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Archive for March, 2019

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.

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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.

 

 

 

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