13 December 2018

Our good Doctor


From my college years to the present day, one towering intellectual figure who always seems to be standing beside me (and indeed, as so often seems, just over my shoulder), is the good and great Doctor Samuel Johnson. Poet, pamphleteer, essayist, novelist, all around man-of-letters, wit, philanthropist, Tory moralist, apologist for monarchy, friend of the poor (often being so himself), Shakespeare fanatic, foe of slavery, anti-war author, anti-imperialist, lover of cats, wooer of older women… somehow no matter which way you turn in the English world of letters, Johnson is standing well within view with either a solemn pronouncement or a ready quip. To say Dr Johnson has been an ‘inspiration’ on my entire education and body of intellectual work, such as it is, is both obvious and a severe understatement.

Samuel Johnson, born in 1709 in Lichfield in the West Midlands to the keeper of a bookshop named Michael Johnson and his wife Sarah, was sickly and scrofulous as an infant. He received baptism very soon after birth, and his parent sought for him the ‘royal touch’ from Queen Anne, which was supposed to cure scrofula. Johnson kept with him for the rest of his life a ribbon commemorating the event. However, his scrofula was not cured, and the resulting treatments left him scarred, nearly blind in his left eye and deaf in one ear. Johnson early on developed a certain resentment of his subsequent pampering, including several attempts to get away from his governess on his own power in his very early youth.

However, for young Samuel Johnson, being raised in a bookstore had its advantages. He had a good memory, his mother having encouraged him from the age of four to memorise prayers from the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. Being inherently curious, he read prodigiously, and attained a breadth of knowledge and level of erudition matched by few other young men in England, let alone Lichfield. He attended grammar school, and even studied at Pembroke College in Oxford for a brief time. After his first year of study, however, parents struggled with his upkeep, and other students began to notice his poverty. One of them left a brand-new pair of shoes outside his room in secret – which wounded young Johnson’s dignity (he hated being the object of charity). Thereafter he left Oxford; this academic failure led him into a deep bout of depression – an affliction which would return to him throughout the rest of his life.

He found employment as a tutor in Market Bosworth and later Birmingham. It was at this time he undertook the translations of Jerónimo Lobo’s accounts of his journeys in Abyssinia, which would eventually be published in abridged form as A Voyage to Abyssinia, and which would later inspire him in part to write Rasselas. Johnson accompanied a friend of his from Birmingham, Harry Porter, during an illness which would end his life. Several months later, he began a romantic relationship with his widow Elizabeth, who would later become his wife (over the objections of both the Johnson and the Porter families). Though it was, in Johnson’s words, a ‘love-match’ on both sides, their marriage was not a happy one. She supported him through several ventures, including a failed school in Edial and his famous Dictionary, which brought them very little success in the short run. She began to drink and to decline into ill-health – and the opiate medications she took for her illness robbed her of what strength she had left. Samuel Johnson grieved intensely over the death of his ‘Tetty’ in 1752, and suffered overwhelming guilt over what he considered his own part in her ill-health – a life of poverty and a series of financial failures.

During much of his years of marriage, he worked both as a private tutor and as a ‘hack’ writer for various London publications – putting his pen to book reviews, biographies and other works of literary critique. He also wrote his poems, London and The Vanity of Human Wishes at this point. He also befriended the poet Richard Savage, whose Life he would recount in a touchingly-personal biography. He spent much of this time in debt and in fear of landing in debtor’s prison; perhaps it is for this reason as well that he continued to have a ‘radical’ degree of sympathy for poor and indebted people.

In 1750 Johnson began working on The Rambler. He also befriended the publicist Samuel Richardson (who bailed him out of a small debt) and the painter Joshua Reynolds (the same one so loathed by the later Pre-Raphaelites). Samuel Johnson made a name for himself as something of an anti-war activist when he began publishing essays attacking Britain’s involvement in the Seven Years’ War. He also worked on an edition of the plays of William Shakespeare, the essays of The Idler, and – in 1759 – his only novel, Rasselas.

Johnson’s financial troubles largely continued until he was given a pension – which he took with deep reluctance – from King George III; a year after that, he began a friendship with a young Scotsman named James Boswell, who wrote the first and perhaps the most influential of the biographies of Johnson and later accompanied him on a journey to the Hebrides. He met the Thrales at this period as well – his (in)famous correspondence with Hester Thrale would prove a boon to later biographers.

As Johnson grew older, it seems he grew much more vocal in his political opinions. He opposed an English war with Spain over the Falklands, grew particularly voluble in his opposition to slavery and his support for abolition and slave revolts, and later made known his vocal opposition to American independence in Taxation No Tyranny. He also embarked on an ambitious ten-volume project, The Lives of the Poets, which covered mostly his contemporaries.

His chronic ill-health caught up with him after his return home – he began to suffer particularly from gout, and also suffered a stroke. He lived with Hester Thrale until 1784, when she decided to take up with an Italian musician, Gabriel Piozzi. Largely alone, with his friends engaged elsewhere, he died later that year, on the thirteenth of December.

