no ordinary sexless marriage: the life of Andronikos & Athanasia

Andronikos and Athanasia

Athanasia and Andronikos apparently lived in sixth-century Antioch. In recalling their lives, a surviving Greek manuscript from the tenth or eleventh century describes Antioch as “the mother and excellent nourisher of both God-loving men and women in the past and until today.”[1] In the life of Andronikos and Athanasia, the privileged position of the maternal nourisher is insightfully paired with a wife’s long path toward developing true love for her husband.

Andronikos, who was from a highly distinguished family of Antioch, initially took up the profession of banking. In gynocentric society, men typically must work and achieve to be highly regarded as men. Men’s opportunities to express love for their spouses and neighbors are thus commonly impoverished. Andronikos, however, didn’t allow his demanding financial work to choke his love for his neighbors:

He gave no offence to anyone at all in his trade and was concerned more with his soul than his body, for he was not characterized by greed. In pursuing his aforementioned profession {banking}, drawing {money} by the bucketful as the saying goes, he gave the honest earnings he accrued daily from his profession freely, with both hands, in order to take care of the poor and provide succour for monks.

Jesus expelled money-changes from the temple. Early Christians regarded usury as a sin.[2] Within that context, Andronikos provided a shining example of a banker who also acted as a faithful Christian.

After Andronikos was established as a banker, Athanasia married him. Despite obvious financial advantages from that marriage, she didn’t regard her husband as merely a provider of money and personal services to her. She is described as a “helper” (βοηθὸς) to her husband. That’s the Greek word that the Septuagint used to describe Eve as a helper for Adam.[3] Athanasia didn’t spend lavishly and pressure her husband to earn more:

Athanasia did not proposed to her husband ways by which they would increase and add to their wealth and fortune, but said and did everything {she could} so that both of them would be pleasing to God rather than by throwing away their wealth. For they always distributed their income into three parts. The first was sufficient for the household and for those in it, the second for the feeding and clothing of the poor, and the rest for the care of those who came to stay in Antioch, visitors and monks.

The name Athanasia (Αθανασία) means as a Greek noun “immortality.” Underscoring Athanasia’s importance to her husband and her righteous behavior, their Greek life declares that Athanasia and Andronikos were “allotted the true immortality after which she was named.”

Athanasia and Andronikos had two children. The first was a boy named John. They probably named him after John the Baptist. Jesus said of John the Baptist: “among those born of women no one is greater than John.”[4] Athanasia and Andronikos then had a daughter named Mary. From a Christian perspective, Mary was the mother of God and the first Christian disciple. Mary has been honored much more greatly than John in Christian life throughout the ages. That’s to be expected under gynocentrism. Yet Andronikos and Athanasia showed no indications of treating their son as naturally more evil than their daughter.

After having two children, Andronikos and Athanasia mutually agreed to a sexless marriage. They lived before spouses had non-sexual freedom. As a husband, Andronikos was required to serve Athanasia’s sexual needs even if he didn’t feel like doing it on a particular occasion. But under their mutual agreement, they “pledged with unfailing trust to unite no longer with each other for the rest of their lives.” Many married couples today effectively follow such an agreement because passion within their marriages has shriveled. The sexless marriage of Athanasia and Andronikos had a much different spiritual motivation:

having bid farewell to the flesh and all carnal desires, they devoted all their effort to the spirit and spiritual works. For three of the days of the week — I mean, Monday, Wednesday, and Friday — the holy Andronkos together with his fellow bankers and other like-minded men, were preoccupied with caring for disabled and poor men as if they themselves were servile, and caring for those whose bodies were suffering, with baths, and dispensing other relief. The remarkable Athanasia, with other women of equal birth, provided exactly the same care as her husband to women whose lives were stricken by poverty or any harsh or difficult situation. On Sundays, they both kept the Lord’s service from dawn until evening, offering prayers to the Lord.

Lack of sexual polarity commonly causes lack of sexual passion in relationships. Athanasia and Andronikos provided “exactly the same care” to their neighbors. But their companions and the persons they cared for were separated by sex. Sex remained an important reality for them even after they solemnly agreed to a sexless marriage and renunciation of carnal desires.

Tragedy befell the family when their children were ages ten and twelve. Their children were overcome with a violent fever. While the children were ill, Athanasia departed from a Sunday service to check on them. She found them completely stretched out in bed, “crying with deep moans.” Athanasia ignored the risk of catching their fever:

Immediately, worried in her innermost being and struck violently in her heart, she threw herself on the bed and embraced her own children, placing herself in-between so as to soothe their suffering. It would not have been bearable to anyone to see both her children worn down by disease, especially a mother who loved her children so much. For even though the woman was God-loving, she was nevertheless tortured by maternal love and, indeed, by the demands of nature.

