29 February 2020

Venerable Barsanuphius the Hermit, Archbishop of Damascus

Another leap-day saint! Keeping Abba Cassian and Ósweald of Worcester company on the calendar today is a Palestinian monk who was in his life both bishop and hermit: Saint Barsanuphius of Damascus and Nitria. The Prologue of Ohrid contains the following treatment of this Palestinian saint for the twenty-ninth of February, who actually took the attitude of nolo efiscofari to extremes:
Barsanuphius was born a pagan in Palestine and was baptised in his eighteenth year and immediately was tonsured a monk taking the name of John. When he became known for his virtuous life, Barsanuphius was elected archbishop of Damascus. He did not remain long at this position. Yearning for the reclusive, ascetically spiritual lfie, he secretly left Damascus and went to the wilderness of Nitria. Here, he presented himself as the monk Barsanuphius and immediately was assigned, as an obedience, to be a water-carrier for the monastery. The former archbishop accepts his obedience with joy. With his wise reflections, meekness and diligence, Barsanuphius soon became a model example to all the monks. Only before his death was it revealed to the monks who this Barsanuphius was. Thus this saint, by his example, served as a reproach to the proud and power-loving and as a comfort to the humble and meek. He died peacefully and took up habitation with the Lord in the year 457 AD.
Venerable Barsanuphius, exemplary archbishop who embodied true humility, pray unto Christ our God on behalf of us sinners!

28 February 2020

Venerables Mârânnâ and Kayrâ, Anchoresses of Aleppo

Saints Mârânnâ and Kayrâ of Aleppo
القدّيستان البارّتان مارانّا وكيرا الحلبيتان

And now at last we come to those holy women remembered with great fondness today in the Orthodox calendar, the Aleppine virgin-ascetics Saints Mârânna and Kayrâ who were known to Bishop Theodoret of Kyrrhos. Mârânnâ [Gk. Μαράνα, Ar. Mârânnâ مارانّا] and Kayrâ [Gk. Κύρα, Ar. Kayrâ كيرا] were Syrian sisters of noble stock from what was then called Berœa but which is now modern Aleppo ﺣَﻠَﺐ. They gave up everything to follow Christ, and lived in conditions of great austerity. They made two pilgrimages in their lifetime – one to Jerusalem and one to the Shrine of Saint Thekla. Here is what Blessed Theodoret has to say about these wonderful ascetic women:
After recording the way of life of the heroic men, I think it useful to treat also of women who have contended no less if not more; for they are worthy of still greater praise, when, despite having a weaker nature, they display the same zeal as the men and free their sex from its ancestral disgrace.

At this point I shall treat of Marana and Cyra, who have defeated all the others in the contests of endurance. Their fatherland was Berœa, their stock the glory of their fatherland, and their upbringing appropriate for their stock. But despising all these, they acquired a small place in front of the town, and entering within it, walled up the door with clay and stones. For their maidservants who were eager to share this life with them they built a small dwelling outside this enclosure, and in this they told them to live. Through a small window they keep watch on what they are doing, and repeatedly rouse them to prayer and inflame them with divine love. They themselves, with neither house nor hut, embrace the open-air life.

In place of a door a small window has been constructed for them, through which they take in the food they need and talk with the women who come to see them. For this intercourse the season of Pentecost has been laid down; during the rest of the time they embrace the quiet life. And it is Marana alone who talks to visitors; no one has ever heard the other one speak.

They wear iron, and carry such a weight that Cyra, with her weaker body, is bent down to the ground and is quite unable to straighten her body. They wear mantles so big as to trail along behind and literally cover their feet and in front to fall down right to the belt, literally hiding at the same time face, neck, chest and hands.

I have often been inside the door in order to see them, for out of respect for the episcopal office they have bidden me dig through the door. And so I have seen that weight of iron which even a well-built man could not carry. After long entreaty I succeeded in getting it off them for the nonce, but after our departure they again put it on their limbs – round the neck the collar, round the waist the belt, and on hands and feet the chains assigned to them.

In this mode of life they have completed not merely five or ten or fifteen years, but forty-two; and despite having contended for so long a time, they love their exertion as if they had only just entered on the contests. For contemplating the beauty of the Bridegroom, they bear the labour of the course with ease and facility, and press on to reach the goal of the contests, where they see the Beloved standing and pointing to the crown of victory. Because of this, in suffering the assaults of rain and snow and sun they feel neither pain nor distress but from apparent afflictions reap joy of heart.

Emulating the fast of the inspired Moses, they have three times spent the same length of time without food, for it was at the end of forty days that they took a little nourishment. Three times also have they emulated the abstinence from eating of the godly Daniel, completing three weeks and only then supplying nourishment to the body. On one occasion, out of a desire to behold the sacred places of the saving sufferings of Christ, they hastened to Ælia, enjoying no nutriment on the way. It was after reaching that city and accomplishing their worship that they took nourishment, and then returning back completed the journey without food – and there are not less than twenty stages. Conceiving a desire to behold as well the shrine of the triumphant Thekla in Isauria, in order from all sources to kindle the firebrand of their love for God, they journeyed both there and back without food – to such a degree has divine yearning driven them to frenzy, so much has divine love for the Bridegroom driven them mad. Since by such a way of life they have adorned the female sex, becoming as models for other women, they will be crowned by the Master with the wreaths of victory. I myself, having displayed the benefit therefrom and culled their blessing, shall pass on to another account.
Saint Mârânnâ and her silent sister Saint Kayrâ reposed in the Lord around the year 450, and they are still remembered with great fondness in the Church of Antioch. Holy sisters and wondrous ascetics Mârânnâ and Kayrâ, joyful undertakers of austerity and wayfarers of great faith in the holy places, pray unto Christ our God that our souls may be saved!

Venerable Thalelaios ‘the Lamenter’, Hermit of Jablah

Saint Thalelaios of Jablah
القديس ثاليلايوس الجبلي

I did forewarn you, gentle readers, that I was going to get good use out of Blessed Theodoret’s book! I’ve already used it for one blog post today and I am going to use him for another two, as well as (in this case) The Spiritual Meadow by Saint John Moskhos. For today is the feast day of Thalelaios, a great and holy hermit who lived about two miles away from Jablah جبلة – now a majority-Alawite town and loyalist stronghold of the ’Asad family which suffered terrorist bombings during the Civil War, near Latakia اللاذقية in Syria – who is mentioned in both works.

Saint Thalelaios [Gk. Θαλέλαιος Επίκλαυτος = ‘the Lamenter’, L. Thalelæus] was born in the region of Cilicia in Asia Minor. The relevant passage from John Moskhos’s religious travelogue describes him in the following way:
Abba Peter, priest of the same lavra [of Sabbas], told us that Abba Thalelaios the Cilician spent sixty years in the monastic life and never once stopped weeping. He would always say: ‘God gave us this time for repentance; it is indeed for Him that we must seek.’
Saint Thalelaios is also commemorated at length in Bishop Theodoret’s work, the Bishop having beheld and spoken with the holy hermit himself while he was still alive. Here is what he has to say about Saint Thalelaios:
Nor shall I be silent about the story of Thalelæus; for the spectacle is full of wonder, and not only have I heard the accounts of others but have myself been an eyewitness of the extraordinary spectacle. At twenty stades from Gabala – it is a small and charming city – he repaired to a hill on which there was a precinct dedicated to demons and honoured with many sacrifices by the impious of old. Here he pitched a small hut. They always served those miscreants, they said, in an attempt to appease by service their great cruelty, for they caused harm to many passing by or of the neighbourhood, not only men but also asses and mules, oxen and sheep, not making war on irrational animals but by means of them plotting against men. On this occasion, when they saw him arrive, they tried to frighten him, but were unable to do so, since faith fenced him round and grace fought on his behalf. Therefore, filled with rage and frenzy, they proceeded against the trees planted there – there happened to be many flourishing fig and olive trees on this hill. They say that more than five hundred of these were suddenly uprooted; I heard this recounted by the neighbouring peasants, who were formerly engulfed by the darkness of impiety but received through his teaching and miracle-working the light of the knowledge of God.

Since even by doing this the wicked demons had failed to frighten the athlete of philosophy, they again applied other devices. By wailing and displaying torches at night, they tried to terrify him and instil confusion in his thought. But when he laughed at all their assaults, they afterwards left him and fled away.

