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VI Some Implications: The Case of Women
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John's Holy Women: Women of Spirit

John feels compelled to justify his inclusion of holy women[68] by citing the apostolic injunction that in Christ there is neither male nor female (Gal. 3:28). He further insisted that the lives of these women in no way detracted from, or fell short of, the standard set by his other subjects.[69] Of the holy woman Susan he says, "Not only is the mighty strength of Christ God apt to show its activity in men who are powerful in appearance and mighty and forceful, but also in weak, feeble, frail women."[70] The highest praise he could offer the anchorite Mary was to honor her as "a woman who by nature only bore the form of females but in herself also bore the character and soul and will not only of ordinary men, but of mighty and valiant men."[71] The frequency of such statements in hagiography pertaining to women indicates that John writes formulaically in this respect.[72] But the significance was not lost in the formula; for where John expresses the common sentiments of his church and society, he tells us, too, something of the actual conditions of women's lives.

Yet despite this, John's holy women emerge from his text in their own right. Their decisions and courses of action suggest a sense of self-determination not generally found in ascetic women as it was in men—such autonomy being even rarer for laywomen—but to some extent made possible through the fluid and often chaotic sixth-century Monophysite struggle. These are women who chose to define themselves not in relation to father, husband, or child but only in relation to God; sometimes they acted autonomously rather than through a convent. But it is important to remember their cultural context: these women were not acting out of a sense of self (as we might see it). They acted because they believed God had called them to this action. Their sense of self was altogether absent; indeed, in their minds, irrelevant. In each case, public reaction to them was the standard applied to any holy man. Whatever inhibitions the church may have had, ordinary people seem to have measured sanctity by effective action rather than by gender.

John selects only a handful of women for special attention. Culturally, they cross the spectrum of social strata that characterizes the sixth-century Byzantine Empire; ascetically, they represent a diversity of experience. Taken as individuals, these women fit well into John of Ephesus' overall schema: his vision of the Monophysite cause as lived out through an interlocking relationship of asceticism and society. But seen as a group—and, as we may gather from the references treated above, as part of a much larger community of women within the Mono-


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physite body—they provide us with significant insight, both toward John himself (and thus the leadership he offered the Monophysite movement) and toward the ideals he sought to nurture.

These women are seen in the Lives as playing roles critical to the needs of the stricken Monophysite cause; further, they are seen to provide encouraging and inspiring leadership to the Monophysite community. Although none of them sought this status, it emerged as a consequence of their own religious commitment.

John begins with Mary the Pilgrim, who, like her namesake, chose the "better way" of life devoted to faith rather than to works in the world.[73] An ascetic from childhood, Mary eventually decided to go on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. There she spent three years on Golgotha, practicing a severe asceticism and passing much time in ecstatic trances. Those who saw her reckoned her a feeble-minded beggar, mad or senile. Mary herself cherished her anonymity: nothing and no one distracted her from her chosen course.

But it happened that some men came who knew her, and seeing her in prayer they made obeisance to her. Mary was "greatly upset" because she did not want people to know about her labor, but the men had soon told her story throughout the community.

Then those in whose eyes she had been reckoned a foolish old woman—one who sat there because of charity, so that she might sustain her body's needs—now began to honour her as a great and holy woman, begging her to pray for them.[74]

But Mary did not want to be a holy woman, "lest she lose the fruits of her ascetic labour." She fled, "deeply saddened."[75] Making her abode in Tella, Mary made a vow to return to Jerusalem each year to pray in the sacred places. This she fulfilled, traveling always in the hottest season; at the same time, she continued to shun worldly affairs while making her annual pilgrimages. Yet, John tells us, so holy was this woman that "many powerful miracles were worked by her presence, and not by her will or her word."[76]

In some respects, Mary, having chosen a form of asceticism taken up most often by men and only rarely by women (at least as far as we know), reminds us of the early Syrian anchorites. Moreover, not only did she choose to reject the standard course taken by women who desired the religious life—the convent community—but she further refused to be bound by the institutionalized aspects that overtook so many male ascetics over time. Her strength of character in this regard contrasts with the timidity of Maro the Stylite, unhappily and unwillingly drawn into the worldly responsibilities attending his profession.[77] The occur-


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rence of miracles wrought simply by Mary's presence was but an affirmation of the authority gained by such a life-style, and, in John's view, ultimately its validation. Mary may have separated herself from the world, but the power of her sanctity remained at work within it.

