31 December 2009

'A Very Pious & God-fearing Man'—St Gatianus of Tours

Today, 18 December on the Church’s calendar, we celebrate the memory of St Gatianus (3rd century), MF ‘Gatien’, first Bishop of Tours. The main source for the life of St Gatianus is The History of the Franks (c. 593?) by St Gregory of Tours. [1] Here is St Gregory’s account, from Historiae Francorum X.31:

The first Bishop, Gatianus, was sent by the Pope of Rome in the first year of the Emperor Decius. At that time a vast number of pagans addicted to idolatry lived in the city. By his preaching Gatianus managed to convert some of them to the Lord. He often had occasion to hide from the attacks of those in high place who, when they found him, subjected him to insults and abuse. He used to celebrate the holy mysteries secretly on Sunday in crypts and other hiding-places, with the handful of Christians whom, as I have told you, he had converted. He was a very pious and God-fearing man; had he not been so, he would never have abandoned his home, his relations and his fatherland for the love of our Lord. In such circumstances and of his own free will, or so they say, he lived in the city for fifty years. Gatianus died in peace and was buried in the cemetery in the Christian quarter. [2]

A bit further on, speaking of the renowned St Martin of Tours, St Gregory writes, ‘He [St Martin] translated the body of Saint Gatianus and buried him beside the tomb of Saint Litorius, in the church named after this latter.’ [3]

According to the Catholic Encyclopedia:

The ‘traditional school’, relying on legends that have hitherto not been traced back beyond the twelfth century, have claimed that St Gatianus was one of the seventy-two disciples of Christ, and was sent into Gaul during the first century by St Peter himself. This assertion, which has been refuted by learned and devout writers, is untenable in the face of the testimony of Gregory of Tours.

Apparently Henry James, in his A Little Tour of France (1883), refers to St Gatianus in connection with a tradition that the holy Hierarch had retreated to and celebrated the liturgy in some caves at Marmoutier, where St Martin later established his monastery. James writes:

The abbey of Marmoutier, which sprung from the grottos in the cliff to which Saint Gatianus and Saint Martin retired to pray, was therefore the creation of the latter worthy...The cliff is still there; and a winding staircase, in the latest taste, enables you conveniently to explore its recesses. These sacred niches are scooped out of the rock, and will give you an impression if you cannot do without one... [4]

The image above is an artist's rendering of mediaeval Tours.

[1] Of St Gregory’s work, Frederick Artz writes (The Mind of the Middle Ages, AD 200-1500: An Historical Survey, 3rd rev. ed. [Chicago: U of Chicago, 1980], p. 212):

His style is barbarized, but less so than the civilization he describes in sixth-century Gaul. Gregory gives marvelous pictures of a violent society; his narrative is full of vigor and force and is a mine of political and social history. His greatest talent is that of delineating personalities. Like all mediaeval histories, Gregory’s account gains in both accuracy and interest as he approaches his own time.

[2] St Gregory of Tours, The History of the Franks, trans. Lewis Thorpe (Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1985), p. 593.

[3] Ibid., p. 594.

[4] Taken from this site.

30 December 2009

Calendrical Goings-On

I couldn’t help but feel that just a few words about the calendar were in order, since it is now 17 December on the Church’s calendar and therefore only eight days until the Feast of the Nativity. First of all, following a link to my post on St Olaf of Norway in the combox of another blog, I found a pdf with a really neat article on the old Norse ‘primestave’ calendar (Part 1 is here, Part 2, from which the entry below is taken, is here). Although I don’t know of a way to reproduce the primestave illustrations given in the pdf, I intend to post most of the entries listed in that article as those days occur, beginning with the entry for yesterday, 16 December. Here it is:

16th—Imbredagen. In several Norwegian dialects this was the name for the day(s) in the week before jul, and were fast days [!]. There were other fast-days with this name, at the beginning of Lent, during Pentecost, and the week before Mikkelmass (Sept.).

Second, although I have no wish to add further to the glut of blogging about the famous ‘O Antiphons’ of the Latin Advent liturgy (see here if you are interested), nor to annoy once again my Orthodox blogger friends by making a big deal of these antiphons this year, for those who DO have an interest I thought I would go ahead and offer a little list of links to my posts of last year. In those posts, I offered a few poetic elabourations, past and present, of these antiphons, based on the Sarum practice of beginning with the 16th and adding an extra antiphon, ‘O Virgo Virginum’, just before the Eve of the Nativity. Here they are then:

16 & 17 December, O Sapientia & O Adonai

18 December, O Radix

19 December, O Clavis

20 December, O Oriens

21 December, O Rex Gentium

22 December, O Emmanuel

23 December, O Virgo Virginum

Finally, I was looking again at Edmund Spenser’s Shepheardes Calendar, of which Hallett Smith has written that its publication, ‘everybody agrees, . . . ushered in the New Poetry of the Elizabethan age’, [1] and I was struck by how well the opening lines of the ‘Januarye Aeglogue’ capture how it felt when I took my children outside to play after the crazy blizzard that struck Oklahoma City last week:

A Shepeheards boye (no better doe him call)
When Winters wastful spight was almost spent,
All in a sunneshine day, as did befall,
Led forth his flock, that had bene long ypent.
So faint they woxe, and feeble in the folde,
That now unnethes their feete could them uphold. [2]

[1] Hallett Smith, ‘The Shepheardes Calendar’, Edmund Spenser’s Poetry, ed. Hugh MacLean, A Norton Critical Edition (NY: Norton, 1968), p. 625.

[2] MacLean, p. 408.

'Sang in Ages Long Gone By'—A Brief Tribute to Prudentius

Though he is not a Saint, Helen Waddell tells us that the Latin ecclesiastical poet, Aurelius Clemens Prudentius (348-c. 410), a Spaniard, is ‘called the Virgil and the Horace of the Christians’, [1] and L.R. Lind dubs him ‘the first great Christian Latin poet’, [2] and Frederick Artz says something rather similar. [3] Charles Williams observes that he ‘introduced the cult of the martyrs into his verse’, and quotes another author as crediting him with turning ‘the Ambrosian hymn into a Christian ode’. [4] To go back to Waddell:

After a lifetime of distinguished civil service under emperor Theodosius, he withdrew from court and at the age of 57 devoted himself exclusively to poetry on Christian themes. His ‘Psychomachia’ or ‘Battle of the Soul’, the first completely allegorical poem in European literature, exerted a powerful influence over the Middle Ages. Poems from the Cathemerinon—hymns suited to the liturgical Hours—are the glory of the Roman breviary. In his poems he sees Rome, once great under her emperors, greater still by reason of Peter and Paul and her countless martyrs, and longs for the day when Christ will be the undisputed sovereign of a still pagan world. [5]

Artz concludes, ‘A few of his poems rise to the level of great writing; in these his love of Rome and of classical culture and his intense Christian fervor blend harmoniously.’ [6] Gordon Giles’s valuable O Come Emmanuel: A Musical Tour of Daily Readings for Advent & Christmas includes for 14 December Roby Furley Davis’s translation of a terrific hymn on the Nativity:

Of the Father’s heart begotten,
Ere the world from chaos rose,
He is Alpha: from that Fountain
All that is and hath been flows;
He is Omega, of all things
Yet to come the mystic Close,
Evermore and evermore.

O how blest that wondrous birthday,
When the Maid the curse retrieved,
Brought to birth mankind’s salvation,
By the Holy Ghost conceived;
And the Babe, the world’s Redeemer,
In her loving arms received,
Evermore and evermore.

This is he, whom seer and sibyl
Sang in ages long gone by;
This is he of old revealed
In the page of prophecy;
Lo! he comes the promised Savior;
Let the world his praises cry!
Evermore and evermore.

Let the storm and summer sunshine,
Gliding stream and sounding shore,
Sea and forest, frost and zephyr,
Day and night their Lord adore;
Let creation join to laud thee
Through the ages evermore,
Evermore and evermore.

Sing, ye heights of heaven, his praises;
Angels and Archangels, sing!
Wheresoe’er ye be, ye faithful,
Let your joyous anthems ring,
Every tongue his name confessing,
Countless voices answering
Evermore and evermore. [7]

In Waddell’s words, ‘Prudentius is no innovator: Ambrose was before him in rhythm, Hilary in rhyme. But his verse has more of the swiftness of the lyric, less the tread of the processional chant.’ [8]

[1] Helen Waddell, trans., More Latin Lyrics: From Virgil to Milton, ed. Dame Felicitas Corrigan (NY: Norton, 1977), p. 78.

[2] L.R. Lind, ed. Latin Poetry in Verse Translation (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1957), p. 326.

[3] Frederick B. Artz, The Mind of the Middle Ages, AD 200-1500: An Historical Survey, 3rd rev. ed. (Chicago: U of Chicago, 1980), p. 87.

[4] Charles Williams, The Descent of the Dove: A Short History of the Holy Spirit in the Church (Vancouver: Regent College, 2002), p. 80.

[5] Waddell, p. 78. In Religion & the Rise of Western Culture (Garden City, NY: Image, 1958), Christopher Dawson has noted one example of Waddell’s last observation here:

En omne sub regnum Remi
mortale concessit genus
idem loquuntur dissoni
ritus, idipsum sentient.
Hoc destinatum, quo magis
jus Christiani nominis,
quodcunque terrarium jacet,
uno inligaret vinculo.

Dawson’s prose translation reads: ‘Lo, the whole race of man has been bowed to the Kingdom of Remus, different rites say the same and think the same. So it is destined that the Christian law should bind all the earth in one bond’ (p. 28).

[6] Artz, p. 87.

[7] Gordon Giles, O Come Emmanuel: A Musical Tour of Daily Readings for Advent & Christmas (Brewster, MA: Paraclete, 2006), pp. 53-4.

[8] Waddell, p. 78.

