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Monday, May 16, 2005

Prayers of New mothers After Childbirth and Matters of Ritual Uncleanliness.


Many are troubled by the issue of the stains of soul and body mentioned in the prayers that new mothers read on the 40th day after childbirth. As one person writes:


Well, there are greater disasters. But this rule does potentially affect half the membership of Christ's body. It is not trivial. And in the absence of a compelling ritual, explanation, or image to explain it, other such explanations as misogyny, superstition, womb-envy, and men's need to control women will fill the vacuum.


This statement seems to demonstrate a lack of knowledge at best, and strongly to hint that the Church, as a male-dominated institution, puts down women. However, if one extends one's analysis beyond those items that would support these views (the prayers for a woman forty days after childbirth) to look at the entire range of prayers of the Church regarding spiritual and physical uncleanness one would not find the practice or teaching of the Church to be misogynistic in the least.


There are significantly more prayers found in the unabridged service books used by the Church that deal with the uncleanness of a male who has a seminal emission (either involuntary or voluntary) than there are prayers that deal with the uncleanness of a woman who has just given birth. For example, there is a 10-page service that is to be read by a priest "who has been tempted" in his sleep," which is a gentle euphemism for a priest who has a nocturnal seminal emission. One of the prayers offer enough, so that one can get the sense of what is meant in the prayer of St. Basil the Great:


O Lord, Who art All-Merciful, Undefiled, All-Pure, Alone without sin, cleanse me, Thine intractable servant, from every stain of body and soul, and from my current inattentiveness and despondency, which brought forth my uncleanness, together with all my other transgressions. And show me to be undefiled, through the grace of Thy Christ, and sanctify me by the descent of Thy Holy Spirit, that rising up from the darkness of my impurities and demonic dreams, as well as from all demonic uncleanness, that I might with a pure conscience, open my polluted and unclean lips, that I may sing Thine All-Holy name, The Father and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and thus to partake without guilt or condemnation of the All-Pure, Immortal, All-Holy and Life-giving Mysteries of Thine Only-Begotten Son, Our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ, with Whom Thou art blessed, together with Thy All-Holy, Good, and Life-giving Spirit, now and ever, and unto the ages of ages. Amen.


The next prayer (by St. Martinian) contains the words deliver me from the uncleanness and stains of my flesh, and my passionate thoughts, which every day pollute my unrepentant soul, and grant me healing and purification.


The prayer of Mark the Monk also contains the same words: O Lord, Thou Who doest good, cleanse Thou me, who has in my sleep been defiled through my dreams, of all stains of body and soul . . . And this is just one of the special services of the Church used for men who have been polluted, made unclean by seminal emission. Where is the misogyny? Frankly, I am sure that men have seminal emissions (both voluntary and involuntary) far more commonly than women have babies, so one would expect that men fall into a state of uncleanness far more commonly than women.


The fact that the Church does not have any prayers regarding the purification of a woman after her menses (while it has them for women after birth or miscarriage), seems clearly to demonstrate that the Church considers the monthly period a more natural occurrence, as opposed to the stain of soul and body that results from a man's seminal emission. Both conditions, out of respect for the Holy Mysteries, would cause one to refrain from receiving Communion.


It may well be true that less attention, at least popularly, is given to men's bodily uncleanness after seminal emission than to women's uncleanness after birth and menstruation, and that this may be a expression of some misogynistic feelings (or increased sensitivity of contemporary society and women issues). But the position of the Church itself is eminently fair: it treats both men and women the same - through our fallen nature and sin our bodies and souls become unclean and we need to ask God for cleansing and sanctification. That is what these prayers of the Church are meant to do.