31 December 2008

O Radix


Here is Malcolm Guite's sonnet based on the O Antiphon appointed for 18 December in the Sarum practice:

O Radix
All of us sprung from one deep-hidden seed,
Rose from a root invisible to all.
We knew the virtues once of every weed,
But, severed from the roots of ritual,
We surf the surface of a wide-screen world
And find no virtue in the virtual.
We shrivel on the edges of a wood
Whose heart we once inhabited in love,
Now we have need of you, forgotten Root
The stock and stem of every living thing
Whom once we worshiped in the sacred grove,
For now is winter, now is withering
Unless we let you root us deep within,
Under the ground of being, graft us in.

Taking Back the Holy Martyr Sebastian


Now that I have apparently risked alienating some of my favourite Orthodox bloggers by posting about the ‘O Antiphons’, I feel I must do something to get my Byzantine-Russian-Eastern Rite-cred back. I’m not sure what that is, yet, but I do have a chance to show that I do not uncritically adore all things Western. Today on the Old Calendar is the feast day of the Holy Martyr Sebastian and those with him. A native of Milan, he was a soldier who was martyred under Diocletian in 287. In the West, he was sometimes counted as one of the 'Fourteen Auxiliary Saints' or 'Holy Helpers', replacing one of the original fourteen--Ss Agathius, Barbara, Blaise, Catherine, Christopher, Cyriacus, Denis, Erasmus, Eustace, George, Giles, Margaret, Panteleimon, and Vitus. Here is the account of his life in the Prologue. Here is the Kontakion of the Holy Martyr (Fourth Tone), according to the Holy Transfiguration Monastery Great Horologion (Boston: Holy Transfiguration Monastery, 1997), p. 350:

Since thou wast great in zeal for godly religion, thou didst assemble an alliance of Martyrs, and in their midst, thou shonest like a flashing star. With the arrows that did pierce thy much-suffering body, thou didst slay the enemy, O Great Martyr Sebastian; and thou thyself didst fly as from a bow into the Heavens, where Christ hath received thy soul.


According to the always skeptical Catholic Encyclopedia, the depiction of St Sebastian being pierced with arrows began with the Renaissance, but it’s certainly mentioned in the 5th-c. Acts of the Holy Martyr (see Butler’s retelling of the Acts here), and St Nikolai tells it in the Prologue. Now, the icon above—which, of course, may well have been derived from the Western portrayals of the subject—depicts the Holy Martyr Sebastian suffering soberly and manfully from the arrows being fired at him. Note, too, the manly beard!

But the Western portrayals, and they are legion, almost invariably depict the Saint as a very attractive young man, with a fleshy, sensual appearance, his scanty covering nearly ready to slip off, and his head and eyes rolled back almost as if he’s deriving sexual pleasure from his treatment. Add to this the fact that he is bound to a tree, and there is an undeniably homoerotic, sadomasochistic element to the whole thing. It certainly has not been lost on homosexual, sadomasochistic-type people.

Now, as much as I may not like the idea of a Holy Martyr being co-opted for a decidedly carnal purpose, I must admit that the tendency of Western religious art has helped to encourage this. The sober, sacred, and hieratic charactre that Western religious art originally had in common with the Byzantine tradition (even, for a time, after the Schism) had been replaced by a purely sensual, dramatic emphasis. Whereas the oldest depiction of St Sebastian is a very sober, spiritual mosaic at Ravenna, Italy, this one is all too typical of later portrayals.

Some may, I would anticipate, try to discover in this art some ‘spirituality’ of its own, for as Photios Kontoglou has pointed out, ‘Man has distorted everything and has characterized as spiritual every carnal tickling, provided this sensual tickling be refined. This counterfeit spirituality is called by Paul the “mind of the flesh” [2 Rom. 8:7]’ (Byzantine Sacred Art, 2nd ed., trans. and ed. Constantine Cavarnos [Belmont, MA: Institute for Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies, 1992], p. 25-6).

But anyone with a half-way Orthodox phronema must always be horrified by this art, which is religious only in subject matter. Even Catholics are occasionally more level-headed. Merton has complained that ‘the saints in art began to strike operatic attitudes and found themselves surrounded by rosy clouds of infant cherubim. It was then that the only distinguishing mark separating male from female sanctity was to be sought in the clothing of the holy ones’ (Thomas Merton, ‘Sacred Art and the Spiritual Life’, Disputed Questions [NY: New American Library, 1965], p. 128). Furthermore, it is telling that those who would defend this art on the grounds of some sort of dichotomy between art and liturgy are forced to conclude, ‘But it is obviously true that neither the theology nor the philosophy of this art which elevates nature through beauty is the art of the liturgy’ (H.A. Reinhold, Liturgy and Art, Vol. 16 of Religious Perspectives [NY: Harper & Row, 1966], p. 89).

So whether or not the icon above is of an independent, Orthodox tradition or is derived from later, dubious Western models, I think I have to welcome it. It represents a drive to take back the Saints of the Church from the distortions to which they’ve been subject and present them in their proper, sacred context. Holy Martyr Sebastian, pray to God for us!

As an addendum, I just discovered when reading the infallible Adalbert de Vogüé today (in Reading St Benedict: Reflections on the Rule, trans. Colette Friedlander [Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian, 1994], p. 82) that in RB 7:24, St Benedict, following the Rule of the Master 7:45, quotes the following maxim from the Acts of St Sebastian 14 (printed in Migne, PL 17):

quia mors secus introitum delectationis posita est;
for death lies close by the gate of delight;

(The Rule of St Benedict in Latin and English, trans. Abbot Justin McCann [Ft Collins, CO: Roman Catholic Books, n.d.], pp. 40-1)

30 December 2008

Please Forgive Me, It's Sapientiatide!


my valued readers, I’ve been putting off work on an Advent post, but now that we Orthodox on the Old Calendar have reached what the Catholics, Anglo-Catholics, and, I suppose, Western Rite Orthodox (whether they follow the Roman or the Sarum tradition), or some of them, call ‘Sapientiatide’, it can no longer safely be avoided. One of the primary purposes of this blog, aided by the day-by-day nature of blog-posting, is to be an urgent call to and enhancement of the observance of the liturgical year. I believe it is one of the most grievous lacunæ of modern life that not only is the passage of the year often unobserved entirely—thanks to our technological alienation from the sky, the seasons, and the fields—but that when it is observed it is only marked by degraded, almost entirely secularised ‘rituals’ (see this, for example). Sanctifying the passage of the year is part of how we fulfill St Paul’s exhortation to ‘walk circumspectly, not as fools, but as wise, redeeming the time, because the days are evil’ (Eph. 5:16-7).

The period of the Nativity Fast is one of my favourite times to try to focus on this, precisely because of the nearly complete dominance of what I have referred to as the ‘degraded, almost entirely secularised “rituals”’ that American society offers us during this season. It is a period of preparation for the observance of the Feast of the Nativity of our Lord, God, and Saviour, Jesus Christ, the celebration of our Lord’s coming in the flesh, and for this reason it has long been known in the Western world as ‘Advent’. The expectation of the feast is made more acute in the Western liturgical tradition, beginning on the 16th or 17th of December, by the use of a series of antiphonal hymns sung at Vespers with the Magnificat (much like our Άξιον εστίν is used during Matins in the Byzantine typicon), commonly known as the ‘O Antiphons’ because of the vocative ‘O’ with which they all begin.

Now this is a well-known tradition, which one can read more about in quite a few other places (I recommend this one and this one). It has also, I am informed, been done to death on countless blogs. I don’t want to bore those who are already quite familiar with them, or annoy those who never cared in the first place—cough! (Christopher Orr), cough! cough! (Esteban Vázquez)—so I’ll just point out two interesting things I’ve come across that don’t show up in a lot of ‘O Antiphon’ stuff.

The first is a series of sonnets based on each antiphon by this guy, Malcom Guite, which I found here. I really like these, and the whole idea of using the sonnet is very classy to me. Each day until Christmas, I am going to post Guite’s sonnet for the O Antiphon of that day (based on the Sarum practice). It will not be the only post, so if someone has no interest in it, they will have something else to read too.

The second is the Advent Lyrics by the mysterious Anglo-Saxon poet, Cynewulf, contained in the 10th-c. manuscript known as the Exeter Book, published in the Columbia University Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records collection (George Philip Krapp and Elliot Van Kirk Dobbie, eds., The Exeter Book, The Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records, A Collective Edition: Vol. III [Morningside Heights, NY: Columbia U, 1963]). Cynewulf, much like Mr Guite in our own day, wrote lyrics expanding on the themes of the O Antiphons for all but three of them. Kevin Crossley-Holland has published verse translations of two in his The Anglo-Saxon World: An Anthology [Oxford: Oxford U, 1984], pp. 197-8. Charles Huntington Whitman published a prose translation of all of ‘Christ I’ (the longer poem of which the Advent Lyrics are a part) in The Christ of Cynewulf [Boston: Ginn & Co., 1900], available online here. I will post Crossley-Holland’s verse translations on the days to which the corresponding antiphons are assigned in the Sarum practice (19 and 21 December), and Whitman’s prose translations on the days to which the other corresponding antiphons are assigned. Because Cynewulf’s poem does not contain lyrics corresponding to the antiphons for 16, 17, and 18 December, I will not begin posting these until Thursday, 19 December according to the old Orthodox calendar. These translations will be included in the posts along with Guite’s sonnets.

