06 September 2009

'Thou Didst Preach the Word of Truth to All Men'—St Cosmas of Aetolia

I’m a little late once again, but today, 24 August on the Church’s calendar, we celebrated the memory of the New Hieromartyr Cosmas of Aetolia (1714-1779), Equal to the Apostles. Chrestos Yannaras has written of him with great enthusiasm (Orthodoxy and the West: Hellenic Self-Identity in the Modern Age, trans. Norman Russell and Fr Peter Chamberas [Brookline, MA: Holy Cross, 2006], p. 114):

He was an extraordinary phenomenon, expressing the fundamental issues of Christian experience in simple but powerful language: the most important manifestation of the Church’s authentic spirit during the entire period of Turkish rule. Neither rationalistic nor moralistic, his word was a revelation of the Church’s Gospel: the flesh of life and the mode of true being.

St Cosmas writes of himself, ‘My false, earthly, and fruitless homeland is the province of Arta, in the district of Apokouro. My father, my mother, my family are pious Orthodox Christians’ (from Nomikos Michael Vaporis’s translation, here). He attended a number of schools, studying Greek, theology, medicine, and even teaching a bit before heading for the Holy Mountain in 1749, where he studied grammar, logic, and rhetoric at the Athonias Academy. Among others, one of his teachers here was Eugene Voulgaris, whom Yannaras calls the ‘leading figure in eighteenth-century Greek intellectual life’ (p. 102).

St Cosmas was tonsured at Philotheou Monastery, and eventually ordained a hieromonk. According to his own testimony (here) he spent seventeen years in repentance on the Holy Mountain. Here are St Cosmas’s words:

Among the countless gifts which my Lord has granted me, he made me worthy to acquire a little Greek learning and I became a monk. Studying the holy and sacred Gospel, I found in it many and different teachings which are all pearls, diamonds, treasures, riches, joy, gladness eternal life. Among the other things I also found this teaching in which Christ says to us: no Christian, man or woman, should be concerned only with himself, how he can be saved, but must be concerned also with his brethren so that they may not fall into sin.

Hearing this sweetest teaching spoken by our Christ, my brethren, to concern ourselves with our fellows, that teaching gnawed at me inside my heart for many years, just as a worm eats away at wood. Considering my ignorance, what could I do?

I sought the advice of my spiritual fathers, bishops and patriarchs, and I revealed to them my thinking, and I asked if such work was pleasing to God to do it. Everyone urged me to go ahead and they told me that such work is good and sacred.

In fact, urged on by his Holiness Patriarch Sophronios—may his blessing be upon us—and receiving his sacred blessing, I abandoned my own advancement, my own good, and went out to walk from place to place to teach my brethren.

Thus it was that St Cosmas began one of the many remarkable missionary endeavours in Church history—a mission to his own people. Yannaras has summarised his approach and the nature of his teaching quite well:

He would travel from village to village, staying two days in each, with a sermon the night he arrived, a second the next morning and a third that evening. In these three addresses he recapitulated the Church catechism’s basic truths briefly and elegantly, with simple examples to draw out the practical consequences of the Church’s teaching for daily living. Remarkably for the times, he linked theological truth with practical life, illuminating daily practice with his experience of revealed truth. (p. 113)

. . .

His style and the vigor of his language were inimitable. His wide vocabulary preserved the clarity of popular idiom. His teaching constituted a systematic theology, and his practical exhortations were sharp and realistic. His speech was the palpable expression of his holiness and beyond critical evaluation; his tender concern and anguished love for the people he met prove he understood their sufferings. The Greek nation was sunk in ignorance and misery, but his passion revived a real sense of the true life, a foretaste of participation in the Kingdom, a consciousness of the privileged possession of truth, and an awareness that painful and wretched lives had noble antecedents. (p. 114)

As Yannaras points out, apart from the theological teaching proper, St Cosmas also gave people practical advice about how to conduct their daily lives. For instance, he told men that they should wear beards—‘And may God enlighten you to let go of your sins as you let your beard grow. You, young men, honor those with beards. And if there is a man of thirty with a beard and one of fifty, or sixty, or a hundred who shaves, place the one with the beard above the one who shaves, in church as well as at the table.’ Vaporis notes that he also preached against ‘what today we would call male chauvinism’, saying, ‘If perhaps you men wish to be better than women, you must do better works than they do. If women do better works they go to paradise and we men who do evil works go to hell. What does it profit us if we are men?’

