27 December 2019

Insist on beauty for the poor


Patriarch Pavle of Serbia

I am, and have been, a firm believer for a long time in the idea that the poorest people in our society deserve both bread and roses, that there should be space for both labour activism and Liturgy in their lives. That was, and remains, one of the most attractive things to me about the Anglo-Catholic socialist tradition which somewhat adopted me during college. It’s one of the most attractive things to me about the early Renovationists – before, and in opposition to, the hæresy of the Sergianists – and the legacy of the Vekhi group in Russia. It remains one of the most attractive things to me about the Eastern European socialism that understands proportionality, preservation both cultural and natural, physically-beautiful built space that’s friendly to young families and old folks to be vital parts of its programme, and not merely optional.

For all of this, of course, I’ve had it put to me that I’m a secret reactionary. Wait, let me put this in the most literal possible way. A certain commenter told me – because I am opposed to rule by tech-bros, mind you – that I am actually ‘an eccentric right winger whose views occasionally overlap with leftism… gung-ho about early twentieth century Marxists and rural Maoists… because they provide a leftist outlet for [my] regressive social views’.

There may be a certain grain of truth to this. I do have certain views which range quite close to classical reaction – particularly in the mode of Pobedonostsev and Leont’ev, and to stretch that definition a bit, Khomyakov and Kireevsky as well. And yet I am forced to wonder. Is it right-wing not to want to live in a world dominated by the likes of Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk? Is it right-wing to want working-class people to be not merely seen but heard as well? Is it right-wing to want for those same working-class people, the same things those working-class people say they want? In many cases, that includes beauty. It’s something of a bourgeois assumption that poor people desire convenience and efficiency over elegance. This assumption is often massaged and conditioned into a belief that they deserve only those things which are convenient and efficient, and no more. As Reina Sultan puts it, writing at Intersectional Feminist Media:
Rich people in the U.S. (but also in most of the west) think that poor people cannot manage their own money — for no other reason than the fact that they are poor. I work in international development at an organization that provides unconditional cash transfers to women. This means they can spend the money however they want. It’s theirs. Without fail, we are bombarded at every conference with the same questions, “How do you ensure that the women won’t spend money on frivolous items like lipstick?” We don’t. It’s not our money. It’s theirs.
In prosaic terms, the real, physical needs of the working class often depend on more than mere convenience and efficiency. Women in particular, need to wear make-up and need to dress smartly for job interviews, if they want to get hired so they can feed themselves and their families. Oftentimes this presents a not insignificant financial hurdle for them. Efficiency is clearly not the only consideration. Of course there’s a double standard at play in this, and perhaps more than a whiff of sexism as well. But it’s hardly out of line to say that poor women – and men, for that matter – are no less apt to enjoy looking and smelling nice as much as rich women and men do. On a related sidenote: Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed may be dated, but it deserves to be on every single American high-school curriculum.

But this anecdote actually reminds me of one of my very favourite CS Lewis anecdotes. On the way to an Inklings meeting Lewis stopped to give money to a street beggar, and his friend asked him if he wouldn’t merely spend it on drink. Lewis retorted: ‘Maybe – but if I had kept it, so would I.’ What this anecdote does particularly effectively, is that it eliminates the idea that the beliefs and desires of needy and stressed people are somehow of a different quality than ours, as well as the assumption that poor and wealthy people are any different in terms of what they deserve.

The spiritual needs of the poor are real and must be considered. When I was still going to S. Stephen’s Church in Providence, there was a middle-aged homeless lady who often stayed in the back pews. I was told, sotto voce, that she occasionally or more-than-occasionally struggled with bipolar or a similar disorder. But she loved coming to the church. She told me herself that she loved particularly the sensory dimension of the Mass, the approach of Christ before all five senses. It was clear to me that she felt most herself when she was in the presence of the Eucharist, listening to the hymnody of the Church, smelling the sweet smells of the censer and lifting her eyes to heaven. It would be a particularly cruel sort of person to want to take that away from her.

One of the great attractions of Orthodox Christianity, for me, is the insistence that the poor have their own sort of beauty that demands respect, even if it isn’t readily apparent. The face of Christ may be seen in the beggar at the church door, to paraphrase Chrysostom. You see this in Dostoevsky particularly – think Sonya Marmeladov in Crime and Punishment – but it’s present in Greek Orthodox theology as well. The sacrifice of Christ and the defeat of death by God was not efficient – on the contrary, it was gratuitous – but it accomplished a remarkable symmetry, even if it came at the expense of the overthrow of all worldly logic: the power of death defeated, by mere human flesh in the Resurrection. What place can austerity and the exaction of pettier debts and satisfactions have, in the light of this awesome and indescribable reality? What do we ungrateful servants mean by laying hold of our fellow-servants, by grudging the poor a moment of æsthesis, when the King of All has forgiven us everything with such wild and reckless abandon? If there is an austerity to be performed, it belongs to the self: an austerity of gratitude, the tears and toil of grace.

25 December 2019

Христос рождается, славите Его!


Christ is born; glorify Him!
Christ comes from heaven; come to welcome Him!
Christ is on earth; lift up your hearts!
Sing to the Lord, O earth!
Be exalted and sing with hearty gladness, O ye people,
Sing His praise for He is glorified!

22 December 2019

Archbishop ‘Atallâh (Hannâ) of Sebastē hospitalised


Archbishop ‘Atallâh (Hannâ) of Sebastē

Sayyidnâ ‘Atallâh (Hannâ), the Orthodox Archbishop of Sebastē in Nablus, was hospitalised this past Wednesday for inhalation of a poisonous substance, after an Israeli gas canister was fired into the window of his church in Jerusalem. He is expected to make a full recovery, though I am adding my prayers to those of the Church in Jerusalem.

Sayyidnâ ‘Atallâh, a cœnobite and a knight of the Brotherhood of the Holy Sepulchre since 1991, he has been active as a teacher of theology and Arabic since that time, well before he was consecrated a bishop. He has been active in the World Council of Churches and has used his position there to draw attention to the plight of Arab Christians in occupied Palestine. To that end he also co-authored the Kairos document in 2003, and has been an activist with regard to Palestinian Christian access to the ancient holy sites of the early Christian Church in the Holy Land. He has even taken positions which have been unpopular among the hierarchs in his own Patriarchate, such as nonviolently supporting the Second Intifada. He was arrested by the Israeli government and his Israeli passport confiscated without valid legal grounds in 2002.

He has spoken up for the true remembrance of Saint George in Christendom as a Palestinian hero and sufferer for the truth, has also been a steadfast and outspoken supporter of the rightful dignity of the Palestinian people, and an equally-ferocious critic of the policies of the state of Israel.

He has proven to be a constant and insistent voice for at least one of the crucified peoples of the world in a way which will not be silenced, and his witness in this day and age on behalf of the Arab people of Palestine is sorely needed. May God speed your recovery, Sayyidnâ! Ya Rabbu irham!

18 December 2019

Venerable Wynnebald, Abbot of Heidenheim


Saint Wynnebald of Heidenheim

Today in the Orthodox Church – the eighteenth of December – is the feast day of another English missionary monastic saint on the Continent, Saint Wynnebald of Heidenheim. Saint Wynnebald was one of the first such messengers of Christ to Thuringia in eastern Germany, and made his abode in Bavaria alongside his celebrated sister, Saint Wealdburg.

Saint Wynnebald was the middle child of an illustrious and holy family of West Saxons – though some sources have it that he was the eldest. His father, Richard – probably not his real name – was a prince or an underking in Wessex; and his mother, Winna, also a saint, was likely the sister of Saint Boniface. He was the younger brother of Saint Willibald, who was a pilgrim in Palestine; and he was the elder brother of Saint Wealdburg, who wrote of her brother’s pilgrimage and answered Saint Boniface’s call to join him on the Continent in converting the Thuringians – the ancestors of the folk of the state of the same name in eastern Germany.

Saint Wynnebald apparently accompanied his father and brother on part of their pilgrimage. Saint Richard fell ill and died at Lucca, and was interred there at the Basilica di San Frediano. The two sons, Wynnebald and Willibald, continued onward to Rome and completed the pilgrimage to the Tombs of the Apostles. In Rome, Willibald made the decision to take the additional voyage to Palestine. Wynnebald, however, stood behind, for his constitution was weak and sickly from childhood. He completed his schooling in Rome, became versant in the Scriptures and in the Psalms, and took the tonsure. He devoted himself fully to a life in imitation of Christ, under the Rule of Saint Benedict. In the year 730, Wynnebald returned to England and approached several of his kin. He managed to convince them to join him in the celibate and cloistered life, and journeyed with them together back to Rome. They remained there for seven years more.

Saint Boniface undertook one of his several voyages to Rome in 738, and there came across the two brothers, his nephews Wynnebald and Willibald, who were then living in Rome. Boniface made himself known to his nephews, and then entreated them of their mercy and kindness to travel with him northward, to where the Church was still young and struggling. He bade them travel with him into the Thuringian Forest, where they would establish churches and monastic communities to guide the German people toward Christ. Saint Wynnebald was entrusted with the care of the church at Erfurt, and the souls who were in that parish. It was around this time that Saint Wynnebald took up residence at a monestary in Schwanfeld. In the meantime, his brother Willibald was appointed a priest by Saint Boniface, to serve in Eichstätt.

Sometime after Saint Willibald was made, somewhat against his will, a bishop in 746, he bade his brother and sister establish a double Benedictine abbey at Heidenheim. To watch over the monks, he appointed his brother Wynnebald as abbot; and to watch over the nuns, his sister Wealdburg was chosen as abbess. Wynnebald went to this patch of land – a wild tangle of shrubbery, it seems to have been – cleared it, and built a few rough thatch huts for himself and the handful of monks who kept him company. In another nearby copse, his sister Wealdburg righted another such humble community.

His arrival was not welcomed by the locals, to put it mildly. They attempted first to remove him by atter, and when this had no effect, the heathen fell upon him with weapons in hand. But this time, too, he managed to flee the trap. He returned and rebuilt and lived as before with his monks around him. He taught them to be humble and to pray constantly; to bear themselves meekly and not to indulge in idle talk; to force themselves to prayer when the sloth was upon them; to rush to love their neighbours and to drag their feet if anger should seize them. He was mild and gentle with them, and much severer upon himself. He made himself the model which the monks must follow, and did not teach them only with words but also with deeds and with a disposition that had no need of words.

Late in his life, Saint Wynnebald was afflicted with a grave illness, and made for himself a chapel in his cell such that, even when he was unable to go to church, he could still pray and keep the Liturgy. He also kept an icon of his kinsman and master Saint Boniface among his effects; when at one point he was brought near to death by his illness, he prayed before this icon and within three weeks was restored to his usual health.

He suffered a relapse sometime after this, and was brought low by the cold weather of the oncoming winter. But not in spirit! He gathered his brothers around him and exhorted them to keep their minds fast upon God and to strive toward Him with all their efforts; and pray that He might give to them the tears of true repentance. Saint Wynnebald made his peace with them, and departed them in blessedness on the eighteenth of December in the year 760. After his passing, his brother Willibald committed the care of the monastery at Heidenheim to their sister, Saint Wealdburg. The monastery at Heidenheim continued to operate throughout the Middle Ages until it was forcibly disbanded in the Reformation. Holy father Wynnebald, pray unto Christ our God for us sinners!


Kloster Heidenheim, Bayern

17 December 2019

Holy and Right-Believing Judicaël, High King of Brittany


Saint Judicaël of Brittany

Today, the seventeenth of December, is the feast-day in the Orthodox Church of Saint Judicaël, the Prince of Domnonée and High King of Brittany. A national hero among the Bretons, he is much like his insular fellow sainted kings Custennin and Æþelræd, in that he renounced his kingship, passed the crown on to his son Alan Hir (or ‘the Tall’), and became a monk.

Judicaël [also in Breton Yezekael or Ezekiel; in English occasionally Jude or Josse] was the son of Hoël III [Hywel] of Domnonée. When he came to the throne, he did so with great reluctance, having no desire for worldly power or lordship. All the same, he acquitted himself admirably of all his duties. He took a wife named Morwen, and together they had three sons: Juzeg, Winog and Alan. He was indomitable in battle, and ruled justly and impartially. It is said of him that:
Terror of his name alone was sufficient to keep evil men from violence, for God, who watched over him without ceasing, had made him brave and mighty in battle; it happened more than once that with the aid of the Almighty he was able to put whole troops of the enemy to flight by the strength of his sword-arm alone.
As a result, Gwened and Kernev submitted to Judicaël’s rule, and the entire peninsula of Armorica was politically unified. He went to war often with the mighty Franks and defeated them twice in battle. In 635 the Frankish king Dagobert sent him a threat that unless he wanted to suffer a full-scale invasion of his lands, he had to submit himself to Frankish overlordship. Thus Judicaël faced a choice not unlike the one that the later Saint Aleksandr Nevsky had to face. According to the history, Saint Judicaël went to Clichy to make his submission to Dagobert, and indeed brought gifts with him. But he would not sup at the same table as Dagobert, which apparently insulted the Frankish monarch.

Judicaël was also a generous patron of the Church in Brittany. He had founded a monastery at Paimpont in the forest of Brocéliande while he still wore the crown. This is not the same monastery as that of Saint Mewan, but it was located close by, so that Judicaël could better seek the counsel of his friend the abbot. There are a few chronological problems – not too severe, but noticeable – with Judicaël’s association with Saint Mewan, who died in 617. It is more likely the case that Judicaël had met and was awed by Saint Mewan in his youth, or that he was the close friend of Mewan’s successor at the Abbey of Saint John.

Having thus ruled his kingdom and secured its peace, Judicaël stepped down from his throne, leaving it to his son Alan Hir. Desirous of the contemplative life, he took the tonsure and entered the cloister as a simple monastic brother at the Abbey of Saint John, Saint Mewan’s monastery near Rennes, and thus spent the rest of his days. He reposed in the Lord on the seventeenth of December of 658, and was buried at his own request beside Saint Mewan. Holy and right-believing prince Judicaël, pray unto Christ our God that our souls may be saved!
Prince of Brittany, you gave the crown
Over to your brothers, and withdrew to a monastery.
You came back to the throne and signed the peace
Between Brittany and the kingdom of the Franks,
And then returned to the monastic life.
Holy Judicaël, intercede with Christ God for our souls!

Paimpont Abbey, founded by Saint Judicaël

15 December 2019

Venerable Drostan, Abbot of Old Deer


Saint Drostan of Deer

Today in the Orthodox Church we celebrate a venerable Goidelic father of the church, a missionary from Ireland to Scotland and a beloved disciple and companion of the great Saint Colum Cille, or Columba, of Iona. Saint Drostan, the abbatial father of Deer who resided betimes also in Holywood and as a hermit in Glenesk, is remembered both today, on the fifteenth of December, and also together with his fellow-saints in the Synaxis of All Saints of Britain on the eleventh of July. He is mentioned in the Book of Deer – one of the very earliest still-extant Gælic texts in Scotland – and in the Aberdeen Breviary.

Drostan was the scion by blood of the earthly kings of Dál Riata, which was the formative Goidelic kingdom which spanned the western part of what is now Scotland – including the Isles – and part of the county of Ulster. His father was named Cosgrach. When discussing this part of Britain’s history it is worth remembering this: that the Goidelic peoples, whether on Ireland or on Great Britain, were long considered one and the same. It is neither an omission nor an error nor a slight on Saint Bede’s part, that he refers even to the Goidelic-speaking peoples of Ireland as ‘Scots’; for they were the same people. In any event, young Drostan was given early by his family to the abbey of Saint Colum Cille on Iona, there to be educated by him.

