September 7, 2015

Saint Kassiani the Hymnographer

St. Kassiani of Constantinople (Feast Day - September 7)

Our holy Mother Kassiani (also rendered Cassiane, Ikasia or Cassia) was born in Constantinople some time before 805. Her father, an aristocrat, held a high position at the imperial court. She received an excellent education, both secular and sacred. Though exquisitely beautiful from the time of her youth, she desired to dedicate her entire life to Christ and the Church, and thus considered becoming a nun.

With the death of Emperor Michael II of Amorion, his son Theophilos succeeded him (829-842). Theophilos' step-mother, Euphrosyne, desired to find a suitable match for him and arranged a "bride show" where the loveliest maidens were gathered. The contestants were narrowed down to six semi-finalists by Theophilos, of which Kassiani was one. To make his final choice, Euphrosyne wanted Theophilos to use an ancient custom, where a golden apple was given to the future Empress. With the maiden's lined up, Theophilos was impressed most with Kassiani's beauty.

Theophilos therefore went up to Kassiani, and said: "From woman came corruption" (meaning Eve who initiated the fall). Then the most wise Kassiani responded: "And from woman came the most excellent" (meaning the Theotokos who gave birth to God in the flesh). Astounded by her wisdom and boldness, Theophilos withdrew from her, and approached the more modest Theodora and offered her the apple.

Kassiani had no desire to be Empress, therefore she gladly acknowledged divine Providence in the election of Theodora, and this liberated her to pursue the monastic life and become a bride of the King of kings. Renouncing the world, Kassiani built a convent on Xerolophos, which was the seventh hill of Constantinople. Tonsured a nun, she "led an ascetical and philosophical life," pleasing to God.

Now Theophilos was a fierce iconoclast, forbidding the veneration of icons, and though he chose Theodora to be his wife, he was unaware that she was even more a devotee of icons, managing to hide her love for icons for many years, and even raised her five daughters and one son to revere them. Unlike Theodora, Kassiani was very vocal in her convictions as an icondule. Publicly defying imperial policy, Kassiani was subject to persecution and was even once scourged with the lash. Undaunted, she resisted the folly of the iconoclasts. With letters, gifts and visitations she often supported the monastics who were imprisoned for their devotion to icons. Her courageous defense of holy icons has earned her a place in icons depicting the Sunday of Orthodoxy.

While the Church was embattled with the iconclastic controversy, Kassiani was inspired to pursue her diverse literary and musical interests. Even as a young girl, Theodore the Studite (Nov. 11) was impressed with her learning and literary style, which was rare for a woman so young. In time, therefore, Kassiani established herself as a hymnographer, in fact she is Orthodoxy's only female hymnographer of distinction. There are at least twenty-three hymns ascribed to her in the service books that cover the Orthodox liturgical cycle, among other canons such as that for Memorial Services and Holy and Great Saturday. Her most famous hymn bears her name and is chanted on Great and Holy Wednesday, often considered the most beautiful of all hymns.

Besides her hymnography, Kassiani was known to be a sharp observer of human frailties, and expressed her opinion of people sharply in Iambic Verses. One in particular she certainly lived by was: "I hate silence, when it is time to speak." Kassiani is so respected as a female writer, that she is only one of two females whom we know of by name that authored influential writings in the Eastern Roman Empire (the other is Anna Comnena). In the first known list of Orthodox liturgical poets, drawn up by Nikephoros Kallistos Xanthopoulos (+ 1335), Kassiani the Nun is mentioned last on a list of the eleven most distinguished melodists.

One biographer (George the Sinner) comments: "She (Kassiani) lived only for God, to the end of her life." Thus, after a life dedicated to Christ and the Church, and having been crowned as a confessor, ascetic and hymnographer, our holy Mother Kassiani reposed in the Lord.