27 October 2009

'Read These Things Now': Apologies & Books

Well, I returned from Texas last night anxious to get back into the swing of things here at Logismoi, but it's been a frustrating day in this regard. For some reason the 'Windows Wireless Service' on my computer is not working and I'm not picking up wi-fi signals no matter where I go. Being a computer idiot I am almost entirely helpless in the face of such problems, but perhaps my wife can figure something out. So once again, my apologies, but I can't say when I'll be able to post again.

I will just take the opportunity (I'm on my parents' computer!) to mention two books I managed to acquire at Holy Archangels: St Athanasius the Great, The Life of Antony and the Letter to Marcellinus, trans. Robert C. Gregg (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist, 1980), and Palladius, The Lausiac History, trans. and annot. Robert T. Meyer, Ancient Christian Writers No. 34 (NY: Paulist, 1964), which Meyer, in his Introduction to the latter, calls 'The two most important source documents for the history of early monasticism in Egypt' (p. 3). I have long intended to add copies of these books to my growing collection of such 'source documents' in translation. As St Athanasius writes at the end of the Vita Antonii (94):

Therefore, read these things now to the other brothers so that they may learn what the life of the monks ought to be, and so they may believe that our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ glorifies those who glorify him, and not only leads those who serve him to the end into the Kingdom of heaven, but even here, though they conceal themselves and seek to retire, he makes them known and celebrated everywhere, both because of their own virtue and because of their assistance to others. (p. 99)

24 October 2009

An Apology on the Synaxis of the Holy Optina Elders

I’m afraid I must offer my apologies for the non-activity here the last couple of days. My family and I are staying with some cousins in Austin, TX, so we can visit the Orthodox monasteries of Texas this weekend—Holy Archangels for men, and St Paraskevi for women. In the meantime, I had brought my laptop and a couple of books with every intention of doing a post for the Synaxis of the Holy Optina Elders today, 11 October on the Church’s calendar, but, rather predictably I suppose, I’ve found myself with precious little time down here. Anyway, I refer readers to this post that I did for St Nektary of Optina, as well as to this one at another blog, where I posted an overview of the monastery written on the occasion of the glorification of the Optina Saints by the Russian Church Abroad, as well as links to other resources.

I was delighted to receive an e-mail greeting me with the feast today from Hieromonk Damascene of St Herman of Alaska Monastery, which monastery has done more than anyone to make the Optina Pustyn’ Monastery known in our day, certainly among English speakers, but even in Russia, where their publication of Russian-language materials on the monastery seems to have actually contributed to the contemporary renewal of monastic life there. Finally, as this is an unabashedly bookish blog, I cannot resist recommending one of my favourite books and one of the few English-language resources on the monastery not published by St Herman of Alaska Press—Leonard Stanton’s fascinating study, The Optina Pustyn’ Monastery in the Russian Literary Imagination: Iconic Vision in Works by Dostoevsky, Gogol, Tolstoy, and Others (NY: Peter Lang, 1995). Although Stanton’s account of Orthodox theology is flawed (the old bug-a-boo of ‘Neoplatonism’ puts in an appearance!), the book remains one of the most fascinating studies of theology and literature I’ve ever seen, and has been a major intellectual inspiration to me ever since my kindly Russian professor gifted me with it in 1996.

21 October 2009

Norman Russell Book Arrives

My copy of Norman Russell’s Fellow Workers with God: Orthodox Thinking on Theosis (Crestwood, NY: SVS, 2009), arrived yesterday. Written for a popular audience, with 174 pages of text, I ought to be able to finish it and write a review in time to send it to the Unmercenary Readers editors by 10 November for the Unmercenary Readers Review Symposium (I encourage interested reviewers to check out the details here).

I don’t recall reading anything at all substantial by Norman Russell before—anything, that is, in which he is writing in his own voice. I’m familiar with him largely through his translations, and even those do not seem often to include much in the way of introductions by Russell himself. His translation of the Historia monachorum in Aegypto (The Lives of the Desert Fathers [Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian, 1981]), is introduced by Benedicta Ward, while his translations of Yannaras’s Orthodoxy and the West: Hellenic Self-Identity in the Modern Age (Brookline, MA: Holy Cross, 2006)—with Fr Peter Chamberas—and Stelios Ramfos’s Like a Pelican in the Wilderness (Brookline, MA: Holy Cross, 2000) feature only brief translator’s notes.

Part of St Vladimir’s Press’s ‘Foundations Series’, Fellow Workers with God is intended as a concise, lucid overview of the Orthodox teaching on theosis for a general audience. I’m already enjoying the Introduction, in which Russell offers a bit of context for his work, summarising the ‘rediscovery’ of the doctrine of deification among Orthodox, and consequently, Catholic and Protestant theologians during the twentieth century (he acknowledges however that the term ‘theosis’ remained a technical one, ‘familiar . . . to monks and patristic scholars’, p. 13).

To tell the truth, ordinarily I would likely be more interested in his scholarly study, The Doctrine of Deification in the Greek Patristic Tradition (Oxford: Oxford U, 2004). But the symposium should make this fun, and it seems clear that the book is worthwhile anyway.

20 October 2009

Jeremy Taylor & the Allegorical Tradition

One of the many new names to me in Fr Andrew Louth’s masterpiece, Discerning the Mystery: An Essay on the Nature of Theology (Wichita, KS: Eighth Day, 2007), reviewed here, was that of 17th-c. Anglican divine, Jeremy Taylor (1613-1667). Fr Louth introduces him on p. 126 as an example of the allegorical tradition, writing that Taylor’s Life of Christ was ‘a sustained example of the kind of exegesis that his been discussed in this chapter [Return to Allegory].’ The substantial excerpts from this work are quite nice, and one passage recalled to my mind a book I’ve been re-reading of late—Chesterton’s The Ballad of the White Horse (SF: Ignatius, 1993). Taylor writes:

[F]or the voice of the church is sad in those accents which express her own condition; but as the dove is not so sad in her breast as in her note, so neither is the interior condition of the church wretched and miserable, but indeed her song is most of it elegy within her own walls. (qtd. Fr Louth, p. 128)

I thought this seemed a potential inspiration for King Alfred’s response to the Danes in Book III, ll. 349-356 of the Ballad:

Our monks go robed in rain and snow,
But the heart of flame therein,
But you go clothed in feasts and flames,
When all is ice within;

Nor shall all iron dooms make dumb
Men wondering ceaselessly,
If it be not better to fast for joy
Than feast for misery.

(Chesterton, pp. 60-1)

It is interesting though that while Fr Louth makes his point well showing Taylor’s affinity for the allegorical tradition, he also makes a rather large admission, giving away as much as he’s given whether knowingly or unknowingly. Having told us on p. 122 that ‘It is in the liturgy par excellence that the allegorical way comes into its own’, he introduces Taylor with this:

With the Caroline divines we find that what would have happened in the liturgy passes over into the sermon—or the kind of extension of a sermon that such a work as the Life of Christ represents. It is easy to see why. The liturgy of the Church of England had been greatly simplified at the Reformation: gone were the hymns and antiphons that had picked up the allegorical significance of the texts used in the celebration of the feasts of the Church. (pp. 126-7)

So doesn’t this mean that the reformed C of E is less able to pass on the tacit dimension of Tradition, since it is forced to articulate allegory in sermonic books, rather than in its more natural setting of liturgy? I could not but recall that Fr Louth was still an Anglican clergyman when he wrote this book, but it seems that he’s already discovering some shortcomings in his particular tradition.

On the promising subject of Jeremy Taylor, I found an interesting post here. If it is to be relied upon, he is apparently venerated as a Saint by some Anglicans. Here are some of Taylor’s works online. I shall close with a hymn he wrote on heaven, taken from The Golden Grove or, A Manuall of Daily Prayers and Letanies (London: Printed by J.F. for R. Royston at the Angel in Ivie-lane, 1655), here at Project Canterbury:

O Beauteous God, uncircumscribed treasure
Of an eternal pleasure,
Thy Throne is seated far
Above the highest Star,
Where thou prepar’st a glorious place
Within the brightness of thy face
For every spirit
To inherit
That builds his hopes on thy merit,
And loves thee with a holy charity.
What ravish’d heart, Seraphick tongue or eyes,
Clear as the mornings rise,
Can speak, or think, or see
That bright eternity?
Where the great Kings transparent Throne,
Is of an intire Jaspar stone:
There the eye
And a sky
Of Diamonds, Rubies, Chrysoprase,
And above all, thy holy face
Makes an eternal Clarity,
When thou thy
Jewels up dost binde: that day
Remember us, we pray,
And the Crystal, ’bove the skyes,
There thou may’st appoint us place
Within the brightness of thy face;
And our Soul
In the Scrowl
Of life and blissfulness enrowl,
That we may praise thee to eternity.