Making two wheels of two cubits in diameter, he joined both wheels together with planks not fitted to each other but separated apart. Then seating himself inside and fixing these separated planks firmly with bolts and nails, he hung the wheel up in the air. Fixing three other tall wooden stakes in the ground and connecting their upper ends with other pieces of wood, he fastened the double wheel in the midst of them and raised it up, the inside of the wheel having a height of two cubits and a breadth of a cubit. Sitting or rather suspended in this, he has spent ten years up till now. Since he has a very big body, not even sitting can he straighten his neck, but he always sits bent double, with his forehead tightly pressed against his knees.

On coming to see him, I found him reaping the benefit of the divine Gospels, gathering benefit therefrom with extreme concentration. I questioned him, out of desire to learn the reason for this novel mode of life. He replied to me in Greek, for he happens to be Cilician in race: ‘Burdened,’ he said, ‘with many sins and believing in the penalties that are threatened, I have devised this form of life, contriving moderate punishments for the body, in order to reduce the mass of those awaited. For the latter are more grievous not only in quantity but also in quality; for they are involuntary, and what happens against our will is particularly disagreeable, while what is voluntary, even if wearisome, is less painful—for my labour is self-chosen and not compulsory. So if (he concluded) by these slight afflictions I lessen those awaited, great is the profit I shall derive therefrom.’ Hearing this, I was overwhelmed with admiration for his shrewdness, because he not only contended beyond the course laid down and devised other contests of his own will, but also knew the reason for them and taught it to others.

The local inhabitants have declared that many miracles occur through his prayer, with not only men but also camels, asses, and mules enjoying healing. In consequence, all this people, formerly in the grip of impiety, have disowned their ancestral imposture and accepted the splendour of divine light. With their assistance he has demolished the precinct of demons and erected a great shrine to the triumphant martyrs, opposing those falsely called gods to the godly dead. May it be that by their intercession this man too may with the same victory reach the goal of the contests, and that we, aided by both them and him, may become fervent lovers of the contests of philosophy.
With heartfelt prayers let us join our admiration to that of Blessed Theodoret and of Saint John Moskhos today, and ask for the intercessions of Saint Thalelaios the Lamenter. Holy hermit Thalelaios of Jablah, austere champion in the lists against the threats of the demons who avails us with your tears, pray unto Christ our God that our souls may be saved!

Venerables Asklēpios and Iakōbos of Nimouza, near Kyrrhos

Saint Asklēpios of Syria
القديس أسقليبيوس السرياني

Huzzah! My Better World Books copy of the Cistercian Press translation of Blessed Theodoret of Kyrrhos’s A History of the Monks of Syria arrived in the mail today! Yes! And I am going to make very good use out of it, mwahahaha… Ahem. At any rate, yesterday was the Orthodox feast-day of not only Saint Raphael of Brooklyn, but also of three great and holy Syrian monks known to Bishop Theodoret and treated in his book: Thalelaios, Asklēpios and Iakōbos.

Saint Asklēpios [Gk. Ασκληπιός, L. Asclepius, Ar. ‘Asqilîbiyyûs أسقليبيوس] was the spiritual father of Saint Iakōbos [Gk. Ιάκωβος, L. Jacobus or James, Ar. Ya‘qûb يعقوب]. Here is what Blessed Theodoret has to say about the two monks, who lived in the village of Nimouza near Kyrrhos. He mentions them in the same chapter as Saints Zebinas and Polychronios, whose feast day we have observed this week. Here is what he has to say of them in the Religious History:
Of this company is also the wonderful Asclepius, who is ten stades distant but who has keenly embraced the same way of life [as Zebinas and Polychronios]. He has the same food, dress, modesty of character, hospitality, brotherly love, kindness and gentleness, intercourse with God, consummate poverty, abundance of virtue, wealth of philosophy, and all the other things we related concerning that sacred person. He is said, at the time he was numbered with the brethren who inhabit the village, to have embraced the ascetic and disciplined life, and to have derived no harm from mixing with the multitude. Therefore, for having been preeminent in each life, both the social and the eremitical, he will with good reason receive the honour of a double crowning.

Many others also have emulated his virtue; not only ours but also the neighbouring cities and villages are full of this philosophy. One of these is the most divine James, a recluse in a cell at a village called Nimouza, who, though very near the end of life—for he is more than ninety years old—is a solitary recluse, giving replies, without being seen, through a small hole dug slantwise, and neither using fire nor employing lamplight. Twice has he dug through his door and bid me come in, thereby honouring me and showing the affection he has for me. Those who are now alive do not need my account, for they can, if they wish, become the eyewitnesses of the philosophy of these men. As for those to come, who do not share in seeing them, these particulars are sufficient for their benefit, since they show the distinctive character of their philosophy. So concluding at this point my account of these men, and asking in return for the gift of their blessing, I shall proceed to another narrative.
As we can see from Blessed Theodoret’s narrative, the Saints Asklēpios and Iakōbos were deeply admired within their own lifetimes, and we reverence them in ours with the benefit of his work. Holy hermits Asklēpios and Iakōbos of Nimouza, pray unto Christ our God that our souls may be saved!

27 February 2020

Holy Hierarch Raphael, Bishop of Brooklyn

Saint Raphael of Brooklyn
قديس رافائيل من بروكلين‎ال

The twenty-seventh of February is the feast-day of the Syrian-American Orthodox bishop, Saint Raphael of Brooklyn. A man of humble origins, a mighty scholarly mind, a stout Russophile, a caring archpastor – even though he could be a bit rough-and-tumble at times – his was a varied and colourful immigrant life which ought to be celebrated by all Americans. Not just Syrian-Americans, not just New Yorkers and not just Orthodox.

Those of you who follow me on social media may recognise my Facebook intro blurb: ‘English-Jewish-American by birth, Chinese by education, Russian by jurisdiction, Arab at heart.’ This is a shameless and shanzhai pastiche of a quote from our saintly hierarch of today’s feast, who when describing himself said: ‘I am an Arab by birth, a Greek by primary education, an American by residence, a Russian at heart, and a Slav in soul.’ The fact is that Saint Raphael’s life and works are in all too many ways emblematic of the contradictory and fragmentary experiences, at once highly-cosmopolitan and highly-localised, that seem to accompany not only cradle Orthodox in the Americas but also those of the converts who come to them.

Saint Raphael Hawaweeny [Ar. Rufâ’îl Hawâwînî رفائيل هواويني‎] was born in 1860 in Beirut, in the semi-autonomous Druze Emirate of Mount Lebanon, to Damascene Syrian Arab parents. His birth date is unknown, but it is thought to be close to his name-day on the eighth of November. Mîkâ’îl and Maryam Hawâwînî were at that time fleeing a brutal massacre of Shî‘ites and Christians by Druze and Sunnî sectarians in Damascus – the same in which Saint Yûsif was martyred. Saint Raphael’s birth thus seems to have reflected the birth, the persecution and the flight into Ægypt of the Lord he was to serve with devotion in his later life. His parents returned from their Lebanese refuge to their home the following year.

Raphael was a serious and clever student, as proven in his elementary education. It must be remembered that at this time in the Ottoman Empire, there was no such thing as sæcular public education; each millet (religious community) was responsible for providing educational services to its own group – Muslims for Muslims, Christians for Christians, Jews for Jews. But Raphael’s parents, being poor, were not able to afford the tuition to send him to a university by the time he graduated primary school in 1874. Thankfully, the local deacon Athanasios ‘Atallâh had noticed the newly-tonsured reader Raphael’s intellectual acuity and natural curiosity, and applied to Patriarch Ierótheos of Antioch to have him invited to the Œcumenical Patriarchate seminary on Halki. Raphael worked as a schoolteacher himself in Damascus, and was tonsured a monk, before he was accepted at the Theological School of Halki in 1879.

His graduate thesis, handwritten in Greek and translated into English by Fr Patrick Viscuso along with some accompanying commentary, was The True Significance of Sacred Tradition and Its Great Worth. This document is a remarkable piece of scholarship. It’s primarily meant as an apologetic for Orthodoxy over-against the aggressive missionary claims of Roman Catholicism and Protestantism – in the context of nineteenth-century colonialism by the Western great powers in the Middle East, let it be understood. It is carefully argued and draws upon a healthy admixture of classical Christian authorities from both east (Origen, Sozomen, Basil, Gregory, John, Clement, Cyril, Dionysius, Eusebius) and west (Jerome, Tertullian, Augustine, Vincent of Lérins, Ambrose). Even so, this apologetics exercise seems to have been something of a foreshadowing of his future career and some of the conflicts it would bring.