28 December 2009

The Archbishop of Canterbury Reading Dostoevsky

We had Christmas yesterday with my non-Orthodox in-laws, having been prevented doing so on Friday by the insane blizzard that swept Oklahoma. Anyway, amid the gift cards, checks, and cash typical of the gifts given to notorious bibliophiles, I did get one actual book, and I must say, it is impressive: Rowan Williams, Dostoevsky: Language, Faith & Fiction (Waco, TX: Baylor University, 2008). I just happened to have skimmed a review in Touchstone a couple of months ago by Ralph Wood, Baylor University Professor of Theology & Literature and a man with whom I’d still like to work someday, so Williams’s book had already caught my interest. [1] Here is the description from the dust jacket:

Rowan Williams explores the intricacies of speech, fiction, metaphor, and iconography in the works of one of literature’s most complex, and most misunderstood, authors. Williams’ investigation focuses on the four major novels of Dostoevsky’s maturity (Crime & Punishment, The Idiot, Devils, and The Brothers Karamazov). He argues that understanding Dostoevsky’s style and goals as a writer of fiction is inseparable from understanding his religious commitments. Any reader who enters the rich and insightful world of Williams’ Dostoevsky will emerge a more thoughtful and appreciative reader for it.

In case that’s not enough, Michael Holquist, Professor Emeritus of Comparative & Slavic Literature at Yale, and the coauthor with Katerina Clark of a terrific intellectual biography of the famous Dostoevsky critic, Mikhail Bakhtin, [2] has an interesting line in his blurb on the back of the dust jacket: ‘This is a work of learning and passion, a heteroglot blend of literary, ethical, and subtle theological argument that is full of surprising local triumphs of interpretation—and that most unacademic virtue, wisdom.’ (This last remark reminds of me of the passage from Screwtape I discussed here!)

I’m generally a little suspicious of the first bearded Archbishop of Canterbury since William Laud (1573-1645), not least because of his liberal views on gay clergy. [3] But I tend to think that Dostoevsky may be one area where we can basically agree. Poking just a bit into the Introduction, I already see one important observation. Williams comments on the tremendous effect on Dostoevsky criticism in the West of Bakhtin’s work [4], concluding, ‘From the mid-seventies onward, critical work in English on Dostoevsky became in general far more sophisticated, and part of that welcome development was a new seriousness of engagement with the religious aspect of the fiction.’ [5] This may seem obvious, but it was something I had not really thought about. The necessity of reading Bakhtin in Dostoevsky studies really has generally made critics of the latter far more sophisticated. Even in other areas of literary criticism, I often find those who do not seem to be familiar with Bakhtin or his ideas to be ridiculously naïve or simplistic. I must also give Williams some serious kudos on one other account: according to a certain reference site, citing this Russian article on the book, Williams learned Russian in order to read Dostoevsky.

My only real criticism after a first glance is an unfortunate lacuna in Williams’s bibliography: Joe E. Barnhart, ed., Dostoevsky’s Polyphonic Talent (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 2005)—seemingly a natural resource for a study of Dostoevsky published by Baylor since it is a collection mostly of papers that were presented at a conference on Dostoevsky held at Baylor in 1999. [6]

I am pleased to note that this book also appears to be the first volume of a promising new series from Baylor under the editorship of Stephen Prickett [7] entitled, ‘The Making of the Christian Imagination’. Williams has penned a tantalising ‘Series Introduction’ included at the beginning of the Dostoevsky book. He concludes:

Because we are in danger of succumbing to a damaging cultural amnesia about what religious commitment looks like in practice, these books seek to show that belief ‘in practice’ is a great deal more than following out abstract imperatives or general commitments. They look at creative minds that have a good claim to represent some of the most decisive and innovative cultural currents of the history of the West (and not only the West), in order to track the ways in which a distinctively Christian imagination makes possible their imaginative achievement. And in doing so, they offer a challenge to what one great thinker called the ‘cultured despisers’ of Christian faith: in dismissing this faith, can an intellectually serious person accept confidently the simultaneous dismissal of the shifts, enlargements, and resources it has afforded the individual and collective imagination? What, finally, would a human world be like if it convinced itself that it had shaken off the legacy of the Christian imagination? The hope of the authors of these volumes is that the answer to that question will be constructively worrying—sufficiently so, perhaps, to make possible a more literary debate about faith and contemporary culture. [8]

Clearly this is an aim very much in keeping with my personal interest in theology and literature. I am very excited about the future volumes in this series!

[1] Ralph C. Wood, ‘Russia’s Gospel Writer Dostoevsky & the Affirmation of Life by Predrag Cicovacki Dostoevsky: Language, Faith, and Fiction by Rowan Williams’, Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity, July/August 2009, 22.6.

[2] Katerina Clark & Michael Holquist, Mikhail Bakhtin (Cambridge, MA: Harvard, 1984).

[3] It is largely on the basis of these views (evident here) that I can’t help but think that his upcoming recognition by St Vladimir’s Seminary is ill-advised. It is ironic that he is to speak on the Philokalia, where St Symeon the New Theologian tells us that a priest ‘should be chaste, not only in body but also in soul’ (The Philokalia, Vol. 4, trans. G.E.H. Palmer, et al. [London: Faber, 1995], p. 62).

To be fair, I was pleased to see Williams’s response (from this source) to some remarks by the heresiarch, John Shelby Spong:

I am genuinely a lot more conservative than he would like me to be. Take the Resurrection. I think he has said that of course I know what all the reputable scholars think on the subject and therefore when I talk about the risen body I must mean something other than the empty tomb. But I don't. I don't know how to persuade him, but I really don't.

So hey, at least he believes in the bodily Resurrection of Christ!

[4] Especially, Mikhail Bakhtin, Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics, ed. & trans. Caryl Emerson (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota, 1994).

[5] Williams, p. 4.

[6] This book includes a paper by Williams’s Touchstone reviewer, Ralph Wood, two by the great Victor Terras of Brown University (whose work I have drawn on here), as well as one poorly written and unwise paper prone to hyperbole by a certain young Orthodox convert who was, strangely, asked to say the blessing at a dinner for the presenters at Baylor.

[7] Pricket was lately Margaret Root Brown Professor for Browning Studies and Victorian Poetry and Director of the Armstrong Browning Library at Baylor. The Armstrong Browning Library is housed in the most beautiful building on the Baylor campus, and it was here that the Dostoevsky conference dinner was held.

[8] Williams, p. ix.

27 December 2009

'The Father of Moldavian Hesychasts'—St Daniel the Hesychast

Today, 14 December on the Church’s calendar, we celebrate the memory of the Holy Daniel the Hesychast of Voroneţ (†1496). [1] Speaking of St Daniel, Bishop Seraphim (Joantă) tells us that ‘tradition calls this Saint “the Father of Moldavian hesychasts” because of the influence he exercised on the development of the hesychastic life, both in his lifetime and after his death.’ [2] According to Archimandrite Ioanichie (Bălan):

By the holiness of his life, Saint Daniel the Hesychast showed himself to be a Christ-bearer and a great teacher of silence and the Jesus Prayer or even from his youth. During his lifetime there was no hesychast and spiritual father in Moldavia more renowned than he, nor any doer and teacher of prayer more skilled. For this reason all the abbots and spiritual fathers of northern Moldavia, as well as the high officials of the National Council (the Sfat), had him as their spiritual father. [3]

Here is the brief Life composed by Fr Ioanichie:

Our holy Father Daniel the Hesychast was one of the greatest Saints brought forth by the Moldavian land, a great teacher of the desert and a guide of monks.

This Romanian Saint was born at the beginning of the fifteenth century to a family of poor people who lived on the estates of Saint Nicholas Monastery in Rădăuţi. He was named Demetrius at Baptism. He became a monk at this same monastery when he was sixteen years old and was given the name of David. After some years of severe asceticism, he was granted the grace of the priesthood and went to live at Saint Laurence Monastery in Vicoul de Sus commune. Then being called by the Holy Spirit to the life of the desert, he became a schemamonk with the name of Daniel sometime before 1450. At first he lived the ascetic life alone in unknown spiritual labors in the valley of Secu Brook near Neamţ Monastery, and then in a small cell carved out of rock in the valley of Putna Creek.

After the consecration of Putna Monastery in 1470, Saint Daniel the Hesychast went to live in the vicinity of Voroneţ Monastery, where he carved for himself a cell out of rock under Falcon Cliff. He lived the ascetic life here for twenty years, pleasing God, training many disciples, and performing many miracles of healing.

When the church of Voroneţ Monastery was built in 1488, Saint Daniel the Hesychast—who was then over eighty years old—moved down to the community and became the abbot of this monastery. He lived for a short time longer and was honored by the people as a Saint and miracle-worker. Saint Daniel gave his soul into the hands of God about the year 1496 and was buried in the church, where his relics remain until today. [4]

Fr Ioanichie tells us that as a child, St Daniel ‘was never absent from church, nor did he play with other children, or seek repose and food, but rather he always prayed and was obedient to his parents in all things.’ He continues:

When he was about ten years old, the child Demetrius was given to Saint Nicholas Monastery in R to be educated. Although young in age, he showed himself old in understanding, for he quickly learned the Horologion and the Psalter by heart, as well as the practice of spiritual asceticism. [5]

A spiritual child of the holy hierarch St Leontius of Rădăuţi, as a monk St Daniel ‘loved silence, fasting, and prayer most of all. . . . In his cell he slept a little on a small stool, keeping vigil often and meditating on divine things. He loved the Psalter greatly, knew it by heart, and repeated it daily.’ [6] Later in his account, Fr Ioanichie refers to St Daniel’s life in a cliffside cell in the valley of Viteu Brook:

The asceticism practiced by our holy Father Daniel the Hesychast in his cell was this:

Day and night he kept vigil in unceasing prayer and meditation on divine things, fasting until sunset. He didn’t leave his cell all week. His food was dried bread, roots, and herbs, and for handiwork he wove baskets of withes. On Sunday he celebrated the Divine Liturgy and communed the Body and Blood of Christ. Afterwards he received those who came to him for healing and for a profitable word. During the fasts he would fast for as much as three and sometimes five days. He had the gift of prayer and tears. [7]

There are some interesting references to the variant activities and lifestyles of St Daniel’s disciples. First, Fr Ioanichie tells us:

