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The stories of women have been erased in much of church history. It is not because there have been fewer women in history. Half of the population is female. Male-authored church history books have left women out because patriarchal men believe that women’s stories are irrelevant.

Women have made important contributions to history. On this blog we have posted nearly 300 stories of women. For the last few weeks we have concentrated on women who served Christ during the Patristic era. Some of these women were born poor, others renounced great wealth to follow in the steps of Christ. Martyrs, Mothers, Scholars, Theologians, Writers, Disciples, Queens, Empresses, Pilgrims, and Monastery founders are among them. The world would not be the same without the influence of these women. They achieved great things while maintaining lives of piety, fortitude, and courage.

We began this series on Patristic women in our first post, February 5, 2019 “Thecla – 1st Century Disciple and Missionary”. Thecla’s life was to influence many men and women for the next few centuries, including Egeria the famous fourth century pilgrim in this post.

We continued with the stories of women who gave their lives as martyrs rather than deny their Lord Jesus – Blandina (martyred 177 AD) and Perpetua (martyred 203 AD – along with her servant Felicitas).

We then recounted the stories of two famous Mothers – Helena, the mother of Emperor Constantine and Monica the mother of Augustine. Besides martyrs, and mothers, there were many female Disciples of Christ, such as Marcella of Rome. In our last post we told the stories of two educated, brilliant female scholars during the Patristic Age – Paula and Macrina the Younger.

This week we will look at Pilgrimage as a Christian activity as seen in the life of Egeria. Many men and women would follow in her footsteps as they sought the blessings that came with visiting Christians in other lands.

 

Egeria (Fourth Century)

 

Egeria and other pilgrims were influenced by Thecla (See post 2/5/19). They admired Thecla very much and sought to imitate her life. Many men and women chose celibacy as Thecla did so that they could serve Christ with their whole lives (I Corinthians 7:32-35). Many believers also desired to travel to the Holy Land. The difference between Thecla and pilgrims like Egeria, was that Thecla was an itinerant preacher. The pilgrims also wanted to travel to the Holy Land, but their emphasis was on visiting the shrines of people like Thecla. By the late fourth or early fifth centuries they also wanted to visit monasteries and cathedrals and be with other monks and nuns for spiritual edification. They believed that a special blessing came from the places where saints or martyrs lived and/or died. By this time there was also a growing fascination for relics.  Going on a pilgrimage and bringing back a relic gave the believer who went on the pilgrimage some special status.

We are especially grateful that Egeria wrote a firsthand account of her pilgrimage in a journal. Her manuscript had been copied and widely circulated by other religious pilgrims during the Patristic age but was then put aside for centuries, forgotten until discovered by an Italian scholar in the late 1800’s. Historians recognized its value and this marvelous account of fourth century Christian life is now available.[1]

To go on a three to four-year journey as Egeria did would have required some financial availability. It is believed that Egeria came from a merchant family. This seems probable because not only would funds have been available, but she would have a network of people across Europe and the Holy Land to help her. While traveling could be risky, it would not have seemed as threatening to Egeria. Many other people were going on pilgrimages. Some had left earlier because Christians were fleeing persecution in Rome. When Constantine ended the persecutions, believers took advantage of the freedom as well as the fine Roman roads and traveled to the Biblical sites.

Egeria’s journey was probably taken around 380 AD. We are not sure why Egeria went on the Pilgrimage since the first part of her diary is lost. Was she traveling on a combined business/spiritual journey? We’ll have to wait until we get to heaven and ask her.

Egeria’s account is in two parts. Part one is the description of the places and people she visited. In Part two Egeria writes about her stay in Jerusalem for a year. The diary tells of the liturgy and practices in the churches. Among others, Egeria visited the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, the Holy Sepulchre, and the Mount of Olives.

Egeria wrote this account for her “sisters”. It is unclear if the women were her biological sisters, spiritual sisters, or nuns. The term “sisters” was already in use for Christian women who were close companions. In any event, Egeria wanted her “sisters” who couldn’t also travel to share in the excitement and beauty of the places that she visited.

Thanks to the details in her work we know a lot about the development of monasteries during that time. We also get a picture of the growing veneration of the saints. Egeria describes the churches she visited and the rituals that were performed there. She said, “Whenever we were empowered to reach our destination, it was always our custom first to say a prayer, then to read a passage from the Bible, sing a Psalm fitting the occasion, and finally say a second prayer.”[2]

Egeria’s journey was typical of the fourth century pilgrims. She visited Old Testament and New Testament sites. One such site was Clysma, where it is thought that the Israelites crossed the Red Sea in the exodus. From there she would have gone to Mount Sinai. She was especially enthralled with the place where Moses prayed, prophesied and died.

The highlight for most travelers was Jerusalem. Egeria went there but she also went to other places such as Mount Nebo and Job’s tomb. In the company of several holy men Egeria went to Arabia.

During her journey Egeria wanted to stand in the places where God’s saints had stood. She sought out the places where Melchizedek lived, the cave of the prophet Elijah, the abode of Jephthah, and the place where Elijah stayed during the famine when he received food from a crow and water from a stream. Egeria sought to combine the special feeling of “being there” with a chance to go deeper into the stories of the Bible. She related the connection between the places that she visited and their significance in the Bible for her readers in her journal.

In her writings she emphasized the lives of the holy men and women at the various sites. Pilgrims were common in her day and Egeria enjoyed fellowship with many during her travels. There were so many pilgrims that Christian networks were developing. At St. Thecla’s shrine Egeria enjoyed meeting up with a deaconess named Marthana, whom she had met earlier in Jerusalem. Pilgrims were invited to worship in Thecla’s church, and to read the Acts of Thecla out loud together. This gave the Christians a bond. They could share Scripture, prayer and stories of their journeys.

