09 August 2020

Venerable Platonida, Anchoress of Revda in Sverdlovsk

Memorial plaque to Saint Platonida

The ninth of August – the twenty-seventh of July on the Old Calendar – in the Orthodox Church is the feast-day of a mysterious, but highly-revered, anchoress of the eighteenth century who lived in the southern Ural Mountains, near Revda in the Sverdlovsk oblast, some ten or twelve kilometres outside the village of Krasnoyar. She is closely associated with the Tatar people to whom she likely belonged, and also with the Old Believers, though Saint Platonida also enjoys a significant folk-cultus among the canonical Orthodox faithful. Her holy well is the site of pilgrimage and the waters have healing properties.

Saint Platonida [Rus. Платонида] was probably named for the Syrian abbess Saint Platōnis of Nisibis, who is also called Platonida in Slavic and English sources. Little is actually known for certain about her life, though there are roughly a dozen legends about her and her holy well in the Ural Mountains.

The most commonly-heard one is that she was a member of the Kazan Tatar people, born to a Muslim family. The young girl grew curious about the principles of the Christian faith and grew to love Christ and to secretly believe in His death and resurrection. Her parents arranged for her to marry a Muslim man from her own village, and for some time she meekly agreed, unwilling to disobey her parents. But, as our Saviour Himself said in the Gospel of Saint Matthew, ‘He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me: and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.’ On the very eve of her wedding, the young Tatar girl escaped from the village of her birth, and after some wandering came upon a small secluded convent of Orthodox nuns.

Spending some time among the nuns, she grew to love and to trust them, and she asked to be baptised among them into the Church. This was done lawfully, and at length she also decided to devote herself to holy virginity, taking the monastic name which belonged to the Syrian abbess. Saint Platonida lived and worked and prayed among these nuns for several years, after which time she approached the abbess and begged her leave to find some desert place where she might make an anchorage for herself to live in holy solitude. The abbess agreed, and Saint Platonida went into the Ural Mountains, and there built herself a cell among the thick forests south of the village of Revda. As she prayed, a well of pure fresh water sprang up beside her cell, and from this she was provided with the necessity of life. She spent the following years of her life in the spiritual exploits of the desert, struggling against the passions with the help of Christ.

Among her relatives there were those who took her apostasy and consecration to the virginal life as an affront against their honour, and they set off in search of her in order to kill her. Eventually they came upon her anchorage. However, on account of her holy life, a bear which lived in the forest came forward and protected the martyress with its body. The Muslims were fearful, but they killed the bear – and then Saint Platonida – from a distance with guns, as they feared to come near either the bear or her. In this way Saint Platonida gained the crown of victory in Christ.

Several other versions of her life exist. In another version of her life, Platonida was the youngest daughter of an Old Believer couple who lived in the Urals. When her parents died, her greedy older brothers, seeking to divide their inheritance between themselves and leave no dowry for their much sought-after sister, dropped her off at a monastery and left her there. Around forty years later, filled with remorse, Saint Platonida’s brothers returned to the monastery to visit her tomb and ask her forgiveness. As it turns out, she was not only not dead, she welcomed them cheerfully with open arms and forgave them in person. The brothers were astounded to find their sister not only alive, but looking just as young and beautiful as when they’d left her there (though she had become a nun in the meanwhile). It turned out that she was kept young and pretty by the water from the holy well nearby.

These are the traditional versions of her life that are best-attested. As we can see from these legends, we do not know what her birth-name was, what her surname was or even what village Saint Platonida was from. We know only her monastic name. What is known for sure from historical records, thanks to the efforts of local historian Vladimir Trusov, is that she lived in the latter half of the eighteenth century, and that the tomb and chapel in her memory were placed around the year 1785.

Saint Platonida’s body was found by some villagers from Revda, who buried her with due reverence and built a shrine over her tomb. This apparently happened on the feast-day of Saint Panteleēmōn, which subsequently became one of the days of her commemoration. This chapel stood until the Revolution, though it was dismantled forcibly by the Soviets under Stalin, and the pilgrims were dispersed or arrested. Even during Soviet times, however, Saint Platonida was still held in reverence, and several brave pilgrims made the journey each year to her tomb and well on the ninth of August, bathing in her holy spring and taking home with them as much of the healing water as they could carry. Despite the official condemnation and discouragement of her cultus, wondrous things did occur around her spring. A young boy who was lost in the woods for two weeks was later found alive, well and in his right wits by her holy well.

The water of her spring has been tested several times by chemists. It was found to have practically none of the usual dangerous heavy metals or toxins often found in groundwater; instead it was shown to have a high content of manganese and dissolved radon. These elements were thought to have some curative properties – though the therapeutic effects of radon baths are, to say the least, controversial. In any event, Saint Platonida is held in high reverence by Orthodox Christians and Old Believers alike, and despite the shrine having fallen into some disrepair in the last decade, it has since been restored, and pilgrims still come to her well in order to pray and to receive healing. Holy mother Platonida, ascetic and struggler in Christ in the remote Urals, pray unto Christ our God that our souls may be saved!

The holy well of Saint Platonida

08 August 2020

Your Name 《君の名は。》

I want to help build landscapes that leave heart-warming memories… I didn’t even know anybody in that town. Why does the scenery of a town that no longer exists wring my heart so?
Back when I did my review of Flavours of Youth I promised I’d get around to seeing this film: Your Name, directed by Shinkai Makoto 新海诚. In short, I’m incredibly glad I did. This film is a masterpiece, one which well deserves its reputation as a classic of Japanese animation.

Your Name is best described as a fantasy/sci-fi romance, which speaks directly to a Japanese but also a more broadly East Asian experience of being disconnected in time, of the tensions and antinomies that arise from being part of a landscape where ageless antiquity and glittering hyper-modernity exist side-by-side. But the two main characters, despite their frequent and sometimes heartbreaking alienation which sometimes takes the form of literal jumps in time, still seek a genuine connexion with each other. And the heart of the film rests in how they mature and grow.

Your Name is a story that defies easy categorisation. It’s a story about a (literal) disaster, when a comet strikes a remote, traditional Japanese town. It’s also a bildungsroman and a breathtakingly bittersweet teen romance. It freely borrows from SFnal tropes about time-travel (including multiple timelines and alternate futures), as well as fantasy tropes about body-swapping (think the Warehouse 13 episode ‘Merge with Caution’). It is steeped in traditional Chinese lore, Daoism and Shintô religious rites, but it also has the feel of a young-adult fantasy book by TA Barron. It would be easy for any feature film, but particularly a Japanese animated one, with this many moving parts to feel overstuffed, overwrought and pretentious. But Your Name avoids this in part because of the tender vulnerability and humanity of the two protagonists.

Your Name uses a lot of traditional tropes from East Asian literature that might get lost on American audiences. The ‘red thread of fate’ is probably a familiar enough one, and it gets used liberally here between the two protagonists. The ‘butterfly dream’ of Zhuangzi is also alluded to. The tradition of fermenting rice wine with human saliva (kuchikamizake 口嚼酒) plays an important rôle in the story. And despite all the fractures and disconnects in time that occur between the two protagonists, there is a subtle but persistent theme of continuity, of history repeating itself, of déjà vu.

A comet, whose orbit comes within sight of Earth once every 1200 years, passes overhead. As it enters Earth’s gravity well, its nucleus fractures, producing a spectacular meteor shower. One of these fragments is large enough to fall on the village of Itomori. It destroys the town and kills 500 of its inhabitants. Two young teenagers look up at the night sky and watch the comet streak across. One of them, Tachibana Taki 立花泷 is a high-schooler and part-time waiter in a fancy restaurant in Shinjuku ward in Tôkyô. The other, Miyamizu Mitsuha 宫水三叶, is a high schooler in Itomori, and one of the two granddaughters of the keeper of the local Shintô shrine there.

Mitsuha is frustrated with her limited surroundings, being (embarrassingly) involved in the rites of the shrine, getting unwanted attention from being the village mayor’s daughter, and feeling like she’s trapped in a fishbowl. She screams from underneath the torii that she hates her life, she hates her town, and she wishes she could be reincarnated as a handsome boy in Tôkyô. Not long after this, Mitsuha and Taki begin to have strange dreams.
Formerly, I, Zhuang Zhou, dreamt that I was a butterfly, a butterfly flying about, feeling that it was enjoying itself. I did not know that it was Zhou. Suddenly I awoke, and was myself again, the veritable Zhou. I did not know whether it had formerly been Zhou dreaming that he was a butterfly, or it was now a butterfly dreaming that it was Zhou. But between Zhou and a butterfly there must be a difference.

As though in answer to Mitsuha’s wish, Mitsuha and Taki begin swapping bodies, randomly, whenever they fall asleep. This part of the story might have been handled gratuitously or exploitatively, and sometimes it rides the line. (What’s the first thing Pete does when Robert Louis Stevenson’s bookends trap him in Myka’s body? Yup, Taki does the same thing. Typical teenage boy.) But Taki and Mitsuha are quickly intrigued by each other in deeper ways. Mitsuha finally gets to visit Tôkyô, go out to eat in stylish urban cafés, and hold down a job in a fancy restaurant. And Taki is enchanted by the charming architecture and wondrous vistas of Itomori – including the huge round lake which is very clearly and ominously a crater.

The two teenagers quickly begin setting ground rules for each other, what they are and aren’t allowed to do in each other’s bodies, leaving each other messages including by writing on each other’s hands and wrists with marker. Going through each other’s smartphones, they learn details about each other’s lives that they can appreciate. Taki begins asserting himself among Mitsuha’s classmates to get them to stop teasing her. And Mitsuha sets Taki up with an older girl at his workplace, Okudera, whom he has a crush on, and tells him in a message that he should be able to see the comet that night.

Taki’s date with Okudera goes poorly and no comet appears. He tries calling Mitsuha with the number she left him, and she doesn’t answer. The body-switching stops, but Taki can’t forget about the dreams he had from when he was Mitsuha. He then embarks, together with Okudera and his classmate Tsukasa, on a half-baked quest to find Mitsuha and her village. The only thing he has to go on, though, since he can’t remember her name or the name of the village, are the landscape drawings and sketches he did of the views from her house and the temple. An old man recognises his sketch as that of Itomori before the disaster, and Taki ultimately learns from him that Mitsuha was killed along with the rest of the village when the comet struck Itomori three years before.

Taki decides to leave Okudera and Tsukasa to try and find the holy place where Mitsuha’s grandmother took her to pay respects to the old Shintô god that had come 1200 years ago. It happens to be in the middle of a crater – and Mitsuha’s grandmother had told her that crossing over into the grounds of the shrine was like taking a step into the underworld. Taki finds the rice wine that Mitsuha made inside the shrine, and drinks it. This reconnects Mitsuha and Taki, and allows the two of them to rewrite the history of Itomori and save the townspeople from the impact of the comet fragment. But, as history changes, the dream ends, and the two of them lose each other again, even forgetting each other’s names…

I’m not going to spoil the ending here, but suffice it to say this: Shinkai Makoto has a brilliant and touching ‘ear’ for the voices of young adults. He makes real the connexion between these two people, so utterly different from one another and separated by time, space, class, sex, tradition and modernity. Although the director very cautiously refrains from overtly editorialising at any point in the film – with one partial exception – one gets the distinct impression that the same longing the characters feel for each other is connected intimately to a sense of loss of the traditions that Mitsuha embodies in her life even as she rebels against them.

One sees this same sort of traditionalism, actually, even in the gender-bending body-swap plot. Even though it’s a explicitly a comic point to see ‘Taki’ (inhabited by Mitsuha’s consciousness) act like a traditional-minded Japanese girl, and ‘Mitsuha’ (actually Taki) behave live a typical urban high-school boy – right down to their body language and pronouns (‘Taki’ almost gives the game away by calling himself by the feminine ‘watashi 私’ before landing on the more masculine ‘ore 俺’) – they each come to have a tender respect for each other’s physical embodiedness and an active interest in each other’s social lives. There is an almost Ruist sensibility here, in that Taki and Mitsuha come to understand and love each other by experiencing relationships with friends, family and surroundings through each other’s eyes.

The single most strained relationship in the film, actually, is that between Mitsuha and her father, who is a (presumably ruling-party) politician in the town, and who rather callously left his daughters behind with his shrine-keeping mother-in-law after their mother died. Throughout the film Mitsuha’s father refuses to listen to her or take her seriously. This is where I think the partial exception to Shinkai’s refusal to editorialise comes in. Mitsuha’s father represents a deliberate rupture with tradition even though he uses it to attain his personal goals.

As to be expected from a CoMix Wave production, the animation quality is amazing, even if – by Shinkai Makoto’s own admission – not quite reaching the Studio Ghibli gold standard. Both the urban and the rural backdrops are lovingly, painstakingly rendered – as though each frame is meant to be a landscape painting. The technical and stylistic use of proportion and perspective, also, enhance the thematic preoccupations with separation and reunion, rupture and continuity, alienation and connexion. I highly, highly recommend this film.

EDIT: Also, the title of the film called to mind this Tad Morose song, the lyrics to which seem almost appropriate at times:

07 August 2020

Venerable Teodora de la Sihla, Anchoress of the Carpathians

Saint Teodora de la Sihla

One of the greatest female ascetics of Moldavia, a daughter of the Carpathian Mountains during the time of the Unia, is Saint Teodora de la Sihla, whom we commemorate on the seventh of August. Saint Teodora is venerated in both Moldova and in Romania, being (like Saint Ioan Iacob) closely associated with the Neamț Monastery which is today located in northeastern Romania. She is mentioned in her hagiography alongside Saint Mary of Ægypt, Saint Pelagia the Penitent, Saint Kseniya of Saint Petersburg, Saint Euphrosynē of Alexandria and Saint Theodosia of Constantinople as one of the great women-ascetics of the Orthodox Church.

Saint Teodora [also Theodora] was born around the year 1650. Her father was a Moldavian boyar, Ștefan Joldea, who served the voivode Vasile ‘the Wolf’ as armourer and artilleryman for the Neamț Citadel – that same which Ștefan III had found to be of such strategic importance in defence of his territory against the Ottomans. For all his other faults, Vasile was nevertheless a firm defender of Orthodox faith in Moldavia. As such, he wound up facing political meddling and more overt warfare from the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, and allied himself with the Cossacks of the Zaporozhian Sich under the hetman Senovi Bogdan Khmelnitskii by marrying his daughter Ruxandra to the hetman’s son Timofei.

As can be seen from the position he occupied, Ștefan Joldea was one of Vasile’s most implicitly trusted men, and like Vasile himself deeply committed to the Orthodox faith. He raised his daughter to have the same reverence he had for the Church and for the Moldavian country. It must also be said that the area of the Carpathian Mountains in which Saint Teodora lived had a number of monasteries: not just Neamț but also Secu, Sihăstria and Agapia. Visiting all of these monasteries with her father left a deep impression on young Teodora. After the death of her younger sister Marghiola, Teodora resolved to become a nun.

Her parents, however, had other plans. They persuaded her to accept marriage to a young man serving at the Neamț Citadel, who was originally from the county of Ismail in Bessarabia. Dutifully she entered her husband’s house, and he treated her with no small affection. However, the two of them remained childless. When Ștefan Joldea and his wife died, Teodora again began to consider the idea of becoming a nun. Saint Teodora’s husband was not averse to the idea, and by mutual consent they both entered monasteries. He went to Poiana Mărului monastery and was ordained a hieromonk by the name of Elefterie. Saint Teodora herself entered the Vărzăreşti Monastery in Buzău, where about thirty nuns lived together. The abbess there, Paisia, took her on as a novice when she was about thirty years old.

As a novice in the Vărzăreşti Monastery, Saint Teodora gained an understanding and an appreciation of the ascetic life. She respected the rule of the monastery not only in its outward principles but also in its inward orientation and tutelage of the soul. She understood the meaning of obedience, of stability, of chastity both physical and spiritual, as being steps toward the renunciation of self-will. She sang the Seven Lauds, partook of the Holy Mysteries, prayed in her cell, read the Scriptures and studied the lives of the holy saints. This was her primary mode of spiritual life in Vărzăreşti as recounted by her hagiographer, Fr Constantin Galeriu.

The nuns of Vărzăreşti were soon forced to flee, however, owing to an attack by invading Turkish troops. These troops were busy plundering, burning the countryside and taking captives. The nuns took refuge from the Turks in the mountains and in the woods, finding secluded areas to take shelter. One of these was a small altar and a few cells in the mountains of Vrancea, to which the Abbess Paisia, Saint Teodora and a few other nuns repaired and prayed for deliverance. The terror and strain of flight took their toll on the aged Abbess Paisia, who reposed in the Lord not long after settling her nuns in Vrancea. Saint Teodora and the other nuns continued in their disciplines.

Saint Teodora spent ten years in Vrancea, enduring the hardships of the remote life in the mountains with her monastic sisters. However, at the end of these ten years she returned to Neamț, and sought to live in the place of her nativity and childhood as a holy anchoress. She sought, and was given, leave from Abbot Varsanufie of Sihăstria Monastery to settle in a hermitage in the Neamț Mountains. Abbot Varsanufie suggested that Saint Teodora go into the woods, where she spent a year in the wilderness which many holy men since Roman times had used as anchorages. Saint Teodora met an old hermit living in that place, who offered her his cell beneath a cliff at Sihla, while he himself sought further reclusion elsewhere.

From this point Saint Teodora began praying without cease and living truly as an anchoress. She ate only of what the woods offered her: mushrooms, nettles, blackberries and blueberries – or else whatever was offered to her by the monks from Sihăstria or by pilgrims wandering through. She was served the Gifts by the priestmonk Pavel, who also served at Sihăstria. In this way, she progressed in a life of virtue. She also gave shelter as the need arose, to sister-nuns who were fleeing the rapine of the Ottomans invading Moldova – some of whom reached the cell of Saint Teodora. They found her praying, and when they told her what had befallen them, without hesitation Saint Teodora gave up her own cell and moved to another cave further up the mountains. Here in this yet more remote cave she spent twenty years of her life, eating and sleeping on the rocks within.

It happened that the Abbot of Sihăstria noticed that, for several days in a row, a small flock of birds came in through the window of the refectory, where they took crumbs of bread and grapes, and then flew out over the mountains toward Sihla. The abbot sent two monastic brothers to follow the birds, and walking out along the path they reached the top of the mountain. One brother managed to climb a fir tree, and from there he managed to see Saint Teodora. Saint Teodora called to him, and told him that she had been praying for forty days for God to send her a priest so that she could confess her sins before she died. She asked the brother to tell the abbot her last wish, which was that the priestmonk Antonie and the deacon Lavrentie could be sent to her with the Holy Gifts. The two brothers went back to Sihăstria and related to the abbot what the anchoress had told them. The following day the abbot sent out the priest Antonie and the deacon Lavrentie to her cave, together with the two brethren and the Holy Gifts. Saint Teodora gave a confession to Antonie of all the wrongs she had done in her life, and received the full absolution, partaking in the Body and the Blood of Christ. The last words that she spoke before departing to the Lord were: ‘Glory be to the Lord for all things.

