Holy Mothers of Orthodoxy

by

Eva Catafygiotu Topping


Make a Joyful Noise!

Theodosia draws a vivid and sympathetic portrait of Ioannikios the ideal monk. To free his soul from the flesh he disciplined himself, leading an austere existence on the mountains, under the heavens. His virtues embodied the monastic ideals of engrateia (self-control) apatheia (freedom from passions) karteria (endurance) and tapeinosis (humility). In addition, Theodosia praises Ioannikios' compassion:

having showered generous mercy on the needy, O most blessed one.

Throughout Theodosia focuses on the hermit's inner world, describing the nobility of his soul, his communion with God. She does not hesitate to compare her contemporary with the spiritual giants of the past—with Abraham, the Prophet Elijah and St. John the Forerunner from the Scriptures, as well as with Saints Anthony and Euthymios from the 4th century, the golden age of the Desert Fathers.

An unsophisticated ex-soldier, knowing only thirty psalms, Ioannikios was for half a century the influential advisor of emperors and patriarchs and the fearless champion of Orthodoxy. A nun, responding appreciatively to his holiness, translated his life into poetry.

Hosios Ioannikios was fortunate in his female hymnographer. Theodosia was not only learned, imaginative and skilled in the use of language. She also shared Ioannikios' vision and faith. Theodosia too searched for God, confident that she was growing into the divine image.

A note of triumph rings throughout Theodosia's verses. She sings of victories. Ioannikios' defeat of Satan and of the iconoclast heresy. Above all, she celebrates the triumph of his spirit over matter. By writing a luminous hymn in honor of Hosios Ioannikios, Theodosia Melodos, a Byzantine nun reveals that she valued and shared those victories.

THEKLA THE NUN: Next to nothing is known about Thekla the Nun, our second hymnographer. Evidence derived from her one surviving hymn suggests that she was a nun of the ninth century. Thekla's hymn was first published in Venice in 1796 by St. Nikodemos Hagioreites (1749-1809). In the prologue Nikodemos lists and describes the 22 hymnographers who are represented in his collection of 62 kanons in honor of the Theotokos. The list ends with the name of the only woman in it: kai Thekla e glyketate Echo—and Thekla, the very sweet Echo. Her name is not cited in any other general list of Byzantine hymnodists until our century.

Thekla's hymn consists of 198 verses, divided into 33 strophes. It is preserved in at least three manuscripts dating from the 13th to the 17th century. Thekla composed this hymn for the esperinos or vesper of Tuesday. It was most likely first sung by the author's sister nuns in an unknown convent.

Written by a woman, in honor of a woman, for and about women, Thekla's hymn is unique in the corpus of Byzantine hymnography. It is the only kanon we have that was composed by a woman in honor of the Theotokos. No other hymn is so completely dominated by women. The Theotokos appears in almost every line. The single voice heard in the hymn is feminine, that of the author. Other women are mentioned: Eve, the first woman; Anna, the mother of the Theotokos; and St. Thekla, Christendom's first woman martyr. There are also references to the female sex, nuns and female martyrs.

In striking contrast to Theodosia, whose vision extended beyond the walls of her convent to the larger monastic world, Thekla concentrates her vision on woman's experience and history, on life and worship within the convent. An exclusively feminine perspective prevails throughout her hymn.

At the same time, this unprecedented voice from within the Byzantine convent projects also a portrait of the hymnographer, distinctly a more forceful personality than Nikodemos' "very sweet Echo." Thekla contributes to Greek letters not only a graceful hymn to the Mother of God but also a unique spiritual autobiography of a Byzantine nun-hymnographer.

Thekla was, first of all, a true believer, committed to her Church, its doctrines and teachings. Relying as well on her own experience, this devout and pious woman proclaimed in her hymn the reality of the Incarnation. "Thekla asserts that she herself has seen God incarnate. Like all other verses, her declaration is addressed to the woman who made the Incarnation possible:

We proclaim you, O Theotokos, the throne of God the Word, on which sat God whom I saw as a mortal being.

In a similar passage Thekla again insists on the truth and validity of her personal religious experience as an Orthodox believer.

Thekla valued equally her monastic vocation and its ideals. Source of spirituality in the convent, the Theotokos illumined Thekla's life as a woman religious. Into her hymn the nun-hymnographer weaves varied praises of Mary's "divine glory," of the mystery of her virginal maternity, along with Mary's "divine glory," along with homage to her as the