28 January 2010

Obolensky, Michael Ward, & 2 Elders of the Holy Land


Although there are two Saints commemorated today in whom I am very interested, St Paul of Thebes and St Maurus the disciple of St Benedict, I posted on both of them last year and I don’t currently have much to add to those posts. Instead, I would like to point out four books that just arrived this week, the first two of which represent the last of my Christmas gift-money, the second two being a direct gift.

1) Sir Dimitri Obolensky, Six Byzantine Portraits (Oxford: Oxford U, 1999). A few attentive readers may have noticed my use of this one in yesterday’s post on St Sava. This book first came to my attention last year, when I posted on St Maximus the Greek. At that time, as is my practice, I merely made use of the resources I had at hand in my library, plus anything I could find online. But despite some nice passages of decent length about St Maximus in Fr Georges Florovsky’s Ways of Russian Theology and James Billington’s The Icon & the Axe, I still managed to miss to an astonishing degree the fascinating story of St Maximus’s early career in the West. Fortunately, a compassionate reader left the following comment:

You may also be interested in the chapter on the life and works of St. Maximos contained in Sir Dmitri Obolensky’s ‘Six Byzantine Portraits’ (see link: http://www.amazon.com/Byzantine-Portraits-University-Academic-monograph/dp/0198219512) which also contains scholarly accounts of Sts. Sava of Serbia, Theophylact and Clement of Bulgaria, Vladimir Monomach, and Constantine/Cyril the Philosopher. Coming from a Greek Church background- where he is perhaps lesser known- this is where I first encountered information about St. Maximos, and what a fabulous life! . . . It seems Obolensky’s principal source is Jack V. Haney’s ‘From Italy to Muscovy: The Life and Works of Maxim the Greek’, itself unfortunately very scarce. Anyway, Obolensky’s work is well worth the effort to track down as it presents a pretty thorough biography of the Saint, probably the most concentrated of all accounts generally accessible at present. Happy reading!- In
XC, Symeon

I immediately filed this away in my mind, and although it took me nearly a year to order it, I vowed I would not again let St Maximus’s feastday pass without a copy in my hand.

Some of the fascination of the book can perhaps be seen in the following passage from the ‘Introduction’, in which Obolensky discusses some of the glue that bound Byzantium and the Slavs, and specifically in the lives of these six figures:

To be really fruitful, the Byzantine-Slav encounter required more than imperial diplomacy and missionary zeal, or merely an East European quest for culture. It had to take place within an ambience somehow common to both worlds and capable of acting as an intermediary and a catalyst. This ambience needed a creative energy strong enough to leave its mark on religious beliefs, literature, and social and political ideas. It also needed a cosmopolitan character, capable of crossing state boundaries and linguistic frontiers and of being seen as a common East European tradition; and it would have to attract and command the loyalties of men of different nations, and link them to each other by common discipleship and the ties of friendship. [1]

From this, one might conclude that he is speaking of Eastern Orthodox Christianity, but Obolensky is far more specific than that: ‘In the period covered by this book, two such ambiences fostered the encounter between Byzantium and the Slavs: the Cyrillo-Methodian tradition, and the religious and cultural movement which originated in the monasteries of Mount Athos.’ [2] If the St Sava post wasn’t enough for you, stay tuned next week for a new St Maximus the Greek post making full use of this book!

2) Michael Ward, Planet Narnia: The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of C.S. Lewis (Oxford: Oxford U, 2008). I first mentioned this book back in December in a post called ‘Jove’s Children—Lewisiana News’—where I gave a full description of it and linked to a little sample of Ward’s wares in Touchstone Magazine—and then referred to Ward again in a post on Saturn in Virgil and Lewis. I finally ordered a used copy from B Street Books in San Mateo, CA, without realizing that it was inscribed from the author! I hope I’m not getting anyone in trouble by pointing this out, but on the flyleaf it reads:

To Autumn

with Jovial regards

from Michael Ward

(Tuesday 20th May 2008)

There was also something stuck inside which looks to be a handout from a lecture or conference at which Ward perhaps spoke. At the top it reads, ‘Imagining God: C.S. Lewis & the Seven Heavens, Dr Michael Ward’, and then there are a number of excerpts from Lewis’s works—The Discarded Image, That Hideous Strength, Selected Literary Essays, Collected Poems, & Arthurian Torso—that illustrate Ward’s thesis.