He soon became the spiritual father of dozens of hesychasts who labored in the forests of Voroneţ, in the Rarău Mountains, and over the length of the Eastern Carpathians. Most of them practiced the Jesus Prayer, fasting, and silence, others read the Psalter daily, others made thousands of prostrations and wove baskets, while others, being good calligraphers, wrote service books for churches and monasteries. [8]

Later on, Fr Ioanichie writes specifically of the Fathers of Voroneţ:

During his abbacy Voroneţ monastery reached the height of its spiritual flourishing, being for a long time considered Moldavia’s lavra of hesychasm. All the monks of the community, over sixty ascetics, practiced the Jesus Prayer. Some were renowned pastors and spiritual fathers for the faithful, others were learned teachers in the monastery school and untiring calligraphers, and most were monks of prayer who glorified God unceasingly and prayed for the whole world. Many parish priests, abbots, bishops, monks, hesychasts, and officials were educated and learned spiritual asceticism at Voroneţ. More than fifty other hesychast disciples of Saint Daniel lived in asceticism out of love for Christ in the age-old forests of the Voroneţ, Rarău, and Stînişoara Mountains. The great Abbot and guide of souls, ‘our holy Elder, Father Daniel the Hesychast’, directed all these men and guided them on the good path to the Kingdom of Heaven. [9]

I have already referred to St Daniel’s relationship with St Stephen the Great of Moldavia in my post on the latter. Although he flubs the holy Prince’s name, calling him ‘Petru Rares’ [10], Fr John McGuckin in what looks to be a fascinating article refers to St Daniel’s counsel to St Stephen during his battles with the Turks as an example of the ambivalent attitude to war and violence in the Eastern Church. Fr McGuckin writes:

The saint commanded the prince to erect monasteries on the site of the great battles, to ensure mourning and prayer for the lost souls whose blood had been shed. This was an act that was seen as a necessary expiation of Petru’s ‘equally necessary’ violence. Both he and his spiritual mentor were heavily burdened by their perceived duty of defending the borders of Christendom. To this day Romania’s most ancient and beautiful churches stand as mute witnesses to a bloody history where Islam and Christianity’s tectonic plates collided (as often they did in the history of the Christian East). [11]

At one point, speaking of St Daniel’s call by the Holy Spirit to the desert-dweller’s life, Fr Ioanichie writes, ‘His soul was wounded by the love of Christ and he desired to glorify Him unceasingly with the angels and with the hesychasts who lived in the Carpathian forests.’ [12] I cannot help but pause and reflect here. I first learned of the Carpathians when I read the words of Jonathan Harker in his journal entry from Bistritz on 1 May: ‘I find that the district he named is in the extreme east of the country, just on the borders of three states, Transylvania, Moldavia, and Bukovina, in the midst of the Carpathian mountains; one of the wildest and least known portions of Europe.’ [13] Thus, in my imagination the Carpathians took on a dark, superstitious, even Gothic cast from my very first encounter with them. But more importantly, due to the idiosyncracies of my childhood, it was a landscape that stuck with me. The Carpathians were to me something like what Narnia probably is to many other children.

Little did I know then that, as Bishop Seraphim notes, what ‘appears to be the most ancient monastic center in the Romanian land’ consisted ‘of a notable number of sketes and stone cells located in the mountains in the angle of the Carpathians.’ [14] The discovery not only of Orthodoxy, but Orthodoxy in its deepest and most radical form in the midst of that imaginative landscape of my childhood gave me a wonderful sense of fulfillment, of everything being brought full circle by God’s providence. Lewis speaks of the baptism of his imagination. For me it was like discovering that much of what I’d imagined had already been baptised. (For more examples, see this post, and this one.)

The image at the top of the post represents the first depiction of St Daniel ‘as a Saint with a halo’. It was painted by his disciple, Metropolitan Gregory (Roşca) ‘in 1547 on the southern wall of Voroneţ Monastery, to the left of the entrance to the pridvor as can still be seen today. He is holding in his hand an open scroll on which is written, Come, brothers, hearken unto me. I will teach you the fear of the lord. Who is the man . . . (Ps. 33).’ [15]

[1] The Holy Trinity parish calendar site seems to have an error here, listing ‘Venerable Daniel the Hesychast of Voronej (17th c.) (Romania)’. The only Romanian ‘Daniel the Hesychast’ connected with a place-name resembling this one is St Daniel the Hesychast of Voroneţ, who lived in the 15th c., and according to Fr Ioanichie, this St Daniel is commemorated on 14 December. Clearly, Holy Trinity has some typos.

[2] Bishop Seraphim (Joantă), Romania: Its Hesychast Tradition & Culture (Wildwood, CA: St Xenia Skete, 1992), pp. 66-7.

[3] Archimandrite Ioanichie (Bălan), Romanian Patericon: Saints of the Romanian Orthodox Church, Vol. 1 (Platina, CA: St Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 1996), p. 190.

[4] Ibid., pp. 182, 184.

[5] Ibid., p. 184.

[6] Ibid., pp. 184, 186.

[7] Ibid., p. 188.

[8] Ibid., pp. 191-2.

[9] Ibid, pp. 192-3.

[10] Petru IV Rareş was a Moldavian voievode of the 16th century.

[11] Fr John McGuckin, ‘Nonviolence and Peace Traditions in Early & Eastern Christianity.’

[12] Fr Ioanichie, p. 186.

[13] Bram Stoker, The Annotated Dracula, ed. Leonard Wolf, Illust. Stty (NY: Clarkson N. Potter, 1975), p. 2.

[14] Bishop Seraphim, p. 19.

[15] Fr Ioanichie, p. 193.

26 December 2009

'Light Is Beauty in Beholding'—St Lucy of Syracuse

Today, 13 December on the Church’s calendar, we celebrate the memory of the Holy Virgin Martyr Lucy of Syracuse, Sicily. I posted the Life of St Lucy from the Prologue last year—this year I offer the account of St Lucy’s life from the Great Horologion:

Saint Lucia was from Syracuse in Sicily, a virgin betrothed to a certain pagan. Since her mother suffered from an issue of blood, she went with her to the shrine of Saint Agatha at Catania to seek healing. There Saint Agatha appeared to Lucia in a dream, assuring her of her mother’s healing, and foretelling Lucia’s martyrdom. When her mother had been healed, Lucia gladly distributed her goods to the poor, preparing herself for her coming confession of Christ. Betrayed as a Christian by her betrothed to Paschasius the Governor, she was put in a brothel to be abased, but was preserved in purity by the grace of God. Saint Lucia was beheaded in the year 304, during the reign of Diocletian. [1]

In the passage ‘For Consideration’ in today’s Prologue, St Nicholas (Velimirović) expands in quite an instructive way upon the story of St Lucy distributing her mother’s goods:

To give alms out of one’s own need is true almsgiving. Not even the most hardened sinner sins then, for it is an act precious before God. When St Lucy had seen her sick mother miraculously healed, she suggested to her that her possessions be used as alms to the needy. Her mother replied that she was not willing to relinquish her goods until her death, but agreed that, when that happened, lucy should use them in whatever way she wished. ‘First cover my eyes with earth’, she said, ‘and then do what you will with them.’ Lucy said: ‘He who gives to God only what he cannot take with him into the grave, or make use of in this life, is not very pleasing to God. If you want to do something pleasing to Him, give him that which you yourself need. In death, you can use nothing at all, and need from Him things that you cannot take with you. It is better to give to Christ that which you have while you are alive and well. Give to Him all that you have set aside for me, and do it now!’ The devout mother hearkened to her wise daughter, and did so.

When the torturer Paschasius was trying to force this holy maiden into carnal sin, lucy tried to keep the thought of it from entering her will. When the torturer threatened that his men would defile her by force, saying with a smirk: ‘When you have been defiled, the Holy Spirit will flee from you’, Lucy, full of grace, replied; ‘The body cannot be defiled without the consent of the mind’, and holy Lucy went to her pure death having given away all her goods and having preserved her pure young body from defilement. [2]

The name ‘Lucy’ is of course derived from the Latin lux, for ‘light’. Gordon Giles observes, ‘Before the reform of the Gregorian calendar in the sixteenth century, Lucy’s Day fell on the winter solstice (now December 21), the shortest day.’ [3] Hence the motif of light drawn upon by the Kontakion in Tone 6 from the Akolouthia for St Lucy composed by Reader Isaac Lambertsen:

Upon those sitting in darkness and the shadow of unbelief hast thou cast the brilliant beams of thy splendour, O radiant Lucy, namesake of light; wherefore, illumined by the grace of God which shineth in thee like a beacon, we discern the straight and narrow path of faith, which leadeth to the mansions on high, wherein, O most holy martyr of Christ, thou abidest eternally with thy heavenly Bridegroom.

Thus, this holy Virgin can be seen as ushering in the days of increasing light. According to the Oxford Dictionary of Saints, ‘Especially in Sweden her feast on the shortest day of the year has become a festival of light: the youngest daughter, dressed in white, wakes the rest of the family with coffee, rolls, and a special song.’ [4] The Golden Legend rather poetically ties in the meaning of St Lucy’s name to the beauty of her virginity:

Lucy is said of light, and light is beauty in beholding, after that S. Ambrose saith: The nature of light is such, she is gracious in beholding, she spreadeth over all without lying down, she passeth in going right without crooking by right long line; and it is without dilation of tarrying, and therefore it is showed the blessed Lucy hath beauty of virginity without any corruption; essence of charity without disordinate love; rightful going and devotion to God, without squaring out of the way; right long line by continual work without negligence of slothful tarrying. In Lucy is said, the way of light.

The moral purity of virginity is naturally a prominent virtue in the crown of today’s Saint. According to this website, the following passage from St Ambrose’s book On Virginity is read during the office for St Lucy in the Western Church:

You are one of God’s people, of God’s family, a virgin among virgins; you light up your grace of body with your splendor of soul. More than others you can be compared to the Church. When you are in your room, then, at night, think always on Christ, and wait for his coming at every moment.

This is the person Christ has loved in loving you, the person he has chosen in choosing you. He enters by the open door; he has promised to come in, and he cannot deceive. Embrace him, the one you have sought; turn to him, and be enlightened; hold him fast, ask him not to go in haste, beg him not to leave you. The Word of God moves swiftly; he is not won by the lukewarm, nor held fast by the negligent. Let your soul be attentive to his word; follow carefully the path God tells you to take, for he is swift in his passing.

What does his bride say? I sought him, and did not find him; I called him, and he did not hear me. Do not imagine that you are displeasing to him although you have called him, asked him opened the door to him, and that this is the reason why he has gone so quickly; no, for he allows us to be constantly tested. When the crowds pressed him to stay, what does he say in the Gospel? I must preach the word of God to other cities, because for that I have been sent. But even if it seems to you that he has left you, go out and seek him once more.

Who but holy Church is to teach you how to hold Christ fast? Indeed, she has already taught you, if you only understood her words in Scripture: How short a time it was when I left them before I found him whom my soul has loved. I held him fast, and I will not let him go.

How do we hold him fast? Not by restraining chains or knotted ropes but by bonds of love, by spiritual reins, by the longing of the soul.

If you also, like the bride, wish to hold him fast, seek him and be fearless of suffering. It is often easier to find him in the midst of bodily torments, in the very hands of persecutors.

His bride says: How short a time it was after I left them. In a little space, after a brief moment, when you have escaped from the hands of your persecutors without yielding to the powers of this world, Christ will come to you, and he will not allow you to be tested for long.

Whoever seeks Christ in this way, and finds him, can say: I held him fast, and I will not let him go before I bring him into my mother’s house, into the room of her who conceived me. What is this ‘house’, this ‘room’, but the deep and secret places of your heart?

Maintain this house, sweep out its secret recesses until it becomes immaculate and rises as a spiritual temple for a holy priesthood, firmly secured by Christ, the cornerstone, so that the Holy Spirit may dwell in it.

Whoever seeks Christ in this way, whoever prays to Christ in this way, is not abandoned by him; on the contrary, Christ comes again and again to visit such a person, for he is with us until the end of the world.

Although St Ambrose draws primarily upon the Song of Songs in the passage above, his exhortation to ‘wait for his coming at every moment’ surely reminds the Christian of the parable of the ten virgins from Matthew 25:1-13, appointed to be read during the Liturgy for St Lucy and beautifully connected to the Saint by the Ikos during the Canon of Matins:

Waiting for the divine Word to come for her, like the wise virgins Lucy filled the lamp of her soul with oil most rich; for having sold all her property, she bestowed all her substance upon the poor and destitute. Wherefore, feeding the hungry and giving drink to those athirst, clothing the naked and providing shelter for the indigent, she laid up for herself great store of the oil of mercy, wherewith to delight her Master. For this cause, let us sinners entreat her with boldness, that she pour forth of her oil and wine upon our manifold wounds, treating the afflictions of our bodies and curing the passions of our souls, that, restored to full health by her, we also may abide eternally with the heavenly Bridegroom.

The great English poet, John Donne, has composed a dark poem for this darkest of days, upon which we nevertheless look forward to the light:

A nocturnall upon S. Lucies day,
Being the shortest day.

Tis the yeares midnight, and it is the dayes,
Lucies, who scarce seven houres herself unmaskes,
The Sunne is spent, and now his flasks
Send forth light squibs, no constant rayes;
The worlds whole sap is sunke;
The generall balme th’hydroptique earth hath drunk,
Whither, as to the beds-feet, life is shrunke,
Dead and enterr’d; yet all these seeme to laugh,
Compar’d with mee, who am their Epitaph.

Study me then, you who shall lovers bee
At the next world, that is, at the next Spring:
For I am every dead thing,
In whom love wrought new Alchimie.
For his art did expresse
A quintessence even from nothingnesse,
From dull privations, and leane emptinesse:
He ruin’d mee, and I am re-begot
Of absence, darknesse, death; things which are not.

All others, from all things, draw all that’s good,
Life, soule, forme, spirit, whence they beeing have;
I, by loves limbecke, am the grave
Of all, that’s nothing. Oft a flood
Have wee two wept, and so
Drownd the whole world, us two; oft did we grow,
To be two Chaosses, when we did show
Care to ought else; and often absences
Withdrew our soules, and made us carcasses.

But I am by her death, (which word wrongs her)
Of the first nothing, the Elixer grown;
Were I a man, that I were one,
I needs must know; I should preferre,
If I were any beast,
Some ends, some means; Yea plants, yea stones detest,
And love; all, all some properties invest;
If I an ordinary nothing were,
As shadow, a light, and body must be here.

But I am None; nor will my Sunne renew.
You lovers, for whose sake, the lesser Sunne
At this time to the Goat is runne
To fetch new lust, and give it you,
Enjoy your summer all;
Since shee enjoys her long nights festival,
Let mee prepare towards her, and let mee call
This houre her Vigill, and her Eve, since this
Both the yeares, and the dayes deep midnight is. [5]

But to counter his spell, here in full is the translation given by Giles of the famous traditional song,‘Santa Lucia’ (don’t ask me to explain the oddities of the last stanza!):

Hark! through the darksome night
Sounds come a winging:
Lo! ’tis the Queen of Light
Joyfully singing.
Clad in her garment white,
Wearing her crown of light,
Santa Lucia, Santa Lucia.

Deep in the northern sky
Bright stars are beaming;
Christmas is drawing nigh,
Candles are gleaming.
Welcome you vision rare,
Lights glowing in your hair.
Santa Lucia, Santa Lucia.

The darkness shall soon depart
from the earth’s valleys
thus she speaks
a wonderful word to us
The day shall rise anew
from the rosy sky.
Santa Lucia, Santa Lucia. [7]

Incidentally, the mosaic at the top, from San Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna, contains ‘the earliest surviving image’ of St Lucy, who is second from the right. [6]

[1] The Great Horologion, trans. HTM (Boston: HTM, 1997), p. 342

[2] St Nicholas (Velimirović), The Prologue from Ochrid, Vol. 4, trans. Mother Maria (Birmingham: Lazarica, 1986), pp. 321-2.

[3] Gordon Giles, O Come Emmanuel: A Musical Tour of Daily Readings for Advent & Christmas (Brewster, MA: Paraclete, 2006), p. 51.

[4] David Hugh Farmer, The Oxford Dictionary of Saints, 5th ed. (Oxford: Oxford U, 2004), p. 328.

[5] Herbert J.C. Grierson, ed., The Poems of John Donne, Vol. 1: The Text of the Poems with Appendixes (London: Oxford U, 1966), pp. 44-5.

[6] Farmer, p. 328.

[7] Giles, p. 49.

25 December 2009

'Good Hope of America, Grace-bearing Witness of the Orthodox Faith'—St Herman of Alaska

Today, 12 December on the Church’s calendar, we celebrate the memory of our Holy and God-bearing Father Herman, Wonderworker of Alaska. Elder Aimilianos of Simonopetra, speaking on the occasion of the reception in Greece of a large relic of St Herman, said, ‘This saint was a wonderful ascetic, a true monk. He was also a missionary and miracle worker.’ [1] Later, in the same speech, he pointed out that St Herman ‘fed on, was satiated day and night with God. He knew that his monastic rason was his greatest glory, and by virtue of his monastic life he arrived at those heights that we men usually think are superhuman and unattainable.’ [2] Fr Michael Oleksa places St Herman in the context of a theology of mission:

Perhaps as important as explaining or translating, the example of the missionary’s own life convinced doubters and converted them to an authentic Christian life. Such was the influence of St Herman’s ascetic labors on the spirituality of the Kodiak Aleuts, not only during his lifetime, but for two centuries after. [3]

Here is the account of St Herman’s life in the Great Horologion:

Saint Herman (his name is a variant of Germanus) was born near Moscow in 1756. In his youth he became a monk, first at the Saint Sergius Hermitage near Saint Petersburg on the Gulf of Finland; while he dwelt there, the most holy Mother of God appeared to him, healing him of a grave malady. Afterwards he entered Valaam Monastery on Valaam Island in Lake Ladoga; he often withdrew into the wilderness to pray for days at a time. In 1794, answering a call for missionaries to preach the Gospel to the Aleuts, he came to the New World with the first Orthodox mission to Alaska. He settled on Spruce Island, which he called New Valaam, and here he persevered, even in the face of many grievous afflictions—mostly at the hands of his own countrymen—in the loving service of God and of his neighbour. Besides his many toils for the sake of the Aleuts, he subdued his flesh with great asceticism, wearing chains, sleeping little, fasting and praying much. He brought many people to Christ by the example of his life, his teaching, and his kindness and sanctity, and was granted the grace of working miracles and of prophetic insight. Since he was not a priest, Angels descended at Theophany to bless the waters in the bay; Saint Herman used this holy water to heal the sick. Because of his unwearying missionary labours, which were crowned by God with the salvation of countless souls, he is called the Enlightener of the Aleuts, and has likewise been renowned as a wonderworker since his repose in 1837. [4]

Here is a description of St Herman from one who knew him well, colonial Governor S.I. Yanovsky:

‘I clearly remember,’ he says, ‘all the features of the Elder’s face, which shone with grace: his pleasant smile, meek and attractive gaze, his humble, quiet manner, and his amiable words. He was not tall, he had a pale face, covered with wrinkles, his eyes were gray-blue and full of brightness, and on his head he had a few gray hairs. His speech was not lout, but very pleasant.’ [5]

A few incidents of St Herman’s life are worth quoting or remarking on at greater length. First of all, the Theotokia from the Akolouthia for the Saint published by the St Herman Brotherhood make frequent reference to the healing by the Mother of God referred to in the Horologion account. Here for instance is the Theotokion from the first Ode of the Canon:

Seeing his fervent prayer, O Mother of God, Thou didst heal the young Herman of a mortal infirmity: likewise do not disdain even us who fall down before Thee and call upon him to pray to Thee. [6]

So here is the account of this miracle from the Life compiled by the St Herman Brotherhood:

During Yegor’s [St Herman’s] youth the following incident occurred. On the right side of his neck under his beard there appeared an abscess. The pain was horrible. The swelling grew rapidly and disfigured his whole face; it was very difficult to swallow and there was an intolerable smell. In such a dangerous condition, expecting to die, Yegor did not turn to an earthly physician, but, with warm prayer and tears he fell before the icon of the Heavenly Queen, entreating healing from her. He prayed the whole night, then with a wet towel he wiped the face of the icon of the Most Pure Theotokos, and with this towel he wrapped his swelling. Continuing to pray with tears he fell asleep on the floor in exhaustion and saw in a dream that he had been healed by the Most Holy Virgin. In the morning he awoke, stood up and, to his great amazement, found himself completely healthy; the swelling had dispersed without rupturing, leaving only a small lump as a reminder of the miracle. The doctors who were told about this healing did not believe it, insisting that the abscess must have burst by itself or must have been cut out. However, the words of the physicians were the words of the experience of human weakness; for where God’s grace acts, the order of nature is overcome. Such manifestations humble man’s mind under the mighty hand of God’s mercy! [7]

Second, it is important to remember that at Valaam, he was the disciple of the great hesychast, St Nazarius, an advisor on obscure points of teaching to the Russian editors of the Slavonic Philokalia. Thus it is no surprise to find that St Herman had a copy of the Philokalia with him in Alaska, [8] or to find that after a description of his physical ascesis, the Life tells us:

The above-described characteristics of the Elder refer, so to say, to his outward activity. ‘But his main activity,’ as Bishop Peter of New Arkhangelsk (1889) said, ‘was the exercise of spiritual labors in the seclusion of his cell, where no one saw him. Only from outside his cell was he heard singing and performing the services in accordance with the monastic rule.’ The bishop’s testimony is confirmed by the following reply of Fr Herman himself. The Elder was asked: ‘How do you, Fr Herman, live alone in the forest? How do you keep from being bored?’ He responded: ‘No! I’m not alone there! God is there, as God is everywhere! Holy angles are there! Can one be bored with them? With whom is it better and more pleasant to converse—with people or with angels? With angels, of course!’ [9]

Grasping the deep significance of all this, Elder Aimilianos concludes:

Thus, deep in those dark woods and alone with Christ Alone, he spoke with Him and heavenly heights were revealed to him. Spiritual sights were unveiled for him, and our Lord placed before him all the powers of heaven concealed in the Church. It was thus that he knew at last what he had to have and to say to the world. [10]

Finally, it is worth giving on full the story of St Herman’s conversation with the officers on the Russian frigate, which has become an important part of the Saint’s spiritual legacy to the Orthodox of America. From the account of the Governor Yanovsky:

Once the Elder was invited to a frigate that had arrived from St Petersburg. The captain of the frigate was a rather learned man, highly educated. He had been sent to America by imperial decree to inspect all the colonies. There were at least twenty-five officers with the captain, likewise educated men. In this company sat a man of rather short stature, with worn-out clothing—a desert-dwelling monk, who with his wise conversation brought all these educated men to such a state that they did not know how to answer him. The captain himself related: ‘We were at a loss how to answer, like fools before him!’ Fr Herman posed one common question to all of them: ‘What do you, gentlemen, love more than anything else, and what would each of you wish for your happiness?’ Various responses began to pour out. Some wished for riches, others glory, others a beautiful wife, others a beautiful ship that he would command, and so on in the same vein. ‘Isn’t it true,’ said Fr Herman to them, ‘that all your various wishes could be summed up in one—that each of you wishes that which, according to his understanding, he considers the best and most worthy of love?’ ‘Yes, that is true!’ they all replied. ‘Tell me,’ he continued, ‘what could be better, higher than all, more superlative and most worthy of love if not the Lord, our Jesus Christ Himself, Who created us, adorned us with such good qualities, gave life to all, maintains and nourishes everything, loves everyone, Who is Himself love, and is more wonderful than all people? Shouldn’t one therefore love God far more than all things, and desire and seek Him more than anything?’ All began to speak: ‘Well, yes! That is self-evident! That is true in itself!’ ‘But do you love God?’ the Elder then asked. All replied: ‘Of course we love God. How can one not love God?’ ‘And I, a sinner, have been trying to love God for more than forty years, and cannot say that I perfectly love Him,’ replied Fr Herman, and he began to demonstrate how one must love God. ‘If we love someone,’ he said, ‘we always remember him and try to please him; day and night our heart is occupied with that object. Is that how you, gentlemen, love God? Do you often turn to Him, do you always remember Him, do you always pray to Him and fulfill His holy commandments?’ They had to admit that they did not. ‘For our good, for our happiness,’ concluded the Elder, ‘at least let us make a vow that from this day, from this hour, from this minute we shall strive to love God above all else and to fulfill His holy will!’ What a wise and wonderful talk Fr Herman conducted in society: without a doubt this conversation must have been impressed in the hearts of his listeners for the rest of their lives! [11]

The final sticheron from ‘Lord, I have cried’ at Great Vespers for the Saint is a reference to this story:

What is above all, * if not the Lord our Creator, * Adorner of beauty, * Giver of life, * Maintainer and Nourisher of all things: * is it not Him that it is befitting to love, * as most worthy of love, * and to place one’s happiness in Him, * thus, O Saint, didst thou teach; * likewise teach us also * with all our heart to love God. [12]

Situated between the feasts of St Nicholas and the Nativity, it is interesting to observe a couple of connections between St Herman and these more famous celebrations. First, there is a passage in the Life that reminds one of the Western conception of the Wonderworker of Myra: ‘Fr Herman especially loved children. He would give them crackers, and bake pretzels for them; and the little ones were especially attracted to his gentleness.’ [13] It is a characteristic well-portrayed in Dorrie Papademetriou’s delightful children’s book, North Star: St Herman of Alaska. [14]

Second, while there seem to be fewer anticipations of the Nativity in St Herman’s hymnography than in some of the other Saints’ services celebrated during the fast (see here and here for instance), there are a couple of passages worth mentioning. First, here is the lovely Dogmaticon in Tone 6 from the stichera at ‘Lord I have cried’ at Great Vespers for the Saint:

Who will not glorify Thee, O Most Holy Virgin; * who will not hymn Thy most pure giving of birth; * the Only-begotten Son, Who hath shone forth from the Father before the ages, * hath come also from Thee, O Pure One, * unutterably incarnate, * being in nature God, * and having become in nature man for our sake, * not divided in two persons, * but made known in two Natures without fusion, * to Him pray, O Pure and All-blessed One, * that there may be mercy on our souls. [15]

But it is perhaps more interesting to note the references to St Herman’s sod hut as a ‘cave’, [16] which remind one of the cave of Christ’s birth, and then to consider the sticheron after ‘Glory’ and immediately preceding the Dogmaticon above:

What cavern of the earth, what lapse of time, * O holy Father Herman, * can conceal thy glory which is in heaven; * wherefore, now glorifying, we fall down before thee, * having thee as an intercessor before the Lord, * pray then to Him to grant deliverance * to the suffering Russian land, * to this land prosperity, * and to our souls great mercy. [17]

Compare with this the troparion in Tone 6 from Vespers for the Nativity: ‘Thou wast born secretly in the cave, but heaven spoke through a star and proclaimed Thee to all, O Saviour. And it brought to Thee Magi, who worshipped Thee with faith: have mercy upon them and upon us.’ [18]

There is a good account of St Herman’s life, together with some teachings of the Saint, at the website of Bishop Alexander of blessed memory. Here is a passage from a letter of St Herman on Bishop Alexander’s page:

A true Christian is made by faith and love of Christ. Our sins do not in the least hinder our Christianity, according to the word of the Savior Himself. He said: I am not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance; there is more joy in heaven over one who repents than over ninety and nine just ones. Likewise concerning the sinful woman who touched His feet, He said to the Pharisee Simon: to one who has love, a great debt is forgiven, but from one who has no love, even a small debt will be demanded. From these judgements a Christian should bring himself to hope and joy, and not in the least accept the torment of despair. Here one needs the shield of faith.

Sin, to one who loves God, is nothing other than an arrow from the enemy in battle. The true Christian is a warrior fighting his way through the regiments of the unseen enemy to his heavenly homeland. According to the word of the Apostle, our homeland is in heaven; and about the warrior he says: we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places (Eph.6: 12).

The vain desires of this world separate us from our homeland; love of them and habit clothe our soul as if in a hideous garment. This is called by the Apostles the outward man. We, traveling on the journey of this life and calling on God to help us, ought to be divesting ourselves of this hideous garment and clothing ourselves in new desires, in a new love of the age to come, and thereby to receive knowledge of how near or how far we are from our heavenly homeland. But it is not possible to do this quickly; rather one must follow the example of sick people, who, wishing the desired health, do not leave off seeking means to cure themselves.

It is also my delight to point out that in a wonderfully Logismoic post, the good John Sanidopoulos has tracked down some translations of a poem that Yanovsky tells us St Herman loved:

‘Once,’ he writes, ‘I read Derzhavin’s ode “God” to Fr Herman. The Elder was amazed and ecstatic, and asked that I read it once more, which I did. “Is it possible that this was written by an ordinary scholar?” he asked. “Yes, he was a scholar, a poet,” I answered. “It was written by the inspiration of God,” said the Elder.’ [19]

According to Sir Dimitri Obolensky, Derzhavin (1743-1816) ‘combined a grand classical manner with several new features—such as the emphasis on emotional subjectivity and on the world of nature—which were further developed by poets of the early nineteenth century.’ [20] Here is the more ‘literal’ of the two versions John posted:


(Translated by Nathan Haskell Dole)

O Thou, infinite in space,
Living in the motions of matter,
Eternal in the course of time,
Without persons in the three persons of the Godhead!
Spirit everywhere permeating, and One,
Who hast no place or condition;
Unto whom no one can attain,
Who fillest all things with Thyself,
Embracest, vivifiest, preservest,
Whom we call God.

To measure the ocean deep,
To count the sands, the planet's rays,
Might be in the power of lofty intellect,—
For Thee there is no number and no measure;
Powerless are the enlightened spirits
Though born of Thy light
To explore Thy decrees.
So soon as thought dare mount towards Thee
It vanishes in Thy majesty,
As a passing instant in eternity.

Existence, forth from chaos, before time was,
Thou from the gulfs of Eternity didst call forth;
And Eternity, before the birth of the ages,
Thou didst found in Thyself:
By Thyself, self constituted,
Of Thyself, self shining,
Thou art light, from whence light streamed.
Creating all things by Thy single word,
In Thy new creation stretching out
Thou wast, Thou art, Thou ever shalt be.

Thou containest in Thyself the chain of beings,
Thou sustainest them, and givest them life,
Thou joinest together the end and the beginning,
Thou grantest life unto death.
As sparks are showered forth, and rush away
So suns are born from Thee.
As on a bright, frosty winter's day
The spangles of hoar-frost sparkle,
So whirl, flash, shine
The stars in the gulfs beneath Thee.

Millions of kindled luminaries
Flow through infinity;
Thy laws they operate,
Pour forth revivifying rays.
But these fiery lamps
Whether piles of ruddy crystals
Or a boiling throng of golden billows,
Others glowing
Or all alike worlds of light,
Are in Thy presence as night before day.

Like a drop drowned in the sea
Is all the shining firmament before Thee;
But what is the Universe that I see?
And what am I before Thee ?
If yon aerial ocean exist
Millions of worlds,
Hundreds of millions of other worlds, and yet,—
When I venture to compare them with Thee,
They are but a single dot,
And I in Thy presence am naught.

Naught! But in me Thou shinest
In the majesty of Thy goodness;
In me Thou reflectest Thyself
As the sun in a tiny drop of water.
Naught! But life I feel,
Unsatisfied with aught, I soar
Ever aloft unto the heights;
My soul yearns to be Thine,
Penetrates, meditates, thinks:
I am, therefore Thou art also.

Thou art! the order of Nature proclaims it,
My heart tells me the same,
My reason persuades me;
Thou art, and I am therefore not nothing!
I am a part of the universal All,
Established, methinks, in the reverend
Midst of Thy Universe,
Where Thou hast ended Thy corporeal creatures,
Where Thou hast begun the heavenly spirits
And the chain of all beings is linked to me.

I am a bond between all worlds everywhere existent,
I am the utmost limit of being;
I am the centre of living things,
The initial stroke of Divinity;
In my body I perish in dust corruptible,
In my spirit I command the storms;
I am a tsar, I am a slave; I am a worm, I am god!
But marvelous indeed as I am,
Whence did I have my being? Unknown
But by myself I could not have been.

Thy work am I, Creator!
I am the creation of Thy wisdom,
Source of life, Dispenser of all good,
Soul of my soul, and Tsar!
It was necessary for Thy righteousness
That the gulf of mortality should be spanned
By my immortal existence;
That my spirit should be wrapped in mortality
And that through death I should return,
Father, to Thy immortality.

Incomprehensible, Ineffable,
I know that my soul's imagination is helpless
To paint even Thy shadow;
But if it is necessary to sing Thy praise,
Then it is impossible for feeble mortals
To reverence Thee in any other way
Than by yearning toward Thee
By losing one's self in Thy endless variety,
And by shedding tears of gratitude.

I highly recommend a thorough look through the beautiful photos taken by Reader Patrick Barnes during his pilgrimage to Spruce Island. In conclusion, here is the sticheron in Tone 8 at the Litia for the feast of the Saint:

Ascetic of new Valaam, * thy brethren were dear to thee, * for with them thou didst dwell in thy native Valaam. * Yet a hundredfold more desired were thy fleshless friends, * who transported thy soul to divine vision, * with whom thou now dost dwell. * Rejoice, O Father, for us who glorify thy memory, * invisibly instructing us in profitable repentance; * fruitful shoot of the Russian land, * upbringing of Ladoga’s waters, * church blessing of Alaska and the Aleutian Isles, * good hope of America, * grace-bearing witness of the Orthodox Faith, * O God-pleasing Herman, * obtain for us the peace of God, surpassing every mind, and great mercy. [21]

[1] Hieromonk Alexander (Golitzin), ed. & trans., The Living Witness of the Holy Mountain: Contemporary Voices from Mt Athos (South Canaan, PA: STS, 1999), p. 232.

[2] Fr Alexander, p. 240.

[3] Fr Michael J. Oleksa, Orthodox Alaska: A Theology of Mission (Crestwood, NY: SVS, 1992), p. 38.

[4] The Great Horologion, trans. HTM (Boston: HTM, 1997), p. 340.

[5] St Herman of Alaska: His Life & Service (Platina, CA: St Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 2009), p. 15.

[6] St Herman, p. 38.

[7] Ibid., p. 4.

[8] Hieromonk Seraphim (Rose), trans., Little Russian Philokalia, Vol. II: Abbot Nazarius of Valaam (Platina, CA: St Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 1996), p. 24.

[9] St Herman, p. 10.

[10] Fr Alexander, p. 237.

[11] St Herman, pp. 14-5.

[12] Ibid., p. 31.

[13] Ibid., p. 11.

[14] Dorrie Papademetriou, North Star: St Herman of Alaska (Crestwood, NY: SVS, 2000).

[15] St Herman, p. 31.

[16] For instance, in the third troparion of Ode V, ibid., p. 40.

[17] Ibid., p. 30.

[18] The Festal Menaion, trans. Mother Mary & Archim. [now Metropolitan] Kallistos (Ware) (South Canaan, PA: STS, 1998), p. 256.

[19] St Herman, p. 15.

[20] Sir Dimitri Obolensky, ed., The Heritage of Russian Verse (Bloomington, IN: Indiana U, 1976), p. xii.

[21] St Herman, pp. 32-3.

24 December 2009

A Snowstorm & a 'Peasant Poet of England'

It was when I moved to Greece that I discovered Fr Andrew Phillips’s Orthodox England site. In my opinion, one of the most moving things on there is Chapter 3 of his book, Orthodox Christianity & the English Tradition, entitled ‘The Hallowing of Orthodox England’. It was there that I first learned of John Masefield (whom I've mentioned before, here and here), and there too, that I read this:

It was left to the humble and blessed soul, John Clare, and later the lyric heart of the priest William Barnes, the peasant poets of England, to write of how this people was finally brought low and humiliated by the wealthy landowners and industrialists; that was an age of great sorrow and oppression, but also an age of righteousness, when a righteous man or woman, a mystic, was to be found in villages and hamlets up and down the land. It is the fragments of that great and precious heritage with which we are left today . . .

Although I haven’t delved into Clare and Barnes to the extent that I have Masefield, soon after my return to the States I did find a wonderful anthology edited by W.H. Auden which includes a number of examples of their work (along with many others that I’m thrilled to have): 19th-Century British Minor Poets. [1]

Today I am snowed in—an unusual situation here in Oklahoma where snow is rare, usually falls in light amounts, and melts within 24 hours. But with snow naturally on my mind, I conducted a little search for a snow poem to post here, and found one of Clare’s. It was not, however, in Auden’s book, but in Harold Bloom’s Stories & Poems for Extremely Intelligent Children of All Ages, a Half Price Books find. In Book IV, ‘Winter’, we find Clare’s ‘Snowstorm’:


What a night! The wind howls, hisses, and but stops
To howl more loud, while the snow volley keeps
Incessant batter at the window-pane,
Making our comforts feel as sweet again;
And in the morning, when the tempest drops,
At every cottage door mountainous heaps
Of snow lie drifted, that all entrance stops
Until the besom and the shovel gain
The path, and leave a wall on either side.
The shepherd, rambling valleys white and wide,
With new sensations his old memory fills,
When hedges left at night, no more descried,
Are turned to one white sweep of curving hills,
And trees turned bushes half their bodies hide.


The boy that goes to fodder with surprise
Walks o’er the gate he opened yesternight.
The hedges all have vanished from his eyes;
E’en some tree-tops the sheep could reach to bite.
The novel scene engenders new delight,
And, though with cautious steps his sports begin,
He bolder shuffles the huge hills of snow,
Till down he drops and plunges to the chin,
And struggles much and oft escape to win—
Then turns and laughs but dare not further go;
For deep the grass and bushes lie below,
Where little birds that soon at even went in
With heads tucked in their wings now pine for day
And little feel boys o’er their heads can stray. [2]

Here is George Creeger’s biographical note on Clare from the Auden anthology:

John Clare (1793-1864)

Clare was born into the family of a Northamptonshire farm laborer. He received very little by way of formal schooling, but from the beginning he showed a keen interest in poetry and began to versify at an early age. Whatever variety of work he turned to as a young man, he always continued to write. Some of his poems ultimately came to the attention of John Taylor, who published a volume of them in 1820. Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery brought Clare considerable fame and the acquaintance of such men of letters as Reynolds and Lamb; but it did not guarantee him financial security or a comfortable existence. Marriage, a growing family, and increasing money difficulties were part of the burdens that caused a psychological collapse in 1836-37; from 1841 until his death he was confined to the General Lunatic Asylum in Northampton. Much of his best poetry dates from these asylum years. [3]

[1] W.H. Auden, ed., 19th-Century British Minor Poets, notes by George R. Creeger (NY: Delacorte, 1966).

[2] Harold Bloom, ed., Stories & Poems for Extremely Intelligent Children of All Ages (NY: Scribner, 2001), pp. 414-5.

[3] Auden, p. 344.

23 December 2009

'I Have Nothing to Declare but My Decadence!'—Thoughts on Oscar Wilde

The passing reference to notorious wit, Sodomite, and writer, Oscar Wilde, as an object of GKC’s moral critique in this post led to the following exchange on Facebook with Fr Mark Christian:

Fr Mark> Amongst the villains of (post)modernity at whom GKC took righful aim, the one who gives me pause is Wilde. Through my work on Terry Eagleton, I’ve really come to rethink my perceptions of Wilde’s life and work. Granted, his early life and work is replete with the hedonism and biting sarcasm that should appall us, but there is a perceptible turn after his imprisonment. The sinner doesn’t become a saint, but his heart was broken and there is some sense of remorse and repentance. Joseph Pearce’s literary biography of Wilde is worth pondering.

