31 July 2019

Venerable Neot of Cornwall

Saint Neot of Cornwall

The thirty-first of July, along with being the feast of Saint Germain of Auxerre, is also the feast of another Celtic holy man: Saint Neot the monk of Cornwall. A man of diminutive stature but towering in terms of his holiness, he was the confessor and spiritual father to Ælfrǽd King of Wessex.

Neot was of high birth and of Cornish stock. He began his adult life as a soldier. But soon he had a conversion experience. He put off his armour and weapons, and retired from the world to live in service to Christ. He lived for awhile as a monk at the famous Glastonbury Abbey, in which he was trained not only in the precepts of the Christian faith but also in the broader subjects of a rounded sæcular education. He lived as a monk there for some years, but for the Brythonic temperament the pull of the hermitage has always been stronger than that of the monastery. Saint Neot left Glastonbury and went to live an eremitical life in a remote cell in Cornwall.

He settled in the windswept granite uplands of Bodmin Moor, at the place near where the present-day village of St Neot is settled. The village of St Neot is in a wooded valley through which the River Fowey flows. There had been one anchorite who had lived there before – one Saint Gwerir, about whose life little else is known but to whom many wonders were attributed in days after. Here our Saint Neot spent the next few years in solitude and constant prayer. However, the folk of the surrounding country were drawn to him for spiritual counsel and comfort. Soon he had a number of disciples living near him. He built an abbey for these disciples to live in, and headed it himself as abbot. This monastery was still standing by the time the Normans invaded.

Saint Neot was a very short fellow, standing no more than four feet tall. His Life recounts that he had to stand on a stool in order to serve the Gifts during each Liturgy. Saint Neot was much renowned for his care for the infirm and the needy, as well as for his holy life and wisdom. He also had a peculiar form of asceticism: he would submerge himself up to his neck in a well full of cold water and recite the Psalter from memory.

Saint Neot had a special relationship with wild animals, which loved him and served him as though they were tame. There was a stream nearby his cell that always had three fish in it. An angel appeared to the hermit, saying that if he would catch and eat no more than one fish from that stream each day, those same three fish would always return there. This he did for a long time, until one day he fell gravely ill. One of his disciples, hoping to restore him to health, caught two fish from the stream and cooked them, giving them to the saint to eat. Saint Neot, seeing that the divine command he had been given was broken, was greatly grieved. He said a prayer to the Trinity over the fish, who at once were restored to life – and then he took them back to the stream and released them.

On another occasion, a doe was in flight from a hunter’s hounds, and sought shelter with Saint Neot. The exhausted doe took shelter with Saint Neot while he prayed. The hounds were not far behind; however, at one glance from the saint, the hounds did not dare to fall upon the doe. They ran back to their masters and let the doe live.

There are a number of other tales of wonders attributed to Saint Neot. On one occasion, after the monastery had been founded, thieves broke into the monastery and stole the oxen, leaving the holy man and his disciples without the means of sustenance. A generous forester living nearby, pitying the monks, gave Saint Neot his deer, which from then on obeyed Saint Neot like tame beasts, helping him to plough the fields. Later, the same thieves who had stolen the oxen brought them back and knelt at Saint Neot’s feet, begging his forgiveness. Saint Neot forgave and blessed them, and thereafter the thieves became monks in the same monastery.

The hermit was the confessor to Ælfrǽd King, and also provided shelter, aid and spiritual advice to him while he was fighting his asymmetric guerrilla war of resistance against the invading heathen Danes. Saint Neot gave Ælfrǽd his blessing to fight prior to the Battle of Edington, and predicted his victory over the Danish foe. A recently-reposed Saint Neot even appeared alongside Saint Cuðberht in a vision to Ælfrǽd on the eve of the battle, and gave him courage for the unequal fight he had to face.

Saint Neot reposed in the Lord on the thirty-first of July, probably in the year 877. He was buried in the monastery church he had founded on Bodmin Moor. A hundred years later, however, a monastery was founded in at Eynesbury in Cambridge with the assistance of Saint Ósweald of Worcester. A part of Saint Neot’s relics were translated there, while a part were still left in Cornwall. A portion of Saint Neot’s relics were translated to Bec in France after the Norman Conquest.

The monastery in St Neots, Cornwall, did not survive the Reformation; the site of the monastery passed into the personal hands of Elizabeth I and thereafter to the Stuarts. Likewise, the monastery at Eynesbury was completely torn down. St Neots in Cornwall was thereafter a town fully and ardently loyal to the Royalist cause in the Civil War. They even celebrate Oak Apple Day there to this day.

Venerable Neot, caretaker of animals and friend to the poor, intercede for us with Christ our God!

Our father among the saints Germain, Bishop of Auxerre

Saint Germain of Auxerre

On the thirty-first of July, we commemorate Saint Germain [also Garmon or Germanus], the Bishop of Auxerre. Saint Germain is best known for his opposition to the Pelagian Agricola and for the consecration of Saint Patrick as a missionary bishop to Ireland.

A Gallo-Roman of high birth, Germain was known for his able wit and quick tongue, both of which served him well when he began practising civil law in the Roman courts. He married a socialite of good repute, a kinswoman of the emperor named Eustachia, and ingratiated himself readily into the halls of power. The clever youngster was soon noticed by the Western Emperor Honorius, and before too long he was appointed as dux, or governor, in charge of the fifth part of his native province of Gaul and in charge of all the military affairs of that province.

Germain was politically astute and outwardly virtuous, but he remained a pagan to his roots. He was also a bit overly fond of hunting. He brought back the heads of the beasts he killed and hung them on a great tree in the town plaza of Auxerre, ostensibly to honour the gods – but in truth to feed his own vainglorious ego. None except Saint Amator, the bishop of Auxerre, dared to remonstrate with the young Germain for his costly and conceited hobby – and that same saint received little for his pains but haughty laughs. Once, while Germain was again out on the hunt, Saint Amator went to the city plaza and cut down the tree with all his trophies mounted on it. Germain, who went into a fury at seeing his tree chopped down, threatened Saint Amator, who fled for safety to Autun.

Saint Amator was given a vision from God telling him that Germain was to succeed him as bishop, and that he must prepare him for the honour. Thus, Amator began to lay plans. Consulting with Germain’s superior Julius, who gave him permission to consecrate Germain as a deacon in the Church, Amator lay a trap for Germain. He lured the cocky young lad into the church, locked him inside, and forcibly tonsured him a deacon! Germain did not thereafter take any action against Saint Amator, fearing the wrath of God upon him. Saint Amator reposed shortly thereafter, on the first of May, 418. As per the will of God, the people and Christian clergy of Auxerre unanimously demanded that Germain be made their bishop. (In this sense, Germain’s fate was much like that of Saint Ambrose of Milan!)

Germain took to his new office with a seriousness and sobriety that one would not have thought to expect from a young man of fortune such as he had been. He immediately put off all his former pomp and wealth. He distributed his whole fortune to the poor, and all of his landed properties to the Church. And though he did not put off his wife – it was not yet the custom in the West that bishops had to be celibate – he and Eustachia nonetheless cohabited in a celibate life as though brother and sister. He would not partake of pastries made from white flour, oil, wine, vinegar or salt; and furthermore, prior to every meal he would place a few grains of ash on his tongue to chasten his spirit, and he would eat only the barley bread from what he had reaped and milled himself. He would fast strictly, often eating only once a day. He would dress in the same clothes no matter what season or weather it was: a simple tunic and cowl which he would wear until they were threadbare and in tatters; and he would always wear a hair shirt against his skin. He slept under sackcloth on a simple wooden bed strewn with ashes.

Saint Germain was always generous to the poor with whatever he had to hand. He would go and wash their feet, especially during fast times, and he would serve them food with his own hands. He blessed and laid the foundations of a Benedictine monastery in Auxerre in honour of the Unmercenary Physicians Cosmas and Damian, now dedicated to Saint Marien. He also founded another Benedictine monastery in memory of the victims of the persecution of Aurelianus, the Abbaye Saints-de-Puisaye. As the hagiographer Fr Alban Butler put it:
In this manner he reduced himself to great poverty, and to perpetuate the divine honour, and the relief of the indigent, enriched the church of Auxerre which he found very poor. By many like examples, it appears, that the great endowments of several churches were originally owing to the liberality of their bishops, as Fleury observes.
Saint Germain was chosen by unanimous vote among the bishops of Gaul alongside Saint Loup of Troyes, at the behest of a Roman deacon named Palladius, to venture into Great Britain. The reason for this visit was that the Orthodox teachings might be preserved and that the hæresies of Pelagius – then represented in Britain by his student in mischief Agricola – might be rebutted. Saint Germain took to the task with his usual energy. As they put out into the English Channel in their ships, about halfway across a sudden storm blew up, ‘which turned day into night with black clouds,’ according to Saint Bede. ‘The sails were torn to shreds by the gale, and the skill of the sailors was defeated, and the safety of the ship depended on prayer rather than seamanship.

Saint Germain, who had lain asleep in exhaustion all this time, was roused by Saint Loup with a fearful cry, begging him to oppose the fury of the waves by means of his prayers. Unshaken, with the spray of the sea in his face, Saint Germain invoked the name of the Holy Trinity and shook a vial of holy water out onto the waves. At once the waves calmed and the winds reversed, and God interceded to save their ship and give it speed into the harbours of Britain. On their arrival, great throngs of men came to meet them – most of these were poor folk, and lived not in great houses but by their own labour. It was they who were the most distressed by the errant teachings of Pelagius, and the sway he held among the clergy on the island of Britain.

And so, this was where Saint Germain and Saint Loup took to preaching. They did not do so behind amvons in the churches; they did so on street corners and to workers in the fields. The common folk of Britain flocked to hear the life-giving words of the true faith, and that faith was strengthened amongst them. It was only after the two bishops had been in the island for some time, and that they had made these headways among the folk, that the Pelagians dared to come forth to dispute with them at Verulamium – what is now St Albans.

The difference between the Pelagians and the Orthodox bishops could not have been any plainer or more apparent, as Bede recounts in his History. The Pelagians appeared in extravagant robes, lavish jewels, magnificent finery, and surrounded themselves with their servants and supporters in a great pompous procession. On the other side, the Orthodox bishops dressed as I have described them above – in their simple, travel-worn garb. The bishops allowed their opponents the privilege of speaking first. When the Pelagians put forth their arguments, they did so in highfalutin philosophical language, with elaborate argumentation and logic. When the bishops spoke, they did so plainly such that everyone around them could understand, with appeals to the Gospels and to the Apostles. The common Britons who had come to judge the disputation found strongly in favour of the bishops – and it was only at the bishops’ behest that they were restrained from committing violent outrages against the Pelagians.

After this disputation had concluded, a certain Romano-British tribune came forth with his wife, asking the Pelagians to cure their daughter, who was blind. The Pelagians, who were unable by their own powers to cure the girl, begged the bishops instead to do so. With a short prayer to the Holy Trinity, Saint Germain stepped forward with a small reliquary he kept around his neck, and lay it on the brow of the young girl. At once her sight, to the throng’s great awe and to her parents’ joy, was restored to her. Thereafter the doctrines of Pelagius had little weight or currency among the British people.

Once this was done, Saint Germain asked to be taken to the resting-place of Saint Alban nearby, that he might give thanks to God through His great saint. He had the tomb opened – not so that Saint Alban might be removed, but instead that he might deposit there the relics of several of the apostles and martyrs and other saints that he had brought with him from Gaul. By this action Saint Germain sought to strengthen the faith of the British people. He lay these relics to rest with great solemnity, and took away with him a portion of the earth on the spot where Alban had been executed. This earth was red as though it had but lately received the martyr’s blood.

It happened as Saint Germain was headed for home that he took a fall and broke his leg. As he was recuperating, a cottage nearby caught fire, threatening all the buildings around. The attendants of the bishop panicked, and sought to move him away, but Saint Germain chided their poverty of faith and refused to move from where he lay. The servants left him to find buckets of water to put the fire out, but to no avail – the fire raged and nothing they could do could put it out. Saint Germain, however, kept constantly in prayer, and wondrously the flames never touched the building where he lay, or several buildings around that. Beholding this awful wonder, many of the common folk nearby came to Saint Germain, and begged him to work wonders for them as well. Germain refused any treatment for his own broken leg; but everyone who came ill to him left healed and whole. At last an angel of God came to Germain and bade him to stand up; as Germain obeyed the vision, he found that his bone had knit perfectly and that he was able to stand without pain.

At the time in which Germain was in Britain, the Saxons had been invited as mercenaries to protect the Britons from Pictish invasion by a Romano-British lord named Vortigern. It was not long before the heathen Saxons decided the pay wasn’t good enough, switched sides, and joined the Picts in attacking the Britons. An army had been raised near where Saint Germain and Saint Loup were residing, and the commanders asked the two bishops to come to their camp and inspire their troops. Saint Germain and Saint Loup did as they were bidden, and went to the British camp. This was during Lent of the year 429. They spent all that season teaching and preaching to the British soldiery, many of whom were yet pagan, and all of whom were desirous of hearing the life-giving Word at a time when their mortal enemy was yet drawing near to them. Saint Germain and Saint Loup gave them every worldly and every heavenly encouragement. Twisting green boughs together, the two bishops made a makeshift shrine where they kept the Liturgy. Once Pascha had arrived, they baptised the army of the Britons en masse in the waters of regeneration. ‘Whereas they had formerly despaired of human strength,’ writes the Saxon historian, ‘all now trusted in the power of God.

The British continued to arm and ready themselves for combat, as the Saxons had sent ahead scouts and were moving against them at speed, anticipating an easy victory over a green levy recently-mustered. Saint Germain volunteered to command the armies himself – showing that perhaps his former worldly vocation as a military governor in Gaul had not yet quite been completely forgotten. He selected the readiest of the men and led them into a pass between the hills, through which he expected the Saxons to make their initial sally. He fortified the troops in this pass, and gave stern orders that as soon as the main body of the Saxon here came within their view, they were to raise a great shout when he raised the standard.

As the Saxons approached, expecting to fall upon the unprepared Britons, the British banner unfurled from atop the pass accompanied by a great shout of ‘Alleluia!’, which issued again, and yet again. The whole army echoed the shout, and the sound of it echoed all around the hills. The Saxons, taken aback, were gripped with fright as they thought themselves to be surrounded on all sides. (This was a similar tactic to the one taken by the Chinese Christian general Guo Ziyi against the Tibetans, some three hundred years later.) The retreating Saxons broke into a run, leaving behind them their weapons and gear. ‘So the bishops overcame the enemy without bloodshed, winning a victory by faith and not by force.

Saint Germain thereafter left Britain for some while, but was compelled to return after the Pelagian heresy revived once again eighteen years later. By that time Saint Loup had reposed in blessedness, and this time Saint Germain took with him one of his disciples who had been recently elevated to the clergy, named Severus. Upon setting foot again in Britain, they found once again that their arrival had not gone unnoticed. The throng of people was there again to greet them, and with them, a local chieftain by the name of Elaf. Elaf had brought with him his son, who suffered from a severe and painful deformity in his leg. The bishops asked the people about the spiritual state of Britain, and they were answered that the Pelagians had been able to win over only a minority of the people. And then Elaf through himself at the feet of the bishops, and begged Saint Germain to heal the lame boy. Saint Germain prayed to the Holy Trinity for mercy, and then bade the lad sit down and stretch out his leg, which he could only do painfully, for it had been shrivelled and misshapen by the unnatural contractions of the muscles. Saint Germain lay his hands on the leg and worked them up and down, and as the crowd watched the boys muscles straightened and swelled into health, so that the limb was restored to its full and free use, without pain. Thereafter the British people were fully brought to Orthodoxy, and the Pelagian preachers among them were sent into banishment. It was on this voyage into Britain that Saint Germain appointed the saints Illtud and Dyfrig as bishops and teachers among the Britons.

Saint Germain spent his last years in Ravenna, attempting to broker a peace for the peoples of far northwestern Gaul – then called Armorica, but now the province of Brittany. The Emperor Aëtius had sent a troop of Alan fœderati under Goar into Armorica on a punitive expedition against the bagaudæ: social bandits drawn from the Gaulish underclasses (peasants, runaway slaves, deserters) who had arisen in protest of the impositions and cruelty of the landowners, who held many of them in debt-bondage. Saint Germain pleaded to the Emperor for leniency for the leaders of the bagaudæ, whose grievances he believed to be just – and even personally confronted Goar, the war-leader of the Alans.

Bede recounts that while Saint Germain was still on this peacemaking mission in Ravenna, he reposed in the Lord. He would have been in his late sixties or perhaps as old as seventy; contemporary historians dispute the actual year of his death, though Bede recounts that he held the office of bishop for thirty years. Holy Father Germain, defender and confessor of Orthodoxy, intercessor for the poor and oppressed, pray to Christ our Lord that he may have mercy on our souls!
By endurance you gained your reward, venerable Father;
You persevered in prayer unceasingly;
You loved the poor and provided for them in all things!
Blessed Germain of Auxerre, intercede with Christ God
That our souls may be saved.

Righteous Joseph of Arimathæa

Saint Joseph of Arimathæa

The thirty-first of July is one of two feast days of the Orthodox Church given to Saint Joseph of Arimathæa, a secret disciple of Jesus who held a position of some power and authority in the religion of the Second Temple. The Gospel of Saint Matthew describes him merely as ‘a rich man of Arimathæa’ (a town which has been traditionally identified with the birthplace of the Prophet Samuel: the Jerusalem suburb of Ramah in Palestine, nowadays Nabi Samu‘îl) and ‘Jesus’ disciple’. The Gospel of Saint John affirms as much, and adds that he was a follower in secret ‘for fear of the Jews’.

However, the Gospel of Saint Mark describes him as ‘an honourable counsellor, which also waited for the kingdom of God’. This implies that he was a member of the Sanhedrin. It also implies that ideologically, he would have aligned with the Perushim (who affirmed an afterlife) rather than the Seduqim (who did not). The Gospel of Saint Luke tells us also that Saint Joseph did not assent to the Sanhedrin’s condemnation of Jesus. All four Gospel accounts tell of how he pled to Pilate for the body of our Lord, and having received him, had him decently buried in his own tomb, in a white linen shroud, in the presence of the Holy Theotokos and the Myrrh-Bearing Women. Christ was buried somewhat in haste, however (so the Gospels inform us), as the Passover Sabbath was drawing near.

No one, least of all Joseph, was given to expect the eucatastrophe that happened on the third day. When the Myrrh-Bearing Women went to the tomb of Christ they found the stone rolled away and the tomb – empty. Christ had risen from the dead. The young man they found at the tomb told them that Christ was no longer there, and to tell the disciples that Christ had gone before them into Galilee. The women did not speak, for they were afraid.

A certain story about Joseph that had some currency in the ancient Church, held that once he was finished burying Christ, some among the scribes and lawyers of the Temple came and confronted him. They asked him why they had begged the body of Christ from Pilate, seized him as a sympathiser, and had him cast into gaol. They placed a seal over the door of his cell, and left him there. On that same third day, the Temple elders came by his cell, and they found that though the seal was still affixed to his door, Joseph himself was not within. He had gone back to Arimathæa.

The elders of the Temple sent an apology and conciliatory message to Joseph with several of his friends, and Joseph took up their invitation to speak with them. He told them that on that third day after he had been cast into gaol, a blinding apparition appeared to him, which lifted up the four corners of his cell from off the ground. As he lay prostrated in terror, the apparition bathed him in water and fragrant essences, and spoke gently to him. Joseph, fearing that it was a phantom or an angel who appeared before him, asked if he were Elijah. The man answered back to him that He was no phantom, nor angel, nor Elijah, but Christ – the same whom Joseph had taken from Pilate and wrapped in linens and lain in the tomb. Christ led him by the hand out of the cell and out of the city gate, though both were shut, and back to his home; then He kissed him and bade him farewell, for He was on His way back to Galilee. The elders of the Temple, it appears, did not fully credit his story, for they asked to cross-interview several of his relatives and neighbours as to what had happened.

Joseph of Arimathæa withdrew into the wilderness for six months, after which he presented himself to Saint Peter and asked to be allowed to preach the risen Christ, in whom he wholeheartedly believed. He was so admitted, and he went to preach Christ diligently among his countrymen, as well as in Rome and Libya. One popular legend has it that he got aboard a ship from Jaffa and made his way across the Mediterranean, and made land at Worbarrow Bay in Roman Britain. Mediæval tales of Saint Joseph in England abound like ivy, and are thick on the ground particularly around Glastonbury, which was said to have been his dwelling-place and the centre of his preaching.

It was said that Joseph of Arimathæa walked all the way from Worbarrow Bay up to Wirral Hill, where he rested the end of his staff in the ground, leaning on it. Beneath it he and his twelve followers rested. There overnight it took root, and began to branch out and blossom with new life. This became the Glastonbury Thorn, which bloomed twice every year – once at Paschaltide, and once around the Nativity. Joseph of Arimathæa settled in Glastonbury together with these twelve followers of his, and there, by tradition, established the first church and proto-monastic community in Britain, for which he was given the land by a local governor. He lived there for forty-two years, the latter half of his life.

The Thorn associated with Saint Joseph was cut down in the seventeenth century, by those drab grey-souled Puritans who could not abide anything colourful or green or living in England’s public space. However, local folks hid cuttings from Saint Joseph’s Thorn from the Puritan soldiery and replanted them after they left: these are still growing in Glastonbury. A spray from Saint Joseph’s Thorn is sent each Christmas to the reigning English monarch; this custom dates to the reign of the decidedly unpuritanical Queen Anne.)

Additional legends associate Saint Joseph and Glastonbury with the fictional isle of Avalon and the ultimate fate of King Arthur. A Cornish tale has it that Saint Joseph was originally a tin-worker who visited Britain together with Jesus as a child, who taught him how to purify the tin there.

We can see from some of these latter stories that the connexions of Glastonbury to Saint Joseph of Arimathæa have largely drifted from the realm of history into that of legend, even within the long and persisting memory of the Church. However, legends are more often than not formed around kernels of truth. The Christian presence in Glastonbury assuredly predates the arrival of the Saxons, who were previously thought to have founded Glastonbury Abbey. A Christian community – an established one with significant connexions in trade to the Levant – was present and apparently flourishing in Glastonbury in the fifth century, while most of the residents of Somerset were still pagan. The association of this community with Saint Joseph of Arimathæa may not be accidental. Righteous Joseph, caretaker of the body of Christ, pray unto Him for us sinners that we may share in His Resurrection!
The noble Joseph, when he had taken down Your most pure Body from the Tree,
Wrapped it in fine linen and anointed it with spices, and placed it in a new tomb.
But You rose on the third day, O Lord, granting the world great mercy!

Glastonbury Abbey

The nature of the true melek

I have a very special place in my heart (and in my icon corner) for Holy Father Filaret (Drozdov) of Moscow. While I was inquiring into the Orthodox faith, Father Sergey Voronin – then of Beijing’s Holy Dormition Church – gave to me a book of his sermons. It occurred to me as I read the introduction that this was an extraordinary and gifted orator, but also one who was deeply engaged in both the spiritual life and in the outer world. Father Filaret was, as much as any other man apart from Tsar Aleksandr II – the man who freed the serfs. He authored much of the Tsar’s 1861 proclamation whereby the institution of serfdom was abolished in Russia. This must be borne carefully in mind, for he also said the following.
Some people by the word freedom understand the ability to do whatever one wants… People who have the more allowed themselves to come into slavery to sins, passions, and defilements more often than others appear as zealots of external freedom, wanting to broaden the laws as much as possible. But such a man uses external freedom only to more severely burden himself with inner slavery. True freedom is the active ability of a man who is not enslaved to sin, who is not pricked by a condemning conscience, to choose the better in the light of God’s truth, and to bring it into actuality with the help of the gracious power of God. This is the freedom of which neither heaven nor earth are restrict.
Metropolitan Saint Filaret detested slavery and loved freedom, and that is instantly apparent in his writings – both this one and others. But it is clear that he did not understand freedom in a narrowly political or œconomic sense, as the ‘liberty’ championed in the political realm. For him, slavery to the passions, slavery to sin, was the worst form – a spiritual bondage to some lifeless and external idol. And it is also clear from this passage that he considered a ‘classical liberal’ or ‘libertarian’ approach to the law a means, not of ridding oneself or the social context of slavery, but permitting this inward slavery to deepen, to fester and to spread unchecked.

Part of the difference is one of definition. The classical liberal (or his rather more extreme ideological kin, the libertarian and the anarcho-capitalist) will tell you that self-ownership is possible and morally preferable, and on this basis he grounds his political philosophy. But it is clear that Holy Father Filaret – and, it should be noted, the Orthodox spiritual tradition more broadly – do not hold with that idea of self-ownership being ever truly possible. This may seem an extreme example, but it makes little sense to speak of an addict having self-ownership in the full philosophical sense, even though the legalistic commitments of the classical liberal (delineation of self-ownership as use-right) force him to pretend that he has it. Note well: as quoted in the article linked above, libertarian philosopher Murray Rothbard dismisses as a ‘contextually irrelevant question’ the sole metaphysical criterion which Holy Father Filaret places as the defining feature of his understanding of freedom. This, if nothing else, should tell you: the Orthodox Christian understanding of freedom and the classical-liberal understanding of legal-political liberty are agonal to each other and talking at cross-purposes. At best, the classical liberal will demand, in perhaps a bit of a weary and irritated tone, that you stow all the God-talk in the back corner and pretend it is irrelevant to the discussion. At worst, his principle of self-ownership will demand a basic denial of faith.

But the differences, in fact, go far deeper. In practice, all human beings have such metaphysical commitments whether they know it or not. The totally-unburdened self of social contract theory is, by this point, a rather tattered myth – and the irony is that the people who still cling to that myth and its associated civil trappings unwittingly show its inner falsity in so doing. As our great American folk philosopher (and fellow Minnesotan) Bob Dylan astutely put it, no matter how powerful or rich or famous you are, ‘it may be the Devil, or it may be the Lord, but you’re gonna have to serve somebody’. In the final, metaphysical sense: there is only one true owner, one true melek מלך. There are many others – human and otherwise – who falsely claim ownership. But what is the nature of the ownership that this melek claims upon us? Holy Father Filaret clarifies this question as well:
He who works from fear is a slave, he who labours in the hope of reward is a hireling. ‘The servant,’ (i.e., bondsman,) says JESUS CHRIST, ‘abideth not in the house for ever,’— we may add, nor does the hireling,—for it is but ‘the Son’ that ‘abideth ever’. ‘Fear hath torment’, says the beloved disciple, ‘he that feareth is not made perfect in love,’ whereas ‘perfect love casteth out fear’. Another Apostle says to Christians, in opposition to the Jews, ‘Ye have not received the spirit of bondage again to fear; but ye have received the spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, FATHER.’ And thus the spirit of bondage, as well as the spirit of spiritual hire, is the lot of the Jews; but the lot of true Christians is the spirit of filial love towards GOD and the SAVIOUR. We may even say without contradicting the Apostle, that the true spirit of the Old Testament was the spirit of love, if it had not been clothed in bondage by the stiff-neckedness of the Jews.
We should understand by this language, that the nature of God’s ownership over us as revealed in the person of Christ is fundamentally different from the understanding which prevailed in the religion of the Second Temple. The dogmas of the Trinity themselves imply that God is not some kind of metaphysical slave-lord or dictator, but the God which is melek over all Creation instead is Himself a society of persons – or, indeed, one may even say a sobornost’ of persons – active in mutual love, dynamic in coöperative inter-participation. (I hope that Holy Father Filaret, close as he was to the Slavophils, would not object overmuch to this usage.) The dogma of the Incarnation, likewise, overthrows any possible political expectations that the melek, the anointed mashiyaĥ משיח, will be a Cæsarean conqueror of worldly glory and power. God, we may say rightly, owns us: but God does not want slaves to command and use. Instead, God is a loving Father; He wants children to receive His love and to love Him obediently in return.

Even though Metropolitan Saint Filaret’s vision of a God whose idea of freedom is enabling us to choose the better in Him is not first-order political, it does have direct political implications, just as the concept of sobornost’ as promoted by his contemporary Aleksei Khomyakov has direct political implications. Both Russians did favour, as we have seen, some ‘broadening of the laws’ – to wit, the abolition of serfdom – to allow for greater human flourishing. But neither of them did so uncritically. A body politic in which all people are considered to be, rightfully, children and heirs of the true God who reigns over creation – must be one which embraces limits, which conserves nature, which seeks a just and peaceful modus vivendi with its neighbours, and which actively invests in the physical and spiritual health and upbuilding of all of its members without the distinction of worldly rank, title or property.

28 July 2019

Holy Hierarch Samson, Bishop of Dol

Saint Samson of Dol

The twenty-eighth of July in the Orthodox Church is the feast-day of Saint Samson of Dol, one of the great national saints of Wales alongside Saint Dewi. Surprisingly, an early Life of Saint Samson dating to the seventh century has survived – and has provided the Church with a wealth of information about Wales’s early saints. A hermit, a beloved bishop and an active and tireless missionary, Saint Samson is venerated with particular attention both in Wales and in Brittany.

Samson was born to Amon of Dyfed and his wife, Princess Anna ferch Meurig ap Tewdrig ap Llywarch of Gwent and Glywysing. He was a double cousin of Saint Maelor, whose mother was the sister of Princess Anna and whose father was the brother of Amon. Amon and Anna were happily married, and had tried for many years to have a child. For a long time, Anna like her namesake believed herself barren; so when she became pregnant it was seen as a gift from God.

Anna ferch Meurig doted on Samson, who had been named, portentiously, for the hero from the Book of Judges. His mother desired that Samson should become a priest. However, his father Amon objected for awhile to this choice, being advised by his friends that his only son should carry on the family line instead. His wife was ultimately able to win Amon over, and it was decided that they should send him, at the age of five, to study at the monastic school of Llanilltud Fawr which was being run by the holy Abbot Illtud.

Abbot Illtud, a disciple of Saint Germain of Auxerre, was a man versed backwards and forwards in both the Greek and the Hebrew Scriptures, and had been ordained priest by Saint Germain himself. As soon as the abbot saw the child Samson, he at once kissed the boy with the profound fondness of a father for his son, and gave the following prayer:
We give thanks to God, who has been so generous as to give light on earth through this lamp born of our people, unworthy though we be. Behold the noble chief of us all, behold him who is to be a high priest, to the benefit of many on this side and beyond the sea; behold the illustrious priest of all the Britons; behold the most famous of all, as a founder of churches, since the Apostles!
However, when his parents asked him what he meant by this prayer, and desired to know more about Samson’s future, Saint Illtud told them that it was not his place to tell them at present. Instead, he asked that the boy be given to him to be educated. His wondering parents did so, and from then on Samson stayed at the side of Saint Illtud as though he had always been there and as though it were the most natural thing for a young boy to do. He took to reading and writing like a fish to water, and used this gift as soon as he was able, to pray from the Psalter from memory.

