Holy Mothers of Orthodoxy


Eva Catafygiotu Topping

Thekla the Nun: In Praise of Woman

Long restricted to private life, dominated by fathers, husbands and sons, women found in the convent an alternative that had never existed before.82 To serve the ekklesia as nuns was to enter a spiritual world. Dedicating themselves completely to God, women had enrolled in the service of the Church. Nor did the monastic ideal of earlier centuries cease to attract women. In Thekla's day thousands of nuns lived in παρθενωνες, both in the capital city and throughout the empire.83

In the final ode of her kanon Thekla the Nun admits us into the spirituality of the Byzantine convent, revealing its adoration of the Theotokos. Near the end comes the most lyrical strophe of the entire hymn, a panegyric to the Virgin who embodies the nun's ideal.

Λαμπει σου το καλλος αστραπτει
της αγνειας η λαμπροτης αγνη,
και υπερστιλβει τουτων σου η γεννησις
ο Θεος γαρ ο ποιητης
ηλιου και της κτισεως
ουτος εκ σου γεγεννηται
διο σε παντες μεγαλυνομεν.
Your beauty shines, the brightness
of your purity is like lightning,
O pure one. And your birth
outshines there. For God the maker
of the sun and creation
was born of you.
Therefore we all magnify you.
—vv. 178-184

As a nun Thekla extols the Theotokos, the epitome of the spiritual woman. Repeated images of dazzling light mark this paean to the virginal beauty and perfection of the Theotokos.

Throughout the kanon Thekla never fails to allude to Mary's paradoxical virginity. A cluster of hallowed titles and epithets occurs again and again to fashion the virginal image of the Mother of God. Nine times she is invoked as Παρθενος.84 Αγνη, a related title, is equally prominent, especially in the second half of the kanon.85 Αχραντος, αειπαρθενος, and αφθορος further sustain this attribute of particular relevance for nuns.86

The nuns not only hymn the Theotokos, they also pray to her, asking for strength to persist in the discipline of the monastic vocation. A nun's prayer, its invocation continues in the same exalted style of vv. 178-186. The first three verses betray the nuns'; fervor, kindled by the immaculate purity of the Theotokos:

Ανθος σε αγνειας και ραβδον
Παρθενιας και μητερα Θεου
Θεοπρεπως εν υμνοις εκθειαζουσαι
With hymns worthy of God venerating you,
the flower of purity and the staff of virginity
and the Mother of God
—vv. 185-187

The prayer ends with an appeal to their guardian saint for support in their askesis:

Θεοτοκε, μετα φωνης
αινεσεως δεομεθα
εν παρθενια στηριξον
και εν αγνεια ημας φυλαξον.
O birthgiver of God,
we entreat you with voices of praise:
support us in our virginity,
guard us in our purity.
—vv. 188-191

Thus the "sweet Echo" whom Nikodemos heard ends her encomiastic kanon to the Theotokos.

Probably of aristocratic family this Byzantine hymnwright of the ninth century was an educated woman, a lady of poise and culture. The competence and grace exhibited in her kanon indicate more than knowledge of the Scriptures and the teachings of the Church. She had been trained in letters and literature. The complex form of the kanon with its fugue-like variations on a central theme demanded not only talent but also literary skills acquired in a classroom.87

Thekla was a true Orthodox believer. A devout woman of her times, she cherished and defended Orthodox dogma and traditions. The Incarnation, the foundation of Christian belief, was a reality in her personal religious experience. She insisted on the value and validity of her convictions and experience.

Thekla the Nun valued the ideals and goals of her sacred vocation. The Theotokos was the focus of her monastic life, the mainspring of its spirituality. She honored Mary first as the Mother of God, secondly as the guardian spirit of women monastics, and thirdly as woman's emancipator.