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On "Ritual Impurity": In Response to Sister Vassa (Larin)
By Fr. Sergei Sveshnikov
Jul 6, 2009, 10:00
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Father Sergei Sveshnikov
I recently read an interesting paper by Doctor Sister Vassa (Larin) concerning the issue of ritual impurity in the Orthodox Church.[i] This topic is extremely important both because the bodily functions that give rise to this issue have been around presumably since the fall of Adam and Eve and because they are not likely to go away any time soon, save for an imminent parousia. Namely, Sister Vassa explores the attitudes in the Church toward menstruation, although the issue of ritual impurity is broader than that, and I shall return to this point.

In a sort of deconstruction of the Orthodox tradition with respect to menstruating women’s participation in the liturgical life of the Church, Sister Vassa briefly examines the evidence of this tradition and conflicting opinions from various sources - the Old Testament, the Protoevangelium of James, writings of the Church Fathers - and notes some of the recent developments which point to the instability of the tradition. The conclusion to which Sister Vassa arrives is that ritual impurity «finds no justification in Christian anthropology and soteriology.» But is this really so? I believe that a few comments made by Sister Vassa deserve further examination.


Sister Vassa, well aware that any mention of liberating women from traditional restrictions will be viewed in the context of the feminist debate, attempts to convince her readers that the feminist agenda is not guiding her research. She asserts that since «the Orthodox Church traditionally has no social or political agenda, rendering an argument from this perspective [the feminist debate] largely irrelevant for the Church.» This, of course, is arguable at best, considering that one of the fundamental documents of the Russian Orthodox Church is titled «Bases of the Social Concept of the Russian Orthodox Church» (2000), and its contents well reflect its title. This fact, however, is perhaps less important than the more comprehensive picture of the interrelationship between contemporary feminist ideologies and the Church.

It may be a mistake to think that the feminist debate is «largely irrelevant to the Church.» The Church is not yet fully in Heavenly Jerusalem, nor are its members completely outside of the socio-political and socio-religious life of both the Christian and secular communities. To deny the influence of the contemporary intellectual, philosophical, and socio-ideological atmosphere on the minds of the faithful, including lay activists, hierarchs, and theologians, would be to deny the obvious.

On the other hand, if feminism can be loosely defined as an intellectual and philosophical discourse aimed at equal rights for women, then perhaps there is room for it within the Orthodox tradition, as Churches, including the Orthodox, are known for «picking up baggage» along the millennia-long way. Feminist discourse in the Orthodox Church is inevitable and we may be witnessing its origins in our day - whether in papers about menstruation or in the remarks by Metropolitan Jonah (OCA) about female priesthood.[ii] Potentially, this discourse can be beneficial for both Christian men and women, as it can help clarify the understanding of gender in light of Christ’s truth and the revelation of the Gospel given to the Church.


One important aspect of the discussion of menstruation and the ecclesiastical rules associated with it that appears to be lacking in Sister Vassa’s paper is the very basic overt socio-physiological perspective on the issueÅ that is to say, the issue of blood. For most modern women who enjoy the benefits of advanced hygiene products this is no longer an issue per se, but for much of human history the said products were simply not available. Various forms of menstrual protection were used in different cultures at different times, but there are indications that at least in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Europe many women wore absolutely nothing - no pad or even underwear - and bled freely, leaving a trail wherever they walked.[iii] A tell-tale observation was made by by Silina Cooper (1864-1946), an English Suffragette, when she visited cotton mills around 1900. She found the floors of the workrooms covered with straw to absorb menstrual blood of the women who worked there.[iv] Perhaps a similar situation may be observed when Rachel hid household gods from her father by sitting on them: «Let not my lord be angry that I cannot rise before you, for the way of women is upon me» (Gen. 31:35; RSV here et passim). Now there appears to be absolutely no reason for a modern menstruating woman not to rise. In fact, some are even able to enjoy trips to public swimming pools, thanks to such industry leaders as Tampax. For Rachel, on the other hand, there was a valid reason for not getting up from her seat, so much so that her father did not question it. These considerations may prove to be the key to understanding why the custom of menstruating women abstaining from the liturgical life of the Church has persisted despite the encouraging opinion expressed by Pope Saint Gregory the Great as cited by Sister Vassa.

