TWO FINAL SAINTS
Well, no requests received so I've picked the final extracts myself. It did occur to me that all my choices so far have been men so I thought I'd restore the balance with the stories of two feisty ladies, very different and separated in time by over a thousand years, but each in her own way a wonderful representative of all that is best in the Christian community. And that's your lot. If you want to read the other 234 stories, buy the book!
Cassiane, Hymnographer (September 7)
A beautiful and feisty woman, and one of the great poets and composers of Byzantium, Cassiane* is certainly one of the more intriguing saints of the Orthodox Church. Add to that a romantic ending and we have a story worthy of Hollywood.
She was born into a wealthy family in Constantinople in about 810. She grew up to be a beautiful young woman and was eventually chosen to participate in the “bride show,” where Emperor Theophilos was to choose his wife from a group of eligible girls. Theophilos was left with a final choice between Cassiane and an equally beautiful girl called Theodora. By tradition, he was to give a golden apple to the girl of his choice. Looking at the apple, he said to Cassiane, “From woman came the worst in the world” (referring to Eve). Cassiane looked at him calmly and replied, “From woman also came the best” (referring to the Virgin Mary). Not liking to be upstaged by a woman, Theophilos gave the apple to Theodora. In fact, this was no great hardship for Cassiane as she had for a long time decided to devote her life to the Lord. In 843, she founded a convent on the outskirts of
Constantinople and became its first abbess. She was a fierce and outspoken opponent of iconoclasm, a heresy Theophilos supported, and she was severely punished, including being flogged. After the restoration of the icons, she was left in peace until her death in 865.
Cassiane further demonstrated her determination and single-mindedness in the field for which she is mainly remembered today: hymnography. This was regarded very much as a male preserve at that time, and she was subject to much scorn for her efforts in writing hymns. Nevertheless, she persevered, and her critics were confounded when she began to produce some of the most sublime works of the period. With the encouragement of Theodore of Studion and most of the leading churchmen of Constantinople, she wrote a great number of hymns, of which about fifty survive and twenty-three are still used in Orthodox services. She also wrote many aphorisms and epigrams which give further insight into her character, for example, “I hate the rich man moaning as if he were poor.”
Her hymns are of great spiritual beauty, both in the words and the music.**
George Poulos makes the point that “from Mozart to the present day, it is difficult to recall a single classical composer on the distaff side, but hidden among the great hymnographers of all time is the exceptional female creator of church music whose creations have been heard for centuries in Orthodox churches, where the members are unaware that a woman wrote the inspirational melody.” Cassiane’s greatest creation is The Hymn of Cassiane, which is sung every Holy Tuesday:
Sensing Thy divinity, O Lord, a woman of many sins
takes it upon herself to become a myrrh-bearer,
And in deep mourning brings before Thee fragrant oil
in anticipation of Thy burial, crying:
“Woe to me! For night surrounds me, dark and moonless,
and stings my lustful passion with the love of sin.
Receive the wellsprings of my tears,
O Thou who gatherest the waters of the oceans into clouds.”
And the romantic story? It is said that Theophilus, towards the end of his life, still felt love for Cassiane and wanted to see her once more before he died. He rode to the monastery where Cassiane was writing her hymn, but because she still felt some love for him and feared this would distract her from her vows, she hid, leaving the hymn on the table. Theophilus found her cell empty, but noticed the unfinished hymn. He read through it to the end, where Cassiane had written: “I will kiss Thine immaculate feet / and dry them with the locks of my hair.” Remembering her beauty and intelligence and his youthful arrogance, he cried and added the line, “Those very feet whose sound Eve heard at dusk in Paradise / and hid herself in fear.” He left, and Cassiane returned to finish the hymn.
* There are many variations on her name, including Kassia, Kassiane, Ikasia, and
** Several CDs of Cassiane’s hymns are available.
THANKS TO A READER, I HAVE JUST FOUND AN OUTSTANDINGLY BEAUTIFUL RENDERING OF CASSIANE'S HYMN ON YOUTUBE
Maria Skobtsova (Mother Maria of Paris), Righteous Martyr (July 20)
The story of Maria Skobtsova reminds us that the Second World War saw the martyrdom of many Christians, including Orthodox, who in one way or another fought against Nazi oppression. However, as a twice-married, formerly socialist politician, intellectual, and poet, she is certainly not a typical Orthodox saint! Born Elizaveta Pilenko into an aristocratic Latvian family in 1891, she became involved in the turmoil of radical politics in the lead-up to the 1917 revolution. Her exploits from her marriage to a Bolshevik in 1910 to her flight from Russia with her second husband and family in about 1919 read like an adventure story. However, we will take up the story in 1923, when the family arrived in Paris and were at last able to settle down.
By 1926, Elizaveta’s marriage had broken down, and after the death from influenza of her youngest daughter, she went through a period of deep spiritual anguish. As she emerged from the double trauma, she found “a new road before me and a new meaning in life, to be a mother for all, for all who need maternal care, assistance, or protection.” She set about helping the many destitute Russian refugees in Paris. Granted an ecclesiastical divorce, she took monastic vows in 1932 with the name Maria. She rented a house which she turned into a shelter for the refugees, complete with a chapel and soup kitchen. Her “cell” was a bed behind the boiler in the basement. Maria’s aim was to build a new kind of “monasticism in the world.” Together with Fr. Dimitry Klepinin and Ilya Fondaminsky (both also martyred by the Nazis), she formed the Orthodox Action movement, committed to putting into action the social implications of the Gospel message. Maria’s work among the poor and her writings, full of practical and compassionate theology, might alone have put her among the revered and blessed. But then the Germans invaded France and occupied Paris.
Although she continued her work with the poor, Maria now found a new cause, helping the Jews. Along with Fr. Dimitry and her son Yuri, she organized forged documents and escape routes to the unoccupied south of France, helped hide Jews from the Nazis, and smuggled food into the camps for those already rounded up. Well aware that she was under Gestapo surveillance, Maria continued her activities until, on February 8, 1943, she was arrested, together with Yuri and Fr. Dimitry.
Maria was taken to the women’s concentration camp at Ravensbrück, where she did her best to continue her work of looking after the “less fortunate,” maintaining her spiritual life by reciting passages from the New Testament and some of the services from memory. Her earlier ascetic lifestyle and her spiritual strength helped her cope with the terrible privations of the camp, and she survived almost to the end of the war. Eventually, however, she became so ill that she could no longer pass the roll call for work. As the Russian troops were approaching Berlin and gunfire could be heard in the distance, she was sent to the gas chamber on Holy Saturday 1945. “At the Last Judgment,” she wrote, “I shall not be asked whether I was successful in my ascetic exercises, nor how many bows and prostrations I made. Instead I shall be asked, ‘Did I feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick and the prisoners?’ That is all I shall be asked.” On February 11, 2004, Maria was formally added to the Synaxarion of saints, along with her son Yuri, Fr. Dimitry Klepinin, and Ilia Fondaminsky. She is also honored by the state of Israel as one of the “Righteous among the nations.” Metropolitan Anthony Bloom called her “a saint of our day and for our day, a
woman of flesh and blood, possessed by the love of God who stands face to face with the problems of this century.”
© Conciliar Press 2013
The book is available direct from Conciliar Press at a price of $18.95 + postage: http://www.conciliarpress.com/products/Traveling-Companions%3A-Walking-with-the-Saints-of-the-Church.html