St Cassiane of Constantinople
Confessor and Hymnographer,
Commemorated on September 7/20
The Iconoclast controversy, which vexed the Church for over a hundred years, coincided with one of the most productive periods in church hymnography. Among those who made significant contributions in this field, the names of St. Andrew of Crete (+740), St John of Damascus (+754), and St Theodore the Studite (+826) are well known. Less familiar are the female hymnographers of this period: the nuns Thecla, Cassiane and Theodosia, who showed considerable talent in this same field. Of these, Cassiane won lasting distinction as the only woman whose works have entered into the liturgical tradition of the Church.
The Early Years
Our holy mother Cassiane was born some time before 805. It is very likely her family came from the small Aegean island of Kassos, hence her name. Her father held a high position at the imperial court in Constantinople. Cassiane’s parents gave her the privilege of receiving an excellent education, which included not only secular knowledge, but also the study of the sacred Scriptures. From her youth, though she was an exquisite beauty, she wished to dedicate her life to Christ and the Church, and often considered becoming a nun.
The Heavenly Bride
With the death of Emperor Michael in 829, Theophilos became Emperor. His stepmother, wishing to find a suitable match for him, arranged a ‘bride show’ where she gathered the most lovely of maidens. Theophilos narrowed the contestants to six semi-finalists. In the final choice, the young Emperor was to use a custom that dated back to ancient times. A golden apple was to be given to the future Empress. With all the maidens lined up, Theophilos was most impressed with Cassiane, and also with Theodora, a beautiful girl of noble birth from Paphlagonia.
Since both were extremely attractive, the choice was not an easy one. One thing, though, that Theophilos wanted to make certain, was that his bride did not exceed him in intellect. He went up to Cassiane and said, “From woman came the worst in the world.” (referring to the fall of Eve). Then the wise Cassiane respectfully but confidently answered the Emperor, saying, “But also from woman came that which is best.” (referring to the Virgin giving birth to God Incarnate). He was unnerved at the boldness and wisdom of Cassiane. He then approached the modest Theodora and offered her the apple as a symbol of his choice.
Cassiane, far from being disappointed at being eliminated, had no desire to be Empress. Recognising God’s providence in Theophilos’s rejection, she was now free to pursue the monastic life and spiritual scholarship as a bride of the King of kings. Therefore, she departed from the palace, renounced the world, and was tonsured a nun in about the year 820. She built a convent on Xerolophos (“Dry Hill”), the capital’s seventh hill, and according to one observer, “led an ascetic and philosophical life”, pleasing to God. The energetic abbess presided over the sisterhood, regulating their manner of life and the divine offices in the convent.
Emperor Theophilus was an iconoclast (destroyer of icons), and harshly enforced the imperial edict, renewed after the death of Empress Irene, forbidding the veneration of sacred images. Theodora, an iconodule (icon venerator), did not approve of her husband's policy, but she concealed her veneration of icons and kept quiet.
Cassiane, by contrast, openly professed herself in favour of the holy icons. She not only spoke her mind, but she acted on her convictions. She visited banished iconodule monks in prison and would support and comfort them by her letters and gifts. For her defiance of the imperial edict, she suffered persecution and was beaten with the lash. Undaunted, she persisted in resisting the iconoclasts. She expressed her opinion of those that lacked courage and commitment to stand up for the Faith, when she said, “I hate silence, when it is time to speak.” For her strong stand in defence of icons, Cassiane is depicted in the front row of saints in the icon “Triumph of Orthodoxy”. This feast is celebrated on the first Sunday of Great Lent, known as the Sunday of Orthodoxy.
During this time when the Church was embattled, Cassiane, inspired by God, pursued her diverse literary and musical interests. She combined the talents of poet, theologian and musician, writing hymns and composing musical settings for them. Originally sung by her nuns, many of her compositions proved to have enduring value. Even as a young girl, Cassiane impressed St Theodore the Studite (an abbot and fellow confessor of the holy icons) with her learning and literary style, which he found rare at that time in one so young. She maintained a correspondence with St Theodore for many years, and some of these letters have survived to this day.
