30 November 2019

Holy and All-Laudable Apostle Andrew the First-Called

Saint Andrew the Apostle

The thirtieth of November is the feast of the first-called among the apostles, Andrew. A Galilean fisherman by trade, from the village of Bethsaida in the Syrian al-Jawlân north of Lake Tiberias, Saint Andrew is one of the Twelve and the brother of Simon Peter the Apostle. He worked together with Peter as a fisherman prior to being called to follow our Lord. Peter, however, was married; Andrew was not.

His family seems to have been multicultural, or at least significantly-Hellenised enough that his parents saw fit to give him a Greek rather than a Semitic name. Andrew was principal among the devotees of Saint John the Forerunner, who took to preaching repentance and renunciation, baptising his followers in the Jordan River and proclaiming one who would come after him, one whose sandals he was not fit to lace. Andrew was therefore the first, along with his brother Peter, and James and John the sons of Zebedee, to follow Jesus – the One Whom John the Forerunner prophesied.

He was the first-called, the prōtoklētos, among the Apostles of Jesus – he was the one to proclaim Jesus as Christ to Peter, who then followed – but apparently he was not the closest. He was not present, for example, at the Transfiguration on Tabor – though Peter, James and John all were. Even so, there are three passages in the Gospels where Andrew is mentioned prominently.

In the feeding of the multitudes on Lake Tiberias in the Gospel of Saint John, Andrew is the one to point out the lad who brought the five loaves and two fishes. But in the same breath he wonders what good such a small amount will do for so many hungry mouths. Our Lord neither rebukes him nor corrects him for this observation; instead he merely asks his disciples to make the people sit while shares the bread and fish with them.

On another occasion, in the Gospel of Saint Mark, Saint Andrew is among the four chief disciples who hear Jesus proclaim that the stones of the Temple will be torn down, so that not even one will remain standing upon another. The four of them ask Him when these things will come to pass, and what signs may be given them. However, Jesus merely tells them how this will not take place: that many will come falsely proclaiming themselves to be Christ and will deceive many. He warns them not to be deceived nor disheartened, but counsels them to persevere to the end.

On yet another occasion, again in the Gospel of Saint John, Saint Andrew and Saint Philip deliver a message to Christ on the Mount of Olives from ‘certain Greeks’ who had come up to Jerusalem to worship for the Passover feast. Jesus told them to give them this reply:
The hour is come, that the Son of man should be glorified. Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit. He that loveth his life shall lose it; and he that hateth his life in this world shall keep it unto life eternal. If any man serve me, let him follow me; and where I am, there shall also my servant be: if any man serve me, him will my Father honour.
Christ’s answer to these ‘certain Greeks’ through Saint Andrew and Saint Philip was precisely that aspect of His teaching that was hardest for them to grasp. To wit, that the God, One and Formless and Changeless, the Unmoved Mover and the First Cause, whom the philosophers from Pythagoras and Plato and Aristotle had taught them to worship, would do the one thing the Greeks thought it impossible for Him to do: die. Andrew and Philip were the vehicles by whom Christ presented the Greeks with the Incarnational paradox that only by dying is it possible to live æternally.

Andrew was present with the other apostles of Christ at Pentecost; however, he did not remain in Jerusalem with much of the early Christian community. Instead, he left to spread the good news of the risen Christ among his fellow Greeks and among the Gentiles of other nations. He preached in Asia Minor, in Thrace, in Macedonia and in the Peloponnese, where he was martyred. He was also active in the Euxinus, so we are assured by early authorities like Origen, Eusebius and Nestor. He preached the Gospel among the Scythians: the forefathers and foremothers of the mediæval Alans and today’s Orthodox Christian Ossetians.

He ventured into Taurica and up the Dneipr, to the spot where Kiev stands today. There he erected a cross, and prophesied that one day, by the grace of God, a city shining forth with His beneficence would stand, and many gleaming churches would be raised. He did not stop in Kiev, but ventured still further north to what would become Novgorod, and blessed that place as well. Novgorod would carry forward the original, kenotic radicalism of Kievan Christianity well after Kiev had lapsed into imperial pride and subsequently fallen to dust beneath the swords of another Saint Andrew.

Saint Andrew was also the first to found the Church of Christ in Byzantion, then a small and picturesque fishing village. The first bishop he appointed was named Stachus, who was a member of the Seventy. Two hundred years and more later, the Emperor Constantine of Rome would meet there the successor of Saint Andrew and Saint Stachus – the bishop Metrophanes – and raise that little village into a vast city of otherworldly glory. It is for this reason that Saint Andrew is considered the Father of the Church of Constantinople, as well as of the Church of Russia. By his prayers may the two be swiftly reconciled.

Everywhere he went, Saint Andrew bore the same hard, paradoxical message of the Incarnation among the Greeks, which he had received from our Lord Himself on the Mount of Olives and which we read in the Gospel of Saint John. He was hated and persecuted by the pagans for it. In Sinope they pelted the apostle of Christ with stones, but he escaped from thence unharmed. He came to Patras in the Peloponnese, where he worked many wonders among the poor and ill of the town. He restored the sight of the blind, made whole the legs of the lame. Among those he healed was Sosios, a prominent citizen of Patras. Another two were Maximilla, the governor’s wife, and Stratokles, his brother. By these deeds and by his preaching, Patras soon had a flourishing community of Christians.

He attracted the attention of the pagan governor, a man named Ægeatos. Saint Andrew appealed to Ægeatos with loving words, and yet the proud pagan would not believe. Ægeatos became angry with Andrew, and ordered him to be executed by crucifixion. Andrew went willingly to the killing-ground, indeed with gladness in his heart that he could share in the death of the Master whom he loved. In order to prolong his suffering, the governor ordered that Andrew be bound, not staked, to the cross – which, at Andrew’s request, was in the form of a Greek chi rather than an upright and a horizontal plank. At the place where Andrew was crucified, a great crowd of the citizens of Patras gathered, and they cried aloud to the governor to release him. The governor, fearing them, ordered Andrew to be taken down, but the soldiers found they were unable to approach the saint. Andrew lifted his head to heaven, and cried aloud, ‘Lord Jesus Christ, receive my spirit!’ A light shone from the heavens upon him, and by the time it had faded, the Apostle had given up the ghost. He was taken down by Ægeatos’s believing wife Maximilla, and given an honourable burial.

During the reign of Emperor Constantius II, the relics of Saint Andrew would be taken from Patras and interred in a state of honour at the City – the same former village of Byzantion where Saint Andrew had appointed Stachus bishop. The right hand of Saint Andrew was sent to Russia; the head was taken to Old Rome. During late Antiquity, some of the relics of Saint Andrew visited the shores of Britain and were kept by Saint Acca of Hexham. It is on account of this visit of his relics to Britain that Saint Andrew was venerated in Scotland, though a later mediæval legend has it that the Scots began to venerate Saint Andrew as a result of his intercession in battle against Northumbria in 832. First-called among the Apostles Andrew, pray unto Christ our God that our souls may be saved!
Andrew, first-called of the Apostles
And brother of the foremost disciple,
Entreat the Master of all
To grant peace to the world
And to our souls great mercy.

Church of St Andrew, Patras, Greece

Venerable Tudwal of Tréguier, Abbot of Val Trechor

Saint Tudwal of Tréguier

One of the seven great saints of Brittany, today in the Orthodox Church we commemorate Saint Tudwal. Either the nephew or the son of Hywel Mawr, Saint Tudwal spent some time as a hermit living in Wales before ultimately settling in Brittany, where he evangelised throughout the peninsula.