Saint Teodora de la Sihla was buried right in her cave, with a full funeral service, and the monks of Sihăstria were present there to witness it. The fame of her holy life spread far, and many Moldovan villagers came to her cave to pray for her intercessions and help. Her earthly husband, the monk Elefterie, returned to Neamț from Poiana Mărului to find out whether or not Saint Teodora was indeed the woman who was once his wife. Having received the heavenly assurance that she was, Elefterie knelt and wept at her tomb, and took up a hermitage near hers under discipline to Sihăstria – in much the same way as Saint Aglaïa became a holy monastic and lived her life near the bones of her beloved Saint Boniface. Elefterie lived at his hermitage for another ten years before he, too, reposed in the Lord.

In the 1720s a monastery with a wooden church dedicated to the Transfiguration was built on the site of her hermitage. Sihla Monastery still stands there to this day. Saint Teodora’s relics rested in her cave. After the Russo-Turkish War when the Bessarabia Oblast’ was placed under Russia’s direct control, Mihail Sturza, who had ruled Moldavia in the 1840s and emancipated the Romani, had her relics interred in a precious reliquary, and then moved to his personal chapel in Iaşi. The Sturza family then arranged for her relics to be translated to the Kiev Pechersk Lavra in 1853. There she has been faithfully commemorated as ‘Teodora of the Carpathians’.

As this history witnesses, the Moldovan people commemorated Teodora de la Sihla as a local saint almost at once after her repose, and her memory has been passed down through the folkways of the Romanian-speaking northeast country to the present day. The Iaşi-educated Moldavian, later Romanian, writer Calistrat Hogaș, in his book Pe drumuri de munti, said this of her:
Beautiful St. Teodora, the anchorite legend of these places, appeared in my imagination as a second Mary of Egypt, her life haunted by the same misfortunes. St. Teodora had also cast off, perhaps, the intoxicating pleasures of the world, contenting herself, at last, with the damp crevice of a rock, instead of the gilded palaces where luxury and indulgence reigned…
The Romanian Orthodox Church formally glorified Teodora de la Sihla as a monastic Venerable and Holy Mother of the Church at a synod on the twentieth of June, 1992, placing her feast-day on the seventh of August. Holy Mother Teodora, faithful bride of the Bridegroom, virtuous ascetic and friend of refugees, pray unto Christ our God that our souls may be saved!
Apolytikion to Saint Teodora de la Sihla, Tone 1:

Leaving behind the things of this earth and taking up the yoke of a solitary,
You were made a bride of Christ, O blessed one.
Through fasting, vigil, and prayer
You were granted heavenly gifts and became like the angels.
You overcame human nature and moved to the heavenly places,
Leaving us the consolation of your cave and of your holy relics.
Therefore, O holy and most venerable Mother Teodora,
Entreat Christ our God to save our souls.
Sihla Monastery, Sihla, Romania

05 August 2020

Saint Ioan Iacob the New Chozebite

Saint Ioan Iacob Hozevitul

The fifth of August in the Orthodox Church is also the feast-day of Saint Ioan Iacob Hozevitul, a twentieth-century monastic of Palestine. Because he is the second sainted John to live in the desert of Wâdî al-Qalṭ in the Dayr al-Quddis Jûrj – the first being one of the monastery’s two blessed patrons – he is known as ‘the New Chozebite’. As we can see from his life, the true monastic ideal in the modern world has not changed despite the modern world’s pressures. As Saint Ioan Iacob shows us, the true Orthodox monk is called to be dispassionate and gentle, not to be macho. The true Orthodox monk suffers at heart, even bleeds, for those who are themselves suffering. The true Orthodox monk may also be called to distant places, and his service and prayer for the world may look very different from how the world believes that service and prayer ought to look.

Saint Ioan Iacob [as mentioned before, also Eng. John James] was born Ilie, the son of working-class parents Maxim and Ecaterina Iacob, on the twenty-third of July, 1913, in the Horodiştea commune of Moldavia, what is now Păltiniș in northeastern Romania. He lost both of his parents at a very young age, leaving him an orphan. His mother died six months after his birth, and his father was killed in action in the First World War when he was two. He was thereafter raised by his grandmother Maria, a nun, who taught him the prayers and the fasts of the Church, and who encouraged his daily devotions. She raised Ilie until he was eleven years old, after which she reposed in the Lord and he was sent to live with his uncle Alecu. He was educated in the public middle school in Hotin, and later at the public high school in Cernăuți (both of which were forcibly incorporated into the USSR and are now in the Ukraine).

The upbringing his grandmother left him had an indelible impact on young Ilie, who had an intense love for Christ and the Church and who was drawn to the examples of the Desert Fathers in particular. His uncle and his aunt and cousins told Ilie that he ought to study theology to become a priest. But hearing this he told them flatly: ‘No. I shall become a monk.’ He was thoroughly sincere in his desire. When he was twenty, after hearing a voice from heaven, the young man went to his priest for absolution, then packed his icons and his prayer books and left for the monastery at Neamț. Ilie was received there and was given work in the monastery’s infirmary.

He took to the monastic life as a fish to water. His hagiography says that ‘his soul was nourished by the beauty of the services, the experienced spiritual instructors, and the silence of the mountains’, and that he ‘loved prayer, vigils, spiritual reading, and solitude, and soon he surpassed many experienced monks in obedience, humility and patience’. The abbot at Neamț, observing this, made use of Ilie’s talents by placing him in charge of the monastic library. There he took pleasure in recommending to the brother-monks books which they ought to read. Then he would advise that they ought to read attentively, make confession and attend to their prayers.

While still in his novitiate he was draughted into the army, but after his service he was welcomed back to Neamț, and the Archimandrite Valeriu (Moglan) saw fit to tonsure him as a monk on the eighth of April, 1936. He was given the monastic name of Ioan, and he was placed under the spiritual obedience of the elder Ioachim Spătarul, one of the most renowned spiritual fathers of Moldova, who would become the eremitical abbot of the nearby Pocrov skete.

With the blessing of his spiritual father, Saint Ioan, together with two fellow-monks of Neamț, embarked on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, driven by a desire to walk where our Lord walked during his earthly life. After visiting the Holy Sepulchre and the other holy sites, they stayed for the winter at the Dayr Mâr Sâbâ. Here Saint Ioan would spend the next ten years, and he would struggle through many temptations among the Sabaites, ‘conquering the temptations of the demons, and progressing on the path of salvation’. He cultivated an attitude of humility, mercy and love towards everyone he met: it did not matter if they were Romanian like himself, Slavic, Arabic, Bedouin, Christian or Muslim. Again being placed in the monastery’s infirmary, he tended the ill and the wounded. During the Second World War his skills were put very much to test.

