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Mysticism, Women and the Christian Orient

Fr. George Gray


A great cloud of witnesses but few “mystics”

The Christian Orient is widely considered to be a “mystical” church; one enfolded in mystery and awe and whose tradition undoubtedly affirms the possibility of mystical experience, mystical union or mystical vision. Orthodox theology is often referred to as mystical theology. Baptism, Chrismation, Holy Eucharist, etc., are all called Sacramental Mysteries. But in Eastern Christian circles, the term “mystic” is seldom used to designate a specific category of sanctity.

There are, however, a number of traditional designations given to those whom the Church has glorified1 as saints. Above all is the Theotokos and ever-Virgin, Mary who stands in a category all her own. Then come the prophets, the apostles, the hierarchs, the martyrs, the monastics, the un-mercenary physicians and wonderworkers – added to these are individuals who are variously ranked as ancestors, fathers, mothers, patriarchs, evangelists, confessors, ascetics, holy fools for Christ’s sake and “every righteous spirit made perfect in faith” (Chrysostom 16, 19, 68). Additionally, the term “Theologian” or even “New Theologian” must be added to this list. These latter terms could even be our version of what the Christian West calls a “mystic.” “Mystics” and “Theologians” could possibly be the same sort of people. St. Gregory Palamas (+1359) fervently affirmed that (as opposed to knowledge about God, i.e., “school theology”) the only authentic knowledge of God can come from personal, “mystical” (i.e., unitive) experience: “Supernatural union and resplendent light are the sole source of sure theology” (Gregory Palamas, Triads, 1:3:15). “Theologia,” is the same as “theoria” or “natural contemplation:” the imageless contemplation of God Himself. This in turn can lead to theosis: “We shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is.” (1 Jn. 3:2) And theosis is “mystical union.” Evagrius of Pontus (+ 399) is credited with having said that “A true theologian is one who truly prays.”

Manifestations of unitive encounter with God and creation

Mystical experience can be described in a number of ways: visions, revelations, union with God, union with the cosmos, bathed in the radiance of God’s uncreated light, clairvoyance, prophecy, discernment2, levitation, healing, etc. These manifestations can (and often do) lead many to seek from the one who manifests them spiritual fatherhood and spiritual motherhood (Clément 311).

When reading Eastern Christian literature, one may occasionally encounter the classification of “mystic” but this title is usually found in conjunction with other descriptive characterizations of the person. A few such “mystics” come to mind: St. Anthony the Great, St. Gregory of Nyssa, St. Macrina, Pseudo-Dionysius, St. Mary of Egypt, St. Maximus the Confessor, St. Symeon the New Theologian, St. Gregory Palamas, St. Sergius of Radonezh, St. Seraphim of Sarov, among others, were known to have had “mystical experiences.”

St. Anthony the Great (+356) emerged from a 20-year period of solitude imbued with the light, peace and power of the Holy Spirit, “his face radiant with joy” (Clément 311). St. Gregory of Nyssa (+395) is primarily noted as a hierarch and metaphysic teacher. His mystical theology is one – though arguably the most important – of many characteristics for which he is noteworthy. Gregory’s sister, St. Macrina (+380) is known best as a spiritual mother and nun; a teacher, an exegete and even – in Gregory’s own words – “the ideal Christian.” Her mystical experiences are generally considered to be secondary to her role as mentor to (and glory of) her family. Pseudo-Dionysius (c. 500) is considered a “mystic” per se due to the emphasis in his writings on purification, illumination and union. He concern is mystical union and deification – emphasized by the recurring themes of “brilliant light of divine darkness” and knowing God through unknowing. Although she is reported to have manifested the wonderworking charismata of clairvoyance, discernment, prophecy, levitation and was even accorded some sacerdotal standing, St. Mary of Egypt (5th century) is better known as the quintessential icon of repentance – a model for all Christians. St. Maximus the Confessor (+662) constantly meditated on Holy Scripture. This became for him the very act of mystical contemplation and “served as the vehicle and medium for all his thought” (von Balthasar 54). The poetic hymns of St. Symeon the New Theologian (+1022) reveal a very personal note. He was given the gift of deification. This won him the title of being called the Mystic of Fire and Light. St. Gregory Palamas (+1359) is considered a Hesychast3, (which could be similar to what it means to be a “mystic”), but he is better known as a chief Byzantine defender against scholastic theology. St. Sergius of Radonezh (b. 1314) founded a number of monasteries in Russia. The Uncreated Light of God often surrounded him during the celebration of the Divine Liturgy. St. Seraphim of Sarov (+ 1833) has been called the greatest saint in Russian history. He spent 20 years in seclusion but during the final 8 years of his life he opened the doors of his enclosure. He identified the purpose of the Christian life as the “acquisition of the Holy Spirit.” There are others whose biographies or writings reveal mystical experience, but these represent some of the major figures.

