“I hate silence when it is time to speak.”- Saint Kassiane

It is Saint Kassiane’s hymn, chanted during the Matins service of Holy Saturday that penetrates my mind as I stand before my grandparents’ grave. It foreshadows Christ’s glorious victory over death and with it, our own imminent reunion: “Weep not for me, O Mother, as you now see me buried whom you conceived within your belly seedlessly, your Son, for I shall rise from the dead and shall be glorified and as God shall in glory unceasingly exult those who longingly praise you in faith…”

Yet I cannot hold back my tears, heartened only by the courage provided by the redoubtable woman who feared no one except God himself. I see her, intelligent and beautiful, marketed off as a potential bride for the Emperor Theophilos. The chroniclers state Theophilos approached her, commenting snidely: “Through woman, the worst,” referring to the sin of Eve. Unfazed and singularly unimpressed, Kassiane responded, “Through woman, the best,” referring to the birth of the Saviour through the Theotokos. Apparently unable to accept being put in his place by a woman, Theophilos chose another bride.

This fearless championing of the dignity of the sisterhood, would persist throughout her life, evidenced in such poems as this:

“The race of women, together with truth, prevails over all

and Esdras is the witness.”

Φῦλον γυναικῶν ὑπερισχύει πάντων

καὶ μάρτυς Ἔσδρας μετὰ τῆς ἀληθείας.

Here Kassiane refers to the Old Testament Book of Esdras where King Darius is engaged in a debate over what is superior. Certainly she did not suffer fools gladly, especially male polymaths arguing over the size of their egos, writing acerbically:

“Knowledge in a fool is another form of folly;

knowledge in a fool is a bell on a pig’s snout.”

νῶσις ἐν μωρῷ πάλιν ἄλλη μωρία

γνῶσις ἐν μωρῷ κώδων ἐν ῥινὶ χοίρου.

Rejected by the Emperor, Kassiane established a monastery in Constantinople and became its abbess. Despite facing punishment for her support of icons during the iconoclastic controversy, she boldly defended her theological views. In a time when female writers were rare in the Western world, Kassiane defied the norm by composing both poetry and hymns.

Some of these, such as her: “Against the Pricks,” are particularly strident: “Do not kick against the pricks with your bare feet;/ since you can’t damage the pricks in any way/ you will only hurt yourself and be in pain.” (Πρὸς κέντρα μὴ λάκτιζε γυμνοῖς ποσί σου·/ ἐπεὶ τὰ κέντρα μηδαμῶς καταβλάψας/ σαυτὸν τρώσειας καὶ πόνον ὑποστήσῃ).

When she wasn’t writing ecclesiastical masterpieces, she was venting her spleen against her pet hate: Armenians:

“The terrible race of the Armenians

is deceitful, and extremely vile,

fanatical, deranged and malignant,

puffed up with hot air and full of slyness.

A wise man said correctly about them that

Armenians are vile when they live in obscurity,

even more vile when they become famous,

and most vile in all ways when they become rich.

When they become filthy rich and honoured,

then to all they seem as vileness heaped upon vileness.”

I am convinced that the only explanation for this bizarre outburst is that this ninth century hymnographer was granted a vision of the coming of the Kardashians.

Mostly, we remember Kassiane as the author of the troparion of the Sinful or penitent Woman that is chanted in the Matins of Holy Tuesday, an example of Lenten repentance. It envisages the penitent woman who anointed Christ at the beginning of His ministry, “weeping, and her tears fell on his feet, and she wiped them away with her hair; then she covered his feet with kisses and anointed them with the ointment.” (Luke 7:36-38). Somehow, from a person weighed down with sins, and having no name, she became associated by many first with Mary Magdalene and then with a Harlot.

The troparion’s language is like a collage, incorporating words, phrases, and echoes from Scripture, particularly the Psalms. Kassiane’s imagery delves into the emotional turmoil of the Sinful Woman during a critical moment. Despite its brevity of just over one hundred words, the hymn is packed with intensity and depth. Through her composition, she explores the core Christian narrative of sin and redemption, solely through a deeply psychological analysis of a woman’s perspective.

Kassiane’s exploration is crafted as a single stanza featuring two distinct voices. Initially, the poet herself offers a concise introduction. Subsequently, in a more extensive and emotionally charged segment, we hear the voice of the Sinful Woman, revealing the poignant narrative of her life’s transformation from sin to salvation.

With great sensitivity and circumspection, her subject is introduced as: “the woman who had fallen into many sins.” (ἡ ἐν πολλαῖς ἁμαρτίαις περιπεσοῦσα γυνὴ) This portrayal, while more delicate and less harsh than the hymnographers who labelled the sinner as a “harlot,” nonetheless vividly depicts the woman’s profound degradation, albeit without judgment.

