Holy Mothers of Orthodoxy


Eva Catafygiotu Topping

Make a Joyful Noise!

nun's inspiration and model. Near the end of the hymn Thekla expresses her fervent devotion to the Mother of God, a devotion shared with the entire community of nuns. She also expresses vividly the nuns’ dependence on the Theotokos in the pursuit of the monastic vocation:

exalting you in hymns worthy of God, O Theotokos, we beseech you with words of praise, strengthen and safeguard us in virginity and purity.

Thekla's words here reflect the Byzantine nun's dedication and piety, her adoration of the Theotokos. In Thekla's hymn we thus hear the songs and prayers of the women behind the walls of a Byzantine convent.

Secure in her faith and confident of her creative imagination, Thekla takes pride in her leitourgia as church poet. She therefore proudly offers her hymn to the Theotokos, whom, she says, she has "faithfully glorified." Comparing her gift to the two pennies of the poor widow in the Gospel story (Mark 12:41-44, Luke 21:1-4), Thekla asks the Mother of God to accept:

the hymns of my lips.

Orthodox believer, nun and poet, Thekla is also the outspoken champion of her sex. In her encomium to Mary the most exalted of all Eve's daughters, Thekla also extols lesser women, the heroic female martyrs and loyal defenders of the faith:

and behold women now strive gallantly for Christ's sake and the female species rejoices, as the first martyr, the virgin Thekla, proclaims.

Herself a witness of women's sacrifices and resistance to the iconoclastic enemies of Orthodoxy, Thekla expresses her immense pride and joy in their heroism. She knew too that this heroism was not peculiar to the women of the ninth century. The martyrdoms of countless women had been recorded in the annals of Christianity from its earliest days.

To symbolize the long record of women's active witness for Christ our hymnographer chooses Saint Thekla (September 24), her namesake. Converted by St. Paul in Iconium, Thekla had followed the apostle and shared his mission of preaching the Gospel. Held in high honor as "The First Martyr among Women and Equal to the Apostles," Thekla became a legendary model for Christian women, including our hymnographer. St. Thekla and her many imitators made it easy for Thekla the Hymnographer to claim for women a glorious place in the history of the Church.

Thus in her hymn to the Theotokos, Thekla the Nun reveals herself to be a fulfilled and self-confident woman. A true daughter of the Church, called to be a nun and a sacred poet, Thekla offers to Greek letters not only a hymn to the Mother of God, but more importantly her testament to a woman's life spent in harmony with God.

KASSIA THE MELODOS: The fame of Kassia the Melodos, our third hymnographer, outshines by far all other women writers in both medieval and modern Greek letters. The romantic heroine of folklore, the inspiration of poems, novels and dramas, Kassia has been a household word among Greeks for a thousand years. Celebrated in her own time for her beauty, piety and learning, this ninth-century nun-hymnographer is the only woman whose hymns have been admitted into the liturgy of the Orthodox Church. Known formally by its first words, Kyrie, e en pollais amartiais, (Lord, she who in many sins), and familiarly as To troparion tes Kassianes, her masterpiece has appeared in numerous anthologies, been translated into many languages, rendered into demotike by Kostis Palamas (1859-1943) and set to music by Dimitri Mitropoulos (1896-1960). Sung during the Orthros of Holy Wednesday, no Orthodox hymn is more beloved.

Its author, Kassia the nun, was a worthy daughter of Byzantium. The child of a high-ranking court official, she was born and educated in the imperial city of Constantine. While Kassia was still a girl, Theodore, the erudite, influential abbot of the Stoudios Monastery, praised her learning and literary style, which he found remarkable for the time and for one so young. Few women could write at all in the ninth century, let alone write well.

Nor did Kassia's character and piety fail to match her literary accomplishments. Early in life she proved her devotion to the then embattled Church. This well-born young lady openly defied imperial policies against the veneration of holy icons. For her defiant activism in defense of Orthodoxy Kassia suffered persecution and was once beaten with the lash. She nevertheless continued her fearless resistance, visiting imprisoned Orthodox monks and comforting exiles with letters and gifts. Later this resolute woman condemned lack of courage and commitment, "I hate silence," she wrote, "when it is time to speak."

When Kassia penned these words she was a nun who had just missed becoming Byzantium's empress. According to the chronicler's testimony, Kassia's beauty had bewitched Theophilos, the crown prince in search of a suitable wife. Beautiful Kassia, however, had broken the spell when she answered sharply the prince's sexist slur against women. Wounded to the heart by her reply, Theophilos then gave the golden apple and half his throne to the maiden who had held her tongue in silence.