19 October 2009

'A Continual Returning to the Great Figures of the Past'—Assessing Byzantium

The ever-amiable and always entertaining science teacher at my daughter’s school has just sent me a review from the Acton Institute website of the new Oxford Handbook of Byzantine Studies, ed. Elizabeth Jeffreys, John Haldon, Robin Cormack (Oxford: Oxford U, 2009), which promises to be a wonderful resource on the East Roman empire and its magnificent culture. But despite the book’s obvious mission to rescue Byzantium from the ignorance and prejudice that have plagued Western understanding of the empire in the past, one still finds statements like the following: ‘Writing in the Handbook’s summary chapter, Cyril Mango catalogs the achievements of Byzantium but also adds that historians have not “credited [the empire] with any advance in science, philosophy, political theory, or having produced a great literature.”’

It was fortuitous my having come across this review hot on the heels of finishing Fr Andrew Louth’s impressive Discerning the Mystery: An Essay on the Nature of Theology (Wichita, KS: Eighth Day, 2007), which I reviewed here. Fr Louth has helped me incalculably in articulating a critique of assumptions like Mango’s. Specifically, Fr Louth questions the whole unspoken assumption here that there can be any sort of quantifiable ‘advance’ in philosophy, political theory, or literature, analogous to what we observe in the history of science. It’s an Enlightenment assumption based on a false analogy between the sciences and the humanities, and one that’s almost calculated to make the Byzantines—who would find such an assumption incomprehensible—look ‘backward’ and ‘rigid’. Fr Louth writes:

The humanities . . . are characterized by a continual returning to the great figures of the past. Philosophers continue to discuss Plato, for instance; the problems that he raised are not problems that admit of the kind of solution which would enable us to leave them behind and pass on to other problems. The notion of advance is much less easy to sustain [than in the sciences]. (p. 67)

Fr Louth’s argument that tradition is the proper ‘method’ in the humanities strikes me as an eloquent vindication of Byzantine culture. It is unfortunate too that ingrained attitudes like the one Mango expresses have resulted in a situation where examples of Byzantine philosophy, political theory, and literature are not easily accessible to most readers, often being confined to expensive scholarly editions or left untranslated altogether.

Another Round of Applause for Fr Louth

Realising belatedly that my weekend readership is always my lowest, I thought that rather than offer an original post today I would try to garner some extra attention for my review (posted on Saturday) of Fr Andrew Louth’s Discerning the Mystery: An Essay on the Nature of Theology (Wichita, KS: Eighth Day, 2007). It really is a brilliant book that deserves the widest possible readership. I’m fairly certain that once you’ve finished it, you’ll want extra copies to give out to certain friends! Order it here.

18 October 2009

Paul Claudel, Defensor fidei & 'Evil Genius'

In my post on St Romanus the Melodist last week (here), I relied primarily on three sources: Egon Wellesz’s A History of Byzantine Music and Hymnography, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Oxford U, 1971), the Introduction by Fr Ephrem (Lash) to his translation of St Romanus, ‘St Romanos and the Kontakion’, in Kontakia on the Life of Christ, by St Romanus the Melodist, trans. Archimandrite Ephrem (Lash) (SF: HarperCollins, n.d.), pp. xxiii-xxxii, and Fr Andrew Louth’s Foreword to the same volume, ‘An Invitation to the Christian Mystery’, St Romanus, pp. xv-xii. Wellesz, in a note on ‘the polemic spirit on the poems of Romanus’, writes:

We may, however, understand the attitude of Romanus better by comparing his passages against the Greeks [in the Kontakion on Pentecost, which I excerpted in my post] with those of a great contemporary poet, Paul Claudel, when the author speaks in his ‘Magnificat’ as defensor fidei in an age filled with the spirit of religious indifference: ‘Restez avec moi, Seigneur, parce que le soir approche et ne m’abandonnez pas!—Ne me perdez point avec les Voltaire, et les Renan, et les Michelet, et les Hugo, et tous les autres infâmes!’ Cinq Grandes Odes (1907), p. 108. (p. 190, n.1)

Unfortunately, je ne parle pas français, but one can see that Claudel refers to Voltaire, Renan, and the others as ‘infamous authors’.

Anyway, what was interesting to me was that when I skimmed through Fr Louth’s Foreword to the book of Kontakia for more material, I encountered a now-familiar name:

The Scriptures are used not so much as a collection of proof-texts (as became increasingly the case in the West in the wake of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation), but as a hoard of imagery (not so much an ‘arsenal as a treasury’, as the French poet, Paul Claudel, put it). . . . But, as Claudel also says, the faith of the Church acts like a ‘magnetic field’, in which the biblical and liturgical images find their true orientation and yield their profoundest meaning. (pp. xviii-xix)

Now although Fr Louth’s Foreword was certainly written later than Wellesz’s book, the former mentioned the same passages as in the Foreword to the Kontakia, taken from Claudel’s Du sens figuré de l’Écriture, in Fr Louth's 1983 book, Discerning the Mystery: An Essay on the Nature of Theology (reprinted 2007 by Eighth Day Press, Wichita, KS), which I reviewed Saturday. Indeed, in this book he gives more of the context of the ‘magnetic field’ comment:

As Paul Claudel put it, ‘thus around the imperative and literal sense we learn that there exists a field of figures (one could say a magnetic field), that is to say of resemblances and analogies oriented in a manner more or less direct and organic towards revealed and confirmed fact.’ (p. 121)

So, it seems to me that the references to Claudel in the context of two very different discussions of St Romanus the Melodist may simply be coincidence.

I’m fairly certain that I had never heard, or at least taken notice, of Claudel until encountering his name in that note by Wellesz (I'm afraid my familiarity with French literature is unusually slim). But a quick Internet search yielded an article on him here by a Fr John Saward called ‘Regaining Paradise: Paul Claudel and the Renewal of Exegesis’ that looks quite interesting, and makes perfectly clear why Fr Louth would have mentioned his name in Discerning the Mystery. Another article, ‘Evil Genius’ by Tim Ashley, here at The Guardian, lobs the unfortunate accusations of ‘misogynist, anti-semite, and Islamophobe’ at the old Frenchman (I fail to see what’s wrong with being afraid of Islam or Muslims, particularly if one is French!), but also mentions that George Steiner considered him, along with Berthold Brecht, one of the two greatest dramatists of the twentieth century.

17 October 2009

A Long Overdue Reading of Discerning the Mystery

Fr Andrew Louth is Professor of Patristic and Byzantine Studies at the University of Durham. He is a former Anglican clergyman, and now a priest of the Moscow Patriarchate, having been received into Orthodoxy several years ago. I first became acquainted with Fr Louth in 2000 through his contribution to the Early Church Fathers series from Routledge, Maximus the Confessor (London: Routledge, 1996), followed shortly, I believe, by his published lectures on ‘mystical theology in the Fathers’, The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition: From Plato to Denys (Oxford: Oxford U, 1981)—that is to say, this is the order in which I encountered his work. Next, I was thrilled to read his biographical sketch of Metropolitan Kallistos (Ware) as well as his paper on the Philokalia, both in the Festschrift for the Metropolitan, Abba: The Tradition of Orthodoxy in the West: Festschrift for Bishop Kallistos (Ware) of Diokleia, ed. Frs John Behr, Andrew Louth, and Dimitri E. Conomos (Crestwood, NY: SVS, 2003).

But, oddly, it wasn’t until last year or so that I first learned of what may be Fr Louth’s most important book, one originally published in 1983 and recently reprinted by Eighth Day Books: Discerning the Mystery: An Essay on the Nature of Theology (Wichita, KS: Eighth Day, 2007). At some point a couple of years ago, I saw the book at the Eighth Day shop in Wichita (and based on photos of Clarendon’s original, the newer strikes me as the more attractive edition!). Then I saw some of Sr Macrina’s series on it (listed in its entirety here) at A vow of conversation, as well as some of Kevin Edgecomb’s posts—here, here, and here for example. Then I saw this and this from my ultimate blogging hero, Felix Culpa. I had also to reckon with Sr Macrina and Kevin telling me to read the book in private e-mails. By the time I received a review copy, graciously sent by Eighth Day Books, I was quite excited (though also, unfortunately, quite busy with my thesis and with Yannaras).

So the first comment I must make is that one has every reason to be excited about this book. Quite simply, Fr Louth has written one of the most important and brilliant modern works of theology (though it might be more accurate to call it ‘meta-theology’) that I’ve ever seen. While there is much here that I for one had pondered before to one degree or another, it remains the case that the author has articulated something that has long lacked proper articulation. He has drawn together disparate threads of history and thought, and exposed a problem that has all too often gone entirely unremarked. Finally, he has advanced what strikes me as a very Orthodox solution to that problem.

Drawing on the work of philosophers like Hans-Georg Gadamer and Michael Polanyi, Discerning the Mystery deftly criticises the hegemony that the scientific method has come to exercise over the human quest for truth ever since the Enlightenment, rejecting the importance of tradition in human life, forcing the humanities to formulate an ‘historical-critical method’ in a misguided attempt to reproduce science’s certifiable results, reifying the subjectivity of the human as the proper focus of study in the humanities, and, consequently, bringing theology to a complete impasse (as evidenced by Leslie Houlden’s statement, quoted in the Introduction, ‘we must accept our lot, bequeathed to us by the Enlightenment, and make the most of it’, p. xi). In so doing, Fr Louth points the way forward, not only for theology, but for a humanities reorientated toward its raison d’etre and situated once again in the stream of tradition, as well as for a science that does not overstep its boundaries, recognising the ‘tacit dimension’ (to use Polanyi’s expression) in its own legitimate endeavours, in human life, and, thus, in our relationship to the divine.

The brief introduction offers an overview of what’s to come. Chapter 1, ‘Dissociation of Sensibility’, borrows a phrase from Eliot to underline the symptoms of the problem Fr Louth wishes to address: ‘a dissociation manifested in the way in which the refinement of language in the eighteenth century is not matched by any corresponding refinement of feeling—rather the reverse’, ‘a dissociation between thought and feeling, between the mind and the heart’ (p. 1). For theology, this entails ‘the division between theology and spirituality, the division between thought about God and the movement of the heart towards God’ (p. 2). It is a problem caused in large part by what George Steiner calls ‘the fallacy of imitative form’ (qtd. on p. 10): that is, the post-Enlightenment trend in the humanities and in theology to try to duplicate the methods, and hence, the identifiable results, of the sciences, which is tied up in the near-exclusive association of ‘truth’ with that ‘truth’—objective, quantifiable, empirical—which is the object of science.

Chapter 2, ‘The Legacy of the Enlightenment’, delves into the various historical responses to this problem, assessing their strengths and weaknesses. Beginning with Giambattista Vico (1688-1744) and his La Scienza Nuova, and Wilhelm Dilthey (1833-1911), Fr Louth argues that both properly emphasise the differences between what the latter calls Geisteswissenschaften (‘sciences of the (human) spirit’) and Naturwissenschaften (‘the natural sciences’). But the real star of the chapter is Hans-Georg Gadamer (1900-2002), whose Truth and Method took account of Vico and Dilthey and extended their insights into a critique of the ‘historical-critical method’ in ‘a profound and far-reaching attempt to reorient the humanities’ (p. 29). In Fr Louth’s words:

Gadamer’s attempt to avoid the false objectivity of the method of historical criticism involves an attempt to reinstate tradition and the authority of tradition. He argues that tradition is appropriate to the human reality we are seeking to engage with in the humanities. For in the humanities we are concerned not with the natural world of objects, but with the moral world of free persons. (p. 33)

Thus, for Gadamer, tradition is not rejected by or in favour of ‘reason’, but is itself ‘an act of reason’ (p. 35) that involves ‘growing into what we learn from reason’ through experience, and consequently, through suffering (p. 37). This means that in the humanities the tradition of Bildung or paideia must occupy the place of method in the sciences (pp. 42-3).

In Chapter 3, ‘Science and Mystery’, Fr Louth advances his argument for the kinship of theology with the humanities by considering, first, the nature of the traditional Aristotelian conception of theology as the ‘queen of the sciences’—a conception that fit ill with the growth of the experimental sciences on the one hand and the ‘object’ of theological study (a God ‘understood to have revealed himself in history’—p. 46) on the other—and second, the attempt of Scottish theologian T.F. Torrance (1913-2007) to draw out ‘a close analogy between theology and the exact sciences’ (p. 48), an attempt flawed by Torrance’s own admission that theology is concerned with grace ‘whereas science is concerned with natural objects’ (p. 53). At this point, Fr Louth turns to the Irish theologian, F.J.A. Hort (1828-1892), and even more, to the Hungarian-British philosopher of science, Michael Polanyi (1891-1976), to argue that the nature of truth and knowledge within science itself is much closer to the humanities and theology than is usually recognised. Specifically, Polanyi argues that all knowing, even science, involves a ‘tacit dimension’ that is ‘unspecifiable in detail’ (p. 59). He writes:

We may say that when we learn to use language, or a probe, or a tool, and thus make ourselves aware of these things as we are of our body, we interiorize these things and make ourselves dwell in them. . . . Tacit knowing now appears as an act of indwelling by which we gain access to a new meaning. . . .The theory of tacit knowing establishes a continuous transition from the natural sciences to the study of the humanities. (qtd. on pp. 63, 64)

Fr Louth then brilliantly demonstrates the relevance of these observations (as well as that of Gadamer’s concerns) for theology:

This tradition [the Christian Tradition of the Fathers] was essentially non-specifiable, or if specifiable, not simply by an indication of specific doctrines, but primarily as the bond of unity, the bond of love, which established the Church as the Body of Christ. . . . The Patristic doctrine of tradition might well be paraphrased in the language of Polanyi by saying that all knowledge of God in Christ is either the tacit knowledge of tradition or rooted in such tacit knowledge. (pp. 64-5)

Lastly, drawing on the French philosopher Gabriel Marcel (1889-1973), Fr Louth points out that this knowledge does not have the character of ‘problem-solving’ familiar from the sciences, where we move on once the problem is solved, but involves returning to the tradition and standing in contemplation before a mystery.

These last points strongly establish the thrust of the remainder of the book. In Chapter 4, ‘Tradition and the Tacit’, Fr Louth plays out this conception of Tradition as ‘tacit knowing’, by examining its rôle in such classic works as St Augustine’s De doctrina Christiana, St Irenaeus’s Adversus haereses, and St Basil’s On the Holy Spirit. In an important statement of the Patristic understanding of Tradition, Fr Louth writes:

Understood like this, tradition is not another source of doctrine, or whatever, alongside Scripture [as seems to have been assumed by Protestants and Tridentine Catholics alike], but another way of speaking of the inner life of the Church, that life in which the individual Christian is perfected in the image of God in which he was created. Speaking of it as tradition brings out the fact that it is received, that it is participated in, that it is more than the grasp that the individual has of his faith. (p. 88)

In this context, the author highlights the importance of liturgy in this reception and participation in the life of the Church, for ‘The liturgy unfolds the varied significance of the mystery of Christ, and the fact that it cannot all be explained, the fact that much that we do, we do simply because we have always done it, conveys a rich sense of the unfathomableness of the Christian mystery’ (p. 89). Fr Louth even quotes the early Anglican theologian Richard Hooker (1554-1600) on this significance of liturgy, who himself concludes by quoting St Dionysius the Areopagite—‘the sensible things which religion hath hallowed, are resemblances framed according to things spiritually understood, whereunto they serve as a hand to lead, and a way to direct’ (qtd. on p. 91). (One wonders if perhaps Hooker had simply not thoroughly read Lorenzo Valla and Martin Luther on the Corpus Dionysiacum!) Finally, having drawn on Vladimir Lossky’s notion of a ‘margin of silence’ in Scripture, the author concludes this chapter by observing, ‘The mystery of faith is not ultimately something that invites our questioning, but something that questions us’ (p. 95).

