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!