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  TWO HOLY HYMNOGRAPHERS - St. Romanos and St. Cassiane


Saint Romanos the Melodist

Commemorated October 1

The popular patron of church singers, St. Romanos, was born in the town of Emesa in Syria in the latter part of the fifth century.  Whether or not his Jewish parents converted to Christianity is uncertain; Romanos himself was baptized as a young boy and developed a great love for the house of God. When he came of age he served as a verger, lighting the lamps and preparing the censer.  After moving to Beirut, he was ordained to the diaconate and assigned to the Church of the Resurrection.  He had a rather mediocre voice, but his pure and simple heart was filled with love for God, and to assist at the church services gave him the greatest joy.

During the reign of Emperor Anastasios (491-518), the young deacon moved to Constantinople. He led an ascetic life of prayer and fasting, but in his humility he thought of himself as being rather worldly.  He had a special love for the Mother of God, and would go at night to pray in the Blachernae Church, which housed the precious omophorion of the Holy Virgin. The saintly Patriarch Euthemios loved Romanos for his many virtues, and paid him the same wage as those singers and readers who were more educated and more talented.  The latter resented this and derided Romanos for his evident lack of musical and theological training. Romanos himself was painfully aware of these defects; he longed for a melodious voice worthy of leading the faithful in praising God.

It was the day before the Feast of Our Lord's Nativity, and Saint Romanos was assigned to lead the singing that evening at the All-night Vigil. He was responsible not only for the singing but also for the text of the hymns.  After everyone had left, he remained in the Blachernae Church and tearfully entreated the Mother of God to help him.  Exhausted, he fell asleep with his sorrow.  In answer to his prayer, the Mother of God appeared to him in a dream. She handed him a scroll and said to him gently, "Here, eat this." Romanos did so and awoke, overcome with joy and the lingering presence of the heavenly visitor.

When it came time that night for him to sing, Saint Romanos received the patriarch's blessing and, vested in a special garment reserved for the principal singer, he stepped onto the ambo.  He began to sing: "Today the Virgin gives birth to Him Who is above all being . . ."  The emperor, the patriarch, the clergy-the entire congregation listened in wonder at the profound theology and the clear, sonorous voice which issued forth. They all joined in the refrain, "A new-born Babe, the pre-eternal God."  Later, Saint Romanos told the patriarch about his vision, and the singers who had made fun of him prostrated themselves in repentance and humbly asked the Saint's forgiveness.

It should be noted that the kontakion as we know it today-a short hymn honoring and describing a particular feast or saint-is only the prologue or proomion of a full kontakion which, at the height of its development in the sixth century, was a poetic sermon composed of from 18 - 30 verses or ikoi, each with a refrain, and united by an acrostic.  When it was sung to an original melody, it was called an idiomelon.  Originally, Saint Romanos' works were known simply as "psalms," "odes," or poems.  It was only in the ninth century that the term kontakion-from the word kontos, the shaft on which the parchment was rolled-came into use.

With the Nativity Kontakion, which has been dated to the year 518, Saint Romanos began a period of prolific creativity. Altogether, he wrote as many as one thousand kontakion, celebrating feasts and saints throughout the liturgical year. In the words of one scholar, Saint Romanos' compositions successfully combined "the solemnity and dignity of the sermon with the delicacy and liveliness of lyric and dramatic poetry."

Because Saint Romanos is commemorated on the same day as the feast of Protection, he commonly appears as a central figure in the icon of that feast, even though there is no historical connection (the event celebrated by the Protection icon occurred in the tenth century).  Although in more recent icons Saint Romanos is depicted as a deacon standing on the ambo, Russian church musicologist Johann von Gardner points out that in the oldest icons he is more accurately portrayed wearing the short red tunic of a singer and standing on a raised platform in the middle of the church.


Saint Cassiane

Commemorated September 7

The Iconoclast controversy, which vexed the Church for over a hundred years, coincided with one of the most productive periods in church hymnography.  Among those who made significant contributions in this field, the names of St. Andrew of Crete (+740), Saint John Damascene (+754), and Saint Theodore the Studite (+826) are well known.  Less familiar are the women hymnographers of this period-the nuns Thecla, Cassiane and Theodosia-who demonstrated considerable talent in this same field.  Of these, Cassiane won lasting distinction as the only woman whose works have entered into the liturgical tradition of the Church.

Cassiane was born in Constantinople some time before 805.  Her father's aristocratic status gave Cassiane the privilege of a good education.  She was tutored in both secular and sacred studies, and showed such exceptional aptitude for learning as to draw the attention of the great abbot of the Studion Monastery, Saint Theodore.  He remarked likewise on her pious character, and indeed, from an early age she desired to become a nun.  She was at the same time a spirited young woman of strong convictions and did not hesitate to express her opinions.

Cassiane was also gifted with physical beauty. When the heir-apparent, Theophilus,  was in search of a bride, he narrowed the choice to six lovely maidens.  Cassiane was one of them. When they gathered for the final decision to be made, Theophilus, who had heard of Cassiane's intelligence, approached her with the statement, "From woman came corruption" (referring to the fall of Eve), to which the quick-witted Cassiane responded, respectfully but surely, "But also from woman sprang forth what is superior" (i.e., God's incarnation from the Holy Virgin).  Unnerved, Theophilus passed over Cassiane and offered the golden apple, the sign of his choice, to the more demure, and silent, Theodora.

It would have been a difficult match.  Theophilus was an iconoclast and harshly enforced the imperial edict-renewed after the death of Empress Irene -forbidding the veneration of sacred images.  Theodora, an iconodule, did not approve of her husband's policy, but she concealed her veneration of icons and kept quiet. Cassiane, by contrast, openly professed herself in favor of the holy icons.  She not only spoke her mind, but she acted on her convictions, visiting iconodule monks in prison and sending them gifts. For her defiance of the imperial edict, she suffered persecution and was beaten with a lash.

Far from being disappointed at Theophilos' rejection, Cassiane was now free to unite herself to the bridegroom of her own choosing-the King of kings, Jesus Christ.  She was tonsured a nun about the year 820, and founded a convent on one of Constantinople's seven hills, where she led "an ascetic and philosophical life" pleasing to God.  An energetic abbess, she not only regulated the life of the convent, but she also found time to pursue her scholarly literary interests.  She combined the talents of poet, theologian and musician, writing hymns and composing musical settings for them. Originally sung by her nuns, many of her compositions proved to have enduring value; twenty-three of her works were later incorporated into the liturgical books of the Church.

One of Cassiane's most brilliant creations is her hymn, sung in the Matins service for Holy Wednesday, on the subject of the sinning woman. Based on the story from St. Luke's Gospel (7:36-50), this hymn blends dramatic and narrative elements to create a masterpiece of hymnography which manages, in a few short lines, to present the essential Christian drama of sin and salvation.

The most familiar of Cassiane's works are undoubtedly the irmoi in the Matins canon for Holy Saturday, which is repeated at the Midnight Office for Holy Pascha: "Weep not for me, O Mother, beholding in the tomb the Son Whom thou hast conceived without seed in thy womb, for I shall arise. . ." With these stanzas, Cassiane achieves a taut sense of anticipation, providing a marvelous momentum into the climatic celebration of Our Lord's Resurrection.

Cassiane had a forceful personality: "I hate the fool who acts the philosopher," she wrote. "I hate silence when it is time to speak." And this, combined with her many talents and keen intellect makes her an appealing model for today's woman.  But it is the fact that she lived only for God, to the end of her life, that made her a saint.


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