Heroines in the Early Church

April 24, 2008

Pages numbers refer to excerpts found in Elizabeth Clark’s Women in the Early Church (1983).

Monica (245ff)

I first read about Monica in college when I was introduced to St. Augustine’s Confessions. I remember being surprised that a woman would be so persistent in her prayers for her son and found myself cheering her on for her perseverance even when he would deceive her and leave the country without her. My great-grandmother went through a similar experience with my grandfather’s waywardness, and in his twenties he converted, went to seminary, and became a pioneer missionary in the Brazilian Amazon for nearly forty years. He always gave credit to his mother’s prayers for his breakthrough into the faith, just as Augustine described: “a mother who…had wept over me for many years that I might live in Your eyes” (257-8). I admire that perseverance in Monica, suffering having an unbelieving husband, a mean mother-in-law, and wayward children, all of whom she “conquered by her submissiveness, persevering in endurance and gentleness” (253). She was so steadfast, never giving up her cause before God’s throne, and God answered her prayers even though she did not see the fruit of it for many years. To have that kind of faith in the power of prayer, to be that persistent and consistent, to endure over decades the abuse of those she prayed for daily—that is what I admire about Monica, about any woman who faithfully advocates the cause of her family before God.

As much as I admire her, I cannot identify with Monica’s submissiveness. I could not willingly marry a non-Christian and pray him into the faith, never seeing the fruition of that prayer until his deathbed. I am too opinionated and too stubborn to submit to someone I know is wrong, as much as I’d like to be able to say I could. A son’s waywardness is one thing, but a husband’s is entirely another. Perhaps I could have been a submissive wife in Monica’s time, when that was just how it was, but with today’s possibility for an egalitarian marriage, I don’t think I could settle for less.

Drusiana (88ff)

Now Drusiana is a woman I can identify with, strong-willed enough to stand up to her husband and convince him “to consider the matter as she did” (89). Even after he entombed her in effort to induce her by force to sleep with him, she remained resolute, and it was he who submitted to her decision rather than have her die. Of course, women only seem to show their stronger side in fictional works like this one.

Perpetua (98ff)

The real-life Perpetua certainly showed her strength of will as she endured a long process of persecution and martyrdom with her slave Felicitas. Both women gave up their duty as mothers of infants in order to die for their confession of faith. Perpetua describes in her diary the events leading up to her death, and someone else describes their final fight in the amphitheater: “as if to Heaven [they entered], with faces composed; if perchance they trembled, it was not from fear but from joy” (103). In fact, Perpetua finally had to help the executioner finish his job. The recorder notes, “Perhaps so great a woman…could not be killed in any other way than unless she herself wished it” (105). Her endurance, perseverance, and strength of courage and will are traits I admire in this true-to-life martyr of the faith.

I have trouble identifying with her ability to give away her nursing child, likewise with Felicitas’ ability to give birth in the prison cell, hand over her newborn, and march into the amphitheater to be executed. I think I might have given in had my father pleaded with me the way Perpetua’s did (99) to think of my child, of my duty as a mother to care for my family. To abstain from wifely duties is one thing, but to orphan a child is another altogether. Would my faith have superseded my motherly instinct?

Marcella (162-3, 205ff)

Of course, most of the models of great Christian women were ascetics who would not have the concerns of children to distract them from their commitment to God’s work. Marcella, one of the earliest female ascetics, provides a wonderful example of chastity and charity, taking care of the poor wherever she went. What I most admire about Marcella is her feistiness concerning the refutation of heretics. Though her brother Jerome takes great pains to note that she never set herself up as a teacher so as to go against 1Timothy, he also depicts her in public debate: “She was in the front line in condemning heretics” (163). In Jerome’s place she was sought after for instruction: “if an argument arose about some evidence from Scripture, the question was pursued with her as the judge” (208). She may have played the part of a dutiful woman, but she was clearly knowledgeable and gifted not only in instructing others but also in living out her beliefs, “because she understood how to please Christ” (206-7).

It makes me sad that women so gifted were forced to choose an ascetic life in order to exercise their talents more openly. While I love the fact that Marcella battled heresy and taught her fellow Christians regarding spiritual things, I cannot so readily identify with a lifestyle of fasting. Marcella only ate every other day, and it is no wonder that she suffered constant illness and stomach trouble on such an insufficient diet. Seasonal fasting is one thing, but a lifetime of such rigorous denial I think brings more detriment to the body God has given than good to the soul. I think I would make a terrible ascetic, but I might try it for the sake of having the freedom to debate, learn, examine, teach, and judge as Marcella did under her brother’s sanction.

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