Me> I understand what you mean about Wilde. I actually have a soft spot for him. And to be fair, Sheridan doesn't suggest GKC went after him too badly—she just quotes a typical Chestertonian remark on the hedonism. Actually, I may quote your message to me here to do a follow-up where I discuss, at least in part, the witty Sodomite himself.

I'd love to read Pearce’s biography, though my admittedly superficial impression of the latter is that he’s just out to claim writers he happens to like for papism!

Fr Mark> Oh, that’s exactly what Pearce is doing. And when they’re inadequately papist, he says so—as in his study of CS Lewis!

Eagleton embraces Wilde for reasons pertaining to his decidedly Irish take on post-colonialism, hence his play, ‘Saint Oscar’. It’s an intriguing read, but only if you're really into post-modern/post-colonial rhetorical gymnastics. There was a time that I was, or tried to be. That was another life!

I’m especially intrigued by a conversation Wilde had not long before his death (and provisional Baptism as a Catholic) with Anna, the Comtesse de Bremont (a friend of his mother).

Before they parted, he said to her:

’Would you know my secret? I will tell you... I have found my soul. I was happy in prison... I was happy there because I found my soul.’

and then

’Contessa, don't sorrow for me, but watch and pray-it will not be long-watch and pray.’ (Pearce 393-394)

And finally, consider these concluding stanzas in The Ballad of Reading Gaol:

And thus we rust Life’s iron chain
Degraded and alone:
And some men curse, and some men weep,
And some men make no moan:
But God's eternal Laws are kind
And break the heart of stone.

And every human heart that breaks,
In prison-cell or yard,
Is as that broken box that gave
Its treasure to the Lord,
And filled the unclean leper’s house
With the scent of costliest nard.

Ah! happy they whose hearts can break
And peace of pardon win!
How else may man make straight his plan
And cleanse his soul from Sin?
How else but through a broken heart
May Lord Christ enter in?

And he of the swollen purple throat,
And the stark and staring eyes,
Waits for the holy hands that took
The Thief to Paradise;
And a broken and a contrite heart
The Lord will not despise.

The man in red who reads the Law
Gave him three weeks of life,
Three little weeks in which to heal
His soul of his soul’s strife,
And cleanse from every blot of blood
The hand that held the knife.

And with tears of blood he cleansed the hand,
The hand that held the steel:
For only blood can wipe out blood,
And only tears can heal:
And the crimson stain that was of Cain
Became Christ's snow-white seal.


In Reading gaol by Reading town
There is a pit of shame,
And in it lies a wretched man
Eaten by teeth of flame,
In a burning winding-sheet he lies,
And his grave has got no name.

And there, till Christ call forth the dead,
In silence let him lie:
No need to waste the foolish tear,
Or heave the windy sigh:
The man had killed the thing he loved,
And so he had to die.

And all men kill the thing they love,
By all let this be heard,
Some do it with a bitter look,
Some with a flattering word,
The coward does it with a kiss,
The brave man with a sword!

So here is the pertinent note from Sheridan in Ballad:

VIII.296. By life a leaping mire: Since Oscar Wilde was a notorious decadent, this phrase could refer to him. Chesterton comments: ‘Oscar Wilde said that sunsets were not valued because we could not pay for sunsets. But Oscar Wilde was wrong; we can pay for sunsets. We can pay for them by not being Oscar Wilde.’ (1908, 104 [GKC’s remark is in Orthodoxy]). [1]

Incidentally, I have a book in Greek that I haven’t yet read entitled (my translation), Art & Ethics in the ‘Picture’ of Oscar Wilde: An Aesthetic-philosophical and ethico-religious approach to the life and work of O. Wilde, particularly in the Picture of Dorian Grey, by one Michalis K. Makrakis. [2] Unfortunately, a quick scan of the bibliography suggests the author is not particularly engaged with the Church Fathers (of these, I see only St Augustine), though there is an article on Dostoevsky in there by Fr Justin (Popovich), and a few works by Berdyaev. The rest is Kant, Freud, and Croce.

One last comment on the famous homosexualist: since I have been on rather a C.S. Lewis spree lately, I thought this worth mentioning. Humphrey Carpenter, speaking of Tolkien’s and Lewis’s hearty attire, writes:

This preference for plain masculine clothing was in part perhaps a reaction to the excessive dandyism and implied homosexuality of the ‘aesthetes’, who had first made their mark on Oxford in the age of Wilde and whose successors lingered on in the nineteen-twenties and early thirties, affecting delicate shades of garment and ambiguous nuances of manner. Theirs was a way of life of which Tolkien and the majority of his friends would have none; hence their almost exaggerated preference for tweed jackets, flannel trousers, nondescript ties, solid brown shoes that were built for country walks, dull-coloured raincoats and hats, and short hair. Tolkien’s manner of dress also reflected some of his positive values, his love of everything that was moderate and sensible and unflorid and English. But beyond that his clothes gave no idea of the delicate and complex inner nature of the man who wore them. [3]

So perhaps we arrive at ‘We can pay for sunsets by wearing tweed jackets and flannel trousers.’ I’ll buy that!

[1] G.K. Chesterton, The Ballad of the White Horse, illust. Robert Austin (SF: Ignatius, 2001), pp. 222-3.

[2] Michalis K. Makrakis, Τέχνη και Ηθική στο «Πορτραίτο» του Oscar Wilde: Αισθητικο-φιλοσοφική και ηθικο-θρησκευτική προσέγγιση στη ζωή και στο έργο του O. Wilde, ιδιαίτερα στο Πορτραίτο του Ντόριαν Γκρέυ (Athens: Tinos, 1991).

[3] Humphrey Carpenter, J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography (London: HarperCollins, 1995), p. 128.

22 December 2009

Literary Tradition & the 'Organisation of Responses'

At the monthly meeting of our local C.S. Lewis & Inklings Society last night, one of the works we discussed was Lewis’s short lyric, ‘The Nativity’. Indeed, it is brief enough that it is worth reproducing in full:

Among the oxen (like an ox I’m slow)
I see a glory in the stable grow
Which, with the ox’s dullness might at length
Give me an ox’s strength.

Among the asses (stubborn I as they)
I see my Saviour where I looked for hay;
So may my beastlike folly learn at least
The patience of a beast.

Among the sheep (I like a sheep have strayed)
I watch the manger where my Lord is laid;
Oh that my baa-ing nature would win thence
Some wooly innocence! [1]

One lady commented on the parenthetical asides, asking whether such self-deprecation was typical of Lewis. I remarked that it seemed to me that it was, and another fellow began to speak of Lewis’s humility (it occurred to me however that his was an acquired rather than innate humility). But there was another comment I wanted to make about those asides, and I was afraid some of my less literary interlocutors might misunderstand. Addressing the lady who had originally asked the question, I said, ‘This is not to say that Lewis’s humility or self-deprecation here is not genuine, but . . .’, and then I pointed out how very seventeenth-century I found these lines. Specifically, I thought, they reminded me of George Herbert. While a brief look through Herbert this morning yielded little material for obvious comparison, I did find in the humble English parson’s own lyrics on Christmas the following lines (15-8):

The shepherds sing; and shall I silent be?
My God, no hymn for thee?
My soul’s a shepherd too; a flock it feeds
Of thoughts, and words, and deeds,
. . . [2]

Extending Lewis’s indebtedness back even further, one Jenny Sawyer at the C.S. Lewis Foundation blog has offered an illuminating comparison of Lewis’s poem with ‘The Friendly Beasts’, an old French carol of around the 12th century. But the point of this post is not so much to draw out specific comparisons, but to explain my little disclaimer. I have touched on this issue before (here) in regards to Milton’s Lycidas, but it seems clear to me that there is a notion abroad that literary art, particularly if it is traditional and formal, is inimical to ‘genuine’ feeling, and not only this, but to strict veracity as well. In other words, this notion would tell us, if Lewis’s lyrical self-deprecation is inspired by, or worse, in imitation of some older poet, then it is a ‘mere device’ and not ‘true’. As I pointed out in the post on Lycidas, this is what Lewis himself has called a ‘confusion (arising from the fact that both are voluntary) between the organization of a response and the pretence of a response’, as well as being surely akin to his ‘Romantic Primitivism . . . which prefers the merely natural to the elaborated, the un-willed to the willed’. [3]

Tolkien too has made an effort to dispel such ideas. In a passage I have quoted here, Tolkien refers to the Anglo-Saxon poetic fragment, ‘The Battle of Maldon’:

Near the end of the surviving fragment an old retainer, Beorhtwold, as he prepares to die in the last desperate stand, utters the famous words, a summing up of the heroic code, . . . :

Hige sceal þe heardra, heorte þe cenre,
mod sceal þe mare þe ure mægen lytlað.

‘Will shall be the sterner, heart the bolder, spirit the greater as our strength lessens.’

It is here [in Tolkien’s play based on ‘Maldon’] implied, as is indeed probable, that these words were not ‘original’, but an ancient and honoured expression of heroic will; Beorhtwold is all the more, not the less, likely for that reason actually to have used them in his last hour. [4]

Certainly, there is a difference between the culture of Beorhtwold, which was presumably still quite oral, and that of Lewis, who is a man par excellence of the written word. But both have a similar relation to their cultural tradition, which they have internalised. Indeed, in the post on ‘Maldon’, I pointed out that Lewis alludes to these lines in his sci-fi novel, Perelandra, when he writes, ‘Once he was actually astride the enemy’s chest, squeezing its throat with both hands and—he found to his surprise—shouting a line out of The Battle of Maldon: but it tore his arms so with its nails and so pounded his back with its knees that he was thrown off.’ [5]

It did not occur to me at the time, but it strikes me now that Lewis may well have been intentionally proving the truth of Tolkien’s observation that a man who has so internalised ‘ancient and honoured expression[s]’ of the great virtues is likely to find them coming to him even, or especially, at moments of the most extreme and therefore, presumably, ‘genuine’ emotion.

