That St. Peter in Lydda should have taken the trouble to visit Joppa to raise Dorcas from the dead shows the importance that the early Church gave to the plight of widows. Such women were economically disadvantaged in Jewish law and so their charitable support by the community as a whole was essential. Sometimes, however, younger ineligible women might try and take advantage of such free social care. Tertullian in the second century complains of one such 19 year old virgin who, extraordinarily, attempted to join the order of widows. This problem is first mentioned in the Christian tradition in 1 Timothy 5 which contrasts such opportunists with true widows in these terms:-
Now she who is really a widow, and left alone, trusts in God and continues in supplications and prayers night and day. (verse 5)
It seems that the widows did not just associate and support each other and themselves practice good works (as did the presumably wealthier Dorcas); they also constituted a kind of order with specific roles in the Church. They were ministers of intercession and clearly exercised pastoral care, even blessing those in need. The Didascalia or Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, a work composed from antecedent sources in the early third century lists the widows alongside the ordained clergy and deaconesses. This states:-
Neither the bishop nor a presbyter, nor a deacon, nor a widow should utter a curse, (because widows) “had been appointed to bless.”
The dignity and role of widows, not only as beneficiaries of charity, but also as an order of practitioners through the ministry of almsgiving, prayer and pastoral care, represents a legacy from Judaism which in Christ came to transform social and personal relations in the Greco-Roman Gentile world. Seen in this context, the resurrection of Dorcas at the intercession of her widow sisters and St. Peter is a remarkable testimony to the revolutionary power of the gospel to raise those who raise the dead. Dorcas evidently was the Mother of them all; hence St. Peter’s concern at both her plight and theirs.
From these humble yet glorious beginnings, these women, together with those female missionary companions of St. Paul, including of course the comparable order of deaconesses, developed an essential aspect of any local church’s Diakonia or service. In due time, with the rise of monasticism, the more ascetically inclined widows fled into the Egyptian desert with the men to seek out in great contests and labours Christian perfection. For every Christian Abba or Father in those beckoning wastes there was, more or less, a corresponding Christian Amma or mother. Unlike Judaism in antiquity or Islam subsequently, these Christian women had their own dignity and freedom and did not need their male relatives to survive. Sad to relate, however, it has only and frequently been the men who have been remembered and quoted and not the women and in later ages women did indeed regress and become more economically dependent on their menfolk. Let us now redress that balance a little and listen to the voices of those great Christian women of antiquity in the deserts of Egypt, spiritual daughters of that great, Dorcas, (meaning “gazelle”) and one in particular, that great Mother of the Desert, St. Syncletica:
In the beginning the labour and toil is difficult for those who come to work for God in stillness and silence; later it becomes indescribable joy. Just as those who wish to start a fire are at first filled with smoke and shed tears, but they cannot reach the goal in any other way; so too are those who desire to start within themselves the divine fire they ignite it with tears and toil, in stillness and silence.
The more that people in the world acquire, the more they hide it and say they are poor. But we, as soon as we have some little success in good deeds, instantly exalt ourselves, make a display of it and boast about it. For this reason, the little spark of goodness that we thought was ours is stolen away by the enemy. So, we do well not to say anything to anyone when we do good. Those who do the contrary suffer a greater loss because “even what they seem to have will be taken away.” (Lk 8:18)
Like wax melts by the fire, so the soul melts from praise and loses its firmness. But if heat melts wax, coldness makes it firm. And, if praise takes away strength of soul, mortification and stillness bring more strength to her virtues.
We must preserve the tongue and the ear, in other words, by not speaking idle or judging words, nor passionately listening to them. Do not listen to idle words and you will not be a receptacle for the sins of others. If you receive into yourself the stinking filth of idle conversations, by this, thoughts will defile your prayer, just as after listening to merciless slanderers, you too will look down upon others with suspicion.
If you acquire some virtues, by the grace of Christ, do not exalt yourself in the heart. Even if you have achieved them, pray this: We are unworthy servants; we have only done that which was our duty.” (Luke 17:10)
St. Dorcas indeed did her duty and like St. Lazarus before her, she received a foretaste of the resurrection from the dead. Let Christian women now not become widows before they share her honour in the Church. Although the likes of St. Dorcas were never ordained nor did they seek ordination, they did start a revolution in personal and social relations, recognised by St. Peter, but which now seems to have become strangely lost in the Church. The revolution may have been started by widow pioneers but it must not end with them. Sisters are indeed doing it for Christ, not for themselves. Christian men, attend!