He also kept all the fasts that the monks kept from a very early age, and stayed up for the long vigils – even staying in the same spot for two days straight. It was up to Abbot Illtud to speak to him, sensibly, that ‘it is not appropriate, little son, that the tender body of a youth not yet matured should be broken by too many and ill-regulated fasts’. Even so, Samson was permitted to practise a strict ascetic discipline – he drank no alcohol, for example. He also practised the useful skills that the monks of Llanilltud Fawr kept, and honed them much. He became especially adept in the arts of healing. At one time a brother who had been working in the fields was bitten by a snake. Samson came over and made the sign of the Cross over the bite, then gave the brother holy water to drink, thus nullifying the poison.

Saint Dyfrig often visited Llanilltud Fawr, and he discovered Samson there, and was much impressed by the youth. He ordained Samson first a deacon, and then a priest. On both occasions, a white dove came down from heaven and lighted on Saint Samson’s shoulder. Two of Saint Illtud’s nephews, seeing the way Saint Samson was treated by the abbot and his guests, were taken with envy and tried to poison him. Saint Samson drank the poison they gave him straight down, but it had no effect on him.

Samson moved to another abbey on Caldey Island in Dyfed, which had been established by Saint Illtud’s disciple Pyro. At Caldey Samson lived simply, fasted strictly and did much manual labour. He served there as the cellarer, and then as abbot for three and a half years. Under Abbot Samson, Caldey thrived. The spiritual life of the community flourished, and Abbot Samson instructed the monks with his gentle wisdom and humility. While abbot at Caldey, word came to Samson that his father Amon had fallen gravely ill. Abbot Samson went from Caldey back to his father’s house and convinced him to come to Caldey and become a monk. Thus the father who had once opposed his son’s vows, himself took them – and was at once healed of his illness. With Amon, many of Samson’s relatives took the cowl or the veil and entered the monastic life. Samson’s uncle Saint Umbrafel and his aunt Afrelia were two of these, and so also their son Saint Magloire.

It came to pass when Abbot Samson was somewhat more advanced in years, that a few Irishmen of deep learning came to visit Caldey on their pilgrim’s road. He sought and was granted the bishop’s permission to accompany them back to Ireland. He stayed in Ireland a short while and was given the opportunity to practise his many virtues. He was deeply loved and revered by the God-fearing people who lived there. He healed the blind, cleansed those who were afflicted with leprosy, cast out devils and taught many the precepts of holy Orthodoxy, delivering them from various errors.

On his return, Abbot Samson relinquished his abbacy of Caldey and retired to a secluded cell somewhere along the banks of the Severn in western England, where he was shortly joined by Amon and two other monks. Despite Samson’s attempts to hide himself from the world, his glory could not be hidden, and many sought him out as a starets for his spiritual advice. Soon Samson retired to an even more reclusive place, a cave beside a stream, where he spent all of his time in prayer and ascetic labours.

He was approached once again by Saint Dyfrig, who appointed Samson bishop at Llanilltud Fawr in 521. Shortly before the annual feast of Saint Peter, an angel appeared to Dyfrig and told him to anoint Samson, and on the same day Saint Peter himself told Samson that he needed to accept the bishopric as the will of God. After the consecration, Saint Dyfrig and others who were present saw a stream of fire glittering in Samson’s mouth, and an angel assisting him as he presented the Gifts.

It was at this point that Saint Samson undertook a voyage to Brittany which took him through Cornwall, where he lingered for some time. He travelled all over Cornwall, healing, helping the poor and teaching the Gospel from the north to the south of the peninsula. He fasted strictly through all this time, even endangering his own health in the process. He built a monastery at Golant and another at South Hill atop an old ring of standing stones, and worked many wonders. He healed a boy who had been thrown from his horse and broke his neck. And he turned many Cornish from the worship of the Roman and Celtic gods, toward Christ. He was assisted in his work in Cornwall by two disciples who themselves became saints: Saint Austoll and Saint Mewan. He also made the acquaintance of Saint Petroc while he sojourned in Cornwall.

Saint Samson at last made his way to Brittany, but he stopped on the Isle of Guernsey in the Channel first, establishing a church there (the oldest one on the island) and converting its inhabitants to Christianity. Samson is to this day the patron saint of Guernsey, and his name still adorns a town, a harbour and a parish church on the island.

Saint Samson settled at Dol in Ille-et-Vilaine, and there founded his monastery, which served as a base for his missionary and church-founding work, which extended as far as Pental Monastery in Normandy. He also involved himself in the local politics. The Breton people had lost their legitimate king Ionas, who was murdered by a tyrannical usurper named Conomor. Samson excommunicated Conomor for this crime, and led a delegation of Bretons before the Frankish King Childebert, who was then holding Ionas’s son Iudwal in bondage, demanding that he be released so that he might take up his rightful throne. Childebert obliged him, and eventually Iudwal was able to reclaim his throne after Conomor was killed in battle against the Frankish king Lothair.

Samson also attended the local Synod of Paris in 557. He manifested the meekness and self-effacement of his personality in two ways. Firstly, he refused the luxurious lodgings that Childebert had prepared for him, instead staying at a local monastery. Secondly, when he was called to affix his name to the canons at the synod, he signed it as ‘Samson, a sinner’. He worked many wonders while he was in Brittany, including healing a woman of leprosy and her daughter of mental illness. Saint Samson lived to a venerable old age, and reposed in the Lord in his abbey at Dol on the twenty-eighth of July, 565. Holy Father Samson, venerable hermit and God-bearing ascetic, pray unto Christ that our souls may be saved!
Thy resplendent life, O holy Samson,
Enlightened all thy kindred.
They followed thee in the monastic life
And themselves became shining lights.
When consecrated Hierarch thou didst obey the heavenly vision
And build monasteries to God's glory in Brittany.
Pray to Christ our God to grant us His great mercy.

26 July 2019

Alpamıs and Kazakh cinema

Alpamıs batyr

I recently read HB Paksoy’s English translation of (and commentary on) the 1901 Abubakir Ahmetzhanovich Divaev edition of Alpamıs, the archetypal and, in many senses, most important Turkic epic dastan. Divaev, it deserves to be said, is a formidable (and formidably-brave!) Bashkir scholar who bears with him the same mixture of leftist political commitments and complex feelings of national belonging, and that led him to commit to writing this traditional Turkic epic which had been primarily an oral tradition. On the other hand, much of Paksoy’s commentary on Divaev’s work ranges from amusing to grating, giving voice as it does to a Turkish nationalism that is justifiably seen as clueless and arrogant by most or all of Turkey’s neighbours. For example, his insistence that pan-Turkism is an insidious invention of Russian and British imperialists, and his subsequent assertion that the political goal of the Turkic nations should be a commonwealth exactly like Britain’s, seems to embody both excesses. But his scholarly work in translating and parsing the Divaev text of the Alpamıs is a remarkable – and to the English speaker, invaluable – feat.

I was surprised by the Shî’ite, and specifically red Shî’ite, aspects of the story. Paksoy tries to play these down a bit by attributing them to interpolations from an earlier transcriber of the Alpamıs legend, Yusufbek bin Hoja Şeyhülislam oglu, who was apparently a Shî’a Muslim. However, in the tale as presented by Divaev (a Sunnî Muslim), whenever the name of Hz. ‘Alî is invoked, he always comes to the aid of the weaker, the younger, the friendless, the alien, the outnumbered, the wrongful victim of violence. He always thwarts the designs of them who rely on strength or riches or numbers to get what they want. I found this aspect particularly interesting.

Reading the dastan also brought a number of thematic considerations into focus for me, as a connoisseur of Kazakh cinema. The Alpamıs story has absolutely had an impact on the way Mansur and Sartaı are portrayed in the films Kóshpendiler and Jaýjúrek myń bala, respectively – and of course, Jaýjúrek myń bala referenced the Alpamıs explicitly at two points.

In the broad strokes, the Alpamıs legend goes like this. Alpamıs and Gúlbarshın (or Barshın) are born to two beys of the Qońyrat tribe, Bórı and Sary, who at first betroth them to one another, but then have a falling-out. Barshın’s father Sary migrates into the land of the Kalmyks, where he raises his daughter. When Barshın is old enough, word of her beauty reaches the ear of the khan of the Kalmyks, named Taıshy (= taizi 太子, a Chinese title in common use among the Mongols), who tries to coerce her into marriage by sending horsemen to fetch her. One of the horsemen, Qarajan, sees her and falls for her, and a dispute arises. Barshın uses this to her advantage by proposing a race after a six-month grace period – that the fastest rider should win her hand. This does not prevent a battle between Qarajan’s men and Taıshy’s, in which many Kalmyks died.

In the meanwhile, Barshın sends word under her father’s notice to Alpamıs, who is supposed to ride to her rescue. Alpamıs wins the loyalty of a magnificent legendary winged tulpar horse named (Baı-)Shubar, which he enters into the race for Barshın’s hand. During the race, he meets another rider with a tulpar – this is Qarajan. The fourteen-year-old Alpamıs outrides Qarajan on Shubar, then forces him to the ground, where Qarajan wrestles with him. ‘Alî comes to the aid of Alpamıs as Qarajan tries to overpower him with brute strength, and Qarajan is thrown to the ground. He accepts to convert to Islâm and becomes the sworn friend of Alpamıs.

Qarajan offers to take Alpamıs’s place in the race on Shubar, and rides him to Barshın to tell her of Alpamıs’s arrival. Barshın mistakes Qarajan for her chosen champion Alpamıs from a distance, and weeps when she sees not her countryman but a Kalmyk on his horse. Qarajan comforts her, and tells her he will ride in Alpamıs’s stead in the race. Qarajan rides Shubar back to his camp, where his son Dostmuhamed – who has designs on Barshın himself – conspires with the other Kalmyks to bind Qarajan fast as he sleeps, and injure Shubar by driving nails into his hooves. Qarajan awakens, flies into a rage on finding himself bound, takes Shubar and overtakes Dostmuhamed. Qarajan pleads with his son to give up Barshın, appealing to filial piety and offering him many girls like Barshın from his own folk; but Dostmuhamed does not listen to him. Qarajan throws his own son from his horse and kills them both. Qarajan mourns the loss of his son, but the poet praises his devotion to his friend.

Qarajan rides the bleeding, wounded Shubar over the finish line, but Alpamıs beholds his horse collapse from the wounds in his hooves. Qarajan and Alpamıs bring the bleeding horse to Barshın, who pulls the nails from his hooves, soothes his wounds with warm water and cares for both horse and rider until they are again healthy. Alpamıs takes Shubar on practice rides until he fully recovers his strength and speed. Then Barshın takes Alpamıs to her tent and they are wed, with Qarajan in attendance as witness.

Taıshy-khan will not accept the outcome of the race, nor relinquish his claim over Barshın. His advisers tell him to set a trap for Alpamıs in a wrestling match. Taıshy invites Alpamıs to the match, and tells Alpamıs can have Barshın if he can best ninety of his wrestlers. Outnumbered and surrounded by the khan’s warriors, Alpamıs prays to God and girds himself up for the wrestling match. Again ‘Alî comes to the aid of the fourteen-year-old boy, and he overthrows one wrestler after the other. All the Kalmyks leap upon Alpamıs at once in an attempt to kill him, and one of Taıshy’s men, Kókaman, treacherously draws his bow and tries to shoot Alpamıs in the back. Only then does Alpamıs draw his sword, take Barshın up with him, and ride away on Shubar.

Divaev’s 1901 version ends with Alpamıs, Barshın, Qarajan and Sary all returning to the land of the Qońyrats in triumph. However, Paksoy adds an appendix relating longer versions of the same story. In these versions, Taıshy rustles all of Bórı’s cattle in revenge, and Alpamıs is forced to return to the Kalmyk lands to get them back. He is captured for seven years and held underground, where he escapes with the help of a shepherd as well as Taıshy’s love-struck daughter. There follows an episode similar to the homeward return of Odysseus. Alpamıs returns to Qońyrat to find a usurper, Ultan, ruling his homeland. The Telemachian son of Alpamıs, Jádıger, acquaints him with the situation. Ultan has reduced Alpamıs’s father Bórı to penury and destitution, persecuted Jádıger, oppressed the Qońyrat and is courting his wife Barshın. Alpamıs, disguised as Ultan’s father Qultaı (the same man who had given him Shubar), meets Ultan at the feast wherein he is supposed to marry Barshın. After some repartee with his wife, ‘Qultaı’ discovers that she has, like Penelope to Odysseus, been faithful to him. Thereupon he throws off his disguise and slays Ultan, restoring justice to the Qońyrat and reuniting his household.

Again, reading Paksoy’s translation of the 1901 Divaev Alpamıs drove home to me how remarkably the two epic films produced by Kazakhfilm follow the basic storyline of the dastan even as they reference it. In these ‘official’ filmic retellings of the dastan, the Kazakhs clearly understand themselves to be the heirs of the Qońyrat; and the they-us distinction drawn between the Qońyrat and the Kalmyks clearly parallels that between the Kazakhs and the Dzunghars (who are historically the same people as the Kalmyks). The Kalmyks are ‘godless’, greedy, lascivious and treacherous; while Alpamıs and Barshın – faithful Muslims, hospitable, true to their word, possessed of both physical and moral bravery – embody the virtues of the Qońyrat. Paksoy underscores in his commentary the political subversiveness and national awareness-building potential of the Alpamıs legend. Indeed, the filmmakers of Kóshpendiler and Jaýjúrek myń bala seem to have had the same thought. There a clear line is drawn in epic tradition between the characters of Alpamıs to Abylaı Khan / Sartaı, and thereafter by extension to the Big Bread, Nursultan Nazarbaev himself – the batyr who presided over the independence and unification of the Kazakh people.

At the same time, the Kazakh films that I have watched so far demonstrate that the modern Kazakh national consciousness is particularly sophisticated, not one-dimensional in the slightest. The dastan-derived national mythos clearly still has sway over the popular imagination. The heroes of the films of Ermek Tursynov, Kelin and Shal, hearken back to a decidedly præ-Islamic set of Kazakh virtues, better-suited to survival in an unforgiving taiga clime. There is also a crypto-Christian, Russian-influenced folk tradition which values the underdog-heroism of Shıza, whose virtues rest more in his cagey ‘foolishness’, his ‘simple’ desire to do right by his family and his sense of fair play; one can also see Gagarin and especially Nazira in Baikonur as fitting this mould. These are all ‘ideal types’, of course, and I deeply suspect an average Kazakh watcher of these films would find not only substantial overlap between all three models of ideal Kazakh manhood or womanhood, but also echoes or subversions of the same basic dastanic themes.

24 July 2019


It’s a more-than-unfashionable, ‘square’ stance to take these days, to be against legalisation of Schedule 1 controlled substances. Even so, I am one of the apparently shrinking body of people who believes that cannabis (and other drugs) should remain illegal. And that’s not only because I’m a Lin Zexu fan, though I admit that is a real factor.

Firstly, the health effects are a major concern, and marijuana is often favourably compared to tobacco in the popular press. This largely stems from a comparison of the respective psychoactive compounds: it does appear to be true that THC is less addictive than nicotine. However, by volume (and especially given the way in which smoke is inhaled and retained), weed smoke contains between 50% and 75% more of the carcinogenic hydrocarbon compounds that cigarette smoke does. Marijuana also contains three times more ‘tar’ and five times more carbon monoxide than tobacco does. Potentially more concerning, particularly in our current social environment, are the psychological effects. Marijuana is linked to the development of severe mental illnesses like schizophrenia. Also alarmingly, corresponding to the liberalisation of attitudes on marijuana use, reported use has more than doubled among American adults; and abuse has nearly doubled.

