15 October 2019

Begletsy: searching for gold and God


Pavel (Petr Fedorov) and Ustya (Elizaveta Boyarskaya) in Begletsy

The year is 1907. Revolutionary fervour sweeps Russia, and the most common punishment for political subversives and revolutionaries is exile to Siberia. Those who try to escape their exile and return are hunted down by Cossacks. Their ears are cut off and traded for bounties. The first feature film by the recent genre-film director Rustam Mosafir, the 2014 joint Kazakhstani-Russian production Begletsy (or Fugitives), follows the story of one of these revolutionaries as he tries to escape from Cossack bounty hunters.

Begletsy is, essentially, an Ostern. We may even call it, with perhaps a bit of irony given the revisionist nature of the Ostern genre itself, a ‘revisionist Ostern’. For the most part, it’s played straight – but the ‘revisionist’ marks on it are made clear throughout. Mosafir calls us (with varying degrees of success) to a reflective self-criticality. There are elements in it of a tale of sin, suffering, redemption. There are also questions the film raises for us about the nature of wealth, our desire for this-worldly freedom and security, and the agonistic relationship of both to our religious strivings. It is also, much like Kelin or Shal, a survival film. But it is obvious that the vision of the film is a Russian one, albeit a Russian one that ‘faces east’.

Pavel (Pyotr Fedorov) is part of a group of escaped prisoners that are being hunted by a band of Cossacks led by the cruel and cynical Kudim (Sergei Tsepov). Kudim and his men manage to kill all of them except Pavel, who escapes by jumping into a raging river and swimming to the other side. However, Pavel is the one they’re really after since, as a political prisoner, his bounty is largest. The escapee takes shelter with a prospector, Vasilii (Valerii Grishko) and his mute, illiterate wife Ustya (Elizaveta Boyarskaya). Vasilii’s father, whom Pavel comes across as he is dying, informs Pavel of a cache of gold hidden in a pit he dug outside, and asks him to help Vasilii retrieve it. They recover the cache, but Vasilii is killed by the Cossacks after they discover he is sheltering Pavel. After that, a three-way game of cat-and-mouse ensues in the wooded taiga between Pavel and Ustya, the Cossacks, and an enraged bear which is trying to find her lost cub. Pavel winds up shot and falls into a bear trap; after that he has to be taken into an Evenki shirangju to be healed.

The Evenki hunter (Seidulla Moldahanov) who heals Pavel is actually also the one who introduces the story. He reflects on the strange ways of the white man – who hunts for gold and then tries to speak to God, thinking that God will hear him and heal him. In so doing, he sets in play the central dilemma of both Vasilii and the Cossacks – as well as Pavel, to some extent. To what extent is chasing wealth, or ease, or security, worth giving up parts of your own soul? The film demonstrates to us, intriguingly enough, that even hateful blackguards like Kudim and his henchman Skandyba, after all, have souls and desire union with God. They have just mired themselves in such a mad scramble for gold such that they cannot hear or rightly speak to God. Pavel, too, doesn’t seem to be going about ‘healing his soul’ in the right way. We get glimpses – both in his own flashbacks and during the Spirit Dance of the Evenki hunter – that he feels a certain degree of remorse for his assassination attempt that clearly went awry. But by the end of the film he doesn’t seem to have dealt with that, and the Evenk says as much. What is truly intriguing to me, though, is that, despite the Cossacks crossing themselves and praying to Christ and despite Ustya chasing after her lost baptismal cross, Mosafir puts the religious, Orthodox perspective on these questions into the mouth of a shamanistic Evenki hunter! There is no question but that this was a deliberate choice on his part – hence my application of the term ‘revisionist’.

As a meditation on the conflict between wealth and religion and the tension between a desire for a secure life and a desire for God, the film doesn’t quite work. The moments where it comes closest are the moments of tension among the Cossacks when they start to betray each other over the bounty. But for the two main characters, it doesn’t quite work. Ustya is too simple in the positive Russian sense, and Pavel, despite his chequered past – too altruistic. It is probably best to think about Begletsy more as a survival film from their perspective.

The acting in this film is remarkably decent. Petr Fedorov’s acting gives us certain shades of a young Michael Biehn; he has a similar resilience combined with physical and emotional vulnerability. He’s a ‘fish out of water’ when it comes to the taiga, but also clearly not wholly helpless. Elizaveta Boyarskaya really carries the day here, though. By turns wild and demure, domestic and tough, despite her character having literally zero dialogue, she manages to convey a particularly redoubtable emotional subtlety and range, in addition to being easy on the eyes even when covered in blood and grime. Little wonder indeed that the relationship between Pavel and Ustya takes the turn that it does. On the other side, the Cossacks are a delightfully well-done motley crew, from the unprincipled Skandyba (Aleksandr Samoilov) to the reluctantly-conscientious Ignat (Juris Lauciņš) and the naïve and cowardly Mihei (Kirill Anisimov). They are also shown to be expert bounty hunters and survivalists, which keeps the stakes high and allows Mostafir to build up some excellent dramatic tension.

The film is, by the way, incredibly well-paced, and holds the viewer’s interest throughout. The one thing about Begletsy I wasn’t too appreciative of was the soundtrack. Maybe it’s just because I’m coming off watching some minimalist art films with fairly sparse soundtracks that I’m saying this, and so my opinion here ought to be taken with a grain of salt. Even so, I found the soundtrack too bombastic and ostentatious for a film like this. I’m not saying we necessarily have to have another Shostakovich doing the score, but the big dramatic swells or the tense musical passages that accompany various beats of the plot do seem a bit much. It seems to me that less, and more judicious, here could have meant more.

The cinematography dwells lovingly on the rural taiga. (In the humble opinion of yours truly, it’s prohibitively hard to make an ugly movie in Kazakhstan. Cameras are attracted to the Kazakhstani landscape like magnets.) We have some nice atmospheric shots of mountainscapes and forests, some animal photography of eagles and especially bears. And it was clear they used live brown bears for most of the takes rather than animatronics or puppetry, but that also meant some awkward takes and edits for the action scenes where the bears were involved.

Overall, Begletsy is a fun, enjoyable movie with some typical Ostern flourishes. Even though (as he seems to intimate from his interviews) this wasn’t quite the movie that Mosafir wanted to make for his debut, it’s still a strong start to a career.

A radical Old English faith for an axiomodern age


Glastonbury Abbey

Following up on my slightly-renovated Saint Harold post, I feel like I need to append at least a partial justification for this hagiographical project that I kind of accidentally embarked on with a mini-bio of Saint Willibrord of Frisia.

Cataloguing and writing hagiographies for the pre-Schismatic saints of England, Frisia and northern Germany has taken me to some places I didn’t really expect to go. It has, to some degree, helped me sort out the feeling that I was merely going in circles both spiritually and intellectually – not so much by straightening me out and giving me a direction, as much as by letting me understand that going in such circles may not be such a bad thing to do. It’s also helping me sort through my Jennifer complex, this Œdipal hang-up I have over things British and old. That psycho-sexual feedback loop I’ve been caught in since my pre-teens still exercises quite a bit of power over me, but at least now I have a better sense of the shape of it. To be sure, there was a bit of navel-gazing about the whole thing. My ancestry being majority-English with infusions from Wales, southwestern Germany and Denmark, there was the danger of this turning into something of an ethnophyletist ‘vanity project’. I hope that was not the case.

This hagiographical project also, intriguingly, helped me sort out some of my hash of political convictions. It retrieved for me certain præmonitions of a democratic form of socialism ensconced within the Benedictine Rule. Though that, I could merely have gotten by way of Liz Bruenig and Chapo Trap House. The early Old English saints were rebelling, along with Saint Benedict, against an inhumane œconomic order that walled off the individual patrimonies of propertied men and proclaimed their lordship over the earth. Even more deeply than that: Benedict called for the renunciation of the individual will, particularly that will which strove to dominate others.

The socialism – I refuse to use scare quotes here; that’s what the Benedictine life was – of these early English and German saints, has some intriguing and tantalising overlaps and continuities with later developments. For example: the spirituality of Dr Lancelot Andrewes; the Platonic feminist anti-capitalism of Mary Astell; the liturgically-minded social-reformist Oxford Movement and the radical side of High Church Anglo-Catholicism in general; the religious æstheticism of John Ruskin and William Morris; the œconomic scholarship of Richard Tawney.

These unexpected eddies, visible even in the hagiographic language of the English saints, also revealed the profound receptivity of Old England to the Greek-speaking East. England, which was learning humility even in the tutelage of what Leont’ev would doubtless call its ‘primitive simplicity’, was not merely the passive pupil of Rome and Ireland. She was radically open to spiritual germination from the Eastern Christian world: from Greece (as shown in the scholarship of Saint Aldhelm and Saint Bede), from Palestine (as seen in the life of Saint Willibald), from Syria (in the person of Saint Theodore), from Ægypt (in the spirituality of Saint Gúðlác) and from Africa (in the person of Saint Hadrian). If there’s any heartening message for new, Western converts to the Orthodox faith: this is it. The Old English were every bit as foreign to that faith as we are today. Humility – personal humility and civilisational humility – is what is required of us. That civilisational humility, which came so naturally to the English of that five-hundred-year window of political independence, got very badly lost with the Hundred Years’ War and the advent of nationalism.

And then I started seeing in the context of this late-antique world these saints lived in, certain spiritual and physical challenges that we are likely to be facing again very soon, as we stand on the precipice of another climate crisis. The Old English saints lived on the very margins, at the figurative bottom of the known world. They were subject to poverty, hunger, desperation, violence which could come from anywhere. The Old English saints were called to great ascetic feats, not out of some feigned bourgeois piety, but out of love for their neighbours – deep, abiding, sincere. They suffered as their neighbours suffered. These reflections brought me back around, full circle, through the scholarly work of Dr Aleksandr Shchipkov to the wisdom of the Chinese new left.

Old English and Old Celtic spirituality offers us a great deal to learn from, if we would but listen. I’m not yet quite done with this series: the last English saint I’ll be treating here will likely come toward the end of December. But the insights – spiritual, cultural, political, even œcological – that these saints have to offer will, I am positive, take a great deal longer to unpack.

14 October 2019

Harold II Godwineson, King of England


An unofficial icon of Harold Godwineson

Private venerations of Harold, the last of the Old English kings in the British Isles, have been growing in popularity among Orthodox Christians who venerate the pre-Schismatic saints of Old England. Personally, I happen to be among them. In my view, Harold was at the very least a Passion-Bearer, having fought in a just cause and having subsequently been killed and mutilated for political reasons.

Six years ago, on the Old Calendar anniversary of the fateful Battle of Hastings, I wrote this blog post about the sanctity of Harold. There are parts of it now that I find a bit historically naïve – in particular my reliance on Vladimir Moss. But other than that, I still feel it’s a thesis that holds up.
Harold II of England, son of Earl Godwin of Wessex and the last of the Saxon Kings, was on this day nine hundred forty-seven years ago martyred in battle at Hastings by the conquering Norman army of William the Bastard. Thus began what has come to be known as the ‘Norman yoke’ – a memory of an England whose traditional language and traditional folkways were repressed by the imposition of foreign laws and a continental nobility. The Norman yoke was no fiction, and they wasted no time in laying it upon Saxon shoulders: within three years of King Harold’s death they had laid waste to the entire north of England and reduced it to starvation and beggary. Within twenty, they had effected a massive upward concentration of wealth, through force consolidated the holdings of over 4,000 Saxon thanes and earls into the hands of some 200 Norman lords, clamped down tight on minting to ensure their control over the developing monetary economy, introduced a more rigid form of feudal administration, introduced usury, and took their payment by bleeding off the English economy to finance infrastructure in Normandy. The common English folkways crushed and driven underground in the aftermath of King Harold’s death still found expression through, for example, the popular mediaeval legend of Robin Hood, who championed simple folk and the commons against a ravening nobility.

Regrettably, during the Reformation and through the English Civil War, the ‘Norman yoke’ came to take on an anti-Catholic and anti-apostolic flavour as English Protestant nationalists attempted to marshal the Saxon heritage to their cause. In actuality, the deep irony of the ‘Norman yoke’ legend being invoked by the radical Calvinist Roundheads, was that their ‘reformed’ heresy was every bit as much a legalistic, repressive and regicidal Norman import as William the Bastard had been! (Jean Chauvin hailed from Picardie.) And, of course, in the end, those same English Protestants who bemoaned the ‘Norman yoke’ gladly welcomed with open arms yet another continental invader named William, who harrowed the Scottish, Irish and northern English every bit as brutally as his eponym had harrowed the Saxons.

In truth, Old England was not heterodox in any way, even if there was a backsliding in the moral life of the Church its twilight years. Much,
much less were they wont to treat their kings with the dishonour their heretical offspring shew theirs, the doom of Saint King Edward the Martyr not withstanding. (Even that regicide was treated as a hitherto unheard-of and nigh unforgivable crime.) And, as Archpriest Andrew Phillips put it: ‘England of the Old English with all its faults was also a land of hallowed bishops and holy kings, of martyr-priests and confessors, of noble princes and princesses, saintly abbesses and humble cowherds, meek hermits and lowly monks, righteous families and silent nuns, faithful queens and gentle abbots, who hallowed it from North to South and East to West’. Just as the English people were generally loyal to their own kings, the English Church and people were highly loyal to Rome in all things beginning with St Gregory the Great and St Augustine of Canterbury. But, as Vladimir Moss put it in his book, The Fall of Orthodox England, ‘the “Romanity” to which the English were so devoted was not the Franco-Latin Catholicism of the later Middle Ages. Rather, it was the Greco-Roman Romanitas or Ρωμιοσύνη of Orthodox Catholicism’…

Harold himself should be considered here. He was, by all accounts, a good king and a good man: ‘wise, patient, merciful, courageous, temperate and prudent in character’. He repeatedly showed courage, loyalty and compassion - he saved two men from quicksand when he was a hostage of the Normans. In the wake of the death of St King Edward the Confessor, he ascended to the throne without any opposition from the Saxon
witan. Vladimir Moss cites Florence of Worcester’s glowing account of his short reign:
[Harold] immediately began to abolish unjust laws and to make good ones; to patronize churches and monasteries; to pay particular reverence to bishops, abbots, monks and clerics; and to show himself pious, humble and affable to all good men. But he treated malefactors with great severity, and gave general orders to his earls, ealdormen, sheriffs and thegns to imprison all thieves, robbers and disturbances of the kingdom. He laboured in his own person by sea and by land for the protection of his realm.
Again, there are parts of this that I could bolster by appeal to sources other than Moss, now, and I would not overstress the Varangian part of that thesis. Instead, I would draw attention to the saints of the Old English church who were not only versed in Greek literature both classic and contemporary, but also to those who studied, admired and did their best to emulate the spiritual traditions of Antioch, Palestine and Alexandria. That part aside, there does seem to be valid grounds for individual Orthodox to include Harold King in their personal venerations, awaiting an official glorification. Harold, passion-bearing king of blessed memory, we ask your prayers!

13 October 2019

Kardiogramma: growing pains and puppy love


Jasulan (Jasulan Asaýov) in Kardiogramma

Recently having finished Dárejan Ómirbaev’s 1995 Kardiogramma (or Cardiogram, or Heartbeat), let me say this about it first. It’s a breathtaking and shameless act of self-plagiarism. It’s also remarkably well-done. One may think of it, in essence, as a remake of Kaırat. A remake, that is, with a younger protagonist, colour photography, a more straightforward narrative structure (complete with an actual conclusion), and a more conservative use of the filmic ‘syntax’ and symbolism. One irony I noticed: Kaırat has a Kazakh title and uses exclusively Russian dialogue; while Kardiogramma is a Russian title which uses a mixture of both Kazakh and Russian dialogue.

Warning: spoilers below.