Egeria’s diary is important for church history. Egeria was the first to develop a style of writing for pilgrims that would influence scholars into the medieval period and beyond. Her diary is a primary source for Christian life in the fourth century. The fact that Egeria’s “sisters” were eager to read her story and learn about the Bible, geography, and culture from her writings demonstrates clearly that women were educated in the fourth century. We have seen in our story about Paula that women formed study circles as did the men. (See post on Patristic Women Scholars, April 2, 2019).

Clearly in the Early Church period, Christian history was being made by women like Egeria. Thankfully, more and more manuscripts are being discovered each year containing the writings of these called and gifted servants of God.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1]You can read a translation of Egeria’s Travels at: http://www.ccel.org/m/mcclure/etheria/etheria.htm

[2]In a translation by  George E. Gingras. Egeria: Diary of a Pilgrimage. ACW 38. New York: Newman, 1970. page 66.

 

The stories of women from the Patristic Age need to be told because women in all ages need to see that God has called and gifted them for service in His kingdom. Most people are only aware of the female martyrs that were thrown to the lions or beheaded, but the early Christian women encompassed all walks of life.

Some of these women were born poor, others renounced great wealth to follow in the steps of Christ. Martyrs, Mothers, Theologians, Writers, Disciples, Queens, Empresses, Pilgrims, and Monastery founders are among them. And though left out of most church history books, women were influential as colleagues of monks and male leaders in the early church. The world would not be the same without the influence of these women. They showed great scholarly achievement, piety, fortitude, and courage.

We began this series on Patristic women in our first post, February 5, 2019 “Thecla – 1st Century Disciple and Missionary”. Thecla was a disciple of Christ and Paul and her life was to influence many men and women for the next few centuries.

We continued with the stories of women who gave their lives as martyrs rather than deny their Lord Jesus. There were many men and women who suffered persecution and death, but 2 whose stories have come down to us thanks to the preservation of early manuscripts are Blandina (martyred 177 AD) and Perpetua (martyred 203 AD – along with her servant Felicitas).

We then continued with the stories of two famous Mothers – Helena, the mother of Emperor Constantine and Monica the mother of Augustine. We could also tell the stories of godly grandmothers such as Macrina the Elder, grandmother of Macrina the Younger who features in this post. Besides martyrs, mothers and grandmothers there were many female disciples of Christ. In our post last time we look at the life of Marcella of Rome.

It may come as a surprise to many, but there were many educated, brilliant female scholars during the Patristic Age. Among the more famous were Paula and Macrina the Younger.

 

Paula (May 5, 347 – January 26, 404)

 

In most history textbooks today the name Jerome is very prominent. His translation of the Bible into Latin is admired and his theology provides endless hours of study for Christian scholars. What has been ignored until recently is the fact that Jerome himself gave much credit to female scholars who helped him in his work. In our last post we saw that Marcella is remembered as a disciple of the famous bishop, Jerome. He admired her very much, but another Christian friend, Paula, was very special to Jerome as a source of help and inspiration.

Paula became Jerome’s closest companion while he was in Rome. The two maintained their friendship until Paula’s death in 404. After her death Jerome wrote in a letter to Paula’s daughter, Eustochium (pious scholar and disciple in her own right):

If all the members of my body were to be converted into tongues, and if each of my limbs were to be gifted with a human voice, I could still do no justice to the virtues of the holy and venerable Paula.

Paula was born on Mary 5, 347 in Rome. She was a member of a privileged, wealthy family. She married Julius Toxotius and had four daughters, Blaesilla, Pauline, Julia Eustochium, and Rufina, and a son, Toxotius. After her husband died, Paul committed to a life of celibacy, voluntary poverty, and good works. Jerome became Paula’s spiritual director during her new life of ascetism. She followed him to the Holy Land in 385. She landed first at Cyprus where they distributed alms to the local monasteries. From there they went to Antioch and eventually to Jerusalem. She stayed at the monastery run by Melania the Elder (look for a post in a few weeks on this “Desert Mother”) and then Paula went on an extensive pilgrimage enjoying visiting the many sites that were named in the Bible, from the Old and New Testaments.

Paula founded several monastic establishments where women could spend a life of devotion, chastity, and charity. This monastic life demonstrated Paula’s change from her aristocratic life filled with worldliness to a life of asceticism focused on heavenly things.

Paula was exemplary in her memorization of the Scriptures and Bible study. She was fluent in Greek, Hebrew, and Latin. Not only could Paula read the Bible in its original languages, but her exegetical skills placed her in a class of top biblical scholars. Jerome records that her life was always filled with quotations from the Bible even up until her death on January 26, 404 at the age of fifty-six. Paula died peacefully and was buried near a favorite pilgrimage tour. Her tomb became a popular site for pilgrims.

 

Macrina the Younger, also known as “The Teacher” (330 – 379 AD)

There are very few church history books that talk about the lives of the female saints. One might almost get the idea that women didn’t do anything but hide out in their houses and cook and clean. But you really don’t have to look very hard to find the stories of women who did much more than that. Just as Jerome praised Paula for her erudition and piety, the famous Saint Gregory published the story of his remarkable sister, Macrina so that she would be remembered for her piety and love of Christ and the Bible. And just like Paula, Macrina used her gift of godly intelligence to influence men who would influence the church to this day.

