The Lost Women of the Middle Ages

(#5 in a series)

*In this chapter, Barr asserts that Mary Magdalen is the same as Mary of Bethany, sister of Martha and Lazarus. The medieval church believed this as well, thanks to a sermon by Pope Gregory the Great in the 6th century. Since then, Catholic biblical scholars have found more evidence to support that they were not the same woman and in the Catholic church, we tend to draw a line between the Marys (Mama Mary, Mary Mag, Mary of Bethany) as a way of making the point that Jesus purposefully included women in his ministry*

Mary Mag was a prominent figure in all four Gospels. She does not fear the Romans. She is present at the foot of the Cross. She is the first to see the risen Lord. She is the first one to whom he speaks. Barr calls her “the apostle of the apostles”(82) since it was she who carried the good news of Jesus’ resurrection to them.

There is precedent in the Old Testament for the role she plays in the life of Christ: loyal like Ruth, strong like Esther, patient like Hannah. These are the women God consistently puts in front of us in the Bible. They are Proverbs 31 women—grounded, faithful, taking care of business, helping others.

The Medieval church revered these biblical matriarchs. Barr writes the church “was simply too close in time to forget the significant roles women played in establishing the Christian faith throughout the remnants of the Roman Empire” (88). While patriarchal and classist, the medieval world was still an “all hands on deck” existence and the role of women was clear: CEO of the castle, with the keys to fit every lock hanging down her skirt; midwife; healer; weaver; grower; alewife, abbess. We think of sending widows or spinsters to the “nunnery” as a medieval banishment, but convents were safe havens for widows, the abused and young girls who would otherwise be used as pawns in war and politics. Women in convents learned to read and write, and from this tradition we have four of the Doctors of the Catholic Church, among whom we count St Augustine and St Thomas Aquinas: St Hildegard de Bingen (b. 1098), St Catherine of Siena (b. 1347), St Teresa of Avila (b. 1515) and later, St Therese of Lisieux (b. 1873). Their works were and are widely read and taught within the Catholic Church.

And then there’s the Golden Legend, a 13th century book about saints by Jacobus De Voraigne.

If you’re familiar with the lives of Catholic saints, then you know they can be a bit…fantastical.  Especially the early church through the medieval period. Take for instance the story about St Martha—in the medieval version, she accompanied her sister Mary Mag/Mary of Bethany to France where, as Mary was preaching to the people, Martha encountered a dragon eating a man on the beach. She “sprinkled  holy water on the beast, confronted the demoniac creature with the cross and calmly tied it up”(83). Then she took it into town where the folks stabbed it to death and declared her their heroine.

This sounds like the Martha of the Bible—practical, capable, focused. Martha was a Proverbs 31 woman who handled her business. Look closely at the words she speaks to Jesus when he arrives too late to save her brother in John: Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. A statement of fact. Then she says [But] even now I know that whatever you ask of God, God will give you (21-22). Martha is not suggesting. She is telling. She doesn’t think Jesus can raise her brother. She expects he will.

This is not the Martha that evangelical women know today. Barr references Sara Mae’s 2016 book Having a Martha Home the Mary Way: 31 Days to a Clean Home and a Satisfied Soul: “Mae includes ‘Mary challenges’ to encourage the spiritual development of women and ‘Martha Challenges’ to inspire women to clean different parts of their home” (81-82).

Martha and Mary Magdalen are not the only women honored in the medieval church who have been de-emphasized in the evangelical church today.

St Paula (b.347), who left her children to answer God’s calling and helped translate the Vulgate.

St Lucy (b.283) who dedicated her virginity to God and stood firm, refusing to marry; as punishment, her eyes were removed, and she is often pictured carrying them on a plate.

St Margaret of Antioch (d.304) who dedicated herself to God, and was imprisoned for refusing to marry a Roman governor. She was attacked by a dragon in her cell, who ate her. Margaret stayed calm in the mouth of the dragon, prayed for God to save her, and the dragon exploded, setting her free (79-80).

St Genevieve of Paris (b.422), who through a “prayer marathon” is credited with saving Paris from the Huns and converting the city to Christianity.

St Brigid of Kildare (b. 451) famous for the miracle of the never-ending butter and her great spreading cloak, and a foundress of multiple abbeys in Ireland.

All of these women—and this is just a small sampling of the lives of women saints—stood in defiance of the rule of men for the love of God and triumphed. Every single one. They walked in the world as role models of faith and light, and they often laid down their lives in exchange. These are the women who gave life to Hildegard, Catherine, Theresa and more.

