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Archive for the ‘Historical Women’ Category

Millions of lives have been touched by women who persevered in their calling from God to serve in His Kingdom in spite of the many uphill battles they had to fight. Women have made important contributions to the Kingdom of God while all through history they have faced cultural, theological, political, and ideological obstacles in the world and in the Church.

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, 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 scholarly achievement, piety, fortitude, and courage.

We began this series on Patristic women in our first post, February 5, 2019 with “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 – 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. Then we related the stories of two educated, brilliant female scholars during the Patristic Age – Paula and Macrina the Younger. Next, we looked at Pilgrimageas a Christian activity as modeled in the life of Egeria.

In our last post, we focused on the stories of the Desert Mothers. While early Desert Mothers went on pilgrimages to escape the persecution in Rome (30 to 311 AD), later women including Melania the Elder and Amma Sarah followed in their footsteps voluntarily for a life of prayer, celibacy, and ascetism.

We will conclude our study of women in the Patristic era with the story of an empress. Empress Pulcheria also known as Saint Aelia, served the Savior in the highest position in an empire. This godly woman led the Byzantine/Roman Empire with wisdom and compassion. It was said of her reign that it was the most stable in Roman memory. Truly God uses women even in the highest places of authority.

 Pulcheria (January 19, 399 -ca. August 453)

For then, in the Great Hall of Cair Paravel… in the presence of all their friends and to the sound of trumpets, Aslan solemnly crowned them and led them to the four thrones amid deafening shouts of, “Long Live King Peter! Long Live Queen Susan! Long Live King Edmund! Long Live Queen Lucy!” “Once a king or queen in Narnia, always a king or queen. Bear it well, Sons of Adam! Bear it well, Daughters of Eve! said Aslan.[1]

Most people live pretty mundane lives going about their day to day tasks, without ever thinking that realistically they will ever be the president of the United States or a famous movie star or sports hero. Yet, there is something in us that loves to hear the stories of the rich, famous, and powerful. Maybe we cannot identify with their position, but we can be encouraged to be the best we can be in whatever place God has for us.

Pulcheria, empress of the Byzantine Empire in the early fifth century is a woman whose story still enthralls all those who read about her. She was loved and respected as the most powerful woman in the world. This amazing woman reigned for forty-five years with wisdom and compassion. A devout Christian, Pulcheria not only ruled during some epic times in Rome but modeled the piety and chastity that was typical of religion during the Patristic era.

Pulcheria was born to Emperor Arcadius and Empress Eudoxia in 399 AD. She was only nine years old when her father died in 408 AD. Her younger brother, Theodosius II became emperor at age seven. Pulcheria took over her brother’s education even though she was only two years older. She was obviously a very strong young woman and her brother welcomed her rule by his side which continued until his death in 450 AD. Their reign is considered by historians to have been one of the most stable that the Empire had ever known.

When Pulcheria was fifteen years old she was proclaimed “Augusta” (Empress) by the Senate of Rome. By this time she had already demonstrated great leadership ability. Pulcheria was able to stay in power by maintaining control over the men who surrounded her brother. She had learned, from her mother Empress Eudoxia by all accounts, how to play the court leaders off against each other. She also avoided their attempts at sidelining her by arranging a marriage for her. She remained single and at her brother Theodosius’s side as his most trusted relative.

Theodosius needed Pulcheria. He was a kind and good natured boy, but he was weak and self-indulgent. Some historians say that he did not appear to have ever accomplished a single political act under his own initiative. Fortunately he knew that he could leave the affairs of state to his brilliant sister. Later when he died leaving no heir a civil war was prevented because Pulcheria was so able and willing to remain on the throne.

Instead of listening to the court advisors, Pulcheria and Theodosius turned to the Church for support. Monks, clergy and commoners loved these rulers because Pulcheria founded many churches and monasteries, as well as hostels for the poor and homeless. Pulcheria won the love of the faithful when she led the royal court in acts of piety, charity, fasting, and prayer. She gave away the money to beggars that would have otherwise been used on luxurious clothing or frivolous entertainment.