Chapter 5, ‘Return to Allegory’, may be the most unusual chapter in an unusual book. Fr Louth argues that Patristic allegory is not something that can be safely passed over in the Fathers as a quaint relic of pre-critical days, ‘Rather it is bound up with their whole understanding of tradition as the tacit dimension of the Christian life: allegory is a way of entering the “margin of silence” that surrounds the articulate message of the Scriptures, it is a way of glimpsing the living depths of tradition from the perspective of the letter of the Scriptures’ (p. 97). Unfortunately, the importance of allegory has been downplayed, if not altogether dismissed, in the wake of the Reformation and its new doctrine of sola scriptura (Fr Louth quotes Keble—‘During the Reformation, men had felt instinctively, if they did not clearly see, that the Fathers were against them’—p. 98), and then in the wake of the Enlightenment doctrine of the historical-critical method. Much of the chapter is taken with responding to these two enemies of the Christian Tradition: sola scriptura, because in Henri de Lubac’s words, Christianity is not ‘the biblical religion’, but ‘the religion of Jesus Christ’ (qtd. on p. 101), and the historical-critical method because, as we have seen in Gadamer in particular, it is a violation of the proper approach to the human—and how much more the divine!—subject. Allegory, by contrast, is a way of responding to ‘the depth and richness of Scripture, a richness derived from the mystery to which it is the introduction, of which it is the unfolding’ (p. 110). It is not a technique for solving ‘contingent difficulties, but a means of ensuring that we do not evade the fundamental “ontological difficulty” which opens us to the ultimate mystery of Christ contained in the Scriptures’ (p. 112). Drawing on the French Jesuit, de Lubac (1896-1991), Fr Louth shows how the Patristic exegete moves from the literal to the allegorical, a distinction interpreted as that between ‘the letter and the spirit, shadow and reality, the old and the new’, so that ‘The movement from the literal sense to the allegorical is a movement of understanding the mystery which the facts revealed by the literal sense disclose’ (p. 117). As an example, Fr Louth chooses the Gospels’ account of Christ’s baptism and the interpretations of it—invariably Trinitarian—in Origen, St John Chrysostom, St Cyril of Alexandria, St Augustine, liturgies East and West, and finally, the 17th-c. theologian Jeremy Taylor. Finally, returning to a lesson drawn from St Augustine’s De doctrina Christiana that ‘the message of the Scriptures is . . . love’ (p. 130), Fr Louth sums up the ‘way of allegory’ in words from Pascal’s Pensées 270 (qtd. on p. 131):

Tout ce qui ne va point à la charité est figure.
L’unique objet de l’Écriture est la charité.

(Everything that does not lead to love is figurative.
The sole object of Scripture is love.)

In the last chapter, Chapter 6, ‘Living the Mystery’, Fr Louth is concerned not to leave all of this at the level of theory—drawing on the Austrian theologian, Baron Friedrich von Hügel (1852-1925), and John Henry Newman (1801-1890), he exhorts us to follow the Saints. In von Hügel’s words it is only in the Saint that ‘thought about God’ is transformed ‘into a religious act’, and the ‘dim apprehension’ of nascent faith becomes the ‘clear perception’ of true knowledge of God (p. 135). From Newman we learn that in the ‘Right Faith’ of the Christian life ‘a certain moral state, and not evidence, is made the means of gaining the Truth, and the beginning of spiritual perfection’ (qtd. on p. 140). Fr Louth concludes:

For theology is not simply a matter of learning, though we risk losing much of the wealth of theological tradition if we despise learning: rather theology is the apprehension of the believing mind combined with a right state of the heart, to use Newman’s terms. It is tested and manifest in a life that lives close to the mystery of God in Christ, that preserves for all men a testimony to that mystery which is the object of our faith, and, so far as it is discerned, awakens in the heart a sense of wondering awe which is the light in which we see light. (p. 147)

Taken as a much needed critique of modern theology and academia in general, and a positive indication of the way forward for such studies, it is difficult for me to see anything to criticise about this book. I did find the statement in Chapter 5, ‘Of course, the Fathers often did resort to allegory to solve problems presented by the text of Scripture’, followed by ‘I am not at all attempting to defend that’ (p. 113), though not a flaw in Fr Louth’s return to allegory argument, at least a big admission requiring some more explanation. But this is only a minor oversight in a book distinguished by its depth of discernment, brilliance, and timeliness. I paused throughout, astonished by Fr Louth’s insights and by the many wonderful passages (most of which were quite new to me) he had excerpted from his various interlocutors, and I thought continually of all of the people I would like to give a copy of this book to: my Orthodox father and sister (a social scientist and medical doctor respectively), Orthodox friends, Anglican friends, an atheist friend. Just before reading it, I had loaned my copy to an inquirer at our parish (mentioned previously in the dedication at the bottom of this post), who told me he had been struggling as an intellectual with the rôle of Tradition in Orthodoxy and the prospect of submitting to that Tradition. He told me this had been a very helpful book to read (or something like that), and urged me to read it as well. Therefore, I in turn strongly suggest all readers of Logismoi immediately order a copy of Fr Louth’s book here, at the Eighth Day site. Tell them Aaron Taylor sent you in earnest.

16 October 2009

'The Brightest Star in the Constellation of Mystics'—St Dionysius the Areopagite

Today, 3 October on the Church’s calendar, we celebrate the memory of our Holy Father Dionysius (Denis) the Areopagite (†96). A convert of the Apostle Paul, St Dionysius is mentioned briefly in the Acts of the Apostles 17:34 as one of the few who ‘believed’ in response to the Apostle’s speech on the Areopagus, ‘Mars Hill’. He is remembered by the Church as a Hieromartyr, having become Bishop of Athens and being martyred later for his faith. But he is most famous in connection with the writings attributed to him: four treatises and ten epistles, which taken together constitute the most important works of Patristic mystical theology, known today as the Corpus Dionysiacum. Thus, the French Benedictine Dom Prosper Guéranger calls him ‘the brightest star’ in the ‘constellation of mystics’ (The Liturgical Year: Time After Pentecost, Vol. V, trans. The Benedictines of Stanbrook [Worcester: Stanbrook Abbey, 1903], p. 376). Here is the Life of St Dionysius in the Prologue (St Nicholas [Velimirović], The Prologue from Ochrid, Vol. 4, trans. Mother Maria [Birmingham: Lazarica, 1986], p. 13):

He is counted among the seventy lesser apostles. This wonderful man was of a noble, pagan family in Athens. Finishing his education in Athens, he went to Egypt to learn more. One day while he was there, the Lord Christ breathed His last on the Cross, and the sun was darkened and it was dark in Egypt for the space of three hours. Then Dionysius cried out: ‘Either God the Creator of the world is suffering, or the world is ending.’ Returning to Athens, he married a woman called Damaris and had sons by her. He was a member of the highest court in Greece, the Areopagus, and was always thereafter known as the Areopagite. When the Apostle Paul preached the Gospel in Athens, Dionysius was baptised with his whole household (Acts 17:34). Paul consecrated him bishop of Athens (he having left his wife and children and status from love of Christ), and he travelled widely with Paul, coming to know all the other apostles. When his teacher, St Paul, suffered martyrdom, Dionysius desired to die such a death himself, so he went off to Gaul to preach the Gospel among the barbarians, accompanied by Rusticus, a priest, and a deacon called Eleutherius. They endured much but met with great success. By their labours, many were turned to the Christian faith and Dionysius built a small chapel in Paris (Author’s note: Some historians think that Dionysius of Paris was other than St Dionysius the Areopagite.) where he celebrated divine service. When he was ninety years old, he was seized and tortured for Christ, together with Rusticus and Eleutherius, until they were all three beheaded with the sword. The severed head of St Dionysius jumped a long way and fell in front of a Christian woman, Catula, who buried it with his body. He suffered in the time of Domitian, in the year 96. He wrote several famous works: on the names of God, on the heavenly and ecclesiastical hierarchies, on mystical theology and on the most holy Mother of God.

