Reflections on Female Spirituality

The following are very unscientific reflections and observations of one man on just a few ways that expressions of female spirituality may be seen through a male prism, or, as they like to say nowadays, window of understanding.
Priest Sergei Sveshnikov | 28 December 2009

Source:  Fr. Sergei Sveshnikov’s blog





Every man, at least every married man, is faced with the task of deciphering female psychology.  Popular wisdom provides plenty of evidence to the many differences between men and women, but more scholarly works are equally plentiful.  Additionally, a large body of feminist thought has now provided insight not only into the unique psycho-emotional makeup of men and women, but also into differences in male and female worldview and spirituality. 

The following are very unscientific reflections and observations of one man on just a few ways that expressions of female spirituality may be seen through a male prism, or, as they like to say nowadays, window of understanding.


Adam’s Rib on the Grill of Creation


The first time a man saw a woman, he had just woken up from deep sleep…  At least, the Bible says so (Gen. 2:21).[1]  Perhaps, the sleep was not deep enough or maybe there was some pre-surgery council between God and Adam, but somehow along the way Adam was aware of who Eve was and how she came into being.  Upon meeting her, he exclaimed: “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man” (23).  This is profound indeed, for unto the man God said: “…out of [the ground] you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (3:19).


If we look carefully at the Bible’s account of creation, we will notice the process of gradual perfection as chaos was brought to order and higher-level elements of the created world came into being from lower-level elements.  The heaven and earth, or, rather, the primordial chaos of elements which were to become the created world (“heaven and earth” or “all”) (see 1:2), were brought into being out of nothing.  Then by calling out and separating God created the light, the darkness, the firmament, and “separated the waters from the waters” (3-8).  He further divided and separated the firmament with its waters into dry land the seas (9, 10).  And at every step we see a division or cutting of the whole into more complex and orderly elements, perhaps, not unlike carving or sculpting.

The earth is then ordered to “put forth vegetation” (11), and she “brought forth vegetation” (12).  Thus, the vegetation was not created out of nothing, nor was it brought into being out of primordial chaos.  Rather, it came from that which was already shaped and ordered.  Later, the earth brought forth “the beasts of the earth according to their kind” (24, 25), but in the meantime the waters brought forth “swarms of living creatures and… birds” (20, 21).  Thus, in the order of ever increasing complexity creatures came into being.

Finally, “the LORD God formed man of dust from the ground” (2:7).  Seemingly, the man may have had origins similar to those of the beasts of the earth.  Based on the text, it is impossible to determine with any precision what exactly took place.  The man was not brought forth by the earth, as were the beasts, but rather formed by God.  Perhaps, this signifies that the man is excluded from the natural order of living creatures or another explanation could be envisioned.  Protodeacon Andrei Kuraev, for example, notes that the ancient Hebrew wordadamah from which we derive the name Adam means “worked up, plowed soil.”[2][3]  In other words, Adam was not made from virgin soil, like the animals, but from something[4] that had already been touched by God.


The rest of human history continued the process of divine separation or selection.  From all the people on Earth one man was chosen (12:1), and from his two sons only Isaac was selected to be in the covenant with God (17:21).  And Isaac’s son became the father of the twelve patriarchs.  From all the peoples, only Israel was chosen (Deut 7:6), and from all the Israelites only one virgin was chosen to become the mother of the Anointed One (Matt. 1:16).  This is not to give any support to the heralds of Jewish supremacism—a topic for a very different paper.  The selection or election, at least according to Christian doctrine, continued through the New Testament ekklesia, and all have been selected, all are called out.


Returning to Genesis, however, namely to its second chapter, we find a very different kind of creature—the woman.  She was not brought forth by virgin earth, nor was she made from plowed or fertilized soil.  Rather, she was made from “a living being” (Gen. 2:7).   If we continue the trajectory established by the creation of Adam—he was taken from the earth and was to have dominion over it (1:26)—then the woman, who was taken from Adam, was to have dominion over him.  In some way she must have been superior to him.  This idea may be further advanced and supported by the first divinely established social order—the matriarchate (2:24). 

I have already discussed this concept in some detail in my previous paper, “On the Role of Women in the Church.” [5]  I have also discussed the nature of biblical headship or dominion, which is quite different from that found in secular orders.[6]  It suffices only to mention here that the nature of biblical dominion mentioned in 1:26 is revealed in 2:15: “The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it.”  This, of course, is hardly an image of a secular dominator, but rather a gardener, a servant.  This role is consistent with that of the Lord Jesus Christ, Who came “not to be served but to serve” (Mark 10:45), as well as with Eve’s role as Adam’s helper (Gen. 2:18-22).


It is not surprising that biblical lordship has been perverted by sin into what we now know as secular lordship, its exact opposite.  But in the punishment given to Adam and Eve after their fall, we see the restoration of the divine order, albeit, on new terms chosen by the free will of humans.  Adam, who was called upon to “till and keep” the garden, is told: “in toil you shall eat of [the ground] all the days of your life… In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread…” (3:18, 19)  Eve, who was to be Adam’s helper, is told: “your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you…” (16)  Thus, each is given the medicine that helps restore in some way or perhaps preserve to some degree the order which was broken, although the true and complete restoration is to still come.  At the same time, it cannot be stressed enough that when we are faced with such words as “dominion,” “rule over you,” etc., most often we view them through the prism of our own fallen and sinful nature.  For a more detailed discussion of how this concept is presented in the Bibles, please refer to my previous paper, “On the Role of Women in the Church.”

Nonetheless, despite the world altered by sin, men have continued though time and the world over to worship women, be inspired by them, and offer to them their hands and hearts.  They call them their muses, devote sonnets and art to them, and slay dragons in their name (or, at least, attack unsuspecting windmills).  And in traditional Christianity, the Mother of God has played a prominent role in the devotions of many men.  Whether or not this harkens back to the original role for which the woman was created, as the Queen of Heaven, the Theotokos is certainly placed above all men, and as the embodiment of the Church, she represents the one for whom Christ lay down His life (John 15:13).

The story of creation is loaded with symbolism and cannot be understood as a purely historical account of a linear chain of events.  The parallel between the mystery of Christ and His Church and the mystery of man and woman is attested to by the Apostle Paul (Eph. 5:32), but more specific things come to mind.  Consider, for example, the parallels between Eve, “the mother of all living” (Gen. 3:20), coming from the side of the first Adam, and the life-giving Blood coming from the side of Christ, the second Adam (John 19:34).  Could it be that there is also a parallel between the stories of Eve “selling” her primacy of honor over Adam for a bite to eat, and Esau’s “selling” his for a pot of lentils (Gen. 25:34)?



Should Nuns Light Their Icon Lamps?


In her paper on ritual impurity in the Orthodox Church,[7] Sister Vassa (Larin) shares an interesting insight into some expressions of female spirituality:


When I entered a convent of the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad in France, I was introduced to the restrictions imposed on a nun when she has her [monthly] period. Although she was allowed to go to church and pray, 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: this last rule was explained to me when I noticed an unlighted lampada in the icon-corner of another sister.

Now, to be sure, both Sister Vassa in her work and I in my two papers on the same topic [8] show that the only canonical rule for women during the normal course of menstruation is that they not partake of Holy Communion.  So, from where do the rest of the prohibitions come?  Let us keep in mind that while there is certainly a bishop in a convent’s administration and a priest to serve liturgical services, the daily life of the sisters—who kisses, bakes, or lights what and when—is regulated by the abbess and elder nuns.  No priest or bishop finds out whether a nun is menstruating and goes into her cell to make sure that her lampada is not lit.  These matters are probably mostly self-regulated by women or groups of women (families, parishes, convents, etc.).  It is noteworthy that Sister Vassa reports learning about ritual impurity rules “imposed on a nun.”  It is unlikely that she learned nothing at all about this matter from her mother before becoming a nun; indeed, this remark probably points to the fact that the rules are far less strict and far more commonsensical in parishes than they are in convents.


