30 September 2019

Holy Hierarch Honorius, Archbishop of Canterbury

Saint Honorius of Canterbury

On the thirtieth of September, the Holy Orthodox Church commemorates Honorius, an Italian monk who was one of the OG Gregorian missionaries to England and to the court of Saints Æþelberht and Berhte, and also the man who likely did the most to indigenise the English Church’s ecclesiastical hierarchy.

Little is known of Honorius’s life before he was hand-chosen by Pope Saint Gregory to accompany the mission to England – but even the date of his arrival in England is unclear, as he may have been sent to England in 601 after the first mission had been established. The Anglican rector Alban Butler relates to us that he was chosen for this mission on account of ‘the experience which he had of his great virtue, and skill in sacred literature’. It may be assumed with some safety that once he arrived in Kent, he shared in all the setbacks, trials and triumphs of the early mission there, and those of his monastic brethren and superiors: Saint Augustine, Saint Laurence, Saint Mellitus, Saint Justus and Saint Paulinus.

There were, in those early years, quite a few more setbacks than triumphs. The logistical limitations posed by travel time and distance from Rome; the incessant political conflicts between the English princes both Christian and heathen; the issue of the calendar which divided the Celtic churches from the Orthodox Roman one – all made themselves felt in one way or another. We can see some of these in the life of Saint Honorius: after the blessed repose of Saint Justus, there were no valid clergy in Canterbury, in London or in Rochester to perform the consecration of a new archbishop! It was left to Saint Paulinus (former bishop of Rochester) to break off his missionary work among the Northumbrians, come south from York and make the still-treacherous journey through heathen Mercian and East Anglian territory to Lincoln, where he met with Saint Honorius. Paulinus lay hands on Honorius and consecrated him without the explicit consent of the Pope – something he was not quite yet authorised to do. Only afterward did Paulinus and Honorius write to Rome formally requesting an omophor. Not only was the vestment granted, but the Archbishops of York and Canterbury were also formally given permission to consecrate each other’s successors in the event of untimely death.

At this time, Saint Óswald and Saint Aidan were busy traipsing about Northumbria on foot and successfully spreading the Gospel, both in English and Gaelic, both by word and meek example. Not to be outdone, Saint Honorius sent for Saint Felix the Burgundian and commended him to Sigeberht King of the East Angles, who had requested just such a missionary to spread the Word of Life among his own folk.

Saint Honorius was equally devout in his entirely-Orthodox conviction that the English should take charge of their own spiritual life in a way best suited to them: that the English Church should be its own local organ, and not merely a cultural appendage of Rome. He took the lead in consecrating English monks and priests to the hierarchy. He consecrated Saint Iþamar as bishop of Rochester. And he appointed two native-born English bishops of East Anglia after the repose of Saint Felix: the first, Thomas, had been a deacon in Mercia; the second, Beorhtgils (or Boniface) had been a Kentish priest prior to his elevation.

But he did not make appointments merely on the grounds of ethnic background – no, not in the least! Reverend Butler makes it clear that Saint Honorius was particularly attentive to the spiritual gifts and character of the men he appointed to clerical positions: ‘ His care in filling all places with pastors truly dead to the world and all worldly interests or views, and his own zealous labours and shining example contributed exceedingly, with the divine blessing, to so wonderful an increase [in the spread of the Faith].

It seems therefore meet and fitting, after Archbishop Saint Honorius met his blessed repose on the thirtieth of September in the Year of our Lord 653, that his office should, some eighteen months later, be filled by a native-born Englishman of great spiritual gifts and devotion: Saint Deusdedit. The relics of Saint Honorius were laid to rest in the honour they were due, at Saint Augustine’s Abbey in Canterbury. Holy Hierarch Honorius of Canterbury, right-believing missionary and servant of God in all things, pray unto Christ our Lord to grant us His great mercy!

29 September 2019

Venerable Sadwrn ‘the Knight’, Hermit of Llansadwrn

St Sadwrn’s Church, Llansadwrn, Anglesey

On the twenty-ninth of September, the Orthodox Church venerates Saint Sadwrn Farchog, the brother of Saint Illtud. Although, like Illtud, Sadwrn hailed from Brittany, he is primarily venerated in northern Wales among the saints of Anglesey, where he made his eremitical residence late in life.

Sadwrn [also Saturnus] and Illtud were both children of Bigan Farchog ap Aldrien and his wife Rheinwylydd ferch Amlawdd. He was sent to be schooled under a certain Saint Germain who is described as a bishop of Manaw; this may or may not have been Saint Germain of Auxerre. When they reached adulthood, both of Bigan’s sons seem to have had a turn for the martial life, at least early on – hence the use of the cognomen ‘Farchog’ for all three men, Bigan and his sons both.

Like Illtud, Sadwrn married and had a family to begin with. His wife was also his first cousin, the Breton princess Cenaf, with whom he had a son, Crallo. He lived with them in Brittany for awhile, before he fell within the ambit of the holy Saint Cadfan, who apparently had a deep impact on the noble soldier. When Cadfan crossed the English Channel into Britain, so too did Sadwrn and his whole family. At first they settled in Glamorgan. However, Sadwrn took a yearning to become an anchorite and so left his wife and infant son there and went into Ynys Môn – that is, Anglesey – and made a solitary oratory and cell for himself at Llansadwrn. This is where he reposed.

His wife Cenaf would go on to remarry and bear another son, Eilian. (This is probably not the same Eilian as the Cornish saint, but going this far back in history with confused identities, one never really knows.) All three, Cenaf, Crallo and Eilian, would themselves go on to become holy anchorites locally venerated in Glamorgan. As for Sadwrn’s legacy, his oratory and cell are now the site of a church at Llansadwrn. Sadwrn is also honoured with a holy well at Llandudno in Clwyd. As can be seen from these two sites, despite his being a Breton who lived most of his life in the south of Wales, his primary cultus is in north Wales and he is honoured with the saints of Gwynedd. Holy hermit Sadwrn, honourable knight and solitary monastic, pray unto Christ our God for us sinners!
The remoteness of the Welsh mountains was thy desert, O Father Sadwrn,
Where thou didst serve God in fasting and humility.
May thy continual intercession avail for us sinners
That our souls may be saved.

28 September 2019

Happy birthday, Confucius!

Today is the 2,570th birthday of China’s great sage and classicist, Confucius 孔丘. A massive celebration is taking place in Confucius’s hometown of Qufu 曲阜.

Anyone even the slightest bit familiar with my earlier work on this blog would be aware that I consider Confucius to be one of my most profound intellectual influences, and he has been since my college days. I was drawn in particular to the peculiar radical communitarianism and familialism of the Master’s political thought, and that unfortunately led me to embrace a certain polemicism against Western (and one or two Chinese) ‘public intellectuals’ who wanted to misrepresent and coöpt Confucius for libertarian, and liberal and neoliberal projects. I felt (and still feel) that these projects are, at a certain basic level, inimical to the entire political dimension of his philosophy. It also led me to seek out and identify with a broad range of figures in Chinese left-populist politics (Wen Yiduo 聞一多, Jimmy Yen 晏陽初, Liang Shuming 梁漱溟, Tao Xingzhi 陶行知, Fei Xiaotong 費孝通, Wang Hui 汪暉, Wen Tiejun 溫鐵軍 and Cui Zhiyuan 崔之元) as well as a range of figures in Chinese traditionalist conservatism (Dong Zhongshu 董仲舒, Hou Fangyu 侯方域, Chen Zilong 陳子龍, Gong Zizhen 龔自珍, Wei Yuan 委員, Lin Zexu 林則徐, Zhang Zhidong 張之洞, Gu Hongming 辜鴻銘 and Jiang Qing 蔣慶) who drew upon the strands in Confucius’s thought that I most strongly identified with.

There is something of a deep irony to this. I am a white Midwestern American with English, Scottish, German, Danish, Czech-Jewish and Yugoslav ancestry (albeit one married to a Chinese national and father of two mixed-race kids). I have never considered myself, rightly speaking, a Ruist. That would involve a certain religious commitment which I felt it improper for me to embrace, not least because I truly do believe that Jesus Christ was God Incarnate who came to save the world from death. And yet I still feel a certain affinity for and protectiveness toward this tradition that is not mine.

Honestly, I also think my intellectual love affaire with Ruism also impacted my Christianity in several important ways. For one thing, I was struck by the central importance of ritual (li 禮) in the thought of Confucius. Ritual figures as one of the cardinal human virtues alongside love, justice, wisdom and trustworthiness. Ritual is one of the two key implements – the other being music – of establishing the legitimacy of a political order. Ritual also plays a key rôle in mediating the self-institution dialectic, and thus is necessary to a well-ordered human life. Confucius’s reverence for ritual was one of the things that drew me to higher Liturgical forms of Christianity: first to High Church Anglo-Catholicism, and then to Orthodox Christianity.

For another thing, my Christianity has clearly been impacted by the familial-religious elements of Ruism. I do mean this in an intellectual sense, of course. Filial piety and familialism should be particularly important to Christians with a political witness, as they form an important bulwark against the pernicious ideologies that seek to supplant them: racialism, kinism and ethno-nationalism. But I also mean this in a personal sense.

The folk custom, blessed by the Ru way, of venerating ancestors has also led me to embark on a hagiographical project / series here, examining in some depth the pre-Schismatic English (and related Frisian, German and Scandinavian) saints. This is not just an intellectual exercise for me; indeed, the icon of Saint Boniface up on my wall is for this very purpose. The faith I practise is not for my benefit only; it is connected to that faith which was embraced by my forefathers, and their prayers aid me. But this hagiographical project is not only personal; it has led me to some surprising conclusions about the nature of my own cultural and temporal belonging and that of the cultural ‘moment’ in general.

At any rate, from another ‘Western Confucian’ – but not that one – many happy returns of the day, Master Zhongni!

Our mothers among the saints, Venerable Leoba Abbess of Schornsheim, and Venerable Tetta Abbess of Wimbourne

Saint Leoba of Tauberbischofsheim

It did not take me long to figure out, after starting this hagiographical series on Old English saints of the Orthodox Church, that the holy mothers of the English Church are equal in importance to the holy fathers. We may have more male saints commemorated in the calendar, but the women who are here seem to shine far more brightly in their virtues, leave spiritual legacies which are every bit as lasting, and earn comparatively greater popular veneration than the men here. The saintly English mothers are truly and fully feminine and do not show any need to become counterfeit men. They do not show the tendencies of modern feminism either to desex themselves or to make an idol out of their femininity. But, as they reflect in various ways the ikon of the Theotokos, we see that they occupy a place of honour that is no whit less than the fathers.

This much is true, very much so, of the holy mother we venerate today, Holy Mother Leoba [also Lioba], who founded the abbey at Tauferbischofsheim. I have mentioned her before. She was one of the three literate women (the others being Holy Mother Éadburg of Thanet and Venerable Wealdburg of Heidenheim) with whom Saint Boniface held regular correspondence – and, indeed, she was a close relative and dear friend of this Apostle to the Germans.

Saint Leoba was born to well-to-do and pious English parents, Dynne and Æbbe, who very much like Saints Joachim and Anna were barren well into their old age. They had lost all hope of having children of their own, but Æbbe dreamt one night that she drew a great church bell from out of her bosom, and as she drew it out it pealed merrily in her hand. She asked her elderly maidservant what it meant; and the old woman told her that it meant she would yet conceive a child in holiness, that once it was born she must offer and consecrate as Hannah did Samuel to the service of God. Æbbe thereafter conceived and bore a daughter, whom she at first named either Leobgýð (‘love-battle’) or Þrýðgifu (‘strength-gift’), but who went by the comelier cognomen of Leoba, which means ‘beloved’.

As Æbbe’s elderly confidant had advised her, Leoba was given at a young age into the care of Abbess Saint Tetta of Wimbourne (whose feast also falls on the twenty-eighth of September), who had a reputation for strict discipline in her abbey which she was able to keep by way of personal example. The hagiographer Rudolf of Fulda recounts a tale which shows the power of Venerable Tetta’s prayers for the dead. She had at her convent a particularly zealous prioress who enforced the rule of the abbey with such severity and harshness that the younger nuns began to complain bitterly of her. This prioress, rigorous and inflexible in her habits, died without having offered the kiss of peace to her sisters, and without having asked their pardon for her sins. The younger nuns cursed her memory after she died; and they went to her grave and trampled the earth over her body.

When this came to Abbess Tetta’s attention, she grew alarmed and went to inspect the grave of her erstwhile prioress, finding the earth there to have been trampled down a full six inches. Knowing full well the cause, she was stricken with fear at the punishment that God had laid upon the prioress for her hardness of heart. She then gathered all her sisters around her and began to reproach them for their own cruelty toward the dead woman, and asked them to forgive her now that she was dead as Christ commanded us to forgive all our enemies – and also to offer prayers for the salvation of her soul. For Abbess Tetta feared as much for the souls of these young nuns who remembered their grudge with such bitterness, as she did for that of the prioress who lay cold in the ground. She enjoined the sisters to a strict fast and vigil for three days, which they undertook together.

At the end of this fast, to which Abbess Tetta enjoined her own tearful prayers, she led a procession before the trodden grave and knelt before it, asking God’s forgiveness for her sins and theirs, and praying for the soul of the deceased prioress. As she rose to her feet, Saint Tetta beheld the ground above the grave rise until it was level and loose as though it had been freshly turned. By this she was given to understand that God had heard her prayer, and had mercy upon the soul of the prioress and forgiven the wrongs she had done in life.

On another occasion, one of the nuns who was in charge of keeping the chapel safe and locked, lost the ring of keys in the dark after Compline. No matter how she looked, the poor girl could not find the keys anywhere – not by daylight and not by candlelight in the dark. Sick with fear, she went and threw herself at the feet of the Abbess, asking pardon for her oversight. Abbess Tetta did not punish the girl, but instead saw that it was a trick of the devil; and so she led her nuns – then about fifty of them – into another building where they sang Matins and Lauds. When this was done, they left the building and found before the door of the first the body of a dead fox with the ring of keys in its mouth. Taking these, Abbess Tetta unlocked the church and gave thanks to God that He had seen fit to answer the nuns’ prayers and unmask the devil’s deceit.

It was to this virtuous Abbess Tetta that young Leoba was entrusted, and Tetta ensured that the girl was given the very best education she could offer. Leoba learned to read, and exercised her capacious intellect by listening raptly at the reading of the Law, the Prophets and the Gospels. She committed to memory much of Holy Writ, the better to love Him Who is the Word of God. She fasted according to her strength and according to the Rule; and she prayed without cease. When she was not at rest in prayer, she committed herself to the work of her hands and did not stay idle. And not only did she listen to Scripture, but she listened to every single one of her sisters as though she was Christ Himself, and did her best to learn from them those spiritual gifts at which they excelled. And, of course, as was common to the holy mothers of the English Church and especially those in the Benedictine Order, she gave herself to the care and love of the poor, needy and sick.

Rudolf of Fulda recounts a hagiographical story wherein Leoba was given a dream. In this dream, a purple thread emerged from her mouth; she drew it out from thence, and there appeared to be no end of it. More of it kept coming out, as though it were issuing from her bowels. As she drew it out and it began to fill her hand, she began to wind it around and around, over and under, again and again until it formed a great ball. She awoke from the sheer exertion. Saint Leoba knew that in Wimbourne there lived an elderly nun who had the gift of reading dreams. However, in her modesty, she wished not to make a show of herself. Instead she related her dream to a sister-nun, who went and told it exactly to the elderly soothsayer, except that in place of Leoba she related it as though it had appeared to herself. When she had finished, the old nun became angry, and spoke thus: ‘This is indeed a true vision and presages that good will come. But why do you lie to me in saying that such things happened to you? These matters are no concern of yours: they apply to the beloved chosen by God!’ In this way the old nun referred to Leoba by name, for she knew who truly had the vision.

The old nun explained the dream thus. The purple thread signifies the wisdom of the heart, which is given to a nun who loves God with her whole heart. The fact that she wound it around her hand, shows that she is able to take that wisdom and put it into action. The repetition of her winding the thread around her hand, both around from side to side and over and under, signifies the twofold mystery of the Cross: ascending along the vertical in contemplation and love of God; and spanning the horizontal in the broad and all-giving love toward all people. ‘By these signs,’ the old nun said, ‘God shows that your mistress will profit many by her words and example, and the effect of them will be felt in other lands afar off whither she will go.

And it so happened as the old nun said. For Saint Boniface, with the blessing of Pope Gregory, had begun his missionary work among the continental Saxons and Frisians – the still-heathen German kinsmen of the insular Saxons who had been enlightened by the True Faith. The Germans were ready to receive the Word, but few were Boniface’s helpers in reaping the harvest. To better serve and pray for the German people, he set up monasteries, and sent his Bavarian disciple Saint Sturm to the Abbazia di Montecassino to study the Rule of Saint Benedict from those who had practised it longest. He also sent back many letters to England to call for learned and zealous helpers to aid him, and of Abbess Tetta he requested Leoba by name.

Saint Sturm and Saint Leoba were chosen by Saint Boniface to have rule over the respective monastic communities. To his Bavarian spiritual son, Holy Boniface entrusted the monks of Fulda in what is now Hesse. To his English spiritual daughter, he entrusted the nuns of Tauberbischofsheim in what is now Baden-Württemberg. Rudolf of Fulda relates that she was dear and loving to all – although she had many nuns as her disciples and they all awed her, she was never proud nor high-handed. Anything she taught others to do, she first did herself. She was ever meek, ever sweet, ever cheerful (though never given to immodest laughter), and treated all who came to her with the same patient ear. She read with her every spare moment; the Scriptures were never seen out of her hands. To her knowledge of Scripture she also added the writings of the Church Fathers, much of canon law and especially the wise judgements of all Six Orthodox Œcumenical Councils that had then been held. (The Seventh, which confirmed the validity of the veneration of icons, would not be held until five years after Saint Leoba’s blessed repose.)

And yet Saint Leoba, though strict on herself, was quite lenient with her sister-nuns. She enjoined them to take as much sleep as they needed, for she wanted to keep their minds sharp and attentive whether at prayer or work. When she went to sleep, she even asked a younger nun to read aloud to her the words of the Lord, a duty which they were glad to do. And yet – Rudolf relates – if one of these nuns made an error in her reading (which some of them did deliberately to test her), even if Saint Leoba was fast asleep, Leoba would at once correct her!

The Klosterhof Tauberbischofsheim under Saint Leoba always kept its doors wide open to any and all who would visit, without exception. She practised diligently the radical hospitality of the early Benedictines, in repudiation of hard-hearted late Rome with its walled villas and brutal latifundium œconomy. Indeed, she would personally give lavish banquets for her poor guests even though she herself was fasting, and would with her own hands wash the feet of her guests.

Saint Leoba was, by the power of her prayers, able to preserve the good name and demonstrate the innocence of the Kloster. At one time the body of a newborn infant, dead from exposure, was found along the bank of the Tauber downstream of the Kloster. The woman who found it raised a great hue and cry against the nuns of the abbey, whom she accused of fornication, of abandoning the child and of befouling the river water with its dead flesh. The whole of the town came out in force to revile the nuns for this wicked deed. It turned out that all of the nuns save one – Agatha – could be vouched for; and Agatha had been given leave to visit her mother. Agatha was sent for, and the crime was laid at her feet. But weeping, Agatha fell at Saint Leoba’s feet, protesting her virginity and innocence of this child’s life.

Saint Leoba believed her, but understood that Agatha (and the whole of the Benedictine community) would be blamed unless the true culprit could be brought out. Therefore she had the nuns pray in constant vigil and make three processions daily around the cloister. As she prayed in the third procession, one woman – an unfortunate with a club foot who lived in the cloister foregate, came forward and confessed to the saint that it had been she who, ashamed of her own fornication, had birthed and then abandoned her child. Thus the good name of the nuns and of Saint Leoba in particular was preserved among the German people as well as the English.

On another occasion a fire broke out outside Tauberbischofsheim. The houses in the hamlet were of the thatch-roofed wattle-and-daub type common to the Teutonic peoples of late antiquity, and they stood close together, so that if the fire so much as licked at one, a disaster was likely to fall upon all – including humans and animals. With the conflagration approaching, the men and women of the hamlet ran in a great mob before Saint Leoba, begging her by the power of her prayers to stop the flames. The saint, unruffled, asked for one to fetch a pail of water upstream from the Tauber. She sprinkled into this some salt that had been blessed by Saint Boniface. Then she bade the water be thrown back into the river, and that water be drawn downstream and used to douse the fire. All the water having been made holy, when the Germans did as the English nun had bade them to do, the fire was extinguished ‘just as if a flood had fallen from the skies’. The crowd, at first dumbstruck by this, afterward broke out in great shouts of praise for God. Saint Leoba’s prayers to God and the blessed water of the Tauber had saved the whole hamlet from sure destruction.

On another occasion, a wild thunderstorm arose, blackening the skies and blowing so hard that the villagers were sure that the world was coming to an end. Again they formed a crowd and huddled in a great mass – men, women, children – in the church, thinking that the Last Judgement had come. Leoba bade them all have patience and join her in prayer, for no man knows the hour. Still, the crowd was sick with fear, and the nun Thekla begged Saint Leoba on their behalf to pray to the Theotokos for deliverance from the storm. Then Saint Leoba leapt up from her prostration as though roused to battle, flung away her cloak and strode toward the door with her eyes ablaze – earning the name she had been given at birth. She stood on the threshold and made the sign of the Cross before her, as though she were holding a shield alone against a host of foes. She invoked the name of Christ and of the Theotokos thrice amidst the peals of thunder. At once, by God’s grace, the wind shifted, the storm clouds blew off, and the air grew still. Armageddon having passed them by, the town again calmed.

Another miracle related by Rudolf of Fulda concerns one of her sister-nuns, named Williswíþ. She suffered, as did the woman in the Gospel, from an effusion of blood which grew so dire that she could not turn herself over, rise from her bed by herself, or so much as walk without leaning on someone else for support. Poor Williswíþ could no longer be kept in the dortoir on account of the smell; and her eldern had to fetch her home over the river on a litter. Her lameness waxed, her body grew numb, and the breath very nearly left her body, so that even her kinfolk thought she was dead. They wrapped her in linens and came weeping to Saint Leoba, asking her prayers for Williswíþ’s soul. Saint Leoba came near her bedside and ordered that the linens be taken off her. Leoba lay her hand on Williswíþ’s breast and spoke: ‘Stop your weeping; her soul is still in her.’ Leoba sent for the little spoon she used at the common table, brought milk and blessed it, and poured it drop by drop down Williswíþ’s throat. The girl gained enough strength that she could sit up and speak. Leoba kept up this treatment, and by the end of the week her issue of blood had stopped and she could stand and walk again on her own two feet. The ailment never returned. Williswíþ lived healthily to the end of her days, outliving her beloved Saint Leoba who had cured her.

As he went toward his martyrdom at Dokkum, Holy Boniface entrusted Leoba to the care of Saint Lul, whom he appointed bishop in his stead. He also went to Leoba personally, gave her his cowl, and begged her not to leave the Germans throughout her life, whose souls had been placed in her charge. It was his dear wish that Leoba’s relics and his be interred together. Thereafter, when Saint Boniface’s remains had been translated to Fulda following his martyrdom among the Frisians, Leoba became the only woman ever to be allowed to enter the men’s monastery and offer prayers there.

Saint Leoba became much trusted and revered among the Frankish nobility and court – particularly Hildegard Queen of the Franks, who loved her like a sister. She received such noble visitors with her wonted impartial hospitality, but Rudolf tells us that she ‘detested court life like poison’ and would not suffer herself to remain there for any length of time. Even so, as she reached the end of her earthly life, one of her last visits was to the young queen Hildegard.

She was taken ill not long after and was bedridden. She sent for a trusted English priest named Torhtat, who was mentioned in one of Saint Boniface’s epistles to her; and he administered to her the Gifts. She offered her soul into the Creator’s hands, and passed peacefully from this life to the heavenly one. Her earthly relics were translated in a great procession to Fulda, where – the monks showing a certain degree of circumspection about opening Boniface’s crypt – she was interred on the north side of the monastery chapel. There her relics worked many wonders for those who came to visit her.

According to Rudolf of Fulda, she had four disciples – Agatha, Thekla, Nana and Eoleoba – a couple of whom, interestingly enough, bore the names of Greek saints. These four holy women and their witness to their mistress’s life were Rudolf’s primary hagiographical source, as mediated through priests and other men of good character who knew them.

Holy Mother Leoba, sweet and gentle bearer of God’s Word among the Germans, tamer of storms and quencher of the fires of hell, and Venerable Abbess Tetta of Wimbourne her faithful tutor and mentor, pray unto Christ our God that our souls might be saved!
English by birth, you were related
To the Holy Hierarch Boniface of Mainz.
On his entreaty you went with several companions
Into his monastery of Tauberbischofsheim
Which you directed with love and wisdom.
Holy Leoba, pray to God that He have mercy on us!

27 September 2019

Venerable Barrwg, Hermit of Ynys Barri

St Barrwg’s, Bedwas, Gwent, Wales

The twenty-seventh of September is the feast-day of the præ-Schismatic Welsh holy man, Saint Barrwg of Ynys Barri. A somewhat hapless disciple and follower of Saint Cadog, few historical or hagiographical resources exist on Saint Barrwg’s life. He is chiefly commemorated in the village of Bedwas near Caerphilly north of Cardiff, and on the Isle of Barry off of Gŵyr on the southern coast of Wales.

What little we know of the saint comes from later hagiographies. He was one of two disciples of Saint Cadog – the other was named Gwalches – who accompanied him to the Isle of Barry. When Abbot Cadog made land on the Isle of Barry he asked for his little prayer-book. However, neither Barrwg nor Gwalches could produce it, for it had been forgotten and left behind on the mainland. When the two disciples confessed to this, Saint Cadog flew into a rage and bade his disciples get back into the boat and recover it. Still in a fury and not minding his tongue, Cadog also pronounced upon them a curse that they should never return. Barrwg and Gwalches did as their spiritual father bade them, crossed over to the mainland and found the prayer-book. They got back into the boat to return it to Saint Cadog, but their boat capsized in a sudden surge, and the two of them drowned. Saint Cadog, mourning over his disciple, dragged the body of Barrwg ashore and buried him. The body of Saint Gwalches was carried off to Flat Holm Island. Saint Cadog’s prayer-book was later found safe and undamaged, having been swallowed by a salmon that he caught.

There is a slightly-deprecating comment at the end of his hagiography, to this effect: ‘For what particular reason Barrwg was esteemed a saint does not transpire.’ However, Saint Barrwg is honoured with one of the single oldest continuously-standing churches in Wales, St Barrwg’s in Bedwas. This church dates back to 1102, and was unfortunately commandeered as a stable for the horses of Oliver Cromwell’s army as he was besieging Caerphilly during the Civil War. It is now a Grade II-listed structure and protected in the historical interest. Holy ascetic Barrwg, obedient disciple of Cadog, pray unto Christ our God that our souls may be saved!
Light of the West, inspirer of monastics and boast of ascetics,
Thy radiant life was pleasing to God, O Father Barrwg.
Do not reject us in our pitiable state but pray, O Saint,
That repenting and weeping we may be found worthy
Of a place in Christ's holy Kingdom.

Ynys Barri, Gŵyr, Wales

25 September 2019

Venerable Ceolfrið, Abbot of Wearmouth and Jarrow

Saint Ceolfrið of Wearmouth and Langres

In the Orthodox Church today we venerate Ceolfrið [or Geoffrey], the third abbot of the double monastery at Wearmouth and Jarrow, successor to Saint Biscop as the abbot of St Paul’s in Jarrow in 681 and successor to Abbot Sigefrið at St Peter’s in Wearmouth in 690. Ceolfrið was also the spiritual father and mentor to Holy Bede, the venerable historian of the English Church.

Saint Ceolfrið, born about 642 and probably a native Northumbrian, was one of Venerable Biscop’s close friends and monastic disciples. He aided in the founding of the monastery at Monkwearmouth in 674, and accompanied Biscop on one of his farings to Rome in 678, ‘for the sake of acquiring instruction, and offering up his prayers’. In 681, Saint Biscop entrusted the thirty-nine-year-old monk with the rule over the abbey at Jarrow, where at once he began to prove himself a capable administrator and a zealous servant of God – a worthy successor to the Benedict of the North. He doubled the volume of the already-large libraries of the two monasteries which his predecessor had started, and he increased the number of monks between the two to six hundred. He had gifted to each monastery a complete edition of the Vulgate Bible; built several oratories in the monastery; and greatly increased the sacred vessels and vestments. He also obtained by charter from the hands of the half-Irish Ealdferð King of Northumbria a tract of land near the river Fresca, which was later traded for another sizeable tract, contiguous to (and half the size of the original lands of) Jarrow, at Sambuce. He also purchased another estate for Jarrow at Dalton. Another charter he sent several brothers for from Rome, guaranteed and renewed the privileges the monastery had enjoyed under Saint Biscop.

Saint Ceolfrið was abbot over both monasteries for twenty-six years. Under Ceolfrið, the abbey school – enriched by his additions to the sizeable library – became a beacon of learning in both Greek and Latin, and this learning was something of which Saint Bede absolutely availed himself. In 701, Saint Sergius I, the Syrian-born Pope of Rome, even bade Ceolfrið send one of the monks from his school to advise him on certain ecclesiastical problems. Consider: in the space of just over a hundred years, England went from being a heathen backwater and the site of a fierce missionary struggle, to providing the Pope with advisers on churchly matters! Saint Ceolfrið’s erudition is also clearly shown in his epistle to Naitan, King of the Picts. This letter was preserved in its entirety by his pupil Bede. It accompanied the gift of the service of several monastic architects from Jarrow who would assist the king in building a stone church after the Roman style, and its contents touched on the matter of the calendar which had divided the Celtic from the English Church for so long, as well as on the proper tonsure for monks. The language of this letter clearly marks out Abbot Ceolfrið as one of the preëminent scholarly minds and most talented of prosaists of his age in the British Isles.

In addition, Bede describes his teacher and master as a man of immense talent and gifted also with intense zeal. He was a peerless chanter and showed great diligence in saying the daily prayers. Though he was strict with himself and with offenders among the monks, he was known to show mercy and clemency upon the younger brothers, the elderly and those who could not bear harsh austerities. He was modest in his dress and kept a strict fast.

As old age and infirmity came upon the wise monk, Ceolfrið found the duties of running two monasteries at once were becoming onerous, and did due diligence in announcing his resignation. Saint Bede recounts that his master feared that in his old age, his capacity for impressing upon the brethren by both his personal example and by direct instruction the spiritual warfare necessary to a monk’s life. Abbot Ceolfrið then declared his intention of returning to Rome, which once he had visited with Biscop. It was there he wished to end his life; and moreover he wished not to be burdened down with any debts in a country where he was well-known and beloved. Even though all six hundred of the monks of Wearmouth and Jarrow entreated him with tears not to go, nothing could dissuade him.

On the day of his departure, Ceolfrið celebrated the Divine Liturgy in the Church of St Peter, gave the Gifts and broke bread with those present. All the monks of Wearmouth and some of those from Jarrow assembled in the former place, and Abbot Ceolfrið lit the incense there for the last time and gave his benediction. They left the chapel and the beloved abbot said his farewells from the oratory of Saint Laurence in the dormitory standing across. He admonished the monks to adhere to the precepts of Biscop and of himself, and to continue always in the love of brother in which they had been taught. He forgave all of the monks there who had ever done wrong, and begged their own forgiveness of him in return if he had ever been overly-strict in his running of the monastery. The whole of the company processed down to the banks of the River Wear in sad solemnity, the litanies they sung being sometimes choked with loud sobs. He gave each of the monks personally the kiss of peace, crossed the river and venerated the Cross on the other side, then made his way to the Humber on horseback – where he would take a ship to Rome. He was delayed there some time, which allowed his successor Abbot Hwætberht to present himself in person to the former, and receive both his blessing and that of Bishop Saint Acca.

He found his way to Langres in Francia, where the elderly monk reposed at the age of seventy-four, on the twenty-fifth of September, 716. To the very end, he had kept to the full the rules of prayer and fasting to which he had been accustomed, notwithstanding his advanced years, his bodily infirmity or the exigencies of his journey. On only four days he did not hold the Liturgy – once when he was at sea, and three as he lay dying. He was buried in the monastery of the Twin Martyrs located about a mile south of the town, and his companions returned thereupon to England to relate his final days and hours. Some time afterward, his holy relics were translated from Langres to Wearmouth; on the approach of the heathen Danes, they were again moved, along with those of Holy Mother Hild, to Glastonbury. Venerable Ceolfrið, most learnèd and holy father of monks, pray unto Christ our God for our souls’ salvation!
Rejoice, Christians of Northumbria, for the Lord
Hath brought forth a holy one from your midst.
He tended monasticism and learning as a precious vine,
Bearing abundant fruit to the glory of God.
Now that the name of Saint Ceolfrið is inscribed in the Book of Life,
Pray with us that he may intercede for us all.

23 September 2019

Venerable Adamnán, Abbot of Iona

Saint Adamnán of Iona

The twenty-third of September is the feast-day in the Orthodox Church of Saint Adamnán, the formidably-learned Irish ninth abbot of Iona, who was held in utmost respect by Saint Bede. Adamnán holds a particularly special place in the history of Western mediæval law, as well. He authored the Lex Innocentium (also the Law of the Innocents or Cáin Adamnáin), which was one of the first efforts by a Christian legal scholar to curb abuses, killing and torture of non-combatants – especially women – in war.

Saint Adamnán [also Adomnán, Adam or Eunan] was born to Rónán mac Tinne and his wife Ronat, sometime between the years 624 and 627, at Droim Thuama – now Drumholm in Irish Ulster. He was given to be educated by Columban monks from Iona, and eventually chose to become a monastic novice under Abbot Ségéne mac Fiachnaí of Iona – the same abbot who despatched Holy Father Aidan to serve among the English – when he was in his mid-twenties (the year 650).

Saint Adamnán’s concern for equity came quite early in his life. At one time, as a young boy before he became a novice, he went around house to house collecting milk from the local farmers, for the sake of three older lads who wanted to become priests. He carried the milk in a large earthen jar on his back, strung about his neck with hay-twine rope. Many of the people he begged from could not afford to give much – some only gave a cupful. When at last he had collected enough milk for the poor scholars, he began walking home.

Three horses, each bearing a man dressed in rich robes and jewels and finery, came up behind him. Adamnán stood off the road well out of their way, trying hard not to let the milk spill. Even so, one of the horses bumped up against him, sending him sprawling. The jar shattered and all the milk was lost. The horsemen jeered at him, and Adamnán became furious. He demanded that they pay to replace the jar at least, but they rode on, not heeding him. Adamnán ran after them.

The horsemen were astonished that this boy could keep up with them, running on foot. One of them – who was not malicious, only a bit cavalier – reined in his horse and bade his fellows stop and listen to the young saint. Adamnán explained patiently that the jar they had broken had been borrowed, and that the milk he had collected was gotten cup by cup from poor farmers, for the sake of three who would be priests. They must make it right by paying for the loss.

The horseman who had turned and listened to Adamnán was none other than Fínsnechta Fledach mac Dúnchada, who would later become High King of Ireland. He agreed that Adamnán’s request was just, and moreover was surprised and pleased that this lad would go to such lengths to demand justice. He sent to the palace for both a replacement jar and as much milk as had been spilt, and moreover invited the three would-be priests to stay with him while they completed their studies. Fínsnechta Fledach also sponsored Adamnán as a novice to Iona Abbey, which was then his desire.

Saint Adamnán succeeded to the abbacy of Iona in March of 679. Saint Adamnán also made several voyages into England, as a diplomat for Fínsnechta Fledach to the Northumbrian court. The first time he was sent, he negotiated the release of sixty Irish hostages who had been taken by Ecgfrið King. On subsequent trips to England, he visited Wearmouth and Lindisfarne, where it is quite possible he met with Abbot Ceolfrið, who convinced him of the correctness of the Roman date of Pascha. The calendar had been at issue since long before the Synod of Whitby; and Adamnán was in the minority position among the Celts of supporting the Roman date. However, by careful diplomacy, Adamnán was able to institute the Roman date of Pascha in the Liturgical use of the Abbey of Iona by the time of his repose.

Saint Adamnán was renowned for holding firm and fast to the traditional dogmas of the Faith; however, he was also known for having an open mind regarding those aspects which were not essential but which were damaging to unity – like the calendar issue. Like Saint Boniface in England and Germany, Saint Adamnán had a high respect for women. In 697, he authored the Lex Innocentium. This was one of the first attempts to give philosophical and legal flesh to the concept of the ‘just war’, though Adamnán was primarily concerned not with justifying warfare of any sort, but instead with preserving the status, welfare and bodily security of women and other non-combatants.

Being inspired by the Holy Theotokos and by his own earthly mother Ronat, Saint Adamnán argued for the rights of women, ‘for a mother is a venerable treasure, a mother is a goodly treasure, the mother of saints and bishops and righteous men, an increase in the Kingdom of Heaven, a propagation on earth.’ The law which he authored on behalf of the bishops of Ireland and Scotland sought to put an end to both violence against women in war, and also domestic violence in peacetime – by placing specific penalties on men who injured or killed women. These penalties could be quite harsh: Adamnán recommends judicial mutilation and execution as well as fines, as penalties for men who injure or kill women.

It may come as a surprise to some that a mediæval judicial scholar like Saint Adamnán attempted to place such limits on comportment in war. The seventh-century Lex Innocentium long predates (and is a model for) the twentieth-century Geneva Conventions, which attempt to enshrine the exact same sort of comportment in international law. Unfortunately, chronological snobbery has been so firmly entrenched in our thinking as moderns, that we are blind to the ways in which late antiquity was in certain senses as humane as (if not more so than) our age is.

Saint Adamnán also took an approach to historiography and hagiography which we might consider ‘radical’ even by contemporary standards. He wrote a Life of his cousin, Saint Colum Cille, or Columba, of Iona, that lay particular stress on his ‘fight against exploitation, carelessness, falsehood and murder’. Adamnán organises the Life of Saint Columba not chronologically, but thematically. It is broken up into three books: the first one, of his prophecies; the second, of his wonders; the third, of his visions. It is noteworthy that Adamnán portrays Saint Columba as having a particular love of poor and downtrodden people. Many of the miracles attributed to Columba by Adamnán have either to do with his helping a poor person without means, or else by preternatural insight exposing the violent and exploitative schemes of rich and powerful men. Saint Columba, like the Brythonic Saint Beuno, also pronounces some formidable curses against the rich and greedy and violent, which always manage to manifest.

Saint Adamnán also authored a work on the Holy Places in Palestine. For his source, he was assisted by a Frankish cleric named Arculf, who had gone on pilgrimage not only to Palestine but also to Damascus, Alexandria and Constantinople. Arculf was on his way home when a storm blew up off the coast of Britain and shipwrecked him near Iona. Saint Adamnán welcomed Arculf and allowed him to stay as long as he wished at Iona, and furthermore listened with great interest to all of Arculf’s tales of the Holy Land. With Arculf’s permission, he committed the tales of his pilgrimage to writing. Adamnán also authored a compilation of works of Goidelic poetry, and also a book of visions which he had received.

Holy Abbot Adamnán reposed peacefully in the Lord in the year 705. His saintly cultus is strong in County Donegal in Ireland, where he is the patron of eight churches; and also in the Scottish Midlands. It is somewhat strange, given both Adamnán’s visits there and Saint Bede’s devotion to him, that Adamnán is not likewise venerated in northern England. All the same, he remains a great holy father of the pre-Schismatic Western Church. His actions and also his writings are also an invaluable social witness for the Church, in that they not only advocate for the poor but also stringently castigate their exploitation and depredation by the wealthy. Holy father Adamnán, abbot and scholar, diplomat and friend of the poor, pray unto Christ our God that our souls may be saved!

Iona Abbey, Scotland

21 September 2019

Sëstry: two faces of the ‘new Russia’

Dina (Katya Gorina) and Sveta (Oksana Akinshina) in Sëstry

Though not technically a Kazakh film, Kazakh director Gul’shad Omarova’s screenwriting debut, before directing Shıza in 2005, was a 2001 Russian-language road movie called Sëstry (or Sisters), directed by Sergei Bodrov, Jr (son of Sergei Bodrov, Sr – who also got writing credits on this film – and the lead actor in Brat and Kavkazskii plennik). So I’m actually glad I reviewed Brat first, but I still feel at something of a disadvantage in reviewing Sëstry here, in part because the plot and characters of Ya ne vernus’ have many surface similarities to this film. But they are films separated by half a generation, and the broad thematic concerns of the two films are therefore quite different. Sëstry is ultimately a film about doubt; Ya ne vernus’, a film about faith in uncertainty. Post-Soviet questions loom large in the mind of Sëstry – whether œconomic uncertainty, pop-culture or ethnic identity – in a way that they don’t as much (though they are by no means entirely absent) in Ya ne vernus’.

A mid-level ethnic-Dagestani gangster named Albert ‘Alik’ Murtazaev (Roman Ageev) gets released from prison after serving his term. However, he lost some money that he owed to his former gang, and now the leader of the gang (Kirill Pirogov) is out to get his million rubles back. Alik sends his eight-year-old daughter Dina (Katya Gorina) and his thirteen-year-old stepdaughter Sveta (Oksana Akinshina) into hiding to escape from the criminals. The two daughters lead very different lives, and do not get on well at all in the beginning. Dina is spoiled and materialistic, precocious in some wrong ways and painfully naïve in others. Sveta lives a poorer life with her maternal grandmother, listens to Viktor Tsoi (whose memory she treats with hagiographical reverence), and trains at a range with her rifle, dreaming of becoming an army sniper. When Alik’s gang discovers the two girls, they are forced to flee and wander around on the road to elude them, all the while trying to contact their parents. Apart from Viktor Tsoi, another connexion with Igla is Seifullin (Aleksandr Bashirov, who played Spartak there), a Central Asian Muslim who takes the girls under his protection against the gang toward the end of the film; and Sergei Bodrov, Jr himself makes a cameo as Danila Bagrov, his character from Brat.

The briskly-paced film is driven in large part, just as Ya ne vernus’ is, by the odd-couple repartee of the two girls as they are flung together for survival and begin to form a bond. A substantial portion of the road-film drama to Sëstry arises from the fact that Russia is still in recovery from the Chechen war and still not socially or œconomically out-of-the-woods, so to speak. The police are still shown to be less powerful than the criminals, and occasionally on the take (though one policeman chooses to die rather than betray the girls to the mafia). The people they meet, even the people who help them, are reticent and suspicious – and understandably don’t want to get caught in the middle of a gang war. Ethnic tension is also something they need to navigate: Dina doesn’t look quite Russian, and that complicates their situation somewhat. At one point they get taken in by an extended family of Roma, who help them get back on their feet by busking and – at one point – gambling with Danila Bagrov.

Psychologically, this film is remarkably astute. One has to give some mad acting props to the thirteen-year-old Oksana Akinshina here. She is cool, unflappable, instantly relatable and not given to overacting – she carries herself with a distinctively-Russian sang-froid, which is all the more evident and convincing when she’s staring down the scope of a rifle. But she is able to convey profound and complex emotion – disdain, compassion, terror, pain, relief, joy, sorrow – with subtle facial and body language that backfills her sparse spoken dialogue with reams of subtext. Katya Gorina performs well, too, giving a bit of a sly edge to her spoiled eight-year-old character that ends up becoming endearing. By the bittersweet end of the movie, we’re invested enough in the two half-sisters’ relationship that we actually come as close as Sveta does to tears – and her tears carry that much more weight for their rarity.

Dina and Sveta show us two faces of (what was then called) the ‘new Russia’ – the Russia that was warily making its way out of the gloom of the Eltsin years, and which hadn’t quite left it behind. Dina is clearly sheltered, but much cleverer than an eight-year-old ought to be (as when she asks Sveta how far she’s gone with her boyfriend). The two of them bond over, of all things, Indian belly-dance. Still, it’s Sveta who needs to acquaint her with the facts of life, with the nature of their father’s business and the seriousness of their situation. Sveta’s own blunt cynicism, her harsh criticisms of Dina’s lifestyle, her dim view of Alik’s ‘business’ and her hardscrabble ethic are abrasive and even jarring – particularly when she straight up breaks into what she thinks is her friend’s dacha to steal food. But it’s what keeps her and Dina alive, and Dina ultimately learns to appreciate it.

The soundtrack – another nod, perhaps, to Igla – consists mostly of 1980s Soviet and early-RF rock numbers from Kino and Agatha Christie. The film is lit like a BBC made-for-TV production from the same era. That’s not a compliment. However, otherwise, the cinematographer makes some bold and interesting choices, including a bit of over-the-shoulder shaky cam when the gangsters first break into the girls’ apartment, and innovative framing when moving from indoor sets to outdoor ones. Sëstry is nowhere close to being as claustrophobic as Brat (though you get flashes of it when Alik meets up for the second time with members of his gang in an old junkyard), but the film retains both Brat’s low-budget but high-efficiency props department and its anti-climactic and perfunctory approach to violence. I have to say here that I prefer the gritty realism of post-Soviet Russian film’s treatment of violent death, to the unwarranted glamour with which modern American action movies are always lavishing on it. This is absolutely a matter of æsthetics, but of course matters of æsthetics are usually indicators of something deeper.

Sëstry isn’t quite my favourite Soviet or post-Soviet gangster movie, but it’s got more than its fair share of brilliant glimmers. It truly is a shame that Sergei Bodrov, Jr (may his memory be æternal!) was not given more time to sit in the director’s chair. He clearly inherited more than a bit of his father’s talent for directing film. As a bookend or as a companion piece to Brat and its sequel, it’s charming and fits in well.

19 September 2019

Holy Hierarch Theodore, Archbishop of Canterbury

Saint Theodore of Tarsos

Our seventh consecrated Archbishop of Canterbury – or eighth, if you count poor Wigheard – the successor to the first native-born Englishman (Saint Deusdedit) to hold that office, was not a Latin but instead a saintly Greek from the city of Tarsos in Cilicia – the home of the Apostle Paul and the site of the first Saint Boniface’s martyrdom – named Theódōros, or Theodore in English sources. Saint Theodore is also one of the most tangible and direct linkages – but very far from the only one – between the Apostolic Church in the British Isles and that in the Greek-speaking East. Today we commemorate his feast in the Holy Orthodox Church.

Saint Theodore was born in the Year of our Lord 602 – which is to say, he was born during a very interesting time. The Sasanian Empire under Khosrow II Parvêz (of the literarily-immortal love affaire with the Syriac Christian Shirin) had, at the time of Saint Theodore’s birth, just declared war on the Eastern Roman Empire and invaded the eastward-facing provinces, to avenge the political murder of his benefactor in exile, Emperor Maurice. The war lasted over twenty years. When young Theodore was only about eleven years of age, the Sasanian Persians made a massive offensive that seized Antioch – where they plundered the city and drove many Christians into exile – and then Tarsos after they breached the Cilician Gate, splitting the Roman Empire in half and dividing the north from the south. For much of his early life, Theodore lived under Persian rule, and there is evidence he was familiar with not only Persian but also Syriac culture and language. He studied in Persian-ruled Antioch and may have travelled to Edessa.

When the Arabs under the al-Khulafâ’ began to conquer and subjugate the Eastern Middle East in the wake of that war, Saint Theodore was forced to relocate himself – first to Constantinople, and then to what was then still the Eastern Roman-ruled Exarchate of Ravenna. While in the Second Rome, Saint Theodore mastered the arts of astronomy, medicine, civil law, rhetoric and philosophy. After he arrived in the First Rome, he settled down in a community of Eastern monks at the Abbey of Saint Anastasios of the Three Fountains (now run by the Latin Cistercian Order). While in this holy house he added to his already-formidable store of knowledge, the understanding of the Latin language and literary works both sacred and sæcular.

In 667, a plague struck Europe, and one of its victims was the aforementioned Bishop Wigheard, who had been selected by the Church in Canterbury, by Ecgberht I of Kent and by Óswiu wæs Æþelferþing of Northumbria, to be their Archbishop. He fell ill on the road to Rome and died before he could receive his omophor from Pope Vitalian. Pope Vitalian, when he heard of this news, set about finding a replacement bishop for Wigheard. Among his first choices was the holy Berber monk Saint Hadrian, who turned the offer down. Instead, he suggested to Pope Vitalian that his good friend Saint Theodore would be better suited to the rôle. Pope Vitalian agreed, but only on condition that Hadrian accompany Theodore to England to serve as his legate; in addition, because Hadrian was a skilled seafarer and knew the whale-roads like the back of his own hand, it was a surety to the Holy Father that the Greek monk would arrive there safely. On the twenty-sixth of March, 668, the Holy Father bestowed the omophor of Canterbury upon the Syrian Greek monk’s shoulders, and sent him off to England along with Hadrian. The two of them arrived in Kent fourteen months later, on the twenty-seventh of May the following year.

By this time, Theodore was already well-advanced in years, having reached the age of sixty-six. But he took to his new office in this chilly island at the bottom of the world with the zeal and energy of a man half his age. He undertook an ambitious reform of the Church by calling a Synod at Hertford in 672, and in so doing unfortunately trod on a few local toes. In his understandable and laudable desire to ensure that every corner of his new island home had its own bishop, its own monastic communities and its own clergy, he appointed men to seats in diocæses that had long been left empty. He also tried to regulate the Easter controversy by bringing the Celtic churches into agreement with the Roman date, and attempted to combat the practice of close-kin marriage among the English. In addition, he strode boldly into the doctrinal field at Hatfield against the Maronite hæresy (toward which Pope Honorius was a bit too friendly) and kept England secure against the seductions of monothelitism. But he also floated the idea of breaking the archdiocæse of Northumbria into smaller ones – and this idea was very much not to the liking of the Archbishop of York whom Theodore himself had appointed: Bishop Saint Wilfrið. This faux pas by the Greek archbishop sparked off a long rivalry between the two strong-willed and stubborn holy churchmen that spanned fifteen years. Saint Theodore even deposed Saint Wilfrið and sent him into exile in Francia for several years, breaking up the Northumbrian archdiocæse in his absence. Eventually the two men were reconciled, though it took many years and the active interventions of two of their saintly contemporaries: Holy Mother Ælfflæd of Whitby and Bishop Eorcenwald of London.

Despite this unseemly feud with one of his own clergy, Archbishop Theodore was otherwise a skilled diplomat and a peacemaker. The kingdom of Northumbria threatened to go to war with Mercia in 679 over the death of Ælfwine King of Deira at the hands of the Mercians in a skirmish at the River Trent. Archbishop Theodore managed to prevent war between the two kingdoms by convincing Æþelrǽd King of Mercia to pay the weregild for Ælfwine’s wrongful death. As we can see, Saint Theodore was a quick study of Teutonic customary law as well as Roman civil and Greek canon law!

Saint Theodore brought his luminous love of learning to English shores, and was gladly joined by his friend the venerable Abbot Hadrian. Together they established a monastic school in Canterbury where Greek was taught alongside Latin, and where the liberal arts of poetry, astronomy and philosophy were taught alongside learning in Holy Writ. This school also welcomed both Celtic and English scholars and pupils, and brought the two groups of Christians on the British Isles closer together than they had ever hitherto been. The Archbishop of Canterbury took part in the instruction at the school himself – he taught sacred music, as well as introducing English pupils to saints of the Greek-speaking Churches of the Roman East. He wrote a Litany of the Saints and authored several commentaries on Scripture, one of which is still extant in the Laturculus Malalianus. He presided over what many consider to be a ‘golden age’ of English learning.

Saint Theodore of Tarsos was utterly invaluable in uniting and strengthening the English Church, as well as enriching it with a truly formidable wealth of knowledge and wisdom brought from the Greek-speaking East. English spirituality after him – as witnessed by such holy men as Gúðlác of Crowland, Aldhelm of Sherborne and of course Bede the Venerable – was enriched not only by the Latin and Celtic, but also the Greek and Middle Eastern witness. Traces of this witness reappear with Lancelot Andrewes, Mary Astell, John Ruskin and Richard Tawney. Saint Theodore reposed in the Lord at the age of eighty-eight, on the nineteenth of September in the year 690. He had held the Archbishopric of Canterbury for twenty-two of those years. His incorrupt relics were housed in the Church of Saint Peter (later Saint Augustine’s Abbey) wherein the bishops of Canterbury before him had all been interred. Holy Archbishop Theodore, far-wandering friend of monks, wise and gentle teacher of the English, pray unto Christ our God that our souls may be saved!
As a compatriot of the preëminent Paul and a scion of Tarsos, O Theodore,
Bestowed upon the West by God thou didst traverse afar,
Proclaiming the peerless Gospel of Christ among the Angles and Saxons.
Wherefore, having received thee as a gift divine and great,
We cry out in thanksgiving to the Lord on high:
Truly wondrous art Thou, O Saviour,
In Thy holy bishop and in all the saints!

17 September 2019

Brat: the film that made me a critical Russophile

Danila Bagrov (Sergei Bodrov, Jr) in Brat

Before I proceed much further in this Kazakhstani film series I seem to have touched off (and that dates back to the beginning of this blog, come to think of it), I think it’s probably worth going back and revisiting a cult film that left a fairly deep impact on me personally when I first watched it in college – even though it is very much not a Kazakh film. Having recently watched Igla I was inspired to go back and watch this film – one which I have seen before but not yet commented on. If Igla was a præmonition of Trainspotting, as I hinted in my recent piece, then this film was absolutely a deliberate echo of that film.

To demonstrate how deeply this film impacted me, let me just say this. When I was still an Episcopalian, this was one of two films that made me start to sympathise, in a critical and unromantic way, with modern Russia – the other being Kavkazskii plennik. It doubled as one of the sources, along with Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine, that humanised the Russian people for me and made real to me their plight and desperation during the 1990s under Eltsin. The irony in this, is that despite this very real sympathy, it shows Russia at some of its very worst: violence – including sexual violence; drug abuse; alcoholism; escapist licence of all sorts; naked pursuit of lucre; casual racism; gharbzadegi; the ever-porous boundary (but in 1990s Russia particularly so) between biznes and gangsterism. I am talking, of course, about the low-budget crime thriller Brat by Aleksei Balabanov, starring Sergei Bodrov, Jr.

Brat deserves its place as a classic in Russian cinema, and Balabanov his reputation as a genius for having directed it. The film was shot on a shoestring budget; and the only reason it got off the ground at all was because of Balabanov’s relationships with Sergei Bodrov, Jr and the lead singer of Nautilus, Vyacheslav Butusov – whose music features prominently in the film.

The film follows the tight-lipped Danila Bagrov (Sergei Bodrov, Jr), a young demobilised army vet who claims he only ever served at HQ, and whose favourite expression of approval is ‘нормално’. The first time we see him he’s walking onto the set of a Nautilus music video, and gets into a fight with the director and the bouncers which sees him detained and threatened with arrest if he doesn’t shape up and get a job in a week. His disappointed mother, who sees him as a disgrace to the family, tells him to go find a job like his older brother Viktor (Viktor Sukhorukov), who lives in Leningrad. Danila, of course, does what he is told by his mother – like a dutiful son would.

Viktor, also known as ‘the Tatar’, is a hitman for a mobster nicknamed Krugly (Sergei Murzin) who talks seemingly only in rhyming clichés. Viktor is tasked with taking out a Chechen rival of Krugly’s, though Krugly dislikes Viktor’s cocky attitude and makes plans to eliminate Viktor at the same time. Viktor, in order to save himself, thrusts the job onto Danila when he arrives. Danila’s subsequent adventures in S. Peterburg see him attempt without success to buy Nautilus’s new album; befriend a homeless German named Hoffman (Yuri Kuznetsov) and a heartlessly-transactional bar-frequenting junkie named Kat (Mariya Zhukova). When carrying out his ‘job’, he is attacked by Krugly’s henchmen and flees in a tram operated by a married woman named Sveta (Svetlana Pismichenko), with whom he starts up a love affaire. Danila is pulled deeper and deeper into the corruptions and temptations of S. Peterburg, yet despite the brutal acts of self-preservation and temptations he is prone to, he somehow manages to hold onto a certain sense of decency and honour – something which he finds lacking in his entire body of acquaintance (except for the homeless German and Sveta). He also manages to protect the weak and outwit his enemies not only by outgunning them but also by jury-rigging together matchbox flash-bombs, pop-bottle silencers and nail-filled shotgun shells from the various dingy apartments he crashes at.

Storywise, the plot is straightforward almost to a fault; the only digressions are the ones that happen within sight or earshot of the protagonist, and these are usually dealing with the music of Nautilus. And cinematographically, Brat is a very claustrophobic film which clearly was making the best of its limited budget (and possibly making a subtle literary commentary on the setting). Most of the action takes place in cramped, narrow apartment hallways with flickering incandescent lighting. Every window and mirror is dingy. Even Krugly’s headquarters is decked out with a dusty ‘80s IBM sitting in the background, and little else. There are lots of long takes, and the film is paced specifically to deglamourise the violence of its protagonists. Despite a lot of characters being shot to death, the blood effects are minimal and usually kept in a blurry background. Balabanov is also clearly a big fan of fade-to-black transitions, with a lot of the punchlines to various story sequences being left implied.

Brat relies a great deal on filmic symbolism to establish its moral universe. Danila, with whom we are supposed to sympathise, is unassuming in appearance, and dresses in an oversized grey turtleneck sweater. The other young people around him – especially Kat – are decked out in the expressions of Western counterculture of the time: black leather, piercings, eye shadow, mohawks. The people who hold power, like Krugly, are also aficionados of Western styles. Krugly wears Versace and drinks Hennessy. ‘American’ music is associated with drugs and cheap loveless transactional sex; it is compared unfavourably to the healthier and more wholesome Russian-inflected music of Nautilus, which provides the backdrop to Danila’s affaire with Sveta.

It’s also definitely a piece which reflects its time, almost more so than its place. In fact, Brat is a mirror that’s held up to an entire generation of young Russian men caught in a struggling time, for whom Danila Bagrov became something of an instant anti-hero. Danila is not by any stretch of the imagination a ‘good man’ – this is something that Sergei Bodrov himself has made clear in his interviews, and is voiced in the film itself by Sveta. But despite his weaknesses he possesses a folksy cleverness masqued as gullibility and an innate sense of justice. It’s unclear by the end of the film as he skips town whether or not he has lost his soul entirely – although the German, the sole uncompromised voice of conscience in the film, claims he has.

Balabanov’s Brat made me a critical Russophile, not only in that it showed the depth of the œconomic woes and spiritual degradation of Russia in the lawless ‘90s, but also hailed back to a rich and vibrant literary world in historical Russia. The motif of Leningrad (and which is referred to explicitly with its præ-Communist name of S. Peterburg in the film) as a corrupting influence, an artificial city of masonry ruled by greed, a malevolent force that parasitically feeds off the strength of its residents and makes them weak. S. Peterburg as a character in her own right – that’s pure Dostoevsky.

In short, I would say that Brat is a film one needs to watch, and not only watch but feel, to get an appreciation of how Russia got here as a country. It’s not all about communism and it’s certainly not all about ‘authoritarianism’. There is a real spiritual and material struggle behind modern Russia, that is too often disregarded or sneered at in Anglophone coverage of current events there. The questions Balabanov poses to his viewers are meant to reflect this struggle and the dimension of Russia’s shared life – along cultural, political and œconomic dimensions – that was simply AWOL in the 1990s. Danila Bagrov is a cultural icon and hero for his time precisely because he is flawed, and precisely because he is fallen – but perhaps not irredeemable.

16 September 2019

Venerable Éadgýð of Wilton

Saint Éadgýð of Wilton

The West Saxon saint Éadgýð [that is, Edith] of Wilton has been particularly beloved of the English for scores of generations; and she is reckoned to be one of the ‘national saints’ whose veneration very early spread throughout the English Church in the period prior to the Great Schism. Reading her hagiography it is easy to see why. Éadgýð is notable primarily for the dazzling radiance of her kenotic giving and generosity, her sweet and gentle spirit. Though the ascetic side of her spiritual life is also there, that same ascesis is a moon made radiant by a soul set ablaze with the love of Christ and with the love of the poor. Though her life on earth was short, her inward goodness shone all that much brighter. Today in the Holy Orthodox Church we honour her memory.

Éadgýð was conceived in the irregular union of Éadgár the Frithful, King of Wessex, and his kept woman Wulfþrýð. Her two parents later became saints, but at the time of her conception neither of them was particularly saintly. Their union occurred, after all, after Éadgár had rapt Wulfþrýð – by most accounts willingly – from the monastery at Wilton where she was then either a nun or a novice. Shortly after her birth, Wulfþrýð began to have compunctions about all of their souls – her kingly lover’s, her daughter’s and her own. She separated amicably from Éadgár (though the two of them remained friends) and returned to her monastic vocation at Wilton, taking their baby daughter Éadgýð with her.

Yet though Éadgýð was a ‘love-child’, she was not one single whit less beloved by God, who truly made a place beside Him for her and for her eldern. She grew up under the eye of her repentant mother, and in the company of the sisters of Wilton. There she received a top-class education; she grew skilled both with her hands and in the exercise of her mind: she read the Psalter and the Holy Scriptures. She grew the monastery’s library significantly – some of it with her own skill at illuminating manuscripts. Her father, for her sake and for the sake of her mother, sponsored the abbey at Wilton from his own coffers for the rest of his life. Not surprisingly, with this attention and education, she grew to love God and to seek the life of a virgin in Christ. When she reached the age of fifteen years, she took the wimple and veil and joined her sisters at Wilton as a nun.

As a nun, Éadgýð’s life was marked by the same rigorous asceticism of her sisters there. She kept a strict fast, preserved the purity of her body, laboured with her sisters, and spent long hours in the study of Scriptures and singing in praise of God. But her life is noteworthy on account of the kenoticism of her witness, the social dimension of her ascetic life. Éadgýð spent her days in the company of lepers and the homeless, preferring it to that of her mother’s and father’s class. She fed the hungry, clothed the naked and took care of the ill, in a hospital she herself founded. She gave bread and shelter and whatever silver she could spare to any who came to her asking for it. She even washed and mended her sisters’ socks at night while they slept. Every spare moment she had, was given to the help of her neighbour.

Her love did not stop with human beings; she also had a deep and abiding love for animals both wild and domestic. She freely offered food to wild deer and pigeons which would then eat from her hand. She also caused something of a scandal in ecclesiastical circles by having built and keeping a home for animals near her cell on one side of the Wilton monastery.

She had a habit of washing herself regularly in hot water and dressing in magnificently fine gowns, which brought upon her the consternation of the zealous and austere Bishop Saint Æþelwold of Winchester, who along with Saint Dúnstán and Saint Ósweald was close in his friendship with Éadgýð’s family. However, she argued back to the bishop that outward beauty was not as important to God as the beauty of the heart, which must be full of love and humility. (It was not every nun that dared to talk back to a hierarch of the Church!) In addition: what Saint Æþelwold did not see was that beneath her fine and luxurious dress she wore a hair shirt. Saint Éadgýð understood well that the need for beauty is as great as the need for bread, even among the poor; and she was not stingy with her own. As Chesterton put it with regard to the dress habits of the later Thomas à Becket:
in Christendom apparent accidents balanced. Becket wore a hair shirt under his gold and crimson, and there is much to be said for the combination; for Becket got the benefit of the hair shirt while the people in the street got the benefit of the crimson and gold. It is at least better than the manner of the modern millionaire, who has the black and the drab outwardly for others, and the gold next his heart.
Saint Éadgýð was also given foresight by her righteous life of mercy to the poor and steadfast devotion to Christ. She was given to see a vision in which she lost her right eye; the following morning she learned that her innocent elder half-brother, Éadweard King, had been martyred in Dorset.

She had a particular devotion to the great hieromartyr and divine philosopher Saint Dionysios the Areopagite, called ‘Denis’ after the French usage. She founded a church in Wilton which she dedicated to that saint, and even designed the frescoes herself. She died very shortly after the dedication, from a fever. During her illness she was tended personally by Saint Dúnstán, who wept as he did so because he was given to know that her death was near. He gave her the Holy Gifts before she reposed. Shortly after that, nuns at Wilton began to have visions of her ascent to heaven, and she quickly gained a local cultus which grew into a national one. Her other half-brother Æþelræd Unrǽd personally venerated her – as did the later kings Éadmund Ironside, Cnut the Great and Éadweard the Confessor.

Saint Éadgýð is far from a typical monastic saint – if indeed one can speak of any monastic saint as ‘typical’. Holiness and goodness are infinite in variation. Saint Éadgýð’s clear erudition, her willingness to argue with powerful men and her devotion to a first-century Greek philosopher-saint are unusual. But the decidedly social, decidedly political nature of her philanthrōpía for the poor – which chiefly came, one should note, from the public funds of her kingly father – lies firmly in line with the early social radicalism of Old English Benedictine spirituality. But the brightness and clarity of her virtues made her easily one of the most popularly-venerated of the holy mothers in the late Old English period and beyond. Holy Éadgýð, venerable monastic and firm friend of the poor and needy, pray unto Christ our God that our souls may be saved!
Thou didst love Christ from thy youth, O blessed one,
And ardently desiring to labor for Him alone,
Thou didst struggle in asceticism in the royal convent at Wilton.
And having acquired humility of soul and spiritual stillness,
Thou didst pass over to the mansions of paradise,
Where thou dost intercede for us, O venerable mother Éadgýð!