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Menstruation, Emissions, and Holy Communion


According to the Canons, though a woman is not in any manner more sinful in her cycle than a man is in the case of involuntary bodily emissions, she, like the man, must avoid Holy Communion at this time. These bodily functions are not sins, but they represent and emphasize the consequences of our fallen states. In approaching Holy Communion, we are lifting our fallen selves in the greatest humility to commune with what we are in Christ: literal participants in the Divine. We thus approach Christ as clean vesselsto the greatest possible extent for us in our fallen state, that He might come into us and transform us. Being holy, He comes only to those who strive to holiness. He cannot enter into that which is evil without destroying it. The Eucharist, hence, is the fire that cleanses, for those well prepared, and the fire that burns, for those not prepared. As St. John Chrysostomos writes, "This is a great and wonderful thing, so that if you approach it with pureness, you approach for salvation; but if you do so with an evil conscience, it is for punishment and vengeance."

In a homily on the Gospel of St. Matthew, St. John Chrysostomos does praise the great faith of the woman who had suffered hemorrhages (an "issue of blood") for some twelve years. He points out that Christ freed her both of her illness and of her guilt, which she had developed because of the Jewish idea that a woman with such an issue was unclean. We would ask readers to review this homily both in English and Greek. We do not think that there is a shred of evidence that St. John Chrysostomos is suggesting that women commune during their periods. We find no evidence that St. John Chrysostomos somehow stand against the advice given by spiritual Fathers and Mothers across the centuries, only now to be uncovered as incorrect and un-Patristic advice!

We must in general be careful about those who suddenly proclaim the awesome Mysteries to be a "privilege" easy to exercise. We favor frequent Communion because this is the consistent and dominant Patristic teaching. But we also insist on proper fasting and preparation on the days before Communion and the utmost cleanliness of mind and body, which things are equally consistent and dominant in the teachings of the Fathers. I would wonder what woman would actually want to commune during her period, or what man would wish to do the same after a bodily emission. Where is the fear of God? Where is the sobriety? More importantly, where is the humility?

In an  article to be published this year in The Greek Orthodox Theological Review, Bishop [now Archbishop] Chrysostomos writes some words about preparation for Holy Communion that seem apropos of our discussion here. Let us cite these: "The Eucharist ... is fully understood only as we recognize its function as a weapon in the war against the world and our fallen natures. The Eucharist is the 'medicine of immortality,' as the Patristic texts so frequently call it, by which we cure ourselves of the fallen nature of sin and the instrument of spiritual   restoration by which Christ, to quote St. Hesychios, 'will enlighten our mind ever more and cause it to shine like a star.' If Baptism introduces us to the struggle for the death of the flesh and union with God, it is the Eucharist which sustains us in this struggle. It is a direct participation in perfect manhood through the partaking of Christ, the Perfect God and Perfect Man. As St. John Chrysostomos tells us, we become 'His flesh and His bones.' And this oneness with Christ serves the function of moving us continually away from the world and mortal flesh to the 'life in Christ,' as Nicholas Kabasilas describes the sacramental life, and union with God begins here on earth. Knowing this to be the function of the Eucharist, contemporary misunderstandings of fasting and preparation for communion fade away. We come to understand, along with the great Abba Philemon (who, though a priest, dared only serve very infrequently at the Altar), that we should participate in the mystery of Christ only in a 'pure and chaste condition,' approaching the mystery 'free from the flesh' and 'free from all hesitation and doubt,' that we might wholly participate in 'the enlightenment that proceeds from it.' The whole of the spiritual life is one of attaining illumination and perfection, and the divine gift of the Eucharist comes to fulfill efforts toward purity in our daily lives and in our own human will. The Eucharist is a food for those who move toward the holy: 'Holy things for the holy,' as the Divine Liturgy says. It is death for those who fail to recognize its function. Fasting, abstinence from Holy Communion by women in their periods, abstinence by men polluted by nocturnal emissionscontemporary objections to these fade when we begin to grasp the true function of the Eucharist and its divine aid in our human efforts toward perfection and our daily spiritual struggle with the world and its evil. The ascent toward perfection is centered in the Eucharist and we appropriately approach it as something which functions in concord with our highest human goals, aims, and efforts."

