St. Tharasius (Tarasius) of Constantinople, March 15 (February 25)

Died 806. Tharasius's father, George, was a judge held in high esteem for his even-handed justice, and his mother, Eucratia, no less celebrated for her piety. (He was the uncle or great-uncle of Saint Photius.) He was raised in the practice of virtue and taught to choose his friends wisely. As a layman, he was secretary of state to the ten-year-old Constantine VI. In the midst of the court and all its honors, surrounded by all that could flatter pride or gratify sensuality, Tharasius led a life like that of a professed religious.

Empress Irene, regent for her son, privately a true Christian during her husband's lifetime, schemed to gain power over the whole government to end the persecution of true Christians by the Iconoclasts. She was an ambitious, artful, and heartlessly cruel woman, but she was opposed to Iconoclasm. At the same time, Paul VI, patriarch of Constantinople, resigned his see in repentance for conforming to the heresy of the deceased Emperor Leo. As soon as Irene learned that he had taken the religious habit of Florus Monastery, she visited him and tried to dissuade him. Paul's resolution was unalterable for he wished to repair the scandal he had given. He suggested Tharasius as a worthy replacement.

And so Irene named the layman Tharasius, patriarch of Constantinople. There was unanimous consent by the court, clergy, and people. Tharasius objected, in part because he felt a priest should be chosen, but primarily because he could not in conscience accept the government of a see that had supported the Iconoclasts heresy. Finally, he accepted the position upon condition that a general council should be called to settle the dispute over the use of images. He was consecrated on Christmas Day, 784.

Soon after his consecration he wrote letters to Pope Adrian I (as did Irene) and the patriarchs of Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem requesting their attendance or that of their legates at the seventh ecumenical council. The Holy Father sent legates with letters to the emperor, empress, and patriarch that, in the presence of his legates, the false council of the Iconoclasts should first be condemned and efforts made to re-establish holy images throughout the empire. (His legates, who assumed the presidency of the council, were Peter, archpriest of the Roman church, and Peter, priest and abbot of Saint Sabas in Rome.)

The Eastern patriarchs, being under the yoke of the Islamics, could not come for fear of offending their overlords, but they sent their deputies. The council opened at Constantinople August 1, 786, but was disturbed by the violence of Iconoclasts; therefore, the empress dispersed the council until the following year.

The Second Council of Nicaea at the Church of Hagia Sophia was attended by the pope's legates, Tharasius, John (priest and monk representing the patriarchs of Antioch and Jerusalem), Thomas (for the patriarch of Alexandria), and 350 bishops, plus many abbots and other holy priests and confessors. The assembled agreed that it was the sense of the Church to allow holy pictures and other images a relative honor, but not, of course, that worship that is due to God alone. He who reveres the image, it was emphasized, reveres the person it represents. Once the council was ended, synodal letters were sent to all churches and, in particular, to the pope for his approval of the council, which was forthcoming.

In keeping with the resolutions of the General Council of Nicaea in 787, Tharasius restored statues and images to the churches and worked to eliminate simony. He also forbade the use of gold and scarlet among his clergy.

The life of Tharasius was a model of perfection to his clergy and people. He lived austerely, slept little, and became known for his acts of charity. He would take the meat from his table to distribute among the poor with his own hands and assigned them a large, fixed revenue. To ensure that no one would be overlooked, he visited all the houses and hospitals in Constantinople. Reading and prayer filled all his leisure hours. It was his pleasure, in imitation of our Lord, to serve others rather than being served by them. He powerfully exhorted universal mortification of the senses, and was particularly severe against all theatrical entertainments.

Constantine turned against him in 795 when Tharasius refused to sanction his divorce from Empress Mary, whom his mother had pressured him to marry. Constantine even tried to coerce his support by deceit saying that Mary had plotted to poison the bishop. Tharasius remained firm, replying, "Tell him I will suffer death rather than consent to his design."

Next Constantine tried flattery. He said: "I can conceal nothing from you whom I regard as my father. No one can deny that I may divorce one who has attempted to take my life. The Empress Mary deserves death or perpetual penance." He produced a vial of poison that he pretended she had prepared for him. The patriarch, convinced that Constantine was trying to hoodwink him, responded that although Mary's crime was horrid, his second marriage during her lifetime would still be contrary to the law of God.

Constantine wished to marry Theodota, one of Mary's maids, and forced his wife into a convent. But Tharasius still refused to perform the marriage ceremony. This scandalous example led to several governors and other powerful men divorcing their wives or entering bigamous relationships, and gave encouragement to public lewdness. Saints Plato and Theodorus separated themselves from the emperor's communion to show their abhorrence of his crime. Tharasius did not think it was prudent to excommunicate the emperor who might restore iconoclasm in a resultant rage.

Tharasius was persecuted by Constantine thereafter. No one could speak to the patriarch without the permission of the emperor. Spies watched his every move. Tharasius's servants and relatives were banished. This semi-confinement gave Tharasius more free time for contemplation. While being persecuted for his orthodoxy by the emperor, Saint Theodore and his monks of Studium accused Tharasius of being too lenient.

Irene won over the elite, seized power and had Constantine imprisoned and blinded with so much violence that he died in 797. During her five year reign, she recalled all those who had been banished. After Nicephorus seized the throne in 802, Irene was exiled to Lesbos. Tharasius completed his 21 year reign under Nicephorus tending to his flock and praying Divine Liturgy daily. Shortly before his death, Tharasius fell into a trance, as his biographer, who was present, relates, and he seemed to be disputing with a number of accusers who were busily scrutinizing all the actions of his life and making accusations. The saint appeared to be in great agitation as he defended himself against their charges. But a wonderful serenity succeeded, and the holy man gave up his soul to God in peace.

God honored the memory of Tharasius with miracles, some of which are related by the author of his vita. His feast was first celebrated by his successor. Fourteen years after Tharasius's death, the iconoclast emperor Leo the Armenian dreamed just before his own death that he saw Saint Tharasius highly incensed against him, and heard him command one named Michael to stab him. Leo, thinking this Michael to be a monk in the saint's monastery, ordered him to be brought before him and even tortured some of the religious to hand him over, but there was no Michael among them. Leo was killed six days later by Michael Balbus.

Distinguished for learning and piety. There is still extant a letter of Pope Hadrian I to him, defending (the veneration of) the holy images.