This is only one example of an exaggeration and undue strictness of canonical rules by some women.  This observation, however, relates to the conversation that Eve had with the serpent in the Garden of Eden:

[The serpent] said to the woman, “Did God say, `You shall not eat of any tree of the garden’?”  And the woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden; but God said, `You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.’” (Gen. 3:1-3)

If we assume that the serpent was a decent psychologist—an assumption that is often made about Satan[9]—then his question to Eve must have been a product of his psychoanalysis of her vulnerability.  So, he exaggerates: “any tree.”  He was right on; Eve replies: “God said, `You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it…” (emphasis is mine—S.S.)  Actually, God did not say not to touch it: “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat…” (2:16)  Eve is exaggerating and making God’s commandment stricter, adding an extra clause, in much the same way as her twenty-first-century daughters will not light their icon lamps or even touch icons or other sacred objects during menstruation, even though the canon clearly says only not to partake of Communion.  This reminds me of an old joke:


God: And remember, Moses, in the laws of keeping Kosher, never cook a calf[10] in its mother’s milk. It is cruel.

Moses: “So you are saying we should never eat milk and meat together.”

God: “No, what I’m saying is, never cook a calf in its mother’s milk.”

Moses: “Oh Lord, forgive my ignorance! What you are really saying is we should wait six hours after eating meat to eat milk so the two are not in our stomachs.”

God: “No, Moses, listen to me.  I am saying, don’t cook a calf in its mother’s milk!!!”
Moses: “Oh, Lord! Please don’t strike me down for my stupidity! What you mean is we should have a separate set of dishes for milk and a separate set for meat and if we make a mistake we have to bury that dish outside….”

God: “Moses, do whatever you want……….”[11]


Perhaps, the joke illustrates that men may not be immune to some religious exaggerations.  But the story of Eve and the serpent is neither a joke nor a page from a biography of one person.  Rather, it is an archetypal mythological representation of reality which on some level is applicable to all sons of Adam and daughters of Eve (cf. 2 Cor. 11:3).  Could the story of Eve and the serpent be an insight into female spirituality worth exploring for its contemporary significance, at least in the lives of a few sisters at a particular “convent of the Russian Church Abroad in France”?


Holy Elders and Their Women


One more interesting phenomenon that deserves our attention is the curious relationship between saintly elders and by extension many parish priests, and their spiritual daughters and by extension many parish women.  Commenting on this extension, Fr. Maxim Kozlov, a prominent Russian theologian, a professor at the Moscow Theological Academy, and the Rector of Saint Tatiana’s church at the Moscow State University, writes: “…parishioners, mainly female parishioners, are ready to search for elders and see them in parish priests who are not to blame for this.”[12]  A very similar observation is made by another prominent modern theologian Protodeacon Andrei Kuraev: “Women create a cult of ‘Father’ in the parish by ascribing to him the title of an ‘elder’” (195).[13]  Of course, not all parish priests are innocent, as some skillfully foster an image of a “young elder,” but for the purposes of our study, it is noteworthy that Kozlov asserts that it is mainly female parishioners who elevate parish priests to an elder status.  Whether or not the esteemed professor correctly interprets the women’s intentions toward their parish priests, women certainly have played a prominent and unmistakable role in the lives of many real elders. 


Out of two hundred and eighty letters by Archimandrite John (Krestiankin, +2006) collected in a volume published during the author’s life by the monastery where he lived and worked,[14] 182 are replies to women correspondents, compared with 82 addressed to men and 16 that either cannot be positively identified or are addressed to married couples.  That is more than double the number![15] Similarly, in a truly fundamental research work on Fr. John of Kronstadt (+1908),[16] Nadieszda Kizenko writes that “women twice as often as men wrote him long letters asking for spiritual counsel, describing their lives in great detail” (127).  A collection of letters written by Hegumen Nikov (Vorobiev, +1963)[17] contains 334 letters, 237 of which are replies to female correspondents, only 72—to men, and 25 could not be identified or are addressed to couples.


