31 December 2018

Suhrawardî’s philosophy of lights

The Iranian sûfî Shahâb ad-Dîn Yahya ibn Habash Suhrawardî is a fascinating philosophical figure. Having read his Allegorical Treatises and his Shape of Light, I still feel very far from beginning to grasp the core of his meaning. His biography is fascinating. At first a rather straight-laced Aristotelian in the model of Avicenna, Suhrawardî turned instead to a more Platonic-influenced mysticism after a dream in which he was told by Aristotle that the Islamic philosophers he followed did not grasp even ‘one part in a thousand’ of the knowledge held by the sûfiyyah. He founded his own school of mystical philosophy called ‘Illuminationism’. Given that he held in the highest esteem the martyred sûfî Mansûr e-Hallâj (whose sayings led him to be convicted and executed as a heretic), it is unsurprising that Suhrawardî himself met a similar fate to Hallâj: he was executed at the age of thirty-eight, at the behest of the conservative Sunnî ulama for supposedly cultivating an esoteric and heretical form of Shî’ite theology.

Suhrawardî’s universe is completely suffused with sublimities: divine light, love, spiritual freedom. The formally-Platonic influences on Suhrawardî are apparent in these writings, but they do not stifle him. He even considers the crudest forms of matter to be expressions of divine light – light which filters down even to the lowest and most humble things in the material world. (There is something remarkably Gregorian about this.) Suhrawardî is also insistent on the distinctions of various lights – he is not a simple pantheist in his thinking. But this very principle of spiritual freedom, this personal approach to the differentiation of lights, necessitates a kind of hierarchy in his thinking. (Suhrawardî was executed as a radical, but, good mediæval Platonist that he was, he has a classical-conservative streak.)

The illuminations of matter, of space and time per se, are (and here we meet the echoes of Plotinus) the furthest extent of the emanations of the divine light, almost to the point of total dissipation. And yet, Suhrawardî assures us, ‘matter enlightened by intelligence and the soul may point to its essence’. There is nothing of Gnosticism to be found here: matter not only matters (and is a ‘shape of light’ in itself), but it is good because the awareness of higher lights, of the love of Allâh, is only possible through the human mind’s real and necessary relationship to matter.

From here, Suhrawardî begins speaking of two (partially-Platonised) Aristotelian categories: the necessary and the possible, the knowledge of which is imparted from an awareness of material causes. Reflection on the relationship between necessity and possibility, in turn, leads matter to reflect back upon its own nature as light and to turn back toward the Source of Divine light. ‘Two things cannot be necessary at the same time.’ The comprehension of the Source of light brings the soul to an awareness of the various ‘Plotinian’ gradations in the emanation of all forms of light from Allâh, the One (Self-Existent and Necessary), the first of which is Intelligence.

In turn, on the other side, the soul’s awareness progresses through stages – from the concern with material satisfactions and wants, to the self-reproach of the conscience, to obedience, to inward peace, to satisfaction with the right, and impelled further to closeness to the Divine, and from thence to purification. Above and beyond all this, the power that impels closeness and purification, is the Holy Ghost, for which Suhrawardî uses the unusual (for an Islamic thinker) name of Farkilit instead of the more common Rûh al-Qudus. Intriguingly, Suhrawardî’s Farsi transliteration of the Greek Christian term παράκλητος, and his apparent refusal to translate the with the usual Arabic gloss of ‘Ahmad’ (from περικλυτος), places him far closer to a Christian understanding of God than most other Muslim commentators – including the authors of the footnotes to the edition of Shape of Light that I was reading, who prefer the more standard Islamic interpretation.

Suhrawardî concludes his commentary with a layered understanding of human knowledge of the Divine light, starting with a knowledge of natural law – or rather, Divine law as drawn from observation of matter (sharî‘ah), then progressing along a path (tarîqah) by means of intuitive knowledge (ma‘rifah) and finally achieving the inward truth (haqîqah) which is otherwise inaccessible. The Shape of Light concludes with a sparkling metaphor in which he likens the Divine light to water which flows from a great wellspring, which ‘all receive in accordance with their need’.

Suhrawardî’s Allegorical Treatises are far harder to break into than The Shape of Light; they consist of a number of highly-symbolic and mythopœic anecdotes, often couched in the form of fables, that are meant to carry the esoteric and intuitive knowledge that he was attempting to impart to his students. These treatises are interesting in particular, because they take up the Platonic interest in myth as a vehicle for the transmission of personal, intuited truths. And they look directly to the font which Plato himself, and certain of his successors like Plutarch, preferred and indicated in his own Dialogues (particularly the Gorgias, the Phædo and the Republic): to wit, Persian mythology. For this reason in particular, Suhrawardî’s philosophy was apparently taken up by Gujarati Parsees in the early 17th century.

In general, these myths are meant to guide one to realisations of intellectual truths which lie hidden from the senses; throughout the Treatises, Suhrawardî repeatedly uses the image of a bird bound in a leather sack and trapped in a cage by a king, or by hunters. Again, though, he stops well shy of Gnosticism; he is not a foe of the world of sense-perceptions and he does not regard the people who still rely on the senses as his enemies. However, he is not blind to the enmity, torture and death that those who know the truth will incur if they speak directly of what they know – even if these tortures and death are of no ultimate concern to the one who truly has the knowledge he claims. These myths lie somewhere between Æsop and Plato’s Socrates. The couching of his knowledge in mythopœic terms affords him some degree of plausible deniability in the face of those who would see shut him up permanently – though, like Socrates, clearly that wasn’t first and foremost in his mind. Suhrawardî’s foremost concern was that folk be able to see themselves, and not to be blinded or driven by perversity into deeper darkness.

Suhrawardî is a Shî‘a Muslim and not a crypto-Christian, of course, but the brief flashes of congruence (somewhat, but as shown, not wholly through his Platonism) with a Christian worldview are too tempting and too beautiful to ignore. His treatment of the Holy Ghost as Spirit and as Light, the sight of prophets rather than one specific prophet or angel, and his direct quotations without commentary from the Gospel according to Saint John fall into this category. These may indeed be broader sûfî tendencies of which I’m only beginning to become aware. Fr Elie, my Antiochian priest in Pawtucket, was particularly intrigued by the potentials of the life and sayings of Mansûr e-Hallâj. But, whether one takes him as a representative of this broader tradition or as a unique philosophical innovator within that tradition, Suhrawardî is nonetheless well worth taking seriously. He presents us with a challenging religious ressourcement of a certain classical-Platonist preoccupation with myth and its power to provoke people to transcend themselves. This preoccupation, coming through the pen of an Iranian Muslim, is one which (in an age of resurgent paganisms, sæcular hero-worship and Jordan Peterson YouTube seminars) needs to be more robustly met from within a specifically-Christian ambit.

EDIT: A reader of the blog, Daniel S, kindly notes that Suhrawardî is not a Shî‘a Muslim but is instead reliably considered to be a Sunnî sûfî belonging to the Shâfi‘î school of jurisprudence. My apologies for the error.

30 December 2018

Holy Hierarch Ecgwine, Bishop of Worcester

Bishop Saint Ecgwine of Worcester

Our father among the saints, the holy bishop Ecgwine of Worcester, is commemorated on 30 December in the Orthodox Church. Ecgwine, most likely related by blood to the Iclingas, nephew to the infamous Penda and to his son Æþelræd, was raised by parents who, unlike their forebear, were devoted Christians, and raised their son befittingly. The young Ecgwine decided early to pursue a career in the Church he loved, became a priest-monk among the Benedictines of Mercia, and spent several years fruitfully preaching the Gospel among the still largely-heathen Angles of the West Midlands. In 693, against his will, he was unanimously at the behest of king, noblemen, clergy and commons elected Bishop of Worcester, whose seat lay in the sub-kingdom of Hwicce.

