A few years before I first saw a Divine Liturgy or even began learning intensively about Orthodoxy, I had the intuition that my worth in Christ was more than I was being sold. It was a Friday night, and as was often my habit, I was spending it in a bookstore. I circled the Christianity section, seeing if there were any interesting new titles to peruse. A pattern in the book covers grabbed my attention as I stood in front of a section of two shelving units side by side. On the right, all the covers were in the shades of pinks, purples, and pastels. On the left, all the covers were dark browns, blues, black, and greys. You can easily guess what the major subject headings were for each shelf. Men on the left, Women on the right.
In that moment, I thought, “Am I really that different before God? Is my soul composed of cotton candy while a man’s is made of gunmetal? Are my spiritual goals consigned to a fashion doll plastic house of pop psychology with butterflies and stylized crosses attached?”
This was a hunger pang – converts can recognize those moments when you were not satisfied with what you were being fed. There had to be more and better food than what I was being served. What I knew of the Gospel message was comparable to visiting Grandma’s house. There would be a wide spread of food for Sunday dinner, and even though I did not care for the mashed potatoes, I would leave satisfied.
I came to label this cultural approach as Gender Color Coded Spirituality: sectioning men and women based on norms and placating them with specialized messages to minister to their ‘felt needs’, outside of real ones. I was tired of being told that women needed certain treatment and men another and different expectations as to how we lived. The experience is like women only being allowed to eat at a salad bar and drink kale smoothies, while men are served steak & potatoes with a pint of porter.
Do men need the companionship of other men? Yes! Do women have issues that should be addressed through the care of other women? Yes! I do not deny the strength we have together as men or women, lay or monastic. What I fear is the narrowing of concepts regarding how holiness is lived, how that looks in my culture, compared to the breadth and depth of the Church.
Gender Color Coded Spirituality is a mentality that does not translate into Eastern Christianity and it ties into several other mindsets which I see creating an unhealthy angst in women as we struggle in our salvation. Over the course of my writings here, I want to address these imbalances, both to the right and to the left. In many of my opinions, I have developed a middle of the road approach. I hope that women (and men) will be encouraged from what I write to go out and live the Gospel wherever they are.
When reading the lives of the saints, I am in awe of how women have behaved with courage, in every time and place the Church has occupied. History is specific and surprising. Grand theories only work to give a bare bones structure for understanding the past. If you stop there, you miss the vitality of lives who are remembered for being at once ordinary and extraordinary. The saints defy our generalizations at every turn. Over the last 2,000 years, women saints were educated or illiterate, wealthy or poor, married and served their families or single through choice, mobile or never left their village or monastery, held political power or shunned it, evangelized their nations or held witness to Christ through their blood.
A couple years after the bookstore epiphany, I found myself kneeling in St. Benedict Orthodox Church , a Western Rite parish, in front of an icon of St. Scholastica, waiting for a blessing along the communion line. There were questions in the back of mind that others had posed, as they learned of my new interest in Orthodoxy, “Aren’t you concerned with how they treat women?” Their underlying concern was that I would somehow be ‘subjugated’ or made to be of less worth than men by joining a religion defined through a male hierarchical leadership. As I gazed at St. Scholastica’s steady and kind face, she communicated the answer I needed:
Holiness is the equalizer between men and women.
The unbelieving reader may perhaps laugh at me for dwelling so long on the praises of mere women; yet if he will but remember how holy women followed our Lord and Saviour and ministered to Him of their substance, and how the three Marys stood before the cross and especially how Mary Magdalen — called the tower from the earnestness and glow of her faith— was privileged to see the rising Christ first of all before the very apostles, he will convict himself of pride sooner than me of folly. For we judge of people’s virtue not by their sex but by their character, and hold those to be worthy of the highest glory who have renounced both rank and wealth.
St. Jerome, Letter 127, to Principia.
Our struggle towards salvation is of equal worth in Christ’s Church. Our martyrdoms are honored the same way. Our service to the needy is as unto Christ. Our memories are held with esteem and icons are written. We all live with differing responsibilities and in different contexts. What counts is how we choose to obey God with what we are given. This is why hagiography has captured my attention: the medium of storytelling within the Church is neutral and holistic insofar as it shares to acts of heroic faith. It universally encourages all the faithful.
I will continue my thoughts and share my experiences of what it looks like to live out holiness in parish life. Be encouraged, women, there is a place for you in the Church!