Humility or Humiliation?

Humility or Humiliation?

Published: Jun 10, 2012 by Maria Gwyn McDowell

A group of students traveling in the Holy Land were given an afternoon to shop for souvenirs.  The reason for their shopping excursion was, in part, to allow one of their group leaders, a clergyman, time to visit the monastery of his namesake.  This monastery still retains its reputation for its members’ historical contributions to Orthodox liturgical worship.  The clergyman shared his joyful visit on Facebook, to which someone commented that the students missed out by not going.  The clergyman quite honestly replied that part of the reason for his solitary trip was that half of the students were women, and that this monastery does not allow women to enter its precincts.

Unsurprisingly, though apparently astonishing to some Orthodox, a woman objected, “how can this monastery be the source of liturgical worship…and yet, not be a whole church?  By excluding a whole half of the faithful?  Is this the vision of the church?  I cannot imagine being satisfied with going to the door and being fed water.  Why are we so happy to receive such crumbs?”

A woman responded: it is a blessing to stand outside, receive whatever food and beverages are offered, and venerate the relics brought out.  Being received by the monks outside the doors is accepted “in all humility” for “Orthodoxy teaches us to be humble.”  And a few comments later, “God does not have to justify anything to us.  Whatever is in God’s will, so be it…. I repeat that Orthodoxy teaches us humility and that means accepting any crumbs that are offered.”  Given the many places men and women can venerate together, “why,” she asks, “upset the balance and cause the Monks in their Holy place to feel they have to accept women?”

Orthodoxy, via this exclusion, is said to “teach humility.”  A humble person modestly assesses his or her own abilities and worth.  It is interesting to note that modesty is from the Latin modestus, “keeping due measure,” and reflects the idea of a balance between extremes, one of the essential marks of a virtue according to Aristotle.  Humiliation, however, is to traffic in the language of shame, to deny a person’s dignity and self-respect.  Is “accepting whatever crumbs are offered” without critique a sign of self-respect, or an indication of a well-learned lack of self-respect?

The question is heightened by the fact that the exclusion of women from male monasteries (and men from female monasteries) is perceived by a faithful member of the Church as “God’s will.”1  God’s will requires no explanation.  Yet it is not God who excludes, but particular communities and rarely do these communities ascribe their decision directly to “God’s will.”  Exclusion is the choice of a community, based on perceptions of its own needs.  Many monastic communities do not restrict the participation based on sex.  We too quickly identify everything done by a particular member or group of members of the Church as “God’s will,” especially when someone objects to the practice.  As a result, we do not carefully listen to those who experience nothing of God in a given practice.  The sadness and anger felt by those who are denied the ability to worship in a particular place simply because of their sex is ignored, or worse, identified as a lack of appropriate humility.  Suddenly, the desire to worship in a holy place, and the grief experienced at being excluded, is now an inappropriate desire to step out of one’s place.  A holy desire is now interpreted as the presence of sin.  This is “God’s will.”

The irony here is that the metaphor of “crumbs” from a banquet table hearkens back to the story of the Syrophoenecian woman who emphatically did not accept mere crumbs.

This woman learned of God in a culture where, each morning, some faithful Jews recite blessings, the “Birkhot HaShachar.”  Among them are three rather controversial “blessings”, quite obviously recited by men:

Blessed are You, Eternal One our God, Sovereign of the Universe, who did not make me a woman.
Blessed are You, Eternal One our God, Sovereign of the Universe, who did not make me a Gentile.
Blessed are You, Eternal One our God, Sovereign of the Universe, who did not make me a slave.

These blessings are ancient in origin.  A corresponding saying, floating around ancient Palestine among Jesus’ contemporaries was, “Thank God I am not a Gentile, a woman, or a dog.”  The association of the three is somewhat obvious in the story of the Syrophonecian woman (Mark 7:25-30 or Matt. 15:21-28). Jesus is confronted with just such a person: a woman, a Gentile, and therefore, a dog.  Their conversation reflects the prejudice of the day.  She requests a miracle from a Jew who repeats (only after initially ignoring her according to Matthew) back to her the belief of their shared cultures which apparently held that the God of Israel was for the Israelites, not “dogs.”  And yet this astonishingly, even inappropriately, bold woman refuses to let sleeping dogs lie.  In her perhaps ironic answer, she indicates an understanding about the Creator of the Universe that Jesus recognizes as faith: there are enough crumbs to go around.

The crumbs here is the gracious presence of God, and the point of the passage is not that crumbs are enough.  By challenging the cultural assumption that she is merely a dog, undeserving of the God of Israel, this woman proclaims that the abundance of God is for all.  In other words, in Christ Jesus, there are no crumbs.  The over-abundance of God’s generous banquet is precisely what Jesus acknowledges by healing her daughter.  She does not receive crumbs, but is instantly granted the fullness of God’s overflowing, healing grace.

