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‘An Ornament for Us Thessalonians’ – St Theodora of Thessaloniki

29 Αυγούστου 2010

‘An Ornament for Us Thessalonians’ – St Theodora of Thessaloniki

Today, 29 August on the Church’s calendar, we celebrate the memory of the Holy Theodora of Thessaloniki (812-892). As a former Thessalonian, I have a close connection to St Theodora. Although nothing of her monastery has survived except the foundations, much of it was rebuilt in the last century, and St Theodora’s relics as well as those of St David of Thessaloniki are enshrined in two chapels in the current katholikon. Today, with its Byzantine courtyard, St Theodora’s Monastery is a lovely and peacful oasis in the middle of the bustling city. When we lived in Thessaloniki, we used to visit the Saints’ relics frequently, and I have fond memories of one of the hieromonks who lived there.

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I once led an enormous group of Romanian pilgrims as well as a quartet of Protestants from Oklahoma there to see the relics and the beautiful frescoes. I shall always remember it fondly, and hope to return again soon.

According to Alice-Mary Talbot, St Theodora’s is by far the longest biography ever written of a Byzantine holy woman . . .’ (Holy Women of Byzantium: Ten Saints’ Lives in English Translation, ed. Alice-Mary Talbot [Washington, DC: Dumbarton Oaks, 1996], p. 161; the Life of St Theodora and Talbot’s introduction to it are available online in pdf format here). Veneration of the Saint slacked off a bit for some centuries, but was eventually revived. As Gregory, ‘the least of clerics’ (p. 236) and her hagiographer, writes:

Thus, since the auspicious day of the annual commemoration of our blessed mother Theodora is upon us (she who truly appeared to be a gift of God), and has compelled all of us to leave our occupations in the city and to flock together to this revered and inviolate treasury of miracles, it is not right for us to return whence we came empty-handed without having hear any of her good deeds as inspiration. Even though we are not aided by the passage of time, we should not for this reason keep silent about our mother’s revered accomplishments; on the contrary, we should loudly proclaim to the ends [of the world] the fruit of her piety which she grants generously to all, the demonsration of her miracles which have recently appeared and are genuine, an ornament for us Thessalonians. (Talbot, p. 164)

As a very brief overview, here is the account of St Theodora from the Prologue (St Nicholas [Velimirović], The Prologue from Ochrid, Vol. 3, trans. Mother Maria [Birmingham: Lazarica, 1986], p. 254):

A wealthy and devout woman, she lived on the island of Aegina, but, when the Arabs over-ran the island, she moved to Salonica. There, she gave her only daughter to a monastery, where she received the monastic name Theopista. Her husband Theodorinus died very soon, and then Theodora became a nun. She was a great ascetic. She often heard angelic singing, and would say to her sisters: ‘Don’t you hear how wonderfully the angels are singing in heavenly light?’ She entered into rest in 879, and a healing myrrh flowed from her body, which gave healing to many. [Unfortunately, St Nicholas has the year wrong. Talbot notes, ‘The hagiographer carefully details her age at each phase of her career, and also provides some absolute dates, such as her death on 29 August, 6,400 years after the creation of the world, which corresponded with the sixth regnal year of emperor Leo VI ( = 892)’ (p. 160).]

It is worth quoting from the Prima Vita some more detailed accounts of her spiritual life and especially her two major ascetic struggles. First, here is Gregory on St Theodora’s study of the Scriptures:

24. And since she had heard the Lord saying, ‘Search the Scriptures’ (Jn 5:39), when she was ordered by the superior to assume responsibility for the care of the church, she gladly accepted. For just as she loved to [cover] her body with modesty, so she also loved to feast her soul with the constant study and hearing of the Holy Writ, because, as the psalm says, ‘her pleasure is truly in the law of the Lord, and in His law doth she meditate day and night’ (Ps 1:2). Thus she was revealed to be like a tree planted by the brooks of waters, bringing forth the suitable fruit in each season (cf. Ps 1:3). For although we have been given many great commandments by the Creator through which, if we wanted, we could wipe away the wrinkle of the soul and purify our mind from the mist of worldly cares in order to receive the incomprehensible divine illumination, she managed to carry out each of them in an extraordinary manner. (Talbot, pp. 184-5)

