Not surprisingly, the position of women in the Orthodox Church today reflects both sides of this history—
- that which would abase them along with that which affirms their dignity.
On the one hand, it cannot be denied that there are parishes in which women are permitted to do only those tasks which the men consider “women’s work” and therefore “beneath” them—cleaning the church, taking care of the children, baking the prosphora. In fact, of course, these traditionally female tasks are just as honorable and just as essential to the life of the Church as any of the more public or glamorous tasks which these men reserve to themselves; nevertheless, they do not exhaust the spectrum of women’s gifts and therefore should not circumscribe their contribution.
On the other hand, there are many parishes in which women serve in every capacity except those of the ordained clergy—as chanters, readers, choir directors; as teachers, administrators, parish council members; as helpers to the clergy in all sorts of works of mercy.
While Orthodox practice in some places reflects the overmasculinization of our culture as a whole, the solution to this problem is not to be found in feminism, even of the so-called “Christian” variety. The fundamental error of feminism is the same as that of the male-dominated culture that feminism is reacting against: the error of believing that masculine qualities, such as leadership, physical strength, analytical thinking, and strict justice, are inherently superior to feminine qualities, such as nurturing, gentleness, intuition, and mercy. Instead of striving to win men’s respect for feminine qualities, feminists tried to empower women by transforming them into imitation men.
“Christian” feminism, while less vehement in some respects than the secular variety, still attempts to raise the position of women in the Church by placing them in roles traditionally reserved for men, such as the priesthood, instead of by exhorting the Church to accept and honor women in the ministries for which they are naturally and/or spiritually gifted. The masculinization of women which inevitably results from this mistaken approach is one of many reasons that the Orthodox Church has steadfastly maintained its traditional stance against the female priesthood and the “feminization” of God.
In spite of those weaknesses which characterize every human institution, the Orthodox Church still provides, in her Tradition and very often in practice, the strongest witness to be found in the modern world to the godly model of womanhood that we have been trying to define. We as Orthodox women have the responsibility to help restore our society to balance by living out those godly feminine qualities which have often gotten short shrift, both in the world and in the Church.
LIVING OUT OUR CALLING
What, then, are some of these godly feminine qualities we need to cultivate? It is impossible to give an exhaustive list, but here are several that seem especially important.
1) The greatest of these is love. Of course, all Christians are called to love; but women have a special gift for loving. We should love, first of all, those closest to us—our families or those who are like a family to us. But we should not stop there; our love should reach out to our neighborhood, our parish, our community, our world. The love demanded of us is not just a sentimental good feeling toward other people. We’re talking about sacrificial love—love in action—love that puts our own interests second to those of the beloved. It’s not an easy task.
2) We should give ourselves in joyful service. Again, all Christians are called to serve; but it seems to come more naturally to women. Our service should follow our love, starting at home and spreading outward, always guided by God’s will for our individual lives.
Our service should also follow our individual gifts. If you can’t bake a fluffy pastry to save your life, go ahead and say no when the festival committee asks you to make baklava. But if, on the other hand, you have artistic talent, perhaps you should study iconography or illustrate lives of saints for children.
Don’t let your gifts go to waste. If you don’t know what your gifts are, or can’t think of a way to use them for God, talk to your husband or priest or to an older, wiser woman you know. They may know you better than you know yourself.
3) The essence of womanhood is motherhood. Not all women are called to be physical mothers, but all are called to be spiritual mothers, guiding and nurturing and teaching others to follow Christ. Those who work in the world should seek vocations that allow these qualities their full expression, rather than trying to compete in the dog-eat-dog business world of men.
Those of us who are mothers in the physical sense must take this responsibility very seriously. The world would have us believe that mothering is just one aspect of life, that it can be done quite adequately in the few hours a day we have left over from our careers or other activities we have chosen to “fulfill ourselves.” But we mothers really, in our heart of hearts, know better. We know that children are a sacred trust; they need and deserve the very best we have to give. If we cannot pass on our faith to them through our example of devoted love and service, how can the Church survive? And how can we stand before God and claim to have accomplished anything of any value in this world?
4) Women have a unique capacity to respond to God with all our hearts and souls. This is the essence of spirituality, and it comes more easily to women than to men, because responsiveness characterizes our human relationships as well as our relationship to God. Men, being called to leadership in the human realm, often find it more difficult to surrender that role and to meet their Creator in humility. We women can set an example in simple, faithful piety that is ultimately more influential in the life of the Church than the most inspired teaching or the most glorious martyrdom.
5) Our proper response to God is to strive for holiness. Only by pursuing holiness will we become capable of all that is required of us. Only by deepening our relationship with God can we come to understand, accept, and live the life He has designed for us. Only through loving, trusting obedience to God can we find our true calling, as women and as human beings. Only so can we begin to fulfill the vocation bequeathed to us by Mary of giving birth to Christ in other people. This is our proper contribution to the salvation of the world.