As I write this, Italy is closed. The whole nation.
As the novel COVID-19 virus spreads, multiplying its victims like lilypads, Italy has been hit hard, particularly the prosperous Northern regions Lombardy, Emilia-Romagna, and Veneto. The Corona virus, the spread of which has been frequently compared to the speedy and efficient way some lilypads reproduce, has put those regions back on their heels, so to speak.
As I read on social media—from medical people who are there, experiencing and trying to treat this pandemic on the ground—there is an eighteenth-century painting that has been occupying my mind and working its way into my prayer. It is a depiction of a saint pleading with heaven to end a plague that had occurred a hundred years or so earlier, in the picturesque city of Este—in the same Veneto region that is again under siege.
Saint Thecla is the woman whose intercessory prayer is credited with ending that plague, and in Giovanni Battista Tiepolo’s work, St. Thecla Liberating the City of Este from the Plague, we see her profoundly recollected in prayer, face toward heaven, as all around her, at the base of the beautiful Euganean Hills where Este is located, are horrors we are either currently reading about (despairing families unable to save their loved ones) or fear we may soon see (the dead being unceremoniously carried to a burial place, others repulsed by the stench of death all around). Bodies being collected from where they have fallen. Small children clinging to parents nearly green from the pestilence. The suggestion that infants will starve as parents are unable to feed them.
It is a brutal, unflinching painting, and yet within it, Thecla gazes fearlessly toward heaven, in trust and tranquility.
Thecla, an ancient saint out of Iconium whose cult was suppressed by Rome in 1969, is still beloved and celebrated by our Orthodox sisters and brothers who find her story in the Apocryphal acts of Paul and Thecla and call her “apostle and protomartyr among women” and “equal to the apostles” in sanctity.
Her brief and entertaining apocryphal story is at once familiar and fantastic. In fact, her very early story might actually have become the template for so many other tales of holy women.
After three days of listening to Paul preach the Good News—particularly, it seems, his discourse on remaining single for the kingdom of God, (familiar to us through 1 Corinthians 7:7-9)—she breaks her contracted marriage to the highly regarded Thamyris, and for this she is sentenced to burn at the stake.
Thecla escapes that sentence thanks to a dramatic rainstorm that followed her public prayer for deliverance. Her pagan mother and ex-fiancée are now unsure what to make of Paul, and Thecla’s singular determination to follow him (and, eventually, be permitted by the apostle to preach to others). They’re still very concerned about her purity—so much so that when Thecla is again sentenced to death (this time to be fed to lions for the crime of physically assaulting and making a public mockery a nobleman who had tried to rape her), her mother arranges for Thecla to spend her last night on earth being watched over by Queen Tryphaena, that her virginal state might be assured even upon her death.
The lionesses, next morning, do not do their job, preferring instead to roll around at Thecla’s feet. And introduction of bulls into the arena is also ineffective, as the resourceful young woman throws herself into a vat containing sea calves and declares that she has baptized herself and is now claimed for Christ.
It’s madness, really, how often Thecla’s story refers to the premium placed upon her virginity when in fact the emphasis on her story should be on her instinctive prayerfulness and her willingness to plead loudly and publicly on behalf of herself and others. She called on God as naturally and easily as some of our greatest saints—Teresa of Avila comes to mind—and people noticed.
In fact, Thecla is an early and great model of intercessory prayer that is offered instantly, unreservedly, confidently, and to great effect. The night before her time with the lions, Thecla had been (along with the beasts) processed through the city and then brought to Tryphaena, whereupon we read:
After the procession Tryphaena took her again. For her daughter Falconilla, which was dead, had said to her in a dream: Mother, thou shalt take in my stead Thecla the stranger that is desolate, that she may pray for me and I be translated into the place of the righteous.
When therefore Tryphaena received her after the procession, she alike bewailed her because she was to fight the beasts on the morrow, and also, loving her closely as her own daughter Falconilla; and said: Thecla, my second child, come, pray thou for my child that she may live forever; for this have I seen in a dream. And she without delay lifted up her voice and said: O my God, Son of the Most High that art in heaven, grant unto her according to her desire, that her daughter Falconilla may live forever.
As Falconilla is able to ascend into heavenly eternal life, Thecla is shown—over and over again, and throughout her life—openly praying for impossible things, or improbable things, and being immediately answered. She lived into her nineties, becoming what might be considered an early monastic, joined by young women who, inspired by Thecla’s example, broke engagements and declared themselves for Christ. Our first and earliest virgin-martyrs—no simps, but strong women who emancipated themselves from social and contractual expectations in order to serve Christ alone—may owe some of their own courage to the strength of this Iconian woman.
Through all of this, Thecla healed the sick and preached the Gospel. Her last known and witnessed prayer was a call on Christ to defeat men who, because of her continued influence on the young women of Seleucia, Turkey, meant to overpower her influence by debauching her elderly body. Once again, she was rewarded with an instant and miraculous response, which left her protected and the unbelievers struck with wonder.
Yes, her story is fantastic—so fantastic it was considered unreliable enough to have her struck from the Roman calendar.
And yet, Christianity is packed with fantastic stories or jailed men set free by angels. It begins with a fantastic story of someone rising from the dead. And nearly four hundred years ago, in a city in Northern Italy, nowhere near any place Thecla had ever lived, people begged for her intercession against what seemed like an unstoppable plague, and the plague ended.
Suppressed Thecla may be, but there is no reason we cannot all be inspired by the faith of the people of Este, who interceded for each other by asking this model of intercession to do the same for the whole city. As we isolate and self-quarantine and watch too many streamed movies in the coming weeks, we’re also going to be hearing more horrible stories—like the ones we’re already hearing out of Italy—of patients being given less-than-optimal medical attention because they are old or otherwise challenged (and therefore more likely to die); of people being left to die, because the sheer volume of need undermines our healthcare system and workers, and leaves the human beings trying to address the plague with a sense of ever-dwindling options.
Let us do the practical things we must to shelter-in-place as much as possible in the coming weeks. Let us remember to check in on our neighbors and older family members and help where we may. Let us use everything at our disposal in order to ensure that loneliness does not become a second sort of plague, as the we all hunker down and isolate.
But let us pray, too, and let us pray like Thecla—instantly, loudly, unreservedly, confidently, and with great trust that such prayer has real power (because we Catholics know it does)—that this plague, too, may be ended swiftly, before the stories all become too much to bear.