Holy Mothers of Orthodoxy


Eva Catafygiotu Topping

Three Outstanding Byzantine Women

How appropriate it is to celebrate the Three Hierarchs and Greek letters in this church which is dedicated to a learned woman saint Katherine of Alexandria, Glorious and All-Wise Great Martyr. For a moment let us reflect on her significance for this celebration.

St. Katherine was born and martyred in a city famous for its schools and libraries, its poets, scientists and philosophers, including the martyred woman philosopher Hypatia. At a time when most women were illiterate, unable to read or write, this aristocratic Christian girl had mastered the rich cultural and literary legacy of ancient Greece. She had studied Homer, the medical writings of Hippocrates and Galen, the philosophies of Plato and Aristotle. Katherine had also been trained in rhetoric, the art of public speaking. She could express her thoughts clearly and persuasively. All Alexandria, we are told, admired her erudition and wisdom.

When she was just 18 years old, Katherine won the immortal crown of a Christian heroine. Bravely resisting pressures and persecution, she brilliantly and publicly defended her faith before giving her life in its defense. Far from corrupting her, a pagan Greek education had strengthened Katherine's Christian commitment and assured her triumph. This young girl scored a stunning victory by silencing Alexandria's most eloquent and clever philosophers. She also converted them to Christianity. Her 150 converts then shared St. Katherine's martyrdom. Our patron saint, like the Three Hierarchs, symbolizes the synthesis of Hellenism and Christianity. Likewise, she symbolizes Greek Orthodox womanhood, spiritually and intellectually created in God's image and likeness.

Because their sex was normally denied opportunities for education, the number of Greek Christian women intellectuals and writers is small. There are, however, three whom we should honor today.

The first of these is Eudokia, Empress of Byzantium from 421-460 A.D. She was born in Athens and died in Jerusalem. The daughter of a pagan professor, she was named Athena after the city of her birth. From her father Leontios and two of his colleagues Athenais received a classical Greek education. Like St. Katherine she was also trained in the art of public speaking, despite the ancient belief that silence is woman's most sublime virtue.

Shortly before her marriage in 421 to the emperor Theodosios II, the pagan Athenais became a Christian. Baptized by Attikos, Patriarch of Constantinople, she was renamed Eudokia. Keenly interested now in theology, Empress Eudokia befriended monks, nuns and clergy. She built churches in Constantinople and Jerusalem.

She used part of her great wealth to endow hospitals, rest homes and shelters for the poor, sick and homeless. For her eusebeia and philanthropia Eudokia was canonized and the Orthodox Church commemorates her on August 13.

Proving herself a true daughter of Athens, Eudokia has an honorable place in the history of Greek Letters. This educated Byzantine basilissa championed Greek culture in the imperial city. When in 425 the University of Constantinople was reorganized Eudokia saw to it that its Greek curriculum was expanded. Always she was the enthusiastic patron of academics, poets and men of letters.

Eudokia was herself a poet and woman of letters. She won fame as a public speaker. Seated on a golden throne, she delivered a brilliant speech in Antioch before the senate. Although women were not supposed to write books, even if they could, Eudokia wrote several. She composed a poetic version of the first eight books of the Old Testament, and of the Prophets Zechariah and Daniel. She is also the author of a long hagiographical poem on the martyrdom of St. Kyprianos, who, like the imperial poet, was a convert to Christianity. In another book written in Homeric verse Eudokia related the life and miracles of Christ. Thus in her writings St. Eudokia combined the old and the new, classical Greek culture and Christian teachings.

After this intellectual and literary basilissa four centuries passed before another important woman writer appeared in Byzantium. She is known to us all, Kassia, the ninth century nun-hymnographer. In the long tradition of Greek Letters she is by far the most beloved woman writer. Born into the aristocracy of Constantinople, Kassia, like Sts. Katherine and Eudokia, received a thorough classical Greek education. While she was still young, Kassia's learning and literary style were praised as unusual for one of her age and for the time. She was equally admired for her courage and loyalty to Orthodoxy in face of iconoclastic persecution.

