30 November 2009

'They Do Their Homage to the Saint'—St Hilda of Whitby


Today, 17 November on the Church’s calendar, we celebrated the memory of St Hilda of Whitby (c. 614–680), perhaps the most renowned woman Saint of Anglo-Saxon England. A disciple of the great St Aidan of Lindisfarne, she is most famous as the eldress of two monasteries—one for men and one for women—at Whitby (Yorkshire) in northern England, and as an important figure in the Synod of Whitby (663) which decided between the Roman and Celtic dates for Pascha. Here is the account of St Hilda’s life from the Thyateira Diocese website (here):

Abbess of Whitby. Born in Northumbria in 614; died at Whitby in 680.

Hilda was a grandniece of King Edwin of Northumbria and daughter of Hereric. Hild is her correct name and means ‘battle’. Both she and her uncle were baptized by Saint Paulinus at York in 627, when she was 13....

She lived the life of a noblewoman until 20 years later she decided to join her sister Saint Hereswitha at the Chelles Monastery as a nun in France. In 649, Saint Aidan requested that she return to Northumbria as abbess of the double monastery (with both men and women, in separate quarters) in Hartlepool by the River Wear.

After some years Saint Hilda migrated as abbess to the double monastery of Whitby at Streaneshalch, which she governed for the rest of her life. Among her subject monks were Bishop Saint John of Beverly, the herdsman Caedmon (the first English religious poet), Bishop Saint Wilfrid of York, and three other bishops.

At the conference she convened in 664 at Whitby abbey to decide between Celtic and Roman ecclesiastical customs, Saint Hilda supported the Celtic party. Nevertheless, she and her communities adhered to the decision of the Council of Whitby to observe the Roman rule and customs. Her influence was certainly one of the decisive factors in securing unity in the English Church.

Hilda became known for her spiritual wisdom and her monastery for the calibre of its learning and its nuns. Saint Bede is enthusiastic in his praise of Abbess Hilda, one of the greatest Englishwomen of all time: she was the adviser of rulers as well as of ordinary folk; she insisted on the study of Holy Scripture and on proper preparation for the priesthood; the influence of her example of peace and charity extended beyond the walls of her monastery; 'all who knew her called her Mother, such were her wonderful godliness and grace'.

Saint Hilda is represented in art holding Whitby Abbey in her hands with a crown on her head or at her feet. Sometimes she is shown (1) turning serpents into stone; (2) stopping the wild birds from ravaging corn at her command; or (3) as a soul being carried to heaven by the angels.


In Ecclesiastical History IV.23, the Venerable Bede records the following about St Hilda (The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, trans. Bertram Colgrave, ed. Judith McClure & Roger Collins [Oxford: Oxford, 1994], pp. 212-3):

All who knew Hild, the handmaiden of Christ and abbess, used to call her mother because of her outstanding devotion and grace. She was not only an example of holy life to all who were in the monastery but she also provided an opportunity for salvation and repentance to many who lived far away and who heard the happy story of her industry and virtue. This was bound to happen in fulfillment of the dream which her mother Breguswith had during the child's infancy. While her husband Hereric was living in exile under the British king Cerdic, where he was poisoned, Breguswith had a dream that he was suddenly taken away, and though she searched most earnestly for him, no trace of him could be found anywhere. But suddenly, in the midst of her search, she found a most precious necklace under her garment and, as she gazed closely at it, it seemed to spread such a blaze of light that it filled all Britain with its gracious splendour. This dream was truly fulfilled in her daughter Hild; for her life was an example of the works of light, blessed not only to herself but to many who desired to live uprightly.


A great monastic legislator in her day, St Bede tells us that St Hilda ‘established the same Rule of life’ as in an earlier monastery she had led, teaching the monastics ‘to observe strictly the virtues of justice, devotion, and chastity and other virtues too, but above all things to continue in peace and charity’ as well as ‘the study of the holy Scriptures’ and ‘the performance of good works’ (p. 211). She is also noted for her patronage of the early English poet, St Cædmon, who was one of her many spiritual children. Furthermore, according to Dorothy Neuhofer’s In the Benedictine Tradition: The Origins & Early Development of Two College Libraries (Lanham, MD: UP of America, 1999), p. 22:

Under Hilda, the Abbey of Whitby, considered the greatest monastic house in northeast England, became a noted center of learning. Hilda herself took great interest in furthering the study of literature. Whitby’s library reputedly was rich in humanistic literature, reflecting her intellectual interests.


While Whitby may not yet have been Benedictine under St Hilda, Leonard von Matt and Dom Stephan Hilpisch, OSB, note that the unique monasticism in early mediaeval England ‘became the prototype of monastic culture [in the West]. Schools, scholarship and the arts were at home in the monastery. Freedom of the spirit; a noble humanity; a wide intellectual outlook were part of the piety’ (Saint Benedict, trans. Dom Ernest Graf, OSB [Chicago: Henry Regnery, 1961], p. 149). Thus it is not surprising that, as Butler says, ‘The monastery of men at Streaneshalch [Whitby], became a nursery of holy and learned prelates; and out of it St Bosa, St Hedda, Ostfor, St John of Beverley, and St Wilfrid were raised to the Episcopal dignity.’ It has been noted (here) as a typical example of the ‘continuing functioning of cloistered royal women . . . in the broader field of the relationship between kings and the Church.’

Although St Bede is the primary source for St Hilda’s life, according to this book there is an interesting anonymous verse life of the Saint dating to the later Middle Ages, based on St Bede but incorporating other traditions about her later picked up by Sir Walter Scott in his narrative poem (which I've quote previously here) ‘Marmion’, Canto II, xvi (The Poetical Works of Sir Walter Scott [Boston: James R. Osgood & Co., 1878], p. 55):

They told . . .
. . . how, of thousand snakes, each one
Was changed into a coil stone,
When holy Hilda prayed:
Themselves, within their holy bound,
Their stony folds had often found.
They told how sea-fowls’ pinions fail,
As over Whitby’s towers they sail,
And, sinking down, with flutterings faint,
They do their homage to the saint.

My own edition of Scott lacks his notes on the poem, but the note on this passage—which I found here—reads:

These two miracles are much insisted upon by all ancient writers who have occasion to mention either Whitby or St Hilda. The relics of the snakes which infested the precincts of the convent, and were, at the abbess’s prayer, not only beheaded, but petrified, are still found about the rocks, and are termed by Protestant fossilists, Ammonitae.

The other miracle is thus mentioned by Camden: ‘It is also ascribed to the power of her sanctity, that these wild geese, which, in the winter, fly in great flocks to the lakes and rivers unfrozen in the southern parts, to the great amazement of every one, fall down suddenly upon the ground, when they are in their flight over certain neighbouring fields hereabouts: a relation I should not have made, if I had not received it from several credible men. But those who are less inclined to heed superstition, attribute it to some occult quality in the ground, and to somewhat of antipathy between it and the geese, such as they say is betwixt wolves and scyllaroots: For that such hidden tendencies and aversions, as we call sympathies and antipathies, are implanted in many things by provident Nature for the preservation of them, is a thing so evident that everybody grants it.’ Mr Charlton, in his History of Whitby, points out the true origin of the fable, from the number of sea-gulls that, when flying from a storm, often alight near Whitby; and from the woodcocks, and other birds of passage, who do the same upon their arrival on shore, after a long flight.


St Hilda’s original monastery at Whitby was, of course, destroyed by the Danes. Thus, D’Anvers tells us, ‘Her memory will ever be associated with the ruins of the Abbey at Whitby, although, as a matter of fact, they belong to a building with which she had nothing to do; a Benedictine monastery founded in the eleventh century.’ This Norman abbey, was rebuilt by William de Percy ‘for Benedictin monks, in which state it continued till the suppression of monasteries’ (Butler), when it was reduced to the present ruin. The ruins, and indeed the entire town, were made most famous perhaps by Dracula, when Mina Murray writes in her journal entry of 24 July (Bram Stoker, The Annotated Dracula, ed. Leonard Wolf [NY: Clarkson N. Potter, 1975], p. 65):

Right over the town is the ruin of Whitby Abbey, which was sacked by the Danes, and which is the scene of part of ‘Marmion’, where the girl was built up in the wall. It is a most noble ruin, of immense size, and full of beautiful and romantic bits; there is a legend that a white lady is seen in one of the windows.


According to Leonard Wolf, the ‘white lady’ is ‘The shade of St Hilda, daughter of the abbey’s founder [St Oswy]. According to some versions of the legend, St Hilda, carrying her lamp, showed herself, on particularly stormy nights, in the northern windows of the abbey to guide seamen safe to shore’ (p. 67, n. 6).

More recently, the young adult novel Shadowmancer (Lake Mary, FL: Charisma House, 2004), by G.P. Taylor, is also set in Whitby, and incorporates much of the local folklore. The final chapter is set amongst the Norman abbey ruins, which are depicted on the dust jacket.

In conclusion, there is a lovely Service to St Hilda by Reader Isaac Lambertsen here, at Orthodox England. I close with the Kontakion in Tone 6 and the Ikos of the Canon at Matins:

Kontakion, in Tone VI—
As the waves of the North Sea wash the strands of Whitby, O venerable Hilda, so let thy supplications wash over our sins, which are more than the sands of the sea, to sink them in the unfathomable depths of the mercy of God. As one who standeth with great boldness before the throne of Christ the King of kings, intercede for us now, that by thine entreaties we may find a place at His right hand.

