28 November 2018

Holy Hierarch Ælfríc of Abingdon and Canterbury


Abingdon Abbey

The feast of Saint Ælfríc of Abingdon, the late tenth-century Archbishop of Canterbury and successor to Saint Dunstan in that office, is celebrated tomorrow on the Orthodox Old Calendar. Ælfríc belonged to a family of well-born Kentish Jutes, and he spent much of his early career as a simple Benedictine monk at Abingdon Abbey in Berkshire. Being high-born, he was not well-fit for bookish pursuits, but as a man of his time he found his calling in shielding his flock from Danish sea-raids with his body during the ill-fated reign of Æþelræd II ‘Unræd’ in England.

Ælfríc took well, it seems, to the monastic life, and he was chosen as abbot for the Cathedral and Abbey Church of Saint Alban in Herts; after this, he was given the Bishopric of Ramsbury in the year 990 and the Archbishopric of Canterbury in 995. He was (and this was a particularly crucial issue in this era of the English Church) a bold and vocal champion of the rights of monasteries vis-à-vis sæcular lords and kings, who regularly attempted to wrest control of lands from the Church as well as the right to make appointments of high clergy. (This issue came to a head, not coincidentally, in the wake of the Great Schism, and has never really gone away. It is indeed a problem in some Orthodox jurisdictions.) Ælfríc managed to secure for his home abbey of Abingdon in particular the right to elect their own abbots internally, as well as getting rulers to return lands that had been taken from the abbey since the death of a former abbot of Abingdon, Æþelwold.

Æþelræd ‘Unræd’ was particularly egregious in this regard, in the early part of his reign. He had appointed a political yes-man to head Abingdon, and had proceeded to take Church lands and distribute them to his vassals. Ælfríc was instrumental, as bishop, in getting Æþelræd to repent of his anti-clerical actions. As Abingdon’s biography of Ælfríc states:
Æþelwold had adopted a French practice of including in his charters statements that anyone breaking their terms to the detriment of the monks would be under a curse. Nonetheless, after 984 when both Æþelwold and Osgar died, King Æþelræd gave the abbacy to an unsuitable candidate in exchange for a large sum of money and began to take over and disperse the Abbey’s endowments. In the early 990s, with the resumption of intense and destructive Viking incursions, Æþelræd became convinced that the curse was taking effect. There was a negotiation in which Ælfríc must have taken a major part, and at Pentecost (Whitsun) 993, at a large gathering in Winchester, the king admitted his faults and issued a charter of reconciliation. The monks had shown their forgiveness by asking God to forgive him. They had celebrated 1500 masses and completed a thousand ‘singings’ of psalms for the king’s soul, and he now guaranteed the abbey’s liberties and began a lengthy process of returning its properties. Ælfríc was one of the first of a long list of witnesses to the charter. He was also given one of the disputed estates, which he duly left to the abbey in his will.
Though this is the only example that the sæcular Abingdon biography gives, we see in Ælfríc’s letters that this was neither a lone nor a self-serving stance; indeed, he is consistent in his epistolary exhortations to the laity to be just and fair in their dealings, merciful to the poor, generous to orphans and widows, meek and peaceable in their interactions with each other; and there is good evidence to suggest that as abbot he made himself an example in all of these things. Ælfríc was apparently far better at being an abbatial administrator than he was a scholar or ascetic; even so, he commissioned hagiographic works commemorating his predecessors, Æþelwold and Dunstan. As Archbishop of Canterbury he also championed and deepened Æþelwold’s policy of reforms against simony and finical abuses of church property, for which he was accounted a ‘beacon among the bishops’.

However, in addition to all of this, when the Danes began raiding the Kentish shoreline Ælfríc seems to have taken up arms in defence of his home (as indeed, in time of distress, some of the monks of Radonezh did when the Tatars attacked Russia at the Battle of Kulikovo). His will, additionally, leaves to the English king a number of ships and a store of military equipment, and a request that with the receipt of this gift by the king, the military levies on the common folk be reduced. Even though the deeds which he himself is supposed to have done against the Danes have been lost to time, his epitaph at Abingdon describes him as a ‘Defender of the Kingdom’ and ‘Guardian of the Homeland of the English’, which seem to indicate a certain degree of military exploit during his time as bishop.

The hagiographic and sæcular treatments of the life of Ælfríc show us the portrait of a Teutonic atheling – not particularly learnèd, not particularly ascetic in the conventional sense, still possessed of a certain degree of warlike thumos and ambition, but a man nevertheless who had learned in some degree to moderate these worldly faults and bend them to serve the Church. In other words, Ælfríc was a gentleman in the mediæval sense: a fighter who held himself in check, a lordling who noted his inborn pride and yoked it to the defence of the Church’s rights against his own kin by way of blood and by way of the world. We may also see in his example, someone who understood his own strengths and lay down his body to shield the weak, to guard his beloved Kent against heathen Danes gone a-viking when the strength of his king failed. In both of these things, we can see a different, but no less honourable, form of askēsis.

Holy Hierarch Ælfríc of Canterbury, pray to God for us sinners!

24 November 2018

Eanflæd the Venerable, Abbess of Whitby


Ruins of Whitby Abbey

On the twenty-fourth of November we commemorate another Orthodox Yorkshirewoman of great holiness and virtue, Eanflæd daughter of Éadwine King of Northumbria, wife of Oswiu of Berenice, Benedictine nun, contemporary and kinswoman of Saint Hilda, friend to Saint Cuthbert and Saint Theodore, mentor to Saint Wilfrid, mother of four including Ælfflæd of Whitby and with her, co-abbess of the monastery at Whitby.

Her father Éadwine was still a Teutonic heathen when Eanflæd was born, but her mother Æthelburh was a Christian who had been accompanied by Bishop Paulinus northward to York at her wedding. Saint Bede tells the tale that Cwichelm of Wessex afterward sent an assassin to murder Éadwine, but a servant of his, Lilla, sacrificed herself to save her king’s life. The shock of the attack caused Æthelburh to go into labour, and she gave birth to Eanflæd that same night. Bishop Paulinus prevailed upon Éadwine to have young Eanflæd baptised and to be baptised himself if Éadwine would recover from his wounds and be granted a victory over Cwichelm. He and Eanflæd were baptised together on the twelfth day after Pentecost; a Welsh tradition has it also that the one who baptised Eanflæd was Rhun ap Urien of Rheged.

Éadwine was received into the Church by baptism the following year, and many in Yorkshire were baptised with him. He led the Northumbrian armies into battle against Penda of Mercia, but was slain in the fighting – as a result, Orthodox and Catholic Christians commemorate Éadwine as a martyr for Christ. Eanflæd was raised by her saintly mother and by Bishop Paulinus at Lyminge in Kent, in exile from Northumbria as the Mercian king laid waste the Christian works that her father Éadwine had begun. Eanflæd went back to Northumbria to marry Oswiu of Berenice, who was still then a heathen. When Oswiu had his Christian cousin Oswine murdered to gain control of Deira, Eanflæd convinced her husband to lay the cornerstone of a new monastery in Oswine’s name, at the very spot where Oswine fell, at Gilling. Trumhere, Oswine’s kinsman, became the first abbot of the new monastery.

This was around the same time as the controversy in England over whether to follow the ‘Celtic’ or the ‘Roman’ calculation of Eastertide, which led to the Synod of Whitby. Most Northumbrian Christians at the time followed the ‘Celtic’ calculations, and Oswiu himself was a partizan of the Celtic date, though Eanflæd (who had been raised in Kent) favoured the Roman date. The king of Northumbria summoned the Synod, at which Saint Colmán of Lindisfarne, Saint Hilda of Whitby, Saint Cedd of Lastingham, Saint Agilbert of Paris and Saint Wilfrid were all present. Though Saint Bede himself is far from a neutral historical observer of the event, we may take his word for it that Saint Wilfrid was the man of the hour at the Synod, since he managed to convince Oswiu and most of the Celtic party (except for Saint Colmán, sadly) to adopt the Roman date calculation for Easter.

