We would like to think of Thekla in our modern definitions as spunky or unconventional. The branding of materials marketed to girls likes to emphasis bravery, pioneering attitudes, and achieving the remarkable. While there is much to be lauded in teaching young women to value their intelligence and capability, this sort of “I’ll show you” message is not what we encounter in Thekla. No, friends, being merely spunky does not get you almost martyred several times. There is a difference between being a non-conformist and embarking on the radically different. There is also a difference between trivial personal rebellious monikers (tattoos, hair color, clothing choices, piercings, etc.) and the life lived out of the desire to spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ. One thing might get you noticed for five minutes and the other will have you remembered for the ages of the Church.
Thekla was the daughter of Greek nobles from the city of Iconium, which is now in central Turkey. She was a famed local beauty and was engaged at the age of eighteen to a respectable man named Thamyris. As a young woman in the first century Greek culture, her future life was well set up.
The Apostle Paul stopped in Iconium on his way from Antioch. He stay with Onesiphoros and taught all who came to visit at his house. Thekla followed others to the house and listened at the doorway to this strange teaching. She forgot food & drink, even her family and obligations to her fiance. All she wanted was to hear more about Christ!
Before long, Paul was captured and imprisoned, partly at the behest of Thekla’s mother, who complained about Paul ruining her daughter’s life. This did not stop Thekla from seeking him out. She bribed the jailer with her jewelry in order to sit in the jail cell with Paul to hear more of his teachings. At the trial, Paul was flogged and banished from Iconium. Thekla refused to return to her home and marry Thamyris. In a rage, her mother asked the judge for a death sentence, a trial by fire. Thekla crossed herself and walked into the flames. A storm blew up and extinguished the fire. She was completely unharmed.
After this, Thekla fled Iconium and found the Apostle Paul and his companions praying in a cave not far from the city. The group then set out for Antioch, including Thekla as one of their number. Not long after they began preaching in Antioch, a Greek man named Alexander began to pursue Thekla, demanding she marry him. Again, she was put in front of the authorities and condemned to death. Wild animals were set on her twice, but each time they refused to touch her and became gentle. Then her torturers tied her to oxen and chased them with red hot irons. The cords broke and the oxen ran off. The people began shouting, “Great is the God of the Christians!” The prefect was frightened at the display of God’s power and set Thekla free.
At the direction of the Apostle Paul, Thekla returned to her region, Isaurian Seleucia, and dwelt in the hills. She constantly preached the Gospel and was granted the gift of healing. Several prominent pagan priests were converted through her witness. When she was 90 years old, Thekla was confronted by a coven of sorcerers who were angry at her healing the sick for free. They sent a group of young men to defile her. St. Thekla cried out to God to protect her. The rocks cleft and swallowed her, thus God took her to Himself. St. Thekla is invoked at the tonsure of women into monasticism and is a frequent patron of parish women’s societies. Her feast day is September 24th.
The Church has granted St. Thekla the titles, Protomartyr and Equal of the Apostles. Her icon depicts her holding both a cross for martyrdom and a scroll or Gospel book for her teaching. Though Thekla did not die until old age at the will of God, she faced martyrdom without fear multiple times. She spent 70 years proclaiming the Gospel. I find it fascinating that Thekla encapsulated so many traits of all the saints to come. She was a teacher, an unmercenary, a virgin martyr, and an ascetic (one could say proto-monastic). As her Kontakion says,
“You shone out with the beauty of virginity, you were adorned with a crown of martyrdom, you were entrusted with the work of an apostle, glorious virgin; and you changed the fire’s flame to dew, while by prayer you tamed the raging of the bull as a victorious first Champion.”
Now, to address the overwhelming negative reaction to Thekla’s choice to forsake her family and marriage. Here is a young woman (like many virgin martyrs, her beauty is noted in the hagiography) who had a promising life plan. Running away from home is one thing, and her reputation probably would have been repairable, if she had come home sensibly and married. Rejecting both the gods and marriage, here was an incomprehensible ‘crime’: she wanted to follow this religious teacher who came out of nowhere to spread the same message! Such lunacy was incredibly destabilizing to the Greco-Roman culture who had formalized state recognized monogamy with rights for both parties.
I would posit that St. Thekla was doing more than getting stars in her eyes and running away from home to follow a religious fanatic. In all of her long life after she encountered the Apostle Paul, she made fundamental choices, in obedience, to reflect how the Gospel should be lived. She was not merely first in one mode of holiness; she was first in them all. Her boldness was for Christ and not for her gain. The Church says she is ‘the glory of women’. Note how she is not sent away from the Apostles’ company; she is welcomed and taken aboard. She is able to communicate the Gospel in both word and her physical witness. The Apostle Paul recognizes these gifts and sends her back to her people as an apostolic presence.
In those long years, I believe, is where most of us in regular parish life, can feel the most kinship with St. Thekla. Her zeal did not consume her like a quickly moving grass fire. She was planted as a lighthouse; a beacon for travelers and neighbors, using every opportunity to turn souls away from destruction. Thekla accepted the obedience of being an apostle to a place, of loving generations of people and watching the Church grow. How do we accept the call as Orthodox Christians to be a vocal (yes, using our words) witness to Christ? Are we prepared to explain our faith? Do you have enough humility to say you do not know and go to find the answer for an inquirer? Do often shun the opportunity to speak because you are ‘just a layperson’? St. Thekla is an amazing excuse smasher.
St. Thekla be our guide!