As bishop, Ecgwine served under the reign of his uncle Æþelræd, who became known in the years after for his patronage of Benedictine monasteries. He quickly became known for his fair and honest judgements in legal disputes, for his personable warmth and friendliness to the common people who came to him, and for his particular love for and defence of the defenceless, poor and marginalised: orphans and widows in particular. In spite of his easygoing manner and his general disregard for rank and circumstance in his own behalf, he nonetheless held forth firmly and with great zeal when it came to theological truths and the interests of the powerless. He sternly rebuked the excesses of his noble kinsmen and friends, and in particular lambasted them for their ill-treatment of the poor: this cost him a great deal of the goodwill among the nobility that had lifted him to office. He soon found himself by these disgruntled nobility slandered and falsely accused of various ecclesiastical abuses, and even the friendship of his uncle Æþelræd could not shield him from the pernicious effects of these slanders.

Ecgwine, trusting in God, ordered himself to be fettered at the ankles in irons, and the keys cast into the River Avon. He thereupon left his diocæse under guard for Dover, where he boarded a ship to Rome to be judged by the Pope of Rome, all the while bearing himself meekly as a prisoner. They made the journey to Rome over land, and at one point crossed the Alps, where he and his party ran out of water. Some among his guards mocked him, and dared him to call forth water from the rocks as Moses had in the desert. They were hushed by those who feared Christ and acknowledged Ecgwine’s innocence, who repeated their entreaty sincerely to the fettered bishop, who, forgiving those who mocked him, knelt down and began to pray earnestly. Wondrously, a pure and clear spring of water burst forth from the rocks, quenching the thirst of the whole party.

When Ecgwine arrived in Rome, he went to pray at the tomb of the Holy Apostles. On the way there he crossed a bridge and a hunger took him; he asked his guards for something to eat. One of them went to fish in the Tiber, and caught a large fish, which had stuck in its gullet the very same key that Saint Ecgwine had thrown into the Avon back in England. This wonder proved Ecgwine’s innocence even to the most unbelieving of his guards, who unshackled him. The Pope of Rome thus gladly cleared Ecgwine’s name and restored to him the eparchy of Worcester.

Æþelræd king grew closer to the saintly Ecgwine after his return from Rome, and entrusted the schooling of his sons to the bishop. He even granted his nephew some woodland on the Avon’s banks, to which he loved to flee alone for prayer. On one occasion, a herdsman named Eof who served Ecgwine went by this wood, and the Holy Theotokos there appeared to him with angels on either side of her, a rood in her arm and an open book in her hands. Eof heard wondrous rousts lifted in song around the place. He fled there amazed and told Ecgwine what had befallen him; after which the saint came thence and himself also saw the same vision. The Holy Theotokos then blessed Ecgwine with her rood, and bade him break the ground there for a monastery: Evesham Monastery, named after the same herdsman Eof who had found the place. This is commemorated as the first appearance of the Mother of God to the people of England.

Not long after the monastery grounds were consecrated, in 704, Æþelræd king gave up his throne to his brother Cœnred, took the tonsure and lived out the rest of his days a brother-monk at Bardney Abbey in Lincs. Cœnred, like his brother, found Ecgwine worthy and more of his support, saw to the funding and construction of Evesham Monastery during its early years, and later encouraged the church council at Alcester to fully recognise the abbey’s rights.

Ecgwine had been for many years a close friend of Saint Aldhelm of Sherborne. When, in 709, Aldhelm reposed in the village of Doulting in Somerset, Saint Ecgwine knew of it through a dream, and hurried southward to accompany the procession of Saint Aldhelm’s remains from Doulting to Malmesbury Abbey, where he was interred. At each stop on the way, Saint Ecgwine had crosses erected in memory of his departed friend.

The Bishop was made the abbot of the new monastery at Evesham the following year, while continuing to perform his duties as bishop. He loved both the monastery, and the Mother of God to whom it was dedicated, and had lifelong a particular devotion to the Holy Theotokos. In the last years of his earthly life, he was struck with a lengthy illness, but this did not diminish but instead strengthened his perseverance in prayer; he reposed in peace on 30 December 717, and his sainthood was recognised very soon after, with his incorrupt and wonderworking relics being placed in honour at the same Benedictine Abbey at Evesham where he had spent much of his life. He was beloved by the folk of the West Midlands, and particularly the poor to whom he had always been close and within reach.
Of the house of the kings of Mercia,
You consecrated all of your youth to the Lord,
And, having become a bishop, you did not hesitate
To reproach the great ones of this world for their faults.
O founder of the holy monastery of Evesham,
Saint Ecgwine, beseech the Lord to save us!

29 December 2018

How (not) to remember the Holy Innocents

The Holy Innocents of Bethlehem (commemorated on 29 December this year in the Orthodox Church) came up in a rather strange way this Nativity season in a conversation I had recently with my father, when we were discussing the daycare options for Albert, and I appealed to my parents’ experience in selecting daycare services for my sister and me. He told me about the first place I was (very briefly) sent to daycare, which was a preschool run by a fundamentalist Lutheran sect out of a certain neighbourhood church which is now in the possession of ‘non-denominational’ Baptists. During my fourth Advent season we were being taught the story of the Nativity from the Gospel of Saint Matthew at this school, and it apparently traumatised me and gave me nightmares – because the Christmas story that the preschool teacher felt it appropriate to teach the toddlers in her care was precisely the one from St Matthew 2:16-18 about King Herod slaughtering the innocent toddler boys of Bethlehem.

Speaking for myself, I can’t really remember anything today about this particular incident, which Mom and Dad both tell me is a very good thing. But my parents recall it well enough, and were understandably livid about it at the time. They argued, somewhat fruitlessly, with the preschool teacher, and afterwards unceremoniously withdrew me from the programme and sent me to a different school. Children need – and my mother, rightly, was adamant on this point – to be fed with milk before they can be expected to digest meat. The birth of Christ is an occasion of joy and hope; in my parents’ view the most important message that little children need to be given at Christmas is that Christ is our hope and that He loves us: that even in the darkest season of the year, there is light.

I imagine my erstwhile preschool teacher, grounded as she was in a polity embracing the fundamentalist conviction of total human depravity, would have argued (assuming she had the presence of mind to do so) that even children need to be faced with the knowledge of that depravity in themselves. After all, what indeed is it that a child would need saving from? But, as that most sane of Englishmen Chesterton put it: ‘Færie tales do not tell children the dragons exist; children already know that dragons exist. Færie tales tell children the dragons can be killed.’ The theological merits of the Christmas story in its entirety have to be backgrounded by a conviction – not of the realities of human evil, which are evident enough even to a toddler even without hearing of evil tyrants who order children to be butchered by the thousands – but of the hope that such evils can be overcome by the eucatastrophe that has just occurred.

So what are we to do with St Matthew 2:16-18, then? All Scripture serves some purpose, be it exoteric or esoteric. And it is instructive, I think, to look to Orthodox iconography in this regard. We do not paper over or ignore or sugarcoat the massacre, which is graphically portrayed in some of the icons of the Church. But the incident is literally overshadowed by the loving embrace that Christ, ‘He who loves the innocent’, gives to all of the slain children. The main point is not to cow children into terror with the butchery of Herod, but instead to assure us that not a single one of those children is forgotten or forlorn in the grand scheme of things. Even if historically only thirty or forty infants were slain by Herod in his mania, the theologically-significant number of 14,000 handed down by the Church assures us that every child, every victim of injustice and violence is remembered and cared for in æternity. Earthly violence is always and everywhere overshadowed by eschatological hope.

Unfortunately, we live in a time where such violence, such real scandals to any faith in a just God, are now commonplace. Our own government, whose job it is to care for us, gives funding to the enemies of mankind and aids the Herods of the House of Saud in perpetuating a genocide of Yemeni Shî‘a children halfway around the world, even as it hypocritically points at the real or imagined humanitarian faults of other governments and critics. Our very culture is steeped in the idea that unborn infants are of no moral consequence, and can be discarded without compunction, to the tune of millions every year. Both those on the political right and on the political left delude themselves at their peril, if they believe God is indifferent to these things, or that they will go unaccounted in the final reckoning. He was there. He was one of them.