Oswiu died six years after the Synod at Whitby, as he was on pilgrimage to Rome. The widowed Eanflæd was tonsured a nun at Whitby in obedience to Saint Hilda while she was still Abbess there. Eanflæd and her daughter Ælfflæd became joint Abbesses after Hilda’s repose, and she had her husband and saintly father translated to Whitby and buried there and began promoting their glorification. She devoted the rest of her life, as Bede recounts, to the ascetic life, to charitable works, and to prayers for the souls of her departed husband and father. Her daughter, in turn, was made of similar stuff as her saintly forebears Æthelburh and Eanflæd were; she too was an energetic and devoted Abbess of Whitby, and a saint in her own time, after her mother met her repose on the twenty-fourth of November.

Holy Mother Eanflæd of Whitby, pray to Christ our God for us sinners!

21 November 2018

She is the true Temple


Today is the Entrance of the Most Holy Theotokos into the Temple; one of the great Feasts of the Blessed Virgin in the Orthodox Church. It commemorates the occasion on which the holy ancestors of God Joachim and Anna presented the three-year-old Mary at the Temple and devoted her to the service of God, though the date is fixed to the dedication of a Cathedral erected in Jerusalem in 543 at the behest of Emperor Justinian (and thus the observance has something of an imperial flavour to it).

According to the tradition, the Blessed Virgin Mary was brought by her parents to the Temple to be consecrated to the Lord in the presence of the High Priest Zacharias; her parents made a solemn procession of young girls holding lamps before her as they made their way to the Temple. But on the way, the infant Mary was overcome with joy, not looking back at her parents but keeping her eyes fixed on the Temple – she broke into a run as they approached, past all of her attendants, and leapt into the arms of Zacharias, who received her with the same joy and gladness, giving her his blessing. Then Zacharias brought her into the Holy of Holies where even the High Priest was only permitted on the High Holy Day every year: to the wonder and amazement of all who beheld it, the grace of God descended upon the infant girl, who began to dance with joy on the steps of the altar – just as her ancestor David had danced with joy before the Ark in a garment of linen.

The Most Holy Theotokos could do, in the infant innocence which she would bear unblemished and immaculate even to adulthood, what not even David had dared to do. She came before God with a child’s vulnerability and singleness of heart. She did what was forbidden to everyone else, not as an act of disobedience or of self-display or of self-justification, but because she was simply caught up in the joy of being in the presence of God. One can see in this story precisely the kind of spiritual doyikayt that marked her out. She had no reflexive notion of being in Jerusalem, no ego in her gaze upon the Temple, only the sheer exuberant joy of being here, wholly in God’s presence. (I could with justice remark again on how this singleness of mind and lack of ego makes her not a Zionist, but that would be a big step down from the material point, which has to do with her personality itself.)

Furthermore, this she was allowed to do by the High Priest himself, because she, not the building of stones and mortar, was the true Temple. She, and not a building of stones and mortar, was to bear the Holy of Holies within her womb. She, and not a building of stones and mortar, to give flesh and a human nature to the Most High God, to place the finishing mark of God upon His creation in the Person of Jesus Christ. In the Orthodox Church, the Holy Theotokos is honoured and cherished the most highly for this. She is, to be sure, as we say and as we feel and as we know, the crown of all creation, the queen of all things intelligible, the one true earthly Temple fit to house all heavenly things. In the tale of the Entrance of the Theotokos into the Temple which the Church bids us remember, we are reminded again both how truly human Mary was, and also how deeply hallowed in the humility and in the self-forgetting love which made her fit to be the true Temple.

It is only through the Ever-Blessed and Most Pure Mother of God, only through this self-forgetting love that she showed toward God in every aspect of her earthly life, that Christ appeared in the world. It is only through her that our fleshly nature could be saved. In her, rests all of creation’s hope, not least a sinner’s like mine.

Пресвятая Богородица, спаси нас!
Today is the preview of the good will of God,
Of the preaching of the salvation of mankind.
The Virgin appears in the temple of God,
In anticipation proclaiming Christ to all.
Let us rejoice and sing to her: Rejoice,
O Divine Fulfillment of the Creator’s dispensation.

20 November 2018

Saint Bernward and Saint Éadmund


Holy Hierarch Bernward of Hildesheim

Today on the Orthodox New Calendar we commemorate a continental Saxon saint, Bernward, the bishop of Hildesheim; and an insular Saxon one, Éadmund King of East Anglia.

Born to Saxon eldern – Bishop Saint Bernward’s grandfather Adalbero was a comes palatinus of Sachsen from the Hessengau – he was orphaned early in life and was given into the care of his uncle Bishop Folkmar, who held the Bishopric of Utrecht founded by Saint Willibrord three hundred years before. Folkmar entrusted his education to a schoolmaster in Heidelberg named Dankmar, who saw to it that he was given thorough learning in letters and arts.

Young Bernward, however, was more interested in what we would now call the STEM subjects: the natural sciences, mathematics and the crafts – and in particular the smelting, forging and casting of metal. He was particularly drawn to the art of working precious metals into things of beauty for liturgical use: chalices, censers, crosses. After that, he completed his studies in Mainz and was ordained to the priesthood by Saint Willigis of Mainz. He was a favourite of the Byzantine Greek princess and Imperial consort Theofanō, and was made in quick succession a High Chaplain at the court at Nimwegen and subsequently a tutor to her young son, the future Otto III.

Saint Bernward served as a priest in Hildesheim for some while; his charge was not only to educate the future Emperor but also to strengthen the Saxon people in the Christian faith – they had been baptised, and none too agreeably, only 200 years before. Bernward took to this work – caring for the poor and the sick, and often literally building new walls and edifices: often defensive emplacements to ward against the Slavs who lived to the east of Saxony, but also against the piratical Normans who attacked the continental Saxons as eagerly as they would later attack the insular ones. When his young charge came of age and became Emperor in his own right, Bernward was quickly anointed as a bishop; and he accompanied the Emperor on many of his campaigns.

Saint Bernward loved to work with his hands, and loved the crafts that came from them; though not a poor tektōn by birth as Our Lord was, he was nevertheless a tektōn at heart, by preference. He founded a number of workshops and guilds in Hildesheim, through which the town became under his direction a great cultural hub for sculpture, painting, architecture, metalwork and bookbinding. A Benedictine by sympathy, he laid the cornerstone of what would become the Benedictine Monastery of Saint Michael, and also commissioned the famous Bernwardtür on the Cathedral of Saint Mary in Hildesheim, which feature a series of parallel wrought images of the Fall of Man in Adam and the Redemption of Man in Christ.

He joined the Benedictines himself, and met his blessed repose shortly after blessing the Monastery of Saint Michael. A great pre-Schismatic patron of the arts, Saint Bernward is today commemorated in both the Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches, and he is considered in the Roman Catholic Church to be a patron of metalworkers. (As a machinist myself, I shall be sure to ask a few prayers to Christ our God from Saint Bernward of Hildesheim for good work and machines running true.)

20 November is also the feast-day of Éadmund, king of East Anglia and martyr of the Viking invasion of 869. Very little is known about the short reign of this young English king, or about his early life, to the point where his historicity is mostly witnessed by the coins minted under his reign. It is known that he acceded to the throne at the age of fourteen. Hagiographical accounts give Éadmund the cast of a righteous Germanic chieftain – trustworthy, even-handed, mistrustful of flattery – as well as of an observant Christian who could say the Psalter from memory.

It is also known that he was killed by the Danes when the Great Heathen Army landed on the English coast in 869, but Éadmund’s hagiographers are unclear about how. One source says that he faced them with his army and was slain in battle; another has it that he gave himself up without violence (as would the later Boris and Gleb in Rus’). A popular account given by Abbo of Fleury has it that the Danes captured him and brought him to Hoxne, where they beat him and bound him to the bole of a tree. When he cried aloud to Christ for strength, the Danes shot arrows into him and at last beheaded him. He was buried in a stead that thereafter became known as Bury St Edmunds, and a cultus quickly sprang up around his miraculous relics – but the shrine was sadly destroyed in the English Reformation. For a long while, he was the patron saint of all of England, though he was later replaced by Saint George.

