Women in Men’s Monasteries
The monastic vow of celibacy demands a ruthless fight against the natural sex drive that God ordained for human beings. Based on the passages just cited, one might think that no woman would ever dare to step into a men’s monastery. Judging by the sexually obsessed “saints” described in the Prologue of Okhrid, the arrival of women in
men’s monasteries resulted either in monks killing themselves or else raping and then murdering the wandering woman. However, the Lives of the Saints informs us that throughout history, more women stayed in men’s monasteries for a long time by disguising themselves as men! Here are some examples:
“THE VENERABLE APOLLINARIA… Apollinaria, who did not wish to marry because in her heart she was betrothed to Christ, withdrew into the Egyptian wilderness. In men’s attire and under the masculine name of Dorotheus, Apollinaria entered a monastery for men, where she lived an ascetical life, uplifting her spirit continuously toward God and burning with love toward her Creator… Only when Apollinaria died was her secret revealed that she was not a man, but a woman… She died in the year 470 A.D.” (January 5)
“THE VENERABLE MARY… Mary was a woman with a man’s courage. After the death of her mother, her father desired to become a monk. Mary would not be separated from him, so they decided to go together to a men’s monastery – Mary with short hair and in man’s raiment as a youth. Her father died, and Mary became a monk and received the name Marius… Immediately after her death it was discovered that the `Monk Marius’ was a woman… St. Mary entered into rest and went to eternal joy in 508.” (February 12)
“THE VENERABLE MOTHER ANASTASIA… Anastasia was a patrician and lady of the imperial palace of Emperor Justinian. After she was widowed and when she perceived that Empress Theodora could not tolerate her, she immediately slipped out of Constantinople and turned up in the wilderness of Egypt. The renowned spiritual father Abba Daniel tonsured her a nun and presented her as the monk Anastasius the eunuch according to her wishes so that, as a woman under the guise of a man, she could easily be saved and hidden from the pursuit of the emperor. Anastasia then closed herself off in a narrow cell where she spent twenty-eight years and died there in the year 563 A.D. Before her death, the Elder Daniel saw her face glow like the sun.” (March 10)
One common theme in these narratives is the necessity for these women to disguise themselves falsely as men in order to enter the monastic brotherhood. Even if we were to assume that people entered monasteries in order to pursue a closer relationship with God, the clear fact remains that these women (and others) committed a deliberate violation of God’s commandments, specifically the ninth commandment that reads:
“You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.”
This command has a much broader meaning than many realize. The command is not only a prohibition against telling lies. This commandment also forbids “false witness”,
whether in the form of clear misrepresentation (as in the cases of these women) or something else. After all, the sin of false non-verbal representation is committed by Apollinaria alone. Mary and Anastasia had collaborators in their sins of falsely posing as men. Mary’s helper was her father. Anastasia had collaboration in her sin from none other than the “renowned spiritual father” Abba Daniel, who before his brethren presented her as a eunuch.
Another interesting fact is that Anastasia entered the male monastery under a man’s name “so that, as a woman under the guise of a man, she could easily be saved.” If one were truly “saved” (and apparently the context leads to this conclusion) by God leading unto eternal life, this action seems strange when the New Testament makes no connection between a person’s sex and salvation. The Holy Scriptures clearly teach that both men and women exist on an equal level in the sight of God through faith in Jesus Christ the Savior and rebirth by the Holy Spirit.
Note the fact that the Venerable Anastasia became a monk in the Egyptian desert, and recall the discussion at the beginning of the chapter that addressed Egyptian asceticism as having arisen “under the dominant influence of Gnosticism “(per Vukomanovic and other authors). Then the question of how gender relates to salvation reveals a more specific answer. Here is a short text from the apocryphal Gnostic Gospel of Thomas, which, according to many researchers, decisively influenced the philosophy of Egyptian desert asceticism:
“Simon Peter said to him, ‘Let Mary leave us, for women are not worthy of life.’ Jesus said, ‘I myself shall lead her in order to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every woman who will make herself male will enter the kingdom of heaven.’”
