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Question 315

Why is it said father that a woman cannot take communion when on her monthly period?       

 

Answer to Question 315

 

For the majority of girls born and raised in the Orthodox tradition, puberty marks the time when their mothers not only set them down to discuss with them the facts of life, the changes that God intended their bodies to experience, and the hope of someday becoming mothers, but also marks the time when their mothers expose them to the tradition of “Ritual Impurity” and the teachings of “Uncleanness”. Pious Orthodox mothers all explain to their young impressionable daughters that while they are experiencing the blood of life, they are in a period of uncleanness, and therefore, must never touch anything at all related to the worship of God. This, mothers inform their daughters, includes not going to church, not venerating icons, kissing the hand of a priest, and especially not participating in any Sacrament, most importantly that of Holy Communion.

 

For some girls, this is calmly accepted as a fact of womanhood. But for others it becomes an obstacle to spiritual growth, causing disdain for church practices which to the present day educated woman does not make sense. If God created women to experience the flow of blood at puberty in order to make their bodies capable of bringing forth life, and thus working with God in synergy in His creative energy, why would God then banish women from all forms of worship and piety while experiencing their "blood of life"?

 

The prohibition of women entering the church while on their monthly menses stems from the Old Testament laws found in the Book of Leviticus. The old law was very strict and considered a woman unclean during her period for seven days, but if her period lasts longer she is unclean for all the days until her flow of blood stops. What we must understand is that the Leviticus laws were not made up by Moses, they were given to him by God to educate a lawless people to respect the things of God.

 

It seems almost incredible that Old Testament Leviticus laws would infiltrate the Church of Christ, especially after the Lord's strong teaching against viewing the letter of the Law as a means to salvation rather than the spirit of the Law and after St. Paul's strong exhortation against Judaizing Christians. Yet, for reasons of practicality, the Church has in its wisdom comprised canons to help in its proclamation of the truth, and in its governing practices.

 

The first canon dealing with ritual impurity is the Second canon of St. Dionysius, Archbishop of Alexandria, who lived, in the mid-third Century. He states: “Concerning menstrous women, whether they ought to enter the temple of God while in such a state, I think it superfluous even to put the question. For I opine, not even they themselves, being faithful and pious, would dare when in this state either to approach the Holy Table or to touch the body and blood of Christ. For not even the woman with a twelve years' issue would come into actual contact with Him, but only with the edge of His garment, to be cured. There is no objection to one's praying no matter how he may be or to one's remembering the Lord at any time and in any state whatever, and petitioning to receive help; but if one is not wholly clean both in soul and in body, he shall be prevented from coming up to the Holies of Holies.”

 

St. Dionysius declares that not even women, themselves would dare to approach the Chalice while experiencing their "monthlies". However, no explanation as to why is given. Two questions thus arise from this statement: first, did the women of this period hesitate to attend Services and approach the Chalice when experiencing their "monthlies" because of the poor hygiene of their times? Or were these women greatly influenced by the Judaizers of whom Paul had written, who desired to keep the Law? Though Paul argued strongly against this by addressing Circumcision of the male body, still, many women may have been told of these female impurity laws in private, by their mothers, and thus were passed in this manner into New Testament times.

 

I propose that as poor hygiene practices made women uncomfortable in entering Church buildings and receiving the Sacraments, a canon was written not so much to ban women, but more so to excuse them from not receiving, as Christians in those days received at every Liturgy. Women living in that historical period were bound to their bed or seat until their periods were over. Their hygiene practices were to stay in one place for seven days to avoid physically defiling areas with which they would come into contact.

 

Had it not been for modern hygiene practices, I am sure women of today would also hesitate to attend Church services or exit their homes like the women in these early centuries. Lack of sanitary hygiene would seem to be the most probable reason for women in any society hesitating to approach the Chalice. Women today are most fortunate, being able to come and go as they please while their "monthlies" remain undetected.

 

If Dionysius' reasoning is due to hygiene practices, then his reasoning in today's society would no longer be valid, and the Church would need to re-examine its position dealing with ritual impurity. If, however, his reasoning is due to the Leviticus Law, then the Church has to seriously examine the theological implications this canon puts on the Orthodox teaching of Salvation by Grace. The Church must seriously examine to see if Dionysius' interpretations with regards to ritual impurity is in harmony with the Church's teaching on Creation, and Redemption, not to mention its Sacramental theology, especially dealing with Holy Communion.

 

Another canon dealing with the question of menstruation is from Timothy, Archbishop of Alexandria, in the latter part of the fourth century whose canons are known as "The Questions and Answers". Question 7 asks: "If a woman finds herself in the plight peculiar to her sex, ought she to come to the Mysteries on that day, or not?" Timothy's answer was very short, "She ought not to do so, until she has been purified."