Holy Hierarch Bernward and Holy Éadmund Martyr-King, pray to God for us!


Éadmund the Martyr-King

18 November 2018

Völkerwanderung, agriculture and civilisational crisis


Peter Heather’s book on The Goths was a fascinating read, though Heather himself seemed to be positioning his thesis in between two extremes of archæological and historiographical interpretation – that is to say, between the advocates of historical discontinuity and the advocates of continuity; or between the advocates of a migration-favourable historiography and those that favour stable populations. Heather has been touted as a kind of ‘rehabilitator of the Völkerwanderung’, but at least in the present book he is a fairly moderate one, and he does acknowledge and endorse to a certain extent the warnings of the migration-sceptics about reading too much movement of peoples into the archæological record. The book is a thorough education in a subject I had hitherto known little about: to wit, the Gothic ethnogenesis among the Wielbark and Chernyakhov cultures, and the establishment of the Gothic kingdoms in Italy and Spain. On the other hand, there were some treatments of the subject of the Teutonic migrations and the fall of the Western Roman Empire that should make for some discomfiting reading in our current political climate.

For one thing, pretty much all of the policy ‘solutions’ to the current immigration ‘problem’ that America seems to be facing were tried by the Roman Empire in the crises of the third through fifth centuries, and none of them seems to have worked particularly well. The Teutonic leadership brought in to serve as fœderati were not particularly keen on being assimilated; a ‘path’ to Roman citizenship through military service does not seem to have served as a particularly strong enticement in the end. And Heather notes that the Romans did build border walls to keep out barbarians, particularly after the first noticeable ‘trickles’ of the Teutonic Völkerwanderung in the third century; however, these walls were not particularly effective against either the movement of Germanic peoples within the Roman borders, or against the Huns (some of which walls the Goths themselves erected in their wake) when they arrived from regions eastward. The historical record does not appear to look kindly on those who endorse a one-size-fits-all solution; indeed, taken holistically, it appears to stand witness against both our political ‘sides’ on this question.

But though the Roman experience of the Völkerwanderung may seem somewhat relevant to the ‘immigration’ debate (like all analogies, there are some hard-and-fast limits to this one as well), there are also issues which are much more dire underlying it. Though (again) Heather stresses against popular readings of mass migrations as sudden or occurring in ‘waves’, he nonetheless does posit that a migration of people occurred in the third century from the northern reaches of Poland toward the shores of the Black Sea and the marches of the Eastern Roman Empire. Further, he indicates an agricultural crisis and population crisis as two of the factors coinciding with the gradual movement of people south and east:
Between the birth of Christ and the late Roman period, agricultural practice was transformed throughout central and northern Europe. At the start of the period, an extensive agriculture, of generally low productivity, prevailed across much of northern and central Europe. Based on the so-called ‘Celtic field’ system, it alternated short periods of cultivation with long periods of fallow. Little other effort was made to maintain the fertility of cultivated fields. For this reason, it was marked by dispersed, short-lived settlements. The regime was neither productive enough to generate dense settlement patterns, nor capable of maintaining crop yields in any particular area for an extended period … Ploughing took the form of narrow, criss-crossed scrapings, and the addition of ash – perhaps reflecting a slash-and-burn agriculture – the only form of fertilisation … Studies of so-called ‘micro-regions’ have suggested, consonant with this, that family groups would occupy a given area for between only two and three generations.

By the late Roman period, much more intensive agricultural regimes had evolved. The inhabitants of these villages practised mixed farming, part arable, part pastoral. The fact that they occupied the same site for several centuries shows that their inhabitants had developed new techniques for maintaining the fertility of their arable fields. In particular, they were to some extent integrating arable and pastoral production, using manure from their animals, together, probably, with some kind of two-crop rotation to maintain yields. These changes represent a revolution in agricultural productivity. It is now broadly accepted that these changes were associated with a substantial and general increase in population. Another broad indication of the same thing has been provided by pollen diagrams. Between the birth of Christ and the year 500, cereal pollens reached unprecedentedly high percentage values, at the expense of grass pollens, in wide areas of what is now the territory of Poland, the Czech Republic and Germany.
Heather notes further that the carrying capacity of the soil in those parts of what is now northern Poland settled by the Wielbark culture simply was not particularly amenable to this new kind of exploitation (or to the subsequent increase in population), while the lands south and east of the Carpathian Mountains were much better-suited. This, in combination with the fact that the warlike East Germanic peoples found the pickings from raids on richer peoples closer to the Roman border to be better, seems to have been the trigger for the first ‘trickles’ of Gothic peoples into the Balkans and onto the Roman march. Both positive inducements and negative environmental constraints seem to have driven the Goths in their first ‘wandering’, from northern Poland to the Balkans.

This analysis should set off some rather loud klaxons in the present. Even a series of relatively small interlinked technological changes in agricultural practice seems to be linked to one of the most politically-potent mass migrations in Western history. Now, we have a system of global monoculture, driven largely by the imperatives of multinational corporations and high finance, ridiculously dependent on fossil fuels to maintain its output, and it is manifestly maintaining its yields at the expense of the biosphere to the point where we already seem to be rendering some areas of the world markedly less hospitable to human agriculture and even habitation. The current technological fossil fuel and Green Revolution-driven change to the biosphere makes what the historical agricultural revolution did in central Europe look like child’s play, and we can already see how climate change is driving migration in the present. Given these indications, the fall of the Imperium Americanum looks likely to be more spectacular than that of the Imperium Romanum Occidentalis, and neither walls nor technocratic fixes nor broader citizenship are likely to stave it off.

Speaking honestly (there is a lot to unpack here, and I don’t plan to do it all here in one blog post) I don’t see anything short of an agricultural counter-revolution or alter-revolution being able to stem or blunt that fall. The shape of that agricultural counter-revolution is being indicated largely by Via Campesina, the New Rural Reconstruction and the Russian dacha movement. I don’t think it is an accident, either, that agrarian, peasant societies themselves are articulating this counter- or alter-revolutionary resistance to the dominance of monoculture, technological dependence and dependence on fossil fuels. At the same time, they are not doing so through bourgeois theories like distributism; in general, they appear to be accommodating pragmatically to existing political structures while building up alternative institutions for themselves at the local level. The direction indicated by these disparate movements is indeed more similar to the political projects of Gar Alperovitz or Jaroslav Vaněk.

Even though, as Peter Heather tells it, the Goths themselves were either destroyed by Byzantine military might and cunning, or else adapted themselves to an Iberian-Roman latifundia system that ended up subsuming their identity, that wasn’t the only possible response to the crisis. Others among the Teutonic peoples of the Völkerwanderungthe Alamanni in particular, but also the Franks, the Saxons and the Angles – began to build precisely these kinds of socialistic communal ownership schemes and common-pool systems for themselves (notably, the ‘open field system’); and they built them largely in response to the same œconomic pressures and agricultural innovations that exerted themselves among the Goths. But lest we be overly encouraged by the example of the early Germans, we need to be mindful that these institutional innovations were a response to a crisis. It seems others in the ‘crunchy’ counter-cultural conservative blogosphere have been thinking in the same direction. We human beings have enough inertia in our habits that we generally don’t reach for these sorts of alternatives, unless we are forced to by circumstances outside our control. This time, though, we really can’t afford to let our inertia get the better of us; and it strikes me that we need to marshal and direct the counter-cultural impulses from a broad range of political philosophies to overcome it.

