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Saint Kassiani

Of Pride and Love: the Making of the Hymn of Kassiani

Saint Kassiani hymnofkassianiAah it’s Holy Week once again in our faith. The culmination of the high drama of Christs sacrifice for sinful humanity. The mono mythic story of stories of the god man takes center stage. Yet tucked away to the side is an interlude of sorts  the scene depicts Christ at supper in the house of his friends. They are in the middle or just at the end of it when in unannounced comes a woman a sinful woman at that dressed on her finery equivalent to what a chic high powered woman of today might wear high heels and all. She comes in uninvited and without even introducing herself humbles herself by falling to her knees in front of the seated Christ. She utters not a word. She speaks with her tears   In an alabaster vessel she bears the most precious spikenard. It is a heady mixture of the costliest of perfumes. Lovingly unable to look up into the face of the god man she resorts herself to embracing his feet. She washes them with her silk brazen headscarf. She sheds many profuse tears becoming a veritable fountain of contrition. Her tears she uses as a fountain to wash his feet. She opens the alabaster box and anoints his feet the only part of his body she dares to touch with the sweet smelling perfume. A mix of jonquil jasmine thyme and myrrh the fragrance is unmistakable as it is both sweet and pungent soft yet strong. She then proceeds to dry his feet with her long tresses. She has humbled her body to become a rag or cleansing wipe.
Christ is taken aback by her act of humility and commemorates her. In all eternity the gospel will remember her as the sinful woman who anointed  Christs feet acting as a symbolic myrrh bearer the one who prepared his body with her body for his impending burial.
This scene by itself is extremely moving. Here is in all probability a whore an outcast she is riddled with sin. But she approaches with heart wrenching humility. She symbolically and mystically performs an act of purification for another the very same act she begs of him. She comes to have him cleanse her. She fragrances him in the hope that he would rid her of the stench of her offenses. The sinful woman is an easy metaphor for what Christ encourages from all of us as repentant sinners. To humbly recognize our sinfulness and grovel for forgiveness only such a stance is conducive to true repentance and change of soul. We come to cleanse in the same moment we are being cleansed mystically. We cleanse on the surface while he cleanses to the depths into the secret chambers that are not seen. It is through acts and not just words that we are immortalized.
This scene is made even more moving however for the soundtrack that sounds behind it. It is a rare recording as it plays only once a year during holy Tuesday in preparation for the matins for holy Wednesday.  Some claim it is the culminating hymn for the great and awesome journey of Great Lent. It is the hymn of Kassiani. And her story and the story behind the composition of this gem of a hymn is itself a beautiful dramatic work of high art. It is operatic in its plot.

The story is of unrequited love that was never to be fulfilled because of pride.  It is a fable of feminist triumph and the triumph of divine love over humanly.  Kassiani was a noble woman of great beauty cultured and educated. She was supposed to be the empress the kings chosen. It was to her that the emperor gravitated during the bridal line up arranged by his mother the dowager empress.  But in an instant of misogynistic retort, perhaps one of the worst pick up lines in the history of royal courtship, the prince remarked “It is through a woman that Adam fell.”  To which, Kassiani replied, “But it was through a woman that he was led ack into paradise.”  His pride stung, Theophilos moved on to the woman standing next to her and ultimately married the more meek maid-in-waiting, the one who didn’t give him any talk back.  However, she was not his match–either intellectually or economically.  He chose a nice girl,  yet not his equal.  For many years after, once his wounded pride had mellowed, he repented of his choice.  For many years after, Emperor Theophilos loved Kassiani.  For her part, Kassiani retired to a convent outside the imperial throne and lived out a contemplative life of prayer and poetry.

Tradition says that in his later years the Emperor Theophilus, still in love with Kassiani, wished to see her one more time before he died, so he rode to the monastery where she resided. Kassiani was alone in her cell, writing her Hymn when she realized that the commotion she heard was because the imperial retinue had arrived. She was still in love with him but was now devoted to God and hid away because she did not want to let her old passion overcome her monastic vow. She left the unfinished hymn on the table. Theophilus found her cell and entered it alone. He looked for her but she was not there; she was hiding in a closet, watching him. Theophilus felt very sad, cried, and regretted that for a moment of pride he rejected such a beautiful and intellectual woman; then he noticed the papers on the table and read them. When he was done reading, he sat and added one line to the hymn; then he left. The line attributed to the Emperor is the line “those very feet whose sound Eve heard at the dusk in Paradise and hid herself in fear”. Kassiani emerged when the emperor was gone, read what he had written and finished the hymn.

The hymn is beautiful because it speaks of the dual nature of womankind–how one, Eve, could with her wiles damn mankind to hell, and yet, another in the person of Most Holy Theotokos could bring salvation back into the world.  The powerful metaphor behind the line Theophilos composed for the Hymn echoes of the deep relationship between a woman full of pride coming to a reckoning with her Lord, dramatically at the very same moment Kassiani was hiding in her closet and witnessed the Emperor’s repentance over not making the proper choice.  How ironic, when he was ready to listen to her, she was  silent; and yet when she had something to say, which was of course true, he shunned her.  A meditation on this Hymn reveals the complexities between the sexes, the power of speaking the truth and risking offending someone’s pride, and how devastating pride is in matters of the heart.  Had he put his pride aside, Theophilos would have married the brilliant and beautiful woman worthy of being his soulmate.  Although these two unrequited lovers have lost the chance at a fruitful union in their lives, yet we still can marvel at the beauty of this extraordinary spiritual poem and be raised to the heights of mystical union, which is what Holy Week is about anyway–to love, to become One with the Lord.

Hymn of Kassiani:
O Lord God, the woman who had fallen into many sins, having perceived Thy divinity received the rank of ointment-bearer, offering Thee spices before Thy burial wailing and crying: “Woe is me, for the love of adultery and sin hath given me a dark and lightless night; accept the fountains of my tears O Thou Who drawest the waters of the sea by the clouds incline Thou to the sigh of my heart O Thou Who didst bend the heavens by Thine inapprehensible condescension; I will kiss Thy pure feet and I will wipe them with my tresses. I will kiss Thy feet Whose tread when it fell on the ears of Eve in Paradise dismayed her so that she did hide herself because of fear. Who then shall examine the multitude of my sin and the depth of Thy judgment? Wherefore, O my Saviour and the Deliverer of my soul turn not away from Thy handmaiden O Thou of boundless mercy”.

Here’s the Boston Byzantine Choir’s rendition in English