31 October 2020

Another brief, belated warning about Trumpism

Trump’s promises to ordinary Americans were all hot air. But I could have told you that four years ago.

‘Build the wall’? It was never built. It was never even properly planned or funded. All Trump has managed to do on questions of immigration, was to empower an increasingly-unaccountable quasi-fascist fœderal agency to carry out detentions and deportations (as well as beatings, rapes and forced sterilisations). And also add another layer of uncertainty and ambiguity to an opaque DHS which was already growing more hostile to legal immigrants and even tourists under the Obama Administration. (This is why visas were a key issue for me this time around, and neither Biden nor Trump has come close to delivering.)

‘Lock her up’? Actually, that’s a good question. Why isn’t that warmongering harpy spending the rest of her life in a fœderal prison where she clearly belongs? But the Trump Justice Department has made no real effort to indict Hillary Clinton on any charges, regarding ‘her e-mails’ or anything else for that matter. He never appointed a special counsel to investigate her. And Trump’s blustering at Barr over this situation now, one month out from the general election? Sad!

‘Drain the swamp’? Trump’s administration stands a fair shot at being one of the single dirtiest, most self-dealing and most nepotistic in our nation’s history – his rivals in that area being Jackson, Buchanan and Harding. The delegation of administration jobs to Kushner and to Trump’s own children is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of how the Trump extended family is plundering the public. The Department of Education, the Department of the Interior, the Department of Energy – are all staffed by industry lobbyists whose clear financial interests are in subverting or dismantling the very agencies they oversee.

Bringing back manufacturing jobs? Trump’s record on this is actually no better than Obama’s was… not much worse, but also not one whit better. Expanding the economy by four percent a year? To be fair to him, Trump had a pretty good year in fiscal year 2018 – growth that year was 3.18%. But even in 2019, long before COVID hit, Trump’s œconomy was in slowdown mode as it became clear that the wheels were spinning without input. The trade war with China, together with the continued rollback of any kind of regulation on capital movement, actually hurt American workers more than they helped.

Taxes? Was Trump going to cut my taxes? Have you looked at your taxes lately, dear readers? I’ve got my returns right here in front of me. Our family paid $174 in fœderal income taxes in 2017, the last year of Obama’s tax scheme. In 2018, under Trump’s new tax plan, we paid $1,001 in fœderal income tax. That’s right – Trump increased my taxes during his first year in office by almost a factor of six. That’s largely on account of my 1099 schedule. That is to say, because I was working for myself and making income on my own rather than for a corporation, my taxes went up. Trump’s tax plan has actually punished entrepreneurship and individual initiative… at least when it comes from working-class people like me. I wasn’t alone. Lower- and middle-income families across the United States saw their fœderal income tax go up.

Peace in the Middle East? Trump conducted more drone strikes in one year than Obama did over his entire eight-year term. He is still murdering over 130 innocent children a day in Yemen together with the Saudis. He has moved the American embassy in Israel to Jerusalem over the objections of Palestinians and not-insane Jews. He has bombed Syria twice. Trump keeps sending troops over there. He had a plan to assassinate Syria’s president Baššâr al-’Asad, and only Mattis was able to stop him. He actually did assassinate Qasem Soleimani and ’Abu Mahdî al-Muhandis, provoking a war with Iran which, thankfully, they declined to join. The treaties he is busy vaunting now as proof of his diplomatic acumen do little more than solidify a de facto alliance between Turkey, Israel and the Gulf States which has been in the making since at least 2008 – and increases tensions between the Shi‘a powers and the Sunnî powers in the region, making a future regional war more likely.

Fighting for life? The ‘most pro-life president ever’, even though this was one of his campaign promises, has done nothing at all to decrease fœderal funding to Planned Parenthood. Quite the opposite, in fact. In fiscal year 2017 Planned Parenthood self-reported that it performed a record-high number of abortions: 345,672. In response, in fiscal year 2018 (the first fœderal budget Trump was directly responsible for), the president increased taxpayer funding to Planned Parenthood to $563 million, and then in 2019 he increased it again from $563 million to $617 million.

Remember: Planned Parenthood is a capitalist corporation masquerading as a non-profit. This is something Trump can easily understand and sympathise with. They are also the enemies of the working class – not just because they target working-class people to destroy their children and turn a buck in the process, but also because they abuse and oppress workers, bust unions and call in the fœds to break up strikes. And the Trump Administration has been more than happy to oblige them in this. As an aside – it’s appalling to me that anyone who considers themselves leftist could support this anti-worker, anti-human business. That’s where culture war logic has led us, sad to say. But I digress.

Pro-life justices? Please. Trump’s appointments mean exactly nothing. Kavanaugh is literally pro-choice, and Barrett – whatever her personal convictions – will do nothing on Roe. As I’ve said before, culture war battles at the fœderal level are almost completely irrelevant to what actually happens on the ground. Legislative action is needed, but the Republicans simply don’t want to let go of that ace in their hand that means they can turn out the pro-life Evangelical and Catholic vote for them whenever they want. All that effort wasted in trying to overturn Roe through the executive branch and literally nothing to show for it.

It’s really hard to overstate this. Trumpism is a dead letter. It’s smoke and mirrors. It’s a shell game. It’s a con. It’s as fake as pro wrestling and reality TV. As I’ve said before, Biden’s record is really not that much better – that’s why I voted third party again this year. I am really not saying anything new here, however, that was not already apparent in 2016.

For realism, and against utopians in balaclavas

Evo Morales, former president of Bolivia

I reject capitalism. I reject militarism. I reject racism.

I reject the whole concept of billionaires. I reject the ‘too-big-to-fail’ banking system. I reject big pharma, big oil, big tobacco and big tech. I reject the dictatorial ownership of workplaces by a small handful of executives and managers. I reject usury as unnatural, and the idea of making money off of money. I reject the whole œconomics of exploitation and predation and fraud. I reject the whole idea that our œconomy is the best of all worlds. I reject abortion – the in utero democide of the working class – as any kind of solution to poverty or œconomic stress.

I reject wars of aggression. I reject sanctions aimed at the poor. I reject hybrid wars. I reject colour revolutions. I reject torture. I reject drone strikes on civilians. I reject starvation tactics. I reject them especially when my own country does them. I reject the whole idea that I need to condemn other countries for defending themselves from mine. I reject the worship of flags (but not their existence). I reject the idolatry of gods and generals made of stone and metal. I reject the corruption of defence contractors. I reject the military-industrial complex.

I reject the militarisation of police. I reject ‘urban renewal’. I reject big-box corporate architecture. I reject redlining. I reject the application of the death penalty. I reject for-profit prisons. I reject neoliberal school ‘reform’. I reject all harmful, demeaning and condescending stereotypes of black, brown, red and yellow people. I reject any idea that I should have more in common with a white man living in some other country or some other state, than I do with the Black and Latino folks living in my own neighbourhood.

Full stop. But. Ideological pacifism and anarchism are themselves false solutions, even – I would go so far as to say – forms of idolatry. I am convinced of this by people like GK Chesterton, Vladimir Solovyov, Mother Maria Skobtsova and Nikolai Berdyaev - all of whom also rejected capitalism, militarism and racism, every bit as stridently as I do here.

Pacifism by its very nature attempts to equate the robber with the victim of robbery, the aggressor with the aggressed-against, the exploiter with the exploited. Pacifism cuts off at its root any wholly natural feeling of pity for or of righteous anger on behalf of the oppressed. However admirable the nonviolence of a Dr King, the endless drumbeat of disdain and doubt and tone-policing and moral censure from ‘white moderates’ against people who defend themselves is a kind of poison. There is something self-satisfied and self-serving in this demand that the weak and the wronged lie supine, docile and passive while they are beaten and raped and killed by the powerful – and this in particular is what Solovyov and Chesterton militated against. (Note, however, that this is not an argument for ‘just war’. I have never seen a just war. I simply do not think a just war is possible given the modern technologies of killing that are at the disposal of modern governments, or the technologies of psychological warfare that make it easier than ever to dehumanise those that states would have us consider enemies.)

And notwithstanding my intellectual admiration for Georges Sorel, Franz Kafka, and some certain others in the historical anarcho-syndicalist tradition of thought, anarchism is nowadays little more than the ideology of the feeble-minded, foolish, ignorant and irresponsible. The ‘in defence of looting’ ideology cheered on the nighttime looters in Minneapolis (who, it turns out, were not left-wingers at all, but instead a mixture of opportunists and far-right agents provocateur), and made it easier for society to blame and scapegoat the daylight-hour marchers for justice for George Floyd who were respectful and well-coordinated. A white anarchism that smashes and burns storefronts, then runs and hides for cover behind black bodies when the police crack down, is no sort of ideology that I can respect.

And internationally, the same pattern plays out with the rejection of even imperfect states in the Third World, because they are states. When anarchists reject the populist governments of Evo Morales in Bolivia, or of Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela, or even Baššâr al-’Asad in Syria – they manufacture consent for military intervention, and then enable and give licence to the very worst, most racist elements in those societies that opportunistically seek advantage for themselves. The fascist Áñez government rode to power in a Western-backed coup in Bolivia last year, and was cheered on by white Western anarchists who bought into media lies about Morales and in general just hated him for, um, leading a state. The same anarchists hated Chávez and hate Maduro in Venezuela, such that they supported the neoliberal Juan Guaidó (or else adopted a cowardly position of neutrality once their job in delegitimating the democratic government was done). The same also happened in Syria with anarchist support for the ‘Free Syrian Army’, which was from the very start controlled by violent far-right fundamentalist elements.

I would much rather stand for realism and wu wei in foreign policy: recognising contingencies and imperfections in the administration of states, making a good-faith effort to try and constrain the worst aspects of militarism, seeing the value in leaving other countries alone when the safety of our own citizens is not threatened. I would rather stand in solidarity with progressive leaders like Morales and Maduro, and leave states alone that do not threaten our fundamental security or national (not private) interests. That beats embracing an impossible idealism which ultimately only serves Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos. I would rather stand for a broad, non-sectarian left economic policy with a preference for worker-ownership and an independent monetary policy. And I would rather stand for a reformist approach to community policing so that we can actually successfully demilitarise the police and put an emphasis on public safety as something responsive and trustworthy. In short, what I would rather stand for is something like a realist left.

30 October 2020

Our father among the saints Serapiōn, Archbishop of Antioch

Saint Serapiōn of Antioch

In the early years of the Christian community in Antioch, the Church was rightfully guided by a number of holy saints, starting with Saint Peter, Saint Euodios and Saint Ignatios. The thirtieth of October is the Orthodox feast day of one such wise and honourable overseer: the influential tenth archpastor of the Antiochian Church, Saint Serapiōn of Antioch, who reigned around the turn of the third century.

Saint Serapiōn [Gk. Σεραπίων, L. Seraphion, Ar. Sarâfiyyûn سرافيون] is known to us primarily through his fragmentary surviving theological writings; however, these writings disclose to us that he was no mere detached scholar, but instead an active and compassionate presence in the community. Among these writings are part of a letter to two men, Caricus and Ponticus, warning them against the ‘lying confederacy’ of the hæresy of Montanus, and referring them to the trustworthy testimony of the bishop of Hierapolis in Asia, Saint Klaudios Apolinarios. Another is a part of an epistle against Marcionism and the Docetist ‘Gospel of Peter’ (a forgery often attributed to a certain Leukios), which was given to the Christian community in ’Arsûz.

From these writings we can see both a zeal for the revealed Truth of Christ as well as for the dependent truths of reason, and also a heartfelt care for the spiritual wellbeing and unity of the Syrian people. We learn as well from secondary sources such as that of Eusebios’s Church History that he preached against Gnosticism as well. He was responsible as well for the ordination of a certain ‘Palut’, probably a cognomen for Mâr Mâri, as Bishop of Edessa. Mâri was also a steadfast defender of Orthodoxy. By Saint Ephraim’s time, the name ‘Palutian’ had become an uncomplimentary byword for the Orthodox Christians among the heterodox. Holy father Serapiōn, steadfast defender and right divider of the word of truth, pray unto Christ our God to save our souls!

Holy Hieromartyr Zēnobios and Holy Martyr Zēnobia of Cilicia

Saints Zēnobios and Zēnobia of Cilicia

The thirtieth of October is also the feast-day of the dear sibling-martyrs Saints Zēnobios and Zēnobia of Cilicia. Continuing in our theme these two weeks of paired saints – familial or spousal – in the Antiochian Church, Zēnobios and Zēnobia were faithful Christians who lived in third-century Asia Minor and suffered during the persecutions of Diocletian.

Zēnobios [Gk. Ζηνόβιος, L. Zenobius, Ar. Zînûbiyyûs زينوبيوس] and Zēnobia [Gk. Ζηνοβία, L. Zenobia, Ar. Zînûbiyyâ زينوبيا] were born in the coastal Cilician town of Ægeæ. Their parents were Christians. Their father’s name is mentioned in early sources as Zēnodotos, and their mother’s as Thekla. Both children were raised in the Church and early on developed a love of the Liturgy and a desire to serve Christ. They were intensively generous even with their parents’ money, and they gave anything they had or were given to the poor; when their parents died they distributed their entire estate among the needy.

Zēnobios was given by God the gift of healing even from childhood, and he used this gift in Christ’s name for any who were hurt or ill, and would charge nothing for the service; and Zēnobia helped him in his labours, caring in particular for widows and young girls. Even pagans, it was said, came to him for healing. One man came from as far away as India, with his wife who was suffering from a painful tumour in her breast. Zēnobios healed her, and their whole family were baptised Christians and helped spread the faith when they returned to India. At length, when the old bishop of Ægeæ reposed and a new one was sought, Zēnobios’s name was mentioned by several who had heard of or who had benefitted from his healing. He was elected as bishop in Ægeæ.

When they were both adults in their prime – probably in the year 285 – after Diocletian became Emperor in Rome, he appointed as governor of Cilicia a cruel and tyrannical præfect named Lysias, who detested Christians and persecuted them with particular zeal. Naturally the name of Zēnobios could not be hidden from him, and so he had the young bishop arrested and hauled before him. At once Lysias ordered that the saint offer sacrifice to the idols of the pagan gods, and the bishop refused. Lysias ordered that Saint Zēnobios be taken and beaten ‘until Christ comes to help him’.

When Zēnobia heard of this, she rushed to her brother and proclaimed herself to be a Christian as well. For this she too was given over to the executioners for torture. The brother and sister were bound and placed on beds of red-hot iron – but the iron was cooled by their blood. They were then thrown into vats of boiling pitch, but upon contact with the martyrs the pitch was converted into cool, fresh water. Lysias, whose attempts at torture were stymied by the sibling-martyrs’ Divinely-granted endurance, had the two of them beheaded. Thus Zēnobios and Zēnobia attained the victory, and were given the laurels of martyrdom in Christ. After their martyrdom, a certain Christian priest named Hermogenēs came to retrieve their relics, and they were given a decent burial in the churchyard at Ægeæ.

These saints were celebrated throughout the Eastern Church as a result of the efforts of Saint Symeōn Metaphrastēs in collecting the lives of local martyrs and saints. However, they were virtually unknown in the Western church until after the Protestant Reformation. The mention of the saints was discovered in a redaction of the Martyrology of the ninth-century French Benedictine monk Usuard, and by 1586 Saints Zēnobios and Zēnobia were included in the Roman Martyrology. Holy martyrs Zēnobios and Zēnobia, selfless healers and confessors of Christ before the pagans, pray unto Him who loves mankind that our souls may be saved!
Apolytikion to Saints Zēnobios and Zēnobia, Tone 4:

As brother and sister united in godliness
Together you struggled in contest, Zēnobios and Zēnobia.
You received incorruptible crowns
And unending glory
And shine forth with the grace of healing upon those in the world.

