28 February 2009

Makrakism Returns

When I was a naïve, rosy-cheeked young college Freshman, newly drawn to the Orthodox Church, I went browsing through the library of my alma mater to see what sort of books might be available there on Orthodoxy. Sadly, if predictably, there was very little, a situation which I hope will improve now that they’ve hired a ‘Theology and Information Literacy Librarian’ who happens to be an Orthodox Christian. But at the time, about the only thing I came up with, aside from an old edition of Timothy Ware, was Fr Alexander Schmemann’s Church, World, Mission (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s, 1979), a book which admittedly contains my favourite piece by the famous St Vlad’s dean—‘The “Orthodox World”, Past and Present’ (pp. 25-66).

There was one other thing, however. A series of older books, I want to say five volumes—slim, blue, purporting to give Orthodox views on such things as philosophy and psychology. The author was this Greek guy, Apostolos Makrakis. At the time I thought they seemed a little odd, not to mention ambitious, and I never got around to reading them.

A couple of years later, a friend who is now doing philosophy at Notre Dame showed me a book he’d discovered with something by Makrakis, wherein the author of the ‘Preface’ refers to the man as ‘the greatest philosopher since St Paul’ (sorry, I don’t have the reference—you’ll have to take my word for it).

Then, a couple of years after that, I bought Constantine Cavarnos’s book on Elder Philotheos (Zervakos), Blessed Elder Philotheos Zervakos (1884-1980), Vol. 11 in Modern Orthodox Saints (Belmont, MA: Institute for Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies, 1993). There, I read the following concerning a book by the Elder entitled, The Errors of Makrakis Criticized by the Truth:

Regarding the early Makrakis he [the Elder] characteristically says:

‘The teacher Makrakis was at first a philosopher, a very ardent zealot, a foe and critic of wickedness and the enemies of the Faith and the Church, of freemasons, simoniacs, and so on’ (p. 17). Again he says: ‘. . . At first Makrakis was great, he ascended to heights of wisdom, knowledge, zeal, faith, and virtue’ (p. 29-30).

However, later, says the Elder, Makrakis lapsed into pride, which with the passage of time grew greater and greater. Thus he fell, and his fall was great. Makrakis’ pride resulted in his falling into various theological errors and in making false, unfulfilled prophecies.

. . .

Father Philotheos points out and discusses the ways in which Makrakis went astray. As far as errors in doctrine are concerned, he notes that Makrakis committed the following: He taught (1) that the human soul was created out of dust of the earth, is material, and at death returns to the earth; (2) that human beings, initially dicomposite, are capable of becoming tricomposite, by becoming participants in God’s essence; (3) that Christ was perfected at His baptism; (4) Chiliasm or Millenarianism. The Orthodox Church, remarks the Elder, considers all these doctrines as heresies. (pp. 110-2)

I should add that Cavarnos also speaks of ‘[f]anatical followers of Makrakis, failing to make the distinction between truth and error’ in his teachings (p. 114), thus accounting for the author of the ‘Preface’ I mentioned.

Well, now there is a blog out there called ‘Apostolos Makrakis: An Evaluation of a Century’, which features a bio of Makrakis slanted heavily in his favour. There is one post that attempts to elicit evaluations of Makrakis and which seems to suggest that because Elder Philotheos’s refutation of him has not been translated into English, we can’t really know what the elder said and we have to make up our own minds. The blog has been up since last May, but so far mine is the only comment (although a few others do seem to have availed themselves of the ‘surveys’ on the left side-bar).

Now, for the most part I wish to avoid controversy on this blog. I don’t have the time or spiritual resources for endless back-and-forths in the combox, and I just sort of enjoy getting along with people. But, while I certainly hesitated, in the end I thought perhaps I should call attention to this. My own opinion, which I give briefly in the comment I posted, is that evaluating something like this takes not only great theological learning, but spiritual discernment, humility, and unshakeable faithfulness to the Tradition of the Church. Elder Philotheos had these, I do not. I personally don’t feel I need to spend a bunch of time evaluating Makrakis on my own, because Elder Philotheos has already done this. If other people require access to the full text of the Elder’s critique of Makrakis in order to accept his opinions of the man and were willing to pay something for it, I would be willing to translate that book myself. But I don’t intend to waste my time otherwise.

'Perceiving the Vision of God Continuously'—Venerable Eusebius of Syria

On this day, 15 February on the Church’s calendar, we celebrate the memory of the Venerable Eusebius the Hermit, of Asikha, Syria. This account summarises his life rather effectively:

The Monk Eusebios the Hermit lived in the IV Century and asceticised on a mountain near the village of Asykha in Syria. He led a very strict life, being always under the open sky and patiently bearing the summer heat and winter cold; for clothing the monk wore skins, and nourished himself on the pods of peas and beans. Being already an infirm elder, he ate during the Great Forty-day Lent all of 15 figs. When many people began to flock to the Monk Eusebios, he went to a nearby monastery, built a small enclosure at the monastery walls and dwelt in it until his death. The Monk Eusebios lived to old age, having died at the age of ninety, sometime after the year 400.

The account by Theodoret of Cyrrhus, in his Religious History, is of course brief as well, as most of his are, and Theodoret reminds us that even if his History does not contain all of the contests of the Syrian ascetics, ‘yet even a few suffice to show the character of the whole life’ (A History of the Monks of Syria, trans. R.M. Price [Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian, 1985], p. 190). But still, it is enlightening to see what Theodoret has added to such a bare-bones description as the one above. He begins describing the Venerable Eusebius with these words:

During a lifespan of very many years he endured labor equal to this time, accumulated virtue equal to this labor, and carried off therefrom a profit many times greater, for the Umpire surpasses the contests in the munificence of his gifts in return. Entrusting the care of himself at first to others, he followed where they led, for they too were men of God, athletes, and gymnasts of virtue. After passing time with them, and well and truly acquiring knowledge of philosophy, he embraced the solitary life. (p. 126)

It is instructive that Theodoret has noted St Eusebius’s prior preparation for the eremitical life in the school of obedience. While such training did not seem to be necessary in a few of the more exceptional cases, it is a common precept of monastic spirituality. According to St Cassian, the anchorites ‘are first instructed in the cenobia and then, perfected in their practical way of life, choose the recesses of the desert’ (Conferences XVIII.iv.2; St John Cassian, The Conferences, trans. Boniface Ramsey [NY: Newman, 1997], p. 637).

There is one other detail that is interesting to me, just a passing reference. In the second paragraph of his chapter on St Eusebius, Theodoret makes the following astonishing statement—‘Intercourse with the multitude exhausted him completely; for perceiving the vision of God continuously, he was not willing to draw his mind away from it’ (p. 127). I for one was quite astonished at the testimony that he perceived the vision of, we would say, the uncreated light ‘continously’. In such an instance, there can be nothing surprising about one’s shutting oneself up in a cell and refusing to speak with people, as St Eusebius did!

Of course, Theodoret does tell us that ‘he honored me alone with that sweet voice dear to God; and when I wanted to leave, he would keep me for a long time while he discoursed on the things of heaven’ (p. 127), and St Eusebius thus seems to have applied to a limited extent the principle that St Nicetas Stethatos gives—‘By merely praying and psalmodizing inwardly with your tongue—that is, by praying in the soul—you edify yourself, but your intellect is unproductive (cf. I Cor. 14:14), for you do not prophesy with the language of sacred teaching or edify God’s Church’ (The Philokalia: The Complete Text, Vol. IV, trans. G.E.H. Palmer, et al. [London: Faber, 1998], pp. 169). But one can’t help but wish the bishop had recorded some of these discourses for us!
Incidentally, the image above is not a depiction of St Eusebius. It is a 1650 painting by Aniello Francone entitled L'anacoreta, 'The Anchorite'.

27 February 2009

Solovyov's Bakery & M.M. Bakhtin

In my days of attempting to explore the ins and outs of Dostoevsky’s Orthodoxy, somehow or another I wound up ordering one book—among many others—by Marina Kostalevsky (identified within as ‘assistant professor in the division of languages and literature at Bard College’) called Dostoevsky and Soloviev: The Art of Integral Vision (New Haven, CT: Yale U, 1997). Among the many interesting things in Kostalevsky’s book, perhaps the most interesting to me is the ‘Preface’. I give it to you in full (pp. ix-x):

The theme of this book crossed my mind in Moscow, toward the end of the years when official Soviet criticism still used the word reactionary to describe both Dostoevsky and Soloviev. At the same time, however, there also existed an unofficial or semiofficial critical school, with which I had the good fortune to come into contact. Mikhail Mikhailovich Bakhtin was one of the remarkable members of this school who made this experience unforgettable. The frequency of my meetings with Bakhtin was in a way determined by his reading list. I had connections with an underground network of Moscow bookdealers, a singular group of people who exhibited a fantastic blend of intellectualism, bohemianism, thirst for profit, and generosity. Through them one could buy or borrow (sometimes just for a night) any kind of literature: books published in Russia before or shortly after the Revolution, books published in the West, and certain recent Soviet editions that one never saw in bookshops. Bakhtin was mainly interested in the second category. I remember bringing him books by Berdiaev, Mikhail Chekhov, Evreinov (Bakhtin was then meditating on theater), and Nabokov. He naturally made me stay for tea, and the two of us would talk.

