31 July 2019

The nature of the true melek

I have a very special place in my heart (and in my icon corner) for Holy Father Filaret (Drozdov) of Moscow. While I was inquiring into the Orthodox faith, Father Sergey Voronin – then of Beijing’s Holy Dormition Church – gave to me a book of his sermons. It occurred to me as I read the introduction that this was an extraordinary and gifted orator, but also one who was deeply engaged in both the spiritual life and in the outer world. Father Filaret was, as much as any other man apart from Tsar Aleksandr II – the man who freed the serfs. He authored much of the Tsar’s 1861 proclamation whereby the institution of serfdom was abolished in Russia. This must be borne carefully in mind, for he also said the following.
Some people by the word freedom understand the ability to do whatever one wants… People who have the more allowed themselves to come into slavery to sins, passions, and defilements more often than others appear as zealots of external freedom, wanting to broaden the laws as much as possible. But such a man uses external freedom only to more severely burden himself with inner slavery. True freedom is the active ability of a man who is not enslaved to sin, who is not pricked by a condemning conscience, to choose the better in the light of God’s truth, and to bring it into actuality with the help of the gracious power of God. This is the freedom of which neither heaven nor earth are restrict.
Metropolitan Saint Filaret detested slavery and loved freedom, and that is instantly apparent in his writings – both this one and others. But it is clear that he did not understand freedom in a narrowly political or œconomic sense, as the ‘liberty’ championed in the political realm. For him, slavery to the passions, slavery to sin, was the worst form – a spiritual bondage to some lifeless and external idol. And it is also clear from this passage that he considered a ‘classical liberal’ or ‘libertarian’ approach to the law a means, not of ridding oneself or the social context of slavery, but permitting this inward slavery to deepen, to fester and to spread unchecked.

Part of the difference is one of definition. The classical liberal (or his rather more extreme ideological kin, the libertarian and the anarcho-capitalist) will tell you that self-ownership is possible and morally preferable, and on this basis he grounds his political philosophy. But it is clear that Holy Father Filaret – and, it should be noted, the Orthodox spiritual tradition more broadly – do not hold with that idea of self-ownership being ever truly possible. This may seem an extreme example, but it makes little sense to speak of an addict having self-ownership in the full philosophical sense, even though the legalistic commitments of the classical liberal (delineation of self-ownership as use-right) force him to pretend that he has it. Note well: as quoted in the article linked above, libertarian philosopher Murray Rothbard dismisses as a ‘contextually irrelevant question’ the sole metaphysical criterion which Holy Father Filaret places as the defining feature of his understanding of freedom. This, if nothing else, should tell you: the Orthodox Christian understanding of freedom and the classical-liberal understanding of legal-political liberty are agonal to each other and talking at cross-purposes. At best, the classical liberal will demand, in perhaps a bit of a weary and irritated tone, that you stow all the God-talk in the back corner and pretend it is irrelevant to the discussion. At worst, his principle of self-ownership will demand a basic denial of faith.

But the differences, in fact, go far deeper. In practice, all human beings have such metaphysical commitments whether they know it or not. The totally-unburdened self of social contract theory is, by this point, a rather tattered myth – and the irony is that the people who still cling to that myth and its associated civil trappings unwittingly show its inner falsity in so doing. As our great American folk philosopher (and fellow Minnesotan) Bob Dylan astutely put it, no matter how powerful or rich or famous you are, ‘it may be the Devil, or it may be the Lord, but you’re gonna have to serve somebody’. In the final, metaphysical sense: there is only one true owner, one true melek מלך. There are many others – human and otherwise – who falsely claim ownership. But what is the nature of the ownership that this melek claims upon us? Holy Father Filaret clarifies this question as well:
He who works from fear is a slave, he who labours in the hope of reward is a hireling. ‘The servant,’ (i.e., bondsman,) says JESUS CHRIST, ‘abideth not in the house for ever,’— we may add, nor does the hireling,—for it is but ‘the Son’ that ‘abideth ever’. ‘Fear hath torment’, says the beloved disciple, ‘he that feareth is not made perfect in love,’ whereas ‘perfect love casteth out fear’. Another Apostle says to Christians, in opposition to the Jews, ‘Ye have not received the spirit of bondage again to fear; but ye have received the spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, FATHER.’ And thus the spirit of bondage, as well as the spirit of spiritual hire, is the lot of the Jews; but the lot of true Christians is the spirit of filial love towards GOD and the SAVIOUR. We may even say without contradicting the Apostle, that the true spirit of the Old Testament was the spirit of love, if it had not been clothed in bondage by the stiff-neckedness of the Jews.
We should understand by this language, that the nature of God’s ownership over us as revealed in the person of Christ is fundamentally different from the understanding which prevailed in the religion of the Second Temple. The dogmas of the Trinity themselves imply that God is not some kind of metaphysical slave-lord or dictator, but the God which is melek over all Creation instead is Himself a society of persons – or, indeed, one may even say a sobornost’ of persons – active in mutual love, dynamic in coöperative inter-participation. (I hope that Holy Father Filaret, close as he was to the Slavophils, would not object overmuch to this usage.) The dogma of the Incarnation, likewise, overthrows any possible political expectations that the melek, the anointed mashiyaĥ משיח, will be a Cæsarean conqueror of worldly glory and power. God, we may say rightly, owns us: but God does not want slaves to command and use. Instead, God is a loving Father; He wants children to receive His love and to love Him obediently in return.

Even though Metropolitan Saint Filaret’s vision of a God whose idea of freedom is enabling us to choose the better in Him is not first-order political, it does have direct political implications, just as the concept of sobornost’ as promoted by his contemporary Aleksei Khomyakov has direct political implications. Both Russians did favour, as we have seen, some ‘broadening of the laws’ – to wit, the abolition of serfdom – to allow for greater human flourishing. But neither of them did so uncritically. A body politic in which all people are considered to be, rightfully, children and heirs of the true God who reigns over creation – must be one which embraces limits, which conserves nature, which seeks a just and peaceful modus vivendi with its neighbours, and which actively invests in the physical and spiritual health and upbuilding of all of its members without the distinction of worldly rank, title or property.

26 July 2019

Alpamıs and Kazakh cinema

Alpamıs batyr

I recently read HB Paksoy’s English translation of (and commentary on) the 1901 Abubakir Ahmetzhanovich Divaev edition of Alpamıs, the archetypal and, in many senses, most important Turkic epic dastan. Divaev, it deserves to be said, is a formidable (and formidably-brave!) Bashkir scholar who bears with him the same mixture of leftist political commitments and complex feelings of national belonging, and that led him to commit to writing this traditional Turkic epic which had been primarily an oral tradition. On the other hand, much of Paksoy’s commentary on Divaev’s work ranges from amusing to grating, giving voice as it does to a Turkish nationalism that is justifiably seen as clueless and arrogant by most or all of Turkey’s neighbours. For example, his insistence that pan-Turkism is an insidious invention of Russian and British imperialists, and his subsequent assertion that the political goal of the Turkic nations should be a commonwealth exactly like Britain’s, seems to embody both excesses. But his scholarly work in translating and parsing the Divaev text of the Alpamıs is a remarkable – and to the English speaker, invaluable – feat.

I was surprised by the Shî’ite, and specifically red Shî’ite, aspects of the story. Paksoy tries to play these down a bit by attributing them to interpolations from an earlier transcriber of the Alpamıs legend, Yusufbek bin Hoja Şeyhülislam oglu, who was apparently a Shî’a Muslim. However, in the tale as presented by Divaev (a Sunnî Muslim), whenever the name of Hz. ‘Alî is invoked, he always comes to the aid of the weaker, the younger, the friendless, the alien, the outnumbered, the wrongful victim of violence. He always thwarts the designs of them who rely on strength or riches or numbers to get what they want. I found this aspect particularly interesting.

Reading the dastan also brought a number of thematic considerations into focus for me, as a connoisseur of Kazakh cinema. The Alpamıs story has absolutely had an impact on the way Mansur and Sartaı are portrayed in the films Kóshpendiler and Jaýjúrek myń bala, respectively – and of course, Jaýjúrek myń bala referenced the Alpamıs explicitly at two points.

