29 August 2016

Distributism and the Slavophils

Cross-posted from The Distributist Review:

As past articles in the Distributist Review have shown, such as this one from Jason Streit, there is a significant interest in Distributism from the Orthodox world. There are good reasons why this should be so. Orthodox believers of the 20th century have faced as few others have the horrors of militantly-atheist governments driven by consolidating collectivist ideals. And they currently face anxieties of a far more banal sort—of the slow, creeping erosion and liquidation of their traditions and livelihoods, and the more insidious degradation of the ascetic ideal of Orthodoxy, under the influences of capitalism, consumerism and bourgeois materialist expectations. Eastern Orthodox believers have very good reason, in the main, to desire another option—one which corresponds more readily to the teachings of the Fathers and the mind of the Church. The problem is that for many Orthodox people, Distributism bears a Western, Latin stamp which renders it instantly suspect.

This need not be the case. Mr Streit has already admirably outlined the bold contours of Orthodox social thought in its own native light, pointing specifically to the social justice homilies of Saint Basil the Great and to the excellent Basis of the Social Concept document published by the Sacred Bishops’ Council of the Moscow Patriarchate. But digging a little deeper, there is a definite current in Orthodox social thinking—particularly that of Russia—which ought to hold interest for distributists of both West and East. I am referring to the current of Slavophilism (slavyanofil’stvo)—particularly as it presents itself in the works of Alexis Khomyakov, John Kireevsky, George Samarin, Theodore Tyutchev and the brothers Constantine and John Aksakov.

The Slavophils took their primary inspiration not from Saint Basil or from the Cappadocian Fathers, but instead from a mixture of German romanticism (especially that of Schelling and Herder) and the ascetical teachings of the Philokalia—and such Church Fathers as John Climacus, Theodore Studites and Isaac of Nineveh. They began to turn their attention to the contemporary problems of Russia after the failed Decembrist Revolt of 1825. In particular, their work was an answer to the gauntlet thrown down by Peter Chaadaev with his Philosophical Letters—the outline of which was that Russia had nothing unique to offer to world culture, but was instead doomed to play a passive role. The Slavophils, who supported the Patristic renaissance which had been inaugurated by the monks of the Optina Monastery and Metropolitan Saint Philaret of Moscow, took a strongly-felt objection to Chaadaev’s thesis.

It is important to remember that these Slavophils were minor members of the gentry, and generally represented the ‘small’ landowner class (though, as sociologists from the Slavophils’ contemporary August von Haxthausen on have pointed out about Russia, ‘small’ is very much a relative term). They stood between a French- and German-speaking, Westernised, absentee-landlord ‘high society’ on the one hand, and a vast, devotedly-Orthodox, Russian-speaking class of unfree or semi-free serfs and peasants on the other. And between the two, they refused to view the serfs and peasants as lacking in value for all their lack of Western education and manners. They found, within the normal everyday workings of Russian peasant society, lived in the communal farming village (obshchina, or mir), the practical outworkings of the deep religious principles they were helping the Optina monks to propagate. And they began to synthesise these religious principles into a cultural and philosophical doctrine.

It was Alexis Khomyakov who began speaking first of sobornost’ as the active principle of the obshchina, a Russian term which translates roughly as ‘catholicity’ or ‘conciliarity’. The people of the peasant commune were as one large family, and they survived even with what little they had based on their mutual love for each other, and the willing surrender of their personal autonomy for the sake of those they cared about. This mutual, familial love, this willing surrender of individual will in cooperation with the beloved whole, was—as Khomyakov saw it—both the basis for Russian society and religion, as well as that for a deeper knowledge of the human condition. In the principle of sobornost’ there is reflected a communitarianism of love.

Khomyakov’s essays, philosophical fragments and theological scribblings placed him immediately at odds with two formidable tendencies within his own class and within that of his superiors. The Tsarist state, first of all, did not take at all kindly to this subversive notion that the peasantry had a collectively-independent way of life that did not rely firstly upon the firm autocratic guidance of the state. On the other hand, many of the French- and German-speaking nobility—even and especially those opposed to the Tsar—were adamant that in order to survive and to catch up to the West, Western industry, Western technology, and Western ideology were needed. (Among these Westernisers, proponents of capitalism and socialism were both represented: with Boris Chicherin on the ‘right’, and Vissarion Belinsky and Alexander Herzen on the ‘left’.)

Despite their religious orientation, the Slavophils tended towards the ‘left’ in any event, as both Khomyakov and those who followed him—particularly John Aksakov—made clear. On philosophical grounds, firstly, their emphasis on the cooperative, communal peasant life rendered them hostile to expressions of urban-bourgeois individualism and market ideology, which they correctly viewed as crass and exploitative. On more practical questions, they sided stoutly with the ‘left’-Westernisers on the need to emancipate Russia’s serfs and provide them with their own land—an effort in which both George Samarin and Metropolitan Saint Philaret played crucial roles. But the Slavophils stopped well short of advocating the socialist policies preferred by Belinsky and Herzen—which they saw as a foreign Western import ill-suited to Russia’s social and class makeup, and as an artificial, top-down effort to constrain the egoistic and individualistic passions of capitalism.

Slavophilism was, as the later French-Ukrainian religious philosopher Nicolas Berdyaev took pains to point out, a notoriously amorphous form of political, religious and cultural thought. On the one hand, they were autocratic monarchists and staunch defenders of Tsarist institutions, but for the (from the Tsarists’ point-of-view) perverse reason that they kept the peasantry pure and unsullied by power politics. On the other hand, they advocated for a number of reforms that were then considered radical: not only the emancipation of serfs but their economic empowerment through the protection and support of the obshchina, and their education, particularly in religion and literature. Berdyaev traced the influence of the Slavophils out in a number of different directions—toward the reactionary autocracy of Gogol, Pogodin and Leont’ev; toward the theocratic liberalism of Vladimir Solovyov; toward the ‘back-to-the-land’ populist conservatism of Dostoevsky and Pobedonostsev; they even had a marked influence on the later radical populists such as Mikhailovsky and Morozov.

But the Slavophil influence was felt well beyond Russia’s borders. The agrarian populist movements outside Russia, particularly during the opening decades of the 20th century, never had the violently atheistic or revolutionary character that Russia’s narodniki did. Romania’s Constantin Stere, who would later become influential on peasant-politicians such as Ion Mihalache and agrarian economists such as Virgil Madgearu, spent much of his time in Russia and was deeply influenced by Slavophil thinking. His adaptation of Slavophil thought for Romanian purposes resulted in the non-revolutionary, left-populist, Eastern Orthodox political tendency of Poporanism – and the economic side of this political tendency bears a remarkable resemblance to Distributism.

Even closer to home, one latter-day political writer who felt he owed an intellectual debt to the Slavophils, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, had a distinct preference for distributist solutions. Solzhenitsyn’s Letter to the Soviet Leaders is a sterling example of both of these tendencies: his purpose in writing this Letter was primarily the Soviets to task for their reckless and rampant industrialisation of the Russian countryside at the expense of the small town, the village, the rural family and the natural environment. But he makes a brief aside into a more direct political critique of the Soviets when he laments that the namesake of the USSR, the village soviet, has been robbed of much of the authority which it had been promised from the start – and that Russian society might be healthier if the localist decision-making which the soviets promised had been implemented.

In short, there are a number of points-of-contact—and by no means all in the distant Patristic past (though certainly there, too!)—which Eastern Orthodox believers sympathetic to the ideals of Distributism can build upon, to make a case for an eastward-looking version of the local, human-scaled, cooperative economy. The Slavophils of Russia, and some of their populist political and economic students, may be worth a very careful look.

27 August 2016

Belarus honours its mothers

I confess that I have a special liking for the yearly recognition, the Order of Mothers, that the President of Belarus, Aliaksandr Lukašenka, gives to working mothers and mothers who have raised five or more children in his country. If it seems quaint or has a whiff of the ‘Soviet’ about it, that is probably to be expected. Though I wonder if that is not more the crassness of a fame- and fortune-obsessed Western culture – given to worshipping the great, the successful, the rich and the famous Somebodies – that we do not see the sense in publicly honouring the everyday, ordinary goodness of the ‘small folk’ – or perhaps see it as some kind of consolation prize. But that clearly isn’t what President Lukašenka is doing here.

He does indeed acknowledge women’s professional advances and achievements, as is only right and just. But it’s clear that such accomplishments are not the only thing of importance in this award. Note what Lukašenka himself says to the women who have been awarded this honour:
Thank you for the fact that with your work, talent and kindness, you make our world a better place. But whatever your professional success, please don't forget the most important – family, health and welfare of your loved ones. You are keep the keys to every home and you are the guardians of warmth and cosiness there.

For your beauty. I know that regardless of the number of children a woman still strives to be beautiful and lovely. I want you to become even more beautiful every day after the new birth of a child. I want both men and women look at you with envy. I wish you happiness, all the best and, most importantly, I wish the same to your babies.
If this is ‘quaint’, it can only be in a good way. If, in Lukašenka’s address, there’s something of the old interwar Eastern European populist cult of womanhood in this acknowledgement of the goodness and beauty of working-class mothers of large families, so much, so much the better. But it actually strikes me at once as pure Tolkien. ‘Saruman believes it is only great power that can hold evil in check,’ Tolkien writes through Gandalf, ‘but that is not what I have found. I found it is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay. Small acts of kindness and love.’ Such an award as this, is but one example of a small thing, a small but creative and meaningful thing, that the somebodies can do to acknowledge the everyday ordinary goodness of people who aren’t celebrities, who aren’t sports stars, who aren’t cultural icons. The little achievements that are the main thing holding the darkness at bay.

Belarus’s Order of Mothers is, in a very Eastern European kind of way, Gandalf acknowledging the importance of Bilbo. Or Aragorn kneeling to Frodo.

15 August 2016

Party like it’s 1932

With all the overheated rhetorical flak that inevitably accompanies these gross quadrennial spectacles of excess, jingoism and political polarisation that we call the ‘election cycle’ here in America, one is inevitably bound to hear comparisons of one or the other candidate to Hitler or Mussolini. The problem is, it’s all wrong. And the fact that we have such strongly-misguided hyperventilation on both sides against one candidate and the other actually both blinds and exposes us to the greater danger of something like fascism arising again in our country, in the near future.

Fascism really isn’t that hard to understand, though there seems to be a thriving academic trade in definitions of the term, ranging from the relatively simple to the mind-bendingly convoluted, which can easily descend to ridiculous levels of Freudian psychoanalysis (phallic symbolism, Œdipal and inferiority complexes, fetishistic and homoerotic cults of strength). And this obfuscation leads a number of other partizan observers to come up with their own, utterly wrongheaded and often deliberately-misleading, definitions of the term – which we will get to momentarily. But, simply put, fascism refers to the regimentation and militarisation of all aspects of social and individual life. The end goal of fascism (and here’s where the definitions are wont to get convoluted and prolix) is a fully-militarised, fully-mobilised, bourgeois-revolutionary one-party nation-state structure in a permanent state of total war against its neighbours, and against ethnic and political minorities within its borders.

The first aspect has to be present for the second to apply, of course. It’s remarkably foolish and muddle-headed, and serves only to confuse people, to claim that all one-party state structures are fascist, given that all aspects of people’s ordinary lives under a number of authoritarian, functionally one-party states nowadays (like China, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Syria and a number of other post-socialist nations) are not militarised and regimented at all, and certainly not in the comprehensive way that German, Japanese and Italian lives were in the 1930’s. Much less, indeed, are these states in a constant state of war with their neighbours (minor border disputes and diplomatic posturing notwithstanding), or with the ethnic minorities they govern. Neoconservatives, liberal hawks and other such jingos often like to make the claim that such states are fascist, but that’s not from any sober evaluation of the facts about these countries’ policies or the lives of the people who live in them, but rather it comes from their ideological end goal of overthrowing these regimes and remake them ex nihilo, in line with their own bourgeois-revolutionary ideological preferences.

For similar reasons, it should be noted that for all their flaws, none of the other modern ideologies – socialism, liberalism or conservatism – ought to be confused with fascism, even though fascism is also a modern ideology with a similar pedigree to all of the above. Libertarians and some American conservatives will often indulge the canard that fascism and ‘national socialism’ are socialist. The sophomoric version of this argument points in vulgar fashion at the name of the party (as if North Korea is to be considered a ‘democratic people’s republic’ simply because they call themselves so), though more sophisticated versions of this argument might bring up Röhm or the brothers Strasser – the left-sounding element within the NSDAP – or the welfare policies Hitler supported in order to pander to the working-class element which the Strasser brothers represented.

But these are all quite misleading. Having read now quite a bit of academic literature on Eastern European agrarian movements during the interwar period, one common theme is that the fascists never come from working-class backgrounds or from union movements, but instead from the urban haute bourgeoisie (bankers, industrialists, big businessmen) and the military. The class appeal of fascism was completely at odds with that of socialism, and very few were the socialists who were hoodwinked by the leftish-sounding noises coming from certain fascist leaders. Still less, in fact, were the rural agrarian workers and peasants fooled by the romantic and populist noises from those same leaders – and when their attempts to hoodwink agrarians and farmers largely failed, the fascists murdered the agrarian populist leaders (including, notably, Stamboliyski and Madgearu) under the guise of eradicating Bolshevism. Clearly the fascists themselves did not regard socialists or populists as ideological allies.

But speaking of Bolshevism, though, the real irony of the libertarian idea that fascism is a kind of socialism, is that it draws on Bolshevik and Stalinist arguments – specifically, the Comintern’s typological designation of parliamentary socialist parties as ‘social-fascist’. That’s right: in the attempt to show commonality between fascism and socialism, Hayek, Mises and other ‘anarcho-capitalists’ are deploying arguments that are explicitly and irreducibly Marxist in origin. And this actually stands to reason, because the libertarians’ focus is not on the superstructural regimenting and militaristic aspects which are actually key to understanding what fascism is, but instead on the ‘base’: trade policies which are in fact incidental to fascist social-cultural priorities and praxis. The logic of the libertarians and anarcho-capitalists is for all intents and purposes identical to that of the Stalinist Comintern, in that they reduce all aspects of life to a single dimension: that of economics. This leaves them blind, just as the Stalinists and the Comintern were blind, to the social-cultural contradictions between fascism and socialism, or between fascism and agrarian populism. The left-wing rural populist organiser and peasant-statesman Ion Mihalache was tried and effectively executed by the Romanian Communists as a fascist sympathiser, on frivolous grounds eerily similar to those on which Jeffrey Tucker nowadays cites Bernie Sanders as a fascist.

Likewise, supporters of the two major candidates need to both cool their jets on the topic, and also look to their own priorities. For all his bluster, phallic fixation, anti-Mexican rhetoric and bigger-than-life reality-television personality, Trump isn’t a fascist – simply because he isn’t calling for the mass militarisation of society. Nor would he; he’s no fool, though he does convincingly act like one on a regular basis. Liberals would do well to note here that the common street thuggery sometimes displayed by Trump supporters is not the same thing as paramilitarism. Likewise, for all her military adventurism, Clinton isn’t a fascist either. She wants all the fighting to be done, as it has been done for decades now, by a small, professional and silent (except when politically-expedient, naturally) all-volunteer fighting force; she’s far too clever, self-interested and sophisticated a liberal to make any such politically-suicidal call for her average, culturally-mainstream haute bourgeois constituent to sacrifice anything for the sake of her wars.