29 October 2020

Venerable Abramios the Recluse and Blessed Maria of Edessa

Saints Abramios and Maria of Mesopotamia

Today in the Orthodox Church – the twenty-ninth of October – is the feast-day of Saint Abramios the Hermit, and his niece Saint Maria of Mesopotamia. These ascetic saints lived in the fourth century in the vicinity of Edessa – today ar-Ruhâ in southeastern Turkey.

Abramios [Gk. Αβράμιος, L. Abramius, Ar. ’Ibrâhim إبراهيم] was born in Edessa in the year 290. His parents were observant Christians who loved him very much. However, they did not notice that Abramios loved the Church far more than he loved sæcular comforts, and they tried to persuade him to marry. Similarly to the later Saint Makarios, at first, the young man agreed. But after one week of marriage he fled from his new bride into the wilderness without so much as a word to anyone. He settled in an abandoned hut about half a mile outside the city, and with joy and the light of God in his heart he set to a discipline of prayers and fasts and vigils.

Naturally, though, his family were deeply concerned for him. They looked for him high and low, and after two and a half weeks his parents found him in the midst of prayer, kneeling in his cell. At first they could not understand why he had run away, but eventually he persuaded them that this was what God had called him to do. They blessed him and left him there, at his own request, and they did not come to visit him anymore or importune him to come out from his hermitage. He sealed up his hut, all except for one window through which he might converse with others and through which he might receive food and water. When his parents reposed from the world ten years later, they left him a goodly portion of their worldly substance, but this he asked a close friend to divide up and sell, and give the proceeds to the poor. His sole possessions were a garment, a hair shirt, his eating-bowl and his sleeping-mat.

Abramios acquired a spirit of compassion and wisdom through his daily battles with the passions and through his prayers. And the people who came to visit him were awed by his kindly insight, the gift of divine grace. His reputation grew and spread. Many came to visit him for consolation, or to sit and listen to him, and all of them left edified.

One of the villages near Edessa was at that time thoroughly pagan. Every time a priest, or a deacon, or a monk, had drawn near the village in attempt to convert the inhabitants, he had been driven out with unmatched ferocity. The bishop of Edessa, hearing of the reputation of Abramios, decided that he would go to him and make of him a priest, and send him into this village to bear the word of Christ among them. The bishop had a difficult time persuading Abramios to abandon his solitude. However, he prevailed upon him by convincing him that he would better please the Lord by bringing many to salvation through his prayers, than by bringing only himself.

The bishop brought Abramios into Edessa and ordained him a priest, and then sent him into the pagan village. When he had arrived there and saw the state of idolatry that the villagers were in, he wept for them. And at once he sent for the friend he had divide up his portion of the estate and give it to the poor, and asked him for a loan with which to build a church outside the village. He himself laboured in this task alongside the workers, and soon there was a fair temple of the true God standing there. He prayed every day inside this temple and never ceased from his ascetic labourers.

He went into the village and overturned the idols that were the centre of their worship, smashing them to pieces. Every time he went into the village after that, the pagans beat him mercilessly and flung him out. However, a few of the more curious ones went around the church both to admire its construction – they were far yet from prayer even of the most simple sort to Christ – and also to learn about this strange ascetic. When he began to speak to them, however, they lynched him – beat him with rods, tied a noose around his neck, dragged him through the village streets, left him in the road to die and lay a huge boulder upon his chest. But he was still alive, and with tears and fervent prayers he returned again to the church and continued to pray. Again the villagers found him, beat him, threw stones at him, tied a rope around his neck and dragged him out – and again he returned to his church to pray. This went on for three entire years. Never once did Saint Abramios raise his voice to them or revile them with harsh words, still less did he run away, but for every stone they cast he threw back a blessing upon them. Even the children who mocked and kicked him, he treated as gently and kindly as though they were his own.

At length, the people’s attitude towards him began to change. They began to think deeply upon how ever after that first day when Saint Abramios had destroyed the idols, he had never spoken a harsh word to anyone nor lifted a hand. They began to believe that what he said about the living God and of the kingdom of heaven might be true – and moreover, that the idols that they had worshipped were powerless to avenge themselves upon him, for he kept coming back into the village alive even after such mistreatment. Then several people entered the church. Then several more did. They were followed by still more and more of the villagers, longing to hear the words of truth and receive the waters of life æternal. Saint Abramios then held a great ceremony of baptism for all the villagers, who had come to believe in Christ.

He lived with them for twelve months, constantly preaching the word of Truth which they imbibed like ones insatiably thirsty. After this time he feared for his monastic vows that he would begin to grow too attached to his new flock. He fled into the desert and hid there. The villagers, who were shocked and dismayed at his departure, searched him out high and low, but could not find him. At length they came to the bishop and told him what had happened. In his wisdom, after joining the futile search for Saint Abramios for some time, the bishop – seeing that the village was steadfast in the Christian faith – instead appointed for them a cleric among their own number to attend to their spiritual needs. When Abramios came forth, and heard of this from the bishop, he fell to his knees and thanked the bishop profusely for his kindness to him.

Saint Abramios went back to his original desert cell, and fought a long, protracted battle against his own sins and against the Devil, who tempted and strategised against him in various ways. The Devil first tried flattering him with praises for his obedience, in an attempt to get him to succumb to vainglory. But Saint Abramios dismissed all such false visions, knowing himself to be a sinful man wholly dependent on the mercy of God. Then the Devil tried attacking him with frightening visions, with blood and fire, bringing the apparitions of bandits down upon his cell and even appearing at the head of a multitude of dæmons seeking to cast his whole cell down into the abyss. Each time he appeared, however, Saint Abramios defeated him by calling upon the name of Christ, making the sign of the Cross or singing from the Psalter. For years and years Saint Abramios waged war with the Devil, wept over his sins, and continued his ascetic feats.

It so happened that his parents had another son who remained in the world, married, and had a daughter, whose name was Maria [Gk. Μαρία, Ar. Mârya مارية]. When this brother of Saint Abramios died, the girl was left orphaned at the age of seven, and she was brought to Saint Abramios by her father’s friends. Saint Abramios kept the girl in the outer chamber of his hut while he retired to an inner chamber, and with this wall between them he began to instruct her in the præcepts of the Christian faith, in the ascetic life, in the Psalter and in the Holy Scriptures. She began to live as an anchoress, and Saint Abramios saw to it that her inheritance was divided up and distributed amongst the poor, just as his own had been.

Her uncle wept for her sake, and every day besought the Lord that her soul might be saved from every snare of the Evil One, and Maria herself welcomed his prayers for her. For ten years Maria grew in temperance, wisdom, meekness, kindness, love for God – in short, in every conceivable virtue under her uncle’s instruction and rule. However, it came about that a certain postulant, who often came to Saint Abramios on the pretext of seeking his advice, once caught sight of Maria. At this point, her inward perfections had made themselves manifest in a completion of outward beauty, and this postulant was seized with a powerful lust, and he forced his way into her cell and defiled her. Maria, utterly distraught at the thought that she had made a wreck of her ascetic life, defiled her purity and condemned herself before God and before her uncle, fled from her uncle’s cell and took up residence in another town. Having no other source of income, she was forced to sell her body in order to live.

Saint Abramios saw a vision, while this occurred, of a serpent devouring a turtledove. A second vision came to him, of him treading upon the serpent and rescuing the dove – whole and unharmed – from the serpent’s belly. When he awoke he began to ponder what it meant. Had a great apostasy occurred, or had a schism rent apart the Church, perhaps? He called out for his niece, but she did not answer him. When he went out to see what had become of her, he found Maria’s garment torn and herself – gone. Weeping and beating his breast, he understood that the visions had been about her. He besought the Lord to protect her and to guide her back to the path of life.

Two years passed before he heard any news of his niece. When he heard what manner of life she was leading, thanks to a friend, he was able to procure a soldier’s garments and a horse. He prayed to God and allowed Him to guide his horse to the town where Maria was working. He came to the inn where she was employed and asked the innkeeper if he had a girl of her description. The innkeeper, seeing Saint Abramios’s grey beard and grizzled appearance, laughed at him, but answered that Maria was indeed there. Saint Abramios asked if he could see her, and the innkeeper led him inside.

Abramios had disguised himself well, and Maria did not recognise him, but when he saw her dressed in the shameful garments of her trade, he could hardly keep himself from weeping over her. Maria came to him and began to kiss and caress him, and smelling the ascetic’s sweet scent she remembered the fragrance of incense from when she had once lived as an ascetic – and she truly did begin to weep. This aroused the innkeeper’s suspicions – and to keep him from doing his niece harm, Abramios quaffed wine and ate meat like a soldier of long practice. The ascetic who had never once eaten to satiety broke his fast for the sake of the soul of his niece.

When they retired to Maria’s chamber, Abramios bade her close to him, but then threw back his hood so that she could see who he was. But – instead of upbraiding her with the reproaches she feared, the ascetic spoke gentle words to her, telling her that, far from being angry with her, he would himself take on the burden of her repentance and answer to God for her sins – so deeply after the manner of a kinsman did he love her. Only after half a night of such gentle words and nothing else from the ancient ascetic did she find the courage to unburden herself of everything that had befallen her, and the shame she had felt, and how she had feared to approach him. But Abramios listened, and heard, and spoke to her not one word of anger or of reproach. And he assured her that he still loved her, and wanted only for her to return with him to resume her struggles in their cell.

Maria fled the snare that had been laid for her, and the two of them made their way back to their cell, and Maria applied herself so steadfastly and with such heartfelt passion to her labours and prayers, that God saw fit not only to heal her, but increased His grace to her many times over. So powerful did her prayers become that she was able to work wondrous healings for those who came to her while she yet lived. Saint Abramios lived for ten years in his cell after that, and praised God that He had seen fit to deliver Saint Maria from the designs of the Evil One. With Saint Maria making such miraculous progress herself in the spiritual life, with the gift of tears in her eyes and the perfections of her virtue again attained, Saint Abramios was able to repose in peace, at the age of seventy in the year 360. Saint Maria lived on alone as an anchoress several years after he did before she too reposed in the Lord in the year 365, and departed at once to the company of saints.

The tale of Saint Abramios and Saint Maria holds many spiritual insights and practical ones. It is an object lesson, for one thing, in how Christians ought to approach the matter of sexual abuse – because Saint Maria was the victim of unwanted sexual contact. Note that Saint Abramios – the man who looked after Maria like a father and who was responsible for her – listened to his niece, believed what she said, was not angry with her, and assured her that he loved her regardless of what she had done. And note how the hagiography of St Dimitri of Rostov itself assures us, the readers, that Maria was not broken by her ordeal. Even after she was raped and after she had been essentially forced by need into prostitution, once she came home and resumed her life, she was able to recover. And she was granted the gifts of healing, which she particularly needed – and repentance and forgiveness, which we all need. We may even go so far as to say that it was on account of this grace that she could come to heal others through her prayers. Holy venerables Abramios and Maria, wonderworking ascetics of the Mesopotamian desert and models to all of the spiritual life, pray unto Christ our God for our salvation!
Apolytikion for Saints Abramios and Maria of Edessa, Tone 1:

You abandoned all earthly comforts, O Father Abramios,
Living righteously in hope of things to come and receiving a sacred anointing.
Initiated into divine mysteries, you enlighten those who cry:
Glory to him who has strengthened you!
Glory to him who has granted you a crown!
Glory to him who through you works healing for all!

28 October 2020

Holy Martyrs Terentios and Neonillē of Syria, and their Children

Saints Terentios and Neonillē of Syria, with their seven children

This week begins a busy celebration of a significant number of paired Antiochian and Syrian martyrs, unmercenaries and ascetics, bound by bonds of marital love or by blood relation. It is almost as though, in the run-up to Advent, the Holy Orthodox Church is reminding us of the importance of this familial tie, and the call to love and shared suffering that this tie entails – the same love that the Theotokos felt for her Son. Today we celebrate a martyred husband and wife from third-century Syria: Saints Terentios and Neonillē, along with their children. Tomorrow we celebrate a holy ascetic uncle and niece: Saints Abramios and Maria. The day following we celebrate two twin martyrs, a brother and sister: Saints Zēnobios and Zēnobia. And the day after that we celebrate the great Arab unmercenary doctors: the twin brothers Saints Kosmas and Damianos. The following week we celebrate the husband and wife martyrs, Saints Galaktiōn and Epistēmē, as well as the husband and wife martyrs, Saints Viktōras and Stephania.

Saint Terentios [Gk. Τερέντιος, L. Terentius, Ar. Tarantiyyûs ترنتيوس] was born early in the third century in Syria. He was married to a woman named Neonillē [Gk. Νεονίλλη, L. Neonilla]. They were a prolific couple: their seven children were Sarvēlos, Nitas, Ierax, Theodoulos, Phōtios, Vēlē and Eunikē. They were a tight-knit family; the husband and wife loved each other completely, loved their children and loved Christ – whom they were forced to worship in secret. During the troublous reign of Trajan Decius (249-251), Saint Neonillē was caught up in a persecution in Syria along with her whole family. Brought before the governor, with one mind and one heart and one voice, the nine members of one household, an icon and type of the Holy Maccabee Martyrs, all confessed Christ as Lord as they stood before the judgement seat of the impious prefect.

The governor ordered them to be scourged with iron hooks, for vinegar and salt to be poured into their wounds, and then for their flesh to be burnt. Husband, wife and children all encouraged each other in Christ’s name and gave each other strength. And then – to the astonishment of the pagans – their wounds began to miraculously heal. This was the work of angels which the pagans could not see, but when they saw the wounds knitting on their own they became afraid, and the governor ordered them to be cast into the dungeons.

The following day, Terentios and Neonillē and their children were tied to wheels and beaten mercilessly with thick rods. Again when they were taken down from the wheel their bodies were shown to be unharmed. The flabbergasted governor ordered that they be fed to wild beasts – but the beasts who were to devour them became tame in the presence of the marytrs. Then the nine of them were taken and thrown into vats of boiling pitch; but when their bodies touched the pitch it cooled, and turned into fresh water. At last, unable to visit any further torment upon the holy husband and wife and their children, the governor gave them over to the executioners to be beheaded by the sword. Thus Saints Terentios and Neonillē, and Sarvēlos, Nitas, Ierax, Theodoulos, Phōtios, Vēlē and Eunikē, met their martyrdoms in Christ and won their crowns. Holy martyrs Terentios and Neonillē, together with all your blessed children, confessors and witnesses to the glory of Christ before the impious, pray unto Him Who only loves mankind for our salvation!
Apolytikion for Saints Terentios and Neonillē, Tone 3:

Bound together by natural bonds
And clothed with the might of faith,
You walked the path of martyrdom with your seven children.
O holy martyrs Terentios and Neonillē,
Pray that those who honour your contest may receive forgiveness of their sins.

27 October 2020

Venerable Dimităr the New, Hermit of Basarbovo

Saint Dimităr of Basarbovo

In the hills on the right bank of the Danube River, some eight kilometres south of the city of Ruse, there is a sanctuary of peace and quiet, amidst fields spotted with wildflowers. In the midst of these meadows there juts a rocky hill from the ground – the yellow-tinged grey rock chiseled out into a balcony, with numerous caves dotting the sides into recesses within, looking more like a Chinese Buddhist grotto than an Orthodox monastery. But this is the Bulgarian monastery of Basarbovo, which had been a retreat for those seeking battle with the dæmons since the 1200s, and which is situated around a holy well with restorative properties. Today we commemorate one of the famous monks of that rocky cave-dwelling, Saint Dimităr of Basarbovo, who is commemorated throughout Bulgaria, Romania and Moldova.

Few details are known about the actual life of Saint Dimităr [Bg. Димитър], except that he lived during the 1600s – Saint Paisii of Hilendar tells us he reposed in 1685 – and that he lived a quiet life of ascetic introspection and spiritual struggle in this rocky sanctuary. We know from the closest biographies that he was probably of common birth. As a monk, he raised sheep, built a small hut and planted a small vineyard not far away from the main monastery, and lived there in simplicity and solitude, attaining to a God-pleasing life without attracting much notice from the outside. It was after his repose that his fame began to grow, though there are some stories about his life from the proximate sources.

Basarbovo Monastery, Bulgaria

One story, told in a Romanian hagiography, tells us that in his youth while he lived as a shepherd in the nearby village of Basarbovo, Dimităr trampled a bird’s nest with eggs inside, while in a hurry to get his sheep to pasture. He was stricken with sorrow and remorse for what he had done, and by way of penance he refused to put any footwear on his offending leg for three years afterwards. This episode demonstrates to us the gentleness and compassion of Saint Dimităr. Another Romanian legend relates that he married a wife from Basarbovo and loved her very much, but they were not blessed by God with children. It was after her death that he entered the monastery, took the tonsure, and devoted himself completely to prayer and to askēsis.

He had a præmonition of his death. On the twenty-seventh of October, 1685, he went down to the river, lay down between two stones, and surrendered his soul to the Lord. In this way he met his earthly end, ‘painless, blameless and peaceful’, and entered the life of æternal bliss. However, soon after this, a torrential downpour began, raising the level of the Danube water until it bore away both the relics of Saint Dimităr and the two stones he was resting upon. The relics were borne in the water for some time, and no one heeded them.

There was a girl from the village who was tormented by dæmons. The holy man appeared to her in a vision and told her to go to the water’s edge and find his relics. The girl did as the apparition bade her, went into the shallow water, and found Saint Dimităr’s body. Even though it had lain there in the Danube for days, it did not stink and it was not bloated or rotting – indeed, his body was found to be incorrupt. Several of the villagers came to retrieve the monk’s body and lay it out for burial in the village church – and the possessed girl followed the relics inside. As soon as she stepped over the threshold of the church, the dæmons fled her, and she the health of her soul was restored. She was but the first to receive the blessings of Saint Dimităr – many who were sick or injured found wondrous healing from the relics of the holy man.

The wondrous happenings around the relics continued for over a century afterward – and unfortunately this attracted some thieves to the village church. Two sisters from the village of Chervena some distance to the south came to Basarbovo to pray in the Church. They feared God, but were tempted to remove a particle of the relics of Saint Dimităr from his reliquary, to be housed reverently in their own village church at Chervena, which had recently been completed. However, when they left the church, they found that their wagon was stuck in a rut, and no one and nothing could move it until the sisters sheepishly replaced the relic fragment back inside the Church. At another time, a monk named Lavrentii, who was in attendance upon Metropolitan Nikifor of Tărnovo (1722-1737), tried to steal a particle of the relics by hiding it in his mouth. However, once he had the fragment in his mouth his jaw was locked painfully open, and only when he repented with tears in his eyes could his jaw move again. At another time, a Turk attempted to plunder the silver candlesticks from the Church. At once his knees locked and he was no longer able to move; the villagers had to carry him out. He spent the rest of his life lame.

But the relics of Saint Dimităr worked kindly miracles as well: at one time the Bishop Ioanniki of Preslav fell gravely ill and was near death. He was close to the village of Basarbovo at the time, and he asked to be carried into the Church. He prayed even though he did not have the strength to stand, and lay down before the reliquary. When the Divine Liturgy was held, however, the bishop was healed of his illness, and found the strength to stand and walk out of the church on his own power.

At one time, the Phanariot voivode of Wallachia tried to have the relics of Saint Dimităr removed from Basarbovo by force. He sent boyars and priests into Bulgaria to strongarm them away from the villagers; and he had them loaded onto a cart and transported to the Danube crossing. However, when the oxen pulling the cart reached the Danube, they baulked and would not carry the cart any further. The Wallachians were uncertain of what to do, but to ascertain God’s will and Saint Dimităr’s they took the harnesses off of the oxen and allowed them to pull the cart wherever they willed. The oxen set off at once and went biddably back southward, straight to Basarbovo, and straight even to the doorway of the village church.

However, in 1779, during the Russo-Turkish wars when the Russians had sought to free Bulgaria from the hated Ottoman yoke, Count Pyotr Saltykov asked the right to have Saint Dimităr’s relics carried back to Russia. He was given this right, but God willed it that Saint Dimităr would not leave his country so far behind him. Dimităr Poklonnik, a Bulgarian translator for the Russian nobleman, besought the Count’s kindness to leave the saint’s relics behind in Bucharest as a token of gratitude to the Romanian people for their support in the war. Count Pyotr agreed to this, and on the eighth of July the relics were taken to the Church of Three Saints in Bucharest, where they continue to be venerated to this day. The hand of Saint Dimităr was taken to Kiev.

The feast-day of Saint Dimităr, the twenty-seventh of October, is one of the largest religious processions in Bucharest. A great and joyful occasion every year, multiple thousands of Romanian Orthodox faithful line the streets for miles to honour Saint Dimităr as his reliquary is carried throughout Bucharest from the Patriarchal Cathedral. In 2016, the procession in honour of Saint Dimităr was attended not only by Patriarch Daniel of Romania and the hierarchy of the Romanian Church, but also by Metropolitan Naum of Ruse from the Bulgarian Church, and Bishop Qays of ’Arḍarûm from the Antiochian Church, as well as by representatives from the Metropolia of Chișinău (Moscow Patriarchate) in Moldova – showing the extent and the international appeal of this humble Bulgarian monk. Holy and venerable Dimităr, meek and gentle monk who bore Christ’s love for all of creation, pray unto Christ our God that our souls may be saved!
Apolytikion for Saint Dimităr of Basarbovo, Tone 8:

By a flood of tears you made the desert fertile,
And your longing for God brought forth fruits in abundance.
By the radiance of miracles you illumined the whole universe!
O our holy father Demetrius, pray to Christ our God to save our souls!
Patriarchal Cathedral, Bucharest

23 October 2020

The Heavy Anglo Ortho ‘Films of K-stan’ Review Series

Okay, 2020 has really been sucky enough a year as it is. But, the plague persists, and today we have also to deal with the release on Jeff Bezos’s platform of a sequel to an American nonmedy that should not have been made in the first place, and will not be named here out of general concern for good taste. In place of any consideration of either this downward-punching buffoon or his filmography, I thought it would be a good time to put together a list of the actual Kazakhstani films I have seen and reviewed on this blog. I intend to be adding to this list for the foreseeable future, so stay tuned and do not be surprised if this list grows.

The following list started out as a Kazakhstani film series, kicked off in part by my having watched the Veit Helmer comedy Baikonur and reminded of how much I liked the big ham that was Sergei Bodrov, Sr’s Nomad. Subsequently I decided to invest the time and the energy into that interest which dates back to the beginning of this blog, and explore the Kazakh film world. I found some things I did not expect there: like the linkages between Kazakh historical films and the epic poetry of Central Asia. But it soon morphed in two different, though related, directions. Films began to be added to it, like Shaman, that were focussed on the traditional cultures of Northern and Central Asia. And other films began to be added to it, like Brat, that were retrospective evaluations of the Soviet legacy and explorations of the post-Soviet condition. Obviously, these three thematic considerations overlap considerably.

Kazakhstani film is a world all its own, as I have found: as broad and vast as the country which its people inhabit. There are commercial blockbusters and pretentious art films. There are films which look to the past, films which look to the future, and even the odd film like Baikonur which manages to do both at the same time. There are films which celebrate Kazakh martial might and vigour, and there are films which lament Kazakhstan’s corrupt politics. There are directors in Kazakhstan who are incurable romantics who explore both sisterly and romantic love with a touchingly sensitive eye (Gulshat Omarova), and those who are bitter sceptics whose understanding of politics elevates a keen sense of tragœdy (Ardak Ámirqulov). From farcical comedies to psychological thrillers to gangster films to high fantasy to sweeping epic historical dramas, Kazakhstani film really does have something for everyone. Gentle reader, please do yourself a favour: go and watch one of these real Kazakhstani films, rather than that dreck which just got dumped on Amazon Prime.

