19 September 2017

Gong Zizhen, revolutionary conservative

Gong Zizhen 龚自珍

So, I’m reading Dorothy Borei’s 1977 thesis on Gong Zizhen, and the picture that is emerging of the man from her writing is, to say the least, a fascinating one.

Gong Zizhen was a minor official hailing from Hangzhou in Zhejiang during the Qing Dynasty who has gained as a reputation as an ‘eccentric’ dissenter. Even though he practised Tiantai Buddhism and highly esteemed the zhuzi baijia 诸子百家 of the Zhou Dynasty (including Zhuangzi, Gaozi and Mozi), he was nevertheless a Confucian to the bone in his moral outlook. He was a powerful prose writer and poet, having gotten a sincere and deep love of poetry from his mother. But he was consistently frustrated in his official career, never attaining high office and lamenting bitterly that he could not do his duty to his country. All the same, his ideas would have a profound influence on the later Qing reformer Kang Youwei.

He used even what small position he had to lambaste the court practices and social norms of his day. He lived at a time when the power of the Emperor ran practically unchecked, when powerful officials lived comfortable lives and lesser officials resorted to bribery and kickbacks to sustain the lifestyle they were accustomed to, all at the expense of the poor. It was also a time when officials who wanted to reform what they saw as intractable problems could not voice opinions for fear of their reputations and careers. Gong Zizhen saw all this, and attacked not only his peers for their slavishness and moral cowardice, but also the institutional structures that prevented them from living honestly. He wanted the Emperor to reinstitute the official right of remonstrance among the scholars, to show more clemency in punishments, to allow greater freedom of thought, to devolve power to the regional level, to compensate minor and local officials better, and to reform the civil service examinations so that they better reflected the abilities of aspiring officials. He also sought a confiscatory redistribution of land from the rich to the poor and an end to socially-demeaning practices like foot-binding and opium-smoking. Uncommonly for his time (but not entirely unknown amongst Confucians generally), Gong Zizhen had a high estimation of the intellectual capacities of women, and advocated for women’s education. This is likely due to his mother’s influence, who herself was a connoisseur of poetry and instilled in her son a love for the art. It’s also worthy of note that he was very close friends with Commissioner Lin Zexu and Wei Yuan, a fellow New Text scholar who attacked the opium trade and Western imperialism.

Gong Zizhen was no mere contrarian, though – eclectic and unconventional though his interests were. He grounded all of his critiques in a deeply-traditional, even antiquarian, Confucian language. Gong clearly didn’t believe in harsh and punitive measures even in the case of shameless and corrupt bureaucrats. Instead, he believed strongly that the Emperor must rule by enlightened example and by wuwei 无为, and that the officials in turn must comport themselves with humaneness, restraint and zeal for the common good. Once the right relationships between king and vassal were rectified, and once the qi 气 (‘morale’ or, more literally, ‘atmosphere’) of the existing order was restored, the other reforms he desired would flow naturally. In particular, he used his knowledge of the Gongyang commentary on the Spring and Autumn, which he had gained from his New Text teacher Liu Fenglu, to legitimate his ideas for legal and institutional reform.

Gong Zizhen had something of a utopian vision, but it was grounded in the distant past, in the Zhou. Politically, he sought not the overthrow or the resistance, but the revitalisation of the Qing. But the revitalised Qing he wanted, was one in which even the poorest families could be self-sufficient, in which the country was free from opium addiction, in which officials were incentivised against being corrupt or brutal, and in which women had some rôle to play in the intellectual life of the country. Even though it’s something of an anachronism even in Gong’s day, it may be fair to characterise him as a ‘revolutionary conservative’.

15 September 2017

Nikitas the Great-Martyr

𐌷𐌰𐌹𐌻𐌰𐌲𐍃 𐌽𐌹𐌺𐌹𐍄𐌰𐍃

The Great-Martyr Nikitas, whom we venerate today, was a Germanic warrior from the Þerving tribe of the Western Goths, which at that time lived in the Danube Basin in what is now Romania and Serbia.

At the time in which the Great-Martyr lived, the Goths were coming under severe pressure from the Huns. A civil war between two rival þiudanōs (chieftains), Friþugairns and Aþanareiks, was brewing – partially in response to the urgency of the Hunnish pressures, and partially in response to the inroads Christianity was making among the Gothic people. Aþanareiks, who worshipped the heathen gods, gained the upper hand against Friþugairns, who was either already Christian or who looked kindly on the troth of Christ. The latter requested Roman help, and began pushing back against Aþanareiks – even, in imitation of Emperor Saint Constantine, marking the Sign of the Cross on the battle-vanes of his here. He fought Aþanareiks in bloody weapon-weather, but the latter flinched and fled with his life, and a handful of his thegns.