The danger, I fear, is but a short ways off yet, and will come when the next president’s policies in office fail. And if Bush’s and Obama’s policies are anything to go by, fail they will. This is not something I anticipate gladly, but it is something I have noted among the supporters of both Trump and Clinton: the idea that we are a weakening nation, and have to be restored to a position of prestige (or ‘greatness’) through military strength and hard-power projection abroad: against Russia in Clinton’s case, and against Iran in Trump’s. All of our hard-power projections within the past two decades – starting with Yugoslavia, through Afghanistan and Iraq, and now continuing in Libya and Yemen – have thus far resulted in varying degrees of failure, with the consequences of failure (measured in refugees and acts of Salafist terrorism) being felt most strongly now in Europe and North Africa. But when those consequences strike home again, the average American – economically-distressed, socially-disaffected and concerned with our nation’s prestige abroad – will begin calling for a much broader home-based militarism, and a restructuring of society along military lines to strengthen our resolve. The standard of strength-through-unity and purity-of-will will again be unfurled and flown at full mast, as it was in 2001 and 2002. Only this time, more so.

It’s a safe bet that the coming American totalitarianism and militarism will be quite different in kind from that of mid-twentieth century Europe – and it will come much more subtly here than it did there. Even so, for those of us who don’t meet that standard of purity or unity (and I know for a fact I won’t) – God help us all.

09 August 2016

Remembering Saint Herman the Wonderworker of Alaska

One of the first Orthodox Christian monks to set foot on the North American continent was Herman of blessed memory, later to be known as Saint Herman the Wonderworker. This extraordinary ascetic, blessed both with a meek and mild personal comportment and an unwillingness to let injustices slide (quickly making him a thorn in the side of the more unscrupulous administrators of the Russian-American Company) was a successful missionary among the Inuit, Yupik and Aleut peoples, even among the adverse conditions he faced and the reticence of the very people who sent him there.

Not much is known for certain of Blessed Herman’s secular life before entering the cloister. Some biographers – including his official biographers at Valaam Monastery – allege him to be the son, whose name in the world remains unknown, of merchants from Serpukhov, a city south of Moscow; others associate him with a young military clerk of the Russian southwest, named Egor Ivanovich Popov, who took the name Herman upon taking the tonsure at the stavropegic monastery at Valaam. Regardless of which version is true, the young monk Herman quickly grew to love the life of ascesis at Valaam, his brothers in it, and his elder, the Abbot Nazarius of Valaam. Recognising his zeal and his aptitude for the hesychastic life, Abbot Nazarius sent Herman into the wilderness a little more than a mile outside the monastery, and gave him the task of founding a hermitage there: a hermitage which bears the holy monk’s name to this day (Germanovo). He was offered twice, and twice turned down, authority over the Russian Orthodox mission in China – preferring as he did the life of the hermit.

The founders of the Russian-American Company, Grigory Shelikhov and Ivan Golikov, had expanded into the Alaskan frontier with the promise of profit – trappers from the Russian East had for the past decades rushed further eastward, tempted by the lucrative southward trade in fur pelts. These adventurers, these promyshlenniki, often abused their powers under the Company, and pressured the native Inuits and Aleuts, often at gunpoint, to hunt and trap beyond their means, out of season and in dangerous conditions; to add insult to injury, many of the promyshlenniki kidnapped Aleut wives and daughters for immoral purposes. When Tsarina Ekaterina of Russia sent Herman as part of a missionary delegation to the Alaskan natives, he and his fellow-monks were shocked and appalled at the treatment they were receiving at the hands of the Company, as well as the lax morals and alcohol abuse they found rampant among the Russian trappers. Even the facilities to be used by the monks were crude and under-supplied, and they had to till the ground they were given with wooden hand-tools.

Blessed Herman began his work in America as a baker and steward for the monks who had come as missionaries, but he quickly earned a reputation as a defender in writing of the dignity of the Alaskan natives, earning him their trust and respect: to many of them he became ‘Apa’, meaning ‘elder’ or ‘grandfather’. This has led one of his modern biographers, Sergei Korsun, to compare him with the Latin friar Bartolomé de las Casas, who similarly advocated for the rights of American Indians oppressed by the Spanish. His mission was characterised by great fellow-feeling for the Aleuts; he would offer them aid and shelter, or intercede for Aleut workers with the Company, or healed their wounds and illnesses, or discussed their spiritual problems, or mediated their family disputes. He also showed great love toward children; as the baker of the monastery, he would make large numbers of biscuits to give to them.

