24 April 2020

Blessed Thomas the Simple, Fool-for-Christ of Antioch

Forest in the district of Daphnē near Antioch

The twenty-fourth of April is the feast-day of Saint Thomas, a monastic fool-for-Christ of Cappadocian origin, who died and was popularly venerated in Antioch. Saint Thomas is noted as a protector of his city against plague, and it therefore seems meet and fitting to commemorate him now when all across the world people are suffering from the novel coronavirus.

The venerable Saint Thomas [Gk. Θωμᾶς Σαλός, Ar. Tûmâ توما] was a member of a poor and deprived monastery in Cæsarea of Cappadocia (modern-day Kayseri in Turkey). His abbot placed him under the obedience of collecting alms for the monastery, and he journeyed under this obedience to the city of Antioch in Syria. It was here that he began to take on, for the glory of God, the appearance of folly.

He came to one of the churches in Antioch to beg, but that church’s steward, a man named Anastasias, lost patience with the monk Thomas and struck him in the face. Those who were in the church restrained Anastasias and upbraided him for his rudeness and cruelty in dealing with a fool like Thomas. However, Saint Thomas quieted them down by pronouncing: ‘From this moment I shall accept nothing further from Anastasias, nor will Anastasias be able to give me anything further.’ The people in the church were calmed, but they did not understand what Thomas meant by these words.

As it turned out, Saint Thomas’s words proved to be prophetic. The steward Anastasias fell ill and died the following day. And Saint Thomas, having started the long journey home to Cæsarea in Cappadocia, also reposed in the Lord, while he was staying at a church dedicated to Saint Euthymios in the outlying district of Daphnē (famous for a cypress park dating back to præ-Christian times), five and a half miles south of Antioch. He was buried in a plot of the Church graveyard reserved for strangers.

After some time they buried another stranger on top of Saint Thomas’s grave. Four hours after the workmen had left the gravesite, they returned to find that the grave had been dug up and the earth piled up beside the open grave once again. They covered the stranger’s grave again, but the next morning when they returned they found the open grave again with the earth strewn aside. They took the stranger away and reburied him in another place. This same thing occurred at a later time when two women were buried in the plot where Saint Thomas lay. The people of that Church then realised that Saint Thomas did not wish to share his grave with a woman, and they reported this occurrence first to the priest and afterward to the Patriarch of Antioch, who was Domnos III (546-561).

Patriarch Domnos decreed that the relics of Saint Thomas should be dug up and translated to Antioch proper. This was done, and the body of the holy monk was interred in a church graveyard which was preserved for the holy saints and martyrs. Here his relics began to work wonders. The intercessions of Blessed Thomas proved effective when they stopped a deadly plague which had been ravaging Antioch; his veneration is noted from this time forward in that city. Blessed Thomas, fool for Christ and protector of Antioch from plague, we ask that you offer your prayers in our own day of pandemic for the health of our bodies and the salvation of our souls!

20 April 2020

Holy Hierarch Grēgorios I, Patriarch of Antioch

Antioch in the sixth century

The twentieth of April is also the feast-day of Saint Grēgorios I, the holy sixth-century head of the Antiochian Church. He served as Patriarch of Antioch, unwillingly, during the exile of Saint Anastasios I of Sinai at the behest of the Docetist Emperor Justin II. His life and spirituality, however, strongly reflect those of Anastasios.

Saint Grēgorios [Gr. Γρηγόριος, Ar. Ġrîġûr غريغور] was, like Saint Anastasios, first recorded as a monk in Palestine, in the ‘monastery of the Byzantines’. Emperor Justin II later transferred him to the monastery on Mount Sinai and made him abbot there. These facts of Saint Grēgorios’s early life are recounted by Evagrius, in Book V of his Ecclesiastical History:
NEXT in succession, Grēgorios is elevated to the episcopal see: “wide whose renown,” according to the language of poetry; a person who had devoted himself from the earliest period of life to the monastic discipline, and had wrestled therein so manfully and stoutly, that he arrived at the highest elevation when scarcely past his boyhood, and became superior of the monastery of the Byzantines, in which he had assumed the bare mode of life, and subsequently, by the orders of Justin, of the monastery of Mount Sinai. Here he encountered extreme danger, having sustained a siege by the Scenite Arabs.

Having, nevertheless, secured the complete tranquillity of the spot, he was thence summoned to the archiepiscopal dignity. He was unrivalled in every excellence of intellect and virtue, and most energetic in accomplishing whatever he resolved upon, uninfluenced by fear, and incapable of shrinking before secular power. So noble was his expenditure of money, in a general system of liberality and munificence, that whenever he appeared in public, crowds, besides his ordinary attendants, followed him; and all gathered round him who saw or heard of his approach. The respect shewn to so high a dignity, was but second to the honour bestowed upon the individual, in the generous desire of persons to obtain a near view of him and to hear his words; for he was possessed of singular power to inspire with attachment towards himself all who held converse with him, being a person of most imposing aspect and sweet address, especially quick of perception and prompt in execution, a most able counsellor and judge, both in his own matters and in those of others. On this account it was that he accomplished so much, never deferring anything till to-morrow. By dealing with matters with unfailing promptitude, according as either necessity required or opportunity favoured, he tilled with admiration not only the Roman but the Persian sovereigns, as I shall set forth the particulars in their proper place. His character was strongly marked by vehemence, and at times by indications of anger; while, on the other hand, his meekness and gentleness were not confined, but were exceedingly abundant; so that to him was admirably fitted the excellent expression of Gregory Theologus, “austerity tempered with modesty,” while neither quality was impaired, but each rendered more striking by the other.
We can see even from this brief account by Evagrius that Saint Grēgorios was marked on the one hand by an indefatigable energy and dynamism of action, and on the other by a sincere approach to the monastic life. His determination and protean vitality served him in good stead when defending his Sinaite monastery from attack by Arabic raiders, despite the fact that monks in general forswear all military action. Saint Grēgorios had a reputation for hospitality, and was kind to his guests. As such, he was held in high esteem by the bishop of Nisibis, who trusted him so far that he sent privileged information about the movements of the Persian troops directly to Grēgorios.

In 578, there was an incident with a certain sorcerer named Anatolius of Osroene. Anatolius was a social climber who had attained to several posts of public prominence by unspecified means. He even attained to the title of prætorian præfect in Edesa. As a prominent public figure he naturally sought to cultivate a relationship with the Patriarch of Antioch, Saint Grēgorios, in order to expand his prominence. Anatolius, however, was soon discovered to have engaged in ‘sacrificial rites’, by which he was ‘implicated in innumerable enormities’. The rumours grew so dire that they reached the ears of Emperor Tiberius II, who sent the regional governor to begin investigating Anatolius.

Anatolius was detained along with his notarius Theodore, and their private apartments in Antioch searched. The soldiery discovered an icon of Jesus Christ in that apartment, which had a pagan image of Apollo impressed on the reverse side – but cleverly hidden so that it could be detected only by careful examination. Anatolius was delivered up for trial. In order to save himself he implicated Saint Grēgorios and Eulogios of Alexandria as having officiated at these human-sacrificial rites, including the sacrifice of a young boy in Daphnē. On account of public opinion which associated him closely with Anatolius, the agents of the Roman state were forced to bring him to Constantinople to stand trial.

Apparently some bribery was involved in the trial as well, as the sentence of Anatolius for his crimes was commuted to banishment. This led to a riot in Constantinople, with the rioters demanding that Anatolius and his co-conspirators be slain. Emperor Tiberius reacted by convoking a Senatorial commission to try Anatolius. During the questioning at this trial, which apparently involved the use of torture, Anatolius again tried to implicate Saint Grēgorios, but was unable to produce a cogent story of his involvement. Ultimately – with the court under pressure from the rioters to hand down a death sentence – Anatolius was executed by being thrown to wild beasts in the Hippodrome. Saint Grēgorios was exonerated.

Saint Grēgorios also foretold by various signs the accession of Emperor Maurice. Evagrius recounts that as Maurice was offering incense before the altar dedicated to the Holy Theotokos, Saint Grēgorios beheld the altar-cloth being enveloped in flames which gave light but no heat, and also did not consume it. The saintly bishop told Maurice that it was a sign from God, and a chastened Maurice was filled with awe and holy dread.

Saint Grēgorios was also involved in a quarrel with a certain governor of the East named Asterius. Asterius had managed to whip up the animosity of both ‘the higher ranks of the city’ along with ‘those who were engaged in trades’ against the archbishop, and again Grēgorios was compelled to come to Constantinople to appear at trial. At Asterius’s prompting, a moneychanger came forward at this trial and outrageously accused Grēgorios of sleeping with his own sister, a married woman. Others came forward at his trial and accused Saint Grēgorios of disturbing the peace. The charges grew so numerous and so increasingly ludicrous that at the insistence of Saint Grēgorios and a legal advisor, the Emperor convoked a court of all the Patriarchs of the Church, the bishops and the metropolitans. This court found him innocent of all the charges. Asterius was stripped of his rank, flogged and sent into exile.