Saint Nikitas himself fought in the here of Friþugairns. Nikitas was baptised into the Orthodox Church in his youth, by the Gothic bishop Theophilos who had attended the Council of Nicæa and who was among those bishops who had affirmed the Nicene Symbol of Faith. Nikitas, educated in Christian teachings by Bishop Theophilos, lived a holy life and converted many of his fellow Goths by his own example to Christianity, working together with Theophilos and his successor, the bishop Wulfila (who would later lapse into the condemned Arian heresy), who invented the Gothic script and used it to translate the Scriptures and many other holy texts into the Gothic language.

Aþanareiks, however, recovered his forces and began to retake the territory of the Goths from the Christian Friþugairns. Holy Nikitas, foremost among Friþugairns’ thegns, loudly denounced Aþanareiks as a wicked and ungodly tyrant, and called upon his folk to stand fast in Friþugairns’ troth, even if it were to mean martyrdom. The bold and fearless weapon-tree was soon captured by the heathen þiudana, who had him set to fell and unright painings – though he was steadfast through them all, by the help of an ikon of the Theotokos and the Christ Child which he held to his body. He was thrown into a burning hearth and there killed, but his body was not harmed by the fire: when it was taken out, it was glowing with a holy light.

A fellow Christian, Marianus, took the body of the Great-Martyr from the heathen Goths and had it smuggled out and buried at Manistra, a town on the mouth of the Pyramus in Asia Minor. From thence it was taken to Micklegarth, where a church was raised in his name. Saint Nikitas is held most dear by believers in Russia, in Serbia and in Romania – the modern name Nikita derives from the Great-Martyr.

I have no ulterior motive for posting about Great-Martyr Nikitas this time; I just think it’s awesome that the Orthodox Church has a Gothic warrior-saint.
You defeated error and triumphed in martyrdom,
Nikitas, namesake of victory;
For you conquered the ranks of the enemy
And ended your contest by fire.
Pray to Christ our God to grant us His great mercy.

14 September 2017

The True Cross and solidarity with ‘crucified peoples’

Iu ic wæs geworden     wita heardost,
leodum laðost,     ærþan ic him lifes weg
rihtne gerymde,     reordberendum.
Hwæt, me þa geweorðode     wuldres ealdor
ofer holmwudu,     heofonrices weard!

Once I became hardest of torments,
most loathly to men, before I for them,
voice-bearers, life’s right way opened.
Indeed, Glory’s Prince, Heaven’s Protector,
honored me, then, over holm-wood.

- From the Old English poem, The Dream of the Rood
On the Feast of the Exaltation, a quote from the Jesuit priest Jon Sobrino came to my mind, about the necessity of keeping solidarity with the ‘crucified peoples’ who suffer persecution and oppression in the world – for in them dwells Christ. The True Cross which we venerate today is but one example of the many crosses borne by the people who bear suffering in the world. Whatever one thinks about Sobrino’s logic, I must confess that I would be lying somewhat if I said something similar to this wasn’t one among my motivations for converting to Orthodoxy. Of these there were many, and maybe one day I’ll write about them directly and in a cogent way.

Still. Over half of Palestinian Christians – a minority which has been and still is pressured both by Islamist groups and by the Israeli state, and which is consistently misunderstood and ignored by American evangelicals in particular – belong to the Mother of all Churches, the Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem.

The Christians of Syria, who have recently suffered much, including literal crucifixion, at the hands of Daesh and various other Islamist groups (including those funded by Britain, France and the United States), belong primarily to the Patriarchate of Antioch.

The Christians of the Donetsk Basin, whose homes, churches, schools and hospitals have been shelled for the past three years by the criminal oligarchy in Kiev and its sadly all-too-existent fascist paramilitaries, overwhelmingly belong to the Moscow Patriarchate. Sadly, even refugees from the fighting face a cool reception among their comrades across the border.

Historically, also, the Orthodox Rusin people of the Carpathian mountains – a people historically without a country of their own – have been a people of many and acute sufferings. They have lived a marginal existence on marginal farmlands, oppressed, heavily-taxed, subject to religious repression by Polish and later Austrian authorities, sent abroad to do hard and poorly-paid labour in the mines of Pennsylvania and the Iron Range, and now unrecognised as a minority (or marginally-recognised) by the countries they currently inhabit.

Even in places where such suffering is not as acute or immediate, Orthodox Christians still number among the most vulnerable. The European country to be hit hardest by the œconomic crisis in 2007, and to take most of the blame and the austerity in the aftermath, was Greece. And the fallout from that austerity has taken a number of very ugly forms: unemployment and poverty, but also depression, suicide and drug abuse.