I apologise to all of those who will be annoyed or uninterested in this stuff. I myself find the O Antiphons quite interesting (I was a little shocked when I realised their connection with ‘O Come, O Come Emmanuel’, a hymn I’ve loved since I was a little kid), but of course, I don’t follow enough blogs to find myself ‘inundated’ by posts about them! Christopher Orr has mentioned that he doesn’t have ‘a connection’ to them, the same way most Americans don’t have one with the Byzantine hymns for the Nativity. But I certainly did have that connection with ‘O Come, O Come’, and even though the O Antiphons per se were new to me a few years ago, I think part of what appealed to me was the idea of them being chanted in Advent in the Western monasteries centuries ago, the churches and the ‘feel’ of which have been part of my cultural consciousness for a long time. These do not seem foreign to me, although the modern, watered-down ‘heirs’ to them do! Anyway, far be it from me to argue that one ought to feel a connection to something. Also, Orr's points about the Western Rite are certainly well taken.

Well, after all of that ado, here are Guite’s sonnets for 16 and 17 December:

O Sapientia
I cannot think unless I have been thought
Nor can I speak unless I have been spoken
I cannot teach except as I am taught
Or break the bread except as I am broken.
O Mind behind the mind through which I seek,
O Light within the light by which I see,
O Word beneath the words with which I speak
O founding, unfound Wisdom, finding me
O sounding Song whose depth is sounding me
O Memory of time, reminding me
My Ground of Being, always grounding me
My Maker’s Bounding Line, defining me
Come, hidden Wisdom, come with all you bring
Come to me now, disguised as everything.

O Adonai
Unsayable, you chose to speak one tongue
Unseeable, you gave yourself away,
The Adonai, the Tetragramaton
Grew by a wayside in the light of day.
O you who dared to be a tribal God,
To own a language, people and a place,
Who chose to be exploited and betrayed,
If so you might be met with face to face,
Come to us here, who would not find you there,
Who chose to know the skin and not the pith,
Who heard no more than thunder in the air,
Who marked the mere events and not the myth.
Touch the bare branches of our unbelief
And blaze again like fire in every leaf.

29 December 2008

Milton's 'Lycidas' and 'Emo' Poetry


My wife’s comment on the Death to the World poem got me to thinking—the regular feature in the ‘zine under which my poem was published is called ‘Common Suffering’. It certainly seems like an opportunity for more typical modern ‘emo’ poetry, an opportunity which I hope I’ve passed up. But it got me to thinking about how suffering can be expressed in a non-‘emo’ kind of way. It occurred to me that although today it is expected that the expression of suffering will be highly emotive and ‘expressive', in ages past it has been expressed in ways that are more sublimated to the disciplined structure of literary form. In other words, the very use of poetry to express one’s suffering should in itself already be seen as a kind of stylisation of raw emotion, an imposing of order upon inner chaos.

A famous example is John Milton’s pastoral elegy, Lycidas, written to commemorate the drowning of Edward King, a Cambridge schoolmate of the poet, at the age of twenty-five (‘Lycidas’, Benét’s Reader’s Encyclopedia, 3rd ed., ed. Katherine Baker Siepmann [NY: HarperPerennial, 1987], p. 589). In keeping with Milton’s general reputation, it is a learned poem in high style, and a close imitation of a Classical form complete with numerous allusions to figures of pagan mythology. Unfortunately, one of the greatest critics of English literature, Samuel Johnson, was led by this stylised aspect of the poem to give a verdict that could be that of any number of modern readers:


It is not to be considered as the effusion of real passion; for passion runs not after remote allusions and obscure opinions. . . . Where there is leisure for fiction there is little grief.

In this poem there is not nature, for there is no truth; there is not art, for there is nothing new. (‘Preface to Milton’, Samuel Johnson (The Oxford Authors), ed. Donald Greene [Oxford: Oxford U, 1990], p. 699)

This is what C.S. Lewis has called a ‘confusion (arising from the fact that both are voluntary) between the organization of a response and the pretence of a response’, as well as being surely akin to his ‘Romantic Primitivism . . . which prefers the merely natural to the elaborated, the un-willed to the willed’ (A Preface to 'Paradise Lost' [NY: Oxford U, 1965], p. 55). Just because Milton has carefully and skillfully stylised the expression of his grief, does not mean that he does not truly feel it. In fact, Jon S. Lawry has demonstrated, I believe, that within the poem itself ‘The timeless, serene, and objective attitudes of pastoral, impassioned only in formal artistic imitation of loss, are opposed by the skeptical affronts of death, temporal corruption, and several failures of consolation, all of which are impassioned in and through actual experience’ (‘“Eager Thought”: Dialectic in Lycidas’, Milton: Modern Essays in Criticism, ed. Arthur E. Barker [NY: Oxford U, 1965], p. 113).

Of course, Lawry notes, ‘That the apparently destructive argument of actuality has also been cast in poetry, is . . . an indication that its force is limited’ (ibid., p. 113). In this sense, the artistic form of poetry partakes of a ritualistic quality, described by Lewis as ‘a pattern imposed on the mere flux of our feelings by reason and will, which renders pleasures less fugitive and griefs more endurable’ (Lewis, p. 22; Thomas Howard has made use of this passage in a wonderful article for Touchstone, an article that deserves much more attention). In Preface, Lewis is of course speaking primarily of epic (specifically, what he calls ‘secondary epic’) in connection with ritual, but I tend to think this observation is more or less true of poems of all genres.

Although I am no biblical scholar, as a daily reader of the Psalms, I find this to be true of the latter perhaps par excellence. While it is surely the case that there is little to compare with the suffering expressed, for instance, in Psalm 21 (LXX), not for one moment could it legitimately be called ‘emo’. If nothing else, the typical use of parallelism—the chief poetic feature of the Psalms, according to Patrick Miller’s introduction in my HarperCollins Study Bible (NY: HarperCollins, 1994), p. 798—saves it from such a fate. Furthermore, our Lord’s quotation of the opening line of this Psalm precisely as he hung upon the Cross in Matthew 27:46 and Mark 15:34 is surely eloquent testimony that there is nothing dishonest or artificial about expressing grief not only in poetic words, but in those of another author. While I would not be too surprised to find some silly person (probably an evangelical trying to appeal to modern youth) in our day referring to the poetry of the Psalms as ‘emo’, surely even they would realise the blasphemy of applying such a concept to our Lord’s expressions of suffering on the Holy Cross.

A couple of years ago, a good friend of mine who was about to be made a catechumen at our parish was killed in a car accident. I was quite literally in shock when I first received the news, but as I started to grieve and weep, I found myself writing. Each and every day for the first week or so I wrote a poem. Now, although I like to think it has a rhythm of its own, most of my poetry, like the one I posted yesterday, is rather unruly. I feel like I still have a long way to go to truly master real metre and rhyme, which in this case led me, interestingly, to occasionally use the form of the Psalms as a model. But I found that the mere search for words itself, the attempt to forge a verbal expression of that profound grief, was enough to impose a pattern ‘on the mere flux’ of my feelings. As I touched some of the rawest emotions I had experienced in some time, it was precisely form that I sought for their expression.

(The image above is an 1803 aquatint illustration to Lycidas by Henry Fuseli.)

My Poem in 'Death to the World'

Years ago, when I first became interested in Orthodoxy, I discovered this little 'zine produced by monks of the St Herman of Alaska Brotherhood in California. Intended as an outreach to punks and other counter-culture kids, it was called Death to the World. The 'zine featured striking, cut-and-paste black-and-white images of monks, saints, and icons, along with excerpts from spiritual writings, ancient and contemporary, many of them focusing on the meaning and redemptive power of suffering. Inspired by Death to the World, I wrote a little poem (along with a DTTW-type page layout) that a friend of mine put in a little 'zine he made.

Well, years later I discovered that while the monks had eventually stopped printing new issues, a group of young converts in Orange County had received their blessing to start it up again, and these kids were asking for submissions. I told them about my own DTTW-inspired poem and sent it in. I initially received an enthusiastic reply, but never heard back from them again after that. Then a year or so later, a friend told me he'd seen my poem in there, and a couple of months ago, I myself finally saw it (Death to the World, #16, p. 37).

Since I only e-mailed the text and didn't send my layout in, the DTTW staff did their own, cutting out the lines and pasting them over an image of the fathers processing out of the monastery church at Platina. It's nice. My only complaint is that they switched two of the lines around, probably when they were arranging them on the page. Anyway, keeping in mind that I wrote this when I was still technically a teenager, here is the full text of the poem with all of the lines in proper order.

'Experience Weeps'

I turned off my tv today.
I sold my circuits.
I flung away my flickering neon lights.
I took the wires out of my skin and off of my clothes.
I stripped machine images and bar codes away from the walls.
I took off mirror shades.
I cried.
Tonight flickering flame illumines Your evening eyes,
Your hollow face,
Formed by lines which extend into infinity.
I bow, I kiss the wood,
I make signs and symbols in the air,
I chant in gladsome light.
Holy, Holy, Holy, Your little song,
Your eulogic hand,
Your midnight voice like a sword.


28 December 2008

'A Merciful Man'—St Pardus the Solitary of Palestine


As the Prologue contains an enigmatically short account of St Pardus the Solitary of Palestine (commemorated today, 15 December, according to the old Orthodox calendar), I thought it a good idea to post the two paragraphs of Holy Apostles Convent’s wonderful The Lives of the Saints of the Holy Land and Sinai Desert (Buena Vista, CO: Holy Apostles Convent, 1997), pp. 514-5:


Our holy father lived in Palestine in the sixth century. In his youth, Pardus was a wagoner. One day, arriving in Jericho, he left his beast of burden in front of an inn which he entered. At that moment, it happened that a child fell in front of the beast which trampled upon it, thereby killing it. When Pardus beheld the crushed child, cruelly slain by his animal, his heart became extremely laden with guilt. Though it was an unintentional sin, the conscience-stricken Pardus laid on himself a harsh penance. He abandoned his trade, and, though very young he left the world. He withdrew into the arid desert to live a life of mortification, spiritual toil and repentance.

With many tears, he offered unto God his profound repentance on account of the child’s death. He somehow desired to give his life in exchange for that of the child, for which he prayed to God. He then searched out a lion, hoping it might devour him, but the beast fled from him. Then he decided to lay in the narrow track that the lion habitually tread upon, hoping that it would slay him. But, once more, the lion leapt over him and would not approach. Therefore, he perceived that it was God’s will that he continue to live and not perish as prey. Somewhat allayed, the sensitive and God-fearing sould remained a lowly penitent to his death, as if he were the least of all men in worth.

I have almost nothing to say in comment on this, except that it is interesting that the trampling of a child immediately calls to my mind Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (NY: Bantam, 1985). There, the charactre of Mr Hyde—the embodiment of the dark side of human nature itself—is introduced by the story of his having ‘calmly’ trampled a child and gone on walking away, deaf to her screams (Stevenson, p. 4). It is rightly used by Stevenson as the most despicable of acts. We have in St Pardus the anti-Hyde, much more than in Dr Jekyll, whom Stephen King has called 'the hypocrite who falls into the pit of secret sin' (Danse Macabre [NY: Berkley, 1983], p. 74). St Pardus is a man of such holy compassion that he spends his life in repentance, not for having himself trampled a child, but for his animal having done it. He is a beautiful illustration of St Isaac the Syrian’s well-known words about the ‘merciful heart’:

‘And what is a merciful heart?’ ‘It is the heart’s burning for the sake of the entire creation, for men, for birds, for animals, for demons, and for every created thing; and by the recollection and sight of them the eyes of a merciful man pour forth abundant tears. From the strong and vehement mercy which grips his heart and from his great compassion, his heart is humbled and he cannot bear to hear or to see any injury or slight sorrow in creation. . . .’ (St Isaac the Syrian, The Ascetical Homilies of St Isaac the Syrian, trans. Dana Miller [Boston, MA: Holy Transfiguration Monastery, 1984], p. 344-5)

Would that I had such compassion, such a humbled and merciful heart!

27 December 2008

'The celebrated poet of Christian Gaul'—St Venantius Fortunatus


According to my favourite online Orthodox calendar (for which I owe a much-belated hat-tip to my good friend, Justin), today we commemorate St Venantius Honorius Clementianus Fortunatus (530?-600?). A ‘celebrated Christian poet of Gaul’, in the words of Fr Seraphim (Rose) (St Gregory of Tours, Vita Patrum: The Life of the Fathers, trans. Hieromonk Seraphim [Rose] (Platina, CA: St Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 1988), p. 37, n. *), St Venantius was a friend of St Gregory of Tours who, having been educated in Ravenna and healed by St Martin from an ‘eye affliction’, travelled throughout Gaul. He came to reside in Poitiers, where he cultivated a close friendship with the Frankish nun and patron Saint of Jesus College, Cambridge, St Radegund, and began his career as a prolific poet. When the Emperor Justin II (whose own story, told by Gibbon, is quite fascinating) sent as a gift to St Radegund from Constantinople a piece of the True Cross, St Venantius wrote the following as a processional for the reception of the relic in Poitiers:

Vexilla Regis Prodeunt

The banners of the King go forth,
Glistens the Cross’s mystery
That flesh’s Builder in the flesh
Was on a gibbet hung.

His vitals were transfixed with nails,
He stretched out his hands and feet:
For grace of our redemption
This Host was sacrificed.

Upon the cross He hung, wounded
By the point of a dire lance.
That he might wash us of our sins
He dripped water and blood.

Fulfilled is all that David sang
In his prophetic song of Faith,
Declaring to the nations,
‘God from wood has reigned.’

The tree is fit and glorious,
Adorned with purple of the King,
Chosen by honorable gift
To touch such sacred limbs.

Blessed it is upon whose arms
Has hung the ransom of an age;
It has become the body’s scales
And taken spoil of hell.

You pour a sweet smell from your bark,
You outdo nectar in your taste.
Fertile with a joyous fruit,
In noble triumph you praise.

Hail altar, hail the Victim
For glory of the passion
By which life has accomplished death
And through death life restored.

(trans. Albert Cook; L.R. Lind, ed., Latin Poetry in Verse Translation: From the Beginnings to the Renaissance [Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1957], pp. 331-2)

According to Jaroslav Pelikan, ‘Vexilla Regis Prodeunt’, along with another of St Venantius’s hymns, ‘Pange Lingua’ (later given a beautiful setting by Palestrina!), became ‘a standard part of medieval Lenten music and poetry (Jesus Through the Centuries: His Place in the History of Culture [New Haven, CT: Yale U, 1999], p. 101). Although his reputation as a poet seems generally to be quite high, in a typical Edwardian judgement his occasional use of ‘figurate’ poetry has been unjustly called ‘one of the least happy [!] inventions of this period of literary decadence’. St Venantius was eventually made bishop of Poitiers and reposed sometime around the year 600.

By the way, on the subject of Orthodox Gaul, in addition, naturally, to the primary sources, everyone really should read Fr Seraphim's introduction to his translation of St Gregory of Tours (cited above). A brilliant appreciation of the ancient Orthodoxy of the West before the later innovations that divided it from the Orthodox Church, it is an underappreciated gem.

26 December 2008

The Lesser-Known Fr Alexander


It’s occurred to me how much the work of Hieromonk Alexander (Golitzin) deserves to be more widely known (in my opinion, at least as widely, if not more than, the other Fathers Alexander—Schmemann and Men). Ever since I discovered him he’s worked his way into just about anything I’ve written, and I’ve mentioned Fr Alexander more than once, I believe, on this blog. Specifically, his work on St Dionysios the Areopagite—embodied in an Oxford doctoral dissertation published as Et Introibo ad Altare Dei’: The Mystagogy of Dionysius Areopagita, with Special Reference to Its Predecessors in the Eastern Christian Tradition, Αναλέκτα Βλατάδων 59 (Thessaloniki: Patriarchal Institute for Patristic Studies, 1994), as well as a number of scholarly articles—proved a profound and invaluable aid to my own meagre understanding of the Corpus Dionysiacum. Sad to say, I was quite lost in the latter until being rescued by Fr Alexander. I still recall the interest with which I read Vincent Rossi’s review of Et Introibo in Divine Ascent (Divine Ascent: A Journal of Orthodox Faith, Vol. 1, No. 2, Exaltation of the Holy Cross 1997, pp. 92-5), followed by the excitement and fascination and, indeed, tears of joy, with which I read Fr Alexander’s own article, ‘Dionysius Areopagites in the Works of Saint Gregory Palamas: On the Question of a "Christological Corrective" and Related Matters’, my personal entrée into his work.

Soon there followed the reading of more articles (discovered, like the first, on the fantastic Jewish Roots of Eastern Christian Mysticism interdisciplinary seminar website hosted by Marquette University), during the course of which I continued to be struck, not only by the content of Fr Alexander’s ideas and the extent of his research, but by the wit with which he expressed himself. Take for instance, this little jewel of a footnote in ‘Hierarchy versus Anarchy? Dionysius Areopagita, Symeon the New Theologian, Nicetas Stethatos, and their common roots in ascetical tradition’ (SVTQ 38,2 [1994], p. 153, n. 95):

‘Biblical’ versus ‘Platonist’ echoes altogether too clearly the reaction of Roman Catholic and Orthodox scholars earlier this century to the late nineteenth and early twentieth century thesis of a ‘Hellenized’—and therefore corrupted—Christianity associated in particular with Adolph von Harnack. People such as Jean Cardinal Daniélou, Henri de Lubac, or indeed Vladimir Lossky fought Harnack a little too hard. While we all owe a great debt to these men, among whom Father John [Meyendorff] is certainly to be included, this does not mean that we are obliged to accept distinctions that do less than justice to the texts and thought of the ancients, or—worse—subject them often uncritically to the concerns of philosophies and movements that are quite alien to them. Modern existentialism comes to mind in this context. A Daniélou, for example, might have had an ear cocked to what was being said over the absinthe at Café les Deux Magots, but we need not. It is simply past time to have done with the exploded myth of a pure Hebrew, or ‘Semitic,’ tradition over and against a subversive ‘Hellenism.’

