Chapter Seven

Women of Early Christianity, Roman Catholicism, and Eastern Orthodoxy

© Copyright 1991, 2017 by Timothy Conway, PhD



The Spirit-filled life and sacrificial death of Jesus the Christ, and his potent preaching of “the reign of God”—God’s saving power made manifest in the hearts of all—eventuated in the formation of a new religion...

Christianity, now claiming some 2 billion members worldwide, the largest figure among the world’s religions.  Of course, this inception of a new religion is a curiosity, since the majority of Biblical scholars are now fairly certain that Jesus never intended to form a new religion, but simply wished to bring the Jewish people into more intimate communion with God. [1]

 

In Christianity, the status of women has been quite uneven.  This reflects 1) the tension between Jesus’ egalitarian teachings and actions on the one hand, and the attitudes of his Jewish and Greek and later followers on the other hand; as well as 2) the old tension between the “theology of equivalence” (based on the “priestly creation account” of Genesis chapter one) and the “theology of subordination” (based on the “Yahwist creation account” of Genesis chapter two).  Various kinds of neglect of females and downright misogyny have been rampant.  Yet it is also heartening to find a strong Christian appreciation for the “holy female” in several domains—especially in the Catholic and Orthodox traditions—in the form of 1) Mother Mary and 2) a huge number of later women saints.  Mary and these other holy women are not only exemplary models of different aspects of the sacred feminine, but are also considered to be (along with the male saints) powerful helpers or intercessors for humanity in the Godward journey.



As we shall see in chapter 8, in the last hundred years there has also been an empowerment of women in other Christian denominations as well, in the form of women preachers, priests/ministers/bishops, theologians, and ministers of spiritual healing, not to mention women of uncommon virtue and charity. 

 

We can begin our discussion of the role of the female in Christianity by looking theologically at the nature of the Christian God.  Rabbi Jesus, though usually calling his Divine Source “Abba,” or “Father” —more like “Dad,” given that “Abba” is a very informal term), would also uphold the ways of viewing God as “Mother,” as the Lord is sometimes designated in the Hebrew Bible (see previous chapter).  In the Gospel of Luke, chapter 15, Jesus tells three parables about the nature of God, one of which suggests God in feminine mode.  Evangelical theologian Virginia Ramey Mollenkott observes:    

“In order to feel the full impact of this image of God as a woman, we must remind ourselves of the patriarchal culture of rabbinic Judaism [in Jesus’ time] which tolerated the concept that a man’s wickedness is better than a woman’s goodness.  Even in such a culture, so eager was Jesus to show his contemporaries that women were fully persons that he dared to speak of God in female terms.” [2]

 

In light of this and other Biblical evidence, Mollenkott offers an important insight about the Christian doctrine of the Trinity (Father, Son and Spirit):

“We ought to re-think our doctrine of the Trinity which traditionally has been pictured as totally masculine.  Some people have suggested that the nurturing Holy Spirit should be viewed as the feminine component in the Trinity [since the Old Testament uses feminine terms like El Shaddai and ruach].  Others have suggested that the Second Person, the Son, should be viewed as the female component because of the submissive role he played in relationship to the Father.  But when we return to Genesis 1:26 we see the use of a plural pronoun which suggests the entire Trinity: ‘Let us make man [that is, mankind] in our image,’ and in the next verse we learn that the mankind which is made in the image of the Trinity is both male and female.  Therefore, it would seem that mankind as male and female is made in the image of every member of the Trinity.  If this is so, then every member of the Trinity possesses both masculine and feminine elements!”  [Let us also remember here our comments in the previous chapter on the Jewish tradition regarding the possibility that this plural, first-person pronoun could refer to a race of extraterrestrial “Custodians” genetically engineering humankind, and that the supreme God, the I AM THAT AM, is a singularity.] [3]

 

 

In the earliest centuries of Christianity, the most important feminine aspect was the Church “herself,” the body of believers, which was regarded as the female “bride” of Christ.  The Church is still regarded in this manner, but an even more important feminine element arose early in Christianity which would increasingly become the female persona par excellence:  Jesus’ mother, Mary (Miriam), who has long been considered by Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Christians to be the “highest of the saints” and is cherished by many souls as a veritable divine being, a “goddess,” though this is clearly against church teaching.  How did this come to occur?  Mary is present in the canonical New Testament (the Greek Bible) on only a handful of occasions:  at the annunciation where she is greeted by angel Gabriel, at the visitation with her cousin Elizabeth; at the birth of Christ, at his presentation in the temple, at the finding of the twelve year old Jesus in the temple, at the wedding feast of Cana (where she catalyzes the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry of wonderworking activity), in a brief encounter during his subsequent ministry, at the crucifixion, and at the time of Pentecost during the outpouring of the Divine Spirit upon the followers of Jesus.  After this brief mention of Mary in the Acts of the Apostles as being in the upper room at Pentecost with some other women and the male disciples, nothing is heard of her again.  One legend (with a bit of archaeological evidence in support) maintains that Mary lived out her last days with John the Evangelist on a small mountain near the town of Ephesus (in present-day Turkey), where she died and is buried.  (In the earlier section on Sūfism, I have pointed out how this is a very popular pilgrimage spot for Sūfīs, Muslims, and Christians alike.)  The Church of Mary Ever Virgin in the Valley of Jehoshaphat in Jerusalem, built in the 4th century, also is claimed to house Mary’s sepulchre. 

 

Mary figures, too, in some early apocryphal works, which perpetuate various dubious legends about her.  Some early Church Fathers and Desert Fathers theologized about her and/or venerated her and there exist two primitive mural figures of a child with its mother, perhaps Mary, one dating from the 2nd century, the other somewhat later, in the catacomb of Priscilla in Rome.  (These Madonna images were patterned after similar Divine Mother-Son images of the ancient world, such as the Egyptian Goddess Isis and her son Horus).

 

As we shall see in a moment, Mary would later be elevated to the status of “Mother of God” and “Queen of Heaven,” and all sorts of supernatural qualities would be posited regarding her status as “foremost of the saints.”  But we can pause to contemplate the words of the renowned British hagiographer Donald Attwater, who has pointedly observed:

“There are some who, concentrating their hearts and minds on our Lady in her glorified state as queen of Heaven ... lose all memory of her day by day life as a woman in this world... the wife of Joseph the carpenter.  The Lily of Israel, the Daughter of the princes of Judah, the Mother of all Living, was also a peasant-woman, a Jewish peasant-woman, the wife of a working-man.  Her hands were scored with labour, her bare feet dusty, not with the perfumed powder of romance but with the hard stinging grit of Nazareth, of the tracks which led to the well, to the olive-gardens, to the synagogue... And then, after those thirty years, those feet were still tired and dusty, but now with following her divine Son from afar in His public life, from the rejoicings of the wedding-feast at Cana to His dereliction and her desolation on Mount Calvary, when the sword spoken of by [prophet] Simeon at the purification [ceremony for the infant Jesus] pierced her heart.  The dying Jesus confided her to the care of St. John... On the day of Pentecost the Holy Ghost descended on our Lady when He came upon the Apostles and other disciples gathered together in the upper room at Jerusalem... The rest of her earthly life was probably passed at Jerusalem, with short sojourns at Ephesus and other places in company with St. John and during the times of Jewish persecution.” [4]

 

Several centuries later, the emerging form of institutional, hierarchical, “victorious” Christianity, under the influence of such chauvinists as Jerome, Origen, Cyril and Tertullian (later a Montanist Christian) at centers such as Alexandria and Rome, was becoming very masculine and patriarchal.  Ignoring Jesus’ obvious high regard of women (see below), this rather distorted version of the church suppressed women’s leadership functions in the church, and tried to eradicate any vestige of pagan goddess-worship from the land.  But quite acceptable to these “fathers” was the cult of the idealized feminine in the form of Mary, a cult which came from the more remote Syrian Church, where a Marian piety was flourishing, with liturgies and hymns in her honor and the earliest version of the doctrine of Mary’s bodily “assumption” into heaven.  Ian Wilson, who reports modern scholars’ finding that the cult of Mary was fairly negligible in Christendom as a whole in the 3rd century, speaks of the gospel evidence for Mary’s “humanity,” specifically in the form of her being mother to several children besides Jesus, and how certain churchmen were trying to preserve this “humanness,” whereas certain other thinkers would conspire to elevate Mary to a more rarified position:

 

“In the fourth century, churchmen such as Helvidius and Jovinian pointed out the clear gospel evidence that Mary had given birth to several children after Jesus.  Besides the list of Jesus’ brothers and sisters in the Mark gospel (6:3) [wherein some members of the synagogue in which Jesus is preaching rhetorically ask, “Is not this the ... son of Mary, the brother of James, and Joses, and of Juda, and Simon? and are not his sisters here with us?”—and most scholars are quite clear that there is no reason not to accept the idea that these were Jesus’ real brothers and sisters, not just cousins or “kin”].  Luke unequivocally describes Jesus as Mary’s ‘first-born,’ and the Matthew gospel, in the original Greek, speaks of her husband Joseph having no intercourse with Mary ‘until her son was born,’ strongly suggesting that they had normal sexual relations afterwards.  But at the very time Helvidius and Jovinian were making their point, others such as Hilary of Poitiers and the Alexandrian Didymus the Blind were in the process of bestowing on Mary the title ‘Ever-Virgin.’  And, of course, with Jesus having been made Very God, it was inevitably not long before someone began to speculate on his mother’s position.  Sure enough, in the year 431, just a few miles down the coast from Nicaea, the proposition was put to the Council of Ephesus that Mary should henceforth be entitled Theotokos—God-bearing, and thereby ‘Mother of God’ [this was a title which had been unofficially in use since at least a century earlier—for instance, Emperor Constantine dedicated his new version of Rome to Theotokos].  As at Nicaea, there was an Antiochene resistance movement, spearheaded by Nestorius, Bishop of Constantinople, who argued strongly that Mary could only be the mother of Jesus’ humanity, but to no avail.  Yet another Alexandrian, the famous patriarch Cyril, packed the Ephesus meeting with his own supporters before most Antiochenes could arrive, and the cult of Mary was firmly on its way.” [5]

 

At the above-mentioned Council of Ephesus in 431, wherein Mary, who had for three centuries been regarded as the “new Eve” (accompanying the “new Adam,” Jesus), was pronounced to be the Mother of God, or Theotokos,  Mary was also judged worthy of hyperdulia, a higher form of veneration than is offered to the saints (dulia).  This hyperdulia is to be distinguished from worship (latria), which only God merits—yet in later centuries it would seem that such a distinction was being erased as Mary attained virtual goddess-stature in the minds of her devotees.  In 438 an icon of Mary, the first definitely known purported image of her, supposedly painted in the first century by St. Luke, was given by the Byzantine ruler, Empress Eudoxia to her sister-in-law, Empress Pulcheria.  From then on, Mary figured prominently in Byzantine art and devotion.  Leaden seals from the 5th and 6th century have come down to us with the inscription, servus Mariae, “servant (slave) of Mary.”

 

Some scholars have seen this rise of a Marian devotion as a sequel to the popularity of the Great Goddess(es) of the ancient world, appearing as Isis, Artemis and Diana (whose worship flourished at Ephesus, where Mary is said to have lived out her life), Cybele, Demeter, Ashtarte, Asherah, Inanna, et al, though we should take care to realize that these figures are only similar to Mary.  In the words of E.O. James (The Cult of the Mother Goddess):  “To assume that the cult of Mary was merely the Christianized version of its pagan prototype is a simplification of a complex situation which is not supported by the evidence.”  Yet it seems quite clear that Mary was at least the successor to the ancient Goddess archetype, if not the Christianized version of this Divine Female.  Michael Carroll, in his psychoanalytic assessment of the Marian phenomenon, hypothesizes that Mary’s rise to popularity in the Christian West can be accounted for by an increase in Oedipal desires among the proletarian males of Mediterranean society, who grow up in father-ineffective families and who are marked by machismo complexes.  Previously their machismo syndromes could fix on a number of agricultural deities, but now Mary became the perfect archetype to fulfill their psychological needs.  Carroll’s analysis is insightful yet rather reductionist, and seems to miss the point that Mary’s cult originated much earlier among a Byzantine people not so strongly ruled by this machismo complex; moreover, Mary’s greatest popularity would occur in 11th-12th century France, where such Oedipal dynamics do not seem to have been especially salient either. [6]

 

In examining the second millenium of Christianity, especially from this period of the 11th-12th centuries onward in Gothic France and Italy, we find that Mary’s cult (or, on the level of archetype, the Christian Divine Mother cult?) clearly became the most important aspect of popular Christianity.  Mary was undoubtedly perceived as a much-needed intercessor for the Christian faithful in their approach to a king-like God who might hold them accountable for their many sins.  Jesus had previously been seen as our intercessor before God the Father, but when he, in turn, was fashioned in the guise of king-like judge of souls at the “Last Day,” Mary became popular as the intercessor between fallen, helpless souls and the masculine Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Ghost.  By the twelfth century, Mary was spiritual mother to all humanity and available in an ongoing way to render assistance to anyone calling on her.  Dianic feminists of today would argue that the real reason for Mary’s popularity among the common people is that these folk were simply practicing their ancient pagan (“from the land”) religion that they had actually been practicing all along from time immemorial.

 

In any case, the highly influential St. Bernard (1090-1153) is credited as virtually authorizing “Mary’s religion” (St. Bernardine of Siena, d. 1444, St. Peter Canisius, d. 1597, and St. Alphonusus Liguouri, d. 1787, would powerfully promote it in later centuries).  From the 12th century onward Mary was the frequent subject of painting, sculpture, stain glass, poetry and music.  She appeared in the dramatic, empowering visions of numerous saints.  Legends state that the rosary (prayer beads) and the scapular (a sacred talisman worn around the neck) were introduced by her in the 13th century (to Sts. Dominic and Simon Stock, respectively).  Various medals, litanies of praises, novenas (nine-day devotional regimens) and prayers were commissioned under her influence over the centuries (the “Hail Mary” prayer was in use in seed form by the 12th century, and its current form was finalized by the 15th century).  Mary was named as the patron of numerous religious orders.  Knights fought in her honor.  More churches were dedicated to Notre Dame (Our Lady) than to all other saints combined, and every church had an important Marian chapel.  Meditation on Mary’s life, as on Jesus’ life, became a popular practice.  Treatises were written concerning various ways to be devoted to her (the most exemplary of these was thought to be St. Louis de Montfort’s early 18th century work, True Devotion to Mary, brought to light in 1842 [7]).  Marian sodalities and associations were formed which attracted many members, especially in the last several centuries of the Roman Catholic tradition.  Deemed by Catholics and Orthodox Christians “Mother of the Church,” and “Mediatrix” of all graces from God to humanity, Mary’s importance in the Church became second only to Christ, and in certain circles it seemed that she had become even more important than Christ in the hearts and minds of the Catholic and Orthodox people—thus, for many souls she began to serve as the same kind of “Great Mother” goddess as was ubiquitous in the old (pagan) world.

 

I would interject that a “Black Virgin” cult, ostensibly devoted to Mary, also sprang up from around the time of the 12th century, and spread all over Europe, a cult with significant pagan, “occult” features.  It has been subjected to clerical opposition and “embarrassed suppression” according to Ean Begg because of its considerable heterodox associations with—among other things—the cults of more ancient goddesses such as Isis, Cybele, Artemis/Diana, Hecate, Ashtarte; the Black Virgins may perhaps also be linked with the cult of the “dark feminine” in lands much further to the east, such as India’s Mother Kālī.  These Black Virgins, according to Marina Warner, possess “hermetic knowledge and power,” and are symbolic of the Female Divinity antecedent to the Father-God. [8]

 

While mentioning this “occult” aspect of Mary, we can report that Western occultists such as Corinne Heline and others see Mary, along with Joseph, as having been a high-level “initiate” of a Jewish esoteric group, possessing miraculous abilities and having much more power than most latter-day churchmen would suspect.  (Perhaps they were members of the Essenes, as is sometimes claimed by occultists, though the Essenes, as far as we know, were primarily oriented to male membership, with perhaps a small group of female initiates or else wives of extern members.)  This theory that Mary (and Joseph) may have been initiates into some esoteric Jewish mystical group at first might seem far-fetched, but really may not be so far from the truth, given that Mary was alleged to a woman of deep prayerfulness and destined to be the mother of one of the very greatest masters (if not the greatest, according to Christians) that the planet has ever seen...

“The Blessed Mary is a master Initiate, the Highest that ever came to earth wearing a feminine body. ... [Mary] was from birth more closely attuned with angels than with humanity... After the Ascension of Christ, Mary was the acknowledged leader of the esoteric Christian community, despite the fact that in the outer world not she, but John and Peter [and James], were preeminent [due to prevailing misogynist social mores; note that some early Gnostic literature maintains that Mary Magdalene, not Mother Mary, was the “esoteric leader”].” [9]

 

Up until the Catholic Church’s Second Vatican Council (1962-5), even though Church Fathers had made it clear that Mary had no divine will of her own, and was never to be worshipped, but could be imitated, invoked, and given that special kind of veneration (hyperdulia) as “foremost among the saints”—with her title of “Mediatrix of all graces,” she had in fact almost come to represent in the Catholic Church an autonomous, fourth divine Person in addition to the Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. [10] 

 

Indeed, many Catholics seemed to be devoted exclusively to Mary, paying much less attention to Jesus, the Father, the Holy Spirit, and eschewing the liturgy in favor of Marian devotions (saying the rosary, etc.).  This practice (not to even mention extreme, pathological cases such as certain people donning chains in their “slavery to Mary”) chagrined Protestants, who do not believe that saints can intercede with God on behalf of the living.  Most Protestants, therefore, have not given Mary any special honor except as the virgin mother of Jesus (they prefer to base their spirituality on reading of Scripture, acceptance of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, and worship of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit).  These Protestants would view much Catholic mariology as a kind of “mariolatry.”  (Yet they do well to remember that Martin Luther was quite devoted to Mother Mary.)

 

As we have noted, for centuries a number of thinkers actually saw the “Blessed Mother Mary” of Catholic and Orthodox Churches as nothing more than a Christian version of Isis, Cybele, Artemis/Diana, and other pagan female deities combined, cleverly fashioned in this way so as to recruit converts from pagan religions and to prevent Church members from running off to pagan goddess cults when attracted to one of the latter’s powerful images of a “divine mother.”  Christian feminists of the 1960s and 1970s were especially critical of the image of Mary as representing only the “passive handmaid” aspect of the feminine, along with an impossible ideal of “virgin motherhood”—an ideal which, moreover, denigrates female sexuality, power, and emotional expression (yet see my comments on these topics in the Introduction herein).  Her famous words to angel Gabriel during the annunciation, “Be it done unto me according to thy word,” have allowed Mary to become

“…a reification of male power over women.  When Mary takes her place in the heavenly pantheon—as Queen of Heaven, crowned by the same popes who crowned (and canonized) Charlemagne and gloried in ‘Christ the King’—she presides over the hierarchy and supports their system.  She can then become a heavenly spokeswoman for their causes—anticommunism, antiabortion, women [disempowered] as the heart of the home.” [11]

 

In short, the cult of Mary was seen as being a male-defined one, proffering a “safe” image of idealized woman onto whom male religious could pour their devotion, an image which denies the power and humanity of actual living women.  In the minds of feminists, the cult of Mary put her onto such a remote pedestal that her mortal sisters’ image and status over the last two thousand years were not really benefitted by this Marian veneration, but could only suffer in contrast.  An equally serious charge against mariolatry is that other important women of the early church known to us—such as Mary Magdalene, Tabitha, Phoebe, Priscilla, et al. (see below)—are ignored as role-models, and Mary—a male-controlled image—becomes the only important female in the eyes of the Christian masses, in the fashion of an exalted “tokenism.”

 

In addition to the traditionalist view of Mary, which has been heavily critiqued by feminists, there is a side to Mary which is being articulated by a number of feminist writers.  In revisioning Mary’s role, they are attempting to emphasize her autonomy, independence, earthiness, and solidarity with the marginalized and oppressed.  Leading feminist theologian Rosemary Radford Ruether states:

“There is the Mary of the monks, who venerate her primarily as a virgin and shape her doctrines in an antisexual mold.  But there is the Mary of the people who is still the earth mother and who is venerated for her power over the secret of natural fecundity.  It is she who helps the woman through her birthpangs, who assures the farmer of her new crops, new rains, new lambs.  She is the maternal image of the divine who understands ordinary people in their wretchedness.” [12]

 

Mary Jo Weaver goes further:

“As a champion of the poor she [Mary] was known in some quarters as ‘the madonna of rogues,’ the one who could be counted on to help rebels, or even to serve as a midwife for a ‘fallen abbess.’  Mary, in other words, can also be a model of subversive activity, ‘very much alive in the history of all who are oppressed.’ [Dorothy Sölle]  She is, therefore, as are all good religious symbols, ambiguous, even though she has been experienced by many Catholic women predominantly in terms of complementarity [a church doctrine maintaining that women are not equals but are relatively less powerful ‘complements’ to man]. As a symbol of passivity Mary has been ‘a stick to beat smart girls,’ as Mary Gordon says, an enemy of intellectuality.  As an image of purity, Mary stands in contrast to real women, who, not having been immaculately conceived, are inherently impure.  ... If we have been encouraged to think of Mary as powerful, it is only to see spiritual strength predicated on human passivity... : the dominant male God overshadowing the subordinate female soul. ... A more fruitful interpretive approach, therefore, is probably a liberationist one. ... The annunciation and nativity are not celebrations of motherhood but stories of God’s saving actions.  Mary... is the recipient of a mission from the Lord. ... As a poor woman and a virgin, Mary represents those classes of the subjugated who will be lifted up and filled with good things when the Messiah comes. ... [She is] a woman strong enough to risk believing something incredible about herself. ... She is elevated and recognized as a necessary partner for an extraordinary divine act in history. ... The combination of Mary’s humanity and divinity can tell us something about ourselves: the belief in the divine presence within us and our willing response to it opens up the possibility of apotheosis.” [13]

 

We have heard mention of the evidence that Mary was not a virgin her entire life, but in fact seems to have normally conceived and given birth to at least six other children.  But even when we hear the traditional, “de-sexualizing” view that Mary was “ever-virgin,” there is another way of interpreting it, a mystically-oriented argument which accords with the views of many celibates (such as quoted in our introductory section): 

“Mary’s perpetual virginity is not a denial of erotic activity.  It is a recognition of a receptivity that is perfectly innocent, an integral whole that has no need of an additional human element to complete it.  The integrated being ... has an indwelling of the divine that permits living in the sanctified Now of the mystics freed of the burdens of the neurotic Past [e.g., conditioned tendencies].  The union that gives birth to the Lord happens with and not through an external human agency.  Thus, Mary is the exalted pattern of human relations.  In Meister Eckhart’s words:  ‘God’s ultimate purpose is birth.  He is not content until He brings His Son to birth in us.’  Receptivity is all too often seen as subjugation and passivity.” [14]

 

After Vatican II, the Roman Catholic hierarchy, in an ecumenical concession to Protestant interests and an attempt to get Catholics back on track with exclusive devotion to God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and a focus on the liturgy and scripture—made a conscious decision to suppress the independent mariology of the masses of faithful, and uphold a Mary who is more fully in and of the Church.  But this is not to be construed as an undervaluing of Mary—in fact, the Vatican documents greatly honor her with a “special love” as “Blessed Mary, Mother of God”; and she is given a litany of some fifty titles including “Advocate,” “Helper,” “Benefactress,” and, perhaps most powerful, that title of “Mediatrix of All Graces.” [15]

 

It was thought that the many pockets of traditional, fervent Catholic piety for Mary would die out, lacking official support.  Yet the booming sales of Mary-oriented books at Catholic bookstores, the number of churches, chapels and schools reminding Catholics of “Our Lady” with their Marian names and chapels, the ubiquity of the Madonna image at Christmas time, the popularity of Marian congresses and pilgrimages to Marian shrines, and the continued extensive use of the rosary amongst Catholics (and the number seems to be growing) indicates that there will probably not be any decline of Mary in the minds and hearts of “the faithful” for a long time to come.  With Pope John Paul II—who is strongly devoted to Mary—sponsoring a 14-month “Marian Year” of devotions, from June 1987 to July 1988, bringing along with it a good number of books, pamphlets, and music on Marian devotion, and certain Catholic feminists re-interpreting her image and value for women, it appears that Mary has indeed made a real comeback. [16] 

 

A large part of Mary’s popularity is due to the fact that, over the last two centuries in the West, an amazingly beautiful, tender, radiant female being (or beings?), directly or indirectly identifying herself (themselves?) as Mary, has appeared quite dramatically to Christians numerous times and in varying locations, and in ways which have left vivid, inspiring impressions. 

 

Appearing mainly to Catholic and Orthodox Christians, including a large number of children (almost all of whom are of lower socio-economic classes [17]), “Our Lady” has issued challenging messages to pray, repent, and remember God; she has revealed prophetic visions (evidently some of them quite disturbing, concerning world cataclysm); and she has caused a great number of inexplicable, miraculous phenomena.  It has been said that 232 apparitions of “Mother Mary” have occurred between 1928 and 1972 alone; many more such apparitions have occurred since then.

 

Especially notable encounters with this “Queen of Heaven”—let us tentatively assume it is indeed Mary—have occurred at 1) Guadalupe, Mexico, 1531, creating a miraculous image on Juan Diego’s tilma (cloak); 2) Paris, France, 1830, giving the Miraculous Medal of the Immaculate Conception to St. Catherine Labouré; 3) Lourdes, France, 1858, appearing to St. Bernadette Soubirous and creating a spring of potent healing water; 4) Fatima, Portugal, 1917, appearing to three children and causing a fearsome solar spectacle witnessed by 70,000 people; 5) Garabandal, northern Spain, 1961-5, appearing, along with the archangel Michael, to four girls, and causing many miraculous phenomena; 6) San Damiano, Italy (near Milan), 1964 to present, appearing every Friday to Rosa Quatrinni until 1970, and since then to many others, creating rainbows, movements of the sun, and so on; 7) Oliveto Citra, Italy (near Naples), 1985 to present, appearing hundreds of times to many hundreds of people; 8) Kibeho, Rwanda, central Africa, 1981-5, appearing to six girls and a boy, dictating through them messages to crowds of people; and 9) Medjugorje, Yugoslavia, 1981 to present, appearing to up to six children, causing a number of anomalous phenomena.  At Medjugorje, Mary says she is appearing for the last time, and she adamantly, lovingly warns people to remember God and to pray and fast for world peace.  (As of this time of writing, Pope John Paul II and his curia have endorsed this Marian cult at Medjugorje though not the apparitions themselves—the Catholic Church has always been extremely careful in its approach to these phenomena.)

 

Other remarkable visions, allegedly of Mary, have occurred at Grenoble, France, 1664; Tinos, Greece, 1823; Blangy, France, 1840; Rome, 1842 (to a Jewish man); Salette, Switzerland, 1846; Pellevoisin, France, 1876; Knock, Ireland, 1879; Llanthony, S. Wales, 1880; Beauraing, Belgium, 1932-3; Banneaux, Belgium, 1933; Tre Fontane, Italy, 1947; Ohio, 1954; Belfast, North Ireland, 1969; Palmar de Troya, Spain, 1971; Cairo from 1968-71 and again in 1986; Cuapa, Nicaragua, 1980; and Hrushiv in the Ukraine, 1987. 

 

Dozens of other appearances have occurred in recent years.  (Two famous series of appearances in the U.S., at Necedeh, Wisconsin in 1950, and Bayside, N.Y., 1970 to present, as well as at Heroldsbach in Germany, have been judged by the Roman Catholic Church as not being “miraculous appearances” but ostensibly some kind of psychological phenomenon in the minds of the visionaries.)  Scholar Sandra Zimdars-Swartú notes how it is only in the past two centuries that crowds of devotees have come to spend time with the visionaries; virtually all previous encounters were private, with Mary appearing to such saints and/or visionaries as Bernard of Clairveaux, Sergius of Radonezh, Seraphim of Sarov, Bridget of Sweden, Catherine of Siena, Mary (Petit) of St. Teresa, John Baptist Vianney, Anne Catherine Emmerich, and, more recently, Paul of Moll, Francesca Cabrini, Dorothy Kerin, Therese Neumann, Padre Pio, Gladys Motta, Christina Gallagher, Vassula Ryden, and a number of others. [18]

 

All these Marian appearances are highly interesting phenomena, if not a single phenomenon, perhaps suggesting that the cult of Mary is not a mere appropriation of the ancient goddess figure (Isis, et al), nor an invention of male clergy with unfinished Oedipal complexes or “control issues,” and that, as her devotees claim, Mary is “foremost of the saints,” a loving protectress of great radiance and power.  It could also be that God simply chooses to manifest “Himself” to visionaries these days as a luminous female being under the guise of “Mother Mary.”  Another explanation—a Jungian one—which, like the feminine-guise-of-the Divine hypothesis, could also account for the visionary and miraculous phenomena associated with “Divine Mothers” in other cultures (such as East Asia’s Guan-yin/Kannon, Tibetan Tārā, Hindu Mahādevī, and Taoist Hsi-wang-mu), is that there exists deep within the collective unconscious of the human psyche a powerful archetype of the divine female which can get activated in certain people under certain conditions, manifesting visions, tremendous peace, bliss, and love, and even awesome, supernormal powers of “mind over matter.” 

 

Yet another explanation for the Marian apparitions has been advanced by respected scientific Ufologist, Jacques Vallee, and popular investigator of the paranormal, Brad Steiger; they each have made a good case to support the claim that at least some of these Marian appearances—including Fatima and Lourdes—are not “Mary” at all, but rather the product of UFOnaut alien intelligence which is attempting to guide humanity’s religious development via the same kind of “last days” apocalyptic message which has been evidently been used by this same intelligence as a “spiritual control system” with people of the past (e.g., the ancient Sumerians, Hebrews, the author of the Book of Revelation, Joseph Smith, et al). Most Marian devotees would undoubtedly find this suggestion difficult to swallow.  Yet the evidence for this notion consists of the following similarities between the circumstances of the apparitions and the UFO close encounters:  appearances of a bright—even blinding—cloud and/or disk, a strong beam of light, a humming or roaring sound, music, states of trance and paralysis on the part of the witnesses, a paranormal figure who defies the laws of physical bodies, the invisibility of this figure to other humans present, and a harsh, chastising, apocalyptic message to the witnesses and humanity.  Definitely needed here is some careful, unbiased, non-partisan, cross-disciplinary research to make sense out of these “Marian apparitions.”

 

In the meantime, these apparitions, especially the recent and recurring ones at Medjugorje and Oliveto Citra, along with Pope John Paul II’s frequent honoring of Mary and his instituting the “Marian Year” (1987-8), seem to have insured Mary’s place as the paramount “holy female” amongst the Catholic and Orthodox faithful.  Each of the last two summers, Mary Ann O’Keefe has organized conferences on Marian apparitions in Pittsburgh, which have drawn some 5,000 to 6,000 persons.  Some 300 groups of Medjugorje believers and 70 “hotlines” relaying her messages flourish in the U.S. alone.  All over the Catholic and Orthodox world, Mary’s various qualities and virtues—pure-heartedness, humility, trust in God, courage, compassion, and peace—and her urgent, apocalyptic message, are being meditated upon by countless women and men. 

 

Curiously, there are even a number of Protestants who also have begun to venerate and listen to Mary as a result of hearing about or experiencing her visitations.  For instance, an Australian Anglican priest, Robert de Caen, has founded the Anglican Marian Movement; a Lutheran, Wayne Weible, now devotes his life to spreading the word about the Marian appearances at Medjugorje; a few years back, the Rev. Arthur MacDonald Allchin, a leading Anglican figure, compiled an anthology of Anglicans’ writings on Mary. [19] 

 

Along this line it is interesting to again remember that Martin Luther, who spearheaded the entire Protestant movement in the early 16th century, had a great love for Mother Mary.  Carl Jung, the illustrious Swiss psychologist and son of a Lutheran minister, regarded the proclamation of Mary’s bodily Assumption into heaven by the Vatican in 1950 as the most important religious event of our age.  In light of these sentiments, perhaps Protestants should not be too severe in trying to exclude Marian devotion from Christian spiritual life, for such devotion seems to entail quite beautiful and edifying consequences for millions of people.     

 

Let me conclude this section on Mary by quoting the Trappist monk, M. Basil Pennington, who, in his lovely work, Mary Today, has uttered some important words about Mary and her significance:

“There have been some exaggerations in marian theology and more in marian piety in recent times [recent centuries].  We should not be surprised at this.  Such exaggeration is typical of love. ... [In answer to feminist charges that Mary offers a very limiting role model, Pennington confesses that the current Christian church is definitely androcentric:]  Within such a mentality it is not possible for [Mary,] the most important collaborator of the Redeemer, the first of the disciples, to emerge, fulfilling her role precisely as a woman.  Something of her humanity has to be lost in a divinity that will cloak her femininity.  The full historical reality of Mary, the Woman [not just the Mother], cannot emerge within the tradition of a male-dominated Church.  Such a development of doctrine must await that evolution of human consciousness that will have the courage to accept woman for all that she truly is, the helpmate of man, like unto himself, both images of God in every way equal.  Then will we be free enough to see fully Mary, blessed among woman. ... Mary challenges us to a selflessness that seeks nothing but that our lives and our being should magnify the Lord.

      “Who is Mary? At the risk of it sounding like a cliche or cop-out, I would say the best answer to that question is silence... If biblical exegetes could leave aside for a moment historical criticism and quiet their rational mind they might find how ultimately empty is all that they have been saying.  If pained feminists could sit for a bit in silence with this Woman, their anger would soften and be healed.  If any one of us would enter into the silence of Mary’s presence we would find healing..., solace... and our lives would magnify the Lord.  At the beginning of this writing I wanted to sing of a maiden, now I would enter into the silence of a Woman who ponders all things in her heart.” [20]

 

 

In addition to Mother Mary, the Gospels mention several other women as figuring in the life of Jesus, though, with one exception, these have been virtually forgotten by Christianity over the ages, save in a number of images from Rennaissance and Baroque art.  Yet it is clear that Jesus was, among other things, someone who honored women—just as he also supported the destitute, the ill, and all others negatively judged and marginalized by Jewish society. Jesus broke from the woman-denigrating Rabbinic tradition by doing such “unthinkable” things as speaking to women in public, teaching women publicly and privately, exalting women with his words and deeds, touching and healing women, and allowing women to leave the home and follow him as his disciples.     

 

In the accepted books of the New Testament (not to mention the “apocryphal” books), one woman stands out as quite prominent, even more than Mother Mary.  This is Mary Magdalene, who, in the words of Eastern Orthodox Christian feminist historian, Eva Catafygiotu Topping, was, unlike almost all Jewish women previously mentioned in the Bible,

“…never identified in relationship to a male.  Mary of Magdala stood on her own, strong as a tower; independent, self-defining. Mary Magdalene was an urban woman from a rich commercial town [Magdala].  She had means of her own.  Mistress of her wealth, she gave it to support a cause, Jesus’ ministry of reconciliation and healing.  Mary had herself ... benefited from that ministry.  It radically recast her life. ... Certain of [the] ... women “who had been healed of evil spirits and sicknesses” became loyal disciples of Jesus and shared his ministry.  Conspicuous among them was Mary Magdalene. Her name heads every list of these women disciples.  The group included Mary the mother of James and Joses; Salome; the mother of the sons of Zebedee; Joanna the wife of Chuza, Herod’s steward; Susannah; and Mary the wife of Clopas.  They joined Jesus in Galilee and followed him wherever he went.  Unlike the men disciples, these women stayed with him until the end.

      “Mary Magdala led this small group of women called to be disciples. Theirs was an unconventional, public life.  Abandoning the private domestic roles prescribed by tradition for them, these women adopted a new way of living.  Freed of restraints imposed by family and home,a they traveled everywhere with Jesus, accompanying him through villages and towns as he went about ‘setting the downtrodden free.’  Welcomed by Christ into equal discipleship, Mary and her circle found freedom and fulfillment.  No longer were they dependent mothers, daughters, sisters or wives.  They were free persons, followers of a rabbi anointed by God to ‘proclaim liberty to captives.’  In the community around Jesus, Mary Magdalene and the other women disciples experienced personhood and equality hitherto denied to their sex. ... These women proved to be Jesus’ true disciples.  It was they and not the twelve men disciples who understood the redemptive purpose of his mission.  Unlike James and John, no woman sought power and privilege in the kingdom of God.  ... Unlike the two sons of Zebedee, their mother did not desert him [Jesus at the Passion]. Unlike Judas, no woman disciple betrayed her teacher. Unlike Peter, no woman disciple denied Jesus. ... The Easter story thus belongs entirely to Mary Magdalene and the women disciples.  They did not run away.  The women proved to be faithful, courageous, strong.” [21] 

 

Mary Magdalene is mentioned roughly the same number of times as Mother Mary in the New Testament and, in her own way, would seem to have more or less the same status in the Scriptures as Mother Mary.  But now when we look to other, noncanonical sources, we are amazed to find an even loftier depiction of Mary Magdalene.  The Gnostic work, the Gospel of Philip, one of the later works from the rich collection discovered at Nag-Hammadi in upper Egypt, 1945, contains a remarkable statement, although its veracity is difficult to determine (yet this veracity-issue would apply to much in the accepted New Testament, as well):

 

“The companion of the [Savior is] Mary Magdalene.  [But Christ loved] her more than [all] the disciples [and used to] kiss her [often] on her [mouth].  The rest of [the disciples were offended] by it [and expressed disapproval].  They said to him, ‘Why do you love her more than all of us?’  The Savior answered and said to them, ‘Why do I not love you like her? When a blind man and one who sees are both together in darkness, they are no different from one another.  When the light comes, then he who sees will see the light, and he who is blind will remain in darkness.’” [22]

 

Scholar Elaine Pagels tells us that another Gnostic work, Dialogue of the Savior, not only includes Mary Magdalene as one of three disciples chosen to receive special teaching but also praises her above the other two disciples present, Thomas and Matthew: “she spoke as a woman who knew the All.” [23] 

 

Other Gnostic works, such as the Gospel of Mary and Pistis Sophia, contain further statements exalting Mary’s status as one whom Jesus loved more than the others, one whom Jesus “made worthy,” and one who is divinely ordained by the Spirit to teach, though the male disciples, reflecting the typical Jewish attitude of those times, are both confused and chagrined by Jesus’ love for this woman. [24] 

 

Male-oriented Christian tradition (both literature and art) in the Western church has for two millennia viewed Mary Magdalene as a converted prostitute, which would demean her in the minds of many readers.  Actually, as far as the “prostitute” image goes, it is better interpreted as one of two symbols:  on the one hand, a combining in one single person the “fallen” nature of Eve and the sanctified (“Ave”) nature of one who has followed Christ (this sanctification of Eve’s erotic energies rendered the Magdalene a popular figure for centuries in many circles of Christianity); on the other hand, as Ean Begg and others suggest, the prostitute is a symbol of Wisdom, “which cries out from the streets for men to pay attention to her” and is thus not a demeaning image, but one which hints at an esoteric truth—or at least a highly refined truth—within exoteric, institutionalized Christianity.

 

The underlying fact of the matter is that there is no sound evidence whatsoever in the canonical gospels or noncanonical works to support the view of Mary’s being a prostitute.  She has no relation to the “fallen woman” mentioned in Luke, chapter seven.  And she is not to be confused with Mary of Bethany, sister of Martha and Lazarus, as Roman Catholicism and Protestant traditions have done (in 1969 the Roman church finally distinguished her from Mary of Bethany, as is done in the Eastern Orthodox tradition).  With regard to Mary of Magdala, it is merely stated that “seven demons” had gone out of her when Jesus healed her and other women (Luke 8:2), most likely meaning that she suffered from a chronic and perhaps serious nervous disorder rather than a “sinful” state. [25]  Thus, we do well to become completely free of the idea that Mary was ever a prostitute. 

 

As further confirmation of Mary Magdalene’s exalted status in the eyes of the early church, note that Mary Magdalene is said to have been present at the crucifixion, and all four canonical gospel accounts (that is, Mark, Matthew, Luke and John) tell us that Jesus appeared to Mary—either alone or with one or two other women—after his resurrection, before appearing to any of the male disciples.  And it is said that Jesus entrusted Mary Magdalene to tell the male disciples of his resurrection, though they were inclined not to believe her—mainly because she was a “mere woman,” and woman’s testimony was not considered valid in Jewish circles of the times.

 

Rev. Janice Nunnally-Cox, in Foremothers: Women of the Bible, reflects on Mary Magdalene’s eminent status: 

“Mary is unsurpassed in her devotion to Jesus [as evidenced by her apparently remaining at the tomb after others left and went away]. ... She stands out as close companion, faithful friend.  ... This kind of friendship would be unheard-of in conventional Judaism, and would suggest a clear break with custom.  It is not surprising, then, that some would be offended by Jesus’ closeness with Mary, however this was evidenced [see the aforementioned references from the Gospel of Mary, Dialogue of the Savior, Gospel of Philip, etc.].  Jesus regards Mary as friend, and further entrusts her to carry news to the others [about his resurrection]; and in a time when a woman’s word was suspect, this is extraordinary.  Mary Magdalene, then, is companion and comforter and trusted friend, and Jesus raises her as equal among the disciples.” [26]

 

Eva Topping reports that, because Mary was the first to witness the risen Lord, and to report this to the male apostles, she was hailed by Greek theologians and hymnographers as the first apostle, the first evangelist to herald the good news that Christ had indeed risen from the dead. 

 

“Thus a woman became the first apostle and the apostle to the apostles.  Empowered by God, Saint Mary Magdalene assumed a new task. A new religious community depended on her testimony, experience, and leadership.  That Mary Magdalene had been the first to ‘see the Lord’ gave her authority and spiritual sovereignty in the primitive church. ... Without the Easter story, which depends on the witness of Mary Magdalene, no church would have come into existence.  The Risen Lord chose her, the most faithful and sensitive of all his disciples, to give birth to his church.  Like the Theotokos [God-bearer, Mother Mary], Mary Magdalene was called to be a creative instrument of divine grace in the world.” [27]

 

I would interject here that the events after Jesus’ death narrated by the four Gospels are now considered by the most careful, objective biblical scholars to be later accretions; that is to say, scholars are now fairly certain after examining the “Easter story” that Jesus did not actually resurrect in the physical body (this fact need not undermine our sense of Jesus’ divinity, but, of course, it creates a “huge crisis” for those Christians who have staked their definition of the faith and identity with Christianity on this idea of a physical resurrection!). [28]  So the tale of Mary being the first to see a physically resurrected Jesus is probably incorrect as it stands.  Yet this does not rule out the possibility that, in fact, she, and later others, had empowering visions of Jesus in a “celestial” or “subtle-energy” form, just as certain people have so vividly experienced Jesus this way down through the centuries (that is to say, in powerfully-felt visions; and note that many Christian saints and great spiritual masters in other sacred traditions have appeared in this way to their followers after their own bodily death).  Thus, Mary Magdalene may still be considered the “first to see the risen Lord,” testifying to his continued spiritual presence among those with open hearts capable of receiving his love.  Indeed, Mary’s capacity for seeing Jeus with the psychically/spiritually sensitive inner eye says even more for her level of spiritual development than if she had witnessed a physical appearance.

 

Eleanor Munro contrasts the roles of the Virgin Mother Mary and Mary Magdalene on the level of popular, mythological archetype:      

“As a product of mythic imagination, the Magdalene represented the contradiction between wild and controlled nature.  Her conceptual home was the Middle World [between the sky-heavens and earth] where sinning and forgiving human beings try to do their best, fail, and try again—the dialectical bridge-span where appeared also the phantom male [Jesus] she could not live without and so drew back to a kind of life. But the Virgin’s mystery is at once deeper and wider.  Its measure is taken by that dogmatic oddity forced on ... [the faithful]: belief in the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin.  For to push that idea to its logical—or illogical—conclusion, such a Mary would be the offspring of the same Sky-god who would later impregnate her.  Like many a primordial cult-goddess in antiquity, she would be the fruit of incest, projected by Christian myth-generating imagination into an ever enlarging, ever higher-reaching role in the myth of Cosmos.  Bearing a son to Polestar [the transcendent sky-father] who was her own progenitor she would be shaped to the ancient end of cosmic geometry: to lift the dead to His dominion [by the power of her intercessory efforts as “Queen of Heaven”].” [29]

 

Though Mother Mary may be thus considered on the mythological level as the “superior” Sky-Goddess compared to the “Middle-World” Magdalene, the bottom line is that Mary Magdalene, because she was a close companion, intimate disciple, and beloved of Jesus, evidently of roughly the same age as the Master, represents a very powerful, attractive example of the holy female. It is significant and undoubtedly no accident that Mother Mary, a “safer” figure for patriarchal, mainstream Christianity, has come to be so highly venerated by the Catholic and Orthodox Churches, whereas Mary Magdalene, a somewhat more “liminal” figure, and obviously a much more empowering role-model for living Christian females, has been relatively less valued, though the Eastern Orthodox tradition has bestowed upon her many titles:  “Bearer of God,” “Glorious,” “Holy,” “Myrrbearer,” “Disciple of the World,” “Most Luminous,” “Evangelist,” “Equal to the Apostles.”      

 

What happened to Mary Magdalene after the passing of Jesus?  She is said by Eastern Orthodox Christians to have lived out her life with St. John and Mother Mary in Ephesus, where she died (in 890 her relics were placed by the Emperor in a new church in Constantinople).  In the Western church, an undoubtedly fictitious tale maintains that Mary and some fellow disciples (Martha, Lazarus, Mary the mother of James the less, et al) came from Palestine by boat to a site on the southern coast of France now known as Les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, and that she later lived as an anchoress or hermit in caves among the rocky hills in the regions around Aix-en-Provence and St. Maximin.  Centuries later her bones are said to have been discovered in the antiquated little church dedicated to the holy man Maximinus (who had accompanied the disciples from Palestine), and at a certain date these “relics” were supposedly then brought to Vézelay, Burgundy (roughly 130 miles southeast of Paris) and installed in a hill-top church, where they became famous for their power to work miracles.  Then “in 1283 the supposedly empty sepulchre outside Marseilles began to exude perfume.  Soon clerics announced that the relics taken north had been false ones.  The Magdalene’s true bones had never left the place.  For a time there were two shrines to the Magdalene.  But she lost Burgundy, or won the South.  The official relics are down by the Mediterranean in whose crypt is the famous Neo-gothic reliquary...” (Munro).  Today in the Western world, Mary Magdalene’s name is chiefly remembered in association with shrines to her at most of the above-mentioned French towns (as well as places like Rennes-le-Chāteau and La Sainte Baume), and a number of French churches are termed “la Madeleine” in her memory (though the number of French churches dedicated to “Notre Dame,” that is, Mother Mary, dwarf the number of “Madeleine” churches).  “Madeleine” is also a name occasionally given to female children, the majority of whom probably grow up never knowing just how favored by Jesus their ancient namesake might have really been.

 

The present-day feminists who eschew Mother Mary as a role model because of what they consider to be her “asexual, passive” nature may wish to believe the gnostic literature concerning Mary Magdalene and look to her as a more attractive role model.  Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, a leading Catholic feminist theologian (and author of the especially significant book, In Memory of Her: A Feminist Theological Reconstruction of Christian Origins), has done much to develop Mary Magdalene as a role model for contemporary women who are looking to reclaim the original egalitarian Christianity and the power of the female therein, and numerous other books have arisen since then in praise of the Magdalene.  (And as we will see in a later chapter, Rev. Rosa Miller of Palo Alto, California, has founded a very “non-mainstream” spiritual group, Ecclesia Gnostica Mysterium, based on her alleged meetings with a European lineage descended from Mary Magdalene; Rev. Miller is now ordaining priests in her gnostic-oriented “Mary Magdalene Order.”) [30] 

 

In addition to Mary Magdalene, other women figure as companions and disciples of Jesus, as we have learned:  Mary the wife of Cleophas, Mary the mother of James, Martha and Mary of Bethany (the sisters of Lazarus), Joanna, Susanna and Salome.  From passages in Luke 8:2 and Matt. 27: 55-6 it appears that these women served Jesus, gave their own wealth to support him and his male disciples, hosted him and his group in their homes, had significant amounts of time with him, and were taught by him.  Several of these women are said to have been with Mary Magdalene on the occasion(s) when she saw Jesus in his resurrected state after the crucifixion (the accounts conflict as to who was actually there—Mary Magdalene is the only one consistently mentioned; again, remember that most biblical scholars today, for various reasons, do not even accept as factual a physical resurrection). 

 

Why do we not hear more about these women disciples around Jesus? An unfortunate feature of Jewish narrative is to mention the number of men but not the number of women present on an occasion.  Thus, for instance, we hear that Jesus miraculously multiplied food to feed “four thousand men, besides women and children” (Matt. 15:38).  Hence it is most likely that the term “twelve apostles” does not mean that Jesus had no female apostles, it simply suggests that there were twelve male apostles and, in addition, an unspecified number of female apostles.  Here we should be aware that tradition distinguishes between “disciples” or followers of Jesus, and “apostles,” or messengers whom Jesus instructed more deeply and then sent out to spread his teachings about the kingdom of the Father.  But the terms can easily get confused; for instance, Luke chapter 10 speaks of seventy disciples being sent out to preach and heal.  And the (twelve) “apostles” are sometimes referred to as “disciples” (e.g., Mat. 25:56, 28:7, John 13:5, and so on).  Thus, patriarchal Christianity’s practice of distinguishing between the twelve male “apostles” and a broader number of “disciples” seems to be based upon an artificial distinction of later times imposed retrospectively by bishops and popes to justify male lines of spiritual authority. 

 

From the gospel accounts it seems quite reasonable to suppose that women apostles/disciples were with Jesus, they just were not included in the masculine designation “twelve apostles.”  Nunnally-Cox states:  “It should not be surprising, then, that women disciples[/apostles] of Jesus were continually present, but not numbered.  Certainly Mary [Magdalene], Martha, Mary [of Bethany], Susanna, and Joanna were among the inner circle.”  And from the Gospel of Mark (6:3) we know that Jesus had at least two sisters, who may have also been his students, given that at least two of his brothers (James and Jude) were among his male companions. [31]

 

At the time of Jesus, the prevailing Jewish climate was one wherein women—along with the sick and disfigured—were despised.  But Jesus, as mentioned earlier, treats women (and the sick and other marginalized persons) with great respect, and, indeed, violates many Jewish customs by speaking to them publicly, teaching them, healing them (often by touching them), disregarding the menstruation taboo, and honoring them.  Nunnally-Cox and other feminist New Testament scholars (Fiorenza, Arlene Swidler, et al) have insightfully analyzed the cases of 1) the woman with the hemorrhage (thus an “unclean outcast”) who is healed and then publicly addressed by Jesus; 2) the Syrophoenician woman who wins Jesus over with her repartee and “great faith”; 3) the prostitute who annoints Jesus’ feet and whose “sins are forgiven” by him (this woman is confused with Mary Magdalene in the minds of many Christians); 4) Mary of Bethany, who receives spiritual teachings from Jesus and also approval for leaving her householder duties to her sister Martha; 5) the bent-over woman with whom Jesus associates in the temple (defying laws of sex-segregation) and whom he heals, though it is the sabbath day (an offence punishable by death), and whom he then addresses as “daughter of Abraham” (a respectful term not used for addressing women in those days); 6) the adulterous woman, whom Jesus forgives in an unprecedented and “unlawful” manner; and 7) the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well whom Jesus teaches and who comes to revere Jesus as the Christ; she then becomes Jesus’ emissary among the Samaritans (considered inferiors by the Jews); she is the first to acknowledge Jesus as “the Christ.”  (The Eastern Orthodox hagiographers would name her “Photeine” and significantly develop her story, claiming that she later began a fruitful missionary career of preaching and baptizing.)

 

In all these cases, Jesus treats women like no Jewish rabbi has ever done, showing them great regard and compassion.  Nunnally-Cox declares:  “Never in the gospels does Jesus speak disparagingly of a woman, nor is there the slightest hint that woman is somehow less than man.” [32]  Of course, this egalitarian attitude has been almost completely erased by the male patriarchs of Christianity since then, as we shall see. It is noteworthy for our purposes that, among the throng of disciples (the “120”) onto whom the Holy Spirit was poured out by God at that massive Grace-dispensation known as Pentecost (fifty days after Jesus’ crucifixion, and soon after his being lifted up into a heavenly “cloud”), many women, including Mother Mary and “the women” from Galilee, were present who were infused with the Spirit, just as the Jewish prophet Joel had foretold that the Spirit of God would be poured out upon all flesh, “and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy.” (Joel 2:28)

 

In that important scriptural work on the early Christian community, the Acts of the Apostles—unfortunately skewed in its coverage toward the work of Peter, John, Philip, Stephen and Paul—and in some of the Epistles of Paul, we cannot help but notice that women enjoy power and prestige in the early church.  Sadly, this power and prestige that would not last uncontested for more than a few decades, and would be completely extinguished by the year 200 (though in later centuries women as abbesses would have considerable influence—see below).  Scholars who have closely studied the Acts and the authentic, early epistles of Paul, have noted that in the earliest form of the Church revealed by these documents women were full members, not excluded in the way Jewish women had been excluded from their religion.  Christian women and men met together as a congregation and prayed together—there were no separate courts as in the Jewish temples; women were involved with liturgical functioning as deacons and even as priests, equal in status to males (note: the ordaining of priests, and only males at that, would be a practice not seen until at least the end of the first century, according to most scholars); women taught and prophesied and in various ways served as “co-workers in the Lord”; and all of the assemblies of Christian communities mentioned in the Acts and in the epistles of Paul were hosted by women in their homes, such women enacting a kind of “pastor” or “shepherd” spiritual director role, a function not much seen in Judaism previous to this time.

 

Women’s hosting function, explains Nunnally-Cox, implies that they were usually heading these households, and, in the absence of a noted apostle or visiting person of importance, they were undoubtedly assuming a leadership role in the liturgy, even breaking the sacramental bread and blessing the cup of wine, as Jesus had done, and in other ways performing the role of a presbitera (female priest).  Joan Morris states that we cannot conclude that women of menstrual age were allowed to consecrate the Eucharist, though they may have done so at burial services.  In any case, the respected archaeologist and theologian, Dorothy Irvin, and linguist Joan Morris have in their investigations made some stunning finds of frescos, mosaics, and inscriptions indicating that some women were ordained and functioned as priests and even bishops (episcopas) in the early church, such as Theodora Episcopa of the Church of St. Praxedis in Rome.  This is, of course, an eye-opening discovery. [33]  (We shall treat the issue of women’s ordination to the priesthood in subsequent pages herein.)

 

Rev. Nunnally-Cox is one of a number of writers to examine the prominent status of women in the early church; she discusses the cases of: 1) Tabitha, a follower of Jesus (curiously, the only exemplar of the feminine form of the word for “disciple” in the New Testament), “full of good works and acts of charity” (Acts 9:36, 37a); Tabitha is considered so important that when she suddenly falls ill and dies, Peter is summoned to her side whereupon he resurrects her (she is the only New Testament person to be resurrected by a disciple of Jesus); 2) Mary, the mother of Mark, who is hosting a large group of praying Christians in her home when Peter escapes from prison (Acts 12:12); 3) Lydia, the first European convert (Acts, ch. 16), an evidently unmarried woman whose house becomes a meeting place for the other new believers in Philippi; being the head of the household, she undoubtedly took up the role of presbitera, as outlined above; 4) Priscilla of Corinth, who is mentioned six times in the New Testament, along with her husband Aquila (her name preceding his four of the six times); with her husband, Priscilla hosts the church of Corinth, corrects an eloquent Christian orator on the contents of his speech, and travels with Paul to Ephesus as his “fellow worker in Christ” (Paul publicly gives thanks to her and Aquila, and, moreover, calls Priscilla by the affectionate name, “Prisca,” indicating his regard for her); Tertullian also mentions Prisca as a preacher of the gospel, and one of the oldest catacombs is evidently named after this Priscilla—in fact, a fresco therein, depicting some women celebrating the Eucharist, may be showing her as one of the celebrants; 5) the four unmarried daughters of the evangelist Philip, who are esteemed prophetesses and charismatic (“gifted”) preachers living at Caesarea and later Hieropolis, according to both the Acts (21:8,9) and a document by the early 3rd century historian, Gaius (the Eastern Orthodox Church names the most important daughter Hermione, and says that she and at least one sister had their ministry at Ephesus); 6) Euodia and Syntyche, of Philippi, of whom Paul reports, “they have labored side by side with me in the gospel together with Clement and the rest of my fellow workers” (Philippians 4:3); 7) Phoebe, a deacon of the church at Cenchreae, later a messenger to the church of Ephesus (Romans 16:1,2), whom Paul refers to as “sister,” “saint” and “helper of many and of myself.”  Arlene and Leonard Swidler have gone further in analyzing the case of Phoebe:

“For Paul, Phoebe was a woman deacon, not a deaconness (diakonon, not diakonissa, Rom. 16:2) and a ruler (prostatis—nowhere in Greek literature does this word mean anything like ‘helper,’ as it usually is translated here) over many and even [over] Paul himself (Rom. 16:2; see the Greek rather than the translations).” [Emphasis added] [34]

 

Numerous other women were especially greeted by Paul in his epistles, such as Mary, Tryphaena, Persis, Julia, Olympas and Nereus’ sister (Romans 16:6,12,15).  And we also find out that St. John, in his second epistle, refers to two different “elect ladies” who, according to Joan Morris, are undoubtedly functioning as overseers of churches, that is, as episcopa or “bishops.” 

 

The entire matter is summed up by Rev. Nunnally-Cox: “The life and ministry of Jesus, then, had great impact on the early community of followers. Women are now functioning as leaders, preachers, prophets, teachers, deacons, presbyters, and co-workers in the Lord.  [Jewish and Graeco-Roman] foundations are shaken, customs shattered.” [35]

 

But not for long.  Whereas in one of Paul’s early letters he declares a policy of spiritual (if not social) equality, “There is no male and female, but you are all one person in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28), reminiscent of the egalitarian “Priestly” account of creation in Genesis (1:26a, 27, 28a)—in his later writings, when the young church at Corinth begins to incur some problems, Paul shows signs of reverting toward the old Jewish denigration of women in religious matters—we must remember here that Paul was educated by the famous Jewish rabbi, Gamaliel, before becoming a Christian (thus we need not necessarily accept a recently proposed view that because Paul showed this occasional negative attitude toward women he was a “closet” homosexual).  Thus, a subsequent letter of Paul, to the Corinthians, begins to contradict his earlier-expressed appreciation for women and their equality with men.  He brings in the ancient, sexist “Yahwist” account of creation in Genesis (wherein Eve is said to come from Adam’s rib), and he declares that women should cover their heads when praying or prophesying (I Cor. 11:5,7)—though notice that he is still saying that women can pray and prophesy.  The epistle First Corinthians, 14:34-35 then goes so far as to state the policy that prevailed in Jewish temples:

“…women should keep silence ... for they are not permitted to speak, but they should be subordinate, as even the [Jewish] law says.  If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.” 

 

For various reasons articulated by New Testament scholars, we can be certain that this last passage—which has been utilized so often by male Christian patriarchs since then to justify their silencing of women—is an interpolation by a later author, perhaps a disciple of Paul, “a marginal note of an irritated scribe” upholding the chauvinist views of the masculine version of the clerical church which was emerging and which would completely triumph by the end of the second century.

 

Later “Pauline” letters, such as Colossians, Ephesians, and the Pastoral letters (Titus, I Timothy, II Timothy) are most likely not authored by Paul at all, but by someone (or a group of persons) who wishes to invoke the authority of his name (this is certainly‚ true of the Pastoral letters).  (In fact, Paul had complained in his own lifetime that his name was being forged and added to letters not written by him.)  These “Pauline” letters contain statements maintaining that “[wives should] be subject in everything to their husbands” (Eph. 5:24, also, Col. 3:18 and Titus 2:5), and culminate in the old Jewish attitude which we saw in the gloss of I Cor. 14:34-5:  “Let a woman learn in silence with all submissiveness.  I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over men.  She is to keep silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived.” (I Timothy, 2:12; and notice the use of the Yahwist version of creation).  The book of I Peter, written about the same time as pseudo-Paul’s pastoral letters to Timothy and Titus, and also not really authored by the apostle Peter, upholds the same disempowering view of women. 

 

As Elsie Thomas Culver notes, “these are the first general attacks on women in the Church of which we have record.” [36]  They were being written sometime near the end of the first century or into the second century of the Common Era.

 

Of course, these sexist remarks were quite different from the attitudes of Jesus and the early church; they were introduced as a “domestic, household code” so as to bring social order into the church which had, in its first two decades, done so much to upset the customs of the times.  Thus, with Jesus and Paul gone, Christian women were no longer seen to be equal to Christian men.  And soon Christian women would be relegated to almost the same status in their religion as Jewish women in theirs.  Elaine Pagels tells the sorry tale:

 

“By the year 200, the majority of Christian communities endorsed as canonical the pseudo-Pauline letter of Timothy, which stresses (and exaggerates) the anti-feminist element in Paul’s [later] views...  Orthodox Christians also accepted as Pauline the letters to the Colossians and to the Ephesians [and I Peter]... While in earlier times Christian men and women sat together for worship, in the middle of the second century—precisely at the time of struggle with gnostic Christians [who valued women]—orthodox communities began to adopt the synagogue custom, segregating women from men.  By the end of the second century, women’s participation in worship was explicitly condemned: groups in which women continued on to leadership [especially Gnostic Christian groups] were branded as heretical.” [37]

 

Rev. Elsie Culver remarks:

“The [Christian] women appear to have been too busy spreading the Gospel to put up much of a protest against being gradually relegated to an ineffective and unchallenging position within the structure of the Church.  In the famous Council of Nicea ([year:] 325) they apparently had no part at all... self-abnegation rather than self-assertion is the recognized ideal of the Christian of these first centuries.  If any woman raised a voice of protest, the story has not come down to us.  But then neither have we often heard the women of the twentieth century protesting that there are so few women at the policy level of our great denominations, or in the presidium or central committee of the World Council of Churches.  And the longer the negative trend goes on, the more precedent there is, and the harder it is to make the correction which is ultimately inevitable. But whether they were allowed at Church councils or not, women went right on having a most significant part in the growth and formation of the character of the new religion.” [38]

 

 

Culver mentions that the correction of the problem of androcentrism is “ultimately inevitable,” and so it should be, for, as Virginia Ramey Mollenkott has declared, “The demon of sexism must be exorcized from the modern Christian community.”  A most terrible demon this is, which has so viciously undermined women’s status in Christianity over the many centuries!

 

The Greek and Latin Church Fathers of the late 2nd to 5th centuries of the common era, such as Tertullian, Jerome, Origen, Epiphanius, and Augustine, perhaps because of their own “incomplete sexuality,” clearly opted for the Yahwist, sexist account of creation, and, in identifying all women with the fallen Eve, came out with especially harsh, incredibly demeaning statements against women, thus helping invoke and install that “demon of sexism.”  (Church Father Clement of Alexandria was one of the exceptions here, clearly taking a stand for female equality.)  Though these Church Fathers would sometimes show evidence of being quite favorable toward women, and would uphold the notion that women were as eligible as males to gain salvation, nevertheless they let slip some unconscionable statements regarding women, speaking of them as “lowly,” “inferior,” “weak,” mere “flesh,” “without much understanding,” “easily seduced,” “the devil’s gateway,” “sin-laden hussies,” and “muddled spirit”: “The man is created in the image of God, but not the woman.” [39]  Rev. Nunnally-Cox asks,

“Where did this dualism come from?  Flesh and sin [versus] spirit and purity.  This seems to be a Greek notion that the Fathers interpolated and adapted into the Christian view of woman.  ... Women were mostly valued as virgins, widows, and ascetics.  Beyond that, the negative attitude prevailed. ... One thing is clear: they [the church Fathers] had lost the vision of the early church.  Quite simply, they had lost sight of Jesus. ... [And] woman was, from the second century on, back where she began.” [40]      

 

So just as scholars have shown that the mind-set of Hellenistic Jews and Greeks distorted the view of Jesus’ nature, turning him into the physically resurrected, eternal Son of the Father, the second person of a Trinity, someone so “special” as to be virtually beyond emulation by his fellow humans, the same mindset which had crept into Christianity also was at work to denigrate every woman except Mary “Theotokos” and thereby demote one half of the human race!

 

Along this line, there is the shocking tale of misogyny concerning an early 5th century woman, Hypatia, known for her “great eloquence, rare modesty, and beauty,” who also happened to be the most celebrated non-Christian mathematician and philosopher of the Alexandrian Neoplatonic school (which advocated a mystical oneness with the transcendental God). Hypatia attracted many students and opposed Cyril, the authoritarian Church Father.  One day some Christian monks “dragged her from her chariot into a Christian church, stripped her naked, cut her throat, and burned her piecemeal.”  Cyril was obviously complicit in the entire matter, indirectly if not directly. [41]

 

Such were the atrocities occurring in the battle between “orthodox,” institutional, clerical/episcopal Christianity and anyone or any group who were perceived as a threat to this institution.  On a less graphic, but actually no less horrific level, is the fact that from the second century on, as Pagels and Nunnally-Cox explain, ideas which tended to oppose or impede the institutional church came to be called “heretical,” while ideas which implicitly supported the development of the institutional church came to be called “orthodox.”  (And Pagels has further uncovered how views which were at one time “orthodox” could later become “heretical,” given shifting concerns of the male hierarchy in power.)  Gnosticism, featuring occasional female leadership and celebration of the feminine as divine wisdom (sophia) (but, on the downside, also featuring a fairly gloomy, heavily dualistic view of creation) was regarded as heresy, and thus its women were either condemned as heretics for not giving up their leadership roles or else forced to adopt more “acceptable” and subordinate positions in the institutional church.  A different kind of group were the popular, prophetic, charismatic, early Christian communities, such as the Montanists of the late 2nd to 4th centuries.  This latter group, founded by Montanus, featured two women, Maximilla and Priscilla, as leading prophetesses.  Such popular charismatic movements based themselves on the earlier, authentic Pauline epistles and Acts of the Apostles, and such works as the Acts of Paul and Thecla.  Some of these groups were apparently not suppressed as heretical in the same manner suffered by the Gnostics and Montanists, but they do not seem to have survived, either.  Yet the spirit of these groups came to life again in the form of similar kinds of groups in the Middle Ages, and is happening again today in the Charismatic movement, and in the Women-Church movement, as we shall learn further in these pages.