Even though the stories of such suffering did have some part in my choice to join the Orthodox faith, I am emphatically not saying here that the considerable suffering of Orthodox Christians in the Middle East and elsewhere is somehow unique or set-apart in any way. Indeed, quite the opposite. It has to be remembered that even Christ’s suffering on that Cross which we remember today was not unique; He suffered the same torturous death as that of Saint Dismas and the other zealot alongside Him. And in each and every one of these cases, Orthodox Christians are suffering alongside others: alongside Muslims and other Christians under Israeli occupation and political mismanagement; alongside Melkite Catholics, Ezidis, Alawites and other Shi’ites in Syria; alongside Jews, trade unionists and other targetted minorities in the Ukraine; and alongside fellow sufferers of Washington- and Brussels-driven austerity in majority-Catholic countries like Italy, Spain, Ireland and Portugal. And I am not saying, either, that suffering is an indication of anything other than suffering. In all cases but one – the one, that is, which we remember on the day of the Exaltation of the True Cross – the victims are sinners just like everybody else.

There is a certain amount of irony in the history of this feast: the Cross was found by Saint Helena, the mother of Emperor Saint Constantine of Rome, in 326 – and it was taken by the Persians and only restored to the Orthodox people of Jerusalem by Emperor Flavios Herakleios at the end of a war between Byzantium and the Persian Emperor Khosrow II in 628. There is an Imperial character to the Feast that appears to betray the remembrance of ‘crucified peoples’ – not least among whom Christ Himself. But it deserves to be remembered, in truth, that Saint Helena herself was a ‘stable-maid’ of uncertain origins, and one popular myth holds her to be a Briton – at that time, a low-status, conquered subject people of the Roman Empire. Her status as either the wife or the kept-woman of the Roman general Constantius is likewise unclear from the historical records; later Constantius put her aside in favour of another woman of more noble breeding. Both she and her son were, throughout their lives, remarkably generous to the poor and suffering. Saint Helena built one of the first free hospitals in Constantinople in 330 AD, during her son’s reign – and her example would later be followed by Saint Basil the Great in Cæsarea. Even within these twinned Imperial triumphs celebrated by the Church: the presence of forgotten, subaltern peoples; peoples of the ‘interstices’; victims of violence; subjugated peoples; women – including and particularly women of low birth; poor, sick and suffering peoples; in short, the ‘crucified peoples’ of Sobrino’s liberation-theological meditation – cannot ever entirely be forgotten. Nor should they be.

I remember also a homily given on the Exaltation of the Cross two years ago, by Father Elie at Saint Mary’s Antiochian Church in Pawtucket. He said that even the shape of the Cross was meant to evoke a sense of solidarity. The vertical bar that signifies God’s descent toward man’s condition is only one piece, and if you have only that one piece – that is, if you acknowledge only God’s relation to you as an individual, without reference to anyone else – what you are carrying, and what you are exalting, is not a cross at all. What is needed aside from that is the horizontal bar: the outstretched arms, the understanding that we do not suffer alone, and the necessity of embracing our fellow-sufferer.

The True Cross was, after all, one among three on Golgotha – and tortured to death on the other two, were bandits. And the Lord who was killed upon the True Cross, remembered first the penitent bandit Saint Dismas who was nailed next to him. If Dismas could cry out to Our Lord from his cross, and Our Lord could remember Dismas even as He was dying upon His own Cross, is it not also incumbent upon us – firstly, to take up our own cross, but also to exalt and, if possible, ease the burden of the crosses that are borne by our brothers and sisters, our fellow human-beings both within the faith and outside it?

13 September 2017

Sobornost’ against ethno-nationalism

Konstantin Pobedonostsev

From Dr Denis Vovchenko’s Containing Balkan Nationalism, a glimpse of the arch-reactionary Konstantin Pobedonostsev’s view of that little Church matter of 1872. Sobornost’ power at work, comrades:
… Ponomarev’s pro-Bulgarian views did not find support in the new leadership of the Russian Church—Over-Procurator of the Holy Synod Konstantin Pobedonostsev. He attempted to decisively solve the Bulgarian Church question… Pobedonostsev put the burden of responsibility squarely on the Bulgarian Exarchate and made friends with Filippov and other Russian supporters of the [Œcumenical] Patriarchate.

He condemned the policy of the Bulgarian prelates aimed at establishing a Bulgarian ‘ethnic’ hierarchy parallel to the existing network of the Patriarchate. He explained to the like-minded ambassador [Evgeniy Novikov] in Constantinople: ‘the regulation of the Œcumenical Councils banning the existence of two coreligionist bishops in the same city was not supposed to help maintain outward administrative unity only but had a much deeper meaning touching on the dogma of church unity’…

As a pressure tactic, Over-Procurator Pobedonostsev refused to help the Bulgarian Church assert a greater
rôle vis-à-vis the government of the autonomous Bulgarian Principality unless there was some progress in the Greek-Bulgarian reconciliation. He took issue with the fact that the statute of the Bulgarian Church had been drawn up solely by the Bulgarian government and, more fundamentally, that ‘the Bulgarian Church does not have canonical communion (obshcheniya) with the Patriarchate of Constantinople. Pobedonostsev wrote to the acting Foreign Minister Nikolai Girs that Russian representatives had to make it clear to the Bulgarian Exarch that he needed to restore ‘the union and communion with the Œcumenical Patriarch’.

