Sunday, November 30, 2014

The Harlot Kōan

Hers is perhaps the ugliest image in Orthodox iconography. Just about any other saint, even the serious ascetics, gets to shine with ageless, transcendent beauty. But not her. She’s always presented to us as a gaunt, withered old woman, naked but for a borrowed cloak, her skin leatherized from years of exposure to the elements, and with a bad hairdo. Her expression is often almost pathetic. It’s difficult to imagine her as sexually alluring in her youth, even though that’s how the story goes, and her story is familiar to the many Eastern Orthodox Christians who encounter it annually on the fifth Sunday of Great Lent.  Her life is read aloud with the Great Canon of St. Andrew of Crete at the following Thursday’s matins.  It can be an emotional experience to be confronted with the image of her radical repentance. It can also be an occasion for modern people like me to come up against elements of her tale that raise more questions than they answer. I’ll review her story for the benefit of those unfamiliar with it.