The Emperor had reason to call upon Saint Grēgorios again, when a legion of Roman troops in battle against Persia had mutinied and chased off their commanders. The Emperor moved for clemency, but the deserters were not prepared to hear terms. Because Saint Grēgorios was well-regarded within the military, Emperor Maurice sent him to speak to the deserters. Saint Grēgorios obeyed the charge laid on him, though at that time he was old and suffering from a painful arthritis that prevented him from standing for long periods of time. He met the mutinous armies at Litarba, three hundred stadia removed from Antioch. He had to address them sitting down because he could not stand. Here, according to Evagrius, is what he said:
I HAVE been expecting, O Romans—Romans both in name and deeds—that your visit to me would have been made long ago, for the purpose of communicating to me your present circumstances, and of receiving that friendly counsel of which you have an assurance in my kindliness towards you, so unequivocally evinced by past occurrences, at the time when I relieved, by a supply of necessaries, your tempest-struck and wave-tost plight. Since, however, this course has not hitherto been taken—it may be that Providence has not permitted it, in order that the Persians, having been utterly defeated by men without a leader, might be thereby thoroughly taught the prowess of the Romans, and that your pure loyalty might be completely proved, in having been tested by the juncture and testified by your deeds; for you shewed that, notwithstanding your quarrel with your officers, you do not regard any thing as more important than the good of the commonwealth—let us accordingly now deliberate what ought to be your conduct. Your sovereign invites you with a promise of an amnesty of all past transactions, receiving the display of your loyalty to the commonwealth and your prowess in the field as emblems of supplication. While bestowing upon you these most certain pledges of pardon the emperor thus speaks: ‘Since God has given victory to their loyalty, and, on the abandonment of their errors, a signal display has been granted to their prowess as a clear intimation of forgiveness, how can I do otherwise than follow the judgment of heaven? A king's heart is in the hand of God, and He sways it whithersoever He will.’ Yield, therefore, to me at once, O Romans. Let us not wilfully forfeit the present opportunity, nor allow it to elude our grasp: for opportunity, when it has once slipped from us, is most unwilling to be seized, and, as if it were indignant at having been neglected, is ever after intolerant of capture. Shew yourselves the heirs of the obedience of your fathers, as ye are of their courage; in order that ye may appear altogether Romans, and no taunt may touch you or point at you as degenerate. Your fathers, under the command of consuls and emperors, by obedience and courage became masters of the whole world. Manlius Torquatus, though he crowned, yet also put to death his son, who had placed a valiant part but in disobedience of orders. For by skill on the part of the leaders, combined with obedience in those whom they lead, great successes are ordinarily achieved; but either, when bereaved of the other, is lame and unsteady, and is utterly overthrown by the separation of the excellent pair. Be not, therefore, tardy, but at once obey my call, while the priestly office mediates between the emperor and the army; and shew that your proceedings were not the establishment of a rival sovereign, but a transient display of just indignation against commanders who had wronged you: for unless you immediately embrace the offer, I shall at once consider myself as quit of the service laid upon me in this matter by my duty to the commonwealth and my regard for you. Consider too yourselves, what has been the fate of pretenders to the sovereignty. What too will be the termination of your present position? To continue concentrated is impossible: for whence will you derive your provision of ordinary fruits, or those supplies which the sea furnishes to the land, except by war between Christians, and the mutual infliction of the most disgraceful treatment? What too will be the final result? You will live in dispersion, and haunted by Justice, who will henceforward disdain to bestow forgiveness. Let us therefore give pledges of amity, and consider what course will be for the benefit of ourselves and the state, at a time too when we shall have the days of the saving Passion and of the most holy Resurrection conspiring with the deed.
The troops were moved to tears on hearing this, for Saint Grēgorios spoke with conviction as well as with that divine grace that accompanies the truth of the Gospel and the love of a father for a prodigal son. After some deliberation, the leaders of the mutiny placed themselves in Saint Grēgorios’s hands, and he successfully pleaded with Emperor Maurice for a general amnesty for the soldiers, allowing them to return to their duties.

Perhaps a little ironically, Saint Grēgorios was also a pivotal figure in helping the amorous Sasanian šâh Khosrow II Parvêz to take the throne in Persia. After his betrayal at the hands of the general Bahrâm Chôbîn – who subsequently proclaimed himself šâh – Khosrow sought refuge together with a small band of followers including his wives and family with Emperor Maurice in Syria.

Emperor Maurice sent a truly royal welcoming committee to meet him: a whole division of the Roman army; his kinsman, the saintly Bishop Domitian of Melitēne; and Saint Grēgorios. The last of these was particularly well-received by Khosrow, who in the words of Evagrius ‘on all points filled [the Persian šâh] with amazement, by his conversation, by his munificence, and by his suggestion of seasonable measures’.

Khosrow was ultimately able to use the army that Emperor Maurice had loaned him, along with those Persians who had remained loyal to the Sasanian line, to overthrow Bahrâm and retake the Persian throne. This having been accomplished, he sent to Grēgorios a marvelous golden cross in honour of Saint Sergius which had been dedicated by Saint Theodōra the wife of Emperor Justinian, and which had subsequently been carried off into Persia during the wars.

Saint Grēgorios was a gifted preacher, and he spent the last years of his life using those skills to tour the borders of the Eastern Roman Empire in an attempt to sway the Monophysites back to Chalcedonian Orthodoxy. Several of his homilies on the subject remain. Saint Grēgorios reposed in the Lord in 593, being poisoned by a medication he was taking for his arthritic attacks. After his repose, Saint Anastasios was restored to his see in Antioch. Holy hierarch Grēgorios, gifted orator and peacemaker, pray unto Christ our God that our souls may be saved!

Holy Hieromartyrs Anastasios I and II, Patriarchs of Antioch

Saint Anastasios I of Antioch
القدّيس أنسطاسيوس الأول الأنطاكي

Today is Bright Monday in the Holy Orthodox Church. It is also the feast-day of two holy patriarchs of Antioch, Anastasios I and Anastasios II, whose hagiographies are similar enough that they are often confused or conflated into the same person. Further complicating matters is the fact that both Patriarchs Anastasios I and II of Antioch were also called ‘Sinaïtēs’, or ‘the Sinaite’, leading to a confusion dating back to the Middle Ages between the sixth-century Patriarch and the seventh-century abbot of Saint Catherine’s in Ægypt. So deep runs the confusion that all three saints are commemorated on the same day, being the twentieth or twenty-first of April.

Patriarch Saint Anastasios I of Antioch [Gk. Αναστάσιος Α΄, Ar. ’Anasṭâsiyyûs أنسطاسيوس] was a Greco-Syrian of Palestine, but became a monk on Mount Sinai in his youth. He was valued highly in his Ægyptian monastery, and was sent as a representative of the Church of Alexandria to her sister-Church in Antioch, and was subsequently elevated to the patriarchate of that church in the year 559. The Antiochene church historian Evagrius writes about him thus in his Ecclesiastical History:
ANASTASIUS was a man most accomplished in divine learning, and so strict in his manners and mode of life, as to insist upon very minute matters, and on no occasion to deviate from a staid and settled frame, much less in things of moment and having relation to the Deity himself. So well tempered was his character, that neither, by being accessible and affable, was he exposed to the intrusion of things unsuitable; nor by being austere and unindulgent, did he become difficult of approach for proper purposes. Accordingly, in serious concerns he was ready in ear and fluent in tongue, promptly resolving the questions proposed to him; but in trifling matters, his ears were altogether closed, and a bridle restrained his tongue, so that speech was enthralled by thought, and silence resulted, more valuable than speech. Justinian assaults him, like some impregnable tower, with every kind of device, considering that if he could only succeed in shaking this bulwark, all difficulty would be removed in capturing the city, enslaving the right doctrine, and taking captive the sheep of Christ. In such a manner was Anastasius raised above the assailing force by heavenly greatness of mind, for he stood upon the immoveable rock of faith, that he unreservedly contradicted Justinian by a formal declaration, in which he showed very clearly and forcibly that the body of the Lord was corruptible in respect of the natural and blameless passions, and that the divine apostles and the inspired fathers both held and delivered this opinion. In the same terms he replied to a question of the monastic body of Syria Prima and Secunda, confirming the minds of all, preparing them for the struggle, and daily reading in the Church those words of the ‘chosen vessel’: ‘If any one is preaching to you a gospel different from that which ye have received, even though it be an angel from heaven, let him be accursed.’ To this all, with few exceptions, paid a steady regard and zealous adherence. He also addressed to the Antiochenes a valedictory discourse, on hearing that Justinian intended to banish him; a discourse deserving admiration for its elegance, its flow of thought, the abundance of sacred texts, and the appropriateness of its historical matters.
From the account of Evagrius we can deduce several things. The elder Anastasios seems to have been a cautious, risk-averse, studious and well-mannered person. In addition, he seems to have been quite adept at listening to people’s problems and offering them advice and comfort. Thus he seems to have been found quite suitable to the demands of church diplomacy for which use the Church of Alexandria chose him as their spokesmonk to Antioch. However, his diplomatic skill and penchant for problem-solving did not prevent either Emperor Justinian I, or his nephew Emperor Justin II, from taking a fervent dislike to him. Indeed, he was deposed by the latter emperor in the year 570. As Evagrius explains in Book V of his Ecclesiastical History:
JUSTIN also ejected Anastasius from the episcopate of Theopolis, on the charge of a profuse and improper expenditure of the funds of the see, and also for scandalous language against himself; inasmuch as Anastasius, on being asked why he was so lavishly squandering the property of the see, frankly replied, that it was done to prevent its being carried off by that universal pest, Justin. He is also said to have entertained a grudge against Anastasius, because he had refused to pay a sum of money, when demanded of him in consideration of his appointment to the bishopric. Other charges were also brought against him by persons, who, as I suppose, wished to second the emperor's bent.
Evagrius does not pass comment on the validity of this Imperial charge of corruption and theft of Church funds. Saint Nikolai Velimirović in the Prologue from Ohrid, however, does: he says that Justin ‘succeeded in banishing Anastasius on the basis of some spurious calumnies’, and intimates further that this banishment was on account of Saint Anastasios’s fervent opposition, alongside Saint Eutychios of Constantinople, to the Gnostic hæresy of Docetism, which was then in the ascendant on account of Emperor Justinian’s sympathies to said hæresy. Justinian had Eutychios seized by the soldiery in his own Church, stripped of his ecclesiastical garments and sent into exile – but he could not find any pretext for doing the same to Anastasios. The Emperor repented of his sin and his hæresy, however, and restored Eutychios before he died. Justin II, as we have seen, was less scrupulous.