In the broad strokes, the Alpamıs legend goes like this. Alpamıs and Gúlbarshın (or Barshın) are born to two beys of the Qońyrat tribe, Bórı and Sary, who at first betroth them to one another, but then have a falling-out. Barshın’s father Sary migrates into the land of the Kalmyks, where he raises his daughter. When Barshın is old enough, word of her beauty reaches the ear of the khan of the Kalmyks, named Taıshy (= taizi 太子, a Chinese title in common use among the Mongols), who tries to coerce her into marriage by sending horsemen to fetch her. One of the horsemen, Qarajan, sees her and falls for her, and a dispute arises. Barshın uses this to her advantage by proposing a race after a six-month grace period – that the fastest rider should win her hand. This does not prevent a battle between Qarajan’s men and Taıshy’s, in which many Kalmyks died.

In the meanwhile, Barshın sends word under her father’s notice to Alpamıs, who is supposed to ride to her rescue. Alpamıs wins the loyalty of a magnificent legendary winged tulpar horse named (Baı-)Shubar, which he enters into the race for Barshın’s hand. During the race, he meets another rider with a tulpar – this is Qarajan. The fourteen-year-old Alpamıs outrides Qarajan on Shubar, then forces him to the ground, where Qarajan wrestles with him. ‘Alî comes to the aid of Alpamıs as Qarajan tries to overpower him with brute strength, and Qarajan is thrown to the ground. He accepts to convert to Islâm and becomes the sworn friend of Alpamıs.

Qarajan offers to take Alpamıs’s place in the race on Shubar, and rides him to Barshın to tell her of Alpamıs’s arrival. Barshın mistakes Qarajan for her chosen champion Alpamıs from a distance, and weeps when she sees not her countryman but a Kalmyk on his horse. Qarajan comforts her, and tells her he will ride in Alpamıs’s stead in the race. Qarajan rides Shubar back to his camp, where his son Dostmuhamed – who has designs on Barshın himself – conspires with the other Kalmyks to bind Qarajan fast as he sleeps, and injure Shubar by driving nails into his hooves. Qarajan awakens, flies into a rage on finding himself bound, takes Shubar and overtakes Dostmuhamed. Qarajan pleads with his son to give up Barshın, appealing to filial piety and offering him many girls like Barshın from his own folk; but Dostmuhamed does not listen to him. Qarajan throws his own son from his horse and kills them both. Qarajan mourns the loss of his son, but the poet praises his devotion to his friend.

Qarajan rides the bleeding, wounded Shubar over the finish line, but Alpamıs beholds his horse collapse from the wounds in his hooves. Qarajan and Alpamıs bring the bleeding horse to Barshın, who pulls the nails from his hooves, soothes his wounds with warm water and cares for both horse and rider until they are again healthy. Alpamıs takes Shubar on practice rides until he fully recovers his strength and speed. Then Barshın takes Alpamıs to her tent and they are wed, with Qarajan in attendance as witness.

Taıshy-khan will not accept the outcome of the race, nor relinquish his claim over Barshın. His advisers tell him to set a trap for Alpamıs in a wrestling match. Taıshy invites Alpamıs to the match, and tells Alpamıs can have Barshın if he can best ninety of his wrestlers. Outnumbered and surrounded by the khan’s warriors, Alpamıs prays to God and girds himself up for the wrestling match. Again ‘Alî comes to the aid of the fourteen-year-old boy, and he overthrows one wrestler after the other. All the Kalmyks leap upon Alpamıs at once in an attempt to kill him, and one of Taıshy’s men, Kókaman, treacherously draws his bow and tries to shoot Alpamıs in the back. Only then does Alpamıs draw his sword, take Barshın up with him, and ride away on Shubar.

Divaev’s 1901 version ends with Alpamıs, Barshın, Qarajan and Sary all returning to the land of the Qońyrats in triumph. However, Paksoy adds an appendix relating longer versions of the same story. In these versions, Taıshy rustles all of Bórı’s cattle in revenge, and Alpamıs is forced to return to the Kalmyk lands to get them back. He is captured for seven years and held underground, where he escapes with the help of a shepherd as well as Taıshy’s love-struck daughter. There follows an episode similar to the homeward return of Odysseus. Alpamıs returns to Qońyrat to find a usurper, Ultan, ruling his homeland. The Telemachian son of Alpamıs, Jádıger, acquaints him with the situation. Ultan has reduced Alpamıs’s father Bórı to penury and destitution, persecuted Jádıger, oppressed the Qońyrat and is courting his wife Barshın. Alpamıs, disguised as Ultan’s father Qultaı (the same man who had given him Shubar), meets Ultan at the feast wherein he is supposed to marry Barshın. After some repartee with his wife, ‘Qultaı’ discovers that she has, like Penelope to Odysseus, been faithful to him. Thereupon he throws off his disguise and slays Ultan, restoring justice to the Qońyrat and reuniting his household.

Again, reading Paksoy’s translation of the 1901 Divaev Alpamıs drove home to me how remarkably the two epic films produced by Kazakhfilm follow the basic storyline of the dastan even as they reference it. In these ‘official’ filmic retellings of the dastan, the Kazakhs clearly understand themselves to be the heirs of the Qońyrat; and the they-us distinction drawn between the Qońyrat and the Kalmyks clearly parallels that between the Kazakhs and the Dzunghars (who are historically the same people as the Kalmyks). The Kalmyks are ‘godless’, greedy, lascivious and treacherous; while Alpamıs and Barshın – faithful Muslims, hospitable, true to their word, possessed of both physical and moral bravery – embody the virtues of the Qońyrat. Paksoy underscores in his commentary the political subversiveness and national awareness-building potential of the Alpamıs legend. Indeed, the filmmakers of Kóshpendiler and Jaýjúrek myń bala seem to have had the same thought. There a clear line is drawn in epic tradition between the characters of Alpamıs to Abylaı Khan / Sartaı, and thereafter by extension to the Big Bread, Nursultan Nazarbaev himself – the batyr who presided over the independence and unification of the Kazakh people.

At the same time, the Kazakh films that I have watched so far demonstrate that the modern Kazakh national consciousness is particularly sophisticated, not one-dimensional in the slightest. The dastan-derived national mythos clearly still has sway over the popular imagination. The heroes of the films of Ermek Tursynov, Kelin and Shal, hearken back to a decidedly præ-Islamic set of Kazakh virtues, better-suited to survival in an unforgiving taiga clime. There is also a crypto-Christian, Russian-influenced folk tradition which values the underdog-heroism of Shıza, whose virtues rest more in his cagey ‘foolishness’, his ‘simple’ desire to do right by his family and his sense of fair play; one can also see Gagarin and especially Nazira in Baikonur as fitting this mould. These are all ‘ideal types’, of course, and I deeply suspect an average Kazakh watcher of these films would find not only substantial overlap between all three models of ideal Kazakh manhood or womanhood, but also echoes or subversions of the same basic dastanic themes.

24 July 2019


It’s a more-than-unfashionable, ‘square’ stance to take these days, to be against legalisation of Schedule 1 controlled substances. Even so, I am one of the apparently shrinking body of people who believes that cannabis (and other drugs) should remain illegal. And that’s not only because I’m a Lin Zexu fan, though I admit that is a real factor.

Firstly, the health effects are a major concern, and marijuana is often favourably compared to tobacco in the popular press. This largely stems from a comparison of the respective psychoactive compounds: it does appear to be true that THC is less addictive than nicotine. However, by volume (and especially given the way in which smoke is inhaled and retained), weed smoke contains between 50% and 75% more of the carcinogenic hydrocarbon compounds that cigarette smoke does. Marijuana also contains three times more ‘tar’ and five times more carbon monoxide than tobacco does. Potentially more concerning, particularly in our current social environment, are the psychological effects. Marijuana is linked to the development of severe mental illnesses like schizophrenia. Also alarmingly, corresponding to the liberalisation of attitudes on marijuana use, reported use has more than doubled among American adults; and abuse has nearly doubled.

