30 August 2012

Patriarch Kirill on the special nature of women

When I began visiting schools in Elektrostal nearly two decades ago, and students asked me questions about my values, I sometimes mentioned feminism, naively thinking that the word that looks and sounds more or less the same in Russian conveyed the same meanings. I soon found out that wasn't true. For some in my audiences it conveyed stereotypes that would most resemble angry separatists (and wouldn't even necessarily be fair to them). Some felt that feminism was yet another intellectual poison that the West was attempting to inject into Russia, along with all our other symptoms of affluent individualism run wild.

For others, feminism was simply irrelevant. "It doesn't fit our mentality," said one young woman. Without any hint of irony, she explained, "We want our men to be strong; besides, we know how to get what we want." It reminded me of another Russian commentary on Western preoccupations that I've heard more than once: "Why would we want democracy? We already do whatever we want."

Russians have no monopoly on contradictory, manipulative, oppressive, and self-oppressive attitudes in this area. (See my rather sheepish review of Maureen Dowd's book Are Men Necessary? here.) My own task this evening is to see if I can honor two concerns that arise specifically here in Russia: First, the high priority on hearing, understanding and respecting that which is most rooted and most truthful in Russian culture and spirituality, even when it appears to contradict some of what I personally believe; and, second, the prophetic and historically costly testimony we Friends bear to the Holy Spirit's sovereignty in choosing apostles and ministers for the church from among men and women.

Natalia Vdovina in The Return
I've provided a few small examples of images of the (supposedly) ideal Russian woman in this blog. I mentioned the "cult of the patient woman" as shown in Zvyagintsev's film The Return. Another time I mentioned Liudmila Minina's testimony of turning from philosophy and poetry to serving the church as a writer of icons. How hard it is for some of us to imagine giving up the speculative life and say contentedly that all questions are answered in the liturgy. I cannot claim that these examples are representative, by any means, or exclusively Russian, but they do tell us something important.

Today's exercise toward honoring my first concern--hearing and understanding--is to read and translate a speech that Patriarch Kirill, the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, gave about a year ago to an international conference on "Orthodox Women: Unity, Service, Love." I'm quieting that voice inside me that wants to criticise, challenge, point out inconsistencies, and so on. I'm setting myself the task of listening for the concerns underneath the rhetoric, paying special attention to the parts that challenge me the most.
Patriarch at commemoration of Baptism of Rus,' 2011; source
Dear members and forum participants!

... On the way here I was thinking whether to read a prepared text, or just to share some thoughts, and thought it best to share my thoughts.

I keep asking myself--and not just since yesterday, but already back in the days when women made up the vast majority of believers in our churches: why is this? There are purely psychological and even physiological explanations--women are more religious than men, they say: the woman is by nature more emotional, more sensitive, and, therefore, less inclined to criticism, less rationalistic. For these reasons, she is closer to the religious dimension of life.

Perhaps this argument is somewhat valid, but I have my own explanation that I have never shared with anyone. I'm expressing these thoughts for the first time. The nature of women and the nature of service in the Church have something in common. Women recognize this commonality, not at all on a rational basis, but through experience, on some kind of a subconscious level, enabling women to gain confidence in the Church and its preaching, and develop a readiness to participate in church life more actively than men.

The Church is the keeper of moral values. The Church transmits these moral values as a kind of genetic code from generation to generation, thus forming a matrix for the life of the nation. Of course a 21st century person is quite different from someone of the twentieth century, or the nineteenth or eighteenth! But if you look at the system of values ​​that the church teaches, that the Church offers to contemporary society, it's the same fundamental values--not just in the nineteenth century, but in the second century! The Church is in fact an active mechanism for the transmission of fundamental moral and spiritual values from generation to generation. In this sense the Church is in principle conservative because "conservation" is preservation: if you want to transmit values, you must preserve them.

But on the other hand, the Church is always called to be creative, because successive generations will not acknowledge these values if they are perceived as unconvincing. The credibility of church teaching always involves innovation, openness, dynamism; and if that's not there, then the values transmission mechanism fails, or else people begin to identify those values with a certain subculture, with folklore. This was the case until recently, and even now it remains true. For example, when does our TV pay attention to the Church? Mardi Gras, Lent, Easter--when we bless the dyed eggs and Easter cakes, thereby hooking into the widespread stereotype that the Church is a part of folklore and cultural tradition. Maybe it's like this because during the Soviet era, and in the post-Soviet period, we were not able to present the values of our Christian heritage at the proper intellectual level, so that contemporary people could absorb them. Hence morality and Christian values became identified to some degree with a certain subculture and folklore.

Who is the keeper of the family hearth? The woman! That's how God wished it, and for me as a believer that's the end of the discussion. God wanted the woman to be the guardian of the family hearth. And what is a family? "Family" is the place where a human being is formed as a person, where values are transmitted ​​from one generation to the next. We--especially mothers--often say to our children, "that wasn't a nice thing to do!" But the mother almost never explains why it wasn't "nice." She is merely declaring an idea whose great importance derives from the fact that it is not her idea alone, but she received these values from her parents; the only argument she gives for her prohibition is "this is bad." In this sense, the woman is largely responsible for the transmission of moral values ​​from generation to generation. She does within her family what the Church does among the people as a whole. After all, the Church is called the Mother, not because the word "Church" in Russian is feminine, but because the Church, like the mother, preserves and transmits moral values from generation to generation, ​​and cultivates the moral values ​​of each generation of people.