Lest anyone think that the publishing establishment harbors an anti-male bias, a collection of letters of Saint John Chrysostom[18] contains only 32 letters to women compared to 82 to men.  Of those 82 letters, however, many can be classified as “business” rather than “letters to spiritual children”: 28 are to bishops, 21—to presbyters, and of the remaining 33 many are to government officials, and are of a character strikingly different from that of the 17 letters to Deaconess Olympiada (or Olympias), for example, which average more than nine pages per letter.


We can also recall the letters of Archpriest Avvakum Petrov (+1682)[19] to his spiritual daughters Theodosia Morozova, Evdokia Urusova, and Maria Danilova; the letters of Elder Paisios (Eznepidis, +1994)[20] to the sisters of Saint John the Evangelist Convent; and the special spiritual bond that Saint Seraphim of Sarov shared with the sisters of the Diveyevo convent.


However, leaving the intricacies of monastic relationships to those who possess a personal first-hand experience with the angelic life, we shall return to the discussion of matters parish life.  In a rather unscientific and unreliable way based mostly on almost eight years of personal experience as a parish priest, I shall propose that women typically have a richer[21] spiritual life than men, at least, if we gauge this on the length and content of their confession.  This may draw the attentions of some parish priests who are usually also—at least based on the vocational choice they have made—predisposed to having a somewhat richer than average spiritual life.  Noting another intriguing connection between parish priests and women (nuns, in particular), Kizenko asserts that


Both groups [are] far from the networks of episcopal power and prestige (although it [is] possible for a widowed priest to become a bishop… this [is] not common).  In their service and lack of access to power, priests [are] symbolic women in the all-male Orthodox hierarchy. (132-3)

A fascinating observation, but one that is probably felt more on a subconscious level, as few if any parish priests consciously think themselves to be “symbolic women.”  Similarly, there must have been something else on the minds of Saint John of Kronstadt’s female parishioners when “bevies of admiring women… gazed soulfully at Father John and gave him expensive presents” (146).  Others were not as tactful, as one contemporary of Saint John wrote: “…around Father John huddles… a hive of hysterical and psychopathic women glorifying fantastic miracles and miraculous phenomena” (qt. in ibid. 258). 


The process of the glorification of Father John of Kronstadt among the saints gave credence to at least some of these women’s observations, as they had recognized God’s working in the life of a parish priest from Kronstadt.  The “hysterical and psychopathic” part, however, is not so easily dismissed.  Another priest, one of Saint John’s contemporaries, “spoke of Father John’s ‘tearing himself out of the grip of his overly excited admirers—especially—admiresses…’”; and another contemporary recalled that “it was mostly women who completely lost their reason [when they learned that Father John’s carriage would pass], flinging themselves under the hooves of his horse with the words, ‘Praise the Lord, I have suffered for Christ!’” (qtd. in ibid. 267).


Kizenko argues that one reason some pious women enter into a close relationship with an elder [whether a Holy Elder or an imposter or “young elder”—S.S.], is because this offers them “one of the only legitimate [in certain worldviews—S.S.] venues at their disposal for escaping or subverting the authority of their husbands” (129).  A woman can easily find a willing [or, at least, obliged] listener in a parish priest, and many of the spiritual conversations and advice received during such conversations can be kept private from a husband who is often far less zealous or easily excitable when it comes to things religious.  The advice received from an elder also easily trumps any opinion that a husband may have on virtually any issue.  There is one difference, however: the woman does not have to live with the elder, and can either consciously or unconsciously choose what advice to receive and what to follow.

There are also far less sinister explanations.  In her analysis of the correspondence received by Saint John of Kronstadt, Kizenko points out that, “While both men and women thought of God as an actor in their lives, educated women reacted to Him more personally…” (117)  Perhaps women are more personally attuned to the spiritual life or are more predisposed to developing a deeper and intensely personal relationship with God (and His servants).  After all, it was Eve alone who was pushing the boundaries of good and evil while her husband, presumably, was tinkering with his garden tools or just snoozing and expecting his wife to bring him supper.  In some way, Adam’s surprise at what happened is easy enough to understand: “The woman whom Thou gavest to be with me, she gave me fruit of the tree, and I ate” (Gen. 3:12)—he, probably, did not even pay attention either to Eve’s quest or to what he was gobbling up![22]