Therefore, even if, as legalisation proponents rather dubiously claim, it’s not possible to overdose on cannabis in a single episode in the same way it’s possible to overdose on opioids, this is very much a public health question rather than a ‘victimless crime’. There has been a proliferation of vehicular accidents and vehicular accident-related deaths in states which have legalised marijuana – no doubt related to the CNS-depressant effects of THC. Colorado has seen increases in critical care admissions for children exposed to (legal, commercial) marijuana.

Speaking of which: it’s also more than clear by now that the beneficiaries of legalisation are not going to be the folks (mostly people of colour) who have been incarcerated for drug possession in the past. This is why – despite agreeing with many legalisation proponents that most such incarcerated people should be pardoned – I’m not particularly sympathetic to the appeals to emotion which use the unjustly-incarcerated as an argument for legalisation now; these arguments conflate what are already two separate issues. In fact, given the small fraction of incarcerations nationwide which are related to drug possession, the conflation of the two policies amounts to a red herring.

More to the point is what the Basis of the Social Concept document calls ‘the selfish interests of the drug business’, and marijuana stands to be no exception to these selfish interests. The beneficiaries of legalisation already include (mostly white-run) for-profit corporations looking to cash in on a new market, including the same multinational pharmaceutical conglomerates which have historically opposed legalisation as well as plutocrat-class lobbyists and legislators like John Boehner. Drug legalisation logic, including the popular form of that logic which is reproduced and proliferated by the popular press, stands firmly ensconced in atomistic, neoliberal assumptions about human behaviour. It is therefore no wonder that legalisation stands to benefit primarily the affluent and the well-connected – in whose interests neoliberal policy logic always operates – at the hidden expense of œconomically-struggling communities including children who stand to be hurt most by the negative health effects of widely-available, legal cannabis.

At the same time, I believe that we have enforced anti-drug policy in many of the wrong ways. The United States does disproportionately punish nonviolent possession offences while coddling traffickers. The CIA in fact has a history of promoting the growing, manufacture and trafficking of controlled substances, which dates back to their involvement in the Chinese Civil War, when they were involved in the opium shipping business on behalf of the Chinese Guomindang, and later on behalf of the rebels in Laos in the Golden Triangle. In the mid-1990s, Gary Webb investigated the CIA’s involvement in the Contras’ drug smuggling in Nicaragua – both cocaine and marijuana – and the ‘crack’ cocaine epidemic in American cities; for this investigation, the CIA, together with a compliant commercial media machine, attacked Webb’s reputation and killed him.

This post is rapidly turning into an anti-drug policy fact sheet, which was not my intention to begin with. It’s true that there are real costs associated with enforcing the law against marijuana, and benefits in dollar terms – for some people – to legalising it. But the real question is what kind of society we want to have, what we value as a society, and what we are willing to sacrifice for it. This was, in fact, the exact same debate that the Qing Dynasty had internally with regard to opium, prior to the Opium War. All the same arguments that have been advanced in the United States over marijuana, were also advanced by Qing officials during the 1830’s and 1840’s over opium, including the benefits to the œconomy if its legal status were secured. Lin Zexu was one of the brave souls who grounded his objections to the opium trade in the wisdom of Confucius and the Ru tradition. The Daoguang Emperor sided with Lin Zexu, fought the British over his choice, and lost the war – mostly due to technological overmatch, but also due to the corruption, backbiting and incompetence of his generals. But that does not mean that Lin Zexu was wrong.

The fundamental argument at the core of the controversy over decriminalisation or legalisation of drugs, is not an œconomic but a moral one. We may take for granted that enforcing laws is costly; this is the case with everything from traffic violations to national security. But do we simply accept it as ‘normal’ that a significant and growing proportion of our population seeks a chemical escape from the banal horrors of our hyper-capitalist age, to their own (and others’) immiseration? The destruction of human life wrought by the laisser-faire deregulation of guns is tragic. Why can we no longer say the same of the destruction of human life (and health, and potential) wrought by the deregulation of drugs?

21 July 2019

Bu Zixia and the beauty of Wei

Bu Zixia 卜子夏

Confucius’s disciple Bu Shang 卜商 or Bu Zixia 卜子夏 is referenced in the Analects as having a good grasp of the Odes, such that Confucius found him worthy of discussing them with him. From the Analects:

Zi Xia asked, saying, ‘What is the meaning of the passage – “The pretty dimples of her artful smile! The well-defined black and white of her eye! The plain ground for the colours!”?’ The Master said, ‘The business of laying on the colours follows (the preparation of) the plain ground.’ ‘Ceremonies then are a subsequent thing?’ The Master said, ‘It is Shang who can bring out my meaning. Now I can begin to talk about the Odes with him.’

    - The Analects
《論語》 4.8
And yet, Bu Zixia is best-known today as the traditional transmitter to posterity of the Gongyang learning 公羊學派 – the school to which belonged Dong Zhongshu 董仲舒, He Xiu 何休, Gong Zizhen 龔自珍, Wei Yuan 魏源 and China’s first modern socialist Kang Youwei 康有為, and of which the Confucian constitutionalist Jiang Qing xiansheng 蔣慶先生 is the most prominent modern exponent. I have often described the Gongyang learning as a ‘revolutionary conservative’ political school of Ru, but its exponents have as often been on the most radical edge of Chinese politics. It is also one whose adherents have imbued the Ru tradition with a ‘religious’ spirit, a spirit of moral revolt, which I have often likened to the Slavophils of Russia.

But the Gongyang hermeneutic of the Classic of History (that is to say, the Spring and Autumn Annals 《春秋》), is best described as a work of historiosophy, not of politics tout court. The concern of the Gongyang commentary is with the inner workings of history: with the moral meaning of human agency down the generations; with the contention of propriety against libido dominandi; with the possibility of salvation within history, even conceived of as a ‘long defeat’. The much commented-upon (thanks to Kang Youwei) historical progression within the Gongyang Commentary actually indicates a kind of ‘fall’ within history, from a state of antique simplicity and high moral standards toward a state of lawless, tyrannical rule by the greedy and violent. The abrupt appearance of the lin 麟 at the end of the History is interpreted as an apocalyptic interruption in history, the coming of the sage-king heralded by the prophetic work of Confucius himself.

Let us take the attribution of the Gongyang commentary to the oral teaching of Bu Zixia as read. So – how did this happen? How did Bu Zixia go from being a profound student of the Odes to an authority on the Classic of History?

I think this question may take a slightly ‘Platonic’ – that is, one informed by the Symposium – interpretive reading of the Analects to answer. Let’s examine Zixia’s reading of the Odes as he commented upon it to his teacher. Zixia’s curiosity is provoked by a particular Ode of Wei, ‘Shuo Ren《衛風•碩人》 which sensually describes the beauty of a young Wei girl with a coy, dimpling smile and big brown eyes. One may say, with some justice, that the young man is aroused by the image.

And yet, Confucius doesn’t at all scold him as lewd for invoking this sensual imagery. Merely having desire does not make one a ‘petty person’. As such, Confucius’s response is instead ambiguous. Like the Socrates of the Phædrus or the Symposium, it’s unclear if he’s being serious or playful with his pupil’s adolescent sexual interest in the subject of the Ode, but it does appear that – as Socrates does with any of the ‘perilous youths’ he tutors – he is subtly nudging Zixia toward philosophical themes, toward something beyond preoccupation with the allures of the Zhongyuan beauty described in the poem. Zixia is led, it seems, to a conclusion that ‘ritual is subsequent’ (「禮後乎?」). This answer meets with Confucius’s unguarded approval.

It is tempting to see in this Analect the raison d’être for Bu Zixia’s historiosophical interest of which the penultimate manifestation is the Gongyang Commentary on the Classic of History. Confucius encourages Zixia’s intellectual and moral exploration of ‘prior’ and ‘subsequent’ in the context of the Odes, the purpose of which is (as we see in Analects 8.8) indeed arousal (xing 興). Bu Zixia draws everything into this intellectual and moral exploration, and establishes the ‘prior’ and the ‘subsequent’ in the sum of human endeavour itself, both the virtuous and the vicious.