But conditions in Alaska were hard enough that many of the monks – including Archimandrite Joasaph and Blessed Hieromonk Juvenal – met their deaths there. Others of them returned to Russia. At the last, Herman, who was not a priest, was left to keep the mission alive by his own efforts, which he did with his usual mild and uncomplaining nature and hard work. He ran an orphanage for Aleut children whose parents had been killed or who had died of disease, he taught a parish school and a catechumenate, and he even managed to patch over his relations with the Company. But he longed for the solitary life, and when he was able, he retired to Spruce Island and settled in a hermitage there.

On Spruce Island Blessed Herman grew his own vegetables and mushrooms, drying them or preserving them in brine made from sea-water. He wore the same rough leather smock under his cassock regardless of the season, and slept on a bench made of deerskin with two bricks for his pillow, which he would cover over with a skin when visitors were with him. He ate little, and subjected himself to rigorous ascetic disciplines, including wearing chains which weighed around 16 pounds. But the most important work he is considered to have done, according to his bishop, is the work of worship: alone in his cell he would sing hymns and praises to God according to the rule of his order. When asked by his bishop if he ever felt lonely, he answered thus: ‘No, I am not there alone! God is here, as God is everywhere. The Holy Angels are there. With whom is it better to talk, with people, or with Angels?’

Blessed Herman the Wonderworker was among the first to hear of the martyrdom of one of fourteen Aleuts who was captured by the Spanish and pressured to convert to the Latin faith. The Jesuits tried at first to convince their Aleut captives that they had accepted a heretical and schismatic faith, and when this didn’t work, they began to torture the Aleuts, beginning with one particularly bold one. They cut off his fingers joint by joint, then his hands and his feet, but the brave Aleut endured to the end with a martyr’s patience, and insisted even as he bled to death: ‘I am a Christian’. The Jesuits promised the other Aleuts that they would be dealt with as their dead comrade had been, but the Spanish transferred them instead to Monterey, where they were able to escape imprisonment and return to their homes. Blessed Herman asked, ‘And how did they call the martyred Aleut?’ The witness answered, ‘Peter – I do not remember his family name.’ Father Herman then stood up and made the sign of the Cross before an icon, exclaiming with reverence: ‘Holy newly-martyred Peter, pray to God for us!

Blessed Herman even during his life gained a reputation for working wonders through his faith in Christ and the Holy Theotokos. At the mouth of a small stream on Spruce Island, he raked away some of the sand so that fish could swim upstream, and they did so in great waves – so that whenever he asked his disciple Ignatius, he would go and catch fish without any difficulty. At another time, a flood struck Spruce Island and the inhabitants went to Father Herman in dread of their lives. Blessed Herman took from the parish school an icon of the Holy Theotokos, placed it on a sandbank and began to pray to it along with all those who feared the flood. After his prayers were finished, he turned to the people and told them that the flood-waters would rise no higher than the bank on which the Blessed Virgin’s icon stood – and his words proved true. He then gave the wonder-working icon to his disciple Sofia, and told her to take the icon to the same place whenever future floods would strike, and the Theotokos would protect them. At another time, a fire struck Spruce Island, and Father Herman and Ignatius went and cut a yard-wide swathe through the forest and turned the moss over, assuring the island’s inhabitants that the fire would not pass the line they had made. This wonder also came to pass – the fire was borne about the island by strong winds, but it never crossed the moss that had been turned over by the holy monk and his disciple. Blessed Herman had a great gift of foresight, and predicted a number of things which eventually came to pass: most importantly, that America would one day have its own bishop – a thing thought absurd at a time when the only Orthodox mission on the American continent, Herman’s mission, was struggling to survive.