John's enthusiasm, however, is even greater for Mary's younger sister Euphemia, although Euphemia was, in worldly terms, a more obvious threat to the existing social and religious order.[78] Euphemia's remarkable career and the leadership and service she gave to the city of Amida in its time of need have already been discussed in chapter 3. What concerns us here are the particular traits that characterized Euphemia's asceticism and ministry.

Unlike her pilgrim sister, Euphemia had married but was widowed shortly thereafter and left with one child, a daughter Maria. Watching the work of her sister, Euphemia turned to the religious life with Maria, regulating their life together according to a rigid devotional plan. Euphemia also educated her daughter in psalmody, Scripture, and writing. "But while observing her sister Mary's abstinence and other practices, at the same time Euphemia was fulfilling another sublime and exalted role, since she served two orders together—asceticism and relief for the afflicted."[79]

Euphemia's distinct way of life was soon known throughout the city of Amida. Rejecting even her role as mother, she drew her daughter into the same service as sister rather than child, and Maria wove yarn that Euphemia sold in order to supply a meager fare for themselves, as well as to purchase the necessities to care for the sick and destitute. Such disregard for social convention unsettled Amida's more conservative inhabitants, who admonished Maria about her "working mother."[80] Others sought to support these activities with donations and urged Euphemia to accept food for herself and Maria. The holy woman, however, would not have it.

God forbid that I should . . . satisfy my body from the toils of others while it has strength to work, or receive the stains of their sins upon my soul! . . . Do you want to soil me with the mud of your sins? I am blemished enough as I am.[81]

But with the onslaught of the Monophysite persecutions, and the exile of the Amidan monasteries, Euphemia found herself laboring further to care for refugees and other victims. Unable to support such ministry by the earnings of her own and her daughter's handiwork, she was forced to take greater contributions from others. Nonetheless, she would not allow those of the city who were well off, and thus able to give her aid, to feel that they were benefiting their own souls through her charity.


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For as it is written that the righteous shall be as confident as a lion, so this woman confidently upbraided everyone regardless of their rank until the noblemen and women of the city were full of trepidation because of her. When she entered their thresholds and they heard that Euphemia was coming, they would say, "Alas for us, [Euphemia] has come to give us a good thrashing!" Then she would boldly take whatever she wanted to give to whoever was in need. . . . And so she passed judgment on them until those of the secular life were somewhat peeved with her.[82]

Many urged a less strenuous life upon Euphemia, to her consternation: John himself would jokingly plead with her, "Don't kill yourself so violently!"[83] But Euphemia's life fulfilled John's own ascetic ideals, especially her pragmatic change in ministry once the persecutions began. While acclaiming the contemplative life practiced by those such as her sister Mary, he clearly empathized with those who, akin to Euphemia, sought God amidst suffering. John juxtaposed the two ways of perfection as complementary to one another and so suggested that together these women rendered perfect worship to the divine. "So the report of these two sisters was told throughout the east, and wonder seized everyone that each of them in a way of life without equal bravely exerted herself, acquiring righteousness."[84]

Euphemia's activities were more gregarious than those of her sister, but her determination to define her life through her relationship with God was similar in impact. In refusing to allow others to control or even influence her ministry, even when they contributed goods to it—refusing, as she said, to take their sins upon herself—Euphemia like her sister appeared indifferent to social mores, not simply in terms of what was acceptable for women but also in terms of what were the established patterns for asceticism. Theirs was an activity perhaps more possible under conditions of cultural instability and religious anxiety, the confines of sixth-century society in the Byzantine East.