Kardiogramma follows Jasulan (Jasulan Asaýov), a pre-teen from rural Kazakhstan whom his father complains wastes fuel in order to watch TV. Jasulan has a heart defect, however, stemming from a childhood case of tonsillitis that caused complications, though a resident doctor tells his mother that perhaps it’s because she spoils him too much. He is admitted to a sanitarium in Almaty for treatment, and is promptly singled out for cruel bullying by some of the other kids – partially because he (supposedly) doesn’t speak Russian. Having been raised in the countryside, he ostensibly only speaks Kazakh, but there are hints that he knows more Russian than he lets on. His only friend at the sanitarium is a roommate in the same dorm who also speaks Kazakh. Much of the plot revolves around Jasulan developing a painful first crush on his nurse, Gula (Gul’nara Dusmatova), an older woman who bandages his leg after he injures it playing soccer. When Jasulan showers, he catches a glimpse of Gula naked in the women’s shower stall through a crack in the wall, and starts to fantasise about her. Nurse Gula, however, is in a relationship with the resident doctor – something which Jasulan discovers by sneaking around the sanitarium.

Jasulan also learns to stand up to the bullies and their pranks. One of the older kids knocks one of Jasulan’s dorm-mates – a frail somnambulant youngster who enjoys reading – off a piece of playground equipment into the snow. Jasulan – outraged on his behalf – challenges him to a fight in the sanitarium basement, which he promptly loses. The end of the film sees Jasulan stowing away in the back of a supply van: running away from the sanitarium and ostensibly taking charge of his own fate.

End spoilers.

Kardiogramma, let’s kindly say borrows, a great deal of its plot and thematic material straight from Kaırat. Jasulan’s alienation, symbolised directly by his heart defect, is the parallel of Kaırat’s; both of the protagonists transition from the countryside into a more ‘urban’ setting, though in Jasulan’s case that transition is more explicit. Both Jasulan and Kaırat suffer from a case of awkward, hopelessly unrequited first love. In both films, screens play an important rôle in the background, whether movie screens or television screens. The scene with Gula and the doctor in her apartment is exactly parallel to a scene in Kaırat with Indira and the train’s chef in her bunk – except it doesn’t feature a broken train-car window; instead Jasulan falls two stories from where he had been eavesdropping on the edge of Gula’s balcony. And dreams, or at least the permeable liminal boundary between waking life and dreaming, features prominently here, too – both in Jasulan’s own case (he tends to dream about his mother and the Kazakh countryside, just as Kaırat did) and in the case of his somnambulant bookish roommate. In at least one instance, the dream sequences are directly and painfully related to Jasulan’s experience of being bullied by the older boys in the sanitarium.

I had the feeling as I was watching Kardiogramma that I was watching something of a more mature, more purposeful retelling of Kaırat, which is not a bad thing. The biggest difference between Kaırat and Kardiogramma, however, is the ending. In the end of Kardiogramma, Jasulan makes at least two distinct choices which instantly render him a more relatable and sympathetic character: the choice to fight, and the choice to run away. I felt I could sympathise with Jasulan a great deal better than with Kaırat – those two choices he makes, and his acceptance of responsibility for the consequences of them, make him much less of a passive cipher within the film. Kardiogramma therefore has the distinctive marks of a bildungsroman, as Jasulan makes a credible, if painful and sacrificial in several ways, transition into adulthood.

Other, more subtle differences. Ómirbaev himself seems to have matured in the four-year space between these films. Kardiogramma is much less on-the-nose and much less melodramatic with its use of symbolism and magic-realist flourishes. The symbols in the film are not just put ‘out there’ like the TV in Kaırat’s dorm: they serve a purpose and a function even within the context of the film’s story. Even though Ómirbaev’s preoccupations – with first loves, with dreams, with the existential pains of adolescence – seem unchanged from Kaırat, he makes them much more visceral by attaching them to characters that he takes the effort to invest the audience in. The dreams experienced by Jasulan and his roommates are clearly demarcated, and they are meant to show us something relatable about their inner lives. The spoken-word poetry that peppers the film here and gives us audible glimpses into Jasulan’s inner world has a clear tie to the film’s world: it’s being recited aloud, whether by Nurse Gula or by the somnambulant roommate.

At this point, perhaps I’m just betraying some of my own preferences as a viewer. I’m not a big ‘art-house’ film guy; not the world’s greatest devotee of Robert Bresson’s school of praxis. I like the fact that here Ómirbaev is showing us some of his own personality as a director. His characters speak both Kazakh and Russian. He isn’t artificially relying on pregnant silences and portentious cinematography. The transition to colour photography clearly suited him well. The establishing shots at the beginning of the film alone seem to presage the Kazakhstani film industry’s completely-understandable fascination with its own backyard landscapes – something which is downplayed or even wholly missing in earlier ‘New Wave’ films like Mest’, Igla or even Otyrardyń kúıreýi.

I don’t want to intimate, by the way, that Kaırat is without value – no, not at all! In fact, I think the French distributors of these two films were wise to put them side-by-side on the same DVD. Between Kaırat and Kardiogramma, we get to see the evolution of a filmmaker’s vision, as he creatively adapts some foreign filmic ‘big concepts’ to two different versions of the story he clearly wants to tell us.

12 October 2019

Holy Hierarch Wilfrið of Ripon, Archbishop of York


Saint Wilfrið of York

The other holy Northern Englishman whom we celebrate today is no whit less dynamic a personality than Saint Éadwine whose feast-day he shares. Saint Wilfrið, Archbishop of York, is a personage whose influence and charisma are so pervasive that they colour the entire history of the English Church after him. As a bishop he was politically as well as spiritually active, and had a rather contentious streak. He had a certain knack for stepping on toes both sæcular and ecclesiastical, and getting himself exiled from England by less-than-appreciative kings and fellow bishops. He was: a partizan of the Roman custom for dating Pascha; a champion of poor folk against noble exploitation; a sympathiser (understandably) with clergy in exile; and a tireless promoter of the Benedictine Rule and monastic life in England.

Wilfrið was born during the same ‘hateful year’ that Éadwine died: 633. It seems that he lost his mother during the hunger and blight that afflicted Northumbria at the time. His father remarried, although young Wilfrið did not get along with his new stepmother. He was sent to the court of Óswíu King, where he made the acquaintance of Éanflæd his queen. Wilfrið made the request at the age of thirteen to be admitted to the monastic life at Lindisfarne. A bright and promising pupil, Wilfrið made great progress in his studies, but still he felt something was missing from the Celtic mode of monastic life that was practised at Lindisfarne. He began to yearn for a journey to Rome, the better to learn a more regular way of life.

He was quietly encouraged in this by Éanflæd Queen, who likewise held sympathies with Rome in contrast with her husband’s Celtic inclinations. When he was nineteen years old, she gave to Wilfrið a recommendation to travel to Canterbury, where she herself had ties through her Kentish mother Æþelburg. With this recommendation in hand, he went southward in the company of Saint Benedict Biscop, and was received warmly by Éanflæd’s kinsman Eorcenberht King of Kent, who gave him provisions and sent him on his way to the Continent. He was greeted by Saint Ennemond, the Frankish Archbishop of Lyons, who was apparently so charmed by this comely English youth that he offered to adopt him as his son, wed his niece to him and make him governor of a whole Frankish province. This was indeed a sore temptation for a nineteen-year-old boy, but Wilfrið politely declined the friendly offer, being intent on going to Rome to study – but consoled the Archbishop by saying he intended to come visit him again.

While in Rome he made the acquaintance of Bonifatius Consiliarius (assistant to Saint Martin the Confessor, and later the Roman legate to the Trullo Synod), who taught him the Gospels, the disciplines of the Benedictine Rule and – significantly for English Church history – the Roman method for calculating the date for Pascha. He received a blessing from the Pope in Rome and made his way back to England.

Wilfrið made good his promise to Saint Ennemond, staying with the Archbishop of Lyons for three years on his return from Rome. During that time, it so happened that the foes of Saint Ennemond were sent to claim his life, for they had been told by the cruel majordomo of Neustria, Ebroin, that he was a traitor and an enemy of the king. (Some traditions – beginning with Stephen of Ripon and unfortunately including Bede – hold with little grounds for proof that Saint Bealdhild was the one responsible for giving the order to have Ennemond killed.) Wilfrið, being Saint Ennemond’s adopted son, followed him to the killing-grounds, despite Ennemond’s repeated pleas for him to run and save himself. But Wilfrið answered him: ‘What could be more meet than for a son to die alongside his father, so they can be together in Christ?’ After Ennemond had been killed, they stripped Wilfrið and readied the axe. But one of the captains halted them, and asked what manner of man he was, and the charge against him. The executioners answered that he was an Englishman, and they did not know the charges against him. At that, the captain ordered his soldiers to spare Wilfrið and let him go.

