30 July 2020

The class politics of Eastern Catholicism, part 3: nobles, burghers, peasants and Brest-Litovsk

Carpathian Ruthenian oprishki, ca. 1500

Continued from Part 1 and Part 2.

Now, before I go and fire this blog-post off into the rushes, let me set some goals for myself here first. A lot of the historical analysis I’m going to lay out here, is going to share considerable overlap with my piece from 2017, Mountain bandits, hedge-priests and the Unia, for understandable reasons. The first goal I’m going to set is to not offer a warmed-over rewrite of that article, exploring the different class positions of Eastern Catholics versus Orthodox in the Ruthenian [or Rusin] territories. I’m hoping to focus a bit more here on the class alignments and shifts among both the Catholic clergy in Poland and the Orthodox clergy in Russia in order to broaden the scope of this discourse. That ties into my second goal: to attempt to contextualise these ecclesiological and religious-ideological disputes within the structure of world-systems theory. Again, this is in keeping with my attempt to introduce a grain of Fr Sergei Bulgakov’s quasi-materialist scepticism of ‘pious’ forms of hegemony and dominance, both contemporary and historical, into my historical thinking.

So the first necessary task, when examining this next phase of Uniatism, is to examine the relative positions, historical relations and class structures of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth under the Jagellonians, and their eastward neighbour, the Russian Tsardom, around the turn of the seventeenth century. To do this, we need to examine the relations of both to the evolving structure of the world-system of trade. That means taking into account the œconomic and political developments of their neighbours as well, and the shifting centre of the world-systemic core and peripheries.

When we left off in Florence in the middle of the fifteenth century, the first ‘seeds’ of proto-capitalist innovation were being sown in the northern Italian city-states, with bankers like the de’ Medici family taking a prominent rôle, in their political presence outwardly as ‘enlightened’ republicans but in practice more as oligarchs. It would be a mistake to assume, as many idealistic Whig historians do, that the ‘new sciences’ and ‘new arts’ which were assiduously promulgated in Renaissance grew out of any philosophically-driven ‘humane’ interest in the subject of man. They grew just as much out of a material need to justify the predatory practices and power-plays of these bankers, who succeeded largely by flying in the face of centuries of the Church’s moral teachings against usury. The two are, however, intimately connected. It can often be difficult to untangle, in history, where the idea precedes the material drive, and the material drive the idea, because the two reinforce each other – whether Hegel is right in a given instance, or Marx.

However, what becomes clear is that the most enthusiastic disciples of these Italian-developed ‘new sciences’ in the fields of œconomics and governance, by the middle of the sixteenth century, were the governments of England under Elizabeth I, Spain under Philip II and Charles IX and Henry III in France (themselves de’ Medicis on their mother’s side). The œconomic doctrines of mercantilism, as practised by these three powers, were the next stage in the Commercial Revolution that had begun with the Italian merchant-princes and bankers in the Big Four over four centuries previously. This new doctrine of the Commercial Revolution, the art of enriching the state, meant a scramble for new forms of œconomic exploitation and political consolidation.

But by the end of the century, England, Spain and France had to contend with the disputes of an older established thalassocratic colonial empire – that of Portugal – against a newer, leaner, meaner and more vicious one in the newly-established Dutch Republic. By the time that the treaty of Brest-Litovsk was signed in 1596, the Republic was already in its twenty-eighth year of open revolt, during all of which time it was financing its revolt against the Habsburgs with income derived from a rapidly-expanding network of colonies and mercantile ventures, which of course included chattel slavery in kidnapped Africans (a market which had been dominated by the Portuguese for the past century). These five powers, between them, had not only begun emulating the city-states of Italy in their policy doctrines – they had also begun to not so much gently pull as yark the core of the world-system from the Eastern Mediterranean, past Italy, to the Western part. The Catholic Church, even as it began to deal with the fallout from the Reformation, had to shift its attention from the East to the West as these centres of political and œconomic power began to shift – away from fallen Constantinople (now Istanbul), and towards Paris, London and Amsterdam.

Eastern Europe began to notice this as well. The creation of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, which had a small but notable bourgeois class centred on Lublin and Krakow, deliberately modelled itself on both the Roman Republic and the Venetian one. The unique political system of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was an experiment in aristocratic liberty and ‘noble republicanism’ – albeit one which came at a hefty price for those below the landed gentry. The Polish state, along with the parts of the Holy Roman Empire which would come to constitute Germany, represented what one might consider a semi-periphery of the new world system. Poland-Lithuania did have an œconomy based on agricultural extraction and export – predicated on brutal exploitation of the peasantry – and a market structure which was thus partially integrated into the Western core. In this – and in its reliance on a democracy of planter-aristocrats – it somewhat resembled the export-oriented agricultural and extraction-based œconomies of the rural colonies of the American South.

The differences between the semi-peripheral Polish and Russian œconomies at this stage in capitalism’s development are subtle, but for our purposes important. The Russian class structure was always such that the military ruling class – the knyaz or the tsar plus his boyary – was never truly autochthonous; as a result, the laws governing the native Slavic peasantry suffered from a good deal of vagueness, and the ability of the nobility to exploit them was thereby limited. One can see this from the often ill-defined distinctions in early Russian law between holopy, zakupy, izhoi and so on; there was always, however, a free peasantry which could fend for itself, and had limited tax obligations to the lords. At first, the Polish class system was similar to this. However, the rise of a new bourgeois legal class in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries meant rapid erosion of the rights of the Polish peasantry. Polish historian Edward Corwin points to the Piotrków Statutes as the beginning of the entrenchment of serfdom in Poland, stripping peasants of their rights to ownership of land and their right to move, and levying punishing corvée and tax requirements on them. Notably, these statutes also removed tariffs and guaranteed free trade between Poland and merchants from the Netherlands and the Hanseatic League. These things are not unrelated.

Intriguingly, despite the Game of Thrones-style violence and cruelty of tenuously-independent Moldavia at this time, the obligations on the Moldavian peasantry were remarkably lighter and less exploitative by comparison to Poland-Lithuania: a tenth of the crop, corvée of twelve days a year, and most importantly legal freedom of movement. This relatively light and unoppressive legal environment for the rural working class would continue in Moldavia for the rest of its independent period. As a result, a significant number of Ruthenian peasants under Polish-Lithuanian rule voted with their feet and ran away into Moldavia. A similar pattern held on the border between Poland-Lithuania and Russia, with many Polish peasants fleeing into Russia, not because Russian masters were necessarily any kinder, but because they had less legal ability to extract labour and produce from them. (This would change for the worse under Peter and Catherine.) Another tactic of the Ruthenian peasants was to band together and rise up extralegally against this tightening legal régime, forming bands of oprishki, or mountain bandits.

Hora de la Aninoasa, by Theodor Aman. Oil on canvas, 19th c.

It is directly against this backdrop – colonial expansion among the Western European powers; growth of mercantilism; inroads of trade in the semi-periphery; the rise of a local bourgeoisie; the tightening of the screws on the peasants; the rise of social banditry – that the Union of Brest-Litovsk needs to be understood. Historian Andrei Nikolaevich Mouravieff, in his History of the Russian Church, writes of ‘the oppressions of the [Polish] nobles’ under Sigismund, who ‘violently appropriated to themselves the property’ of the Orthodox peasantry and black-robed clerics in the Carpathians – causing Metropolitan Onisifor to bring a complaint against the king himself. Considering this Metropolitan’s general timidity and… um, highly questionable sex life – this event is all the more striking, and it hints at the dire œconomic straits and general powerlessness of Orthodox parishes under the ‘tolerant’ Commonwealth government.

