Women Saints and the Need for Appropriate
Role Models for Girls Today

By Elaine Gounaris Hanna

The following was a talk given for the opening of the Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese, Midwest Region, Fall 1998 Delegates Meeting
25 September 1998
Indianapolis, Indiana

Sayidna Demetri, Reverend Fathers, beloved brothers and sisters in Christ: Greetings in the Name of our Lord, and welcome to the Fall 1998 Delegates’ Meeting hosted by the St. George Community of Indianapolis.
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, perhaps singing along with them, “If you want to be my lover, you gotta get with my friends?” 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 are they learning about honesty, fair play, and hard work when their sports idols use steroids and other drugs to illegally and dangerously enhance their strength?

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, engaging in some of the grossest forms of sex, 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 of pregnancies out of wedlock. 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 Response

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, including the Theotokos and Saints Pulcheria, Mary of Egypt, Acquilina, Christina, Melania the Younger, Anna (the mother of the Theotokos), Olympias the Deaconess and Thekla. 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 for us to tell the stories to our daughters, to tell them 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.

I’d like to tell you some of those stories tonight and to glean from them those characteristics that might apply to us and to our precious daughters today. Because St. Thekla is being inaugurated as our patron this weekend, I’d like to tell her story briefly, and we’ll hear much more about her later

[over the weekend].

Saint Thekla
Her Life

St. Thekla was born in Iconium of eminent pagan parents. She was betrothed at the age of 18 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 of 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 then 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.
How She Is a Model for Today

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 worshipped? 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 worshipped 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?

Saint Olympias
Her Life

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 passionate, intimate, 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 18. 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 “to the extent that he took her advice on ecclesiastical policy as well.” She also gave 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 any one 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. When Chrysostom was leaving Constantinople to go into exile, he went into the baptistery and called Olympias, along with the other deaconesses, and addressed them. “Come here my daughters, listen to me. I see that the things concerning me have an end. … This is what I ask of you,” to remain in the Church and accept the legitimate successor, whoever that might be.

After John’s exile 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 prefect 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. “Deacon: What kind of a woman is she? Bishop: Do not say ‘woman’ but rather ‘manly creature.’ She is a man in everything but body. …in her way of life, her works, in knowledge and courage in misfortunes.” 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.” He also hinted that Theophilos’ wrath against her had more to do with her refusal to give him money than to her sheltering the monks. The Bishop claimed that “it is to the shame of men that a manly woman should take them in, and it is to the accusation of bishops that a woman deacon should befriend them. Her fame is enrolled in all the churches for many reasons. She imitated that Samaritan….”

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 bearing 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.”
How She Is a Model for Today

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! She didn’t fuss or whine or moan and groan, but bore the injustice bravely and simply continued her diaconal work. 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 opening 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, 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.

Saint Nonna
Her Life

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.
How She Is a Model for Today

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”— but 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 sit-com. 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.

Saint Anna
Her Life

St. Anna, the mother of the Theotokos, was another such mother. When she was old, and beyond the age of child-bearing, 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.
How She Is a Model for Today

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.

Saint Sophia
Her Life

St. Sophia is in the same category. Sophia, whose name m