29 November 2020

Bumer: a slice of the Russian nineties

Cat (Vladimir Vdovichenkov), Killa (Maksim Konovalov), Rama (Sergei Gorobchenko) and Burnout (Andrei Merzlikin) in Bumer

Following up on my reviews of Brat and Brat 2, I decided to take a look at the Pyotr Buslov film BumerБумер», or Bimmer], which was billed to me as thematically similar to Balabanov’s Bagrov saga, and as enjoying a similar cult status. It was similarly also shot on a relative shoe-string budget – not nearly as barebones as the original Brat, though – and had an acerbically critical, satirical view of Russia in the 1990s under Eltsin. Long story short: the film does not disappoint.

It has gritty road-movie stylings, but I would call this film a black ‘tragicomedy’, sometimes bordering on farce. The storyline is fairly simple, and it won’t be spoiling too much to lay it out in the broad strokes. It’s a movie about four ‘brothers’ in the same gang – low-level street criminals in Russia who steal a black BMW. They get in over their heads when they come for revenge against some slightly higher-level street criminals who trashed and then stole their previous Mercedes – and mistakenly kill an undercover FSB agent. Suddenly on the list of Moscow’s most wanted, they flee into the countryside in their stolen car and try to lay low. However, the main characters’ greed, their desire for ‘prestige’, and their acculturation into street-tough behaviour, always manage to catch up to them no matter where they go. It doesn’t help that much (but not quite all) of the society around them is as venial, as grasping, and often as eager for violence as they are.

The main characters are Konstantin, nicknamed ‘Cat’ (Vladimir Vdovichenkov); Dimon, nicknamed ‘Burnout’ (Andrei Merzlikin); Lyoha, nicknamed ‘Killa’ (Maksim Konovalov); and Petya, nicknamed ‘Rama’ (Sergei Gorobchenko). It is telling that the ‘brotherhood’ that these four young men forge with each other is the strongest social bond in the entire film – but it also arises practically entirely without context. It is irrational. It is also (self-)destructive. There is a certain touching element to the fact that these four ‘have each other’s backs’ and that their relationship isn’t purely transactional.

That separates this relationship from practically all of the rest of the male relationships shown on-screen: the ‘shock doctrine’ capitalism has torn all previously existing relationships to shreds. The symbols of the old Soviet state which we get to see and hear, the slogans of togetherness and camaraderie, are all faded, impotent, in the background – tossed off as a joke, almost.

But given the lawless, dog-eat-dog social environment they live in, there’s little left for them to bond over but ripping off, extorting, cheating or stealing from everyone else. There is a sado-masochistic element to their relationship: they don’t know any other way to demonstrate care for each other than by acting tough and daring each other to new heights of criminal recklessness. There is a tragic element to this, because it causes Cat to fall out with his girlfriend (Anastasiya Sapozhnikova), who moves out on him when she realises she can’t compete with Cat’s ‘brotherhood’ (and understands perfectly well that it will mean visiting him in prison or mourning over his grave). It also causes Petya to leave a village girl, Kat’ka (Yana Shivkova) – who ends up pregnant with his child – after making promises to return to her (which it turns out he can’t keep).

But if the rôle of women in this film seems to serve only as passive observers or as victims of the cruelty of men, then it is telling that older men seem to have no rôle to play at all. This is a film without fathers. Kat’ka has only a mother, Sobachikha (Lyudmila Polyakova), who serves as something of a Greek chorus in the film, delivering prophetic pronouncements and wise advice which the protagonists cannot or will not heed. We are shown that Kat’ka’s child grows up without a father. The young boy whom the four young men meet at a gas station is shown to have no father. And none of these young men are shown as having fathers of their own. It is a generational deprivation which is as glaring and conspicuous as that shown in Tuǵan jer or Igla.

By comparison, the significant relationships that the main characters have, seem to be primarily with technology: guns, cars, mobile phones. But the point gets driven home time and again. Every time they rely on technology to help them, it fails. Dimon’s gun fails to shoot, and the wielder gets stabbed in the gut with a screwdriver. The truck driver who stabbed Dimon with the screwdriver throws a willing, topless woman out of his cabin into the snow when she touches it. She curses him that his truck cabin will fall on him and kill him: this happens. A radio comes on at just the wrong time for a message (called into a pop music DJ) to reach its intended recipient. A cellphone keeps ringing – a musical motif throughout the film – but the owner (Cat) is never around to pick it up, and when he seemingly comes to his senses and tries to reach his girlfriend on it, he finds out she is gone. And of course the eponymous BMW is a never-ending source of trouble for the ‘brothers’. They can’t get rid of it since they need it to escape Moscow, yet it betrays them – to the police, to the local protection rackets – at every opportunity. Ultimately it gets abandoned in the woods, with the headlights left on until the battery dies. There’s something almost Biblical in the way that the characters’ possessions and tough-guy status markers always seem to turn on them.

Again, this film was shot on a (comparatively) shoe-string budget, and it shows. The lighting is dim, the sets often feel cramped and the camerawork is mostly flat and static. But the filmmakers themselves actually use their technological limitations to great effect, whether for deadpan comic and black humour moments (of which there are more than a few), or else for a shot framing which has a particular symbolic significance. This isn’t a Tarantino or a Scorsese movie – even though we can see some tip-of-the-hat homages and stylistic references to both directors in the film. Even so, it’s a worthy entry into the Russian gangster film genre, and it’s easy to see why this film continues to enjoy its cult following.

28 November 2020

Our venerable father Paisii Velichkovskii, Abbot of Neamț

Saint Paisii of Neamț

On the Old Calendar today, as well, the Holy Orthodox Church commemorates Saint Paisii (Velichkovskii), one of the sweetest and most luminous of the monastic fathers of our modern time. He would be worth commemorating alone for his translation and propagation of the spiritual texts of the Philokalia into the Russian language, but more than that, Saint Paisii is, with some justice, considered to be the ‘founding father’ of the tradition of startsy – spiritual elders – in Russia. He is commemorated with deep fondness in the churches of Russia and Romania, and especially the local church in Moldova, having been for part of his life the abbot of the Neamț Monastery.

Father Paisii [Ru. Паисий, Ro. Paisie, L. Paisius] was born Pyotr (after the Holy Apostle) on the twenty-first of December, 1722, into a quiet, modest clerical family, which was descended from the officer ranks of the Cossacks. He was the eleventh of twelve children. His father, Ivan Velichkovskii, was a protopriest who served as the dean of the Cathedral of the Dormition in Poltava. As might be expected growing up in such a household, Pyotr was a quiet, meek, fastidious and studious little boy who loved to read. He pursued specifically the spiritual readings that were present in his father’s house and in the Church library, and it was not long before he had read them all. He had a particular love for the homilies of Saint John Chrysostom and the hymns of Saint Ephraim the Syrian. It was in this way that he grew to love Jesus. He came to the Liturgy, prayed and worshipped and partook of the Elements, and yearned to follow in his father’s footsteps in service to the Church.

After his father died when he was age four, he was raised by his mother Irina, as well as by his older brothers. At the age of thirteen, in the year 1735, he entered the Collegium founded by the great Orthodox pædagogue Saint Petru Movilă in Kiev, and bent himself entirely upon his studies toward the priesthood. He was particularly keen on learning other languages. Latin, of course, was part of Movilă’s required curriculum. He also learned Greek, Polish and Church Slavonic. Pyotr’s interest in his studies began to wane after a couple of years, however, as God began calling him to become a monk. In 1739 he left the Collegium and began looking for a monastic community to serve. He went to several monasteries in the Ukraine but he found himself ill-suited to the life in each of them. At last he met two Moldavian monastic refugees of the Turkish War there, and when he attended Liturgy with the two of them he was struck by the beauty of their devotion. He came at last to the monastery of Saint Nikolai Medvedovskii on the Khasmin River, where evidently the life suited him much better and he became a robe-bearer. Here he took on the monastic name of Platon.

The new monk Platon’s life was not at all easy, however. Even back then, the Uniates were more than happy to use dirty tricks, political manipulation, force and fraud to get their way. At their behest the political authorities forced the Medvedovskii monastery to close, and they drove and scattered the monks who lived there. Elder Paisii himself, however, later said that he was somewhat dissatisfied with the life in Medvedovskii, because there was no elder and experienced monk to guide his spiritual strivings. Platon sought refuge at the Kiev Caves Monastery, and found a vocation there working at the printing-press (another of Petru Movilă’s innovations).