Here is the full list of films I have done in this series, in chronological order by year of release.


Films of Kazakhstan:
Amangeldy (1938)†
Ivan Groznyi [Ivan the Terrible] (1944)
Pervyi eshelon [The First Echelon] (1956)
Tuǵan jer [Land of the Fathers] (1966)
Qyz-Jibek (1970)
Oni srazhalis’ za rodinu [They Fought for their Country] (1975)†
Igla [The Needle] (1988)
Mest’ [Revenge] (1989)
Otyrardyń kúıreýi [The Fall of Otrar] (1991)
Kaırat (1992)
Kardiogramma [Cardiogram] (1995)
Kavkazskii plennik [Prisoner of the Caucasus] (1996)
Killer (1998)
Sëstry [Sisters] (2001)
Shıza [The Recruiter] (2004)
Nochnoi dozor [Night Watch] (2004)
Kóshpendiler [Nomad] (2005)
Ulzhan (2007)
Réketır [Racketeer] (2007)
Mongol (2007)
Tulpan (2008)
Qosh bol, Gúlsary! [Farewell, Gulsary!] (2008)
Baksy [Native Dancer] (2008)
Kelin (2009)
Baikonur (2011)
Jaýjúrek myń bala [Warriors of the Steppe] (2011)
Shal [The Old Man] (2012)
Stýdent [The Student] (2012)
Ya ne vernus’ [I Won’t Go Back] (2014)
Begletsy [Runaways] (2014)
Anaǵa aparar jol [The Road to Mother] (2016)
28 Panfilovtsev [Panfilov’s 28 Men] (2016)

Films of North and Central Asia:
Beloe solntse pustyni [White Sun of the Desert] (1970)
Dersu Uzala (1975)
Shaman (1996)
Skif [The Last Warrior] (2018)

Films about the post-Soviet condition:
Brat [Brother] (1997)
Brat 2 [Brother 2] (2000)
Bumer (2003)
Absurdistan (2008)
Ovsyanki [Silent Souls] (2010)

† Not a Kazakhstani film proper, but a Soviet film which had a significant impact on the popular consciousness in Kazakhstan, and the style and themes of Kazakh film culture.

Venerable Makarios the Hermit of Mesopotamia

Saint Makarios of Mesopotamia

The twenty-third of October is the day on which we venerate Saint Makarios of Mesopotamia, a Roman by birth who ran away from his father’s house and became a hermit in the deserts of what is now northern Iraq. There are two sources that allude to Makarios, a short Life and a long Life. Saint Nikodēmos of the Holy Mountain recommends that Orthodox Christians only read the shorter of the two Lives, as the longer one has spurious Gnostic and occult interpolations, and may be spiritually harmful to readers.

Three monks from the Monastery of Saint Asklēpios, who were named Sergios, Hyginos and Theophilos, went out into the world in order to seek a sign from God that would be of benefit to their salvation. They found a cave, deep in the deserts of Mesopotamia, from which wafted a heavenly sweet scent. The three men approached the cave and saw a queer old hermit, his face and body covered entirely by hair and a long beard that reached his knees, and wearing no other clothing. As he saw the approach of the three young monks, the hermit fell on his face on the ground in prayer, and remained there until he was sure that the monks were flesh-and-blood rather than images presented to him by the Evil One. Then the hermit brought them into the cave, which he shared with two wild lions. Sergios, Hyginos and Theophilos asked the hermit to tell them his story, and he did so.

His name, it turned out, was Makarios. His father John had been a senator in Rome, and he had been brought up in great wealth and luxury. When he had reached adulthood, his parents had him betrothed to a bride against his will. On the night of his wedding, even on the threshold of the bridal chamber in the midst of the festivities, John fled his father’s house and took refuge with a certain widow. For a full week he entreated the Lord with fervent prayers and with tears to save him. When the time came for him to leave the widow’s house, he met in the street an old man, dressed in noble robes and of a winsome demeanour. The man bade him follow. Makarios instantly trusted the man, and went with him, following him out along the road to the east. The two travelled together for three years, until one day they came to the mouth of the cave where Makarios dwelt thereafter. In a vision the hermit had sometime afterward, the old man appeared to Makarios and told him that he was the Archangel Raphael, who had once guided Tobias in his travels. The archangel then entrusted him to God’s care, along with two lion cubs, which had lately lost their mother.

Soon after he had first moved into the cave, he beheld an astonishing beauty visiting at the mouth of the cave. Makarios began to speak with the girl, and as he told her his story, she related to him that she also had fled from a forced marriage in Rome. Makarios, being young and inexperienced, lacked the discernment he needed to escape the snares of the Evil One, and he welcomed her into his cave to spend the night. For the first time in his life, the fiery darts of lust assailed him, and he slept with the girl. As soon as this was done she vanished, for she had been an apparition. The Evil One exulted because he had succeeded in tempting the ascetic to sin in thought and deed.

Makarios understood at once, how seriously he had fallen. He fell upon his face and wept bitter tears. He resolved to quit his cave and find another place where he might repent and atone for his sin. But as he was leaving the cave, he saw the same old man greeting him again – the Archangel Raphael. The archangel gently urged him not to seek out a new place but to return to his own cave, because if he stayed in his cave God would hear his prayers. Makarios redoubled his ascetic efforts and kept to a strict regimen of fasting and vigils, mortifying his will absolutely, and attempted to recover the purity of his soul. This he had done for many long years until the three monastic brethren had come upon him.

After they had heard this story to the benefit of their souls, Saint Makarios entertained the monks, and then sent them on their way with his blessing. The three of them departed, and left Makarios to his solitary struggle. So he continued, until at last he fell asleep in the Lord. No earthly man attended him; but he was welcomed into the presence of the angels and of the company of saints. Holy ascetic Makarios, who showed the way of repentance and struggle to the monks, pray unto Christ our God that our souls may be saved!
Apolytikion for Saint Makarios of Mesopotamia, Tone 8:

By a flood of tears you made the desert fertile,
And your longing for God brought forth fruits in abundance.
By the radiance of miracles you illumined the whole universe!
O our holy father Makarios, pray to Christ our God to save our souls!

20 October 2020

Holy and Glorious Greatmartyr Artemios of Antioch

Saint Artemios of Antioch
القديس أرتيميوس الأنطاكي

The twentieth of October in the Holy Orthodox Church is the feast-day of Saint Artemios, an elderly Roman nobleman and military officer who was martyred under the persecutions of Julian the Apostate in the fourth century. Although Saint Artemios lived much of his life in Alexandria, in Ægypt, he is most commonly associated with the city of Antioch where he was killed. However, his veneration is universal throughout the Christian world.

Few details are known for certain about the early life of Saint Artemios [Gk. Αρτέμιος, L. Artemius, Ar. ’Artîmiyyûs أرتيميوس], but the Holy Tradition holds that he was an officer in the army of Emperor Saint Constantine the Great, who ruled from 306 to 337. He had a long and distinguished service in the army both under Constantine and under his son Constantius II, who ruled from 337 to 361. Artemios was rewarded for his military service by being appointed military præfect of Ægypt with his headquarters in Alexandria. While he was in Alexandria he did much to strengthen the Church there.

He was tasked by Emperor Constantine with bringing the relics of Saint Luke the Evangelist from Thēba, and the relics of Saint Andrew the Apostle from Patmos, to Constantinople for veneration at the Church of the Holy Apostles. During the Arian controversies, there was some question as to which party Artemios supported, and impious tongues have suggested that the holy martyr was of the Arian party. But his actions during both emperors’ reigns showed him to have supported the true, Orthodox faith, and of course his martyrdom laid any such doubts and partizan murmurings to rest.

For the successor to the second Constantius in New Rome was the thrice-accursed infidel and warmongering apostate Julian, who ruthlessly oppressed the Church and ushered in a new wave of persecutions. Hundreds of believers in Christ perished under Julian’s reign. He also fomented division within Christendom. Part of his strategy of persecution involved supporting the Arians and reinstating their hierarchs; it would have made little sense for an Arian to take the side of the Orthodox.

And yet this is just what Artemios did. Julian had embarked on his needless bloodthirsty war with Persia, and was using Antioch as a base for his invasion. After Julian had sentenced to death two bishops who had confessed Trinitarian Christianity – possibly referring to the hieromartyrs Saint Basileios of Ankyra and Saint Donatus of Arezzo – Artemios embarked on a journey to Antioch to confront the wicked emperor. When he arrived in Antioch he went straight to the Emperor’s residence and began loudly declaiming his impiety and unfitness, invoking his service with Julian’s infinitely worthier forebears.

Julian’s pride would not permit him to refrain from response. He had Artemios seized, and thrown into prison, and then subjected to the most excruciating tortures. As he was languishing in prison, he was visited by Christ, who told His martyr that He would preserve him from every hurt, and that He had already prepared for Artemios the crown of everlasting glory. Because Artemios had confessed Christ before men on earth, so Christ would acknowledge Artemios before the Father in heaven. Artemios offered up praises and thanksgiving to God.

The day afterward, the Emperor had Artemios dragged out of prison. Julian commanded Artemios to offer sacrifices to the pagan gods, but Artemios still refused, confessing Christ. Julian had Artemios subjected to still more gruesome tortures, until his blood soaked the ground below him, but Artemios would not break. He foretold that Julian himself would be repaid in kind for the gross indignities he had inflicted upon the Christians, and at this the Emperor became truly enraged and ordered the martyr of Christ to be beheaded. And in this way, the glorious Saint Artemios was given the laurel he was promised, the elderly athlete of Christ having earned the victory and the heavenly glories of the æternal kingdom. After his death, the Christians of Antioch took his relics and buried them with great and solemn honour and reverence.

The prophecy that Artemios had uttered amidst his tortures concerning Julian’s fate proved true, for Julian was killed in battle against the defending Persian šâh Šâpur II. His armies were ruined and his reign ended in ignominy. After the death of the apostate emperor, the relics of Saint Artemios were moved from Antioch to Constantinople, where they were enshrined at the Lips Monastery, in the chapel dedicated to Saint John the Forerunner. Many wonders were attributed to Saint Artemios, who took special care of men suffering from hernias, prostate cancer, testicular cancer, infertility and other maladies of the genitals. He was at one time invoked by Saint Febrōnia of Nisibis for aid in healing a woman suffering from an illness in her womb. Holy greatmartyr Artemios, fearless confessor of Christ before the apostate, pray unto Christ our God that our souls may be saved!
Apolytikion for Saint Artemios of Antioch, Tone 4:

Your holy martyr Artemios, O Lord,
Through his sufferings has received an incorruptible crown from You, our God.
For having Your strength, he laid low his adversaries,
And shattered the powerless boldness of demons.
Through his intercessions, save our souls!
Lips Monastery, Constantinople

19 October 2020

Venerable Ivan, Abbot of Rila

Saint Ivan of Rila

In the Holy Orthodox Church, the nineteenth of October is the feast-day of a great Bulgarian ascetic, Saint Ivan of Rila. Ivan stood in the great tradition of Byzantine desert spirituality, but aficionados of the Celtic tradition will also find in his eremitical life many of the marks of the Welsh and Irish holy fathers – in particular his close connexion to nature and to wild animals, his love of poverty and his ambivalent and at times hostile relationship with political power. Saint Ivan is one of the most renowned and most dearly beloved Bulgarian saints. He is honoured by all Bulgarians, and as well by the Russians – including a monastery dedication in Saint Petersburg, and one church on Livingston Island off of Antarctica: the southernmost Orthodox chapel in the world.

Saint Ivan [Bg. and Rus. Иван] was born in 876 in the village of Skrino in Western Bulgaria, very shortly after the initial conversion of the South Slavs to Christianity by the Seven Saints. His parents were pious but poor villagers, and Ivan was one of two children. Both children were Christians, but it was Ivan who distinguished himself in observance: he was a filial, obedient and meek child; he loved the Church; listened attentively to the Liturgy; fasted and prayed on his own; and generally lived in the righteous fear of God. Though his brother stayed in the world, Ivan left the world. He took his part of his father’s inheritance, sold it, divided the proceeds among the poor, and entered a nearby monastery in Ruen, dedicated to Saint Dēmētrios of Thessalonikē. From there, with the abbot’s permission, he went, like unto another David going to war against Goliath, into a desert place to live alone and to struggle against the passions.

The Devil whispered in the ear of his brother, however, and his brother led the villagers to the field at Murdišta, where they found Ivan alone under an ancient oak tree. At the Evil One’s instigation, Ivan’s brother and the villagers tried to press him to leave the hermit’s path and return to the village. Instead, Ivan lifted his eyes to heaven and prayed to God for his brother, who conceded to Ivan to let him stay. Ivan had brought with him only an ox from his parents’ house for sustenance – this he returned to his brother, asking only to keep the bell around the ox’s neck, which his brother let him have. Saint Ivan took this bell and tied it around the branch of the old oak tree at Murdišta. For a long time afterward, the impression of the rope remained around the branch, signifying the world-denying faith of holy father Ivan.

Coming out from Murdišta, Saint Ivan set out for the mountainous massif of Rila. God guided him to the foot of the mountain, where he built a little hut out of twigs and dwelt therein, wearing nothing but a rag of leather, eating only wild beans and grass and drinking only from the mountain spring. He stayed here for seven months. But again he saw his brother coming from afar off, who missed him and sought his company. Ivan felt the pangs of sympathy for his brother, and he let up a heartfelt prayer to God for protection from the passions and from temptation. And God answered him: ‘Rejoice, O denizen of the desert, who are an angel in the flesh! Stand up, take your stick, and go into the place that has been prepared for you, in the cave under the mountain.

Holy Father Ivan went into the cave, which was called Vartopen. It was dark and obscure, without sunshine. Even the wind did not touch it. Saint Ivan did not leave the cave even to gather food; instead, an angel entered the cave and brought him manna from heaven. Ivan redoubled his prayers and his vigils, wept tears of compunction which flowed without cease, and day by day increased his perfections in virtue, like a bee gathering honey.

The Devil saw Ivan strengthening himself and shining in virtue, and became bitterly jealous and angry. He tried every sort of trick to get him to leave the cave, including taking the guise of various dangerous wild animals – but nothing could shake Ivan from his firm conviction. His nephew, his brother’s son Luka, left his father’s house to seek out Ivan in the cave. Seeing him from afar off Ivan thought his appearance to be another trick of the Devil; it was only when Luka prostrated himself and asked for his uncle’s blessing in the name of Christ that Ivan was convinced he was real and allowed him to stay. But, seeing the opportunity, the Devil once again approached Ivan’s brother.

The Devil told Ivan’s brother that the holy father had taken his son into his wild dwelling-place, where there was no sun or wind, and where wild beasts attacked incessantly. He told Ivan’s brother that his son would surely perish, and would soon be eaten by them, if he had not been already. In a rage, Ivan’s brother again came to Rila, and hurled threats and reproaches against his brother, and took up a heavy stick and threatened to kill him if he did not release Luka. Again Ivan prayed to God – the God who did not forsake Daniel in the den of lions, or Saint Thekla in the fire, or the Three Holy Youths in the furnace. He begged God’s protection from the Devil and from his brother’s anger – and no sooner had his prayer ended but the Evil One was put to flight. Ivan’s brother was left, and his heart was touched. He set down his heavy stick and fell weeping at his brother’s feet, asking him to return Luka to him. Reluctantly, Saint Ivan agreed.

