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Posts Tagged ‘Women in the Patristic Age’

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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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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