 

Various factors were at work to undermine the status women enjoyed in the early church:  1) a rigid, all-pervasive patriarchal society to which Christians naturally gravitated after the revolutionary ideas of Jesus had begun to wear off; 2) the need for organizational structures in the church as time went on, which were easily patterned after the familiar societal structures of ancient Greco-Roman society (wherein women were almost entirely excluded from political life—note that later Greco-Roman society allowed women more opportunities in the civic realm); 3) dualistic Greek notions of evil matter versus pure spirit, women being identified with the former, men with the latter; 4) fear of or suspicion toward rival Goddess religions (such as the cult of Isis, visible until 560 C.E.) in which women were rumored as being sexually active and promiscuous, leading to a prejudice against women serving as priestesses in Christianity [—quite ironic, since numerous male priests over the centuries have carried on sexually with women or with other men]; 5) a rivalry with the Mithraic religion, which was extremely male-oriented; 6) an absorption of the preaching ministry into the office of presbyter, which in turn merged with the office of bishop, with this office in turn eventually becoming identified with the Old Testament model of levitical high priesthood, a strictly male occupation; 7) the old Jewish idea of the uncleanliness of women during menstruation suggesting that women would “defile” the Eucharistic altar; and last, but perhaps not least, 8) a deep-seated realization by males that women, with their gentleness, nurturing qualities, and manual dexterity in preparing food, may be more naturally suited for the priesthood role than men! [42]

 

In the above paragraph the Greco-Roman policy of excluding women from political circles has been mentioned.  Arlene and Leonard Swidler, have commented upon the notion often expressed by (male) Church authorities that, despite institutional Christianity’s non-egalitarian policy toward women, the Church nevertheless raised the status of women in comparison to the Greco-Roman world:

“Christian scholars usually described the status of women in the Greco-Roman world into which Christianity was born as extremely low and depraved.  This was a difficult feat to accomplish for it was clear from an abundance of documents that many women in the Hellenistic and imperial Roman world were quite unrestricted in many facets of private, social, economic and religious life:  they could marry or divorce as they decided, mix freely in society, own and inherit property as a man did, take leading, indeed, priestly, roles in religion.  But this difficulty was usually overcome by modern Christian scholars with a double attack:  On the one hand the Greco-Roman freedom for women was depicted not as something good, or even as a mixed value, but as an essentially evil kind of licentiousness that was leading women, and men and the world, to perdition. ... On the other hand these modern Christian scholars almost inevitably, and paradoxically, also brought forth documentation to show how restricted and unfree a status women had in the Greco-Roman world.  Unfortunately, for their argument, all of this documentation concerns the Rome of two or three hundred years before Christ and the Greece of four or five hundred years B.C.  The historical facts are that an ever-growing women’s liberation movement in the Greek world from around 300 B.C. onward continued to deepen and broaden almost until the demise of the Roman empire in the West—that is, until the public triumph of Christianity; the status of women went into severe decline thereafter.  Thus, in reality, Christianity (but not Jesus) heralded not a raising but a lowering of the status of women, and in many ways significantly contributed to that decline.” [43]

 

By the year 200 C.E., women were actively suppressed and precluded from leadership roles and many forms of participation in the “victorious church.”  In a passage worth quoting at length, esteemed feminist theologian Rosemary Radford Ruether provides illuminating insights about what had now happened with Christianity in contrast to what it had originally been when it was nothing more than the charismatic Jewish group following Jesus:


“The history of Christianity is a history of continual tension and conflict between two models of church: church as spirit-filled community and church as historical institution. ... Christianity began as a spirit-filled messianic sect within historical Judaism.  Jesus and the earliest disciples did not envision a break with Judaism but saw themselves as a renewal movement within Judaism, restoring prophetic Judaism and revealing the Israel of messianic times. Therefore they did not attempt to create a separate historical institution, much less a separate historical religion. ... The models of early Christian ministry were charismatic.  They were based on the belief that the spirit of prophecy restored in messianic times was present in their midst, manifest through powers of ecstatic revelation, exorcism, and healing.  These early charismatic concepts of ministry ... included women, first, because a ministry of charismatic gifts by definition affirms spiritual talents directly, rather than mediating them through appropriate leadership dictated by gender or other established social hierarchies.  Second, early Christians apparently believed that the subordination of women was related to a procreative familial order in history that was being transcended in a messianic age. ... Traditional hierarchies of the family could now be dissolved, and women could enter into the new covenant as equals with men.

      “By the late first century, a post-Pauline Christianity had begun to develop that drew on the traditional leadership pattern of the synagogue.  It constructed a congregational ministry based on a hierarchy of presider (bishop), elders, deacons, and deaconesses.  This nascent episcopal Christianity consciously affirmed the patriarchal family order as its model of the church and accounted those men worthy to serve as ministers who had proved themselves responsible as a pater familias.  This type of patriarchal Paulinism set out to repress earlier inclusion of women in the ministry, which it associated with antifamiliasm. By the late second century, the episcopal model of leadership had developed into an urban hierarchy in which the bishop became the presiding pastor at the major congregation of the city and also supervised daughter congregations led by presbyters or elders.  This pattern of episcopal hierarchy would expand in the next two centuries into provincial and then imperial forms by which presiding bishops at major sees would supervise bishops and elders under him ... [eventuating in] the presiding bishop of Rome claiming to be the spiritual counterpart of the emperor. In the second and third centuries, this evolving episcopal Christianity engaged in hostile conflict and suppression of the remaining expressions of charismatic, prophetic, and millennialist Christianity.  ... Episcopal Christianity developed a theory [an invalid one] of historical legitimacy based on the myth that the twelve [male] apostles of Jesus were the first bishops and the founders of the leading episcopal sees.  Bishops, in turn, owed their legitimacy to continuous historical succession from the founding apostle-bishops.  This historical myth of legitimcay justified the right of episcopal Christianity to claim to be the heir of the original or ‘apostolic’ Christianity.  It allowed episcopal Christianity to drive out the representatives of charismatic Christianity represented by Montanists and also, to some extent, by Gnostics. [44]

 

Dr. Ruether goes on to point out that the culmination of this trend of increasingly dominant “episcopal” Christianity came in the middle of the 3rd century with Cyprian’s decision that bishops, not charismatic confessors of the faith (nor consecrated virgins) had the right to forgive sins and to decide who was in communion with Christ and who was not.  Rev. Nunnally-Cox has summed up the ramifications of all this as far as women are concerned:  

“Something went amiss ... women no longer taught and preached and prophesied and presided.  Instead, they became virgins or martyrs or honored widows; they instructed the young and kept their silence. ... The vision of Jesus was lost.” [45] 

 

But the women of the earliest church who served as apostles, prophetesses, deacons, priests, and bishops clearly had an important role, as documented in the early Christian writings and in some primitive Christian art-works and inscriptions.  Though they have been completely forgotten by the church from the end of the second century onward, their memory is being resurrected in recent decades by women such as Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, Joan Morris, Elsie Thomas Culver, Arlene Swidler, Elaine Pagels, Elisabeth Tetlow, Evelyn Stagg, Dorothy Irvin, Elizabeth Clark, Eva Catafygiotu Topping, Janice Nunnally-Cox, and others (including some feminist male historians). [46] 

 

It is to be sincerely hoped that our female exemplars of early Christianity never again be forgotten, but rather come to life again as efficacious role models of sanctity for Christian women (and men) of today.

 

At this point we may pause to learn of a highly notable archeological find regarding the feminine element in early Christianity, as reported by Rev. Elsie Thomas Culver: 

“One of the most persistent symbols found in the catacombs is a volatile little figure—always feminine—which appears on the tombs of both men and women.  She is referred to as the Orans, or ‘praying one,’ and seems to represent the soul of the departed (man or woman) probably praying for those who remain.  At first the praying ones were often Biblical figures—Noah, Moses, and Daniel were favorites.  However, the Christian tombs of the first four centuries show some 150 of these unidentified little female figures, with the arms outstretched to the sides, forearms raised parallel to the body, the fingers spread wide, as if receiving power from an unseen source.  Often the figures appear in association with Jesus as the Good Shepherd.  In one case there are twin Orante.  Scholars frankly admit they do not really know the significance of the Orante, but for the early Christians ... the Orans must have had very special meaning.  Some writers have identified the Orans as the Virgin Mother.  Another suggestion is that she represents the Holy Spirit ... [giving] plausibility to the suggestion that the Holy Spirit was, in the first century, considered the feminine element in the Trinity by the Roman Christians.  Or does the Orans represent the Church, likewise referred to by the feminine pronoun?  At any rate, why was practically all record of this popular and apparently very significant symbol lost?  Was that her penalty for being feminine?” [47]


In schools of Christian theology one is constrained to read extensively from the “Church Fathers” on the matters of theological doctrine and church polity which they developed from the second century onward.  Of this time period, we hear nothing in institutional Christianity about any “Church Mothers” who helped develop Christian doctrine.  The reasons are not hard to find:  an ever-more-dominant “apostolic” (male) episcopal Christianity, and a growing suppression of women thereby, added to the fact that few Christian women were really provided with a high class education. 

 

On the brighter side, feminist scholars have pointed out how in early Christianity women could be ordained deacons, evidently fully equal to male deacons.  Deacons (male and female), as Rev. Culver tells us, “visited the sick [bringing to them the sacraments], gave consolation to the bereaved, made arrangements for funerals and baptisms, cared for orphans, secured financial aid for those who lost their employment or found themselves in other difficulties because they had joined the Christian group.”  Not until the third century was there any distinction between a deacon and a deaconess.  “After the third century,” Leonard and Arlene Swidler report, “women could [only] be deaconesses (diakonissa), a Holy Order lesser in status than that of the male deacon.  By the early middle ages even this Holy Order was lost to women in the West.”  In the latter part of this century it has once again been re-instated in certain non-Catholic denominations of western Christianity.  Curiously, in the Eastern Orthodox Church, the Holy Spirit was referred to as feminine and was identified with the work of deaconesses, though the position of deaconess was also eventually terminated. [48]

 

Two other common forms of female involvement in the rapidly growing Christian Church were the “consecrated widows,” who served the Church as “intercessors,” helping bring more of God’s Spirit/blessing power into the community, via intense prayer and fasting, and who determined their own form of work, and “consecrated virgins,” young girls raised by the Christians as general assistants in a Christian community’s work.  The “virgin” function often became absorbed in the “widow” function, and then both these vocations would later disappear as distinct forms of religious life, absorbed into the formal religious monastic vocation of “nun.”  (Both the virgin and widow function have made a reappearance in the Roman Catholic Church in the latter 20th century, with the revision in the Roman Church’s canon law in 1983-4; several hundred women are now living this vocation.)     

 

Joan Morris details the fate of another group of women who were prominent in the Church of the 4th to 6th centuries—the canonesses, that is, the deaconesses living in community.  These canonesses served the cathedrals which arose out of the early Christian communities established in the houses of women (such cathedrals would not have been possible before 312, when Christianity was being intensely persecuted by the Romans).  The canonesses were elected and ordained, and their rule was written for them by the African bishop, Saint Augustine (d. 430) (a rule later adapted for male canons).  Canonesses were not separated from society (as were the religious orders of eremitical and cenobitic monks and nuns, and later “cloistered” nuns), but rather they functioned within society, and belonged either to 1) a Secular Canoness Institute, living in apartments with several other women, taking no vows, not eating communally, and getting paid a salary, ruled over by an archdeaconess; or 2) a Regular Canoness Institute, wherein they lived together in a single house, taking meals in common, teaching religion to women, running schools, caring for the sick, baptizing, and celebrating the Divine Office.  The Canoness Institutes and the religious orders of unordained women ascetics/monastics would become amalgamated in later times when monks and abbesses presiding over large communities of ascetics/monastics began to found churches. [49]

 

For a time, especially from the 4th century onward, women with a religious calling could take up life in one of the monasteries or spiritual communities in the Middle East or in Europe, such as those directed by the “Desert Ammas” and women like Paula, Melania, Macrina, et al (see below).

 

It is important to hear from Rev. Culver and other scholars that many of these female spiritual communities/monasteries, especially the ones in Europe, were, unlike the convents of a subsequent age, not isolated and strictly cloistered, but were busy and active units of society with their own economy and an outward thrust of service to the people in the region.  Some of the monasteries did eventually become somewhat lax in the quality of spiritual life, and this, along with an increasing emphasis on celibacy in priests, made it more “desirable” for men to have canonesses and women religious cloistered away like the purely contemplative orders, “no longer ... required to function in parishes or cathedrals [in service work to the community] but only in their own private chapels or churches.”  This pressure by males to cloister women religious away and out of sight began as early as the sixth century, and within a relatively short time the female religious were so cloistered that a girl choosing vocations could only contemplate either “a husband or a wall” (aut maritus aut murus).  Breaking cloister could mean flogging, imposed fasting, or excommunication.  In later, counter-Reformation times (16th century on), and up until the dawn of the 20th century, several religious orders of women (e.g., the Ursulines) which sprang up to render service to the needy, that is, to be active in the larger community, were fairly rapidly turned into cloistered orders by certain male authorities. Any groups of women who wished to perform this kind of service work were therefore compelled to refrain from becoming nuns. Happily, after the 14th century, many of these women found that they could became vow-taking tertiaries, laymembers of “third orders,” though even a number of these became enclosed in cloistered societies.  Then, in 1633, Saints Vincent de Paul and Louise de Marillac succeeded in starting up a lasting congregation of active sisters, the Daughters of Charity, a form of organization which was duplicated afterwards in hundreds of other similar congregations. [50]     

 

Returning to the topic of Christian women of the early period, we find that the women of the young church who are primarily remembered today by mainstream Christianity are not the priests, preachers, deacons, canonesses, consecrated widows, virgins, ascetics (and “Desert Mothers”—see below), but those women who heroically upheld the Christian faith by dying for it and thus becoming “martyrs.”  This may indicate that to the orthodox (male) Christian mentality women are considered more holy in the act of dying than in living!  The fact is that martyrs, male or female, were the first Christians to be especially revered as sancti, or saints—for they had imitated Christ in obeying the Father “unto death.”  Beginning with St. Stephen, the first martyr, the earliest Christian “saints,” such as Peter and Paul, James and John, et al, were considered to be sanctified not because of the quality of their lives but because they died rather than deny Christ.  In any case, prominent early female martyrs include Blandina, the slave girl of Lyons (d. 177); the five women among the Scillitan martyrs, put to death at Carthage in 180; virgins Marcella and Potamiaena of Alexandria (d. 202); Perpetua, a young Roman mother, and her friend, the pregnant maidservant, Felicity (d. 202/203); the aged deaconess Apollonia of Alexandria (d. 249); the 12-year-old Eulalia of Spain (d. c.304); Crispina, an upper-class married woman and mother in Numidia; Lucy of Syracuse, Sicily; and the little girl Agnes of Rome (all martyred around the year 304), as well as many, many others (some of these we shall mention in our section on the Eastern Orthodox Church).  All of these women and girls, along with the male martyrs, would have shrines built at the site of the deposition of their relics, become the focus for local or widespread cults venerating them as saints, and would have their dies natalis (heavenly birthday, i.e., the date of their martyrdom) inscribed on the emerging Christian calendar and celebrated as a “feast day.”

 

Not much is known about these women and girls, except that they were courageous, unswerving in their faith, and often quite compassionate (on the other hand, some of these martyrs seem to be, in the telling, rather strident and harshly denigrating of the pagan religions).  In a few cases, such as Perpetua and Felicity, the Roman notary’s actual transcript of the dialogue between the magistrate and the accused became available to local churches and preserved in the hagiographies.  Some martyrs, such as Potamiaena, appeared in visions to people after her death, converting them to Christianity.  Significantly, though, even when in later times the notion of a “saint” began to include a) the “confessors” who had survived or escaped would-be martyrdom after standing up for their faith, b) various holy bishops, theologians and kings, and c) the renunciate virgins (male and female), including the anchorites of the Egyptian, Syrian and Palestinian deserts who subjected themselves to a lifelong “martyrdom” by renouncing or “dying to” the security, comforts, and pleasures of this world—the “woman-as-martyr” became a far more acceptable role (a rather masculine role) in the minds of Church Fathers and historians than the earlier woman-as-priest / deacon / bishop / prophetess / pastor who threatened male control of ecclesiastical offices and church doctrine.  The female (and male) confessors, as we have learned, would be relegated to a status inferior to that of the patriarchal bishops.  And among the saintly virgins/anchorites of the desert, we shall learn in a few pages that only the saintly “Desert Fathers” would really be remembered by posterity.

 

An interesting conflict between male and female power occurred in the early church in the following way:  it was usually wealthy Roman noblewomen converts who were the patrons funding and supporting the building of the large shrines and churches which began to grow up over the gravesites of the martyrs and became the most popular meeting places for Christians to worship.  These women, therefore, materially helped the “intercessory power of the locally entombed saint” to rival the power of the bishop as the regional “spiritual authority.”

 

On the subject of martyrs, it is curious to see how a number of legends, evidently pure fiction, grew up in the romantically-oriented middle ages over martyrs such as Agatha, Barbara, Dympna, Euphemia, Faith, Julitta, Justina, Katherine, Margaret, Susan, Tatiana, Thais, Ursula, Viviana, Philomena, and others.  Some of these women have been verified as actually having lived, but there are no reliable details about their lives.  In a number of these legends, the theme is identical: a young, beautiful maiden heroically preserves her virginity and her faith in the face of a pagan, lusting, violent male, or group of males.  (We have seen similar stories about certain women saints of India, though they were not usually put to death, but sometimes voluntarily gave up the spirit.)  It seems that, at least by the early medieval period of Christianity, there was a need among the clergy and the masses of people for venerating holy females of the heroically chaste, “young maiden-martyr” type.  This romantic figure of the woman victim is, of course, a symbol of the helpless woman who still maintains her sense of personal power through her positive attitude and inner will to preserve her virginity (and her faith, which was often not the main issue), even when doing so would cost her own life.  Yet this same female martyr-figure may have been promoted by certain patriarchal bishops as an insidious way of “hyping” celibacy and denying women’s sexuality; in any case, the mass of the “faithful,” whose main interest seems to have been having heavenly friends with magical intercessory powers, venerated these virgin female martyrs with tremendous fervor.  Saintly married women role-models would be almost non-existent, since it was less clear in these circumstances just how much “renunciation” they had undergone, how “heroic” their virtue had been, and whether or not they dwelt in heaven with intercessory powers (of course, those women who equanimiously and lovingly endured the living “martyrdom” of dwelling with abusive husbands sometimes would become candidates for sainthood in later times if their valor and other “saintly qualities” were noted by others).

 

Indeed, female saints from the early Christian period other than the martyrs and the women companions of Jesus and Paul are neither very numerous nor much venerated or considered significant in our own day, especially by the Western Christian churches. 

 

One of the earliest and most outstanding—if she really even existed—is St. Thecla (1st century), who is considered a martyr, but she seems better categorized as a confessor, healer, and teacher.  Her legend (we are not even certain that she actually existed or carried out the exploits stated in The Acts of Paul and Thecla, an apocryphal work) states that she was born in Iconium in Asia Minor, and at age 18 she left her fiancé and mother to follow St. Paul, whom she had heard preaching.  The fiancé had Paul arrested, but Thecla, who by this point had baptized herself as a Christian, visited Paul and received teachings from him about the new Christian faith.  Thecla somehow escaped a martyrdom by fire instigated by her own intolerant mother, and later, after being accepted by Paul as a disciple, set out with him for Antioch.  Here she incurred the wrath of an important official, whose love for her Thecla rejected.  An alleged series of miracles, and the final intervention by Queen Tryphaena (an historical personage), saved Thecla from martyrdom by beasts in the amphitheatre, and took the young woman home to live with her.  Here crowds came daily to see and learn from Thecla about the faith; it was said that Thecla turned the Queen’s house into a church.  Eventually Thecla went south to Seleukia, where she lived as a hermit in a cave a mile outside the city.  Her tremendous holiness, virtues, and miracles attracted many followers, including a number of aristocratic women, some of whom renounced the world and under Thecla’s spiritual direction led the ideal Christian life of kenosis, self-denial, self-emptying, and ascesis.  (This may have been the first women’s Christian monastic community).  Thecla’s great abilities to heal and exorcise demons, performed without fee, aroused the wrath of the city’s physicians, who sent some ruffians to assault her.  It is said that Thecla, now ninety years old, saw a nearby rock open—she jumped into it and the rock closed.  Thus she is regarded by the (Eastern) Church as the “First Woman Martyr,” equating her with the proto-martyr, St. Stephen.  She is also given the titles “Apostle” and “Equal to the Apostles.”  (The Western church’s version of her story maintained that Thecla did not die in the Christian East, but came to Rome, where she died and was buried near to where St. Paul was buried.)  A cult quickly formed in her memory, and a shrine to Thecla over her alleged cave at Meriamlik, near Seleukia, became a major pilgrimage spot for Christians everywhere.  Many churches in her name sprang up over the Christian world.  Princesses and nuns would later christen themselves with her name.  And dozens of miracles were attributed to Thecla’s postmortem power of intercessory blessing. 

 

St. Hermione the Prophetess (1st cent.) is the name given by the Eastern Orthodox churches to one of the four daughters of the Apostle Philip,who all prophesied.  “Hermione” may have been the oldest, and seems to have been the most important.  Her legend states that she and her sister Eutychis came to Ephesus in search of St. John the Evangelist, but he had died and so they trained under Petronios, a disciple of Paul.  Here in Ephesus she began a long ministry of preaching, prophesying, and healing the ills of people’s bodies and souls.  Hermione’s tale, rather fanciful in parts, claims that she survived three attempted martyrdoms inflicted by two emperors, and that she died in peace, buried at Ephesus next to the two soldiers who had been ordered to execute her but who instead became her disciples.  St. Helen (c.255-330) was the British-born, humble-bred wife of emperor Constantius (who later deposed her in favor of another), and the mother of Constantine “the Great.”  Helen was known for her tireless promotion of Christianity after 312, her charitable service to the poor, and for her visit to Palestine (the Holy Land), where she venerated sites associated with Christ, oversaw the building of a magnificent church, and, so says the legend, helped find the wooden cross on which Christ was crucified (bits of this cross would subsequently be highly regarded as talismans of divine power and multiply across Europe to the point that some of them must have been quite inauthentic).  Helen’s daughter is said to have founded the first women’s cloister—this precedent would, of course, become a mixed blessing for women of later times who were severely limited by enclosure.  St. Publia (d. c.370) was a widow from a good family in Antioch who gathered some consecrated virgins and widows together in her house to lead the life of devotion to God and charity to the people.  She stood up to Emperor Julian the Apostate, who had her beaten and wanted to have her martyred, but he died first and so Publia and her female associates were spared. 

 

St. Nonna (d 374) was brought up a Christian, but married a Judaic-pagan, Gregory Nazianzus; Nonna converted him (he would later become a bishop and was esteemed as a saint), and raised three children—all of whom also were revered as saints—Gregory Nazianzen the Divine, Gorgonia (who died young, married, with three children), and Caesarius.  St. Macrina the Younger (c.330-79) was the eldest of ten children of St. Basil the Elder and St. Emmelia.  Born at Caesarea, Cappadocia, Macrina learned how to read from her mother, and studied the Scriptures.  When, at age 12, her betrothed died suddenly, she refused all other suitors and instead served as a second mother to the other children—who included subsequent saints Sts. Basil the Great, Peter of Sebastea, and Gregory of Nyssa.  From Macrina and Emmelia they learned the life of prayer and detachment from the world.  Basil in particular learned humility from his sister.  Basil (330-79) is usually considered to be the founder of the monastic tradition in the East, but it is now quite clear that he patterned his rule for cenobitic life on the community led by his sister:  Hubert van Zeller explains that Macrina founded a religious community which lived on its own manual labor on the family estate at Annesi in Pontus on the banks of the Iris; though Macrina drew up the rules for the community, training the sisters in detachment, poverty, and liturgical prayer, she did not become a nun herself until after the death of her mother, Emmilia, who had come to live there after the death of Basil the Elder.  Macrina evidently worked a number of healing miracles and other “sublime marvels,” according to her brother Gregory. 

 

St. Olympias (c.366 to before 419) of Constantinople, was a brave, charitable widow and a deaconess (ordained at the tender age of 30, though Church law indicated 60 years of age as the minimum).  The emperor at one point took away all of Olympias’ wealth when she refused to marry a relative of his; she thanked him for relieving her of this “responsibility,” whereupon he tried to “insult” her by returning it!—she then used it to buy and liberate hundreds of slaves, and rehabilitate ex-convicts and beggars.  Her palace, close to the Hagia Sophia cathedral, was a center of relief for Constantinople’s poor.  She also formed a monastic community which soon numbered 250 nuns, all leading a cloistered life. Here Olympias and her sisters led lives of much prayer, vigils, and praise and thanksgiving to God.  She was the supportive friend of the saintly bishop, John Chrysostom, and was highly appreciated by him.  He, in turn, was the only one ever allowed inside the walls of her community, and helped mentor her and the sisters.  She bravely defended him when his enemies brought him down, and was, like him, exiled from Constantinople, living out her life in Nicomedia. [51]     

 

What about women’s role among the fervent hermits and monastics of the deserts of Egypt, Palestine, Syria, and elsewhere from the early 4th century until the 7th century (when the Muslims invaded these areas and outlawed monasticism)?  These noble souls were attempting to move beyond the increasingly unfulfilling, routinized, institutional church in order to live that “charismatic” Christianity of earliest times and attain to a symbolic “martyrdom” and authentic God-realization via radical “purity of heart,” renunciation, and contemplative stillness and depth.  In this extremely powerful, charismatic, ascetic movement, we hear almost exclusively of the “Desert Abbas,” that is, the “Fathers”:  Saints Antony the Great, Paul the Hermit, Amoun, Pachomius, Hilarion, Makarios the Great, John of Lycopolis, Theodore the Sanctified, Sabas, et al.  But were there any “Desert Mothers”?  In the “alphabetical collection” and the “systematic sayings” of the classic work, Apophthegmata Patrum (Sayings of the [Desert] Fathers), there are a few passing, nonspecific references to “female ascetics,” “nuns,” “monasteries for virgins,” and the desert Ammas (“Mothers”) who guided them; yet only three Desert Mothers are featured by name (mainly in the “alphabetical collection”):  Amma Syncletica, Amma Sarah, and Amma Theodora

 

St. Syncletica (c.316-400), to whom the most wisdom-sayings (27) are attributed among these women, was born in Alexandria, Egypt, of wealthy parents.  She rejected her many suitors to focus her devotion on Lord Jesus, also engaging in many fasts and other mortifications.  When her parents died, she distributed the large inheritance among the poor, and retired with her sister to a sepulchral chamber on a relative’s property and lived the rest of her life in prayer and good works; many women would be drawn to her for her counsels.  “Humility compelled her to remain silent, but charity demanded that she speak,” and so she inspired people to realize the life of Christian perfection.  One of the earliest convents in Christianity is connected with her name.  In the last four years of her life she was afflicted with tremendous bodily suffering, lung disease and cancer of the mouth, much of it said to be from the devil, but she bore all this with exemplary courage and equanimity.  Of Amma Sarah, it is said that she struggled against the inner “demon of [desire for] fornication” for 13 years and finally won; for sixty years she lived beside a river at her skete (small monastery) of women in Libya without lifting her eyes to indulge in the beauty of it ¨—this is not the spirit of perfect panentheism of which we have spoken in an earlier chapter, but that exclusive transcendent theistic orientation toward God’s formless Essence alone.  Amma Theodora, a widow, who may have spent much of her life at the place she is said to have passed away—the monastery of Hesychas (in Thessalonica?)—was regarded as a miracle-worker and “one of the great women ascetics of the desert” (it is a shame that we don’t have more information on her peers, i.e., the other “great women ascetics”—but, in the words of Eva Catafygiotu Topping, “they lie buried in the Egyptian desert, forgotten and lost in the swirling sands of prejudice and time”).  It is said of Amma Theodora that “many monks” consulted her about monastic life, and of Amma Sarah that she also was visited by male ascetics who sought her counsel; indeed, Sarah said to the brothers on one occasion, “It is I who am a man [i.e., strong], you who are women [“submissive” or “weak”].” [52]  

 

Regarding this period of tremendous ascetic fervor midway through Christianity’s first millennium, we also hear that St. Anthony the Great (251-356), the first founder of colonies of desert-hermits, appointed his un-named sister to head a community for women which he inspired; and that Mary, the sister of St. Pachomius (d. 346), headed the cenobitic community for women which her brother founded—the first formal religious order for women—at Tabbenisi, Egypt, where Pachomius lived much of his life.  (The cenobitic, or monastic, tradition, first instituted by Pachomius, entailed ascetics gathering together under a rule and supporting each other’s spiritual quest—in contrast to the lone eremitic lifestyle or the informally grouped renunciates). 

 

A long-standing tradition in Christianity—dating all the way back to the writings of Paul—is that of the “Fool for Christ.”  Later, there would be a good number of these apparently “mad” folk (Greek: saloi) who lived for God alone, seeing through the pomp and pride of conventional living, enjoying humiliation, scorn and eradication of the “mind obsessed with self,” their Christ-like holiness known only to God and perhaps their spiritual confessor.  We have a tale from the early period of desert Christianity, in The Lausiac History by Palladius (d. 425), of a holy woman living this self-effacing “foolish” vocation at one of the first Pachomian convents.  Tradition identifies her as St. Isidora:  considered mad by the other 400 sisters in her convent, she wore rags (not the conventional habit), she went barefoot, she never sat at the communal table, she never partook even of a piece of bread, but ate the crumbs left over by the sisters.  Isidora served her sisters as the “broom of the community,” in the words of Palladius; she was despised by them, living out the archetype of the Cinderella myth.  Abba Pitiroum (or Piterius) was guided to the convent by an angel, having been told that one of the sisters therein was a true saint.  He asked to see the whole community of women but could not recognize the one about whom he had been given the revelation.  He insisted that one was missing.  The sisters said that only one was missing—the mad one.  Pitiroum ordered that she be brought to him, and they went and dragged Isidora from the kitchen to him.  When she entered he fell at her feet and said, “Bless me!”  She also prostrated before him and asked for his blessings.  The sisters were amazed and told the Abba that she was mad, whereupon he retorted, “You are mad.  For she is your mother and mine ... and I pray to be found worthy of her in the day of judgement.”  All the nuns began to weep, confessing their sins against Isidora; but she and the Abba forgave them all.  Thereafter becoming the object of praise, Isidora could no longer effectively continue her self-effacing “madness,” and so left the convent after a few days—and no one knows whither she went nor how she spent her last years. [53] 

It is surprising to hear so infrequently of the various desert women and their communities, especially since, as Palladius indicated, religious women of the desert apparently outnumbered the men by a two-to-one ratio: there were 20,000 women to 10,000 men!  Yet, in a way, given a) the evident patriarchal bias of most of the historians, b) the fact that all the historians were male, and c) the tendency to completely separate monks and nuns of the desert in those days, we are probably lucky to hear of these women at all.  Palladius was one of the exceptional historians to take note of women.  In his Lausiac History, based on twelve years of time visiting and living among various communities of the desert and elsewhere, he gives 19 women’s lives among his 68 biographies of monastics.  Palladius at several places in his text speaks of holy women known to him:  “I have seen many such, and met many distinguished widows and virgins”; “there are certain women of manly spirit, to whom God apportioned labors [disciplines and tests] equal to those of men, lest any should pretend that women are too feeble to practice virtue perfectly.”  One of the greatest women of the desert whom Palladius met was Amma Talida, a formidable ascetic who headed a community of sixty nuns located in the vicinity of the city of Antinoe.

 

Given the great number of women monastics of the 4th century onward, Joan Morris has declared, “History has been falsified by all the emphasis put on the Desert Fathers.”  In her eye-opening work, The Lady Was a Bishop, Morris has further highlighted the role women played among the early hermits and monastics of Christianity:

“The deaconess Marthana ruled over the cells of both men and women ascetics who settled around the memorial of Saint Tecla of Seleucia in fourth-century Asia Minor. [Marthana was considered to be quite holy by Etheria, a Spanish abbess who made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land sometime around 393-6; remember that Thecla (first century) was widely venerated in early Christianity for her holiness and healing powers; her shrine was a favorite place of pilgrimage.] ...

      “Dating from the fifth century, the Wisigothic Sacramentary gives instructions for the ordination of abbesses.  In the prayer it is stated that before God there is no discrimination of the sexes ... Women ... were invested with sacerdotal robes, the pallium, and the miter.  In the Sacramentary of the Moisac Monastery the rite for the abbots and abbesses was identical. ...

      “It was very common in both the East and the West for women to be leaders of double communities of monks and nuns.  It would be difficult to explain such a novelty if it were not an apostolic tradition arising from the women overseers [episcopa], if not from the direct teaching of Our Lord himself, for he was accompanied by a group of women who provided for him and his apostles out of their own money. Eight women together with his mother are named as followers of Jesus in Galilee and as present at the Passion.

      “The position of women as leaders of double communities has sometimes been hidden.  For example, the Basilian Order was not founded by Saint Basil but by his sister Macrina [d. 379].  It was she who persuaded Basil to abandon the glory of the world.  For four years he lived a monastic life under her guidance. ... After the death of her father, Macrina likewise persuaded her mother to join the community ... There is an astounding letter from Gregory of Nazianzus to Gregory of Nyssa on the occasion of the death of Theobesia‚ [4th century], revealing her as holding a very high office in the Church. Gregory of Nazianzus calls her ‘the glory of the Church, adornment of Christ, the helper of our generation, the hope of women.’  She is further said to be truly sacred, a consort of a priest and of equal honor to him, worthy of the Great Sacraments.

      “The meaning of this letter has been greatly discussed. ... It may be that Theobesia held an important place in the Church at Nyssa as Theodora Episcopa did at the Church of Saint Praxedis in Rome.  The fact that she is said worthy of the Great Sacraments is held by some to mean that she could consecrate the Eucharistic species, because the word sacraments is in the plural.” [54]

 

The fourth and fifth centuries indeed featured some remarkable women, though they are not as well-known today as they deserve to be.  We have heard mention of some of the leading Ammas (Syncletica, Sarah, Theodora, Talida, Marthana), and of Sts. Macrina, Helen, Olympias, and Isadora.  Around St. Jerome (342-420) at Rome, in the 370s, some wealthy ladies and men gathered to live the ascetic and studious life, the women being organized by the widow, St. Marcella (d. 410).  In 385 Marcella and other women and men left with Jerome and started up a monastic double community (men and women) at Bethlehem and two other convents in the vicinity, characterized by a mix of Antonian and Pachomian (eremitic and cenobitic) observances.  The women were led by St. Paula (347-404), an industrious, lavishly generous and self-mortifying woman and friend of Marcella; Paula’s daughter St. Eustochium (d. 419), third of four daughters to Paula, and the one most like her mother, assisting her in the directing of the convents, was one of Jerome’s favorite pupils in the religious life and scholarly learning, and headed the three women’s communities after the death of her mother.  Jerome had also praised one St. Fabiola (d. 399) as “the praise of Christians, the wonder of the Gentiles, the mourning of the poor, and the consolation of the monks.”  She was a patrician Roman lady who divorced her wayward husband and lived for a while with another man until he died.  She then joined the Church and “devoted her great wealth to works of charity, gave large sums to churches, and communities in Italy and the adjoining islands, and founded a hospital [the first recorded Christian public hospital in the West] for the sick whom she gathered from the streets and alleys of Rome, waiting on them in person.  Prone to occasional restlessness, Fabiola spent some time in Bethlehem with Jerome, Paula and Eustochium, but the threatened incursion of the Huns moved her to leave Palestine and go back to Rome; here, in the last three years of her life she helped St. Pammachius establish the huge and famous hospice at Porto for poor and sick pilgrims. When she died, “the whole of Rome attended the funeral of their beloved benefactress.”

 

St. Mary of Egypt (c.344-421), greatly revered by the Eastern Orthodox Church, was a penitent ascetic living alone in the desert beyond the Jordan River, whose legend states that she had suddenly converted at age 17 from her life as a harlot after experiencing divine guidance while with some pilgrims in Jerusalem.  (This “converted harlot” theme became the basis for legends concerning a number of saintly women whose historicity is quite dubious.)  Mary of Egypt apparently had no disciples, living the solitary eremitic (hermit) lifestyle, eating almost nothing except herbs and water.  A holy monk who met her fortuitously and returned a year later to bring her communion, reports that Mary was graced with miraculous powers of clairvoyance, levitation, and walking on water.  St. Euphrasia (382-412) at age seven requested that her widowed mother leave her for a time with a community of women at Tabbenisi, in middle Egypt; she wound up spending the rest of her short life with them, doing the hardest chores for the other nuns, engaging in difficult forms of self-mortification (such as often fasting for a week at a time), and winning over the women with her gentleness, humility, and patience.  A pious Roman widow by name of Melania toured the monastic communities of Egypt for six months with Rufinus and, back in Jerusalem in 371, built a convent for fifty nuns and joined them in a Pachomian life of poverty, chastity, austerity, and prayer.  Her granddaughter, St. Melania the Younger (c.383-439), born in Rome to a rich patrician father, withstood family pressure to practice her religious devotions and austerities; the family would be won over to her side sometime after the early deaths of her two children.  When her father died, Melania, now “fabulously wealthy,” sold the vast family holdings to generate funds to emancipate numerous slaves, aid the poor and sick, help the church, and support various pilgrims.  Over thirty families and many girls and widows helped Melania and her husband and widowed mother run her “centre of hospitality” at her villa.  During the invasion by the Visigoths Melania and her husband (now completely converted by her to a deeper form of Christian living) fled, first to Sicily, then to the Holy Land, in each case founding communities of religious.  After some time in Egypt studying the Antonian way of eremitic life, Melania returned to Palestine and lived twelve years in solitude on the Mt. of Olives.  Here she established her first Palestinian community of nuns; a few years later, on the death of her husband, she built a monastery for men as well.  (The life at her monastic establishments was evidently a bit milder than those around Sts. Jerome and Paula a few miles away.)  (There are other women of this early era revered as saints whom we will mention in our discussion of Eastern Orthodox Christianity.)  Into the next century, we find St. Scholastica (480?-543/7) of Italy, the holy twin sister of St. Benedict (d. 547), who is considered the Patriarch of organized Western monasticism, founder of the Benedictine order in 526.  Scholastica herself became a reclusive religious and head of a monastery that Benedict had built for her and some other women around Plombariola, south of his main foundation at Monte Cassino.  The only other thing we hear of Scholastica is that she was so aligned with the power of God that, on one occasion, she made it storm so that she and her brother could talk further about the glory of God.

 

As we move through the centuries and examine the roster of Christian women saints, we find it to be extensive and impressive.  In addition to those dozens of women I have already briefly profiled, I will be covering over 200 of the most renowned women known to us who have been venerated as saints in the period of the “undivided western church” and up into modern times within the Roman Catholic tradition.  Due to space limitations in this book, in most cases I must limit myself to several sentences for each woman, and therefore can only very inadequately account for the splendor of their sublime lives.  Moreover, as in the rest of the first part of this book, it is impossible to engage in any real biography here, to examine character development, inner motivation, psycho-spiritual transformation, and other elements which any student of human nature would wish to have in trying to ascertain the “deeper personality.”  As I have remarked in other sections of this book (such as when covering some of the Hindu and Sūfī women), the reader does well to try to “dive deep” and get immersed in a sublime state of spiritual consciousness and perhaps employ the “active imagination” to a certain extent so as to better appreciate where these women are “coming from.”  That is to say, one must get a sense of the Divine Power operating in the lives of these women which could produce such love, joy, detachment, courage, spiritual power, and “heroic virtue” (the standard by which they have been deemed by the hierarchy to be worthy of veneration).  Otherwise, reading the brief listing of these women’s names, qualities, and deeds may degenerate into a merely academic and perhaps tedious exercise.  (For true edification, the reader is also encouraged to try to read at least a few of the fuller biographies available on many of these women, especially those women of later times better known to us.)

 

We have brief records and biographical sketches on a number of saintly women from the early 6th century onward, especially in those Celtic lands of Northern Europe where the holy female seems to have been traditionally accorded greater honor, most prominently in the role of Druid priestess.  St. Brigid of Ireland (c. 450/60-523/8), quite famous in her own time and to posterity, was alleged to have been the daughter of a slave-girl and raised by a foster mother (thus she is one of the few non-martyred women saints of Christianity’s first millennium not born into an upper class situation).  Brigid founded the first women’s religious community among the Irish, at Kildare.  She was a radiant woman of great charity and “miracles” (most fabricated by her biographers), and is loved today, along with St. Patrick (d. 461?), as the patron saint of Ireland.  Other esteemed Irish women include the miracle-working St. Attracta (or Araght; 5th-6th century), who built a hospice at Lough Gara, and then moved into a hermitage at Drum; St. Fanchea (d. 528), whose community of women was situated at Rossory in Fermanagh; and another thaumaturge, St. Ita (d. c.570), foundress of an extremely austere group of women at Hy Conaill, southwest of Limerick (she herself is said to have relied on “food from God” her last years).

 

St. Clotilda (c. 474-545), a Burgundian princess, married Clovis, founder of the Frankish monarchy, and later inspired a mass conversion to the faith on the part of Clovis and his 3,000 followers.  In 511 Clovis died, and after enduring family feuds among her sons, Clotilda retired to Tours, where “she spent the rest of her life in relieving the poor and suffering.”  St. Monegundis (d. 570) abandoned the world after the death of her two beloved daughters and vowed to devote herself completely to God, lest she become too self-absorbed in grief.  With her husband’s consent, she built a small cell in her native town of Chartres, France, and shut herself up therein, living a terribly austere life, eating only coarse oat bread and water, and sleeping few hours on the hard floor.  Later Monegundis moved to a cell near the shrine of St. Martin at Tours, and many fervent women joined her in the simple, ascetic life, their cell becoming the St. Pierre-le-Puellier nunnery.  Many healing miracles were reported at her tomb.  St. Manechildis (6th century?) was the youngest of seven daughters to Sibmarus and his wife—all these daughters would receive the veil of consecrated virgins from St. Alpinus, the Bishop of Chālons, and be venerated as saints in different parts of Champagne.  “Manechildis in particular gave herself to all sorts of spiritual and temporal good works; she would accompany her father on his visits to [Sainte-Ménéhould] in order to tend the sick.  On the Côté-Vignes is a spring said to have been produced miraculously by the saint to quench the thirst of the people who came to her in large numbers when she was at her cell on the side of the mountain. ... After the death of her parents, St. Manechildis ... live[d] as a solitary at Bienville on the Marne, and here she died amid the lamentations of the poor and sick whom she had tended.” (Donald Attwater)

 

Some royal “missionaries” and/or foundressess of those times include St. Theodelina (580-628), the deeply charitable queen/regent of the Lombards; St. Bertha (d. 612), wife of King Ethelbert of Kent, the first Christian ruler in that land, and highly popular among her people for her goodness; and St. Dambrowka of Bohemia, who converted many Poles through her new husband, King Micislaus.  St. Gudula (d. 712?), daughter of Count Witger and his wife St. Amalburga (d. c.690) of Brussels, deserves mention as a saintly laywoman who spent “all her days in religious devotion and good works for her neighbours” (her martyred sister, Raineld, is also venerated).

 

Some women became abbesses of formidable monasteries for women which often were “double communities,” including separate monastic quarters for men as well.  These abbess-led monasteries were much larger and more powerful than the small, cloistered convents or nunneries of the late middle ages to which religious women were eventually relegated by male political and ecclesiastical pressure.  Significantly, these great monasteries run by women were exempt from the jurisdiction of the local bishops, answerable only to the Holy See in Rome.  The abbesses were usually ordained and enjoyed a real autonomy and “quasi-episcopal status,” though evidently their authority was “more temporal than spiritual”; in any case, these women ruled over the people of the local community as well as over the male clergy whom they appointed to minister to the monastery.  They usually came from wealthy families, the reason being that such families could provide for and protect the monasteries in times of need.  The laymen and clergymen would take vows of obedience to such abbesses, in the spirit of Jesus obeying his mother Mary. 

 

Joan Morris explains that this practice of men obeying an abbess, which became greatly idealized in the 11th to 13th centuries when chivalry was at its height, was then suppressed and completely overturned in early late Renaissance times (14th to 17th centuries) with the revival of the old Greco-Roman ideals, which were interpreted as slighting women due to their “inferior” nature (as we have learned, this Greco-Roman disempowerment of women was true only in the political realm and in the more ancient Greco-Roman traditions).  The Decretals of Pope Gregory IX (1234), the collection of pontifical laws, took from abbesses their right of public preaching and reading of the Gospel and of hearing the confessions of their nuns.  Male power had asserted itself yet again to demean the status of women.  (His Decretals also asserted the absolute jurisdiction of the popes over all causes of saints and made it binding on the universal church.)

 

“All these things [the existence and power of abbesses, female deacons, and canonesses] have become hidden history... hardly believed and not understood... Nobody hears anything about it.  It is hushed up, and the Christian tradition is presented as an all-male right of authority as though it had been so always.  ...Nevertheless, it remains a fact that in the course of history women have held administrative positions in the Church.  To hide these facts is to falsify the true Christian tradition.” (Morris) [55].      

 

Arlene and Leonard Swidler, in reflecting on the loss of abbesses, canonesses, and female deacons, have declared:  “It can be argued that today [writing in 1976, still true 15 years later] women stand at the lowest point legally in the Church that they have ever occupied in the history of Christianity.” [56]

 

In looking to the many powerful and evidently very saintly women of that unique period of abbesses (6th century onward), we find, among the earliest, not only the aforementioned Brigid of Ireland, but also:  St. Radegund of Poitiers‚ (518-87), born in Germany to a pagan king, who then at age 12 was stolen as booty by the nominally Christian Frankish King Lothair I.  Radegund was beautiful, devoted to her new religion of Christianity, and quite active in caring for the poor and for lepers (whose wounds she kissed; she also built a hospital for them).  After putting up for many years with her husband’s blatant infidelities and polygamy, she finally left him when he murdered her brother, became consecrated as a deaconess and lived at Poitou, tending to the poor.  Six months later Radegund built the famous double monastery of the Holy Cross at Poitiers in 557, one of the very first of its kind.  She appointed a friend as prioress and made herself obedient unto this woman, though it was Radegund’s influence which made Holy Cross famous as a meeting place for saints and scholars.  An ardent peacemaker of her day, she spent her last years in complete seclusion and contemplation.  When she passed away, numerous healing miracles occurred around her, and her friend Fortunatus eulogized Radegund in an eloquent manner which suits many of the other saintly women mentioned in this book:  “Human eloquence is struck almost dumb by the piety, self-denial, charity, sweetness, humility, uprightness, faith and fervour in which she lived.”  Other especially holy abbesses of France included:  St. Salaberga/Sadalberga (d. 665) was cured of blindness by St. Eustace of Luxeuil as a child, and later in life had five children by her second husband St. Blandinus (the first husband died), two of whom, Bauduin and Anstrudis, are venerated as saints.  After many years of wedded bliss, Salaberga and Blandinus agreed to withdraw from the world and take up separate religious vocations; she went to Poulangey, where she had endowed a convent, and established a new, quite large double monastery at Laon around 650.  St. Waldetrudis (Waudru) (d. 688) also came from a family of numerous persons venerated as saints, she herself becoming a contemplative recluse who was then “besieged” so often because of her works of mercy and healings that she finally founded a convent at Mons (now in Belgium); St. Angadrisma (c.614-95) was the wise, miracle-working abbess of a Benedictine monastery near Beauvais; St. Godeberta (d. 700) of Noyon (northern France), was a consecrated virgin esteemed as a wonderworker against calamities; St. Opportuna (d. 770) had been a simple nun before later attaining fame as the humble, prayerful, holy, abbess of a convent at Almenèches, Normandy.  The legend of the highly popular St. Odilia (d. c.720) states that she was the blind daughter of the cruel Adalric, a Frankish lord of Alsace, who wanted her slain at birth; his wife hid little Odilia with a peasant woman for a time, and then she was raised in a nunnery.  Odilia’s sight was eventually restored by the healing touch of St. Erhard of Regensburg, and later she “lived at Obernheim with a few companions who joined her in her devotions and charitable works among the poor.”  Sometime after she resisted her father’s attempts to have her married, he underwent a change of heart and founded a monastery at Hohenburg (now Odilienberg) and put his daughter at its head.  She became known for her supernatural visitations from God and saints and for various miracles, and her shrine and abbey were the object of great devotion throughout the middle ages, especially sought out by the blind, some of whom were favored with miracles.

 

Numerous holy abbesses were to be found among the English, one of the earliest of whom was St. Eanswida (d. c.640), granddaughter of the aforementioned Sts. Ethelbert and Bertha, the first Christian rulers of England.  She “added lustre to her birth by the sanctity of her life,” and founded a monastery of nuns on the sea-coast near Folkestone in Kent.  Many legends of her miraculous powers come down to us.  The most famous English abbess was the illustrious St. Etheldreda (Audrey) of Ely‚ (630-679), a widow of great austerities, all-night prayer vigils, and prophecy, by whose intercession many wonders were worked; so famous was Etheldreda for her spiritual power that many churches in the English isles were named after her, and her shrine on the island of Ely—where lay her apparently unembalmed relic, undecayed for many years—became a famous pilgrimage site.  She had three sisters who were all revered as saints, most notable of whom were St. Withburga (d. c.743), founder of a church and nunnery at Dereham, whose unembalmed body also miraculously remained incorrupt; and St. Sexburga (d. c.699), the virtuous, humble, charitable widow of the King of Kent.  Sexburga was the mother of Sts. Ercongota and Ermenilda, and was chosen as Etheldreda’s successor as head of the monastery at Ely after founding her own monastery at Minster-in-Sheppey.  St. Ermenilda founded four new abbeys at Mercia and quickly established a reputation for piety and healing (her long-undecayed relic was the focus of a popular shrine at Chester until, like so many other shrines of British and Irish saints, it was destroyed by King Henry VIII in the 16th century). 

 

St. Hilda of Whitby (614-680) founded one of the most famous double monasteries, and trained many young scholars, five of whom became bishops; “all who knew her called her Mother, such were her wonderful godliness and grace.”  We also hear of Hilda’s successor, St. Elfflaed (654-714), “the best comforter and counsellor in the land.”  The loving devotion of St. Ethelburga of Barking (d. c.676) to her nuns occasioned many miracles.  Her mentor and later successor as prioress was the St. Hildelitha (d. c.717), a former Anglo-Saxon princess who had gone to France to take the veil and learn the ways of formal religious life.  Another of Hildelitha’s protégés was St. Cuthburga (d. c.725), foundress in 705 of the abbey of Wimborne in Dorset, a woman of much fasting, prayer, meekness, and austerity.  St. Ermenburga (or Domneva), a Kentish princess, had two saintly daughters:  the kindly, gentle St. Mildred of Minster and her sister, the humble healer and thaumaturge, St. Milburga of Wenlock (both died c.700).  St. Werburgh (d. c.700) was the beautiful daughter of King Wulfhere of Mercia and later became head of all the religious women’s houses in his kingdom.  St. Everild (d. c.700) fled her family of nobility to start up a house of remarkably pious nuns near York. 

Two famous English missionaries to Germany in the 8th century associated with the intrepid, immensely loveable Saint Boniface (d. 754) included Sts. Lioba and Thecla:  the remarkably beautiful, sweet-natured St. Lioba (c.700-80) was raised in a monastery at Wimborne in Dorsetshire, before coming to the assistance of Boniface, a relative of hers; she was appointed by him as head of the Bischofsheim community he founded at Mainz, which flourished under Lioba’s direction.  “No one ever saw her in a bad temper or heard her speak an uncharitable word, and her patience and intelligence were as large as her kindness.”  Lioba, who was much sought-after by men of affairs in chuch and state for her wise counsels, selected from her many protégés a number of upright women as heads of other convents she founded in Germany.  One of Lioba’s younger associates was St. Thecla of Kitzingen (d. 790), known as “Heilga,” the Saint, for her example of humility, gentleness, and charity both to her spiritual daughters in a monastery over which she presided and to the “rough German women.”  A century later appeared St. Matilda (c.895-968), the beautiful, educated, and devout queen of Saxony, dear to all, who lived more like a nun than a queen, and was noted for her great humility, kindness, and lavish charity (which, after the death of her husband, incurred the suspicion of her son, King Otto, who thought she was dwindling away the crown revenues).  Matilda founded many convents and monasteries, and lived in one her last years. 

 

Burgundy-born St. Adelaide (931-99) weathered the myriad political machinations of Germany where she wound up after her second marriage to King Otto the Great; she restored and founded many monasteries of monks and nuns and was hailed for her peace-loving and gracious nature.  Bertila of Chelles (d. c.705) was an exemplary nun at the monastery of Jouarre, near Meaux, then, while still quite young, was appointed the first abbess at Chelles, where she became famous for her devotions, penances, wisdom and great humility in supervising her spiritual daughters, including two queens (one of whom was St. Bathildis, the founder of the Chelles monastery).  We hear that Bertila during this age drew great crowds to her lectures on the Scriptures.  Somewhere around this time, in an area of Spain evidently free of Moorish persecution, a woman named Florentine‚(n.d.) was prioress of forty monasteries, and highly esteemed for her virtues, knowledge, and sacred songs. 

 

Beginning with the year 851, we find a number of women among the martyrs persecuted in those regions of Spain under the Moorish rule of Abdur Rahman II of Cordova.  Sts. Nunilo and Alodia (d. 851) were two young virgin women who resisted all forms of persuasion to convert to Islam and were beheaded as a consequence; Sts. Flora and Mary (d. 851) were another pair of young women beheaded after they publicly presented themselves to the magistrate; and St. Columba (d. 853), a nun at Tabanos, courageously presented herself at the house of the local magistrate and denied the Muslim faith, for which she, too, was beheaded.      

 

There are a few other women from the first millennium of Christianity revered as saints who did not function in the role of abbess:  St. Maura of Troyes, Champagne, France (827-50) converted her father to Christianity through her prayers, and also edified her entire family this way.  “The maiden’s whole time was consecrated to prayer, obedience or charity in attending on her mother and serving the poor, or to her work, which was devoted to the service of the needy and of the Church. ... God performed miracles in her favour, but it was her care to conceal His gifts, because she dreaded human applause.” (Attwater).  St. Solangia (d. 880), a holy virgin in the region of Bourges, France, is said to have had “power over” (“rapport with”) the animals, a considerable gift of healing, and great physical and spiritual beauty; a young man wanted to carry her off and wed her but when she insisted that she was consecrated to God, he killed her.  St. Ludmila (c.860-921), the much-loved, virtuous, gentle, charitable, and well-educated wife of the Duke of Bohemia (now Czechoslavakia), built with him the first Christian church in that land.  Ludmila was a saintly influence on her grandson Wenceslaus, and was killed for her Christian views and political influence.  St. Wiborada (d. 926), born of Klingnau nobility in the Swiss canton of Aargau, learned Latin from her brother at the monastery of St. Gall, and later became a recluse in a cell adjacent to the church of St. Magnus; many were the visitors “attracted by the fame of her miracles and prophecies.”  She foretold her own death at the hands of Hungarian invaders and prophesied the deliverance of others, all of which came to pass.

 

Unfortunately, we hear of few other notable saintly women in western Christianity in the 9th-10th centuries, and almost none in the 11th century—which, of course, is not to say that extremely holy women did not exist.  We must remember that in many European lands barbarian invaders were harshly persecuting the practice of Christianity and were often destroying the shrines and relics of any saints who did emerge—making it difficult for the memory of these blessed souls to survive for very long.  Another reason for the paucity of records about saintly females of this time may be found in the fact that it had become so “customary” for many virgins, widows and married noblewomen to live the devout life, whether in their monasteries or homes or secluded cells, that not many were singled out as being especially “holy.”  Added to this is the fact that, from the 11th to the 13th century, many women aspiring to greater holiness were joining the heterodox movements which were spranging up in various parts of Europe, of which the ecclesiastical hierarchy would not approve.  A related factor here is that whereas “saint-making” had up to this time been an informal process, a simple matter of local people venerating the outstandingly holy souls dear to them, starting up a cultus around their burial shrines, commemorating their dies natalis (heavenly birthday, or day of passing) as a feast day on the calendar, and remembering their beloveds in prayer—now bishops and popes began to want to have something to say in the process. 

 

Though the first papal canonization of a saint for universal veneration is believed to have occurred in 993, it was in 1170, when heterodox movements such as the Cathari/Albigenses were flourishing, that Pope Alexander III decreed that no one, regardless of his or her reputation for holiness, could be venerated locally without papal authorization; and in 1234 this right to canonize was officially reserved for the papacy alone.  The impulse to declare someone a saint would still start with the local people, but it would have to be processed through the local bishop and then by the Curia at the Vatican in Rome in a long, expensive process.  Moreover, to be sure that a would-be saint’s influence was persisting, the canonization process would be carried out retrospectively long after the holy soul’s passing from the body.  (Thus, there was never supposed to be any cultus for a “living saint,” though in practice this would be hard to stop around certain holy people who came to prominence.)  Since 1234, the popes have canonized less than 300 persons—a mere fraction of the 10,000 holy persons before and since who have been made the object of cults of local veneration, and we are informed that up until recently many more males than females have been officially canonized as saints, so it seems that the patriarchal bias in Rome undoubtedly preferred to exalt male beati who upheld the “orthodox,” pro-Papal version of Christianity over females mystics whose sayings or writings might have contained any “heterodox” leanings—despite the spirit of “chivalry” and idealization of the feminine that pervaded many circles of Europe.  For all these reasons, it becomes much easier to see why there are relatively so few women in the annals of the saints from this period in Europe. [57]

 

In any case, the most prominent name to come down to us today from the 11th century is that of English-born St. Margaret of Scotland (1046-93), “as beautiful as she was good and accomplished,” who married King Malcolm of Scotland when she was 24, and through her lovely influence turned him into one of the most virtuous and charitable kings to ever rule that land.  “To maintain justice, to establish religion, and to make their subjects happy appeared to be their chief object in life.”  She not only reformed the church, promoted the arts and education, formed a holy guild of court ladies, and carefully raised a family of eight children, instilling in them the virtuous life, she also spent much time and energy ministering to the poor and sick.  Often the queen and king would host several hundred paupers, serving these poor folk with royal dishes while on their knees.  In the midst of all these external works, she was detached from the world, perfectly even-minded in temper, and fully recollected in God, a woman of much private prayer and austerities.  She was named patroness of Scotland after her death at age 47.  During this century we also find St. Emma (d. c.1045) of the little Austrian town of Gurk, in Carinthia, whose two sons were murdered and whose husband soon afterward died on pilgrimage.  She spent the rest of her life doing good to the poor and founding several double monasteries, in one of which the laus perennis (continual psalmody) was sung.  St. Godeleva (d. c.1070) had been a beautiful young noblewoman greatly beloved by the poor, to whom she was constantly devoted, but she was killed at Ghistelles, by the servants of her philandering Flemish husband, Bertulf; however, the murder-site soon gained a reputation for miracles of healing, including the restoration of sight to Bertulf’s daughter (by a later wife), and a cult to Godeleva began to flourish.  St. Adelaide (d. 1015) of Bellich, Germany, ruled over several nunneries with “great prudence,” and was often consulted by the local bishop for her wisdom.

 

The mid-11th century to the 13th century was a time of profound change for Western society and religious life.  St. Bernard (1090-1153), the “oracle of the Church,” and wonder-working, highly esteemed leader of the Cistercians, was amplifying the cult of Mary in Europe—though Bernard, or perhaps one of his scribes, is also on record as having made some very sexist statements.  This era in Western Europe witnessed a tremendous exalting of the feminine in the attitudes of the troubadours, and religious-chivalry groups such as the Knights Templars.  These groups appear to have been influenced by Sūfī ideals brought back by the crusaders who had ventured to the Middle East—for instance, the allegorical use of romantic language and images of lovers to suggest the relationship between God and the soul (not to mention the arcane hermetic and alchemical lore which had been preserved in Arabic).  Perhaps as a result of these groups’ influence, in the writings of various Cistercians of the 12th-13th centuries, there is a curious tendency to “feminize” the spiritual leadership of abbots and even Jesus “himself.”  In 1101, Robert d’Abrissel founded the Fontevrault double monastery in France—a model which spread through France and to England and Spain—and legitimized the practice of men and monks bowing to and being obedient to powerful abbesses, as Jesus had been obedient to his mother.  The Fontevrault monastery for women was run by women, and within fifty years spawned as many daughterhouses. 

 

In the 12th century four saintly German noblewomen particularly stand out:  St. Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179), known in her own day as the “Sibyl of the Rhine,” was a great prophetess, visionary, musician, artist, and scholarly author of numerous works on many topics, including medicine, botany, psychopathology, and theology—rare accomplishments for a woman of those days.  Hildegard was raised by one Blessed Jutta, a contemplative recluse and wonderworker mentoring several women living with her on the banks of the Diessenberg close by Jutta’s noble-family home.  In 1136 Jutta died and Hildegard was made prioress of this Benedictine community; by this point she was already rather precognitive and steeped in the holy life.  But in 1141 “a shaft of light of dazzling brilliancy came from the opened heavens and pierced my mind and my heart like a flame... And suddenly I knew and understood the explanation of the psalms, the gospels and other Catholic books of the Old and New Testaments.”  She began to have many visions, and recorded them in book form, and these were ultimately read and declared valid by the Pope Eugenius III, St. Bernard, and others.  Under the compelling guidance of an inner vision, she overcame resistance within and without her community and re-located it sometime around 1148 to a desolate hill at Rupertsberg, outside Bingen.  Between 1152 and 1162 she made numerous journeys in the Rhineland, exhorting rulers, clergy, and laity to greater holiness, often giving prophetic warnings, for which she predictably encountered much criticism in certain circles.  But the majority of people hailed Hildegard for her achievements and holiness. 

 

Blessed Stilla (d. c.1140) of Abenberg (near Nuremberg), was a miracle-working young woman who lived virtually as a nun in the house of her father, a count, while engaged tirelessly in “relief of all unfortunates.” St. Mechtild of Edelstetten (d. 1160) was placed by her parents in the double monastery at Diessen when she was only five, and “grew up a devout and exemplary maiden, much given to prayer and austerities.”  She overcame her quick temper and was made the prioress of the community when the superior died; so wonderful was her influence that the Bishop of Augsburg and the Pope compelled her, against her own wishes, to head the community at Edelstetten, though she was only 28.  At first many malcontents resisted her, but she endured, and later her sanctity, healing powers, and mystical gifts made her famous far and wide.  St. Hildegund (d. 1183), daughter to the Count of Lidtberg, presided over an especially holy Premonstratensian convent at Mehre, north of Cologne. 

 

The beautiful French maiden, Héloïse (1101-64) is dear to those with a romantic sensibility because of her great love for Peter Abelard and her poignant, erudite correspondences with this man who had been her tutor, and by whom she had given birth to an illegitimate child.  Héloïse had been forced to separate from him and then was appointed Abbess of Paraclete, a Benedictine convent founded by him.  Under her leadership, it grew to distinction.  Blessed Alpais (1150-1211) was born at Cudot, in Orleans, and worked in the fields until she was stricken by a disease, perhaps leprosy; yet a vision of Mother Mary cured her completely—except that she was unable to use her limbs and was confined to bed.  Therein Alpais was evidently able to attain some mastery of the contemplative life.  She is the first person on record confirmed to have practiced long periods of inedia—complete fasting from food or drink, with the exception of an occasional Eucharistic wafer.  Alpais’ holiness and reputation for miracles and ecstasies made Cudot a place of pilgrimage, and prelates and nobles came from all over to visit her.  Up in Sweden, St. Helen of Skövde (d. 1160) was a widow from a noble family who gave her time and goods in service to the poor and to her church.  Helen was put to death on a false charge, and post-mortem miracles of healing became the basis for a martyr cult centered at her shrine at Skövde.

 

Rosemary Radford Ruether has commented on the phenomenon of the powerful abbesses and their great monasteries of the early and high Middle Ages, followed by their decline and the rise of other expressions of female spirituality:         

“Female monastic orders in the early Middle Ages were often founded by women of the gentry upon independently endowed bequests of land which these women possessed in their own right.  The women’s monastery [much larger than the later convents or nunneries] became a self-governing female world in which the abbesses possessed many of the rights and titles of landed nobility... Abbesses were also accorded some of the ecclesiastical perogatives of bishops, such as the mitre and crozier and the right to credential priests to function in their territory.  Such great abbeys were centers of independent learning with schools and libraries.  A stream of writing came forth from the pens of these learned women...

      “Gradually, in the later Middle Ages, the independence of female monasticism was subdued by male ecclesiastical authority.  With the transfer of learning from monastic schools and libraries to the universities, where women were forbidden to study, female monastic learning faded.  Strict rules of cloister were applied to female orders. ... The right to appoint male confessors of nuns and an ecclesiastical supervisor to run the financial affairs of the convent and to supervise its internal governance was asserted. ...

      “As a result of these [and other] restrictions, new female religious communities began to spring up in the later Middle Ages. These women often belonged to the urban merchant or working classes. They took simple vows, without restrictions of cloister, and often made a living through their own manual labor.  Since these Beguine-houses [originating in Liège, 12th century, with a foundation made for widows and orphans by Lambert le Begue] were continually under ecclesiastical suspicion as hotbeds of dissent and heresy, they often ended by attaching themselves to male orders, such as the Dominicans [and Franciscans, founded by Sts. Dominic and Francis in the early 13th century], to win acceptance and protection.  The Beguine-houses [which were flourishing in many major northern European cities by the end of the 13th century] can be seen as the beginning of a continual struggle between Catholic religious women and male cclesiastics which has continued down to the present time. ...

      “The later Middle Ages [13th century onward] saw the rise of many popular reform movements aiming at restoring a freer and more prophetic Christianity. ... Following the ancient Christian tradition that women as well as men were given the spirit of prophecy, such groups often included women as equals in this work of preaching and evangelism.  For the official male ecclesiastical hierarchy, the female preacher became the mark of the heretical movement” [see below]. [58]

 

One of these free, prophetic forms of Christianity in the 13th century was the much-persecuted Waldensians (founded by Peter Waldo [d. 1217?]). The Waldensians in fact included many itinerant women preachers and Bible-teachers in their influential “Poor Men of Lyons” fellowship; and of course, becoming a preacher or Bible teacher was a unique “career opportunity” for women of those days! 

 

An even more persecuted Christian sect were the Albigenses or Catharists (the Cathari, or “Pure Ones”) who arose in southern France (Albi and Toulouse were the bases) in the late 11th century and who then spread into Spain and Italy over the 12th-13th centuries.  The Cathari had revived the perfectionist ideas and practices of Manes, a 3rd century Persian student of Buddhism, Chaldean philosophy and the “hermetic” mystery school religions (ultimately stemming back to the Egyptians); Manes had become a convert to Christianity and worked out a synthesis of his studies that would later be condemned as the heresy of Manichaeism (which considers matter to be evil, and tries to effect a complete purification of the person through sinlessness, poverty and abstinence from meat, wine, and sexuality).  Though this worldview is ultimately not very attractive because of its heavy dualism—pitting a principle of light and goodness against that of darkness and evil—it has been an effective way to motivate large numbers of people to achieve tremendous detachment, purity and devotion to the transcendent Reality (the Essenes and Jainas, for instance, have a very similar view of matter as evil).  The Cathari lived extremely ascetic lifestyles, and, like certain other mystical groups of the time, were characterized by a spirit of great compassion, charity to the sick and needy, brotherly love, and an egalitarianism that cut across social class strata.  It is no wonder that masses of people in these southern European countries flocked to join the Cathari, preferring their simple, pure-hearted example to that of the mainstream clergy, characterized in many circles by no small amount of hypocrisy and licentiousness.  Notable for our purposes, every Cathari community had at least one deaconess, and women initiates were in certain circumstances permitted to perform the main Cathari initiatory or baptismal rite known as the consolamentum, involving a laying-on-of-hands blessing.  So prominent were women in the propagation of the Cathari movement that the good-hearted, pacifist foe of the Cathari, St. Dominic (d. 1221), realized that a main way of converting the Cathari back to the “true faith” would be to found new convents in the area for women (he did so, first at Prouille, then in Rome and elsewhere—note that Dominic’s mother was revered as Blessed Joan of Aza [d. 1190], and so he was well aware of the potential for saintliness among women). 

 

As further evidence of the empowerment of women by the Cathari, we find that any married Cathari persons—male or female—who felt the call to greater purification could break the marital bond so as to devote themselves more fully to the ascetic life.  The Cathari were eventually driven underground and decimated by the horrific, papal-launched Albigensian Crusade (led by Simon de Montfort from 1208 onward) and by the Inquisition.  Several times massacres of entire villages occurred, in accordance with the detestable dictum of the Abbot of Citeaux, who had stated:  “Kill them all... God will recognize His own.”   

