Holy Mothers of Orthodoxy


Eva Catafygiotu Topping

Heroines and Halos

I was once asked what I do. The answer was brief, but not very informative -"I read and write." This did not sound like much, and there was no second question. Had there been I would have explained in this way. "For some time I have been reading and writing about Byzantine hymnography. More recently I also read and write about women in the Church." I would have added that both subjects are vast in scope and time, both interesting and important to understanding Orthodox traditions, history and spirituality.

Strange as it may seem, Byzantine hymns and women in the church are not unconnected subjects.Orthodox hymnography includes thousands of hymns to women, to the Theotokos and to women saints. In fact, what I read about women in the hymns of our church first turned my attention to the subject of Eve's daughters and the ekklesia. Until then it was entirely outside my research interests. Nor had I, a birthright Greek Orthodox woman, given any thought to the history and position of women in Eastern Christianity. As it has turned out, the study of Greek hymns in honor of females has proved most instructive. Not only do they reveal the grandeur of the church's heroines and the brightness of their halos. They also reflect an ingrained tradition of negative and demeaning attitudes of church and society concerning women.1

This complex challenging subject, can, of course, be studied from various perspectives, scriptural, historical, theological or sociological. To my great delight I soon discovered that the study of the lives and hymns to women saints illumined and enlivened this subject in many ways. In addition, from my reading in the relevant Greek sources I became acquainted with an Orthodox sisterhood that transcends time and place. I haven't been the same since.

These haloed heroines of Orthodoxy number in the thousands. Together they form an unbroken golden chain, binding the past, present and future. Needless to say, the centerpiece of this golden chain holds the most exalted position among all the saints. No female or male saint can match the divine glory2 of the Theotokos.

In every respect our female saints are the match of their brothers, sons or fathers. There is even a female counterpart to St. George, Our Blessed Mother Elizabeth the Miracle-Worker (April 24)3 also killed a dragon. But unlike St. George she did not use a weapon. When Leo I gave her convent a property inhabited by a dreadful dragon, this fifth-century Constantinopolitan abbess approached the monster, armed only with a cross. St. Elizabeth killed the dragon by spitting on his head and trampling on him with her feet.4 (What a marvelous icon this would make!) I am, however, still searching for a female double of Hosios David of Thessalonike who lived for years in an almond tree.

Like males, females achieved sanctity and halos in different ways, there being no single royal road that leads to God and holiness. Narrated in synaxaria, menologia and sermons, and praised in countless hymns, these saints provide endlessly fascinating, priceless documents of Christian women's history.

From these Greek sermons and hymns we quickly learn that from the beginning women have played crucial and creative roles in the church; that women of the church have not always been segregated, silent and subordinate. With admiration I often reflect on St. Theodosia of Constantinople (May 29).5 In the eighth century this brave nun led a group of women in a public demonstration against the emperor's religious policy. After preventing the removal of Christ's icon from the Chalke Gate the women continued their protest by marching on the patriarchate. For her fidelity to Orthodoxy Theodosia paid with her life. But immediately this woman-martyr became a powerful symbol of resistance and heroism.

Within the ever-expanding galaxy of Orthodox saints we find women who were disciples of Christ, apostles, evangelists, deacons, teachers, preachers, healers, prophets, founders of Christian communities, builders of convents and churches, and conveners of ecumenical councils. These holy women remind us, lest we forget, that God includes women in the divine image (Genesis I:27), and that in the new creation inaugurated by Christ there is neither male nor female (Galatians 3:27-8). They also remind us that the Holy Spirit calls females6 and males equally to be saints, to serve God and humankind. Contrary to the stereotype of female weakness, dependence and submission, our women saints are models of strength, self-determination and resolution, which patriarchal tradition assigned only to males.

These church mothers and heroines of ours do not, however, receive from their Orthodox daughters and sons the honor they deserve. With a few notable exceptions, most female saints remain obscure names inscribed in liturgical books. These remarkable women remain lifeless forgotten shadows, relics of the past. One summer in Athens, I asked a devout woman lawyer to name ten female saints. She was ashamed and surprised that she could not.

Therefore let us together on this occasion recall and honor the women saints of September, the first month of the ecclesiastical year. September has 30 days and at least 150 female saints. Their names enchant our ears and imaginations. Listen to