September 11, 2010

The "Secret" Sin of Saint Theodora of Alexandria

St. Theodora of Alexandria (Feast Day - September 11)

Notice, as you read the excerpt from the Life of St. Theodora below, the five stages that lead to the sin of St. Theodora and which are the same five stages we all go through when we sin against the Lord:

1. Assault - When a thought/temptation knocks on the door of our mind; at this point there is no sin.

2. Interaction - This is the stage when we open our mind to the thought; at this point things become dangerous.

3. Consent - At this point you consent to do what the thought is urging you to do; the decision is made and it has taken root, becoming extremely difficult to escape.

4. Captivity - When you finally give in to your consent, you have been defeated; you are now the captive of your thought and have lost your true freedom over yourself.

5. Passion - Being a captive of your thought you are now spiritually sick; this sickness will become worse and worse throughout your life unless you repent and purify your mind of the germ which you allowed to enter your heart.

Below is the tale of St. Theodora, as written by St. Dimitri of Rostov:

"The eyes of the Lord are ten thousand times brighter than the sun, beholding all the ways of men, and considering the most secret parts. He knew all things before they were ever created" (Eccles. 23).

There once lived in the city of Alexandria a noblewoman named Theodora who did not know this truth. She hearkened rather unto the enemy, who whispered to her, saying, "The sin committed secretly, which the sun does not see, is likewise unknown to God." When she learned later that nothing can be concealed from God, great was her repentance!

Abiding with her husband in honorable wedlock, she was tempted in the following way. A wealthy man, young and childish of mind, moved by the devil, was wounded with lust for her, and he tried by every means to lead her into adultery. He sent her costly presents and promised her yet greater gifts, seeking to seduce her by his words. Unable to achieve his wish with these devices, he employed a certain sorceress to bewitch the chaste Theodora, hoping thus to ensnare her in his evil designs. Having Satan as her helper, the sorceress found a convenient time to speak to Theodora concerning the youth.

However, Theodora replied, "Oh, that I could be delivered from that man, who has vexed me for so long! If I hearken unto him, the very sun will be the witness of my sin before God!"

The temptress responded, "Then when the sun sets and the darkness of night falls, do what the youth desires in some secret place, and no one, not even God, shall know of your deed, for the deep darkness of night hides all."

"Oh, how good it would be," said Theodora, "were it true that God did not know the sin which is committed in the night!"

The seductress answered, "It is true; God sees only those sins upon which the sun shines. As for those committed in the dark, how can He see them?"

With such words the temptress ensnared Theodora, who was a young woman, guileless and inexperienced. In this the sorceress was assisted much by the temptations of the demons, whose power is strong, whereas ours is feeble. Theodora consented to the counsel of the evil one, and in the depth of night she committed the sin of adultery. However, with the rising of the sun, the light of the ready mercy of God shone in her heart, for she acknowledged her sin and repented of it, striking herself on the face, reviling herself, and tearing her hair in shame. Thus, the mercy of God, Who desires not the death of a sinner, roused her to repentance and amendment because of her former chastity. Indeed, God sometimes permits man to fall so that, amending himself and rising up, he may labor more earnestly and display more zeal for God, Who has forgiven his sin.

Weeping and grieving over the sin she had committed, Theodora consoled herself somewhat and said, "God does not know of my sin. Nevertheless, it shames me and causes me anguish." Seeking to lighten her sorrow, she went to a convent to visit the abbess, with whom she was acquainted. The abbess, seeing her sorrowful face, questioned her, saying, "What is wrong, my daughter? Have you offended your husband?"

Theodora answered, "No, my lady. I do not know why my heart is so heavy."

The abbess, moved by the Spirit of God and wishing to comfort Theodora, began to speak in an edifying manner and to read to her from the writings of the Fathers. As she was reading a certain homily, she came to this citation from the Gospel: "For there is nothing covered that shall not be revealed; neither hid, that shall not be known. Therefore, whatsoever you have spoken in darkness shall be heard in the light; and that which you have spoken in the ear in closets shall be proclaimed from the housetops" (Matt. 10; Lk. 12).

When Theodora heard these words from the Gospel, she beat herself on the breast and said, "Woe is me, the wretched one! Now I have perished! I have been deceived, thinking that God did not know my sin!" and she struck herself, crying and weeping.

The abbess then discerned the nature of her fall, and she began to ask her exactly what she had done. Because of her weeping, Theodora could scarcely speak, but she succeeded in telling the abbess all in detail, and she fell at her feet, crying, "Forgive me, for I am perishing, and tell me what I should do! Is it possible for me to be saved, or am I lost for all eternity? Can I hope for God's mercy, or must I only despair?"

