Holy Communion and Menstruation

Occasionally an old debate re-emerges and parishioners get caught up in the ideas being argued. So it is that I was asked the other day about whether menstruating women should be allowed to come to Holy Communion. This issue has come up from time to time throughout the Centuries of Christianity’s existence. We see this being addressed for example in the 4th Century document called The Apostolic Constitutions, written about 375AD. In this writing, concern about menstruation is portrayed as really belonging to a Judaizing of Christianity – a return to following the Law not supported by the New Testament.   That document states the following:

Now if any persons keep to the Jewish customs and observances concerning the natural emission and nocturnal pollutions, and the lawful conjugal acts (Leviticus xv), let them tell us whether in those hours or days, when they undergo any such thing, they observe not to pray, or to touch a Bible, or to partake of the Eucharist? And if they own it to be so, it is plain they are void of the Holy Spirit, which always continues with the faithful.

The point being made is that for baptized and chrismated Christians, we have been given the Holy Spirit, which cannot be taken away from us by conjugal acts or natural emissions. If we don’t have the Holy Spirit while engaged in these acts, then we are void of the Holy Spirit at all times. The corollary is if we have the Holy Spirit received in our baptism and chrismation, then we can receive Holy Communion even if in menstruation. Since we don’t lose the Holy Spirit through acts of natural emission or conjugal acts, then we can receive Holy Communion after such acts. The Apostolic Constitutions continues:

For concerning holy persons Solomon says: “That every one may prepare himself, that so when he sleeps it may keep him, and when he arises it may talk with him.” (Proverbs 6:22) For if you think, O woman, when you are seven days in your separation, that you are void of the Holy Spirit, then if you should die suddenly you will depart void of the Spirit, and without assured hope in God; or else you must imagine that the Spirit always is inseparable from you, as not being in a place. But you stand in need of prayer and the Eucharist, and the coming of the Holy Ghost, as having been guilty of no fault in this matter. For neither lawful mixture, nor child-bearing, nor the menstrual purgation, nor nocturnal pollution, can defile the nature of a man, or separate the Holy Spirit from him. Nothing but impiety and unlawful practice can do that.”   (The Apostolic Constitutions, Kindle Loc. 3158-69)

This 4th Century Christian document is pretty clear that only Christians with wrong ideas about menstruation and the like will abstain from Holy Communion. Interestingly, St. John of Damascus (d. 749) thought the Apostolic Constitutions and their canons should be counted and read as Scripture in the Orthodox Church.

Though the teaching about menstruating women and Holy Communion has actually varied in different periods of Orthodox history and in the varying cultures influenced by Orthodoxy, there have been some clear teachings that say this should not be a concern for Christians. The concern results from a tendency ever present in the legalizing piety of Orthodoxy toward Pharisaic attitudes. It is a piety that becomes popular at times. For some it seems more pious to abstain from Communion when in menstruation. However, since we don’t follow the Jewish Law regarding clean and unclean in all matters, it seems unusual that we would pick this one matter and then suddenly make ourselves feel more holy by keeping one aspect of the Law.  We would do well to remember the words of St. James in his epistle:  “For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it.”   The piety which says menstruating women should refrain from Communion seems to say that you can keep one point of the law and ignore the rest and consider yourself holy.

As the Apostolic Constitution points out it is really only “impiety and unlawful practice” which can separate us from the Holy Spirit.  Neither childbirth nor menstruation is  impious or unlawful.   Additionally one might ask oneself, if in the Liturgy we faithfully proclaim Christ’s commandments – “Take, eat” and “Drink, all of  you” – under what circumstance would we dare disobey Christ? He commands us to receive His Body and Blood for the remission of sins. Why disobey the Lord?

