On the high calling of women
Although the author of this article lives in a country that celebrates “International Women’s Day” in March, it is also apropos to the American tradition of Mother’s Day, celebrated in May. This year the Sunday of the Myrrbearers coincides with Mother’s Day, and we wish our readers who are mothers a happy one.
Following the “long-standing and good tradition”, our public at large recently celebrated International Women’s Day on March 8. Though its title of “international” refers to the former USSR rather than the entire world, that is already more than enough. As usual, there has been a lot of debate (particularly among Orthodox) about this holiday, revealing a general lenient and tolerant attitude. People have put forward the following arguments: “What is wrong with it? Nobody remembers Clara Zetkin anymore, to say nothing of the marches of feminists, suffragettes, and the Second International… Everything has been miraculously purified, spiritualized and reappraised by itself, so now it is a mere ladies’ day. A wonderful day of spring, the sun, the sky, flowering mimosas… and our dear women.” At first glance it sounds nice and neutral, but the Holy Scriptures teach us absolutely different things: Ye shall know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles? (Mt. 7:16). As this holiday took root in protest, riot and rebellion, so its fruits, which, though outwardly “goody-goody” and innocent, take the form of the nearly universal loss of any idea of the true calling and dignity of women and the ever-increasing spread of deliberate moral and even outward deformity under the cover of “relaxation and liberty”.
But we do have a profound and wonderful day, our Orthodox women’s day. And it is called “the day of the Holy Myrrh-Bearing Women”. And I am quite sure it is not a matter of a feast-day of “the Orthodox ghetto”, “the Orthodox enclave”. Rather, it is one of the few holidays that gives all of us a reason and an opportunity to think seriously of the height and depth of the calling of women and remember what exactly deserves our attention, reverence and even admiration in women. That is, it helps us establish, or, to be more precise, remind and confirm certain spiritual and moral guidelines. That is especially important nowadays, since the motions of the lofty and the mean, the beautiful and the ugly, the worthy and the contemptible are being increasingly diluted. So it would be good and right to recall the best qualities of our dear women if only out of resistance to the ubiquitous blurring of good and evil; to remember and engrave in our hearts this height and beauty, without which our world is steadily turning into some stinking, muddy marsh.
The Myrrh-Bearing Women
In the Orthodox Church the third Sunday after Pascha is always dedicated to the Holy Myrrh-Bearing Women. On this day we commemorate all the good and righteous women who very early on the first day after the Burial of Christ, following a pious tradition, hastened to His tomb to anoint His lifeless Body with sweet spices—that is, myrrh. That is why we call these holy women “the Myrrh-Bearing Women”. But a great miracle occurred: the Lord had risen from the dead, and the Myrrh-Bearing Women (after the Holy Theotokos), who had come to the Savior’s tomb with spices, were the first to learn the news of the Resurrection of Christ. This is the history of this feast in a nutshell. However, there is also the prehistory of it. That is, of course, these pious and good women are glorified by the Church not only for their sacrificial and good service to Christ after His death and Resurrection, but also during His life on earth, which was full of sorrows. Their ministry was obviously barely noticeable, as opposed to the ministry of the apostles, who were always in full view of everyone—near the Lord, preaching, convincing, arguing, and performing miracles… In some sense, women always remained in the background, but it was they who eased the burdens of everyday life of the Savior, for, according to His own words, …the Son of man hath not where to lay His head (Mt. 8:20). Therefore, in the person of the Myrrh-Bearing Women we praise the best women’s traits: sacrificial love, steadfast faith, modesty, patience, and constancy in good works.
And if we speak of the Myrrh-Bearing Women not only in the Biblical context, but also in the context of life and history, then indeed every woman, whether she is a grandmother, a mother, a wife, a sister, or a daughter, is called to this special service, to this special mission, which is truly indispensable. For every single woman is called to be a “myrrh-bearing woman”, where we understand “myrrh” as the abundance of faith and sacrificial love with unlimited patience—an “aromatic composition” that makes our lives, which are unhealthy and corrupted by passions, at least slightly brighter and better.
I quite often communicate with people whose spiritual life began thanks to their grandmothers in one way or another. Yes, the same grandmothers who would take them to church in their childhood, teaching them to live by the commandments… And what next? Next they were swallowed up by years or even decades of adult (and, in effect, godless) life. And yet the faint light of the faith and good memories continued to glimmer in their souls despite the icy winds of vanities and secular cares. And years after their grandmothers had died, the seeds that they had sown suddenly germinated, breaking through the hard rock of sinful routine and turning towards the light with their buds of life. And if these grandmothers were to see their grandchildren thirty or forty years after their own repose, they would be amazed and shed a tear of tenderness. Because their souls had been tormented by the iniquity that they saw everywhere around them, and, taking their grandchildren to church against “public opinion” and sometimes against the will of their obstinate relatives, teaching them how to pray and telling them about the faith, they (the grandmothers) relied not on themselves but on Divine strength, which, as we know, is made perfect in weakness (2 Cor. 12:9). From a human perspective, taking grandchildren to church and telling them about the “Divine things” seemed a hopeless and absurd venture. So, many people used to say to these grannies (sometimes angrily): “Why in the world do you torment these children? What for?!” But the grandmothers didn’t think much anymore—they were just doing things which they believed to be necessary in the simplicity of their God-loving hearts, for they believed in the good, which would prevail sooner or later.