He was ordained as a deacon, either while at Halki or shortly afterwards, and returned to his native Syria in 1886. He grew close to the new Patriarch of Antioch, Gerasimos, who took him with him on his travels around Syria, to visit the parishes under his see in the millet system. When the Patriarch himself could not be present, he would send Deacon Raphael in his place to preach the Gospel and to attend to the needs of the Syrian Christians. He was offered, and accepted, a scholarship at the Theological Academy in Kiev, Russia, where he enrolled as a student. He was ordained a priest in 1889.

Here he became involved at the intersection of sæcular politics with the life of the Church in Antioch, strongly taking the side of Arab nationalist sentiment in its embryonic stage. Deacon Raphael’s beloved elder in the Church, Patriarch Gerasimos, resigned his see as Patriarch of Antioch to serve instead as Patriarch of Jerusalem. The man who took his place, unfortunately, was Patriarch Spyridon Euthymiou – a Greek Cypriot whose appointment from Constantinople in 1891 was met in Antioch with justifiable outrage, both because that appointment was made ‘over the heads’ of the Antiochian bishops, and because there were several financial ‘irregularities’ in which Patriarch Spyridon was personally involved that inevitably caused problems for the Antiochian Church’s reputation. Saint Raphael’s voice was one of the strongest against Patriarch Spyridon’s appointment, and he was disciplined with suspension from his priestly functions when he refused to commemorate him in the diptychs.

Saint Raphael met his suspension with equanimity, but continued to publish articles in the Russian press agitating for Patriarch Spyridon’s replacement and arguing for the election of a local bishop in his place. When the Russian state was convinced to crack down on his editorials, he began publishing his defences of Antioch in book form – including a book on the Brotherhood of the Holy Sepulchre (of which Patriarch Spyridon was a member). Patriarch Spyridon continued to pressure the Russian government to silence Saint Raphael, but the two men were reconciled grudgingly thanks to the efforts of the assistant Oberprokurator of the Russian Synod, and Saint Raphael was allowed to transfer to the Russian Church.

Saint Raphael was transferred from Kiev to New York in 1895, in response to a request from the Syrian Orthodox Benevolent Society of New York for a priest who understood Arabic. He arrived in New York on the second of November in that year, and assisted Bishop Nicholas in celebrating the Divine Liturgy at the Russian Church there three days later, on his first Sunday in America. For the Syrian Arab parishioners he managed to find a suitable second-storey space on Washington Street in lower Manhattan, and convert it into an Orthodox chapel. He had brought with him several blessed items, including a cross and altarcloth, from Russia which could be put to use in the Liturgy, and so he did. Saint Raphael embarked on pastoral visits to thirty cities and a plethora of smaller towns in his first three years in America – being a good shepherd, he would not leave one sheep gone astray – but much of his time was spent among the Syrian Arab community in New York.

In 1897 Fr Raphael published a hefty ‘five-pounder’ book in Arabic, The Book of True Consolation in the Divine Prayers for use in the churches serving Syrian Orthodox. An updated version of this book is still in use in the Antiochian Church. That same year, Bishop Nicholas was replaced by a broad-minded and patient Russian, Bishop Tikhon (Bellavin), who developed a good working relationship and a fast friendship with Fr Raphael. He was sent on a peace-brokering mission to end a sectarian feud in the Arab community in Johnstown, PA, when word reached him by telegraph of the election of Patriarch Meletios (Dûmâni) to the Patriarchate of Antioch. Saint Raphael rejoiced – for the first time in 168 years, he told his people, an Arab had been chosen to lead the Antiochian Church!

Patriarch Meletios was known to Fr Raphael from when he was Bishop of Latakia; for he had been one of the people to sponsor his education at the Theological School at Halki. The two of them were on good terms, and soon after his election Meletios invited Saint Raphael to return to the Middle East and take up a position as an auxiliary Bishop in Beirut. Later Patriarch Meletios would renew the invitation, having named him honorary Bishop of Zahleh. However, Saint Raphael politely declined both times, on the grounds that his American immigrant flock needed him more. Saint Raphael bought a section of Mount Olivet cemetery on Long Island to be used for Orthodox Church funerals in 1901, and found the means to purchase and remodel an existing church building in Brooklyn on Pacific Street, for the Arab Christian community which was growing rapidly there. Saint Tikhon consecrated the grounds, to the great joy of the Arab Orthodox faithful. Shortly after this, at the request of Saint Tikhon, Raphael himself was named by the Russian Synod as Bishop of Brooklyn in Great Lent of 1904 – the first Orthodox bishop to be consecrated on American soil.

Bishop Raphael took care of the needs of his people in other ways, as well. He was closely associated with a politically pro-labour and pro-immigrant rights weekly Arabic-language newspaper for New Yorkers, Mirât al-Gharb (مرآة الغرب, Western Mirror) founded by Najîb Mûsâ Diyâb in 1899. But in 1905 he personally started a monthly journal al-Kalima (الكلمة, The Word), which had a more religious focus. His intention in starting this journal was to reach not only the people within his immediate environment in the United States, but to witness the Gospel of Christ to people whom he would never meet in person.

At this point in America’s history, Syrian Arab immigrants were largely poor, and largely came from peasant backgrounds. Many of them had become poor because they had destroyed their food crops to plant mulberry trees for sericulture, but when the Ottoman silk trade dried up many of them were left destitute and hungry. These people ended up coming to New York often with nothing to their names. The Syrians of New York often found work as street pedlars, and capitalised on an American fascination with the Middle East to help them find and expand their businesses. Americans were not particularly hostile to the new Syrian arrivals, but neither was their experience of the tussle of New York always positive. There were occasional street fights between Syrians and Irish immigrants in particular. And within the Arab community there were sectarian differences that blew up into violent outbursts.

One of these involved a gunfight which started as a war of editorials between the above-mentioned Orthodox paper Mirât al-Gharb and the Maronite paper al-Hudâ (الهدى, The Guide), edited by the liberal Francophile Na‘ûm Mûkarzil. In the late summer months of 1905, al-Hudâ had begun publishing an escalating string of calumnious attacks on Mirât al-Gharb, its editor Mr Diyâb, and the Orthodox community in general; Mirât responded in kind. When Saint Raphael himself took to print in Mirât al-Gharb in an attempt to defuse the situation, Mûkarzil turned his poison pen on the bishop himself. The libellous Lebanese accused Saint Raphael of, among other things: aggrandising himself above Russian nobility; calling for physical violence; subscribing to the Donatist hæresy; drinking and gambling. Needless to say, the Orthodox were not particularly pleased with this treatment of their bishop, and Saint Raphael had to restrain them from taking reprisals, telling them that he had forgiven Mûkarzil for his libels and they should do the same.

But Mûkarzil and his followers were not interested in peace. Street scuffles between Orthodox and Maronite Syrians occurred in August, and in early September an Orthodox man named Niqûlâ ‘Abû Samrah was attacked and beaten by two club-wielding Maronites as he boarded a ferry. Laid up at home, Saint Raphael and some dozen Orthodox parishioners – some armed – went to visit ‘Abû Samrah at his home on Pacific Street. To do so they went out in front of the house of Na‘ûm Mûkarzil, who had some of his friends over to stay – some armed.

What happened next becomes muddied because the journalistic accounts vary widely in the sequence and timing of events. But it is clear that a pitched shootout erupted between Saint Raphael’s party and Mûkarzil’s party. Twenty shots at least were fired, but no one was hurt. The police rushed to the scene and gave chase to the combatants, and a certain Irish police officer named Mallon arrested Bishop Raphael and accused him in court of brandishing a Smith & Wesson revolver at him. For his part, Bishop Raphael claimed he never carried a gun. Eventually Bishop Raphael was exonerated, though bad blood continued to exist between the Maronites and the Orthodox for some time afterward.

Saint Raphael became acquainted with many of the clergy active in the Metropolia at the time, including Fr Alexis (Tovt), Fr Alexander (Hotovitskii) and Fr John (Kochurov) – all of whom would become saints. He paid particular attention in his archpastoral ministry to children. The Syrian Arab community had become accustomed of long practice under the Ottomans to assimilating to the dominant cultural force, and that did not change with their passage across the Mediterranean and Atlantic. Syrian parents were eager to raise their children to speak English fluently, and as a result they were attending sæcular schools and losing their Orthodox formation. Saint Raphael advocated strongly for English-language church school programmes and Liturgical formation in the English language. He supported the use of Isabel Florence Hapgood’s translation of the Service Book in Divine Liturgy.

