Feminine Images and Orthodox Spiritualty

By Behr-Sigel, Elisabeth | The Ecumenical Review, January-April 2008 | Go to article overview

Feminine Images and Orthodox Spiritualty


Behr-Sigel, Elisabeth, The Ecumenical Review


It is with a joy mingled with apprehension that I open this series of papers dedicated to feminine images in Orthodox spirituality. I have the impression of having been invited here as a veteran: a veteran of a struggle that has, perhaps, passed or which must, in any case, be carried on by those younger than I. I heard, a few weeks ago, of the death of Mother Eustochia, the abbess of the Monastery of Agapia in Romania--one of the high places of women's Orthodox monasticism--who welcomed us there in September 1976, "us" being the participants in the First international and inter-church consultation of Orthodox women. Agapia 1976 marked the birth of that which I would, cum grano salis, call our modest and timid "Orthodox feminism". Mother Eustochia's passing onto the other shore is perhaps a sign: we old ones (and I am probably the oldest of the old) must pass the baton on. What I want to give you is a sort of testament, an evaluation of fifteen years of struggle for the church to become a little more of what it is in the mind of our God, One in three persons: a community, or rather a communion of persons in his likeness, men and women ineffably different but equal in dignity, free and responsible, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

I would like first to present my own experience as a woman in the Orthodox Church. A Christian formed in a western cultural milieu, a member of the Orthodox Church by my own free choice, by a considered decision: a fairly atypical case, but one more usual today than fifty or sixty years ago. I was 22 years old. I had studied theology at university, a possibility that had been achieved for women after a great struggle and, in France, only at the Protestant faculty of theology of the University of Strasbourg. Already inwardly Orthodox, I was given the experience of a pastoral ministry: for several months, in a parish lacking a pastor, I presided at the Sunday services, took the catechism classes for the children, visited the sick and the lonely--a whole pastoral activity.

I have kept, from this experience, the memory of a period of grace. I knew that, in the Orthodox Church, I could hope for no sacramental, public ministry. I regretted this, but accepted the rule without finding complete justification for it. Those who guided my first steps in the Orthodox Church--I would like to name at least that great theologian of the Russian emigration, Father Sergei Bulgakov and Father Lev Gillet (better known under the nom de plume "a Monk of the Eastern Church")--placed the accent on the royal priesthood of all the baptized, all co-celebrants in the liturgy with the priest, all called to make their work in the world a sacrifice of praise, pleasing to God. They always encouraged me to continue my theological studies and research.

In the milieu of the Russian emigration that I entered on my marriage, I was aware of no contempt for women. On the contrary. Very feminine, energetic, courageous, intelligent and cultivated women played an important part in life. Adapting often more easily than their husbands to the difficult conditions of life in the emigration, many of them worked for their living and that of their families: they were nurses, seamstresses, and also doctors, actresses, painters, writers and some of them were nuns. They shared in the building of the Church in the Emigration, creating many social works of mutual assistance: dispensaries, old peoples' homes, childrens' homes etc. New parishes often came into being through their initiative, and they became lay custodians of them, as allowed by the ecclesiastical rules elaborated by the Russian Council of 1917, on the eve of the revolution. Many first-generation emigrant Russian women sought a spiritual and theological formation. At that time, they were not admitted as students at the Theological Institute of St Sergius, founded in Paris in 1925-26. Parallel with these, though, and often animated by the professors of St Sergius, there existed many "circles" of spiritual, philosophical and theological research, in which women took part. …

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