Contrary to Sister Vassa’s assertion that the custom of menstruating women abstaining from the liturgical life of the Church is a «fundamentally non-Christian phenomenon in the guise of Orthodox piety Å that reflects pagan and Old-Testament fears of the material world,» I propose that this custom has risen out of basic human experience which is common to pagans, Jews, and Christians. It seems somewhat unwarranted to dismiss everything non-Christian, pagan, or Old-Testament, because this would necessarily include such things as marriage, priesthood, faith in a hypostatic God, the use of the Stoic word logos, the Gnostic word homoousios, and the Neo-Platonic idea of a trinity, among others. The path of the Fathers seems to be somewhat different, as they took certain pagan and Jewish concepts and customs, gave them a deeper meaning in light of the Christian gnosis, and reworked them to reflect the truth of Christ. Of course, this in no way means that the overt socio-physiological aspect of menstruation continues to play as important a role in the contemporary life of the Church as it did only one or two hundred years ago. However, keeping in mind that modern female hygiene products are just that - modern[v] - may help put some of the Church rules into a historical perspective.

Ritual Impurity

Very few people would disagree that leaving trails of menstrual blood in our sanctuaries is a bad idea, but it would be incorrect to focus on only women being subject to the rules of «ritual impurity.» A bleeding male would also be asked to abstain from entering a church, unless the flow of blood was stopped. In fact, in my memory there was a case when a priest cut his thumb while serving the Liturgy of Preparation (Prothesis), and had to leave the church as he was unable to stop the blood flow. The notion of ritual impurity in the Orthodox Church is much broader than menstruating women and also applies to some aspects of male physiology, as well as to some non-gender-specific situations.

Consider, for example, the name of the ordo usually understood as mandated for men after an involuntary nocturnal emission - »Rule Against Defilement.» Of course, one may argue (which is also evident in the prayers attributed to Saint Basil the Great) that men themselves are to blame for succumbing to the passion of the flesh, but this may not always be the case, considering that even great saints apparently had these experiences and a standardized ordo has been composed. The ecclesiastical implications of nocturnal emissions are somewhat different from those of menstruation, but a man is not typically continuing to have the said emissions in church, while menstruation continues for several days.

A seventeenth-century Russian Church document titled «Instructional Information» lists several things which can preclude a priest from serving a liturgy and any faithful from partaking of holy Communion (albeit, nothing is said about other aspects of liturgical life): unlimited eating and drinking, sexual intercourse, and nocturnal emissions, among others.[vi] In other words, it may be understood that all these impediments are seen as defiling a man. The «Instructional Information» goes even further in declaring that not only people, but sacred buildings and items can be defiled. It mandates, for example, that the liturgical life of a church must stop if the church becomes «defiled by the accidental shedding of human blood during some disorder, either by the blow of a weapon or hand or any other kind, or by some carnal impurity on the floorÅ»[vii] May this last reference be in relation to menstrual blood? Perhaps, but the instruction is not specific and could potentially cover a large number of things not related to female physiology.

The distinction between sacred and profane - whether in space or time or periods of human life - is fundamentally compatible with the Orthodox worldview: from the rules of purity (for men and women) related to the liturgical life to the special care for liturgical items, and from the buttery joy of Maslenitsa (Carnival Week) to the pure joy of the Bright Week - everything in Orthodoxy speaks of this dichotomy. This is not to imply that the profane is somehow unnatural or necessarily defiled, but neither should we reduce the rules concerning menstruating women to retained pagan practices without searching for possible uniquely-Christian understanding of the said rules.

Theological Dimension

One such interpretation of the rules of ritual purity has been offered by Father Vladimir Vorobiev in the course of lectures on Liturgical Tradition given at Saint Tikhon Theological Orthodox University in Moscow, Russia.[viii] Vorobiev notes that as the result of the fall, God said to the woman: ««I will greatly multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth childrenÅ» (Gen. 3:16). Vorobiev concludes that matters associated with childbirth, such as menstruation and the natural cleansing after birth, may be understood as an epitimia or a sort of penance, during which, as during any other penance, one is to abstain from Communion. Whether this is a valid exegesis of the Scripture and reflects the mind of the Church is up for discussion, but the existence of such opinions as the one offered by Vorobiev indicates that there may be a viable theological dimension in the seemingly outdated purity rules.