The abbess said to her, "In hearkening to the enemy you have not done well, my daughter. You were mistaken, thinking that you could hide from God, Who searches the hearts and reins, Who knows the thoughts of men from afar, Whose eye sees even that which has not yet been done. No night, no dark place, is able to conceal the sinner from His all-seeing eye. You have angered God and not kept faith with your husband, my daughter. You have defiled your body and done harm to your soul. Why did you not tell me this when you were being tempted? Then I could have helped you and taught you how to guard yourself from the snares of the enemy. But since the deed is already done, fall down in repentance before God's mercy, pray that He will forgive you, and correct yourself. Do not despair, my daughter, for although you have committed a great sin, God's mercy is yet greater. There is no sin which defeats His love for mankind. Now arise and you will be saved."

The abbess reproved and instructed Theodora, and she guided her onto the path of repentance. She comforted her by speaking of God's compassion, of His unutterable goodness, of His quickness to accept those who repent, and His readiness to forgive those who have transgressed. She reminded Theodora of the sinful woman in the Gospel who washed Christ's feet with her tears and wiped them with the hairs of her head, thereby receiving forgiveness of her sins from God.

Theodora gave heed to her good instructress, and having stored these things in her heart, she said, "I trust in my God that I shall never commit such sins again, and I shall do whatever I am able to make amends for the sin itself."

Her heart somewhat comforted, Theodora returned to her home. But she was ashamed to look her husband in the face, for her conscience upbraided her, and she considered by what means she might incline God to mercy. Although she wished to enter a convent, she knew that her husband would forbid this, so to hide herself from her husband and from all her acquaintances, she devised the following plan.

When her husband left home on some task, she, in the dark of night, cut her hair and dressed herself in men's clothing. Committing herself to God, she hid herself, and quietly forsaking her home, she fled like a bird taking flight from a trapper's net. Arriving at a desert monastery named Oktokedeka, located eighteen miles from the city, she knocked at the door, and when the doorkeeper came, she said, "Be so kind, Father, as to ask the abbot to receive me, a sinner, into the monastery, for I wish to repent of my evil deeds. I have come to wash the feet of holy men such as you, and to serve you day and night in whatever manner you direct."

The rest of the story of St. Theodora covers eighteen more pages in the Life written by St. Dimitri of Rostov, where he goes on to give details about how St. Theodora overcame her captivity and entered into true freedom in Christ, suffering much yet attaining greater glory in Christ.

St. Nikolai Velimirovich summarizes her life in his Prologue with the following words: 

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.

St. Nikolai goes on to offer the following reflection about how St. Theodora went to live in a convent following her sin without telling her husband. It should be noted that the Holy Fathers in a later Canon ruled that husbands or wives are no longer permitted to do such a thing without mutual consent, yet St. Nikolai offers the following advice if the desire comes up in at least one spouse:

One must not hinder anyone on the path of perfect devotion and service to God. Many saintly women who wanted to flee from marriage and devote themselves to God were pursued and hindered in this by their husbands. These women were usually victorious in the end, remaining steadfast in their intention, and often awakened the consciences of their husbands by their example, and directed them on the path of salvation. St. Theodora, dressed in men's clothing, had to carefully hide from her husband, and she retreated to a men's monastery. However, there were prudent husbands who approved their wives' intentions, permitting their withdrawal from the world to devote their lives completely to God. King Frederick was betrothed to a Czech maiden, Agnes. But she never agreed to enter into marriage, and broke her betrothal, fleeing to a monastery. Then the prudent king said: "Had she left me for a mortal man, I would have sought revenge; but I must not find myself insulted that she chose the Heavenly King in place of me."

Lastly I would like to offer a hymn also written by St. Nikolai in honor of the Venerable Theodora of Alexandria:

Wretched Theodora was tangled in sin;
Glorious Theodora was forgiven her sin.
One sin she ransomed with a hundred virtues
And the eternal mercy of the Son of God.

She thrust from herself into diabolical suggestions,
And meekly endured the slanders of men.
Her mind immersed in her Lord,
Her thoughts were freed from earthly dust.

To the end, she submitted to God's will,
And thus was worthy of God's Paradise.
St. Theodora, citizen of Paradise,
Now help us, O God-pleaser!

That we sinners also be delivered from sin
And live with you as inhabitants of Paradise.
You were given power, before and after death,
To destroy all the snares of the enemy.

Because of your love, God gave you power,
And even the demons fear your power.
Now you worship Christ with all the saints,
And protect us from bitter attacks.

Apolytikion in the Plagal of the Fourth Tone
In thee the image was preserved with exactness, O Mother; for taking up thy cross, thou didst follow Christ, and by thy deeds thou didst teach us to overlook the flesh, for it passeth away, but to attend to the soul since it is immortal. Wherefore, O righteous Theodora, thy spirit rejoiceth with the Angels.

Kontakion in the Second Tone
With fasting didst thou consume thy body utterly; with vigilant prayer didst thou entreat thy Fashioner, that thou shouldst receive the complete forgiveness of the sin thou hadst wrought; which receiving in truth, thou didst mark out the path of repentance for us all.