29 May 2020

Minneapolis on fire

Yesterday and today my hometown has been on fire. Protesters have taken the Third Precinct police building. Riot police lines have used tear gas and rubber bullets on the protesters. Our mayor Jacob Frey has expressed his understanding of the emotions of the protesters but has said in no uncertain terms that property destruction and ‘looting’ are unacceptable and will be countered. The president has weighed in on Twitter with his usual subtlety and compassion.

This is all in response to the needless killing in cold blood of a good man, George Floyd, at the hands of a wretch in blue uniform – who still for some inexplicable reason has not yet been arrested, and whom county attorney Mike Freeman as yet refuses to indict. This death, by the way, is largely the result of our city’s indifference and inability to adopt common-sense reforms to our municipal police force.

Here is what I said on Facebook after the protests escalated yesterday:
If you’re the praying sort, please spare one first for the soul of George Floyd, unjustly killed. And a second for his city and mine. I truly hope that something more just for black and brown folks, and something better ordered for all of us such that law is not enforced by the lawless, comes out of all this…

Many of my fellow Minneapolitans have registered that they’ve stayed silent on this - not because we have nothing to say, and not because we do not feel anything, but because we feel any words we have are inadequate. This describes me as well. I am shocked and dismayed out of words.

What truly bothered me was not the force itself – though that was heinous enough – but the casual, callous indifference of both policemen involved to the suffering that they were causing. Rage and fear – those I can understand, even if I don't condone them. I get that being a policeman is a dangerous job. But neither of those men were under threat. They crushed the life out of George Floyd, with all the emotion they would have used to write a parking ticket. It’s hard for me to even process the kind of mentality that would do that.
I thought I would actually have a lot more to add to this, but I don’t. For a little while I toyed with the idea of bringing the writings of Georges Sorel (a French philosopher and activist of both the far-left and the far-right) to bear on this situation. He does have some relevant things to say on the subjects of violence and force, and the moral psychologies of each. But ultimately I thought better of it. There is a time and a place for such reflections – and that time is soon, but not now. Right now it is time for others to speak, and they are doing so. At the moment all I can truly feel is grief and rage for the death of George Floyd, sorrow on behalf of my city, and a desire to support and comfort those around me who need both – coupled with a frustration that at the moment in-person support and comfort might do the opposite of what it intends. But: George Floyd matters. Black life matters. And my city, my neighbourhood, even my self – need to repent. May God grant rest unto George Floyd, and may He have mercy upon us.
I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last twelve or fifteen years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity.

- Martin Luther King, Jr.

EDIT: It looks like the policeman who killed George Floyd has been taken into custody on a charge of third-degree murder as of this afternoon.

27 May 2020

Anaǵa aparar jol: Sataev and Spielberg schmaltz

Ilyas Ersenbaev (Ádil Ahmetov) in Anaǵa aparar jol

If there was one aspect of the film Réketır that I didn’t particularly like, it was the title sequence. The story of Saıan’s descent into crime simply didn’t need all the sepia-soaked baby pics and school graduation shots and establishing montage of his youth growing up in the late Soviet Union. It also simply didn’t need the dramatic autobiographical narration with Saıan ponderously wondering about where it all went wrong in his life. Likewise, the propagandistic pæan to Nursultan Nazarbaev’s autocracy and how it established and preserved the great Kazakh nation at the end of Jaýjúrek myń bala was over-the-top and unnecessary, and came close to cheapening rather than glorifying the victorious self-sacrifice of the hero Sartaı. The dastanic format itself should have carried all the patriotic weight it needed to. If there’s one thing that an independent art-film director like Dárejan Ómirbaev or Ardak Ámirqulov could teach a big-shot state-funded blockbuster director like Aqan Sataev, it’s the value of restraint: the idea that in some cases, less can actually be more.

Unfortunately, with 2016’s Anaǵa aparar jol [Eng. The Road to Mother], we do not get restraint. Or such silly notions as subtlety. In fact, reviewing this film, I take back most of my – in retrospect, fairly trifling – criticisms of Ámirqulov’s Qosh bol, Gúlsary!. By comparison with this film, Gúlsary was the very model of literary and cinematic œconomy. I can easily forgive that film for the venial sins of being a trifle overdrawn, and of having production values on par with a made-for-TV Masterpiece adaptation of classic literature. At least Ámirqulov is aware enough of the value of cinematic language to be able to show us what he’s talking about with the emasculation of Homo sovieticus under an uncaring bureaucracy. And Ámirqulov nowhere feels the need to beat us over the head with his point.

The story itself is touching and heartfelt. It’s the tale of a boy, Ilyas Ersenbaev (Ádil Ahmetov), born on the steppe into a nomadic family, who has to survive the ravages of the Civil War, forced sedentarisation, famines and political purges which took such a heavy toll on all the Kazakh people. His goal in life is to return to his mother Maryam (Altynaı Nógerbek), from whom he was separated at a young age, and his childhood friend Úmit (Arujan Jazılbekova). The road to mother is not an easy one for him; he has to navigate the Soviet orphanage system, military academy and the Eastern Front of the Great Patriotic War, and finally the gulag. And because of the political sensitivity of his family background – he had both Red and White kinsmen growing up – he and his mother are both forced to take on different surnames, which makes locating each other more difficult, even though neither one of them gives up.

This is a simple, eloquent and moving story which should be able to carry its own weight. I say should be, because in the cases where the actors are able to shine out from underneath Sataev’s ham-fisted and clumsy direction, there are actually glimmers of it doing so. All of the leads have been clearly well-cast, and the genuine human moments of interaction that happen between them are all sweet and poignant. In a single fleeting moment at a train station we can easily believe that the long-separated Ilyas and Úmit have fallen for each other. The problem is that neither Sataev, nor screenwriter Timur Jaqsylyqov, actually trust the actors – nay, even the main characters – to convey the story to us. At the very moments which should be left to carry their own emotional weight, instead we have a narrator Morgan Freemaning over us in theatrically-guttural Kazakh: ‘At this moment, Ilyas felt the pangs of loneliness upon his heart,’ or ‘Ilyas did not let his losses embitter him, for he was filled with hope and love’. This gets in the way of the storytelling rather than pushing it forward.

Sataev also doesn’t seem to trust the audience to draw elementary queues from the cinematic language he gives us. To give one example: in one scene early in the film, a ten-year-old Ilyas points out to Úmit a dandelion that’s sprouted up between the cracks of the stones in a well, and admires its tenacity. Later, an adult Ilyas in solitary confinement in the gulag uses the handle of his spoon to scratch a detailed drawing of a dandelion in the wall of his cell. Sataev could have left it there and made his point perfectly well – that is what Ómirbaev would have done. But he has to actually replay that scene in flashback from the beginning of the film. You know, just in case we forgot.

There are other places where Anaǵa aparar jol sort of asks its audience to suspend its critical faculties. Early on in the film, a gang of White bandits, including Ilyas’s uncle, arrive in Ilyas’s village, steal the cattle and horses, shoot his father and then kidnap him from his mother. Then we are later expected, as per the musical flourishes, dialogue and framing, to feel sorry for Ilyas’s kidnappers and see them as paragons of virtue. I can’t help but think of this entire sequence as a missed opportunity, and also one that works against Sataev’s didactic purposes. How much more powerful would this sequence have been if the writers had elected – instead of essentially telling us which brother to root for – to explore in greater depth how the Revolution frayed the traditional bonds that bound families and brothers together! Indeed, this becomes a theme later, with the village Party chief and his son Joldas falling out with each other, and the son turning into something of a monster.

The dastanic notes of this film are again somewhat noteworthy, albeit appropriately modernised from a film like Jaýjúrek myń bala. Ilyas’s birth in a snowstorm, his early childhood struggles, his kidnapping, his righteous defence of the weak even in the orphanage, his heroism in war – actually all point to a frame of reference in the figure of the dastanic batyr. There is also the foil to the batyr in Joldas. Ilyas is a nomad: both literally and figuratively – he is generous, hospitable, pious, honest and upright. The apparatchik Joldas, however, is a traitor-Kazakh who has forgotten his nomadic roots. Having been spoilt by his father, he becomes an unfaithful husband and an abusive drunk who uses threats and bribes to get what he wants.

It is also the prayerful, traditional Hanafî Islâmic faith of both mother and son that is seen to save them. This is also a common theme in Sataev’s movies, and it shows up repeatedly here. Ilyas is shown to be a good Muslim as well as a patriotic Kazakh: giving alms, praying to God, fasting – even starving in the gulag. The pilgrimage he makes, though, is not to Mecca, though he does make it as far as Constantinople. The true pilgrimage he makes is reflected in the title of the film itself.