Saint Raphael’s habitual modesty was evident in one incident which happened on the Sunday of Orthodoxy in 1911. He was honoured by the Russian Bishop Platon for his fifteen years of service as a bishop in the Americas, and was gifted with a silver icon of the Saviour for his efforts. For his own part he failed to understand why he should be honoured merely for doing what was due from him, and he made no claim to any extraordinary gifts. He considered himself an ‘unworthy servant’, and yet of the lot which fell to him he left no part unfulfilled.

In 1912 Bishop Raphael was diagnosed with a chronic illness of the heart which would eventually claim his life, but he took no ease in his labours despite it. He celebrated the Liturgy two weeks after being released from the hospital, and in the three years which followed continued to visit Orthodox parishes in cities throughout the United States. He fell ill again in February of 1915 and spent the last two weeks of his life at his home in Brooklyn, bearing his illness with patience. He reposed in the Lord on the twenty-seventh of that month.

Saint Raphael was not a wonderworker in life, nor a clairvoyant – unless one counts (and one should be justified in doing so) those small everyday wonders that accompany a man of great patience and compassion and humility. But he had a keen mind and an open heart which won him many friends and admirers, and his extraordinary love was assuredly of the sort which goes in search of the one lost sheep or the one lost coin of Christ’s parables. Holy hierarch Raphael, faithful servant of Christ’s Church in New York and throughout North America, pray unto Christ our God that our souls may be saved!
Apolytikion of Saint Raphael of Brooklyn, Tone 3:

Rejoice, O Father Raphael, Adornment of the holy Church!
Thou art Champion of the True Faith, Seeker of the lost,
Consolation of the oppressed, Father to orphans, and Friend of the poor,
Peacemaker and Good Shepherd, Joy of all the Orthodox,
Son of Antioch, Boast of America;
Intercede with Christ God for us and for all who honour thee.

23 February 2020

Venerables John, Antiochos, Antōninos, Moses, Zebinas, Polychronios and Damianos, Ascetics of the Syrian Desert near Kyrrhos

The Syrian desert

Today, the twenty-third of February and the Sunday of the Last Judgement, is the collective feast-day in the Orthodox Church for all the Syrian desert ascetics who were disciples of Saints Marûn the Hermit and Limnaios at their open-air mountain hermitage. Among these are named: Saint John the Ascetic, disciple of Thalassios and Limnaios; Saint Antiochos and Saint Antōninos, disciples of John the Ascetic; Saint Zebinas the Elder; Saint Polychronios the disciple of Saint Zebinas; Saint Moses the disciple of Polychronios; and Saint Damianos the Ascetic of Ieros.

Saint John the Ascetic [Gk. Ιωάννης, Ar. Yûhannâ يوحنا] was a disciple of Saint Limnaios. Here is what the Orthodox Church in America has to say about him:
Saint John, disciple of Saint Limnaeus (February 22), lived in Syria in the fifth century, and chose for himself the ascetic struggle of “a shelterless life.” He settled on a hill, sheltered from the wind on all sides, and lived there for twenty-five years. He ate only bread and salt, and he exhausted his body under heavy chains. When one of the nearby ascetics planted an almond tree on the hill so that Saint John could enjoy its shade and get out of the vicious heat, the saint told him to cut it down. This he did in order to deny his body any respite.
Speaking of him, Theodoret writes: ‘John too has keenly embraced this mode of life, a man conspicuous, in addition to other virtues, for gentleness and kindness’ as his spiritual father was. So advanced did he become in the ascetic struggles that Theodoret says: ‘He was so raised above all human things that he reaps no comfort from them.’ Further, he says of John along with his spiritual predecessors Saints Thalassios and Limnaios:
They have the same dress, food, standing posture, prayer, labors all night and all day; neither length of time nor old age nor physical weakness overcome their endurance, but they preserve in themselves love of labor in full bloom. God, the Umpire of virtue, has very many other contestants in our mountains and plains; it would not be easy merely to number them, let alone record the life of each one.
Saints Antiochos [Gk. Ἀντίοχος, Ar. ‘Anṭiyyûẖûs أنطيوخوس] and Antōninos [Gk. Αντωνίνος, Ar. ‘Anṭûniyyûs أنطونيوس], as the OCA says, ‘also lived in asceticism with Saint John. They continued their ascetical struggles until they reached an advanced age, offering an example of spiritual strength, and overcoming every obstacle.

Saint Zebinas [Gk. Ζεβινάς] was the spiritual father of Saints Polychronios and Moses. Here is what the Orthodox Church in America has to say about him:
Saint Zebinas lived in Syria during the fifth century. He lived an ascetical life on the same mountain as Saint Moses. He never sat down during his Rule of prayer, but sometimes he leaned on his staff. The neighboring inhabitants venerated Saint Zebinas, and they received great help in their sorrows and needs through his prayers.

He reached a great old age, then departed to the Lord.
Saint Polychronios [Gk. Πολυχρόνιος] was the spiritual son of Saint Zebinas and lived in the same place. Here is what the OCA says about Saint Polychronios:
Saint Polychronius lived in Syria in the fifth century. He was the disciple of Saint Zebinas, and imitated the life of his Elder, spending both day and night in fasting and vigil. Saint Polychronius had no chains, but he dug up a heavy oaken root from the earth and carried it on his shoulders when he prayed. Saint Polychronius asked God to send rain during a drought, and he filled up a stone vessel with oil for the needy.
Saint Moses [Gk. Μωυσής] also lived in the same place as Saints Zebinas and Polychronios, and learned from them. Here is what the OCA says about Saint Moses:
Saint Moses lived in Syria in the fifth century. Imitating Saint John, he settled on a high mountain near the village of Rama. He was a disciple of Saint Polychronius, and lived with him. Emulating his Elder in everything, Saint Moses was the very model of an austere ascetical life.

Saint Moses died in Syria in the fifth century.
Saint Damianos [Gk. Δαμιανός] lived in Ieros and was a disciple of Saint John the Ascetic. Here is what the OCA says about Saint Damianos:
Saint Damian lived in Syria in the fifth century. He withdrew to a monastery named Ieros and lived there in asceticism. In his cell he had only a small box of lentils from which he ate.
Holy and wonderful ascetics of the Syrian desert, pray unto Christ our God for our salvation!
Kontakion of the Sunday of the Last Judgement, Tone 7:

When You, O God, shall come to earth with glory,
All things shall tremble
And the river of fire shall flow before Your judgment seat;
The books shall be opened and the hidden things disclosed!
Then deliver me from the unquenchable fire,
And make me worthy to stand at Your right hand, Most Righteous Judge!

22 February 2020

The Throne of Saint Peter at Antioch

Saint Peter

Today is, oddly enough, not only the feast-day of three great Syrian Orthodox ascetics in the Holy Orthodox Church, but also the Roman Catholic feast-day of the Throne of Saint Peter… at Antioch. Hmmm. This deserves to be, if it isn’t one already, an Orthodox feast day as well. Antioch is, after all, indeed one of the five ancient Patriarchal sees, the first at which the disciples were called Christians (Acts 11:26), and one of two founded by the Holy Apostle Peter. Old Rome isn’t quite as unique in that respect as she sometimes pretends to be in her apologetics materials.

I have a particular love for the Church of Antioch, for the simple reason that attending Divine Liturgy at Saint Mary Antiochian Orthodox Church in Pawtucket, Rhode Island in 2009 was one of several fragmentary formative experiences that led me into the Orthodox Church. Witnessing, and receiving, the blessing of Fr Isaac (Crow) and the warm, ebullient hospitality of the multinational layfolk there – Syrian, Lebanese, Armenian, Palestinian, Ethiopian, American convert – was the single factor that turned my cerebral embrace of Nikolai Berdyaev’s religious philosophy into something real, something lived. As a somewhat peregrinating soul, it is true that I may be in an OCA parish now, and it is true that I was received into the Moscow Patriarchate by chrismation. But whenever I go ‘home’ to Rhode Island, my ‘home church’ is Saint Mary’s.

Antioch was an important hub of Christianity in the late Classical world, in part because it was the place where many Christians who came to believe in Christ at Jerusalem fled after the stoning of Saint Stephen the Protomartyr. Because Antioch was also a critical strategic post for the Roman Empire’s military in its perennial wars against Persia, this city also became a site of repeated persecutions of Christians.

The Episcopal See of Antioch was founded by Holy Apostle Peter in 34 AD, and is a solid claimant for being the oldest continuing existing Christian Church in the world. Indeed, the Cave Church of Saint Peter still exists in Antakya. Origen and Eusebios both agree with Saint Luke that Saint Peter was the founder of the Church in Antioch. Peter was promptly cast into prison by the Roman governor shortly after his arrival there, on a charge of corrupting the people. Peter was joined by Holy Apostle Paul, as well as Apostle Barnabas of the Seventy, and they began to preach to the people in Antioch, who were a mixture of Greeks, Hellenised Syrians and Jews.

The first ecclesiological dispute emerged at Antioch over whether or not Gentiles should accept the entirety of Jewish law – particularly circumcision – before being baptised; and also whether Gentiles and Jews should eat separately. Apparently Saint Peter was originally of the opinion that the entirety of the Jewish law ought to be upheld, including circumcision and laws on food cleanliness and table fellowship. Saint Paul, on the other hand, held that the Gentiles who were baptised ought to be held to certain core aspects of the Law, but that the Resurrection of Christ had made a strict adherence to the Jewish Law superfluous. Saint Paul apparently confronted Saint Peter at Antioch and the two of them discussed the matter. Guided by Peter, Paul and James the brother of Jesus – each of whom fell on one side of that debate at first – the Church forged a middle path between the extremes of Judaïsation and Hellenisation. But it was this middle path blazed at Antioch, described in Acts 15, which preserved the true radicalism of the message of Christ: it was neither to Jew nor Greek exclusively proclaimed; and it was a message as much for the poor as for the wealthy; and as much for women as for men.

According to Church traditions both East and West, Saint Peter ruled as bishop in Antioch for seven years before he sojourned to Rome and established the Church there in 43 AD. He had left his family in Antioch, and to this day there are still Syrian families with the surname Sem‘ân which claim blood descent from Saint Peter. When the Jews were expelled from Rome under Emperor Claudius in 49 AD, Saint Peter and the small Christian community in Rome shared in their fate. He returned to Antioch in 49 and ruled there temporarily until after Claudius’s death in 54, when he left Antioch in the care of Apostle Euōdias of the Seventy, the second Patriarch of Antioch.

We can see from Peter’s tenure in Antioch several distinct aspects of Antiochian Christianity that will crop up later in the city’s history. I personally have witnessed the multinational character of the Antiochian Church, which is not only Syrian and Lebanese Arabs but also half a dozen other nationalities. So indeed was the city of Antioch when Peter first came there home to many nations. We also see the determination of the Antiochian Church to persevere even under severe persecution. The Christians of the Syrian Arab Republic have indeed persevered under a persecution aided and abetted by the governments of Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and (sadly) the United States. We can see also from Saint Peter’s and Saint Paul’s time, the understanding of Christ as human and a particular instance of humanity, which would come to colour the Antiochian school of exegesis in the fourth to sixth centuries. The question of how Christ Himself would have ministered to the Gentiles as opposed to the Jews was at the forefront of the dispute between Saint Peter and Saint Paul; and the entirety of the Church is the richer for their wrangling about and ultimately coming to an understanding on that question. We can therefore behold in the early Christianity of Antioch a very distinctly localist sensibility, which is at the same time supranational and even cosmopolitan for its insistence on that same locality.

So let us Orthodox Christians, too, spare a request to Saint Peter for his intercessory prayers for us on this day, when the Latins are remembering his stay among the people of Antioch. Holy Apostle Peter, who preached in the place where the disciples were first called Christians, pray unto Christ our God that we may be saved!

Ambassador Chas Freeman, Jr on the legitimacy crisis

Charles W Freeman, Jr

China expert, Sinica Podcast co-host and former heavy metal guitarist of Tang Dynasty Kaiser Kuo posted the transcript of this speech to his social media page, and I think it’s well enough worth reading that I’m writing up a reflection on it here on my own blog. Retired US Ambassador Charles W Freeman, Jr spoke recently to the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University, and what he had to say did not particularly spare any sensibilities.

I’ll preface this by saying that I have disagreements with Ambassador Freeman on several issues – monetary policy most notably. And unfortunately, monetary policy takes up a lot of Freeman’s intellectual bandwidth. Strangely enough, here I tend to out-realist the realist. Money’s primary significance is symbolic, and to a certain extent it doesn’t matter whether money is digital or physical as long as it can handle the four necessary attributes of monetary exchange (of which Freeman acknowledges three). Freeman – like many of our élites, to be fair – overestimates severely both the uses of ‘dollar diplomacy’ and ‘dollar sanctions’, and thus also overestimates the impact de-dollarisation will have on both the American œconomy and foreign ones. Much more important and worrisome, to my way of thinking, is the ‘hollowing-out’ of America’s industrial capacity and productive potential. This difference in our monetary-œconomic views does colour our different approaches some issues downstream, mostly with regard to trade and foreign alliances, but not so many that I fail to appreciate what he gets right.

And Freeman gets a lot right here. The first and most important thing he points out is the arrogant belligerence of the Blob, which has turned its back wholesale on diplomacy and now relies exclusively on ‘taunts, threats, unilateral sanctions, ultimatums, cyberwarfare, drone and missile attacks, assassinations, proxy warfare, military invasions and pacification campaigns’. He points out the exorbitant costs of this machinery for perpetual warfare and the organisation of our œconomy on a permanent war footing. He points out how the Bush-era ‘Global War on Terror’ has not only metastasised into a pretext for overriding any other nation’s sovereignty we choose, to the detriment of our veterans and into the creation of something like a self-fulfilling prophecy, with an almost guaranteed generational blowback from American imperial violence in the Middle East, Africa and elsewhere. Also, without any set conditions for victory or disengagement – yet another Bush-era precedent – we have set all of these military adventures up to fail in the long run.

He points out that we are in a self-engineered crisis of legitimacy among nations which have been our partners in foreign policy for decades. Having forsaken many of our obligations abroad, we are forcing other nations to set up alternative or parallel foreign-policy structures and arrangements in which we have no say. Europeans and East Asians both have grown fed up with American intransigence on Iran, our perfidy and heel-dragging on climate change agreements, and our hypocritical and self-serving policies on arms control.

Very importantly, Ambassador Freeman points out that American foreign policy élites have, going back at least to Clinton and possibly back to Reagan, systematically mistaken private interests and rent-seeking behaviours for the public and national interest. In particular, he’s saying that private military contractors and defence industry concerns are racking up massive profits at the expense of both the American state and – increasingly – foreign states, and that this is putting an intolerable pressure on America’s ability to keep up or even revise its commitments abroad. This is something I have been harping on for years, and it’s a gratifying thing to see an American official spell it out in such stark and plain terms.

Alarmingly, Ambassador Freeman points out that ‘there is now no policy process in Washington capable of considering how to shape the American and global futures’. Congress has irresponsibly, and unconstitutionally, outsourced its authority on foreign policy to various agencies acting under the executive branch – which in turn have become unaccountable and ineffective, on account of their being mere vehicles for career advancement by toeing a certain established political line. I think he might be getting some part of his analysis backwards here, but Freeman describes convincingly how the Blob is functioning. All the while, both the media œcology and our political processes have been fundamentally warped and compromised by plutocracy. In short, Freeman says: American cupidity – in terms of finance, in terms of political capital and in terms of moral consistency – have engineered a global scenario, in which the horizons for future action toward the greater good are prohibitively constrained.

Freeman is also completely unsparing with regard to where the responsibility lies.
The causes and catalysts of the many nasty possibilities before us are, for the most part, decisions made in Washington, not abroad. The rise of China and India and the resurgence of Russia are not irrelevant but hardly central to what is happening. When one creates a strategic vacuum, it’s easier to blame the powers that are sucked into it than oneself.
This is, of course, precisely what is happening now. Russiagate has reared its ugly head again. We are now in the throes of a new ‘Yellow Peril’ panic. And the single candidate on either side of the party line who appears to be receptive to realism is characterised as a Hindu nationalist. All of these incidences – with the American élite class pointing the finger to blame in turn Bernie, Tulsi, Russia, China – are precisely indicative of Freeman’s assertion that there is no real analytical or prescriptive work being done within the ambit of American statecraft and strategy. The fact that a diplomat and statesman of Chas Freeman’s calibre and experience is sidelined in the current political moment, itself has some rather disturbing implications. Our imperial ship of state is on autopilot, and no one is within reach of turning it off. And that should be quite scary.