In 1741 he found his sister-in-law and his mother still living in Poltava. Irina was deeply opposed to her son’s going off to become a monk, and she wept and pleaded with him to stay, and threatened to starve herself if he did not obey her wishes. However, that night she was visited by an angel who upbraided her for loving the creation (her son) more than the Creator. The angel told her that she should be happy that her son was devoting himself entirely to God, and that she would do well to follow his example. When she awoke the following morning she found her soul was at peace, and she made up the mind to enter the monastic life herself. She was tonsured a nun with the name of Yulyana, and she faithfully followed the monastic discipline of her cloister for ten years, to the end of her earthly days.

Again, however, the monk Platon had an encounter with monastics from Moldavia. He met with the Abbot Mihai of the Saint Nicholas Skete in Trăisteni in Buzău, who welcomed him to join them. What Platon found there convinced him that here the love of Christ could be found. Mihai led a monastic community made up of brothers in Christ from many different national backgrounds: Romanians, Bulgarians, Russians, Serbs. Many of them were refugees from the Turkish incursions or from the oppression of the Catholic great powers to the west. Abbot Mihai and a monastic Elder named Vasile were particularly strong influences on Saint Paisii at this point in his life, and he writes about them both with deep fondness. It was Vasile who began to teach Platon the way of hesychasm and the prayer of the heart, the Jesus Prayer.

Young Platon’s spirituality has several episodes we might attribute to a certain excess of youthful zeal. In one particular instance, he overslept the bell for Matins, and when he arrived at the Church he found that the Gospel for the day had already been read and that they were starting the Canon. He returned to his cell in tears and did not come out. When the meal was served, Abbot Mihai and Prior Dimitru noticed that Platon was missing from the table. Mihai sent a hieromonk, Afanasii, to find out what had happened to Platon. When Fr Afanasii found Platon, he discovered him weeping. With some difficulty Afanasii was able to get out of the young monk what guilt was eating at him, and urged him to come to the refectory anyway, for his brother-monks missed him. When Platon went into the refectory and found that none of the monks had started eating but that they were all waiting for him, he fell down on his hands and knees with fresh tears, begging his brothers’ forgiveness. Abbot Mihai, Elder Vasile and Prior Dimitru all did their best to console the young monk not to grieve overmuch over something that had happened in a moment of weakness. However, from that time on, Platon would never sleep lying down, but instead only ever slept sitting up on a bench.

The cluster of monasteries overseen by Elder Vasile and Abbot Mihai were Athonite in their structure and in their daily observance; when Platon was age 24, he began to long himself to see the Holy Mountain, and he asked the blessing of his abbot to go, which he was granted – along with the company of a hieromonk named Trifon. (In his autobiography, Elder Paisii notes that part of his motivation was his eagerness to avoid being made a priest, which was something his Moldavian elders were urging him to do.)

Platon made his way to the Holy Mountain and was accepted into the Slavonic community of the Pantokrator Monastery on Athos. He was sent into a small skete to observe their rule of life. However, in that skete and in the several around it, Platon could find no monks suited to teach him further in the way of hesychasm, and so he went off by himself and lived a life of solitude for the following four years.

It happened after that that his former elder Vasile went to visit the Holy Mountain, and found his former pupil living the life of a hermit on Athos. Vasile had a long conversation with the young monk, telling him that at his stage of life it wasn’t good to live alone, and that he should have at least a few brothers around him to aid him in the struggle against the passions. Vasile tonsured Platon with the lesser schema, and it was at this time that he took on the name of Paisii. Paisii took on his first disciple, a Romanian named Bessarion, and founded a small monastic community. Several more Romanians joined him, and then later a few Slavs. As a result, Paisii’s monastery alternated the Liturgy between Romanian and Church Slavonic.

In 1758 Saint Paisii was at last ordained a priestmonk by Bishop Grigore Rasca, and the community he led was growing large enough that it had to move into the Skete of St Elias on Athos. Paisii’s community became renowned for the beauty of its Liturgies and the zeal and spiritual power of its monks: a mark of Paisii’s own intense inner life. Even the retired Patriarch Seraphim, who was then a monk at Pantokrator Monastery, came to Paisii’s Skete to receive the Eucharist. While living on Athos, Saint Paisii came to the disquieting realisation that contemporary Orthodox monastic life was dreadfully lacking in terms of living spiritual guidance, for monastics to be able to go and seek wisdom from someone trustworthy with experience in ascetic struggles and inward prayer life. He made it an object of his life’s study to approach the Church Fathers in their writings as though they themselves were living guides, and made a slow and often thankless and (in those early days on Athos) fruitless research into the writings of the older Church Fathers on the life of hesychastic prayer.

Here Saint Paisii’s aptitude for languages came in great handy. Together with two of his disciples, he embarked on a close study of mediæval Greek for the express purposes of translating such saintly authors such as Hesychios of Jerusalem, Theodoros of Edessa, Peter of Damascus, Anthony the Great, Grēgorios of Sinai, Philotheos of Constantinople, Thalassios of Libya, Diadochos of Phōtikē, Symeōn the New Theologian and Nikēphoros of Chios into Russian.

Saint Paisii’s growing popularity, and his clear preference for hesychastic prayer, earned him some critics even upon the Holy Mountain. The Skete of the Prophet Elias was soon too small to house all of Saint Paisii’s followers, and they soon had to spend much effort building out their physical premisses. This caused Paisii to recommend that the monks begin substituting repetitions of the Jesus Prayer for some of the daily singings from the Typikon if they were too busy and did not have time to attend. This provided Abbot Athanasios of Kavsokalyvia Monastery with a pretext to begin delivering pointed barbs against Paisii for his ‘innovations’, for his reliance on the teachings of Grēgorios of Sinai, and for his supposed cutting of corners.

Even though Athanasios made himself out to be a defender of Orthodox rigor and the discipline of the monastic Typikon, at stake there were two very different visions and understandings of monastic Orthodoxy. Abbot Athanasios represented a style of Orthodoxy which was, in the spirit of the times, dependent upon the Westward-looking scholasticism and structural formalism which were the hallmarks of the Counter-Reformation. Saint Paisii, who had grown up and had been educated in precisely this intellectual formation – the same formation which Saint Petru Movilă had worked so hard to inculcate in Kiev – was attempting to resuscitate a more inward-looking, more contemplative and more spiritually-free tradition of the life of prayer.

In answer to the accusations of Abbot Athanasios, Saint Paisii wrote a Letter of Apology in which he defended his researches into the hesychastic tradition and his prerogative as abbot to prescribe œconomia for his spiritual children within certain bounds if the need arose – for example, if the monks were at work on physical tasks like construction. He continued both his spiritual and his physical labours upon the Holy Mountain for six years more, before he was invited to Moldavia.

In 1763, at the express invitation of Grigore III Ghica of Moldavia to found monasteries and teach in his country, Elder Paisii tearfully took his leave of the Holy Mountain and left with sixty-four of his Athonite disciples for that country. He and his disciples had been given, by Metropolitan Gabriel of Iași, the use of the building of the Dragomirna Monastery in Bukovina. The monastic rule at Dragomirna was based on the rules of Saint Basil the Great, Saint Theodoros the Studite, and Saint Nil of Sora. Saint Paisii emphasised the importance for his monks of non-possession, of simplicity of spirit, of obedience to the elder and of the inward prayer of the heart. The services were sung in two languages: Slavonic in the right kliros, and Romanian in the left.

Saint Paisii was able to give practical talks and advice to his monks on the meaning of the inward prayer and the correct method for attaining it. He also continued his painstaking work on compiling and translating from Greek into Slavonic the writings of the mediæval Patristics, particularly those which had bearing upon the Jesus Prayer and upon the pursuit of inward stillness. He also took on the Great Schema from the hieromonk Aleksii, although he did not change his name further from Paisii.

Events further continued to try the life of Saint Paisii. The Dragomirna community grew to house over 350 monks. However, there was an incident in which a certain Ukrainian monk living nearby, who was opposed to hesychasm, gathered together a number of hesychast texts and instructed local believers to throw them into the river. This event prompted Saint Paisii to write his Six Chapters on the Prayer of the Heart. In addition, the incessant wars of the Turks against all of their neighbours, including Russia, forced many poor people to flee their homes as refugees. Saint Paisii made sure that Dragomirna was one site of safe passage and refuge for these people, of which there were often too many to adequately house and feed.