Orthodox Tradition Vol. IV, No. 1

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Clarification from a Jewish Reader

I have just read the article on Menstruation, Emissions, and Holy Communion. In the article it says, He points out that Christ freed her both of her illness and of her guilt, which she had developed because of the Jewish idea that a woman with such an issue was unclean. This is completely false information. I believe that each religion should not comment on the supposed teachings of the other. Especially as in this case I can assure you that Judaism teaches no such thing.

I am now married to a Greek Orthodox man and am not a fully observant Jewess. I was raised as an Ultra-Orthodox Jew (Chasidic) and married a Rabbi when I was 19. I have lived that life of Family Purity whereby a woman and her husband have no physical contact during the 5 days of menses and for 7 days afterwards before the ritual immersion in the mikveh (pool/bath). At no time did I ever learn that I did this because I was unclean! I did this because a womans body after menstruation is able to conceive and the ritual waters symbolise the well-springs of life (like a Baptism), a spiritual rebirth as the womans body prepares for perhaps another actual birth. I also studied for three years in a Jewish Seminary and can point you to Jewish sources which teach that there is nothing unclean about a menstruating woman.

Please see the following websites for the Jewish approach to menstruation that I was brought up with. I have pasted a section below. I am happy to continue this dialogue if you wish. I am pleased that you replied.

Efharisto and Yasas. (Shalom)

Yael Clark

From: http://www.chabad.org/library/article.asp?AID=83805, "A Feminist on Mikvah"

"Judaism teaches that the source of all taharah, or purity, is life itself. Conversely, death is the harbinger of tumah, or impurity. All types of ritual impurity, and the Torah describes many, are rooted in the absence of life or some measureeven a whisperof death. When stripped to its essence, a woman's menses signals the death of potential life. Each month, a woman's body prepares for the possibility of conception. The uterine lining is built up in anticipation of a fertilized ovum. Menstruation is the shedding of that lining, the end of that possibility. The presence of potential life within fills a woman's body with holiness and purity. In its absence, impurity sets in, conferring upon the woman a state of impurity referred to as niddut. Impurity is neither evil nor dangerous. It is simply the absence of purity, much as the darkness is the absence of light. Only immersion in the mikvah has the power to change that."

From: http://www.chabad.org/parshah/article.asp?AID=1542, "On the Essence of Ritual Impurity", by Susan Handelman

"One of the most widely misunderstood concepts in the Torah are contained in the words tumah and taharah. Translated as "unclean" and "clean," or "impure" and "pure," tumah and taharah — and by extension the laws of Niddah and Family Purity — often evoke a negative response. Why, it is asked, must a woman be stigmatized as tameh, "impure"? Why should she be made to feel inferior about the natural process of her body?

"It might be said that, at bottom, these objections arise from a fundamental misunderstanding. Tumah and taharah are, above all, spiritual and not physical concepts."

Reply from the CTOS (Original Author)

Your excellent website has always struck me as comme il faut in its presentation of materials. However, in offering critical responses to comments that you have quoted from ORTHODOX TRADITION, "Menstruation, Emissions, and Holy Communion" (Vol. IV, No. 1), you leave the reader, however inadvertently, with a very inappropriate impression. Let me explain.

Bishop Auxentios, who wrote the comments in question, referred to the issue of female menstruation by way of reference to a homily by St. John Chrysostomos, who pointed out that the woman with an issue of blood whom Christ healed, in the New Testamental account of His miracles, suffered from a sense of guilt because of the Jewish idea that a woman with such an issue of blood was unclean. I quote His Grace:

"In a homily on the Gospel of St. Matthew, St. John Chrysostomos does praise the great faith of the woman who had suffered hemorrhages (an "issue of blood") for some twelve years. He points out that Christ freed her both of her illness and of her guilt, which she had developed because of the Jewish idea that a woman with such an issue was unclean."