Not the least of the fascination, I believe, with Fr Alexander is in his own personal story, told more or less in a number of different places. He admits to having experienced his own crisis in attempting to understand the Corpus Dionysiacum, a crisis resolved, for him, by having spent a year at the Holy Monastery of Simonopetra on the Holy Mountain, and being exposed to its elder, Archimandrite Aimilianos. In the Preface to Et Introibo, he writes about the year he spent living under his ‘father in God’, Elder Aimilianos:

Two features of this experience figure importantly…in my discovering what I believe to be at once the core of the Dionysian message, and the reason for the corpus’ swift reception. These were, first, the as it were “architecture” of the monastic life of personal and corporate prayer and, second, the phenomenon of the ascetic holy man. (Et Introibo, p. 9)

Fr Alexander makes it more explicit in his review of Elder Aimilianos’s Discourses that ‘the holy man whom I had met’ was the elder himself and describes the monastery as a a place ‘where his presence and thought were embodied’ (Hieromonk Alexander [Golitzin], Rev. of Spiritual Instructions and Discourses, Vol. I: The Authentic Seal, by Archimandrite Aimilianos, Divine Ascent: A Journal of Orthodox Faith 7, Presentation of the Theotokos, Nov. 2001, p. 179). It is not often that I have encountered such honest personal accounts of how one’s scholarly work has been effected by one’s spiritual life, and it’s a moving thing to see.

I have mainly focused on Fr Alexander’s studies on the Corpus Dionysiacum, but one mustn’t lose sight of the wide-ranging nature of his work. I have already had occasion a number of times on this blog to refer to his collection of Hagioritica, Living Witness of the Holy Mountain: Contemporary Voices from Mount Athos (South Canaan, PA: St Tikhon’s Seminary, 1994). He is also responsible for the 3-volume translation of St Symeon the New Theologian’s Ethical Discourses, published in the invaluable St Vladimir’s Popular Patristics Series, and, with the Michaels Prokurat and Peterson, of the Historical Dictionary of the Orthodox Church (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow, 1996). I recently noted Fr Alexander’s publication of an edition and translation from the Syriac of Jacob of Sarug's Homily on the Chariot that Prophet Ezekiel Saw in the enormous catalogue of Gorgias Press. Finally, in addition to his strictly scholarly work, he has published a number of reviews in Divine Ascent, including the aforementioned review of Elder Aimilianos’s Discourses.

So please, everyone, avail yourselves of the work of Hieromonk Alexander (Golitzin). As Rossi has described Et Introibo, ‘This is an intellectual odyssey to the heart of the Orthodox Christian Tradition and as such is to be recommended without reservation to every thoughtful believer’ (p. 95).

Addendum: Since the writing of this post, Fr Alexander has been elected and consecrated Bishop Alexander of Toledo, to serve as the ruling hierarch of the OCA's Bulgarian diocese. Axios! Axios! Axios! I will not say, as Fr Peter Heers more legitimately wrote of the consecration of Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos, that this 'can only mean that the Church has given its enthusiastic approval of his writings', if only because Bishop Alexander's writings are so much more obscure. But surely it doesn't signify disapproval at least! Read about the consecration, including some insightful remarks from His Grace on his acceptance, hereMany years to His Grace, Bishop Alexander.

Santa Lucia!

Today we commemorate the Virgin Martyr, St Lucy of Syracuse, Sicily. According to the Prologue:

With her mother, Lucy visited the grave of St Agatha in Catania, and the saint appeared to her. Her mother [Eutychia], who had an issue of blood, was miraculously cured in the church at that time. Lucy gave away all her goods to the poor, and this embittered her betrothed, who denounced her to Paschasius the judge as a Christian. The wicked judge ordered that she be taken to a brothel and defiled, but, by the power of God, she remained immovable, as if rooted to the earth, and not even a vast number of people was able to move her from the spot. An enraged pagan then ran her through the throat with a sword, and she commended her soul to God and entered into the Kingdom of eternity. She suffered in the year 304.

Although her entry in the Catholic Encyclopedia is skeptical concerning much of this story, even there it is admitted that ‘the place and time of her death can hardly be questioned’, and the author is rather optimistic about the factuality of ‘her connexion with St Agatha and the miraculous cure of Eutychia’! ;-)

There is a tradition that she used to visit Christians in the catacombs wearing a wreath of candles (see Gordon Giles, O Come Emmanuel: A Musical Tour of Daily Readings for Advent and Christmas [Brewster, MA: Paraclete, 2006], p. 50), and this coupled with her name, ‘Lucia’, meaning ‘light’, gave rise to the prominent rôle of light in some of the more well-known customs associated with St Lucy’s day in the West. In Italy, she is celebrated with torchlight processions and bonfires. In Sweden, there is the famous custom of the oldest daughter dressing in a white gown and, crowned with a wreath of greenery and lit candles, waking the family to serve them St Lucy day treats. (For these customs, and recipes for the special foods of her day, see the Fish-Eaters page.)

Of course, St Lucy is also known for the recurrence of her name in the traditional Neapolitan song, ‘Santa Lucia’, made famous by Enrico Caruso. The lyrics concern a harbour in Naples called ‘Borgo Santa Lucia’, which is dominated by Castel dell’Ovo, a site that may once have been that of a Greek monastery in the fifth century. Gordon Giles has printed one of the many versions of the song re-written as a hymn for the Saint. The second verse reads:
Deep in the northern sky
Bright stars are beaming;
Christmas is drawing nigh,
Candles are gleaming.
Welcome you vision rare,
Lights glowing in your hair.
Santa Lucia, Santa Lucia.
(Giles, p. 49)
A complete Akolouthia of the Virgin Martyr can be found here.

25 December 2008

On Being Named for the Prophet Aaron, Part II

Well, I might have waited until my nameday next September to do these posts on St Aaron, but something very exciting happened a few days ago. I was doing a little bit of research on one of the Saints Aaron (I don’t recall which, now), when I came across this page. It’s a list of publications, lectures, etc., by an archæology group in Finland called the ‘Finnish Jabal Haroun Project’. ‘Jabal Haroun’, it turns out, is Arabic for ‘Mount Aaron’. As I scanned the titles of these articles and lectures, I became increasingly excited. Many of them directly referred to a Byzantine Monastery of St Aaron, which was cool enough in itself, as I’d never heard of anything dedicated to any St Aaron.

But then I came across this, which I shall quote at length:

Jabal an-Nabi Haroun (the mountain of the Prophet Aaron) is located about 3 miles to the southwest of Petra, Jordan. According to the Jewish, Christian and Muslim traditions, the mountain is the burial place of Moses’ brother Aaron. That the Mountain of Aaron was located near the Nabatean city of Petra was already mentioned by Josephus, and followed by Eusebius and Jerome in the 4th century AD. The Vita of St Stephen the Sabaite (8th century) recorded Mar Haroun; possibly a monastery on Jabal Haroun. . . . In 1217, Magister Thetmarus noted a church there, in which two Greek Christian monks still lived.

Currently, the peak of the mountain is occupied by the mid-14th century Muslim shrine (weli) with Aaron’s cenotaph. In addition to the early descriptions by Palmer and Wiegand, the most recent one is sby R. Schick, G. Peterman and K.W. Russell in 1996, which concentrated on the ruined architectural complex located on a plateau at about 4,230 feet above sea level, and about 230 feet below the peak. They concluded that the ruins should probably be identified with a monastery of Saint Aaron. This identification is also supported by the Papyrus Petra inv. 6 (AD 573), which mentions ‘the House of the Saint High-Priest Aaron’ outside Petra. . . . Combined with the religious tradition and the remains on the plateau, this would strongly suggest that the latter should be identified as the Monastery/Pilgrimage Center of Saint Aaron. . . .

. . .

Apparently, the complex represents a pilgrimage center related to the veneration of St Aaron, and associated with the monastic presence. It resembles a monatery of a cœnobium type, usually erected next to a memorial church which generally served the needs of pilgrims.

(Avraham Negev and Shimon Gibson, ed., Archaeological Encyclopedia of the Holy Land [London: Continuum, 2005], pp. 251-2)


So, I discovered, not only was the Prophet Aaron venerated actively at one point, there was a monastery dedicated to him that either housed, or was near to, his tomb. In other words, his relics were apparently preserved!

Although not possessing the complete works of Josephus (I’ve got an ancient Penguin Classics edition of The Jewish War), I looked up the Antiquities (IV.4.7) online, and found this:


Now when this purification, which their leader made upon the mourning for his sister, as it has been now described, was over, he caused the army to remove and to march through the wilderness and through Arabia; and when he came to a place which the Arabians esteem their metropolis, which was formerly called Arce, but has now the name of Petra, at this place, which was encompassed with high mountains, Aaron went up one of them in the sight of the whole army, Moses having before told him that he was to die, for this place was over against them. He put off his pontifical garments, and delivered them to Eleazar his son, to whom the high priesthood belonged, because he was the elder brother; and died while the multitude looked upon him. He died in the same year wherein he lost his sister, having lived in all a hundred twenty and three years. He died on the first day of that lunar month which is called by the Athenians Hecatombaeon, by the Macedonians Lous, but by the Hebrews Abba [a cursory look for the meaning of this date suggests the July dates for St Aaron may be closer to his actual repose than any others].

Of course, Josephus is closely basing his account on Numbers 20:22-9, but he goes further in identifying the biblical ‘Mount Hor’ with a site overlooking Petra. This identification seems to be taken for granted in the one comprehensive ‘Bible dictionary’ I possess (the limits of my library really begin to appear!), F.N. Peloubet’s apparent abridgement of that of Sir William Smith and J.M. Fuller. Peloubet’s entry has:


The mountain on which Aaron died. . . . Mount Hor is situated on the eastern side of the great valley of the Arabah, the highest and most conspicuous of the whole range of the sandstone mountains of Edom, having close beneath it on its eastern side the mysterious city of Petra. It is now the Jebel Nebi-Harûn, ‘the mountain of the prophet Aaron.’. . . The mountain is marked far and near by its double top, which rises like a huge castellated building from a lower base, and is surmounted by a circular dome of the tomb of Aaron, a distinct white spot on the dark red surface of the mountain. (F.N. Peloubet and Alice D. Adams, Peloubet’s Bible Dictionary, Based Upon the Foundation Laid by William Smith [Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1974], pp. 261-2)

Well, it would be nice to know what sort of hymns and services they had for the Saint at the monastery, or to see the icons they would have had, or even to know what date they observed for the commemoration. Alas, I’m afraid all of these things ‘have passed like rain on the mountain, like a wind in the meadow’. But at least I’ve got just one more thing to hold onto as a token of my Saint, with whom I consent gladly to be stuck!

(The icon above is a 17th-c. work housed at the Saris Museum in Bardejov, Slovakia.)
[Read Part I of this post here.]

24 December 2008

On Orthodox Native Americans & the Eating of Fish


Well, as nearly everyone else in my part of the world prepares to celebrate Christmas with the Pope of Rome, I have just finished a nice salmon dinner in honour of our holy Father Herman of Alaska, the 'North Star', according to one children's book about the Saint. A hesychast and anchorite, he was also, paradoxically, a great missionary and an example of active, incarnate love. His feast is tomorrow, 12 December, according to the old Orthodox calendar.

I think it was when I moved to Greece that I first began truly to appreciate St Herman, the 'adornment of Alaska and joy of all America' ('Akathist to Our Father Among the Saints, Herman, Wonderworker of Alaska', Book of Akathists: To Our Saviour, the Mother of God, and Various Saints [Jordanville, NY: Holy Trinity Monastery, 1994], p. 231). There, a stranger in a strange land, I became suddenly attached to the greatest Saint of my own country. When a couple of guys were coming from the States to stay with us and asked if there was anything they could bring, I asked for an icon of St Herman (I got a nice, good-sized reproduction of the original icon from the St Herman of Alaska Monastery in California). I eagerly read the account of the reception of St Herman's relic (in one of the coolest reliquaries I've seen!) at the Holy Monastery of the Annunciation in Ormylia, Greece, as well as the two homilies on the Saint by Elder Aimilianos of Simonopetra translated by Fr Alexander (Golitzin) in The Living Witness of the Holy Mountain: Contemporary Voices from Mount Athos (South Canaan, PA: St Tikhon's Seminary, 1999), pp. 221-59. Finally, I was pleased to be present when an icon of St Herman painted (and reproduced above) at the St John the Forerunner Women's Monastery in Goldendale, WA, was presented to the sacristan of Xeropotamou Monastery on Mt Athos so that the fathers there could begin to do services for the Saint (a day or two later, if memory serves me, because of the importance of St Spyridon in Greece). Although I still have yet to make the trip to Alaska to venerate St Herman’ relics, when I moved back to the US, I was blessed with the opportunity to make a pilgrimage to St Herman of Alaska Monastery in California. There, I was given a copy of the Akathist to St Herman which, according to a note in the back, was originally written in 1951 by Fr Steven Lyashevsky, a friend of Archimandrite Gerasim of Spruce Island. The Akathist was later enlarged, presumably by the St Herman of Alaska Brotherhood themselves (Akathist to our Holy and God-bearing Father St Herman, Wonderworker of Alaska [Platina, CA: St Herman Press, n.d.], p. 17).

Anyway, there is very little I can add to what has already been said about St Herman. There is, however, a legacy to his work with the natives of Alaska of which many might not be aware. Inspired by Alaskan Missionary Spirituality, a collection of primary sources in English, a Canadian man, Reader Mikhail Ivanovich, has been leading a project to publish online all of the Orthodox texts translated into the native languages of Alaska by the great Orthodox missionaries there. There is a fascinating interview with Reader Mikhail here in Road to Emmaus, and one can see the fruit of his pious labours at the All Saints of North America Orthodox Church site here. Making these efforts more widely known seems to me a great way to honour St Herman.

On Being Named for the Prophet Aaron, Part I


When I first became Orthodox, back in January of 1996, I made the fateful decision to keep the name my parents gave me: Aaron. I’m sure part of my reasoning was that I wasn’t really familiar enough with the Saints to choose one that I felt a connection with. Add to this my then priest’s fairly casual attitude about the whole thing, and I felt downright silly about it. It was easier just not to make an issue out of this name business.

A few times I’ve been tempted to regret that decision. For one thing, the original Aaron, the Prophet Moses’s brother and high priest, is one of those Old Testament figures whose faults seem to have been recorded more readily than his virtues. He’s remembered primarily for having given in to the Israelites when they wanted to make a golden calf to worship while the Prophet Moses was up on the mountain with God (see Exodus 32). In countries like Greece and Russia, and even sometimes in the US, people often assume I’m Jewish. Furthermore, I get a little envious when I see friends celebrating vigils, venerating relics, etc., of their patron Saints, whereas the Prophet Aaron doesn’t even have a troparion all to himself, or a definite nameday. This last has been especially frustrating—I was originally told I was supposed to celebrate the Sunday of the Forefathers, then I noticed the St Herman calendar listed a date in March, then I discovered the Greek Menaion mentions him with his more famous brother on 4 September (at least in the Holy Transfiguration Monastery’s The Great Horologion [Boston: HTM, 1997], p. 242), the date I finally decided on since it’s close to my birthday anyway. Then, in the course of doing some research for this post, I discovered that the Prophet Aaron is listed on 1 July in an early Irish martyrology (P.J.C. Field, ‘Gildas and the City of the Legions’, The Heroic Age, Issue 1—Early Arthurian Tradition: Text and Context, Spring/Summer 1999)!

There have been a couple of encouraging moments, particularly when I’m among monks. I remember one old Athonite told me I had a φοβερό όνομα, an ‘awesome’ or ‘fearful name’ (I'm not sure if he intended one or the other connotation, or both). Another time, a couple of excited monks introduced me to a chanter at their monastery named ‘Father Moses’, saying that we were brothers. It was some consolation discovering George Herbert's beautiful poem, 'Aaron'. But generally speaking, I’ve begun to think that perhaps I got the short end of the stick.

Since there is so little veneration of the brother of Moses, I’ve kept a watchful eye out for any other saintly Aarons just so I could find more fodder for veneration. One of the first I came across was Abba Aaron of Philae in Egypt (2nd half of the 4th c.), whose life and miracles are told at some length in Paphnutius’s Histories of the Monks of Upper Egypt, III.86-140 (trans. Tim Vivian, Histories of the Monks of Upper Egypt & the Life of Onnophrius, by Paphnutius [Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian, 1993], pp. 114-41). He’s a great desert father (Vivian observes that his disciple, Abba Isaac, ‘unlike the modern reader, shows absolutely no surprise at finding Aaron naked in the desert with a millstone tied around his neck’—p. 37), but unfortunately his cultus does not seem ever to have caught on. I know of no commemoration date or hymnography for him.

The next St Aaron—the British martyr, who suffered with St Julius under a Roman persecution in perhaps the early 4th century (?)—was at one time more venerated than the Egyptian monk. The earliest source for him is St Gildas the Wise, who tells us precious little except that the Holy Martyrs Aaron and Julius were identified with ‘the city of the legions’ and that they ‘were tormented with divers sufferings, and their limbs were racked in such unheard of ways, that they, without delay, erected the trophies of their glorious martyrdom even in the gates of the city of Jerusalem’ (J.A. Giles, trans.; from the Internet Medieval Source Book). St Gildas is concerned, however, that access to their shrine has been hindered, which suggests that whether or not ‘trophies’ had been erected in Jerusalem, people were making pilgrimages to the site of the martyrdom to venerate the martyrs. They are given a date of commemoration (22 July) in the 9th-c. Martyrology compiled by Florus of Lyon (a date given, according to Alban Butler, to another St Aaron as well—of Brittany), and are even invoked in the marginalia of a 9th-c. manuscript—copied by an unknown Irish monk—of Priscian’s Institutiones Grammaticæ at the famous Abbey of St Gall in Switzerland (see Field). According to the Our Sunday Visitor’s Encyclopedia of Saints, however, they are commemorated on 1 July (Matthew Bunson, et al., Our Sunday Visitor's Encyclopedia of Saints, rev. ed. [Huntington, IN: Our Sunday Visitor, 2003], p. 23), the date Field says is that of the Prophet Aaron in at least one early martyrology. My favourite online Orthodox calendar, based, I believe, on the St Herman calendar, also supports this date.