 

Esclarmonde de Foix (1155-1240) is the most famous Cathari woman known to us.  Daughter of Roger Bernard, Count of Foix in the Occitan region, as a young woman she was known for her refinement, wit, and intelligence, and devotion to the Cathari, who were finally excommunicated by Pope Alexander III in 1179.  Esclarmonde, now married (to a non-Catharist who nevertheless supported his loving wife until his death in 1204), stood up for her people—a rare display of social solidarity by an upper-class person—and took a stand against the ecclesiastical hierarchy.  This “Dove of the Paraclete,” now a mother of six children, established social institutions, workshops, centers of apprenticeship in various branches, hospitals for the elderly and for the victims of the Albigensian crusade, as well as lodging places for the ever-increasing number of refugees.  Under her leadership, convents for Cathari and schools for poor children were founded.  In 1206 Esclarmonde was able to retire from ruling the land, received the consolamentum, and was raised to the rank of a “Perfect One” and Archdeaconess.  She also, along with her beautiful, intelligent daughters, Ermessinde and Indie de Fangeaux, strongly participated in the debates between the Cathari and the bishop of Toulouse.  Esclarmonde came to Montségur when the crusading onslaught began, and somehow survived, relocating elsewhere for safety.  Around 1227, she was able to help effect a resurrection of the movement, conferring the consolamentum upon many faithful, reorganizing the Cathari priesthood, supervising numerous convents, and so on.  She passed away at Montségur in her mid-80s in 1240. Undoubtedly many other saintly Cathari woman flourished in their time, but the hagiographers of the Catholic Church have, of course, not chosen to profile them for us. [59]

 

It was during this thirteenth century that a stupendous new force of ardent spirituality was unleashed in southern Europe (Italy and France)—soon spreading to Spain, Germany, and elsewhere—by St. Francis of Assisi (d. 1226), St. Dominic (d. 1221) and their mendicant friars and nuns.  The Franciscan and Dominican movements—especially Francis’—were rather suspect at first, but were quickly adopted by the ecclesiastical hierarchy as models for “orthodox” mystical piety to counter such groups as the Catharists and Waldensians.  The bottom line is that, with the rise of the Franciscans and Dominicans, the range of models for saintliness began to expand, and with this expanded model of sanctity, the holy female came into great prominence in Western Christianity:  we have numerous, well-documented tales of women saints and beatae (“blesseds”).  These women were celebrated for their God-infused virtues of “faith, hope, and charity,” that is, their tremendous love for God and for neighbor, and their mastery of the (originally Aristotelian) “cardinal virtues”—prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance.  (This particular schema of “heroic virtue” would begin to be the criterion for sainthood in the early 14th century.)  In other words, like many of their saintly predecessors, these women emerged as spiritual heroines because of their contagious goodness, extraordinary equanimity in the face of sufferings and/or injustice, exquisite purity and humbleness, contemplative depth, tireless works of charity, mystical visions and locutions, awesome miracles (worked by God through them) [60], influence on Popes and royalty, and words of wisdom and inspiration.  A number of these beatae and saints from the 13th century on also founded new religious institutes for women. 

 

(Note that the status of beata/”blessed” was a product of local veneration, approved by the Vatican, and the status of a “saint” was conferred by the Pope and Curia upon someone whose universality and exemplary life merited extra attention.  Up until the papal reform of the canonization process in 1983, two well-substantiated postmortem “intercessory” miracles—usually taking the form of scientifically inexplicable healings—were required for a holy soul’s beatification, and two more for his/her canonization; since 1983, one miracle is required for each step of the process.  The politics of this complex, two-step process have been thoroughly discussed by Kenneth Woodward in his book Making Saints, wherein he also discusses how, after the thirteenth century, there was a marked tension between the Church hierarchy’s view of “saints” as models of virtuous lives worth imitating, and the people’s view of “saints” as wonderworkers who could miraculously help them in their need.) 

 

Except for a few cases, I have not bothered to uncover any of the flaws, shortcomings, or excesses that these women (like women of the earlier periods) undoubtedly all possessed to some degree or other.  We can safely assume that most of them experienced moments of depression, worry, pride, anger, doubt, lust, amd self-concern from time to time, although much, much less than the average person, for it is possible, through a deeply dedicated, contemplative and self-examining life, to purify one’s motivational system so that one is relatively free of selfish tendencies and to radically retrain the attention and focus it on and merge it in Spiritual Reality, even in the midst of doing chores and working in the world.  One criticism of many women (and men) of past ages is that they sometimes seem to have “over-indulged” various self-mortifying practices in seeking to emulate Christ and take on the sins of the world.  Yet when such ascetic behavior is done rather spontaneously, without excessive “willfulness,” and out of compassion for the sins of others as a kind of “redemptive suffering,” this is actually deeply moving and heroic.  However, one suspects that in a number of instances, the contrary has been the case.

 

Some feminists of today may be chagrined that most of these women were renunciates and not married women.  This preference by the hierarchy (and the populace of earlier times) for celibates over sexually active women I have discussed elsewhere in these pages.  Feminists might also complain that almost all these women lived directly or indirectly under papal and ecclesiastical (male) authority and felt constrained to obey that authority, but it should be known that the alternative was often to be burned as a witch or heretic (as nearly happened to a number of these women).  It may also be remembered that many of these women saints were very strong, forceful presences, not “weaklings.”  And whereas some of these women may have been beatified and canonized by local bishops and the Roman hierarchy for political reasons—that is, to hold up for emulation a certain kind of saintly role model valued by the male hierarchy (i.e., celibacy, inwardness, obedient submission, conformance to Church doctrine, opposition to heresies, etc.), all these women are certainly heroic, regardless of how their image may have been politically used or exploited by the hierarchy, and all of them were dearly beloved by at least a substantial portion of their local community who, after the passing of their beloveds, hastily came forward to local bishops to acclaim these women as beatae (from the root beāre, “to make happy or bless”).

 

Notice that a majority of the women profiled here come from Italy and France which, in the second millennium of our Common Era, are akin to India in being a veritable “breeding ground” for holy ones. Of course, proximity to Rome is another reason their that causes for beatification/canonization could be carried out successfully.

 

St. Clare of Assisi (1194-1253) at age 18 ran away from her home of Italian nobility to the nearby town of Portiuncula to become the first woman renunciate associated with St. Francis and his impoverished friars. Francis placed Clare for a time in a Benedictine convent near Bastia, and later put her and her sister St. Agnes (d. 1253), who had joined with her, in a poor house contiguous to the San Damiano church on the outskirts of Assisi.  Later Clare’s mother and others joined and for 40 years Clare led this community of “Poor Clare” nuns in the way of extreme poverty, deep contemplation, loving-kindness, and total reliance on God—in true Franciscan spirit, markedly different from the other religious groups of the day, and in defiance of the Pope’s wishes to institutionalize them into a more standard, lenient form.  As word spread about these women, monasteries of Poor Clare nuns were founded within a few years at several places in Italy, France, Germany, and Bohemia.  (St. Agnes headed the convents in Florence, Mantua, Venice, Padua and elsewhere.)  “St. Clare and her community practised austerities which till then had scarcely been known among women.  They wore neither stockings, shoes, sandals nor any other covering on their feet; they slept on the ground, observed perpetual abstinence from meat, and never spoke but when they were obliged by necessity and charity” (Attwater).  The penitential contemplative prayer life of these nuns was considered by Clare to constitute an important vitalizing force for the Church and society (modern scientific experiments regarding the healing power of prayer would confirm this notion).  Clare herself was the “servant of servants” within her community, and was often luminously “dazzling” when returning from the depths of contemplative prayer.  When she died, after suffering 27 years from various ailments, Pope Innocent IV was so impressed with her sanctity that he nearly canonized her on the spot (it would happen two years later).  The Poor Clare nuns today flourish in many nations of the world, carrying on the lofty ideals of Francis, Clare, and their saintly successors. 

 

Much less famous than Clare was another young woman of high birth, Blessed Philippa Mareri (d. 1236), in whose wealthy family-home St. Francis sometimes stayed on his itinerant preaching tours.  Inspired by his example, Philippa ran away from home to become an anchoress with a few like-minded companions, and she was later made prioress of a religious group in the region which, like the Poor Clares, maintained the strictest poverty and total dependence upon the grace of God.  Blessed Verdiana (d. c. 1240) came from a noble family of Castelfiorentino in Tuscany, was married off at the age of 12, and seems to have already been known for her great piety.  After a pilgrimage to St. James’ shrine at Compostela, Spain, during which sojourn many pilgrims were amazed by her sanctity, she returned to her home town and became a reclusive anchoress, living for 34 years in a small cell in the habit of a Vallombrosan nun, eating bread and water and perhaps a few vegetables once a day, giving away to the needy nearly all of the donations that came to her, and receiving as visitors only the poor and afflicted; many miracles were reported as having been wrought through her intercession, and St. Francis himself was a great admirer of hers, having visited her once at length.  St. Rose of Viterbo (1235-52) was something of a child prodigy, spiritually speaking, and is said to have experienced a vision of Mother Mary when only 8 years old, our Lady telling her that she was to be clothed in the habit of St. Francis but that she was to continue to live at home and to set a good example to her neighbors in word and deed, thus making her one of the first to unofficially adopt the lifestyle of a tertiary, or member of a “Third Order” beyond that of enclosed monk or nun.  At age 12 she began to preach in the streets against the anti-church Ghibellines and allegedly worked some miracles.  A few years later she headed a small community of religious women, but she was dead by the age of 17.  Her unembalmed body has miraculously not decomposed for 700 years.  St. Sperandia (1216-1276) early in life became a renunciate recluse, living in a cave in Italy, enduring austerities for the sake of sinners.  Sperandia later spent ten years on pilgrimage to the Holy Land, Rome, and elsewhere, teaching people the way of God wherever she went.  Eventually she joined a Benedictine convent at Cingoli, Italy, where she was later made abbess.  Her unembalmed relic has also not undergone any decay all these centuries.  Bd. Margaret Colonna (d. 1280) of Palestrina and Bd. Matthia of Matelica (c.1233-1300) are two Poor Clare nuns around whom miracles happened, the former during her life, the latter after her life in association with her incorrupt body. 

 

Bd. Benvenuta of Cividale (1254-92) was very devoted to Mother Mary from early childhood and became a Dominican tertiary, emphasizing the contemplative rather than active path.  She suffered terribly from several afflictions, one resulting from a rope she had tied too tightly around her waist as a form of self-mortification, but was miraculously cured of both disorders.  She was later blessed to receive numerous graces, visions and raptures in prayer.  St. Margaret of Cortona (1247-97), another unembalmed “incorruptible” after her bodily death, was a nobleman’s mistress until age 27, when she found him murdered.  She turned to the religious life which had been there within her in seed form for years, and began to perform much charity work, calmly enduring the endless scandal which her earlier life stirred up among the people.  Later, Margaret became a Franciscan tertiary (i.e., member of a “Third Order” for committed lay-persons, who take private vows and have spiritual directors, but continue to live in the world and may be married); she lived the life of a reclusive contemplative, famous for her austerities, divine locutions, ecstasies, miraculous healings, and transformational prayer and lecturing—which was quite effective in converting sinners to a holy life and bringing peace to quarreling parties.

 

Further north, in the region where the Béguines so influential, we hear of Bd. Mary of Oignies (d. 1213), born of wealthy parents at Nivelles in Brabant (now part of Belgium), was married off at age 14, and persuaded her husband to live in celibacy and turn their house in Willambroux into a home for lepers.  The devout couple nursed these unfortunates with their own hands, and “distributed alms so lavishly and indiscriminately as to call forth the remonstrances of relations on both sides.”  Mary practiced extreme austerities, mortifying herself with the “discipline” (a flogging device) and shorting herself on food and sleep. One especially severe winter she spent every night in a church, lying on the bare ground without any covering.  She had that “gift of tears” of love for God found among many saints in the world’s devotional traditions (e.g., Sūfism, Hinduism); she also frequently went into God-absorbed swoons which the Hindus would call samādhi.  From a very reliable witness and biographer we know that Mary was also one of the earliest mystics profiled in some detail to show clairvoyance, precognition, miraculous fragrances, and the gift of inner heat, especially during states of prayer.  Her fame and wise counsels attracted many visitors, but a few years before her death she went into solitude at a cell in Oignies; “she had in the past had many visions and ecstasies; now she seemed to be constantly surrounded by the denizens of Heaven” (Donald Attwater). 

 

Bd. Jutta (1158-1228) of Huy, near Liège, married reluctantly as a child, and gave birth to three children.  Already widowed by the age of 18, she resisted the “pesterings” of many suitors to devote ten years nursing lepers in addition to raising her children.  Jutta then had herself walled up in a room close to her lepers, and lived there as a contemplative from 1182 until her death four and a half decades later. Graced with many mystical experiences, including the ability to “read hearts” and to know distant events, Jutta was much beloved by the many souls who came to her for spiritual direction.  St. Lutgardis (1182-1246) of Tongres, Brabant, earlier in life was a casual border at a Benedictine convent near Saint-Trond.  One day, however, she was brought much more deeply into the spiritual life by a vision of Christ while she was talking with a friend.  This would be the first of many such visions, of Christ, Mary, and saints, which she beheld as with her physical eyes, first in the Benedictine house, and later at the strict Cistercian house she joined at Aywières. Levitations, healing ability,  the spirit of prophecy, a strange light frequently appearing above her head, and an efficacious power of prayer were some of the divine gifts given to her for the edification of others. Her humility in the midst of these wonders was considerable.  Lutgardis also appears to have been the first woman to bear the painful wounds of Christ in her own body—a phenomenon known as the stigmata (and first apparently manifested by St. Francis of Assisi a few years before).

 

Beatrijs of Nazareth (1200-68), educated in part by Cistercians, was a saintly Béguine prioress also living in the vicinity of Brabant, who has left us an autobiography (never translated into English), and some marvelous writings detailing her mystic realizations.  (Being a Béguine, it is probable that she would be less attractive to the male hierarchy of Rome than St. Lutgardis, a cloistered nun.)  Hadewijch (or Hadewyck) of Antwerp became a spiritual director to a Béguine community of women, in the early 13th century, later evidently banished from them.  She spent her remaining years in charitable activity.  Though famous locally for her wisdom, and acclaimed by such luminaries as the venerated mystic, John of Ruysbroeck (1293-1381), Hadewijch seems to have been forgotten by posterity until her rediscovery in the 19th century, after which her works have become quite popular.  Scholars have recently distinguished a somewhat later author(s) as having penned the “Hadewijch” poems XVII-XXIX, which express a very refined, unitive consciousness; but we have no knowledge whatsoever about the life of this sublime mystic. 

 

The Germanic regions would continue to host a number of pious women: Bavarian-born laywoman St. Hedwig/Jadwiga (1174-1243) and her husband, Duke Henry I of Silesia, enacted numerous charitable enterprises, founding the great monastery of Cistercian nuns at Trebnitú (the first women’s convent in Silesia), and, in time, many other establishments for Cistercians, Augustinians, Dominicans and Franciscans, in addition to hospitals and so forth.  After the birth of the last of their seven children in 1209, Hedwig persuaded Henry to take with her a vow of continence for the rest of their lives.  From this time she also made her principal residence in or near the Trebnitú monastery, and practiced self-mortification; she was credited with the gifts of healing miracles and prophecy, and was much loved by her people as a peacemaker.  Hedwig’s niece, St. Elizabeth of Hungary (1207-31), was a princess of exceptional beauty who was raised with and then, at age 14, married to Louis of Thuringia, with whom they shared a most happy wedded life for six years until he died in 1228 during one of the crusades.  Before, during and after this interlude of marriage Elizabeth was famed for her charity and service to the poor.  And after Louis’ death, she renounced the world and devoted her remaining years as a member of the Franciscan “third order” of lay religious, living simply, caring for the sick and destitute, engaged in manual labor to help them, and also endured the spiritual direction of one “Master” Conrad of Marburg who, while often being quite wise and moderate, could also be very harsh and strict. Elizabeth died at age 24, many postmortem miracles of intercession following; she has been one of the most beloved saints of the Germanic Catholics. 

 

Elizabeth had four nieces, the daughters of Bela IV, King of Hungary, all revered as “Blessed” or “Saint” (we will profile three here):  Bd. Cunegund (d. 1292), married the king of Poland (St. Henry II), and shared with him a lifelong vow of chastity; she wore a rough hairshirt under her royal garments and, like her aunt, and great-aunt Hedwig, devoted her life to the care of the needy and sick.  She founded a Poor Clare convent at Sandeck after the death of her husband, and lived there, her “last years ... marked by many miracles and supernatural phenomena.”  Bd. Jolenta of Hungary (d. 1299) was raised by her sister Cunegund and married Duke Boleslaus of Kalisz, with whom she spent a happy wedded life.  “Both of them were addicted to good works, and together they made various religious foundations.  Jolenta was beloved by all, but especially by the poor, for whom she had a tender love” (Attwater).  Widowed later in life, she joined Cunegund’s Poor Clare convent with one of her daughters, and later was prioress of a convent at Gnesen which she founded.  St. Margaret of Hungary (1242-70), another daughter of King Bela IV, was consecrated by her parents to a Dominican convent at an early age in fulfillment of a promise to God for a favor granted; later this beautiful young woman would not leave, even when pursued by the King of Bohemia.  Margaret had an almost fanatic vocation to serve the poor and afflicted; in the words of hagiographer Donald Attwater, “her charity and tenderness in rendering the most nauseating services to the sick were marvellous, but many of the details are such as cannot be set out before the fastidious modern reader.”  Her well-documented story tells of many prayer-vigils, sleep-deprivation, long fasts, ecstasies, miracles, as well as a tremendous humility; one of her maidservants testified, “she was kind and good, and much more humble than we serving maids.” 

 

Bd. Zdislava of Bohemia (d. 1252) ran off at age seven to become a contemplative in the forest but her parents naturally brought her back, later marrying her to a wealthy nobleman, whose rough temperament was healed over the years by his saintly wife; Zdislava was “mother to the poor,” a woman of great charity, devotion, austerities, visions, and ecstasies.  Another St. Jutta (d. 1260), this one a native of Thuringia, Germany, was widowed when her husband died on pilgrimage; eventually most of her children entered the religious life, and Jutta, no longer responsible for them, gave all her possessions to the poor, and then wandered forth, going barefoot in summer and winter, begging bread for herself and for the needy, whom she fed and whose wounds she nursed.  She finally came to Prussia (of which she is the patron saint) where she settled into the solitary life, graced with visions, levitations, and an infused understanding of the Scriptures. 

 

King Sancho I of Portugal had three daughters, all venerated as saints: St. Mafalda (d. 1252) was married off to a minor at age eleven, but the marriage was later annulled for this reason; she entered a Benedictine convent at Arouca, and inspired it to adopt the rigorous Cistercian rule. Mafalda used her extensive dowry to build many charitable institutions.  In 1617, her unembalmed body, like that of many saints, was found to be uncorrupted.  Her sister St. Teresa (d. 1250), the eldest daughter, married the King of Leon, and had several children, but this marriage was also pronounced invalid; eventually she returned to Portugal, and at Lorvao she founded a Cistercian community of women to replace a lax Benedictine one for males; while spending much of her time with these nuns, she herself never became one of them, preferring to retain the freedom to come and go and do good works.  Her sister Sanchia (d. 1229) never married but devoted herself to good works, and became a nun at the Cistercian abbey she established at Cellas; Sanchia was also instrumental in welcoming the Franciscan and Dominican friars into Portugal. 

 

St. Mary of Cerevellon (d. 1290) was the daughter of a Spanish nobleman, said to have been born to her childless parents due to the efficacy of the prayer of St. Peter Nolasco; she later became the first nun of the order of Mercedarians founded by him, and, among other things, helped free Christian slaves from under the Moors.  “The assiduity of her prayers and her generosity in temporal good works caused her to be called Maria de Socos, “Mary of Help.”  Many miracles were claimed at her tomb in Barcelona. 

 

Bd. Isabel of France (d. 1270), sister of St. Louis, was daughter of King Louis VIII, and exceptionally beautiful, wise, and deeply spiritual—often fasting, maintaining silence, rapt in ecstasies, and giving generously to the poor, with whom she spent much of her time.  She founded the famous Franciscan convent of Longchamps, yet remained a laywoman living in a peripheral part of the building (she was determined in this way never to be elected abbess!).

 

At the great Cistercian abbey at Helfta, Saxony (Germany) in the late 13th century were to be found four highly esteemed, mystical souls—evidently part of the “Friends of God” movement; let us not be confused here, for two of them are named “Gertrude” and two named “Mechtild”:  Gertrude von Hackenborn, was elected as Abbess in 1251 of a community of nuns at Rossdorf which then moved to Helfta in 1258.  Her younger sister, St. Mechtild von Hackenborn (c.1241-1298), teacher, choir mistress and exquisite singer (“the nightingale of Christ”), had been graced with God’s visitations since childhood, yet she was exceedingly humble (for instance, she was griefstricken when her pupil St. Gertrude the Great and another nun wrote a book about her divine experiences).  An intelligent, charming, clairvoyant, and extraordinarily holy woman, the sisters and many outsiders (some from great distances) flocked to Mechtild for counsel and inspiration.  St. Gertrude “the Great” of Helfta (1256-1301)—no relation to Abbess Gertrude—was of low socio-economic station when brought to Helfta as a 5 year old girl; after a period of melancholy in her early adulthood, this young nun was roused by Jesus into a deep mystical life.  The student and close friend of Mechtild von Hackenborn, Gertrude is called “the Great” because of her deep intelligence, teaching ability, wise counsels, imperceptible stigmata, and intimate converse with and revelations from Jesus, who often appeared to her (these revelations are described in several of her Latin works).  Mechtild von Hackenborn’s older namesake, Mechtild of Magdeburg (c.1207-82), another pious nun and mystic, was an ex-béguine who had come to Helfta in her later years.  This Mechtild wrote her troubadour-influenced prose and poetry concerning her mystical life at the behest of her Dominican confessor (her writings were, in part, critical of the Church, which is perhaps why she was never canonized).  St. Gertrude the Great, St. Mechtild von Hackenborn and Mechtild of Magdeburg were all deeply devoted to the “Sacred Heart” of Jesus, a spiritual practice strongly promoted centuries later by certain saints in France (including St. Margaret-Mary Alacoque [1647-90]), and now practiced widely by many Catholics.

 

A gentle explosion of mystical, contemplative spirituality occurred in Germany and Flanders around the turn of the 14th century, based primarily on the deeply insightful, sublime sermons of that misunderstood, sagely Dominican priest, Meister Eckhart (1260-1327), and on the profound work, The Mirror of Simple Souls, now known to be authored by a French Béguine, Marguerite Porete (d. 1310).  Marguerite courageously underwent burning as a “heretic” when she would not recant some very sublime, mystical statements in her work (regarding union with God and transcendence of the egocentric sense of doership) which were completely misunderstood by the Church authorities of her day, intent as they were upon stamping out the burgeoning Free Spirit movement (which featured many women).  An informal society which seems to have been a more orthodox subset of this movement, known as the Gottesfreunde, “Friends of God,” sprang up at Strassburg and spread through the Rhineland, Bavaria, and Switzerland.  Led by Eckhart’s students John Tauler (d. 1361) and Henry Suso, the Gottesfreunde included two prominent nuns, Margaret Ebner (1291-1351), a gifted clairvoyant and highly evolved mystic, and her sister Christina.  Also prominent in this deeply mystical movement were the Swiss nun, Elisabeth Stagel (the favorite pupil of Suso), and other women such Elizabeth von Begenhofen and Adelheid Langmann (very little is known about them except for their writings).

 

A different kind of mystic of this region during this time was Bd. Christina of Stommeln, Germany (d. 1312) who ran away at age 13 to join a béguinage at nearby Cologne, but her extreme austerity and devotion aroused suspicion in the minds of her religious sisters, and so she left after a time to return home.  There, under the spiritual direction of two successive priests, she “heroically” endured all manner of utterly strange, terrifying attacks by invisible demonic forces, which were evidently clearly witnessed by many reliable persons. 

 

Over in Italy, we hear of numerous holy women from the mid-13th century on... Bd. Joan of Orvieto (d. 1306) was orphaned at age 5, and later ran away from a marriage arranged by her foster family, joining some Dominican tertiaries.  “Henceforward her life was one of unwearied devotion to God and attention to the poor.”  Attwater reports that Joan was so loving toward any of her detractors that it was said in Orvieto: “anyone who wanted Sister Joan’s prayers should do her a bad turn.”  Numerous ecstasies and miracles were reported in her life, which she tried to conceal; what she could not conceal were her exemplary detachment, humility, and sweetness.  Bd. Joan of Signa (d. 1307), a peasant girl who would collect other herdsfolk around her and speak to them of Christian perfection, at age 23 became a solitary in a cell on the banks of the Arno River, near her native place, and lived here for forty years.  People came from all over the region to consult with her and bring to her their sick and afflicted, such was her reputation for miraculous power.  St. Clare of Montefalco (1268-1308; incorrupt after death) displayed signs of infused wisdom and extraordinary sanctity from her early childhood, and joined a group of recluses when only 7 years of age.  She later reluctantly accepted the position of abbess of an Augustinian women’s community, and was known for her many austerities, prophecies, and miracles—before and after her death.  Bd. Alda (Aldobrandesca) (d. 1309), a childless, widowed matron, retired to a little house outside the walls of Siena where she practiced almsgiving to the poor and tremendous mortifications of her own person.  Alda began to have ecstatic visions of scenes of Christ’s life on earth, whereupon she gave up all her possessions and went to work at a hospital (and hopitals were hellish places in those days) ministering to the sick poor; many cures were attributed to her intercession before God.  Here at the hospital she sometimes also went into long “cataleptic” trance states—what in India would be called samādhi—tested by the hospital staff for body-consciousness, but she had transcended even their needle-piercings and applications of lit candles to her hands. 

 

Bd. Angela of Foligno (1250-1309), “the Mistress of the Theologians,” somehow endured the deaths of her husband and every one of her children before selling all her possessions and becoming a Franciscan tertiary.  She experienced frequent ecstatic visions and the stigmata; furthermore, after one day receiving a Holy Communion miraculously administered to her by angels, she practiced inedia (complete abstinence from food—except for the regular small Eucharistic wafer) for the last 12 years of her life.  Angela, whose life was characterized by a joyous love, also appears to have been one of the many Christian mystics of past and present to have undergone a potent initiation into the life of the Holy Spirit which brought those oftfound “energetic” manifestations (misunderstood and despised by many people) such as involuntary shouting, crying, burning sensations of heat, and so forth—this is a phenomenon quite similar to the kuṇḍalinī-śakti experiences of Hindu mystics, and the various “energetic empowerment” experiences found in the cross-cultural spiritual literature (see Angela’s experience reported in the teachings-anthology section of this book (Part 2), and the passage concerning this phenomenon in the introduction). 

 

St. Humility/Umiltà (1226-1310), foundress of the Vallombrosan Nuns, lost both of her sons soon after their baptism, and at age 24 she and her nobleman husband joined a double monastery just outside their hometown of Faenza in Tuscany.  However, desiring greater solitude and austerity, she withdrew to enter the Poor Clares, then later became an anchoress in a cell, subsisting on bread, water, and vegetables, and sleeping for only short periods while on her knees.  After 12 years of seclusion, the abbot of the Vallombrosan abbey of nearby St. Crispin persuaded her to emerge and organize a Vallombrosan order for nuns, which she did at Malta, outside Faenza, founding a second house in Florence.  She dictated several mystical treatises in Latin, a language she never learned, one of them dealing with angels, and how she lived in constant communion with two heavenly beings, one her guardian angel.  Bd. Emily of Vercelli (1238-1314) became prioress of a convent endowed by her father, and this was apparently the first convent of Dominican regular tertiaries.  Emily was characterized by a spirit of gratitude to God and man, frequent visions of Christ, and is reputed to have had the gift of miracles.  St. Agnes of Montepulciano (1268-1317; incorrupt), another of our spiritual “child prodigies,” was made abbess of a convent at Proceno when only 15 years old.  Later she accepted the invitation to be abbess of a convent at Montepulciano (she put it under Dominican rule), and here she governed until her death at age 49, famous for her austerities, ecstasies, prophecies, levitations, multiplication of food, and so forth.  Bd. Margaret of Città-di-Castello (d. 1320; incorrupt) was a blind girl abandoned by her parents and adopted by the villagers when whe was six or seven.  Some years later a convent of lax nuns adopted her, hearing that she brought prosperity to anyone who cared for her; but they soon neglected, and then persecuted her for her piety which reflected poorly on them.  Finally at age 15 she was driven out, and adopted by another family.  Margaret would care for the children of working parents, and soon became known for her healings and levitations while in deep states of prayer. 

 

St. Juliana Falconieri (1270-1341), born in answer to the prayers of a wealthy, pious, older couple of Florence, was a devout child, and at age 16 underwent profession as a tertiary in the Servite Order founded by her uncle, St. Philip Benizi.  Juliana continued to live at home, her own widowed mother submitting to her spiritual direction.  At age 34, her mother died, and Juliana took up residence with a group of women devoted to prayer and works of mercy, who compelled her to be their prioress.  They later testified that she outdid them in zeal, charity, and austerities, and that she was tremendously kind and helpful to all.  Bd. Michelina of Pesaro (1300-56) of noble family was already a widow by the age of 20 after eight years of happy wedded life.  Converted to a deep spiritual life by a simple, itinerant, contemplative Franciscan tertiary by name of Syriaca, Michelina after the death of her son took up a similar life, giving away all her possessions to the needy, begging her food from door to door, and spending the rest of her life in “self-abnegation and good works.  She nursed lepers and others afflicted with loathsome diseases, performing for them the most menial offices; and she is said to have cured several of them by kissing their sores” (Attwater).  Bd. Joan Soderini (1301-67), very devout since her childhood, also joined this community, and became known for her gift of prophecy and her great equanimity and cheerfulness while voluntarily undertaking “the most distasteful tasks.”  She was Juliana’s personal attendant during the latter’s long, final illness, and succeeded her as prioress for 26 years.  Bd. Sibyllina of Pavia (1287-1367; incorrupt) was orphaned in early childhood, blinded at age 12, and then taken in by some Dominican tertiaries.  After experiencing a radiant vision of St. Dominic one night, she became a total recluse living with incredible austerity in an anchorage nearby.  People of all classes came to consult with her and many miracles were ascribed to her intercession. 

 

St. Catherine of Siena (Catherine Benincasa; 1347-80; incorrupt), is one of the most beloved and emulated saints of the Catholic church, especially notable for being one of only two female “Doctors of the Church” (who are considered to have made important contributions to church doctrine).  Catherine, the 25th child (!) of a Sienese dyer and his undoubtedly hard-working wife, became a tertiary sister of the Dominicans around age 20, and while her youth was devoted to deeply contemplative, ecstatic raptures (during which she often levitated), she later spent much of her time in caring for the sick, visiting prisoners, and distributing alms.  Toward the end of her life, she even became very involved in trying to sort out the political troubles afflicting the papacy at that time.  Catherine left a number of writings, many of them dictated while she was in a trance state, her face lifted heavenward.  She attracted many disciples, and was known for her mystical states, lofty writings, healings, exorcisms, and very long fasts, which eventually gave way to complete abstinence from food, except for the daily communion wafer.  After her death, she was also found to have borne the stigmata wounds of Christ on her own body. 

 

Bd. Beatrice of Ornacieu (d. 1309), born to French nobility, led a life of extreme austerity at a convent in Parménie within that already austere Carthusian order.  Beatrice had an almost constant vision of Jesus by her side.  However, like many visionaries, diabolic manifestations also plagued her, apparently including physical torments with showers of stones and blazing darts, all of which she patiently endured.  Bd. Roseline (d. 1329; incorrupt) overcame resistance from her family of nobility to become a Carthusian nun, eventually becoming prioress of Celle Roubaud in Provence. Roseline fasted from food for whole weeks at a time, slept 3-4 hours a night, frequently “used the discipline” (a self-flagellation device), enjoyed numerous visions and ecstasies, and was known to “read the hearts of all who came to her.”  St. Isabel (1271-1336), daughter of Peter III, King of Aragon, had been married at age 12 to Denis, King of Portugal, a good ruler but a sinful man; she lovingly attempted to convert him, and herself lived a tightly scheduled life of devotion, prayer, and massive charity to all sorts of needy folk.  She was famed as a peacemaker between the various factions in Portugal; after the death of her finally converted husband, she lived as a Franciscan tertiary near a convent she had built near Coimbra, where she is buried (a site honored by many miracles).  St. Flora of Beaulieu, near Rocamadour (d. 1309-47) was a nun within the Hospitalières, or Order of St. John of Jerusalem, subject to misgivings about her vocation and intense depression; but she overcame these inner trials and the outer trials of the other nuns ridiculing her for her “craziness,” to become one favored by God in the form of ecstasies, levitations, and prophetic knowledge.  She died at age 38, and many miracles were reported at her tomb.

 

St. Bridget/Birgitta of Sweden (1303-73) lost her noblemen husband while they were returning from a pilgrimage; they had been happily married for 28 years, with eight children.  Birgitta had just prior to their tour left her role of principal lady-in-waiting at the Swedish court, and now she lived as a penitent at Alvastra, communicating to her spiritual director the insistent visions and revelations which came to her.  Birgitta founded the women’s religious order commonly known as the Bridgettines, headquartered at Vadstena, which became the literary center of Sweden for well over two centuries.  She is also known for certain healing and resurrection miracles wrought for people encountered in her ministry, especially in Rome, where she and her holy and strikingly beautiful daughter Catherine/Karin (1331-81) spent most of their years, caring for the poor, and living austerely.  Bridget, who had been deeply devoted to Christ’s passion since the age of 10, was a famous visionary, influencing a large number of people, including popes and rulers, whom she advised and criticized on various matters.  Predictably, she incurred the wrath of many of these people, who resented her candidness in telling them their faults.

 

St. Dorothy of Montau (Marienburg, Prussia) (1347-94) married an ill-tempered man at age 17, bore nine children, and then, through kindness and patience transformed him into a noble soul, with whom she would thereafter go on pilgrimage to holy sites.  When he died in 1393, Dorothy spent the next year until her own death living as an anchoress/recluse in a cell by the church of the Teutonic Knights at Marienwerder, quickly gaining a reputation for holiness and “supernatural enlightenment.”  Numerous visitors sought her out for advice or miraculous help.  Bd. Elizabeth the Good (1386-1420) was born to a poor couple at Waldsee in Würtemberg, Germany, and became known in childhood for her sweetness as “the good Bessie.”  Later she would become a Franciscan tertiary at nearby Reute, and notable for her lengthy abstinences from food (once for three years), her visions of heaven and purgatory, frequent ecstasies, occasional stigmata, and her patient endurance of many attacks from the devil.  In France, Bd. Joan Mary de Maillé (1332-1414), showed great piety from infancy, and is said to have saved, via her prayers, a little boy, Robert de Sillé, who had fallen into a pond; the two were later betrothed, though they would maintain celibacy their entire life together, also turning their chāteau into an asylum for the local poor.  In 1362, Robert died, and Joan Mary, after being “beseiged” by suitors at her mother’s home, withdrew to a little house in Tours, “and devoted herself to prayer, to attendance at the canonical offices and to the care of the sick and poor.”  Once she was severely injured by a madwoman who threw a rock at her back, but God miraculously healed her sufficiently so that she could resume her way of life.  She became a Franciscan tertiary and gave away all of her possessions and money to the poor, which alienated her relatives.  Thereafter, she was constrained to beg door to door and sleep in pig-styes and dog-kennels.  After a time spent restoring a chapel and living as an anchoress near Cléry, Joan Mary returned to Tours and lived the last 25 years of her life in a tiny room near the Minorite church, looked upon by some as a witch, but acclaimed by many others for her holiness, her healing miracles, her prophecies, and her love for the downtrodden; she especially loved to visit prisoners, and assist and instruct them.  St. Joan of Arc (1412-31) obeyed her inner voices commanding her to save France from the English and Burgundians, and helped lead the dauphin’s armies to successive victories.  Eventually she was captured and then arraigned before the court of the bishop of Beauvais, who had Joan—19 years of age—burnt at the stake as a witch and heretic.  St. Colette (1381-1447) of Corbie in Picardy, northern France, was a singularly beautiful young peasant maiden of great faith and holiness who, after the death of her parents at age 17, became a Franciscan tertiary; she lived such a life of austerity that many people from all over sought her prayers and advice.  At one point, though, she went into complete silence and seclusion for three years.  Charged by a vision of St. Francis to bring his Poor Clare nuns back to their original strict rule of life after it had grown lax, she was given permission by the Pope to go about from convent to convent reforming them; initially she met with violent opposition, but later her reforms were accepted, and spread throughout France, Flanders and Spain.  Colette thus became famous far and wide, especially for the miracles which happened around her; even the ruling elite were her devotees.  Colette found 17 convents of the strict observance in France and Flanders, and reformed many old convents (and monasteries).  A woman of tremendous contemplative depth, she would be immersed for twelve hours straight every Friday in contemplation on the Lord’s Passion; she also greatly loved animals and children, and they had a deep rapport with her in return.  (Her shrine is at Poligny).   

 

Bd. Lydwina (1380-1433) of Schiedam, Holland, is the most famous of those “victim souls” found in the Church who seem to be living the vocation of “redemptive suffering” for the sake of others.  Up to the age of 15, she was a lively, attractive, and good child, who had taken a lifelong vow of virginity.  A broken rib received during a fall led to complications and eventually Lydwina was suffering all sorts of mysterious afflictions, pain racking every part of her body.  At first she was naturally anguished over her state, but a pious priest taught her how to “unite her sufferings with the Passion of Christ,” and when she learned sufficiently how to do this, her afflictions became for her the source of tremendous joy.  At age 19, her physical situation grew even worse, bringing on all sorts of diseases (abscesses, neuritis, tertian fever, constant vomiting, a bad heart, blindness in one eye, facial disfigurations, etc.).  Lydwina’s sufferings had become known over Holland and many medical specialists visited her but could find no explanation for most of her diseases, nor could they help her.  Her condition was evidently quite revolting by all accounts, but her loving family members claimed that her putrefying body emitted a fragrant perfume, and that her sickroom—though constrained to be kept fairly dark—was “often irradiated by a celestial brilliancy so vivid that, on more than one occasion, neighbours raised the cry of fire.”  Powers of healing (obviously not used for her own sake!), remote vision, and prophecy began to be associated with her.  For the last 19 years of her life Lydwina ate nothing except the communion wafer once every fortnight.  Around 1407 she began to enjoy ecstasies and mystical visions of Jesus, the saints, and her guardian angel.  But for every consolation she received, she also seemed to take on a new kind of suffering, in keeping with her “vocation.”  Moreover, she lost almost all of her near relations to death one after another.  Lydwina also had to encounter severe calumnies from a new priest in the area who finally denounced her to his congregation—but they, in passionate defense of their beloved “saint,” almost drove him from the city.  The last seven years of her life Lydwina was virtually sleepless, so terrible were her physical sufferings.  She was finally released from the body at age 53 and has been for these last five centuries popularly viewed as patroness of all those who suffer.

 

Where are the holy women of England during these times?  Mainly cloistered away in the few monasteries remaining after several centuries around the turn of the millennium of barbarian invasions and destruction; some of these remnant monasteries had grown rather lax.  In any case, we do hear of two women in particular:  the wise and saintly Juliana of Norwich (b. 1342/3, died after 1413) may have earlier in life been married and then widowed; all that we know for sure is that by her mid-life she was famed as an anchoress living alone in a cell next to a church in poverty and chastity, immersed in the contemplative life.  Fifteen revelations to Juliana from Christ after a serious malady almost killed her at age 30 led her to bring forth that great treasure, Revelations of Love, a work overflowing with joy, hope, and the magnanimity of God’s sweet love.  Margery Kempe (14th to early 15th century), married and mother of 14 children, was a very dramatic British mystic whose writings about her pilgrimages and unusual states of infusion by the Holy Spirit have been of great interest (incidentally, this work, which also severely criticized the worldliness of her time, constitutes the oldest extant British autobiography).  Margery, we may note, was deeply influenced by her meeting with Juliana of Norwich.

 

Turning again to Italy, we see numerous women of the 15th century and early 16th century exalted for their sanctity:  Bd. Mary of Pisa (d. 1431) was twice married, and had seven children, but, alas, all these family members died by the time she was in her mid-20s!  Mary refused to wed a third time, and converted her home into a hospital, becoming a Dominican tertiary. Blessed with deep and sudden ecstasies (once she was knocked down in the street by a mule while rapt in God), she eventually joined a Dominican convent, and then founded another, which became a model of sanctity throughout Italy.  Bd. Angelina of Marsciano (1377-1435) was widowed at age 17, and became a Franciscan tertiary, and converted her castle into a body of secular tertiaries living in community; they traveled about Italy “recalling sinners to penance, relieving distress, and putting before young women the call of a life of virginity for Christ’s sake.”  She found the first official convent of enclosed tertiaries at Assisi in 1397, and founded many others during her lifetime.  St. Frances of Rome (1384-1440; incorrupt) married at age twelve, and bore her loving husband three children in addition to serving the sick and the poor with another pious young married woman (they dressed in very plain garb; after they had exhausted their funds in charity, they would beg from door to door for their poor clients).  Two of her young children died, but Frances was graced thereafter with perpetual cognizance of their guardian angels, who guided her; she was also gifted with the power of healing—bodies, souls, and relationships between adversaries, which made her famous all over Rome.  Widowed after 40 years of happy marriage, Frances continued her charity work, noted for her sanctity, her austerities (her sole diet for decades had been dry bread and vegetables), her long prayer-vigils, her visions and her ecstasies.  She founded the Oblates of Mary (Tor de’ Specchi), and later entered this order as a humble postulant, though was immediately constrained by the others to be its mother superior.  A wonderful fragrance miraculously persisted around her relic for months after her death.  St. Rita of Cascia (1381-1457; incorrupt), deferred to her parents’ wishes and, instead of becoming a nun, married at age twelve a bad-tempered fellow who died some 18 years later.  After this period of “veritable martyrdom,” and the subsequent death of her two sons, Rita became an Augustinian nun.  In mid-life, while allegedly praying for a chance to share in Jesus’ sufferings for humanity, she was miraculously “rewarded” with a stigmatic wound in the forehead, which was so foul that she spent her next 15 years in seclusion, so as not to offend the other nuns.  When she died, the stench left the body and a marvelous fragrance was instead perceived.  Countless postmortem miracles have been associated with her incorruptible relic, and she is now, along with St. Jude, designated as “patron saint of impossible causes,” and, because of this heavenly function, she is, as might be expected, one of Christianity’s more popular saints. 

 

Bd. Helen of Udine (1396-1458), northeast Italy, married a knight, happily raised a large family, and then, when at age 40 her husband died, she became a tertiary with the Hermits of St. Augustine, and devoted herself to charity, prayer, and mortification, also taking a vow of perpetual silence. The gifts of healing, ecstasies, and divine joy, as well as demonic attacks, were a major part of her life.  St. Catherine of Bologna (1413-63; incorrupt) at age 14 left the courtly life and became a Franciscan tertiary, soon subject to all sorts of visions, both divine and demonic.  When she was 43, Catherine became abbess of a group of Poor Clare nuns.  She was known not only for her visions and her prophecies and power of healing, but also for her writings, her calligraphy and miniature paintings, and her tremendous kindness to and sacrifices for her nuns.  Bd. Magdalen Albrizzi (d. 1465) of Como, after the death of both her parents, was divinely guided not to enter the wealthier convent nearby, but to enter the poor one up in the mountains at Brunate, which began to flourish shortly after her arrival. Magdalen was later chosen superior, and became known for her supernatural gifts of healing, foretelling the future, and the effecting of immediate, miraculous help through her powerful prayers.  She died at an advanced age after a long, painful illness.  Bd. Eustochium of Messina (1432-68), who showed piety from the earliest age, had been born in answer to her pious mother’s prayers.  After her father’s death in 1446, she became a Poor Clare nun at Basico, immersed in poverty, penitence, prayer, and nursing the sick.  She received permission to found a stricter convent, of which she became abbess when she reached the legal age of 30; she was quite famous for her miracles of healing, many accomplished by the mere touch of her handkerchief.  Bd. Eustochium of Padua‚ (1446-69; incorrupt) was born to a wayward nun in a convent, raised in it, and later this gentle, sweet soul experienced sudden, intermittent “possessions” of a most frightful nature, which led to her almost being burnt to death by a mob convinced she was a witch; but many beautiful apparitions and miracles followed her death at the early age of 26. 

 

The parents of Bd. Catherine of Pallanza (1438-78) died in the plague, and when she was 15 she was inspired upon hearing a sermon to live the contemplative, austere life in the mountains above Varese, the first woman to do so in that wilderness; after 15 years, she allowed other women to gather around her as disciples, and they established the convent of Santa Maria di Monte under the Augustinian rule.  Gifted with the spirit of prophecy, among other things, she passed on at the early age of forty.  Bd. Eustochia Calafato (1434-1485; incorrupt) left her family of nobility and became a Poor Clare nun, later founding a more austere Franciscan convent in northeast Sicily.  A stigmatic, she is also known for her many virtues and miracles, especially the increase of food.  Bd. Jane of Reggio (d. 1491) took up the ascetic life at home when her wealthy parents would not let her become a nun; later, after their deaths, she abandoned her inheritance and founded the monastery of Our Lady of the People; she spent at least five hours a day in prayer and contemplation, and worked many wonders through the power of her God-aligned prayer.  Bd. Archangela Girlani (1460-94; incorrupt) entered a Carmelite nunnery at age 17, and soon was made prioress—probably due to her high nobility (it was an old custom for women of wealthy families to be so favored, so that the convents could be properly endowed and also be protected in times of trouble).  Archangela evidently more than merited the position:  “She was a model of every religious virtue, most austere in her practice of penance, charitable to all and possessed of a marvellous spirit of prayer.”  Lengthy ecstasies, levitations, and other miracles characterized her life. 

 

Bd. Columba of Rieti (1467-1501), a Dominican tertiary since age 19, was already being sought in her own lifetime by the officials of Perugia in times of danger, due to her reputation for sanctity and wonderworking.  The daughter of weavers, she was devoted to Sts. Dominic and Catherine of Siena, who often appeared to her in visions and guided her.  Once Columba enjoyed a five-day long trance in which it seemed she was dead, but after which she claimed to have been visiting the Holy Land.  She practiced almost complete inedia, which added to her reputation for holiness.  Her fame preceded her to Perugia, where she later arrived after wandering around led by the Spirit; here she served as peacemaker, and healer of those afflicted with the plague.  Columba offered herself as a penitential sacrifice, and when the plague in fact abated, she contracted it, though she was later cured, apparently by St. Catherine’s intercession.  Bd. Magdalen Panattieri (d. 1503), a Dominican tertiary at the little town of Trino-Vercellese in Montferrat, northwest Italy, cared for the poor and young, converted sinners through her prayer and austerities, exhorted against usury, and became a “veritable Preacheress,” appointed to give conferences to women and children, to which priests, laymen, and religious soon came for inspiration as well.  “By her efforts the Dominicans were inspired to undertake a more strict observance.”  Bd. Osanna of Mantua (1449-1505; incorrupt) at age five heard an inner voice while on the banks of the Po River, saying “Child, life and death consist in loving God”; she thereupon fell into an ecstasy and was shown by an angel a revelation of paradise, and was told that the heavenly, eternal vocation of praising God ought to be our preoccupation in this life.  From that time she began to spend long hours in prayer and penance, often falling into ecstasies.  She overcame resistance from her father to become a novice among the Dominican tertiaries at age 14, and remained a novice for another 37 years so as to freely practice her daily works of charity.  Eventually she became famous for her raptures, ecstasies, and inspiring guidance to those people of high and low rank (including Duke Frederick and his family) who came to her for guidance, though Osanna also was persecuted by other tertiaries who thought her mystic states nothing but a pretense.  She became a “hidden stigmatic” with invisible wounds, in fulfillment of her prayers to partake in Christ’s sufferings.  She was greatly edified by a lengthy “spiritual love relationship” with a spiritual son ten years younger than she, who had been inspired to become a priest simply upon seeing her one day in church, rapt in God.

 

St. Catherine of Genoa (1447-1510; incorrupt; stigmatic), a beautiful, sensitive, intelligent, and rather serious young noblewoman, tried to forget her marital troubles with a philandering husband by participating in the “gaieties and recreations of her world.” But in 1473 she underwent a profound conversion experience after which she dedicated her life to serving the sick.  She was later joined by her husband, whose worldly, temperamental attitude had become completely transformed by his wife’s holiness.  Catherine, who outlived him by nine years, is highly esteemed for her influential thought (which inspired several books), her sublime mystical states of oneness with God, and also an ability to immerse herself in the most concrete, filthy conditions of hard labor serving the sick in a wretched hospital and all over Genoa, even in the midst of lengthy fasts that she undertook.  (At one point she overcame her aversion to the lice on her patients by carefully picking off the biggest ones and eating them—the kind of “heroic” behavior which, as the saying goes, is “better admired than imitated!”)  It is notable that Catherine always remained fully a laywomen, never even becoming a tertiary.  Bd. Louisa Albertoni (1473-1533) was a widow with three daughters who was devoted almost entirely to prayer and serving the sick and poor of Rome; many times she was rapt in ecstasies in which she levitated. She lived in dire poverty, having given away all her wealth to the poor.  Like many of these saints, numerous miracles happened after her death, apparently through her intercession. 

 

St. Angela Merici of Brescia (1474-1540; incorrupt), orphaned early in life at Lake Garda, became a Franciscan tertiary and was so successful in giving catechism lessons to the village children that she was invited to come to Brescia to do the same. In 1535 she began with several women followers the Company of St. Ursula, the first teaching order of women to be established, later suppressed/transformed into the cloistered Ursuline nuns by the male ecclesiastical hierarchy, who were undoubtedly a bit traumatized around this time by the Protestant Reformation.  The Ursulines’ work had specifically been to teach young girls—which would have constituted a significant empowerment for females in those days, an empowerment perhaps perceived as threatening by the male hierarchy.  The husband of Bd. Lucia of Narni (1476-1544; incorrupt), after three years of marriage, let her pursue her long-standing wish—to become a Dominican tertiary at a house in Rome.  Here she received the miraculous stigmata marks of Christ’s wounds in her body—which were confirmed by an official committee as valid—and began to participate every Wednesday and Friday in Christ’s sufferings.  Her fame spread, and Ercole I, Duke of Ferrara, a friend of several saints of the times, founded a cloistered convent at Ferrara for her to lead.  But Lucia was only 23, with insufficient leadership skills; she was soon deposed by some of her fellow sisters, who out of jealousy and ignorance thought her divine favors were a mere hoax. Lucia bore all this without complaint, and was content to see her status fall from the plane of fashionable mystic to utter obscurity. Thus were spent her last 39 years, the time wherein she really became a saint, becoming perfect in equanimity and kindness.  After her death the people, who thought she had died long before, resurrected her reputation and began to venerate her. Sure enough, numerous miracles began to occur and later her body was found to be incorrupt.

 

Bd. Catherine of Racconigi, Piedmont (1486-1547) was born in a tumble-down shed to an impoverished working man, and apparently began to have intermittent visions of the Christ child from age five on.  The Holy Spirit came upon her in a special way when she was 14, which occasioned her beginning to suffer an invisible set of stigmata wounds.  Catherine became a Dominican tertiary and offered herself as a “sacrificial victim” of “redemptive suffering” for the sake of souls in hell and purgatory, and many miracles are recorded of her, such as bilocation before her death, and healing miracles after her passing. 

 

Over in Savoy, just beyond the northwest border of the Italian region in France, two women stand out in the 15th century:  Bd. Margaret of Savoy (?-1464; incorrupt) in 1403 married a nobleman widower, who passed away 15 years later.  Margaret raised his children and then became a Dominican tertiary, studying, praying, and doing charity along with other women.  In time, she became a nun and was the foundress of a convent; many ecstasies and miracles “in abundance” are reported of her.  Bd. Louisa of Savoy (1461-1503) was the daughter of the Duke, who died when she was nine; at 18 she married Hugh de Chālons, Lord of Nozeroy, and they turned their home into a veritable monastery compared with the homes of other royalty.  Louisa practiced extensive charity toward the sick and needy, widows and orphans, and especially lepers.  She became a Franciscan tertiary when her husband of nine years passed away, and lived the rest of her years in humility and goodness.

 

With mention a moment ago of the Protestant Reformation, we need to examine what happened to the women religious living in areas where this Reformation took hold.  Scholar Merry E. Wiesner, in an important recent article, has clarified the situation for us Germany:        

“Women in convents, both cloistered nuns and lay sisters, and other female religious, were the first to confront the Protestant Reformation.  In areas becoming Protestant religious change meant both the closing of their houses and a negation of the value and worth of the life they had been living.  The Prostestant reformers encouraged nuns and sisters to leave their houses and marry, with harsh words concerning the level of morality in the convents, comparing it to that in brothels.  Some convents accepted the Protestant message and willingly gave up their houses and land to city and territorial authorities.  The nuns renounced their vows, and those who were able to find husbands married, while the others returned to their families or found ways to support themselves on their own.  Others did not accept the new religion but recognized the realities of political power and gave up their holdings; these women often continued living together after the Reformation, trying to remain as a religious comunity, though they often had to rely on their families for support.  In some cases the nuns were given a pension.  There is no record, however, of what happened to most of these women.  Former priests and monks could become pastors in the new Protestant churches, but former nuns had no place in the new church structure. ...

      “A number of abbesses heroically resisted the Reformation, such as Abbess Charitas Pirckheimer, of the St. Clare convent in Nuremburg, and Elizabeth Gottgabs, Abbess of the Oberwesel convent. ...

      “The Counter-Reformation church wanted all female religious strictly cloistered... and provided no orders for women who wanted to carry out an active apostolate; there was no female equivalent of the Jesuits [despite the efforts of people such as Mary Ward to establish such an order of “Jesuitesses”].  The church also pressured Béguines, Franciscan tertiaries, and other sisters who had always moved about somewhat freely or worked out in the community to adopt strict rules of cloister and place themselves under the direct control of a bishop.  The women concerned did not always submit meekly, however. The Béguines in Münster, for example, refused to follow the advice of their confessors, who wanted to reform the beguinage and turn it into a cloistered house of Poor Clares.  ... Eventually ... they were allowed to retain certain of their traditional practices.” [61]

 

The Protestant Reformation of the early 16th century led by Luther, Zwingli, Knox, Calvin, et al, not only launched major new denominations of Christians, but also stimulated a period of reform and greater sanctity within the Roman Catholic tradition, as urged by the Council of Trent (1545-63).  In the wake of this, many holy women would emerge, and though Luther, et al, dissolved the cult of saints in their Protestant churches, the Catholic Church, in line with the ideals of its Tridentine Council, “vigorously reaffirmed the cult of saints and their relics.” 

 

In England, Bd. Margaret Pole (1471/3-1541), last of the Plantagents, was the daughter of George, Duke of Clarence; as a young woman, she married “beneath her station” to Sir Richard Pole, who died in 1505, leaving her with their five children.  Margaret was made Countess of Salisbury, in 1513, and served as governess to Princess Mary from 1520-33, until Mary’s house was dissolved.  King Henry VIII, who had once called Margaret “the most saintly woman in England,” was accused by her son, Cardinal Reginald Pole, of sinful conduct in his split from Rome; though Margaret denounced Reginald as a traitor, she was nevertheless later interrogated and imprisoned for two years in the Tower, edifying all who encountered her.  A Catholic uprising in Yorkshire was the excuse needed for Cromwell and his men to execute her.  Thus was Margaret was hacked to pieces by an inexperienced executioner, becoming the first Catholic martyr in the English Reformation.  Bd. Margaret Clitherow (d. 1586) was a Yorkshire lass—married to a well-to-do grazier and butcher—who converted to Catholicism and then proceeded to win a lot of converts, for which she was imprisoned by the Puritans in the verminous, bleak castle; this became a time of fruitful spiritual retreat for her, and when she was released after two years, she continued her deeply prayerful life, only now she also illegally hid priests in her home.  Eventually she was found out and this merry, witty woman, much loved by those who came to her for counsel and help, was arrested, tried, and killed via a slow death by weights pressing down upon her naked body.  Until the very end, Margaret’s equanimity, good cheer, and devotion was remarkable.  Bd. Anne Line (d. 1601), another Catholic martyr in England, was charged with having harbored a priest in her home—she actually had been heading up a house of refuge in London for some time.

 

In Spain, Isabella of Castile (1451-1504), wife of Ferdinand V, and Queen of Castile and joint-ruler of Aragon, cannot be considered an especially “saintly” woman, given her policies toward the Jews (she expelled them) and her empowering of the Inquisition, but she did launch a number of powerful reforms several decades before Luther had made his move up in Germany (of course, she never severed allegiance with Rome). Her reforms aimed at greater education for priests, and a return to the rules of the original founders of the Augustinian, Benedictine, Franciscan, and Dominican orders.  Her adviser, Cardinal Ximenes, who later became a Franciscan friar, was to carry out further her reform work, promoting the idea that everybody can communicate directly with God—a notion which brought over Spain a tidal wave of new religious fervency, and much suspicion from the Catholic hierarchy in that country and in Rome.  In the wake of this new spiritual ardour, many women emerged as charismatic leaders of new circles of renewed Christian piety, some quite heterodox, as scholar Milagros Ortega Costa has observed (see the section on women of Protestantism). 

 

By far the most important of the 16th century Spanish holy women was St. Teresa of Avila (Teresa of Jesus, 1515-82).  As a young nun, Teresa de Ahumada returned from paralysis, serious heart disease and a lengthy near-death experience at age 22 to persist in her newly-discovered art of wordless contemplation (“mental prayer”); after almost twenty years of ups and downs and severe conflicts and self-doubts, she would emerge to become one of the most famous Catholic saints of all time.  Teresa is celebrated for her virtuous life in the face of many trials and tribulations ¨—both human and demonic), her extensive, sublime writings on contemplative spirituality (such as found within her autobiography [chapters XI-XXII], her commenatary on the “Song of Songs,” and her works, The Way of Perfection and The Interior Castle), for which she has been designated the second of two women “Doctors of the Church,” her ecstatic contemplative depths, and her tireless work (despite chronic illness and many obstacles) in founding 16 convents throughout Spain (in addition to several monasteries for men).  These convents were open to women of all stations and adhered to the strict, “discalced” Carmelite reform, a movement which she and her colleagues (including her prodigious spiritual son, St. John of the Cross) founded in the face of great opposition, beginning with her first house in northern Avila in 1562.  (St. Albert’s original rule for the Carmelites in 1209 had been mitigated over the three centuries, and most of the Carmelite houses—such as the one in which Teresa had spent 27 years—were somewhat lax in contemplative ardour; Teresa’s new/old movement would emphasize a cloistered, contemplative and yet active lifestyle, based on complete poverty, vegetarianism, and joyous reliance on God.)  Teresa, “La Madre,” was admired not only by her many nuns, but also by her illustrious friend and defender, St. Peter of Alcántara, and numerous other pious male clerics; they saw her as an exceedingly wise, brave, strong, ascetic soul, also an extraordinarily cheerful, charming, witty, humble, sincere, sensible, compassionate, and loving woman, who had an all-sacrificing love for her nuns and for all those who were in spiritual danger.  Teresa’s various works, including her lengthy autobiography (completed in 1565, written under obedience to her spiritual director), give us much information concerning her mystical life, which included the full gamut of paranormal phenomena.  From these and from the reports of her associates, we know that Teresa frequently experienced certain divine gifts, such as hours—long raptures, the discernment of spirits, clairvoyance, levitations, prophecies, visions and locutions from Christ, Mary and the other saints (she helped promote the cult of St. Joseph), and various other miraculous phenomena.  At least once she received a special infusion of grace from a lance-wielding cherubim which seems to have left a distinct hole in her physical heart—this heart has miraculously remained incorrupt along with the rest of her body for over 400 years.  Her passing from the body while returning from founding her sixteenth convent was evidently caused by one of those intolerably blissful “impulses of love” which she had long suspected might separate her spirit and body; a number of remarkable phenomena attended Teresa’s transition into the Eternal Life—and numerous miracles have been wrought through her behalf to this day.  All these things have led her to become, after St. James the Apostle (who is allegedly buried at Santiago de Compostela), Spain’s patron saint. 

 

Bd. Anne of St. Bartholomew (d. 1626) was the main companion with St. Teresa on nearly all the latter’s journeys during the last seven years of her life.  She had been a sheperdess until age 20, and became a lay-sister, always refusing any promotion out of humility.  Six years after Teresa’s passing, Anne was a member of the party of six nuns who went to France, and was appointed prioress—over her objections—of a Discalced Carmelite convent at Pontoise, and then at Tours.  Later she would found a convent at Antwerp, which was “soon filled with the daughters of the noblest families in the Low Countries, all eager to tread the path of perfection under the guidance of one who already in her lifetime was regarded as a saint and was known to be a prophet and a wonderworker” (Attwater).

 

Another Spanish female mystic was St. Catherine (Catalina) Thomás of Palma, Majorca (d. 1574), who was orphaned as a child and brought up in the home of her paternal uncle—where she sweetly, patiently endured many oppressive burdens and indignities.  At age 15 she was moved by visions of St. Anthony of Padua and St. Catherine of Alexandria to become a religious, but for many years was denied entry to any of the convents on this Spanish isle for want of a dowry.  Catherine was finally able to join the canonesses of St. Augustine at Palma in her twentieth year, where she soon became distinguished for the wondrous things happening in her life—the gift of prophecy, loud and hideous attacks from unseen demons, and long states of ecstasy (what the Hindu yogis might call “samādhi”), some of them occurring while she was moving about, lasting for days or even a full fortnight, leading up to the feast of St. Catherine of Alexandria.  Sor María de Santo Domingo, the beata of Piedrahita, was a nun who experienced raptures, prophecies, and many other supernatural signs which were a source of inspiration to her followers; she also wrote of her ardent love and intermittent communions with God.  Isabel Ortiz (fl. 1560s), a maidservant in a royal house for years before marrying a silversmith at 15, was abandoned by this husband, and one of her two young daughters died within a short time. Isabel supported herself through embroidery work, and learned to read, which she put to use reading various spiritual works.  Soon her reputation for spiritual understanding and teachings on mental prayer began to grow and made her a number of friends and disciples.  She wrote her own book of devotions, for which the Inquisition arrested her, yet, by sheer determination, her appeal compelled the Council to not torture her and let her go free.  María Vela y Cueto (1561-1617), of a noble family in Avila, became a nun, and engaged in severe austerities—sleep deprivation, eating only grass for periods, using the “discipline” on herself thrice daily, and so on.  Soon María was experiencing various raptures, locutions, and other mystical phenomena, which led to persecution from some authorities and acclaims from others that she was a veritable saint.  We should know that María was actually a quite well-rounded person, and was made the teacher of novices in 1601:  she sang and played the organ in choir beautifully, made exquisite embroderies and artificial flowers for the altar, and taught with wisdom the Scriptures and hagiographic works.  At her death, the people of Avila clamored to see the body of their “saint.” 

 

Ven. Luisa de Carvajal y Mendoza (1566-1614), an orphan within a extended family of nobility, was raised from age six to ten by her aunt, who would take her to visit the sick in the hospitals and feed the poor.  Luisa then lived with her uncle, mainly in Pamplona and Madrid, until she was 26.  She received spiritual direction from him and from a woman who lived in his large household, who would secretly teach Luisa the art of humility through repeated “discipline,” i.e., bodily-mortification.  Luisa spent much time in pious works for the needy, spiritual readings and mental prayer.  When her uncle died, she decided not to become a nun, but took up residence in a modest house with some pious young women who also wanted to live the virtuous life.  Luisa dressed as a beggar and visited the hospitals and brothels, consoling the afflicted and converting the “fallen women” to a better way. She took vows of poverty in 1593, of obedience to Jesuit spiritual directors in 1595, and then took a vow of martyrdom in 1598, influenced by hearing of the Catholic martyrs in England.  After settling her estate, and waiting to get permission to travel, she journied to the British isles in 1604 at the age of 40, and stayed in various hidden enclaves with Catholics.  She would take a stand for her Roman Catholicism by publicly praying in front of crosses, destroying insulting cariacatures of the pope, visiting Catholics in prison, succouring those priests and others who were condemned to death by their refusal to take the Fidelity Oath, and giving them a proper Catholic burial, even though it meant stealing their headless bodies in the night.  She not only converted non-Catholics but also “reconverted” those Catholics who, through fear of persecution, had assented to the Protestant faith.  She was twice arrested but then released through the pressure of the Spanish embassy.  She died a peaceful death in England—God evidently not deigning her the martyr’s death to which she had aspired.

 

Bd. Osanna of Cattaro (1493-1565), a shepherdess, servant, and then an anchoress at several churches, was visited by many young women and matrons who came to her for counsel; Osanna also had a reputation for supernatural gifts, prophecy, prayer-power, and showed tremendous equanimity in the face of demonic and human persecutions.  St. Catherine dei Ricci (1522-90; incorrupt), entered the Dominican convent of Prato at the age of 13, and went on to become famous for her holiness and wisdom, her reform attempts in the church, for her regular weekly ecstasies (which began at age 20) reliving the sufferings of Jesus for 28 straight hours, for her stigmata, and for a miraculous “ring” of espousal to Jesus upon her finger.  She also seems to have been in miraculous communications (sometimes involving bi-location) with that charming patron saint of Rome, Philip Neri (d. 1595). 

 

St. Maria Maddalena dei Pazzi (1566-1607; incorrupt) as a child shunned her family’s rich lifestyle in Florence, engaging in severe self-mortifications, later joining the Carmelite nuns up in the nearby hills.  She experienced remarkable visions of Jesus, Mary and the saints, trance states, the stigmata, levitation, and many other wondrous things (including some ecstasies that would appear to us quite sexual in nature—indeed, one scholarly observer has found Maria to have been a “neurotic” by 20th century standards... Yet we must remember that it takes a mature spiritual director to properly evaluate such a personality, and facile psychological judgments from our modern perspective may in certain cases not be at all applicable.)  Bd. Victoria Fornari-Strata (1562-1617) of Genoa was happily married for nine years, raising six children; her dearly beloved husband died, and Victoria, 25 years of age, was inspired by a vision and message from Mary to not marry again for security, for “I will care for your household.”  Victoria lived in retirement, giving all her time to God, her children and the poor.  In 1604 she founded the so-called “Blue Nuns of Genoa,” who are especially devoted to Mother Mary.

 

Over in the New World, St. Rosa (de Flores) of Lima‚ (1586-1617; incorrupt), the first canonized saint of the Americas, from very early years undertook severe fasts, penances (bodily mortifications) and prayer-vigils, and was also graced with visions and mystical experiences.  As a young woman, Rosa showed herself to be quite talented at music, gardening, and sewing, and earned wages from the latter two activities to help support her lower-middle class family and give alms to the needy.  Though exquisitely beautiful, Rosa would not marry, fending off a number of suitors, and at age 20 she became a Dominican tertiary and lived in a hermitage in a garden at her Spanish parents’ home in Peru (a lover of nature’s creatures, she evidently was rarely if ever bitten by the hordes of mosquitos, having “made a pact of friendship with them” and commended them to God); here in her cell she combined a deeply prayerful life with much outward work to help support her by-now rather poor parents as well as destitute children and adults of verious races in the vicinity, who would gather around her dwelling knowing that their Rosa, inspired by her guardian angel, would find some way to help them, if not through the power of her prayer, then through her expertise as an herbalist.  (She has been called the originator of social service in Peru.)  Soon after her entry into the formal religious life, Rosa had experienced a tremendous “dark night of the soul” or spiritual aridity, but she passed through it into the “unitive life,” a continuous sense of God-communion, something she revealed only after much persistent questioning by two theologians of the Inquisition who came to examine her at one point early in her religious career.  Her spiritual life can be further characterized in terms of great purity, humility, and a tremendous sense of gratitude to the Lord (three times a day she would repeatedly chant “Thanks be to God”).  She is also called the “saviouress” of Lima, for in 1615 she apparently confronted a marauding band of pirates before the altar of the local church, and, dazzled by her formidable presence, they fled.  Having exhausted herself through work and vigils and mortifications, Rosa’s health failed, and she predicted that she would die in her thirty-first year.  A huge crowd attended her in death, and, like many of the saintly women mentioned herein, many post-miracles would be reported. 