One morning Mikhail Mikhailovich remarked, ‘I had a curious dream last night.’ And he told me of how he had dreamed that he had left his apartment and set off down the street toward the subway station. (I should mention that he could do this only in a dream—he was virtually confined to his armchair.) Suddenly he saw Viacheslav Ivanov coming toward him carrying a loaf of fresh bread. The bread was golden brown and airy, with a wonderful aroma. Bakhtin asked, ‘Viacheslav Ivanovich, wherever did you buy such a marvelous loaf of bread?’ And Ivanov replied, ‘Didn’t you know? Vladimir Soloviev opened a bakery on the corner.’

For those who do not know, M.M. Bakhtin is a fascinating charactre, and certainly, granted the restrictions of his time, an heir in many ways to Solovyov and Ivanov. Someday I’d like to get around to posting more about him on this blog. For now, it suffices to note that he wrote an indispensable book on Dostoevsky, published in English as Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics, ed. and trans. Caryl Emerson (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota, 1994). I first encountered him in a Books & Culture article by Alan Jacobs back on 1996 I think (now buried in a box somewhere), followed quickly by Fr Anthony Ugolnik’s The Illuminating Icon (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1989), pp. 158-72. It is interesting to note that while they obviously came to have different views, Bakhtin had contact with members of and was accused by the Soviets of belonging to the ‘Brotherhood of St Seraphim of Sarov’ (Katerina Clark and Michael Holquist, Mikhail Bakhtin [Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 1984], pp. 132-3), with which Ivan Andreyev was once affiliated (Fr Seraphim [Rose], ‘Ivan Michailovich Andreyev: True Orthodox Convert from the Russian Intelligentsia’, Orthodox Apologetic Theology, by I.M. Andreyev, trans. Hieromonk Seraphim [Rose] [Platina, CA: St Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 1995], pp. 24-5). Of course, Clark and Holquist’s account of the connection between Bakhtin and St Seraphim himself ought to be supplemented by Ruth Coates’s in-depth article on this subject, ‘Bakhtin and Hesychasm’ (Religion & Literature 37.3 [Autumn 2005], pp. 59-80), which I’ve had occasion to mention before and which demonstrates a much more thorough understanding of Orthodoxy than the former.

'With His Letters He Directed Everyone on the Road to Salvation'—St Cyril the Apostle to the Slavs

Today, 14 February on the Church’s calendar, we commemorate St Cyril, the Apostle to the Slavs (827-869). While he is commemorated with his brother according to the flesh and fellow Apostle to the Slavs, St Methodius on 11 May, today is the day of St Cyril’s own repose.

There is of course, a great deal that can be said about St Cyril, about his life and mission. But I’m afraid I’m not equal to the task of saying much of it. I will confine myself to posting two things relevant to him. The first is from a eulogy by his disciple, St Clement of Ohrid. St Clement has praised his teacher much better than I could hope to do, and on the basis of first-hand knowledge of the man. As Thomas Butler has written, ‘Unlike many hagiographic works, this pohvala is not a mechanical blending of slim data and extravagant praise [though I’m afraid that is what I have excerpted from it!]: it is written with an eye for detail and with sentiments of admiration and love that most likely would come from one who knew the Apostle to the Slavs personally’ (Monumenta Bulgarica: A Bilingual Anthology of Bulgarian Texts from the 9th to the 19th Centuries, ed. and trans. Thomas Butler [Ann Arbor, MI: Michigan Slavic, 2004], p. 87). This is taken from Butler’s translation of the eulogy (pp. 89-91, 93):

A Memorial and Eulogy to our Most Blessed Father and Teacher of the Slavic People, Cyril the Philosopher, and St Methodius the Teacher. Bless us, O Father!

Lo, there shone for us lovers of Christ the resplendent memory of our most blessed father Cyril, the new apostle and teacher of all countries, who with piety and beauty shone on the earth like the sun, enlightening the whole world with the rays of the triune Godhead. Divine Wisdom created her shrine in his heart and the Holy Spirit was constantly resting on his tongue as on the Cherubim, distributing its gifts according to faith. As the Apostle Paul said: ‘To everyone is given grace according to the measure of the gift of Christ’ (Eph. 4:7). ‘He who loves me,’ said the Lord, ‘him will I love too, and I shall appear to him myself and I shall create my dwelling place in
him, and he will appear to me as a son and I shall be as his Father’ (cf. John 14:21, 23).

Seeking that same Fatherland, this most blessed father and our teacher left all the beauty of this life, home and wealth, father and mother, brothers and sisters. From his early youth he had been as pure as an angel, declining and fleeing life’s pleasures, constantly abiding in psalms and hymns and meditation, pursuing the one path by which he would rise to Heaven. Therefore God’s grace flowed from his lips. As the most wise Solomon said: ‘On the lips of the wise lies compassion, on his tongue he bears the law and mercy with which he tied the blasphemous lips of the heretics [no citation].’

. . .

Now the Slavic nation being in ignorance and sinful darkness, he appeared as their pastor and teacher, through the mercy and charity of our Lord Jesus Christ. And he closed the mouths of the wolves, the trilingualist heretics, exposing like a prophet their dumb language; and with his letters he directed everyone on the road to salvation. It was in Rome that the Lord deigned that his body should rest, and when one calculates his labor and his travels there is no one to whom one could give praise.

. . .

What hidden place did he not sanctify with his steps? What art remained concealed from his blessed spirit? Giving testimony to all nations concerning the mysteries, in an everyday, understandable language, he preached to some in writing and to others by teaching. Divine grace flowed from his lips, and for that God blessed him unto the ages. And so, what lips will testify to the sweetness of his teaching? What tongue will succeed in expressing the feats and labors and goodness of his life?

For the Lord showed those lips to be more radiant than the light, enlightening those who were benighted by sinful fraud. His tongue effused sweet and lifegiving words. Thos most holy lips flourished in holy wisdom. His most holy fingers created religious instruments [books] and decorated them with shining gold letters [interestingly reminiscent of the Sinai Codex Theodosianus!]. By that godspeaking mouth were quenched those who thirsted to know God, and through it many enjoyed lifegiving food. Thus did God enrich many nations with divine knowledge.

. . .
The second thing I’d like to post is an Old Slavonic ‘Alphabet Prayer’, which may well have been written by St Cyril himself (see Butler’s discussion of authorship on p. 48). It certainly reflects his philosophy and epitomises much about his mission to the Slavs. Butler notes that it is written in the Byzantine twelve-syllable metre, but with some irregularities. He also points out that the alphabetical acrostic is imperfect, but that some of these irregularities may have arisen when the poem was transliterated into the Cyrillic from the Glagolitic alphabet (p. 48-9). Here it is then (Butler, pp. 51, 53):

With this prayer I pray to God:
O God of all creation—Founder
Of the visible and invisible,
Send the Lord Living Spirit
To inspire in my heart a word
Which will be of benefit to all
Who live within Thy commandments.
For Thy lamp is the very lamp of life
And a light for the paths of the one
Who seeks the gospel word
And begs to receive Thy gifts.
For now the Slavic race is hurrying, too—
Everyone has converted to Christianity
Wanting to be called Thy people.
They heartily implore Thy mercy, God!
But give me now Thy expansive word
O Father, Son, and Most Holy Spirit
As I beseech Thee for help.
For I raise my hands to Thee always
To receive strength from Thee and wisdom.
For Thou givest strength to the worthy,
Healest every being.
Deliver me from the Pharaoh’s malice
Grant me cherubic thought and intellect
O venerable, Most Holy Trinity.
Transform my sadness into joy
So I may begin to write with wisdom
Thy most marvelous wonders.
Having received the strength of the Sixwinged
I walk now in the path of my teachers
Following their name and deed.
I shall make public the word of the Gospel
Giving praise to the Trinity in the Godhead
Which every generation sings—
Young and old—with their understanding.
A new tongue, giving praise always
To the Father, Son, and Most Holy Spirit:
To Whom be the honor and power and glory
From all creation and from all that breathes
Unto the Ages of Ages.

If I have time and if they occur to me, I may post other things related to St Cyril today.

26 February 2009

What Israel Means to Me, Apparently

A funny thing happened to me about a year and a half ago. My dad gave me a package that had arrived at his house, where I had lived until my senior year in college, addressed to me from Jewish Lights. Inside was the book A Dream of Zion: American Jews Reflect on Why Israel Matters to Them, ed. Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin (Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights, 2007). There was also a letter which read (and by the way, the creative use of bold-faced type is theirs):

October 3, 2007

Dear Contributor to A Dream of Zion:

Enclosed please find your complimentary copy of A Dream of Zion: American Jews Reflect on Why Israel Matters to Them. On behalf of Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin and Jewish Lights Publishing, thank you for your contribution to this valuable resource.

If you would like to obtain additional copies for family, friends or colleagues, we will extend to you a special contributor’s discount through November 15, 2007. The retail price is $24.99. Your cost will be at a 50% discount: $12.50 per copy, plus shipping and handling. An order form is enclosed with this letter for your convenience. You may mail it to Jewish Lights Publishing, P.O. Box 237, Woodstock, VT 05091 or fax it to us at 802-457-4004. Or if you prefer, you can call us with your order at 800-962-4544 or visit our website at http://www.jewishlights.com/.

We hope you’ll help us spread the word about A Dream of Zion by mentioning the book to colleagues and friends.