The normalisation of the canonical standing would give the Bulgarian Exarchate ‘that firm moral foundation’ needed to resist the attack of the government on church prerogatives in newly autonomous Bulgaria. Pobedonostsev saw the moment for reconciliation particularly appropriate because of the initiatives of Patriarch Joachim III and Russian Ambassador Evgeniy Novikov in that direction. The Bulgarian Exarchate was clearly on the wrong side and needed to follow their suggestions. Specifically, all members of the Holy Synod of the Russian Church unanimously believed that the uncanonical stay of the Bulgarian Exarch in the city under the undisputable
[sic] jurisdiction of the Patriarch was a major irritant. The Exarch’s move out of Constantinople would be the first step to reconciliation.
Note well: this is the Over-Procurator of the Holy Synod, the éminence grise behind the reactionary rule of Tsar Aleksandr III, acting according to positions against Bulgarian ethno-nationalism in Church affairs, in staunch support of the 1872 Council of Constantinople and, by extension, against ethno-nationalism in the rest of Europe.

Pobedonostsev here represents the voice of classical conservatism, of true tradition. Pobedonostsev was, to the hilt, a supporter of his Tsar and his Empire – but not an ethno-nationalist. Even though he did adopt wholeheartedly the formula of Count Uvarov, there was a clear hierarchy in his views of how to interpret the doctrine. The idea that loyalty to Orthodoxy, loyalty to the Tsar and loyalty to the narod are in essence three different things, each necessary and each working dynamically with the others to maintain stability and order within the Russian Empire, but each not to be conflated with the others, is key to understanding why he would take such a position. It’s also worthy of note (and ironic, too, considering that the younger brother Aksakov was the most nationalistic and pan-Slavist of the original Slavophils) that he uses the language of the Slavophils, that of sobornost’, of inner unity and of Aksakov’s obshchestvo specifically, to defend the 1872 Council against the claims of the Bulgarian Exarchate.

The classical conservatives of older generations deserve to be read on their own terms. They still have a great deal to teach us. Pobedonostsev in particular!

11 September 2017

A Church of empire?

Virgin-Martyrs Menodora, Metrodora and Nymphadora,
and Right-Believing Empress Poulcheria

The commemoration of Empress Saint Ælia Poulcheria yesterday, alongside the three Virgin-Martyrs Menodora, Metrodora and Nymphodora, did raise for me a couple of fairly uncomfortable questions and concerns. The three virgin-martyrs on the one side, and the empress on the other, offer two visions of the Church’s imagination that differ starkly from one another – far, far more so than even the contrast of the two abbots of Kiev Pechersk Lavra, or the mediæval Russian Saints Iosif and Nil.

The Virgin-Martyrs of Bithynía, after all, were ascetics after the classical Sinaitic mould: sisters of the desert, who had vowed perpetual poverty and virginity, and spent their time fasting, praying and healing the sick from their lonely abode in the wilderness. Their ministry and witness was one of self-denial, of self-abnegation. Their praxis was one of powerlessness. Their martyrdom at the hands of a proud pagan governor displays a meekness in the face of torture and humiliation, which many generations of Orthodox saints have striven to emulate – particularly those in the ascetic mould.

On the other hand, their sister-saint, who lived four generations later, was very much of the world. Though she had also taken a vow of virginity, her similarity with the Virgin-Martyrs who share her feast day pretty much stops there. Saint Poulcheria did not forsake worldly, political power or its exercise. She was, to all intents and purposes, a co-emperor with her brother Theodosios. There was definitely no desert meekness in her virginity, which she held aloft as a beacon from the city walls in the manner of the Vestals. She urged her brother to wage a costly, bloody and inconclusive war with the Persians. She also notably detested Jews, and urged her brother to confiscate synagogues and conduct pogroms against Jewish populations in the Eastern Roman Empire. As an ethnic Jew and as a Persophile, both of these behaviours on her part rather disturb me – particularly as they prefigure certain ideological formations which are entirely and without reservation to be condemned.

On the other hand, Saint Poulcheria was also very generous to the poor and continued her illustrious predecessors’ policies of building and funding hospitals out of her own substance, and encouraged the same to be done out of the tax coffers of the Empire. The Byzantine Empire, for all of its ugly blemishes (of which Saint Poulcheria herself demonstrated only two), was far less squeamish than we are about the use of levies on private wealth to finance what it saw as public goods. That’s something, to my mind, very much to be admired. But the contrast also shows a kind of split personality in our understanding of ‘empire’ which needs to be considered.