 

Fourteen months after Rosa’s passing another female spiritual prodigy was born in the thriving town of Quito, Ecuador, to wealthy parents:  St. Mariana de Jesus (Mariana Paredes y Flores; 1618-45).  Extremely devout as a child, Marianita would sit for hours amidst the shrubbery immersed in prayer, yet balancing this natural contemplative orientation with a relish for playing with her companions.  She was impressed by stories of saints as a girl, and, giving herself her new spiritual name, took vows of perpetual virginity, began to fast often, keep vigils, and engage in bodily mortification (flogging herself) to atone for the sins of the world.  Sometime in her eighth year she even led a band of girls to run away and become hermits, but she soon returned upon receiving divine guidance that this was not the correct path for her and her chums.  A couple of years after this, when her older brother-in-law (he and Mariana’s sister were raising her and another sibling after the death of their mother) decided to put Mariana into a convent, she firmly announced that she would not be cloistered away; instead, she asked that an upper chamber be set apart for her in his rather luxurious home, and stripped of all its decor leaving only a functional cell.  Herein she continued her life of prayer, meditation, fasting, vigils, and sacrificial penance, leaving only to attend daily Mass.  Mariana gave away her substantial dowry to the poor, and spent much time performing works of charity to the needy who would come to visit her (a door from her room to the outside made possible more direct contact).  Though it is said that she became a Franciscan tertiary, she wore a habit patterned after the clothing worn by the Jesuits, had a series of Jesuit spiritual directors, and followed in her own way an Ignatian rule (“I am all Jesuit” she once said).  She sewed and wove materials which she then sold to raise money for the needy.  And every day she gave away large quantities of bread, a mysteriously always-available foodstuff which the locals began to regard with some reverence.  Mariana was especially interested to teach little Indian children, though she had little education herself.  Thus, by virtue of her various activities, she was operating the first free clinic and kindergarten in Quito.  On the fourth Sunday of Lent in the year 1645, when a priest during a sermon offered himself as a propitiatory victim so as to end the series of catastrophes plaguing Quito (earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, epidemics of disease), Mariana, seated at the foot of the pulpit, rose and clearly announced that she would ask God to take her life in his place, since she regarded this priest to be of more use to the community than herself.  And so it happened:  the catastrophes ceased, she fell ill, and passed peacefully into glory that year, on the day she had earlier predicted, greatly beloved by the awed populace of the region.  Her life is marked by the gift of prophecy, and two resurrection miracles are attributed to her intercession.

 

Mary Ward (1585-1645) deserves mention at this stage in history as a British woman from a prominent Catholic family who became a Poor Clare nun at St. Omer, France, in 1606.  Feeling that the cloistered life was not for her, she returned to England, gathered a small band of followers, and returned to the mainland, where she founded a school for English girls at St. Omer, a day school for the poor, and then did the same at Liège, Cologne, and Trèves; however, Mary could not get approval from the Pope for her new order, “The English Ladies.”  Advocating an active, unenclosed religious life for women, patterned after the Jesuit Order for males, she set up convents and schools in Germany, Austria, and Hungary, and tried to continue her work in educating girls and women, but her ideas were too radical for early 17th century Catholicism, and in 1630 she was arrested as a “heretic” for such work.  She was later released, but her order was summarily dissolved.  Another notable British Catholic woman was Dorothy Lawson (1580-1632), “matriarch of an outlawed faith,” who engaged in numerous charitable and healing works at Heaton, near Newcastle; a tireless catechizer, Dorothy converted over one hundred families in her neighborhood, built a center for Jesuit missionaries, and raised 15 children, most of whom became celibate, prayerful persons.  Mary (Petit) of St. Teresa (1623-77) became a Carmelite recluse, first at Ghent, then at Malines, Belgium, and experienced a profound “mystical marriage” with the Lord in 1668, also being granted a deep state of union with Mother Mary.  Her writings reveal her to have been a mystic of high caliber, deserving to be much better known. 

 

During the period of the counter-Reformation, France witnessed a number of female luminaries in Catholic circles:  Bd. Barbe Acarie (1566-1618), the “conscience of Paris,” had an enormous influence on French Catholicism in this important period, helping spread the teachings on mystic contemplation she received from her mentor, Benedict Canfield (d. 1611), and persuading many relaxed convents to adopt a holier life.  Through her influence, the first reformed Carmelite houses were founded in France in 1604, and she also assisted Madame de Sainte-Beuve in founding the French houses of the Ursuline order of nuns.  Barbe was happily married for thirty years to the wealthy aristocrat, Peter Acarie, and bore him six children, influencing the whole family with her “glowing piety” (three of her daughters also became Carmelite nuns).  After Peter’s death in 1613 Madame Barbe joined the reformed (Discalced) Carmelites at Amiens, taking the name of “Marie of the Incarnation”; later she transferred to Pontoise, where she died on Easter morning.  St. Germaine (1579-1601; incorrupt) of Pibrac, near Toulouse, was scrofulous and deformed from birth; her father, a simple farmer, had no affection for her, and his second wife despised her.  Little Germaine was treated harshly, made to sleep in the stable or under the stairs, and fed on scraps (which she would share with beggars).  When old enough, she became the shepherdess for the family, and “out in the fields, alone with nature, she learned to commune with her divine Creator, from whom she learnt directly all that she required to know.  He spoke to her soul... and she lived ever consciouly in His presence.”  She would attend Mass regularly, the sheep never straying in her absence, and “she would often gather the young children round her to teach them the simple truths of religion and to lead them to love God.”  Her straightforward piety, along with several miracles, won her a veneration from the people, but at the age of 22, her feeble frame worn out, she was found dead on her straw pallet under the stairs.  Her body was exhumed in 1644 and found to be in perfect preservation.  St. Jane Frances de Chantal (1572-1641; incorrupt) was sunk in grief for some months when her husband, a wealthy French baron, was accidentally killed after eight years of happy marriage.  Subsequently Jane met St. Franics de Sales (1567-1622), whom she had seen earlier in a dream, and helped him found the Visitation Order of unenclosed sisters at Annecy, Savoy, which she and two daughters (among her four children) joined.  Eventually she would help to establish no less than 86 monasteries of this Order.  Meekness, humility, sweetness, strong self-criticism, and a life of constant prayer and service were the hallmarks of Jane’s life. 

 

St. Louise de Marillac (1591-1660), after being widowed in 1625, became a main supporter of St. Vincent de Paul, and co-founded with him in 1633 the Daughters of Charity, the first order of active (non-cloistered) sisters to succeed in not being suppressed and put back behind walls by insecure male ecclesiastics.  Their “convent is the sick-room, ... their cloister the city streets...”  Mademoiselle Le Gras, as Louise was known, was a woman of selfless devotion to the needy, and though frail in health, demonstrated great powers of endurance.  By the time of her death in Paris, 1660, there were already over 40 houses of the Daughters of Charity in France, and many charitable enterprises established.  Ven. Marie Guyard (Marie de l’Incarnation; 1599-1672), raised in a family of a humbler socio-economic station, joined the Ursulines at Tours after being widowed, leaving her son in her sister’s care, and went on to travel to Canada in 1640 to become the fearless pioneer of education in the New World at the Jesuit mission in Quebec.  Not only did Marie learn various northeast Indian languages and write numerous catechisms for the Indian converts, she was, in addition, a deep contemplative who received many revelations concerning the Christian doctrines of the Incarnation, the Sacred Heart, and the Trinity, some of which are related in her 13,000 letters she wrote to the Ursuline sisters and to her son in France.  St. Margaret-Mary Alacoque (1647-90) had been a pious little girl raised by nuns after the death of her father at age eight.  At ten she was afflicted with a painful rheumatic condition which soon confined her altogether to bed until the age of 15.  Meanwhile she had been taken back to her home at L’Hautecour, where several relatives were treating her mother and now Margaret Mary as veritable servants.  Margaret Mary further aggravated these relatives by practicing austerities upon herself and bringing home neglected village children and giving them lessons.  In 1671 she entered the Visitation convent at Paray-le-Monial, where she became an exemplary novice, though she averse to the complicated discursive forms of meditation and preferred the “prayer of simplicity.”  From December 27, 1673 to 1675 she was granted by visions of Jesus revelations concerning his “Sacred Heart” and some devotional practices which might be employed by herself and other Catholics to honor this aspect of his divine-human nature.  She lived out the rest of her days, often having to endure periods of intense jealousy, opposition, and criticism from other nuns—a common fate for visionaries.

 

Several women of Brittany—though not included on the “official” roster of saints—were certainly esteemed for a special kind of holiness, that “folly-for-Christ’s-sake,” which is more usually known for its manifestations in Russia and among the early desert Christians.  Among these holy fools/idiots, many of whom were illiterate, peasant mystics, we hear of Marie-Amice Picard, Catherine Daniélou, Claudine Le Belec, and, most famous, Armelle Nicolas (1606-71), “la bonne Armelle,” a maidservant all her life (first at Ploemel, then in Arradon), who heroically endured demonic visitations and temptations, always focused on Christ’s sacrificial life and death.  Mentored by spiritual directors of the Pierre Lallemant (Jesuit) school of self-abasing “foolishness,” Armelle blended an unbroken contemplative vocation in the midst of her domestic chores.  “Her life was a continual prayer, and so fervent and aglow, that in the end she was, as it were, transformed into him who made her, that she might be the temple of his glory, the dwelling-place of his delights, a perfect imitation of his virtues, and the triumph of his love.”  Among other humble achievements, she helped assist in the spiritual rescue of the soul of Père François Guilloré, whose sufferings she had learned about in one of her dreams. 

 

Later he would be the spiritual director for another “holy fool,” Louise de Bellère, known as Louise du Néant, “Louise of the Nothingness.”  Louise was actually born into a noble family, and in her teens became an artistically talented and beautiful woman.  Precociously devout from her childhood, she was compelled to live in a worldly manner for some time, before she rebelled and, failing to gain entrance in a convent (lacking parental acquiescence), she constructed a tiny cabin of twigs and leaves near the family chāteau and therein prayed and read St. Augustine’s works.  Eventually she was admitted to Guilloré’s community for nuns at Tours, but after a short, intense period of prayer and austerity, she “became ill,” undergoing involuntary convulsions and screaming “like one of the damned” (these could perhaps be the kind of cathartic behaviors seen in the life of Angela of Foligno, which are known in India as kriyas, and which sometimes occur during the awakening of the kundalinī-śakti or Holy Spirit); Louise also endured attacks and taunts from demons.  No one could tolerate her screaming, and so she finally wound up in a dungeon in the Salpêtrière, a hellish asylum, sharing her cell with an old hag covered in sores and vermin.  Louise herself became infected, and was subject to the extreme persecutions of her fellow inmates.  At one point she was given absolution by a priest and received Holy Communion, which caused her screaming to end, and a new joy and peace to come over her.  She thenceforth became dedicated to her charitable vocation of caring for her “mistresses,” that is, the madwomen in Salpêtrière, whom she saw as Christ, dressing them, carrying them or bringing them to meals, emptying their chamber-pots, providing them recreation, and also praying at least seven hours a day and engaging in severe self-mortifications.  Discharged from the Salpêtrière in 1681, she lived for a time with some nuns then, true to her special “calling,” eventually wound up wandering in the streets of Paris, working among the poor, and living as a beggar woman.  She came to live at Guilloré’s community, where he was very tough on her (wanting to eradicate any vestige of pride or illusion), and she spent her last days serving with a spiritual community the inmates of a hospital at Loudun, all the while completely immersed in the wondrous inner life of the Holy Spirit.     

 

We should not leave these Frenchwomen of the 17th century without mentioning several Catholic holy women who will most likely never be canonized because of their involvement with the Jansenist movement which was considered heretical (especially by the Jesuits) because it impugned the full reality of human free-will.  The well-to-do family of Angélique (Jacqueline Marie) de Saint-Jean Arnauld‚ (1591-1661) procured for her when she was only eleven years old abbacy of the Cistercian convent at Port Royal-les-Champs, where she and the other nuns lived the fairly easy, frivolous life of many nuns in those days.  However, in 1608 Angélique reformed its worldly ways and turned it into a bastion of deep, inner spirituality.  Because Mère Angélique’s outlook was colored with the kind of asceticism proposed by the Jansenist heresy which had so upset the Catholic world after 1640, she was eventually persecuted by the Church; yet her reform movement had spread to many other convents, such as at Maubuissen, where she spent five years at one period.  After the exile of the priests of Port-Royal who had been the spiritual directors at Mère Angélique’s convent, she wrote a treatise on spiritual direction, which suggested that abbesses could be spiritual directors or perhaps individual nuns themselves could seek their own guidance in the Gospels—a novel idea, and a notion close to the anti-clerical Protestant position.  These nuns of Port Royal became famous/infamous for their support of Jansenist reforms.  Jansenism adhered rigidly to Sts. Augustine’s and Thomas’s notion of “efficacious grace” (grace that does not require the recipient’s cooperation); in practice, Jansenism involved a life of moral purity, love of saints, and spiritual education and reading of the Bible for all—regardless of condition, sex, or age.  A number of nuns and laywomen would become involved, not only participating in the new kind of liturgies for the laity which sprang up, but also perhaps preaching and teaching Scripture, and even celebrating the Mass, if certain accounts are to be believed.  Some of them appeared to live like canonesses. One of our sources on women of pre-modern France, Ellen Weaver, explains:

“Many of the Jansenist bishops established in their dioceses groups of lay women similar to those described by Claude Lancelot in his [1644] account of a journey to Alet:  ‘They have no vows but those of their baptism. ... They have no cloister, but live in a manner similar to nuns. ... They go to church in the parish. ... They are engaged to establish little schools and to teach Christian doctrine to members of their sex throughout the diocese. ... They sleep in dormitories. ... They have a common room where they say the daily office... They dress in secular clothing but very modestly...’  It would be too much to say that the Jansenist movement was feminist.  Yet ... the Jansenist women did live very independent, self-motivated lives and enjoyed equality within the group. Furthermore, as noted in the writings of [Antoine] Arnaud, the leaders of the movement showed remarkable respect for women.

      “In fact, the Jansenist women ... were in a remarkably integral way precisely the Catholic laity the reforms of the Council of Trent [1545-63, which ushered in the Catholic Counter-Reformation reforms] aimed to produce: a laity that was educated, especially in the doctrines of the church, that led morally upright lives, and that worshipped out of devotion and conviction rather than social habit. This may be the final paradox in Jansenism: the Counter-Reformation movement that was declared heretical produced, at least in its women, a kind of paradigm of Catholic reform.” [62]

 

Weaver has identified some of the more notable among the Jansenist women of the 17th-18th century in France:  Angélique Crespin du Vivier, later Madame Angran de Fontpertuis (d. 1714), was widowed as a young woman, and used her wealth to care for the nuns of Port-Royal (who were dispersed in 1709 before the destruction of their monastery in 1710; this monastery had been the center of the Jansenist revival).  Madame de Fontpertuis was a very devout and ascetical woman, also compiling a sophisticated 2,500 page devotional anthology which evidently never got published, so absorbed was she in working to care for the nuns.  Madame la Marquise de Valbelle (née Marie Thérèse d’Oraison, of Aixen-Provence, 1670-1752), Madame Elisabeth Sutaine of Reims, and Mlle. Besson of Marseilles were holy souls who lived the life of prayer, penance, retirement, and study of scripture, along with service and tremendous generosity to the needy.  Catherine Cahouet (d. 1751), her two sisters, and two other women taught their schoolchildren a love for and mature understanding of Scripture, themselves living a quasi-monastic life. 

 

Madame Théodon (née Françoise Elizabeth Jourdain, fl. first half of 18th century) established a home for the formation of young women, to train them for teaching and care of the sick; she lived an increasingly austere life, eating only once a day, sleeping only in a chair, praying often, and actively supporting the Jansenists, for which, in 1728, she was arrested and imprisoned at the Bastille.  Françoise-Marguerite de Joncoux (fl. early 18th century) was something of a Jansenist scholar, from the Auvergne region, and blended in her nature elements of deep piety and celibacy along with an extreme vibrancy and and cordiality.

 

Historians have a mixed opinion of that remarkable French contemplative woman of God, the most famous/infamous Jansenist woman of them all:  Madame Jeanne Marie Bouvier Guyon (1648-1717). No less a luminary than John Wesley, founder of Methodism, regarded Madame Guyon as perhaps the “greatest Christian since the age of the apostles.” Yet the esteemed reporter on mysticism, Evelyn Underhill, judged her to be afflicted with a “feeble surface intelligence,” “morbid sentimentalism,” and “absurd spiritual self-importance.”  Thus Madame Guyon is sometimes called “half saint, half lunatic,” cherished by many mystics (including a number of Protestants), but suspect in the minds of those who cannot relate to some of her ideas which, to them, not only smack of Jansenism (denying ultimate reality to human free will) but also Quietism (though Guyon herself clearly articulated a position beyond Quietism).  Beautiful and pious as a child, Jeanne Marie spent most of her childhood in convents, neglected by her well-to-do yet devout mother. She then suffered through several years of a most unhappy marriage to an older invalid, bearing him two children, before becoming powerfully converted to God’s presence in the inmost, formless recesses of the heart at age 19.  After years of vexation from her husband and mother-in-law, she was widowed in 1676.  Five years later, Madame Guyon helped establish a group of converted Calvinists/Huguenots, and from 1681-6 she traveled about Switzerland, Italy, and southern France, often with her confessor, Fr. La Combe, disseminating her ideas on authentic contemplation and self-transcendence.  She would later come to prominence at the French court as a spiritual director championed and much sought-after by a number of great men and women of the day. Yet she also would be suppressed, imprisoned, poisoned, slandered and persecuted by others in the uproar over quietism at that time centering on the saintly and hugely popular—yet eventually vilified—Miguel Molinos in Rome (d. 1697).  Madame Guyon was finally allowed to live out her last years in relative peace at Blois, amidst numerous visitors and students.

 

Her virtues, such as charity (often extreme), kindness, motherliness, sincerity, and humility (sometimes paradoxically contrasted with forthright, childlike assertions of her degree of oneness with God and mystical states, or assessments of others’ souls), along with her austerities, gave her a saintly appearance, and numerous wonders are associated with her. Whatever the overall verdict on her person, Madame Guyon’s prolific “automatic writings” are powerful expositions of the classic via negativa, exclaiming God’s unfathomable love for us, and urging a childlike, devotional disposition, formless contemplation, a spirit of complete sacrifice, equanimity, desirelessness (even in regard to the most sublime “gifts from God”), abandonment to God’s providence, and radical death of self (a theme which got her in trouble with the non-mystics of the church but which accords perfectly with the ideal of ego-death ubiquitous in the sacred traditions, including the teachings of Jesus, Paul, John of the Cross, et al).  Especially notable among the forty volumes of Madame Guyon’s works are her letters of spiritual instruction, her autobiography (written at the request of her spiritual director and continued at the urging of archbishop Fénelon, though she wondered if it should not be burned), and her famous tracts, Experiencing the Depths of Jesus Christ, Union with God, Final Steps in Christian Maturity, Spiritual Torrents, and Short and Easy Method of Prayer

 

A Frenchwoman of these times not criticized as a Jansenist, but beatified by the Roman church, is Bd. Joan Delanoue (1666-1736).  Youngest of twelve children to a lower-class businessman at Anjou, when she was 25 Joan took over the business for her deceased parents and became something of an opportunist, miser, and “money-grubber.”  In January, 1693, however, the influence of an old, widowed seeress, Frances Souchet, opened her to a profound spiritual conversion, and two weeks later she went into a trance-ecstasy, during which she stood motionless and senseless for three consecutive days and nights.  Under the guidance of Frances, Joan went to Saint-Florent and began to look after six little “wretches” and their famished parents.  By 1698 she had set up in her old residence Providence House, and in 1704 she started a religious congregation, the Sisters of St. Anne of the Providence of Saumur.  Various tribulations plagued her work all these years and afterwards, but eventually her mission triumphed in a big way, and it was said by the townsfolk that she “did more for the poor than all the town councillors put together.”  Miracles of healing were attributed to her even in her lifetime, most likely empowered by her austerities and life of prayer.

 

Bd. Maria Crescentia Höss of Kaufbeuren, Bavaria (1682-1744) wanted to become a Franciscan nun at the local convent from early childhood, but her poor family could supply no dowry.  Eventually the nuns were persuaded to accept her, but during her first years there they humiliated and persecuted her for being a “beggar” and “hypocrite.”  She wound up being displaced from her cell, and for three years had to beg “first one sister and then another to allow her to sleep on the floor of her cell.”  In time these women came to recognize her as a saint, finally making her prioress of the convent.  Crescentia also functioned as spiritual adviser to “both the lowly and the mighty,” and was noted for her many visions and ecstasies, along with a mystical experience of Jesus’ sufferings during the Passion, which came to her every Friday from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.—an experience that would be repeated in very dramatic form in the life of another Bavarian Catholic mystic of the twentieth century, Therese Neumann (see below). 

 

Bd. Mary of Turin (d. 1717), daughter of a count, had a vision at age eight which inspired her to a very ascetic disposition.  At age 12 she somehow joined the Cistercians for awhile, but returned home upon the death of her father, finally being admitted to the Carmelites of Santa Cristina when she was 16.  After seven years, Sister Mary-of-the-Angels, as she was now known, began to be tormented by various demonic assaults; in the midst of these and also her own adoption of some extreme forms of self-mortification, she somehow also maintained the requisite balance of mind to be made novice mistress and then prioress at age 33.  She founded a new house at Moncaglieri, but the people of Turin would not let her leave to live in it, so she stayed at Santa Cristina where they could continue to come to her for counsel and inspiration.  The last 20 years of her life were marked by various divine experiences and gifts, especially that miraculous “sweet odour of sanctity,” which from 1702 onward seems to have been permanent, witnessed by many reliable persons. 

 

St. Veronica Giuliani (1660-1727; incorrupt) endured many hardships as a Poor Clare at the Capuchin monastery at Citta di Castello, Italy. However, she was favored with many visions of Jesus, levitations, miraculous fragrances, and, in 1697, the stigmata wounds, which would bleed and close up again on command.  Donald Attwater declared: “So far as concerns the evidence of mystical phenomena, the case of St. Veronica is perhaps the most remarkable known to Catholic hagiology.” Despite all these “signs and wonders,” which some psychiatrists might try to analyze away as “hysteria.” Veronica blended a level-headed administrative ability with a deeply mystical and contemplative inner life, which is revealed in ten volumes of diaries she was ordered to write.  Bd. Mary Magdalen Martinengo (1687-1737) of Brescia, absorbed in the penitent, self-mortifying life since her early childhood, eventually joined the Capuchinesses in her home town, who later made her the head of the convent.  Her life was marked by great love for God (especially as the crucified Jesus), miracles, humility, sweetness of speech, and an amazing number of self-mortifications, “the feats of a fakir.”  St. Teresa Margaret Redi (1747-70; incorrupt) shone as an exemplary child at a convent school, later becoming a Carmelite at Florence.  After only five years there she had evidently exhausted herself with a life full of prayer, penances, tending the sick, sacrifices for others, and a poverty more rigid even that the Carmelite rule demands, and she died at age 23.  Her body is still incorrupt to this day and many miracles have happened through her intercession.  St. Mary Frances of Naples (1715-91) overcame the intense resistance of her father to become a Franciscan tertiary, and continuted to live at home.  She practiced severe austerities, and the fruit of this was that the stigmata, along with miraculous communions (coming to her without visible human agency), ecstasies, visions of saints and of departed souls asking for prayers, and the like marked her religious career.  Priests, religious, and laity all came to her for spiritual and temporal help and direction. 

 

Into the next century we find two queens noted for their holiness:  Ven. Maria Clotilda (1760-1802) was the wife of Charles Emanuel II of Sardinia and Piedmont, and loved by those at court for her piety; Ven. Maria Christina (1812-36), queen of both Sicilies, became the “tireless mother to the poor” before dying in childbirth at the early age of 24. 

 

St. Bartholomea Capitanio (1807-33) and St. Vincentia Gerosa (1784-1847) joined together their previously independent altruistic projects at the suggestion of ecclesiastical authorities, and founded the Sisters of Charity of Lovere, now headquartered at Milan.  “It was a partnership of remarkable determination and selflessness, and their foundation has spread widely” (Attwater).  Bd. Magdalen Gabriella of Canossa (1774-1835) endured a childhood of illness and inner suffering over the death of her father and departure of her mother while living at the opulent Canossa palace near Verona.  Though beautiful, intelligent, and rich (greatly admired by all, including Napoleon), Magdalen was drawn to the nun’s life, but was not yet free from her family responsibilities to do so.  A vision of Mary at St. Mark’s in Venice sometime in her mid-twenties inspired her to start a new mission based on contemplation, service activity (especially to the blind, deaf, dumb, and retarded), and teacher training for young women.  This work attracted many companion helpers, who formed with her the Canossian Daughters of Charity (in 1831 there also came into existence through her efforts the Sons of Charity).  Not only a competent organizer, Magdalen was a great mystic, experiencing visions, ecstasies, levitations, precognition, and bouts with the devil, though in her tremendous humility she tried (unsuccessfully) to keep these things to herself.  Bd. Anna Maria Taigi (1769-1837; incorrupt) was an exemplary wife and mother of seven children (three died in infancy), who lived amidst poor circumstances in Rome.  Nevertheless, in spite of her many external duties, she was often able to experience depths of ecstatic prayer, and came to have the power to heal, know hearts, read the past and future, and so on.  This was evidently due to the revelatory power of an ongoing vision of a luminous orb, upon which was seated a beautiful woman looking heavenwards; this vision remained always in front of Anna Maria from the time it first appeared to her around 1790.  She was sought out by popes and royalty for her holiness and clairvoyant sensitivity.  The widowed father of St. Mary di Rosa (1813-55), unlike many fathers, supported her vocation to remain unmarried after she dropped out of school at age 17 to help care for him.  With his support, Paula, as she was then known, also began a ten-year period of various good works, such as looking after the spiritual welfare of young women working at his textile mill, arranging retreats for women at Capriano (she had acquired “an unusual knowledge of theology”), working among cholera victims in the hospital at Brescia, supervising a workhouse for destitute, abandoned girls, founding a lodging house for such unfortunates, and establishing a small school for deaf-and-dumb girls.  An extraordinary record of multi-faceted service thus far, especially for a young woman of “delicate health and physique.”  But her quick mind, courage, and indefatiguable energy led her to bring into being (with her long-time friend Gabriela Echenos-Bornati) an even bigger project, the congregation of the Handmaids of Charity, started unofficially in 1840, and soon had 32 members, their vocation:  looking after the physical and spiritual welfare of the sick in hospitals, while themselves maintaining a blend of contemplation and action.  “Anticipating [the Protestant nurse] Florence Nightingale by several years, the Handmaids of Charity ministered to the souls and bodies of the wounded on the battlefields... without distinction” when war came to northern Italy; at one point in the siege, some disorderly soldiers attempted to take over her hospital but Paula confronted them with a crucifix and they backed down.  Ven. Anna Maria Lapini (d. 1860) may be briefly mentioned as the foundress of the Sisters of Blessed Wounds, a Third Order of Franciscan Capuchins, devoted to charity and the education of girls.  The extremely eloquent (but “not loquacious”) Bd. Maria de Mattias (1805-66), protégé of St. Caspar of Bufalo, founded the Sisters Adorers of the Precious Blood in the late 1830s, promoting the education of girls, and conducting preaching missions and “spiritual exercises” especially for mothers—an activity that predictably brought criticism and invoking of that old sexist scriptural passage, I Cor. 14:34 (ordering women to be silent).  By 1950, the year she was beatified, Mother Maria’s congregation had nearly 400 establishments (convents and schools), many in the U.S.  Aloysia Borgiotti (1803-73) was of tremendous service to the poor of Turin.  She became superior of the Sisters of Nazareth of which she can be thought of as co-foundress.  Virgin laywoman Veronica Barone died in 1878 at the tender age of 21, but the important thing in a life is not quantity but quality:  since her fifteenth year she had experienced almost constant ecstasies and visions.  She is said to have known others’ hearts and been gifted with the spirit of prophecy.  She ate no food the last seven years of her life other than the host.  She was possessed of great humility, self-denial, and love of God. Ven. Adelaide Cini (1838-85), another laywoman, was the 13th child of well-to-do and very pious parents at La Valetta, Malta.  She taught girls and later took up the reform of prostitutes.  Eventually she turned her father’s house into the Institute of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, which housed orphans and prostitutes and promoted a deep religious life for them.

 

The nineteenth century witnessed the rise of many dozens of women noted for their sanctity, not only in Italy, but elsewhere.  In Spain, Ven. Maria Crucifixa of the Five Wounds (d. 1826), a tertiary in the congregation founded by St. Peter Alcntara, was sought out by many, including numerous ecclesiastical leaders, for her wise and uplifting counsels.  Bd. Joachima de Mas y de Vedruna (1783-1854) of Catalonia married a young lawyer after contemplating the religious life; he, too, had done the same, and they consoled each other over their lost vocations, promising to undertake the religious life after raising children.  They brought eight little ones into the world, during a time of encroaching war that compelled the family to move to various places (Vich, Montseny, and Barcelona).  Joachima’s husband was killed in the war when she was 33, as revealed earlier to her in a vision.  She continued to raise her children and serve the sick in a local hospital.  Eventually she founded a new congregation, the Carmelites of Charity, which spread through Catalonia.  The foundress was a woman of fervent prayer, and several times was observed by her sisters to be raised from the ground while in rapture, her head ringed with light.  The last four years of her life she was afflicted by a growing paralysis.  St. Mary Michaela Desmaisières (Maria of the Blessed Sacrament; 1809-65) was born in Madrid but after the death of her aristocratic parents when she was a young woman gave all her wealth to the poor and left her native country to live at the courts of Paris and Brussels, where her brother served as Spanish ambassador.  Mary was constrained to attend banquets, balls, and so on, but spent most of the rest of her time attending to the sick and poor, and instructing the ignorant in religion.  When she returned to Spain, she founded the Handmaids of the Blessed Sacrament and of Charity, who served and reformed prostitutes and women of the streets.  Bd. Maria Soledad (1826-87), an extremely devout and charitable little girl born to an exemplary couple living obscurely in Madrid, later joined an incipient community of women, of which she can be seen as the real foundress—the Handmaids of Mary Serving the Sick.  Various tribulations and difficulties, “both within and without,” plagued the congregation, but Mother Mary Soledad overcame all through her dedication and humility, and this group’s foundations have since become widespread.  St. Vicenta Lopez (1847-1890) was a child prodigy in earthly as well as spiritual aptitude.  At age 7 she joined her pious aunt Eulalia in Madrid, who had started an apostolate caring for wayward or downtrodden servant girls.  Ultimately Vicenta took formal vows as a religious with two other women in 1876, and started a formal congregation, the Religious of Mary Immaculate for Domestic Service and the Protection of Youth, which has also spread to a number of countries, especially in Europe and Latin America, in various ways empowering girls to live better lives.  Vicenta, a loving, humorous woman, saw herself as “God’s property,” and industriously carried out His Will the last ten years of her relatively short life while painfully afflicted with tuberculosis.

 

St. Elizabeth Ann Bayley-Seton (1774-1821), born in New York to a distinguished colonial Episcopalian family, demonstrated deep concern for the poor and sick.  She married William Seton in 1794, but he died nine years later while they were in Italy, leaving her to raise unaided their five children.  Experiencing the radiant goodness and hospitality of the Filicchi family of Italy—some business friends of her late husband’s—Elizabeth, after a painful period of self-examination, converted to Catholicism, bringing her much rejection from her family and friends and the New York anti-Catholic circles in which she dwelt.  At the invitation of a priest, she came to Baltimore and opened a school, where students and young teachers joined her in taking simple vows as Sisters of St. Joseph (she was made Superior of this order while still permitted to maintain legal guardianship of her own children).  This new religious group, the first indigenous American Catholic women’s congregation, soon moved to Emmitsburg, Maryland, and here they established the first free Catholic school in America.  Elizabeth, a “charming and cultivated woman,” was tireless in training teachers, creating textbooks (thereby laying the foundations for the American parochial school system, which educational work, incidentally, has been the arena for many saintly women in America and abroad).  Elizabeth also translated religious books, wrote spiritual treatises, and visited the poor and sick.  Afflicted with tuberculosis in her 30s, she spent the rest of her relatively short life developing her relgious community, which has grown and become widespread as the American Sisters of Charity. 

 

Looking to France again, the 18th-19th centuries shone with the light of many remarkable women.  We can start by mentioning the sixteen Carmelite women martyrs of Compiègne, who were driven from their monastery when the Revolution broke out in 1789; they divided into four groups and lodged in separate nearby houses to continue their lifestyle, but in 1794 were discovered, arrested, imprisoned and finally on July 17 executed in public with the guillotine.  These sixteen innocent women sang hymns and recited prayers for the dying, their gracious, fearless, loving demeanor filling both the mob and the officials with awe.  Four Sisters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul at Arras, headed by Bd. Madeleine Fontaine, had also been put to death just a few weeks earlier.  And on October 11, nuns of an Ursuline house at Valenciennes were also put to death, some of the very last victims of the Revolution’s shameful legacy.  St. Julie Billiart (1751-1816; incorrupt), afflicted from childhood with a paralysis after seeing her father murdered, endured the horrors of the French Revolution, incurring great danger by housing fleeing priests.  Already beloved to locals as a saint, she became completely cured of her affliction in 1804 via a special novena which a priest invited her to perform.  She went on to found the Sisters of Notre Dame of Namur, which had fifteen convents by the time of her death.  She had the gift of healing and the ability to multiply food through the power of her prayers.  St. Joan Antida Thouret (1765-1826) entered the Sisters of Charity in 1787, residing mainly at Paris, but six years later the persecutions inflicted during the Reign of Terror (1793-4) forced Joan and religious everywhere in France to carry on their prayer and devotions in secret.  At great personal risk, Joan nursed the sick, assisted priests in hiding, and taught religion to those needing consolation; at one point soldiers discovered her praying in her hiding place and broke several of her ribs.  At age 34 she opened a small free school for impoverished girls, which rapidly grew; Joan was soon joined by others who formed with her the Sisters of Charity of Besancon (now known as the Sisters of Charity of St. Joan Antida).  During a trip to Italy to begin foundations there (at the invitation of Napoleon’s mother), some politicking by the bishop of Besancon led to Joan’s being banned from the motherhouse of her organization; she spent the rest of her life opening houses in Italy.  St. Elizabeth Bichier des Ages (1773-1838) in her early adulthood lived a prayerful life with her widowed mother at La Guimetière, near Béthines in Poitou; here every night Elizabeth gathered the farmers and their wives for prayers, hymns, and uplifting reading; during the day, with the help of her uncle and her new friend, St. Andrew Fournet (d. 1834), she tended the sick and needy and taught small children.  St. Andrew, whom she frequently visited at Maillé, discouraged her from becoming a cloistered nun, instead making her the head of a congregation they founded, the Daughters of the Cross (or Sisters of St. Andrew), which by 1830 had over sixty convents (the supervision of which kept Elizabeth constantly traveling).  In 1836 her health began to fail from exhaustion, and the last two years of her life were spent in heroic endurance of severe pain.  Numerous stories are related of her goodness, devotion, humility, serenity, industriousness, and equanimity. “Whatever happens, she remains undisturbed... [she] sees God in everything...”

 

Placida Bellanger (c.1765-1841), a Sister in the women’s order founded by Charles Borromeo and named after him, showed great bravery during the French Revolution; she was four times elected superior general of her congregation.  “The extraordinary influence of her sanctity captivated every one who had anything to do with her.”  St. Mary-Magdalen Postel (née Julia Levallois; 1756-1846) of Barfleur opened a small school for girls and five years later the Revolution broke out.  Julia courageously opened a secret chapel under the stairs in her house where a priest said Mass for the locals; she also dared to carry the consecrated bread on her person and administer it to the dying when no priest was available (thus earning the epithet “maiden priest”).  After the concordat of 1801 Julia worked tirelessly teaching, catechizing, organizing works of mercy—all empowered by a deep contemplative life.  She finally started the Sisters of the Christian Schools of Mercy in 1807, at Cherbourg, which, along with various orphans in tow, was then constrained by various trying factors to re-locate four times, and almost was terminated before finally ending up at the dilapidated abbey of Saint-Sauveur-le-Vicomte at Tamerville, where it has since flourished in educational work.  Bd. Anne-Marie Javouhey (1779-1851), a woman of “inflexible determination” and fortitude, softened by humility and simple charity, founded in 1812 the Sisters of St. Joseph of Cluny, dedicated to educating children and serving the poor in France and worldwide; this group had 1,400 members by the time of her passing and by 1950 (the year of her beatification) had spread to thirty-two countries in the world.  Mother Javouhey worked in missions in West Africa and in French Guiana, and her holiness led to her having great influence at the French court.  “She was tireless as well as intrepid, and would buy up a score of runaway slaves to save them from the lash, or establish a village for lepers, as it were, ‘in passing’“ (Attwater).  St. Emily de Rodat (1787-1852) “underwent a sudden and definitive spiritual experience” in 1804 at Ginals in the home of her wealthy family.  The following year she began assisting the nuns at Maison Saint-Cyr in educating the children, and after eleven years she was inspired one day to start a free school for some very poor children she had encountered in the streets not too far away.  This was the small inception of the work which drew other women to her and grew into the Congregation of the Holy Family.  They would eventually not only educate the poor, but minister to the sick poor, visit prisons, start a rescue home for women, an orphanage, and a retirement house for aged religious.  Trials and tribulations plagued her community, “but Mother Emily always had complete faith that the needs of their poor would be met, and so they were, sometimes by a multiplication of resources both of money and goods that had every mark of the miraculous.”  Emily blended both the active and deeply prayerful life—often she would go into deep states of motionless ecstasy; and to promote this latter aspect of religious life she opened a number of houses for the strictly contemplative life.  She was a joyous yet grounded woman, and was very opposed to any show of pride in herself, even becoming something of a “fool-for-Christ.”  Along this line, she once declared, “It is good to be an object of contempt,” and she almost seems to have relished the slanders and misunderstandings that came her way. 

 

St. Madeleine Sophie Barat (1779-1865; incorrupt) was made superior general of a group of religious when she was only 23.  Two years later Madeleine Sophie founded a house of the Society of the Sacred Heart in Grenoble, for the education of girls.  Known for her outstanding wisdom and modesty, by the time of her death, through her untiring efforts, there were almost 100 houses in twelve countries of Europe and America.  St. Philippine Duchesne (1769-1852) was removed by her father from the life of a novice when the French Revolution broke out; she spent the next eleven years secretly serving the political prisoners awaiting the guillotine, also working for her family and the poor; later she bought her former convent from the government and allowed it and herself to become part of Madeleine Sophie Barat’s Society of the Sacred Heart, living under the latter’s spiritual direction.  At the age of 49, she and four other sisters came to the wilderness of the American West (Missouri and Kansas) as missionaries, where Mother Philippine became known by the Indians as “The Woman Who Prays Always.”  St. Emily de Vialar (1797-1856) was born at Gaillac in Languedoc to a baron, who was chagrined at his 21 year-old daughter’s transforming the terrace of his house into a hospice for the sick and poor.  This vocation she continued for some 15 years, and when her father died in 1832 she used his wealth to buy a big house nearby and found a new congregation, the Sisters of St. Joseph of the Apparition, to care for the needy and educate children.  Foundations were soon made at Algiers, Hippo Regius (Bône), Tunis, Malta, Syra, the Balkans and the Near East.  The Sisters of St. Joseph were also the first Catholic nuns in modern times to establish themselves in Jerusalem.  Within 22 years, there were 40 houses of the order (which became based at Marseilles), ranging from Burma west to Australia, and it was said of Mother Emily, a contemplative as well as an industrious, considerate as well as determined woman, that she did “more in the past hundred years for civilization in Africa, Asia and Australia than conquerors and colonizers could ever do.”  Ven. Pauline Jaricot (1799-1862) of Lyons was a social belle who underwent a deep conversion at age 17 and took up the life of prayer and service to poor factory girls; a great organizer of new projects and societies, she started in her youth the Society for the Propagation of the Faith and the “Living Rosary” association (the latter saw 150 groups by 1827 and, only 10 years later, over two million members).  Pauline then founded the Daughters of Mary, a loosely organized community of women who serve the poor and sick and live a prayerful life, and motivated the children of France to join the Association of the Holy Childhood to help raise funds for their unwanted or abandoned brothers and sisters.  In chronic ill health, Pauline tried to establish a utopian factory town which would follow the ideals of Christian social justice, but one of her advisors embezzled funds, the project fell through, and Pauline, who carried no grudge, was forced to spend the last ten years of her life living as a pauper, begging funds to repay her creditors. 

 

St. Catherine Labouré (1806-76; incorrupt), ninth of eleven children born to a peasant couple, at age 12 was compelled to take over the running of the large household (her mother, a devout woman, had died three years earlier).  At age 22 she joined the Sisters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul, coming to reside at the motherhouse in Paris (three years earlier her dream of the founder—whom she had never seen—had been a great inspiration to join).  Catherine spent the last 40 years of her life serving old men at a hospice at Enghien, maintaining silence to all but her spiritual confessor about her great secret—revealed only after her death—that she had been blessed since her novitiate with many visions of Jesus, Mother Mary, et al, especially one of Mary on Nov. 27, 1830 which yielded (in May, 1832) the design and distribution of the “Miraculous Medal”—so-called because it quickly gave rise to a popular devotional practice for millions of Catholics, complete with countless cures, conversions, and so forth. Catherine’s visions of Mary have been said to have ushered in the Marian Age—for after this time a multitude of apparitions of Mary have occurred. (Note that Catherine’s incorrupt body is on view at the motherhouse at rue de Bac, Paris.)  St. Bernadette Soubirous (1844-79; incorrupt), the eldest child of an impoverished family, was considered a bit awkward and dull-witted.  But from Feb. 11 to July 16 in 1858 at a grotto in the vicinity of Lourdes, France, she experienced 18 visions of Mary.  Subjected to many trials and harassments over the subsequent years, as various officials tried to test the authenticity of the visions and thousands of miracle-mongers intruded on her, she remained perfectly equanimious, finally entering a convent of the Sisters of Charity at Nevers in 1866.  Bernadette passed on at age 35, and was canonized fairly soon afterwards, not so much for the visions, but for her humble simplicity and heroic patience.  Her incorrupt body can be seen at the Nevers convent to this day.  Bd. Jeanne Jugan (1792-1879) of Brittany, France, lost her father at sea when only 3 years old, and took up the life of a servant girl in her teens.  Moved by the tremendous poverty, alienation, and suffering in the aftermath of the nightmarish conditions transpiring in France at the time, she renounced a marriage proposal, toiled for six hard years in a crowded hospital and then, in 1837, with two other women, formed a community of prayer and began taking the aged poor into her humble, rented dwelling.  When two more women joined the work several years later, Jeanne wrote a basic rule for them, and thus started the Little Sisters of the Poor.  They themselves shared the impoverished lifestyle of their guests, and Jeanne (and later her sisters) would go out and beg daily for alms to support the group.  Though a fixed income was offered to them by wealthy patrons on several instances they preferred to beg a day at a time, relying only on God’s providence to keep their movement going.  By the end of the year 1851, there were 15 houses operative and 300 sisters, serving around 1500 elderly and sick poor.  Though Jeanne had been recognized by the French Academy and even the Freemasons for her endeavors, a local priest, undoubtedly wishing to test her equanimity in the manner that many spiritual directors have done, had made someone else superior of the congregation, and in 1852 called her to live a “hidden life” at the motherhouse in Rennes, where, because she kept silent about it, many of the young sisters had no idea she was the foundress of their order. 

 

Thérèse Putigny (1803-85) became a lay-sister at the Visitation convent in Metú (northeastern France) in her early 20s.  A stigmatic who suffered ecstasies of reliving the Passion of Christ, she is also said to have had the powers of bilocation and prophecy, and to have experienced bouts with devils.  Ven. Caroline Barbara Carre de Malberg (1829-91) was a saintly laywoman also of Metz; after a devout childhood, she married a worldly man, an army-captain.  All her children save one died in childhood.  In 1872 Caroline founded the Daughters of St. Francis of Sales in Paris, for the “sanctification of self and the salvation of others.”  By 1906 it already had over 8,000 members.  St. Thérèse Couderc (1805-85) founded the Religious of the Cenacle, a group of contemplative and teaching sisters who conducted spiritual retreats for women and pilgrims to the shrine of St. Regis near Aps, France.  (The name of their order recalls the period Mother Mary dwelt in the cenacle awaiting the descent of the Holy Spirit.)  Thérèse’s saintliness partially lies in the fact that she spent some 13 years in silent, humble “exile” within the community she had founded, doing hard manual labor under two different “superiors” who were appointed in her stead after nasty, unfounded rumors had led to her being relieved as director (she had nothing but kind words for them).  Thérèse later served as superior at other houses of the new congregation, known for her goodness, firmness, vigorous piety, and complete self-surrender to God. She spent the last dozen years of her life in a kind of “mystical suffering” which is the particular calling for many Christian saints, vicariously sharing in Jesus’ agony in the garden of Gethsemane, weeping almost daily, especially on Thursday evenings and Fridays.  The fact that at most other times Thérèse wore such a kindly expression (“I have found God so completely”) and that miracles had begun to happen around her made it clear to others that she was God-possessed, not crazy.  Louise Thérèse de Montaignac (1820-85) came from a respected Normandy family and was quite devout as a young girl, taking a vow of virginity.  She organized an asylum for orphans, which grew into the Oblates of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.  In extreme pain for the last 33 years of her life, she was unable to walk, but became a deep contemplative.  Many post-mortem miracles of healing of all kinds of ailments have been attributed to Louise’s intercession.  Bd. Mary Teresa de Soubiran (1835-89) came from an honorable old family living at Castelnaudary.  At the behest of her uncle, a canon, she trained in a béguine house in Ghent and then started one in her home town around 1854-5.  After making a spiritual retreat according to the Exercises of St. Ignatius in 1863, she founded a new congregation at Toulouse, “de Marie Auxiliatrice,” our Lady of Help, for the purpose of “saving souls,” and re-located to this new community, while her béguinage carried on without her.  Several houses of her new Jesuit-style community were also begun at Amiens, Lyons, and Kennington (England), principally engaged in the care of working-girls.  The plot thickened when Mother Mary Teresa’s trusted assistant, who was decades later found out to be an alienated married woman posing as a nun, began to employ her cleverness and personal power to vilify Mary Teresa and usurp her role as leader of the congregation, and got the ecclesiastical authorities to take her side in expelling Mother Mary Teresa from her own order (this was followed a few years later by the expulsion of Mother Mary Teresa’s sister).  By the end of 1874 Mary Teresa was again simply Sophie de Soubiran la Louvière, a laywoman.  However, she started all over again and, after several orders refused her entrance, she was admitted to the convent of our Lady of Charity in Toulouse, and made the profession of her full vows in 1877, at age 42.  There followed a period of deep serenity, in which Mary Teresa was able to completely forget the whole tragic incident, up until her death from tuberculosis.  Justice was served when, after her passing, her tormentor was exposed and discredited, and Mother Mary Teresa’s name was restored to its pristine place in her society.

 

Ven. Anne Catharine Emmerich (1774-1824), born of poor parents, was an extremely pious child, full of self-denial and blessed with many revelations from Jesus and Mary and the ability to converse with angels.  At age 28 she was finally allowed to become an Augustinian nun at the convent of Dülmen, in Westphalia, Prussia, in the capacity of organist, but the worldly sisters ill-treated her because of her weak health (which they considered a burden to their community), and regarded her as a servant girl.  Later the convent was secularized, and Anna Catherine took up residence at the home of an emigrant French priest, Vicar Lambert.  Around the year 1812-3, it was discovered that she had the stigmata, a condition which she had successfully hidden for 15 years.  State officials examined her in a callous manner but came to the conclusion that the phenomena were not a fraud.  This led to her being regarded by thousands of people as a celebrity—”the Living Crucifix,” though she herself eschewed all publicity, and began to ask God that she still be able to participate in Christ’s sufferings without the visible wounds (a wish evidently never granted, though the stigmata eventually ceased to bleed regularly).  Anne Catharine was also famous for her almost complete inedia during her last ten years, and her extensive visions and revelations concerning points of Christian doctrine and the lives of Jesus, Mary, and the saints, put into thick volumes of prose (which were subsequently found to be largely the work of a romantic poet, Clemens Brentano, who “recorded”—and greatly amplified—her visions).  A woman of great humility and charity, she knew people’s hearts and distant events.  “Nothing was hidden from her.”

 

At Bois d’Haine, Belgium, another peasant girl, 18-year-old Louise Lateau (1850-83), became stigmatic, and would relive Christ’s Passion some 800 times over the course of her short life; she was also noted for her ecstasies (during which she spoke languages she had never learned) and, like Anne Catharine, her inedia (which persisted the last 12 years of her life).  Maria de Moerl (1812-63) was another stigmatic (she was “discovered” in 1834); born to a noble family of Kaldern, in the Tyrol (western Austria/northern Italy), she showed exceptional piety from her youth, and later was kept in a Franciscan convent in relative seclusion away from her many visitors, where she maintained inedia and an almost continual ecstatic state.  Bd. Maria of Jesus Crucified (184678) was born near Galilee in poverty and was the only one of 13 children to survive infancy; then, at age 3, both her Arab parents died within several days of each other.  Raised by an uncle, at one point she was severely wounded in the throat by a Muslim fanatic, but was cured miraculously through the intercession of Mother Mary.  Refusing an arranged marriage, Maria worked for a time as a servant girl for a family who traveled around the Near-East, finally coming to France.  Here Maria joined a religious order which dismissed her less than two years later because of the many mystical phenomena happening around her.  The Carmelites at Pau, France, accepted her—though even they would sometimes not know what to make of these phenomena.  Maria, who saw herself as “the little nothing,” was daily experiencing some kind of marvel—ecstasies, bilocations, levitations, knowledge of hearts, stigmatas, and prophecies, yet all the while she maintained her humility, obedience, charity, and virtue.  She eventually founded, in 1875 and 1878, Carmelite houses in Bethlehem and Nazareth, before dying of gangrene at a young age. She is now being called upon by many Catholics as a heavenly intercessor to help bring peace in the Middle East—in what seems to be a nearly impossible task, even for a celestial saint and her colleagues!

 

In Belgium, we find Ven. Marie Theresia Haze of Liege (1782-1876), who established the Daughters of the Holy Cross, a congregation which spread widely to Germany, England and India; and Françoise Kestre (d. 1882), foundress of the Apostolines of the Most Blessed Sacrament.  Mother Marie of Jesus (Marie Caroline Deluil-Martigny; d. 1884), organized at Antwerp the Daughters of the Heart of Jesus.  Her holy life was ended violently by an anarchist when she was 94 at a house of her order in Marseilles.  In Blois, Luxembourg was born a soul amazingly spiritually precocious evidently from the time of baptism:  Maria Dominica Clara Moes (1832-95).  Her guardian angel directed her daily; she practiced penance and austerities from age six years, and was often immersed in prayer.  In 1861 Maria joined some women at a convent on the Limpetsberg and with her sisters endured the great poverty there; she also endured many bouts with demons.  Her mystical gifts became publicly known and she was branded a fanatical visionary, thus also having to endure persecution from “demonic” men.  Made to write down her experiences, she was finally vindicated in 1884, the same year her convent was affiliated with the Dominicans. The stigmata wounds, visions, ecstasies, miraculous communion-breads ministered to her by angels’ hands—these are the more “colorful” elements characterizing her spiritual life; yet Maria herself despised any esteem given to her for her gifts, and at least once imposed a punishment on a sister because the latter had venerated Maria during one of her ecstasies.After Maria’s death, many miracles have flowed from her intercession.

 

Ven. Francisca Schervier (1819-76), born at Aix-la-Chapelle, Germany, spent much of her time as a young girl serving the poor and sick.  In 1845 she relented to pressure from others and established the Poor Sisters of St. Francis, and was made superior of the new congregation.  She was a joyous contemplative, and many miracles are reported of her, both before and after her passing from the physical plane. 

 

Cornelia Connelly (1809-79; incorrupt) was a beautiful young woman from a wealthy Presbyterian Philadelphia family, and an artist and musician, privately tutored.  Experiencing the death of both of her parents in her youth, she eventually married an Episcopalian minister, Pierce Connelly. In 1835, while the the happily married couple and their two children were on assignment in Mississippi, they began to study the Catholic faith which was so much in the news and the object of almost hysterical attack by Protestants who feared the massive immigrations of Catholics from Europe; Cornelia converted to Catholicism and a few years later, close upon the death of one of their little children, Pierce finally decided to become a priest, something permissible only if Cornelia became separated from him and made a solemn vow of chastity.  Though she did not understand this new religion’s insistence on celibate priests (Protestant ministers, after all, were encouraged to marry), Cornelia agreed to this, and placed her oldest child in a boarding home and lived at a convent in Rome while caring for her daughter and infant son.  (She taught English and music at the convent school).  At age 36, at the urging of a bishop, she went to England and founded the Society of the Holy Child Jesus, a congregation which would educate young girls.  In a short time, Cornelia was not only training novices in her new congregation, she was operating a day school for 200 students, a night school for factory women, and a crowded Sunday school program, especially benefitting many poor Catholics who had come to England from Ireland.  She would later also establish a college for training schoolmistresses, one of only two such institutions in England for men or women; she broke gender barriers by introducing Latin and Greek authors to her female students; and she fought relentlessly to maintain her schools for poor students; and the climate in her schools went radically against the strict Victorian educational policies of the day, promoting a warm, homey environment of love, trust, and fun.  Her sisters and students knew her to be possessed of great tranquility, sensitivity, intelligence, firmness, and also a childlike gaiety.  All this would be tested severely—not only by financial and real estate problems which plagued her and her congregation for the rest of her life—but also when her husband, frustrated in his new life, decided he wanted her back—in 1849 he sued her for the restitution of his conjugal rights.  This was a move which sparked a sensational scandal in anti-Catholic England (the populace maligned her role in the case), and put Cornelia, who had never even wanted him to become a priest, through much interior pain.  She followed the integrity of her own conscience and would later win her case on appeal, and at this Pierce went fairly mad, ranting against her and the church for some years, and taking her children away from her (much later he would calm down and make peace).  Moroever, a number of the high-ranking Catholic clergy in England, formerly her supporters, turned on her in the real estate battle and persecuted her nastily.  Last but not least, her written constitution for her institute was challenged over and over, and had to be rewritten many times—and, the final insult, one bishop took over her order and reduced to her to being a figurehead.  All the while through these various severe trials, Cornelia maintained her love and kindness.  When one young sister asked her, “Mother, do you ever cry?” she replied, smilingly, “Why, child, the tears are always pouring down the back of my nose.” Cornelia died after a long and painful illness.  In 1935 her relic was found to be undecayed when it was relocated to a memorial shrine at Mayfield. 

 

Frances Warde, later known as Mother Mary Frances Teresa (1810-84), was born in Abbeyleix, Ireland, later becoming a Dublin socialite.  By 1828 she was the close helper of Catherine McAuley, the aunt of a friend, engaged with her in charity work for the poor; in 1832 Frances took her new religious name as one of the first postulants of McAuley’s Sisters of Mercy order. Over the next 50 years, as Ann Ball explains, Frances worked to expand the Sisters of Mercy “into one of the world’s largest congregations of religious women, founding in America more convents and service institutions than any woman in Christian history.”  Blending both the contemplative and active vocations, “as spiritual counselor to novices, she proved to be a sound guide within the cloister [also teaching Catholic doctrine to adults and gaining many converts], while outside it her name became practically synonymous with aid to the poor, sick, and uneducated in every locality.” A woman of “tender piety,” she could also be quite determined, forceful, and zealous, in dealing with all sorts of hardships, internal disputes, and anti-Catholic bigotry.  She “personally established twenty-five convents, a handful of orphanages, and no less than sixty schools on this side of the Atlantic.  Many of these in turn served as motherhouses, sending missionaries and teachers to more areas which compounded outlets for service in ever greater proportions.” 

 

Ven. Maria Agnes Clara Steiner (1813-62) was born to a poor Tyrolean family near Brixen showed herself to be a pious child, but stricken with poor health—which prevented her from becoming a Franciscan nun; nevertheless, she later came to Assisi, and joined the Bavarian Tertiaries based there.  Soon Sr. Agnes was seen as the most virtuous sister in residence, and was made novice-mistress.  She experienced many sufferings, but also many graces.  The local bishop made her the head of several Poor Clare convents so as to reform them with her kindness and sanctity.

 

St. Maria Josepha Rosello (1811-80; incorrupt) was a bright child and great lover of saints, who came from a poor family in the region of Savona, Italy.  After working as a companion to an elderly couple for 9 years, she tried to take up life the formal religious life, but could find no acceptance at the convents in the vicinity due to her lack of a dowry; finally, in fulfillment of the Savona bishop’s wish, she founded the Daughters of Our Lady of Mercy in the late 1830s, to care for homeless girls, ransomed black slave girls, lepers, et al.  In 1869 she even founded a seminary to train young men as priests—a rare thing for a woman to accomplish.  In all matters, she relied perfectly on God and on her patron saint, Joseph (father of Jesus).  St. Mary Mazzarello (1837-81), of peasant stock in the mountain village of Mornese (south of Piedmont), showed tremendous piety as a child, walking long miles to the nearest church on an almost daily basis in addition to carrying out her hard chores; she joined a Marian sodality (religious club) and wound up contracting typhoid while on a mission of mercy treating her uncle’s family who were down with it; she would later take up dressmaking with a friend and employing girls as pupils and assistants, instilling them with moral values and a joyous spirit of God in addition—a work similar to that which St. John Bosco was doing with boys; Mary eventually founded the congregation Daughters of Our Lady Help of Christians, which he sponsored.  During her lifetime, 13 other convents of these “Salesian Sisters” were opened in Italy and Franc—within sixty years the number would reach over 800 (the motherhouse was relocated to Nizza Monferrato); initially they focused on teaching girls, but soon their work included all sorts of service activity on behalf of the young—all done in a spirit of simplicity, joy and naturalness.  (She is buried next to Don Bosco in Turin). 

 

St. Paula Frassinetti (1809-82) lost her mother at the age of nine years, but was much loved by her four brothers—all of whom would become priests.  One of these placed Paula at the head of a school for the poor girls of his parish at Quinto, on the west coast of Genoa, Italy.  She taught and ministered to them with the purest love and kindness, apparently never utilizing angry or harsh words to mould them.  Soon afterwards she founded the Dorotheans (the Congregation of the Sisters of St. Dorothy), whose special apostolate was the education of girls.  This was an order blending both the active life and a life of deep contemplation, and they were an inspiration to many during the cholera epidemic and riots and unrest in Rome in the 1850s.  Paula’s relic lies in a still-incorrupt state at St. Onofrio, the motherhouse in Rome.  Christina Rossetti (1830-94), sister of artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti, was herself a famous Italian poetress who refused two marriages because neither men shared her deep and passionate Christian faith; she spent much time in charity works and later became a reclusive contemplative after she became afflicted with Graves’ Disease.

 

Bd. Pauline von Mallinckrodt (1817-81), born to a wealthy Lutheran father and Catholic mother in Minden, Westphalia, Prussia, founded the Sisters of Christian Charity in 1849 after already having spent years in service to the poor.  In her youth she had traveled widely with her parents and attended wealthy boarding schools; after her mother’s death when she was 17, she not only ran the large household, she began her charitable works—including the starting of a nursery school and a home for the blind.  Her Sisters and their projects flourished under Mother Pauline’s direction, so that when the Prussian government under Bismark in 1877 banned and dissolved all teaching orders, the Sisters of Christian Charity were forced to abandon 15 public schools, 9 high schools, 4 orphanages, day nurseries, boarding schools, a hospital and their institute for the blind and set up foundations elsewhere in Europe and the Americas.  Pauline was known for her tremendous happiness, spirit of gratitude, and kindness and extreme generosity to the poor, completely trusting in the bounty of God to keep providing, which He obviously did.  When she died of pneumonia, a priest friend eulogized her with words applicable to many of the women covered herein:  “Reverend Mother has fought a good fight; it was the combat of love, with love, for love.”   Bd. Victoria Rasoamanarvio (1848-94) of Madagascar was born to a royal family and set up in an arranged marriage with the son of the prime minister, who turned out to be a mean-spirited alcoholic; she endured his rages and became known as the “mother of Roman Catholicism” in the region for preserving and promoting the faith at a time when all the Catholic missionaries and priests had been expelled from that country.  Several postmortem wonders have been worked by God, apparently through Victoria’s intercession. [63]     

 

The age of saintly and/or deeply mystical women and men is certainly not over, but is continuing right along.  In the Catholic world of the last 100 years [late 19th to late 20th century], many more shining lights of love have dazzled us, and at least half of these have been women. 

 

St. Thérèse of Lisieux, France (1873-97), the “Little Flower,” and the most popular official saint of modern times in the Catholic world, was a bright, happy child until age 4½ years, when her mother died, after which she became shy, sensitive, and afflicted.  But her loving family, especially her two eldest sisters, cared for her and helped her through her tribulations (both sisters would become nuns, reinforcing Thérèse’s sense of the transiency of human relationships).  A conversion experience and the reading of edifying literature rendered her a deeply spiritual girl, given to prayerful, ecstatic states.  In 1888-9 she went on pilgrimage with her father and next-eldest sister to various holy spots before returning home and finally being given permission to enter a Carmelite convent in her hometown at the young age of 15, taking final vows two years later.  There Thérèse led an uneventful nine years, until she died of tuberculosis at age 24.  Her inner life was at times quite arid/dry, but was basically characterized by a level-headed realism, a love for and closeness to Jesus, and a simple peace, stemming from her daily sacrifices and perfect obedience. After her death, her autobiography, The Story of a Soul, which had been written under obedience to her superiors, brought her wide-ranging fame as someone with whom the masses could identify—a simple, “lowly” person who did all tasks in the spirit of perfect love of God and self-effacement.  Many postmortem miracles have occurred, ostensibly through Thérèse’s intercession.  (She had prophesied: “After my death I will let fall a shower of roses.”)  Monica Furlong, speaking with something of a feminist perspective, has some cogent things to say about the tragic side of Thérèse’s life and the Jansenist Catholic attitudes with which she and many other women have been unfortunately conditioned. And Kenneth Woodward has reminded us that Thérèse is especially loved by the male church authorities (the Fathers) for being “above all else an alert and obedient child.”  Woodward has also discussed the great anomaly that the Vatican’s Congregation for the Causes of Saints—the Saint-maker agency—now faces in processing the joint-cause of sainthood for Thérèse’s parents, Louis and Azélie Guérin Martin, who are the first-ever nonmartyred married couple being considered; Woodward comments how they are not especially good role-models for other married Catholics, given that they were “misplaced monastics,” decidedly anti-sexual, rather insulated from the real world, and all five of their surviving children became nuns.

 

The year 1900 saw the cruel martyring of twenty-nine priests, nine nuns, and some 20,000 to 30,000 other Catholics in China by the “Righteous Harmony Boxers” of China who were quite dismayed over the increasing Western influence in their country.  When the fated hour came, Bd. Mary Hermina Grivot led her religious sisters of the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary (who were all between the ages of 25 and 35, and coming from various countries) in the singing of the Te Deum; they were hoisted up by their hands behind their backs and their throats were cut.  The Franciscan Missionaries of Mary had been established by Mother Mary of the Passion (Helene Marie Philippine de Chappotin, 1839-1904), who had earlier in life gone to India (in 1866) under the newly formed Society of Marie Répatrice and eventually became head of three houses of the congregation there.  After differences developed between her and her superiors in Europe, Helene withdrew and, with Papal permission, began her new organization.  After intense opposition (such as the Chinese persecutions in 1900), it flourished prodigiously and multiplied into several countries, the largest Catholic Missionary group of its time. 

 

St. Gemma Galgani (1878-1903) of Lucca, Italy, like Thérèse of Lisieux, was a bright, happy child, deeply spiritual from an early age, whose mother died when she was young; her father died when she was 19, after which Gemma took over full responsibility for her seven brothers and sisters.  A noticeably beautiful young woman, she rejected offers of marriage, interested only in a prayerful life.  After being very ill with meningitis for a year while living with a worldly aunt and uncle, she was miraculously healed through visions of St. Gabriel Possenti (1838-62).  Though Gemma could never become a nun due to her chronically fragile health, she lived the life of a religious, praying and performing severe penances.  She came to be graced with a number of spiritual gifts, such as ecstasies, spirit of prophecy, miracles, the stigmata, visions of Jesus and Mary, and almost daily visions of her guardian angel, whom she often sent on “errands” to accomplish various good works, some quite wondrous.  Living out her last years in the house of a family who adopted her as a housekeeper and children’s teacher, Gemma contracted tuberculosis and died at age 25, radiant with a palpable holiness.

 

Bd. Maria Assunta (1878-1905), the eldest child of an impoverished Italian family, as a youth worked various jobs in hard physical labor, also fasting, practicing mortifications, and carrying out service work for others. She entered the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary in her late teens, and was exemplary for her humble, helpful, loving, and God-surrendered attitude. Especially notable were her perpetual gratitude (even for being chastized over things she had not done) and self-inflicted penances and mortifications performed for the edification of sinners at a distance.  She traveled with some other sisters to China in 1904, where her saintly demeanor was quickly spotted by the Mother Superior, the other sisters, and the Chinese.  Sister Maria contracted typhus while tirelessly helping others afflicted with the disease, and predicted that she would not recover from it, in contrast to the prognosis given by the doctor.  After her death, a miraculous fragrance pervaded the house, and eight years later, when her body was unearthed when the community transferred from Tong Eul Koo to Tai Yuan Foo, her relic was found to be incorrupt. 

 

St. Francesca Cabrini (1850-1917), about whom I have written much more in the published book, Women of Power and Grace: Nine Astonishing, Inspiring Luminaries of Our Time (1994/1995), experienced a deep transformation at her confirmation when 7 years old.  Growing up as the youngest child in a pious Lombard family of northern Italy, Francesca yearned to become a missionary.  After the death of her parents, she taught school for a few years and then, at the invitation of a local monsignor, spent six years courageously reforming a corrupt orphanage; here she won the hearts of a number of girls who became her “daughters” in a new religious life she founded, ultimately to become the the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart, the first missionary order for women.  Her lifelong friend, Pope Leo XIII, sent her to the Americas, where, as a veritable dynamo of energy and faith (in spite of chronically frail health, fatigue, and many obstacles to her work) she set up dozens of schools, orphanages, convents and hospitals.  By the end of her life, some 67 institutions were flourishing in the Americas, Italy, Spain, France, and England.  Francesca was a woman of tremendous love, humor, courage, and hard work.  And since her passing, thousands of intercessory miracles have occurred—evidently, like many other saints, she is still “working hard” for humanity!

 

Very briefly we can mention some other holy women of the modern period ...

 

Ven. Mother Mary Magdalen Bentivoglio (1834-1905; incorrupt), underwent countless sacrifices in establishing a series of Poor Clare convents for contemplatives in America.  Bd. Elizabeth of the Trinity (1880-1906) by age 18 had completely conquered her fiery temper and become, in addition to a talented pianist, a very saintly young woman; her mother finally allowed her to become a Carmelite at Dijon, France, where she lived an exemplary short life as a deep, joyous contemplative, “immolated in Christ.”  Teresa Valse Pantellini (1878-1907) gave up her wealth, talents, and marriage proposals to work with poor, forsaken girls in Rome, in a spirit of great love, humor, and equanimity.  She is still miraculously helping those who call on her.  A multitude of postmortem healing miracles have also been attributed to the intercession of Sr. Rifka al-Rayes (1833-1914), a contemplative nun at the convent of St. Simon al-Karen in the Syrian Maronite “nation” in the mountains of Lebanon, who became mysteriously blind and paralyzed in 1897, but continued to live through this vocation of apparent “redemptive suffering” with her characteristic spirit of sweetness and gratitude.

