ONE Magazine

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Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

Cassiane’s Glory Hymn

The story of the nun Cassiane and the beautiful hymn for which she is renowned.

While meditating on the gospel story of the sinful woman washing the feet of Christ in the house of Simon the leper, the holy nun Cassiane began to compose this most beautiful of hymns. Suddenly her cell’s peace shattered as a sister broke in, “The emperor! The emperor is here!” she shouted.

At the thought of seeing the Emperor Theophilus again after so many years, Mother Cassiane gave a start and withdrew from her cell to hide in one of her monastery’s quiet places.

As the hours passed she traveled back in her mind’s eye to that day many years before, when in 830 A.D., as a young girl of noble blood, she participated in a bridal show in the imperial palace at Constantinople, the Byzantine capital.

As the eligible princesses of the realm gathered in the great hall, the Dowager Empress Euphrosyne advised her son, the Emperor Theophilus; “To the one that pleases you the most, give this apple of gold, she shall become your wife and empress.”

Struck by the lovely Lady Cassiane, he boldly approached her, apple in hand, and engaged her in a battle of wits.

“Through a woman evil befell mankind!” To which Cassiane replied, “Yes, and through a woman does mankind live!”

Realizing that he had been outmatched, the emperor withdrew the golden apple and presented it to another, the Lady Theodora of Paphlagonia.

Cassiane removed herself from the world and with her dowry built a great monastery. There she composed some of the most stirring prayer-hymns known to the Byzantine Church. Indeed, it was while she was working on her masterpiece when her cell attendant warned her of the emperor’s arrival.

Theophilus had become curious about the fate of his victorious opponent. What did she look like, this wisp of a princess now turned poetess and mystic?

He would never know, for Cassiane had hidden in one of her monastic nooks.

Using his imperial right to penetrate the cloister, the emperor strode into Cassiane’s cell and not finding her, glanced at the parchment on her writing table. Moved by the freshly written lines that compared the penitent woman’s caressing of the Savior’s feet with Eve’s fearful flight in the Garden of Eden after the fall, the emperor recalled their brief encounter so long ago and sought to even the score. He took up her pen and added, “she hid herself for fear!” Out he strode to rejoin his entourage, never to see Cassiane in this world again.

When she had ascertained that the imperial party had withdrawn, Mother Cassiane returned to her cell and began to compose anew. Wryly she smiled as she read the emperor’s addition. But even here she was to have the last word. She let the text stand with the imperial gloss and added,

By these words she put the emperor on notice that she had found a love, at once loftier and infinitely less fickle than his. Theophilus was Christ’s vicar on earth, as the Byzantine emperors styled themselves. She had chosen to wed mystically Christ by entering the angelic state of monasticism.

Shortly thereafter, Theophilus died and his wife, Theodora, acting as regent for their son, was instrumental in restoring the veneration of icons. The icon was forbidden to be painted and venerated under her late husband’s reign. It seems that here too God wrote straight with crooked lines.

Tradition tells us that Cassiane lived to an advanced age and produced numerous liturgical prayer-poems of great spiritual depth and artistic merit but none to rival the one known as Cassiane’s Glory Hymn. Even Boris Pasternak, the author-poet of Doctor Zhivago, recognized the beauty of the Glory Hymn and incorporated part of the text in his novel.

It is called doxasticon because it is appointed to be sung last in a series, preceded by the doxology, Glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit…

Every year it is solemnly chanted on Holy Tuesday evening. The first three days of Holy Week are marked by the chanting of the Orthros or Matins of the Bridegroom. The troparion of the Bridegroom bids us be watchful as the wise virgins: “Lo: the Bridegroom comes in the middle of the night; blessed is the servant He shall find awake.” The Orthros is anticipated the evening before, so that the Bridegroom of Holy Wednesday occurs on Tuesday evening. Now, on Wednesday the Holy Anointing will be performed on all the faithful in attendance so that they may be prepared for burial with Christ and like him enjoy a similar resurrection. It is fitting that the prayers of Matins for that day would reflect on the gospel episode of the sinful woman who anointed Jesus before his entombment.

The Bridegroom services conclude with a prayer that I make for all who will read these words,

Father Romanos is a priest of the Melkite-Greek Catholic Eparchy of Newton, Mass.

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