Where Have All The Grandmas Gone?
Magazine, September, 1994, Page 28,29,31
Where Have All the
LOST INFLUENCE OF OLDER WOMEN
THE LIFE OF THE CHURCH
By Father John Weldon Hardenbrook
godless communist dictator Joseph Stalin inadvertently touched upon one of the
most formidable, yet unheralded sources of power known to the Orthodox Church
when he made the now-famous prophecy, “When the old women of Russia die, the
Church will die.” This statement was recently noted by an American news
anchorman. Speaking of the emerging strength of the Russian Church and the
collapse of communism, he said, “The truth of the matter is that the old women
of Russia never did die.”
Stalin knew he could not kill the soul of
the Orthodox Church in Russia without exterminating every pious old woman in the
land. Even Stalin knew he couldn’t get away with doing a thing like that. Most
of those women had lost their husbands to World War II or to the evil and cruel
persecutions suffered at the hands of Soviet butchers. However, no oppressor
could win the war against these grandmothers, the “babushkas.” Like the
Myrrhbearing Women, who, after the burial of Christ, were left to go to the tomb
with their costly spices in their hands, these women were left to anoint the
persecuted Church of Russia with their courage and faith. They guarded the small
eternal flame of life in the Church against the ever-pressing gates of hell.
Countless stories concerning the women of
Russia and their faith and courage have spread around the world over the last
seventy years—stories such as that of the nuns of Shamordino. They were sent
to the Solovki Prison and were taken up to a windy, freezing hilltop in the
Arctic winter to kneel bareheaded with no gloves, for eight hours each day for
three days, in temperatures below freezing, because they would not do hard labor
for “the regime of Antichrist.”
Of course these nuns were prepared, both
spiritually and physically, to face such persecution. Their endurance didn’t
just happen. Their spiritual disciplines of prayer, fasting, obedience, and
working with their hands had formed them into the women who were found faithful,
unwavering at their time of testing.
The young women of pre-revolutionary
Russia had godly nuns as their examples. Whether they saw nuns being formed in
the spiritual rhythm of life at the nearby convents or the novice nuns who
performed their sacred duties in the local parishes, the younger women of Russia
saw what it meant to be holy. Not only the nuns, but the older laywomen as well,
provided a living image of holiness for the younger women to follow. From this
heritage came in later years a constant flow of strong, selfless, and pious old
women—the old women who “never died” because their faith has never died to
Russia is not the only land that is graced
with the presence of such saintly and righteous old women. In fact, these
stories are typical of the old women of Greece, Lebanon, Syria, Romania, Serbia,
Egypt, and other countries where Orthodox Christians have had to suffer for
their faith. All the Christian immigrants who have come to America have stories
to tell about the old women “at home”—the women who overcame difficult
circumstances such as war and poverty with such selfless and courageous acts. In
fact, all these stories together make up the history of Christian women.
IS GRANDMA NOW?
question is—where are the faithful grandmothers in North America? Did these
women somehow fail to immigrate to our land? Did their daughters and
granddaughters get lost in “the land of plenty” and fail to pass on the
spiritual life and holy traditions of the Church? Why aren’t our women today
maturing into the role that is so needed in our lives? In many Orthodox parishes
throughout North America, Grandma is gone. And I believe we the Church will not
come to the fullness of healthy faith until we get her back. For God has given
such women an incredible gift of strength to overcome the most severe and cruel
obstacles of life when it comes to the need for faith and courage to survive.
The fabric of their lives was formed from the warp and woof of personal hardship
and endurance— including factors such as:
A life of suffering. Women become strong when they have to, not when they are
given the option to be weak.
An acceptance of suffering as not only inevitable, but beneficial to the
spiritual life. This is not the same as resignation: rather it is an active
decision to accept suffering as coming from God for the purpose of one’s
salvation, and to cooperate with Him in order to derive the greatest possible
spiritual benefit from it.
3) A belief that self-sacrifice is
an integral and beautiful part of the Christian life. For self-sacrifice to be
worthwhile, it must be voluntary, not forced: and it must be undertaken in love,
not with an attitude of false martyrdom.
4) A godly order of priorities. One
must, according to Scripture, put love for God first: love for neighbor second;
and love for self third (Matthew 22:37-39).
is not difficult to see how all these factors have been nearly eliminated
from the lives of modern middle-class American women. Physical suffering has
been reduced to a minimum through prolonged peace (at least within our borders),
advanced medicine, and the highest standard of living the world has ever known.
