O Lord Thou shalt open my lips and my mouth shall declare Thy praise.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

We Have Another Penitent

Today on the Byzantine Rite is the Feast of St. Theodora of Alexandria, penitent. You can read her story in detail here and more accounts here. I love discovering new saints and discovering a penitent is a treasure. I have a great devotion to penitents. I have already written about St. Mary Magdalene, St. Mary of Egypt, St. Pelagia of Antioch, and St. Margaret of Cortona. I find it interesting how all the penitents became nuns after their conversion. Sts. Mary Magdalene, Mary of Egypt and Pelagia of Antioch specifically became hermits. St. Margaret of Cortona founded an order of nuns and St. Theodora, hiding her identity, also became a nun.

St. Theodora was a young married woman who was tempted by a rich man to commit adultery with him after he was in turn tempted by her youthful beauty. Unsuccessful, he bribed a harlot to convince Theodora to lie with him. She told Theodora that any sin committed in secret was not seen by God and didn't count. Convinced by this lie, Theodora committed adultery with the rich suitor. Coming to her senses, she realized the malice of her sin and beat herself furiously and without mercy. Her conscience tortured her as she tortured her body, so she went to a revered abbess at a local monastery to relate her tale and find some relief. The abbess told her of God's mercy and St. Mary Magdalene who washed Our Blessed Lord's feet with her tears, dried them with her hair, and anointed them with spikenard. Resolving to do penance for her sin, she decided to disguise her sinful identity and enter a monastery of men, so that no one would find her.

The abbot denied her entrance to test her resolve and allowed her to enter after she spent the night at the gate. "Theodore" amazed the other monks by her strict observance of fasting and all night prayer. After eight years, on one occasion she happened to be sent on an errand to buy provisions, being instructed to stay at a certain monastery if there was a delay and she needed a place to stay. A young woman was also staying at the guest house and not realizing that the monk was really a nun, tried to seduce "Theodore". Not surprisingly unsuccessful, she went and seduced another guest, one who really was a man, and became pregnant. The young harlot's father questioned her about the identity of his grandson's father and she claimed it was Monk Theodore. Theodora's abbot initially didn't believe the accusation, but when the child was forced on the monastery, St. Theodora was expelled in disgrace. She accepted this trial as further expiation for her adultery years before, raising this adopted child in a hut near the monastery.

After seven years the abbot re-admitted Theodora to the monastery upon the pleading of the monks. She lived a hermit in the monastery with the child. After a further two years, following a private revelation to the abbot, she was allowed to once again live as a part of the community and soon her sanctity became apparent to the other monks. Before she died she instructed her step-son, "to obey the abbot, to preserve tranquility, to be meek and without malice, to avoid obscenity and silliness, to love non-covetousness, and not to neglect their communal prayer." One last time she asked God forgiveness for her adultery and passed peacefully while praying with her step-son.

In a second revelation, the abbot learned Monk Theodore's true identity and to remove any shame and ill-repute relating to the bastard child, revealed her bosom to prove she was a woman and not the father of the child. Now that it was known she was doing penance for adultery, news of her death reached her former husband, who himself entered the monastery and the step-son too became a monk of the same monastery and eventually its abbot. Now it will be asked, if she was to expiate her sin of adultery, why didn't she just return to her husband and be faithful? Why would God allow her to live as a nun instead of being faithful to her husband? Isn't that just more infidelity? "For my thoughts are not your thoughts: nor your ways my ways, saith the Lord. For as the heavens are exalted above the earth, so are my ways exalted above your ways, and my thoughts above your thoughts." (Is 55:8-9) Now it seems clear that God wanted both of them to enter monasteries and that their marriage was something spoken between them on their own accord, independent from God's will for them. God gave them suffering so that they could expiate their sins and the sins of others and brought them each to a monastery on His own time because that was His will for them. We can try as we might to build up our own lives according to our wills, but God always gets His way...

Dismissal hymns from the Divine Office (roughly equate to the collects of the Latin Rite):

Troparion: (Tone 8)
In thee the image was preserved with exactness, O Mother; for taking up thy cross, thou didst follow Christ, and by thy deeds thou didst teach us to overlook the flesh, for it passeth away, but to attend to the soul since it is immortal. Wherefore, O righteous Theodora, thy spirit rejoiceth with the Angels.

Kontakion: (Tone 2)
With fasting didst thou consume thy body utterly; with vigilant prayer didst thou entreat thy Fashioner, that thou shouldst receive the complete forgiveness of the sin thou hadst wrought; which receiving in truth, thou didst mark out the path of repentance for us all.