It seems to me, we live in Kassiani times. Holy Week is approaching and with it the singing of the sticheron on the sinful woman, followed shortly by the Holy Saturday kanon, which is at least partly by the same poet. But not only that: just a couple of years ago, the English singer-songwriter Frank Turner wrote a song about Kassiani and her unfulfilled love affair with Emperor Theophilos. The TV series Vikings features the same poetic saint as a beautiful Byzantine seductress engaged in a secret romance with Amir Ziyadat Allah. She has entered twenty-first-century pop culture, cast as an object of modern hopes and fantasies. And an even more recent event: a few days ago, Cappella Romana released a full CD with Hymns of Kassiani. These are indeed Kassiani times. Or maybe instead of “Kassiani” we should say “Kassia,” which was her historical name? In fact, that is really what I want to ponder in this brief essay, in this time of the beautiful composer’s comeback on the world stage: what do we call her?
Frank Turner begins his song by letting her introduce herself: “I’ve heard that they call me the woman who has fallen into many sins…” He draws on a long line of more of less legendary traditions that are spun around her life. There is love and unreciprocated love. Kassia was still in love with Theophilos after the renowned bride show, longing for him despite her life as a nun, but, as Wikipedia and many online sources will tells us, “She did not want to let her old passion overcome her monastic vow.” She decided not to act on her erotic fantasies and her deep yearning. Kassia is one of relatively few saints—mostly women—who are explicitly associated with sex and lust. Not bad for a nun! But there is something about the balance. Whose is her passion? I think she must be gravitating toward the Mary Magdalene complex.
If one were to put all my essays having to do with Origen in a single document, it would be about two hundred pages of material. I also did multiple (AFR) podcast episodes on Sts. Basil and Gregory the Theologian’s Philocalia of Origen, which totals almost five hours. On July 14, 2020, I was interviewed for an hour on Fr. Tom Soroka’s AFR podcast Ancient Faith Today Live to discuss the life of Origen. Surely some will be asking themselves, “Why would anyone dedicate so much time and effort talking about a condemned heretic?” This question reveals an ecclesiastical philosophy among a portion of the Eastern Orthodox Church. This philosophy of pious ignorance presupposes that to be truly Orthodox is to be zealously hostile and excessively uncharitable concerning pretty much any controversial figure of antiquity. However, it takes two to create controversy. Too often do we label the other as “controversial,” ignoring how such actions are designed to fulfill the very accusation.
American society is polarized to an extent that one can hardly recall. It is as if we have entered a cold civil war. There is another name for this war: culture war, which is a literal translation of the German Kulturkampf. Culture wars are not proper wars, and they are not about culture. They are ideological clashes.
Ideologies are secular constructs. They emerged from the European Enlightenment as substitutes for what its inventors considered to be a delusional religious perception of the world. Ironically, these ideologies have affected not only secularized societies but also the Christian churches with which they are supposed to be incompatible. Hierarchs, priests, and theologians all too often indulge in these culture wars, throwing themselves into ideological battle.
“In the morning, while it was still very dark, Jesus got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed” (Mark 1:35).
Jesus may have prayed about several of the things that worry us today: the feeling that the world has been overrun by elements of evil can be overwhelming. So, it is good to remember that Jesus sustained himself by withdrawing to pray alone, often in the wilderness. And many were inspired to follow him there, particularly in the early centuries of Christianity.
While most of these Early Christian desert elders were men praying to God in the rough terrain of the hills outside of Palestinian villages and above the Nile, there were women as well who withdrew into the desert, seeking to truly live out the command of Christ. They, too, have left us a treasury of spiritual wisdom in their short sayings—apophthegmata—similar in form to the earliest remembered sayings of Jesus. Even within the Greek collection, the Sayings of the Desert Fathers, (Apophthegmata Patrum), there are a trio of women elders remembered for their God-loving teaching.
The advice and exhortation of the Desert Mothers make them excellent spiritual guides in today’s troubling world. Their admirable inner stillness can be a helpful role model in conflicted times. In personal sessions between spiritual elder and disciple, they taught their followers to imitate Christ and to face off temptation, often leaving them with a Saying meant to personally guide their prayer throughout the day, uphold their courage, and inspire the spiritual warrior within each one of them to serve the highest good in the world.