30 January 2019

Holy and Right-Believing Queen Bealdhild of Ascania

Our mother among the saints, Bealdhild Queen of the Franks

The same day on which Charles the Martyr-King was put to death, another English monarch with French matrimonial ties reposed in the Lord nearly a thousand years before: Bealdhild, nun at Chelles and English-born Queen of France.

Bealdhild was born around 627, was caught and forced into thralldom in 641, and was sold as a kitchen-slave to Erchinoald, the majordomo of Frankish Neustria under the infant Merovingian King Clovis II. She was well-liked among her fellow servants, being kindly, meek and mild of disposition, and physically well-favoured. She also did good deeds for those who shared her condition of poverty and servitude, such as mending her fellow slaves’ clothes and cleaning their shoes. After his wife died Erchinoald desired her for himself, but to preserve herself from rape, she put on an old ragged gown and asked her fellow-servants to hide her from her master’s gaze – which they did. Erchinoald instead took another woman as wife and forgot his desire for Bealdhild.

After this, she put on her wonted clothes again and appeared in the palace, drawing the eye of the adolescent King Clovis II. Smitten, the young king asked Erchinoald for her hand in marriage. Hoping to gain the king’s favour thus, Erchinoald agreed, and Bealdhild married the king in 649 – when she was 21 and he 14. Bealdhild bore Clovis II three sons: Chlothar III, Childeric II and Theuderic III – all of whom later became Frankish kings. But her marriage was short-lived: Clovis II died at a very young age of a nervous ailment. She became queen-mother and regent to her son Chlothar at the behest of Saint Eligius, who served as her advisor.

As queen, and later queen-mother, of Francia, Bealdhild bore herself with the same kindness and self-beshedding meekness that she had shown as a thrall, and additionally gained a reputation for religious devotion, as a patroness of the zealous bishops Audoen and Leodegar. She herself never forgot her days spent as a slave, and used her wealth and influence, not only to ransom and free other slaves from captivity, but to legally abolish the sale of Christian Franks into slavery (but only partly – the first true, categorical abolition of slavery was in Saxony some 550 years later). It was, according to her Vita, her ‘favourite charity’ as well as that of Saint Eligius. She also alleviated the œconomic straits of the Frankish peasantry, that led them to sell their children into thralldom in the first place, by reducing their tax and labour burden. She also sold her jewellery and used the proceeds to help the needy and establish hospitals throughout Francia. In this way, Queen Bealdhild earned the love of the Frankish people and earned a place in Christian history as an early friend of the enslaved, and foe of slavery.

The saintly queen-mother also founded and patronised a number of monasteries. She founded Benedictine houses at Corbie, Chelles, and probably Jumièges, Jouarre and Luxueil as well, and was also responsible for a royal dispensation to the monastery of Condat at Saint-Claude in the Jura mountains. This had the effect of garnering a greater pious reputation for her, but it also had a political dimension: giving more land and power to the clergy helped to neutralise opposition to her anti-slavery policies from the nobility.

In her later years, she retired to the abbey she had founded at Chelles and lived out the rest of her days as an ordinary nun, looking after the poor and the infirm and taking on the humblest tasks as needed by her sister-nuns. She reposed in the Lord at the age of 52, on 30 January in the year 680.
Let us honour today Bealdhild the blessed,
Divinely-wise queen and boast of the Orthodox,
For though frail of body she was strong in spirit,
The grace of God imparting strength to her soul.
Wherefore, let us imitate her zeal for the Lord
Who hath glorified her, and beseech her with tears
To ask Him to grant salvation to our souls!

28 January 2019

How to make sense of Sayyid Jamâl ad-Dîn?

Sayyid Jamâl ad-Dîn

I have briefly mentioned Sayyid Jamâl ad-Dîn ‘al-Afghânî’ before here, particularly his contribution to the concept of wahda (‘unity’) in the discourse of early Arabic modernity. This was a topic that deeply concerned him. However, after having read some annotated primary source materials (in translation, of course) on the man himself, I confess that I could have made that case much better than I had. Iran scholar Dr Nikki R Keddie, in her study on Jamâl ad-Dîn, places him squarely between the mediæval tradition of Islamic philosophy (which includes, in ad-Dîn’s own words: al-Fârâbî, ibn Sînâ, ibn Bâjja, Suhrawardî, Mir Dâmâd and Mulla Sadrâ) and the modern tendencies of ‘political Islam’ as embodied by his students Muhammad ’Abduh and Rashîd Ridâ. Occupying this transitional position, however, he doesn’t belong entirely with either group.

To confound things even more: there is a strong dispute over the branch of Islâm and the sect of jurisprudence to which ad-Dîn belonged. Was he, as his Ægyptian one-time admirer and student ’Abduh claimed, a true blue Afghan Sunnî of the Hanafî school? Or was he, as Keddie argues and as seems more likely from the documentary evidence, a sceptical and philosophical-minded Iranian Shî‘i with Shaykhi sympathies? Certainly, ad-Dîn had no problem either acknowledging the intellectual debt the Muslim world owed to Arab Christians, Jews and Persian ‘Magians’ – or, indeed, welcoming Christian students (who themselves were embracing anti-colonialist and pan-Arab sentiments) to his lectures and speeches. In addition, ad-Dîn was clearly a dissembler when the situation demanded it, and represented himself in different ways to different audiences. He was an Iranian among the Iranians and an Indian among the Indians; however, among the Turks and Ægyptians he presented himself as an Afghan, and among the Afghans a Turk. He was a fire-breathing champion of Islâm before the masses, and a cultured critic of Islâm before European scholars like Renan. As we can see: he followed the philosophical tendency of al-Fârâbî (and possibly also Plato) in having an exoteric message for the masses and an occluded esoteric message for a select inner circle.

It would be absurd to pretend that ad-Dîn didn’t have a political agenda. He was, very forthrightly, a most bitter foe of Western imperialism and colonialism, whether in India, in Ægypt, in East Africa, or indeed anywhere else where Muslims happened to be under foreign (particularly British) administration. And he always seemed to have a certain problem with authority – not just British. Unlike Philo, who also hated authority but knew when to bite his tongue, it seems ad-Dîn couldn’t resist poking the eyes of the rich and pompous. (I say this with the deepest endearment.) His magnetic personality seems to have bred in him a certain megálothūmía. He almost invariably became involved in intrigues and assassination attempts against truculent or corrupt princes, and was banished multiple times from multiple different Muslim polities.

Clearly there is much that is contradictory and enigmatic about the life and thought of Jamâl ad-Dîn, despite his outsized impact on the development of political Islâm on the one hand, and Arab nationalism on the other. His stances on power, on sæcularism, on ‘Western thought’, are all complex and resist easy ideological classification. But Keddie argues forcefully against the interpretation of Jamâl ad-Dîn as a political opportunist. He does have a distinct religious-political orientation, in despite of the effusions of Islamic piety aimed at the masses and the religious scepticism aimed at fellow-scholars. Keddie, as the title of her book indicates, argues that his positive religious-political stance is one of anti-imperialism and self-strengthening. Jamâl ad-Dîn did indeed want the British out of India and Ægypt, and generally off the necks of Muslims everywhere; and he did encourage Muslims to acquire some forms of Western knowledge, science and technology. Surprisingly, the terms of this anti-imperialism correspond rather well to similar doctrines in other parts of the world.

There is in fact a direct relationship between Jamâl ad-Dîn and the Russian Slavophils – or at least, some of those associated with the Aksakov circle. During his stay in Russia he met, for example, with Oberprokurator Pobedonostsev, who treated him with a surprising degree of cordiality. During this time Jamâl ad-Din published a number of anti-British, anti-imperialist editorials in the Moscow Gazette, which actually seem to have garnered some sympathy among the Slavophils but which failed to ‘move the needle’ of Russian policy in a more anti-British direction as ad-Dîn had intended.