Tudwal was born probably around the turn of the sixth century, but the date is not certain. According to the Welsh tradition, his parents sent him to be educated as a youth at Llanilltud Fawr by Saint Illtud alongside his brother Leonor. He married a girl named Nefydd, and they had two children together – Ifor and Cynfor. An island off of Gwynedd is named after Saint Tudwal, and this island also contains a priory bearing his name; it is very likely that he spent some time here after retiring from the world.

Tudwal was told in an angelic vision to go to Brittany to preach, and so he gathered several of his family members and several other monks – a total of seventy-two people – boarded a ship and sailed with them to Léon. When Tudwal and his disciples landed at Ploumoguer, they saw to their bewilderment that the ship and all its crew had vanished. By this they were made aware that they had been transported to Brittany by bodiless powers and servants of God.

Tudwal applied twice to the lords of Léon for land, and he was given his grant both times. The first was for a small plot of land for an anchorite’s lodging at Pabu. This lodging was soon overfull with Tudwal’s prospective disciples, and he went back to petition for a larger grant. This one was given at Tréguier, where the famous cathedral now bearing his name stands. It is said that to found his monastery of Val Trechor there, he had to slay a great monstrous serpent, though it is likely that he removed one of the dolmens there that was carved in the shape of a serpent – still no small feat. The monastery flourished and became one of the great centres of scholarship and missionary activity in Brittany; the town of Tréguier itself arose around the monastery.

At one time the locals wished to name Tudwal bishop. This caused the Welsh holy man to flee Tréguier for Angers, where he sought refuge with Saint Aubin. However, he was soon found out despite Aubin’s best attempts to hide him. Childebert King of the Franks personally intervened, made him a bishop and sent him back to Tréguier, where he spent the rest of his life. He reposed in the Lord on the thirtieth of November, 564. Saint Tudwal’s relics were split between Laval and Tréguier, where his arm-bone (which miraculously survived the French Revolution) still resides. Holy abbot and bishop Tudwal, pray unto Christ our God for our salvation!

Cathédrale Saint-Tugdual de Tréguier, France

27 November 2019

Venerable Cyngar of Congresbury, Abbot of Somerset

Saint Cyngar of Congresbury

Today in the Orthodox Church we celebrate Saint Cyngar of Llangefni. A brother of Prince Selyf of Cornwall, he was the uncle of Saints Cybi Felyn (with whom he is closely associated), Fragan of Armorica and Custennin of Cornwall. He is also sometimes associated with Saint Gildas the Historian.

Saint Cyngar [or Congar] was the son of Geraint, King of Dumnonia, who died fighting against the Saxons in 522 at the Battle of Llongborth. He fled from his father’s court and sought out an eremitical life, putting on a shirt made from goat’s hair, fasting and praying continuously. He founded his hermitage by following a wild boar into its lair and using that as a cell. It was his custom each morning to stand naked in freezing cold water until he had recited the Lord’s Prayer three times. By consistent efforts in clearing and draining the land, he managed to reclaim the swampy marsh he had settled in, and converted it into pasturelands. He righted his yew staff in the earth nearby the cemetery he had dug at the outset of his labours, and this put down roots and grew out branches, and as bystanders watched it put out green leaves, and broadened until it became a massive yew tree. This yew tree provided cool shade to Saint Cyngar and to the other monastic labourers who followed him.

And follow him they did. Cyngar’s lonely hermitage in Somerset had come to be a bustling monastery, and although he dearly loved the monks who came to him Saint Cyngar truly desired the quietude of a life in contemplation of God. (Modern historian of the British saints Sabine Baring-Gould holds that one of the factors that may have driven Saint Cyngar away from Somerset, was the incursion of the Saxons into the area – particularly after the Battle of Dyrham in 577. Once the Saxons controlled Bath, Cyngar’s monastery in Somerset was completely vulnerable to attack from that direction.) And so he crossed the Severn into Glywysing. He tried to found another anchorite’s cell on the slopes of a mountain, but an angel warned him off, and so he moved to another mountain nearby.

As seems not uncommon with the Brythonic hermits – such as Beuno, Illtud and Cyngar’s own nephew Cybi – Cyngar had a vexed and uneasy relationship with the prince on whose land he lived. Church and state in post-Roman Britain did not always get on very well. The two kings of Glywysing with whom Cyngar dealt both tried to run him off or kill him. But both of them quickly thought better of it, either fearing the wrath of God or charmed by Saint Cyngar’s assuagements.

Saint Cyngar then later appears in the Life of his nephew Saint Cybi, whom he loyally accompanies and serves on his missionary farings. Saint Cyngar even joined Saint Cybi in his exile in Ireland. By this point the elderly hermit was so aged that he could no longer eat solid food. This became a problem when their only milk-cow weaned her calf and dried up; he himself nearly starved to death before Saint Cybi could procure a replacement calf so that the cow would give milk again for his uncle’s use. This may have been the proximate cause of Cybi’s return to Wales. The calf of their milk-cow strayed onto the fields of another monastic, Fintan, who complained to the prince and made imprecatory prayers against Saint Cybi, who in turn cursed Fintan before he left Aran. Both Cyngar and Cybi made their way to Ynys Môn thereafter. Cyngar helped Cybi set up his own cell at Caer Gybi, before moving off to a hermitage of his own at Llangefni.

Saint Cyngar did not remain there long. Even in his advanced age, he desired to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, and he did so at the end of his life. Traditions vary as to where he reposed. Welsh sources have it that he died in Jerusalem and his relics were translated back to Congresbury. One Breton source has it that he died at Morbihan, shortly after crossing the English Channel into Brittany, from whence his relics came. (Baring-Gould finds the latter account more credible.)

Saint Cyngar was venerated at Congresbury for a long time thereafter, and had a healthy local cultus among Saxons and Britons alike. King Ine of Wessex, the son of Saint Cædwalla, dedicated a great deal of silver to the church, and had Cyngar’s monastery reopened and rededicated to the Holy Trinity, though the contemporary Bishop Asser states it had fallen out of use by the time of Ælfrǽd King. Cyngar’s church would be established anew in the thirteenth century under dedication to Saint Andrew. Holy abbot Cyngar, gentle monk and pilgrim, intercede for the sake of us sinners with Christ our God!
In Congresbury’s monastery thou wast laid to rest, O Father Cyngar,
Evangeliser of Somerset and teacher of monastics.
Pray to God for us that we may worthily follow in thy footsteps,
Bringing the light of the Faith to those who languish in the darkness of unbelief,
Making this a second Age of Saints,
That thereby many souls may be saved.

The remnants of Saint Cyngar’s Yew at Congresbury;
and the beech tree that grafted to it

24 November 2019

Venerable Mynfrewy of Padstow

St Minver’s Church, Cornwall

Today in the Orthodox Church we celebrate one of the holy children of Brychan Brycheiniog, Saint Mynfrewy ferch Brychan [also Menefrida, Menfre or Minver]. A Welsh hermitess who settled in Cornwall, she has been venerated there since the sixth century.

She apparently began her eremitical life early in Wales, as there are place-names like Minwear in Dyfed which attest to her presence. However, she soon moved across the Bristol Channel to Cornwall to evangelise the people of that peninsula. She landed first at Trebetherick, and then moved a little ways inland to the current stead of St Minver by Padstow, where she set up her cell.

She had a holy well there, and she would often go there to brush out her hair with a comb. One story relates that the Devil came there to try to tempt her as she was brushing her hair. To prevent him from drawing any closer, Saint Mynfrewy threw the comb at him with formidable acuity and hit him, causing him to fly off before returning to Hell through Lundy Hole.

She reposed in the Lord on the twenty-fourth of November, and was buried near her cell. Holy anchoress Mynfrewy, pray to Christ our God for us sinners!