Very truly yours,
Stuart M. Matlins
Publisher and President

Now, I didn’t recall contributing to such a book, and since I’m not a Jew (though I am an American) I would be surprised if anything I had written had been included. So at first I thought they had simply put the wrong label on the package or something.

But upon closer inspection, the mistake went deeper. The book is an anthology of very personal reflections, grouped according to the thrust of the contributor’s view (to summarise: Ancestral Home, Refuge from Anti-Semitism, Part of My Faith, Light Unto the Nations, Historical Perspective). They are not titled, but simply headed by the name and a brief bio of the individual contributor, all except those in the final section being names that were previously unfamiliar to me (saving only Arthur Kurzweil). But on p. 160, in the ‘Light Unto the Nations’ section, I found the following contributor:

Aaron Press Taylor is a student at Brandeis University where he transferred after three semesters at Yeshiva University. He is an alumnus of the Reform youth movement and its various leadership programs, and has spent significant time in Israel.

It occurred to me that JL either has two Aaron Taylors in their database, or they only have one—me. The only reason they have me in there is that at some point during my freshman year in college, I bought a copy of Abraham Joshua Heschel’s A Passion for Truth (Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights, 1995) at a now sadly defunct local bookshop. I never did read the book (which I believe sadly perished in a 2000 mould tragedy), but I did fill out a postcard with my name, address, and interests and received at least one catalogue. Apparently what had happened was that when they looked for Aaron Press Taylor’s address in their database in order to print out a label, they saw ‘Aaron Taylor’ and thought they had found their man.

Well, I realised that if I did nothing, the real Aaron Taylor may be left wondering where his complimentary contributor’s copy was (as I myself wondered on another occasion when I discovered a book had been published containing a paper I’d written). I called the number on the letter and explained everything to the nice, presumably Jewish girl on the other line. I was told that the real Mr Taylor would be sent his copy and that I could keep mine, despite being neither Jewish nor a contributor.

Although the premise of the book strikes me as something like a high school essay assignment—‘What Israel Means to Me’—I read a few of the pieces, and they certainly are thought-provoking. Mr Taylor’s essay, largely focusing on his sense of being spiritually drawn to Israel despite being ‘usually rational, sometimes even agnostic’ (p. 161), ends with the suggestion that he will help ‘to fulfill the Jewish hope that Israel will ultimately stand as a beacon, just and upright in its values among the nations’ (p. 162). But then, of course, Arthur Green among others feels that despite Israel’s successes, its ‘stand as a beacon’ has been marred by ‘the essential moral failing of Israel—its inability to deal fairly with the rights and even the full humanity of the other people with whom it shares a homeland’ (p. 153). Finally, Ariel Beery’s essay highlighted for me one of the essential differences between Jews and Christians, who have ‘no continuing city’ on earth (Heb. 13:14). Beery is firmly convinced, ‘We Jews are not just a spiritual community—we are a people, one that will only fulfill its collective potential with a state in which we can hammer out the details’ (p. 173). This seems to me to be hitching one’s wagon to a falling star. But no one asked what Israel means to me.

'You Chose the Riches of the Holy Words'—St Symeon of Serbia

Today, 13 February on the Church’s calendar, we commemorate St Symeon (Stefan Nemanja) the Myrrh-gusher of Serbia (1109-1199). Sadly, I don’t have a lot of time to work on this post. I will just post a couple of primary source materials that I have, and then finish with a brief personal reminiscence.

I begin with the words of St Sava, the son of St Symeon, concerning his father’s decision to abdicate the throne of Serbia and struggle in the monastic life on the Holy Mountain (Fr Mateja Matejić and Dragan Milivojević, ed. and trans., An Anthology of Medieval Serbian Literature in English [Columbus, OH: Slavica, 1978], p. 38):

After Nemanja had completed thirty-seven years of rule, the most merciful Lord did not neglect his prayers, which came with a sigh from the depth of his heart; and being generous, industrious, and the dispenser of rewards to all, the Lord desired that everyone should save himself. When the time arrived, this thoughful man valued all the glory and the honour of this world as (being) nothing, while the beauty of this life appeared to him as smoke. Christ’s love grew in him and filled his heart, as is the temple of Christ, and it became the purest repository for this holy spirit. Christ came into his mind as a gift and taught him.

Here is St Sava’s touching account of his father’s final hours (Anthology, p. 44):

All of us, looking and crying bitterly, saw on this blessed old man an inexpressibly heavenly providence and godly concern. For even here he asked from God and God gave him everything in his state; until this hour he did not want to be deprived of a single spiritual matter, and God granted him everything. Verily, my dear brothers and fathers, that was a wonder to behold, that one before whom all foreigners and states feared and before whom they trembled looked like one of the strangers himself: poor, wrapped up in a cassock, lying on a rug on the earth with a stone below his head, bowing to everyone, causing pity and asking for forgiveness and blessing. The night having come, they all took leave of him and blessed him and went to their cells to perform their duties and to rest a while. I and one priesst (whom I kept with me) stayed with him all that night. When midnight arrived, the blessed old man became quiet; he did not speak to me further. When morning came and the church singing was resumed, the blessed old man’s face became immediately illuminated; and raising his hands to the sky, he said, ‘Praise ye the Lord. Praise God in his sanctuary; praise him in the firmament of his power.’ I asked him then, ‘Father, whom did you see?’ Having looked at me, he said then, ‘Praise him for his mighty acts; praise him according to his excellent greatness.’ When he had said that, his holy spirit left his body; and he fell asleep in God. I then fell on his face, weeping bitterly for a long time; and having stood up, I thanked God that I saw the last days of this very noble man.

Finally, here are three stanzas from an ‘Office for St Simeon’ in a MS of 1619 (Anthology, p. 45, with minor changes):

Venerable Father, neglecting the kingdom on earth, you chose the riches of the holy words; and you decided to keep them. After leaving your wife, your children, and all the beauties of the earth, you went to Mount Athos to serve God with the angels. Pray to Christ continuously for those who cherish your memory.

With the love of God you kindled your soul, you quenched carnal passions and created a spiritual life on earth, O blessed Simeon.

With heavenly brightness, you gleam in the hearts of us remembering your illustrious memory; deliver your flock from all dangers with your prayers, O most blessed Simeon.

I have felt a connection with both St Sava and St Symeon since college, when I first read the Life of the former by St Nicholas (Velimirović)—a book which, you may recall, I gave away to Max Cavalera, a deserving soul. At any rate, because I had already become Orthodox and was exerting all of my efforts to persuade my father to follow me, the story of St Sava exhorting his father to the monastic life resonated with me in particular when I first read it.

Then of course I had the tremendous blessing to be at Hilandar for St Symeon’s feast exactly eight years ago tonight, on my first pilgrimage to the Holy Mountain. I remember being disappointed that I was not able to hear a completely Slavonic service because, as is traditional among the Athonites, ‘visiting chanters’ had come, likely from the kellia, to chant the literally ‘all-night’ vigil, and of course they were good, but Greek. I stood or sat right next to St Symeon’s reliquary for most of the vigil. It was an amazing experience. I developed a habit of walking out into the courtyard during these vigils, and looking up at the stars in the silence and stillness of the Holy Mountain, and feeling all our chanting and celebrating being watched by God.

25 February 2009

A (Brief) Orthodox Take on the 'Fantasy' Genre

The thesis I’m currently trying to write concerns the place of ‘imaginative literature’—by which I mean all literature, no matter the author, genre, or date of composition, written for a primarily aesthetic purpose—in the Christian life. While I don’t want this blog to become a big chatroom or bulletin board about my thesis, the feast of St Photius the Great called to my mind some references to that holy hierarch in my work. I should point out, however, that at the time of writing I did not have access to any printed copy of St Photius’s Bibliotheca in Greek or English (on which see Felix Culpa’s wonderful post). At some point, I plan to replace the citations of Roger Pearse’s wonderful website with citations of the printed text in English, and, obviously, with citations of the Greek when I translate the paper into Greek. I don’t know how they feel about internet citations in Greece, but I myself don’t feel truly satisfied until I’ve held a book (or at least seen a scanned pdf of it) in my hand.

I have explained what I mean by ‘imaginative literature’ above because often, when I use that phrase in describing the thesis to people, they assume that I’m referring to the ‘fantasy’ genre, of which Tolkien is a superb example. This confusion, I believe, is contributed to by the fact that there seems to be a specific debate within the debate about literature that concerns how Christians ought to view the fantasy genre. While I think that it is the sort of topic that could do with a lengthy treatment by a good Orthodox moral theologian, it is rather incidental to the main concerns of my thesis. Indeed, when I endeavoured to make some provisional comments about it, I found that it seemed to me to be much lesser an issue than others often take it to be. Here is the single paragraph, admittedly taken out of context, in which I shall make my own small contribution to this debate:

The relative merits of ‘fantasy’ and ‘realism’ in literature have been much discussed, albeit generally at a rather low level.[1] First, let it be conceded that fantasy in content has long been held in little regard. St Photios the Great, in his remarks upon a well-known fantasy of the ancient world,[2] speaks disapprovingly of ‘mythical fictions’, ‘heathenish superstitions’, ‘the transformations of men into other men and brutes, and of brutes into men, and all the idle talk and nonsense of ancient fables’.[3] Citing similar statements from other Byzantine writers concerning visual art, Henry Maguire has argued that such disapprobation of the fantastic is tied to its imaginary, invented character. Thus, St John of Thessaloniki tells his pagan interlocutor, ‘We do not invent anything as you [pagans] do.’[4] But here it seems that the problem is not primarily with the absurd or unbelievable nature of these inventions, but their very inventedness.[5] To say that they are ‘fantastic’ seems just another way of saying they are more quantitatively ‘imaginary’ than the elements of all fiction. For example, while St Photios is certainly more critical of the content of the ‘fantasy’, Metamorphoses, he chides as well Iamblichus, author of the romance, Babyloniaca, for wasting his talents on ‘puerile fictions’.[6] In fact, while the ancient ‘novels’ come under particular attack by ancient readers for blurring ‘an essential dividing line between truth and untruth’,[7] insofar as they too invent or distort what was believed to be true, the poets as well come under frequent censure ever since Plato.[8] Ultimately, I believe Leslie Ryken’s argument that all fiction entails the ‘call into being [of] something that does not literally exist in the world around us’[9] makes the fantasy/realism debate much less significant than it is often taken to be.[10] In other words, I am not certain that ‘fantastic fiction’ is qualitatively different from ‘realistic fiction’.

Suggestions are of course welcome, but at this point I’m beyond drastically overhauling the structure of the thesis. In other words, don’t tell me that I need to expand this and make it into a separate chapter. I’m perfectly willing, however, to expand it and make it some sort of article if such should be deemed necessary.

[1] This discussion is at its highest in the somewhat apologetic essays of two of the twentieth century’s most acclaimed practitioners of literary fantasy, J.R.R. Tolkien’s ‘On Fairy-Stories’ (Tolkien, The Monsters & the Critics and Other Essays, pp. 109-61), and C.S. Lewis’s ‘Sometimes Fairy Stories May Say Best What’s to Be Said’ (C.S. Lewis, Of Other Worlds: Essays and Stories, ed. Walter Hooper [NY: Harcourt, 1966], pp. 35-8).

[2] The book St Photios read was the lost Metamorphoses of Lucius of Patrae, the original Greek source both of the Greek ‘Lucius, or the Ass’ of Lucian of Samosata (ET in Lucian of Samosata, ‘Lucius, the Ass’, Selected Satires of Lucian, ed. and trans. Lionel Casson [Chicago: Aldine, 1962], pp. 58-94), as well as the longer and better-known Latin Metamorphoses of Lucius Apuleius Platonicus (see Apuleius, The Golden Ass: Being the Metamorphoses of Lucius Apuleius, trans. W. Adlington, rev. S. Gaselee [London: Heinemann, 1915]). St Photios, in a brilliant bit of literary criticism, very astutely surmises the dependency of Lucian on Lucius.

[3] St Photios the Great, The Library of Photius, trans. J.H. Freese, (London: SPCK, 1920), codex 129; Early Church Fathers—Additional Texts, The Tertullian Project, 17 July 2008, <http://tertullian.org/fathers/photius_03bibliotheca.htm>. In contrast to his rather harsh remarks about the content of the story, St Photios praises the writing as ‘clear, pure, and agreeable’.

[4] Henry Maguire, ‘The Profane Aesthetic in Byzantine Art and Literature’, Dumbarton Oaks Papers, 53 (1999), p. 190. Maguire also cites a relevant statement of St Nikephoros of Constantinople: ‘The idol is a kind of fiction of those things that do not exist and have no being in themselves. Of such a kind are the shapes that the pagans fatuously and irreligiously invent, such as of tritons, centaurs, and other phantoms that do not exist’ (Maguire, p. 190). Of the fantastic creatures, only the griffin regularly escapes condemnation—according to Maguire, because it was believed to be real (Maguire, p. 192, n. 15).

[5] Obviously, inventedness is belied by the absurd or unbelievable quality, and might otherwise be more difficult for the ancient reader to detect. Even Apuleius feels the need to inform the reader that what he is about to relate is a fabula (Apuleius, p. 2). On the literary implications of this announcement, see Andrew Laird, ‘Fiction, Bewitchment and Story Worlds: The Implications of Claims to Truth in Apuleius’, Lies and Fiction in the Ancient World, ed. Christopher Gill and T.P. Wiseman (Austin: U of Texas, 1993), p. 157.

[6] St Photios does not discuss the imaginary character of Heliodorus’s Aethiopica (ET in Heliodorus, An Ethiopian Romance, trans. Moses Hadas [Ann Arbor, MI: U of Michigan, 1957]) or of the Adventures of Clitophon and Leucippe by Achilles Tatius (ET in B.P. Reardon, ed., Collected Ancient Greek Novels [Berkeley: U of California, 1989], pp. 783-97), although the former is praised for his seriousness and restraint (not typical of the romantic form, one feels), while the latter is strongly denounced for obscenity. According to one commentator, ‘These works were unproblematic for him. He knew them to be fictions and the very act of categorizing them as such apparently left him free to discuss them in terms other than truth or falsehood. We have, in effect, a tacit recognition of fiction as a distinct, autonomous literary form’ (J.R. Morgan, ‘Make-believe and Make Believe: The Fictionality of the Greek Novels’, Gill and Wiseman, p. 194).

[7] Morgan, p. 178.

[8] While I accept Christopher Gill’s argument (in ‘Plato on Falsehood—not Fiction’, Lies and Fiction, pp. 38-87) that the ‘centre of his interest lies elsewhere’ (p. 51) than in distinguishing ‘factual from fictional discourse’ (p. 46), surely the sense of ‘falsehood’ suggested by Plato’s attack on poetry at least involves some disapprobation of ‘fictional’ elements in an account that is ‘in some sense a factual one’ (p. 46)?

[9] Leland Ryken, The Liberated Imagination: Thinking Christianly About the Arts (Wheaton, IL: Harold Shaw, 1989), p. 102. While I quote him here with approval, I do feel that Ryken’s arguments on this point rely overly much on an apparent dismissal of the notion of ‘realism of presentation’.

[10] In Lynn Ross-Bryant’s words, ‘Whether a novel falls under the classification of “realism” or “fantasy”, it offers an alternative world . . .’ (Imagination and the Life of the Spirit: An Introduction to the Study of Religion and Literature [Chico, CA: Scholars, 1981], p. 106).

'Rejoice, Opener of the Doors of Paradise!'—The Iveron Icon of the Mother of God

Another item on the calendar today is the commemoration of the ‘Iveron’ icon of the Mother of God, also known as the ‘Portaitissa’ or ‘Gate-keeper’. There are, of course, so many famous and wonderworking icons of the Mother of God that it is quite easy to get confused, and it is tempting to ignore them when they show up on the calendar. But when the Church in her wisdom has seen fit to celebrate these things, it behooves us to take heed. I won’t recount the history of this icon here, but I encourage everyone to take a look at some of the sites to which I’ve linked below.

The Portaitissa is a particularly famous icon in Greece, where copies of it can be seen hanging not only in churches and monasteries, but even in shops. I recently saw it in a Greek restaurant in Lawton, OK! Thanks to God, I also had the opportunity to venerate the original at Iveron one memorable afternoon (as well as to get the blessing of the monastery’s abbot, the theologian, Archimandrite Vasileios), where it is kept in a beautiful shrine made by the English iconographer and ecclesiastical artisan, Aidan Hart. Hart also carved this beautiful copy of the icon.

Admittedly, under the name of ‘the Iveron’, or ‘Iverskaia icon’, this icon in particular has had a long and rather confusing history, from its arrival at the Iveron Monastery on the Holy Mountain (this original can be seen in a modern procession here), to the painting of the also wonderworking Moscow copy, placed at the gate to Red Square, to the discovery by Brother Jose Muñoz-Cortes of what became known as the wonderworking ‘Montreal Iveron Icon’, and finally the discovery of the myrrh-streaming Hawaii-Iveron icon, not to mention the celebration of the Iveron icon at Mozdok in North Osseta-Alania and the celebrated arrival of a copy of the original in Georgia in 1989. But all of this is worth acquainting oneself with in reverence and piety.

'There Was Honey in His Disposition as Well as His Name'—St Meletius of Antioch

Today, 12 February on the Church’s calendar, we commemorate St Meletius, archbishop of Antioch (381). One can read a brief summary of his life here. In this post, I would just like to point out a few telling details.

First, the old Catholic Encyclopedia article on St Meletius is particularly good. Here is an excerpt focusing on his more personal qualities amidst all of the activity and controversy that whirled about him during the theologically and ecclesiastically tumultuous fourth century:

The qualities of Meletius were genuine; a simple life, pure morals, sincere piety and affable manners. He had no transcendent merit, unless the even harmonious balance of his Christian virtues might appear transcendent. The new bishop held the affection of the large and turbulent population he governed, and was esteemed by such men as St John Chrysostom, St Gregory Nazianzen, St Gregory of Nyssa, St Basil, and even his adversary St Epiphanius. St Gregory Nazianzen tells us that he was a very pious man, simple and without guile, full of godliness; peace shone on his countenance, and those who saw him trusted and respected him. He was what he was called, and his Greek name revealed it, for there was honey in his disposition as well as his name.