As a result of this Russo-Turkish war, Bukovina was conquered by the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1775. The Austrians expelled the Orthodox monks from Dragomirna. The monks were offered refuge at the Secu Monastery of Saint John the Forerunner. They set up their own quarters and continued to follow the rule they had established at Dragomirna. However, the conditions for the monks soon grew unsanitary and overcrowded, with as many as five monks sharing a single cell. They built out as many cells as they could but these accommodations were still not enough. Saint Paisii appealed to the new Greek Prince of Moldavia, Kōnstantinos Mourouzēs, for the right to establish new quarters in a separate monastery for the former monks of Dragomirna, but Mourouzēs actually granted him instead the entire monastery of Neamț in 1779. Paisii was reluctant to accept such a large and extravagant gift, which went against his principle of non-possession, but Mourouzēs enjoined him to be obedient, and to think of it as an opportunity to serve as an example to other monasteries. On these terms, Saint Paisii had little other choice than to accept.

Saint Paisii spent the remainder of his earthly days presiding over Neamṭ Monastery. Under his rule as many as 700 monks came to live at the monastery, and he made a number of renovations and improvements to the monastic complex while he was abbot there, including a hospital, a hostel for travellers, and housing for pilgrims, refugees and the poor. Hospitality was as important at Neamṭ as it had been at Dragomirna. He continued to research, compile and translate Patristic texts on the discipline of hesychasm. Toward the end of his life he was elevated to the rank of Archimandrite by the Archbishop of Moldavia.

Saint Paisii fell asleep in the Lord on the fifteenth of November, 1794. He was nearly seventy-two years old. He had been ill for several days prior to his passing, but he felt well enough to serve the Liturgy on the Sunday prior to it, and he asked all the monks to come forward to receive his blessing. He then retired to his cell and would not see anyone. He came out to receive the Gifts one final time and then reposed in peace. His death was mourned by great multitudes of monks, clergy and lay folk from all the countries around Moldavia, including Russia and Romania. Several times over the course of the nineteenth century – 1846, 1853, 1861 and 1872 – his relics were uncovered and were discovered to be incorrupt.

Saint Paisii is a pivotal figure in Orthodox monasticism particularly, but he had an outsized influence over the direction of Orthodox spirituality in general from the 1700s on. His writings, his translations and his methods of prayer were brought to Optina, where they were adopted with great care and attention by the Elders of that monastery, from whose wisdom and kindness the entire Russian nation has benefitted in incalculable ways throughout these past two centuries. Venerable father Paisii, good and wise teacher attentive to the heart which is deep beyond knowing, pray unto Christ our God for the salvation of our souls!
Apolytikion for Saint Paisii of Neamț, Tone 2:

Having become a stranger on earth,
You reached the heavenly homeland, venerable Father Paisii.
You taught the faithful to lift up their minds to God,
Crying out to Him with all their hearts:
“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner!”

Our father among the saints Grēgorios III, Pope of Rome

Saint Grēgorios of Rome

The twenty-eighth of November is the feast-day in the Orthodox Church of Saint Grēgorios of Rome, also known as Pope Gregory III. I have already presented on this blog a hagiography of Pope Gregory I, or Grēgorios o Dialogos, who did so much to promote the spread of Christianity in England. Like the first Gregory, the third Gregory in the Roman See did much to help spread the light of Christ into the northern reaches of Europe. A native of Syria, the third Gregory was instrumental in the fight against iconoclasm from the West.

Saint Grēgorios [Gk. Γρηγόριος, L. Gregorius, Syr. Grigorios ܓܪܝܓܘܪܝܘܣ, Ar. Ġrîġûriyûs غريغوريوس] was born in Syria around the year 669 to a father named Yûhannâ. He spent much of his early life there, though historians are not aware of many of the details of his early life. We know that he became a priest, and we also know that he had lived in Rome for some time before his election to the Papacy. It is likely that, like his predecessor Saint Sergios, he and his family were refugees from the Islâmic conquests and persecutions of Christians in the Levant, though we cannot be sure based on the sources we have.

We do know, however, that he had a high reputation as a priest in Rome for virtuous conduct and diligent pastoral care. He loved the people of Rome, and in turn he was beloved by them. Upon the repose of his illustrious Italian prædecessor, Pope Gregory II, Grēgorios was proclaimed Pope by popular acclaim in the city of Rome. Even so, Grēgorios waited for about a month to receive consecration, which indicates that he sought the confirmation and blessing of the Byzantine exarch of Ravenna, Eutychios, before taking office. Grēgorios did indeed love the people, but he had no desire to owe his office to a mob, and we can see that he sought the legitimacy of Constantinople as well as of the people of Rome.

But once in his office, Grēgorios did not bow to Constantinople – only to God. Though he had previously been involved in the arguments over the veneration of icons, and had appealed to the Emperor Lēon III the Isaurian to exercise moderation in his religious policies. But once he became Pope, Saint Grēgorios came forth at once with blunt condemnations of iconoclasm, sending legates and letters to Lēon urging him to desist from the destruction of holy images. Lēon responded with brute force, sending forces across the Mediterranean and seizing Papal properties which were under his jurisdiction, in Calabria and Sicily. However, the Emperor lost many of his men at sea and proved unable to control the Papacy directly, and Grēgorios was not cowed, but continued speaking out in favour of the veneration of icons. Most regional rulers ended up siding with the Pope over the Emperor in this case.

Similarly to his prædecessors of the same name, Grēgorios took a close and paternal interest in the well-being and good order of the Church in the northern reaches of Europe, among the Germanic tribes. In faithful England, Grēgorios affirmed the rights of the Bishopric of York in the election of Ecgberht to the office. He also blessed Saints Tatwine and Nóðhelm, in succession, as primates of Canterbury. He continued the support of Gregory II for the mission of Saint Boniface among the heathen in Frisia and northern Germany, naming him an archbishop and blessing him to establish two Benedictine cloisters – one in Fritzlar and one in Amöneburg. He met with Boniface in person at least once, in 738, having received him with great hospitality in Rome and conversed with him for a long time on spiritual topics. Saint Boniface asked the holy Pope of Rome to send with him back to Germany a helper, in the person of his nephew Willibald. At once Grēgorios sent for the monk and was at once impressed with him. In particular, we may imagine, Pope Grēgorios was happy to discuss with Willibald his travels as a pilgrim in Syria and the Holy Land. Saint Grēgorios sent Willibald with his uncle back into Germany to serve as an aid and support in his missionary efforts. Later Willibald himself would be made a bishop at Saint Boniface’s hands in Eichstätt.

Saint Grēgorios’s relations with other Teutonic nations were not nearly as cordial as those he enjoyed with the English. Much of his ten-year papacy was spent in power struggles with the Lombardic king Liutprant – who, although he was a pious Christian, generous and hospitable to the likes of Saint Boniface, was nonetheless politically ambitious and had territorial designs on the Italian Peninsula. Grēgorios managed to fortify the ancient walls of Rome in the hopes that it would ward off a Lombard attack, and in addition met in person with Liutprant to attempt to use moral suasion to ward him away from Rome. This worked for awhile, but with Liutprant continuing to make violent manœuvres on the frontier – and capturing four cities in the Duchy of Rome – he was compelled to seek aid from the Frankish king Charles Martel. Long story short: Martel promised help, but that help never came. It was in the midst of these political troubles that Saint Grēgorios reposed in the Lord, on the twenty-eighth of November, 741. A few days later, the cardinals of Rome chose Saint Zacharias, a Greek, as Grēgorios’s successor in office.

I have remarked on several occasions about the special link which præ-Schismatic Old England seems to have enjoyed with Antioch, and with the Christian East in general. Though this link was often (but not always) mediated, gæographically and administratively, by Rome, it still arguably goes back to the Princes of the Apostles themselves. The most prominent and most profound impact of Antiochian spirituality upon the English nation comes through the literal tutelage England enjoyed under the rule of Saint Theodore of Tarsos. Saint Theodore’s contemporary Saint Sergios provides another link between Syria and England. The cultus of Saint Ia in Cornwall, which shares some intriguing parallels with the Mesopotamian martyress under the Persians of the same name, provides another possible link, as does the patronage of that great Levantine Saint George of Lydda and the mediæval body of legend surrounding Saint Joseph of Arimathæa. To all these we must add the relationship that our Saint Grēgorios enjoyed with Saint Willibald, who had sojourned in that land for a significant portion of his life, and with his uncle Saint Boniface.