Eve, on the other hand, “saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise” (Gen. 3:6)—all of the qualities that appear to have had nothing to do with God’s purpose for the Tree.  Whether we choose to accept a simplified notion that the purpose of God’s commandment concerning the Tree of good and evil was to provide the first humans with actual rather than merely potential freedom,[23] or a more sophisticated one expressed by many Orthodox writers[24]—neither its nutritional value, nor delightful looks, nor wisdom-granting properties reflect God’s divine purpose for this Tree.  Adam and Eve were to find sustenance in God, yet Eve searched for food elsewhere; they were to contemplate God (θεωρία), but Eve found “delight to the eyes” at the sight of an object; finally the knowledge of good and evil, that is to say, the knowledge of all that is, is not wisdom.  Christ is the Wisdom of God; and humans can partake of this wisdom only in Christ and through Christ.[25] 


Perhaps, the knowledge of good and evil, of heaven and earth, of all that is, was to belong to Adam and Eve in due time, but they chose to usurp it.  For traditional Christians this concept is easily understood.  God gave to us Himself and we partake of the very Body and Blood of Christ in the Sacrament of Holy Communion.  But we must first prepare our bodies by fasting and our souls by prayer, “For any one who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself.  That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died” (1 Cor. 11:29, 30).  And again, “then after the morsel [of Communion], Satan entered into him [Judas]” (John 13:27).  Thus, the commandment to fast from the fruit of the Tree of the knowledge of good and evil may not have been an eternal one.  Perhaps, Adam and Eve had to first accomplish some inner work.  Perhaps, they had to first gain wisdom, whose beginning is the fear of the Lord (Prov. 9:10), before partaking of the knowledge of good and evil.  But having unworthily partaken of it, Adam and Eve inherited weakness, illness, and death (cf. 1 Cor. 11:30). 


In Eve’s adding an extra clause to God’s commandment about the Tree, in her “seeing” extra qualities of the fruit of the Tree, and in some way, in the treatment of ritual purity rules that was discussed earlier, we may suspect a lack of understanding of the spiritual and theological meaning of things and a tendency to overcompensate for this lack of understanding by adding external elements and non-existent qualities.[26]  Could this be a glimpse into the process by which any old monk—whether saintly or not—can become an “elder” in the eyes of some beholders, and any parish priest—whether competent in spiritual matters or not—risks becoming a “holy father” to those who too zealously seek one?


This certainly in no way implies that men are somehow more likely to understand the true theological meaning of things.  Ancestral and personal sin blinds all humans equally.  If we chose to look at expressions of male spirituality instead, we would find an equally shallow comprehension of things divine, beginning with Adam’s participation in the original sin and followed by his blaming God Who gave him a wife (Gen. 3:12).  Men have also been responsible for their share of various mind-numbing religious restrictions and prohibitions.  Nonetheless, with respect to real or pseudo-elders, it appears that women more than men are likely to both recognize or create someone’s “elderhood.”  They are also more likely to seek a closer relationship with the elder as well as spiritual direction, whereas men tend to avoid asking for directions—a fact that is supported by both conventional wisdom and psychological research.[27] 



Power of Handkerchiefs


On my recent trip to Russia with the miracle-working Kursk-Root Icon of the Mother of God “The Sign” (September 12—October 2, 2009), I had the unique honor and privilege of spending about four hours a day  standing by the holy Icon as thousands of people came to venerate it.  By the most conservative estimates, approximately one thousand people came through each hour, which means that in twenty days I personally saw approximately eighty thousand people.  My task did not consist of merely standing as do honor guards, for example, but of assisting the faithful in various ways.  Many people brought small icons and other items with them, and the clergy on duty “sanctified” those items by touching them to the holy Icon.  Of course, I did not keep track of exactly how many people came, how many of what gender, or who brought what items, but after seeing eighty thousand people I did form some very unscientific and vague impressions.