There were some significant events in the Church during the reign of Pulcheria. Several heresies arose and were debated. The Third Ecumenical Council was held at Ephesus in 431 AD to deal with the heresy of Nestorius. The Council of Chalcedon (451) was convened to deal the heresies of Dioscorus and Eutychius. Pulcheria defended the Orthodox position. She maintained a friendship with Cyril, patriarch of Alexandria (r. 412 -444) who was the bishop of the Christian Church in Africa and one of the great theologians of the time. Pulcheria was well educated and able to judge in theological matters.

Several times Pulcheria retired to a monastery for a contemplative life. When Theodosius married, his new wife tried to take over as the controlling influence in his life. Pulcheria wisely bowed out rather than cause conflict. Several years later she was called back by her brother when things deteriorated in the Empire without her wise rule. She ruled with Theodosius until his death in 450 AD.

After the death of Theodosius a senator named Marcion was chosen as the next emperor. The court entreated Pulcheria to remain on the throne. She could only do this by marrying Marcion which she was reluctant to do because of her vow of virginity. However, Marcion honored Pulcheria’s vow of chastity and the two were married but lived together as brother and sister. As co-rulers they continued to build the Empire. They defeated Attila the Hun when he laid siege to Rome in 452.

Not long afterward Pulcheria died (453). She had led a full and rewarding life. In her will she left all of her wealth to the poor and Marcion honored her by carrying it out.  Pulcheria was the most powerful woman of her century and one of the most important people even among men. She has been canonized as a saint; her feast days are February 17 and August 7.

Pulcheria is remembered for guiding the Empire during the times of stress and peril. A grateful populace held her in high esteem for her acts of charity. Church leaders respected her for her orthodox stance on theological issues. Pulcheria’s life of wisdom, charity, and faithfulness are proof that God does indeed call and gift women for service even in leadership positions.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1]C. S. Lewis, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe(New York, NY: Harper Collins Publishers, 1978). p. 181,182.

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Half of the “so great a cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1) is female. Male-authored church history books have often left women out because they believe that women’s stories are irrelevant. This is especially noticeable for early Christian women. The fact is that women helped to build the Church, especially in the early years before the Church became institutionalized. When the Church organized herself she established a male-only priesthood despite the fact that all believers, male and female are priests (I Peter 2:9).

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, 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 scholarly achievement, piety, fortitude, and courage.

We began this series on Patristic women in our first post, February 5, 2019 with “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 – 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. Then we related the stories of two educated, brilliant female scholars during the Patristic Age – Paula and Macrina the Younger.

Last week we looked at Pilgrimageas a Christian activity as modeled in the life of Egeria.

This week we will focus on the stories of the Desert Mothers. While early Desert Mothers went on pilgrimages to escape the persecution in Rome (30 to 311 AD), later women including Melania the Elder and Amma Sarah followed in their footsteps voluntarily for a life of prayer, celibacy, and ascetism.

There were dangers involved in traveling and living in a harsh desert, but the hardships actually served to test the women’s determination and commitment to Christ. The solitude was essential for meditation. In small communities of like-minded ascetics, Christians could support each other and encourage each other in the faith. This was essential especially in the days of persecution.

 

Melania the Elder (c. 350 to either 410 or 417)

Melania the Elder was born in Spain around 350 AD. She was born into a wealthy, noble family. When she turned fourteen Melania married and she and her husband moved into the suburbs of Rome as members of the highest echelon of the Roman aristocracy. Melania excelled in scholarship, rivalling Paula (see post April 2, 2019), Jerome, and Marcella in her biblical and theological knowledge.

Melania remained in Spain until her husband died eight years after their marriage,  becoming a widow at the age of 22. Two of her children also died. Following this tragedy she converted to Christianity. When her remaining son turned ten she found a family to take care of him and she set off for Alexandria. She would eventually be reunited with her son in Jerusalem many years later after he had married. His daughter, her granddaughter, Melania the Younger, came to Christ and followed in her grandmother’s footsteps.