The growth of overtures toward Unia in Ruthenia during the latter half of the sixteenth century was largely the pet project of the Jesuit diplomat and polemicist (of northern Italian mercantile extraction) Antonio Possevino, who at first attempted to bring Ivan Groznyi and his realm into the Catholic Church on the terms of the Florentine Union (and to secure special privileges for Venetian merchants in Russia in the process), but was thwarted in both by the efforts of Tsar Ivan himself. Mouravieff, though his style is itself fairly polemical when he speaks of Possevino’s ‘zealous exhortations and wily policy’, is nonetheless convincing It is directly tied to a cohort of highly-educated, merchant-class seminarians in Lublin and Krakow: Piotr Skarga and Benedykt Herbest most notably. These missions took as their outward motivation the notable laxity of church discipline and personal morals among the Orthodox bishops: the Catholic Encyclopædia states that ‘the Ruthenian clergy were steeped in immorality and ignorance; the bishops made no scruple of setting their flocks an evil example, living in open concubinage, and practising the most brazen simony’. If this is overstating the case, then it is not by much. However, the Jesuit missions were more directly tied to the desire on the part of the nobility to more effectively expropriate and exploit the Ruthenian peasantry, as well as to secure the semi-periphery for a world-system that was shifting its centre to the commercial and financial cities of Western Europe. If the Jesuits could not secure Russia for Western Europe’s commercial interests, then they would do the next best thing and use their influence to freeze Russia (and the northern Tea Road) out of Europe.

Possevino, Skarga and Herbest did indeed contact the bishops Cyryl Terlecki and Hipacy Pociej in their effort to secure a Church union. Both of these bishops were from noble backgrounds and had firmer connexions with the Commonwealth state than the other bishops. They managed to procure the signatures for a union with Rome from the other bishops largely by suasion, though they were not above subterfuge, fraud and even force as it suited them when it came to procuring agreement: Mouravieff makes mention of Cyryl Terlecki ordering a monk to be beaten and robbed on the road in order to intercept a letter from Michal Rahoza to Patriarch Jeremias II of Constantinople. In any event, Terlecki and Pociej managed to convoke a local council in Brest where a union with Rome was signed. The pro-Union church and the Œcumenical Patriarchate promptly excommunicated each other. In the twenty years of the ascendancy of the Union of Brest, Pociej in particular sought to subject the churches under the Unia to the teaching authority of upper middle-class seminarians coming out of Lublin and Krakow.

Mouravieff is not the best source when it comes to class analysis. His is a ‘Great Men’ history; his narrative is largely oriented – as one can probably tell from what I have excerpted and paraphrased above – to the clash of personalities, of stratagems in high courts, generals’ tents and bishops’ chambers. But even so, hints of what this history looked like from the ‘bottom up’ peek through. He speaks of the ‘persecutions’ of Orthodox in the Commonwealth and how they were ‘deprived of their civil rights’ in general terms. He describes how the Orthodox clerics and laity in the Commonwealth ‘solemnly assembled in a private house, because they could not obtain the use of a Church’. As seen above, he occasionally speaks of expropriation and subjugation of the peasantry. He speaks of how Orthodox schoolmasters – generally of peasant, not merchant, backgrounds – had to depend on the selective and altogether inadequate patronage and protection of Orthodox nobles. More directly, though, he speaks of the expropriation and privatisation of Orthodox monastery lands at Hipacy Pociej’s orders, something one normally associates with the abuses of the Protestantising Henry VIII. He also makes passing reference to the more violent resistance of the oprishki and the Zaporozhian Cossacks to the Unia. Though this is not his focus, what emerges from Mouravieff’s narrative is a clear distinction of class interest between the Unia and the Orthodox Church in the Commonwealth’s Ruthenian territories.

Asymmetrical warfare in the Carpathian Mountains

Jesuit historians like the late Robert Taft ludicrously insist, in a theatrical form of handwashing worthy of Pilate, that the impetus for ‘uniatism’ came largely from the Ruthenian bishops themselves, when the sources that he himself cites in fact claim otherwise (including Possevino’s own writings). Taft then follows this up with what should be recognised as a breathtakingly-fallacious tu quoque: apparently the uses of force against Catholics by Tsars and Soviet premiers, and the existence of the twee boutique phenomenon of ‘Western Rite Orthodoxy’, are somehow enough to balance the scales of historical wrong. So far from offering a ‘healing of memory’, it seems that Taft’s contribution to this dialogue was merely to offer another list of recriminations without any meaningful overarching analysis.

In recognition of this: no, the Russian state’s hands are not clean; nor are those of the Orthodox hierarchs. We see indictments of Orthodox wrongdoing clearly enough within Orthodox historical accounts, which Taft ridiculously accuses tout court of ‘victimhood pretense’! As mentioned above, the differences in class structure between the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth state and the Tsarist Russian state were largely differences of nuance. One was a ‘noble republic’ of planters; the other a burgeoning autocracy – both had large social gaps which were enforced with sanguine brutality. But the nuances in these gaps were not meaningless to the people at the bottom of the social ladder, just as they were not meaningless to the people designing œconomic and religious policy in these states.

Any real ‘healing of memory’ must begin and end with truth, not with diplomatic approximations of truth. As such, in this case it needs to begin with a frank, unapologetic analysis of how capitalism emerged within the world-system, how it dragged the core of the world-system away from Asia and into the Atlantic, and how it made use of existing ideological supports – including the ones within the Western European Christian world – to siphon wealth away from the periphery and direct it to the core. This may seem a Hegelian tack to take, rather than Marxist. But even those on the liberation-theology end of the scale should be able to agree that we cannot view all instances of civil force in religious questions in the strictly value-neutral and blandly panglossian terms that Taft, Guzniak and other would-be gatekeepers of this memory demand. The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and the Russian Tsardom may have been neighbours and may even have been similar in social structure, but their internal dynamics and their relations to the rest of the world show some important differences. The actions of a semi-peripheral state like the Commonwealth, seeking to integrate itself and its territories into the emerging dynamo of capitalism, cannot be equated to the actions of a semi-peripheral state seeking to countervail against that dynamo, as the last Rurikoviches and the first Romanovs before Peter tried imperfectly to do. Even more so: the retaliatory violence of the people at the bottom, including the Ruthenian Orthodox oprishki of this era, must not be equated to the force of the state and the bourgeois class exploiting them.

29 July 2020

Holy Virginmartyr Seraphia of Antioch

Saint Seraphia of Antioch
القديسة سرافيا الأنطاكية

The twenty-ninth of July in the Holy Orthodox Church is the feast-day of the holy virgin-martyr Saint Seraphia of Antioch. Although her legend primarily comes to us from Latin documents, she has gained a significant cultus in the Slavic tradition, where she is known as Seraphima. She is one of several Orthodox saints in the late classical Christian world, together with Saint Onēsimos of the Seventy, Saints Esperos and Zōē of Pamphylia, Pope Saint Kallistos, Saint Boniface of Tarsos and Saint Padrig of Armagh, who were slaves.

Saint Seraphia [Gk. Σεραφία, Ar. Sarâfiyâ سرافيا] was born to devout Christian parents in Antioch sometime in the late first century. During the persecutions of Christians under Trajan, Seraphia’s parents fled Antioch for Rome, where they resided. They died in Rome. Seraphia grew up remarkably beautiful, and she was sought after by many for marriage. However, she refused all suitors, sold her parents’ belongings and distributed the proceeds to the poor, and sold herself into slavery to a Roman socialite named Sabina, the daughter of a senator named Herodius Metallarius and the widow of a certain Valentinus. Seraphia worked without complaint, led a quiet life free of reproach, prayed every day to God, and beyond her own immediate needs gave away in charity whatever she earned or was given her. In this way her mistress too began to believe in Christ, and was baptised.