Here his spiritual father was a Yugoslav whose name was Sava, who deeply cherished and cared for the Romanian monks at the monastery. Again the literary talents of Saint Ioan were noticed and put to use. Here he taught himself Greek and began to read the texts written by the ancient Fathers, to ask his fellow-monks for commentary, and then translate them into Romanian. He also wrote akathists and troparia in Romanian, and gave them to Romanian pilgrims when they came to visit the monasteries or the other sites in the Holy Land. He lived as a hermit in the desert as well for some time in the late 1930s, and made the acquaintance of his closest spiritual disciple, Ioanichie Pârâială, who later wrote down his Life and many of the miracles attributed to him.

With the permission of the Romanian Orthodox hierarchs, Saint Ioan was ordained a deacon in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and then later as a priest in May of 1947. He served as an archpastor over a Romanian skete in the deserts of the Holy Land in honour of Saint John the Forerunner, again employing his remarkable talents for language in translating numerous works from Greek into Romanian for the benefit of the Romanian faithful who came to the Holy Land as pilgrims. He gave his homilies in Romanian every day, took confessions and gave communion, and continued in every way to minister to his people in the Holy Land.

In 1952, Saint Ioan resigned the abbacy of the Skete of Saint John, and he and his disciple Ioanichie Pârâială entered the monastery of Saint George Chozeba, which was close to the cave where Saint Anna was traditionally held to have prayed for a child. Here Saint Ioan and his disciple Ioanichie spent seven years in solitary prayer, fasting and vigils, fighting the temptations of the dæmons. Saint Ioan let no one into his cell in that time, and did not come out himself – in a manner similar to some of the Syrian Desert Fathers, he would communicate with petitioners and pilgrims by way of letters passed by and from his apprentice. He continued to work on his translations from his cell, and he and Ioanichie would hold the Divine Liturgy and partake of the Mysteries on important feast and fast days. The diet of Saint Ioan at this time consisted of a few biscuits, olives, wild fruits and some water, and he slept with a bare stone as his pillow.

Saint Ioan’s health went into decline during the summer of 1960, but he bore it without complaint. He took the Holy Eucharist one last time on the fourth of August that year, knowing that his earthly end was near – he had knowingly carved the date of his death into the wall of his cell. The following morning he reposed. He was buried with all due reverence in his cave by the abbot at Saint George Chozeba’s monastery. In witness to his sanctity, wild birds – of the kind he used to feed crumbs from his biscuits when they flew by his windows – flew into the cell during the funeral and perched tamely among the heads of the mourners who gathered near him. In 1980, over 20 years after his repose, his relics were exhumed from the cave and found to be incorrupt. They were translated reverently into Saint George’s monastery where he still rests. Holy Saint Ioan Iacob, beloved monastic father and patron of the Romanian and Moldovan people, pray unto Christ our God that our souls may be saved!
Apolytikion to Saint Ioan Iacob, Tone 8, Plagal 4:

In you, through zeal the one created in the image of God was saved, oh Father,
For forsaking the world and leaving your homeland,
You took up Christ’s cross,
And you have dwelled in the valley of Jordan to labour.
Wherefore, oh Righteous Father Ioan,
Your spirit rejoices now with the angels.
Intercede with Christ our God to save our souls.

Holy Martyr Eusignios of Antioch

Saint Eusignios of Antioch
القديس إوساغنيوس الأنطاكي

The fifth of August in the Holy Orthodox Church is the feast-day of another Antiochian martyr, Saint Eusignios of Antioch, a military veteran and martyr who suffered in the persecutions of Julian the Apostate in 362.

Saint Eusignios [Gk. Ευσίγνιος, L. Eusignius, Ar. Yûsâġnyûs إوساغنيوس] was born in 252 – though we don’t know about his family, his hagiography describes him as a Christian who did many charitable deeds and had a merciful heart. He was a soldier under the command of Emperor Saint Constantine. After the famous vision in which Constantine looked upwards toward the sun and saw above it a cross made of light, and the words within ‘ἐν τούτῳ νίκα’ – ‘in this (sign), conquer’ – and the dream of Christ visiting him upon the following night, it was Eusignios who was called forward and commanded to interpret the Emperor’s vision and dream, and at whose recommendation the armies of Constantine painted crosses upon their shields and were thus led to victory over his rival Maxentius. This tale is told in several ways, with some versions having Constantine hear the interpretation from all the Christians among his soldiery. But the very name Ευσίγνιος, which means ‘the good sign’ in Greek, may in fact be a reference to this event and to the interpretation of the Sign of the Cross for Constantine’s armies.

Eusignios, having been a native of Antioch, retired from his sixty-year service in the army, under the emperors Diocletian, Maximian Herculius, Constantius Chlorus, Constantine and Constantius II, and returned home. He spent his life in prayer and fasting, attending the Divine Liturgy and distributing what he had among the poor. He lived in this way until he had reached an extreme old age – possibly 110 years old. He came to be trusted by the people of Antioch, and it was not unknown for them to bring disputes before him instead of to the magistrate. In one dispute, he found in favour of one Antiochian who was in the right, but the other man who had wrongly brought the charge became bitter, and nursed a grudge against Eusignios. He reported Eusignios as a Christian to the deputies of the Emperor Julian.

At this time, the Emperor Julian had lately travelled into the East to pursue his fatal war against the Persians. He was at Cæsarea in Palestine when he summoned Eusignios before him. Eusignios was accompanied there by a man named Eustochios, and he encountered a scribe in the court of Julian named Dionysios, who at the martyr’s insistence faithfully recorded everything that followed. When called forward to answer the charge of being a Christian, Saint Eusignios not only proudly proclaimed himself to be such, but he also began to berate the Emperor for his apostasy. Appealing to the example of Julian’s esteemed kinsman Constantine, in detail the saint recounted the wondrous sign which appeared to him in the sky. The implication in Saint Eusignios’s tirade against the Emperor was, indeed, prophetic. Just as the Cross had led Constantine to victory and to life everlasting, so Julian’s forsaking the Cross would prove to be his downfall in this world and the next.

The apostate Emperor did not spare the elderly man, and ordered Eusignios to be beheaded. According to the witness of Dionysios, Eusignios then said: ‘I thank you, Cæsar. Death respected me on the battlefield, in order to find me and strike me now for Christ’s sake. Such an end is worthy of a Christian soldier, and I glorify the Most High that it pleased Him to preserve me for it.’ The sentence was thereupon carried out upon Saint Eusignios, who in this way attained to the victorious crown of martyrdom even in his great old age. Holy Eusignios, beholder and interpreter of wonders, confessor of Christ before the pagan, pray unto Christ our God that our souls may be saved!
Apolytikion for Saint Eusignios of Antioch, Tone 8:

Today the Church honors a man martyred for his piety and devotion:
The sincere and Godly-minded Eusignios the Wise.
She glorifies his spiritual struggles, and cries out fervently:
O Most Merciful One, guard Your servants through his intercessions!