And that is the point of the story of the slaughtered children. Part of the scandal of the Incarnation is that Our Lord came into the world, not in power and glory, but in the most vulnerable and most marginal way imaginable. Though his parents eluded Herod, still in the Crucifixion at the hands of another Herod and his Roman taskmasters He shares – not in an empty sentimental way, but in truth – in the suffering of even the smallest, most wretched and most insignificant of these innocent ones. He embraces them, He comforts them, He heals their wounds and dries the tears of Rachel over them. And in the end, they will be the ones at Christ’s side when He calls the world to account. Be Thou entreated for the sake of the sufferings of Thy Saints which they endured for Thee, O Lord, and do Thou heal all our pains, O friend of man!

26 December 2018

Our father among the saints, Righteous Constantine of Synnada

Venerable Constantine of Synnada

Today, Boxing Day and the day after the Feast of the Nativity on the Orthodox New Calendar, we remember a monastic saint of the Church of Jewish descent, Constantine. Constantine was born in the Phrygian village of Synnada, now Şuhut in Turkey, where there was an active and healthy Christian community. In his youth, when he was following his mother, Constantine saw one of the local Christians making the sign of the Cross after stifling a yawn. Always thereafter he would make the sign of the Cross in imitation of that Christian. He would observe the Christians of Synnada and their works, and he began to be intrigued by the faith, and deepen his imitation of the Christian ways. The Greek hagiography of the saint says that his face began to shine with the Divine light. Though his parents were learned and his schooling was in the Jewish faith, he used his erudition to study the dogmas of the Christian Church.

At one point while he was undertaking a days-long fast, similarly to the later monastic Saint Moses ‘Ugrin’ of Kiev, a woman of his own folk approached him in a lascivious way. After he made the sign of the Cross upon himself, the woman fell down dead; and he raised her to life again, by the power of Christ, with the same sign.

The young Jew was led eventually to seek out the cloister; and he was shown by the sign of a cloud (like the one that led the Hebrews in their desert wanderings) the way to an Orthodox monastery called Fouvoution, in which were to be found many ascetics of shining virtue. He went before the holy abbot of the monastery, and was asked to bring the Cross before him and venerate it. He embraced the lower half of the Cross and touched it to his forehead; in a wondrous way, the whole of the image of the Cross was visibly impressed upon his forehead, where it remained for the rest of his life. Being baptised and then taking the tonsure, the Jewish youth was given the name of Constantine. After his baptism, Constantine trod with his wet bare foot upon a stone that sat below the font; his footprint was thereafter indelibly impressed into the rock, in the same manner that the Palestinian Great-Martyr Barbara could cut stone with her bare fingers.

Thereafter he undertook a monastic discipline of great rigour and asceticism, and surpassed his brother-monks. As the Apostle Paul did before him, he worked at stretching and curing sheep-skins for use as tents – and although the working of leather is smelly work, nonetheless when he prayed at his work, the air would fill instead with a sweet fragrance. His prayer could also open the doors of the Church of their own accord; and he was given the ability to ‘see’ in a spirit of love the thoughts and worries of his brother-monks.

His monastic discipline took him to Mount Olympus, and from there to Myra, to Cyprus and to Attaleia, where he forded on foot a river that was so deep that others would have to hire a boat. He travelled to many other places, but returned always to Mount Olympus, where he took to a narrow cell in which he was buried to his waist; he fasted and prayed there for forty days, and was prevailed upon by his brother-monks, against his own will, to take the priesthood. He was sent to the town of Atroa in Bithynia (now Yenişehir in Turkey), and continued always in the same spiritual struggles. He was given a vision of his own repose eight years in advance, but continued to live the same ascetic discipline before he met his dormition in peace, as it had been given to him to foresee.

This far goes the hagiography of this unique monastic saint. On a personal note: my own attachment to this Saint Constantine, rather than his namesake the more-famous Emperor and Equal-to-the-Apostles, stems in part from his struggles with lust, but also and more from his Jewish ancestry, which I share, and also from the piecemeal and fragmented way in which he approached and received the Christian faith. Though more is made in his Greek hagiography of the ascetical struggles of his maturity and the attainments of his monastic career, my mind is drawn rather to his childhood and the ways in which he attempted to live a Christian life, by imitation and by observation of habits that were foreign to him. For me, still a child in the faith, this part of his hagiography strikes quite a bit closer to home. There is hope, it seems from the example of Righteous Constantine, even for those of us who make our stumbling and faltering steps toward Christ from the ‘outside’. Holy Father Constantine, venerable monastic, pray to Christ our God for us sinners!
With the rivers of your tears,
You have made the barren desert fertile.
Through sighs of sorrow from deep within you,
Your labours have borne fruit a hundred-fold.
By your miracles you have become a light, shining upon the world.
O Constantine, our Holy Father, pray to Christ our God, to save our souls!

24 December 2018

Today, all men are brothers

The Root of Jesse

A certain point was driven home to me by two sermons, the one this past Sunday and the one this Christmas Eve, preached by Fr Elie (Estephan) at Saint Mary’s Antiochian Church in Pawtucket. On Sunday the lectionary we read from concerned the genealogy of Christ as recounted in the Gospel of Saint Matthew – from Abraham to David, from David to the exile, and from the exile to Saint Joseph. And this evening the lectionary was from the Epistle of Saint Paul to the Galatians – a decidedly ‘Gentile’ community: ‘Wherefore thou art no more a servant, but a son; and if a son, then an heir of God through Christ.

Even without the sermons highlighting this wisdom of the Church, the juxtaposition of the lectionary readings made it clear: Orthodox Christianity emphasises both the particularity of the Incarnation in all of its human messiness – the belonging of Christ to a stubborn and stiff-necked people so often steeped in idolatry, even His sinful and depraved paternity being the descendant of David and Bathsheba – and the universality of His promise: that through Him all human beings are made, not only the children, but even the heirs of God. Through Him we are again made worthy to call upon the Most High, the Holy of Holies, the One who transcends even Goodness and Being and Intellect, as ‘ʼaba’; as, literally, ‘daddy’.

The necessary tension between particularity and universality is emphatically not an easy one for us moderns to live with, let alone fathom. In modern Western societies in particular, we are encroaching on the hard limits of a ‘flat-world’ faith in an infinitely expansive progression of human technological innovation, private-sector ingenuity, interconnexion, the radical democracy of a digitised world-marketplace: a faith that globalisation has already remade our world and will continue to remake our world for the better. A faith embodied in politicians like Clinton, Merkel and Macron; a faith which has literally ruled our societies and our entire way of thinking for the past thirty years. But this faith is starting to unravel. The inner fragility and falsity of this one-sided faith in this transformative power of human technological prowess has led many of us – too many of us, indeed – to seek shelter in the equally-fragile, equally-false, equally-one-sided elder ‘outer barbarisms’ of blood and soil, which find their echoes in the promises of Orban, Poroshenko and Trump. Finding the idols of the falsely-universal to be a dead end, we instinctively flee instead toward the idols of the falsely-particular. Worse: if we mistake these principles of particularity or of universality as the bedrock-foundations of reality, as we moderns who are so trapped inside the habits of abstract conceptualisation and life-inside-our-heads are wont to do, then we can be too easily-led into the tedious game that Parmenides played with Aristotle in the eponymous Dialogue of Plato, and made thus to say that up is down, and black is white.

