06 August 2009

'To Share in the Passion of Thy Son'—Holy Passion-Bearers Boris & Gleb

Today, 24 July on the Church’s calendar, we celebrate the memory of the Holy Martyrs and Passion-bearers Boris and Gleb of Russia (†1015), in Baptism, Romanus and David. I first encountered Ss Boris and Gleb in Timothy (now Metropolitan Kallistos) Ware’s classic, The Orthodox Church, where they were among the many easily appealing personalities to shine through in the history of the Church. Met. Kallistos writes (The Orthodox Church, new ed. [London: Penguin, 1997], p. 79):

The same gentleness can be seen in the story of Vladimir’s two sons, Boris and Gleb. On Vladimir’s death in 1015, their elder brother Svyatopolk attempted to seize their principalities. Taking literally the commands of the Gospel, they offered no resistance, although they could easily have done so; and each in turn was murdered by Svyatopolk’s emissaries. If any blood were to be shed, Boris and Gleb preferred that it should be their own. Although they were not martyrs for the faith, but victims in a political quarrel, they were both canonized, being given the special title of ‘Passion Bearers’: it was felt that by their innocent and voluntary suffering they had shared in the Passion of Christ. Russians have always laid great emphasis on the place of suffering in the Christian life.

This is a good summary of the facts (a fuller account can be read here), so I will confine myself here simply to elabourating and commenting a bit on it. To begin, I would just point out two things. First, when His Eminence says ‘they were both canonized’, he has not spoken inaccurately, but the phrase can nevertheless be misleading. It would be more precise to say that their sanctity seems to have been generally recognised more and more broadly throughout the 11th century, although no formal ‘canonisation’ process was yet in place (see Paul Hollingsworth’s criticisms of E.E. Golubinskij on this count in ‘Introduction’, The Hagiography of Kievan Rus’, trans. Paul Hollingsworth [Cambridge, MA: Harvard U, 1992], pp. xvii-xviii).

Second, His Eminence touches on a point that has long been standard in cultural and theological references to Ss Boris and Gleb: the ‘Russianness’ of their participation in Christ’s Passion. Now, it may be true that, as far as I know, there are no instances of Byzantine monarchs similarly accepting assassination out of conscious imitation of the Lord. But I think we have to be careful not to overemphasise the ‘originality’ of Russian sanctity, à la George Fedotov (see Hollingsworth, pp. xx-xxi). Hollingsworth calls attention to the Byzantine character of the style and forms of the early Russian hagiographical material, but he goes further, concluding, ‘Indeed, the hagiographic image of Boris and Glěb is based on the two fundamental categories of sanctity: participation in Christ’s passion and the ascetic renunciation of the world’ (p. xxi); and later, ‘However novel the hagiographic image of Boris and Glěb, for example, may appear to us, it was essential for the Rus’ hagiographers to believe and to demonstrate to their audiences that their saints were not novel and did not differ from earlier holy men’ (p. xxiii). In this, Hollingsworth is supported generally by such experienced students of sanctity per se as Ivan M. Kontzevitch, who points out the a priori nature of the whole claim for ‘a unique Russian sanctity’ (‘Introduction’, The Acquisition of the Holy Spirit: Orthodox Ascetic Theology, Vol. 1 [Platina, CA: St Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 1996], pp. 22-3, 25).

Moving on to the Life of the Passion-bearers, St Nestor the Chronicler, in his ‘Lesson on the Life of Boris and Glěb’, refers to Ss Boris and Gleb as ‘shining like two bright stars in the midst of those in darkness’, and observes that both were deeply pious from an early age (Hagiography, p. 7). St Boris, he says, who was the eldest, ‘was full of God’s grace’, and—

used to read the lives and martyroms of the saints, and he would say, praying with tears, ‘My Lord Jesus Christ, vouchsafe me to be as one of those saints and grant me to follow in their footsteps. Lord, my God, let not my thought exult in the vanity of this world, but do Thou illuminate my heart to an understanding of Thy commandments and grant me the gift which Thou hast given from the ages to those that have pleased Thee. Thou art the true Emperor and the God who took mercy on us and led us from darkness to light, for to Thee is glory forever. Amen.’

He used to pray in this fashion every hour, and holy Glěb would listen to him, sitting and never leaving blessed Boris’s side, and in his company day and night he would listen to him. (pp. 7-8)

I have pointed this out merely to give a slightly fuller portrait of the Passion-bearers, and to show that the moment of their passion was not merely a sudden holy decision, but the culmination of a life lived devoutly and in conscious imitation of the Saints from their earliest years.