Intriguing – though much more difficult to prove, given that ad-Dîn never went to China – is Keddie’s use of ‘self-strengthening’ as a descriptor for Jamâl ad-Dîn’s ideology, and the apparent overlap between ad-Dîn’s highly-selective advocacy for Western knowledge, and the contemporary enthusiasm in China for the doctrine of zhongti xiyong 中體西用 (‘Chinese [learning for] principles; Western [learning for] application’) first propounded by conservative-reformist Chinese statesman Zhang Zhidong 張之洞 in the wake of the First Opium War. Zhang was the first to come up with the phrase ‘中學爲題,西學為用’, but the idea and its application had long been practised by reformers in China such as Lin Zexu 林則徐 and Wei Yuan 魏源. All of these political figures were directly reacting to the brutal realities of British capitalist rapine in China and attempting to chart a different way forward with (some of) the tools at hand. Pankaj Mishra makes a much more, in my view, intellectually-daring linkage between Jamâl ad-Dîn and Liang Qichao 梁啓超 – the one-time student of Kang Youwei 康有爲 and progressive political reformer in China – and Indian reformer Rabindranath Tagore, following a similar theme, and his thesis should be heeded carefully. As an internationally-minded philosopher and anti-imperialist himself, I cannot help but think Jamâl ad-Dîn himself would deeply approve of such a reading of his work.

Still, I have to wonder. Since the Arab Spring (if not long before), the Arab world at large has witnessed a resurgence of fundamentalism on the one hand and obsequiousness to the West on the other – the two as often as not going hand-in-hand. With the exception of one nation – Tunisia, which has already had a long tradition of reformist post-imperial rule in Bourguibism – the revolution has everywhere failed to bring what it had promised: it sold out everything, and got nothing in return. The clarion calls of warning, from the likes of worthy luminaries such as the late great Samîr Amîn, have been notable for their rarity as well as their clarity. Arab nationalist ideas seem petered out… the era of despair having given way to an era of confusion.

Speaking as a sympathetic observer, it is in precisely such times of crisis as this one that a return ad fontes is desperately needed. The thinkers of the Arab world would do well to put old hatreds to bed, and consider from the very same classically-rooted virtue-ethical philosophical perspective their relationships with the various political powers in the world. The example of Sayyid Jamâl ad-Dîn, whose knowledge of the entire tradition of Islamic neo-Platonism and Peripateticism is demonstrably as profound as any of his contemporaries’, is instructive in numerous ways. Some later Arab nationalist presumptions about the fundamental character of Western sæcularism and political science need to be carefully re-examined in light of Jamâl ad-Dîn’s cautions against the ‘neicheri’ and his admonitions about the telos of religious belief. And the passions of the very recent Arab youth movements, though the initial justice of many of these movements is beyond reproach, need to be tempered by certain Socratic-Platonic doubts (which were all too near the forefront of Jamâl ad-Dîn’s mind) about the fundamental character of mass movements, and the movements of the human soul by which they are aroused. It is only under the shelter of such doubts that the valuable kernel of these movements’ initial radicalism can be preserved long enough to sprout and bear good fruit. Perhaps this is a good admonition in general for political organisers of any stripe, in any polity!

In any event, the life and political-philosophical work of Sayyid Jamâl ad-Dîn, though not without serious flaws, are worthy of deep consideration and reflection. Even, and perhaps especially, for those of us Christians in the West who oppose the continuing violence of the American state against the Middle East; and even more, those of us who share communion with Arabic brothers and sisters, and deeply and genuinely desire their good.

26 January 2019

Venerable Torhtgýð of Barking

Icon of the Saints of Barking; Saint Torhtgýð on the far right

The twenty-sixth of January is the feast-day in the Holy Orthodox Church of a lesser-known monastic saint of the English southeast: Saint Torhtgýð [or Theogirtha] of Barking. Holy Bede treats what little we know of her earthly life in his History of the English Church and People.

She lived most of her life in the abbey for women at Barking, ‘humbly and sincerely striving to serve God’. In so doing she became a trusted helpmeet for her Abbess, Saint Æþelburg, and she was placed in charge of teaching the younger novices and gently admonishing them when they strayed.

In her later years she was attacked by a wasting illness that gave her grievous bodily pain for over nine years. She bore it, however, meekly and without grumbling. In Bede’s telling, whatever sins she had committed in life were indeed more than paid for by this this-worldly suffering and her cheerful bearing of it. In the sixth year of her illness, as she left her cell one morning at dawn, she beheld what she thought was a shrouded body – but the body was shining as bright as the sun. This body was being borne out of the cloister and lifted upwards toward heaven, it seemed to Saint Torhtgýð, by gossamer strands of gold – until it entered the firmament and could no longer be seen by her eyes. This apparition, it turned out, was prophetic, for the venerable Abbess Æþelburg reposed peacefully in her old age not long thereafter, and went to her heavenly home. She was replaced as abbess by her motherly tutor in the ways of the Christian life, Saint Hildalíþ.

Saint Torhtgýð lingered in this life for three years more, and she grew so wasted in her illness that her limbs were scarce strung together. As her death drew near, she lost the use of them, as well as of her tongue. Three days and nights passed thus, but then she received a heavenly vision. Looking upward, Saint Torhtgýð began, wondrously, to speak in clear and sterling words, to some person near her which her sister-nuns could neither see nor hear. After exchanging some words in this conversation, the sister-nuns asked her to whom she was speaking, and she answered – clear-eyed and in her right wits – ‘To my dearest Mother Æþelburg!’ And the nuns understood that Saint Torhtgýð had been given by the soul of their dear departed abbess to know the day and hour of her death. After one day and one night, on the twenty-sixth of January 678, Saint Torhtgýð was released from the pains of her body and entered into æternal bliss with Christ.

Venerable Torhtgýð, pray unto Christ our God that our souls may be saved!

Priestmartyr Valentin (Sventsitskiy) of Kansk

New Priestmartyr Valentin (Sventsitskiy)

Recently I published a piece on OrthoChristian about the left-conservative thought of Dr Aleksandr Shchipkov, who is currently one of the Moscow Patriarchate’s representatives to the press. Dr Shchipkov’s thought is remarkable, as it synthesises the Vekhi thought of the early twentieth-century post-Marxist conservative circle around Berdyaev and Bulgakov, the leftist world systems theory of Immanuel Wallerstein, and the poets of the late Soviet Russian religious revival – in particular Oleg Okhapkin. Dr Shchipkov also connects his left-conservative thought to a particularly intriguing religious figure in Russian Orthodoxy: a new martyr and saint of the catacombs, Archpriest Valentin (Sventsitskiy), the New Martyr of Kansk.

An aristocratic Pole by birth, raised in Moscow by his parents, he very early on – his hagiography says the age of 15 – came to question the reigning ideologies of his time and the various strains of German idealist philosophy which undergirded them. He had a definite sensitivity to the contradictions between a comprehensive Christian worldview and practice, and the mode of life in the societal ‘mainstream’, particularly among his own class: he published two periodicals in his youth addressing the problems of living an Orthodox life in such a society. He left Moscow in the midst of the upheavals of 1905 and travelled to Saint Petersburg, where he sought after supporters for a ‘Christian Brotherhood of Struggle’. The programme of this Christian Brotherhood had strong quasi-Tolstoyan undertones of restorative justice and ethical non-violence, and private property among the Brothers was to be abolished and redistributed as the need arose. The political witness of Saint Valentin’s Christian Brotherhood favoured progressive taxation and firmly asserted the rights of labour to organise for collective bargaining, to strike against bosses, to an eight-hour workday and to a living wage.

Always in Father Saint Valentin’s thought and in his writing there are mingled a certain firebrand socialist sentiment, but the torch in his hand carries not a sæcular or nihilistic but instead a Patristic light. Saint Valentin was guided by a vision of freedom which followed not the outward, voluntarist bourgeois political ‘liberty’ presented by the classical liberals, but over-against libertarian ‘liberty’ he held to the very different vision of inward freedom which was propounded by Metropolitan Saint Filaret (Drozdov) of Moscow, wherein the content of choice determines as much the degree of freedom as the formal choice itself. One noteworthy fact is that during this time, Father Valentin became a notable public supporter within the Church of the ‘extreme left parties’ (‘крайних левых партий’), by which (according to Dr Shchipkov) he meant the agrarian-populist Socialist-Revolutionary Party. In 1907 he wrote an ‘open letter’ to the Russian bourgeoisie, which opens with the Gospel denunciations of the rich, and goes on to excoriate not only the pretensions of bourgeois piety (‘you self-satisfied, soulless, bloodthirsty owners!’), but the institution of private property itself, the division of the world into warring nation-states, the contamination of the land by industrial technologies. The letter ends with a stirring call to repentance, calling the bourgeoisie to forsake the ‘perishable treasures of this world’ and to ‘seek the new life – seek Christ!

Saint Valentin married, was ordained, and became the rector of the Church of Saint Nicholas the Wonderworker the Great Cross in Moscow, where his sermons drew large gatherings in the wake of the Revolution. Father Valentin visited the famous Optina Monastery, with which he became very intimately associated: Elder Anatoly II (Potapov) of Optina became the spiritual father of Father Valentin. It was to this Elder Anatoly that Father Valentin dedicated his Six Readings on the History of the Mystery of Repentance, a broadside against the then-common practice of general confession. Father Valentin championed the use of the Jesus Prayer, the ‘prayer of the heart’, even by the laity – and held forth strongly that the laity could and indeed should adopt some forms of monastic discipline in their everyday lives – and to this end he conducted a series of homilies on the monastic teachings of Saint John of the Ladder and how they could be adapted to the life of the layperson. As his friend Sergei Iosifovich Fudel put it:
Father Valentin Sventsitskiy on the one hand seemed to be a regular priest with a family, and on the other – an experienced teacher of continuous prayer. He did much for the general defense of the faith. But his main significance was that he called all people to conduct ceaseless prayer, an uninterrupted burning of the spirit.
Father Valentin, though he was a regular priest and not a monastic, nonetheless radiated the same warmhearted, humble presence of the Optina elders he respected and strove so much to follow. And he was deeply devoted to the sobornyi, canonical order of the Church. When Metropolitan Sergei of Moscow issued his infamous declaration to the Soviet government pledging the Church to absolute loyalty to the state and its ideology, Father Valentin – despite his avowedly far-left politics – refused to adopt the Sergianist compromise. He issued a letter to Metropolitan Sergei to the same effect, denouncing Sergei’s ‘renovationism’ and predicting that he would be considered a schismatic for his actions. He was, unfortunately, proven right. Father Valentin was caught up in a wave of arrests prompted by the Metropolitan after the widespread outcry at his declaration. He was branded a ‘counter-revolutionary’ and sentenced to exile in Krasnoyarsk in Siberia. Father Valentin contracted, on account of his condition in exile, an acute case of hepatitis, for which he was refused medical treatment – and in this way the saintly priest met his repose. His relics were later found to be incorrupt.

Saint Bunakov and Mother Maria of Paris both sought a synthesis of Orthodox spirituality in modern, contemporary life – and both intuitively grasped a confluence between Orthodoxy and the aspirations of the poor. Like Mother Maria in particular, Father Saint Valentin (Sventsitskiy) not only preached but lived this confluence: a kind of new monasticism which could be adapted to the lives of laypeople. His Optina-mentored, monastic-inspired Christian radicalism – too ‘red’ for ROCOR and not the proper shade of ‘red’ for the Sergianists – can and should serve as a model for Orthodox social witness in the present day. Holy New Priestmartyr Valentin of Kansk, we beseech you earnestly to pray to Jesus Christ our Lord on behalf of us wretched sinners!

EDIT: Holy Father Valentin’s feast day is actually not on 26 January, but instead on 20 October (7 October OC).

21 January 2019

Venerable Ósburg, Abbess of Coventry

Saint Ósburg of Coventry

The twenty-first of January is the feast-day in the Orthodox Church of Saint Ósburg, the holy mother and foundress of Coventry Abbey – now the Church of the Most Holy Sacrament and St Osburg in Birmingham.

Nothing is actually known about the life of Saint Ósburg, other than the fact that she founded a nunnery at Coventry. In fact, we do not even know which century she lived in, as Alban Butler’s Lives of the Saints demonstrates some confusion on that point. Some sources seem to indicate her floruit in the reign of the Danish Cnut King. Others date her far earlier, as far back as the eighth century.

Her local saintly cultus, however, is quite well-attested. In 1410, the abbey was active. And her shrine was the site of so many wonderful healings and good works, that the townspeople of Birmingham began to petition the bishops that Ósburg’s day be kept as a local festival. A council of clergy was therefore called in Birmingham, and the result was a decree that Ósburg be commemorated as a patroness of the archdeaconry of Coventry. Though it is unclear which day was originally chosen for the festival, the archdiocese of Birmingham still remembers Saint Ósburg on the twenty-first of January.

Holy mother Ósburg, pray unto Christ our God that our souls may be saved!

Church of the Most Holy Sacrament and St Osburg, Coventry

20 January 2019

Orthodoxy and indigenous solidarity

Orthodox celebration in Aleut community in Nikol’skoe, Russia

I am not going to pass direct comment on the Covington Catholic / Nathan Philips story, for the simple reason that I wasn’t there and am not in a position to pass comment. However, I do feel strongly about the ‘framing’ of the story, and the artificial way in which pro-life and indigenous-rights concerns were opposed to each other, on the basis of one being traditionally a concern of the American ‘left’, and the other a concern of the American ‘right’.

I won’t belabour the theological and anthropological reasons for Orthodox Christians to take such a stand, but Orthodox Christians in the United States are, for understandable and (in my own opinion) correct reasons, drawn to the cause of the defence of the unborn. That is well and good. However, I believe we can likewise draw a strong moral and practical case for Orthodox Christians to embrace the cause of indigenous rights.

I am not simply speaking of the ample historical witness of great Orthodox holy men who witnessed among indigenous peoples and spoke up on behalf of their dignity whenever it was trampled: Saint Mark the Evangelist, Venerable Tryphon of Pechenga; Saint Herman the Wonderworker of Alaska; Patriarch Saint Tikhon of Moscow; Saint Jacob (Netsvetov); Archimandrite Andres (Girón) of blessed memory and Fr Themi (Adamopoulos) – though these witnesses are indeed important.

And I am not simply speaking of the general moral principles of justice within and between nations which hold that the only defensible war is a war of defence (and not a war of conquest), within the Church that peoples deserve a certain measure of collective identity outside of church and state, that cultural identity is not overridden by either religious or sæcular pretensions to a singular abstract universal truth – though, obviously, these are important too. Particularly when it comes to assessing questions of historiography.

At its best – or rather, when it holds to its own principles – Orthodox ecclesiology itself militates on behalf of indigenous peoples, for the simple reason that the Orthodox Church seeks to present the tactile and specific reality of the risen Christ to the people in a tongue that they can understand. Orthodoxy evades also the Protestant temptation to eradicate local customs – again, Orthodox missionaries seeking to redeem rather than erase and then superimpose foreign structures upon the cultures of the non-Christian peoples amongst whom they worked.

In addition, we must address the current realities. Orthodox Christianity, despite being the official religion of the Roman Empire for a significant length of time, nonetheless seems – at its best – to draw near to the crucified peoples of the world: the Arab Christians of Palestine and Syria, the Rusins – and historically, the Bulgarians and the Greeks. The plight of the Arab Christians in the Middle East is real: they face extinction at the hands of Sunnî fundamentalists and the revanchists of Turkey, Israel and Kurdistan. There is a very real affinity between the Orthodox historical witness and the current plight of the world’s indigenous peoples.