The richness and versatility of the Ru tradition is evident here, and we may, perhaps, liken Bu Zixia a bit more fruitfully to the Orthodox Christian sophiologists of later times (Solovyov in particular), at least in the sense that he was able to sublimate his adolescent hormones into a sophisticated and spiritually-profound understanding of human endeavour within history, the potentials for human heroism and the ‘long’ tragœdies of its inner logic. Let us take a moment to recognise the Gongyang Commentary’s singular – and for a classical text, unusual – treatment of the historical personage of Lady Gong of Song, the Eldest Daughter of Duke Cheng, upon whom the Gongyang catechist heaps such hagiographical panegyrics. Was Lady Gong perhaps something of an avatar, for Bu Zixia, of the dimpling brown-eyed beauty of Wei he had worshipped in his youth – a beauty to be reached by imitation of her selfless and self-giving virtue?

This much is speculation, as is my potential position of the Wei beauty of ‘Shuo Ren’ as the philosophical Helen or Diotima who launched the Chinese political left. But the exchange in the Analects is a testament to Bu Zixia’s deep sensitivity, his erotic profundity and the sublimity of his philosophical mind. It must be acknowledged of Zixia, the source of the Gongyang tradition, that he awakened within the broad Ru stream of thought a singular – but persistently-recurring – eschatological hope and apocalyptic consciousness that has historically opened it to Daoist cross-pollenisations and politically-radical ‘popular’ interpretations.

An artistic rendition of the dimpling beauty of Wei in ‘Shuo Ren’

18 July 2019

The socialism I want to see

On the initiative of the socialists, Chișinău began repairing old playgrounds. This was written on the social media page of city councillor Iuri Vitneanski:

In addition to the places where you need to put a new sports facility, there are old playgrounds in need of restoration. We started work on the repair of old playgrounds on Kuza-Voda Street 35, and on Kuza-Voda 25 and 26.

‘In total, as part of the programme of the Party of Socialists fraction in the Chișinău city council, by the end of year 2019 we plan to restore nearly eighty old playgrounds,’ said Iuri Vitneanski.

I’ve been saying this for a while now. The healthiest political trend I had seen in a long while, which unfortunately now seems to be reversing (or which is being actively opposed by the usual Washington Consensus suspects), has been the pink tide in Eastern Europe – a pink tide with a blue crest, as it were. In 2016 we saw socialist parties in Bulgaria, Slovakia and Moldova take power, which ran on attempts to attain to the œconomic goals we here in the United States tend to associate with democratic socialism, such as: full employment, funding for pensions and public healthcare, restoring or strengthening public sector services.

But in addition to this, they support restoring old architecture, including (as we have seen) old playgrounds and old monuments. Alien to them is the spate of statue-smashing sentiments nowadays so prevalent among the American left*. They are pro-family and pro-child – witness the attention being given to children’s public architecture in Moldova! They are pro-natalist – both the Bulgarian and the Moldovan socialist parties make reference to demographic crises and the need to bring up birthrates and curb abortion. They are also pro-faith: the Moldovan PSRM programme enshrines a special statute for the Orthodox Christian faith; and the Bulgarian BSP enjoys a close relationship with Patriarch Neofit of Bulgaria.

It is worth stressing that the Eastern European left is not nativist or ethno-chauvinist. Despite all three parties having a certain degree of scepticism about immigration and border policy, they are nonetheless supported by, and support in turn, ethnic minorities inside their own borders. Just as Direction in Slovakia is supported by the Rusins, the Moldovan PSRM is supported by an overwhelming percentage of the ethnic and linguistic minority, the Oǵuz Turkic-speaking Gagauz.

This Eastern European manifestation of socialism – democratic, paternalistic, believing, pro-child, pro-family, pro-peace and pro-classicalism – comes very close, both ideologically and æsthetically, to my own Ruskin-, Morris- and Tawney-derived Anglophile Tory socialist preferences. This should not come as a surprise; Ruskin and Morris were each deeply influenced by Orthodox Byzantine and Bulgarian artistic and literary output, respectively.

A politics, perhaps not exactly like, but analogous to this Eastern European formation, is potentially possible in the United States. There is a significant constituency for a politics which is œconomically populist and working-class oriented, but socially conservative (or at least, not ‘woke’). Unfortunately, even though we do have the masterful and redoubtable David Bentley Hart among us, we here in the United States do not have a particularly robust matrix of Orthodox Christian-derived cultural sedimentation to build on; nor do we have that particularly strong historical awareness that would support such a cohesive paternalistic-but-pluralistic alignment of political priorities. That remains to be built – a project of generations.

* Not that I am a particular fan of carpetbagger statuary commemorating the ill-behaved and ill-disciplined spoilt children of Barbadian slave traders who rose in an ill-conceived classical-liberal Confœderate revolt against the national-liberal fœderalist Union – but neither is the current wave of attacks, defacement and vandalism on public institutions and installations particularly healthy, either. A decent Slavophil distrust of statuary in general seems to be in order.

Holy Hieromartyr Frideric, Bishop of Utrecht

Saint Frideric of Utrecht

The eighteenth of July in the Orthodox Church is the feast day of Saint Frideric, the martyred Frisian bishop of Utrecht. The grandson of the heathen Redbad, king of the Frisians, Frideric was raised from an early age among the clergy of Utrecht, who taught him by the holy books that lay in their possession. A pious and fastidious youth, with a certain proud and stubborn streak no doubt inherited from his mighty heathen forebear, he was known for taking upon himself vigils, fasting and ascetic disciplines well in excess of what was expected of a pupil his own age. As a young man, he was ordained priest by Bishop Ricfride, and placed in charge of the young catechumens of Utrecht.

Upon Ricfried’s repose, Frideric was chosen as bishop – the eighth Bishop of Utrecht in the apostolic succession from Saint Willibrord – at a folkmoot. With tears and entreaties, Frideric declared to the gathered throng that he was unworthy and unqualified to be a bishop; however, the Frankish king Clovis the Fair compelled the Frisian priest to accept the office. Having received this command which he dared not reject, Frideric retreated to Mainz where he received the omophor from his ecclesiastical superior, Metropolitan Hadewulf, in the presence of all the bishops and Clovis. He was then enjoined with taking the Gospel into the northern reaches of Frisia, which were as yet mired in heathenry.

Frideric, despite his own assertions to the contrary, proved to be a capable and compassionate archpastor of the Frisian flock. He certainly put his erudition and book-learning to good use. He maintained a friendly scholarly correspondence with the Benedictine intellectual Metropolitan Hrabanus Maurus of Mainz, and he also penned a Life of his predecessor Saint Boniface. He was well-beloved among the common folk, but he made himself something of a nuisance among the as-yet-heathen notables of Walcheren by preaching against consanguineous marriages. The heathen Frisian hathelings often contracted such close kin marriages among themselves, and Saint Frideric and his missionaries often found themselves in an uphill battle opposing such liaisons.

On the eighteenth of July, 838, just after Frideric had celebrated the Liturgy and retired into the chapel of Saint John the Baptist to pray his private devotions, two men approached him, grabbed him by the shoulder and stabbed him in the stomach. Within a few minutes he gave up the ghost, and the words of Psalm 116 were upon his lips: ‘I will walk before the Lord in the land of the living.’ Where these two godless assassins came from, and who sent them, is unclear – but there are two likely possibilities. The first is that they were sent by the heathen of Walcheren, who were hostile to Saint Frideric and his missions. The second is that they were sent by the Empress Judith of Bavaria – and this requires a bit more explication.