Macrina was born around 330 AD and lived to July 19, 379 AD. She is often called Macrina the Younger because her grandmother, St. Macrina the Elder was also renowned for her piety and courage. Grandmother Macrina and her husband lived during the time of one of the worst persecutions of the Christians. In 311 AD, they lost all of their estates by confiscation. They hid in the woods of Pontus for seven years. They had a son, St. Basil, who had ten children, the oldest of these being the Macrina of our story.

Macrina helped to raise her younger siblings. Three of these were three men who are renowned through the centuries –  Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nyssa, and Peter of Sebaste, all celebrated for their learning and all died as bishops of the Church. All owed much to their sister.

Macrina was taught the Scriptures as a child and loved them. She had an intelligent mind and she contemplated spiritual things all of her life. She desired to follow Christ only. She was given the opportunity to lead a pious and retired life after the deaths of both her father and the man she was betrothed to. She took her betrothal seriously, and did not wish to find another husband. She was a beautiful young woman and had many offers, but she declined them all. At this point she was more than content to see her situation as God’s will and decided to follow a different path.

She talked her mother Emmelia into helping her found two monasteries – one for men, the other for women. These were built on their own estate near Ibora in Pontus. The beautiful river Iris flowed between these homes, and the monasteries were surrounded by lovely plains, valleys, and hills. This was a perfect place for a life of solitude and prayer.

 

During this time Macrina had much influence on her brothers. Her brother Basil had studied abroad for many years and came home with his head all swelled up with his own wisdom. Macrina told him bluntly that he had become vain and would do well to learn from humbler Christian men. At this point Basil ignored her.
Later though, the unexpected death of their brother, Naucratius, shook Basil to his core. He and Naucratius had been very close. This event caused Basil to do some soul searching. He not only resigned his prestigious teaching position, but he asked Macrina to teach him the secrets of religious life.
Basil followed Macrina’s advice and left for Egypt to learn more about the monastic life. He eventually became famous as the great teacher of monasticism in the Greek Chur

After her mother Emmelia died, Macrina sold off the rest of the estate and used the money to help the poor. She lived by the labor of her own hands. Some of the women who came to join her were freed slaves. Together they served the Lord with one mind, sharing all things. They prayed, ate, fasted, and worked together. This monastery would become a model for later ones.

Some years later, Basil became the bishop of Caesarea. Their brother Gregory, whom Macrina had also persuaded to abandon selfish pursuits in order to follow Christ, had become bishop of Nyssa. Their brother Peter became bishop of Sebaste. Basil, worn out in his fight against the heresy of Arianism and partly because of his own ascetism, died before the age of fifty and Macrina could not restrain her grief. Her brother Gregory visited her. They were saddened by their loss, but mourned more for the loss of a great man in the Church. They had some consolation in their belief in the immortality of the soul and knew they would see him again.

Nine months later Gregory decided to visit Macrina during one of his travels. Her fame had become so great that she was now known as “The Teacher”. He was saddened to find that she was so sick that she could barely sit up. She was in pain and it was evident that she was near death. In spite of this, she tried to cheer him up. They spent what few hours they had rejoicing in their faith and the hope of the resurrection.

Later after her death, Gregory wrote a story about this visit, On the Soul and the Resurrection; the main arguments of the discourse being attributed to Macrina. Her arguments were so skillfully presented that she even impressed convinced skeptics. She spoke of God’s love, providence, man’s purpose in this world, and the believer’s eventual departure to glory.

Gregory opened the work with, “Basil, great among the saints, had departed from this life and gone to God, and all the churches mourned his death. But his sister the Teacher still lived and therefore I visited her.” Gregory gave her high praise. He recorded her philosophical discourse so that others could benefit from her wisdom.

Macrina died in great peace. Gregory buried her in the grave of their parents in the family chapel in Annesi. She had lived such a selfless life of poverty that she had no burial clothes. Gregory used his own bishop’s cloak to cover her as her body was carried to the grave.
Besides the discourse on resurrection referred to above, Gregory also published a work entitled, Life of Macrina, in which he tells of her pious life.

What can we learn from the lives of Paul and Macrina? it is important for women to follow their callings even into areas that some say are only for men. Women are equally intelligent and gifted and we can be thankful for their example as so many unselfishly chose to follow Christ.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It is tragic that so few women from the Patristic Age are remembered. Today we have the opportunity to read about many of them because there is a wealth of information available now and more is being discovered every year. I hope that these few posts will whet your appetite to learn more about the amazing women who lived between the 2nd and 5th centuries.

Some of these women were born poor, others renounced great wealth to follow in the steps of Christ. Martyrs, Mothers, Theologians, Writers, Disciples, Queens, Empresses, Pilgrims, and Monastery founders are among them. The world would not be the same without the influence of these women. They showed great piety, fortitude, and courage.

We began this series on Patristic women in our first post, February 5, 2019 “Thecla – 1st Century Disciple and Missionary”. Thecla was a disciple of Christ and Paul and her life was to influence many men and women for the next few centuries.

We continued with the stories of women who gave their lives as martyrs rather than deny their Lord Jesus. There were many men and women who suffered persecution and death, but 2 whose stories have come down to us thanks to the preservation of early manuscripts are Blandina (martyred 177 AD) and Perpetua (martyred 203 AD – along with her servant Felicitas).

Last time we continued with the stories of two famous Mothers – Helena, the mother of Emperor Constantine and Monica the mother of Augustine. Besides martyrs and mothers there were many female disciples of Christ. In our post this week we will look at the life of Marcella of Rome.