On the one hand, women are in principle conservative in this way: they preserve values, the family, order. On the other hand, women are perfectly capable of living dynamically in contemporary society. Many times I've had to point out that men are more fragile than women. Men cannot stand the stress of modern civilization. In the male environment, so often the first result is alcoholism. Perhaps here in Ukraine it's not so obvious, but in the less rich-soil regions of Russia it's very noticeable. When I was the presiding bishop of Smolensk, I often visited villages. You arrive, you celebrate the liturgy, and there are mostly women in the church. Afterwards, the villagers get together for a talent show--who sings? Women. Who are the musicians? Women. Who recites? Women. Who's in the club? Women. Who staffs the first aid station? Women. Where are the men? They're not to be found. They're somewhere hidden in the corners, or they come drunk to check on their wives' performances ...

The women turn out to be stronger, especially in the sense that they are better able to resist stress. And why? Because women have a higher threshold of self-preservation. Responsibility for the family, for the transmission of values--all this remains on a subconscious level, often completely unarticulated, unacknowledged; this is precisely how women's nature works. And, in my view, the fact that we have more women in the Church, is made understandable and explainable by this similarity between the service of women and the service of the Church. God willed that the apostles were men, that men fulfilled the apostolic ministry of the church; fortunately, in Orthodoxy, women are not attempting to promote a reconsideration of this provision of apostolic tradition. Men perform the hierarchical functions within the Church. But I think that without the service of women in our Church, especially in the difficult years of atheism, there would not be much left of the Church today. If in those times our grandmothers and our mothers had not baptized grandchildren, sons, daughters, often in secrecy, hiding their actions from their husbands and children in the Party--where would our people be today? The service of women in the Church was critical precisely in those years of persecution. If the men were afraid to come to church for fear of losing their positions and harming their careers, women were more dedicated, especially older women, who could not be frightened or threatened with loss of pensions or even with the threat of exclusion from waiting lists for apartments. They went to church, they baptized their grandchildren and brought them up in the faith, and in this way they preserved not just our moral tradition and values, but largely preserved our people's capacity for religion.

And at the present time it is very important that the potential of Christian women be fully realized--of course in the family before all else. But not all women are family-oriented. I recently pointed out that when people have no families of their own, or no children, this does not mean that they are second-class people. In God's eyes there are no second-class citizens, and it may be that the Lord is sometimes prodding a single person to devote his or her full natural capacity to the service that is theirs to give. For many, the church is their place of service, and our convents, our charities, are vivid examples of this. Recently, we held in Moscow a diocesan convention of social workers and managers of charitable sisterhoods. Hundreds of people gathered; you should have seen these people, their enthusiasm, their willingness to work, their amazing inventiveness. Just in reviewing a list of the projects accomplished in the framework of this ministry, I was struck by its diversity, its effectiveness.

Today the Church has a huge number of tasks on its plate, including the organization of women's contribution to the life of the Church. At the level of the monasteries, sisterhoods, and parishes, the work is organized quite well, but we do not have an organization that would bring together women in the whole Church. But it is important from time to time to meet, talk, share experiences; it is important to speak out in defense of the Church, in defense of moral values. When we, the priests, stand in defense of moral values, against abortion, in favor of support for disadvantaged young mothers, we often hear the open or implicit reproach: "We're on to you! You are defending your own class interests!" But when these same principles are defended by the laity--especially women, who have a special right to speak out on these issues--they can reach more of society.


We are going through a severe test of civilization, all of us--that is, all the inhabitants of our planet, including the Orthodox people in Ukraine, Russia, Belarus and other countries. I'm referring to a profound crisis of the family. There has been a liberation of our human impulses, intentionally or by accident, but at the instigation of the devil, that since the 1960's has become known as the sexual revolution. It's led to dire consequences--the destruction of the family, the emergence of extreme forms of feminism, and the aggressive promotion of homosexuality. The sexual revolution has had such a negative impact in the area of personal and family morality, it is hard to imagine where we would end up if you do not organize a common front of resistance to this evil.

As I said, an instinct of self-preservation--preservation of personhood and of family--is embedded in human nature, and especially in the nature of women. Today, we're depending on it. The Church is opening up a space for the organized activities of women of different professions, different social status. God grant that the Church provide a meeting place for those who are not indifferent to the fate of their people and the fate of the Church, and that the Church receive in return an important impetus that would make her life richer and more beautiful, and her ministry more effective.

Thank you for your attention.

More on "the special nature of women." Also: Straw feminists.

Excerpt from the Russian Orthodox Church's official statement on church and society.

Michele Berdy, "The Grass is Greener: Reflections on Men and Crabgrass."

Martha of Ireland, "Only in Silence, the Word." "In one case, silent contemplation leads to the Lord, in another, it leads to paralysis and grief that can see no hope."

"An Open Deity Theodicy: Gregory Boyd and the Problem of Evil"--a nice summary by David D. Flowers.

A Russian-led space project that is going well: RadioAstron. (Russian-language video on the design, launch, and operation of this orbiting radiotelescope.)

USA-Russia: "Historic visa agreement enters into force...."

Albert King, whose recordings first introduced me to my favorite music:

No comments: