In the first few centuries of Orthodox Christianity, the Orthodox Church and the Church Fathers accepted the act of suicide if it was to preserve one’s virginity; i.e. an individual could commit suicide to prevent being raped and it was not considered a mortal sin and one was even eligible to be ranked as a virgin-martyr. Also, some of the martyrs commemorated in the Church were not actually killed by their tormentors but rather they leapt to their own deaths after a period of torture or with the threat of martyrdom. Thus, in the Lives of the Saints of the first few centuries, one can find many saints who committed suicide. After the 4th-5th century, suicide was no longer an acceptable practise to preserve chastity which creates a little confusion. Those before this time period are saints in the ranks of heaven, whereas those who commit suicide after this time period have committed mortal sin and lost their souls.
The majority of the early Church Fathers evidently not only justified but commended suicide in such an extremity. The first Father distinctly to condemn the practice was Augustine (De civ. Dei. I. 22–27). He takes strong ground on the subject, and while admiring the bravery and chastity of the many famous women that had rescued themselves by taking their own lives, he denounces their act as sinful under all circumstances, maintaining that suicide is never anything else than a crime against the law of God. The view of Augustine has very generally prevailed since his time. In the 9th century, St. Theodore of Studite clearly states in his epistle: “It is not permitted in any situation whatsoever for a service or liturgy to be performed for him (namely, the one who commits suicide)” [PG 99, 1477B].
Interestingly, though homosexual rape and pedophilia were quite predominant in the early days of the Church (both within and without of Christianity), the Fathers seem to only accept women virgin-martyrs. There is no mention of “economia” when it comes to male on male rape. It should be noted that in some medieval non-Christian cultures, a common practise of male victors in a raid or war was to rape (sometimes gang-rape) the male captors to shame and humiliate them. This practise continues today throughout the world both in war and prison systems.
Also, the early Fathers don’t talk much about clergymen hiding behind their rank to sexually abuse others (whether heterosexual, homosexual or pedophilia). This trend which existed in the early Orthodox Church is today quite predominant worldwide. Perhaps this silence is because St. Constantine the Great set the precedent of protecting them when he stated at the First Ecumenical Council: “If I would see with my own eyes a bishop, a priest or a monk in a sinful act, I would cover him with my cloak, so that no one would ever see his sin.”
ORTHODOX CHURCH FATHERS WHO SUPPORTED SUICIDE TO PRESERVE CHASTITY
St. Ambrose of Milan (4th c.): Though St. Ambrose disapproved of suicide in general, he embraced the idea that women who committed suicide to protect their virginity received the martyr’s crown. St. Ambrose ends his ascetical treatise On Virgins by explaining to his sister that suicide is preferable to losing one’s virginity. He tells his sister that she can be confident suicide is permissible when protecting chastity because the Church has examples of martyrs who did that very thing. He then proceeds to tell the story of a teenager named Pelagia who lived in Antioch. She threw herself off a building to avoid lecherous pursuers. St. Ambrose even has her rationalizing her plans in his retelling. Ambrose’s Pelagia says, “God is not offended by the remedy [avoiding rape], and faith mitigates the misdeed [of suicide].” Though still a “misdeed,” St. Ambrose clearly views it as the lesser of two evils when a woman’s virginity is at stake.
Eusebius, Bishop of Caesarea, Church Historian (4th c.): In his Ecclesiastical History, Eusebius writes about the abominable treatment of female Christians formed a feature of the persecutions both of Maximian and Maximin, who were alike monsters of licentiousness. Eusebius wrote about the suicides of St. Domnina and Her Two Daughters and evidently approved of these women’s suicide. [Book VIII, Chapter 12]
St. John Chrysostom (4th-5th c.): St. John Chrysostom’s stance regarding suicide and martyrdom is relatively close to St. Ambrose’s. John condemns suicide, believing it to be against God’s will, and claims that real martyrs do not commit suicide. Even though they do not kill themselves, John believed they must face death willingly. However, like St. Ambrose, Chrysostom accepts suicide for women who are attempting to protect their purity.
