Susan Ashbrook Harvey is our Woman of the Week, nominated for her work as a church historian who has made vital contributions to our understanding of women’s roles in ancient Christianity but has also served as mentor to many of our finest emerging scholars. You see her here in her office at Brown University, and in her role as symposiarch (leader) at a Dumbarton Oaks Byzantine Studies symposium on sense perception in Byzantium in 2014. We asked her to tell you how she got from where she started to current role as professor and scholar of Christian history:
“I have always loved stories of the ancient past. In college I majored in Classics and spent my junior year in Greece, where I encountered Byzantine history and the Orthodox church for the first time. The experience was transformative for me in every way. I found in Byzantine history a way to combine my love for ancient Greek and Latin with my equally deep love for the Bible and its stories, gained from my family upbringing. In graduate school, I was also introduced to Syriac and its traditions. What all these areas had in common (the Bible, the classical world, Byzantine history, Syriac tradition, and Orthodoxy), I suppose, was endlessly deep treasure stores of beauty. I often think that we need beauty as much as we need food, water, or shelter. And I don’t mean beauty from material wealth. Rather, beauty in nature, in quality of thought and action, in ethical and moral vision, in human understanding, in divine awareness, and in forms of expression –whether spoken, sung, imaged, crafted, or prayed.
“I have been blessed to have extraordinary teachers all along the way, as well as unwavering support from my family. I learned early to understand scholarship as collaborative. We have so much to learn from each other! People have different strengths on which to draw, different gifts to offer. I love this aspect of scholarship. Each project is a process of exploration, of seeking and asking and dialoguing with others; of sharing ideas, testing possibilities, and stumbling on new, unexpected beauty – historical moments when we encounter the people of the past as vividly as in our own day. Studying the past, for me, is profoundly moving and always humbling. People’s lives are ordinary and wondrous; with suffering, hardship, wisdom, delight, challenge, love, dreadful wrong-doing and remarkable courage.
“My scholarly focus lies in Syriac and Greek Byzantine Christianity. In every topic, I also study the history of women. So much of history has been written in a way that is only about men, their ideas and institutional structures. Studying the women brings a far richer picture into view: we see the laity, we see many different forms of religious lives and different devotional practices; we see the importance of the congregation in liturgical practices; the significance of the household and family as a location for faith; the deep religious knowledge and human wisdom that can be gained from friendships.
“The past year brought the deaths of two incomparable feminist scholars of Christian history, Elizabeth A. Clark and Rosemary Radford Ruether. I was fortunate to know both personally, as well as from their scholarship. They, among others, taught me the importance of working in community: sharing our work; offering help, support, friendship, and mentorship to others, especially young scholars (but really, one never outgrows the need for such support!). This is especially important for women. Women continue to be passed over or less valued, especially in church contexts. In helping each other, support and community also grow more broadly. The first few years of my academic career before I came to Brown did not go well, either with teaching or research. I was trying to find my way, including how to combine and balance faith and scholarship. It is necessary to look for help, and to be able to accept it. When I have made mistakes in my career, it has almost always been because I failed to seek help, or to ask for it even if I knew it was available, or to receive it when it was offered. Life requires humility. I have been fortunate to find generous, collaborative colleagues to help along the way.”
Our Woman of the Week is Susan Ashbrook Harvey, nominated for her work as a church historian and as mentor to emerging scholars. You see her here in 2019 with her graduate students at the North American Syriac Symposium, and the same year when she was presented with a book in honor of her work by her former students and teachers at the American Academy of Religion. (The book is called The Garb of Being: Embodiment and the Pursuit of Holiness in Late Antique Christianity, edited by G. Frank, S.R. Holman, and A.S. Jacobs.) We asked her to tell you how teaching in the secular university can be a religious vocation:
“When we moved to Rhode Island, there was a wonderful priest in the Antiochian parish, Fr. Timothy Ferguson. He cultivated in me a deep understanding of, and commitment to, my career as a religious vocation. He came early one morning and blessed my office, anointing it with holy oil and strengthening prayers. Thirty-five years later, I still feel the presence of that fragrance. My office is tiny, jammed full of books and little treasures students have brought me. It has my father’s desk, at which he himself (a professor and theologian) wrote many books. I feel the strength of his presence, and of my mother’s; I have photos and gifts from my husband and daughter; there are icons. It is a home for me, and happily also for many of my students.
“What does it mean to think of my job as a religious vocation? I teach in a secular university. My students come from many different religions, or from none. I am not there to convert them, nor to be a chaplain (we have a Chaplains Office where they can find that ministry). I am there to help them learn about the history of religions, which they rarely know anything about, and to help them think about how people make sense of life and make it meaningful. I want them to understand what religion does well, but also its dangers: how it can harm and distort, as well as its beauty and prophetic possibilities.
“I have witnessed the terrible pain of students who have suffered because of their gender, sexuality, race, or class. I listen. I try to teach them to honor themselves, to know their own integrity; to honor their questions; to learn their own strength. In my classroom and in my office, any question can be asked as long as it is asked with respect. I rarely discuss my own faith (although I teach about Orthodoxy, among other Christian traditions). People on campus know that I have a church life, some know that I am Orthodox. I think there is a kind of witness in simply being present, doing my work, and having this religious commitment without it being something I talk about. The secular world is not a place separate from God. It is a place where we all live together, whatever our beliefs. That, for me, is a sacred gift. I am grateful to be there.”
We asked Susan Ashbrook Harvey, our Woman of the Week, as always, about her morning routine:
“I am usually the first person up in our family, and I love it. I love the stillness and solitude before the day begins. First are my back exercises, then a shower. Sometimes I check email then, and clear out everything easily handled before venturing downstairs. As soon as I’m down, I have classical music on the radio; its beauty is crucial to a good day’s start. Tea and breakfast happen while I read the news, make lunch, check on my plants indoors and out (yes, I talk to them), clear up the kitchen, and sometimes putter a bit. I like to feel ready for the day as a whole, which for me begins with the sense of good order in the house.
“My husband usually goes for a long early morning walk as my breakfast is finishing, so that is when I practice piano (unless I have to be somewhere early –Sunday liturgy, or early morning meetings on campus). Piano is a total self-indulgence. Six years ago I returned to piano lessons after a fifty-year hiatus(!). It is a great joy despite how frustrated I am at my own shortcomings. I have a wonderful, wonderful teacher who years ago taught our daughter. Lately we’ve been exploring women composers of the 17th-20th centuries: among my favorites are Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel and Louise Farrenc. At the moment, I’m working on a glorious nocturne by Maria Szymanowska. I play at least one hour daily. On most mornings, after all this, I am ready for the rest of the world.”
Thank you, Susan!