The Soul of Theodora

23 Oct

The small, crooked-bodied man known as Bendis the Isaurian owned and ran a secret, illegal theater in 6th century Constantinople. His lascivious shows contained sexually suggestive dancing and beautiful young female and male actors performing short pornographic sketches for the delight and entertainment of men from all classes of the capital of Byzantium.

Bendis took a special liking for the Greek teenage girls in his cast who was known under the name of Theodora. He acted toward her as a fatherly protector and advisor, spending hours in private conversation with the sharp-minded young beauty in the small chamber he used as his personal office.

Of all subjects, he enjoyed discussing the religious, spiritual questions that divided the opinions of residents of Constantinople.

“I am a firm believer in the rebirth and re-incarnation of the soul,” he revealed on many occasions to the dancer-actress who lived and worked in his secret theater. “It is wrong to assert that God creates our souls at the moment of our conception, in anticipation of our birth. No, the truth is that the soul travels through many different body forms, reborn over and over again. There is no new creation, only a relocation of the old soul that has existed from the beginning of human generations, down to today.

“What do you think concerning the nature of your soul, my dear Theodora?”

Tall and adult-looking, despite being only fourteen years old, the dramatic dancer smiled with an inner radiance.

“What you say is the way it is,” she said with a melodious lilt in her voice. “I can accept the idea that my own soul previously was inside another body, at another time and even place. Only that makes any sense to me. Tell me more, dear father Bendis.”

The latter slyly grinned. “I know an old Isaurian woman here in Constantinople who tells fortunes to people, but is also able to delve into and identify the truth about past lives that were lived by their individual soul. She has done that for me and others here in the theater. I can arrange for her to visit here and look into the past experiences of your soul, my Theodora.

“Would you like to meet her?”

“Yes, of course I would,” replied the curious teenage dancer.

The little old woman, wrinkled and semi-crippled, looked afraid and uncomfortable in the pornographic theater of Bendis.

She was unsmiling as she took the right hand of Theodora and closely examined and studied it. The owner-manager had brought her to the young dancer’s personal room and then left the two together.

“Can you tell where my soul was located before I was born?” inquired Theodora with unconcealed anxiety. “I must find out what previous lives may have surrounded my present spirit.”

It was a considerable time before an answer came from the crone. It sounded in a squeaky, rasping voice.

“Before your birth, the spirit resided in an evil witch who spoke terrible curses on those she happened to hate. Prior to that birth, the soul was housed in the body of a barbarian warrior from the eastern desert plain, a killer of thousands of innocent victims. And before that horrible stage, your present spirit was that of a pagan priestess of Isis who served that goddess as a temple prostitute.”

The aged woman looked directly into the frightened eyes of the dancer-actress.

“Your soul belonged to a series of evil persons, both men and women, my poor dear. It is sad for me to reveal such sinful matters to you, but I have been brought here to find out what your soul’s past consisted of.”

She dropped the other’s hand and slowly left the bedroom of Theodora. The latter remained in trancelike thought for a considerable time.

Three decades later, in the year 544 A.D., Bendis lay dying in the empty ruins that had once been his scandalous pornographic theater.

A veiled visitor came to see him, disguised in a black cloak and cape.

“Who is there?” asked the nearly paralyzed little man. His failing eyes could not make out any face in the dim candlelight.

“It is I, the Theodora who long ago danced here for you. Do you know what became of me, my precious friend?”

Bendis suddenly lifted his head to peer into her face, recognizing the outline he had not viewed for scores of years. “You are the wife of Emperor Justinian, our ruler. He has made you his co-regent, I understand. You have soared to the highest heights, dear Theodora.” He gasped with wonder, gazing into her ebony eyes.

“My path has been a steep and difficult one, demanding everything inside of me. But I have concentrated and focused all on the goal of achievement, accumulating both great power and enormous wealth, together with my mate, the Emperor Justinian.”

“I know that your childhood was difficult and painful, dear Theodora,” moaned Bendis. “Your mother told me different stories at different times about where you were born. She once mentioned the city of Daman, near Kallinikis in Syria. Another time, she mentioned Cyprus and a Greek origin for you. But I also heard a rumor that you were in reality from Paphlagonia.

“The matter was never clear to me. But your mother came to me as a dancer and actress. She claimed that your father, who had died, was a bear-trainer for the party of the Greens at the Constantinople Hippodrome race track.”

“My mother brought me and my sister as small children into the Hippodrome covered in garlands of flowers as begging suppliants before the party of the Blues. They adopted us as their mascots, and I have always remained a supporter of the Blue cause.

“Mother brought my sister Komito and me to you, Bendis, to serve as dancers. I learned how to be a stage actress and satisfy the desires of men who visited your theater. You taught me how to take part in portrayals of Leda and the Swan, where Zeus seduces the young, innocent beauty. Yes, I picked up at an early age the arts of entertaining and tempting men, then fully satisfying them.”

“You left my theater when you were only sixteen, Theodora,” said Bendis with regret in his voice.