As to Ambassador Freeman’s conclusion: can American academia summon the fortitude, perspicacity, self-awareness and moral clarity fit to take on the task of speaking actual truth to actual power? I hope so. I really do. But first, it strikes me that academia has to collectively stand up to the political abuses to which it is subject – both on environmental issues and on foreign policy ones. And for American academia to be able to collectively do anything or act with any sort of moral authority, it first has to put a decisive end to the methodologically-individualist and alienating trends of performative wokeness and gender-ideological nonsense that it is currently glutted with, and which are currently detracting from its ability to put forward any kind of consistent moral voice on the issues which really are killing our nation and killing our planet.

Even so, God bless Ambassador Freeman for the work he is doing and for the direction he is trying frantically to point from his perch in the political wilderness. A true patriot, whether his patria acknowledges him or not!

Venerables Thalassios, Limnaios and Baradatos, Hermits of Kyrrhos in Syria

Caves in the Syrian desert

This Soul Saturday, the twenty-second of February, in the Orthodox Church is also the feast-day of three Syrian ascetics, Saints Thalassios, Limnaios and Baradatos. All three men were known personally to Blessed Theodoret of Kyrrhos, who wrote about them in his Religious History. Full disclosure: a lot of my post here will be borrowing from my friend, comrade and fellow-metalhead Fr Deacon Aaron’s blog. He writes at length about Thalassios and Limnaios, and a third hermit John, with particular reliance on Theodoret’s History.

Saint Thalassios [Gk. Θαλάσσιος, ‘of the sea’] was the eldest of these three, and probably a good generation older than Theodoret. Theodoret describes Saint Thalassios as ‘a man adorned with many good qualities, but surpassing the men of his time in simplicity of character, gentleness and modesty of spirit’. Saint Thalassios made his hermit’s cell in a cave in the side of a hill south of the as-yet-unidentified village of Tillima near Kyrrhos in Syria, where Blessed Theodoret visited him. Tillima had once unfortunately been a centre of the hæretical teachings of Marcion, but the presence of holy men such as Thalassios in its midst seems to have had a salutary effect on its spiritual health and cultivation.

He was joined in this cell by a disciple, Saint Limnaios [Gk. Λιμναῖος, ‘of the lake’]. Saint Limnaios was many years younger than his spiritual father Thalassios. ‘At a very young age he entered this wrestling-school and received a fine education in this consummate philosophy,’ writes Blessed Theodoret, where Limnaios ‘received sufficiently the teaching of the godly old man and made himself an impress of his virtue.’ Theodoret describes Limnaios as having imposed upon himself a discipline of total silence, and supposes this was a penance for his having been somewhat overly free with his tongue in his earlier life. Saint Limnaios spent some years with Saint Thalassios but then went off on his own to learn from Saint Marûn.

Similarly to Saint Makedonios Krithophagos and Saint Eusebios of Asikhan, Saint Limnaios when he went out by himself took up residence in a rough stone enclosure with no roof, as Theodoret says he lived in ‘neither house, nor tent, nor cabin’, and had lived this way constantly for thirty-eight years by the time Theodoret wrote his History. He bore illness and infirmity gladly and eased his pains through prayer. He gained a significant reputation as a healer, and was able to heal by faith through the sign of the Cross and through the invocation of the divine Name.

As such, he gained a significant following, and crowds would come to discourse with him and to be healed by him, gathering at the one crack in his stone wall through which he could bless them. Saint Limnaios had a special love for the blind, and he built two huts near his own enclosure for a group of blind beggars who came to him, and he instructed them in singing from the Psalter. Saint Limnaios took care of the blind beggars himself by dividing with them what he had from the generosity of his worldly visitors.

The third Syrian ascetic we commemorate today is much younger than the other two, and apparently has little connexion with them other than his places of origin and struggle. Saint Baradatos [Gk. Βαραδάτος, apparently a Semitic name deriving from the toponym Nahr Baradâ نهر بردى‎, the main river running through Damascus] was a native of Antioch, who as a young man struggled terribly with ‘strong passions’ and ‘fiery, indomitable lusts’. Upon undertaking the life of a hermit, he had to tame these lusts with some ascetical disciplines that might strike us moderns as extreme. He confined himself within a wooden cell that was deliberately constructed to be too small for his tall frame, such that when he stood he had to stoop down and such that he could not lie down straight but had to curl up his legs and back when he rested. His cell had no windows, instead being put together so loosely that the wind and sun could flood through the cracks between the timbers. It also had only one door which at all times Saint Baradatos kept obstructed.

Baradatos spent many years within this flimsy box, until Bishop Theodoret himself managed to convince him to emerge from it, for the health of his frail body. After this, Saint Baradatos began to undertake his ascetic disciplines standing up. He covered himself in a garment cobbled together from animal skins, which covered his entire body except two small slits for his nose and mouth to allow breathing. He could not see through this leather garment and could not walk on his own, having to be led by the hand. Instead he stood stationary at the gate to the town, and kept his hands raised to heaven, praising God always. He reposed around the year 460, his body having been exhausted from his ascetic exertions.

Saint Baradatos’s ascetic extremes can and should demand some scepticism – particularly since the bishop who recorded his life in the History personally found some of them to be unhealthily strict. However, these ascetic feats were far from crazed; they had a true and proper purpose. And Saint Baradatos himself, under the influence of his discipline, had attained an excellent scholarly mind as well as a calm, reasonable and dispassionate personality. He gave clear and thoughtful answers to the theological questions which were put to him, and his advice both spiritual and practical, given even to non-monastics and non-ascetics, was temperate, reasonable and salutary. Saint Baradatos was one of three men – the other two being Saint Simeon Stylites and Saint James the Solitary – that Emperor Theodosios II trusted, to help effect a reconciliation between the Patriarchs John I of Antioch and Cyril of Alexandria. Holy hermits Thalassios, Limnaios and Baradatos, sea and lake and river of spiritual wisdom inexhaustible, pray unto Christ our God that our souls may be saved!
Apolytikion for Soul Saturday, Tone 8:

Only Creator, with wisdom profound, You mercifully order all things,
And give that which is needed to all men:
Give rest, O Lord, to the souls of Your servants who have fallen asleep,
For they have placed their trust in You, our Maker and Fashioner, and our God.

21 February 2020

Our father among the saints Eustathios, Archbishop of Antioch

Saint Eustathios of Antioch
القديس إفستاثيوس أسقف أنطاكيّة

Today in the Holy Orthodox Church we venerate and revere our most treasured and wise Holy Father Eustathios. Called ‘foremost’ among the Fathers of the First Œcumenical Council at Nicæa, a combatant of the spirit against the hæresy of Arius, he was a bold and worthy confessor of the Orthodox faith in Antioch. For this he was deposed and exiled from his native city.

Saint Eustathios [Gk. Ευστάθιος, Ar. ’Ifstâṯiyyûs إفستاثيوس] was – according to Saint Jerome – an Ionian Greek, born around the year 270 in the town of Side in Pamphylia, on the south-central coast of Asia Minor. It is presumed he became a monk early in his life. Eustathios was elected bishop of Berœa – modern-day Aleppo – around the year 320, and he was invited to participate by Emperor Saint Constantine the Great in the First Œcumenical Council at Nicæa in 325.

Saint Eustathios distinguished himself at the Council with his spirited defence of what would become Orthodox Christology – that the Son was begotten of the Father and consubstantial and coëternal with Him. He was among the most strident, including Saint Athanasios and Saint Nicholas, among the Council’s critics and denouncers of Arianism. When the Council found in favour of the position that would become the Nicene Christology, Saint Eustathios was recognised for his contributions by being elevated to the archbishopric of Antioch.

Saint Eustathios’s six-year archpastoral rule in Antioch, from 325 to 331, was mostly spent in polemics and quarrels with the Arian party, which was wealthy and influential in Eastern Rome at the time. As a bishop firmly devoted to the doctrines of orthodoxy as laid down in Nicæa, he steadfastly maintained the Christological truths that were laid down in that council. And, as a public man concerned with the welfare of the common people, Saint Eustathios would not be bought or tempted by lucre, though Arian priests occasionally attempted to buy their way into his good graces.

In addition, Saint Eustathios – though not a native of Antioch himself – became in his own right a chief proponent of the literary socio-historical Antiochian school of Scriptural exegesis. This was at the very height of the rivalry – sometimes friendly, sometimes bitter – between the socio-historical Antiochian school of exegesis and the philosophical-allegorical Alexandrian school. Insofar as these two very broad tendencies in early Christian thought may be safely categorised, the Antiochians tended to place more emphasis on the humanity and particularity of Christ Incarnate; while the Alexandrians tended to place more emphasis on Christ’s omniscient Godhead.