 

Marcella of Rome (325 AD to 410 AD)

 

Marcella is remembered as a disciple of the famous bishop, Jerome. She was born around 325 AD and lived to the ripe old age of 85. The anniversary of her death on January 31, 410 AD, is still observed in the Catholic Church. She was a gifted biblical scholar. Because Marcella was born into a wealthy family, she was able to receive a rich education that allowed her to deepen her spiritual life and become a great scholar. With her social position she was instructed in Greek and Hebrew and loved to study the Scriptures. She was devoted to Christ all of her life, and when she was widowed, she established a religious community.

As a small girl Marcella heard Saint Athanasius speak. His stories of the Desert Fathers of Egypt enthralled her, planting deep in her heart the seeds of a future marked by asceticism and devotion to the Word of God. There were also stories of Desert Mothers who chose the single life in order to devote all of their time to deeds of piety and charity. Athanasius gave her a copy of his Life of Antony,the hermit-monk who did so much to make monasticism a major force in Christianity during those centuries. Antony’s ascetic practices greatly impressed Marcella. Later, thanks to early widowhood and a great inheritance, she would establish a monastery for women on her own.

Marcella married at around age 17, but was widowed after only seven months. Her husband’s death left her independently wealthy. She resisted the social pressure to remarry. When an elderly Roman consul, Cerealis, proposed to leave her all his money if she would marry him, Marcella replied, “If I wished to marry, I should look for a husband, not an inheritance.” Her mother was disappointed, but Marcella had a mind of her own.

This young widow turned her home into an academy for the study of Sacred Scripture and a school of prayer. A devout contemporary of hers, Paula[1], and other Roman ladies, eager for the pursuit of holiness, joined her. These women gave much of their money to the poor. Marcella distributed her considerable wealth, “preferring to store her money in the stomachs of the needy rather than hide it in a purse.”

Marcella changed her dress from that of a woman of position to the plainest and coarsest of garments. She dressed modestly, with an aim to hide her dazzling beauty. This was in contrast, says Jerome, with the usual “widow’s weeds”, which many other women used to attract men and to gain another husband. Marcella wanted to devote her time to following Jesus.

Marcella spent her days in study, in visits to the churches of the martyrs, in prayer, and in good works. She gathered around her a circle of like-minded women, and Jerome says that she educated Eustochium, the youngest of Paula’s children, another female scholar. Marcella’s example, asserts Jerome, was responsible for the growth of monasteries in Rome, where the number of such houses began to rival the number in Jerusalem.

Marcella had a very brilliant mind. She did not leave much in writing, but the famous early church father, Jerome, was very impressed with her and he left us her story. Marcella met and studied with this great scholar (who made the Latin Vulgate translation of the Bible). The two corresponded for the rest of their lives, exchanging thoughts on many issues, such as the Montanist heresy or the sin against the Holy Ghost. Marcella challenged Jerome with pertinent questions. More than once she plied him with difficult and subtle questions concerning the Scriptures. It was for Marcella that Saint Jerome wrote his explanation of the Hebrew words Amenand Alleluia.

In a letter to the Roman lady Principia, who was Marcella’s pupil, Jerome compares Marcella to the prophetess Anna in Saint Luke’s Gospel. “Let us then compare her case with that of Marcella,” he says, “and we shall see that the latter has every way the advantage. Anna lived with her husband seven years; Marcella seven months. Anna only hoped for Christ; Marcella held Him fast. Anna confessed Him at His birth; Marcella believed in Him crucified. Anna did not deny the Child; Marcella rejoiced in the Man as king.”  This is Jerome’s spiritual portrait of Marcella: she clung to Christ, believed in Him crucified, and rejoiced in Him as King.

While Jerome praises Marcella for her virtue and intelligence, he also tells her spiritual daughter, Principia, that Marcella did not accept blindly his scriptural exegeses but argued with them. She asked questions to learn more. She took in quickly what he had gained through long study. Because he valued her comments, he continued to submit his work to her judgment before he made them public. He adds that she frequently rebuked him for his hasty temper.

Several of Jerome’s letters to Marcella survive and are well worth reading. Among the sayings of Marcella, one comes from the period in her life when a humiliated Rome was in the throes of a famine and Marcella herself was languishing after having been turned out of her own home. She was eighty-five at the time, and she said: “By heaven’s grace, captivity has found me a poor woman, not made me one. Now, I shall go in want of daily bread, but I shall not feel hunger since I am full of Christ.”

When Alaric of the Goths seized and sacked Rome in 410, soldiers from his army invaded Marcella’s mansion on the Avertine Hill in the hopes of gaining her treasure. His troops gathered as much booty as they could, but it was much less than they were expecting. Marcella was tortured to reveal where her supposed wealth was hidden. She showed them her coarse dress, insisting truthfully that she had given everything away. Forgetting about her own sufferings, she pleaded that the soldiers not rape Principia, her pupil. The soldiers finally took her to a church, where she died praising God.

Today, when we study church history, much mention is usually made of the men like Jerome and the women are overlooked. Jerome himself gives credit to Marcella for helping him to become the man that he did. Historians have apparently decided to overlook the lives of the great women of the Patristic era. Marcella was a noble woman whose wealth allowed her education and alms-giving. She was a leader in Christian Rome, much in accordance with her social rank. Her love of Christ, however, led her to voluntary poverty and courageous martyrdom. We would do well to learn from her example as a determined, single-minded woman, who only wanted to spend her whole life studying about Christ and imitating His example to serve the poor.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1]We will talk about Paula and other female Patristic Scholars in the next post.

It’s a shame that so many women from the Patristic Age have been overlooked or forgotten. The world would not be the same without the influence of these women. Some of these women were born poor, others renounced great wealth to follow in the steps of Christ. Martyrs, Mothers, Theologians, Writers, Queens, Empresses, Pilgrims, and Monastery founders are among them. They showed great piety, fortitude, and courage.