After Hadrian came to power, the persecutions against Christians lessened but were not wholly done away with; individual governors and judges were left oftentimes to exercise their own discretion when an accusation was brought against a Christian in public. It appears that such happened to Seraphia, who had a charge brought against her to the governor Beryllus. The first time Seraphia appeared before the governor, she went willingly and without fear, and she was accompanied by her mistress Sabina. Upon seeing her vouched for by such a noteworthy personage, the governor allowed her to leave, but he summoned her back a second time to answer the charge of being a Christian. He instructed Seraphia to make a sacrifice to the Roman idols, which naturally she refused to do, professing her belief in the one true God – Christ Jesus.

Beryllus then handed Seraphia over to two guards of Ægyptian descent, who attempted to force themselves on her at Beryllus’s design. Saint Seraphia called upon God’s name and asked Him to protect her. Before the two men could lay hands on her, there was a mighty earthquake and they were flung away from her, senseless. They could neither rise nor speak. Upon the following day, Beryllus having learned what happened, ordered Seraphia to restore the two guards to health and allow them to speak. Once Seraphia had uttered her prayer to the Lord, the two guards were able to get to their feet and found their voices again.

They related to the governor that as they had approached Saint Seraphia, an angel of the Lord had appeared before them, shielding her body from them and preventing them from coming near her. Beryllus was convinced that Seraphia was in fact a sorceress, and he again commanded her to make a sacrifice to the idols. When Saint Seraphia again refused, the cruel governor ordered her to be burned with torches and beaten with rods. The executioners beat Seraphia so hard that the rods they were using splintered, and as punishment from God for his cruelty one of the splinters flew into the right eye of Beryllus, and after three days made him blind in that eye. Unable to break the holy martyr of God or to sway her, Beryllus ordered that she be put to the sword and beheaded. In this way she met her martyrdom.

Sabina later came to collect the body of her beloved slave, and buried her with due reverence. It would later come to pass that Sabina herself, six years later, would also be beheaded for professing Christ, after being accused before the prefect Elpidius – and she is also recognised as a saint, with her feast-day falling on the twenty-ninth of August.

In light of recent op-ed pieces in media either condemning Christianity for, or attempting to excuse, its involvement in the classical institution of slavery, we need to properly remember both the failings and the promises inherent in the Christian project with regard to slavery. (We also need to bear in mind that the classical institution, however brutal, was far less so than the modern chattel form practised after the advent of capitalism.)

In remembering slaves and former slaves like Seraphia as saints, we are admitting their fundamental ontological equality with their mistresses like Sabina; and we are more than only implicitly rebuking worldly structures which hold some persons to be more equal than others. This is primarily a Liturgical witness and a Liturgical demand, but it prompts extra-Liturgical reflection and action. We need to learn from those of our saints who actively preached and urged direct political action against slavery, such as Adamnán of Iona, and those within Christendom who followed their lead in the logical direction, such as the German legal scholar Eiko von Repgow. Any lesser form of Christian witness would be at best incomplete, and at worst complicit.

Moreover, as Christians we are called upon to repent of complicity in unjust social systems like slavery. This was precisely the key demand of Saint John the Forerunner when he called the people out of the cities to repent and be baptised. Baptism was an act of political symbolism whereby the penitent washed herself clean of her own sins, including the social sins of the Herodian puppet state and its Roman masters. Some Christians, historically, did so repent. Many others did not. This is the fallen reality and the fallen history to which we are witness, without excuse or apology. And following this we must repent of our own complicity in contemporary forms of slavery, including that in Libya and that in the prison-industrial complex. The heavenly equality in sainthood of Saints Seraphia and Sabina demands as much from us.

In that spirit, Holy virginmartyr Seraphia, steadfast confessor of Christ before the pagans, pray unto Christ our God that our souls may be saved!

27 July 2020

The Seven Saints of the early Slavs

The Seven Saints
From left to right: Ss. Naum, Kliment, Sava, Methodius, Angelarii, Cyril and Gorazd

The twenty-seventh of July is the feast day of Saint Kliment of Ohrid, but it is also the tradition in the South Slavic nations, particularly Bulgaria and Serbia, to honour him alongside his fellow apostles to the Bulgarian people and to the early Slavs more generally. Saints Cyril and Methodius, of course, head this list. The successor to Saint Methodius as bishop, Saint Gorazd, is held next in honour. Then there are the priests, Saint Kliment and Saint Naum. And then there are the deacons, Saint Angelarii and Saint Sava.

As I hinted in my hagiography of Saint Kliment earlier, the mission of these saints from Constantinople to the Slavs cannot be underestimated in its importance. In them and through them, the radicalism of the Great Commandment of Christ to preach the Gospel and make disciples of all nations, and that of the first Pentecost, was truly realised. They were the bearers of a great kenotic and creative work, in the uplift of an entire people, and in the creation of an entire written language. The podvig, the struggle, of these Seven Saints is matched in world history only by the efforts of creative indigenous luminaries like Sequoyah of the Cherokee nation, Sejong Daewang of Korea and his Hall of Worthies, Souleymane Kanté of Guinea and Great Teacher Iri of Western Xia. And their mission was global in its importance. As Fr Thomas Hopko puts it: ‘The work of Saints Cyril and Methodius, the ‘Evangelisers of the Slavs’, continued on from Bulgaria through the Serbian lands, and ultimately into Kiev and Northern Russia in subsequent centuries.

The political and theological disputes within Great Moravia on the suitability of the Slavic language for Liturgical use form the backdrop of this struggle. The reasons that the saintly king of Great Moravia Rastislav requested missionaries from Constantinople were: to gain a greater degree of political independence from Louis II of East Francia; to curtail the activities of Frankish missionary priests among his people – who were in fact agents of Frankish domination; and to cultivate a cadre of local priests from among the Moravian people who could act as teachers. In his own words to Emperor Michael III:
Though our people have rejected paganism and observe Christian law, we do not have a teacher who can explain to us in our language the true Christian faith, so that other countries which look to us might emulate us. Therefore, O lord, send us such a bishop and teacher, for from you good law issues to all countries.
Saints Cyril and Methodius were sent to him, both because they were well-versed in the tongue of the Southern Slavs who lived in Macedonia, but also because they were eager for just such a mission. As soon as they set foot in Great Moravia, however, their mission was threatened by Frankish interests – who, again, were more interested in subjugating and exploiting the Slavic people of Moravia than they were in making them Christian. Louis II sent Salomo, the bishop of Constance, to complain to Pope Nicholas I with the scurrilous charge that the Moravians were causing sectarian strife in Passau. In response, the Pope invited both men to Rome to answer the charges, something which they were free to do only after Pope Nicholas had died and Pope Hadrian II had been consecrated as Bishop of Rome. Pope Hadrian blessed their endeavours, consecrated their followers Gorazd, Kliment, Naum, Angelarii and Sava with holy orders, and assigned to the brothers the canonical territories of Great Moravia, Pannonia and Serbia – all of which spoke Slavic languages. Saint Cyril would become a monk in Rome, and die there within two months. Saint Methodius would be sent back to the Slavs as bishop.

After the betrayal of Rastislav to the Franks by his treacherous nephew Svätopluk, Saint Methodius was again subjected to political intrigue. He was captured and imprisoned by the Frankish bishops of Salzburg, Passau and Freising – who illegally deposed him and kept him confined within a German monastery. Pope John VIII had Methodius reinstated as bishop, though as a compromise with the Franks told him to stop conducting the Divine Liturgy in Slavonic. Although Saint Methodius was allowed to continue as bishop in Great Moravia for some time, Svätopluk was incensed by Methodius’s critiques of his lascivious and power-hungry way of living. Again the elderly bishop was sent to Rome on politically motivated false charges, and again Pope John VIII cleared him. However, when John VIII was succeeded by Stephen V, Papal policy swung hard in favour of the Franks. The new bishop of Nitra, Wiching, constantly butted heads with Methodius over the Liturgical use of Slavonic.