In general, it seems that more women came to venerate the Icon than did men, and certainly more women stayed for the services which were served continually by shifts of local clergy.  I could not quantify this observation in any way, and there may be some practical reasons for why more women were able to come (employment, obligations, etc.), but this observation appears consistent with women’s heightened experience of spirituality, which was discussed earlier.  Women are simply more likely to put forth effort, take the time, and wait in a long line to come venerate an icon than men are.

Women also appeared by far more likely to bring some item to be touched to the Icon that they then could keep as a material token of the spiritual experience of venerating the Icon.  The word that was consistently used to describe this process was “sanctification” (освящение).  This refers to a process by which an item is touched to a holy object (such as a miracle-working icon) and thus “partakes” in some way of the sanctity of the holy object.  I shall leave aside the questions of how exactly an item gets sanctified by being in close proximity to a holy object.  Let us assume that the process is similar to that described in the book of Acts:


And God did extraordinary miracles by the hands of Paul, so that handkerchiefs or aprons were carried away from his body to the sick, and diseases left them and the evil spirits came out of them. (19:11, 12)

And handkerchiefs and aprons they brought.  Men also brought things, but far less frequently than women and mostly small copies of icons or they pulled their pectoral crosses from under their shirts and touched them to the Kursk Icon.  Women did that too, but they also brought handkerchiefs and scarves, bracelets and rings, bottles of water and sunflower oil, photographs of their loved ones and lists of names, books with prayers and bibles—a vast variety of items that they wanted to be touched to the Icon.

I could not help but wonder what exactly happens when a list of names is touched to the Icon, or whether there can be a sanctification of the Bible beyond its innate sanctity and sacredness.  Although, I must admit that when I was in the Holy Land, I did place my New Testament onto the death bed where Christ’s Body had lain in the Holy Sepulcher, and I am sure that I would do it again…  Not that I thought that the book would somehow become more holy or sacred, but when I read from it about the life of Christ and the Apostles, it makes it more special on a purely sentimental level that the book travelled with me to the places that are mentioned in it.  But I still did not know what I would do with a handkerchief touched to the Kursk Icon, so I asked.

It was explained to me that if one were to get a headache, for example, then the handkerchief could be placed upon the head for cure.  Hmmm…  I hope that the pharmaceutical companies are not reading my reflections.  This certainly sounds very scriptural (see the quote from Acts above).  What if it is not a headache, but a problem elsewhere in the body?  Well, some women (very few) did bring socks to be touched to the Icon.  Who knows what other items of clothing I did not recognize because they were folded?—Human ailments are plentiful and can involve any part of the body…  I did not see a man bring either handkerchiefs or socks to be sanctified by the Icon.  There were other priests on duty at other times, but for thousands of women whom I personally saw bring handkerchiefs, I did not witness a single (!!!) man bring one…

A very different issue is how long it actually takes for an item to get sanctified or how close to the Icon the item would have to be.  Many women insisted that their handkerchief touch the icon for longer than just a second or two.  Would it soak up more of the sanctifying power the longer it touched the source?  And how would washing a sanctified item affect the saturation or levels of the sanctifying charge?[28]  And can the sanctifying power go through barriers, such as glass or plastic?  Many women insisted that their items be unwrapped and freed from plastic (which created some commotion as they usually waited until the last possible moment to begin unwrapping their handkerchiefs).  I did not want to point out to them that the Icon was protected by glass anyway, and that their items would not actually touch the Icon, but be within 2-3 cm from it.  But did they really think that the sanctifying power of the Holy Spirit could not go through a plastic bag?


Men, on the other hand, were quite satisfied with a brief touch of their paper icons or crosses to the Kursk-Root Icon.  The only exceptions were the clergy, whom Kizenko calls “symbolic women.”  Just like many women, many of the local clergy were interested in prolonged exposure of their items (usually paper or cardboard icons) to the Kursk-Root Icon.  Often, they placed their icons behind the Kursk Icon and left them there for an hour or more to “charge.”        

I am quite certain that many lay men also espouse some of the feelings and beliefs that I observed in women and they would not object to the practices in principle, but they themselves do not participate in these practices.  And in my experience, it was not a matter of greater and lesser participation for women and men—it was a near total absence of participation among men.  Men (perhaps, with only statistically negligible exceptions) simply did not bring handkerchiefs, socks, bottles of water, or even photographs of their relatives to be touched to the Icon. 