 

German-born Mother Marianne Cope (1838-1918), raised in upper New York, joined a Franciscan order in her early twenties, and taught school in Syracuse, finally becoming superior of St. Joseph’s Hospital in Syracuse in 1870 (and second Mother Provincial of her order by 1877).  In 1883 she and six sisters went to Hawaii at the pleading of the Hawaiian government (which had unsuccessfully solicited many other religious orders) to serve the lepers.  Mother Marianne at first resided at Honolulu for five years, managing the branch hospital, setting up the first general hospital on Maui island, and opening a girls’ school.  Then she went to Molokai, opening a home for women and girls in 1888, and the following year taking over the refuge for the men and boys founded by Father Damien, who had died that year.  This tremendously joyous, considerate, courageous woman, who worked tirelessly in spite of frail health and severe headaches, transformed the bleak colony of lepers—forgotten and despised by mainstream society—bringing “cleanliness, pride and even fun to the colony.”  Mother Marianne and her sisters would be honored by the King of Hawaii and many others for their work.  And, true to a divine promise she had received, none of the sisters from her order ever contracted leprosy—”You will never be a leper.  I know we are exposed, but God has called us for this work. ... He will protect us.” 

 

Mary Fortunata Viti (1827-1922), a cloistered Benedictine lay sister, chose to perform the lowliest tasks in the convent at Veroli, Italy, even into her 95th year, saying that love of God is one’s most important work. Mary had the gift of prophecy and the ability to read the hearts and minds of her many visitors, and continues to help them from “the other side.”  Mother Mary Walsh (1850-1922) was a young, fearless Irish washer-woman whose sympathy for the destitute sick in the slums of N.Y. and complete trust in God (whom she called her “Banker”) moved her to mobilize many resources for them; eventually she founded the Dominican Sisters of the Sick Poor to help them.  Bd. Mary Theresa Ledochowska (1863-1922), a count’s daughter in Austria, a brilliant student and beautiful young woman, graciously endured the disfiguring disease of small-pox (also typhus), and took up a job as a lady-in-waiting at the Tuscan court in Italy.  She began to write in her spare time many articles and pamphlets (in 1889 she would start a newspaper) on behalf of the plight of African slaves, and eventually left the court to start a Sodality—later an Order (the Missionary Sisters of St. Peter Claver)—to promote the cause of African missions.  Toward the end of her life, stricken with enteritis and weighing only 62 pounds, Mary Theresa finally was forced to give up her ceaseless activity—she had been laboring in her apostolic work for the last 20 years with tuberculosis.  Julia, the sister of Bd. Mary Theresa, was a radiant woman who went on to become Bd. Ursula Ledochowska, foundress of the Ursuline Sisters of the Sacred Heart.  St. Raphaela Mary de Porras (1850-1925; incorrupt), a Spanish woman, founded the Handmaids of the Sacred Heart, blending the contemplative and active lifestyle.  After some jealous nuns (including one of her older siblings) connived to have her deposed from leadership of the community, Raphaela spent the last 30 years of her life in relative obsurity within one of her own convents in Rome, cheerfully doing lowly domestic chores, not letting any of the younger sisters know that it was she who had founded their order. 

 

Mother Alphonsa (Rose Hawthorne) Lathrop (1851-1926), daughter of American Unitarian author Nathaniel Hawthorne, experienced in her youth the deaths of her mother, father, and son and the collapse of her marriage due to her husband’s alcoholism.  She then went to live amongst the poor in N.Y., founding for them a hospital and a religious order to help them—the Servants of Relief for Incurable Cancer.  Sister Miriam Teresa Demjanovich (1901-27) was an extremely bright, witty girl of deep spirituality, experiencing from an early age various ecstasies, raptures, visions, and locutions.  She joined the Sisters of Charity at Convent Station, New Jersey, where, like Thérèse of Lisieux, she lived an extremely pure, simple, “ordinary” outward lifestyle.  Her spiritual director, who regarded her as a saint, would read to assemblies of her fellow nuns Miriam’s inspiring counsels without telling them who had authored these words—the sisters did not suspect that such an elevated soul lived amongst them. 

 

Eve Lavalliere (1866-1929), subjected to a very bad home environment, became a troubled girl.  After seeing her father shoot her mother to death, and then himself, Eve went on to take up the life of a thespian in Paris, soon becoming the most famous comedienne of her day.  Her lover died and Eve tried to achieve reconciliation with her inconsiderate daughter, but failed.  After being denied entry to any convents due to her “questionable” past, she sold her possessions, and took up the life of austerities, suffering, and prayer; she eventually became a Franciscan tertiary, carrying out many good works and immersing herself in contemplation, discovering the divine joy which had so eluded her earlier in life.  Bad health and a protacted final illness (during which time her daughter got her addicted to cocaine to exploit her financially) were no obstacle to her spirit of peace and joy and love.

 

Edith Stein (1891-1942), a German Jewish convert to Christianity, was recently beatified by her religious name, Sister Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, after her martyrdom by the Nazis.  (Many Jews, incidentally, were outraged by the Vatican’s singling out this “Jewish apostate” among the many million Jews who died in the Holocaust.)  Edith/Teresa was also remarkable for her talent in a male-dominated field—writing and teaching at a professional level in the area of philosophy.  (She was a foremost student of phenomenologist Edmund Husserl; note that a professionally highly-trained and gifted intellect are not usually found in official saints, as Woodward discovered:  “the culture of Catholics who invoke saints—and thus make saint-making possible—is not the culture of those Catholics who revere saints for what they thought or said.”)  Margaret Fletcher (c.1862-1943) was an English artist, educator, author, editor of several journals, and feminist, who had converted to Catholicism at age 35.  She founded the Catholic Women’s League in 1906, and spent her last years in Paris helping rescue Jews from the Nazi terror.  In County Cork, Ireland, Edel Quinn (1907-44), zestful and gay as a youth, also totally unselfish and considerate, committed herself to Christ and was compelled to reject a certain man who had proposed to her; she prayed for him her entire life, and he has stated how deeply indebted he is to her for the graces that accrued to him through her intercession.  While still young, Edel became a deep contemplative, and would on Sundays attend Mass many times in the day. She joined the Legion of Mary association for laypersons, working to help poor street girls.  Refused entry to the Poor Clares when she was diagnosed with an advanced case of TB and given little hope, Edel remained serene and joyous (the residents of a sanitarium were uplifted and amazed by her angelic presence with them for a year and a half).  In 1936 she traveled to East Africa and spent the rest of her years (the last three of which she was completely drained, weighing only 75 pounds) working tirelessly to establish hundreds of branches of the Legion of Mary, also organizing the first-ever religious meeting among Africans, Europeans, and East Indians.  Clerics were wonderstruck at the divine grace which shone through this fearless woman (who did not hesitate to travel where no white woman had gone before).      

 

Sister Alphonsa (née Anna Muttathupandatu) (1910-46) of Kerala, India, seems to have had a special mission of joyously “taking on” various illnesses and negative conditions in the world as a kind of “suffering servant” of God to help effect an atonement for humanity’s waywardness.  Ven. Josephine Bakhita (c.1869-1947) was a black Muslim child of Sudan who was stolen by Arab slave-traders and sold into slavery.  After experiencing several owners, she wound up serving as the companion to a little Italian girl; when Bakhita was 20, the two of them entered a Canossian convent in the Venice region to make a retreat.  Here, Bakhita felt like she had finally “come home” and refused to leave; the authorities sided with her, and she went on to be made a lecturer by her order, speaking all over Italy on behalf of the missions in Africa.  Esteemed by her Italian sisters for her constant joy and kindness, they also gave testimonials to the healings and other wonders worked through Bakhita.  Mother Maravillas de Jesus (1891-1966), the saintly Spanish Carmelite foundress of thirteen monasteries, blended both mystical and pragmatic natures; she greatly uplifted her spiritual daughters during the horrors of the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s.  Praxedes Fernandez (1886-1936) was wife, mother, widow, and lay Dominican, a woman of great prayer and penances who braved the persecutions of the communist revolution in Spain during the Civil War, caring for souls and sacrificing all comforts for the sake of the poor and sick.

 

Bd. Mary Katharine Drexel (1858-1955) had been raised in a very wealthy, pious, and philanthropic family of Philadelphia.  Her stepmother, Emma, who was a major inluence on Katharine and her two sisters’ charitable sensibility, also had them teach Sunday school from the time Katharine was 14; Emma died in 1883, and Katharine’s father two years later, and, with the three daughters inheriting a $14 million dollar estate, they continued to carry out their parents’ lavish good will to the needy, to the Indian missions, and to blacks, also remaining outwardly involved in the lifestyle of the socially elite.  Katharine was attractive and had many suitors but, though both her sisters married, she was inwardly feeling the call to a formal religious life.  Pope Leo XIII in 1887 advised Katharine to become a missionary, and her friend Bishop James O’Connor invited her to found a new order, so on May 6, 1889 she renounced the personal use of her fabulous wealth and entered the novitiate of a Sisters of Mercy convent to receive training.  In Feb. 1891 Katharine took vows as the first of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament for Indians and Colored People, “to be the mother and servant of the Indian and Negro races.”  She established a novitiate and motherhouse, St. Elizabeth’s at Cornwell Heights, Pennsylvania, which within a year had 21 women, and in June 1894 she set off for Santa Fe with her first four missionary sisters, all observing strict poverty, chastity and obedience, to work for Pueblo Indians.  For the next 40 years Mother Drexel supervised every aspect of the order’s work, her sisters founding and staffing missions and schools throughout the south, the urban north, and the Indian territories, teaching vocational skills, liberal arts, and native culture. Mother Drexel had, in her earlier life, been privately tutored and exposed to the very best educational methods, and brought a high-quality of education to the minorities.  Finally compelled to retire from active directorship of her order due to ill health, Mother Drexel spent the last two decades of her long life in suffering and contemplative prayer, night and day, though she also was afflicted with senility her last years.  By 1955, the year of her death, her order numbered over 600 sisters in 51 houses; she had established Xavier University in 1915 (the only Catholic college for blacks in the U.S.), 61 schools, dozens of mission centers, a study house in Washington D.C., and three social service houses.  Despite Kenneth Woodward’s insightful argument that she was not particularly virtuous in the “heroic” sense, Mother Drexel was obviously a woman of thorough goodness who clearly changed the lives of countless people for the better.

 

The year 1955 saw the passing of another esteemed Catholic woman, Mother Mary Joseph Rogers (1882-1955), foundress of the Maryknoll Sisters of St. Dominic.  Mary Josephine Rogers grew up in Massachusetts, fourth of eight children, and attended Smith College, completing her A.B. in 1905. She and other women were eventually drawn to assist Rev. James Anthony Walsh at his seminary for missionary priests at Maryknoll, N.Y..  Mary became the leader of this group of women assistants, and they took steps to become a religious order, finally adopting the Rule of St. Dominic and getting official approval in 1920 as the Foreign Mission Sisters of St. Dominic. The first group of 21 sisters made their vows the next year.  In 1920, these Maryknoll women had been at work among the Japanese in California and Seattle, and in 1921 six sisters went to China.  In the initial years, most of the Maryknoll sisters would serve in the Orient, but soon they diversified to include Africa, Micronesia, the Middle East, and eight Latin American countries.  In contrast to missionary sisters of other active congregations, these women were an extremely well-trained group, and served as teachers, nurses, or whatever the situation required.  At one point around the end of their founder’s life, there were more than 1,100 American Maryknoll sisters in developing areas, more than 300 serving cultural minorities in the U.S., and more than 170 women from mission countries serving as Maryknoll sisters.  Maryknoll sisters inspired indigenous women to find ways of serving their own people; one of the fruits of this is that ten independent religious sisterhoods were begun with Maryknoll help (though five of these would be disbanded with the Chinese Communist revolution).  Incidentally, it was something of a “family spirit” between the Maryknoll sisters and priests:  the sisters were sometimes advised by Rev. Walsh and the priests by Mother Rogers.  In terms of her personality, Mother Rogers was a magnetic, warm, wise, tolerant, humorous woman who emphasized loving human relationships and the spirit of deep contemplation—the Maryknoll sisters were to be “contemplatives in action”; in 1933 Mother Rogers even established a cloistered contemplative branch of her order, an unprecedented event among active congregations of sisters, so as to spiritually empower the work.

 

Woodward has profiled two women of our century associated with unusual physical phenomena who are being considered for canonization:  Theresa Musco (c.1943-76) of Caserta, southern Italy, in her youth was afflicted with various illnesses and subjected to a tyrranical, abusive father.  She experienced visions of Jesus, Mary, and her guardian angel since age five, and from the age of nine onward she carried the stigmata on her hands and feet, after having a dream in which she was nailed to a cross, though these did not bleed with any regularity until Holy Thursday of March, 1969.  Theresa offered herself as an atonement along with Christ for the sake of sinners.  Interestingly, pictures and statues in her home began to drip blood on February 25, 1975, doing so for up to a quarter of an hour on a regular basis.  At age 13, Theresa took a perpetual vow of virginity when a vision instructed her to do so, and though she never became a nun, she usually wore a white bridal dress, symbolic of her betrothal to Jesus.  She apparently had the gift of “reading hearts,” and at least one substantial healing miracle is associated with her.  Yet, as Woodward has explained, though Theresa’s form of sanctity, with its visions and miracles, is quite appealing to many of the thousands of simple-hearted Catholics who relish evidence of the supernatural in a secular world which denies such things, the official Church “saint-makers” are rather reluctant in carrying out a canonization of someone as a role model when this person also shows such a sickly and rather “masochistic” nature.  Alexandrina da Costa (c.1904-55) was born to a peasant family of Balasar, Portugal, about 40 miles north of Oporto, her father dying soon after her birth.  As Woodward tells her biography, she only had 18 months of schooling, and then, at age nine, she was sent to work on a farm for three years.  This was cut short when her employer tried to seduce her, and she returned home, where she soon fell ill with typhoid.  Twice more during her adolescence, her former employer tried unsuccessfully to rape her, the second time Alexandrina jumping out of a window to escape, a move which severely injured her spine.  In April, 1924, she took to bed, paralyzed for life.  In 1931 she received a message from a vision of Jesus: “Love, suffer, and make reparation” for the sins of the world.  She began to experience horrific bouts with the devil, but also enjoyed frequent visions and messages from Jesus.  In 1938 she began to manifest a regular vicarious suffering of Jesus’ passion, starting at noon on Fridays, and lasting for three and a half hours.  (Perhaps she and other “victim souls” were “taking on the sins” being committed which were leading up to the Second World War.)  During these times, Alexandrina’s body, despite its paralysis during other times, would move about, simulating Jesus’ stumbling and falling as he carried his cross.  Alexandrina’s passion ecstasies eventually totaled around 180, bringing in numerous Church authorities (who allowed one passion to be filmed) and devout pilgrims, though she herself did not at all wish to be the object of any cult.  On Good Friday, 1942, she experienced her last physical reenactment of the passion, though her Friday ecstasies would continue; but from that day on, she refused to eat or drink anything, except the Eucharist.  A forty-day test conducted in the summer of 1943 concluded that her virtual inedia was “scientifically inexplicable.”  Alexandrina lived another 12 years, and by the time of her death, she was the most famous religious figure in Portugal, excepting perhaps the children of Fatima, who had in 1917 experienced visions of Mary (Alexandrina had been much inspired by these Marian phenomena earlier in life).  On some days thousands of pilgrims would come to her, soliciting her prayers for divine favors.  They looked upon her as “mother of the poor,” “help of the sorrowful,” and so forth.  At her death, it is said that her body mysteriously did not corrupt but turned straightaway into ashes—ashes which exuded a miraculous fragrance.

 

Probably the most famous Catholic soul in modern times to exemplify “redemptive suffering” and inedia was the Bavarian stigmatic and visionary, Therese Neumann (1898-1962), whose multi-faceted tale deserves telling in more expanded form in these pages. (I have told it with even more detail in the book Women of Power & Grace.)  She was born to a farming couple in the little village of Konnersreuth in northeast Bavaria, West Germany, on Good Friday, 1898, the eldest of ten surviving children.  As we shall see, her being born on Good Friday would later prove to be quite “synchronous.”  Young Therese, or “Resl” as she was nicknamed, spent most of her time in doing heavy farmwork and helping raise the other children, her education not extending beyond 7th grade.  Her grades had been ordinary, and she was characterized as a quiet, unobtrusively pious girl, a girl who loved the outdoors and wanted one day to become a missionary sister.  In March of 1918, while assisting someone in putting out a fire at her uncle’s house, Resl became exhausted, collapsed, and was taken home, where she became bedridden with a partial paralysis of the spine.  Trying to overcome her condition, she would endeavor to be active, but incurred a number of falls and injuries.  In addition, she was prone to “fainting” spells (one wonders if these might have been trance states, such as are so often found in the lives of great mystics).  In March 1919, Therese went totally blind.  She was also plagued by bedsores so deep that sections of her bones were exposed.  Other horrendous conditions afflicted her:  convulsions, rheumatic pains, ulcers, and coughing.  Yet she bore all these things patiently, perfectly submitted to the will of God, completely content to “offer up” her myriad pains for the sake of the crucified Christ.  Indeed, Therese in later life would report that this period was the happiest she had ever known!  Then, in 1923 and 1925, on the days in which St. Thérèse of Lisieux (d. 1897) was being beatified and canonized at Rome, Resl heard the reassuring voice of St. Thérèse speaking to her, and she was completely, instantly cured of all her ailments (though a throat condition which Resl had taken on would persist—see below).  In November, 1925, Resl developed acute appendicitis and was rushed to the hospital.  But St. Thérèse of Lisieux again spoke to her, reassuring Resl that she was destined to suffer much more for the sake of “saving souls” but that a Higher Power was guiding her.  After receiving this strange, awesome message, Resl was completely cured on the spot, much to the wonder of her parents and attending medical personnel.

 

Therese Neumann’s stigmata wounds began to develop in Spring, 1926, after a vision of Christ before his Passion while she was in a semi-conscious state for several hours.  She tried to hide the bleedings from her parents, but finally, on Holy Thursday, 1926, Therese experienced an ecstatic vision of the entire Passion of Christ, sharing in his suffering completely, with blood flowing profusely from her side, hands, feet, and eyes, the whole ordeal suddenly ending when she experienced the death of Christ on the Cross—she herself slumped into a deep rest without any vital signs.  After about an hour, Therese gradually returned to her usual physical condition.  Her alarmed loved ones felt that they had been witnessing an act of God. The mysterious process reached a culmination on Easter Sunday, 1926, when Therese enjoyed an ecstatic vision of the risen Christ.  Thereafter, on the Fridays of the Advent and Lenten seasons, and on a number of other Fridays (and occasionally other days) during the rest of the year, Therese would re-live the Passion of Christ, seeing some 45 vivid scenes of his ordeal, her own body a pitiable sight, struggling, crying and bleeding (once it was determined that she had lost a quart and a half of blood during a single session!).  From November, 1926, Therese had begun to also bleed from nine wounds on her forehead, akin to Christ’s wounds from his “crown of thorns,” and she also bled from numerous other wounds over her shoulders and back, akin to those that Christ incurred from carrying his cross up the mount.  One of her main biographers, Adalbert Albert Vogl, estimates that she had a total of 45 stigmata wounds—all of which caused her constant pain, even after the Passion when they would stop bleeding until the next Passion was re-enacted.  Especially aggravating were the wounds on her hands and feet (she wore gloves most of the time so as to be able to engage in the various chores she performed, and she wore special shoes which took the weight off the area in her feet where the wounds manifested).  Vogl also surmises that, in the remaining 36 years of her life, Therese experienced the horrific Passion ecstasy some 725 times.  Throughout history (especially in the second millennium of Christianity), a number of other saints, mostly women, have experienced the Lord’s Passion, but few have done so as many times or with such extensive stigmata wounds as Therese.  A quite miraculous thing about her stigmata wounds was that, while she lay on her bed horizontally, the blood flowing from her hands and feet followed the same direction as it would on the vertically-crucified Christ, that is, the blood from her hands and feet flowed up towards her elbows and toes, in violation of the law of gravity.  Many people of a skeptical and/or anti-religious bent might try to dismiss all of this activity, attributing it to some kind of mental pathology, such as hysteria.  In later years, several books came out which tried to make just this charge—though their authors eventually retracted them when they found out the true facts about Therese’s stigmata.  Therese was definitely not an hysteric, but a simple, humble, holy person with a very special mission in life—to take on in her own body the ills of the world and to be a living testimony to the power of Divine Spirit over matter. 

 

One of the more amazing phenomena in the life of Therese Neumann—well-documented through careful observation by highly respectable medical and clerical personnel—was her virtually complete inedia from 1922 until her passing 40 years later, except for the daily communion wafer she received each morning at 7 a.m. Mass.  This wafer of unleavened flour—considered to be transubstantiated into the body of her beloved Jesus—contained no more than 10 calories in physical terms, and was Therese’s sole nourishment; she was entirely dependent upon it for her life.  It would sometimes appear miraculously on her tongue, not given by human hands, either materialized directly by God or else teleported from a nearby church tabernacle, so as to insure that she received her daily quota of life-force from God.  The communion wafer would also be seen to disappear suddenly on her tongue, yet often reappearing throughout the day, usually lasting about 22 hours in her system (for this reason, she was often respectfully called “the living tabernacle”).  The last few hours before she received another host at her regular time at the 7 a.m. Eucharistic Celebration were times of tremendous suffering for her, when it seemed that body and soul would be sundered once and for all.  A further note about this:  whichever priest was scheduled to give Therese her communion wafer the morning of one of her Passions would, the evening before, clearly hear the voice of an angel saying that the host should be administered to her one hour earlier than normal (for she would, by the time of the 7 a.m. Mass, already be in a deep state of ecstasy as a prelude to her re-living the Passion).  As a rather humorous anomaly, Therese’s inedia was actually accompanied by an increasing weight-gain as she grew older!  When investigated in July of 1927, she weighed 121 pounds.  In 1935, she weighed 140 pounds.  In 1945 she weighed in excess of 185 pounds; in 1950 she topped 200 pounds; and in 1953 her weight was over 215 pounds!

     

Perhaps even more amazing to scientists than Therese’s inedia was the fact that, since December 1926 (when a visiting, substitute priest did not know to give Therese her usual small daily sip of water at Holy Communion), Therese stopped taking any water, and drank no liquids the rest of her life—a medical impossibility!  If some water was inadvertently swallowed while brushing her teeth, it would come up again.  This inability to keep anything down made it impossible for doctors to give her any medications when they wanted to help alleviate the various illnesses or strange conditions which appeared from time to time over the course of her life, afflictions which she seemed to be taking on for the sake of humanity.  For at the time of the Passion and at several times each day, Therese would vicariously suffer great pains for others’ physical and spiritual ailments, though, like some other “spiritual heroes” who take on this incredible work of atonement, the symptoms in her body would appear and disappear suddenly, defying the etiological pattern.  When suffering on behalf of “the souls in Purgatory,” her afflictions might last several days, painful both physically and emotionally.  One case of atonement lasted much longer—this was Therese’s taking on the chronic sore throat which was plaguing a young seminarian who came to visit her in 1922, a condition preventing him from continuing his priestly studies.  After a novena (a regimen of prayers) she made on his behalf, the condition was transferred to her, and she bore this for eight years, whereupon it was suddenly cured upon the young man’s saying his first Mass.  Vogl reports that “Therese’s [vicarious] sufferings [for others] were more frequent and severe than most people imagine... She asked Our Lord that all these sufferings which she took upon herself voluntarily should be credited for the forgiveness of sins for others, and not for herself and her own shortcomings.”  In spite of this frequent enduring of others’ conditions, Therese was a most happy, joyous person, with a childlike innocence and a quick sense of humor.  And she never played at being an “invalid”—but was a most productive woman.  To top it all off, she never slept in normal human fashion.  After having spent a full day (in between her mystical experiences) doing the farmwork, housework, gardenwork, answering correspondence, and so forth, she would spend her nights at the local church, cleaning the floors, arranging the flowers, tidying up the adjacent cemetery, praying for the welfare of souls, and so forth, catching only about 30 minutes of sleep every other day or so.  The only other time she rested during as the “exalted repose” of about 45 minutes after she suffered the Passion of Christ, when all signs of life (heartbeat, pulse, and breathing) left her.  After this death-like state had run its course, she would begin to gasp for air and revive, becoming her usual, active self again.  

 

During Therese’s frequent ecstasies, which had begun in 1926 at the onset of the stigmata, she was highly clairvoyant, knowing past, future, and distant present events.  She experienced detailed visions of Christ’s birth, life, death and ascension, Mary’s death and ascension, and moments in the lives of different saints as well as the souls in Purgatory.  During her visions, which often would come quite suddenly, causing her to drop items she might have been holding in her hands, and often causing her to stretch out her arms for many minutes, she would hear and utter the various languages being spoken in that time and place, especially the languages of biblical days such as Aramaic, Hebrew, Greek and Latin, as well as Asian and European languages associated with the later saints.  Of course, she had never consciously learned any of these languages, and her easy facility with them stupefied the professors of language called in to investigate her.  Other miraculous phenomena which happened around Therese included prophecies, healings of others bodies and souls, telepathy, knowing the states of others’ minds and hearts, knowing the contents of peoples’ numerous letters to her simply by looking at the signatures (in ecstasies she didn’t even need to open the letters), ascertaining the nature and authenticity of relics, knowing when and where the Eucharist was present in the vicinity up to a mile away (it would help alleviate her suffering), knowing who was a priest (even when dressed incognito) and who was not (exposing impostors dressed like priests), knowing when a priest had or had not blessed her, even at a great distance, seeing the guardian angels of others and herself, and having her visible form bi-locate in several places at the same time.  Once she even powered a taxi for many miles that was completely out of gas; the driver, a mechanic, was stunned; after she had returned from her mission, the car stopped once and for all!  It is obvious to many observers that God’s power was clearly upon this woman.

 

And what a humble, kind, compassionate nature Therese manifested.  She greatly loved nature, especially fond of flowers, birds, horses and other animals.  She was always deeply interested in the welfare of her human visitors—numbering in the millions, including not only hundreds of doctors who investigated her, and many high-ranking officials of the Church (Popes Pius XI and Pius XII also numbered among her admirers and well-wishers), but also some half a million American GIs who streamed in to see her over the years after the fall of the Nazi regime in 1945.  Many of these soldiers, as well as other members of the Allied Forces, had been forewarned and saved by Fraülein Theres from explosions and surprise attacks which she had foreseen.  From the late 1920s, that is, from around the beginning of her “mission,” daily visitors to Therese could be counted in the hundreds; on her Passion Fridays visitors usually numbered between 5,000-7,000, and sometimes up to 15,000 souls, creating great wear and tear as they tromped up the steps two by two to view Therese for half a minute each.  (Her family never accepted any funds to help with the frequent maintenance and repair work this necessitated.)  With the great crowds hungering for miracles in Therese’s presence, it would have been easy for the whole affair to degenerate into mere sensation-seeking, but Therese and the saintly Father Naber (d. 1967), the local pastor as well as her long-time friend and spiritual director, were able to maintain among the crowds an aura of devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus.  Even Protestants, Jews and atheists were dramatically converted to Catholicism after witnessing Therese’s suffering and feeling the presence of God surrounding her. 

 

Very little has come to us of Therese’s counsels of spiritual instruction—it seems, anyway, that she spoke more with her actions than her words.  We should know that Therese benefited people not just through her saintly long-suffering of the stigmata or through the inspiring miracles happening around her.  Vogl notes that “her deeds of charity and kindness were endless,” such as spending many hours comforting and assisting the sick and needy, sending food-packages to the destitute in areas oppressed by the Nazis and, later, the Communists, and warmly receiving with Father Naber the many “distinguished” visitors who had set up appointments with her to investigate her, interview her and receive inspiration from her.  All of these activities were in addition to her housework, farmwork, gardenwork, and caring for farm animals and pets (especially the horses and a great number of birds that were sent to her by well-wishers).

 

With mention of the Nazis, we know that they despised her, continually trying to drag her name into the mud and declaim her as a fraud.  Some of the priests around Therese were later especially singled out and murdered. The Nazis dared not directly harass Therese bodily, since a huge crowd would have instantly risen up against them in protest.  Yet once several men were sent to her home to quietly arrest her:  Therese, in the midst of suffering the Passion of Christ, had clairvoyantly known of their approach, jumped out of bed and run downstairs, flinging the door open just as they came up the steps.  On seeing this suffering holy woman, the men turned and fled.  Though she was never again directly confronted, nevertheless, she was constrained to do things like affix a pseudonym to the many hundreds of food packages she sent to people (she had to do the same when later sending hundreds of packages to the oppressed in Communist regimes), lest they be confiscated.

 

The rest of Therese’s earthly life included her becoming a Franciscan tertiary in September 1946; working hard in 1950-1 to obtain a large estate nearby for the purpose of establishing a seminary for late vocations to the priesthood (a seminary was indeed started there, which flourishes to this day, giving many older men the opportunity to become trained as priests); and in the early 1960s working zealously to open a new Carmelite convent for contemplatives at Konnersreuth to perpetuate the love of Christ.  (Note:  Carmelite sisters also live at the Neumann family home and preserve it as a sanctuary for the public.)  After Therese finally effected a “go ahead” stage for the convent project in September, 1962, her earthly work seemed finished and her physical condition began to deteriorate noticeably.  She had had a serious coronary problem for some time, having suffered some heart attacks. Asked by Fr. Naber whether her health would improve, she responded, “The decision will come next Tuesday.”  On the morning of the fated day, Tuesday, September 18, 1962, after receiving a vision of the Lord and a miraculous appearance of the host on her tongue (something which usually only happened on high feastdays), Therese’s heart gave way once and for all and her spirit merged in that of her Beloved.  Since her passing, over 300 miracles have happened in her name, ostensibly through her intercession.  The first two steps of her official beatification have occurred, and it is highly likely that she will one day in the not too distant future be elected for official sainthood.  Regardless, she will always shine resplendently as a beacon of goodness and self-sacrifice.

 

Dorothy Day (1897-1980), whose ardent writings took a strong stand for pacifism and love of one’s enemies during the Spanish Civil War, the Second World War, and subsequent wars, was another woman of our day unofficially considered a real saint—a title which she herself, like all true saints, would quickly eschew out of utmost humility, insisting that we are all called to be saints.  (Because of her liberal, progressive views, it is doubtful she will ever be officially canonized as a saint by a conservative Catholic hierarchy. Dorothy herself would not want to be canonized for three reasons:  perception of her own sinfulness, the huge expense of the canonization process, and reluctance to be put on a pedestal beyond emulation for every Christian.)  Growing up in San Francisco and Chicago, by her 20th year Dorothy was associating with socialists and radicals and working as a reporter and editor for several socialist newspapers, an experience which would be invaluable for her own later publishing of the Catholic Worker—a leading Christian newspaper.  Six days in solitary confinement (for resisting imprisonment after being arrested at a women’s suffrage demonstration) provoked her into a profound self-examination.  Dorothy published an autobiographical novel in 1924 which, among other things, told of her unsuccessful marriage, her love for another man, and an abortion.  In 1926 she gave birth to a daughter, and decided to baptize her in the Catholic Church, and in December of the following year, Dorothy, too, became a Catholic.  Five years later she met Peter Maurin, a French laymen dreaming of a renewal of the world and the church; Peter stoked the fire under Dorothy to begin “the revolution”—the revolution which calls on everyone to become a saint.  At Peter’s urging, on May 1, 1933, she put out the first isssue of the Catholic Worker newspaper and also began to set up the Catholic Worker houses of hospitality, where the destitute were fed and sheltered—the first house being her own flat on East Fifteenth Street. Within three years the Worker house was a 36-room shabby affair on Mott Street, which would house Dorothy, her volunteer co-workers, and their clientele for the next 15 years.  This “vanguard of Catholic radicalism” in the U.S. themselves lived in simple, impoverished fashion, doing all the lowly chores to maintain their mission.  In 1940 Dorothy began a series of religious retreats held for Catholic Workers at the Worker farm at Easton, Pennsylvania, where the spirit of the Gospels, a spirit of self-sacrificing love, could permeate this community even more deeply.  These retreats transformed Dorothy into a woman of deep prayerfulness, and she spent the rest of her years until her death in 1980 bringing a stronger contemplative context to her life, reading works on the saints, writing her eloquent regular column, “On Pilgrimage,” for the Catholic Worker, ministering to the destitute, speaking at various retreats and conferences, and enjoying from time to time the company of her daughter and grandchildren.  Like all true saints, Dorothy’s life was a commitment to peace (as mentioned, she was an ardent pacifist), serving the needy, loving one’s enemy, and taking personal responsibility in alleviating the world’s woes by helping people on a one-to-one basis in that community spirit of “localism” which the saints feel so urgently.  About the topic of Dorothy’s sainthood, peace-activist Fr. Daniel Berrigan, who does not look kindly on the “baroque” policies of the Vatican, has suggested that Dorothy’s followers would do much better to privately invoke Dorothy and take the large amount of funds that would be necessary to carry through any canonization process and put it where Dorothy would have most wanted it:  into the Catholic Worker houses where it would directly benefit the poor!

 

Chiara Lubich (1920-2008), an Italian woman, received in 1977 the Templeton Foundation Prize for Progress in Religion for her work with the Focolare (“heart of the home”) Movement, a spiritual association she founded in Trent, Italy, in 1943, now with over a million members (mainly laypersons) in 150 countries.  The focolarini publish some 45 magazines and other periodicals in 12 languages.  They work at jobs within society yet live together in spiritual communities, attempting to integrate the gospel into modern life.  A Franciscan tertiary, Chiara was famed for her promoting of ecumenical unity among Christians of all denominations. Florence Barry (1885-1965) received in 1951 from Pope Pius XII the Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice medal—the highest papal honour a woman can receive—for her work in founding the St. Joan’s Alliance (and International Alliance), a Catholic suffrage group; she began the movement for emancipation of women in the developing world. 

 

Speaking of the Pope Pius XII, his most trusted aide, confidant, and adviser since his time as papal nuncio in Bavaria in 1917 until his death as Pope in 1958 was his housekeeper and secretary, the Bavarian-born Madre Pascalina (Josefina Lehnert; 1894-1983). This was likely the most powerful (and sometimes resented) woman working behind the scenes in the Catholic Church in the fourth and fifth decades of the 20th century. The biographers of this nun comment, “When throughout the ages had a Pope shared his throne with a woman?  She was the mind and strength behind Pius’ papacy, the most powerful woman in the Vatican, and undoubtedly the most important throughout the Holy See.” [64] Pascalina, the so-called “Virgo Potens,” or “Powerful Virgin,” was a voice for the European poor and refugees during and after the years of World War II. She was asked by Pope Pius XII to direct his personal charity efforts, officially under Monsignore Montini, later Pope Paul VI, with whom she had a complicated relationship. To assist the pope in answering the many calls for his charitable help, Pascalina mobilized and led the Magazino, a private papal charity office, which employed up to 40 helpers and continued until 1959. “It started from modest beginnings and became a gigantic charity.”

 

By Christmas 1944, 12,000 packages were delivered to the children of Rome alone, many of which were handed over by Pius XII himself. Pascalina organized truck caravans filled with medicine, clothing, shoes and food to prison camps and hospitals, provided first aid, food and shelter for bomb victims, fed the hungry population of Rome, answered emergency calls for aid to the Pope, sent care packages to France, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Germany, and Austria and other countries. After the war, the calls for papal help continued in war-torn Europe: Madre Pascalina organized emergency aid to displaced persons, prisoners of war, victims of floods, and many victims of the war. Pascalina distributed also hundreds of religious items to needy priests. (Wikipedia article)

 

In 1959, Madre Pascalina wrote an autobiography (not published until 1982), but this was more of a reverent yet candid biography of Pius XII than much revelation about herself.

 

At this point we would try to condense into a handful of pages the oft-told tale of that humble yet gutsy angel to the poor, Mother Teresa of Calcutta (191097), undoubtedly the most famous “unofficial” saint of our era.  Though she claims that “personalities are not important,” and refers to herself merely as “God’s pencil,” we do well to tell something of her story here.  She was born August 27, 1910 of Albanian Catholic parents in the town of Skopje in what is now Yugoslavia, and was named Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu. Her devout mother, Drone, was a major influence on little Agnes, youngest of three children.  Agnes’ brother, Lazar, remembers his younger sister as being “a good-looking, active girl with a beautiful singing voice.”  She prayed with her mother and family every night, saying together with them the rosary.  Her father died in her 9th year, and the family’s finances took a turn for the worse, but Agnes stayed in school and got good grades; she often tutored students in their homes, and spent a lot of time in church with her mother.  She first felt called to the religious life in her twelfth year, and prayed over this for the next six years; finally, in November, 1928, at age 18, Agnes entered the motherhouse of the Loreto Sisters (the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary) in Rathfarnham, Dublin, with the aim of joining the Loreto teaching-sisters in India.  After a short time in Ireland, she made the 7-week sea voyage to India, arriving January 6, 1929 in Calcutta, thence proceeding 300 miles north to Darjeeling, in northeast India, to do her novitiate with the Loreto Sisters, taking her first vows and the name Sister Teresa (after Thérèse of Lisieux) in 1931, eventually taking her final vows as a nun in 1937.  From 1929 to 1948 Sister Teresa taught the girls at St. Mary’s High School in Entally, Calcutta with the Loreto nuns, a very fulfilling life for her.  She mainly taught geography and also led quite formidable religion classes—which inspired many of her students to later become nuns.  For some years she was the school’s principal, and was also in charge of the Daughters of St. Anne, the Indian religious order attached to the Loreto Sisters.  (During these years she became fluent in English, Bengali and Hindi.)  But Sister Teresa’s heart was also being moved by the poverty she witnessed daily across the street from the school in the slum of Moti Jīhl.  On September 10, 1946 while going by train to Darjeeling for a spiritual retreat, she distinctly heard another “call” from the divine voice within her heart (there was no miraculous vision involved, either; Mother Teresa insists “I do not have visions”): 

“The message was quite clear: I was to leave the convent and help the poor whilst living among them.  It was an order. ... I felt intensely that Jesus wanted me to serve him among the poorest of the poor, the uncared for, the slum dwellers, the abandoned, the homeless.  Jesus invited me to serve him and follow him in actual poverty, to practise a kind of life that would make me similar to the needy in whom he was present, suffered and loved.”

 

After the turmoil in India subsided a bit, she applied for and received permission from Rome to leave, in August 1948, the peaceful, joyous convent life with her Loreto Sisters and become an “unenclosed nun” under obedience to the Archbishop of Calcutta.  She clothed herself in a simple white sari with a blue border and a small crucifix on the shoulder, then trained intensively for three months as a nurse with the American Medical Missionary Sisters in Patna (northwest of Calcutta) and became an Indian citizen.  By Christmas she had returned to Calcutta and had opened a school for slum dwellers’ children under a tree in the small compound owned by a family living in the basti (slum of mud-floored shacks) of Moti Jīhl, Calcutta.  This was near to her former Loreto convent, and an hour’s walk from the Little Sisters’ convent where she now resided.  About five children came to her open-air school that first day in 1948, and soon she had over 40 children in attendance (by the early 1970s over 500 children would be coming daily to a much expanded version of this school).  These were mainly older children who had not fit into any other school.  The following day after opening her school, two young Indian women, former students of hers, came to help, soon followed by a handful of others.  Former fellow-teachers with Sister Teresa at St. Mary’s, laywomen, also came to assist.  Small gifts of money began to spontaneously roll in, though she herself had not asked for anything, instead relying entirely on Divine Providence.  She had left the convent with a mere five rupees—all of which she promptly gave away; but, through God’s grace, she and her people have never totally lacked the support needed to continue the work.  In February, 1949, as more evidence of God’s grace, one Michael Gomes donated to Sister Teresa some space on the second floor of his private house on Creek Lane which became her home and very humble “headquarters” for her growing work.  It was also closer to Moti Jīhl, cutting down the time of her long walks each morning and evening to and from the school.  When the monsoons came in 1949, Mother Teresa was able to rent two huts to shelter the children and herself and continue their instruction.  Eventually some of the young Indian and Anglo-Indian women who had joined Mother Teresa, mainly middle-class and well educated, and used to visiting the poor and sick when they were her students, came to their former headmistress expressing the wish to become nuns with her so that they could fully focus on the work of serving the poor.  Like Mother, they were willing to completely sacrifice everything for the sake of serving Jesus in the form of the “poorest of the poor.”  The first girl to join Mother Teresa full time, on March 19, 1949, was Subhāshini Dās, a small, frail young woman, a native of Calcutta, later to become Sister Agnes.  Magdalene Gomes, who subsequently took the name Sister Gertrude, quickly followed (she now heads Mother Teresa’s work in the Yemen).  Within a few months ten more came to take up the religious vocation with Mother, accepting the vows of poverty, chastity, obedience, and charity.  By the end of the year 1949 there were 27 young Indian girls who had joined Mother Teresa to unofficially form the Missionaries of Charity.  In October 1950, they received approval from Rome and the Archbishop of Calcutta as a diocesan congregation, and, in Febraury 1953, the Sisters moved into a large building found for them which would become the motherhouse for the Missionaries of Charity, at 54A Lower Circular Rd. in Calcutta.  (The new motherhouse, built in the late 1980s, is located near here at A.J.C. Bose Rd. just north of Ripon St.). 

 

Being a Sister of the Missionaries of Charity has always been a most difficult life, but was especially so in the early days, when Mother and her work were not yet famous—actually more “infamous” in many circles, since she was working with all sorts of “untouchable”-caste persons—and only small amounts of food, medicine and money were coming in.  Aside from being young women out on their own (in a day when young women did not do such things) following this 39 year old “mad nun,” with nothing more to go on than blind faith (no one knew for certain how it would all turn out)—the Sisters were on a demanding schedule.  This schedule was very similar to the current one:  up at 4:30 in the morning, an hour and a half at prayer and meditation, Mass at 6, a light breakfast, and then a fully day of work and ministering to the needy in whatever way possible, all the while “praying unceasingly.”  At mid-day and at night there is more prayer, and all the Sisters sleep on the floor of their open dormitory.  Mother Teresa and some of the other Sisters go barefoot whenever possible, and their washing of dishes and their bodies has always been done with cold water from a pump.  One day a week is given over entirely to recollection and prayer, while the novices go out and do the ministering to the needy.  In the early days a “crippling uncertainty” would often be in the air regarding when and where their next meal or items for the poor might be coming from, but Mother Teresa always inspired the Sisters to trust in God, who provides for all worthy causes.  Sure enough, though Mother would refuse gifts from the Sisters’ concerned family members, other resources would come, often quite miraculously “at the last moment.”  Some of the young women who joined Mother were Indian girls who came from the upper castes, and for them to serve the “untouchable” outcastes was, as Mother Teresa calls it, “a revolution, the biggest one, the hardest of all: the revolution of love!”  Mother had taught them to see everyone as Christ, especially the destitute and suffering, whom Mother regards as innocent souls who are interceding on our behalf, paying for the sins of the world.  Through her masterful use of psycho-spiritual reframing—seeing even the most revolting condition as “Jesus in disguise”—she has effected a radical re-conditioning of the human psyche in her protégés.  In simpler terms, she has taught them how to love—to love those whom no one else will love:  the poor, the sick, the dying, the abandoned.  Mother Teresa, an expert spiritual director, has also always realized the need for fun activities to balance out the lives of her spiritual daughters, and this still goes on during the Sisters’ half-hour recreation period every night from 8:30-9:00. 

 

The Missionaries of Charity have never been a fund-raising organization. They will not even accept any government grants in connection with their medical and social work—preferring to rely on donations.  It should be clearly emphasized that Mother and her Sisters are not doing “social work,” like so many other countless organizations.  Neither are they evangelizing the poor with preaching and bibles.  Rather, they are simply and very powerfully loving God all the hours of their day, and spontaneously expressing this in action on behalf of “Jesus in the distressing disguise of the poorest of the poor.”  This accounts for their being able to work so joyously for an entire lifetime without suffering the oft-found social worker’s condition known as “burn-out.” 

 

A brief sketch can here be made of the many projects which Mother Teresa and her Missionaries of Charity have established, projects which have been written about elsewhere by myself and many other authors... In 1952 she started Nirmal Hriday, her home for neglected, dying souls, which fulfills her dream that, before they die, all people will know that they are loved. Actually, through the care of Mother and her people, about half of the 40,000-50,000 who have been brought to Nirmal Hriday have recovered a lived a number of remaining years).  Her Shishu Bhavān is an adoption home for unwanted babies and children, also a place where meals are distributed and vocational help given to numerous poor folk of all ages.  Not one single child has been refused by Mother and her troupe of helpers—an extra bed always seems to be available, by God’s grace.  Mother works to get these children adopted or else vocationally trained; those who are retarded are simply raised by the Sisters with all love, honored as special expressions of God’s love.  In many cases, the Missionaries of Charity sponsor several children in large, poor families, helping them through school and vocational training so that these young people might succeed in getting employment so as to take care of their families.  The Sisters also run mother-and-child clinics, which bring first aid and healing to the poorest slums. 

 

Leper colonies run by the Sisters in the Calcutta slums of Belgachia, Titagarh, and elsewhere and throughout India, as well as her mobile dispensaries, have treated many thousands of lepers, curing or arresting this horribly disfiguring and painful disease.  (Mary Biswas is notable as one of Mother’s colleagues from the early days of the Moti Jīhl school who became the Superintendent of the Home for the dying and then dedicated her life to working for the lepers, marrying a leper and building with him the colony at Belgachia.)  Mother, et al, have set up a rehabilitation center for lepers, Shanti Nagar, “Abode of Peace,” about 200 miles north of Calcutta, as well as a home for children of lepers.  And we must not forget Mother’s many educational projects for poor children; numerous schools have been established in addition to the one at Moti Jīhl, all starting as simple little affairs which soon expand and flourish, by God’s grace.

 

In 1963, a new branch, the Missionary Brothers of Charity, was inaugurated by Mother to help carry on the work of serving the needy as Christ incarnate; now with about 200 members, it has been headed all these years by Brother Andrew, a former Jesuit priest.  These Brothers care for the dying men at Nirmal Hriday and elsewhere, look after young boys (orphans and delinquents), care for the chronically ill, the mentally disordered, drug addicts, et al, and work in the docks and other tough localities where even the intrepid Missionary Sisters cannot go.

 

Highly unusual was that in 1965, after only fifteen years, the Missionaries of Charity Order was granted status as a pontifical institute, directly under the authority of the Pope, allowing the Missionaries of Charity to work anywhere worldwide.  Their growth has been quite rapid, though—compared with other Catholic religious orders—the M.C. are still not a huge order (yet, anyway).  By the late 1970s there were 935 Sisters and 185 Brothers in 89 foundations, the majority (61 of the houses) in India, others established in Sri Lanka, Venezuela, Tanzania, Gaza, Yemen (the first Christian presence there in 800 years), and also big cities in the more “developed” nations, such as Melbourne, London, New York, San Francisco, etc., where there is considerable “spiritual suffering” amongst the homeless and the shut-ins.  By the late 1970s, the Missionaries of Charity ran 81 schools, 335 mobile dispensaries, 28 family planning centers, 67 leprosy clinics, 28 homes for abandoned children, and 32 homes for dying destitute persons.  By the mid 1980s, just speaking of the numbers of Sisters in the MC Order, there were over 2,000 Sisters affiliated with 320 houses in 75 countries, and by early 1990 there were 3,000 nuns in 87 countries.  Novitiates for training new Sisters are located in Calcutta, Rome, Manila, and, most recently, in Africa.  Mother Teresa has declared her most important mission to be that of training the Sisters in “having the right spirit.” 

 

She seems to have succeeded quite well, raising a fleet of angels who are well-balanced women, blending together the contemplative and active lifestyles, infused with the love and joy of working for/with Jesus. The Missionaries of Charity Order is connected with the International Link for the Co-Workers of Mother Teresa (f. 1969), now numbering nearly 200,000 laypersons in over a dozen countries, and headed for many years by Ann Blaikie of England. (Eileen Egan, Mother’s long-time friend, her travel companion in the West, and author of an exquisite, full-length biography on Mother, has been Vice-Chairman of the Co-Workers for many years.)  Jacqueline de Decker heads a group of about 1,000 sick and handicapped persons who have been invited by Mother Teresa to be part of her mission through their “redemptive suffering” and interior prayer-life.  Also connected with the M.C. is a strictly contemplative wing of Missionaries, and, in addition, the “sisters of the word,” a contemplative branch who go out for two hours a day and speak of Jesus to people in a personal way.  Mother Teresa firmly believed in the efficacy of prayer to positively affect the work of herself and the Sisters, and the well-being of the poor and the world at large.

 

In 1971 Mother helped feed countless destitute victims of the Indo-Pakistani war, and rehabilitate the 3,000 East Bengali women who had been raped and disowned by their families (due to age-old “impurity” taboos). Subsequent years would see Mother venture into a state of siege in Guatemala (1976), into a war zone in West Beirut, and into other troubled areas to mobilize, with her incredible energy, relief for the countless victims of such tragic political events.  When Mother Teresa comes into a place, things begin to happen, and significant measure of relief is assured for many who would otherwise die and/or suffer horribly while powerful nations look on impotently from the sidelines (sometimes apparently not even moved by the suffering).  Because of the advent of the telecommunications age, and the dramatic nature of her work (being a Christian in a non-Christian country, and having her Missionaries of Charity venture into many difficult regions), Mother and her work have gained tremendous visibility, and been honored with many distinguished awards:  for instance, the Pope John XXIII Peace Prize (1971), the John F. Kennedy International Award for outstanding service to mankind (1971), the Good Samaritan Award (1971), the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion (1973), the Mater et Magistra Award (1974), and many others, including honorary degrees from many universities; the United Nations even commissioned a medal to be drawn up with Mother’s image on one side, with the obverse image showing a suffering, destitute child being helped by compassionate hands.  The ultimate accolade, the Nobel Peace Prize (worth $190,000), was also awarded to Mother at Oslo, Norway, in 1979.  She established significant precedents at Oslo by leading everyone assembled in prayer and by foregoing the luxurious banquet, using the $7,000 saved to feed the poor in Calcutta.  In each case where Mother is given an award, she passes on the honor to her Creator:  “It’s not my work.  It’s the Lord’s work.  The beautiful gift that God has given me is to share the joy of loving.”  And she points out that it is really, not herself, but the poor who are finally being recognized with such awards.  And on this point, Mother always emphasizes that it is not enough for us to simply give money to her Missionaries of Charity or the various “charitable organizations” in the world.  No, we must actually love people in a one-to-one manner—beginning with our family members, our neighbors, and our co-workers, as well as the needy—giving to them our time and energy and caring concern, connecting with them in a direct, heartfelt way, seeing each person as God.

 

Mother Teresa has always been involved with a tremendously busy schedule, staying up many hours even after her long days, so as to carry on her correspondence and other paper work—no one knows how much sleep she is actually able to get.  She writes all her letters herself, by hand (note that, due to her lack of time, she usually can’t acknowledge people’s donations, something which some people have misinterpreted as a lack of caring).  She is as busy as the head of a government, and yet has neither secretarial staff nor computers.  Despite her whirlwind schedule, she does take out some time to meet with her many visitors, who are struck by the immediate sense of intimacy she exudes, a warmth and caring, a radiant joy and delightful—often quite mischievous—humor.  After forty years of tirelessly leading the Missionaries of Charity, in early 1990 Mother finally stepped down as head of her congregation, due to the increasing severity of her long-standing physical problems (mainly heart disease—a pacemaker was installed in December 1989 after a heart attack and serious infections). 

 

But Mother’s “retirement” from outward activity did not last for very long! She was elected to another six-year term as superior general by the MC congregation and the council of six sisters in September, 1990, and Mother could not refuse.  I am informed (September 1991) by one of the Sisters that over the previous year Mother was quite active:  she helped open five houses of the Missionaries of Charity in the country of her birthplace, Albania—which, from 1944 until May 8, 1990, under the influence of the fanatic atheist, Enver Hoxha, was the most thoroughly anti-religious country on the planet.  Mother also opened two MC houses in Irañ in the wake of the ravages of the Persian Gulf War of early 1991, opened another MC house in Kiev (in the Ukraine), and served the needy far away in Cambodia (where civil war and at one time a period of virtual genocide have turned the place into a hell on earth).  It was apparent that we would need to retire the word “retire” when it came to Mother Teresa!  Then, while visiting the five M.C. communities at Tijuana, Mexico, in late December, 1991, Mother Teresa fell ill with bacterial pneumonia and congestive heart failure, but was completely unattached to whether she lived or died, utterly surrendered to God’s will.  Whatever the outcome of this current health-crisis, and whether she is able to resume her outer work, we should know that on an inner level Mother has always been quite actively “at work” in one-pointed prayer, invoking the Holy Spirit to help alleviate the rampant suffering throughout the world.  Even when she has finally “dropped the body” [that finally occurred on Sept. 5, 1997, in Calcutta] and is resting with the Lord in the supernal Light, we will be strongly suspicious that Mother is still “active” on our behalf. [65]

 

Numerous other Catholic holy women of the past century are known locally to their communities as sanctified souls, souls full of love for God and love for neighbor, in fulfillment of the “two great commandments.”  Here and there, in various churches of the staunchly Catholic countries like Italy, Spain, France and the Latin American countries, but also in churches of such countries as Germany, Austria, Ireland, England, Canada, the U.S., and more and more African and Asian countries, one finds posters and flyers announcing the beatification or canonization process concerning some exceptional person who has transformed the hearts of the locals.  There are actually over a thousand Catholic persons of the last century and a half, locally venerated for their sanctity, whose causes for beatification are currently under investigation at Rome—and women number around half of these.  One statistic showed that, of the 275 causes for beatification introduced in Rome between 1972 and 1983, females (women and children) constituted roughly 40% of the total figure, and by far the largest single category was women religious—87, comprising nuns and sisters, especially foundresses of new orders/congregations.  Woodward has also reported that, whereas only 20% of the saints canonized up to the twentieth century were female, the number of canonized women has increased fivefold since then. [66]

 

The beatification and canonization processes used over the last 300 years by the Roman Catholic Church have been quite lengthy, arduous, and expensive, involving an adversial framework and a “Devil’s Advocate.”  This “saint-making” process was streamlined in 1969 by Pope Paul VI, and then significantly altered in 1983 by Pope John Paul II (who had the “Devil’s Advocate” role dropped, among other things) to make beatification and canonization a much easier process (this change has been seriously critiqued by Kenneth Woodward in his book Making Saints).  Thus, even though the process is still quite lengthy and expensive (running between $10,000 to several hundred thousands of dollars), we are coming to have quite a number of beatified and fully canonized women and men in recent years (too many, suggest Woodward and others).  We have learned that holy foundresses of new congregations and orders for sisters and nuns by far dominate the list of saintly persons; one source told Woodward that some countries like Spain were seeing as many as six foundresses per year whose causes for sainthood are now pending at the Vatican’s Congregation for the Causes of Saints.  We have already profiled some of these women herein.  However, since John Paul II’s 1983 reform of the canonization process there has been a greater emphasis on the uniqueness of each saint, who is no longer expected to conform to a certain traditional type of saint, and laypersons are more “in demand” by the Curia as models for the mass of Catholics of the developed nations—especially in the U.S., Germany, France, and the U.K. (who are growing less interested in revering saints), so the causes of many of these women religious will unfortunately not be a high priority among the “saint-makers.”  Moreover, the women in the congregations started by many saintly foundresses are usually not interested in raising the funds to carry the cause of their foundress past beatification to canonization, if they are even at all interested in paying for the initial beatification of their foundresses—such funds are considered better spent on the needy.  Finally, in some countries—especially the aforementioned developed nations, the belief in miracles is lacking among the majority of people or else is an embarrassment to the more “enlightened” clergy of those countries, and so the motive to solicit the two “intercessory miracles” necessary for beatification and canonization is less frequently found.  In short, then, many holy foundresses and other saintly women of religious orders will probably be relatively forgotten by Catholics of the near future. [67]

 

By way of general commentary on the power of female sanctity within the Catholic tradition, I draw the reader’s attention to the fact that, in Joan Carroll Cruz’s fascinating research which reveals 102 wondrous cases of deceased Christian saints and beatas whose unembalmed bodies did not decompose for years or hundreds of years, fully forty-nine of these “incorruptibles” have been women—and a number of other such cases of incorruptible women have received attention since Mrs. Cruú did her research.  (The Catholic Church does not regard such incorruption as a sure sign of sanctity, whereas the Russian and other Orthodox Churches do.) [68]  Furthermore, of those who have manifested the stigmata, in many cases ostensibly a shared participation (consciously or unconsciously) in suffering the wounds of Jesus for the sake of “taking on” the negative effects of humanity’s sins, it seems that well over 80% of these have been women, including, in this century, several Anglican women (Dorothy Kerin [1889-1963], Jane Hunt [b. 1957], and Ethel Chapman [1921-1980]) and one black Baptist girl from Oakland, California (Cloretta Robinson [b. 1962]). [69]

 

Many of the saintly Christian women mentioned earlier have left us with profound spiritual writings, as I have sometimes indicated.  Let us be aware that certain Catholic women have come to the fore in the first part of this century, if not for their “approved” sanctity, then at least for their very influential words on spiritual life.  In 1920, Sister Josefa Menéndez (1890-1923), a Spanish Sacred Heart nun and visionary living at the Les Feuillants motherhouse in France, began to “channel” a substantial amount of inspiring revelations from Jesus which would eventually be published as Un Appel à L’Amour (An Appeal to Love, now known as The Way of Divine Love)—a hugely popular work in the Catholic world since then.  God’s love and mercy toward humanity and His invitation for all people to share in Jesus’ redemptive work of suffering for the sake of humanity are the main themes of the revelations.  Sister Josefa certainly lived the latter message in her own life, enduring terrible sufferings, including many frightening bouts with demons, in helping atone for humanity’s sins.  (This “redemptive suffering” of “victim souls” is a special vocation for many saints.)  Several other Catholic women “channels” for Jesus’ message of love have arisen in the twentieth century:  Conchita (María Concepción Cabrera de Armida; 1862-1937), of San Luis Potosi, Mexico, enjoyed a happy childhood of pious devotions, playing piano, and riding horses.  Later she married, and bore nine children (three of whom would die before reaching maturity), but then was widowed in her 39th year.  A few years prior, in 1897, Conchita had experienced a profound spiritual marriage with Christ.  For the next forty years this saintly, joyous woman not only founded two religious orders and carried out her maternal duties with great love, humor, simplicity and naturalness, but also kept a spiritual diary of revelations from Jesus which amounted to 66 hand-written volumes (she wrote over three dozen other works, thus writing more than any other mystic in the Church).  Her diary featured such themes as the possibility of sharing in the redemptive suffering of “the Cross,” the reality of the Holy Spirit, and the availability of perfect holiness to all, male or female, monastic or married.  Louisa Jaques (Sister Mary of the Holy Trinity; 1901-42) was born to Calvinist missionaries in S. Africa but, after her mother’s death at Louise’s birth, she was raised by her aunt in Switzerland, without any significant religious instruction.  However, a nun’s miraculous appearance to Louisa, and the conversion of a friend to Catholicism while she was working in Milan, Italy, led Louisa to become a Catholic at the age of 28.  After ten years of unsuccessful attempts to enter various convents—due to her frail health—she was accepted at the Our Lady of Sion Poor Clare convent in Jerusalem, where she spent the last four years of her life.  It was here that Louisa, now Sister Mary of the Holy Trinity, transmitted a number of profound messages from Jesus concerning his intimate love for us and various other inspiring topics. 

 

Frenchwoman Gabrielle Bossis (1874-1950) carried on a double life of being, on the one hand, a beloved public figure living a well-to-do lifestyle, and, on the other hand, being the childlike instrument for Jesus’ revelations.  Gabrielle had become famous throughout France and elsewhere as a writer of and leading actress within poignant morality plays.  Though she had evidently been in communication with Jesus from the time she was young, from age 62 onwards, while journeying by oceanliner to Canada, she began to receive in clearcut fashion inner messages from Jesus, messages revealing his love for all, and revealing the fact that God may be worshipped through a life of joy and beauty, not necessarily only through trial and tribulation.  (Hopefully this notion of holiness will come into greater prominence among the “saint-makers” as they re-examine their criteria for sanctity.)  Gabrielle never married, yet never became a nun, either, in fulfilment of Jesus’ teaching to her that one can fully realize God outside the formal religious calling. 

 

Russian-born Raïssa Oumansoff-Maritain (1883-1960) in her youth came to Paris with her parents, fleeing persecution of the Jews in her native land; she studied at the Sorbonne, and in 1904 wed Jacques Maritain, the famous author.  The two converted to Roman Catholicism in 19066 and played an important role in the French Catholic revival of the 20th century, starting up the “Thomist Circles” to bring the views of Thomas Aquinas to the modern world.  Raïssa and Jacques lived celibately the rest of their lives with her sister Véra, first at Versailles (until 1923), then at Meudon (until 1940), then N.Y., Princeton, and Rome, where she served as French ambassador to the Vatican.  Not only did Raïssa joint-author with her husband several works, she wrote four volumes of poetry, several books of memoirs, various other works, and, perhaps most important, a series of journals which reveal her sublime views and experiences (involving both deep God-absorption and a mysterious, spiritual suffering) concerning the contemplative life.  These last works, hailed by contemplative Fr. Thomas Merton, were discovered, put together, and published by Jacques after her transition in Paris in 1960. [70]      

 

Any account of saintly women authors in the modern Catholic tradition must somehow include that unique mystic, philosopher, and humanitarian, Simone Weil (1909-43), who, though she never joined the Catholic Church, regarded herself as a true Catholic, and in her brilliant writings articulated a sublimely powerful view of the Cross, the Trinity, the personal-and-impersonal nature of the Godhead, the function of prayer, aesthetic appreciation of beauty, and so forth.  Born in Paris of a wealthy Jewish doctor who would frequently relocate the family in his traveling work, Simone studied philosophy (winning top honors at her schools), and Marxism, became a pacifist, taught schoolgirls (her unorthodox methods were eventually lauded), and worked at a factory and at various other sundry jobs.  Around 1936-8, while posing as a journalist during the Spanish Civil War, Simone became very interested in Christianity, and after leaving Spain due to ill-health, she visited Rome, Assisi, and the Benedictine Abbey of Solesmes.  A deep mysticism dawned in her, combined with her life-long concern for the poor and victims of social injustice.  Simone also read scriptures of other religions, and studied Greek and Sanskrit, which helped imbue her writings with a universal perspective and broad spirit of tolerance.  She “stood outside of every church in order to lead others to religious faith.”  The years 1940-3 saw her spending much time in contemplation, and adopting various activities congruent with her philosophy of helpfulness and meaningful labor.  After a 6-month period in N.Y., where she attended daily Mass, Simone eventually wound up in London, desirous of working in the French Resistance movement, but her complex past history precluded this.  Meanwhile, having long before adopted a very frugal, austere (and pure) life, now Simone would fequently refuse to eat altogether because people in German-occupied France were dying of hunger.  Eventually Simone herself would die of starvation and pulmonary TB at a sanitorium in Kent—yet her deeply spiritual viewpoint lives on in the form of her writings.  It is significant to note that Simone Weil was a lover of saints, and at least on one occasion wrote about the urgent need for saints of “genius” who could illuminate “the present moment” of our radically changed conditions in the 20th century in ways that the saints of the past no longer can.  Many people regard Simone herself as a real “saint,” though, of course, she will never be one canonized by a Catholic pope. [71]

 

 

The Nun Vocation

 

Let us here expand our focus to include not only the officially and unofficially acknowledged individual saints and beatae, but also the many millions of relatively anonymous renunciate women religious who have carried on the ideals of “Mother Church.”  In a very useful work, Benedictine monk Hubert van Zeller has outlined for us the rise of the nun vocation in Christianity.  He first tells of how the elements of chastity and enclosure were already practiced among the female and male initiates of the mystery schools of the Mediterranean (such as in the cult of Mithra).  And among the many hundreds of Egyptian priests and priestesses devoted to Isis, Serapis, et al, it was customary to practice chastity, enclosure, detachment, prayer, worship, study of scriptures, strict cenobitical simplicity, abstinence from wine, pork, fish, and worldly pleasures, and shaving of heads. 

 

In classical Greece, just as the male Gods were served by male priests, there were sisterhoods of women priests who ministered unto the female Deities like the old Goddess of creation, Gé (Gaia), and a younger-era goddess, Cybele. Sisterhoods of celibate maidens apparently surrounded those women who served as oracles for the Gods, such as the Pythia oracular priestess office, she who was the mouthpiece of Apollo, and the Sibyl line of prophetesses. Rome’s vestal virgins who for a thousand years tended the fire to Hestia, goddess of the hearth, also represent a virtual convent of dedicated, holy women, headed by the virgo maxima.  Their residence, the atrium vestae, has been called “the architectural prototype of the Christian nunnery” (it in fact became Christian property in 382 when Gratian took it over).  We have already mentioned the existence of monastic contemplative women among the Jews whose existence may also have in some way influenced the rise of the Christian virgins and widows who would later be called “nuns.” 

 

Now with regard to Christian women themselves, Zeller ventures the opinion that:

“…even in apostolic times the ‘veiled virgins’ who are mentioned by the earliest writers were already forming an order apart, asserting more explicitly than their male counterparts the separation which they were making from the world.  Certainly St. Justin (100-165) speaks of a multitude of women ‘now grown old’ who have withdrawn themselves from the community of Christians in pursuit of a more immediate union with God.  Half a century later we have Tertullian (160-220) speaking of ‘brides of Christ’ who offer to the bridegroom ... their unbroken service of prayer and penance.  While these allusions may refer only to home-dwelling religious, dedicated lay or household sisters, it is the opinion of Dom Cuthbert Butler that ‘there were organized convents for women before there were any for men.’  Support for the priority of nuns over monks is found in the statement in the Vita Antonii [Life of St. Antony] ... that when the saint left the world to undertake the ascetic life he placed his sister in a convent. It is known that at this date (270) there were no monasteries for men, either in Egypt or anywhere else:  the first male cenobites date from the foundations made by Pachomius early in the fourth century.  Palladius ... says that by the year 400 there were nunneries all over Egypt, and that some existed also in Palestine, Syria, Italy and Africa [there were nuns and monks living under a Rule written by St. Basil in the East as well] ... [And] [i]t is worth observing how plentiful [Christian] women hermits were in Egypt before the time of Pachomius (290-346) who proposed a new ideal [i.e., cenobitic living] for the desert-dwellers.” 

 

Earlier we noted the existence of the monasteries of women led by the two Melanias in Jerusalem as well as those of even stricter observance in Jerusalem led by Sts. Paula and Jerome.  In Italy, from the year 350 on, “a number of nunneries and monasteries were founded in Rome, southern and northern Italy, Gaul, and on the islands in the western Mediterranean,” though, as Zeller informs us, the idealism, discipline, and high level of spiritual practice had declined by the next century.  In Gaul (France) establishments for monks preceded those for nuns—St. Martin’s foundation for men at Ligugé in 360 being the most outstanding one.  The early fifth century witnessed the rise of many great foundations for both monks and nuns, at Marseilles, Ligugé, Lerins, Tours, Marmoutier, Anegray, Luxeuil, Condat, and so on, sparked by John Cassian’s writings on the deeper life (he had returned to Marseilles in 410 from visiting the monastics of Egypt). The sixth century saw the rise of great houses for religious men and women in Ireland, but whereas much is known about the foundations of the men’s communities, little is known about the women’s way of life. 

