31 July 2014

Remembering the Baptism of Kievan Rus’

Holy and Right-Believing Prince Vladimir, Baptiser of the Rus’

My deepest apologies that this remembrance comes rather late, but it is important to commemorate the baptism of Grand Prince S. Vladimir and the Kievan Rus’, who managed to secure in the pagan frontiers of the north the survival of Orthodox faith, and whose descendants would later provide shelter to those Englishmen who fled the ravages of the invasion of William the Bastard. The debt of honour which we Orthodox owe to Grand Prince S. Vladimir is very nearly as great as that we owe to our holy fathers amongst the saints Ss. Cyril and Methodius.

The story is a familiar one to Russians, perhaps not so much to Americans or British folks. The story goes that S. Vladimir, who understood that the pagan gods of his forefathers could not bring unity among his people, thirsted after the truths proclaimed by the great Abrahamic religions, sent envoys to countries following each of them: Islamic Bulgaria, Judaist Khazaria, Romanist Germany and Orthodox Byzantium. Islam Vladimir rejected on account of its stringency and severity, feeling that there was no joy in their faith, and particularly rejecting Islamic taboos on drinking alcohol and eating pork. At Judaism Vladimir also looked askance on account of its dietary restrictions, and also because of the loss of the Temple at Jerusalem. Vladimir also heard reports from his envoys to Germany, who found its churches too austere and too lifeless. But at the account of the envoys who reached Constantinople, Vladimir heard from them that, upon entering the Hagia Sophia there, they ‘did not know where they were, on heaven or on earth’. It was on hearing this report that the holy Grand Prince decided upon baptising himself and his countrymen into the Orthodox faith, but certainly the influence of his grandmother S. Olga, Equal-to-the-Apostles, was not inconsiderable.

S. Vladimir underwent a great transformation of spirit and character on his conversion. Whilst before he was cruel, capricious and led a libertine life surrounded by eight hundred concubines, he later sent away all of them and married a Greek Christian princess of Byzantium, Anna, to whom he remained faithful throughout the remainder of his earthly life. He had destroyed the graven images of the pagan gods he erected earlier in his life, including the statue of Perun he had erected in Kiev, and erected great monasteries and churches in their steads. In his initial impulsive zeal to reform himself (‘but so beautifully impulsive!’ exclaimed the Slavophil philosopher Ivan Kireevsky in one of his letters), he originally sought to forgive and release all the criminals he had arrested and imprisoned, but the Church itself would not let him do so, out of care of preserving the State and its responsibilities and clearly distinguishing them from one’s own spiritual responsibilities within the Church. Whenever S. Vladimir hosted a feast, he ordered that food be taken and distributed to the poor and ill wherever he held sway. But the transformation S. Vladimir may be seen to have effected within himself may also be seen in the Christian state which he founded in Kiev: a state which did away with capital punishment, which would not abide torture or disfigurement, and which established one of the first and most extensive welfare systems of the Middle Ages.

It is incredibly regrettable that the feast of S. Vladimir should have gone by this year with the lands he ruled so harshly divided from each other in a fratricidal civil strife, which divides the heirs of Orthodoxy in Kiev and the rest of the Ukraine from their brothers in Moscow, Novgorod and all the other lands ruled by this holy and right-believing Prince. This strife is not wholly of their own making, but, for the sake of Blessed Vladimir who would not have it any other way, it must be resolved peaceably and without recriminations.

Holy Prince Vladimir, who for his people followed in the footsteps of the Holy Apostle Paul, and set aside worldly treasures in pursuit of that one pearl of great price, of Christian truth, intercede for us sinners with Our Lord Jesus Christ. (And please forgive this sinner in particular for his lateness in remembering you!)

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