That plight is strikingly similar the world over. The Índios of Brazil, the Maya of Guatemala (many of them Orthodox) and Honduras – both face direct persecution and settler encroachment at the hands of right-wing governments. The indigenous inhabitants of the Congo have faced genocidal violence for over 20 years at the hands of neoliberal states after their mineral wealth. In East Asia, indigenous Taiwanese people face cultural discrimination and abridgement of their œconomic rights. The indigenous people of Okinawa are still fighting a battle against the American Marine base at Futenma, and for their land and water rights. And here in the United States, we have the indigenous resistance to the Tar Sands pipelines – first Standing Rock, and now Line 3 – and to the abuse and abduction of indigenous women.

Here’s the thing. Just as the plight of unborn children is not a ‘left’ issue or a ‘right’ issue, the plight of indigenous people is also not a ‘left’ issue or a ‘right’ issue; indeed it has some overlap with both. Indigenous values include traditional manhood, traditional womanhood, respect for the elderly and the sanctity and integrity of the child: all things which traditionalist conservatives can appreciate. On the other hand, indigenous worldviews also establish priorities for œcological and œconomic justice, promote reciprocality and generosity, and eschew acquisitive individualism: things which the socialist left can understand and admire. These are all, furthermore, concerns which the Orthodox Church also holds dear.

17 January 2019

The problem with ‘woke’ ad campaigns

It seemed to me for a moment like my memory was playing tricks on me, but apparently not: looking back into ye olde blog archive, about five years ago I posted this little gem about Proctor & Gamble promoting hip, ‘woke’ feminism via their Pantene brand, targetted at women. And now it seems the same big pharma corporation is using one of their ‘men’s’ brands, Gillette, to get in on the same angle, with a hip, ‘woke’ variation on their slogan, ‘The Best a Man Can Get’. Back then, I believe the exact phrase I used was: ‘Guh.’ So, here it is, gentle readers: the Feminist™ critique of toxic masculinity. Brought to you (again!) by Proctor & Gamble. Guh.

Back then, I made the rather simplistic point, echoing Nancy Fraser (who said it better) that neoliberal capitalism and feminism are not necessarily at odds with each other. Indeed, they even have some common interests. Not that such a conclusion was wrong, of course. The confluence between neoliberal interests in demoralised, replaceable, fungible labour on the one hand, and the liberal-feminist suspicion of rooted family structures on the other, is clear, obvious, and requires critique from the left. Such a critique is not only possible, but historically-evidenced and necessary. But now that angle of approach seems to miss a broader point: a point that has only come into clearer focus as I have read more books by Christopher Lasch, René Girard, and Thomas Frank.

Thomas Frank, author, analyst and contributor to the Guardian, the Baffler and the Real News Network, whose book Listen, Liberal is a notable cry from the heart for the American political left to remember its working-class roots, has an incisive critique of ‘woke’ neoliberalism from the opposite angle. Sure, on the production side of the equation, there is a confluence of interests between a sæcularising left which views the family with suspicion and a corporate capitalism willing and ready to seize upon the breakup of the family œconomy for the cheaper labour it frees up. But on the consumption side of the equation, Frank’s The Conquest of Cool ought to be required reading.

In brief, The Conquest of Cool details how the notably un-cool marketing machines for the American corporate world managed to study the rise of the youth movement and the counter-culture of the 1960s and make rebranding themselves a perpetual strategy. The ‘hip’-ness of youth rebellion and non-conformism was coöpted and transformed, with resounding success, into an ‘official capitalist style’, starting with the first minimalist advertisements for Volkswagen in the 1960’s as they catered to the youth market with a self-subversive style, and ending with the embrace of the sleek futurist æsthetic that is the Apple brand. Not only that, but they did so in full faith that the creative-destructive aims of the counterculture were right and just and good – which should be a trifle disturbing for anyone who truly believed in the counterculture! As Frank writes:
Many in American business, particularly in the two industries studied here, imagined the counterculture not as an enemy to be undermined or a threat to consumer culture but as a hopeful sign, a symbolic ally in their own struggles against the mountains of dead-weight procedure and hierarchy that had accumulated over the years…

Like the young insurgents, people in more advanced reaches of the American corporate world deplored conformity, distrusted routine, and encouraged resistance to established power. They welcomed the youth-led cultural revolution not because they were secretly planning to subvert it… but because they perceived in it a comrade in their own struggles to revitalise American business and the consumer order generally.
Here we are at the end of the 2010’s, though, and ‘woke’ has now replaced ‘hip’ as the wilfully-coöptable and creatively-destructive potential partner of the modern ad man. I daren’t speak for Frank on this question, but I imagine he would have a field day with Proctor & Gamble’s new ad, because there’s so much there that echoes beat-for-beat the thesis of The Conquest of Cool. The narrator signalling his authenticity with an earnest appeal. The children symbolically bursting through a screen playing an old Gillette TV commercial (notice the subtle self-critique, which adds to the feeling of ‘earnestness’). The old Berkelite solid-state television set playing tellingly-retro cartoons and lowbrow Archie Bunker-style sitcoms. The man with neatly-combed hair, shirt and tie making sexist jokes in front of a studio audience. The male executive in a corporate boardroom ‘mansplaining’ what a woman has just said. Picket fences. Barbecues. Polo shirts. All the tactile and visual touchstones that indicate the 1950s vital-centre mainstream against which the original ‘youth culture’ rebelled. The implicit message is clear: sexism is unhip. It’s square. It’s not cool. It’s something old people do, or else it’s something old people model or condone for young people to copy.

By contrast, the ‘wokeness’ in the ad is signalled through the use of modern technologies – cable news, for example, and smartphone cameras. ‘Woke’ manliness is performed by young people with non-conformist hairdos and neatly (Gillette?)-trimmed hipster beards. ‘Woke’ manliness is young dads stepping out into the yard or struggling against the oncoming crowd at a busy intersection to break up a fight. And the sign-off, of course, is an appeal to the future: ‘the boys of today will be the men of tomorrow.’

I would just take a moment to note that there is very little wrong with the message itself: sexism and violence and bullying are generally things we can agree are bad (or ‘toxic’, if you prefer) and should change. But Frank would have us notice the packaging, the subtext in which and through which that message is carried – and he would point us straight to Girard in doing so. There’s always a mark. There’s always a designated butt, a scapegoat – and in this case, it’s the old people. It’s not even enough to say that the ad misses the mark even though the ‘flight from feeling’ is still the most pronounced and the most violent among the young, because that doesn’t quite address the impulse to pick out and attack a mark in the first place.

There is, after all, something quite ugly about a company that points to old and old-fashioned folks as ‘the problem’ in what is otherwise a laudable anti-bullying message. (Ageism is a thing, guys.) There is something even uglier and more hypocritical in being lectured to about the evils of bullying by a company which ruthlessly exploits slave labour in its supply chains, but does nothing about it because the victims of this particular kind of bullying are invisible in the news cycle this ad glorifies. Of course the ad provoked a backlash: it was designed to. More attention means more airtime. More negative press gives Proctor & Gamble more free opportunities to look like a ‘woke’ rebel and culture-jammer against the ‘squares’ who complain. Again, Thomas Frank, keen cultural observer that he is, noticed this years ago:
Ordinary working-class people are right to hate the culture we live in. They are right to feel they have no power over it, and to notice that it makes them feel inadequate and stupid. The ‘Middle Americans’, after all, are the people the ads and the sitcoms and the movies warn us against. They are the prudish preacher who forbids dancing, the dullard husband who foolishly consumes Brand X, the racist dad who beats his kids, the square cowboy who is gunned down by the alternative cowboy, the stifling family life we are supposed to want to escape, the hardhat who just doesn’t get it. Conservatives are good at pinpointing and magnifying these small but legitimate cultural grievances. What they are wrong about are the forces that create the problem.
Thomas Frank’s now 15-year-old analysis would not be out of place today – with one very notable exception: the last sentence. As Frank himself points out in his more recent book, conservatives are the ones who are wising up, and noticing that in the post-Trump era, the old playbook of social conservatism + markets doesn’t work anymore (not that they ever did so well). Don’t believe me? Ask Tucker Carlson! Now, of course Tucker Carlson weds his critique of unbridled markets and their penchant for destroying the things that social conservatives claim to value (communities, churches, local businesses, agrarian lifestyles, nuclear families) to a chord of Yellow Peril racial animus that is unacceptable. And of course Carlson refuses to posit any sort of real alternative to capitalism. But that doesn’t stop his line of critique from being popular among the same people the left should be reaching. This has been the logic of the backlash from the beginning.

If there is no critique from the left of the sort of performatively-‘woke’ capitalism that Proctor & Gamble is engaging in with this ad, the field will be wide open for the neo-Coughlinist ideology of Tucker Carlson and those who will inevitably follow him. And 2016 is behind us now, so we know what ‘woke’ neoliberalism looks like and sounds like, and more importantly how it performs, when it goes up against an even marginally self-aware appeal to popular anger over such cultural slights. This is not a development to welcome.

Venerable Mildg‎ýð, Nun of Minster-in-Thanet

Minster Abbey in Thanet, Kent

Another holy mother of the English Church, a native of Kent, Saint Mildgýð is commemorated on the seventeenth of January in the Orthodox Church. The third and youngest of the sainted daughters of Merewalh King of the Magonsætan by Æbbe his saintly lady, Mildgýð is unfortunately sometimes overlooked in preference to her more famous elder sisters Mildburg and Mildþr‎ýð. Together the three daughters of Merewalh are taken in English hagiography as representatives of the three theological virtues: with Mildburg representing faith; Mildgýð representing hope; and Mildþrýð representing love. Though the Antiochian Orthodox Church remembers Mildgýð as a holy abbess at Minster-in-Thanet, she also has an association with Northumbria, where she may have served God as an anchoress or an abbess.

She was originally located at a small Benedictine priory in Eastry, but soon relocated to be nearer her older sister in Thanet. Some traditions have it that she succeeded Mildþr‎ýð as abbess of Minster; however, Mildþrýð’s successor at Minster is named as Éadburg. It seems more likely that Mildgýð long predeceased Mildþr‎ýð, as the date of her blessed repose is given as the seventeenth of January in the year 676. Holy mother Mildgýð, righteous and hopeful nun, pray unto Christ our God that our souls may be saved!

16 January 2019

Mouse-ear cress on the moon

Chinese scientists have now successfully sprouted plants on the moon. In earth soil, mind you. And in a sealed oxygenated environment. And sadly, it appears the sprouts did not survive the lunar night cold. But even so: this is a remarkable achievement, and growing plants, possibly even food, is a far healthier achievement than putting the Moon to military uses (in my own humble opinion). Lunar agriculture is no longer science fiction, but has ascended to the realm of the possible.

Even more exciting for me is that, among the plants and animals the Chinese sent up on Chang’e (along with cotton - which sprouted, canola, potatoes, yeast and fruit flies) is Arabidopsis thaliana, also known as mouse-ear cress, a plant with which I became quite familiar and friendly in my college days as a lab technician on an evolutionary biology project spanning two continents and nine different research sites.

But this is me nerding out. Personally, I think this stuff is (pardon the expression) far out, and definitely want to see what China does next with its space programme.

Our father among the saints, Venerable Fursa of Burgh

Saint Fursa of Burgh

Fursa of Burgh, one of Ireland’s an Ceathrar Álainn (‘four comely saints’) and evangelist of the East Saxons, is commemorated today on the Orthodox New Calendar.

Born about 567 to heathen noble parents, Fintan son of Finlog and Gelges daughter of Aed-Finn, Fursa was baptised by Saint Brendan as a youth. He took the tonsure as an adult at the same Clonfert Monastery which Saint Brendan had founded, and took up an intense study of Scripture. He sought after the ascetic and hesychastic disciplines then common among Gaelic monks; and later was ordained as a priestmonk. He founded a monastery at Rathmat, which has been identified with the old church of Killursa, at which he lived a simple and austere ascetic life alongside his brother monks, living in rough wooden dwellings, ploughing, farming and raising cattle.

The missionary work of Saint Fursa did not begin until later. Being both an ascetic and a visionary, he was famously given to see spiritually many things. He began to see visions of the future – both his mission work in England and France, and also the troubles and sicknesses that would visit Ireland after his death. He beheld in these visions both the blessed life in æternity, and the horrors of hell. He was visited both by angels and by unclean powers, who appeared to him arguing over the souls of the departed, and he was given to see the fates of both the righteous and the unrighteous. He saw four fiery trials that awaited the soul after death: the first would burn those given to falsehood; the second those given to greed and who desire worldly riches; the third those who spread discord and offence; and the fourth those who rob and defraud the weak. He was visited also by the souls of departed monastics who lectured him on the nature of the ascetic disciplines, and the pitfalls that await monks. One must fast – first from spite and from untruths; then from meat and wine, but only insofar as that fasting is directed against greed and envy.

At one time, Fursa came upon a man lately dead, who had been a sinner in life. He took something valuable from the dead man’s cote – and the demons, seeing this, scorched him on his shoulder and on his face where he had taken the bauble. However, the angels had seen that Saint Fursa had taken it not out of greed, but in order to let the sinful man’s soul pass through the fire unburdened. When Saint Fursa again appeared to his friends, the burn-marks on his shoulder and chin could be seen.

He left Ireland eventually, but not before wandering as a mendicant preacher around his own country first, healing the sick, exorcising the possessed and preaching the Gospel. He lived also as a hermit on an isolated island for several years before setting off for Wales and then England in the company of two companions and brothers, Saint Foillan and Saint Ultan, where Saint Bede the Venerable picks up his tale. Bede has it that Saint Fursa first came before Saint Sigeberht, King of the East Angles, as a wayfarer desiring to live among the East Angles as a stranger for the sake of Christ. Sigeberht welcomed Fursa with honours, and allowed the latter to preach the Gospel and do his good works among the East Angles, of whom a great many were converted by Fursa’s preaching, teaching, healing and charitable works. Having received the land from the pious king Sigeberht, Saint Fursa founded, together with Foillan and Ultan, a monastic house at Cnobheresburg – nowadays identified with Burgh Castle in Norfolk.

From this monastery, Saint Fursa did much to further and assist the missionary work which had been begun in East Anglia by Saint Felix of Burgundy, who had taken up residency in Suffolk. This he tried to do at some distance, since he shunned earthly glory – but this was difficult to do as Saint Fursa was much beloved by the East Angles who had come to Christ.

At some time after the pious king, Sigeberht, was martyred by the heathen in battle, Saint Fursa and his monastic brothers were threatened by the fierce heathen king Penda of Mercia. Saints Fursa, Ultan and Foillan left England, together with the holy relics and books they had brought with them, for Frankish Neustria. Welcomed by Clovis II of the Franks, Saint Fursa founded a monastery at some small remove from Paris, in Lagny, dedicated to Saint Peter. This monastery flourished as the result of the wonders Saint Fursa worked among the western French people, especially curing the sick and bringing robbers and murderers to repentance through his preaching – and as a result of the gifts bestowed upon it by Clovis II and later by his pious English wife, Bealdhild.

Saint Fursa lived to be a very old man. He reposed in the Lord, dying of a sudden illness while on one of his journeys in Mezerolles. For a full month, his body was not interred, for the thousands who had been brought to Christ and strengthened in Christ through him could bid him farewell. His relics remained incorrupt. When at last he was interred in the Abbey of Saint Peter at Lagny, his relics still produced a sweet fragrance for many years afterward.
Establishing thy monastery in a Roman fortress,
Thou didst teach men that the Orthodox Faith is a true bastion
Against the onslaughts of every evil force, O Father Fursa.
Wherefore pray to God for us,
That we may all be bastions of the Faith
Standing firm against the rising tide of falsehood,
That our souls may be saved.

