Holy Mothers of Orthodoxy


Eva Catafygiotu Topping

Thekla the Nun: In Praise of Woman

Θρονον σε Θεου του Λογου
κηρυττομεν, Θεοτοκε
εν φως βροτος δ Θεος
καθημενος ωπται μοι
We proclaim you the throne of the Word of God
O Theotokos
on which God sits
appeared as a human being to me.
—vv. 74-77

What the Church teaches, Thekla confirms on the basis of her experience.

A similar insistence and reliance on her own religious experience marks the second passage. But here there is no shift from the corporate to the individual. With the poetic and visionary language of a mystic Thekla insists on the truth of the Incarnation and on Mary's part in it:

Ουρανος ουρανων υψηλοτερος
ωφθης, Θεονυμφευτε, τη θεια δοξη σου.
εν σοι γαρ ο Θεος ημων
δλικως εποχουμενος ωφθη μοι.
You were seen, O Bride of God
O Theotokos, a heaven higher than the heavens
in your divine glory
For wholly contained in you, our God was seen by me.
—vv. 93-96

These words express Thekla's deeply felt beliefs, the Orthodoxy which iconoclasm had endangered.

Finally, Thekla speaks in her person as a nun. At the end of the kanon the third voice is heard when she identifies herself and her congregation as nuns. Her encomium was composed for performance in the convent. It contains hymns and prayers that belong to the world hidden behind the encircling walls of a convent.

From a rich hymnic and homiletic tradition Thekla borrowed the materials out of which she wove her 'crown of encomia' for the Theotokos. Orthodox theology of the Incarnation and of Mary's unique relationship to God provided the foundation of her kanon. Although Thekla's veneration of the Theotokos borders, by her own confession, on worship, she nevertheless does not exaggerate Mary's power.46 Nor does she isolate the mother from the Son, being always careful to associate Mary with Christ. In the personal prayers Thekla explicitly appeals to the Theotokos for her mediation.47

The vocabulary and themes which Thekla employed in the ninth century already had a long lineage of Byzantine hymnography. They can be traced back through the Akathistos Hymnos, the most famous of all Marian hymns, to an anonymous primitive kontakion written soon after the Council of Ephesos (431 A.D.), and to fifth-century Marian sermons as well.48 The same epithets, titles, images and typology used by Thekla are common to all the kanons found in the Theotokaria, whose dates of composition range from the eighth to the fifteenth century. From all these Marian hymns Thekla's kanon is distinguished only by its feminine accent and perspective. From an unknown convent, probably in Constantinople, comes a woman's joyful song of praise to the Theotokos and her spiritual daughters, the women of the Church.

From the verses of Thekla's encomium a luminous icon of the Theotokos becomes readily visible. The kanon begins with a reference to the Annunciation, when the angel appeared to Mary and she accepted her destiny, agreeing to become the mother of God.49 In the second ode two strophes are devoted to the Nativity of the Theotokos, the beginning of mankind's salvation.50 Numerous references to the Nativity of Christ point to the cause of Mary's glory. Nowhere is it forgotten that her doxa derives from the great mystery of her motherhood. The noun τοχος and verbs "to give birth" occur frequently.51 Seven times Thekla uses the word Theotokos, Mary's most exalted title.52 She is also called Meter Theou six times and once Meter Christou.53 Thekla recalls that Mary's maternity had been prefigured in the Old Testament. Moses and the burning bush on Sinai, Jacob's vision of the ladder joining earth to heaven, and the dew on Gideon's fleece had all foreshadowed God's birth on earth from a virgin.54

The hymnodist claims, however, that nothing in sacred history had ever equaled Mary's doxa.55 To describe this unparalleled glory Thekla resorts to comparisons. The first of the three is the longest. At the beginning of the fifth ode the poet triumphantly proclaims Mary's superiority to the old dispensation embodied in the Law and Ark:

Νομου σε τιμιωτεραν
της κιβωτου ανυμνουμεν.
τον γαρ παντων κτιστην και Θεον
ου πλακας εβαστασας.
πανυμητε Θεοτοκε Μαρια
We exalt you more than the Ark
of the Law.
For you bore the Creator
and God of all, not the ablest,
worthy of all praise, Theotokos Mary.
—vv. 69-73

The second comparison, in the same ode, sets the Theotokos above the cherubim.56 The third, in the sixth ode, declares Mary more sublime than the heavens.57