What is an Orthodox Woman?
Magazine, September, 1994, Page 4-7
IS AN ORTHODOX WOMAN?
a woman has never been an easy task, ever since God said to Eve, “In
pain you shall bring forth children” (Genesis 3:16). But up until this century, it was at least a fairly
straightforward one. Every little
girl grew up knowing exactly what was required of her in life, and learned, if
not to like it, at least to accept it.
the twentieth century, all this has changed.
Not that being a woman has gotten any easier, in spite of multitudes of
“labor-saving” household devices and the rather dubious advantages of
“having it all.” (What nobody
told my generation, the later baby-boomers, when we were embarking on our
careers and families was that “having it all” really only meant having twice
as much work!) But while hard work
is still with us, modern women have lost their clear direction for life.
We are confronted with a cacophony of voices and choices, each beckoning
us onto a different path that promises “fulfillment’”
world gives us many options, ranging from the ultra-conservative image of the
cowering, mouselike wife living in total subjection to her overbearing husband,
to the upwardly mobile business or professional woman who can’t be bothered
with annoying distractions such as children.
On the farthest fringe, we hear the radical feminists calling every woman
to become a (preferably Lesbian) manifestation of the earth-goddess.
the world offers these and countless other choices, it fails to provide any
satisfactory means of determining which of these paths (if any) is really the
right one. Even the various
churches have not been able to present a united front or to give women any
clear, reliable direction as to how we ought to order our lives or what sort of
model we ought to follow.
most churches seem to be just as confused as individual women are as to how to
respond to rapidly changing social conditions and the demands of feminism.
where does all this leave us? Must
we choose between equally unacceptable
extremes, or is there another way? Is
there a way that offers peace amidst chaos; that speaks of balance and right
proportion; that offers eternal rather than temporal regards; that promises true
fulfillment, not of passing earthly desires and ambitions, but of the deepest
longings of our souls?
is indeed such a way, and it is to be found within the Orthodox Church.
The Orthodox model of womanhood is based upon the wisdom of the ages
rather than the shifting sands of philosophical fads.
The Orthodox way sees woman as God sees her – as a creature of honor
and dignity, with gifts and responsibilities uniquely her own, with her own
essential role to play in the salvation of mankind.
flesh out that vision and see it more clearly, we must look first at the
historical development of the place of women within the community of faith.
understand the history of women in the Church, we have to go back to the very
beginning: to Eve. Church Fathers and scholars have expressed a variety of
opinions about Eve, about the nature of her relationship with Adam before the
Fall, and about the true significance of the “curse” laid on her after the
Fall. But beyond all the controversy, several things are clear:
Eve was created in the image of God, just as was Adam. “So God created
man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He
created them” (Genesis 1:27). In their essence as created beings, men and
women stand with equal worth and honor before God.
Eve was created to be Adam’s “helper” (Genesis 2:18). This does not
mean she was to be his servant, still less his slave. The Hebrew word used here (ezer)
is often used of God Himself as the Helper of His people. Clearly, the relationship
intended is one of mutual cooperation, not of domination. Adam, on the other
hand, was given the task of naming the animals before Eve was made from his rib:
so the work of “subduing the earth” was primarily his.
Eve, as we all know, made a dreadful mistake. She listened to the
seductive words of the serpent and, without consulting her husband, ate
the forbidden fruit, thus condemning herself and all her progeny to a life
outside Paradise. Some have speculated that Satan chose to tempt Eve rather than
Adam, not because she was weaker, but because he knew that Adam would follow her
in her sin (making him equally guilty). The righteousness of the world was
entrusted to Eve’s keeping, but she did not keep the trust.
As a result of her sin, Eve was condemned to sorrow and pain in childbearing,
and to a life of subordination to her husband (Genesis 3: 16). The wording of
this curse (“you shall have sorrow… he shall rule”) suggests that God was
simply predicting what would happen to women living in a fallen world, rather
than deliberately laying a punishment upon them. Certainly the curse is an
accurate description of what happens to women when they are left at the mercy of
we have a picture of God’s intention for men and women—a relationship of
loving cooperation between two people equal in value and honor, but differing in
roles. And we have a picture of that relationship perverted by sin: women
bound by their own desire and their need for children to men who wrongfully dominate
and belittle them. But in that very hour when God pronounced the fate of fallen
woman, he also pronounced her hope: the Seed that would bruise Satan’s head.
next great epoch in the history of women is embodied by the one who has been
called the second Eve, as Christ is the second Adam: Mary, the Mother of God. As
it was given to a woman to exercise her free will to banish all humanity from
Paradise, so it was given to a woman to provide, by her own will, the means of
man’s restoration to his blessed state. Without Mary’s willing and complete
surrender to the will of God, there could have been no Incarnation, and thus no
crucifixion and no Resurrection—in other words, no Savior and no salvation for
Eve was the mother of all mankind, so it was through motherhood that Mary gave
this most precious gift to all humanity. Thus Mary became the Mother of all
those who would become the children of God. In Mary we see the epitome of all
that redeemed woman can become— a state even more glorious than that Eve held
before her Fall. Consider some of the qualities that make Mary, the Mother of
God, the ultimate model around which our lives, even in this modern, frenetic
day and age. can and must be molded:
Mary willingly submitted to the will of God. Although she was
chosen, she was not forced: her obedience was voluntary and wholehearted. Later,
as Joseph’s wife, she also submitted willingly to her husband—she who had
known God more intimately than any other human being as she carried Him within
2) Mary responded to God in faith. What was asked of her must
have been frightening and was certainly dangerous; but Mary trusted the love of God for her
3) Mary risked everything for motherhood. In her society, for a
young woman to become pregnant outside of marriage was the ultimate degradation.
Had Joseph been a hardhearted man, Mary could have become a complete pariah,
ostracized by her neighbors, unable to marry, with no means of supporting herself
and her child. How many women in our society have chosen abortion rather than
face circumstances less difficult than these? But Mary chose rather to risk her
own life to give life to another.
Mary took on the role of interceding for men and of leading them to Christ.
At the wedding at Cana, she first made known the people’s need to her Son,
knowing in spite of His protests that He would fill that need; then she said to
the people, “Whatever He says to you, do it” (John 2:5). She thereby exhorts
us all, her spiritual children, to respond to Christ with the same loving,
trusting obedience she herself showed.
Evdokimov, in his book Woman and the Salvation of the World (St.
Vladimir’s Seminary Press. 1994), sums up the spiritual role (or “charism”)
of women, as exemplified by Mary, thus: to give birth to Christ in other people.
We may be called to physical motherhood, to pass on our faith to our children:
or we may be called to spiritual motherhood, to show forth the image of Christ
to all men and call them to Him.
IN THE CHURCH
showed, through His own behavior to women and through His teaching to His
disciples, that while the place for proper headship and divinely established
authority remained a constant both in the home and in the Church, a significant
shift had occurred in the old order of male/female relationships which had
prevailed since the Fall. Christ treated women with dignity, respect, and compassion.
In His teaching on marriage (Matthew 19:3-9), He restored their marital rights
to what they had been “in the beginning,” before allowances had to be made
for the hardness of men’s hearts. Through the redemption accomplished by His
death and Resurrection, Christ made it possible for men and women once again to
strive for the ideal established in Paradise: a loving cooperation between
equals with different, complementary roles.
ideal was largely upheld in the first few centuries of the Church. Women swelled
the ranks of the saints and martyrs, giving their lives to God in a variety of
roles, including those of prophetess, teacher, and deaconess as well as the more
traditional ones of wife, mother, and performer of charitable works. When men
began to seek the desert as a place to live out a more radical commitment to
God, women—beginning with Saint Mary of Egypt, to whose holiness even Saint
Anthony the Great deferred — were not far behind.
the family, the position of women was better among Christians than it had ever
been before. While Saint Paul exhorted wives to submit to their husbands—which
was nothing new—he also, even more strongly, exhorted men to love their wives
“as Christ also loved the church” (Ephesians 5:25)—in other words, to the
point of giving their lives for them. This was something new. The ancient
curse was beginning to crumble.
the same time, however, there were teachers in the Church who held to a view of
women more in keeping with the views of their Jewish forebears (succinctly expressed
in the traditional male prayer, “Thank You, Lord, that You did not make me a
woman”). Some blamed women entirely for the Fall and claimed that they were
inherently evil, to be avoided by any man who would seek righteousness. Some
insisted that marriage and sexuality came into being only after the Fall and
were nothing but a necessary evil for the propagation of the species. One cannot
but suspect that these men—mostly celibates— were misplacing the blame for
their troublesome bodily passions, assigning that blame not to their own fallen
nature and the temptation of the devil, but to the unfortunate and inadvertent
object of those passions. woman.
the centuries went by, this distorted view began to exert a greater influence
over the Church’s attitude toward and treatment of women. Women gradually came
to be excluded from the diaconate and from other ministries in which they had
previously taken an equal part with men. Women who achieved sanctity were
praised as having “overcome” their weak and evil feminine nature and become
as righteous as men.
never completely lost their champions, however. In the nineteenth century in
Russia, feminine spirituality began to come into its own again. Several notable
elders, including Saint Seraphim of Sarov and Saint Theophan the Recluse, made
it their business to encourage women, both in the world and in the monastic
life. Both of these men founded and directed women’s monasteries, and offered
spiritual direction to countless laywomen, in person or through correspondence.
