SAINT FEBRONIA OF NISIBIS June 25th
The story of St. Febronia is one of the most beautiful accounts of martyrdom ever recorded. Although through numerous translations and distribution to other countries it became embellished with romantic overtones and hints of legend, to totally dismiss this account as spurious fiction would be to reject the relevant information it contains, not to mention the intimate glimpse it offers into the daily life of the religious community at Nisibis in Northern Mesopotamia. It is incorrect to limit “monasticism” to that typically found in Egypt, on Mt. Athos, or in 19th century Russia. Since cenobitic monasticism had not yet reached Northern Mesopotamia in the third century, religious life there evolved quite differently, developing its own distinctive uniqueness.
Religious communities for women at the time of St. Febronia would have consisted of groups of consecrated virgins known as b’nat qyāmā, or “Daughters of the Covenant”. This term refers to women and even young girls, living in community, who took upon themselves a special station in the life of the Church primarily characterized by the vow of virginity. However, they did not lead a life of isolated withdrawal, but were intimately involved with the larger Christian community, counseling, comforting, healing and guiding the faithful. In contrast to the Egyptian monastic model of anachoresis or withdrawal from populated centers to the desert, the religious communities in Northern Mesopotamia were an essential and indispensable feature of city life.
The women’s community at Nisibis was founded by St. Platonida in the mid third century. She was succeeded in the abbacy by her spiritual daughter, St. Bryene, who strictly kept the traditions and rule handed down by the foundress, which included recitation of the Hours and reading of spiritually edifying manuscripts to encourage the nuns in their special vocation. St. Bryene allowed young married women to come to the monastery on Fridays and Sundays to hear the word of God and so learn the path of salvation. The women, however, were kept physically separated from the nuns during their visit. It was very important to St. Bryene that her “daughters” be shielded from any worldly influences.
St. Febronia was the niece of St. Bryene and had been raised in the community since the age of two. Nourished by the communal life, the young girl’s mind and entire outlook had become heavenly. As she grew to womanhood, she possessed unsurpassed beauty of body and soul. It was St. Febronia’s obedience to serve as reader. Because she zealously studied the Scriptures and teachings of the Church, she read with understanding and illumination and, thus, the hearers were edified. The young nun was held in awe by her sisters not only for her beauty, but because of her purity of soul and angelic countenance. She also became known in the city for her beauty, humility and learning.
Around 304, an entourage sent by Emperor Diocletian (284-305) arrived in Mesopotamia to “silence” the Christians. Seized with fear, all Christians in the area, including bishops, priests and monks, fled and hid in the mountains. Most of the nuns under St. Bryene followed the example of their hierarchs and abandoned the monastery. However, St. Febronia had become ill, and her loving aunt intended to stay put and remain steadfast, trusting that God would protect them. St. Thomaïs, the next in authority and supposed author of the life of St. Febronia, also chose not to flee.
The senior nuns were very concerned for their beloved spiritual daughter. They feared that St. Febronia might be defiled by the pagans and lose courage in the face of evil and torture. They reminded her that Jesus Christ, the true Bridegroom, bestows immortality upon those betrothed to Him with all their hearts. They counseled the young nun to remain faithful and keep the promises she had made to the Lord Jesus.
When soldiers forcibly entered the monastery, they decided to arrest the most beautiful nun, St. Febronia. She was shackled and brought to the prefect to stand trial. The prefect offered the young maiden wealth and liberty if she would but renounce Christianity and agree to marry. St. Febronia refused. Furious, he commanded that she be mercilessly tortured. She was stripped naked, then beaten, whipped and burned with fire. The tortures were so horrific that even the crowd implored them to stop. Deaf to their pleas, the soldiers literally stripped her skin from her bones. The prefect ordered that St. Febronia’s tongue be removed, but instead some teeth were knocked out. After this, he had St. Febronia’s limbs severed and then ordered that her head be cut off.
The young nun’s courage was an amazement to the onlookers. The spectacle was so gruesome and merciless, and the victim so pure and courageous, that the crowd cried out against Diocletian and his gods. In fact, many onlookers secretly decided to become Christians. St. Febronia’s remains were gathered to be returned to the monastery for a funeral worthy of her courage and faith. Even the area where her blood had soaked into the ground was preserved. As the soldiers prepared to return the relics to the monastery, the whole city crowded in to see the remains of the renowned nun who had struggled so heroically. St. Febronia’s life proves that persecution and martyrdom afforded women public roles of authority otherwise barred to them, including the propagation of the faith and veneration by the faithful.
Upon arrival at the monastery, the entourage was received with great dignity tinged with sadness. A glimpse of the mangled and mutilated body of the beloved nun brought forth cries and lamentations. The community agreed that St. Febronia had crowned the race of women with the beauty, purity and valor of her struggle. The sisters lovingly washed her remains and placed the pieces upon the bier, putting each limb exactly in its proper place. Hundreds of laypeople marched by paying their respects to the valorous St. Febronia.
On the anniversary of her death, St. Febronia began the first of many appearances during her community’s services, standing in her original place. The nuns were struck with fear and no one dared approach her. They would simply gaze upon her angelic countenance and find edification, as they once did through her reading.
The Bishop of Nisibis, who had built a church dedicated to St. Febronia, came to the monastery with a great entourage and requested her relics. At first, St. Bryene protested, but then relented, perceiving that God might be pleased with this request. After the Bishop had prayed and prepared to lift the reliquary, thunder roared. Everyone fell to the ground trembling. After the thunder passed and they recovered from their fear, they again tried to lift the reliquary. Immediately, an earthquake began. The Bishop, humbly realizing that the holy martyr objected to being taken from the monastery, asked for a portion of her relics instead. The abbess agreed and when she opened the coffin, brilliant flashes of lightning blazed forth from the saint’s relics. The abbess apprehensively reached for the holy martyr’s hand, but her own hand became paralyzed. When she somehow released her grasp, her own hand was immediately restored. St. Bryene then quickly removed a tooth that had been placed on the martyr’s chest and presented it to the Bishop on a gold dish. Everyone returned with joy to the new church and the Bishop placed the relic in the altar.
Many wondrous miracles occurred through the saint’s presence both at the monastery and at the church. In her life St. Febronia labored much; in her death she reached the summit of martyrdom where she glorified God by her faithfulness and devotion. For this reason, the miracles that occurred through her relics never ceased because it is God Himself who produces such marvels, thus glorifying His victorious and righteous martyrs throughout all times and all places.
This marble Syriac reliquary, decorated with crosses, is shaped like a four-root molar tooth. It has been identified as having held the tooth that belonged to Saint Febronia. It was discovered by Professor Michael J. Fuller at Tell-Tuneinir located in Northeaster Syria near the town of Hasake south of the Turkish border at an excavation conducted by the St. Louis Archaeological Expeditions.