St Matrona /Babylas of Perge is one of a number of female saints in the early church who dressed as men to be admitted to all-male monasteries. The stories and motives of these women are remote from our time, and ‘transvestite’ is not to be confused with ‘transgendered’. Still, whatever the full historic truth, it seems to me these are useful stories to hold on to as reminders of the important place of the transgendered, and differently gendered, in our midst. Many of us will remember how difficult and challenging was the process of recognising, and then confronting, our identities as lesbian or gay, particularly in the context of a hostile church. However difficult and challenging we may have found the process of honestly confronting our sexual identities, consider how much more challenging must be the process of confronting and negotiating honestly a full gender identity crisis. Their stories collectively also carry a sobering reminder of the differing regard given by society of the time to male and female lives – else why would women have sought out male monasteries, in spite of the risks and discomfort to themselves of their lives in disguise, if not expectation of some greater spiritual reward than in a female convent?
Our Holy Mother Matrona (492 AD):
She was from Perga in Pamphylia, and married very young, to a youth named Domitian, to whom she bore a daughter. The couple settled in Constantinople. Matrona became so constant in attending all-night vigils in the city’s many churches that her husband suspected her of infidelity and forbade her to go out. This was unbearable to Matrona, who fled the house with her daughter. Determined to embrace monastic life, she gave her daughter into the care of a nun named Susanna, disguised herself as a eunuch, and entered the monastery of St Bassian (October 10) under the name of Babylas. Though she amazed all with her zeal and ascetic labors, Bassian one day discerned that she was a woman. Though he reprimanded her severely because of her zeal, he was unwilling to drive her away from monastic life because of her zeal; so he directed her to go to Emesa in Syria to enter a certain women’s monastery there.
Matrona continued to advance in the virtues, and once healed a blind man by anointing his eyes with myrrh from the head of St John the Baptist (which had been miraculously discovered around that time). The miracle became widely-known, and because of it Matrona’s husband learned of her whereabouts. When he came to her monastery she escaped to Jerusalem, but he pursued her there too. She fled from place to place, even living for several years in an abandoned pagan temple in Beirut, where she was constantly assaulted by the demons that inhabited the place. In time several pagan women, seeing her struggles, asked to be her disciples, and a small monastic community sprang up in the pagan temple. After a few years she and her disciples made their way back to to Constantinople, where St Bassian received her joyfully and helped her to establish a monastery. There she was visited by the Empress Verina, wife of Leo the Great, and many other noblewomen of the City, some of whom left all to join Matrona in monastic life. Saint Matrona lived to be almost one hundred years old and reposed in peace, having foretold the day of her death.