 

It would fall to St. Benedict of Nursius (d. c.547) to found a monastic way of life for men and for women based upon an intelligent understanding of human nature and a blend of strict discipline and moderation.  His segregated houses of male and female Benedictines spread throughout Europe and became the major influence on Christianity for the next 600 years. Until the rise of the universities in the 13th and 14th centuries, these Benedictine monastic houses were the great centers of learning, art, and culture, and numerous women achieved great spiritual, mental and emotional fulfillment within these communities.  Other religious orders would arise in which women could live an even more profound spiritual life, such as the Cistercians (a reform of the Benedictine order), the much less formal but no less devout Béguines, the women’s Franciscan and Dominican orders, and then the many active orders, such as the Ursulines—who were subsequently cloistered away from active service, and the Daughters of Charity, founded in 1633 by Vincent de Paul and Louise de Marillac, who succeeded in keeping their active life and paving the way for similar congregations to follow.

 

Whereas in the Eastern Orthodox tradition the monastics to this day follow the rule of life as written by St. Basil, there now flourish within the Catholic tradition some 1,500 religious institutions, each with their own governing rule or constitution; these include the orders of nuns (who take solemn vows, very difficult to dispense) and the institutes or congregations of active sisters and oblates (who take simple vows, much easier to revoke, if there is felt-need to change vocation). (This figure does not include the local diocesan institutes and the old vocations of hermit, consecrated virgin, and widow recently re-established by canon law.)  Currently over 400 different Catholic women’s religious institutes (including nuns’ orders) are to be found in America alone.  These “women religious,” who, unknown to most Catholics, are actually defined by canon law as being “laywomen,” having been increasingly demoted in power over the centuries from their original status as “clergy,” are required to live a life in community according to the Catholic teachings and the main vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience to a spiritual director(s).  A mention of some of the largest of the women’s religious institutes would include the Benedictines (oldest order of which was started in 529 C.E. in Italy), the Cistercian Trappistines (founded in 1120 in France), the Dominican nuns (f. 1206, Italy), the Poor Clares (f. 1212 in Italy) and Colettines and Franciscan Sisters, the Ursulines (f. 1535, Italy), the Discalced Carmelites (f. 1562, Spain), the Visitandines (f. 1610, France), the Daughters of Charity (f. 1633, France) and various other active orders since then, such as the Sisters or Daughters of Mercy, of Notre Dame, of St. Joseph, etc., the Presentation Sisters (f. 1776, Ireland), the Religious of the Sacred Heart (f. 1848 in France), the Daughters of Mary Help of Christians (Salesians, f. 1872, Italy), the Cabrini Sisters (f. 1880, Italy), and so on, each of which have many thousands of nuns or sisters belonging to them worldwide (not to mention smaller orders/institutes of hundreds of nuns or sisters). 

 

In 1967 there were over a million nuns and sisters worldwide (1,072,934, over half of them in Europe), far outnumbering by a ratio of over three-to-one the Catholic male religious (who totalled 332,997).  Presently, a mere 25 years later, there are only several hundred thousand nuns/sisters worldwide (about 100,000 in the U.S.), their numbers (like those of priests and monks) having seriously declined in the developed nations since the mid-1960s, while increasing somewhat in the “developing” nations. 

 

As several books have profiled them, the nuns and sisters in these diverse orders and institutes are leading apostolates of active service (e.g., teachers, social welfare workers, nurses, doctors, missionaries, artists, craftswomen, writers, political lobbyists for social justice, policewomen, etc.), and prayer and contemplation (the predominantly contemplative nuns are much fewer in numbers than the active sisters, comprising about 4%-6% of women religious).  Their lifestyle ranges from involvement in the community to total cloistering, from the mildly self-sacrificing to the extremely austere and even self-mortifying—the Poor Clares, Trappistines, and Discalced Carmelites are the most rigorous communities in this latter respect.  And it is significant for us moderns and our obsession with the materialistic, adventurous, pleasurable lifestyle that the most cloistered and austere nuns often tend to be the happiest—radiant with an extraordinary bliss, evidence of the plain fact that authentic well-being comes from a simplified life transparent to the spiritual domain, not from “having and doing” on the level of sensory experience! 

 

We must be aware that the vow of obedience (which is unique to Christian nuns, not found in Buddhist or Jaina nuns’ orders) is tested most strongly during the novitiate period (generally lasting about 2 or 3 years), and has involved various commands given to the young women which often seem to the laity rather arbitrary, “impossible,” and even humiliating.  All such commands are, however, designed to break egocentric pride and self-will and produce a remarkable equanimity and inner strength.  This purity and peace is the positive side of the picture.  The other side of the picture, up until recent decades, was that the nuns’ lifestyle (and that of some monks) was promoting an overly dependent infantilism and childish neuroses on the part of many—though certainly not all—of the women; they were heavily conditioned to be nothing but unthinking, “dutiful daughters,” averse (not authentically equanimious) toward almost all forms of pleasure and incapable of authentic human relationship.  Mary Jo Weaver, in her richly insightful work, New Catholic Women, reports how the sociologically-trained Sr. Aloysius Schaldenbrand observed that a major factor underlying this problem is the fact that convent society has been alarmingly similar to the asylums which Erving Goffman called “total societies,” wherein one has little or no contact with one’s former world, one is dispossessed of one’s clothes, name, and keepsakes, divested of adult self-concepts by being forced to ask permission for almost everything, subjected to a total invasion of privacy, managed by high-handed “superiors,” and living in a culture characterized by a reward system based on conformity, the equating of humility with inferiority, overemphasis on rule observance, arid life conditions, denial of human dignity, and an attempt to exist as a self-contained unit with no interest in “the world.”  (The central differences between nuns and inmates were that nuns “chose their life freely, had theological reasons for self-mortification, and understood themselves as opening the self to God’s transforming grace.”) [72] 

 

A lot of this has changed.  In the 1940s, Pope Pius XII had invited women religious to improve their education and adapt to the modern world.  In fact, educational and professional-skill-training opportunities increased substantially for many of these religious women over the following decades. The Sister Formation Movement in the U.S., viewed as a somewhat briefer counterpart to seminary training for priests, was implemented in the late 1940s to help in this educational and training work and to render sisters “more saintly, skilled, and mature,” so as to meet the challenges of our complex society.  Numerous sisters received graduate degrees, become doctors, hospital and school administrators, and so forth.  Indeed, they became some of the best educated women in the world. Under Pope Pius XII’s influence, in 1950 nuns and sisters the first International Congress of Religious in Rome were told that the Vatican’s Sacred Congregation of Religious (SCR, now SCRIS) “would look favorably upon requests for any changes in constitution, rule, custom and ascetical practices that would modernize the spirit and works of the individual Community.” [73] 

 

Then in the early 1960s, Pope John XXIII’s Second Vatican Council (1962-5), among its other momentous decisions, called for a major renewal (aggiornamento) of the lives of formal religious—nuns, sisters, monks and priests.  This renewal many communities of nuns and sisters took seriously.  They had a distinct sense of mission about their renewal, for, as Weaver reports, “in the early years of renewal, sisters were told in many different ways that they were the strength and hope of the church.”  In the aftermath of their increased education, more sophisticated psychological and sociological analysis of their situation, and the changing societal attitudes (especially in the U.S. and England), some women’s religious congregations—especially for sisters and oblates—became relaxed to a very great extent, dressing in much less conspicuous habits, having more autonomy, restructuring the “deplorable” convent schedules which had constrained them while they tried to teach in schools (etc.), entering local and national politics to remedy social injustices, having platonic male companions, and so on.  During this period of renewal the Catholic women’s religious communities transformed or “radicalized” much more than men’s religious communities—for instance, in the area of management, utilizing collaborative forms of government in their orders.  A period of great change and diversity had been ushered in for these women.  But some of the male hierarchy were not supportive of many of these changes and stepped in to exert suppressive control.

 

Commenting on the issues within the communities of women religious as they were renewing themselves, Marcelle Bernstein, in her revealing book, The Nuns (written in the mid-1970s, based on interviews with 500 nuns from many orders), has this to say:

“Nuns at this moment are in an unprecedented position, caught between two worlds.  Many still cling to the rules and standards of the Middle Ages ... encouraged to scourge themselves with whips, sleeping fully dressed upon pallets of straw and rising at night to pray for a world they will never see again. 

      “For others there has been a revolution; they are moving out of their medieval chrysalis into the modern world.  These nuns [sisters] are among the most highly trained professional women in the West: doctors and economists, scientists and policewomen.  There are nuns working on factory floors, staffing ghetto schools, and running homes for unmarried mothers.  Nuns nurse alcoholics and lepers, drug addicts, and the destitute of city slums.  They are to be found as missionaries in the most remote corners of the world... They are politically aware and active on [various] issues...

      “This process of modernization was brought about partly by increased awareness and a growing sense of responsibility among the nuns themselves, and partly by the need for change pressed upon them by the Second Vatican Council, the great meeting of bishops in Rome in 1965.  Yet desirable as this process may seem, there are those who question the need for it.  Certainly it has brought nuns to a crisis point.  Coming out of their enclosures, abandoning their habits, rethinking their rules [as many have done]—these changes have made many of these women question their relevance for the first time, and thousands have walked out of the convents.  Others have left not because of uncertainty about new roles but out of disgust with a system which legally classes women with children and idiots.  With eyes newly opened by their realization of the growing social importance of women, they find it totally unacceptable that the male hierarchy retains such power over matters which vitally concern them—even to denying them a voice.  Women outnumber men in religion by more than two to one, but they are forced to remain a silent majority.  [As one nun told Ms. Bernstein, “What time we get up in the morning, what time we eat, and what we wear—all this is still enforced by men. ... Surely ... nuns themselves are more qualified to handle these matters?”]” [74]

 

The period of creative, progressive renewal for nuns/sisters would not last for very long after Vatican II before the sisters experienced interference and suppression from the patriarchs.  After the passing of Pope John XXIII in 1963, the male hierarchy, during the reign of Pope Paul VI (1963-78) and especially under Pope John Paul II (1978 on), began to be upset by some of the changes in women’s communities.  In a manner ranging from the condescending and patronizing to the oppressively, abusively authoritarian, the male hierarchy tried to suppress and/or control the renewal process by women religious.  In most cases, these men have refused to constructively dialog with these women, a most insulting policy and a very backward manner of dealing with differences of opinion.  Some communities of women felt empowered to courageously stand up and protest a double-bind message which had been inflicted upon them (“significantly renew your communities, but don’t renew yourselves too much”!). 

 

Mary Jo Weaver relates how the great majority of Glenmary Sisters in Cincinnati (50 women), suffering new restrictions from the local archbishop in 1965 which would impede their ministry among the rural poor in Appalachia, left the formal religious life to become a community of laywomen, continuing their service work; they represented “the first major departure of nuns from an American religious order.”  A more famous (“infamous”) case involved the Immaculate Heart of Mary Sisters in Hollywood, California, under Mother Mary Humiliata (now Anita Caspary), who went so far with their self-renewal that, when challenged in the late 1960s by the local cardinal and the male hierarchy, 400 of the 450 women wound up being “defectors,” leaving their vowed life and becoming a noncanonical lay group, the Immaculate Heart Community, which has evolved to the point now of being a “community without walls,” admitting married couples to full membership, and regarding itself as a network of people who share similar ideas but not similar lifestyles.  Over 50,000 American nuns and sisters from different orders eventually left their formal religious life in a mass exodus of women from an institution increasingly seen as unfairly dominated and distorted by patriarchal imperative. [75]

 

A curious fact here is that progressive, innovative women religious who try to stay within their orders and transform them are often threatened by the Vatican with “demotion” in their status; but, as we have seen, the fact is that all women religious have been increasingly “demoted” by canon law over the centuries so that they no longer partake of the clergy-status they formerly enjoyed in ancient times, nor even a “quasi-clerical” status, but are officially regarded as “nonclerical laywomen,” even though the rest of the laity in the church still tend to perceive nuns and sisters as somehow being a specially empowered part of the hierarchy of the institutional church.  Really, though, nuns and sisters, as Weaver reports, “do not have even the limited powers priests exercise over their own lives.”  The bottom line, then, as many women religious have realized, is that they really have “little to lose and much to gain by challenging the system” in their movement toward change. 

 

Mary Jo Weaver distinguishes at present three general kinds of Catholic women’s religious communities in America:  1) the “diminishing” ones which are keeping to submissive, traditional ways, but whose existence is endangered because it is questionable whether they will attract a sufficient number of new members; 2) the small, highly innovative “emerging” groups, which are, however, “politically insignificant” within the Church, not having enough “clout” to influence organizational policies for the rest of female or male religious; and 3) the “renewing” congregations (“inside outsiders”) who have more visibility within the church and hence, when they adopt innovative changes, are more likely to be at odds with the church authorities and stir up discussion and new thinking among other congregations of female and male religious.  As prime exemplars of the renewing congregations, Weaver mentions the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary (BVMs) for their successful democratic community model, the Sisters of Loreto (SLs) and the Maryknolls for their commitment to social justice, and the Sisters of Mercy of the Union (RSMs) for their commitment to participation in politics and political change. 

 

However, we must remember that many of these acts of renewal are unsettling to Vatican and local male authority. Weaver comments on some of the issues at stake and suggests what could happen in the future if nuns/sisters align more fully with laywomen:

 

“Sister’s values are no longer totally consistent with the hierarchical model:  nuns seek autonomy and self-definition, freedom, commitment to key issues, affirmation of themselves as change agents. They also face pain with strength and courage.  Though they did not sense or intend that their own perceptions of themselves would come into conflict with the institutional church, they now know that sisters are in conflict with Vatican authorities.  Their present position and the wrenching questions it poses come not only from the process of renewal, but also from a new consciousness of themselves as women.  The other side of the renewal process shows how sisters have come to be feminists. ... One thing appears to be clear:  the closer a group gets to issues of structural change—externally, through social justice work and political involvement, or internally, by way of challenging institutional structures—the more dangerous they appear to authorities and the more they draw Vatican opprobrium. ... Although the Vatican and the council originally [under the influence of Popes Pius XII and John XXIII] encouraged the renewal of sisters, SCRIS [the Vatican’s Sacred Congregation for Religious and for Secular Institutes] and the present pope [John Paul II] are not supportive of the directions taken by American nuns.  For Roman officials, religious life is set apart from the world, lived in ‘canonically erected communities’ (convents), distinguished by religious garb (the habit), and presided over by rightful authorities (superiors).  Frequently repeated themes of dependence, authority, obedience, and surrender signal a return to the mentality and politics of the preconciliar era and are aimed at sisters because women are usually perceived as being in the most vulnerable position within the church. The directives against the sisters, however, are really aimed at all those who have supported the progress of the American church in the last twenty years.  Whereas the document from SCRIS [1983] insists that religious life cannot be lived ‘in the world,’ American sisters and many American Catholics believe that religion is embodied precisely in the tensions and opportunities of daily existence. The values adopted by many of these sisters are pluralistic [e.g., on matters such as abortion] and feminist ones that challenge the way religious influence operates in a society.  In adopting feminist values of collective experience and collegial process, American nuns challenge the very modus operandi traditionally used by Catholics in political situations, namely, decree. ... Vatican displeasure with these women, as with liberation theologians [interested in the social justice causes of the oppressed], is rooted in a hierarchical ecclesiology and a fear of losing control. The surface issues appear to be almost trivial [e.g., regarding the wearing of habits]... The real issue, however, is control.  Sisters, who have been obedient and cooperative throughout their history, now find themselves at odds with the Vatican. ... [There is a] collision course of following two diametrically opposed models of religious authority and obedience....

      “Through its [1983] directives on the ‘essentials of religious life,’ the Vatican has called sisters back to a pre-Vatican II church and decreed that the age of experimentation is over.  For sisters, however, continual evolution is crucial for survival [i.e., attracting new members to replace those who have retired or passed away].  In many ways, the success of experimentation in discovering more gospel-centered ministries and in reconstructing religious life to enhance freedom and human growth, has led sisters to believe that experimentation is just the beginning. ...

      “Sisters have some real power of their own: they are highly educated, committed, and bonded [with each other].  Their peculiar strengths, indeed, may be necessary for the survival of the American Catholic Church. ... The ‘dying’ experienced by religious orders is happening at a time when sisters are growing closer to the laity and when a new kind of bonding [with laity and with each other] coupled with a post-Vatican II ecclesiology [maintaining that the laity, not just the popes, bishops, and priests, comprise the “church”] offers new possibilities for growth.  Still, at the peak of their power, they are imperiled by repressive papal directives...

      “Sisters need laywomen—their numbers and their support—and they have something to offer them:  as laywomen look around for organizational support in their own struggles [for power, justice, and meaningfulness within the church], they can look to sister support networkds as welcoming rather than excluding them.  How well a national coalition of sisters and laywomen can function remains to be seen, but Catholic women, like women in general, are increasingly sure that hope lies in collective strength.  The renewal process has made feminists of many sisters and has placed the American Catholic church in the fascinating position of being prodded or led into new territory by its “dutiful daughters.” [76]

 

As of this moment, some 75% of the religious orders of women in the U.S. have had their new constitutions approved since the renewal process began.  Others are still working on their constitution for one reason or another.  Threat of nonacceptance by the Vatican’s male hierarchy has impeded the process in some of these cases; in recent years, the Vatican’s Congregation for Religious and Secular Institutes (CRIS, formerly SCRIS), which most unfortunately has no women among its officials, has tried to “improve” the process for the revision and approval of constitutions.  Such “improving” may, of course, include occasions of pressure and coercion to maintain more traditional ways.  A National Catholic Religious News Service story (Jan. 30, 1985) told of how the Carmelites worked for more than 20 years on their constitution, then had their entire process obviated by Vatican decree; though 80% of the 11,000 Carmelite nuns worldwide approved of a certain new constitution for their order, which was designed to permit the Carmelites to be more involved in helping society, 20% of the nuns (mainly in Spain), opposed it; though Pope Paul VI had supported the majority, John Paul II threw out the constitution, and ordered Cardinal Hamer, head of the Vatican Congregation for Religious, to write a new/old one, reflecting a pre-Vatican II model and the views of the conservative nuns.  This Vatican-mandated constitution could not, of course, understand or empathize with the needs of this community of women, and included such authoritarian details as how the nuns should make their beds.  Weaver:  “Besides being a grave injustice, an action that ignored twenty years of good faith and experience, the Vatican move was menacing: sisters were told in advance that they would have to accept the new constitutions or ‘find other forms of consecrated life.’“ [77] 

 

Hopefully in the next few years we will receive an even fuller account from investigative journalists on what has been going on as these many women’s religious communities try to create and implement the changes as encouraged by their saintly father, Pope John XXIII—who now must be looking on from the “other side” with no small amount of surprise at what his successors have decreed so contrary to the spirit of his progressive outlook.  An Immaculate Heart nun, Sr. Sandra Schneiders, meanwhile, outlined in her New Wineskins: Re-imagining Religious Life Today a new view of possibilities for women’s religious orders of the future. [78]

 

In passing, we can mention that there are several other vocations of deeper spirituality available to women in the Catholic world today.  The latest (1983-4) revision of the Code of Canon Law for Catholic religious allows for the reinstatement of the oldest orders for religious women—consecrated virgins, widows, and hermits/anchoresses, who take public vows and usually live under the jurisdiction of the local bishop, yet are free to pursue their vocation in a way that seems best.  Among these women, who may number around 300 at this point, there is an emphasis on contemplation/meditation, often combined with a job within the world, such as counseling, nursing, running homes for the needy, teaching, farming, factory work, or some other form of useful employment.  These women are striving to live and emanate the spirit of Christ according to the rule that they be “separated” from the world, psycholgically, if not literally; as a matter of fact, many of these women are especially interested in expressing their spirituality amidst the very complexity and alienation of urban life, according to Jesus’ original counsel, “be in the world, but not of it.” [79] 

 

Minimally-restricted “secular institutes,” whose members are called to the deeper spiritual life of “Christian perfection,” and who take private vows and are accountable to a local spiritual director, have also come into existence, some of them now flourishing around the world; the secular institutes exclusively for women are the Community of St. Ursula (f. 1535, Brescia, given Pontifical right in the 20th century), the Women Missionaries of the Kingship of Christ (f. 1919, Italy), the Secular Institute of Schoenstatt Sisters of Mary (f. 1926, Germany), the Society of Our Lady of the Way (f. 1936, Vienna), the Corpus Christi (f. 1937, Marseilles), the Handmaids of Divine Mercy (n.d.), the Institute of Secular Missionaries (f. 1939, Spain), and the Oblate Missionaries of Mary Immaculate (f. 1952, Canada).  Members of these secular institutes are, depending upon the group to which they belong, practicing the evangelical counsels (poverty, chastity, obedience), contemplation, Marian devotions, missionary-evangelical work, Ignatian, Franciscan or some other kind of particular Catholic spiritual exercises, and/or lay asceticism.  Whereas these secular groups are all “canonically erected” institutes under diocesan or pontifical control, in 1970 Lillianna (then Sister Audrey) Kopp‚ founded the noncanonical Sisters for Christian Community (SFCC), a fast-growing group, comprised mainly of former sisters, living an unstructured, nonhierarchical community life according to the vows of “serving, loving and listening,” and for a period of time that each member herself decides.  Its noncanonical nature gives this group the advantage of being immune from Vatican control. [80] 

 

There are even today a few “mixed-sex” formal religious groups of sisters/oblates and monks/brothers, such as 1) a community of Dominican priests, contemplative nuns, and five married couples with ten children who live a rich spiritual life in Sainte-Baume, France; 2) the Spiritual Life Institute, adhering to a Carmelite ideal, founded by Fr. William McNamara and Mother Tessa Bielecki in the 1960s, with its mixed-sex communities of monks, nuns, and single and married laity, in Crestone, Colorado, and Kemptville, Nova Scotia; and 3) the Our Lady of Guadalupe Monastery (Benedictine) in Pecos, New Mexico, a Spirit-filled charismatic group which is, strictly speaking, open only to male monks, but which includes several dozen women—nuns and laity—living as “residential oblates” under the Benedictine rule.  The existence of these and other mixed-sex groups, as Marcelle Bernstein notes, is not really a new idea, since double monasteries, as we have seen, were a feature of medieval monastic life, dating back to the sixth century in France, Spain, and Ireland, and emerging in England in the middle of the seventh century, some fifty years after the arrival of Saint Augustine of Canterbury.  Of course, the mixed-sex, double-community groups of today are more relaxed than their medieval forerunners, the living quarters not as rigidly separated, though the practice of celibacy is still enjoined upon those who have taken up the “vowed” life.  (This ideal of celibacy is being challenged in certain circles by women and men religious; nevertheless, many women and men still feel chastity clearly brings edifying advantages, not just in terms of promoting some kind of “heroic renunciation,” but also in terms of being less psychologically dependent, and freeing up time and energy and focus to serve a greater number of fellow beings, and contemplate God more deeply.) 

 

Earlier we heard from Mary Jo Weaver about the number of organizations developed by nuns/sisters, which have become powerful networking groups in the shifting of values and goals toward the vision of Jesus expressed 2,000 years ago.  One of the most important of these is the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) of the United States of America (formerly the Conference of Major Superiors of Women [CMSW]).  Headquartered in Silver Spring, Maryland, this is an association of the 800 major superiors of Catholic religious communities of women (its first chairperson/president was Mother Mary Alcuin McCarthy, OSF, in 1957; the current president is Mother Kathleen Popko, of the Sisters of Providence).  The LCWR has been working on various issues pertinent to nuns’ current and future situations, which may have ramifications for nuns in other countries—and for the Catholic Church as a whole—which now has some 46 million members in the U.S., and over 850 million worldwide.  However, the Vatican is not very supportive of their work; not only was their name change from “CMSW” to the more egalitarian-sounding “LCWR” (dropping the word “superiors”) in 1971 resisted for three years by the SCRIS, the SCRIS has refused to acquiesce to LCWR’s appeal that women be appointed to the SCRIS and to the Synod of Bishops.  Perhaps most importantly, the LCWR’s repeated request since 1972 to have an audience with the pope has been just as consistently ignored. Mary Jo Weaver, who reports on this tragic breakdown of communication, comments:

“While LCWR presents a relatively calm appearance in their public positions on these problems [of renewal, pressure from the hierarchy, lack of recognition, etc.], it is clear that they are experiencing a growing sense of anguish over some of the tensions between Rome and American religious communities.” [82]  (Note: The same “no-dilemma” tone was characteristic of a communication which I also received from LCWR in 1991.)

 

Whereas the LCWR has been primarily addressing the needs of women of active orders, the Association of Contemplative Sisters (ACS) has arisen to allow for communication among those women who follow this calling to the richness of the meditative, inner life.  The ACS, begun in 1969 strictly for nuns and sisters, since 1986 began to include lay women and women of other Christian denominations.  It now includes some 400 women in the U.S. and Canada—“married, monastic, single, cleric, hermits, and consecrated virgins,” mainly of Catholic persuasion—and is the major networking organization for contemplatives, with semi-yearly general assemblies and more frequent regional assemblies.  The story of the founding of the ACS deserves telling.  A core group of five Abbesses/Prioresses—Myriam Dardenne‚ (of the Cistercian house, Our Lady of the Redwoods, in Whitethorn, northern California), Gertrude Wilkerson (formerly head of a Redemptoristine community), Ruth Brennan (formerly head of a Passionist community), Mother Constance Fitzgerald (head of a Carmelite house in Baltimore), and Mother Mary Angelica (head of a Franciscan house in Irondale, Alabama, now no longer associated with ACS), some of whom had been in contact with the late Fr. Thomas Merton about the need for a formation movement for female contemplatives, networked together and called for a meeting of their sisters at Woodstock, Maryland, in August, 1969.  The Vatican (led by the conservative Pope Paul VI) and a number of American bishops were in opposition to the idea, telling contemplative women to stay put in their own houses, but, with the support of the local archbishop, 135 nuns in fact attended the conference, thus marking the start of the ACS.  This movement, which has never officially been recognized by the male hierarchy, is constrained by church authorities to only accept individual sisters, not orders (the federations and associations of Poor Clares, Carmelites, Dominicans, et al, exist to represent contemplatives of their orders to the Church hierarchy).  The ACS, whose current president serves a two-year term, is headquartered at Cleveland Carmel in Ohio (with regional coordinators in New England, the East, the Mideast, the Midwest, and the West).  It has become a rich forum for highly interesting interfaces between conservatives and progressives (e.g., between the traditional church and “Womenchurch”), and is bridging the gap between formal religious and laity (the membership even includes one female Episcopalian priest).  A number of the ACS women are involved in the Buddhist-Christian ecumenical dialogue, which has been so educational for both sides (the Christians have benefitted greatly from the sophistication of Buddhist meditation techniques, their detailed “maps of consciousness,” and their critique of the naive Western view of the “individual soul”).  (I am told that there is a consortium of contemplative sisters in Europe, too, though I have not been able to ascertain any information on them.) [82] 

  

Many other organizations can be found for women religious in America (details about such organizations in other countries are not presently available).  The National Assembly of Religious Women (NARW, formerly the National Assembly of Women Religious) was established in 1968 as an alternative to the LCWR, an opportunity for ordinary sisters to speak their minds in a national forum.  An explicitly feminist group, it now admits all Catholic women.  In the words of Mary Jo Weaver:

“By engaging in [social] justice ministry and articulating a political spirituality, NARW stands against the Vatican position on religious life as lived apart from the world.  On the contrary according to NARW, the gospel can be lived only in the midst of the world’s most glaring problems. Through writing and action, NARW has addressed women’s issues like welfare, endorsement of the ERA [Equal Rights Amendment], and providing shelters for battered or displaced women.  It has paid particular attention to political causes like world hunger, the plight of farm and sugar cane workers, nuclear disarmament, and justice in Latin America.  Through its newspapaer, Probe, NARW has been especially articulate about the situations in El Salvador and Nicaragua... NARW has been able to influence public policy through education and action.” [83]

 

The National Coalition of American Nuns (NCAN), though involving only about 2% of women religious in this country, has also drawn attention to many social justice issues, as well as to the rights of women—staunchly supporting civil rights actions, unions, the decriminalization of prostitution, the passage of the ERA, and so on.  “Though NCAN’s membership is mostly nuns, their commitment to feminist self-determination has drawn them into some of the most controversial issues within the women’s movement” (such as free-choice on abortion). [84]

 

Before it was effectively replaced by the WomanChurch movement in the late 1970s, Sisters Uniting functioned as a network for nine groups of sisters across the U.S.:  ACS, NARW, NCAN, National Sisters Vocation Conference, Religious Formation Conference (successor of the original Sister Formation Conference), Sisters for Christian Community (a noncanonical congregation), National Black Sisters Conference, Las Hermanas (Hispanic sisters), and the now-defunct National Sisters Communication Conference.      

 

The Consortium Perfectae Caritatis can be mentioned here as a very conservative union of religious women not desirous of modernizing or leaving traditional ways.  Some of their reasons are admirable, in that they see a great value in the humbling and radically simplifying effect of living in the traditional monastic, ascetic pattern; however, some of their reasons seem to merely reflect a certain type of conservative personality type which is rigidly against any form of change or innovation. 

 

On the topic of Catholic nuns/sisters in the U.S., we note that their first presence here began with the Ursuline Convent in New Orleans in the early 18th century.  By 1850 there were 344 nuns (and 1,109 male priests) in the U.S..  All through this period, there had been rather consistent and sometimes actually violent persecution of Catholic nuns, and, to a less extent, priests, by certain factions of bigoted Protestants.  In any case, after a period of tremendous growth in the wake of European immigrations to the U.S. around the turn of the century—by 1920 there were 88,773 nuns, almost quadruple the number of priests—their numbers are now, in the last two decades, seriously waning.  A lot of this is due to the feminist values and changes in attitudes during the 1960s (such as the rejecting of the Church’s rigid behavioral rules and dogmatic claims, and a widespread questioning of authority).  A recent report indicates that “there are 78,000 fewer nuns [/sisters] today than there were in 1966 [when there were about 180,000 nuns in the U.S.] and 85 percent fewer candidates preparing to take their places.  The average age is 65 and rising fast; fewer than 1 percent are under 30.” [85]  In other words, a time is rapidly coming when nuns, sisters, and other formal religious, now numbering around 100,000 (priests number half of this), will be a rarity in our society.  (As stated, this phenomenon is also happening in some of the other “developed” nations; in the “developing” nations, though, the numbers of Catholic women religious are on the increase.)

 

Some people will look upon this decline in numbers of Catholic women religious in our society as a natural phasing out of an “obsolete institution” in light of more enlightened feminist and/or secular-humanist attitudes.  Yet many other people will feel that these women religious, whether they be more or less cloistered in a predominantly contemplative life or serving within society as health-care personnel, educational administrators, teachers, social workers, social justice advocates, and so forth, represent a special, divinely-inspired vocation which is invaluable to a society on spiritual and physical levels.  Regarding the relevance of the active sisters, which should be obvious, I can speak on a personal note:  having myself been taught in primary school mainly by warm, caring sisters, I can attest to the extreme importance of having highly dedicated and spiritually oriented women play a major role in the education and overall development of the character and values-system of a society’s children.  Regarding the contemplative communities of nuns, which may seem to some people to be less relevant in our world than the active congregations of sisters, recent scientific studies in the medical and “psychoneuroimmunology” communities (such as Dr. Randolph Byrd’s rigorously-designed experiment at S.F. County General Hospital showing conclusively the power of prayer at a distance on coronary rehabilitation patients) clearly suggest that prayer’s positive effect on others is a very  real phenomenon—just as ancient societies around the globe from time immemorial (including our own Christian tradition) have maintained.  These societies have all greatly valued their contemplative, monastic communities as promoting “good vibrations” which have positively influenced the health of the people, their crops and animals.  Therefore, the cloistered contemplative convents of nuns are probably having a distinctly positive effect on their communities and the world at large.  To this I can also add that myself and many colleagues have enjoyed wonderfully inspiring and healing times in visits to the heavenly ambience of some cloistered convents.  (If the convents continue to empty out, perhaps they can be utilized for those laypersons who wish to adopt the kind of “intermittent monasticism” which is being increasingly encouraged among the laity—periods of extended spiritual retreat and meditation, living with the nuns according to the same schedule and lifestyle.)

 

In light of these remarks, therefore, it would seem to me that our society urgently needs to find ways of encouraging and supporting both the active and contemplative religious vocations—temporary or lifelong—among women so as not to fall apart at the seams as a result.

 

In keeping with the focus of this book, we would say that among all the religious and secular, contemplative and/or active Catholic vocations, there seem to be many hundreds if not thousands of sanctified women, women who have completely outgrown petty egocentric tendencies and cultivated a tremendous power of love, joy, peace, goodness, compassionate service, deep prayerfulness, and various other “qualities of spiritual perfection” (such as outlined in the introduction to this book).  Though they may never come to light publicly for any “heroic virtue” which would lead to their canonization (and because the beatification/canonization process is so expensive and thus a low priority for most religious orders), they deserve to be remembered, honored, and, whenever possible, modeled. 

 

Here it must be quickly added that, as with some other spiritual traditions covered herein (e.g., Buddhism and Jainism) which have renunciate orders for women, we must also suspect that there are many Catholic (and other Christian) laywomen householders outside the formal religious life of the nun, sister, oblate, hermit, or consecrated virgin/widow who are leading selfless, sanctified lives, enduring that often quite “ascetic,” self-sacrificing practice otherwise known as “raising a family.”  Some people might want to say that it is likely that the nuns, sisters, oblates, hermits, and other vowed religious, who are feeling a special call to God-realization or sanctification, are realizing this goal in higher numbers (computed as an overall percentage) than are householders.  For these are women who have endeavored to sacrifice selfishness and worldly pleasures (to some extent or other), and given up the possibility of living with a marital partner, or having their own children, and are especially devoted to heart-opening, spirit-revealing practices such as prayer, meditation/contemplation, daily communion, service to the needy (not just one’s family), and so on.  Such sacrifice and devotion has indeed born fruit for a great many of these women in the form of tremendous psycho-spiritual independence, inner collectedness, and remembrance of God—Who is the unchanging Divine Presence underlying this fleeting, ephemeral life. 

 

But it would be ridiculous to suppose that profound levels of God-Realization are an impossible achievement for married women.  We have already learned of dozens of Christian women who seemed to have achieved a large measure of their sanctity in their wedded life before many of them became widows and thereafter nuns.  But it was St. Augustine in the early 5th century who insisted that the celibate, religious life was superior to the noncelibate, lay life, and since those early medieval times the Church has been unfortunately quite biased toward the “chaste” life, and has failed to emphasize the married stage of the lives of many of its saints, and holds up for emulation very few persons who were happily married most of their lives and who remained laypersons even after the death of their spouses. Statistically speaking, a happily married person who never became a formal religious has been the least likely to be canonized as a saint by the Catholic church, whereas unhappily married persons are more likely to have been made saints—undoubtedly for their “heroic virtue” in the form of “courageous equanimity”—and unmarried, formal religious persons dominate the list of official saints.  Of course, we must always remember the fact that religious orders are far more capable of sustaining the lengthy, expensive process of beatification and canonization utilized over the last seven centuries for their saintly fellow members, whereas an individual family and/or friends would have a hard time coming up with, and justifying, the huge expense and lengthy time investment (decades if not centuries!) to officially make a “blessed” or “saint” of their loved one.     

 

In our attempt to name some of the more notable women of the Catholic world today, we find that in the contemplative communities a number of women are esteemed as spiritual directors, including a few laywomen.  The earlier-mentioned Mother Mary Angelica (b. 1923), a Franciscan nun of Irondale, Alabama, is well-known for her wit and widsom through her lectures and scores of pamphlet books, and especially through her Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN, founded in 1981), which now reaches somewhere around ten million viewers worldwide, the first major success for Catholics in television evangelism.  Mother Angelica has also started several religious congregations, such as the Sister Servants of the Eternal Word, the Eternal Word for Priests and Brothers, and a secular institute, all blending the contemplative life with work in the Catholic evangelical television ministry.  Mother Vilma Seelaus, Abbess of the Barrington, Rhode Island, Carmelite monastery, is a contemplative spiritual director who has led many retreats and also published numerous articles, pamphlets, and tapes on the spiritual life.  The aforementioned Mother Constance Fitzgerald, of the Baltimore Carmelite monastery, is highly regarded as a spiritual director, an expert on the contemplative masters John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila, and in the words of Tilden Edwards, a “prophet of contemporary contemplative life and reform.”  Sister Lavinia Byrne, of the IBVM (Loreto Sisters) contemplative house in England, is editor of “The Way,” author of several books, and an esteemed retreat director worldwide.  American Meinrad Craighead‚ has blended a rich life as a painter, art-teacher, devotee of the Mothergod, and 14 years in an English Benedictine abbey to emerge as a laywoman (now living on the Rio Grande in New Mexico) who has authored several important works on the spiritual life and love of God as Mother.  The writings and talks of Bernadette Roberts (b. 1931) concerning her spiritual unfoldment and self-transcendence (culminating in different states of “no-self”) have attracted a good amount of attention among many circles of Christian contemplatives, her first work hailed by Thomas Keating as “One of the most significant spiritual books of our day.”  Bernadette entered a Discalced Carmelite convent at age 17, leaving 8½ years later “because the interior journey was finished.”  Since then she got several degrees, taught high school and college, and raised four children, also undergoing her profound realization of “no-self.”  She now lives in southern California.  Mother Tessa Bielecki (b. mid-1940s) is the co-foundress (in the 1960s) with Fr. William McNamara of the Spiritual Life Institute, which runs the Nada Carmelite Hermitage in Crestone, Colorado and the Nova Nada Hermitage in Kemptville, Nova Scotia (these are “evolving” mixed-sex communities for monks and vowed laity which follow the Carmelite contemplative ideal).  Sister Kiernan Flynn, an Irish nun, started in 1974 the Our Lady of Peace Spiritual Life Center in Rhode Island.  Sr. Sylvia Rosell, a Dominican, founded the Still Point House of Prayer in Stillwater, N.Y., which includes practice of the Jesus Prayer, yoga, and zazenSr. Jose Hobday blends a southwestern Native American spirituality with her contemplative Franciscan spirituality.  Mother Columba Hart, a Trappestine nun, is the translator of important mystical works, and founder of a Cistercian monastic community in Iowa.  Sr. Margaret Dorgan co-founded a Carmelite hermitage emphasizing solitude and silence.  The aforementioned Sr. Sandra Schneiders, IHM, is a spiritual director and author teaching theology in Berkeley, California.  Sr. Ishpriya, a Society of the Sacred Heart sister, and a retreat director for many years in India, now incorporates yoga and meditation into her work.  Dawn George, a laywoman, is the founder and one of the leaders of Stillpoint: Center for Christian Spirituality, in Santa Barbara, California, which has promoted spiritual direction and the teachings of the great mystics on the art of contemplation and meditation, not only for Catholic but also for Protestant churches and laypersons as well.  Sr. Eileen Storey, a Sister of Charity, has recently brought meditation, Zen and yoga practices into her influential House of Prayer Movement started several decades ago.  Susan Annette Muto helped found with Adrian Van Kaam the Institute of Formative Spirituality at Duquesne University, and since 1983 has also directed the Epiphany Assn., a resource center for deeper spirituality.  Sister Mary Luke Tobin, of the Sisters of Loretto, is with the Thomas Merton Center for Creative Exchange, and promoting traditional and newer methods of Christian contemplation.  Dolores Leckey, director of the American bishops’ Secretariat for Laity and the Family, has authored a number of books on spirituality.  Delia Smith, a British retreat director, and Americans Emilie Griffin, Mary Giles, Maria Harris, Esther de Waal, and Betsy Caprio are a few of the other authors of influential books on prayer and authentic Christian life.      

 

These and other contemplative Catholic female religious are emerging from that “inward life” of the monastery or the household from time to time to lead retreats and speak at Christian conferences and/or East-West ecumenical dialogues.  Undoubtedly a host of other very gifted—even “saintly”—women spiritual directors of whom I am entirely aware are to be found within cloistered, contemplative Catholic communities, or within circles with which I am not familiar.  Readers of this book are encouraged to seek out such women, as well as their insightful, gifted, or saintly male colleagues who are giving spiritual direction—these western “good friends” are an invaluable resource for those of us growing deeper in God-realization. [86]   

 

On the topic of spiritual direction for and by women, certain recent books merit special attention:  Kathleen Fischer’s Women at the Well: Feminist Perspectives on Spiritual Direction, and Una Kroll’s Women as Spiritual Guides; Joann Wolski Conn’s (Ed.) Resources for Christian Development is an especially important work for both men and women.  Marjorie Holmes deserves mention somewhere in these pages as a spiritual director for Catholic teen-age girls; Marjorie has authored many novels and nonfiction works for these lasses, as well as writing regular columns for the Washington Star, Woman’s Day, and so on. [87] 

 

Catholic women have been exceedingly important in the field of health care in the U.S.  Sisters Ursula Stepsis, CSA, and Dolores Liptak, RSM, have edited an anthology, Pioneer Healers: The History of Women Religious in American health Care [88], which clearly shows how, in the health care field, it has been Catholic women, especially nuns/sisters, who have done the significant and often quite heroic service work which paved the way for better treatment of various kinds of ailments and for various sectors of the society—especially the poor and immigrants who were being ignored by most state or private hospitals and clinics.  A section of Pioneer Healers profiles nine sisters of the last 150 years, who are among those mentioned below, beginning with the almost-forgotten Mother Mary Francis Clare (née Margaret Anna Cusack; 1829-99).  Spending her early years in Ireland helping her father, a doctor, tend to the needy poor, then re-locating to England for the rest of her youth, in 1853 Margaret joined the Anglican Sisterhood.  Soon, however, she left, converting to Roman Catholicism and becoming a Poor Clare nun.  In 1861 she became a founding member of a new convent in Kenmare, Ireland, where she rapidly gained attention for her potent writings in the form of newspaper columns, letters to the editor, and books on behalf of women’s rights and upliftment of the downtrodden (thus, she was one of the first women to be active for social justice—such a large focus for many Christians today).  Mother Clare raised large amounts of funds after the 1879 potato famine to help feed the poor, Catholic and Protestant alike, yet soon after this she was encountering heavy resistance and persecution from politicians and clergy for her trying to lessen the gulf between upper and lower classes and to empower women with equal rights (and for trying to be a social activist within the strictly contemplative Poor Clare context).  Finally pressured out of Ireland, though accompanied by some loyal sisters, she started a new order, the St. Joseph Sisters of Peace, blessed by Pope Leo XIII.  Mother Clare then proceeded straightaway with her ensemble to base themselves in Nottingham, England, and begin relieving the immense suffering in the aftermath of the Industrial Revolution, nursing the sick, visiting the poor, opening schools for children, teaching adults in the evenings.  Coming to New York a few years Later, she ran into a brick wall in the person of arch-conservative Archbishop Corrigan of New York, who would not even see her for 3 years, compelling her to base her new convent and social work in New Jersey; later, he undermined her attempts to launch a national program of training institutes for the blind; in 1888, she returned to the Anglican Church as a laywoman (resuming her original name), spending the rest of her life writing and lecturing, in the U.S. and then in England, on behalf of the issues for which she had worked tirelessly for so many years. 

 

Sr. M. Ignatia Gavin, CSA (1889-1966), winner of the Catherine of Siena Medal in 1954, spent her life working to help alcoholics and she functioned in a key role to help the Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) movement in its formative years after meeting Bill W. and Dr. Bob Smith while she was establishing the St. Thomas Hospital in Akron, Ohio.  Sr. Chrysostom Moynahan (1862-1941), a Daughter of Charity, attained recognition in Alabama’s Hall of Fame for her service to the ill there and her courageous work as an Army nurse during the first world war.  Sr. M. Olivia Gowan, OSB (1888-1977), was prodigious in promoting education for nurses, starting a school of nursing at Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C..  Sr. Grace Marie Hiltz (1920-85) greatly improved health care for the poor and among many hospitals, founding the Sisters of Charity Health Care System in 1979.  Sr. Mary Maurita Sengelaub, RSM has been accorded many honors for similar empowerment of hospitals and the Catholic Health Assoc. (of which she was the first woman president, from 1970-6).  Sr. Dorothy Peterson, a sister of Charity of Nazareth, has founded Community Health Services for the destitute in rural Kentucky and elsewhere.  Sr. Virginia Schwager joined the Sisters of Providence in 1946 and went on to become in 1961 administrator of Seattle’s Providence Hospital, the “hospital with a heart”; the recipient of numerous awards, she was the first nun ever elected president of the Association of Western Hospitals (1968-9).  Sr. M. Innocent Hughes, a Sister of Mercy, turned the small Holy Cross Hospital in Fort Lauderdale, Florida into a 596-bed, ultramodern, and nationally respected medical center with over 50 departments upon her appointment there in 1959 as the chief operating officer (executive vice-president).  Sr. Hilda Rita Brickus, FSM (1926-87), one of the first black nuns in America, worked on behalf of the elderly, the handicapped, the sick and poor, and worked for human rights in the St. Louis area.  Sr. Mary Antona Ebo, FSM (1924 ), a Baptist convert to Catholicism, was appointed in 1967 the first woman administrator of a Roman Catholic hospital.  Regarding this field of health care, Agnes McLaren (1837-1913) also deserves mention:  a Scottish doctor, she became a convert to Catholicism and a Dominican tertiary, and thereafter began the work of providing women doctors for the Catholic missions—something which was not officially allowed until 1936.

 

(Having spoken of black Catholic nuns, I should pause to say that the earliest orders in the U.S. for black nuns/sisters were the Oblate Sisters of Providence and the Sisters of the Holy Family.  Black women religious have since formed a number of organizations, the most prominent of which is the National Black Sisters Conference; along with the National Office of Black Catholics, and a few other organizations, they have helped make the Catholic Church more responsive to the needs of black Catholics.)

 

In the increasingly dynamic ministry of spiritual healing, one of the most important of the charismata (gifts of the Holy Spirit) that are emerging again within Christianity today, several Catholic women are major figures, following in the footsteps of such illustrious Protestant “instruments of healing” as Kathryn Kuhlman and Agnes Sanford (who will be discussed in a subsequent section of this work).  Barbara Leahy Shlemon is a Catholic laywoman (mother of five children) and registered nurse whose potent spiritual healing ministry began in 1965.  She has traveled throughout the U.S. and to many other countries directing healing retreats, addressing conferences on healing, and so on.  In 1975 she and others founded the Association of Christian Therapists (ACT) for those in the healing professions, an organization which fosters the spiritual dimension of patient care. [89] 

 

Sister Briege McKenna (b. 1946) is an Irish Catholic nun (Sisters of St. Clare) living at St. Lawrence Convent, Tampa, Florida.  She was quite reluctant to accept her healing ministry, even when various people were coming up to her telling her that God had told them to tell her to take up this special work!  Getting over her inhibitions, she took up the work in 1971 and is now functioning as a sensitive visionary with a worldwide healing ministry.  She not only leads healing services but also leads many powerfully transformative spiritual retreats for priests—an unusual thing for a nun to be edifying her male colleagues this way. [90] 

 

In the northeast U.S. today is another remarkable “instrument” for God’s astounding—if intermittent—healing power:  “Amazing Grace” DiBiccari (born c.1943), a family woman (with four children) of Italian-Catholic and Greek-Orthodox background.  Grace has a rapidly growing, non-denominational Christian ministry (though 75% of her following are Catholics).  Her work entails not only heartfelt gospel singing and preaching, but hundreds of healings of physical ills and drug addictions (the “falling phenomenon,” or “resting in the spirit,” a strong characteristic of Kathryn Kuhlman’s work, also marks Grace’s ministry).  As witnessed by her biographer, Grace has the kind of presence to be able to walk into a women’s penitentiary, inhabited by the toughest, most callous criminals, and within a minute or two have them weeping openly, completely transformed by the love which she is dynamically channeling.  Like her other genuine colleagues in the healing ministry, Grace herself disclaims any “doership” of the many healings which happen around her, stating that it is Jesus accomplishing all these wondrous things. [91]  Sr. Jeanne Hill, O.P., Sr. Mary Margaret, V.H.M., Sr. Miriam Young, O.P., Jo Kimmel, Louise Eggleston, Michelle Corral, and Joanne Petronella are only a few of the names of other women in the (more-or-less Catholic) charismatic healing ministry active in this country and worldwide.

 

Speaking of healing, mention must be made here of René Caisse (1888-1978), of Bracebridge, Canada (170 km. north of Toronto), a registered nurse who for some fifty-five years courageously and charitably administered Essiac (an old Amer-Indian herbal-blend tea she had learned via one of her patients and refined through her own experiments) to help cure many thousands of hopeless, terminal cancer patients and dramatically alleviate the pain of many thousands more.  René, a staunch Catholic her entire life, has been described by her numerous friends, ex-patients, and colleagues (including many doctors) as a “saintly,” kind, compassionate, self-sacrificing, humorous, and also quite determined woman—determined to prevent Essiac from prematurely falling into the hands of the Canadian and U.S. medical establishments and pharmaceutical houses, which might then either bury Essiac or exploit it financially, rendering it too expensive for purchase by the poor.  René tirelessly pleaded her case to the authorities when some of the Canadian medical establishment tried to close her down and arrest her (the officers arriving on different occasions to take her away would not carry out their orders when they saw the rampant suffering she was alleviating).  Constrained by the Canadian medical authorities to not charge any money for her “unproven” treatments (though dozens of doctors and many, many thousands of patients swore to Essiac’s clear-cut, invaluable benefits and total lack of side-effects), René in fact never charged any fees, relying only on small donations of food and money for support (tales flourish of René “hounding” people in trying to return to them an “over-sized” donation, such as a $50 bill, which they had given her in gratitude).  In the cases of very poor persons, whom she was happy to treat gratis, she might not receive anything except perhaps some small, token gift.  (Speaking a moment ago of food donations, note that René was also an early advocate of organic farming and eliminating harmful chemicals from our environments; she also invented a patent for a very useful kidney disease herbal medication.)  On several occasions, René refused lucrative deals offered by big pharmaceutical houses or wealthy entrepreneurs to buy her out—offers which would have made her a very rich woman, indeed, but which might have led to Essiac’s becoming too expensive for the general public.  When she died at age 90, hundreds of people, many who owed their lives to René’s help, attended the funeral service and gave testimonials on her behalf.  (Since René’s death, the fate of Essiac is still unclear; no scientific studies have yet confirmed Essiac’s efficacy; a few allopathic and naturopathic doctors are distributing it; meanwhile the Canadian government, which came within three votes of legalizing Essiac in 1939, is still undecided about whether to make it easily available; in the U.S., a 1978 class action suit in Detroit seeking to authorize the importation of Essiac for cancer treatment was defeated by the government, which evidently prefers the more invasive and damaging forms of medical treatment now being perpetuated—surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy.) [92]

 

Having discussed a moment ago the charismatic women’s healing ministries I am reminded of another woman who has been gifted with unusual abilities by the Holy Spirit:  Jeane Dixon (191897) was a married householder living in Washington, D.C., and world-renowned for her gift of prophecy (which, like all the gifts, certainly did not “work” 100% of the time, or even 50% of the time, but nevertheless at a rate above chance expectation). Jeane, a staunch Roman Catholic, utilized “direct revelation from God” as well as psychic means, such as telepathy, astrology (which she learned from a Jesuit priest!), crystal-ball gazing, and other rather “heterodox” tools, to make her prognostications, locate missing persons, give guidance, and so forth. Part of her fame surely derives from her syndicated newspaper astrology column.

 

There are undoubtedly many less famous Catholic women in the charismatic movement (with its thousands of prayer groups worldwide) who have been equally gifted with the unusual abilities of prophecy, clairvoyance, discernment of spirits, and other charismata, but none are known to me by name at present. [93]

 

In the field of social justice, Catholic women again, especially sisters, have played leading roles.  On the need for this kind of work, one sister remarked, “Sisters today are still feeding the hungry and clothing the naked, but we’re also addressign the issues that result in people being hungry and homeless.  It’s social sin we’re fighting now.” [94]  Carol Coston (b. 1935) is a Dominican sister who, after years of teaching parochial school and serving as a community organizer, founded with some other concerned women in Dec. 1971 “Network,” a Washington lobby of sisters for social justice.  She travels over the U.S., giving seminars explaining the legislative and political process so as to help nuns learn to effectively lobby on human rights issues with local legislators—issues such as national health care, international social justice issues, world peace, welfare, penal reform, women’s rights, congressional reform, and demilitarization of the national budget. 

 

Two other Catholic women have, through their writings and talks, worked on behalf of the oppressed:  Barbara Ward (1914-1981), an English journalist, political speechwriter, author, economist, and ardent champion of the Third World countries, who are so chronically exploited and ignored by the developed nations; and Penny Lernoux (1940-89), an award-winning author and longtime advocate for the oppressed peoples of Latin America.  Earlier we heard Mary Jo Weaver reporting how the Maryknoll Sisters and the Sisters of Mercy of the Union (RSMs), along with such groups as the National Assembly of Religious Women (NARW) and National Coalition of American Nuns (NCAN) have been especially active in politics and social reform.  These and other sisters, along with many other women and a number of priests and laymen (whose stories I have yet to investigate in any detail), are tirelessly and often quite bravely carrying out the ideals of “Liberation Theology,” a movement created in Latin America in the 1960s and formalized in 1968 at Medellin, Colombia by Catholic bishops who realized that the Church needs to identify with the poor and oppressed, not with the “Church triumphant” and its alliance of elite, powerful rulers and their institutions. 

 

Already, we have a number of Catholic female and male religious as well as laity who have been murdered for their commitment to social justice and Liberation Theology in the countries of Latin America and elsewhere (the most famous of these is Archbishop Oscar Romero of San Salvador, d. 1980).  Others are targeted with death threats or are languishing in prisons; many are engaged in the frustrating “daily martyrdom” of having their compassionate spirit and hopes of mobilizing precious resources and more political power for the destitute and oppressed stymied by unresponsive governments and bureaucracies (and foreign, fascist influences).  May all these dedicated souls continue to be inspired in their vocations to bring Jesus’ egalitarian societal vision into reality wherever it is being violated or prevented! 

 

Unfortunately, the Vatican has stepped in again in a fashion which does not reflect well on its system of values.  In the revised Code of Canon Law finalized in 1983-4, any member of a religious order was forbidden to seek or hold public, political office, this being one of the ways in which liberation-theology advocates had tried to serve the oppressed.  Three Religious Sisters of Mercy (RSMs), Agnes Mary Mansour, Arlene Violet, and Elizabeth Morancy, before and after this revision of canon law were the source of upset for the Catholic church hierarchy because of their involvement in or running for positions of civic responsibility.  In the cases of these women, the Vatican acted in a very heavy-handed manner, apparently oblivious of any enlightened approach to communication skills and conflict-resolution. 

 

Weaver wryly comments on the new statute in the Canon Law: 

“The ‘principle’ that priests and nuns ought not be engaged in politics does not quite fit Roman Catholic history.  In fact, to quote Rosemary Radford Ruether, it ‘seems to have been invented primarily for a new situation where church leaders begin to act as reform or revolutionary change agents, rather than sanctifiers of the political status quo.’” [95] 

 

In the field of education, here again Catholic women have been crucially important.  It is Catholic sisters of the active congregations who empowered the many hundreds of Catholic parochial elementary schools with their tireless teaching and administration work, for which they have received no direct financial compensation.  Many Catholic laywomen have also taught in these schools—especially with the diminishing numbers of sisters—usually receiving much lower wages than they would get in the public school system.  Barbara Ferraro has pointed out how, in the 19th century, nuns began founding hundreds of female academies for instruction in higher levels of education:  “Their schools offered virtually the only secondary education available to women—either Catholic or Prostestant—in the nineteenth century. ... [Moreover,] [b]y 1962, of 276 women’s colleges in the United States, 155 were Catholic (and offering higher degrees).”  

 

Among the especially shining lights within the field of Catholic education, we find the following women:  Sister Madeleva (Mary Evaline) Wolff (1887-1964) was one of the leading women in Catholic educational circles, serving as president of St. Mary’s in Salt Lake City from 1926-33, and then as president of her alma mater, St. Mary’s in Indiana, from 1934-61, which was a forum for her to launch all sorts of splendid projects, including, in 1943, the opening of the first Catholic graduate program in theology for women—a pioneer program that spurred Notre Dame and Marquette Universities to finally open their theology programs to women in the 1960s.  Sister Madeleva received many honors and offices not only for her administrative work but also for her poetry and literary essays; beginning in the late 1940s, she was also instrumental in expanding the educational opportunities for women entering religious communities; and last but not least she was strongly supportive of ecumenical dialogue among Christians and between Christians and Jews.  Sr. Ann Ida Gannon was president of Mundelein College in Chicago from 1957-75, and became the first woman president of the Religious Education Society as well as president of both the Association of American Colleges and the American Council on Education, spending many years after her retirement from Mundelein as a professor of philosophy there.  In 1972 Sr. Elinor Rita Ford (b. 1931), Ph.D., a Dominican, with innovative ideas for children’s education, was named superintendent of the New York Archdiocese’s Office of Education, which oversees 314 elementary and secondary schools (and over 180,000 students), the first nun and first woman to hold such an office in any major U.S. city.  Sr. Maryellen Harmon became the first woman to head a major Roman Catholic school system in the U.S., presiding over 91,000 students in 211 schools in the Detroit area.  Jacqueline Grennan Wexler (formerly Sister Jacqueline of the Loretto Sisters in St. Louis), headed Webster College, a Catholic institution for women, and then, in a radical move, changed it into a secular institution; she later left the formal religious life and became president of Hunter College in N.Y., married a Jewish man, and then served as president of the National Conference of Christians and Jews (first founded in 1928) until her retirement in Dec. 1990.  (Gilian Sorenson succeeded her as president.)   On the lighter side, we note that Sr. Jane Scully in 1972 was named Pittsburgh’s “Man of the Year in Education,” also becoming in 1975 the first woman director of the Gulf Oil Corporation; Sr. Scully was mother-general of the Sisters of Mercy and president of Pittsburgh’s Carlow College for some years (both positions beginning in 1969), and well-known in the community for her many civic activities. [96]

 

Numerous Catholic women scholars and theologians have emerged in recent decades, writing extremely valuable books and articles, lecturing and teaching widely, and winning deserved accolades for their work, many of them also helping to envision a radical new/old form of Christianity—”Womenchurch.”  Dr. Rosemary Radford Ruether (1936 ) stands out for her expertise in historical theology, Roman Catholic theology, women’s studies, and eloquent articulation of the emerging “Womenchurch” movement among Catholic and other Christian women; she and Dr. Rosemary Skinner Keller co-direct the Institute for Study of Women in the Church at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary at Northwestern Univ., Evanston, Illinois (where Dr. Ruether holds the Georgia Harkness chair in applied theology).  Biblical scholars Dr. Arlene Anderson Swidler (co-founder of the Journal of Ecumenical Studies), Dr. Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza (b. 1938; coiner of the phrase, “Woman-Church,” and one of its leading spokespersons), radical feminist theologian and notable exile from the sexist church, Dr. Mary Daly (b. 1928; author of The Church and the Second Sex, Beyond God the Father, etc.), German theologian, pacifist, and professor of religion at Essen University, Dr. Uta Ranke-Heinemann (a former Lutheran convert to Catholicism in 1953, she was the first woman to hold a chair of theology at a German university), Dr. Mary Hunt and Dr. Diann Neu (founders and co-directors of the important group, Women’s Alliance for Theology, Ethics and Ritual [WATER] in 1982), Dr. Bernadette Brooten (a biblical scholar at Harvard Divinity School),  Sr. Margaret Brennan, IHMS (professor of Theology at St. Michael’s College, Toronto, and former LCWR president, 1972-3), Sr. Francis Borgia (former president of the School Sisters of St. Francis, of the LCWR [1973-4], and member of the theology faculty of the Institute of Women Today), Anne Carr (professor of theology at the Univ. of Chicago Divinity School), Sr. Angelita Myerscough (a Marian and women’s rights scholar at St. Louis University), Sr. Maryellen Muckenhirn, CSC (formerly Sr. Charles Borromeo, a professor of theology and director of the graduate school of theology at St. Xavier College, Chicago), Sr. Miriam Therese Winter (a Medical Missionary Sister, and Professor of Liturgy, Worship, and Spirituality at Hartford Seminary, who has also recorded a dozen albums of devotional songs, especially for women), and Dr. Mary Jo Weaver (author of the “must-read” work, New Catholic Women: A Contemporary Challenge to Traditional and Religious Authority)—these are some of the leading feminist Catholic (and “neo-Catholic”?) theologians fashioning for women and men a new understanding of the Divine, the church, the New Testament, women’s rights in Christianity, issues of ordination, contraception and pro-choice on abortion (i.e., women’s rights to govern their own bodies), and in various other ways pointing to a “new Reformation” within Catholic Christianity.  All these women have written and lectured eloquently and extensively, endeavoring to recover to some degree the status and power of women within Christianity.  Elsa Tameú has recently edited Through Her Eyes: Women’s Theology from Latin America, a landmark book which allows a number of Hispanic women theologians to express cogent ideas about liberation theology, women’s rights, and so forth. 

Along with the women theologians mentioned above, we must include as formidable Catholic female advocates of women’s issues and other issues (politics, poverty, environmentalism, etc.) the late Sr. Marjorie Tuite (an Executive Director NAWR and of the ecumenical group, Church Women United), Sr. Elizabeth Carroll, Ph.D. (formerly Mother M. Thomas Aquinas, superior-general of the Religious Sisters of Mercy until 1974, an expert on medieval history, social service issues, and renewal of women religious), Sr. Francis Borgia Rothluebber (former LCWR president in the mid-1970s and mother superior of some 140,000 Franciscan nuns), Ruth McDonough Fitzpatrick (coordinator of the Women’s Ordination Conference [WOC]), Frances Kissling (founder and President of Catholics for a Free Choice [CFFC] regarding abortion), Sr. Joan Chittester (prioress of Erie, PA Benedictines and former LCWR [1976-7]), Mary Griffin (formerly Sr. Mary Annarose Griffin, DC, an ardent ecumenist and feminist, and former dean at Mundelein College), and Sr. Theresa Kane (a former President of LCWR, and a spokeswoman for women’s rights to Pope John Paul II when he visited Washington in 1979). [97]

 

All these women have carefully, sensitively examined the status—or shall we say “plight”—of Catholic women disempowered and exploited by male church rulers bent on preserving an androcratic, “dominator” hierarchal structure.  This structure favors, as Dr. Ruether would put it, an episcopal church over a charismatic church, a clerical church over a church of the laity, a church of men over women.  With the realization of how much the true Christian “church” has been distorted and monopolized by males, the powerful movement of Women-Church is emerging—truly a “new Reformation.”

 

In a moment we will discuss Women-Church more fully; here we would point out that one of the issues which has served to shed light upon the deeply problematic nature of the patriarchal Roman church is that of women’s right to ordination to the priesthood.  Let us look at the matter clearly:  in this section we have seen 1) that women were not considered “inferior” by Jesus, and that he had a number of women disciples, including Mary Magdalene, perhaps his closest disciple, 2) that in the earliest years of the church women evidently held the unofficial office of priests, not just deaconesses and archdeaconesses, 3) that there have been numerous cases of extremely saintly women in the Catholic tradition, 4) that a woman (mother Mary) is regarded as “foremost among the saints,” 5) that powerful abbesses governed with independent jurisdiction over great monastic communities and towns of the middle ages, some of them perhaps consecrating the Eucharist in their later, post-menstrual age, and 6) that many women have emerged as very gifted spiritual directors, theologians, healers, leaders in health care, and the like.  How incredibly surprising and disappointing, then, that women have been suppressed in leadership functions within Christianity over so many centuries, and that, within the Catholic tradition (in contrast to the Protestant traditions—see below) women are still forbidden to receive ordination as priests or bishops and are thus prevented from performing the Catholic Church’s major sacraments, especially the Eucharistic celebration (wherein, according to Roman Catholics, Christ is invoked to become tangibly present in the disguise of the sacramental bread and wine).  Such a matter is even more disheartening when one considers that in the U.S. and worldwide, women are more numerous in attending the Catholic Eucharistic celebration than men.  The traditional rationale, that “Jesus Christ did not ordain women as priests,” ignores the plain fact that Jesus did not ordain anyone, male or female!  (Elizabeth Tetlow and other scholars have pointed out that there were no ordained priests until at least the end of the first century.)  This patriarchal argument also ignores the strong evidence suggesting that women served as prophets, leaders, and proto-priests and bishops in the early church after his passing. 

 

Conservative patriarchs of the last few decades, in countering the arguments for women’s right to ordination, assert the argument that “Jesus was male,” and that priests are to be patterned after Jesus—that is, they must be male!  Of course, this is an argument which focuses on nonessentials and, as Elaine Pagels has remarked, is easily undermined by the retort that “Jesus was Jewish, therefore all priests should be Jewish.”

 

As one male writer has urged, there persists yet another sound reason for ordaining women:

[Regarding the notion: “We have never ordained women in the past”:] “Such an approach beggars our rich and creative view of tradition and continuing revelation through the community and history informed by the Holy Spirit.  We need not be limited by precedent.” [98]

 

The issue of Catholic women’s ordination is not, as some conservative ecclesiastics would like us to think, a rebellious American phenomenon, though the Women’s Ordination Conference (WOC) in the U.S. (with international members from Latin America, Canada, Europe and the Far East) has for the last fifteen years been advocating women’s ordination to the priesthood—more specifically, advocating a renewed priesthood that is not based on an imbalanced holding of power by clergy over laity. 

 

Theologians Arlene and Leonard Swidler have pointed out that the movement for women’s ordination seems to have started with a doctoral dissertation by a Jesuit priest (Haye van der Meer) in Innsbruck in 1962 (available as Women Priests in the Catholic Church? [Leonard and Arlene Swidler, Trans.]). This was followed by a booklet authored by the Peruvian Father Jose Idigoras in 1963. A Swiss attorney, Gertrud Heinzelmann, submitted a petition on the matter to the Second Vatican Council, and St. Joan’s International Alliance, a group with a predominantly European membership, presented in 1963 the first of what would become annual petitions to the Vatican. 

 

In 1973, Dr. Ida Raming, a German theologian and expert on the history of Catholic Canon Law, authored a colossally important work, The Exclusion of Women from the Priesthood: Divine Law or Sex Discrimination (translated into English in 1976). She demonstrated quite clearly, in the words of the Swidlers (who wrote the preface to the English-language version of this work),

“…the disturbing fact that the ecclesiastical law which restricts Holy Orders to baptized males (canon 968, [paragraph] 1) is largely based on forgeries, mistaken identities, and suppressions.  The patriarch of canon law, Gratian, laid the foundation of the science of canon law with his massive work of codification, the Decretum, in the 12th century (1140).  In this work Gratian formulated a number of laws restrictive to women on the assumption that women as such were inferior human beings.  Among the legal sources for these laws and this assumption, he cited as authoritative the Pseudo-Isidorian Decretals, which he did not know were largely forgeries.  Another ‘authoritative’ source used against women by Gratian were the decrees of the Council of Carthage (A.D. 389) as he found them in the Statuta Ecclesiae Antiqua [composed between 476-85], and the quotations Gratian used are not at all from a (non-existenct) Council of Carthage in A.D. 389, or any other Council—the legal basis of Gratian’s restrictive law (and of course all subsequent canon law on this matter) is thus undermined. Gratian also based some of his restrictive laws against women on laws of the Roman Empire.  His references are authentic enough, but what is depressing is his habit of choosing only those Roman laws which supported the subordination of women and ignoring those which supported the equality of women.  He tended, moreover, to pick out the earlier Roman laws, more restrictive of women, rather than the later ones, which tended to liberate women. ... The full ordination of women as deaconesses [practiced in early times] is overlooked by Gratian and most of his Latin successors. ...