The Nativity of Christ is, rightly-considered, a wake-up call from these illusions. The Incarnation is as much a stumbling-block and a scandal to us in our time as it was to the Greeks and to the Jews of Christ’s own. That is why our American culture papers the enormity of the Incarnation over as best we can; if not with crude commercialism and consumer frenzy, then with bourgeois platitude and gift-card sentimentality. As I see it: in the West, the last people to truly take the Incarnation seriously were the Anglo-Catholic socialists who hearkened back to Lancelot Andrewes’s Incarnational theology, so uncomfortably-patriotic and Royalist to our democratic ears, and so uncomfortably-friendly to the lowly and weak and forgotten crucified peoples of the earth to the nationalists among us. It is a true tragœdy that the Anglo-Catholic synthesis itself proved too unstable to withstand the various yarking and dissipating forces of English modernity; but at least they began from a healthily-radical Patristic understanding of the Incarnation that would not boil down easily into a pat slogan.

Put another way. It is no accident that Saint Matthew, the most Jewish of the Gospel authors and the most emphatic about Christ’s particular calling as the Anointed One of the Jews, has Him be visited by three foreign (Persian) magi, threatened by a Jewish king, and then spirited off into hated Ægypt. It is also no accident that in the Nativity story of Saint Luke – addressed, one presumes, to a wealthy Greek patron (Theóphilos) – has Him visited by these low, crude, rustic Jewish shepherds. Even the inspired Evangelists themselves, human and biased as they are toward their particular audiences, will not let us forget the tension and dialectic at the heart of the reality of the Incarnation. Despite themselves, they do not entertain these illusions.

The truly attractive thing about Orthodox spirituality is that it forsakes neither the heights of the Way nor its depths. The Christ of Orthodox iconography was not born in an immaculately-kept, richly-carved bed on soft hay, but in a rough-hewn, pitch-black stone cave, in a hard, crude wooden box. (Let the reader understand.) The parents of Christ are shut out of all fit lodging and forced to live like outcasts among brute beasts; the place in which Christ is born is the very image of Sheol. And yet in this very icon, the light of the pure Divine presence in this tiny helpless flesh-and-blood child, pierces like a lance even to the darkest places; even to the hidden places of the heart; even to the very depths of Hell. This child, born this night in this dark cave, is the true Light. Here, as at the Passion and Resurrection of Jesus Christ (which we are not allowed to forget even at the heights of Nativity joy), we are called to mind of our own imprisonment and deliverance, not imagined, but in the flesh.

I must beg your pardon, gentle readers; I made an unwitting reference to the classical Chinese novel, Water Margin 《水滸傳》, in the title of this post. The book is the fictionalised tale of a historical Anhui rebel, Song Jiang 宋江, and his crusade against the corrupt officials of the Song Dynasty, who was ultimately wrongfully-killed for his noble stand against exploitation and corruption in high places. Ironically, Song Jiang too embodies the dialectic of particularity and universality, the tension of loyalty to the Song dynasts and attention to the plight of the poor and forgotten. Song Jiang’s wrongful death has something martyrific about it. Even the Taiping rebels, misguided though they were, saw something of a commonality between Christ and the outlaws of the marsh.

Christ was not Himself a Zealot. But we cannot forget, even today, that He was born precisely in the margin: outside of respectable company, and even outside the protection of the Law which He came to perfect (as witnessed by Herod’s evil plotting). In being so born, He in reality fulfilled in Himself what for Song Jiang was simply a slogan: that all men truly are brothers (兄弟無數); we are all made children and heirs of God through this, His newborn Son. But it is not so in the superficial way promised to us by the Silicon Valley tycoons and World Bank œconomists; and it is not so in the emotivist way promised to us by the neo-nationalist apostles of a sæcular salvation of the West. Our brotherhood has been accomplished in Christ in a way transcending sæcular time, so as to comprehend both the intimacy of the particular and the expansiveness of the universal. Christ is born indeed.
Your Nativity, O Christ our God,
Has shone to the world the Light of wisdom!
For by it, those who worshipped the stars,
Were taught by a Star to adore You,
The Sun of Righteousness,
And to know You, the Orient from on High.
O Lord, glory to You!

22 December 2018

Our mother among the saints, Venerable Hildalíþ of Barking

The holy saints of Barking; Holy Mother Hildalíþ at centre

Today in the Orthodox Church we celebrate another of our Old English holy mothers, Hildalíþ the second Abbess of Barking, one of the earliest monastics in England. Successor to Æþelburg the sister of Eorcenwald the Bishop of London, little is known of Hildalíþ before she was brought from abroad to serve Æþelburg as her tutor, though she did take her vows in a Frankish convent prior to landing in England.

Saint Eorcenwald, of royal Lindsay heritage, was particularly taken with the Rule of Saint Benedict, and sold his share of the family fortune in order to found two communities dedicated to the holy communal life in England: for men, he established the Abbey of Saint Peter at Chertsey in Surrey, and for women he established the Abbey of the Blessed Virgin at Barking. Saint Eorcenwald’s sister Saint Æþelburg was placed at the head of the abbey at Barking, and her brother immediately set about trying to find a tutor and adviser for her, in the monastic life to which neither of them were yet accustomed.

Hildalíþ was selected from her cloister in France. Saint Eorcenwald selected her for her fitness to teach Saint Æþelburg as she undertook the life of a bride of Christ, as demonstrated in her home convent in France. Hildalíþ had shown there both a motherly care for her younger sisters, and a thirst for holy and divine knowledge: she was an avid reader of the Scriptures and of the Church Fathers. She directed Æþelburg admirably, it seems, for the young sister of the bishop of London achieved a holy and disciplined mode of life, and met her repose in blessedness. Hildalíþ thereafter became the mother-superior at the Abbey at Barking; and she was indeed a mother and a mentor to other saints, including Saint Cúþburg, the West Saxon widow of Ealdfriþ the king of Northumbria, who became a nun upon her husband’s death and who afterward would become the foundress of Wimborne Minster in Dorset.

As historian-laureate of the English Church, Saint Bede the Venerable notes that Mother Hildalíþ, as abbess, showed ‘exemplary conduct, in the observance of regular discipline, and in the care of providing all things for the public use’. Saint Ealdhelm devoted his Latin work De Laude Virginitates to her; Saint Boniface referred to her as a worthy teacher in his correspondence; and she was also highly-regarded by the English saints who followed her, Saint Dúnstán of Canterbury, Saint Æþelwold of Winchester and Saint Ælfheah of Canterbury.

Holy Mother Hildalíþ, Abbess of Barking, pray to Christ our God for us sinners!

18 December 2018

To point fingers while Yemenis starve is morally wrong

First things first: kudos indeed to Senators Sanders, Lee and Murphy for their principled stand in favour of not starving the Yemeni people and attempting to put some brakes on the amoral and (from a realist perspective) irrational US-Saudi alliance. On the other hand, shame upon the neocon senators like Marco Rubio who defended this pointless war (while attempting to slap sanctions on China for supposed human rights violations). And shame upon Paul Ryan and his cowardly effort – now successful, it appears – to block a vote on Yemen in the House, thus ensuring their continued starvation for no good reason whatever. Like Rubio, of course, Ryan is a man who considers himself in good neocon / liberal-hawk fashion a champion of human rights and democracy, who touts American ‘moral leadership’, who lectures Russia, Iran and China on human rights, even though none of those countries are currently starving eighteen million people in Yemen to death as our government is. (In fact, China has been one of the few countries actively working for a political settlement there.)

In honour of the great linguist Noam Chomsky’s 90th birthday just past, then, I thought I would share a small nugget of his political wisdom here.
My own concern is primarily the terror and violence carried out by my own state, for two reasons. For one thing, because it happens to be the larger component of international violence. But also for a much more important reason than that; namely, I can do something about it. So even if the US was responsible for two percent of the violence in the world instead of the majority of it, it would be that two percent I would be primarily responsible for. And that is a simple ethical judgment. That is, the ethical value of one's actions depends on their anticipated and predictable consequences. It is very easy to denounce the atrocities of someone else. That has about as much ethical value as denouncing atrocities that took place in the 18th century.
Why do I bring this up now? Because it seems there is a growing chorus of selective outrage and crocodile tears from the Anglophone media, and predictable calls from the Blob to ‘do something’ involving sanctions and possibly bombs, over China’s purported mass detention of Uighurs (which, I hasten to add, has yet to be substantively verified). This has seemingly suckered a lot of otherwise well-intentioned people, even quite a few critics of American foreign policy, who haven’t been otherwise paying attention. At the same time, I reiterate, our own government presides over the starvation of eighteen million Yemenis at the behest of the Saudis. On the other hand, our government continues to threaten the Syrian people by using that very same ethno-religious group – Uighur Salafi Islamists – as a political proxy in our hybrid war against Baššâr al-’Asad.