17 November 2018

Venerable Hilda, Abbess of Whitby


Our mother among the saints Hilda of Whitby

Today we celebrate another Yorkshire saint and one of the great Orthodox holy women of England, Saint Hilda of Whitby. Her life is admirably recounted in Venerable Bede’s History of the English Church and People. I’m sure I could not do her any greater justice than the great and holy Benedictine chronicler has done already, so I shall recount Bede’s hagiography here:
In the following year, that is the year of our Lord 680, Hilda, abbess of the monastery of Whitby, a most religious servant of Christ, passed away to receive the reward of æternal life on the seventeenth of November at the age of sixty-six, after a life full of heavenly deeds.

Her life fell into two equal parts, for she spent thirty-three years most nobly in sæcular occupations, and dedicated the remainder of her life even more nobly to our Lord in the monastic life. She was nobly born, the daughter of Hereric, nephew to King Éadwine, with whom she received the Faith and sacraments of Christ through the preaching of Paulinus of blessed memory, first bishop of the Northumbrians, and she preserved this Faith inviolate until she was found worthy to see him in Heaven.

When she decided to abandon the sæcular life and serve God alone, she returned to the province of the East Angles, whose king was her kinsman; for having renounced her home and all that she possessed, she wished if possible to travel on from there into Gaul, and to live an exile for our Lord’s sake in the monastery of Cale. In this maner she hoped the more easily to attain her æternal heavenly home, for her sister Hǽreswíth, wife of Ealdwulf, King of the East Angles, was living there as a professed nun and awaiting her æternal crown. Inspired by her example, Hilda remained in the province a full year, intending to join her overseas; but when Bishop Aidan was recalled home, he granted her one hide of land on the north bank of the River Wear, where she observed the monastic rule with a handful of companions.

After this, Hilda was made abbess of the monastery of Heruteu, founded not long previously by Heiu, a devout servant of Christ who is said to have been the first woman in the province of Northumbria to take vows and be clothed as a nun, which she did with the blessing of Bishop Aidan. But soon after establishing the monastery she left for the town of Calcaria, which the English call Calcacæstir, and settled there. Then Christ’s servant Hilda was appointed to rule this monastery, and quickly set herself to establish a regular observance as she had been instructed by learned men; for Bishop Aidan and other devout men, who knew her and admired her innate wisdom and love of God, often used to visit and advise her.

When she had ruled this monastery for some years, constantly occupied in establishing the regular life, she further undertook to found or organize a monastery at a place known as Streaneshalch, and carried out this appointed task with great energy. She established the same regular life as in her former monastery, and taught the observance of justice, devotion, purity and other virtues, but especially in peace and charity. After the example of the primitive Church, no one there was rich or poor, for everything was held in common, and none possessed any personal property. So great was her prudence that not only ordinary folk, but kings and princes used to come and ask her advice in their difficulties. Those under her direction were required to make a thorough study of the Scriptures and occupy themselves in good works, in order that many might be found fitted for Holy Orders and the service of God’s altar.

Subsequently, five bishops were chosen from this monastery – Bosa, Hedda, Oftfor, John and Wilfrid – all of them men of outstanding merit and holiness. As already mentioned, Bosa was consecrated Bishop of York; Hedda became Bishop of Dorchester; and I shall tell in due course how John became Bishop of Hexham, and Wilfrid Bishop of York. Meanwhile I wish to speak of Oftfor, who having devoted himself to reading and studying the scriptures in both Hilda’s monasteries, wished to win greater perfection, and travelled to Kent in order to visit Archbishop Theodore, of blessed memory. When he had continued his studies under him for some while, he decided to visit Rome, which in those days was considered an act of great merit. On his return to Britain he visited the province of the Hwiccas, then ruled by King Osric, where he remained a long time, preaching the word of faith and setting an example of holy life to all who met and heard him. At this time Bosel, bishop of the province, was in such ill health that he was unable to carry out his duties, and Oftfor was therefore unanimously elected bishop in his place. At the request of King Æthelræd, he was consecrated by Bishop Wilfrid of blessed memory, who was acting as Bishop of the Middle Angles, since Theodore had died, and as yet no bishop had been appointed to succeed him. Tatfrid, predecessor of the man of God Bosel, an energetic and very learned man of great ability, had been elected bishop while a monk in Hilda’s monastery, but met an untimely death before he could be consecrated.

Christ’s servant Abbess Hilda, whom all her acquaintances called Mother because of her wonderful devotion and grace, was not only an example of holy life to members of her own community, for she also brought about the amendment and salvation of many living far distant, who heard the inspiring story of her industry and goodness. Her life was the fulfilment of a dream which her mother Breguswíth had when Hilda was an infant, during the time that her husband Hereric was living in banishment under the protection of the British king Cerdic, when he was poisoned. In this dream she fancied that he was suddenly taken away, and although she searched everywhere, she could find no trace of him. When all her efforts had failed, she discovered a most valuable jewel under her garments, and as she looked closely, it emitted such a brilliant light that all Britain was lit by its splendour. This dream was fulfilled in her daughter, whose life afforded a shining example not only to herself, but to all who wished to live a good life.

When Hilda had ruled this monastery for many years, it pleased the Author of our salvation to try her holy soul by a long sickness, in order that, like the Apostle, her strength might be perfected in weakness. She was attacked by a burning fever that racked her continually for six years; but during all this time she never ceased to give thanks to her Maker, or to instruct the floc committed to her both privately and publicly. For her own example taught them all to serve God rightly when in health, and to render thanks to him faithfully when in trouble or bodily weakness. In the seventh year of her illness she suffered interior pains, and her last day came.

About dawn she received the
Viaticum of the holy Communion, and when she had summoned all the servants of Christ in the monastery, she urged them to maintain the Gospel peace among themselves and with others. And while she was still speaking, she joyfully welcomed death, and, in the words of our Lord, passed from death to life.

That same night it pleased Almighty God to make her death known by means of a vision in a monastery some considerable distance away, which she had founded that year at Hackness. In this place there was a devout nun named Begu, who had vowed herself to God in virginity in the monastic life over thirty years previously. As she was resting in the sisters’ dormitory, she suddenly heard the well-known note of the bell that used to wake and call them to prayer when any of the sisters had died. Opening her eyes, as she thought, she saw the roof open and a great light pour in from above. While she gazed into this light, she saw the soul of God’s servant Hilda borne up to Heaven in the midst of the light accompanied and guided by angels. Then she awoke, and seeing the other sisters around her, realized that what she had seen was either a dream or a vision. Rising at once in alarm, she ran to Frigyth, who was Prioress at the time, and with many sighs and tears told her that their Mother the Abbess Hilda had departed this life, and that she had seen her surrounded by angels in a great light, and ascending to the abode of æternal light to join the company of the saints in Heaven. When she had heard the nun’s story Frigyth roused all the sisters, and when she had gathered them into the church, she enjoined them to pray and recite the
Psalter for the soul of their Mother.

They did this for the remainder of the night, and at daybreak some brothers arrived from the monastery where she had died with the news of her passing. The sisters replied that they already knew, and when they explained how and when they had heard it, it was evident that her death had been revealed to them by means of the vision at the very hour that the brothers said she had died. In this way the mercy of Heaven ordained that while some of her Community attended her death-bed, the others were made aware of her soul’s entry into æternal life, although these monasteries are about thirteen miles apart.

It is also said that Hilda’s death was revealed in a vision to one of the sisters of the same monastery where the servant of God passed away. This sister, who loved her dearly, saw her soul ascend to Heaven in the company of angels, and immediately awoke the servants of Christ with her and told them to pray for her soul: this was even before the rest of the Community knew of her death, which was only made known to them early in the morning. At this time the nun was with certain other servants of Christ in a remote part of the monastery, where novices were admitted to test their vocation until they were fully instructed and admitted to membership in the Community.
Holy Mother Hilda the Venerable of Whitby, pray to God for us sinners!

Today also, my wife (Jessie) and son (Albert) were baptised, chrismated and churched into the Orthodox Church, by the names of Elizabeth and Ethelbert, respectively. It’s been a day of great joy for all of us, and the people of St Herman’s of Minneapolis have been superlatively supportive, welcoming, understanding and loving to our family, which – it now feels to me – is now complete in Christ. I feel sure that Holy Mother Hilda was indeed smiling on us today as two more were gathered into the Church.
Though thou wast of royal birth and lineage, O Hilda,
Thou didst spurn earthly riches and the allurements of the flesh.
And cleaving with all thy heart unto Christ,
Thou didst take up the struggle of the monastic life.
Wherefore, God endowed thee with such wisdom and prudence,
That all the people hastened unto thee for counsel and succour.
O venerable one, entreat Him unceasingly, that He grant us great mercy.

15 November 2018

The Baltic benignity of the ‘Russkiy Mir


Jüri Ratas and Nils Ušakovs

The phrase ‘Russian World’ or ‘Russkiy Mir’ has been making quite a bit of headway in various think-tank output as well as religious news recently. There is, after all, a Russkiy Mir Foundation that promotes both the idea and the various forms of cultural and political production (i.e. soft power, in the Hu Jintao-era Chinese sense) that are associated with it. In the Western press, the idea is treated in an almost-monotonously negative fashion. It is emblematic of Russian revanchism, Russian nationalism, Russian resurgence, Russian ‘aggression’. There is a vague sense as well that the idea of the Russian World is connected to both the Orthodox Church and to Eurasianism. These are partial attempts to grasp the nature of the phenomenon, but they wilfully exaggerate some parts of Russia’s orientation to the outside under the banner of ‘Russian World’, wilfully downplay some others, and wilfully misunderstand yet others.

This is not to be wondered at. As the great American labour journalist and novelist Upton Sinclair put it: ‘It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.’ That applies just as much to people in Western think tanks which ‘analyse’ Russia with specific corporate-strategic or profit-driven aims in mind. It suits the interests of American and Atlanticist élites to have the ordinary English-speaker persist in the belief that contemporary Russian thinking is a blind fanatical repetition of Tsarist Stalinist ambitions for Soviet empire or global domination. Even they might genuinely believe it themselves; psychological projection is indeed often ‘genuine’ at a certain level. However, given that the ‘Russian Worlddoes describe a certain orientation of the Russian state to the outside, it’s necessary to clarify what it is and is not. In short, it becomes necessary to demystify the concept.

Unfortunately, most of the English-language resources on the ‘Russian World’ are of extraordinarily little help in this task, since they skip over great swathes of Russian history and interpret the Russian national project solely in the light of Soviet nostalgia and post-Soviet insecurities. There are, from the outset, several major problems with this approach. It is necessary to understand, first of all, that the Russian ‘national question’ has long had, and still has, a different tenor than the nationalisms associated with mass politics in continental Europe. The ‘national question’ in Russia is far older than that, and has its roots not in a mass ethnic awakening among the deprived as in the Balkans, but instead in a highbrow left-‘Tory’ critique of Russia’s contributions to the European culture of belles-lettres. Though I do have certain minor quibbles with Dr Rabow-Edling’s thesis (less now than then, actually), she is absolutely right that the ‘national question’ in Russia (at least for those who articulated it first) was more a question of literary-cultural authenticity than one of political unity, still less one of military strength or ‘hard power’. Though this explores the politics of Russian distinctiveness at its historical roots, the literary-cultural, quasi-anarchist Herderian tenor of Russian nationalism has largely been preserved down to the present, and that is also the case with the concept of the ‘Russian world’, a term which is thoroughly Slavophil in orientation.

From the beginning, ‘Russian World’ thinking has been oriented toward the West – toward the Slavic nations and specifically the Russian populations living in Russia’s western ‘Near Abroad’. It is therefore not to be confused either with the Eurasian plans for continental political integration eastward and southward, nor with Russian engagements with supposedly-‘Russophile’ political parties outside the Slavic world. Russian political priorities sort fairly close to home, and it is worthy of note that Russophile political engagements in the Russian diaspora proper tend to be fairly benign centre-left social-democratic political engagements. This is the result of ethnic Russians in the diaspora being fairly numerous in their new host countries but also relatively powerless on the political level.

A case-in-point: Saskaņa, the ‘Harmony Party’ in Latvia led by Nils Ušakovs, which won the largest share of the vote in the national Saeima elections last month. The issues that matter most to Latvia’s sizeable Russian minority, who regularly vote for Saskaņa statesmen, are: protection of pensions, status of non-citizens and minority rights in education – usually in that order. The latter two can be broadly considered ‘Russian World’ cultural priorities even though Saskaņa is no longer affiliated with Putin’s party and is trying hard to ‘face west’ in light of the generalised hostility and unwillingness to coöperate that they face from ethnic Latvian parties. The same holds true for Estonia’s centre-left Keskerakond led by Jüri Ratas: which is similarly dominated by Russian-diaspora voters and statesmen; which similarly pursues left-reformist œconomic policies (like progressive income tax), combined with mildly-conservative ‘Russian World’ cultural politics which do not always align with Russian gæopolitical interests; and which has similarly (though to a lesser extent) faced difficulties forming a government.

The cartoon caricature of the ‘Russkiy Mir’ which sees ethnic Russians in the ‘near abroad’ as an ideologically-uniform fifth column in lockstep at the service of the revanchist imperial state to their east is therefore, to put it mildly, badly in need of revision. (At worst, it’s just a mutated form of Yellow Peril anti-Asian prejudice.) Even if it did hold true in Crimea, that is no indication that it holds true everywhere, and it is certainly not true in the Baltic states, whose general anti-poor neoliberal policy-making has done far more to alienate Russians living there than political alignments toward the EU have done – though the two are closely linked.

On the topic of the Russian diaspora and its politics as with so many others regarding Russia, it is always best to keep Metternich’s maxim about Russia in the front of one’s mind, that ‘Russia is never as strong as she looks; Russia is never as weak as she looks’. There is definitely something Hu-ish about Putin’s general approach to the Russian diaspora – he is keenly aware of the present limits of the ‘Russkiy Mir’ idea in the political imagination of the ethnic-Russian populations of countries like Estonia, Latvia, Belarus, Moldova, the Ukraine, the Central Asian Stans and so forth. Their political calculus, both individually and as groups – struggling minorities wherever they fall – is always going to be a mixture of œconomic self-preservation and cultural aspiration. The example of the Baltic states shows that they are not necessarily a fifth column. But the bloody example of the Ukrainian East, and the blessedly less-bloody example of the Crimea, shows us exactly what happens when these beleaguered populations are forced (by belligerent governments at the behest of Atlanticist gæopolitical masters) to make the fateful choice between Russia and their countries of residence.

14 November 2018

Arabia tristis, redux


This week has been a horrific one for the Arab world, and my heart breaks for my friends and brothers and sisters living there. Gaza has been under sustained air attack by Israel since a covert operation by Israelis to abduct or assassinate Hamas leaders went south; Hamas retaliated with missile strikes. Seven Palestinians of Khan Younis were killed in the Israeli air strikes and three more after sustained aerial bombardment; one Israeli was killed by a retaliatory Hamas missile. Israel’s continued violations of areas that are under Palestinian governance, and the continued treatment of Gaza as essentially a massive open-air prison, simply cannot continue if there is ever going to be a lasting and just peace.

In Dayr az-Zûr, the US-led coalition in Syria has been using white phosphorous munitions in crowded civilian areas, killing 15 people and injuring dozens more. The use of white phosphorous as a weapon is considered a war crime by the International Red Cross.

And most seriously – in Yemen, resumed fighting in the port city of al-Hudayda is endangering millions of already-starving civilians and will assuredly worsen the already-catastrophic greatest humanitarian crisis of this century. These millions of civilians are utterly dependent on the water and transportation infrastructure of al-Hudayda to survive. And of course, our government – along with the Saudis and the Emiratis – are responsible more than any other party for destroying it. Why do we persist? So that our military-industrial complex can continue selling arms to the Saudis?