The one complete text we still have to the name of Saint Eustathios, De Engastrimytho contra Origenes, is an exegetical commentary on 1 Samuel which takes issue with the allegorical interpretation put forward by Origen Adamantius, and indeed with Origen’s exegetical method overall. It stands as a fine, if rather fierce-spirited, exemplar of the Antiochian school of exegesis. The point of the tale of the witch of Endor in 1 Samuel, Eustathios insists, was that she was goading and deceiving Saul with illusions of his kingdom’s fall – not that her words carried some sort of deeper significance or profounder symbolic meaning. Eustathios takes issue with Origen seeming to allegorise everything in the Hebrew Scriptures from the digging of wells to the wearing of earrings, such that he misses the prosaic significance of these events and images which would be readily apparent to a Jew reading these stories as literary works rather than as philosophical tracts.

In this way the formidable Eustathios managed to garner enmities both among the hæretical Arians such as Eusebios of Nicomedia, and among the partizans of the Alexandrian school of exegesis such as Church historian Eusebios Pamphílou of Cæsarea (who is venerated as a saint among the Copts). These two parties together managed to force a council, really more of a kangaroo trial, to be held at Antioch. Saint Eustathios himself appeared and his enemies – primarily those among the Arian party – aired vicious slanders against him. At this council Saint Eustathios was ludicrously accused of holding to opinions of Patripassianism, the hæretical doctrine of Sabellius. To give an idea of the frivolous and vicious nature of this council, the Arians also wantonly and baselessly accused Eustathios of grave personal sins and vices, including insulting the mother of the Emperor in Jerusalem and sleeping with a certain Antiochian courtesan, who was had been paid to bear witness that Saint Eustathios had fathered her child. This poor courtesan, herself a victim of the Arians’ artifice and spite, later repented and publicly confessed her false witness. The council, which was primarily composed of Arian or Arian-sympathetic bishops, condemned Saint Eustathios, deposed him from his see and had him exiled to Illyria.

The townspeople of Antioch were, quite understandably, incensed at this treatment of their patriarch and made plans to rise up in armed rebellion against the Arian party. However, before he left Antioch, Eustathios took pains to calm the fury of his supporters and turn them away from violence. He urged them instead to abide in patience and to hold true to the doctrines of Nicæa. Eustathios then left Antioch accompanied by a great number of Nicene clergy who were loyal to him; however there were those among his followers who remained behind to guide the Antiochian faithful, such as the then-deacons Diodoros and Saint Flavian. Eustathios himself ended up, not in Illyria, but instead in the town of Traïanoupolē in Thrace. He reposed either there, or in the town of Philippoi, in the year 337.

The next Orthodox Patriarch in Antioch would be Saint Meletios in the year 360, who was supported by the majority of Saint Eustathios’s followers in Antioch – including the two aforementioned deacons, Diodoros and Flavian, he had left to guide the faithful. However, a small remnant of the ‘Eustathian’ party of Orthodox Christians embraced a zealotry that refused to acknowledge Meletios on account of a chequered past that included support for Arian bishops. Instead these ‘Eustathian’ zealots appealed to Rome for, and were granted a replacement bishop, Paulinus. There thus existed a schism in Antioch between the Orthodox under Saint Meletios and the zealous ‘Eustathians’ under Paulinus, which lasted over fifty years, from 360 to 415.

Saint Eustathios was posthumously exonerated of the false and wicked charges made against him, and the Orthodox Symbol of Faith which he had fought so hard for as Patriarch of Antioch was vindicated at the Second Œcumenical Council at which Saint Meletios presided before his own passing. He came to be regarded as a saint in Philippoi, and his relics were interred with the care and veneration due to a holy man. In the year 482, the relics of Saint Eustathios were exhumed and translated reverently to Antioch, where he was greeted with celebrations and festivities by the grateful Antiochians – their beloved patriarch having returned home at last. Holy father Eustathios, well-spoken champion of Orthodoxy in Antioch, pray unto Christ our God for the salvation of us sinners!

Saint Eustathios is venerated in the Orthodox Church together with an eighth-century Italian monk, Saint Timothy of Symboli, who led a life of desert solitude in Asia Minor before settling on Mount Olympus in Greece, where he submitted himself to the discipline of Abbot Theosterikos at the Symboli Monastery. Apart from sharing the same feast-day, the two saints share a common love for Christ; a common concern for upholding the Orthodox doctrines; and a common concern for common people.

Saint Timothy dwelt in the desert for many years in strict asceticism, praying and fasting and struggling against the passions. He became able to work wonders through the purity of his devotion to Christ, and used his abilities in particular to help the poor and needy. However he fled from the company of men during his time in the desert, he nevertheless loved his neighbours and gave of himself for them. Although he did not dare to look upon a woman’s face for fear of harming his peace of mind, he nonetheless was a firm financial and moral support for women – particularly widows who were without any other means of social support. He also gave shelter and food to orphans and gave clothes to the naked.

Saint Timothy lived at a time when Iconoclasm was wracking the Church. He was, like many other monks of Eastern Rome, a firm defender of the proper veneration of icons. He publicly proclaimed himself to be an iconodule, and publicly defended the use of icons. A canon composed in his honour intimates that he was beaten with flails by the iconoclastic authorities. Nonetheless, he reposed in a venerable old age in the year 795 on Olympus, and his reliquary was said to be a fount of many wondrous healings. Holy monk Timothy, vessel of the Holy Spirit and friend to the friendless, pray unto Christ God that our souls may be saved!
O God of our Fathers,
Always act with kindness towards us;
Take not Thy mercy from us,
But guide our lives in peace
Through the prayers of Saints Timothy and Eustathios.

Saints Timothy and Eustathios

19 February 2020

Holy Confessors Eugenios and Makarios of Antioch

Saints Eugenios and Makarios of Antioch

The nineteenth of February in the Orthodox Church is the feast-day of the holy Antiochian confessors Eugenios and Makarios of Antioch. Saints Eugenios and Makarios were Christian priests who were tortured and exiled for their faith under the reign of Emperor Julian the Apostate of Rome.

By the year 361, Julian had begun using a threefold strategy to persecute Christians: legal disenfranchisement of Christians; active institutional support and structuring of the old Græco-Roman religion; and the promulgation of anti-Christian apologetics. This was after a brief period of religious liberalism that actually had the effect of fomenting and inflaming doctrinal conflicts within Christendom. Also, as mentioned before, during his wars with Persia Julian used Antioch and its environs as something of a ‘proving ground’ for his anti-Christian politics.

Saints Eugenios [Gk. Ευγένιος, Ar. ’Îjîn إيجين] and Makarios [Gk. Μακάριος, Ar. Maqâr مقار] were among the first victims of these policies. As Christian priests, they were arrested and brought before Julian in 361, and they were instructed to sacrifice incense to the idols of the Græco-Roman gods. However, Eugenios and Makarios steadfastly refused to renounce Christ or to acknowledge the old gods, and they further reprimanded the Emperor for his having abandoned the Christian faith of his youth in order to worship lifeless idols. Julian, incensed, gave the order for the two confessors of Christ to be tortured.

Eugenios and Makarios were bound fast with thin leather straps and hung upside down over a burning heap of dung. After having been subjected to this torture for many hours, they were taken down and made to lie naked on a red-hot cast-iron grate. Eugenios and Makarios did not flinch from these tortures, but keeping their gaze on Heaven were strengthened in soul. They did not complain or beg for mercy, but continued to rebuke the Roman Emperor for his betrayal of the Christians.

At this point Julian did not make martyrs of the two confessors, but instead pronounced upon them the doom of banishment and exile under guard, to the province of Mauretania Tingitana – in what is now Morocco. The two confessors of Christ rejoiced at having been found worthy to be exiled for Christ, and went on their way singing from the Psalter: ‘Blessed are the undefiled in the way, who walk in the law of the LORD’. When they came into Mauretania, they began at once to preach to the Berbers who lived in that area.

The Berbers who lived in the mountains warned Saints Eugenios and Makarios that a horrible dragon lived in a cave nearby, which destroyed with fire and consumed the wealth of the people that lived in the region. Eugenios and Makarios asked their informants where they might find this cave, and they were told. They went thither with their priestly garments and their rags underneath as their armour, and with prayer as their weapon. They knelt on their knees at the mouth of the dragon’s cave and began to pray, when of a sudden the dragon swooped out of his cave into the air. A bolt of lightning from heaven drawn by their prayers struck the dragon, which fell out of the sky and burnt to foul-smelling ashes. As is common in hagiographies with such draconic appearances, the tale is a type indicating the saints’ victory over pagan gods and cult centres, and it is so here as well, for the hagiographer informs us that the pagans began to trust in Christ after the word of the saints’ triumph over the dragon spread.

