A sinner helping other sinners not to sin
Today we remember Venerable Theodora. Like so many lives of the saints, her life is amazing and instructive. It is not the run of the mill “she was holy all her life and did not even cry when she was a child” story, nor even a story about a holy “nun”, although she was one in a manner of speaking.
I spoke briefly about her at today’s liturgy. The spectacle of her repentance is to great for me, who knows little about repentance, to even think about, much less talk about, but we must always try to talk about holy things for our own edification and the edification of those around us. As a priest, I am even more responsible for this, even though I feel unable to fully understand the immensity of her podvig. This is the lot of the priest; he is a sinner trying to help other sinners not to sin.
The Gospel reading for Venerable Theodora is the same as that for St Mary of Egypt – the passage about the woman caught in adultery whom the Jewish leaders wanted to stone, but after Christ confronted them, they slunk away, leaving her alone and safe. At this point, our Lord spoke to her:
“…Woman, where are those thine accusers? hath no man condemned thee? (11) She said, No man, Lord. And Jesus said unto her, Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more.” (John 8:10-11)
This reading should give you some sort of idea about Theodora. She was an adulteress, having fallen into this sin one time. Her conscience so tormented her that she cut her hair, dressed as a man, and gained admittance to a monastery, in order to offer up repentance to God.
This may seem strange on two counts. One may ask why did she pretend to be a man? The reason probably lies in the circumstances of her time – there were many men’s monasteries and fewer for women. These were dangerous times, and women were at great risk living in the wilds without protection. She was able to pass as a man easily because monastic clothing is loose, and the commonness of eunuchs in that society would explain away her beardlessness.
Perhaps some may think it was strange that in order to repent from her sin against her husband, she left him secretly. For most people who fall into adultery, this would not be the right option, but Theodora’s soul was of especially fine quality, full of compunction, endurance and courage. The end of her story shows that her decision was the right one, for her and her beloved husband (and of course, a cast-off child that she raised in the fear of God as her own).
Although her actions were certainly novel, they are not the amazing and fearfully wonderful part of her story.
Theodora lived incognito as the monk Theodore, and her exemplary life attracted the malice of the devil. A loose woman with child accused her of being the father, and she accepted this accusation without complaint, causing her to be expelled from the monastery, with the newborn infant boy to care for.
How can we lazy and indolent moderns understand the immensity of her struggles? She not only endured slander and shame without murmuring, but also great danger and suffering, since she lived in the wilderness with few resources. Her temptations were manifold – cold and heat, hunger and demonic visitations. All of this could be ended by her divulging her true identity.
After seven years, the abbot, seeing her repentance, allowed her and the child Back in the monastery, and she died two years later. At that time, no doubt when the monks were preparing the her body for burial (we wash the body with holy water with oil), her identity was discovered. Her husband found out about her death, attended her funeral, and ended up living as a monk in her former cell.
How inscrutable are God’s ways! It is true, and we say we believe that:
“… we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.” (Rom 8:28)
How easy it is to say this, and how difficult to completely trust in God and live according to what we say! Venerable Theodora has much to teach us. Her repentance, meekness and endurance are bold accusers of our mediocre lives.
From the Prologue (http://www.westsrbdio.org/prolog/my.html?day=11&month=September):
Theodora was from Alexandria and the wife of a young man. Persuaded by a fortune-teller, she committed adultery with another man and immediately felt the bitter pangs of conscience.
She cut her hair, dressed in men’s clothing and entered the Monastery of Octodecatos, under the male name of Theodore. Her labor, fasting, vigilance, humbleness and tearful repentance amazed the entire brotherhood.
When a promiscuous young woman slandered her, saying that Theodore had made her pregnant, Theodora did not want to justify herself, but considered this slander as a punishment from God for her earlier sin.
Banished from the monastery, she spent seven years living in the forest and wilderness and, in addition, caring for the child of that promiscuous girl. She overcame all diabolical temptations: she refused to worship Satan, refused to accept food from the hands of a soldier, and refused to heed the pleas of her husband to return to him-for all of this was only a diabolical illusion, and as soon as Theodora made the sign of the Cross everything vanished as smoke.
After seven years, the abbot received her back into the monastery, where she lived for two more years, and reposed in the Lord.
Only then did the monks learn that she was a woman; an angel appeared to the abbot and explained everything to him. Her husband came to the burial, and then remained in the cell of his former wife until his repose.
St. Theodora possessed much grace from God: she tamed wild beasts, healed infirmities, and brought forth water from a dry well. Thus, God glorified a true penitent, who with heroic patience repented nine years for just one sin.
She reposed in the year 490.
Priest Seraphim Holland 2009. St Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church, McKinney, Texas
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