Orthodox America

  Pastoral Letters to a Missionary

In spite of the great distance that separated Rome from Britain, St. Augustine continually turned to his spiritual father, Pope Gregory the Dialogist, for guidance in his missionary work among the Anglo-Saxons. The following exchange, written in A.D. 601, addresses the delicate question of what is sometimes called "ritual uncleanness."


      Q.: ...How soon after child-birth may a husband have relations with his wife? And may a woman properly enter church at the time of menstruation? And may she receive Communion at these times? And may a man enter church after relations with his wife before he has washed? Or receive the sacred mystery of Communion? These uncouth English people require guidance on all these matters. 

      A: A man should not approach his wife until her child is weaned. But a bad custom has arisen in the behavior of married people that women disdain to suckle their own children, and hand them over to other women to nurse, This custom seems to have arisen solely through incontinency; for when women are unwilling to be continent, they refuse to suckle their children. So those who observe this bad custom of giving their children to others to nurse must not approach their husbands until the time of their purification has elapsed. For even apart from childbirth, women are forbidden to do so during their monthly courses, and the Old Law prescribed death for any man who approached a woman during this time. But a woman should not be forbidden to enter church during these times; for the workings of nature cannot be considered culpable, and it is not just that she should be refused admittance, since her condition is beyond her control. We know that the woman who suffered an issue of blood, humbly approaching behind our Lord, touched the hem of His robe and was at once healed of her sickness. If, therefore, this woman was right to touch our Lord's robe, why may not one who suffers nature's courses be permitted to enter the church of God? And if it is objected that the woman in the Gospels was compelled by disease while these latter are bound by custom, then remember, my brother, that everything that we suffer in this mortal body through the infirmity of its nature is justly ordained by God since the Fall of man. For hunger, thirst, heat, cold and weariness originate in this infirmity of our nature; and our search for food against hunger, drink against thirst, coolness against heat, clothing against cold, and rest against weariness is only our attempt to obtain some remedy in our weakness. In this sense the menstrual flow in a woman is an illness. So, if it was a laudable presumption in the woman who, in her disease, touched our Lord's robe, why may not the same concession be granted to all women who endure the weakness of their nature?

      A woman, therefore, should not be forbidden to receive the mystery of Communion at these times. If any out of a deep sense of reverence do not presume to do so, this is commendable; but if they do so, they do nothing blameworthy. Sincere people often acknowledge their faults even when there is no actual fault, because a blameless action may often spring from a fault. For instance, eating when we are hungry is not fault, but being hungry originates in Adam's sin; similarly, the monthly courses of women are no fault, because nature causes them. But the defilement of our nature is apparent even when we have no deliberate intention to do evil, and this defilement springs from sin; so may we recognize the judgment that our sin has brought on us. And so may man, who sinned willingly, bear the punishment of his sin unwillingly. Therefore, when women after due consideration do not presume to approach the Sacrament of the Body and Blood of the Lord during their courses, they are to be commended. But if they are moved by devout love of this holy Mystery to receive it as pious custom suggests, they are not to be discouraged. For while the Old Testament makes outward observances important, the New Testament does not regard these things so highly as the inward disposition, which is the sole true criterion for allotting punishment. For instance, the Law forbids the eating of many things as unclean, but in the Gospel our Lord says: Not that which goeth into the mouth defileth a man; but that which cometh out of the mouth, this defileth a man. He also said: Out of the mouth proceed evil thoughts. Here Almighty God clearly shows us that evil actions spring from the root of evil thoughts. Similarly, Saint Paul says: Unto the pure all things are pure; but unto them that are defiled and unbelieving is nothing pure. And later, he indicates the cause of this corruption, adding: For even their mind and conscience is defiled. If, therefore, no food is unclean to one of a pure mind, how can a woman who endures the laws of nature with a pure mind be considered impure? /.../


       Q: May a man receive communion after a sexual illusion in a dream; or, if a priest, may he celebrate the Holy Mysteries? 