21 November 2019

Our father among the saints Columbán of Luxeuil

Saint Columbán of Luxeuil

The twenty-first of November in the Holy Orthodox Church is the feast-day of Saint Columbán, the great Gælic missionary saint of the Continent in the sixth and early seventh centuries. Columbán was a famously strict ascetic in the Celtic mould, and among his disciples there may be counted a number of Franks, but also the famously holy daughters of Anna King of the East Angles. As such, he forms a distinct bridge between the Roman and the Celtic traditions in the Western præ-Schismatic Church.

Saint Columbán [or Columbanus] was born around the year 543 in the kingdom of Meath, in what is now Leinster, Ireland. His mother had præmonitions, gifted to her from the Divine, that he would attain to great scholarly heights and cultivate a singularly keen intellect and a holy spirit. When she gave birth, it was to a robust, strong, quick-witted boy with a thick thatch of bright red hair. He was given the best of educations by his parents, who had means, and was instructed in a liberal course of grammar, rhetoric, gæometry and the study of the Scriptures. Young Columbán grew up to be not only intelligent but also most prepossessing in form and face; and as such he was popular with the girls of Leinster who sought after him in a particularly sæcular way. Columbán, who was of a somewhat different bent of mind although he struggled with that temptation, sought refuge with a holy anchoress. The Irish anchoress, who had been fighting her own lusts for twelve years, sternly warning him of what befell Samson and David and Solomon, advised him to flee the world and all its temptations.

Saint Columbán informed his mother of his intention to become a hermit or a monk, but she tried everything to get him to change his mind – gentle persuasion, threats, guilt-trips – and even lay across the threshold of the door to prevent his leaving. Yet Columbán insisted upon going, crossing the threshold and so dying to the world. He took up residence first with Abbot Sinell of Cleenish, and there also the tonsure. At Cleenish, Columbán occupied himself in honing his scholarly pursuits, and authored a commentary on the Psalms.

Eventually he was commended by the monastery of Cleenish to the care of Saint Comgall, the abbot of Bangor, who was known for his idiosyncratically strict ascetic rule of common life – a rule which Saint Columbán appreciated and would emulate in his later years. Saint Columbán asked to be taken in as Saint Comgall’s spiritual son, and the elder abbot agreed. The two got on very well together, and Columbán stayed at Bangor until he reached the age of forty.

When he had reached his fortieth year, Saint Comgall blessed Columbán, understanding and approving his desire to go forth into the Continent and spread the Gospel and strengthen the people in the observance of a life following Christ. With twelve disciples Columbán set forth for Gaul, and he made his way there first by ship and subsequently on foot. His disciples were given cause to marvel at the saint’s love of the lands and living things among which they travelled, for indeed Columbán loved all creatures and all created things with the compassion of a Saint Gregory. He always took care to tread quietly and without presumption. ‘The man to whom a little is not enough, he will not benefit from more,’ the Gælic ascetic said. ‘He who tramples upon the world, tramples upon himself.

Saint Columbán was given a warm and hospitable welcome by Gondram, the King of the Franks. But he made his way among the Burgundians – an East Teutonic people related to the Goths and Vandals who had made their home in what is now Bourgogne in eastern France. Although they had lost their political independence from the Franks several decades before with the execution of their last king Godmar in 534, they were still very much a proud and distinct people at this time. Columbán had been given leave to establish a monastery in a disused Roman fortress in what is now La Voivre in the Vosges Mountains. He and his twelve monastic disciples set up a rule of life there that was strict and demanding in its asceticism, but which was also open and hospitable to travellers and responsive to local sensibilities. Columbán earned the respect of the Burgundians by respecting the places they held sacred, and they observed in particular the reverence with which he treated the mountains and rivers, and the special closeness he had with wild animals.

This form of asceticism rendered Columbán’s mission quite popular and attractive. The Burgundians came to Columbán for advice, for blessings and for healings, and the saint was all too happy to oblige. The monastery grew, and soon there was not enough space at La Voivre to house them all. And so Saint Columbán asked for, and was granted, permission to consecrate another house under his rule at Luxeuil-les-Bains, eight miles away. The abbey that Columbán founded here was placed among a wrack of an old Roman city that had been ravaged by the Huns and left to moulder in gloom, but which still contained thermal baths and an old pagan cult centre. Columbán’s new abbey there brought life and joy back to the place. This one too grew crowded, and Saint Columbán planted a third monastery in nearby Fontaine-lès-Luxeuil.

Saint Columbán spent twenty years in Francia, tending his three monasteries in Bourgogne with great care and devotion to the health of his spiritual children. He unfortunately got into a dispute with the local bishops about his keeping the Celtic date for Pascha, stubbornly refused to change the tradition he had been taught, and even appealed three times to the Pope to attain his blessing to observe Pascha according to the Celtic custom. If the Bishop of Rome ever answered these missives, his replies are no longer extant.

He also crossed wires with the Frankish royals, and particularly with Brunhilda, the grandmother and guardian of the young king Theuderic II. Saint Columbán objected when, with his grandmother’s connivance, Theuderic II took a mistress whom he refused to marry, Brunhilda being jealous of her own power within the Frankish court. Saint Columbán bitterly denounced the young king’s living arrangements, his treatment of the woman and his grandmother’s connivances – earning him the enmity of Brunhilda. Theuderic confronted Saint Columbán and had him arrested, tortured and thrown into the dungeons at Besançon when he refused to leave off criticising his sexual morality. By the grace and intervention of God, the saint was set free from his Frankish captors and went back to his Burgundian monasteries. When Theuderic discovered he had escaped, he and his cruel grandmother returned to Luxeuil with soldiers in tow, and threatened to burn his refuge to the ground and all within unless he left Francia. Only those who had come with him from Ireland were allowed to accompany him in his exile.

Columbán was loved, however, by the common Burgundians, and on two of them at least he made a significant impression: Saint Felix the Burgundian who would later witness to Christ among the East Angles; and Saint Fara, the abbess who would tutor the East Anglian noble girls Æþelburg and Sǽþrýð, who became nuns and abbesses under the Rule of Columbán. Saint Columbán’s disciples Felix and Fara belonged to perhaps the last generation of Burgundian subjects of Francia who managed to hold onto their East Teutonic language – which was pushed to extinction under Frankish repression by the year 600.

Saint Columbán visited the tomb of Saint Martin the Merciful on the way to the coast, and paid his reverences to the holy bishop. While there, he prophesied that within three years the wicked Frankish king Theuderic and his children would perish. (Theuderic would indeed die of dysentery on campaign against his enemy Clotaire within three years of this prophecy.) The Irish monks were to be transported back to their island by sea from Nevers. But a sudden storm blew up as the captain was trying to leave, that prevented his departure. The captain was convinced that Saint Columbán and his Irish disciples were the cause of the storm, and refused to transport him across the English Channel lest he fall under the wrath of God.

Columbán was therefore compelled to cross Gaul again, and this time he made his way east toward the Rhine, and with his small band of Irish monks in tow he rowed upstream, singing songs with them as they went to keep their spirits up. They reached the lands of the Swabians and preached in the towns of Bregenz and Tuggen, now in Switzerland. Here Columbán left his dissenting disciple Saint Gall, not without some rancor, who is still venerated among the Catholics of Switzerland. And then the holy man proceeded into the Kingdom of the Lombards to the south, who were at that time still deep in the throes of the hæretical teachings of Arius. Saint Columbán worked to convert Agilulf, the king of the Lombards, with the help of his Bavarian wife Theodelinde (who was a Nicene Christian). While working in Milan Saint Columbán wrote at least one influential treatise against the Arian hæresy, by which the residents of northern Italy were converted to Nicene Christianity. Columbán was later given by Agilulf a tract of land at Bobbio on which to build a monastery, and here the saint again restored a ruined church and built it up again into a thriving centre of worship and scholarship. As his death grew near, Saint Columbán again took up an eremitical existence and retreated to a cave overlooking the river Trebbia, where he had erected a small oratory dedicated to the Theotokos. He reposed in the Lord on the twenty-first of November in the year 615. Among his last acts was to send his crozier to Saint Gall by way of forgiveness, apology and repentance for their earlier quarrel.