Melania and some other Christians traveled to visit the monks at Nitria. She gave much of her wealth to the needy Christians in Egypt who were being persecuted by the Arians following the death of the orthodox champion Athanasius in 373 AD. It is said that nearly 5000 people were fed with the blessing of her gift. Some of those persecuted Christians fled to Jerusalem. Melania traveled there and founded a convent for virgins on the Mount of Olives. Nearly fifty young women found salvation in Christ through her ministry.

Melania went on to found more monasteries. She was put in prison for a time by the governor, but he had to release her when he found out that she was in the aristocracy. Eventually she entered a convent.

The Visigoths invaded Rome in 410 AD. (Some believe that Melania might have died in a Visigoth raid in 410 AD). Others believe that Melania, her daughter-in-law Albina, and her granddaughter Melania fled to Sicily. From Sicily they traveled to North Africa where they stayed for seven years. Then they returned to Jerusalem where Melania died around 417 SD.

Melania was a source of inspiration for many Christians. Believers followed her example in founding monasteries and other Christian communities. She is remembered as a pious saint, following in Christ’s footsteps, identifying with His poverty and compassion for others.

Amma Sarah (4th Century)

Little is known about some Desert Mothers except through the few accounts that have been preserved. There are three – Amma (Mother) Sarah, Amma Theodora, and Amma Syncletica – who stand out as women who were humble, insightful, and wise. Syncletica and Theodora became known as wise teachers. Amma Sarah especially engaged her wit and wisdom in dealing with the everyday life of Christians.

One problem that the female ascetics had that the men didn’t have was the reaction of the monks towards the women. Men expected the women to do things for them that the men would never do for the women. This inequality bothered Sarah, but it was more important to her to be Christlike and that meant being humble and showing a servant’s heart, even if the men did not.

Sarah desired to move beyond the gender issues and make every effort to show that serving Christ is what mattered. She still had to deal with the imbalance in power in that patriarchal society and so she responded to their discrimination in wise ways. Here is a story attributed to her:

On Male Injustice– “Another time, two old men, great anchorites, came to the district of Pelusium to visit her. When they arrived one said to the other, ‘Let us humiliate this old woman.’

So they said to her, ‘Be careful not to become conceited thinking of yourself: “Look how anchorites are coming to see me, a mere woman.”‘

But Amma Sarah said to them, ‘According to nature I am a woman, but not according to my thoughts.'”

Of course this last saying follows what the apostle Paul said, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:28). As children of God, every Christian, male and female, reads the Bible, studies, prays, and does works of charity. There is no gender in these inner characteristics of the heart and mind.

What few writings we have of Sarah are enough to show a woman of faith, devotion, and wisdom. She spoke on the Christian life:

On Charity– “It is good for us to do charity, even if to have the glory of men. For if, in the beginning, our charity rises from the desire to please men, there will afterwards come that moment when it will become true charity, since it will be pleasing to God.”

On the Spiritual Life– “I put out my foot to ascend the ladder, and I place death before my eyes before going up it.” Here Sarah recognizes that on the spiritual ladder of life, one needs to “consider yourselves to be dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus” (Romans 6:11). This requires a keen sense of one’s own sinfulness and the need to constantly pray, seek forgiveness, and present “your members as instruments of righteousness to God” (Romans 6:13).

This is what the Desert Mothers sought to do. They believed that a life of celibacy, ascetism, contemplation, and charitable works was a way of pleasing God. They desired to be like Christ Who had “nowhere to lay His head” (Matthew 8:20). Christ did not marry and have children. Christ went about preaching and healing. Christ spent much time in prayer. All of these ways of emulating the Lord Jesus are open to women equally with men.

Women in the Patristic world left a great legacy. In our next post we will see that women were great leaders as well.

 

 

 

 

 

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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.

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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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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.

 

 

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