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Antiochian Women and the Sisterhood of St Nicholas

“Last, but not least, we must realize once and for all that women have a definite ministry in the life of the Church. Very often we have the tendency to confine women’s role in the church just to the kitchen. Both the Old and the New Testaments testify beyond doubt to the important role which women played in the history of salvation. Time does not permit me to speak in detail about Ruth, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachael, the Virgin Mary, the ointment bearers, the deaconesses and many others who ministered to the Church and Christ and were instruments of His Divine purpose in history. We don’t have to consult the past too much in order to prove our point. If you just look around you in your own parish, you find those devout ladies serving God as church teachers, choir members, youth leaders and fund raisers. It is very disappointing that in some parishes women are not allowed to vote or to be elected to Church Councils. We must definitely do away with this Medieval and archaic outlook concerning women. Our church does not teach that women are inferior to men. Despite their different functions, men and women are equal in the eyes of God because both were redeemed by His Precious Blood. St. Paul said. ‘There is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.’ (Galatians 3:28). I propose, therefore, that a National Sisterhood of Charity be organized in the Archdiocese. The structure and goals of this organization will be defined in the future. I also propose that the President of this Sisterhood, by virtue of her office, should become a member of the Board of Trustees of the Archdiocese and should report annually to this General Assembly.” Metropolitan PHILIP, Los Angeles, California, 1972

14 What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? 15 Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. 16 If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? 17 In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.
James 2:14-17

The Sisterhood of St Nicholas Church is an integral component of our parish ministry. Its purpose is to be a vehicle for Orthodox Christian women to engage in Christ’s loving kindness through acts of service to our parish, the Church at large, and the world. This service, called diakonia, was the original ministry of the first deacons in the Book of Acts (Chapter 6) and it was practiced by deaconesses in the apostolic church (Rom.16:1-2 and 1Tim. 3:8-13). Although the liturgical aspects of this ministry are not presently active in any of the Orthodox Churches, diakonia continues to be an essential element of women’s (and men’s) ministry today. Our bishops have instructed the women of the Archdiocese to exercise diakonia (link) especially in regards to humanitarian crises and religious education. While each chapter of Antiochian Women engages in one joint project a year to foster fellowship, the Organization is tasked to continue doing good throughout the year by showing Christ’s love to the poor, the sick, and the suffering.  Antiochian Women are also tasked with another important role in the parish’s ministry by sponsoring retreats and programs that educate both women and men in the cycle of feasts and fasts and integrate the local community into the spiritual and cultural heritage of the Archdiocese.

st philothea with slaves

Such an important ministry cannot be exercised without first being grounded in public and private prayer, study of the Holy Scriptures, and knowledge of the lives of the saints. The Sisterhood of St Nicholas is not a separate spiritual body from the Parish of St Nicholas and therefore its primary source of spiritual sustenance is the Holy Communion shared each Sunday and Great Feast uniting each member of the whole theotokos prayongChurch throughout the ages by the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. All Christian diakonia must be united to our Lord Himself. It must be an expression of His love for all human beings and this cannot occur unless our service flows as a natural consequence of our union with Him through Baptism, Chrismation, and Holy Communion.

Christian ministry also depends on a living personal relationship with God and this can only be fostered by prayer. The Book of Psalms is the prayer book of the Orthodox Church. It teaches us how to approach God and when it is prayerfully read; it is prayer itself. The Psalms are also a school for private prayer teaching us how to turn to God in Kassianiour personal needs and suffering. Therefore the Sisterhood is encouraged to join with other Orthodox women in the praying of the Psalms (link). Since our service to others must be conformed to the diakonia of Jesus Christ, it must begin and end in intercessory prayer and all members of the Sisterhood are encouraged to pray daily for our community, our loved ones, the sick and the suffering, and our persecuted sisters and brothers. To make this process easier the Sisterhood has approved a short prayer that is suitable for all members of the parish (link). The Diocese of Miami and the bishop antounSoutheast has also prepared a prayer list commemorating the “friends in need” of our regional Antiochian Women which is available here (link). Sayidna ANTOUN has also asked our chapter to especially remember Abigail Bittle the daughter of Fr. John, pastor of Holy Trinity Antiochian Orthodox Church in Little Rock (link). The Sisterhood also recommends the prayer of the Akathist to the Mother of God, Nurturer of Children. The text is available here (link) and samples of music are available here (link). This beautiful service is especially suited to mothers of younger children but mothers of older children, grandmothers, and godmothers will also find it useful. Busy women will often find the Jesus Prayer (link) the best way to pray during the day. The Sisterhood sells prayer ropes made by the parishioners of the Antiochian Mission in Manila (link). Purchase of these prayer ropes (link) not only will help the community of St Theophan find a place to worship but also helps to feed and house the members of this desperately poor community (link).