It is my regret, actually, that I am familiar with such a very small portion of Johnson’s monumental corpus, but – as I intimated above – that which I have read has been incredibly influential on my intellectual development since high school. Johnson’s deep Tory love of order and stability, combined with his keen social conscience – particularly with regard to what would now be considered the ‘third world’ – and equally-profound High Church Anglican piety, assuredly left their impressions on the priorities of my own life. I cannot really consider him a ‘saint’ (despite his being commemorated on the calendar of the Church of England), but he certainly has been a spiritual model. May God indeed have mercy upon the soul of His servant – for His servant he tried to be and was – grant him rest and make his memory to be æternal!

12 December 2018

Venerable Eadburga, Abbess of Minster-in-Thanet


Holy Mother Eadburga

Today in the Orthodox Church we celebrate the memory of Eadburga, the learned and holy Benedictine abbess of Minster Abbey at Minster-in-Thanet in Kent and confidant and successor to the Venerable Saint Mildþrýð of the same cloister, who notably kept up a strong friendship and written correspondence with Saint Boniface of Fulda, Apostle to the Germans.

Eadburga was born a West Saxon princess, the only daughter of Centwine of Wessex (evidently a close kinsman of the same Cynegils who was baptised by Saint Berin) and his wife Eangýþ, who later became a nun and raised Eadburga among the Benedictine sisters. It is clear that she received a good education from her mother, for she was not only proficient in writing in Latin, but could also produce poetry in her own tongue. Eadburga herself took the veil when she came of age, and joined the cloister at Thanet. She served under Saint Mildþrýð with great love and attention, and was chosen to take her place when that true blossom of the English people met her holy repose.

As abbess, Eadburga proved to be an effective administrator of her cloister. She managed to secure a renewed royal charter for Minster Abbey. Seeing the buildings therein to be insufficient to house her sisters well, whose number had grown under Saint Mildþrýð’s care, she had a new house for them built, and sought and was given blessing from Saint Cuþberht of Canterbury to build a new abbey church dedicated to Saints Peter and Paul. She then had translated there the incorrupt relics of her saintly predecessor.

It was at this time also that her friendship with Saint Boniface began – when she sent to him in Frisia an altar-cloth and forty shillings, along with her regrets that she could not then spare more. It appears however that the holy Saint Boniface received the gift warmly, in the heartfelt spirit of sisterly love in which it was given. Though there stood a sea between them, there started a friendly correspondence that lasted until they both were elderly. As she was able, Eadburga sent Boniface additional gifts for his mission, including books and liturgical vestments; and Saint Boniface wrote to her to give her comfort when she suffered a long illness. She also took as her pupil one Leobgýþ, a young female cousin of Boniface who would join him in Germany in the service of the Church, and taught her how to write in verse. At one point, in her old age, Eadburga made a pilgrimage to Rome, and there met Boniface of Fulda in person.

Though the hagiographical materials I was able to track down on Saint Eadburga of Thanet are rather terse, we can still see from them – and also from the primary source documents to and about her – the skills and learning she brought to her vocation, as well as some telltale aspects of the personality shining through them. She was well-read – primarily in the Scriptures and the Divine Law which, in the words of her pupil Leobgýþ, she ‘reads without ceasing’. She was a skilled scribe, as shown by the requests from Saint Boniface for copies of manuscripts (such as the Epistles of Saint Peter) in her hand. She could be a shrewd stateswoman when she needed to be, as evidenced by her securing of the royal charter and the relics of Saint Mildþrýð. She cared deeply, maternally, for her sisters in the cloister, losing no time and sparing no effort in seeing to their needs. She clearly possessed a formidable intellect and a keen curiosity about the world, having kept up a Latin correspondence with Saint Boniface and having followed with interest and with care the concerns of the church in frempt lands like Germany. And she even cared for lay sisters like Leobgýþ with motherly concern.

After a long life full of such holy and intellectual labours, Saint Eadburga reposed in peace in 751, and her relics were placed alongside those of her friend and predecessor Saint Mildþrýð in the abbey church. There for a long time afterward, the sick, the infirm and those in pain and distress would visit her shrine and be healed; even in her repose she cared for the least of her countrymen as a loving mother would.

Holy and Venerable Mother Eadburga of Thanet, pray to Christ our God for us sinners!

09 December 2018

The Conception of the Mother of God


The Conception of the Most Holy Theotokos

One of the touching things about the Orthodox iconography of the Conception of the Mother of God is that it both portrays the intimacy of the parents of the Theotokos, Saints Joachim and Anna, in a frank and unapologetic way. They kiss, they look tenderly into each other’s eyes, they wrap their arms around each other, even their feet are stepping together as though they are dancing on a brightly-coloured carpet. And yet they do not occupy the centre of the icon itself. The focus of our ‘gaze’ as we look on this icon is lifted up away from that happy couple in their embrace toward the temple behind and beyond them. Situated behind Joachim and Anna are a male and a female figure, set against a rocky hill and a spray of green foliage respectively, which symbolise Adam (‘Earth’) and Eve (‘Life’), each reaching up toward Heaven, toward angels on either side.