Concerning their death itself, we learn from St Nestor that St Gleb learned immediately of his brother Sviatopolk’s plans, and, praying, ‘If Thou hast condemned me to be killed in this town, I shall not flee from Thy design; but if not, be with me on every path and do not hand me over unto death, because Thou art the Savior and to Thee is glory forever. Amen’, fled to his brother, St Yaroslav the Wise, in Novgorod (p. 11). St Boris, on the other hand, only discovered his brother’s intentions later, but when his retainers offered to help him oppose and overthrow Sviatopolk, he responded, ‘Better it is for me to die than for so many souls to perish. Moreover, I dare not oppose an elder brother, lest I not escape God’s judgment. I pray you, my brothers and my father’s men: go to your homes, while I shall go and fall at my brother’s feet’ (p. 13). Being pierced by the spears of Sviatopolk’s agents, he prayed:

I give thanks to Thee, O Lord, my God, that Thou hast vouchsafed me, although undeserving, to share in the passion of Thy Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. . . . But, O Lord, remit them this sin, and grant me rest with Thy saints and deliver me not into the hands of mine enemies, for Thou art my protector, O Lord, and into Thy hands I commend my spirit. (p. 14)

St Boris was then struck in the heart with a sword, and went in soul to be with His Lord.

St Gleb was overtaken by his murderers en route to Novgorod, and persuaded his own retainers not to spill any blood, arguing that he would be taken to Sviatopolk, who would spare him. According to St Nestor, however, ‘the holy one desired that he alone should die on behalf of all’ (p. 15). As he was seized, he prayed:

My Lord, Jesus Christ, hear me this hour and vouchsafe me to share of the company of Thy saints. For, O Lord, even as once this day Zechariah was slaughtered before Thine altar, so now also am I slaughtered before Thee, O Lord. O Lord, Lord, remember not my former transgressions, but save my soul, so that the deceitful counsel of my adversaries [i.e., the toll-houses] may not block its way, and let Thy bright angels receive it. Because, O Lord, Thou art my Savior, do Thou forgive them that do these things, for Thou art the true God, and to Thee is glory forever. Amen. (p. 16)

At this, his throat was cut, and he surrendered his holy soul into the hands of his Saviour. As the author of ‘The Tale and Passion and Encomium of the Holy Martyrs Boris and Glěb’ wrote:

He was born up to the Lord as a pure and sweet-smelling sacrifice. He ascended into the heavenly mansions to the Lord and beheld the brother for whom he had longed. Together they received the heavenly crowns which they had desired, and they rejoiced in the great and unspeakable joy which they did attain. (p. 110)

The bodies of the Passion-bearers were soon revealed to all as holy relics, and enshrined at Vysegorod, just north of Kiev. On the other hand, many readers may be comforted to know that, according to the ‘Tale’, Sviatopolk was later defeated by St Yaroslav, undoubtedly seeking vengeance for his meek and holy younger brothers, and ‘gave up his life wretchedly’ (p. 112). ‘Thus,’ the author concludes, ‘was he deprived of both lives: here he lost not only his principality, but also his life, and there he not only lost the heavenly kingdom and life with the angels, but he was also given over to both torture and fire’ (p. 112).

In conclusion, the author of the ‘Tale’ finishes his account with a lovely encomium for the Passion-bearers, of which I shall excerpt a part:

Therefore, I know not how to praise you, nor can I think of what to say, nor is it in my power. Shall I call you angels, because swiftly you are at the side of the sorrowful? But on earth it was in the flesh that you lived among men. Shall I call you men? But you surpass all human understanding in the multitude of your miracles and visitations to the weak. Shall I pronounce you emperors or princes? But you attained a humility as simple and humble men on account of which you have taken up your abode in high places and dwellings. In truth, you are emperors over emperors and princes over princes. For with your aid and protection our princes make mighty conquests over their opponents, and with your help they achieve renown. For you are weapons for them and for us—ramparts and a fortress of the land of Rus’ and sharp two-edged swords through which we lay low the audacity of pagans and trample into the earth the arrogance of the devil. In truth, I can say with confidence: you are heavenly men, earthly angels, towers and a fortress of our land! Therefore, you also fight victoriously on behalf of your fatherland, even as the great Demetrios fought for his fatherland, saying, ‘If I was with them while they were rejoicing, then I shall die with them when they are perishing.’ But the great Demetrios said this of a single town, while you care and pray not just for one town or even two, but for the whole land of Rus’.

O blessed are the graves that received your noble bodies as a precious treasure! O blessed is the church in which the holy coffins containing your blessed bodies were placed! O servants of Christ! Truly, Vyšhorod, you are blessed and higher than all the towns of Rus’, possessing in yourself a treasure to which the entire world cannot compare! Truly were you called Vyšhorod: highest and all-highest of all towns! A second Thessalonica has appeared in the land of Rus’, possessing in itself healing beyond price! (pp. 114-5)

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