One may argue that as Christians we are no longer under the curse because «Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law» (Gal. 3:13). True, but this and similar verses do not easily lend themselves to literal interpretations: men continue to eat bread in the sweat of their faces until they return to the ground (Gen. 3:19), and women continue to bring forth children in pain (16). Christ defeated death and gave to us life eternal (Rom. 6:23), yet no one is proposing abolishing our burial rites as outdated. Sister Vassa writes that «Orthodox Christians, male and female, have been cleansed in the waters of baptism, buried and resurrected with Christ, Who became our flesh and our humanity, trampled Death by death, and liberated us from its fear.» This also is true. In Christ, «here is neither Jew nor Greek, Å neither male nor female» (Gal. 3:28), yet this has not yet caused the dissolution of the Patriarchate of Jerusalem or that of Constantinople, and the Orthodox Church insists on marriage as being between specifically a male and a female. The Church is both the revelation of the age to come, but also the ark of salvation for those who have not yet undergone complete theosis.

The desire to leave aside the profane, to die to the world, and to live only by that which is spiritual is a recognizable theme of Christian monasticism. A monastic aspires to sanctify his or her entire life and being[ix]; but, in the case of women of childbearing age, is unable to fully do so in the Orthodox tradition when faced with ritual purity rules seemingly beyond her control. A natural reaction to such a conundrum is to deconstruct the rules as outdated and incompatible with Christian ideals. This tendency can be observed not only among Orthodox nuns, but also Catholic ones. Sister Bernard Mncube laments, for example: «I am a Roman Catholic nun and proud of itÅ I can talk about my hand, face, and every part of my body, but when it comes to my vagina, I dare not even whisper the word. As if God has created something so evil that we are not even allowed to say a word about it.»[x]

While I am not aware of the existence or nature of any Roman Catholic purity rules concerning menstruating women, the objections of an Orthodox nun are well taken. For a monastic (presumably, also for Sister Vassa), the liturgical life of the Church is an extremely important part of his or her spiritual life. While laity may attend services once or twice a week, a monastic may strive to join his or her community in common prayer once or twice each day. Because of the prominence of church services in the life of a nun, it must be quite frustrating and rather difficult to accept that «she was not to go to Communion; she could not kiss the icons or touch the Antidoron; she could not help bake prosphoras or handle them, nor could she help clean the church; she could not even light the lampada or iconlamp that hung before the icons in her own cell» (Larin) - not just once or twice in her life, but for a whole week every month! Point well taken. Clearly, the discourse must continue, as it has, and acceptable forms of Orthodox praxis must be sought. But let us not hasten to dismantle millennial traditions of the Church without giving a full theological and analytical treatment both to the issue at hand and to the elevated texts cited in Sister Vassa’s excellent paper.

See also: More to the Point: Should Nuns Light Their Icon Lamps?


[i] Sister Vassa (Larin). «Ritual Impurity.» Orthodoxy and the World., 2 July 2009. Originally published in St Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly 52:3-4 (2008) 275-92.

[ii] Metropolitan Jonah (Paffhausen). Address to the ANCA Assembly. Saint Vincent’s Cathedral, Bedford, Texas, 24 June 2009.

[iii] Zur Geschichte der Unterwäsche 1700-1960. 1988. Historisches Museum Frankfurt, p. 336.

[iv] Liddington, Jill. The Life and Times of a Respectable Rebel: Selina Cooper, 1864-1946. London: Vigaro Press, 1984.

[v] First commercial sanitary napkins became available in 1888 in Europe and in 1896 in the United States.

[vi] «Instructional Information.» Service Book: The Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom. Jordanville: Holy Trinity Monastery, 1999, pp. 11-3.

[vii] Ibid., 32.

[viii] An audio recording of the lectures in mp3 format is available at

[ix] The same, of course, is expected of all Christians.

[x] Qtd. in Johnson, Elizabeth. Truly Our Sister. A Theology of Mary in the Communion of Saints. New York: Continuum, 2005, pp. 30-1.

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