For some reason, when I see this icon, my eyes are also drawn to the hands of Saints Joachim and Anna. Her left hand on his chest; his right hand on her arm; their other hands embracing each other about the shoulders. ‘Love your hands! Love them,’ writes Toni Morrison in Beloved. ‘Raise them up and kiss them. Touch others with them, pat them together, stroke them on your face ‘cause they don’t love that either. You got to love it, You!’ The hands of Saint Joachim and Saint Anna are not there merely to titillate each other, but to comfort and reassure. (The Protoevangelium of James has it, after all, that Joachim and Anna were never able to conceive a child for most of their lives – they were forbidden from offering at the Temple and treated as sinners by their own people prior to the Conception.) There is a deeply human vulnerability in this expression between the husband and wife, a total lack of reserve, that is seen in relatively few other Orthodox icons – one exception being the meeting of the Theotokos and Saint Elizabeth from the Gospel of St Luke.

The icon of the Conception of the Theotokos is therefore both a testament to the fact that the ordinary, commonplace erotic intimacy between husband and wife is wholly sanctified without need for apology or excuse, and a solemn reminder that the ends of erōs lie beyond itself. The ordinariness of the Holy Ancestors of God in this loving caress, highlights the Christian conviction that sexual gnōsis is not the reserve of a handful of tantric masters and their initiates, as in certain heresies and Dharmic sects, but instead that it is part-and-parcel of being a human soul with a body. Even so, the full vertical Platonic potential of the erotic impulse – its attempt to reach upwards toward a vision of the Divine through an inspiration bypassing the rational – is acknowledged and celebrated by the icon’s very setting. We in the Orthodox Church hold that it is through this very human act of love that Our All-Holy, Sublimely Pure, Most Blessed Lady, the Mother of God, entered the world. This icon of Joachim and Anna is therefore also a stern rebuke, both to the reflexive contortions of the various Gnostics past and present who see in sex only the grounds for shame, and to the current consumer anti-culture of de-contextualised, de-racinated, even de-fleshed fluid plastic sensualism that undergirds so much of our current cultural neuroses about the body.

The touchstone I keep returning to on this question – not wrongly, I don’t think – is the analysis of the ‘flight from feeling’ from social historian Christopher Lasch’s The Culture of Narcissism. Lasch talks about how we contemporary Americans both trivialise and overburden our sexual lives by unmooring them from their procreative teleology – by essentially making ourselves infertile and turning over our familial burdens to a bureaucratic state. He then touches both on the ‘spectre of impotence’ hovering over modern male psychology, and on the corresponding fear of insurmountable female sexual expectations that haunts a culture steeped in plastiform sensual imagery – all compounded by a backdrop of civilisational exhaustion. ‘The cult of intimacy,’ he writes, ‘conceals a growing despair of finding it.

I first used this framework at first as an attempt to diagnose what then was only beginning to be called the ‘incel’ phenomenon. But these things are not unique to incels; they are common to all of us, men and women, who have suffered rejection, mockery, and an outcast status on account of real or perceived social-sexual inadequacy. Lasch certainly did not mean his diagnosis to be specific to any social cohort, but a systematic analysis of contemporary American culture, a technologically-driven ‘turn’ in the prehistoric battle of the sexes. Lasch had his pulse on a certain universal thirst for intimacy and fear of rejection. But the plastiform consumer culture heightens that erotic thirst by presenting our senses with facsimiles of it; while the aversion to child-bearing and -rearing fostered by a technocratic and bureaucratic culture ‘manages expectations’ about intimacy while putting it ever further out-of-reach for most people.

With all of this in mind, certainly Saint Joachim was no stranger to the ‘spectre of impotence’ and the rages of the involuntarily-childless. Impotence was the very same charge with which Rubim – another man – mocks him and drives him away from the Temple in the Protoevangelium of James. We can even see in Saint Joachim the beginnings of this ‘flight from feeling’. He ‘did not come into the presence of his wife’, but instead ‘retired to the desert, and there pitched his tent, and fasted forty days and forty nights’, leaving his wife at home alone to bewail her widowhood and childlessness. (Saint Anna no less than her husband is rejected, scorned, an outcast from the Temple on account of her ‘shut-up womb’, her barrenness; which makes the seeming-abandonment by her husband doubly cruel.) The Church has not been a stranger to these problems of sexual alienation even between married couples in healthier times, problems which penetrate down to the depths of the human heart.

What is interesting about the Protoevangelium story is that Joachim and Anna are brought back together by the promise of a baby. They re-achieve intimacy, even in a supposedly-barren old age, through the procreative telos – or at least, through the hope of it. The icon itself bears witness against the notion that sex can ever be fully divorced either from its primal roots in the quest for intimacy, or its final ends in the procreation of children, even where that is impossible or thought to be impossible. The emotional tensions between man and woman are not abolished here; we only have to look at the faces of the two saints in this icon, full of feeling, intent upon one another, to see that they are not. But those tensions are not without direction. The fruit, of course – is the Theotokos; and through her, the salvation of the world.
Today the bonds of barrenness are broken,
God has heard the prayers of Joachim and Anna.
He has promised them beyond all their hopes to bear the Maiden of God,
By whom the Uncircumscribed One was born as mortal Man;
He commanded an angel to cry to her:
“Rejoice, O full of grace,
The Lord is with you!”