This is only one observation at one time in one country.  When the same Kursk-Root Icon visited my parish in Mulino, Oregon, in October 2009, I did not observe any items being touched to it, except for some paper copies of the Icon.  Similarly, when the Hawaiian Iveron Myrrh-Streaming Icon came to our parish in November of 2009, neither women nor men brought any handkerchiefs, aprons, or socks.  Many of my parishioners are new immigrants from the former Soviet Union, so presumably they should share in the customs and practices of the people among whom they were born and raised.  Yet, what I observed was strikingly different.  Whether this indicates greater gender equality in the United States even among recent immigrants, or something unique about my parish, or about the contemporary religious atmosphere within Russia—is a matter for a different kind of project.  In this paper, I merely wish to share my observations and reflections.

Finally, it was a man (in fact, a monk), who told me an interesting thing that happened when the relics of a saint (I think it was Saint Seraphim of Sarov) were brought to Kursk for veneration.  When many people venerate anything, someone has to stand by the Icon or the shrine containing relics and constantly clean the place that the people kiss.  Usually, it is the glass cover of the icon or relic box through which the icon or the relics can be seen.  The rag used for cleaning is soaked in some detergent (usually alcohol-based), and the glass is constantly wiped to remove lipstick imprints and anything else that it left after a person kisses the glass.  It turns out that the rag that was used to clean the glass cover of the box containing the relics, because it was touched to the box so many times, was considered sanctified, cut up into pieces, and distributed to priests and monks for veneration.  In Roman Catholicism, this would indeed be considered a third-class relic, but only if it actually touched a first- or second-class relic, which I am not sure was the case with the cleaning rag, since it only touched the box containing a first-class relic.  In any case, these men—monks and priests—were not Roman Catholics.  As far as I could understand, no women were involved in this case.

*          *          *

Spirituality and its expressions are always mysterious and difficult to understand, since they involve a relationship with Him Who is beyond our comprehension.  Yet, there appear to be some gender-dependent patterns, which are not always recognizable on an individual level, but can be observed in large groups.  Whatever the source of the differences between men and women, they are both fascinating to observe and important to recognize in a pastoral setting.  Perhaps my observations and reflections will contribute to the important conversation on the unique gifts that men and women bring to the Orthodox Church, even as the discussion about the role of women in the Church, and by extension that of men, continues to take shape.

God created men and women differently with unique qualities that do not compete, but compliment or help each other (cf. Gen. 2:18-22).  Men tend, perhaps not exclusively, to be more sober in matters of spirituality and approach them with caution.   Women, on the other hand, also not exclusively, tend to have a heightened sense of connection to the spiritual world and to the community of the faithful; they put more emotion and zeal into their religious life.  Whether because of our corrupt nature or Satan’s doing, these gifts and virtues given to us by the Creator can get corrupted.  Men can become hard-hearted and lazy in their spiritual life, and tend to diminish the significance of religious matters through rationalization.  Women, on the other hand, may become so blinded by emotion that they begin to substitute the true meaning of religious principles and observances with a shallower, artificial one.  Whether by adding extra clauses to God’s commandments or to Church canons, in elevating “young elders” to the status of Holy Fathers or handkerchiefs to that of sacred objects—women tend to express their spirituality in ways not typical of most men.  These differences, while non-essential to our salvation or relationship with God, may prove meaningful in the life of the Church, which is both heavenly and earthly, divine and human, triumphant in Christ’s eternal glory and suffering with Him on the Cross, exclaiming with the Apostle Paul “There is neither Jew nor Greek” (Gal. 3:28), while remembering that he was “a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law a Pharisee” (Phil. 3:5).


[1] Here and elsewhere the Revised Standard Version of the Bible is cited.

[2] <!–
–>Кураев, Андрей. Может ли православный быть эволюционистом? Клин, 1999.

[3] Here and elsewhere translation from Russian is mine—S.S.