Anaǵa aparar jol could easily have ended ten minutes before it actually did. A satisfactory concluding sequence is then followed up with an utterly needless and frivolous coda wherein the narrator is revealed to be Ilyas’s son, a teacher who is telling his family’s story to a classroom of Kazakh high school students. In a light blue painted classroom in front of a classroom-sized political map of an independent Kazakhstan and a big old portrait of Nursultan Nazarbaev, of course. The film then pans away from the classroom to the building exterior with the Kazakhstani flag waving in front of the Alatau, just in case you missed all the patriotic symbolism in the title sequence! I’ll say it outright: this punchline comes very close to ruining the damn film. It’s one thing to make an indictment of Stalinism for its brutality and lack of all right human feeling – and that’s one of the things that Anaǵa aparar jol does remarkably well – and elevate a drama of human survival in its place. But Sataev just can’t stop himself from slathering on the sort of cheap nationalism you’d expect from, say, Wolf Warrior 2.

This is a real shame, because sandwiched between the clumsy narration and the soppy score there is a real portrait of fundamental decency and quiet human endurance, on the part of Ilyas and his separated family. This is framed against, and in despite of, the dehumanising brutalisations – physical, psychological, even sexual – of the Stalinist bureaucracy. The most touching points in the movie are when Ilyas is allowed, onscreen, to stand up for a friend of his in the orphanage, to give food to some beggars who have lost their homes in the German advance, to help a fellow gulag prisoner to his feet during a forced march despite rifle-whippings and bites from the guard dogs. There is a stirring drama of the human spirit in here somewhere, and that’s a testament to the sort of storytelling Sataev could have done. But what we get instead with Anaǵa aparar jol is a turgid, tedious, schmaltzy, syrupy mess. A significant part of the problem, I think, is that even though Sataev wants desperately to make real Kazakh film, he can’t help but look to the West, to Hollywood, for inspiration – and ultimately for approval and validation. The stylistic trappings of the movie don’t so much whisper ‘aspiring Spielberg’ as shout it from the rooftop of the zavod. All that having been said, there’s still enough good in here – good acting and good history both – to make it worth seeing once.

24 May 2020

Killer: a cab driver’s life in interesting times

Marat (Talgat Asetov) in Killer

If there’s one English phrase that makes every Asian studies major and every China hand wince, it’s this: May you live in interesting times. Unfortunately, it belongs to a considerable collection of pseudo-Confucian aphorisms and ancient Chinese proverbs of dubious origin, which have accumulated in Western languages over the decades and centuries as something of a relic of chinoiserie: attributing wisdoms both earthy and mystical to a mistily-distant exotic oriental antiquity. Unfortunately, despite even the heroic attempts by Russian Orthodox missionary churchmen to demystify China to their countrymen, it seems even post-Soviet artists have picked up a few of our bad old Jesuitical Western habits.

Sorry to go on a mini-rant, there, but my recent watch of Dárejan Ómirbaev’s 1998 film Killer [in Kazakh, Shilge; in French, Tueur à gages] brought it to mind. This orientalist cliché in its Russian form, ‘Не дай вам Бог жить в эпоху перемен’, serves as the film’s tagline. Even if this mudrost’ is incorrectly attributed, the point of the film is well made, and that point is nothing at all like the misty exoticism the tagline might otherwise imply. It also places Ómirbaev in a kind of spiritual kinship with modern Chinese indie filmmakers like Jia Zhangke. Here, Ómirbaev poignantly takes on the same concerns and themes that drive films like Shıza and Réketır, but he does so in a much darker and more understated way.

The story is straightforward. Ómirbaev details the unfortunate life of a cab driver, Marat (Talgat Asetov – who had a supporting role in Kaırat), who is forced into crime when he accidentally rear-ends a Mercedes and finds himself out of money to pay back the other driver. Events spiral out of control from there. His sister gets cheated out of her savings by fake investors, so his family can’t help him out. He has to borrow money from a loan shark. Marat gets beaten up by the Mercedes owner’s hirelings. He loses his job when his employer commits suicide. He tries to buy a new car, but it promptly gets stolen. His newborn son contracts an early childhood illness which demands expensive therapy. As he gets deeper and deeper into debt, his situation looking increasingly hopeless, the loan shark offers him a way out that involves taking a life.

Killer is uncompromisingly bleak from start to finish. The otherwise dingy palette is dominated by dark blues and dark reds. There is little of Kazakhstan’s natural beauty to be seen (unless it’s out the window of a moving car); instead, we are thrown into a world of decaying Soviet concrete apartments, garages and bars, illuminated where appropriate by fluorescent lights. There are hints early on in the film that drive home the destructive callousness of shock therapy and gangster capitalism that Ómirbaev tries to convey. The mathematics professor Marat works for, Berik Qaraqululy Qasımov, complains that there is no room for proper science in a society where everything is commercialised and where everyone is thrown into insecurity and chaos – and he later commits suicide in his office. ‘Don’t think about tomorrow,’ says the bartender Oleg, as he persuades Marat to borrow money from the loan shark Erjan Shakenovich at an interest rate of 1% per day. Everything is for sale under capitalism: honour, pride, and in the end even basic human morality. Just as in Shıza and Réketır, boxing is taken as the preferred cinematic metaphor for the brutal, cutthroat competition that pits the weak against the strong: though here, it’s portrayed on television screens.

The hopelessness of ordinary Kazakh life under this œconomic anarchy is signalled in several ways. First of all, in a lengthy scene at the beginning of the film, the professor Marat works for can’t find his way out of the studio where he’s giving an interview: in a maze of nondescript hallways, he has to ask for help twice to find his way out. It’s also interesting that Marat’s wife Aijan (Roksana Abuova) takes an almost completely passive rôle in the film. Marat’s family provides him motivation, but they have no place in the cutthroat world outside, and Marat himself is powerless to protect them from it.

In a scene that’s typical Ómirbaev, one of the minor characters recites a lengthy excerpt from Kafka. (I can forgive him for this, because the tension and tight pacing of the film, with Marat being hounded and stalked through his labyrinthine environs like the prey of an unseen predator, shows us that Ómirbaev really gets Kafka.) Of course, it wouldn’t be an Ómirbaev movie, either, if the main character didn’t lose a fight and get beaten up, as happens to Marat off-screen when he tries to stop the thieves who steal his car. Ómirbaev also gives us repeated dream sequences: in Marat’s dreams he goes up to a rooftop, looking to throw himself off. In fact, the only real expression of hope comes from a journalist who is reading a newspaper by the riverside. He remarks to Marat on the differences between Kazakhstan, with its brutal winters, and countries with warmer climates that have no need for warm clothes or oil for heat – but he also says that spring is beautiful, and it’s worth weathering brutal winters for. Of course, this journalist promptly gets shot to death in front of his toddler son, because he had written a scathing piece about some well-connected businessmen’s plans to privatise a factory.

In addition to being the most unsparing of Ómirbaev’s films, Killer is also the most direct. In Killer Dárejan Ómirbaev shows himself to be an expert at listening for what Canadian conservative philosopher George Grant called ‘intimations of deprival’. The brooding pathos of Marat, and the despair of his academic employer, ruthlessly reflects an insecurity that was felt by millions across the former Soviet states in the wake of shock therapy. And the prominent placement of Pepsi and Coca-Cola logos throughout the film shows us exactly whom Ómirbaev believes is to blame. It’s telling that the teenage daughter of the loan shark is seen exactly once, reciting English lessons from a Walkman: later, her father is shown telling her over the phone to study and get a degree overseas so she can stay in America – because why would she want to come back?

Yet despite the film’s squarely anti-capitalist stance, and despite Berik Qasımov’s yearnings for the stability of the Soviet welfare state and employment policies, Ómirbaev shows very little sympathy for Soviet nostalgia. The closest he comes, in fact, is a scene in Oleg’s bar where go-go dancers do a striptease with Soviet naval suits, accompanied by an English song with the refrain ‘These are good times!’ Even there, the nostalgia is framed in an ironic way, as though the only way to celebrate the ‘good times’ happening now is to remember when Soviet times might have been better. The imagery of the Soviet legacy is turned into an instrument for cheap titillation. Like everything else, nostalgia is a commodity for sale.

This brings me back to the faux-classical Chinese mudrost’ that sets the tone for the film. Despite its grimness, Killer bears less resemblance to other post-Soviet Kazakhstani gangster movies than it does to the spare, quiet desperation of the movies of Jia Zhangke, like 2000’s Platform and 2002’s Unknown Pleasures. Both directors are deeply sensitive to the losses – in terms of human dignity and moral direction – that have been incurred by their respective nations’ transitions to capitalism and sexual licence. Both directors hint that the freedom promised by the unleashing of market forces upon people’s personal and work lives is, in fact, another form of imprisonment.

Ómirbaev continues in the traditions of the Kazakh New Wave, here. All the actors are drama school students or amateurs. And Ómirbaev continues to make subtle hat-tips to Igla in particular. Of Ómirbaev’s films, I would have to say that even though Kardiogramma features more impressive art direction, and even though Stýdent makes a clearer and more subtle use of its literary footholds, I think Killer is so far my favourite of his. Here Ómirbaev’s minimalist tendencies are tastefully restrained, and he expresses himself with an admirable œconomy of language and visuals. The result is a film that is crisp, precise and riveting. It features an immediately relatable protagonist, whose descent into crime is shown with a subtlety such that, even though the audience is rightly appalled by Marat’s criminal action, and even though we are not surprised at his abrupt end, we can’t help but sympathise with his reasons.

Venerable Symeōn Stylitēs the Younger of Antioch

Saint Symeōn the Younger Stylite

The twenty-fourth of May in the Orthodox Church is the feast-day of Saint Symeōn Stylitēs the Younger, a wonderworking pillar-dweller of Antioch in the sixth century. The pillar-dwellers were some of the more idiosyncratic ascetics in the Syriac tradition. As with many of the Fathers of the Syrian Desert, they subjected their bodies to extreme hunger through constant fasting, and their dwellings were designed to provide conditions of exposure. As their name suggests, the stylites lived atop literal pillars, dependent on food that was brought to them from below, subject to wind and heat under the open sky. They were literally at the mercy of God. Symeōn earned his soubriquet ‘the Younger’ on account of the fact that seventy years prior to his birth there had been a saintly stylite named Symeōn who lived atop a pillar on Jabal Sim‘ân 20 kilometres northwest of Aleppo.

Saint Symeōn the Younger [L. Simeon Stylites iunior, Gk. Συμεών ὀ νέος Στυλίτης, Ar. Sim‘ân al-‘Amûdî al-’Aṣġar سمعان العمودي الأصغر] was born in the year 521 in Antioch. His parents were mercantile-class Syriacs. His father Yaḥyâ was the son of a chemist from Edessa, and his mother Marṯâ – who became a saint in her own right – was a devout young woman of Antioch who had thoughts to take the veil in her youth. His parents had an arranged marriage which was, at first, not entirely to Saint Marṯâ’s liking. However, after a series of visions of Saint John the Forerunner, who appeared to Marṯâ as she prayed, the girl became reconciled to the marriage, and soon bore a son to Yaḥyâ: this was Sim‘ân – that is, Symeōn.

Symeōn was a studious and serious youth, who from a young age refused to eat meat and ate bread and honey for his meals. When he was five, he was caught in one of the earthquakes that plagued Antioch in those years. This earthquake killed his father Yaḥyâ, and would have killed him as well had he been at home. His mother, in fact, went out looking for him, frantic with worry. However, Symeōn had been praying in the church when the earthquake struck, and he was rescued by a kindly neighbour who took him into her house. He stayed there for a week, and refused all solid food until his mother Marṯâ came to claim him. After this, Symeōn was visited by a vision of Christ and His saints, of heaven and hell, and the Holy Spirit came to urge him to lead a life of holiness.

The following year, Symeōn was visited by a man in a white robe, who led him out into the wilderness alone, and then up a mountain which turned out to be a monastery, about fifteen miles southwest of Antioch. There he met an ascetic, a pillar-dweller, whose name was also John. This Abba John was one of the followers of Saint Symeōn Stylitēs the Elder, and he had had several visions of the younger Symeōn’s arrival. Thus when the six-year-old Symeōn appeared on the Hill, John was full of joy when he greeted him. Symeōn joined the community, and at once took on ascetic severities in excess of what John would allow. John rebuked him multiple times for not eating enough, for not sleeping enough, for saying Psalms when the other monks were asleep: Abba John told him wisely that even an ascetic must take care of his body, for the body is not evil. During this time, Christ appears in visions to Symeōn and speaks to him. At this time Symeōn too begins living upon a pillar near to John’s.

A Patriarch (probably Saint Ephraim of Amida) came to visit Abba John’s monastery, and anointed Symeōn with oil. This was considered the beginning of his ascetic life. His baby teeth fell out, and when he showed them to Abba John and the monks they gave glory to God. One jealous monk tried to kill Symeōn, but the right hand with which he’d try to strike Symeōn dead shrivelled, and the monk fell into a deathly illness. On the brink of dying, the monk confessed to Symeōn his sin against him, and Symeōn forgave him and prayed for him, and the monk was cured. In these early years, Symeōn worked many miracles. A man with hepatitis came to the monastery and asked Symeōn to cure him. Though he was initially unwilling, Abba John convinced the child to touch the man and make the sign of the Cross over him, and he was healed.

The devil attacked the young child several times, trying to tempt him or to scare him into coming down from his pillar, and yet was unable to prevail against him. Abba John rebuked the other monks for refusing, in their jealousy of him, to help Symeōn. Symeōn delivered a sermon from the pillar on the topic of using reason to master the passions, and Abba John said that it was not Symeōn speaking of his own, but the Holy Ghost speaking through him. Patriarch Ephraim came again to visit Symeōn, and told many of the people of Antioch about his great virtue, such that many came to see him. In order to put off visitors, Symeōn bound himself with a rope until he bled and his wounds began to stink. He repeatedly gave whatever clothes he had to homeless people, even in winter. His legs were wounded and inflamed from his ascetic exercises, putting him at grave risk of his life, but he refused treatment from a doctor even when Abba John commanded it, and God healed him. Symeōn asked questions about many deep and mysterious things, and was moved by the Holy Ghost to give advice and comfort to the people who visited him on his pillar – sometimes writing it on scraps of paper or cloth. Unlike other pillar-dwellers, Symeōn changed pillars several times. He moved to a forty-foot pillar first, where he stayed for eight years, though while he was moving some clergymen arrested him and ordained him a deacon, at first against his will. He was tempted by sexual fantasies, but through prayer and the Eucharist he was delivered from them.

Saint Symeōn predicted the death of Abba John, even though John was in excellent health. Abba John praised the boy to everyone, and then died. After this, Saint Symeōn became free to practise upon himself the sorts of ascetic severities that his master had rebuked him for – and in his asceticism he began to see visions. (After thirty days’ vigil, one of his angelic visitors told him to get some sleep.) The Devil appeared to him many times, and Symeōn drove him off each time. Christ also at one point gave him a rod with which to chastise the Evil One and his dæmons. During this time, Saint Symeōn heals many people, and the angels record his cures in a book with white pages, until God tells them to stop, saying that Saint Symeōn’s power for healing has become greater. He heals many of the sick, several dæmoniacs both male and female, two men with a stomach ailments, one young woman with a painful swelling of the foot, and one child who had passed away whose body was brought to him by his father.

Healings from the younger stylite became so heavily demanded that Symeōn took to blessing branches, which Antiochians would take home with them and touch upon sick people and they would be made well. Each branch would only work three times before it would have to be brought back to Saint Symeōn to be re-blessed – his hagiography states that God arranged this so that the monks would not become too puffed up with pride. Saint Symeōn also protected travellers from wild beasts when they called upon his name. Antiochians began to leave gifts for Saint Symeōn, but he refused them. The monks, however, did not. When Symeōn found out that they have been taking gifts from the people for his healings, he chastised them and threatened them.

God warned Saint Symeōn that He would allow the the Šâh of Persia Khosrow I to conquer Antioch because of the idolatries of its people. Saint Symeōn therefore prayed with his whole heart for his city, even while the Persians attacked, his monks fled and the soldiers were captured. Symeōn healed the leg of one who was wounded. The Persians attacked the monastery but as Symeōn prayed a great cloud arose so that none of them could see. Saint Symeōn apparently was trusted enough by Emperor Justinian that he was allowed to negotiate for the release of several Antiochians whom the Persians were holding as prisoners of war. However, Symeōn’s sympathies lay with the poor and dispossessed of Antioch, and he showed this by healing a blind beggar whom the Persians had struck down.

After this the Antiochians would not leave Symeōn alone. He began to yearn for an unbroken solitude, and at God’s prompting he moved onto the Hill of Wonders, which was then a deserted mountain which was inhabited by many wild beasts. He appointed an abbot of the monastery, then set out on horseback for the Hill of Wonders, healing a lame man along the way. At the foot of the Hill, he was greeted by an army of angels, and he climbed upon a pillar which God had shown him. Those who came to him on the Hill of Wonders were attacked by a hungry lion, whom Symeōn sent a disciple to dismiss. Upon hearing Saint Symeōn’s name, the lion withdrew.

