Thecla's story comes from a time when Christianity was beginning to find it's place in the world. In a time when life for women was designed around domestic duties and motherhood, she broke from the expected to carve the life she chose. This is beautifully expressed when she baptises herself to receive the seal of God whom she dedicates her life to. Thecla reminds us of how the strength of one's passion can make anything possible.
Her story begins in the ancient lands of Anatolia, now known as Turkey.
Thecla was a “good girl”. Born into a respectable family, she followed the ways set out before her. She learnt all the things required of her to grow into an honourable woman, so it was no surprise when an equally honourable man, raised the same respectable way, asked for her to be his wife. All was as it should be and Thecla’s mother, now a widow and sole parent, could hold her head up as she walked the town with pride at the security of her daughter’s future through this betrothal.
Then one day a foreigner arrived in their town and that future would be rewritten.
Talk had bubbled for some years now about a self-proclaimed prophet who had been teaching to the south of Anatolia in the lands known as Canaan. He had been speaking of such things as compassion and love which were not so confronting. However he also claimed that he was the son of God, and that every person was also God’s child infused with the creator’s power and glory.
The prophet had gathered followers and travelled the land sharing his message. In doing so, he provoked thoughts and actions amongst the commoners that put fear into the ruling powers. Those governing soon put an end to his teaching, executing him by crucifixion.
One would think that would have put an end to his story. Instead, the story grew bigger.
Now there were reports that he had miraculously survived, emerging from his tomb and being reunited with his closest of devotees. Soon after the prophet ascended to the heavens, affirming his sacred authority, and empowering his followers to spread his teachings as far as possible.
So it was that Paul, one of these devotees, made his way north into Anatolia and to Thecla’s town of Iconium.
Onesiphorus, a nobleman of Iconium, had heard of Paul’s imminent arrival many days before. He set up vigil at the town’s outskirts, on the road that made way from the south, to ensure that he would be the first to greet the man. He knew that Paul was short, bald headed and bandy legged. However it was none of these features that drew Onesiphorus to know without hesitation that Paul had finally arrived. The nobleman would say to everyone that it was Paul’s presence that made him so sure.
“He walked as I imagine an angel would,” Onesiphorus would say.
The nobleman poured upon Paul his praises to such an extent that Paul’s companions raised their eyebrows and sighed, in equal parts dubious of the man’s intentions as well as jealous of his exuberance.
“Please, let me host you at my home,“ Onesiphorus implored. “All of you!”
This final part dissolved the resistance in Paul’s companions, as the assurance of a comfortable bed and a fresh meal always does for those who have travelled far.
Once settled within the nobleman’s home, Paul began his ministry, sharing the wisdom of his teacher, Jesus Christ. His audience began with some close friends of Onesiphorus but soon grew as more townsfolk heard about Paul and wanted to hear just what he was speaking of. As such Onesiphorus’ house became a church.
Thecla had heard the rumblings surrounding the foreigner’s arrival and though fascinated she dare not entertain the idea of making her way to Onesiphorus’ home even though it was close by her own. It turned out though that she didn’t need to.
One day as Thecla passed by a window within her own home, one that faced towards the house of Onesiphorus, she could hear Paul’s voice. At first it made her stop as she was fascinated by the sound of a foreign tongue, but what made her stay to listen were his words.
Thecla pulled a chair to sit by the window, and there she remained for three days.
She listened to his words intently and as she did she felt something within her blossom and ripen. His words gave birth to new thoughts and as her mind danced with these fresh ideas, Thecla saw that there were more possibilities for the life unfolding before her.
No longer did she see the one single path that all women around her took; marriage and motherhood were no longer the only and inevitable option.
As Paul spoke of each person having their unique connection to God so too he spoke of how a pure and chaste body keeps this connection strong. Thecla sat drinking in the words. This God that Paul spoke of would offer his love to her and it would strengthen what was growing within her.
For Thecla had always felt like something was missing. Her life, as ordered and privileged as it was, seemed dull and empty. Now in the space of three days, with the words of a foreigner floating through her window she understood what had been lacking for her.
It was as though all her senses were now reborn and reconnected to the very foundations of life. Finally she had passion for her very existence.
Thecla’s mother stood and watched her daughter by the window day after day. Thecla had not spoken or even asked of her betrothed and this concerned her mother greatly. She knew Thecla was listening to the stranger and she approached her daughter to entice her from the window. Thecla’s refusal to leave her position was insistent and this enraged her mother.
The mother sent a message for Thecla’s betrothed to come immediately and this he did. Thamyris arrived intrigued, however when the mother shared her concerns, he joined her in anger.
“You must convince her to forget this man and his ways,” the mother demanded. “These new ideas and practices are dangerous. He speaks of one God above all others. Worse still she is convinced that she will remain pure to receive this god’s love. He has seduced her mind and now her body will follow. If this spell is not broken, then your marriage will not happen.”
Though Thamyris held great respect for the mother he doubted this could be possible. However when he approached Thecla now at the window and called her name, she barely turned her head to acknowledge him. Thamyris now knew that the mother spoke truth.
Thamyris made his way to Onesiphorus’ home to see for himself who this foreigner was and what exactly he was speaking of. Just near the entrance to the house he saw two men talking heatedly. Their voices were loud and their hands moved intensely to amplify their emotions. Thamyris thought they were just arguing amongst themselves but as he came close he could hear they were sharing their woes and that their discontent was caused by Paul.
They too spoke of young women, as well as men, refusing marriage after attending Paul’s many talks. Thamyris invited the men to his home for dinner and as they ate and drank much wine they told Thamyris more of what the apostle was teaching.
“He speaks of eternal life through this worship of this great God, and that the purity of their body shall attain this,” one said.
The other scoffed and added “How do we convince these young one’s that marriage and creating children is this resurrection they desire…. And that we need. Soon no virgin shall find a husband and equally no man shall have a wife!”
Thamyris with his blood now hot with rage decided what must be done.
The next morning, he arrived at the magistrate’s office and made his case with absolute confidence. Aside from the disruption to his own life, he pleaded on behalf of the town and its people.
“These Christians and their ways must be stopped!” he begged of the magistrate. Not much else was needed to be said as the followers of Christ were already being persecuted throughout the kingdom. The magistrate was determined that this new teaching would not take hold in his jurisdiction.