A serious gap

Dr. Susan Ashbrook-Harvey (Director of Graduate Work in the Department of Religious Studies at Brown University – and author of many books and articles in the area of Syriac Studies) has written that

“There is a serious gap in the historical sources that survive to us from Orthodox traditions and Byzantine history that is not shared by western Catholicism, and that is precisely the gap in sources written by women. For some reason, the Middle Ages in the Latin west produced a large body of writings by women mystics – Some of these are truly in the realm of great religious writings”

(personal correspondence with the author). This sentiment is echoed by many Orthodox monastics, theologians and hagiographers when questioned about possible women mystics in the Christian East. Time and time again the consensus arises that within the Eastern Christian tradition, there is nothing comparable to the writings of Hildegard of Bingen, Julian of Norwich, Teresa of Avila, Therese of Liseux. For the most part, these women wrote in their own vernacular language – not the Latin of the male-dominated realms of theology, academia, and Church structure. It could be argued that “mysticism” gave them a form and expression of their religious experiences that was free from the ecclesiastical status-quo.

What we do find in the Christian East is eloquent mystical writings about women, but written by men. Dr. Harvey continues that these particular writings

“rarely include any mention of mystical experiences or visions. They describe the holy woman’s life, her devotional activities, prayer practices, ascetic labors, and perhaps miracles. But the type of literature is completely different from that of the medieval women mystics – these are not first hand accounts of the women’s religious experiences, particularly not of visions or mystical encounters. They are not like Symeon the New Theologian’s writings about what the direct, personal experience of God feels like. We have almost no literature written by women that survives to us in Greek.”

Thus, a contrast rather than a comparison

Scholars and others find this tremendous vacuum both inexplicable as well as unfortunate. Dr. Harvey’s classes at Brown include an Introduction to Christianity. In this course she assigns Julian of Norwich in conjunction with Symeon the New Theologian. The 14th century Christian West and its emphasis on the passion, suffering and death of Christ is contrasted with the 11th century Byzantine emphasis on transfiguration, light and resurrection. Sadly, there is no material to contrast these two poles of spirituality from the point of view of two women writers. There is no woman in the Christian Orient whose writings would parallel those of Julian.

What of Eastern Christian women?

We have eloquent mystical writings by and about male mystics. In addition to the men listed above, we have the writings of the Desert Fathers, Evagrius of Pontus (+399), Isaac the Syrian (+700), and others. For women there is next to nothing.

Desert wisdom from such 4th century Palestinian and Egyptian Ascetic Mothers as Matrona, Sarah the Short, Syncletica and Theodora is listed among collection of the Apophthegmata. But their sayings are brief, practical and severe – no mystical experience found among them.