We began this series on Patristic women in our first post, February 5, 2019 “Thecla – 1st Century Disciple and Missionary”. Thecla was a disciple of Christ and Paul and her life was to influence many men and women for the next few centuries.

In our last post, we continued with the stories of women who gave their lives as martyrs rather than deny their Lord Jesus. There were many men and women who suffered persecution and death, but 2 whose stories have come down to us thanks to the preservation of early manuscripts are Blandina (martyred 177 AD) and Perpetua (martyred 203 AD – along with her servant Felicitas).

This week we will continue with the stories of two famous Mothers – Helena, the mother of Emperor Constantine and Monica the mother of Augustine.

Helena (248 AD to 328 AD)

Also known as Flavia Iulia Helena Augusta, Helena began life as an innkeeper’s daughter in Drepanum, a seaport in Bithynia, Asia Minor. She met an aristocrat, Constantius Chlorus, a soldier. It is not clear whether or not they legally married, but their son, Constantine was born about 272 AD.

Later Constantius married Theodora, the daughter of the Emperor Maximian, and Helena was cast aside. We don’t know much about the next thirty years of her life, until her son Constantine became Emperor and then her status was restored magnificently.

Constantius ruled with his father-in-law Maximian, who was the Augustus, or chief ruler in the Roman Empire. In 305, Maximian passed the title of Augustus to Constantius. Only a year later as Constantius lay dying in 306, he chose his son by Helena, Constantine as his successor.

A story of Constantine’s conversion to Christianity is well known. On October 28, 312, Constantine was doing battle with his rivals in Rome. Constantine apparently had a vision of the words in hoc signo vinces (“in this sign you will conquer”) upon a cross. He vowed that, should he win even though there were great odds, he would become a Christian. Wearing a sign of a cross, Constantine did win the battle, and the following year he made Christianity legal throughout the Empire.

A number of historians suggest that it was actually Helena who converted her son to Christianity. It is not improbable that the innkeeper’s family became Christians. Bithynia was a place where many Christians had gone to live to escape the persecutions. Helena seems to have had a devout faith already when her son had his vision.

When Constantine became Augustus, his mother Helena became an important noble lady. She was granted the title Augusta in 324. With this title Helena received a large fortune and much land around Rome.

After a family tragedy, Helena decided to visit the Holy Land. Around 326 or 327, she visited Palestine where she inspected the new churches that were being built after her son’s conversion to Christianity.

During her travels Helena collected many relics including what was alleged to be the nails from the crucifixion and a tunic worn by Jesus before His crucifixion. Later historians credited her with finding the “True Cross” that Jesus was crucified on. Helena also tore down a pagan temple that was dedicated to Venus (Jupiter) and replaced it with the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where the cross was supposedly found. The royal palace in Jerusalem was converted to the Basilica of the Holy Cross. Helena also built a shrine to the Nativity in Bethlehem.

Helena died in Trier around 328 or 329 AD. She was buried in the mausoleum near the Basilica of St. Peter and St. Marcellinus near Rome on lands that had been granted to her by Constantine. Helena remains an example of a good Christian mother and ruler in the Church.

Monica (332 AD to 387 AD)

The effective prayer of a righteous man  (or woman) can accomplish much. James 5:16

One special woman in history who shows us how we ought to pray fervently, consistently, and continually is Monica.

Many have heard the story of the miraculous conversion of St. Augustine. By all accounts he was a very hard-hearted and profligate man. Had we known him when he was a young man, we probably would have said that there was no hope of his ever turning to God. But his loving mother believed that God could save him. She never gave up during many long years, praying for his salvation with earnestness and tears.

Monica, the mother of St. Augustine, was born in 332.  She was raised to be a pious and devout Christian.

When she was old enough to marry, she was given to a man named Patritius, who was a pagan. She at once devoted herself to his conversion. She spent her life always praying for him. She was rewarded for her efforts when he became a Christian and was baptized only a year before his death.

Of course we know that Monica was also devoted to prayer for her son Augustine, who led a very irreligious life. He especially struggled with the sin of lust, preferring to have mistresses rather than get married.

Monica tried to get a learned Christian bishop to talk to her son in order to teach him the right way to live, but the bishop declined. He knew Augustine well and he didn’t think he could have any success with a man who was so headstrong.

However, on witnessing Monica’s prayers and tears, he told her to be of good courage; for it might be that God would spare the child of those tears. And so Monica devoted every day of her life to entreating God for her son.

One day, when Augustine went to Italy, he thought he was getting away from his mother’s constant well-meaning encouragements. But he could not escape from her prayers, which God heard and was ready to answer.

Monica followed him to Italy, and there Augustine was marvelously converted. Monica’s sorrow was turned into joy.

At a town called Ostia, on their homeward journey, as Augustine and his mother sat at a window talking about the Christian life, she turned to him and said, “My son, for my part I find no further pleasure in this life. What I am still to do or why I am here in the world, I do not know, for I have no more to hope for on this earth. There was one reason, and one alone, why I wished to remain a little longer in this life, and that was to see you a Christian before I died. God has granted my wish and more besides, for I now see you as his servant, spurning such happiness as the world can give. What is left for me to do in this world?”

A few days afterwards, she had an attack of fever, and died in the year 387. She was 56 years old. She has lived long enough to see the answer to her prayers for both her son and her husband.

Upon reflecting on this, we remember that It is impossible to set any bounds to what persevering prayer may do. Augustine’s soul seemed bound for hell due to his heresy and impurity, both of which were very strong because of his many years of practicing sin. These chains were broken when God graciously answered his mother’s prayers. Monica is a wonderful example to us of a devout, persevering, praying, Christian mother.

