I have been a practicing devout Orthodox woman for the past 22 years. This is counting from my true conversion into the faith that took place during my early 20s, not by benefit of my birth into a Greek Orthodox family. For all this time, the faith has sustained me: its traditions have comforted my soul, its theology has revealed the truth in my own soul and in the outside world. Its message of love symbolized in the all-holy image of Christ on the Cross has been the beacon for living. Christ on the Cross—that’s the central image and tenet of this faith. There is no doubt in my mind that its message, one of complete surrender to the Divine, that love divine love is what saves the world, that whole-hearted sacrifice the most poignant embodiment of love at work, is the Truth. Yes, I have heard about kenosis, that it’s the ego that is at fault for the soul’s travail, that by getting rid of selfish desire and self-centeredness one makes more room for the divine grace to enter thus making possible the goal of every soul theosis. To be God-like and bask in the light and love of the divine.
This sounds wonderful on the page and in theory. But, I have real struggles manifesting this in “the real world.” Of course, I am a wretch and a sinner with passions and bad habits. That’s partly why it is so hard to live the love of the Cross. But, there is a deeper issue tied to my being a woman and another tied to the concept of a healthy self-esteem.When I take these two aspects into account, I have to draw a line. There is a limit to love.
First the woman issue. The idea of self-sacrifice comes easier (in general) to women than men. Women have been socialized to be caring, nurturing, self-sacrificing by nature and by culture. As an inferior minority in most societies, they bear the brunt of the hard-work and the sacrifices for putting others, especially their children and their communities first. They put their own talents, aspirations, and needs second to taking care of others. This is all good and Christian, except that when the idealism of the Christian message hits the streets, it is coopted and taken advantage of. In church I see all the majority of the work, organizing functions, maintenance of building, taking care of the needy, falling to the women. Men chant, give lectures, serve liturgy and the women hover about taking care of their every little need. The Philoptochos has been predominantly a female-run institution. Is it that charity is an exclusively female virtue? Is chanting an exclusively male domain? So much of the work of the church, feeding the hungry, visiting the sick, coordinating the shipment of charitable goods is done by the women. More than 60% of the volunteers in Orthodox church ministry are women. My issue is how can I believe in love and self-sacrifice in theory when in practice they are exercised unequally across a gender line?
Even while acknowledging that Christianity is one of the more forward-leaning institutions with regards to gender roles, in the 21st century in the Greek Orthodox Church of North America, I feel like a non-entity, a persona non grata. I do not see myself represented: I hear male voices in the choir, I see male deacons officiating, I hear male readers proclaiming the good word, I read liturgical texts and spiritual books that never refer to me as “she” or “woman”, I revere male theologians and saints over and over. It registers to one sensitive about these things as if only men had souls, if only their salvation matters. Although theoretically I know that is not true, the church does revere women, holds the Theotokos above all saints, but realistically, practically, I do not feel it. It feels like women are secondary; their words and their experiences do not matter. If they have the gall to express the slightest dissatisfaction, they are dismissed as sinful or worse, it is ignored. the Apostles did not believe the myrrh-bearers when they brought the truth of Christ’s Resurrection, because the word of a woman did not count The “Inter-Orthodox Symposium on the Place of the Woman in the Orthodox Church and the Question of the Ordination of Women” held on the island of Rhodes decreed that “The apostolic order of the deaconess should be revived . . . The revival of this ancient order . . . would represent a positive response to many of the needs and demands of the contemporary world. This would be all the more true if the diaconate in general (male as well as female) were restored in all places in its original, manifold services (diakoniai) with extension into the social sphere, in the spirit of the ancient tradition and in response to the increasing specific needs of our time.” 1 That was in 1998. The Orthodox Church has done very little to reinstate the order of deaconesses. It did, however, in sub-Saharan Africa when practicality called for it.
The second issue revolves around how healthy self-sacrifice and self-abasement can be to souls who have been abused. Psychologist tell us that you cannot love others if you cannot love yourself. A child cannot grow up believing that she is the root of all evil, which a long-standing Christian tradition expounds for women. How just and loving is it when someone destroys their own self-image and integrity to support others? Is there no room in Christianity for self-love? What’s so bad with having a healthy self-esteem? With standing up for yourself? Shouldn’t there be a limit to how much someone can sacrifice for another? When does a saint teeter as a masochist? Should someone “sacrifice” their life for another who is taking advantage of their kindness?
I have seen too many cases of women getting brutalized by partners, becoming victims of all sorts of emotional, physical and psychological abuse and taking it all because they believe this is the Christian thing to do. To suffer at the hands of your husband, the one who in the Bible is supposed to care and love you as himself. To be obedient and respectful are wonderful qualities, when your husband does right by you. In a healthy relationship governed by love for the “weaker sex,” it would be easier to put up with the female role as a “helpmate” or “companion” to man and not an equal partner. But in the reality of a broken world, the power entrusted to patriarchs can be abused to make the sanctimony of marriage an anathema. Too many children are wounded by the trauma of living under the virtue of a woman’s “quiet suffering” who has chosen to become the self-sacrificial victim of circumstances.
Many women use their faith as a crutch for not doing what is right but choosing instead to allow abuse as passive victims and actually make their acceptance of abuse into a wreath of sacrifice. “it is the cross I have to bear,” they rationalize in their minds that they are doing the Christian thing by accepting the abuse. Examples of the Church’s glorifying women as martyrs by bearing abuse exist, as the previous post about Saint Thomais of Lesvos revealed. Ironically this saint was upheld as the patron of marriage and wives in difficult relationships. A popular commentary on her life quoted in many Orthodox webpages cites, “because she was very pious and virtuous, she endured the barbaric behavior of her husband, who beat her severely every day [for thirteen years]. The Saint countered this temptation with prayer, patience and charity. God made her worthy of the grace of wonder-working.”
In the 21st century she would have been considered a domestic violence victim and be referred to a social worker.
I am not sure how healthy this stance is. How much do we bear the injustice of others meekly? What example do we give our children when we accept the abuse at the hands of those who are supposed to love us? Why is it condoned to exhibit love and care for others but possess such vile self-loathing for oneself? How does this self-loathing and unhealthy self-esteem get you into heaven anyway? The human soul was meant for joy not agony. How is it fair that a Christian must be charitable to all except oneself? The Christian message about self can be very harmful especially to those vulnerable and already lacking in self-esteem. For some the Golden Rule should be in contrapositive form: Do unto you as you do unto others. From what I can see, a human relationship does not survive very long with only one person sacrificing and the other taking. There needs to be a fair give-and-take, a synergy between partners, in order for it to function properly.
In many cases, the dilemma is not as extreme. Sometimes it comes down to everyday choices. Is it sinful to ask to take a hot bath and reserve some time for yourself instead of constantly running after others? Is it wrong to put your needs first if filling your needs will make you a stronger more present person for others? Self-sacrifice involves a lot of burnout. That burnout leads to resentment, short fuse and generalized misery. Is it better to be a little selfish but a bit happier, reserving a bit of love and care for oneself, or to be self-sacrificing but utterly miserable? I have seen been around many miserable givers. It makes their offerings toxic.
It’s hard to separate theory from practice; to say one thing about the theology but in practice to experience another. Love, even self-sacrificial love, has its limits. No more sappy Hallmark verse quips. Perhaps in a divine world, Christian love can work unconditionally. In the real world, with real problems, a woman must be wise in all things, especially in love. Only by balancing the love of herself with the love of others can she be happy. If this is an unChristian doctrine, please somebody explain.