Orthodox Women – Receiving Communion V

Myrrhbearing women at the tomb

In this 5th post about the issue of Orthodox women receiving communion during their monthly period we will turn to other Patristic sources which directly address the question. The fact that in both the third and fourth centuries in Alexandria there were those who were asking whether it was permissible for a woman to receive communion during her monthly period indicates that it was not as settled a question as the texts of Dionysius and Timothy might suggest, and that it was not quite as obvious to all that a woman should not commune as Dionysius himself suggested.

The same question was addressed in other times and places. In the document, the Teaching of the Apostles, a compilation of instructions and canons from the beginning of the third century, produced in Syria as a guide to Church life, the issue of ritual purity and women receiving communion is considered. These instructions are earlier even than those of Dionysius and say…

But if there be any who are precise and desire, after Deuteronomy, to observe the usual courses of nature and issues and marriage intercourse: first let them know that, as we have already said, together with the Deuteronomy they affirm the curse against our Saviour and condemn themselves to no purpose…And again, let them tell us, in what days or in what hours they keep themselves from prayer and from receiving the Eucharist, or from reading the Scriptures — let them tell us whether they are void of the Holy Spirit. For through baptism they receive the Holy Spirit, who is ever with those that work righteousness, and does not depart from them by reason of natural issues and the intercourse of marriage, but is ever and always with those who possess Him, and keeps them;…the Holy Spirit is always in thee, without just impediment dost thou keep thyself from prayer and from the Scriptures and from the Eucharist. For consider and see, that prayer also is heard through the Holy Spirit, and the Eucharist through the Holy Spirit is accepted and sanctified, and the Scriptures are the words of the Holy Spirit, and are holy. For if the Holy Spirit is in thee, why dost thou keep thyself from approaching to the works of the Holy Spirit?

What does this ancient and authoritative text teach us. It is, in the first place, that the opinion of Dionysius about a woman receiving communion during her monthly period is not and was not the only serious opinion being heard in the Church in this early period. Secondly, this writing shows us that it was believed, among those who followed these instructions, that those who persisted in applying categories of ritual purity and impurity were to be considered as following the whole Law, and therefore rejecting Christ, who truly purifies us by faith. Certainly in this time and place the cultural basis for the instruction of Dionysius did not apply. It was not thought, in the Orthodox community who read this text, that it was obvious that no woman would ever want to receive communion. On the contrary, the author encourages women, experiencing their monthly period, to believe that they are not without the Holy Spirit and therefore may approach the Mysteries, if they wish.

Now some might say that there is no question that an Orthodox woman always possesses the Holy Spirit if she is faithful, and that therefore the argument that the monthly period causes the loss of the Holy Spirit is no argument at all. Perhaps that is the case in our own times. But it would seem in the 3rd century that some wished to say that not only were women ritually unclean at the time of their period, but they were also spiritually unclean in some sense. This text wishes to stress most clearly that not only is the woman in such a condition still filled with the Holy Spirit, but being filled with the Holy Spirit there is no spiritual obstacle to her receiving the work of the Holy Spirit in the Eucharist.

Nor was it only in the Teaching of the Apostles that this instruction is found. In the slightly later compilation, the Apostolic Constitutions, the same endorsement of women receiving communion at any time in their monthly cycle is reiterated. It was not an eccentricity. When this same teaching appears in the Apostolic Constitutions, compiled in the fourth century, the section begins…

Now if any persons keep to the Jewish customs and observances..

Certainly in the Orthodox communities who used these instructions as the basis for their Church organisation and order it was considered that all ideas if ritual purity were based on Judaism. This section continues in the Constitutions…

For neither lawful mixture, nor child-bearing, nor the menstrual purgation, nor nocturnal pollution, can defile the nature of a man, or separate the Holy Spirit from him….O woman, be ever mindful of God that created you, and pray to Him. For He is your Lord, and the Lord of the universe; and meditate in His laws without observing any such things, such as the natural purgation, lawful mixture, child-birth, a miscarriage, or a blemish of the body; since such observations are the vain inventions of foolish men, and such inventions as have no sense in them. Neither the burial of a man, nor a dead man’s bone, nor a sepulchre, nor any particular sort of food, nor the nocturnal pollution, can defile the soul of man; but only impiety towards God, and transgression, and injustice towards one’s neighbour; … Wherefore, beloved, avoid and eschew such observations, for they are heathenish.

In this text, the Apostolic Constitutions, the woman is encouraged to avoid worrying about all of the special rituals that a culture can develop around bodily functions. There is nothing unclean, this text teaches, about any of the natural bodily processes and neither a man nor a woman is made unclean by them. What matters is always the character and quality of our interior disposition. It is part of the Jewish Law that all manner of things could defile a man, such as contact with a dead body, or a tomb, or eating the wrong food. But the compiler of this list of instructions goes even beyond connecting them with Jewish religion and thinks them to represent even a pagan attitude towards life and body.

