are spiritually damaging. In our society today, for example, Sunday is often seen as a day of rest, sporting or school events, or entertainment, not as the day of the Lord. Families who otherwise attend Church disappear for a sports season because their child is on a sports team which practices or plays its games on Sunday mornings. The fervor for Christ is missing, replaced by a stronger allegiance to some other god. We have to teach our daughters, who will be mothers, what our priorities as Orthodox Christians ought to be, so they can, in turn, teach their children.
They can teach something to their children even through the names they give them. Sophia named her children after the three great Christian virtues. This can be a reminder to our daughters to give their children names whose meaning or whose patron saint they would wish for them to emulate.
St. Elizabeth, the mother of St. John the Baptist, shows us what is the one true criterion for determining our priorities. When the Virgin Mary visited her cousin after the Annunciation, Elizabeth embraced her and exclaimed, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And why is this granted me that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” (Luke 1:42-43). Mary had not told Elizabeth about her conception, but, by the power of the Holy Spirit, Elizabeth recognized Mary and her Child as being holy.
We need to teach our daughters to discern what is holy. Like Elizabeth, we must try to identify what is sacred and sanctifies our life and to embrace it — and to renounce, not Christ, but the priorities of the world.
SAINT MARY OF EGYPT
St. Mary of Egypt was one who had to learn this the hard way. She had left her home in Alexandria when she was only twelve and became a prostitute. She thoroughly enjoyed this life of sin and wallowed in it for seventeen years. One day she decided to join a group of pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem, in order to corrupt as many of them as she could.
When in Jerusalem, she tried to enter a Church in order to venerate the precious cross; however, as you all know the story, some unseen force prevented her from entering the Church. She was suddenly overcome with an incredible sense of repentance and begged forgiveness before an icon of the Theotokos in the courtyard. She was led by the Spirit to cross the Jordan and enter the desert, where she spent forty-eight years in repentance, intense prayer and fasting, battling ferocious demons until her death.
Perhaps the story of her life sounds extreme. We might even wonder what was the sense of her living in the desert for so many years, with no human contact until she was discovered at the very end. How can this woman saint be a model for any of us? Certainly none of us can do what she did!
The message her story sends our daughters is actually quite clear. First, nothing we might do in our lives, no matter how terrible it may be, is unforgivable. God’s mercy and love for us are infinite. He longs for us to come to Him, no matter where we were before. Secondly, St. Mary’s natural response to this incredible mercy and forgiveness was repentance, and this is a lesson for our daughters. Repentance is an indispensable Christian characteristic, and true, constant repentance is a major step on the path to holiness.
These are but a few of the many women saints who adorn the Church of Christ. I hope that you can see in their lives something worthy of emulation. May our daughters also hold up as role models the women saints of the Church, as each one of them seeks and walks the path of holiness to which God has called her.
1 1. The Prologue from Ochrid (4 Vols.), by Bishop Nikolai Velimirovic, Lazarica Press,
Birmingham, England, 1985. Thekla, Olympias, Sophia, Mary of Egypt)
2. Marriage as Path to Holiness, by David and Mary Ford, St. Tikhon’s Seminary Press, South Canaan, PA 1994. (Norma and Anna)
3. Dialogue on the Life of St. John Chrysostom, by Palladius, Ancient Christian Writers, vol. 45., translated and edited by Robert T. Meyer, Newman Press, New York, New York, 1985. (Olympias)
4. The Lausiac History, by Palladius, Ancient Christian Writers, vol. 34, translated and edited by Robert T. Meyer, Newman Press, New York, New York, 1964. (Olympias)
5. The Lenten Covenant, by Fr. Leonidas Contos, Narthex Press, Redwood Shores, CA, 1994. (Mary of Egypt)
Khouriye Elaine Gounaris Hanna is from St. George, Indianapolis, IN.