John's account of the holy woman Susan has also been treated elsewhere in the present work.[85] As he portrays her, she seems a less abrasive figure than Mary or Euphemia. Also an ascetic since childhood, Susan chose exile in Egypt with a handful of her sisters rather than oppression at the hands of Chalcedonian authorities; further, although she desired the solitary life and accordingly labored as a hermit in the inner desert of Mendis, she was persuaded to remain with the "establishment," by the pleas of an uprooted community, and to take on the supervision of an ascetic institution of both women and men. For the Monophysite refugees, Susan was a holy woman adept at healing, exor-


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cism, and instruction. Her leadership calmed a distressed people. The conditions of persecution thus demanded from her a role otherwise unthinkable for her.

But there were more factors at work. Susan's life as a holy woman arose out of the course of her ascetic career: her authority was the result of its excellence and single-mindedness. Her inheritance of secular wealth was renounced before she entered her first convent; she did not translate a secular title or a position of influence into the ascetic community.[86] Although she ultimately agreed to follow an institutional role, she did so in an effort to stabilize in some way a community fraught with trauma.

Unlike Mary or Euphemia, Susan expressed a self-consciousness of her limitations as a woman. Although at no point did she allow such thoughts to hinder her actions, she was continually concerned about relations between the monks and the nuns.[87] She impressed John because she kept her head veiled and her glance cast downwards so that no man ever saw her face. He learned that she had taken this vow upon entering the ascetic life, and that through her many years as a nun had not looked upon a man's face, fearing, she said, both the harm her sight could cause men and the harm their sight could cause her.

The men under Susan's guidance supported her leadership. John, too, when he visited her community, came away "in great wonder at her words"; it had, indeed, been her reputation that originally led him to visit the community. But despite his praise for her, John found her position as leader for both the male and the female communities uncomfortable and was himself taken aback when he witnessed her authoritative response to a monk suffering temptation.[88]

But the importance of Susan was that she and her kind were precisely what was needed by the Monophysite body in exile. Like Mary the Pilgrim, she ensured spiritual quality; like Euphemia, she led valiantly. Not surprisingly, John left her community, "praising God" as he went.

Mary the Anchorite represented another example for John.[89] Daughter of a noble family, Mary was brought as a child into contact with a holy man in a neighboring district. The meeting transfixed her. Pondering what she had seen, and also the luxurious life that lay ahead of her, she made a categorical decision: "For what reason do we not become as this holy man? Is not this a human being?"[90] and she turned to the ascetic life at once.

Mary's family sought to stop her. With haste, they began wedding preparations, fearing "lest she run away and go to a monastery, and


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[they] lose the [rich] man who was to take her to wife." But Mary left and, entering a convent, took the tonsure and the habit. In John's eyes, the course she then followed was the fulfillment of her calling.

And from that time she took that holy old man as her model in all things. . . . And she also distinguished herself in the conflict of persecution for fifteen years, no longer passing night vigils but vigils lasting even a week, and then days, and then she would taste something. And, when she had walked strongly and heroically in the road of righteousness for thirty years, she finished her course and received the crown earned by her life, and fell asleep in peace.[91]

Mary the Anchorite chose for herself a male model. But having taken it, she made it her own and it gave her the means for freedom. When the persecutions struck, Mary turned upon them the power of her prayer. Like the solitaries John describes in relation to the Amidan ascetic community, particularly during its time of exile,[92] Mary's withdrawal from the temporal world is neither an abandonment of it nor a denial of its needs in the crisis at hand. Rather, her spiritual battle serves to anchor the Monophysite cause in its true context: a holy war.

