31 August 2009

A City of Completed Projects

In her delightful book (I’m accustomed to thinking of her as a ‘her’, and I’ve no doubt that’s what she prefers), Oxford, rev. ed. (Oxford: Oxford U, 1988), Jan Morris refers to the eponymous town as ‘a city of uncompleted projects’ (p. 73), where every ‘worthy records . . . an ill-defined malaise that unhappily prevented the completion of his commentary on the Second Epistle to the Thessalonians’ (p. 71). I have heard independent confirmation that this is true of England’s most scholarly city. But I’m happy to announce that, despite its humid climate, Oklahoma City by contrast has treated me well. It certainly has its own distractions, not the least of which are, in my case, a wife and two little kids, most of my living family (within a 2-hour drive), and nearly twenty years worth of friends, apart from the usual continuous diversion of the Internet and the beckoning blog I have begotten. But despite all of this, I am happy to announce that as of this afternoon, I have completed the first draft of my master’s thesis, entitled, ‘Reading Imaginative Literature: A Study in Orthodox Moral Theology’ (in Greece they seem to go for plain titles—no plays on words or fancy lines of poetry). It is a feat I might not have accomplished had I found myself with many another unfortunate in ‘that sweet city of dreaming spires’ rather than here, in the place God put me. I’ll be accepting congratulatory comments over the next day or so. Gifts of books are also welcome. (For some years, I’ve occasionally added to a small wish list here. One can follow with amusement some of the little kicks I’ve been on!)

29 August 2009

Coleridge's 'Imagination' & Orthodox Patristic 'Phantasia'

As I promised, here is a brief passage on the imagination from my mostly completed thesis on the moral theology of reading imaginative literature. Keep in mind that this is merely the introduction to a lengthy section on the potential dangers of imaginative literature from an Orthodox ascetic, hesychastic perspective. But also, this lengthy section is part of an even larger whole where I basically argue that despite the potential dangers, I believe there is indeed a valid place for imaginative literature in the lives of most Orthodox Christians. So comments are welcome (as long as they follow the guidelines I've mentioned here), but don't forget that what you're reading here is not the whole picture. Although I'm not going to follow the current, post-Romantic trend and wax eloquent about the virtues of the imagination, I'm also not trying to suggest that it ought never to be used, or that we have to live like some kind of Puritans and eschew all 'worldly' activities. If nothing else, the many literary posts on this blog should provide plenty of evidence of my views in this regard!

Although it has been shown he was largely building on earlier views and insights,[i] Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria has indirectly had an enormous influence on the prevalent view of the imagination among Christians in the West today. Many Christians celebrate the imagination to a degree greater than it has ever been honoured before, and in theory would heartily concur with Coleridge’s judgement that the ‘primary Imagination’ is ‘a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM.’[ii] Among Orthodox in the West, however, there are also many who will vaguely recall a much-repeated statement attributed to Fr Serapim (Rose) that the imagination is a post-lapsarian faculty, and is therefore ‘one of the lowest functions of the soul and the favorite playground of the devil’.[iii]

It may well be wondered whether Coleridge and Fr Seraphim are speaking about the same thing—whether, that is, they are using the word ‘imagination’ in the same sense. It is clear from the context of Fr Seraphim’s actual statement—i.e., ‘the use of imagination in Western spiritual systems of meditation’[iv]—that he is speaking of imagination in the sense of the ability to visualise in the mind objects that are absent or non-existent. It is with this faculty in mind that he says that the imagination is one of the lowest functions of the soul, a characterisation apparently in harmony with St John Damascene’s teaching that it belongs to ‘the irrational part of the soul’.[v] But Coleridge is well-known for having drawn a distinction between ‘Imagination’ and ‘Fancy’. The latter he defines very much in accordance with Fr Seraphim’s usage and that of the Fathers: ‘a mode of Memory emancipated from the order of time and space; . . . blended with, and modified by that empirical phenomenon of the will, which we express by the word “choice”.’[vi] It is the former of these two faculties—Imagination—that he has elevated to the rank of one component,[vii] if not the component, of the imago dei.[viii]

Fortunately, I think this problem need not concern us overly much. J.R.R. Tolkien, while sharing Coleridge’s great esteem for the imagination, corrects the latter’s typically Romantic distinction between ‘Imagination’ and ‘Fancy’, arguing that the ‘Imagination’ is only the same faculty as ‘Fancy’—‘image-making’—used with uncommon ‘vividness and strength’. Thus, although Tolkien’s theory of ‘sub-creation’—as we shall see—seems to make too much of the imagination, his definition, ‘forming mental images of things not actually present’, is identical to the Orthodox one.[ix] Indeed, it has been noted that he simply lumps together both Fancy and Imagination beneath the heading of the Greek word, Fantasy.[x] In this way, while Tolkien retains much of the Romantic reverence for the imagination, he directly identifies it with the term, as well as the definition, used in the Orthodox Tradition.

For Fr Seraphim has indeed expressed an authentic teaching of the Church in his comments about the imagination, a teaching that is found in a continuous thread in the Fathers of the Philokalia[xi] and which Fr Seraphim learned, if not directly from them, then from their faithful Russian disciples Ss Ignatius (Brianchaninov) and Theophan the Recluse.[xii] This hesychastic teaching on the imagination has been expressed perhaps most clearly by Elder Sophrony (Sakharov). In St Silouan the Athonite, the elder distinguishes three activities of the imagination with which the ‘ascetic has to contend’:[xiii] the forming of images connected with the passions, day-dreaming, and the forming of images connected with ‘the mystery of being and . . . the Divine world’.[xiv]

[i] See James Engell, The Creative Imagination: Enlightenment to Romanticism (Cambridge, MA: Harvard U, 1981).

[ii] Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Selected Poetry and Prose, ed. Elisabeth Schneider (NY: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1962), p. 268. For the most extended treatment of this topic, see Dorothy Sayers’s study, The Mind of the Maker (London: Religious Book Club, 1942).

[iii] Qtd. in Hieromonk Damascene (Christensen), Father Seraphim (Rose): His Life and Works (Platina, CA: St Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 2003), p. 805.

[iv] Fr Damascene, p. 805. For a brief but lucid discussion of this issue, see Archimandrite Placide (Deseille), Ανατολική και Δυτική Χριστιανοσύνη, trans. Sotiris Gounelas (Athens: Armos, 2004), pp. 93-6; and to a lesser extent, his Orthodox Spirituality and the Philokalia, trans. Anthony P. Gythiel (Wichita, KS: Eighth Day, 2008), pp. 175-77.

[v] Frederic H. Chase, Jr., trans., St John of Damascus: Writings, Vol. 37 of The Fathers of the Church: A New Translation (Washington, DC: Catholic Universit of America, 1958), p. 241.

[vi] Coleridge, p. 268. Cf. for example, St Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain, A Handbook of Spiritual Counsel, trans. Fr Peter A. Chamberas (NY: Paulist, 1989), pp. 146-7.

[vii] As Frank Gabelein writes in his essay, ‘Toward a Biblical View of Aesthetics’, The Christian Imagination: Essays on Literature and the Arts, ed. Leland Ryken (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1981), p. 51.

[viii] For an attempt to argue for this move, see Sayers, p. 17. Unfortunately, Sayers does not explain why, in her view, the weight of patristic opinion has been entirely on the side of the various other aspects of the imago dei that she mentions.

[ix] Tolkien, ‘On Fairy-Stories’, The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays, ed. Christopher Tolkien (London: HarperCollins, 1997), p. 138.

[x] Verlyn Flieger, Splintered Light: Logos and Language in Tolkien’s World, rev. ed. (Kent, OH: Kent State U, 2002), pp. 24-5.

[xi] See, for instance, St Hesychios the Presbyter, ‘On Watchfulness’, The Philokalia: The Complete Text, Vol. 1, trans. G.E.H. Palmer, et al. (London: Faber, 1979), pp. 170, 182, 183, and 186-7; St Diadochos of Photiki, ‘On Spiritual Knowledge’, Philokalia 1, p. 264; St Maximos the Confessor, ‘Fifth Century of Various Texts’, The Philokalia: The Complete Text, Vol. 2, trans. G.E.H.Palmer, et al. (London: Faber, 1981), p. 264; and St Gregory of Sinai, ‘On Commandments and Doctrines’, The Philokalia: The Complete Text, Vol. 4, trans. G.E.H. Palmer, et al. (London: Faber, 1995), pp. 226 and 244.

[xii] This teaching, including the notion that the imagination originated with the Fall, is expounded at some length in St Theophan’s translation of the Αόρατος Πόλεμος of St Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain, which Fr Seraphim certainly read (Fr Damascene mentions that it was part of the regular reading of the fathers at Platina and quotes Fr Seraphim recommending it in three different places—Hieromonk Damascene, pp. 598, 807, 847, & 863). See St Nicodemus, ‘Chapter 26: How to correct imagination and memory’, Unseen Warfare: The Spiritual Combat & Path to Paradise of Lorenzo Scupoli edited by Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain & revised by Theophan the Recluse, trans. E. Kadloubovsky and G. E. H. Palmer (Crestwood, NY: SVS, 2000), pp. 147-54.

[xiii] Archimandrite Sophrony of Essex, St Silouan the Athonite, trans. Rosemary Edmonds (Crestwood, NY: SVS, 199), p. 154.

[xiv] Elder Sophrony, St Silouan, p. 155.

28 August 2009

Crashaw's Hymn for the Assumption

Thanks to the Reformation, truly accomplished poetry dedicated to the Mother of God seems to be somewhat rare in our language. Richard Crawshaw’s ‘hymn’ for the Assumption is thus quite a gem. Born in 1612 or 1613, Crashaw was the ‘bookish’ son of a Puritan minister, a Greek scholar at Cambridge, and a writer of epigrams for books supporting King Charles I against Parliamentarians and Puritans. After losing a fellowship under Cromwell, he converted to Catholicism and became an exile, first in Paris, then Loreto, where he died in 1649. Abraham Cowley eulogised him as ‘Poet and Saint!’

I have rendered any italicised words from Crashaw’s text in boldface, to adhere somewhat to his own way of presenting the text. From The Verse in English of Richard Crashaw (NY: Grove, 1949), pp. 193-5:

‘In the Glorious Assumption
of Our Blessed Lady.
The Hymn.’

Hark! she is call’d, the parting hour is come.
Take thy Farewell, poor world! heav’n must go home.
A piece of heav’nly earth; Purer and brighter
Then the chaste stars, whose choice lamps come to light her
While through the crystal orbs, clearer then they,
She climbs; and makes a far more milky way.
She’s called. Hark, how the dear immortal dove
Sighs to his silver mate rise up, my love!
Rise up, my fair, my spotless one!
The winter’s past, the rain is gone.
The spring is come, the flow’rs appear
No sweets, but thou, are wanting here.
Come away, my love!
Come away, my dove! cast off delay.
The court of heav’n is come
To wait upon thee home; Come, come away!
The flow’rs appear.
Or quickly would, wert thou once here.
The spring is come, or if it stay,
’Tis to keep time with thy delay.
The rain is gone, except so much as we
Detain in needful tears to weep the want of thee.
The winter’s past.
Or if he make less haste,
His answer is, why she does so.
If summer comes not, how can winter go.
Come away, come away.
The shrill winds chide, the waters weep thy stay;
The fountains murmur; and each loftiest tree
Bows low’st his heavy top, to look for thee.
Come away, my love.
Come away, my dove, etc.
She’s call’d again. And will she go?
When heav’n bids come, who can say no?
Heav’n calls her, and she must away.
Heav’n will not, and she cannot stay.
Go then; go Glorious.
On the golden wings
Of the bright youth of heav’n, that sings
Under so sweet a Burthen. Go,
Since thy dread son will have it so.
And while thou goest, our song and we
Will, as we may, reach after thee.
Hail, holy Queen of humble hearts!
We in thy praise will have our parts.
Thy precious name shall be
Thy self to us; and we
With holy care will keep it by us.
We to the last
Will hold it fast
And no Assumption shall deny us.
All the sweetest showers
Of our fairest flowers
Will we strow upon it.
Though our sweets cannot make
It sweeter, they can take
Themselves new sweetness from it.
Maria, men and Angels sing,
Maria, mother of our King.
Live, rosy princess, Live. And may the bright
Crown of a most incomparable light
Embrace thy radiant brows. O may the best
Of everlasting joys bath thy white breast.
Live, our chaste love, the holy mirth
Of heav’n; the humble pride of earth.
Live, crown of women; Queen of men.
Live mistress of our song. And when
Our weak desires have done their best,
Sweet Angels come, and sing the rest.

27 August 2009

'Still in Her Darkness Doth Erin Lie Sleeping'

I was first introduced to this poem by the lovely musical setting performed by the Irish vocal group, Anúna. It appears on their self-titled album under the title, ‘Silent, O Moyle’, and includes this short mention in the liner notes: ‘Thomas Moore (1779-1852) was a household name in Europe in the 19th century. This beautiful melody tells the story of the Children of Lir and is one of his finest songs.’ Here is the text as it appears—under the title, ‘The Song of Fionnuala’—in the wonderful book, The Poetical Works of Thomas Moore, Reprinted from the Early Editions with Explanatory Notes, etc., illust. Garrett, et al. (NY: Thomas Y. Crowell & Co., 1888), p. 224:

Silent, O Moyle, be the roar of thy water,
Break not, ye breezes, your chain of repose,
While, murmuring mournfully, Lir’s lonely daughter
Tells to the night-star her tale of woes.
When shall the swan, her death-note singing,
Sleep, with wings in darkness furl’d?
When will heaven, its sweet bells ringing,
Call my spirit from this stormy world?
Sadly, O Moyle, to thy winter-wave weeping,
Fate bids me languish long ages away;
Yet still in her darkness doth Erin lie sleeping,
Still doth the pure light its dawning delay.
When will that day-star, mildly springing,
Warm our isle with peace and love?
When will heaven, its sweet bells ringing,
Call my spirit to the fields above?

The Crowell edition includes the following explanatory note on this poem, apparently by Moore himself:

To make this story intelligible in a song would require a much greater number of verses than any one is authorized to inflict upon an audience at once; the reader must therefore be content to learn in a note, that Fionnuala, the daughter of Lir, was, by some supernatural power, transformed into a swan [along with her siblings, say other sources], and condemned to wander, for many hundred years, over certain lakes and rivers in Ireland till the coming of Christianity, when the first sound of the mass-bell was to be the signal of her release. I found this fanciful fiction among some manuscript translations from the Irish, which were begun under the direction of that enlightened friend of Ireland, the late Countess of Moira. (p. 224, n. 4)

Thus explained, I thought this poem a remarkable imagining of a sort of messianic expectation in pre-Christian Ireland. Obviously, however, ‘day-star’ should really be capitalised.

26 August 2009

'The Chrysostom of the Russian Church'—St Tikhon of Zadonsk

Today, 13 August on the Church’s calendar, we celebrate the memory of St Tikhon (1724-1783), Bishop of Voronezh and Wonderworker of Zadonsk and All Russia. For his writings and ‘excellent rhetoric’, St Tikhon is referred to as the ‘Chrysostom of the Russian Church’ (The Paraclete Brotherhood, ‘Preface to the Greek Edition’, Journey to Heaven: Counsels on the Particular Duties of Every Christian, by St Tikhon of Zadonsk, trans. Fr George Lardas [Jordanville, NY: Holy Trinity Monastery, 1994], p. xxiii). Here is the account of his life in the Prologue (St Nicholas [Velimirović], The Prologue from Ochrid: Vol. 3, trans. Mother Maria [Birmingham: Lazarica, 1986], pp. 190-1):

Born in 1724 in the village of Korotsk, in the Novgorod region, into a simple, peasant family, he received the monastic habit at the age of thirty-four and very soon, because of his ascesis and spiritual wisdom, was given higher and higher service until he was consecrated Bishop of Voronezh. He served as bishop for a little under seven years and then, because of ill-health, retired to the monastery of Zadonsk and entered into rest there in 1783. His wonderworking relics are kept there to this day. A great ascetic of the Russian Church, he was a rare shepherd, a man of prayer and the writer of beautiful spiritual works. In his wisdom, his holiness and asceticism, he could be counted an equal of the great Fathers of the Orthodox Church of former times. Because of the many witnessed miracles that were performed over his relics, he was first proclaimed a saint by the people, and then officially by the Church in 1861.

Fr Georges Florovsky discusses St Tikhon at some length in his monumental Ways of Russian Theology. Fr Florovsky tells us (Ways of Russian Theology, Pt. 1, trans. Robert L. Nichols, Vol. 5 in The Collected Works of Georges Florovsky [Belmont, MA: Nordland, 1979], p. 157):

He had a great gift for words—he was artistic and simple at the same time. His writing is always surprisingly limpid. This limpidity is his most unexpected quality. His grace and lucidity, his freedom—and not merely freedom from the world but also in the world—is the most striking quality in St Tikhon’s personality. He has the easy grace of a pilgrim or traveller neither deflected nor restrained by this world. ‘Every living being on earth is a wayfarer.’ However, this conquering grace was achieved through painful trial and ascetic effort.

Fr Florovsky quotes from the memoirs of St Tikhon’s cell attendant, Ivan Yefimov, the following passage, which I take from Helen Iswolsky’s translations of material on St Tikhon (G.P. Fedotov, ed., A Treasury of Russian Spirituality [Vaduz: Büchervertriebsanstalt, 1988], pp. 123-4):

Concerning his writings: as I heard from his own account, and also inasmuch as I observed these things myself when I took his dictation, his words flowed so rapidly from his lips that I scarcely had time to write them down. When the Holy Spirit became less active in him and he became lost in thought, he would send me away to my cell; kneeling, sometimes lying, with his arms extended in the form of a cross, he would implore with tears that God should send him the All-Activating One. Then, calling me back once more, he would begin to utter words in such abundance that I could scarcely follow him with my pen.

Yefimov also tells us the following story:

One day the saint hear of a squire who mistreated his serfs. His Grace intervened and betook himself to the lord of that estate in order to remonstrate with him. The hot-blooded nobleman started a dispute. The Bishop answered him gently but firmly. The anger of the nobleman grew, and finally he forgot himself so far as to strike the Bishop on the cheek. His Grace then left the nobleman’s house. But on his way, true to the evangelical precept, he resolve to return to the man who had thus insulted him and to beg forgiveness for ‘having led him into such a temptation’. So, going back, he fell at the feet of his host. The story goes on to say that this unexpected act of the pastor who knew no anger so deeply impressed the nobleman that he himself fell on his knees at the Bishop’s feet, imploring forgiveness. From that day on his behavior towards his serfs was completely altered. (Fedotov, p. 127)

Another incident from St Tikhon’s life that I should certainly relate is taken from the memoirs of Chebotarev. It seems there was a ‘Father Aaron’ at the Zadonsk Monastery, who, in Archbishop Philaret’s quotation from Chebotarev, is referred to as ‘the elder Aaron’ (Archbishop Philaret [Gumilevsky], ‘The Life of St Tikhon’, St Tikhon, p. 208):

He often wished to leave the Zadonsk monastery and to settle in the diocese of Novgorod, and on one occasion he wrote a request to this effect. That day I went for a walk outside the monastery grounds, and the monk Aaron joined me. I said to him that His Grace had firmly resolved to live in the diocese of Novgorod. Father Aaron exclaimed, ‘Are you mad? Our Lady forbids him to leave the monastery.’

Now the Bishop [St Tikhon] had a great respect for Father Aaron because of the latter’s austere life. Afterwards I reported to him what Father Aaron had said to me, and he asked, ‘Did the monk truly speak these words?’ I insisted that he had. ‘In that case, I shall not leave this place,’ His Grace declared, and he tore up his letter of request. (Fedotov, p. 122)

Fedotov writes that St Tikhon ‘was for long the most beloved saint of modern Russia’ (p. 112), an observation borne out by perhaps the most famous reference to him in Russian letters. In an epistle of 25 March/6 April 1870 to his friend, the poet Apollon N. Maikov, Dostoevsky wrote, ‘I intend to make the main figure of my 2nd novella Tikhon Zadonsky, of course under another name, but also a bishop who has retired to a monastery. . . . It is true that I won’t be creating anything, I’ll only show the true Tikhon whom I accepted in my heart enthusiastically a long time ago’ (Selected Letters of Fyodor Dostoevsky, trans. Andrew MacAndrew, ed. Joseph Frank and David I. Goldstein [New Brunswick, CT: Rutgers U, 1989], p. 332). While the ‘2nd novella’ as he describes it in this letter was never written, strictly speaking, one can see that the idea came out in a greatly altered form in two places: the striking conversation of Stavrogin with ‘Bishop Tikhon’ in Demons (destined to be removed by the censors), and the character of the Elder Zosima in The Brothers Karamazov. Of course, the latter figure has often come under criticism by various representatives of the Orthodox monastic tradition (Fr Seraphim, for instance, calls him ‘a false starets [who] will only lead people astray’ in Letters from Father Seraphim [Richfield Springs, NY: Nikodemos, 2001], p. 39; Fr Nicholas [Sakharov] says that he can 'hardly be counted as a part of the eastern ascetic tradition' in I Love therefore I Am: The Theological Legacy of Archimandrite Sophrony [Crestwood, NY: SVS, 2002], p. 217), but it is true that, as Victor Terras notes, ‘In some instances outright echoes from the writings of St Tychon can be found in The Brothers Karamazov’ (A Karamazov Companion: Commentary on the Genesis, Language, and Style of Dostoevsky’s Novel [Madison, WI: U of Wisconsin, 1981], p. 22, n. 50). In her seminal study, St Tikhon of Zadonsk: Inspirer of Dostoevsky, Nadejda Gorodetzky writes, ‘There is the episode of Zossima’s humiliation before the man whom he had offended when he was an officer. (This idea of humiliation and Tikhon’s prostration before the landowner who struck him in the face haunted Dostoevsky. . . .)’ (Saint Tikhon of Zadonsk: Inspirer of Dostoevsky, rev. ed. [Crestwood, NY: SVS, 1997], p. 227).

Here is a brief quotation from St Tikhon on Scripture, and another posted 12 August (NS) at the same blog, Word from the Desert, on remembrance of eternity. Here is one on forgiveness at Salt of the Earth, and Milk & Honey has one on spiritual resurrection. Archimandrite Nektarios (Serfes) has posted some substantial excerpts from St Tikhon’s ‘Counsels on the Particular Duties of Every Christian’. Here is the interesting spectacle of (apparently) a Baptist minister blogging about St Tikhon.

Here, then, are my own excerpts from St Tikhon’s writings:

18 Love the Word of God, that is the Scriptures, handed down to us by the prophets and apostles, as God Himself. For the word of God is the word of God’s mouth. If you love God, then without fail you will love the word of God also. For the word of God is God’s epistle or letter to us unworthy ones, and is His supreme gift to us for the sake of our salvation. If you love the Sender, then also love the letter which is sent from Him to you. For the word of God is given by God to me, to you, and to everyone, so that everyone who desires to be saved may receive salvation through it.

You love it when an earthly king writes you a letter, and you read it with love and joy. How much more must we read the letter of the Heavenly King with love and joy.

19 The word of God was not given to you so that it should lay written only on paper, but so that we may use it spiritually, that we may be enlightened and guided in the true way and salvation, that our morals may be corrected, and that we may live according to its rule in this world, and that we may please God. If you wish, therefore, to be a true Christian, then without fail you must take care to live by its rule. For the word of God is a heavenly seed. It must, then, yield fruit in us after its kind, that is a holy and heavenly life, otherwise it will accuse us on the day of the fearful Judgement of Christ. Live, therefore, as the word of God teaches, and then correct yourself. Do not pry idly into the mysteries. (p. 18)

65 . . . Beloved Christians! Let us inscribe eternity in our memory, and without fail, ceaselessly, in true repentance, contrition of heart, and prayer, let us not be enticed by any vanity of this world, and let us shun every sin as a venomous serpent. All that seems beautiful, pleasant, and dear to the sons of this age is loathsome to us. Let us truly be content with a morsel of bread and a little shack and ragged clothing. Remembrance and consideration of eternity will work this contentment in us. (p. 182)

In conclusion, here is the ‘Hymn of Praise’ for St Tikhon from the Prologue:

The hut of a peasant, a saint nurtured,
Him, the Orthodox Church, with the spirit imbued:
Tikhon, the hierarch, as a star shone
And spiritual mysteries, to the world related:
Read Holy Scripture, God, it conceals,
It conceals God, and God it reveals.
The books of the entire world, do not tell more
About God, about you than what the Scripture writes.
Behold, without God, one can not know God
It is in vain to inquire about God, outside of God.
God gives Himself to us, as much as He fits in our mind
Into an egg, one can not pour the sea.
How to save the soul, Holy Scripture teaches
From sin and death and damnation eternal.
He who is drowning, about water, does not ask,
Neither what is it? Nor how? Nor from where does it flow?
Rather, about his salvation only, is concerned
And a secure rock, fearfully seeks.
And the sea of life, stormily agitates
The wise one on this sea, for himself, salvation seeks.
What is this life? Of what is it made?
When death comes upon us, is that so important to know?
On the earth, knowledge and possessions remain,
To the grave, the body and the clothing is given over
The soul, only the soul can still be saved,
Endeavor and pray: help me O God!

23 August 2009

'Manduca, Iam Coctum Est'—Holy Martyr Laurence the Archdeacon

Today, 10 August on the Church’s calendar, we celebrate the memory of the Holy Martyr Archdeacon Laurence of Rome (c. 225 – 258). As an overview of what is known about his life and sufferings, I offer the account in the Prologue (St Nicholas [Velimirović], The Prologue from Ochrid: Vol. 3, trans. Mother Maria [Birmingham: Lazarica, 1986], p. 177):

When Pope Stephen (see August 2nd) was killed, St Sixtus was installed in his place. St Sixtus was an Athenian, first a philosopher and later a Christian. At that time, the Roman bishops were being killed one after the other in such quick succession that to be made Bishop of Rome was tantamount to a death sentence. The Emperor Valerian was determined to stamp out Christianity, and Pope Sixtus was quickly brought to trial with two of his deacons, Felicicius and Agapitus. When they were being taken off to prison, Laurence said to the Pope: ‘Where are you going, Father, without your son? Whither, O Bishop, without your archdeacon?’ The Pope consoled him with the prophecy that he would undergo yet greater suffering for Christ, and follow him very soon. And indeed, as soon as Sixtus and the two deacons had been beheaded, Laurence was arrested. He had been inspired to set in order both his own affairs and those of the Church. As treasurer, he had taken all the Church’s valuables to the house of a widower, Cyriacus. At that time, he healed Cyriacus of terrible pains in the head by the touch of his hand, and restored the sight of a blind man, Crescention. Thrown into prison, Laurence healed there an elderly prisoner, Lucillus, of blindness and baptised him. Seeing this, the warder, Hippolytus, also received baptism, and later suffered for Christ (see August 13th). As Laurence would not deny Christ, but strongly counselled the Emperor Valerian to abandon his false gods, he was beaten on the face with stones and on his body with scorpions (chains with poisoned teeth). A soldier, Romanus, who was present at the torture, came to belief in Christ and was immediately beheaded. They finally put Laurence on an iron grid and lit a fire underneath. Roasting in the fire, Laurence gave thanks to God, and mocked the Emperor for his paganism. When he had given his pure and heroic soul to God, Hippolytus took his body by night, first to the house of Cyriacus and then to a cave, where he buried it. St Laurence suffered, together with the others, in 258.

The Holy Fathers laud St Laurence as an exemplar of the cardinal virtue of fortitude. In his Sermon LXXXV.2, St Leo the Great says that St Laurence’s persecutors ‘found that his wondrous courage, born principally of love for Christ, not only did not yield itself, but also strengthened others by the example of his endurance’ (here). Citing the example of the Righteous Martyr Jonathan Maccabaeus in I Macc. 11, St Ambrose writes in his treatise On the Duties of the Clergy I.41, ‘Here, then, is fortitude in war, which bears no light impress of what is virtuous and seemly upon it, for it prefers death to slavery and disgrace. But what am I to say of the sufferings of the martyrs?’ And after describing some of these, he says, ‘And let us not pass by St Lawrence . . . [who after three days of torture] was placed on the gridiron by the tyrant whom he mocked, and was burnt. He said: “The flesh is roasted, turn it and eat.” So by the courage of his mind he overcame the power of fire’ (here).

Umberto Eco has cited this last story in his incredible novel, The Name of the Rose. William of Baskerville and Jorge the blind librarian are debating on the admissibility of laughter, when we read (The Name of the Rose, trans. William Weaver [Orlando, FL: Harvest, 1994], pp. 95-6):

‘Manduca, iam coctum est,’ William murmured. ‘Eat, for it is well done.’

‘What?’ asked Jorge, thinking he referred to some dish that was being brought him.

‘Those are the words that, according to Ambrose, were uttered by Saint Lawrence on the gridiron, when he invited his executioners to turn him over, as Prudentius also recalls in the Peristephanon,’ William said with a saintly air. ‘Saint Lawrence therefore knew how to laugh and say ridiculous things, even if it was to humiliate his enemies.’

‘Which proves that laughter is something very close to death and to the corruption of the body,’ Jorge replied with a snarl; and I must admit that he spoke like a good logician.

The hymn of the Peristephanon to which William refers can be read in Latin here. Unfortunately, I can’t find a translation, and my Latin is far too paltry to produce my own. If only some pious soul, learned in the Latin tongue, would honour the Holy Martyr by producing a translation of this ancient hymn! Here, however, is the hymn written by St Nicholas for today’s Prologue:

Lawrence, the evil emperor asks:
‘Where are you from? What is your rank?’
Lawrence, to the emperor replies:
‘From Spain, educated in Rome,
And of the One God, a servant, I am.’
‘Of the Church's treasure, are you the guardian?’
‘Of that good treasure, I am, O emperor.’
Give us the treasure and your life, save!
The treasure of the Church, in heaven, is,
In the Lord Jesus, believe ye also,
And, of that treasure, an heir, you will be.’
Lawrence, deny Christ!
‘You, O Emperor, deny the idols!’
And the Emperor became infuriated and to the servants motioned,
Lawrence, they beat and crushed,
And on a fiery gridiron, they placed him.
This fire to me, it is cool,
And [the fire] for you in the midst of
Hades is prepared!
Lawrence, deny Christ!
Are you not sorry, to die young?
Christ, on the Cross, suffered for me,
For me, He died; I, for Him, die
One side of the body, entirely burned,
Lawrence, to the executioners, speaks:
Half of the body is roasted,
Turn it over, behold food for you,
Turn it over, let the other side roast!
This said, he flew away
Into the sweet heavenly mansions.

In chapter II.28 of the same work quoted above, St Ambrose tells another edifying story, concerning St Lawrence’s praiseworthy actions as treasurer of the Roman Church. Between this duty and his famous suffering and quip on the gridiron, the West came to honour him as patron Saint of archivists and librarians, on the one hand (making William’s quotation to Jorge the librarian somewhat ironic—and this observation of mine, in turn, a delightful pun!), and of comedians and cooks on the other. He is also patron of Amarillo, TX, and of the Benedictine Ampleforth College in North Yorkshire, England. According to Fish Eaters, the occurrence of the Perseid meteor shower around the feast of St Laurence has given the phenomenon the name ‘tears of St Laurence’. Finally, I advise everyone to read this awesome post at the hitherto unknown (to me) blog, Varieties of unreligious Experience, demonstrating what even the OED did not know: that the expression ‘as happy as Larry’ was originally a reference to St Laurence, dating back at least to the following passage in John Scotus Eriugena’s Periphyseon:

Quam igitur felices erant Beati Laurentius Stephanusque, & nullis agitabantur perturbationibus animorum: tam felix universa societas esset humana.

Therefore, [if it hadn’t been for the Ancestral Sin] all human society would have been as happy as Saints Lawrence and Stephen, who were troubled by no perturbations in their souls.

In conclusion, here is the final paragraph of St Leo’s sermon on St Laurence:

Thou gainest nothing, thou prevailest nothing, O savage cruelty. His mortal frame is released from thy devices, and, when Laurentius departs to heaven, thou art vanquished. The flame of Christ’s love could not be overcome by thy flames, and the fire which burnt outside was less keen than that which blazed within. Thou didst but serve the martyr in thy rage, O persecutor: thou didst but swell the reward in adding to the pain. For what did thy cunning devise, which did not redound to the conqueror’s glory, when even the instruments of torture were counted as part of the triumph? Let us rejoice, then, dearly-beloved, with spiritual joy, and make our boast over the happy end of this illustrious man in the Lord, Who is ‘wonderful in His saints’ (Ps 68:35, LXX), in whom He has given us a support and an example, and has so spread abroad his glory throughout the world, that, from the rising of the sun to its going down, the brightness of his deacon’s light doth shine, and Rome is become as famous in Laurentius as Jerusalem was ennobled by Stephen. By his prayer and intercession (cf. Sermon LXXXII. c. 7.) we trust at all times to be assisted; that, because all, as the Apostle says, ‘who wish to live holily in Christ, suffer persecution’ (II Tim 3:12), we may be strengthened with the spirit of love, and be fortified to overcome all temptations by the perseverance of steadfast faith.

'For Us, the Physician Medicine Prepared'—St Gregory of Sinai

Yesterday, 8 August on the Church’s calendar, we celebrated the memory of St Gregory the Sinai. Unfortunately, I did not have time to prepare a post for the actual day of his feast. Of course, he is celebrated two other times during the year, but both of those dates have come and gone since I started this blog, and I hated to let an entire year of Logismoi go by with no post on this great hesychast and theologian of the spiritual life. I simply had to post on St Gregory, even if I was late.

Archimandrite Placide (Deseille) writes that ‘St Gregory the Sinaite is viewed as the main promoter of the fourteenth century hesychast renewal, and his works count among the most important in the Philokalia’ (Orthodox Spirituality and the Philokalia, trans. Anthony P. Gythiel [Wichita, KS: Eighth Day, 2008], p. 36). According to the ‘Introductory Note’ on St Gregory which prefaces his works in the English Philokalia, ‘Gregory of Sinai was born, probably around 1265 (but the date is uncertain), near Klazomenai, on the western shores of Asia Minor. Taken prisoner as a young man in a Turkish raid, after being ransomed he went to Cyprus, where he entered the first grade of the monastic life’ (The Philokalia: The Complete Text, Vol. 4, trans. G.E.H. Palmer, et al. [London: Faber, 1995], p. 207). Continuing the story, here is the account of St Gregory’s life in the Prologue (St Nicholas [Velimirović], The Prologue from Ochrid: Vol. 3, trans. Mother Maria [Birmingham: Lazarica, 1986], pp. 169-70):

He was named ‘the Sinaite’ because he became a monk on Mount Sinai. In the time of the Emperor Andronicus Palaeologus, in about 1330, he went to the Holy Mountain to visit the monasteries and discover more about mental prayer and contemplation. But these two spiritual exercises were little known at that time among the monks of the Holy Mountain. The only one who was experienced in them and practised them perfectly was St Maximus of Kapsokalyvia. Gregory spread his teaching on mental prayer through all the cells and monasteries of the Holy Mountain. His most famous pupil was Kallistos, Patriarch of Constantinople, who wrote Gregory’s life. After that, Gregory went to Macedonia and to other parts of the Balkans, and founded communities in which the monks engaged in mental prayer, thus helping many to deepen their prayer and come to salvation. His writings on mental prayer and asceticism are found in the Philokalia. Among other things, he wrote the hymn to the Holy Trinity: ‘It is meet and right . . .’, which is sung in the Midnight Office on Sundays. He stands among the most famous ascetics and spiritual teachers of the Balkans. He entered peacefully into rest in 1346, after a life of great toil, and went to the Kingdom of Christ.

According to the Life written by his disciple, Saint Patriarch Kallistos of Constantinople (The Lives of the Saints of the Holy Land and Sinai Desert, trans. Holy Apostles Convent [Buena Vista, CO: Holy Apostles Convent, 1997], pp. 239-40):

Gregory, who exercised due care in all works, like the apostles, desired to encompass all the world and bring all the Christians to divine ascent with his teachings, that by means of active virtues, they might mount to the summit of mental prayer, just as he ascended by the co-operation of the divine Spirit. With this teaching, he wished with all his heart that all be enlightened by the Holy Spirit. To the divine Gregory, the following words are appropriate: ‘His sound has gone forth into all the earth, and his words unto the ends of the world’ (Ps 18:4). In every place that the saint went, he did not fail to sow and communicate his teachings of the benefits of solitude and mental prayer. And his divine words did not stop with him, but his disciples went on to spread this teaching.

Indeed, Anthony-Emil Tachiaos of the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki has done a thorough preliminary study of St Gregory’s influence among the Slavs of Bulgaria and Serbia, through his own writings as well as through the activities of his disciples: ‘Gregory Sinaites’ Legacy to the Slavs: Preliminary Remarks’, Cyrillomethodianum vii (1983), pp. 113-65. Tachiaos writes:

The period when Gregory was in Paroria [present-day Bulgaria] was a glorious spiritual era in XIVth-century Hesychast monasticism. He acquired new disciples there whose number seems to have increased daily. Gregory brought the Hesychast traditions of Sinai and Athos unchanged to Paroria, where his disciples kept them alive and flourishing. (p. 118)

Speaking of these disciples, Fr Placide writes:

One of them, Theodosius, founded the monastery of Mount Kelifarevo . . . after Gregory’s death. From this monastery, hesychast spirituality radiated to the entire world of the Slavs, thanks to its great monks and pastors: Euthymius, patriarch of Tirnovo; Romylos and Gregory the Hesychast, who spread hesychasm to Serbia with the help of prince Lazarus; Cyprian, Metropolitan of Kiev, who brought it to Russia, thereby imbuing St Nil Sorsky (1433-1508) with the doctrine of the Sinaite a century later. (p. 36)

Fr Placide also goes on to speak of the content and depth of St Gregory’s spiritual teaching as contained in his various Philokalic texts:

The spiritual doctrine of St Gregory the Sinaite is centered entirely on the guarding of the mind and the prayer of the heart. He teaches how, through hesychast prayer, the monk can progressively acquire consciousness of grace deposed in him through baptism and nourished by the Eucharist. Taking his inspiration from the Ladder of St John Climacus and the Mystagogy of St Maximus the Confessor, ‘Gregory presents the summit of the prayer of the monk as a priestly worship, in spirit and in truth, accomplished in the sanctuary of the heart’ (M. van Parys, ‘La liturgie du coeur selon saint Grégoire le Sinaïte’ in Irénikon, 51 [1976], pp. 312-337). (p. 37)

Here are two ‘chapters’ from his work, ‘On Commandments and Doctrines, Warnings and Promises; on Thoughts, Passions and Virtues, and also on Stillness and Prayer: One Hundred and Thirty-Seven Texts’:

2. Only those who through their purity have become saints are spiritually intelligent in the way that is natural to man in his pre-fallen state. Mere skill in reasoning does not make a person’s intelligence pure, for since the fall our intelligence has been corrupted by evil thoughts. The materialistic and wordy spirit of the wisdom of this world may lead us to speak about ever wider spheres of knowledge, but it renders our thoughts increasingly curde and uncouth. This combination of well-informed talk and crude thought falls far short of real wisdom and contemplation, as well as of undivided and unified knowledge.

3. By knowledge of truth understand above all apprehension of truth through grace. Other kinds of knowledge should be regarded as images of intellections or the rationals demonstration of facts. (Philokalia, p. 212)

I have previously blogged on a passage from St Gregory’s writings here, and on his Slavic disciples here. In this post, I have translated a brief excerpt of his dialogue with St Maximus Kapsokalyvites from volume 5 of the Greek Philokalia. In conclusion, here is the ‘Hymn of Praise’ for St Gregory from the Prologue:

Sinaite, the all-wise one, taught the monks,
And, by his example, confirmed his teachings:
Passionlessness, that is the Promised Land,
By the Spirit, the passionless soul illumined.
Without any thoughts, man then becomes
When, with prayer, his mind rests in the heart.
Of all passions, thoughts are sinful forerunners,
Which, in the demonic authority, keeps the soul.
Sick people are we; for us, the physician medicine prepared,
To be healed, to be healthy.
The Name of Jesus, in your heart, speaks,
It will, as a fire, consume passions,
Let that powerful name, with heavenly radiance
In your heart move, with breathing.
If, in your heart, you do not have Jesus the Lord
All other mortifications, remain as water.
Only Jesus inside me is able
The water of my being, into wine to convert.
As in a nest, your whole mind, in the heart place,
And then glorify Jesus, by ceaseless prayer.
O, Lord Jesus, have mercy on me a sinner!
Let the prayer be slow; not hurried—
Until the heart, from prayer, bursts into flame—
Then, the mind, heaven sees and on earth, remains not.

20 August 2009

'A Tutor in Whom One Could Confide'—Nevill Coghill, Inkling

Yes, I’ve nearly let the whole day get away with no post, but I’ve got a good reason. I’ve been devoting nearly all of my time this week to my thesis, since I hope to finally finish it soon. For this reason, posting may be rather sporadic over the next few weeks, and it may have to cease entirely at some point. Do not despair. I shall return, and probably sooner than later.

Tonight I would, however, like to do a very brief post that I’ve entertained for some time now. Ever since I first became acquainted with his name in the lovely book, C.S. Lewis: Images of His World, by Douglas Gilbert and Clyde S. Kilby, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1973), I’ve been a little bit interested in Nevill Coghill. This interest grew enormously though when his name began to pop up in some unexpected places. First, here is the brief bio included with his translation of the Canterbury Tales (Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales, trans. Nevill Coghill [Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1985], p. 1):

Professor Nevill Coghill held many appointments at Oxford University, where he was Merton Professor of English Literature from 1957 to 1966, and later became Emeritus Fellow of Exeter and Merton Colleges. He was born in 1899 and educated at Haileybury and Exeter College, Oxford, and served in the Great War after 1917. He wrote several books on English Literature, and had a keen interest in drama, particularly Shakespearean. For many years he was a strong supporter of the Oxford University Dramatic Society, and produced plays in London and Oxford. The book of the musical play, Canterbury Tales, which ran at the Phoenix Theatre, London, from 1968 to 1973 was co-written by Nevill Coghill in collaboration with Martin Starkie who first conceived the idea and presented the original production. His translation of Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde into modern English is also published in the Penguin Classics. Professor Coghill, who died in November 1980, will perhaps be best remembered for this translation which has become an enduring bestseller.

Quite professional, yes, but here is the passage in Surprised by Joy from which Gilbert and Kilby quote (The Inspirational Writings of C.S. Lewis [NY: Inspirational, 1997], p. 117):

No sooner had I entered the English School than I went to George Gordon’s discussion class. And there I made a new friend. The very first words he spoke marked him out from the ten or twelve others who were present; a man after my own heart, and that too at an age when the instantaneous friendships of earlier youth were becoming rather rare events. His name was Nevill Coghill. I soon had the shock of discovering that he—clearly the most intelligent and best informed man in the class—was a Christian and a thorough-going supernaturalist. There were other traits that I liked but found (for I was still very much a modern) oddly archaic; chivalry, honor, courtesy, ‘freedom’, and ‘gentillesse’. One could imagine him fighting a duel. He spoke much ‘ribaldry’ but never ‘villeinye’. Barfield was beginning to overthrow my chronological snobbery; Coghill gave it another blow. Had something really dropped out of our lives? Was the archaic simply the civilized, and the modern simply the barbaric? It will seem strange to many of my critics who regard me as a typical laudator temporis acti that this question should have arisen so comparatively late in my life. But then the key to my books is Donne’s maxim, ‘The heresies that men leave are hated most.’ The things I assert most vigorously are those that I resisted long and accepted late.

Coghill’s name turned up in other places as well. According to this biographical sketch of John Masefield, ‘Masefield established the Oxford Recitations—a contest for verse speaking held in Oxford and was also to collaborate with Nevill Coghill in establishing the Oxford Summer Diversions—a festival of recitals, plays and ballet.’ Coghill’s activity producing plays and working with the Oxford Union Dramatic Society (mentioned above, in the Penguin bio) included some work with two very famous actors. From this article in Oxford Today: The University Magazine:

Perhaps most memorable of all, and certainly the production that created the biggest razzmatazz, was Nevill Coghill’s legendary revival in 1966 of Marlowe’s Dr Faustus, with former pupil Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. The pair, then at the height of Hollywood celebrity, forswore any fee, and the OUDS students who provided the supporting cast also appeared in the film version of Faustus, made by the couple in Rome the following year. Sadly, that proved a flop, so Burton and Taylor provided the money for the nearby Burton Taylor Studio that the film’s profits were supposed to finance.

After re-reading Marlowe’s play, I got the film—co-directed by Coghill and Burton—from Netflix. It is surreal in a very 1960’s sort of way. I imagine Anton LaVey enjoyed it immensely. A contemporary review in that pesky little Time magazine says, ‘Visually, the Burton Faustus is a darkling carnival of skeletons, candles, caves and necromancy, tricked out with such cinematic hocus-pocus as action shots montaged into a skull’s eye-socket and heartbeats lub-dubbed onto the sound track.’ Strangely, however, the reviewer doesn’t like it.

Here is a blog post about Coghill’s book, The Poet Chaucer, while this one has a very partial Coghill bibliography. This blog tells a wonderful story about Coghill’s readings of his Chaucer translations:

Professor Coghill used to appear on request before various groups to read from his Chaucer translations, and, on one occasion which he cherished long after, a lady came up afterwards and said, ‘That was wonderful. Thank you so much. We are so sorry that Mrs Chaucer was unable to come with you.’

Most recent, and what finally prompted me to do this post, was my passing glance at the dedication page of Auden’s The Dyer’s Hand and Other Essays (NY: Vintage, 1968), p. 7:


Three grateful memories:
a home full of books,
a childhood spent in country provinces,
a tutor in whom one could confide.

Then this post reminded me of the following letter (#275), written from Tolkien to Auden (The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, selected and ed. Humphrey Carpenter, asst. Christopher Tolkien [Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1981], p. 359):

From a letter to W.H. Auden, 4 August 1965

[Auden had invited Tolkien to contribute to a festschrift marking the retirement of Nevill Coghill. . . .]

I still feel grieved that I haven’t anything for Neville’s [sic] festschrift. I hope that perhaps an arrangement will be made in the book for people in my position to register their good wishes. The only thing I have ever written about Neville was:

Mr Neville Judson Coghill
Wrote a deal of dangerous doggerill.
Practical, progressive men
Called him Little Poison-pen.

That was a time when under the name of Judson he was writing what I thought very good and funny verses lampooning forward-looking men like Norwood of St John’s.

As a small sample of Coghill’s writing, here is the concluding paragraph—on the Palinode—of his Introduction to the Penguin Troilus and Criseyde (Geoffrey Chaucer, Troilus and Criseyde, trans. Nevill Coghill [London: Penguin, 1971], p. xxvi):

Every reader will make what he can of this volte-face that is of such astonishing poetic force and simplicity; for myself I cannot see that Chaucer in any way un-says what he has so long and understandingly been recounting—the feverish desires, the tendernesses, the anguish, the ecstasy, the pledges, the false hopes, the racks of doubt, the risks of Fortune—every human experience of the affections from despair to bliss and back again to despair, that arise in the story he has told us. They are all part of the overwhelming experience of human love, and have their own beauty, virtues and weaknesses, and susffer from their tragic impermanence. Such is ‘the love of kind’; but it has, as it were, an elder sister in celestial love, compared with which human love is a feigning; that is ‘eterne on lyve’, and will ‘falsen no wight’. Many will say this is no resolution of the paradox, just to be advised to relinquish the vanities of the world, to reach for the substance, not the shadow. But Chaucer seems to say that these are his conclusions, and I do not see that he says more; the love of Troilus is never condemned outright, never condemned by him as sin; but as sorrow, the double sorwe of which the poem set out to tell us. We live in an insecure and sorrowful world.

And here, to boot, is the opening of his Canterbury Tales translation (Chaucer, Canterbury, p. 19):

When in April the sweet showers fall
And pierce the drought of March to the root, and all
The veins are bathed in liquor of such power
As brings about the engendering of the flower,
When also Zephyrus with his sweet breath
Exhales an air in every grove and heath
Upon the tender shoots, and the young sun
His half-course in the sign of the Ram has run,
And the small fowl are making melody
That sleep away the night with open eye
(So nature pricks them and their heart engages)
Then people long to go on pilgrimages
And palmers long to seek the stranger strands
Of far-off saints, hallowed in sundry lands,
And specially, from every shire’s end
Of England, down to Canterbury they wend
To seek the holy blissful martyr, quick
To give his help to them when they were sick.

In conclusion, the photo above, taken from this page, is the only one I could find online. It depicts Coghill (on the left) in his rôle as President of the Poetry Society, London, with a young Gavin Bantock, after the latter received the Alice Hunt-Bartlett Poetry Prize, 31 March 1967.

19 August 2009

'The Light of a Thousand Suns'—Hiroshima Day

In the last post I quoted the second canon at Matins for the Feast of the Holy Transfiguration:

The visible sun was eclipsed by the rays of Thy divinity, when it saw Thee transfigured on Mount Tabor, O my Jesus. Glory to Thy power, O Lord.

This teaching about the revelation of Christ’s glory outshining the sun, and the Gospel references to the ‘cloud’ overshadowing the disciples, remind me sadly of another event remembered on 6 August—according to the New Calendar—the bombing of Hiroshima, Japan. At the Trinity nuclear test, a stunned Robert Oppenheimer is said to have recalled a verse from the Bhagavad-Gita, in stanza 12 of ‘The Eleventh Teaching’ (The Bhagavad-Gita: Krishna’s Counsel in Time of War, trans. Barbara Stoler Miller [NY: Bantam, 1986], p. 99):

If the light of a thousand suns
were to rise in the sky at once,
it would be like the light
of that great spirit.

And moments later Oppenheimer also thought of the earlier words of Krishna, ‘I am death the destroyer of all’ (10th Teaching, stanza 34—Bhagavad-Gita, p. 94). Indeed, according to Robert Jungk’s book about the Manhattan Project, Brighter Than a Thousand Suns: A Personal History of the Atomic Scientists (San Diego: Harvest, 1970), all of those present—even the irreligious, who were the majority—‘recounted their experiences in words derived from the linguistic fields of myth and theology’ (Jungk, p. 201). Jungk quotes General Farrell:

The whole country was lighted by a searing light with an intensity many times that of the midday sun. . . . Thirty seconds after the explosion came, first, the air blast pressing hard against the people and things, to be followed almost immediately by the strong, sustained, awesome roar which warned of doomsday and made us feel that we puny things were blasphemous to dare tamper with the forces heretofore reserved to the Almighty. Words are inadequate tools for the job of acquainting those not present with the physical, mental and psychological effects. It had to be witnessed to be realized. (Jungk, p. 201)

Perhaps foreseeing this, Edward Teller had responded just 12 days earlier to calls among the scientists to petition the government to avoid military use of nuclear technology by writing, ‘I have no hope of clearing my conscience. The things we are working on are so terrible that no amount of protesting or fiddling with politics will save our souls’ (see the whole letter here).

It is apropos that this terrible destructive force unleashed by man is compared directly to the manifestation of the demonic god Krishna, at the sight of whom Arjuna’s hair ‘bristled on his flesh’ (Bhagavad-Gita, p. 99). Evil, destructive energy, whether man-made or arising directly from hell, is the antithesis of that Light which, according to Elder Sophrony, ‘softly enveloped me and gently invaded my heart, in some curious fashion making me feel compassionate and loving towards people who treated me harshly’ (Archimandrite Sophrony [Sakharov], We Shall See Him as He Is, trans. Rosemary Edmonds [Platina, CA: St Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 2006], p. 184).

Let us prayerfully remember the 140,000 dead of Hiroshima, consumed by this terrible force, ‘burnt by the sun’.

Addendum: I would like to add the following passage from the letters of J.R.R. Tolkien in which he comments to his son Christopher on the atomic bombs.

102 From a letter to Christopher Tolkien 9 August 1945

The news today about ‘Atomic bombs’ is so horrifying one is stunned. The utter folly of these lunatic physicists to consent to do such work for war-purposes: calmly plotting the destruction of the world! Such explosives in men’s hands, while their moral and intellectual status is declining, is about as useful as giving out firearms to all inmates of a gaol and then saying that you hope ‘this will ensure peace’. But one good thing may arise out of it, I suppose, if the write-ups are not overheated: Japan ought to cave in. Well we’re in God’s hands. But He does not look kindly on Babel-builders. (J.R.R. Tolkien, The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, ed. Humphrey Carpenter with Christopher Tolkien [Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1981], p. 116.)

'The Saviour Has Transfigured Disfigured Man'—The Feast of the Transfiguration

Today, 6 August on the Church’s calendar, we celebrate the Holy Transfiguration of our Lord and God and Saviour Jesus Christ. I don’t intend to offer my own comments on this Great Feast of the Church, as the awesomeness of Christ’s manifest glory is so far beyond my experience. I will confine myself to offering a few appropriate texts, in this way making a small beginning of following the words of the first sticheron (in Tone 4) at ‘Lord, I have cried’ at Small Vespers for the Feast (The Festal Menaion, trans. Mother Mary and Archim. [Metropolitan] Kallistos [Ware] [South Canaan, PA: STS, 1998], p. 468):

Come, let us rejoice, mounting up from the earth to the highest contemplation of the virtues: let us be transformed this day into a better state and direct our minds to heavenly things, being shaped anew in piety according to the form of Christ. For in His mercy the Saviour of our souls has transfigured disfigured man and made him shine with light upon Mount Tabor.

First of all, it strikes me that perhaps the definitive word on the Holy Transfiguration has been spoken by St Gregory Palamas, Archbishop of Thessaloniki, in the text he drafted as a statement on behalf of the entire Holy Mountain concerning the controversy with the notorious heretic Barlaam (The Philokalia: The Complete Text, Vol. 4, trans. G.E.H. Palmer, et al. [London: Faber, 1998], p. 422):

4. If anyone maintains that the light which shone about the disciples on Mount Tabor was an apparition and a symbol of the kind that now is and now is not, but has no real being and is an effect that not only does not surpass comprehension, but is inferior to it, he clearly contends against the doctrines of the saints. For the saints both in hymns and in their writings call this light ineffable, uncreated, eternal, timeless, unapproachable, boundless, infinite, limitless, invisible to angels and men, archetypal and unchanging beauty, the glory of God, the glory of Christ, the glory of the Spirit, the ray of Divinity and so forth. The flesh of Christ, it is said, is glorified at the moment of its assumption and the glory of the Godhead becomes the body’s glory. But this glory was invisible in His visible body to those unable to perceive that upon which even angels cannot gaze. Thus Christ was transfigured, not by the addition of something He was not, nor by a transformation into something He was not, but by the manifestation to His disciples of what He really was. He opened their eyes so that instead of being blind they could see. While He Himself remained the same, they could now see Him as other than He had appeared to them formerly. For He is ‘the true light’ (Jn 1:9), the beauty of divine glory, and He shone forth like the sun—though this image is imperfect, since what is uncreated cannot be imaged in creation without some diminution.

Second, Met. Hierotheos (Vlachos) of Nafpaktos, following St Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain, emphasises that the ‘second sun [of Christ’s divinity] was incomparably higher than the sensible sun, which rose from the heavens’, adding that ‘just as with the rising of the sensible sun all the stars in the sky disappear, so too the rays of the sensible sun disappeared with the rising of the sun of righteousness’ (The Feasts of the Lord: An Introduction to the Twelve Feasts and Orthodox Christology, trans. Esther Williams [Levadia, Greece: Birth of the Theotokos Monastery, 2003], p. 150). In reference to this, His Eminence sites the second troparion from Canticle 4 of the second canon at Matins: ‘The visible sun was eclipsed by the rays of Thy divinity, when it saw Thee transfigured on Mount Tabor, O my Jesus. Glory to Thy power, O Lord’ (Menaion, p. 486).

Furthermore, in keeping with the words of the first troparion I quoted (above), Met. Hierotheos also writes:

It says repeatedly in Holy Scripture that Christ is the new Adam, who became man in order to correct the error of the ancestral Adam. The first Adam in Paradise, although he was still inexperienced, was in a state of illumination of his nous because that in him which was in the image was pure and received the rays of the divine light. But after his sin, he was darkened, he lost the likeness, but did not lose the image entirely. . . . Through the incarnation of Christ and the deification of human nature Adam came back to his former glory, and indeed rose still higher.

Thus on Tabor Christ showed what the prototype of the creation of man was like and what the first state of Adam was like in Paradise before the fall. (p. 154)

St Maximus the Confessor has composed an interesting interpretation of the Holy Transfiguration in his ‘Second Century on Theology and the Incarnate Dispensation of the Son of God’, in which he touches on the appearance of the Prophets Moses and Elijah on the mountain with Christ (The Philokalia: The Complete Text, Vol. 2, trans. G.E.H. Palmer, et al. [London: Faber, 1990], pp. 140-1):

14. When the Logos of God becomes manifest and radiant in us, and His face shines like the sun, then His clothes will also look white (cf. Mt 17:2). That is to say, the words of the Gospels will then be clear and distinct, with nothing concealed. And Moses and Elijah—the more spiritual principles of the Law and the prophets—will also be present with Him.

15. It is written that the Son of Man is coming ‘with His angels in the glory of the Father’ (Mt 16:27). Similarly, in those found worthy, the Logos of God is transfigured to the degree to which each has advanced in holiness, and He comes to them with His angels in the glory of the Father. For the more spiritual principles in the Law and the prophets—symbolized by Moses and Elijah when they appeared with the Lord at His transfiguration—manifest their glory according to the actual receptive capacity of those to whom it is revealed.

16. He who to some degree has been initiated into the inner principle of the divine unity invariably discovers the inner principles of divine providence and judgment conjoined with it. That is why, like St Peter, he thinks it good that three tabernacles should be made within himself for those who have appeared to him (cf. Mt 17:4). These tabernacles represent three stages of salvation, namely that of virtue, that of spiritual knowledge and that of theology. The first requires fortitude and self-restraint [σωφροσύνη] in the practice of the virtues: of this the type was Elijah. The second requires right discernment in natural contemplation: Moses disclosed this in his own person. The third requires consummate perfection of wisdom: this was revealed by the Lord. They were called tabernacles, or temporary dwellings, because beyond them are other still more excellent and splendid stages, through which those found worthy will pass in the age to be.

Finally, Victor-Antoine d'Avila-Latourrette, OSB, in his charming little book, A Monastic Year: Reflections from a Monastery (Dallas: Taylor, 1996), reminds us:

In the Eastern Christian tradition, the feast of the Transfiguration is also the feast of the harvest. On this day Eastern Christians keep the old custom of rendering thanks to the Lord of the harvest by bringing to the church and offering him their first vegetables, fruits, herbs, and flowers. Here in the monastery, after the Liturgy we have the traditional blessing of the produce of our garden. This is a symbol of the earth itself being made new by the presence of Christ, rendering in homage its first fruits to its Lord and Master. (p. 128)

18 August 2009

Manuel Chrysoloras on the Imagination & Art

I’m dealing with questions about the imagination in my thesis, and I thought this was an interesting statement by Manuel Chrysoloras (1355-1415), ‘the first man to give regular lectures on Greek in Italy’ (L.D. Reynolds and N.G. Wilson, Scribes & Scholars: A Guide to the Transmission of Greek & Latin Literature, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Oxford U, 1974), p. 131. Writing from Rome in 1411, Chrysoloras answers the question, ‘What is the reason we admire an artistic representation more than the thing itself?’ (Epist. 3., PG 156, 57; in Cyril Mango, trans., The Art of the Byzantine Empire, 312-1453: Sources and Documents [Englewood Cliffs, NY: Prentice Hall, 1972], p. 255):

‘It is that in images we are admiring the beauty not of bodies, but of the maker’s mind. For, as it happens with well-molded wax, he receives through his eyes an image (typos) onto the imaginative part of his soul (to phantastikon tês psychês) and then imprints it on stone, wood, bronze or on pigments; for just as every man’s soul disposes its body (which has many weaknesses) in such a way that its disposition—be it sorrow, joy or anger—is visible in the body; so does the artist by means of artful simulation fashion the stubborn and hard substance of stone, bronze or pigments—a substance that is alien and unrelated—and makes the emotions of the soul visible in these [materials].’

17 August 2009

A Play of St Constantine

I’ve just begun reading Dorothy Sayers’s play, The Emperor Constantine: A Chronicle (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1976), about St Constantine the Great and the Council of Nicaea. The play was written for a festival at Colchester (named for ‘old King Coel’, traditionally the grandfather of St Constantine). In the Preface, Sayers introduces St Constantine with a passage remarkably level-headed for a non-Orthodox treatment of the man who ended the persecution of Christianity:

The first Christian Emperor was thus, in the economy of Providence, the instrument whereby Christendom was brought face to face with two problems which have not yet found their full resolution: the exterior relations between Church and State; the interor relation between orthodox and heretic with the Church. It has long been fashionable to lay the blame on Constantine for the corruptions incidental to any alliance of the spiritual and temporal powers—for the rise of secularism and institutionalism within the City of God—for the unedifying spectacle of a Church compromising on the one hand with the world and on the other hand employing the arm of the State to police and persecute her own dissident members. But such criticism is scarcely helpful. The problem of power is not to be evaded; the changes were in the nature of things inevitable, and would have come about in course of time, if not by Constantine then by some other means. If the Gospel was to be ‘preached unto every creature’, then Christianity must some day cease to be the cult of a minority, and the power of purse and sword must eventually come into Christian hands—as indeed the Lord Himself had told His disciples that they must. And sooner or later the Church must needs use her intellect to define her faith, lest identity be lost, and the truth once delivered to the Saints be merged in the welter of Gnostic and semi-pagan cults which proliferated upon the decaying remnants of Hellenistic philosophy and the old religions. (pp. 5-6)

I would also commend Sayers for her detailed and down-to-earth account of how well her play gels with history, an account that contrasts markedly with the dramatic and misleading notes prefacing the sadly overrated novels of that hack, Dan Brown:

The outline of the main events is . . . faithful to history and tradition, and the substance, if not the form, of the great theological argument which ‘split the Church for an iota’ is that which was heard at Nicaea.

Of the two possible dates for the birth of Constantine I have, for dramatic convenience, chosen the later (see A.H.M. Jones, Constantine and the Conversion of Europe, pp. 1-2). The prayer issued for use by the army (Act I, Sc. 3) is historical, though connected with a later campaign. Historical, too, is Constantine’s letter to the bishops in Act II, Sc. 7, as also his speec to the Council, and the letter from Arius to Eusebius of Nicomedia, in Act III, Sc. 5. The song sung by the Fishmonger’s Boy in Act III, Scs. 2 and 3 is a (very) free adaptation from the Thalia—a popular poem composed by Arius and sung to ‘the tune of a bawdy song’. That Fausta accused Crispin of attempted incest was alleged by the later historians to explain the double murder; but the suggestion that this accusation was part of a plot to dethrone Constantine is my own, and I have put back the date usually given for the execution of Licinius by a few months in order to tie up the ends of the plot more neatly. Similarly, to make the action more compact, I have caused Constantine to be baptized upon his death-bed, although in fact the ceremony took place a few days earlier, in a church near Nicomedia. The characters of Togius and Matibena have no historical foundation, neither has the prophecy spoken by Coel. (p. 8)

Contrast this with Brown's, 'Fact: All descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents, and secret rituals in this novel are accurate. The Priory of Sion, a European secret society founded in 1099, is a real organization.'

16 August 2009

Two St Augustine Biographies

As an ardent admirer of the Confessions of St Augustine (see this post, where I quote Fr Seraphim’s reference to the ‘profound repentance, warmth of heart, and genuine Orthodox piety that shine through every page of the justly-renowned Confessions of Augustine’), I was well chuffed this week to acquire at local used bookshops two top-notch books on the life of this renowned Father of the Church: Garry Wills’s contribution to the Penguin Lives series, Saint Augustine: A Penguin Life (NY: Lipper/Viking, 1999), and a reprint of the classic biography, Augustine of Hippo by Peter Brown (NY: Dorset, 1986).

I was already well disposed toward Catholic historian Garry Wills, having read not only his introduction to and translation of Book 8 of the ConfessionsSaint Augustine’s Conversion, trans. Garry Wills (NY: Viking, 2004)—but also his study of Thomas Jefferson and slavery, Negro President: Thomas Jefferson and the Slave Power (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2003). While many consider the latter too rambling and not focused enough on Jefferson, I quite enjoyed it, and learned far more about the first forty years or so of American history than I ever had before in my life. In the intro to the Confessions 8 translation, I was thrilled to discover Wills arguing against those scholars of the past 150 years who have argued that essentially the entire story of St Augustine’s famous ‘conversion’ is a mere literary device (see pp. 3-41). Adding to my determination to buy the book however (a mere $5.98 at Half-Price Books), was the enthusiastic recommendation I was given by the inimitable Esteban Vázquez, whose injunction to ‘close the deal’ turned a back-of-my-mind intention into a major priority. I already see good things in the biography, such as the response to the overly Freudian interpretations of the bath scene in Conf. 2.6 on pp. xvii-xix, or Wills’s closing words, to which I was irresistibly tempted to turn:

Yet it is appropriate that he died surrounded by the laboriously traced words of Scripture. He had, all his life, been building a palace of words in which he lived, this antirhetorical rhetorician who yet saw the divine Word reflected in every word men speak or write (or even mentally formulate), a man who loved words too well, perhaps, indulging them as they frisked from him in catchy ways, curling back around and through each other, carrying heavy loads of meaning at times, or else just bubbling up in self-indulgent echoes or assonance, yet reaching us—all those words, profound or playful—with an extraordinary immediacy, even today. . . (pp. 144-5)

As for Peter Brown, I think at some point I determined to purchase any used copies of any of his books I came across at a reasonable price. This was partly a result of the incessant citations I’ve noticed of his seminal article, ‘The Rise and Function of the Holy Man in Late Antiquity’, Journal of Roman Studies 61 (1971), pp. 80-101, and partly of the passing reference to ‘Peter Brown, whose luscious prose I and so many others have enjoyed with delight’ in the Preface to Et Introibo ad Altare Dei: The Mystagogy of Dionysius Areopagites with Special Reference to Its Predecessors in the Eastern Christian Tradition by Fr Alexander (Golitzin) (Thessalonica: Patriarchal Institute for Patristic Studies, 1994), p. 7.

I’m sure that somewhere I’ve seen something referring specifically to Brown’s St Augustine biography, but at the moment I can’t remember what it would have been. Anyway, when I saw it on the shelf—a bit steep for me at $14.50—it immediately took its place as the top priority in the lengthening mental list of books I wanted from 30 Penn Books (a delightfully ramshackle shop a couple of miles away, on the West side of my alma mater). Here is Frank Kermode’s blurb on the back jacket:

A masterly book. Mr Brown’s aim seems to have been to make available to the common reader, not merely facts and opinions and historical contexts, but a sense of their relation to the way we live now. He does so with elegance and with vast but unobtrusive scholarship. Mr Brown communicates with unhurried power a sense of the quality of life at the end of the fourth century, and a sense of the powerful relevance of those faded controversies. Above all, one grows clearer about the genius of Augustine.

Opening the book randomly, in imitation of St Augustine’s famous reading of St Paul in Conf. 8, and reading ‘the first words on which my eye fell’, I found this, on p. 255:

But, above all, there is Augustine’s amazing power of integration. He could communicate to perfection the basic idea of the ‘Word’ in the Bible, as an organic whole. His beautiful sermons on the Psalms are quite unique in Patristic literature. For, for Augustine, each Psalm had a ‘single body of feeling that vibrates in every syllable’ (Enarr. in Ps. 70, I). Each Psalm, therefore, could be presente as a microcosm of the whole Bible—the clear essence of Christianity refracted in the exotic spectrum of the Hebrew poem. Augustine seldom wanders: he ‘unwinds’ (Enarr. in Ps. 147, 2 and 23). A single incident, the juxtaposition of Christ and John the Baptist—is ‘unravelled’, so that the associations of John’s statement ‘He must grow and I must diminish’ spread throughout the whole Bible and come to be reflected in the rhythm of the seasons: ‘There are many things that could be said about S. John the Baptist, but I would never be finished with telling you, nor you with listening. Now let me round it off in a nutshell. Man must be humbled, God must be exalted’ (Guelf. 22, 5, [Misc. Agostin., i, p. 515]).

This sense of the particular incident as the vehicle through which an organic whole can find expression accounts for the beauty of Augustine’s exegesis. For, as in the incidents of his own life in the Confessions, significance suddenly comes to light on a tiny detail. The Father of the Prodigal Son ‘falls upon his shoulders’: it is Christ placing His yoke on the Christian, and in a flash we see the incident as Rembrandt would see it; every line of the heavy figure of the old man charged with meaning. ‘In some sense or other, Importance is derived from the immanence of infinitude in the finite’ (A. Whitehead, Modes of Thought, 1938, p. 28).

15 August 2009

'All the Music of the Universe'—St Gregory of Nyssa on Music

This is a passage which I first read in the liner notes to a cd of Serbian monks singing Byzantine chant in Slavonic that I bought at Hilandar. When we finally came back to the States, I tracked down the book it came from and bought it, if only so I would have this quote in its context. From St Gregory of Nyssa, Commentary on the Inscriptions of the Psalms, trans. Casimir McCambley, OCSO (Brookline, MA: Hellenic College, n.d.):

If the entire world is a kind of musical harmony whose artisan and creator is God as the Apostle says (Heb. 11:10), then man is a microcosm, an imitator of Him who made the world. The divine plan for the world at large sees this image in what is small, for the part is indeed the same as the whole. Similarly, a piece of small, transparent stone reflects like a mirror the entire sun’s orb in the same way a small object reflects God’s light. Thus I say that in the microcosm, man’s nature, all the music of the universe is analogously seen in the whole through the particular inasmuch as the whole is contained by the particular. The structure of our body’s organs follows this example, for nature has skillfully constructed it to produce music. Observe the tube-like structure of the windpipe and the harp of the palate where the tongue and mouth resemble a lyre with chord and a plectrum.

Since everything natural is compatable [sic] with nature, music too is in accord with our human nature. For this reason the great David combined his singing with his teaching on the virtues and sprinkled his lofty teachings with honey’s sweetness by which he carefully examines himself and cures our human nature. This cure is a harmonious life which to me the singing seems to offer through symbols. (p. 29)

I thought this passage rather remarkable, and find it difficult to forget when I am in church, hearing or participating in the chanting (though of course, it has implications for music as a whole that we would do well to consider). I also find St Gregory’s reference to the Psalms as the Prophet David’s ‘teaching on the virtues’ an enlightening and fruitful way to go about reading them.

14 August 2009

'As Deffe as Stok or Ston'—The OED on Stocks & Stones

Thanks to Jason Fisher’s comment, and Kevin Edgecomb’s kindness in sending me the OED article on the word ‘stock’, I’ve been inspired and enabled to do a bit more research on this ‘stock and stone’ thing. Under the first definition of ‘stock’ in the OED, ‘A tree-trunk deprived of its branches; the lower part of a tree-trunk left standing, a stump’, the earliest use listed of ‘stock’ with ‘stone’ is that of the 15th Blickling Homily (971), where, speaking of Simon Magus, the homilist tells us, He ᵹefeol on þone stocc be þære stænenan stræte þe is háten Sacra uia, ‘And he fell on the stock by the stone street called Sacra via’ (for reasons I can’t figure out, R. Morris in his translation renders stocc as ‘scaffolding’, The Blickling Homilies, trans. R. Morris [Cambridge, ON: In parentheses, 2000], p. 95). Of course, in this passage there is no logical connection between the two, that is, they are not being listed together as two things of a type.

Another use, specifically as in the Heimskringla in connection with idolatry, is also quite early however. As Jason Fisher pointed out, in the translation of Deuteronomy 28:36 by Ælfric of Eynsham, we read, ᵹe þeouiað fremdum godum, stoccum and stanum, ‘thou shalt serve other gods, stock and stone’. In this verse, the KJV has ‘wood and stone’, but uses ‘stock and stone’ in similar contexts in Jeremiah 3:9 (‘And it came to passe thorow the lightnes of her whoredome, that shee defiled the land, and committed adultery with stones and with stockes’) and Wisdom of Solomon 14:21 (‘And this was an occasion to deceiue the world: for men seruing either calamitie or tyrannie, did ascribe vnto stones, and stockes, the incommunicable Name’). Mr Fisher points out the Hebrew phrase in Deuteronomy is otz u•abn, which Kevin transliterates in his comment below as etz wa-aben (a comment I highly recommend for some historical information on the worship of ‘stocks and stones’ in the Old Testament). However, the latter adds that the wording in Jeremiah uses a definite article, indicating abstraction, so it becomes, et-ha-aben wa-et-ha-etz. Wisdom of Solomon, of course, is only in Greek, so the wording is λίθοις καὶ ξύλοις. So basically, it seems to me, any of these could just as well be translated ‘stock and stone’.

On the subject of translations, I discovered that Tolkien, who—as we saw—echoed the same poet’s Pearl with cognate terms in The Lord of the Rings, actually avoided a cognate in his translation of Sir Orfeo in order to use the ‘stock and stone’ pair. Where line 346 in the original has ‘He no spard noither stub no ston’, Tolkien has, ‘for stock nor stone he stayed his tread’ (Sir Gawain & the Green Knight, Pearl, and Sir Orfeo, trans. J.R.R. Tolkien [NY: Ballantine, 1980], p. 142). Clearly, the phrase is a favourite of Tolkien’s!

It is not merely in biblical contexts, however, that the phrase is used in reference to idolatry. In the mid-14th-c. Troilus and Criseyde III.589-90, Chaucer writes, ‘He swor hire yis, by stokkes and by stones, / And by the goddes that in hevene dwelle’ (The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer, 2nd ed., ed. F.N. Robinson [Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1961], p. 427). In the 13th-c. Laȝamon’s Brut, l. 626, on the other hand, the pair—while connected in meaning—has nothing to do with idolatry. In the description of King Pandrasus’s assault on Brutus’s ‘castle’, we read, Mid stocken & mid stanen stal fiht heo makeden [this is the text in MS. Cott. Calig. A. IX), ‘[W] ith stocks and with stones they made fierce conflict’ (Laȝamons Brut, or Chronicle of Britain; A Poetical Semi-Saxon Paraphrase of the Brut of Wace, Vol. 1, ed. and trans. Sir Frederic Madden, K.H. [London: Society of Antiquaries of London, 1847], p. 27).

Interestingly, the OED also cites John Lydgate’s 1407 work, Reson and Sensuallyte 6411, where we find the line ‘As deffe as stok or ston’. Although Lydgate is not referring specifically to idolatry, one is easily reminded of Psalm 135:15-18 (KJV):

The idoles of the heathen are silver and gold: the worke of mens hands.
They have mouths, but they speake not: eyes have they, but they see not:
They have eares, but they heare not: neither is there any breath in their mouthes.
They that make them are like unto them: so is every one that trusteth in them.

In conclusion, here are some lovely photos of a group of people in modern-day Russia to whom these words would apply.