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Saints and Sisterhood: The Lives of Forty-Eight Holy Women

Author(s):   E. C. Topping
Publisher:   Light & Life Pub Co (1990)
Format:   Paperback
Copies:   1 copy available
Product Info:   BOOK REVIEW
Saints and Sisterhood: The Lives of Forty-Eight Holy Women
A Menologian or Month-by-Month Listing and Study of Women Saints on the Orthodox Calendar

Eva Catafygiotu Topping

Reviewer : Leonie B Liveris (Australia)

Archive MaryMartha, volume 1, number 3, September 1991

Some years ago a brief letter to the editor was printed in the Orthodox Observer, newspaper of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese in USA. This letter co-signed by Eva and Peter Topping was the first indication to me that another woman in the Orthodox church also had questions about the ritual and tradition of the church where they were obviously excluding or demeaning the place and role of women in our church. Though brief, the message was clear — a new church was dedicated to a woman saint, St Katherine, with no explanation of her life and martyrdom, or how she offered her learning and intellectual gifts to the Church. Furthermore, no relics of a woman saint were placed in the holy altar. Finally, no woman participated in the service, except as a member of the choir. The question was asked. “Surely women could have participated without violating ecclesiastical Canons?”

This brief letter was one reason why I continued to search for my place as a woman in the Orthodox Church. There were, and continue to be, so few resources, so few books, no statements or sermons on this issue in my parish or archdiocese in Australia. But encouraged by the questions asked by women in other denominations I continued to search out references in brief bibliographies, searching for my Mothers of the Church. Surely they were there, if they were constant and faithful to our Lord, and brought the message of His Resurrection to the disbelieving male apostles, then they must have brought their faithfulness through the ages to the present time.

Then in 1988, the book “Holy Mothers of Orthodoxy” written by Eva C Topping, was published. The reviews by Orthodox women and indeed by a priest were positive and excited by her work. Here at last was a volume written for Orthodox women and raising many issues for us in this contemporary society. A volume which also informed us of the many women of the past who were foundations of the church to which we belonged. Brief references to Susanna, Elizabeth, Photeine, Mary of Egypt, Kassiane and countless others. The references sent us scurrying to other books to find the life stories of our saints and martyrs, for so long murmured names in liturgical prayers. This book opened many minds, asked many questions for Orthodox women to seek and demand answers. The book encouraged us.

And now, Eva C Topping, has used her academic knowledge of Greek and Latin, and her intellect in research and translation of the information and stories we all want to know in her latest book “Saints and Sisterhood”, published by Light and Life in 1990.* Eva Topping brings to life the faith journeys of at least forty eight women saints of the Orthodox Church. Four women are referred to for each month, and are based on Greek stories found in Byzantine sermons, commentaries and hymns. In the prologos, Eva writes that “Although I follow the Greek hagiographical texts, I do not translate them. Rather, I retell the stories”

And these stories enlighten us all. What a wonderful history of women saints we can celebrate, in knowledge of their sanctity and martyrdom. Many of these women are rarely mentioned in our church as an ideal role model. They are not the long suffering wimpish subservient image we are led to believe is the only way to sainthood, these women , as recorded by Eva Topping come to life in this present age through Eva’s style of writing and her deep commitment to the place of women in the contemporary church.

This book is written clearly and passionately and provides many examples of the women who entered holy orders, women who were members of the imperial families of different eras, women who challenged the persecution of Christians in their country, women who challenged the Emperors and Patriarchs on the ruling of church law and tradition. What wonderful examples and reassurances these stories are to women of today. Certainly women of these past eras were more likely to suffer the supreme sacrifice for their faith and thus earn their martyrdom. But the legacy they leave us and which Eva records so well for women today, is the message that the spiritual quest for the truth, and the yearning for the fullness of one’s life in the Church is an ongoing search. Our women saints leave us examples of outspokeness, of defiance, of repentance, of purity, of martyrdom and love.

As to St.Katherine, Eva Topping leaves us in no doubt as to what she would have wished to have been said about Katherine at the dedication of the Church to bear her name.

Katherine of Alexandria, Great Martyr, is unique in the pantheon of Orthodoxy’s women saints. She incarnates intellectual Christian womanhood and symbolizes Christianity’s final victory over pagan philosophy and culture, She received an education in the classics, geometry, medicine, languages and rhetoric, and was trained in the theology and teachings of the Christian Church. Since the eleventh century her relics have remained in the Monastery of St Katherine at Mt Sinai. She is celebrated on November 25th, and honoured for her courage and martyrdom, but above all for her ‘sophia’ The poets of the church exalt her as the martyr : of divine wisdom” and as the “all wise maiden of Alexandria”

As women come to write more about their faith journey and their struggle to be a woman, equal not only in love from God, but in the consideration and inclusion in the Church by the clergy and laity , they will do well to consider this book as a reference when raising their many issues in the Church. The early Fathers are most often quoted as leading us in our faith journey, and being the foundation for the answers to our many questions. Eva Topping has once again provided us with strong evidence that the early mothers and sisters of the church also bring to us a great depth of spiritual and physical commitment to their faith. One can only hope that her contributions will continue and many more translated works from the early women of the church will be made available to women and the Church. We have much to benefit from the fine work of Eva C Topping, who is contributing to the women and men in the Orthodox Church and for those outside who seek to know and understand us.