The identification with St Denis of Paris aside (while the inimitable Charles Coulombe considers the ‘pretensions’ of those who separate the Biblical, Athenian, Parisian, and literary Dionysii ‘exploded by the writings of such as Dom Guéranger and the martyred Archbishop Darboy’ I can’t figure out if he means these writings have made a convincing argument, or simply that he finds their pious opinion authoritative! See ‘Ultra-Realism FAQ’, Question 4.), it has become merely a commonplace in modern scholarship that the author of the Areopagitic writings was not St Paul’s convert, but, usually, ‘an unknown Syrian bishop or priest ascetic who was a leading theologian of the early sixth century’ (Fr John McGuckin, ‘Dionysius the Areopagite’, The SCM Press A-Z of Patristic Theology, 2nd ed. [London: SCM, 2005], p. 104). Ordinarily, this is not the sort of issue I would raise at Logismoi, but I’m afraid there is so much confusion out there that it must be done if this post is to be of any value. For it is clear that the Church’s Tradition identifies the convert, the Bishop of Athens, and the writer at least, and the endless debates over authorship are in the end merely sophisticated speculation based on slim evidence. For these reasons, it seems to me that as Orthodox Christians we should accept the Corpus as in some sense the work of St Dionysius, whether it represents a much later record of teachings passed down orally—Archbishop Chrysostomos of Etna points out that ‘many Fathers have understood that, perhaps being part of oral tradition, they were written and composed after his repose’ (‘Questions and Answer about the Orthodox Faith’, Orthodox Tradition, IV (2), p. 60)—or at the very least a later (holy) author’s understanding of what a ‘Dionysian’ tradition might be. The latter view has been expressed by Hieromonk Alexander (Golitzin) in his important study, 'Et introibo ad altare Dei': The Mystagogy of Dionysius Areopagita, with Special Reference to its Predecessors in the Eastern Christian Tradition (Thessaloniki: Patriarchikon Idryma Paterikon Meleton, 1994), pp. 416-7, and a similar view articulated by Olivier Clément when he observes, ‘if the real Dionysius was a Greek thinker converted to Christianity, the texts ascribed to his authorship may be said truly to convey his spirit’ (The Roots of Christian Mysticism: Text and Commentary, trans. Theodore Berkeley, OCSO, rev. Jeremy Hummerstone [London: New City, 1995], p. 326). I should note that the blogging traditionalist, John Sanidopoulos, has posted defences of the traditional attribution of the Corpus to the 1st-c. convert of St Paul by, first, the Rev. John Parker, whose arguments I read several years ago, and second, by Fr Dumitru Stăniloae, who I had no idea supported the traditional authorship. Although I'm afraid the whole issue requires a better patristics scholar than I to sort out, I personally welcome any arguments in favour of tradition.

Certainly, I am convinced that Orthodox Christians ought not to speak of a ‘Pseudo-Dionysius’, and that we should always use the conventional English title of ‘Saint’, or some equivalent to speak of the author of the Corpus, for this is how the other Fathers have referred to him. St Gregory Palamas calls him ‘Saint Dionysius’ (The Triads, trans. Nicholas Gendle [NY: Paulist, 1983], p. 63), and St Maximus the Confessor refers to him as ‘the great divine preacher’ and ‘the revealer of God’ (Fr Andrew Louth, Maximus the Confessor [London: Routledge, 1999], pp. 166, 188). But our bowing to Tradition must go beyond nomenclature and titles. We must also read the Corpus itself as a part of the Orthodox Tradition. Although Western scholars—among them C.S. Lewis in The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge U, 2002), pp. 70-5, and Dame Frances Yates in Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition (Chicago: U of Chicago, 1991), pp. 117-29—have shown how the Corpus has, in Vladimir Lossky’s words, ‘often become the vehicle for neo-Platonic influences’ in Western theology, Lossky also argues forcefully and persuasively that this is because St Dionysius has been ‘poorly assimilated’ in the West, and that from an Orthodox perspective ‘the tradition of Dionysius marks a definite triumph over Platonic Hellenism’ (The Vision of God, 2nd ed., trans. Ashleigh Moorhouse [Crestwood, NY: SVS, 1983], p. 128). In addition to pp. 121-8 of The Vision of God, Lossky has also done much to promote an Orthodox interpretation of the Corpus in The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, trans. Fellowship of St Alban and St Sergius (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s, 1998), pp. 23-43, and his efforts have been followed by those of Fr Andrew Louth (see, for instance, The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition [Oxford: Oxford U, 1981], pp. 159-78, and this post by Sr Macrina on Fr Louth’s comments in the Afterword to the new edition of Origins, which I unfortunately still lack!), Fr Alexander Golitzin (see 'Et introibo', cited above, as well as articles here and here), and, in Greek, Fr Nicholas Loudovikos (Η Αποφατική Εκκλησιολογία του Ομοουσίου: Η αρχέγονη Εκκλησία σήμερα [The Apophatic Ecclesiology of the Same Substance: The Primitive Church Today] [Athens: Armos, 2002], pp. 54-68), as well as the Orthodox blogger known as Felix Culpa, in a series of posts responding mainly to the gross misunderstanding of St Dionysius by Fr John Meyendorff here, here, here, here, and here. Although such brilliant readings of St Dionysius as Fr Alexander’s were actually prompted by what he somewhere calls ‘the [later Syriac] monastic Sitz-im-leben’ of the Corpus, I see no reason why teaching that was articulated or made explicit only in later Tradition cannot be used to interpret an earlier expression of Christian theology, if we follow arguments like those of Parker or Stăniloae defending the traditional attribution to the 1st-c. convert of St Paul.

I will cite one example of the sort of reading these scholars have produced. Although in the works above, Lossky, Fr Alexander, and others deal with such weighty matters as St Dionysius’s Christology, his understanding of the divine energies, his angelic hierarchy, etc., one of the most interesting points of correction of the various misunderstandings of his teaching among scholars is a passage in Fr Louth’s Origins on St Dionysius’s teaching about the Mysteries:

Denys also makes use of the [‘Neoplatonic] distinction between theoria (contemplation) and theourgia (theurgy). The ecclesiastical hierarchy fulfils its functions by ‘intellectual contemplations and by diverse sensible symbols, and through these it is raised in a sacred manner to the divine’ (EH V.i.2:501 C). These sensible symbols—the sacraments (in a broad sense)—are sometimes referred to by the word theourgia and its derivatives. The oil of confirmation is called theourgikotatos—literally, ‘most theurgical’. The use of the word is interesting, for it indicates that Denys thinks of the sacraments as Christian theurgy—Christian magic, if you like—or, using less loaded words, a Christian use of material things to effect man’s relationship with the divine. Here we see the ‘Christian Proclus’ using neo-Platonic language to express his understanding of the Christian sacraments. But, though he uses similar language, his meaning is basically different. For a neo-Platonist, theurgy—magic—worked because of some occult sympathy between the material elements used and the constitution of the divine. Theurgy, to a neo-Platonist, is natural—even if rather odd. The use of material elements in the sacraments, however, is a matter of institution, not of occult fitness: they are vehicless of grace not because of what they are materially, but because of their use in a certain symbolic context. (pp. 163-4)

This is a point worth keeping in mind when reading of the rôle of the Corpus in the Western hermetic tradition as described by Yates (cited above).

As an aside, despite the consistent misunderstanding of St Dionysius in the West, his enormous prestige there (Thomas Aquinas quotes in 1,700 times, second only to the Scriptures) earned him a place in one of the great works of world literature. Dante, in Paradiso XXVIII.130-135, grants the Areopagite a greater authority than the Latin St Gregory the Great when, having given the Dionysian version of the angelic hierarchy rather than the latter’s, he writes (The Divine Comedy 3: Paradise, trans. Dorothy Sayers and Barbara Reynolds [NY: Penguin, 1962], p. 304):

When Dionysius with ardent zest
Pondered these orders of angelic bliss,
He named them in this way, the true and best;

But Gregory then differed over this,
And when his eyes were opened on this scene
He smiled to see how he had gone amiss.

It is unfortunate that so much space has had to be taken up treating these issues. But in order to make some small contribution to the appreciation and commemoration of the Saint himself on his feast, I offer a small selection from the Corpus: ‘The Celestial Hierarchy’ I.1.3 (Pseudo-Dionysius, The Complete Works, trans. Colm Luibheid and Paul Rorem [NY: Paulist, 1987], pp. 146-7). As Dom Guéranger writes, quoting St Benedict, ‘To-day the incomparable teacher Dionysius presides over the assembly of the faithful. With East and West let us keep silence; for it behoveth the master to speak and teach, and it beseemeth the disciple to hold his peace and listen [RB 6:6]’ (p. 377):

All this accounts for the fact that the sacred institution and source of perfection established our most pious hierarchy. He modeled it on the hierarchies of heaven, and clothed these immaterial hierarchies in numerous material figures and forms so that, in a way appropriate to our nature, we might be uplifted from these most venerable images to interpretations and assimilations which are simple and inexpressible. For it is quite impossible that we humans should, in any immaterial way, rise up to imitate and to contemplate the heavenly hierarchies without the aid of those material means capable of guiding us as our nature requires. Hence, any thinking person realizes that the appearances of beauty are signs of an invisible loveliness. The beautiful odors which strike the senses are representations of a conceptual diffusion. Material lights are images of the outpouring of an immaterial gift of light. The thoroughness of sacred discipleship indicates the immense contemplative capacity of the mind. Order and rank here below are a sign of the harmonious ordering toward the divine realm. The reception of the most divine Eucharist is a symbol of participation in Jesus. And so it goes for all the gifts transcendently received by the beings of heaven, gifts which are granted to us in a symbolic mode.

