Wednesday, April 08, 2020

Spy Wednesday 2020: The Hymn of Kassiani

O Lord, the woman who had fallen into many sins, perceiving Thy divinity, having taken up the office of a myrrh-bearer, lamenting, bringeth Thee sweet-smelling oils before Thy burial, saying,  “Woe is me! for the desire for unchastity and the love of sin are become for me a dark and moonless night! Receive the font of my tears, Thou who bringest the water of the sea out of the clouds; bend Thyself down to the groanings of my heart, Thou who did incline the heavens by the ineffable emptying of Thyself! I shall kiss Thine immaculate feet, and again, I will wipe them with the tresses of my head, even those feet whose tread at dusk did so frighten Eve in Paradise when she heard it that she hid herself for fear. Who will examine the fullness of my sins and the depths of Thy judgments? Deliverer of souls, my Savior, do not overlook Thy handmaid, Thou who hast mercy without measure!” (A hymn of the nun Kassiani.)


In the Byzantine Rite, the Divine Office on the Wednesday of Holy Week is particularly occupied with two themes: the betrayal of Judas, and the anointing of the Lord’s feet in the house of Simon the Leper. This latter episode is read from the Gospel of St Matthew, 26, 6-16, at the liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts, and is the subject of this extraordinary hymn, the last of Orthros, written by a nun named Kassiani (or Kassia), who lived in the first half of the ninth century.

She was born in Constantinople around 805, and as a young woman, presented as a possible bride to Theophilos, the last iconoclast Emperor. When he said to her, for some tactless reason, “from a woman came the worse things” (“ta khiro” in Greek, i.e. the fall of man, which began with Eve), she replied “And from a woman came the better things” (“ta kritto”, i.e. the redemption of man, which began with Mary). This rebuttal made Theophilos choose another, the Empress and future Saint Theodora, who played a decisive roll in putting an end to iconoclasm.

Kassiani founded a convent, of which she served as abbess, and even suffered for the faith, being scourged by Theophilus for her opposition to iconoclasm. A number of her hymns are extant, many of them still used in the Byzantine Rite to this day; she is one of the very first composers whose original scores are known and useable. A traditional story relates that as she was composing this hymn in the garden of her monastery in the late afternoon, and had gotten as far as “I shall kiss Thine immaculate feet, and again, I will wipe them with the tresses of my head,” a sister came to tell her that Theophilos had arrived. Not wishing to see him, she ran to hide, leaving behind her writing implements. Theophilos entered the garden and found them, and added the words “even those feet whose tread at dusk did so frighten Eve in Paradise when she heard it that she hid herself for fear.” When he had left, Kassiani returned to the garden, found the paper with his addition, and decided to keep it.

A concert recording of the original Greek text.


Κύριε, ἡ ἐν πολλαῖς ἁμαρτίαις περιπεσοῦσα Γυνή, τὴν σὴν αἰσθομένη Θεότητα, μυροφόρου ἀναλαβοῦσα τάξιν, ὀδυρομένη μύρα σοι πρὸ τοῦ ἐνταφιασμοῦ κομίζει. Οἴμοι! λέγουσα, ὅτι νύξ μοι ὑπάρχει, οἶστρος ἀκολασίας, ζοφώδης τε καὶ ἀσέληνος, ἔρως τῆς ἁμαρτίας. Δέξαι μου τὰς πηγὰς τῶν δακρύων, ὁ νεφέλαις διεξάγων τῆς θαλάσσης τὸ ὕδωρ· κάμφθητί μοι πρὸς τοὺς στεναγμοὺς τῆς καρδίας, ὁ κλίνας τοὺς οὐρανούς, τῇ ἀφάτῳ σου κενώσει· καταφιλήσω τοὺς ἀχράντους σου πόδας, ἀποσμήξω τούτους δὲ πάλιν τοῖς τῆς κεφαλῆς μου βοστρύχοις, ὧν ἐν τῷ Παραδείσῳ Εὔα τὸ δειλινὸν κρότον τοῖς ὠσὶν ἠχηθεῖσα, τῷ φόβῳ ἐκρύβη. Ἁμαρτιῶν μου τὰ πλήθη καὶ κριμάτων σου ἀβύσσους, τίς ἐξιχνιάσει; ψυχοσῶστα Σωτήρ μου, μή με τὴν σὴν δούλην παρίδῃς, ὁ ἀμέτρητον ἔχων τὸ ἔλεος.

The Church Slavonic version.

Господи, яже во многия грехи впадшая жена, Твое ощутившая Божество, мироносицы вземши чин, рыдающи миро Тебе прежде погребения приносит: увы мне глаголющи! яко нощь мне есть разжжение блуда невоздержанна, мрачное же и безлунное рачение греха. Приими моя источники слез, иже облаками производяй моря воду. Приклонися к моим воздыханием сердечным, приклонивый небеса неизреченным Твоим истощанием: да облобыжу пречистеи Твои нозе, и отру сия паки главы моея власы, ихже в раи Ева, по полудни, шумом уши огласивши, страхом скрыся. Грехов моих множества, и судеб Твоих бездны кто изследит? Душеспасче Спасе мой, да мя Твою рабу не презриши, иже безмерную имеяй милость.

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