The Arab world continues to burn, bleed, weep and die. And not only are we directly implicated in all this suffering and death, but it serves no meaningful realist purpose in keeping our borders or our civilian populace safe. Indeed, it is merely doing the opposite. So what are we to do? The same as we ought to have done from the beginning: pray – give – organise – speak – and don’t despair. The news is, as usual, horrendous, but despair is the one thing we can’t afford. We just elected a slateful of new representatives, and I admit to being a tentative fan of my new rep Ms Omar, who talks a good game and keeps some good company. So let’s hold them accountable and put them to work doing something constructive – or at least, not destructive – both for the Arab world and for our own national interests.

11 November 2018

Through the silence of the guns


Soldiers receiving news of the Armistice, 11 November 1918
I will come to a time in my backwards trip when November eleventh, accidentally my birthday, was a sacred day called Armistice Day. When I was a boy, all the people of all the nations which had fought in the First World War were silent during the eleventh minute of the eleventh hour of Armistice Day, which was the eleventh day of the eleventh month.

It was during that minute in nineteen hundred and eighteen, that millions upon millions of human beings stopped butchering one and another. I have talked to old men who were on battlefields during that minute. They have told me in one way or another that the sudden silence was the voice of God. So we still have among us some men who can remember when God spoke clearly to mankind.

Armistice Day has become Veterans’ Day. Armistice Day was sacred. Veterans’ day is not. So I will throw Veterans’ Day over my shoulder. Armistice Day I will keep. I don’t want to throw away any sacred things. What else is sacred? Oh,
Romeo and Juliet, for instance. And all music is.

    - Kurt Vonnegut
Given that the end of the Great War happened one hundred years ago today, this seems as good a time as any to reflect on the reasons that Armistice Day was originally inaugurated. As the amnesiac great-grandson of a working-class Jewish immigrant soldier whose lungs were destroyed in this war, I am finding that this Armistice Day has for me a peculiar importance. It is not a celebration of war. It is not a celebration of those who wage war. It is a celebration of the end of a war – one that destroyed twenty million lives, including the Armenian, Arabic and Greek victims of the first modern genocides. It is worth considering why Vonnegut (himself a veteran of the Second World War who lived through the bombing of Dresden) thought of the ending of this war as something sacred, as a moment when God spoke through the silence of the guns.

After all, Vonnegut was not the straightforward pacifist he is popularly imagined to be. Even when Vonnegut wrote Breakfast of Champions, he was nowhere even close to the naïve certitude of the pacifists of his childhood, that this war could end all wars. In the introduction to Slaughterhouse-Five (one of my favourite books, not coincidentally) he recounts a conversation he had with Harrison Starr to the effect that ‘there would always be wars, that they were as easy to stop as glaciers’. Vonnegut (and Starr) seem to have been proven right time and again, not just about the First World War. We can only truly end war when we can end the perversions of the human heart; and the fact that the human heart is universally perverse is every bit as evident as the fact that water will freeze below zero. But Vonnegut celebrated Armistice Day regardless, just as he wrote Slaughterhouse-Five regardless. There’s something cussedly admirable about a guy who understands that war is inevitable, and who will still throw his shoulders in trying to stop glaciers.

Even ‘inevitable’ wars have a certain terrible logic. When one studies the history of the Balkans, and clears away the miasma of clichés about the Balkans being a ‘powder-keg’, the Great War takes on a far different shape. The Balkans may have been a keg, but Europe’s great powers brought all the powder – the stoking of nationalist rivalries; the advent of factory and rail; the deprivation of the peasant under various forms of predatory lending, whether by village loan-sharks or by London and Frankfurt. Seen thus, the war becomes a kind of apocalypse, a tearing-away of the veil over the ‘civilised’ Victorian and Edwardian niceties of European politics – dominated as they were by high finance, industrial capitalism and nationalism, and a burgeoning machine-rationalism that was capable of completely subsuming the person. One of the great problems that Berdyaev, Solovyov, St Maria (Skobtsova) all had with the pacifism that dominated in their day, was precisely that it propped up an illusion of peace. A pacifism that seeks to ignore or explain away or whitewash these very real injustices and sicknesses of the human soul that underpin a presumably-stable liberal world order, is ultimately self-defeating – and in Solovyov’s view even a precursor of Antichrist.

But such a pacifism is very far from the only kind of witness for peace that there is. Those witnesses for peace that centre on the person in her depth, do (ironically) have a tendency to look more radical in a political sense, than those which seek for peace within a rationalistic exterior legal framework. But theologically speaking, any witness for peace that points back to the depths of the person, and of the human heart, has to be marked by an inner striving and an interior life marked by a search for the truth of Christ in quietude (not to be confused with quietism). Lest one think I am being a Byzantine chauvinist here, let me hasten to observe that one sees this kind of hesychasm not only in the tradition of Saint Seraphim of Sarov, but also in the West: Julian of Norwich, Lancelot Andrewes, Martin Luther King, Jr.

This is what Vonnegut points to in his brusque, laconic way. There’s a hidden genius in the original ceremonial of Armistice Day, which Vonnegut (along with the modern peace movement) asks us specifically to observe. It asks us to keep silence, in the remembrance of the guns that fell silence, and of the moment in which God spoke through the stillness. The quietude that came over the soldiers when the apocalyptic, relentless industrial machinery of death – the guns, the gas and the bombs – all fell silent: that is what Vonnegut asks us to remember. That moment of silence on Armistice Day therefore represents a kind of civic hesychasm, a quietude that cuts through all the false pieties and all the forms of idolatrous sentimentality whether nationalist or internationalist – and goes straight to the heart, to the inner man. And that is what renders it sacred.

08 November 2018

The inconvenient politics of everyday acts of decency


I have only ever met His Beatitude Vladyka Tikhon (Mollard) once; and that was at Saint Mary’s Cathedral in Minneapolis. My first impression (and at that, the all-too-brief impression of a lay parishioner of a visiting bishop) was that of a calm, genteel and well-educated man, not overbearing in his intellect but demure and irenic in his demeanour: in other words, a temperamental conservative. That impression has been expanded upon and deepened by several things I have read about him recently: not only his pastoral letters on various topics of importance, but his actions, like condoling with the victims of the horrific tragedy in Pittsburgh, or sending birthday greetings to the sole canonical Orthodox bishop in Kiev.

Let me assure you, gentle readers, of my awareness that by remarking on these acts by our Metropolitan myself, I am contributing somewhat to the sense that these things are not simply what a bishop, or indeed what a human being, ought to do at such times. Of course we ought to comfort the bereaved! Of course we ought to celebrate our friends’ birthdays! And, in a less politically-fraught time, perhaps, these little and unobtrusive acts of simple neighbourly and friendly decency would pass as unremarkable. But now they have a deeper significance, as Vladyka Tikhon himself alludes in his letters.

As I have said before, one condoles with the Jews of Squirrel Hill by condoling with the Jews of Squirrel Hill. As Israeli-American journalist Mairav Zonszein puts it: ‘showing support for Israel does nothing to combat anti-Semitism or bolster the safety of Jews in the United States’. One should think that this is a fairly obvious thing. But Orthodox and Catholic priests showed greater common sense, greater grace and greater humanity in this instance than did Israeli leaders like Naftali Bennett. How is this so? It is not the show of solidarity itself that is political, but instead an environment of strategic calculation which lends it a political ‘look’. It may look naïve, but the true and unmediated love of neighbour comes only from a certain (implicit or explicit) trust in the Most High, the ‘source of mercy, consolation and hope’, who can ‘free’ us ‘from the assault of attitudes and ideologies of prejudice and hatred, fear and anxiety about those who are indeed our neighbours’. And that was true of the Tree of Life congregation themselves, who reached out to help Honduran refugees without pausing to consider that they were not Jews or white Americans, but (largely) Catholic Hispanics and mestizos. They did a right and decent thing, even though this right and decent thing was seen as inconveniently radical.

