24 May 2010

'Our Sacred Pair of Enlighteners'—Ss Cyril & Methodius

Today, 11 May on the Church’s calendar, we celebrate the memory of the Holy Apostles to the Slavs, Cyril & Methodius of Thessaloniki (9th c.). I posted on these great Saints on their feastday last year, and have mentioned them and their mission numerous other times (see these posts), so this will likely be brief post. Sir Dimitri Obolensky calls Ss Cyril & Methodius ‘the greatest of all missionaries who worked among the Slavs’, and singles out St Cyril as ‘a linguistic genius’ who ranks ‘among the greatest philologists Europe has ever produced’. [1] Though widely renowned as the inventor of an alphabet, generally agreed to be the ‘Glagolitic’, R. Auty credits the Saints with the ‘establishment’ of the Old Church Slavonic literary language itself. [2] Here is the account of the lives of these two holy brothers in the Prologue:

They were brothers from Salonica, of eminent and wealthy parents, Leo and Maria. The elder brother, Methodius, spent ten years as an officer among the Slavs in Macedonia, and thus learned the Slavic language. [3] After that, Methodius went off to Olympus and gave himself to monastic asceticism, and Cyril (Constantine) later joined him there. When the Khazarite king, Kagan, sought preachers of the Christian faith from the Emperor Michael, the Emperor commanded that these two brothers be found and sent to the Khazars. They converted Kagan to the Christian faith and baptised him, together with a great number of his nobles and an even greater number of the people. After some time, they returned to Constantinople, where they compiled a Slavic alphabet of 38 letters and began to translate the service books from Greek to Slavonic. At the invitation of Prince Rastislav, they went to Moravia, where, with great devotion, they spread and confirmed the Faith, made more copies of the books, brought them priests and taught the young. They went to Rome at the invitation of the Pope, and Cyril fell ill and died there, on February 14th, 869. Then Methodius returned to Moravia and laboured at the confirming of the Faith among the Slavs until his death. After his death—he entered into rest in the Lord on April 6th, 885—his disciples, the Five Followers, with St Clement as bishop at the beginning, crossed the Danube [4] and moved towards the south, to Macedonia, where, from Ochrid, they continued the work among the Slavs that Cyril and Methodius had begun in the north. [5]

In another essay from the same book I have already quoted, Obolensky considers Ss Cyril and Methodius in their distinct rôle as Byzantine missionaries, or more properly, missionaries of the East Roman empire. Thus, they were missionaries and diplomats, a ‘double rôle’ which ‘resulted from the close relationship . . . between the evangelical ideal of the Byzantine Church and the foreign policy of the empire.’ The (Greek-speaking) Romans of this period directly identified ‘the Pax Romana and the Pax Christiana’, believing that they had been uniquely ‘consecrated to the service of Christ by the emperor Constantine, and were therefore the new chosen people who had the duty to bring the Gospel to the barbarians of the whole world.’ Obolensky goes on to write:

To such an ambassador was naturally attached something of the pomp and majesty of his political sovereign. Missionaries and diplomats of Byzantium, Cyril and Methodius were also Byzantines of their time, typical representatives, no matter how eminent, of the cultural elite of their period. The revival of monastic spirituality and of humanistic scholarship in the ninth century, which some historians have termed the ‘Byzantine renaissance’, remained imprinted on their thought and their careers. Methodius the monk and Cyril the scholar, professor at the University of Constantinople and pupil of [Saint] Photius [the Great], the greatest humanist of the age, admirably personified these two aspects of Byzantine civilization of the ninth century. This was a period in which the intellectuals and statesmen of Byzantium believed more than ever in their empire’s world-wide mission. [6]

I thought this an interesting dimension to a portrait of the Saints. It is rightly noted that they were so enlightened as to bring Christianity to the Slavs in the Slavs’ own language. As St Cyril wrote in his ‘Prologue’ to the Slavonic translation of the Gospels (which I have posted in full here):