It is to their great credit that Syrians like Saint Grēgorios III did not take advantage of the old Anglo-Saxon talent for civilisational humility, borne perhaps in part out of a realisation that they lived at the ‘bottom’ of the world, but instead took the opportunity to guide, to nurture, to foster an Old English spirituality. That spirituality today exists as merely a shadow, an echo. The overbearing arrogance of the Normans, the expropriation of Church lands, the misguided zeal of centralising church ‘reformers’, the sustained repression of the English peasantry and the shift toward an œconomy of greed all contributed to the suppression of this native spirituality. Mercantilism, colonialism, capitalism, industrialisation and high finance have all taken a great toll upon the English people. The massive death toll and material deprivation that the British ruling class has unleashed upon the world – including upon Syria and the Arab world, a deprivation which continues to this day – often overshadows the much quieter impoverishment of English spiritual life by that same class.

Yet this echo of spiritual Old English reverence for the Eastern end of the Mediterranean can still be heard in English literature and art: in figures like the Syriac-versant Lancelot Andrewes, for example. Our good Dr Samuel Johnson, who wrote Rasselas, may be counted here with distinction; John Ruskin and William Morris, also. To this we may also add the more contemporary travel literature and journalistic work of Patrick Seale, of William Dalrymple, of the late, lamented Robert Fisk and the blessedly very much alive Jonathan Cook. For these things we must still thank our saints like the holy Pope Grēgorios III. Holy hierarch Grēgorios, beloved archpastor and gentle tutor of the Christian north, pray unto Christ our God that our souls may be saved!

27 November 2020

Venerable Father Teodosii of Tărnovo, and his disciple Roman

Saint Teodosii of Tărnovo

Today in the Orthodox Church of America we commemorate the life of Saint Teodosii of Tărnovo, along with his disciple Saint Roman (who is also venerated on 17 February). A disciple of Saint Grēgorios of Sinai and a hermit who resided in the vicinity of Tărnovo, Saint Teodosii did much to propagate and popularise the practice of hesychasm during the Middle Ages, at a time when the inward approach to prayer was still considered an ‘innovation’ by many Orthodox authorities. Saint Teodosii was a mentor to Patriarch Saint Kallistos I of Constantinople, who committed his Life to writing, and also to the great Patriarch Saint Evtimii of Tărnovo. Teodosii is recognised as a saint throughout the Orthodox Church, though his cultus is centred in Bulgaria.

Saint Teodosii [Bg. Теодосий] was born in northwestern Bulgaria, though his origins were deliberately obscured by his hagiographer to emphasise his citizenship in the heavenly Jerusalem. He left his native place when he was still a youth and went to Vidin, where he entered the Monastery of Saint Nicholas the Wonderworker, which was then under Abbot Iov – who, seeing the love of Christ in the young man, administered to him the tonsure and gave him his monastic name. At the Vidin Monastery, Teodosii was a model of humility and hard work, and gladly accepted any task the abbot gave him, no matter how menial, as if he had received the command from God Himself. He lived a life of fasting, askēsis and prayer, taking particular delight in reading from the Psalter.

After the repose of Abbot Iov, for whom he prayed with great fervour in his last days on earth, Saint Teodosii left Vidim for the Monastery of the Mother of God in the Holy Mount in Tărnovo, and soon thereafter for the village of Cherven, where he found an abbot who was willing to teach him for a time. From here he left for Mother of God Monastery, called Epikerni’s, in Sliven, where he spent a number of years in ascetic striving under the tutelage of the abbot. When he heard by word of mouth that Saint Grēgorios the Sinaïte, fleeing the Turkish predations on Athos, had arrived in Bulgaria, and had settled at Mount Paroria in Strandzha (which is now a protected nature park). The site of Saint Grēgorios’s final strivings in this life is thought to be the modern-day Chapel of Sveta Petka in Mount Paroria.

Saint Teodosii was drawn to Holy Father Grēgorios, as his hagiography puts it, as iron is drawn to a magnet. Saint Grēgorios welcomed the young monk warmly, and Teodosii soon became one of his favoured disciples. Saint Grēgorios tutored Teodosii in the elements and concepts of the hesychasts’ method. When it happened that a number of robbers and brigands took up residence in Paroria and harassed Grēgorios and his disciples, the Sinaïte sent Teodosii to seek help from Tsar Ivan Aleksandăr for the protection of the monks. The pious Tsar happily agreed to Saint Teodosii’s request, and sent men and horses, and gave a great deal of money to shore up the fortifications in Paroria. Teodosii himself laboured alongside the builders, and prayed many hours besides, until the fortifications were complete. For a time the bandits were kept at bay, but when they again became a problem, Saint Grēgorios and the monks of Paroria again sent Teodosii to Tărnovo to ask for aid.

This time, when Teodosii came to the capital city, a youth named Roman [Bg. Роман] came out to meet him. Roman came from the noble parentage of the Old Bulgars, but he was drawn not to the military life of a feudal lord but instead to the monastic life. He begged Saint Teodosii to take him back to Paroria, to learn the ways of holiness. Teodosii accepted the young nobleman gladly, and Roman was brought back to Saint Grēgorios, who tonsured him a monk. Roman would turn out to be a faithful and loving disciple of Teodosii for the rest of his life. Soon thereafter Saint Grēgorios’s earthly labours were at an end, and he reposed in the Lord on this day in 1347.

The monks at Paroria besought Saint Teodosii to take Saint Grēgorios’s place as abbot, but he did not have any wish to take on such cares, and he left Paroria before the monks could make him an abbot. He went to visit his disciple Roman in Sliven. Here he found that Roman was downcast, because he was absent from the monastery on the day of the holy father’s repose, and did not get to take part in saying farewell to the great hesychast. Saint Teodosii took Roman and went with him to the Holy Mountain, where the two monks undertook as deep a study as might be allowed of the methods of hesychasm. Their stay on Athos was not long, however, for the Turks still harassed the monks there and subjected them to various indignities and persecutions. Saints Teodosii and Roman wandered around to various places in the Greek-speaking world – including Thessalonikē and Constantinople – and Bulgaria, staying in no one place long, emulating the bees in their collection of sweetness and light from whatever place might house them and their purification of themselves in the word of God as bees condense honey.

At length, they came again to the vicinity of Tărnovo, where they met with the warm and hospitable welcome of Tsar Ivan Aleksandăr, and were given leave to make cells for themselves in the Holy Mount. Saints Teodosii and Roman set up their hermitage in the mountain, at Kilifarevo. The two of them laboured there in holy solitude for three years, but soon Kilifarevo became renowned for its holiness on their account, and men from all walks of life went to seek them out and learn from them. Soon fifty were living with them, and the hermitage was not large enough to accommodate them. Kilifarevo soon became a monastery – indeed one of the most famous in the Holy Mount at Tărnovo. Among the most renowned disciples of Saint Teodosii at Kilifarevo was the future Patriarch of Bulgaria, Saint Evtimii, whose love for Christ ran just as deep, and who embraced both the ascetic life and the hesychastic method with an unmatched zeal. Saint Evtimii’s later labours would go on to shine far more brightly for this strong early foundation in monasticism.

Saints Teodosii and Roman had to contend, however, with opponents of hesychasm, who were at that time as numerous as the followers of hesychasm and who viewed the pursuit of silence and inward prayer as an unacceptable ‘innovation’ in the life of the Church. Teodosii engaged in polemical exchanges against a certain Phanariote monk and persecutor of the hesychasts named Theodōrētos, and apparently got the better of him in these exchanges, because the Tsar evicted Theodōrētos and vindicated Teodosii. On another occasion, a certain hæretical nun of Thessalonikē named Eirēnē (who apparently preached some kind of Gnostic dualism related to or influenced by Bogomilism) also sent two of her disciples, Lazarus and Bozota, together with Bozota’s disciple Stefan, into Bulgaria. These two preachers apparently stirred up significant dissension within the Church to the point that the Patriarch of Bulgaria found himself compelled to organise a local sobor, to which Saint Teodosii was invited. When the followers of Eirēnē were called forth and stood to defend their doctrines, the holy hesychast stood up and delivered a rousing defence of all the holy things which the errant preachers attacked: the institution of marriage, the material world, icons, the Holy Cross, the Eucharist. His monologue put the Gnostics to shame, and Orthodoxy was vindicated at this sobor. The heretics were expelled from Bulgaria by the Tsar. On another occasion, Teodosii converted, with kindly and meek words of correction instead of with polemics, a certain monk who was teaching a similarly Gnostic doctrine and living together in an irregular fashion with men and women alike. Seeing the error of his ways, the Gnostic preacher returned to Orthodoxy, abjured his former beliefs, and set up two separate monasteries for men and women which held to a regular discipline.

Saints Teodosii and Roman were also marginally involved in a certain political crisis involving Tsar Ivan Aleksandăr and his wife Sarah, who had converted from Judaism to Orthodox Christianity in order to marry the Tsar. Certain extremist members of the Jewish community in Bulgaria apparently committed several acts of blasphemy against the Church shortly after Sarah’s conversion and marriage. Sarah’s conversion had been sincere, however, and these actions were enough for her to call forward a sobor to condemn the members of her former faith who attacked the Orthodox Church. Unfortunately, this sobor proved to be an occasion for a general persecution of the Jews in Bulgaria, which punished the innocent along with the guilty. It is equally unfortunate that Saint Teodosii’s Phanariot hagiographer uses the opportunity of this sobor to indulge in a hateful anti-Semitic diatribe which has very little to do with the actual life of this saint.

Saint Teodosii did, however, have to endure the attacks of the Turks against his homeland, and subsequent long periods of exile from his monastery, as well as painful bouts of illness which caused his flesh to waste and wither. However, he endured all these things with the patience of one who has a great hope and faith in Christ. Towards the end of his life he came to visit his fellow student of Grēgorios of Sinai and his hagiographer, Patriarch Kallistos of Constantinople, where he was received with great joy. Although his trials, sent by the Evil One, had greatly afflicted his body, it was clear to all when he arrived in the city that he had been tried and tested in the fire like gold, and that his spirit shone brightly for all to see, radiating the love of Christ. He took up residence in Constantinople for the last months of his life, and instructed the disciples around him to be steadfast in their love for each other, in their love for their neighbours, and in their love for Christ – as well as in their love for the truth in the person of Christ against the hæresies that afflicted the people of the Balkans. On the twenty-seventh of November of 1362 or 1363 – being the same date as the repose of his teacher Grēgorios of Sinai – Saint Teodosii gave up his own spirit and reposed in the Lord.

Saint Roman, when his mentor left for Constantinople, was left in charge of the flock at Kilifarevo. He faithfully bore his charge and upheld the ascetic life and the emphasis on hesychastic prayer that his teacher Teodosii had taught him. He continued to pray and fast and keep long vigils through the night, being gentle with his monks but being strict upon himself as an example for their edification. Although he was afflicted with several illnesses, including the whooping cough, Saint Roman redoubled in his labours for he was eager to be found worthy of his beloved teacher’s example. When his end was near, Saint Roman gathered the monks of Kilifarevo around him and blessed them, instructed them one final time, and he himself departed to the Lord on the seventeenth of February. (The footnote to the hagiography says that the year is unclear.) Saint Roman was buried with due honours by the monks at Kilifarevo. Holy venerable fathers Teodosii and Roman, blessed hesychasts and defenders of the divine Truth, pray unto Christ our God for our salvation!
Apolytikion for Saints Teodosii and Roman, Tone 8:

Let us imitate you, O Father, that we shall be saved,
For having taken up the Cross, you followed Christ.
And indeed you have learned to despise the flesh for it is transitory;
But instead care for the immortal soul.
For this reason you rejoice with the angels O Venerable Teodosii.

Kilifarevo Monastery, Dimitrovgrad, Bulgaria

26 November 2020

Venerable Iakōbos the Anchorite of Kyrrhos

The theatre at Kyrrhos

Today is Thanksgiving in the United States, which in the Orthodox Church of America is recognised as a day on which the fast is relaxed for those of us who spend the day with family together in a day of festive gratitude. It is also, however, the feast-day of Saint Iakōbos of Kyrrhos, also known as Saint James the Solitary. As one of my friends on social media put it: ‘Eating a bunch of meat sure is a weird way to celebrate a solitary monastic’, to which I responded: ‘He is ‘Arab. He understands.’ Saint Iakōbos, who may have been named for the Venerable Father of Nisibis, is one of the followers of Saint Marōn, whom Blessed Theodoret of Kyrrhos says he surpassed in his ascetic labours, though the two came to the same place in the end. What follows here is the account of that self-same Theodoret, from his History of the Monks of Syria who was fortunate to have known this saint and benefitted from his wisdom while he was still living.
Now that we have proceeded through the contests of the athletes of virtue described above, narrating in summary their laborious exercises, their exertions in the contests and their most glorious and splendid victories, let us now record, and leave to posterity as a profitable memorial, the way of life of those still living, who contend magnificently and strive to surpass their predecessors in exertion. For just as the life of the conspicuous saints of the past brought the greatest benefit to their successors, so the accounts of these men will become models for those after us. At the head of these I shall place the great James, for he has precedence over the others both in time and in labour, and it is by emulating him that his emulators do wondrous and extraordinary things. It has turned out, I know not how, that this name has come at the head of both the departed and those still alive; for in recounting the life of the former I placed at the head the divine James who scattered the Persian army by prayer and, when the surrounding walls of the town fell down, both refused to allow the capture of the city and forced the enemy to flee by sending against them gnats and mosquitoes. Therefore let the man with the same name and the same ways come at the head of the company of the contestants still alive, not for the reason that he shares the name, but because he also emulated his virtue and became himself a model of philosophy for others.

A companion of the great Marōn and a recipient of his divine teaching, he has eclipsed his teacher by greater labours. For Marōn had a precinct of the ancient imposture as enclosure, pitched a tent of hairy skins, and used this to ward off the assaults of rain and snow. But this man, bidding farewell to all these things, tent and hut and enclosure, has the sky for roof, and lets in all the contrasting assaults of the air, as he is now inundated by torrential rain, now frozen by frost and snow, at other times burnt and consumed by the rays of the sun, and exercises endurance over everything. Competing as if in the body of another, and striving with zeal to overcome the nature of the body – for clad in this mortal and passible one he lives as in an impassable one – and practicing in a body the life without a body, he exclaims with the inspired Paul, ‘Though walking in the flesh, we do not wage war according to the flesh, for our weapons are not fleshly but mighty through God for the destruction of strongholds, as we destroy arguments and every high thing exalted against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive for obedience to Christ.’ For these contests that surpass nature he rehearsed by means of lesser labours: it was by earlier immuring himself in a small cell, freeing his soul from the tumults outside and nailing his mind to the thought of God that he engaged in the rehearsal of complete virtue.

After training himself perfectly and accustoming his soul to excellent labours, he dared greater contests. Repairing to that mountain which is thirty stades distant from this town, he has made it distinguished and revered, although formerly it was totally undistinguished and sterile. So great is the blessing it is confidently believed to have now received that the soil on it has been quite exhausted by those coming from all sides to carry it off for their benefit. Living in this place he is observed by all comers, since he has, as I said, no cave or tent or hut or enclosure or obstructing wall; but he is to be seen praying or resting, standing or sitting, in health or in the grip of some infirmity, so that it is unceasingly under the eyes of spectators that he strives in combat and repels the necessities of nature - nor are other men who have had a respectable upbringing ready to evacuate excrement in the presence of strangers, let alone a man trained in the highest philosophy.

And I mention this, not having learnt it from another, but having myself been a witness. Fourteen years ago, a grave illness came upon him which caused him a condition to be expected in one with a mortal body. It was the height of summer, and the heat of the sun’s rays was kindled more intensely, with a lulling of the winds and the air remaining motionless. The disease was a flux of bile moving downwards, hurting the guts, causing pressure and forcing one to run outside. It was then that I witnessed the great endurance of this man. For while very many men of the country had assembled with the intention of seizing the victorious body, he sat there torn by contrary impulses: while nature pressed him to go and evacuate, shame before the attendant crowd compelled him to stay in the same position. Noticing this, I addressed many exhortations to those who had come, and many threats, ordering them to go away. Finally I applied to them my episcopal authority, and in the evening, with great effort, sent them away. But even after their departure the man of God was not defeated by nature, but maintained his endurance until the dead of night set in and compelled everyone to go home. Coming to him again on the next day, I saw that the burning heat had become still more intense and that the fever that beset him was nourished and increased by the fire without; so alleging a headache, I said that the impact of the sun’s rays was causing me discomfort, and asked him to improvise for me some slight shade by him. He gave the order, and by fixing three stakes and putting two cloaks on them we contrived some shade. When he bid me go inside, I replied, ‘It would be disgraceful, father, for me, who am young and strong, to obtain this relief, while you, who are beset by a violent fever and need such solace, sit outside, receiving the impact of the sun's rays. Therefore (I continued) if you want me to enjoy the shade, come and share with me this scanty tent; for I wish to stay beside you, but am hindered by the rays.’ On hearing this plea he consented, and chose to render me service.