In the Catholic church, we know them still. We honor them as men and women of tremendous faith on feast days and invoke them as intercessors in our prayers. Not in the same way we did in the medieval period, but they are there just the same.

This is not the case with Protestants. The Saints were an explicit target of the Reformation, rejected as idolatry (this is a corruption of the doctrine of Sainthood in the Catholic Church; we do not worship them. We recognize them as paragons of faith and obedience to God, and as such ask them to intercede on our behalf). They disappeared from Protestantism, and with them, a history that included women as heroes of the Christian faith.

A final point: It is worth noting that during the medieval period, the Catholic church evolved the idea of priesthood to include celibacy, and then used this to effectively exclude women from ordination, thanks to St Augustine who equated sex and child-bearing with Original Sin. The four women recognized as doctors of the church were nuns. My church was not a paragon of equality by any stretch of the imagination, just as guilty as Protestants of pushing women from leadership.

Biblical Sisterhood

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Two weeks ago I served on a retreat team, and made a presentation. I’m sharing it here in edited form. 

The story of Ruth and Naomi in the Bible is the source of that beautiful church song “Wherever you go, I will go”. It’s popular at weddings, but the deep truth of that Scripture is about sisterhood:

Once upon a time there was a famine in the land. A man from Bethlehem in Judah left home to live in the country of Moab, he and his wife and his two sons. The man’s name was Elimelech; his wife’s name was Naomi;

 Elimelech died and Naomi was left, she and her two sons. The sons took Moabite wives; the name of the first was Orpah, the second Ruth. But then the two brothers, Mahlon and Kilion, died. Now Naomi was left without either her young men or her husband.

One day she got herself together, she and her two daughters-in-law, to leave the country of Moab and set out for home;

Naomi told her two daughters-in-law, “Go home and live with your mothers. May God give each of you a new home and a new husband!”

They cried. Orpah kissed her mother-in-law good-bye.

But Ruth said, “Don’t force me to leave you; don’t make me go home. Where you go, I go; and where you live, I’ll live. Your people are my people, your God is my god; where you die, I’ll die, and that’s where I’ll be buried, so help me God—not even death itself is going to come between us!”

I don’t know why bonds of friendship are different for women than men. I just know that they are. We have been uniquely gifted with a natural sense of connection and nurturing. We are intuitive, empathetic, and seasonal. Cooperative learners and consensus builders.

This is not to say that we are limited to positions in life that are only related to these gifts.  We can do anything to which we set our minds.

But it is to say, that when we are doing anything to which we set our minds, we bring these gifts with us.

The Bible is full of women who show us that these gifts are truly God-given. Like Ruth, who stayed with Naomi and became a great-grandparent of King David. Queen Esther, who stood up for her Jewish people during the Babylonian exile and saved them. The Blessed Mother, who said yes. Martha and Mary, true sisters who showed us there is not one right way to follow the Christ. Mary Magdalene who humbled herself to follow Jesus, and followed Him even unto his death on the cross.

And on Good Friday, when the men fled—all except John—the gospels tell us the women were there, huddled together in their sorrow, at the foot of the cross.

This says to me that sisterhood—true, deep and meaningful community among women—is biblical and essential.

And yet, we make sisterhood hard. We let the secular world drive us apart. All of us carry wounds from sisterhood gone wrong. Mean girls in school or at work. Unkind grandmothers, mothers, sisters. Friends who have betrayed us. And friends we have betrayed. Even in the churches, women have been responsible for destroying communities with gossip, petty arguments and power struggles.

In our throw away world where everything and everyone is expendable, we are losing our generational sisterhood. The voices most dominant in female culture are young, and our crones—the true meaning of this word speaks of wisdom and respect—our crones are left with no one to hear them.

And now this age of instant social media brings the constant pressure of comparison which, as the saying goes, truly steals our joy. It sows the seeds of dishonesty, confusion and distrust and then we reap the harvest in higher levels of fear, anxiety and depression.

I know there is a better way. Sisterhood in my life has evolved as I have aged, but the foundation rocks—God, family, team—have always been the same.

My first sisterhood started in the whirlwind of my 20s. I had a job and an apartment in a beach town in So Cal within walking distance of shops, bar and restaurants. My sisterhood was a group of semi-Catholic, rowdy, ride or die, Happy Hour, Sunday Bender, boyfriend problem solving, dancing queens.

We were not living our best lives.