A little later than the Apostolic Constitutions, and in the West, Pope Gregory of Rome, one of the greatest of the Roman Popes responded to questions sent by Augustine of Canterbury, the missionary bishop he had sent to Britain to convert the pagan English peoples. One of Augustine’s questions says…

If she is in her sickness after the manner of women whether she may enter the church, or receive the sacrament of sacred communion.

Augustine had many practical questions, and these received authoritative answers from Gregory. In this particular question, relevant to our study, he asks whether a woman who is experiencing her monthly period, and here he calls is a sickness rather than an uncleanness, may receive communion. Pope Gregory writes…

For to hunger and to thirst, to be hot, to be cold, to be weary, is of infirmity of nature. And to seek food against hunger, and drink against thirst, and cool air against heat, and clothing against cold, and rest against weariness, what is it but to search out certain healing appliances against sicknesses? For in females also the menstruous flow of their blood is a sickness. If therefore she presumed well who in her state of feebleness touched the Lord’s garment, why should not what is granted to one person in infirmity be granted to all women who through defect of their nature are in infirmity?

This is interesting because he categorises the monthly period in exactly the same manner as all other types of infirmity. Indeed, he extends the thought to include all of the weaknesses which humans have to endure at one time or another, both male and female, and refuses to count the monthly period as some unique affliction. They are all infirmities of nature, and if the woman with the issue of blood was commended for reaching out to touch the Lord’s garment, Gregory can see no reason, no impurity or uncleanness or unpreparedness, which would prevent any woman from being granted the same healing, not of her monthly period, but of soul.

He continues, saying very clearly…

Further, she ought not to be prohibited during these same days from receiving the mystery of holy communion. If, however, out of great reverence, she does not presume to receive, she is to be commended; but, if she should receive, she is not to be judged.

According to the instruction of Gregory, and intended as an authoritative opinion which would be applied throughout the Church in England at this time, 597 AD, there should be no prohibition at all on a woman who was experiencing her monthly period and wished to receive communion. Yet, and this is also important, there must be no sense that a woman in her period must receive communion. The decision should be left to her own judgement of her physical, mental and spiritual state. Certainly as we study the Patristic tradition to better understand this issue we must not seem to impose an obligation. None of the Patristics insist that a woman during her monthly period must commune, and some of those Orthodox women who have corresponded with me express something like this teaching of Gregory of Rome, that sometimes a woman will not want to be crowded round with many people, and will not feel properly prepared, and will want to avoid communion at such a time and for such reasons.

He adds a little later on…

And so females, when they consider themselves as being in their habit of sickness, if they presume not to approach the sacrament of the body and blood of the Lord, are to be commended for their right consideration. But when, out of the habit of a religious life, they are seized with a love of the same mystery, they are not to be restrained, as we have said.

This is, to a great extent, the same policy which Dionysius applied to males who experienced an emission, and to married couples who had sexual relations. The difference is that Dionysius considers, for what appears to be cultural reasons, the monthly period to cause a ritual impurity, while Gregory rejects this and treats the monthly period as more like a sickness, certainly an infirmity. What is interesting is that Gregory is not liberal at all in regard to sexual relations. He considers that even married sexual relations are likely to be mixed with a desire for pleasure and so to be worthy of some judgement, though he does allow that it is possible for married sexual relations to be perhaps only for procreation. And he is not very sympathetic to the male who has an emission. He grants that it is possible he may be blameless but is rather more persuaded that the male is at some fault.

We should therefore not imagine that his teaching and instructions about women who are experiencing their monthly period are an expression of a very lax spiritual judgement. He is very strict about sexuality. But he does not consider that the monthly period is of this character and liable to any judgement at all. He does have some sense that the period is a sign of the fallen nature of man, and that this might cause a sensitive soul to refrain from communion…

For the menstruous habit in women is no sin, seeing that it occurs naturally; yet still that nature itself has been so vitiated as to be seen to be polluted even without the intention of the will is a defect that comes of sin, whereby human nature may perceive what through judgment it has come to be, so that man who voluntarily committed sin may bear the guilt of sin involuntarily.

What does he mean here? It seems to me that he is suggesting that the very process of the monthly period is in some sense a reminder of the fact of our fallen nature. As if the necessity for mankind to perpetuate itself through sexual relations and the menstrual cycle is a result of the fall, and of Adam’s sin. It is not necessary to adopt such a view, and this view will be considered in more detail in a later post, together with some of the other views on sexuality held by Gregory. But what is clear is that despite being strict on all manner of sexual activity, he chooses not to imply that there is any uncleanness or ritual impurity in the experience of the monthly period, and does not prohibit a woman from receiving communion at this time.

6 Responses to "Orthodox Women – Receiving Communion V"

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.