St Cosmas also opened, and encouraged the opening of, schools among the Orthodox Christians of the Ottoman empire, saying ‘for when your child becomes educated, then he is a human being.’ According to Yannaras, ‘Scholars have evaluated Kosmas Aitolos’s social and educational work: he founded ten Hellenic schools (where ancient Greek was taught) and two hundred elementary schools’ (p. 114).

Ultimately, St Cosmas’s stance against the wealthy and influential on behalf of the poor and downtrodden, his stance against the influence of Islam on behalf of Christianity and against Turkish cultural hegemony on behalf of Hellenism, and finally his moral opposition to the widespread defiance of the holiness of the Lord’s day through the holding of bazaars and fairs, caused a number of forces to conspire against him. In the year 1779, he was secretly arrested and hanged in the Albanian village of Kalinkontasi, his holy relics being dumped into the River Apso before being rescued by a local Orthodox priest. As Yannaras observes, ‘Kosmas Aitolos sealed his life with martyrdom’ (p. 115). Ironically, Vaporis points out that one of his greatest early venerators was the Muslim ruler of Albania, Ali Pasha, who ordered a church built in honour of the Hieromartyr.

For more on St Cosmas, I highly recommend Vaporis's wonderful account of his life and translation of his teachings, neatly presented here. As a longer sample of his teaching, here is an excerpt from the ‘Eighth Teaching’ of St Cosmas, translated by Vaporis here:

Priests should celebrate the Liturgy each day so that Christ will bless the people and guard their land from every illness and every abuse; so that God will bless your land, your fields, your vineyards, your place, and all the work of your hands. You should all, young and old, pray that the elders of your village live a long time, that God blesses them so they will take care of you well, for an elder is like a father. You should honor your priests and your betters. Wives, honor husbands; husbands, love your wives and your mothers. Daughters-in-law, honor your fathers-in-law and your mothers-in-law. Sons-in-laws, love your in-laws also and with this respect you will, prosper bodily and spiritually and you win partake of all the good things of the earth. And as long as you live on this earth, this temporary and brief life, you will gain all the blessings of paradise in the eternal life. Don't indulge yourselves, don't anathematize, don't curse. Brethren, may your blessing be upon me, and forgive me so God will forgive you, so that he will find us all worthy to enjoy paradise, to rejoice with the holy angels, and all of the saints. Amen.

In conclusion, here are the Troparion and Kontakion for the Saint, both in the 4th Tone, from The Great Horologion, trans. Holy Transfiguration Monastery (Boston: HTM, ), pp. 584-85:

With odes let us acclaim the renowned Cosmas, who gloriously excelled among the choirs of the martyrs, priests, and ascetics, and let us gather; for he dispenseth healing to them that have recourse to him with faith, since, as an equal of the Apostles, he hath boldness before Christ.

Come from Aetolia, O God-bearing Father, thou didst become a righteous monk on Mount Athos; and as a true initiate of the glory of God, thou didst preach the word of truth to all men, O most blest one, and didst bring them all to Christ as a true emulator of the Apostles’ choir, and thou didst prove a hieromartyr in shedding thy sacred blood.


Anonymous said...

This post is wonderful and most inspiring, Aaron. Something moves me deeply whenever I read about St. Cosmas. He truly touches the Greek Orthodox in me!

In Christ,

aaronandbrighid said...

Thank you, Andrew. I'm glad you enjoyed it!

Kevin P. Edgecomb said...

The very first volume of Constantine Cavarnos' series Modern Orthodox Saints is devoted to St Cosmas Aitolos. It's availabe here, where the contents are also listed. It's a beautiful account.

I look forward to reading the Vaporis pages! Thanks, Aaron!

aaronandbrighid said...

Yes, I really hope to acquire all of Cavarnos's Lives eventually. I've started trying to get at least one new one every time I visit the monastery in Texas.