It happens often when we are in church: at the time of the children’s sermon, my daughter is nowhere to be found. It happened this week, as I was standing in the sanctuary, ready and willing to bless all the backpacks and cell phones and work bags and the people who use them. I looked around for my own daughter who had dutifully carried her backpack to church that morning. When I didn’t see her, I made eye contact with my husband in the very back pew. He shrugged.
We found her shortly following the blessing, outside with a church matriarch, setting up ice cream for a celebration following the service. “I had to set up the table,” she said with the profound confidence of an almost six-year-old. “You didn’t want to have your backpack blessed, or listen to the sermon?” I asked. “Mama, I was needed out here.”
Thecla, martyr, saint and follower of Paul, did not show partiality for the normative actions of a young woman in the 1st century. Her story, chronicled in The Acts of Paul and Thecla (2nd century), is part spiritual romance, part adventure, part feminist compendium. We meet Thecla as a woman engaged to a powerful man, sitting at the window of her house listening to the preaching of Paul. She does not see him (think about a 1st century episode of The Voice!), but hears his words. His unfolding of the story of Christ keeps her at that window, to the despair of all around her. She ignores the cries of her mother, her intended, and the members of her household, and they consider her dead to them.
Thecla’s refusal to acknowledge her engagement leaves her fianceé feeling less than sympathetic to Paul, and he has Paul locked up. Thecla bribes her way into the jail, and her continued connection to Paul finally leads to a death sentence (championed, by the way, by her own mother yelling, ‘Let the unjust creature be burned!’). Set ablaze, Thecla does not burn—by a miracle, rain and hail pour down. Trying again, the authorities set lions on her—but the lionesses refuse to attack, and even defend her from the male lions. In the midst of one of these assaults, Thecla finds a pail of water next to her and baptizes herself in the arena. The litany of attempted death sentences continue, each deterred by a miracle, until they pretty much just give up.
According to the The Acts of Paul and Thecla, a fair amount of Thecla’s power comes from her virginity. Centuries ago, virginity wasn’t always about sex, it was about autonomy and independence. To be a virgin was to be understood as not being under the auspices of a man or even family. Choices offered to women were limited and their futures lay in service to the procreation of the family and polis. By refusing that job, Thecla created the opportunity to have a choice in how she lived her life. At every turn in the Acts, Thecla’s virginity is put into play, and even at the age of 90, she is physically threatened because people believe her to be so powerful.
For a parent in the 21st century, one should look at Thecla not as a woman who ‘preserved her virginity,’ but as a woman (girl, by today’s standards) who fought for the opportunity to choose her own path.
We take choice for granted today. We tell our children that they can be anything they want to be and marry the person they love (if they choose marriage as a vocation) regardless of how they identify. But for smaller children, it’s harder for parents to allow choice, harder to see a trajectory which is not part of our own, personal, adult agenda.
To say that my great aim as a parent is to just not yell ‘Let the unjust creature be burned!’ sets an absurdly low bar. Rather, my aim is to acknowledge year after year that choice in life is a privilege, and one for which I am grateful for my children, and especially my daughter.
Did I want her in church that morning? Yes.
Was I kind of miffed to have the daughter of the priest MIA while everyone watched? Pretty much.
Am I glad that she had a choice (of small degree, but she held agency nonetheless) about where she served? How to imagine that God was working with and through her? Absolutely.
She could sit at the feet of the priest or assist our matriarch with pride, and know that she could choose the way she glorified God.
For those women who have gone before, and especially for Thecla, and paved the way for women and humanity to have the blessing of choice, we give great thanks on this feast day.