Church History, Women in the Church

Celebrating Early Christian Women at Prayer

Published on: September 28, 2022
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by V.K. McCarty

Lydia

“We have heard as they were read aloud those words,
so shining and luminescent, we have taken in by ear,
we have considered in our minds
and honored in our belief.”

It is wonderful to be able to share with you how grateful I am for all the encouragement and support from the team at the Institute for Studies in Eastern Christianity throughout the time that I was developing and writing my new book. During the worst of the pandemic, I worked with Gorgias Press developing it, and editing it and preparing the type, and now it is a real pleasure for me for me to be able to share with you: From Their Lips: Voices of Early Christian Women.

It should come as no surprise that early Christian women are heard praying to the Lord from the beginning to the end of it. So, it offers the reader the opportunity to take a good look at early Christian prayer as it was remembered by generations of faithful disciples of Jesus Christ. By exploring the lives and ministry of a dozen early Christian women from the first centuries after the Resurrection, it delves deeply into their prayer lives. For professors, in their teaching; for students, in their studies—you will find this book helpful in bringing to life women whose faith and prayer to the Lord contributed to the history of early Christianity.

In fact, the volume opens in the New Testament, down by the river-side in Macedonian Philippi, in a scene I’m convinced was inspired by the living prayer of a woman. The Acts of the Apostles tells us that the Apostle Paul had come to town and was looking for people to evangelize about the Gospel of Jesus Christ. He heard that Jewish people met to pray together out by the river; so, on the Sabbath Day, he went out bright and early to meet them. As it happened, on this particular day, it was the women who were gathered there praying. And he spoke with Lydia—and Lydia spoke back (Luke 16:14-15).

Why Lydia?—was it perhaps because she was leading the prayers of the group worshiping there? When Paul is reported sitting down with them, it is fascinating to wonder if he shared prayer led by Lydia, before speaking with her about the Gospel and baptizing her. Her voice is remembered and she is quoted in the text—a rare and valuable marker of evidence in Scripture, especially for a woman. The memory of the Gospel of Jesus Christ was so immediate at this time, and transformative in the hearts and minds of his early followers, that Lydia is witnessed at the very moment of evangelization; for “the Lord opened her heart” (Acts 16:14).

Often, very few women’s words remain for us to explore; but, that is all the more reason to be vigilant in remembering their voices. And with her offer of hospitality, welcoming Paul into her home, Lydia is very likely the seed of an early Christian house church in Philippi. This is all part of the great excitement about the early years after the life and ministry of Jesus; it was spreading like wild-fire, the compelling and irresistible experience of the Resurrection of Christ, lighting up hearts with hope and courage and Gospel mission.

Even on the Day of Pentecost in the Upper Room in Jerusalem, there were women present praying, the Evangelist Luke tells us, and Our Lady the Blessed Theotokos was among them (Acts 1:14). The Holy Spirit poured down on them like a gust of wind; poured down on all present and, by virtue of them, on all believers of Jesus Christ after that—and on you today. Indeed, Jaroslav Pelikan has pointed out that it is unavoidably clear, both from the original words in the second chapter of the Book of the Prophet Joel, and from the quotation of them in the sermon of Peter at Pentecost, that it will be “your sons and your daughters,” both men and women on whom God “will pour out my Spirit,” and who “shall prophecy” (Acts 2:17-18) (Pelikan, Acts [2005], 206).

The first-century saint, Thekla, was galvanized by that same Spirit as well. We know her from the second-century Apocryphal Acts; these are sacred texts that were circulating alongside the New Testament, when the canon of Scripture was still being negotiated. The Acts of Paul and Thekla is a thrilling witness to faith and joy in Christ, and it is a real pleasure to share with you in my book. The first time I encountered Thecla, though, she stood before the viewer, praying, in a stunning Egyptian relief sculpture, probably from the fifth century. Surrounded by rampant threatening lions, she was also divinely protected by angels, and already crowned by a saint’s halo; for she was depicting in high relief the moment when God’s intervention transforms a scene of intense violence in the Roman arena with a promise of Salvation in dangerous times for early believers.