Apart from the usual obediences, St Theodora’s first major podvig (ascetic feat) came when her only surviving child, her daughter St Theopiste, was transferred to her monastery from another one. It seems the Saint, not yet having completely mortified her natural affections in accordance with our Lord’s words in Lk 14:26, was excessively attached to her daughter and told the abbess that she could not bear to see her poorly clothed and subsisting on meagre food. Even after a rebuke, she was found to be neglecting spiritual instructions to dote on the girl, and they defended themselves calling each other ‘daugher’ and ‘mother’. Finally, the abbess said to them: ‘By dispensation of the Father and Son and Holy Spirit and all the holy fathers and my sinful self, from this moment on you are forbidden to speak even one word to each other’ (Talbot, p. 188). At this point, Gregory writes:

29. . . . O the docility of those spiritual sheep, who know they should heed only the voice of their shepherd and refuse to follow any other! . . . How great a fire must have inflamed their emotions, and what kind of a sharply whetted sword must have cut their hearts grievously, as they did not speak to each other at all for so many years, especially when a burdensome task was imposed on one of them and they wanted to talk to one another like sisters, to help each other, and could not! How often did the Devil craftily prompt them to disobey the order, and they tearfully entreated the Lord, saying, ‘Set a watch, O Lord, on my mouth and a strong door about my lips’ (Ps 140:3 LXX)? They were never seen to utter a complaint against the superior for suppressing their use of words and not allowing them to use speech as do all humans who are endowed with the ability to talk. For they were often consoled by repeating to themselves the divine verse of David, ‘I waited patiently for the Lord, and He attended to me’ (Ps 39:1 LXX).

30. Thus they spent fifteen years, never conversing with each other. But in the fifteenth year of the penance it so happened that the blessed Theodora fell ill, and all the nuns begged the superior to release them [from their penance]. And she did so after delivering many admonitions. And by the grace of God [from then on] both of them remained unaffected and untroubled by their bond of kinship, and up to the time of the blessed Theodora’s departure unto the Lord they conversed and talked with each other as with the other nuns, giving no thought to their relationship. Nor hereafter did the daughter address her mother as mother, nor did the mother address her daughter as daughter. The blessed Theodora, through her total submission and true humility, totally destroyed and trampled under foot every proud vanity and arrogance that is hateful to God, and banished all passions from her boy and soul through the power of the Holy Spirit which guided and protected her; and while still living this transitory life she died, wanting to live the eternal life. (Talbot, pp. 189-90)

Gregory describes St Theodora’s second major podvig immediately after this, beginning in chapter 31 of the Life. During a particularly cold winter, a cauldron of water was spilled next to where St Theodora’s rush-mat for sleeping lay, and without asking a blessing of her abbess, the Saint moved the mat away from the water. Thus, the abbess, in order to bring her ‘to anchor in the calm of obedience’ (Talbot, p. 191), ordered her to spend the night in the courtyard of the monastery. According to Gregory:

33. When these words struck the ears of [Theodora], who had not at all given up hope that she would fall into many temptations, because of the blessed state which lies in hope for those who struggle, she prepared herself to endure all suffering, in accordance with the one who said, ‘If thou comest to serve the Lord, prepare thy soul for temptations. Set thy heart aright and constantly endure, and depart not away, that thou mayest be increased at thy last end’ (Sir 2:1-3). And again making her customary obeisance [to the superior], she went out to the assigned spot, paying no heed to the extremely bitter weather and the torrential downpour of rain at that time and icy cold and violent blasts of wind. Thus from evening on she spent the night outdoors, sitting on both feet [i.e., she was squatting down on her heels]. For she was unable to sit down all the way because of the rainwater flowing beneath her. O, what a marvel! The angels were astonished to see such a terrible sight, a woman, the soft and weakest vessel (I Pet 3:7), thus spending the night in the open air, being assailed by constant pelting of rain and frozen by the cold because of the order of the mother superior. What person now or in the past has ever known a woman to show such obedience and to wrestle in such contests? Around midnight when the rain stopped and the bitter air became even colder because a lot of snow had fallen, the raindrops froze and stuck to the tattered garment that covered her head and shoulders.