First, following from Chomsky, there is simply nothing just or ethically laudable about cheap and impotent outrage directed against China, whose government has not the slightest interest in responding to such virtue-signalling from white and banana liberaltarians, let alone from the discredited Republican Party establishment. Second, China is completely within its rights to point out our hypocrisy on this question. Third, our governments and news media simply cannot justly pretend that they are neutral, disinterested parties on this question. We have been giving weapons and money directly to the Uighur terrorists who are spilling Syrian blood. And this sudden upwelling of concern about the plight of the Uighurs comes conveniently hard on the heels of both yet another propaganda push against al-’Asad from the Saudis, and assurances from the Chinese government that they will send aid to the Syrian people.

Fourthly, those of us who have been against the war in Syria from the very start have every reason to be sceptical of the motives of our government in moving against China at this particular moment, when the latter government is both more openly showing their support to al-’Asad, and as the Islamist fighters in Idlib look increasingly impotent to inflict any kind of damage on the Syrian government. The proposed sanctions on China by Rubio et al, in the present moment, look very much like an act of irrational spite. This is not understandable logically, but psychologically it makes perfect sense. As Russian philosopher Aleksey Khomyakov deftly pointed out, in reference to the French Catholic attacks on the Orthodox Christian faith as such during the Crimean War:
Among the laws that govern the world of the mind, there is one whose severe, divine justice does not admit exceptions. Every undeserved insult, every injustice strikes the perpetrator more painfully than it does the victim. The victim suffers; the perpetrator becomes corrupt. The victim can forgive and often does forgive, but the perpetrator never forgives. The crime implants in the perpetrator’s own heart a seed of hate that constantly grows until an inner renewal occurs to purify that person’s whole moral being. This law is of great historical importance.
The American foreign policy establishment has perpetrated, not one, but a long series of insults and injustices upon the peoples of Yugoslavia, of the Middle East and of North Africa over the past thirty years; yet we cannot answer the people we have thus deprived and destroyed – or, indeed, the critics abroad who point out these injustices – with anything other than the renewed claim that we have a special, exceptional right to do these things in the name of human rights, or else by lashing out with the implements of our unjust foreign policy at these same victims and critics.

But it needs to be said – for the benefit of those who still have and exercise their powers of conscience, who have eyes to see and ears to hear. Pointing to the imagined crimes of China in its western reaches, while Yemeni children die by the hundreds of thousands as a result of our continued aid to the Saudis, is not only useless and counterproductive, but actually wrong. If nothing else, if you won’t listen to a cranky anti-war grump like me, then consider listening to an actual Middle Easterner on the subject (and a King, at that), whose birthday we will be celebrating soon:
And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye? Or how wilt thou say to thy brother, Let me pull out the mote out of thine eye; and, behold, a beam is in thine own eye? Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye.

17 December 2018

Our father among the saints, Sturm the Venerable of Fulda

Saint Sturm the Abbot, Apostle to the Saxons

Here is a rather insidious thought coming from a father of two. We have, in the Orthodox Church, two pre-Schismatic Western saints, a Saint Sturm (or Storm, or Sturmi, or Sturmius) and a Saint Cloud. That means that Orthodox parents could, potentially, canonically christen their son Storm Cloud. I don’t know why they would do so, since the sixties are over. But they could.

At any rate… Saint Sturm was of a noble Christian family of Herminionic German stock, coming from the most recent wave of folk who came to inhabit the former Roman province of Noricum which had been evangelised by Saint Severin. His parents gave him to Saint Boniface, who had come to lend his spiritual strength and his organisational genius to the Church in Noricum. Saint Boniface left the young Sturm in the town of Fritzlar, in the hands of the elderly monk, Saint Wihtberht.

Under Wihtberht’s tutelage, young Sturm studied the Psalter and learnt it by heart; he read the Scriptures continually and his progress in the spiritual life was rapid. He was ordained as a priest at the behest of the Benedictine brothers at Fritzlar, and thereafter undertook the tasks of travelling, preaching the Gospel, correcting heresies, exorcising dæmons, healing the sick and helping the poor. He gained the reputation of being a wonderworker in the days of his priesthood. After three years, he decided to remove himself from the world and live as a hermit, and went to consult with Saint Boniface. Sturm went to a deserted place which is now Bad Hersfeld, and there set up rough lean-to dwellings for himself and his followers; soon Bad Hersfeld became a hospitable habitation for the hermits. The holy bishop heard of Sturm’s progress and encouraged him to continue the eremitical discipline, but warned him to set up his hermitage instead at some remove from the march with the still-heathen Saxons. Taking Boniface’s wise rede to heart, Saint Sturm left Bad Hersfeld and began to seek out a place for a new hermitage, together with his pupils.

Sturm tried for some time to set up a hermitage at a site south of Bad Hersfeld, without success. Saint Boniface summoned him again as before, and they spoke together of spiritual matters as they ate; Saint Sturm reiterated to the Bishop his obedience and told him of his failures to find a suitable new site for a hermitage. Boniface bade the young hermit to continue his search with patience, that God would indeed provide for him a suitable spot. Sturm obeyed; he returned to his companions at the old hermitage, told him of what had passed between him and Boniface, and then set out on his own, on the back of a donkey and with no other shield but the name of Christ upon his lips.

He explored for several days, getting no forrader than he had gotten before. He did not despair, but instead continued his search, until he came at last to the current site of the monastery at Fulda. Every way pleased with the site that God had shown to him, he returned to his brothers rejoicing, and lost no time in telling Saint Boniface of the site he had found. Boniface too was pleased at the news, and went to the king of the Franks to ask their blessing to have the land consecrated to a monastery for Saint Sturm and seven of his eremitical brethren. That monastery was blessed and construction began in January of 744.

Saint Sturm thereupon embarked on a broad study of all the various rules of life for hermits and monks that could be found in the Christian world; this study included taking upon himself every rule before he would commend it to any of his companions, so that he would not be accused of taking an easier path and laying heavy burdens upon his brother. At last he settled upon the Rule of Saint Benedict as being the best-suited for his new community.

Ten years after the monastery at Fulda was founded, Saint Boniface while on his missionary works in Frisia was martyred, along with several of his followers, by an angry mob of heathen. When they heard of Saint Boniface’s death, the monks who were then at Utrecht came to claim his body and those of his followers, to inter the relics in a manner befitting a martyr of the Church. However, the bishop then of Mainz, Saint Lul, petitioned – and won – the right to have Saint Boniface’s relics translated thither. When Saint Sturm heard of this, he travelled to Mainz himself to petition the bishop to allow the remains of his beloved master to be buried at Fulda, the place ‘which by the will of God he had chosen for himself’.

Here hagiographical sources differ. The Vita of Saint Lul has it that he allowed Saint Sturm to take the relics of Saint Boniface back to Fulda with his blessing and goodwill; however, the Vita of Saint Sturm has it that a dispute arose between the bishop of Mainz and the monastic of Fulda – with the former arguing that Boniface be kept in Mainz and the latter arguing that Boniface be translated again to the monastery which he had founded. In the latter version, Saint Boniface himself intervenes in a vision to a deacon under Saint Lul, expressing his wish to be borne back to Fulda. After several more machinations to hold onto the relics, which even included having Saint Sturm removed from his abbacy and exiled to Jumièges by the Frankish king, Saint Lul reluctantly relinquished them. Regardless of which version is true, Saint Sturm was given the right to bear Saint Boniface’s relics back with him to Fulda, where they were interred with all due honour and reverence – and there it worked great wonders as Saint Boniface had done in life, to the glory of God and to the awe of those who lived the Benedictine life at the monastery at Fulda. Many English pilgrims made their way to Saint Sturm’s abbey at Fulda to pay honour to their saintly countryman.

In 774, toward the end of the holy abbot’s life, Charlemagne became ruler of the Franks, and undertook the conquest and forcible conversion of the Saxon people. Though Saint Sturm did his best to facilitate and ease that conversion, establishing churches and even monasteries among the people there (like the one at Hamelin), his work was broadly undercut by the punitive measures undertaken by the sæcular government against the Saxon people. The Saxon nobility still stubbornly clung to their heathen beliefs and rose in revolt against Charlemagne. The here they raised even threatened the abbey at Fulda with destruction; and Saint Sturm was called up in its defence.

The military and missionary demands that Charlemagne made upon Saint Sturm took their toll on the now-elderly monk’s health, and he fell ill while on campaign with the Frankish king. He begged to be returned to Fulda, and upon his return sensing death was near, he gathered his brothers about him and begged their forgiveness, as well as the forgiveness of any other man he had wronged. He in turn forgave all, and especially Bishop Lul with whom he had so often been at odds. After assuring his brethren of his prayers for them and sternly admonishing them to keep to the Rule, he reposed in the Lord on the 17th of December, 779.

Saint Sturm may be a German of the Elbe stem, but he was beloved particularly by the English on account of his connexion to Saint Boniface and his kindness and hospitality to English pilgrims. He was even glorified by the Christians of the East, who rather connected him with Saint Severin and began to commemorate his holy life and deeds in the years shortly following his death. (The Roman Catholic Church began commemorating him in 1139.)
Scion of a worthy Bavarian family,
You were confided to the care of the Apostle of Germany,
Saint Boniface, who made you a holy priest.
You withdrew to the wild lands and to Fulda,
Where you undertook the enlightenment of the barbarians.
Venerable Sturm, intercede with God to save our souls!

15 December 2018

Даладағы жарық

Ибраһим Абай Құнанбайұлы

It has been a long time – too long – since I revisited the philosophical poetry of the great Ibrahim ‘Abai’ Qunanbaiuly. I first read the man’s work as I was beginning to write this blog, in preparation for my ill-fated trip to his home country of Qazaqstan. I read his Words, I appreciated them, and they did direct me to a certain degree, but I did not understand them. Though he expressed himself simply, and forthrightly, I did not understand him. Given my intellectual temper at the time it would be too easy to blame that on an education which privileged the modern continental philosophical tendencies, but in retrospect I simply did not have the age or the knowledge or the ability to read them in the spirit in which they were meant. They were meant as an exhortation to his people to improve their souls, but also as an exuberant expression of spiritual freedom, the light of what the Slavophil philosopher Aleksey Khomyakov would call ‘iranstvo’, the Iranian civilisational principle.

Abai was both a deep thinker – hence his cognomen, which means ‘thoughtful’ or ‘cautious’ in қазақ тілі – and a proud Qazaq patriot. He loved his people deeply. His patriotism, however, led him not to boast of the Qazaq people or to belittle others; indeed, where he believed he could learn something better from the Qazaqs’ neighbours, he sat, listened and paid attention. And when his own people showed themselves to be cunning or lazy or over-proud or greedy or grasping, Abai spared them nothing, but he criticised them with an unrelenting harshness. He lived by the saying: Дос жылатып айтады; душпан күлдіртіп айтады. And it is because he wanted to be a true friend to his people that he held up this most unflattering mirror to their weaknesses.

First among the influences on Abai was the traditional ‘zhyrau’ tendency. People infinitely better-versed in Qazaq religious history than I am (like Kemelbekov, Abdurahmanov and Begdauletova here), have pointed out that the poetic tradition had some roots in the pre-Islamic, shamanistic Tengri religion of the Qazaq people – a religion, in point of fact, not unlike that of their distant kin the Mongols, Manchus and Evenks; and a poetic tradition not too unlike the Shijing 《詩經》 and the Chuci 《楚辭》 of distant Chinese antiquity! ‘On the one hand’, this ancient Qazaq poetic tradition ‘seeks the Promised Land; on the other’ it appeals ‘to the people, drawing their attention to the imperfection of their existence’. The rôle of the aqyn (ақын) in this society had a set of self-sacrificial and remonstrative duties that ‘shamanistic’ poets like Qu Yuan 屈原 would deeply appreciate. Kemelbekov, Abdurahmanov and Begdauletova call this tragœdian-shamanistic element in Qazaq philosophy the ‘zhyrau’ (жырау) element. The tragic zhyrau sensibility absolutely affected Abai and the depth of his moralist and poetic temperament – ‘Man comes crying into this world, and departs it in sorrow,’ goes one of the more famous lines from his Words.

Secondly, Abai took a number of influences from the West – though it deserves mention that the West, to him, includes the world of Islam in general, and Iranian Islam in particular. He was deeply influenced by the venerable Islamic tradition of tasawwuf, both in philosophy properly speaking and in the poetic tradition. Like so many other of Iran’s neighbours, Qazaqstan could not but be affected by that nation’s love of the artistry of the word. Abai himself knew, loved and lived in the Persian ‘Sûfî’ poetic works of Firdûsî, Rûmî, Hâfez, Nizâmî, Sa‘dî, Shirâzî and ‘Ali-Shir Nûa‘î. (Abai’s debt to the Persian Sûfîs is apparent even in the first of his philosophical Words, in which he pines for the life of such a mystic, but finds its demands of a serene and peaceful heart beyond him.) Despite his presumably belonging to the folkish, traditional Hanafî school of Sunnî jurisprudence, Abai’s Islamic piety is very much of a poetic, ‘Persian’ flavour rather than an ‘Arabic’ one. In addition to this, Abai was intellectually influenced by the classical Greek philosophers – Socrates, Plato, Aristotle – and especially their student, the Shî’ite Neo-Platonist ‘Second Teacher’ Abû Nasr al-Fârâbî. One sees the trace of Abai’s ethical Platonism in multiple places, but particularly in his meditations on the virtues and their interchangeable nature – though often this is stated negatively in regard to the character of his contemporaries. His insistence that the love of wealth has ruined his people’s character by causing parents to neglect their children’s moral education and also by promoting inequality is, furthermore, drawn from the pages of the Republic.

Third, Abai was deeply sympathetic to the Russian narodniki, largely on account of his profound friendship with the socialist-revolutionary exile Evgeniy Petrovich Mikhaelis. He is therefore considered to be a ‘radical democrat’ and a ‘socialist’, and indeed, the two men did share many of the same political views. But it would be a mistake to simply stop there. Abai’s well-attested (and indeed, vocal) Russophilia was as much cultural as it was political. Again, being a poet, he was drawn toward Pushkin and Lermontov in particular – and through them, Goethe, Schiller and Byron. Abai’s Words are saturated with the conviction that the Qazaqs should not belittle or despise their Russian neighbours, but instead hold them in high regard and learn from them whatever they can, particularly in the realm of culture.

In retrospect, Abai has proven a deeper and more lasting influence on me than I would have thought possible, in my years coming back from Qazaqstan. A great deal of my own Persophilia and Russophilia comes to me mediated through the great Qazaq aqyn’s luminous interpretations, in verse and in prose, of both cultural legacies. Indeed, though I am tied by blood to the English, German, Yugoslav and Jewish peoples of Europe, the fact that I seem to occupy a ‘Eurasian’ position in my attachments to the traditional humanisms of China, Russia and Iran – that too comes straight from Abai. The Qazaq people had, and still have, every right to be paranoid, as they have been dominated throughout history by these empires on their doorsteps. Indeed, the gæostrategic ‘peculiarity’ of Qazaq statecraft, the multi-vector foreign policy which dates back at least to the genius statesman Abylai Khan, is largely defensive in posture. Yet Abai took a different approach. His Words synthesised the best of the ‘Chinese’, the traditional Turkic, the Iranian and the Russian – and indeed, further afield, classical Athenian Greek – into something truly distinct and beautiful.

