The day before yesterday, my eighteen-month-old daughter grabbed the bent-pull handle of a kids’ plastic wagon more than twice her size, then ran down the sidewalk next to our house, the wagon bumping wildly behind her.
It was a perfect breezy, sunny Indian Summer afternoon. I ran along beside her, both to protect her from our busy street, where the cars drive way too fast for the suburbs, and because I was worried that she might trip on the buckles in the concrete. She’s a veteran walker now, but still a bit unsteady on her feet, and we have stumbled from one stinging scratch and bruise to the next.
But this time she ran without a pause, in a line perfectly forward, hair blowing back against her forehead, the wagon’s wheels thundering on the pavement. On her face was an expression of fierce and concentrated joy.
It wasn’t until my daughter was born that I began to think more deeply about the role of women in the Church, and the distinctive contribution that women make to Christ’s kingdom. For a lot of people, and most of the time, I’ve noticed, the whole question of “women in the Church” seems to get reduced to the subject of women’s ordination—even in precincts where it has been a long-settled issue.
And on that front, I have to confess that I am in an awkward position. In most of the circles in which I run, it’s just assumed that “gender equality” is the solution to the Church’s ills, and that given my demography, politics, general cultural preferences, I must be in agreement.
“Nothing’s ever going to get better in the Roman Catholic Church until they start ordaining women priests,” people say casually, pursing their lips. Telling them that I’m Orthodox generally gets the response that “Well, at least your priests can be married,” which seems to raise it, just slightly, in their estimation.
This is yet another way in which my life feels bifurcated, and in tension: An old friend of mine from Mississippi is married to a female priest, a generous, thoughtful, and wise woman whose value to the family of believers I’d never second-guess. Another good friend is an ordained minister in the Church of God. If I have learned from their witness, benefited from their prayers for me, then what is the problem?
But the truth is, I do not question the male priesthood in the Orthodox Church. I accept the Church’s teaching, and its Authority—that word that sounds so dirty to our contemporary American ears, trained instinctively to think hypocrisy in the same thought as leader.
My attitude is the common one in the Orthodox Church, I think. Either among cradle Orthodox or converts (especially among converts, who often tend to come to the Church precisely for the traditions that have been discarded elsewhere), there’s very little movement for “reform” of any kind, and especially with respect to women in the priesthood.
Perhaps some of this is due to the fact that in temperament, aesthetics, you name it, Orthodoxy is already so wildly separated from the general tenor of American Christianity. It’s just too hard to explain. Instead, in its tradition of apophatic theology, it must rather be experienced rather than merely termed. It is a window into an endless colorful hall; the train of His inexpressible glory fills up the temple.
That’s not such a bad position to be in—for aren’t all of us believers called to be separate, attached to the Mystery? Don’t all of us live in the awkward space between—as my Good Letters colleague Dyana Herron once poignantly evoked—the Now and the Not Yet?
No one better exemplifies that grief and longing, the holy uncertainty, than the Virgin Mary. Perhaps because Orthodoxy holds forth the Mother of God as the premiere model that all believers, female and male, must emulate, rather than that rag-tag band of activists-from-Acts that continues to motivate Protestants of both the evangelical and liberal varieties.
Even beyond the Theotokos, though, the body of female saints through the centuries offers a strikingly diverse portrait of feminine spiritual psychology—there are a multiplicity of images by which to be inspired, and examples to follow—as diverse as the body of women I know.
And they correspond to those paradigms and wishes for beauty and nobility that live deep, even now, in many women’s hearts, but which secular culture holds only for fairy tales, has reduced to the flat commercial attributes of the Disney Princesses.
Neither do these saints lack agency, power, transformative grace. The wall of icons in my own bedroom is a testament: there is my own patron saint Nina, the long-haired Patriarch’s daughter who brought the Gospel to Iberia; noble Katherine who defended the faith before the secular philosophers; and St. Elizabeth the Grand Duchess, who sang as she was thrown down a shaft to her martyrdom after the Russian revolution.
But it is the icon of St. Mary of Egypt my daughter clears the bedroom chair for, and reaches up with fingers to touch. A harlot who tagged along on pilgrimage to Jerusalem for a lark, so her story goes, she was prevented by a mysterious force from entering the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Her tears of repentance gain her entrance not only to the Church, but to a new life as a penitent across the Jordan in the desert.
When she is later found by the monk Zossima living in the wild, she is nearly naked, her body prematurely aged by exposure, her countenance filled with divine radiance. In the icon she’s just skin and bones—a portent of the frame to which all we women will eventually return. I’m always gratified that of all the icons to which she might gravitate, it is this humble saint that she wants to be near.
May my daughter shine with her same fierce transcendent light.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.