Tragically, this simple and guileless man was to endure years of tribulations, slanders, condemnations, and exiles, being attacked and condemned not only by the heretics, but also by Orthodox Fathers who did not recognise the justness of his position. Concerning the above-referenced ‘adversarial’ stance of St Epiphanius for instance, St Basil the Great, who was ordained to the diaconate by St Meletius (The Lives of the Three Hierarchs, comp. and trans. Holy Apostles Convent [Buena Vista, CO: Holy Apostles Convent, 1998], p. 9), writes to the famous Cypriot bishop in the following glowing terms:

The right reverend bishop Meletius was the first to speak boldly for the truth, and fought that good fight in the days of Constantine. Therefore my Church has felt strong affection towards him, for the sake of that brave and firm stand, and has held communion with him. I, therefore, by God’s grace, have held him to be in communion up to this time; and, if God will, I shall continue to do so.

St Meletius was also the recipient of a number of rather warm letters from St Basil (for instance, LVII, LXXXIX, CXX, CXXIX, CCXVI). Furthermore, aside from his rôle in St Basil’s life, it has been noted concerning St Meletius that ‘the personal appeal and bearing of this cordial bishop certainly gave impetus to [the young St] John [Chrysostom]’s ultimate choice for the life in the Church’ (Lives, p.125).

Having been ‘received with marked deference’ (CE) by the Emperor Theodosius at the Second Œcumenical Council in Constantinople, made president of the assembly, and given the opportunity to enthrone St Gregory the Theologian as the new bishop of the imperial city, St Meletius fell asleep in the Lord in 381 while the council was still in session. He was mourned greatly, and St Gregory of Nyssa has left us with a particularly moving Eulogy:

The number of the Apostles has been enlarged for us by this our late Apostle being reckoned among their company. These Holy ones have drawn to themselves one of like conversation; those athletes a fellow athlete; those crowned ones another crowned like them; the pure in heart one chaste in soul those ministers of the Word another herald of that Word. Most blessed, indeed, is our Father for this his joining the Apostolic band and his departure to Christ. Most pitiable we! for the unseasonableness of our orphaned condition does not permit us to congratulate ourselves on our Father's happy lot.

. . .

When that Church, so sound in the faith, at the first beheld the man, she saw features truly formed after the image of God, she saw love welling forth, she saw grace poured around his lips, a consummate perfection of humility beyond which it is impossible to conceive any thing further, a gentleness like that of David, the understanding of Solomon, a goodness like that of Moses, a strictness as of Samuel, a chastity as of Joseph, the skill of a Daniel, a zeal for the faith such as was in the great Elijah, a purity of body like that of the lofty-minded John , an unsurpassable love as of Paul. She saw the concurrence of so many excellences in one soul, and, thrilled with a blessed affection, she loved him, her own bridegroom, with a pure and virtuous passion. But ere she could accomplish her desire, ere she could satisfy her longing, while still in the fervour of her passion, she was left desolate, when those trying times called the athlete to his contests.

I shall close with the Dismissal Hymn of the Saint in two of the more perfect of languages. But I'm afraid I must also apologise on behalf of the Greek people for the second of these: one can't find a text of the Apolytikion for St Meletios with the proper polytonic markings anywhere online. Is it my fault they don't even write their own language correctly anymore?

Troparion of St Meletius. Tone 3.

Thou didst shine on the Church with thy heavenly knowledge, O righteous Hierarch Meletius, wise in the law; thou didst preach the equal honour of the Persons, of the Trinity and disperse the assembly of heretics. Entreat Christ our God to grant us His great mercy.

Απολυτίκιο. Ήχος γ. Θείας Πίστεως.

Νόμον ένθεον, εμμελετήσας, την ουράνιον, γνώσιν εκλάμπεις, τη Εκκλησία Ιεράρχα Μελέτιε, την γαρ Τριάδα κηρύττων ομότιμον, αιρετικών διαλύεις τας φάλαγγας. Πάτερ Όσιε, Χριστόν τον Θεόν ικέτευε, δωρήσασθαι ημίν το μέγα έλεος.

24 February 2009

St Cædmon's Poetics

I thought it would be worthwhile to say a thing or two about St Cædmon’s Hymn itself in a separate post. The Venerable Bede, as he himself notes, gives only a Latin paraphrase of it in the Ecclesiastical History IV.24, ‘For it is not possible to translate verse, however well composed, literally from one language to another without some loss of beauty and dignity’ (The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, trans. Bertram Colgrave, ed. Judith McClure and Roger Collins [Oxford: Oxford U, 1994], p. 216).

But fortunately, the poem was so well-known and passed on so often, that scribes copying St Bede’s work added the poem itself in the original language, or some dialectical variant thereof. Thus, we can see that, as Paul Cavill points out, ‘this is regular, classical poetry of the standard Germanic sort’ which ‘uses the alliterative form of all Old English poetry, binding the two halves of the line of verse together by echoing the sounds’ (Anglo-Saxon Christianity: Exploring the Earliest Roots of Christian Spirituality in England [London: Fount, 1999], p. 95). It is in this fact that much of the significance of the poem lies. Cavill points out that it is a 'conversion of poetry', which parallels the three conversions of St Cædmon himself (p. 94). In C.L. Wrenn’s words (qtd. in Kevin Crossley-Holland, trans. and ed., The Anglo-Saxon World: An Anthology [Oxford: Oxford U, 1984], p. 194):

If this poet was, in fact, the very first to apply the Germanic heroic poetic discipline of vocabulary, style, and general technique to Christian story and Christian edification, then, indeed, the Hymn must be regarded (as it must have been at the time of its original recitation) as a great document of poetic revolution in early Anglo-Saxon England. Whoever first applied pagan traditional poetic discipline to Christian matter set the whole tone and method of subsequent Anglo-Saxon poetry. He preserved for Christian art the great verbal inheritance of Germanic culture.

Here is a West Saxon version (taken from Benjamin Slade’s page on the St Cædmon story; unfortunately, I don’t know how to reproduce the caesuras of OE poetry here):

Nu we sculan herian heofonrices weard,
metodes mihte and his modgeþonc,
wera wuldorfæder, swa he wundra gehwæs,
ece dryhten, oórd onstealde.
He ærest gesceop eorðan bearnum
heofon to hrofe, halig scyppend;
ða middangeard moncynnes weard,
ece drihten, æfter teode
firum foldan, frea ælmihtig.

And here is a poetic rendition by Kevin Crossley-Holland (p. 197):

Now we must praise the Guardian of Heaven,
the might of the Lord and His purpose of mind,
the work of the Glorious Father; for He,
God Eternal, established each wonder,
He, Holy Creator, first fashioned
heaven as a roof for the sons of men.
Then the Guardian of Mankind adorned
this middle-earth below, the world for men,
Everlasting Lord, Almighty King.

Happily, Cavill argues both for the authenticity of the poem, as well as for the miracle story that accounts for it. He also makes some very insightful comments about the beauty and depth which lie below the poem's apparent simplicity:

Take the middle lines for example, ‘He first created for the sons of the earth/heaven as a roof, the holy Creator’ [the syntax is not reflected in Crossley-Holland’s translation above]. Of course a creator creates. But the lines enclose with God’s creative nature and activity both earth and heaven, people created from the dust and the roofing vault of the skies. We can see a criss-cross pattern, with the contrast earth-heaven matched and enclosed by the parallel created-Creator. This is a kind of verbal equivalent to the interlace in Anglo-Saxon art, where patterns cross and intertwine. (p. 97)

Cavill also notes the theology of the poem, as well as echoes of the Bible and the liturgy. He concludes (p. 98):

When we put all these things together, the Hymn ceases to look primitive. It is a poem which teaches subtle theology with simplicity and directness. It uses language that belongs to the Anglo-Saxon poetic tradition, but that also echoes and resonates with the Christian language of the Bible and church services. For the uneducated and unpoetic Cædmon to produce this would indeed be a miracle. Hild’s scholars heard a work of unexpected spiritual, theological and artistic depth when they listened to Cædmon’s Hymn.

Of course, this is also not the least bit surprising in light of my previous observations about the hesychastic roots of St Cædmon’s poetic craftsmanship.

'He Sang the Creation of the World'—St Cædmon of Whitby

St Cædmon of Whitby (7th c.) is probably a good deal better known than today’s other Saint, Benedict of Aniane. The sole source for information about St Cædmon is the Venerable Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People IV.24, where a tale is told that is remarkably similar to the account of the inspiration of St Romanus the Melodist’s Kontakion on the Nativity (see Archim. Ephrem [Lash], ‘St Romanos and the Kontakion’, Kontakia on the Life of Christ, by St Romanos the Melodist, trans. Archim. Ephrem [Lash] [San Francisco: HarperCollins, n.d.], p. xxvii). Here is St Bede’s full account of St Cædmon’s ‘call’ (taken from L.C. Jane’s translation, posted on Benjamin Slade’s wonderful ‘Bede’s Story of Cædmon’ page):

There was in this abbess's monastery [i.e., St Hilda’s double monastery at Whitby] a certain brother, particularly remarkable for the grace of God, who was wont to make pious and religious verses, so that whatever was interpreted to him out of Scripture, he soon after put the same into poetical expressions of much sweetness and humility, in English, which was his native language. By his verses the minds of many were often excited to despise the world, and to aspire to heaven. Others after him attempted, in the English nation, to compose religious poems, but none could ever compare with him, for he did not learn the art of poetry from men, but from God [cf. Gal. 1:1]; for which reason he never could compose any trivial or vain poem, but only those which relate to religion suited his religious tongue; for having lived in a secular habit till he was well advanced in years, he had never learned anything of versifying; for which reason being sometimes at entertainments, when it was agreed for the sake of mirth that all present should sing in their turns, when he saw the instrument come towards him, he rose up from table and returned home.