The third St Aaron I’ve turned up is St Aaron of Aleth (†543-4?), in Brittany. He is most well-known in connection with St Malo, one of the Seven Founder Saints of Brittany. St Malo—according to the Catholic Encyclopedia—had been a disciple of St Brendan the Navigator and a companion on his legendary sea journeys before travelling to France and placing himself under the eldership of St Aaron. St Malo discovered the latter serving as abbot of a monastery on a small island, eventually named for St Aaron, opposite the town of Aleth, just off the coast of Brittany. When, much later, the bishopric of Aleth was transferred to the island, the whole town followed suit, becoming the town of St Malo. According to Alban Butler, St Aaron of Aleth is commemorated on 22 July, the same date given by Florus of Lyon’s Martyrology for Ss Aaron and Julius of Britain (see Field).

The other Aarons I’ve found very little about. Apparently there was a Cluniac, St Aaron of Cracow (†1059), who was a disciple of St Odilo and became abbot of a Benedictine monastery in Poland, and later, the first archbishop of Cracow. He is especially venerated in Cracow and by Polish Benedictines, who commemorate him on 9 October (see Bunson, p. 23). There is a passing reference to an Elder Aaron at Zadonsk Monastery in the 18th century, who prophesied that the Mother of God would not allow St Tikhon to leave the monastery (Archbishop Philaret (Gumilevsky) of Chernigov, ‘Appendix B: The Life of St Tikhon’, Journey to Heaven: Counsels on the Particular Duties of Every Christian, by St Tikhon of Zadonsk, trans. Fr George D. Lardas [Jordanville, NY: Holy Trinity Monastery, 1994], p. 208). Finally, I seem to recall St Seraphim (Sobolev) the New of Sofia speaking to an Elder Aaron before leaving Russia. I cannot currently discover this reference, however, which is not mentioned in the Orthodox America article here (any help would be appreciated!).
(The icon at the top is a detail of a fresco by Lasha Kintsurashvili, a Georgian Orthodox Christian and one of my favourite contemporary iconographers.)

To be continued . . . [UPDATE: One can read Part II of this post here.]

22 December 2008

A Sibylline Prophecy in 10th-c. Spain?


A recent exchange with the always interesting Kevin Edgecomb inspired me to do some research yesterday. Mr Edgecomb’s recommendation of a recorded setting of a Renaissance-era ‘Sibylline’ prophecy by the 16th-c. composer, Orlande de Lassus, prompted me to take another look at a cd in my collection: A Medieval Christmas, by the Boston Camerata, which features a chant identified as 10th-c. Spanish with what Joel Cohen calls a ‘sybilline prophecy [sic]’ translated into Latin by St Augustine. Here is the note:

In medieval Spain, on the night before Christmas, the faithful would behold a priest, disguised as an old woman, declaiming the sybilline prophecy Iudicii signum [here rendered ‘This is the sign of judgment’], which had been translated into Latin by St Augustine in the 5th century. (Joel Cohen, liner notes, A Medieval Christmas, by the Boston Camerata [NY: Elektra, 1992]).

Following this are the lyrics—a short text about judgment and the Lord coming from the heavens beginning (in English) with the words, ‘This is the sign of judgment: the earth shall grow wet with dew’. Of course, before I informed Mr Edgecomb about this text, I wanted to figure out what precisely was its source, so I opened up Volume 1 of the translated collection, The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, edited by James H. Charlesworth, which I knew to contain the Sibylline oracles. Now, there are fourteen oracles plus fragments in this book, so I just started looking through them—quickly learning to pay special attention for the equivalent of the ‘earth shall grow wet with dew’ rather than the ‘sign of judgment’—until I found something resembling the text from my cd.

This I eventually found in Book 8, lines 217-50 (clearly, the chant on the cd only features a portion of the total poem). It is translated from the original Greek hexameters and identified as an ‘Acrostic poem on the judgment’, with the acrostic reading ‘Jesus Christ, son of God, savior, cross’. The first line (l. 217) reads, ‘The earth will sweat when there will be a sign of judgment’, a kinship with the translation in my liner notes being obvious (J.J. Collins, ‘The Sibylline Oracles, Book 8’, The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, Vol. 1: Apocalyptic Literature & Testaments, ed. James H. Charlesworth [NY: Doubleday, 1983], p. 423). But then I found this little jewel in a footnote on the acrostic, which is printed at the beginning of the poem:

This line is not a vs., but is the title for the following vss. (218-50), which form an acrostic in Gk. The first letters of the lines spell out Iēsous Chreistos (H)uios Sōtēr Stauros. It is not possible to reproduce the acrostic in English. A Lat. rendering is found in Augustine’s De civitate Dei 18.23. See also Constantine’s ‘Speech to the Saints’, 18-19. (Collins, p. 423)

So! Now I had the (I thought) immediate source of the Latin used on my cd! In a feverish sweat, with trembling hand I took down my Modern Library edition of City of God and turned to Book 18, chapter 23 (St Augustine, The City of God, trans. Marcus Dods [NY: Modern Library, 1950], pp. 628-30). There I was rewarded with an entire chapter on this Sibylline prophecy (associated, according to the bishop of Hippo, with the Erythræan sibyl, who is depicted above by Michaelangelo), including an English rendering of St Augustine’s version of the acrostic poem that, in apparent defiance of Mr Collins, reproduces the acrostic in English with the Greek letters of the original acrostic arranged vertically beside the lines for comparison! The opening line reads, ‘Judgment shall moisten the earth with the sweat of its standard’, and Mr Dods’s translation continues for twenty-seven lines (arising from 3’s ‘superficial square’, in St Augustine’s words, to become its cube [p. 629]) of similarly beautiful English. (Incidentally, I also found a number of other attempts to preserve the acrostic in English here.)

St Augustine’s acrostic differs somewhat from Mr Collins’s. The former has: Ἰησοῦς Χριστὸς Θεοῦ υἱὸς σωτήρ (in his translation of the poem, Mr Dods throws in an epsilon before the iota in Χριστὸς, perhaps suggesting a misprint in the combined text of the acrostic in this edition, which leaves out the epsilon—come to think of it, there is also a misprint in the comments of St Augustine where he identifies the initial letter of ll. 5, 18, 19 as gamma rather than upsilon!). Also, St Augustine, having criticised the ‘bad Latin, and unrhythmical, through the unskillfulness, as we afterward learned, of some interpreter unknown to me’ in which he had previously seen the poem rendered, here introduces the translation that he reproduces ‘as translated by some one into Latin in good rhythm’ (St Augustine, p. 628, 629). Now, I did not know, and have not yet been able to discover, whether this was a modest admission that St Augustine himself is responsible for this translation, as the liner notes in my cd claim. Among other reasons against, it was my impression that the bishop of Hippo had not sufficient Greek to have managed it. But perhaps someone can correct me here!

My quest, however, to get to the bottom of these liner notes was not quite finished. I wanted to confirm that this text, which solely concerns the Last Judgement, really was performed in mediæval Spain in church on Christmas eve by a priest dressed as an old woman. Now, this was a much more difficult task, as I personally do not possess books that really deal with such matters. I was forced to rely on the Internet for the time being, which was slow in yielding to me truly useful information.

The first useful thing I did learn was that there was some sort of performance of this Sibylline prophecy, but that City of God was not the immediate source of the text that would have been used in these performances. These performances, and thus the chant on my cd, was inspired by a 5th- or 6th-c. Pseudo-Augustinian sermon, Contra Judaeos, Paganos, et Arianos, also known as the Sermo de symbolo, or Inter pressuras, in which the prophets (including Vergil, Nebuchadnezzar, and the Sibyl) are invoked to speak against the various persons named in the title (I found this in Richard B. Donovan, The Liturgical Drama in Medieval Spain [Toronto: PIMS, 1958], p. 165—on Google Books!; clarified somewhat by this article in Goldberg by Maricarmen Gómez). This sermon was the inspiration for a liturgical play, Processio Prophetarum, in which the Sibyl's poem was performed.

Then, I discovered 1) the reading of the sermon with the chanted Sibylline text preceeded its dramatisation in the context of the ‘Christmas play’, Processio Prophetarum, by one or two hundred years (so it is unlikely that priests would have been dressing up as old women in the 10th c.!—Donovan, pp. 166-7), and 2) although one of the three earliest (9th- or 10th-c.) manuscripts of the Iudicii signum chant is from Ripoll, in Catalonia (Donovan, p. 165), ‘In Spain the first definite evidence of an impersonated Sibyl is given by the fourteenth-century Gerona consueta’ (Donovan, p. 167; I do not know how to reconcile this with Gómez’s statement that, ‘The first documented source of the Sibyl in the Iberian Peninsula comes from an ordinarium of the cathedral of Vic [Barcelona] dating from the year 1446’). Thus, at the very least, I would have liked Joel Cohen to clarify that when he says ‘medieval Spain’ he does not necessarily mean that this would have been done in the 10th c., the date given for the chant itself.

Also, I have still not satisfied myself that the 10th-c. chant would have been done on Christmas eve until its later connection with the liturgical drama. Gómez tries to connect the Sibylline poem with the millennial fears of that century, but it may be that there is a connection to Christmas in Bernard of Clairveaux’s (and others’?) Advent idea of the three comings of Christ, in the flesh, in the soul, and at judgment (see Dom Guéranger’s discussion here). Furthermore, according to Karoline Manny, the pseudo-Augustinian sermon (and thus, perhaps, the Sibylline chant proper?) 'was occasionally delivered on Christmas instead of the Officium Pastorum'. But of course, there are no dates or sources given here, so I remain uncertain.

