St. Thais of the Desert, a life made for opera

St. Thais is one of the conversion stories just begging for an opera…and thanks to Jules Massenet we have one.  I couldn’t find any renderings of St. Thais that weren’t (for me) uncomfortably provocative, except for the icon pictured.  When you read her life story you know why.

St. Thais lived in Egypt in the fifth century. Left an orphan after the death of her wealthy parents, she led a pious life, distributing her wealth to the poor and giving shelter to pilgrims on her estate. She decided that she would never marry, but would devote her life to serving Christ.

After spending all her inheritance, Thais was tempted to acquire more money by any means and began to lead a sinful life. The Elders of Sketis near Alexandria heard of her fall, and asked St. John the Dwarf to go to Thais and persuade her to repent. “She was kind to us,” they said, “now perhaps we can help her. You, Father, are wise. Go and try to save her soul, and we will pray that the Lord will help you.”

The Elder went to her home, but Thais’s servant refused to let him into the house. St. John said, “Tell your mistress that I have brought her something very precious.” Knowing that the monks sometimes found pearls at the seashore, Thais told her servant to admit the visitor. St. John sat down and looked her in the face, and then began to weep. Thais asked him why he was crying. “How can I not weep,” he asked, “when you have forsaken your Bridegroom, the Lord Jesus Christ, and are pleasing Satan by your deeds?”

The Elder’s words pierced the soul of Thais like a fiery arrow, and at once she realized how sinful her present life had become. In fear, she asked him if God would accept the repentance of a sinner like her. St. John replied that the Savior awaited her repentance, and that was why He came, to seek and to save the perishing. “He will welcome you with love,” he said, “and the angels will rejoice over you. As the Savior said Himself, one repentant sinner causes the powers of Heaven to rejoice.” (Luke 15:7).

A feeling of repentance enveloped her, and regarding the Elder’s words as a call from the Lord Himself to return to Him, Thais trembled and thought only of finding the path of salvation. She stood up and left her house without speaking to her servants, and without making any plans for the disposal of her property, so that even St. John was amazed.

Following St. John into the wilderness, she returned to God through penitence and prayer. Night fell, and the Elder prepared a place for Thais to lay down and sleep. He made a pillow for her from the sand, and he went off somewhat farther, going to sleep after his evening prayers.

In the middle of the night, he was awakened by a light coming down from the heavens to the place where Thais was sleeping. In the radiant light, he saw holy angels bearing her soul to Paradise. When he went over to Thais, he found her dead.

St. John prayed and asked God to reveal to him whether Thais had been saved. An angel of God appeared and told him, “Abba John, her one hour of repentance was equal to many years, because she repented with all her soul, and a compunctionate heart.”

After burying the body of the saint, St. John returned to Sketis and told the monks what had happened. All offered thanks to God for His mercy toward Thais who, like the wise thief, repented in a single moment.

OK, now in the opera, the monk falls in love with Thais after her conversion, but after her time in the desert, she rebukes him, embrasses heaven…then dies (it’s an opera after all…somebody always dies in the end).  “Thais” by Massenet is one of my favorite performances by my FAVORITE  soporano, Renee Fleming…I LOVE THIS ENDING (we should all look so could when we pass on).  You just have to love those French composers (you’ll probably recognize the melody 5 minutes in) What a way to be commerated…St. Thais, please pray for us

0 thoughts on “St. Thais of the Desert, a life made for opera”

  1. I have never heard of St. Thais, but her life was a beautiful story – as was the opera. I recognized the first few minutes of the music, and agree the ending was also beautiful. I have much to learn about saints and about opera!


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