Having done so at a certain time, and gone out of the house where the entertainment was, to the stable, where he had to take care of the horses that night, he there composed himself to rest at the proper time; a person appeared to him in his sleep, and saluting him by his name, said, ‘Caedmon, sing some song to me.’ He answered, ‘I cannot sing; for that was the reason why I left the entertainment, and retired to this place because I could not sing.’ The other who talked to him, replied, ‘However, you shall sing.’ ­‘What shall I sing?’ rejoined he. ‘Sing the beginning of created beings,’ said the other. Hereupon he presently began to sing verses to the praise of God, which he had never heard, the purport whereof was thus:

Now we ought to praise the maker of the heavenly kingdom
the power of the Creator, and his intention
the deeds of the Father of glory: how he,
since he is the eternal Lord of all miracles has been the author;
who first for the sons of men
heaven for a roof above
next, the earth, the keeper of the human-race
the all-powerful created.

This is the sense, but not the words in order as he sang them in his sleep; for verses, though never so well composed, cannot be literally translated out of one language into another, without losing much of their beauty and loftiness. Awaking from his sleep, he remembered all that he had sung in his dream, and soon added much more to the same effect in verse worthy of the Deity.

In the morning he came to the steward, his superior, and having acquainted him with the gift he had received, was conducted to the abbess [i.e., St Hilda], by whom he was ordered, in the presence of many learned men, to tell his dream, and repeat the verses, that they might all give their judgment what it was, and whence his verse proceeded. They all concluded, that heavenly grace had been conferred on him by our Lord. They expounded to him a passage in holy writ, either historical, or doctrinal, ordering him, if he could, to put the same into verse. Having undertaken it, he went away, and returning the next morning, gave it to them composed in most excellent verse; whereupon the abbess, embracing the grace of God in the man, instructed him to quit the secular habit, and take upon him the monastic life; which being accordingly done, she associated him to the rest of the brethren in her monastery, and ordered that he should be taught the whole series of sacred history. Thus Caedmon—keeping in mind all he heard, and as it were chewing the cud [it is interesting to note that this phrase is very nearly a technical monastic term—at least in the West—for a kind of inner prayer involving the words of Scripture], converted the same into most harmonious verse; and sweetly repeating the same, made his masters in their turn his hearers. He sang the creation of the world, the origin of man, and all the history of Genesis: and made many verses on the departure of the children of Israel out of Egypt, and their entering into the land of promise, with many other histories from holy writ; the incarnation, passion, resurrection of our Lord, and his ascension into heaven; the coming of the Holy Ghost, and the preaching of the apostles; also the terror of future judgment, the horror of the pains of hell, and the delights of heaven; besides many more about the Divine benefits and judgments, by which he endeavoured to turn away all men from the love of vice, and to excite in them the love of, and application to, good actions; for he was a very religious man, humbly submissive to regular discipline [Slade points out that this refers to ‘the discipline of the monastic rule’, i.e., the Rule of St Benedict], but full of zeal against those who behaved themselves otherwise; for which reason he ended his life happily.

For when the time of his departure drew near, he laboured for the space of fourteen days under a bodily infirmity which seemed to prepare the way, yet so moderate that he could talk and walk the whole time. In his neighbourhood was the house to which those that were sick, and like shortly to die, were carried. He desired the person that attended him, in the evening, as the night came on in which he was to depart this life, to make ready a place there for him to take his rest. This person, wondering why he should desire it, because there was as yet no sign of his dying soon, did what he had ordered. He accordingly went there, and conversing pleasantly in a joyful manner with the rest that were in the house before, when it was past midnight, he asked them, whether they had the Eucharist there? They answered, ‘What need of the Eucharist? for you are not likely to die, since you talk so merrily with us, as if you were in perfect health.’ ­‘ However,’ said he, ‘bring me the Eucharist.’ Having received the same into his hand, he asked, whether they were all in charity with him, and without any enmity or rancour? They answered, that they were all in perfect charity, and free from anger; and in their turn asked him, whether he was in the same mind towards them? He answered, ‘I am in charity, my children, with all the servants of God.’ Then strengthening himself with the heavenly viaticum, he prepared for the entrance into another life, and asked, how near the time was when the brothers were to be awakened to sing the nocturnal praises of our Lord? They answered, ‘It is not far off.’ Then he said, ‘Well, let us wait that hour; ‘ and signing himself with the sign of the cross, he laid his head on the pillow, and falling into a slumber, ended his life so in silence.

Thus it came to pass, that as he had served God with a simple and pure mind, and undisturbed devotion, so he now departed to his presence, leaving the world by a quiet death; and that tongue, which had composed so many holy words in praise of the Creator, uttered its last words whilst he was in the act of signing himself with the cross, and recommending himself into his hands, and by what has been here said, he seems to have had foreknowledge of his death.

In his study of the spirituality and literature of the Anglo-Saxon Christians, Anglo-Saxon Christianity: Exploring the Earliest Roots of Christian Spirituality in England (London: Fount, 1999), Paul Cavill points out the three conversions of St Cædmon: to a singer, to a monk, and to a Saint (p. 93):

Cædmon himself is converted progressively. From someone who left parties in case he had to sing, he becomes someone whose verses convert many. He is converted first to be able to sing. Then he is converted to monasticism. And finally he is converted into a saint. We ought to note that Bede quotes Galatians 1:1, in relation to Cædmon’s gift. St Paul writes of his apostolic vocation, given to him by God, ‘not from man, nor by human means’, and Bede makes a similar claim for Cædmon’s gift. It means upheaval in his life, just as it did for St Paul, a complete break with what went before. This gift of poetry was a serious gift and vocation that Cædmon received from God. Cædmon did not just retreat into a monastic cell and start writing romantic poems about his feelings. We need to remember that Cædmon was illiterate, and the poet of Anglo-Saxon society exercised a public role. So the gift involved him in public teaching. The Old English translation of Bede’s History . . . specifically notes that Cædmon’s instructors learned from what he spoke and wrote it down. Through Cædmon’s gift, he became a kind of apostle to the English.

If we understand St Cædmon’s habit of ‘keeping in mind all he heard, and as it were chewing the cud’ in the context of monastic ruminatio or meditatio on Scripture, that is, as a kind of inner prayer, it is interesting how this apostolic character of his call seems quite reminiscent of the interpretation of I Cor. 14 of St Nicetas Stethatos in his treatise, ‘O On Spiritual Knowledge, Love and the Perfection of Living: One Hundred Texts’ (The Philokalia: The Complete Text, Vol. IV, trans. G.E.H. Palmer, et al. [London: Faber, 1998], pp. 169-70):

By merely praying and psalmodizing inwardly with your tongue—that is, by praying in the soul—you edify yourself, but your intellect is unproductive (cf. I Cor. 14:14), for you do not prophesy with the language of sacred teaching or edify God’s Church. If Paul, who of all men was the most closely united with God through prayer, would have rather spoken from his fertile intellect five words in church for the instruction of others than ten thousand words of psalmody in private (cf. I Cor. 14:19), surely those who have responsibility for others have strayed from the path of love if they limit the shepherd’s ministry solely to psalmody and reading.

In this way, we can begin to see that St Cædmon’s Hymn is not simply a lovely poem, but an inspired fruit of hesychasm.

'Rekindle in Us That Love of Solitude'—St Benedict of Aniane

On this day, 11 February on the Church’s calendar, we celebrate two holy followers of the Rule of St Benedict: the namesake of the great abbot, St Benedict of Aniane (750-821), and the first known vernacular poet of the English language, St Cædmon of Whitby (7th century).

In the English-speaking world, the first is probably the lesser known of these two. As a young man, St Benedict of Aniane was a courtier under King Pepin and Charlemagne. But according to his biographer, St Ardo Smaragdus, ‘Grace made him sensible of the vanity of all perishable goods, and at twenty years of age he took a resolution of seeking the kingdom with his whole heart.’ He continued for three more years at court while already practising quite severe asceticism, but when he nearly drowned when rescuing his brother, he received the blessing of a holy anchorite and quietly slipped away to the Abbey of St Seine (Sequanus) near Dijon. Here, St Benedict gave himself over to great austerities, and St Ardo tells us:

He frequently passed the whole night in prayer, and stood barefoot on the ground in the sharpest cold. He studied to make himself contemptible by all manner of humiliations, and received all insults with joy, so perfectly was he dead to himself. God bestowed on him an extraordinary spirit of compunction, and the gift of tears, with an infused knowledge of spiritual things to an eminent degree. Not content to fulfil the rule of St Benedict in its full rigour, he practiced all the severest observances prescribed by the rules of St Pachomius and St Basil.

When the brotherhood at St Seine decided to make him abbot, St Benedict withdrew to his native region of Languedoc, and built a cell on the brook Aniane. According to St Ardo, ‘Here he lived some years in extreme poverty, praying continually that God would teach him to do his will, and make him faithfully correspond with his eternal designs.’ But soon, this too attracted attention, and his hesychasterion began to develop into a sort of skete, and eventually into a proper monastery, and finally, St Benedict became a respected overseer of several monasteries throughout the region. He ‘learnedly opposed’ the heresy of adoptionism and participated in a council against it at Frankfurt in 794.