Saint Columbán is noteworthy for several reasons. First, he was the missionary saint par excellence on the Continent, and his missionary style was quite careful to adapt to local sensibilities when the situation called for it: including to rededicate old pagan cult centres to Christ and to encourage the natural veneration of the Burgundians among whom he lived and preached. His example would inspire later missionaries from the British Isles: such saints as Willibrord, Willehad, Boniface, Swiðberht, Wihtberht, the three holy children of Richard of Wessex. Saint Columbán was also quite close to the natural world and easily formed bonds with wild animals, a characteristic broadly shared among the early Celtic saints. His reverence for Christ and his ascetic life of prayer and self-control had a remarkably œcological tinge. And he also was not afraid to prick the consciences of the wealthy and powerful, even those among the nobility and royalty who behaved themselves with overbearing pride and lust.

Saint Columbán did have some personality flaws – he could be stubborn, stiff-necked and overly free with his tongue. And he was occasionally given to wrath, even with his own disciples like Saint Gall. But of his passion for remaining faithful to Christ and for living a Christlike life, there can be no doubt whatsoever. A champion of right doctrine who did intellectual battle among the Arians, and a preacher of righteousness who would not brook the appetites of the rich and powerful, Saint Columbán deserves veneration in both East and West. Venerable Columbán, wonderworker and wise father of monks, pray unto Christ our God that our souls may be saved!
Rome was shocked by the severity of your Rule, O Father Columbán,
But never daunted, you did not waver in your condemnation of spiritual and moral laxity.
Standing firmly in the tradition of the fathers of the Thebaïd,
You are a tower of strength to us sinners,
Wherefore O Saint, entreat Christ our God that He will grant mercy to our souls!

Abbaye Saint-Colomban, Luxeuil-les-Bains, France

19 November 2019

Venerable Æbbe, Abbess of Minster-in-Thanet

Saint Æbbe of Minster

The nineteenth of November in the Orthodox Church is the feast day of Holy Mother Æbbe [i.e. Domne Eafe, Domneva or occasionally Eormenburg], the great-granddaughter of the saintly monarchs Æþelberht and Berhte; the earthly mother of three monastic Saints Mildþrýð, Mildburg and Mildg‎ýð; and the heavenly mother besides of many nuns, including Holy Mother Éadburg. Holy Mother Æbbe is indeed a true mother of the English Church after the model of the Theotokos.

Saint Æbbe was born to Eormenræd King of Kent and his wife Óslaf (sister of Saint Æþelþrýð and Saint Seaxburg); and she had a sister named Eormengýð who also married and also later became a nun. Æbbe was given in marriage to Merewalh King of Magonsætan, son and heir of the infamous Penda. The sisters of Merewalh were Cyneburg and Cyneswíþ, and his brother Wulfhere was the husband of Æbbe’s cousin, Saint Eormenhild of Ely. As we can see, Saint Æbbe was surrounded by God-fearing family. We can also see that the court Saint Æbbe was entering was no longer a heathen stronghold, but deeply committed to Christ. By the time she and Merewalh wed, Merewalh had ruled over the Magonsætan (modern-day Herefordshire and Shropshire) for about three years.

However, a tragœdy soon occurred in Æbbe’s life. Her two baby brothers Æþelberht and Æþelræd, had been committed as fosterlings to the care of Eorcenberht King of Kent and Saint Seaxburg. However, Eorcenberht died of a pestilent illness in 664, and his grieving widow Seaxburg left the world to seek a nun’s vocation at Ely. The regency of these two young princes then fell to Ecgberht, the husband of Saint Æþelþrýð, who was not nearly as kindly as Eorcenberht had been. Ecgberht jealously feared these two young boys as a threat to his hold on power. And so he had one of his þegnas, a man named Þunor, murder them, just as the wicked Svyatopolk murdered Saints Boris and Gleb. Once this was done, Ecgberht directed Þunor to hide the bodies of the princes under the floorboards of the royal hall in on the Isle of Thanet. The deed did not stay hidden for long.

A series of wonders from God pointed to where the bodies of the two slain boys lay. An eerie, heavenly light shone constantly on the spot where the two boys’ bodies had been stored, and thus they were discovered. It was not long before, under examination, the whole of the truth came out. Saint Theodore of Tarsos and Saint Hadrian of Canterbury, horrified at this crime, went before Ecgberht King along with a delegation of the common folk of Kent, demanding that the King repair to Saint Æbbe – as their sister, the closest living kin of the two dead boys – to beg her forgiveness and make restitution in the form of weregild, after the ancient Teutonic custom.

Saint Æbbe, however, travelled herself to Kent. When Ecgberht appeared before her in repentance and begged her forgiveness, she readily forgave him. She would not accept any of his offers of blood money, however. What she asked of him was a small stead on the Isle of Thanet itself, and at that for the express use of building a monastery. Ecgberht asked her how much land she would have, and she replied to him: ‘As much land as my deer can pass over in a single run.

Ecgberht agreed to this, and Saint Æbbe brought her deer to Westgate-on-Sea, where the beast was let loose to run. Saint Æbbe’s hagiography has it that the king and his þegnas, and many of the common folk of Kent besides, were all much amused and astounded at watching the swift-footed deer bound away… all but one, that is. That one being Þunor, the murderer of the two young boys, who cried aloud that Æbbe must be a witch, and that Ecgberht was a fool to be so led by the wiles of a woman to give away so much good land by the will of a brute animal. Þunor took to his horse and rode out to slay Saint Æbbe’s deer. However, his horse foundered nearby an old chalk-pit, and Þunor was thrown headlong – or, as some of the folk who watched accounted it, ‘the earth opened and swallowed him’. This spot was afterward known as ‘Þunor’s Leap’. At the sight of this divine judgement it was said that Ecgberht ‘very much feared and trembled’ for his soul.

Ecgberht, who had been watching from a promontory that later on became a beacon-hill under the jurisdiction of Minster Abbey, watched on as the deer coursed around the island from one end of it to the other on a single wind, encircling eighty sulungs of land. A fearful Ecgberht, seeing the judgement of God upon him, meekly accepted to give the whole tract to Saint Æbbe, and signed over the deed to that land, which was witnessed by Saints Theodore and Hadrian. It was given over to Æbbe and all her posterity in charter, to which was affixed a frightful curse upon anyone who dared break it.

Saint Æbbe thereafter founded Minster Abbey, the work on which was completed around the year 670. With the consent of her understanding husband, she also withdrew from her marriage and took the cowl, becoming a nun herself in a religious community in Mercia. She then held the land of Thanet as abbess. She recalled her daughter Mildþrýð, who was then being educated in Gaul and had taken the veil there, to join the new monastery.

Saint Æbbe reposed in the Lord on the nineteenth of November, 690. After her repose, Saint Mildþrýð, who had gained a reputation for her gentle wisdom and deep affection for her sisters, was unanimously chosen to succeed her mother as abbess. This was blessed and hallowed by Saint Theodore, who consecrated Æbbe’s daughter as abbess of the new monastery, and with her seventy nuns who took up the holy life therein. Holy Mother Æbbe, wise foundress of Thanet, pray unto Christ our God for the salvation of our souls!

18 November 2019

Venerable Maodez of Brittany, Abbot of Île Maudez

Saint Maodez of Brittany

The eighteenth of November is the feast day of Saint Maodez [also Maudez, Maudetus, Mawes, or Maw], an Irish saint who is primarily venerated in Brittany and Cornwall – in both of which places he lived and worked as a hermit.