Symeōn healed many Antiochians who called upon God, from a plague which struck the city. He correctly foretold Patriarch Ephraim’s death in 545. Saint Ephraim was succeeded by a haughty man named Domnos III, who drove out the paupers from Antioch’s gates and sent them fleeing to Symeōn for aid. Saint Symeōn told them they would not be moved; not long after that, Domnus III was crippled and rendered unable to walk. Saint Symeōn worked several more wonders at this time, healing male and female dæmoniacs, a lame man, a man attacked by wild beasts, a mute girl, two paralytics and a leper. He did not ask any charge for his healings, and he harshly rebuked one of his servants who wanted to take money from the healed people. He predicted disasters and saved people from a great earthquake. He gave his only possession – a hair shirt – to a naked beggar, and spent the next eight months atop his pillar clad only in a loincloth.

As the Hill of Wonders was far too perilous for most ordinary folk to brave, God commanded Saint Symeōn to build a monastery upon the Hill, with a road such that the people of Antioch could travel there. Men and women from Isaura whom Symeōn healed helped him to haul in stone and mortar and began building the monastery under his direction. Saint Symeōn’s disciples complained about a lack of water; when Symeōn prayed the rains came. At once the monks found ancient cisterns and aqueducts on the Hill of Wonders in which to store and direct the water. Symeōn directed for another cistern to be built. His disciples wanted to lock it behind a gate to keep the common folk from drawing water from it, but Symeōn forbade them from doing so. Thus the monks and the common folk both used the water from the cistern – with the common folk using the water from Saint Symeōn’s holy well as an effective cure and protection from disease – and it never ran dry.

The work on the monastery was directed by Symeōn, and various signs and wonders accompanied its construction. A dæmoniac who came for healing gave Symeōn a mechanical part that was needed for the construction of a column. A man with a crippled foot came bearing a wedge. The monks managed to complete the column with these materials provided by the people Symeōn heals. God consecrated the column and allowed Symeōn to ascend. From there, he was able to heal crowds, including a dæmoniac, a jealous priest named Paradeisos, a blind boy, a hæmorrhaging woman and a toothless old man. A dæmoniac named Theotekna was cast out of her house by her husband because she couldn’t conceive; she came to him and was exorcised. She went back to her husband, became pregnant and had a baby. She put up an icon of Saint Symeōn in her house, which worked wonders for women suffering from reproductive ailments.

The monks complained to Saint Symeōn that there was not enough food, and asked him to let them take gifts from those whom he healed. He sternly rebuked them for their lack of faith, and when he prayed the monastic granary became full, and the supply wondrously lasted for three years. In his new monastery, Saint Symeōn and his monks were afflicted by the Devil in a manner similar to Job and his family, from which book Symeōn read to them as they underwent their trials. The Devil hurled himself upon Saint Symeōn’s column, to no avail. The Evil One caused his beard to fall out, though God made it regrow. The Devil stirred up dissension among the brothers, including through an Isaurian named Angoulas. Growing angrier and angrier, the Devil afflicted the surrounding villages, and then struck Antioch itself – causing Symeōn’s mother Martha to fear for the people there. Saint Symeōn prayed and delivered some in the southwest part of the city.

A priest from Iberia (that is to say, modern Spain), came to take some of Saint Symeōn’s hair as a talisman. Symeōn gave it to him, and he went back to Iberia and cured many people with it. Jealous priests then pronounced him a sorcerer and told the bishop, who had him punished. The priest prayed to Saint Symeōn for help, and the bishop fell ill with an illness that could only be healed by Saint Symeōn’s hair. The bishop asked the priest for forgiveness and was healed.

Saint Symeōn’s friends and disciples wanted to make him a priest, but he refused, until he had a vision from God telling him that he must accept it, and he was ordained by Bishop Dionysios of Seleukia. After his ordination, he again began working wonders for people – including an Iberian who swallowed a snake while drunk, a deaf-mute girl and her blind father, and a number of women with infertility, difficult pregnancies or troubled breastfeeding. He converted a number of people from paganism through his wondrous cures. A number of other miraculous healings took place, including a lame girl, a mute paralytic, an ill boy who died while his parents sought from Symeōn the cure, but whom he resurrected at the monastery gate through his prayers.

Saint Symeōn drew the jealousy and the quarrels of astrologers, believers in ‘automatism’ and Manichæans. They sought to confound the saint with argument, but his gentle graced left them shamed into silence. They withdrew and sought to plot against him, and they tried to persuade the soldiery to tear down an icon which someone made of him and put up in a public place – however, a prostitute who was moved by the Holy Ghost to speak denounced them and made them stop. Saint Symeōn then had a vision in which he saw a fearful governor come to Antioch. Not long after, a man named Amantios arrived. Amantios ruled Antioch sternly, and found many of the leading men in Antioch to be guilty of Hellenism, of Manichæism, of astrology and other hæresies – and he threw them into prison, burned their books and imposed heavy fines upon them. Saint Symeōn told the monks that God was refuting the pagans through Amantios. Amantios held a massive trial in which some of the pagans were put to death, though most were released. One man, however, who had been the cause of much dissension, was held in prison. Three of his friends came to Saint Symeōn and told him of the good deeds this man had done. Symeōn prayed for him, and convinced Amantios to free him.

During Lent, Saint Symeōn delivered a homily on the visions he’d received as a child on the need to fast. A hermit from Laodicæa went to Saint Symeōn in despair, and Symeōn told him not to leave his cell. However, the devil tempted him to leave, and he had intercourse with a woman. After this he went to the saint and repented of leaving his cell, but did not confess his sexual sin. Saint Symeōn discerned it, however, and rebuked the anchorite, who thereupon confessed and repented truly. Saint Symeōn and his monks weathered a particularly harsh winter, and Symeōn delivered a homily about how this represented the present age. He promised them a sign to make them believe that their hardships would pass, and on one day the sun shone in the winter, so brightly that it felt to the monks like a summer day.

Saint Symeōn worked several wonders for the workmen and monks at the monastery, preserving them from thirst, from storms, from a shortage of charcoal, and from attacks by wild animals such as bears, boars, lions and leopards. Several monks and laypeople tried to cheat him, whether for gain or to test him, but Saint Symeōn always saw through their deceptions and scolded them. A man with one blind eye asked Saint Symeōn to help him find twelve gold coins he’d lost, but Symeōn healed his eye instead, telling him that his eye is more valuable than any gold. But then the man also wondrously found his lost gold.

Saint Symeōn also interceded with his prayers in the battles of Emperor Justinian against the Lakhmid king Al-Munḏir ibn an-Nu‘mân, who tried to conquer Antioch. In his vision, Saint Symeōn was transported to the battlefield. As he prayed, the Holy Ghost threw fire from heaven and knocked Al-Munḏir down. The Christian Arabs defeated the Lakhmids, and several of them returned to Antioch to give thanks to Saint Symeōn, saying that they had been saved by asking for his intercession.

A young man came to Saint Symeōn for advice, and the stylite told him that he would become the Patriarch of Constantinople. The young man, somewhat sceptically, then asked the stylite who would be the Emperor after Justinian. Saint Symeōn told him that it would be Justin – but that he should keep this a secret. This young man, a scholastikios named Ioannēs, at once went and told Justin about this prophecy, and the two of them became close friends. Justinian appointed Ioannēs to the position of Patriarch of Constantinople after Eutychios was overthrown.

Saint Symeōn also told his monks to pray for the Church of Antioch, for he told them that a great man from Palestine would become Bishop in Antioch after Domnos III’s death. Indeed, he was succeeded in 559 by the Palestinian Saint Anastasios I Sinaïtēs.

Saint Symeōn’s prediction about Justin becoming emperor was borne out, and Justin was of course quite attached to Symeōn, on whose advice he often relied. The saint cured his sick daughter. Justin fell ill himself, and Saint Symeōn warned him not to rely on wicked healers; however his wife Sophia brought in a Jewish sorcerer named Timothy. Patriarch Ioannēs and Saint Symeōn both tried to warn Justin against Timothy but to no avail: Justin was driven mad after using Timothy’s quack remedies, and as he neared death he made a speech promoting Tiberius to replace him as Emperor.

Saint Symeōn continued to work wonders for people until the end of his life. He healed a young child with a crippled foot. When his father expressed scepticism, his own foot became crippled until he repented. Symeōn cured a woman of blindness, and her daughter of a genital condition. Their neighbour, an abusive scoffer, hurled abuse against Symeōn’s cures, and was possessed by a dæmon until he went to see Symeōn. His right hand was afflicted with an infection as well, which lasted until he repented. Saint Symeōn delivered Antioch from a drought, when those who came to pray at his column went home to find their rain-barrels full of water. When sceptics began to wag their tongues at Symeōn’s inability to bring rain, Symeōn lifted up a prayer to God and God delivered a heavy rain upon Antioch. He also healed an elderly widow at her son’s insistence, and a soldier who was afflicted with leprosy after having mocked an unfortunate leper himself.