Saint Drostan was apparently very dear and close to his abbot, for he accompanied Colum Cille on not just one but several missions among the Picts. He was one of twelve disciples of Colum Cille who departed Ireland for Scotland. On one such occasion, Colum Cille took Fergus and Drostan with him into the Pictish lands, and apparently impressed the king of that land enough that he granted them lands for a monastery at Deer. The three of them worked to construct the monastery, after which Saint Colum Cille appointed Drostan as abbot, and then left on the return voyage to Iona. It is said that Deer takes its name not from the animal, but instead from the tears that Saint Drostan shed upon his master’s departing. (‘Tear’ in Old Gælic is dér; in Modern Irish deoir, in Scottish Gælic deur.)

Saint Drostan did not flag, however, in his missionary works. He founded churches all up and down the firth of Moray and around Aberdeen, and he became so respected and loved by the common folk that he was called to take up residence at another monastery at Holywood (or Dalquhongale) as abbot, succeeding the old abbot there who had died. He did not stay there long, however; he took up the mendicant life and later settled down at a lonely hermitage in the valley of Glenesk. An Anglican church dedicated to Saint Drostan still stands at the site of that hermitage, by Tarfside. Saint Drostan there also became renowned among the common Pictish folk of the area, a figure of Christlike humility and generosity. He was visited by the sick, by the poor and by the needy, and he worked wonders on their behalf. A local Pictish priest named Simon came to him with an infirmity of the eyes, and Drostan restored his sight through a prayer to the Holy Trinity.


St Drostan’s Church, Tarfside

Saint Drostan reposed in the Lord at Glenesk sometime in the early seventh century, probably around the year 606. His relics were borne back to Deer, where they were interred in a stone coffin. His bones wrought wondrous cures for the sick and those suffering from pain. There is also a holy well attributed to Saint Drostan which is located near Deer, and which effected similar cures. Today Saint Drostan is remembered as one of the apostles of Scotland alongside Saint Ninian, Saint Cyndeyrn and Saint Colum Cille. Holy father Drostan, pray unto Christ our God for us!
Zealous disciple of Saint Columba,
You left your native land of Ireland
To take the light of the Gospel
To the land of Scotland, of which you were an apostle.
Holy abbot of the monastery of Deer,
Drostan, pray to the Lord that He save our souls!

Old Deer Old Kirk, Aberdeur

14 December 2019

Venerable Hygebald of Hibaldstow, Abbot of Bardney


A field near Bardney Abbey

The feast of Saint Hygebald, the Benedictine abbot of Bardney, is commemorated today in the Orthodox Church. A friend of Saint Ceadda and an acquaintance – at first hostile, later a bit more sympathetic – of the martyr-queen Ósþrýð, Saint Hygebald ultimately left the Benedictines and became a hermit, though the abbey he founded continued to flourish after him. Ósþrýð’s husband Saint Æþelræd became abbot of Bardney sometime after Hygebald’s repose.

Saint Bede describes Hygebald [also Hibald or Hybald] as ‘a most holy and continent man who was an abbot in Lindsey’, and the site of his abbacy is generally accepted as Bardney. Little is known of his early life, but he was active there in 664. It was during his abbacy that Ósþrýð Queen sought to have her uncle Saint Óswald’s relics interred at Bardney, but Abbot Hygebald had the doors barred against her. Óswald had been the enemy of Lindsey, and had once conquered the kingdom, treating the residents and even the monks none too kindly.

This standoff between queen and abbot continued. Until one night, when, as the relics stood outside the locked and barred gates, a beam of light, brighter than any star or moon, bright as the sun, appeared: it emanated from the bier bearing Saint Óswald and ascended in a great shaft into the heavens. The monks stood wondering at this, and Abbot Hygebald most of all. It was unquestionably a miracle of God. Saint Hygebald ordered that the gates be unlocked and opened, and that the relics be allowed inside. The bier was borne into the Abbey and placed at the tomb that Ósþrýð had requested for it. He then ordered that the purple and gold banner of the King be draped over that tomb. Saint Hygebald ordered also that the great doors of the Abbey be unhinged and torn down, so that nothing of the sort would occur again. (As a result, when by negligence someone leaves the door open, a common rebuke would be: ‘do you come from Bardney?’) The bones of Saint Óswald were washed at Bardney before they were laid in the tomb, and the water in which the relics were washed, as well as the ground into which the water was poured, showed evidence of wondrous healing powers.

Saint Hygebald was for a long time a close friend in Christ of Ceadda, or Chad, of Lichfield; and their relationship was much like that between Cybi Felyn and Seiriol Gwyn. He was given in a vision to know of his friend’s passing before it happened. He was soon afterwards divinely compelled to retire from his abbacy and seek a solitary anchorage in what is now Hibaldstow. It is there that he spent the rest of his life, and reposed peacefully on the fourteenth of December in the Year of our Lord 690.

Saint Hygebald was canonised by the Western Church and his relics were interred within a shrine, that worked many wonders and became a site of pilgrimage for believers in the Middle Ages. Thankfully, like those of Saint Gwen ‘Teirbron’ and Éadweard the Confessor, Hygebald’s relics were apparently lucky enough to escape the ravages of the English Reformation. Unlike Whitchurch Canonicorum and Westminster Cathedral, his shrine and tomb were both demolished. But in 1864 an excavation on the site of his ruined church at Hibaldstow, which was meant to restore the chancel in the church, revealed a stone coffin, containing the remains of a powerfully-built man bearing a crozier. It is broadly assumed that this man was indeed the abbot of Bardney. Holy abbot Hygebald, true penitent who welcomed the relics of your former enemy, pray unto Christ our God for us sinners!
Thou didst love Christ all thy life, O blessed one,
And longing to work for Him as a hermit
Thou didst struggle by the pools and carrs of Lindsey
With good works, prayer and labour.
With penitent heart and great love for Christ
Thou worked with missionary zeal for the Lord.
Wherefore we cry to thee:
Beseech the Lord that our labours may be blessed!
And that our souls may be saved.

Church of St Hibald, Hibaldstow, Lincoln

12 December 2019

Holy Hierarch Corentin, Bishop of Quimper


Saint Corentin of Quimper

The twelfth of December is the feast-day of another of Brittany’s great founders of abbeys, the fifth-century Saint Corentin, the first abbot and bishop of Quimper. He has become something of a larger-than-life figure in local Celtic folklore due to his dealings with Gralon, one of the local Breton princes, and his daughter Dahut. Regardless of these folkloric references, Saint Corentin nonetheless occupied a position, and a certain spiritual style very similar to, that of the later Saint Neot of Cornwall. He is closely associated with his contemporary Saint Gwenolau, with whom he was supposedly close friends.

Saint Corentin [also Kaourintin or possibly Cury] was almost assuredly a Welshman by origin, and likely accompanied some of the first settlers from Great Britain to Armorica when the Welsh were being besieged not only by Picts and Saxons but by illness, starvation and hæresy. He grew disillusioned with the world at a young age, and desired a life of solitary holiness in the forests of Ploudiern. He spent several years here in holy solitude, engaged in ascetic self-denial. The clergy and hierarchs of Brittany, during these early years of British resettlement in the northwest of Gaul, had little if any intercourse with those of the Franks, for the Franks held to different customs and had a different temperament. After the first generation of British clergy in exile from their island home died, the following generation were chosen from among themselves. This was how Saint Corentin was named bishop of Quimper, where he had his little hermitage. (This Breton name, which is actually kemper in that language or cymer in Welsh, comes from the Common Brythonic word for ‘confluence’.)

How he came by that hermitage is another tale. Corentin had lived a life of total selflessness for a long time before, giving all that passed into his possession to folk sick or suffering or otherwise in need, and leaving nothing for his own comfort. He became renowned for his generosity, far beyond Armorica into the Frankish-speaking parts of Gaul. He ate wild herbs and roots for his food. Beside his little cell in the Ploudiern there was a spring. Within this spring, the hagiography tells us, lived a fish, which whenever Corentin cut a fin from it to serve as his meat for the day, would wondrously regrow on the fish the following day. The prince of Cornouaille, Gralon Meur, came to visit Saint Corentin, who shared with him the cut of the wondrous fish. Shortly thereafter Gralon Meur granted to the holy man his own castle at Quimper to use as a monastery.