Maodez was born to a Breton mother named Senara and a rather jealous and paranoid Breton king. Senara, who was several months pregnant, was wrongly accused of adultery, and these accusations were believed by her husband. In rage, he ordered Senara thrown into the sea in a barrel to drown. However, God kept her alive for five months at sea, and she gave birth in the barrel to Maodez. She washed ashore in Ireland and raised her son there until he was fully grown. Because the story of his origins is so similar to that of Saint Beuzeg of Dol, it’s been surmised that they may have been twin brothers or even the same person. Both men were missionary monks of Welsh origin, and the monasteries they founded were very close together.

Maodez sojourned from Ireland when he came of age and settled in a hermit’s cell near Falmouth, the fishing village which he founded. Sometime after 524, Saint Maodez began sojourning in Devon and Cornwall, founding another village nearby which still bears his name.

Saint Maodez then set sail across the English Channel with his disciples. They landed on an island off the coast of France, which is now called Île Maudez in his honour. It may have been the case that he was fleeing an outbreak of yellow fever back home. He gained a reputation in subsequent years for his ability to wondrously cure many kinds of illness – a reputation which continued to follow his relics and even the earth above his grave.

He showed his holiness on Île Maudez by clearing the island of snakes and other vermin, which he did by setting brush fires around the island. He would also go on to found a monastic community there. He also gained the trust of the local Bretons by teaching their children; and he also established a number of churches in the surrounding countryside in Brittany. (In iconography and art he is still shown as either a bishop or a schoolteacher.) He was an ardent and zealous apostle to his own people, as attested by the many churches in the region which still bear his name.

One day the last fire on Île Maudez was put out inadvertently. Saint Maodez sent a lay brother of his monastic community at low tide to cross over to the mainland of Brittany to bring back a lit torch. He found one and made to bring it back, only to see that the tide was coming in again. It rose higher and higher, engulfing the land bridge on which he had crossed. The water rose to the boy’s ankles, then his knees, then his waist. The waters of the sea threatened to put out the flame the lad so jealously guarded. And then he caught sight of a reef that rose above the waters, and clambered atop it. Soaking and desperate, he stood on that rock and invoked the name of his master. Wondrously, even as the waters rose about him, the reef was never submerged and the flame was kept lit. Once the tide went out again, the lad clambered down and delivered the flame to Saint Maodez.

Between Brittany and Cornwall, Saint Maodez is the patron of over sixty churches. He is venerated at Quimper, Tréguier, Lesneven and Bourges in the Val-de-Loire, where his body is said to rest. His intercessions are invoked especially against headaches, insects, worms and snake-bites, and he is also a patron of schoolteachers, and it is as a schoolteacher (who gets quite a few headaches) especially that I ask his intercession. Holy Father Maodez, venerable schoolmaster, bridge between nations and builder of monasteries, pray unto Christ our God for us sinners!
Despite thy royal birth thou didst embrace the monastic life in infancy,
O Father Maodez, boast of ascetics and banisher of snakes.
As we are blessed to have thy precious relics with us to this day,
Pray, O Saint, that we may be worthy of Christ’s mercy
And that our souls may be saved.

St Mawes Church, St Mawes, Cornwall

Holy Virgin-Martyrs Sidwell of Exeter and Juðwara of Dorset

Saint Sidwell of Exeter

The first of August in the Holy Orthodox Church is the feast-day of Sidwell [also Sativola], a virgin-martyr of fifth-century Britain who was murdered at the behest of her stepmother. She is sometimes associated with Saint Juðwara [also Juthware or Judith], whose story is similar and whose feast falls on the eighteenth of November. The similarity of their stories is often attributed to their being sisters.

Sidwell and Juðwara lived at a time of transition and uncertainty in Great Britain. The old Romano-British population was being supplanted or mixed with one of Angles, Saxons and Jutes – heathen barbarians invited as fœderati to settle in Roman Britain by Vortigern to stave off Pictish raids and incursions. It is unknown whether she belonged to a British family, to a Saxon family or to a mixed one – cases have been made for each. However, her story indicates the insecurities of family rule and civil law in such an environment.

Sidwell, a young girl of blameless life in Exeter, saw her mother die at a young age, and her father remarry. Her stepmother, who was jealous of Sidwell’s qualities, bade a group of threshers to take her outside the city of Exeter and behead her. This they did, but no sooner had they done so but a spring of pure water gushed forth from the earth where her head fell, attesting to the girl’s saintly innocence.

Saint Juðwara suffered a similar fate. After her father died, she took ill with complaints of a pain in her chest. Because she prayed and fasted often, and gave alms to the poor besides from her own plate, her illness was accounted for by these ascetic disciplines she set on herself, as well as grief over her father’s death. However, her stepmother saw a chance to discredit her and have her killed. To the girl’s face, she suggested that she place soft cheeses on her breasts to ease the pain. But to her son Bana, the stepmother intimated that Juðwara might be suffering from morning-sickness. Bana went to Juðwara and felt her undergarments. Finding them moist and smelling of milk, he flew into a rage and struck off Juðwara’s head with his sword. Again, a spring of fresh water appeared where her head fell; and Juðwara wondrously picked up her own head and bore it into the church. Bana knew from this that he had committed a wicked deed against his blameless stepsister, repented and became a monk.

The centre of Saint Sidwell’s cultus is at Exeter – or rather, more specifically, St Sidwells, which was heavily bombed by the Nazis during the Second World War. The centres of Saint Juðwara’s cultus are Halstock in Dorset, and also Sherborne Abbey where her relics were kept prior to the dissolution of the monasteries. Holy virgin-martyrs Sidwell and Juðwara, pray to God for us!

Church of St Juthware and St Mary in Halstock, Dorset

16 November 2019

Virtues of the post-communist left; vices of the global élite

A Bulgarian student and kitchen worker (photo courtesy Vice)

The most wealth-equal societies in the world last year, where data were available, were Albania (Gini* 0.448), Hungary (0.453), Slovakia (0.463), Iceland (0.467) and Moldova (0.479). Some other close contenders are Croatia (0.498), Azerbaijan (0.510), Pakistan (0.526), Bulgaria (0.529), Lithuania (0.532), Tajikistan (0.535) and Serbia (0.543). It would have been interesting to see data from, for example, Belarus, which has traditionally had a strong penchant for egalitarianism – but sadly none were to be had in this study.

These data are quite troubling, but I will get to that later. I do feel fairly vindicated in being a strong, if occasionally critical, supporter of the left-conservative post-communist politics in some of these nations: Bulgaria, Moldova and Slovakia in particular. They have managed to weather the transition away from Soviet communism fairly well, keeping at least some of the old welfare and redistributive infrastructure intact and functional despite massive pressure from global capital.

That’s no mean feat. I might also credit the Byzantine-legacy institutions of Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia for some of this, but I think a significant rôle might also be played by the famed Balkan intransigence. Inertia can be a great virtue, particularly among the stubborn, traditionally-Orthodox folk of Eastern and Southern Europe. They have so far obstinately managed to keep the social balance and the wealth gap from getting worse: something the squishy liberal social democrats of the West (outside Iceland, apparently – and they took some strong steps) have not done. These post-communist former Eastern Bloc countries haven’t, however, quite managed to succeed in making it better.

The alarming thing about this data set is that it’s sadly increasingly common for big post-industrial societies now to have wealth Ginis in excess of 0.800 or even 0.900, and vanishingly rare for societies to have wealth Ginis of less than 0.500. The wealth Gini in the United States last year was 0.859, making us one of the most grotesquely unequal societies on the planet. All of the inequality in this country is being powered by élites in places like Silicon Valley, Wall Street and suburban Texas. The élites do everything in their power to rig œconomic institutions in their favour, capture political systems, provoke and then profiteer on wars, quash unions, undermine family structures and even redesign entire communities to be as inhospitable as possible to the working poor.