This leaves the works of various men regarding holy women. St. Gregory of Nyssa wrote his Life of Macrina as well as The Dialogue on the Soul and the Resurrection about his extraordinary sister (Wilson-Kastner 105). The 6th century East Syrian spiritual advisor Amma Shirin is made known to us in the Book of Perfection by Martyrios Sahdona (Brock / Harvey 177-181). There is the 7th century Vita of the penitent, St. Mary of Egypt , written by Patriarch Sophronios of Jerusalem while he was a monk in Palestine (Ward 35-56). In this work St. Mary’s own words are reported. However, they are just that – secondary reports. Dr. Harvey concludes that “Not only do we not have writings by women mystics like those of western Christianity for the medieval period, but Orthodox do not even understand the terms the same way.”

Women writers down through the centuries

Kassiani the 9th century Byzantine nun was an outspoken poet and gifted hymnographer. Many of her liturgical works are well loved (see the appended texts). They are exegetic or dogmatic (i.e., source of theology and spirituality), but they do not speak of mystical experience.

During the following centuries all that survives from the pen of Eastern women writers is The Alexiad – a 12th century biographic work by Anna Komnena about her father, Alexios I Komnennos, the 76th Emperor of Byzantium. Anna was one of the earliest women historians and “among the most outstanding writers of the Byzantine age” (Cross 71). However, despite its greatness, The Alexiad is little more than an extravagant and exaggerated piece of imperial propaganda. Its primary use is found in assessing the attitude of the Byzantines toward the West, the Crusades and the Bogomil heresy.

It may be that the tidal wave of Islam, the Turkokratia in the former Byzantium , the Tatar Yoke in Russia and the general Western Captivity of the Eastern Church all added to the very odd situation which made women’s authorship in the Christian East next to impossible. In her correspondence, Dr. Harvey comments that the situation is “simply gloomy.  It really is a puzzle, but also, I think, a serious loss.  The fact that nothing survives does not mean that women did not have these [mystical] experiences.  But we don’t know.”

The modern era

The 18th century Syrian-Lebanese Melkite / Maronite mystic Hindiyya Anne ‘Ajaymi a possible bridge between East and West with regard to women “mystics” – though she was not in communion with the Orthodox. She was very much influenced by western piety and spirituality (Makhlouf passim).

In the early 20th century tsarist Russia a massive collection of biographies of holy men and women appeared. The fourteen-volume Descriptive Lives of Strivers for Piety in the Fatherland of the 18th and 19th Centuries was published by the Russian Monastery of St. Panteleimon on Mt. Athos between 1906-1916. From this and other similar collections, stories of exemplary women have been made available in English by Brenda Meehan. In this genre one encounters women who, according to Fr. Thomas Hopko (author of the preface to Meehan’s book), were holy “because of their devotion to Christ and the Church. Like their Master and all Christian saints, they struggled and suffered within the ecclesiastical, social and political institutions of their time which were inevitably of ‘this age’ whose “form is passing away’ (1 Cor. 7:32 )” (Meehan x). The biographies reveal the lives of five Russian women who

“knew, valued, and inculcated practices that intensified religious experience, including long periods of solitude; a community of like-minded people that shared a moral vision; communal worship and private, meditative prayer; a sense of sacred space; the stimulation of sight, sound, and smell through ritual, chant and sweet-burning incense, guides who knew and lived the holy way; disciplines that provided tools for psychological and moral transformation, a tradition of pilgrimage, with its radical opening to the new and the divine” (Meehan, 7).

Within the pages of Meehan’s book one can encounter a number of mystical (and other) characteristics but no specific “mystics” are to be found.

One Latter Day Saint

There was a 20th century Orthodox Christian woman who many consider to be a mystic, if one may use that term. Mother Gavriellia Papaiannis was born in Istanbul in 1897. She entered the monastic life at age 58, after a long career in physical therapy. She served the Church in the Holy Land, Taize, India, East Africa, Britain, America and Greece. Having taken on the obedience of living an active apostolate around the world, Mother Gavriellia fell asleep in the Lord in 1992. Her spiritual children all attest to her sanctity. Many who knew her (and others who have come to know her through her teachings) maintain that she was one of the few “mystics” of the Church – but a mystic whose vocation was in “the world.” Mother Gavriellia has been likened to an eldress in the tradition of St. Macrina. She has been called the Greek Orthodox Mother Teresa of Calcutta. Regardless of these comparisons, her following is continuing to grow and she is being considered by many for glorification as a saint.

