The Reluctant Orthodox – Volume 28 “On Mother Susan and Popadia Paula”

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“That Mother Susan is really wise.” We had arrived back home after Divine Liturgy and the welcome “post-fasting” coffee hour, designed to be substantial since we fast before communion. My husband burst out laughing. “She’s not Mother Susan” he said. “She’s Popadia Susan.”

Once again I find myself traveling into the land where I forget titles, where I sit at the wrong times, where I finally get up the courage to go to the front and venerate icons only to have a deacon pop out of nowhere and look at me over a sensor with an “I am on a mission and you are in my way!” Will I ever get this right? Probably not, but at least I no longer go into crisis mode and immediately dismiss this ancient faith simply because I don’t like the way I feel during these times.

But back to Mother Susan. In the Orthodox church for the most part priests have wives. Not only do they have wives but the role is respected and honored as such. They are called different things depending on the jurisdiction — khouria in Arabic; presbytera in Greek; and in the Russian Orthodox Church they are even called “matushka .”little mother.”
One person described them as having wonderful titles with no real job description

Four years ago I would occasionally visit the church that we now regularly attend, the community that has walked with us these past two years. I visited as a complete outsider, ill at ease and out of sorts. I froze when greeting Father Patrick or Father Michael, both of whom communicate well and make all feel welcome. I sat on the sidelines, an observer – alone and foreign.

I would console myself that I was used to sitting on the sidelines, alone and foreign. But I still wasn’t okay with it. There was a piece of me that desperately wanted this Orthodox faith to work for me – but I wouldn’t admit it.

As I observed from the sidelines I watched the women of the church and I was fascinated. There were young women of college age, women with young children or newly married, middle-aged women, older women, and old women. They were from Bulgaria and Romania, Russia and the Ukraine, Greece and the United States. They were dark-haired and blonde haired, some with head coverings, some without. Some in long skirts and some in shorter skirts.

The interactions were multicultural and multigenerational. It was common to see older women pick up little children to comfort them, regardless of who they belonged to. I watched young women seek advice and comfort from older women, talking earnestly together with heads bent forward. In the churches I had attended I was used to a far more fragmented system where young marrieds were in one place, young moms in another, empty nesters were usually traveling, and older women set to the side.

Two women stood out and it was clear that they were seen as leaders. But their leadership was winsome and drew people in. They laughed a lot and sometimes talked during liturgy – something that attracted me immediately.

After some time I found out that these were the priests wives – Popadia Paula and Popadia Susan (the one I had mistakenly referred to as “mother”). I was fascinated by their engagement with the church. It didn’t come in the form of leading Bible studies or playing the piano, a non-existent instrument in the Orthodox Church. Instead they seemed to function as unofficial mentors. They seemed to know every woman, man, and child in the church by name. They had a security and confidence that was refreshing and admirable. I couldn’t put my finger on why I was attracted to this.

And so I watched them. For about a year I didn’t have many conversations with either woman. I just observed. But what I saw reminded me of the women that surrounded me while growing up in Pakistan. They were women with a solid security not based on an agenda created by the broader culture that surrounded them. They knew who they were before God and it translated into a confidence in all they did. The women who surrounded me while growing up were Dr. Mary and Auntie Hannah, Auntie Phyllis and Auntie Bettie, Auntie Connie and my mom. Some were single, others were married; some were doctors, others were nurses; some were teachers, others were linguists. But all were strong in who they were. They did not let either American or Pakistani culture dictate who they should be and what they should care about, instead they knew who they were before God. In short they knew what a woman was worth – that as women they were understood by God, called by God, most of all beloved by God.

And that’s what I saw in Mother Susan and Popadia Paula, no matter what their titles.

As time has gone on I have gotten to know both these women a bit better, a gift during this time in my life. Popadia Paula has walked beside me as my sponsor during the months of preparation before getting baptized. In that role she also stood with me during our marriage ceremony. I have found that these priests wives are fun and strong, they are wise and sensitive, they are imperfect and know their flaws. They are moms and mentors, sisters and sinners. They are and will always be Mother Susan and Popadia Paula.*

*Pronunciation is (PO pa DEE ya)

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14 thoughts on “The Reluctant Orthodox – Volume 28 “On Mother Susan and Popadia Paula”

  1. Getting to know our presbytera has been greatly encouraging to me on my journey into Orthodoxy, gradually putting to rest my misunderstandings and fears about the role of women and the place of women in the Church and on a basic level, what it means to be a woman. There a lot of big questions, but I see in her such freedom and joy and peace that I feel safe continuing in this path even before all the questions are answered.