When we were enjoying the shade together, I started on another plea, and said I needed to lie down, since my hip found sitting painful. Again he begged me to lie down, and heard in reply that I could not bear to lie down and see him seated: ‘Therefore,’ I said, ‘if you want me to enjoy this rest as well, let us lie down together, father, for I will not have the embarrassment of lying down alone.’ By this plea I outwitted his endurance and gave him the relief of lying down. Now that he was stretched out on the ground, I made agreeable remarks to him, to make his soul more cheerful; and putting my hand inside his clothing, I tried gently to rub his back. It was then that I perceived the great load of iron that bound his waist and his neck; and other chains, two in front and two behind, extending obliquely from the circle round his neck to the circle below, and forming the shape of the letter X, connected the two circles to each other, both in front and behind; and beneath his clothing his arms bore other bonds of this kind round his elbows. On perceiving this tremendously heavy load, I begged him to assist his sick body, which could not bear at the same time both the voluntary load and the involuntary infirmity. ‘At the moment, father,’ I said, ‘the fever is doing the work of the iron; when it abates, let us at that stage impose on the body again the labour from the iron.’ He yielded to this as well, bewitched by these many words of enchantment.

On this occasion he recovered easily after a few days of illness; but at a later time he fell ill of a more serious disease. As many came together from all sides to seize his body, all the men of the town, when they heard of it, hastened together, soldiers and civilians, some taking up military equipment, others using whatever weapons lay to hand. Forming up in close order, they fought by shooting arrows and slinging stones - not to wound, but simply to instil fear. Having thus driven off the local inhabitants, they placed the all-round contestant on a litter, while he was quite unconscious of what was happening - he was not even conscious of his hair being plucked out by the peasants -, and set off to the city. Arriving at the shrine of the Prophet, they placed the litter in the retreat adjoining it. Someone came to Berœa, where I happened to be, to tell what had happened and bring the news of his death; immediately I made haste and spent the whole night traveling, and just after daybreak reached the man of God, who was neither speaking nor able to recognize any of those present. But when I addressed him to tell him that the great Acacius sent his respects, he instantly opened his eyes, asked how he was, and inquired when I had come. When I had answered these questions, he shut his eyes again. After three days had passed, in the evening, he asked where he was; on being told, he was extremely vexed, and demanded to be taken back at once to the mountain. In my wish to serve him in everything, I gave immediate instructions for his litter to be brought and to be carried to the desired spot. It was then that I witnessed the lack of vanity in this, to me venerable, person.

On the next day I brought him some barley gruel, which I had cooled - since he refused to take anything hot, having renounced entirely the use of fire. Since he was unwilling to partake, I said, ‘Show consideration, father, for all of us, for we think your health to be preservation for all. For not only are you set before us as a model that is of benefit, but you also help us by your prayers and procure us God's favour. If the disruption of your habits torments you, father’ (I continued), ‘endure this as well, for this too is a form of philosophy. Just as when in health and desiring food you overcame appetite by endurance, so now when you have no appetite show endurance by taking food.’ While I was saying this, the man of God Polychronius was also present, who, to support my plea, volunteered to be the first to take food, although it was morning and he often fed his body at seven day intervals. Worsted by this reasoning, he swallowed one cup of the gruel with his eyes shut, just as we normally do with bitter drinks.

I think it useful to reveal as well the following example of the philosophy of his soul, which occurred after we induced him to wet with water the feet that out of debility had lost the ability to walk. The cup was lying nearby, and one of the attendants tried to cover it with a basket so that it should not be visible to those who visited him. ‘Why,’ he asked, ‘do you cover the cup?’ The other replied, ‘To stop it being exposed to the gaze of visitors.’ ‘Clear off, boy,’ he exclaimed, ‘do not hide from men what is manifest to the God of the universe. Wishing to live for him alone, I have paid no thought to my reputation with men; for what benefit is it, if the latter think more of my asceticism but God thinks less? For they are not the givers of reward for labours, but God is the bestower.’ Who would not be overwhelmed with admiration both at these words and at the mind, so superior to human reputation, that bred them?

I learnt of something similar that occurred on some other occasion. It was evening, late evening, and the time for nourishment. So taking the potsherd lying to hand, he ate the soaked lentils - for this was his food. There came someone from the town, entrusted with some military exaction. James, seeing him at a distance, did not put his lentils aside, but continued swallowing the food as usual. And thinking him to be a demonic illusion, he assailed him with words, to drive him off as an enemy; and to show he was not afraid, he continued during this to put lentils in his mouth. The man being assailed with abuse besought him, and declared he was a man, and that he had arrived at this time because obliged by an oath to leave the city towards evening. ‘Be of good courage,’ said the other, ‘and do not be afraid, but pray and then depart. Be my table-companion, and share this food with me.’ While saying this, he filled his hand and gave a portion of the lentils. In this way he has expelled from his mind the passion of vainglory together with the others.

But of his endurance it is superfluous to speak, since sight is the witness. Often after snow has fallen for three days and as many nights, he has been so buried, when lying prone in prayer to God, that not even a tiny piece of the rags that cover him can be seen. Often his neighbours have to use forks and shovels and in this way remove the snow covering him, in order to drag out and revive his supine body.

As a result of these labours he has culled the gifts of divine grace, and these are shared by all who desire it. Through his blessing many fevers have been quenched – and still are – many agues have abated or departed completely, many demons have been forced to flee; and water blessed by his hand becomes a preventive medicine. Who is ignorant of the resuscitation of a dead child that occurred through his prayer? In the suburbs of the city lived the child's parents, who had begotten many children and escorted them all prematurely to the grave. So when this last child was born, the father hastened to the man of God, begging to obtain a long life for it, and promising to dedicate it to God, should it live. After living for four years, it came to the end of its life. The father was absent; but the moment he returned, he saw the child being already carried out. Snatching it from the bier, he said, ‘It is fitting that I fulfil my promise and give the child, even though dead, to the man of God.’ So he took it as he had promised, and laid it before those holy feet, saying what he had already said to his household. The man of God, placing the child before him and kneeling down, lay prostrate as he entreated the Master of life and death. In the late afternoon the child made utterance and called its father. This inspired man, perceiving thereby that the Master had accepted the petition and bestowed life, got up, and after worshipping the One who does the will of those who fear him and hearkens to their requests, completed his prayer and restored the child to its begetter. I myself saw the child and heard the father narrating the miracle; and I have transmitted to many this story worthy of the Apostles, knowing that it will be a cause of great benefit to those who hear it.

I myself have often enjoyed his help. I shall recall one or two instances, knowing that it would be the height of ingratitude to consign to silence, and not to make known, his varied good services. The abominable Marcion had sown many thorns of impiety in the territory of the city of Kyrrhos (Cyrus); trying to pull these out by the root, I shook every sail and applied persistently every device. But those who received these attentions from me ‘instead of loving me (in the words of the prophet) calumniated me, and returned against me evil for good, and hatred for my love.’ They tried to make war invisibly by using magic spells and having recourse to the cooperation of evil demons. Once by night there came a wicked demon, who exclaimed in Syriac, ‘Why, Theodoret, do you make war on Marcion? Why on earth have you joined battle with him? What harm has he ever done to you? End the war, stop your hostility, or you will learn by experience how good it is to stay quiet. Know well that I would long ago have pierced you through, if I had not seen the choir of the martyrs with James protecting you.’ I heard this, and said to one of my friends sleeping nearby, ‘Can you hear, my friend, what is being said?’ ‘I heard it all,’ he replied, ‘and though I wanted to get up and peer and find out who was speaking, I kept quiet for your sake, supposing you to be asleep.’ So getting up we both peered about, and saw no one moving and heard no one speaking; the others who lived with us had also heard these words. I realized that by “the choir of martyrs” was meant the flask of oil of the martyrs, with a blessing gathered from very many martyrs, which was hung up by my bed; and under my head lay an old cloak of the great James, which for me had been stronger than any defences of steel.

When I was about to attack the chief village of these same men, and many things got in the way to hinder my setting out, I sent to my Isaiah, begging to enjoy divine reinforcement. ‘Have confidence,’ he said, ‘for all those hindrances have been swept away like spiders’ webs; God taught me this by night, not sketching a shadowy dream but displaying a vision. For I saw (he continued), as I was beginning the hymnody, in that part where those places are situated, a fiery serpent crawling from the west to the east and carried through mid-air. After completing three more prayers, I saw it curled up and displaying a circular shape, touching its tail with its head. After finishing eight more prayers, I saw it cut in two and dissolved into smoke.’ This is what he foresaw, and we witnessed how the issue agreed with the prediction. For in the morning, under the command of the serpent, originator of evil, those who were formerly of the company of Marcion, but now belong to the host of the Apostles, set out from the west, brandishing naked swords against us. About the third hour of the day they formed up in close order, taking thought only for their own protection, just as the serpent covered his head with his tail. At the eighth hour they dispersed, giving us room to enter the village. And we immediately found a serpent made out of bronze material which they worshipped – for having openly declared war against the Creator and Maker of the universe, they were eager to serve the accursed serpent as being his enemy. Such are the good services which I have myself received from this, to me venerable, person.