30 July 2020

The class politics of Eastern Catholicism, part 3: nobles, burghers, peasants and Brest-Litovsk

Carpathian Ruthenian oprishki, ca. 1500

Continued from Part 1 and Part 2.

Now, before I go and fire this blog-post off into the rushes, let me set some goals for myself here first. A lot of the historical analysis I’m going to lay out here, is going to share considerable overlap with my piece from 2017, Mountain bandits, hedge-priests and the Unia, for understandable reasons. The first goal I’m going to set is to not offer a warmed-over rewrite of that article, exploring the different class positions of Eastern Catholics versus Orthodox in the Ruthenian [or Rusin] territories. I’m hoping to focus a bit more here on the class alignments and shifts among both the Catholic clergy in Poland and the Orthodox clergy in Russia in order to broaden the scope of this discourse. That ties into my second goal: to attempt to contextualise these ecclesiological and religious-ideological disputes within the structure of world-systems theory. Again, this is in keeping with my attempt to introduce a grain of Fr Sergei Bulgakov’s quasi-materialist scepticism of ‘pious’ forms of hegemony and dominance, both contemporary and historical, into my historical thinking.

So the first necessary task, when examining this next phase of Uniatism, is to examine the relative positions, historical relations and class structures of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth under the Jagellonians, and their eastward neighbour, the Russian Tsardom, around the turn of the seventeenth century. To do this, we need to examine the relations of both to the evolving structure of the world-system of trade. That means taking into account the œconomic and political developments of their neighbours as well, and the shifting centre of the world-systemic core and peripheries.

When we left off in Florence in the middle of the fifteenth century, the first ‘seeds’ of proto-capitalist innovation were being sown in the northern Italian city-states, with bankers like the de’ Medici family taking a prominent rôle, in their political presence outwardly as ‘enlightened’ republicans but in practice more as oligarchs. It would be a mistake to assume, as many idealistic Whig historians do, that the ‘new sciences’ and ‘new arts’ which were assiduously promulgated in Renaissance grew out of any philosophically-driven ‘humane’ interest in the subject of man. They grew just as much out of a material need to justify the predatory practices and power-plays of these bankers, who succeeded largely by flying in the face of centuries of the Church’s moral teachings against usury. The two are, however, intimately connected. It can often be difficult to untangle, in history, where the idea precedes the material drive, and the material drive the idea, because the two reinforce each other – whether Hegel is right in a given instance, or Marx.

However, what becomes clear is that the most enthusiastic disciples of these Italian-developed ‘new sciences’ in the fields of œconomics and governance, by the middle of the sixteenth century, were the governments of England under Elizabeth I, Spain under Philip II and Charles IX and Henry III in France (themselves de’ Medicis on their mother’s side). The œconomic doctrines of mercantilism, as practised by these three powers, were the next stage in the Commercial Revolution that had begun with the Italian merchant-princes and bankers in the Big Four over four centuries previously. This new doctrine of the Commercial Revolution, the art of enriching the state, meant a scramble for new forms of œconomic exploitation and political consolidation.

But by the end of the century, England, Spain and France had to contend with the disputes of an older established thalassocratic colonial empire – that of Portugal – against a newer, leaner, meaner and more vicious one in the newly-established Dutch Republic. By the time that the treaty of Brest-Litovsk was signed in 1596, the Republic was already in its twenty-eighth year of open revolt, during all of which time it was financing its revolt against the Habsburgs with income derived from a rapidly-expanding network of colonies and mercantile ventures, which of course included chattel slavery in kidnapped Africans (a market which had been dominated by the Portuguese for the past century). These five powers, between them, had not only begun emulating the city-states of Italy in their policy doctrines – they had also begun to not so much gently pull as yark the core of the world-system from the Eastern Mediterranean, past Italy, to the Western part. The Catholic Church, even as it began to deal with the fallout from the Reformation, had to shift its attention from the East to the West as these centres of political and œconomic power began to shift – away from fallen Constantinople (now Istanbul), and towards Paris, London and Amsterdam.

Eastern Europe began to notice this as well. The creation of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, which had a small but notable bourgeois class centred on Lublin and Krakow, deliberately modelled itself on both the Roman Republic and the Venetian one. The unique political system of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was an experiment in aristocratic liberty and ‘noble republicanism’ – albeit one which came at a hefty price for those below the landed gentry. The Polish state, along with the parts of the Holy Roman Empire which would come to constitute Germany, represented what one might consider a semi-periphery of the new world system. Poland-Lithuania did have an œconomy based on agricultural extraction and export – predicated on brutal exploitation of the peasantry – and a market structure which was thus partially integrated into the Western core. In this – and in its reliance on a democracy of planter-aristocrats – it somewhat resembled the export-oriented agricultural and extraction-based œconomies of the rural colonies of the American South.

The differences between the semi-peripheral Polish and Russian œconomies at this stage in capitalism’s development are subtle, but for our purposes important. The Russian class structure was always such that the military ruling class – the knyaz or the tsar plus his boyary – was never truly autochthonous; as a result, the laws governing the native Slavic peasantry suffered from a good deal of vagueness, and the ability of the nobility to exploit them was thereby limited. One can see this from the often ill-defined distinctions in early Russian law between holopy, zakupy, izhoi and so on; there was always, however, a free peasantry which could fend for itself, and had limited tax obligations to the lords. At first, the Polish class system was similar to this. However, the rise of a new bourgeois legal class in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries meant rapid erosion of the rights of the Polish peasantry. Polish historian Edward Corwin points to the Piotrków Statutes as the beginning of the entrenchment of serfdom in Poland, stripping peasants of their rights to ownership of land and their right to move, and levying punishing corvée and tax requirements on them. Notably, these statutes also removed tariffs and guaranteed free trade between Poland and merchants from the Netherlands and the Hanseatic League. These things are not unrelated.

