29 July 2009

'Exceedingly Great Is Your Recompense Before God!'—St Vladimir of Kiev

For reasons I explained in the preamble to this post, I am getting to this a day late, but лучше поздно чем никогда, as they say. I didn’t want to miss the chance to blog about the Baptiser of Rus’.

Yesterday, 15 June on the Church’s calendar, was the celebration of the memory of St Vladimir (958-1015), Equal to the Apostles and Great Prince of Russia. In the Prologue entry for the day, St Nicholas (Velimirović) writes, ‘Vladimir was the son of Prince Svaytoslav, and grandson of Igor and Olga, and was at first completely pagan in faith and life’ (The Prologue from Ochrid, Part Three: July, August, September, trans. Mother Maria [Birmingham: Lazarica, 1986], p. 64). While this was partly true, we must also note the statement of the (at least) 13th-c. ‘Memorial’ by Monk Iakov: ‘Having heard all of this [i.e., her baptism and virtuous Christian life] about his grandmother Ol’ga (called Helena in holy baptism), . . . Volodimer’s heart was inflamed by the Holy Spirit with the desire for holy baptism’ (The Hagiography of Kievan Rus’, trans. Paul Hollingsworth [Cambridge, MA: Harvard U, 1992], p. 166). But while he adds to this the observation that St Vladimir’s mother, Malusha, as one of St Olga’s closest servants, ‘was virtually duty-bound to adopt the Christian faith either with the regent or immediately after her’, Andrzej Poppe is a bit more reserved in his estimate, speaking of an ‘emotional bond with Christianity which had been forged in his childhood’ and concluding that St Vladimir’s baptism ‘grew from well-prepared soil’ (‘St Vladimir as a Christian’, The Legacy of St Vladimir, ed. Fr John Meyendorff, et al. [Crestwood, NY: SVS, 1990], p. 43).

At this point in the Prologue (p. 64), after a brief acknowledgement that the Great Prince had ‘learned of various faiths’, St Nicholas tells the famous story of the visit of St Vladimir’s emissaries to Hagia Sophia in Constantinople. The story itself, and the oft-quoted report of the emissaries that ‘we knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth’ (‘The Russian Primary Chronicle’, trans. Samuel H. Cross, Readings in Russian Civilization, Vol. 1, ed. Thomas Riha [Chicago: U of Chicago, 1966], p. 28), are perhaps most well-known to the Anglophone world through Metropolitan Kallistos (Ware)’s classic, The Orthodox Church. But some time ago, Esteban Vazquez noted—here and here—that many Orthodox (and non-Orthodox students of our Church) have received a somewhat truncated understanding of St Vladimir’s conversion based on having only read Metropolitan Kallistos’s summary of the story.

The passages above from the ‘Memorial’ and from Poppe’s brief paper have already shown that St Vladimir would likely have been well disposed toward the Christian faith solely on the basis of his mother’s and grandmother’s examples, and after the report of the emissaries, St Vladimir’s boyars remind him, ‘If the Greek faith were evil, it would not have been adopted by your grandmother Olga who was wiser than all other men’ (‘Primary Chronicle’, p. 28). But Esteban has done us the extraordinary favour of calling attention to (see the links above) and transcribing (here, here, here, and here) a translation of a good deal more material from the Primary Chronicle than most English readers familiar with the emissary story have ever encountered. St Vladimir’s discussions with representatives of various religions is not entirely unfamiliar, and one might be clued in by the passage—included in a couple of standard editions of translated material from the Primary Chronicle—where he tells his assembled boyars and city-elders, ‘Finally the Greeks appeared, criticizing all other faiths but commending their own, and they spoke at length, telling the history of the whole world from its beginning. Their words were artful, and it was wondrous to listen and pleasant to hear them’ (‘Primary Chronicle’, p. 27). It is this ‘artful’ commendation of the Orthodox faith and narrative of world history by a Constantinopolitan ‘scholar-envoy’ that Esteban has posted. I urge everyone to read it.

