Thecla at the Window

14 Dec

If you’ve heard of the early Christian saint Thecla, you may know of her legendary counter-cultural exploits. When Paul won’t baptize her, she baptizes herself; she is condemned for refusing a man’s advances (that is, attempted rape) and bravely faces a lion, a bear–and killer seals!–in an arena; and although Paul initially rejects her discipleship, she nonetheless pursues a humble life of teaching and travel.

With all of these vivid moments to come in the Acts of Paul and Thecla, it’s easy to forget the first time we see her: Thecla simply sits at a window. Listening carefully, she offers all of her attention toward Paul’s excessive praises of virginity and preachings on Christ. Knowing what’s to come for this mighty woman, she may seem uncharacteristically silent, small, and passive in this scene; her mother describes her as “clinging to the window like a spider.”

Even here, however, Thecla’s power emerges. We learn from her mother’s laments to Thecla’s fiance that she hasn’t eaten or drunk for three days. Embarrassed over her child’s behavior, her mom “wonders how a virgin of her great modesty exposes herself to such extreme discomfort.” Leave it to Thecla to turn sitting and listening into extreme sports, which they can be, in such levels of intensity.

And the intensity of her devotion stands out throughout the text, starting with Thecla’s rapt attention. Only after listening for three days straight does she begin her adventures facing down ‘the establishment,’ who’s always trying to burn her crispy or feed her to some bloodthirsty seals; miraculous divine assistance arrives just in time, however, to protect her from all kinds of doom.

Of course, there are other ways of reading Thecla’s persistence at her window: she could be indulging an adolescent rebelliousness. Selfishly, she doesn’t even turn her head while her entire household weeps for the loss of a child, wife, and mistress. Like a star-struck teenager, she hasn’t even seen Paul yet in-person, unibrow and all, but longs to be near him. And she only really wants to be with him when she sees lots of other women paying him visits. (Jealous much, Thecla?) Perhaps Thecla isn’t shoring up her ability to act by first actively paying attention and deeply considering Paul’s message. Perhaps she is simply mesmerized by Paul, as her fiance tells the Proconsul.

For all of the problematic aspects of this text–a unilateral praise of celibacy over sex, Thecla’s neglect of her own family’s suffering, the propaganda of the miracles that help her along the way–there’s still something to be admired in Thecla’s devoted attention. She joyfully takes Paul’s words to heart. She doesn’t let anything distract her from her intentions.  She listens long and deep.

And then sets out.

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