According to the Gnostic writings, Jesus makes women into men so that could enter the heavenly paradise. It seems quite possible that one of the Gnostic teachings remained until the sixth century and managed to influence Anastasia in her quest to gain eternal life.
Earlier in the chapter, there was a reference by Protodeacon Ljubomir Rankovic stating that before the Great Schism between the East and West in the year 1054 year, both the Eastern Orthodox and Western Catholic Churches lived in “unity” and “grace”. In light of this unity prior to 1054, it is noteworthy to study the example of another woman from the ancient times when the Church was unified. Specifically, in the ninth century, there was a woman who disguised herself as a man (similar to the examples in the Prologue of Okhrid) and ascended to the papacy, the Holy See of Rome! Although some believe that this narrative is not true, several historical documents confirm its truth. The first piece of evidence that a woman became the chief Roman Bishop comes from the ninth century Anastasius Bibliothecarius, chief Librarian of the Roman Church and personal
advisor to Pope Leo IV. A Catholic historian, Bartolomeo Platina, who lived in the fifteenth century, described the events surrounding the ascendancy of the female pope:
“Joanna, of English extraction, was born at Mentz [Mainz] and is said to have arrived at Popedom by evil arts; for disguising herself like a man, whereas she was a woman… coming to Rome, she met with few that could equal, much less go beyond her, even in the knowledge of the Scriptures; and by her learned and ingenious readings and disputations, she acquired so great respect and authority that upon the death of Leo (as Martin says), by common consent she was chosen Pope in his room. As she was going to the Lateran Church, between the Colossean Theatre (so called from Nero’s Colossus) and St. Clement’s, her travail came upon her, and she died upon the place, having sat two years, one month, and four days, and was buried there without any pomp.”
Martin Scotus, a monk in the Abbey of St. Martin in Cologne (died 1086) wrote this:
“AD 854, Lotharii 14, Joanna, a woman, succeeded Leo, and reigned two years, five months, and four days.”
Stephen of Bourbon (died 1261) in his book The Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit (De Septem Donis Spiritu Sancti) mentions details similar to others of his predecessors and contemporaries. The details of the life of Pope Joan vary by different sources. Some medieval documents call her Agnes or Gilberta. Some sources believed she was the
wife of Pope Leo IV who, after his death took over the papal duties. However, the most interesting version is The Chronicle of the Popes and Emperors (Chronicon pontificum et imperatum) written by the 13th century writer Martin von Troppau. He recorded information on the life and death of the female Pope similar to the information already quoted by Bartolomeo Platina, who lived two centuries earlier. At the place where Pope Joan was buried, a large stone slab with a classic label was erected. Later, it was destroyed on the orders of Pope Pius V (1566-1572) in order to avoid further scandals. After the demise of the female Pope, future candidates for the highest place in the Western church were to have their gender verified by a third party.
Since the emergence of the Protestant Reformation in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the Roman Catholic Church has done everything possible to deny the existence of the female pope, who became a symbol of corruption and immorality. The Catholic Encyclopedia considers this story as a fairy tale. It claims that after the death of Leo IV (847-855), a certain John of Mainz, an Englishman who was “apparently” female, sat on the throne for two years, seven months, and four days. Also, this encyclopedia asserts that this Pope was considered an historical personage whom no one doubted during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. The Siena Cathedral had her bust, which was later, at the bidding of Pope Clement VIII (1592-1595) transformed into the bust of Pope Zacharias. During the Middle Ages, one of the streets in Rome leading to the church of St. Peter had a statue of a female Pope. During his visit to Rome, Martin Luther saw the statue and was amazed that the Pope allowed it to exist. Forty years after Luther’s death, Pope Sixtus V ordered the statue to be removed.
The previous examples illustrate the concept of monasticism among members of the traditional churches of the East and the West. The clear implication is that these groups did not rely on the Bible as the Word of God. We will examine more of this evidence in the next section.