30 October 2019

Holy Hierarch Æþelnóð, Archbishop of Canterbury

Canterbury Cathedral

The thirtieth of October is the feast-day of Æþelnóð, one of the last sainted Archbishops of Canterbury prior to the Great Schism: the predecessor in office of Saint Éadsige. Despite some personal grounds for bad blood, Saint Æþelnóð nonetheless maintained a warm and edifying friendship with the Danish king Cnut, providing us with a positive example of symphonía in Old English Church-state relations.

Æþelnóð was a West Saxon, a man of Glastonbury – and a son of the illustrious ealdorman Æþelmær Cild (or ‘the Stout’), grandson of Æþelweard the Historian, great-grandson of Æþelræd King and great-grandnephew of Saint Ælfrǽd. He was baptised, as tradition has it, by Saint Dúnstán himself. It was said that as he was dunked in the water, he raised his hand to the saint as if in blessing, which Dúnstán took as a sign that he was destined to become a bishop. The young Æþelnóð was apparently a gifted and studious pupil, and throughout his life maintained a firm attachment to Glastonbury, where he received his learning.

He became the Dean of Christ Church Priory at Canterbury. When Sveinn Forkbeard invaded, the forces of the English southwest under Æþelmær Cild went to the town of Bath to submit to him and give up hostages. When Sveinn’s son Cnut took power, he executed some of these hostages the better to strengthen his own control over England: one of them was Æþelmær’s own son (and Æþelnóð’s brother) Æþelweard.

Æþelnóð himself was called upon to perform services for the King; one of which involved ‘bestowing chrism’ on him (according to the Kentish historian Osbern). After three years, it appears either that Æþelnóð was willing to forgive and forget, or else that Cnut had developed a conscience and grown less severe on the western English: he appointed Æþelnóð Archbishop of Canterbury in 1020 – while he was still a sæcular priest. He would journey to Rome to get his omophor two years later, and receive it from the hands of Benedict VIII. On his way home he stopped in Pavia to pay a pilgrim’s visit to the tomb of Saint Augustine of Hippo. He received at Pavia a relic from Saint Augustine, which he gifted to his friend Leofríc eorl of Mercia and his famous wife Gódgifu – both generous donors to religious houses – for use in the restoration of one of their churches.

Æþelnóð himself had something of a reputation as a restorer of churches: in particular Canterbury Cathedral. The building was much in need of repair when he came to it, and his predecessors had only given the building partial and cosmetic patches. Archbishop Æþelnóð undertook real and significant repairs to the church structure, and what’s more beautified it with many ornaments and vessels provided by his benefactor Cnut.

As mentioned above, as strange and as unlikely as it appears, the Saxon archbishop and the Danish king worked well together and developed a firm friendship. Saint Æþelnóð managed to convince Cnut, for example, to retrieve and translate for him the remains of Saint Ælfhéah – the second Archbishop of Canterbury before him, who had met a martyr’s death in defence of the poor at the hands of Danish raiders. For Cnut it was something of a propaganda coup. It greatly bolstered his legitimacy for a Danish king to make public reverence to a Kentish saint who had been felled by Danish whips and swords – atoning for a historical sin of his people and associating himself with a beloved English saint at the same time. For Saint Æþelnóð, it meant that the relics of the beloved Archbishop would come home to rest at last. Of course it was done with great show to please the king: Cnut, his Norman wife Emma and his son Harðacnut were all in attendance – along with great throngs of Englishmen – as the ship bearing the saint from Saint Paul’s made its way down the Thames to Kent.

As archbishop, Saint Æþelnóð went out of his way to seek the company of all manner of folk, particularly the poor and needy. But he would indeed align himself very closely with the royal couple and their young son in the coming years. He consecrated several bishops, one of whom was located in Roskilde, Denmark. When Cnut was on his deathbed in 1035, he tasked Æþelnóð with assuring Emma and Harðacnut of his support in the line of succession, and Æþelnóð did faithfully as he was charged. The throne went not to Harðacnut, but instead to Cnut’s illegitimate son Harald Harefoot. Æþelnóð attended the coronation, with the crown and the other regalia, but he placed them not on Harald’s head or in his hands, but on the altar. He said this to him:
These are the crown and sceptre which Cnut committed to my care. To you, sir, I neither refuse nor present them. Take them if you see fit to do so. But I strictly forbid my brother bishops from usurping an office which is the prerogative of my see.
In this way, as long as Æþelnóð lived, Harald Harefoot went uncrowned and unanointed, but Saint Æþelnóð suffered – as far as we know – no reprisal. Æþelnóð demonstrated through this – symphonía, after all, is not submission – that the position of the English Church was by no means wholly subordinate to the government, even if he was a personal friend and confidante of the previous king.

Saint Æþelnóð reposed in the Lord on the thirtieth of October, 1038, and he was much mourned by his friends. One of them, Bishop Æþelríc of Sussex, wished that he might not live longer in the world than Æþelnóð was out of it, and his wish indeed was granted him, for he reposed the following week. In his own day, and in those of the Danish kings that followed, Æþelnóð was regarded as a ‘good’ archbishop, and the veneration in which he was held would indicate that he had the reputation of a saint. However, Éadweard Andettere did nothing to promote his cultus, and neither of course did the Normans who suppressed the cults of most of the Old English saints. Holy Archbishop Æþelnóð, wise and temperate advisor to princes, restorer of churches, pray unto Christ our God that our souls may be saved!

29 October 2019

Holy and Glorious Sigeberht, Martyr-King of East Anglia

Saint Sigeberht of East Anglia

The twenty-ninth of October is the feast day of Sigeberht, the first successful Christian king of East Anglia, who sent for Saint Felix the Burgundian to undertake the conversion of his people.

Very little is known of Sigeberht’s early life; even his year of birth is uncertain. He was likely the foster son or stepson of the East Anglian king Rædwald, who was a scion of the Wuffingas. He spent nearly his whole early life in exile in Francia, possibly under political pressure from his stepfather in order to protect his biological son Eorpwald’s claim to the East Anglian throne. After Rædwald died, Eorpwald did take the throne, and ruled for twenty-five years. At last he converted to Christianity under Éadwine’s influence, only to be slain by a heathen zealot named Rícberht.

This last event prompted Sigeberht to return from exile, to contend for the throne of his kingdom. It is likely that he gained his sway over East Anglia not by gentle suasion but instead by force, as he was remembered as a capable leader of men in battle. He was quickly recognised and supported as such by his Christianised neighbours, Éadwine of Northumbria and Éadbald of Kent, and quickly gained the upper hand over a heathen co-king named Ecgríc – who was a rival and later ally who converted to Christianity under Sigeberht’s influence.

Sigeberht was interested in improving the state of learning in his kingdom, and therefore founded a school for boys run by Saint Felix. Felix brought thence teachers and schoolmasters from Kent, who taught Christianity after the style of the Roman mission in Canterbury. It doesn’t seem like Saint Sigeberht actively took a side in the Roman-Celtic Easter dating controversy; even though Saint Felix was loyal to Canterbury and thus also Rome, Sigeberht was equally hospitable to the Irish visionary (and Celtic partizan) Saint Fursa of Burgh, to whom he provided land for a monastery near what is now called Burgh Castle. Saint Fursa stayed as long as Sigeberht lived, but departed for Francia himself after Sigeberht’s death.

Sigeberht is remarkable among early English kings in that he willingly renounced his throne (like an English perhaps), left his kingdom in the hands of his now-Christian former rival Ecgríc, and took the tonsure at what is now Bury St Edmund’s. East Anglia was thereafter attacked by the Mercians under Penda, and defended by Ecgríc with a much smaller force of men. Ecgríc sent messengers to Sigeberht’s monastery, and they asked him to come and lead the East Anglian here in battle. They reasoned that, seeing their former king and commander at their head, their hearts would be strengthened and they would be less likely to flee. Sigeberht refused this, however, saying that he had forsaken his earthly kingdom in hopes of the heavenly one. He was nonetheless dragged forcibly from the monastery and placed at the head of the East Anglian forces, fighting alongside Ecgríc. Knowing it wrong for a monk to shed blood, he went into battle armed with nothing but a wooden staff. The Mercians carried the day – and slew both Sigeberht and Ecgríc, along with a great many East Angles. Although the kingdom was destroyed and the lands ravaged by Penda, the church in East Anglia managed to survive and thrive for two centuries afterward. Sigeberht himself was recognised quite soon thereafter as a martyr in the cause of Christ.

Sigeberht is sainted, with good cause, in all three of the Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Anglican traditions. Among the early English princes, Sigeberht can best be compared with the Duke of Zhou, being the first to abdicate and take up the monastic life, or better yet Prince Lazar, willingly renouncing earthly victory in exchange for a heavenly one. Holy and righteous Sigeberht, who prized the martyr’s crown over any earthly glory, pray unto Christ our God that our souls may be saved!

28 October 2019

Holy Hierarch Éadsige, Archbishop of Canterbury

Canterbury Cathedral

The last saintly Archbishop of Canterbury prior to the Great Schism, Éadsige, is commemorated today in the Orthodox Church. A priestmonk and court chaplain for the Danish Cnut, Éadsige is best-known as the Archbishop of Canterbury who anointed Éadweard Andettere King of England.

Nothing exists in the historical record of Éadsige’s parentage or place of birth. Éadsige became a monk at Christ Church in Canterbury in 1030, and he owed that admission largely to Cnut’s influence: Cnut granted the land at Folkestone to Christ Church Abbey on the condition that they admit Éadsige into their ranks. He was made a suffragan bishop in Kent, with his see at the Church of Saint Martin in Canterbury, a mere five years later. When the Archbishop of Canterbury Saint Æþelnóð met his blessed repose in the Lord in 1038, Éadsige was chosen as his successor. He made a journey to Rome to receive his omophor from the Pope in 1040.

Saint Éadsige also served as the Sheriff of Kent during his tenure as Archbishop of Canterbury. He may have celebrated the coronation of Harðacnut the same year; but he definitely presided over the coronation of Éadweard Andettere on the third of April, 1043 – during which he delivered a stern exhortation to the English king and to the people. He was overtaken by ill health the following year, and approached both Éadweard King and Godwine eorl of Wessex about appointing a suffragan bishop to take on some of the Archbishop’s duties – fearing that someone might obtain the Archbishopric by corruption or intrigue otherwise. They appointed Siweard, the Abbot of Abingdon, to the position.

Saint Éadsige recovered from his illness by 1046, as his name appears with his title of Archbishop in charters from that year. His co-adjutant Siweard, however, really did fall ill and went into decline, retiring from his post back to Abingdon and dying in 1048. William of Malmesbury apparently published a spurious story about Siweard, that during Éadsige’s illness he abused the Archbishop by keeping him short of food, and for this reason he was denied the archbishopric after Éadsige’s recovery. However, this story seems to have risen from William’s confusion between the Abbot of Abingdon and another Siweard, who was bishop of Rochester a decade later. Éadsige apparently was responsible for leasing a number of Christ Church’s lands to Godwine eorl, and this may have strained his relationship with the Church. Upon Saint Éadsige’s repose, he gave many of his bequests to Saint Augustine’s Abbey.

Éadsige’s saintly reputation clearly stems from his connexions with Éadweard King, his exhortations to heavenly virtue on the part of English king and nation, and his jealous concern for the integrity of his office – not wanting it to become a plaything of nobles’ purses and prestige. But even this latter virtue of his shows how tenuous the situation of the English Church was in the waning years of her independence. His own attainment of the office, owing to the patronage of the Danish warlord, demonstrates this latter fact well. The capacity for corruption within that last generation of the English Church was greatly expanded, but the fact that there were still men like Éadsige to be found in England in Éadweard’s time shows that England was not as wholly lost to its elder pieties as the Norman propaganda which followed has made it seem. Holy hierarch Éadsige, pray to God for us!

26 October 2019

Saint Gwynnog of Llanwonno

Saint Gwynno’s Church, Llanwonno, Wales

In the Holy Orthodox Church, the twenty-sixth of October is the feast-day – along with that of Saint Éata of Hexham and Saint Ælfrǽd the Great – of Saint Gwynnog, a Breton holy man of the Welsh Age of Saints who accompanied both Saint Illtud the Knight and Saint Dyfrig the Bishop. Unfortunately, there is little else we know about him for certain.

Saint Gwynnog [also Gwynno or Gwonno] was probably born in Armorica – that is to say, Brittany – to a man named Cau [who is also called Euryn y Coed aur]. He was likely a student of Saint Illtud in West Wales. There was a pestilence in West Wales at some point after Illtud’s repose in the Lord, called the Yellow Plague of Rhôs; this is the same plague that bore off my sinful ancestor Maelgwn Gwynedd and may very well have done the same to Saint Illtud. Many of the monks who were at Cor Tewdws fled from thence into Brittany; Saint Gwynnog is supposed to have been among these. When he returned to Wales he settled in Glamorgan, where he founded two church enclosures, Llanwonno (literally, ‘Saint Gwynnog’s Church’) and Llantrisant (‘Church of the Three Saints’; the other two being Saint Illtud and Saint Tyfodwg). A nearby farmhouse at Daerwynno may have been the dwelling-place of the saint.

There is no record of any miracles performed by the saint; neither are any of his writings still extant. Not even the whereabouts of his grave or his relics are known. But his churches both still stand, and so do the toponyms of Llanwonno and Daerwynno which attest to his presence as a Christian missionary there. A holy well, Ffynnon Wonno, is located near the church and had been restored sometime in recent centuries, though now it is somewhat overgrown. Holy saint Gwynnog, missionary in the Welsh south, pray unto Christ our God for our salvation!

The English David

Saint Ælfrǽd of Wessex

Today in the Holy Orthodox Church we commemorate the Holy and Right-believing Ælfrǽd the Great, King of Wessex, better known by his modernised name Alfred. Saint Ælfrǽd was truly a pivotal figure, not only in English but in Christian and indeed world history. Of course there were other sainted princes and potentates before him – indeed, plenty of them and perhaps a few too many – and of course there were copious other princes and potentates who truly desired and endeavoured to rule justly. But Ælfrǽd was the first of the ‘barbarian kings’ to truly succeed in uniting the Christian radicalism born of the Benedictine witness to the demands of sacral statecraft. Before Queen Tamara, before Prince Vladimir, and even before Duke Václav – there stood Ælfrǽd. ‘Elf-counsel’, to wit his name, and indeed from his life we can see that his decision-making and his policies were truly fortunate – blessed not by elves but by God.

Ælfrǽd’s quality was not merely shown in war, though his spirited defence of England which stopped the marauding heathen Danes dead in their tracks is certainly worthy of mention, as is his establishment of a reserve force and coast guard to assist in this defence. It was also shown in his passionate love for the education of his people both in the classical mode and in their own vernacular. For him it was not enough merely to have a small, privileged and clerical literate caste as the servitors and interpreters of the nobility both sæcular and ecclesiastical – no. He wanted to inculcate learning among the laity, and not only to high-born sons, through his ‘court school’. And he promoted the bejeezus out of it, not least by wading into the field of scholarly work and popular education himself. He translated Pope Saint Gregory Dialogos’s Pastoral Care, Boëthius’s Consolations of Philosophy and Saint Bede’s History of the English Church and People into, well, English, and also authored his own works on theology, history and gæography in Latin. He commissioned the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. He even sent shipmen as far afield as Estonia and the White Sea in order to map the coastlines.

Ælfrǽd also personally promoted a codified system of law which was in itself a remarkably ambitious attempt to harmonise the legal customs of the English handed down from Teutonic heathen antiquity, with the Laws of Moses. Legally speaking, he was not only a progressive but downright radical. He forbade private feuds: no small step in an honour culture such the one as he lived in. He took the power of high justice out of the uneven hands of the landlords and placed it in judges who were to deliver impartial judgements in the King’s name and in God’s. He expressly forbade his judges from issuing harsh judgements to the poor while delivering slaps on the wrists of the rich.

Speaking of which, Ælfrǽd also drastically expanded the money supply and instituted a progressive tax code similar to (and possibly inspired by) that of Emperor Constantine. It was based on the productivity and extent of ‘hides’ or landholdings: rich landowners paid proportionally more and contributed more men to the common defence; while poor landowners and smallholders owed proportionally less. And of the revenues he collected from it, one eighth would be directly earmarked what we would consider to be ‘social welfare’: directly given to beggars, hospitals, wayhouses and other sick and needy people. He also made it illegal to make anyone work on Sundays and holidays. Ælfrǽd was committed to a strongly social vision of the common good, not only educationally but œconomically.

In addition to this, he poured massive amounts of energy, time and resources into the building of public works: fortifications of towns or burgs; repairs to cities and roads ruined by Danish pillage; renovations of old and foundations of new churches and monasteries. This energetic promotion of learning and law, welfare and works; this relentless pursuit of a common good – this did not proceed solely from the mind and heart of a man, but it sprang from one enlightened by a sincere and single-minded desire to serve Christ Jesus. Ælfrǽd spent much of his day in prayer and in the reading of the Psalms. He desired to attend – and often did, behind the backs of his þegnas – all the hours that the Benedictines kept, and even fretted that he was oft prevented from doing so by the seasonal and meteorological variability of England’s sunlight!

It is also worth remembering that Ælfrǽd was the youngest son of his father Æþelwulf and mother Ósburg, the youngest indeed of five brothers – a slightly-built boy, and at that one who was often ill with a fearsome and then-unknown ailment (nowadays thought to be Crohn’s disease). It is said his parents brought him to Ireland, seeking healing for him from that nation’s many holy wells and saintly shrines. His mind, though, was active and hungry – according to Bishop Asser, he won from his mother a book of English poems that she offered to the first of her children who could commit it to memory.

Saint Ælfrǽd accompanied his father on pilgrimage to Rome when he was but six years old, and may have met Pope Leo IV there. His father, however, died when he was only nine years old, leaving the kingdom of Wessex to his elder brothers. It was only when Ælfrǽd’s third brother, Æþelræd, ascended the throne, that he began to show his skill – and even then, he was hard-pressed. The West Saxons lost battle after battle to the Great Heathen Here, and in those dark days it looked as though the flickering candle of English independence and Christianity was to be snuffed out forever. But the tenacity of Ælfrǽd and his ability to somehow retain and direct the loyalty of his men under such circumstances changed the tide. He managed to win an engagement against an evenly-manned force of Danes in the Berkshire Downs despite having to fight uphill. However, the losses for the West Saxons kept mounting – including Æþelræd himself, who took a blow which may have killed him at the battle of Marton in April 871.

The kingdom of Wessex, and the fate of England, thus fell upon the slight, sickly shoulders of a twenty-one-year-old Ælfrǽd. After another string of defeats Ælfrǽd was essentially forced to buy the Danes off, in an attempt to buy time for Wessex to lick her own wounds and recover. The Danes did not keep their word and, under a new king named Guðrum, kept on attacking the West Saxons, killing and raping as they went. Ælfrǽd was kept alive through his repeated and seemingly-hopeless engagements through what appears to be the grace of God – and the intercessions of Saint Cuðberht, to whom Ælfrǽd was deeply devoted – combined with sheer cussed stubbornness. He wound up at the head of a hardscrabble, ragtag band that hid out in the scrubby marshlands at Athelney and all that spring mounted hit-and-run asymmetrical attacks and supply raids on the occupying Danes. They won enough help from the lowly folk of Somerset, Wiltshire and Hampshire through the levy at Ecgbryht’s Stone, that they were ultimately able to make a stand at Edington. Unaided by any outside help save that of Christ, they faced the Great Heathen Here which had terrorised and murdered its way across Great Britain for the past decade and more.

Here the English David proved his mettle against the Danish Goliath, for the battle of Edington was a rout for Guðrum and his Danes. The West Saxons formed ‘a dense shield-wall’ and refused to budge; the way that warfare was waged in those days, because the Northmen could not sustain their momentum by breaking through the shield-wall or forcing the West Saxons to give ground, they quickly tired and were beaten back. Ælfrǽd lay siege to the Danish fortress at Chippenham and forced their surrender by starving them out. The Danes promised to withdraw and leave Ælfrǽd’s territory, but significantly Ælfrǽd extracted another concession: the baptism of Guðrum, with Ælfrǽd himself standing as his sponsor.

Ælfrǽd did not merely trust in this baptism to keep the Danes at bay forever, though. He called up his reserve force on a permanent defensive footing, and began his project of constructing fortified towns. He also quickly made a series of politically-astute alliances. He found a high-born Mercian girl, Ealhswíþ (later a saint in her own right), and married her – the better to cement a much-needed alliance between Wessex and Mercia against the Danes. He also spoke frith with the Welsh to his west and the Frisians and Flemings on the Continent – these latter proved helpful to him in building ships which he used to maintain a coast guard against Danish raids from the sea.

Ælfrǽd’s political and educational reforms mentioned above sprang, it seems, both from pragmatic concerns about defence and from a sincere desire to serve God. However, they had the salutary effects of bolstering West Saxon resolve; strengthening and consolidating West Saxon political and military institutions; reinvigorating learning; and rebuilding trust among the common English folk, without whose help Edington and England would have been lost. It’s impossible to overstate how effective he was: at the beginning of Ælfrǽd’s reign Wessex was a beaten, occupied territory; but by the end, it was the undisputed nucleus of a great late flourishing of spiritual, cultural, intellectual and œconomic life in England. He is one of only two kings in England ever to receive the cognomen ‘the Great’, and that is fully deserved – not only on account of his successes in war but also on account of his ability to actively build the common good during peacetime. Holy and right-believing Ælfrǽd, learned prince and protector of the West Saxon lands, pray unto Christ our God that our souls may be saved!
Hearkening to the White Christ,
Thou camest forth from thy flood-girt fastness
To overcome the heathen and lead them forth to holy baptism.
Thou didst build churches, strongholds, shires and swift ships,
Restoring the law of God and making thyself beloved of all.
O wise King and glory of free England,
Who reignest in the Winchester of the heavenly England,
Thou who didst vanquish heathendom by Christendom,
Establish anew the Orthodox Faith in thy land
That we may glorify God, Who alone made thee great!

Holy Hierarch Cedd, Bishop of Lastingham

Saint Cedd of Lastingham

Today is not the Orthodox feast day – that’s the seventh of January – of Saint Cedd of Lastingham (emphatically not to be confused with his brother, Saint Ceadda of Lichfield, commemorated on the second of March), but given that it is his day of blessed repose in the Lord, I felt it would not be entirely unfit to give him a hagiographical blog post today.

Saint Cedd was, in fact, the eldest of four holy brothers – his younger ones being Saint Cynebill, Cælin and the aforementioned Saint Ceadda. All four brothers became priests. Saint Cedd was, like Saint Eata whose feast day we celebrate today, a pupil of Saint Aidan on the Holy Isle of Lindisfarne. He was remarkably astute and a quick learner, not only of sæcular knowledge but also of the ways of the Church Fathers. Such was his progress and his esteem among the monastic brothers that he was found worthy by Saint Finan of Lindisfarne to undertake a mission among the East Saxons. He was given a missionary omophor and sent southward to teach and work among the heathen, including those relapsed, there.

While in Essex, Saint Cedd took up residence at Saint Paul’s in London and again made it the centre of his mission. He founded a number of monasteries and churches, including those at Tilbury and Saint Peter’s at Bradwell-on-Sea. Yet although he was attentive and caring to his new East Saxon charges, his heart still belonged to his Northumbrian homeland and he often made voyages back to Lindisfarne for spiritual renewal. On one occasion, his brother Cælin, who was then þegn to Œðilwald King of Deira (the son of Saint Óswald and his wife Cyneburg, who was later deposed by Ealhfrið), managed to arrange a meeting between the king and Saint Cedd. Œðilwald was apparently charmed by Cedd, and invited the holy man to return. The king plied a reticent Saint Cedd with a sizeable parcel of land at Lastingham, on which he might found a monastery. This monastery and its chapel were dedicated to the Most Holy Theotokos.

Saint Cedd and Saint Cynebill between them spent forty days at Lastingham, praying and fasting strictly in order to purify the site and consecrate it for the monastery. On the thirtieth day of the fast, Saint Cedd was recalled to Essex, and Saint Cynebill continued and completed the forty-day fast in his stead. Saint Cedd would thereafter serve both as abbot in Lastingham, and continue his work as a missionary bishop in the English southeast. Saint Cedd attended the Synod at Whitby and at first took the part of the Celtic faction in the argument over the date of Pascha; however, he seems to have been swayed to the Roman side of the dispute and accepted the ruling of the Synod before he returned to his monastery.

In 664, a pestilence ravaged Yorkshire and Lastingham in particular, and the abbey too succumbed. Both Saint Cedd and Saint Cynebill were claimed by this pestilence, though before they reposed in Christ they were able to commend the abbey to the care of their brother, Saint Ceadda. The burial of Saint Cedd, near the altar at the chapel of the Theotokos at Lastingham, was attended by thirty East Saxon monks from Bradwell-on-Sea, who sadly also fell victim to the same plague. Later, Saint Ceadda would have the relics of his beloved brothers translated to his own parish at Lichfield. Holy Father Cedd, blessed monk and missionary, pray unto Christ our God for us sinners!

Holy Hierarch Eata, Bishop of Hexham and Lindisfarne

Melrose Abbey

In the Orthodox Church, today we commemorate another holy bishop of Hexham, Eata. He was a close friend and associate of Holy Father Cuðberht of Lindisfarne. Like his friend Saint Cuðberht, he was also a particularly gentle bishop – in studied contrast to Saints Wilfrið and Colmán, his contemporaries on either side of the Synod at Whitby.

Saint Eata was a Northumbrian and, in his youth, a disciple of Saint Aidan, whose steadfast patience and care for others he did his best to emulate and embody in his own life. He studied under Saint Tuda, who was then the monastic Bishop of Lindisfarne and who preferred the Roman computation for the date of Pascha over the Celtic one. He was given the abbacy of Melrose in 651, and soon established his own monastery at Ripon in 658. A dispute with Ealhfrið King of Deira arose three years later, and Ealhfrið stripped Saint Eata of these lands and sent him into exile, during which he returned to Melrose. Saint Bede asserts that Saint Eata’s monks allowed the land to lie fallow before abandoning it. It seems equally likely that they were hounded out for political reasons; after all, the same king would do the same to Eata’s successor in Ripon, Saint Wilfrið, not long after.

Later, when Saint Theodore arrived on British strands and commenced his ecclesiastical reforms, Saint Eata was one of the beneficiaries of his policy of breaking the bishopric of Northumbria into smaller and less powerful diocæses. Theodore rendered to Eata the bishopric of Hexham. After the Synod of Whitby and the repose of Saint Tuda, Eata would become bishop also of Lindisfarne, thus making him the sole episcopal authority in the subkingdom of Bernicia. It was Saint Eata who appointed Cuðberht as abbot of Lindisfarne at this time. At the Synod of Whitby, Saint Eata – along with most of the Lindisfarne monks – preferred the Celtic method of computing Pascha over the Roman method. However, perhaps because of Saint Tuda’s influence, Eata (unlike Colmán) was prevailed upon to accept the Roman date for Pascha.

Saint Eata was prevailed upon by his friend Saint Cuðberht, who had been appointed bishop of Hexham, to switch diocæses in 685. Then Cuðberht became bishop of Lindisfarne and could keep his hermitage on the isle of Farne; and Eata could be nearer his beloved Melrose. Bishop Saint Eata stayed at Hexham for the last year of his life. He fell ill with dysentery and reposed in the Lord on the 26th of October, 686.

Bishop Eata was very quickly recognised locally as a saint, given his personal meekness and approachability as a spiritual father to many. Holy Father Eata, beloved bishop and abbot, pray unto Christ our God that our souls may be saved!

24 October 2019

Holy Hierarch Maelor, Bishop and Apostle to Guernsey and Sark

Abbaye Saint-Magloire de Lehon, France

The twenty-fourth of October is the feast of another Welsh holy man and saint in Brittany, the cousin and disciple of Saint Samson, Saint Maelor. He is renowned as the second bishop of Dol-de-Bretagne. He also has connexions with the Saxon Saint Helier of Jersey, having been a visitor at Jersey, and is also considered the first of the bearers of the Gospel to the isle of Sark in the Channel.

Saint Maelor [also Maglorius or Magloire] was quite close kin to Saint Samson: a double cousin, in fact. Maelor’s mother Afrel was the sister of Samson’s mother Anna of Gwent; and his father Umbrafel was the brother of Samson’s father Amon of Dyfed. Maelor was the eldest child: he had a younger brother Henwg (also commemorated as a local saint) and a youngest sibling, of which we know neither the name nor the gender. He was sent to school together with his kinsman Samson – the College of Theodosius, in fact. The two of them studied together under Saint Illtud, who gifted them not only with the sæcular knowledge of the liberal arts but also with the true knowledge: which is the love of Christ and the love of neighbour. When Samson departed Cor Tewdws for Cornwall and, later, Brittany – so too did Maelor.

Maelor assisted his illustrious and holy kinsman in all tasks, a dutiful, meek and ungrudging disciple who did what he was bidden without complaint. He worked wonders in both Cornwall and Brittany, and he accompanied Saint Samson to Dol. Once in Brittany, Maelor lived for five decades as an abbot at Lanmeur, some 150 kilometres west of Dol, on the other side of Saint-Brieuc. When Samson reposed in the Lord in 565, Maelor was named by his cousin and subsequently confirmed by common consent as the Bishop of Dol. However, he did not persist long in this office. Having been visited by an angel, he resigned his bishopric to Saint Beuzeg and embarked on a journey into the Channel Islands.

In his travels to Guernsey, it is reported that Saint Maelor healed the dumb and deaf daughter of Nivo, the chieftain there, and restored her speech and hearing. The chieftain gave the saint rule over a third of the island as reward. Saint Maelor also visited Saint Markulf’s monastery in Jersey, where he is popularly reputed to have encountered and slain a dragon. This may have indicated that he encountered some remnants of pagan worship on the island and destroyed one of the altars, as is the case with other similar hagiographical dragon-slayings.

In Brittany he also cured a local chieftain named Loyesco of a skin disease which may have been leprosy, which had afflicted him for seven years. In recompense, the chieftain gave Maelor first half, and then the whole, of the island of Sark in the English Channel, which had been part of his demesne. Maelor took sixty-two disciples with him and departed for Sark, establishing a monastery there on the island. He performed a number of wonders among the Celtic residents of Sark, including healings and saving folk from drowning. His stewardship of Sark was such that it was quickly reckoned something of a paradise. Crops sprang up and flourished with little effort, and fishermen hauled ashore nets teeming with their catches. Saint Maelor seems to have had that closeness to nature which was typical of the Brythonic hermits and holy men, including his master Illtud.

He was already a septuagenarian when he left Dol to Saint Beuzeg, and nearing eighty in the last months of his life. In the church he had built on Sark he was visited by an angel, who administered to him the Gifts. For six months afterwards until his repose in the Lord, Saint Maelor could not be drawn out of the Church except for very urgent business. Instead, he would recite the words of Psalm 26: ‘One thing have I desired of the LORD, that will I seek after; that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life.’ He reposed in the Lord on the twenty-fourth of October, 575, in the midst of his monastic brethren on Sark.

His tomb was the site of many wonders of the same sort he had wrought in life, healing the blind and deaf, curing skin diseases, calming storms and preventing folk from a drowning death. His relics were removed from Sark by stealth, by monks from the abbey of Léhon in the Côtes d’Armor, some miles south of Saint-Malo. In the 900s they were translated from Léhon to Paris, to save them from the onslaught of Norman invaders. Saint Maelor’s cultus is still active in the Channel Islands and in Brittany, particularly in Léhon. Holy father Maelor, meek disciple of your kinsman Samson and gentle father of monks, pray unto Christ our God for us sinners!
At the bidding of our Father Samson thou didst leave thy native Wales
To serve God in Lammeur’s monastery, O Father Maelor.
Having pleased God with the sweet fragrance of monastic struggle,
Thou didst grace the island of Sark with thy godly repose.
Pray to God for us, O blessed one, that He will spare us
From sudden and unprepared death and grant salvation to our souls.

St Peter’s Church, Sark

22 October 2019

Holy Hierarch Mellon, Protobishop of Rouen

Saint Mellon of Rouen

The twenty-second of October is the Orthodox feast-day of Saint Mellon, a Romano-Briton of the early fourth century who became the first bishop of Rouen. Little reliable information exists about the life of Saint Mellon, but his cultus is active in both Wales and in France. He is confused with the Breton Saint Melaine, Bishop of Rennes (commemorated on 10 October), in much the same way that the two Custennins of Cornwall and Scotland are. Given that the constructed language Sindarin was based on Brythonic and Finnic-Ugric influences, it seems to be no accident that JRR Tolkien used the name of this saint as the Sindarin word for ‘friend’, and thus as the password in The Lord of the Rings to the Doors of Durin!

According to the hagiographical legend, Mellon [also Mello or Mellonius Probus] was born a pagan in a small village near Cardiff around the year 229, and throughout his youth he worshipped the old Roman gods. Being a youth of admirably athletic form and pleasing countenance, he was chosen in his twenty-eighth year to bear the tribute from his province to Rome. While in Rome he stopped at the Temple of Mars Ultor to make sacrifice. However, he was met by the strong-willed Pontiff of Rome, the holy martyr Saint Stephen I, as he was coming down from the Temple. Apparently this holy Pope had a strong impression on the youth Mellon, because Mellon had a conversion experience and asked to be baptised in the name of the Holy Trinity. This, Saint Stephen did for him, shortly the Pope and twelve others with him were assassinated in the Temple of Mars on the orders of the wicked Emperor Valerian.

Mellon stayed some time afterward in Rome. He sold all that he had and distributed the wealth among the poor. He was then ordained a priest, but was soon sent back to his native Britain. He went on foot. As he was passing through Gaul, he attended the Divine Liturgy at a church along the road. While the Holy Gifts were being presented, he saw behind the altar an angel of the Lord standing on the right hand of the altar. This angel emerged from the altar with a staff in its hands, and held it out to Mellon, saying:
Receive this staff, by which you will govern the people of the city of Rouen. Do not worry that your way is unknown and your work will be hard, for the Lord Jesus Christ will protect you under the shadow of his wings.
Mellon used the staff on his way as a walking-stick, and his feet were much eased by its use. When at last he came to the town of Rouen, which was then called Rotomagus, he was greeted by a throng of people who thirsted to hear the word of life. The new priest began to preach to them, and among them was a young man named Præcordius, who – like Zacchæus – had clambered up a rooftop the better to see and hear Mellon. Poor Præcordius did not watch his footing, sad to say. He fell from his perch; the fall killed him at once. Mellon hastened to the dead youth’s side and prostrated himself, making the Sign of the Cross and invoking the name of the Holy Trinity. The young man revived, and by this wonder many of the people of Rouen who had been heathens hitherto came to believe.

Mellon was afterwards given the honour of a bishopric in Rouen, and he held this position for forty years until his blessed repose in his old age, in the year 311. During his bishopric he was met with wondrous success, having made firm converts of the Gallo-Roman people who lived there, as Alban Butler says:
In the primitive ages, the surprising light of the gospel breaking in at once upon minds before clouded with darkness, men were startled at such great and infinitely important truths, and at the wondrous works and dispensations of the divine mercy, and the incomprehensible mysteries of love.
Saint Mellon was succeeded as Bishop of Rouen by Saint Avitus [or Avitianus], who is numbered among the Church Fathers of the Council of Arles in 314, and his relics were purportedly removed from Rouen to Pontoise (the Cathedral of Saint Malo) in 880 to preserve them from the depredations of the Normans, but they were destroyed in the French Revolution. Holy hierarch Mellon, pray unto Christ our God for the salvation of our souls!

Cathedral of Saint Malo, Pontoise, France

21 October 2019

Chi Zijian’s The Last Quarter of the Moon

A family of Evenki reindeer herders

The Last Quarter of the Moon, or in Chinese The Right Bank of the Argun 《額爾古納河右岸》, Chi Zijian’s 遲子建 multigenerational epic of one extended family or band (urireng, or obshchina) of Evenkil as narrated and viewed through the eyes of a nameless elderly Evenki woman, a ‘long-time confidante of the rain and snow’, is an engrossing and moving read. It’s a panoramic view of life and death on the Chinese northeastern taiga – hunting, foraging, herding, cropping horns on the reindeer, trading furs for supplies, striking camp and moving, making rock paintings, smithing tools, weaving clothes, dancing, making love, rearing children, healing, performing ‘wind burials’ for the dead – across the nine decades of the narrator’s life: from the decline of the Qing Dynasty through ‘reform and opening’.

The language of the book may come across as rustic, and I wonder if something wasn’t lost in translation. There is a great deal of imagery of mountains and forests, of water and wind. The reindeer, not merely livestock but also beloved companions and even forest spirits in their own right, are also treated with reverence. We see through the narrator’s eyes that the human world and the natural world and the spirit world weave into each other. The decidedly shamanistic perspective of the narrator lends a decidedly supernatural ‘tone’ to many of the central events of the book. Omens and forebodings come true. Nature and human life are intertwined in profoundly spiritual ways. However, despite the poetry and folkish natural imagery, the traditional lifestyle is presented without adornment. It is done without papering over, romanticising or anæsthetising how tenuous and fragile that human life was. There is no idyll to be seen here: the urireng is not without plenteous regrets, suffering, sorrows, grudges, even all-consuming hatreds – not to mention sickness, stillbirths, amputations, mental degeneration. Modern medicines, when they come, are greeted with decided enthusiasm: not least because they lift a great burden off the shamaness.

At the same time, she takes a dim view of the coming of modernity and progress: the Sino-Japanese War, the Sino-Soviet split, the construction of roads and townships, the coming of the logging industry, the pull of the young people into the towns. Urbanisation and the decline of the traditional pastoralist Evenki lifeworld is accompanied by a familiar litany of evils: alcoholism, divorce, depression, suicide, promiscuity, crime (i.e., timber smuggling). The disconnexion of the Evenkil from their beloved forests and rivers seems to rob them, in our heroine’s view, of something vital and necessary to their survival. There is an intimation of loss – beautiful, heartbreaking – in the narrator’s elliptic descriptions of the changes that come to her urireng.

Our narrator is a passionate woman, born from a sweet and caring but seemingly ill-fated relationship between a beautiful dancer, Tamara, and a hunter, Linke. Linke’s younger brother Nidu, it turns out, had also pursued Tamara and lost an archery contest for her hand to his brother – and he took up the controlled madness of the shaman as an outlet for his loss. She lives in the shirangju with her parents, her elder sister Lena and her younger brother Luni. Other residents of the urireng are drawn with equal patience, with their characters being illuminated as much by the narrator’s own maturation as by their own decisions and changes in outlook. Ivan, the tribe’s blacksmith who marries a Russian Orthodox KVŽDist former prostitute and fathers two children with her – she leaves him, taking the children, when the Japanese invade; he later becomes a Soviet partisan. Maria and Hase, and their tender-hearted son Dashi. The bitter and caustic Yveline, yoked into an unloving marriage with Kunde by her son Jilende. The brave and gentle Lajide, a hunter from a neighbouring urireng who wins the narrator’s heart. Nihau, the beautiful dancer who marries Luni – but who takes on Nidu’s mantle of shamanism (much to her grief, as her spirit dances cause her to lose her own children).

As the narrator herself bears children, the urireng becomes progressively more shaped by their personalities and perspectives – though her children by Lajide and later Volodya are often ‘echoes’ of their ancestors: particularly their fathers and grandfather Linke. Even though the Evenkil are familiar with the outside through their Russian anda Rolinsky (who sells them tools, sugar, tea, other supplies), the coming of the Japanese causes the outside world of politics and war and technology to break in on the Evenki community in a drastic way.

The Evenki men are conscripted by the Japanese Army – though Ivan runs away and joins the Soviets when the sadistic Japanese commander Suzuki sics the army attack dogs on Kunde for faltering during a marching drill. Their Han contacts change with the coming of the Chinese Communists. Ivan comes under suspicion for his Soviet ties after the Sino-Soviet split. He later requests, out of affection for his estranged wife, a Russian Orthodox funeral rather than a ‘wind burial’. (Many of the Evenki characters possess Russian names, even if they are not of Russian heritage.) Baijiu makes its appearance as a trade good, as a companion at village dances, as a deceptive friend and as a hidden killer. As Han townships pop up, intermarriages occur. Young people leave the urireng and live in the towns – then come back. Modern artworks and attempts at committing Evenki language, song and folklore to writing occur – but are they the preservation of the living embers that Tamara handed down to her daughter, or are they ‘destined to be buried in a grave’? These transitions are ambiguous. They are left hanging over the present-day framing of the narrator’s tale of her past.

Death – whether sudden or lingering, whether it strikes young or old – is a constant presence. And even though we know it and we see it coming, we still feel it, viscerally, when it hits those people whom the narrator loves or comes to love. Small gestures and small actions are given an outsized meaning whenever a parting, however brief or incomplete, might be a final one. In many cases, even characters who are deformed or bitter or who do wicked things, the narrator manages to paint in sympathetic tones based on the losses they suffered. Our narrator is a kind soul – even and especially to those she dislikes. She learns to be so because of her tragic sensibility: her awareness of the proximity and the finality of loss. The collectivism of the Evenki mindset – that collectivism which made them (at first, before Stalin) so amenable to the Soviet system – comes to the surface in this way particularly: even the difficult people are a part of the narrator’s life in indelible ways. It’s one of Chi Zijian’s gifts as an author that we can be made to feel the deaths of even these difficult, wounded people.

The magical realism of The Last Quarter of the Moon – which truly deserves that label despite decidedly not being in the New World, Latin American literary movement which birthed the name – stems from precisely this overlap of the tragic-shamanic (super)natural with blunt portrayals of pastoralist life in transition. Perhaps it would be better to call this genre ‘shamanic realism’. At any rate, this is a bittersweet tearjerker of a novel – but exquisitely written. As far as contemporary Chinese literature goes, it would be very hard not to recommend this one.

Weosendes in Pulgaraland

For the first time in centuries, thanks to the efforts of the Bulgarian government (particularly the Coalition for Bulgaria, which spearheaded the project) and conservationists, and some coöperative nature reserves in Niedersachsen and Nordrhein-Westfalen, wild European bison are returning to the Rhodope Mountains of Bulgaria! What’s more, one of the females in the new herd has given birth to a baby calf - the first of its species born south of the Danube since the Middle Ages.

This is big environmental news. The European bison, which once roamed everywhere in continental Europe from France to the Russian steppes, was all but extinct everywhere except for a few forested areas of eastern Poland and Transcarpathia by 1500. Even these animals were very nearly hunted to extinction by the Deutsches Heer in the Eastern theatre of World War I. It was only thanks to the efforts of a handful of far-sighted German conservationists that the last dozen or so animals were placed in zoos for their protection. Reintroduction efforts were made into the wild lands of several Eastern European and Asian countries from these small captive stocks, beginning in 1951. The reintroduction of bison into these areas has already helped to stabilise and diversify local œcosystems. From the article:
For the first time in centuries, European bison are now roaming free in the Rhodope Mountains of Bulgaria. The herd of seven animals (two males and five females) was released from their enclosure this summer and is now living free in the Studen Kladenets Hunting Reserve (part of the Rhodope Mountains rewilding area), where the Rewilding Rhodopes team is monitoring their behaviour and movement on a daily basis.

“This is a momentous occasion,” says Hristo Hristov, a rewilding officer attached to the Rewilding Rhodopes team. “The animals are now reoccupying their former ecological niche, finding water and food, learning to protect themselves against wolves and jackals, and exploring the challenging terrain.”

The good news doesn’t end at the bison release. One of the free-roaming female bison has already given birth – this is the first bison calf born in the wild south of the River Danube since the Middle Ages. The female calf and mother are both doing well.

“We are thrilled by the new addition,” says Hristov. “The calf was born in one of the wildest parts of the reserve and has been following the herd ever since. This young bison is a symbol of hope for a wilder and more biodiverse Rhodope Mountains. This is why we have named her Nadezhda (meaning ‘hope’ in Bulgarian).”

As they roam free in the Rhodope Mountains, the bison will live alongside deer, wolves, vultures and many other rare and endangered species. As in the Southern Carpathians of Romania, where Rewilding Europe and partners have been reintroducing bison since 2014, the animals will have a positive impact on local wild nature, helping to create biodiversity-rich mosaic landscape through their grazing and browsing, as well as enhancing local food chains.

“The European bison will bring a range of benefits to wild nature and people,” says Hristov. “The existing herd has already become quite a visitor attraction and will help us to develop nature-based tourism here.”
Many long and healthy years to Nadezhda, and congratulations to the wildlife conservationists of Bulgaria and the village of Studen Kladenets! Gód hælo, weosendes!

20 October 2019

Holy Hierarch Acca, Bishop of Hexham

Saint Acca of Hexham

Today in the Holy Orthodox Church we commemorate Saint Acca, the Bishop of Hexham under whom Venerable Bede did most of his work and to whom most of those works were dedicated. Bede had voluble praise for his bishop, the ‘dearest and best loved of all bishops on this earth’, and in particular he commended the breadth and profundity of Acca’s learning, as witnessed by his broad-ranging library of spiritual works.

When Acca was young, he served in the household of Saint Bosa, the Bishop of York. While there, he made the acquaintance of Saint Wilfrið, whose magnetic personality seems to have swiftly won over Acca’s devotion. (It may have helped that Acca was already deeply in sympathy with the Roman Liturgical preferences of Saint James the Deacon.) Saint Acca spent the next thirteen years accompanying Saint Wilfrið on his journeys, faring with him to Rome and to France, and also remaining at his side during his Sussex and Mercian exiles. When Saint Wilfrið was reinstated as Bishop of Hexham in 692, he named Acca – then a priest – as abbot of Saint Andrew’s. Abbot Acca was present at Saint Wilfrið’s repose in 709, and was appointed bishop in Hexham after him in the following year.

Saint Acca proved to be a wise choice of bishop. Possessed of great zeal and energy, he looked first to completing his beloved predecessor’s church-building work. He oversaw the completion of three smaller churches in the diocæse of Hexham whose construction had been begun by Wilfrið, and also procured for the abbey kirk at Hexham numerous beautiful vestments and Liturgical vessels, as well as a rare and ornate altar-cloth of purple silk. In addition, he invited a Liturgical musician from Canterbury named Maban to serve at Hexham Abbey, who there taught Acca and the people how to chant in harmony. Saint Acca himself proved an adept pupil, for his own skills in Liturgical chant were highly praised.

Saint Acca and Saint Bede were closely known to one another and on good terms, and Acca was of considerable assistance to the monastic historian in gaining him access to both sæcular and ecclesiastical historical texts. These were used in Bede’s History of the English Church and People. As mentioned above, Acca was far from lax in keeping his abbey’s library stocked with a great variety of spiritually-edifying works from the Church Fathers and from other Christian authors.

Bishop Saint Acca was not on such close or affectionate terms with the sæcular authorities. In 730, Ceolwulf King of Northumbria was deposed from his throne and forcibly tonsured as a monk by his political foes – of whom, Acca may have been one or at least under heavy suspicion. When Ceolwulf regained his throne, one of his first acts upon being restored was to strip Acca of his bishopric and send him into exile in Scotland. (Acca subsequently became Bishop of Whithorn.) After his repose on the twentieth of October, 740, Saint Acca’s remains were translated to a burial site near the eastern wall of Hexham Abbey.

Around 1030, the sacristan Fr Ælfred Westowe was called from Durham to have Acca’s remains translated from the grounds into a reliquary inside the abbey. The saint’s Liturgical vestments, with which he was buried, were found to be in immaculate condition, free from all decay. These were placed on display within the Abbey. A portable altar was placed above him, bearing the inscription Almæ Trinitati, agiæ Sophiæ, sanctæ Mariæ. Those who attempted to steal these relics were driven off in a terrible and ominous manner, but many wonders were wrought through the relics and shrine of Saint Acca for those poor folk who came to God in singleness of mind. Holy Acca, pilgrim, scholar and kindly bishop, pray unto Christ our God that our souls may be saved!

19 October 2019

Venerable Friðuswíþ of Binsey, Abbess of Oxford

Church of Saint Margaret, Binsey, Oxford

Two days ago we commemorated the feast-day of Saint Nóðhelm, the studious and scholarly Mercian Archbishop of Canterbury and friend of Saint Bede and Saint Boniface whose advancement in the Church he owed in the main to one Æþelbald King of Mercia. Today, we also commemorate another holy Mercian – a princess turned abbess named Saint Friðuswíþ [also Frideswide, Frevisse or Fris].

Friðuswíþ was born in Oxford, in the year 650, to one Didan of Eynsham, a sub-king of Mercia whose sway held in the Chilterns, and his wife Sæfrið. The two of them brought her a tutor: a nun named Saint Ælfgýð (also commemorated today) who taught her the precepts of holiness in Christ. Friðuswíþ did not, however, become a nun right away. Her mother Sæfrið took ill and died, and she returned to her father to help and comfort him. However, she did manage to convince Didan to build a church for her in the Oxford gates; there she and twelve of her friends took the veil and dedicated their lives to Christ in perpetual virginity. Didan was remarkably indulgent of his daughter’s wishes, not only gladly allowing her to become a nun, but also expanding the cloister with buildings and a generous stipend.

All was well for some time. However Ælfgár, the Mercian sub-king who ruled the lands around Leicester, knew full well of Friðuswíþ’s fairness. Of course, she being Didan’s only daughter, Ælfgár also understood her to be quite wealthy. Thus, inflamed with lust and greed, he set about pursuing her. When she heard the proposition from his heralds, she declined him at once, swearing that she had already given herself to Christ. Put bluntly, Ælfgár did not take her ‘no’ particularly well. He made plans to abduct her by force. Friðuswíþ fled from Ælfgár in a boat that lay moored on the Thames, and stole away in it to a secluded spot: Binsey. There, thanks to a holy well that sprang up in response to her prayers, she was able to live for three years and elude Ælfgár’s notice that whole time. After that time she returned to Oxford, thinking it safe.

However, Ælfgár didn’t give up even that easily. Enraged by her success in her attempts to elude him, he raised a here and lay siege to Oxford in an attempt to flush Friðuswíþ out, threatening the townsfolk with burning the town to the ground unless she were given up. In his wrath Ælfgár swore that not only he would have her, but all of his men would as well. Thus backed into a corner, in her extremity Friðuswíþ called out to God and His holy saints to save her, particularly Saint Catherine and Saint Cæcilia who also suffered for their vows of virginity. As soon as Ælfgár entered the gates of Oxford, he was stricken full blind. His men, beholding this fell omen, took fright and fled, but Ælfgár himself, blind and helpless, stumbled to where Friðuswíþ was, begging her to forgive him and asking her to restore his sight. Saint Friðuswíþ took pity on him, and asked if he would undergo penance for his sins. He having agreed to this, Friðuswíþ restored Ælfgár’s sight, and he left her in peace. (The shorter hagiographical source has it that his horse stumbled, throwing him and causing him to break his neck.)

Saint Friðuswíþ worked several wonders among the nuns at Oxford, and at least another of these seems to have involved a holy spring. When her sister-nuns, who accompanied Friðuswíþ into hiding from Ælfgár, began to gripe about having to haul water from the Thames, Abbess Friðuswíþ prayed to God and a holy well of pure water sprang up. (This well is still extant, at the Church of Saint Margaret of Antioch in Binsey.) Another miracle she worked involved a leper who lived in the Oxford gates. Seeing her, the leper demanded that the saint kiss him. Friðuswíþ overcame her revulsion at his deformed flesh and her own fear of infection, and did as he asked. Once she did so, the scales fell from his skin and the leper’s flesh became whole and healthy, like that of a newborn.

Saint Friðuswíþ established a monastic school at her former abode. The University of Oxford represents this school as the basis for its mediæval foundation, and she remains the patron of the University to this day. She reposed in the Lord on the nineteenth of October, 727, at her hermitage in Binsey, to which she had retired permanently in her old age. She was buried in the church at Oxford – today Christ Church Cathedral. Holy Mother Friðuswíþ, noble ascetic and gentle teacher of nuns, pray to Christ our God that our souls may be saved!
Come, let us solemnly rejoice today, and let us laud the virtues and struggles
Of the most splendid luminary of the Western lands:
Friðuswíþ, great among ascetics,
The most praiseworthy instructor of nuns,
Who watcheth over us from her dwelling-place on high;
For the Lord hath truly made her wondrous among His saints.
By her supplications may He save our souls.

Holy well of Saint Friðuswíþ, Binsey

18 October 2019

A few ‘takes’ from recent headlines

  1. Here’s a simple rule. If you didn’t support Kaep when he protested police brutality at home, then don’t blame LeBron when he doesn’t protest normal policing abroad. Actually, on second thought, don’t blame LeBron at all. He actually puts his money where his mouth is.

  2. Speaking of China: it’s not just the cars, stupid. It’s the infrastructure.

  3. Few things move me further into the Tulsi camp than watching her give massive rhetorical body-checks to people who clearly deserve them. Case in point: Hillary Clinton, who should have known better than to comment on the Democratic nomination after having basically tossed the last election – and certainly should have known better than to call one of the trailing candidates a ‘Russian asset’. Congresswoman Gabbard also has repeatedly called the sitting president a ‘bitch’ for supporting Saudi Arabia in Yemen. Again, completely deserved. She’s a jock, but she sure knows how to pick her fights – it’s a pity she doesn’t support Medicare for All as strongly as she might. As it is, I’m still on-the-fence between her and Bernie.

  4. EDIT (20 Oct 2019): Beto O’Rourke, Andrew Yang and Marianne Williamson, by defending Tulsi Gabbard against the ‘Russian asset’ smear, have proven that they are at least decent human beings, even if I disagree with much of their platforms. If treatment of ‘outsiders’ is a measure of character, then they have proven that they have it. Cory Booker, Kamala Harris and Julián Castro have revealed that they do not.

  5. A horrific, genocidal Turkish invasion of Syria is probably not the best time to say ‘I told you so’ about the FSA, which is busy carrying out the dirty work of said horrific genocide. But yes: the supporters of Baššâr al-’Asad (even as the least-worst option) have been right about the ‘moderate rebels’, if not from day one then pret-near close to it. The American betrayal went far deeper than Trump’s quasi-pullout, and few people know that now better than the Kurds themselves.

  6. What the hell kind of country decides it’s a good idea to shoot more whales when vanishingly few people at all, and certainly nobody in their right mind, wants to eat whale meat? Whales are sentient. It’s long past time for the ‘civilised’ world to stop butchering them.

Holy Virgin-Martyr Gwen of Talgarth

Church of St Wenn, Cornwall

On the eighteenth of October we venerate Saint Gwen [also Wenn or Wenna], another of the prolific and holy brood of Brychan Brycheiniog. Born in South Wales, she moved to Cornwall and became an anchoress. She is commonly confused with the Breton Saint Gwen ‘the Three-Breasted’, and with Gwen ferch Cynyr Ceinfarfog the mother of Saint Cybi Felyn. This is somewhat understandable, as all three Gwens are saints connected with Cornwall – but it is still an error to be avoided.

We know very little of Saint Gwen’s short life. She was born in 463 in Talgarth, in the British kingdom of Powys. She did move to Cornwall with, or shortly after, her brother Saint Nectan did, and established several churches both there and in Devon, including St Wenn in Bodmin, St Kew and Cheristow. She and Nectan were apparently very close as siblings, and she chose to live close by Nectan’s hermitage.

Gwen was compelled to visit again her home of Talgarth in 492, which was under attack by the West Saxons, who were yet heathen and unenlightened by the true faith. She was discovered by the Saxons and put to the sword on the eighteenth of October that year, thus earning a martyr’s crown at the age of twenty-nine. Holy martyr Gwen, pray to Christ our God for us sinners!
O Brychan’s jewel and holy daughter, most pious Gwen,
Thou didst defy the heathen Saxons, thereby winning a martyr’s crown.
Being, therefore, numbered among the saints,
Intercede for us before the Throne of Grace,
That we may be granted great mercy.

17 October 2019

Holy Hierarch Nóðhelm, Archbishop of Canterbury

Saint Paul’s Cathedral, London

Today in the Orthodox Church we commemorate another saintly Archbishop of Canterbury: a contemporary, friend and correspondent of both Bede and Boniface; Nóðhelm of Canterbury.

Very little appears to be known about Nóðhelm’s early life. He was a Middle Angle, and was a sæcular advisor to Æþelbald King of Mercia before becoming a priest. We do know, however, that prior to his consecration as Archbishop of Canterbury, he had served as the archpriest and rector of Saint Paul’s Cathedral in London. He was chosen to succeed Saint Tatwine, a Benedictine monk and author who was well known for his composition of riddles. Saint Nóðhelm, too, was an accomplished scholar, and the letters he wrote to and received from Saints Bede and Boniface attest to this, as well as the profound acknowledgement Nóðhelm receives from Bede in his History of the English Church and People. Nóðhelm had, by Bede’s account, done some significant research in the Roman archives on the history and gæography of Kent, which was of considerable use to Bede in his historiography of that kingdom. The capacity of Nóðhelm’s prodigious memory is attested in that one of Bede’s primary sources were the testimonies of Abbot Albinus of Saint Augustine’s (pupil of Saints Theodore and Hadrian), which he in turn had received from his letters and discussions with ‘our venerable brother Nóðhelm the priest’. Bede and Nóðhelm corresponded several more times: Bede addressed a commentary on the Biblical books of Kings to Nóðhelm. The disputed work De octo quæstionibus is also addressed to the Archbishop.

Nóðhelm appears also in the correspondence of Saint Boniface. Boniface, in his missionary work among the Frisians, was particularly appalled (as was, for example, Saint Frideric) by the penchant of Frankish nobles to engage in incestuous unions with their aunts, both out of perverted lust and out of a desire to hoard wealth within the family. These noblemen pointed to the Libellus responsionum, the series of pastoral admonitions issued from Saint Gregory Dialogos to Saint Augustine of Canterbury, to justify their liaisons. As Boniface (rightly) doubted that a sainted pope would ever condone sexual unions between aunts and nephews, he was led to question the authenticity of the document, and he asked Saint Nóðhelm to send him Canterbury’s copy of the Libellus as well as his own opinion on its true authorship.

Saint Nóðhelm’s tenure as Archbishop of Canterbury was primarily concerned with church administration. He successfully reorganised Mercia into two diocæses, Lichfield and Leicester. He also presided over a local synod in 737 which adjudicated an ownership dispute over the Abbey of Withington in Gloucester: a synod which was noteworthy in that it was not attended by any king and yet was still accepted as authoritative.

Nóðhelm reposed in the Lord on the 17th of November, 739. Holy Hierarch Nóðhelm, worthy scholar and shepherd of the Kentish Church, pray unto Christ our God to save our souls!

15 October 2019

Begletsy: searching for gold and God

Pavel (Petr Fedorov) and Ustya (Elizaveta Boyarskaya) in Begletsy

The year is 1907. Revolutionary fervour sweeps Russia, and the most common punishment for political subversives and revolutionaries is exile to Siberia. Those who try to escape their exile and return are hunted down by Cossacks. Their ears are cut off and traded for bounties. The first feature film by the recent genre-film director Rustam Mosafir, the 2014 joint Kazakhstani-Russian production Begletsy (or Fugitives), follows the story of one of these revolutionaries as he tries to escape from Cossack bounty hunters.

Begletsy is, essentially, an Ostern. We may even call it, with perhaps a bit of irony given the revisionist nature of the Ostern genre itself, a ‘revisionist Ostern’. For the most part, it’s played straight – but the ‘revisionist’ marks on it are made clear throughout. Mosafir calls us (with varying degrees of success) to a reflective self-criticality. There are elements in it of a tale of sin, suffering, redemption. There are also questions the film raises for us about the nature of wealth, our desire for this-worldly freedom and security, and the agonistic relationship of both to our religious strivings. It is also, much like Kelin or Shal, a survival film. But it is obvious that the vision of the film is a Russian one, albeit a Russian one that ‘faces east’.

Pavel (Pyotr Fedorov) is part of a group of escaped prisoners that are being hunted by a band of Cossacks led by the cruel and cynical Kudim (Sergei Tsepov). Kudim and his men manage to kill all of them except Pavel, who escapes by jumping into a raging river and swimming to the other side. However, Pavel is the one they’re really after since, as a political prisoner, his bounty is largest. The escapee takes shelter with a prospector, Vasilii (Valerii Grishko) and his mute, illiterate wife Ustya (Elizaveta Boyarskaya). Vasilii’s father, whom Pavel comes across as he is dying, informs Pavel of a cache of gold hidden in a pit he dug outside, and asks him to help Vasilii retrieve it. They recover the cache, but Vasilii is killed by the Cossacks after they discover he is sheltering Pavel. After that, a three-way game of cat-and-mouse ensues in the wooded taiga between Pavel and Ustya, the Cossacks, and an enraged bear which is trying to find her lost cub. Pavel winds up shot and falls into a bear trap; after that he has to be taken into an Evenki shirangju to be healed.

The Evenki hunter (Seidulla Moldahanov) who heals Pavel is actually also the one who introduces the story. He reflects on the strange ways of the white man – who hunts for gold and then tries to speak to God, thinking that God will hear him and heal him. In so doing, he sets in play the central dilemma of both Vasilii and the Cossacks – as well as Pavel, to some extent. To what extent is chasing wealth, or ease, or security, worth giving up parts of your own soul? The film demonstrates to us, intriguingly enough, that even hateful blackguards like Kudim and his henchman Skandyba, after all, have souls and desire union with God. They have just mired themselves in such a mad scramble for gold such that they cannot hear or rightly speak to God. Pavel, too, doesn’t seem to be going about ‘healing his soul’ in the right way. We get glimpses – both in his own flashbacks and during the Spirit Dance of the Evenki hunter – that he feels a certain degree of remorse for his assassination attempt that clearly went awry. But by the end of the film he doesn’t seem to have dealt with that, and the Evenk says as much. What is truly intriguing to me, though, is that, despite the Cossacks crossing themselves and praying to Christ and despite Ustya chasing after her lost baptismal cross, Mosafir puts the religious, Orthodox perspective on these questions into the mouth of a shamanistic Evenki hunter! There is no question but that this was a deliberate choice on his part – hence my application of the term ‘revisionist’.

As a meditation on the conflict between wealth and religion and the tension between a desire for a secure life and a desire for God, the film doesn’t quite work. The moments where it comes closest are the moments of tension among the Cossacks when they start to betray each other over the bounty. But for the two main characters, it doesn’t quite work. Ustya is too simple in the positive Russian sense, and Pavel, despite his chequered past – too altruistic. It is probably best to think about Begletsy more as a survival film from their perspective.

The acting in this film is remarkably decent. Petr Fedorov’s acting gives us certain shades of a young Michael Biehn; he has a similar resilience combined with physical and emotional vulnerability. He’s a ‘fish out of water’ when it comes to the taiga, but also clearly not wholly helpless. Elizaveta Boyarskaya really carries the day here, though. By turns wild and demure, domestic and tough, despite her character having literally zero dialogue, she manages to convey a particularly redoubtable emotional subtlety and range, in addition to being easy on the eyes even when covered in blood and grime. Little wonder indeed that the relationship between Pavel and Ustya takes the turn that it does. On the other side, the Cossacks are a delightfully well-done motley crew, from the unprincipled Skandyba (Aleksandr Samoilov) to the reluctantly-conscientious Ignat (Juris Lauciņš) and the naïve and cowardly Mihei (Kirill Anisimov). They are also shown to be expert bounty hunters and survivalists, which keeps the stakes high and allows Mostafir to build up some excellent dramatic tension.

The film is, by the way, incredibly well-paced, and holds the viewer’s interest throughout. The one thing about Begletsy I wasn’t too appreciative of was the soundtrack. Maybe it’s just because I’m coming off watching some minimalist art films with fairly sparse soundtracks that I’m saying this, and so my opinion here ought to be taken with a grain of salt. Even so, I found the soundtrack too bombastic and ostentatious for a film like this. I’m not saying we necessarily have to have another Shostakovich doing the score, but the big dramatic swells or the tense musical passages that accompany various beats of the plot do seem a bit much. It seems to me that less, and more judicious, here could have meant more.

The cinematography dwells lovingly on the rural taiga. (In the humble opinion of yours truly, it’s prohibitively hard to make an ugly movie in Kazakhstan. Cameras are attracted to the Kazakhstani landscape like magnets.) We have some nice atmospheric shots of mountainscapes and forests, some animal photography of eagles and especially bears. And it was clear they used live brown bears for most of the takes rather than animatronics or puppetry, but that also meant some awkward takes and edits for the action scenes where the bears were involved.

Overall, Begletsy is a fun, enjoyable movie with some typical Ostern flourishes. Even though (as he seems to intimate from his interviews) this wasn’t quite the movie that Mosafir wanted to make for his debut, it’s still a strong start to a career.