Anastasios remained in exile for twenty-three years. He was reinstated as Patriarch of Antioch in 593 or 594 by the Emperor Maurice. Saint Anastasios had Pope Saint Gregory Dialogos to thank for this favourable turn of events. The Pope of Rome and the Patriarch of Antioch were good friends and they corresponded in writing for many years. Saint Anastasios governed the Church in Antioch for four or five more years, and ended his sojourn on this earth in the year 599. Some sources say that he reposed in peace, and others that he was martyred.

After Patriarch Saint Anastasios I reposed, he was most likely succeeded by another Anastasios of Sinai [Gk. Αναστάσιος Β΄]. Again, this is assuming the likely possibility that Anastasios I and II of Antioch are not the same person. Anastasios II is not mentioned by Evagrius, who lists Gregorios II as the successor to Anastasios I, but he is mentioned by the later Church historians Theophanēs and Nikēphoros. This younger Saint Anastasios had his fortunes wrapped up with those of Emperor Phōkas.

Patriarch Saint Anastasios II was known particularly for his efforts to stamp out the practice of simony – the selling of the Holy Sacraments for money – in the Church. One of the homilies that has survived under his name to the present day deals with the treatment of the Holy Eucharist, on the evils of Donatism, and on the importance of coming to the Chalice with a spirit ready to forgive others. He was known also for his support of Phōkas’ repressions of the Monophysites and the Syrian Jews. The Church history of Saint Theophanēs the Chronicler, written at some point in the 800s, recounts that the Jews of Antioch staged a revolt against the repressions of Phōkas. According to Theophanēs, this Jewish mob involved in this revolt lay hands on Patriarch Anastasios II, brutally castrated him, paraded him up the Mese, lynched him and burned his body. Unfortunately it appears he was a bit fuzzy on the date: this may have happened as early as 608 or as late as 611.

Recent scholarship seems to have called at least a few points of this narrative into question, with the aid of some intertextual comparisons between the account of Saint Theophanēs and Saint Nikēphoros I of Constantinople, who were writing about the same event at roughly the same time. In Saint Nikēphoros’s account, it was Emperor Phōkas who was mutilated after his death in a political coup, and paraded up the Mese in Byzantium; whereas the hieromartyr of Antioch was killed by Roman soldiers supporting the Monophysite party. In either event, Saint Anastasios II was martyred specifically for holding to the Orthodox faith, being opposed by both the rebelling parties.

Holy Fathers of the Antiochian Church, Anastasios I of Sinai and Anastasios II of Sinai, confessors and fellow-sufferers for the true faith, pray unto Christ our God that our souls may be saved!
Troparion for Bright Week, Tone 5:

Christ is risen from the dead,
Trampling down Death by death,
And upon those in the tombs
bestowing life!

19 April 2020

☩ المسيح قام! حقا قام! ء ☩

المسيح قام من بين الأمو ات
و و طىْ الموت بالموت
و و هب الحياة
للذين في القبور

Christ is risen from the dead,
Trampling down death by death,
And upon those in the tombs
Bestowing life!

17 April 2020

Our father among the saints Anikētos, Pope of Rome

Saint Anikētos of Rome
القدّيس أنكيتوس البابا الروميه

The seventeenth of April, which is Evacuation Day in Syria as well as Great and Holy Friday this year, is the feast-day of one of the earliest saintly patriarchs of Old Rome, the confessor and hieromartyr Saint Anikētos. A native of Emesa – today Homs in Syria – this holy Pope of Rome was a tireless defender of the Christian faith and a witness against the hæresies of Marcion and of the Gnostic Valentinus.

Born probably sometime around the turn of the second century, the hagiographies have it that Saint Anikētos [Gk. Ανίκητος, L. Anicetus, Ar. ’Anikîtûs أنكيتوس] was raised with love by his Greco-Syrian parents, and given the very best of educations. He was clever and studious, and by the time he embarked upon adulthood he had a thorough knowledge of both the natural sciences of his time, and the liberal arts. Being of a serious turn of mind, he was also drawn to the life of the Church, and at some point he must have been ordained to an office within it, though the sources are silent on the time and manner of this. What seems clear, however, is that his renown had reached Rome by at least 155.

After the death of Pope Saint Pius I in 157, the clergy of Old Rome unanimously chose the holy Anikētos to be consecrated as his successor. Anikētos had the qualifications of being generous, mild-tempered and moderate of habit. He combined these traits with a steadfast and fervent attachment to the correct Christian teachings. This commended him to the Church in Rome as a worthy successor to Pius I, who had refused to give one inch before the Gnostics and who had spared no effort, ‘rightly to divide the word of truth’ as Saint Paul put it in his second letter to Timothy. It appears that Saint Anikētos was consecrated either in 159 or 160.

Despite his reputation for zeal, Saint Anikētos was disposed to be lenient – perhaps a bit too lenient – on matters which were not tied to Church dogma. One of the first things he did in his office as Pope was to meet with Saint Polycarp of Smyrna, with whom he had some dissension over the matter of determining the correct date of Pascha. Anikētos held to the correct method of dating Pascha to the Sunday nearest 15 Nisan by the Hebrew calendar; while the inhabitants of Asia Minor (including Polycarp) largely held to a date of 14 Nisan for Pascha, regardless of the day of the week. Ultimately, Anikētos allowed via œconomia the Asiatics to continue using the local date. Though Saint Anikētos and Saint Polycarp both doubtless meant well, and they had for the time preserved the unity of the Church, unfortunately the dating of Pascha continued to be a matter of contention within the body of Christ for several centuries afterward, and even flared up again at the end of the second century.

As a bishop, however, Saint Anikētos was exemplary in conduct. He was aggressively compassionate, and he lived in voluntary poverty. He spent much of his time in the homes of the sick, ministering to them humbly – and what time of his own he did not spend there, he spent in prayer or study. He gave copiously to the poor. He forgave his enemies and those with whom he was at odds. And yet when riled to the defence of Orthodox doctrine he could become fierce and fiery. His hagiographers attribute his successes in dealing with the heterodox, first to the holy and compassionate mode of his life. The sincerity of his personal example moved many Catholic Christians in Rome who had hitherto been quite lax in both observance and morals to correct themselves and follow his generous and compassionate example. And the enemies of Christ could make no complaint of his hypocrisy.

Among these latter were the aforementioned Valentinus – the leader of a group of outwardly-Christian Gnostics who had split from the Church after Valentinus’s ambitions for advancement within it were thwarted. Marcion of Sinope was at this time also preaching in Rome, his odious doctrine that the God of the Hebrews was not the same as the Father of Christ. And a third is mentioned in his hagiography, an Alexandrian named Marcellina, who taught several evil doctrines borrowed from the false teacher Karpokratēs including reincarnation; her followers practised branding of the earlobes and orgiastic rites.

It is said of Pope Anikētos that he had several of these leaders of the hæretical sects banished from Rome, but that he cheerfully held the doors of the Church open for those who sincerely repented. He held the venerable Roman bishopric for eight years, which were characterised by energy, dynamism and renewal of the faith. Saint Anikētos was, however, seized by Roman officials claiming to act on behalf of the Stoic Emperor Marcus Aurelius. It is unclear from the historical record if Marcus Aurelius actively commanded his soldiers to arrest and persecute Christians the way Julian or Diocletian did, though he was certainly no Christian himself, and did nothing to stop the persecutions already underway. Having been thus apprehended, Saint Anikētos made no secret of his Christianity, and refused either to recant his belief in Christ or to offer sacrifice to idols. As a result, the Roman soldiery beheaded him with the sword, and he was martyred on the seventeenth of April, 168. Holy Father Anikētos, compassionate and faithful confessor of Christ, we ask you to pray unto Him for the salvation of our souls!
Troparion for Great and Holy Friday, Tone 2:

The Noble Joseph,
When he had taken down Your most pure Body from the tree,
Wrapped it in fine linen,
And anointed it with spices,
And placed it in a new tomb.

The Crucifixion of Christ

13 April 2020

Holy Priestmartyr Artemōn of al-Lâdhiqîyyah

Saint Artemōn of al-Lâdhiqîyyah
القدّيس أرتيمون اللاذقي

On this Great and Holy Monday we celebrate one of the martyrs of the persecutions of Diocletian, Saint Artemōn of al-Lâdhiqîyyah [or Laodicæa in Syria, now Latakia]. Saint Artemōn was an elderly priest in the Church of Antioch, having served the Church faithfully in various ordained offices for his entire adult life when he was martyred by the servants of the impious Emperor.

Saint Artemōn [Gk. Ἀρτέμων, Ar. ’Artîmûn أرتيمون] was born in the early years of the third century, and was a patient and humble servant in the Church, having been raised by Christian parents. The great testimony to his patience and humility was the lengthy time he served in each office. In his youth he became a reader in the Church. He served as a reader for 16 years, and fulfilled his office faithfully and without vainglory. He was noticed by a certain saintly Bishop Sisinnios, who made him a deacon. He then held the office of deacon for 28 years. And finally, he was ordained to the priesthood, where he served for 33 years. By the time Diocletian took the laurels, Father Artemōn was already an elderly man.

The edict went down from the Emperor commanding the Christians to submit to an inquisition whereby they would be compelled to sacrifice to the idols and profess their loyalty to the cultus of the Roman Emperor. Word came to Saint Sisinnios that a military governor would be arriving in Laodicæa, and he took Father Artemōn with him along with a small band of committed Christians to the Temple of Artemis, and they smashed and burned the idols that were within, reducing them to dust. After this, Saints Sisinnios and Artemōn gathered the flock of believers and spurred them to courage at the coming persecution, bade them not to be afraid of torment and death but to hold firm to the Faith.

