Theodora: Actress, Empress ... Saint
It’s an unusual rags to riches story that takes a two-year spiritual break in the fiery heroine’s trajectory from theatrical call-girl to Empress of Rome, but Theodora of Constantinople was the least usual of heroines.
Not only did this sixth-century young woman jettison a theatrical career that saw her the most successful actress of her day by the age of fifteen – to run away with a lover who was the governor of Libya – but when he summarily dumped her she travelled into the Egyptian desert, there to experience a major religious conversion. For the twenty-one years of her reign as empress beside her husband the Emperor Justinian, Theodora consistently opposed not only her husband, but the mainstream Church’s view on the very nature of the Christ –- she gave a voice to the more esoteric faith of the eastern Christians, especially those in Syria, Egypt and the Levant. The Orthodox Church still regards her as a saint. While the very few Theodora stories that have been passed down to us through history decry her salacious ways and her desire for power, they always also acknowledge her passionate faith.
It’s unexpected to be faithful today. It’s definitely not cool, or interesting. Atheism, certainly in Britain, and possibly in London even more so, is, if not the norm, then easily as usual as agnosticism. I realise this isn’t the case in the USA where your president still ends his broadcasts “God bless America,” but our prime minister would be laughed off screen if he tried that, and though the queen is nominally both head of state and head of the Church of England, everyone knows that those two things came about because Henry the Eighth wanted to wrest power from the Pope and to marry Anne Boleyn. His decision to join divine rule to a new church might have made it easier for him to marry again, it also ensured that no British monarch would ever be taken seriously as "God-given."
When I started researching Theodora for my first historical novel, one of the most interesting things about her was her faith. Faith is an integral part of this powerful, passionate, opinionated character. I don’t believe we should only write what we ourselves have lived, nor am I interested in turning my personal life into fiction. In my past few books I’ve written about a white working class London man of sixty-seven, a young British-Pakistani man of twenty-six, a woman in her thirties living with –- and dying of –- terminal illness, and a fairy princess who cuts out the heart that re-grows daily, in order never to fall in love. I like making things up, and I have loved finding out about other people and other ideas in order to write them. But writing about Theodora has given me a chance to write about a character for whom faith is a central part of life –- as it is for me.
I was brought up Roman Catholic -– the kind you often find in small town New Zealand –- generous, warm, with a large Polynesian population in the church, an outward-looking belief that was as much about good works as anything else. But while I am grateful to have been brought up in a family that understood faith, spirit, I also knew Catholicism wasn’t for me, and so I began my own quest in my late teens. In my early twenties I returned to London where I was born, and here I met the Buddhism I’ve now practiced for twenty-five years, over half my life.
I don’t fit the usual stereotype of a Buddhist –- people generally think of me as engaged, political, loud. I like a drink, I like a party, I like people. But I also crave time alone, peace and solitude, time to myself. The usual writer’s life in fact –- two-thirds of the time working alone, the other third right out there, engaging with readers, talking about work, finding new stories through engagement with others. The Buddhism I practice, a chanting, community-based form, is all about going out into the world, the opposite of the western idea of Buddhism and much closer to the truth the of original Buddha –- who after all, found enlightenment sitting under the bodhi tree, having lived among people for years, not hiding away in some mountain retreat.
Like Theodora, I started in theatre, and theatre work has taught me about discipline –- you do the show whether you feel like it or not, you turn up to rehearsals whether you’re "inspired" or not. I turn up to my desk whether I feel like writing or not. I write whether I have a great idea or not. Most writers find the discipline needed to get yourself to the desk is the hard part; I count myself lucky that twenty-five years of Buddhist practice has given me an understanding of my own discipline. Chanting morning and evening, every day, believing that I can have an effect, if not always on what happens to me, then in my attitude to events, is a major component of my faith.
Eleven years ago, I had breast cancer. I had surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy and was fortunate to keep working all through my treatment -– I needed to work, both because I’m freelance and because I didn’t want to miss out on going with the show to San Diego and New York. I ended the year exhausted, a lot poorer (ouch those insurance costs!), but alive and with three months off-Broadway under my belt. One of the best pieces of guidance I had was from a Buddhist leader who told me, “You do not have your practice to make your cancer better, you have your cancer to make your practice better.” It was strict guidance, but very true. There was no point chanting to be cured, my practice is not magic. I took action myself, consulted doctors and nurses, underwent treatment, and kept on with my Buddhist practice to take care of my spirit –- that is, I was given guidance to see the thing that was happening to me, not as something to run away from, but as a chance to engage more deeply with my own understanding of life. I’m lucky, I survived. I didn’t survive without scars, and there was a price to pay; chemotherapy made me infertile, but I did survive. I lived on so I can do more, be more, share more. Some suggested that, having been ill, I should slow down. My response was the opposite, having confronted my own mortality, I want to make the most of every moment. If that means editing a book while working on a short film while directing a new play while writing a story, then so be it -– I never want to turn down a new opportunity, I firmly believe Yes is bigger than No. (And I always start writing on holiday anyway!)
For me, as for Theodora –- as for all those who lived at her time when Christianity was just beginning to define itself, when the Church was slowly emerging to become a recognised force, when people regularly debated the very nature of the Christ over their jug of wine -– faith is part of my daily life. It may not always match my public persona, it may not always fit into a hugely busy schedule, but it is always there, at the core of my day. I think Theodora’s faith gives grounding to a grand-journey character who might otherwise seem too far removed from our normal lives as readers, just as her actual faith must have given her some stability in a life that was wilder than any of us could imagine. For me, as a writer, with no certainty to my career, no office I have to go to, no boss to report to, no idea where the next idea is coming from until I have it, chanting morning and evening provides a rhythm for my day, a grounding that allows me to fly.
[Editor's Note: To read an excerpt of Theodora: Actress, Empress, Whore and join the discussion, please visit BlogHer Book Club!]
© Stella Duffy 2011