This first topic is one which is often the subject of the questions I receive from Orthodox women. Should Orthodox women be able to receive communion during their monthly period. It deserves much more than the hasty answers which are usually given, and which clearly do not satisfy many of those who ask. I have not sensed that Orthodox women are less obedient and committed than Orthodox men, far from it. But most people are aware when they are being asked to be obedient in something for which the one demanding obedience has no firm explanation. It is not un-spiritual to ask why we should follow some practice of the Church. Indeed, the Scriptures teach us…
Always be ready to give an answer when someone asks you about your hope. 1 Peter 3:15
I think this is relevant, as is the command of our Lord…
Go to the people of all nations and make them my disciples. Baptize them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and teach them to do everything I have told you. I will be with you always, even until the end of the world. Mathew 28:19-20
I believe that these passages describe a Christian community in which the members are well instructed in their faith and are able to explain to others the life which we share. We should be able to give an answer when we are asked a question. There seems to me to be no sense that there are forbidden questions. Likewise the members of the Church should themselves be able to provide an answer. Not in an absolute sense of course, but there should not be a case where we say to an enquirer – you must do this, but none of us know why! It does not seem acceptable for me that a mother, a devout Christian of perhaps 30 or 40 years, should have to say to a daughter – this is the rule, but no-one has been able to explain to me in a reasonable manner why it exists. You must also follow it without any clear understanding.
Surely the reason for the community of the Church being able to provide reasonable answers to the questions which might be raised is that we are to be making disciples. A disciple is one with a teacher, and in the relationship between teacher and disciple the intention is to do more than share information, as if to pass an exam, but it is to share an experience of life. The ambition for the teacher is that his disciples will grow into maturity themselves, and therefore within the Christian context, the Church desires above all that every member become mature in their faith, understanding what it means to live in the grace of the Holy Spirit, and therefore able to respond themselves to the questions which others ask.
A community of disciples should always be responding to questions. This is how we develop spiritual maturity. If I open the Conferences of St John Cassian, the account of his conversations with the monastic pioneers of the Egyptian Desert, I discover that the text is filled with questions. I cannot find anywhere that one of the Fathers of the Desert told him to stop asking questions. We have many volumes of the correspondence of the Fathers with different people, often ordinary Christians, asking ordinary questions. I cannot recall any of the Fathers telling their correspondents to stop asking questions, or suggesting that their questions were invalid because they were not an expression of blind obedience. There are certainly times when a parent says to a child – Just do it! And there is certainly a need for us to be obedient in the daily experience of life in Christ and not demand understanding and explanation before we act. But if a child only hears – Just do it! – then it seems to me that there is a dysfunctional relationship between the parent and child. Likewise, a committed Orthodox Christian will properly act in obedience, even without clear understanding, but at some point both the child and the Christian deserve and may demand to know why this obedience is required and for what purpose.
I was implementing some business software in my last employment as an IT Manager. One of the departments insisted that a particular document had to be printed three times. This created some difficulties for me. It was the tradition, it could be said. When I asked why it was necessary it was explained that the document had to be stored in three different filing cabinets. I pressed a little harder and asked why there were three filing cabinets. It became clear that these three cabinets had come from three different buildings some years previously, at a time when it had been necessary to have three physical copies stored in different places. These cabinets were now in the same room, next to each other even, and the reason for having three copies had ceased to have any meaning a long time ago. The purpose of making a copy remained just as valid and necessary, but circumstances had changed, and so the actual practice of making three copies was now not only not necessary but a waste of time and effort. Yet until I had asked the questions I did, new staff were being taught that three copies must be made because they must be made!
Elsewhere in the Scriptures it is written…
Therefore let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity. Hebrews 6:1
I do not know if the things I am discussing here are elementary matters or more mature ones. But what is clear is that the Scriptures intend for every Christian to become mature, to become perfected in their thinking. And where there are questions it is a sign of growth towards such maturity, not disobedience and immaturity. Indeed, when some of the most devout Christians I know, all Orthodox women, ask these questions then it seems to me that what is required are some robust answers, not criticism of those who are not satisfied with what they have heard. When young people ask questions it is also not out of a desire to be difficult, but because the answers being provided, or even the questions which are forbidden, suggest to many that our Orthodox Faith is not as solid as we would like to insist. If the answer to any such a question is, “You must just be obedient”, then it seems to me to not be an answer at all. Certainly not an answer worthy of a disciple.
