The Saint Who Baptized Herself in a Tank of Rabid Sea Lions
Every other Friday in D-List Saints, Luke T. Harrington explores one of the many less-than-impressive moments in Christian history.
Writing this column, I’m always on the fence about how closely I should stick to established facts and how credulously I should report legends. On the one hand, I don’t ever want to give the impression I’m just making stuff up, but on the other, there are some truly great legends out there. I try to walk that line of delivering you the most hilarious “facts” from “history” while still delineating which are (mostly) proven and which are (mostly) rumor and myth.
The story I’d like to tell you this week falls more into the second category. Is it true? Who knows. It circulated mainly in the second century as part of the apocryphal book The Acts of Paul, which was essentially fanfiction to Luke’s Acts of the Apostles (which you probably know best as just “Acts”).
Several Church Fathers, including Tertullian, condemned it as heretical (though a story that teaches heresy admittedly isn’t exactly the same thing as a story that’s made up). Still our hero, Thecla, is recognized as a saint in every major tradition that does the whole “saint” thing, and there’s at least the possibility that some of her story is rooted in truth. So, hey, that’s good enough for a biweekly humor column, right?
Our story begins in first-century Icononium, Turkey, where Thecla first encountered the apostle Paul. She was a young virgin awaiting marriage to a man named Thamyris; Paul was out on his First Missionary Journey. One day, Thecla was sitting by her window, and Paul started preaching in the town square outside. Thecla found herself enraptured by his words, and she sat by the window for three days straight, listening to him sing the praises of celibacy (as he was wont to do). As you might imagine, this upset her fiancé quite a bit, since he hadn’t booked that upcoming honeymoon just for the brunches. He conspired with Thecla’s mother to raise up a mob demanding Paul’s arrest, and Paul was thrown into prison, just like all enlightened, sex-positive societies should do to people who advocate celibacy.
Her mother and fiancé assumed that would be the end of Thecla’s Paul fixation, but haha, no, of course it wasn’t. In the same way teen girls obsess over “the shy one” in every boy band, Thecla found herself smitten by Paul and his invincible sexlessness. She tracked down his prison cell, bribed his guard to let her in, and proceeded to kiss his shackles. Don’t—don’t ask me why. That was just what she wanted to do. Then she sat at Paul’s feet and listened to him preach all night, because apparently that guy had no “off” switch, even when he was tied up in prison and his only audience was literally a woman making out with his chains.
As you might expect, this decision to hang out in Paul’s cell didn’t work out too well for Thecla, and the next morning, she found herself dragged before the governor for judgment right alongside him. Paul was sentenced to be flogged and banished, while Thecla was sentenced to death by burning at the stake. Maybe that sounds harsh, but keep in mind that her own mother literally lobbied for her execution, apparently to send a message that no one failed to give her grandchildren and got away with it. Fortunately, God intervened, putting out the flames with an unexpected rainstorm, and Thecla escaped and lived to abstain from intercourse another day, eventually reuniting with Paul in the city of Pisidia.
In Pisidia, Thecla’s troubles continued: she and Paul were stopped by a nobleman who was so taken with her beauty he offered to buy her from Paul (y’know, like you do). Once again, Paul cheerfully threw her under the bus, shrugging and saying, “Who, her? Never seen her before in my life.” Then he disappeared somewhere to preach some more about not having sex, which the nobleman took as a perfect chance to sexually assault Thecla. The good news is, Thecla managed to fight him off; the bad news is that doing so put her in the position of being a woman attacking a nobleman, which in ancient Rome was enough to get her arrested, imprisoned, and sentenced to death yet again. Supposedly, the women of Pisidia protested in the streets about this, but haha, of course no one cared about what they thought, for the exact same reason that she had gotten arrested in the first place.
In any case, the government decided, “If we’re going to execute this woman again, we might as well be awesome about it,” and they sentenced her to die by being torn apart by wild beasts in the coliseum, because on a scale of “one” to “mind-blowing,” ancient Rome ranked a solid “Michael Bay.” The whole setup for the disembowelment was apparently as bizarre as it was amazing: They trapped her between a tank of ravenous, man-eating sea lions and a den of ravenous, man-eating regular lions, all of whom thought Christians were delicious. Then they just played the waiting game.
Upon seeing the lay of the land, Thecla’s first thought (after, presumably, “What’s running down my leg?”) was, “Welp, I’m about to die, so I should probably get myself baptized.” (That may not be where your mind would go, but that’s why you’re not venerated as a saint in nearly every Christian tradition.) The water tank provided the perfect opportunity for self-baptism, which is apparently a thing, and so Thecla jumped in and washed away her sins, surrounded by man-eating sea lions, thus completing what was simultaneously history’s most terrifying and most adorable baptism. At this point, the sea lions were pretty big on the idea of eating her alive, but the water was miraculously struck by lightning, somehow killing everything in it except Thecla herself.
So, that was a couple of problems solved. Unfortunately, the lions were still closing in, and they weren’t exactly singing soaring Elton John ballads. Hopefully, you’re seeing a pattern here, though: Thecla was saved by yet another miracle when the female lions turned against the male lions to defend her, because, y’know, #girlpower. The coliseum promoter kept sending wave after wave of zoo animals out at her, because the show must go on and all that, but just before the whole thing was about to get silly, Queen Antonia Tryphaena of Thrace spoke up for her and got her set free.
Having thus cheated death twice, you might think that Thecla would abandon Christianity in favor of staying alive, but of course you’d be wrong. Thecla returned home to Iconium and tried to convert her mother (y’know, the first person to ever demand her death), but, upon failing to do that, retired to a proto-monastic life of prayer and solitude in the caves outside of Seleucia. The women of the town came to listen to her teaching (because apparently swimming with rabid seals makes you a theology expert), and she even performed a number of healing miracles.
Actually, she was a little too successful at miracles, to the point that she was putting local doctors out of business. So, around the time she was turning 90, they literally hired men to gang-rape her, under the assumption that her powers came from her virginity (which might seem silly, but cutting Samson’s hair worked, so who knows?). Thecla cried out to God to save her one last time, and he opened up a cleft in the rock (as he is wont to do). She escaped out the back and tracked down Paul one last time. He was dead, by this time, of course—and she was getting there as well—but she managed to lie down beside his tomb before she breathed her last.
And so there you have it. I guess you can take whatever lesson from it you want—”virginity is magic,” or “people can baptize themselves,” or “those poor sea lions.” Personally, I like what Paul’s involvement teaches us: that it’s possible to meet Jesus and still be a huge jerk.
So that’s something to think about.