Mental and emotional suffering are combated through psychology and the self-help
What suffering remains—for we can never
eliminate it all—is regarded as an almost unforgivable intrusion into our
lives. Our immediate response is to try to avoid it or overcome it in some way.
If this proves to be impossible, we respond with bitterness and self-pity and
try to find someone to blame. If no human scapegoat is handy, we can always
Given these conditions, self-sacrifice has
naturally acquired a bad name. The feminist movement strives to convince women
that self-sacrifice is forced upon them by male-dominated society, and that the
only way to assert their full personhood is to reject the concept of
self-sacrifice completely and pursue self-fulfillment instead. While fulfillment
is a gift which God longs to bestow on His servants, it is not something we can
achieve by striving for it directly. (“For whoever desires to save his life
will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel’s will
save it” [Mark 8:35].) Self-fulfillment is just another name for self-love.
Self-love, of course, is the most abused
concept of all. Misinterpreting the second great commandment of Christ, “love
your neighbor as yourself,” modern pop psychology has decreed that in order to
be able to love others one must first love oneself—in fact, one must put
oneself first in everything. If there’s anything left over when the self has
been gratified, then we can think about giving to others. In this scenario, God
often ends up in last place. Rather than seeking to serve Him, we try to make
Him serve us. We demand abundant earthly blessings in exchange for the great
sacrifice we make in simply acknowledging His existence.
This cultural context naturally affects
us all, men and women alike. However, because there are more real victims
(of physical and sexual abuse, abandonment, etc.) among women than among men,
women in general have been more encouraged to take up the attitude of
victims—an attitude of weakness, self-pity, and self-absorption rather than
the godly response of strength, perseverance, and forgiveness. Ironically, it
seems that the greater the real suffering a woman experiences, the more likely
she is to respond to her suffering with faith and strength. Women whose lives
are truly tragic have to be strong to survive.
in America may not be facing overt physical persecution, but she is facing
something potentially much more harmful—the slow attrition in numbers and zeal
brought about by constant contact with a godless society. The Church in North
America is in desperate peril. She is losing her young people at an alarming
rate. Without strong, spiritual older women who are willing to give of
themselves to teach the younger women and to keep the traditions of the Church
alive, the Church will not survive.
desperately the return of pious, fearless, courageous, and godly women to help
protect the interior life of the Church and home. Saint Paul wrote, “Older
women . . . [are to be reverent in behavior . . . teachers of good things— that
they admonish the young women” (Titus 2:3, 4). No one has more experience and
wisdom to pass on to a younger woman than an older woman. It is always tragic to
come upon a young mother who has gone through needless agony because she failed
to understand this divine order—or could not find an older woman willing to
Women are to take the responsibility for
helping to make the Faith come alive in the home. The man should set the course
for the home, but the woman has the gift from God to see that the Faith really
gets “fleshed out” as it applies to each unique situation. It is the woman
who can better ensure that her family keeps the spiritual calendar that sets us
apart from this world, rather than the calendar of this world which leads to
separation from God. Worship, feasts, fasts, prayers, pilgrimages, and festivals
should shape our lives more than sports, restaurants, television, and
movies—the pleasure and entertainment calendar of American culture.
Each Christian home is a “domestic
church.” A wedding is an ordination for service in the domestic church, where
husband and wife are called to a unique sharing in Christ’s priesthood by
their holy crowning. Their home is their church with a small ‘c’. If we have
that view of our homes, they will become the spiritual extension of the Church
which can fill our lives with the things of God. Our children will not survive
in this present culture unless we bring the calendar and the rich traditions of
the Faith into our homes.
A Christian home should look and act like
a Christian home. Family icons, votive lamps, altars, collected sacred objects
(oil, water, palm branches), incense, censer, candles, Bibles, a rule of
prayer— all help proclaim that this home is committed to the life of the
Having watched men and women for many
years—as a man, a husband, a father, a grandfather, and a priest—I would say
this to the men: Encourage the women and cooperate with them in their efforts to
nurture the holy traditions of the Church and home.
OF THE FAITH
faithful older women also are called to help beautify and guard the House of the
Lord. The pious old women of Russia and other Orthodox lands unabashedly take it
upon themselves to correct anyone—even a priest—whom they see behaving
improperly toward the things of God. It is the proper place of older women to
admonish the younger women concerning the proper dress and behavior in church.