As mentioned before, Saint Corentin figures prominently in Breton folklore. In particular, he was the subject of a Brythonic romance of the city of Kêr-Ys. In that legend, Gralon King is presented, a ruler who takes a sorceress as his wife. Though his wife dies early, she leaves behind her their newborn daughter, Dahut, who grows up a bit spoiled by her fond father. Because Dahut was born at sea, she develops a great love for the sea, and demands of Gralon that he build for her a city on the sea – Kêr-Ys. Ys is protected by a series of interconnecting locks and dikes, controlled by a set of gold keys which Gralon keeps on his person. One night, Dahut stole the keys from her father, and used them – she thought – to unlock the banquet hall to admit a secret lover of hers. Instead, she opened the dikes and flooded Kêr-Ys, killing everyone there. However, Saint Corentin ran to the king’s side and urged him to flee before the deluge hit, and he did so, taking Dahut with him on horseback. As the water overtook them, Dahut was slowing the horse down. Saint Corentin called to Gralon to throw his daughter off into the waves, for it had been she who had caused the flood. Gralon did so, and as his daughter drowned it is said that she turned into a selkie. Other versions have it that it was Saint Corentin himself who struck Dahut off Gralon’s horse with his crozier. Still others hold that it was not Saint Corentin at all, but instead Saint Gwenolau.

Another legend has it that Saint Corentin was named and anointed as bishop by Saint Martin of Tours himself, though this seems unlikely from the chronology. It is more likely that he was appointed by a successor of Saint Martin in the same see. Saint Corentin attended the Council of Angers in 453, and affixed his name there as ‘Charaton’.

Being an active missionary, abbot and bishop was a great deal of effort, and yet Saint Corentin undertook it all without complaint. He wore himself out in these exertions, however, and passed to the abode of blessedness toward the end of the fifth century. Saint Corentin has been remembered by the Breton people of northwestern France, but he was also commemorated in a seventh-century Old English litany. Saint Corentin may or may not be the same person as the Saint Cury who preached in Devon and Cornwall and who lived as a hermit in a cell on one slope of Mount Menehout. Holy father Corentin, pray with us unto Christ our God for the deliverance and healing of our souls!

Venerable Fionnán, Abbot of Clonard, Teacher of the Irish


Saint Fionnán of Clonard

The twelfth of December in the Orthodox Church is the feast-day of the præ-Schismatic Irish holy man, Saint Fionnán of Clonard, the ‘Teacher of the Irish Saints’. He is well worthy of this epithet, as he was both a scholar of formidable intelligence, and also a great father of the Celtic monastic tradition of the Welsh mode in Ireland.

Fionnán [also Fionan or Finnian] was born in the small village of Myshall on the slopes of Mount Leinster in the southeastern corner of Ireland. When his mother was pregnant, she beheld a holy vision in her sleep, of a bright spark of flame that flew into her mouth and down into her belly, before emerging the way it came. It flew off like a radiant bird, and went back and forth from the north of Ireland to the south, attracting after it a great flock of birds of like radiance, which gathered around and followed it no matter where it went. The birds then scattered throughout Ireland, Britain and the rest of Europe. When Fionnán’s mother told this vision to her husband, he thought rightly that it meant he would become a great teacher.

Saint Fionnán learned of several illustrious holy men, on both sides of the Irish sea. He was first taught by a disciple of Saint Padrig, Foirtchern mac Feidhlimidh of the Uí Néill, a kinsman of Saint Colum Cille (who would later be Fionnán’s own student). He studied some time on the Continent as well, at the monastic institution founded by Saint Martin of Tours. He also spent time in Wales, where he learned and came to treasure the austere, Desert-inspired asceticism transmitted by his teachers. These were: Saint Dewi Ddyfrwr, Saint Gildas the Historian and particularly Saint Cadog Ddoeth.

While in Wales, Saint Fionnán desired to make a pilgrimage to Rome. However, a messenger of God came and told him rather to return home, where he might become a teacher to the Irish saints, who stood in greater need of him. Still, Fionnán spent over two decades longer in Wales before returning to his native land. He made himself known to Coirpre mac Néill who was then king, and was given a grant of land at Mugna Sulcain to found a monastery, and another at Aghowle in Wicklow. In fact, he loved this latter monastery so much that he wanted to live out his days there, but the same angel warned him that he must go further.

Saint Fionnán then founded a monastery at Skellig Michael (recently of Star Wars fame), and spent some time there before returning to the main island and journeying to Kildare to spend time conversing on spiritual matters with Saint Brigid. He then made his way to Clonard in Meath, where he founded his main monastery and the one with which his name is most strongly associated.


Skellig Michael, Ireland

Clonard began as a tiny wooden chapel and a cell made from wattle and daub in 520, of the sort commonly used throughout the British Isles by humble anchorites and hermits who sought to flee the world. Indeed, this choice was quite deliberate. Saint Fionnán wanted for himself every bit of the Desert severity he saw among the holy fathers of Wales, and about which he read in the works of Saint John Cassian. He slept on the earthen floor of his cell, never put anything under his head, and always wore an iron girdle around his waist. Such were the depths of his austerities that as an old man, his ribs showed through his clothing. The rule at this monastic centre was quite austere: the brethren slept little, ate little, prayed much and worked much. Yet from this humble beginning – a mere wooden kirk and wattle-and-daub cell – Clonard quickly became the largest monastic community of its kind in Ireland, and attracted many holy men and women. Among these were Saint Colum Cille, Saint Breandán of Clonfert and Saint Ciarán ‘the Younger’. Saint Columbán, the great missionary on the European continent, was influenced by the Penitentiary written by Saint Fionnán.

As his mother had foreseen, Clonard Abbey became a major centre for young men who desired to spread the word of Christ throughout Ireland and throughout the world. It was customary for each monk at Clonard to take with him a staff, a copy of the Gospels, and a relic or some other holy object – these would all be used in the foundation of new monasteries. Thus Clonard became a shining beacon of Christianity in Ireland – second in its God-given glory only to Armagh, the see of Saint Padrig. Saint Fionnán himself was renowned as an inspired commentator on the Holy Gospels, and it was such that he taught his students.

Saint Fionnán reposed in the Lord on the twelfth of December, 549. His relics remained at the monastery church in Clonard until 887, when it was sacked by Vikings. After the Viking attacks Clonard continued as a monastic centre, but with less influence than it had previously. Still, Saint Fionnán’s cultus flourished throughout Ireland; indeed, at Clonard one can find a church still dedicated to him. The ruins at Aghowle and Skellig Michael also stand witness to his memory. And nowadays in Belfast there is a Russian Orthodox mission church which is dedicated to Saint Fionnán. Remember, the Force will be with you, alw—Sorry. I mean, Holy father Fionnán, teacher and tutor of the saints of Ireland, pray unto Christ our God for us sinners!
As one who laboured with zeal in the vineyard of God,
By ascetic struggles and toils thou didst ascend
From glory to glory, O God-bearing saint.
Wherefore, joining chorus now with all the venerable on high,
Thou standest with boldness before the throne of the King of all,
Whom do thou beseech, O Fionnán most wise,
That He have mercy and save our souls.

St Finians Church, Carlow, Ireland

10 December 2019

Prayers for Prešov


Last Friday a gas explosion ripped through an apartment complex on Mukačevská ulica in the eastern Slovak town of Prešov. Ninety professional and twenty-nine volunteer firefighters were despatched to fight the conflagration, which was successfully extinguished only on Saturday evening. Eight people have died so far; dozens more have lost their homes. It’s one of the worst tragœdies of this sort to afflict Prešov. President Zuzana Čaputová has offered her condolences; Mayor of Prešov Andrea Turčanová has organised a volunteer fund for the victims; and Prime Minister Peter Pellegrini has visited the city and allocated €1,000,000 in government funds for repairs, reconstruction and aid.

Prešov is the largest city of Eastern Slovakia and also the capital of its eponymous region. The Orthodox Christians of Slovakia – overwhelmingly belonging to the Carpatho-Rusin minority – mostly belong to this region. It is home to the former ecclesiastical capital of the Eparchy of Mukačevo and Užhorod (formerly the Eparchy of Mukačevo and Prešov under the Serbian Church), the Cathedral of Saint Aleksandr Nevsky, and it has been important to Orthodoxy since the days of Saints Cyril and Methodius.