Looking through the book, in the words of one of my professors, Chrysostomos Stamoulis, ‘I see good things.’ Ward begins with two lengthy epigraphs, and then begins each chapter with a short one (a practice that I wish every author followed). There are healthy endnotes, an extensive general index of names and topics, and even a Biblical index. Near the centre of the book there are some great illustrations, juxtaposing traditional depictions of the planetary gods with Pauline Baynes’s classic illustrations of the Narnia books.

Here are the general epigraphs, followed by the first paragraph of Ward’s ‘Preface’:

The spacious firmament on high,
with all the blue ethereal sky,
and spangled heavens, a shining frame,
their great Original proclaim.
The unwearied sun from day to day
does his Creator’s power display;
and publishes to every land
the work of an almighty hand.

Soon as the evening shades prevail,
the moon takes up the wondrous tale,
and nightly to the listening earth
repeats the story of her birth;
whilst all the stars that round her burn,
and all the planets in their turn,
confirm the tidings, as they roll
and spread the truth from pole to pole.

What though in solemn silence all
move round the dark terrestrial ball?
What though no real voice nor sound
amid their radiant orbs be found?
In reason’s ear they all rejoice,
and utter forth a glorious voice;
for ever singing as they shine,
‘The hand that made us is divine.’

—Joseph Addison, 1712 (after Psalm 19) [3]

There then comes to you a person, saying, ‘Here is a new bit of manuscript that I found; it is the central passage of that symphony, or the central chapter of that novel. The text is incomplete without it. I have got the missing passage which is really the centre of the whole work.’ The only thing you could do would be to put this new piece of the manuscript in that central position, and then see how it reacted on the whole of the rest of the work. If it constantly brought out new meanings for the whole of the rest of the work, if it made you notice things in the rest of the work which you had not noticed before, then I think you would decide that it was authentic.

—C.S. Lewis, ‘The Grand Miracle’ [4]

It is to be hoped that this book reaffirms the worth of implicit communication; not everything that needs to be said needs to be said outright. Some things, indeed, cannot be directly told: like happiness which ‘writes white’ they vanish when put into words.

—Michael Ward, ‘Preface’, Planet Narnia [5]

3) Ss Barsanuphius & John, Letters, 2 vols., tr. Fr John Chryssavgis, Vols. 113-4 in The Fathers of the Church (Washington, DC: Catholic U of A, 2006). Sometime after I wrote a post on St Dorotheus of Gaza last June, Bishop Savas of Troas—who is proving to be a tremendous benefactor—promised to send me these volumes as a reward upon completion of the first draft of my thesis. This duly accomplished thanks to such a powerful motivation (see this post), I waited a bit, too sheepish to complain about not receiving my reward. Well, I eventually overcame this reticence, and so the kind gift is now here. All 848 letters, the great bulk in English for the first time. I notice in the acknowledgements that Fr Chryssavgis expresses his gratitude ‘to the Rt. Rev. Bishop Sava of Troas for entrusting me with his draft translation of the [first 190] Letters, the treasured fruit of his doctoral studies at the University of Oxford’. The name of another friend I have never met in person appears immediately below this: ‘Ms Melissa Lynch generously offered her time and assistance in the careful compilation of the scriptural index.’ [6] The introduction promises good things. Fr Chryssavgis observes, ‘Whereas the study, and indeed the literature, of spiritual direction has traditionally focused on monastic development, the correspondence of Barsanuphius and John redresses a balance in this regard, concentrating much of its attention on the concerns of lay persons.’ [7] Concerning the Elders themselves, he writes:

In the correspondence Barsanuphius appears as kind, understanding, and warm; his language is clear, prayerful, and even prophetic on occasion. He reveals a strong and supportive personality, undeterred by issues and sure about his convictions. John is less ardent, less direct, and more guarded; his language is concise, precise, and even conventional at times. He reveals a thoughtful and careful personality, often deferring to his master, Barsanuphius. [8]

In conclusion, I shall offer the text of Letter 109, St Barsanuphius’s response to a letter of gratitude from someone who had been helped by him, in which Fr Chryssavgis’s characterisation is demonstrated:

Let us render all glory to the God of glory; and let us sing to him unto the ages. Amen. For glory does not belong to us, but is only proper to his Son and his Holy Spirit. God has led your love toward our frailty in order that we may be of assistance to one another, in his desire also to fulfill the Scripture that says: ‘A brother assisted by a brother is like a city fortified with ramparts’ (Prv 18:19). May all of us be assisted by our elder brother, and I mean Jesus; for he was well-pleased to make us his brothers (cf. Heb 2:11). And so we are his brothers and are praised by the angels for the kind of brother that we have, who is able to strengthen us, capable of dividing the spoils with us; a chief captain who can crush our enemies in war; a physician who can heal our passions; a general during time of peace in order to set our inner nature at peace with the outer nature when it has been submitted to him; a nurse who can nurture us with spiritual food, able to grant us life with his life, mercy through his mercy, and compassion through his compassion; a king endowing us with royalty; and a God who deifies us. Knowing, therefore, that everything lies in him, pray to him. ‘For he knows what you need even before you ask him’ (Mt 6:8), and he will grant every request of your soul, if you do not stand as a hindrance. Always offer glory to him; for to him is due glory to the ages. Amen. Pray for me, brother, that I may know my weakness and be humbled. [9]


[1] Obolensky, pp. 3-4.

[2] Ibid., p. 4.

[3] Ward, p. vii.

[4] Ibid., p. ix.

[5] Ibid., p. xi. The sentiment reminds one of Fr Andrew Louth’s Discerning the Mystery!

[6] Vol. 1, p. vii.

[7] Ibid., p. 8.

[8] Ibid., p. 10.

[9] Ibid., pp. 130-1.

6 comments:

Brigit said...

I'm interested in St Paul of Thebes too and enjoyed your post from last year. Last year I blogged about his appearance in the Voyage of St Brendan, where he has a cameo role as an island hermit whose extreme asceticism makes St Brendan think he has taken an easier monastic path. Although the episode clearly draws on the life of St Paul of Thebes he appears in the Irish sources as a supposed disciple of St Patrick. This Irish St Paul was assigned 25 January as a feast by Colgan for no other reason than this was the feast of the Conversion of St Paul the Apostle. I've been fascinated by the presence of this great monastic of the east in the Irish tradition and hope to make a further post about him on January 25 this year.

aaronandbrighid said...

Brigit> I look forward to this year's post, and I'll have to go back and check out last year's. Did you happen to see my posts on St Brendan last year? In one, I discussed Frederick Buechner's novel, Brendan. Did you ever read that?

Brigit said...

No, Aaron, I've never come across the Brendan novel but sounds like it could be worth looking out for. I'm currently working my way through a volume of studies on 'The Otherworld Voyage in Early Irish Literature' to try to understand the background a bit better. I did indeed see your previous posts on St Brendan and very good they were too.

aaronandbrighid said...

That sounds like a fascinating book. You should post a little bit about it.

Thank you for your kind words!

John said...

Yes, Obolensky's "Six Byzantine Portraits" is one of those essential works. I was very interested to learn of these Letters of Saints Barsanuphius and John. The little paperback of Fr. Seraphim Rose's translation and selections from their writings is one of my very favorites.

aaronandbrighid said...

John> I'm finding I agree with you about the Obolensky.

And as great as Fr Seraphim's translation is, it is wonderful to have the full collection now. Fr Chryssavgis has filled a major lacuna in patristic ascetic literature in English. Just as a geeky project, sometime I will probably go through and find all of the passages from Fr Seraphim's book in Fr Chryssavgis's complete translation.