These godly men had the prophetic insight that it would be primarily through
women that the Faith would be preserved in Russia during the seventy years of
communist persecution, and they wanted women to be prepared.
surprisingly, the position of women in the Orthodox Church today reflects both
sides of this history—that which would abase them along with that which
affirms their dignity.
the one hand, it cannot be denied that there are parishes in which women are
permitted to do only those tasks which the men consider “women’s work” and
therefore “beneath” them—cleaning the church, taking care of the children,
baking the prosphora. In fact, of course, these traditionally female
tasks are just as honorable and just as essential to the life of the Church as
any of the more public or glamorous tasks which these men reserve to themselves;
nevertheless, they do not exhaust the spectrum of women’s gifts and therefore
should not circumscribe their contribution.
the other hand, there are many parishes in which women serve in every capacity
except those of the ordained clergy—as chanters, readers, choir directors; as
teachers, administrators, parish council members; as helpers to the clergy in
all sorts of works of mercy.
Orthodox practice in some places reflects the overmasculinization of our culture
as a whole, the solution to this problem is not to be found in feminism, even of
the so-called “Christian” variety. The fundamental error of feminism is the
same as that of the male-dominated culture that feminism is reacting against:
the error of believing that masculine qualities, such as leadership, physical
strength, analytical thinking, and strict justice, are inherently superior to
feminine qualities, such as nurturing, gentleness, intuition, and mercy. Instead
of striving to win men’s respect for feminine qualities, feminists tried to
empower women by transforming them into imitation men.
feminism, while less vehement in some respects than the secular variety, still
attempts to raise the position of women in the Church by placing them in roles
traditionally reserved for men, such as the priesthood, instead of by exhorting
the Church to accept and honor women in the ministries for which they are
naturally and/or spiritually gifted. The masculinization of women which
inevitably results from this mistaken approach is one of many reasons that the
Orthodox Church has steadfastly maintained its traditional stance against the
female priesthood and the “feminization” of God.
spite of those weaknesses which characterize every human institution, the
Orthodox Church still provides, in her Tradition and very often in practice, the
strongest witness to be found in the modern world to the godly model of womanhood
that we have been trying to define. We as Orthodox women have the responsibility
to help restore our society to balance by living out those godly feminine
qualities which have often gotten short shrift, both in the world and in the
OUT OUR CALLING
then, are some of these godly feminine qualities we need to cultivate? It is
impossible to give an exhaustive list, but here are several that seem especially
The greatest of these is love. Of course, all Christians are called to
love; but women have a special gift for loving. We should love, first of all,
those closest to us—our families or those who are like a family to us. But we
should not stop there; our love should reach out to our neighborhood, our
parish, our community, our world. The love demanded of us is not just a
sentimental good feeling toward other people. We’re talking about sacrificial
love—love in action—love that puts our own interests second to those of
the beloved. It’s not an easy task.
We should give ourselves in joyful service. Again, all Christians are
called to serve; but it seems to come more naturally to women. Our service
should follow our love, starting at home and spreading outward, always guided by
God’s will for our individual lives.
service should also follow our individual gifts. If you can’t bake a fluffy
pastry to save your life, go ahead and say no when the festival committee asks
you to make baklava. But if, on the other hand, you have artistic talent,
perhaps you should study iconography or illustrate lives of saints for children.
Don’t let your gifts go to waste. If you don’t know what your gifts are, or
can’t think of a way to use them for God, talk to your husband or priest or to
an older, wiser woman you know. They may know you better than you know yourself.
The essence of womanhood is motherhood. Not all women are called to be
physical mothers, but all are called to be spiritual mothers, guiding and nurturing
and teaching others to follow Christ. Those who work in the world should seek
vocations that allow these qualities their full expression, rather than trying
to compete in the dog-eat-dog business world of men.
of us who are mothers in the physical sense must take this responsibility very
seriously. The world would have us believe that mothering is just one aspect of
life, that it can be done quite adequately in the few hours a day we have left
over from our careers or other activities we have chosen to “fulfill
ourselves.” But we mothers really, in our heart of hearts, know better. We
know that children are a sacred trust; they need and deserve the very best we
have to give. If we cannot pass on our faith to them through our example of
devoted love and service, how can the Church survive? And how can we stand
before God and claim to have accomplished anything of any value in this
Women have a unique capacity to respond to God with all our hearts and
souls. This is the essence of spirituality, and it comes more easily to women
than to men, because responsiveness characterizes our human relationships as
well as our relationship to God. Men, being called to leadership in the human
realm, often find it more difficult to surrender that role and to meet their
Creator in humility. We women can set an example in simple, faithful piety that
is ultimately more influential in the life of the Church than the most inspired
teaching or the most glorious martyrdom.
Our proper response to God is to strive for holiness. Only by pursuing
holiness will we become capable of all that is required of us. Only by deepening
our relationship with God can we come to understand, accept, and live the life
He has designed for us. Only through loving, trusting obedience to God can we
find our true calling, as women and as human beings. Only so can we begin to
fulfill the vocation bequeathed to us by Mary of giving birth to Christ in other
people. This is our proper contribution to the salvation of the world.