Ikos: Heated and annealed in the furnace of burning fevers, and forged by repeated blows from the hammer of affliction, O Hilda, thou wast finely wrought by God into a mighty weapon through adversity, the steel of thy soul, thus tempered, forming an unbreakable blade to pierce the heart of the prince of this world and to fell his vile hordes, the implacable foes of our salvation. Wherefore, as we do battle against the enemy, grant that we may wield thy mediation as a sword, O venerable one, to parry the thrusts of the adversary and prevail over them, that saved by thine entreaties, we may find a place at the Lord's right hand.

29 November 2009

'The Great Church Poet of the Desert of Gaul'—St Eucherius of Lyon


Today, 16 November on the Church’s calendar, we celebrated the memory of St Eucherius, Bishop of Lyon (449). Fr Seraphim (Rose) refers to him as a ‘disciple of St Honoratus [of Lérins]’ (‘Introduction to Orthodox Gaul’, Vita Patrum: The Life of the Fathers, by St Gregory of Tours, trans. Hieromonk Seraphim [Rose] & Paul Bartlett [Platina, CA: St Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 1988], p. 110), and St John Cassian dedicates Book II of his Conferences to the two Saints (The Conferences, by St John Cassian, trans. Boniface Ramsey, OP [NY: Newman, 1997], p. 399):

1. . . . Yet you, O holy brothers Honoratus and Eucherius, are so on fire with the praise of those sublime men from whom we received the first institutes of the anchorite life that in fact one of you, who presides over a large cenobium of brothers, desires his community, which is taught by daily gazing upon your holy way of life, to be instructed as well in the precepts of these fathers. The other wished to come to Egypt in order to be edified by the bodily presence of those same men, thus quitting this province that is as it were sluggish with the numbness of a Gallic frost in order, like the most chaste turtledove, to fly over those lands upon which the sun of righteousness looks so closely and which are overflowing with the ripe fruit of virtue. 2. The virtue of love could not help but wring this out of me, so that in considering the desire of the one and the effort of the other I would not escape the difficult danger of writing, as long as to the first there might be added authority among his sons and from the second there might be removed the obligation of a dangerous voyage.

It seems that St Eucherius was the second of these, and never made it to Egypt. Instead, he came to the point where he could say of the world’s deserts, ‘. . . I honor my own Lérins above all’ (‘In Praise of the Desert: A Letter to Bishop Hilary of Lérins’, trans. Charles Cummings, OCSO, rev. Jeffrey Burton Russell, The Lives of the Jura Fathers, trans. Tim Vivian, Kim Vivian, & Jeffrey Burton Russell [Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian, 1999], p. 197). As Fr Seraphim has noted, ‘St Eucherius, clearly, took the words of St Cassian to heart. Not only did he not go to Egypt, but he also became the great church poet of the desert of Gaul’ (p. 110). Here is the brief account of his life in Wace’s Dictionary of Christian Biography & Literature (here):

Born in a high social position, he married Galla, a lady of his own station. Their two sons, Salonius and Veranius, received an ecclesiastical education in the monastery of Lerinum under St. Honoratus and Salvanius; and both, appear, from the title of the commentary on Kings, falsely ascribed to Eucherius, to have become bishops during the lifetime of their father.

The civic duties of Eucherius (whatever they were) appear to have been discharged conscientiously and vigorously. Sidonius Apollinaris is loud in the praise of his friend as a layman, and compares him (Ep. viii.) to the Bruti and Torquati of old. But the world, then in a very turbulent and unsettled condition, palled upon Eucherius, and while still in the vigour of life he sought a retreat from its cares and temptations on the island of Lerinum, the smaller of the two isles now known as the Lérins, off Antibes; and subsequently on the larger one of Lero, now called Sainte Marguerite. Here he pursued an ascetic life of study and worship, devoting himself also to the education of his children. During this period he composed the two undoubtedly genuine works which we possess.

Intercourse, both personal and by correspondence, with eminent ecclesiastics tended to make widely known his deserved reputation for sanctity and for a varied and considerable learning, and c. 434 the church of Lyons unanimously, unsought, elected him bishop. He brought to the discharge of this office the influence and experience acquired in lay government, as well as the spiritual training and erudition won in his retirement. He was bishop some 16 years, the remainder of his life, and Claudianus Mamertus speaks of him as ‘magnorum sui saeculi pontificum longe maximus’. He was succeeded by his son Veranius, while Geneva became the see of his other son Salonius.

Fr Seraphim quotes (on pp. 111-3) a lengthy passage from St Eucherius’s ‘In Praise of the Desert’—the chief example of his work as ‘the great church poet of the desert of Gaul’. Here I shall offer a small portion of it, taken from Cummings’s translation (which I cited above):

37. How pleasant is the solitude of a remote place to those who thirst for God! How attractive for those who seek Christ are those solitary lands stretching in every direction under protecting nature. All things are silent there, and the joyful mind is spurred on by silence in its search for God, finding nourishment in ineffable ecstasies. No sound is heard in the desert save the voice of God. Only that sound that is sweeter than silence, the holy activity of a moderate and holy way of life, breaks into the state of quiet peace, while only the sound of the desert outpost interrupts the silence. Then with sweetly resounding hymns the eager choirs ring in heaven itself, and the choir reaches heaven as much with voices as with prayers. (St Eucherius, p. 211)

Another profound work of St Eucherius is his De contemptu mundi (Wace gives the full title as ‘Epistola Paraenetica ad Valerianum cognatum. "De contemptu mundi et saecularis philosophiae."’) which Gennadius describes as ‘written in a style which shows sound learning and reasoning’ (here). According to the editor at the St Pachomius Library, ‘The work of the brilliant Cavalier poet and mystical visionary Henry Vaughan the Silurist, [St Eucherius’s] ‘The World Contemned’ was the first part of a spiritual anthology called Flores Solitudinis, which Vaughan had hoped would trigger a monastic revival in the Church of England’ (here). Here is a wonderful passage from this work:

But seeing we are fallen into a discourse of the frailty of temporal things, let us not forget the frail condition of this short life. What is it, I beseech you, what is it? Men see nothing more frequently then death, and mind nothing more seldom. Mankind is by a swift mortality quickly driven into the West, or setting point of life, and all posterity by the unalterable law of succeeding ages and generations follow after. Our fathers went hence before us; we shall go next, and our children must after. As streams of water falling from on high, the one still following the other, do in successive circles break and terminate at the banks; so the appointed times and successions of men are cut off at the boundary of death. This consideration should take up our thoughts both night and day; this memorial of our frail condition should keep us still awake. Let us always think the time of our departure to be at hand; for the day of death, the further we put it off, comes the faster, and is by so much the nearer to us. Let us suspect it to be near, because we know not how far! Let us, as the Scripture saith, ‘Make plain our ways before us’ (Isaiah 28:25).

If we make this the business of our thoughts, and meditate still upon it, we shall not be frighted with the fear of death. Blessed and happy are all you who have already reconciled yourselves unto Christ! No great fear of death can disturb them, who desire to be dissolved that they may be with Christ; who in the silence of their own bosoms, quietly, and long since prepared for it, expect the last day of their pilgrimage here. They care not much how soon they end this temporal life, that pass from it into life eternal.

28 November 2009

'His Mind Was Always United with God in Love'—St Paisius Velichkovsky


Today, 15 November on the Church’s calendar, we celebrate the memory of the Holy Paisius (Velichkovsky) of Moldavia and Mt Athos (1794). Most well known perhaps as the tireless translator of various texts of the Philokalia into Slavonic, St Paisius is famously mentioned by Dostoevsky in The Brothers Karamazov, where the great novelist writes that the institution of monastic eldership ‘was revived again in our country at the end of the last century by one of the great ascetics (as he is known), Paissy Velichkovsky, and his disciples’ (The Brothers Karamazov, trans. Richard Pevear & Larissa Volokhonsky [NY: Vintage, 1991], p. 27). Fr Sergius Chetverikov describes his greatness thusly (qtd. in Bishop Seraphim [Joantă], Romania: Its Hesychast Culture & Tradition [Wildwood, CA: St Xenia Skete, 1992], p. 101):

In his person were united in an admirable synthesis personal sanctity, devotion to Orthodoxy, a remarkable aptitude for organizing coenobitic communities, the art of attracting to himself and spiritually forming numerous disciples, and thus creating around himself great schools of asceticism, and, finally, a true literary talent.

In his ‘Introduction’ to Blessed Paisius Velichkovsky: The Man Behind the Philokalia, by Schemamonk Metrophanes, trans. Hieromonk Seraphim (Rose) (Platina, CA: St Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 1994), Fr Seraphim observes:

. . . [F]or Orthodox Christians of the 20th century there is no more important Holy Father of recent times than Blessed Paisius Velichkovsky. This is so not merely because of his holy life; not merely because, like another Saint Gregory Palamas, he defended the hesychast practice of the mental Prayer of Jesus; not only because he, through his many disciples, inspired the great monastic revival of the 19th century which flowered most notably in the holy Elders of Optina Monastery; but most of all because he redirected the attention of Orthodox Christians to the sources of Holy Orthodoxy, which are the only foundation of true Orthodox life and thought whether of the past or of the present, whether of monks or of laymen. (p. 13)

St Paisius’s disciple, Schemamonk Metrophanes, produced the most moving encomium of him in the following passage (The Life of Paisij Velyčkovs’kyj, trans. J.M.E. Featherstone [Cambridge, MA: Harvard U, 1989], p. 148):

In his teaching, his maintenance of a community, his spiritual struggles, his labors beyond human endurance, his wisdom and divine understanding, his counsel, his discernment, and his other gifts from God, our blessed father was in every way like the pious fathers of old and all those who have come after them. He was adorned with all virtues, external and internal, even as the holy fathers of old. His face was radiant like that of an angel of God, his appearance gentle, his speech humble and without boldness. He greeted all with love; he answered with piety; he was filled with goodness; he was always inclined to mercy; he attracted all to himself even as a magnet attracts iron. His humility and meekness were profound. He was forbearing in all things. In every way was this great man godly and full of grace. His mind was always united with God in love, to which his tears bore witness. Whenever he spoke of theology, his heart was flooded with love, his face shone with gladness, and tears poured forth from his eyes in confirmation of the truth. Whenever we stood before him our eyes never tired of the sight of him: we desired insatiably to look upon him; nor were our ears ever stopped with displeasure or tedium at his speech, for as I have already said, in the joy of our hearts we forgot ourselves. When we looked upon his face, we kept our ears always near his mouth, even as the Athenian philosophers of old did. For whenever they saw someone who excelled in wisdom, they desired to talk with him, and the eyes and ears of all were fixed upon him in their desire to hear some new bit of wisdom. How much more were our eyes fixed upon our blessed philosopher! For from his mouth we always heard new things concerning spiritual mysteries or the moral precepts of the God-bearing fathers.

Of course, not the least of his accomplishments were the many translations St Paisius and his disciples produced. As I have noted here, Dostoevsky was acquainted with the Saint through his translation of the homilies of St Isaac of Syria. Speaking of the importance of St Paisius’s work, Fr Georges Florovsky writes in Part 1 of his magnum opus, Ways of Russian Theology, trans. Robert L. Nichols (Belmont, MA: Nordland, 1979), p. 161:

Under Paisii’s guidance, Niamets monastery became a great literary center and a source of theological-ascetical enlightenment. This literary activity was organically link with spiritual and ‘intellectual construction’. . . . The message of spiritual concentration and wholeness possessed particular significance for that age of spiritual dualism and cleavage. Publication of the Slavonic-Russian edition of the Philokalia constituted a major event not only in the history of Russian monasticism but generally in the history of Russian culture. It was both an accomplishment and a catalyst.

Fr Florovsky also notes that St Paisius ‘did not retreat from or reject knowledge. His actions mark a return to the living sources of patristic theology and thinking about God’ (p. 160). Ultimately, while the Philokalia was published in Greek no later than Slavonic, it was the Slavophone hesychast revival under St Paisius that led to the discovery of the Fathers among Russian intellectuals and theologians, who in turn eventually influenced theologians in Greece beginning in the 1960s, leading to a boom of interest in the Fathers there and the repopulation of the Holy Mountain (Chrestos Yannaras, Orthodoxy & the West: Hellenic Self-Identity in the Modern Age, trans. Fr Peter Chamberas & Norman Russell [Brookline, MA: Holy Cross Orthodox, 2006], pp. 126-8).

Finally, I would like to offer a few words from the great Elder himself. First, here are two passages from his autobiography:

Within a little more than two years, with God’s assistance, I learned the Primer, the Book of Hours, and the Psalter, and straightway I began, with God’s help, to read other books with great facility; and from my elder brother, mentioned above, I learned to write after a short time of study at home. Between lessons, whenever I found free time, I read assiduously the books of the holy Scripture, the Old and the New Testaments, the Lives of the saints, the writings of St Ephrem and St Dorotheus, the Pearl of St John Chrysostom, and as many other books as were to be found in the aforementioned holy church; and from the reading of such holy books, especially the Lives of our pious fathers who pleased God in the holy and angelic monastic state, there began to grow in my soul a longing for withdrawal from the world and assumption of the holy monastic habit. (Featherstone, p. 5)

At the appropriate season the venerable superior of the hermitage, Father Dometij, assigned me the obedience of tending the hermitage’s vineyard, which was on level ground above the hermitage, at a distance of nearly one verst. He commanded me in no wise to dare eat any grapes until I had eaten at least a small piece of bread; but provided I ate the bread, he gave me his permission and blessing to eat as many grapes as I wished, before or after the daily meal. He did this for two reasons, firstly because grapes were few in the country where I was born, and I had scarcely ever had the chance to taste them, and secondly, out of indulgence to my weakness, for he realized that I had a great desire to eat grapes and that I could not get my fill of them. Having received his command and blessing, then, after eating a bit of bread, I ate grapes often, both before and after the meal, choosing the ones which grew sparsely, that is, not close together, for these were sweeter than the others. My passion for eating grapes came to such a pitch that I wanted no other food. When I went to the meal in the hermitage, I ate very little of anything else, but I ate grapes in abundance and with great relish. Having partaken of almost no other food that whole season until the harvest, I suffered no small illness of body, and my face grew thin as if from some disease. But after the harvest, when I ceased eating grapes and partook of the usual food with the brethren, I began to feel stronger day and night; and in a short time I was restored to my previous state of health. (Featherstone, pp. 82-3)

Finally, here is a passage taken from the Saint’s writings on the spiritual life (here):

Have you heard, my beloved soul, how the Holy Fathers spent their lives? O my soul! Imitate them at least a little.

Did they not have tears? O woe, my soul.

Were they not sorrowful, thin and worn out in body? O woe, my soul.

Did they not have bodily illnesses, great wounds and lamentation of soul with tears? O woe, my soul.

Were they not clothed in the same infirm body that we have? O woe, my soul!

Did they not have the desire for splendid, sweet and light repose in this world and every bodily repose?

Yes, they desired these things, and their bodies in truth were afflicted, but they exchanged their desires for patience and their grief for future joy. They cut off everything once and for all. They considered themselves as dead men, and tormented themselves mercilessly in spiritual labors. Do you see, my soul, how the Holy Fathers labored, having no repose and suffering every kind of evil? They subjected the flesh to the spirit and fulfilled all the other commandments of God, and were saved.

But you, O pitiful soul, do not at all wish to force yourself, and you grow faint from small labors, grow despondent and do not at all remember the hour of death and weep over your sins but you have become accustomed, my wretched soul, to eat to the fill, to drink to the fill and to be slothful. Do you not know that you are called voluntarily to torment? And yet you endure nothing. How then do you wish to be saved?

At least from this time forth, then: Arise, my beloved soul, and do what I shall tell you.

If you cannot labor as the Holy Fathers did, then at least begin according to your strength.

Serve everyone with humility and simplicity of heart; acknowledging your infirmity and belittling yourself, say: ‘Woe to thee, my wretched soul; woe to thee, vile one; woe to thee, O all-defiled one, slothful, careless, sleepy, cruel; woe to thee, who hast perished!’ And so, little by little it will come to tender-feeling, will shed tears, will come to itself and repent.

For more on St Paisius, see this brief article by the great Metropolitan Laurus of blessed memory.

27 November 2009

The Proper Observance of the Nativity Fast, or 'the Power of Wise Custom'


I am a sentimental fool of a sucker for Christmas, much like Esteban for The West Wing. The least little thing—a song, a bit of greenery, etc.—can set me off, longing to recapture the magic that I’ve felt on previous holidays. But, as readers may well surmise, I have become ever-increasingly annoyed with the ways in which Christmas is observed today in the United States, and more or less, I believe, in any part of the world that has fallen under US influence (I have touched on these problems here and here). Being in the Orthodox Church, and especially following the Old Calendar, helps me and my family to resist somewhat the ridiculous farce that Christmas has become in so much of our society, but of course there is still much to be negotiated. The Church does not hand us a complete list of Christmas rules telling us how to handle all of the little activities and ‘traditions’ that surround the holiday in the West and confront Orthodox Christians there. I’m not the first to address this problem—I highly recommend three short articles at the Orthodox Christian Information Center: ‘American Christmas & Orthodox Nativity’ by Archbishop Seraphim of Chicago (ROCOR) of blessed memory, ‘What Do You Do About Western Christmas?’ by Matushka Ann Lardas, and ‘Dealing with a Secularized Christmas’ from The Veil, a publication of the Protection of the Holy Virgin Orthodox Monastery. But I’ve spent a lot of time thinking and reading about this, and in addition to what these articles suggest I’d also like to suggest something more positive and extensive.

Last year, on the Feast of St Nicholas according to the Church’s calendar, I recommended a book by Joe Wheeler & Jim Rosenthal called St Nicholas: A Closer Look at Christmas (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2005). At the time, I simply observed that ‘it contains serious suggestions for how to make the holidays meaningful again by taking full advantage of the traditions Christians around the world have observed for centuries’. This year, I’d like to spell out a couple of those suggestions. I myself will be trying to follow them to the best of my abilities, and I urge Logismoi readers to do so as well.