34. When it was time for the nocturnal psalmody, the superior assembled the nuns in the chapel, and clearly described her [Theodora’s] noble struggles, and accordingly heaped much praise on her for each of them; and through her [praises] she magnified [Theodora] and devised precepts of obedience for the nuns. Subsequently, like water flowing downhill unimpeded from a spring, her flowing speech came to her present feat of endurance; greatly marveling at these [trials], she said, ‘I am sure that God might not unreasonably number her among the forty martyrs who endured bitter cold and wind for His sake and might deem her worthy of the same rewards, because although she had lived a life of luxurious abundance amid the pleasures of the world, when she was sore tried by suffering in our cenobitic community, she never turned her attention to the sensation of pain, but even now, when she is congealed by the cold, she endures because of her love for God.’

And while she was still speaking, one of the nuns, who was the blood sister of the superior, said to her quietly: ‘This very night, my lady, I saw a luminous and brilliant crown, whose beauty and brilliance is impossible for me to describe, descending from heaven. And as I was wondering to whom this brilliant crown belonged, I heard a voice saying: “This is Theodora’s.”’ And since the superior was afraid that the blessed Theodora might somehow hear this and be lifted up with pride and fall into condemnation (I Tim 3:6), like a wise and knowledgeable person she gave thanks to God and said, ‘Be careful, my sister, and take care to tell no one what you saw.’

35. And she immediately ordered the blessed [Theodora] to come into the church. So she entered, all white with snow on her exterior, while her soul within was shining with heavenly light. And again making her customary obeisance, she asked for forgiveness and would not rise until she heard the words of pardon. Afterwards, when she was asked privately by the nuns how she had spent the night, taking confidence in her love for them she said: ‘Believe me, my sisters, once I accepted with utter faith the penance [imposed] by the superior, I did not experience rain or any other painful affliction during the night, but was joyful and happy and seemed to be sitting in a bath.’ (Talbot, pp. 191-3)

Finally, I urge all to read, in chapter 16-19 (Talbot, pp. 231-5) of Gregory’s account of the translation of St Theodora’s relics, appended to the Vita, the story of the healing from smallpox of the narrator’s little sister Martha that prompted him to tell of the life and miracles of St Theodora. It is a touching personal account, as Gregory writes, ‘Tears come to me as I summon up in my mind the image of that child, with most of her limbs lifeless and hanging limp from every part of her body; such was the tension in both tendons from the severe hemorrhage’ (Talbot, p. 233). After two visions of the Saint, the little girl is healed: ‘For shortly thereafter the girl became as healthy as she had been before her illness, and walking on her own feet she came with her mother to the sarcophagus of the blessed Theodora, her savior, and offered up the thanksgiving which was due to God Who loves mankind and to the saint’ (Talbot, p. 235).

According to this site, St Theodora’s monastery ‘ceased to operate as a monastery in the 18th c. and its katholikon became a parish church. The current temple was built in 1937 in place of an 18th-c. one, which was destroyed in the fire of 1917. In 1975 it became a men’s monastery. Below the wing which looks onto Hermes Street the foundations of the Byzantine katholikon are preserved.’ There is another interesting page on St Theodora here. In the icon above, she is depicted with her daughter, St Theopiste.

One final point: I am somewhat troubled by Talbot’s introduction to the Life of St Theodora, because of the implication on pp. 159-60, and especially on p. 161, in the reference to the Saint’s daughter, St Theopiste, as an ‘ambitious abbess’, that the glorification of St Theodora was the result of some sort of scheming plot, ‘a carefully orchestrated campaign’, as Talbot says (p. 159). Though such a view may be in keeping with the hermeneutics of suspicion so frequently cultivated in academia, it is anathema to Orthodox Christians, who believe the holiness of the Saints to be revealed by God and only recognised by human beings.