       A: The Testament of the Old Law, as I have already mentioned, speaks of such a man as unclean and does not permit him to enter church until evening and after purification. But this is to be understood spiritually in another sense; for a man may be under a delusion and tempted to impurity in a dream, because, having yielded to temptation, he is defiled by real mental imaginings. Then he must cleanse himself with water, thus washing away his sinful thoughts with tears. And, unless the fire of temptation dies earlier, he should regard himself as unclean until evening. But we should carefully examine the origin of such illusions in the mind of a sleeper; for sometimes they arise from over-eating, sometimes from excess or lack of bodily vigor, and sometimes from impure thoughts. When such illusion occurs through excess or lack of bodily, vigor, It need not be feared, because it is to be deplored rather as something the mind has unwittingly suffered than as something it has done. But when a greedy appetite runs riot and overloads the repositories of the bodily fluids, the mind is to blame, although not to the extent that a man must be forbidden to receive the Holy Mystery, or to say [the liturgy] when a feast-day requires it, or when necessity demands that he administer the sacrament in the absence of another priest. But if there are others who can perform this ministry, then this illusion caused by greed need not debar a man from receiving the Holy Mystery unless the mind of the sleeper has been excited by impure thoughts; but I think that humility should move him to refrain from offering the Holy Mysteries under these circumstances. For there are some who are not mentally disturbed by impure thoughts, although subject to these illusions. In these things there is just one thing that shows that the mind is not innocent even in its own judgment: although it remembers nothing that occurs during sleep, yet it does remember its greedy appetites. But if the sleeper's illusion springs from indecent thoughts while awake, his guilt stands clear in his mind and he recognizes the source of his sin, because he has unconsciously experienced what has been in his conscious thoughts. But the question arises whether an evil thought merely suggests itself to a man, or whether he proceeds to take pleasure in it, or, worse still, to assent to it. For all sin is consummated in three ways, that is, by suggestion, pleasure, and consent. Suggestion comes through the devil, pleasure through the flesh, and consent through the will. The Serpent suggested the first sin, and Eve, as flesh, took physical pleasure in it, while Adam, as spirit, consented; and great discernment is needed if the mind, in judging itself, is to distinguish between suggestion and pleasure, and between pleasure and consent. For when the Evil Spirit suggests a sin, no sin is committed unless the flesh takes pleasure in it; but when the flesh begins to take pleasure, then sin is born; and if deliberate consent is given, sin is complete. The seed of sin, therefore, is in suggestion, its growth in pleasure, and its completion in consent, it often happens, however, that what the Evil Spirit sows in the mind and the flesh anticipates with pleasure, the soul rejects. And although the body cannot experience pleasure without the mind, yet the mind, in contending against the desires of the body, is to some extent unwillingly chained to them, having to oppose them for conscience sake, and strongly regretting its bondage to bodily desires, it was for this reason that Paul, that great soldier in God's army, confessed with sorrow: I see another law in my members warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin, which is in my members. Now if he was a captive, he fought but little; yet he did fight. So he was both captive and also fighting with the law of the mind, to which the law of the body is opposed. And if he fought thus, he was no captive. So one may say that a man is both captive and free; free through the law of right which he loves, and captive through the law of the bodily pleasure, of which he is an unwilling victim.


Editors' Note: Although this instruction differs slightly from the rule of the Eastern Church, St. Gregory gave this in a fresh missionary context, so that the newly-converted would live not by the letter, but by the "spirit" of the law.

      Today, however, there is either complete disregard for the canons and traditions dealing with this subject, or a rigid and legalistic application that is, frankly, demeaning to women, and often overlooks the fact that the rule applies to men as much as to women i.e. a man who has experienced a nocturnal emission may not commune the next morning This has to do what is holy and beyond the biological functions and corruption of fallen nature, rather than a lifeless rule of Judaic law. 


Pope Gregory also gave St. Augustine personal advice:

      "...My' very dear brother, I hear that Almighty God has worked great wonders through you for the nation which He has chosen. Therefore let your feelings be of fearful joy and joyful fear at God's heavenly gifts- joy that the souls of the English are being drawn through outward miracles to inward grace, fear lest the frail mind become proud because of these wonderful events...

      "In all outward actions which by God's help you perform, always strictly examine your inner dispositions. Clearly understand your own character, and how much grace is in this nation for whose conversion God has given you the power to work miracles. And if you remember that you have ever offended our Creator by word or action, let the memory of your sin crush any temptation to pride that may arise m your heart. And bear in mind that whatever powers to perform miracles you have received or shall receive from God are entrusted to you solely for the salvation of your people,"

(From Bede's A History of the English Church and People. Penguin Books. 1968)