Women in Orthodoxy

St Kassiani
St Kassiani (Cassia) who with a feminist’s mind challenged Emperor Theophilus assessment of women and lost his hand in marriage. Read her story at https://orthodoxwoman.wordpress.com/2012/04/09/hymn-of-st-kassiani-cassiani/

When I walk into an Orthodox Book Shop or up to the Church book stall I am faced with a diverse offering of spiritual aides in the form of the lives and teachings of the Holy Fathers of the Church. Beautiful books and uplifting.

When I began seriously to look into Orthodoxy as a faith and not a cultural imperative I was drawn to the writings of Russian writers, English, Scandinavian, basically anyone writing in English. There were Greek surnames amongst the limited offerings but I always suspected a cultural bias. A good portion of books written and offered in English were by writers on the Early Catholic Church, but again I suspected a bias.

Fast forward nearly 30 years and there a lot more books written in English on offer – colouring-in books, picture books for children, books on icons, saints lives, prayer books, service books, books on spirituality even an Orthodox Study Bible! There are books on every aspect of faith in Orthodoxy you can imagine but very few for guidance if you are not aspiring to life in a monastery or if you are looking to connect with the Orthodox Church as a woman.

As a woman I have my own issues with the Orthodox Church. I do not want to be a priest. I know of few, male or female, who would want this vocation but I have an issue with the Church for not allowing women this path if they have it in them. The way I see it, the Church cannot embrace women completely in its fold if it relegates our role, and greatest calling, to being good mothers. Being a good wife and mother is an incredibly lofty ideal, often a burden with late rewards – a toil through darkness where there is fear for what the light of day will reveal as the result of that labour. I do not disparage in any way the call of motherhood for many it is a heavy cross to bear, however, what of women who by circumstance or lack of calling cannot be mothers? Because they do not fulfil this obligation in the life of the Church, are they not completely members of that family? Are they just a pastel version of a full hue member? So, most men who don’t marry or form a family don’t choose to become priests but because the path is open to them if they shape their will towards it, they can never be pastel, or mere shadow members. In other words, because all men have the potential to fulfil the Church’s greatest earthly vocation and women do not, there is great disparity in the way that the Orthodox Church embraces its male and female members.

I have read books on Feminism and Christianity, and Woman and the Priesthood written from members of the Orthodox Church. I have understood the arguments. My eyebrows have been raised by some of the concerns – why would anyone want Aghios Oros to be open to women, it’s a sanctity and sacristy for men who are doing spiritual battle? My jaw has dropped – women can’t be priests because they can’t grow a beard to be a living icon of Christ? In the end I can ignore the argument because I am a wife and mother and because for all my concerns with my Orthodox Church when I participate in the liturgy I feel a calmness and I feel love washing over me and that there is a truth here that I cannot understand. But how much harder must it be for a single woman full of potential?

Tonight, the Troparion of St Kassiani will be chanted as a part of Holy Tuesday services. I am reminded that my Church doesn’t disparage women and it holds sacred the perspective of this holy and very human lady. Yes, I know and mention her now without sarcasm, the Holy, Blessed, Pure and Ever-Virgin Lady Theotokos graces the heights and altars of my church, but how much did she have to struggle in raising her perfect child? As a female member of the church, I feel there is a lack of female role models. Women who weren’t perfect, didn’t have perfect children and perfect husbands but women who struggled and are venerated and who spoke as prophets or perhaps as priests.

Photo Credit: St Kassiani the Hymnogragher

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