by John Wijngaards
The following incident is recounted in a collection of inspirational legends, called the Spiritual Meadow. The author died in 619, but the event is supposed to have taken place a century earlier, while Peter was archbishop of Jerusalem (524 – 548). The story reveals the attitudes of the time, and testifies to the ministry of women deacons.
At the monastery of Penthucla was a certain Conon of Cilicia, a priest assigned to [the ministry of] baptism. Since Conon was an old man of high repute, the [monks] appointed him to perform the baptisms. Thus he used to anoint and baptise those who were presented to him for this. But whenever he did anoint a woman, he felt tempted [lit. ‘scandalised’], and because of this, he wanted to leave the monastery. When he was on the point of leaving, St. John [the Baptist] appeared to him and said: ‘Have patience, and I will deliver you from this struggle’.
One day a young woman from Persia came to be baptised. She was attractive, yes exceptionally gorgeous, so that the priest did not have the courage to anoint her with holy oil. Since she stayed there for two days, Archbishop Peter [of Jerusalem] heard about this. He was concerned about what had happened and wanted to designate a woman deacon [διακονον γυναικα] for this function; but he did not do it, since the place did not permit it. Father Conon packed his bag, left, and said: ‘I will not stay here any longer.’
As he was roaming through the hills, St. John the Baptist appeared to him and said in a soft voice: ‘Go back to your monastery and I will deliver you from your struggle.’ Father Conon answered angrily: ‘Believe me, I will not go back, because you often made a promise and you never kept it.’ Then St. John calmed him and requested that he sit upon a hill. Then St. John took off [Conon’s] clothes, and marked him three times with the sign of the cross below his navel, saying: ‘Have confidence in me, Father Conon. I wanted you to prove yourself worthy of a reward in regard to this struggle; but since you do not want it, I have nevertheless delivered you from it. But you will not have the reward that would have been coming to you.’
Father Conon returned to the monastery where he used to baptise. The next morning he anointed and baptised the young woman from Persia without even knowing that she was a woman. He kept this office for twelve years, anointing and baptising, without any movement of the flesh and without noticing any woman. This he continued doing till his death.
1. Jean Moschus, Pratum Spirituale 3; Migne, Patrologia Graeca, vol.87, col. 2853 C.