      “Ultimately, Dr. Raming finds, all the arguments against the ordination of women are founded on the assumption that women are inferior to men and that consequently they ought to—and in fact do—live in a state of subjection ... to men.  This assumption surfaces again and again in the writings of canonists, theologians, Fathers of the Church, and even biblical writers. ... The Christian subordination of women ... is particularly puzzling in light of Jesus’ attitude toward women. ... Jesus [as we have seen] never said or did anything that indicated he thought of women as inferior to men.  Instead he often went out of his way to breach the misogynist customs of his time.” [99]

 

In Detroit, Michigan, in 1975 the first Women’s Ordination Conference was held—organized and attended mainly by nuns, though laywomen, priests and monks also were among the 1,800 people in attendance.  When the question was asked near the close of the conference how many women felt the call to the priesthood, 280 women stood up.  The WOC was quickly organized to see what could be done about this multitude of female vocations to the priesthood, and Ruth McDonough Fitzpatrick was hired to oversee things.  Hopes were high that the longstanding patriarchal tradition would be seen as simply due to the social climate of ancient times and that, because of more enlightened, egalitarian social mores of today, and new insights into the distorted views of Gratian and other ecclesiastical authorities of the past, women might come to be ordained as Catholic priests.  But Pope Paul VI in 1977 ignored the findings of his own pontifical biblical commission, which held that there was nothing in scripture saying that women could not be ordained, and he went against the majority view of the members of this commission, who favored women’s ordination, by stating the old argument that women had never been ordained by Jesus and that women do not “image” Jesus, that is, his maleness.  To which the WOC, outraged over yet another attempt to marginalize women within the Church, began to print buttons stating, “ORDAIN WOMEN, OR STOP BAPTIZING THEM.”

 

Today the WOC, which has held conferences (1975, 1978, 1985, etc.), claims about 3,000 members, 10% of whom are (male) priests, the rest divided almost equally into nuns and laywomen, including some women from other Christian denominations.  A majority of American Catholics presently favor ordaining women, and, surprisingly, men over 30 years of age support the ordination of women in larger numbers than do women—indicating perhaps the “obedient resignation” of older Catholic women in the face of the longstanding, rigid, authoritarian, male-chauvinist policies. Further attempts in March, 1989 by American bishops visiting the Vatican to have the Papacy consider female ordination were rather quickly dismissed by the arch-conservative Pope John Paul II and his Curia. And the agenda of a recent annual conference of the 300 U.S. bishops (November, 1990) did not even include women’s ordination as an explicit issue, which led hundreds of women to demonstrate in protest outside the meeting site. 

 

The Women’s Ordination Conference nevertheless continues in its attempts to persuade more American bishops and the Vatican of the need and justification for women priests.  The American bishops, incidentally, are perpetrating a strange contradiction:  they have been trying for almost nine years, along with a committee of women, to draft a teaching letter, “One in Christ Jesus,” which upholds the equality of women in the Church, condemns sexism, encourages partnership in marriage, yet which still maintains that women, because of their very female nature, are ineligible for the priesthood!  (Maureen Aggeler, RSCJ, in Mind Your Metaphors: A Critique of Language in the Bishops’ Pastoral Letters on the Role of Women, has looked at this situation in some depth.)  Predictably, the American bishops’ proposed letter “did not get rave reviews” from the Pope and his Curia when they all met in late May, 1991, and the American bishops were sent home with the admonishment to tone down those sections condemning sexism and stressing female equality. [100]

 

In short, then, while women served prominent roles in the early church, and many women over the centuries have been venerated by the Catholic Church for achieving exalted levels of holiness, and have founded important religious orders for women (and even for men), written influential works about the holy life, and instituted widespread charitable organizations, all such works sanctioned by Popes and bishops—women have not been allowed to become part of the ecclesiastical body or governing hierarchy of the Church.  Though my own strong opinion is that women should be able to enjoy equal participation and leadership in this way, I must add that many of the especially “saintly” Catholic women of the past profiled in these pages have shown little interest in the women’s ordination issue, and a good number of them have even supported the official papal position that only men should be the priests and bishops!  Of course, we should realize that such sentiments from women saints were expressed way back before the Women’s Ordination Conference and Women-Church had come into being.  And consider how that “obedient little flower,” Thérèse of Lisieux, is an important woman’s voice from a century ago to have expressed major disappointment that she was never able to be ordained a priest.  If she was living on the physical plane today, Thérèse’s voice would undoubtedly be raised in strong protest of the androcratic church policies—and because of such a stand she would most likely be considered by the male hierarchy an “inappropriate” case for canonization—and thus modern Christianity would be deprived of one of its most popular official saints! 

 

Curiously, many nuns and laywomen (and laymen) are coming to have more of a de facto type of power in the Catholic church in the U.S. and elsewhere because of seriously diminishing numbers of priests and increasing numbers of Catholic laity—this is the kind of situation which, as we shall see, has led to ordinations of women in Protestant traditions, and it is to be hoped that the same will happen within the Roman Church.  (Recent figures indicate roughly one-tenth of this nation’s almost 20,000 Catholic parishes and 43% of the world’s parishes do not have a regular priest.)  As examples of this relative “empowerment” for Catholic women, many nuns and some laywomen have become “pastoral administrators” in rural, “priestless parishes”; and big cities like Seattle, Washington, and Richmond, Virginia, are seeing the same thing.  Jean Marie Hiesberger’s Institute for Pastoral Life in Kansas City, Missouri, is training laywomen and laymen to take up the leadership slack left by the limited number of priests.  Currently some nuns are presiding over “Communion services,” wherein they distribute Eucharistic bread consecrated earlier or elsewhere by a priest; they are also leading Sunday prayer services for priestless parishes, a practice authorized by American bishops and awaiting approval from the Vatican, after which it may become fairly widespread.  The emergence of such “Communion services” and “prayer services” may force the Vatican to finally consider the need for ordaining women priests, since regular participation in the Eucharistic Celebration is a high priority for Catholics. [101] 

 

Aligning with feminist women and such notable male theologians as Hans Küng, it is my ardent hope that the rigid views of the male patriarchs, and their attachment to having “power and control over women,” be dropped forthwith and that Catholic women be given equal choice along with their brothers to decide for themselves whether they have a calling to the priesthood, and that support for them in this calling be made available in whatever manner is necessary.  Presuming that ordination to priesthood and performance of the sacraments does bring about a greater infusion of the power of God’s Holy Spirit, ordination of women will thereby allow God’s Presence and Blessings to be invoked more frequently by a greater number of Catholic priests. 

 

However, an increasingly important revelation is that ordination itself within the context of a patriarchal, hierarchical, clerical church is not such a valuable thing after all.  The more than 20,000 Protestant women who have become ordained in recent decades have more or less realized this fact. A clergy-dominated, hierarchical church clearly violates the spirit of early Christianity, which, as we learned earlier, was egalitarian, charismatic, and not rigidly institutionalized.  Dr. Ruether has elucidated how the male patriarchy, from the early centuries onward, tried to reduce divine grace into something which comes “from above,” only capable of being mediated through popes, bishops, and priests through their blessings and through the sacraments—not freely available to any and all sincere Christians.  As such, the practice of bestowing “ordination” onto persons so that they may come into a special “priesthood status” and be privileged to administer specially-charged “sacraments” is a perpetration of a dangerous notion that divine grace can be institutionalized.  Ruether adds:

“Most struggles of women for ordination until the last decade assumed that it would be enough simply for women to have full rights as priests and ministers and then women would really be included.  It is only after some decades of women’s involvement in ordained ministry and theological education that the limits of the inclusion of women within male institutions and culture becomes evident.  Then it becomes clear that we need to take a step beyond this kind of inclusion of women which changes nothing of the structures and cultural symbols of the ecclesia of patriarchy.  I do not mean to repudiate the gains that have been made [in Protestant circles] by such inclusion.  Indeed, these gains are themselves the base that makes possible the new step beyond this type of inclusion to transformation.” [102]

 

The “transformation” Ruether mentions is the essence of a “new Reformation” within Christianity known as “Women-Church”—a broader, more democratic version of “church” which is empowering and edifying for all members.  In Women-Church, each member (male or female) may naturally have special, unique gifts, such as talents for healing, spiritual direction, liturgical creativity, musicianship, organization of resources, and so on, but no member need be considered to be in a “superior” position of especially mediating God’s grace to disempowered “subordinates.”  This, surely, was the spirit of the earliest Christian church and Women-Church is trying valiantly to bring back this vision of Jesus and his immediate followers.Of course, this is exactly what some of the non-Catholic churches—especially the Quakers, Baptists, holiness and pentecostal churches—have also tried to do.  Women-Church is based on written works such as Ruether’s Women-Church: Theology and Practice, Dr. Arlene Swidler’s Sister-Celebrations: Nine Worship Experiences, Sr. Miriam Therese Winter’s Woman Word: A Feminist Lectionary and Psalter and other books and albums of devotional songs, the works of Schüssler-Fiorenza, et al, and networking meetings such as the “Woman Church Speaks” conference, put on by the Women of the Church Coalition in November of 1983, and various seminars sponsored by WATER. Women-Church, with its post-Vatican II empowerment-of-the-laity slogan, “we are the church,” its own theology of “creation spirituality,” its nonrigid creeds and liturgies, its egalitarian, democratic emphasis, and its “liberation theology” approach to the needs of the oppressed people throughout the world, especially the plight of women and girls, speaks to more and more women and men about a very different version of Christianity that, except perhaps for the Quaker tradition, has not been seen since the time of Christ almost 2,000 years ago.  In the words of Mary Jo Weaver:

“Those young women now leaving the church because it has no meaning in their lives might find an alternative in the Womanchurch [Women-Church] movement... The Womanchurch movement ... sees that women can still take on the grand tasks of the church—to transform the world, for example—but can now do so by way of feminist collective energy. ...  The key to understanding Womanchurch ... is its claim to be church.  The participants in Chicago [at the “Women of the Church Coalition” in 1977, who started the movement] did not see themselves as exiles from the church but in exodus from patriarchy. ... Womanchurch makes no claim to ‘leave the church’ or cut itself off from historical Christianity, but rather points “toward the beginning of a process of renewal which must include men and historical Christianity, but only when these, too, recognize the exodus from patriarchy as essential to the meaning and mission of the church” [Ruether]. ...

      “[These women] leave the patriarchal institution but refuse to leave the community of Jesus.  By claiming to be church, those in the Womanchurch movement react against a patriarchal ecclesiology and express their own power as they refuse to be marginalized or squeezed out of the community on the basis of androcratic regulations.  Many women do leave the church and seek no Catholic alternative, but those who remain within the system and identify with Womanchurch become as subversives in a corrupt society. ...

      “They have not given up on historical Christianity or on a Christianity for women. ... They perceive the patriarchal model as dangerous and have been moved to challenge the hierarchical church as an inefficient and illegitimate expression of Jesus’ intentions. ... The Womanchurch movement is an ecclesiological challenge to traditional Catholic configurations.  The gospel as preached in the institutional church, along with sexist language, exclusive liturgy, and dehumaniziang role models for women, is not ‘good news.’  The patriarchal church has betrayed the vision of Jesus by constructing and supporting an institution that demeans, in subtle and glaring ways, more than half its membership. ...

      “Womanchurch attempts to embody the Jesus traditions—equalitarian structure and ministry to the marginalized—here and now, offering an alternative to patriarchal Catholicism to both women and men and seeing in itself a community of redemption.” [103]  

 

Womenchurch need not be seen simply as a movement of dissatisfied females.Hans Küng’s landmark book, Reforming the Church Today: Keeping Hope Alive (1990), remembering Pope John XXIII’s document “The Church in the Modern World,” strongly urges the patriarchal leaders (i.e., the Pope and his Curia and bishops and priests worldwide) to accept a co-discipleship with the laity and renew the Church in specific ways which will empower the laity, include women in all levels of ministry and decision-making, abandon “the medieval discipline of mandatory priestly celibacy,” develop the Church’s commitment to social justice and deeper enlightenment about human sexuality, and so forth. [104]

 

Time will tell whether the male ecclesiastical patriarchal leaders who have usurped the “church”-identity for so many centuries will be able to loosen their attachment to status quo policy and dominant-leadership status, lay down their titles and positions of rank—or at least the exploitative use of power to which they think their office entitles them—and meet women and feminist men as equals, not as “dutiful children,” learning from them and, with the benefit of such learning, changing their notion and practice of “church” to include women (and laymen) as fully equal members and leaders.  If, instead, these male patriarchs insecurely, selfishly continue to insist on holding onto their inauthentic power and control, and cannot accomodate themselves to a broader, truly egalitarian “church,” then they face the very real possibility of an even more massive exit by women (and feminist men) from “their” church—which would probably then fall apart, since women have played such an invaluable—though greatly under-acknowledged—part of the Catholic Church.  Various indications over the last five years clearly suggest that the patriarchs in Rome are not willing to shift, they are not even willing to communicate with the leaders of Women-Church, and many women (and men) therefore are leaving, either to join Women-Church and re-define Christianity in a movement which will undoubtedly rival the Protestant Reformation in its significance, or else to join the non-Christian wicca/neo-pagan movement or the increasingly important Buddhist, Hindu (Vedānta-Yoga), and Sūfī movements in America and Europe based on ancient, proven paths to authentic spiritual realization.  The necessity of sheer survival may force the Roman Church’s androcratic hierarchy to eventually change its stand.  Otherwise it is most probable that it will limp along with a mere residue of its former glory, comprised of old-fashioned androcrats and “dutiful sons and daughters” who, for whatever reason—usually a more-or-less guilt-driven sense of “obedience”—choose to continue in a submissive, disempowered role.

 

Eugene Kennedy’s thoughtful work, Tomorrow’s Catholics, Yesterday’s Church: The Two Cultures of American Catholicism (1988), leaves no doubt as to which version of the Catholic Church will ultimately prevail:  what he calls “Culture Two” Catholicism, the more enlightened, egalitarian, progressive Church, based on divine mystery and ongoing revelation, is definitely a more viable and attractive movement than is the traditional authoritarian institution of “Culture One” Catholicism:

“[The] institutional churchmen, in looking backward, ... in identifying the Promised Land as an authoritarian realm, have exiled themselves in the Waste Land instead.  Their victory [e.g., at the Roman Synod of 1987, in which the question of women’s empowered participation was silenced] is an illusion, for they misunderstand themselves as badly as they misinterpret the millions of Catholics who identify themselves as the People of God, the church as a sacrament to the world, the church as the screen through which spiritual reality may be seen. The temporary advantage won by the curialists [curia: “men together”] cannot be sustained in a world in which they cannot effectively implement their authoritarian vision without destroying it at the same time.  Pope John Paul II ... has left the governance of the church largely to institutionalists, whose maneuvers will not in the long run serve his spiritual authority well.  As this great leader continues to travel the globe, he will come gradually to realize that the era of monarchy has ended, that Catholics see and respond to him differently, that the future he resists is more powerful than the past he reverences.  He will come to realize that he, too, is searching for the grail and that he will find it, as all must, in entering into instead of attempting to dominate the diverse mystery of the world.

      “This turning away on the part of large numbers of Catholics, Americans among them, from played-out institutional forms represents a search for healthy authority as much as a rejection of pathological authoritarianism.  Culture One leaders must read the signs of these times accurately, for it is they, not their followers, who have failed to understand and express the healthy spiritual authority that, like the voice of the true shepherd, cannot be mistaken by the flock.  To accomplish this, however, they must allow many purely organizational aspects of Culture One to undergo a transforming death. ... Culture One leaders need not know exactly what will rise to replace the institutional forms that no longer serve well.  They can have confidence that, if they trust the healthy instincts of healthy people, these forms will develop organically and will serve the church as a collegial people well into the next century.  This requires a profound act of faith on their part.  First, they must believe that death can lead to resurrection.  Second, they must seek to be generative, bearers of true authority, rather than controllers, or agents of authoritarianism.  The members of Culture Two, the real church as People of God, have understood this for a long time.” [105]

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~


Women in Eastern Orthodox Christianity

 

What is the status of the feminine and actual women in the rest of the Christian world?  In this section, let us examine the Eastern Orthodox Church, the second largest single denomination of Christians worldwide (estimated membership: between 150 to 250 million), a federation of fourteen autocephalous churches—most notable of which are the Greek Orthodox and Russian Orthodox Churches. 

 

Eastern Orthodoxy, while being very similar to the Roman Catholic Church in theology and practice, draws its main inspiration from the 4th-7th century Desert Fathers/Mothers in Egypt, Palestine and Syria, and their radical “spiritual-athlete” approach to God-Realization via askesis (asceticism) and hesychia (quietude).  (Note: the alienation between Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches goes way back to about the 5th century; the split would be finalized in 1054, after centuries of alienation.  Also note that it was to Constantinople in the East that the great spirit of desert monasticism moved after it had been snuffed out by the Muslims in the Middle East in the 7th century.  Constantinople would also later fall to the Muslims, who renamed it “Istanbul,” and strong centers of Orthodox spiritual practice would then arise elsewhere in Greek territory—especially at Mt. Athos—and in Russia.) 

 

In the Orthodox world, as in the Roman tradition, the patriarchal element is dominant:  the leaders of the various Orthodox churches are all male Patriarchs (the Patriarch of Constantinople/Istanbul [most recent of whom is Bartholomeos I, succeeding the late Dimitrios I, 1977-91] is, relative to the other Patriarchs, “first among equals”), and bishops and priests hold the power on the more local level.  Yet a number of foundresses / abbesses of women’s monasteries and convents have flourished, holding considerable power in their own religious establishments.  It is also sometimes said that the laity enjoy more power in the Orthodox tradition than they have within Roman Catholicism, for they are included in some of the decision-making councils of the Eastern churches, and women, at least in recent times in the Greek Orthodox tradition, are members of these councils.

 

By far the most conspicuous feminine element in the Eastern Orthodox churches, as in Roman Catholicism, is Mary, Jesus’ mother.  She receives considerable veneration as Theotokos, the Mother of God (literally, the “God-bearer”), though, as in the West, she is never to be worshipped, only “specially venerated.”  Various Orthodox saints frequently speak of Mary as the perfect exemplar of the qualities of silence, humility, exclusive focus on God, openness and receptivity toward the Holy Spirit, and so forth.  Mary is not only “Patroness” or “Mother” of many, many individual male and female monasteries, she is considered “Heavenly Protector and Head” of Orthodox monastics in general.  Moreover, certain Byzantine ikons to Mary are venerated for their edifying, grace-full power by both clergy and the masses as more efficacious than any other ikons (even including most of those of Jesus himself).  There are a great number of these Byzantine ikons to Theotokos (e.g., the Vladimir Ikon, the weeping Tikhvin Ikon and Glykophylousa, Akathist, and Odigitria Ikons on Mt. Athos [the whole of Mt. Athos is in fact dedicated to Mary], the Emvolon Ikon at Constantinople, the Svenskaya Ikon of Theotokos at Kiev Caves, the Joy of All Who Sorrow Ikon in Petersburg, the Petrovskaya Ikon in Moscow, the Ikon of Theotokos of Areovindus, the Weeping Ilyin Chernigov Ikon, the Weeping Of the Sign Ikon at Novgorod, the Kolomna Ikon of the Reigning Theotokos, the Ikons known as Diasozousa, Zographou, Kursk, Feodorovskaya, Smolensk Hodigitria, Marianica, Akhtyrka, Kazan Kaplunovka, Kaluga, Lesna, Axion Estin, Tolga, Kozelshchanskaya, Konevits, Armatia, etc.).  All these Marian ikons, like certain Marian statues and paintings in the West (e.g., the Black Madonnas, the miraculous image Our Lady of Guadalupe, etc.), have become the focus for strong devotional cults.  (The “Appearance of the Most Holy Theotokos at Pochaev” in 1675 [in the form of “the footprint”] is yet another Orthodox Marian image venerated—in this case, for miraculously saving the monastery from the invading Tatars and Turks). 

 

Denise Lardner Carmody has pointed out a few positive elements in the Orthodox world regarding women: deaconesses ministered to the communities until the 14th century; the devoted laywoman as wife and mother became in popular piety a type of justified, sanctified soul; Eve was in many cases (such as in the hymns of Romanos) not denigrated but seen as the “mother” of Mary, and the first to understand the meaning of the Incarnation; Mary Magdalene was spoken of in very positive light; and theological discussions sometimes androgynized the deity by giving the Holy Spirit feminine attributes.  Nevertheless, the other side of the picture is that women were still often considered the source of evil due to their sexual attractiveness, widows were pressured to enter the convent or stay hidden away, deaconesses were in fact finally suppressed, and in Russia, as in many areas of Western Europe, it was considered quite appropriate for husbands to beat their wives and children. [106]                

 

Judging from a look at the Greek and Russian Orthodox calendars of feast days for saints and blesseds, a good number of God-realized women do seem to be venerated in the Eastern Orthodox traditions—there is a great affinity for recognizing saints in these traditions anyway, and women are included in this honor.  We find, for instance, that the Old Testament prophetesses like Hulda, Hannah and Anna (along with Moses, et al) have feast days on the calendar, as do Procla, wife of Pontius Pilate, and Tabitha, the widow raised from the dead, and other persons one would not expect to find therein.  We have already learned of some of the early martyrs from the period of the “undivided church” who are venerated by Christians East and West... The Greek and Russian Orthodox also especially venerate the saintly virgin martyrs Horaiozele the Apostle of Constantinople (1st century; said to be the student of St. Andrew); siblings Agape, Chionia, and Irene in Illyria (d. 304); Leonidas, Chariessa, Nice, Galina, Callista, Nunechia, Basilissa, Theodora, and Irene of Corinth; Elesa of Cythera; Myrope of Chios; Susanna (deacon and abbess); the Holy Forty Women Martyrs at Heraclea; the five girl martyrs of Neanidor of Lesbos; Theodosia of Tyre; Ia and the women among the 9,000 with her (c.360) who were so viciously persecuted by King Sapor II in Persia (Ia was a Greek maiden who made many converts in Persia); Pherbutha of Persia and her sister and servants; Christina, Cyra, and Gudelia‚ of Persia; and the five nuns of Persia: Thecla, Mariamne, Martha, Mary, Enmatha‚ (4th cent.).  (Many Westerners are unaware of the fact that this period in Persia between 314-79 represents, percentage-wise, the bloodiest persecution of Christians ever to occur.)  The tales of numerous other women martyrs are told, but, like some of the above cases, these hagiographies are rather unreliable in terms of their historicity. [107] 

 

We have also heard mention of the Desert Ammas (Sarah, Syncletica, Theodora, Marthana‚ and Talida), and other saints of monastic communities in Egypt, Syria, and Palestine, as well as the already discussed saints Thecla, Mary the Egyptian, Euphrasia, Helen, Melania, Macrina, and other women of the first millennium, who are especially dear to Orthodoxy. Several more female saints of early times may be profiled here, who are completely unknown to most Christians in the West.

 

St. Eudocia, living in Heliopolis in the second century, is said to have been a harlot who converted upon hearing the words of an itinerant monk and then later seeing a vision of an angel; she joined a convent of nuns and later became its abbess, renowned for her miraculous powers of resurrecting the dead, etc., and for converting her persecutors.  She was, however, eventually beheaded by a Roman governor.  St. Nino (or Nina; died c.340) seems to have been a slave-girl highly respected for her holiness and curative powers in the region of Georgia (Iberia).  The rather fanciful legend of St. Irene the Great-Martyr (4th cent.) claims that she was born to the king of Magedon, a Persian city, and endured and survived the tortures of five different kings, beginning with her father (whom she converted), who would not accept her stand for the Christian faith; she converted many thousands of people and was “famous from one end of the Persian Empire to the other.”  Blessed Cleopatra (4th century?) was a holy widow who built a basilica to house the relics of martyr St. Varus in Egypt; her son died around this time, and she lived her remaining seven years in great devotion and penitence until she joined him and St. Varus in the supernal light in accordance with a vision she had earlier had of them at the time of her son’s passing.  St. Xenia (5th century), born in Rome to wealthy parents, laater fled with two of her slave-women from an arranged betrothal, venturing to the isle of Kos.  Xenia and her two liberated “sisters” finally found someone to guide them in the Christian faith in the person of Paul, an abbot from Mylassa.  He invited them to return with him, where they lived as hermits in cells near his monastery; when Paul became bishop, he made Xenia a deacon, and she became abbess of a women’s  community at the church to St. Stephen which she built.  Xenia was esteemed for her gentle, loving, implacable nature, her lengthy fasts and her frequent periods of “perpetual praying” from dawn to dusk while standing.  When she died, a dazzling light and sweet fragrance were perceived by the nuns. Many healing miracles occurred during the all-night vigil held by the crowds of people who revered her, and some sort of extraordinary celestial phenomenon of starry lights was witnessed by them until she was buried. 

St. Elizabeth‚ was a notable wonderworker of Constantinople in the 5th century; her birth and name were prophesied by a vision of St. Glykeria which came in answer to the prayers of a pious old couple on the northern coast of the Sea of Marmora near Perinthos.  Elizabeth in her early childhood was already studying the Scriptures and lives of saints.  Orphaned at age 15, she distributed her inheritance among the poor and set free all her slaves, and went to Constantinople, entering the convent of St. George, headed by her aunt.  Elizabeth’s deeply humble, fervent, and highly ascetic lifestyle impressed the abbess deeply, and Elizabeth was made her successor when the woman died only two years later.  Only 17 years old, she was already “filled with all kinds of charismata [gifts] of the Holy Spirit,” and began to work many miracles of healing, exorcisms, prophecy, and so forth, even allegedly saving the city from a disastrous fire with her prayers (along with St. Daniel the Stylite) and also killing a “dragon” which had been terrorizing people.  After this, she was besieged by many for her miraculous powers of help.  While she was once visiting her ancestral home, a vision of St. Glykeria told her she had only 24 more days to live, and so it came to pass.  Many postmortem miracles have continued down through the centuries, and water from a spring bearing her name has been credited with curing eye diseases. 

 

St. Athena-Eudokia, a Byzantine empress of the 5th century, was a great beauty who converted to Christianity; she then went on pilgrimage to the Holy Land of Jerusalem in 438, and was much edified by meeting saints, visiting shrines, and collecting relics.  Upon her subsequent return to Constantinople in 439, she became quite philanthropic toward the poor, the sick, and the aged, as well as funding monks, clergy, and pilgrims.  The last 17 years of her life were spent in lonely exile in the Holy Land, and she was buried in the Church of St. Stephen in Jerusalem.  St. Pulcheria (399-453), another Byzantine empress, was given by her sister-in-law Empress Eudokia the first Marian ikon.  Devout and well-educated, Pulcheria influenced the Ecumenical Councils at Ephesus (431) and Chalcedon (451) by heroically countering some heresies of the times; she built many churches and, at her death, bequeathed to the needy all of her wealth. 

 

A charming story tells of St. Athanasia (5th century), who was one day in church praying when a celestial being informed her that her two children, who had suddenly died on the same day some time before, were in heaven.  The vision inspired Athanasia to entreat her husband Andronicus to renounce the world with her.  He did, and the two left Antioch, where they were living, and went into the desert of their native Egypt.  St. Daniel directed Andronicus to live as a monk at Tabbenisi, and Athanasia to become an anchoress in the wilderness.  After 12 years, they met again, the unrecognizable Athanasia now disguised as an old monk.  They went on pilgrimage to Jerusalem together, and later lived outside Alexandria in nearby hermitages.  After she had passed away, Andronicus discovered a note from her saying that she was, in fact, his wife; thereupon, he fell ill and soon joined her in the Light.  Martyred Georgian princess St. Shushanik (5th century) spent the last six years of her life in jail, enduring the heat and cold, the fleas and lice, while fasting, keeping vigils, and praying, also consoling, healing and in other ways miraculously helping her many visitors—all this after she had been severely beaten almost to death by her evil husband, a Persian Zoroastrian prince who could not tolerate her Christian views. 

 

St. Matrona of Perge (Pamphylia, Asia Minor), was born about 425, married and had a child; theya moved to Constantinople, where she was tremendously inspired by the magnificent Christian churches; she eventually took up the life of a monastic, and had to repeatedly flee her husband, who was trying to reclaim her; “the pursuit continued from Jerusalem to Sinai.”  Eventually she found refuge in a pagan temple in the wilderness near Beirut; people soon discovered her and came to her for counsel and conversion, including a pagan priestess.  She returned to Constantinople around 457, and governed over a convent there until her death many decades later in 524; she had been made a veritable “bishop” by the local bishop, Abbot Basianos, who gave her authority to “lay hands” on others; she was thus “a commanding personality in Constantinople for almost seven decades ... honored as a charismatic teacher and abbess, a healer and courageous defender of the Orthodox faith.”  St. Sophia (n.d.) of Ainos became the selfless patron of orphans and widows after the death of her own six children ended her busy life raising a family.  Already sanctified in her householder vocation, her holiness increased even more with her new life of self-inflicted poverty and asceticism which she began at this time (around age 20).  In addition to eating only dry bread and drinking only water, and praying the Psalms “without ceasing,” Sophia was extraordinarily humble and generous, giving “richly and joyfully to all those in need.  Sophia preferred to be in need herself rather than to turn a poor person away from her house.”  For some time, God graced her work with a miracle:  a jug of wine which would never diminish, no matter how much she gave of it to her hungry, thirsty visitors. (The miracle stopped the day she told others about it, hoping to impress them with God’s glory.)  She spent her last last several dozen years engaged in even deeper asceticism, and was tonsured as a nun.  From the historian John of Ephesus we hear of Theophilus and Maria (6th century), who were inspired to take up that vocation of “fool-for-Christ’s-sake” upon witnessing one such saintly fool in Rome.  Traveling to the city of Amida, they dressed up in bizarre fashion, Theophilus as a mime-actor, Maria as a prostitute, and constantly went about in public places performing buffooneries and outrageous (though not sinful) behaviors, guaranteed to incur ear-boxing and ridicule; yet John once secretly followed them to the outskirts of the city where he discovered that they practised a lengthy vigil of prayer and prostrations. 

 

St. Theodosia of Constantinople (d. 745) is venerated as a virgin martyr who incurred death by being the ringleader of a group of women who tried to defend a famous ikon from being destroyed by the local rulers.  The husband of St. Athanasia of Aegina (d. c.860) was an army-officer who was killed by Arabs only 16 days after their marriage; she wished to become a nun, but her parents married her again, this time to a devout man who shared in and encouraged Athanasia’s charitable works. “She gave alms liberally and helped the sick, strangers, prisoners, and all who stood in need; after the Liturgy on Sundays and holy-days she would gather her neighbours round her and read and explain to them a passage from the Bible.”  When her husband decided to become a monk, evidently under her persuasion, Athanasia turned her house into a convent, and became its abbess. The nuns undertook severe austerities, later softened by an abbot who helped guide them; they also re-located to a quiet, larger property at Timia, where many more women came to join them.  Athanasia became so famous for her piety and wisdom that she was called away to the court of Constantinople to become the adviser to Empress Theodora; here she lived for seven years in a small cell, finally returning to her community and dying shortly thereafter.  She is one of the relatively few saints to be designated specifically in her entry on the calendar of saints as thaumatourgos, or “miracle-worker.”  St. Susanna (c.840-918), born at Constantinople and raised by her wealthy widowed mother with great care, refused offers of marriage and, after living a veritable monastic life in the world, fled around age 28 to Leucadia in Epirus, where she practiced complete solitude, immersed in contemplation. Her tomb became the scene of such miraculous cures that it was opened—and her relic was found “quite undecayed and giving off a sweet smell.” [108]

 

The Orthodox calendar mentions some other women saints, most of them evidently of the first millennium of Christianity, about whom I have been able to obtain no further information other than the “title” given along with their name:  St. Xenia, the wonderworker of Peloponnesus; St. Sophia, another thaumaturge; St. Euphemia, near Neaorion; St. Anthusa, abbess of Mantinea in Asia Minor; St. Irene of Cappadocia; St. Irene Chrysovalantou; St. Mary, wife of St. Xenophon; and St. Episteme, wife of Galaktion.  These and other women of Orthodoxy are profiled in The Lives of the Spiritual Mothers, an extensive work published by one of the Russian Orthodox convents in America. [109]

 

The second millennium of Eastern Orthodox Christianity, in comparison to the great number of women saints in the tradition of the Roman Catholic Church, shows a relative paucity of details concerning holy females, especially in the Orthodox traditions of Greece and various Asia Minor regions.  The Russian tradition, as we shall see, has more explicitly named its holy women, though even in that land not many biographical details are available on most of these women.  One Russian Orthodox monk who wrote to me, saying that the subject of women saints and monastics in the Orthodox world is not very well known, went on to express the traditional ideals of detachment, humility and kenosis, or “self-emptying” when he declared:  “But this [lack of information on such women] is all the more a testament to the greatness of these nuns who were so shrouded in humility and [the spirit of] fleeing the glory of the world that almost nothing is known of them.”  Despite their virtual “invisibility” to the outside world, research has uncovered some facts on several dozen holy women of Orthodox Christianity in the second millennium, and so to them let us turn, looking first to the Greek Orthodox Church.

 

St. Matrona of Chios, Thessalonica (14th century) was the seventh  daughter to pious, well-to-do parents.  However, when they insisted she marry, she ran away from home and hid in the mountains near Katavasia, living the life of an ascetic, praying and keeping all-night vigils.  When her parents finally found her, she dutifully went with them, on the condition that they not try to wed her; eventually, they gave her her dowry, most of which she gave away, and she then returned to her mountain sanctuary for three years of deeply ascetic spirituality.  In time, Matrona was guided by God to venture to Chora, the island’s capital city, where she joined a small convent run by a pious woman and her two daughters.  After a while, Matrona’s holiness drew many more women, and she received permission from the abbess to use the rest of her dowry to build a new church; the abbess died soon after, and Matrona governed her spiritual daughters for many years as the mistress/abbess (“Kyra”).  Miracles flowed both before and after her passing, which was probably in the year 1357; both Christians and non-Christians came to her for her divine help.

 

Twelve-year-old St. Irene of Lesvos was one of a number of martyrs done in by the Turks in 1463 near a monastery on a hill outside Thermi village, on the small island of Lesvos (Mytilene); she was evidently burnt to death because she would not reveal the whereabouts of certain Christians in hiding.  Soon afterwards, other Christians were discovered, including Sts. Raphael and Nicholas, and also put to death.  Two centuries earlier, in 1235, a nun by name of Olympia, abbess of a convent on the site, had been killed, along with her fellow sisters, by Turkish pirates; she herself died by having nails driven into her head and body.  Until 1959 the life-stories of all these martyred saints was unknown.  Then a number of believers and unbelievers began to have marvelous dreams and visions of these martyrs, and guidance was given as to the whereabouts of their relics so that their courageous deaths may not be forgotten but rather serve to edify Orthodox Christians for all time.  A convent has been built on the site, presided over by Abbess Eugenia, and now the place is a much-visited object of pilgrimage, where many people have been miraculously healed in body and mind.

 

Almost ninety other “new martyrs” of the Greek Orthodox world incurred death at the hands of Muslim Turks over the last several hundred years.  More than 90% of these are males, but a handful of females are also remembered by Greek hagiographers, the most notable of whom are the following souls...

 

St. Philothei (née Revoula Benizélos) (1522-89), “protectress of Athens,” came from a noble, wealthy family; her barren mother, Syriga, one day in church had implored God and Theotokos for the birth of a child and was awestruck to see in a vision while asleep a mass of radiant light coming from a Marian ikon and entering her womb—and soon thereafter she became pregnant.  When this pious child by name of Revoula was twelve, her parents wed her, against her wishes, to a cruel nobleman, who died three years later; the parents wanted Revoula to marry again, but she desisted, immersed as she was in an ascetic life of prayer and devotion.  Eventually they died, and she was free to carry on her intensely spiritual lifestyle.  An appearance of St. Andrew in a vision ordered her to build a monastery for women in his name, which she did; then she adopted the name Philothei, set herself up in the monastery, and became spiritual director to the many young noblewomen and other girls who soon came to join her.  Philothei spent much of her time ministering to the needy and the sick, and she built infirmaries, schools, and hostels—the latter helped to infuse the Christian faith in young girls who might not have received a proper reinforcement for their faith under the Turkish rule which prevailed in those times.  Some of Philothei’s own nuns complained to her for spending most of their funds on so many charitable activities, but she encouraged them to “seek ye first the kingdom...” and in fact they would receive financial support in very timely ways to keep them going.  At one point, some slave women abducted by Turkish pirates fled their masters and came to her convent, and Philothei took them in, later helping them return to their original homes.  For this, Philothei herself was thrown into jail, though she was quite ill at the time.  Philothei rejoiced at the opportunity to serve God and would not give up the information concerning the whereabouts of the women.  Given an ultimatum by the governor to either die by the sword or deny her faith and convert to Islam, she professed her Christian faith; luckily, certain people intervened and she was spared.  Back at her monastery, she continued to do good and convert people to holiness, also working a number of miracles, for which she became even more famous.  Philothei would split her time between doing works of mercy and engaging in hours of deep contemplative prayer, such as at a cave outside Athens.  She also established various monastic sites for nuns:  on the isle of Kea; in the Patesia region; at Calogreza; at Psychicon, and so on.  One day a band of Turks accosted her at the Patesia monastery and beat her almost to death; her nuns brought her to Calogreza, where she eventually passed away in February, 1589.  The chronicler of Philothei’s life-story reports:  “Twenty days after her repose her tomb began to emit a distinct fragrance.  A year later when her relics were uncovered, they were found intact and whole, as they appear today [in the Cathedral of Athens], sending forth a fragrant myrrh as definite proof of her God-pleasing life...”

 

St. Argyra of Prusa was a young newlywed who ran afoul of a lustful Turk; this man, coveting her for himself and being frustrated in this desire, slandered her and dragged her into court, saying that she wanted to become a Muslim; when Argyra denied this, a Muslim judge at Constantinople (where she was “re-tried”) had her beaten and imprisoned; over the next 17 years, she not only equanimiously endured repeated beatings but intense harassment from the Turkish women inmates—many of whom might have been psychotic.  Argyra bore all these persecutions with joy and a spirit of gratitude to God that she could suffer for the sake of Christ; she also fasted much of her time.  When a reprieve was finally granted, she decided to stay in the prison, which had evidently become her “power-place” of prayer; eventually Argyra died in 1725, considered a martyr, given the circumstances which put her in prison.  Christians buried her at Haskoy, and, three years later, when her relics were exhumed, “her sacred body was discovered whole and intact, emitting an unspeakable fragrance,” whereupon her miraculous relic was placed in the Church of St. Paraskevi; here Argyra’s incorrupt remains have been revered by patriarchs, archbishops and multitudes of Orthodox faithful.  St. Kyrnna of Abyssoka Thessalonica, a young virgin, was also hauled into court by a lustful Muslim Janissary tax collector and his cronies; thereupon she was beaten and jailed in the local fortress. For some seven days she patiently endured beatings inflicted on her by these evil men, though it was against the law for them to be visiting the prison like this; it seems they had the permission of the sadistic Muslim jailer who had also begun to beat her.  Finally, on the night of Feb. 28, 1751, while Kyrnna was hung up against the wall of her cell, “a great light descended like lightning from above, which surrounded the body and filled and illumined the entire jail as if the sun had entered, even though it was only the fourth or fifth hour of the night” [circa 10 or 11 p.m.].  A number of Christians, Jews, and Turks inside the jail witnessed this; a certain Christian man converted the jailer to a deep contriteness of spirit; this same Christian came and took down the miraculously fragrant body of the expired Kyrnna, and, the rumor of the miracle now having spread throughout the town, Christians came and took and buried her relic outside the city. 

 

The father of St. Aquilina of Zagliveri, Thessalonica, once killed a Muslim Turk in rage, and, in fear of death, converted to Islam and received pardon; when Aquilina became a young maiden, at age 18, the Turkish authorities demanded she also become Muslim.  But her pious Christian mother inspired her to keep her heart for Jesus; at this, the local Muslim judge angrily had Aquilina brought in, beaten, tempted, beaten again, and then again, finally letting her be taken back to her anguished mother, in whose arms Aquilina expired that day of September 27, 1764.  St. Zlta of Slatina, Meglena district (near the Serbia-Bulgaria border), was extremely beautiful and virtuous.  She was captured by a lustful young Turk who wanted her to convert to Islam so that he could marry her.  She refused and professed Christ instead.  The man gave her to Muslim women who spent six months trying to convert her.  Zlta’s parents and sisters were warned she would be killed and even they tried to persuade her to convert “for the sake of appearances,” but she would not, saying that Jesus was her true father, Theotokos her mother, and the saints her brothers and sisters. Thereupon the Muslims, so it is said, tortured her viciously for three months, finally en masse stabbing her to death on October 13, 1795.  Up to the last moment, Zlta endured the afflictions with “great nobility.” [110]

 

Among non-martyred Greek Orthodox women saints of recent centuries, I know of only a very few, and, in terms of details, I know the life story of only one—St. Methodia (1865-1908), of tiny Kimolos island in the Cyclades cluster (just north of Milos island)—profiled in a recent work available in English by the Greek hagiographer, Constantine Cavarnos.  Second eldest of eight children to Iakovos and Maria Sardis, young Irene, as she was named, was pure-hearted and devout from childhood.  Though she wanted to become a nun, she acquiesced to her parents’ desire to have her married, and so she wed a seaman.  Some time later, however, he perished in a shipwreck, and Irene, after meditating on her vocation, took up the life for which she was divinely destined, becoming tonsured as a nun, and taking the name “Methodia.”  There was no monastery on the island she could enter, so she chose as her cell of enclosure a small old house next to the Church of the Nativity of Christ at the center of a labyrinthine old fortress, which was no longer inhabited by any of the islanders.  Here Methodia led a deeply contemplative, austere life of “unceasing prayer,” almost complete fasting from animal foods, keeping night-long vigils, sleeping on a hard wood “bed” when she rested, reading holy books, sewing, and going out into the community only when there was a need for her healing ministry.  Many indeed are the miracles of healing wrought through her intercessory prayers and through the power of the “blessed oil” from the sacred lamp in her cell which she would distribute to those in need.  In addition to evidently having attained the state of theosis (God-realization), Methodia also enjoyed a “divine understanding” about people (telepathy and clairvoyance), and the “gift of tears” brought on by her love for God, one of the mystical signs characterizing some of God’s holy ones, a sign indicating a unique kind of spiritual energy moving through this pure-hearted woman who was, as one monk called her, a “treasury of the virtues.”  Whereas on the one hand Methodia did not mix with the townspeople, and was given special permission to attend Mass within the Holy Bema (inner sanctuary), not normally allowable for women, so as to be isolated from the congregation, on the other hand she was a deeply compassionate soul, interested in the bodily and spiritual welfare of her people; when gifts of food or clothing were given to her, she almost immediately gave them to the poor.  Though men were not allowed to enter her cell, she would sometimes speak to a male visitor desiring her wisdom or blessing through the window of her cell; she spent a considerable time with her many women visitors, especially on holidays and Sundays when they did not have to work.  Methodia instructed, comforted, and greatly inspired these women—who then returned to their homes renewed and purified, and empowered to have a most positive effect on their husbands and children.  (One visitor to the island wondered what was the source of the tangible sanctity which pervaded the hearts of the people—he was told that it was all due to the influence of blessed Methodia.)  After her passing at the relatively young age of 43, the island people, including clergy, civic officials, and laypersons, unanimously moved to make Methodia their patron saint, and many pamphlets and books about her pure, powerful, saintly life have been printed throughout the Greek Orthodox world since then. [111]

 

The only other Greek women acclaimed as saints in modern times of whom I have heard any mention are Photini (1860-1928?), a devout hermitess; Xenia (1867-1923), a blind nun and first Abbess of the Holy Trinity Convent founded on Aegina by the much-persecuted St. Nectarios; and Irene Myrtidiotissa (d. 1960), a schema-nun of Chios [a schema nun or monk is one who has mastered the strictest level of monastic practice and wears a special habit].  Again, we would hope that the materials about these and other God-realized souls will come into English translation in the near future so that more people in the Christian world may be edified by the self-transcending spirit of these women.

 

The number of women’s monasteries is steadily increasing in Greece with a number of new convents being built, a sign that the formal religious life for women is still an attractive vocation there.  There are two Greek Orthodox convents in Jerusalem as well, at the Mt. of Olives, one named the Gethsemani Convent, the other the St. Mary Magdalene Convent. [112] 

 

However, there are no convents for Greek Orthodox women in the U.S., suggesting that the “old world” culture is a major factor in preserving a mentality conducive to taking up the nun’s vocation.  Undoubtedly, however, there are many pious and sanctified Greek Orthodox laywomen to be found here as well as in the motherland, whose depth of virtue may not be visible to more than a handful of people.

 

Currently in the Greek Orthodox Church (in Greece and abroad), women may become members of the Clergy-Laity Council, which is the governing body of Church, but they cannot be ordained or undertake any priestly-clerical function.  The women of the monastic orders of Orthodox Christianity, like Sts. Philothei and Methodia, serve and participate in the “traditional” functions of women religious, such as praying, chanting, singing, teaching, nursing, and making vestments, candles, and goods for the church and clergy (these nuns have not undergone any significant “renewal,” such as has happened in the Roman Catholic tradition).  Their lifestyle is cenobitic, i.e., community oriented (Methodia was one of the exceptional women living a quasi-hermit lifestyle).  Some of these Greek Orthodox nuns may be cherished by their local communities or peers as “saints,” but I am aware of only the aforementioned Methodia, Xenia, Photini, and Irene Myrtidiotissa, and no living exemplars at present.  I strongly suspect that there are quite a number of such holy women religious, given the deeply “mystical” orientation which the Orthodox Church has been able to maintain through most of its history.  (For, unlike the Church centered at Rome, which had to adopt the secular, “this-worldly” function after the fall of the Roman Empire to the barbarian invaders in the 5th century, the Orthodox Church has not been constrained to serve as both a secular and religious governing body, and thus has been relatively free to keep a more spiritual focus.)

 

Over in Russia, Orthodox Christians look back to princess Olga (890-969), baptized at age 67, as their first saint, and the one whose influence Christianized that country (especially through her grandson, Vladimir, who achieved the mass conversions).  St. Euphrosyne of Polotsk (d. 1173) was the daughter of the duke of Polotsk in Byelorussia (Belarus, White Russia), and lived the solitary life in her native town from the time of her youth.  She copied books and sold them so as to enable her to carry out a number of charitable works, which included the founding of convents and monasteries.  She died in Jerusalem, after a long pilgrimage, and her body was returned to Kiev, in the Ukraine, for burial. 

 

In the remarkable period of growth of monastic communities in the wilderness outside the Russian cities which arose via the influence of St. Anthony of the Kiev Caves in the Ukraine (d. 1073)—who had ventured down to Mt. Athos in Greece (the monastic center of the Orthodox world) and returned to become the transmitter of Byzantine culture and founder of Russian monasticism—a number of illustrious men and women saints would found monasteries.  The women among these pious souls included the grand-princess and daughter of a Swedish king, St. Anna of Novgorod (d. 1050); St. Charitina, Abbess of Novgorod (d. 1281), the three Abbesses of Pskov—Eupraxia (d. 1243), Martha (d. 1300), and Bassa (d. 1473); and St. Eudocia of Moscow‚ (d. 1407).  Like many of the other God-realized women of Orthodoxy, not much is (yet?) known about these women, except that most of them were masters of that humility, purity, heroic virtue, asceticism and contemplative depth emphasized so strongly by Orthodox Christianity in its path of Christ-like kenosis (self-emptying).  Several of these women also manifested tremendous courage in going out to remote places to set up their foundations, given that Russia was being invaded, ruled, and terrorized by the Tatars from 1237 until the mid 15th century.

 

St. Theodora of Nizhni-Novgorod (d. 1375), spiritual daughter of St. Dionysius of Suzdal (d. 1385), a holy cave-dweller, was blessed by him to start a cenobitic convent in her area, and later took vows therein as a formal religious.  “In her we see the first clear example of a severe female ascetic Saint of the pure Byzantine tradition [such as found at Mt. Athos] in the North.”  A number of women practiced the same kind of Athonite ascetic spirituality at a famous convent in the Vologda region started by St. Dionysius of Glushetsk (d. 1437).  St. Dionysius also painted famous ikons, one of which was given to the Monastery of the Seven Hills.  When this monastery became deserted after a plague, we are told by Herman, one of the monks of the St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood in the U.S.:

“The most Holy Mother of God appeared in a dream to a righteous nun in a Moscow convent, Juliana of the Belozersk family, who had lain paralyzed for three years, promising her healing if she would go to the Seven Hills Monastery and rebuild the church there.  This the Blessed Juliana promised, was miraculously healed, and went north and found the deserted monastry and the wondrous [miracle-working] ikon [of Mary] painted by St. Dionysius.  In the midst of the total desolation, she built herself a tiny cell next to the church and thus refounded the convent, which existed for many centuries and became a seedbed of the spiritual tradition received through St. Dionysius.  Later another Saint shone forth there, the Blessed Nun Mariamna (d. 1643). Other convents became renowned in the Northern Thebaid [i.e., Russia; the Thebaid was originally a region in upper Egypt made famous by the Desert Christians].  In the vicinity of the St. Cyril of White Lake Monastery, following the tradition of this Saint, a convent was founded at Goritsy on a river bank by the noblewoman Eudocia in 1544; it became a Lavra [anchorite colony] for women in the North where many holy and renowned women worked out their salvation right up to Soviet times [when it was probably destroyed].

      “In Vologda, the Holy Nun Domnicia founded in 1560 the famous Dormition Convent... In Solvychegodsk, the Holy Virgin Juliana, refusing to accede to the unclean desire of a pagan, was drowned in the river, where the Ulianovsky convent was soon built, with her as its patron. In the Arctic territory of Archangelsk, a Holy Trinity Convent was founded in 1604.  In 1664, the Righteous Abbess Martha, who was known personally by Tsar Alexis Michailovich Romanov, turned it into a blossoming monastic citadel for women in the utmost North. In Old Ladoga near Valaam, the renowned Dormition Convent existed from the 15th century.  After being destroyed by the Swedes, it was rebuilt in 1617 and became one of northern Russia’s most important contemplative centers, where later there shone forth the great Abbess Eupraxia...” [113]

 

Brother Herman has painted a vivid picture of the lifestyles of the women religious of these times:

“They would settle by twos and threes in humble abodes, often abandoned cabins, in forlorn areas, near churches on the outskirts of town, or near cemeteries.  They would provide themselves with God-pleasing deeds:  reading the Psalter over the dead, baking prosphora [holy bread], painting icons, making candles, or mending; they would remain in silence while one sister would read soul-profiting texts from the Lives of Saints or the Holy Fathers, or they would chant canons, akathists, or ‘psalms’ (religious songs), shedding tears of contrition and repentance. ...

      “Their cells would consist of a one-room cabin with anterooms.  It would have an iconostasis or icon-corner, before which vigil lamps would be burning at all times, and an analogion with all the books necessary for the indispensable reading of the daily cycle of services.  There would be the smell of incense and home-made bread, a hooked runner rug, flowerpots on the wide window sills, neatness, and a reigning quietness—all this would add to the warmth of a typical cell of the ‘God-workers.’  Here the all-night vigils would frequently be conducted, and a devout, God-fearing eldress would console suffering hearts with words of contrition, softer than oil.

      “The whole touching atmosphere of these “workers for God” spoke of deep warmth, simplicity, and inward tranquility and peace with God and His transfigured world.  This was the most popular and beloved way in which living Orthodox piety was disseminated among the people throughout Russia.” [114]

 

Many mothers of Russian Orthodox saints have been venerated for their holiness, as described to us by the same Brother Herman (whose article on “Women of Holy Russia” informs so much of this section):

“The primary duty which the Church lays upon woman is not merely the rearing of children, but, more importantly, the breathing into them of the sacred fragrance of humility and meekness of heart, which seals the spiritual bond between Christ and the child from infancy onward.  This is no easy task, and never was. ...

      “The mother of St. Sergius of Radonezh was St. Maria, nun of Khotkov‚ (d. 1337); of St. Alexander of Svir, St. Barbara, nun of Oyat‚ (d. 1500); of St. Macarius of Kolyazin, St. Irene of Kozhin (d. 15th century...); of St. Philip, Metropolitan of Moscow and monk of Solovki, St. Barsanuphia, schema-nun of Moscow‚ [remember that a schema nun or monk wears the special habit with a cowl signifying mastery of the strictest level of monastic lifestyle]; the mothers of the fools-for-Christ of the North, Sts. Nicholas Kochanov and John of Ustiug, were the Righteous Juliana (d.1384) and Abbess Natalia; and there were others.  The sister of St. Artemius of Verkola was the blessed Parasceva of Pirimin, venerated locally as a Saint.  The widely-venerated St. Juliana of Murom (d. 1604...), who raised many children and grandchildren, was a desert-dweller at heart [i.e., one who perfectly maintained that inner stillness, or hesychia].” [115]

 

Holy mothers of other Orthodox saints have also been venerated as saints themselves, like Martha, mother of St. Symeon Stylites (c.390-459), Anna, mother of St. Sabbas, patron of the Serbian people (1175-1235), and Nonna, mother of the Greek Orthodox developer of hesychasm, St. Gregory Palamas (c.1296-1359). 

 

Perhaps as a result of even more mothers like these, numerous Russian children became saints during that period of ascetic fervor, their degree of spiritual perfection attested to by a number of postmortem miracles.  St. Glyceria of Novgorod (d. 1522) was the most notable female exemplar of this type of youthful holiness.  St. Artemius of Verkola (on the Pinega River) (1532-44) was a very holy young boy who at age 12 was struck dead by a lightning storm; the villagers, thinking God to be angry at him, left him unburied in a forest.  His sister, St. Parasceva, grew up to become a devout young lady; 32 years after the death of her brother, his incorrupt remains were found, which occasioned a number of miracles.  Parasceva was also sought out for her sanctity, but to avoid pride, she fled the world, becoming a recluse.  In 1610, the fragrant relics of a virgin were discovered in a church to St. George in the region, and around that time Parasceva appeared in a vision to a man, telling him to inform the people to come to this church, pray to St. George and herself, and receive healings.  By the glory of God, such cures began to happen.

 

St. Dorothy of Kashin (north of Moscow) was born in 1549, a time of relative peace, and made her transition in 1629, also a time of peace, “but her whole life, beginning when she was twelve years old, passed in the midst of the most frightful conditions of rebellion, anarchy, famine, plague, and foreign invasion.”  Evidently of noble blood, she married and bore a son, but in later years her husband was killed on the battlefield during the invasion by the Poles and Lithuanians in the early 1600s. Seeking out the religious life of prayer and contemplation, Dorothy discovered in the heavily-forested area around Kashin the ruins of the Convent of the Meeting of the Lord, established a few centuries earlier by the miracle-working nun, St. Anna of Kashin (d. 1368).  Here Dorothy fashioned a small cell, installing therein a Marian ikon she had discovered among the ashes, an ikon which later became renowned for its being a medium of great healing powers.  All the possessions and money Dorothy gained from her husband she used either to restore the convent or to aid the needy who lived in the region, keeping nothing for herself.  The little food she ate was apparently given to her by the people whom she succoured with her kindnesses.  Soon after Dorothy had taken up this outwardly severe lifestyle, inwardly rich with God’s Grace, a number of other devout women joined her.  These women wished to make her the abbess of the resurrected monastery, but Dorothy adamantly refused, and lived out her last twenty years as a simple nun, radiant with holiness.  Many miracles have been wrought at her grave.  And two centuries later, Dorothy would grace Abbess Antonia of this monastery with a number of inspiring appearances, strongly suggesting that the spirit is indeed deathless.  This Abbess Antonia Mezentsova (d. 1875) had been a nun at a convent in Suzdal, where she cherished the memory of the miracle-worker foundress, St. Sophia-Solomonia (d. 1542; the wife of Prince John IV).  Coming to the Convent of the Meeting in 1839, she was awakened out of a period of trials and depression with a joy-infusing vision of St. Dorothy; when she became Abbess, Antonia helped renew the veneration of St. Dorothy, and perhaps as a result of this, Dorothy was often seen around the grounds by various nuns, and worked many miracles on their behalf.  St. Anna of Kashin also would appear to Antonia, telling her who among the sisters ought to be tonsured into the great schema-habit and even where the ancient schemas were to be found. [116]

 

The 17th and 18th centuries had been a dark time for religious in Russia, given that a strong secular humanism had arisen, and certain officials were persecuting the monasteries.  (Down in Georgia at that time, Queen Ketevan, the mother of Teimuray [ruler of eastern Georgia], became a martyr-saint for Orthodoxy when she was killed in 1624 by the Muslim Shah ‘Abbas of Persia at Shiraú for trying to maintain her faith. [117])

 

The mid-18th and 19th centuries would see a remarkable resurgence of ascetic piety in Russia under Catherine the Great, even when there were pockets of oppression.  The “Royal Recluse” Dosithea of Moscow (d. 1810) was evidently Princess Augusta Tarakanova, Empress Elizabeth’s daughter. Forcibly tonsured by Empress Catherine II, Dosithea took up the reclusive ascetic life in Ivanov Monastery in Moscow, where a novice who would later become the famous Archimandrite Moses of the celebrated Optina hermitage would come to her to hear spiritual instructions.  Other great female anchorites from this period included the aforementioned Abbess Eupraxia of Old Ladoga (d. 1823), friend of Sts. Sergius and Herman of Valaam, and St. Alexander of Svir; also, Blessed Mary the Cave-digger (d. 1822) of the White Mountain Monastery near Voronezh; recluse Righteous Melania of Eletú and Zadonsk (d. 1836), and cave-dweller Anastasia Logacheva (d. 1875). 

 

During this same period, three women stand out in the circles around the highly influential male staretzy (elders/guides) of their day:  schema-abbess Martha (Maria Petrovna Protasieva) (d. 1813; incorrupt), disciple of St. Paisius Velichkovsky; Blessed Helen of Arzamass (d. 1820), a “fool-for-Christ” disciple of the saintly abbot Nazarius of Valaam; and Blessed Matrona Popova (d. 1851), disciple of St. Tikhon of Zadonsk. [118]

 

A number of holy nuns flourished under the direction of those spiritual giants, St. Seraphim of Sarov (1759-1833), and St. Amvrosy Grenkov (1812-91)—both of whom dearly loved their nuns.  Staretz Amvrosy was especially concerned to found convents in Orel, Poltava, Saratov, and Voronezh districts, and the famous convent at Shamordino in Kozelsk, which would accomodate lower-class women who had no dowry to give to their convents and would thus not be able to gain entry to most of the convents.  Staretú Amvrosy’s convents often also admitted the blind, lame and ill, another unusual practice among convents.  Curiously, Amvrosy even spent the last weeks of his life, not at his monastery at the famous Optina Pustyn, but cared for by the nuns at nearby Shamordino—a “scandalous” choice which shocked a number of monks and bishops.  Abbess Sofia Mikhailovna became a nun under St. Amvrosy’s spiritual direction and wound up being appointed by him as head of his Shamordino convent.  She “seems to have been an extraordinary woman in many respects”—but she was afflicted with frail health and her tireless work occasioned an early passing in 1888. [119]

 

Regarding St. Seraphim, it turns out that the “Elder Dositheus” (1721-76) who lived the ascetic life in Kiev and blessed St. Seraphim to go to Sarov to embrace monasticism and who instructed him in the Jesus prayer and remembrance of God was actually a woman, “known in the world as Daria Tyapkina, of a noble family in the Riazan Province.  Due to the circumstances of the time she was forced to dress as a monk and hide in a cave near Kitaev Hermitage.  The devout Empress Elizabeth Petrovna personally visited her and ordered that she be tonsured—in other words, she legalized her existence [as a nun].  Elder Dositheus kept her secret until the end of her life.” [120]

 

A number of especially remarkable “heroines of the spirit” were connected with St. Seraphim after he re-located to Sarov:  Abbess Alexandria (d. 1789) was the wealthy foundress and saintly director of the Diveyevo Convent, not too distant from Sarov, where many of the nuns, especially the younger ones, grew into considerable sanctity under their Abbess’ and Fr. Seraphim’s direction.  Helen Manturov (b. 1805) was a young virgin who persevered through Seraphim’s testing to become a deeply contemplative nun (he had repeatedly told her she was going to get married—not making it explicit that she was to wed Christ); Seraphim later appointed her as superioress of the new “Community of the Mill” for young virgins which he founded at Diveyevo (set beside a miraculous spring of water he created), but Helen refused, out of humility; nevertheless, this passionate, brilliant, extremely generous woman (she would give her sisters “everything that her friends sent her, depriving herself even of necessities”) became the de facto spiritual director of the community until her death, the young virgins flocking to her for their spiritual education.  (Like many of the women from this period, Helen might have been canonized by this time had not the proceedings of the Russian Orthodox Church been so gruesomely interrupted by the communists.)  Sister Mary Meliukov (c.1810-29) was welcomed by Seraphim into the novice’s life at Diveyevo when only 13 years old; here the sisters called her “the child from God” for her humility, austerity and purity.  Mary used to go to Sarov to see her spiritual father, who allowed her to experience secret revelations in the spiritual life, which she never shared (they were perhaps akin to the four-hour-long vision of Mother Mary and of the saints which Sister Eudoxia experienced with him one day in his cell).  Mary died at the tender age of 19 while working tirelessly on a new church for the community (Seraphim, who had clairvoyantly seen her passing, remarked that “Mary is in paradise close to the Holy Trinity,” and asked that she be buried in the “schema” monastic habit, signifying the highest mastery of monastic observance, and that she be renamed “schema-nun Martha”).  Blessed Athanasia Logachev (d. 1815) was another spiritual daughter of St. Seraphim, renowned for her piety.  (A biography of her exists in English translation, already out of print and currently being prepared for re-issue.) 

 

In 1837, four years after Seraphim’s “passing” (he had said that he would always be living and available to anyone who called on him), a very remarkable yurodivy, or “fool-for-God,” the Blessed Pelagia Ivanovna Serebrenikova (1809-84), came to stay at a cell in Diveyevo, where she lived the last 47 years of her life as the highly eccentric, and later much beloved, “mother” to the community of nuns.  The story of “Pelagia the Fool” is so fascinating and profound that we must take some pages here to relate it at greater length, and I have added even more details and context in the chapter on Pelagia for my book Women of Power & Grace. At the outset I would diverge to say that sometimes it is hard to discern, when we encounter tales of spiritual adepts in the “crazy wisdom” tradition (be they Russian or Greek Orthodox, Catholic, Tibetan or Zen Buddhist, Sūfī or Hindu) whether the madness of these saints is deliberate or not.  Often it is completely feigned, so as to make the saint an object of contempt, scorn and ridicule in the eyes of others—for this seems to be the best way to test whether one has learned that true humility and freedom from attachment even to one’s own good name and reputation, perhaps the hardest and “final” lesson to learn in spirituality. However, sometimes the madness seems involuntary—and the cause is either due to bizarre circumstances in the saint’s earlier life, perhaps involving a genetic component, or else the reason for the madness is that some kind of powerful God-realization has dawned in the heart-mind of the saint, rendering the saint’s perception and behavior quite unconventional by the rest of society’s standards of “sanity”—which the saints often see as being quite insane anyway!  It could be that such “madness” is the result of these saints “lucidly dreaming” this grand play of a world, which is appearing in the mind of God as a kind of cosmic dream.  In Pelagia’s case, it is most difficult to tell just what the source of this madness might have been. Born in Arzamass in 1809, she and her three siblings suffered an unhappy childhood with a new stepfather and step-siblings.  Her mother reported years later that something very strange once happened to Pelagia at a young age (unfortunately, we do not know the exact year):  having fallen ill, and lying in bed for some days, Pelagia finally got up,

“…not looking at all like herself.  From being an exceptionally intelligent child, she turned into some kind of fool.  She used to go out into the garden; she would lift up her skirt, and stand and spin around on one foot as though she were dancing [perhaps she was influenced by a past-life as a “God-intoxicated” Mevlana Sūfī dervish!].  We tried to tell her not to do this; we scolded her and even beat her, but nothing would help.  And so we left her alone.”

 

Of course, our minds can work overtime here theorizing what happened to this “exceptionally intelligent” child:  the conventional psychiatric approach would be that Pelagia suffered some kind of organic damage to the brain during her illness which subsequently affected her behavior; a psychologist might say that Pelagia’s personality changed due to the severe psychological and physical trauma induced by her trying circumstances; a psychic might say that perhaps Pelagia’s body was taken over by a new, “walk-in” personality in a case of acute “spirit-possession”; in a bracketed note above I have suggested that her dancing behavior might indicate a spontaneous bursting forth of the personality of a previous lifetime (which Pelagia might have inherited) as a Mevlevi whirling Sūfī dervish.  Or we might simply wish to say that the Divine Mind inherent in all creatures had stepped in with a kind of “pattern interrupt” and gifted Pelagia with her true life vocation—a “fool-for-God.”  In any case, Pelagia grew up to be “a tall, beautiful woman, with unusual lively and shining eyes,” and finally a suitor, Sergei Vasilievich, took her to be his wife in 1828, in spite of her apparent craziness (such as watering the flowers on her dress with her tea the day they met!).  Soon afterwards, the young couple visited St. Seraphim at Sarov; the latter dismissed the young man and his mother, taking Pelagia to his cell, talking and praying with her in secret for many hours, as he did with a few of his especially promising and/or “ripe” disciples.  Later, when they emerged, Seraphim bowed low to Pelagia and entreated, “Go, go, Matushka [“Mother”—usually used to refer to an Abbess], go to Diveyevo.  Take care of my orphans.  Many will be saved through you, and you will be a light to the world.”  This significant interchange, like many elements in Pelagia’s life, strongly suggests that Pelagia was not “just crazy,” but was a different kind of soul altogether, for Seraphim was a most discerning old staretz (wise man), able to read the hearts of anyone he encountered, an astute judge of human character.

 

Thereafter, Pelagia learned the widespread Jesus Prayer (“Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me...”) from one Paraskeva Ivanovna, and began, according to her neighbor who witnessed everything, to spend whole nights kneeling in prayer.  Pelagia also adopted even more strongly the “foolish behaviors” which would bring upon her head the ridicule of the locals as well as many severe beatings, starvings and virtual imprisonments from the exasperated Sergei.  Two sons were born to her; both of them died young.  When her daughter was born, Pelagia took the baby to her own mother, saying, “You gave me away [i.e., in marriage to Sergei], and now you can take care of her.  I’m not coming home anymore.”  Pelagia thereupon began to run around to various churches, receiving alms, and giving them to the poor or lighting candles in the churches for the welfare of all souls. Sergei caught her, delivered more beatings, and finally took her to the mayor and police, who beat her to a bloody pulp, all of which she bore in silence. The next night the mayor had an ominous dream telling him that Pelagia was not to be harmed, so he began to spread the word accordingly to the townsfolk. Pelagia seemed to improve after her husband took her to the Great Lavra monastery in Kiev, in the Ukraine, but when Sergei returned home he found that his wife, whom he had trusted to return ahead of him, had given away all their possessions!  At this, Sergei bound her to the wall of their house with an iron chain; Pelagia would escape, running through the streets half-naked, scaring the locals, who would neither take her in nor help her; finally, Sergei would get her, take her back, and beat her severely.  And so it went.  (Later in life she confessed that he had broken all her ribs during those early years). 

 

Sergei finally disowned Pelagia and she was returned to the home of her stepfather, where he, too, chronically beat her.  Moreover, the friend of Pelagia’s stepsister tried to kill her, but missed. Pelagia’s family brought her to visit the holy man, Archbishop Anthony of Voronezh, who spoke with Pelagia—but not with her companions—for three full hours.  He referred her again to St. Seraphim, and so Pelagia’s mother took her to see the old staretz of Sarov.  Seraphim warned Pelagia’s mother not to punish or obstruct her, but to be kind to her, lest the family incur punishment from God.  Her biographer notes:

 

“Having gained her freedom, [Pelagia] spent her nights almost completely in the churchyard of the Napolny Arzamass Church.  She was seen there praying to God with sighs and tears all night under the open sky, with her hands lifted on high.  But during the day she played the role of a fool, and, covered with rags, ran about the streets, shouted, and went about without even a piece of bread, hungry and cold.  In this manner, four years [1833-7] went by and she did not stop visiting her teacher, the fool for Christ, Paraskeva, the very one who from the beginning had taught her the unceasing Prayer of Jesus.”