Andronikos later returned and scolded his wife for departing from Sunday service to sleep. She in response didn’t violently attack her husband. She told him of her pity for their feverish children. He too loved their children greatly. But in response to their worsening fever, he didn’t lie down between them in bed; instead, he went to pray for about five hours in the church of the Holy Martyr Julian.

Andronikos returned to his children at the sixth hour of the day. The sixth hour was when darkness had come over the land while Jesus was hanging on the cross.[5] Andronikos likewise encountered a time of darkness:

On his return from praying, he heard wailing and lamentation as he drew near to the house. A great crowd streamed to his house. Entering, he found both his children lying dead in one and the same bed and his wife already clearly overcome with grief. So at once he went to the private chapel in their home and fell to the ground face downwards, looking like another Job, doing and uttering the same things. There, praying feverishly to the Lord and making frequent obeisance, he thanked God, and kept saying, “The Lord gave, the Lord has taken away. As it appeared fit to the Lord, thus it has come to pass. Blessed be the name of the Lord to the ages.”

After thus strengthening himself, he tried to encourage his wife:

Going out, he attempted to plead with his wife who wanted to die with her children, and who could not bear at all to live any longer. She said, “Why should I live?” She went on crying and wailing as is natural for a mother who loves her children. {She said,} “Both my young shoots have been taken away from me. To whom shall I look from now on, with the help of what shall I extinguish the flame of my grief? I, who had beautiful children, am suddenly childless.”

Andronikos didn’t respond angrily to his wife ignoring his presence in her life, counting as nothing his love for her, and forgetting his ability to console her. He instead responded with kind, Christian exhortation:

Do not be so, wife. Do not lament for our children with inappropriate words like this, like one of the foolish ones who have no hope for the Resurrection. For though they are dead to us, at least they live in God by whom they were received, who wisely managed this for their and our own good. For he received our children, unblemished, before they had even tasted the evils of life, while he pledged us in marriage to pay attention to salvation of the soul, now that there is nobody to distract and attract our attention.

Christians believe in the goodness of God, a goodness expressed ultimately in the Resurrection of Christ after his death on the cross. As a Christian, Andronikos urged Athanasia to understand their children’s death as part of God’s plan “for their and our own good.”

A wife will sometimes discount the words of her husband, but follow the same advice heard from another. Athanasia didn’t find consolation in her husband’s Christian exhortation:

Athanasia remained by the tomb of her children, suffering terribly, flowing with hot tears, not accepting any consolation until sleep crept over her and made her rest involuntarily.

When Athanasia finally fell asleep, she had a dream. She dreamed that Saint Julian the Martyr was standing before her “as if reprimanding her for unyielding lament and unchecked tears.” Saint Julian said to Athanasia:

For whose sake, woman, do you wish to grieve, untimely and inconsolably? Do you not know that since you are mortal you have given birth to mortal children whom recently the kind God clearly deemed worthy to receive for salvation? Do not weep now for the children, for you will not raise them. Rather, weep for the mistakes of your life, which you will be able to wipe out easily with your tears.

Those words of Saint Julian immediately relieved Athanasia of her despondency. Yet what Saint Julian said to her was substantively identical to what her husband had said to her earlier.

Rather than getting angry at his wife’s devaluation of him, Andronikos responded sympathetically to her. Athanasia told him of her dream encounter with Saint Julian and his advice to her. Andronikos didn’t respond, “I told you so.” He listened patiently and understandingly as his wife proposed a marital separation for them:

My sweetest husband, when our beloved children were still alive, it was a desire {of mine} to renounce worldly life and desert to the peaceful one. But my love for my children in this life persuaded me to remain with them in this life. But now, since nothing impedes us, if you obey me, tonsure me and send me to a convent of women, so that through asceticism and first of all, because of God’s kindness, I may wash off the shame of my many sins.

Most husbands simply obey their wives even as their wives declare their husband’s insignificance. Andronikos, however, dared to advise his wife to give the matter time for serious thought:

Go, wife. Give serious thought on this for a week and test yourself. And if you remain committed to this, it will be the will of God.

After a week, Athanasia clearly told her husband that she wanted him to do what she had told him to do a week earlier. Andronikos then acquiesced to her instructions.