13 December 2018

Our good Doctor

From my college years to the present day, one towering intellectual figure who always seems to be standing beside me (and indeed, as so often seems, just over my shoulder), is the good and great Doctor Samuel Johnson. Poet, pamphleteer, essayist, novelist, all around man-of-letters, wit, philanthropist, Tory moralist, apologist for monarchy, friend of the poor (often being so himself), Shakespeare fanatic, foe of slavery, anti-war author, anti-imperialist, lover of cats, wooer of older women… somehow no matter which way you turn in the English world of letters, Johnson is standing well within view with either a solemn pronouncement or a ready quip. To say Dr Johnson has been an ‘inspiration’ on my entire education and body of intellectual work, such as it is, is both obvious and a severe understatement.

Samuel Johnson, born in 1709 in Lichfield in the West Midlands to the keeper of a bookshop named Michael Johnson and his wife Sarah, was sickly and scrofulous as an infant. He received baptism very soon after birth, and his parent sought for him the ‘royal touch’ from Queen Anne, which was supposed to cure scrofula. Johnson kept with him for the rest of his life a ribbon commemorating the event. However, his scrofula was not cured, and the resulting treatments left him scarred, nearly blind in his left eye and deaf in one ear. Johnson early on developed a certain resentment of his subsequent pampering, including several attempts to get away from his governess on his own power in his very early youth.

However, for young Samuel Johnson, being raised in a bookstore had its advantages. He had a good memory, his mother having encouraged him from the age of four to memorise prayers from the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. Being inherently curious, he read prodigiously, and attained a breadth of knowledge and level of erudition matched by few other young men in England, let alone Lichfield. He attended grammar school, and even studied at Pembroke College in Oxford for a brief time. After his first year of study, however, parents struggled with his upkeep, and other students began to notice his poverty. One of them left a brand-new pair of shoes outside his room in secret – which wounded young Johnson’s dignity (he hated being the object of charity). Thereafter he left Oxford; this academic failure led him into a deep bout of depression – an affliction which would return to him throughout the rest of his life.

He found employment as a tutor in Market Bosworth and later Birmingham. It was at this time he undertook the translations of Jerónimo Lobo’s accounts of his journeys in Abyssinia, which would eventually be published in abridged form as A Voyage to Abyssinia, and which would later inspire him in part to write Rasselas. Johnson accompanied a friend of his from Birmingham, Harry Porter, during an illness which would end his life. Several months later, he began a romantic relationship with his widow Elizabeth, who would later become his wife (over the objections of both the Johnson and the Porter families). Though it was, in Johnson’s words, a ‘love-match’ on both sides, their marriage was not a happy one. She supported him through several ventures, including a failed school in Edial and his famous Dictionary, which brought them very little success in the short run. She began to drink and to decline into ill-health – and the opiate medications she took for her illness robbed her of what strength she had left. Samuel Johnson grieved intensely over the death of his ‘Tetty’ in 1752, and suffered overwhelming guilt over what he considered his own part in her ill-health – a life of poverty and a series of financial failures.

During much of his years of marriage, he worked both as a private tutor and as a ‘hack’ writer for various London publications – putting his pen to book reviews, biographies and other works of literary critique. He also wrote his poems, London and The Vanity of Human Wishes at this point. He also befriended the poet Richard Savage, whose Life he would recount in a touchingly-personal biography. He spent much of this time in debt and in fear of landing in debtor’s prison; perhaps it is for this reason as well that he continued to have a ‘radical’ degree of sympathy for poor and indebted people.

In 1750 Johnson began working on The Rambler. He also befriended the publicist Samuel Richardson (who bailed him out of a small debt) and the painter Joshua Reynolds (the same one so loathed by the later Pre-Raphaelites). Samuel Johnson made a name for himself as something of an anti-war activist when he began publishing essays attacking Britain’s involvement in the Seven Years’ War. He also worked on an edition of the plays of William Shakespeare, the essays of The Idler, and – in 1759 – his only novel, Rasselas.

Johnson’s financial troubles largely continued until he was given a pension – which he took with deep reluctance – from King George III; a year after that, he began a friendship with a young Scotsman named James Boswell, who wrote the first and perhaps the most influential of the biographies of Johnson and later accompanied him on a journey to the Hebrides. He met the Thrales at this period as well – his (in)famous correspondence with Hester Thrale would prove a boon to later biographers.

As Johnson grew older, it seems he grew much more vocal in his political opinions. He opposed an English war with Spain over the Falklands, grew particularly voluble in his opposition to slavery and his support for abolition and slave revolts, and later made known his vocal opposition to American independence in Taxation No Tyranny. He also embarked on an ambitious ten-volume project, The Lives of the Poets, which covered mostly his contemporaries.

His chronic ill-health caught up with him after his return home – he began to suffer particularly from gout, and also suffered a stroke. He lived with Hester Thrale until 1784, when she decided to take up with an Italian musician, Gabriel Piozzi. Largely alone, with his friends engaged elsewhere, he died later that year, on the thirteenth of December.

It is my regret, actually, that I am familiar with such a very small portion of Johnson’s monumental corpus, but – as I intimated above – that which I have read has been incredibly influential on my intellectual development since high school. Johnson’s deep Tory love of order and stability, combined with his keen social conscience – particularly with regard to what would now be considered the ‘third world’ – and equally-profound High Church Anglican piety, assuredly left their impressions on the priorities of my own life. I cannot really consider him a ‘saint’ (despite his being commemorated on the calendar of the Church of England), but he certainly has been a spiritual model. May God indeed have mercy upon the soul of His servant – for His servant he tried to be and was – grant him rest and make his memory to be æternal!

12 December 2018

Venerable Éadburg, Abbess of Minster-in-Thanet

Holy Mother Éadburg

Today in the Orthodox Church we celebrate the memory of Éadburg, the learned and holy Benedictine abbess of Minster Abbey at Minster-in-Thanet in Kent and confidant and successor to the Venerable Saint Mildþrýð of the same cloister, who notably kept up a strong friendship and written correspondence with Saint Boniface of Fulda, Apostle to the Germans.

Éadburg was born a West Saxon princess, the only daughter of Centwine of Wessex (evidently a close kinsman of the same Cynegils who was baptised by Saint Berin) and his wife Eangýþ, who later became a nun and raised Éadburg among the Benedictine sisters. It is clear that she received a good education from her mother, for she was not only proficient in writing in Latin, but could also produce poetry in her own tongue. Éadburg herself took the veil when she came of age, and joined the cloister at Thanet. She served under Saint Mildþrýð with great love and attention, and was chosen to take her place when that true blossom of the English people met her holy repose.

As abbess, Éadburg proved to be an effective administrator of her cloister. She managed to secure a renewed royal charter for Minster Abbey. Seeing the buildings therein to be insufficient to house her sisters well, whose number had grown under Saint Mildþrýð’s care, she had a new house for them built, and sought and was given blessing from Saint Cuþberht of Canterbury to build a new abbey church dedicated to Saints Peter and Paul. She then had translated there the incorrupt relics of her saintly predecessor.

It was at this time also that her friendship with Saint Boniface began – when she sent to him in Frisia an altar-cloth and forty shillings, along with her regrets that she could not then spare more. It appears however that the holy Saint Boniface received the gift warmly, in the heartfelt spirit of sisterly love in which it was given. Though there stood a sea between them, there started a friendly correspondence that lasted until they both were elderly. As she was able, Éadburg sent Boniface additional gifts for his mission, including books and liturgical vestments; and Saint Boniface wrote to her to give her comfort when she suffered a long illness. She also took as her pupil one Leobgýþ, a young female cousin of Boniface who would join him in Germany in the service of the Church, and taught her how to write in verse. At one point, in her old age, Éadburg made a pilgrimage to Rome, and there met Boniface of Fulda in person.