“I was invited to accompany Hecebolus, the new governor, to Libya. We spent four years there together at Pentapolis, and I was able to prosper and accumulate some wealth. But then my protector abandoned me and confiscated all that I had, and I was compelled to flee to Alexandria.

“There I met and became friends with the man who later became the Alexandrian Patriarch, Timothy the Third. He converted me to the faith of the Monophysite faction which he later came to head. I have always remained a follower of that often persecuted Christian theology. For me, there is only a single nature in our Savior, a combination of both the divine and the human sides of Christ.”

“Yes, that is the only true definition, Theodora,” interjected Bendis.

“When I finally returned to Constantinople, the only work that I could find was as a wool-spinner. My good fortune was to meet and attract the attention of the nephew of Emperor Justin the First. This was Justinian, our present ruler. From being one of his courtesans, I became his favorite lover, then his sole love and his wife. The law forbidding anyone of his senatorial class marrying a woman who had served as an actress stood in our way for a time, until it was repealed by Emperor Justin. It was his Empress Euphemia who was the enemy standing in my way, but she died in the year 525, and I succeeded in marrying my beloved Justinian, who had me crowned his co-regent when his uncle died and he inherited the imperial throne. I have ever since been next to him, with similar authority. This has never happened before, and he did it for me out of genuine, sincere love.”

“I have heard tales that you and the Emperor did not agree on questions of theology and Christian doctrine,” noted Bandis, fascinated by what he was hearing from his former dancer-actress.

The voice of Theodora grew fainter. “I have never lost the Monophysite faith I acquired while in Alexandria. But my husband has remained loyal to the so-called orthodox faction who follow the way of the Council of Calcedon.

“I protected and sheltered persecuted Monophysite leaders in my section of the royal place. I hid a number of bishops in the Hormisdas Palace, including the Monophysite Patriarch, the great Anthmus. My personal influence over Justinian forced him to allow me to conceal these refugees from the church and civil authorities.

“I was the one who founded a Monophysite monastery at Sykae. And I supported the preaching mission in the East of Jacob Baradaeus, who was persecuted here in the capital. Justinian and I have always been personally loyal to each other, though we belong to opposed religious parties within the Christian church.

“My personal belief is that of a Miaphysite variety of the Monophysites. Christ is a single person, both fully human and divine. There can be no separation. That would result in unjustified confusion.”

“Your mind is a very wise one, Theodora, and is able to penetrate the complex questions of religious theology,” declared Bendis with a grin of satisfaction.

“I have influenced our present Patriarch of Constantinople, Mennas, to convene a special synod here in the capital. He is a trustworthy Monophysite who will follow my wishes and instructions. I desire that he do what he can to thwart the interpretations of our enemies, the followers of the Calcedonian party.

“You shall be surprised what I wish this synod to do: proclaim a denial of the concept of rebirth and re-incarnation of the human soul. That will be my major legacy to future generations, for I now regret what you planted in my mind, dear Bendis.”

The latter looked at Theodora with shock as she explained this extraordinary, unexpected surprise to the old man who had acted as a mentor to her when she was young and impressionable.

“I have had to live with full knowledge of how wicked, how selfish and immoral my previous incarnations were, what horrible sins they committed, staining my soul with memories of demonic deeds and thoughts. My soul has lain open before me, made visible by the Isaurian soothsayer that you yourself brought before me a long time ago. It has been a terrible burden, this inner knowledge that you and she together revealed to me.

“It has now become my supreme mission to prevent any similar revelations to people in the future. The theology of our Church must forbid such dangerous investigation into the past phases of a soul’s existence. That is the main purpose of this coming Synod: to draw an impenetrable curtain around the prior lives in the experience of the souls of human beings. That must be something left in a cloud, a fog of ignorance. My exposure to previous stages and phases has harmed and hindered me all these years. It is an obstacle I have never been able to overcome. Day and night, my mind and soul are haunted by past evils that were committed. They have never been forgotten or destroyed.

“That is why I prefer that our Church deny all ideas of rebirth, over and over, of any single, individual soul. The heavy onus, I found, is too much for our minds. No person should become a prisoner to the sins of previous existences. What I discovered is that this knowledge of the reborn soul destroys any hope of escape or liberation, even that of a sincerely believing Christian.

“It is better, much better, to blot out all memory of past lives. Even if newly-born babies retain traces of such memories, it is a good thing to forget them as soon as possible. We must not allow fortune-tellers or mages to bring them back to life again in our minds. Never must that be permitted, for the good of our souls, for the sake of the soul’s own redemption.

“Is what I mean to say clear to you, Bendis?”

The latter attempted to lift his head, but found that he lacked the strength. Instead, he softly whispered his reply to Theodora.

“I hope that you are right in what you do, my dear one. It will place many generations to come into complete ignorance about rebirth of the soul. The leaders of the Christian Church will be in effect misleading the persons in their flocks. Will this poverty of knowledge be a benefit, or will it damage the lives of those yet to come?”

“There will always be some, like me, who learn the secrets of their souls’ past lives. They will suffer the pain that I have.”

With that, Theodora ended talking and departed from the former theater. She never again saw her former employer and guide, Bendis.

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