24 December 2008

On Being Named for the Prophet Aaron, Part I

When I first became Orthodox, back in January of 1996, I made the fateful decision to keep the name my parents gave me: Aaron. I’m sure part of my reasoning was that I wasn’t really familiar enough with the Saints to choose one that I felt a connection with. Add to this my then priest’s fairly casual attitude about the whole thing, and I felt downright silly about it. It was easier just not to make an issue out of this name business.

A few times I’ve been tempted to regret that decision. For one thing, the original Aaron, the Prophet Moses’s brother and high priest, is one of those Old Testament figures whose faults seem to have been recorded more readily than his virtues. He’s remembered primarily for having given in to the Israelites when they wanted to make a golden calf to worship while the Prophet Moses was up on the mountain with God (see Exodus 32). In countries like Greece and Russia, and even sometimes in the US, people often assume I’m Jewish. Furthermore, I get a little envious when I see friends celebrating vigils, venerating relics, etc., of their patron Saints, whereas the Prophet Aaron doesn’t even have a troparion all to himself, or a definite nameday. This last has been especially frustrating—I was originally told I was supposed to celebrate the Sunday of the Forefathers, then I noticed the St Herman calendar listed a date in March, then I discovered the Greek Menaion mentions him with his more famous brother on 4 September (at least in the Holy Transfiguration Monastery’s The Great Horologion [Boston: HTM, 1997], p. 242), the date I finally decided on since it’s close to my birthday anyway. Then, in the course of doing some research for this post, I discovered that the Prophet Aaron is listed on 1 July in an early Irish martyrology (P.J.C. Field, ‘Gildas and the City of the Legions’, The Heroic Age, Issue 1—Early Arthurian Tradition: Text and Context, Spring/Summer 1999)!

There have been a couple of encouraging moments, particularly when I’m among monks. I remember one old Athonite told me I had a φοβερό όνομα, an ‘awesome’ or ‘fearful name’ (I'm not sure if he intended one or the other connotation, or both). Another time, a couple of excited monks introduced me to a chanter at their monastery named ‘Father Moses’, saying that we were brothers. It was some consolation discovering George Herbert's beautiful poem, 'Aaron'. But generally speaking, I’ve begun to think that perhaps I got the short end of the stick.

Since there is so little veneration of the brother of Moses, I’ve kept a watchful eye out for any other saintly Aarons just so I could find more fodder for veneration. One of the first I came across was Abba Aaron of Philae in Egypt (2nd half of the 4th c.), whose life and miracles are told at some length in Paphnutius’s Histories of the Monks of Upper Egypt, III.86-140 (trans. Tim Vivian, Histories of the Monks of Upper Egypt & the Life of Onnophrius, by Paphnutius [Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian, 1993], pp. 114-41). He’s a great desert father (Vivian observes that his disciple, Abba Isaac, ‘unlike the modern reader, shows absolutely no surprise at finding Aaron naked in the desert with a millstone tied around his neck’—p. 37), but unfortunately his cultus does not seem ever to have caught on. I know of no commemoration date or hymnography for him.

The next St Aaron—the British martyr, who suffered with St Julius under a Roman persecution in perhaps the early 4th century (?)—was at one time more venerated than the Egyptian monk. The earliest source for him is St Gildas the Wise, who tells us precious little except that the Holy Martyrs Aaron and Julius were identified with ‘the city of the legions’ and that they ‘were tormented with divers sufferings, and their limbs were racked in such unheard of ways, that they, without delay, erected the trophies of their glorious martyrdom even in the gates of the city of Jerusalem’ (J.A. Giles, trans.; from the Internet Medieval Source Book). St Gildas is concerned, however, that access to their shrine has been hindered, which suggests that whether or not ‘trophies’ had been erected in Jerusalem, people were making pilgrimages to the site of the martyrdom to venerate the martyrs. They are given a date of commemoration (22 July) in the 9th-c. Martyrology compiled by Florus of Lyon (a date given, according to Alban Butler, to another St Aaron as well—of Brittany), and are even invoked in the marginalia of a 9th-c. manuscript—copied by an unknown Irish monk—of Priscian’s Institutiones Grammaticæ at the famous Abbey of St Gall in Switzerland (see Field). According to the Our Sunday Visitor’s Encyclopedia of Saints, however, they are commemorated on 1 July (Matthew Bunson, et al., Our Sunday Visitor's Encyclopedia of Saints, rev. ed. [Huntington, IN: Our Sunday Visitor, 2003], p. 23), the date Field says is that of the Prophet Aaron in at least one early martyrology. My favourite online Orthodox calendar, based, I believe, on the St Herman calendar, also supports this date.

The third St Aaron I’ve turned up is St Aaron of Aleth (†543-4?), in Brittany. He is most well-known in connection with St Malo, one of the Seven Founder Saints of Brittany. St Malo—according to the Catholic Encyclopedia—had been a disciple of St Brendan the Navigator and a companion on his legendary sea journeys before travelling to France and placing himself under the eldership of St Aaron. St Malo discovered the latter serving as abbot of a monastery on a small island, eventually named for St Aaron, opposite the town of Aleth, just off the coast of Brittany. When, much later, the bishopric of Aleth was transferred to the island, the whole town followed suit, becoming the town of St Malo. According to Alban Butler, St Aaron of Aleth is commemorated on 22 July, the same date given by Florus of Lyon’s Martyrology for Ss Aaron and Julius of Britain (see Field).

The other Aarons I’ve found very little about. Apparently there was a Cluniac, St Aaron of Cracow (†1059), who was a disciple of St Odilo and became abbot of a Benedictine monastery in Poland, and later, the first archbishop of Cracow. He is especially venerated in Cracow and by Polish Benedictines, who commemorate him on 9 October (see Bunson, p. 23). There is a passing reference to an Elder Aaron at Zadonsk Monastery in the 18th century, who prophesied that the Mother of God would not allow St Tikhon to leave the monastery (Archbishop Philaret (Gumilevsky) of Chernigov, ‘Appendix B: The Life of St Tikhon’, Journey to Heaven: Counsels on the Particular Duties of Every Christian, by St Tikhon of Zadonsk, trans. Fr George D. Lardas [Jordanville, NY: Holy Trinity Monastery, 1994], p. 208). Finally, I seem to recall St Seraphim (Sobolev) the New of Sofia speaking to an Elder Aaron before leaving Russia. I cannot currently discover this reference, however, which is not mentioned in the Orthodox America article here (any help would be appreciated!).
(The icon at the top is a detail of a fresco by Lasha Kintsurashvili, a Georgian Orthodox Christian and one of my favourite contemporary iconographers.)

To be continued . . . [UPDATE: One can read Part II of this post here.]


abuian said...

I thought about using my middle name Michael for mostly the same reason, but there was never much of a connection. I ended up being drawn to St. Peter the Aleut for various reasons, but he has his practical drawbacks. There seem to be at least two different days when he's commemorated--in both cases, he's a minor saint for the day, so he's lucky to get mentioned in the list at the end of the service. The date that my priest said to use is during the Nativity Fast. On top of all that, Peter Peterson makes me sound like I should be selling used cars or something. But, what can you do? Your saint is your saint :-)

Aaron Taylor said...

Feast days that fall during fasts are truly unfortunate! Well, thanks for the commiseration, Peter. It's nice to know I'm not the only one with this problem!

One question though: have you looked into what the Orthodox in Alaska do vis-a-vis St Peter? It seems like they would have a more definite practice for commemorating him, and perhaps even a whole service in his honour.

abuian said...

I haven't been able to find anything so far. I hope one day to go on pilgrimage to Alaska, and it would certainly be high on my list of things to find out :-)

Anonymous said...

Fool of a Taylor! There is nothing cooler than being named after a great figure of the Bible! Aaron rocks! If you want even more reason to be grateful for your name, Aaron is also the name of the "singer" of My Dying Bride - even more reason for it to be regarded as a venerable name!
Furthermore, he is not the only saint to have had made mistakes. There was one saint, whose name I forget, who was a monk, had sex with a prostitute and killed her so no one would find out. He spent the rest of his life in the woman's tomb, crying, praying and repenting, and thus he became a saint. The errors of the saints should give us hope, I think, and remind us that holiness is found in repentance and not in being a goody two shoes. Saints made mistakes and they sinned. But their burning love for God, their humility and love is what made them holy. Aaron is no exception to this rule.

As far as I was aware, the main feast day for Aaron is the Sunday before Christmas. Of course, you can also celebrate on All Saints Day if it pleases you.

Aaron Taylor said...

I am thoroughly chastened, my dear Basil! Thank you for your firm sensibility!

Anonymous said...

Oh, and another thing, Aaron had a huge friggin' beard! Thus, everytime a priest dons his stole, he says, "Blessed is God who pours his grace upon his priests; it is like myrrh upon the head which runs down to the beard, even the beard of Aaron, which ran down to the helm of his garment". Thus, I remember you and your patron saint every time I don my stole. Cute huh?