It was not much later that Thamyris, accompanied by the magistrate, a jailor and a large group of men in his support, arrived at Onesiphorus’ house demanding that Paul come and face them.
This Paul did with steady hands and calm countenance. It was not his first-time encountering anger stoked by fear, and Paul knew it would not be the last. He also knew his faith would protect him.
The magistrate demanded that Paul disclose what exactly he had been sharing and what his intentions with the villagers were. As always Paul spoke openly and loudly.
“I thank you Governor for granting me an audience with you. I am here on God’s behalf to offer salvation to his creations. With his love I offer them a life free from sin and any temptation to sin again. I do this through the teachings of his son Jesus Christ who was sent by God. There is no crime in what I do,” he declared.
As passionate and honest Paul’s declaration was, his confession to teaching the Christian faith was all the magistrate needed to bind him and place him within a prison cell to await further interrogation.
Word of his imprisonment carried through the town quickly. Thecla, already desperately missing Paul’s voice, was crest fallen when her mother proudly announced what Thamyris’ protest had led to. Thecla took a deep breath and held her words within her. She looked at her mother and simply nodded, offering the woman the minimal respect needed to ensure that she believed her daughter would now comply with her expectations.
Thecla was far from returning to her former path. As night fell she slipped from the house. Keeping in the shadows to avoid being seen and stepping lightly so she would not be heard as she made way to the prison.
The guard by the door laughed heartily when she asked to enter.
“Run home, little girl! This is no place for you, especially not at this hour,” he bellowed.
Thecla stood firm in place and slid from her wrist a gold bracelet. As she held the bracelet out to the guard his laughter stopped and his smile fell from his face. He took the gold and pushed it into his pocket then turned to open the door for Thecla.
Inside Thecla walked down a long corridor lit by a single lamp at its end. As she walked closer she saw that was where the jailor sat, writing in his ledger. He did not see or hear Thecla until she was almost upon him and he whelped in surprise when her shadow alerted him.
“What….how??....Guard!! Guard!!” he cried out.
“He has my bracelet. You can have these,” Thecla said calmly and handed the jailor her gold earrings. “Now let me see Paul the apostle.”
The jailor walked her to a door with a small window cut high within it. He peered in and called out, “Christian! You have company!” He unlocked the door and gestured for Thecla to enter.
Paul, who had been sleeping upon the floor, sat up and watched as the young woman walked through the doorway. At first she stepped hesitantly into the dark space, unsure of just who she was being let in to see.
“My child, bless you for your company but surely you should be with your family at this hour,” he said softly.
Thecla hearing the familiar voice rushed forward and fell to her knees before him.
“My lord, you are more than my family could ever be,” she said before bursting into tears.
Paul put out his hand and Thecla placed hers upon it and her tears subsided.
“Shall we pray together?” he asked and Thecla nodded.
So they prayed and finally Thecla could ask all the questions that were within her.
“What is all this I am feeling inside?” she asked
“It is your connection to God. It is your truth,” Paul answered.
Thecla choked back tears when she said, “Are you not afraid that they will kill you for believing such things?”
Paul smiled, “I do not fear the death of my body for I know I will live eternally with Christ.”
Thecla paused for a moment and now she looked closely at Paul. She saw his breath was calm and solid, his eyes were wide open and not one line of worry was upon his face. He even smiled as he spoke of dying.
Thecla sat back and took in a sharp breath.
“There is no need for fear,” she said, and it was not a question so much as a revelation. “Christ will protect me and carry me to the heavens when my time is done.”
Paul kept smiling and nodded.
At first Thecla’s maid was not so alarmed when she did not find her mistress within her bed the next morning. She simply assumed that she was once again sitting by the window listening to Paul’s ministry. Then she recalled what every person in Iconium knew: that Paul was imprisoned. She shrieked and ran from the room to find Thecla’s mother.
The mother knew immediately where her daughter was and made her way to the jail. Just as she arrived Paul was being led to the court for his hearing and it was no surprise that her daughter walked sulkily behind him.
In equal parts enraged and embarrassed by Thecla’s actions the mother cried out to the magistrate, “You may as well take her to trial as well. She refuses to a marriage already agreed to and with dowry paid!”
Thecla remained calm and quiet, even as a jailor grabbed her upper arm and began to lead her where she was already walking. Paul had shown her that no fear was needed and even with her own mother calling for her persecution, all she felt to do was say a silent prayer to Christ to be with her and guide her through whatever would happen next.
Within the courthouse Paul with his hands bound stood before the magistrate, who could barely hide his contempt. How dare a foreigner, the acolyte of a condemned man, come to his town and convert his people? The magistrate also had no desire or authority to persecute a foreigner and the complications that would lead to.
“Leave this town in this hour and never return! If you do then I shall bestow the harshest of punishments upon you and anyone who harbours you.”
Paul’s hand bindings were loosened, and he was escorted through the door. Thecla watched with relief, even though she wondered if she would ever see him again. For now though it was her turn to be addressed by the magistrate.
Her mother also within the courtroom had spat laughter as Paul stepped outside and began his exile. Surely now with that foreign troublemaker gone Thecla would awaken from her stupor and once more be the good, respectable daughter she once was. She beamed with joy as Thecla went to face the magistrate.
“Thecla, beloved daughter and citizen of Iconium, you are brought here to face the charge of not honouring your marriage agreement to Thamyris. Is this true?” he asked.
Thecla looked up at the magistrate, her eyes open and clear. Though her hands were not bound, they held each other and rested before her. With her gaze fixed ahead she remained silent.
Thecla’s mother groaned and she began to make way to her daughter but the magistrate held up his hand making her stop in place.
“Thecla,” he now implored, “Just say you will honour your betrothal and this is complete. You can return home and life will be as it should.”
Thecla closed her eyes and took a deep breath. When she opened them she visibly squared her shoulders and once more set her gaze to the magistrate while not uttering a word.
The mother was now livid. It was clear that her daughter was beyond redemption and she began to shout.
“You see, Sire, you see! She is lost to us completely. The foreigner’s words have broken her. Burn her! Burn her so that no other will be tempted to follow such foolishness.”
With those words she handed the magistrate the most perfect solution. Thecla would be sizeably punished and an example would be set to any other who refused their arranged marriages. Paul was gone and now they could eradicate any rogue thoughts still lingering from his visit.
Thecla would be burnt at the stake in the town centre that very day.
It was ordered that the young men and women of the town would gather bundles of wood for the pyre. This they did obediently, through fear of their own punishment all while directly seeing what following the teachings of the apostle would lead them to.
Thecla was made to watch in the hope that the reality of her sentence being arranged before her might incite a reversal of her decision. Of course, it did not, as she remembered Paul within his cell and his fearlessness for whatever lay ahead. If she should die today, then she would just join Christ sooner than expected.
When the wood pile was complete, the magistrate’s men dragged Thecla towards it. A rowdy crowd had gathered and Thecla looked amongst them earnestly, hoping that Paul may have returned to save her or, in the very least, be present to offer her some solace. As the men pulled at her clothing, stripping her bare, she kept searching amongst the faces and then she saw him.
Paul’s face appeared and while those around him jeered and heckled, he stood still and silent. Then his face transformed into another’s. Though Thecla had never met Jesus, she knew she was now looking at his image. As quickly as she acknowledged this, he transformed once again, this time into a shimmering light that rose up and dissolved above the crowd.
“Girl, please! Just say you will marry the man and we don’t have to do this!” one of the guards all but begged her.
Thecla would not. For her vision had made her faith even stronger. Instead she made the sign of the cross and stepped upon the pyre, rested her back upon the stake standing in its centre and readied herself to be bound.
The shouts of the crowd grew louder as one guard tied her to the pole and then they grew even louder again as another guard stepped forward with the torch to light the wood. He paused for a moment, also hoping Thecla would have a change of heart. When he looked to her Thecla was looking up at the heavens instead and he furrowed his brow as he thought he could see her still smiling.
He had no choice now. He pushed the lit torch to the pyre and the fire began.
The flames should have risen quickly and engulfed Thecla within minutes. Instead they flickered and danced as though they had no intention of even burning the wood let alone the girl. More torches were lit and pushed into the pile at other points, but these too puckered like tapers.
The guards began to argue that the wood must be too green or had been gathered wet, and should they get more when a deep rumbling sound was heard beneath them. The crowd could hear it too and soon all that were gathered were silenced as they listened.
The sound grew and now the ground began to shake. Suddenly there was a loud tearing sound and the ground before the pyre opened as though it had been cut with a knife, pulling those close to the crevasse within it, while the rest ran for their lives.
Now the heavens joined in. A huge clap of thunder shook the sky and heralded a downpour of rain that extinguished the flames of the pyre.
Thecla remained in place; untouched and unharmed, knowing that each drop of water was confirmation that she had been saved by divine powers.
The first guard who had offered her opportunity to confess and be saved now ran to her and cut her bindings.
“Go! Gather your clothes and leave!” he yelled through the rain.
Once more clothed Thecla made way out of the town. Like Paul she was now effectively exiled. Her mother would never receive her again in their family home, not that she cared to return to a mother who had condemned her. If another townsperson dared offer her a home, the magistrate would simply come knocking to attempt the cremation again, probably adding her hosts as well.
Instead she would search to find Paul and join him in teaching the ways of Jesus, just as her heart ached to do.
Paul had fled Iconium soon after leaving the magistrate’s court. First, he had returned to Onesiphorus’ house to gather his things. Onesiphorus was at first delighted when Paul walked into the house but that joy soon dissolved when Paul told him of his sentence of exile.
“I will come with you,” Onesiphorus declared and called out to his family to make ready for departure.
“There is no time for such things,” Paul explained.
“Fine then. We shall come as we are. The Lord will provide all that we need,” the nobleman said and called out to his family once more.
So Paul along with the family of Onesiphorus walked to the town outskirts and made way into the hills surrounding Iconium. Some townspeople sneered and even spat as they passed the travellers.
One even cried out “You have sentenced a woman to death. You villain!”
“What do you speak of?” questioned Onesiphorus.
“Thecla shall be burnt for listening to this criminal’s words!” the man shouted before walking away.
Paul stopped and closed his eyes. “Lord save and protect her. Lord save and protect her…..” he murmured.
“Come we must continue,” Onesiphorus begged and Paul was pulled from his reverie and continued to walk.
They walked for much of the day and mostly in silence, apart from Paul’s continued prayers for Thecla’s protection, and when Onesiphorus and his wife were deciding what roads they would take. They were in-between towns when Paul asked that they stop travelling for the day.
“We are but less than an hour to the next village and some shelter,” Onesiphorus explained.
Paul shook his head. “We need to stop here!” he declared and began to make his way up the hillside that flanked the road.
The family scrambled after him, puffing and groaning as they slid on loose ground or picked up a sharp rock in their sandals. Thankfully this was not for too long as Paul stopped suddenly and whooped in delight.
“See, as you said my friend, the Lord will provide.”
He gestured before him to an opening in the hillside that led into a wonderful stone lined cave. The floor was even and clear of debris, almost as though someone had swept it in readiness for their arrival. The travellers made their way in, out of the hot sun and rested.
They remained several days within the cave as Paul prayed almost continuously for Thecla’s protection. He fasted as he did so with Onesiphorus joining him in the fast. However Onesiphorus’ family soon depleted the small amount of food they had managed to carry with them and they grew hungry. Very hungry.
Onesiphorus also desired to eat and he handed a small purse to his eldest son, asking him to head to the local village and buy some food and wine for them all.
The boy had just finished at the markets and was about to return to his family when he heard a familiar voice call his name. He looked around to see it was Thecla. His delight in seeing her alive and well was matched by Thecla’s own joy at seeing a familiar face and hearing Paul was nearby.
The two made their way back to the cave and the boy hurried ahead of her in the final part of the climb to announce her arrival.
Paul mistook the excitement of the boy’s return as the family’s relief to have food. He remained upon his knees in prayer, not even noticing the extra voice calling out its greetings. It wasn’t until Thecla stood right beside him and called out “Paul, it’s me!” that he looked up. When he realised it was Thecla he cried thanks to Christ and broke into tears.
Paul now broke his fast, joining the family and Thecla to share bread and wine, while listening to Thecla share all that had unfolded after his departure. This was followed by Onesiphorus’ sharing how they had travelled and then found the cave. Together they reflected and gave thanks for the wonders of the Lord’s work within their lives.
It was then that Thecla spoke directly to Paul and told him of her intention to travel with him and join him in teaching. Paul gave her a half smile but his face wore a look of hesitation.
“My sister, you are young and have great beauty. Men will be tempted by you and in turn, you shall be tempted by them. Your chastity will be greatly tested and I cannot promise it will remain pure,” he said bluntly.
“Oh but you can!” Thecla cried. “Baptise me! God has shown he favours me already. Surely with the Lord’s seal by your anointing I shall be protected?”
Paul shook his head. “I shall not. You’re not ready. With patience we will be shown when you can be baptised.”
Thecla was heartbroken. All her joy and relief to find Paul had been smashed by this rejection. She sat silent and looked down, not bearing to look into Paul’s eyes anymore.
“Oh come now, Thecla,” he continued. “We shall still travel and teach together and that is wonderful.”
It was wonderful and Thecla gathered herself, remembering the blessings she had already received.
The next morning the group left the cave. Paul insisted that Onesiphorus return with his family to Iconium while he, with Thecla by his side, made way to the city of Antioch.
Antioch was founded four hundred years before and lay upon the great River Orontes. It was dynamic and seemed to pulse like a heart. Paul and Thecla were excited for who they would teach here.
It was easy to blend in at this new city. Foreigners arrived all the time in Antioch for trade or as they made their way onwards to another place. The two walked with ease amongst the crowds and found many willing to engage with them. Soon they were being invited into homes as guests as well as to preach.
Unfortunately, it was in Antioch that Paul’s fears for Thecla were confirmed.
Alexander was a very wealthy man of Syrian descent. His wealth was matched by his political prowess and so as well as being a noble he also held rank as a magistrate; shaping and reforming laws as they were needed.
One day he saw Thecla walking with Paul and was besotted. Apart from her natural beauty, she walked with a confidence that made her even more alluring. Alexander made enquiries and when he found out that Thecla was not Paul’s wife he began his mission to make her his own.
Alexander attended as many of Paul’s talks as he could. He arrived each time with generous gifts or even a purse of coins to show his support, but mostly to gain Paul’s favour. When Alexander felt he had showered Paul sufficiently he finally made known his intentions. Asking to speak with Paul alone, Alexander asked that Thecla be given to him in marriage.
“Sir, she is not mine to give to anyone,” Paul replied plainly.
This did not deter Alexander in the slightest. In fact, he now felt empowered. With the traditional structures of a betrothal removed he could act how he wished. To his delight, it was soon after his conversation with Paul that Alexander happened upon Thecla walking alone within one of the town squares. Believing his lust was justified by his social position, and his gender, he walked up to Thecla, grabbed her arm and pulled her towards him, pushing a kiss upon her.
Thecla, though caught unaware, managed to turn her face in time so that his lips landed upon her cheek rather than her lips as it was intended. As she did she cried out in protest, hoping Paul would be nearby and come to her aid.
Alexander did not ease his grip and with his face still close to hers he proposed marriage to her, though it was not with any romantic notions or basic consideration for the woman.
Thecla now not only screamed but writhed as she tried to pull away.
“I did not refuse marriage to Thamyris to have it put upon me again by another, no matter who they are!” she screamed as people now stopped to see what was happening.
Thecla was oblivious to them all as her anger at being molested now became a rage. Her writhing became thrashing as she beat upon Alexander with her free hand. Her feet too became weapons and Alexander had to cower as he released Thecla’s arm, needing both his hands to protect his body from her blows.
Free from his grip Thecla stepped back and tried to regain her composure. Alexander whimpered for a moment then stood straight. There was a deep scratch upon his forehead that started to drip blood and as he reached to touch it, he realised his magisterial crown was no longer upon his head. Thecla had knocked it to the ground and it now sat by his feet.
From amongst those gathered around them muffled laughter and sniggers could be heard. Alexander snatched up the crown and placed it roughly on his head, then pulled at his coat to straighten it. As he did this he felt a huge tear within the silk fabric. The laughter grew louder and Alexander’s face turned red with humiliation.
He took a step towards Thecla but stopped. He raised a hand and pointed a finger at her.
“You dare to strike a magistrate? You, a foreigner to this town!” he snarled.
This did not fare well with the crowd for they had witnessed the entire scene and knew Thecla was innocent. The laughter now made way for heckling as many of them, especially the women present, knew who the true assailant was. Alexander looked about trying to see who was so quick to support the woman over him but his rage seemed to blur his vision and it was as though they were all in unison against him.
He turned once more to Thecla and focussed his anger upon her.
“I demand you present to the Governor and face punishment for your attack!” he roared.
The crowd’s jeers and protests grew even louder. Thecla remained calm, her steady breath now restored she responded with the grace taught to her by Paul and instilled by her faith.
“I will gladly go to speak my truth. Lead the way,” she replied.
Alexander smirked, partly at the enjoyment of Thecla’s seeming submission but also in confidence that his ally, the Governor would avenge his shame.
He made Thecla walk by his side, lest she try to slip away then he could grab her quickly. That would have been almost impossible as many of the women who had witnessed the drama now circled Alexander and Thecla, travelling with them through the streets, hurling abuse at the man and vowing support to Thecla.
The women remained in place outside the Governor’s rooms shouting continually, while inside Alexander put forth his now very distorted version of events, which of course made no mention of the attempted kiss. Thecla was asked plainly had she struck the man and as she had no compulsion to lie, her answer could only be “Yes”.
Satisfied that she had confessed to the crime, along with her status as a woman and Christian making it even more offensive, the Governor declared she be put to death by savage beasts. Once more Thecla was condemned to die.
When the women outside heard of her sentence a great roar emerged from them that was heard across the city. The insults to Alexander now evolved into slurs upon the Governor and his injustice to an innocent and unrepresented foreigner.
Thecla though remained as stoic as ever. She looked to the Governor and asked one thing; that her chastity be preserved as she did not trust her jailors to show honour to a foreign woman facing execution. The Governor agreed that if a suitable host could be found then he would allow it.
The noble woman Trifina was returning to her home when she passed by the rowdy gathering outside the Governor’s rooms. She was asking about the cause of the disturbance when Thecla was bought to the front door much to the delight of her awaiting supporters who believed she was being set free.
Instead one of the Governor’s aides escorting her called out, “Who shall be protector of this woman until her execution?”
Trifina looked at Thecla and her heart jumped. Thecla was the same age as her recently deceased daughter, Falconilla, and but for her unfamiliar clothing it could have been her own child standing there. She threw her hand in the air and shouted above all the others.