St. Thekla’s deliverance from martyrdom, and her preaching ministry after that, captured the imagination of countless Christians in the early centuries of the Jesus Movement. Gregory of Nyssa was said to have prayed at her popular shrine when he was dealing with family grief; Egeria reports visiting the shrine as well on her pilgrimage, and she describes her prayer offered there (It. Eger. 23.1-6). The Acts of Paul and Thecla is a tale of high adventure and divine miracles, and this ancient Christian treasure presents a vibrant tension living between the ascetic and the erotic components of the sacred text. In her own day, in the generations soon after she died, when people were gathering at her shrine, the example of Thekla’s luminous faith was used as an endorsement in support of women’s ministry which was active in the early Church, including preaching and baptizing—and we have confirmation that it was actually going on, because the Church Father Tertullian boldly black-lists Thekla in one of his treatises which we still have. (Homily on Baptism, E Evans, trans. [1964], 36)

We know what many of the men did with the inspiration given them by the Holy Spirit; Church history is filled with their stories—but, what about the women? How did their evangelization and their faithful prayer help spread the faith? Since it was a predominantly Patristic time, description of women teaching and leading prayer, day by day, was often not considered worthy of being recorded; and if it was, it could likely be diminished in later editing—or deleted altogether.

Fortunately, however, we are looking for the women more now—and they are there, in the witness of Scripture, and several times quoted in the Greek Church Fathers, the Patrologia Graeca, and in the Latin Fathers as well. And now we know that, if the memory of a woman’s theological teaching or the words of her prayer have persisted, and we get a glimpse of her in an ancient text, we are very likely looking at the tip of the iceberg about what it really means; what it actually represents about the women who were there making a contribution.

So, the very fact, then, that women—that is, half the faithful—are just plain missing from so many historical narratives—even from Scripture—does bear noting. It shows you that the ancient sources are sometimes not quite the accurate historical mirror that they may claim to be. So, for the last fifteen years, while I was working as a librarian at General Seminary, I’ve been searching in the Greek Fathers and the Latin Fathers for little details that will bring the men and women alive—and embody them, if you will. Indeed, I’ve discovered a fascinating network of women spiritual leaders who are part of our early Christian heritage; and hopefully, the reader will sense in the writing that they were actually there, singing and praying and feasting with Christ, and experiencing the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. This book is a story of early Christianity which includes the women; it is a humble effort to perhaps fill in the gap a little bit.

We meet Perpetua; she is one of the celebrated female saints in the women’s procession in the Ravenna mosaics at Sant’Apollinare Nuovo. Did you know that the earliest surviving example of autobiography in Latin is written by a woman? It is “The Passion of Perpetua and Felicity.” Her story was gathered together as a document very soon after the events took place; and, it includes her writing plus memories from eye-witnesses. So, Saint Perpetua gives you unmistakable descriptions of early Christian men and women experiencing the powerful action of the Holy Spirit at work among the faithful, charging them with eschatological hope.

When Perpetua prays to God in the final moments of her life, as she is being martyred in the arena, she is remembered sharing the cosmic details of her visionary dreams and seeing the mystical figure of Christ welcoming her into Heaven, even as she was being devoured by wild beasts. There is a chapter with the Cappadocian Fathers, so that we can encounter their older sister, Macrina. She shares with her brother so beautifully the “thin place” gifted to the deeply faithful, when you are praying at the time of dying, and experience the love of Christ beginning to carry you into the next realm of love.

Indeed, this book is full of mystics, and a trio of abbesses, and one of the three Desert Fathers who is actually a woman—Amma Syncletica. The voice of her mystical prayer in the desert is recorded as it was revealed to her followers. From Their Lips includes the Byzantine Deaconess Olympias, whose prayer was “seized by Christ’s flame,” as John Chrysostom puts it. And a ninth-century hymnographer is in the collection, who survived the Byzantine Emperor’s “bride show,” by preferring a life of prayer in a nun’s veil to an empress’s pearled crown. And now, many people find the highlight of the Tuesday evening service in Holy Week to be the hymn, “Lord, the Woman Fallen into Many Sins,” composed by Abbess Kassia. All these early Christians are the ancient forebears of our women theologians and iconographers today, of our women scholars and graduate school administrators, of our women Church diplomats and certified chaplains and preachers.


V.K. McCarty is an Anglican theologian who lectures at General Theological Seminary and writes for the Institute for Studies in Eastern Christianity.

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  • VK McCarty

    VK McCarty

    Anglican Theologian and Lecturer at General Theological Seminary

    V.K. McCarty is an Anglican theologian who leads retreats, lectures at General Theological Seminary, and contributes to the Institute for Studies in Eastern Christianity. She is the former Acquisitions Librarian at General Theological Seminary from which she graduated. She is the author of From Thei...

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Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in the articles on this website are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.

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