Eugenios and Makarios went into the dragon’s cave to live as hermits, struggling against the passions with prayer and fasting. For thirty days they took no food and drank no drink, not even water, and for all that time they prayed continuously. At the end of their thirty days of total fasting, they heard a voice issue from heaven, bidding the servants of the true God and Lord Jesus Christ to go to the rock nearest them. As they faced the rock and touched it, a light began to pour forth from it, and the rock split in two. From the rock there gushed a holy spring of purest water, from which they drank and were sated in body and in spirit. They spent eight days further in the cave before they reposed together, and the Lord received their souls into the kingdom. Holy confessors, priests Eugenios and Makarios, who did spiritual battle with the idols both west and east, pray unto Christ our God that our souls may be saved!

17 February 2020


My father-in-law, currently in Luoyang (which has been under lockdown for the past three weeks), tells me that the coronavirus which has been impacting central China so badly is starting to show signs of abating. Today Chinese hospitals discharged a record number of patients, who no longer show any signs of infection. Also, long-distance bus transit from Luoyang to other nearby cities is starting to run again. I’m not sure I entirely believe the coronavirus is completely contained and in remission; I’m not sure he entirely believes it either. But it’s a hopeful sign, a sign of improvement, and I pray things continue to improve.

This is not a detached or unemotional issue for me. I am a Chinese son-in-law. More than that, I am a son-in-law of the Chinese interior. One of my wife’s first cousins and her husband live and work in Wuhan, and they were among the people who were stranded from going back there when they came home to Luoyang over the Spring Festival. They’ve been under quarantine since the public response to the coronavirus outbreak began. Thank God, neither of them has shown any symptoms or has suffered in any other way apart from the frustrations of quarantine.

There are, as there have always been, two possible responses to the coronavirus impacting China. The healthy and helpful response is to support the doctors, nurses, medics and other health workers and volunteers who are fighting it in whatever ways are feasible and possible, to cheer those who are fighting it and to offer them moral support, and – again – to hope that the situation there improves. To the people staying up late and giving of their time and energy, blood, sweat and tears, risking infection themselves to fight the virus and cure as many people as possible, particularly those in Hubei Province, God bless you all. And to the people worldwide who are supporting the health workers putting themselves at risk this way, thanks and salutes to you as well!

But then there is the far less helpful response. As I’ve noted before, the less healthy response does not merely consist of the abuse, taunts and threats that mainland Chinese people living abroad – or even in places like Hong Kong or among the diaspora – receive. It also consists in wild speculations about the coronavirus’s origin. It also consists in using the coronavirus as an excuse to criticise Chinese culinary habits, hygiene or environmental record. It also consists in intimations that the government is somehow responsible for the spread of the virus. All of these things – whether they are meant to or not – feed into the schadenfreude and racially-coded collective victim-blaming mentality that gives rise to the abuse in the first place.

In keeping with this – I will continue praying for the virus’s victims and their peace, health, safety and length of days. I will continue praying for the skill and labour of the doctors, nurses and paramedics as they treat the sick. And I will ask readers of my blog to join me in donating to the Global Giving Coronavirus Relief Fund, or to the Hubei Charitable Foundation, which is one of the biggest and most active distributors of needed aid and hygienic products (including face masks), to keep fighting the good fight against the outbreak.

16 February 2020

Mâr Mârûthâ al-Mayyâfâraqîni, Bishop of Martyropolis

Saint Mârûthâ of Martyropolis
القديس ماروثا الميافارقيني

The sixteenth of February in the Orthodox Church is the feast day of Mâr Mârûthâ, one of the blessed peacemaking saints. Mârûthâ was a friend to Saint John Chrysostom, an ambassador between Sasanian Persia and the Eastern Roman Empire, the founder of Martyropolis (modern-day Silvan in Turkey) and the preserver of the relics of many saints and martyrs of Iran.

Mâr Mârûthâ [Gk. Μαρουθάς, Ar. Mârûthâ ماروثا] was a Syrian monk of Mesopotamia who lived much of his early life in the Persian Empire under the harsh reign of Šâpur II. He was well-educated, knew Greek and was highly versed in the Scriptures, as we can see from the varied Syriac-language corpus of religious and scholarly writings that he left behind. It’s clear that he was also as comfortable in Eastern Roman church circles as he was in Persian ones. He was present in Constantinople for the Second Œcumenical Council in 381 called by Emperor Saint Theodosius, and at the local Council of Antioch convoked by Patriarch Saint Flavian in 383 which condemned Messalianism.

But it is as a peacemaker and as a diplomat that Mâr Mârûthâ earns his sanctity. His shrewd understanding of Sasanian politics led him to the understanding that the persecution of Christians in the Persian Empire was not a foregone conclusion; and that Roman policies with regard to the Persian Church had a significant impact on how they were treated. Thus, in the year 404, as bishop of Martyropolis, Mârûthâ visited the Emperor Arcadius in Constantinople with the purpose of getting Rome to take the persecution of the Assyrian Christians in Iran seriously, and change his policies regarding them accordingly. Unfortunately for him, he arrived at an inopportune moment. Constantinople was embroiled in the question of Saint John Chrysostom and his impending exile, for having offended the empress Eudoxia in his homilies against the rich, and having incurred the wrath of the violently-paranoid Pope Theophilos of Alexandria. Mâr Mârûthâ attempted, it seems, to intervene with Arcadius on Saint John’s behalf, but to little avail.

However, Mâr Mârûthâ’s peacemaking mission and his impassioned plea on behalf of his beloved Persian Church did not go unnoticed in Constantinople. Indeed, almost from the very moment that Saint Mârûthâ had been pronounced bishop in the town of Tigranokerta, the new bishop had begun acquiring the relics of every holy martyr that had suffered under the reign of Šâpur that he could lay hand on, and building for them exquisite shrines. So successful was he in preserving these relics that Tigranokerta was furnished with the rather manifest toponym of Martyropolis.

In 414 Emperor Theodosios II sent Mâr Mârûthâ on another errand of peace, to the court of Šâhanšâh Yazdegerd I in Ctesiphon. Mârûthâ was tasked there with brokering a truce between the Persian Empire and Rome, and also with improving conditions for the Christians of Persia. Suffice it to say that Mâr Mârûthâ made himself highly agreeable to the Persian Emperor. Yazdegerd was deeply impressed with Mârûthâ’s eminently holy life, with his cheerful goodwill and humour, and also with his profound learning. Mârûthâ’s medical knowledge and wondrous cures affected by his prayers to God also won him fame at the Persian court.

Mâr Mârûthâ may also have possessed something of John Chrysostom’s antipathy to hoarded wealth and prestige, wrung from the backs of the poor. Under his influence, Yazdegerd’s personality began to change. ‘The good and clement King Yazdegerd [every day] did well to the poor and wretched,’ as one Assyrian account has it. Yazdegerd also embarked on a policy of religious toleration. Just as Cyrus the Great allowed the Jews to return to the Holy Land and rebuild the Temple, so too did Yazdegerd release Assyrian and Persian Christians from prisons under a general clemency and allow them to rebuild their churches. However, Mârûthâ’s influence was opposed by the Persian nobility – likely as much on account of his antipathy to wealth as on account of his advocacy for Christians – and the Zoroastrian clergy. Though they conspired against him at court, Saint Mârûthâ was well-liked enough by the šâh that his position in Ctesiphon was secure.

On account of Mâr Mârûthâ, two local councils were held at Ctesiphon, in fact, convoked by Yazdegerd and led by Catholicos ’Ishâq of Ctesiphon. These councils were largely concerned with ecclesial organisation and discipline, and they gave the Persian Church – which had long laboured under official persecution – a degree of formal structure which they had not hitherto possessed. Mârûthâ was supposed to have recorded the canons of this council in Syriac. Saint Mârûthâ’s other surviving written works include the Acts of the Persian Martyrs, the History of the Council of Nicæa, a translation into Syriac of the 73 canons of the First Œcumenical Council, a series of commentaries on the Gospels and a Syriac Liturgy. The holy monk, bishop and peacemaker reposed sometime before the year 420, probably in Ctesiphon. Holy and venerable father Mârûthâ, wise archpastor and friend to the holy martyrs of Persia, pray unto Christ our God for us sinners!

Ruins of Martyropolis, Silvan, Turkey