12 January 2019

Venerable Biscop of Wearmouth, Benedict of the North

Saint Biscop (Baducing), Abbot of Wearmouth

The founder of the Abbey Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul in Monkwearmouth, Biscop (Baducing) of Wearmouth, is celebrated today on the Orthodox New Calendar, the Roman Catholic and the Anglican calendars. The patron of all English Benedictines, Saint Biscop was also the spiritual father and mentor of the Venerable Bede, whose writings had a profound influence on my own decision to join Orthodoxy. A point of clarification first: Biscop is the saint’s personal name, not his title; upon being tonsured he took the name of Saint Benedict the Venerable of Nursia, whose life and works he strove to his utmost to emulate, and whose religious rule he implanted in all of the monasteries in which he was involved.

Biscop was born in 628 in Northumbria to eldern of high birth; in his youth he was a þegn of Óswiu wæs Æþelferþing king of Northumbria. However, even as a young man of the world, he had no love for fighting or violence, held his lands and his worldly wealth at little value, and would not marry. At the age of twenty-five he was overcome with an urge to go on pilgrimage to visit the Tomb of the Apostles in Rome: a popular pilgrimage destination for English Christians in later generations as well. Along the way, he met another young man – Saint Wilfrid – who accompanied him on his pilgrimage as far as Lyons. This pilgrimage apparently was something of a conversion experience for Biscop. He fell in love with the manner of life among the Roman religious, and upon his return to Northumbria some years later strove to introduce aspects of it among the English.

Biscop made a second pilgrimage to Rome in 665; the æþeling of Northumbria, Ealhfriþ, desired to accompany him on this journey, but his father Óswiu forbade him. In Rome, Biscop made the acquaintance of Pope Vitalian; and on his return he stopped in Lérins, France, where he left the world and took the tonsure. The young þegn stripped himself of all worldly pretensions and made himself humble in the service of God, learning the monastic disciplines and taking upon himself without grumbling the lowest place among the brothers. Having spent two years there, the itch to go again to Old Rome came over him, and thither he went. This time, when he came into the city, he was in the company of another Englishman, Wigheard, who was coming before Pope Vitalian to receive the omophorion of Canterbury. Wigheard was stricken with an illness, however, and died: Vitalian instead appointed Saint Theodore of Tarsus to the position on the advice of Saint Hadrian. Pope Vitalian had the young monk Biscop accompany the saintly Greek hierarch and the Berber monk part of the way back to England as a native guide, and joined them there after an eventful winter. Biscop was made Abbot of St Peter’s in Canterbury, the abbacy which was soon to become Hadrian’s. Again he left after two years for Rome; only this time, he brought back with him books by the Church Fathers, and a great many of them, and returned with them to his home country of Northumbria, where he met with Óswiu’s son Ecgfrið. The new king was quickly impressed by the depth of Biscop’s learning and his great zeal for building the Church, and so gave him a gift of seventy hides of his own land, on which to build the monastery of St Peter at the mouth of the Wear.

Biscop hired masons and glassworkers from Francia – the latter being the first artisans in the country to produce stained glass – and undertook yet another trip to Rome to furnish his new abbey with relics; all manner of books both religious and sæcular, in both Latin and Greek; a monastic teacher of music – in particular, plainchant; and a letter from Pope Saint Agathon securing for his monastery full independence from sæcular political interference. So diligent was Biscop in establishing this monastery that the Divine Liturgy could be celebrated within its walls within a year of the land being blessed. He also brought icons in the Eastern Roman style, and used them to create (as Venerable Bede describes) an iconostasis in the nave of the Church: ‘so that every one who entered the church, even if they could not read, wherever they turned their eyes, might have before them the amiable countenance of Christ and his saints, though it were but in a picture’. Ecgfrið King was so impressed by what Biscop had been able to accomplish that he augmented his earlier gift with a further forty hides of land out of his own store of wealth for an additional monastery, the monastery of St Paul at Jarrow – which would be joined for ever to that of St Peter in Wearmouth. To head this new monastery Saint Biscop chose Ceolfrið, a younger monastic who would be the closest mentor and spiritual father to the young Bede. He also chose Saint Eosterwine, his cousin who likewise had a fervent zeal for the Church, to help him take care of Wearmouth’s daily affairs and to act as prior and co-abbot of the monastery.

Biscop made yet another trip to Rome to acquire more books. When he returned, however, he found to his sorrow that Ecgfrið his king and friend had been slain in battle and his faithful helper Eosterwine had succumbed, along with many of his brother-monks, to a virulent plague. Ecgfrið was succeeded by his Irish half-brother Aldfrið; Saint Eosterwine was replaced as prior at Wearmouth, on the rede of Ceolfrið, with the gentle and knowledgeable deacon Saint Sigefrið. Aldfrið, a man who held learning in high est, had a good working relationship with Saint Biscop; in exchange for two fine silk omophors he had brought from Rome, Aldfrið sold Biscop three hides of ‘sundered land’ bordering Monkwearmouth on the south side of the river – a fishing village which in later times would grow into a city of some prominence.

Saint Biscop’s own time, however, was growing short. Sigefrið was smitten with a deadly wasting illness, and Biscop himself was lain out with a sickness that robbed him, slowly and sorely, of the use of his limbs, and crippled his body for three years – the pain came to be such that he could not sleep. However, he still took it upon himself to celebrate, without complaint, the Divine Liturgy and fulfil all the duties of his abbatial office; and though his body was wasted his mind was kept clear, pure and sane until the very end of his life. His final words to his brethren were to exhort them to remain united – both the Wearmouth Abbey and the Jarrow Abbey; to hold steadfast to the Benedictine Rule and way of life; to preserve and expand the massive library of books and holy writings he had procured from Old Rome; and never to overlook anyone among the monks on account of birth, however rude or poor or lowly, but to follow the man who showed the greatest meekness and spirit of love in his own life.In his last hours, on the fourteenth of January, the brethren of Wearmouth and Jarrow read the Holy Scriptures aloud for him, and also read from the Psalter. Saint Biscop reposed as the brethren were chanting the eighty-second Psalm, which was by Saint Bede taken as a sign that no spiritual enemy had laid hold upon him as he met his earthly journey’s end, but that he departed in blessedness.

This great and zealous Benedict of the European north displayed in his life the most admirable traits of his order. He was dissatisfied with the warlike and acquisitive society into which he had been born, and sought to change its character starting within himself. He was peaceful, meek and kind; he treated the poor (Sigefrið) and rich (Eosterwine) brother-monks alike; he sought learning of all sorts, but especially that holy learning which came from the Church Fathers.

~ ~ ~

So my gentle readers may be wondering by this point (or perhaps not – is it any wonder The Heavy Anglo Orthodox has a thing for English Benedictines?) why I have been highlighting the hagiographies of all these early English, Frankish and German saints: Willibrord, Hilda, Bernward, Éadmund, Eanflæd, Ælfríc, Botwulf, Berin, Eadburga, Sturm, Hildalíþ, Ecgwine, Hadrian and Beorhtwald. Well, the short answer is and deserves to be: because they are Christlike, and because they are ours – as Westerners we ought to be looking to such a paradigm anyway.

But I feel like I can’t and shouldn’t stop there – particularly not after I was led to go back and read the Rule in the spirit of Liz Bruenig. These hagiographies form a pattern, and certain subtle – or perhaps not-so-subtle – golden threads begin to emerge from it to those with eyes to see them. These men and women who took Benedict as their rôle model did indeed set their faces against the prevailing winds of their cultural moment, but it behoves us to consider precisely what kind of cultural moment that was. As Peter Heather’s books on the subject bear witness, the collapse of the Western Roman Empire saw the wealthy and propertied gather up and stockpile as much wealth as they could, build their own private infrastructure, and barricade themselves behind gates to be barred against not only the Vandals and Goths and Huns – the heretics and heathens – raging outside, but also against the poor and dispossessed. Bereft of its legal structural safeguards, in the waning days of Western Rome, the impulse of the patrician (steeped in the legal principles of dominium proprium, the absolute right of Roman man to his lands, his money, his wife and kept women, his children) was to save his own skin and let the world burn.

Following up on a point broached by Sam Rocha a year ago, it was this particular tendency of the Roman sæcular culture in crisis that so thoroughly repulsed the historical Saint Benedict. A careful reading of his Rule shows that the world it tries to build within the walls of his community is a systematic dismantling of the legal principle of dominium proprium and its replacement with a diametrically dissimilar way of living. A Benedictine monk gives up all manner of private and personal property. He gives up any claim of ownership or control over other people – particularly women or children. He gives up his right to eat and drink what he likes, or sleep when he likes. And – this is the most important part – he gives up his self-will and submits to obey Jesus Christ, the Law of Love in the flesh, in the person of the Abbot and in the persons of the poor who appear before him at the abbey door.

That’s the thing about these Benedictines in their monastic communities: they may have a porter, but they are not barred against the sick, the suffering, the sorrowful, the afflicted, the captives, the needy and the poor of the world. It was a direct rebuke to the way the gates of the dominus of the post-collapse Italian latifundium was barred. The monks are there together to do what is needed first to help the least of these, with love and hospitality and real solidarity being their second law (the first being to put their self-will to death and obey God in love). So, listening to the representatives of the Tallahassee DSA talk about the localized, decentralised, caritative, put-yourself-second and do-what-you-have-to ethos behind what they are calling disaster socialism – getting needed supplies, services and free pizza to the victims of flooding when the state wouldn’t help – I couldn’t help but think: that’s our real Benedict option, right there. That’s what we need to be doing to bear witness against the sickness of our culture.

Look closely at the hagiographies, read them with care – not the truncated ones on my blog, but the actual ones written under a discipline by later monastics. And you find that that’s what Abbot Biscop was actually promoting in Northumbria. That’s what Ecgwine was actually preaching in Worcester that angered the rich so much that they sent him to Rome in leg shackles. That’s what Willibrord actually did in the Low Countries when he led his weary, hungry and thirsty companions into the fields of wealthy landowners. That’s what Botwulf in Suffolk and Hilda in Whitby actually did, to the point of giving away all their food stores and goods to the poor when disaster struck. Were they preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ, God Incarnate, risen from the tomb? Uh, yes. Were they evangelising heathens? You bet. Did they keep the Great Commission at the front of their minds? No question. But these early English monastic saints were often to be seen going out of their way to be generous to the people who needed it most, and using the word of Christ not as a fearful exercise in withdrawal from a hostile and callous culture, but instead as a bold call to leaven it.

And leaven it they did. King David, in the Book of Ecclesiastes, was wise to say that ‘the thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done’. One of the innovations that came with the flooding of the poor and dispossessed into the margins of Empire, was the adoption (particularly along the Upper Rhine) of the open-field system, a communal institutional arrangement adopted in towns and rural settlements which pooled communal land resources so that all the members of the community could use them. Contrary to the conventional wisdom put forward by the Encyclopædia Britannica, this socialistic-looking agrarian system was not an age-old way-things-have-always-been-done, but instead a deliberate institutional response to the agrarian crisis of mounting population pressures on dwindling marginal land resources. The adoption of open-field structures was also no doubt aided, abetted and blessed by the spread of Christianity and the presence of monastic communities like the Benedictines who adopted communal property as a rule, and who served the poor as a rule. The option promoted by the historical Saint Benedict, and Saint Biscop who took his name, was one which emphasised equally a refusal to countenance ‘the way things are’ in the world, and one which sought to transform the world by example.

10 January 2019

For common folk, a champion to be lauded

Archbishop William Laud

I mean, of course, the much-maligned and wrongfully-executed Archbishop William Laud, hailed by his Church the English Cyprian. One of my intellectual and moral heroes from the college days when I was a fervent Anglo-Catholic socialist, given his closeness to Dr Lancelot Andrewes for whom Fr Nicholas Lossky held such esteem and also given his œcumenical interest in Orthodox Christianity, I feel that returning again to the example of his life and works may be fruitful and elucidating.

William Laud, a native of Reading, Berkshire, the son and grandson of clothiers and tailors on both sides of his family, was encouraged at a very young age by both his father and his mother to attend to learning and scholarship. He attended the local grammar school, and then afterwards St John’s College at Oxford, where he pursued his studies in theology, becoming an Anglican priest in 1601, and in 1603 a chaplain to Charles Blount, the eighth Baron Mountjoy and first Earl of Devonshire. It was here that he began to show a marked and righteous hostility toward the monstrous doctrines of Jehan Cauvin. He also displayed very early a deference to the doctrines and ‘high’ modes of worship of the Early Church; in particular its emphasis on physical and tactile beauty as a means of lifting the mind toward God. His views were considered, at Oxford at least, rather gauche. However, Laud s sermons found a readier reception in the East Midlands: he was welcomed as the rector of the Parish of St Nicholas in Stanford, Northamptonshire in 1607, and later became a vicar under Bishop Richard Neile, who gave him strong recommendations and preferments to later posts. He held a number of priestly appointments, including one as president of St John’s.

The lack of diplomatic tact that was to become a criticism of his later career began to show itself very early on. He was, perhaps on account of his scholarly turn of mind, often over-eager to butt heads with people in positions of authority above him, and often all too ready to court enmity in a cause he felt just. For example: he restored the altar-cloth and moved the altar in the Cathedral at Gloucester when he was made dean there in 1616, to conform with earlier practice, but without the Calvinist Bishop of Gloucester Miles Smith’s permission. The Bishop, offended, refused to set foot in Gloucester as long as Laud was dean there. Laud was made a bishop himself – of Saint David’s in Wales – in 1621. In this office, at the behest of King James I, like Dr Andrewes before him, he engaged in polemical exchanges with the English Jesuit John Percy over the latter’s purported attempts at proselytism in the Buckingham household.

In 1625, when Charles I came to the throne, Bishop William Laud seized his moment. The two of them were of a like turn of mind on the subject of Calvinism, and the new king implicitly trusted Laud’s recommendations of Arminian clergymen to positions of prominence, and discommendations of Calvinists. He defended the reputation of Richard Montague before a hostile House of Commons, Montague having published a disputation against the doctrines of Cauvin, and he made an alliance with Thomas Wentworth, the Earl of Strafford, who was a staid sæcular supporter of the King. His ascent under Charles I was swift. He attended the deathbed of Dr Lancelot Andrewes and was made Dean of the Chapel Royal in his place. He was made Bishop of Bath and Wells in 1627, Bishop of London a year later, Chancellor of Oxford University less than a year after that: where he reformed the school regulations, added new buildings, expanded the student body, formally chartered the University printing press, and generally revived a spirit of scholastic paideia at the University. He was at last made Archbishop of Canterbury in 1633.

The ‘official’ history – that is to say, the history of the Protestantising English gentry – is far less kind to Laud than he deserves after this point in his life. Whig historians tend to view him as the author of all manner of overreaching abuses, both of his own as Archbishop of Canterbury, and of the King’s as an advocate of divine right. But he holds a very different significance for the working class. Archbishop Laud, as stated above, was possessed of two things in abundance: stubbornness in the right as he saw it, and a certain disregard for distinctions of rank (apart from the king). Laud believed in the rights of the Church; and he also believed in the equality of all people before God.