First of all, following the lead of corporate retailers attempting to brainwash people into buying their junk by putting them in the ‘Christmas spirit’, I daresay the majority of Americans have begun decorating their homes for the holiday, including most prominently the erection and decoration of a tree, just after and sometimes even before Thanksgiving. This is not an old Christmas tradition, but a very modern one. In his masterful study, The Rise & Fall of Merry England: The Ritual Year 1400-1700 (Oxford: Oxford U, 1996), Ronald Hutton notes that ‘the first sign of the opening of the season of ceremony would have been the decorating of buildings with holly and ivy on or just before Christmas Eve’ (p. 5). It has been observed that festal decoration undermines the penitential spirit of what is usually called Advent in the West, and the Nativity Fast in the East. Thus, Wheeler & Rosenthal quote a book on the twelve days of Christmas by Elsa Chaney: ‘Families living close to the spirit of the liturgical season do not, on any account, set up the tree and other decorations ahead of time. They do not want to spoil the last lovely days of Advent longing and expectation by starting Christmas too early’ (qtd. in Wheeler & Rosenthal, p. 268). For these reasons—from tradition as well as to preserve the proper spirit of the season—I intend to wait until as close to the Nativity (Old Calendar) as I can manage before doing any decorating, with, I’ll add, one or two exceptions, on which more below. Fortunately, this often means that I can get a real Christmas tree either free or for a very low price!

Second, Wheeler & Rosenthal go even further than delayed decoration. In Chapter Ten, ‘A New Way to Celebrate Christmas’, they make the following admirable recommendation:

‘Beginning mid-November, pull the plugs . . . every evening: TV, videos, DVDs, radio, computer, telephone, even overhead lights.’

Each evening, instead of the dominance of our lives by electronic gadgetry, the family will gather together as a unit, beginning with a candle-lit dinner. If the telephone rings, the answering machine will pick up the messages. They can be answered later. We will not hurry but rather talk about whatever comes to mind. Share what happened during the day. After the dishes are cleaned—we’ll all help—we’ll take the lanterns and candelabra into the front room (or family room), and the fireplace will be the focal center of our lives until January 7 [20 January on the civil calendar for those who follow the Old Calendar]. First will be story hour. Afterward, there may be family music, followed by table games. Later on, some may prefer to read until bedtime.

Admittedly, such a regimen is incredibly difficult for most Americans to maintain in this day and age, and even as I advocate it, I realize that I myself am unlikely to keep it without any compromise whatever. But as an ideal to strive toward, I say it is very much worth considering. Matushka Lardas writes (here):

All around us are Christmas parties, at work, at school, in the neighborhood. While in the West, people used to observe Advent as a holy season like Lent, the most recent trend is to celebrate as much as possible before hand, with December 25th serving as the cut-off date, after which the tree is stripped and discarded, and the lights are unstrung. Our Lord's birth, when we celebrate it, goes almost as unnoticed as it did the first time.

It should be added that Wheeler & Rosenthal advocate beginning the season in mid-November because on the basis of Dutch traditions they consider this as the start of ‘St Nicholastide’. But as I noted in my post on St Martin of Tours, there is a very old tradition in the West of beginning a Nativity Fast just after Martinmas. Whatever the reason, this approach dovetails nicely with the beginning of the Orthodox Nativity Fast observed in the East. As Matushka Lardas points out, the entire period should be one of penitence, not frivolity. I feel holding off on the decorations is part of this, but so, as much as possible, are the other festive aspects of Christmas. For example, while I, as a faithful son of the Russian Church Abroad, do not abstain from beer during the Fast, I have found it more in keeping with its spirit to abstain until the Feast from all of the wonderful seasonal brews that one sees at this time of the year, many of them festively spiced and flavoured and thus more suitable for celebration than mere quotidian drinking.

Third, there are two bits of decoration that I will permit fairly early. Like many Orthodox Christians in the West, I intend to have an Advent wreath. Some, because the Nativity Fast begins in mid-November, use six candles for the six Sundays between the first day of the Fast and the day of the Feast. Personally, I plan to keep it simple and use four candles, waiting to begin lighting them until the fourth Sunday before the Feast, with the difference that I will begin on the fourth Sunday before the Feast on the Old Calendar—13 December on the civil calendar this year. The Advent wreath is certainly not an old Orthodox custom, or even an old Western Orthodox custom. Victor-Antoine d’Avila-Latourette, OSB, writes that it began in the early 16th c., perhaps even among Protestants (A Monastic Year: Reflections from a Monastery [Dallas: Taylor, 1996], p. 16). But it is such a strong way to make the anticipation of the Feast a solemn and tangible thing, that I can’t help but think it a good idea.

The other sort of decoration I shall encourage is anything that properly belongs to St Nicholas. This includes anything that has his image on it (while I avoid garish ‘Santa Claus’ images, it seems to me that traditional ‘Father Christmas’-type images are not wholly inappropriate), but also the traditional stockings hanging from the mantel. As Wheeler & Rosenthal suggest:

Since our stocking-hanging ritual comes directly from the life and ministry of St Nicholas [see this account], consider moving it to St Nicholas Eve. Get everyone into the act by having each member of the family contribute secretly to these stockings (preferably with handmade gifts). Another reason for such a change is that in America so many gifts are given at Christmas that whatever additional ones are placed in stockings are almost anticlimactic. (p. 251)

Fourth, once the Feast comes and the full panoply of decorations goes up (rather extensive in my house), there is not just one day of celebrating and gift-giving, but, in accordance with Tradition, twelve. Once again, Wheeler & Rosenthal offer some appropriate thoughts from Chaney:

Although the commercial world is taking down its trees and tinsel on December 26 to make way for the January white sales, the Church is only beginning a full twelve days of high feasting which will reach their climax and zenith on January 6. Then, in the regal splendor of Epiphany [or Theophany], we see another facet of the Incarnation, a facet which completes the Christmas mystery: the tiny Baby born on Christmas night is in reality the King of the whole world. (qtd. in Wheeler & Rosenthal, p. 264)

In the meantime, we also have St Stephen’s Day (27 December in the East) and the Feast of the Holy Innocents (‘Childermass’—29 December in the East), both of which have their own venerable traditions in the West, till finally the twelve days of Christmas culminate in ‘Twelfth Night’ (the night of 6/19 January, after the celebration of the Theophany). But even then, we are not truly obliged to remove our holiday decorations until ‘Candlemas Eve’—the eve of the Feast of the Meeting of Our Lord in the Temple—as witnessed by Robert Herrick’s 17th-c. poem, ‘Ceremonies for Candlemas Eve’ (which can be read here).

I have but lightly touched upon a few of the suggestions found in Wheeler’s & Rosenthal’s delightful book. In particular I have said nothing of the great stress they lay upon acts of charity, especially secret ones!, to be performed at different times of the season. But even the more external and, some might say, superficial things I've suggested here can contribute in an enormous way to the proper celebration of the entire season, one that takes full advantage of what C.S. Lewis calls ‘the power of wise custom’ (A Preface to Paradise Lost [NY: Oxford U, 1965], p. 22).

26 November 2009

'He Plumbed the Depths of Mysteries'—St John Chrysostom


Today, 13 November on the Church’s calendar, we celebrate the memory of St John Chrysostom, ‘the Golden-tongued’ (347-407), Patriarch of Constantinople. According to Fr John McGuckin, ‘both as liturgical doctor and as preacher [St] John has become one of the central patristic authorities’ (The SCM Press A-Z of Patristic Theology [London: SCM, 2005], p. 191). Fr Georges Florovsky rightly observes (The Eastern Fathers of the Fourth Century, trans. Catherine Edmunds, Vol. 7 in The Collected Works of Georges Florovsky [Vaduz: Büchervertriebsanstalt, 1987, p. 240):

He was an ascetic and a martyr. It was not in the desert that his feats were accomplished but in the chaos of the world, in the pulpit of the preacher, and on the Episcopal throne. His martyrdom was bloodless. He was tormented not by external enemies but by his brothers who proved false to him, and he ended his life in chains, in exile, under interdiction, and persecuted by Christians for his faith in Christ and the Gospel, which he preached as a revelation and the law of life.

Here is the account of St John’s life in the Prologue (St Nicholas [Velimirović], The Prologue from Ochrid, Vol. 4, trans. Mother Maria [Birmingham: Lazarica, 1986], p. 192):

He was born in Antioch in the year 347, his father’s name being Secundus and his mother’s Anthusa. Studying Greek philosophy, John became disgusted with Hellenic paganism and turned to the Christian faith as the one and all-embracing truth. John was baptized by Meletius, Patriarch of Antioch, and, after that, his parents were also baptized. After their death, John became a monk and began to live in strict asceticism. He wrote a book: ‘On the Priesthood’, after which the holy Apostles John and Peter appeared to him, prophesying for him great service, great grace and also great suffering. When the time came for him to be ordained priest, an angel of God appeared at the same time to Patriarch Flavian (Meletius’s successor) and to John himself. When the Patriarch ordained him, a shining white dove was seen above John’s head. Renowned for his wisdom, his asceticism and the power of his words, John was, at the desire of Emperor Arcadius, chosen as Patriarch of Constantinople. He governed the Church for six years as Patriarch with unequalled zeal and wisdom, sending missionaries to the pagan Celts and Scythians and purging the Church of simony, desposing many bishops who were given to this vice. He extended the Church’s charitable works, wrote a rite for the Holy Liturgy, put heretics to shame, denounced the Empress Eudoxia, interpreted the Scriptures with his golden mind and tongue and left to the Church many precious books of sermons. The people glorified him; the jealous loathed him; the Empress twice had him sent into exile. He spent three years in exile, and died on Holy Cross Day, September 14th, 407, in a place called Comana in Armenia. The holy Apostles John and Peter again appeared to him at the time of his death, and also the holy martyr Basiliscus, in whose church he received Communion for the last time. ‘Glory to God for everything!’ were his last words, and with them the soul of Chrysostom the Patriarch entered into Paradise.

In his magisterial biography of the great Hierarch, J.N.D. Kelly observes, ‘His last words were the thanksgiving which, as Palladios remarks, had been habitually on his lips, and which summarily expressed one of his deepest convictions . . .’ (Golden Mouth—The Story of John Chrysostom: Ascetic, Preacher, Bishop [Ithaca, NY: Cornell U, 1998], p. 285).

Unfortunately, because of Thanksgiving obligations I don’t have time for extended reflection on the holy Chrysostom. If I have more opportunity tomorrow or over the weekend, I may try to post some more on this great Saint, but I make no promises. For now I will just mention two things. First, I had the terrific opportunity to see Fr John Behr give a lecture on ‘The Pastoral Power of Theology—St John the Golden-Mouthed’ in St Louis last year. This brilliant lecture can now be read at the St John Chrysostom Orthodox Church (ROCOR) website here (HT Maximus, by way of Owen). Second, I will offer a short passage—Andrew at Salt of the Earth has one from another work of St Chrysostom’s here—from the book ‘On the Priesthood’ referenced in the Prologue, and which also forms the basis of Fr Behr’s lecture: St John Chrysostom, Six Books on the Priesthood, trans. Graham Neville (Crestwood, NY: SVS, 1977) (my misgivings about Neville’s introduction could make an appearance in a future post). Although St Chrysostom is here describing the ideal pastor, to whom he compares himself unfavourably, the Church can recognize in this passage an unwitting description of himself:

The soul of the priest ought to blaze like a light illuminating the world; but my soul has such darkness enveloping it, through my evil conscience, that it is always hiding itself and cannot frankly gaze upon its Master. Priests are the salt of the earth. But who could readily tolerate my folly and my complete inexperience, except you with your usual excessive regard for me? A priest must not only be blameless, as befits one chosen for so high a ministry, but also very discreet and widely experienced. He ought to be as much aware of mundane matter as any who live in the midst of them, and yet be more detached from them than the monks who have taken to the mountains.

Since he must mix with men who have married and are bringing up children, keep servants, own great possessions, take part in public life, and hold high office, he must be many-sided. I say many-sided—not a charlatan, a flatterer, or a hypocrite; but absolutely open and frank of speech, able to condescend to good purpose, when the situation requires, and to be alike kindly or severe. It is impossible to treat all his people in one way, any more than it would be right for the doctors to deal with all their patients alike or a helmsman to know only one way of battling with the winds. This ship of ours is beset with continual storms; and these storms not only attack from outside, but are engendered within. Great condescension and great strictness are both needed. And all these different methods look to one object: the glory of God and the edification of the Church. (pp. 141-2)

In conclusion, here is the ‘Hymn of Praise’ for St Chrysostom in the Prologue:

The Church glorifies St John
The ‘Golden-mouth’, blessed by God,
Christ's great soldier,
Who is the adornment and boast of the Church:
Profound of heart and mind,
And a golden-stringed harp of words.
He plumbed the depths of mysteries,
And found the pearl that shines as the stars.
Exalted in mind to heaven’s height,
He expounded divine truth;
And his vision is true throughout history.
He gave all to the Son of God.
He revealed to us the horrors of sin,
And the virtues that adorn a man;
He showed us the most precious mysteries,
And all the sweet richness of Paradise.
Evangelist, interpreter of the Gospel
And bearer of spiritual joy,
Zealous for Christ like an apostle,
He would accept no injustice.
He was tormented like any martyr,
And received his torment as a pledge of salvation.
This servant of Christ showed himself true;
Therefore, the Church glorifies Chrysostom.

25 November 2009

Bl Theophylact Rears His Head, Twice


Yes, readers, my wife has been much occupied of late, and it has afforded me a few more opportunities to make use of her computer for blogging purposes. As I chanced to come across a couple of interesting things yesterday which were linked together in a Logismoic manner, I thought a post appropriate.

First of all, while watching my children play outside I was passing the time by looking through my book of the poems of Edward Taylor—The Poetical Works of Edward Taylor, ed. Thomas H. Johnson (Princeton, NJ: Princeton U, 1974)—about which I posted here. Included as an appendix is a catalogue of Taylor’s library, deemed uncommonly large for ‘such a remote settlement as Westfield’ and including some unusual items for that time and place (p. 201). Among these is one that caught my eye and led in part to this post:

15 Theophilact upon the Evangelists fol: 7s.
THEOPHYLACTUS, archbishop of Achrida. In quator Evangelia enarrationes. Cologne, 1532, and later translations. fo. BM.

Turning to Blessed Theophylact for help with a difficult Gospel passage in preparing a sermon, on the edge of what was at the time the American wilderness, little could Taylor have known that almost three hundred years later a Protestant convert to Orthodox Christianity on this continent would produce the first English translation of this very commentary!

The second piece of the post appeared in my e-mail box rather late yesterday evening. Notifying me of a Facebook message from Fr Mark Christian (OCA-Baton Rouge), who has now definitely earned his ‘scene cred’ amongst us emerging ‘Orthodox neo-Trads’, it read:

Just noticed the Ochlophobe's endorsement of your posts on toll-houses. They were quite helpful—thank you!

I was intrigued during last week's sermon prep by an observation made by Blessed Theophylact on the parable of the foolish rich man in Luke 12:16ff. At the end, the voice of God speaks to the rich man saying, ‘Fool, this night thy soul shall be required of thee’ (or so we read in many English translations). Theophylact, ostensibly reading in Greek (well before there were any English translations), notes this rendering: ‘Fool, this night they shall require thy soul of thee.’

Commenting on the mysterious ‘they’, the saintly expositor notes the following:

Notice also the words, they will require. Like some stern imperial officers demanding tribute, the fearsome angels will ask for your soul, and you will not want to give it because you love this life and claim the things of this life as your own. But they do not demand the soul of a righteous man, because he himself commits his soul into the hands of the God and Father of spirits, and he does so with joy and gladness, not in the least bit grieved that he is handing over his soul to God. For him the body is a light burden, easily shed. But the sinner has made his soul fleshy, something in substance like the body and like the earth, rendering it difficult to separate from the body. This is why the soul must be demanded of him, the same way that harsh tax collectors treat debtors who refuse to pay what is due. See that the Lord did not say, ‘I shall require thy soul of thee’, but, they shall require. For the souls of the righteous are already in te hands of God. Truly it is at night when the soul of such a sinner is demanded of him. It is night for this sinner who is darkened by the love of wealth, and into whom the light of divine knowledge cannot penetrate, and death overtakes him. Thus he who lays up treasure for himself is called foolish: he never stops drawing up plans and dies in the midst of them. But if he had been laying up treasure for the poor and for God, it would not have been so. Let us strive, therefore, to be rich toward God, that is, to trust in God, to have Him as our wealth and the treasury of wealth, and not to speak of my goods but of ‘the good things of God’. If they are God’s, then let us not deprive God of His own goods. This is what it means to be rich toward God: to trust that even if I empty myself and give everything away, I will not lack the necessities. God is my treasury of good things, and I open and take from that treasury what I need.

The passage Fr Mark quotes can be found in The Explanation by Bl Theophylact, Archbishop of Ochrid and Bulgaria, of the Holy Gospel According to St Luke, trans. Fr Christopher Stade, Vol. III of Bl Theophylact’s Explanation of the New Testament (House Springs, MO: Chrysostom, 1997), p. 148.

Concerning the verse Bl Theophylact comments on, I took the liberty of consulting a few of my Bibles (I don’t have many!). In my critical Greek NT, I see that there are no alternate readings for the present active indicative plural ἀπαιτοῦσιν. In my interlinear NT, I see ἀπαιτοῦσιν rendered ‘they require’, with the KJV rendering in the parallel column dreadfully exposed for the change in mood (and consequently, number!—why isn’t Wayne Grudem up in arms about this?) that it is: ‘thy soul shall be required of thee’. The RSV has ‘your soul is required of you’, the apparently materialist NRSV ‘your life is being demanded of you’, the NKJV (the NT trans. duplicated uncritically in the OSB of course, and, in the case of Lk 12:20, with no acknowledgement of the actual meaning of the original or reference to Bl Theophylact’s interpretation) ‘your soul will be required of you’, and the ESV is identical to the RSV.

Of all the translations sitting on my shelf, the only one I found that matched the grammar of the Greek was The Orthodox New Testament, Vol. 1, trans. Holy Apostles Convent (Buena Vista, CO: Holy Apostles Convent, 1999), p. 254, where at last I read ‘they demand thy soul from thee’. After this, I naturally half-expected to see Bl Theophylact in the endnotes (p. 341, n. 261), but instead I found only St Basil, who in his Homily 6, ‘I Will Tear Down My Barns’, refers to the verse in this way: ‘Those who seek the soul were at hand, and this man was conversing with his soul about food! That very night his own soul would be required of him, and all the while he was imagining he would be enjoying his possessions for years to come’ (St Basil the Great, On Social Justice, trans. Fr Paul Schroeder [Crestwood, NY: SVS, 2009], p. 62).

The lesson to be learned, from the Edward Taylor library as well as Fr Mark’s contribution to materials (here and here) on the passage of the soul, is that Bl Theophylact turns up in the most unexpected places.

24 November 2009

'The Great Luminary of Gaul'—St Martin of Tours


Today, 11 November on the Church’s calendar, we celebrate the memory of St Martin of Tours (316-397), according to Orthodox America ‘the first to be called Saint without having been martyred’ (here). Alban Butler called him ‘the glory of Gaul and a light to the Western church in the fourth century’ (qtd. here), and Thomas Owen Clancy and Gilbert Márkus call him ‘a key figure in the growth of the ascetic movement in Gaul’ (Iona: The Earliest Poetry of a Celtic Monastery [Edinburgh: Edinburgh U, 1995], p. 215). In his wonderful article, ‘A Prologue of the Orthodox Saints of the West’, in Vita Patrum: The Life of the Fathers, by St Gregory of Tours, trans. Hieromonk Seraphim (Rose) (Platina, CA: St Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 1988), Fr Seraphim writes:

And then, even as the news of the phenomenon of Egyptian monasticism was still spreading through the West, the West produced its own ascetic miracle: St Martin of Tours. Even before his death in 397, his manuscript Life was being circulated in Gaul, Spain, Italy, and elsewhere in the West, revealing him as a monastic Father and wonderworker in no way inferior to the desert Fathers in the East. (pp. 18-9)

Here is the account of St Martin’s life in The Great Horologion, trans. HTM (Boston: HTM, 1997), p. 308:

Saint Martin, the great luminary of Gaul, was the son of pagan parents. When he was still quite young he became a catechumen; at the age of twenty-two he received Holy Baptism. Then he undertook the labours of a monk, and was afterwards consecrated Bishop of Tours, renowned as an ascetic and wonderworker, a faithful shepherd of Christ’s flock. He converted many both from paganism and heresy, cast out demons and raised the dead, and while undertaking all the apostolic burdens of a bishop, he never ceased to be a simple monk and man of prayer. His monastery became a center of monasticism not only for Gaul, but for all of Western Europe. A widely celebrated incident of his life took place when he was still a catechumen, fulfilling his military service. Seeing an ill-clad beggar asking alms at the gate of the city of Amiens and being overlooked by passersby, Saint Martin, having nothing else to give, rent his military cloak in two with his sword and gave half to the beggar, so that he might cover himself in the cold. That night, the Lord Jesus Christ appeared to him, clothed with the half of the cloak he had given to the beggar. Saint Martin’s cloak—capella in Latin—was kept in a sanctuary which came to be called capella, from which the word ‘chapel’ is derived; and they under whose care it was kept were called cappellani, from which ‘chaplain’ is derived. Saint Martin reposed in peace in the year 397.

St Martin’s hagiographer, Sulpicius Severus, points out that ‘no account could ever provide a full description of his inner life, his daily behaviour and his soul which was always focused on heaven’ (Vita Martini XXVI.2; Carolinne White, trans., Early Christian Lives [London: Penguin, 1998], p. 158). But there are rich suggestions of his endeavours to follow the Apostle Paul’s injunction to ‘pray without ceasing’:

XXVI.3 . . . . Never did any hour or moment pass when he was not absorbed in prayer or concentrating on reading, although he never allowed his mind to relax from prayer, even during his periods of reading or if he happened to be doing something else. (4) Without doubt, just as in the case of blacksmiths who strike their anvil during the break in their work as a kind of relaxation from their hard work, so Martin always prayed even while he seemed to be doing something else. . . . XXVII.1 . . . There was never anything on his lips except Christ, (2) never anything in his heart except devotion, peace and forgiveness. (White, pp. 158-9)

Thus, the infallible Adalbert de Vogüé has written that ‘the last days of Martin were an unceasing prayer’ (The Life of St Benedict, by St Gregory the Great, commentary by Adalbert de Vogüé, trans. Hilary Costello and Eoin de Bhaldraithe [Petersham, MA: St Bede’s, 1993], p. 179), and St Gregory of Tours writes in his Historiae Francorum I.48 (The History of the Franks, trans. Lewis Thorpe [Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1985], p. 97):

In the second year of the rule of Arcadius and Honorius, Saint Martin, Bishop of Tours, who had done so many good deeds for the sick, who was so holy and had performed so many miracles, died at Candes, a village in his own diocese, in the eighty-first year of his age and the twenty-sixth year of his episcopate, and so went happily to meet Christ. He died at midnight on a Sunday, during the consulship of Atticus and Caesarius. As he passed away, many heard a chanting of psalms in the sky, which I have described at greater length in the first books of his Miracles [indeed, Fr Seraphim notes, ‘Being especially under the influence of St Martin, his own predecessor in the See of Tours, from whom he received miraculous healings, he devoted four of the eight books of this work to The Miracles (or rather, Virtues) of Blessed Martin the Bishop’, p. 25].

In his wonderful Gifford Lectures at Edinburgh (1948-1949), published as Religion and the Rise of Western Culture (Garden City, NY: Image, 1958), Christopher Dawson has insightfully observed:

In the Dark Ages the saints were not merely patterns of moral perfection, whose prayers were invoked by the Church. They were supernatural powers who inhabited their sanctuaries and continued to watch over the welfare of their land and their people. Such were St Julian of Brioude, St Caesarius of Arles, St Germanus of Auxerre—such, above all, was St Martin, whose shrine at Tours was a fountain of grace and miraculous healing, to which the sick resorted from all parts of Gaul; an asylum where all the oppressed—the fugitive slave, the escaped criminal and even those on whom the vengeance of the king had fallen—could find refuge and supernatural protection. (p. 33)

Unfortunately, St Martin’s shrine, which was once ‘perhaps the most striking monument of Christian Gaul, being, outside of Rome, the chief center of Christian pilgrimage in the West’ (Fr Seraphim, p. 63), was destroyed. First burned by the Protestant Huguenots in 1562, then, in 1793, ‘in the midst of the most ferocious anti-Christian revolution’ before the 20th c., ‘leveled to the ground . . . in a deliberate attempt to blot out the memory of the saints’ (p. 66). Thanks to God, ‘in a commendable spirit of repentance for the revolutionary sacrilege . . . some devout Roman Catholics’ located the sepulcher and some fragments of St Martin’s relics, and the cathedral was rebuilt (p. 66).

But of course, St Martin’s veneration had spread elsewhere over the centuries. Fr Mark at Vultus Christi tells us that St Benedict dedicated a chapel to St Martin at Monte Cassino. According to the Venerable Bede’s Ecclesiastical History I.26, an old British Church of St Martin was among the earliest used by Anglo-Saxon Christians (The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, trans. Bertram Colgrave, ed. Judith McClure and Roger Collins [Oxford: Oxford U, 1994], p. 41; a later, London Church, St Martin-in-the-fields, serves as the home of the wonderful ensemble, the Academy of St Martin-in-the-fields). St Martin’s mercy to the beggar seems to have made him a patron Saint of the hospitality industry, and one can thus find a depiction of this incident behind the counter at many Mexican restaurants. He is also the patron Saint of the US Army Quartermaster Corps, which awards an ‘Order of St Martin’ medallion (see here).

Speaking of the celebration of St Martin’s feast in his monastery, the endearing Brother Victor-Antoine d’Avila-Latourrette writes, ‘It is an intimate monastic feast, for St Martin, especially in France, is very much loved by monks and nuns’ (A Monastic Year: Reflections from a Monastery [Dallas: Taylor, 1996], p. 161). According to the Fish-Eaters site (here):

St Martin’s Feast is considered the first day of Winter for practical purposes, so, alluding to the snows of that season, the Germans say that ‘St Martin comes riding on a white horse’. Of course, it might not feel like Winter if one is experiencing a ‘St Martin’s Summer’—the equivalent of an ‘Indian Summer’. It is said, too, that one can predict what sort of Winter one will have by the conditions of St Martin’s Day: ‘If the geese at Martin’s Day stand on ice, they will walk in mud at Christmas.’

The Feast coincides not only with the Octave of All Souls, but with harvest time, the time when newly-produced wine is ready for drinking, and the end of winter preparations, including the butchering of animals (an old English saying is ‘His Martinmas will come as it does to every hog’, meaning ‘he will get his comeuppance’ or ‘everyone must die’). Because of this, St Martin’s Feast is much like the American Thanksgiving (celebrated on the 4th Thursday in November)—a celebration of the earth’s bounty. Because it also comes before the penitential season of Advent, it is seen as a mini ‘carnivale’ with all the feasting and bonfires. As at Michaelmas on 29 September, goose is eaten in most places (the goose is a symbol for St Martin himself. It is said that as he was hiding from the people who wanted to make him Bishop, a honking goose gave away his hiding spot), but unlike most Catholics, those of Britain and Ireland prefer pork or beef on this day.