This state-of-affairs is ridiculously unjust, of course, and the great philosophers of the ages, not to mention the Fathers of the Church, all spoke out vehemently against it. But historically speaking it’s also a recipe for a full-blown societal collapse. This kind of surreal, unnatural inequality almost always precedes the conditions for civil wars brought on by a decline in social trust, famines brought on by mismanagement and overexploitation of land resources, and disease epidemics brought on by overcrowding of cities and the degradation of urban infrastructure. Because we are facing historically-unprecedented levels of global wealth inequality, we need to be especially concerned with questions of food sovereignty and the effects of mass migration.

If we ever had a need for the intransigence, inertia and good old-fashioned inat of the working poor (and more), now is that time. The global masses face an élite class war against them on all fronts – cultural as well as œconomic. And our survival as a species may be at stake.

* The Gini coefficient is a measure of the difference in ‘area under the curve’ between a 1-to-1 linear distribution representing total equality, and the actual statistical dispersion of wealth across the population. The lower the coefficient, the more equal the society is. A Gini coefficient of 0 would be a perfectly equalitarian society in which every individual had an equal share of the population’s wealth; and a Gini coefficient of 1 represents a perfect inequality in which one person holds all of the wealth and the rest of the population none.

It’s necessary to point out that between the income Gini and the wealth Gini, the wealth Gini is the more significant figure from a viewpoint which values equity – because not all wealth is gained through earned income. The income Gini is a good measure of how well the people at the very bottom of the distribution are taken care of in comparison with the middle class: for example, how well a waitress is doing compared to a restaurant manager, who both derive their wealth from earned income. It’s also the most popularly-publicised figure, because it makes the Western European liberal democracies look good in comparison to the rest of the world. But it’s not a good measure of how well the wealth of the society is distributed overall. If you want to find out how well the waitress is doing compared to, say, an investment banker, you have to look at the wealth Gini. By definition, the wealth Gini is always higher than the income Gini.

28 Panfilovtsev: ‘Nowhere to retreat; behind us is Moscow!’

Two riflemen in 28 Panfilovtsev

On the sixteenth of November, 1941, 28 members of the Red Army’s 316th Rifle Division under the command of General Ivan Panfilov held off the advance of the Nazi Wehrmacht’s 2nd Panzer Division and managed to destroy eighteen enemy tanks, armed with nothing but grenades, Molotov cocktails and Mosin-Nagant rifles. This stunning act of underdog heroism was immediately commemorated and acquired the status of a Soviet war legend. This legend was so popular, by the way, that my wife Jessie remembered the battle and Vasilii Klochkov’s famous rallying cry from her high school history textbooks. In 2009 when I was in Almaty, I ended up visiting a monument (see the photo below) erected to the memory of the 316th Riflemen, many of whom were Kazakhs.

The tale of these soldiers became the basis for the crowdsourced, joint Russian-Kazakhstani 2016 historical war film 28 Panfilovtsev (or Panfilov’s 28), directed by Kim Druzhinin and Andrei Shal’opa. I recently watched this film, and am posting a review of it now in honour of the Battle of Moscow and the sacrifice of the historical 28 and their thousands of comrades in the 316th Riflemen.

There was a bit of controversy surrounding the film when it came out, largely as a result of Sergei Mironenko’s politically-motivated ‘release’ of classified Soviet documents about the Battle of Moscow, at the same time the film was in the works, that ended up getting him fired. The Soviet legend that the entire unit was wiped out to the last man had been previously discredited, and there were six survivors from the unit. But the controversy around the film was amplified beyond reason by Anglophone sources which proceeded from an assumption that the film was Putinist propaganda. Shal’opa’s film actually does follow as much of the real history as possible, rather than the Soviet legend: in the end of the film he shows the six survivors of the Battle of Moscow from the 316th Riflemen.

‘Behind us is Moscow’

28 Panfilovtsev begins in the snow-bound woods outside Moscow, with the steeple of an old Orthodox church in the background and a bunch of houses with fenced yards outside. This is where the Red Army is making preparations for a German attack. Some of the soldiers are reading month-old news releases about bravery against the odds and heroic deaths of soldiers elsewhere on the Eastern Front, setting a premonitory tone for the main action of the film. A tank specialist with the rank of Lieutenant is giving a lecture to the riflemen, but one of them – Moskalenko – keeps cracking wise about the finickiness of German weaponry to lighten the mood. Moskalenko gets sent to fetch materials to build a mock German tank, and the platoon is made to practise trying to destroy the tanks from inside trenches with grenades and Molotov cocktails.

The officers, however, are visibly worried. The Red Army is being stretched thin and there are not enough troops to push back on the Germans. Although the unit is clearly underequipped and some of the enlisted men in the unit question why – if they know where the German Panzers are – they aren’t being sent forward with the proper materials to bring the fight to them, the officers sternly tell them that their orders are to hold the line and protect Moscow.

We then see the soldiers making preparations for the German assault. ‘The Germans aren’t stupid’ is a repeated refrain we hear, as they set to work making decoy gun emplacements, digging false trenches, and using white burlap and rags to hide their true positions. One of the men semi-seriously starts telling stories about how other units shot down German spy planes with ordinary rifles, leading his partner to try his own hand at one flying over. The second assault comes and wipes out all but twenty-eight men. They radio for backup from higher up, but the officers there tell them none is to be had, and to hold out for as long as they can. They then make ready preparing for a second assault from the German tank brigade, and then a third. After the third assault is when the political officer, Vasilii Klochkov (Aleksei Morozov), delivers his famous line: ‘Our motherland is so vast; but we have nowhere to retreat. Behind us is Moscow!

‘O Lord, save thy people and bless thine inheritance’

The action of the film is fairly straightforward. The ragtag, poorly-armed, worn-out group of foot soldiers manages to hold off an entire German tank battalion at heavy cost to themselves. The film is accurate and true to the history in that there are six survivors at the end. The men themselves are a mixture of Russians and Kazakhs. There’s a bit of banter between them – moving between serious talk and joking – about the nature of their fight; after all, the Kazakhs were basically draughted and are serving in a unit that’s defending Moscow. The director sets it up (accurately enough) that the Kazakhs are largely snipers, and the Russians are their logistics support, which allows for these discussions to happen. Intriguingly, the Russians see the Kazakhs as Russians; though the Kazakhs see themselves as either Kazakhs or Soviets. One of the logistics men asks his Kazakh partner: ‘So you’re Kazakh? Does that mean you’re not Russian? … I’m kidding!’ And he then goes on to add: ‘And when we fight for Kazakhstan, then we will show [the Germans]who the Kazakhs are!

Cinematographically, 28 Panfilovtsev is drop-dead gorgeous. Shal’opa used a real location outside Moscow, and shot in the early winter snow. The crew used real vehicles and real pyrotechnics with only a minimum of CGI effects. The camerawork has a retro traditionalism to it; despite the claustrophobic takes inside the trenches (designed to amplify the sense of dread), there’s a preference for high-angle ærial sweeps and slow pans outside them. There is a very late-Soviet feel to the film: a certain gravitas that modern Hollywood blockbusters have lost. It also has gritty action, palpable tension and real stakes to the soldiers’ deaths, but there was surprisingly little blood shown. One aspect is very much not Soviet, and that is the subtle nod to religion among the soldiery. There is one touching scene in which a soldier takes off his hat and says the Troparion to the Cross (‘O Lord, save thy people, and bless thine inheritance…’) – a very un-Soviet sentiment. Another soldier asks him what he’s doing, and he tells him he merely said ‘For the motherland.

‘Since when do shepherds know how to shoot?’

The film itself actually makes a sly riposte to those in Anglophone media who did not even wait for it to come out to question its authenticity and truthfulness to historical record – as though that’s ever been a priority for Hollywood. In one of the scenes, the soldiers discuss the Japanese legend which was the basis for The Seven Samurai, where seven noblemen defended a village against forty bandits. There’s a bit of banter about whether he was just doing it for the money. Then another one, doubting the legend’s authenticity, says he heard the same legend, but that it was set ‘somewhere in America’, and that the noblemen were ‘shepherds. Another Red Army soldier scoffs at these stories, calling them ‘folktales’ and saying that they were obviously not historically-accurate.

This scene introduces a certain fourth-wall hugging, ironic approach to 28 Panfilovtsev’s own place in Russia’s cinematic culture and ‘national conversation’, as well as being a jab at Hollywood’s own shameless mythmaking and fabrication. The point the director is trying to make by having the Red Army soldiers discuss the plots of The Seven Samurai and The Magnificent Seven, is precisely that legends have a life of their own and that ‘folktales’ have a value that transcends a narrowly factitious view of historiography. There’s an additional layer of irony at play in that the chief cowboy in The Magnificent Seven was played by a Russian from the Far East. One of the soldiers mentions the sharpshooting abilities of the ‘shepherds’ in Kemerovo Oblast: a nice little wink-nod at Brynner’s origins.

‘I don’t want any heroes – just burn those tanks’

It’s been remarked that Shal’opa’s film is a throwback to Soviet propaganda pieces and Osterns of the seventies. That may be so – the direct parallels to, for example, Beloe solntse pustyni are certainly there, and Shal’opa was not exactly shy about his ambitions in that direction. I also mentioned the retro-feeling cinematography. But I also noticed some distinct commonalities instead with Kazakh New Wave films. The films of the Kazakh New Wave, of course, are (generally) not war-films; they tend to be concerned with smaller and human-scale stories. However: Shal’opa made a deliberate decision, directly following Kazakh New Wave directors like Ómirbaev and Shynarbaev, to cast acting-school graduates – amateurs – in all of the leading rôles instead of established film stars. The only actor I recognised was the one who played the sniper Alikbaı Kosaev (Amadu Mamadakov), who had a supporting rôle as Targutai in Mongol. I believe this tack of recruiting amateur actors worked incredibly well: we are therefore faced with ordinary people in an extraordinary situation, which is precisely what Druzhinin and Shal’opa wanted to capture.

Also, similarly to Kazakh New Wave cinema, there is a self-referential and socially-conscious subtext to the film, exploring questions of patriotism and heroism in remarkably subtle and human-scaled ways. Even though the film eschews the psychedelic stylings of Otyrardyń kúıreýi, at least part of the gist is similar. Panfilov’s 28 guardsmen are not superhuman or self-sacrificial in their heroism. In fact, Shal’opa portrays the riflemen as human and struggling, which allows for the film to ask deep and relevant questions about how soldiers are able to overcome doubt and despair and convince themselves to keep going in the face of impossible odds. There are also even some echoes of Brat here in that, where the violence is shown, it isn’t overly gruesome or sanguinary. But the perfunctory way in which it is treated is unsettling in its own right. War is (and is shown to be) a messy, dirty, claustrophobic, deafening, hellish business, not romantic or glorious at all – and the palpable fears of the soldiers are made felt onscreen. But it’s in the midst of that fear that real camaraderie and real courage, not a caricature of it, is able to shine through. It’s certainly not the ham-fisted propaganda piece that PRI, the BBC and the Guardian prematurely made it out to be.

The crowdsourced aspect of the film is worth remarking on as well, since Shal’opa has made it such a central point of 28 Panfilovtsev’s marketing. The opening credits crediting the ‘help of donations from 35,086 people’ are shown first, before those for the Russian Ministry of Culture and Kazakhfilm. Indeed, at first, the film was financed completely ‘from below’. It was only after he began on the project with these donations that the Russian Ministry of Culture and Kazakhfilm were convinced to come aboard. Shal’opa referred to 28 Panfilovtsev as a ‘people’s film’, and held it up as a foil not only to Hollywood, but also to big-budget state-funded blockbusters at home. There’s no doubt that the crowdfunding of the film contributed to the unique atmosphere and tone of the film, and that’s one among many reasons to appreciate it. As a ‘people’s film’, it’s worth appreciating that it doesn’t sanitise the Great Patriotic War and shows those who fought it as real human beings.

Leaving aside the historical controversies around it, as a war film, 28 Panfilovtsev doesn’t disappoint. I keep saying that it’s a deeply human film, and I say it because it’s true. It isn’t glossy or CGI-laden or glamorous; and there are no superstars to be seen among the cast. Mostly, 28 Panfilovtsev is a film about 28 ordinary men just fighting stubbornly just to stay alive, and finding as they do so that there is indeed a real courage and a real heroism to be had – one running deeper than any platitude or slogan.

Memorial to Panfilov’s 28 Guardsmen in Almaty

15 November 2019

Holy Hierarch Malo, Bishop of Aleth

Saint Malo of Aleth

Today in the Orthodox Church we venerate Saint Malo, a sixth-century companion of Saint Brendan and one of the seven major saints of Brittany, with a particular love of animals both wild and tame. A Welshman by birth, Saint Malo exemplifies much of the mendicant nature of many of the Welsh hermits and holy men.

Malo [also Macloù or Maelog] was born probably around the year 520 in Caerwent, Glamorgan. It is thought that his name derives from the Old Breton mach, meaning ‘hostage’, and lou, meaning ‘bright’. The Brythonic name Malo would therefore be cognate with the English name Gilbert (from OE gísl ‘hostage’ and beorht ‘bright’). As an aside: an Anglophone Orthodox child named Gilbert could therefore with good grounds take Malo as his patron.

As tradition holds, Malo was baptised by Saint Brendan the Navigator as a child. He was said to have become Brendan’s favourite disciple, and specially chosen to make the famous journey from Llancarfon to find the Isle of the Blessed. Malo also accompanied Brendan on his second voyage to Île de Cézembre in Brittany, where both Brendan and Malo stayed for some time.

At Cézembre, where the tides rise and fall dangerously, Malo once fell asleep on a sandbar at low tide. He was missed by Saint Brendan and his fellow pupils, who called for him everywhere even as the tide began to come in. Finding him nowhere, his fellows believed him to have drowned. However, wondrously, the sandbar rose with the tides so that it was never swallowed up by the waves, and Malo stayed alive and dry atop it. Brendan found him thus at high tide, and marvelled. Malo awoke; and desiring to pray the offices he asked his master to throw him his Psalter. In a spirit of faithful awe, Brendan flung the book into the waves, and the Psalter washed up on Malo’s sandbar, dry and usable. During this time they encountered a dead giant named Maclovius, whom Brendan revived by his prayers, and then baptised before allowing the giant to return to the grave.

The other disciples of Brendan were jealous of Malo’s meek and holy nature, and they played pranks on him. For example, one of them extinguished every lamp and brazier in the monastery while it was Malo’s turn to keep vigil. Looking about in the dark for a source of light, Malo took some cold cinders from the hearth and held them to his chest. Warmed by his faith, the embers took glow again, and he used them for light throughout the night.

Brendan eventually returned to voyaging, and ended up in mission in the Orkneys. Malo, however, stood behind, having been told by an angel of God that he was meant to stay there. Malo took up residence with a Breton hermit named Eran of Aleth [also Aaron], and became one of his trusted disciples. After Saint Eran’s repose in the Lord on the twenty-second of June, 544, Malo took up his eremitical residence and the same disciplines that he had learnt from Saint Eran. He was consecrated as Bishop of Aleth, and the region was soon to be called for him: Saint-Malo.

A number of wonders were performed by Saint Malo at Aleth. On one occasion he blessed a cup wrought from marble, and it changed into crystal. On another occasion, a hot-tempered Breton princeling kidnaped a disciple of Saint Malo who prepared him food, bound him hand and foot and cast him into the sands at low tide. When the tides rose, the waters formed a funnel around the poor monk’s head so that he could breathe until they went out again. On another occasion, a peasant woman complained to Saint Malo that a wolf had taken and eaten her ass. Saint Malo found this wolf and made it tamely carry bundles of wood on its back for the woman.

Saint Malo wrought several other wonders involving animals. In one, he lay his cloak aside as he was working in the vineyards, for he was sweaty and hot with the labour. He returned and found that a wren had laid her eggs on his cloak. Feeling pity on the birds and loath to spoil their nest, he let his cloak lie on the ground until the wren’s eggs had hatched and the hatchlings were able to fly. In the whole time that this happened, not once was the cloak wet with rain, and Saint Malo picked it up completely unspoilt.

On another occasion, Saint Malo was wandering in Brittany to preach the Gospel, and heard the sound of a man grieving loudly. It was a swineherd, one of whose breeding sows got unruly and had trodden into his neighbour’s fields to eat the grain. The swineherd had picked up a stone and flung it at the sow, but he had aimed a little too well and cast a little too hard, for the stone struck the sow on the head and she died. Her piglets all gathered around her but she was no longer producing milk. The swineherd was mourning both the sow and her hungry piglets. Saint Malo, moved himself to tears of pity, took his crozier and lay it on the sow’s ear where the stone had struck and said a prayer to the Holy Trinity. And at that touch, up came the sow as though she had only been sleeping – much to the joy of her herdsman.

Again, the Welsh hermits did not always get along well with the princes they lived under, and Saint Malo was no exception. The prince reigning in Aleth swayed the people against him, and drove him out, even though by then he was an old man. Malo took refuge at Saintes in Poitou-Charentes in France, and was greeted warmly by the bishop there. He stayed until the people urged him to come back to Aleth. He did not stay at Aleth long, however. Sensing that his end was near, he repaired back to Archingeay in Saintes with a handful of his closest monastic disciples, where he reposed peacefully in the Lord on the fifteenth of November, 621. He had a devoted cultus in both England – particularly Devon and Cornwall – and Brittany and Poitou in France.

The tale of how his relics wound up again in Saint-Malo from Saintes is just too good to let pass unmarked. A certain Breton heir of an estate near Aleth was obliged to flee his home sometime in the late 600s, as his brothers were conspiring to kill him and divide the inheritance between them. He was welcomed in by the sacristan at the church in Archingeay, and took sanctuary there for some time. After some years, feeling himself safe to return, this Breton lad went to the Bishop of Aleth and told him that the relics of Saint Malo were but lightly guarded. The bishop bade the lad return to Archingeay and bide his time for an opportunity to steal them away. The sacristan welcomed the boy back as before. The boy earned enough of the sacristan’s trust that he was given the keys when on one occasion the sacristan was called away. He stole the relics of Saint Malo and whisked them off to Brittany, where he was received with a hero’s welcome. The lad took confession for the theft, but the bishop was all too glad to have Saint Malo’s relics back. They were divided between the cathedral at Saint-Malo and the monastery of Eran of Aleth. There they remained until the French Revolution, during which most of the relics were destroyed. A scapular of Saint Malo remains in Versailles. Holy bishop Malo, pray unto Christ our God for us!
Thy life, O Father Malo,
Was resplendent with many virtues.
As thou wast unwavering in thy faith to thy last breath, O Saint,
Pray that we may emulate thy virtues
And thereby be found worthy of eternal salvation.

Saint Malo Cathedral, Brittany

14 November 2019

Holy Hierarch Dyfrig of Wales

Saint Dyfrig of Erging

In the Orthodox Church today we celebrate the sixth-century Saint Dyfrig [i.e. Dubricius or Devereux], a British – that is to say, Welsh – bishop and evangelist who worked in what are now the shires of Hereford, Gloucester and Pembroke in southwest England and southeast Wales. His story is first found in the Norman-era Book of Llandaff, and probably contains a few embellishments given the distance in time between the events it accounts and its publication. However, given his attestation in the earlier Welsh hagiographies of, for example, Saint Samson, his existence and the broad contours of his life may be considered historical fact.

Dyfrig was born to an unwed mother, Efrddyl, the daughter of Peibio Clafrog, King of Erging by an unnamed daughter of Saint Custennin – who suffered from a skin ailment thought to be leprosy. When the king returned one day from a battle, he ordered his daughter to wash his head. As his head was near her belly, he found he could hear two heartbeats. The king became enraged, and ordered his daughter to be tied in a sack and drowned in the River Wye as punishment for fornication. She survived this attempted execution, and so the king ordered her to be burned at the stake. However, this too she survived, and when king went the next day to retrieve her ashes he beheld her, alive and whole, atop the burnt-out pyre nursing her newborn child. The place where this happened is now called Chilstone (that is, ‘Child’s Stone’) in Madley.

Fearing this marvel of God against his own cruelty, Peibio ordered them to be set free. Efrddyl brought her newborn to kiss his grandfather, and again wondrously at the touch of the infant’s lips upon his cheek, Peibio was cured of his skin disease. The hardened heart of the king was touched, and he grew to love the young Dyfrig as befit the feelings of a grandsire for his grandson. When the young boy came of age, the king gave to Dyfrig the whole of that territory, which he had named for his daughter – Ynys Efrddyl.

As a child, Dyfrig was hailed for his formidable intellect and his diligent habits of study, and it was no surprise to anyone that he chose for himself the monastic life. He founded two monasteries: the first at Henllan (now Hentland in Hereford), and the second seven years after, in Moccas. These two monasteries were noted for their vast libraries and, eventually, as places of towering scholastic accomplishment. It was here that the flower of the mediæval Celtic sainthood were largely taught – including, notably, Saint Teilo of Carmarthen and Saint Samson of Dol, whom Saint Dyfrig later anointed as bishop.

Abbot Dyfrig was soon elected bishop in the Celtic tradition over Erging, and later over the westward sees of Gwent and Glywysing (what would later become the shire of Monmouth). Tradition has it that he was elevated to Archbishop of Wales by Saint Germain of Auxerre, and in that office was the one who consecrated Saint Deiniol Bishop of Bangor Fawr. A still more far-fetched legend has it that he was the one who anointed King Arthur. Saint Dyfrig was close friends with Saint Dewi and also Saint Cadog Ddoeth.

Saint Dyfrig was a great opponent of the hæretical doctrines of his fellow Welshman Pelagius, and went to the Synod of Llandewi Brefi in order to condemn them, along with Saint Deiniol. The two of them called upon Saint Dewi and asked him to attend as well, and eventually he did so. At the Synod, it was in fact Dewi who gave such stirring, bardic arguments against Pelagianism. Dyfrig, in fact, was moved to relinquish his see and bestow it upon Dewi, for his steadfast and heartfelt love of Christ’s truth. Dewi took up residence at Mynyw while Dyfrig spent his last years on the Isle of Bardsey as a simple monk in the Abbey there. He reposed peacefully in the Lord on the fourteenth of November, probably sometime around the year 550. Holy Hierarch Dyfrig, pray unto Christ our God for us sinners!
Thou art worthily honoured as father of Welsh monasticism, O Hierarch Dyfrig,
Labouring to establish true asceticism with thy brother in the Faith, Samson of Dol
Whom thou didst raise to the dignity of the episcopate.
In thy pastoral love, O Saint,
Pray for us that despite our unspiritual lives
Christ our God will grant us great mercy.