08 December 2018

Hints toward a post-imperial ecclesiology?


Chapel interior, Imperial Winter Palace at Saint Petersburg

Our Orthodox Church, at the moment, is dealing with some rather bad cases of imperial hangover, which lie behind the current schismatic tensions between the Moscow Patriarchate and the Œcumenical. That’s ‘cases’, with a plural. It seems it takes a people with a long history of subjugation – under the Byzantines, under the Turks, under the French – to see clearly that Constantinople is no more free of imperial vainglory than Moscow is. The Arab Christians of the Patriarchate of Antioch understand perhaps better than anyone else the dangers of the ideology of Rōmiosunē to the fabric of a local church, and thus seem to have the best degree of perspective on it. And it is an unfortunate reality, as no less sharp a commentator than John Milbank seems to realise, that modern Greek nationalism – remember that the bulk of the Philikē Hetaireia were drawn from the Phanariots as well as Balkan Greeks and the diaspora! – is largely a façade constructed of deliberately-abstracted Romantic fantasies, and a deliberately-selective historiography of ‘interval’. What stands in now for an ideology of empire is in fact little more than a pathetically ‘thin’, narrow and exclusionary self-assertion of an imagined ‘Greekness’. I will say this for the Russkiy mir, at least it acknowledges something of the differences between nation and state.

In all seriousness, we Orthodox should be listening with special and rapt attention to the Arab Christians on this question. The Orthodox who live in the Arab world and in Africa are uniquely fitted to comment on the current entangled crisis of ‘imperial hangover’ and nationalism embroiling the faith, because of their experiences on the political side of the question, not just the ecclesiastical. They are, in a real rather than in an imagined or appropriated sense, heirs to the Non-Aligned Movement. They had to live through a long era of world superpowers fighting proxy battles on their front porches, often to the great detriment of their flocks and their communities.

With all of this in mind: a recent interview with Fr Jivko (Panev) by the Italian Catholic magazine Il Regno, posted on the excellent website Orthodox Synaxis, shows us just how deeply this question of nationalism and our wholly-inadequate response to it as a Church is really biting us in the bottom now. He highlights in particular, the close links between autocephalism (the idea that every ‘nation’ ought to have its own church) and phyletism (the ideology of race-nationalism as applied to ecclesiology). He points out in no uncertain terms that the entire project of Poroshenko’s ‘local church’ in the Ukraine is an autocephalist and phyletist project. And he points out how deeply (and how obviously) the whole of the Ukrainian problem is tied up with the no-less-painful experiences of the nineteenth-century Balkans: not just Greece, but also Bulgaria, Romania and Albania.

It is therefore highly interesting to me, that Fr Jivko closes his interview on a note drawn from Metropolitan Amfilohije (Radović) of Montenegro, who believes that the Constantinian period of the Church is at an end, and instead calls respectfully for a return to our ‘pre-imperial structure’. Long story short, I can’t help but agree with him – but what a burden that is! As Metropolitan Amfilohije himself makes clear, we cannot, and should not, proceed from here without some clear view of what we will carry forward with us, and how we will carry it.

We are, whether we like it or not, a Church of imperial legacies. We don’t get to choose that, and never really have gotten to choose it. But despite the potency of our Orthodox imperial hangovers nowadays, we are ironically a long way from the rich and honourable imperial legacy of multivalent and mediated loyalties that was such a hallmark of Byzantine statecraft. We carry forward from that imperial legacy of mediated loyalties certain intellectual and practical habits of symphonía and sobornost’. But without a practical framework for living them out even in our ecclesiastical life (to say nothing of the gæopolitical one!), those terms are just so much hot air.

Given my familial loyalties and ties to both of these places, I hope my gentle readers will forgive me this brief note of favouritism. But it seems to me that the places which seem to have best preserved (or recovered) the uniquely-Byzantine memory of this multi-dimensional fabric of loyalties – the places which never really collapsed national feeling into the ready-imported mould of the Westphalian nation-state or into absolutism – are Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia. Even in a materialist sense, the Yugoslav legacy of œconomic democracy seems to be an indicator of the longevity of these habits.

Long story short: we Orthodox need to get our act together, and soon. I don’t think this is a question anymore. That particular bad news has been dropping on our doorstep in overabundance for years now. The good news is, that we are not without intellectual or practical resources for addressing it. Those resources don’t do us much good, though, if we cannot find the grace to accept them where they are found – even and especially if they are found in poor and humble places. Our Church’s imperial legacies don’t have to be a ‘weight of chains’ (to badly mix the metaphors deployed by two very different Yugoslavs, Saint Justin Popovich and Boris Malagurski), if we see fit to harness them with a certain degree of generosity, creativity and eirenicism. May God grant it that we find them.