 

 

 

Probably some of the least remembered women in history come from the Patristic Age of the Church (2nd through 5th centuries). This is partly because so many records have been lost. But there is a wealth of information available now and more being discovered every year. Please look at the January 22, 2019 post on my introduction to “Women in the Patristic Age” and note a few of the many engaging books you can obtain now on this important and interesting topic. These books not only include the biographies of the women themselves, but many previously unpublished manuscripts that these women authored.

Some of these women were born poor, others renounced great wealth to follow in the steps of Christ. Martyrs, Mothers, Theologians, Writers, Queens, Empresses, Pilgrims, and Monastery founders are among them. The world would not be the same without the influence of these women. They showed great piety, fortitude, and courage.

We began this series on Patristic women in our last post, February 5, 2019 “Thecla – 1st Century Disciple and Missionary”. Thecla was a disciple of Christ and Paul and her life was to influence many men and women for the next few centuries.

This week we continue with the stories of women who gave their lives as martyrs rather than deny their Lord Jesus. There were many men and women who suffered persecution and death, but 2 whose stories have come down to us thanks to the preservation of early manuscripts are Blandina (martyred 177 AD) and Perpetua (martyred 203 AD – along with her servant Felicitas).

Blandina

Blessed is a man who perseveres under trial; for once he has been approved, he will receive the crown of life which the Lord has promised to those who love Him.” (James 1:12)
At the end of the second century there were intense persecutions against Christians. The angry mobs grew to learn that they could expect the women to be as fierce in their determination to maintain their Christian testimony as the men. That is why we have as many accounts of women being thrown into the arena to face wild animals as men.
There were also political and social reasons for the arrest and torture of Christians. An unbeliever who wanted to cease a Christian’s property for example, could have the Christian arrested as an enemy of the state. Blandina lived during just such a time. The early church martyrs were purposefully tortured and killed in order to make a statement by the Roman government that worship of anyone else other than Caesar would not be tolerated.
We have heard many stories about the Christians being thrown to wild beasts in order to entertain the Roman populace. Often, Christians who were Roman citizens would have the easier execution of beheading. But the slaves who were Christians suffered horrible torture and gory death in the amphitheaters to amuse the Roman crowds.
Blandina (martyred in 177 AD) was a slave woman who had been taken into custody with her master who was a Christian. She was not in very good health and not expected to survive torture, but she seemed to get stronger and stronger the more the executioners beat and abused her. She would simply repeat, “I am a Christian,” over and over. This infuriated her torturers and they whipped her until they were tired out. Finally, they decided to take her to the amphitheater where other Christians were being beaten and burned. She was hung on a stake and put out for the wild beasts, but they did not touch her. And so,
“. . at length she was put in a net, and thrown to the wild bull; and when she had been sufficiently gored and wounded with the horns of the beast, and heeded nothing of all that chanced to her, for the great hope and consolation she had in Christ and heavenly things, was thus slain, insomuch that there was never woman put to death, that suffered so much as this woman did. Neither yet was their furious cruelty thus assuaged against the Christians.” The heathens invented crueler and more wicked things to do to the believers. The persecutors did not bury their bodies, but burned them and threw the ashes into the river thinking that they would be forgotten. “And this they did as if they had been able to have pulled God out of His seat, and to have hindered the regeneration of the saints, and taken from them the hope of the resurrection.” (John Foxe’s, The Acts and Monuments of the Church, page 42)
Others who watched her courageous death were blessed by her testimony and their own faith was bolstered. Even another woman, Biblias, who had renounced her faith, renewed her commitment to Christ and is listed among the roll of the martyrs.

Eusebius, writing several centuries later tells us of the results. Blandina, “by her continuous prayer gave great zeal to the combatants, while they looked on during the contest, and with their outward eyes saw in the form of their sister him who was crucified for them, to persuade those who believe on him that all who suffer for the glory of Christ have forever fellowship with the living God. And so she too was sacrificed, and the heathen themselves confessed that never before among them had a woman suffered so much and so long.” (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History)

And so, Blandina’s acts of courage affected many more people than herself. Our chief mainstay for the courage we have is faith in God and His promises. Her concern was Christ and Christ only. God used her martyrdom, and those of many other saints, to encourage and build His church.

Perpetua and Felicitas

Another martyr whose testimony bolstered the faith of many was Perpetua. Perpetua and her slave, Felicitas were martyred on March 7, 203 AD. Perpetua was born in 181 and was only 22 when she faced a wild cow in the Roman arena. She had a small son that she was still nursing. Felicity was 8 months pregnant when they were arrested. There were 5 Christians arrested together. Felicitas was concerned that she would be set aside until her baby was born. The Romans did not kill pregnant women. She wanted to face martyrdom with the others. She prayed to God about it, and several days before their execution her baby daughter was born. A Christian woman adopted the baby.

Their story has been well documented. Perpetua’s account of the story is considered to be the earliest of the writings of Christian women. The anniversary of their deaths is included in the Roman Church calendar. St. Augustine preached sermons about her. The early church believed the historical fact of her martyrdom and Christians have esteemed her very highly for centuries.

Perpetua’s mother and brothers were Christians as well. Her father however, was a pagan. He kept on trying to persuade her to deny her faith. First he ordered her, then he pleaded with her. She remained firm.