[4] Perhaps, we should not think of God’s literally plowing a small plot of soil before making Adam.  Although, it is possible that what is meant here is not plowed but fertilized soil—there already were animals roaming the earth! 

[7] 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.

[8] “On ‘Ritual Impurity’: In Response to Sister Vassa (Larin)” and “More to the Point: Should Nuns Light Their Icon Lamps?” —both published on Orthodoxy and the World, 6 and 10 July 2009,

[9] See, for example, Saint John Chrysostom’s Homily 16 on the Book of Genesis (Златоуст, Иоанн. Полное собрание творений. В 12-ти томах. Свято-Успенская Почаевская Лавра, 2005, 4:138.48)<!–

[10] Undoubtedly, what is meant here is the prohibition to boil a kid in its mother’s milk (Exod. 23:19; 34:26; and Deut. 14:21).

[11] The Jewish Jokes by David Minkoff.

[12]  <!–
–>Козлов, Максим. «Несколько
мыслей о так называемом младостарчестве». 
Научный богословский портал «Богослов.ru»., 14 January 2008.

[13]   <!–
–>Кураев, Андрей. Церковь в мире людей. Москва: Сретенский монастырь, 2007.

BODY {FONT:12px verdana,arial,sans-serif
} <!–
–>Крестьянкин, Иоанн. Письма архимандрита Иоанна (Крестьянкина). Свято-Успенский Псково-Печерский монастырь, 2000.

[15] This is not an analysis of all the letters written by Krestiankin.  The collection cited reflects the choices made by its editors, but I believe it to be representative.

[16] Kizenko, Nadieszda. A Prodigal Saint: Father John of Kronstadt and the Russian People.University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2000.

[17] Воробьев, Никон. Нам оставлено покаяние: Сборник писем. Сост. А.И. Осипов. Москва: Сретенский монастырь, 2005.
–> <!–

–> <!–
–>Златоуст, Иоанн. Слава Богу за всё: Сборник писем. Сост. Е. А. Смирнова. Москва: Сретенский монастырь,

[19] See Житие протопопа Аввакума, им самим написанное, и другие его сочинения. Москва: Терра, 2001.<!–

–> Эзнепидис, Паисий. Письма. Пер. с греческого С. Говорун. Москва: Святая Гора, 2009.

[21] This is not to say “better” or “higher quality”—just “more vivid.”

[22] We must continue to remember that the story of Adam and Eve falling into the original sin is not a story of Eve’s sharing a stolen apple with her husband, but rather a deeply mystical account that provides the most profound insights into human nature and spirituality.  For the purposes of this paper, however, we shall not address the theological significance of the story in any detail.  

[23] See, for example, Henry, Matthew. Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary on the Whole Bible. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1997, pp. 4, 5.

[24] See, for example, Saint Ephraim of Syria, Commentary on Genesis.

[25] See Saint Jerome, Homily I (Fathers of the Church: A New Translation. Washington: Catholic University of America Press, 1947, 48:7).

[26] See Дроздов, Филарет. Записки, руководствующие к основательному разумению книги Бытия, заключающие в себе и перевод сей книги на русское наречие. ч. 1. Москва, 1867, с.55.


[27] One ominously titled work begins thus:” QUESTION: Why does it take millions of sperm to fertilize one egg?  ANSWER: They won’t stop to ask for directions.”—Francis, Richard. Why Men Won’t Ask for Directions: The Seductions of Sociobiology. Princeton University Press, 2003.  For a scholarly treatment of this phenomenon see the works of Thomas Bever of the University of Rochester, Bruce McEwan of Rockefeller University, Christina Williams of Barnard College, Warren Meck of Columbia University, and many others. 

[28] In one of the Russian Old Believer communities in Oregon, it is a custom to wash pieces of relics of the saints (usually, pieces of bone or dried flesh) with water once-a-year.  The water used for this washing is then considered holy and is distributed to the faithful for consumption.  I do not know what role women play in this practice, but the washing is performed by all-male clergy.  By the way, in Russian pagan witchcraft, water that is used for washing a dead body is considered magical and is used for various spells.


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