Esteban Vázquez said...

I think you have done correctly in settling on Sep. 4 to celebrate the feast of the prophet Aaron together with his brother Moses, as (some) Greek calendars have it. Otherwise, of course, his feast would be on the Sunday before the Nativity, when (as per the Synaxarion of the Menaion) we observe the commemoration of "τοῦ Προφήτου Μωσέως, καὶ Ὤρ καὶ Ἀαρὼν τῶν Ἱερέων."

I wouldn't worry too much about the prophet lacking his own apolytikion. As you probably know, giving each saint in the Menaion an individual apolytikion is a rather recent phenomenon; the older books, both Greek and Slavonic, usually give the "common apolytikion" for the saint, and the exceptions to this are truly exceptional. (The Russians, in particular, seem to have a fixation with impossibly long, newly-composed apolytikia; I have seen some that take up a page and a half in some Slavonic prayers books! But I digress.) For this reason, when I translate the weekly texts for Liturgy into Spanish, I usually give preference to the "common apolytikion" for a saint. There are no "common kontakia," however, as these are composed together with the oikos as part of the Matinal Canon. I believe the HTM Great Horologion gives both an apolytikion and a kontakion for the prophets Moses and Aaron; it would be interesting to see if their recently published Menaion has a full service to them, as well. Failing that, of course, both the Greek Anthologion and the Slavonic General Menaion have "common services" to a Prophet that could be used.

And rejoice, O BFF, for there are many icons of the prophet Aaron available! Further, there are traditionally composed lives, such as that found in the beautiful book once published by Holy Apostles Convent, and entitled The Lives of the Prophets. And if others can venerate the relics of their patron saints, you can read about yours in the Holy Scriptures themselves. So you see, the situation is not as dire as it seems.

All that said, however, there are some further comments I would like to make on this subject:

I know a man in Christ who was named after a Pope of Old Rome, and was consistently mistaken for a Papist among Rusyns, Romanians, and Serbs. Explanations were of no use, since they were seldom, if ever, believed: everyone just knew that this was a name that only the Papists among them used. Further, he was grieved by the lack of both icon and service to this saint, which deprived this man of the most basic way to establish a relationship with his patron--and to add insult to injury, the saint's feast day often fell during Holy Week! After observing the situation for a few years, the man's spiritual father, with the blessing of the Bishop, read over him the Prayer for the Changing of a Name found in the Serbian Trebnik, and gave him a name common among the Orthodox. From the first day, the man felt he finally had what he had been painfully lacking, and never has experienced similar difficulties since.

A 19th-century Russian "missionary manual" I once was shown offers some very helpful and sensible counsel with regard to the naming of converts. Speaking of the Armenians, it directs that even if the person being received into the Church has the name of an old, pre-schism Armenian saint, he or she should be given a saint's name that is "common among the Orthodox" instead. Yet so often in our circles, people are encouraged to take or maintain names which are wholly unusual, and in some cases, frankly extravagant. This is absolutely no help to the new Christian: whether one be named "Columcille" or "Barsanuphius," all this does is attract undue attention to oneself. Simplicity must extend even to these matters, as is understood by most Orthodox cultures: in many places, for instance, there are names which are usually restricted to monastics, and which people simply do not give their children. Indeed, all must be called by a name "common among the Orthodox"!

Even if a convert "Graham" can find a (hypothetical) 4th-century Gothic "St Goram" buried in the depths of some calendar, taking this name would be of little spiritual help to him, because of the difficulties you note: no icon, no service, no feast in Church. This is a bit like spiritual alienation. In the long run, it would be better for him to be named, say, "Mark" from the beginning, and have recourse to the spiritual help that is found in establishing a living relationship with one's patron saint through the normal means.

All of the foregoing simply underscores what great care priests must exercise in the naming of a convert. Many priests, as is well known, simply leave the matter up to the person being received. In this, unwittingly, they do them a very great disservice, because a new convert is hardly able to take into account all these pastoral considerations (nor, indeed, should she have to!). And in the end, when coming to the Church, we do not in any case choose a new name, but rather receive one.

(Um, sorry for the kilometric comment! Maybe I should get a blog or something. ;-)

Aaron Taylor said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Aaron Taylor said...

Yeah, start your own blog, Esteban!

No, actually, these were helpful comments. I recall hearing the story about the man in Christ (or is it the man you know in Christ--the syntax is a bit confusing here) at one point before. I suppose the main difference between us is that I'm mistaken for a Jew rather than a Papist!