Clovis King’s policy toward the newly-conquered Saxons and Frisians was far more lenient than his father Karl’s had been, and was aimed at undoing some of the damage that had been wrought by Karl’s heavy-handed treatment of the heathen Saxons. He lightened their taxes and issued an amnesty to Saxons who had been condemned or outlawed. This made Frideric’s job of converting the heathen a good deal eather. However, he divided his father’s empire between himself and his three sons by his first wife Irmingard: his eldest Lothair was given Middle Francia and [northern] Italy; his second Pippin was given Aquitaine; and his youngest Clovis II was given East Francia [Germany]; while he kept West Francia for himself.

Clovis père remarried a Bavarian beauty named Judith, who bore him a son named Karl ‘the Bald’: later king of West Francia. Judith was a remarkably quick and adept student of Frankish court intrigues, and deftly leveraged her power and influence with her consort to advance the interests of her biological son Karl against those of her stepchildren. She so provoked Lothair and Pippin and Clovis fils that they broke their filial bonds and rose in open revolt against their father. Contemporary commentators were therefore markedly hostile to Judith, whom they saw as an immoral and power-hungry Jezebel, willing to plunge the land of the Franks into civil war to sate her greed and lust. However, if Saint Frideric did indeed ever issue such Chrysostom-like homiletics against Judith, these are no longer extant to a modern readership. As a result, though contemporary authorities seem to prefer the latter theory that the assassins of Saint Frideric were sent by Judith, modern historians seem to prefer the theory that they were agents of the heathens of Walcheren.

Regardless of which theory holds true, Saint Frideric did indeed die as a martyr proclaiming the truth of Christ, against the self-interest, greed and sexual indulgence of the rich and powerful. His relics were interred with great honour in the same Sint-Salvatorkerk at Utrecht where he had served with earnest goodwill his entire life. Holy and righteous hieromartyr Frideric, witness to the good news of Christ among the heathen, entreat Christ our God to have mercy upon us!

17 July 2019

Cynehelm of Winchcombe, Prince and Passion-Bearer

Saint Cynehelm of Winchcombe

Today in the Orthodox Church we venerate a martyred young prince, slain treacherously by the will of a wicked elder sibling in pursuit of political power and office, who offered himself up willingly and without resistance to his killer. No, this prince is not Boris and not Gleb, but in the legends surrounding him he does bear a certain spiritual resemblance to these two great quintessentially-Russian Orthodox passion-bearers, as well as to the later martyred Éadweard King. The saint we venerate today is indeed Cynehelm of Mercia, who was slain violently in the year 811.

Cynehelm was one of two children of Cœnwulf King of Mercia, the other being his elder sister Cwénþrýð. The earlier and more reliable records we have indicate that Cynehelm was born in 786, which would have made him twenty-four years of age at the time of his death. Given that his name appears on several official charters, deeds and proclamations of the time both as beneficiary and as witness, it can be safely assumed that he had reached his majority well before 811. However, he is portrayed both in his hagiographical legend and in Orthodox iconography as a young child of seven years. One historical record relates that he fell in battle against the Welsh, possibly the result of a deliberate betrayal on his own side similar to the fate of Uriah the Hittite in Scripture. Another record makes him the direct victim of a Mercian court intrigue involving Cwénþrýð and several accomplices who desired to take power in the kingdom. Later hagiographical versions of Cynehelm’s death, such as that written by William of Malmesbury, embellish the latter history. This version of Cynehelm’s tale, however, is the most popular – and it even appears in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, where it is placed in the mouth of Chauntecleer in the ‘Nun’s Priest’s Tale’.

In the hagiographical legend, the young boy Cynehelm was given the kingdom of Mercia as an inheritance at the behest of his father Cœnwulf. The legend also makes Cynehelm’s aunt Burghild (historically the sister of Cœnwulf King) into a kind and loving elder sister as a foil to the jealous Cwénþrýð. Cwénþrýð, hating her brother in her heart, conspired with her lover Æscberht, who was also the tutor of Cynehelm. Giving him money, she told Æscberht to find some opportunity to slay Cynehelm that she might rule.

Cynehelm was not witless to what was about to happen to him. He knew his sister’s temperament and intentions. He was given to see in a dream a premonition of his own death. In this dream, Cynehelm climbed a tall tree from which he could see the four corners of Mercia. Three of the corners bowed to him and paid him homage as king. The fourth rushed toward the tree and began to hack it down with axes. As the tree fell, Cynehelm changed into a dove and flew heavenward in bliss. He told this dream to his nurse, Wulfwynn, who both wept that Cynehelm was to die at the hands of the wicked, and rejoiced that he was to join the throng of the blessed in martyrdom.

Æscberht led the young Cynehelm on a hunt into the woods near Worcester. Cynehelm wearied in his ride, and lay down beneath a tree to sleep. While he slept, Æscberht busied himself digging a grave for the boy. However, Cynehelm awoke and chided Æscberht: ‘You think to kill me here in vain. I shall be slain somewhere else.’ Then he took a dead ashen branch and stuck one end of it into the open grave. Wondrously, the upright end of the branch began to blossom into living leaves and flowers, and the downward end took root in the grave. This branch grew into a great tree that was called Saint Cynehelm’s Ash.

Instead of being shamed and chastised by this saintly wonder from the young boy he was to kill, Æscberht took the boy upwards into the Clent Hills and murdered Cynehelm by beheading him with a sword, as the boy knelt singing the Hymn of Ambrose, and buried him in another hasty grave on that spot. He returned to Cwénþrýð and told her that the deed had been done, and that she was now queen. Cwénþrýð ruled with equal jealousy as she had pursued rule: she forbade any mention of her brother’s name in Mercia.

In the meanwhile, in the Church of Saint Peter in Rome, a white dove descended from heaven with a scroll, which landed in the palm of the Pope of Rome (who, in 811, would have been Leo III). He unfurled it, and it bespoke a murder of one of God’s saints that had happened in the Mercian kingdom in England. The Pope dispatched the contents of this message with great urgency to Wulfred, the Archbishop of Canterbury. Wulfred despatched a party from Winchcombe to seek the body of the unjustly slain. They were guided as they went by an unearthly pillar of light coming from the Clent Hills, which arose from the spot where the murdered boy had been hastily buried. At the graveside they found a white cow, which stood there as though at vigil. As the relics were borne up out of the ground, wondrously a spring of clean, fresh water bubbled up from the grave.

Wulfred’s party bore the bones back from the Clent Hills to Winchcombe, but they were pursued along the way by an armed party sent from Worcester to take the relics of the saint for themselves. They rode at a fast pace to baffle pursuit, but soon wearied. As they rested nearby Winchcombe in Gloucester, another well sprang up where they lay their staffs. They drank of this water and were refreshed enough to bear the bones of the saint the rest of the way home.

What happened after Cynehelm’s murder was brought to light is a matter of disagreement among the stewards of the Cynehelm legend. Some hagiographers hold that the wicked queen Cwénþrýð’s eyes were put out as she was reading the Psalter, and that she was later done to death ignominiously along with her paramour Æscberht. Others hold that she was stricken with remorse at seeing her brother’s body, renounced her queenship and Æscberht, and retired to a nunnery. The latter seems more historically likely, given that a Mercian Cwénþrýð is listed among the abbesses of Minster.

Although there are multiple historical problems with this legend in its popular form, not least of which is the matter of dates, Cynehelm: a.) was a real historical personage; b.) was killed at a young age in an unjust manner; and c.) was already venerated locally as a saint by the Mercians during the ninth century. However, the historicity of the Cynehelm legend is, in the broad scheme, not so important. It must be stressed that the tale of Cynehelm puts the lie to culturally-essentialist arguments that Eastern, or specifically Russian, Orthodoxy is somehow uniquely (or, as some are again charging, genetically) predisposed to what Americanists are now calling submission to tyranny. When England too was united to the undivided Church, her saints – including Cynehelm and Éadweard (who is still particularly venerated by the Russian Orthodox!!) – embodied the exact same kind of kenotic nonresistance that Saints Boris and Gleb did. Their hagiographers (in Cynehelm’s case, even after the Great Schism!) clearly even celebrated this nonresistance. The Russian spiritual ‘type’, though it remains strongly unique in its kenotic and God-bearing simplicity, nonetheless bears common features with all the Orthodox peoples, including the pre-Schismatic English. Dearest Cynehelm, believing prince and passion-bearer, pray to Christ our God that our souls may be saved!
O passion-bearer and follower of Christ,
Young and guileless Cynehelm –
When thou wast murdered by thine own kin,
The secret iniquity could not be hidden.
A miracle revealed the truth to all the world,
And justice was restored.
Pray to Christ our God to save our souls!

