Aside

Our Lady of Sorrows at the Agora

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

Woman Clothed With the Sun - Blake - Banner
Here’s the answer as it came to me. 

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. 

Wait, what?

Saint Cyril defended the Theotokos. 

Yeah, but it’s just doctrine. BIG DEAL!

Saint Cyril defended the Theotokos. 

But…

Saint Cyril defended the Theotokos. 

“Theotokos of the Sign” by Theophilia (a dear friend of mine)

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? 

Not quite. 

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 lensnot “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.

 

 

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3 thoughts on “Our Lady of Sorrows at the Agora

  1. Thanks for the post! For as much as I love his theology, St. Cyril is an uncomfortable saint for me as well. But that is why I try to dig more into history and find a more complete picture. It doesn’t excuse wrong doing if it was done, but the context helps me to be more understanding. Anyways, I haven’t seen the movie, but I chose not to after reading a review by an atheist concerning the various myths it perpetuates. He has two posts on it actually. The one linked to was written after he saw the movie. The first one he wrote came before the movie was released and gives some history as to how the myths concerning the Church, Hypatia, and the Great Library arose. The debates in the comments section are also very interesting. Specifically pertaining to Cyril I had a thought which may be helpful to you (it was for me). The events surrounding Hypatia’s death and Cyril’s involvement (to whatever degree it was) happened in 415 three years after St. Cyril became Patriarch of Alexandria. He began to be the great defender of the Theotokos roughly 15 years after Hypatia’s death and he died in 444 nearly 30 years after her death. While he was always a politically astute man with whom it was dangerous to trifle, the only truly horrible things I ever hear stem from that early period in the first years of his being patriarch. It makes me wonder if those events had a particularly spiritual/emotional effect on him and brought about some kind of interior conversion. Thanks again for the post and all the other interesting things you post here. It’s always a pleasure and very thought provoking.

    http://armariummagnus.blogspot.com/2010/05/hypatia-and-agora-redux.html

    Like

  2. ...Kate.. says:

    Hi and bridges as a personality trait, seems entirely justified, for you.
    One of the horrors of my work, FOR GOD, is what I see in the church responses to their errors, in the era of the New Testament, and to the lack of change in the church responses to errors in The Old Testament.
    YES, THIS IS EXPERIENCE, AND AS SUCH DOES NOT HAVE ANY SIGNS OF THEOLOGY, NOR ACADEMIC, theorizing, nor academic defenses.
    In the old days I have read of prophets, and how they treated them. The killed them at ever opportunity. Now a days, if and when God actually contacts a person, the church does, at least in my case, everything in their power to treat what God has made known, just like the prophets of old.
    I don’t want to give you list, if ever, but I would like to tell you all of how your church has sanctified the experiences I have had. They assigned a SPIRITUAL DIRECTOR. The SPIRITUAL DIRECTOR, then essentially (there are so many ways to say this), I MUST BELIEVE ALL THAT I BROUGHT TO HIM, because (again essentially) THE HOLY SPIRIT SAYS ALL YOU BROUGHT TO ME, IS TRUE.
    He certainly means that God, says like Abraham, I must believe in what I brought to him. Now, how do you think what the church by their tests and authority has commanded me, (Through Love of God, primarily), to believe?
    Before I give you that answer, if ever because I lose track sometimes, remember Padre Pio, called all of the Bishops and Priests before him, “You are all a bunch of hypocrites”, he called them all hypocrites. How can that be true, unless perhaps, the priests of today and the Jewish Priests of yesterday, all have the same problems.? How?
    Now this is what I think, but from my personal experiences, and I normally do not error in some things, because research of the scientific kind allows no mistakes typically.
    I think priests now, do not believe The Bible is true where it says it is true, nor do they think The Bible is false where it says it is false. They also have no guide, like Jerome of old, to help them actually know what God says in the Bible, in God’s words not our own.
    Imagine this, God for reasons of his own contacts a person. The whole of God, not a part. Imagine next Jesus imparts to a person, in three ways, who and what He truly is. Imagine Mary appearing to a person, as she was at age 49, the way she looked immediately before she died. Imagine when all of this and some more is heard of by the church, they investigate, assign a SPIRITUAL DIRECTOR, and he THE SPIRITUAL DIRECTOR FOR THE HOLY ROMAN CATHOLIC CHURCH, says: The Holy Spirit confirmed that all your questions for what you did not trust as being from God, and also the things you did trust were from God, are in fact ALL FROM GOD.
    Forget please Saint. I cannot ever want to think of that, this is nothing about me, it is about what God Has given to all of you, if anyone asks. Also think CHRISTIAN MYSTIC, AND think of the similarities of all this, to PROPHETS of old. I am treated mostly like the prophets of old, by all of the priests, except that poor SPIRITUAL DIRECTOR, who was changed dramatically by this experience.
    The last priest at my church was a text book Narcissist. The one prior to him, took me years using a gift from Mary of Blessing Of Hearts, to change his present but nearly absent, YES, to God, to a total and infinitely delicate handling of all people in his now total commitment to God.
    The woman here, talks of suffering. I hope you never get to know me, because what I reveal to you now, is normally never revealed to anyone. God seems to ask and bless through suffering. Three of the items I am blessed with by God, are sufficient to cause the non-inspired public to successfully kill themselves, as it is that hard to deal with.
    The first item is loud tinnitus in both ears, loud enough to hear when you are talking to me. IT IS IN BOTH EARS, all of the time. There is also a third tinnitus, in the center of the rear of my head. I have had PTSD, to an amazingly high level, but for multiple, multiple issues. Now, the amazing part, (argh! this could go on forever, this list), is that I now teach others how to handle that so they can lead somewhat normal and productive lives. I can not taste most things. I cannot smell most things. Starting at age 21, I started to lose my sense of smell. I get headaches, daily. Most are migraine like. The medicine hurts my stomach. When I forget to take antacids, occasionally (in the past now) I am in the emergency room as they try to figure out If I am having Appendicitis. In other cases it totally mimics a heart attack, fully with left arm pain and chest pain.
    This is too long, and I haven’t even started yet. I am going to stop now, except for one item. One day, I am healthy from another (Idiopathic Hypersomnia), blessing from God. I get to choose. I chose God’s will for this for me. It returned, instantly, but now I know it is a blessing from God.
    Please let me stop here, as I am actually going to do now on pain and suffering. Do you think, God would not bless me with pain? Remember from having Jerome made known to me as my personal teacher (after it was done), Biblically, to the Beatific Vision Presented to me, do you not think that maybe pain and blessings from God go hand in hand? (and yes I felt the joy and yes, I didn’t think I could go on without Him God, after that.),
    I am sorry, I only have experience to tell you of. I am not sorry that the person writing the article that I am commenting on, goes through intense pain not only for the way the non Christian public treats her, YES HER, But also the way her church treats her as I can guess from what I know of God, PERSONALLY, that God, “The God The Only God The one the Christians talk of being God The Father God The Son God The Holy Spirit and also although not god Mary The Mother of God..” I guess, but really not, that she is rewarded by quite amply by God, for all the pain and suffering she is going through now, for actually ALL OF YOU.
    To tell the truth hurts. To support God hurts the giver. She is hurt for telling you all of the truth. And maybe just maybe someday, God will say to everyone: “Like Peter of Old, who was told to change his ways then accepting non Jews, you now must treat those you cast out, as full Christians.” When and if He does this, or does not do this, is up to Him, but know this and your church said this is true, through their tests: God actually gave His words to me, the way he did to prophets and the way he does to angels, for others, verbally. I delivered his message to the person he wished me to talk to. Later He had Gabriel talk to me with a question to me. I was given two days, but the question three times to answer that question, with a Yes for all of eternity, or the other answer for all of eternity. He asked me as a girl this question, and the question I don’t think can ever be asked of a male. He asked me this question, through Gabriel, reassuring me eventually each proceeding two times, that I was up to the task. I said YES!,,,,and I have a male body, but it seems even God knows I am not a male in a male body, I am a woman in a male body. P.S. I was age 60 at the time, but it took me another 7 years to admit and understand two truths. I am transgender, a girl in a guys body, I AM ALSO MARRIED TO GOD, in a way you cannot handle just yet.

    Add that, those experiences, to the church.

    …Katerina..

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  3. ...Kate.. says:

    I sound like an idiot here to myself. I am thinking about never writing again. I bare my the depths of my honesty and life here. The clarity though that resides in me, does not come out in print. I wonder why?

    Like

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