A similar trust pervades likewise with the birthday wishes of Metropolitan Tikhon to his brother Metropolitan Onufriy. It is a simple letter (but not a simple-minded one), expressing simple but heartfelt sentiments. Some observers might even call it naïve, in a political environment fraught with questions of imperial legacies and ideological constructs like New Rome, Third Rome, Hellenism and the Russian World. But who is to say that the simpler approach isn’t the correct one here? Has Metropolitan Onufriy ever once alluded to a ‘Russian World’ or proclaimed a Third Rome? Even these concepts are broadly (and in some cases wilfully) misunderstood, both by their supporters and by their detractors, and I will get to that at a later post. For now, though, it is worth dwelling on the position of Metropolitan Onufriy himself.

Metropolitan Onufriy is a man of deep faith, whose guilt and transgression in the eyes of the state he lives in, is that he sat in silent protest at a state event commemorating the Ukrainian armed forces, when doing so would mean taking a side in a civil conflict in which members of his flock were murdering each other. (Sound familiar?) Indeed, he was doing the only right and honourable pastoral thing in refusing to stand, even though it brought down a charge that he was taking sides. He was saying, in effect, that ‘East Ukrainian Lives Matter’ (and Russian, American, Black and Asian lives) and refusing to assent to a lie that would erase them from the picture. Of course, the nativist right-wing over there could no more tolerate such a protest, however civil, than the one over here could. They had to find a way to punish the good Metropolitan for his protest, and they did so by attacking his Church and by branding him an enemy of the state. Note that all of the ideological miasma, the talk about duelling Romes and Greek vs Slavic Orthodoxy, arose in the aftermath, when the Œcumenical Patriarchate chose to intervene on Poroshenko’s side. Again, we see that the simple, decent thing which Metropolitan Onufriy did in virtue of his office, is inconveniently radical in the eyes of those with an agenda.

There is the risk of engaging in something of a tautology, pointing out that even small everyday actions toward our neighbours are political. (After all, what is politics but the question of how to treat our neighbours?) But that is the thing about tautologies; they happen to be true. The recent actions and words of Metropolitan Tikhon show clearly that even these small gestures can have important political ramifications in a world awash in what Dr Aleksandr Shchipkov would call ‘post-digital idols’. It can be difficult to rid oneself of the imperialist hangover (doubly so for those of us living in the sole post-Cold War empire left standing) and start seeing clearly again with eyes of faith, but it can be done.

07 November 2018

Saint Willibrord, Apostle to the Frisians


Holy Hierarch Willibrord of Echternach

Beknownst to my readers, I have a particular devotion to Bede the Venerable, whose historical works were (along with the religious philosophy of Berdyaev) responsible to a significant extent in bringing me into the Orthodox Church. At the same time, I find that the English saints of the Orthodox Church – even the ones most closely connected with Saint Bede – have been woefully neglected on my blog! I do intend to rectify this; I am currently reading the Life and Letters of the learned Saint Ealhwine [Alcuin] of York, a student and follower of Holy Bede. Saint Willibrord, the Northumbrian saint commemorated today who ended up becoming a bishop in Utrecht and a missionary in Fryslân, is one of those treated in Ealhwine’s hagiographical work.

Willibrord was born to an English freeman in Northumbria named Wilgils and his wife, who sadly goes unnamed in Ealhwine’s account. Wilgils and his wife were both deeply observant Christians; indeed, Wilgils undertook after his wife’s death the life of a hermit in a little temple devoted to Saint Andrew the Apostle, ‘dwelling in the headlands between the North Sea and the Humber’, during which he became celebrated as a wonderworker and elder to many common people, who flocked to meet him.

Saint Wilgils’s more famous son, however, was heralded to Saint Wilgils’s worthy wife with a heavenly vision, as Alcuin recounts, during which she swallowed a bright heavenly body like unto the moon, which caused her body to glow with light. Awed and afraid upon waking, she sought out a priest to tell her the meaning of this dream. The holy father told her that the heavenly light she had swallowed was a son she had conceived the night before; and that this son would by the example of his holy life become a bright full moon beckoning many toward the true light of Christ.

When their son was born, his eldern christened him Willibrord (after the old Teutonic custom of giving the son a dithematic name whose first element matches his father’s), and, when he came of age, gave him to Saint Wilfrid at the new monastic cathedral at Ripon to be taught both sæcular letters and learning and the holy disciplines of the monks there; he took so earnestly and so well to his learning in both that Saint Ealhwine likens him to the Holy Prophet Samuel. Though he was slender and slight in shape (though later Alcuin says he was ‘of rniddle height, dignified mien, comely of face, cheerful in spirit, wise in counsel, pleasing in speech, grave in character and energetic in everything he undertook for God’), it was said that Willibrord’s wisdom far outstripped his years, even when he first took the tonsure at Ripon.

He was sent abroad from Ripon, at his own request, to learn from the holy men of Ireland, in particular Bishop Ecgbert and his companion Wichtberht. He spent twelve years with these two holy Irish churchmen, after which the will took him to undertake missionary work ‘in the northern reaches of the world’, by which Ealhwine meant heathen Saxony and Frisia (in both of which lands Ecgbert and Wichtberht had once preached and taught themselves). When he was thirty-three, Willibrord, along with eleven followers, went to the nether-lands to preach the Gospel: some of them were martyred there; others went on to further attainments in the world as monastics.

At the time, Frisia was ruled by Redbad, who was antagonistic to Christianity and anything smacking of Frankish domination. Willibrord thus left Frisia for Francia and was met by King Pippin, who was highly impressed with Willibrord’s preaching and sought to have him anointed as a bishop. Willibrord steadfastly gainsaid it, until the king’s costenings had been joined by those of his companions and by that of his conscience when it became clear that it was the will of God. He went before Pope Saint Sergius, who, being apprised of the Northumbrian monk’s character, welcomed Willibrord with great warmth of brotherly affection, lost no time in anointing him as bishop, and held back nothing from Willibrord by way of blessings, whether chalices for use in the Liturgy or the relics of holy and beloved saints to bear back northward with him. When he returned to Francia, now-Bishop Willibrord was strengthened and heartened by the love bestowed on him by the saintly Pope in Rome, and he undertook his missionary work with heightened zeal and energy.

Bishop Saint Willibrord preached among the Frisians (to little avail) and the Danes, who were then ruled by Ongendtheow, described by Ealhwine as ‘a man more savage than any wild beast and harder than stone’. Willibrord, with Ongendtheow’s assent, chose thirty Danish children to be baptised into the Christian faith and sent to the Frankish court of King Peppin. On the return trip he visited a certain island on the march, held holy by the Frisians and the Danes both, and there baptised three more locals in the name of the Holy Trinity and slaughtered three wild oxen for their fare, setting his face against the heathen laws forbidding the drawing of water or the shedding of blood on the island. King Redbad, roused to wrath at this flouting of his writ, cast lots thrice a day for three days to see which among Willibrord and his followers should be put to death. Only once did the short lot fall to one of Willibrord’s baptised, and that one went to a martyr’s death. This only heightened King Redbad’s fury, and he upbraided the saintly Willibrord for his insult to the old gods; however, Willibrord was unfazed. Instead he answered King Redbad that he should believe in Christ, be baptised in the name of the Trinity, and repent of all his former sins. Though King Redbad was impressed by Willibrord’s fearless witness, he nonetheless would not believe; instead he sent Willibrord back to Pippin and the Franks.

Pippin died shortly afterward, however, and his successor Karl (also called ‘the Hammer’) came to the throne; he made great incursions into the lands of the Frisians, and Saint Willibrord lost no time in preaching the Gospel and baptising the Frisians that had fallen under Frankish sway. (Later, Saint Willibrord would baptise and christen Karl’s son, Pippin the Short.) The bishop preached Christ and also lived according to the way of Christ; he forgave and would not avenge himself upon even those among the heathen and the wealthy landowners who attacked and reviled him, although he was ruthless in his destruction of their idols. (Ealhwine’s hagiography of Saint Willibrord, in good mediæval fashion, recounts the gruesome ends of his attackers, which are attributed to divine justice; but it equally stresses that Saint Willibrord would not allow his followers to lay hands on them.)