After Saint Methodius died in 885, with the consent of Svätopluk, Wiching relentlessly persecuted the followers of Saint Methodius. They were subject to arrest, beatings, imprisonment, torture and slavery from the Venetian markets. Saint Gorazd, apparently, had some degree of political protection on account of his ties to the local Moravian nobility; he may even have continued as a bishop from what is now Krakow, and the Slovaks consider him their first saint. However, Svätopluk and the Frankish priests beat and hounded the deacon, Saint Angelarii, to his death – he reposed in the Lord in Bulgaria in 886, succumbing to the ‘grievous wounds’ he had suffered in Svätopluk’s prisons and along the march to Venice. Little is known about the fate of his fellow-deacon, Saint Sava; his name does not appear in the historical record after Methodius’s death.

Agents of the Eastern Roman Empire were apparently able to ransom many of the followers of Saint Methodius from Venetian slavery. From there, the mission of Saint Methodius was brought to the court of the saintly Prince Boris Mihail of Bulgaria. It was apparently the case that in the early years of Boris Mihail’s reign, being motivated by similar concerns as Rastislav (his one-time frenemy, we might say), he invited clergy from both Constantinople and Rome to his capital and asked them to serve his people. There was some confusion over canonical territory as a result of this move. By the time he invited Saints Kliment and Naum and the other survivors of the ill-fated mission in Great Moravia, he had decided firmly in favour of the Greek clergy and the Byzantine Rite – but not in favour of the Greek language!

Boris Mihail provided Saints Kliment and Naum with safe harbour and an opportunity to continue their mission. In turn, they provided him with a Heaven-sent opportunity, to forge through an independent church polity through educating priests from among his own people in Slavonic through the use of the written language pioneered by Saints Cyril and Methodius. Boris Mihail established schools: one in Pliska (later moved to Preslav), and one in Kutmichevitsa. Saint Naum preached and taught in Pliska, and undertook the translation of Liturgical texts and other scriptures from Greek into Slavonic. Saint Kliment taught in Kutmichevitsa and taught Slavic boys and young men to become priests in their own language.

The significance of the Seven Saints is therefore doubly profound. Not only did Saint Kliment and Saint Naum represent a bottom-up missiology, as already discussed. But the language-creating mission of Saints Cyril and Methodius and their five saintly successors, in the promotion of Church literature in the native language of the Slavs, also set an important precedent for the work of Orthodox missionaries like Saint Innocent of Irkutsk, Saint Innocent of Alaska and Saint Herman of Alaska, who took it as their goal to understand and live within the indigenous cultures they encountered, rather than to conquer them or replace them. O Holy Seven Apostles among the Slavs, confessors of the True Faith among the people and true inheritors of the Great Commission, pray unto Christ our God that our souls may be saved!

Church of the Seven Saints, Sofia, Bulgaria

Saint Kliment Ohridski, Enlightener of Bulgaria

Saint Kliment of Ohrid

The twenty-seventh of July is the feast of Saint Kliment of Ohrid. Kliment is of particular importance as one of the chief disciples of Saints Cyril and Methodius and thus one of the Seven Saints of early Slavdom, who continued his predecessors’ work in creating a written language – the Cyrillic alphabet – for the Slavic people. However, his significance in the history of the Orthodox faith is much broader. He represents, both for the Slavic cultures and for the Orthodox world more generally, a bottom-up missiology that placed the Church closer to the lives of the common people instead of the nobility.

Our fathers among the Saints Cyril and Methodius were commissioned by the notoriously hedonistic Emperor Michael III as well as by Saint Photios, to answer a request by Saint Rastislav of Great Moravia for ‘teachers’ who could instruct local priests in the local tongue. On Rastislav’s part, this was a political move aimed at preserving his independence from the Frankish Empire, which had begun sending Latin- and Frankish-speaking missionary priests into Moravian territory with the purpose of undermining his rule. However, for the holy brothers, this was a God-sent opportunity to preach the Gospel among their mother’s folk, and to do it in such a way that it would be readily understood. The two of them had already developed an alphabet called Glagolitic which, though unwieldy, was nonetheless distinctly well-suited to representing the phonemes of the Slavonic language in written form.

In Great Moravia the two brothers set to work at once preaching the Gospel directly to the people and teaching pupils from among them who were capable of mastering the new alphabet. They were accompanied by several disciples and followers, who lived with them as ascetics. Saint Gorazd (the namesake of the holy Czech bishop who would be martyred by the Nazis for his incidental rôle in Operation Anthropoid) was the favourite and right-hand disciple of Saint Methodius, who would eventually succeed him as Bishop among the Slavs. Gorazd, along with Kliment [L. Clemens, Eng. Clement, OCS Климєнтъ, Bulg. Климент] and Naum, was ordained as a priest in Rome at the same time as Cyril was there; the other two great Slavic saints Angelarii and Sava were ordained as deacons.

They assisted Methodius in his mission to convert the Slavs, under hostile political conditions. Saint Methodius and his followers were persecuted ruthlessly by the Frankish clergy acting on the orders of the East Frankish king Louis II. Methodius was placed under arrest, and only on the inquiry and order of Pope John VIII was he released. However, after Saint Methodius reposed in 885, Pope Stephen V reversed his predecessor’s decision. Under the fanatical Bishop Wiching, the Franks – holding to the notion that only Latin, Greek and Hebrew were fit to be used in ecclesiastical settings – set out to systematically destroy his work in Moravia. His students were arrested, beaten, tortured, sold into slavery in Venice or chased out of Moravia. Saint Kliment, together with Saint Naum, managed to escape into Bulgaria, which had only recently – and shakily – accepted Christianity.

The Great Prince of the Bulgars, Saint Boris Mihail, welcomed Saints Kliment and Naum into his realm – for reasons, in fact, similar to those Rastislav had done. The priests sent by Constantinople into the newly-converted Bulgarian realm spoke only Greek and had no interest in teaching the populace. Kliment and Naum were tasked with setting up schools in Bulgaria in Pliska and Kutmichevitsa. Saint Naum taught in Pliska, where Greek Churchly documents were translated into Slavonic, and which was broadly dedicated to literary and practical arts. The school which Saint Kliment founded in Kutmichevitsa was one in which he trained local Slavic boys and men for the priesthood. Kliment was chosen as teacher here, both on account of his modest, ascetic and God-loving way of life, and on account of his natural affinity with children and tireless energy. During the years in which he taught at Kutmichevitsa, he trained as many as 3,500 Slavic priests.

After Tsar Boris abdicated in favour of his son Symeon, the new king called a council in Preslav at which he tasked the Saints with developing a simplified script for the Slavic language, which would become the Cyrillic alphabet. Although Saint Kliment was instrumental in undertaking this work, he apparently didn’t appreciate the demand that he improve and ‘Hellenise’ the work of his beloved teachers, and he was somewhat estranged from Tsar Symeon as a result. He was also appointed Bishop of Dremvitsa – an outlying see – in 893. He laboured as bishop well into old age, and eventually retired to a monastery he had founded in Ohrid where he continued his translation work from Greek into Slavic, including significant portions of the Pentecostarion. Saint Kliment reposed in the Lord on the twenty-seventh of July in the year 916. He has an additional day of commemoration on the twenty-fifth of November, the feast-day of his patron, Pope Saint Clement of Rome.

The life of Saint Kliment was compiled in Greek at the end of the eleventh century by Saint Teofilakt of Ohrid. Saint Teofilakt himself drew upon older ‘folk’ tradition in Bulgaria and upon, perhaps, an Old Church Slavonic text which is no longer extant. One English translation of this Life comes from the massive and important work of translation undertaken by Kiril Petkov.