And when we speak of the Church and spiritual continuity in families, grandmothers hold a special place in this subject. It is in our blood. It has even occurred to me that it has been the case since the very beginning, from our “national grandmother”—the Holy Equal-to-the-Apostles Princess Olga, who brought up her worthy grandson and the founder of our statehood—the Holy Equal-to-the-Apostles Prince Vladimir.
Our dear mommies come next in the “age rank”. “Mother” is a sacred word. Everyone knows this. But this word becomes holy only when it is filled with holy meaning, which is in love, self-sacrifice, virtue, and meekness… How simple these words are, but how few are those who are not only ready but also want to put these simple words into life. And this disinclination is terrible because maternal nature itself, the calling and flame that was put into woman’s soul by God, requires this holy self-sacrifice. And it is so sad when we see how this saving and good flame is deliberately extinguished in society so that even the most natural thing in a mother—her maternal feelings, spiritualized by faith and prayer—becomes so alien to woman that you realize with horror that there is nothing to explain here. Because if it has been erased from their souls, no explanations will make up for this loss. We can only weep and entreat the Lord tearfully to breathe back into their souls this holy flame of motherhood, which illuminates and blesses woman, making her what she is called to be, lifting her to the height of her human and Christian dignity. May God help us keep it in our minds and not try to substitute the truth for some surrogates of “post-Christian civilization”. I believe this is what the holy apostle had in mind when he said that woman shall be saved in childbearing (1 Tim. 2:15). Not so much in the fact of childbearing as through caring for the proper, good and Christian upbringing of her children.
We have spoken about grandmothers. But grandmothers begin and grow from mothers. And, while we are glad for the grandmothers’ sake, we grieve at the thought that soon we will most likely no longer have these beacons of faith. Because we see the following scene at every step: an attractive young mom is walking with her pram, and this mom has a “smart” tattoo on her shoulder, or ankle, or neck, along with three rings in her eyebrow and two in her nose, with violet hair and green highlights, and a cigarette in her mouth to boot… And you think with sadness: what will this mommy talk to her son or daughter (and later—her grandchildren) about? Something like this: “This is how we lived, dear grandson! We would cover our bodies with tattoos because it was considered cool… Would hang out at night clubs… make a lot of ‘dough’… drink beer till we got dead drunk…” What else can she talk about? Though she has a lot more to share with her offspring… Won’t you agree that these tattoos are very convincing?… They are not something that appeared by chance or through misunderstanding—they are part of a subculture, part of their life, something the receptacles of their hearts are filled with. And both good and evil come from the human heart … What is clear is that these mommies will have nothing to pass on to their children and grandchildren, unless a miracle of transformation occurs with them (and everything is possible with God). And what will their children and grandchildren remember when they grow up? Flabby tattoos on their mommies’ or grannies’ flabby skin, beer parties and night clubs?… Sounds rather ghastly, doesn’t it?… O Lord, please prevent this glorious generation of myrrh-bearing grandmothers and mothers in our nation (whose contribution is invaluable and who in spite of everything appear among our people from generation to generation, leaving a good mark in the souls of their offspring) from disappearing. So that their children and grandchildren can come to realize, if only many years later, what a priceless treasure the Lord gave them in the person of their grandmothers and mothers. Let them cherish this treasure like the apple of their eye, multiply and pass it on to their children and grandchildren. I believe this is what is called “a national spiritual code”—and there is nothing to replace it with and there is no need to do so.
Now let us say a few words about wives—to be more exact, about their influence on us, their husbands. We can find the following wonderful words in one of the epistles of Apostle Peter:
Likewise, ye wives, be in subjection to your own husbands; that, if any obey not the word, they also may without the word be won by the conversation of the wives; While they behold your chaste conversation coupled with fear (1 Pet. 3:1-2).
Staggering words! Of an extraordinary poetic depth and beauty. This beauty is not artificial but stems from belonging to the truth—because purity, love, patience, constancy, and fidelity can have a favorable impact on a man without additional words and persuasion.
