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  • Writer's pictureAlexandra Alissandratou

Hymnologist, Poet, Abbess, Saint Kassiani

Updated: May 29, 2019

My interest in, infatuation with the Byzantine Empire and its history began when I was 13. I was leaving Greece to meet my mother in Paris and before boarding the plane, was given five books by Greek historical novelist Penelope Delta. Two volumes were about the Byzantine Empire during the rule of Basil II (975 -1025). Off and on over the decades, I have reread these books, even dabbled in translation, but that is where it ended: dabbling. Writing for young adults, Delta journies the reader through years of war, adventure, and, yes, love. Her books opened up for me a whole new vista, a part of my culture steeped in the those glorious and difficult days of yore.

But it wasn’t until the late nineties and well into the 21st century that I began to take study of that era seriously. Now my book shelves are lined with writings by Byzantine scholars: Cyril Mango, Speros Vryonis, Robert Browning, Donald M. Nicol; Judith Herrin, and Lynda Garland, among the many scholars recognizing, discussing women who dominated during those centuries. Anna Komnena, daughter of Emperor Alexios II who wrote her father’s partial biography and drew an incredible panorama of the late 10th and early to mid 11th centuries. I think it was Anna who inspired me to begin my scribblings that may one day be my novel. So many names grace the shelves, so much history learned, confused, forgotten, relearned. Part of my world.

And so I come to the story of St. Kassiani, 9th century hymnologist, poet, and abbess. A few weeks back, the Greek Orthodox Church celebrated Easter. During Holy Week, some of the Church's most beautiful Byzantine hymns are chanted/sung. Among them is a hymn by Kassiani. Known in her youth for her beauty and intelligence, Kassiani was among the Constantinopolitan maidens presented to Emperor Theophilos. The goal of the “bridal parade”: to choose his future empress. And choose he did, but not the lovely Kassiani. Tradition has it that when addressing Kassiani directly, he referred to Eve’s transgressions, that brought evil to the world; Kassiani’s quick mind would not allow such a comment to go by without an answer: referring to the Virgin Mary, Panagheia, she retorted that through a woman was born good, i.e., Jesus Christ. His pride wounded by Kassiani's rebuttal, Theophilos haughtily passed her by and proffered the golden apple to Theodora. Popular opinion was that she, Kassiani, took the holy veil as a result of being passed over. In later years it became obvious that, though she later suffered punishment for her iconophile beliefs, she preferred being the Bride of Christ rather than the bride of the iconoclast Theophilos.

Following my Empress Irene monologue, Abbess Kassiani:

Who, you are asking yourselves, is this lone, humbly-clad figure standing amongst so many adorned in finery? Though you may not recognize me, you know me. Allow me to tell you my story.

I was brought into this world the daughter of a proud and prominent Constantinopolitan family. When I came of age, it happened that the Empress Dowager Euphrosyne was in search of a bride for her stepson, the iconoclast Emperor Theophilos. I was selected among many maidens to be presented to him during the traditional bridal show. At one point, he approached me saying, “From a woman came forth the baser.” "Εκ γυναικός τα χείρω." Yes, it is true, I thought, we humans came forth from Eve. But from our all holy and Virgin Panaghia came forth Our Lord Jesus. Not one to remain silent, I responded, “And through woman the better.” "Και εκ γυναικός τα κρείτω."Needless to say, truthful though I was, the golden apple was not proffered to me, and I was returned to the home of my parents.

Many around me thought I was distraught at not being chosen and thus sought refuge in the life of a monastic. Nothing could have been further from the truth. I longed to be the chosen NOT of the Emperor but of Our Lord Jesus Christ. And so it was that I donned the holy veil.

And never did I abandon my beliefs. No, I stood up for what I thought was right. As an Iconophile venerating our saints, icons, I went against the law of the iconoclast Emperor and was scourged, among other punishments. Yet I took solace in the writing of hymns and in the life of an abbess within the confines of the monastery walls. It was in that solitude that I was inspired to extol the wonders of the true faith and the glory of God: “O Thou Who didst spread the Heavens.”

Yes, I am Kassiani, whose hymn is chanted during Holy Wednesday Matins. And to Our Lord I sing: “Do not disregard me Thy servant, O Thou Whose mercy is boundless.”

Amidst chaos, I have found peace.

As was evident in my short writing of Empress Irene, and now Kassiani, politics and religion are interwoven, indeed inseparable, in the Byzantine tapestry. Kassiani emerges as an intelligent, strong woman, an iconophile, who would not succumb to the will of an emperor; who chose her own destiny; who would not surrender her beliefs for what some would see as greater glory, wealth and stature. Nor would she have her womanhood castigated, stereotyped by the mistake of one, Eve, when there was another, Panagheia, who was beyond any transgression.

Kassiani’s strength of character cannot, I feel, be denied. She remained true to her beliefs, to herself. As an iconophile during another brief era of iconoclasm, she suffered along with many others, was punished, scouraged, but would not be deterred from what she saw as the right, the only path.

Throughout history, men and women alike have been offered choices, their dreams have been shattered; many have acquiesced. Others have suffered, their voices were heard and often altered the course of history. Again and again, the human spirit is challenged by opposition. Times have not changed. The human spirit has not changed. Whether perceived to be right or wrong, many stand up for their beliefs through the darkness of opposition, against ones whom they see as barbarians, their opponents, enemies, strangers to their way of thinking. Right or wrong , they remain true to themselves. So, too, Kassiani.

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