05 December 2018

Mní wičóni


The headwaters of the Mississippi

Last week, I attended a formal protest organised by members of Honour the Earth, Youth Climate Intervenors, MN 350, the North Star Chapter of the Sierra Club and Greenpeace at the State Capitol building, to present a petition with 67,000 signatures to Governor-Elect Tim Walz and Lieutenant Governor-Elect Peggy Flanagan to stop the proposed new oil pipeline route for the Enbridge Line 3 project. I was impressed that both Mr Walz and Ms Flanagan came out to listen and talk to us in person, but given Governor-Elect Walz’s prior support for the pipeline it remains to be seen whether they will take action. This protest compasses a broad variety of concerns, from indigenous rights to clean water to climate activism. This dangerous and frankly-needless corporate boondoggle stands to threaten the natural beauty of the Mississippi headwaters, the lakes and wetlands throughout northern Minnesota, those of us who depend on water from the Mississippi and thus, the entirety of the river system downstream.

I’m going to have to beg your indulgence now, gentle readers, that this post is likely to be a retread in some degree of the admirable work of Fr Kaleeg (Hainsworth) on the subject, and of my œcological reflections last Theophany which were deeply inspired by Fr Kaleeg, as well as by Saint Gregory the Theologian and Seyyed Hossein Nasr. Saint Gregory’s poetic treatment of our mediated vision of the Divine in the created order provides us with a certain insight that all water is holy water. But it is necessary, as I think the commentary from Matt Celestine on that post proves, to bring these reflections down to the realm of the concrete, the specific, the embodied.

The natural place to begin is with the event itself. Christ’s baptism in the Jordan, and the revelation to the eyes of belief through the transparent and life-giving element of water of the vision of the Holy Trinity, did render that water holy. But we must remember the circumstances in which the Theophany occurred. Saint John the Forerunner, calling his nation to repentance, drew them out into the wilderness, drew them away from the city. He called to them from a remote place, a politically-symbolic border between the West and the East. The act of washing oneself in the river, in the middle of a wilderness between Rome and a foreign land, was to the Jews of the time already symbolic of the Exodus, the crossing of the Red Sea out of Egypt, out of slavery, and into the desert. Saint John the Forerunner’s baptism was an act of political subversion, with Rome standing in for Egypt. But when Christ Our Lord undertook to be baptised Himself, it was not only a symbol of rejection of the logic of empire, but also the true appearance of the Holy Ghost to the world, a manifestation of new life.

The Mississippi River is not the Jordan – true. But it has in common with the Jordan these characteristics. Like the Jordan, the Mississippi River has long stood as a great border between the west (of the North American continent) and the east. It remains the holy source of life to many nations on either side of that divide: to the Cheyenne, to the Anishinaabe, to the Dakota and to the Meskwaki. To the Cheyenne the river is the ‘Big River of Oil’ (let’s not render that imagery literal, what say?); to the Anishinaabe it is simply Gichi-Ziibi, the ‘Great River’. Further south, the descendants of the great world civilisation which built the mounds (the Choctaw, for example) still revere the waters of the Mississippi, calling it ‘Beyond Age’. When the brutal Spanish conquistador Hernando de Soto beheld the Mississippi, even he held it in a kind of reverence. We do not have to admire the man, and we probably shouldn’t, to recognise a certain degree of reflective truth in its similarities with the Jordan when he called the Mississippi ‘Rio del Espíritu Santo’: the River of the Holy Ghost.

All of us who live here – Natives, white, Asian and black folks, Christians and not – depend on the Great River for so much in our lives. We don’t only drink that water and use it to wash clothes, though we certainly do that. My wife Jessie and son Albert were baptised last month in water ultimately drawn from the Mississippi. As a machinist, the roto-grinders I run depend on a constant flow of coolant (an emulsion of oil in filtered de-ionised water) to keep finished parts ground to a precise size. Even my job literally depends on clean water, ultimately sourced in the river, being readily available. The Orthodox Churches in Minnesota recognise this and demonstrate it, not just with pretty words or symbolism, but in a physical, specific and concrete liturgical way. Last year we held the Great Blessing of Waters out-of-doors in the Mississippi River itself. Part of the Liturgy involves a blessed cross being cast into the river, and someone diving in to retrieve it. In this blessing of the waters we show that we have a real stake in the cleanliness and health of the water that we live by. The conservation and protection of our fresh water is something we can and should fight for.

I believe therefore that it is meet and right for us stand in solidarity with our Native neighbours on this issue, just as Saint Herman or Saint Tikhon would have done. To us, Christ is the living water. Not only does our iconography show that was it in the midst of the Jordan’s water that the Holy Spirit descended from the heavens, but it was water along with blood that flowed from His side when He was pierced with the spear at Golgotha. Thus, we can and should say gladly and without fear along with our neighbours the Dakota: ‘Mní wičóni’ – ‘Water is life’. And we should oppose the construction of Line 3.