The military governor, Patrikios, arrived in great pomp and ceremony, and held a lavish festival in honour of the pagan idols that lasted for five days. He then went to the Temple of Artemis and found the destruction within. Asking those nearby who was responsible, he soon learned what had happened. He went with a detachment of Roman troops to the Church where the Christians were praying.

As soon as he drew near the church, Patrikios was taken with a sudden chill that turned into a burning fever that sapped all his strength. He had to be borne home on a litter and taken to bed. Patrikios began raving in his fever that the God of the Christians had put a curse on him and had tormented him. Bewildered, his servants and military attendants brought idols before him and offered burnt sacrifices, but nothing could stanch the fever or rid Patrikios of his disease. At last Patrikios asked of Bishop Sisinnios, who was brought before him. Patrikios promised the bishop that if he could cure him, he would erect a statue of gold in Laodicæa in his honour. Sisinnios replied to him that he neither needed nor wanted gold or honour, but if Patrikios would believe in Christ he would be healed.

Patrikios, in fear of his life, declared that he believed in Christ, and at once his fever broke and it was not long before he was cured. But his heart was hard, and even this deliverance did not cause him to truly repent. He did not, for the moment, touch Sisinnios – but he did carry out the orders Diocletian had given him, and arrested the Christians to be interrogated.

One of these was Saint Artemōn. It so happened that Patrikios observed the saint calling to a small flock of wild beasts – half a dozen wild asses, one hart and one hind. Patrikios marvelled at the sight and asked of Artemōn how these stubborn and wild beasts so easily did his bidding, without need for a goad or a harness. Artemōn replied merely that the word of Christ bade them, and they heard and obeyed.

Patrikios was moved to wrath at this subtle reproach, and he had also learned that Father Artemōn was one of the Christians who had smashed the idols in the Temple to Artemis. He ordered that Artemōn be arrested and taken in chains to Cæsarea for interrogation. Father Artemōn was not afraid and made no complaint, but rather bade the beasts instead go on to Bishop Sisinnios. When the bishop beheld them he asked aloud why these animals had come to him. The hind, to whom the Lord had given the gift of speech just as He had given it to Balaam’s ass, spake:

The servant of God Artemōn is being held by the impious Patrikios, and is being brought to Cæsarea in chains. He commanded us to come here to give you this news.

Bishop Sisinnios sent a deacon named Phileas to Cæsarea to confirm the hind’s words. In Cæsarea, Patrikios brought Saint Artemōn to the Temple of Asclepius, where he tried to get the elderly priest to sacrifice to the idol. Many venomous asps were kept in this temple. The temple wardens had not allowed these asps out of their cage on the day that Artemōn visited, nor had they placed the sacrifice upon the altar. But when Saint Artemōn called upon the holy name of Jesus Christ and crossed the threshold of the temple doors, the snakes broke free of their cage and began to attack the temple wardens, who took to their heels in fright. Saint Artemōn let out his breath and spit upon the snakes, and they at once fell dead.

One of the pagan priests, named Vitalios, fell upon his face and confessed the power of Christ upon seeing this wonder. However, Patrikios was convinced that Saint Artemōn had prevailed over the snakes by sorcery, and he had him brought to the gaol and tortured mercilessly. The hind which had been given the gift of speech arrived from Laodicæa, and went straight to where Saint Artemōn was kept, lay down at his feet and began licking his wounds. By the command of God, again the hind spoke. This time, she prophesied to Patrikios, that he would be seized by two eagles and dropped into a vat of burning pitch. The governor, who was enraged, ordered that his soldiers shoot the hind with arrows, but she nimbly leapt up and escaped their shots.

Patrikios decreed that the same method of death that the hind had prophesied for him should be visited upon Artemōn, and thus the governor sealed his own doom. He had his soldiers fill a vast cauldron full of boiling pitch, and the governor himself mounted his horse to inspect the cauldron to see that all was in order. At that moment two angels from heaven, in the form of eagles, took hold of Patrikios in their talons and spooked his horse, throwing Patrikios into the cauldron he had prepared for the martyr. The body of the impious governor was consumed so that not even one bone remained.

Seeing this, the soldiery fled in terror. Only Saint Artemōn knelt and wept holy tears of gratitude to God, and where his tears fell there sprang up a spring of pure and fresh water. Artemōn baptised the temple warden Vitalios in the waters of this spring, and many pagans besides who had come to believe in Christ. Then the priest administered to them the Holy Gifts at a Divine Liturgy, and many of these were anointed as clergy. Vitalios was made bishop in Palestine. After this the holy martyr Artemōn received instruction from God to spread the Gospel in Asia Minor, whither he was transported by an angel. There he preached the word of Christ to many, and many came to believe. He was again arrested and beheaded on the orders of the pagans during the reign of Diocletian, and this happened in the year 303. Holy martyr Artemōn, fearless confessor and athlete of the spirit, pray unto Christ our God that our souls may be saved!
Troparion for Great and Holy Monday, Tone 8:

Behold the Bridegroom comes at midnight,
And blessed is the servant whom He shall find watching,
And again unworthy is the servant whom He shall find heedless.
Beware, therefore, O my soul, do not be weighed down with sleep,
Lest you be given up to death and lest you be shut out of the Kingdom.
But rouse yourself crying: Holy, Holy, Holy, are You, O our God!
Through the Theotokos have mercy on us!

12 April 2020

Venerable Isaac the Wonderworker, Abbot of Spoleto

Chieza di Sant’Ansano, Spoleto, Italy

The twelfth of April, which also happens to be Palm Sunday in the Orthodox Church, is also the feast-day of the sixth-century monastic Isaac of Spoleto, a Syrian-born abbot in Italy whose life and deeds were recounted in the famous Dialogues of Pope Saint Gregory. This Syrian Saint Isaac, emphatically not to be confused with the seventh-century Holy Father Mâr ’Ishâq an-Naynuwî, was apparently involved in the Christological disputes of his day, which is why he fled from Syria to Ostrogothic-ruled Italy. Saint Gregory heard about him from an Italian nun, Gregoria, who knew him personally: in fact, he had aided and defended her when she had sought to become a nun over the objections of her parents, who had arranged an unwanted marriage for her. He had also as a source Eleutherius, a ‘reverent man’ who was acquainted with the saint.

Nothing is known of Isaac’s life before he came out of Syria. When he first came to the church in Spoleto, he asked the wardens leave to go into the church for prayer and to stay there overnight. The wardens granted him leave, and he stayed there and prayed the whole day. He kept a vigil that night, and prayed for another day. And another after that. On the third day, one of the wardens – a proud and stubborn man – went into the church and accused Saint Isaac of hypocrisy and self-display. The warden struck Saint Isaac full in the face. But no sooner had he done so but an unclean spirit possessed him and he began to suffer terribly. The warden fell onto the ground in convulsions, and when Saint Isaac approached him his contorted mouth began to exclaim, ‘Isaac doth cast me forth.’ The Syrian pilgrim had made known his name to no one at that time. Isaac began to wrestle with the man on the floor and, pinning him under him, drove the evil spirit out in the name of Christ.

The thankful and chastened warden went and spread the news of this all over Spoleto, and soon the men and women of the city, both rich and poor, began to seek him out. They invited him into their homes, sought his blessings, and sought to offer him whatever they had to hand. The wealthier Spoletans offered rich gifts of land and money for an abbey; the poorer ones offered him their labour in building it. But Saint Isaac accepted none of their gifts, for he was a humble man. He left the city and settled in a wild and secluded place, building a rough cottage.

Even here he was sought out. Young men came to him, desirous upon embarking upon his holy way of life, and he accepted them as disciples. However, some among his disciples would slyly point out that it would be good for the abbey to take such gifts as were offered to it. Zealous to keep his own poverty ‘as covetous rich men are to preserve their corruptible wealth’, Saint Isaac told them instead: ‘A monk that seeks a living upon earth is no monk.’ Here Saint Isaac of Spoleto seems to have foreshadowed the mediæval zavolzh’e, or ‘non-possessors’ of Russia, led in spirit by Saint Nil of Sora.

Saint Isaac gained a reputation for divine foresight and for working wonders. There was one evening when he told his disciples to lay out a certain number of trowels in the garden. The next night he told them to go and make stew for the workmen so that it would be ready for them in the morning. His disciples were confused, for they had no knowledge of any workmen – but they did as he bade them. The next morning, the disciples were astounded to find a large band of rough, unruly men delving and turning in the garden – indeed, exactly as many men as there had been spades lain out there. It turned out that Saint Isaac had discerned that the little cell would be attacked by a band of masterless men who had come to plunder and rob and kill. But as soon as they entered upon Saint Isaac’s vigil, God gave unto them a spirit of repentance, and they went silently out into the garden, took the spades there, and began to work. When Saint Isaac saw them the next morning, and when his disciples had come with the stew, he greeted them with genuine good cheer, saying: ‘God save you, brothers! You have worked long and hard; rest now and eat.

Saint Isaac told his disciples to serve them the stew, and the rough men took gratefully and relaxed themselves. Then Saint Isaac told them: ‘When you want anything from our gardens, just come to the gate and ask, and take it as God’s blessing. But steal no more, nor seek to do any man harm.’ He then gave them the monastery’s store of vegetables and herbs, and sent them on their way.