St. John Chrysostom, like many of his contemporaries, highly prized virginity, and when he considered the importance of sexual purity, St. John rationalized behaviors that would otherwise be condemnable. Specifically, John advocated suicide for women when necessary to protect their chastity. In his sermon on Julian, suicide is a defeat, though John probably had men in mind while preaching that sermon. In his sermon on the Virgin-Martyr Pelagia, suicide is victory over the enemies of God and over the Devil himself.
St. Jerome (4th-5th c.): The early Church Father St Jerome categorically stated that Christ would not receive the soul of one who commits suicide. [Saint Jerome, Letters 39:3]. However, St Jerome makes an interesting exception to their otherwise absolute and inclusive condemnation: those who commit suicide in order to preserve their chastity.
ORTHODOX CHURCH FATHERS WHO OPPOSED SUICIDE TO PRESERVE CHASTITY
St. Augustine of Hippo (5th c.): This, then, is our position, and it seems sufficiently lucid. We maintain that when a woman is violated while her soul admits no consent to the iniquity, but remains inviolably chaste, the sin is not hers, but his who violates her. (Of Lucretia, Who Put an End to Her Life Because of the Outrage Done Her, City of God Chapter 19).
ORTHODOX SAINTS IN THE SYNAXARION WHO COMMITTED SUICIDE
This list is just a brief sample and by no means complete. One can find numerous examples from the first few centuries of the Orthodox Church in the Synaxarion.
St. Agathonike (165 or 251 AD): St. Agathonike did not commit suicide to preserve her virginity, but is in the ranks of “voluntary martyr.” During the reign of Marcus Aurelius, Agathonike became so excited while watching Carpus and Papylus die martyrs’ deaths that she believed she should join them on the pyre. The crowd tried to dissuade her after she announced her intentions, reminding her that her son needed her. She replied that God would take care of him, at which point she disrobed and threw herself on the fire. In the Latin recension of the text, however, Agathonike is arrested with the other two martyrs, which leads Musurillo to suggest, “The Latin redactor was attempting to colour the facts for a later age.” [See: Martyrdom of Carpus, Papylus, and Agothonike 44].
She is celebrated in the Greek Church on October 13th
St. Apollonia (2nd century): St. Apollonia also did not commit suicide to preserve her virginity but did so after being tortured. Dionysius, Bishop of Alexandria (247–265), relates the sufferings of his people in a letter addressed to Fabius, Bishop of Antioch, of which long extracts have been preserved in Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History: “At that time Apollonia, parthénos presbytis (mostly likely meaning a deaconess) was held in high esteem. These men seized her also and by repeated blows broke all her teeth. They then erected outside the city gates a pile of fagots and threatened to burn her alive if she refused to repeat after them impious words (either a blasphemy against Christ, or an invocation of the heathen gods). Given, at her own request, a little freedom, she sprang quickly into the fire and was burned to death.” [6.41 (PG 20:605–607)]
She is celebrated in the Greek Church on February 9th.
St. Pelagia of Antioch (late 3rd century): St. Pelagia was a Christian saint, virgin, and martyr who committed suicide during the Diocletian Persecution rather than be forced by Roman soldiers to offer a public sacrifice to the pagan gods. She was 15 years old.
She was home alone during the Diocletian Persecution when Roman soldiers arrived. She came out to meet them and, discovering they intended to compel her to participate in a pagan sacrifice, she received permission to change her clothes. She went to the roof of her house and threw herself into the sea. The patristic sources treat this as a sacred martyrdom rather than an ignoble suicide, usually with reference to the potential that she would have been dishonored by the soldiers.
She is celebrated in the Greek Church on October 8th.
Saints Domnina, Berenice, and Prosdoce (c. 310)
Saint Domnina and her daughters Berenice (Bernice, Veronica, Verine, Vernike) and Prosdoce are venerated as Christian martyrs by the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches.
Domnina was arrested by soldiers for her adherence to the Christian religion. Fearing that the soldiers would rape her and her daughters, they threw themselves into a river after they asked their guards for a chance to rest for a while or after the soldiers had become drunk with wine. All three women drowned.
The account of St. John Chrysostom tells a slightly different story: according to Chrysostom, Domnina, after jumping into the river, pulled her daughters in with her to prevent them from being raped. Chrysostom praised Domnina for her courage and Domnina’s daughters for their obedience.
She is celebrated in the Greek Church on October 4th.