One of the noblemen of Antioch was a secret worshipper of dæmons, and Saint Symeōn exposed him and made him repent after he skipped the line to receive the Eucharist. Another nobleman from Epiphania came to burn aloe wood at Symeōn’s column, but it let off a ghastly stench which would not cease until he confessed his sins to Symeōn and repented. In a similar way Saint Symeōn exposed several other idolaters and worshippers of dæmons. A Goth, named Vicentius, suffered from a tooth ailment. He went to Symeōn’s pillar and witnessed his wondrous cures, and was converted from Arianism to Orthodoxy. He asks Saint Symeōn how to be saved, and Symeōn tells him to hate the enemies of God, by which he meant the dæmons. However, Vicentius thought he meant the Jews, and so he went and attacked the Jews. When Symeōn heard of this, he told Vicentius not to attack any person, but to wage the spiritual war in his own heart, and to reserve his hate for the Evil One.

Symeōn cured two Isaurians, a lame man named Konōn and a thief named Thōmas. The saint also healed a dæmoniac whose wife had left him, by driving the dæmon into the man’s wife so that she would learn pity. Then he healed the wife and the two were reconciled. He turned the cheap wine of poor merchants into good wine, but the rich men who mocked him lost all their wealth. In a similar way, Saint Symeōn helped eight Armenian workers recover the wages they had lost in the river. From atop his pillar, he continued working great cures particularly for the poor, needy, outcast and sick throughout Antioch and beyond. He lived as a stylite for over 67 years, and was given to know in a vision what day he would die. Knowing his end was nearing he gathered the brothers of the monastery around him and lay out the rule of life they were to follow, and fell asleep in the Lord in peace. This was in the year 596. However, the wondrous cures he worked in life continued from his pillar long after his earthly repose, as much as when he was alive. Holy stylite Symeōn, in your elevated solitude enlightening the world by your peace, pray unto God for us sinners that our souls may be saved!
Apolytikion for Saint Symeōn Stylitēs the Younger, Tone 1:

Dweller of the desert and angel in the body,
you were shown to be a wonder-worker, our God-bearing Father Symeōn.
You received heavenly gifts through fasting, vigil, and prayer:
healing the sick and the souls of those drawn to you by faith.
Glory to Him who gave you strength!
Glory to Him who granted you a crown!
Glory to Him who through you grants healing to all!

Monastery of Saint Symeōn Stylitēs, Antakya

22 May 2020

The class politics of Eastern Catholicism, part 2: ‘Strange, worldly motives’ in Florence

Procession of the Magi, painting by Benozzo Gozzoli (1459)
notably depicting Lorenzo, Piero and Cosimo de’ Medici

Continued from Part 1:

The Avignon Schism and the subsequent Conciliar Controversy in the Western Church was another aggravating factor within the West that led directly up to the attempts at Uniatism. The power and prestige of the Papacy had been damaged by many decades of cæsaropapist subjection to the French Crown beginning in 1309, followed by a political schism prompted by the death of Pope Gregory XI in 1377 and the issue of his succession.

Many middle-class churchmen, particularly local bishops and parish clergy, viewing the decades-long political schism between Pope in Rome and Antipope in Avignon, came to an ecclesiastical conclusion that an Œcumenical Council was needed to finally decide the question of the Papal residence and the powers of the Pope. Several attempts by these conciliarists to bring the schism to an end and bolster – in their view – the moral legitimacy of the Church were made: in 1409 at Pisa; in 1414 at Constance; at 1423 in Pavia; at 1424 in Siena; and finally in 1431 at Basel at the end of the Hussite Wars. Tellingly, the dissidium of ‘the Bohemians’ (i.e., the largely working-class followers of Jan Hus) and the Orthodox Christian doctrine of ‘the Greeks’ were mentioned in the same breath at the Council of Basel – something which caused the envoys of the Emperor deep offence.

The Council of Florence was actually the penultimate stage in the culmination of a longer process that began with the Council of Basel in 1431. Now, I do not want to rehash any more than necessary the proceedings of the Council of Florence itself, because other authorities do that elsewhere. In terms of the doctrines discussed, including the content and theology of the Nicene Creed, the position of the Papacy and the substance of communion, I do not have anything much to add except to say that I am in full agreement with the expositions of Saint Mark Eugenikos. Though doctrine and ecclesiology are inescapable when discussing Church councils like this one, here I try to confine myself to an analysis the dynamics of class at the Councils of Basel, Ferrara and Florence.

The Council of Basel, illustration from the Nuremberg Chronicles

The impetus for Pope Eugene IV in calling for a counter-Council to Basel – first at Ferrara and then at Florence – was to shore up the political influence, prestige and moral legitimacy of the Papacy in an absolute sense, and to reinforce the very idea of Papal supremacy over the Councils. In terms of class politics, the two papal parties in Avignon and Rome represented the class interests of the feudal nobility of France and England respectively – and they behaved like it. The popes (and later antipopes) in Avignon in particular were extravagantly corrupt and lax in their personal morals. Conciliarism represented the petit bourgeois republican political dimension of disaffection with the Papacy in the cities and focussed on outward structural reform, much as they pushed for political reform within the increasingly-oligarchical city-states they lived in – though by the end the conciliarist cause had been effectively coöpted by Emperor Sigismund. The working-class laypeople in rural areas had little to do with either of these ecclesiastical parties. They did not abandon the Church, however. Instead they embraced a revitalised cultus of recent saints like Catherine of Siena. This ‘lay piety’ movement was deceptively apolitical, particularly since Catherine of Siena herself was something of a rabble-rouser and urged far more radical, pro-poor reforms of the Church than the conciliarists were prepared to countenance.

The Council of Ferrara, and then the Council of Florence which was its continuation, therefore represented a confluence of material interests between the nobility and the haute bourgeoisie on the part of the Western parties. Even at Basel there seems to have been some unseemly politicking and disputation between the cities as to where the Council would be hosted. A pro-Papal minority at Basel led by Cardinal Giuliano Cesarini opted for Florence at the vote on 7 May 1437 – and then bore off the conciliar seal and affixed it to their decision under cover of darkness. This is important to note because Eastern Orthodox sources on the Council of Florence often ascribe conspiratorial motives to the Western party at the Council, while Catholic and Anglican sources tend toward an insufferable highfalutin idealism that overlooks entirely the material interests of those who called the Council in the first place.

That the first conscious attempt at Uniatism was centred on one of the big four, therefore, should not be seen as a happy accident. Nor should it be a surprise that it aligned neatly with that city-state’s interests in financial expansion and exploitation. It seems unthinkable to discuss the so-called Council of Florence without also discussing the man who brought it there: Cosimo de’ Medici, the richest banker in Europe. It was in fact de’ Medici, through his agents Roberto Martelli at Basel in 1436 and Ambrogio Traversari at Ferrara in 1437, who introduced the idea to the Pope’s party of moving the Council to Florence.

Lithograph of Ambrogio Traversari

Although Orthodox Church historian Ivan Ostroumov explicitly mentions de’ Medici ’s rôle in arranging the robber-council’s presence at Florence, other accounts, particularly Catholic ones, fail to mention de’ Medici at all. Personally, I don’t ascribe any malice in this; it’s more likely that such elisions proceed from a profound sense of embarrassment. Even so, wounded embarrassment is a fierce thing, and I am aware as I set forth in this account that I will be accused of vulgar Marxism, of materialism, of conspiratorial thought, in exploring the ‘strange, worldly motives’ among the Latin and Greek clergy who assented to Union – so be it; the facts are what they are.