Wilfrið returned to England and soon struck up a firm friendship with Ealhfrið King of Deira, the son of Óswíu and the husband of Saint Cyneburg of Peterborough. The two of them were so close, in fact, that Church historians likened their friendship to that of David and Jonathan in Scripture. Ealhfrið gave Wilfrið ten hides of land at Stamford and another thirty at Ripon on which to build Benedictine houses of prayer. According to Bede, the land at Ripon had originally belonged to Celtic monks from Melrose who had abandoned the place and left the land to lie fallow; having reverted to the king, Ealhfrið was eager to see the land used to the same right purpose.

Wilfrið was ordained a priestmonk by Bishop Saint Ægilberht to serve as Abbot at Ripon. Here we see something of Wilfrið’s obstinacy: bringing in a Frankish bishop from West Saxony to ordain him was something of an affront to Lindisfarne and the Celtic priests who lived nearer by. But while at Ripon, he followed the Benedictine Rule precisely as he had learnt it in Rome and Gaul. He followed, as it were, the precepts of Saint Biscop. The doors of his abbey were always open, and the tables always furnished, particularly to the poor and hungry and homeless. Saint Wilfrið engaged himself primarily in giving to and alleviating the burdens of the poor while Abbot at Ripon, and so won the hearts of the lowly folk of Northumbria.

However, Abbot Wilfrið’s contentiousness and somewhat impatient bearing soon showed themselves in the controversy over the dating of Pascha. There were those in Northumbria who agreed with him on the Roman method of dating: notably Éanflæd Queen and James the Deacon, but overwhelmingly, Christian Northumbria still hewed to the Celtic rule. This created some serious tensions – both in terms of the domestic tranquillity of the King’s household (for Éanflæd Queen would still be fasting while Óswíu King was feasting) and in terms of the broader discipline of the Church.

Óswíu King summoned all the churchmen of the English North to Whitby, where Saint Hild was then abbess. Saint Colmán of Lindisfarne and Saint Cedd of Lastingham represented the Celtic tradition; and Saint Wilfrið along with Saint Ægilberht and Saint James represented the Roman. All of Northumbria’s high-born folk attended as well, as this was not merely an ecclesiastical but also a political dispute. And it was Wilfrið, with his contentious personality and eloquence, who carried the day.

Saint Wilfrið and Saint Colmán disputed eloquently – and often, as was the style at the time, polemically – over the method of calculating Paschaltide. Saint Colmán appealed in his case to the authority of Saint John the Theologian, from whom Saint Columba of Iona had received the apostolic tradition through Bishop Saint Anatolius of Laodicea. This usage Wilfrið disputed, saying that Saint John changed his custom to accord with that handed down from Saints Peter and Paul and which were followed by the entirety of the Christian Church after Chalcedon – with the exception of a few small islands at the extremities of the known world. According to Saint Bede, it was Wilfrið’s rousing appeal to Peter that managed to convince Óswíu King to adopt the Roman rite – though more cynical historians contend that it was instead his wife Éanflæd who swayed her husband thus to decide. Whatever the true reason, Saint Colmán departed the Synod unconvinced and continued to uphold the Celtic rite in Iona.

The issue was not, however, resolved straightaway. Wilfrið was appointed Bishop of York, but again he made the unfortunate decision to snub the English bishops and appeal to the Franks for his consecration – specifically to his friend Saint Ægilberht. Though no objection was made at first, the Celtic party reasserted their efforts to hold on to the English north and used Wilfrið’s absence as a pretext – and Óswíu was happy to oblige them. In his place, Saint Cedd of Lastingham was elected as bishop. Wilfrið was waylaid on his return to England by a storm which wrecked his ship among the still-heathen South Saxons. The South Saxons attacked his vessel as he prayed, and a skirmish broke out between them and the crew – but Wilfrið and his ship’s crew were protected by his prayers to God long enough for the skipper to push the wreck back out to water and limp to the nearest safe harbour. Wilfrið returned to find that the bishopric had been given to Cedd. With atypical restraint, he seems to have accepted that result, and gone back to Ripon to attend to his abbey – which he did with devoted care and attention. However, he was often called into Mercia by Wulfhere King to attend to ecclesial matters there.

The winds shifted again when Pope Vitalian sent a new Archbishop to Canterbury: Saint Theodore of Tarsos. Saint Theodore and Saint Wilfrið both possessed incredible energy and zeal for the proper administration of the Church, so one would think they too would have become fast friends – though this turned out not to be the case. They did get off on the right foot. Theodore found fault with Cedd’s appointment as bishop of York and moved him to Mercia, appointing Abbot Wilfrið in his place. Wilfrið, now bishop of York, set about at once to work. He saw to it that York Minster – which had been sadly and shabbily neglected, with settling foundations, cracking walls, a gaping roof – was refurbished from the foundations by Italian masons and stoneworkers. The work was completed in 672.

Wilfrið got along well at first with Ecgfrið of Deira. However, Wilfrið’s dealings with his wife Æþelþrýð, whose desires for a celibate monastic life Wilfrið did his best to encourage, soured his relationship somewhat with the king. But he spent most of his time in this period travelling to the countryside of Northumbria and teaching to, preaching to, comforting and exhorting the humble folk even in the smallest hamlets. Although he was not particularly well-loved among the rich and powerful, the common folk deeply loved him and felt at ease coming to him with their problems both spiritual and practical.

However, the goodwill between Saints Theodore and Wilfrið did not last long at all. Ecgfrið managed to convince Saint Theodore that Bishop Wilfrið’s archdiocæse was too big for him, and to oversee his removal from York and the breakup of York into smaller sees. This was done at a church synod in 678 at which Wilfrið was not present. Enraged at this affront, Bishop Wilfrið appealed first to Ecgfrið King – which was to no avail – and subsequently to the Pope in Rome. He set off once again for the Old City.

On his way there he passed through Frisia, where he could not but take pity on the still-heathen Frisian folk and begin preaching to them the Gospel. He even managed to get on the good side of the Frisian king Aldgisl. Remember Ebroin, above? Ebroin had not forgotten Wilfrið, or his intimacy with Saint Ennemond! The evil majordomo of Neustria, on hearing that Wilfrið was again on the continent, sent an envoy to Aldgisl with a bushel full of gold solidi as payment for Wilfrið’s head. Aldgisl had the letter read aloud to him in the hall, with the hearth burning before him. When the letter was finished, an enraged Aldgisl stood up, took the letter, tore it into shreds and threw them into the fire. The heathen Aldgisl was far too prising of his own hospitality and honour to so hatefully betray a guest even for that much gold. The life of Wilfrið was again spared from Ebroin’s mad cruelty, and he stayed among the Frisians for yet another season before setting off to Rome.

Once he reached Rome, he was received by Saint Agathon, Pope of Rome, who heard his case in the presence of several other bishops. Wilfrið was acquitted unanimously, and an order for him to be restored to his bishopric was written. Saint Agathon also helped to call the Sixth Œcumenical Counicl to combat the heresy of monothelitism. Wilfrið was invited by Agathon to take his place among the bishops, and he offered as the conviction of the English Church that Christ has in fact two wills – human and divine – in agreement with the entirety of the Orthodox Christian world, West and East. Wilfrið returned to England only to find that the acquittal Saint Agathon had given him was of little political avail with Ecgfrið. He was thrown into a donjon for nine months before a friend of his, Saint Æbbe the Elder of Coldingham, managed to get him released.

