Wednesday, February 12, 2014

A Male Convert and Female Saints: The Strong Women of the Orthodox Church and of My Family

          I am surely not the only male convert to Orthodoxy who was initially surprised to discover how central the balance of the masculine and the feminine is to our faith and spiritual life.  To some that may seem counter-intuitive in a church with a male priesthood with lots of facial hair, while to others it may be self-evident; nonetheless, it is true and important.   For example, think of Adam and Eve, Abraham and Sarah, Joachim and Anna, Zacharias and Elizabeth, or Constantine and Helen.  We are always asking the female Theotokos to use her boldness as a mother to intercede for us with her male Son.  We sing almost every Sunday  about those myrrh-bearing women in matins and regularly chant and/or read about women saints of all kinds.  We proclaim that Mary Magdalene was the preacher to the male apostles of the Lord’s resurrection and that she, together with various other women and men, are their equals.   Since we are male and female in God’s image, this balance fits nicely with the deepest sensibilities of Orthodox Christianity.
            Perhaps the strong women of my own family have helped me embrace enthusiastically the prominent role of women in the Orthodox spiritual life.  In my hometown of Beaumont, TX, my three great aunts—whom we called by their nicknames, Hennie, Nig, and Gertie—lived just a few minutes from the house where I grew up.  My grandmother had died when I was an infant, and these ladies more than fulfilled that role for my brother and me.  One was a widow and two never married, but they lived together for decades and had very full lives. For example, Hennie was the first female school principal in Beaumont, an accomplished and enthusiastic fisherman (or fisherwoman ),  and visited  Alaska when she was around  eighty.  When my father first met these ladies in the late 1950’s, he said he had never met a group of such independent women.  They were all devout and straight-laced Methodists, which is why  my first educational experience was in a Methodist preschool.  Since I did graduate work at Duke and now teach at Methodist-related McMurry, it is interesting that my academic experiences began and still continue in Methodist circles.
            My mother and her late sister Fay have a lot in common with those great aunts.  Both, like Hennie, were teachers, and they showed the same abundance of self-confidence that she had.  I remember Fay once mentioning that someone at their Baptist church had asked where she and my mom got that quality. Her response was that it was from their father, who never gave them the impression that they should have been sons instead of daughters, and also instilled in them the belief that they could do whatever they set their minds to.  I hope that I have sent the same message to my own girls.  
My mother, now a widow and the only surviving member of her family of origin, lives independently in the house built by my great aunts.  An active member of the Baptist congregation in which I grew up, she still spends lots of time and energy taking care of friends who suffer more than she does from the infirmities associated with a long life.  A few years ago, Mom attended classes on Orthodoxy at St. Michael parish in Beaumont in order to learn more about her youngest son’s faith.   Once when I was at St Vladimir’s Seminary in New York, our Bishop Basil was on the phone with another priest at the same meeting. When it was my turn to say hello to him, His Grace began, “The parish council in Beaumont loves your mother!” What a joyful confluence of important people in my life.  After she slept unharmed through a burglary in her house a while back, Mom said, “Well, I suppose that God has something left for me to do.”  I do not doubt that for a minute.  
            Given the self-confident women in my upbringing, it is probably not surprising that my wife is a physician, that our oldest daughter had the courage to spend last summer interning at an AIDS foundation in Ghana, and that our youngest had the confidence to go by herself to three summer sessions of “nerd camp,” a residential program for gifted and talented students a few hours away.  Growing up Orthodox in Abilene rarely leads to social advantages, and neither does attending nerd camp. The virtuous lives our girls lead in college and high school require courage and self-determination.
Like my mother and aunts, Paige and the girls are not timid shrinking violets by a long shot, and neither were the women saints who had the boldness to go to the tomb of Christ in the wee hours of Sunday morning to anoint His body, and thus put themselves in the place to become the first witnesses of His resurrection.  Neither were the countless female martyrs who died after enduring the worst tortures their enemies could produce for refusing to abandon their Lord.  Above all, the courage of the Theotokos to say “yes” to the message of the Archangel Gabriel stands as the epitome of humanity’s response to God’s calling, and it was given by a teenage girl.
Perhaps part of why venerating and asking for the prayers of female saints comes so easily to me is that my life has been blessed by so many righteous women who pray for me and for whom I pray, regardless of whether they are now among the living or the departed.   They are not canonized by the Church (at least not yet!), but the witness of so many holy women has benefited my own journey in ways beyond words.  I could say a lot about my father, priests, bishops, and many other male friends who have also played crucial roles in this regard, but that is for another time.  For now, I will return to where I started.  The masculine and feminine have legitimate and balanced roles in the spiritual path of Orthodoxy.  Since we are created male and female in God’s image, and since the incarnate Son of God has a fully human mother, that really should not be surprising.   It is simply part of the good news of our salvation, whether we are male or female.           


Virgil T. Morant said...

This is a fine tribute to the strong women you have known and to the women of Orthodoxy (and its anthropology).

Cal Preece said...

Nice tribute to strong women. Throughout history the voices of women have often helped most us find a path in life that has brought us to the present. The hope is that we will have their voices to guide us in the future.