Her ecclesiastical music drew the attention of the Church Fathers, who recognised her unique gift. She was encouraged to compose hymns for various feasts. This is all the more remarkable, as the world of the 9th century regarded musical pursuits by women to be quite shameful. Her reputation is such that she is Orthodoxy’s only female hymnographer of distinction. Twenty-three hymns ascribed to her exhibit her attention to the many facets of Orthodox liturgical cycles. The most famous poem and musical composition of the saint is found in the Lenten Triodion. It is the doxastikon of the Matins Apostikha of Great and Holy Wednesday (the service being conducted by anticipation on the evening of Holy Tuesday), also known as the Hymn of Cassiane.
The text is based on the sinful woman who is introduced by the Evangelist St Luke in his Gospel (7.36-50). Cassiane contrasts the repentance of the sinful woman with Eve’s fall (Gen. 3.8-11):
The woman who had fallen into many sins, perceiving Your divinity, O Lord,
Received the dignity of a myrrh-bearer,
For with lamentation she brought fragrant myrrh to You before Your burial.
And she cried: Woe is me, for love of sin and stings of lustful passion envelop me as the night, dark and moonless.
As You cause the clouds to drop down the waters of the sea, accept the fountain of my tears.
As by Your indescribable condescension You bowed down the heavens, so incline to the groaning of my heart.
I shall kiss Your most pure feet and wipe them with the hair of my head,
Those same feet whose sound Eve heard at dusk in Paradise when she hid herself in fear.
Who can count the multitude of my sins? Who can measure the depths of Your judgements, O Saviour of my soul?
Do not turn away from me, Your servant, for You have immeasurable mercy.
I have transgressed far more than the harlot, O Good One, yet have never brought you showers of tears; but entreating in silence, I fall before you, as I kiss your immaculate feet with love, that as Master you may grant me forgiveness of offences, as I cry out, O Saviour: deliver me from the filth of my works.
Other compositions include:
* The Eirmos of the 9th Ode of the Canon of Matins of Holy Saturday, which is also sung at the Matins of the Resurrection:
With these stanzas, Cassiane achieves a taut sense of anticipation, providing a marvellous momentum into the climactic celebration of Our Lord's Resurrection.
Weep not for Me, Mother, as you behold Me in the grave,
The Son you conceived without seed in your womb.
For I shall rise and be glorified, and as God I shall raise to eternal glory
Those who magnify you with faith and love.
* Idiomel Stikheron at Vespers of the Nativity of the Lord:
When Augustus reigned alone on the earth, the many kingdoms of mankind came to an end;
And when You became man from the pure Virgin, the many gods of idolatry were destroyed;
The cities of the world passed under one single rule; and the nations came to believe in a single Godhead;
The peoples were enrolled by decree of Caesar; we the faithful were enrolled in the name of the Godhead,
When You became man, O our God.
Great is Your mercy, Lord, glory to You.
Her Falling Asleep
One of Cassiane’s biographer’s comments, “She lived only for God, to the end of her life.” Thus, after dedicating her life to Christ and the Church, and adorned with the diadem of virginity and the crowns of a confessor, an ascetic, and a hymnographer, our holy mother Cassiane reposed in the Lord.
Venerable Cassiane also left a trove of sacred and secular songs, poems, aphorisms and prose, many of which have survived to this day. Oddly, for a hymnographer-saint, her troparion is the common one for a venerable woman, and not one which has been written specifically for her:
That which was created in the image of God
Was preserved in you, O Mother;
For taking up the cross you followed after Christ.
By your deeds you have taught us to reject the flesh
For it passes away,
But to care for the soul as a thing immortal.
Therefore, O venerable Cassiane, your soul rejoices with the angels.