On another occasion, several beggars clad in rags came to the monastery, asking Saint Isaac to, of his charity, give them some clothes. Saint Isaac gave them no immediate reply. Instead, he turned to one of his disciples and with detailed directions told him to go into the forest, and find a certain hollow bole of a tree, and take the clothes that were hidden inside, and bring them to him. The disciple, wondering, did as his master told him, and found the clothes just as he had foreseen. Then Saint Isaac took the clothes and gave them to the beggars, saying, ‘Put on these clothes.’ For these beggars were in fact cheats: they had done off their clothes and hidden them away, thinking to con the saint out of clothes which they might sell for money, but instead Saint Isaac had given them back their own clothes. In shame they hurried back from where they’d come.

There was another man in Spoleto who desired Saint Isaac’s prayers, and sent his manservant with two baskets full of meat. The servant, thinking to profit himself by his master’s generosity, took one of the baskets and hid it in a bush till he could return home again. The other basket he took and presented to the saint, who received it with gratitude. Then, with a tender hand upon the servant’s shoulder, he spoke with concern:

Give my thanks to your master. Also, do take care how you lay hand upon the other basket which you hid away. An asp has crept inside. If you disturb it, it may bite you.

The manservant was glad to have escaped death by the asp’s poison, but he went from there in deep remorse for having tried to beguile the man of God and his master both. Saint Isaac had no wish for the death of any man, not even a bandit or a swindler, and instead his clairvoyance allowed him to save them from the snares of the Devil. Saint Isaac was indeed a gentle and mild soul, though Pope Gregory notes with a slight tone of parody that he was given to ‘excessive laughter’ and joking. Here, in dialogue with his textual interlocutor and disciple Peter, he states that this saint who had been given so much by God, was also visited by a ‘small fault’ to fight against and overcome such that he would not fall into the greater sins of vainglory and delusion. Better a laugher than a LARPer, it seems.

Saint Isaac reposed in the Lord around the year 550, three years before the baneful Battle of Monti Lattari when the last king Teia of the Eastern Goths fell to Justinian’s general Narses, and his people forced back into Germania – as Pope Gregory says, he ‘lived almost to the last days of the Goths’. The relics of the Syrian saint were originally interred at San Giuliano in Milan, Italy, but they were translated to the Church of Saint Ansanus in his adoptive hometown Spoleto in 1502, where they are kept in a crypt beneath the church. Venerable Isaac, humble worker among the voluntary poor, pray unto Christ our God that our souls may be saved!
Troparion for Palm Sunday, Tone 1:

By raising Lazarus from the dead before Your passion,
You did confirm the universal Resurrection, O Christ God!
Like the children with the palms of victory,
We cry out to You, O Vanquisher of death;
Hosanna in the Highest!
Blessed is He that comes in the Name of the Lord!

Icon of the Entry of Our Lord into Jerusalem

10 April 2020

Holy Hieromartyr Misail, Archbishop of Ryazan

Saint Misail of Ryazan

The tenth of April is the feast-day of a somewhat controversial missionary-martyr of the Russian Church, who reposed in the middle of the seventeenth century, but who was glorified by the Moscow Patriarchate only on the twelfth of January, 1987, in the middle of Soviet glasnost’. Saint Misail of Aglomazovo was possessed of an indefatigable zeal for the faith and was a stickler for public morality, criticising lax discipline and especially drunkenness among the Russian clergy. Although this led him to take stands that might be considered politically progressive or even left-wing for this day, it also unfortunately earned him a number of enemies: one of whom shot him in the middle of a sermon on the first of April in 1656.

Saint Misail was born in a small village, Gruzino, in the Chudovskii region north of Veliki Novgorod. The estate on which he was born was owned by the Resurrection Monastery of Derevyatinsk, and he chose in his youth to join the holy ascetics there as a brother-monk. He was marked in his monastic life with a particular zeal for the holy offices that attracted the notice of a certain Metropolitan of Veliki Novgorod named Nikon.

Then-Metropolitan Nikon, with the approval of Tsar Aleksei and together with his friend and associate, the philanthropic boyar Fyodor Rtishchev, led an informal party within the Church called the Bogolyubtsy. The Bogolyubtsy were a social-justice movement, that essentially wanted to return the Church to the common masses and decrease the influence of wealthy and powerful boyars on the Church. They insisted on stricter standards for priestly comportment: no drunkenness, and no second marriages for widower priests. They also encouraged priests to give homilies in vernacular Russian during the Liturgy, so that ordinary people without learning in Church Slavonic could understand what was being done and said. And they sought to use the Church as an instrument of social welfare: Rtishchev personally funded two monasteries, a free public hospital, and a college for religious education.

Metropolitan Nikon saw at once a kindred spirit in the monk Misail, who had a clever and attentive mind, but was also simple and sincere in soul. Seeing his ability, he elevated him to serve in the vestry. When Nikon was promoted to the Patriarchate of Moscow, he recommended that the faithful monk be tonsured and anointed as Bishop of Ryazan and sent to minister to Nikon’s ancestral people, the Finnic Mordvins. This turned out to be no sinecure for the new bishop: he had his work cut out for him.

The new position made every possible demand on Saint Misail’s energy and patience. The situation he found in Ryazan when he first came there was, to put it mildly, discouraging. He found the clergy there to be unlearned and lax in discipline. And among the laity, he found mass indifference to the Liturgy, and found popular Orthodox devotions to be mingled with the pagan superstitions of the præ-Christian Mordvin religion. He went about at once attempting to correct the situation using a broad variety of means.

Bishop Misail could be both remarkably warm and kindly, or stern and severe as the situation warranted. He was apparently quite hospitable, particularly on feast-days, and opened his home to his parish priests and to the common people who came to him with their problems. He offered his advice and support – including monetary support – to priests who were willing to reform their lives and give up excessive drinking. However, with those who were not willing, or who backslid, he could be ferocious in his remedies. When he heard of widower priests who sought to marry again, Misail would have them dragged into the church, forcibly tonsured as monks, and sent packing to distant monasteries. He also threatened to excommunicate and bar from burial within the church pale, those among the laity who cheated their neighbours, who gambled and who engaged in profligate drunkenness.

He was also merciless toward the korchemniki, the (often boyar-appointed) tavern-keepers in rural Russia. Though there was probably something of a puritanical streak in Saint Misail’s crusade against public drunkenness, it is also true that the korchemniki were highly corrupt and often abused their positions to the detriment of poor people. It was their job not only to serve drink and serve a lot of it, but also to serve as the eyes and ears of the boyars who kept them stocked with mead. They were ideally placed to do so because their taverns were often the centres of gossip. Thus, the tavern-keepers were usually the ones to also do the boyars’ dirty work: hand over runaway serfs, or run down debtors in default. Saint Misail objected to these abuses as much as the public drunkenness, when he had the korchemniki banned from his diocæse.

However, his first impulse was always to mercy. When the Tatars attacked and ransacked Tambov, driving out the people from their homes, the bishop again opened his doors, his storerooms and his kitchens to the displaced residents of Tambov, and took the priests there under his care. He made no inquisitorial demands upon those priests, but instead did all he could to support them for the whole time until the Tatars had been driven back and they could return home.

These two contrasting tendencies in Misail – gentleness and ferocity, indulgence and strictness – seem indicative of his spiritual life as well. He was both a punctilious stickler with parish priests for keeping and pronouncing the Liturgy, and he spent much effort on bringing that same Liturgy into alignment with contemporary practice in Constantinople at Patriarch Nikon’s behest, for the ease of those same parish priests. He beat the korchemniki and flung them from the doors of his church, but he also held the doors of his home wide open to refugees from Tambov, without asking any questions of them. He was not averse to wearing exquisite robes to glorify God in outward splendour, while at the same time he kept a harsh asceticism upon himself in private. His was the sort of spirituality that Chesterton referred to, when speaking of saints like Éadg‎ýð of Wilton or Thomas à Becket:
in Christendom apparent accidents balanced. Becket wore a hair shirt under his gold and crimson, and there is much to be said for the combination; for Becket got the benefit of the hair shirt while the people in the street got the benefit of the crimson and gold. It is at least better than the manner of the modern millionaire, who has the black and the drab outwardly for others, and the gold next his heart.
Saint Misail soon began taking consideration of the spiritual well-being of the unbaptised Mordvin and Tatar peoples who lived in his diocæse. He had heard of several cases of the Mordvins having been cheated and tricked by religious charlatans pretending to be priests: he had these Mordvins rebaptised by legitimate clergy. In 1651, he sent a monk named Artemii to preach to the Mordvins – at the time, he was involved in aiding Nikon to reform the Church Liturgical books. Artemii managed to baptise several families, but his progress among the Mordvins was slow. The proud Finnic people were not easily persuaded of the truths of Orthodoxy.

Misail sought from Patriarch Nikon, and was given, leave to go and preach among the Mordvins himself. His first trip was in the winter of 1654, and he went to the Shatskii district, taking with him a monk named Vasilii, a clerk named Savva Zverev, and several other clergy. The zeal of the archbishop was impressive to the Mordvins there, 316 of whom agreed to be baptised. Bishop Misail then sent messengers to the villages around Shatskii, inviting the people there to come hear him preach – only these did not come. This being so, the archbishop went among them himself. However, a great throng of Mordvins came out to meet him and told him they did not want to be baptised. They were not Russians, did not speak Russian, and did not know to do in a church where Slavonic was spoken. They told Misail that they would be baptised only if the Tsar commanded it.