Since my account has entered on the narration of divine revelations, I shall narrate what I heard from this tongue incapable of deceit. He told this story not out of vanity – for his godly soul is far removed from this passion – but because a certain need compelled him to tell what he wished to hide. I was asking him to beg the God of the universe to make the crop clear of weeds and free it altogether from the seeds of heresy, for I was utterly tormented by the error of the abominable Marcion’s having so strong a hold. To my earnest entreaty he replied, ‘You need neither myself nor some other intercessor with God, for you have the famous John, the mouthpiece of the Word, the forerunner of the Master, who constantly transmits this petition on your behalf.’ When I declared that I had faith in the prayers of this saint as in those of the other holy apostles and prophets whose relics had lately been brought to us, he said, ‘Have confidence, since you have John the Baptist.’ But not even so could I bear to keep silent. I pressed my inquiries all the more in my desire to learn why he made mention of this one in particular. ‘I wanted,’ he replied, ‘to embrace his beloved relics.’ When I said I would not bring them unless he promised to tell me what he had seen, he gave the promise, and I on the next day brought what he longed for; and ordering everyone to keep at a distance, he recounted to me alone the following. ‘At the time,’ he said, ‘that you welcomed with Davidic choral singing the arrival from Phœnicia and Palestine of these city-guardians, a thought occurred to me whether these were in reality the relics of the famous John and not of some other martyr of the same name. Now one day later I got up at night for the hymnody, and saw someone clad in white who said, “Brother James, tell me why you did not come to meet us on our arrival.” When I asked who they were, he replied, “Those who came yesterday from Phœnicia and Palestine. While everyone welcomed us enthusiastically – the shepherd and the people, townsfolk and countrymen – you alone did not take part in this veneration.”’ He was alluding to the doubts I felt. ‘At this (James continued) I replied, Even in the absence of you and the others, I venerate you and worship the God of all things. Again on the next day, at the same time, he himself appeared: “Brother James,” he said, “look at the one standing there, whose raiment is like the snow in colour, and before whom is placed a furnace of fire.” I moved my eyes in that direction and surmised it was John the Baptist, for he wore his cloak, and was stretching out his hand as if baptizing. “It is the one,” he said, “whom you have guessed it to be.” And on another occasion (he continued), when you departed by night to their principal village, in order to punish them as seditious, and bade me address still more earnest prayer to God, I persevered without sleep entreating the Master. Then I heard a voice saying, “Fear not, James. The great John the Baptist all night entreats the God of the universe; for there would have been great slaughter, had not the insolence of the devil been extinguished by his intercession.”’ After recounting this to me, he charged me to keep the knowledge to myself and not make others share it; but I, for the sake of the benefit, have not only recounted the story to many, but also entrust it to writing.

He said that he had also beheld the patriarch Joseph, with his hoary head and beard, emitting in old age the radiance of youth, and at the summit of virtue naming himself the last of the saints. ‘While I,’ he continued ‘declared him to be the first of those who shared a tomb with him, he called himself the last.’

He also recounted to me the attacks of all kinds made on him by the evil demons. ‘At my very entry,’ he said, ‘into this way of life, I used to see someone naked, with the appearance of an Ægyptian, shooting fire from his eyes. I, on seeing him, would be filled with fear, have recourse to prayer and could not bear to take food, for it was at this time that he used to appear. When seven, eight, ten days had passed and I remained without food, finally, despising the evil onslaught, I sat down and took food. But he could not bear my elevation of mind, and threatened to strike me with a rod. But I (he continued) said, “If you have been given permission by the Master of the universe, then strike, and I shall receive the blow with pleasure, as being struck by Him; but if you have not been given permission, you will not strike, however infinite your frenzy.” On hearing this, he on this occasion fled away. His frenzy, however, continued in secret. Water was brought to me from below twice a week. Meeting the carrier and imitating my appearance, he would take the water and, after telling him to depart, pour it away. This he did not merely twice but three times, and the affliction of thirst made war upon me. In my torment, I asked the usual carrier, “Why on earth for fifteen days have you not brought water?” He replied that he had brought it three times already, indeed four times, and that I had received it from him. “And where,” I asked, “did I receive this water from you when you brought it?” When he indicated the place, I said: “Even if on innumerable occasions you see me there, do not hand over the jar until you come to this place.”

After I had in this way frustrated his plot, I was tested again by another one. Crying out at night, he said: “I shall fill you with such a stench, and spread so evil a reputation, that no one from anywhere will look at you.” To this (he continued) I made reply: “I shall concede thanks to you, for against your will you will be doing your enemy a kindness, by making him luxuriate all the more in remembering God; for enjoying greater leisure, I shall keep up as my uninterrupted task contemplation of the divine beauty.” After a few days had passed, (he continued) when at midday I was performing the customary liturgy, I saw two women coming down from the mountain. When in vexation at this unusual occurrence I tried to throw stones at them, I recalled the threat of the avenging spirit and guessed this to be the evil reputation. So I shouted that even if they sat on my shoulders I would not throw stones at them or chase them away, but have recourse to prayer alone. When I said this, they vanished, and the visual illusion ended as I spoke.

After this again (he continued) I was praying by night, when the noise of a carriage reached me, as also the cry of a driver and of horses whinnying. The novelty of the thing bewildered me, for I reflected that no governor was staying in the city at that time, that the road was not for carriages, and that the time of day was not suitable for carriages. As I was having these thoughts, there was heard a tumult of a great company approaching and the cries of the rod-bearers in front, hissing to clear the crowd out of the way and make the road ready for the governor. When they seemed to me to be extremely close (he continued), I said, “Who are you? Where have you come from? For what purpose have you come at this time? How long will you keep up your jesting, you wretch, and presume upon the divine forbearance?” This I said as, facing east, I addressed petition to God. The other gave me a push, but had not the strength to knock me down – for divine grace resisted – and immediately the whole apparition vanished.’

He related too how, at the time when those wicked brigands coming from Isauria burnt and plundered most of the east, he was terrified at the thought, not of being killed – he was not so in love with the body – but of enslavement and captivity and witnessing impiety and lawlessness. The devil, perceiving this fear – for he often heard him express it to his friends – imitated by night the wailing of women. ‘I thought I could hear,’ he continued, ‘the enemy arriving and setting fire to the villages. I at once parted the hair on my head, drawing some on the left and some on the right down my shoulders to my chest, and made my neck ready to be severed by the sword, so that receiving the blow immediately, I might be spared the sight I deprecated. When day came and some people arrived, after spending the whole night like this, all the time expecting an assault, I asked what they had heard of the Isaurians. They replied that during these days they had heard nothing of them. That (he concluded) was how I discovered that this too was a diabolical illusion.’

‘On another occasion,’ he said, ‘in the likeness of a youth in full vigour, resplendent in bloom and adorned with blond hair, he came up to me both grinning and flirting. But I (he continued), was armed with indignation and drove him off with abuse. But he persevered with his wanton look and with a grin and speech that reeked of pleasure. At this point I intensified my anger: “How do you have the strength,” I said, “to traverse the whole world and lay such snares for all men?” He replied that he was not on his own, but that a mass of demons was scattered through the whole world, to play tricks and be at work simultaneously; for by their playful appearance they are at work to destroy the whole human race. “But as for you,” I said, “go away: you are being ordered by Christ, who by means of swine sent a whole legion into the abyss.” As soon as he heard this, he fled, not able either to endure the power of the Master’s name or to look at the radiance of the philosophers of His household.’

I know many more stories than these, but I do not wish to record them, lest their quantity become for the more weak an excuse for disbelief. To those who see the man of God no story of this kind appears incredible, because the virtue they see confirms the stories. But since this composed narrative will pass down to posterity and most people trust their ears less than their eyes, let us adjust the narration to the weakness of the hearers.

