In the late afternoon, I made my way to a local Episcopal church. I sometimes stop at their small chapel for the mid-week service. This Eucharistic service is quiet and unobtrusive. Over the last few months, attendance here has been the only thread I’ve maintained with traditional church practices.
Arriving at the chapel, I discovered that the service would commemorate second century Christian martyrs from Lyon: Blandina and her companions. I checked the prayer book to find a clue about this woman and found none. While I am usually a storehouse of irrelevant information about the history of Christian worship and pious observances, Blandina is one who simply escaped me.
As I learned from the homily and then from further reading online, Blandina was a slave who was killed in the Amphitheatre of the Three Gauls during the reign of Marcus Aurileus. What is known about her life and death has been taken from a letter written by the Christians in Lyon sent to their compatriots in Asia Minor. As with many of the stories of early martyrs, Blandina’s death is well beyond the pallor of today’s horror movies. Suffice is to say that after a week or so of trying to kill Blandina in ways that are well beyond my imagination, she finally met her Maker as the last of her companions to survive the tortures of what was surely a horrific public display.
Fittingly, the gospel passage for the day was taken from the account attributed to Mark: “Those who want to save their life will lose and those who lose their life … will save it.”
Sitting in the very last row of the chapel, I watched as the priest (a woman) reflected on the readings in this small gathering of women who were probably her mother’s age. (I was the only man present.) In this setting, I could not help but think of how the societal and cultural expectations placed on women have not substantially changed in the world since the time of Blandina. The role of women is one of losing their lives. The women at this service would have sacrificed their lives for the husband’s careers, for the success of their children, and for the stability of their church and community. Now, as elder women, they gather under the care of a younger woman and have an opportunity to find life given back to them.
At the conclusion of the service, as we stood around the communion table, these elder women shared how much the reflections of the woman-priest meant to them. One commented about not only learning new things but also having her heart touched in a deep way.
Over decades of life, these women lost their lives in giving of self for others. There was no spectacle for others to observe as in the case of Blandina and her companions. Instead, these companions who found something which touched their hearts by commemorating Blandina and her companions. Bringing the cycle full-round, a younger woman gives of her life for them.
While a feministic deconstruction of the cultural role of women would be more than obvious, the more subtle observation I want to make is that these faithful, life-giving women are truly fortunate: they have come to a place in life in where they are able to receive the gift of life in a renewing way from another woman. They gave their life to others and now find new life for themselves.
Indeed, this is a blessing for them. They are moving into their later years discovering a greater depth in life. But what can we learn from these companions who gathered in the side chapel of a suburban church? Can we, like them, lay down our lives so that others can live? What does this mean in a culture built on values of individual gain? Is this merely some remnant of fading gender-roles or, from within culturally imposed gender roles, did these women find something beautiful for their lives? In leaving the chapel I understood that I was inspirited by the witness of these elder women who seem to have found fullness of life in the giving.
© 2010, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.