‘Empire’ has long had a double meaning. In the rhetoric of mediæval China, the word diguo 帝国 denoted a humane government ruled by a di 帝, or a ‘lord-on-high’, of whom Yao 堯 and Shun 舜 were the models. Not someone who sought after power for its own sake but who sought to rule his people by a peaceable and centred example. In classical rhetoric, rule by a di 帝 was contrasted with rule by a ba 霸 or ‘hegemon’ – someone who ruled other countries and expanded his own by legal trickery and sleight-of-hand. As Wang Hui 汪晖 elucidates from his study of Tang and Song Dynasty sources, Wang Tong 王通 (also referred to by his posthumous name Wenzhongzi 文中子), critically sorted states into five broad categories in his Doctrines of the Middle Way:

States led by usurpers employ armies to do battle [they depend on force alone]. States led by hegemons employ wisdom to do battle [subduing the armies of others without doing battle]. States led by kings employ righteousness to do battle. States led by a lord on high employ virtue to do battle. States led by august-emperors employ nonaction to do battle.
This ranking, very typical of the mediæval Confucian with a critical turn of mind, was moral and had subversive power, with the states led by august-emperors (or huang 皇) being ruled by creative inaction or wuwei 无为, and the states led by lords-on-high being ruled by virtue and benevolence, or de 德 and ren 仁. In the logic of the time, such schema were often employed to criticise officials and policies which did not rule in the interests of the common people but sought their own aggrandisement. All of these concepts were still authoritarian, of course – not even Yao or Shun ruled by a democratic mandate.

However, after the Opium Wars and the Meiji Restoration, the meaning of diguo ended up shifting as it was inflected by the post-Meiji Japanese usage of the same Chinese loanword, rendered in that language as teikoku. Of course, in truth Meiji Japan was something far more similar to Wang Tong’s baguo than his diguo, particularly when compared with the Edo period which came before! But they used the language of teikoku to legitimate their constitutional changes, their disenfranchisement of the old warrior-scholar class and their territorial expansions. Even in Chinese, after 1868 and the establishment of the Dai Nippon Teikoku, the word diguo began to have militaristic and absolutist connotations.

In the West, the words ‘emperor’ and ‘empire’ also shifted in their meanings, though that shift occurred many centuries before, gradually, and through internal pressures that led to changes in the emphasis of meaning. The Greek word basileús βασιλεύς originally connoted a tribal chieftain with certain Homeric, heroic qualities of leadership and aretē αρετή. However, the term acquired a pejorative meaning, at least in Athens, when they transitioned toward a democratic form of government. The word basileús was thereafter ascribed solely to Eastern and other ‘barbaric’ countries, and the term was used as a Greek rendering of the Persian šāh شاه .

From this, one begins to see how deeply, in Christian times, the spirit of the East took its revenge on Western spiritual principles and principles of government. The gentle winds from the desert blew straight into the city, and the city bowed meekly to them. Bear in mind that Alexander the Great only took on the title after, and because, he had conquered Persia – that is to say, he used it only to affirm his lordship over the Persians. Even the pagan Roman Imperators (from whom we get the words ‘emperor’ and ‘empire’) disdained the use of basileús because of its ‘barbarian’ and un-republican connotations, preferring instead the Hellenised Romanisms sebastos, augoustos and autokratōr. But the appellation of basileús began to be adopted proudly by the Christianised Byzantine kings! And at that, because there was a greater basileús than any earthly one, calling out not from the city but from the midst of the desert. (Remember that the Hasmonean Kings, too, titled themselves that way.)

For basileús, if we are to understand it in its classical context as a rendering of šāh, like the Chinese term also has (or had) a subversive, moral dimension that could be turned against the ruler himself if he behaves badly. The Hellenistic idea of the tychē basileús is an understanding that derives precisely from Zoroastrian ideals of just rule. The Zoroastrian principle of farr فر or ‘kingly glory’ dovetails very nicely, in fact, with the Chinese idea of the Mandate of Heaven (tianming 天命) and its association with the ruler’s virtue (de 德) and benevolence (ren 仁). As with many of their best ideas, the Christianised Hellenes got this one directly from those darn fire-worshipping Persians. Sorry, Saint Poulcheria!

One can begin to see, though, how the idea of ‘empire’, in its classical and early-mediæval setting, is a much more multivalent thing than we can appreciate today. The antinomies and inconsistencies – at least from our modern perspective – of Saint Poulcheria begin to make some sense, even if they cannot be entirely excused. As I have said before, one of the virtues of ‘empire’ both in the East and in the West is that it introduces a level-distinction between the state and the ethnos (or ‘thede’, or ‘nation’), a level-distinction which has been lost in our modern age (with a handful of very noteworthy and admirable exceptions driven by a kind of Romantic regionalism, tangentially and indirectly drawing upon Byzantine legacies). Even if we are uncomfortable with the language of ‘empire’ in our day and age – and rightly so, given the ways in which our entire ‘imperial’ language has been shaped since the 19th century – there remain at least two legacies of the elder, classical and mediæval empires (Chinese, Persian, Byzantine-Roman, even Muscovite-Russian) which need desperately to be recovered. One of them is the idea of the caritative mandate of the state: an idea to which too many American Orthodox in particular are still allergic. The other is the idea that, let alone the Church, it’s not the job of the state or its head to be the sole servant of any given ethnos.