Sensing that his earthly death was near, the holy elder and hermit told his disciple Gerasim to light the candles before the icon and read to him from the Acts of the Apostles. After some time, the elder’s face began to glow and he cried aloud, ‘Glory to thee, O God!’, telling Gerasim that the Lord had willed it that his life should go on another week. The following week at the same time, this was done again, and Gerasim read to Blessed Herman from the Acts, when he bowed his head and rested it on Gerasim’s chest. The cell was filled with a sweet scent – Father Herman had departed this life. From off the island, a pillar of light was seen by many of the Aleuts reaching from Spruce Island up to Heaven, which signified to them that Father Herman had left them.

Blessed Herman’s body was held in the open by order of the Company man Kashevarov, who forbade his burial until a finer coffin could be outfitted and he could return to Spruce Island with a priest – however, a storm blew up and prevented their landing on the island for a full month after Herman’s repose; all the while, his body underwent no corruption. When a coffin was obtained at last, the inhabitants of Spruce Island buried the beloved Elder themselves without waiting for the priest, as he had told them it was to be done. After this, the storm abated and the sea ‘became as smooth as a mirror’. Not without reason did his bishop Peter declare that, ‘in general all the local inhabitants have the highest esteem for him, as though he was a holy ascetic, anti are fully convinced that he has found favour in the presence of God.’
O blessed Father Herman of Alaska,
North star of Christ's holy Church,
The light of your holy life and great deeds
Guides those who follow the Orthodox Way.
Together we lift high the Holy Cross
You planted firmly in America.
Let all behold and glorify Jesus Christ,
Singing his holy Resurrection.

07 August 2016

Remembering two Persian saints: Ražden the Protomartyr and Dometius the Martyr

Two Iranian saints are commemorated this week - one of them martyred by his own people, and the other martyred by the heretical emperor Julian the Apostate of Rome.

The first of them, Saint Ražden the Protomartyr of Georgia, displays all of the martial virtues in the tale of his martyrdom, and in addition he displays an archetypically-Iranian faithfulness to his given word even unto certain death, which he shares with Saint Eustace of Mtskheta who came after him. The following is the excerpt for the feast-day of Ražden the Protomartyr, from Fr Zakaria Machitadze’s Lives of the Georgian Saints:
Saint Ražden the Protomartyr was descended from a noble Persian family. When Holy King Vakhtang Gorgasali married the daughter of the Persian king Hormuzd III Balundoxt, the queen took Ražden with her to Georgia. In Kartli Ražden converted to the Christian Faith, and King Vakhtang presented him with an estate and appointed him as a military adviser and commander.

At that time Georgia was under heavy political pressure from Persia. Enraged at King Vakhtang’s clearly Christian convictions, the Persian king Peroz (457-484) attacked Georgia with an enormous army. His accomplishments in this battle earned Ražden his distinction as a brave and virtuous warrior.

Before long the furious King Peroz ordered that ‘a certain Persian aristocrat who had converted to Christianity and survived the battle’ be taken captive. The Persians surrounded Ražden, bound his hands and feet, and delivered him to their king. Peroz received him with feigned tenderness, saying, ‘Greetings, my virtuous Ražden! Peace be to you! Where have you been all this time, and for what reason have you turned from the faith of your fathers to confess a creed in which your fathers did not instruct you?’

Ražden fearlessly asserted that Christianity is the only true faith and that Christ is the only true Saviour of mankind. King Peroz tried to conceal his anger and cunningly lure Ražden to his side, but his attempt was in vain. Convinced that his efforts were futile, Peroz finally ordered that the saint be beaten without mercy. The expert executioners trampled Saint Ražden, battered him, knocked out his teeth, dragged him across jagged cliffs, then chained him in heavy irons and cast him into prison.

When the news of Ražden’s suffering and captivity spread to Mtskheta, the Georgian nobility came to Peroz and requested that he free the holy man. Peroz consented to their request, but made Ražden vow to return.

Ražden arrived in Mtskheta, bade farewell to his family and the beloved king Vakhtang Gorgasali and, despite his loved ones’ admonitions to the contrary, returned to Peroz. The Persian king tried again to return Ražden to the religion of the fire-worshippers. But seeing that he would not be broken, Peroz instead ordered his exile to a military camp at Tsromi in central Georgia. He then secretly ordered the chief of the Persian camp to turn him away from Christianity and to execute him if he refused. ‘Your flattery and bribes are insulting to me. With joy I am prepared to endure every suffering for the sake of Christ!’ Ražden replied to his appeals.