In a subsequent verse, “perceiving Your divinity,” (τὴν σὴν αἰσθομένη θεότητα) we are granted insight into another significant aspect of the Woman’s psyche. The Sinful Woman demonstrates exceptional perceptiveness and intuition. Unlike Simon, who in Luke’s Gospel doubted Jesus’s authenticity as a prophet, she was possessed of enough gifts to recognize the divine within Him. Despite bearing the weight of numerous sins, the irony lies in the fact that this societal outcast alone discerned God’s presence and responded to it effectively.

In a third phrase, Kassiane further develops and enhances the traditional narrative of the Sinful Woman. Through the use of just three words, “taking up the order of myrrh-bearing,” (μυροφόρου ἀναλαβοῦσα τάξι) the poet elevates the sinner to a state of holiness, far beyond that of the males around her. By recognizing in Christ, Divinity, the Sinful Woman is aligned with the revered myrrh-bearers, the faithful female followers of Christ who brought spices to anoint His body in the tomb and were the first to witness His resurrection. Accordingly, Kassiane’s discourse privileges women as foremost followers of Christ, subverting contemporary narratives that would seek to diminish or demean their position and spiritual significance and instead placing them in primary position.

At this point, a second voice emerges in the troparion. At a time when female voices were rarely heard in their own right, Kassiane gives us the words of the Sinful Woman herself. Thus, we become witnesses to the previously voiceless woman from the Gospel of Luke’s narrative pouring out her soul in search of salvation. Kassiane transforms her tears into heartfelt words of fervour. In this way, the hymn transcends words, becoming a poem of lived experience, allowing us all a stake in the Woman’s journey to freedom and the ultimate empowerment.

The Woman’s initial utterance is a heart-wrenching cry of anguish. The cry “Οἴμοι” infuses a profound sense of emotion and intensity into the troparion. While the echoes of tragic, pain-filled anguish still resound, she commences her liberating outpouring of the innermost recesses of her soul. As is customary in all penitential prayers, it commences with an acknowledgment of guilt. With a cascade of vivid, sombre imagery, she depicts her spiritual desolation:

“For night holds me in its grip, the goad of lust, murky and moonless, the love of sin.”

The penitent Woman, far from being an insignificant object of derision becomes empowered by Kassiane. She takes ownership of her transgressions, recognizing her failure to restrain herself. This impassioned and unequivocal confession from a female perspective stands unparalleled in the Orthodox hymnographic tradition.

It is difficult not to conflate two women, who ostensibly rejected by the society of their time, found solace and ultimately newfound status in their faith in God. Saint Kassiane’s exploration of the emotional turmoil of the penitent woman could easily reflect her own inner journey, resulting in a profoundly moving and sublime portrayal.

The penitent Woman rightly exerts upon us perennial fascination. During His ministry, Jesus challenged societal norms by engaging with women in ways that scandalized the male-dominated mores of the time. His forgiving attitude and direct interaction with individuals, defying societal hierarchies, likely fostered a deeper, more personal connection with the women He encountered, including the penitent Woman, something that Kassiane expertly draws upon.

The troparion of Kassiane takes us upon an emotional roller coaster like no other, with the penitent Woman oscillating between despair and spiritual intensity, often experiencing drastic mood shifts. The depiction of profound darkness juxtaposed with cosmic grandeur within a single sentence, along with the fervent plea for mercy and intense spiritual devotion bordering on the erotic, renders this text fundamental in the Orthodox tradition. The fact that Kassiane’s portrayal of the spiritual turmoil of a Woman who underscores an approachable and relatable Christ sets Women at the centre of her salvific exploration, should not escape us.

Always, it is on Great and Holy Thursday, when kneeling, I come face to face with Christ hanging on the Cross, that the words of Kassiane’s penitent Woman inexorably hit home: “I will fervently embrace Thy sacred feet, and wipe them again with the tresses of the hair of my head.” I want to prostrate myself before Him and dare to seek the intimacy already afforded to Kassiane’s Woman. Instead, knowing my place, I depart and in the stillness of the night under the moon, write to her:

“In secret, my sister Kassiane winds wet, verse-soaked linen bandages around her chest.

She bears these bandages under her clothes and not with the slightest sign do her verses betray what is going on.

Only I know about it and I cannot stop her.

She winds wet verses tightly, tightly around her chest.

When they dry and shrink, the words slowly crush her chest and suffocate her heart.

I embalm her stillness with the hair of my tears.”