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Deacon-structing Church Mothers, part 4

Deacon Pedro

Monday, July 12, 2021

Detail of Saints Augustine and Monica by Ary Scheffer (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
So far, our little expedition into the early Church has uncovered quite a few women who seem to have been very influential. Even though they were not great writers, or their writings were not preserved, we know that the early Church had many women who we can say were foundational.
Three weeks ago, we learned about Thecla, Irene of Macedonia, Macrina the Elder, Macrina the Younger, Nino, and Proba. Two weeks ago, we learned a bit about the daughters of St. Philip. And last week, we learned about a few 2nd- and 3rd-century holy women: Eudokia, St. Blandina, Syncletica of Alexandria, Demiana, and Margaret the Virgin. I bet that, like me, you had not heard of these saints before.
Today, let’s look at some women who lived in the 4th century. I'm sure you've heard of some of them:
Helena was the mother of the Roman emperor Constantine the Great and lived from AD 246 to 330. Because of her name we can deduce that she was a native Greek, likely from a humble background (St. Ambrose described her as a bona stabularia or "good stable-maid"), although this part of her life has all but completely been erased. At some point she met the future emperor Constantius, perhaps during one of his campaigns in Asia Minor. The nature of their union is also not clear, whether it was an official marriage or one of common law or cohabitation. In 293, Constantius was raised to the rank of Caesar. However, after becoming emperor, he divorced Helena. She only came back into public life, receiving the title "Augusta", much later, when her son Constantine became the emperor. Eusebius of Caesarea writes that Helena was converted to Christianity by her son. Helena is well-known for her pilgrimage to Palestine in search of the "true relics of Christianity". For this purpose she had unlimited access to the imperial treasury. Eusebius of Caesarea writes that Helena, during this trip, was responsible for the restoration of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and the Church of the Pater Noster, on the site of the Ascension on the Mount of Olives. Tradition also holds that Helena is responsible for building churches at the site where God appeared to Abraham in Mamre, the site of the Burning Bush in Sinai, and other sites commemorating various martyrs. While in Jerusalem, Helena ordered the destruction of a Roman temple which had been built over the site of Jesus’ tomb and recovered the True Cross on which Jesus had been crucified. On this site, Constantine ordered the construction of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Other churches were also built on other sites “discovered” by Helena. There are legends that say that Helena also found other relics, such as the nails of the crucifixion, part of Christ’s tunic, and pieces of the rope that held Jesus to the cross. Eusebius of Caesarea writes that Helena was about 80 years old when she returned from Palestine, around the year AD 327, and brought with her large parts of the Cross and other relics, which can be venerated to this day at the Minor Basilica of the Holy Cross in Jerusalem, in Rome.
Catherine of Alexandria was a martyr and is also considered one of the Fourteen Holy Helpers that I mentioned last week. She lived from around AD 287 to 305. Tradition says that she was the daughter of a Roman governor, converted in her teens, and died at the hands of the emperor Maxentius before her 19th birthday. According to legend, when Catherine protested the persecution of Christians to Maxentius, he brought 50 of the best orators to debate with her, but none were able to refute her arguments, and many of them converted. After being flogged, she was sent to starve in prison. However, angels tended to her wounds, and she was fed daily by a dove from Heaven. Christ himself also visited her and encouraged her. During her imprisonment, more than 200 people came to see her and converted to Christianity, among them Maxentius’ wife. All of them were martyred. Unable to kill her on an execution wheel (it shattered when Catherine touched it), she was beheaded. Catherine herself ordered the executioner to strike the blow.
Monica is best known for being the mother of St. Augustine. She lived between AD 322 and 387. She was from Thagaste in North Africa, possibly of Berber descent, and married a Roman official. It seems that at the time of their marriage, Monica was already a Christian as she was distressed at not being able to have her two eldest children baptized. Her husband did, however, agree to Augustine’s baptism because he had fallen ill. Years later, when the young adult Augustine shared his heretical Manicheaen views with his mother, she sent him away and refused to see him. After a vision convinced her to reconcile with him, she was encouraged by a local bishop not to give up on him: “It cannot happen that the son of these tears should be lost.” Augustine was spiritually lost and living an unchaste life, and Monica wept and prayed ceaselessly for him to come to the Faith. She followed Augustine to Milan where she met St. Ambrose, who eventually, after 17 years, thanks to the help of her tireless prayers, helped Augustine convert to Christianity. St. Augustine went on to become a bishop and one of the most influential theologians of the early Church – likely the most important of our Latin Church Fathers. In his writings he praises his mother’s wisdom, perseverance, and holiness.
Marcella lived in Rome from AD 325 to 410. St. Jerome wrote a memoir of her life titled “To Principia”. In it he says that he found much virtue, intellect, holiness, and purity in her. Marcella’s father died when she was a little girl, and she was married only seven months when her husband died. Afterwards, she dedicated herself to the pursuit of holiness. Jerome describes how she practised fasting and her love of Scripture; she founded a school of biblical studies in her own palace. It was not the custom in Rome for a noble lady to live a monastic life, yet Marcella learned about the discipline of virgins and widows, which was by now common in the East, from the writings of St. Anthony of Egypt. Marcella embraced this life and formed many other women in it (as well as in Scriptural studies), including her dear friend St. Paula and Paula's daughter, Julia Eustochium (you’ll read more about Paula and Eustochium next week). St Jerome writes that, led by her example, many ladies shaped their conduct; thus, monastic establishments for virgins and of hermits became numerous, and he “had the joy of seeing Rome transformed into another Jerusalem”. Marcella was also influential during a time of heresy that came upon Rome, writing letters challenging the heretics. In 410, during the third Visigoth sack of Rome, Marcella, aged 85, was attacked in her own home and killed.
Mary of Egypt was a Desert Mother who lived from AD 344 to 421. According to “The Life of Mary” by St. Sophronius, in her early years she lived a disreputable life, making a living from begging and offering sexual favours. In her early 30s, she travelled to Jerusalem hoping to find more partners for her indiscretions. When an unseen force prevented her from entering the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, on seeing an icon of Mary, she repented and promised to give up her worldly lifestyle. She was then able to enter the church and venerated the relic of the True Cross. Upon leaving the church, she heard a voice directing her to cross the Jordan, where she would find peace. She did and dedicated herself to a life as a hermit living in the desert for 47 years. Her body was found incorrupt by the monk Zosima, to whom she had told her story, one year after she died.
It is clear that asceticism and celibacy were highly valued in these first four hundred years of the Church, giving rise to desert monasticism and religious communities, no doubt greatly influenced and promoted by women. I am intrigued by the role that was played by women, particularly women of nobility in Rome, like Marcella and Helena, in highly influencing the culture during a time when the Roman Empire with its pagan cults was slowly coming to an end.
Come back next week and learn more about some of these women.

pedroEvery week, Deacon Pedro takes a particular topic apart, not so much to explore or explain the subject to its fullness, but rather to provide insights that will deepen our understanding of the subject. And don’t worry, at the end of the day he always puts the pieces back together. There are no limits to deaconstructing: Write to him and ask any questions about the faith or Church teaching: [email protected]. Follow him on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

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