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.
“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.
At the initiative of the Center of Ecumenical, Missiological and Environmental Studies “Metropolitan Panteleimon Papageorgiou” (CEMES), an International Scientific Symposium on “Deaconesses. Past-Present-Future” was organized in Thessaloniki (1/31-2/2, 2020) at the International Hellenic University (IHU), to which its Inter-Orthodox English-speaking Post-graduate Program “Orthodox Ecumenical Theology” belongs.
In addition to ΙΗU, 4 other institutions were registered as co-organizers: The Orthodox Christian Studies Center of Fordham University, St. Philaret’s Christian Orthodox Institute of Moscow, the Orthodox Academy of Crete, and Saint Phoebe Center of Deaconess.
The symposium focused on the Rejuvenation of the Order of Deaconesses with a multi-layer (biblical, liturgical, Patristic, archeological, canonical, theological, and historical) analysis, but also with a critical theological assessment of the recent developments in the Orthodox and other churches.
Extremely encouraging were the Messages sent by the Ecumenical Patriarch, the Patriarch of Alexandria, and the Archbishop of Athens. Continue reading →
The question of women deacons continues to be discussed in the Catholic Church, and questions about women are again in the news. Whether the discussion is about priestly celibacy or about ordaining women to the diaconate, the common denominator is that women are unclean. In the Roman Catholic Church, marriage is a diriment impediment for priestly orders and women cannot be ordained as deacons. The below is excerpted from Chapter 3, “Altar Service” in Phyllis Zagano’s forthcoming Paulist Press book Women: Icons of Christ, which traces the development of the diaconal ministries performed by women, ordained and not ordained as deacons.
BARRED FROM THE SACRED
What is the problem with women at the altar?
We can begin with a view from the fourteenth century. Matthew Blastares was a Byzantine monk, theologian, and canonist. Around 1335, he published a work known as the Syntagma, a compilation of then-known ecclesiastical laws….Blastares’s alphabetically arranged work cites canons from the Nomocanon, and it became well-known and well-used, as it presented Church law and civil law where applicable in twenty-four cross-referenced divisions.
As a commentator on laws, Blastares has something interesting to say about women deacons. Continue reading →