He was therefore a fervent, passionate advocate for the œconomic rights of the peasantry, who looked to the King and to the Church for redress against the encroachments of their landlords. Just as Dr Lancelot Andrewes detested usury with a Patristic passion and preached against it at every possible opportunity, so Archbishop William Laud preached against the abuse of the farmer and the theft of the commons. He also enjoined the lower orders of clergy to speak out against the practice, and against the withholding of funds from free and public schools. As a judge in the Court of Star Chamber, Archbishop Laud could be ruthless in bringing the full severity of the law down upon the heads of the rich who flaunted it by ‘seizing almshouses, common lands, the endowments of free schools, portions of the common churchyards, and walling up the ancient ways’. From his standpoint, the landed rich had immunities enough on their own land, and deserved no additional special treatment in a court of law:

Nothing angered Laud so much as the claim of a great man to escape a penalty which would fall on others. Nothing brought him into such disfavour with the great as his refusal to admit that the punishment which had raised no outcry when it was meted out to the weak and helpless should be spared in the case of he powerful and wealthy offender.

As seen, Archbishop Laud was not particularly vicious or in any way remarkable in that regard. The punishments, admittedly brutal, meted out upon William Prynne, Henry Burton and John Bastwick were light indeed in comparison to the sadistic horrors meted out upon religious dissenters by Calvinists on the Continent. What the Puritan gentry of southern England truly could not stomach, was that Laud – a commoner, ‘some base clergyman of mean parentage’ – was placed in authority over them; and moreso that he was a foe of what they conceived of as their ‘property’. As Conrad Noel succinctly put it: ‘Laud stood for the people of England.

In doing so, Archbishop Laud was consciously standing in the long and honoured tradition of the English Church, which stood for the people even as (and largely because) it insisted on a set of specific rights and immunities from sæcular interference. It is easy now to read Laud’s ecclesiology as cæsaropapist, as autocratic or as arbitrary. But seen from the overall context of the Reformation and the recent chaos of the Tudor ‘adjustments’, the good Archbishop was actually hewing to a careful middle road: keeping on the good side of what he considered to be the legitimate sæcular authority on the one hand, and making sure neither the state nor private sæcular actors trampled the traditional rights and immunities of the Church on the other.

Laud’s stubbornness brought a backlash in Calvinist presbyterian Scotland, when he attempted to enforce the use of the standard English Prayer Book and high liturgical worship in that country with the power of the Crown. The result was a rebellion, which the King was afterwards at pains (and at want of funds) to suppress. This led the Parliament – then under control of the Puritan party – to move against Archbishop Laud and have him imprisoned as part of their manœuvring against King Charles. Archbishop was imprisoned on trumped-up charges of treason and ‘popery’ in 1640, and eventually moved to the Tower of London, but his trial was held back for nearly three years, until November of 1643. When it came, the procedure was an utter travesty. Laud was clearly innocent of practically every charge levelled at him, and the witnesses against him were largely compromised – but the House of Commons was determined to do away with him as a rebuke to King Charles.

He was sentenced to be executed by beheading. Though he received a pardon from King Charles I himself, this was ignored by Parliament, and the sentence went forward illegally on the tenth of January, 1645. As William Laud was led to the scaffold, he forgave his killers, and spoke the following prayer: ‘The Lord receive my soul, and have mercy on me, and bless this kingdom with peace and charity, that there may not be this effusion of Christian blood amongst them.’ He is remembered today as a martyr in the churches of the Anglican Communion – and deserves to be remembered by the poor and working-class people of England as the champion of their dignity and equality before God and before the law.

09 January 2019

Saints Hadrian and Beorhtwald of Canterbury

Venerable Hadrian the Abbot and Holy Hierarch Beorhtwald of Canterbury

Two saints, contemporaries and friends, one English and the other African, who nonetheless share the same town and the same feast day – Holy Hadrian the Abbot and Holy Beorhtwald the Bishop, we ask for your prayers today!

When Wigheard, the Archbishop of Canterbury who had been appointed in the wake of the Synod at Whitby, reposed in the Lord in 667, Vitalian, then the Pope of Rome, was tasked with finding a replacement bishop for the Church in England. He approached Hadrian, a humble and self-effacing monk then living in a monastery outside Naples, with an offer for the position – but Hadrian recommended Saint Theodore of Tarsus instead. Pope Vitalian agreed to appoint Saint Theodore to the office, but on the condition that Hadrian accompany him there as legate, given that Hadrian was a skilled seafarer and knew the routes from Africa to Gaul and from there to England. Hearing Pope Vitalian’s reasons, Hadrian accepted this charge.

Saint Theodore and Saint Hadrian were already firm friends, steadfast and spiritually-supportive of one another, when they set out together for England. On their travels through France, they agreed to take separate lodgings for the winter – Saint Theodore would stay in Paris, while Saint Hadrian stayed in Sens and later Meaux. Saint Theodore was allowed to go on his way northward to Kent. However, Saint Hadrian was detained by Ebroin, the evil-minded and paranoid majordomo of Frankish Neustria. The wicked tyrant suspected the Berber monk of being an agent of Emperor Constans II of Eastern Rome (then living in Syracuse), sent to plot against his rule. Saint Hadrian was unjustly held prisoner, and was in peril of his life. However, God so arranged it that Ebroin softened in his paranoid delusions, and he eventually released Hadrian and permitted him to continue on his faring northward.

When Hadrian arrived in Kent, Saint Theodore of Tarsus gifted him the abbacy of St Peter’s in Canterbury, as Pope Vitalian had so arranged it. As Abbot of St Peter’s, Saint Hadrian used his great store of wisdom to make that house of God into a bright and luminous school of theological wisdom, and also of sæcular philosophy and learning in both Greek and Latin, a task in which he was gladly aided by his friend the learned Archbishop of Canterbury. Saint Theodore and Saint Hadrian drew throngs of scholars to Kent. The Abbey of St Peter’s soon became a true school of the liberal arts: not only theology was taught there, but also grammar, rhetoric, logic, mathematics, astronomy and the metrical arts. It was boasted by students of St Peter’s that the pupils of Saint Theodore and Saint Hadrian could speak Greek and Latin both as fluently as they could English! In a later era, King Ælfrǽd the Great of Wessex would complain that though in former ages men of Saint Theodore’s and Saint Hadrian’s stature could be found in England, in his own day he had to send Englishmen of scholarly talents abroad.

Saint Theodore of Tarsus did many more good and holy deeds in England before he reposed in the Lord in September 690, but it would be nearly two years before the infighting among the royal family in Kent would permit another Archbishop to take his place. Another reason for the long delay may have been the ambitions of Saint Wilfrið for the position, which were thwarted by circumstances nearer home in Northumbria. In the end, it was settled to make another local Abbot, Beorhtwald of Saint Mary’s of Reculver, Archbishop of Canterbury. The meek, humble and scholarly Saint Hadrian was likely all too glad not to have been appointed to the position himself, and was content to continue as the Abbot of St Peter’s and headmaster of his flourishing monastic school there – which he did until his own blessed repose on 9 January 710.

For his part, Saint Beorhtwald proved to be a more-than-competent archpastor for the English flock. He oversaw at last the Christianisation of the stubborn South Saxons – the last holdout of heathenry in England; and he also managed to secure tax exemptions for the church from the king of Kent at the time, Wihtred. Beorhtwald also attempted to mediate and broker the old dispute left to him over church offices between Saint Theodore and Saint Wilfrid, while representing his own office and the charge left to him by the saintly Theodore as best he could. In addition, from his letters we can see that Saint Berhtwold encouraged the clergy to buy slaves and set them free, and sæcular owners of slaves to manumit them. Though his own stance against slavery was not as strident as later churchmen in his office, it is still worthy of note that the men of the Church were working against the heathen holdover. Although Beorhtwald reposed in the Lord on 13 January 731, he was commemorated by the Church in England on the same day as his contemporary Saint Hadrian: 9 January.

Venerable Hadrian and Holy Hierarch Beorhtwald of Canterbury, pray to God for us sinners!