We are not called to accept crumbs, and doing so is not a sign of humility.  It may be a gracious acceptance of another’s sinfulness, but God does not give us crumbs, but life, abundant life.

Lest anyone misinterpret me, let me be clear: separation is not inherently wrong.  As a frequent monastic visitor, I am not allowed to enter the nuns’ private area any more than I am allowed to enter the monks’.  The issue here is not my sex, but simply my presence as a distraction to the contemplative and often solitary life of monastics.  Likewise, it is entirely appropriate that some meals are shared among the monastics alone, allowing them time to develop relationship over food (one of the most powerful places of human connection, eating together) or eat their meals in prayerful silence.

There are also pragmatic reasons.  As the clergyman noted in the facebook conversation, the monastery in question was formerly a site of vibrant liturgical contribution.  Today, it is populated by a handful of monks where “the present-day liturgical life of the monastery is not likely to be especially beautiful by worldly standards.”  Perhaps the monastery simply cannot accommodate large groups of whatever sex.  It is worth being reminded by the clergyman that the hymns written in this place are sung by men and women throughout the Orthodox world, so one “doesn’t have to enter the monastery itself to be enriched by the spirit of the place.”

However, as gracious as this response is, it sidesteps the issue.  Presumably, pilgrims are not seeking worship which is “beautiful by worldly standards.”  They are simply seeking worship in a place of venerable age and respected memory, seeking, like this clergyman, the joy of sharing space with a saint of great repute.  Yet hardly any pilgrim would deny the special joy experienced by standing in such a Spirit-filled place.  We are bodily creations, and the sensual experience of a physical place is undeniably different than experience any number of degrees removed.  It remains a simple fact that a group of men would have (presumably) been able to participate in the humble liturgical life practiced by a small group of aging monastics.  This is enough for a pilgrim.  If it isn’t, then why be a pilgrim?

Further, we are not talking about exclusion from private quarters.  We are speaking of exclusion from liturgy.  Orthodoxy does not condone private eucharists.  Given this, perhaps we Orthodox should rethink exclusion based on sex during our times of worship.  “A Eucharist” says Metropolitan John Zizioulas, “which excludes in one way or another those of a different race or sex or age or profession is a false Eucharist….The Eucharist must include all these, for it is there that the otherness of a natural or social kind can be transcended. A Church which does not celebrate the Eucharist in this inclusive way risks losing her catholicity.”  The Eucharist sanctifies communion as well as otherness, and Eucharistic fails to do this is “destroyed and even invalidated.”2

How then, to deal with reality of sex-separation?  Is separation and exclusion a sign of “God’s will” or a mark of our failure to incorporate the over-flowing hospitality of God?  I obviously think it is the latter, and if we are to have any integrity with the clash between the abundance of God, and our failure, we must make our need for separation clear.  We must make clear, in our theology, our official statements, posted on the lintels of monasteries or published on websites, that exclusion is not God’s will but a necessary accommodation to the weakness of its residents.  Perhaps something along these lines could be posted:

Our dear sister [brother] in Christ, we ask your forgiveness but we cannot invite you in to join us.  We are learning to focus on God, and in our weakness, are too easily distracted from our task by your God-given image.  We ask patience for our weakness, and humbly ask that you pray that we become able to enter into the joy of God’s reign with you at our sides.

Humility in this case springs from the residents, from their own measured self-assessment.  This honesty includes a recognition of their inability to live their chosen life if they are distracted by the ‘other.’  The responsibility for this inability to worship next to a fellow person made in the image of God is not put on women or God.  It is taken by the one who truly bears responsibility.

Further, as Orthodox, we must be careful in throwing around the term “holy.”  No place in which only some of the people of God are allowed to worship in joy and freedom can be fully holy.  This does not mean that God cannot work in places where exclusion exists, only that true holiness, full holiness, cannot include exclusion.

Of all the places in which we are called to live our baptismal calling of putting on Christ in whom there is neither slave nor free, male and female, it is in liturgy.  A failure to welcome all to the table is a failure to accept one another as sisters and brothers in Christ.  This is not the good news of Jesus Christ, but the bad news of a world where we cannot put down our distractions long enough to feed one another on the abundant bread of life offered to us, for us, and by us. 

  • 1. Of course, there is no woman’s monastery that truly excludes men, since without men they would be without the sacraments.  I am sure that many women’s monasteries which exclude men in general welcome visiting male hierarchs (if not presbyters) to share a meal.  Male monastics have the option to exclude women, female monastics do not.  The power dynamics of such ‘exclusions’ are entirely different as women remain dependent on men in a way that men with an identical call do not
  • 2. Zizioulas, John. “Communion and Otherness.” St Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly 38, no. 4 (1994): p. 355