If possible, gentle readers, please do contribute something to Ms Turčanová’s emergency fund to aid those who were bereaved or made temporarily homeless by the blast. It should be possible to use the Xoom or Venmo services to donate. The fund account belongs to ČSOB Banka, and the account number is SK90 7500 0000 0040 0859 1229, variable number 6122019. The fund is in the name of the city: Mesto Prešov. And, of course, please keep the people of Prešov, particularly those who are dead or grieving or homeless, in your prayers.

09 December 2019

China, Syria, Uighurs and the Silk Road redux


Syrian Foreign Minister Walîd al-Mu‘allem
with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi
王毅

In one of the least surprising headlines of the past few news cycles, the government of Syria is thus far the only government to defend China’s human rights record in Xinjiang, in response to the Uighur Act recently passed by the US House of Representatives.

The Syrian people have good reasons to distrust Uighurs, and good reasons to want them kept as much as possible within Chinese borders. The Uighur members of Jabhat al-Nusra affiliate Turkistan Islâmic Party (formerly the East Turkistan Independence Movement), who follow the radically-puritanical and grotesquely-violent Salafist form of Sunnî Islâm, have been active in northern Syria as some of the most vicious jihâdist groups outside of Dâ‘iš. The Uighur jihâdists have raped, tortured and crucified Arab Christians. They’ve beheaded civilian prisoners. They’ve kidnaped children as young as five to harvest their organs. This last charge should indeed render their accusations of organ harvesting against the Chinese government psychologically-suspicious. And they’ve done all this under the protection and logistical support of the Turkish government. So neither the Syrian government nor the people are going to shed too many tears about younger Uighur men being kept home by the authorities in China.

Of course, on the positive side, the Syrian government and the Chinese government have a relationship of long standing which can be traced in the immediate term to the 1960s. That’s when the Arab Socialist Ba‘ath Party began aligning itself globally with the Chinese Communists in the wake of the Sino-Soviet split. However, this relationship is not of recent provenance. It can with some justice actually be traced back to the An Lushan Rebellion 安史之乱 against the Tang Dynasty, when the Arab Caliphate sent cavalry to China to help them put down the rebellion. Notably, An Lushan was a tribesman of Central Asia, and the Arabs of the Levant clearly thought it to be in their best interests to aid the government of China instead. The Chinese (Nestorian) Christian general Guo Ziyi 郭子仪 fought alongside these Arabic knights.

More recently, the sæcular Arab nationalist states which were formed in the wake of the First World War formed some natural allegiances with the Hui Muslim minority in China. The Hui Muslims were, in fact, the descendants of Arab, Persian and Turkic traders on the Silk Road and their Chinese spouses. For the most part they practised a traditional, but moderate, form of Sunnî Islâm – that of the Hanafî school of jurisprudence – and they culturally assimilated to Chinese culture while still retaining the particular use of Arabic in religious settings. The Hui sought Arab help against Japan in the Second World War, and the Arab states which tended to be the most sympathetic were those led by left-wing nationalist figures who inclined to moderation in religious matters themselves.

The roots of Uighur discontent in China have a lot to do with the Hui Muslims, who have historically occupied a kind of ‘model minority’ status in China. Here I may be tipping my own hand a bit, but the Uighurs I worked with were intensely proud of being distinct. One Uighur co-teacher I had tended to look down on her Kazakh co-workers, which rather took me aback. But I learned that there was a historical reason for this. The Uighurs still consider themselves the heirs of the Chagatai Khanate, in which they still tend to place a great deal of civilisational pride. They have long held a certain kind of resentment against the Hui Muslims, who – like them – were Hanafî Muslims of a fairly tolerant form of devotion. But the Hui were culturally Sinicised, which offended the sensibilities of the Uighurs. The Hui became the symbols of cultural accommodationism, which also rendered them a target of nationalist violence and, later, fundamentalist terror. The Uighurs shed the first blood in this case, attacking a caravan of Hui civilians near Qeshger in 1933 and killing about 800 people.

This is not to say that the Hui themselves have been immune to the siren call of Salafism; indeed, the first Salafi group to enter China was largely through the Nationalist-aligned Xibei San Ma, and they called themselves the Yihewani 伊赫瓦尼, or the ‘Muslim Brotherhood’ – though the relations between this group and the Ægyptian ‘Muslim Brotherhood’ of Sayyid Qutb are nebulous. However, these early waves of Salafism in China have generally been hostile to the newer ones, as well as to the historical Hanafî. Thus, it should come as no surprise that the Hanafî majority of the Hui largely sided with the Communists in the Civil War, against the Yihewani.

Even so: a lot of the cultural erosion of Uighur identity, over which Anglophone liberals are now crying such obnoxious crocodile tears, has actually occurred gradually, from below, over the past four decades. The primary agent of that erosion has actually not been the Chinese state! The Saudis and the Turks, who have been pushing on them this poisonous puritanical ideology of Salafism, have been encouraging the Uighurs to undercut their own traditional jurisprudence and the use of their own language in religious venues. Even traditional architecture has not been safe from Saudi influence!

What’s more, the Arab states, both sæcular and not, have been actively monitoring the situation in Xinjiang, and their analysis is far more relevant and trenchant than the usual yellow-peril tinged analyses coming out of the Beltway and the Anglophone press. The commentary of the Dubai-based and Saudi-funded Al Mesbar Studies and Research Centre is actually quite explicit about the history of Islâmic thought in Uighur nationalist circles. They are clear about its progression from the traditional devotions of the Hanafî school toward modern Salafism. They are also clear about the contradictions between the Hanafî and Sûfî majority in China and the Salafi minority.
The genesis of the roots of Salafism can be traced back to Mongol expansionism and its contemporary origins to European colonialism. Salafism assumed a new dimension after the discovery of oil in Saudi Arabia in the 20th century and was reinvigorated with increased globalisation in 21st century. The Kingdom of al Saud aggressively promoted its brand of Salafism called Wahhabism. With religious exchanges and educational programs, Saudi influence and funding gathered momentum. With the oil money transformed the landscape of Islâm, the call to go back is Salafism found resonance among Muslims worldwide.

The fastest growing Islâmic movement in the world is Salafism. The ideological footprint of Salafism in China is growing. Salafism is an ideological spectrum from the peaceful to the violent. Like elsewhere in the world, the Muslims most susceptible to recruitment by extremist and terrorist groups are those who have embraced Salafism. With the increased contact with South Asia and the Middle East, the Chinese Muslims have been influenced by the Salafi-Jihâdi-Takfiri ideologies. With greater interaction, Chinese Muslims realized that Islâm in their own country has been adapted. Although most Salafists in China are peaceful, increasingly the version of Salafism influencing a growing minority of Chinese is of both religious and security concern.

The vast majority of the Chinese Muslims are Hanafi and Sufi, schools antithetical to Salafism and its virulent strains. Like other countries, China is challenged by the growth of Salafism especially the Jihâdist and Takfiri strain. As an ideology, Salafism in China is propagated on-line and in real space. Like in the real space, Salafism on-line is a spectrum from mainstream to extreme. The existing footprint of Salafi-Jihâdi-Takfiri ideology that has entered China from overseas is reinforced by an on-line version of Salafism, Cyber Salafism is influencing a segment of the Chinese Muslims especially the youth. Also called “cut and paste Islâm,” Cyber Salafists selectively take passages out of context from religious texts and drive Jihâdism and Takfirism, a departure from classical Salafism.
They are also quite clear about the nature and broader aims of Turkish influence there:
In China, the fight for the independence of Xinjiang was spearheaded by Uighur nationalists in the centre and north and Uighur Salafists in the southwest. Gradually, with influence from the bordering South and Central Asia and support from the distant Middle East and Europe, the entire movement assumed a Salafist orientation. Despite efforts by Beijing and Xinjiang governments to dismantle the underground Salafi infrastructure, ideological and operational threat persisted and grew. Although a Uighur militant infrastructure survive in Xinjiang, the sustained pressure to dismantle the group led many like Mahsum to flee China. They reorganised themselves in Munich, Dubai, and in Peshawar in the 1980s and 1990s with support from governmental, non governmental, community, and crime [sic].

As the Turks and segments of the Turkish government considered Uighurs as Turkic, they actively and tacitly supported unity moves by the divided Uighur migrant and diaspora organizations. Driven by the breakup of the Soviet empire and rise of Central Asian states, Turkey wished to expand its influence from Turkey through Central Asia to Xinjiang. The Uighur elite organized the first Uighur National Congress in Istanbul in December 1992. While Turkey remained a key centre, political activity expanded to Germany, fundraising emerged in the Gulf and militant activity in Pakistan spread to Afghanistan.
This is not necessarily to say that what China is doing to the Uighurs is all righteous and blessed. But as Americans, our memories tend to be frightfully short, and we tend to get outraged over all the wrong sorts of things. Not only should we be paying far more attention to our own racial profiling and mass incarceration problems than we currently are, both of which are far worse than China’s. But if we really had the interests of the Turkic peoples of Central Asia at heart – let alone those of the Christian peoples of the Middle East! – we would be doing our best to encourage the humbler, older, more tolerant and more devotional strains of Islâm that belong to the traditional Turkic heritage there. That is largely what the Central Asian ‘Stans’ are attempting to do. We would not now automatically be siding with the jihâdists and takfiris who have usurped that heritage and gutted it, and who are now making war on peoples across the Silk Road in the name of a globalising fundamentalist ambition.

At least Syria’s government does not seem liable to making such a mistake. So much the better.

08 December 2019

Holy Hierarch Beuzeg, Bishop and Abbot of Dol


Church of St Budock, Cornwall

The eighth of December is the feast-day of Saint Beuzeg [also Budoc] of Dol, a Breton abbot and bishop who grew up in Ireland. He is associated not only with his fellow abbots of Dol, Samson and Maelor, but also with Saint Maodez, whose early story is similar enough to his that the two men may have been twin brothers. He was also the tutor and spiritual father of one of the sons of the holy couple Fragan and GwenSaint Gwenolau.

The mother of Saint Beuzeg and Saint Maodez, a saintly and long-suffering Breton woman named Senara, was married to a rather distrustful Breton prince, the king of Goello who reigned in Tréguier. When she was several months pregnant, her stepmother began to whisper in her husband’s ear that the child was not his. Enraged, the husband of Senara ordered that she be locked inside a barrel and thrown into the sea to drown. However, the all-merciful God had compassion upon this innocent woman and her unborn children, and not only sustained their lives aboard their makeshift craft for five months, but so arranged it so the currents bore them to Ireland. As the hagiography goes, Saint Brigid assisted Senara in childbirth, blessed her newborns and gave her to know in a vision where the poor woman would wash ashore: at Youghal in County Cork. Saint Beuzeg – who according to the hagiography could talk soon after he was born – was baptised and raised in the abbey at Youghal in Ireland. He became a monk there, and then an abbot.

Some long while afterward, both Senara and Beuzeg (and presumably Maodez as well – though at the time he was living as a hermit in Cornwall) were welcomed back to Brittany. Senara’s stepmother had fallen deathly ill and, in fear of her soul, confessed and repented of her lies against her innocent stepdaughter. Senara’s husband had sought her out and found her in Ireland, and was reconciled happily to her, but he himself soon fell ill and died. Abbot Beuzeg became a hermit, and lived on the Île-de-Bréhat. Other Breton locales associated with Saint Beuzeg are Porspoder and Plourin, where he was supposed to have set up hermit’s cells. Another explanation is given in the Life of Saint Gwenolau, that it was more the violence the British were suffering from their Saxon neighbours that caused Beuzeg to flee into Brittany. Nevertheless, it was at Île-de-Bréhat that, according to the Life of the later saint, Gwenolau was entrusted for his education to Saint Beuzeg by his devout parents.

Later Saint Beuzeg would return to the mainland of Brittany from his island hermitage and meet Saint Maelor, the second bishop of Dol who succeeded Saint Samson. Maelor was apparently so impressed by Beuzeg that he willingly relinquished the Bishopric of Dol to him. Upon his election Beuzeg ruled in the see of Dol for 26 years, and reposed peacefully in the Lord sometime in the early 600s. His saintly cultus is of course strongest in Brittany, but he is also venerated in Cornwall and Wales. Holy bishop Beuzeg, faithful shepherd of the Breton flock, pray unto Christ our God for our salvation!
Thou wast miraculously preserved from the ocean’s fury
And, being sustained by the hand of God,
Thou didst devote thyself to His service, O Hierarch Beuzeg.
Being showered with temporal and spiritual honours both in Armagh and in Dol,
Thou didst labour to win souls for Christ,
Therefore we implore thine aid,
Begging Christ our God that He will save our souls.

06 December 2019

Politicking and the Medz Yeghern


Despite my earlier support for Ilhan Omar, my congresswoman has deeply disappointed me, and many other Minnesotans, over her ‘present’ vote on the Congressional bill to recognise the Medz Yeghern as a genocide. Representative Omar’s reasoning as given, defending her ‘present’ vote, is almost a pastiche of woke-idpol reasoning and whataboutism. I have little else to say about this vote other than what I already have. Congresswoman Omar’s willing acquiescence in Turkish lies is absurd, it is craven, and it is pointless. We do not need an ‘ally’ like Turkey that cannot face the truth about its own history.

But try telling that to the president, who has been putting what pressure he can on the Senate to block the Senate from passing a resolution by unanimous consent recognising the Medz Yeghern as a genocide. The unprincipled opportunism of the president is the exact mirror image of the unprincipled opportunism of our congresswoman, sad to say, even though they are on opposite sides of the political divide.

Now, I have no love for Ted Cruz, who is a spineless sellout willing to throw Christians in the Middle East straight under the bus. And I have no love for Bob Menendez either, a cynical and corrupt Clintonian war-hawk who has been not only wrong but heinously so on nearly every single foreign policy issue of the last fifteen years.

But stopped clocks can be right twice a day, and both of them happen to be in the right on this issue. What happened to the Armenians in 1915 and 1916 is considered by a consensus of historians as a genocide, and a formal recognition of that genocide is long overdue. I’m glad that the American government is finally getting around to it at last, even if – and here Omar perhaps did speak a grain of truth – it took a moment of gæopolitical gamesmanship to bring it about.

Speaking on a personal note, I have nothing but warm feelings and gratitude for the Armenian-Americans I knew in Rhode Island. One of them was my twelfth-grade history teacher, and also a committed labour organiser. They are not only upstanding members of the community but also steadfast friends and comrades. The Armenian diaspora has had to fight an uphill battle in many Western countries against a ‘strategic partnership’ between Turkey and its allies. However, they have achieved something remarkable in bringing about recognition of what happened to them, and in that cause have built a remarkable sense of solidarity. The passage of the bill recognising the Armenian Genocide is encouraging; the fact that it has been accompanied by the usual cynical politicking much less so.

05 December 2019

Venerable Iestyn, Hermit-Martyr of Ramsey Island


Saint Iestyn’s Chapel, St Justinian, Dyfed

Today in the Orthodox Church we venerate Saint Iestyn, another holy man from Wales’s Age of Saints. A Breton hermit who lived on Ramsey Island, he was more renowned for being the starets or spiritual father of Saint Dewi of Wales.

Iestyn [alternatively called Stinan in Welsh, Justinian in English or Jestin in Breton] was born to a noble Breton family and given a sound education in the liberal arts by his parents. He was apparently took to this education so well that he soon became renowned among the Bretons for the profundity of his learning. He was ordained a priest and served dutifully among his countrymen in Armorica for some years.

At the urgings of a command from on high, telling him to go out from his land and his kindred, he left his home at an early age, placed himself in a boat made from scraped hides, and committed himself to God’s protection. He took up a life of solitude, taking up the hermit’s cross and seeking to fight his spiritual battles in the wilderness of his island off the coast of Dyfed, in the furthest southwest corner of Wales.

