27 July 2020

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

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