Eva Catafygiotu Topping (USA)

Archive: MaryMartha, volume Volume 1, number 4, January 1992

"I hate silence when it is time to speak. " These are the blunt words of Kassiani, the celebrated ninth century Byzantine hymnographer. As we all know, she herself was not a woman to hold her tongue.

From the days of her youth, Kassiani practiced what she preached. When the emperor outlawed Orthodoxy's traditional veneration of icons, she openly disobeyed him. Neither imperial power nor persecution intimidated her.

A beautiful, well-educated, aristocratic maiden of Constantinople, she later was included on the short list of candidates, one of whom Emperor Theophilos would choose to be his wife and empress of Byzantium. About to hand the golden apple to Kassiani, he remarked that all evils came from a woman. Under the circumstances, it was hardly a felicitous remark to make. Such a prejudiced remark should certainly not have been addressed to a spirited girl like Kassiani.

The emperor was of course referring to the ancient myth in Genesis 2. According to it, gullible Eve, taken in by a smooth-talking serpent was responsible for the disaster in Eden. As a consequence of Eve's transgression, women have ever since been sentenced to subordination and silence.

Unable to hold her tongue, Kassiani was quick to respond to Theophilos' slur against women. She reminded the emperor that from women also came good things.

What she meant is clear. Through Mary, the Mother of God, the gates of Eden had once again opened. Defending her sex against an ancient slur, Kassiani was also giving the emperor a lesson in Orthodox theology. Thanks to the woman who gave birth to God, talk about Eve (and women) as the source of sin and evils had long since become meaningless. Theophilos, Kassiani implied, should have known better.

Kassiani's failure to remain silent displeased her imperial suitor. Moving on beyond her, Theophilos then gave the golden apple to another woman. Soon after, Theodora was crowned empress and married Theophilos. Kassiani built a convent, became its abbess and spent the rest of her life behind its walls, writing hymns. Despite the fact that her tongue had cost her the imperial crown, Kassiani the Nun seems to have had no regrets. Years later, she wrote :

"I hate silence when it is time to speak".

The example of this strong-minded, independent foremother of ours should encourage Orthodox women to speak out about themselves and their "place" in our church. For too long men have spoken about us, defining us and assigning us limited space in our church. Silenced for almost two millenia, we must finally recover our voices.

The time has come for Orthodox women to speak openly, to claim our history, our equal rights as women of the church. No imperial crown is at risk. Rather, we stand to gain full participation and responsibilty in the ekklesia.