Pace Artur Rosman and friend (EDIT: thank you for the correction, Justin!), the Orthodox imagination is not one which glues the Church to the state-ethnos complex. Rather, the fact that the state-ethnos complex itself goes unquestioned, can be said to show a certain deficiency in the Latin imagination particularly. Indeed, rightly considered (and, as I will be the first to admit, many are the Orthodox who have yet to rightly consider it!), the Orthodox ecclesiology questions the very basis for that complex, and in fact drives a solid wedge between the state and the ethnos, even as it affirms each separately. Orthodoxy may indeed be a religion of empire. As such, we cannot be the religion of the ‘ethno-state’. And as such, we have a responsibility and an obligation to restore the older and more humane understandings implicit in our ‘imperial’ past, and correct for the less worthy ones. It is possible, even within the confines of Orthodox thought, to break up the lumps in the ‘imperial’ understanding of Saint Poulcheria’s time with some of the leaven of the desert, which we might find from the Virgin-Martyrs of Bithynía.

Holy Martyrs Menodora, Metrodora and Nymphadora, and Right-Believing Empress Ælia Poulcheria, pray to God for us!
Invincible in your struggles for the Holy Trinity,
And through your love for each other as sisters,
You defeated the foe of your spiritual life,
And with the five virgins, entered victoriously into the Heavenly Mansions
Where you ever rejoice with the angels in the presence of the King of All!

09 September 2017

Venerable Iosif (Sanin) of Volokolamsk

Saint Iosif the Abbot

It may be ‘coincidental’ from the view of a non-Orthodox person, that the feast of Saint Iosif the Abbot falls precisely one week after the joint feast of the Saints Antoniy and Feodosiy of the Kiev Caves. And coincidences do happen every day. But after being Orthodox for three years, I’ve come to not trust coincidences. God has a way of making events rhyme, in the human world as well as in the natural one.

Saint Iosif the Abbot of Volokolamsk is, in most English-language histories of Russia, contrasted sharply with his contemporary, Saint Nil of Sora. The two of them are portrayed as being heads of two bitterly-opposed and antagonistic schools of monasticism: the Josephite ‘possessors’ and the Zavolzh’e ‘non-possessors’. However, this distinction is vastly overdrawn by Western scholars. Saint Iosif and Saint Nil were known to each other, and indeed shared disciples. However, Saint Iosif – who was by no means a stranger to polemicism against his rivals – had no harsh words for Saint Nil. Indeed, Saint Iosif recommended Saint Nil to his own disciples, if they were disquieted or otherwise in need of inward prayer. It was, in point of fact, Saint Nil’s student, the boyar Vassian Patrikeev, who was the actual political rival of Saint Iosif and his school. But the differences between Saint Iosif and Saint Nil, though real, are still heavily exaggerated by Western observers.

In that respect, Saints Iosif and Nil are somewhat similar to Saints Antoniy and Feodosiy of the first generation of Russian monastics. Like Saint Antoniy before him, Saint Nil was an Athonite monk whose writings show influence from the hesychasts of Sinai; even though Saint Nil did not perform the extremities that Saint Antoniy did, he was still far more sympathetic to eremitical living, holy seclusion, inward spiritual feats. The form of asceticism Saint Nil advocated was in the total renunciation of property by monastic communities; he felt that monastic communities ought to be simple and detached from worldly ties, that they should not imitate the sæcular relationship between lord and vassal. In this point alone was he somewhat opposed to Saint Iosif.

Although on first blush Saint Iosif’s spirituality appears to be given to a rather un-Kievan outward rigorism, on closer examination his style of life is more comparable to that of Saint Feodosiy. Saint Iosif was born Ivan Sanin, to a Ruthenian military family originally hailing from what is now Belarus, but which was eventually enfeoffed at a small village close to the town of Volokolamsk. Many members of his family were drawn to the monastic life, including his grandfather, both his father and mother, and two of his brothers. Like Saint Feodosiy, Saint Iosif’s spirituality acquired a deep caritative flavour from a very young age, marked in particular by generosity and sympathy as well as by obedience and diligence. In particular, both as a novice and as a full monk at Borovsk, he tended the sick and the infirm with a true and unaffected warmth.

Iosif was also a talented singer, and preferred being located at a stone monastery with its heavenly acoustics. A diligent scholar as well, he devoted himself to building up the library for his Abbot Saint Pafnutiy and to ensuring his fellow-monks access to a broad array of spiritual writings. Given his brisk energy which was translated so often into the works of mercy at the abbey, he was a natural candidate for succession to abbot on the repose of Saint Pafnutiy. He declined this offer repeatedly, though, and had to be forced to take the position of igumen by Ivan III. At the Borovsk monastery, Saint Iosif made a name for himself by enforcing strict obedience to the rule of common property; no exceptions were to be made for the sons of boyar families.