Andronikos shouldered the responsibility for arranging their finances and planning their trip and followed his wife’s lead in entering religious life. In accordance with gynocentric-paternalistic kinship structure, he gave almost all their wealth to his wife’s father. Obscuring their plans to enter religious life, he said to her father:

My lord, eager desire has gripped us to see and revere the Holy Places together. If it happens that we die during the course of these travels, with God as the judge and witness, dispose of our property according to his Will. Build a hospital and a lodging-house for monks in our home.

Andronikos planned for Athanasia and himself to die to the world and enter religious life. His shrewd plan didn’t require her father to acquiesce explicitly to his daughter’s intention.

After they had traveled together to Alexandria, Andronikos was strong enough to refuse his wife’s entreaties to go with him to Sketis. He explained to her that the Sketis monastic community in the Egyptian desert was limited to men. Respecting men’s desire to have a special place for men, he courageously refused to take her there. Andronikos told Athanasia that he would return to her shortly and arrange for her entry into a convent in accordance with her orders to him. He then traveled to Sketis alone. There he venerated the holy fathers. Andronkilos went on to consult with the “great and celebrated” monk Daniel of Sketis.[6] As an old man, Daniel apparently lived outside of Sketis, but nearby in a place called Tambok. After listening to Andronikos describe his and his wife’s plans, Daniel requested to speak with her. Andronikos brought his wife to Daniel in accordance with his instructions.

Daniel acted as a father to both Athanasia and Andronikos. Daniel guided Athanasia in advancing as a woman in her intended profession:

the old man instructed her on many things, advised her to remain faithful to her aim, and sent her forth to the Thebaid with his letters {of recommendation} to the monastery, which is named “of the Tabennesiotoi.” The remarkable Andronikos was present with her and, having tonsured her, enrolled her there among the nuns

Daniel also guided Andronikos in his new profession:

He {Andronikos} receive the holy and angelic habit from his saintly hands and remained with him for twelve years, following his footsteps, adopting every quality {of his teacher Daniel}

A great teacher can profoundly instruct both women and men. Daniel was such a teacher for Athanasia and Andronikos.

After spending twelve years as a nun, the holy Athanasia decided to travel to the Holy Land. She traveled in the garments of a monk. On a hot day about noon, she walked by a tree under which she saw another, weaker monk resting:

When they spoke to each other, the holy Athanasia recognized the blessed Andronikos. But he did not know her at all. How could he know her, as her face had been altered with suffering, and moreover she looked like an Ethiopian? When she questioned him and learned that he was going to Jerusalem, she asked to accompany him. He consented and they both set out on the journey, concentrating on keeping an irreproachable silence as far as they could.

After they had traveled together for a fairly long distance, the blessed Athanasia seemed to have doubts about whether she really was once again with her husband Andronikos. She initiated a dialog:

the most revered of women, Athanasia, asked the marvelous Andronikos, “Really, brother, are you not a disciple of Father Daniel?” He replied, “Yes.” Then she asked again, “Are you not called Andronikos?” Having agreed to this too, Athanasia again said, “May the prayers of the revered man accompany us.” To which the holy Andronikos responded, “Amen.”

Like many husbands, Andronikos tended to talk less than his wife. He didn’t pry into her personal affairs. He accepted her as a monk carrying the name Father Athanasios, ignored any apparent racial differences, and treated her as a brother.

Athanasia and Andronikos spent the rest of their lives together as brothers living in a single monastic cell. When Andronikos sought to travel alone to see Daniel and receive his blessing, Athanasia told him:

If it is pleasing to you, brother, then return after you have embraced the revered man. For as we have traveled the road to Jerusalem and back in silence, in the same way let us, with equal silence and peace, follow the road of life until we arrive in the Kingdom of Heaven, led by his hand.

When Athanasia’s children died, she regarded her husband’s presence as giving no value to her life. Now, Athanasia spoke up to implore her husband to return to living with her as a brother. Athanasia’s love for her husband grew greatly in their time of monastic companionship.

Andronikos himself may have felt some internal difficulties that motivated him to seek Daniel’s blessing. Andronikos didn’t know that Daniel knew that Father Athanasios was really Andronikos’s wife Athanasia. Daniel advised the blessing-seeking brother to remain with his “brother” and said of her, “this one is ranked with the greatest of the servants of God by the highest virtue.” After receiving these words from Daniel, Andronikos returned to Athanasia “with much speed.” From then on, he lived with her as a brother monk, “living under the same roof, eating together, and being known as completely inseparable from him.”