04 December 2018

A war on monks – Kerch Strait, martial law, church politics


Satellite image of the Kerch Strait

The situation has been getting worse and worse for the Orthodox Church in the Ukraine, particularly since the Kerch Strait affaire last week off the shores of the Russian provinces of Krasnodar and the Crimea, and the subsequent imposition of martial law by the current government. It is a particularly interesting question why, if indeed the Russian state has been waging war against them all this time, the government would choose to use the Kerch Strait incident as a pretext for imposing military rule on the east and south of the country. However, for giving the government greater licence to crack down on religious expression for those Ukrainians who are still members of the sole legitimate Orthodox Church in the country (or, indeed, on other forms of internal opposition) the prospect of martial law presents a tempting opportunity.

Since the Kerch Strait incident, the Sluzhba Bezpeki (the Ukrainian Security Service) have been harassing Orthodox monks and priests with random detentions, surveillance, warrantless searches, property seizures and house raids. A number of Orthodox monks, including Metropolitan Onufriy and Metropolitan Pavel (head of the Kiev Caves Lavra Monastery) have been placed on a list of state enemies by the Security Service-curated website Mirotvorets (alongside such people as, uh, former Pink Floyd vocalist Roger Waters). This is a clear campaign of religious suppression by the right-wing neoliberal Ukrainian government led by Poroshenko. As Fr Steven (Clark) at Ancient Traditional Fish adroitly put it in a comment on Facebook: ‘This is what persecution of the Orthodox Church looks like.

But why? And why now? These, I believe, are indeed the operative questions here.

I think that the standard response from those hostile to the Moscow Patriarchate, that the government is acting, in good Rousseauian fashion, according to a legitimate aspiration of the Ukrainian people for ecclesiastical independence, simply doesn’t cut it from a factual perspective. (It is also very dangerous from a moral perspective, for reasons which seem rather obvious to me as an American of Jewish descent, but which don’t seem to be obvious to the defenders of Ukrainian honour and glory.) The standard response to these questions from Orthodox quarters sympathetic to the Moscow Patriarchate, at least from what I have seen, seems to be (roughly) fascists gonna be fascist. As my own gentle readers will be aware, I demur a bit from this standard line, and I think it is important to make the distinction particularly in this case. What we are witnessing is not necessarily a particularity of fascist violence per se. It is careening dangerously close to fascism, particularly with the involvement of the security services and police against monks. But I would argue instead, argue that it is a particularity of sæcular power seeking to subvert ecclesiastical prerogatives. Here is where I am going to start sounding a little bit like my old Radox-tinged pre-chrismation Episcopalian self, so bear with me a bit.

The current leadership of the Ukraine have (at, it seems, the insistence of American and Western European governments) adopted a zero-sum political stance which regards Russian interests as diametrically opposed to Ukrainian ones. The solution, in the eyes of the post-Maidan government, has been to ideologically attack any semblance of likeness or commonality between the two countries, unless that commonality could somehow be weaponised against the Russian people. The resurgence of the 19th century nationalist myths of Hrushevsky, the racialist attacks on the Asiatic characteristics of Russians, even the heightened physical attacks on Jews and Romani, are linked back to this ideological stance.

The substance of the attacks themselves gives us a hint of their sæcular nature and origins. The historiographical mythmaking of Mikhail Hrushevsky which underlies the current ideological formations in the post-Maidan era, was indeed a sæcular enterprise which took the Ukrainian nationality, as defined by blood-kinship, as primary, and the religious characteristics of the Ukrainian people as incidental. This division of the Kievan Rus’ into a racially-pure Ukrainian core and an Asiatic Russian periphery allowed him to mythologise a rupture in the history of the church, between the Kiev and the Vladimir-Rostov-Moscow periods of the church. The logic of the faith, for Hrushevsky, is subsumed in an ontology of violence that pits various racial interests against each other: in this, his thought is thoroughly of a piece with that of his Western European sæcularist contemporaries.

Gyorgi Fedotov, on the other hand, is a religious historian and thus more Orthodox in his perspective, his own liberal-socialist politics notwithstanding. Though he is a careful historian and thus loath to manufacture agreement or rupture where none exists, he nonetheless begins from the standpoint of religious psychology, and attempts to sketch for us the religious life of Kievan Rus’ from the inside. His historiography is not naïve; he is more open than the Slavophils to considering that religious forms even within Orthodoxy may have been subject to dramatic change. Indeed, this is one central point of his thesis, which he aims squarely against both Ukrainian and Great-Russian nationalist mythmaking. The inward character of Kievan spirituality was altered: in Kiev herself, by an infusion of Western rationalism and warrior-spirituality; and in Vladimir (and subsequently Moscow), by a spirit of cynicism in the face of political manipulation. Only in Old Novgorod did the traces of the old radical caritative heart of Kievan spirituality linger. Thus, when he argues against Hrushevsky and attacks the history of ecclesial rupture as a fantasy, he does so from an internal perspective that looks not only for outward signs (like a siege or the movement of a bishop), but for inward changes in the religious consciousness.

