Posted by: goodmorningmystic | September 11, 2021

St. Thaïs…Pioneer Mystic

In the course of doing some research on reclusion in the Middle Ages, I came across a 4th century Egyptian woman named St. Thaïs (pronounced “thigh-ees”).  She is considered to be the first know female Christian anchorite. I dug a little deeper and found that, like most saints, Thaïs had a checkered past and a conversion experience.  Don’t we all. 

Here’s her story:

Thaïs was a successful and well-known prostitute/consort/courtesan/concubine (take your pick, no one knows for sure).    Her uncle, St. Paphnutius (Paf-noo-tious), goes to Thaïs and talks to her about God.   She repents, gathers everything she has earned through her sins and burns it all in the marketplace as a very public token of her break with her wicked past.   She asks Uncle Paphnutius to lock her up in a “cell” so she can live her life as a recluse.

*I note that a “cell” can be a little house or other dwelling, usually with a window through which the recluse would communicate.  The point of a recluse, back then as is true today, is that the recluse did not leave their “cell” however communication occurred quite often.

On with the story. 

St. Paphnutius wants to be sure that he’s done the best thing for Thaïs so he consults with his friend, St. Anthony of Egypt, another famous recluse, about his penitent niece.   St. Anthony, along with a few of his fellow desert monks, go to Thaïs and together they pray to God for enlightenment.  These men were not afraid of being connected with Thaïs.  They wanted to help her.  One of the monks receives a vision and it is decided that they should support Thaïs in pursuit of her desire to withdraw from the world in order to seek God.

Thaïs stays in her cell for three years. For some unknown reason, St. Paphnutius sets her free from her reclusion.   St. Thaïs does not want to leave her cell but is obedient.   She goes to live with other women who have consecrated their lives to God (these days we call then nuns).    

Thaïs dies in peace two weeks later. Yes. Two weeks later.  Everyone believes her death is a sacred sign that God has forgiven her sins and has eagerly welcomed her to her heavenly home.  This is the end of Thaïs but not of her story.

It turns out that Thaïs the anchorite was a bit of a superstar in her day.  Over the centuries there have been numerous stories written about her, including a novel or two, and even an opera.   

Today our modern day superstars can be found on Instagram or a sports field or other such public places.  They are famous for being extroverts, people very much “in” the world and “of” the world.  But St. Thaïs was different.  She gained her status by rejecting the world.  She was once very much “in” this world…and then she was not.   

We know that things get off balance when we are too much “in” the world.  We know this because we know the Truth.   

In the Gospel of John 17: 14-21, Jesus says this to his Father about his disciples:

“I have given them Your word; and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world.  I am not asking You to take them out of the world, but to keep them away from the evil one.  They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world.  Sanctify them in the truth; Your word is truth.  Just as You sent Me into the world, I also sent them into the world.  And for their sakes I sanctify Myself, so that they themselves also may be sanctified in truth.”

This is not just about his disciples…it’s for us, too. Jesus continues.

 “I am not asking on behalf of these alone, but also for those who believe in Me through their word, that they may all be one; just as You, Father, are in Me and I in You, that they also may be in Us, so that the world may believe that You sent Me.”

I guess this is just another way to say…we’re all in this together.

Back in the 4th century it was considered an act of extraordinary spiritual strength to live the life of a recluse.  I think this is true today as well.  It’s easy to be led.  It’s dangerous to be distracted.  Sometimes, as with St. Thaïs, we need to step back – way back – and seek solitude.  Like St. Thaïs, we may be called to be a recluse, of sorts.  And as previously stated in Scripture above, people will think you’re strange if you withdraw from the world in search of Truth. 

Remember, Jesus often sought solitude.  It seems as if the apostles were always looking for him.  He went “away” from others to pray.  He got up early and went to the mountain to be alone with God.   He went out into the desert – alone – for 40 days.

So, do you want to seek the Truth?  Do you want to be a mystic? 

Then turn off the electronics, separate yourself from others, and get with God. 

I’m not endorsing extreme solitude or asceticism which can be dangerous.  Today as in the Middle Ages, and all the way back to 4th century Egypt, it was never advised that the recluse be left alone.  Someone was always supervising to ensure that things didn’t get too out of control.   

Just know that like the apostles and saints, you can be “in” the world but not “of” the world.  You can seek the existence of realities beyond human comprehension and be transformed by the renewing of your mind.

*St. Thaïs is venerated in both the Roman and the Eastern Orthodox Church.   Her feast day is October 8.


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