It cannot be disputed that material considerations prompted the transition of the Council from Ferrara to Florence. After all, de’ Medici offered to advance the Pope 40,000 gold ducats on living arrangements for the Imperial household and the Greek bishops in his city. It should be noted that the Greek bishops themselves were far from insensitive to the material compulsions that induced them to agree to the results of the Council. Bribery and other forms of soft coercion were used by the advocates of the Union to win over truculent Greek bishops. Bishop Syropoulos, who attended the Council, was at pains to point out that he had never accepted money for his signature – a firm indication that financial gain was indeed a ready inducement to some of the signatories. Indeed, when the Council was sitting at Ferrara, the Pope withheld the Greek bishops’ promised stipends when they failed to agree with him, and made allowances when they agreed… but at Ferrara they only got as far as discussing the right of the Western Church to make insertions to the Symbol of Faith (not the substance of the filioque clause). After the council moved to Florence, the bribes and threats became more blatant still. Here is Church historian Ivan Ostroumov on the subject, in the translation by Fr Basil Popoff:
At the same time, the Emperor with great difficulty persuaded the Pope to allow the Greeks money for their maintenance, instead of the daily rations of food they were receiving like beggars, quite contrary to the agreements made in the treaty. Generally speaking, the Greeks made constant complaints about this during the whole time of the Counicl session in Ferrara and Florence. The Pope found this the best way of making the Greeks obedient. For whenever the Greeks refused to comply with any of his wishes, he immediately stopped their pay, so that many of the Bishops were obliged to sell their clothes. But as soon as the Greeks agreed to his proposals, their wages were immediately given out as a sort of reward for their obedience. As long as the Greeks disputed about the Council seats, no money was given them. But when the disputes were ended, their monthly allowance was paid out.
As we can see, from the start, the Council of Florence was not by any means a selfless noble-minded project to reunite Christendom. The motives on the Eastern side were, unfortunately, crystal-clear, and their ‘pitiable state’ is laid out and well attested across multiple primary sources, including the writings of the Eastern Roman Emperors themselves. Military and political weakness through protracted warfare with the Ottomans, as well as substantial public debt to the Venetians (!), forced Emperors Manouēl II and Iōannēs VIII Palaiologos to seek aid from the better-armed states of the West – though the Western Empire, which was at that time concluding its crusade against the Hussites, could not oblige the Eastern Empire.

The motives on the Western side have always been cast in a bit muddier terms. It’s clear, however, that the placement of the Council in the northern mercantile states of Italy, rather than in Constantinople, was no accident but instead a central and ideologically-motivated demand of the Western Church under Eugene. So the fact that de’ Medici figured so prominently in the last stage of the proceedings is worth exploring. Cosimo de’ Medici always had an eye on how an East-West reconciliation could be exploited for gain, which is why he had the entire council moved from Ferrara to Florence at his own expense. The financial prospects which would accrue to his coffers from trade concessions from Constantinople for Florence were high on the list of motivating factors. As GF Young, the largely-sympathetic historian of the de’ Medici family, points out:
The Emperor John Paleologus, following the example of his father and grandfather, proposed making a personal visit to the West to solicit help against the Turks to save Constantinople, which must otherwise fall. The Pope invited him, together with the Patriarch and bishops of the Eastern Church, to a conference, holding out hopes of such aid if the breach between the Churches of the East and West could be healed…

The Emperor John Paleologus and his retinue, together with the Patriarch of Constantinople, Joseph, and a numerous body of bishops and theologians, sailed from Constantinople, and in due time arrived at Venice. The Emperor was received with great pomp by Doge Francesco Foscari, and entertained at Venice for a month; after which he proceeded to Ferrara, where Pope Eugenius having also arrived, the Council began its sittings (5th January 1438).

Cosimo, in that task which had been mentioned of gradually bringing foreign nations to recognise in him the motive power of the Florentine state, and also gradually convincing his countrymen that their interests were best served by leaving foreign affairs to him, had had to exercise much patience. He had a matter to effect which necessarily moved but slowly, and during the first few years he had been forced to be content with a very partial control, and often been obliged to acquiesce in action which he was as yet without the power to direct as he would wish. But by the end of the year 1438 he was beginning to have this power, foreign affairs being more and more left to him to manage in his own way. And now he took the first independent step, one which had very important results to Florence. He proceeded to Ferrara, where the Council between the Eastern and Western Churches had been sitting for nearly a year, and so used his influence with Pope Eugenius IV that he got the Council transferred to Florence; whereby he obtained for his city increased political influence, and brought to it much added trade.
[emphasis mine]

Cosimo de’ Medici

This passage has the benefit of highlighting some of the political contours, at least among the Western cohort, within which the Council of Florence took place. Once this is established, then the proceedings of the Council begin to make much more sense. On the face of it, as the power struggle between the conciliarists at Basel and the Papal party at Ferrara and Florence makes clear, a lot of the internal struggle of the Catholic clergy had to do with attacking or protecting the sovereign authority of the Pope. But finical considerations overshadowed even these ideological-ecclesiological ones. Thus, the class dynamics become bitterly ironic. Despite their sympathy with bourgeois republicanism, the conciliarists’ biggest supporter at Basel was in fact the Western Emperor Sigismund of Luxembourg. And despite his insistence on royal grandeur and previous support from the Kings of England, Pope Eugene found the most material support in Ferrara and Florence from de’ Medici, who represented one of the ‘Big Four’ Italian merchant republics. Both Sigismund and de’ Medici had political agendas of their own.

As far as the Greeks were concerned, even those who signed the treaty that concluded the Council at Florence, Ostroumov laconically puts it: ‘The conclusion of peace was a joyful event for one party only—the victors.’ The various material carrots and sticks that had been used on them by the Papal party had evidently left a bad taste in many Greek mouths, including many of them whose signatures were ultimately found on the concluding document. That of Saint Mark Eugenikos was not among them. Ostroumov goes on: ‘The Latins acceded to nothing; the Greeks were more or less obliged to accede to them in everything. The victorious party did not even try to soothe the sad feelings of their new brethren. The pride of the self-willed conqueror evinced itself in all his intercourse with the newly reconciled party.

On the Greek side: the most notable personalities among the Greek deputies to Florence were Mark Eugenikos, the saintly Bishop of Ephesus; Basil Bēssariōn of Trebizond, the Metropolitan of Nicæa; and Joseph II, the Patriarch of Constantinople. Mark became famous within Orthodoxy for being the only member of the Greek delegation to reject the conclusions of the Council of Florence, and he is as such regarded as a ‘Pillar of Orthodoxy’ in our Church. Both Mark and Basil were highly-educated and belonged to senatorial families. Both of them were monks based in Constantinople. Both of them studied under the great Platonic philosopher George Gemistos, who was also at the Council of Florence. Both of them deeply valued certain strands in Western Scholastic thought. Although their upbringings were similar, though, Mark and Basil still represented two very different styles of thought, two very different intellectual tendencies, and ultimately two very different class interests within the Eastern Empire.

Even though Basil was tonsured as a monk, he spent only one year as a monk and later an abbot in Constantinople prior to his elevation to the metropolis of Nicæa. It becomes clear from his subsequent career in both Greece and Italy that he is far more comfortable hobnobbing with the esteemed, the wealthy and the great among the lords spiritual and temporal, than he is with keeping the monastic disciplines. He was a key figure in ‘Renaissance humanism’, which is to say, that he carefully cultivated the patronage of people like de’ Medici and Louis XI of France. Thus, although he was originally sceptical of the Council of Florence, as he began to understand the opportunities for fame and career advancement that the Council provided him, he turned into the biggest supporter of Union between the Churches on the Latins’ terms. As Ostroumov put it: ‘No! it was no love of truth, but other objects in view, that prevailed upon [Bēssariōn] to side with the Latins; and most likely a wish to afford [the Emperor] John pleasure, and a hope of honours from the Roman court.

Saint Mark (Eugenikos) of Ephesos

Mark, on the other hand, was practically raised in the Church and was a monk through-and-through, long before he became a bishop. His concerns are almost entirely monastic. The personality that comes through in the accounts of his activity at Florence show a man who is deeply invested in the exploration of theological questions to the point that he doesn’t care if he trod on the toes of Popes or Cardinals, or Dominican friars like Giovanni di Montenero, or even his own fellow Greek bishops! He was actually originally in favour of the Union, but running up against the egos of Montenero and others in the sittings at Florence, he came to the realisation that a common truth was not to be found there. When he returned home, also, his polemical works could be considered almost ‘populist’ in flavour, as pointed out by his contemporary Andrew of Rhodes. He had no objections, on the whole, to speaking with and directing his writings to the ‘common man’ in Constantinople or Ephesos. As Ostroumov puts it: ‘Mark’s words and influence had a great effect both on the plain, and on the learned, inclining them to the defence of Orthodoxy.

In the end, I have to wonder what might have been, if the effort to unite the Churches had been based, not on the diplomatic proceedings of the proud and the mighty, but instead building on the lay piety of the Catholic devotees of the Dominican Saint Catherine of Siena on one side, and the parallel quasi-monastic religious expressions of the common folk of Byzantium on the other. If anything, the enthusiasm of Saint Mark Eugenikos for certain Western saints going into the Council – particularly the Benedictines – shows that there could well have been some grounds for discourse on a higher common denominator between the Orthodox monastics and the lay piety movement in Spain and elsewhere. As Berdyaev would say, perhaps there is still common ground. But if the Council of Florence is any indication, the technique of forcing a top-down Unia quickly displays a haute bourgeois class character which is inimical to the religious expressions and aspirations of the masses, in both East and West.

Continued in Part 3.