On Ramsey Island, he found a holy man named Honorius living there with his sister and her handmaiden. Honorius hosted Iestyn with great warmness, and saw fit to give the island entirely to Saint Iestyn. Iestyn agreed, on the condition that Honorius’s sister and her handmaid leave the island, that their ascetic strivings might not be disturbed. Some unbelievers were said to have scoffed at this, but both Honorius and his sister saw the sincerity in Iestyn’s request, and agreed to it. Honorius’s sister asked for, and got, Iestyn’s blessing for herself and her maid before they departed.

Saint Iestyn lived a life of exemplary holiness and strict asceticism. He was soon visited by Saint Dewi, who was then bishop in Dyfed, and who was apparently so impressed by Iestyn’s way of life and his wisdom in answering profound spiritual questions that Dewi at once begged Iestyn to be his confessor and spiritual father. Bishop Dewi also provided for Saint Iestyn wherever he chose to travel.

It so happened that one day five men in a boat appeared in the channel between Ramsey Island and Dyfed, shouting up to Saint Iestyn to be let near, for they bore grim news that ‘he whom you love is ill, and bids you hurry to his side’. Saint Iestyn got into the boat with them, and began chanting Psalms. He looked around at them and saw that their faces were hiding some secret malicious glee; and then he understood that they were in fact devils. He began chanting Psalm 35, and by the time he reached the fourth verse (‘Let them be confounded and put to shame that seek after my soul!’) the devils and the boat both vanished, and Iestyn found himself submerged in the midst of the waters. By the grace of God Iestyn was lifted on the waves from the water and found himself washed up on a rock on the mainland; there he saw Saint Dewi standing before him alive and well, whom the devils had told him was ill.

The Evil One, who had been cheated of Saint Iestyn’s soul by his prayers from the Psalter, still sought his life. He implanted in the souls of three brethren who had come with Saint Iestyn the seeds of jealousy and restlessness. When Saint Iestyn gently reproved these brethren, they rushed upon him with evil intent, took up axes and cut off his head. Having done this wicked deed, the murderous disciples were at once stricken with leprosy. They fled Ramsey Island and came, weeping and groaning, to ‘Lepers’ Rock’, where they spent many years in repentance. After many years their leprosy was cured, through the forgiveness of Saint Iestyn who was murdered by them.

Where Saint Iestyn’s head fell a fountain of most pure water gushed forth from the rock. This water had the power to heal even those who had ingested deadly poisons. One such man – a man named Jona whose stomach had turned ulcerous from having taken poison in milk – was brought to Iestyn’s Well and made to drink some of the water; the man coughed up a living frog and his ulcers were cured.

Saint Iestyn’s body, after his murderers had beheaded him, picked up his own head and walked with it from Ramsey Island, across the water to Llanstinan, three miles inland from Fishguard. There he lay down and was buried. On that spot, Saint Justinian’s Church still stands. Many wonders were wrought there, before Saint Dewi – having been told of the place in a vision – came to where Saint Iestyn was buried. He brought his bones out of the ground and had him translated to his cathedral in St David’s. The bones of Saint Dewi and Saint Iestyn can still be seen behind the altar in the Cathedral. Holy father Iestyn, pray unto Christ our God that our souls may be saved!


Ramsey Island, Dyfed

Ideological history: the Fourth International take on 1619


An early colonial Quaker meeting

Niles Niemuth, Tom Mackaman and David North over at the World Socialist Web Site have a rebuttal to the New York Times’s 1619 Project that is interesting and infuriating in nearly equal measure. I suppose that is to be expected from Trotskyists. But all the same there’s enough that’s substantially correct about their critique that it’s worth dwelling on at some length.

First of all, I have to admit that I agree with the overall general thrust of the Fourth International’s critique of 1619. Given my antiracist positions, as well as my High Tory scepticism of the American project generally, a casual blog reader might be tempted to conclude that my sympathies are firmly on the side of the Times in this case. That would be incorrect.

Racism is indeed an evil. Racism is indeed an evil that is deeply enmeshed in American society going back to colonial times. However, I have also always held that racism is historically circumscribed and that concrete things can be done to combat it. Useless white liberal self-flagellation on the op-ed pages of the Times is not one of them. Community policing reforms, criminal justice reform, instituting rent controls, providing equitable funding and staffing for public schools, instituting Medicare for All, ending informal population-control policies in black neighbourhoods, ending private for-profit prisons, ending redlining and predatory credit practices by both banks and payday institutions, ending the damn Forever War that runs on and destroys primarily black and poor bodies: these largely œconomic fixes would go a long way toward eliminating the most intolerable forms of racism in American society. In short, ending capitalism would also end the great bulk of the race-based misery of black America.

I agree wholeheartedly with Niemuth, Mackaman and North insofar as they hold to the limited argument against the 1619 Project and its central conceit. It is indeed not ‘in the DNA’ of America or Americans to hate each other based on the colour of their skin – either literally or figuratively. The biological and sociological determinism of the worldview behind the 1619 Project is ahistorical and, indeed, morally noxious – for the very reasons they describe.

But the problems begin to crop up very quickly when the authors for the Fourth International stray from this narrow critique into a broader take on world history, and their sweeping and reductive takes on ‘the global history of slavery, which extends back into the ancient world’. For one thing, classical slavery and modern chattel slavery were and are very different institutions, underpinned by very different material conditions. It’s actually something of a travesty, that authors proclaiming themselves to be Marxist overlook this. Any Marxist worth his salt should have a ready materialist explanation for the differences between classical and early modern slavery, because – as it happens – there is one.

In Europe itself, the two institutions – the slavery of Antiquity, and the chattel slavery of the Age of Exploration – were separated by a good half millennium of gradual abolition and humane developments in law, like those undertaken by Adamnán of Iona in the British Isles and by Eike von Repgow on the Continent. This gradual abolition happened in large part because of the building reliance of the agrarian œconomies of the late-antique barbarian kingdoms on arable land and its produce rather than on labour. This œconomic structure, which was still largely in place on the continent during the capitalist revolution, was the source of a great deal of the early resistance to the new institution of modern chattel slavery, and made up a significant element of the abolition movement going forward. This is something I have laid great stress on over the course of my writing on this blog. The old feudal resistance to the new money-based, urban and mercantile œconomy provided an early basis for the proletarian resistance that was as yet in its germinal stage.

This article series takes aim at a distorted and blinkered view of the social history of the Americas, which obliterates the contributions – as the authors purport to see it – of the nascent proletarian movement in the Northern United States in combatting both chattel slavery and Jim Crow, as well as a host of other forms of œconomic and social exploitation. And that is good and right and just. Every one of their critiques of Hannah-Jones and her Project is fully deserved. But it’s more than a bit infuriating to see the authors themselves fall into the same trap when it comes to the early history of the movement for abolition.

Tracing abolitionism as a movement back only to Wilberforce – as Niemuth, Mackaman and North do – is in fact its own form of erasure. For the same reasons that it is dishonest to omit, elide or downplay the rôle of the Northern white working class in abolitionism, so too it’s dishonest to do the same for the religious predecessors of the movement. Omitting the religious convictions of the Society of Friends or the anti-slavery activism of James Oglethorpe, or the later political syncretism of Richard Oastler (which actually got results for the working-class in Britain), from the story of abolition is every bit as great an act of distortion and violence to historical truth. Why? Because it shows the actual instance of a Marxist dialectical synthesis between the advocates of ‘feudal’ reaction and the advocates of anti-slavery radicalism, in directing a humane change in œconomic relations.

Now, I do understand that my gentle readers are likely to think, after reading all this, that the foregoing is just Cooper on one of his genealogical or arcane political hobbyhorses. And you might be right to think so to some degree. But getting the history right is something for modern leftists to be concerned with, precisely because there is simply no critical mass or critical constituency for any sort of ‘pure’ leftism in the United States. And that constituency is very unlikely to be built without some kind of populist rapprochement.

