Holy Mothers of Orthodoxy


Eva Catafygiotu Topping

Heroines and Haloes

The first woman martyr is celebrated by the Orthodox Church on September 24. St. Thekla First-Martyr and "Equal-to-the-Apostles"26 was perhaps the most revered heroine of the early church. She inspired generations of women in the Greek East. To be called a "second Thekla" was to receive the supreme compliment. In ninth-century Constantinople Thekla, a hymnwriting nun, boasted of the long catalogue of female martyrs, headed by her first-century namesake.27 In Byzantium where imperial princesses bore her name, St. Thekla enjoyed high honor. Hymnographers sang her glories 28 and learned bishops recorded her many miracles.29 This one I like best. When an illiterate woman received a Bible as a gift, St. Thekla miraculously granted her the power to read.30

St. Euphemia (Sept. 16)31 Great-Martyr and Worthy-of-all-praise is the second most illustrious female saint celebrated in this month. A victim of Diocletian's persecutions in the third century, Euphemia was martyred in Chalcedon her hometown. Before long a magnificent basilica was built in the martyr's honor.32 In 451 St. Pulcheria chose this church as the meeting place for the fourth ecumenical council, confident that St. Euphemia, the local spiritual powerhouse, would assist her. The empress' confidence was not misplaced. And St. Euphemia the Great-Martyr gained renown as the guardian of Orthodox dogma and as Preacher-of-Christ.33 Thus the collaboration of two women, one in heaven and the other on earth, secured the success of the Council of Chalcedon and the triumph of Orthodoxy over heresy.

The superior numbers and fame of martyr-saints should not however, overshadow the halos of women who took other paths to sainthood. Monasticism and asceticism offered women other routes to holiness. Behind convent wails and in solitary cells women found freedom to pursue spiritual perfection, to become "friends of God." The halos of women who achieved sanctity as nuns, virgins, or ascetics shine no less brightly than those of martyrs. Such a saint is called "Blessed" and is recognized as "our Mother".

This group of women saints is well represented on the September calendar. Our Blessed Mothers include Martha (Sept. 1)34, mother of the Syrian fifth-century stylite, St. Symeon; Euanthia (Sept. 1)35, about whom nothing is recorded except her floral name; Athanasia (Sept. 18 or Oct. 9)36, the ideal wife who became a nun. Unlike Eve, she gave her husband good advice, persuading him to become a monk. Andronikos was luckier (more blessed?) than Adam.

More dramatic are the lives of three women-monks who are commemorated this month. Our Blessed Mother Euphrosyne (Sept. 25)37, an Egyptian female ascetic, lived for 38 years in a male monastery. Dressed like a man and calling herself Smaragdos, she surpassed her fellow-monks in ascetic austerities and virtues. Our Blessed Mother Theodora of Alexandria (Sept. 11)38 was a married woman who left home, donned male garb and entered a male monastery in the desert. Repenting her sins and "making herself a gift to God," Theodora lived there the rest of her life. The true sex of Euphrosyne and Theodora was not discovered until after their deaths.

Susanna (Sept. 19)39, our third woman-monk, is called "Blessed-Martyr" because she was both an ascetic and a martyr. The child of a mixed marriage, she was born in Palestine. Rejecting the religion of her pagan father and Jewish mother, Susanna became a Christian. She then cut her hair, put on male clothing, adopted the name John and entered a male monastery near Jerusalem. A few years later her true sex was discovered. She should have been punished for violating canon laws. Instead, the Bishop of Eleutheropolis ordained Susanna a deacon.40 Between 361 and 363 Deacon Susanna was martyred during Julian the Apostate's persecution of Christians in the empire.

Our Blessed Mothers Euphrosyne, Theodora and Susanna and other women monastics and ascetics received high praise from enthusiastic hagiographers and hymnographers.They are admired for their spiritual attainments which often outshone those of men.41 But most of all they are commended for having overcome the weakness and flaws inherent in their sex and for having become men. The holiness of females being traditionally considered inferior to that of males42, this was a great compliment.

In September the Orthodox Church also pays tribute to women-apostles, remembering the great actions of women in the days when the church was young, alive and spreading the evangelion throughout the oikoumene. This was the golden age for women in the church. In the new creation women assumed roles of leadership. The New Testament preserves the names of female apostles, deacons, prophets and teachers, women touched by the fire of the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:3-4). As a matter of historical truth the Christian Church has founding mothers as well as fathers.

Since, according to the Scriptures, the Holy Spirit bestows charismata without discrimination between female and male, the Orthodox Church recognizes as saints a number of women-apostles: Junia (May 17), hailed by St. Paul as "outstanding among the apostles" (Romans 16:6-8); Priscilla (Feb. 13), praised by Paul for her inspired