“How have you been, Mary?” Sarah asked, catching up with an old friend that she hadn’t seen in quite awhile.
“Oh, I’m alright. Just doing some shopping. It seems that’s all I ever do, go shopping and stay home these days – since Jack died, nothing’s been the same.” Mary answered.
“I lost my Edward three years ago and I still can’t get used to it.” Sarah stated.
I couldn’t help but think of the statistic I had read that said that widows lose about 75% of their support base, their friends, their husband’s friends, their family members, their neighbors, their long-time business contacts, when their husband’s die. Given that women have longer lives than men, the average widow carries on fourteen years on her own. Widows are at risk and frequently live in or near poverty levels – the reasons for this include the triple whammy: (1) less earnings overall when she did hold down a job due to unequal pay, (2) taking time off of work to raise kids and care for their elderly relatives is time they aren’t spending earning money, and (3) longer lifespan means more retirement money is needed to cover the costs, which she won’t have because she makes less money and takes time off of work to care for children and elders. Another statistic is that almost half of the women over 65 years of age are widows, 7 out of 10 of them live alone.
Whichever way you slice it, Christianity neglects its widows. Most women’s groups are geared to the twenty to forty-somethings who are raising children. You’d be hard pressed to find a women’s group geared to widowhood – after all, in a complementarian Christianity, a widow is a half without her other half. Her child-bearing and child-rearing years are behind her. She has done her duty and has no further use.
It’s unfortunate that Christianity has also neglected it’s history. The early church had special role for it’s widows, they were often inducted into The Order of the Widows:
These widows were supported by the gifts of the congregation, and in turn were expected to pray for their benefactors as well as for all other members of the church. Their duties and qualifications were developed from the instructions in 1 Timothy 5. … The widow came to be looked upon as “the altar of God,” both because of her ministry of intercession and because of the gifts that she received. Under no circumstances should she reveal the name of a donor, lest other widows demand an equal gift from the same source or, worse yet, curse the one who withheld such benefices. The Didascalia insisted that neither “the bishop nor a presbyter, nor a deacon, nor a widow should utter a curse,” because widows “had been appointed to bless.” … The selection process and ordination service of widows parallels those of deacons, bishops and presbyters. The document applies the title “presbyteresses” to these women, and six times refers to them as “the widows who sit in front.” During communion, they stood by the altar, close to the bishops, presbyters and deacons, and within the veil that screened off the laity. These widows assumed pastoral responsibilities such as instructing female catechumens and the ignorant, gathering those who desired to live a pure life for prayer and encouragement, rebuking the wayward, and seeking to restore them. – The Neglected History of Women in the Early church
Lucian once noted about “old hags called widows” who had a prominent role in early Christianity, probably as a part of their duties as the Order of the Widows. To be honest, the system was brilliant. People – men and women alike – like to feel needed and/or useful. Having a spouse die on you doesn’t change that. If anything, you need it even more. I get it, grief is messy, but Christianity is supposed to rejoice with those who rejoice as much as they’re supposed to mourn with those who mourn. As a good friend of mine says, “happiness multiplies, sadness divides when shared.”
We don’t just need, but we must restore a version of the Order of the Widows – the status quo amounts to neglect. The Order of the Widows created networks been church members that acted as a support system that could take over when a widow lost 75% of her friends, the church is supposed to be among the 25% that says: “We’re not going anywhere, we’re sticking with you.” It gave widows something to do and a need to fill so that they would feel useful. It was a place where the lonesomeness of widowhood was eased by the company of a spiritual family. It would help take a chunk out of the poverty problem by providing for their needs.
What really bothers me is that we think our status quo is somehow okay. But most complementarians are married and can’t imagine being otherwise. They should talk to the widows in their church, they’d learn a thing or two.