This missionary trip therefore met with only limited success. The second one he undertook was to Tambov, where he was much more successful. He claims to have baptised 4,015 souls on this journey to Tambov, and we have no reason to doubt him – although the means he seemed to have used were rather dubious. We have seen in his dealings with widower priests and korchemniki that he was not averse to using ‘sticks’ to get what he wanted as well as ‘carrots’, and this was one reason why his glorification came so late. Writing in 1986, one year before that glorification, Orthodox missiologist James Stamoolis writes:
Some missionaries did not take the trouble to learn the language of those among whom they were to labour. Others were content to use the power of the state to aid in the ‘conversion’ of unbelievers. One such worker was Bishop Misail of Ryazan, who did not hesitate to use the sword to win allegiance to the Gospel. Fulfilling the words of Jesus as recorded in Matthew 26:52, the bishop himself was slain. That his actions were not held in high esteem by the Church is evidenced by its reluctance to canonise him in spite of his martyrdom.
In February the following year, Bishop Misail brought what the stubborn Mordvins in his care had requested: a letter from the Tsar commanding them to be baptised. He read this proclamation in several villages that had previously rejected baptism, hoping that this would sway hearts and minds. It did not. Misail was warned by his monk Vasilii and the boyar’s son Akindin Baholdin, that if he kept proceeding this way among the Mordvins it would be dangerous to his life. Saint Misail did not listen. He stayed in the Mordvin village of Berezovka with no retinue, and proceeded to the villages of Konobeevo and Yambirnaya with only a minimal detachment for his protection.

Outside Yambirnaya, on the calends of April, the heathen Mordvins set up an ambush on the road and lay in wait for the Archbishop and his small party. As they saw him approach, they surrounded him, bearing all manner of weapons and hurling abuse at him. Saint Misail, clad only in a mantle and bearing only a cross and his crozier, attempted to speak reason to them, and hold them to their promise to convert on the word of the Tsar. Here, ironically, he did not use weapons or threats. But the Mordvins began to brandish spears and scythes, nock arrows and fire guns. The archimandrite Vasilii was killed on the spot, and some of the deacons and other helpers fled. Misail stood his ground, with Akindin Boholdin interposing his body between the archbishop and his attackers.

One Mordvin attempted to strike Archbishop Misail with a spear, but Akindin turned the point away from delivering the mortal blow. Another Mordvin in the rear ranks, by the name of Garichushka, shot at Misail with bow and arrow. The arrow pierced the left hand of the saint and pinned it to his breast just over his heart. He crumpled to the ground. As Akindin Boholdin recounts, he ran from the Mordvin with the spear and went to help his master – and, helped by the deacon Varlaam, he managed to take Misail away from the fighting. Unable to mount a horse, the two men lay Saint Misail in a sleigh and bore him back along the road to Aglamazovo.

Once there, Misail asked that the icon of Christ the Saviour be brought to him and set before his bed. He began to weep and give thanks to the Lord for the wound he had suffered. He took confession and was administered the Gifts. He clung onto life for another nine days, however, in extreme pain from his wound. He had been shot on Holy Tuesday of that year, and had witnessed the Lord’s Pascha from his deathbed. On Bright Thursday, the tenth of April, he departed to the Lord.

Saint Misail was much-mourned by the people of Ryazan. Even the people he had baptised by means not altogether voluntary turned out for his funeral: Mordvins and Tatars. Some of them who were yet unbaptised, upon seeing his body, turned to the Church of their own will. The confessor’s body was interred in Pereyaslavl at the Archangel Cathedral. There it remained until the Russian Revolution, when the saint’s blood-stained mantle was taken to a local museum for display. It was returned to the Church only in 1994. The incorrupt body of Saint Misail currently rests in the Holy Trinity Monastery in Ryazan.

Saint Misail of Ryazan is not a particularly commendable model of Orthodox missiology, having been too reliant on the arms of the boyars and the blandishments and threats of the Tsar. It is better to rely for this on saints like Trifon of Pechenga or Innocent of Irkutsk, whose methods of mission tended to be less forceful, more patient, more lenient, more understanding of local customs and sensibilities. However, Saint Misail’s asceticism, his hospitality to refugees, his care for the poor, his zeal for the Liturgy and the Christlike way in which he met his death all speak to his presence among the saints of the Lord. Such he was, that the Orthodox Tatars of Ryazan remember his life with particular fondness and greeted his glorification in the glasnost’ period with gratitude. Holy hierarch and martyr Misail, formidable and righteous archpastor in Ryazan, pray unto Christ our God that our souls may be saved!
Apolytikion to Saint Misail, Tone 5:

Богомудре Святителю, Архиереев слава и сирых защитниче;
Ревностный проповедниче Христова Евангелия.
Утвердил еси верою сердца неутвержденная.
Священную одежду омочив в крови,
Яко мученик и пастырь прославился еси.
Священномучениче Мисаиле, молися прилежно Владыце Христу
О всех нас, почитающих святую память твою,
Да вышняго Причастия сподобимся и Света невечерняго.


O divinely wise saint, glory of bishops and defender of orphans,
Zealous preacher of the Gospel of Christ!
Affirmed in the faith by hearts unaffirmed,
Your holy garments were soaked in blood,
Glorifying you as a martyr and shepherd.
O holy martyr Misail, praying diligently to Christ our Lord
For all of us here who revere your holy memory,
Let us likewise worthily partake of the Holy Eucharist and the Light Unfading!

06 April 2020

Venerable Platonida of Syria, Deaconess and Abbess of Nisibis

Saint Platonida of Nisibis

Today, alongside the holy Equal-to-the-Apostles Methodius, we commemorate a Syrian anchoress who reposed in the early fourth century, Saint Platonida of Nisibis. A brief hagiography was transcribed by Saint Dmitri of Rostov in the seventeenth century, and this is still used in the OCA and the Russian prologues for the sixth of April.

Saint Platonida [also Platōnis, Gk. Πλατωνὶς] was a deaconess in Mesopotamia. The deaconess was a specifically-ordained office in the ancient church, specifically for women who would observe the order in the Church and assist bishops during the baptism of female catechumens. The deaconess was expected to be literate and to know the Liturgy. She would be tasked with instructing women and girls in the teachings of the Church, preparing them to answer the questions of the officiating priest at their baptism, and after baptism to continue instructing them in the ways of the Church. In the ancient church – and in some modern Orthodox churches as well – the nave was separated by sex, and the deaconess would preside over the female (north) half of the Church, greet female parishioners at the door, be present at women’s confessions, visit female parishioners when they were sick or dying, and so forth. In the ancient church, canon law prescribed that only women over forty – and then, women of celibate life, usually virgins or virtuous widows – would be considered for the office of deaconess*.

Saint Platonida served in this office for some years, and then desiring a life closer to Christ in holy solitude, withdrew into the deserts near Nisibis, modern-day Nusaybin on the Turkish-Syrian border. She established a community of holy virgins there, over which she presided as abbess. She led by holy example as much as by a monastic rule. However, the rule she set out for her sisters was particularly strict. Nuns would eat only once per day. The rest of their time they would spend in prayer or in studies of the writings of the Church Fathers, or in work: particularly needlework.

However, on Fridays, in remembrance of the suffering and death of Christ on the Cross, all the nuns’ work would stop and no classes would be held in the convent. The whole day would be devoted to prayer and to silent meditation on divine things. Sisters were expected to stay in the oratory the whole day on Friday, from morning to night, and while they were not praying they would listen to readings and commentaries on the Holy Scriptures.

Though her rule was strict and exacting, Saint Platonida was gentle with her sisters and did not ask them to do anything she was unwilling to do herself. She taught her nuns primarily by example, striving every day to please God with a blameless life of love and generosity. On the sixth of April in the year 308, Saint Platonida departed this life in peace in the company of her sisters, to join in the feast of the Heavenly Bridegroom. Holy deaconess and abbess Platonida, tutor of the Syrian nation, pray unto Christ our God that our souls may be saved!

Note: The question of ‘deaconesses’ in the Church is unfortunately a fraught one in the modern setting. Some of the confusions over this issue are deliberate and politically-motivated. Some Orthodox churches, like the Russian Church and the Church of Japan, still ordain deaconesses in their traditional apostolic rôle as leaders of classes in the catechumenate for girls and women who inquire about the Faith, and as officiants at the baptism and chrismation of female catechumens. Monasteries for nuns also employ deaconesses in an officiating capacity.

However, the office of deaconess has been unduly politicised by feminists, where its introduction is meant to serve as a rhetorical ‘wedge’ to speed the acceptance and ordination of female priests. Simply put: this is never how the office was understood in the ancient Church in which Saint Platonida served, and it is not how the office is understood now in the churches that have retained it. There are no Orthodox priestesses, استغفر الله, in Russia, in Japan or in Alexandria. Orthodox believers indeed should be aware of, and vigilant against, such bad-faith arguments holding forth the historical presence of deaconesses as an argument for ordination of women to the priesthood.

Unfortunately, there has been a politicisation as well in the opposite direction. This takes the form of reactionary, mostly-American clergy claiming that the office of deaconess never existed, or that it was not an ordained office, or that it did not belong to the apostolic age and is therefore less-valid. Against the first charge, the mere existence of saints like Phœbe and Platonida ought to be witness enough to its sheer falsity. Against the second, the confusion stems from a fundamentally-Western clericalist understanding of ‘ordination’ as a kind of liminal wall between those appointed to pastoral ministry and the common laity: in the Orthodox Church, even the laity are tonsured and ordained at baptism or chrismation! And yes, the office of deaconess was an ordained office. And against the third objection, it is merely necessary to note that the artificial separation of the ‘apostolic age’ from all subsequent mediæval developments – including deaconesses – is the delusional præoccupation of evangelical Protestants and takfiri-Salafi Islâmists, and is utterly alien to the historical witness of Orthodoxy.