“I shall care for this young woman!”
The aides saw who it was and smiled. This was perfect. Trifina was not only a trusted part of the nobility but also a relative of Emperor Caesar himself. She would not dare assist the prisoner to escape her sentence.
Thecla was now safe for the time being. Trifina led her to the grandest home she had ever seen and once inside Thecla assumed she would stay with the servants. Instead she was taken to the family rooms and allowed all the luxuries within them.
Trifina knew that their time together would be short but for now she enjoyed once more having female company and someone to care for. When the governor’s men came to take Thecla to her execution, Trifina walked by her side.
Thecla was led to the amphitheatre within which an enormous cage had been erected. A mass of spectators filled the arena, including the women who had witnessed Alexander’s assault. As before they were loud and clear as to their support of Thecla. Trifina now joined them as they watched the injustice about to unfold.
Thecla was pushed into the cage and for a time was left to stand alone, save for the cries of the women. Then a huge crate was dragged towards the opening and a wooden panel at the end of the crate was raised, revealing a lioness who bounded into the cage, relieved to be set free from the dark wooden box.
The women now shrieked in horror, begging for this to be stopped. Thecla though stood still and silent; prepared for what would come.
The lioness paced around Thecla, emitting soft purrs that vibrated within its throat, becoming deeper and ominous. Then the creature walked closer to Thecla, who now for the first time caught her breath and flinched. She immediately corrected herself, taking in a deep breath and murmuring.
“Lord, protect me.”
The lioness seemed to look at Thecla as though the woman had spoken to her, now moving directly in front of her as if to hear her words more clearly. For a moment Thecla and the lioness looked into each other’s eyes, as though to acknowledge what was about to unfold. Then the lioness slumped before Thecla, resting her belly upon the ground. The wild cat pushed her face forward and began to lick Thecla’s feet whilst playfully flicking her tail.
The entire crowd fell quiet for what seemed an eternity as they watched in amazement. Then their silence was broken as Trifina began yelling in earnest.
“This is proof of your injustice! Even the beasts know she is pure and innocent!”
Once more the women erupted into shouting and their vocal chaos returned.
Thecla was allowed to return with Trifina while the Governor found new beasts to enact his sentence. That night as they slept, Trifina’s daughter Falconilla, appeared to her in a dream. She spoke to her mother, asking her to truly embrace Thecla as though she was her own daughter. In doing so, she also asked that Thecla be asked to pray for her so that her soul would walk into eternal life as promised by Christ.
The next morning Trifina, with tears streaming down her face, recounted her dream to Thecla and asked if she would pray as Falconilla had asked. Thecla nodded and smiling she closed her eyes and began to pray. She called to God to grant Falconilla eternal life and the peace that this offered to her soul. She spoke of the girl’s virtuous nature and the dedication of her mother, whose immense love alone was worthy of such for her daughter. Then she spoke of the compassion and protection offered to herself as evidence of Trifina’s merits.
Trifina was overcome with the beauty of Thecla’s words and the sincerity with which they were spoken. If she had any doubts as to Thecla’s faith and purity they were totally dissipated now. Her tears continued to fall as she thanked Thecla.
“Such dedication to a grand God with such love for his children. It is truly unjust that you are to die at the hands of men with no valour or depth to their beings.”
A few days passed when Alexander arrived at Trifina’s house at sunrise. As instigator of the case against Thecla, the governor was allowing him the satisfaction of escorting her to her death. However, with more time for Trifina to know Thecla, their affections had grown even deeper. It was now as though death had come for her daughter once again, and Trifina emerged before Alexander in such a rage that he fled; once more in fear of an utter embarrassment but now at the hands of a royal cousin of Emperor Caesar.
“How dare you come to my home to take away another daughter from me!” she had shrieked. “Is it not enough that I have suffered so much loss already, that you arrive here, knowing I have no husband or son to shield me.”
The words echoed out into the street as Alexander scuttled away and he sent word to the governor that someone else must escort Thecla.
Several guards were soon at Trifina’s house and Thecla stood waiting for them, readying herself as their silhouettes filled the doorway. She looked to Trifina who stood, still trembling from her outburst at Alexander.
“Farewell Trifina. I thank you for all you have done. Please know, I am not afraid,” she said as calmly as she could hoping their last moments together could be as graceful as possible.
Trifina rushed forward and embraced Thecla tightly. Then she hooked her arm with Thecla’s and made their fingers intertwine so they stood side by side as close as possible.
“I walked my daughter to her tomb, so too shall I walk with you to your final moments,” she declared and together they began the walk to the amphitheatre.
The crowd was once again filled with women screaming support for Thecla and demanding justice for her. In fact their numbers had grown as word had spread through the city of her story. Thecla was pulled from Trifina’s arm and the noblewoman stood to the side of the arena, with the chants and cries of the women above her.
Thecla looked to the heavens as the guards pulled her clothes from her. Then they roughly pushed her into the centre of the arena. Once more a large crate was pushed into the stadium and the very same lioness from before was released. Though this time she had been starved during the days since the last attempt to kill Thecla.
The lioness displayed the same disinterest in savaging Thecla who stood with her arms raised praying. The spectators could not hear her words over their constant braying which heaped praise upon the lioness whilst continuing their demands for the young woman’s release.
The Governor and his executioners were not perturbed to see this repeat of the lioness’s behaviour as they were well prepared with many more beasts. Now they released a bear into the ring but as it ran to attack Thecla, the lioness now found her power and leapt upon the beast before it could reach the woman. It tore at the bear’s throat so that soon it lay dead upon the ground.
The crowd screamed in delight and celebration of the lioness, as the Governor and Alexander seethed.
“Release my lion,” screamed Alexander to the executioners. Alexander’s lion was well versed in killing people, having been used in many sentences over the years. He sat back now and smiled as he watched it prowl towards Thecla.
The lioness circling Thecla, locked eyes with her male counterpart and unfurled a deafening roar. Just as the lion opened his jaws to match this, the lioness leapt forward and soon the two were battling so intensely that they disappeared in a cloud of dust, stirred up by their thrashing.
The fighting between them raged for but a few minutes which felt though like hours, then the lion fell limp and collapsed upon the ground. Once more the lioness was victorious in her quest to protect Thecla, but unfortunately at her own expense. The lion had wounded her with just as many deadly gouges so that she collapsed beside him and took her final breath.
The women’s delight at seeing the lion dead was now matched by their dismay at the death of the lioness. Some began to weep which seemed to amuse the Governor who now stood and yelled to his men to release whatever animals there were left. This they did and Thecla was surrounded by a menagerie of jackals, bears and lions.
Thecla stood still as the animals entered the arena. They seemed to do so in slow motion, and she saw the beauty of each beast as one of God’s creations. She took a deep breath and that inhale reminded her that she was ready for death and for the eternal life with Christ that would begin. Once more she raised her arms to the heavens, closed her eyes and began to pray.
She had spoken but a few words when she felt something land near her feet with a soft ‘thud’. Thecla pulled her focus back to her prayers but soon she heard more things landing; thud, thud, thud, all around her. Then a glorious scent filled the stadium.
Thecla’s supporters had come prepared to disturb proceedings as best they could. Their vocal protestations were but one weapon in their arsenal. The women had also come with bundles of herbs and wads of cotton soaked in fragrant oils which they now lobbed amongst the animals filling the beasts’ noses and mouths with the scents of spikenard, cassia, amomus and more. Each beast was soon sedated and rested upon the ground, showing no interest in Thecla, least not her potential to become a meal.
Thecla looked about her and even with her intense faith she was astonished. She could see Alexander and the Governor in heated conversation and knew that they would continue in any way they could until she was dead. It was then that she noticed to the side of the arena, that a deep pit had been dug and filled with water so that it became a pool.
Thecla had waited so patiently for the Lord to show her when she was ready to be baptised. Now standing naked, surrounded by sleeping and slaughtered beasts and so sure there was more horror to be put upon her, Thecla knew she could not wait any longer and would need to claim that moment herself.
Looking to the crowd she cried out, “So this is my last day upon the earth. I shall leave with God’s seal upon me. In the name of Jesus Christ, I baptise myself!”
She made the sign of the cross upon her body and began to make her way to the water. The crowd now cried out warnings to her, because the pool was filled with wild sea lions which would surely tear her apart. The Governor caught his breath and watched in anticipation of the day’s events finally concluding.
Thecla had but two steps more to reach the water and she smiled, her heart filling with joy at the idea of finally being baptised. Just as these thoughts filled her mind there was a flash of light as a bolt of lightning hit the water, killing the sea lions and allowing Thecla to step into the pool safely.
Thecla immersed herself fully into the water, wanting to receive as much of the water’s blessing as she could. She wanted to wash away all of the evil thrown upon her. She wanted her energy to be renewed and revitalised, ready for her eternal life that she was sure would soon begin.
Alexander was beyond fury now as he watched Thecla in the pool. Once more she was untouched and safe. Her turned to the Governor with a final plan that he was sure would work.
“I have two bulls that are feisty and robust. Let us strap her to them then touch hot irons to their ball sacks. They will rip her apart without any doubt,” he said.
The Governor just nodded, for he had no better plan at this point.
So the bulls were bought in and ropes were tied around Thecla’s waist then secured around her ankles. As the men then made to attach these to harnesses upon the massive steers, Trifina, who had remained in awe of all that Thecla had endured, could bear no more at this sight. Her mind jumped ahead to the horror of what was about to unfold and her heart felt as though it was torn open. The arena before her blurred and she collapsed to the ground.
Thus she missed the final miracle that would occur on this day.
Thecla stood with the tight bindings upon her. Just as the leads were being pulled taught into their fastenings upon the bulls, a cloud of fire appeared around her, dissolving the ropes and hiding her naked form. All without touching her body or causing her any harm.
Thecla stood within her dancing cloak of flames and could see utter chaos beyond it. The bulls, frightened by the fire were braying and kicking their legs, whilst men tried to settle them and lead them from the amphitheatre. Her supporters were screaming more than ever, shouting out that surely this was enough proof now, not just of Thecla’s purity but of the power of the God she loved so much. Others rushed to aid Trifina who lay still and lifeless. Alexander and the Governor were once more in a dramatic exchange.
All of this went on while Thecla stood still as a statue, in reverie for the beauty of finally knowing she was baptised.
Alexander, seeing Trifina limp and unresponsive, assumed the worst. His rage at Thecla was now taken over by fear that he would be held responsible for the death of not just a noblewoman but one who was also a member of the royal family. If Emperor Caesar should seek to punish who was responsible for his cousin’s demise, then that accountability would rest upon his shoulders. Now in self-preservation mode Alexander turned to the Governor.
“Cancel this now, not just for my sake but for that of the city!” he cried. “If the emperor should know we have tormented and finished his cousin so, then we shall all perish.”
The Governor had no intention of this debacle continuing any further. He looked out to the glowing cloud that still hung upon Thecla. He stood and called to her, demanding that she present herself before him. The fire fell away and Thecla stood before the man waiting to hear what he had to say.
“Who are you?” he asked with exasperation. “How is that not one animal has touched you?”
Thecla spoke loudly and clearly, “I am a servant of God, and a believer of Jesus Christ his Son, in whom God is well pleased. For that reason none of the beasts could touch me. He alone is the way to eternal salvation and the foundation of eternal life. He is a refuge to those who are in distress, a support to the afflicted, a hope and defence to those who are hopeless.”
The Governor’s only response to this was to direct one of his men to return Thecla’s clothes to her. As they were handed to her she turned once more to the Governor.
“May that God who clothed me when I was naked among the beasts, in the day of judgment clothe your soul with the robe of salvation.”
Her words were not said to insult or taunt the man. They were offered with love as one would a prayer.
Thecla put back on her clothes and waited for the Governors next directive. This he gave quickly and simply.
“I release you, Thecla, servant of God.”
When the women realised what had occurred they roared in celebration so that they could be heard across the town, for justice had finally been served. Those attending to Trifina repeated the decree hoping it would rouse her and soon the noblewoman was upon her feet and part of the throng rushing to embrace Thecla.
When Trifina could finally hold Thecla within her arms she wept as she declared, “I truly believe that those who have died will live on in eternity. My Falconilla lives for ever more in the heavens. Come my daughter, Thecla. Let us return to our home. For all that I have is now also yours.”