Once out of there, Wilfrið went into the lands of the South Saxons (who had attacked his ship before), which were then wracked by a frightful hunger. Wilfrið did not go there and preach the Gospel at once; but instead he set to work helping the poor and hungry among them. Though the crops had failed, the seas were teeming with fish, and so in imitation of Christ’s disciples he set to work there. Wilfrið and his followers borrowed some eel-nets from the folk thereabouts, and cast them into the waves from their boat. They hauled ashore three hundred fish. This catch they divided in three, giving one part to the fishermen who had lent them the nets, distributing one part to the poor, and keeping the last part for themselves. It was only after he had worked this wonder that he set about preaching the Word of Life to the poor South Saxons.

The long feud between Saint Theodore and Saint Wilfrið was resolved by the interventions of several people who were friends to both: Holy Mother Ælfflæd of Whitby and Bishop Saint Eorcenwald of London. At their meeting, the Græco-Syrian Archbishop of Canterbury, who had fallen quite ill and wished to make amends, owned his sin against Saint Wilfrið in full and besought his forgiveness, promising to make whatever recompense he could with those among the lords in the north who remained his friends. For his part, Saint Wilfrið gladly forgave Saint Theodore. In Northumbria, Ecgfrið King had fallen in battle at Nechtansmere, and had been replaced by his half-Irish kinsman Ealdferð, who was much better-disposed to Wilfrið – at least at first. After receiving the letter from Saint Theodore, Ealdferð restored Wilfrið to part of his old archdiocæse, in Hexham.

Wilfrið set about restoring the church organisation in the North to regularity, but this time he did so in a discrete and diplomatic manner. Saint Bosa of York and Saint John of Beverley, who had been appointed to diocæses in his absence, willingly and even cheerfully relinquished their charges to him. So too did Saint Cuðberht of Lindisfarne, who had never sought to be a bishop and was glad to resign the responsibility to another, retired to the Isle of Farne for the remainder of his life.

It wasn’t long, however, before Wilfrið’s personality and Ealdferð’s came into conflict. Wilfrið had already gone some long way toward restoring the old ecclesiastical order of Northumbria, having gathered together the bishoprics of Hexham, Ripon, York and even Lindisfarne. Ealdferð likely felt threatened by this, and so leant his ear more toward Wilfrið’s foes among the nobility. He concocted a plan whereby he would take Ripon from Saint Wilfrið and place a bishop there of his own choosing. Ripon, of course, was Wilfrið’s beloved home and the monks there were his family, and he did not willingly part with it. But in 691, five years after his restoration at Saint Theodore’s insistence, Ealdferð chased Saint Wilfrið again out of Northumbria.

This time, however, he found a friend closer to home, in the person of Æþelræd King of Mercia, who offered Wilfrið shelter and the vacant diocæse of Lichfield. He spent his time in Mercia as well and honourably as he had done during his other exiles, in Frisia and Sussex. He founded monasteries and churches, and shared whatever he had with the poor. Unfortunately, his foes in Northumbria managed to gain the ear of Archbishop Saint Beorhtwald of Canterbury. A local synod was convoked at Austerfield, and Ealdferð demanded of the Archbishop of Canterbury that Wilfrið be allowed to remain Abbot at Ripon, on condition that he essentially remain there under house arrest – unable to leave Ripon without Ealdferð King’s express permission. Saint Wilfrið, understandably, objected to this in the strongest terms. Though Wilfrið was supported wholeheartedly by the Mercian king, his followers in Northumbria were in peril of Ealdferð’s wrath.

The rancorous proceedings at Austerfield prompted Saint Wilfrið to yet again plead his case in Rome. By this time, Wilfrið was weary of the constant fighting with sæcular princes, and wished only to be restored to his old abbeys in Ripon and Hexham. Pope John VI was the Roman bishop who this time heard Wilfrið’s case, and he quickly found that Wilfrið’s accusers had brought some false charges against him. A couple of the older bishops in Rome – and also Wilfrið’s old teacher, Bonifatius Consiliarius, by now an ancient and wizened old archdeacon! – recognised Wilfrið from his prior visit when Saint Agathon was Pope, and furthermore acquainted Pope John VI with Wilfrið’s enthusiastic defence of Orthodoxy at the Sixth Œcumenical Council. It was ruled that a bishop who had served so long in the cause of Christ, with such a clear understanding of divinely-revealed truth, should not be expelled from his see but on the contrary sent back with a blessing!

As Wilfrið was travelling through France on his return to England, he fell so ill that he had to be carried in a litter to Meaux. He was at the brink of death for four days, taking neither food nor drink and barely breathing. On the fifth day he revived, and was able to sit up and speak, for which the monastic brethren who were with him gave fervent thanks. Saint Wilfrið first spoke to Acca, a priest and his close confidant, that he had seen a vision of Saint Michael, who had given him to know the day of his death, four years after.

Wilfrið was received gladly by Archbishop Beorhtwald, and he and Æþelræd – now no longer a king, having retired to Bardney as a simple monk – agreed to support him in fulfilling the wishes of the Holy Father. But Ealdferð flat refused to allow Wilfrið to set one foot in Northumbria. Ealdferð was not much longer for this world, however, dying in 705. His son Ósred, who was only eight years old when he became king, was prevailed upon by his regent to allow Wilfrið to return. In the end, Archbishop Beorhtwald effected a compromise at the Synod of Nidd: Saint Wilfrið was restored to Hexham and Ripon, while Saint John of Beverley was given charge of York. However, Bishop Wilfrið, now an old man, was happy to be at peace with the rulers of his beloved homeland.

He spent the last three years of his life ministering to the monasteries he had founded in Hexham and Ripon as well as some of those he had overseen in Mercia. It was while he was at one of these last, the Abbey of Saint Andrew at Oundle, that he took his last illness. He reposed peacefully on his pillow, as though simply sleeping, after a few last exhortations to his monks to keep the peace of Christ among themselves. The Abbot of Oundle, Cuðbald, had Saint Wilfrið’s relics translated to the church of Saint Peter at Ripon – the monastic community he had loved first and best and longest, and for which he had fought so hard. There he was laid to rest.

Bishop Saint Wilfrið’s forceful, magnetic personality seems to have repelled as many people as it attracted. In some cases his own comportment can even appear self-contradictory. In the eyes of his detractors, he was imperious, overbearing, power-hungry and overly fond of worldly honours. However, in the eyes of those who loved him, including many saints of the Orthodox Church, he was sincere, forthright and possessed of a firm sense of personal integrity. It is clear that he loved the Benedictine Order and Rule dearly, and wished above all things to remake the English Church according to the radically-kenotic spirit that lay at the core of the Rule. This is one consistent way to make sense of his willingness to brashly confront powerful kings and nobles over the ecclesiastical rights of his office on the one hand, but also his total, self-giving love he showed to the poor and to the heathen nations he encountered in exile on the other. Holy Bishop Wilfrið, fearless missionary, friend to the poor and steadfast defender of Christ’s truth, pray unto Him Who is the Author of all that our souls may be saved!
Thou wast a champion of the Orthodox Faith,
Upholding the Church with the dogmas of Truth, O sacred Wilfrið;
For, proclaiming that the Son possessed both divine and human wills,
Thou didst set at naught the heresy of Honorius the Pope
And put all the other monothelites to shame.
O holy father, entreat the Saviour,
Who is both perfect God and perfect man,
That at thine intercession He grant us great mercy.

Right-Believing Passion-Bearer Éadwine King of Northumbria


Saint Éadwine of Northumbria

Today in the Holy Orthodox Church we commemorate two great holy men of Northern England. The first of them is Éadwine [or Edwin], who was king of Northumbria from 616 to 633 – at first heathen, and then thanks to the efforts of his wife Saint Æþelburg and her personal chaplain Archbishop Saint Paulinus, a convert to Christianity. Among Éadwine’s six children, Éanflæd, who chose the life of a nun, would also attain to sainthood. Éadwine himself earned his crown in a different way – he was killed in battle against the heathen Penda of Mercia and the self-interested Cadwallon ap Cadfan.

