Saturday, June 21, 2008

Cherchez la femme

"More bitter than death is woman", saith the Preacher (Eccles vii, 27): this must be understood, of course, like the New Testament's imprecations against the world, as a prophetic denunciation of the sinful and fallen: how true of the most impious, depraved, wicked and heretical Theodora, Empress and ruler of the otherwise all-powerful Emperor Justinian; she who, once a lewd player shameless and obscene, dared vaunt herself in a mask of piety concealing her ruthless lust for power when once she ensnared the husband whose rise brought her to the purple. (To my utter, lasting amazement, the Cæsaropapist Orthodox unblushingly call her a saint!)

She it was who was all unwitting God's permitted agent in trying St Silverius, Pope and Martyr, in the furious furnace of temporal trials, as once the Three Youths were almost incinerated. For, directly upon his election, she wrote to him (disguising but barely her threats) to obtain the reinstatement of the heretical ex-Patriarch Anthimus to the throne of Constantinople; he, while remarking sadly that the letter would lead to his death, disillusioned her of any idea of his easy suborning. Furious, Theodora plotted and all too soon accomplished his demise, acting behind the back of her weak husband, and manipulating his victorious but likewise weak general, Belisarius, occupying Rome since his first conquests in the Gothic Wars, through the agency of the general's wily wife, Antonina, one of the Empress's own confidants.

Belisarius gave in and compassed the capture of the Pope, while pretending to wash his hands of the business in idle imitation of Pilate; so by a stratagem Silverius, insulted and stripped of his pontificals, was exiled while his own archdeacon, Vigilius, bought by Theodora with 700 gold pieces, was intruded by false election into the Apostolic See. But Justinian, alerted by a loyal bishop, revoked the decree of exile; alas for Silverius! on his way home he was waylaid by satellites of the Empress and Belisarius, and conveyed to the desolate isle of Ponza, to die there of ill-treatment: Procopius even reports that one of Antonina's serving women there murdered him, the very Vicar of Christ.

"From a woman comes woman's wickedness" (Ecclus xlii, 13) - Theodora, Antonina, and their murderous maidservant exemplify this. As is the proverb when it comes to murder mysteries, Cherchez la femme - look for the woman.

But thanks be to God, who always causes His saints to triumph in and in despite of all their sufferings: Silverius by his constancy refused to betray the Council of Chalcedon, nor to admit to communion Patriarchs of Eutychian belief, nor to countenance the Henotikon (better, Heretikon) of Zeno; Silverius died defeated, but won the crown of immarcescible glory; and his venal usurper, Vigilius, being acclaimed as rightful Pope now the see was vacant, confounded Theodora by turning orthodox, and from a wolf became a true shepherd.

God thus permits His Church to appear on the brink of foundering in the rough seas whipped up by the insane and frenzied malice of Satan, the seducer and deceiver and murderer of the whole world; but God delivers His Church most splendidly and miraculously also, at the time when all natural hope would be ready to fail, thereby proving her supernatural foundation and Divine election, being indefectible until the end of time.

But lest I appear sexist, let that redoubtable Catholic Englishwoman, the Wife of Bath, have the last word:

Begod yf women hadde wrytyn ſtoriys
As clerkis haue in her Oratorijs
They wolde haue writen of men more wickidnes
Than al the marke of Adam may redreſſe


All of this I cribbed, of course, from Dom Alban Butler's Lives of the Saints - for Fr Rowe has a nineteenth century twelve-volume edition of what appears to be the original text, so much better than modern rewrites that remove all the prodigious learning, unction and quaint turns of phrase from it. After going to confession, serving Mass for the feast of St Silverius, attending an art auction of all things, and then paying my priest a visit, we ended up having a good conversation over some food and drink, which led me to read off Butler's account of St Silverius as some recompense for the kind invitation: a happy feast of St Silverius, Pope and Martyr!

1 comment:

Rob a said...

"To my utter, lasting amazement, the Cæsaropapist Orthodox unblushingly call her a saint!"

Dom Alban Butler's Lives of the Saints may not a good source for this Josh. See the Orthodox Wiki account of her life.

I think, all up, your judgment is a bit on the harsh side. The historical ambiguities surrounding Theodora's relationship with Monophysitism are more complex and probably stem from the fact that whilst in Alexandria (by memory as I recall it) she was very graciously and lovingly treated by a Monophysite bishop during a bad period in her life. She remembered that all her life and it effected her treatment of the Monophysites. There is reason to believe that she was fully orthodox in her christology.

My two bobs worth.