‘If he hopes in the Crucified One, then he also is fit to suffer crucifixion!’ Such was the Persians’ verdict. They erected a cross, crucified Christ’s humble servant, and prepared to shoot at the pious man with bow and arrow.

‘Into Thy hands, O Lord, I commit my spirit!’ were the last words of Saint Ražden.

That night a group of Christians stole the Persians’ cross, took the holy martyr’s body down from it, and buried his holy relics in secret.

A few years later Vakhtang Gorgasali translated Saint Ražden’s relics from Tsromi to Nikozi (in central Georgia) and interred them in a cathedral that he had built there not long before. Holy King Vakhtang later erected churches in honour of Georgia’s first martyr in Ujarma and Samgori in eastern Georgia.

O radiant star and Greatmartyr Ražden,
Thou who didst turn from godlessness to walk in the way of the righteous,
Suffer trials for Christ, and stand out among the saints,
We believers glorify thee with divine praise.
Through thine intercessions deliver us from every temptation!
And this very day we commemorate also the holy martyr Dometius.

Dometius was a monk and hermit who was converted by a Christian of his own nation named Uaros, and who took the tonsure at the see of Nisibis, where he withdrew into silence. Fleeing several jealous monks at Nisibis, he found his way to Theodosioupolis (present-day Erzurum) and entered the monastery of Saints Sergius and Bacchus. The head of this monastery, Archimandrite Urbelos, was a strict ascetic of whom it was said he had not tasted cooked food for sixty years, nor did he lie down to sleep, but instead rested upon his staff.

Urbelos, impressed with the piety of the young monk, ordained him a deacon, which he accepted. The abbot further wanted to make him a priest; but when Blessed Dometius heard of this, believing himself to be unworthy, he fled the monastery and took refuge in a cave on a distant mountainside, where he lived an eremitical life devoted to fasting and prayer. He attained such a high degree of spiritual perfection in humility that the men of the surrounding countryside would bring him their sick, and he would heal them by his prayers. Many converts came to Christ on account of Saint Dometius’s works and humble life.

When Julian the Apostate made his last march against the Sasanid Empire in 363, he heard about the wonders wrought by Dometius, and came upon the cave where Dometius and his disciples lived. While Dometius and his two disciple-monks were praying the Sixth Hour, Julian the Apostate had his men wall them up alive inside the cave. Julian the Apostate would march to his doom against the Persian emperor Ardashir the Beneficent, but the men he had killed were delivered at once into the hands of their Saviour.
Despising corruption and degrading philosophies,
O venerable martyr Dometius,
You became a great guide of monks.
You did not fear the wrath of the king,
Who did not wish to honor Christ the true God.
Therefore in death You did raise the hymn:
God is with me, and no one will be against me.

02 August 2016

Welcome to the desert

We’re living in a time when the presidential candidate who supported every bloody disastrous intervention in the Muslim world, who would do so again in Iran, and who has little but contempt for Palestinians, is positioning herself as the champion of Muslim civil rights and respect for the American armed forces.

We’re living in a time when the presidential candidate who has made practically his entire living off of real estate speculation and selling lavish fantasies to people who can’t afford them, is positioning himself as the spokesman for economically-depressed white Americans – who were the victims both of a massive speculative bubble in real estate, and of being duped into buying a bad bill of goods.

We’re living in a time when the presidential candidate who used her position to advocate for welfare reforms that depressed hundreds of thousands of families of colour, for police militarisation, and for capital punishment (which, in this country, disproportionally takes black lives), has given to calling herself a champion of ‘Black Lives Matter’.

We’re living in a time when the presidential candidate who has owned strip clubs, posed on the front of Playboy, and who recently had a young mother and her baby thrown out of a rally in Virginia, gets to pose as the candidate of faith and family, as a principled crusader against abortion and obscenity.

American politics in 2016. Welcome to the desert of the post-real.