So Thecla lived for some time with Trifina and as Paul had done in Iconium with Onesiphorus, Thecla and Trifina opened their home for people to come and learn the teachings of Jesus. Just as Thecla had her heart and her mind opened, so too did many young women and men of Antioch.
Though life here was content and productive, Thecla ached to see Paul once more. Paul had continued his journey as Thecla had remained to face her sentence. She was not bitter at all, for she knew the importance of Paul’s mission to travel to new places to teach. Thecla sent people to search for him and finally word arrived that Paul was now in the town of Myra.
Though now baptised and feeling that she was watched over by God, Thecla gathered an entourage to accompany and protect her. The group was filled with men and women now dedicated to the new teachings. Thecla now did one more thing that would see her less attractive to men, as well as make a declaration as to her purpose; she cut her hair short and dressed in men’s robes.
When she came upon Paul in Myra, he was preaching to a small crowd in one of the town squares. Thecla was so happy to hear his voice and the beautiful way he spoke of Christ once more. She joined the throng, hoping to blend in and not distract him, lest his teaching be interrupted.
Paul did see her though. He finished the story he was retelling then rushed to embrace Thecla. Though he was delighted to see her, Paul was also concerned that her arrival with the small group signalled further troubles.
Thecla shook her head. “I am free. The Lord showed me it was time to be baptised and so I am.”
They spent that evening with Thecla recounting all that had unfolded during her trial and the miracles granted to her during her sentence. Paul and all those who listened were both relieved and in awe. The miracles were truly a sign of God’s power as well as showing how blessed Thecla was.
“You are truly chosen to represent God to men and women,” Paul said. “Now we will travel and teach together.”
Thecla shook her head. “I will go back to Iconium. I must heal what was damaged there. Then I will teach.”
Thecla arrived In Iconium and was received by Onesiphorus, who was delighted to see the young woman once more as well as hear that Paul was still alive and well. He took Thecla to the parlour to rest and eat whilst they readied a room for her.
As she walked into the parlour she realised that this was the room in which Paul would have preached while he stayed here. She looked out the window and could see the house nearby that had been her home. Here she was standing in the very place that the words that would transform her life had been spoken.
Thecla fell to the floor and began to cry. Through her tears she prayed and gave thanks. She thanked God for her enlightenment. She thanked Jesus for saving her from the fire and the beasts. It had all started here, in this room.
When she stopped crying, Thecla looked out to the home that her mother still lived within. Tomorrow she would see her. She would try to heal the bond that had been broken. Also, Thecla would call her mother to join her in this faith that had enveloped her life.
The mother received Thecla with a cold resignation. The entire town would soon know her daughter had returned and if she didn’t receive her that would only build on the scandal and embarrassment she had already endured. Mostly, she was hoping that Thecla was here to apologise and return to the life of a respectable Iconium woman.
By their meeting’s end both women would be disappointed.
Thecla spoke of her devotion to God and how her life would never return to how it was. Whilst her mother rejected all of Thecla’s invitations to become a Christian and accept her God.
The bond between them was broken forever more.
Thecla also wished to see Thamyris to forgive him his actions and ask that he forgive her for breaking their betrothal. However, Thamyris had died in the time that she had been away. So instead, she visited his tomb and prayed that God would receive him and offer him eternal life, just as she had prayed for Falconilla.
Though her time in Iconium hadn’t quite been what she had hoped it would, Thecla accepted that all was as it should be. Now she would focus upon teaching, and to do this she would need to make way to new places.
As she did so she walked along the same road she had when she first fled Iconium after her failed cremation. Thecla looked about her and realised she was near to the cave in which she had found Paul praying for her. It didn’t take long for her to find it and just as she had within Onesiphorus’ parlour she wept and prayed in thanks for all that had occurred here.
Thecla’s travels found her in the city of Seleucia. It was a busy town filled with many people eager to listen to her proselytising. Though she felt welcome and safe, Thecla did not feel comfortable with the other religious practices there.
The Seleucians were well embedded in ancient rites that loved idols of many kinds. Thecla felt bombarded by them whenever she walked the streets and flinched when offered blessings from a myriad of gods including some hybridised with animals. As sturdy as Thecla was with her commitment to God, she felt as though they eventually may pull her from her faith and back to the ways she had grown up with.
Thecla made way to the outskirts of town ready to find a small village nearby when she looked to the mountains and smiled as she pictured all the caves carved into their sides. Just as Paul had sought solace within one, so too would she. It was the perfect solution. She could be separate from the practices which she found confronting but be close enough for people to come to listen to her. God would send them, she was sure.
It also helped that Thecla spoke of her new location to a few of her students when she gathered some food and materials to stock her new home. Indeed the people did follow her, often bringing new people to listen and learn of Jesus. A group of young women shed their old lives to commit themselves to God, so that she soon had a monastery upon the mountain with her acolytes living in the caves around her.
This community thrived for many years with people coming and going or arriving to remain. Some left to become teachers in their own right. Thecla’s heart swelled when she thought of all these extra tongues speaking the faith and stories of Jesus.
Many were touched when they heard the tales of miraculous healing done by Jesus, and then when they heard of Thecla’s own wondrous escapes from death, they imagined that she too must be endowed with the ability to heal. Soon the ill and frail arrived at her cave with hopes that Thecla would end their suffering.
The first to arrive was a young man. He was tall and thin with the simplest of robes hanging from his from his frame. In his right hand he held a wooden staff which he seemed to lean on for support, while his left arm hung limply by his side. Thecla beckoned him to come closer and watched as he swung his left leg forward, locking it into position before stepping forward with his right, using the staff to balance himself. He did this over and over until he was before her. It was then she noticed that his face appeared as though two different people were joined together.
On his left the eye seemed not to move or respond, while his cheek was flaccid and the edge of the mouth there hung as though in a frown. Across and within the same skin another story was told; this eye sparkled with the joy of being there, looking into Thecla’s face and seeming to dance, while the right side of his mouth curved upwards in a smile that made you forget the lifeless tissues so close by.
“Madam,” he began and though his words slurred due to his disability Thecla would hear them all clearly. “I hear you are blessed by a great God who bestows healing powers. Might you restore me?”
Thecla’s eyes filled with tears.
“That you would grant me such an honour fills my heart. However I should let you know that I have never performed such acts,” Thecla said and then smiled. “Then again, I have repeatedly been shown that my love of God allows the impossible to become possible. Would you join me in believing this also? I do believe that our faith combined could indeed create your renewal.”