Conclusions

  1. In the Christian East (especially among the Orthodox) there seem to be few “mystics” as such – at least not in the sense that came to be understood in the medieval West, where it came to be understood as a category or religious experience which is distinct from (and perhaps in tension with or even opposition to) the category of “theology” – but many who have been given the specific designation of “theologian” or “new theologian.” Mystics and theologians are generally understood in the Christian East to be one in the same.
  2. Mystical experience appears to be one of many possible characteristics that an individual may possess. This is likely due to the fact that the whole spirituality of Eastern Christianity is a mystical spirituality. Perhaps the whole idea of “mystic” is simply taken for granted as a “given” in the life and witness of the saints.
  3. Women are written about (and usually by the men), but seldom have written themselves – and when they do write, they do so less seldom about their own first hand experience. Perhaps this is due to an inherent spirit of self-effacement within the tradition – especially for women.
  4. There appear to be only a few men who write about what it felt like to encounter God in apophasis, hesychia, bathed in Uncreated Light and caught up in the ecstasy of Mystical Union.
  5. Not unrelated to point 2, above, there appears to be a major emphasis on the “ordinariness” of the holy one under consideration – seeing the transfiguration in and through daily life; unremarkably keeping steadfast and doing nothing more than what was their Christian duty in the first place (Lk. 17:10); praising God among the pots and pans. Other women of the 20th century should be included with Gerontissa Gavriella:

    One is St. Marie Skobskova of Paris (+1945), a Russian emigré whose experience of true suffering, her counter-culture “monasticism in the world” and her ultimate sacrifice in Nazi Ravensbruk have proclaimed exactly what it means to be “oned” with God. Her life and witness is best set forth in Sergei Hackel’s Pearl of Great Price. St. Marie was an enigma; an unlikely saint. It is often attested of her that she was unattractive and dirty, strong, thick and sturdy, and above all, she was truly alive in her suffering, alive in her compassion, alive in her passion. She is a “living icon” – whose life and deeds place a very necessary freedom and courage before all, both as a defiant challenge to the comfortable “status quo” and loving invitation to it as well.

    Another is Matushka Olga Michael of Alaska (+1979), the Yup’ik village midwife and grandma. Any “mystic” characteristics attributed to her must be coupled with the fact that she often was “invisible” to those around her – simply present in an unassuming manner, but in a manner that was, upon reflection, full of power, grace and the Presence of God. She was the leaven that enlivened the lump of dough. In addition to the stories about her life and death, there have been numerous post-death appearances and healings (collected and recounted in Oleksa and Schimchik) which only underscore the paradox of an extraordinary mystical quality to this seemingly un-extraordinary priest’s wife.

Appendix: Texts

Amma Theodora:

Let us strive to enter by the narrow gate, just as the trees, if they have not stood before the winter’s storms cannot bear fruit, so it is with us; this present age is a storm and it is only through many trials and temptations that we can obtain an inheritance in the kingdom of heaven (Swan 64-65).

A teacher ought to be a stranger to the desire for domination, vain-glory, and pride; one should not be able to fool him by flattery, nor blind him by gifts, nor conquer him by the stomach, nor dominate him by anger; but he should be patient, gentle and humble as far as possible; he must be tested and without partisanship, full of concern, and a lover of souls (Swan 67).

Neither asceticism, nor vigils nor any kind of suffering are able to save, only true humility can do that. There was an anchorite who was able to banish the demons; and he asked them, ‘What makes you go away?’ ‘Is it fasting?’ They replied, ‘We do not eat or drink.’ ‘Is it vigils?’ They replied, ‘We do not sleep.’ ‘Is it separation from the world?’ ‘We live in the deserts.’ ‘What power sends you away then?’ They said, ‘Nothing can overcome us, but only humility.’ ‘Do you see how humility is victorious over the demons?’ (Swan 67).