Therefore, even if, as legalisation proponents rather dubiously claim, it’s not possible to overdose on cannabis in a single episode in the same way it’s possible to overdose on opioids, this is very much a public health question rather than a ‘victimless crime’. There has been a proliferation of vehicular accidents and vehicular accident-related deaths in states which have legalised marijuana – no doubt related to the CNS-depressant effects of THC. Colorado has seen increases in critical care admissions for children exposed to (legal, commercial) marijuana.

Speaking of which: it’s also more than clear by now that the beneficiaries of legalisation are not going to be the folks (mostly people of colour) who have been incarcerated for drug possession in the past. This is why – despite agreeing with many legalisation proponents that most such incarcerated people should be pardoned – I’m not particularly sympathetic to the appeals to emotion which use the unjustly-incarcerated as an argument for legalisation now; these arguments conflate what are already two separate issues. In fact, given the small fraction of incarcerations nationwide which are related to drug possession, the conflation of the two policies amounts to a red herring.

More to the point is what the Basis of the Social Concept document calls ‘the selfish interests of the drug business’, and marijuana stands to be no exception to these selfish interests. The beneficiaries of legalisation already include (mostly white-run) for-profit corporations looking to cash in on a new market, including the same multinational pharmaceutical conglomerates which have historically opposed legalisation as well as plutocrat-class lobbyists and legislators like John Boehner. Drug legalisation logic, including the popular form of that logic which is reproduced and proliferated by the popular press, stands firmly ensconced in atomistic, neoliberal assumptions about human behaviour. It is therefore no wonder that legalisation stands to benefit primarily the affluent and the well-connected – in whose interests neoliberal policy logic always operates – at the hidden expense of œconomically-struggling communities including children who stand to be hurt most by the negative health effects of widely-available, legal cannabis.

At the same time, I believe that we have enforced anti-drug policy in many of the wrong ways. The United States does disproportionately punish nonviolent possession offences while coddling traffickers. The CIA in fact has a history of promoting the growing, manufacture and trafficking of controlled substances, which dates back to their involvement in the Chinese Civil War, when they were involved in the opium shipping business on behalf of the Chinese Guomindang, and later on behalf of the rebels in Laos in the Golden Triangle. In the mid-1990s, Gary Webb investigated the CIA’s involvement in the Contras’ drug smuggling in Nicaragua – both cocaine and marijuana – and the ‘crack’ cocaine epidemic in American cities; for this investigation, the CIA, together with a compliant commercial media machine, attacked Webb’s reputation and killed him.

This post is rapidly turning into an anti-drug policy fact sheet, which was not my intention to begin with. It’s true that there are real costs associated with enforcing the law against marijuana, and benefits in dollar terms – for some people – to legalising it. But the real question is what kind of society we want to have, what we value as a society, and what we are willing to sacrifice for it. This was, in fact, the exact same debate that the Qing Dynasty had internally with regard to opium, prior to the Opium War. All the same arguments that have been advanced in the United States over marijuana, were also advanced by Qing officials during the 1830’s and 1840’s over opium, including the benefits to the œconomy if its legal status were secured. Lin Zexu was one of the brave souls who grounded his objections to the opium trade in the wisdom of Confucius and the Ru tradition. The Daoguang Emperor sided with Lin Zexu, fought the British over his choice, and lost the war – mostly due to technological overmatch, but also due to the corruption, backbiting and incompetence of his generals. But that does not mean that Lin Zexu was wrong.

The fundamental argument at the core of the controversy over decriminalisation or legalisation of drugs, is not an œconomic but a moral one. We may take for granted that enforcing laws is costly; this is the case with everything from traffic violations to national security. But do we simply accept it as ‘normal’ that a significant and growing proportion of our population seeks a chemical escape from the banal horrors of our hyper-capitalist age, to their own (and others’) immiseration? The destruction of human life wrought by the laisser-faire deregulation of guns is tragic. Why can we no longer say the same of the destruction of human life (and health, and potential) wrought by the deregulation of drugs?

21 July 2019

Bu Zixia and the beauty of Wei

Bu Zixia 卜子夏

Confucius’s disciple Bu Shang 卜商 or Bu Zixia 卜子夏 is referenced in the Analects as having a good grasp of the Odes, such that Confucius found him worthy of discussing them with him. From the Analects:

Zi Xia asked, saying, ‘What is the meaning of the passage – “The pretty dimples of her artful smile! The well-defined black and white of her eye! The plain ground for the colours!”?’ The Master said, ‘The business of laying on the colours follows (the preparation of) the plain ground.’ ‘Ceremonies then are a subsequent thing?’ The Master said, ‘It is Shang who can bring out my meaning. Now I can begin to talk about the Odes with him.’

    - The Analects
《論語》 4.8
And yet, Bu Zixia is best-known today as the traditional transmitter to posterity of the Gongyang learning 公羊學派 – the school to which belonged Dong Zhongshu 董仲舒, He Xiu 何休, Gong Zizhen 龔自珍, Wei Yuan 魏源 and China’s first modern socialist Kang Youwei 康有為, and of which the Confucian constitutionalist Jiang Qing xiansheng 蔣慶先生 is the most prominent modern exponent. I have often described the Gongyang learning as a ‘revolutionary conservative’ political school of Ru, but its exponents have as often been on the most radical edge of Chinese politics. It is also one whose adherents have imbued the Ru tradition with a ‘religious’ spirit, a spirit of moral revolt, which I have often likened to the Slavophils of Russia.

But the Gongyang hermeneutic of the Classic of History (that is to say, the Spring and Autumn Annals 《春秋》), is best described as a work of historiosophy, not of politics tout court. The concern of the Gongyang commentary is with the inner workings of history: with the moral meaning of human agency down the generations; with the contention of propriety against libido dominandi; with the possibility of salvation within history, even conceived of as a ‘long defeat’. The much commented-upon (thanks to Kang Youwei) historical progression within the Gongyang Commentary actually indicates a kind of ‘fall’ within history, from a state of antique simplicity and high moral standards toward a state of lawless, tyrannical rule by the greedy and violent. The abrupt appearance of the lin 麟 at the end of the History is interpreted as an apocalyptic interruption in history, the coming of the sage-king heralded by the prophetic work of Confucius himself.

Let us take the attribution of the Gongyang commentary to the oral teaching of Bu Zixia as read. So – how did this happen? How did Bu Zixia go from being a profound student of the Odes to an authority on the Classic of History?

I think this question may take a slightly ‘Platonic’ – that is, one informed by the Symposium – interpretive reading of the Analects to answer. Let’s examine Zixia’s reading of the Odes as he commented upon it to his teacher. Zixia’s curiosity is provoked by a particular Ode of Wei, ‘Shuo Ren《衛風•碩人》 which sensually describes the beauty of a young Wei girl with a coy, dimpling smile and big brown eyes. One may say, with some justice, that the young man is aroused by the image.

And yet, Confucius doesn’t at all scold him as lewd for invoking this sensual imagery. Merely having desire does not make one a ‘petty person’. As such, Confucius’s response is instead ambiguous. Like the Socrates of the Phædrus or the Symposium, it’s unclear if he’s being serious or playful with his pupil’s adolescent sexual interest in the subject of the Ode, but it does appear that – as Socrates does with any of the ‘perilous youths’ he tutors – he is subtly nudging Zixia toward philosophical themes, toward something beyond preoccupation with the allures of the Zhongyuan beauty described in the poem. Zixia is led, it seems, to a conclusion that ‘ritual is subsequent’ (「禮後乎?」). This answer meets with Confucius’s unguarded approval.

It is tempting to see in this Analect the raison d’être for Bu Zixia’s historiosophical interest of which the penultimate manifestation is the Gongyang Commentary on the Classic of History. Confucius encourages Zixia’s intellectual and moral exploration of ‘prior’ and ‘subsequent’ in the context of the Odes, the purpose of which is (as we see in Analects 8.8) indeed arousal (xing 興). Bu Zixia draws everything into this intellectual and moral exploration, and establishes the ‘prior’ and the ‘subsequent’ in the sum of human endeavour itself, both the virtuous and the vicious.

The richness and versatility of the Ru tradition is evident here, and we may, perhaps, liken Bu Zixia a bit more fruitfully to the Orthodox Christian sophiologists of later times (Solovyov in particular), at least in the sense that he was able to sublimate his adolescent hormones into a sophisticated and spiritually-profound understanding of human endeavour within history, the potentials for human heroism and the ‘long’ tragœdies of its inner logic. Let us take a moment to recognise the Gongyang Commentary’s singular – and for a classical text, unusual – treatment of the historical personage of Lady Gong of Song, the Eldest Daughter of Duke Cheng, upon whom the Gongyang catechist heaps such hagiographical panegyrics. Was Lady Gong perhaps something of an avatar, for Bu Zixia, of the dimpling brown-eyed beauty of Wei he had worshipped in his youth – a beauty to be reached by imitation of her selfless and self-giving virtue?

This much is speculation, as is my potential position of the Wei beauty of ‘Shuo Ren’ as the philosophical Helen or Diotima who launched the Chinese political left. But the exchange in the Analects is a testament to Bu Zixia’s deep sensitivity, his erotic profundity and the sublimity of his philosophical mind. It must be acknowledged of Zixia, the source of the Gongyang tradition, that he awakened within the broad Ru stream of thought a singular – but persistently-recurring – eschatological hope and apocalyptic consciousness that has historically opened it to Daoist cross-pollenisations and politically-radical ‘popular’ interpretations.

An artistic rendition of the dimpling beauty of Wei in ‘Shuo Ren’

18 July 2019

The socialism I want to see

On the initiative of the socialists, Chișinău began repairing old playgrounds. This was written on the social media page of city councillor Iuri Vitneanski:

In addition to the places where you need to put a new sports facility, there are old playgrounds in need of restoration. We started work on the repair of old playgrounds on Kuza-Voda Street 35, and on Kuza-Voda 25 and 26.

‘In total, as part of the programme of the Party of Socialists fraction in the Chișinău city council, by the end of year 2019 we plan to restore nearly eighty old playgrounds,’ said Iuri Vitneanski.

I’ve been saying this for a while now. The healthiest political trend I had seen in a long while, which unfortunately now seems to be reversing (or which is being actively opposed by the usual Washington Consensus suspects), has been the pink tide in Eastern Europe – a pink tide with a blue crest, as it were. In 2016 we saw socialist parties in Bulgaria, Slovakia and Moldova take power, which ran on attempts to attain to the œconomic goals we here in the United States tend to associate with democratic socialism, such as: full employment, funding for pensions and public healthcare, restoring or strengthening public sector services.

But in addition to this, they support restoring old architecture, including (as we have seen) old playgrounds and old monuments. Alien to them is the spate of statue-smashing sentiments nowadays so prevalent among the American left*. They are pro-family and pro-child – witness the attention being given to children’s public architecture in Moldova! They are pro-natalist – both the Bulgarian and the Moldovan socialist parties make reference to demographic crises and the need to bring up birthrates and curb abortion. They are also pro-faith: the Moldovan PSRM programme enshrines a special statute for the Orthodox Christian faith; and the Bulgarian BSP enjoys a close relationship with Patriarch Neofit of Bulgaria.

It is worth stressing that the Eastern European left is not nativist or ethno-chauvinist. Despite all three parties having a certain degree of scepticism about immigration and border policy, they are nonetheless supported by, and support in turn, ethnic minorities inside their own borders. Just as Direction in Slovakia is supported by the Rusins, the Moldovan PSRM is supported by an overwhelming percentage of the ethnic and linguistic minority, the Oǵuz Turkic-speaking Gagauz.

This Eastern European manifestation of socialism – democratic, paternalistic, believing, pro-child, pro-family, pro-peace and pro-classicalism – comes very close, both ideologically and æsthetically, to my own Ruskin-, Morris- and Tawney-derived Anglophile Tory socialist preferences. This should not come as a surprise; Ruskin and Morris were each deeply influenced by Orthodox Byzantine and Bulgarian artistic and literary output, respectively.

A politics, perhaps not exactly like, but analogous to this Eastern European formation, is potentially possible in the United States. There is a significant constituency for a politics which is œconomically populist and working-class oriented, but socially conservative (or at least, not ‘woke’). Unfortunately, even though we do have the masterful and redoubtable David Bentley Hart among us, we here in the United States do not have a particularly robust matrix of Orthodox Christian-derived cultural sedimentation to build on; nor do we have that particularly strong historical awareness that would support such a cohesive paternalistic-but-pluralistic alignment of political priorities. That remains to be built – a project of generations.

* Not that I am a particular fan of carpetbagger statuary commemorating the ill-behaved and ill-disciplined spoilt children of Barbadian slave traders who rose in an ill-conceived classical-liberal Confœderate revolt against the national-liberal fœderalist Union – but neither is the current wave of attacks, defacement and vandalism on public institutions and installations particularly healthy, either. A decent Slavophil distrust of statuary in general seems to be in order.

Venerable Teneu of Glasgow, Abbess of Gwytherin

Traprain Law, Lothian

The eighteenth of July is the feast-day of Saint Teneu. First mentioned in the Life of Saint Winefride, she was the mother of several saints, including Saint Cyndeyrn, or Mungo, of Glasgow. A royal scion of the kingdom of Gododdin in Yr Hen Ogledd, Saint Teneu suffered sexual abuse and attempted execution by her father, before giving birth. She later married a Welsh prince, became an anchoress and founded a hermitage at Gwytherin, where she was mentor to Saint Gwenffrewi.

Teneu [also Denw, Theneva or Tenoi] was born in the sixth century, the daughter of King Lot of Gododdin. Her story is remarkably similar to that of Saint Senara, the mother of Saints Beuzeg and Maodez of Brittany. She was raped by Owain mab Urien, who was hiding himself in Gododdin by dressing as a woman. He then confused her by saying, ‘Weep not, sister, for I have not known thee as a man is used to know a virgin. Am I not a woman like thyself?’ She conceived, and when it became obvious to her father that she was pregnant, King Lot flew into a rage and ordered her to be executed, by having her driven in a chariot off of Traprain Law.

She managed to survive, however. Now suspected of being a witch, King Lot had his daughter put in a raft and set afloat in the Firth of Forth. She floated across the firth and landed at Culross, where she took sanctuary at the priory of Saint Serbán. There she delivered her son, whom she named Cyndeyrn. Saint Serbán, however, took to calling the lad Mungo, meaning ‘very dear one’.

Teneu lived with Cyndeyrn under Saint Serbán’s protection at Culross for some time; however, she eventually made her way to Wales, where she married the prince of one of the southern kingdoms, Dyngad ap Nudd. They had several children together before Dyngad died, including Eleri – one of the few hermits who was willing to listen to Saint Gwenffrewi’s proposal for monastic communities in Wales. Saint Teneu eventually became an anchoress herself. When her son introduced Gwenffrewi to her, it appears that Saint Teneu readily took the younger woman under her wing. This is not surprising – both women were subjected to sexual violence from powerful men. As a result, Saint Gwenffrewi’s proposal for a monastic community in the Benedictine style may have appealed deeply to Teneu, who took it for the Rule in her own hermitage. After Saint Teneu’s repose, she was succeeded as abbess of Gwytherin by her disciple Saint Gwenffrewi. Holy abbess Teneu, earthly and spiritual mother of saints, intercede with Christ our God for us sinners!

Gwytherin Church, site of Saint Teneu’s and Saint Gwenffrewi’s abbey