The source of spiritual perfection provided us with perceptible images of these heavenly minds. He did so out of concern for us and because he wanted us to be made godlike. He made the heavenly hierarchies known to us. He made our own hierarchy a ministerial colleague of these divine hierarchies by an assimilation, to the extent that is humanly feasible, to their godlike priesthood. He revealed all this to us in the sacred pictures of the scriptures so that he might lift us in spirit up through the perceptible to the conceptual, from sacred shapes and symbols to the simple peaks of the hierarchies of heaven.

Although he does not quote this passage in particular, Dom Guéranger is obviously inspired by such words when goes on to praise St Dionysius ever more elabourately:

Honour to thee on this day of thy triumph! Honour to the Apostle of the Gentiles, who comes to meet thee, as his noble conquest, on the threshold of eternity. From early youth how thy soul yearned for that unknown God, whom the Apostle at length revealed to the longing aspirations of thy grand, upright nature! To the darkness of polytheism, to the doubts of philosophy, to the vague glimmers of confused traditions, suddenly succeeded the light of truth; and its triumph was complete. Thou, O Christian Plato, didst enlarge the horizon of philosophy, and didst so rectify its formulas that in them truth could be fittingly clothed. Thou, in thy turn, didst become an apostle; the distinction of Greek and Barbarian, that law of the ancient world, was lost in the common origin assigned by St Paul to all peoples; to the eyes of thy faith, slaves and freemen were equal in that nobility which makes the human race the race of God; while the charity, which overflowed in thy heart, filled it with the immense pity of God himself for the long ages of ignorance in which mankind had been plunged. (p. 383)

In conclusion, I offer, first, the ‘Hymn of Praise’ for St Dionysius from the Prologue, and second, the Kontakion of the Hieromartyr in Tone 8 (The Great Horologion, trans. HTM [Boston: HTM, 1997], p. 268):

Glorious saint Dionysius,
Wondrous theologian and lucid scribe!
His mind, gathered in his heart, he directed to God;
He witnessed heavenly mysteries and revealed them to us.
He perceived the glory of the heavenly orders
And described the hierarchy of heaven:
Principalities, Dominions, Virtues, Powers,
Wondrous Thrones, Seraphim,
Cherubim and Archangels,
Golden-winged Angels of God,
And the Mother of God.
He beheld all with fear,
And also that which shines above the dust of the earth:
Heavenly powers of infinite strength,
Immortal suns and stars most brilliant!
All that he witnessed, Dionysius made clear
And told to the Church.
Thus he adorned and enriched the Church,
And his accomplishments were made golden
By his bloody death for his Christ.
Now he shines in heaven;
And the angelic hosts, blazing with the glory of God,
Call Dionysius ‘Brother’.

Kontakion, Plagal of Fourth Tone
To thee, the Champion Leader

In spirit, thou didst pass through Heaven’s gates, instructed by * the great Apostle who attained to the third Heaven’s heights, * and wast made rich in all knowledge of things beyond speech; * and then thou, O Dionysius, didst illuminate * them that slumbered in the darkness of their ignorance. * Hence, we all cry out: * Rejoice, O universal Father.

15 October 2009

The Love of Wisdom, or, The Love of Books

While it is not because of any deliberate neglect, philosophy has unfortunately received little attention on this blog. This is a shame, because it’s certainly a topic that interests me, and in the past I have devoted at least as much personal attention to it as I have to poetry. Well, I shall try to make some amends by pointing out a few recent philosophical acquisitions, and, perhaps, offering a nugget of wisdom from each of them.

1) I had the tremendous good fortune at Half Price Books to stumble across Penelope Murray’s Plato on Poetry (Cambridge: Cambridge U, 2003), in the Cambridge Greek and Latin Classics series. Featuring Murray’s editions of the texts of Ion and Republic 376e-398b & 595-608b, a helpful introduction, and her extensive commentary on the texts. The text of Ion and the first two pages of the Republic selections are heavily glossed in pencil by a previous owner. I am of course very interested in Plato’s views on poetry, and am hoping to work on my ancient Greek a good deal over the next year or two. Murray sums up two of the issues that interest me most in ancient views on poetry:

The Greeks had no word to denote those activities that we now subsume under the term ‘art’. Techne covered anything from poetry, painting and sculpture to shoemaking, carpentry and shipbuilding, there being no linguistic or conceptual distinction in the Greek world, or in antiquity generally, between crafts and the ‘fine arts’. Moreover, art was not thought of as something that could be separated from morality. (p. 1)

2) I finally got around to buying The Cambridge Companion to Plato, ed. Richard Kraut (Cambridge: Cambridge U, 2005), also at Half Price. I’ve always been hesitant to purchase the Cambridge Companion volumes, for fear that rather than a reliable reference volume, I’ll find the idiosyncratic views of a number of modern academics colouring my perceptions of writers I’m trying to read on my own. Well, lulled by the price as well as the promise of ‘a conspectus of recent developments in the interpretation of Plato’, not to mention such articles as Michael L. Morgan’s on ‘Plato and Greek religion’, G.R.F. Ferrari’s on ‘Platonic love’, and especially, Elizabeth Amis’s on ‘Plato on poetic creativity’, I took the plunge. The book is mostly like new, though there are five or six pages of extensive notes and underlining—apparently by the same hand that marked up Murray’s book—in the article on ‘Plato’s metaphysical epistemology’ by Nicholas P. White. Here is a sample from Amis’s article:

This subordination of poetry to politics has offended many readers of Plato from antiquity to the present. Plato sees the poet primarily as a maker of ethics, and this concern appears strangely one-sided. What makes his position especially jarring is that, like another famous literary moralist, Tolstoy [whom, incidentally, Murray quotes on the first page of her introduction to Plato on Poetry], he was himself a consummate literary artist. Yet Plato has a much more complex view of poetry than his strict morality suggests. Along with his censorship goes a far-ranging exploration of poetic creativity. Trying out various approaches in different dialogues, Plato enter into a dialogue with himself; and the tensions and variations in his own thinking illuminate many aspects of the aesthetics of poetry. Plato’s discussions are worth taking seriously, even though some of his conclusions are repugnant—to himself in part, as well as to his readers. (pp. 338-9)

3) Although there’s a good chance I would never have gotten round to buying the next book, I was spared the trouble when my friend Justin recently gave me a copy of I.F. Stone’s The Trial of Socrates (NY: Anchor, 1989). Stone describes his purpose as follows:

But the more I fell in love with the Greeks, the more agonizing grew the spectacle of Socrates before his judges. It horrified me as a civil libertarian. It shook my Jeffersonian faith in the common man. It was a black mark for Athens and the freedom it symbolized. How could the trial of Socrates have happened in so free a society? How could Athens have been so untrue to itself?

This book is the fruit of that torment. I set out to discover how it could have happened. I could not defend the verdict when I started and I cannot defend it now. But I wanted to find out what Plato does not give us, to give the Athenian side of the story, to mitigate the city’s crime and thereby remove some of the stigma the trial left on democracy and on Athens. (p. xi)

4) Another Half Price find was The Golden Chain: An Anthology of Pythagorean and Platonic Philosophy, ed. Algis Uždavinys (Bloomington, IN: World Wisdom, 2004). Although I already had all of the Pythagorean materials in Kenneth Sylvan Guthrie, trans., The Pythagorean Sourcebook and Library, ed. David Fideler (Grand Rapids, MI: Phanes, 1988), and all of the stuff from Plato in The Complete Works, ed. John M. Cooper (Indianopolis: Hackett, 1997), with very few exceptions (notably, Plotinus—I have Stephen MacKenna’s translation of the complete Enneads) I had none of the so-called ‘Neoplatonists’, who are well represented here, mostly in older translations. The book contains passages from Porphyry, Iamblichus, Hierocles, Hermeias, Marinus, Proclus, and Damascius: all writers who are rather hard to come by. Here is a passage from Proclus’s Commentary on Plato’s Alcibiades I, trans. William O’Neil:

Hence we should reckon this to be the most valid starting-point both for all philosophy and for the system of Plato, namely, as we said, the clear and unadulterated knowledge of ourselves determined in scientific terms and ‘securely established by causal reasoning’ (cf. Meno 98a3). From what other source indeed, should one begin one’s own purification and perfection than from where the god at Delphi exhorted us? For as the public notice warned those entering the precincts of the Eleusinian mysteries not to pass within the inner shrine if they were profane and uninitiated, so also the inscription ‘Know Thyself’ on the front of the Delphi sanctuary indicated the manner, I presume, of ascent to the divine and the most effective path towards purification, practically stating clearly to those able to understand, that he who has attained the knowledge of himself, by beginning at the beginning, can be united with the god who is the revealer of the whole truth and guide of the purgative life; but he who does not know who he is, being uninitiated and profane (cf. Phaedo 69c) is unfit to partake of the providence of Apollo. (p. 202)

5) This one was the hardest to justify. I’m not sure when or if I will ever get round to using it, and even at Half Price it cost—for me—a pretty penny. The book is a translation of commentaries by Aspasius, an anonymous writer (variously identified as one ‘Heliodorus’, Andronicus of Rhodes, or Olympiodorus), and Michael of Ephesus, On Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics 8 and 9, trans. David Konstan (Ithaca, NY: Cornell U, 2001). It is part of Cornell’s Ancient Commentators on Aristotle series, edited by Richard Sorabji, of which the OKC Half Price Books currently has two more volumes—Ammonius’s and Boethius’s commentaries on On Interpretation 9, and one by Simplicius on some text I’ve forgotten. I had thought about purchasing it on one other occasion, but couldn’t bring myself to do it. I think what finally provided the necessary inspiration was listening to Bryan Smith’s delightful audio lecture, Reading Homer in Byzantium, which I heard about at the wonderful blog, Scholium. It managed sufficiently to spark my interest in Late Antique and Byzantine commentaries, no matter how dry these may turn out to be! Here is one of the more interesting passages in the commentary of Michael of Ephesus on Nichomachean Ethics 1164a3:

The love of worthy men, which is on account of their virtue, is inalterable, because the virtue on account of which they are friends of one another is a most firm and most enduring thing. And as long as they are pleasing to one another they are friends, because each [day] their beauty of soul, which is what they are passionate for, flourishes anew and grows young again and becomes more youthful. And they are not only pleasing but also useful, because virtue is among the most useful things: for virtue is the most beautiful and most pleasing and most uself thing.

Having said that the loves on account of the pleasing and the useful are not enduring, [Aristotle] added, ‘but the [love] of character [does endure], being [love] in itself’ (1164a12). He calls the virtues ‘character’; the [love] on account of chracter, being [love] in itself and properly so called, is enduring. The [words], ‘being [love] in itself, may have been meant in the sense of ‘on account of [the loves] themselves and not on account of their [properties]’. (p. 138)

Finally, and on another note, I do not wish entirely to neglect the Holy Martyrs Cyprian and Justina, the ‘philosopher and renowned sorcerer’ and the holy virgin who led him to Christ, today, on their feast, but I don’t have time to prepare a proper post for them. I urge readers to avail themselves of the Life of the Saints at the Orthodox Christian Information Center and that of Alban Butler at p. 304 here, on Google Books. It is interesting to reflect that St Cyprian had much in common with Platonists like Iamblichus and Proclus, who are included in The Golden Chain anthology mentioned above. I have an attachment to these Saints thanks to a memorable two weeks spent at the Old Calendarist monastery dedicated to them in Fili, Greece, where apart from the weekly Paraklesis in honour of them, I have attended their feastday celebrations two or three times and witnessed an exorcism through their intercessions. Here, in conclusion, is the Kontakion for Ss Cyprian and Justina in Tone I (The Great Horologion, trans. HTM [Boston: HTM, 19], p. 267):

When thou, O godly-minded one, hadst been converted * from magic art to knowledge of God, thou becamest * a most skilful healer for the whole world, O wise Cyprian, * granting cures to them that honour thee with Justina; * with her, pray the man-befriending Master to save us, * thy servants who sing thy praise.

14 October 2009

'Earliest First-fruit of Beautiful Hymns'—St Romanus the Melodist

Today, 1 October on the Church’s calendar, we celebrate the memory of St Romanus the Melodist (c. 490-c. 556). Egon Wellesz calls St Romanus ‘the outstanding figure in Byzantine hymnography’, writing, ‘His fame was, indeed, so great that he was considered the paramount Melodos, and more Kontakia than he wrote were ascribed to him in order to heighten their value’ (A History of Byzantine Music and Hymnography, 2nd ed. [Oxford: Oxford U, 1971], p. 190). According to Fr Andrew Louth, he ‘is perhaps the most famous liturgical poet of the Orthodox Church, but his genius is such as to command a place among the highest ranks of poets, religious or secular, so that he has been called by Professor Trypanis “the greatest poet of the Greek middle ages”’ (‘An Invitation to the Christian Mystery’, Kontakia on the Life of Christ, by St Romanus the Melodist, trans. Archim. Ephrem [Lash] [SF: HarperCollins, n.d.], p. xv). In the words of Fr Ephrem (Lash), St Romanus’s work forms ‘one of the great treasures of Christian poetry and of Byzantine Greek literature’ (Kontakia, p. xxvi). Finally, Wellesz points out that on St Romanus’s feast, the Church praises him ‘as “the first origin of the beautiful chants”, “the father” of hymnographers, the composer of “angelic hymnody”’ (Wellesz, p. 7), and later (on p. 182), Wellesz quotes the hymn in question in full:

Earliest first-fruit of beautiful (hymns),
thou wast manifested a means of salvation,
Romanus our father,
composing the angelic hymnody,
thou hast shown thy conversation [τὴν πολιτείαν σου] meet for God.

Fr Ephrem tells us that St Romanus ‘was of Semitic, quite possibly Jewish, ancestry’ (p. xxvi). He was born in the town of Emesa in Syria, and was made a deacon at Berytus (modern Beirut), before settling in Constantinople at the Theotokos Church ‘in the comparatively quiet and secluded district of Kyros (modern Hexi-Marmara), in the north of the city’ (Fr Ephrem, p. xxvi). According to tradition, St Romanus was uneducated and not a terribly good chanter, and was sometimes mocked by the other clergy and chanters for this. Fr Ephrem quotes a 10th-c. account of what happened to make him ‘the Melodist’ (p. xvii; see also the account at Orthodox America):

It was in this church [the Theotokos Church] that he received the gift of composing kontakia when the holy Mother of God appeared to him in a dream during the evening of Christ’s Nativity [i.e. during the Vigil on the eve] and gave him a scroll and ordered him to swallow it. After he had swallowed it he at once awoke from his trance and having mounted the ambo, began to declaim and chant most melodiously, ‘Today the Virgin gives birth to him who is above all being’. From then on he delivered around one thousand kontakia for the feasts of the Lord and the commemorations of various saints. Many of them are preserved in the church in the district of Kyros, set down in his own hand. He attained perfection in peace and was buried in the same church, in which his synaxis is also celebrated.

On p. xv of his Preface to Fr Ephrem’s translation of St Romanus, Fr Louth notes the striking similarity of the story of St Romanus’s miraculous gift of poetry to that of St Cædmon of Whitby (on whom see this post) as told in the Venerable Bede’s Ecclesiastical History. It is an amazing illustration of the great unity of the lives of the Orthodox Saints, East and West, who have known and experienced the very same Truth.

On the subject of the kontakion in general, and of St Romanus’s Nativity kontakion in particular, see this post. To what I have said there I will only add two things. First, Wellesz makes an interesting point about St Romanus’s treatment of the great figures of the Classical age. First, Wellesz cites some lines from the Kontakion on Pentecost, which I shall give in Fr Ephrem’s translation (pp. 215-6), where the Melodist employs a series of untranslateable puns on the names of several well-known pagan authors:


. . .

Why do the Greeks puff and buzz?
Why are they deceived by Aratos the thrice accursed? Why err like wandering planets to Plato?
Why do they love debilitated Demosthenes?
Why do they not consider Homer a chimera?
Why do they go on about Pythagoras, who were better muzzled?
Why do they not run believing to those to whom has appeared the All-Holy Spirit?


Brothers, let us sing the praise of the tongues of the disciples because, not with elegant words,
but with divine power they caught all mortals in their nets . . .