You won’t catch a young Russian woman entering a church without a headcovering,
or wearing shorts in a holy place, or venerating an icon with lipstick on. The
“babushkas” would never let them get away with it!
women have earned the right to correct others’ behavior not by their age
alone, but by their lifetime of selfless and devoted service to the Church. They
are a living testimony to the words of the psalm: “Those who are planted in
the house of the Lord shall flourish in the courts of our God. They shall still
bear fruit in old age; they shall be fresh and flourishing, to declare
that the Lord is upright” (Psalm 92:13-15, emphasis added).
Let me exhort the older women of the
Church to make every effort to model themselves after the godly women of
Orthodox lands. Educate yourself in the traditions of the Church. Cultivate your
own spiritual life so that you will have good fruit to share with others. Be
willing to give of yourself to help younger women (beginning with your own
daughters and daughters-in-law, if you have them) to live out the Faith in their
homes and with their children. Spend time with your grandchildren, teaching them
the traditions of the Church and their meaning. (See the article “Building the
Domestic Church” for some specific suggestions.) Serve the Church in whatever
way you can, not disdaining the lowlier tasks, such as scrubbing floors, nor
shrinking in false humility from more difficult tasks which you may be called
and gifted to do. Finally, don’t be too intimidated to speak out (in love and
humility, not in self-righteousness) if you see others in your parish failing to
give proper reverence to the things of God.
younger women, I would say, try to find older women to model yourselves after,
and receive their advice and correction with humility and respect. If you cannot
find any such women in the flesh, read the lives of women saints and the
writings and biographies of modern godly women. Do all you can to make your home
a domestic church, and strive to grow into the sort of older woman you would
want to emulate.
As an example of what one valiant woman
can accomplish, I would like to conclude with a story from modern Serbia.
Monasteries everywhere had been laid waste by the communists. Piles of rubble
were all that remained of the once-thriving communities of monastics. The monks
had been driven away, but the nuns could move about with a certain amount of
freedom as long as they did not try to evangelize or to reconstruct any of the
buildings. But one Mother was determined to rebuild. She began by standing on
the streets of towns and villages with an old shoe box in which she stored any
alms given to aid her endeavors.
Forty years passed and she continued to
add to the meager amounts that were given by compassionate villagers, pilgrims,
or foreign tourists. Finally the time appeared to be right to begin the daring
task. Instead of rebuilding the chapel first, which was the normal procedure.
Mother began by rebuilding the living quarters. Villagers came and labored along
with the few nuns dedicated to the awesome task of reconstruction. Soon
communist officials heard rumors in the village of building going on at the
former monastery and sent agents to investigate.
Searching out the Mother in charge, they
demanded to know what she was constructing. “A home,” was her simple reply.
“For whom?” she was further questioned. “A family,” was the answer
given. “What family?” they asked. She replied, “You do not know this
family.” The officials continued to question and remind her that she did not
have permits to build, but to no avail; so they departed for a time.
the following months the building site was regularly inspected and the nuns
questioned and threatened, but this harassment had no visible effect upon their
activity. Finally one day, after enduring a barrage of harassment and
interrogation, Mother confessed to the communist agents, “I am rebuilding
God’s house. This is a monastery.”
The officials screamed in her face,
“There is no way you can do such a thing! You know this activity is totally
illegal! We will return and this must all be torn down immediately!”
With flaming eyes and set mouth. Mother
turned on her heel and stormed into the brick building in which the workers
lived. Just as quickly she returned and in her hand was a revolver, pointed
directly at the spokesman of the interrogators. “I am rebuilding God’s house
and you will not stop this work of God. Get out of here!” she cried.
The officials cursed and screamed. “Are
you crazy, old woman?” She replied, “Shall I show you just how crazy I
am?” She extended the gun with a deadly calm and slowly began to squeeze the
trigger. Cursing, the communist officials began to back away, then turned and
hurried to their car and drove away. That was in 1987, and they never returned.
The nuns continued their work until the entire monastery was rebuilt, and it is
now a thriving community of believers in Serbia.
May God raise up for us a generation of
courageous and truly pious women with this kind of conviction and fortitude—
women who refuse to compromise and who keep us connected with the daily life of
the Church. May the women of God help us all to live set apart from this fallen