Saint Cynehelm’s Well and Church, Worcester

16 July 2019

Le Maritain en fuite

Jacques Maritain

I should preface this blog post by saying that I still deeply admire the French conservative idealists and intellectuals – Maritain, Mounier, Dru, Borne, Weil, Berdyaev – whose thought underpinned the earliest formations of the ideology that would become ‘Christian democracy’. However, that ideology is fatally flawed in that it was subordinate from the beginning to a Kantian-Hegelian rationalism which continues to guide it into ideological cul-de-sacs. I have indeed written a blog post like this before, but I feel that it requires some expansion. I said before that ‘Christian democracy can’t save America’; that premiss was far too modest. It is, after all, all too apparent to the more stringent Christian democrats that American culture is constituted in such a way that such Christian idealism as its founders had will always be an alien element within it. I mean something much more deep-reaching. It should more rightly be said, that it is doubtful Christian democracy can be saved from itself.

I have already established and developed the thesis advanced by Allan Carlson in his excellent book Third Ways, that the Christian democracy movement had a ‘fall’ in something like the Biblical sense, when its French and German forms consented, in the early 1950s, to water down its primary message in order to make itself a mass-political movement of the bourgeois centre-right. The bourgeois element was inimical to the Christian idealism of Berdyaev at the very least – inspired as he was by Léon Bloy. The bourgeoisie were, after all, the ones who crucified Christ – and who continue to crucify Christ in their hearts. And in trying to turn from the path of Christ onto the path of mass-political appeals, bourgeois parliamentary power and capitulation to big-business interests fundamentally aligned to American capital, they contravened the word of God that No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other.

The fundamental movement in this turn in Christian democracy, was to turn Christianity from a heart-directed conviction (so valuable to the thought of Berdyaev and Weil and Maritain!), into a civilisational signifier. They bourgeois-ified Christianity, in essence, by removing from its centre the risen Lord who trampled down death by His death, and settling instead upon the intellectual-philosophical and moral legacies of Western Europe which were the products of long centuries of concentrated Christian devotion – or, more crudely, upon the architectural and monumental historical legacies of Christian kings, emperors and armies. The creative, kenotic impulse which underlay an idealistic moment in European politics was quietly, but firmly, snuffed out.

Christian democracy, during this time, was able to retain its sanity and respectability, in large part, due to a rapprochement with the reigning spirit of the liberal political age. It espoused, fairly easily and conveniently, œconomic and scientific rationality and acknowledged the primacy of parliamentary structures and democratic rule. Centre-right, socially-conservative Christian politics in America existed comfortably alongside the classical-liberal tradition of American constitutionalism in large part due to the overarching threat of Cold War anti-communism, despite the antinomies between conservative and classical-liberal cultural priorities which were so obvious to, say, Canadian philosopher George Grant. The same phenomenon – albeit in an attenuated form, given the residual political independence of Europe and given the longer intellectual legacy of communitarian-conservative thought there – held true on the European continent. European conservatism of the Christian democratic variety did exist comfortably alongside German ordoliberalism, also developed during the 1950s, which furnished forth the model for a ‘social market œconomy’ in the capitalist European West.

In short, the threat of a monstrously and openly godless East – in the form of the Soviets – kept the outwardly (but not inwardly) godly West sane in its appearances. With the disappearance of that threat, however, and the disappearance of the outward pressures which had kept the inner contradictions of the bourgeois centre-right consensus under wraps, the cracks began to appear with much greater prominence. The Western European bourgeois centre-right, intellectually and politically headquartered in West Germany, largely acquiesced in the betrayal, subversion, bombing, dismemberment and sale of the Yugoslav experiment in worker ownership and œconomic democracy: an experiment which kept much more of its inward meaning, its ‘Byzantine’ radicalism, despite being under a godless communist government. If the accommodation of and identification with American capital was the ‘original sin’ of Christian democracy, then the destruction of Yugoslavia was Christian democracy’s ‘sin of Cain’.

With God, with Christ, absent from its centre, the antinomies of Christian democracy have become ever more pronounced in the meanwhile. Some Christian democratic parties, like the Christlich Demokratische Union in Germany, have wedded themselves more and more firmly to the neoliberal consensus in œconomics and the neoconservative option in foreign policy. Others, more recently – like Poland’s Prawo i Sprawiedliwość party, have embraced the backlash politics of our nationalist moment. One end of the spiritual trajectory of Christian democracy in Europe is the athymic, reptilian, austerity-embracing miserdom of Angela Merkel; the other end is the simian, jowl-shaking, mouth-breathing, gut-bucket bigotry of Mateusz Morawiecki. The devolution of Christian democracy into both the bourgeois politics Berdyaev despised, and the fascism that Weil did so much to resist, by way of the very same political rationalism which was meant to provide a bulwark against the latter in particular, is indeed the final ironic twist.

As a partial corrective to the above narrative – I am not insensible of the historical sins of social democracy, either, which are of much earlier provenance than those of Christian democracy. But the one advantage the centre-left politics of the elder European establishment enjoys over the centre-right is that it isn’t weighted down with the old Cold War suspicions that any and every material effort to ameliorate the privation and debt of the toiling masses is, at bottom, a creeping communist conspiracy. (Hint: historically, it’s been quite the opposite.) Still, a ‘harder’ left approach (like that of Samir Amin, for example) is more amenable to considering the thick communal attachments that the modern rationalised œconomy does so much to uproot, as well as the specific, systemic deprivations faced worldwide by rural people – what used to be a strength of the Catholic distributists.

But amid this Luciferian absconsion of Christian democratic politics, there is still to be seen a deep, spiritual yearning for a common life which approximates justice and equity. Moreover, the centrifugal pulls of the body politic away from the centre in the directions of nationalism and communism are, in fact, warped expressions of this yearning. But the direction for this politics is not to be found in the old political rationalism – the world of wonkery and interest-group balancing and focus-group sloganeering. The impetus for this kind of public life rests instead in those post-colonial areas of the world where Christianity is not merely a civilisational husk, regarded as dry grass to be threshed for its rationalised kernels: to Africa, to Asia broadly considered, to the Balkans and Eastern Europe and Russia. We can and should still look to the leading lights of the Christian democratic moment in Western Europe as one of the great intellectual wellsprings of this kind of politics; however, we should recognise that the politics that has coöpted their names is en fuite and very far indeed from home.

15 July 2019

Holy Hierarch Swíþhún of Winchester

Saint Swíþhún of Winchester

Today in the Orthodox Church we venerate Swíþhún [Swithun, or Swithin], the renowned ninth-century Bishop of Winchester who is connected with Æþelwulf King and also with his distant successor, Saint Æþelwold of Winchester.

Saint Swíþhún was born around the year 800, during either the reign of Beorhtríc of Wessex or his successor Ecgberht, who returned from exile to Wessex in 802 upon his foe Beorhtríc’s death. How Swíþhún spent the first thirty-eight years of his life remain, sadly, a blank and a loss to history; however, one hagiographer states that he was ordained a parish priest by the Bishop of Winchester at the time, Helmstán, in 838. He distinguished himself primarily by his humility and his love for the poor; however, he somehow managed to come to the attention of Ecgberht’s son Æþelwulf King of Wessex, who patronised this priest from his own wealth. Although the tales that Swíþhún served as an advisor to Æþelwulf and as a tutor to Æþelwulf’s famous son Ælfrǽd may or may not be pious fiction, some connexion between Æþelwulf and the humble priest is more than likely: in 852, after Bishop Helmstán’s death, the king had him appointed as Bishop of Winchester in his place. Saint Swíþhún is also directly attested in the primary sources as a witness to some twenty West Saxon charters in Æþelwulf’s name. We can see from this, also, that Saint Swíþhún was literate and formidably intelligent – yet all this worldly knowledge did not ‘go to his head’.