Saint Iosif left the Pafnutiev monastery to found his own in 1484, and personally oversaw the construction of the beautiful, frescoed stone Church of the Dormition which was to serve as its centre. There are elements of his hagiography at this point which appear almost as a mirror of that of the great Abbot of Kiev Pechersk Lavra (whose example he appealed to explicitly). Like Saint Feodosiy, Saint Iosif wore mean and ragged clothing. His ascetic life was marked more by hard work than by silence and seclusion. He even had a brief conflict with his strong-willed mother, who was also a nun. And, very much like Feodosiy, he was far harder on himself than he was on his fellow-monks and novices. His enforcement of the rule was notoriously lax in early years, and he ‘condescended greatly to weakness’ in his fellows. He served as a spiritual father to a large number of laymen, rich and poor. And most importantly, he made his monastery a centre of social service to the poor. He admonished against usury and abuse of serfs and servants by the nobility. His monastery built and ran an orphanage for foundlings and exposed children. Part of every meal at the monastery, by general consent among the brothers, was given to the poor and hungry. During times of famine he not only exhausted his own monastery’s resources feeding the hungry, but also sermonised to the nobility to fix grain prices to prevent the poor from starving. He established a daughter monastery to his own, which served as an infirmary and lazar-house, and which was funded from the communal coffers of his own.

Like Saint Feodosiy, also, Saint Iosif was an ‘activist’ who got involved in many of the political and religious conflicts of his time. His manner of addressing princes has definite echoes of Saint Feodosiy’s approach; he thought it his job to urge princes in conflict to a voluntary conciliation, and not to speak from a position of power. Even though Saint Iosif is cast in the rôle as one of the first defenders of autocracy – and at that with good reason; he and no other was responsible for introducing Byzantine Imperial language of a ‘terrestrial god’ in defence of the Tsars of Moscow – his support for the Tsar was by no means unconditional.
If the Tsar himself is ruled by… passions and sins, avarice and anger, wickedness and injustice, pride and fury and, worst of all, disbelief and blasphemy, such a Tsar is not God’s servant but the Devil’s, and not a Tsar but a tyrant… do not obey such a Tsar, who leads you to impiety and evil, even if he tortures, even if he threatens death.
But here, in his political activities, is where he begins to attract more controversy. He found himself dragged into a campaign against a heretical ‘Judaïsing’ sect which erupted in Novgorod, which destroyed icons, attacked priestly privileges and the Mysteries, and even sermonised against the Trinity. The relation of the ‘Judaïsers’ to actual Jews is, to say the least, highly dubious – but that is how they were characterised in the Orthodox polemics of the time, including those of Saint Iosif himself. In these missives he defended the classical Trinitarian doctrine and attacked both the heretics and those churchmen he found wanting in zeal for the faith, who treated the heretics with too great a degree of permissiveness. His missives involved him in bitter, rancorous quarrels with Metropolitan Zosima of Moscow and Metropolitan Saint Serapion of Novgorod, as well as with certain churchly representatives of Zavolzh’e.

The permissiveness, gentleness and faith in suasion which Saint Iosif the Abbot showed to his brothers at the monastery, to his spiritual sons and daughters among the laity, and even to his ‘interventions’ among the members of the royal family, seems to have largely evaporated in these political disputes, and is replaced with a much harsher approach. Saint Iosif appealed to the Tsar to have the heretics tried in sæcular courts and punished with imprisonment or execution – in which he was also opposed by the Elders of Zavolzh’e.

Saint Iosif was a strong advocate of the close alliance between the Church and the state, which in his view was the best way to ensure that the wealth of the state could be distributed to the poor, and the best way to prevent heresy from taking root among the people. For this reason also, he was an advocate – one of the first – of Tsarist autocracy, and of Metropolitan Zosima’s theory of Moscow as the Third Rome. Later Tsars of Russia, even and especially autocratic reformers like Tsar Aleksiy the Quiet, cited Saint Iosif’s writings with approval.

Venerable Iosif the Abbot was very much a Muscovite saint. But his links with the more noble kenotic and caritative proclivities of ancient Kievan spirituality should not be ignored. For this reason – particularly in light of his examination of the differences in the style of life between Saints Antoniy and Feodosiy – I find Gyorgi Fedotov’s treatment of Saint Iosif more than a trifle disappointing and frankly unfair. For all his sympathetic treatment of Saint Feodosiy in the Kievan period, he unfortunately gives short shrift to Saint Iosif’s concern for the poor and hungry and sick, and allows the latter to be glossed as a ‘ruthless inquisitor’. And for all his elucidation of Saint Antoniy’s Athos-inspired seclusion and asceticism, Fedotov does not seem to make that same connexion in relation to Saint Nil. Even though Fedotov does have a valuable point in highlighting the differences between Muscovite and Novgorodian spirituality, and even perhaps to see that difference between Saint Iosif and Saint Nil, in this particular instance it leads him to exaggerate those differences to the point of distortion.