Interestingly, it seems that even in the West at one time a fast was kept during Advent which, beginning after Martinmas, was known as Quadragesima Sancti Martini. Perhaps more serious Catholics will begin to return to this holy practice, still observed in the Orthodox Church (though not by that name), since as one blogger says, 'Nevertheless at times such as these with so much profanation of the season I think a penitential Advent is needed now more than ever before.' A good way to get into the spirit, for Orthodox or for Catholics who wish to return to their roots, would be to read Sulpicius's Vita of the Saint, available in full here. In conclusion, here are the Troparion and Kontakion for St Martin, from the Horologion (p. 309):

Dismissal Hymn of Saint Martin. Fourth Tone
Be quick to anticipate

In signs and in miracles thou wast renowned throughout Gaul; * by grace and adoption now thou art a light for the world, O Martin, most blest of God. * Almsdeeds and compassion filled thy life with their splendour; * teaching and wise counsel were thy riches and treasures, * which thou dost dispense freely unto all them that honour thee.

Kontakion of Saint Martin. Plagal of Fourth Tone
As first-fruits of our nature

As a devoted man of God, thou didst proclaim His mysteries. * And as a seer of the Trinity, thou didst shed thy blessings on the Occident. * By thy prayers and entreaties, * O adornment of Tours and glory of all the Church, * preserve us, O Saint Martin, and save all who praise thy memory.

23 November 2009

'That Through Thee I May Come at the Sight of His Holy Face'—St Nonnus of Heliopolis


No, my dear readers, I have not yet seen my own laptop fixed, but as my good wife is out of town until late this evening, I have availed myself once again of her computer in order to offer this small post. I apologise for its lateness, but I didn’t want to miss entirely the opportunity to post a particular story about one of today’s Saints.

This morning, 10 November on the Church’s calendar, we celebrated the memory of St Nonnus, Bishop of Heliopolis (471). Helen Waddell points out that the Council of Chalcedon referred to St Nonnus as ‘“Amantissimus Dei”, a great lover of God, [which] was almost Byzantine common form, but when they spoke of Nonnus, the added the word nimirum, beyond question’ (The Desert Fathers, trans. Helen Waddell [NY: Vintage, 1998], p. 183). Here is the account of his life in the Prologue (St Nicholas [Velimirović], The Prologue from Ochrid, Vol. 4, trans. Mother Maria [Birmingham: Lazarica, 1986], p. 181):

He was renowned as a great ascetic in the Tabennisiot monastery in Egypt, because of which he was chosen as bishop in 448, in the diocese of Edessa. He was later translated to the diocese of Heliopolis, and there brought thirty thousand Arabs to the Christian faith. After the death of Bishop Ibo, St Nonnus returned to Edessa, where he remained till his death in 471. Through his prayers, the notorious sinner Pelagia was brought to the Christian faith. She was later glorified for the holiness of her life (see Oct. 8th).

It is this connection with the renowned penitent, St Pelagia, that constitutes one of St Nonnus’s chief claims to fame, as well as the subject of the story that I wished to relate. St Pelagia’s hagiographer, James the Deacon, relates that St Nonnus was ‘a man marvelous great and a mighty monk of the monastery called Tabenna’ who ‘by reason of his rare and gracious way of life . . . had been reft from the monastery and ordained a bishop’ (Waddell, p. 186). According to James, St Nonnus was once in Antioch speaking with some of the other bishops who had wished to ‘have some instruction from his lips’, when the shameless Pelagia went riding by in all her splendour (p. 186). Then the holy Bishop, having prophesied that God would set Pelagia in judgement upon him and the bishops, said:

What think you, beloved? How many hours hath this woman spent in her chamber, bathing and adorning herself with all solicitude and all her mind on the stage, that there may be no stain or flaw in all that body’s beauty and its wearing, that she may be a joy to all men’s eyes, nor disappoint those paltry lovers of hers who are but for a day and tomorrow are not? And we who have in heaven a Father Almighty, an immortal Lover, with the promise of riches eternal and rewards beyond all reckoning, since eye hath not seen nor ear hath heard nor hath it ascended into the heart of man to conceive the things that God hath prepared for them that love Him—but what need is there of further speech? With such a promise, the vision of the Bridegroom, that great and splendid and ineffable face, whereon the Cherubim dare not look we adorn not, we care not so much as to wash the filth from our miserable souls, but leave them lying in their squalor. (pp. 187-8)

After the liturgy the next day, when St Nonnus preached to the people ‘of the wisdom of God that dwelt in him, with no alloy of artifice or of philosophy, naught unfitting, naught of human vanity: but full of the Holy Ghost, he reasoned with and admonished the people, speaking from his heart of the judgment to come and the eternal blessedness that is in store’ (p. 189), Pelagia happened to be in the church and was moved to tears of repentance. She wrote to the Bishop:

And thou my lord, who art a great saint, although thou hast not looked with the eyes of the flesh on the Lord Christ Himself, who showed Himself to that Samaritan woman, and her a harlot, at the well, yet art thou a worshipper of Him, for I have heard the talk of the Christians. If indeed thou art a true disciple of this Christ, spurn me not, desiring through thee to see the Saviour, that through thee I may come at the sight of His holy face. (p. 190)

Thus, St Pelagia came to him and begged to be baptized. When she had received Holy Baptism and the Mysteries, she gave away all of her goods and on the eighth day stole away in the night to live out the rest of her life in a cell on the Mount of Olives.

The illustration above, from a 14th-c. manuscript, shows St Nonnus praying for St Pelagia.

21 November 2009

Patriarch Pavle's Favourite Novel


Alas, long-suffering readers! It appears that once again my blogging may be limited for awhile. This time it is the screen on my laptop, which keeps switching off the moment I boot up. It looks like I may have to take it to a shop this time.

In the meanwhile, I have borrowed my wife's computer and would like to post just one little thing. Like many of you, I was profoundly moved last Sunday when I learned of the repose of His Holiness, Patriarch Pavle of Serbia, believed by nearly all Orthodox Christians to be a man of great sanctity. Well, of all of the wonderful eulogies out there, many of which can be seen at Fr Milovan Katanic's Again & Again, one of my favourites was Fr Milovan's translation of part of an interview with the Patriarch's grandniece, Snezana Milkovic.

Among other interesting reminiscences about His Holiness from this unique point of view, Milkovic notes, 'He answered our questions through anecdotes, stories, Chinese proverbs, lives of the Saints, interpretations. His favorite novel was Victor Hugo's Les Miserables and spoke frequently about Jean Valjean and Cosette. All of those discussions, in fact, were messages through stories, he never criticized anyone nor taught them directly, it was always through some anecdote, joke, good humor.'

This was enough to convince me at the delightful 30 Penn Books yesterday finally to buy a copy of the novel--Victor Hugo, Les Miserables, Complete & Unabridged, trans. Charles E. Wilbour (NY: Barnes & Noble, 1996). I've never read it, though a production of the musical that I saw when I was twelve impressed me and I later enjoyed the film starring Liam Neeson and Geoffrey Rush. The scene with the kind bishop giving Valjean his candlesticks has always stuck with me, particularly Peter Vaughan's delivery of his lines after the gendarmes have left. Here is the passage I love so much taken from Wilbour's translation:


The bishop approached him, and said, in a low voice:

'Forget not, never forget that you have promised me to use this silver to become an honest man.'

Jean Valjean, who had no recollection of this promise, stood confounded. The bishop had laid much stress upon these words as he uttered them. He continued, solemnly:

'Jean Valjean, my brother: you belong no longer to evil, but to good. It is your soul that I am buying for you. I withdraw it from dark thoughts and from the spirit of perdition, and I give it to God!' (p. 90)


Whatever Hugo's faults (see this post, and the comments), may the Lord forgive him for the sake of such a beautiful depiction of mercy and redemption.

20 November 2009

'A Shining Blazing Star Among Monks'—St Lazarus of Galesion


Today, 7 November on the Church’s calendar, we celebrate the memory of the Holy Lazarus the Stylite of Galesion (c. 966-1053). According to Richard Greenfield, in the introduction to his translation of the Prima Vita of the Saint, The Life of Lazaros of Mt Galesion: An Eleventh-Century Pillar Saint (Washington, DC: Dumbarton Oaks, 2000)—part of which is available in pdf here—at the time of his repose, St Lazarus ‘was for many people one of the brightest stars in the Byzantine monastic firmament’ (p. 1). But the language is only borrowed from the Saint’s hagiographer, Gregory the Cellarer, who writes that he ‘became a shining, blazing star among those who live as monks’ (p. 77). Later, Gregory says that St Lazarus ‘drew everyone to him like a beacon by the brilliant illumination of his lifestyle’ (p. 122).

