Thursday, September 24, 2020

The Feast of St Thecla, First-Martyr Among Woman

In the calendar of the Byzantine Rite and both Forms of the Ambrosian Rite, today is the feast of the virgin and martyr St Thecla; in the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite, she is kept as a commemoration on the preceding day.

An 18th century Russian icon of St Thecla, with episodes of her life. (Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)
Her story is told in a document known as the Acts of Paul and Thecla, generally dated to roughly 180 AD; the narration is often confused and disjointed, and I here give only a very basic summary of it. When St Paul went to Iconium (Acts 14, 1), he was received by a man named Onesiphorus, whose house (i.e. the community gathered in his house) is mentioned twice in II Timothy; in verse 3, 11, Paul also mentions “the persecutions and suffering such as I underwent at Antioch, Iconium and Lystra.” Inspired by his preaching particularly on the subject of virginity, one of the young women present, Thecla, determined not to marry the man to whom her parents had betrothed her, a nobleman called Thamyris. The latter, blaming Paul for his fiancée’s change of heart, hauled him before the city officials, who remanded the Apostle to prison. When Thecla visited Paul there, she was discovered by Thamyris, who then had them both brought before the governor of the city; Paul was scourged and expelled from Iconium, and Thecla condemned to be burnt alive.

As is so often the case, nature refused to cooperate with the persecutors of one of God’s Saints, and the fire was extinguished by a sudden rain. Thecla was then let go, and after finding Paul, accompanied him to Antioch, where she was assaulted by a powerful man named Alexander. For rebuffing his advances, she was twice condemned to the wild beasts, which on the first occasion refused to touch her; on the second, one of them, a lioness, defended her from the rest, and was herself killed in the process. The governor, impressed by this miracle, released her; she then went to find Paul again, catching up with him at Myra (later the see of St Nicholas). From there she returned to Iconium, and then went to Seleucia in Asia Minor, where she lived an ascetic life in a cave for 72 years.
The apse of the ruined church of St Thecla in Seleucia, built at the site of her cave by the Emperor Zeno ca. 475. (Image by Klaus-Peter Simon from Wikimedia Commons, GNU Free Documentation License.)
During her time at Seleucia, she made many converts to the Faith, and performed many miraculous healings, which raised the ire of the local pagan physicians. They therefore plotted to assault her, but she was protected from them when the rock wall of her cave opened up to receive her, and closed when she had passed into it. The story ends here, and seems to imply that this was the manner of her death. Her tomb at Seleucia became an important pilgrimage site, and was seen there in the 4th century by St Gregory of Nazianzus and the pilgrim Egeria among others.
This document has often been attributed, at least in its inspiration, to an heretical sect of the later 2nd-century called the Encratites (“the continent”, or more accurately, “the self-controlling”), who completely rejected the use of marriage. It is true that when he is preaching at the house of Onesiphorus, St Paul is represented delivering a set of Beatitudes partly of his own devising which lay strong emphasis on virginity: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God (Matt. 5, 8); blessed are they that have kept the flesh chaste, for they shall become a temple of God (1 Cor. 6, 18-19); blessed are they that control themselves, for God shall speak with them: … blessed are they that have wives as not having them, for they shall receive God for their portion (1 Cor. 7, 29) … blessed are the bodies of the virgins, for they shall be well pleasing to God, and shall not lose the reward of their chastity.” Shortly after this, Thecla’s mother, Theocleia, says to Thamyris, “(Paul) will overturn the city of the Iconians, and your Thecla too besides; for all the women and the young men go in beside him, being taught to fear God and to live in chastity.”
However, the Encratites taught that all sexual activity is intrinsically immoral, even within marriage, and that virginity or perfect continence are necessary for salvation. The “Beatitudes” given above do not say this, nor do they really stray from the words of Paul and Christ Himself in the canonical writings of the New Testament. In point of fact, the closest thing to the Encratite teaching within the story is not said by Paul or Thecla or the narrator, but rather by two characters called Demas and Hermogenes. These are described as “hypocrites” who are “jealous” of Paul, and attribute to him the belief that “(T)here is for you a resurrection in no other way, unless you remain chaste, and pollute not the flesh, but keep it chaste.” But of course, even these words can certainly be understood in a perfectly orthodox sense.
The Preaching of Ss Paul and Barnabas, by Giovanni Paolo Panini, 1744
At her second appearance in the arena with the wild beasts, Thecla baptizes herself by throwing herself into a ditch of water, saying “In the name of Jesus Christ I am baptized on my last day.” Later on, when she departs from Paul to return to Iconium, he says to her, “Go, and teach the word of God.” The first known reference to the Acts of Paul and Thecla is in the treatise On Baptism by Tertullian (cap. xvij in fine), who says that these episodes should not be used to justify women teaching and baptizing, since the document was forged by a priest in Asia Minor, who did this “out of love for Paul”, and having confessed to the forgery, was deposed from his office. St Jerome also refers to them as apocryphal, on the grounds that if they were not, St Luke would have included some mention of the episodes they narrate in the Acts (De viris illustr. 7); they are likewise rejected by a document of the 6th century known as the Gelasian Decree, which lists the books accepted and rejected by the Church.