Intriguingly, despite the Game of Thrones-style violence and cruelty of tenuously-independent Moldavia at this time, the obligations on the Moldavian peasantry were remarkably lighter and less exploitative by comparison to Poland-Lithuania: a tenth of the crop, corvée of twelve days a year, and most importantly legal freedom of movement. This relatively light and unoppressive legal environment for the rural working class would continue in Moldavia for the rest of its independent period. As a result, a significant number of Ruthenian peasants under Polish-Lithuanian rule voted with their feet and ran away into Moldavia. A similar pattern held on the border between Poland-Lithuania and Russia, with many Polish peasants fleeing into Russia, not because Russian masters were necessarily any kinder, but because they had less legal ability to extract labour and produce from them. (This would change for the worse under Peter and Catherine.) Another tactic of the Ruthenian peasants was to band together and rise up extralegally against this tightening legal régime, forming bands of oprishki, or mountain bandits.

Hora de la Aninoasa, by Theodor Aman. Oil on canvas, 19th c.

It is directly against this backdrop – colonial expansion among the Western European powers; growth of mercantilism; inroads of trade in the semi-periphery; the rise of a local bourgeoisie; the tightening of the screws on the peasants; the rise of social banditry – that the Union of Brest-Litovsk needs to be understood. Historian Andrei Nikolaevich Mouravieff, in his History of the Russian Church, writes of ‘the oppressions of the [Polish] nobles’ under Sigismund, who ‘violently appropriated to themselves the property’ of the Orthodox peasantry and black-robed clerics in the Carpathians – causing Metropolitan Onisifor to bring a complaint against the king himself. Considering this Metropolitan’s general timidity and… um, highly questionable sex life – this event is all the more striking, and it hints at the dire œconomic straits and general powerlessness of Orthodox parishes under the ‘tolerant’ Commonwealth government.

The growth of overtures toward Unia in Ruthenia during the latter half of the sixteenth century was largely the pet project of the Jesuit diplomat and polemicist (of northern Italian mercantile extraction) Antonio Possevino, who at first attempted to bring Ivan Groznyi and his realm into the Catholic Church on the terms of the Florentine Union (and to secure special privileges for Venetian merchants in Russia in the process), but was thwarted in both by the efforts of Tsar Ivan himself. Mouravieff, though his style is itself fairly polemical when he speaks of Possevino’s ‘zealous exhortations and wily policy’, is nonetheless convincing It is directly tied to a cohort of highly-educated, merchant-class seminarians in Lublin and Krakow: Piotr Skarga and Benedykt Herbest most notably. These missions took as their outward motivation the notable laxity of church discipline and personal morals among the Orthodox bishops: the Catholic Encyclopædia states that ‘the Ruthenian clergy were steeped in immorality and ignorance; the bishops made no scruple of setting their flocks an evil example, living in open concubinage, and practising the most brazen simony’. If this is overstating the case, then it is not by much. However, the Jesuit missions were more directly tied to the desire on the part of the nobility to more effectively expropriate and exploit the Ruthenian peasantry, as well as to secure the semi-periphery for a world-system that was shifting its centre to the commercial and financial cities of Western Europe. If the Jesuits could not secure Russia for Western Europe’s commercial interests, then they would do the next best thing and use their influence to freeze Russia (and the northern Tea Road) out of Europe.

Possevino, Skarga and Herbest did indeed contact the bishops Cyryl Terlecki and Hipacy Pociej in their effort to secure a Church union. Both of these bishops were from noble backgrounds and had firmer connexions with the Commonwealth state than the other bishops. They managed to procure the signatures for a union with Rome from the other bishops largely by suasion, though they were not above subterfuge, fraud and even force as it suited them when it came to procuring agreement: Mouravieff makes mention of Cyryl Terlecki ordering a monk to be beaten and robbed on the road in order to intercept a letter from Michal Rahoza to Patriarch Jeremias II of Constantinople. In any event, Terlecki and Pociej managed to convoke a local council in Brest where a union with Rome was signed. The pro-Union church and the Œcumenical Patriarchate promptly excommunicated each other. In the twenty years of the ascendancy of the Union of Brest, Pociej in particular sought to subject the churches under the Unia to the teaching authority of upper middle-class seminarians coming out of Lublin and Krakow.

Mouravieff is not the best source when it comes to class analysis. His is a ‘Great Men’ history; his narrative is largely oriented – as one can probably tell from what I have excerpted and paraphrased above – to the clash of personalities, of stratagems in high courts, generals’ tents and bishops’ chambers. But even so, hints of what this history looked like from the ‘bottom up’ peek through. He speaks of the ‘persecutions’ of Orthodox in the Commonwealth and how they were ‘deprived of their civil rights’ in general terms. He describes how the Orthodox clerics and laity in the Commonwealth ‘solemnly assembled in a private house, because they could not obtain the use of a Church’. As seen above, he occasionally speaks of expropriation and subjugation of the peasantry. He speaks of how Orthodox schoolmasters – generally of peasant, not merchant, backgrounds – had to depend on the selective and altogether inadequate patronage and protection of Orthodox nobles. More directly, though, he speaks of the expropriation and privatisation of Orthodox monastery lands at Hipacy Pociej’s orders, something one normally associates with the abuses of the Protestantising Henry VIII. He also makes passing reference to the more violent resistance of the oprishki and the Zaporozhian Cossacks to the Unia. Though this is not his focus, what emerges from Mouravieff’s narrative is a clear distinction of class interest between the Unia and the Orthodox Church in the Commonwealth’s Ruthenian territories.

Asymmetrical warfare in the Carpathian Mountains

Jesuit historians like the late Robert Taft ludicrously insist, in a theatrical form of handwashing worthy of Pilate, that the impetus for ‘uniatism’ came largely from the Ruthenian bishops themselves, when the sources that he himself cites in fact claim otherwise (including Possevino’s own writings). Taft then follows this up with what should be recognised as a breathtakingly-fallacious tu quoque: apparently the uses of force against Catholics by Tsars and Soviet premiers, and the existence of the twee boutique phenomenon of ‘Western Rite Orthodoxy’, are somehow enough to balance the scales of historical wrong. So far from offering a ‘healing of memory’, it seems that Taft’s contribution to this dialogue was merely to offer another list of recriminations without any meaningful overarching analysis.

In recognition of this: no, the Russian state’s hands are not clean; nor are those of the Orthodox hierarchs. We see indictments of Orthodox wrongdoing clearly enough within Orthodox historical accounts, which Taft ridiculously accuses tout court of ‘victimhood pretense’! As mentioned above, the differences in class structure between the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth state and the Tsarist Russian state were largely differences of nuance. One was a ‘noble republic’ of planters; the other a burgeoning autocracy – both had large social gaps which were enforced with sanguine brutality. But the nuances in these gaps were not meaningless to the people at the bottom of the social ladder, just as they were not meaningless to the people designing œconomic and religious policy in these states.