Saint Iosif had often been favoured by Russian conservatives on account of his defences of autocracy and church establishment, and Saint Nil by Russian liberals on account of his emphasis on mercy and moral suasion as applied to criminals. But the social dimension of Saint Iosif’s work, and his advocacy within the Russian state on behalf of the poor and oppressed, should not be ignored; nor should the respect that Saint Iosif and Saint Nil accorded to each other, in spite of their differences of spiritual approach.
As the edification of the ascetics,
The beauty of the Fathers,
The bearer of mercy,
The lamp of discretion.
All the congregating faithful praise
The teacher of meekness,
The shamer of heresy,
Iosif most wise, the Russian star:
Praying to the Lord,
Have mercy on our souls.

08 September 2017

The all-too-human, and the divine

It is not an accident, I think, that the Nativity of the Theotokos falls one week after the beginning of a new liturgical year. Both events mark the beginnings of life: one, the renewal of the spiritual life in the Church; the other, the beginning of an independent biological life. There is something of the commonplace in each, and in each also something of the extraordinary and the divine. No doubt Chesterton would be able to turn a witty phrase or paradox on the occasion; all I can do is point to each of the two and attempt to understand them.

Saints Joachim and Anna, the parents of the Mother of God, were by all accounts, to use the verbiage of Monty Python in the voiced-over introduction to their Science Fiction Sketch, ‘a perfectly ordinary couple leading perfectly ordinary lives’. They were fully human, truly human, all-too-human. They were not gifted with prophecy as Isaiah, Elijah and Jeremiah were. Neither were they gifted with extraordinary talents of political leadership as their ancestors David and Solomon were, nor with great sufferings as was Job. They were a regular couple living their lives in an obscure occupied corner of the Roman Empire, whose only claim to being extraordinary was that Anna was of a well-born Levite family. Their worries tended primarily to the fact that they were elderly and had no children – a fact which rendered them, by the ethics of the day, ‘ritually impure’, morally suspect and socially stigmatised, considered accursed by God and (by the œconomics of the time) a debt-burden on the nation. Indeed, the Temple priest, rigidly adhering to the laws of purity, would not allow Joachim to approach the altar or offer the sacrifice ‘with those childless hands’, and turned him away in a fit of self-righteous pique, on account of the Temple authorities’ suspicion of the elderly couple’s impiety.

Joachim and Anna had all of the ordinary and commonplace fears of us ordinary people. Joachim suffered anxiety, shame, confusion and anger at being thrown out of the Temple and barred from the sacrifice. As Metropolitan Nicholas said, ‘Which of our families is not affected by some condition that breaks our hearts and challenges our hope, whether because of unemployment or underemployment or financial stress or medical issues or legal troubles? What family has not been tested by the presence of moral failure and loss of hope? When we see the family of Joachim and Anna, we see people just like ourselves, just like everyone else.’ The commonplace is everywhere present in this story of the parents of Mary, and here of all places we are invited to see ourselves in their position, who we can see share the worries and agonies of us sinners.

And yet Joachim and Anna were to be given a daughter. The gift of a daughter was heralded to them by God, and yet she came to them by the ordinary human way, through an act of love of a husband for his wife – as we may be sure that, throughout their lives, Joachim and Anna loved each other and every day prayed for their love to bear fruit. And once Mary was born, Joachim and Anna raised her with love. And that love truly did turn into something miraculous: having understood the trust in God that her parents had, Mary was ready to say ‘yes’ to God when it was announced to her that she herself would be a parent – and yet emphatically not in the way that her own parents were!

The miraculous underlies the ordinary, all throughout this story: the ordinary love of husband for wife, and the ordinary love of parents for their daughter. And yet there is something extraordinary (after a Tolkienian fashion) even in this, which the Church takes pains to remember. Even though they were not great ascetics or kings or prophets, we remember the Righteous Ancestors of God Joachim and Anna at every single Liturgy in a place of honour alongside the great ascetics, the long-suffering martyrs, the princes and the priests, those who make up the company of saints. Their names are a commonplace in the Liturgy, and yet even by their everyday presence they are marked with extraordinary divine favour. Indeed, if not for them and for their human, all-too-human love for each other and for their daughter, none of those great feats of asceticism and martyrdom and holiness which followed would have been possible. Without the Righteous Ancestors of God, there would be no Theotokos; and without the Theotokos, there would be no Christ – no hope and no redemption for our sorry species.

But the Most Holy Theotokos came to be, after the manner of every one of us. And with her into the world, came our hope.
Your Nativity, O Virgin,
Has proclaimed joy to the whole universe!
The Sun of righteousness, Christ our God,
Has shone from you, O Theotokos!
By annulling the curse, He bestowed a blessing,
By destroying death, He has granted us eternal life.