 

Both Dionysius and Timothy speak of the woman being “purified” but what do they actually mean because there was no purification practice for a woman undergoing a normal menstrual. Did Timothy view a woman’s purification to be that of having simply finished her "monthlies", or did he like the Old Testament prophets view her as needing a rite of purification from sin? Did the Fathers view this natural body experience as sinful?

 

Although men are exempt from the “monthlies” they are not exempt from purification rites. A canon by St. John the Faster, who lived in the late sixth century states: “Anyone, who has been polluted in sleep by reason of an emission of semen, shall be denied communion for one day; but after chanting the fiftieth Psalm and making forty-nine metanies, it is believed that he will thus be purified. (canon 6) Thus, according to the Canons of the Early Church Fathers, men also have periods of ritual impurity, and unlike women have a purification rite.

 

There are certain ancient writings that condone women partaking of Holy Communion while on their monthly period like the Apostolic Constitutions and a letter by St. Gregory, Pope of Rome to St. Augustine of Canterbury, but these have not been recognized by any Ecumenical Council. Just because one is recognized as a saint of the Church it does not mean that the Church automatically recognized that all the writings of that person are considered as gospel truth.

 

An example is St. Augustine of Hippo. Both the Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church recognize him as a saint and although the theology of the Catholic Church is strongly influenced by St. Augustine’s writings, the Orthodox Church considered much of his writings as heretical. It does not mean that the Orthodox Church thinks of him as a heretic; many fathers wrote on certain subjects while in their youth which were contradictory to the Orthodox faith, but as they grew older with wisdom their views changed and came in line with Orthodox thinking.

 

 Contrary to these writings, I think it is safe to say that no one believes that a women is separated from God during her menstrual cycle, or that she cannot pray, or that she cannot come to church, or cannot venerate the holy icons, or is deprived of the Holy Spirit. Nor does anyone teach that having a menstrual cycle is in any way sinful. Nor is the custom of women refraining from communion during this time an absolute prohibition.

 

We do, however, have customs of ritual purity in the Orthodox Church. For example, when clergy are vesting for the liturgy, we ritually wash our hands -- not because they are physically dirty. Any clergyman with any sense has washed his hands before he comes into the Church. However, this action does remind us of our need for spiritual cleansing. If a priest cuts himself when serving the proskomedia, he must leave the altar, and not return until the bleeding has stopped. This also applies to anyone who is bleeding, he cannot partake of Holy Communion until the bleeding has stopped. If a priest is driving and a young child runs out in front of his car, and is killed, that priest will never be allowed to serve the Liturgy again -- not because he killed the child intentionally, because he has blood on his hands, and so can no longer offer the bloodless sacrifice of the Eucharist.

 

With the New Testament, the Old Testament worship has been replaced by a new Liturgy (Hebrews 8:6), but this does not mean that there is no continuity between the Old and the New Covenants. Some things have been set aside completely, and other things have been retained to one degree or another. In the Old Testament we see that there was quite a bit of concern about blood, and we see that even in the New Testament this concern has not been set aside (see, for example Acts 15:23-29).

 

The customs that we retain have a symbolic and didactic significance, but they are not absolute. If a woman was in danger of death during her menstrual period, she would of course be communed without any hesitation, because then the didactic value of this custom would be superseded by the more immediate need to prepare the woman for her death.

 

The epistle of St. Gregory the Great said that this custom should not be obligatory, but it should be noted that he also says that if a woman wishes to observe this custom it is praiseworthy..., which is very much in contrast to the position usually taken by those who cite St. Gregory on this subject.

 

If someone wishes to argue that the canons of Ss. Dionysius and Timothy of Alexandria were due to the historical conditions of the times in which they lived, and that modern sanitation have made this practice no longer necessary, at least they are attempting to take the canons seriously rather than merely dismissing them. But those who take the position that the practice has never had any justification have a serious problem in explaining how these canons could have been affirmed by an Ecumenical Council, and beyond that, they have the problem in dealing with the Old Testament laws regarding menstruation. Do they not believe that the Mosaic Law was inspired by God? Regardless of whether one thinks we should observe the custom in question today or not, if "All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness" (2 Timothy 2:15-17), then these laws could not be just a matter of ancient superstition, ignorance, or misogyny (hatred of women).

 

A lot has been said and I’m not sure if everything I have written is easy to understand, but to get to the actual answer of whether women can or cannot partake of Holy Communion while on the menstrual period, the canons of the Church clearly forbid this. Whether we agree with this or not we are obliged to observe these rulings and not make our own rulings. As members of a church we must trust that the canons of that church are for our good and salvation, even if at times they do not make sense. I think these rulings are there to help us to respect the Body and Blood of Christ and not to treat them superficially. They are traditions and practices that help us to approach the divine mysteries with the utmost reverence and not treat them trivially. It is not a question of the loss of blood that is important but our attitude towards the divine Mysteries. He that hath ears to hear, let him hear.