Any real ‘healing of memory’ must begin and end with truth, not with diplomatic approximations of truth. As such, in this case it needs to begin with a frank, unapologetic analysis of how capitalism emerged within the world-system, how it dragged the core of the world-system away from Asia and into the Atlantic, and how it made use of existing ideological supports – including the ones within the Western European Christian world – to siphon wealth away from the periphery and direct it to the core. This may seem a Hegelian tack to take, rather than Marxist. But even those on the liberation-theology end of the scale should be able to agree that we cannot view all instances of civil force in religious questions in the strictly value-neutral and blandly panglossian terms that Taft, Guzniak and other would-be gatekeepers of this memory demand. The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and the Russian Tsardom may have been neighbours and may even have been similar in social structure, but their internal dynamics and their relations to the rest of the world show some important differences. The actions of a semi-peripheral state like the Commonwealth, seeking to integrate itself and its territories into the emerging dynamo of capitalism, cannot be equated to the actions of a semi-peripheral state seeking to countervail against that dynamo, as the last Rurikoviches and the first Romanovs before Peter tried imperfectly to do. Even more so: the retaliatory violence of the people at the bottom, including the Ruthenian Orthodox oprishki of this era, must not be equated to the force of the state and the bourgeois class exploiting them.

29 July 2020

Holy Virginmartyr Seraphia of Antioch

Saint Seraphia of Antioch
القديسة سرافيا الأنطاكية

The twenty-ninth of July in the Holy Orthodox Church is the feast-day of the holy virgin-martyr Saint Seraphia of Antioch. Although her legend primarily comes to us from Latin documents, she has gained a significant cultus in the Slavic tradition, where she is known as Seraphima. She is one of several Orthodox saints in the late classical Christian world, together with Saint Onēsimos of the Seventy, Saints Esperos and Zōē of Pamphylia, Pope Saint Kallistos, Saint Boniface of Tarsos and Saint Padrig of Armagh, who were slaves.

Saint Seraphia [Gk. Σεραφία, Ar. Sarâfiyâ سرافيا] was born to devout Christian parents in Antioch sometime in the late first century. During the persecutions of Christians under Trajan, Seraphia’s parents fled Antioch for Rome, where they resided. They died in Rome. Seraphia grew up remarkably beautiful, and she was sought after by many for marriage. However, she refused all suitors, sold her parents’ belongings and distributed the proceeds to the poor, and sold herself into slavery to a Roman socialite named Sabina, the daughter of a senator named Herodius Metallarius and the widow of a certain Valentinus. Seraphia worked without complaint, led a quiet life free of reproach, prayed every day to God, and beyond her own immediate needs gave away in charity whatever she earned or was given her. In this way her mistress too began to believe in Christ, and was baptised.

After Hadrian came to power, the persecutions against Christians lessened but were not wholly done away with; individual governors and judges were left oftentimes to exercise their own discretion when an accusation was brought against a Christian in public. It appears that such happened to Seraphia, who had a charge brought against her to the governor Beryllus. The first time Seraphia appeared before the governor, she went willingly and without fear, and she was accompanied by her mistress Sabina. Upon seeing her vouched for by such a noteworthy personage, the governor allowed her to leave, but he summoned her back a second time to answer the charge of being a Christian. He instructed Seraphia to make a sacrifice to the Roman idols, which naturally she refused to do, professing her belief in the one true God – Christ Jesus.

Beryllus then handed Seraphia over to two guards of Ægyptian descent, who attempted to force themselves on her at Beryllus’s design. Saint Seraphia called upon God’s name and asked Him to protect her. Before the two men could lay hands on her, there was a mighty earthquake and they were flung away from her, senseless. They could neither rise nor speak. Upon the following day, Beryllus having learned what happened, ordered Seraphia to restore the two guards to health and allow them to speak. Once Seraphia had uttered her prayer to the Lord, the two guards were able to get to their feet and found their voices again.

They related to the governor that as they had approached Saint Seraphia, an angel of the Lord had appeared before them, shielding her body from them and preventing them from coming near her. Beryllus was convinced that Seraphia was in fact a sorceress, and he again commanded her to make a sacrifice to the idols. When Saint Seraphia again refused, the cruel governor ordered her to be burned with torches and beaten with rods. The executioners beat Seraphia so hard that the rods they were using splintered, and as punishment from God for his cruelty one of the splinters flew into the right eye of Beryllus, and after three days made him blind in that eye. Unable to break the holy martyr of God or to sway her, Beryllus ordered that she be put to the sword and beheaded. In this way she met her martyrdom.

Sabina later came to collect the body of her beloved slave, and buried her with due reverence. It would later come to pass that Sabina herself, six years later, would also be beheaded for professing Christ, after being accused before the prefect Elpidius – and she is also recognised as a saint, with her feast-day falling on the twenty-ninth of August.

In light of recent op-ed pieces in media either condemning Christianity for, or attempting to excuse, its involvement in the classical institution of slavery, we need to properly remember both the failings and the promises inherent in the Christian project with regard to slavery. (We also need to bear in mind that the classical institution, however brutal, was far less so than the modern chattel form practised after the advent of capitalism.)

In remembering slaves and former slaves like Seraphia as saints, we are admitting their fundamental ontological equality with their mistresses like Sabina; and we are more than only implicitly rebuking worldly structures which hold some persons to be more equal than others. This is primarily a Liturgical witness and a Liturgical demand, but it prompts extra-Liturgical reflection and action. We need to learn from those of our saints who actively preached and urged direct political action against slavery, such as Adamnán of Iona, and those within Christendom who followed their lead in the logical direction, such as the German legal scholar Eiko von Repgow. Any lesser form of Christian witness would be at best incomplete, and at worst complicit.

Moreover, as Christians we are called upon to repent of complicity in unjust social systems like slavery. This was precisely the key demand of Saint John the Forerunner when he called the people out of the cities to repent and be baptised. Baptism was an act of political symbolism whereby the penitent washed herself clean of her own sins, including the social sins of the Herodian puppet state and its Roman masters. Some Christians, historically, did so repent. Many others did not. This is the fallen reality and the fallen history to which we are witness, without excuse or apology. And following this we must repent of our own complicity in contemporary forms of slavery, including that in Libya and that in the prison-industrial complex. The heavenly equality in sainthood of Saints Seraphia and Sabina demands as much from us.

In that spirit, Holy virginmartyr Seraphia, steadfast confessor of Christ before the pagans, pray unto Christ our God that our souls may be saved!