It bears stressing that in Bulgaria prior to its Christianisation, the ruling class still largely spoke a Turkic language – one which is actually closely related to the modern Chuvash language spoken in Russia. Their ruler was called a khaghan and the noblemen were called boila, tarkhan, bagain – all terms derived from Turkic. By working in the Slavic language, Saint Kliment and Saint Naum were very deliberately orienting themselves to the service and uplift of the people of the zemya – that is, the peasantry – who occupied the bottom social stratum of the Bulgarian state and who actually spoke the Slavonic language. The insistence on an educational model which made Bulgarian Slavic, rather than Bulgar Turkic, the preferred language of the priesthood, in fact gave the peasantry a good deal more power and respect than they had previously had, and indeed reduced the distance between the nobility and the peasantry. Ironically, one of the unfortunate long-term effects of Saint Kliment’s mission was that the Bulgar Turkic language faced extinction as more and more of the Bulgarian nobility identified themselves with the clerical language, with its new alphabet and profound cultural power.

It would be something of a category error to make Saint Kliment out to be a proto-distributist or a Christian socialist. However, it is necessary to understand that to the modern Bulgarian people, the Seven Saints are nonetheless an empowering and inspiring symbol for the great mass of the narod. Holy equal-to-the-apostles Kliment, enlightener and teacher of the Bulgarians, pray unto Christ our God that our souls may be saved!
Apolytikion to Saint Kliment of Ohrid, Tone 4:

With thy discourses thou didst guide the nations to the Faith of Christ,
And by thy works thou didst lift thyself up to divine life,
O holy hierarch Kliment, equal of the apostles,
Shin¬ing forth miracles upon those who approach thee with faith,
And all-gloriously illumining the Church with signs.
Wherefore, we glorify thine honored memory.

Monastery of Saints Clement and Panteleimon, Ohrid, Northern Macedonia

24 July 2020

Holy and Glorious Christina, Greatmartyr of Tyre

Saint Christina of Tyre
القدّيسة خريستينا الفينيقيّة

The twenty-fourth of July is the feast-day in the Holy Orthodox Church of a holy virgin who suffered martyrdom in the third century: Saint Christina of Tyre. Being a Levantine Roman, she is venerated particularly by the Church of Antioch, though her cultus is universal within the Orthodox Church, and the Roman Catholics also venerate her and locate her tomb at Bolsena in central Italy. Although various accounts locate her birth either in Tyre or in Persia, she should not be confused with the sixth-century Saint Christina of Persia, who is celebrated on the thirteenth of March.

Saint Christina [Gk. Χριστίνα, Ar. Ḵarîstînâ خريستينا] was born in the third century, to wealthy and politically-powerful senatorial parents. Her father Ourbanos, indeed, was the stratēgos (that is to say, the military governor) of Syria Phœnice, and her family lived in the capital city of Tyre (that is, Ṣûr in Lebanon). She was an exceptionally beautiful child, and by the time she turned eleven there were already offers of marriage for her from notable Phœnician families. Her father, however, had other plans for her: he wanted her to become a devotee of the pagan gods, and to this end he placed her in seclusion with two attendants in a beautiful dwelling with idols inside, to which she was commanded to offer incense daily.

Young Christina’s mind, however, was drawn not to the idols, but instead to the beauty of creation. She looked out her window at the stars and over the tops of the buildings and trees on the road, and wondered in what power, in what source these things had their being. She marvelled at the movements of nature; in her heart, she understood that the idols and the pagan gods they stood for could create nothing and could change nothing, since they were themselves the work of human hands. In her heart she turned to the God Whom she did not yet know, the God which created all, and asked Him to reveal Himself to her. She prayed to the unknown God, she wept in her beseeching, and she fasted from food – her soul blazed with love for the power that had created her, even though she did not know His name.

Christina’s hagiography tells us that she had a visitor, a messenger from God, who told her about Christ, Who was God Incarnate and Who came to save the world, and Who died upon the Cross and rose again to that purpose. This messenger told her that she was a bride of Christ, and told her of the suffering that she must soon endure for His sake. She took the idols that were in her room, smashed them, and hurled them out her window. Soon after this, Ourbanos came to visit his daughter. Seeing her room bare he asked what had happened to the idols; she did not answer him. And so Ourbanos asked her attendants what had happened, and they told him.

Enraged, Ourbanos struck Christina across the face. At first Christina stood silent, but as her father continued to beat her she confessed that she had been the one who had destroyed the idols in her room, because she believed in the one True God, the God who had created the world. In his fury, Ourbanos gave the order that her attendants be put to death, and had her cast into prison. While in prison, Christina was visited by her mother, who implored her with tears to return to the Roman pantheon and the cult of the Emperor. But even in the face of her mother’s tears Christina remained adamant in her faith. Ourbanos brought his own daughter to a military trial, and instructed her to offer incense to the Roman gods, to confess her guilt and to ask forgiveness for her sacrilege. But instead, Saint Christina unapologetically confessed nothing but her faith in Christ.

Ourbanos had her handed over to the executioners, who fixed her to an iron wheel beneath which was lit a fire. The executioners turned the wheel such that the young martyr’s flesh was seared on all sides. They cast her back into the prison. Again the messenger of God appeared to her, gave her food and healed her wounds, strengthening her for the sufferings that she must yet endure. The following day her father, seeing her unharmed, passed sentence that she was to be tethered to a heavy stone and drowned in the sea. The sentence was carried out. Again the angel came to Saint Christina’s aid, keeping her alive even submerged beneath the water, and she emerged again from there, alive and well. Her executioner, beholding this with dread, attributed her survival to sorcery.

The following day Ourbanos died. He was replaced as stratēgos by a man named Diōn, who was no better disposed to Saint Christina than her father had been. Diōn had Saint Christina brought before him, and he also tried to persuade her to worship the Roman gods, but to no avail. Seeing her unyielding steadfastness in the faith, he too subjected Saint Christina to cruel tortures, and had her cast into prison. During the long time she spent in prison many people came to visit her; she taught them from what she had learned of the angel of God. Around three hundred people in this way came to believe in Christ, and in this way too the holy martyr of God outlasted Diōn.

In Diōn’s place, Julian was appointed. Among the various tortures he visited upon her, he ordered an iron furnace to be fired until it was red-hot, and then had Saint Christina thrown and locked inside. She remained in the furnace for five days, and when the executioners came to fetch her out they found her alive and completely unharmed. Those who beheld this wonder of God came to believe in Christ themselves. At last the holy great martyr of God was beheaded with the sword; in this way the bride of Christ endured all her trials to the end. Holy greatmartyr Christina, confessor and sufferer for a God Whom you beheld with the eyes of faith, pray unto Christ for us that our souls might be saved!
Apolytikion for Saint Christina of Tyre, Tone 4:

Your lamb Christina calls out to You, O Jesus, in a loud voice:
‘I love You, my Bridegroom, and in seeking You I endure suffering.
In baptism I was crucified so that I might reign in You,
And I died so that I might live with You.
Accept me as a pure sacrifice,
For I have offered myself in love.’
Through her prayers save our souls, since You are merciful.

19 July 2020

Holy Bishop Theodōros Sabbaïtēs, Great Ascetic of Edessa

Saint Theodōros of Edessa
القديس ثيودور الرهاوي

Today in the Orthodox Church is also one of two feast days – the other being the ninth of July – given to Bishop Saint Theodōros of Edessa. The Life of this holy monastic and hierarch of the Antiochian Church under the rule of the early Muslim Caliphate, was apparently a remarkable work of mediæval Arabic Christian literature, and was structured somewhat similarly to a novel. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the Life of Saint Theodōros was popularly read in Russia. In this spirit, it was translated into English by Russian historian and Byzantinist Aleksandr Aleksandrovich Vasil’ev. In this hagiography, in which both realist and romantic tendencies may be observed, the character and temperament of this remarkable saint, even as a child, becomes readily apparent.