Amma Syncletica:

For those who are capable of it, {poverty} is a perfect good. Those who can sustain it receive suffering in the body but rest in the soul, for just as one washes coarse clothes by trampling them underfoot and turning them about in all directions, even so the strong soul becomes much more stable thanks to voluntary poverty (Swan 46).

There are many who live in the mountains and behave as if they were in the town, and they are wasting their time. It is possible to be a solitary in one’s mind while living in a crowd, and it is possible for one who is a solitary to live in the crowd of personal thoughts (Swan 58).

It is possible to be a solitary in one’s mind while living in a crowd, and it is possible for one who is a solitary to live in the crowd of his own thoughts (Ward, Sayings 234).

The Hymn of Kassiani / Dogmatikon, Lord I Call for Vespers of Holy Wednesday:

O Lord, the woman who had fallen into many sins, perceiving your divinity, took up the role of myrrh-bearer, and with lamentation brings sweet myrrh to you before your burial. ‘Alas!’ she says, ‘for night is for me a frenzy of lust, a dark and moonless love of sin. Accept the fountains of my tears, you who from the clouds draw out the water of the sea; bow yourself down to the groanings of my heart, you who bowed the heavens by your ineffable self-emptying. I shall kiss your immaculate feet, and wipe them again with the locks of my hair, those feet whose sound Eve heard at dusk in Paradise , and hid herself in fear. Who can search out the multitude of my sins and the depths of your judgements, my Saviour, O Saviour of souls? Do not despise me, your servant, for you have mercy without measure”

Gerontissa Gavriellia:

Not a knowledge that you learn, but a knowledge that you suffer. That is Orthodox spirituality.

Do not desire many things–more than you have, that which is far away. Rather, seek to take care of what you have so as to sanctify it.

One thing is education: that we learn how to love God.

Only when we are “still”…not busy-bodies…busy-bodying…caught up in many activities… do we give the angels an opportunity to do something.

Once when I was there where I was, some foreign missionary came and said to me, “You may be a good woman, but you’re not a good Christian.”

I said, “Why?”

“Because you have been here so long and you only go about speaking English. What local languages have you learned?”

I said to him, “I haven’t managed to learn any of the local languages, because I travel a great deal from place to place. As soon as I learn one dialect, they start speaking another. I’ve only learned ‘Good morning’ and ‘Good evening.’ Nothing else.”

“Bah, you’re no Christian. How can you evangelize? All the Catholics and Protestants learn all the local dialects in order to . . .”

Then I said, “Lord, give me an answer for him.” I asked it with all my heart, and then I said, “Ah. I forgot to tell you. I know five languages.”

“Really? What are these five?”

“The first is the smile; the second is tears. The third is to touch. The fourth is prayer, and the fifth is love. With these five languages I go all around the world.”

Then he stopped and said, “Just a minute. Say that again so I can write it down.”

With these five languages you can travel the whole earth, and all the world is yours. Love everyone as your own–without concern for religion or race, without concern for anything.

Everywhere are people of God. You never know if the one you see today might tomorrow be a saint. Come let us be silent.

St. Marie of Paris :

“At the Last Judgment I shall not be asked whether I was successful in my ascetic exercises, nor how many bows and prostrations I made. Instead I shall be asked, Did I feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick and the prisoners. That is all I shall be asked.”

One prisoner even recalled how St. Maria had used the ever-smoking chimneys of the camps several crematoria as a metaphor of hope rather than being seen as the only exit point from the camp. “But it is only here, immediately above the chimneys, that the billows of smoke are oppressive. When they rise higher, they turn into light clouds before being dispersed in limitless space. In the same way, our souls, once they have torn themselves away from this sinful earth, move by means of an effortless unearthly flight into eternity, where there is life full of joy.”