Perpetua’s prison diary had been preserved. Here is an excerpt from it:

The day of their victory dawned, and with joyful countenances they marched from the prison to the arena as though on their way to heaven. If there was any trembling it was from joy, not fear. Perpetua followed with a quick step as a true spouse of Christ, the darling of God, her brightly flashing eyes quelling the gaze of the crowd. Felicitas too, joyful because she had safely survived childbirth and was now able to participate in the contest with the wild animals, passed from one shedding of blood to another; from midwife to gladiator, about to be purified after child-birth by a second baptism. . . . For the young women the devil had readied a mad cow, an animal not usually used at these games, but selected so that the women’s sex would be matched with that of the animal. After being stripped and enmeshed in nets, the women were led into the arena. How horrified the people were as they saw that one was a young girl and the other, her breasts dripping with milk, had just recently given birth to a child. Consequently both were recalled and dressed in loosely fitting gowns. Perpetua was tossed first and fell on her back. She sat up, and being more concerned with her sense of modesty than with her pain, covered her thighs with her gown which had been torn down one side. Then finding her hair-clip, which had fallen out, she pinned back her loose hair, thinking it not proper for a martyr to suffer with disheveled hair; it might seem that she was mourning in her hour of triumph. Then she stood up. Noticing that Felicitas was badly bruised, she went to her, reaching out her hands and helping her to her feet. . . . And when the crowd demanded that the prisoners be brought out into the open so that they might feast their eyes on death by the sword, they voluntarily arose and moved where the crowd wanted them. Before doing so they kissed each other so that their martyrdom would be completely perfected by the rite of the kiss of peace. The others, without making any movement or sound, were killed by the sword. . . . but Perpetua, in order to feel some of the pain, groaning as she was struck between the ribs, took the gladiator’s trembling hand and guided it to her throat. Perhaps it was that so great a woman, feared as she was by the unclean spirit, could not have been slain had she herself not willed it.

The martyrs were buried at Carthage. Today a magnificent basilica is erected over their tomb.

The early martyrs still inspire Christians today. It is hard for us to fully realize what they were up against. We have not suffered as they did. One thing to remember is that they believed they were suffering for Christ and went to their deaths joyfully. Yet because they earned the martyr’s crown Christian’s today are encouraged to hold to the faith.

 

 

But I say to the unmarried and to widows that it is good for them if they remain even as I. …. Only, as the Lord has assigned to each one, as God has called each, in this manner let him walk. And so I direct in all the churches. … Now concerning virgins I have no command of the Lord, but I give an opinion as one who by the mercy of the Lord is trustworthy. I think then that this is good in view of the present distress, that it is good for a man to remain as he is. … but this I say, brethren, the time has been shortened, so that from now on those who have wives should be as though they had none; … But I want you to be free from concern. One who is unmarried is concerned about the things of the Lord, how he may please the Lord; but one who is married is concerned about the things of the world, how he may please his wife, and his interests are divided. The woman who is unmarried and the virgin, is concerned about the things of the Lord, that she may holy both in body and spirit; but one who is married is concerned about the things of the world, how she may please her husband. This I say for your own benefit; not to put a restraint up on you, but to promote what is appropriate and to secure undistracted devotion to the Lord. …. so then both he who gives his own virgin daughter in marriage does well, and he who does not give her in marriage will do better. (I Corinthians 7:8-40)

We cannot begin our series on women in the Patristic Era without talking about Thecla. Thecla is remembered as one of the female companions of the apostle Paul. While there is some debate swirling around Thecla, most historians agree that Thecla was a real person. In an apocryphal book called Acts of Paul and Thecla, which appeared around 180 A.D., the story is told of how Thecla was converted after hearing Paul preach and went on to be his disciple. She wanted nothing more after that but to learn about Christ and take the gospel to the lost.

Thecla was living in Iconium at the time. She was engaged to be married, but she broke the engagement off and took a vow to remain a virgin after hearing Paul preach. It is understood from reading the Acts of Paul and Theclathat Paul was perhaps preaching about marriage, and more specifically about the married state in the end times. Paul believed with all the other Christians that Jesus could come back any time. Reading the verses quoted above, we see that Paul was not necessarily speaking against marriage, only encouraging those who weren’t married to stay that way since “the time has been shortened” (verse 29).

Thecla was also moved by Paul’s words that those who remained virgins were committed to Christ first and may be “holy both in body and spirit” but those who were married had to be concerned about their husbands first. This concept is important to remember in order to understand why Thecla disobeyed her mother and broke her engagement to Thamyris, a prominent man from an important and powerful family. Thecla actually angered her mother, Theocleia when she turned down a marriage that would have given her a comfortable and influential life. Neither her mother nor her fiancé could understand why Thecla would live such a life of many sacrifices for the sake of an unknown god. Thecla wasn’t concerned; she set out to be Paul’s disciple.

According to the Acts of Paul and Thecla, Thecla traveled with Paul in Galatia assisting him in the preaching of the gospel. When Paul and Thecla went to preach in Antioch of Pisidia she met a new obstacle. Alexander, a local official fell in love with her. When Thecla rebuffed him, he responded in anger. He managed to get her punished by having her thrown in a Roman arena to face the beasts. Amazingly, the beasts did not harm her while she merely stood and prayed.

In the meantime, Thecla had befriended a woman named Tryphaena who rescued her after her ordeal with the beasts. Tryphaena was a relative of the emperor, so when she asked for Thecla’s release, the governor was unwilling to refuse her. Alexander capitulated and dropped his charges. Thecla went home with Tryphaena and converted her to Christ. Thecla remained with Tryphaena for eight days preaching until most of Tryphaena’s household was converted.

The story ends with Thecla going back to Iconium to visit the house of Onesiphorus where she first heard Paul preach. In addition to that, she made a reconciliation with her mother. Thecla then continued to travel, preaching and teaching until she died in Seleucia.