Saint Theodōros [Gk. Θεόδωρος, Ar. Thiyyûdûr ثيودور] was born to Christian parents named Sim‘ân and Maryam in the Mesopotamian town of Edessa – today ar-Ruhâ – in the ninth century. His parents, who already had a daughter, longed to have a male child as well, and prayed for a son. Their prayer was answered. The two of them had the same vision on the same night, of Saint Theodōros together with Saint Paul. The two parents were promised that they would indeed have a son, and soon thereafter Maryam conceived and bore him. At the age of two, he was baptised by the Archbishop of Edessa in the name of Theodōros.

Theodōros was apparently not the most well-behaved or studious of children. His parents began to educate him at the age of five, but he was slow in his studies. For not completing his lessons well, he was scolded by his parents and even beaten by his schoolmaster. On one occasion, also, while the Archbishop was holding Divine Liturgy in Edessa, young Theodōros crept behind the ikonostasis and fell asleep under the altar. There he had a vision of a young child, who brought him a honeycomb. Then the child gave him a staff, and told Theodōros that he should become a monk. At this, Theodōros fell down at the feet of the child, and asked his blessing that he might apply himself to learning the Holy Scriptures. When he awoke and emerged from under the altar, the Archbishop was not angry, but instead asked the child what it was he’d seen. Theodōros told the Archbishop his vision, and the hierarch understood that the child he’d seen had been Christ Himself. By giving Theodōros a staff, He had foretold that the boy would become a bishop. At once the Archbishop ordained Theodōros as a reader in the Church. From that time forward, Theodōros had no more trouble in his studies, and he applied himself diligently to what he read and retained what he knew. He grew in understanding of the Scriptures, and also learned the arts of grammar, logic and rhetoric.

Either twelve years after this, or when Theodōros was twelve years old, he lost both of his parents. Of what he inherited from them, he took one portion and gave it to his elder sister, so that she would marry well – and indeed, at length, she did. The rest he gave away, distributing it to the poor and leaving nothing for himself. He set out for Palestine as a pilgrim, eager to walk in the footsteps of the Lord, to visit the Holy Sepulchre and to venerate the other holy places there. He also set out with the intention of renouncing the world and becoming a monk, which he did when he came to Dayr Mâr Sâbâ – the Holy Lavra of Saint Sabbas the Sanctified.

He spent another twelve years there in the novitiate, and entered the full seclusion of the monastic life, in which he spent a further twenty-four years. At this point, the Archbishop of Edessa reposed in the Lord, and no one more suitable was found to replace him than Saint Theodōros the Sabbaite. Both Patriarchs of Antioch and of Jerusalem, together with the monastic clergy of the Lavra and the clergy and laity of Edessa, all agreed to allow the holy monk to be enthroned there. In this way the Lord was calling him to become a bishop, and he had little choice but to accept despite his desire for the quiet and solitude of the contemplative life at Dayr Mâr Sâbâ. This occurred during the reign of Emperor Michael III.

Theodōros did not find the undertaking of being a bishop an easy one, let alone leaving the cœnobitic community he loved, but he submitted himself to God’s will. When he was to be consecrated as bishop of Edessa, the throng in attendance beheld a wonder. A dove, as white as snow, was seen flying under the dome of the cathedral church, which then lit upon the head of the new bishop. This was taken to be a sign from the Holy Ghost.

Saint Theodōros proved himself to be a worthy and able bishop, concentrating all his abilities upon serving the people under his care, and making himself a model of the virtues for their edification. In his words and in his actions he modelled patience, humility, trust in God and love for his neighbours; and he continued the ascetic disciplines he had learned among the Sabbaites. In this way Saint Theodōros guided his flock on the path to salvation. He was not sparing upon the hæretical beliefs which were common in the East at the time, in particular Manichæism, monophysitism and Nestorianism, but admonished them when he had the opportunity, the better to preserve his flock from false beliefs. He was also guided by a holy man, one of the stylites named Theodosios who lived atop a pillar outside Edessa, to whom Saint Theodōros repaired when he was in need of wisdom or consolation.

With Theodosios’s blessing, the Bishop of Edessa set forth to Baghdad to meet with the third son of the Arab Caliph al-Mutawakkil, the prince al-Mu‘ayyad, in order to complain about the treatment of the Orthodox faithful at the hands of the followers of the hæretical sects. When he arrived in the capital, however, he found the young man to be seriously ill. Calling upon the name of the Lord, and taking some hallowed earth which he had brought from the Holy Sepulchre in al-Quds, he mixed it into a beaker of water and bade the young prince drink from it. By this means al-Mu‘ayyad was cured. Naturally, the son of the Muslim Caliph was eager to know by what means his health had been restored. Saint Theodōros began to teach him about Christ, and the way in which He gained the victory over death by his death. Al-Mu‘ayyad listened with great attention to his benefactor, and along with the three attendants who were with him, asked to be baptised. Saint Theodōros baptised al-Mu‘ayyad in the name of the Holy Trinity, bestowing upon him the baptismal name of Yûḥannâ. Shortly after his baptism, for openly professing his faith in Christ before the Muslims, Yûḥannâ was put to a martyr’s death together with his attendants.

This part of the legend is doubted by many modern historians, who say there is little attested connexion in contemporary records between the historical al-Mu‘ayyad and Christianity. However, Aleksandr Vasil’ev concedes, in his analysis of the Life, that it may have a grain of truth. There were a number of succession struggles between the sons of the Caliph, particularly after his death. Al-Mu‘ayyad did fall victim, unjustly, to one of these intrigues, being killed by his brother al-Mu‘tazz in 866 – however, this would have been long after the death of Saint Theodōros.

In the Life, it was revealed to both Elder Theodosios and to Saint Theodōros simultaneously in a vision, that the newly-illumined Yûḥannâ had indeed suffered martyrdom for the sake of Christ, had gone to a holy death and was numbered among the saints. Yûḥannâ promised that he would soon meet them in the Kingdom of Heaven, and this was a sign to Saint Theodōros that his own death was near. He again went on pilgrimage to al-Quds and venerated the holy places, returning to his old sanctuary of Dayr Mâr Sâbâ. Finally at rest in the solitude he had always treasured, he died peacefully in the Lord on the ninth of July, 848. This is the date of his commemoration in the churches in the Slavic tradition, including the OCA. His date of commemoration in the Church of Antioch, and in the other churches of the Greek tradition, is the nineteenth of July. Vasil’ev offers the explanation that this date was in fact the date of his interment at Dayr Mâr Sâbâ.

Saint Theodōros did leave behind several writings of his own, which have been compiled into the Philokalia. Of these writings, Saint Nikodemos says that they ‘abundantly offer to the attentive reader the fruit of holy wakefulness and of spiritual usefulness. So, you that desire your salvation, come and take your fill!’ These are the Hundred Chapters of the Ascetic Life (Κεφάλαια πρακτικά), the Teaching on the Orthodox Faith (Διδασκαλία περὶ πίστεως ὀρθοδοξον) and the Word on Faith and the Discernment of Heretics (Λόγος πίστεως καὶ διακρίσεως αἱρετικῶν). Holy father Theodōros, peaceable monastic and trustworthy overseer of the flock of Edessa, pray unto Christ our God on behalf of us sinners!
Apolytikion of Saint Theodōros, Tone 4:

You are a guide of Orthodoxy,
A teacher of piety and modesty,
A luminary of the world,
The God-inspired pride of monastics.
O wise Theodōros, you have enlightened everyone by your teachings.
You have the harp of the Spirit.
Intercede to Christ our God for the salvation of our souls.