This line of thought seems to me to have direct bearing on another of my perennial interests: hagiography. I do not have the book in front of me, but I seem to recall Garry Wills defending the historical veracity of St Augustine’s conversion in the Confessions in the face of charges that it is a ‘mere literary device’. But this is a very common charge made against the Lives of Saints. If a story or claim serves some literary purpose, or seems to have been modeled on an earlier work, it is dismissed as ‘unhistorical’ or ‘legendary’. Fortunately, voices of reason occasionally appear. Speaking of Book II of the Dialogues of St Gregory the Great, the infallible Adlabert de Vogüé writes:

How then does one explain the constant and often troubling similarities between the accounts of Gregory and the miracles of Holy Scripture or of earlier hagiography? Let us remember first the role of the human condition which causes the same situations, the same needs, and the same distresses to occur over and over again. Further, the Christian saints and narrators are all steeped in the same spiritual milieu impregnated by the Bible. Scripture inspires the hopes, prayers and gestures of the wonder-workers themselves. In their turn, their disciples and admirers are always ready to recognize these scriptural models of their heroes, and even to discover new ones which the saints themselves had not thought of, which nevertheless will influence their reports unconsciously. Finally, the hagiographer plays a part, spontaneous or calculated, in this biblical coloring of the event. The same stylizing process flows from the models of the hagiographic tradition. [6]

Thus it seems to me that a greater understanding of tradition is called for in the humanities, and I am happy to point out that Fr Andrew Louth for one has already called for it. [7]

[1] C.S. Lewis, Poems, ed. Walter Hooper (San Diego: Harcourt, 1992), p. 122.

[2] George Herbert, The Complete English Works, ed. Ann Pasternak Slater (NY: Everyman’s Library, 1995), p. 78.

[3] C.S. Lewis, A Preface to ‘Paradise Lost’ (NY: Oxford U, 1965), p. 55.

[4] J.R.R. Tolkien, ‘The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth Beorhthelm’s Son’, The Tolkien Reader (NY: Ballantine, 1966), p. 5.

[5] C.S. Lewis, Perelandra (NY: Scribner, 1996), p. 132.

[6] Adlabert de Vogüé, Foreword, The Life of Saint Benedict, by St Gregory the Great, comm. Adlabert de Vogüé, trans. Hilary Costello & Eoin de Bhaldraithe (Petersham, MA: St Bede’s, 1993), p. vii.

[7] Fr Andrew Louth, Discerning the Mystery: An Essay on the Nature of Theology (Wichita, KS: Eighth Day, 2007).

21 December 2009

More Material on Christmas Customs

I’ve come upon a few new things worth reading on the subject of preparing for and celebrating Christmas—still two and a half weeks away for most Orthodox but coming up in just a few days for most of the Anglophone world. Well, at least two of the things I found are new, the other is only new to me. To take them in chronological order of their subject matter, I will begin with a nice little piece by Fr Oliver Herbel entitled ‘Fasting for the Nativity of Christ in America’ (here). By all means, read the whole thing, but here are some of the lines that stood out most for me:

In the midst of the ever changing, perhaps ever secularizing, trajectory of Christmas in America, the Nativity Fast stands as an opportunity to solidify our calling as Orthodox in America. I’m not saying the discipline of fasting before Christmas has not changed during the course of Church history. It has. What I am saying is that keeping the fast anchors our Orthodox praxis in contemporary America.

Fasting reminds us poignantly that we are not of this world. . . . No longer are there really twelve days of Christmas, which would start on Christmas day. Instead, we have about thirty days of food, shopping, and advertisements. . . . My point is that during a time in which we should be preparing for the Nativity of Christ, we are all too often being lazy, gluttonous, or simply disregarding the ‘true meaning’ of the season—that the Crucified and Risen One has entered into the fallen history of our world.

So, what should we do and how can the Nativity Fast anchor us during this time? First, we must find the meaning of Christmas not in touchy feely television specials or the commercialized trimmings but in the Gospel itself—the birth of our Savior, Emmanuel. This will enable us to fast from the misdirected forces around us and within us. . . . [W]e must fast from what distracts us and keep only the things that can help lead us to Christ and the celebration of his Nativity. Avoid the things that distract from the Gospel and perpetuate commericialization.

More than that, when we fast, let us keep the culinary fast as well, but go one step farther: keeping ourselves to cheap foods. Eating food that was cheap and common was at the heart of the fasting of the Desert Fathers. Yet, today, we can spend a fair amount of money on shrimp and organic produce. Let us discipline our bodies, for that same discipline will carry over into other spheres of our lives. Let us repent for the sins we have committed. Let us remind ourselves that all is from God, and not ourselves. Let us spend less on ourselves, to have more for others. Let us be thankful.

My second piece is a very short essay by C.S. Lewis that I hadn’t read until today (we discussed it at the C.S. Lewis & Inklings Society meeting tonight): ‘What Christmas Means to Me’, from God in the Dock. In this essay, Lewis sharply distinguishes between three aspects of Christmas, to the point of calling them different things going by the same name: 1) the ‘religious festival’, important for Christians, but which ‘can be of no interest to anyone else’, 2) the ‘popular holiday, an occasion for merry-making and hospitality’, and 3) ‘the commercial racket’ (a distinction that seems to me to gel nicely with some observations by Owen White here). Concerning this last thing sometimes called ‘Christmas’, Lewis points out:

The interchange of presents was a very small ingredient in the older English festivity. Mr Pickwick took a cod with him to Dingley Dell; the reformed Scrooge ordered a turkey for his clerk; lovers sent love gifts; toys and fruit were given to children. But the idea that not only all friends but even all acquaintances should give one another presents, or at least send one another cards, is quite modern and has been forced upon us by the shopkeepers. Neither of these circumstances is in itself a reason for condemning it. I condemn it on the following grounds.

1. It gives on the whole much more pain than pleasure. . . . Long before December 25th everyone is worn out—physically worn out by weeks of daily struggle in overcrowded shops, mentally worn out by the effort to remember all the right recipients and to think out suitable gifts for them. They are in no trim for merry-making; much less (if they should want to) to take part in a religious act. . . .

2. Most of it is involuntary. The modern rule is that anyone can force you to give him a present by sending you a quite unprovoked present of his own. . . .

3. Things are given as presents which no mortal ever bought for himself—gaudy and useless gadgets, ‘novelties’ because no one was ever fool enough to make their like before. Have we really no better use for materials and for human skill and time than to spend them on all this rubbish?

4. The nuisance. For after all, during the racket we still have all our ordinary and necessary shopping to do, and the racket trebles the labour of it.

We are told that the whole dreary business must go on because it is good for trade. It is in fact merely one annual symptom of that lunatic condition of our country, and indeed of the world, in which everyone lives by persuading everyone else to buy things. I don’t know the way out. But can it really be my duty to buy and receive masses of junk every winter just to help the shopkeepers? If the worst comes to the worst I’d sooner give them money for nothing and write it off as a charity. For nothing? Why, better for nothing than for a nuisance. [1]

Finally, the tireless John Sanidopoulos at Mystagogy has posted an article from a certain archdiocesan publication by one Fr Daniel Daly entitled ‘In Defense of the Christmas Tree’ (here—also have a look at John’s links to two other relevant articles here). Fr Daly makes a plausible claim that I don’t remember having previously come across: that the Christmas tree originated in mediæval morality plays.

One mystery play was presented on Christmas Eve, the day which also commemorated the feast of Adam and Eve in the Western Church. The ‘Paradise Play’ told the well-known story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Paradise. [2] The central ‘prop’ in the play was the Paradise Tree, or Tree of Knowledge. During the play this tree was brought in laden with apples.

The Paradise Tree became very popular with the German people. They soon began the practice of setting up a fir tree in their homes. Originally, the trees were decorated with bread wafers commemorating the Eucharist. Later, these were replaced with various kinds of sweets. Our Christmas tree is derived, not from the pagan yule tree, but from the paradise tree adorned with apples on December 24 in honor of Adam and Eve. The Christmas tree is completely biblical in origin.

The first Christmas tree dates from 1605 in Strasbourg. By the 1700s the custom of the Christmas tree was widespread among the German people. It was brought to America by early German immigrants, and it became popular in England through the
influence of Prince Albert, the German husband of Queen Victoria.

The use of evergreens at Christmas may date from St Boniface of the eighth century, who dedicated the fir tree to the Holy Child in order to replace the sacred oak tree of Odin; but the Christmas tree as we know it today does not appear to be so ancient a custom. It appears first in the Christian Mystery play commemorating the biblical story of Adam and Eve.

How legitimate is it to use a fir tree in the celebration of Christmas? From the very earliest days of the Church, Christians brought many things of God’s material creation into their life of faith and worship, e.g., water, bread, wine, oil, candles and incense. All these things are part of God’s creation. They are part of the world that Christ came to save. Man cannot reject the material creation without rejecting his own humanity. In Genesis man was given dominion over the material world.

Christmas celebrates the great mystery of the Incarnation. In that mystery God the Word became man. In order to redeem us, God became one of us. He became part of His own creation. The Incarnation affirms the importance of both man and the whole of creation. ‘For God so loved the world…’

A faith which would seek to divorce itself from all elements of the material world in search for an absolutely spiritual religion overlooks this most central mystery of Christmas, the mystery of God becoming man, the Incarnation. ‘The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.’ Enjoy your Christmas tree.

[1] The Collected Works of C.S. Lewis: The Pilgrim’s Regress, Christian Reflections, God in the Dock (NY: Inspirational, 1996), pp. 507-8.

[2] One example of this play type can be found in Chief Pre-Shakespearean Drama: A Selection of Plays Illustrating the History of the English Drama from Its Origin down to Shakespeare, ed. Joseph Quincy Adams (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1924), pp. 88-93, entitled ‘The Creation of Eve, with the Expelling of Adam & Eve out of Paradise (Acted by the Grocers of Norwich)’.