Éadwine was born around 586, the eldest son of Ælle of Deira (whose name and country prompted Pope Gregory Dialogos to a series of witty Latin wordplays on the English prior to sending the mission among them). When Ælle died, the Bernician king Æþelfríð (Éadwine’s brother-in-law, and father of Saint Óswald and Óswíu) annexed Deira and forced Éadwine into exile at the age of three. Éadwine may or may not have spent his youth in Gwynedd as later hagiographers (like Geoffrey of Monmouth) have claimed. But what is known is that as a young man he settled in Mercia, and forged an alliance with Ceorl King by wedding his daughter Cwénburg: they had two children together, Ósfríð and Éadfríð. Ultimately, he allied himself also with Rædwald, king of the East Angles. Saint Bede relates that Æþelfríð attempted with bribes and threats to induce Rædwald to have Éadwine murdered, but Rædwald’s wife told him that betraying a friend for gold would be níþing in the extreme, and thus shamed him into keeping Éadwine safe. Together with East Anglian help, Éadwine led a here back into his homeland.

A great battle occurred on the banks of the River Idle, in which Æþelfríð’s army was routed and Æþelfríð himself slain. Rædwald’s son Rægenhere, too, fell in the battle. But Rædwald and Éadwine held the day, and made a mighty thrust northward into Bernicia. Óswald and Óswíu fled into Dál Riata and Ireland, respectively. Éadwine was thus able to wrest control over the entire North and unite the two subkingdoms again into the whole of Northumbria – though he still swore fealty to the friend who had made this sige possible: Rædwald. In his early reign as king, Éadwine embarked on multiple wars of conquest against his neighbours. He attacked the British kingdom of Elfed, slaying its king Ceredig ap Gwallog, and adding its lands to his own. He attacked Rheged and forced the king of that land to flee southward into Powys, in Wales. Éadwine’s heres also hunted the eldest son of Æþelfríð, Éanfríð, throughout Allt Clud and Gododdin. Even at the time of his baptism, Éadwine was still ruthlessly harrying the Britons west of him. He conquered the Isle of Man and Anglesey, defeated the armies of Gwynedd in battle and lay siege to Puffin Island, forcing his old rival Cadwallon to flee to his southern kinfolk in Brittany on the Continent. Such were the extent of his conquests that he was considered to be brytenwealda: the High King of England.

At some point, Éadwine put aside Cwénburg. This left some very ill feeling toward him in Mercia – perhaps earning him Penda’s deadly enmity. However, this freed Éadwine to wed Saint Æþelburg: a politically advantageous match which put Northumbria on friendly terms with Christian and Frankish-aligned Kent. As for Æþelburg herself, the match was very much to her liking, and not just for political reasons. Even so, Éadwine had a strong tendency to dissemble over religious matters. There is indication that he had accepted baptism in the Celtic tradition during the invasion of Rheged, but then relapsed into heathenry. The Pope sent letters to both Éadwine and Æþelburg urging the former to accept Christ and the latter essentially to get a move on in converting her groom. But, as we see, Éadwine defers this decision again and again.

About a year after Éadwine’s marriage to Æþelburg, Cwichelm of Wessex – an ally of the Mercians – sent an envoy named Éomer to Northumbria. His ostensible purpose was to speak frith between Wessex and Northumbria, but his true bidding from Cwichelm was to kill Éadwine by stealth. Cwichelm both feared Northumbria’s growing power and was alarmed and dismayed by Éadwine’s political ‘pivot’ from Mercia to Kent. When Éomer reached Éadwine’s court, on the day that the Christians in the Roman rite were celebrating the feast of Pascha, he put forward his hand to shake it as a gesture of friendship, and Éadwine obliged him. But then Éomer put his hand into his cloak and brandished a knife with a poisoned edge. One of Éadwine’s þegnas, a man named Lilla, saw the glimmer of the blade – and rushed to set his own body between Éomer and the king. Éomer ran Lilla through with the blade, whose point still managed to wound Éadwine. Another þegn named Forðhere came forward to wrest the knife from Éomer, but he too was cut down before Éomer could be quelled.

Æþelburg Queen, already in her last trimester of pregnancy, on the shock of seeing this brawl at once went into labour. Her life and the life of the child being in grave danger, it seems that Saint Paulinus lent his assistance to them both in prayer and in more practical ways. Éadwine King had good reason to thank Paulinus that both his wife and his newborn daughter Éanflæd lived through the night, though he was then still weak from the poison on Éomer’s blade, and gave his assent to Paulinus to have his daughter baptised in Christ, along with twelve other members of his household.

Éadwine, moved to wrath, waited until his wound had healed, but swiftly thereafter moved against Cwichelm and his father Cynegils. Though his army was smaller than the West Saxon one, he won the Battle of Win Hill against them. They held the high ground and trusted in Christ, and thus were delivered the victory. However, in spite of his promise of conversion to Saint Paulinus, Éadwine still would not be baptised straight away. Instead, he conferred with his þegnas, among whom was the goði Coifi.

Coifi himself was particularly desirous to hear what Saint Paulinus had to say about the Christian troth, as he had long grew jaded with the heathen trow which he had professed his whole life. And so Éadwine arranged it, and Coifi sat listening to Paulinus’s teaching for a long time – and when he had done, Coifi blessed the Christian faith and spoke thus to his king:
I have long realised that there is nothing in what we worshipped, for the more diligently I sought after truth in our religion, the less I found. I now publicly confess that this teaching clearly reveals truths that will afford us the blessings of life, health and æternal happiness. Therefore, Your Majesty, I submit that the temples and altars that we have dedicated to no advantage be immediately burned.
Éadwine submitted to his friend Coifi’s counsel, and Coifi took it upon himself to order the destruction of the heathen hof. To this purpose Éadwine gave Coifi a stallion, a sword and a spear – for hitherto it had been banned for a goði to bear weapons, or to ride anything other than a mare. When the crowds saw him, they thought that Coifi had gone mad. But Coifi went up to the hof and cast the spear into it (weapons not being allowed inside hallowed ground). Seeing that Coifi was unharmed after breaking the taboo, the crowd burned the hof to the ground. According to Saint Bede, the site of this hof was at Goodmanham, which makes sense etymologically. (The ‘good’ in Goodmanham derives from the same root as goði, which is the word for a heathen priest.)

Éadwine was thereafter baptised by Saint Paulinus, along with all his þegnas and a great number of the common folk of Northumbria. This happened on Pascha during the year 627. Éadwine gave orders to Paulinus to refurbish the little wooden kirk he had used to administer the Gifts to his wife during their marriage: to give it a stone basilica. This would later become York Minster. While these renovations were being made and until his flight following Éadwine’s death, Saint Paulinus led the life of an itinerant missionary, teaching, exhorting, consoling and baptising throughout the Northumbrian countryside. So many of the Northumbrian folk yearned to hear the word of life that Saint Paulinus went with Éadwine and Æþelburg to their court at Yeavering, the better to accommodate the great throngs needing baptism. He spent thirty-six days there, performing baptisms constantly through his waking hours. Many of these baptisms were held at the River Swale which runs near Catterick – the lodging-place of Saint Paulinus’s faithful assistant James in later times.

As to the newly-christened Éadwine, he went on to father three more children with Æþelburg: an elder son Æþelhún, a younger daughter Æþelþrýð (both of whom died in infancy) and a younger son Wuscfrea. His earlier friendship with Rædwald served him in good stead, as Éadwine managed to prevail over Rædwald’s younger son and heir Eorpwald to accept the Christian faith in baptism. Éadwine was present at this baptism as Eorpwald’s sponsor; sadly, Eorpwald was assassinated soon afterwards by a heathen named Ricberht. It would therefore be left to his brother Sigeberht, who came to power three years later, and Saint Felix the Burgundian to complete the instruction of the East Angles in the Christian faith.

