On “Ritual Impurity”: In Response to Sister Vassa (Larin)

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 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.

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.

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.


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.

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.


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 issueЕ 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 Е 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

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.

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 floorЕ»[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

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 childrenЕ» (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, Е 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 itЕ 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?


Sister Vassa (Larin). «Ritual Impurity.» Orthodoxy and the World.
www.pravmir.com, 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.

«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 http://www.predanie.ru/mp3/protoierej_Vladimir_Vorobjov/

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

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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