I am grouping the next two talks into one post, partly due to time, but mostly because they are thematically related. Dr. Kyriaki FitzGerald spoke on the connection between Eve, Mary and Us, emphasizing the blessedness of those who hear the word of God and keep it. Dr. Mary Ford offered the diverse lives of women saints, each of whom attained holiness in and through the circumstances of their lives. The common thread through each is freely responding to the work of God in order to abide in God, acquiring grace. Ford’s emphasized that fulfilling our vocation is not necessarily about fulfilling our gifts, but to do whatever is before us with all our hearts.
FitzGerald emphasized the basis of discipleship, the need to freely abide in God. She notes the process by which the Serpent deceived Eve, “softly cooing delusional fantasies,” distracting her with a debate on the technicalities of the rules, convincing her to turn away from a person, God, to an IT, a desirable tree and its fruit. Her choice, freely made, is balanced by the free choice of another woman, through whom Christ is brought into the world. In the Theotokos, God dwells in humanity, all “men and women are called to give birth to Christ” (an image popular in both Maximus and Symeon the New Theologian).
Ford identified three vocations, framed by our ultimate vocation which is to acquire grace. First, we fulfill this vocation as women, and for most of history this has meant bearing or adopting children, being mothers and wives. A second option is monasticism. A third, only recently an option in the world, and which needs to be further developed, is that of a single woman. Given the even newer freedom to choose ones vocation, often only experienced by women in the Western world, she noted the need to consider other options.
Her caution, a good one I think, is not to assume that if one loves the church, to think that the only way to be serious about our faith is ordained ministry and full-time work. All ethical work is the work of God.
Yet I also must admit a thread through both talks, that disturbed me. On the one hand, FitzGerald somewhat jokingly notes that the serpent chooses Eve, because she is a “twofer,” get her, get Adam. But if Adam had been approached, Eve might have objected. What does this say about men? Is this a way in which we diminish men in order to elevate women, similar to what has been done to us? Or is this a real weakness of men? A wise woman with whom I discussed this, shared an observation regarding women pastors (obviously not Orthodox). They tend to be blindsided by the evil present in their congregations, they just don’t see it coming, and as a result, are undone. We need, she said, to understand the clever and subtle distractions from the love of God which can undo us and those around us. Is this, she asked, an inherent weakness of women (whether cultural or natural, it is irrelevant)? Can we honestly confront these weaknesses without elevating one over the other? I simply wonder if sometimes, in our emphasis on Mary as redeeming Eve, if are we still atoning for female guilt of introducing sin into the world? What about the man? He was there, and he did choose, even if it was a silent choice. It is just a rhetoric that bothers me every time I see it.
A similar concern arose for me in listening to Ford. Among the gamut of women saints, some of whom did have and use their gifts fully, are those whose holiness came as the result of suffering, often abuse at the hands of ‘loved’ ones. Ford never once affirmed, endorsed or even suggested that the abuse itself was good. Her point was that holiness can be achieved in the ‘givenness’ of life, regardless of circumstances. Yet in her elevation of motherhood (and adding singleness as somewhat of an afterthought), is everything once again subsumed into motherhood?
A further note is that she and FitzGerald (and Schmemann) repeatedly noted the importance of detachment. For me, this begs the question, detachment from what? Is this thread really an silent acknowledgement that there is a problem? Are we to be detached from the pain and suffering in the world, or the pain and suffering we experience by the denial of our gifts, the obstruction of their free and full exercise, by the church? I am grateful that we can acquire the grace of God even we do not feel fulfilled in our gifts, and that theosis is not dependent on the receipt of our gifts by the world or church. But this does not then excuse the church from the ways in which it, through its practices, inclusions and exclusions, denies the gifts of women and becomes a source of suffering rather than life.