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    1. Yes- that’s it. I’ve seen a strength and wisdom that is appealing even as others question me on how I can be a part of something with such a clear definition of priests and hierarchy. Strangely as I watch the strength of women along with the great regard for the Theotokos my fears too rest Thanks for sharing some of your journey. I’m encouraged.

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  2. I so long for that mentorship! I want to be mentored by older women and want to mentor younger women, altho I can also learn from the younger ones as well! I never knew my grandmothers, and on the mission field the only “aunts and uncles” we knew were the other 2 couples in our mission (one very nice and childless, the other very strict empty-nesters whom we didn’t care for), and an occasional christian teacher or pastor whom I saw as a father-figure, but of whom I was too shy to really take advantage of~I feel it’s unbiblical to separate us into age or life-stage groups like most churches seem to…

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  3. Dr. Mary, Auntie Phyllis and Auntie Hannah were in the delivery room when I was born! So thankful for these women and for Auntie Bettie and Auntie Connie and Auntie Polly too!

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    1. Love this Genie! There are few people on the planet who were loved and mentored by the same people! And we were! Amazing. Cannot wait to see you in July.

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  4. Thanks to ALL for clarification. Very interesting to see & understand the differences in worship style. #Orthodoxchallenged

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  5. My understanding of the reason we do not have instruments in the Orthodox Church is that we believe our worship (at least our corporate, liturgical worship) should be rational. There is certainly a place for wordless, ecstatic prayer in private, but the only music that is considered appropriate to be used as part of the liturgy is music with words, sung by human voices, ideally intelligibly and in a language the faithful understand (although I won’t claim that the last two always happen). I would guess that the main biblical justification for this teaching would come from St. Paul’s discussion of speaking in tongues in 1 Corinthians, and that the tradition also harkens back to a time when the majority of the average person’s religious education came from attendance at services. Preaching is not nearly as central to Orthodox worship as it is in many Protestant churches, so most of the theological instruction in the service comes through the hymns.

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    1. I don’t really see the biblical mandate for no instruments. I do think in many American churches I hear about the music is SO loud it does compete or disable many from their worship. Instrumentation should IMO complement & not compete. I totally love the theology in our old hymns. Young people who were not raised with hymns missed out on so much. Love learning the “whys” behind differences. Thanks. 💙

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      1. I don’t think it is a Biblical mandate, certainly, but more that if you are looking for a Biblical justification, that is probably where you would find it.

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  6. Why is there no piano? I would miss that. Are there other instruments? Thanks for this post. What does Poppadia mean? Interesting word! I love how you describe these women. Strong, yet I would suspect humble & gentle! Knowing who they are & whose they are is the KEY!

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    1. I love music with instruments – whether it be piano, violin, guitar. Interesting that I actually don’t miss it. Probably because the music itself is so different and sung in so many different tones and parts that it would be hard for an instrument to keep up. At least in our parish the music is astonishingly beautiful but that varies from parish to parish. The people sing right along with the choir as the music makes up a huge part of the liturgy. On meaning – I think Popadiya and I actually spelled it wrong (uh oh!) is feminine for pope. Need to check on that one. And yes they are strong yet humble – a great mix!

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    2. When I said I don’t miss instruments I should have qualified that for the next sentence in that I don’t miss music because the music is so different and sung in many different tones. I love Thea’s explanation above about the “Why” of the Orthodox church not using instruments. I have heard the same. You will hear scripture sung from the minute you enter the church to when you leave. And the “sermon” or homily is very short compared to Protestant services. There are essentially two parts to the service the first is the service of the Word where the Gospel is read, homily given and then the service of the Eucharist where communion is taken.

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      1. Good to also say that Orthodox don’t REJECT instruments. My goodness, our parish is one of the most musical I have ever met. We just use instruments for gatherings that fill the soul and reserve the voice for worship. There is a place for pianos (my daughter is taking lessons from an excellent Russian painist/musician); just not in the highest place of worship.

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