PATRISTIC SERMONS LAUDING SUICIDE TO PRESERVE CHASTITY
Saint John Chrysostom delivered the following sermon about St. Pelagia, the Virgin Martyr:
“Even women now poke fun at death and girls mock passing away and quite young, unmarried virgins skip into the very stings of Hades and suffer no ill effects. All of these blessings we experience because of Christ, born of a virgin. For after those blessed contraction pains and utterly awe-inspiring birth the sinews of death were unstrung, the devil’s power was disabled and from then on became contemptible to not just men but also women, and not just women, but also girls….
“It’s for this reason that blessed Pelagia too ran to meet death with such great delight that she didn’t wait for the executioners’ hands nor did she go to court, but escaped their cruelty through the excess of her own enthusiasm. For while she was prepared for tortures and punishments and every kind of penalty, even so she was afraid that she would destroy the crown of her virginity. Indeed, that you might learn that she was afraid of the sexual predation of the unholy men, she got in first and snatched herself away in advance from the shameful violence. None of the [Christian] men ever attempted any such act at all. Instead they all filed into court and displayed their courage there. Yet women, by nature vulnerable to harm, conceived for themselves this manner of death. My point is that, were it possible both to preserve one’s virginity and attain martyrdom’s crown, she wouldn’t have refused to go to court. But since it was utterly inevitable that one of the two would be lost, she thought it a sign of extreme stupidity, when it was possible for her to attain each victory, to depart half crowned. For this reason she wasn’t willing to go to court or to become a spectacle for lecherous eyes, or to give opportunity for predatory eyes to revel in the sight of her own appearance and crudely insult that holy body. Instead she went from her chamber and the women’s quarters to a second chamber – heaven….
“Don’t simply pass over what happened, but consider how it’s likely that she was raised as a gentle girl, knowing nothing beyond her chamber, while soldiers were posted against her en masse, standing in front of the door, summoning her to court, dragging her into the marketplace on weighty sorts of grounds. There was no father inside, no mother present, no nurse, no female attendant, no neighbor, no female friend. Instead, she was left alone in the midst of those executioners. I mean, how isn’t it right that we be astonished and amazed that she had the strength to come out and answer those executioner soldiers, to open her mouth and utter a sound, just to look, stand, and breathe? Those actions weren’t attributable to human nature. For God’s influence introduced the majority. Most assuredly, at the time she didn’t just idly stand around, but displayed all her personal qualities – her enthusiasm, her resolve, her nobility, her willingness, her purpose, her eagerness, her bustling energy. But it was as a result of God’s help and heavenly good goodwill that all these qualities reached maturity….
“In addition to what’s been said, I marvel as well at how the soldiers granted her the favor, how the woman deceived the men, how they didn’t work out the deception. After all, one can’t say that no one effected anything of the sort. For many women, it seems, gave themselves up to a cliff or hurled themselves into the sea or drove a sword through their breast or fastened a noose. That time was full of numerous dramas of that kind. But God blinded the soldier’s hearts so that they wouldn’t openly see the deception. That’s why she flew up out of the middle of their nets….
“Lot’s of people who’ve tumbled from a high roof haven’t suffered any ill effect. Others, in turn, despite suffering permanent disability to some part of their body, have lived for a long time after the fall. But in the case of that blessed virgin God didn’t allow any of these options to happen. Instead, he ordered the body to release the soul immediately and received it on the grounds that it had struggled sufficiently and completed everything. For death wasn’t caused by the nature of the fall, but by God’s command. From that point the body wasn’t lying on a bed, but on the pavement. yet it wasn’t without honor as it lay on the pavement…For this reason, then, that virginal body purer than any gold lay on the pavement, on the street.” [St. John Chrysostom, A homily on Pelagia, Virgin and Martyr, translated into English by Wendy Mayer, from the book Let Us Die That We May Live (pp. 148-161)]
Saint John Chrysostom delivered a sermon about St. Domnina and her two daughters:
In St. John’s sermon probably preached in the 390s in Antioch, the story takes an interesting turn. The women do not just kill themselves; John suggests that the mother actually drowns her daughters. He preaches, “And so, the mother entered in the middle [of the river], restraining her daughters on either side.” Once in the river, John says, “That blessed woman [Domnina] … lowered them down into the waters, and in this way they drowned.” Domnina then drowns herself to claim her martyr’s crown. Astonishingly, in this sermon, the protection of virginity not only justifies self-murder, but also John uses it justify murdering one’s children. He actually esteems Domnina because he claims that drowning her own daughters was an exceedingly painful form of martyrdom. Domnina could have suffered at the court, but then she would not have been able to ensure her daughters’ purity.