There are tales about how Swíþhún chose to use Æþelwulf’s trust which illustrate the saint’s modest and self-effacing character even as bishop, and also to his great love for the poor. He used the money he was donated largely to repair old churches or build new ones – or else gave it away to the poor. Whenever he would by virtue of his office hold a feast, he would only ever invite the poor and hungry, and never the rich. And when he had commissioned a repair project or a church-building project – or, indeed, the stone bridge at Winchester – instead of leaving the site or watching from afar, he would come by and sit and converse with the workmen as an equal as they worked. At one time, a poor old woman came across the bridge as the workmen were working on it, carrying a basket of eggs. The workmen maliciously took her basket and smashed the eggs. Swíþhún saw this and took pity on the woman. He chastised the workmen, mended the broken eggs and restored them to her basket. She thanked the bishop with tears in her eyes as she went on her way.

Swíþhún’s laudable and praiseworthy self-effacement extended even to his death, which occurred on the fifteenth of July, 863. His wish was not to be buried inside the church at Winchester; instead he asked that he be buried outside beneath the threshold of the church door, so that the folk going to church and passers-by might tread over him, and so that the rain from the eaves might fall upon him. This wish was only to be honoured for a short time; for God had other uses for His saint. During the Benedictine reform movement of the late 900s, one of the principals, Saint Æþelwold of Winchester acting on behalf of Saint Éadgár of England, had Saint Swíþhún’s relics dug up from underneath the threshold and translated into the church. This translation was undertaken for the purpose of bolstering local observance of a saintly cultus in Winchester and building support for the monastic reforms of Saint Æþelwold, Saint Dúnstán and Saint Ósweald. Nevertheless, the church tradition holds that the humble Saint Swíþhún was displeased with the move, despite the good intentions of his translators. The translation into the church was delayed on account of excessively heavy rains – from which arose the legend of Saint Swíþhún’s feast day being a predictor of the weather during the English summer:
Saint Swithun’s Day, if thou dost rain,
For forty days it will remain;
Saint Swithun’s Day, if thou be fair,
For forty days ‘twill rain nae mair.
Saint Swíþhún thereafter became a favourite intercessor among farmers, to whom they would pray for rain in the event of a drought. The cultus of Saint Swíþhún spread even as far afield as Norway: he is the patron of Stavanger Cathedral there, which is now held by the state Lutheran Church. Holy Father Swíþhún, pray unto Christ our God for us sinners!
The grace of God manifestly revealed thee
To thy flock as a teacher of compunction,
A model of meekness and a champion of piety;
For by thy surpassing humility thou didst attain the summit of holiness,
And for thy manifold virtues thou hast received a crown on high.
O holy bishop Swíþhún our father, entreat Christ God,
That He save those who honour thy memory with love.

Winchester Cathedral

14 July 2019

Holy Hierarch Deusdedit, Archbishop of Canterbury

Peterborough Cathedral

Today in the Orthodox Church we celebrate the sixth Archbishop of Canterbury, the first native-born Englishman to hold that see. First, a note on naming. In the world Friþwine, this Archbishop of Canterbury was given a Greek name that is transcribed into Latin in various ways. In the local English sources, it is always, including by Saint Bede (who should have known better), written Deusdedit. But the name Deusdedit (‘God has given’) is an inaccurate Latinisation of the Greek name Theódotos [Θεόδοτος] (‘given by God’), which is more appositely rendered in Latin as Deodatus or Adeodatus, the ‘simple, devout, wise and shrewdpre-Schismatic saintly Pope of Rome for whom the English Deusdedit was likely named! In fact, the English Deusdedit is known precisely by this latter name shared with his patronal Pope (Adeodato, Adeodat) in Southern European Romance countries like Portugal, Spain, Italy and Romania. I use the name Deusdedit in this blog post both to avoid confusion for my primarily English-language audience as well as out of respect for the primary sources, but I do want to take the opportunity to register with firm resolution that I find this Latinisation inept and improper. Saint Iþamar, I wag my scholarly finger at you – naughty, naughty!

This is something of an opposite case from that of his predecessor Saint Mellitus, where a certain degree of etymological overcorrection led his name to be sometimes incorrectly transcribed in our iconography as Meletios [Μελέτιος] despite the two names having completely different origins. See, Greeks can get it wrong, too.

Ahem. As I was saying…

Friþwine was a South Saxon monk, probably of the first generation of insular Saxons raised by Christian eldern since the conversion of the saintly Æþelberht King by Saint Augustine of Canterbury. He was consecrated as bishop by the aforementioned Saint Iþamar of Rochester, and subsequently elevated to the position of Archbishop of Canterbury. He was the first native-born Englishman to occupy that office: his saintly predecessors –Augustine, Laurence, Mellitus, Justus and Honorius – had all been Romans of Italy, OG members of the Gregorian mission to the English.

Friþwine, who was given the name of Deusdedit at his consecration, had the misfortune – or perhaps good fortune, depending on whom you ask – of becoming Archbishop of Canterbury at a time when the power and prestige of the office was at a low ebb. There were few new consecrations of bishops under his rule – the one notable exception being the West Saxon Damian, Iþamar’s successor as Bishop of Rochester. However, Deusdedit did consecrate several new churches and monasteries during his tenure, such as Medehamstede Abbey – which is now the notable Peterborough Cathedral.

Deusdedit was Archbishop of Canterbury for, again according to Bede, nine years, four months and two days. Little else is known of him for certain, except that he seems to have lived the meek, humble and blameless life expected of a monastic, and one fit for sainthood. After an ominous solar eclipse appeared in May of 664, southern England was wracked by an episode of bubonic plague, which afflicted Saint Deusdedit. The Synod of Whitby took place during this year, though the Archbishop was too ill to attend in person.

Deusdedit reposed in the Lord on the fourteenth of July, 664, and one of his priests – a ‘good man well-fitted to be a bishop’ named Wigheard – was sent to Rome to attain the Pope’s blessing to succeed him. Sadly, Wigheard too succumbed to the plague during an outbreak in Rome; and a Greek of Asia Minor, Saint Theodore of Tarsus, was chosen instead on the recommendation of the African monk Saint Hadrian by Pope Saint Vitalian of Rome to succeed Saint Deusdedit in Canterbury. Holy Father Deusdedit, meek and loving archpastor of the Kentish folk, we ask you entreat Christ God to save our souls!

13 July 2019

Venerable Mildþrýð, Abbess of Minster-in-Thanet

Saint Mildþrýð of Thanet

The thirteenth of July is the Orthodox feast day of Saint Mildþrýð [or Mildred] of Minster-in-Thanet, the descendant of Saints Æþelberht and Berhte of Kent, called ‘fairest lily of the English’ by her Benedictine hagiographer Goscelin de Saint-Bertin: ‘a protector of widows and orphans, and comforter of all the poor and afflicted, and in all things she was humble and gentle.

Her Kentish royal heritage is a main feature of each of Saint Mildþrýð’s hagiographies. She was the daughter of Saint Æbbe (also yclept Domne Eafe or Eormenburg, feast date: 19 November) by her marriage to Merewalh of the Magonsætan; Æbbe being the daughter of Eormenræd King son of Éadbald King (and his wife Emma of Austrasia), son of Æþelberht and Berhte. Mildþrýð was the second of four children, all of whom are considered saints; the others being her sisters – later nuns – Mildburg of Much Wenlock (23 February) and Mildgýð of Northumbria (17 January), and her youngest brother Merefinn who died in his early youth. When their child-getting days were past, Saint Æbbe and Merewalh separated by mutual consent and left their children, their property and themselves to the care of God in the Benedictine Order.