This is the first point which I wish to insist upon. Asking questions is not un-spiritual, or disobedient, or disruptive. It is a necessary aspect of being a disciple, and a disciple is one who is on a journey towards spiritual maturity. If we are unable to give an answer then it is we who are at fault. And if we give an answer then it must be subject to the same oversight of the Fathers as anything else we say and do. It must become subject itself to further questions and reflection in accordance with the very nature of discipleship.
A very significant proportion of young people, born into the Orthodox Community, are choosing to leave, or feel compelled to leave. One of the reasons is that the substance of the Orthodox Faith is not being communicated as life in the Holy Spirit, but simply as a set of moral regulations which must be adopted. And another is that the rational and reasonable questions which young people, and older people, within our Orthodox Communities ask are simply not being answered, or are even producing a hostile response towards those who ask. It is my opinion, and all my opinions may be challenged of course, that every question is an opportunity for spiritual growth and an invitation for pastoral insight. When we reject such questions as being incompatible with obedient faith then we reject both discipleship in the Church and the pastoral care which is laid on the priesthood.
St Theophan the Recluse, in his excellent and deeply spiritual work, The Path to Salvation, says at the beginning, when he is speaking about whether or not we have a true experience of Christ…
A cold fulfillment of the rules of the Church, just like routine in business, which is established by our calculating mind, or like correct and dignified behavior and honesty in conduct, is not a decisive indicator that the true Christian life is present in us. All this is good, but as long as it does not bear in itself the spirit of life in Christ Jesus, it has no value at all before God.
This is the problem when we insist on a blind and unthinking obedience. It is very easy to follow particular practices in exact detail and yet not be a Christian at all. The disciple has a living relationship with his teacher, while the pharisee has a relationship only with rules and regulations. Both can be very sincere and committed to their path, but a legalistic attitude towards the Christian Faith is not spiritual and cannot bring about union with God. It must be a fearful thing for us to engender a spirit of phariseeism in those for whom we have spiritual care, rather than a spirit of discipleship.
It’s fearful thing to realise. A priest is either creating a Disciple, a Pharisee, a Hypocrite or an Apostate. I can see no other possibilities. If we not helping a person develop union with God in their experience of the divine life in Christ by the Holy Spirit then what are we doing? If we are encouraging the idea that we can be righteous in our own observance of a Christian law then we are making Pharisees. If we insist on a facade of righteousness but have nothing to say about a transforming substance of faith then we are making Hypocrites who live a double life. And if we are unable or unwilling to be honest with those who struggle in many ways then we are creating Apostates who will look for spiritual nourishment wherever they can find it, or abandon the spiritual path altogether. I can see no other options. What a terrifying responsibility. Only the grace of God poured out in the life of a priest can suffice for this.
This is why I consider it of the first importance that the questions which faithful Orthodox women ask be addressed honestly and seriously. There are young women who will leave the Faith because their questions are ignored and dismissed as trivial. Their loss of faith will count against us. And so I am compelled to write. It is commendable that so many want to ask questions and do not simply disappear quietly from our congregations. The intention in producing these materials is not to impose any particular view on the Church or on Orthodox Christians, but to consider the patristic thinking on these issues, so that we are able to have a conversation informed by a serious study of the Tradition.
At first it will be necessary for us to consider the patristic material which directly and explicitly relates to the question of whether or not a woman should receive communion during her monthly period. Then the material being consider will be widened to respond to some of the issues which this initial patristic material suggests and will include other patristic comment, as well as the Scriptures themselves. The different arguments which are usually used in relation to this topic will all be included in this reflection, since the intention is not to come to a particular view point, but to understand in as comprehensive a manner as possible the teaching of the Church since the beginning in relation to this topic.
In the second part of this study the patristic material will begin to be considered in detail.