21 May 2020

Holy Hieromartyr Christophoros, Patriarch of Antioch

Saint Christophoros of Antioch
القدّيس خريسطوفورس الأنطاكي

Today, the twenty-first of May, is not only the feast-day of Saint Helen of Constantinople, but also that of a great Patriarch of Antioch, Christophoros, who lived and reposed in the tenth century. This great and holy hierarch was Iraqi-born, in the city of Baghdad. His Orthodox Christian parents named him ‘Îsâ (the Arabic version of ‘Joshua’ or ‘Jesus’), and gave him a fine education in the liberal arts and in classical Arabic. So skilled was he in this literary language of the Qur’ân, excelling in his calligraphy and in his oratory skill, that he became a prime candidate for advancement in the secretarial profession employed by the Islâmic rulers of the time. The young ‘Îsâ sought advancement in the court of Sayf ad-Dawlah, the Emir of Aleppo, who was known to be a generous and tasteful patron of literature: indeed, the Sayf ad-Dawlah was well known for his patronage of the great Shî‘a poet al-Mutanabbî. Young ‘Îsâ impressed the Sayf enough, it seems, that he was quickly promoted, and made secretary to one of the Sayf’s retainers, the Emir of Shayzar (in the modern-day Hama Governorate).

The canonical territory of the Patriarchate of Antioch had been, for a long time, politically divided between lands owing allegiance to Constantinople and lands owing allegiance to Ctesiphon. This is attested as far back as the fourth century in the life of Saint ’Afrâm. As such, the Antiochian Church often had to play a delicate balancing act between the government of Byzantium, on the one hand, and those of Sâsânian Persia and the successive Islâmic Caliphates on the other. Since the conquest of Persian Ctesiphon by the Muslims, the Orthodox hierarchs in charge of the Iranian and Central Asian ‘East’ of the Antiochian Patriarchate – known as the Catholicosate of Romagyris – had been forced to flee Ctesiphon for the town of aš-Šâš [Ar. الشاش, Ch. Zheshi 赭时], which is now Toshkent [Тошкент] in Uzbekistan.

The Orthodox community was again further divided between a large population of Orthodox Romans residing in Arabic-speaking Baghdad, and the administrative functions of that church which were all located in the Central Asian aš-Šâš. This issue came to a head in the late 950s. When the Catholicos of aš-Šâš died in 958, the representatives of the Catholicosate of Romagyris sent a delegation to Antioch to ask that a successor-bishop be consecrated. And the Baghdadis saw their chance to plead their case to the Patriarch to move the Catholicosate from aš-Šâš to Baghdad, the better to serve its parishioners. For this task, the Baghdadis nominated the well-spoken and politically-connected ‘Îsâ.

‘Îsâ arrived in Antioch in 959, only to find that the Patriarch of Antioch, Agapios I, had reposed in the Lord. There were now two successions that needed to be settled. According to the ancient traditions of the Antiochian Church, the new Patriarch was to be elected by the Orthodox clergy and by the people of Antioch. Several names were put forward; one of them was the name of the Baghdadi ‘Îsâ himself. Under examination, the people of Antioch found ‘Îsâ to be not only well-educated, but also wise beyond his years, kind, charitable and steadfast in the defence of Orthodox doctrine. They decided to make him their new Patriarch, and applied to the Sayf ad-Dawlah to approve his appointment. Sayf al-Dawlah already being well-disposed to ‘Îsâ, he granted the appointment without delay. ‘Îsâ, who had lived a well-off sæcular life, was quickly tonsured a monk and given the monastic name Kharîsṭûfûrus, or Christophoros, and thereafter anointed as Patriarch of Antioch.

As Patriarch, it appears that ‘Îsâ, now Christophoros, did not take his new duties lightly. Though he had lived a sæcular life in a state of relatively luxury, he took to his new monastic discipline with fervor, keeping the offices of prayer beginning before dawn and the vigils every Saturday, adopting a vegetarian diet, and never eating during the day. He also showed himself to be a fair-minded judge of disputes, including the one that occasioned his coming to Antioch. Instead of favouring his own party, the Baghdadis, in that dispute, he appointed two men to the office of Catholicos: an Aleppine named Nemaje was sent to Baghdad; and an Antiochian named Eutychios was sent to aš-Šâš.

Christophoros was a dedicated and zealous internal reformer of the Church. He reinvigorated the clergy by appointing new blood to sees and parishes long left empty. And he also stamped out the practices of simony and corruption among the clergy and hierarchs. He also managed to convince his friend and former employer Sayf ad-Dawlah to reduce the jizyah tax on Orthodox Christian households under his sway, so that poor families would not be œconomically-pressured into converting to Islâm. In addition to this, Patriarch Christophoros arranged it with Sayf ad-Dawlah so that the Patriarchate could pay the jizyah on behalf of poor families who were unable to pay. In this way, the Orthodox Christian communities under Christophoros’s patriarchal omophor were never financially pressured to convert to Islâm.

Christophoros also established two patriarchal schools in Antioch: one small seminary school for training priests who hailed from wealthy families, and another larger school for the general and priestly education of children of poor families, which was subsidised from the coffers of the smaller seminary. Christophoros took it upon himself personally to look after the poor children, and often helped them in other ways using his own personal resources and those of the Church. For these reasons Christophoros was often called the ‘new Saint Nicholas’ of the Church of Antioch.

Patriarch Christophoros was generous and kindly to the poor, but he would not allow one whit of laxity among the clergy. One of his priests – a well-connected and wealthy one who served as a physician in the household of the Sayf – committed a minor indiscretion and was told to do a small penance when he confessed it to the Patriarch. However, this priest then complained to the Sayf, asking him to command Patriarch Christophoros to grant him absolution without penance. Sayf ad-Dawlah then summoned Patriarch Christophoros before him and asked him to do this, but the Patriarch refused. Shocked at this flat refusal, Sayf ad-Dawlah asked him why he would not do what he was commanded to do. The Patriarch replied to him: ‘We obey you in all other things, and we cannot disobey you. But as regards that which our religion forbids, we are prepared to go to prison and even to be beheaded by the sword.

Patriarch Christophoros then explained to the Sayf, that although the fault committed by this priest was a small one and could lightly be forgiven, it was not permitted for a Christian to confess his sins to and receive absolution from a Muslim, not even a mighty prince – and to do this was a grave sin which could not be lightly forgiven. At this, the thwarted Sayf became angry and told Patriarch Christophoros: ‘Take care of your head! Even if it rests in the lap of Sayf ad-Dawlah, know that I can still take it off!’ But Saint Christophoros was not moved by this threat.

By the late 960s, the political scenario in the ‘Abbâsid Caliphate somewhat resembled the Warring States period in Chinese history. A largely powerless Caliph governed in Baghdad, and his vassals swore to him nominal loyalty. But in practice they were largely left to their own devices to rule their own small states. They squabbled between themselves, and the borders of the Islâmic domain were subject to invasion from outside. The Eastern Roman Empire under Emperor Nikēphoros II Phōkas began retaking its former territories, beginning with Cilicia and Taurus in Asia Minor, and the island of Cyprus. The Roman tactics of scorched-earth warfare against the ‘Abbâsids created a crisis of œconomic refugees who poured into Syria and Palestine, so that the lands of Sayf ad-Dawlah were besieged by the innocent and the dispossessed.

In addition, the Sayf’s health was beginning to flag. Hoping to take advantage of both the Sayf’s ill health and the refugee crisis in the city, some of the Sayf’s retainers began to plot to take control of Antioch for themselves. Patriarch Christophoros, wanting nothing to do with this treachery yet jealous that the Christian community not be tainted with the suspicion of it, fled Antioch to the monastery of Saint Simeon Stylites outside Aleppo. When one of the monks criticised him for abandoning his flock, Patriarch Christophoros answered him merely: ‘You do not know what I know.’

Patriarch Christophoros was to suffer for his political loyalty to Sayf ad-Dawlah, and his desirousness that the Christians of Antioch remain free of suspicion and not be considered a fifth column for Roman interests. (The traditions of thoughtful civic patriotism and post-colonial and non-aligned Orthodoxy therefore have strong precedents in churchmen like Saint Christophoros!) The retainers who plotted against their Emir began to plot also against Patriarch Christophoros’s life. Knowing full well what awaited him, Patriarch Christophoros accepted the plotters’ invitation to a feast on the twenty-second of May, 967. The plotters were quick to make their move, and they martyred Saint Christophoros with a javelin into the chest. The body of the victorious martyr who defended the Body of Christ, was then thrown – like that of Saint Hesychios over six centuries before – into the Nahr al-‘Âsi, from which it was retrieved eight days later by Orthodox Christians. His body was interred first at a monastery outside Antioch, but it was later translated into the House of Saint Peter.