Mildþrýð was sent for her education to the Benedictine Abbaye Notre-Dame-des-Chelles in Neustria – situated on a site now a short ways southeast of Paris. While she was a pupil at this cloister, she apparently caught the eye of a Frankish nobleman who was related to the abbess, Wilcoma. This nobleman importuned the Abbess of Chelles to push Mildþrýð to accept his hand. The abbess thus entreated her, but the young woman replied to her superior that she had been sent to Chelles to be taught, not to be married. The frustrated abbess began to scold her, threaten her and beat her, but Mildþrýð was steadfast in her refusal. At last Abbess Wilcoma, like the wicked king Nebuchadnezzar, dragged her by the hand into a heated oven, and threw her inside. The abbess kept her inside for three hours, expecting not only her flesh but her very bones to have been burnt to cinders. However, even after three hours, there could be heard swan-like strains of fair and pure music within. Just as God had preserved His witnesses Hananiah, Misha’el and ‘Azariah from the wrath of the evil king and the flames of the furnace, so too did He preserve His beloved daughter from the flames and deliver her forth not only unharmed, but shining with joy, fairer than ever. Those nuns who saw this were greatly afraid, and fell on their faces before her as a living saint. But the evil and shameless Abbess of Chelles flew into one of those infamous Frankish-noble rages upon beholding this wonder, throwing her to the ground, beating her, kicking her, scratching her and tearing out her hair.

Somehow, poor Mildþrýð managed to collect some of her torn-out hair and enclosed it into a letter, which, by the grace of God, she managed to have smuggled out of the abbey back to her mother Æbbe in England, who sent for her at once. Ships were sent from the Magonsætan to Paris to fetch her, but Abbess Wilcoma would on no account permit her to leave, fearing that her corruption and cruel deeds would be exposed. Mildþrýð fled to the ships by night, but in her haste she forgot a relic – a nail of the True Cross – and some of her religious garments which she valued deeply. Before coming to the ships, she stole back to Chelles and brought them out safely.

The ships arrived at Ebbsfleet (so yclept because it was where Æbbe’s fleet made land with her daughter), and as Mildþrýð stepped off the ship onto a great square stone that lay off the wharf, the impress of her foot was shown wondrously carved into the stone’s face. This stone was later removed to Minster in memory of Mildþrýð’s return to England; it became known as a wonder-working relic of the virgin saint. It was often removed from its place of honour, however, until a fitting oratory was righted for it to be placed upon.

Mildþrýð was present when her mother Æbbe had consecrated the abbey at Minster. Æbbe had won the land, it seems, when her tame pet doe had been set loose across the isle of Thanet, and she received all the land that lay north of where her doe ran. (This explains why in Orthodox icons like the one shown above, Mildþrýð is seen to be holding a doe.) Finally, with her mother’s blessing, she got her wish when Saint Theodore of Tarsus himself bestowed the nun’s veil upon her along with seventy other women who desired the Benedictine life. As a nun, she was a particularly diligent pupil of Saint Aldhelm of Sherborne, not only in letters and music (for she sang the Psalms beautifully, according to Goscelin) but also in the disciplines of fasting and almsgiving, so essential to the life she had embraced. Her earthly and abbatial mother entrusted her early on with weighty tasks: in 694 she was sent in Lady Æbbe’s place, with the full dignity of an abbess, to represent Minster at a Kentish moot at Beccancelde.

The venerable Mildþrýð succeeded her saintly mother upon her death as abbess of Minster; and the holy foundress and abbess Æbbe was very quickly recognised as a saint thereafter. As for the new Abbess Mildþrýð – as alluded above, she took very seriously the fullness of the Benedictine commitment to the poor, the sick and the needy. She is described as unwearyingly mild, befitting to the full her birth-name, as well as loving and kind in her personal demeanour. Mildþrýð’s noteworthy material aid and service to the poor, the sick, the widows and the orphans was a sublime example for her daughter-nuns to follow, and her hagiographers note that the esprit de corps of Minster under Saint Mildþrýð’s gentle rule was one of self-emptying charity.

There is a legend in her hagiography that one night as Mildþrýð was praying Matins, the Evil One – who was jealous of her spiritual gifts and ascetic accomplishments – snuffed out the candle by whose light she was reading. In the dark she was unable to see to relight it. However, her angel guardian appeared and drove Satan back into the gloom, and by that angel’s radiant light Mildþrýð was able to continue her prayer and finish Matins – and she did so with heartfelt awe and gratitude.

Late in her life, Holy Mother Mildþrýð suffered from much bodily pain. The hurts of old age, however, she bore without complaint, though those who knew her well understood what she suffered without her having to speak or make any outward show of her ailment, and so they doubled their prayers for her. It so happened that one day she beheld a vision of the Holy Spirit descending upon her like a dove – first upon her forehead, and then upon her heart – and she knew that the end of her life was drawing near. She gathered her daughter-nuns about her and begged them to preserve the house of Minster in the same spirit of charity for each other and for the needy outside –
Maintain, my dearest ones, peace and holiness among yourselves, continue to love God diligently, and to do good to your neighbour. In the common needs of the monastery take counsel together, with all your hopes centred upon God, as beseemeth those dwelling in His courts. Lend a willing ear to the aged among you, and decide in all things with prudence. Bear ye one anothers burthens, obey mutually, be of one body and of one spirit, united in the observance of the Rule, true daughters of the house of God; and may the God of peace and of consolation abide for ever with you all!
With these parting words Mildþrýð received the Gifts one final time, and reposed in the Lord on the thirteenth of July, in either the year 725 or 732. Venerable Éadburg took her place as abbess. It was during Éadburg’s time that a certain young nun whose job it was to ring the bell fell asleep at the altar; and in a vision Saint Mildþrýð struck her awake, scolding her: ‘This is the oratory, not the dormitory!

The pre-Schismatic English folk, prior to the Norman invasion, dearly loved their Holy Mothers – to an even greater degree, as we saw with Saint Æþelþrýð, than even their Holy Fathers. Saint Mildþrýð was no exception. Her popularity among the English, without doubt on account of her material charity and corporal works of mercy in life, outshone even that of Saint Augustine of Canterbury – as shown in the fact that the spot at which the Italian monk had met her great-great-grandfather became known instead as Saint Mildþrýð’s Rock!

In the centuries to come, English coasts would often be plagued by Danish raiders, and under the rule of the Danish Cnut, Mildþrýð’s relics would be translated (amid some rather heartfelt objections from the holy women of Thanet) to Canterbury in 1035. During the iconoclastic reign of Henry VIII, the monastery at Minster was dissolved, though it would be reëstablished prior to the Second World War, in 1937, by some German Benedictine nuns from the Abbey of Saint Wealdburg in Eichstätt, who bore with them one of Saint Mildþrýð’s holy relics!

One final note: a decided note of personal fondness I have for Saint Mildþrýð, is that she shares a name with my late grandmother – my father’s stepmother, Dr Mildred Cooper. A dynamic woman, strong-willed and fearless, she was a native (and fierce local patriot) of Buffalo, New York. In addition, she was a basketball player and a lifelong sports fan, and also a heartfelt champion of racial equality in the form of integrated public education in the DC school system. As a very young man and into my adulthood, I loved her and also somewhat awed and feared her. I was deeply grateful that she made it to Jessie’s and my wedding, and also that she liked Jessie almost at once upon meeting her. I don’t believe she was ever particularly religious – she was brought up Roman Catholic but was decidedly lapsed – but in some ways I can’t help but see a little bit of my grandmother in the hagiography of her namesake. I don’t think she would have put up with abuse in her schooling either – either of herself or of anyone else under her care! At any rate, for God’s handmaid Mildred, I beseech the intercessory prayers of her patron saint – and also for all of us sinners here. Holy Mother Mildþrýð, protectress of widows and orphans, pray to Christ our God that our souls may be saved!
Through constant prayer and frequent fasting,
By ceaseless hymnody and great humility,
The glorious Mildþrýð forsook the allurements of her royal rank,
Trampling underfoot all worldly pride and presumption.
Wherefore, let us imitate her virtues,
That free from all earthly attachments
We may join her at the wedding feast of Christ our Saviour!