In the second decade of the ninth century, St Benedict was placed in charge of the reformation of monasticism under Charlemagne and Louis the Pious. This consisted to a great degree of either introducing, bringing into line with, or giving sole authority to the Rule of St Benedict to the exclusion of other rules. This was not, however, a strictly ‘legal’ matter. According to Leonard von Matt’s and Stephan Hilpisch’s beautiful book, Saint Benedict, trans. Dom Ernest Graf (London: Burns & Oates, 1961), p. 163:

With an earnestness born of conviction, he reminded abbots and monks of the prescriptions of the Rule of St Benedict. The Rule must be the standard by which the whole life of the monastery was to be ordered and directed. Benedict of Aniane recalled to their minds the monastic ideals of those fathers whom the father of monks had held in such high esteem that their precepts had become the seed-plot of Benedictine monachism. There were values that must not be lost, namely self-denial, silence, contemplation and separation from the world: secure must be their place in the monastery and in the hearts of its inmates. External activity must be restrained if the monk’s soul is not to suffer loss.

This introduction of uniformity is sometimes lamented today (see the relevant chapter in Dom Bruno Hicks’s The Benedictines here, as well as Jordan Aumann’s observations here), and as Fr Seraphim (Rose) has observed, the dominance of St Benedict’s Rule, ‘for all its good points, also indicated a waning of the early monastic fervor of the West’ (‘Introduction to Orthodox Gaul’, Vita Patrum: The Life of the Fathers, by St Gregory of Tours, trans. Hieromonk Seraphim [Rose] [Platina, CA: St Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 1988], p. 94). But Fr Seraphim also points out that this enabled monasticism to ‘spread farther and have more lasting influence’ (p. 138). St Benedict of Aniane was carrying out a necessary, and even holy work. Keep in mind as well that he also compiled all of the previous monastic legislation he could find (the ‘Concord of Rules’) and set it forth as a source of good counsel and spiritual teaching. Jean Leclerq acknowledges the extent of the change, but then writes, ‘Nevertheless, the traditional ideal had survived. The quest for union with God through prayer and asceticism had preserved its priority . . .’ (‘Monasticism and Asceticism, Part II: Western Christianity’, Christian Spirituality: Origins to the Twelfth Century, ed. Bernard McGinn, et al. [NY: Routledge, 1986], p. 124).

At last, worn down by his labours and by illness, St Benedict of Aniane fell asleep in the Lord at the Monastery of St Cornelius in Inde in 721. He was buried in the monastery where he reposed and many miracles were performed through his relics.
The Life of St Benedict of Aniane by St Ardo Smaragdus has been translated into English by Allen Cabaniss and is available for a very low price here. Fr Mark Kirby at Vultus Christi did a post on St Benedict of Aniane a couple of weeks ago. Among other things, he included his translation from French of the Cistercian variant of the Collect for the Feast:
Lord our God,
Who called Saint Benedict of Aniane
to restore the monastic fervour of earlier times;
rekindle in us that love of solitude,
relish of the Divine Office,
and zeal for unity,
that inspired him in his work of renewal.

I shall relate the story of our second Saint, Cædmon of Whitby, in a second post.

23 February 2009

On St Scholastica & 'Honour Due'

In her popular book, The Cloister Walk (NY: Riverhead, 1996), on p. 124, Kathleen Norris tells the following very odd story about St Scholastica. She does not say whether she heard it or read it somewhere, or simply made it up herself. But looking through my books for references to St Scholastica, I found it and thought perhaps someone out there would know more about it than I do.

One winter night, Benedict’s sister, Scholastica, was awakened by a song bird. How can this be, she thought, and she looked out the window of her cell. Three naked men were dancing in the monastery garden by the light of the moon. One whistled like a bird and made her laugh. The men were fair to look at, Scholastica thought, but she knew she needed more rest before the first prayers of the day.

Kneeling by her bed, she closed her eyes and sleepily said a prayer for the men—if they were men—that they might find shelter, clothing, and rest for their dancing feet, and if (as she suspected) they were demons, that they might return to from whence they came.

When she awoke, her cell was filled with the scent of roses. Where the men had been dancing a rose bush had sprung up and was blooming in the snow. It bloomed all that winter, and it blooms to this day.

I'm not singling Norris out, for my beloved Adalbert de Vogüé is just as guilty of this as anyone else, but as an aside I might just mention here how annoyed I am by the habit of referring to the great Saints of the Church merely by their first names. I don't know this for certain, but it seems to me that this is a convention that originated in secular scholarship and has been picked up on by spiritual writers who have been reading scholarly stuff. But while I understand why a secular scholar may prefer not to speak of 'the Holy Benedict', in the context of spiritual writing it comes across as merely a further step in the process of making everything casual and informal, of making the Saints 'just like us' and taking all of the courtesy and ritual out of everything. One might make the same observation about the common practice of using only the last name of a writer who is a Saint or a clergyman, especially when that person is also a monastic and, at least in the Orthodox Church, has therefore basically given up his or her surname. I for one believe we need more titles, not fewer. In this respect, I say we strive harder to emulate the ways of Heaven, 'Where honour due and reverence none neglects' (Paradise Lost III.737).

'An Ever-Resplendent Lamp'—St Charalampus of Magnesia

Although I am sadly lacking in materials on him in my own library, I did not want the feast of Hieromartyr Charalampus, bishop of Magnesia in Thessaly (†202) to go by unnoticed. My friend Justin did a post on his life a couple of weeks ago or so, and one can find information on him at the usual sources. But I since I don’t have much of any material on him myself and can’t think of much to say about his life, I thought I would break a bit from my standard posts and just mention two aspects of my personal connection to this Saint.

The first time my wife and I went to Thessaloniki, we had been given the names of an American couple there by some monks we know, but we never got around to calling or e-mailing them. We just plunged ahead, not knowing what we would do about a place to live, how long we would stay, etc. But we started a Greek class at the University a day or two after our arrival, and there we met a young ryassophore monk from France, named Fr Silouan. Curious about the logistics of his life in the city, we asked where he went to church, and he told us about a parish in Thessaloniki that was a dependency of Simonos Petras Monastery on the Holy Mountain, called ‘St Charalampus’.

So that weekend, we visited St Charalampus for Vespers. It was a neat little church, I would guess 18th-c., tucked away off of a small side street from the main drag of Thessaloniki with a little courtyard and some parish community buildings somewhat reminiscent of a monastery. There were many young people there, and some superb chanting. During the service, I noticed this rather un-Greek-looking fellow with long hair pulled back and a bushy beard. Afterward, he came up to me and asked me in Greek if I was Russian. I replied, also in Greek, that I was an American, and he replied, ‘Kai ego!’ Realising we were both Americans and could speak English, I asked him, ‘Are you Luke?’—this being the name that the monks in the States had given me. Well, sure enough, it was the man himself. He asked what we were doing in Thessaloniki, and I told him we were taking Greek and looking for a place to stay. He told us that they knew of a place—an apartment that a friend was looking to sublet—and that we could probably look at it that evening. We ended up staying in that apartment for two and a half months, and visiting that little church off and on over the last eight years. We saw the current abbot of Simonos Petras serve there shortly after his enthronement. I’ve met many Americans and other non-Greek Orthodox Christians there. The priest used to always ask how I was doing when he would see me at the University. I’ll never forget the Great Canon of St Andrew of Crete being chanted there. I always love going back.

My second story is briefer. When we visited the monasteries at Meteora once, I can’t remember whether it was the time we went with my parents, with my mother-in-law, or with my sister, we happened to be at St Stephen’s when there was a large group of (I think mostly Greek) pilgrims coming in, and the sisters brought the skull of St Charalampus out into the nave of the church. Even though that church was packed with sweaty people, the moment they opened the lid on the precious reliquary, an overpowering heavenly fragrance filled the room. My wife and I looked at each other and she asked, ‘Do you smell that?’ I’m quite sure that, in the words of Archimandrite Vasileios of Iveron, it was ‘the very same fragrance which had filled the universe on the day of Resurrection’ (Beauty and Hesychia in Athonite Life, trans. Constantine Kokenes [Québec: Alexander, 1999], p. 10).

Ἀπολυτίκιο. Ἦχος δ'.
Ὡς στῦλος ἀκλόνητος, τῆς Ἐκκλησίας Χριστοῦ, καὶ λύχνος ἀείφωτος, τῆς οἰκουμένης σοφέ, ἐδείχθης Χαράλαμπε, ἔλαμψας ἐν τῷ κόσμῳ, διὰ τοῦ μαρτυρίου, ἔλυσας καὶ εἰδώλων τὴν σκοτόμαιναν μάκαρ, διὸ ἐν παρρησίᾳ Χριστῷ, πρέσβευε σωθήναι ἠμᾶς.

Dismissal Hymn. Fourth Tone.
An unshaken pillar of the Church of Christ God art thou, an ever-resplendent lamp, O Haralampus most wise, which shineth throughout the earth; in martyric contest thou hast shined on the whole world, and thou hast dispelled the moonless night of the idols. Now boldly intercede thou with Christ that we may all be saved.

Κοντάκιον Ἦχος δ’.
Θησαυρὸν πολύτιμον ἡ Ἐκκλησία, τὴν σὴν κάραν κέκτηται, Ἱερομάρτυς Ἀθλητά, τροπαιοφόρε Χαράλαμπε, διὸ καὶ χαίρει τὸν Κτίστην δοξάζουσα.