Mary's initial use of a male model does not involve the negation of herself, or of her being, as it does for those women of the "transvestite saint" motif. The model is a means to an end. John praises Mary, in accordance with the theme of her adopted model, in terms that measure sanctity by degrees of maleness: "she only bore the form of females," she was not simply equal in strength and will to "ordinary men" but to "mighty and valiant men."[93] But John's Life makes it clear that Mary does not "become male," as Pelagia's successors did; she is glorified for what she does.

Mary's aversion to marriage was, of course, a common feature in the popular religion of the day.[94] Nor was it women alone who sought freedom from what was often a social straitjacket. John tells us, for example, that the holy man Tribunus, too, had fought off the plans and hopes his wealthy family had held for the marriage he could make.[95] But for the women John portrays, there is more at stake than a cultural embrace of the celibate ideal. The ascetic life offered a real alternative to society's structure. John's holy women proved how independent a woman's life could be despite social constraints. The two Marys, Euphemia, and Susan exercised an enviable degree of choice. The contrast of their lives to those of married women—even when a husband shares his wife's religious orientation—is enhanced by John's final two accounts of women of God.


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In choosing to write about Caesaria the Patrician, John took on a daunting task.[96] Famous, influential, and wealthy, Caesaria was a holy woman more effective in some respects than an unmarried woman could have been.[97] In the secular society, she had been recognized, as the Roman matron of earlier times, in the role of wealthy patroness; and in that role, had she remained in it, she would have stood in its distinguished Christian ranks, with the likes of Melania the Elder, her granddaughter Melania the Younger, Paula, Olympias, and others.[98] But Caesaria did not, as these women had, translate a role born from the social-class structure into a "Christianized" society of the same nature. Her encounter with the divine called for a different response.

Caesaria had long wished to leave her husband and devote her life to God, but Severus of Antioch had forbidden her, reminding her that a woman's body was not her own.[99] By the time John of Ephesus met her in Alexandria (previously she had lived in Constantinople), however, she had succeeded in gaining control of her life, whether by her own decision, mutual consent with her husband, or widowhood (as seems most likely) we do not know.[100] In any event, here was a woman "who had been reared in endless luxuries, and had grown accustomed to royal habits, who suddenly came to be cut off from all these things, and subjected herself to asceticism beyond measure."[101] So formidable was the ascetic regime Caesaria had undertaken that John was at once beside himself:

So that having found her living in all this asceticism and hardship, we continued blaming her and advising her to give up high things and embrace moderate things, lest being unable to endure she might either lose her strength or fall into severe illness and be forced from necessity to give it all up.[102]

It was characteristic of John's own inclination to advise a softening of ascetic extremes for the sake of channeling such zeal into the needs of the church community as a whole. In Caesaria's case, however, his motives may not have been so altruistic. He appears to have been uncomfortable with her capacity for rigorous practice. Again, although she begged his instruction in spiritual matters, John found she conversed with him as comrade rather than as pupil: "The blessed woman condescended to make confession and say, 'I have here more than seven hundred volumes in number of all the Fathers, to which my intellect and my attention have been devoted for many years.'"[103]

Caesaria's own commitment had inspired many of those who were part of her "secular" household; and like herself, many of them turned


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to a life of religious devotion, for the most part accompanying her as their mistress in faith as well as in society, and practicing asceticism with her in her changing places of residence.[104] But to this woman, such continuation of her worldly role was intolerable; she pleaded with John to assist her in severing herself from this vestige of her former existence, so that she might go in the company of two others alone and live as an anchorite in the desert. John would not agree,

because we saw that these plans were unnecessary, and they were beyond her capacity and strength and condition; and besides many [other] arguments . . . we were afraid lest this ardour and the plans came from the evil one.[105]

John's protest, curiously distrustful of Caesaria's vocation, then brought in another point: his fear that if she were to go off to the desert, the members of her household who had followed her to Egypt would be in "danger of destruction." When Caesaria pointed out that it was exactly this worldly responsibility she longed to leave, John was scandalized. "Know that you are an old and feeble woman, and your nature is not strong enough to hold out against these thoughts of yours and endure and struggle.'"[106]