. . .
Lest having an unenlightened mind,
And listening to the Word in foreign tongue,
You hear it like the voice of a copper bell.
For Saint Paul, in teaching, said this:
‘In offering my prayer up to God
I would rather speak five words
That all my brethren understand,
Than a multitude of incomprehensible words.’ [7]

But while it is thus undoubtedly correct in a certain sense to speak of the ‘baptism’ of Slavic culture, we mustn’t forget the extent to which the emerging Slavic Christianity was a Byzantine one speaking in the Slavonic language. Drawing on the renowned Russian literary historian and Slavicist, Dmitri S. Likhachev, [8] Anthony-Emil Tachiaos writes:

When they accepted Orthodoxy from Byzantium, the Slavic people simultaneously accepted a multitude of cultural and educational elements as well, the main vehicle of which was the Byzantine texts circulating amongst them in Slavic translation. And whereas the Slavs had only their popular oral tradition of folktales and songs, the Byzantines gave them an entire written tradition all at once. So the acquisition of the written word—as well as the other elements of which it was the bearer—cannot be described as ‘influence’, but rather as a wholesale transplantation of Byzantine culture into the Slavic world. [9]

Finally, I will just mention that the Apostles to the Slavs make a happy appearance in Elizabeth Kostova’s excellent vampire novel, The Historian (about which I have already posted here, here, here, and here), when the Bulgarian scholar Anton Stoichev welcomes students to his house to celebrate the feastday of the Saints:

You know, this is my favorite holiday. We have many saints’ days in the church calendar, but this one is dear to all those who teach and learn, because it is when we honor the Slavonic heritage of alphabet and literature, and the teaching and learning of many centuries that have grown from Kiril and Methodii and their great invention. [10]

In conclusion, here are the Troparion and Kontakion of the Saints, from the Great Horologion:

Dimissal Hymn of Saints Cyril & Methodius. Fourth Tone

Since ye were equal in character to the Apostles, and teachers of the Slavic lands, O divinely-wise Cyril and Methodius, pray to the Lord of all to strengthen all nations in Orthodoxy and unity of thought, to convert and reconcile the world to God, and to save our souls.

Kontakion of Saints Cyril & Methodius. Third Tone

Let us honour our sacred pair of enlighteners, who, by translating the divine writings, have poured forth for us a well-spring of divine knowledge from which we draw abundantly even unto this day: We call you blessed, O Cyril and Methodius, ye that stand before the throne of the Most High and intercede fervently for our souls. [11]

[1] Sir Dimitri Obolensky, Byzantium & the Slavs (Crestwood, NY: SVS, 1994), p. 207.

[2] R. Auty, ‘Introduction’, Handbook of Old Church Slavonic, Part II: Texts & Glossary (London: U of London, 1968), p. 1.

[3] Obolensky actually states that he was ‘a governor of a Slavonic province of the Empire (op. cit., p. 206).

[4] For some reason, St Nicholas does not mention that the Five Followers were actually imprisoned and sold into slavery by the Frankish clergy in Moravia. See Obolensky, p. 210.

[5] St Nicholas (Velimirović), The Prologue from Ochrid, Vol. 2, tr. Mother Maria (Birmingham: Lazarica, 1986), p. 166.

[6] Obolensky, p. 244.

[7] Qtd. in Thomas Butler, ‘Introduction’, Monumenta Bulgarica: A Bilingual Anthology of Bulgarian Texts from the 9th to the 19th Centuries (Ann Arbor: Michigan Slavic, 2004), p. xxii.

[8] On whom see this fascinating interview at the website of the ROCOR cathedral in Washington, DC, as well as this article in The New Yorker.

[9] Anthony-Emil N. Tachiaos, Cyril & Methodius of Thessalonica: The Acculturation of the Slavs (Crestwood, NY: SVS, 2001), p. 130.

[10] Elizabeth Kostova, The Historian (NY: Back Bay, 2006), p. 491.

[11] The Great Horologion, tr. Holy Transfiguration Monastery (Boston: HTM, 1997), pp. 480-1.

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