04 April 2020

New blog: Silk and Chai

Dear readers,

For over ten years The Heavy Anglo Orthodox has been essentially my online journal (that is the whole purpose of a blog, is it not?) on pretty much every subject that catches my fancy. On this blog, originally meant to be a Peace Corps journal for my time in Kazakhstan which turned out to be all-too-brief, I’ve explored religious philosophy, theology (in particular Anglican and Orthodox theology), heavy metal music, Cooper family genealogy, American politics with an emphasis on communitarianism, global politics, poetry, anthropological and cultural studies of the indigenous peoples of North Asia, Star Trek, Chinese opera, the cinema of Kazakhstan, and a number of other things.

To tell the truth, there’s quite a bit of clutter here, not all of which falls very well under the title The Heavy Anglo Orthodox. In any event, this blog has been drifting in a more ‘devotional’ direction anyway over the past year and a half, with a particular emphasis on the hagiographies of Orthodox saints. Quite honestly, it feels like that’s how it should be. A blog with Orthodox in the name should probably have a more religious focus in any event.

As a result, I am offboarding my gæopolitical commentary – including matters having to do with Russia, China, Iran and the Arab world – to a new blog, Silk and Chai. Silk and Chai can be considered a spiritual successor to my old now-defunct Chinese-language Weibo blog, The Tocharian Rider. It’s subtitled ‘Left-Eurasianist political meditations’, which is accurate but not entirely precise. Anything to do with axiomodern politics, food sovereignty, rural reconstruction, the world system, socialism, analysis and criticism of imperialism and so forth – from now on is to be found at Silk and Chai.

This is from now on, though, I hasten to add. The entirety of the content that is currently on The Heavy Anglo Orthodox will stay here. I’m really bad at archival maintenance, as can be seen by all the broken picture links in old blog posts from way back when. It’s best to leave things where they stand, though Silk and Chai articles will be expected to link back here a lot. I also may end up creating a parallel blog for my cultural commentary; we shall see soon.

So please, gentle readers, if you’ve appreciated any of the political commentary I’ve done over the years, please have a look at Silk and Chai, give the Facebook page a ‘like’, follow me on Twitter and so forth.

02 April 2020

Ovsyanki: one last fire on the river

Miron (Yuri Tsurilo) and Aist (Igor Sergeev) in Ovsyanki

I recently watched the 2010 film Ovsyanki (literally, ‘The Buntings’, but rendered with the inept English title as Silent Souls) written and based on a novella by Denis Osokin, and directed by Aleksei Fedorchenko. I’ve got some very strong, but decidedly mixed feelings about this film. It purports to be a depiction of the dying culture of the Finnic Merya people of the Volga basin in central Russia, as seen through the eyes of two natives of Kostroma Oblast: a grieving widower Miron, the director of a paper mill who wants to give his dead wife a ‘traditional’ Merya riverside cremation; and his employee Aist, a middle-aged bachelor and poet who also had a connexion with the departed woman.

I have some mixed feelings about the concept, for starters. The Merya people were a real, historical tribe, which spoke a Finnic tongue closely related to the still-living Mari language. They are attested in a sixth-century source, Jordanes’ Getica, as one of the peoples alongside the neighbouring Mordvins who were conquered and subject to the rule of the Gothic king Ermanaric [or Aírmenareiks 𐌰𐌹𐍂𐌼𐌰𐌽𐌰𐍂𐌴𐌹𐌺𐍃]:
23. 116. Soon Geberich, king of the Goths, departed from human affairs and Ermanaric, noblest of the Amali, succeeded to the throne. He subdued many warlike peoples of the north and made them obey his laws, and some of our ancestors have justly compared him to Alexander the Great. Among the tribes he conquered were the Golthescytha, Thiudos, Inaunxis, Vasinabroncæ, Merens, Mordens, Imniscaris, Rogas, Tadzans, Athaul, Navego, Bubegenæ and Coldæ.
Conveniently for Osokin and Fedorchenko, these people were assimilated entirely and successfully into the Russian populace – a fact acknowledged ruefully by Aist in the film – and apart from a handful of toponyms very little actually remains of the Merya language or culture. The river-funeral and wedding rites described in the film seem to be, at best, very recent Romanticist attempts at neopagan reconstruction – if they are not, in fact, whole-cloth sexual wish-fulfilment fantasies on the part of Osokin and Fedorchenko. That doesn’t necessarily mean they are unworthy of consideration, but it does mean that we must treat the narrator as, to a certain degree, unreliable. The film becomes not so much genuine ethnography as the expression of a certain form of post-Soviet cultural insecurity and longing. It is quite believable that people who live in Volga towns with Finnic names attempt to reconstruct a meaningful local, historically-rooted identity for themselves: there is, in fact, a local attempt to revive the Merya language the way Aist is seen to be doing in the film.

This much having been said, Ovsyanki is a deeply-touching and remarkably well-made film. Technically both a road movie and a buddy movie as well as a retrospective romance between Miron and his wife Tanya, Ovsyanki seems to imbue these almost-misleading genre labels with a defying sense of middle-aged male pathos. Fedorchenko is a fan of long static takes, slow pans and a range of focus which provide the film a strong slice-of-life sense, and he uses these to convincingly convey a number of strong emotional effects: grief and humour and sensuality. The score of the film is understated and sombre; and the colours largely cool and muted – the bright yellows and oranges are reserved for Aist’s flashback memories of his childhood life, before his mother died and his father fell into depression.

The story itself is fairly simple, but it runs deep and is made to carry a great deal of thematic weight. Miron (Yuri Tsurilo) asks Aist (Igor Sergeev) to assist him in cremating Tanya (Yuliya Aug), which he wants to be as quiet and as private an affair as possible. Aist takes along the two buntings he bought, afraid that if he leaves them alone for days that they will starve to death. Miron processes his grief by telling Aist the intimate details of his marriage with Tanya, a kind of wake observance which Aist calls ‘smoking’. They bathe and decorate Tanya’s body, wrap it in a blanket and bundle it into the back of Miron’s car, and set off for Gorbatov on the Oka River, which is the preferred site for riverside cremations. As they proceed, Miron reminisces about Tanya, and Aist recalls his father the poet (Viktor Suhorukov), and how the death of his mother affected him. They get to Gorbatov and perform the rite, but Miron gets lost on the way home to Neya and the film takes a very different turn for the two men, who, as Aist tells us early on in the film, are fated not to make it home.

As with Shaman (and, indeed, with many films made by ethnic minority peoples under the Soviets – like Baksy, Shal and even Baikonur), a key theme here is the juxtaposition and clash of a primordial and protean antiquity with industrial modernity. The key difference here, is that the films made by these existing cultures tend to portray their own antiquities as having a firm reality: the life of the aul, the fight for survival on the taiga, the abiding love of Nazira for Gagarin. Industrial technology is portrayed as something aberrant, something less than real, or somehow contingent in its ability to solve problems.

Ovsyanki differs markedly from this, in that it portrays a dying or dead culture which dreams of resurrection. It seems noteworthy that the film presents us with a close relationship between the vital life of the culture – expressed as marriage and fertility rituals – and the funerary rites surrounding death. Tanya’s dead body is adorned like a new bride’s before she is carried out of the house. Miron tells Aist he took delight in bathing his wife in vodka while she was alive; and Miron and Aist do the same thing to her, dead, on the pyre as they prepare to cremate her.

There is a definite insecurity to Aist’s (and his father’s) poetic whims, and one which seems doomed to be swept away by the river of time. In Ovsyanki, it is modern, industrial society which is real, and the Meryan ethnofuturist dream which seems to belong to the ephemera – or else to some eschatological state of completion outside of history. Aist even says this explicitly toward the end of the film. Aist’s father writes his Romantic Merya poems on a Soviet typewriter – his most beloved possession, which also gets a river burial. Tanya is cremated with a toy rubber hedgehog bracelet around her wrist, bought at a magazin. The lumber for the pyre consists of axe-handles, bought in bulk at a hardware store. The holy places of the Merya are dominated by steel bridges, industrial parks, concrete lots. Natural scenery is present in this movie – and lots of it – but it is always out of the centre of focus, cut through or else otherwise dependent on the industrialisation which seems to be the dominant force. Even so, water is given a particular prominence and power in the film, and the Volga and the Oka rivers which are so important to the film’s Merya spirituality seem to have the last say – or at least, the main characters hope that they do. The paganism of the film is poignant in its deliberate state of incompletion and uncertainty, but at the same time profoundly pessimistic with regards to its own historical place.

I enjoyed Ovsyanki, despite its toying on the very ragged edge, without quite managing to fall into, the trap of pretentiousness. The more so since the rites that Osokin and Fedorchenko ascribe to the Merya people appear to be fictitious. Certainly it’s an art-house film, and it knows which audience it’s meant for. But it’s concise and meaningful, and it actually earns its keep as far as storytelling goes: everything that Aist sets up for us in the narration, manages some sort of payoff in the action and imagery in the film. Even the two buntings which Aist brings with him, and which are always on the seat of Miron’s car throughout the movie – and which serve as symbols of spirituality and feminine genius in several different ways – have a significant rôle to play in the film’s conclusion. I found it to be a profound and moving film, and it’s certainly worth watching once.

Dersu Uzala: Man is small before the face of nature

Vladimir Arsen’ev (Yuri Solomin) and Dersu Uzala (Maksim Munzuk) in Dersu Uzala

I am unfortunately not as well-versed in the filmography of Kurosawa Akira 黑澤明 as I ought to be. The ones which I recall seeing, and all of which I have thoroughly enjoyed, have been Rashômôn, Ikiru and Yume. I’ve only just finished watching Dersu Uzala now, and it is truly one of the most sublime and visually-stunning movies I’ve yet seen. It’s also one which I really should have watched a long time ago when doing this series on North and Central Asian films, because it really places a film like Shaman in context.

