July 2nd, 2017


Is there a female version of the staretz in the Russian Orthodox Church?

Is there a female version of the staretz (‘startisa’) in the Russian Orthodox Church, an American friend asks in response to my previous posting?

The answer is, I think, yes, to a certain extent. There have been and are spiritually deep and wise women in the Orthodox church, whose advice has been and is sought. These include the higoumeni of certain women’s monasteries, able to guide the women in their own monasteries and pious women close to these monasteries, and also to assist senior clerics, often very discreetly, on key decisions. I have two in mind, Mother Olga, the former higoumena of the monastery of Bussy-en-Other in France, and the former higoumena of Puchitsa monastery in Estonia. (I use the qualifier ‘certain’ advisedly: the recent Maria Kikot scandal in Russia and my own observations cast doubts on the quality of leadership in a number of Russian women’s monasteries. )

Two of the three figures listed as equivalents by Malounamure (Hildegard of Bingen, and Teresa of Avila), fall into this category. (Catherine of Siena defies any neat classification!)

Outside of this there have always been women in Orthodoxy known to be persons of prayer, sometimes with healing powers. I remember travelling to visit one in a simple peasant house close to Yaroslav in 2000, said to say the Lord’s Prayer continually, and who was regularly visited by the local bishop.

There are also figures like St Xenia of St Petersburg and St Matrona of Moscow (the former more in the ‘fool for Christ’ category), both supposed to have powers of prophecy.

The latter is a complex case – not everyone accepts her sanctity, and she sits uneasy with me. Some have even called her an ‘Orthodox witch’. Which points to a fundamental problem of the borderline between holy woman and witch, which is not easy to draw. Men have always been cautious of subversive women, who undermine their (sexual) power, and Orthodox clergy, not the least macho section of society, are a case in point and may not always site this borderline correctly.

What sits particularly uneasy with Orthodox (male) clergy (which includes me) is the desire to have ‘staritsi’ (female startsi) for ‘sexual equality’ reasons. A case in point about 15 years ago was ‘Mother’ Rachel Goettman, wife of Fr Alphonse Goettman. The latter, an Orthodox priest, ran with his wife a monastery/spiritual centre in the French Vosges mountains, popular with a certain profile of Orthodox convert - intelligent, bourgeois, very often in the alternative medicine/psychology movement and a penchant to ‘New Age’. They set up Mme Goetmann as a spiritual counsellor in her own right. This did not go down well with the local Orthodox bishops and was a main reason for the monastery to be disowned by the mainstream Orthodox church.

And where is God in all this? This second ‘charismatic’ strand in my model (prophet-staretz) is essentially God-appointed, and God is sovereignly free. If God raises up staritsi, it is not for the Church to put them down. But equally, it is not for man or woman to create them for reason of sexual politics.

Lurking somewhere behind this is another question, of the very nature of the call of staretz/staritsa. It seems to me that the fundamental call, which is equal to both sexes, is not to be a ‘staretz/startisa’, nor indeed even a hermit or anchorite. It is one of deep prayer and intimacy with God, the very hiddenness of which often precludes it taking a publicly recognizable form.

That this hidden prayer, by men and women alike, exists in Orthodoxy as much as in Catholicism or Anglicanism, I am pretty much convinced. Indeed, by the very nature of the way God seems to work, I cannot conceive it being otherwise.