The account of St Lazarus’s life in the Prologue (St Nicholas [Velimirović], The Prologue from Ochrid, Vol. 4, trans. Mother Maria [Birmingham: Lazarica, 1986], p. 168) is exceedingly brief, and the account in Bulgakov’s Handbook (here) only slightly longer. While I don’t know the exact nature of the text at this site, a note at the bottom indicates that some of it is from the well-known Synaxarion by Hieromonk Makarios of Simonopetra, so here instead is the more substantial version given there:

Our holy Father Lazarus was born in 968 in a village close to Magnesia on the River Meander. At the moment of his birth, a blinding light filled the house and the women ran outside. On returning indoors, they found the infant facing the East, his hands crossed on his breast, as if in prayer. He was given the name of Leo in holy Baptism. When he was six, his parents sent him to a priest called Leontius to learn to read from the books of the Church. Three years later, he was sent to Orobos where the Notary George was his teacher. At the age of twelve, his uncle Elias, a monk of the Monastery of the Calathoi, took charge of his ecclesiastical education. Meekness, humility, love of study and above all, zeal for prayer and for the divine services, were all to be seen in Leo during his schooldays. In his compassion and love for the poor the boy would give away his teachers’ goods by way of alms, and was often beaten for his generosity. He longed so ardently to visit the holy Places, sanctified by the Passion of Christ, that he ran away from the Monastery. His uncle fetched him back and made him stay for two years more, before sending him to the Monastery of Stroubilion to complete his legal studies with a notary there. But Leo soon surpassed his master in the science of sciences and art of arts. Three years later, he made another attempt to go to the Holy Places but was once again apprehended and made to return to the Monastery. But within ten months he was permitted to set out for the Holy Land, with the blessing of a nearby stylite. However, he met a holy ascetic on the road who persuaded him of the hazards of his intended pilgrimage and advised him to enter a monastery near Attalia. He received the holy angelic Habit there, taking the name of Lazarus, and he zealously applied himself to the life of ascesis. He loved fasting as much as the glutton loves food. He shook off the heaviness of his flesh by vigils, that his soul might fly up to the heights of contemplation. The renunciation of his own will and his obedience to his Abbot and spiritual father were an example to all the brethren. When, some time later, his spiritual father died, the new Abbot allowed Lazarus to withdraw to a cave near the monastery where he could converse alone with the one God. There for seven years he struggled heroically against countless demonic temptations, and then set out at last for Jerusalem.

After worshipping at the Basilica of the Resurrection and at the other Holy Places, he went to the Monastery of Saint Sabas where he was accepted into the brotherhood. But the other monks could not cope with his love of solitude and ascetic zeal, and, since no compromise seemed acceptable to the ardent servant of God, the Abbot decided that Lazarus would have to leave. He went to the Monastery of Saint Euthymius for a while, but then returned to Saint Sabas, to the great joy of the brethren. He stayed there as sacristan for six years and, in spite of his reluctance, was ordained priest by the Patriarch of Jerusalem. Following the ancient tradition of the monks of Palestine [a tradition begun by St Euthymius the Great—see this post], Saint Lazarus would spend all of Great Lent until Palm Sunday in the burning wilderness, having taken nothing with him. Letting divine Providence direct his path, he would feed on the few plants that grew there and drink the smallest amount of water.

When the Saracens seized Jerusalem and its environs, he made his way back to his native land with a few companions, in obedience to a divine revelation. On reaching Ephesus, he joined two monks who were living in ascesis near a chapel dedicated to Saint Marina not far from the city. There he built a pillar with a roof where he devoted himself to greater ascesis than before. After a while he removed the roof, so as to imitate more closely Saint Symeon the Stylite in his way of life. He remained thus at his station in all weathers, exposed to the elements and exhibited by God as a spectacle to the world, to angels, and to men, as the Apostle writes (1 Cor. 4:9). His renown spread quickly, and crowds came from all quarters for his blessing, to listen to his spiritual teaching and to receive the food that he liberally distributed to the many poor folk among them. His two companions, fearing that his open-handedness would leave them nothing to live on, decided to part from him, but other disciples came. They built cells at the foot of the pillar and enlarged the chapel. Saint Lazarus dwelt on this pillar for seven years. He had no more than a few moments sleep each day and was satisfied with a small portion of barley bread and a few mouthfuls of water. He even loaded himself with heavy iron chains . . . . But the quiet (hesychia) that he sought was not to be found there, so, unknown to all, he came down from his pillar one night and left that place. He found refuge in a cave, previously sanctified by the monk Paphnutius, on the steep and all-but-inaccessible slopes of Mount Galesion. He had been there only six months when the Metropolitan of Ephesus ordered him back to Saint Marina’s to look after his disciples. However, he returned to Mount Galesion in the following year accompanied by five monks. He lived alone in the cave, and every week the brethren brought him a pitcher of water and some vegetables. He left only to ascend a new pillar built for him nearby, on which he lived in utter privation. One day he knocked over his pitcher but would not come down on that account and very nearly died of thirst. As more disciples arrived, they built cells and a church dedicated to the Savior. After twelve years, Lazarus had another cell built higher up the ravine, to which he moved one night without telling anyone. He suffered a lot in this new hermitage from the attacks of demons who threw stones at him when they could not make him entertain their impure suggestions. In his desire to share ever more fully in the Passion of Christ, he wanted to follow the example of a woman he heard of who lived in the enclosed recess of a pillar with only her feet visible, But in the end Saint Lazarus took the sound advice of his disciples and of his mother, that it would be excessive to afflict the flesh in this way, and would not contribute to the growth of the hidden man of the heart (cf. 1 Pet. 3:4). His pillar was dedicated to the Most Holy Mother of God, and a little church was built beside it where the holy Mysteries were served for the Saint from time to time.

His thirst for solitude unassuaged, Lazarus once more abandoned his hermitage and took up his final station on a pillar dedicated to the Holy Resurrection. This third pillar, like the previous ones, became the center of a monastic settlement which numbered forty monks on the death of the Saint, while his two earlier foundations had only twelve monks each. Dwelling with God alone, between heaven and earth, the Saint still cared for the life of his monks in every detail. The pillar was built against the church wall where there was a small window, through which he was able to oversee the vigilance of his monks as they psalmodized, and to speak words of salvation to his visitors.

God granted him the gift of insight and of prophecy. He foretold the date of his death; but, when his disciples implored him to remain longer in this life for their salvation, he besought the Mother of God, who granted him fifteen years more. One week before his death, Saint Lazarus called for his disciple, the monk Nicolas, and dictated a detailed spiritual testament that he signed on November 8, 1054, the day of his falling asleep. He was buried near the pillar from which his soul had risen to Heaven even before separating from the body.

Portions of the preceding text are from The Synaxarion: The Lives of the Saints of the Orthodox Church by Hieromonk Makarios of Simonos Petra, and translated from the French by Christopher Hookway


The particular ascesis of the Stylite has become especially shocking and distasteful to the Western mind ever since the Enlightenment. Though an aversion to the Stylites is perhaps most closely associated with such heterodox writers as Gibbon, Mother Victoria (Schurer) has pointed out sadly that can be found even in modern Orthodox writers like the unfortunate Fr Alexander Men, as when he observes, ‘In the Light of the Gospel, it is clear that all this is unnecessary. We receive no preaching about rotten ropes and columns’ (qtd. in Mother Victoria [Schurer], ‘Review of About Christ & the Church’, Divine Ascent 1:2, Exaltation of the Holy Cross 1997, p. 105). But Mother Victoria suggests that Fr Alexander ‘could have sought to gain the mind of the Church’ on this matter (p. 105). Thus, as Susan Ashbrook Harvey observes about St Symeon in her wonderful Foreword to The Lives of Simeon Stylites, trans. Robert Doran (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian, 1992), ‘When we look at Simeon from our modern point of view, we see a brutal life of self-inflicted pain. When his contemporaries looked at him, they saw a life transformed, a man transfigured, a world redeemed’ (p. 11). In the face of the often silly ‘sucrrying for precedents’ for the Stylites’ pillars, Doran notes, ‘A specifically Christian impulse may be at hand’ (Doran, ‘Introduction’, pp. 29, 32)! Thus, he observes:

The attempt to stand constantly is the attempt to pray always (Mk 11:25; Lk 18:1; Azariah at LXX Dn 3:25), to resemble those who stand before God, as Elijah had (1 Kgs 17:1; 18:15), as Joshua is described in Sir 46:3, and as the tribe of Levi had been set aside to stand before the Lord to minister to him and to bless his name (Dt 10:8; 18:5.7). More significantly, this metaphor of a servant or courtier standing in the prsence of the king was extended to the angelic court. Gabriel stands in the presence of God (Lk 1:19) as do the seven angels (Rev 8:2), the two olive trees and the two lampstands (Rev 11:4), and the hosts of angels (2 Es 8:21). . . . The stationary saints, among them Simeon, must be viewed as those who sought to incarnate the richness behind the phrase ‘those standing before the Lord’. (pp. 32, 33).

Furthermore, it is important to remember a point Greenfield makes specifically about St Lazarus:

Despite his astonishing feats of ascetic endurance, however, and his symbolic (and at times literal) isolation from his fellow men, Lazaros remained fundamentally committed to the warmer, more human, ideals of Christian love, charity, and toleration. His reputation thus also owed a great deal to this softer, caring side of his character that was experienced not only by his close followers, but by the faithful and curious, whether local people or pilgrims and visitors from far away, even overseas, who made the exhausting and sometimes dangerous ascent of the mountain to his pillar. To them, rich and poor, powerful and humble alike, he gave proof of his sanctity by his practical, unquestioning, sometimes extraordinarily generous and often secret acts of charity; he did so, too, by the wisdom and helpfulness of the advice he gave to all who sought his spiritual counsel or who came to him for confession. Visitors went away marveling at his insight and at his ability to relieve the burdens of a guilty conscience. (Greenfield, pp. 2-3)

In conclusion, here is the Troparion for St Lazarus in the Plagal of Fourth Tone (8th Tone), from The Great Horologion, trans. HTM (Boston: HTM, 1997), p. 301:

In thy vigilant prayers, thou didst drench thy pillar with streams of tears; by thy sighings from the depths, thou didst bear fruit a hundredfold in labours; and thou becamest a shepherd, granting forgiveness to them that came to thee, O our righteous Father Lazarus. Intercede with Christ God that our souls be saved.