Venerable Dios, Abbot and Wonderworker of Antioch

Saint Dios of Antioch
القديس ديوس الأنطاكي

In the Orthodox Church today we celebrate the memory of another great Antiochian monastic father, Saint Dios the Abbot. This early fifth-century ascetic was a particular favourite of Emperor Theodosios II, who furnished him with a monastery.

Saint Dios [L. Dius, Gk. Δῖος, Ar. Diyyûs ديوس] was born toward the end of the fourth century in Antioch. His parents were observant Christians. From his early youth, Dios was drawn to the church by love of Christ; from a very young age he kept the fasts, ate little food on alternate days, kept vigils and prayed unceasingly, turning in his prayers ‘most often… to the Holy Trinity’. His flesh was therefore humbled and frail even as a child. For his long battle against the passions the Lord granted Saint Dios the gift of wonderworking.

God ordered young Dios to walk to the Imperial City, and there to seek to serve both Him and the people. Dios went there, and took up an abode in a remote and desert place outside the walls, where ordinary people feared to go. There Dios fought both a physical battle to make that place habitable, and a spiritual one against the dæmons that lived in that place. When Dios struck his walking-stick into the ground, it rooted, and at the Lord’s blessing it began to branch and leaf and blossom; in time it became a towering oak tree that survived in that place for many years after Dios’s repose. In this way he was able to attend to his daily bodily needs, and for his spirit he took solace in his endless prayer and vigils.

The people of Constantinople and the countryside soon heard of this hermit, and they began to seek Saint Dios out for counsel, for comfort and for healing – all of which he provided as he was able, working wonders of God by the power of his prayers. He asked nothing from those who came to him, and whatever gifts the people of Constantinople left to him, he at once distributed among the poor, the homeless and the sick.

Word reached Emperor Theodosios II of this wonderworking hermit, and together with the Patriarch Saint Attikos of Constantinople, he went to Dios to receive his blessing. Saint Dios blessed the two men, but they were not yet through with him. The Emperor sought to build a monastery on the site of his hermitage, and the Patriarch sought to ordain him a priest and make him the monastery’s abbot. The Prologue of Ohrid tells us laconically that the poor hermit had to be ‘persuaded to accept holy orders.

In time, he drew many novices and monastic disciples to him. The most immediate need of the brethren was for water. And so the monks of Saint Dios’s monastery dug and delved, and eventually found a dry well in that place – but no water came up despite all their efforts. Saint Dios himself caused it to fill again with the purest fresh water by his prayers. On one occasion the monks discovered a man who had drowned, whom Saint Dios revived. On another occasion, a proud and intemperate unbeliever came to his monastery threatening violence; Dios struck him and he fell down dead. Saint Dios then prayed over the man’s body, and he was raised to life again. Numerous other wonders attended Saint Dios’s life in the monastery.

As the monk grew to old age, his health began to fail. Feeling his end was approaching, he exhorted his brethren to uphold the ascetic rules they had learned and to love each other, said his farewells to them, took the Holy Eucharist and lay down on his cot as though dead. At the news of Saint Dios’s death many people came from Constantinople and beyond, including both Patriarch Saint Attikos of Constantinople and Patriarch Alexandros of Antioch, the mild and humble bishop and successor of Saint Meletios who finally ended the schism with the ‘Eustathian’ zealots in 415, who was then visiting in Constantinople. As the people gathered around him, the saint arose from his cot and opened his mouth to speak: ‘God has given me fifteen more years of this life.’ Great was the joy of the people and the monastic brethren gathered there!

It so happened that Saint Dios did live, in which time he continued to pray without cease, helped all with words of wisdom and comfort, healed the sick, aided the homeless and the poor, and led many people on the path to salvation. Shortly before his repose, Saint Dios was visited by a radiant man in priestly garb. This man told him of his impending death. Taking what time remained to him to give thanks to the Lord and to rightly guide his brethren, he died peacefully and was buried in the monastery. This happened on the nineteenth of June, probably in the year 430. Holy abbot Dios, servant of truth, worker of wonders and friend to the poor, pray unto Christ our God for our salvation!
Apolytikion to Saint Dios of Antioch, Tone 1:

Thou didst prove to be a citizen of the desert,
An angel in the flesh, and a wonderworker,
O Dios, our God-bearing Father.
By fasting, vigil, and prayer thou didst obtain heavenly gifts,
And thou healest the sick and the souls of them
That have recourse to thee with faith.
Glory to Him that hath given thee strength.
Glory to Him that hath crowned thee.
Glory to Him that worketh healings for all through thee.

17 July 2020

How Joanna Cole informed my early Russophilia

An illustration from The Flying Ship

This past Sunday saw the passing of the outstanding, beloved children’s author Joanna Cole. For many – including for myself and my children – her Magic School Bus series of books were some of our first explorations into the world of the natural sciences, and for these contributions to children’s literature Joanna Cole is rightly remembered and honoured. But for me, ever since I was seven years old, Ms Cole’s name is also indelibly associated with a collection of folktales, the Best-Loved Folktales of the World, which (as the title suggests) she compiled from a vast variety of cultures and times from around the globe. This book, an old favourite, has followed me around everywhere and always occupied a place of honour on my bookshelf long into my adulthood.

Children are enchanted by folktales, and I was no exception – but folktales are by no means a childish thing. Indeed, Joanna Cole put together this collection as much for adults – not just parents – as for children. Because prior to the invention of the printing press, most written materials were in fact the self-narration of the élite classes, folklore and folktales are a pristine window into the lives, concerns, struggles and aspirations of the common people. This was one of the big draws of folklore for scholars like the Brothers Grimm, August von Haxthausen, Julius Krohn, Marianna Kambouroglou and Pyotr Kireevskii. As Joanna Cole herself put it:
Because they are the products of preliterate societies, the folktales, unlike our modern novels and short stories, were not invented by a single author and printed in a book to be read unchanged forever. Instead, they were passed by word of mouth from one teller to another, never told twice in exactly the same way. This oral tradition made for a unique intimacy between teller and listeners, and the give and take with the audience no doubt influenced the form of the tales. Thus the stories express the wishes, hopes and fears of many people, rather than the concerns of a particular writer, and they deal with universal human dilemmas that span differences of age, culture and geography.

When heard again and again throughout a lifetime, the tales served not only to entertain but to transmit the values and wisdom of the culture, imbue a strong sense of right and wrong, and provide a reservoir of vivid images that became part of the individual’s imagination and even of his everyday language.

Joanna Cole acknowledges both the universal themes in the body of folklore she herself selected to transmit to another generation, and the particularities of the cultures she sought to represent in translating and compiling them. Indeed, one of her methodologies in this book is to attempt to find a source for the story that is as close as possible to the oral tradition, and then to write in-character in an attempt to transmit the style and voice of the storyteller. Small wonder indeed, that a seven-year-old would, upon stumbling on this book, at once find himself mesmerised by the many voices in Cole’s storytelling!

It was natural that I should gravitate toward the folktales of certain cultures within the book. I was drawn to the trickster-spider Anansi stories of the Ashanti tribe of West Africa. I enjoyed the underdog tales of small, less-regarded children against giants and ogres in English folklore – or the parallel adventures of younger sons against enchanters and trolls in the folklore of Northern Europe. But the folktales that I kept coming back to, time and again, were the stories from Russia: ‘The Fool of the World and the Flying Ship’, ‘The Firebird, the Horse of Power and Princess Vasilissa’, ‘Prince Hedgehog’ and ‘Salt’. The heroes of these stories are remarkable not for their book-smarts or martial prowess, let alone for their wealth. The Fool of the World and the simple Ivan are, in fact, far less than clever to begin with, have no real special abilities and are even belittled by their parents. And even if the heroes in these tales are possessed of cleverness (like Prince Hedgehog) or martial prowess (like the archer in the story of the Horse of Power), they are never saved from danger by their natural gifts but instead by a mixture of faith, compassion and an innate sense of fair play – as well as a certain kind of natural cunning which the villains always seem to underestimate.