Thus, Monk Iakov tells us, ‘The bishop, together with the priests of Cherson and the imperial princess’s priests [since she was to be his wife], instructed him and baptized him’ on 6 January 988, giving him the name ‘Basil’ (Hagiography, p. 178). As Monk Iakov writes, ‘O blessed the occasion and noble the day, full of every bounty, on which Prince Volodimer was baptized!’ (Hagiography, p. 167). But, while St Vladimir’s own heart was thus ‘illumined’ by ‘the grace of the Holy Spirit’, and ‘he learned to walk according to God’s commandment and to live virtuously in God and to hold to a firm, indomitable faith’ (p. 167), he is most celebrated for the introduction of Christianity to Rus’ and the subsequent baptism of his people. According to the Primary Chronicle:

Thereafter Vladimir sent heralds throughout the whole city [of Kiev] to proclaim that if any inhabitants, rich or poor, did not betake himself to the river, he would risk the Prince’s displeasure. When the people heard these words, they wept for joy, and exclaimed in their enthusiasm, ‘If this were not good, the Prince and his boyars would not have accepted it.’ On the morrow, the Prince went forth to the Dnieper with the priests of the Princess and those from Kherson, and a countless multitude assembled. They all went into the water: some stood up to their necks, others to their breasts, and the younger near the bank, some of them holding children in their arms, while the adults waded farther out. The priests stood by and offered prayers. There was joy in heaven and upon earth to behold so many souls saved. . . .

When the people were baptized, they returned each to his own abode. Vladimir, rejoicing that he and his subjects now knew God himself, looked up to heaven and said, ‘Oh God, who has created heaven and earth, look down, I beseech thee, on this thy new people, and grant them, oh Lord, to know thee as the true God, even as the other Christians nations have known thee. Confirm in them the true and inalterable faith, and aid me, oh Lord, against the hostile adversary, so that, hoping in thee and in thy might, I may overcome his malice.’ Having spoken thus, he ordained that wooden churches should be built and established where pagan idols had previous stood. He thus founded the Church of St Basil on the hill where the idol of Perun and the other images had been set, and where the Prince and the people had offered their sacrifices. He began to found churches and to assign priests throughout the cities, and to invite the people to accept baptism in all the cities and towns. (pp. 29-30)

Concerning the Baptism of Rus’, Monk Iakov writes, ‘O how great was the joy and rejoicing on earth! . . . Such a multitude of souls throughout all the land of Rus’ was led to God through holy baptism. He performed a deed worthy of every encomium and full of spiritual joy’ (Hagiography, p. 168). And further on, ‘O blessed and thrice-blessed Prince Volodimer, pious and Christ-loving and hospitable, exceedingly great is your recompense before God! . . . All the people of the land of Rus’ came to know God through you, divine Prince Volodimer’ (p. 168).

Aside from the propagation of Christianity among his subjects, St Nicholas notes that ‘Vladimir utterly changed his way of life and devoted all his labour to the perfect fulfilling of the demands of his faith’ (p. 65). I have already quoted Monk Iakov’s comments about his learning to ‘walk according to God’s commandment’ (Hagiography, p. 167), and a bit further on he mentions the Great Prince tithing ‘for the priests to take care of orphans, widows, and paupers’ (p. 167). Later in the ‘Memorial and Encomium’, we read:

The blessed prince Volodimer loved God with all his heart and soul, and he sought and preserved his commands. . . . (p. 172)

The blessed Volodimer emulated the deeds and conduct of the holy men. He loved the story of Abraham and imitated his hospitality, the trust of Jacob, the gentleness of Moses, the innocence of David, and the piety of Emperor Constantine the Great, the first Christian emperor. Most of all, Prince Volodimer performed almsgiving. If the infirm and the aged could not come to the prince’s court and receive their necessities, he would send the goods to them at home. . . . He would clothe the naked; feed the hungry; give drink to the thirsty; respect and show charity to churchmen and give them what they needed; and give alms, clothing, and drink to paupers, orphans, widows, the blind, the lame, and all the afflicted. Prince Volodimer thus abided in good works, and God’s grace illuminated his heart and the Lord’s hand abided him. (p. 173)

Poppe also tells the interesting story of St Vladimir’s dealings with Bruno of Querfurt, a missionary and disciple of St Romuald of Ravenna (pp. 44-6). It seems St Vladimir welcomed Bruno to Kiev warmly, warned him about the dangers of venturing into the territory of the Pecheneg people, and finally accompanied him to the border ‘which was both the real and the symbolic end of the Christian world’ (p. 44). There they chanted a service of ‘prayerful dedication’ sending the missionaries into danger, and Poppe writes that here—

we can distinguish a voice of irresolution and deep anxiety concerning a holy man soon to be threatened by a martyr’s death. It was also a voice of humility: the ruler in his majesty humbled himself as he faced the Christian fiat: ‘Thy will be done.’ This ceremonial and liturgical farewell to Bruno reveals a naturally human dimension of Vladimir’s faith which is hard to find in the encomiums and laudations in honor of a Christian sovereign. (p. 45)

Bruno’s return to Kiev after having performed a fair number of baptisms among the Pechenegs ‘must have impressed Vladimir. He saw that faith outweighed experience and reason, and gave his full support to the cause of the mission’ (p. 45). He even sent his son, along with a bishop, to be held by the Pechenegs as part of a treaty for their collective conversion.

According to the ‘Memorial’, ‘The pious prince Volodimer thus lived virtuously and ended his life in the orthodox faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, as had the pious Ol’ga’ (Hagiography, p. 174). It goes on to say:

As he was departing from this world, Prince Volodimer prayed, ‘Lord, my God! I did not know Thee, but Thou didst have mercy on me and enlightened me through holy baptism. I came to know Thee, O God of everything, holy Maker of all creation, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. . . . Master, God, recall not my wickedness! I did not know Thee while I was still a pagan, but now I know Thee. Lord, my God, have mercy on me! If Thou desirest to punish and torment me because of my sins, punish me Thyself, but do not hand me over to the demons!’ Saying this and praying to God, he peacefully commended his soul to the Lord’s angels and reposed. . . .

. . . The blessed prince Volodimer had his treasure in heaven, having hidden it through almsgiving and good works; there also his heart was, in the kingdom of heaven. (pp. 174-5)

The first Russian Metropolitan of Kiev, Metropolitan Hilarion (11th c.), ‘one of the most erudite and brilliant Russian preachers and writers of the Kievan age’ (Serge A. Zenkovsky, ed., Medieval Russia’s Epics, Chronicles, and Tales, rev. and enlarged ed. [NY: Meridian, 1975], p. 85), wrote a lovely eulogy to St Vladimir, including these words:

Arise from your gave, venerated prince,
arise and shake off your sleep.
You are not dead,
but only sleep until the day of resurrection of all.
Arise! You are not dead,
for it is not right that you should die,
for you have believed in Christ,
the Sustainer of the whole world.
Shake off your deep sleep
and lift up your eyes
that you might see
what honor the Lord has granted you,
and you still live upon this earth,
unforgotten through your sons.
Arise! behold your son George, your
child, your beloved one!
whom God has brought forth from your loins.
Behold him embellishing the throne of your land.
Rejoice and be of good cheer!
Behold the pious wife of your son, Irina.
Behold your grandchildren
and your great-grandchildren.
Behold how they live and how
they are cared for by God.
Behold how they preserve devotion in your tradition,
how they partake of the Sacraments of the Holy Church,
how they glorify Christ,
and how they venerate his Holy Name.
Behold your city radiant with majesty.
Behold your blossoming churches,
behold Christianity flourishing.
Behold your city gleaming,
adorned with holy icons and
fragrant with thyme,
praising God and filling the air with sacred songs.
And beholding all this, rejoice and be of good cheer, and praise the Lord, the Creator of all . . . (pp. 89-90)


Esteban Vázquez said...

An excellent post, as usual!

I do wish to clarify that I did not translate the discourse of the "scholar-envoy," but only transcribed it: the translation is by Cross and Sherbowitz-Wetzor. I did happen to have a moderately useful copy of the Slavonic text to which I compared their translation to make sure there were no major difficulties. (You will note that I made a handful of changes, all bracketed.) I still intend to go back some day and provide fresh translations of the biblical texts in the third installment, since for reasons that are beyond my grasp they chose to use the ASV rather than translate the Slavonic.

aaronandbrighid said...

My apologies, my friend! Somehow I got confused (it's been known to happen!). I shall fix the mistake forthwith!