But Ivan prayed as they left, that Luka would not perish among the sinners, but that he would remain holy. And as father and son left down the mountain, a serpent bit Luka on the heel, and the boy died instantly. Grief-stricken, Ivan’s brother took the body of his child and went back to the saint, who asked God to accept the soul of the child and grant him æternal rest with the righteous. He then told his brother to bury Luka at Osenovo, and his tomb was thereafter turned into a shrine by Ivan. The holy father struck the serpent that had killed Luka, and turned it into a stone; this stone was supposed to have healing properties by mediæval Bulgarians.

Saint Ivan lived in the cave for another three and a half years, all the while enduring the passions of despondency and sloth and various fears which the Evil One sent to tempt him. Then he went out and found a great solitary rock shaped like a great shield, and climbed on top of it, and remained there for seven years and four months – all the while exposed to the harsh elements, wind and sun and snow; and all the while standing in vigils and prayer with tears. Again God, seeing the patience and long-suffering of His servant, sent an angel to Ivan to provide for his bodily needs.

Then the Devil began whispering into the ears of a band of brigands, a rough multitude of men in arms and armour. They came to Saint Ivan’s rock, intending to scare him off – but they could not faze him with their words. And so they climbed the rock, dragged him down from it, and beat him mercilessly, leaving him for dead. Saint Ivan did not raise his hand against his attackers, nor did he raise his roust in anger, but he endured all with joy. The folk hagiography of Holy Father Ivan tells us that his footprints and his blood can still be seen on that rock. In his weakness he prayed to God, asking forgiveness for his sins. And God sent an angel down to him with words of comfort, and he was visited by Saint John the Forerunner and by Saint John the Evangelist, who told him to return to the monastery of Saint Dēmētrios in Ruen, and to leave his walking-stick there as a ‘sign to the world’ according to God’s plan.

Saint Ivan began wandering from place to place, between wooded places and mountains in the wild parts of southwestern Bulgaria – Struma River, Vitosha Mountain – until an angel led him by the hand again to Rila. Saint Ivan had attained to such holiness at this time that even wild beasts – bears, boar, deer and birds – would approach him without fear and even eat from his hand. Farmers, shepherds and neatherds from afar off would bring their sick animals to him, and he would heal them. By this time, his name and reputation for holiness had spread far and wide, and even reached the ears of the Tsar. Tsar Petăr, who was then living in Sofia [then called ‘Sredets’], sent nine skilled hunters to scout out where Saint Ivan made his abode, so that he might pay him homage. The nine went forth, but were not able to find the saint. They were stricken with sorrow and dread, knowing that they were sworn not to return to the Tsar empty-handed. They prayed to God and cried aloud into the open air for Saint Ivan to take pity on them that they not perish on the Tsar’s account. Saint Ivan caused a small path to open up for them, which they followed until they found him.

Running out to them, Ivan asked if they truly had not eaten anything. Then an angel appeared bearing a branch with rosehips on it for food (central Bulgaria is famed for its wild roses), and these were transformed into the Holy Gifts at God’s command. Though there was one doubter among the hunters that they could be satisfied with this, the nine burly men all ate their fill and still the chalice remained half-full!

Having found the saint, the nine hunters returned to the Tsar, and told him of everything they had seen. Tsar Petăr praised God, and went himself with a great host of soldiers to see the hermit. However, the terrain was impassable to the Tsar’s hosts, and so he sent two of his young retainers out and bade them announce him to the saint. Saint Ivan told the two heralds to instruct Tsar Petăr to pitch his tent on a nearby mountain peak, and watch his rock for a plume of smoke he would send up. In this way they would be able to see each other. Indeed, that night, as Tsar Petăr looked out from his tent, he saw the smoke rising up like a great pillar into the sky – like the cloud that guided the Hebrews in the desert. In this way Petăr was able to see Saint Ivan. Petăr took a cup and filled it with gold dust, and sent it by his two retainers to Ivan. Ivan kept the cup, but poured out the gold and returned it to the Tsar, telling him that a holy man has no need of such things. He then instructed the Tsar to leave Rila on account of the treacherous terrain, and he did.

Shortly after this, Saint Ivan of Rila beheld a vision of Saint John the Evangelist, who told him to rejoice for his labours on earth were ending. Shortly after that time, on the eighteenth of August of the year 946, Saint Ivan reposed peacefully in the Lord. He had attained to the age of seventy years. Again the Tsar sent hunters into that desert place, and they were able to find no people living there, only wild beasts. But they were able to find the body of the saint on account of the stories of the prodigious healings that took place in that area. They found the saint’s incorrupt relics and reported back to the Tsar, who rejoiced that he was found. An angel visited the Tsar and instructed him to bring the relics back to Sofia, to be coffined and honoured in the Church dedicated to Saint Luke. When the Tsar’s entourage came to the place, the body of the saint arose as if of its own accord, and went effortlessly whichever way the throng turned. Once they reached Sofia, they built a reliquary and a beautiful chapel for Saint Ivan as the angel had instructed the Tsar to do, and he was given great reverence there. His relics worked wonders for people, banishing from the poor who came to visit him all manner of sickness and infirmity.

In the year 1183, King Béla II of Hungary led a campaign against Greece that invaded Bulgaria, sacked Sofia and carried off the relics of Saint Ivan. Béla had them installed in the basilica in the city of Esztergom. The relics of the saint did not cease to perform wondrous healings for the poor who believed in him. However, when the Bishop of Esztergom heard of Saint Ivan of Rila and the wonders which he was working for the Hungarian people, he scoffed and proclaimed that he had never heard of such a saint being mentioned in the ancient texts. For his unbelief, the bishop was at once stricken dumb, losing the use of his tongue as had once happened to Zechariah. Knowing the cause, the bishop fell upon his knees before the casket of Saint Ivan, kissed it, and silently begged his forgiveness. At once the bishop’s power of speech was restored to him. When Béla heard of this wonder, his heart was filled with holy dread, and at once he ordered that the casket of the saint be adorned with gold and silver, and sent back at once with honours to Sofia.

God saw fit to restore the Bulgarian Tsardom under the power of Tsar Asen I, who in Christian baptism was named ‘Ivan’. When Asen’s victorious armies entered Sofia, he beheld the casket of the blessed Saint Ivan and, having heard of his exploits and wonders, bowed down before the reliquary and kissed it. He then instructed the Patriarch of Bulgaria, Vasilii, to take the relics of Saint Ivan and translate them with honour into the capital city of Tărnovo, accompanied by a force of three hundred soldiers. More wondrous healings occurred all along the way between Sofia and Tărnovo. At the fastness of Trapezitsa, the Tsar ordered that a new church be built to house the saint. And when the procession bearing the saint reached the village of Okop outside the city, Tsar Asen himself went out to meet Patriarch Vasilii and the saint’s relics. They stayed there for seven days while the new church was completed, and then they bore Saint Ivan inside and laid him with great honour beneath the altar. This happened in the year 1195.

In the year 1469, when Tărnovo was conquered by the Ottomans, the relics of Saint Ivan were translated yet again to their next and final resting-place, which is the monastery at Rila. Even today they still work many wonders for the poor, for the sick, for those who believe: the blind again see; the lame again walk; the mute are given voice; those who suffer from handicaps and mental afflictions are made whole; and those possessed by dæmons are freed from their tormentors. It is with gratitude today that we say: Holy hermit and ascetic Ivan, who overflows with the indwelling grace of the Holy Spirit, pray unto Christ our God the Tsar of Tsars that he may have mercy upon our souls!
Apolytikion for Saint Ivan of Rila, Tone 1:

Your life was a foundation of repentance
And a model of compunction,
An image of consolation and spiritual perfection,
Equal to the angels, O venerable one.
You persevered in prayer, fasting and tears, O Father Ivan;
Intercede with Christ God for our souls.
Rila Monastery, Bulgaria