But we have some crazy stories to tell.

These women are still the closest friends in my life. Partly because there are 25 years of friendship between us. And partly because we all grew into an adulthood together. They know me at my best and my worst. It is impossible to lie to them, and we have gained the right to speak truth at each other in love and support. Our relationships are sacred and timeless. And even though we are now, in our second seasons of life, spread from Hawaii to Eastern Canada, the connections are strong and intuitive.

I call them my Committee, and when my husband married me, he knew they were part of the package. Sometimes I talk to them before I talk to him, which he doesn’t mind because it saves him from all the female processing.

After our marriage, Shea and I moved 70 miles away from LA and made some new friends. This time they are marriage-making, baby-having, toddler chasing, no sleep getting, queens of their castles. We are guided in our wifehood and motherhood by Proverbs 31: 28-29

She is clothed with strength and dignity,
and laughs at the days to come.[m]
26 She opens her mouth in wisdom;
kindly instruction is on her tongue.
27 She watches over[n] the affairs of her household,
and does not eat the bread of idleness.
28 Her children rise up and call her blessed;
her husband, too, praises her:.

I call them my Women Who Come Running When—in the middle of the night so I could take a child to the ER, on a Friday afternoon when it was either me or the kids but someone was going to die, on birthdays and moms nights out, for a cup of sugar or two eggs to make pancakes–for dinner—we share the struggle of being wives and mothers with young children. They are also Catholic and we all attended the same parish. Many the times we spent our Saturdays together in fellowship and celebration and met again in the pews Sunday mornings.

These women—the Committee and the Women Who Come Running When—are the reason I survived my cancer in 2010.

Cancer, as anyone whose had it knows, is both terrifying and clarifying. Shea and I grappled with trying to keep life as normal as possible in the beginning, but were forced to finally strip away all the excess and admit: there was a great big ol’ pile of cancer crap in our lives and we were sitting in it.

In my experience, there’s only one way to handle cancer: honestly. But not everyone is prepared for that. At times, we felt like emotional roadkill. The trainwreck where no one could look away. I can tell you what happens to the eyebrows of a person when they are already imagining the tragedy of your funeral. I called them Emotional Jackals, feeding off our tragedy.

Which by the way, was not a tragedy. My cancer was in my thyroid, and it had a very clear path of treatment, and 95% survival rate, and I have been cancer free for 8 years now.

But the jackals don’t care. They want to watch the struggle. They want to pick up bits and pieces they can report back to their gossipy prayer circles. Let us pray for the mother dying young

Some of the women who I had considered friends became emotional jackals during my illness. They were very frustrated by the fact that there was no outward sign of my illness. I did not lose my hair or my appetite. I wasn’t tired.  They didn’t like that I was still working, still going to the gym, still cheering on my kids at practices and games.

They would ask how I was, but only as an opportunity to immediately turn the conversation to themselves and talk about their aunt who died from cancer in her 30s.

One day I showed up to a meeting feeling great. My surgery was finally scheduled, my hair was newly colored, and I felt hopeful. Right away, one of these women met me at my seat. “Oh my gosh, you look so tired!” she said—which is code for “you look awful”—“let me get you something to drink.”

I remember deflating like a balloon. But then, I got angry. I did not look tired. I looked great. I felt great. I don’t think she meant to be malicious. But I know for sure that her actions in that moment served her more than they served me.

That was the day I circled the wagons. I realized that a lot of my energy was being spent on making others feel better about my cancer, to the point that I stopped telling people I was sick.

This is not sisterhood.

Sisters show up. They witness. They listen. They do not fix, or save, or change. But when you sit a group of them down at your dinner table and say you want to go radio silent on your cancer so that people will leave you alone, they might growl and ask you to name names.

Shea and I always wanted three kids. I discovered my tumor in January of 2010. If there had never been a tumor, we would have started trying for a third baby that summer. Instead, we got a tumor.

Standard treatment for my type of cancer was dictated by size and spread. My tumor was encapsulated, which means it had not spread beyond the thyroid, and not even the whole tumor was cancerous. So the doctors said that the safest course of action would be a total removal of my thyroid and one round of radiation.

Removing my thyroid meant taking a daily dose of synthetic hormone for the rest of my life. It is very difficult to moderate this hormone and can affect a woman’s ability to get pregnant. In addition, one round of radiation meant I would have to wait a year before I could consider having a baby.

On the day I heard this news, I was 38 years old. I would be 39 before I could start trying to have another baby and 40 when I delivered. If all went well.

