Holy Mothers of Orthodoxy


Eva Catafygiotu Topping

Thekla the Nun: In Praise of Women

Since Thekla composed her encomium to the Theotokos for use in the liturgy, she appropriately speaks most often in the first person plural, which embraces the sacred poet and the congregation. Thus, 'we' the Church praise the Theotokos:

Μυστικως ανυμνουμεν σε
μητερ Θεον, φωναις δρθοδοξιας
Spiritually we praise you
O Mother of God, with voices of Orthodoxy
—vv. 65-66

From the frequent repetition of verbs of 'hymning' in the first person plural evolves a dynamic image of Thekla and the ekklesia singing the praises of the Theotokos.39 The sacred poet accomplishes her diakonia, enabling the Church to sing with Gabriel.40

Likewise, the same communal voice of the Church is heard in three liturgical prayers, each addressed to the Theotokos.41 In the first of these the people of the Church appeal to the Theotokos, their refuge and protector. This prayer expresses the unquenchable trust of the Byzantines in the Theotokos:

και σωτηριου πολιν σε
παντες πιστως πρεσβευομεν42
Μαρια μητηρ Χριστου
και δεομεθα θερμως
δεξαι τας δεησεις ημων των σων πιστων
With faith we all beseech you
the refuge and city of salvation
And we urgently beg you
Mary Mother of Christ
accept these prayers
of your faithful servants
—vv. 28-34

Byzantium's sacred poets, however, did not always conceal themselves within the solemn petitions which they pronounced for the corporate praying Church. Very often the poet prayed for himself alone. In these prayers he combined petitions for personal salvation with appeals for poetic inspiration. With such a prayer Saint Romanos the Melodos concluded one of his masterpieces, asking God to forgive his sins and to grant beauty and truth to his hymn.43

Thekla includes two private or personal prayers in her kanon. The first appears as the kathisma, at the end of Ode ΣΤ'. Modeled on the heirmos Ευσπλαγχνιας υπαρχουσα πηγη it is a penitential prayer.44 In contrast to the model which is a liturgical prayer, Thekla's prayer is intensely personal, concerned solely with the welfare of her own soul:

Ραθυμιαν ψυχης μου την χαλεπην
και καρδιας μου πωρωσιν, μητερ Θεου
The sad indifference of my soul
and the hardness of my hearts,
O Mother of God
—vv. 105-106

As an individual suppliant the poet addresses an intimate appeal to the Theotokos.45 Using the first person singular pronoun four times in the six verses, Thekla beseeches the Theotokos who is her only recourse,

Η μονη ελπις μου και παρακλησις my only hope and prayer
—v. 110

The tone of contrition which dominates the first prayer disappears completely from the second, with which the final ode begins. Here Thekla is the sacred poet bearing gifts of praise to the Theotokos. Notwithstanding the topos of modesty which is expressed in comparison to the widow and her mite, Thekla's words convey personal dignity and professional pride in her vocation as church poet:

Κλινον μοι το ους σου, Παρθενε
παναγια, ανυμνουση πιστως
Δι εγκωμιων λογων τον τοκον σου
και ωσ δωρα χηριακα
τους υμνους των χειλεων μου
προσδεχομενη αιτησαι
αμαρτιων μου την συγχωρησιν.
Incline your ear, O All-Holy Virgin
to me who faithfully glorifies your Son
with words of praise
and receiving hymns
of my lips
like the widow's gifts
grant forgiveness of my sins.
—vv. 171-177

At the beginning of the kanon it was the ekklesia which offered the hymn. At the end it is the hymnographer herself who steps forward alone and offers the hymn created by her faith and talent.

Nor did Thekla hesitate to project herself as an individual Orthodox believer. Twice with her personal conviction she buttressed Orthodox dogma on the Incarnation. In the first instance she shifts within the same strophe from the first person plural of the apostolic χηρυττομεν to the pronoun in the first person singular, thus separating herself from the community to which she belonged: