Facing Down Dragons

Posted by: Richenda at Monday March 12, 2007 in

I got a new book. (I love that.) This one is by from Alfred J. Butler, The Ancient Coptic Churches of Egypt originally published in 1884.

(Note to Kessinger Publishing: Thank you for getting this back in print!)

I’m not sure why…perhaps my fascination with monasticism…but the Coptic Christian movement intrigues me. The Copts embraced monasticism by building monasteries, converting their homes to monastic dwellings, building underground churches, and also simply scraping caves out of the cliffs and surrounds—hundreds of them. Filling these churches or convents or caves were monks or hermits or anchorites, each a little different but all sharing a general devotion to the “new faith.”

The idea for these seekers was that in those dusty “cells,” they could be separate from the living world in order to live a life in readiness for God: one of devotion through unceasing prayer (and, amusingly enough, basketweaving). Interestingly, though the idea was work and prayer and solitude, many of these anchorites were part of an extensive social network of spiritual seekers. The most admired anchorites had disciples, followers, and visitors who came to ask their advice.

(Note: Am I the only one that thinks this is very, very cool?!)

Interesting, too, is the role of women in this movement. Okay, that last sentence
unpacks into (at least) a hundred volume journal and I’ve just got this bitty blog. lol. But yes, interesting!

Take dragons, for instance.

Once the middle ages moved into full roar, the Christian movement tried to,
and succeeded in, quieting down the stories of female religious fervor that did not include the exemplar devoting herself (enthusiastically but quietly) to marriage or a convent. By the time of The Golden Legend, the Lives of the female saints all pretty much read the same. Saint (A) doesn’t want to get married to an unsuitable man (or any man) and so makes some sort of dramatic gesture to that effect in order to be released from her marriage and so become the bridegroom of Christ.
So she pretends to be a male, or grows a beard, or disfigures herself, or runs away, or performs a miracle.

These are wonderful narratives, but what bothers me is that pretty much ALL the stories become a variation of this basic theme. In actuality, women were not quiet and safely married off at all. Many were engaging with the forefront of the Christian vision. Others participated in some pretty gritty and courageous stuff. Just poke around a little earlier and you get a different picture.

Early Christianity was not only led and inspired by women, but it NEEDED those women. Women provided financial support, opened their homes to early Christians, inspired conversion, facilitated conversion, and taught the new faith. As such, women were persecuted, tortured, martyred and killed just as men were.

These earlier stories were recorded, too. These stories do not exhort women to obey their husbands, bear little oblates, and meekly cover their heads in church! lol. These stories tell of the need of women’s physical heroism and emotional strength in order to launch an new and enthralling movement into this world. Often, like the later stories, the women had to evade a marriage that would render them religiously (and politically) powerless, or spiritually impure (through “union” with a heathen, for instance). But unlike the later stories, these earlier sainted women became teachers, leaders, and martyrs.

Take Saint Marina, for example. Here’s a clip from Butler’s book:

[Marina], desiring to become a martyr, she asked God for power and help… the heathen prince saw her beauty and his heart departed out of him. He commanded…that he might take her unto him to wife. [But] she was ready to be tormented and to rest with the wise virgins.
So [the heathen king] became angry, and commanded to beat her with rods, and her blood ran upon the ground. Then they combed her flesh with sharp knives, and threw her into a dungeon. The Lord always cured her from all this suffering. While she was in the dungeon praying, a great dragon came out upon her, opened wide his jaws, and swallowed her. Her soul was ready to depart from her; but she stretched out her hands, and made the sign of the cross in the dragon’s belly. Forthwith the mouth of the dragon gaped open, and she was delivered, and came out in great safety.
Then she turned and saw [a devil or demon] putting his hands on his knees, and saying unto her ‘Cease to pray, and obey the king’s commandment..’ When she heard that, she caught him by the hair of the head, and took a cudgel [a club] which she found in the corner of the dungeon, and smote therewith the devil’s head. Thus was the devil tormented by her, and besought her to lighten his suffering. She answered him ‘shut thy mouth’: then she made the sign of the cross upon him, and the earth opened and swallowed him up.
[She endures yet other tortures before she is eventually beheaded, earning the “crown of martyrdom.”]

Okay! Now there’s a variation on “Kick Butt” that does not include disappearing women into convents. Likewise it is not the ‘crusader ideologue’ with its accompanying longbows, AK-47s, fuses and bags of fertilizer, or hopes for global financial domination. This narrative of female faith tells of inner strength, a strength that leads to resurrected spiritual glory.

Yes, it is a story of a woman who resists the embraces of a heathen king. But it is so much more, as well.

Marina shows us something most of us know already know, that those inner demons are the hardest ones to vanquish. It is some of the hardest work we humans are ever, ever called to do. And in vanquishing those demons, Marina gains “crowns” of holy, not worldly, power—though there is no doubt her worldly power was spectacularly impacted as well. Her worldly legacy is ‘martyrdom’ without bullets. She has left us an example of personal courage and faith.

We get all this with a few words. Yet words are sticky things. They can be interpreted so many ways. And the big BIG question is, how do we peel such narratives down to resonant ‘truth.’ How can we resist falsely (though perhaps with good intentions) literalizing this narrative, or dismissing it as “folklore,” or wrongly re-appropriating it to fit some modern ideal or political agenda?

I can’t say. But perhaps what I enjoy most is the challenge these stories present to our contemporary understanding. This is an alternate manifestation of faith, one that springs from the earliest Christian times. No matter what it might mean to me, or to you, you have to admit, it’s pretty heady stuff.

(Note to the reader: Long blog today! If you stuck it through, you get a gold star, lol. But hopefully not a headache….)

Marina and the Demon:

Image links to Helenistic Ministry of Culture
Image from Simonopetra Monastery

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