Holy Mothers of Orthodoxy


Eva Catafygiotu Topping

Make a Joyful Noise!

icons. Revoking the restoration in 815, the iconoclasts ascribed her religious policies to "female simplicity." In 843 Orthodoxy was permanently restored by another woman, the Empress Theodora, who reversed the policies of her dead husband, Theophilos.

In the defense of Orthodox traditions these imperial women were not alone. Lay women and nuns alike defied emperors and patriarchs, resorting to street demonstrations and acts of resistance. Women suffered persecution, exile and martyrdom. They were among the first martyrs in the long struggle to defend icons in Orthodox worship.

The surviving hymns of Theodosia, Thekla and Kassia are precious documents from this historic period, recording the spirit of Orthodox women and their participation in stirring events. Through them the rarely heard voices of Byzantine women at least reach our ears.

THEODOSIA MELODOS: For too long Theodosia has been a shadowy figure in the history of Byzantine hymnography. Her name first appears in 1661 in a work published in Rome by Leo Allatius (1596-1669). This polymath scholar, a Chiote turned Catholic, mentions "Theodosia Melodos" and quotes three passages from her hymn to Hosios Ioannikios. From the start the name of an obscure nun is associated with the most celebrated Orthodox hermit of her day. In the Vatican where he worked for five decades, Allatius had seen a manuscript containing Theodosia's hymn. Yet he does not include her in his catalogue of 71 Greek hymnographers. Her name does not appear in such a list until 1867, two hundred years later. Another hundred years passed before her hymn was finally published in 1972. Regardless of this publication within the past few years, hymn and author as yet remain in undeserved obscurity.

An elaborate kanon of 220 verses, Theodosia's hymn is divided into 32 strophes. It was composed to be sung during the orthros of the Feast Day of Hosios Ioannikios the Great (754-846), who is commemorated on November 4. Theodosia wrote her hymn not long after the death of Ioannikios. Its preservation in four manuscripts which date from the 11th to the 17th century indicates that Theodosia's hymn enjoyed some popularity. Nevertheless, the Church preferred for the Menaion a hymn by Joseph the Hymnographer, Byzantium's most prolific hymnwriter and a contemporary of Theodosia.

It was written and first chanted probably in the Mone Klouviou, a female monastery known only through references in the lives of Ioannikios. Located somewhere in the "environs of Constantinople," this convent had close contacts with the venerable holy man and ex-soldier who lived for half a century in the high mountains of Bithynia. From these facts we may conclude that Theodosia was a nun in this convent.

Of the hymn's authorship no doubt exists, although a note in the margin of the Vatican manuscript assigns it to Patriarch Ignatios, another 9th century hymnodist. The hymn contains the nun's claim to authorship, authenticated by her signature Theodosia. She bears, it is worth noting, the name of the heroic activist nun who was martyred in 729 for resisting the sacrilegious destruction of Constantinople's most holy icon of Christ. (St.Theodosia instantly became the role model for many courageous Byzantine women.)

Although we know practically nothing about the life of Theodosia Melodos, through her hymn to Ioannikios we become acquainted with her personality and with the world in which this Orthodox woman lived and wrote her hymns eleven centuries ago in Byzantium.

Theodosia begins the hymn with a personal prayer. Introducing herself as a penitent, she asks for God's pardon. After confessing that "darkness of sins" surrounds her, she prays to the Sun of Righteousness:

make to shine upon me the light of forgiveness

Awareness of her spiritual imperfections continues in a prayer to the Theotokos, whom Theodosia trusts as a "source of graces."

In a third prayer Theodosia no longer speaks as a private person, but rather in her capacity as a poet with a public and sacred mission to perform. Addressing the Savior, she petitions him for divine assistance in her liturgical tasks:

grant to me an outpouring of wisdom that I may glorify in hymns the sublime life of the saint.

Thus Theodosia believes that the private and public sides of her life are intimately related. Unless God forgives and inspires her, she cannot compose a hymn worthy of her subject. Since a holy man of God is her theme, she must strive for holiness.

Beginning with the second strophe the awesome figure of the hermit Ioannikios dominates the hymn. Theodosia addresses him with reverent admiration in 23 of the hymn's 32 strophes. She invokes him formally with such titles as theophoros (God-bearing), theopnevstos (inspired by God) and theoleptos (seized by God). More frequently she calls him "father," suggesting a personal relationship to the saint, the kind and wise teacher of all monastics.