As a junior in college, I spent a semester in the Middle East with sixteen other students from an American consortium of Protestant Christian colleges and universities. Our study term was based in Cairo, with an intensive time of learning in Israel/Palestine at the midpoint, and travel through Jordan, Syria, and Turkey at the end.
In those final weeks we were handed thick binders of articles to read while our bus wound through rich green Syrian and Turkish countryside. Needless to say, I did not get all the readings done. Evenings were devoted to visits with the residents of the towns where we stayed, and each daytime stop included memorable encounters with new people and historic sites. I spent the balance of my waking time furiously scribbling in my journal.
After venturing north from Damascus, the hills of Maaloula came into view. The Antiochan Orthodox and Melkite Christians of the town were preparing for Easter. Children ran past a table filled with loaves of Easter bread. Our sleepy bodies rose to alert attention, eager to walk around in this city, seemingly carved into the hills themselves.
The village of Maaloula, an Aramaic word for “opening” or “entrance,” lies between steep hills. It is the last Aramaic-speaking Christian village. Ushered into small room at St. Thecla’s Monastery, we sampled Maaloula’s locally-made wine and listened as the priest, our host, explained the linguistic history of the town to us. He then began to recite the Lord’s prayer in Aramaic. I recorded him and you can hear that recording here.
It would be twenty-five years later that, seated at a kitchen table in Philadelphia, I would finally ask the question, “Who was Saint Thecla?” by typing exactly that into a search engine.
In the intervening years I had graduated, worked several jobs, gotten married, moved cities, gone to grad school, directed a nonprofit, and had three children. That undergrad semester in the Middle East exposed me to many different Orthodox churches loaded with iconography, and introduced me to Christians from each of the main ancient Orthodox traditions. After college, my job took me twice to Nazareth, where I was befriended by women from both Roman Catholic and Orthodox traditions. I attended graduate school at a Jesuit University, and my community and neighborhood life in Philadelphia included Bible studies with Franciscan nuns and Assumption sisters.
However, inexplicably, none of these experiences caused me to intentionally seek out specific stories of the lives of early Christian women until recently, upon reading Beth Allison Barr’s The Making of Biblical Womanhood: How the Subjugation of Women Became Gospel Truth. In it, Dr. Barr, a medieval historian, introduces us to women from Christian history I had never heard of.
She writes: “I knew the problem wasn’t a lack of women leading in church history. The problem was simply that women’s leadership has been forgotten, because women’s stories throughout history have been covered up, neglected, or retold to recast women as less significant than they really were.”
I am operating from a question. Who are the women of my Church’s history whose contributions the post-reformation, western world has minimized or forgotten, and what can we learn from them?
An apostle of Christ, Mary of Magdala, was last at the cross and first at the tomb. It was she to whom Christ first appeared upon his resurrection. Mary of Magdala reminds us that Christ has nothing to do with the rejection we have experienced in the face of the sin of misogyny. Thanks to a careless error by Pope Gregory in the 7th century, conflating her with the woman who washes Jesus’ feet, Mary of Magdala is to this day still widely misidentified as a prostitute. She has also been misidentified as Mary of Bethany, sister to Martha and Lazarus. Mary, from the village of Magdala, had seven demons cast from her, and from that moment onward, Christ counted her among his most faithful disciples.
Perpetua and Felicity of fourth-century Carthage, through their courage, remind us of the futility of death in stopping the power of God at work in the world. Their courage and fidelity to Christ in the face of execution, and their dedication to each other, draws us toward our sisters in the faith, that we might bring one another encouragement and solidarity.
Hildegard of Bingen’s multitude of writings in many fields (philosophy, herbal medicine, theology, to name a few) amaze me. I have yet to read more than a few online previews of her works, but the reach of her pen throughout her eighty years of life is prolific. Recorded performances of her Canticles of Ecstasy have entered my home, sometimes requested by my youngest child to soothe her at bedtime. The songs tug my imagination 800 years into the past, and I wonder about the women who used to hear Hildegard singing as she walked the hallways of their monastery.
Carmelite nun, Teresa of Avila, through her 16th-century writings, teaches us to pray deeply. She saw the soul as an interior castle, with inner and outer rooms, corridors and courtyards. St. Teresa taught her sisters that prayer and meditation are ways for the soul to enter into itself, to allow for the deep communion with God in Spirit. We are often outside of the innermost rooms where the Spirit dwells, called outward by the cares of this world.
