A friend was visiting a monastery at Mt. Athos while he was working on his PhD in Theology in Thessaloniki. An old monk was sitting in the courtyard, with a small group of pilgrims, between services. All of the visitors had thought of questions for the elder which were quite detailed. My friend thought the monk looked rather frustrated with all the debates on liturgical minutiae. So he ventured this question,
“Geronta, how should I study the Scriptures?”
The elder looked at the young man intently for a moment and replied,
“You begin by reading the lives of the saints. They will show you the Gospels lived out in the world.”
The young man returned to his studies with a different vantage point for his future work in the Church.
When I began teaching Church School to a small group of middle school aged girls in the fall of 2017, I thought it would be a simple matter of following a prepared curriculum, helping with a Nativity production, and patting them on the shoulder at the end of the year in May. I read the first lesson from the curriculum and handed out a worksheet, which the girls dutifully filled out. They looked bored beyond measure. Then I posed a life-changing question of my own,
“What would you all like to learn in this class?”
“I want to learn about women saints!” an eager voice replied. The others nodded enthusiastically.
We brainstormed a few other ideas, but we kept circling back to the central theme of the life of women in the church.
During the following week, I set about looking for resources on women saints, scaled for youth. I quickly realized there were no coherent outlines for this theme already written. No worksheets. No Pinterest-worthy crafts. I was sailing into uncharted territory and all I had for a map was the Synaxarion.
The path of learning we followed for the last 8 months has been mutually challenging. I put on my librarian’s organizational cap. How do I go about coherently presenting the incredibly complex variety of saints who lived in every possible life circumstance across 2000 + years of history? Most importantly, how do I show these girls that the path of holiness is the Gospel lived in the World in the context of being a woman?
These questions lead me to see just how rarely the lives of women saints are presented as integral to the life of the Church. We learned about names both frequently mentioned and those who are not – whose memory is alive on paper, but may not be alive in our preconceptions of how sainthood is portrayed. All through the ages and places where Christ’s Church has been founded, women have lived their faith boldly and quietly, as royalty and as poor widows, as wives and as virgins, as missionaries and teachers, as midwives and mothers, as monastics and as hermitesses, as martyrs and venerable eldresses in their communities. We have these witnesses to the Christ, as our inheritance, to show us the path of holiness is possible wherever and whenever we live.
With these ideas in mind, I have my spiritual father’s blessing to start sharing with you the lessons I have taught and continue to learn along the way.