Despite this diffidence towards the written account of her life, the Church’s tradition has accepted devotion to Thecla as a Saint. In a letter to one of his spiritual daughters, Jerome himself writes that on her death she will be received in heaven by the Virgin Mary, by Miriam, the sister of Moses, and by Thecla, who “shall fly with joy to embrace you.” (Ep. 22, ad Eustochium, cap. 41) St Ambrose, in his treatise On the Virgins (lib. II, 3, 19) also pairs Thecla with the Mother of God: “Let, then, holy Mary instruct you in the discipline of life, and Thecla teach you how to be offered (i.e. how to die), for she, avoiding nuptial intercourse, and condemned through her (would-be) husband’s rage, changed even the disposition of wild beasts by their reverence for virginity.” In his 14th sermon on the Song of Songs, St Gregory of Nyssa comments on the words “His lips are as lilies, dropping a rich myrrh” (5, 13) as follows: “(Myrrh) is contempt for this corporeal life … such myrrh did Paul pour forth from his mouth, mixed with the pure lily of temperance, into the ears of a holy virgin. This was Thecla, who, having nobly received these drops within her soul, mortified the outer man, and extinguished every carnal thought and desire.” (PG 44, 1067-68) Many other references might be adduced to the point.
St Thecla and the Wild Beats; relief probably made in Egypt n the 5th century, now at the Nelson Atkins Museum in Kansas City. (Photo from Wikimedia Commons by R. Huggins, CC BY-SA 3.0)
There is no reason to be surprised at this. Modern scholars of hagiography have long recognized that there are many Saints whose written lives as they have come down to us are, either wholly or in part, not reliable historical documents, but who are nevertheless themselves indisputably real. In St Thecla’s case, we may rightly say that the Church simply recognized this about her a very long ago.
In the traditional Roman prayers for the dying, known as the “Commendation of a soul (to God)”, the last invocation is “And as Thou didst deliver Thy most blessed Virgin and Martyr Thecla from three most cruel torments, so may Thou deign to deliver the soul of this Thy servant, and cause him to rejoice with Thee in the goods of heaven.” Prior to the Tridentine reform, however, this was the only mention of her in the Roman liturgical books; although her feast was celebrated or commemorated almost everywhere else in Europe, in Italy, it was kept only at Milan. She was added to the Roman calendar as a commemoration on the feast of Pope St Linus on September 23, in the first liturgical book to be published after the council of Trent, the breviary issued by Pope St Pius V in 1568, followed two years later by his missal.
As with certain other Saints (Catherine of Alexandria, Gregory the Wonderworker, Timothy), the inclusion of Thecla on the Tridentine calendar is part of the Catholic Church’s answer to the ideas of the Protestants. Despite their supposed emphasis on the teachings of St Paul (whom Luther made the lens by which to read the rest of the Bible), the churches of the Reformation in practice rejected his teaching on virginity and continence from the very start, abolishing the discipline of clerical celibacy, and every form of monasticism or canonical life. This abolition in turn left no formal place at all for women in their institutional life. The figure of Thecla, a personal disciple of St Paul, therefore stands as a witness to the value of virginity, the apostolic origins of the Church’s teaching about it, and the importance of women in consecrated life as both leaders and teachers.
The Duomo of Milan as it stands today is the result of a project which began in 1386, to replace the two cathedrals which had hitherto served the see of St Ambrose. The “winter church” as it is still called in Ambrosian liturgical books, was the smaller of the two, dedicated to the Virgin Mary, and used from the Third Sunday of October, the feast of its Dedication, until Holy Saturday; it stood where the modern cathedral stands, but was much smaller. The larger “summer church”, which was demolished in 1543, stood on the opposite end of the modern Piazza del Duomo; in the Carolingian period, it was endowed with a relic of St Thecla’s skull, and her name was added to its dedication. She is therefore included in the list of Saints in the Nobis quoque of the Ambrosian Mass; within the new church, a large altar is dedicated to her at the end of the left nave.
The altar of St Thecla in the Duomo of Milan, by Luigi Bisi, 1872
In the Byzantine Rite, Thecla is called a “Great Martyr”, the title of those who suffered many different torments, and “Equal to the Apostles.” The texts of her Office refers to her over 20 times as the “first martyr” or “first to contend”, not, of course, to the despite of St Stephen, but as the first among women. For this reason, in the preparation rite of the Divine Liturgy, she is named first among the female martyrs. At Vespers of her feast, one of the hymns sung during the major incensation of the church reads, “O Lord, though Thy chaste First-Martyr was given over to the fire, yet she was not burned up within it, having received Thee as a dewfall, and among the many wild beasts, she remained unassailed, protected by Thy hand, who art the Savior of our souls.”

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