Works Cited :

Brock, Sebastian and Harvey, Susan Ashbrook. Holy Women of the Syrian Orient. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987.

Clément, Olivier. The Roots of Christian Mysticism. Hyde Park: New City Press, 1993

Cross, F.L., ed. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. Oxford: The University Press, 1997.

Gregory Palamas. (Meyendorff, John, ed.) The Triads. New York: Paulist, 1988.

Hackel, Sergei. Pearl of Great Price. Crestwood: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1982.

Harvey, Susan Ashbrook. E-mail to the author. 15 May, 2004 & July 7, 2004.

John Chrysostom. The Divine Liturgy. New York: Orthodox Church in America, 1970.

Lash, Archimandrite Ephrem. “Liturgical Texts: Triodion / Holy Week / Holy Wednesday / Vespers.” Anastasis. 12 June, 2004. Monastery of St. Andrew the First-Called, Manchester, England. 20 June, 2004. <http://www.anastasis.org.uk/HWWed-V.htm>

Makhlouf, Avril. “The Essential Lightness of Being – Hindiyya Ann ‘Ajaymi and Her Spiritual Journey,” Hugoye: Journal of Syriac Studies. 4:2 (2001).

Meehan, Barbara. Holy Women of Russia – The Lives of Five Orthodox Women Offer Spiritual Guidance for Today. Crestwood: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1997.

Oleksa, Michael. Orthodox Alaska. Crestwood: St.. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1992.

Shimchick, John. “Matushka Olga Michael: A Helper in Restoring the Work of God’s Hands,” Jacob’s Well. Spring/Summer 1997.

Swan, Laura. The Forgotten Desert Mothers. New York: Paulist, 2001.

von Balthasar, Hans Urs. Cosmic Liturgy – The Universe According to Maximus the Confessor. San Francisco: Communio / Ignatius, 2003.

Ward, Benedicta. Harlots of the Desert. Kalamazoo: Cistercian, 1987.

- – - Sayings of the Desert Fathers. Kalamazoo: Cistercian, 1984.

Wilson-Kastner, Patricia. “Macrina: Virgin and Teacher,” AndrewsUniversity Seminary Series 17 (Spring 1979): 105-118.


1The term “glorify” is roughly the eastern equivalent to the western term “canonize,” though the manner in which one is officially recognized and proclaimed as a saint differs considerably between east and west. The process is largely a matter of “ripple effect.” Orthodox Christians may venerate someone on a personal or local level. This may even include annual commemoration within a parish. Generally a local popular acclaim arises among those who knew (of) the individual. This eventually widens to include a larger territory and community of devotees. The diocesan bishop may at this point determine that the individual in question would be suitable for commemoration throughout the diocese — at which time the synod of bishops would then discern if the holy one is to be accepted on a broader scale. Memorial services are prayed on the anniversary of the death of the individual. The biography, writings and other relevant material concerning the holy one are circulated. Services which had been prayed for the individual then transition to services composed to and about the candidate. Icons of the individual are commissioned. The church then gathers in solemn assembly and proclaims that the holy one is officially glorified and assigns a feast day (usually the anniversary of death) in his or her honor.

2It should be noted that in the Eastern Orthodox world it is not uncommon for women (especially nuns) to hear the confessions of their spiritual children. They listen, give counsel and —acting in God’s name — assure the penitent of divine forgiveness. After this the penitent receives sacramental absolution from a priest with only the word to do so from the spiritual mother — no second confession need be made to the priest.

3Hesychia is Greek for “inner quietude and stillness.” The hesychast devotes him or herself to the prayer of silence — stripped of image, word and discursive thought. “True knowledge and vision of God consist in seeing that He is invisible. What we seek lies beyond all knowledge, being wholly separated by the darkness of incomprehensibility.” (St. Gregory of Nyssa, Life of Moses, 11.163)