This dispute between two historians allows us to trace the roots of the current problem, but it is not identical to the problem itself. The problem really rests in the historical expectation by Maidanists that the Church-state relationship will remain, as it was under the Tsarist government and as was attempted by the Soviet, cæsaropapist in orientation, with the sæcular authority (whether Tsar or chairman or president) directly governing and managing a church which is essentially a state bureau. In reality, however, the Russian Church, both in the recent past and in the present, has bespoken a degree of independence from the government that would have been preposterous to conceive under Alexander III or Khrushchev, and the Ukrainian Orthodox Church has (for the present) an even greater degree. Nonetheless, this is the relationship the Maidanists imagine, and which propaganda tells them is the case, between the Danilov and the Kremlin.

Once thus imagined, this cæsaropapist phantasm becomes both something to be feared and something to be envied. Feared, both because it represents something foreign, eastern and menacing, and because it already exists within the borders, and its membership thus possibly constitutes a disloyal fifth column. (Note the similarity to, and commensurability with, the dual loyalty canard against Jews.) And envied, because the cæsaropapist model is seen as an effective way to keep the Church on a tight leash and under direct control. Hence the desire for a united anti-church, cobbled together from various existing nationalist anti-churches – with the impending blessing from la Rome deuxième, caught up as she is in her own imperial hangover.

Thus, the real problem is this: merely by existing, the Church presents an unanswerable challenge to this comprehensively sæcular account of reality, just as it would to any such comprehensive account across the political spectrum. Monastic communities, which themselves first arose as a form of social protest against sæcular life, doubly so. The Church operates according to a logic that takes the Resurrection, the Paschal overturn, as the central fact of our shared, political life. Such an orientation cannot help pointing to our essential similarities, over the foci of any more selective forms of belonging.

Thus, when their highest hierarch Metropolitan Onufriy makes a peaceful protest against state violence in the East of the country, both literally and figuratively saying that ‘Black Lives Matter’, he is behaving in a way that the same Ukrainian state, which demands loyalty to itself precede any other, cannot tolerate. And that is why the Soviet-legacy surveillance and security apparatus has mobilised against him. Not because he, or any of his monastic brothers, is a Russian agent, but on the contrary, merely because he refuses to be anyone’s agent but Christ’s. May our same Saviour and lover of mankind keep and protect His Beatitude and his monastic brethren in this time of crisis for their Church.

03 December 2018

Holy Hierarch Berin of Dorchester, Apostle to the West Saxons


Saint Berin of Dorchester

Today in the Orthodox Church we commemorate Berin of Dorchester, a pre-Schismatic saint (either a Frank or a Lombard by birth; the sources are conflicted on this point) ordained in Genoa by the Archbishop Asterius of Milan, and sent to Britain by the controversial Pope Honorius to convert the West Saxons of England to Christianity. Saint Berin promised the Pope of Rome to, as Bede the Venerable put it, ‘sow the seeds of the holy faith in the most inland and remote regions of the English’. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the new bishop landed at Portchester in Wessex (now Hampshire) in 634, and, upon finding the folk living in the Thames watershed to be still mired in their heathen beliefs, decided to stay among them rather than going further inland. According to the legend, he healed a blind and deaf heathen woman at Portchester, who, grateful for gaining her sight and hearing, told Bishop Berin where he might find the king in those parts.

He came before Cynegils, King of the West Saxons, who lived at Cholsey in the Berkshire Downs. Cynegils, hoping to intimidate the Christian Bishop, told Saint Berin to teach the Gospel first at the barrows at Churn Knob outside Blewbury, which had been hallowed ground to the heathen for a long time. However, unfazed, Saint Berin preached the Gospel so that many West Saxons heard him and believed, and though he did not manage to convert Cynegils at Churn Knob, the king was nonetheless impressed by Saint Berin’s boldness and allowed him to preach throughout his writ. Staying then among the West Saxons, Saint Berin taught the Gospel, healed the sick, worked wonders, and brought many of the West Saxon folk into the Church.

Saint Bede, a true man of the English North, has a particular interest in the legend of Saint Berin: that Berin’s conversion of Cynegils intimately involved Saint Oswald, Martyr-King of Northumbria. At the time, Cynegils wanted to ally himself with Oswald against the Mercians under Penda, who were a threat to both Wessex and Northumbria. Oswald came southward to meet Cynegils (causing a holy spring to gush forth at Wokingham when he prayed there for water on the way), but the saintly king would not ally himself with a heathen. Thereupon, Cynegils assented to be brought into the Church by Saint Berin; and Saint Oswald was present at the baptism in 635 – the two kings thereupon became not only allies, but fast friends, ‘lovely indeed and well-pleasing to God’.

The newly-illumined Cynegils gave Saint Berin a bishop’s seat in the town of Dorchester-on-Thames from whence to do his holy works. The saint blessed the grounds for a cathedral, Dorchester Abbey, and proceeded to baptise great throngs of people in the name of the Holy Trinity – holding an especially large mass baptism of West Saxons at Bapsey Pond in Taplow (which is unfortunately now owned by a Japanese Buddhist sect). He founded several churches besides in Wessex, including the Cathedral at Winchester. Saint Berin baptised Cynegils’s son Cwichelm and his grandson Cuþræd, but Cwichelm died in the same year as his baptism and the kingdom of Wessex passed into the hands of Cynegils’s heathen younger son Cenwealh, who would not hear of Christ from Saint Berin’s lips. Cenwealh angered the Mercian king Penda by slighting the latter’s sister, whom he divorced to marry another woman – the subsequent war between Penda and Cenwealh saw the West Saxon king driven into the arms of the East Angles, whose Christian king Anna welcomed and sheltered him. It was in these straits, in East Anglia, that Cenwealh repented and received the Christian faith.