I quickly came to admire, and even internalise to a degree, these deeply humane aspects in the moral substratum, by which the folklore of Russia represented the values and wisdom of its common people. As such, the Western ‘meritocratic’ præoccupations, that we should judge people by how smart they are or by how strong they are, never really rubbed me the right way. By the way, you can see from some of the East Asian folktales in this collection – like ‘The Wife’s Portrait’, ‘The Magic Brocade’ and ‘Mister Lazybones’ – that the idea of ‘merit’ in cultures influenced by Ru ideology is very different from the modern Western idea. East Asian ‘merit’, at least in its folk conception rather than in its Legalist one, has a lot more to do with fulfilling filial duties and confining oneself to the appropriate social rôles, than with showing off book-smarts or military strategy. It seems interesting – though not surprising – that the dangers of the usual East Asian studies tack, of conflating Rujia with the disembodied and rationalised ethics of the Enlightenment (which indeed tore up in Europe many of the social substrata upon which Ru ethics in China were built), are brought to the fore and thrown into such sharp relief by the study of East Asian folklore.

The folklore of Russia – and in particular the Great-Russian folklore of Novgorod, in whose vicinity Arthur Ransome lived and collected the folktales that would go into Old Peter, and from there into Joanna Cole’s collection – has retained on the flipside much of the old kenotic radicalism of the Rus’ polity, long after it was abandoned by princes and chroniclers and even churchmen. In this folklore, the ordinary muzhik, even – nay, especially – if he is a simpleton, is often allowed to triumph over tyrannical tsars, mighty giants, violent generals and jealous older brothers. And this triumph occurs occasionally on account of the muzhik’s underhanded cunning, but more often on account of his natural good nature, his instinctive generosity, and most of all his simple faith in God.

On another note: it’s hard not to see the impress of heroes like Ivan and the Fool of the World on the protagonists in Russian cinema. The Kazakh youngster Mustafa in Shıza, Vanya in Kavkazskii plennik, Danila Bagrov in the Brat films, even (to a certain extent) Kris and later Anya in Ya ne vernus’, all embody in a certain sense this distinctively Great-Russian folkloric archetype. They all seem to have these same characteristics of faith, fair play and an instinctive underdog cunning that are hinted at in Ivan and in the Fool of the World – even though the archetype is occasionally played with or subverted in the transition to film.

May God grant unto Joanna Cole everlasting rest, and make her memory to be æternal! It’s interesting to me to discover that the authorial genius behind the Magic School Bus books, indeed did have a profound impact on me and particularly upon my respect and affinity for Russian culture – though this was one signpost I had nearly forgotten until now. Perhaps I’ll go back and read ‘Salt’ again tonight.

Holy Greatmartyr Marina of Antioch in Pisidia

Saint Marina of Antioch
القدسة مارينا الأنطاكية

In the Orthodox Church, the seventeenth of July is the feast day of Saint Marina the Greatmartyr, who is also called in the West by the name of Margaret. This young late third-century virgin-martyr of the Church in Asia Minor, who was glorified in the persecutions of Diocletian, is particularly venerated by the Holy Orthodox Church in Antioch. (It is necessary to point out that Antioch in Pisidia, which is the town of Saint Marina’s nativity, and Antioch on the Orontes which is the historical seat of the Antiochian Church, are two separate cities, both among roughly half a dozen cities in Asia which were known by the name of Antioch in antiquity.)

Saint Marina [Gk. Μαρἰνα, Ar. Mârînâ مارينا, also L. Margarita] was born during the reign of Emperor Claudius Gothicus, the only daughter of a pagan priest named Aidesios in Pisidia in the region of Kilikia in west-central Asia Minor. Her mother died when she was still an infant, and her father gave her into the care of her nursemaid, who was a Christian and raised Marina in the true doctrines of the Orthodox Faith. In her nursemaid’s care the young maiden developed and excelled in all the virtues: she was quick in mind, curious, understanding, deeply compassionate and faithful to the Living God. Upon reaching maturity Marina declared herself to her father as an Orthodox Christian, and desired to live a life of holy virginity; and upon learning this, her pagan father angrily disowned her.

She was fifteen years old when she was arrested on suspicion of being a Christian. When Diocletian came to power he lost no time selecting officials who detested and zealously persecuted the followers of Christ. The one which he appointed governor in Kilikia, Olymbrios, was no exception – he very quickly began hunting down the faithful and subjecting them to cruel tortures and death if they would not submit to sacrificing to pagan idols. One day Olymbrios happened to catch sight of Marina together with her nursemaid, and seeing her beauty he was seized with a passionate desire. Seeking to make her his wife, he inquired after her name, homeland and faith. Marina answered him truthfully: ‘My name is Marina. I am the offspring of the country of Pisidia. I call upon the Name of my Lord Jesus Christ.

The governor tried to persuade her to renounce her faith and consent to marry him; when she refused all his offers he became vexed, and gave Saint Marina over to the executioners for torture. The executioners beat her fiercely, and then fastened the pious maiden with nails to a board, and tore at her body with tridents. Olymbrios himself, unable to witness the tortures they were visiting upon her, hid his face in his hands. However, the holy martyr herself would not yield. She was cast into prison, and there heavenly ministers came to her and healed her wounds. The following day, her executioners stripped her and tied her to a tree, and burned her flesh with fire. Barely alive, the martyr prayed: ‘Lord, You have granted me to go through fire for Your Name; grant me also go to through the water of holy Baptism!

Upon hearing the word ‘water’ from her lips, Governor Olymbrios gave the order to drown the saint in a large cauldron. The martyr besought the Lord that this method of execution should be for her the Mystery of holy Baptism. When the soldiers plunged her into the water, there shone a light and a snow-white dove lit down from Heaven, bearing in its beak a golden crown. The shackles on Saint Marina’s wrists came off her as though of their own accord. The martyr stood up in the fount of Baptism glorifying the Holy Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Ghost. Saint Marina emerged from the fount with her flesh fully healed without any blemish or trace of burning. Amazed by this wonder, the people began to glorify the True God, and by Saint Marina many came to believe. Olymbrios flew into a rage and gave orders to the soldiers to kill anyone who confessed the name of Christ. Fifteen thousand Christians perished under this order, and the Holy Greatmartyr Marina herself was put to the sword. The sufferings of Saint Marina were detailed in an eyewitness account from a man named Theotimos.

The history of the relics of the Holy Greatmartyr is somewhat contested. One account says that they rested in the Panteponteia Monastery of Constantinople up until the sack of that city by Latin crusaders in 1204. According to another source, they were kept in Antioch until the year 908, in which year they were translated to Italy. Today, Saint Marina’s relics rest in a basilica which was consecrated in her honour in 1922: the Agia Marina Church in Thiseio neighbourhood in Athens, near the National Observatory on the Hill of the Nymphs. Saint Marina’s skull was brought to this church – which was founded atop a twelfth-century cave church of the same dedication – in 1966. The holy greatmartyr’s hand was brought to the Vatopedi Monastery on the Holy Mountain, where it is kept to this day. Holy virgin and greatmartyr Marina, fearless and steadfast confessor of Christ’s Holy Name, pray unto Him Who only loves humankind to save our souls!
Apolytikion to Saint Marina, Tone 4:

Your lamb Marina calls out to You, O Jesus, in a loud voice:
‘I love You, my Bridegroom, and in seeking You I endure suffering.
In baptism I was crucified so that I might reign in You,
And I died so that I might live with You.
Accept me as a pure sacrifice,
For I have offered myself in love.’
Through her prayers save our souls, since You are merciful!

Agia Marina Basilica, Thiseio, Athens, Greece