Many visitors to Orthodox monasteries, impressed with the life they observe there, state they would consider becoming monastics after the repose of their spouses. Some couples actually make a verbal agreement that after one dies, the other will enter a monastery.
Although such a tradition does exist in the Orthodox Church, I would like to point out that a calling to the monastic life is a very specific vocation. Not many would find it easy to adapt to community life in a monastery after perhaps 30 or 40 years of marriage. Also, the monastery itself has to consider the age and background of each applicant. The monastery may not be in a position to accept such aspirants.
A more appropriate role many such women could fulfill in the church is that specifically of being widows. It is true that many widows experience interests or tendencies similar to those of people called to the monastic life; for example, a desire for a closer relationship to God and a richer prayer life, a loss of interest in social events and gatherings, a yearning for silence, and a desire to show love for others by praying for them. All of these commendable yearnings can certainly be fulfilled, not only in the monastic vocation, but also in the vocation of widowhood.
A life of prayer
In the early church, widows were called to a life of prayer lived, not in monasteries, but within the parish community itself. Our troubled world is in great need of people called to a life of prayer. The more people praying for the world, the better off we all will be. How comforting it would be to know that not only our monastic communities offer prayer daily but also that within our parishes, many widows spend their time reading the Psalms, or the Akathist Hymn of the Orthodox Church, which relates to the inner state of a widow in attuning her soul to Christ and the saints of the church and offering intercessory prayers on behalf of the world.
A widow, with the direction of her pastor, could learn to punctuate her day with certain hours for quiet, secret prayer. She could still tend to her own needs, such as housecleaning, but could forgo hours spent watching television, reading magazines or chatting on the phone -- rededicating that time to prayer. A good prayer book, a Bible and an icon corner with Christ, the Virgin Mary or a saint of the church would be the only "equipment" needed to embark on this vocation. Her priest could help her select appropriate prayers as well as to compile lists of people for daily intercessions.
The order of widows in the early church was a specific and formalized role. Because their husbands were deceased, these women were often financially cared for by the church. They were required to be of high Christian character:
"Every widow therefore should be meek and quiet and gentle. And let her also be without anger; and let her not be talkative or clamorous, or forward in tongue, or quarrelsome. And when she sees anything unseemly done, or hears it, let her be as though she saw and heard it not. For a widow should have no other care save to be praying for those who give, and the whole Church" (Jean Laport, in "Role of Women in Early Christianity," Mellon, 1982).
Her main calling was one of prayer: "A widow who wishes to please God sits at home and meditates upon the Lord day and night, and without ceasing at all times offers intercession and prays with purity before the Lord" (Laport).
Although the formal order of widows does not exist in our church today, there is no reason that such a life of prayer cannot be lived. It would behoove all of us to encourage widows to consider such a vocation: to live a life of holiness and to offer prayer daily on behalf of the world. The benefit for all of us and for the world at large would be immeasurable. In describing the great power of a widow's prayer, the Orthodox saint John Chrysostom says: "Not small is the power of the widow's tears, for they are able to open heaven itself."
XThe Rev. Daniel Rohan is pastor of St. Mark Orthodox Church in Liberty.