All of these stories and writings pull my thoughts toward the tragically blank horizon of a largely unread, forgotten past, a horizon absent of our early Christian sisters. Here is Barr again:
“In a world that didn’t accept the word of a woman as a valid witness, Jesus chose women as witnesses for his resurrection. In a world that gave husbands power over the very lives of their wives, Paul told husbands to do the opposite—to give up their lives for their wives. In a world that saw women as biologically deformed men, monstrous even, Paul declared that men were just like women in Christ.”
Back to Thecla.
In Maaloula, the grotto of St. Thecla (vandalized by ISIS in 2018 and since restored) has remained a destination for Christians since the second century. Here is the (severely summarized) story of Thecla.
Among Second-century Christian writings, “The Acts of Paul and Thecla,” tells the story of a young Iconium woman who for three days sat in the window of her upper-class home listening to Paul’s teachings. Moved by his challenge to celibacy and singleness, she decides to choose a life of celibacy and preaching the gospel. This decision enrages and grieves her mother and fiancé who seek punishment for her and for Paul. Wealthy and influential people in Iconium, they appeal to the governor, who has Paul flogged and sent away, and sentences Thecla to change her mind or be burnt at the stake. The account (you can read it here) goes on to describe a divine rain and hailstorm that comes just as the flames threaten to burn Thecla’s flesh.
To liberally summarize what amounts to an incredible story, Thecla flees Iconium and travels with Paul to Antioch. There, a nobleman named Alexander attempts to kiss her in the street. (One version describes this scene as attempted rape). She fights him off, tearing his cloak and knocking off his coronet in the process. Publicly humiliated, Alexander has her arrested and tried for assault. After Thecla’s “trial,” there is an account of her being stripped naked and publicly tossed to wild beasts. But God prevents them from reaching her. The account includes a description of a lioness licking the bottom of Thecla’s foot, and a group of lionesses turning on the male lions before they can attack her.
At one point, Thecla sees a deep vat of water and declares her desire to be baptized before her impending death. Watching Thecla throw herself into the water, the governor expects her to be mauled by the aggressive “sea cows” within the tank. But before the beasts can harm her, a flash of light appears across the water and the creatures float to the surface, dead. The public execution attempts continue on for several more scenes before the governor finally gives up and calls for clothes to be brought for Thecla. He says to her, “Who are you? What do you have about you that the beasts have not touched you?”
In a later scene Thecla cuts her hair and dresses to disguises herself as a man and travels to Myra, where she rejoins Paul and continues preaching, encouraging women to, like herself, take up a life of chastity and undistracted devotion.
According to this ancient text, Thecla spent her remaining years living in a village in Syria which was called Maaloula for the miracle God performed to save Thecla form her tormentors. As men were chasing and harassing her, God created an opening within the cave wall for her to pass through and escape. The writings about Thecla describe her living to the age of 90, spending her remaining 72 years in Maaloula as a healer and teacher, drawing women to her who sought to follow her example of chastity and Christian devotion.
There are so many details in this account that sound completely wild to my modern ear. I am unfamiliar with the kinds of stories that were common to that time period, which makes up part of the reason for the wildness. But then I think of the canonized Bible stories that I readily accepted in my childhood, and they were pretty incredible, too.
Thecla being saved from the lions by a group of lionesses? How is this more incredible than God shutting the lions’ mouths to spare Daniel? Thecla being spared from burning at the stake? Shadrack, Mishack, and Abednego had not one hair on their heads singed. Thecla jumping into a vat of water and the aggressive creatures in it coming up dead rather than mauling her? How about the parting of the Red Sea?
I understand that many ancient manuscripts were incomplete, unverifiable as primary source material, or unreliable as historically accurate accounts. I thank God for the careful scholarship and Holy Spirit’s guidance of those who worked to put together the canon of scripture. Although The Acts of Paul and Thecla was a wildly popular story in its time, it is not supported by Christian historians and Bible scholars today. One prominent opponent of its inclusion was Bishop Tertullian of Carthage, who “found the book heretical” because of its portrayal of a woman evangelizing and baptizing.
Both within the canon and without, what can we learn from the early Christian stories kept alive by the ancient church? Remaining faithful to the authority of scripture should not require that we erase all non-canonical writing from our imaginations. These stories have shaped the imaginations of Eastern Christians for centuries and there is value in reading them. They not only connect us to our spiritual ancestors, they also help us to understand the kind of lives that early Christians upheld as exemplary.
As we learn about the lives of the saints, both from scripture and other texts, the list of women in our Cloud of Witnesses also grows. And that blank horizon? It is actually crowded, if only we continue to learn and pay attention.