Caesaria was "vexed and annoyed" at John's overruling of her decision. But her determination did not wane. Founding a monastery for men and a convent for women, "in grand and admirable style," and having endowed them both generously, she herself withdrew into the convent as a recluse, "performing severe and sublime labours." Further,

she declined the headship of the same monastery, but sent to another monastery, and took thence a certain blessed woman great in her modes of life whose name was Cosmiana, and her she appointed archimandritess, she herself submitting to her like an insignificant and poor sister. And so she continued to labour till the end of her life, which happened after fifteen years.[107]

Far, then, from being a feeble woman of frail nature as John had called her, Caesaria surmounted her obstacles without abandoning her obligations and without compromising her spiritual integrity. John could allow for this kind of decision by an ascetic such as Susan or Mary the Anchorite, who had renounced wealth and influence before inheriting them; or, for example, by a figure such as Thomas the Armenian, who had translated his worldly position and means into the monastic setup he established. Furthermore, John vehemently opposed Caesaria taking on the spiritual battle for the cause that he praised so highly in recluses such as Mary the Pilgrim or Mary the Anchorite. Caesaria's founding of


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the monastic communities assisted the cause and probably, like Susan's community, helped to absorb some of the refugee problems. But she refused to use her religious vocation as a springboard for activities of patronage or political influence, as John seems to have wanted. The Monophysite cause may have needed her for work in the temporal world, but Caesaria would not carry her worldly position into her ascetic life.[108]

Marriage for Caesaria had proved to be her cross to bear. While her husband had been with her, marriage encumbered her spiritual aspirations; afterward, its residue, the people dependent upon her and the demands placed on her as one high in the social structure, inhibited her activities. In similar manner, Caesaria's chamberwoman Sosiana endured restrictions on her religious hopes because of the confinement in marriage. Although her husband, Caesaria's chamberlain, shared her high-minded faith and practice, it was not until his death that Sosiana had the liberty to pursue her vocation as she truly desired.

Sosiana and her husband John had been married by law for thirty years; but theirs was a spiritual marriage in the fullest sense:[109]

Never holding carnal intercourse with one another, but living in devoutness and honour and holiness, occupying themselves in fasting and prayer, and genuflexion and recitation of service and watching by night, while hairmats were laid down for them each apart, and in this way they passed the whole length of the night hours, kneeling and lying on their faces, and weeping in prayer and mighty crying to God, without this becoming known to many.[110]

Her husband's death and Caesaria's withdrawal into the convent freed Sosiana at last to fulfill "the vow she had made to God." Delivering to John of Ephesus the accumulated riches from her household—embroidered silk clothes, tapestried linens, garments encrusted with woven gold thread, precious articles of silver—she ordered that the clothes and linens be cut and sewn into altar cloths and veils, and the goods melted to mold chalices and crosses. These she then gave John for the adornment of the churches he founded in the course of his missionary work in Asia Minor. For herself she kept only a few "cheap, ordinary clothes." John was alarmed by Sosiana's sudden self-imposed poverty, and also by the nagging concern that these goods might better be sold for the poor. But the blessed woman insisted on the importance of her vow "made before God"; and John himself was "frightened by our Lord's expression in the gospel about the fine ointment of great price which the woman poured on his head" (John 12:7–8).[111]

Sosiana, then, enclosed in the confines of marriage and secular occupation, achieved a pure religious life. Nor was her vow an irrespon-


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sible one. Just as her ascetic devotion served to adorn the Monophysite body, her material gifts were to adorn the churches.

Mary, Euphemia, Susan, Mary the Anchorite, Caesaria, and Sosiana, these are the women John singles out for honor. They serve his cause well, and they do it by a variety of vocations and paths. Even among John's select gathering of Eastern saints, they are an arresting group. John tells us about them; what, in turn, do they tell us about John?


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VI Some Implications: The Case of Women
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