Dersu Uzala was a Mosfilm production, but Kurosawa demanded – and was given – full creative control over the screenplay and the direction. That is indisputably for the best. The artistry of the movie is spectacularly lush, a bold and sumptuous 70-millimetre canvas of riotous hues and dazzling lights and darks: the greens, yellows and reds of the forest palette; the masterful use of light and shadow to convey size and distance; the atmospheric effects of sunlight, moonlight, snow, steam and smoke. This movie is, in a word, iconic. The cinematographic ‘language’ Kurosawa uses in Dersu Uzala should be instantly and intimately familiar to Star Wars fans. George Lucas clearly had been watching the sun and moon shot as his inspiration for the Tatooine horizon in Star Wars; the frozen lake sequence as his inspiration for Hoth in The Empire Strikes Back; and the forest scenes in the second half of the film as his inspiration for Endor in Return of the Jedi.

Yet – for all the compliments Lucas paid this film’s imaginative depth in his own work – this is no space opera, but a very much this-worldly ballad of survival in which a small band of men is pitted against the gorgeous ferocity of the Far East Russian taiga and everything it can throw at them: blizzards, raging rapids, traps, bandits and tiger attacks. Humanity manages to weather the spirits of nature, on account of the reverent decency, wisdom and gentleness of one human being in particular.

The screenplay of Dersu Uzala is actually based on the real-life memoirs of Captain Vladimir Klavdievich Arsen’ev, a surveyor and explorer who worked first for the Tsarist government in Russia, and later for the socialist Far Eastern Republic. In 1902 while surveying the lakes of the Ussuri region, he met and came to depend on the eponymous local guide. Dersu Uzala is a trapper and hunter who belongs to the Hezhen [also Hezhe 赫哲, Nanai Нанай or Gol’dy Гольды] people, a tribe closely associated with the Evenkil, the Manchu and the Udegei, with whom they share a common body of lore and traditional shamanic religious customs (though nowadays the Evenki are mostly Orthodox, the Manchu Chinese folk religionists, and the Hezhen and Udegei Vajrayâna Buddhists).

Warning: spoilers below.

Despite an awkward and ambiguous first meeting, Vladimir Arsen’ev (Yuri Solomin) comes to like and admire Dersu (Maksim Munzuk), who has a deep reverence for the forest, and regards all animals and all forces within the woods and hills of the taiga as ‘people’ deserving of the same respect. In addition to being (of course) a deadly sharpshooter, Dersu has unparalleled tracking skills and powers of observation, and is often able to deduce from minute details including touch and smell what transpired in a given place several days back. When Dersu leads Arsen’ev and the military contingent accompanying him to a cabin, and furthermore described the old Chinese traveller who had been there some days before, Arsen’ev begins to trust the trapper to greater degrees.

Dersu Uzala assists in Arsen’ev’s survey mission, and saves Arsen’ev’s life on multiple occasions. He and Dersu get separated from the military unit and lost on a frozen lake just as a blizzard begins to blow up; to escape freezing to death, Dersu and Arsen’ev cut down and bundle the long dead stalks of grass on the lakeshore, and after Arsen’ev collapses from cold and exhaustion Dersu is able to construct a makeshift shelter with it, using the captain’s surveying tripod as a tent frame. Arsen’ev’s men are able to find them once the blizzard passes. Continuing their survey, Dersu assists them in other ways: when their food is running low and they’re at risk of starving, he helps them find an Udegei urireng which has made a catch of fish. While they’re in the shirangju Arsen’ev extends an invitation to Dersu to join him in the city, but Dersu refuses, and says he must leave their company the following day. Arsen’ev, sombre but grateful for Dersu’s help, offers him food and money, and Dersu replies that he can hunt his own food and trap sable furs for money. Instead Dersu reluctantly asks for cartridges, and these Arsen’ev’s men gladly give him. Dersu parts ways with Arsen’ev’s company when they reach the KVŽD.

Five years later, Arsen’ev is mapping the topography of Ussuri. Arsen’ev misses his old friend and hopes to meet him again, and indeed, when one of his soldiers reports that an old Hezhen trapper is asking for Arsen’ev by name, he jumps up and goes to greet him – not even taking his gun despite the young soldier’s precautions. Dersu gladly joins Arsen’ev’s party again as a guide. Once more they rely on his help, as when they need to ford a river by a raft and one of Arsen’ev’s men loses a pole in the river, setting the raft adrift. Dersu pushes Arsen’ev off the raft and tells him to swim ashore. And then it falls to Arsen’ev’s men to save Dersu, who clings to a log in the river to save himself from the rapids beyond, which are vicious enough to destroy the raft.

Dersu spends the rest of the autumn in Ussuri with Arsen’ev’s expedition, and Arsen’ev recollects it warmly, saying that his fondest memories of Dersu are from that autumn. But autumns in Siberia are short. Arsen’ev’s party happens across a part of Ussuri which is frequented by tigers, but also by predators of a more mundane sort: honghuzi 红胡子, or ex-Boxer rebels who have taken to banditry in the border country. The honghuzi make their living by trapping, but Dersu is appalled at their methods, saying that they kill more than they need. They also prey on local Chinese people, stealing the women and leaving the men bound up in mosquito-infested waters to die. Arsen’ev and Dersu free the living animals from the traps, rescue the imprisoned men, and assist the local Chinese baojia 保甲 militia – led by a certain Zhang Bao (Súımónkul Chokmarov) – in hunting down the honghuzi. Later they come across a tiger who has been following them. In order to save Arsen’ev, Dersu shoots the tiger, wounding it. Chagrined, Dersu drops his rifle, and explains to Arsen’ev that the tiger will run until it dies, and then the lord of the forest Kanga (similar to Ilmun Han in the Tale of the Nišan Shamaness) will send another tiger to kill him for this bad deed.

Dersu sinks into an ill mood after that, lashing out at the other members of the party and alienating them. He also begins to lose his eyesight – and for a rifle-hunter like Dersu, that is an irreparable loss. His fears of the tiger’s vengeance also begin to grow, and Dersu takes up Arsen’ev on his offer of hospitality. Arsen’ev allows Dersu to move in with his wife Anna (Svetlana Danilchenko) and his young son Vova (Dmitri Korshakov) in Khabarov, and they all welcome him warmly – in particular Vova, who hero-worships Dersu. However, Dersu faces difficulty in adapting to city life. He cannot understand why people sell water and firewood when they should be able to go out and get it for free. He cannot understand why people aren’t allowed to shoot guns inside the city. And he becomes listless being caged up in a ‘box’ and longs to sleep outside. After he is arrested for trying to chop down a tree in the city park, he asks Arsen’ev if he can return to the hills, since he knows he can’t live in the city. Before he leaves, Arsen’ev gives Dersu a rifle – the latest model, so that he can’t miss even with his poor eyesight.

At the end of the film, Arsen’ev gets a telegram saying that a dead Hezhen has been found with his name-card on him, and the investigator is requesting a positive identification from him. Arsen’ev goes to where they found the body, and on seeing him confirms that it is Dersu. The investigator is surprised on hearing that he is a hunter, saying he found no gun near the body. When Arsen’ev tells him he’d given Dersu a new rifle, the policeman speculates that he might have been killed for it. The policeman orders his assistants to bury Dersu, and Arsen’ev stands his walking stick up at the head of his grave.

End spoilers.

Dersu Uzala seems to be something of an inspirational touchstone, not only for Star Wars here in the West but also for the whole genre of Siberia-based survival films. One can see deliberate echoes of both Kurosawa’s cinematographic and thematic preferences in the Ermek Tursynov films Kelin and Shal, for example. Given Rustam Mosafir’s self-avowed admiration for Kurosawa and for genre film in general, it’s little surprise that there should be deliberate echoes of Dersu Uzala in Begletsy: both the colour palette of the forest scenes, and the character of the Evenki hunter who helps the runaways and muses on the strange and contradictory lusts of the white man for gold and for otherworldly bliss. And, of course, in Shaman we see the same tensions between a hostile but beautiful and bewitching Siberian taiga, and the city life to which the main character cannot return.

In a sense, then, Dersu Uzala can be seen to belong firmly in the tradition of the Ostern: the transposition of the American Wild West onto the Eastern frontiers of Russian and Soviet expansion into North and Central Asia. But despite the sumptuous settings and Kurosawa’s obvious affection for his Siberian wildscapes, this is not a film about primordial antiquity versus modern encroachment, nor – despite Dersu’s frequent disparagements of the greed and wastefulness of poachers or certain of the city folk – is it necessarily an œcologically-minded film, though those elements are present as well.

The struggle for survival is the story structure which allows Kurosawa to dwell on the purely human elements that struggle exposes. It really is a film about the friendship between these two men. And it is about the genuine sweetness, generosity, hospitality and reverence of Dersu Uzala himself. Dersu may be considered a continuation of Kurosawa’s bushidô-influence ideal type, particularly with his sharpshooting skill and his intimate knowledge of and respect for nature. But his temperament is very far from martial. Although his entire family was killed by a smallpox outbreak, ostensibly caused by the encroachment of the Cossacks, there is nothing in him that suggests any sort of desire for revenge. (Yes, even we box-dwelling types can learn a thing or two from Dersu in our day and age.) Instead, his character is marked by humility, generosity even for people he might never see, selfless compassion for those in danger. There is much more of the Eastern Orthodox solitary hermit about him than the daimyô.

To conclude: Dersu Uzala is powerful, profound and sublime. Though it’s considered a minor work in Kurosawa’s opus, not necessarily having the drama of Rashômôn or the dynamic action of The Seven Samurai, there’s still plenty here to hold one’s interest. It truly is worth watching for the masterful camerawork and the obvious affection for the land that Kurosawa was moved to use wide-gauge high-resolution film to contain. I can’t possibly recommend it highly enough.