Though the hagiographical materials I was able to track down on Saint Éadburg of Thanet are rather terse, we can still see from them – and also from the primary source documents to and about her – the skills and learning she brought to her vocation, as well as some telltale aspects of the personality shining through them. She was well-read – primarily in the Scriptures and the Divine Law which, in the words of her pupil Leobgýþ, she ‘reads without ceasing’. She was a skilled scribe, as shown by the requests from Saint Boniface for copies of manuscripts (such as the Epistles of Saint Peter) in her hand. She could be a shrewd stateswoman when she needed to be, as evidenced by her securing of the royal charter and the relics of Saint Mildþrýð. She cared deeply, maternally, for her sisters in the cloister, losing no time and sparing no effort in seeing to their needs. She clearly possessed a formidable intellect and a keen curiosity about the world, having kept up a Latin correspondence with Saint Boniface and having followed with interest and with care the concerns of the church in frempt lands like Germany. And she even cared for lay sisters like Leobgýþ with motherly concern.

After a long life full of such holy and intellectual labours, Saint Éadburg reposed in peace in 751, and her relics were placed alongside those of her friend and predecessor Saint Mildþrýð in the abbey church. There for a long time afterward, the sick, the infirm and those in pain and distress would visit her shrine and be healed; even in her repose she cared for the least of her countrymen as a loving mother would.

Holy and Venerable Mother Éadburg of Thanet, pray to Christ our God for us sinners!

09 December 2018

The Conception of the Mother of God

The Conception of the Most Holy Theotokos

One of the touching things about the Orthodox iconography of the Conception of the Mother of God is that it both portrays the intimacy of the parents of the Theotokos, Saints Joachim and Anna, in a frank and unapologetic way. They kiss, they look tenderly into each other’s eyes, they wrap their arms around each other, even their feet are stepping together as though they are dancing on a brightly-coloured carpet. And yet they do not occupy the centre of the icon itself. The focus of our ‘gaze’ as we look on this icon is lifted up away from that happy couple in their embrace toward the temple behind and beyond them. Situated behind Joachim and Anna are a male and a female figure, set against a rocky hill and a spray of green foliage respectively, which symbolise Adam (‘Earth’) and Eve (‘Life’), each reaching up toward Heaven, toward angels on either side.

For some reason, when I see this icon, my eyes are also drawn to the hands of Saints Joachim and Anna. Her left hand on his chest; his right hand on her arm; their other hands embracing each other about the shoulders. ‘Love your hands! Love them,’ writes Toni Morrison in Beloved. ‘Raise them up and kiss them. Touch others with them, pat them together, stroke them on your face ‘cause they don’t love that either. You got to love it, You!’ The hands of Saint Joachim and Saint Anna are not there merely to titillate each other, but to comfort and reassure. (The Protoevangelium of James has it, after all, that Joachim and Anna were never able to conceive a child for most of their lives – they were forbidden from offering at the Temple and treated as sinners by their own people prior to the Conception.) There is a deeply human vulnerability in this expression between the husband and wife, a total lack of reserve, that is seen in relatively few other Orthodox icons – one exception being the meeting of the Theotokos and Saint Elizabeth from the Gospel of St Luke.

The icon of the Conception of the Theotokos is therefore both a testament to the fact that the ordinary, commonplace erotic intimacy between husband and wife is wholly sanctified without need for apology or excuse, and a solemn reminder that the ends of erōs lie beyond itself. The ordinariness of the Holy Ancestors of God in this loving caress, highlights the Christian conviction that sexual gnōsis is not the reserve of a handful of tantric masters and their initiates, as in certain heresies and Dharmic sects, but instead that it is part-and-parcel of being a human soul with a body. Even so, the full vertical Platonic potential of the erotic impulse – its attempt to reach upwards toward a vision of the Divine through an inspiration bypassing the rational – is acknowledged and celebrated by the icon’s very setting. We in the Orthodox Church hold that it is through this very human act of love that Our All-Holy, Sublimely Pure, Most Blessed Lady, the Mother of God, entered the world. This icon of Joachim and Anna is therefore also a stern rebuke, both to the reflexive contortions of the various Gnostics past and present who see in sex only the grounds for shame, and to the current consumer anti-culture of de-contextualised, de-racinated, even de-fleshed fluid plastic sensualism that undergirds so much of our current cultural neuroses about the body.

The touchstone I keep returning to on this question – not wrongly, I don’t think – is the analysis of the ‘flight from feeling’ from social historian Christopher Lasch’s The Culture of Narcissism. Lasch talks about how we contemporary Americans both trivialise and overburden our sexual lives by unmooring them from their procreative teleology – by essentially making ourselves infertile and turning over our familial burdens to a bureaucratic state. He then touches both on the ‘spectre of impotence’ hovering over modern male psychology, and on the corresponding fear of insurmountable female sexual expectations that haunts a culture steeped in plastiform sensual imagery – all compounded by a backdrop of civilisational exhaustion. ‘The cult of intimacy,’ he writes, ‘conceals a growing despair of finding it.

I first used this framework at first as an attempt to diagnose what then was only beginning to be called the ‘incel’ phenomenon. But these things are not unique to incels; they are common to all of us, men and women, who have suffered rejection, mockery, and an outcast status on account of real or perceived social-sexual inadequacy. Lasch certainly did not mean his diagnosis to be specific to any social cohort, but a systematic analysis of contemporary American culture, a technologically-driven ‘turn’ in the prehistoric battle of the sexes. Lasch had his pulse on a certain universal thirst for intimacy and fear of rejection. But the plastiform consumer culture heightens that erotic thirst by presenting our senses with facsimiles of it; while the aversion to child-bearing and -rearing fostered by a technocratic and bureaucratic culture ‘manages expectations’ about intimacy while putting it ever further out-of-reach for most people.

With all of this in mind, certainly Saint Joachim was no stranger to the ‘spectre of impotence’ and the rages of the involuntarily-childless. Impotence was the very same charge with which Rubim – another man – mocks him and drives him away from the Temple in the Protoevangelium of James. We can even see in Saint Joachim the beginnings of this ‘flight from feeling’. He ‘did not come into the presence of his wife’, but instead ‘retired to the desert, and there pitched his tent, and fasted forty days and forty nights’, leaving his wife at home alone to bewail her widowhood and childlessness. (Saint Anna no less than her husband is rejected, scorned, an outcast from the Temple on account of her ‘shut-up womb’, her barrenness; which makes the seeming-abandonment by her husband doubly cruel.) The Church has not been a stranger to these problems of sexual alienation even between married couples in healthier times, problems which penetrate down to the depths of the human heart.

What is interesting about the Protoevangelium story is that Joachim and Anna are brought back together by the promise of a baby. They re-achieve intimacy, even in a supposedly-barren old age, through the procreative telos – or at least, through the hope of it. The icon itself bears witness against the notion that sex can ever be fully divorced either from its primal roots in the quest for intimacy, or its final ends in the procreation of children, even where that is impossible or thought to be impossible. The emotional tensions between man and woman are not abolished here; we only have to look at the faces of the two saints in this icon, full of feeling, intent upon one another, to see that they are not. But those tensions are not without direction. The fruit, of course – is the Theotokos; and through her, the salvation of the world.
Today the bonds of barrenness are broken,
God has heard the prayers of Joachim and Anna.
He has promised them beyond all their hopes to bear the Maiden of God,
By whom the Uncircumscribed One was born as mortal Man;
He commanded an angel to cry to her:
“Rejoice, O full of grace,
The Lord is with you!”