You have posted the following critical statement from a woman married to a Greek Orthodox Christian, who describes herself as a former Hasidic Jew who is not now "fully observant":

"I have just read the article on Menstruation, Emissions, and Holy Communion. In the article it says, He [sic] points out that Christ freed her both of her illness and of her guilt, which she had developed because of the Jewish idea that a woman with such an issue was unclean. This is completely false information. I believe that each religion should not comment on the supposed teachings of the other. Especially as in this case I can assure you that Judaism teaches no such thing."

I think that you somehow must have thought that this alleged "false information" came from ORTHODOX TRADITION (in actuality, His Grace, Bishop Auxentios), and not, as it did, from Chrysostomos himself. Thus you felt it perhaps appropriate to print such a criticism. In fact, on further reflection, you might want to clarify this entire matter. Let me first quote St. John Chrysostomos, who said the following, which is wholly and indisputably consistent with Bishop Auxentios' summary of the Saint's thinking:

"She [the woman with an issue of blood] was ashamed because of her affliction, considering herself to be unclean. Indeed, if the menstruating woman was judged to be unclean, how much more would she [the woman with the issue of blood] think the same, afflicted as she was with such a disease; for in fact, that complaint was considered under the [Jewish] law a great uncleanliness" ("Homily 31," PATROLOGIA GRAECA, Vol. LVII, col. 371).

I will not enter into the question of the various and differing interpretations of "female" cleanliness or purity offered by Jews in various Talmudic schools and in various Halakhic traditions; nor will I attempt to comment on those who portray female uncleanliness or impurity as purely "spiritual" notions, even though I am quite intrigued by such interpretations. I will, however, as a student of Patristics and Church history, and as someone who has worked and translated with Bishop Auxentios, assure your readers and our Jewish critics that no "false information" was conveyed in these comments. That is a very inappropriate and ill-advised accusation, and especially since it ultimately constitutes a comment on the thinking of the Divine Chrysostomos, whom we Orthodox, whatever heterodox or non-Christian critics may wish to claim or say, would never criticize for conveying "false information." Such would be more than inappropriate.

Bishop Auxentios simply referred to ideas which St. John Chrysostomos knew to be prevalent among the Jews at his time. To be sure, there are few scholars or Orthodox who would accuse him of purposely conveying "false information" on the grounds that "Judaism teaches no such thing." Such a statement is an opinion, or peculiar conviction, and little more, and it rather naively dismisses historical thinking on the subject that was, as I have said, known to St. John Chrysostomos and, I dare say, to Jewish scholars, as well. Whether one agrees with this thinking, or whether there have developed various Talmudic opinions on the matter, is, again, an entirely different issue.

I would, as I intimated above, have some sympathy, in fact, with a spiritual interpretation of "bodily impurity" in ancient Jewish (and non-Jewish) thought; but that gives neither me nor anyone else the right to dismiss an actual historical school of thought as "false information" or to speak in a vulgar way, by implication, of the thinking of one of Orthodoxy's greatest Saints. Personal opinion must always be balanced against an ACTUAL knowledge of Patristic tradition and against the tendency to be crudely critical for personal reasons and on the basis of personal opinion. The latter weakness always leads those who do not check it into contentiousness and unfair accusations.

If I may repeat myself, St. John Chrysostomos' comments reflect the Patristic consensus about how the Jews of New Testamental (and other) times looked at menstruation and "hemorrhages" in women. Bishop Auxentios and ORTHODOX TRADITION, for which I have been writing for some years now, drew on that consensus (a consensus which we always follow, even if those unfamiliar with the Patristic witness often accuse us of doing otherwise) in making their comments on these matters. Personally, being neither anti-Semitic nor convinced that one may not speak about other religious traditions (this would, indeed, spell the end of comparative religion as a scholarly pursuit), I have no qualms about suggesting that you clarify this matter and the absolute accuracy of Bishop Auxentios' comments on the subject at hand, by posting my comments.

Thank you for your attention. Please continue your excellent work.

HIEROMONK PATAPIOS
Academic Director
Center for Traditionalist Orthodox Studies
Etna, CA