Bishop Berin reposed on the third of December, 649, and was buried at Dorchester. He was glorified as a saint almost at once. Though the move was not without controversy, his successor, Bishop Saint Hædde of Wessex, had Berin’s incorrupt relics translated to Winchester and placed in a state of honour at the cathedral there. These relics thereupon healed the illnesses and disabilities of many folk who came to visit them, and the relics of Saint Berin drew many pilgrims thence. Winchester Cathedral still has in its possession an Orthodox icon of Saint Berin written by the iconographer Sergei Fyodorov.

Holy Hierarch Berin of Dorchester, pray to God for us sinners!

01 December 2018

Venerable Botwulf, Abbot of Icanho


Saint Botwulf the Abbot

Today, the first of December, we celebrate the translation of the relics of yet another great Benedictine monk of England and widely-beloved saint, Botwulf the Venerable, Abbot of Icanho – after whom over sixty-four churches in England were once dedicated. One of the earliest East Anglian saints and a particular patron of travellers and pilgrims, Botwulf the Venerable kept steadily and humbly to his work despite the political and religious turmoil that surrounded him, and indeed founded a significant number of monasteries further afield than his own native Suffolk.

Botwulf, an East Angle born around 615, was the elder of two brothers, the younger being Æðelwulf. While they were both yet young, the East Angles fell away from Christianity and began again worshipping heathen idols – however, thanks to the vigorous missionary efforts of the Irish mystic Saint Fursey, who founded a monastery at Burgh, the relapse into heathenry was blessedly only temporary. The brothers Botwulf and Æðelwulf took their education at Saint Fursey’s monastic school at Burgh, and were tonsured as monks there. When the heathen Penda King of Mercia attacked the East Angles, the two brothers fled southward into Sussex, where they joined a monastery in Bosham led by Saint Deicola.

As one may witness from his patronage, Botwulf did not keep the Benedictine rule of stability particularly well: he travelled to Francia to learn the spiritual disciplines from the monks there; and upon his return he became, like Saint Fursey, a determined missionary in various parts of his native England. He founded a monastery at Icanho, and dedicated it to the memory of the lately-reposed Anna King of the East Angles, who had fallen in battle against another Mercian invasion. It is said that Saint Botwulf struggled mightily against, and drove away, the dæmons that lived in the brackish fens that surrounded the site of the monastery – the land afterward became blessedly fertile and good for the monks and the surrounding freeholders to reclaim and farm. It is on this account that Botwulf became especially beloved of workers of the earth, and is often shown in holy art depicting him with a scythe or a plough.

The abbot Botwulf became widely known as a starets, a beloved elder and spiritual father to many (both monks and layfolk, both high and low in earthly stead), and his monastery grew in renown throughout England. As it says in his English hagiography:
All loved Botwulf: he was always humble, modest, friendly and mild in communication, proved the truth of his sermons by the example of his life… He taught his monks the rules of Christian perfection and the decrees of the Church Fathers. He thanked God both in good and sorrowful times alike, knowing that He makes everything for the good of those who love Him.
Very much like his northern contemporary and fellow-monastic Saint Hilda, Abbot Botwulf took the commonality and the poverty of the monastic life very seriously. One time in particular, he gave away the whole of the monastery’s stock of foodstuffs to the poor, and was scolded by his brother-monks for his profligacy. However, the brothers were soon stunned into awed silence when they beheld boats sailing upriver to Icanho bearing gifts from wealthy donors. Botwulf, a keen river-man from his youth, boated all through the newly-rechristened East Anglia preaching the Gospel and making the East Angles steadfast in their twice-found faith; it is for this reason that many of the churches dedicated to Saint Botwulf – from Lincs in the north and Shropshire in the west down to Kent and Sussex in the southeast – stand on riverbanks. Whether from Icanho or in his travels afield within England, the holy abbot wrought wonders and gave good rede to his monastic sons. Icanho became renowned as a great centre of holiness, drawing thither for spiritual and practical help all kinds of folk from princes and abbots down to farmers.

Again like Saint Hilda, Saint Botwulf was stricken in his later years with a lingering illness, from which he gave forth no complaint but instead gave thanks to God and turned his attention inward. Indeed, he reposed in the same year, 680, as his sister-abbot in the north. As it turned out, his relics travelled as far abroad and themselves worked wonders as he had during his life; many of them found their way to Ely, Bury St Edmunds, Thorney and London, where a number of churches were righted in his honour. Saint Botwulf’s memory has been cherished faithfully by many generations of English Catholics (and also Orthodox Christians), as well as Christians in the Teutonic countries like Sweden, Denmark, Frisia, Saxony and Kievan Rus’.

Venerable Elder Botwulf, our father among the Saints, pray to Christ our God for us sinners!