And, as opposed to this, the worst qualities women can have—rudeness, spitefulness, and vulgarity—stem from a lack of understanding by women of their true God-given nature and power. Hence the powerless touchiness, irritation, melancholy, and fear… They say that above all women need love—then they begin to blossom. This is indisputable. However, this applies to everybody—every human being, when loved, begins to flourish, and his best qualities (which he may not have known about before) are revealed. But, of course, to demand or simply expect love from somebody else is not a Christian path. Rather, it is the path of egotism, of justifying one’s failure to fulfil himself rather than revealing the fullness of God-given virtues.
And all the instances of distortion, deformity, and the departure from one’s calling and nature have to do with the same thing—namely egotism, a desire to “live for yourself”, to “express yourself”, to “reveal your talents”, and “fulfil yourself”. On the face of it, these are good intentions. But as a result, the “flowers of evil” come out and burst into luxuriant blossom; these flowers, though diverse, bright and seemingly beautiful, are in reality predatory and poisonous because they are based on egotism and pride. And these flowers have become so numerous that one can hardly breathe in this “acid” flower garden and inhale its “miasma”. And each is a “unique, wonderful personality, true worth of which is unappreciated”, each goes out of his or her way to “find fulfillment”. But here is a paradox: this “self-fulfillment” gives neither genuine joy, nor inspiration, nor hope, nor strength—because the dead idea of self-love and lust underlies this “flowering”, and not the meaningful idea of sacrificial Christian love.
We all partly (to a lesser or greater extent) suffer from this. But at very least we must understand that the only real path in life is the path of serving God and man. All the rest is vanity and vexation of spirit(Eccles. 1:14), as the wise Solomon said.
Then dear sisters follow. They are of the same “age bracket” as us. Of course, some sisters can also be mothers, grandmothers, and daughters. But others have a custom of calling them sisters in Christ. And what do we see that is special about our dear sisters? What do we honor, cherish and praise them for? For the same virtues: purity, love, self-sacrifice, the capacity for disinterested service for Christ’s sake. It is no coincidence that during wars and even now in hospitals, nurses and attendants who serve the sick and wounded have been called affectionately “sisters” [in fact, the Russian for “hospital nurse” is “medsestra”—that is, “medical sister”.—Trans.]. How good! It is a special rank, there is a special intonation in this very Christian name—“sister”. She is a myrrh-bearing woman, too, provided she keeps the tenderness of heart with faith, strives to support, comfort and help others (not only the sick, but all who need this) with unlimited patience… Here we see a special look, a look of compassion and love directed outside—to the suffering and embittered world! How numerous are such “myrrh-bearing sisters”, how much brighter life becomes thanks to their presence, and how much we want them to be more numerous and be strengthened by the Lord in their good service and provided by Him with all they need for a full and joy-filled life. After all, as we have already said, many of them have families, husbands, children, and elderly parents to care for… And we believe that the Lord will take care of many of their household needs for our dear sisters’ self-sacrifice. Though they shouldn’t go to extremes, since it is no good when somebody who helps others completely forgets his nearest and dearest. That is wrong and shouldn’t be done. As Apostle Paul said: But if any provide not for his own, and specially for those of his own house, he hath denied the faith, and is worse than an infidel (1 Tim. 5:8). So there is no doubt that the Lord will help our dear sisters who serve their neighbors in their daily domestic chores, if only they don’t forget their own families. And this “close circle” of their service is often the most important “circle” of ministry to God and people. And even if its “expansion” through serving others is seemingly insignificant, any small labor, carried out wholeheartedly and conscientiously, won’t remain without God’s blessing. In any case, let us honor all our good sisters in Christ on a par with other contemporary myrrh-bearing women, and let us wish them not to lose the purity, meekness, and faith that shine in them, as in lamps, with the serene and joyous light of Christ.
And let us say a little about our dear daughters in conclusion. We want them so much to keep this God-given purity and positive and childlike spontaneity; and not just keep but multiply it by their faith, obedience, diligence and constancy. For these particular things make even the youngest of our dear ladies “myrrh-bearing women”. And here we cannot help but recall the words of Apostle Peter:
Whose adorning let it not be that outward adorning of plaiting the hair, and of wearing of gold, or of putting on of apparel; But let it be the hidden man of the heart, in that which is not corruptible, even the ornament of a meek and quiet spirit, which is in the sight of God of great price (1 Pet. 3:3-4).
In a word, our dear women—daughters, sisters, wives, mothers and grandmothers! We are so happy to have you! May you with the help of God keep, carry and spread the most precious “myrrh” of faith, sacrificial love, and patience. And, having revealed and shown the troubled world the height and beauty of the calling and service of women, may you inspire many, though still unreligious, to glorify the Lord. Because these people will probably see and understand that God has a plan for each one of us and for all of us together, which is most sublime and beautiful, joy-filled and holy! And all that we need is to heed this Divine plan with due attention, to believe in it, trust in it, and step by step begin to put it into life with patience and constancy.