Saint Theodora of Sihla, who is one of the greatest of Romania’s women ascetics, was born in the village of Vânatori in Neamts County in the first half of the seventeenth century, and was one of the two daughters of Stephen Joldea and his wife.
In her youth, Saint Theodora experienced a great trial in her family. Her sister, Marghiolitsa, died in a tragic way. This event deeply affected the saint. At this time, the thought of abandoning the world blossomed in her heart. She wished to do penance for her parents, for her sister, and for herself. Her grieving parents, however, did not agree with her decision, because now Theodora was their only child. They pleaded with her, and, at the proper time, they married her to a young man who was working in their vicinity, and who went frequently to venerate the holy sites. After entering into a lawful marriage, they lived together in her husband’s house.
Since Saint Theodora and her husband did not have any children, they both decided to enter monasteries in the Buzau valley. Her husband went to the Skete of Poiana Mărului, where he was tonsured with the name Eleutherios. He was also found worthy of ordination to the holy priesthood. Saint Theodora also received the monastic tonsure in the Skete of Poiana Mărului. In just a few short years, she advanced in obedience, prayer, and asceticism, acquiring the grace of unceasing prayer of the heart. She also had to endure many temptations from the Enemy.
When the Buzau valley was invaded by the Turks, Saint Theodora fled to the mountains with her Spiritual Mother, Schema-nun Paisia. They lived for several years in fasting, vigil and prayer, enduring cold, hunger, and other trials from the devil. When her Spiritual Mother fell asleep in the Lord (sometime between 1670 - 1675), Saint Theodora was led by God to the mountains of Neamț. After venerating the wonderworking Neamts Icon of the Mother of God (June 26) at the monastery, she was told to seek the advice of Hieromonk Barsanuphios of Sihăstria Skete. Seeing her desire for the eremetical life, and recognizing her great virtues, he gave her Holy Communion and assigned Hieromonk Paul as her Father Confessor and spiritual guide.
Father Barsanuphios advised Mother Theodora to go and live alone in the wilderness for a year. “If, by the grace of Christ, you are able to endure the difficulties and trials of the wilderness, then remain there until you die. If you cannot endure, however, then go to a women’s monastery, and struggle there in humility for the salvation of your soul.”
Father Paul searched in vain for an abandoned hermitage where the saint might live. Then they met an old hermit living beneath the cliffs of Sihla. This clairvoyant Elder greeted them and said, “Mother Theodora, remain in my cell, because I am moving to another hermitage.”
Father Paul left the nun on Mount Sihla, blessing her before he returned to the Sihăstria Skete. Saint Theodora lived in that cell for thirty years, glorifying God. Strengthened with power from on high, she vanquished all the attacks of the Enemy through patience and humility. She never left the mountain, and never saw another person except for Father Paul, who visited her from time to time to bring her the Spotless Mysteries of Christ and the supplies she needed in order to survive.
Saint Theodora made such progress in asceticism that she was able to keep vigil all night long with her arms lifted up toward heaven. When the morning sun touched her face, she would eat some herbs and other vegetation to break her fast. She drank the rain water which she collected from a channel cut into the cliff, which is still known as Saint Theodora’s spring. After Father Paul’s repose, she remained solely in God’s care.
When Turks attacked the villages and monasteries around Neamts, the woods became filled with people from nearby villages and refugees from the monasteries. Some nuns discovered Saint Theodora’s cell and she told them, “Remain here in my cell, for I have another place of refuge.” Then she moved into a nearby cave, living there completely alone. At night she would rest a little on the flagstones, which still can be seen to this day. An army of Turks discovered the cave, and were about to kill the saint. Lifting up her hands, she cried out, “O Lord, deliver me from the hands of these murderers.” The wall of the cave opened up, and she was able to escape into the woods.
As Saint Theodora grew old, she was completely forgotten and there was no one to care for her. Placing all her hope in God, she continued her spiritual struggles, and reached great heights of perfection. When she prayed her mind was raised up to Heaven, and her body was lifted up off the ground. Like the great saints of earlier times, her face shone with a radiant light, and a flame came forth from her mouth when she prayed.
Eventually her clothes became mere rags, and when her food ran out, she was fed by birds just as the Prophet Elias (July 20) was. The bread that they brought to her came from the Sihăstria Skete. Seeing the birds come to the Skete and then fly away with pieces of bread in their beaks, the Hegumen sent two monks to follow them, thinking that some ascetic was living there and that God was providing food for him. Night fell as they walked toward Sihla, and they lost their way in the woods. They decided to wait for daylight, and so they began to pray. One of them climbed a tree and looked for a place where someone might be living. Suddenly, they saw a bright light rising up into the sky, and went to investigate. As they approached, they saw a woman shining with light and levitating above the ground while she prayed.
Sensing their presence, Saint Theodora said, “Brethren, do not be afraid, for I am a humble handmaiden of Christ. Throw me something to wear, for I am naked.’ The monks were amazed when she addressed them by name. Then she prayed: “I thank Thee, O Lord, that Thou hast heard me.” She said to the monks, “Brothers, I have lived for many years in these parts, and, behold, it has been forty days since I prayed for God to send me a Confessor to come and impart unto me the Holy Mysteries of our Lord Jesus Christ, because it is almost time for me to depart from this life. So, please, go straight to the Skete and ask Father Hegumen to send Father Anthony and Hierodeacon Laurence to me tomorrow morning with Holy Communion.”
They asked her how they could find their way to the Skete at night, for they did not know the way. She said that they would be guided to the Skete by a light which would go before them.
The next day at dawn, Father Anthony went to Sihla with the deacon and two other monks. When they found Saint Theodora, she was praying by a fir tree in front of her cave. She made a Confession of her entire life to Father Anthony, and then she received the Holy Mysteries of Christ and gave her soul to God. Her last words were, “Glory to God for all things.’ The monks buried Saint Theodora in her cave with great reverence sometime during the first decade of the eighteenth century.
News of her death spread quickly, and people came from all over to venerate her tomb. Her holy relics remained incorrupt, and many miracles took place before them. Some kissed the relics; others touched the reliquary, while others washed in her spring. All who entreated Saint Theodora’s intercession received healing and consolation.
Saint Theodore’s former husband, Hieromonk Eleutherios, heard that she had been living at Sihla, and decided to go there. He found her cave shortly after her death and burial. Grieving for his beloved wife, Eleutherios did not return to his monastery, but made a small cell for himself below the cliffs of Sihla. He remained close to her cave, fasting, praying, and serving the Divine Liturgy. He lived there for about ten years before his blessed repose. He was buried in the hermits’ cemetery and the Skete of Saint John the Baptist was built over his grave.
Saint Theodora’s relics were taken to the Kiev Caves Monastery between 1828 and 1834. There she is known as Saint Theodora of the Carpathians. Our Venerable Mother Theodora was glorified by the Romanian Orthodox Church on June 20, 1992.
The inscription of Saint Theodora’s scroll reads: “Life is blessed for those in the wilderness as they fly upon the wings of Divine love” (Sunday Matins, Hymn of Degrees, first Antiphon).