Equality is a core idea and value of modernity. Yet contemporary societies are marked by multiple forms of inequality, for instance, socioeconomic and gender ones. What is the attitude of the Orthodox Church towards inequality? Do unequal relations exist within the Church too, and if yes, how does it address them?
No doubt, Orthodox churches develop rich and multifaceted philanthropic activities to palliate the consequences of inequalities and also condemn forms of exploitation as violation of the sacredness of the human person. However, I wish to argue that a number of factors do not permit the Church to develop a more activist attitude that would go beyond verbal condemnation and traditional philanthropy.
First, the structural position of the Church in the existing system, particularly in countries where the Church functions as a close ally of the state, makes it objectively difficult for church officials to challenge state policies that produce new or deepen established forms of inequality. The role of the Church in Greece during the period of the serious Greek debt crisis is a case in point: although it criticized neoliberalism, it nevertheless offered crucial support and legitimacy to the political authorities, which imposed austerity measures that increased poverty and inequality (see my article here).
The first rising of the sun in the East shoots rose light across the dim landscape; it is a time the early monks knew well, for a prayer service was starting, when the bell-ringer could just begin to see the lines in his hand. The Evangelist Mark leaves us in the Garden by the Tomb of Christ, at what may be the most extraordinary moment in history. For it was when those vivid shards of dawn light shot through the darkness from the East that Mary Magdalene and the other women came bearing myrrh to properly finish the burial preparations for their dear Lord, Jesus. As they approached, the Evangelist says they were anxious about how they would gain access to the tomb, for the stone was heavy.
Then, something profoundly miraculous happened. The Myrrhbearing women experienced something life-changing. All four Gospels describe the moment. Although each tells it a little differently, the message is so profound, and so utterly seminal to our life as Christians, that the details fall away and something utterly transcendent has happened and is revealed. And we too experience it personally and transcendently at Pascha. It is so luminously divine that it can only be described as something like a flashing white angelic figure—like lightning, really—a vision so powerful that the stone is moved and the empty tomb is visible; and in some dazzling way, the women suddenly know to depth of their hearts—He is not dead. Surely, this is the first truly apophatic apprehension of the Resurrection. He is not here! He is not dead! Christ is alive! And the radiant angel cried out to the Myrrhbearers: “Why do you women mingle myrrh with your tears? Look at the tomb and understand: the Savior has risen from the dead!” (Tone 2; Stichera of the Myrrh-bearers, Pentecostarion, for Myrrhbearers Sunday)
It seems to me, we live in Kassiani times. Holy Week is approaching and with it the singing of the sticheron on the sinful woman, followed shortly by the Holy Saturday kanon, which is at least partly by the same poet. But not only that: just a couple of years ago, the English singer-songwriter Frank Turner wrote a song about Kassiani and her unfulfilled love affair with Emperor Theophilos. The TV series Vikings features the same poetic saint as a beautiful Byzantine seductress engaged in a secret romance with Amir Ziyadat Allah. She has entered twenty-first-century pop culture, cast as an object of modern hopes and fantasies. And an even more recent event: a few days ago, Cappella Romana released a full CD with Hymns of Kassiani. These are indeed Kassiani times. Or maybe instead of “Kassiani” we should say “Kassia,” which was her historical name? In fact, that is really what I want to ponder in this brief essay, in this time of the beautiful composer’s comeback on the world stage: what do we call her?
Frank Turner begins his song by letting her introduce herself: “I’ve heard that they call me the woman who has fallen into many sins…” He draws on a long line of more of less legendary traditions that are spun around her life. There is love and unreciprocated love. Kassia was still in love with Theophilos after the renowned bride show, longing for him despite her life as a nun, but, as Wikipedia and many online sources will tells us, “She did not want to let her old passion overcome her monastic vow.” She decided not to act on her erotic fantasies and her deep yearning. Kassia is one of relatively few saints—mostly women—who are explicitly associated with sex and lust. Not bad for a nun! But there is something about the balance. Whose is her passion? I think she must be gravitating toward the Mary Magdalene complex.
“In the morning, while it was still very dark, Jesus got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed” (Mark 1:35).
Jesus may have prayed about several of the things that worry us today: the feeling that the world has been overrun by elements of evil can be overwhelming. So, it is good to remember that Jesus sustained himself by withdrawing to pray alone, often in the wilderness. And many were inspired to follow him there, particularly in the early centuries of Christianity.
While most of these Early Christian desert elders were men praying to God in the rough terrain of the hills outside of Palestinian villages and above the Nile, there were women as well who withdrew into the desert, seeking to truly live out the command of Christ. They, too, have left us a treasury of spiritual wisdom in their short sayings—apophthegmata—similar in form to the earliest remembered sayings of Jesus. Even within the Greek collection, the Sayings of the Desert Fathers, (Apophthegmata Patrum), there are a trio of women elders remembered for their God-loving teaching.
The advice and exhortation of the Desert Mothers make them excellent spiritual guides in today’s troubling world. Their admirable inner stillness can be a helpful role model in conflicted times. In personal sessions between spiritual elder and disciple, they taught their followers to imitate Christ and to face off temptation, often leaving them with a Saying meant to personally guide their prayer throughout the day, uphold their courage, and inspire the spiritual warrior within each one of them to serve the highest good in the world.