The Life of Saint Christophoros of Antioch was written down by one of his disciples, ’Ibrâhîm ibn Yûhannâ, who was also responsible for translating the writings of Saint Gregory of Nazianzus from Greek into Arabic. It is a testament both to Saint Christophoros’s scholarly acumen and to his care and commitment to teaching his pupils, that his spiritual children carried on a great number of translation projects, enriching greatly the Arabic intellectual heritage of the Church of Antioch. Holy hieromartyr Christophoros, caring teacher and friend to the poor, pray unto Christ our God that our souls may be saved!
Apolytikion for Hieromartyr Christophoros of Antioch, Tone 4:

Thy Martyr, O Lord, in his courageous contest for Thee
Received the prize of the crowns of incorruption
And life from Thee, our immortal God.
For since he possessed Thy strength,
He cast down the tyrants and wholly destroyed the demons’ strengthless presumption.
O Christ God, by his prayers, save our souls, since Thou art merciful.

Church of Saint Peter, Antioch

16 May 2020

Stýdent: a Kazakh retelling of Crime and Punishment

Nurlan Baısatov as the student in Stýdent

Dárejan Ómirbaev turns his sights on classical Russian literature in his 2012 film Stýdent [Student], a modernised adaptation of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novel Crime and Punishment. The setting, of course, shifts from 19th-century Saint Petersburg to 21st-century Almaty. Dostoevsky’s Raskol’nikov becomes a nameless Kaırat-esque university student: emaciated, bespectacled, dressing in windbreakers and t-shirts that always seem to fit him too loosely, given to stares burning with seething repressed emotions. This representation of Raskol’nikov, it sometimes seems, is tailored to suit Ómirbaev’s preferred minimalistic style – practically no music, very little dialogue, incredibly heavy context and emotional subtext. But despite Ómirbaev tending to ‘write himself in’ to the novel in this way – something about which I have decidedly mixed feelings – many of the questions Dostoevsky explores in his original novel make the transition remarkably well. Ómirbaev brings Dostoevsky’s religious psychology to bear on a post-Soviet reality, and questions of capitalism versus socialism and materialism versus spirituality, in ways that make a certain degree of intuitive sense, and which follow the spirit of the novel closely, but not slavishly.

Our student (Nurlan Baısatov) starts out working as a camera operator on the set of a film directed by ‘Torebaev’ (Dárejan Ómirbaev in something of a self-deprecating cameo), who is then accosted by a student journalist (Ol’ga Korotko) who begins asking him if he’s ashamed of shooting ‘empty and shallow’ films that don’t engage serious problems. Meanwhile, one of the crew spills some tea on the lap of his leading lady (Ásel Saǵatova). The diva calls her big-shot banker boyfriend, who pulls up in an SUV with a couple of toughs, who drag the crewman into the bathroom and proceed to beat him to a bloody pulp while our student looks on in shock. This has ramifications for the student, who quits the film crew in disgust. Because he quit his job, he can’t make rent and is forced to make money in other ways.

After this opening scene, the main plot follows the beats of Dostoevsky’s novel incredibly faithfully – with a few twists. Instead of an axe, the student pawns his grandfather’s war medal for an old pistol and a magazine with three bullets. Instead of a pawnbroker, the student murders a callous magazin clerk who refuses to extend a credit line to an elderly pensioner – along with a woman who also happens to come into the store to shop. In this version of the story, Marmeladov is transmogrified into an elderly poet (Edige Bolysbaev) who writes verse in Kazakh, and his daughter Saniya is a deaf-mute who does all the housework for her drunk father and her wheelchair-bound mother. The student’s family includes a caring mother, and a younger sister Arujan who goes to med school in Atyrau. The Razumihin of this film adaptation is the student’s leather-rocking classmate Marat, who struggles with him to comprehend the worldview of the university lecturers.

This film has a number of throwbacks and hat-tips to earlier films of the Kazakh New Wave – of which Ómirbaev was himself very much a part, with Kaırat and Kardiogramma. Apart from Ásel Saǵatova (who played Saıan’s girlfriend in Réketır) and Ómirbaev himself, the cast is entirely made up – in good Kazakh New Wave tradition – of theatre-school and film-school students and amateur actors. As in Kaırat, here are often TV sets in the frame, and they are often turned on. But the way they are used is much more a hat-tip to Igla, where they foreshadow some element of the plot, or carry some sort of symbolism which Ómirbaev wants to convey to the viewer. Nature programmes often show predatory animals bringing down their prey, for example. And the greedy convenience store clerk is always seen watching historical footage of American presidents like George HW Bush; just before the student kills him, he’s watching a documentary on the Kennedy assassination!

Stýdent also deliberately frames our student’s inner struggles with ideology, courage and authenticity against a backdrop showcasing the amorality of Kazakhstan’s post-Soviet nouveaux riches: a theme deftly introduced by the opening scene with the diva actress who sics her husband’s hired goons on the film crew. In the same scene where the student meets the drunken elderly poet, two security guards are talking about how their employer’s dog eats better meat than they do, and how the daughter drives a hand-assembled German sports car worth $400,000. In another scene, a donkey driver attempts to help a young couple pull their Range Rover out of a ditch – when it takes too long, the young man in a fit of rage gets out of the Range Rover, grabs a golf club and brains the unoffending donkey with it, before getting back in the SUV and driving off. This is juxtaposed against the struggles of practically everyone else struggling to make ends meet. In the university lecture halls, a young female professor preaches to her class, including our student and his classmate Marat, about the failures of socialism and the superiority of the capitalist ‘law of the jungle’ where the strong triumph in ruthless competition, and where the disappearance of the weak is the tragic but necessary price of progress. It is Marat who gives voice to the question of whether this law of the jungle gives those who live under it licence to kill, but we do not hear the professor’s response.

There is another Kazakhstan which is alluded to by the elderly poet, by the student’s own mother and sister, and of course by Saniya. This is the Kazakhstan which has not forgotten its past. There is a strong undercurrent of spirituality here. Unlike in Aqan Sataev’s films, though, the spirituality alluded to in Stýdent is not exclusively Islâmic – although that element is certainly there. The student participates in a Muslim wake for the poet after he is found dead, and in the poet’s living room there’s a big old poster of none other than the great Kazakh poet, moralist and Neoplatonic-Sûfî philosopher Abaı Qunanbaıuly. It makes sense that a Kazakh poet would lionise Abaı and keep his portrait in a place of honour. But in the context of the film the poster of Abaı is placed and used almost in an iconographic sense.

But in the student’s dream sequences, his mother – the voice of conscience – appears to him while he is napping on a bench outside a Russian Orthodox Church, and this seems to be what prompts him to go to Saniya and confess his crime to her. In addition, the voice of this spirituality in this film is placed in the mouth of another university lecturer, an elderly Soviet professor who riffs on Weber and Spengler, and approvingly quotes Laozi 老子 as a source of communitarian spiritual values which are authentically applicable to the ‘harsh steppes’ of Kazakhstan. I don’t believe Dostoevsky would entirely approve of Ómirbaev’s quasi-Perennialist interpretation of his novel, because for him the central question of Crime and Punishment is that of: the ‘law of the jungle’, or Christ. Even so, this reading comes closer to his meaning than many other sæcular understandings of his work.

There are a number of little cinematic flourishes that render this adaptation of Crime and Punishment attractive and even charming – not least of which is the understated intensity of Nurlan Baısatov’s acting. But, I note with a little exasperation, Ómirbaev can’t help leaving his own impress on the adaptation. It wouldn’t be an Ómirbaev film unless: 1.) the protag has multiple dream sequences; 2.) the protag gets beaten up and bloodied in a fight; 3.) the protag’s friend recites a lengthy book passage to him while he listens impassively. Another pet peeve I had with this film: it’s one thing to have a cast that consists mostly of amateurs and students themselves: in fact, this is one thing about Kazakhstani cinema I find refreshing! But it’s quite another thing to shoot the film in such a way that it seems almost amateurish itself. The camera direction’s overuse of mid-distance static takes creates an unintentional source of comedy. And the sound editing seems to privilege atmospherics – in particular the sound of footfalls on concrete – over dialogue.

In all, as a modern adaptation of Crime and Punishment, Stýdent is well worth a watch, despite its Bressonian arthouse idiosyncracies and overall throwback feel. Dostoevsky might not approve of the Perennialist interpretation which downplays the central question of Christ. But he would certainly approve of how Ómirbaev posed the problem of how post-shock therapy hypercapitalist materialism has distorted human moral psychology in ex-Soviet states. In this he has a firm grasp on the contemporary ressourcement in Kazakhstan of not only Dostoevsky, but also Abaı Qunanbaıuly and the tradition of classical Chinese ethical philosophy, as articulated by authors like Orazaly Sábden.