The young man nodded.
For the next few days they prayed together, laughed together and ate together. Thecla’s disciples gave him herbal baths and massages, whilst Thecla prayed over him. Each day he grew stronger and his faith in God grew which in turn fuelled his recovery. Then came the day when he no longer swung and dragged his left foot and the staff was no longer needed. His limp arm soon followed in healing and though he would never have the vigour of a man his age he certainly had the independence and ability of one.
When the time came for the young man to return home he picked up his staff to take it with him.
“I know I no longer need this, but it will be my reminder of what occurred here through the love of God. Besides, it is handy for flicking scorpions from my path as I walk,” he finished with a laugh.
Then more came to be healed. Some dragged themselves up the mountain side whilst others were carried. There was young and old, rich and poor. Thecla received them all in the same grace and love for each one was a soul ready to be healed both physically and spiritually. It was hard to not believe in the God that Thecla loved so much when she was able to heal what no physician could.
Whilst most people in the region were delighted to have such a healer available to them, the physicians felt otherwise. Thecla was healing what they could not and now they were hearing of people being healed from simply being on the mountainside and not even having reached the cave or set eyes upon the woman.
Their reputations were tarnished, but even worse Thecla had ruined their trade. No longer did they have an endless queue of patients and their purses were light and soon to be empty. All while Thecla took no fee for what she claimed to do.
Some of the doctors gathered one night to console each other and as they drank a darkness entered each of them so that their bitterness fermented into evil. They joked of poisoning Thecla or other brutal ways to create her demise. Then one of the men began to laugh and with red eyes he put forward his idea.
“She speaks all the time of chastity and how it connects her to this God. I say we relieve her of this and break that connection. The charlatan can then live on in pain and suffering. That, my friends, shall be worse than death for her.”
Indeed this was true. Thecla still had no fear of death. It would simply release her to eternal life with her God and Christ. To have her virginity taken with brutality would wound her deeper than any knife could.
The men gathered some louts and plied them with wine and food until they were drunk, content and trusting of their hosts. It was then that the physicians put forward their proposal, handing the men a purse of gold coins each, with the promise of this amount again upon their successful return.
When the four villains stood in the entrance of the cave, Thecla was not alarmed for she assumed they were just more pilgrims or patients arriving for enlightenment and care. However as soon they began to walk closer she knew immediately they were here for neither.
It was in their eyes; a darkness so deep that Thecla thought she saw demons grinning at her through them. She stood and backed towards the stone wall behind her, praying as she did so.
“Lord, you have not forsaken me before, and I know you will not now.”
The men laughed so much that it echoed out of the mountainside.
“Let’s see how well this lord will do against us,” one of them said as he lunged forward to grab her.
Just as he did, Thecla felt the stone behind her crack and a slit just wide enough for her dainty frame opened. She quickly stepped through and it closed as quickly as it appeared, leaving the men standing there bewildered.
“She was here, you all saw her?” the one who had stepped forward to grab Thecla bellowed and he looked down to his hand where he grasped a small piece of cloth. It was part of Thecla’s veil. The only part of her that the man had managed to grab as the stone sealed itself, tearing it away and remaining behind in the cave.
The other men did not take the time to nod or debate as to what could have just occurred. Each of them fled the grotto before anything else could happen.
Thecla stood facing the rock she had just stepped through. She could hear the muffled cries of the men fade as they ran away and she knew that God had saved her in more ways than simply removing her from the potential rapists. For when they returned to the town, their macabre retelling of what occurred would mean no others would dare to try what they had and failed.
For now Thecla gathered herself and turned to see that there was a tunnel to lead her back into the sunlight to re-join her community.
Thecla’s teaching and healing continued for many years more upon that mountain. Though she was content and as productive as she had ever hoped to be, a small part of her heart longed to see Paul one last time before the end of her life. It had been some time since she heard any news from him and so she decided this was reason enough to make way to him.
The last she had heard was that Paul was now based in Rome, where along with the apostle Peter, they had founded the first church dedicated to teaching the ways of Jesus. Together the men were gathering more and more people into their flock.
This would be a long and arduous journey from her home across to Rome. However her longing to reunite with Paul and see the wondrous works he was performing with Peter overrode any hesitancy or doubts. She saw it as a pilgrimage to honour the men who were carving a new way for those yet to come.
With a small group aiding her in this pilgrimage, she alternated between riding upon a donkey and horse, for her elderly legs were not strong enough for such long hikes these days. On the days when she felt physically overwhelmed or longed for the comforts of her cave, she simply reasoned that each day she was closer to her teacher and this made any aches and pains from riding more like a celebration of her endeavour.
When she could see Rome in the distance, she felt just as she had when she approached Antioch all those years before. Rome was another bustling city, ready to learn new ways and it made her heart swell to be part of it. Soon she would be with her teacher once more and perhaps they might preach together, just as they had in Antioch.
However this was not to be. For since the time of his last message Rome had experienced much. A great fire had ravaged the city destroying monuments and upheaving business. The new emperor, Nero, not renowned for reason or compassion, had used this devastation as opportunity to persecute any Christians, blaming them for the tragedy.
Groups of them were burnt alive or fed to wild beasts just as Thecla herself had almost suffered. For the leaders though, their deaths would be made more intimate. Peter would be crucified just as his lord had, though he requested that he be positioned head down as he didn’t feel worthy to die the same way.
Paul’s death would be quicker though not less brutal. He would be beheaded, with tales of his falling head bouncing three times and creating a fountain in each place that his head touched the ground.
Though Thecla wished she could see Paul one more time she rejoiced in knowing he was now in his eternal life with God. When she entered his tomb she lay her head upon his sarcophagus and whispered, “Thank you.” Then, though she was sure he didn’t need her prayers, she prayed for his soul to be granted eternal life.
Thecla knew her body could not make the journey back to Seleucia. Her heart was full knowing that she was near the resting place of Paul. Besides, Rome’s Christians needed teachers and leaders to rebuild their community here. For despite the persecution, many were converting each and every day.
So it was that Thecla remained in Rome teaching.
A few years later she began her eternal life and was laid to rest not far from her beloved Paul.
Her adventure began at 17 years of age, and ended 73 years later when she was 90.
©2021 Marisa Calvi
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if no fee is charged and that proper credit is given to its source.
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