How much of Thecla’s story is legendary? Certainly she must have been a real person. Just because we have lost so many early writings and manuscripts does not mean that she did not live. Too many people honored her in the early church for her to have been a figment of somebody’s imagination. Her miraculous escape from the beasts in the Roman arena is questioned by some, but let us not forget that Paul miraculously escaped death while on the island of Malta when he was bitten by a poisonous viper (Acts 28:1-6). God did perform miracles for His servants. We will just have to wait until we get to Heaven to hear the whole story.

What is undoubtedly factual though is that by the end of the 2nd century it was noticed that some women were following Thecla’s example. One early church father, Tertullian, commented on it. Though the Acts of Paul and Theclawould not be included in the canon of Bible as we have it today, it was widely read by Christians in the 2nd through 4th centuries. For the first several centuries traveling prophets and preachers, men and women, could expect the hospitality of Christians as they entered cities just as Paul and Thecla did while traveling.

Thecla would also become an example for future generations of men and women who would take vows of chastity. Thecla’s story must not be overlooked because we will see in the coming weeks as we look at the lives of other women in the Patristic era, that men and women honored Thecla by reading the Acts of Paul and Theclaand taking it seriously and making pilgrimages to her shrine.

We don’t have so many itinerant preachers in our day. Most missionaries find a place to live. It is difficult for some to imagine the lives of those who gave up marriage and “normal” lives just to take the gospel to the lost. But even now, there are thousands of single women and men who still follow in Paul’s and Thecla’s footsteps to serve Christ. As we explore the stories of women in the Patristic Age, we will encounter many who dedicated their lives serve Christ and others.

 

 

For the last few months, we have been looking at the stories of women in the Bible from both the Old and New Testaments. We were working in chronological order – Eve (Genesis) to Junias (Romans). In the first century, Paul’s female companions helped to spread the gospel in response to Christ’s command in the Great Commission to carry the good news to the ends of the earth. They did this in spite of the persecution that had already begun against Christians during the first century and continued for several more centuries.

 

Let’s continue now with women in history as we turn to the second century. Let’s face it. History is really boring. All those names and dates and places we can’t find on a map. And what do all those ancient people have to do with me anyway?

 

For starters, pretty much all of the historical women who are featured on this blog, mylordkatie.wordpress.com, are in Heaven enjoying the presence of the Lord. We will get to speak to them and find out more about their lives when we get there. The stories of their lives give us a better view of the world and history and we are able to see how and why God called these women into His kingdom. At the time these women were living they probably never thought that someday people would be studying about them in history books. They just worshipped and served God with their lives as faithfully as they could.

 

Probably some of the least remembered women in history come from the Patristic Age of the Church (2nd through 5th centuries). This is partly because so many records have been lost. But there is a wealth of information available now and more being discovered every year. These documents not only include the biographies of the women themselves, but many previously unpublished manuscripts that these women authored are coming to light.

 

Unfortunately, the women’s stories have sometimes been overlooked deliberately by Church historians because they do not think that the women’s stories are important. Thankfully, that problem is being remedied. At the end of this introductory post, I will list several books that you can read to find out more about the many hundreds of women who served Christ during the Patristic era. You will see evidence that God has always called and gifted women to serve Him in remarkable ways.

 

The Patristic Age covers roughly from the second through fifth centuries. Over the next few weeks stories of women like Thecla, Blandina, Perpetua, Pulcheria, Paula, Melania and Melania the Younger (both grandmother and granddaughter!), Monica, Egeria, Amma Sarah and many, many more will be told.

 

Some of these women were born poor, others renounced great wealth to follow in the steps of Christ. Martyrs, Mothers, Theologians, Writers, Queens, Empresses, Pilgrims, and Monastery founders are among them. The world would not be the same without the influence of these women. They showed great piety, fortitude, and courage.

 

It’s time to recount the inspiring stories of these women.

 

Further Reading:

 

– The following four books contain the stories of women throughout the centuries. Dr. Curtis’s book is organized by category – Leaders, Homemakers, Martyrs, Intellectuals, Queens, Handicapped, “Firsts”, and Mothers. The other 3 books tell the stories in chronological order.

 

Curtis, A. Kenneth and Graves, Daniel, editors. Great Women in Christian History: 37 Women Who Changed Their World (Camp Hill, PA: Wing Spread Publishers, 2004).

 

Deen, Edith. Great Women of the Christian Faith: Inspiring Biographies of Outstanding Women through Nineteen Centuries of Christianity(Chappaqua, NY: 1959).

 

Kavanagh, Julia.Women of Christianity, Exemplary for Acts of Piety and Charity(New York, NY: D. Appleton and Company, 1869). (My copy is a facsimile.)

 

Tucker, Ruth A. and Liefeld, Walter. Daughters of the Church: Women and Ministry from New Testament Times to the Present(Grand Rapids, MI: 1987).

 

–  The next three books contain much information about the history of the Patristic era. What was it like to live in the 2nd through 5th centuries? For example, life for Christians changed a great deal after Constantine declared Christianity a legal religion in the early 4th century. Persecution ended and many Christians were able to travel, participate in government, and receive education. This included women who had many freedoms that they did not have before.

 

Cohick, Lynn H. and Hughes, Amy Brown. Christian Women in the Patristic World: Their Influence, Authority, and Legacy in the Second through Fifth Centuries (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2017).

 

Cooper, Kate. Band of Angels: The Forgotten World of Early Christian Women(New York, NY: The Overlook Press, 2013).

 

Oden, Amy, editor. Women’s Writings in the History of Christian Thought(Nashville, TN: Abington Press, 1994).