Éadwine’s old enmity with the Britons, and his earlier slighting of the Mercians, came back to haunt him. Penda and Cadwallon, Éadwine’s two deadly foes, formed an alliance against him and marched into Northumbria. The two heres met at Hatfield on the twelfth of October, 633. It was a total rout for the Northumbrians. Éadwine was beheaded, and most of his here was killed or scattered by the Welsh and Mercian force. Northumbria was totally broken. Penda in particular waged cruel atrocities against the non-combatant populace, and a series of blights and famines followed his campaign which left very little hope for the survivors. For good reason it was called ‘the hateful year’ in the annals which followed. Éadwine’s family was forced to flee to Kent, and then to France, and Paulinus along with them. Only James the Deacon stayed behind, and even then his life was placed in great peril. Of Éadwine’s six children: his eldest son Ósfríð by Cwénburg had been killed in battle in an earlier campaign against the British; his second son Éadfríð was captured and later put to death by Penda; his third and fourth children, whom he had by Æþelburg, died in their infancy; and Wuscfrea was assassinated in exile in France. Reading this history one begins to understand the lamentation for the broken kingdom of the Geats that occupies the end stanzas of Beowulf. The house of Éadwine continued only with Saint Éanflæd, who while yet in the world managed to heal over the long feud within the Northumbrian kingly house by marrying Óswíu, the younger son of Éadwine’s old enemy Æþelfríð. Upon her husband’s death she established the monastery at Whitby, where her father Éadwine’s body was laid to rest after having been buried in haste at Edwinstowe. (Éadwine’s head was taken to York Minster.)

Éadwine reigned for seventeen years; for six of those years he had reigned as a Christian king. Saint Éadwine was indeed exemplary of Leont’ev’s concept of primitive simplicity. He had an overabundance of protean barbarian vigour and vitality that led him to wage war constantly against his British neighbours. It was likely this same health and animal energy which so prepossessed his wife Æþelburg. And yet Bede tells us that within his realm, life was relatively peaceful, such that a woman with a newborn baby could travel the country on foot without having to fear for her safety. Saint Éadwine was therefore remembered with unmatched fondness by the humble folk among the Northumbrians, despite the fall of his kingdom and the suffering that followed thereafter; and the fact that he had fallen in a defensive battle against heathen forces further cemented his reputation as a passion-bearer. Holy and right-believing prince Éadwine, pray to God for us!
Having accepted the true Faith, O righteous Éadwine,
Thou wast found worthy to exchange thy worldly crown
For the crown of martyrdom
At the hands of the godless Mercians.
Inspired by thy example,
We beseech thee to pray that we may have the courage to fight evil in any form
That we too may receive the reward of eternal blessedness.

11 October 2019

Venerable Æþelburg, Abbess of Barking


Icon of the Saints of Barking; Saint Æþelburg second from the right

Today in the Orthodox Church we venerate not only Saint James the Deacon but also one of England’s great monastic mothers, Æþelburg of Essex, who became the head of the Benedictine cloister at Barking (or Berecingum in Bede’s Latin usage). Saint Bede is, again, the foremost authority on the life of this great Church mother of ours. She was apparently high-born, and was the sister of Bishop Saint Eorcenwald of London. As Bede puts it of her: ‘She always bore herself as befitted the sister of a bishop, upright of life, and as heavenly miracles attest, constantly planning for the needs of her community.

She was the pupil of Saint Hildalíþ, who was brought over from the Continent to tutor the young abbess in the ways of the Benedictine life. The nunnery at Barking quickly grew renowned for a holy and disciplined mode of life, as evidenced by several wonders which took place there. A deadly pestilence swept southern England in 664, and the monks of nearby Chertsey, it was quickly found, were not immune. Thinking to prepare her sisters for death, Abbess Æþelburg asked them where within the convent grounds they would wish to be buried. The nuns dithered on the question. Until: one night when the nuns had finished reciting the Psalter, they went out of the oratory to visit the monks who had died of the pestilence. As they were singing, a light from heaven ‘like a great sheet… brighter than the noonday sun’ descended on the nuns, frightening them. The light hovered, then lifted and rose to the south side of the convent, where it ascended back into the heavens. By this token the nuns understood that the spot over which the light had hovered was to be their burial-ground. One of the monks who was then inside the oratory described the light from outside as brighter than the brightest daylight, even over the thresholds of closed doors and windows.

In the convent there was a small boy named Æsica, who foretold the approaching death of one of the nuns at Barking. As he lay dying of the plague, he called out from his bed three times the name of the sister: ‘Éadg‎ýð! Éadg‎ýð! Éadg‎ýð!’ And thus blameless Æsica departed this life. The nun whom he named was also stricken by the illness and passed away some hours later, following Æsica into her heavenly reward. Yet another of the nuns at Barking was brought to her last hour by the pestilence, and as she was bedridden she began calling out to the lay-sisters to put out the lamp that lay burning by her bed. Thinking she was not in her right mind, they ignored her. But the nun again told them to do so, saying: ‘I tell you truthfully that I see the house filled with such brilliant light that your lamp only appears as darkness to me.’ The lay-sisters again ignored her, and so she told them that a man of God who had died earlier that year had come to her and told her that she would be departing this world into a more blessed light. That foretelling turned out to be true, for this nun had breathed her last the following dawn.

Some twenty years later, one of Saint Æþelburg’s assistants, the humble and earnest Saint Torhtgýð, was given to see a vision of the holy abbess’s departure from this life. One morning as she rose from her cell, she saw a gleaming body wrapped in a shroud, being borne along and lifted out of the cloister it seemed by thin strands of purest gold. The shrouded body was thus borne aloft into the heavens, and rose so high that Saint Torhtgýð could no longer see it with her eyes. Several days later, it turned out, Holy Mother Æþelburg quietly reposed in the Lord. The vision that Saint Torhtgýð had seen was indeed one of Saint Æþelburg’s departure into æternal bliss. Æþelburg was succeeded as abbess at Barking by her loving, motherly and knowledgeable tutor from the Continent in all things related to the life of a nun in Christ: Saint Hildalíþ.

At Barking there was another nun, of high birth, who was stricken with an ailment of the limbs that left her lame and in great bodily pain. Upon hearing that the body of Saint Æþelburg was being translated into the church and being prepared for burial, she asked to be carried there herself, and there bowed herself toward Æþelburg’s body as though praying to it. She spoke to the dead abbess as though she were still alive, and begged her prayers to God on her behalf that she might be released soon from her unending pain. Twelve days after this prayer was uttered, this crippled nun too reposed in the Lord.

A vision of Saint Æþelburg would appear, too, to her faithful assistant Saint Torhtgýð some three years later, when she too was on her deathbed – having seemingly been robbed of the use of her tongue by her own infirmity. But she sat up and conversed, it seemed to the nuns that attended her, with some unseen person in clear and cogent words. When they asked her with whom she spoke, Saint Torhtgýð answered them: ‘To my dearest Mother Æþelburg.’ A day and a night later, she too met her repose.

Saint Æþelburg’s blessedness was made manifest in the wonders that she wrought even after her death. At the place at which Saint Æþelburg’s relics too had been laid to rest by her beloved tutor and successor, there was often to be seen a bright heavenly light, and a sweet smell often pervaded. It so happened that there was an East Saxon nobleman living nearby, whose wife had grown ill. This nobleman’s wife’s eyes grew dimmer and dimmer, and soon she lost her sight altogether, not being able to see even the faintest glimmer of light. This poor woman spent some time in total blindness, before she recalled the abbey at Barking and bade her maid lead her thither – thinking that if she asked of the several saints who were at rest within that cloister, that their prayers to God would help restore her sight. Her maid led her by the hand to the burial ground mentioned above, and there this nobleman’s wife knelt down and prayed with her whole heart to God. As she rose from her prostration, she found that the light had fully returned to her eyes. Though she needed the hand and feet of her maid to find the abbey, she walked out of the abbey and home with her maid in joy, fully on her own power.

Saint Æþelburg guided her monastic community through a number of severe trials both spiritual and physical, as witnessed by the great number of nuns whom she lost during the pestilence. As such, she is, as she was in life, a patron particularly of the ill and the disabled – whom she served in their needs as abbess. Holy Mother Æþelburg, pray to God for us!

Saint James the Deacon


Saint James the Deacon

Today in the Orthodox Church we celebrate a ‘man of great energy and repute in Christ’s Church’, the missionary deacon James who accompanied Saint Paulinus to Northumbria. His feast day also, notably, follows that of Saint Paulinus – fittingly, as his tenure was largely keeping the embers of the Christian faith alive in the dark night of Northumbria’s heathen interregnum.

