When asked to write about Saint Thecla, the first thing that caught my attention was that she was sentenced to be eaten by wild beasts. Immediately the old children’s hymn began drifting through my head:
And one was a soldier, and one was a priest,
And one was slain by a fierce wild beast…
(I sing a song of the Saints of God, by Lesbia Scott)
And immediately I replied yes, of course I want to write about such a saint! However, *spoiler alert* Thecla was not eaten by said wild beast (Ignatius of Antioch was, but this post is not about him).
Thecla also did not die when sentenced to burn at the stake, a few days earlier.
Thecla was a daughter in a family of status in Iconium (modern day Turkey), betrothed to a man of status, whose story goes that when Saint Paul arrived in town and began to speak and preach in a house next door, she became enthralled. Thecla sat in her window, where she could hear Paul’s teaching, for three days, neither eating nor sleeping, but just listening to and reflecting on what she heard about Jesus Christ of Nazareth, and the coming of the kingdom of God. She decided she must follow Paul, which of course didn’t go over big with her family or fiancé, who encouraged the Governor to punish her.
Move forward a bit, and she is tied, naked of course, to a stake and the fire is lit. But the ground shakes and the skies open and the fire is doused, with Thecla unharmed. She still refuses to do anything but dedicate her life to knowing and proclaiming the kingdom of God, so she is then sentenced to die by wild beast (assorted lions and bears, apparently). Thrown into the arena, naked again, Thecla peacefully kneels and begins to pray, and the most fearsome of the animals there, a female lion, comes to lay at her feet. The lion scares or fights off all the other animals – and then there’s a truly unsavory episode where she’s tied to some angry bulls – and in the end, Thecla lives, unharmed, and is released.
Thecla’s sainthood is, from a traditional point of view, completely natural. She refused all she’d been given, all she was raised to do, swore to and would have died for a life of chastity, and sold her family’s goods to free Saint Paul when he was imprisoned for ‘corrupting’ her. But looking down twenty centuries, I struggled for a bit to decide what Thecla’s life might mean to us. It feels a bit like an impressionable and sheltered young woman turned from the oppression of one male dominated life to the sacrifice and hardship of another (Paul).
But this is a story of agency, of a woman for whom culture and family offered no choices about how she might live who took it upon herself to take ownership anyway. This is a story of power, given to the traditionally powerless, by her conviction that she would be the one to decide her life story. And as one of my favorite priests often declares, “That’ll preach!”
How do we give our children agency in 2021?
Where do wemodel the understanding that some of our choices are ours to make, but some of our decisions impact others?
Those of us reading this blog, in general, have freedom that would have been unimaginable to Thecla. But what does our faith tell us about our freedom? Does my freedom extend into your life, if it endangers you or your family? Christ commanded me to love my neighbor, but what if loving my neighbor seems to infringe upon my perceived freedom?
In this time, when the choice to wear a mask or receive a vaccine can literally stop a loved one – or a stranger – from being consumed by the wild beast of a virus that has proven itself deadly almost 700,000 times in this country alone, what does agency really mean to your family. Jesus handed himself over to the cross to prove that love will always triumph over hate and that God’s love for us surpasses all our understanding. Thecla was prepared to die, violently, twice, to follow and proclaim the love of God. As for me and my family, we will love the Lord…and wear our masks…and welcome the needle that will protect us, and those around us, from harm. And I will teach my children that this is our small sacrifice, our glorious choice to make, given by the grace of God.