 

Pelagia’s mother continued to try to place her daughter within a convent or home, but without success.  Finally, some nuns visiting the area from Diveyevo adopted Pelagia and brought her to the convent, where a rather hard-hearted girl was assigned by the Abbess to look after Pelagia.  Pelagia’s continued her crazy behaviors (running about, carrying large stones around, throwing smaller stones about, beating head and hands against the walls, handling manure, going about barefoot, purposely standing on nails until they penetrated through her feet) and she would often be harshly beaten by the girl.  Yet Pelagia, according to one eyewitness, “not only did not complain about this, but rather rejoiced at such a life.”  She also spent much time in a corner of the watch tower, engaged in the Jesus Prayer.  She ate only bread and water, and, never going to the canteen, she often begged her bread from the sisters in their cells.  After two years, the Abbess passed away and her compassionate daughter, Matushka [Abbess] Irene Prokofievna Kochalova, became head of the community.  Pelagia was then put under the care of a new girl, but this time it was Pelagia who began to beat the girl!—and therefore Anna Gerasimovna, whom Pelagia had taken to her heart the first day at Diveyevo, was finally put in charge of the “mad one,” whereupon Pelagia lavished affection upon her and promised obedience.  And so it was that Pelagia, Anna, and eldress Juliana Grigorievna began to dwell together in a medium-sized wooden cell on the periphery of the Diveyevo community (Juliana would pass away not too long afterward, and then it would be just Anna and Pelagia, with an occasional other attendant, living in the cell). 

 

Though Pelagia continued to do bizarre, uncouth, mysterious things, Anna—Pelagia’s lifelong witness and biographer—reports “she never did anything without a meaning” ... though such deeper meanings would often only come to light—if they ever did at all—much, much later.  After doing one of her favorite activities during the day—throwing stones and bricks into a muddy hole, Pelagia would then go back to her cell, completely drenched and muddy, and spend the entire night sitting in the same corner under an ikon of the Virgin Mary, immersed in ardent prayer and copious tears for God.  Sometimes Pelagia beat herself mercilessly until she bled.  This lovely yet strange woman used to love to run about hither and thither.  At one point, she was often running over to the nearby village to spend time at the tavern at night—for which people thought she was just a drunk.  But one night at a late hour Pelagia suddenly burst out and surprised the proprietor in the act of going off to his room to kill his wife, something he had been contemplating for some time; Pelagia shouted at him, “What are you doing?  Come to yourself, mindless one!” and thus the truth came out that Pelagia was clairvoyant.  This began to mark a change in people’s attitudes toward her; “they stopped judging her and began to honor her.”  (As another example of her clairvoyance, in 1848 she clearly saw at a distance that Sergei was dying, and painfully, empathically began to mimic his final death agony.) 

 

Prophecy also was Pelagia’s gift, manifested in such instances as when she predicted the death of her step-sister’s infant girl, and knew the fates of various abbesses at Diveyevo, and Pelagia always knew beforehand when some of her relatives were coming to visit her (they had not visited her for seven years, but then finally, perhaps more out of fear at her thaumaturgical powers, began to come occasionally, also giving her and Anna a few necessities to live on, for by now, with the death of their cell-mate Juliana, they were quite impoverished). 

 

There was no predicting how Pelagia would act.  She could be “quite quarrelsome” with Anna and others, yet also let some of the more suspicious, unaccepting novices or nuns be mean to her.  Pelagia would not have a door on the cell, regardless of the weather, and usually slept and sat on the floor near the entry to the cell, “so that those passing by often stepped on her [“crushing her feet”] or spilled water on her, which obviously gave her pleasure.”  These same mean-spirited persons would condemn her but Pelagia “loved such ones especially and in every way tried to repay their evil with good.”  Anna reports that once Pelagia’s hair caught on fire because someone had been careless near her, but Pelagia just kept silence. 

 

“You could humiliate her, revile her, curse her to her face, but she would still be happy and smile.  ‘After all,’ she would say, ‘I’m completely out of my mind, crazy.’ And if someone would praise her or give her the due praise for her clairvoyance or call her holy or righteous, she would begin trembling greatly.  She could not bear honor, but on the contrary, she loved abuses more than anything.”

 

From time to time, a certain male fool-for-Christ would visit, one Theodore Mikhailovich Solovyov, also known to be a clairvoyant and, as Anna describes it, his and Pelagia’s mutual “foolish” behaviors would become downright frightening, chasing and beating each other with sticks, shouting at each other, babbling at each other, violating fast days.  Pelagia would “do battle” with other visitors, not just with some of the other “holy fools” who visited, but even with more respected figures, such as the esteemed church official, the Venerable Vladyka Nectary, whom she slapped in front of everyone one time when he tried to appoint the “wrong” person when another abbess was needed.  Vladyka not only obeyed her, he began to revere Pelagia for her courageous, faithful adherence to her own inner Divine Guidance. 

 

After this time, Pelagia lost her interest in stones and sticks and instead became interested, even obsessed with, the flowers in the garden belonging to the new abbess, Matushka “Maria” Elizabeth Alexeyevna (with whom there was a deep mutual affection their entire lives).  She would carry about and then sit and sort out huge amounts of flowers at one time.  At night, she hardly slept, either standing and praying constantly under her pictures of St. Seraphim and the Abbess, or else spending whole nights out in horrible snowstorms wearing nothing but her sarafan (a long, sleeveless gown), though this outdoor nighttime activity ceased after one particularly severe wintry night when she almost froze to death.  There were further marks of Pelagia’s “eccentricity”:  she never cut her finger nails, and never went to the bath.  She allowed cockroaches to crawl on her and would not kill them, nor allow anyone else to kill them.  And the chains with which Sergei had once confined her she now would employ as a pillow, or use occasionally to chain herself up!  Pelagia would sometimes tremble with great joy over seeing good persons; she also had that “gift of tears” characteristic of many saints in different devotional traditions.  Toward the end of her life, especially, she would weep copious tears over the turmoil and corruption in the nation, her eyes sometimes becoming festered and diseased from such lengthy crying spells.      

 

Pelagia rarely went to confession, once saying “Father Seraphim gave me absolution for the rest of my life”; moreover, she never went to Seraphim’s tomb—”Why should I, since he is always here with us.”  In seeming proof of this, one night in 1882 Anna saw a clearcut vision of Seraphim and other celestial figures coming to visit Pelagia and administer the sacraments to her.  In 1884 a long conversation was held between Pelagia and Seraphim, witnessed by Anna.  There are many other tales of heavenly visitors, though Pelagia was insistent that her witnesses not tell anyone about these things while she was still alive.  Once a sister saw an angel of God giving Pelagia the Holy Communion bread, shortly after this same sister had wondered why Pelagia never received the sacrament at the convent church.  One of Pelagia’s occasional cell-attendants, Pelagia Gavrilovna, recalled in later years:

 

“Thirty years ago, I awoke during the night and suddenly I saw an angel of God fly in, take her and disappear in the sky, and then again bring her back. [Was this an alien abduction?] And Pelagia Ivanovna was lying on the floor by the oven; her face was bright and joyful. I went to her and said, “Matushka, what did I see?”  “Quiet, quiet, tell no one about it!” she answered.

 

All these austerities and wonders began to render Pelagia an attractive figure to many of the Diveyevo nuns, and many of them changed their attitude toward her, respecting her rather than thinking ill of her. Many nuns and a number of outsiders began coming to her cell for her counsels and prophecies, or to simply bask in her powerful, if often inscrutable, spiritual presence. 

 

The miraculous abilities given to Pelagia were awesome, including, as we have already learned, clairvoyance and prophecy, especially regarding the matter of when people were going to die.  She also knew people’s hearts. “Everything was known to her.”  (For instance, once a priest came to her in her last days to hear her confession and give her communion; but Pelagia began accurately telling his confession when he attempted to hear hers!—whereupon he and others revered her for her Divinely-given gifts.)  So important did her “motherly” status in the community become that the Abbess deferred to her on all important decisions:  “nothing was done without her.” Pelagia’s healing gifts were also considerable, though her “treatment” methods were bizarre, as might be expected; sometimes she would run up to someone and hit them on the afflicted spot and it would instantly be cured! Pelagia once put out a fire at a distant village in response to the urgent prayers of a woman there by suddenly jumping up with her cup of tea and, going outside, pouring it on the ground in the direction of that village. 

 

Many other such tales could be told.  And because of these things, and the conviction that she was helping people’s spiritual unfoldment, either through her terse counsels or through her invisible influence, pilgrims were coming to her, especially in her latter years, from as far away as 400 miles, crowding into her quarters.  They would put up with all Pelagia’s “eccentricities” in hopes of receiving some bit of advice or a powerful blessing from this amazing woman.  While Pelagia could be quite kind and solicitous toward those who were sincere, “whoever came only out of curiosity or with nothing to do she would drive away, shove them and even beat them and say, “Jackdaw, jackdaw!”  Even with kindly folk, some Pelagia would ignore, some she would counsel and console.  Anna claims that, what with the pilgrims and convent sisters coming to her, “there was no respite.”  Pelagia took no money, but sometimes would accept people’s offerings of food, sweets, flowers, and other articles, putting them all into the “storehouse”-sack around her neck until it was this huge appendage.

 

Five years before her passing, Pelagia became severely ill.  Though she somehow recovered, she grew visibly weaker from year to year.  Toward the end of her earthly existence, she consoled Anna, “Don’t cry; whoever remembers me, I will remember... I shall be more use in heaven than on earth.”  On January 11, 1884, in her 75th year, Pelagia complained of her head hurting and a moment later she suddenly collapsed.  Later that day she frequently kissed her attendants at her bedside; in a few days she raised herself up and went over to the nearby convent and started bowing at everyone’s feet, kissing their hands, and showing her gratitude to all of them.  During these days her demeanor was entirely joyous; she would make the sign of the Cross on all who came to see her.

 

On the evening of January 29, after experiencing high fever and visions of demons and finally of Mother Mary, staretz Pelagia Ivanovna Serebrenikova, the utterly self-effaced “fool-for-God,” dropped her head onto the pillow and expired.  A huge wave of appreciation swelled up in appreciation for this unusual spiritual mother of Russia, and many thousands of people venerated her with countless memorial services.  At the funeral nine days after her passing, Pelagia’s former body shone with an unearthly radiance, and the hands “were just as flexible, soft and warm as though she were alive.”  All the sisters and many laity “felt that they were parting with their own mother.”  And through the grace of God, numerous postmortem visions and dreams were experienced by various nuns, in confirmation of the idea that their beloved Pelagia was indeed still watching over them, guiding them Godward.

 

A spiritual “protégé” of Pelagia’s was Pasha the Fool (Parascovia Ivanovna) (d. 1915), who succeeded Pelagia as the Diveyevo community’s leading “psychic guardian” and female staretz—”without whose advice nothing was ever undertaken in that monastic community.”  Six years before Pelagia’s passing, Pasha the Fool was initiated more deeply by Pelagia “into the mysteries of their common vocation”—probably meaning the ways of healing, rophecy, pclairvoyance and the like, and the path of utter self-effacement through the performance of “crazy” behaviors guaranteed to bring upon one’s head wrath and scorn.  Pasha a while later visited Diveyevo with some dolls in her hands (evidently symbolizing the spiritual daughters at the convent whom she was destined “watch over”) but Pelagia told her the time was “not yet ripe.”  Eventually Pasha began to visit more regularly, and, one year before Pelagia’s passing, began to reside in Pelagia’s and Anna’s cell. Pasha, who was also called “our mother” by the Diveyevo sisters, lived more than a hundred years, dying shortly before the 1917 Revolution.  She had foretold the Revolution to Tsar Nicholas II in 1903 when he visited the holy convent.  (Unfortunately, the communists utterly have destroyed and/or sacrilegiously degraded the cells and burial sites of these two saintly women, as well as destroying the churches in Sarov and Diveyevo.  Yet, as we shall see, the Diveyevo community is open again today, and the memory of these two women is undoubtedly being perpetuated with great reverence.) [121]

 

Other women celebrated as yurodivye (“fools-of-God,” “fools-for-Christ”) in the Russian Orthodox tradition include Anastasia Andreyevna (n.d.), Elizabeth the Wanderer (n.d.), the earlier-mentioned Helen of Arzamass (d. 1820), and, two hundred years ago, the most famous yurodivy of the 18th century, St. Xenia of St. Petersburg, “a wonderworker both before and after her repose, whose miraculous intercession for people has only increased during the Soviet era.”  Because of her great popularity, the story of Xenia Grigorievna deserves telling...  Born somewhere between 1725-35, after her husband’s sudden death when she was 26, this childless widow of the “lesser nobility” class evidently had a profound realization of the transiency of all things and the vanity of the world; she began to give away all her money and possessions to the poor and to her friends, keeping absolutely nothing, deciding instead to “grow rich in God.”  Her relatives, thinking her crazy, had her examined, but she was found to be of sound mind.  Then she fled the St. Petersburg area and is said to have “lived at some hermitage with a sisterhood of holy ascetics, learning about prayer and the spiritual life from an elder”—and also adopting the vocation of a “fool-for-Christ,” who is moved by Divine guidance to take up the unconventional, crazy-appearing lifestyle of one completely surrendered to God in all things.  Xenia eventually returned to St. Petersburg, dwelling mainly in the impoverished St. Matthias parish of the Storona section, inexplicably dressing up in one of her deceased husband’s old uniforms and answering only to his name (it was thought that she was vicariously bearing the burden of his sins, for he had died at a drinking party without being “in a state of grace”).  When the old uniform wore out, she dressed in rags of the same colors, green and red.  Xenia equanimiously bore all the ridicule and tormenting which came her way, especially from the street urchins.  When people began to notice that her remarkable prophecies, and clairvoyant-sounding statements were coming true, and that she had a healing touch, many of the citizens began to receive her into their home.  Women would bring their children to Xenia for blessing and healing whenever she approached; merchants would rush out to meet her, wanting her to touch some of their goods so that their businesses would prosper.  Cabmen wanted her to sit in their cabs or take a brief ride, for the same reason.  She exuded the all-accomplishing power of the Holy Spirit—and the locals knew it and loved her for this service she was rendering them.  They also learned to accept her strange behaviors, some of them very strange indeed, such as her not infrequent leaping up and rushing off from a well-wisher’s house, waving her stick in the air in protest when begged to stay, simply saying, “I must hurry, I am needed there”; or her incessant weeping several weeks before the murder of former emperor Ivan VI Antonovich; or her sadly urging everyone to bake blinys (memorial breads) several days before the deaths of Empress Elisabeth Petrovna and Empress Catherine II.  Xenia was otherwise a very cheerful, radiant woman, and full of compassion.  As one biographer notes “The Blessed One was always ready to help anyone in anyway possible.  During the day she would wander about the streets, her face reflecting her internal spirit of meekness, humility, and kindness by its warm, friendly glow.  At night, in all seasons, she would go into an [open] field and enter into conversation with God Himself,” praying and making prostrations in the four directions—regardless of the season or the weather.  How she survived the severe winters of St. Petersburg, no one knows.  In 1794, a new church was being built in the Smolensk Cemetery, but workers began to wonder how the mounds of brick needed for each day’s work were mysteriously appearing each morning on the top of the building—it was soon discovered that Xenia was doing this work by herself in the middle of the night.  After predicting her own bodily repose, and saying farewells to her friends, Xenia finally passed on into the Light at the age of 71, sometime between 1796-1806.  She was found in the cemetery, sitting under a tree.  The dozens of deeply moving tales of miracles wrought through Matushka Xenia’s postmortem intercession (in some cases accompanied by her loving appearance in subtle-body form to those in need) have, despite her not yet having been canonized, given her “a popularity exceeding by far that of most canonized saints,” a popularity which includes many non-Russians.  The Soviet authorities in 1963 closed up the chapel to Bl. Xenia next to the Church of the Smolensk Mother of God, but this did not stop a steady stream of devout pilgrims, who all these years have continued to come and sit outside the chapel, praying and singing hymns and asking for Xenia’s help in various matters, help which has frequently, miraculously been granted. [122]

 

Another lovely little biography translated into English tells of Maria of Olonets (1820s-1860) who was born in answer to the prayers of a pious, childless couple of Peredino, in the Novgorod region, with the help of the prayers of some elder monks.  Young Maria, who would be followed by four other siblings, was an especially devout, quiet, hard-working, detached little girl, fond of contemplating nature, hearing the tales of the illustrious Greek and Russian anchorites of the past, and meeting some of the holy elders who lived in her own day in the thick Russian forests. Noticing her spiritual orientation, her father and certain elders (including her pious uncle, Fr. Isaiah-Ignatius, founder of St. Nicephorus Monastery on Vazhe Lake in Olonets) arranged for Maria to learn how to read the sacred texts; she mastered these, also staying up late into the night to read the lives of saints, often keeping prayer vigils the rest of the night, and eating very little during the days, in emulation of the great men and women of God.  Maria was so devout that her parents would not even discuss marriage for her in her presence, realizing that she was more like an angel in human form.  Though she visited a few women’s monasteries from time to time for retreats, Maria did not think much of the caliber of spirituality going on in them, and so continued to live a simple life at her parents’ home, caring for them, doing chores, and immersing herself in prayer.  Eventually they passed away (within a year of each other), and Maria, accompanied by a serf slightly older than herself named Anna (who would later be known as Anastasia of Padan), set out for the Olonets region, where they both lived together for three years as hermitesses in a primitive, seven-square-foot hut in a remote part of the forest near the St. Nicephorus Hermitage founded by Maria’s uncle, 70 miles from Piotrzavodsk.  Their lifestyle was characterized by severe austerity and much prayer and holy reading (Maria was specifically involved in inward, unceasing repetition of the Jesus prayer.)  After this period of shared living, the two women took up the life of solitaries.  During this time, Maria encountered terrifying demonic apparitions which tested her equanimity.  Somewhere around the mid-1850s, local politics forced the two to leave the area (Maria’s hut was burned down), and Maria, accompanied by her younger relative, Matrona, walked the many hundreds of miles to the Caucasus; here, two miles from the Stavropol Convent (where Matrona stayed), Maria adopted an even more grueling life of prayer and frequent fasting in a decrepit cave—which would eventually cause her health to break down.  She walked again with Matrona back to the north, to the region of the St. Nicephorus Hermitage, resuming the solitary life not too far from the hermitage of her former cell-mate, Anna, in a forest near a swamp filled with snakes and other creatures (a niece, Pelagia, who was to live with her, fled the area in terror).  Finally Maria’s health broke down altogether, and, desirous of receiving the last sacraments, she somehow managed to stumble her way through a snowstorm to the local monastery, where she lay in silent prayer the last three weeks of her holy life.  On the fifteenth day, her body showed dramatic rejuvenation, and shone with an unearthly light, a phenomenon which would continue for three days after the passing, on Feb. 9, 1860, of this highly-esteemed “desert-dweller.”

 

The aforementioned Anastasia of Padan (1819-1901; née Anna) was raised by her devout grandmother, Euphrosyne, after her own mother’s passing in her first year of life (Euphrosyne, widowed at 30, fasted much of her life, and made the long pilgrimage to Kiev twice a year, every year up until age 111, three years before her passing.)  Both Anna’s grandmother and father passed on when she was 17; she thereupon gave away the meager family possessions to the poor and tried to take up the anchoress’ life near Kiev, but after 16 days was overcome with the difficulties of this path.  She lived for some time in one of the women’s monasteries in the region, but, desiring again the solitary life, she asked Mother Mary for inspiration and received an empowering and prophetic dream about her future spiritual life.  She worked for a time at a hospice for the poor, the lame and pilgrims, founded by Fr. Theodosius Levitsky, then she spent three years with Maria as an ascetic in Olonets, living in that primitive, leaky, earthen hut, co-existing with the snakes, eating mainly bread and sometimes only mushrooms, going barefoot all summer, enduring the harsh elements in winter, and experiencing various trials from the devil—and from a few church authorities of the region who did not approve of her “desert dwelling” life.  She re-located north to another spare dwelling—so spartan that when Bishop Ignatius first saw it he burst into tears at her fortitude and spirit of renunciation.  He allowed her to come live at a slightly more comfortable cell at the old abandoned monastery of Padan, where she became tonsured as a nun.  Young women disciples were attracted to reside near the saintly Anastasia and eventually she built a small, simple monastery for them, though she herself continued to live as an anchoress, served by a young woman who was granted an inspiring vision about the holiness of this old woman. [123]

 

The respected Leushino community for women in Novgorod was originally founded by Nun Sergia (b. 1808; née Anastasia), who, at age 17, had begun the life of a wandering pilgrim for three years, lived with several other women in a prayerful setting, and become one of the first nuns at the Holy Sophia/Wisdom Women’s Monastery near Rybinsk, before coming to the Leushino area, famous for a Maria ikon in a church on private land.  It was Nun Sergia who mobilized the funds to procure the property and mobilized some women to begin a very spartan community there, which in several years would become the Leushino Monastic Community for women, numbering some 40 souls.

 

Abbess Thaisia of Leushino (1840-1915), one of only three surviving children to a nobleman and his aggrieved, devout wife (she had lost a number of her children), was given a deeply spiritual orientation from her mother (including a strong emphasis on charity and prayer) from early childhood.  At age ten, circumstances constrained little Mary (as she was known) to attend a boarding school in St. Petersburg, where she became afflicted with various conditions, including a temporary blindness which permanently impaired her outer vision, though not her inner sight—which was blessed with visions of Jesus, Mother Mary, angels and saints from a tender age—nor her memory, which was so clear that she learned by heart the entire Gospels.  Mary received a large inheritance from her grandfather, including a house, where she tutored some children, prayed and attended nearby religious services, her wish to enter a convent having been rebuffed by her mother, who was overly attached to her daughter.  But some time later, her mother having been influenced by the inner guidance of Mother Mary, young Mary enter the Tikhvin Convent (near a monastery housing a famous Marian ikon), and lived there for 14 years, the last part of it in a very damp, moldy, stale-aired, dimly-lit cell, which impaired her health.  In 1872 she was transferred to the Zverin convent, where she was choir director, and in 1878 to the Zvansky Convent in the Novgorod diocese (where she was made treasurer, and underwent severe trials from the jealous abbess) and the next year she was fully tonsured under the name of Nun Thaisia.  In 1881 she would be appointed head of the Leushino Monastery, an initially extremely difficult post she kept until her passing; through her zeal and administrative ability (and longsuffering in the face of strong calumny), she turned the seriously problematic Leushino into one of the premier women’s monasteries in all of Russia.  During this time of trouble, she was healed of a two-month paralysis by a vision of Archangel Michael.  “Guided, admired, and relied upon” by her friend, the famous St. John of Kronstadt (d. 1908), whom she met sometime around 1890, with whom she would often traveled on pilgrimage, and for whom she founded many communities of religious women, Mother Thaisia also helped renew the spirit of women’s monastic communities through her letters of spiritual direction, and her three volumes of religous poetry, some of which was set to music and sung at spiritual gatherings.  She founded an ecclesiastical college for girls, built three large branches of the Leushino foundation in Cherepovetz, St. Petersburg, and on the Sura River; founded the Vorontsov Convent in Pskov and its branch house in St. Petersburg; and co-founded, along with John, the St. John Convent in the Karpovka River district, and many others.  “For the last thirty years [of her life] there was literally not one newly founded convent organized without Abbess Thaisia’s active participation.”  Honored with special crosses by the Holy Synod and emperor, and given numerous gifts for her achievements by Emperor Nicholas II, she remained a humble, pious woman of great goodness and charity, a true mystic and inspired visionary.  Thaisia’s autobiography, a rarity in Orthodox literature (few saints have written about themselves), written only at the behest of her confessors, sheds tremendous light not only on her own illustrious life and visions, but also on the lives and teachings of other deeply spiritual men and women, and on the Orthodox monastic life in general.  Abbess Thaisia’s main assistant was a saintly woman named Abbess Rufina (née Olga Kokoreva, 1872-1937).  At age 8, little Olga (her given name) entered the Dormition Convent in the town of Perm, later transferring to a convent in Solykamsk, where she performed such feats of asceticism (podvigs) such as spending the whole night standing motionless, arms uplifted, calling out to Mother Mary for Divine Grace.  In 1900 she became Thaisia’s helper at Verkhoturie, and in 1911 was made an abbess of a new convent in Cherdyn, housed in the ruins of an abandoned monastery.  She worked hard for eight years to restore it, also building a church and an orphanage.  But the spread of the Bolshevik communist troops forced her to re-locate her convent of sisters to Novo-Nicholaevsk (where she again set up a large orphanage), then east to Chyta; here a typhoid epidemic forced her and the sisters to move to Vladivostok, and finally circumstances compelled them to re-locate to Harbin, Manchuria.  After four years of such stress, Mother Rufina fell seriously ill and was forced to remain in bed for a year, during which her contemplative nature deepened.  After she improved somewhat, she founded another large orphanage and edified her sisters and many other people in the spiritual life with her devotion to God, her clairvoyance, and the miracles of “renewing ikons” which would suddenly become fresh and clean again in her hands, often witnessed by a number of reliable observers.  (Certain healing miracles were associated with these renewed ikons, the most famous of which is the Vladimir Ikon of Theotokos.)  Mother Rufina appeared to many people in dreams and visions after her passing from the world in Shanghai, 1937.  It was her nuns who founded the first Orthodox convent in America, in San Francisco, in the middle of this century. [124]

 

Mother Maria Skobtsova (1891-1945) represents a very different type of Russian holy woman—she did not emphasize the traditional contemplative lifestyle but advocated a kind of radical, gospel Christianity expressing itself as caring for the downtrodden in Paris. Her life ended prematurely with martyrdom in the Nazi death-camps. Sergei Hackel has masterfully told her tale, which we can highlight here. [125]  Born of parents who were wealthy, landed gentry in Riga, Latvia, Mother Maria was given the name Elizaveta Iur’evna Pilenko, “Liza” for short.  She actually wanted to leave home to join a convent at age 7.  A year later she posed another request to her parents:  that she might trek with pilgrims from one holy place to another. After her father’s death in 1906, Liza, now 15 years old, moved to St. Petersburg; here she received a university education and became involved with socialists, poets, and intellectuals.  She married a member of Lenin’s Social Democrat (Bolshevik) Party, though they would separate several years later, largely due to his alcoholism (he would later convert to Catholicism and become a Jesuit).  Liza bore a daughter, Gaiana, by a man with whom she had an interim relationship, and she became deeply interested in the plight of the Russian people.  During the years of unrest culminating in the 1917 Revolution, she published two volumes of poetry, read tales of Orthodox saints (she would herself later write a small tract on the lives of saints), engaged in ascetic practices such as wearing a heavy belt of lead, and did a certain amount of evangelizing on the goodness and mercy of Christ. 

 

After the Bolshevik coup d’état in 1917, Liza, now a member of the Socialist-Revolution Party, and managing the family estate near Anapa (on the Black Sea), was elected mayor of Anapa.  In this capacity she not only protected the town from bandits, she also risked death by standing up to the Bolsheviks—with whom she often disagreed.  At one point she was arrested and imprisoned for her views, and when fortuitously released, she took to helping the families of less fortunate fellow prisoners.  The lawyer who helped acquit Liza, Daniil Skobtsov (1884-1968), became her second husband.  With the civil war now proving to be a highly dangerous situation, Liza, Daniil, her mother, Sophia Pilenko (1862-1962), and daughter Gaiana, joined the other million or more Russians who left their home for the west, under very slow and difficult conditions.  A son, Iura (b. 1920), and another daughter, Nastia (b. 1922), would be part of the family by the time they reached Paris in 1923, but within a few more years Liza and Daniil divorced.  In Paris, Liza became a missionary for the Russian Student Christian [Orthodox] Movement in exile (the RSCM), but became more interested in being confessor to the needy Russian émigrés and trying to help them materially.  In the years after young Nastia’s death in 1926 (and son Iura’s departure with his father), Liza became convinced that she was called on to become the “mother for all, for all who need maternal care, assistance or protection,” specifically the poor, displaced Russian émigrés.  She began to consider a religious vocation, and was finally professed a nun in 1932 in her 41st year.  All the convents she visited, however, felt too “insulated” to her, and thus Maria (her new religious name) returned to France with a fresh vision of Orthodox “monasticism,” one which might more accurately be seen as a courageous life of service in the world in fulfillment of Jesus’ injunctions to care for the hungry, poor and sick.  In effect, Maria would be living the deaconess vocation of helping the needy—but the deaconess function was at that time no longer a part of Eastern or Western Christianity, and so she resurrected this role for her own life-work, while disguised as a nun (which on a few occasions upset some of the more traditionally-minded Russian Orthodox).

 

Sometime later that year of 1932, Maria began her first house for the needy, committing herself to the lease even though she had no financial resources whatsoever to make the initial deposit—the funds would come the very day she was to actually sign the lease!  Maria was trusting God to provide, and so He did.  Within two years the work was transferred to a larger, though more run-down, house at 77 Rue de Lourmel, where she created both a hostel and a large canteen.  Maria also converted some stables into a church, painting many of the ikons herself, and adorning the walls with her embroidery, at which she was also quite talented.  In addition to the Lourmel project, Mother Maria established a house for families, a house for single needy men, and a much-needed sanatorium for destitute tuberculosis victims, which later became a home for the aged after the French government responded to Mother Maria’s and others’ appeals to provide better care for France’s victims of consumption by building more state-run sanatoria.  Maria’s almost impetuous generosity was a source of concern to her business manager, F.T. Pianov, who had to raise his voice against many of her projects and activities, which seemed “overly” reliant on God’s Providence. In any case, Maria, a full-cheeked, bespectacled, plump woman, with a smile that was both warm and also rather mischievous, herself lived in poverty in a tiny, unheated, dilapidated room under the back stairs next to the kitchen.  Her door almost always was open to anyone and everyone—except when she was completely exhausted.  Her schedule was fatiguing:  she got up well before dawn to go to the central markets at Les Halles to gather the marginal foodstuffs at a low price for her people, and then her day was filled with all sorts of “menial” chores, meetings, and the carrying out of her myriad projects.  Mother Maria had a hard-working group of helpers, including several nuns—chief of whom was Mother Evdokia Meshcherakova (1895-1977)—as well as Maria’s mother Sophia, her daughter Gaiana, several priests, and various other laypersons, male and female.  This merry band of workers would search out the “drunk, despairing, useless” émigrés in the shantytowns on Paris’ fringes, and in some of the all-night cafés, providing food, advice, support, and inspiration for them.  “My feeling for them all is maternal ... I would like to swaddle them and rock them to sleep.”  “Thursday” schools were established for the children of poor émigrés in three different parts of town.  With her hugely magnanimous heart, Mother Maria easily forgave the occasional thief who abused her hospitality.  Gaiana died of typhus in 1936, while spending time in her native land, an event which brought more sorrow to Maria, who was obviously being tried in many ways, both exteriorly and interiorly.  In terms of external trials, she was criticized by many of the “pious” Orthodox church-goers who judged her shabbiness of attire, her smoking (especially in public), her “cavalier treatment of fasts,” her late-night, lofty discussions with intellectual friends in her room, the irregularity of her liturgical life, and her familiarity with the “underworld”—as behaviors all quite “unbecoming” for a nun.  Some right-wing emigrés thought her views smacked of socialism, even communism.  Maria herself wryly observed:  “for church circles we are too far to the left, for the left we are too church-minded.” 

 

In 1935, Mother Maria’s movement finally broke away from the RSCM group and was given a new name by one of her supporters—Pravoslavnoe Delo, “Orthodox Action.”  This was an organization that was independent of the church hierarchy, “a completely free and independent organization.”  It had many leading Russian intellectuals supporting it (e.g., N.A. Berdiaev, Sergeii Bulgakov, G.P. Fedotov), but theory took a backseat to action—Mother Maria valued concrete action, not high-flown concepts.  Mother Maria, the logical choice for chairperson of Orthodox Action, was, like Dorothy Day and Mother Teresa of Calcutta and so many other saints, adamant that its members never lose sight of the focus on the human individual and instead become a mechanical philanthropic organization.

 

A week before Christmas, 1938, Mother Maria began her series of visits to mental hospitals, finding among the inmates—and “liberating” from their ranks—a number of Russians who actually were not crazy but merely having great difficulty with learning French, and going into states of eccentricity, despair, rage, or intense apathy.  She mobilized official support to aid Russian mental patients, and in 1939 would herself visit 17 more asylums, helping restore a significant number of Russians to normal life. 

 

On June 14, 1940, Paris fell to Hitler’s Nazis, but Maria’s work at Lourmel did not really change.  Religious services were still regularly held, with the Orthodox Liturgy on Wednesdays, Saturdays, and Sundays conducted by the humble Fr. Dimitrii Klepinin (1904-44), a man after Maria’s own heart, though completely opposite her in temperament—he was a man of few words and quite calm.  She wrote openly of Hitler’s insanity and would tear down the posters put up on the walls of Lourmel urging the French to work in German factories.  Maria also was a part of a small committee of colleagues who organized the preparation and dispatch of food parcels and funds to the families of the more than 1,000 Russian émigrés who were imprisoned by the Nazis.  And when “identity cards” were issued to all remaining Russian émigrés, with separate cards for Russian Jews, Maria and Fr. Dimitrii risked arrest by refusing to accept their cards, for to accept one type of card meant to facilitate the distribution of the other, and

 

Maria and the good Father were close friends with many Russian Jews.  Then, when the Nazi “Final Solution” was beginning to be implemented as a means of exterminating the Jews, Fr. Dimitrii, with Mother Maria’s total support, risked perjury by signing eighty certificates of membership at Lourmel for Jews who sought to escape the new Nazi deportation policy by showing that they were “Christians.”  She and many other Christians wore the yellow Jewish Star on her arm that was required for Jews—”a fact which perplexed and annoyed the Nazi authorities,” Hackel writes.  The night of July 15/16, 1942, mass arrests of Jews were made by the Nazis, and wearing the Star was no longer safe.  Mother Maria gained entrance to the Velodrome d’Hiver stadium a kilometer away from Lourmel into which some 6,900 Jews (including 4,051 children) were herded and kept for five nightmarish days in primitive conditions with only one water faucet and ten latrines.  “As best she could [Mother Maria] comforted children, consoled their elders, and distributed the woefully inadequate fragments of food which she had been able to bring with her.”  Meanwhile, Lourmel and Noisy became “two of the links in the complex system of refuges and escape routes [for Jews] which grew up throughout France,” involving the forging of documents, caring for orphans, re-location of families, and so on, all of which involved great risk and long hours of exceedingly careful work.  Finally, on February 8, 1943, two Nazi Gestapo security police exposed the work being done by Maria and her colleagues.  Fr. Dimitrii, Mother Maria, her son Iura, and Pianov were all arrested.  The three men would live slightly less than a year in the prison camp at Compiègne, where the kindly priest was often cruelly beaten and mocked before the others; nevertheless he was a most saintly, inspiring influence on everyone.  Orthodox Action was dissolved by order of the Nazis, though Lourmel continued to function for some time.  Maria, meanwhile, was taken away by the Nazis, her mother Sophia told “You will never see your daughter again.”  Almost immediately after this, Maria was taken to the women’s section of Compiègne, afforded by Providence a last talk with her son Iura and a glimpse of her former husband, Daniil (who had also helped with the work of Orthodox Action).  A traumatic three-day ride with 200 other women prisoners of Compiègne, without water or sanitation, brought her to the Ravensbrück concentration camp, where she spent the last two years of her life, undaunted by the Nazi terror.  She was uplifted not only by her Christian faith, but also by her physical, moral and emotional strength, as well as her sense of humor, gained from years of trial, tragedy, work, and an already austere, impoverished, non-private lifestyle.  Testimonials given by other prisoners who knew her at Ravensbrück reveal her constant good cheer, lack of complaints, friendliness and equal-mindedness with all, very rare qualities in the utterly degrading conditions of the camps.  She was “adored by all.”  The younger prisoners, especially, felt they had gained a family with her care.  Mother Maria gave talks, read from the Scriptures, and led groups in meditation, helping immensely to restore morale.

 

In one-on-one sessions, Maria embraced and comforted many deeply oppressed souls, and “they would go off radiant,” greatly inspired by her words and obvious love for them.  She would set aside her gifts of food from Lourmel and elsewhere for her fellow prisoners, which, in that condition of deliberate undernourishment inflicted by the Nazis, “was an act which required exceptional will power and altruism.

 

During one period of her imprisonment, Maria was “involved with other French prisoners in dragging a heavy roller about the streets of the camp for twelve hours per day. ... But in general she succeeded in avoiding hard labor,” usually working in the knitwear workshop, a tedious and exhausting job.  At one point, her legs—”subjected to swelling from endless roll-calls in sub-zero temperatures—grew progressively weaker, and one of her fellow prisoners ... acted as her crutches.  Even so, her vitality did not desert her.”  But in the intensification of conditions toward the end of 1944 and beginning of 1945, with even less care for the prisoners and more overcrowding (“lice devoured us, typhus and dysentery became a common scourge and decimated our ranks,” wrote one prisoner), Mother Maria’s condition became critical.  She had in January 1945 accepted the “pink card” token of old age and illness, and such card-holders were simply the target for gradual, but fairly rapid extermination by the Nazis:  the card-holders became members of a “miniature extermination camp,” victims of a “murderous hoax.”  Their food-rations were cut by 60%, their warm clothing was confiscated, they were made to stand in many-hour-long roll calls in the freezing cold, sometimes all day, so as to wear them down quickly by “natural causes.”  Maria at this point seems to have been “absorbed in some endless meditation,” according to her bunk-mate.  Though she made no complaint, it is obvious she was almost overcome by the suffering of her companions and perhaps the pains racking her body.  Yet even when she finally became seriously ill, laying still for days on end, infested with lice and subject to dysentery, her own emaciated body was a source of amusement to her, and she always smiled when she spoke to someone.  Though many women were driven out of their minds, “Mother Maria remained silent and calm.”  At the end of February came a new policy from the Nazis:  all women ill or unable to walk were to be killed.  At roll calls, women would be judged on their mobility as to whether they would continue to live or die. On Good Friday, two women eyewitness prisoners observed that Mother Maria stepped into the group of those anguished women who were condemned to die, hoping to inspire them to meet their fate with fearlessness and faith in God, and thus took the place of one of them.  Thus did she voluntarily go to martyrdom. “She offered herself consciously to the holocaust ... thus assisting each one of us to accept the cross... She radiated the peace of God and communicated it to us.” 

 

Many were gassed that day, but Maria’s appointed hour, her heavenly birthday, came the next day, March 31, 1945.  It was the eve of Easter.Most poignantly, the following day, all the French women prisoners of Ravensbrück were liberated through the auspices of the Red Cross.  Hackel relates an extraordinary event which occurred several years later:  one of Maria’s friends, Georgii Raevskii, in a vivid dream saw Mother Maria walking across a cornfield at a steady pace.  He was surprised and said, “But Mother Maria, they told me you were dead.” She looked at me over the top of her glasses kindly, but with a hint of mischief. “Well, no matter what they say.  You can see I am alive.”

 

Many other women saints and “blesseds” and “righteous” are commemorated in the Russian calendar about whom very little, if anything, is known, such was their mastery of that self-effacing humility and kenosis (self-emptying).  Happily, a significant percentage of persons of the last century who are being considered for canonization by the Russian Orthodox church are women, including Nun Agnia (formerly Countess Anna Orlova-Chesmenskaya) (d. 1848), Nun Neonilla (d. 1875) of the Farther Davidov Convent, Blessed Nun Eupraxia of Teliakov village, Kostroma (d. 1823), Righteous Helen Voronova (d. 1916), disciple of Elder Barsanuphius of Optina, and Abbesses Magdalena of Sevsk Convent (d. 1848), Daria of Sezenovo (d. 1858), Seraphima of Sezenovo (d. 1877), Pulcheria of Viatka Nativity Convent (d. 1890), and Philareta of Ufa (d. 1890).  Hopefully in the near future their life-stories may come to light for English-speaking readers.

 

Nun Brigid, a contemporary Orthodox religious, in an essay whose theme is that Orthodox women’s role has been to preserve the deeply mystical, “other-worldliness” so that their children and humanity may not forget God, our true Source and Destiny, has also stated:

“It is not surprising to see that there have always been more women monastics than men.  Currently [1981] in our Russian Church Abroad there are three times as many women monastics than men; and this number—three to one—was the same in Russia prior to the Russian revolution.” [126]

    

For Orthodox nuns in their homeland over the last three-quarters of a century, tremendous hardships and brutal killings have been common due to persecution by the communists (just as their Catholic sisters have suffered in great numbers in this century under anti-religious regimes in China, Romania, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, Albania, Brazil, etc.).  I am informed that in Russia before the Bolshevik revolution of 1917-1921, there were almost 1,000 men’s monasteries and, in accordance with Nun Brigid’s figures, roughly three times that number of women’s monasteries—and some of these latter were rather large (one photo of the sisters of the Leushino convent shows over 100 women, and the Protection Monastery in Kiev is said to have had 3,000 to 4,000 nuns in it).  William Fletcher, in his outstanding work on the underground Russian Orthodox movements during the decades of persecution, reports that by 1920, 673 (male) monasteries out of the 1,025 in existence in 1914 had been dissolved.  We can assume that a similar if not a much greater percentage of the women’s monasteries were closed down by 1920.

 

“Vast numbers of monks and nuns, who found themselves precipitately cast out of the cenobitic life to which they had pledged themselves, were forced to depart into the surrounding world to make their way as best they could.  Some, of course, found it possible to give up the external observance of monastic life and enter into the working force. Large numbers, however, were forced to innovate and seek ways of continuing their vocation. ... Some of the monasteries hastily utilized the expedient of forming themselves into ‘working collectives’ or artels [such as the “collective farms,” kolkhoz], consonant with the Soviet theory of optimum agricultural organization.... Others of the dispossessed monastics appeared to be thoroughly alienated from society, and chiliasm [a millennarian attitude] made its appearance among them as they wandered about the population preaching against the coming of the anti-Christ and the rapidly approaching end of the world.” [127]

 

So as to preserve the religion during these difficult times, parishioners organized secret “house churches” in their homes or apartments, wherein complete liturgies would be conducted when clergy were available, truncated liturgies led by members of the minor clergy, lay services or even simple prayer meetings of individuals or small groups of laymen.  Women played a significant role in these house churches, hosting and/or organizing and/or performing services in the absence of males; the scenario is strongly reminiscent of the situation during the times of the earliest Christian churches in the Mediterranean lands.

 

The communist regime stepped up its anti-religious policies in a ferocious onslaught over the years 1928-32, then again during “the Terror” in 1936-8.  Evidently by the late 1930s, only a very few monastic institutions were left open.  Whereas male monastics were dismissed from the religious life and often sent to forced-labor camps, along with the many millions of other people who had been imprisoned over previous decades for their religious or political beliefs (there were some 8-12 million people serving in the prisons at one time)—apparently many if not most of the thousands of Orthodox nuns were not even given the option to “leave” the formal religious life but were summarily, mercilessly tortured and killed.  It is not clear how many of the nuns were sent to the labor camps, where, as Fletcher has explained, the conditions were horrifyingly severe, and average life expectancy was a mere 3-5 years at the worst camps.  In any case, those nuns dwelling in the prison camps were greatly revered by the inmates, and usually were spared being victimized by the “jungle”-like behavior of so many of the inmates who, having been driven to desperation, had abandoned most forms of basic civility and morality.  Evidently a number of nuns and monks resisted the authorities at the camps and were able to preserve something of their own religious form of life.  For instance, one reporter told of three nuns who “categorically refused to work for ‘Satan’ and, surviving torture and extreme forms of brutal persuasion, they were finally let alone, free to live according to the monastic rule without participation in the normal work of the labour camp.”  Undoubtedly there were many more examples of this kind of courage among other female (and male) monastics. [128]        

 

Among the multitude of Orthodox women leaders who died for their faith under the Stalinist and earlier regimes, some are particularly beloved by the Russian Orthodox people, including Grand Duchess-Abbess Elizabeth Romanov (d. 1918); Abbesses Antonina (d. 1929), Valentina (d. 1937), Sophia of Kiev (d. 1941); Righteous Eldresses Agatha (d. 1939) and Annushka; and Virgin Martyrs Lydia (d. 1928), Eudocia, and the Shamordino Nuns (d. 1930). (Most of these and others may be read about in Ivan Andreev’s Russia’s Catacomb Saints.) [129] 

 

Fletcher has told the tale of the demise of the institutional Orthodox Church during this time, but also tells of a vast underground movement which came into being:

“By the end of the Great Purges the Church was prostrate ... it seemed as though the regime’s long struggle with religion was all but won. The effects on the institutional Russian Orthodox Church were staggering.  In the space of a decade, the Church had been almost completely destroyed as an institution.  Of the 163 bishops ... in 1930, only four survived the decade in office.  The 30,000 churches ... had been reduced to 4,225, by official figures, while independent estimates suggested that even that figure was inflated and only a very small number of churches continued to function legally within the country.  The administrative machinery of the Russian Orthodox Church had been liquidated almost entirely...

      “If the churches had been largely eliminated, the religious convictions of the population had displayed a surprising tenacity. ... The anti-religious policies of the State resulted in a situation in which a majority of the population continued to adhere to religion despite the fact that to all intents and purposes the institutional Church had disappeared from society. ... Illegal, clandestine religious practices abounded during this period, and there was much evidence of underground activity on the part of the believing population. [130]

Numerous schismatic groups had sprung up from the earliest days of the Revolution, not going along with many of the policies of the Orthodox Church (which for years was trying to stay in existence by carefully avoiding any confrontation with the State).  These splinter movements included not only the several-hundred year old sect of the “Old Believers,” and such groups as Baptists, Mennonites, Seventh Day Adventists, and Sabbatarians (which came from the West), but also the Ioannity (a highly mystical movement organized by followers of St. John of Kronstadt), the Imiaslavtsy (“glorifiers of the Holy Name,” stemming from Mt. Athos), the Innokent’evtsy and Apokalipsisty (two apocalyptic groups), the Fedorovtsy (a highly ascetic and apocalyptic movement), the True Orthodox Christians in Hiding (living in the far north), the huge (if short-lived), fiercely anti-communist and anti-monastic Living Church, which seized control of many Orthodox Churches in the 1920s, the Josephites (of Leningrad/St. Petersburg) and the their offshoot, the Buevtsy (centered in Voronezh).  It is hard to estimate what role women played in all these various groups.  Some groups were more patriarchal than others, whereas some allowed women to operate in leading roles.  Fletcher reports that among the 74 leaders of the substantial Buevtsy organization, there were 44 “monks and nuns,” which suggests anywhere from ten to thirty women leaders. 

 

In the 1930s many of these schismatic groups flourished, and were joined by still more sects coming into existence.  One study identified 63 discrete religious sects during the 1930s, many quite similar to the traditional “priestless” organizations of the Old Believers.  Others had a clergy but, because of the localism which was necessary in an underground movement due to chronic persecution, these groups had to abandon any episcopal polity and adopt more of a “free-church” kind of orientation such as found within Protestantism in the West.  A non-sacerdotal form of worship would prevail in many of these groups, in which laymen took up priestly functions because no priests were available.  As Fletcher explains, the doctrines found in certain radical Protestant denominations of the West, such as the direct accessibility of the devout believer to Christ without the mediation of a priesthood, and the special presence of the Holy Spirit in a sanctified place even without canonical consecration, became theologically prominent among the underground Orthodox.  Apocalyptic eschatology, all-night “camp meetings,” private or family devotional life, alienation from the surrounding social system—all of these Protestant-like elements would figure in many of the underground Orthodox movements. [131]

 

During and after World War II, the various underground schismatic groups “tended to amalgamate in two broadly-based, almost nation-wide movements calling themselves the ‘True Orthodox Church’ and the ‘True Orthodox Christians.’” Both of these movements were quite successful, though the former would not last for more than a decade; both movements were very hostile toward the institutional Orthodox Church (whose Moscow Patriarchate had finally accepted the communist government in 1927 and was recognized by the State as the only “acceptable” religious authority; the Russian Orthodox Church was thus seen by the schismatics as having been co-opted by the State).  Fletcher relates that the True Orthodox Church, which tried to duplicate in secret and in competition with the legalized Orthodox Church an institutional Orthodoxy that was liturgically as complete as possible, had no episcopate but did have a priesthood chiefly comprised of those priests who had left the “legalized” Orthodox Church.  And significantly for our subject, “women, many of them secretly nuns, were widely utilized to augment the inadequate number of active priests” in this True Orthodox Church.  Moreover, women seem to have been much more numerous than the men in the congregations.  One statistic available on the True Orthodox Church in Michurinsk in 1949-1950 indicates that 94 of the 98 members were women, and 45 of these were nuns.  By 1950-1, the most active elements of the True Orthodox Church had been discovered and suppressed, and by the early 1950s this Church no longer existed as an organized movement in the U.S.S.R. [132]

 

The more widely diffused and less organized True Orthodox Christians movement seems to have formed in the mid-1940s, and, despite persecution, continued to exist down through recent times when it has apparently merged with the renewed Russian Orthodox Church.  The True Orthodox Christians adhered to the traditional tenets of the Russian Orthodox faith, but in general dispensed with the institution of a priesthood, preferring to have lay “preachers” and “elder brothers” as the pastors of their little groups of 10-15 people, which usually met in the homes of the members, sometimes also meeting for all-night sessions at sacred shrines at springs, cemeteries, oak trees, and so forth.  In a few cases, women (“elder sisters”?) were allowed to lead the congregations of True Orthodox Christians.  In addition to such leaders, “a considerable cult of charismatic figures quickly arose among the True Orthodox Christians”—and women, some more psychologically balanced than others, had good opportunity to command attention in this role, practicing faith healing, exorcism of demons, clairvoyance, and other gifts of the Spirit.  As in the True Orthodox Church (and the Russian Orthodox Church as well), the majority of the members of these True Orthodox Christians congregations were female:  “In the Tambov area, 60 to 70 per cent of the True Orthodox Christians were women, while a subsequent study of two groups in the far north found that 78 per cent were women.” [133]

 

There would be small, more extreme innovative groups to emerge in the 1950s, and their clandestine nature would help them to escape, for a while anyway, the notice of the governmental authorities.  One of the more important of these sects was the Mol’chalniki, the “Silence” movement, founded by a woman, L. Kisliakova:  in 1955, in the presence of a large group of True Orthodox Christians of Tambov, she tore off her clothes, destroyed her passport, and performed a rite of baptism in the icy waters of the Studenets river...      

“Thereafter she began to wander about the region, seeking converts to the new practice of total silence. ... True Orthodox Christians entered this sub-grouping by taking a vow of total silence, never on any occasion speaking again, even to other members of the movement.  The movement apparently expanded fairly rapidly, until by the end of the decade it was widespread throughout the area. ... Composed predominantly of women ... the Silent ones made every attempt to avoid all contact whatsoever with the surrounding society.  Naturally, they would refuse to answer any questions put to them...” [134]

 

The Mol’chalniki walled up their residences, put crosses all over the walls, wore home-spun clothes and shoes, would not work for the collectives, and refused as much as possible any reliance on the State.  They immersed themselves in prayer and devotions, practiced celibacy and lived quite ascetically, many of them eating extremely little.  Then in 1957 Kisliakova was discovered by the authorities, who promptly locked her up in a mental asylum with the standard rationale given during those times that she was “schizophrenic.”  Rapid crackdown by the regime effectively crushed the Mol’chalniki.  However, Fletcher explains that in its stead a second variant appeared, known as the “True Orthodox Christian Wanderers.”  Destroying all documents, they renounced all contact with normal society and led lives of complete secrecy, usually having no permanent abode, and wandering from place to place, practicing their faith as secretly as possible.  Communities and cells of these Wanderers flourished in Siberia, in the far north, in the taiga regions, and in Soviet Central Asia; the Wanderers may have consciously considered themselves descendants in spirit from the Old Believer sect of the “Runners,” or Beguny, followers of the 18th century mystic Euphemius, who practiced a similar lifestyle all over Siberia.  According to Fletcher, the True Orthodox Christian Wanderers quickly established a clandestine organization which embraced “vast regions of the country, uniting the local cells of the movement in a highly centralized, tightly disciplined network strictly subordinated to the leadership.” [135]  Though the central leader was a monk named Varlaam, the local cells were led by nuns as well as monks, to whom were attached the new initiates; most surprisingly, these newcomers included a great number of young people, who had eschewed the massive atheistic propaganda being disseminated in the schools, on the streets, in the media, and wherever possible.  For instance, authorities discovered cases of girls (and presumably boys as well) 14-15 years of age, who had been initiated into the Wanderers, and were living extremely ascetic lives, eating very little, fasting for long periods, spending 8-12 hours a day (even more on religious festival days) in prayer and bowing before ikons.  As in the case of the True Orthodox Christians, it is impossible to gauge the numbers of adherents to this subsect of Wanderers, though they were probably not that numerous.  In this case, it seems that quality of holiness, rather than quantity, is the important issue anyway.

 

In the far north of Russia, a more eremitical and less mobile subsect, the True Orthodox Christians in Hiding (Skrytniki), came into existence in the 1950s, even more strongly resembling the Old Believers movement from several centuries ago.  Strongly ascetic, the contemporary movement of the Skrytniki—including women and men—separated themselves from family and society to live in small cells with a few others or else alone.  They would rise at 3 a.m. to begin a day featuring many one and two-hour periods of prayer, interspersed with study and sparse meals.  The baptismal rite was particularly severe, and given only after a period of lengthy preparation, involving long hours of prayer and seven weeks of fasting.  Often the rite was conducted in winter in ponds through holes in the ice, which often led to colds and, not infrequently, death (considered to be a sign of special “divine grace”). [136]

 

Looking to the more “Orthodox” monastic scene, the German occupation of the Ukraine during World War II allowed many Orthodox monasteries, convents and churches to spring back into life at a rapid pace, but after the war many of these would be closed down again by the Soviets.  In the late 1950s, small, secluded monasteries and apparently convents as well had come into secret existence in the vast forests of western Siberia, whose monastics (who may have been members of the True Orthodox Christian movement) “lived in exceedingly primitive conditions, subsisting on berries, nuts, mushrooms, etc.”  Speaking of the Soviet Union as a whole, in 1959 there were some seventy monasteries functioning—the number of convents among these unknown.  However, with the renewed crack-down on religion by the State under Nikita Khrushchev, five years later only 32 monasteries existed, and evidently most of these were in the western, southwestern, or northeast regions which were less prone to domination by the Communist authorities in Moscow.  In the mid-1970s, the World Council of Churches estimated there were only ten convents and five monasteries functioning in the Soviet Union, with varying numbers of religious therein.  (This may reflect a further demise due to continued persecution, or else an inability of the Council to detect the presence of some of those “hidden” monasteries in the U.S.S.R.)  Other female and male monastics seemed to be living the spiritual life and serving the poor in secretive fashion outside these few formal communities.

 

A milestone in the long-awaited perestroika policy under Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev was the re-opening of thousands of Orthodox churches (along with Muslim mosques and Jewish synagogues), and with this spirit of tolerance has come a small resurgence in the monastic life.  The most recent information available to one of my informants (the St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood) is that there are today (mid-1991) some 40 or 50 monasteries operative, including a number for women.  (The World Council of Churches is providing no figures at this time.)  The famous Diveyevo Convent (founded by St. Seraphim of Sarov) is open again, as are the convents of Pokrovsky and Pskov and many others.  The Dormition convent at Pyūkhtitsky in Estonia, the Trinity convent at Riga, in Latvia, the Florovsky convent in Kiev, along with some others in the non-Russian states of the U.S.S.R.—which are now countries in their own right belonging to the new Commonwealth of Independent States—have apparently maintained their existence, either openly or covertly, through most of the 20th century up to the present time.  

 

Yet there is still a dark side to the situation:  Catherine Reese, a woman who has traveled extensively in Russia in the past few years, told one of my sources that many nuns do not live in the convents there even now because of a difficult religious situation and continuing persecution. Women at many of the existing convents are often regarded by the still influential state as simply slave-labor so it is considered to be a path of “martyrdom” for which not everyone has the strength.  A more positive side of things has been given by Jim Forest, an American journalist and protégé of Dorothy Day, who has recently written of his experiences while on pilgrimage to many holy spots in the now defunct Soviet Union (experiences which have led him to join the Russian Orthodox Church).  He encountered Igumenya (“Mother Superior”) Margarita, head of the Pokrovsky convent in Kiev (founded in the 1880s), which has (c. 1987) about 95 members, including some 20 schema nuns who, having taken the special vow around the age of 60, now have no other duties except to “pray constantly”—for themselves, the community, and the world.  The Convent of the Nativity of the Mother of God, near Odessa on the Black Sea, has about 60 nuns.  The Monastery of the Assumption, in the village of Zhirovitsy, four hours out of Minsk en route to Brest, houses some 40 nuns and 15 monks, as well as a miraculous ikon of Mary.  Incidentally, Forest found that by far the most noticeable people standing in the recently-opened Russian Orthodox churches are the old women, the babushkas, who are quite ascetic and devout; they actually resist any changes in the liturgy which would make it shorter or easier.  They love to stand in prayer and devotion for the many hours involved.  In sampling various opinions, Forest discovered that, while most of the women and men think that the deacon function should be reinstated for women, most people, including most of the older women, were not interested in women’s ordination unless there was an unavailability of men for the priesthood—and right now there are many men waiting to get into the seminaries. [137]

 

It is unclear what has become of the various schismatic movements which Fletcher profiled in his 1971 work.  Undoubtedly many of the adherents have returned to the Russian Orthodox Church now that it can continue its mission of edifying souls no longer constrained by the government.  Yet a great number of the members of these groups have developed radically different worldviews and forms of organization over the decades, and are reluctant to return to a Patriarchal, episcopal system of leadership whose views may seem less “apocalyptic” and/or “mystical,” and whose practices may seem more “worldly” (i.e., less ascetic) than the members of these schismatic groups would prefer.

 

In any case, the developments in Russia and other former lands of the U.S.S.R. over the last several years, which are allowing much more extensive religious practice and charitable activities, will hopefully not only bring to light the number of deeply spiritual women who have been pious exemplars, contemplatives, teachers, welfare workers, and ministers of healing in the underground movement in that country when the religious life was being suppressed, but also create the opportunity for other women to more freely take up the spiritual life and tap its glorious potential.      

 

With the election in June 1990 of Metropolitan Aleksy of St. Petersburg to become Patriarch Alexei II, head of the Russian Orthodox Church at Moscow, a man who cherishes a spirit of ecumenism, it is possible that Orthodox nuns and laywomen may get the chance to interact with their sisters in the Catholic and Anglican (and Buddhist and Hindu and other) traditions in ecumenical fashion, much as the Buddhist nuns from various denominations of Asia and America have come together for periods of common practice, discussion and learning.  As to what effect, if any, the Women-Church movement will have on the Orthodox Church, this remains to be seen.  (The old babushkas would probably not be very interested, though some of the younger women of the more “Protestant”-style groups might be.)  The Russian Orthodox Church at this time has been severely weakened by so many decades of oppression and now must rapidly deal with the various problems afflicting its estimated 40-60 million members.  These are times of great pressure, yet great excitement for the Russian Orthodox Church.  One thing is also true:  with the new openness, the pluralism of sects is continuing in Russia and other Commonwealth countries.  Not only are many of the old Catholic churches (in the western states of the ex-U.S.S.R.), the Muslim mosques and the Jewish synagogues being given back to their people and re-opened (though many Jews are emigrating due to severe anti-Semitic attitudes now rampant), and various “Old Believer” sects flourishing more openly, one witnesses substantial missionary activity by various Protestant groups, especially Pentecostal and Evangelical Christian denominations.  These latter groups can set up new churches much faster than can the Orthodox in the regions where there are few or no churches.  Thus these other Christian churches are growing much more rapidly than are the Orthodox churches.  Moreover, the Russians are seeing a great influx of Hindu gurus and Buddhist teachers, the convening of yoga conferences and meditation groups, and the continued arising of “new religions” and “new messiahs” such as was seen in earlier decades and earlier centuries.  As one source told Forest, “Moscow is full of sects.”  It is very likely that this pluralism will be empowering for women, if not within the patriarchal Christian denominations, then within some of the other denominations and sects that are on the scene.

 

We should point out here that several Russian Orthodox women’s convents (and men’s monasteries) have flourished in the U.S. in the diaspora which occurred after the Revolution, belonging to either the strongly ethnic Russian Orthodox Church or the more “Americanized” Orthodox Church in America: these convents include the aforementioned Convent of the Vladimir Mother of God in San Francisco, founded by Abbess Rufina’s disciples, Abbess Ariadna and Mother Eugenia, in 1948—the first Orthodox convent in America:

“The nuns [still presided over by Abbess Ariadna] maintain three churches and the small St. Seraphim’s Hermitage in Moss Beach [California]. The first Orthodox convent in Canada [10 miles south of Bluffton, Alberta province] is their affiliate.  They operate a Russian grade school, print and publish books, supply city parishes with prosphoras (altar breads), manufacture candles.  The inner life of the Convent continues the spiritual traditions and rule of Abbess Rufina. Their spacious main church is literally filled with icons of various types ... The church services, celebrated daily ... are monastic and lengthy. ... The heart of the community of twenty nuns (with two skhema nuns) is the Miraculous Icon of the Vladimir Mother of God—a Living Spring of God’s Grace that pours abundantly upon receptive, contrite hearts.” [138]

 

Other Orthodox convents in America include New Diveyevo Convent at Spring Valley, N.Y., led by Abbess Seraphima; the Orthodox Monastery of the Transfiguration in eastern Pennsylvania, founded by the former Princess Ileana of Romania, later known as Mother Alexander (d. 1991), (now led by Mother Christophora); the Nativity Convent in Boston; and several others in Elwood City, Pennsylvania, Rhodes Junction, Michigan, and Buena Vista, Colorado.  There is a growing St. Eugene’s foundation of the Sisters of the Holy Cross in the Pt. Reyes area north of San Francisco, led by abbess Mother Barbara (the women here lead a semi-eremitc [hermit] life based on the rule of St. Basil, combined with frequent charitable activity in the local community).  Mother Susannah‚ heads the Our Lady of Kazan Skete in Santa Rosa, California (a skete is a small monastery for several persons) Mother Susannah has also translated some lives of great women ascetics of the 18th-19th centuries.  St. Xenia’s Skete is located in Wildwood, northern California.  And note that nuns have alternated with monks over the years in occupying the first Orthodox foundation in the U.S.—New Valaam, a skete made by St. Herman in the early 1800s on Alaska’s remote, lush, beautiful Spruce Island (very similar in its lovely appearance to the original Valaam monastery and skete on a forested island in the northern area of Lake Ladoga, near Finland—perhaps Russia’s most holy monastic site—the “Mt. Athos and Jerusalem of the North”).  Life for the nuns at New Valaam begins with prayers at 2:30 a.m., and proceeds through a rigorous schedule of work (making choktis, or prayer-ropes, translating texts, gardening and working to insure survival in this remote, uncivilized area).  One of my sources, Sr. Macrina, from the New Valaam skete in Alaska, tells me that she knows of two Russian Orthodox convents in France, the Lesna Convent and Bussy-en-Othe, plus one in Australia, one in Finland, and one in Chile—the last mainly an orphanage run by a few nuns under one Abbess Juliana. [139]

 

With the “phasing out” of some of the old, sacred forms of worship in the Roman Catholic and Protestant churches, many westerners—young and old—have turned eastward to discover the power, beauty, and sanctity of the Orthodox traditions, especially the Russian Orthodox tradition which has obviously survived one of the greatest horrors witnessed on the planet.  Orthodox Christianity, with this new blood from the west, as well as from its old babushkas and a healthy number of younger Russians, promises to rise again to some semblance of its former glory.

 

At this point it would be pertinent to speak of the Holy Order of MANS, a quasi-Catholic institution founded by Fr. Paul Blighton in San Francisco in 1968; at one time it had over 60 centers in the U.S. and several in foreign countries.  Emphasizing worship of the Trinity, receiving of the sacraments, a mystical contemplative path, and service to the needy, the Holy Order of MANS was exceptional for having a training program for both women and men priests—involving life vows of service, humility, obedience, poverty and purity.  There were two suborders, the Immaculate Heart Sisters of Mary for women (headquartered in St. Louis) and the Brown Brothers of the Holy Light for men (based in Detroit) for those who did not enter the priesthood vocation.  Around 1986-7 the Order went through a major transition, when it converted to Eastern Orthodox Christianity, pledging itself to obedience to an Orthodox bishop (the center in S.F. is under the jurisdiction of a Greek Orthodox bishop, but it has frequent dealings with Russian Orthodox monasteries), and becoming a brotherhood more oriented to a parish model of organization.  The women priests humbly gave up their role, and most of them are now married, living a deeply spiritual life according to Orthodox patterns.  The order of sisters is now defunct; some of them have joined Orthodox convents, but most have married and have laity status.  (Indeed, most of the members of the Holy Order of MANS are now married, usually to a member of the community.)  The Holy Order of MANS (“MANS” stands for mysterion, agape, nous, and sophia) still sponsors its dozens of “Christian communities,” led by priests of the Order; the male and female members of these communities meet daily for prayer, meditation, and Orthodox religious services, and “participate as fully as possible in community life as a means to awaken the realization of God in their daily lives.” [140]

 

Looking to other Orthodox churches, we encounter one not so well known:  the 8-million member Coptic (Egyptian) Orthodox Church (now headed by its 117th Pope, Shenouda III) split from Rome in 451, not having accepted the definitions posited at the Council of Chalcedon that year (yet in 1973 Pope Shenouda III and Pope John Paul II signed a statement affirming that their faiths are essentially one).  From what I have been able to determine, the status of women is pretty much the same in the Coptic Orthodox tradition as it is in the other Orthodox traditions—there is ardent devotion to Mother Mary, one occasionally finds a few women saints in their history, small communities of nuns flourish here and there, and overall there is an “invisibility” or extremely low profile of the female in what is an almost completely male-dominated church.  It is interesting to note that St. Shenoudi (d. 451) who launched the monastic Coptic movement at the White Monastery near Akhmin in Egypt had some 1,800 nuns and 2,200 monks under his rule, and these were the first monastics to take vows—thus they were the first monastics to achieve canonical status.  At last reckoning, in the mid-20th century, only seven monasteries existed in Egypt, and it is unclear how many of these are for women.

 

Regarding the other autocephalous churches in the Eastern Orthodox federation, we have little information available on specific holy women, mainly due to a lack of materials in English.  The name of Rev. Mother Florina Jana Dombrava (1930 ) comes to me as the Mother Superior of the Pasarea Monastery, a major convent in the Romanian Orthodox Church.  In Syria evidently there are still to be found in out-of-the-way places male and female anchorites living either in complete solitude or in twos or threes, practicing austerities, penance and contemplation much in the same manner as their forefathers and foremothers sixteen hundred years ago.  Sr. Macrina of New Valaam tells me that women’s monasticism is still “thriving” in Romania and Serbia.  Unfortunately, as mentioned, it is most difficult to find any works in English on these women’s communities or their heritage of women saints.  Suffice it to say that some worthwhile translation projects await any interested persons who are fluent in these languages.

 

In all these Orthodox Churches, Greek, Russian, Ukranian, Coptic, Serbian, Romanian, Albanian, Bulgarian, Syrian, et al, it remains to be seen what changes modernization and feminism will effect, if any.  It seems doubtful that the nuns’ orders will undergo any significant renewal in the way that many of their western sisters’ have.  Perhaps it is God’s will that the ardent female and male monastics of these Churches will continue to preserve that tried and true “desert Christianity” which flourished in ancient times.  As for women becoming priests in these Orthodox traditions, their chances seem much more dim than even those of women feeling the call to priesthood in the Roman Catholic church.  (In fact, the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese in late June, 1991, suspended relations with the chief ecumenical body, the National Council of Churches, in part over the existence of ordained women priests and bishops in various Protestant churches.)  Further education, networking, and mobilization of support are clearly the key elements which would effect any feminizing changes in the Orthodox churches.


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