And that’s the rest of the story…

21 December 2008

Mea maxima culpa


By now, all and sundry will have noticed that I wrote E.B. Pusey's Christian name as 'Edmund' in the St Ambrose post. I have now amended the grievous error. Furthermore, allow me to point out that this is not intended to be the sort of blog where such things pass by unnoticed and uncorrected. Indeed, I would prefer it not to be the sort of blog where such things happen in the first place, but having blundered terribly, he is a fool who does not correct his mistake. As St John of Karpathos has written:
Do all in your power not to fall, for the strong athlete should not fall. But if you do fall, get up again at once and continue the contest. Even if you fall a thousand times because of the withdrawal of God's grace, rise up again each time, and keep on doing this until the day of your death. For it is written, 'If a righteous man falls down seven times' - that is, repeatedly throughout his life - 'seven times shall he rise again' [Prov. 24:16]. (Texts for the Monks in India, 84; in The Philokalia: The Complete Text, Vol. I, trans. G.E.H. Palmer, et al. [London: Faber, 1983], p. 318)

So I beg your forgiveness, dear readers, and I hope the shade of poor Pusey will bear no grudge against me. This lesson in humility shall not have been in vain.

20 December 2008

Old Books, Sex, Romanticism, and Religion


One of my pet peeves is the tendency modern readers have to go looking for, and thus, finding, their own proclivities and sensibilities in old books, rather than allowing themselves to be shaped by the proclivities and sensibilities that are present in the old books themselves. In the prefatory note ‘To Novices’ in his commentary on St Benedict’s Rule, Adalbert de Vogüé writes:

In an ancient text like this, many things apparently mean nothing to us. We must learn to wait, to pay attention to what we have trouble understanding, to come to grasp a language and concerns which are not ours. . . . We must leave ourselves behind and listen to another’s voice if we are to receive something. (Reading St Benedict: Reflections on the Rule, trans. Colette Friedlander [Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian, 1994], p. 15)

If only these words, or similar ones, could be inscribed in the prefatory material to every old book! I, for one, have taken them as a guiding motto for the ‘Old Books Reading Society’ that my wife and I have begun (about which more, perhaps, in a later post). But even Christians—whose diachronic unity in the Body of Christ, it seems to me, should make us less susceptible than others to the sort of chronological snobbery de Vogüé is addressing—fall prey to the tendency I’ve mentioned. I shall give one example that struck me.

As the subject of my master’s thesis is the place of reading imaginative literature in the Christian life, I have of course spared a glance at nearly every book I’ve seen that seems to touch on this. One such, by a member of the Order of St Ursula, Nancy Malone, is called Walking a Literary Labyrinth: A Spirituality of Reading (NY: Riverhead, 2003). Now, some flags had already gone up for me when I first started to look at this book. It is on the fluffy side of ‘spiritual’ writing: reflective, emotive, almost narcissistic. The list of ‘diverse sources’ (a classic ‘motley crew’ device) on the inner flap has Virginia Woolf ahead of St Augustine. It is mustard yellow, a nauseous colour that should never be used for book jackets.

But I’m afraid I didn’t discover just how silly it was until I was working on a discussion of the story of the adulterous lovers Paolo and Francesca in Canto V of Dante’s Inferno (an illustration of the connection between imagination and the passions) for my thesis. There, in ll. 127-38, we read:

One day we read for pastime how in thrall
Lord Lancelot lay to love, who loved the Queen;
We were alone—we thought no harm at all.

As we read on, our eyes met now and then,
And to our cheeks the changing colour started,
But just one moment overcame us—when

We read of the smile, desired of lips long-thwarted,
Such smile, by such a lover kissed away,
He that may never more from me be parted

Trembling all over, kissed my mouth. I say
The book was Galleot, Galleot the complying
Ribald who wrote; we read no more that day.

(Dante Alighieri, Hell (l’Inferno), trans. Dorothy Sayers, Cantica 1 of The Comedy of Dante Alighieri the Florentine [London: Penguin, 1949], pp. 100-1)

Now, it has become quite common since the Romantic movement to ‘romanticise’ this story, and Canto V has become the favourite Dantean subject for artists since 1800. It is thought a shame that the two lovers are doomed to hell because they loved too much! Mark Doty asks, 'who [among contemporary readers] really condemns Paolo and Francesca' ('Rooting for the Damned', The Poets' Dante: Twentieth-Century Responses, ed. Peter S. Hawkins and Rachel Jacoff [NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2001], p. 375; to be fair, Doty at least recognises that this is part of his problem as 'a reader come of age in the twentieth century's second half')? Even Dante himself, by a mistaken association of Dante the Pilgrim (who, it is true, ‘swooned for pity’—l. 141) with Dante the Poet, is enlisted in this romanticising campaign. Fortunately, cooler heads often prevail among the best of the modern critics. John Freccero, for instance, has pointed out that while ‘Francesca’s description of love’ in l. 100 is similar to that of the young Dante, in the Inferno it ‘no longer reflects the author’s view’ (John Freccero, Dante: The Poetics of Conversion, ed. Rachel Jacoff [Cambridge, MA: Harvard U, 1986], p. 186). According to Freccero, ‘The rejection of Francesca’s theory of love is implicit in her damnation; if her words echo Dante’s own, she is their refutation’ (p. 187).

But all of this is forgotten, at least as a hermeneutic principle, in Malone’s passing comment on Inf. V.138: ‘an exquisite example of understated eroticism’ (Malone, p. 169)! Now, the mere remembrance that Dante has placed Francesca in hell, and that, consequently, he likely has little desire to describe her damnable actions in anything like a spirit of ‘eroticism’, suggests to me that we are on the wrong track here. But even if this were not enough, there are sound critical arguments, like those of Renato Poggioli (‘Paolo and Francesca’, Dante: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. John Freccero [Englewood-Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1965], pp. 64-5), for reading ‘we read no more that day’ not as a cynical suggestion of what took place when the reading ended, but—are you ready for this shocking revelation?—as an indication that the adulterous lovers returned to the volume on subsequent occasions.

Only a very little bit of digging on Paolo and Francesca turned this up for me, unequipped as I am with the sort of libraries Malone has access to in the Big Apple. But with or without secondary literature, I maintain that there is a way to go about reading a 13th-c. poem in a way at least somewhat more appropriate to the worldview(s) of the 13th century. Certainly, let’s recognise that coy hints at adulterous lovemaking would have been morally and even æsthetically out of place in a consciously, deliberately Christian poem on a spiritual theme. Then perhaps we can move on, with Umberto Eco, to the recognition that for the mature Dante the real poetry is ‘a poetry of understanding’, not of 'exquisite eroticism', ‘capable of thrilling us not just at the kiss of Paolo and Francesca but at the architecture of the heavens, at the nature of the Trinity, at the definition of faith as the substance of things hope for and the evidence of things unseen’ (Umberto Eco, ‘A Reading of the Paradiso’, On Literature, trans. Martin McLaughlin [Orlando: Harvest, 2004], pp. 21 & 20-21).

'In Such a Man It Was Good'—St Ambrose of Milan


Today, of course, we commemorate the great Father of the West, St Ambrose of Milan, whom St Augustine’s mother ‘loved as an angel of God’ and about whom he wrote that she ‘hung upon the lips of Ambrose’ (Confessions VI; the translation is Edward Pusey’s in the delightful, if impractical, The Confessions of Saint Augustine, trans. E.B. Pusey, illust. Valenti Angelo [Mt Vernon: Peter Pauper, n.d.], p. 96). I write this blog for an imaginary audience that I assume to be largely familiar with St Ambrose, so I won’t waste time on the details of his life and writings. I will pause to note that St Ambrose is well known for having prevailed upon the Emperor Theodosius to do public penance after massacring rioters in Thessaloniki. I find this significant because, having several times advocated the massacring of rioters in Thessaloniki myself, I feel chastened by our holy Father Ambrose, and desirous of imitating the ‘religious humility’ of the pious Emperor Theodosius (De Civitate Dei, V.26; in St Augustine, The City of God, trans. Marcus Dods [NY: Modern Library, 1950] p. 180). Thessalonians, forgive me!

But the main thing I would like to call attention to is from the same chapter of the Confessions that I have already quoted. There, St Augustine observes with curiosity:

But when he was reading, his eye glided over the pages, and his heart searched out the sense, but his voice and tongue were at rest. Ofttimes when we had come (for no man was forbidden to enter, nor was it his wont that any who came should be announced to him), we saw him thus reading to himself, and never otherwise; and having long sat silent (for who durst intrude on one so intent?) we were fain to depart, conjecturing that in the small interval which he obtained, free from the din of others’ business, for the recruiting of his mind, he was loth to be taken off; and perchance he dreaded lest if the author he read should deliver any thing obscurely, some attentive or perplexed hearer should desire him to expound it, or to discuss some of the harder questions; so that his time being thus spent, he could not turn over so many volumes as he desired; although the preserving of his voice (which a very little speaking would weaken) might be the truer reason for his reading to himself. But with what intent soever he did it, certainly in such a man it was good. (St Augustine, p. 98)

Of course, we today are rightly bemused by the curiosity with which the bishop of Hippo regards this ‘eccentricity’—reading silently is the normal practice now, and has been for some time. But Alberto Manguel, in his beautiful book, A History of Reading, points out, ‘Augustine’s description of Ambrose’s silent reading (including the remark that he never read out loud) is the first definite instance recorded in Western literature. Earlier examples are far more uncertain’ (Alberto Manguel, A History of Reading [NY: Viking, 1996], p. 43). Manguel mentions, inter alia, references to silent reading—apparently for dramatic purposes—in Euripides and Aristophanes, the drama of which seem to be recalled in St Augustine’s own silent reading in the famous ‘tolle, lege’ passage in Book VIII (p. 161 of my Pusey trans.). He does refer to one other Christian author—one of my family’s patron Saints, Cyril of Jerusalem, whose Catechetical lectures exhort that ‘the party of young women [the Greek has ‘virginal party’] be so ordered, that they may either be singing or reading, but without noise, so that their lips may speak, but others may not hear’ (Procatechesis 14; in St Cyril of Jerusalem, Lectures on the Christian Sacraments, ed. F.L. Cross, trans. R.W. Church [Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary, 1995], p. 49). But the reading in silence is a bit of a fluke in all of these works, whereas St Augustine specifies that they saw St Ambrose ‘reading to himself, and never otherwise’ (p. 96).