It’s telling that the closest that the working class has ever come to achieving meaningful degrees of political power in the United States was the ultimately-failed populist uprising of the 1880s and 1890s – and that was born precisely out of a fruitful alliance between urban workers who wanted to expand public ownership of infrastructure, and rural farmers who wanted to reduce their debt burden. It’s also telling in a negative way: even the most liberal elements of the professional class have always put their own interests first, and never those of the working class. It’s worth pointing out that there is considerable discontent nowadays among the very people who identify as conservative or independent, against the neoliberal consensus the authors justly rail against. A lot of that discontent is voiced in opportunistic or cynical ways, but it’s there and it’s genuine. If the left wants to gain power, it has to work with this discontent rather than in isolation from it.

I agree with the authors of the critique that history is not a morality play. Therefore, there is nothing to be gained by rendering one side of that history idealistically ‘pure’, any more than by rendering it racially ‘pure’. We only impoverish our own historical understanding when we airbrush out of our history the religious Dissenters, the Royalists, the Nonjurors and such who prepared the fields for abolitionism, built up much of the œconomic infrastructure which made abolition possible, and even tended the first fruits of its harvest. Even though, to a large degree, they were either neutral or on the ‘losing side’ of the American Revolution.

01 December 2019

Iconoclasm versus syncretism in Bolivia


A Bolivian indigenous man holding a wiphala flag

The political upheaval in Bolivia has been all over the news recently, and as it happens I do want to comment about it rather badly. What we are seeing happening in Bolivia right now is, in fact, a coup. And it is an unfolding crackdown specifically against indigenous interests, and it’s taking a turn for the sanguinary.

From a purely political perspective, the perpetrators of the coup against Evo Morales are utterly illegitimate, and their comportment is reprehensible. On account of Orthodox Christianity’s unique position within Christendom vis-à-vis indigenous rights, neither our hierarchs nor our laity should be silent about condemning this coup. Indeed, many of our Orthodox brothers and sisters in Guatemala already are.

Needless to say, I agree with Tulsi on this. Sorry, Liz, you’re not very credible on this issue. Sorry, The Economist, you’re not either, nor on many others. And of course, the same goes for Foreign Policy magazine (see also here), the New York Times, the Washington Post and the rest of the usual gang of bloodthirsty cheerleaders for American imperium.

But there is a deeper problem than that, which can be seen in the new junta’s quasi-religious, clerical-fascist rhetoric. Most of that government are Protestant fundamentalists, and their antipathy to the country’s indigenous majority is couched in chiliastic terms. What’s more, Bolivian cultural symbols like the wiphala, the tawa chakana and Pachamama have become battlegrounds. They are being attacked even as the people are being attacked, by Bolivia’s new junta. The flags are being burned, and Pachamama is being denounced.

And thus the political problems, including the one of the coup d’état mentioned above, become infused with theological ones. This almost always presents problems, particularly (but not always) when it happens in the Western Hemisphere, where right-wing Protestantism and right-wing Catholicism tend to ally in an œcumenism of fear. This is also the case here. The fundamentalists – and certain Catholic traditionalists as well – would have us believe that the distinctions are clear-cut and the battle-lines have been drawn. But even if the problems have been drawn up falsely, they are not problems to run away from. Sadly, Orthodox commentators in English-speaking countries have a tendency either to dismiss these as ‘Catholic problems’, or else ally themselves with the most retrograde elements within Catholicism and Protestantism as part of this same œcumenism of fear. Both of these positions are reactive and do not draw upon the corpus of the relevant Orthodox social witness among non-Christians, particularly in Russia and Alaska.

First of all, it’s necessary to take at least a cursory account of the history of Bolivian popular worship. Pachamama was not invented at the Amazonian Synod, and not adopted overnight by Pope Francis. Pachamama has been, in fact, a long-standing element of syncretic Catholicism in South America, and has been identified with the Virgin Mary at least since the 1500’s. It is not an immaterial historical point that this kind of syncretism is endemic to the regions in the New World conquered by the Catholic colonial powers: Santería, Voudun, the modern Puebloan religion. This particular form of religious syncretism almost always appears as a form of indigenous resistance to being conquered. That is not an excuse for, let alone an endorsement of, such syncretism. It is merely a statement of historical correlation.

Secondly, Pachamama originally referred to the Andean goddess of nature; however, it is a title and not a name. It means, literally, ‘World-Mother’, and it has been used to refer to the Virgin Mary since the introduction of Catholicism to South America. Whether it’s appropriate to assign the title of Kósmotokos (the Greek equivalent of Pachamama) to the Theotokos is a purely theological problem, and as such it is way out of my league. I wouldn’t dare to comment on it for myself, let alone for the Church. But acknowledgement of this fact places the problem of the Pachamama at the Amazon Synod in the same realm, with the same theological stakes, as the Nestorian controversy. Again, I do not dare to take a side on this question, not without the guidance of the Fathers or the received Tradition – except to say that titles are important, and can make the difference between a genuine case of idolatrous hæresy or a relatively-harmless theologoumenon.

An Orthodox Christian – or, for that matter, a cogently Catholic – answer to the current problem of syncretism must therefore be informed by both the historical and theological stakes, and by our own tradition of iconography. Politics is limited, and merely taking refuge in political reaction renders us powerless and subject to the whims of the prevailing political winds. Mere blind opposition runs the risk of turning us into iconoclasts, or idolaters of a different sort.

Above all, we must not pretend that Orthodox cultures are somehow pristine, pure and unblemished by these problems. Orthodox history also has instances in which conquest and imposition have resulted in religious syncretism. The occurrence of, or at least the scholarly interest in, dvoeverie in Russia is probably the best example of this. Contrary to romantic-nationalist mythmaking and Soviet anti-Christian polemics, dvoeverie (Russian ‘double belief’, or paganism) was probably not a continuous and unbroken presence in Russia from the times of Kievan Rus’ up to the present. Instead, it’s much more likely that ‘double beliefs’ arose as a reaction against the bureaucratic reforms of Peter the Great, and became the object of interest only in the nineteenth century and the advent of romantic nationalism. The current prevalence of dvoeverie in the North Caucasus and among Russian Cossacks in particular would seem to support the recent nature of the phenomenon.

Even so, the patient, humble model of evangelisation embodied in our holy fathers Saint Tryphon of Pechenga, Saint Innocent of Irkutsk, Saint Innocent of Alaska, Saint Herman of Alaska, Saint Jacob Netsvetov and others is probably our best response. These saints did not journey among foreign peoples in arrogance, immediately smashing their places of worship, declaring them to be filthy and cowing them into the church. Instead, they lived among them in a discipline of ascesis and an attitude of humble service and love; and when the people in need of evangelisation were ready, they would come or their own accord to hear the Word of Truth. When these non-Christian people were exploited or abused by Christians, these saints would rally to their non-Christian neighbours’ defence. This model is not the sole patrimony of the Christian East, either: this gentle model of evangelism was heavily promoted by Saint Gregory the Dialogist, Pope of Rome.

This model of evangelism, instead of retrenching the failures of earlier generations, offers forth the possibility and necessity of repentance on the part of Christians who must own a historical legacy of violence and exploitation. Indigenous syncretism is, after all, a rebuke against Christian failure to preach the Gospel without violence. More importantly, it offers indigenous people the possibility of becoming iconographers for themselves. The life and witness of Matushka Olga of Alaska is a great example of this. I do not know if Matushka Olga ever made an icon out of wood and clay and paint with her own hands, but I do know that she tended to the indigenous young women in her parish who came to her, and that she treated each one as an icon of the living God. This is equally an important work of iconography, to pay reverence to the icon of Christ in the human person.

Pachamama may or may not be a retrievable form of such iconography. Like I said before, that involves assigning titles to the Holy Theotokos, and that is a labour of the intellect way above my pay grade as a lay Orthodox blogger. All the same, it is this model of evangelism, both historical and current (witness Archimandrite Andres Girón de Leon of blessed memory) that we must uphold. This is not only to rebuke the perpetrators of the current political violence against the indigenous people in Bolivia, which is shamefully being committed in the name of our Lord. This is not only to rebuke the hidden civilisational idolatry of the œcumenists of fear. It is also to retain the promise of Christ that all cultures are capable of receiving Him and being transfigured in Him – without necessary reference to any other.