Kontakion. Fourth Tone.
Thou didst rise up in the East, a luminary that enlightened faithful men with thy bright shafts of miracles, O Haralampus; hence we revere thy godly contest, O Martyr of sacred fame.

A Letter Attributed to St Scholastica

You may call this a ‘pious fraud’, but it certainly demonstrates an interesting use of St Benedict’s Rule. From Vultus Christi, the blog of Fr Mark Kirby, a Roman Catholic priest of the Cistercian order:

A Letter Attributed to Saint Scholastica, Virgin and Abbess

A certain researcher in Rome recently uncovered the manuscript of a late medieval copy of an earlier copy of a letter attributed to Scholastica, abbess of Plombariola. The original letter appears to have been written to another abbess, named Flavia, in about the year 535. It treats of the observance of Lent.


To my beloved sister in Christ, the Lady Flavia, abbess of the handmaids of the Lord near Benevento. Grace and peace from Scholastica, abbess in the school of the Lord's service that is at Plombariola.

The School of the Lord's Service

Your letter brought me much joy and, bound by the sweetness of affection that unites us in holy friendship, I hasten to respond to your questions ‘with sincere and humble charity’ (RB 72:10). Know that I have no teaching of my own; from the time of my veiling (velatio) the commands and teaching of my brother, blessed by grace and by name, ‘have mingled like the leaven of divine justice in my mind’ (RB 25). In truth, dear sister, he who is my brother according to the flesh, has become my father in the Spirit. It was he who named me Scholastica, saying that, like him, I was destined to remain in the ‘school of the Lord’s service’ (RB Pro:45). In this school I have found ‘nothing that is harsh or hard to bear’ (RB Pro:46). On the contrary, through the continual practice of monastic observance and the life of faith’ (RB Pro:49), my heart is opened wide, and even now I am running in the way of God’s commandments in a sweetness of love that is beyond words (cf. RB Pro: 49).

The Yearly Visit

I see my venerable brother but once a year, and even then he refuses to come to me, not wanting to leave the enclosure of his monastery. I am obliged to go to him at Monte Cassino, inspired by the example of the Queen of the South who traveled far to sit at the feet of Solomon and listen to his wisdom. My brother himself says that ‘we must hurry to do now what will profit us forever’ (RB Pro 44). I will continue to go to him as long as I am able to make the journey, trusting that he who formed us together in our mother’s womb will one day bring us ‘together to life everlasting’ (cf. RB 73:12).

Holy Lent

You ask me to tell you how we observe Lent here at Plombariola. My venerable brother, in his ‘little Rule written for beginners’ (RB 73:8), says that ‘a monk’s life ought at all seasons to bear a Lenten character’ (RB 49:1). He is also the first to admit that ‘such strength is found only in the few’ (RB 49:2). Following his teaching, I urge my sisters to ‘keep the holy days of Lent with a special purity of life, and also at this holy season to make reparation for the failings of other times’ (RB 49:3). I try to order Lent in my monastery with ‘discretion, the mother of virtues’ (RB 54:19) in such a way that ‘the strong may desire to carry more, and the weak are not afraid’ (RB 54:19). The task of ruling souls and serving women of different characters is, as you know well, arduous and difficult (cf. RB 2:31). I must adapt and fit myself to all. Dear old Nonna Fabiola needs to be encouraged. Sister Petronilla, thick-skinned as she is, responds only to sharp rebuke, whereas Sister Anastasia has to be persuaded. With some, I have to be tough, and with others lovingly affectionate. This is my brother’s way, and by following it, I have ‘not lost any of the flock entrusted to me, and rejoice as my good flock increases’ (RB 2:32).

But I digress, dear Mother Flavia. Your question was about Lent. My venerable brother says that we are to ‘guard ourselves from faults’ during this holy time. To do this, one must ‘always remember all God’s commandments, and constantly turn over in one’s heart how hell will burn those who despise him by their sins and how eternal life has been prepared for those who fear him’ (RB 7:11). My brother calls this the first step of humility. As for me, my faults appear daily in the bright mirror of the Scriptures. I have no excuse for putting off the labour of my conversion. As the psalmist says: ‘Thou hast set our evil-doings before Thee, our secret sins in the light of Thy countenance’ (Ps 89:8).

Four Lenten Practices

My venerable brother recommends four Lenten practices: ‘prayer with tears, reading, compunction of heart, and abstinence’ (RB 49:4). The first, prayer with tears, has always come easily to me. God has never refused me anything I asked of him with tears. I have no doubt that he ‘has set my tears in his sight’ (Ps 55:9). Tears in prayer are no cause for alarm. The heart pressed by the hand of God in prayer weeps just as a sponge held tightly in your hand or mine gives forth water.

Sacred reading is my brother’s second Lenten practice. He considers it so important that he completely changes the horarium of his monastery during Lent to make more time for it. Here we do the same. Nothing is done at Monte Cassino that we do not do here at Plombariola. In Lent our hours of reading are ‘from the morning until the end of the Third Hour’ (RB 48:14). This means we do not begin work after Prime, as is the custom at other times, but consecrate to sacred reading the best three hours of the morning. We are alert then, and the early morning light in the cloister is wonderfully clear and bright.

When your letter arrived I was, in fact, choosing Lenten books from our library for my nuns. My venerable brother says that this is one of the most important tasks of an abbess. When a sister chooses her own book she is all too often swayed by personal prejudices and taste. It is easy to avoid the book that will prick the soul with compunction. And so I choose carefully for my little flock, imitating Nonna Lucia, our infirmarian, an expert dispenser of medicines for every affliction. In choosing the Lenten books, I try to offer a remedy for the sick soul, a comfort for the weary, a joy for the downhearted, a light for the path of the one who seems to have lost her way. Following my brother’s practice, I will give them out on the First Sunday of Lent. Each sister will come forward to receive her book from my hand, seeing in it a provision of daily bread for the forty days of the Great Fast. After Pascha, the nuns will return their books in good condition, having read them through from the beginning (cf. RB 48:15).

Human weakness being what it is, I am obliged nonetheless to appoint two seniors to go round the monastery during the hours set aside for reading to see whether perchance they come upon some lazy sister who is engaged in doing nothing or, God forbid, in chatter, and is not intent upon her book. Such nuns are not only profitless to themselves but lead others astray too (cf. RB 48:17-18). Every year I hope that such will not be the case, but I must tell you, dear Mother Flavia, that one Lent I had to reprimand a certain chatterbox once and a second time. Finally, I had to punish her in accordance with my brother’s Rule, so that others might be warned (cf. RB 48:19-20). Happily, she has made progress since then and I pray that this Lent she will attend to her reading in quiet and in peace.

My venerable brother says that during this sacred season we are ‘to increase in some way the normal standard of our service, as for example, by special prayers, or by a diminution in food or drink’ (RB 49:5-6). It is edifying to see Nonna Aquilina lingering in the oratory after Compline. Even Pulcheria, our littlest oblate, asked me if she might give up the sweet bread and butter given her after None each day. Nonna Marcellina asked me if she might pray the Beati immaculati (Psalm 118) daily through Lent. She knows it by heart, of course. Ah, dear Mother Flavia, joys such as these compensate abundantly for the anxieties and sorrows that an abbess so often carries within her heart.

Quadragesimal Joy

My venerable brother says that Lenten joy is the most important thing of all. Some would make of Lent a time of gloom and lamentation. Not my brother! When I asked him on my last visit to Monte Cassino how my nuns were to keep Lent, he smiled broadly and said, ‘Let each one spontaneously in the joy of the Holy Spirit make some offering to God concerning the allowance granted her’ (RB 49:6). My brother is known for his gravitas, but to me he reveals a heart brimming over with joy in the Holy Spirit. It is true that he has no time for silliness, or giddy laughter, or talkativeness -- he has always loved silence more than talking, even from the time we were children -- but that silence is the seal of his joy. He pours out his joy like a fine wine, with discretion; but his joy itself is boundless.


Often my venerable brother speaks of offering. He wants our Lenten practices to be a holy oblation offered to God (cf. RB 49:6). I saw him once standing close to the altar at the moment of Holy Communion with his hands raised in prayer, completely taken up in the offering of Christ to the Father of infinite majesty. This, I think, is why he prescribed the singing of the Suscipe before the altar on the day of my monastic consecration.

With the Abbot's Blessing

This epistle is already too long, dear Mother Flavia, and I am obliged to write now with smaller letters in the margins of the parchment, but there is still one important thing on which my venerable brother insists. Before my first Lent as abbess, he said that ‘every sister should propose to me whatever she intends to offer, and it should be performed with my blessing and approval’ (cf. RB 49:8-9). This was very humbling for me, I hardly felt equal to the task, but he reminded me that I should ‘always bear in mind what I am called, and fufill in my actions the name of One who is called greater’ (RB 2:1-2). I give you the same counsel, dear sister in Christ: ‘Anything done without the permission of the spiritual mother will be put down to presumption and vainglory, and deserving no reward’ (RB 49:9). Do then as I do, following the example of my venerable brother. ‘Everything must be carried out with the approval of the abbess’ (RB 49:10).


I have tried to answer your question, reverend Lady -- always my dear sister in Christ. I greet you and those who, being with you, ‘truly seek God’ (RB 58:7) with a holy kiss. Let us now ‘with the joy of spiritual desire, look forward to holy Pascha’ (RB 49:7).

+ Scholastica, abbess