Saint Willibrord had, as seems to be fairly common with the Northumbrian saints, a definite soft spot for the poor and the suffering. Much of his wonderworking seems to be related to this. He had his followers dig a trench in a seaside hamlet that was suffering from thirst, and bade the trench give forth fresh water instead of bracken – and the trench became a spring. On another occasion, he met twelve thirsty beggars on the road, and Saint Willibrord bade one of his followers give them his flask. The twelve beggars all drank their fill from the flask, and his followers were amazed afterward to find the flask as full as it had been before – not with water, but with wine! This wine-filling wonder he repeated several times on various occasions, when the folk he met were in want, either at his monastery or in his missionary work.

Saint Willibrord lived to be an old man, and was beloved not only as a wonderworker but as an elder and a spiritual counsel to many, not just to the Frankish nobles. He met his repose peacefully, and was buried at the very Abbey he founded with the backing of King Pippin of Herstal, on the Frankish march at Echternach (now in Luxembourg). Miracles and healings attributed to him continued at the Abbey long after his death, and he was quickly recognised to be among Christ’s holy saints.

Our father among the Saints, Holy Hierarch Willibrord, pray to God for us!
Moved to compassion by the plight of the heathen,
Who languished in noetic darkness, ignorant of the one, true God,
O clement and pious Willibrord,
Thou didst leave behind all things comfortable and familiar, And didst set out for the land of the Frisians,
To convert them, by thy preaching, to the peerless Christian Faith,
With zeal enlightening them in the laver of regeneration.

06 November 2018

The other Russian, inequality, secondary simplification


Konstantin Nikolaevich Leont’ev

Konstantin Leont’ev is a truly fascinating figure, in many ways antipodean after the best tradition of Russian thinkers, but also in a certain sense separate from the rest. Not for nothing is he called – ‘the other Russian’. Leont’ev began his career as a democratic idealist, drawn to the romance of revolution, to the striking figures he found at their heads: people like Napoleon and Lord Byron. But during the 1860’s his political views took a sharp turn rightward; he became a dyed-in-the-wool reactionary, a Tsarist and an apologist for the unmitigated power of the autocratic state. He shows a similarly antipodean relationship to religion: at times he can be Orthodox to the point of hyperdoxy, evincing the terrors at the heights of the Byzantine religious consciousness, naked before the Judge of All; at other times he delivers himself of opinions that reveal something of a deep, sensual and libidinous rodnoverie. Interestingly, in his autobiographical collection of writings, these two antipodes: democratic-revolutionary and reactionary; Christian and pagan; neurotic and narcissist – are at war in his psyche from the very beginning. Little wonder that Nikolai Berdyaev found Leont’ev such a mesmerising figure; his philosophy never managed to get fully out from under Leont’ev’s reactionary spell, and that same philosophy (particularly when Berdyaev veered leftward politically) was that much richer for it.

Konstantin Leont’ev served as an army doctor in the Crimean War, having studied medicine prior to that. It was during and after the Crimean War that he formed much of his political consciousness, but more importantly, he adapted a kind of poiēsis of science from his medical studies. This comes into play in his doctrine of the evolution of civilisations. He believes that civilisations tend to ‘develop’ (though he has certain problems with the word) according to three stages. There is, first, a process of flourishing in primitive simplicity; then one of flowering complexity; and finally one of secondary fusion and simplification. He uses the medical analogy of a disease in the lungs to describe this process, which at its pinnacle causes a spectacular differentiation within the lung tissue, but which either reverts to the ‘primitive simplicity’ of health, or else triumphs and produces the simplification of the body through death and decomposition. The analogy is limited in its usefulness, and Leont’ev quickly abandons it; however, his analysis of the development of social orders is compelling and even convincing in some cases. He had in mind modern Europe when he spoke of the process of secondary simplification, as here:
Oh, the massive, blood-soaked but picturesque mountain of universal history! Since the end of the last century you have been labouring in torments of new births. And out of your suffering depths merely a mouse crawls out! A self-satisfied caricature of the people of former days is born, the average rational European, in his comic clothes that even the ideal mirror of art cannot reflect, with a small and self-deluded mind, with his creepy, practical goodwill!

No! Never yet in the history of our times has anybody seen such a monstrous combination of mental pride before God and ethical submission before the ideal of a homogeneous, grey, labouring and godlessly passionless all-mankind!

Is it possible to love such a mankind?

Should one not, with all the strength of even a Christian soul, hate—not the people who are stupid and have lost their way—but a
future of theirs such as this? Yes, one should! One should! Thrice, one should!
This is the estimation of Leont’ev of the bourgeois European. It is true, Leont’ev by his own admission cannot stand the pretensions of the ‘radical’ intellectuals of his own day; though he makes a couple of notable exceptions for Aleksandr Herzen (whose work I am now eagerly looking forward to reading) and JS Mill, whose æsthetic modes of thought render them more sympathetic. (Even at his most democratically-minded, he understands that equality, in a metaphysical sense, is a problematic proposition. His democracy is an æsthetic one. He loves it not so much for itself, but for the brilliantly-colourful men-of-deeds that arise out of it.)

But neither does he have much use for the capitalist mass man, the respectable European who reads the newspapers, the suburbanite. He detests, even loathes, the very idea of ‘a world in which all people everywhere live in identical, small, clean and comfortable little houses the way people of middle income live in our Novorossiysky towns’. What fit world is that for heroes to come out of, for great deeds still remaining to be done? The equality he sees in such a world is the equality of death and decomposition. For the reactionary Leont’ev, any conservatism that regresses to such a vulgar mean is no conservatism at all worth espousing. Indeed, he says this outright: ‘Cosmopolitan democratism and political nationalism—these are but two shades of one and the same colour!’ So what does he propose in its place? Konstantin Leont’ev puts forward five—not canons, precisely, in the Kirkian sense, but something a little looser than propositions:
  1. The state should be diversified, complex, strong, class-structured and cautiously mobile. In general, strict, sometimes to the point of ferocity.

  2. The church should be more independent than the present one. The church hierarchy should be bolder, more powerful, more concentrated. The church should have a mitigating influence on the state, and not vice-versa.

  3. Everyday life should be poetic, varied in its national unity, and insulated from the West…

  4. The laws and principles of authority should be stricter; people should try to be personally kinder; the one will balance the other.

  5. Science should develop in a spirit of profound contempt towards its own utility.
For a doctor and a natural scientist, noteworthy in particular is his emphasis on poetry. Leont’ev places as much emphasis on that in the very midst of his politics as do Chesterton, Tolkien and Lewis. ‘The highest poetry and the highest politics have a deeper connexion than people usually think. When poetry declines, so does profound thought.’ He believes that social orders must indeed have a mystical, metaphysical foundation in order to last (it would have been quite interesting to see what the man would have made of Morris).

And further, he believes that in order to forestall the process of secondary simplification, to stop the progress of decay and to ‘survive as a state and culture’ in the face of threats from China, India and the West, it is necessary for Russia, not to disappear within a hodge-podge synthesis and levelling, but instead to ‘fuse together this Chinese state system with Indian religiosity and European socialism, gradually forming new, stable social groupings’. The two of them likely would not have seen eye-to-eye, but this threefold civilisational analysis (China; India; Europe) and especially the conclusion that some conservative, mediated form of socialism could be adapted to an authentic civilisational flourishing, has distinct parallels in the New Confucian thought of Liang Shuming. Likewise, Leont’ev’s thought here is not quite Slavophil; his attitude toward the state is far too cavalier. But it is easy to see where the Slavophils have influenced him.

This ‘other Russian’, this proud reactionary and literary critic who could nevertheless never quite put away his old romantic attachments to revolution, is very deeply worth considering at our present political moment, particularly when the forces of consolidation, civic monoculture and secondary simplification are still afoot and rampant within our own body politic.