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The daily study of the Holy Scriptures is a normal part of Orthodox Christian life (link). The words of our Lord Jesus Christ in the Gospels and the Holy Apostles in the Book of Acts and Epistles are absolutely essential to any type of active ministry in the community. It is contrary to the teaching of the Orthodox Church and the expressed statements of our bishops to exclude women from the corporate or private study of the Bible. One of the goals of the national Sisterhood is to encourage Orthodox Christian women to participate in Bible studies knowing that they are an indispensable foundation Katherine-of-Alexandria2b for any active ministry in the Church. Just as no true diakonia can exist unless it proceeds from the Holy Spirit; no true diakonia can exist unless it is informed by the words of Jesus Christ and His holy apostles. Busy women (especially mothers of young children) might consider taking advantage of the wide variety of Scriptural studies available as podcasts from Ancient Faith Radio (link). These studies are an excellent resource for any Christian and offer first rate exposition of the Scriptures in a convenient format. Audio recordings of the Bible (link) can also “redeem the time” spent in traffic jams, waiting rooms, and long lines at grocery stores.

woman washing christThere is no specific “women’s spirituality” (link article F Matthews Greene) that is suited to every woman at every time in her life. The life of a mother of small children differs significantly from that of a young single woman, a married professional woman, a female monastic, or an older retired woman. Yet each woman (and each man) is called to live a spiritual life during every phase of her development. The Holy Theotokos is often called Panagia (All Holy) because she embodied holiness and ministered to Christ and His Church in every stage of her life (link). The Mother of God is truly a role model from her girlhood to her death and burial. kalugaThe spiritual struggle of caring for children and unwell family members is often a “secret” one lived outside the eyes of the community. It is vital service rendered to the Body of Christ and during some stages of life, it is the only ministry that many women (and men) can render. Christian love dictates that the burdens of those women whose primary responsibilities are to their young children or aging family members be shared by the whole Church (Gal. 6:2). The ministries of intercessory prayer, Christian education, and the Sisterhood’s tradition of providing food to new mothers are just some examples of how this can be done at St Nicholas. Nonetheless, most women during some stages of their lives and some women during most of their adult lives are called by Christ to the public exercise of Christian leadership. This diakonia might happen in the Choir or the Christian Education program or in an exercise of philanthropy or through administration in the Parish Council. A core goal of the national Sisterhood is the nurturing of these leaders in the local parish, the diocese, and the Archdiocese.

st juliana

In the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, women including His mother were a prominent part of His circle. Yet they were also a “ladies auxiliary” relegated to a support status. That changed on the day of Crucifixion. The lamentation of Mary the Theotokos and the other Myrrh Bearing Women at the Cross are the major poetic and iconographic figures of Holy Friday. Each Sunday the retelling of story of the Mary Magdalene, Equal to the Apostles, and the Resurrected Christ forms the first part of Orthros. The Book of Acts recounts the ministries of apostolic persons like Lydia and Priscilla (link). Our Tradition remembers the evangelistic ministry of women like St Photini (link), St Mary Magdalene (link), St Thekla (link) and St Nina of Georgia (link). The ministry of women like St Philothea of Athens, the Patron Saint of Greece who was martyred for running an “underground railroad” for Christian women slaves (link) or St st elizabethElizabeth the New Martyr (link) whose commitment to the social and educational needs of Moscow’s poor and vulnerable women and children kept her from fleeing the Bolshevik threat, provide an inspiration to Christians throughout the world. Mother Gavrilla (link to life) whose ministry extended until the 1990’s served lepers in India through her innovative use of massage therapy. She exercised an evangelistic ministry reaching Western Christians whose lives were destroyed by the adoption of idolatrous practices. Finally, she ended her life as an eldress offering prayer and council to her many spiritual children (link to sayings).st tatiana grimblit St Juliana the Merciful (link) spent her life doing good to the poor the sick and the suffering in one of the most tumultuous periods of medieval Russian history. St Tatiana Grimblit the New Martyr (link) died simply because she exercised kindness in a world dedicated to efficient cruelty by feeding the hungry and visiting prisoners. St Maria of Paris (link), after a lifetime of ministry to the homeless and insane, died in Dachau for rescuing Jewish children from the Nazi death machine. Throughout the history of the Church, women have exercised prophetic, pastoral, evangelical, and administrative responsibilities. A major project of the national Sisterhood is the collection of short semantronversions of the Lives of women saints (link). This project has allowed all Christians in the Archdiocese to know what women’s ministry has meant in the past and what it could mean in the present. These saints are our Mothers in the Faith providing us with living examples of holiness and offering us spiritual support in our own struggles. A special interest of the Sisterhood is in linking local chapters to the Archdiocese’s women’s monastic centers especially St Thekla’s convent in York, PA (links).

St Nicholas

Although we know that not every woman has the time or resources to actively involve herself in the work of Antiochian Women, each woman of St Nicholas is a full member of the local Sisterhood. Please join us for any service, fellowship, or educational activity diakonia_fall_2013which we sponsor through the parish (current projects). There are no dues but the Sisterhood does have financial obligations to the Archdiocese and the Diocese of the Southeast. We also hope to engage in local philanthropic projects and so contributions to Sisterhood are most welcome. Please contact the chapter president if you would like more information on the Sisterhood and its ministry (link). The national Sisterhood’s member manual is available here (link). You might also enjoy this video (link) produced by the national Antiochian Women that introduces the Sisterhood and its work. The national organization also publishes Diakonia (link), a magazine that combines Archdiocesan and Diocesan news on the progress of the Sisterhood’s ministry with excellent articles on the spirituality of service. Links to the national and regional sisterhood webpages are available (here) and (here).

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