She endured far greater tortures in the river [than she would have at court]. My point, as I started saying, is that it was truly far more cruel and painful than to see flesh scourged, to drown her own innards, I mean her daughters, by her own hand, and to see them suffocating, and it required far greater philosophy than to endure tortures for her to have the capacity to restrain her children’s right hands and to drag them along with her into the river’s currents. For it was not the same in terms of pain to see [her daughters] suffering badly at the hands of others and to herself act as death’s servant, to herself promote their end, to herself stand against her daughters in place of an executioner.
John imputes extraordinary suffering to a mother who kills her young daughters, and he not only excuses the killing but also lauds it because she did it to preserve virginity. John commends these martyrs as prime examples for mothers and daughters in his congregation. No doubt, this sermon worried not a few daughters whose reputations were at risk. [see, The Cult of the Saints: St. John Chrysostom, http://www.svspress.com/the-cult-of-the-saints-st-john-chrysostom/ ]
Saint Ambrose replies to Marcellina, who had asked what should be thought of those who to escape violence killed themselves, by narrating the history of Pelagia, a virgin, with her mother and sister…
- As I am drawing near the close of my address, you make a good suggestion, holy sister, that I should touch upon what we ought to think of the merits of those who have cast themselves down from a height, or have drowned themselves in a river, lest they should fall into the hands of persecutors, seeing that holy Scripture forbids a Christian to lay hands on himself. And indeed as regards virgins placed in the necessity of preserving their purity, we have a plain answer, seeing that there exists an instance of martyrdom.
- Saint Pelagia lived formerly at Antioch, being about fifteen years old, a sister of virgins, and a virgin herself. She shut herself up at home at the first sound of persecution, seeing herself surrounded by those who would rob her of her faith and purity, in the absence of her mother and sisters, without any defence, but all the more filled with God. What are we to do, unless, says she to herself, you, a captive of virginity, takest thought? I both wish and fear to die, for I meet not death but seek it. Let us die if we are allowed, or if they will not allow it, still let us die. God is not offended by a remedy against evil, and faith permits the act. In truth, if we think of the real meaning of the word, how can what is voluntary be violence? It is rather violence to wish to die and not to be able. And we do not fear any difficulty. For who is there who wishes to die and is not able to do so, when there are so many easy ways to death? For I can now rush upon the sacrilegious altars and overthrow them, and quench with my blood the kindled fires. I am not afraid that my right hand may fail to deliver the blow, or that my breast may shrink from the pain. I shall leave no sin to my flesh. I fear not that a sword will be wanting. I can die by my own weapons, I can die without the help of an executioner, in my mother’s bosom.
- She is said to have adorned her head, and to have put on a bridal dress, so that one would say that she was going to a bridegroom, not to death. But when the hateful persecutors saw that they had lost the prey of her chastity, they began to seek her mother and sisters. But they, by a spiritual flight, already held the field of chastity, when, as on the one side, persecutors suddenly threatened them, and on the other, escape was shut off by an impetuous river, they said, what do we fear? See the water, what hinders us from being baptized? And this is the baptism whereby sins are forgiven, and kingdoms are sought. This is a baptism after which no one sins. Let the water receive us, which is wont to regenerate. Let the water receive us, which makes virgins. Let the water receive us, which opens heaven, protects the weak, hides death, makes martyrs. We pray You, God, Creator of all things, let not the water scatter our bodies, deprived of the breath of life; let not death separate our obsequies, whose lives affection has always conjoined; but let our constancy be one, our death one, and our burial also be one.
