I recently watched a film that shook me and my faith to the core. The film is called Agora (DIRECTOR: Alejandro Amenabar; YEAR: 2009), and it chronicles the last years of the renown female philosopher Hypatia. Hypatia was a Neoplatonist teacher in Alexandria during the 4th century who witnessed the downfall of the great Alexandrian library which housed all the classics of the ancient world (of which we sadly only have remnants).
Maybe it’s because I’m a woman-identifying philosopher who loves classical literature, or maybe it’s because I’ve been reading through my entire classical anthology as research for a transgender graphic novel I’m writing, or maybe I struggle with Christianity’s sometimes dark history, but for whatever reason the subject matter of this film struck me to the core.
Antichrist & Agora
Hypatia lived at the crux of the religious wars of the late ancient world, when the last remnant of Greek cults struggled for a foothold among the battling Jews, orthodox Christians, and Nestorian Christians. She was the victim of a growing tension between Roman prefect Orestes and Bishop Cyril of Alexandria. The conflict culminated in the murder of Hypatia by Coptic monks, despite universal acknowledgement of her wisdom, grace, and deep virtue.
I was very distraught by the depiction of Christians in the film, which was less than positive. As I watched, I occasionally paused Netflix to fact-check the events of the movie to see if any of it actually happened. To my great distress, nearly everything in the film is based on historical fact.
- It is a fact that Hypatia, a woman so virtuous that some Christians used her as a proverbial example of perfect chastity, was murdered by a mob of angry Egyptian monks while Cyril was in office.
- It is a fact that the Christian riots in Alexandria (which did violence to Romans and Jews) were led by Nitrian monks, a group of ascetics that Cyril had lived with for 5 years, and who had been used previously by Cyril’s uncle Theophilus to cause political trouble.
- It is true that after a political war between Cyril and the Jewish population of Alexandria, the Jews massacred a number of Christians, to which Cyril responded by rounding up all the Jews in the city, stripping them of their possessions, casting them out of the city, and permitting Christians to loot their property.
- It is true that the prefect Orestes consistently professed to be Christian himself.
- It is also true that a Christian monk named Ammonias attempted to kill Orestes, subsequently faced capital punishment, and then was named a martyr for the faith by Cyril, even though the Christian community (and Church at large) didn’t let the title stick since Ammonias’ death had nothing to do with professing faith in Christ.
Our sources for these facts? The Christian historian Socrates of Constantinople (5th century) and Bishop John of Nikiû (7th century).
Reeling from Collateral Damage
Needless to say, the 4th century was a very tumultuous time for Christianity. There have been many other such times when the bride of Christ was tainted not with martyr’s blood but with blood of victims. The Church is composed of human beings from all walks of life, and as such is filled with as much sin and corruption as is found anywhere else in humanity. The comfort for the Church, however, is that even in the bleakest epochs of its history, there are guiding lights of Saints who demonstrate lives of mercy.
Take, for example, the Spanish Inquisition, an event that John Paul II said “belongs to a tormented phase in the history of the Church” (Address to the International Symposium on the Inquisition, 31 Oct 1998). Everyone agrees that the actions of such inquisitors as Tomas de Torquemada are absolutely indefensible. What is comforting is that even during this dark epoch, shining lights like Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross, themselves somewhat victims of the inquisition (and at the very least startlingly counter-cultural), carried the truth of the Gospel forward in all its simplicity. In fact, Torquemada is not remembered well by the Church, whereas Teresa and John are not only canonized Saints, but Doctors of the Church!
The problem with the Alexandrian affair is that there is a canonized saint among all the bloodshed, and that saint is Cyril of Alexandria. Yes, the bishop who deported the Jews and canonized a would-be assassin is not only a Saint, but an esteemed Church Father and Doctor of the Church.
The light seems to have gone out.
The suffering – the bloodshed – of so many Jews and Romans (and Christians) cries out for justice. Or, even better: for mercy. GOD, in all this evil, where is your help? Where is the Lord of Mercy? Where have all the good men gone? Where are the real Christians?
“And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” (Luke 18:8)
This horrible discovery plunged me back into the heart of a struggle I’ve been having with God as of late. For me, the question has been why He would allow so many transgender people to die (directly or indirectly) at the hands of Christians for 2000 years. It’s not just the problem of pain and evil; it’s the problem of pain and evil delivered at the hands of Christians. WHY!? WHY, GOD, WHY!?
I then thought about why Cyril was made a Saint. Cyril comes from a time when the basics of Christian doctrine were in a red hot crucible, and many of the most notable saints were scholarly men who stepped to the helm to steer Christianity toward a full understanding of what Christ means for us. It seems pretty clear that Cyril was made a saint and Doctor of the Church largely because of his writing, which defended Christ’s divinity as well as the title of the Virgin Mary as “Theotokos” – Mother of God.
At first, when I realized this, I felt angry again. How could a person be held up as a model Christian based largely on his doctrinal writing? What about charity? What about mercy? Thomas Aquinas is in heaven because he was a man of true virtue, abiding charity, and good humor who had a deep, mystical relationship with Jesus. His valuable writing is the fruit of that relationship – it is simply an outward sign of an inner life of holiness – of relationship with Christ. Could Cyril be a saint simply for being a good theologian?
How important is theology? How important is theology in the face of human suffering?
I threw this at God’s feet in frustration. What the hell?!
And then like a cool breeze, an answer came.