Had not the spirited young woman defended women against Theophilos' sexist slur, Kassia would have been a second Byzantine empress-author. Instead, she built a convent on Xerolophos, Constantinople's seventh hill and became a nun. She lived there until her death in the second half of the ninth century. A stern, energetic abbess, Kassia governed her nuns and regulated life and worship in the convent. And she found time to pursue her literary interests, evidenced by the secular works and the sacred poetry preserved in a number of manuscripts.

Composed for and first sung in the liturgy of her convent, Kassia's hymns brought her fame as Orthodoxy's only woman hymnographer of distinction. Hers, moreover, are the only hymns by a woman that are included in the liturgy of our church. Likewise, having composed original musical settings for litany of her hymns, Kassia is Byzantium's best known woman composer.

Twenty-three genuine hymns survive from Kassia's pen. These include a long hymn for the dead; hymns for various saints; nine hymns for Christmas and three for the Hypapante (the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple). Her reputation rests mainly on her troparion which is sung on Holy Wednesday. Hailed by critics as a masterpiece of religious poetry, Kassia's Lenten hymn is universally admired for its "beauty of words and depth of feeling." A true poet and believer, the hymnwriting abbess of Constantinople portrays profound human emotions, tracing with sensitivity and sympathy the sinful woman's exodus from sin, her journey to salvation.

More the one thousand years now separate us from Kassia the Melodos. Yet through her troparion she communicates the reality of Christian experience and her own serene belief in Christ's transforming grace.

Two hundred years after Kassia, Anna Komnene, the world's first woman historian, was born in Constantinople on December 2, 1083, the daughter and first child of Emperor Alexios 1. She died sometime after 1148 (and the appearance of Halley's Comet) in the convent Kecharitomene, where in enforced retirement from court politics she lived for over thirty years and where she wrote the Alexiad, the epic history of her father's long reign (1081-1118).

Anna Komnene was probably the most intellectual and best educated woman in the Byzantine millennium. The importance of education and Greek culture form a major theme of the Alexiad, in which the author repeatedly thanks her parents for educating her properly. In fact, this imperial princess spent most of her life studying and learning. Her broad scholarly interests are reflected in the pages of her history, documenting her knowledge of the Bible, theology, philosophy, history, medicine, rhetoric, mathematics and classical poetry, especially Homer. She boasts of her great "zeal for learning." "I carried," she wrote in the preface, "my study of Greek to the highest pitch." And indeed the purity of her Greek was commented on. Anna looked down her nose at barbarians who did not know Greek and at Greeks who fell below her high standards.

Although she had failed in the attempt to become empress of Byzantium, Anna Komnene succeeded in becoming the "golden queen" of its intelligentsia. She turned her apartments at the convent into an institute for advanced studies. There the scholarly princess inspired and presided over a circle of the empire's most original theologians, philosophers and men of letters. One of them compared her to a bright comet appearing among fixed stars.

By any standards, Eudokia, Kassia and Anna Komnene were remarkable women. Anna has been called an "astonishing woman." AIl were gifted and fortunate in the circumstances of their birth into the privileged classes of Byzantine society. Thus they were able to cultivate their talents, to enrich their minds with the priceless heritage of ancient Greece and to write new books, expressing themselves and the Christian Greek ideals of their culture.

In our day books have been written about each of them. These remarks of mine are but brief tributes to three Byzantine women whose contributions to Greek Letters are worthy of our attention and admiration.

But admiration is not enough. Our patron saint Katherine the All-Wise Great Martyr, the Empress St. Eudokia, the hymnwriting nun Kassia, and history writing Princess Anna Komnene challenge us to rid society and church of prejudice and discrimination against women.

St. Katherine's Greek Orthodox Church, Falls Church, Va. January 26, 1986

Anna Komnene

Anna Komnene

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