Saint James was part of the Kentish mission. Nothing is known for certain about James’s birth, though it is believed – but not directly attested – that James was a companion of Saint Paulinus from the Continent, and may very well have been an Italian cleric in close connexion with the Abbey of Saint Andrew. He thereafter accompanied Paulinus north with Saint Æþelburg to the court of her groom, Éadwine King of Northumbria, who converted to Christianity. When Éadwine fell in battle against Penda and Cadwallon, his kingdom too fell into the wreck of anarchy. The year 633 was called in subsequent Northumbrian annals, ‘the hateful year’, on account of the political power vacuum and turmoil that accompanied Éadwine’s death, and the plagues and famines which followed hard on. Neither Paulinus nor Æþelburg stayed in Northumbria: both of them went south into Kent that year.

But James stayed on, as the sole representative of the Church hierarchy in Northumbria. He was tasked with pastoral care – and often physical care – of the northern English flock, and he served them with dogged faithfulness. Despite there being plenty of contenders, there was no English chieftain strong or well-known enough to wrest the kingship of either Deira or Bernicia away from Penda. Disasters both social and environmental accompanied a violent resurgence of heathenry there. And yet James tended to those who stayed faithful, and would not flee from them or leave them to the wolves. James took up residence in a hamlet near Catterick in what is now North Yorkshire, teaching and comforting and giving encouragement to his flock. Despite the many hardships he faced, he was nonetheless able to keep the Church alive and even grow it some – such that when a Christian king again reigned, there was still evidence of an active Christian Church in Northumbria.

James had a particular knack for music, and was fond of the chants produced by Pope Gregory Dialogos which were then used in the Church in Kent. He taught these chants especially to the Christians of Northumbria, such that when the churches could again hold the Liturgy in broad daylight, it was given the sweet angelic sound of the chant that Saint James had taught.

Saint James continued to minister in Northumbria even after the arrival of Saint Óswald and Saint Aidan. Even though it’s clear he had good relations with the Celtic Christian missionaries at Lindisfarne, he kept the Roman date for Pascha rather than the Celtic date, and celebrated Eastertide together with Æþelburg’s daughter Éanflæd (who too kept to the Roman custom). In his old age, the deacon James attended the Synod of Whitby in 664, at which he took the side of the Roman date for Pascha. He may have died shortly thereafter, in 668, but the exact date is not known to us.

Saint Bede had a magnanimous opinion of the holy deacon James, praising his holiness, steadfastness and wide knowledge, and the ability with which he was able to keep and grow the Church during a time of severe trials. Historian of Old England Frank Stenton calls Saint James ‘the one heroic figure in the Roman mission’: probably with some slight criticism implied of Saints Mellitus, Justus, Laurence and even Paulinus who ended up leaving (or trying to) when the political situation for Christianity got a bit sticky. It is also noteworthy that, unlike the other known saints of the early Gregorian mission, James was not a monk: his cultus as a saint was therefore preserved not by monastic record, but instead by folk memory.

Even though James was not a native-born Englishman, there is something peculiarly English about his life and missionary work. I’m not merely talking about the stiff upper lip he kept in staying there – though that’s not unrelated. Think of it this way: James was left in charge of a Church without celebrating clergy, a nearly-dead Church, in a hostile political atmosphere: very similar to what the Orthodox Church in China went through during the Cultural Revolution. At that point in his labours Saint James had no reason to hope that Saint Óswald would appear and that things would turn out for the best, this side of the Parousia. The fact that he continued to teach and baptise as he had done before was a testament not only to a personal faithfulness, but to an attitude not uncommon even among the heathen Germans of stoicism (in the vernacular, rather than the technical philosophical sense of the word) in the face of a long defeat. For such boldness of soul we need to exercise ourselves in the daily struggle.

Holy Deacon James, steadfast keeper of the Faith in times of anarchy and darkness, pray to Christ our God that our souls may be saved!

10 October 2019

Holy Hierarch Paulinus of York and Rochester


Saint Paulinus of York and Rochester

Saint Paulinus, commemorated on the tenth of October in the Orthodox calendar of saints, was one of the original Italian monks sent by Pope Gregory Dialogos to convert the heathen English to Christ. Originally a Benedictine of the Abbey of Saint Andrew in Rome, Paulinus accompanied the second group of monks despatched to Rome to help the mission of his brother Saint Augustine of Canterbury in 601. Saint Bede gives us a rare physical description of Saint Paulinus in his History of the English Church and People: ‘A tall man having a slight stoop, with black hair, an ascetic face and a venerable and majestic presence.

He shared in the full life of the early mission, and apparently formed a close relationship with the young Kentish princess Æþelburg, to whom he served as spiritual father. When Æþelburg assented, whether out of political astuteness or out of physical attraction, to give her hand to Éadwine King of Northumbria – as yet a heathen – it was Paulinus who accompanied her as a personal chaplain. Before he left, he was consecrated as a bishop by Saint Justus. While there, Paulinus took the opportunity to pray for and preach to the heathen Northumbrians, and endeavoured to exert his influence on Æþelburg’s new husband – but his efforts were, for awhile, somewhat frustrated.

Éadwine suffered an assassination attempt by one of his rival king Cwichelm’s envoys – a brawl which left two of his loyal þegnas, Lilla and Forðhere, dead, and which caused the pregnant Æþelburg to go into labour early. By the prayers and more prosaic help of Saint Paulinus, the lives of Æþelburg and her daughter by Éadwine Éanflæd were spared. Saint Paulinus managed to convince Éadwine to let him baptise the newborn Éanflæd along with twelve of his war-band who came to believe in Christ, but Éadwine himself still dithered and would not be baptised into the Church himself.

Instead, quickened to wrath, Éadwine gave his word to Paulinus that if he met Cwichelm in battle and was able by God’s grace to defeat him and punish this evil against his wife and child, he would then put on the baptismal garment when he returned. Éadwine went to battle against the West Saxons at Win Hill, and defeated Cynegils – Cwichelm’s father – there. After his return, Saint Paulinus dipped Éadwine in the waters of the birth from above on the twelfth of April, 627, and became a Christian. Éadwine would himself later be venerated as a saint – his feast is two days hence.

Saint Paulinus saw to it that the wooden kirk – what would later become York Minster – which was built at Éadwine’s capital for Æþelburg’s use, was given a stone cupola and sturdier walls of masonry, and he tended to his flock rigorously from there. He consecrated the Benedictine cloister at Whitby along with its first abbess, Saint Hild. He undertook active missions in and around York at this time, and even undertook missions to Lincoln. It was there, after all, that he met and laid hands on Saint Honorius – thereafter Archbishop of Canterbury.

Éadwine King earned a saintly martyr’s crown, falling in battle against Penda of Mercia and Cadwallon ap Cadfan: a grim tragœdy for the Northumbrians, as the death of Éadwine presaged a heathen backlash and created an anarchic power vacuum in the two kingdoms that would only be filled when his estranged nephew Saint Óswald took power some years later. In the meanwhile, however, Saint Æþelburg, grieving the death of her beloved husband and fearing for the lives of their two surviving children Wuscfrea and Éanflæd and grandchild Yffe, was forced to flee southward among her relatives in Kent. Saint Paulinus went with them, and received a warm welcome from Archbishop Honorius – who returned the favour done for him many years ago by anointing Paulinus as Bishop of Rochester.

Paulinus spent the eleven remaining years of his earthly life in Kent, in semi-retirement as the Bishop of Rochester, before going to his blessed reward. While in Kent, Saint Paulinus assisted Saint Æþelburg in founding the cloister at Lyminge, at which she served as the first abbess. Saint Paulinus, although he was forced to leave Northumbria by the political conditions there, had managed to lay the foundations of Northumbrian Christianity, which would be built upon by Saint Óswald and Saint Aidan in the years to come. For this reason, Saint Paulinus is venerated with particular attention both in Northumbria and in Kent – in the North and in the South. Holy Hierarch Paulinus, pray to God for us!

Holding the example of the holy Paul ever before his eyes,
Paulinus betook himself to a far distant land,
And there, emulating the glorious Apostle to the nations,
He preached the words of life
Unto those who lay in darkness and the shadow of death.
And having pleased his Master by his godly zeal and tireless struggles,
He dwelleth now in the mansions of Paradise,
Where he offereth entreaty continually on behalf of our souls.