The life of Andronikos and Athanasia traversed different types of conjugal relationship. They experienced at least twelve years as sexually obligated spouses, then a period of sexless marriage in intensified service to neighbors, then twelve years of separate monastic life, then twelve years of sexless, brotherly monastic companionship. During their time living as sexually obligated spouses and in sexless marriage, both Andronikos and Athanasia were “loved exceptionally by almost everyone in the city {Antioch}, because of their God-pleasing way of life.” Yet when their children died, Athanasia showed little regard for her husband. She acted as if he had merely been a companion of convenience in making a good life. Only when they lived together as brothers devoted to God did she cherish his presence.

Sexless marriage commonly indicates shriveling love for a husband. In the life of Andronikos and Athanasia, sexless marriage was a step along a path in which a wife developed much greater love for her husband.

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Notes:

[1] Vita of Andronikos and Athanasia 1, from Greek trans. Alwsi (2011) p. 256. Id. provides the Greek text, an English translation, and commentary on the life. Surviving, written accounts of the life (vita) of Andronikos and Athanasia apparently have descended from a Greek manuscript of the tenth or eleventh century. That manuscript is held in the Biblioteca Franzoniana (Genoa, Italy) as Codex Urbani 36. Vita of Andronikos and Athanasia is on folios 183-193r. Alwis (2011) p. 7, p. 16, n. 2.

Subsequent quotes from the Vita of Andronikos and Athanasia are from Alwis’s translation, id. pp. 256-63. Id. p. 15 describes the translation as “literal.” I’ve made some non-substantial changes to the selected quotations to make them more easily readable and more suited to a general audience. In particular, Alwis incorporated quotes from the Bible in italics using the New King James Version English translation, which includes non-current English forms. I’ve adapted the quotations to modern, American-standard English without any distinctive marking for biblical quotations or pronominal references to God. I’ve also eliminated some awkward phrasal constructions arising from a literal translation of the Greek.

Antioch was an city on the Orontes River near Antakya in present-day Turkey. Acts 11:19-30 records the founding of a Christian church there. It was the first local Christian church to include persons who weren’t Jews. Acts 11: 26 states: “it was in Antioch that the disciples were first called ‘Christians’.” The Vita of Andronikos and Athanasia adds:

There are many and diverse things adorning the great city of Antioch. … it was pre-eminent and the first of all cities in the East, after the Queen City, called New Rome, I mean the city of Constantine {Constantinople}. For I will not speak of its greatness or beauty, the strength of its walls or the multitude of its people, as those contribute little or nothing to virtue.

Trans. id. p. 256. By the fourth century Antioch was wealthy and had great political importance:

By the fourth century the span of the city’s administrative and economic powers eventually extended to an area of 2500 square miles.

Id. p. 263, commentary for 1/3-4, internal note omitted.

Andronikos and Athanasia are honored as saints on October 8 in the Orthodox Christian calendar. Here’s a commemoration of them on an Orthodox calendar (alternative version, another version). The Church of Saints Andronikos and Athanasia was built in Frenaros in Cyprus in the twelfth century. Another church honoring the Saints Androikos and Athanasia was built near Rizokarpaso, Cyprus, perhaps in the ninth century.

[2] Matthew 21:12–17, Mark 11:15–19, Luke 19:45–48, John 2:13–16. On usury, Alwis (2011) pp. 264-5, commentary for 2/22.

[3] Genesis 2:18.

[4] Matthew 11:11, Luke 7:28.

[5] Matthew 27:45, Mark 15:33, Luke 23:44. Athanasia came to see her children before the Sunday morning service (Lauds) had yet finished. In early Christianity, Lauds was part of the Night Office that terminated at dawn.

[6] Alwis convincingly identified the Daniel in Vita of Andronikos and Athanasia with Daniel of Sketis. Alwis ( 2011) pp. 7-8, 273-4, commentary to 8/208. Daniel founded a monastery at Tambok and returned there after a barbarian invasion of Sketis. Id. pp. 273-4.

[image] Icon of saints Andronikos and Athanasia. Made in the sixteenth century. In the Church of Panagia Aggeloktisti in Kiti, Cyprus. Photo by Dimitris Vetsikas. Image available on pixabay under CCO Public Domain license.

Reference:

Alwis, Anne P. 2011. Celibate marriages in late antique and byzantine hagiography: the lives of Saints Julian and Basilissa, Andronikos and Athanasia, and Galaktion and Episteme. London: Continuum.

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