Others built him a great tomb a few stades away in the neighbouring village, while I prepared a grave for him in the shrine of the triumphant Apostles. But on learning of this, the man of God besought me many times to bury his body on the mountain itself; I replied as often that it is not fitting for one who is indifferent to the present life to take thought for his burial. But when I saw that this was dose to his heart, I agreed and consented, and made arrangements for the coffin to be carved and brought up; and when I saw that the stone was being damaged by the frost, I ordered a small hut to be made for the coffin. When, following his orders, we had completed the construction and put on the roof, he said: ‘I will not allow this tomb to be called that of James. I want it to be a shrine of the triumphant martyrs, and myself like some immigrant to be placed in another tomb, honoured to dwell with them.’ This he not only declared but accomplished. Collecting from all sources many prophets, many apostles, and as many martyrs as possible, he placed them in a single coffin, in his wish to dwell with the assembly of the saints, and his desire to share with them both the resurrection and the privilege of the vision of God.

This is sufficient to prove his modesty of spirit. Although he had amassed such wealth of virtue, while living in extreme poverty, he desired to dwell with the company of the rich. Of what kind are the labours of this, to me venerable, person, how great his contests, how much grace from God he has enjoyed, what victories he has won and with what crowns he has been adorned, these stories are sufficient to teach. Since some people accuse him of peevishness of character and are annoyed at his love of solitude and tranquillity, it is after saying a few words on this that I shall bring the account to an end.

As I have said already, he lies exposed to everyone’s gaze, being neither fenced round with an enclosure nor sheltered by some hut or tent; each of his visitors, because hindered by no barrier, goes to him at once and wants to make conversation. Other lovers of this philosophy have enclosures and doors and the enjoyment of tranquillity; the recluse opens when wishing to, delays as long as he wants, and has his fill of divine contemplation as long as he wishes. But here there is none of this; and this is the essential reason why he gets annoyed with those who are a nuisance at the very time of prayer. If at his bidding they go away at once, he again concentrates on prayer; but if they continue to be a nuisance and do not obey when ordered once or even twice, then he is annoyed and sends them away with a rebuke. I myself have had a discussion with him on this matter. I told him that some people were upset at being driven away without even a blessing. ‘It would be proper,’ I said, ‘for those who come for this and make a journey of many days to depart not in vexation but full of joy, to feast the ignorant with stories of your philosophy.’ He replied, ‘I did not come to the mountain for another’s sake but for my own. Bearing the wounds of so many sins, I need much treatment, and because of this I beseech our Master to give me the antidotes to wickedness. How, then, would it not be absurd and utterly senseless to break the sequence of petition and make conversation with men in between? If I happened to be the domestic of a human being like myself, and at the time for serving the master failed to bring the food or drink at the right time but instead made conversation with one of my fellow-servants, what great blows would I not justly receive? And if I went to the governor and, while relating an injustice I had suffered from someone, broke off my discourse in the middle and made some other remarks to one of those present, do you not think that the judge would be annoyed, withdraw his assistance, and have me whipped and driven from the bar? How could it be right for a domestic to behave appropriately towards a master, and a plaintiff towards a judge, but for me, as I approach God, the eternal Master, the Judge most just and King of all things, not to make my approach like these, but during my prayers to turn to my fellow-servants and hold a long conversation with them?’ This is what I heard and have transmitted to those who had taken offence; and he seems to me have spoken well and fairly. In addition to what he said, it is characteristic of lovers to overlook everyone else and cleave to the one they cherish and love, to dream of him by night and think of him by day. It is, I think, for this reason that he is annoyed when, in the middle of the contemplation he longs for, he is prevented from being immersed in the beauty he loves.

We have composed this in the form of a narrative not of a panegyric, paying close attention to brevity, in order not by length to exhaust our readers. If he outlives this narration for a time, he will doubtless add innumerable other achievements to his earlier ones, and others will record them. As for us, great is the longing to depart from here. May the Umpire of the athletes of piety grant this man an end worthy of his labours, and make the rest of his course consonant with the earlier part, so that he may reach the finishing-post as victor; and may He through the prayers of this man support our weakness, so that strengthened we may retrieve our many defeats and depart from this life with victory.
As we can see, Blessed Theodoret had the very highest of respect for this holy man of Kyrrhos. Strange though it may be, if today we here in America have leave to feast in an expression of gratitude to God, we should temper the day with the knowledge that this man, Saint Iakōbos, kept a lifelong fast, and lived lifelong in the deserts of Syria, to express the same gratitude to God for all things, and moreover was of great help and a great blessing in the lives of others – not least of them Theodoret himself. Holy and venerable Iakōbos, blessed ascetic and hermit of the Syrian desert, pray unto Christ our God that our souls may be saved!
Apolytikion for Saint James the Solitary, Tone 8:

By a flood of tears you made the desert fertile,
And your longing for God brought forth fruits in abundance.
By the radiance of miracles you illumined the whole universe!
O our holy father James, pray to Christ our God to save our souls!

22 November 2020

Saint Agabbas the Hermit of Syria

Today is the feast-day in the Orthodox Church of Saint Agabbas (also, evidently, ‘Abbâs عباس or Âġâ ‘Abbâs آغا عباس) the Syrian, who lived during the 400s. His hagiography names him among the Banû ’Ismâ‘îl بنو اسماعيل (that is to say, he was an Arab). He pursued the ascetic life in Syria, and was a novice under a monk named Eusebios, from whom he learned the practice of hesychasm: inward prayer and silence. Saint Agabbas lived as a hermit for thirty-eight years and practised a stringent form of asceticism. He always went about barefoot, wore heavy chains around his loins, and never sat or lay down. He spent all his time either standing or kneeling, and prayed constantly. He finished his ascetic life in peace. Venerable Agabbas, holy ascetic and hesychast, pray unto Christ our God that our souls may be saved!

20 November 2020

Holy Martyr Dasios of Durostorum

Saint Dasios of Durostorum

The twentieth of November is the feast-day in the Orthodox Church of the holy martyr Saint Dasios of Durostorum, a young and handsome Roman soldier of the Legio XI Claudiana, stationed on the Danube River, who was martyred in the early fourth century. He was the first of the martyrs to be slain at Durostorum during the persecutions of Emperor Diocletian. The centre of his cultus is in Italy, in the city of Ancona whence his relics were moved for protection against the marauding Avars. But he is also reverenced among Orthodox Christians particularly in the Balkans.

Dasios [Gk. Δάσιος, L. Dasius, CS Дазий] was a youthful and vigorous soldier of the Roman legions, who was openly allowed to have been a Christian under prior Roman Imperial administrations. With Diocletian’s ascent to power, however, the Christians among the Roman soldiery were faced with a difficult choice: to keep their positions by denying Christ and swearing fealty to the Emperor as a living god; or else to face ritual humiliation, torture and execution. Pagan festivities were often used as pretexts for detecting and persecuting Christians, and Dasios was no exception to this. Because his features were so fine, he was chosen by lot to be the sacrificial ‘king’ of the festival of Saturnalia. He refused this honour, and told his fellow-officers that: ‘Since I am fated to die, it is better that I die for Christ as a Christian.’

He was apprehended and interrogated by his commanding officer, a man named Bassos, before whom Dasios openly denied the divinity of the Roman Emperor. For this act, as was supposed, of lèse-majesté, Dasios was hauled before the co-emperors Diocletian and Maximian themselves. Again and again he confessed Christ before them, refused to acknowledge them as gods, and moreover openly denounced the impiety and error of the whole of the festival. Many who were there at Durostorum thereafter came to believe in Christ. For this, Saint Dasios was cruelly tortured and given over to be beheaded by the sword. The execution took place on the twentieth day of November – the twenty-fourth day of the lunar cycle – at the fourth hour; his executioner was a man named Aniketos, also called Iōannēs. In this way, the holy martyr of God received the crown of his victory and was welcomed into the company of the saints.

His relics were buried in Durostorum – later Silistra in Bulgaria – by local Christians. They were popularly venerated even shortly after his death, and a Vita was written in the fourth century not long after his martyrdom. When the Turco-Mongolic Avars invaded Thrace in the 500s, however, the relics of Saint Dasios were moved to Ancona in Italy for safer keeping. They were enshrined in the Chiesa di San Ciriaco there, in an exquisite marble sarcophagus, and continued to receive the adulation of faithful Christians at that resting place. In 2002, in a gesture of goodwill toward Orthodox Christians, Pope John Paul II on a visit to Silistra in Bulgaria made a gift of Saint Dasios’s right upper arm to the Metropolia of Dorostol, in a marble sarcophagus which was a careful replica in miniature of the one in Ancona. Holy martyr Dasios, bold confessor of Christ before the pagans, pray unto Christ our God for the salvation of our souls!