Or. I could have the thyroid removed, have and nurse the third baby, and then have the radiation.  I would be waiting 18 months to 2 years to have the cancer killing radiation treatment and in the meantime, my body would be full of HcG, a pregnancy hormone that grows all cells, not just baby cells. I could be growing a baby and a new tumor all at once.

This was a hard decision for me. I struggled with the idea that I was sick, since I didn’t feel sick. I was reluctant to let go of my own plan for my life, because I’m human. And I was uncomfortable being the center of everyone’s attention. Part of me felt that choosing to have the baby first was self-sacrificing and noble. And part of me was trying to wrest some control over my life back from the cancer.

I needed to explore the options. That was my process. I needed to speak out loud that I may not have my third baby. I needed to speak out loud that having the third baby could make my cancer worse. I needed to hang on the cross of my life in that moment and grapple with the unfairness of it all.

You guys, in hindsight, I know this was a silly wringer I put myself through. The answer was clear and since I am here and I already told you that we have 3 kids, we picked the obvious answer.

I had the surgery, the radiation and the baby at 40. God is good.

That is not the point of my story. The point is that when I brought this silly conundrum to the sisterhood in my life, not one of them asked what the heck was wrong with me. They didn’t tell me to fight the cancer, how they wanted me to live, how they couldn’t live without me. They didn’t cry, judge, get angry.

The sisterhood gathered at the foot of my cross. They promised to stay in the lives of my children if I died. They promised to show a picture to my 2 year old every day so she wouldn’t forget my face.  Most importantly, they let me talk about the fact that I might die. They didn’t let me dwell there, but they understood that I needed to consider these things, and that I needed them to bear witness to the considering.

I made them all promise that if I got really sick, was dying and decided I was done fighting, they would respect that decision and help me plan the most amazing funeral in the history of funerals. They promised.

Although my cousin Lesley, who is my person in this world, later made me promise back to never do that to her again.

They got on their knees for me. They prayed for God to keep His promise from Isaiah 45:2-3:

I will go before you and level the mountains; Bronze doors I will shatter, iron bars I will snap. I will give you treasures of darkness, riches hidden away, That you may know I am the Lord, the God of Israel, who calls you by name.

Like the women at the foot of Jesus’ cross, they weren’t completely sure what was going to happen next. But they had faith that what Jesus had promised—a resurrection, earthly or heavenly—was possible.

Do I know now how hard it was for them to hold my pain? I do, because since my illness, one of my sisters lost her dad to cancer; another, her mom to dementia. One had her only child diagnosed with autism. One lost her marriage to a man wracked with untreated mental illness. Two suffered postpartum mental illness requiring intervention.

In each moment, I have witnessed at the foot of their crosses, gotten on my knees for them and held their pain, with the same strong faith that resurrection was coming.

That is sisterhood. That is what we do. As faithful sisters we believe what Paul told the Romans in chapter 8:28:  “We know that all things work for good for those who love God,[f] who are called according to his purpose.”

Or, as Glennon Melton Doyle Wambach says: “First the dying. Then the rising.”

I wish I could tell you that my sisterhood is eternal and unchanged. But of course, it is not. We are human, and we sin and we fail. Our lives change. Some of the women who stood by me during my illness are no longer part of my sisterhood. That is ok. Sisterhood should be easy. When it gets hard and honest conversations can’t fix that, it’s ok to let relationships go. Everything in its time and place.

And the goal of biblical sisterhood is not perfection. In fact, it is an acknowledgement that we cannot walk alone, that we need those around us who share our Christian values of faith, hope and love.

In writing this presentation and realizing how soundly this type of relationship is rooted in scripture, I’ve started to reflect on all the ways the secular world puts us in competition with each other and threatens the power and sacredness of sisterhood. As active, vibrant women of faith, we are uniquely situated to change this, in ways big and small.

Not as the values police. More by our actions than our words. Starting with reflecting on who and where and how we spend our time with other women and the ways that could or should change.

In closing, I will say this:

I believe we can do hard things, for ourselves and each other, clothed in our strength and dignity, gifts uniquely given to us by God.

I believe that when God tells us He is with us ALWAYS and in ALL WAYS, that often looks like the dear friend holding your hand.

I know we can refuse to live in fear, jealousy or judgment because we are each in control of our own joy.

And I believe with every hopeful, faithful and loving fiber of my soul that together we can bring peace and joy to our families, our friendships, our parishes and our nation.