20 February 2010

Cain & Abel in St Macarius & R.S. Thomas


Last night I read the story of Cain and Abel to my children from a Bible reader (a sort of simplified paraphrase of the text). I think the first murder is a fitting thing to recall as we move more deeply into our Lenten struggle. We are weeping for our sins, for our exile from Paradise. But unlike our First Parents, we were born into exile, and the already fallen world is the theatre in which our own sin takes place. As St Macarius the Great writes in his Fifth Homily, ‘The word spoken to Cain by the Creator, that sentence pronounced upon him with an outward meaning, Groaning and trembling and tossed shalt thou be upon the earth (Gen. iv. 12), is a type and likeness of what all sinners undergo in secret.’ [1]

Patristic interpretations of God’s rejection of Cain’s sacrifice focus on the wickedness of Cain’s heart or his carelessness in choosing his sacrifices. In the ‘Great Letter’, St Macarius writes:

I always remember that it was Abel who offered a sacrifice to God of the fat and firstlings of his flock, while Cain offered gifts of the fruits of the earth, but not of the firstfruits. It is said: ‘And God looked with favor on Abel’s sacrifices, but did not regard the gifts of Cain’ (Gn 4:4). This teaches us that everything that is done in fear and in faith is pleasing to God, not that which is done for display and without love. [2]

But there is another perspective we might take. The Welsh poet, R.S. Thomas, has a second interpretation of Cain’s sacrifices, one which I also think strikes a rather Orthodox—and Lenten—note. Here is the text of his poem, ‘Cain’:

Abel looked at the wound
His brother had dealt him, and love him
For it. Cain saw that look
And struck him again. The blood cried
On the ground; God listened to it.
He questioned Cain. But Cain answered:
Who made the blood? I offered you
Clean things: the blond hair
Of the corn; the knuckled vegetables; the
Flowers; things that did not publish
Their hurst, that bled
Silently. You would not accept them.

And God said: It was part of myself
He gave me. The lamb was torn
From my own side. The limp head,
The slow fall of red tears—they
Were like a mirror to me in which I beheld
My reflection. I anointed myself
In readiness for the journey
To the doomed tree you were at work upon. [3]

In the words of St Andrew of Crete, ‘By my own free choice have I incurred the guilt of Cain’s murder.’ [4] We too have been at work upon this ‘doomed tree’, and God has anointed Himself in the blood of those whom we have wronged. And this brings us back to St Macarius’s reference to Cain’s torment in Gen. 4:12—‘ Groaning and trembling and tossed shalt thou be upon the earth’. As St Maximus of Turin writes, in Sermons 88.1:

The divine Scripture always cries out and speaks; hence God also says to Cain, ‘The voice of your brother’s blood cries out to me.’ Blood, to be sure, has no voice, but innocent blood that has been spilled is said to cry out not by words but by its very existence. [It makes] demands of the Lord not with eloquent discourse but with anger over the crime committed. It does not accuse the wrongdoer with words so much as bind him by the accusation of his own conscience. The evil deed may seem to be excused when it is explained away with words. But it cannot be excused if it is made present to the conscience. For in silence and without contradiction the wrongdoer’s conscience always convicts and judges him. [5]


[1] St Macarius the Great, Fifty Spiritual Homilies, tr. A.J. Mason (Willits, CA: Eastern Orthodox, 1974), p. 39.

[2] St Macarius the Great, The Fifty Spiritual Homilies & the Great Letter, tr. & ed. Fr George A. Maloney (NY: Paulist, 1992), p. 265.

[3] R.S. Thomas, Poems of R.S. Thomas (Fayetteville, AR: U of Arkansas, 1984), pp. 74-5.

[4] The Lenten Triodion, tr. Mother Mary & Archim. [now Metropolitan] Kallistos (Ware) (South Canaan, PA: STS, 1994), p. 218.

[5] Fr Andrew Louth, ed., with Marco Conti, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: Old Testament I, Genesis 1-11 (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2001), p. 107. I was pleased to see that there is a footnote at the end of Fr Louth’s introduction to this volume which reads:

General editor’s note: This volume of the ACCS was prepared and edited—almost completely—before the appearance of Genesis, Creation and Early Man: The Orthodox Christian Vision by the late Fr Seraphim Rose, with an introduction by Phillip E. Johnson (Plantina [sic], Calif.: St Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 2000), to which the reader is referred for additional patristic selections and interpretations of Genesis. We are grateful for the massive labors of Fr Rose, from which our efforts have belatedly benefited. While his work has directed us to selections we otherwise would have bypassed, all our translations have been checked against their original texts, since Fr Rose worked principally from Russian translations. (p. lii, n. 11)

The general editor is Thomas C. Oden (whose niece, incidentally, was my Church history professor as an undergraduate!). It’s nice to see Fr Seraphim’s work on Genesis—by which even many Orthodox theologians are no doubt somewhat embarrassed—honoured in this way. Now if people would just stop calling him ‘Father Rose’, improperly using his family name instead of his monastic one!

8 comments:

Taylor said...

Hi Aaron - Do you know when the fathers at St. Herman's are planning to release the new edition of Fr. Seraphim's Genesis, Creation, and Early man? In my experience, this is a very hard-to-find book.

aaronandbrighid said...

I don't know, but I can ask.

James the Thickheaded said...

Thanks for this posting. Seems to breathe new life into a short scene. Especially pertinent for our "right glory" to focus on the first murder as focused on faith and worship... in effect, what it is that is right worship. If only we weren't more cautioned in the fear of God...

aaronandbrighid said...

James> Yes, as St Pachomius the Great says, 'letuspour the fear of God like oil upon the contemplative part of the soul, every day and every hour. That fear, which accomplishes works and is a lamp for the contemplation of the things that concern us, makes our mind unshakable, not carried away by anger, wrath, rancor, and any of the other passions which lead us to wickedness. It makes it contemplative and raises it to that incorporeal region; it forces it to hold in contempt the things which are wrought by devils and preapres it to tread underfoot serpents and scorpions and all the whole strength of the enemy.'

The Ochlophobist said...

A good use of Thomas makes for a great post.

aaronandbrighid said...

Owen> I thought you might like that!

edinmiami said...

It [the blood of an innocent] does not accuse the wrongdoer with words so much as bind him [the wrongdoer] by the accusation of his own conscience.
...For in silence and without contradiction the wrongdoer’s conscience always convicts and judges him. ~St. Maximus of Turin

How does any conscience that is bound to an accusation, as was Cain's, become unbound in the Latin Paschal Exultet [cf. a stanza appears below]? By acknowledging that his own blood, accused and mortified by conscience, also smells sweet to God.

"O certe necessarium Adae peccatum,
quod Christi morte deletum est!
O felix culpa,
quae talem ac tantum meruit habere Redemptorem!"

aaronandbrighid said...

Amen!