I tend to think this innovative practice (for which he seems to be shrugging his shoulders apologetically in the above painting) reveals St Ambrose to have been quite a clever man, because of its obvious advantages. But it also has drawbacks. Before the ascendancy of silent reading, texts and the reading of them were more of a communal act. Mangel points out, ‘Reading out loud with someone else in the room implied shared reading, deliberate or not’ (p. 50). Silent reading, by contrast, seems to have contributed to the rise to individualism, solipsism, and, as Manguel also notes, even heresy (see. pp. 51-3). It certainly aided in the death of oral culture, with which some of the greatest works of literature—even centuries later (see, for example, C.S. Lewis’s comments on ‘The Style of Secondary Epic’ on p. 40 of his A Preface to Paradise Lost [NY: Oxford U, 1965])—are so inextricably bound. Manguel concludes:

Observing the reading of Saint Ambrose that afternoon in 384, Augustine could hardly have known what was before him. He thought he was seeing a reader trying to avoid intrusive visitors, sparing his voice for teaching. In fact he was seeing a multitude, a host of silent readers who over the next many centuries would include Luther, would include Calvin, would include Emerson, would include us, reading him today. (p. 53)

18 December 2008

'As thou art a giver of riches, give me the Saviour'



With insufficient tongue and lips I have come to offer small praise and supplication, O Nicholas, to thy God-like excellence; but as thou art a giver of riches, give me the Saviour and God of mercies. (From the Second Canon to the Saint, Tone 1, Matins of 6 December)

Tonight we are celebrating the feast of St Nicholas the Wonderworker, Archbishop of Myra. St Nicholas is sort of the unofficial patron Saint of my family (followed closely by St Benedict, St Cyril of Jerusalem, and St Demetrios—okay, we have a lot of patron Saints!). We take him very seriously. That’s why I am so annoyed, not with Santa Claus per se, whom I believe, in some forms, to be a legitimate guise of the Saint, but with the extent to which he has been taken. The obesity, the garish suit, the cutesy ornaments of Santa in sunglasses and Hawaiian shirt, and most of all, the phony Santa ‘origin’ stories that get made into movies and told in countless books (the Rankin & Bass stop-motion film, Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town is a classic example). Unfortunately , the madness has even spread to the city of Myra itself, where the beautiful, iconographic bronze statue of St Nicholas donated by the Russian government for the town square has been replaced by an awful, kitschy plastic Santa. (See the story here.)

As a good remedy for this disease, and for a surpisingly good philosophy of the holidays in general, I recommend that everyone read the book, St Nicholas: A Closer Look at Christmas (Nashville: Nelson, 2005), by Joe Wheeler and Jim Rosenthal. Not only is it filled with extremely rare, full-colour photos of St Nicholas in his many guises, not only does it tell faithfully the story of the historic man and Orthodox Saint, but it contains serious suggestions for how to make the holidays meaningful again by taking full advantage of the traditions Christians around the world have observed for centuries.

Of course, the Service, Akathist, Life and Miracles of St Nicholas the Wonderworker (Jordanville, NY: Holy Trinity Monastery, 1996), is also an invaluable resource for commemorating this wonderful Saint.

Neither of these books, however, contain two of what are, to me, the most interesting stories about St Nicholas (apart from the striking of Arius the heretic, depicted above). I won’t waste time trying to copy them or to retell them myself. One can read the first here, at the fantastic St Nicholas Center website, and the second here, on an archived page from the website of the St Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church in Dallas, Texas.

The Matins Gospel for the feast is St John 10:9-16, wherein our Lord says, ‘I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd gives His life for the sheep’ (St John 10:11). One can’t help but notice that the kontakion of the Saint makes a lovely comment on the significance of this passage for this day when we sing:

In Myra, O Saint, thou didst prove to be a minister of things sacred: for, having fulfilled the Gospel of Christ, O righteous one, thou didst lay down thy life for thy people, and didst save the innocent from death. Wherefore, thou wast sanctified, as a great initiate of the grace of God.

St Sabbas the Sanctified


Today, 5 December, is the feast of St Sabbas the Sanctified (439-532), the great Palestinian monastic founder. St Sabbas entered a Cappadocian monastery at 8 years of age, was tonsured at 17, and, with the blessing of his abbot, left for Jerusalem with ‘a desire, pleasing to God, to repair to the holy city and live in solitude in the neighboring desert’ (Cyril of Scythopolis, The Lives of the Monks of Palestine, trans. R.M. Price [Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian, 1991], p. 98). Although St Euthymius the Great did not accept him to live in his lavra, he sent him to the cœnobium of Elder Theoctistus, where St Sabbas gradually acquired more solitude and even came under the spiritual guidance of St Euthymius himself, who called him the ‘boy elder’ (Cyril, p. 103).

After the repose of St Euthymius, about whom Derwas Chitty writes that he ‘continued to reign from his tomb over the wilderness’ (The Desert a City: An Introduction to the Study of Egyptian and Palestinian Monasticism Under the Christian Empire [Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary, 1995], p. 97), St Sabbas (at the age of 35) went into the Judaean desert and ‘devoted himself to solitude, fasts and ceaseless prayer, making his mind a spotless mirror of God and the things of God, in accordance with the saying, “Be still and know that I am God” [Ps. 45:11 LXX]’ (Cyril, p. 104). After four years in the desert at Roubâ, St Sabbas relocated to a cave in a gorge near Siloam, where—


he spent five years alone by himself in solitude, conversing with God and purifying the eye of his thought so as “with unveiled face to behold as in a mirror the glory of the Lord,” since the evil spirits had already been conquered by his ceaseless prayers and nearness to God. (Cyril, p. 108)

It was only then, at the age of 45, that St Sabbas was ‘entrusted by God with the charge of souls’ (Cyril, p. 108). The Great Lavra was founded (there is a nice story in Chap. 20 of Cyril’s ‘Life’ about how St Sabbas accepted Armenians ‘because of their piety’, and let them have their own services in their language [Cyril, p. 114]), the New Lavra was built, more monasteries were established, and finally our holy Father was ordained at 53 and made archimandrite of the anchorites of Palestine. The typikon of the Great Lavra, now known as 'Mar Saba', is attributed to him (and may retain ‘reminiscences’ of St Sabba’s own Rule [Chitty, p. 117]), as well as the liturgical typikon still followed in the Russian Church and many of the Greek monasteries (see Mother Mary and Archimandrite Kallistos [Ware], trans., The Festal Menaion [South Canaan, PA: St Tikhon’s Seminary, 1995], p. 541-3).

Having been warned in a vision of the time of his death, St Sabbas received the holy Mysteries, and, saying the words, ‘Lord, into thy hands I shall commit my spirit’ (Cyril, p. 191), fell asleep in the Lord in 532 (Chitty, p. 213). Although his relics were stolen by the Crusaders and taken to Venice, they were returned in the last century in an ecumenical gesture and can still be venerated at the monastery he built. Chitty closes his account of St Sabbas with the troparion for his feastday:


By the channels of thy tears
Thou didst cultivate the barrenness of the Wilderness:
And by thy groanings from the depth
Thou didst bear fruit of thy toils an hundredfold;
And becamest a light unto the world,
Shining with miracle,
Sabas our father holy.
Intercede unto Christ our God
For our souls’ salvation. (Chitty, p. 118)

Interestingly, monks of the Great Lavra found themselves in Rome in the wake of the Persian plunder of the monastery in the seventh century (and perhaps at the same time that St Theodore of Canterbury had been driven to Rome from the East), and received shelter in some cells on the Aventine near the estate of Silvia, mother of St Gregory the Dialogist. Here, they built a basilica dedicated to ‘San Saba’ that still stands, and established a Greek monastic brotherhood that lasted until the 11th century, when they were replaced by Benedictines of Cluny (Rodolfo Lanciani, The Golden Days of the Renaissance in Rome, From the Pontificate of Julius II to that of Paul III [Boston: Houghton, Mifflin & Co., 1906], p. 50; according to a certain reference website, however, they were replaced in the 10th century by Benedictines of Monte Cassino, and after the Cluniacs, by Cistercians and later Jesuits [gasp!], but it's 2 am and I can find no other source to back this up).