- Having said these words, and having slightly girded up the bosom of their dress, to veil their modesty without impeding their steps, joining hands as though to lead a dance, they went forward to the middle of the river bed, directing their steps to where the stream was more violent, and the depth more abrupt. No one drew back, no one ceased to go on, no one tried where to place her steps, they were anxious only when they felt the ground, grieved when the water was shallow, and glad when it was deep. One could see the pious mother tightening her grasp, rejoicing in her pledges, afraid of a fall lest even the stream should carry off her daughters from her. These victims, O Christ, said she, do I offer as leaders of chastity, guides on my journey, and companions of my sufferings. [On Virgins, Book III, Chapter 7:32-35]
SERMONS OF CHURCH FATHERS CONDEMNING SUICIDE TO PRESERVE CHASTITY
St. Augustine of Hippo, That Christians Have No Authority for Committing Suicide in Any Circumstances Whatever, City of God Chapter 20.
It is not without significance, that in no passage of the holy canonical books there can be found either divine precept or permission to take away our own life, whether for the sake of entering on the enjoyment of immortality, or of shunning, or ridding ourselves of anything whatever. Nay, the law, rightly interpreted, even prohibits suicide, where it says, “Thou shalt not kill.” This is proved especially by the omission of the words “thy neighbor,” which are inserted when false witness is forbidden: “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.” Nor yet should any one on this account suppose he has not broken this commandment if he has borne false witness only against himself. For the love of our neighbor is regulated by the love of ourselves, as it is written, “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” If, then, he who makes false statements about himself is not less guilty of bearing false witness than if he had made them to the injury of his neighbor; although in the commandment prohibiting false witness only his neighbor is mentioned, and persons taking no pains to understand it might suppose that a man was allowed to be a false witness to his own hurt; how much greater reason have we to understand that a man may not kill himself, since in the commandment, “Thou shalt not kill,” there is no limitation added nor any exception made in favor of any one, and least of all in favor of him on whom the command is laid! And so some attempt to extend this command even to beasts and cattle, as if it forbade us to take life from any creature. But if so, why not extend it also to the plants, and all that is rooted in and nourished by the earth? For though this class of creatures have no sensation, yet they also are said to live, and consequently they can die; and therefore, if violence be done them, can be killed. So, too, the apostle, when speaking of the seeds of such things as these, says, “That which thou sowest is not quickened except it die;” and in the Psalm it is said, “He killed their vines with hail.” Must we therefore reckon it a breaking of this commandment, “Thou shalt not kill,” to pull a flower? Are we thus insanely to countenance the foolish error of the Manichæans? Putting aside, then, these ravings, if, when we say, Thou shalt not kill, we do not understand this of the plants, since they have no sensation, nor of the irrational animals that fly, swim, walk, or creep, since they are dissociated from us by their want of reason, and are therefore by the just appointment of the Creator subjected to us to kill or keep alive for our own uses; if so, then it remains that we understand that commandment simply of man. The commandment is, “Thou shall not kill man;” therefore neither another nor yourself, for he who kills himself still kills nothing else than man.
St. Augustine of Hippo, Of Suicide Committed Through Fear of Punishment or Dishonor, City of God Chapter, Book I, Chapter 17.
And consequently, even if some of these virgins killed themselves to avoid such disgrace, who that has any human feeling would refuse to forgive them? And as for those who would not put an end to their lives, lest they might seem to escape the crime of another by a sin of their own, he who lays this to their charge as a great wickedness is himself not guiltless of the fault of folly. For if it is not lawful to take the law into our own hands, and slay even a guilty person, whose death no public sentence has warranted, then certainly he who kills himself is a homicide, and so much the guiltier of his own death, as he was more innocent of that offence for which he doomed himself to die. Do we justly execrate the deed of Judas, and does truth itself pronounce that by hanging himself he rather aggravated than expiated the guilt of that most iniquitous betrayal, since, by despairing of God’s mercy in his sorrow that wrought death, he left to himself no place for a healing penitence? How much more ought he to abstain from laying violent hands on himself who has done nothing worthy of such a punishment! For Judas, when he killed himself, killed a wicked man; but he passed from this life chargeable not only with the death of Christ, but with his own: for though he killed himself on account of his crime, his killing himself was another crime. Why, then, should a man who has done no ill do ill to himself, and by killing himself kill the innocent to escape another’s guilty act, and perpetrate upon himself a sin of his own, that the sin of another may not be perpetrated on him?