I see the question about women’s menstruation and Holy Communion in the context of Acts 15, where there is a debate in the nascent Christian community as to whether Gentile men must become circumcised in order to become Christian. In other words, are Christians obligated to keep Torah? The then early Christian community, largely Jewish, had to decide whether you must become a practicing Jew in order to become a Christian.   The council of apostles and elders decided, NO!   If we read that text, we see that the chosen apostles of Jesus decided that the Law really was for a Jews a burden they couldn’t bear, and so it was neither spiritually prudent or good to impose the law upon converts to Christianity.     I think that decision by the apostolic founders of the Church applies today to the discussion on women and Communion. Does menstruation suddenly demand that Christian women must keep Torah?  Following Jewish or Pharisaic practice is not required of us as Orthodox Christians. The Apostles themselves settled that discussion in their lifetime.   Yet, pious ideas emerge which overrule even the apostles themselves.   Indeed it has frequently become part of the piety of various Orthodox nationalities, and seems so pious to tell menstruating women not to receive Communion. There is, however, strong reason from the Apostles, in our Scripture and from the Tradition of the Church to recognize that piety for what it is and to know there is sound reason for us not to follow it. Our task is, as we pray in the baptism liturgy to “preserve our baptismal garment and the earnest of the Spirit pure and undefiled unto the Day of Christ our God.”  Neither menstruation or childbirth defiles the baptismal garment nor do they take away from any woman the Holy Spirit.

This debate will go on, and I’m not trying to resolve it.  I am answering as a pastor a question I received from parishioners about how I see this issue.

14 thoughts on “Holy Communion and Menstruation

  1. Fr Silouan Thompson

    St Augustine of Canterbury sent this question to Pope St Gregory the Dialogist, and received back a very wise and pastoral answer. St Gregory sees the point of those who abstain, praises their intention, but advises St Augustine not to enforce it as a rule:

    A woman, therefore, should not be forbidden to receive the Mystery of Communion at these times. If any, out of a deep sense of reverence, do not presume to do so, this is commendable. But if they do so, they do nothing blameworthy… When women, after due consideration, do not presume to approach the Sacrament of the Body and Blood of the Lord during their monthly period, they are to be commended. But if they are moved by devout love of this Holy Mystery to receive it as pious practice suggests that they do, they are not to be discouraged.

    For context: St Gregory the Dialogist. Pope of Rome, to St Augustine of Canterbury, on Menstruation and Holy Communion

  2. Pingback: Women, Menstruation & Holy Communion | St. Phoebe Center

  3. George

    How about abstaining from taking the Holy Communion from the prospective of avoiding blood flow while consuming the Holy Communion? Would someone then need to instead burn the blood emitted or properly handle it in some way? It seems to me, abstaining for some sort of unclean labeling would no longer be meaningful in the New Testament, but dealing carefully with the consumption of Holy Communion so as to not do so while in a state that would result in expelling the mysteries seems reasonable. These states would maybe include menstration, secretions after child bearing, and even concurrent bouts of vomiting.

    1. Theophan

      George, this is absolutely ridiculous. Any woman deemed worthy to receive the precious Body and Blood of Christ for the remission of sins and life eternal is NOT able to expel the Lord Himself through natural bodily functions. How preposterous and faithless of a thought! Do we now think that the grace of God is taken from us when we use the bathroom too? Let us not dishonor the Lord with such demonic teachings; let us reject these falsehoods and cling to the truth of God’s grace and love.

    2. Fr. Ted

      In agreement with you, Theophan, St. Cyril of Jerusalem in his 4th Century Lectures on the Christian Sacraments addresses the issue to his newly baptized Christians and tells them the Body and Blood of Christ don’t pass into the intestines and out of the Body, but rather enter into the heart of the believer. He was exactly attempting to dispel any idea that the Eucharist is just food like any other. It is spiritual food and is received spiritually.

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  5. Pingback: The Pastoral is Political: We Need to Talk About Menstruation. Period. – RevGalBlogPals

  6. LC

    I see some interesting points here. Personally, I believe that spiritual cleanliness takes precedence, but that physical cleanliness shouldn’t be set aside either.
    Yes, menstruation is a natural bodily function. Yet, I doubt anyone would approach the Sacrament with clothes soiled with other, just as natural, bodily secretions.

    1. Nedeljko

      And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground(soil), and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.

  7. ksenia

    Question: what about venerating the icons while menstruating or after you received a cut that did bleed prior to church attendance? Diabetics must check blood sugar daily and it also includes them possibly.

    1. Fr. Ted

      First, I would recommend you talk to your priest about his thoughts so that you do what is customary piety in the parish. St Paul says let all you do be done in love and love would say find out what is the customary piety of the community you attend so that you don’t offend anyone. But if the priest is unconcerned about venerating icons if you are menstruating or have a cut, then use your own conscience. Personally, I don’t see it as a problem but I do see that some people’s piety raises all kinds of pious problems for them and it is OK to follow a pious custom which doesn’t need to be law for everyone else.

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