Giving Birth to an Answer
First I remembered that Christ too suffered, and not only suffered, but even embraced his cross. Is the servant greater than the Master (John 15:20)?
And then something simple came to mind:
Saint Cyril defended the Theotokos.
Saint Cyril defended the Theotokos.
Yeah, but it’s just doctrine. BIG DEAL!
Saint Cyril defended the Theotokos.
Saint Cyril defended the Theotokos.
We have to remember that for all the political scandal he was party to, Saint Cyril gave the Church an invaluable treasure: the Theotokos. In naming him a Doctor of the Church, Christianity was saying: HEY, WHAT THIS GUY HAS TO SAY IS REALLY IMPORTANT! And what did he have to say?
Our Lady gave birth to Christ, who is God.
And when we’re dealing with the issue of pain, Our Lady is the best teacher.
I’ve always hated when theologians say that Mary escaped the pains of childbirth. Their rational is that since God saved Mary from blemish at birth, she must have escaped the effects of sin in Genesis (3:16), including labor pains.
Ugh. I REJOIN: First of all, Jesus was clearly without sin, but in his Passion he suffered more than any other person ever. I mean, c’mon! If Jesus was allowed the pain of all original sin, it wouldn’t surprise me if Mary was allowed to give birth like a real woman.
But even so, Christ is God. What meaning can suffering have for us mere mortals?
Again, Mary provides the lesson. In Christ we find the perfect model to imitate, but in Mary we find the perfect imitator.
So on the topic of birth pangs, I think in Mary we will find suffering to match that of Christ. Doesn’t it say in Revelation 12:1-2 that:
“A great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head. She was pregnant and cried out in pain as she was about to give birth.”
I think it’s degrading to Mary’s femininity to claim her childbirth was painless. Through giving birth to Christ, she sanctified childbirth for all women everywhere. The act of giving birth can no longer be ritually unclean if GOD HIMSELF was present to it in the most intimate way – as a newborn. All the pain of giving birth has an unprecedented purpose in Mary: to bring God into the world.
We are all called to childbirth. After all: “We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time” (Romans 8:22). This is the meaning of all this suffering and pain. Like Mary, we join Christ in his mission to redeem the world. Like Mary, we are cooperators by bringing Jesus into the world. Like Mary, we give birth to Christ in our daily lives, and suffering is our labor pain.
This has always been what Christianity tries to tell us about pain, but we don’t listen because we chalk it all up to wishful thinking. We live in an age that has a (sometimes commendable) defense of the PRESENT MOMENT. What point is there to living our entire lives salivating for a life to come? There seems something dreary and Gnostic about a Christian life that hates being on Earth. Isn’t that what Christianity says: that yes, life sucks, but just hold your horses and all your dreams will come true in Heaven?
Once again, childbirth is what gives us perspective. As a pretty cool carpenter from Nazareth once said:
“A woman giving birth to a child has pain because her time has come; but when her baby is born she forgets the anguish because of her joy that a child is born into the world. So with you: Now is your time of grief, but I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy” (John 16:21).
It’s not that we need to flee from the misery of the present moment by daydreaming about a life to come. It’s not that the present moment isn’t good enough. It’s not an escapist vision; it’s a holisitic vision – it’s seeing the whole picture at once; a bird’s-eye (or God’s-eye) view. It’s not seeing suffering through a lens; it’s seeing suffering without a lens, not “through the glass darkly” (1 Cor 13:12) of the present moment. It’s seeing the eternal perspective.
So taking Mary as our model, we need to cherish the amazing process of childbirth happening right now in all its glory. Mary is the Theotokos, and we are theotokoi. God is pushing through the fabric of our world to meet it in all it’s needs, and all he asks of us is a moment of labor. It’s not that we remember that “this will all be beautiful when all is said and done,” but that “this is already beautiful.” Although I’m sure Mary struggled to remember in the realness of the pain what the joyous outcome would be, no one would dispute that her giving birth to Christ was a beautiful thing. So even when we can’t see it, the labor pains are still beautiful. And by God’s grace, maybe we’ll have clairvoyance to see it even in this life.
So thank you, Cyril, for theology that makes a difference. We’ll never know whether you’re guilty of what history would suggest, but even so: thank you.
A litany to Our Lady composed by St. Cyril:
Hail, O Mary, Mother of God, Virgin and Mother! Morning Star, perfect vessel. We salute thee, Mother of God. Hail, O Mary, Mother of God! holy temple in which God Himself was conceived.We salute thee, Mother of God. Hail, O Mary, Mother of God! chaste and pure dove. We salute thee, Mother of God. Hail, O Mary, Mother of God! ever-effulgent light; from thee proceedeth the Sun of Justice. We salute thee, Mother of God. Hail, O Mary, Mother of God ! Thou didst enclose in thy sacred womb the One Who cannot be encompassed. We salute thee, Mother of God. Hail, O Mary, Mother of God! With the shepherds we sing the praise of God, and with the angels the song of thanksgiving: Glory to God in the highest and peace on earth to men of good will. We salute thee, Mother of God. Hail, O Mary, Mother of God! Through thee came to us the Conqueror and the triumphant Vanquisher of hell. We salute thee, Mother of God. Hail, O Mary, Mother of God! Through thee blossoms the splendor of the resurrection. We salute thee, Mother of God. Hail, O Mary, Mother of God! Thou hast saved every faithful Christian. Hail, O Mary, Mother of God! Who can praise thee worthily, O glorious Virgin Mary! We salute thee, Mother of God.