28 April 2019

Holy Pascha – The Resurrection of our Lord


Icon of the Resurrection

Christ is Risen from the dead,
Trampling down death by death,
And upon those in the tombs bestowing life!

، المسيح قام من بين الأموات
، ووطئ الموت بالموت
! ووهب الحياة للذين في القبورر

It is kind of funny. I have been a member of the Orthodox Church for five years now, and the strange thing is that the childhood jitters and anxiousness and eagerness I used to feel on Christmas Eve as a child, comes back to me on Holy Saturday evening – not quite with the same intensity, but it is every bit the same feeling. Coming into a church that is as dark as the grave save for the light at Christ’s tomb. Standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Orthodox Christians from all over, many of whom I don’t recognise, but each and every one of us with the same expectation. Watching as one by one all the candles and clip reading lights are extinguished. Being immersed in the darkness of Christ’s Sabbath rest. And then watching the ceiling behind the altar light up. And watching the holy fire descend out from behind it. The procession out of the church and around it, our voices lifted in song. Hearing the ‘abrupt’ Short Ending from the Gospel according to Saint Mark. The pounding on the door, and then the triumphant Paschal hymn.

The entire setting changes. The mood instantly transforms from one of gravity, staid solemnity and expectation – through the fear of the women at the tomb – into one of exuberant joy as we answer: ‘Christ is Risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life!’ Where before we were each of us bowed before a dead and broken human being, the penultimate statement of our own death and brokenness as (say here what you will: rational beings, moral agents, persons); where before each of us stood silent and alone; where before every one of us was locked outside in the outer darkness; now we are gathered together, in the same light and partakers of the same light, with the same hymn upon all of our tongues. Hell is transfigured into heaven. The same tomb where before we had stood in mourning has been made into a bright garden festooned with candles and lights. We are bidden in to the feast; even the most wretched and least worthy of us is bidden in!

As with all religious experience, it’s not something that is readily explained, but something that has to be lived through, something that has to be done, to be understood correctly. And it’s never a single bright flash of light – we don’t all get a road-to-Damascus moment. Gentle readers, please note here that it took me the better part of six years from first seriously considering Orthodoxy through Berdyaev (and Bulgakov’s book on The Orthodox Church) to actually converting. Five years since then, I’m still hesitant to list any one thing as a particular formative experience, or to pick-and-choose fragments that I can weave into a coherent story. But Christ and His Church make things a little easier on us through the Liturgy and the feasts, by making us aware of the real but strange and startling ways we stand apart and can be brought together. Because, despite each of us being judged individually according to our unique and unrepeatable situations in life, we are all saved together in the Resurrection.

The women at the tomb had the same intention and went to the tomb with the same end in mind – but all of them were caught by surprise in the same event. They were all sent back to Galilee together by the messenger at the stone which had been rolled away. All of the disciples were invited to go to see him there. Though this is the single great festival of the Church and though we can and should now ‘relax’ and enjoy the feast of feasts, we should also keep in mind that the first Pascha is therefore an invitation to commit once again to the same work, both outward and inward – the works of prayer, repentance, forgiveness, reconciliation, almsgiving and witness – as we had been doing during Lent. It’s hard to come down off the Lenten ‘high’, and I suspect the Church intends it that way.

In the holy mystery of the rising of Christ from the dead and His going ahead of us into Galilee, His continuing to do every good and perfect work for us, we take a needed breather with joy and gratitude. We break bread, we drink wine, we eat eggs and ham and sausage and butter and cheese (yes!), and we stay up into the wee hours in feasting. But the call to follow accompanies us throughout the year, to follow the One of Whom we say with joy: ‘Christ is Risen!
O Christ, great and most holy Pascha.
O Wisdom, Word and Power of God,
Grant that we may more perfectly partake of Thee
In the never-ending day of Thy kingdom!

27 April 2019

Holy Saturday – the Harrowing of Hell


Icon of the Harrowing of Hell (Russian, 16th century)

On Holy Saturday the Orthodox Church remembers the descent of Christ, the Word of Life, as one of the dead into Hades. As Laozi says in the Daodejing, the highest good, like water, seeks to inhabit the lowest and most despised places, so that the myriad things may benefit without contention. The descent of the Word into hell, into the grave – the single lowest and most despised place, so that those therein might hear it – that is the true completion of Laozi’s understanding of the highest good. Yet even so it is equally true that each of us goes there and has to, whether we want to or not. Christ’s going there ahead of us makes it so that there is no place where His grace does not reach.

I have to wonder, truly, whether the academic-theological arguments about the population of hell are even asking the right questions or proceeding from the right understanding of the Paschal mystery. Whether, like David Bentley Hart, you believe that Hell is ultimately empty; or whether, like his critics (such as Edward Feser, you adhere to a belief in the massa damnata – this argument seems to me to be poorly-centred.

As with any dogmatic question, one has to approach the topic of hell from the perspective which Dorothy Leigh Sayers called ‘the divine drama’, the ‘drama of the soul’s choice’. We Orthodox Christians have a peculiar advantage in that our Liturgical setting provides us with a tactile, sensory, empirical setting for this drama, in which we each become participants in that drama. As Father Paul here at Saint Herman’s would put it, the Pascha ‘it is not mere pageantry; it is the really-real’. We are the ones in the tombs on whom Christ comes to bestow life. Even though we are walking around, we are still mired in sin, subject to the ontology of death and the powers of hell. The Church’s mystagogy, hymnody and prayers all impress upon each of us individually that I and only I am the sinner – a fortiori the chief among sinners, as per the prayer before the Eucharist; or, in the words of the Canon of Saint Andrew of Crete, ‘more than all have I sinned’. Regarding the question of hell: if anyone is in danger of hell, it is me. Hell is where I am.

The Church presses upon us this conviction, not just today but all throughout Holy Week and indeed throughout Lent, precisely to awaken and arouse us to an awareness of our rôle in the divine drama, which is utterly unique and unrepeatable. As Fr Thomas Hopko of blessed memory writes:
Is it really right to say that I have sinned more than all the others? Does it make sense to claim—in prayer before God no less—that my sickness has surpassed that of David in his murder and adultery? And that sinning more than all others, I have not repented at all? Is this necessary? Is it true? Is it not rather an unacceptable hangover in the Church of a spiritual style that should be expunged from the life of God’s people? Is it not but one more example of that repulsive obsession with sin, that pious fraud of inauthentic devotion, that disgusting hyperbole of liturgical expression that tends more to turn people off than to inspire them to authentic repentance and adoration?

Each person can answer these questions only for himself. But something like the following seems to be the answer. Every person stands alone before God. This is not to say that we are isolated one from another in self-enclosed individuality. Just the opposite is in fact the scriptural claim: ‘
For we are members of one another’ (Eph. 4:25). But we are not in a spiritual contest with one another. And we are not judged before God in comparison with each other. God doesn’t grade on a curve. Each person is unique. Each person has his or her own life to fulfil or to fail. Each human being is personally judged according to God’s righteous judgement, which applies strictly to that person alone.
But it is precisely this lack of personal awareness of one’s place in the divine drama, of the choice before one’s soul, that is most glaring in these academic discussions of hell. Feser notably retreats behind fictional characters, abstractions and scenarios involving mass murderers. He does not seem to grasp at all Lewis’s key point in The great divorce that even murderers and adulterers who abase themselves and repent will be present in heaven, while the ones most in danger of hell are the ‘righteous’ ones who regard heaven as their due and just portion. Hart is on far better Scriptural footing (and makes far better arguments, for that matter) when he says that we are only saved together and that we are members of each other, but the abstraction game is one in which he too seems to indulge needlessly. The standing alone before God, the being locked out of the wedding-feast, the being cast into the outer darkness, the sorrow of separation from God – all of which we perform, actively, in the Paschal Nocturns – seems to be absent from this understanding that retreats behind the abstractions of hypothetical other people. We do not stand in judgement of each other. We will not be allowed to appeal to Feser’s or Hart’s fictional worst-case scenarios in our defence to the dread judgement seat of Christ.

But key to the mystery of Pascha is that Christ comes out to us as we turn toward Him, as we ask of Him, as we knock on the door. To our surprise He is there among us, inhabiting the most despised place. It is precisely because the one single person who never had any need to abase Himself, in fact did abase Himself to the utmost extent, that the hell where we are at Nocturns is harrowed, and we are drawn into the wedding feast. It is only because Christ was the One who stopped by the side of the road where we had been beaten and robbed and left for dead as we were walking away from Jerusalem, that we have any right to approach. It is only because the highest good, like water, sought to inhabit the lowliest place, that we have any claim to the benefit bestowed without contention upon the myriad things.

As matters for philosophical speculation, divorced from Sayers’s Liturgical-minded ‘drama of the dogma’, I can see how both universalism and the massa damnata are potentially-dangerous beliefs to hold. But I can’t pretend I don’t have a ‘side’. The entirety of the Paschal Liturgy, up to and including the Paschal Homily of Chrysostom, is indeed precisely a plea for universal reconciliation in the divine drama – specifically as it pertains to me, the sinner. But what about the salvation of others, whether they are the worst of murderers, adulterers, thieves, drunkards, idolaters, heretics or schismatics? If I, who have come to the feast at the eleventh hour, am not standing behind the altar or behind the doors at Nocturns, it is not my place to decide who goes in and who stays out. It is with the humility of the ones in the tombs that I am called to approach the mystery of the Resurrection.
When You did descend to death, O Life Immortal,
You did slay hell with the splendor of Your Godhead,
And when from the depths You did raise the dead,
All the Powers of Heaven cried out,
O Giver of Life, Christ our God, glory to You!

26 April 2019

Holy Friday – ‘The Word Himself is no more


Icon of the Crucifixion

It is difficult for me to come up with anything to say on this Holy Friday. Contemplating death – even my own, let alone that of the Son of God today – is a truly frightening and humbling thing. Just as theodicies are no good to those who suffer pain and heartbreak, in the end even philosophies are no good to those faced with death. And for a philosopher, that’s really hard to face with; even impossible. And so I go searching – in the poetry of Christian poets, in the hymnody of the Church. But silence seems to be the theme, and that is the directive of this day of Christ’s death and of the Holy Saturday which follows. הס מפניו כל־הארץ – Let all the earth keep silence before Him.. In the end, what could be more fitting than to dwell on the homilies of Holy Father Filaret of Moscow, on the need for silence before the face of this dread reality, this ontology which no human thought or word or project or life can escape? The following is from one of Saint Filaret’s homilies delivered on Great and Holy Friday.
What would you now, brethren, from the ministers of the word? The Word Himself is no more!

The Word, co-æternal with the FATHER and the SPIRIT, born for our salvation, the Author of every quick and powerful word, is silent, dead, buried and sealed up. The more plainly and convincingly ‘
to show man the path of life’, this very Word came down from heaven and put on flesh; but men would not hearken unto the Word, they tare His flesh, and lo, ‘He is cut off out of the land of the living’. Who then shall now give unto us the word of life and salvation?

Let us hasten to confess the mystery of the Word which shall disarm His persecutors, and restore Him to souls ready to receive Him. The Word of GOD is not bound by death. As a word from the lips of man dies not entirely away at the moment its sound ceases, but rather gathers new strength, and passing through the senses, penetrates the minds and hearts of the hearers; so also the Hypostatical Word of GOD, the SON of GOD, in His saving incarnation, whilst dying in the flesh, ‘
fills all things’ with His Spirit and might. Thus when CHRIST waxeth faint and becometh silent on the cross, then is it that heaven and earth raise their voice unto Him, and the dead preach the resurrection of the Crucified, and the very stones cry out. ‘And the sun was darkened, and the veil of the temple was rent in the midst; and the earth did quake, and the rocks rent; and the graves were opened, and many bodies of the saints which slept arose.

Christians, the incarnate Word keepeth silence only in order to speak unto us with greater power and effect; withdraws, that He may the more inwardly ‘
dwell among us’; dies, that He may grant us His inheritance. Assembled by the Church to hold converse with the departed JESUS, listen ye unto the quick and powerful word of the dead; listen ye to the testament He has left unto you; ‘And I appoint unto you a kingdom, as My FATHER hath appointed unto Me.’ But lest any untimely dreams of the greatness of that inheritance should turn away our gaze from the Crucified JESUS pictured to us in these solemn days, let us, Christians, the more carefully observe that His immediate heirs found no other treasure after His death than the wood of the cross upon which He suffered and died, and it was this same cross which they offered as a pattern for imitation to all who desired to partake in the inheritance of His kingdom.

What does this mean? It means, that as ‘
CHRIST ought to have suffered,’ in order ‘to enter into His glory,’ which He ‘hath with His FATHER,’ so also does it behove the Christian, ‘through much tribulation, to enter into the kingdom of GOD’ which CHRIST hath bequeathed unto him; it means that as the cross of CHRIST is the gate of the kingdom of GOD for all, so is the cross of every Christian the key of the kingdom to every son of the kingdom. This then is the epitome of the sublime preaching of the Cross, so incomprehensible to the mind, so easily accepted by faith, and so powerful through GOD. Let us offer it as a drop of myrrh upon the sepulchre of the quickening Word.
Saint Filaret does not spare us the full implications of what he is saying here, which is what makes his homily so powerful. The Word is gone from the face of the earth; all the earth is gone mute and dumb. The entire weight of the Cross upon the shoulders of the blameless Christ, though borne gladly, still results in His mortal end, the mortal end which He shares with us in our fallen nature. And we are silent. We have to be. Without the Word, we have nothing to say. We may know what is coming, the Holy Pascha that awaits us. But Filaret would not have us jump blithely from this present sadness to that comfort and consolation, without first looking firmly and fixedly into the abyss of ‘darkness, sorrow, terror, labour, sickness, death, misery, humiliation, the enmity of all nature, all powers of destruction’ before us, the one which Christ Himself faced. Saint Filaret would have us look to Christ even as He cried out ‘Lord, Lord, why hast thou forsaken me?

We can’t help but flinch from this, and tremble with fear, if we fully understand the implications of what is said. We fear to go there; we fear to take up this cross; we do not have the strength. Christ does, though. As Laozi said in the Daodejing, chapter eight (Richard John Lynn’s translation):
The highest good is like water. The goodness of water lies in benefitting the myriad things without contention, while locating itself in places that common people scorn.
Note how the Word, water flowing from His side, does benefit the ‘myriad things’ (wanwu 萬物, a figure of speech denoting the whole of creation) while locating Himself in a place where He is scorned by all, and more than that, a place which is avoided by all if we can help it. We do not want to go there; and yet this is where Christ and the Church carry us – before His cross, where we keep silence.
Come, let us all sing the praises of Him who was crucified for us,
For Mary said when she beheld Him upon the tree:
Though You do endure the cross, You are my Son and my God!

25 April 2019

Holy Thursday – Apostle and Evangelist Mark


Holy, glorious and all-laudable Apostle and Evangelist Mark

Yesterday we commemorated Great and Holy Wednesday and the feast of Saint Mellitus of Canterbury. It seems particularly fitting that the feasts of Saint Mellitus and Saint Mark should fall so close together; and even more fitting that the feast of Saint Mark this year falls on the remembrance of the Last Supper, the night in which our Lord Jesus Christ was betrayed.

Saint Mark, a Cyrenian Second Temple Jew and a nephew of the Cypriot-Jewish Saint Yousef bar-Nehmâ of the Seventy, lived with his mother Miryam in Jerusalem when Our Lord called him out to become His disciple. A junior of Saint Peter, at the time of Christ’s death, Mark was still a very young man (νεανίσκος). On the very first Great and Holy Thursday, the night in which Christ broke bread with His disciples for the Passover and was betrayed at Gethsemane by Judas, the Roman soldiery lay hold of Mark, who was wearing a linen cloth. The soldiers tore the cloth off of his body and Mark, naked, ran away from them.

Saint Mark was very close to Apostle Peter as well as to his kinsman Saint Yousef bar-Nehmâ mentioned above. After the Ascension of Our Lord, Mark worked closely with both of them to spread the news of Christ’s Resurrection. After the conversion of Apostle Paul, Mark was one of the Christians he met with in Antioch, and the two of them also worked closely together thereafter. He returned to his kinsmen’s home in Cyprus where he traversed the island with his two companions from east to west, preaching the Gospel from the Jewish synagogues. Mark was present when Saint Paul temporarily blinded the sorcerer (mágos) and false prophet Elymas bar-Yeshua before the proconsul at Paphos, as recounted in the Book of Acts.

After this, Mark embarked on a journey to Ægypt, where he founded the church in Alexandria. He is considered the founder of the Coptic Church, as well as of the Orthodox Church there. He made additional travels to Cyprus and to Mesopotamia; from which place Saint Peter sent a letter to the Christians of Asia Minor in which he calls Mark his son. Mark was also present in Asia Minor for a time himself – he was under the rule of Saint Timothy in Ephesus, and accompanied him to Rome, from which city he is believed to have written his Gospel between 62 and 68 AD. The audience for which this Gospel was intended is disputed: Church tradition holds that it was primarily intended for an audience of Gentiles, but Mark’s use of Aramaic idioms and imagery suggest instead that it may have been meant for an audience that included Palestinian Jews.

Travelling once more to Ægypt, Mark established the catechetical school at Alexandria which produced Holy Father Athenagoras, Saint Pantainos, Clement, Origen, Pope Heraklas, Pope Saint Dionysios and Saint Gregory the Wonderworker of Neocæsarea. Mark’s school, by the way, comes in for some rather hard ribbing by my classical Hebrew instructor Dr Paul Tarazi, who is very much not a fan of the sorts of speculative philosophical and theological turns for which these Ægyptians became known. He also makes much of the irony that it is his own people, the Arabs, who with their infatuation for philosophy ‘spoiled’ us here in the West!

At any rate, according to the Orthodox hagiography, Mark did venture further into Africa, and preached the Gospel in Libya before returning to his adoptive home in Alexandria. He happened to see a cobbler named Ananias, pierce one of the fingers of his hand with an awl and exclaim, ‘O the One God!’ Saint Mark healed the cobbler’s finger, and taught Ananias about Christ the living God, to whom Ananias had called out in his pain. Ananias welcomed Mark as a guest in his home, and he and his whole household were baptised in the name of the Triune God by the Holy Apostle. His home thereafter became a house-church and Ananias himself joined Mark in converting the Alexandrians to the Faith.

For seven years, Saint Mark and Ananias worked tirelessly in Alexandria. Saint Mark appointed three priests – Malchos, Sabinos and Kerbinos – and seven deacons to help Ananias, the converted became so many. All the while, he preached against the pagan gods of the city, and aroused anger against him among the wealthy Greeks and Romans who worshipped them. In that year the Pascha fell on the feast of Serapis, the main tutelary god of the Greeks in Alexandria. As Saint Mark and Ananias were celebrating the Pascha, a mob of pagan Greeks attacked the church and captured Mark, beating him, binding him about with a rope, dragging him through the streets and finally throwing him into prison. While in prison, our Lord Jesus Christ came to Mark in a vision and strengthened him before he was to suffer martyrdom. The following day the angry mob bore Mark out of his cell – but on his way there his bodily strength faltered. He cried out: ‘Into Your hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit,’ and died before he could be brought to trial.

The pagans wanted to have his body burnt and his ashes scattered in ignominy. But as they lit the fire, the skies darkened, thunder crashed and the ground split open. The pagans fled in terror. The followers of Christ, led by Ananias, took up Saint Mark’s holy relics and buried them in a stone vault, over which two and a half centuries later a church was built. The relics were translated to Venice in 820, after the Muslim conquests, for safekeeping.

I am of course utterly devoted to Holy Apostle Matthew, my namesake and patron saint. With Saint Matthew I share not only a name, a certain kinship and a general love of genealogy, but also a certain love for Persia and sub-Saharan Africa. But there is still very much a soft spot in my heart for Mark and his Gospel as well – largely on account of Ched Myers and his socio-literary reading of the Gospel of Mark. Saint Mark’s Gospel emphasises Christ’s works of healing and exorcism, preaching and teaching in an unabashedly-political context where their subversive and prophetic subtext would be clear to either a Roman or a Palestinian audience. It is therefore rightly called by Myers a ‘manifesto for radical discipleship’.

The populist potentials of the Gospel are thoroughly understood and appreciated by Myers – populist, that is, not in a nationalistic sense, but in an œconomic one. The debt and purity codes of the Second Temple religion are cancelled or inverted in such a way that allows even the worst-off members of the society to participate, through the alternative community proclaimed in the ekklesia, in political and œconomic life. Myers unfortunately succumbs a bit to a certain Protestantising sensibility, possibly implicit in his project itself, concerned as it is with the original sensibility and context of the author. But the case he presents is substantial and worthy of careful study even by Catholic and Orthodox readers.

Ironically, the case is better made from a radical position, that it would be wrong to understand the empty tomb as merely symbolic or metaphorical. The empty tomb is not a ‘symbol’: it is the punchline. The entire project of Mark’s εὐαγγέλιον as a satirical-subversive ‘news of an Imperial victory’ is predicated on the actual defeat of death by Christ. If the victory over death proclaimed by Christ’s flesh-and-blood Resurrection were not really real, there would be no such ‘good news’. Death would have the final word. There would be no overturn of the logic of Empire, and there would be no point in any radical call to renewed discipleship. This is one of several reasons why the political witness of the mainline churches tends to be so limp-wristed and focussed on gratification. One could even potentially make the case that American empire and its mouthpieces are so invested in such moralistic therapeutic deisms and ‘symbolic’ interpretations of Christ’s death, precisely because such theologies take the edge off of any sort of radical resistance to it.

Myers would have us observe that the empty tomb which greets us at the end of the Gospel is in fact a call for us to return to the beginning, to return to Galilee where the first disciples were called. Mark is calling us, in effect, to pick up again the spiritual work – both the inward work of prayer, fasting and almsgiving; and the outward work of radical political witness and service to neighbour – that was abandoned by the disciples (one of whom denied, one of whom betrayed, but all of whom fled) on the original Great and Holy Thursday after the Last Supper. Ched Myers is emphatic that those of us in the West – those of us even in the middle and lower œconomic strata who are nevertheless seated amidst the affluence of capitalist and imperial plunder and the propaganda, whether ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative’, of imperial vainglory – need to ‘read’ ourselves in the Gospel narrative in the literary persons of the rich young man and the scribe who came to question Jesus about the law. But the manifesto, the call to discipleship, affects us as well. The hymns of the Church assure us we are no better off, spiritually speaking, than the disciples in today’s Gospel readings: Peter (who denied Christ), Judas (who betrayed Christ) or Mark (who fled from Christ at His arrest). But we are called all the same to witness the risen Christ and return to Galilee to begin the work again.

Holy, glorious and all-laudable Apostle and Evangelist Mark, witness among the philosophers and the workers of Alexandria, caller of all to discipleship, intercede with Christ our God that our souls may be saved!
Of thy mystical supper, O Son of God,
Accept me today as a communicant.
For I will not speak of thy mystery to thine enemies,
Neither will I give thee a kiss as did Judas,
But like the thief will I confess Thee,
Remember me, O Lord, in thy kingdom.


From your childhood the light of truth enlightened you, O Mark,
And you loved the labour of Christ the Saviour.
Therefore, you followed Peter with zeal
And served Paul well as a fellow labourer,
And you enlighten the world with your holy Gospel!


Icon of the Mystical Supper

24 April 2019

Holy Wednesday – Archbishop Mellitus of Canterbury


Holy Hierarch Mellitus of Canterbury

On this Holy Wednesday in the Orthodox Church, we celebrate Holy Hierarch Mellitus, who was part of the Augustinian mission to the people of England. The Latin name Mellitus is very similar to the name Melétios which has been borne by a number of Greek and Arabic saints and clergy. As can be seen in this Orthodox icon written for Saint Paul’s Cathedral in London, the two names are often interchanged. Etymologically, however, they are not cognates. Mellitus is derived from the Indo-European root word *mélit for ‘honey’ (L. mel, Gk. μέλι), and has the meaning of ‘sweet’. Melétios, on the other hand, is derived from the name of the Elder Muse Melétē and ultimately comes from the Greek word for ‘meditation’ (Gk. μελετᾶν).

The origins and birthplace of Saint Mellitus are nebulous; scholars guess that (like the other clergymen sent on the Gregorian mission to England) he was Italian, but he is listed in the primary source documents as a monk in Francia. He first appears in the History of Saint Bede as a monastic cleric in the employ of the blessed Pope Gregory the Dialogist, who was sent to aid Saint Augustine in his conversion of the English nation to Christianity alongside Saint Justus and Saint Paulinus and another cleric named Rufinianus. Mellitus was clearly a well-beloved disciple of Pope Gregory to be entrusted with this mission. Pope Gregory himself took great pains to ensure that his faring to the island of the English was without incident – taking up correspondence with the hierarchs in Toulon, Marseilles, Arles, Lyons, Vienne, Metz, Paris and Rouen as well as with the sæcular Frankish authorities along his route to secure him safe passage, food, lodgings and provisions for his journey.

Mellitus, Justus, Paulinus and Rufinianus arrived safely on English shores, bearing with them ‘everything necessary for the worship and service of the Church, including sacred vessels, altar coverings, church ornaments, vestments for priests and ministers, relics of the holy Apostles and martyrs, and many books.’ They also brought with them a letter to Saint Augustine from Pope Gregory assuring him of an omophor and giving him directions for the appointment of bishops in Britain.

Saint Mellitus was later sent a letter from the Pope, which signalled a profound shift in missionary tactics and approach. Pope Saint Gregory intimated to Saint Mellitus that although heathen idols were to be destroyed, the places of heathen worship themselves were not to be destroyed or defiled in any way, but instead cleansed with holy water and made to house holy relics. ‘For if these temples are well-built,’ says Pope Gregory in his letter, ‘they are to be purified from devil-worship, and dedicated to the service of the true God.’ In addition, Pope Gregory alluded that rather than denounce the festivities and sacrifices of the heathen English, instead the Church should redirect their religious energies into Christian festivals falling around the same time.

As a brief aside: that, by the way, is why our upcoming festival of Pascha is still called Easter in the English language. Not because it originally signified a devotion to the heathen goddess Éastre or, as the ridiculous and historically-illiterate Facebook memes would have it, Inanna-Ishtar, but because the Pope of Rome decided in 601 AD to adopt a missionary tactic of blessing rather than condemning local festivals and consecrating them to the concurrent Christian festivals. Note that Saint Innocent later used a very similar tactic for the Buryats and the dvoevertsy in Irkutsk, and Saint Herman would do the same in Alaska. It is indeed most unfortunate that the Western churches in schism decided to abandon the saintly Pope Gregory’s reasonable and humane œconomia entirely, and pursue instead a brutal and ham-fisted proselytisation effort in the New World.

One of the first things Mellitus did in England was to have Sæberht, the nephew and vassal of Æþelberht King of Kent who ruled over the East Saxons, baptised and confirmed in the Faith. Thereafter, Sæberht permitted a bishopric to be established in London and Æþelberht King chartered a church there, to both of which honours Saint Augustine duly appointed Mellitus. As Bishop of London, it was Mellitus who was sent back to Rome in 605 after the blessed repose of Saint Augustine, on behalf of his fellow-churchmen Archbishop Laurence, Justus and Paulinus to report on their progress.

Things did not go well for the Gregorian mission after 616, when Æþelberht and Sæberht had both died. Three riotous heathen lordlings, the sons of Sæberht, demanded of Mellitus that he give them the bread of the Eucharist to eat as he had given it to their father. Mellitus was all too glad to do so – provided they were baptised first; but he refused them when they refused baptism. The angry athelings beat Mellitus and had him driven out of the East Saxon realm and back into Kent. Mellitus, in despair, met with Justus and Laurence. The mission, as Mellitus saw it, had failed – and they should return to the continent to ‘serve God in freedom’ rather than remain among these stubborn heathen. Mellitus and Justus thereupon took ships to Gaul, leaving England behind. The meaning of the flight of Mellitus and Justus from England should not be lost on those of us celebrating Holy Week: And they all forsook Him, and fled. Only Laurence, then Archbishop of Canterbury after Augustine, stayed – and at that, only because he was visited in a vision by one of the same Apostles who had fled and denied Christ, Saint Peter, who beat and rebuked him for his attempt to abandon the mission that had been entrusted to him. Éadbald, seeing the stripes upon Laurence’s body from the thrashing Saint Peter gave him, at once converted and allowed Mellitus and Justus to return.

Upon Saint Laurence’s repose in 619, Mellitus was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury. Despite his having faltered prior to Éadbald’s conversion, once in office he proved an energetic, kindly and responsible keeper of Christ’s flock. He was stricken with arthritic pains in his hands and his feet, but he bore his infirmity with grace and equanimity. At one time, a fire broke out in the city of Canterbury which water could not extinguish. The conflagration swept through the city, destroying a large part of it and advancing on the densely-populated neighbourhoods where the churches were. Archbishop Mellitus, when he heard of this, went out with help into the path of the oncoming flames. By his prayers to Christ, Mellitus reversed the direction of the wind from southerly to northerly, causing the flames to turn back on themselves; then the wind dropped altogether and the flames died. The fire which water and human strength could not extinguish had been put out by the faith of one elderly arthritic bishop; in so doing he saved the churches and the lives of the townsfolk.

Saint Mellitus departed this life in blessedness not long after, on the twenty-fourth of April 624; he was succeeded in his office by the aforementioned Saint Justus, who had been Bishop of Rochester. Holy Hierarch Mellitus, intercede with Christ our God to save our souls!
When the glorious disciples were enlightened
At the washing of their feet before the supper,
Then the impious Judas was darkened, ailing with avarice
And to the lawless judges he betrays You, the righteous Judge.
Behold, O lover of money, this man who because of money hanged himself.
Flee from the greedy soul which dared such things against the Master.
O Lord, who is good towards all men, glory to You!


Christ Washing the Disciples’ Feet

23 April 2019

Holy Tuesday – Saint George the Greatmartyr of Lydda


Saint George

Today is both Holy Tuesday in the Orthodox Church, and the feast of the great Syrian Palestinian warrior for Christ, Greatmartyr, Trophybearer and Wonderworker George of Lydda.

Born to a Christian father from Cappadocia and a mother from Diospolis (that is, al-Ludd or Lod) in Syria Palæstina, his father was martyred for the faith when George was still only a boy. George’s widowed mother thereafter took him back to her homeland, where she owned some farmland outside Beirut – then Berytos in the Eastern Roman Empire – and raised him there. He was evidently quite well brought-up. Upon enlisting in the Roman Army, he was commended several times not only for his beautiful physique, bodily strength and serious military bearing, but also for the noble turn of his mind – his bravery and his care for his comrades. As a result, he rose quickly through the ranks and attained the station of regimental tribune, or præfectus.

For the thirty years before the rule of Diocletian, Christians in Rome had it, not particularly well, but they were treated better than they had been prior. The last great persecution had been under Decius. From Decius’s death on, Christians had been allowed to rise to positions of prominence in the years between his reign and that of Diocletian, under whom George served. According to the tradition, George became a particular favourite of Diocletian’s on account of his service record and on account of his personable appearance, and became one of his chief aides in the military.

Diocletian was co-ruler, along with Galerius, of the Eastern Roman Empire, and was notable for his military victories against uprisings in the Balkans and in Ægypt, as well as against the Persians. He was, however, a staunch adherent of the Roman pantheon, and an active patron of the traditional diviners. When a divination in Syria produced an ambiguous result, the Christians were wrongfully blamed for it. At this time, George, understanding that he would be forced to acknowledge his faith publicly, loosed his servants, sold all he had and distributed it to the poor. Diocletian gathered his military aides, including George, in Cæsarea and told them of his plans to destroy the Christian church, then had each of them in turn offer a sacrifice to the Roman gods to prove their loyalty to him. All of the aides did so – except George. Not only did George refuse to make an offering, but he also openly declared himself to be Christian, and moreover made a number of arguments to Diocletian’s face about the injustice of his plans against the Church, and made a passionate plea on behalf of the Empire’s Christians.

Incensed and humiliated by this refusal at the hands of one of his favourite military officers, Diocletian ordered George to be shackled in a donjon and subjected to peine forte et dure, which he bore with patience. The following morning he was brought before Diocletian for questioning, and the Emperor tried to get the saint to abjure his faith in Christ, which he refused to do. Diocletian ordered Saint George to be subjected to further tortures, including placing him on the wheel. George did not make a sound as his body was pierced by blades and broken, leading Diocletian to believe that he was dead. However, he was taken down living. Seeing this, two of Diocletian’s officials Anatolius and Protoleon, knelt down and confessed the power of Christ. Diocletian ordered them beheaded on the spot. Diocletian’s wife, too, began to confess Christ, but she was led away to the palace before she could speak.

The enraged Diocletian ordered ever more ruthless torments to be visited upon George. He was buried in quick-lime for three days, forced to run in shoes filled with red-hot nails, and beaten with ox hide whips. Diocletian ordered a sorcerer to drug George, but he consumed the poisons with no ill effect and went on confessing Christ as before. Several more times Diocletian alternated between afflicting George with cruel tortures, and offering him blandishments, wealth and position to rival his own. But George remained steadfast throughout. During his time in prison, he was visited by many of the sick and poor, whom he helped through the power of Christ. At last, Diocletian ordered George to be beheaded, alongside his own wife who had come to believe in Christ after witnessing the tortures George had been subjected to. George offered his neck meekly to the executioner and thus gave up his life to the Lord.

Saint George is remembered with particular fondness in his Palestinian homeland by the Christians who reside there – and even on occasion by Levantine Arabic Muslims (as related by William Dalrymple), who refer to him as al-Khidr الخضر or ‘the Green One’. Palestinians, according to Archbishop Theodosios (Hanna) of Sebasteia, admire George because ‘We believe he was a great martyr for his faith who defended the Christian faith and values… By making sacrifices for his faith he was able to defeat evil. We take Saint George as a patron for people living here – and as he was born in historic Palestine, we pray to him to remember us and this holy land.

By comparison, the cultus of Saint George in the country of whom he is the most famous patron – England – is relatively recent. He was a favourite among the Crusaders who came to the Holy Land, on account of his having been a soldier and on account of his martyrific death. It is no wonder that the Crusader King himself, Richard the Lion-hearted, was a particular devotee of the George cultus and did his best to spread it in England on his return home. It was King Edward III, however, who did the most to cement Saint George’s reputation as the defender of England by making him the patron of his Order of the Garter upon its establishment in 1348.

For us sinners and for your suffering homeland of Palestine, martyr of Christ George, we beseech you intercede with Him to save us!
You were bound for good deeds, O martyr of Christ George;
By faith you conquered the torturer’s godlessness.
You were offered as a sacrifice pleasing to God;
Thus you received the crown of victory.
Through your intercessions, forgiveness of sins is granted to all!

Behold the Bridegroom comes at midnight,
And blessed is the servant whom He shall find watching,
And again unworthy is the servant whom He shall find heedless.
Beware, therefore, O my soul, do not be weighed down with sleep,
Lest you be given up to death and lest you be shut out of the Kingdom.
But rouse yourself crying: Holy, Holy, Holy, are You, O our God!
Through the Theotokos have mercy on us!


Parable of the Ten Virgins Icon

22 April 2019

Holy Monday – Christ of the Extreme Humility


The Orthodox Church today begins the Liturgical services for Holy Week, and on the first three days of Holy Week we venerate the icon ‘Christ of the Extreme Humility’, which shows Christ at the moment of His Passion, when He is taken down from the Cross. Everything about Him shows a man who is broken and destroyed. He is emaciated. He is bleeding from His side. His head is bowed limply. And yet there is an eerie beauty to this icon. The Christ who is rendered in this icon has a dignity that surpasses death. There is nothing written here that yet proclaims the Resurrection; only the composure of the face tells us that the final word has not yet been spoken. It is interesting that the same icon, called Άκρα Ταπείνωσις (Ákra Tapeínōsis, the ‘Man of Sorrows’) in Greek, is in the Russian tradition designated as Царь Славы (Tsar Slavy, the ‘King of Glory’). Two very different sides of the same icon are thus labelled upon it, but the effect is much the same. The glory of Christ and the utmost humiliation of the Man of Sorrows are one and the same.

It is exceedingly difficult not to draw these reflections on an icon of Christ’s death into a response to the deadly church bombings that claimed the lives of over two hundred Sri Lankan and expat believers (mostly Catholics) in low-income communities in Colombo, Negombo and Batticaloa yesterday – our Palm Sunday; their Easter. These bombings, the worst organised violence the country has seen since the civil war, were carefully planned and executed simultaneously across three cities as an action against the country’s minority Christian community, which has been there since the time of Saint Thomas in the first century. A number of media commentators have already begun to suggest that the violence is a continuation by other means of the violence of Sri Lanka’s civil war. But for the Christians of that island nation – who had by and large been bystanders in a civil war along ethno-religious lines – the unspeakable shock of grief and death overshadowed a festival that was meant to be a celebration of joy and resurrection.

Sense cannot be made of this suffering, and to attempt to do so now – particularly along communalist or political lines – would be the very worst sort of patronisation, particularly for a community that has enough reason to worry without being coöpted into another stage of civil conflict. But perhaps sense should not be made of it. Perhaps it should not be rationalised. Did the Theotokos or Saint John, looking upon the One they had thought was about to become the promised Messiah and the Saviour of their people from domination by Rome, try to make sense of what they saw before the Cross? The Resurrection had not come yet. Could they have foreseen it? If they had so tried, what would have been their reward for so doing, but even further grief and pain? Did the other people who watched Christ in the last moments of His life try to make sense of what they saw? Did they fix their hopes of worldly glory upon it only to have them frustrated before their eyes, or their exultation in the death of a seditious troublemaker between two of His (supposed) fellow-banditti? In short: do we have any right to demand of the Sri Lankan Christians that they make sense of what has happened to them? Theories and theodicies are of no use to those who suffer, and the only ones who tend to offer them are those who don’t.

The Gospel, that is to say a book proclaiming itself to be news of an Imperial victory (for that was the contemporary meaning of the term εὐαγγέλιον in the Greek-speaking areas of classical Rome), is thus drenched not only in the ironies of imperial language for what is in fact a subversive and anti-imperial message, but in the sheer reality of the pain and grief and death that the mechanisms of empire and the mechanisms of worldly conflict can bring to bear on the human person. The Christians of Sri Lanka do not need to be told this. They are living that reality as we speak. They bear the same wounds that Christ bore. They are tormented with the same inward doubt and grief and bereavement of the One who cried out from the Cross, ‘‘Ēli, ‘Ēli, lămāna šabaqtany?’. On the other hand, we first-world Christians who speak from positions of comfort and affluence – I do wonder if we truly can understand this, save through the work and witness of radicals like Ched Myers (or Dorothy Day, or Mother Maria Skobtsova).

But even if it is not given to us to understand, we can still kneel and prostrate ourselves before Him Who bore, not only the violence of the world in wounds upon His body, but also the violence of temptations and the violence of the pain we bring upon ourselves. We can still kneel before Him Who was given up to be beaten and mocked and killed like a criminal. The whole of theodicy is there. We can weep alongside Jacob for his lost son; and we can still bear, insofar as our strength and development allow, our own crosses. Through the prayers of the Theotokos, O Saviour, save us!

21 April 2019

Palm Sunday – Venerable Beuno the Abbot of Clynnog


Saint Beuno

A great British saint of the seventh century, Saint Beuno ap Beugi ap Gwynllyw, is commemorated on this Palm Sunday in the Orthodox Church.

Beuno, the son of Beugi prince of Powys and his wife Princess Peren, was tutored at the college of King Ynyr Gwent by the Irish Abbot Saint Tathyw of Caerwent in the Holy Scriptures, which he learnt eagerly and thoroughly. At the end of his learning, Saint Tathyw taught Beuno the Liturgy so that the young man could become a priest. One story has it that Ynyr Gwent himself gave Beuno the land at Llanfeuno (now in Herefordshire) on which to build a parish, and himself came to listen to him preach. As his parish was being built, Beuno heard that his father Beugi had fallen deathly ill, and left the finishing of the building to his three most trusted disciples to return to his father’s side. He made it in time to hear his father’s final confession and to give him the Eucharist, after which the old man died. He set a stone at the spot where his father died and planted an acorn there. This acorn, it is said, grew into a great oak that bowed over so that one of its branches touched the earth and then rose again. A legend arose that if an Englishman went beneath the arch of this oak, he would fall dead at once; but if a Briton – that is to say, a Welshman – walked under, he would go his way without harm.

Father Beuno was then assigned to a parish in Aberriw in Powys, which still bears his name. There is still a stone here which is said to have been the place where Beuno preached to the people. However, he was soon forced to leave Aberriw on account of English encroachments, and he left Aberriw in the hands of one of his disciples, named Rhithwlint.

Father Beuno sojourned for forty days at the court of Cynan Garwyn, where then lived Saint Tysilio. He must have made a positive impression on the king, because Beuno was then given a parish at Gwyddelwern – which came to be so called, supposedly, because while he was there Father Beuno, by calling upon the name of Christ, raised an Irishman named Llorcan Wyddel from the dead. Here too, however, he ran into trouble. The king’s grandchildren, came to Father Beuno and demanded of the poor priest food enough to feed themselves and their party. Beuno slew and cooked for them an ox, but the haughty young princelings complained that he must have bewitched the food. When he heard this, Beuno flew into a rage and pronounced a curse upon them, saying: ‘From what your grandfather gave freely to God, do you now demand tribute and service? May your kin never possess this land, and may you be destroyed out of this kingdom and be likewise deprived of your æternal inheritance!’ (It is worthwhile to remember that these youths could have demanded food and board of any person in the village, but they chose instead to impose upon the priest, who was traditionally exempt from having to render such services.)

Naturally, after this little incident, Father Beuno was forced to leave again for Powys. He stayed for a time with his sister Gwenlo, her husband Thewith ap Eliud, and their daughter Gwenffrewi – the same Saint Winefride whose relics rest in Shrewsbury Abbey. Beuno, seeing the bright and serious disposition of the girl, offered to tutor her, and her father Thewith agreed and provided Beuno with a parish and a living in return. Beuno delighted in teaching his niece and loved her as a daughter. It was unsurprising when Gwenffrewi decided on leaving the world and taking the wimple.

On one Sunday, when Father Beuno was serving the Liturgy in the parish church, Gwenffrewi was alone in her house. A lecherous young prince named Caradog was riding by, spotted the beautiful girl from horseback, and began to lust after her. He entered her house and demanded a drink of water, which she gave him. He began pressing his attentions upon her unwanted, demanding she take him as a husband, but she was determined to become a nun. Caradog tried to take her by force, but she struggled free and fled toward the church. Caradog took to his horse and rode after her, infuriated by her refusal and frightened that she would reveal his attempt to rape her. As she was running up the steps to the church, he swung his sword and cut off the pious young girl’s head.

Saint Beuno rushed out of the church and saw this grim spectacle. Beuno had the girl’s head reattached to her body, and raised her to life again. Seeing the young princeling leaning on his sword, unrepentant for what he had done, he invoked the wrath of heaven upon Caradog, who fell dead on the spot, and the earth opened up to swallow his body. (Other sources have it that Gwenffrewi’s brother Owain slew Caradog in vengeance.) Gwenffrewi would go on to become a nun as she had intended – and was advised by her uncle to establish a nunnery of her own – but would bear the scar on her neck from Caradog’s sword the rest of her life. Pure water sprang forth from the spot where her head had fallen, and that place to this day is called Holywell.

Again Father Beuno went northward to Gwynedd, and paid his respects to the newly-crowned king Cadwallon ap Cadfan – the same heathen Briton who slew Saint Éadwine of Northumbria in battle and who would in turn be slain by Saint Oswald of Northumbria. To the new king Saint Beuno gave a staff of gold, worth sixty head of cattle, which he had been gifted by Cynan Garwyn; in return for this staff, the new king ‘gave’ Saint Beuno a patch of land at Gwareddog in Arfon – where he began to build a church.

As he and some of his followers were enclosing the yard, a young woman stood by asking Saint Beuno to bless her child. Beuno put her off; whereupon the child began crying piteously. Beuno asked the woman why the babe was crying, and she answered him: ‘You are enclosing the land that belonged to his father and is properly his.’ Upon hearing this, Beuno bade his monks leave off their work while he baptised and blessed the child. Then he took to his chariot with the woman and her babe and left to confront Cadwallon.

Cadwallon was then camping at Caernarfon, and it was there that they found him. Beuno asked Cadwallon why he had given him land which did not belong to him and was not his to give, but rather belonged to the child. He then demanded that Cadwallon either give him other land, or else return to him the staff in recompense. Cadwallon flatly refused to give Beuno anything else, and told him he had already given the staff away. At this, Beuno cursed Cadwallon, that he would not long hold the land. As he was leaving Caernarfon, however, Beuno was hailed by a man who turned out to be a God-fearing cousin of Cadwallon’s named Gwyddaint. ‘For his own soul and that of Cadwallon,’ Gwyddaint gave to Saint Beuno the township of Clynnog-fawr out of his own lands, relinquishing all claims on the land and offering it free of tribute or service. On this land, situated on the northwest coast of Wales, Saint Beuno established a monastery and school. Though he made it his main abode, he spent much of his life on the move, doing mission work, aiding the poor and healing the sick – with a special care and attention to young children. Beuno drew a number of monks to his monastery at Clynnog-fawr, and a number of the heathen were converted by his witness and works. He would repose there in a lengthy old age, on the twenty-first of April, 640.

The other major miracle of Saint Beuno’s life was the conversion of Tigiwg. Tigiwg, the daughter of King Ynyr Gwent, conceived a desire for a skilled and handsome carpenter from Aberffraw, a regular in the employ of Cadwallon, when he came to help the king build a palace. Tigiwg was apparently quite determined in her advances on the young man; for this reason Ynyr Gwent gave her to the carpenter in marriage. However, the carpenter was not quite so thrilled with his new wife as she was with him, and abandoned her on the road home. She was discovered, either dead or near death, by shepherds under the rule of Saint Beuno. She was brought to him and revived by him, and he counselled her to enter the monastic life. At this time her brother Iddon heard of what had happened, and went in search of his sister. Finding her with Saint Beuno, Iddon asked the saint to go with him to Aberffraw to demand back the horses and gold and silver which Ynyr had given the carpenter as wedding-gifts. Again Beuno went to confront Cadwallon, together with Iddon. When Iddon saw the carpenter among Cadwallon’s hireð, he drew his sword and would have slain the faithless husband if Saint Beuno and his men had not restrained him. Beuno demanded the goods back from Cadwallon, who refused at first but – perhaps fearing another of his famous curses – relented and restored the carpenter’s wedding-gifts to Iddon. To Beuno he also gave the land at Aelwyn Beuno in Aberffraw, which housed another holy well.

Saint Beuno’s Life might seem quite harsh to modern ears, handing down curses as liberally as he did. But let us remember, this Palm Sunday, what happened the Holy Monday morning after Christ our God entered Jerusalem in triumph, as recounted in the Gospels of Saint Mark and Saint Matthew. Our Lord cursed the fig tree which bore no fruit. The tale of this curse upon the fig tree has a particular significance: in it, Christ is issuing a direct rebuke to those in power in Jerusalem, the spiritual leaders of the Temple: who put on a false and legalistic piety, who enjoy the pomp and favours of their offices, but who show none of the true fruits of the spirit – the fruits of repentance.

A faithful follower of Christ, Saint Beuno does not get angry with those who show themselves to be penitent, and he never raises his voice or his hand against the poor who are beloved of God. Those on the receiving end of his wrath – the sons of Selyf ap Cynan; Caradog; Cadwallon – were all high-born and wealthy. They were blinded by the idols of their riches, by their vainglory, by the lust of the eyes and the pride of life. They would not hear gentle rebuke or accept correction. (Indeed, Cadwallon would go to war again and again against Christian kingdoms to the east, slaying and plundering poor people, destroying God’s saints – and ultimately he would himself be destroyed in battle, having lived his life by the sword and what he could get from it.) Note also that in all these cases where a curse is issued, Saint Beuno places himself on the side of the powerless and those at a disadvantage in British customary law: the townsfolk of Gwyddelwern; his niece, a victim of sexual assault; a widowed mother and her child. The same sort of people, in point of fact, who turned out of the streets of Jerusalem to lay their palm fronds and their clothes out on the road before this odd sort of King who rode toward them, unadorned, on the colt of a donkey. That we ourselves may likewise seek mercy and justice, therefore, let us turn away from our own idols and offer the fruits of the spirit fit for the King who visits us. Our father among the saints, Holy and Venerable Beuno, pray to Christ our God that our souls may be saved!
By raising Lazarus from the dead before Your passion,
You did confirm the universal Resurrection, O Christ God!
Like the children with the palms of victory,
We cry out to You, O Vanquisher of death;
Hosanna in the Highest!
Blessed is He that comes in the Name of the Lord!


Thou didst work many miracles and found many churches,
O glorious Father Beuno.
Thou didst protect Saint Winefride
and guide her in holiness.
Protect us also, by thy prayers, through all the dangers of this life
that we may receive mercy!

The triumphal entry of our Lord into Jerusalem

19 April 2019

Holy Hieromartyr Ælfhéah of Canterbury


Saint Ælfhéah of Canterbury, Archbishop and Martyr

One of the great holy martyrs of the English Church, Ælfhéah of Canterbury (nowadays often rendered as ‘Alphege’), is celebrated today in the Orthodox Church. Born in 953 near Bath in Somerset to a high-born mother who was widowed when Ælfhéah was yet very young, he was drawn to the monastic way of life from a very early age. Despite the initial entreaties of his mother to stay with her, at some time during his twenties he left the sæcular life and entered the Benedictine Priory of Saint Mary at Deerhurst near Tewkesbury. He spent several years there in a humble life of service to God and his brothers, and became a particularly beloved spiritual support to the younger monks; at some point he was prevailed upon to become the prior at Glastonbury Abbey.

However, he eventually desired – as Saint Gúðlác had before him – to retire from the communal life and to pursue a life of solitary battle against the spiritual powers. To this end he returned to his mother’s side and to his birthplace in Bath, where he established a solitary cell. A number of disciples still gathered around him; these became the first brethren of a great monastery at Bath, at which Saint Ælfhéah was (reluctantly) appointed Abbot in 980 by his friend and kinsman Archbishop Saint Dúnstán of Canterbury.

As a Benedictine Abbot in Bath, Ælfhéah became an enthusiastic supporter of the reformist tendency of Archbishops Dúnstán and Osweald. The Benedictines of Bath had apparently grown lax in their observances – Ælfhéah singled out these slothful and self-loving monks for special censure, saying that it was better for a man’s soul to stay a layman in the world than to become a bad monk. His vigorous reforms to the monastic life in Bath were ultimately successful, and they were matched with an inner asceticism on his part and a matchless generosity and compassion for the poor. His almsgiving from the abbey stores was total, which made him particularly well-loved among the lay community in Bath.

Upon the repose of Bishop Saint Æþelwold of Winchester, Archbishop Saint Dúnstán again prevailed upon his kinsman in Bath to take the honour of the bishopric as his successor in 984. This too was a case of nolo efiscofari: it was only woth the greatest reluctance and the repeated insistence of Saint Dúnstán that he accepted. Even as a bishop, he persisted in his caritative form of asceticism: he was so generous in his tenure as bishop that it was said there were soon to be found no more beggars in the whole diocæse. In addition to this, Saint Ælfhéah commissioned, built and patronised a number of new churches in Winchester, and encouraged the local culti of Saints Swíþhún and Æþelwold of Winchester. During the bishopric of Ælfhéah, Winchester became one of the healthiest and most dynamic sees in the whole country.

The English people, however, lived under a constant threat: that of the emboldened Danes, who took advantage of the political weakness of the English king Æþelræd Unrǽd in the wake of his half-brother Saint Éadweard’s murder. The unlucky English king was forced by a string of early defeats to essentially buy off the Danes í víking, paying them a heavy tribute of silver – danegeld – to leave them alone. For obvious reasons, this proved to be an unreliable long-term strategy.

It was largely Saint Ælfhéah’s idea to split apart the alliance of the Danes with the Norwegians in order to break the former’s power to make war on England. This was to be done by approaching Ólafr Tryggvason, whose raiders had tried to sack London but were beaten off by the townsfolk. His men wintered at Southampton, and it was there that Bishop Ælfhéah met him. Ólafr konung had been baptised before (but not confirmed) in the Celtic tradition, and it was not hard for Ælfhéah to get him to accept chrismation with Æþelræd king as sponsor – and to get from him his word that he would leave English shores and not return. As it turned out, the fierce Norwegian who bowed his neck to Christ was true to his word, and never harried English strands again. Saint Dúnstán’s trust in his younger kinsman had indeed been well-placed.

This little manœuvre bought a few years’ frith for free England: the Danes no longer had the numbers to carry out the kinds of attacks they were wont to threaten. It also added to Saint Ælfhéah’s reputation as a churchman and diplomat. Ælfhéah spent twenty-two years as Bishop of Winchester before being elevated to the Archbishopric of Canterbury in 1005 – whereupon he brought the head of Saint Swíþhún with him and did his best to encourage the veneration of both Saints Swíþhún and the more recent Dúnstán. He undertook a pilgrimage to Rome to receive his omophor. After returning from Rome, he took part at a witan at Enham Alamein, wherein he made a rousing plea for the king to improve the kingdom’s defences. His plea was well-timed: the English folk were in greater plight than before, as by 1011 the Danes were striking again, fiercer and faster than hitherto. One band was led by a man named Þórketill ‘the High’ (‘inn hávi’), a grandson of Gormr gamli, and the other band was led by his brother Hemmingr and his companion Eiláfr.

The Danes even assailed the walls of the Churchly burgh itself. Betrayed from within by the archdeacon Ælfmær of Canterbury Abbey, the Danes poured into Canterbury. And once inside they did as Vikings usually did and had done all across England for the past century and a half: burn, rape, kill, pillage and take hostages. The Danes lay hold of Bishop Godwine, Abbot Leofwine of Canterbury, the king’s reeve Ælfweard, and Archbishop Ælfhéah himself – but they let the treacherous Ælfmær go. They began demanding ransom of their captives.

The witan led by Æþelræd Unrǽd offered a series of ransoms totalling £48,000 to the Danes under Þórketill to release the captives and leave England, but they demanded an extra £3,000 in gold for the person of Archbishop Ælfhéah. This, Ælfhéah refused to pay, and refused to let anyone pay for him – as he knew the money would be wrung from the poor folk of England whom he dearly loved, and he would not allow his own skin to be spared at their cost. This roused the fury of the Danes against him, and as they feasted in drunkenness one night in Greenwich, they brought him out before them and demanded again the ransom for his life. Again he refused. The drunken Danes then began beating the Archbishop and pelting him with the bones from their feast. They tortured him thus for a long time, and when Þórketill himself heard of it he tried to stop his men – according to one version of the story even offering them everything he had save his ship, if they would spare his life – but in their drunken frenzy they would not heed him. At last one of the Danes took an axe-handle and, meaning it as a kindness, struck Ælfhéah a killing blow with it to end his suffering. Thus the martyr met his repose.

For several days, the Danes refused to allow Ælfhéah to be buried. However, some of his blood happened to fall on a dead branch, which after those several days they found to be growing roots and sprouting green, living new leaves. The heathen, thinking this wonder to have been a sign from Frigg, fearfully bore the dead Archbishop’s body to London and delivered it into the keeping of the bishops there, who interred it with all due wonder. Saint Ælfhéah was at once considered by the people of London and Canterbury to be a martyr for the faith.

This episode seems to have a profound impact on Þórketill, who was outraged by his men’s failure to obey him in the matter of the martyred Archbishop. The Dane took a handful of his trusted hirðmenn and forty-five long-ships, and defected from his own army, seeking service instead with Æþelræd. He also sought to be baptised as a Christian, and so he lived the rest of his days. The relics of Saint Ælfhéah stayed only a brief time in London, for when the Danish Cnut was king of England, at the behest of his believing wife Ælfgifu and in repentance for his former deeds, he had the relics of the martyr translated back to a place of honour in the city of Canterbury.

It is clear that Ælfhéah is indeed a saint and martyr. But his martyrdom is peculiar in that, though it was brought upon him to suffer at the hands of heathen, he did not suffer specifically in odium fidei, as the Latins say. His suffering was instead for the sake of his neighbours, for the sake of the poor folk of Canterbury – which is also a form of suffering for Christ. His refusal to brook any ransom money paid on his behalf to the Danes bespeaks, indeed, an œconomic concern for the well-being of the people in his parish; the same concern as motivated his almsgiving in Winchester. Saint Ælfhéah’s sort of witness for Christ has a tendency to beguile the disbelieving and to baffle the modern believer – who is taught to embrace a false dichotomy between ‘materialist’ and ‘spiritual’ ideas when it comes to his neighbour’s wants. But Saint Ælfhéah was similar to the Desert Fathers in this respect, to the Russian hermits, and later to Nikolai Berdyaev who said ‘the question of bread for my neighbour is a spiritual question’. Saint Ælfhéah was keenly aware that the money that would have bought his freedom, was the blood and the tears and the bread of the poor. Sparing his neighbour, Saint Ælfhéah truly did ‘lay down his life for his friends’, and it is Saint John who assures us that this is indeed the greatest love.

Holy Hieromartyr Ælfhéah of Canterbury, pray to Christ our God for us sinners!

17 April 2019

‘Îd al-Jalâ’


The seventeenth of April is Evacuation Day (‘Îd al-Jalâ’ عيد الجلاء) in Syria. The day celebrates the occasion in 1946 when the last French troops left Syrian soil. As one might suspect, the fact that Syrians celebrate their independence on this day rather than on, say, the first of January – when the Allied Powers during the Second World War recognised Syrian independence from France – shows precisely how tenuous that guarantee of independence was, and also showcases the very good reasons the Syrian people have to distrust the French even when they make such promises. Among the foreign leaders who commemorated Evacuation Day with the Syrian people this year were Belarusian President Aliaksandr Lukašenko and Armenian President Armen Sarkissian.

This year nature too is joining the festivities, as flowers are blooming across the country and butterflies and birds are returning. The Syrian people, too, this year have a few reasons to rejoice, though particularly on an œconomic front their struggle is far from over. The war is winding down; Syrian refugees and displaced people are returning home; Dâ‘iš has been decisively weakened (but not yet quite defeated); and most of the country is firmly under the control of the rightful government of Baššâr al-’Asad. Peace talks are being held in Qazaqstan.

However, not all is yet well in Syria. There are still foreign jihadis and Kurdish forces still operating in the country. There is a shortage of resources, particularly fuel, which is the direct result of a brutal sanctions régime from the Western countries and which are directly impacting the poorest and most deprived sectors of the society. And the rightfully-Syrian Arab Hadbatu al-Jawlân is still under foreign occupation – a sad fact which is also commemorated on each Evacuation Day. That occupation sadly has now been validated, over the heads of all the Arab peoples, by our own criminal government.

Additionally, and importantly, our beloved Aleppine archpastors of the Christian confessions, Sayyidna Paul Yâzijî and Mâr Yôhanna Ibrâhîm, are still missing – and this week, six years will have passed since they were abducted. May this Evacuation Day also see renewed and intensified prayers on their behalf, for their release from captivity and for their safe return. May God keep and protect them, and keep them ever in His own memory.

May God grant victories to the Orthodox Christians over their adversaries. May He save and have mercy upon Baššar al-‘Asad and upon the righteous and Christ-loving Syrian Arab Army; may He surround Syria’s sovereignty with peace and subdue beneath their feet every enemy and adversary. May He grant it that the whole of the Syrian nation be liberated from foreign occupation and oppression!

15 April 2019

The first real victory of Arab nationalism


Patriarch Meletios II (Dûmâni) of Antioch

According to the Arab nationalist pædagogue Sâti‘ al-Husrî, the first true victory of the Arab nationalist movement, and the very impetus for the Arab Awakening that followed, was the election of Meletios II (Dûmâni) of blessed memory to the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch in 1899 – the first Syrian Arab to be selected to the office in 175 years since the repose of Patriarch Athanasios III (Dabbas) in 1724. Many thanks to Dr Joseph Zeitoun’s blog for the biographical information that follows, which I’ve done my best to paraphrase here.

Patriarch Meletios was born in the eastern quarter of the old city of Damascus (aj-Jûrah, near the Roman gate at Bâb Tûmâ, where Saint Thomas lived and where Saint Paul had his conversion experience – and more recently Saint Joseph (Haddad) of Damascus, Saint Raphael (Hawaweeny) of Brooklyn and Ba‘athist philosopher Michel ‘Aflaq), on the eighth of November, 1837. Historically, the district was majority-Orthodox Christian, but the Christians lived in loving, harmonious relationship with their Shi’ite and Alawite neighbours. His family were apparently fairly pious – they prayed, fasted and regularly worshipped Christ at the churches in the neighbourhood. He was sent to the Patriarchal School in Damascus and learned under Saint Joseph of Damascus. He became learned in Arabic, Greek, Latin and Turkish as well as in both theology and the sæcular sciences; upon graduation, he sought after the higher wisdom of the love of God and entered the monastic life.

As a monk, Meletios studied theology and music, where he actively contributed to a great reawakening of the Antiochene hymnal tradition. His musical achievements brought him to the attention of Patriarch Hierotheos, who took Meletios under his wing and sent him as part of a delegation to Constantinople, where he took part in a council of the churches of Constantinople, Antioch, Alexandria and Jerusalem discussing issues of relevance to the Orthodox Christian millet in the Ottoman Empire. At this council, his deep spirituality and humility, his clear and beautiful singing voice and his well-rounded scientific knowledge were noted by Patriarch Cyril II of Jerusalem.

The Christian community in Damascus suffered a great catastrophe in 1860, when Druze and Sunnî warlords who had been fighting in Lebanon entered the city, burned down Bâb Tûmâ along with its several churches and Shi‘a mosques, and killed around 8,000 Christians in a massive pogrom, including the martyr Saint Joseph of Damascus. Meletios returned from Constantinople after this horrific event, and was trusted by Patriarch Hierotheos with bringing monetary aid and aid-in-kind from the church to help the victims, orphans and widows from the pogrom – both Christian and Muslim. He discharged this task faithfully, honestly and with love for the sorrowing; this earned him great goodwill among the residents of Bâb Tûmâ and a commendation to the rank of archimandrite from Patriarch Hierotheos. After the bishop of Latakia reposed in 1865, Meletios was appointed bishop by unanimous vote of the Antiochian synod and assigned to Latakia.

Latakia was then one of the neediest Orthodox diocæses in Syria. Meletios did much to improve and streamline the administration of the diocæse. In addition, he established a young boys’ school which provided instruction in Arabic, Greek and French, and repaired seven of the diocæsan churches. His service in Latakia was marked by personal austerity but great generosity to the poor, and he gave much of his own funds for the upkeep of the churches and to keep the school running in its early years. He sponsored several students to the Halki Seminary, including Saint Raphael (Hawaweeny) – these students for the most part returned to Syria and took up positions in the Antiochian Church, where they greatly enriched its intellectual and spiritual life.

Though Constantinople and Antioch were at this time coöperating to great effect on academics, when it came to cultural and administrative processes the two churches were in a state of contention. The synod of Antiochian bishops demanded the removal of Patriarch Spyridon (Euthymiou), a Greek Cypriot who had been appointed from Constantinople in 1891, and his replacement with a native bishop from among their own ranks. The Russian Empire and the Qudsi Brotherhood of the Holy Sepulchre (of which Patriarch Spyridon was a member) were both involved in the dispute over the Patriarchal office. Long story short: several purely administrative miscalculations which brought Patriarch Spyridon into conflict with both Moscow and Jerusalem ended with his resignation from the Patriarchate; however, the simmering issue which subsequently rose to the surface was one of restored ‘native’ Arabic autonomy versus a ‘Hellenist’ status quo.

This conflict did have some continuities with the earlier ‘Bulgarian question’ and Balkan conflicts more broadly, but with some interesting twists. Ecclesiologically, the question was merely that the bishops of one of the original five Patriarchates wished to restore to themselves the right to appoint their own primate. Ironically, this meant that the Arabic bishops used anti-nationalist language to make their case, appealing instead to the ecclesiological principle of local appointment of the local patriarch in the local church. (Sound familiar?)

Bishop Meletios was at this point one of several personalities involved in the question of the succession following Patriarch Spyridon’s resignation. Another was locum tenens Patriarch Gerasimos (later of Jerusalem), who represented the interests of Constantinople. Three bishops – those of Aleppo, Edessa and Kilikia – supported Gerasimos as the new Patriarch. When the rest of the Antiochian bishops elected Bishop Meletios as Patriarch instead, these three bishops sent complaints to Constantinople, which then attempted to get the walî of Damascus to decide for Gerasimos; however, the Ottoman government, under pressure from the Russian ambassador not to intervene, declined. In a massive popular ceremony at the Mariamite Cathedral, Meletios was enthroned as Patriarch on 27 April 1899. However, Constantinople continued for several years working against him, refusing to recognise him and attempting to get his enthronement overturned.

Patriarch Meletios committed his intense energies of spirit to improving the state of education in Syria and Lebanon, and advocated tirelessly for both public and churchly schooling. He reopened the Balamand Theological Seminary and invited professors from Greece and Russia to teach classes there. He also helped to reform and improve the administration of monasteries and cathedral churches, stamped out corruptions and abuses, built new churches and schools in Damascus, and supported a charitable Orthodox sorority in in al-Qusa‘a which worked primarily with poor women.

His reform work was much-appreciated and much-needed, and more would have been done if not for his death. Patriarch Meletios succumbed to a sudden, and somewhat suspicious, stroke in 1906. Grieved by all Damascenes, Christian and Muslim, he was buried at the Mariamite Cathedral. He was succeeded by Patriarch Gregorios IV (Haddad) – the second post-1724 Arabic Patriarch of Antioch, who would be recognised by the patriarchs of Constantinople, Alexandria and Jerusalem only in 1909.

Even though the ecclesiological argument for Meletios’s enthronement was fully ‘localist’ and Orthodox, the event had much broader implications. According to William Cleveland’s biography, Sâti‘ al-Husrî acclaimed both the enthronement (which happened 120 years ago today) and Patriarchal rule to be the ‘first real victory of Arab nationalism’. In al-Husrî’s view, Patriarch Meletios enabled Arabic Christians in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Palestine to fully realise their linguistic and historical affinity with a pre-Islâmic Arab heritage, and to join the demands for reform of (and later revolt against) the Ottoman Empire. The prominence of Orthodox Christians like Shiblî Shumayyil and ‘Isa al-‘Isa in Arab movements for reform and independence in subsequent generations can be to some degree attributed to the witness and work of the Antiochian Orthodox hierarchy. On that note, may God make the memory of His Holiness Meletios to be æternal!