On this, Wellesz comments:

Romanus, in his revolt against the greatest minds of the Classical world, is not unaware of their greatness. But it must be remembered that he does not address his audience as a rhetorician but as a preacher speaking from the pulpit, like his predecessors the three Cappadocians or John Chrysostom. Like the latter he contrasts the Christian ideas and ideals with those of the Greek thinkers, orators, and poets, and tries to create in the minds of his audience appreciation of the divine truth, conveyed by the words of the Apostle, which Romanus takes from the Gospel and paraphrases in a diction no less poetical than that of the greatest classical authors. (p. 190)

Second, in his Preface to the Kontakia, Fr Louth makes an observation about St Romanus’s kontakia that is neatly consonant with his concerns in Discerning the Mystery: An Essay on the Nature of Theology (Wichita, KS: Eighth Day, 2007), which I am currently reading for the first time:

This is perhaps the biggest difference, in the use of imagery found in Romanos and the Fathers, from what is characteristic of modern secularized Western Christianity: a confident use of what is sometimes called allegory as a way of setting the Christian mystery against the background of the ‘many and various ways’ in which ‘God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets’ (Heb 1:1). It lends richness to the patristic expression of the Christian mystery and makes vivid a sense of the Church as the people of God reaching back across the ages, so that we approach the mystery of Christ in the company of Moses, Elias, Isaias and the other prophets and patriarchs, as well as in the company of the Fathers and Mothers of the Christian Church, including Romanos himself. (Kontakia, p. xix)

St Romanus is traditionally depicted chanting in the centre of icons of the Protection of the Most Holy Theotokos, but this is because the latter event occurred on his feast day (in the year 911), and not because he was physically present as a matter of historical record. The article in Orthodox America notes:

Because Saint Romanos is commemorated on the same day as the feast of Protection, he commonly appears as a central figure in the icon of that feast, even though there is no historical connection (the event celebrated by the Protection icon occurred in the tenth century). Although in more recent icons Saint Romanos is depicted as a deacon standing on the ambo, Russian church musicologist Johann von Gardner points out that in the oldest icons he is more accurately portrayed wearing the short red tunic of a singer and standing on a raised platform in the middle of the church.

In conclusion, here is the Kontakion in Tone 8 for St Romanus, taken from the Holy Trinity calendar page:

Adorned from childhood with the godly virtues of the Spirit, O all-wise Romanus, thou wast an all-precious adornment of the Church of Christ; for thou hast adorned it with all-beauteous hymnody. Wherefore, we entreat thee: Grant thy divine gift unto those who desire it, that we may cry out to thee: Rejoice, O all-blessed father, thou beauty of the Church!

12 October 2009

'His Heart Was Pierced with the Fear of God'—St Cyriacus the Anchorite

Today, 29 September on the Church’s calendar, we celebrate the memory of our Holy Father Cyriacus the Anchorite of Palestine (449-557). A younger contemporary, disciple, or co-struggler of several of the great monastic Saints of the Holy Land, St Cyriacus was perhaps an important source for the various Lives composed by his own biographer, Cyril of Scythopolis. In the Prologue, St Nicholas (Velimirović) writes, ‘Cyriacus was a great light, a pillar of Orthodoxy, the adornment of monks, a mighty healer of the sick, and a gentle comforter of the sorrowful.’ Cyril calls him ‘the anchorite, and best of all anchorites’, and ‘Cyriacus, illuminated in soul’ (The Lives of the Monks of Palestine, trans. R.M. Price [Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian, 1991], p. 245). Cyril writes, further, ‘He was a kind and approachable man, good at both prophecy and teaching, and utterly orthodox, while in body he was tall and noble and with all his limbs in perfect condition. He was truly full of grace and of the Holy Spirit’ (p. 259). To Derwas Chitty, ‘He is the most absolute, and perhaps the most attractive of all Cyril’s heroes’ (The Desert a City: An Introduction to the Study of Egyptian and Palestinian Monasticism under the Christian Empire [Crestwood, NY: SVS, 1995], p. 131).

St Cyriacus was born in Corinth, the son of a priest and the nephew of Bishop Peter of that city. He was tonsured a Reader at a young age, and Cyril ascribes to this the development in him of the desire for the monastic life:

Abba Cyriacus, reading the holy Scriptures, as he himself told me, and spending days and nights on them, was struck with them, was struck with amazement at the variety of ways in which, generation after generation, God glorified those who strove to be well-pleasing by correct choice and set them up as luminaries in the world, disposing everything from the beginning for the salvation of the human race.

. . .

[He reflected on the figures of the Old Testament and how God glorified them.] In addition to all these wonders, Cyriacus’ mind was in a whirl as he reflected on what surpasses them, that extraordinary conception without seed, the Virgin Mother, how God the Word became man without change and by his precious Cross and Resurrection harrowed hell, and how by his triumph he made the deceitful serpent impotent, restored life to Adam who had lost it through his sins, and led him back into paradise. As he reflected on these and similar points, his heart was pierced with the fear of God, and he resolved to withdraw to the holy city and renounce the affairs of this life. (pp. 245-6)

St Cyriacus was ‘meditating on such thoughts’ when he heard our Lord’s words in the Gospel, ‘If anyone wishes to come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me’ (Mt 16:24). Like another St Anthony, the pious young man (of seventeen) ‘immediately’ left and boarded a ship for Jerusalem. There, he was greeted by ‘the sainted Eustorgius’, abbot of a monastery ‘near holy Sion’ (p. 247). St Cyriacus spent the winter there, but his heart desired the strict life of the desert, and having heard of the renown of St Euthymius the Great, received a blessing to go to the latter’s great lavra. St Euthymius, beholding the young man’s devotion, clothed him ‘in the habit’, but upheld his strict rule against accepting youths and sent St Cyriacus on to St Gerasimus of the Jordan and his cœnobium. There, according to Cyril:

He spent his days in labor and toil, and his nights in prayer to God, adding to his manual work great zeal in the office of psalmody.

5. While serving in the cenobium, he mastered the life of anchorites, taking bread and water every other day and abstaining from oil, wine, and mixed drink, with the result that the great Gerasimus, observing the ascetic mode of life of the young man, was full of admiration and love for him. (p. 248)

For this reason, St Gerasimus took the devout young monk under his wing, and each Lent, would take him along for particularly strict and blessed struggle. As Derwas Chitty tells it (Chitty, p. 96):

What a party that must have been in Euthymius’ last years, from AD 470! Euthymius himself, aged over ninety, and his faithful deacon, Domitian; the future patriarchs, Martyrius and Elias; Sabas [the Sanctified]; Gerasimus from the Jordan Plain; and with Gerasimus, the lad Cyriac still in his early twenties. They would set out for Rouba on 14th January, each armed with a trowel for digging up for food those roots of melagrion, or ‘meliagrion’, which St Sophronius at least identifies in his Anacreontics with St John the Baptist’s food of ‘wild honey’—ἀκρίδες πελὲν τὸ βρῶμα μελιαγρίου τε ῥίζαι. Scattered in solitude through the week, they would assemble on Sundays to receive Communion at the hands of Euthymius. They would return in time for Palm Sunday to their monasteries, or, armed with those lovely little flowers of many colours that show themselves in the spring in the most barren places of the wilderness (for the thirsty soil is fertile when water can reach it), to Olivet and Jerusalem for the annual rehearsal of the events of that day and the week that follows.

In 473, however, the Great Euthymius fell asleep in the Lord, an event witnessed in the Spirit by St Gerasimus, who took the young Saint Cyriacus along with him for the burial of the Elder. Only two years later, St Gerasimus himself reposed ‘and was adorned with the crown of righteousness’, leaving St Cyriacus free to be received at last by St Euthymius’s successor at the lavra (Cyril, p. 248). There, he began to live the solitary life at the age of twenty-six. According to Cyril, the fathers of the lavra soon began to build a cœnobium, a work in which St Cyriacus assisted. But in 485, a dispute prompted the Saint to leave for the lavra of Souka. Here he settled for many years, and eventually served as a hieromonk as well as in the offices of treasurer and canonarch. Cyril writes:

8. He stated categorically to me, ‘In this long period of thirty-one years in which I was canonarch and treasurer the sun never saw me either eating or in a temper.’ He also said to me, ‘I would not stop beating the summoning-block for the night psalmody until I had recited the whole of the “Blameless” psalm [Ps 118, LXX].’ (p. 250)

Then, at the age of seventy-seven, St Cyriacus resigned his position ‘and retired to the utter desert of Natoupha, accompanied by a disciple’ (p. 250). The two lived on ‘squills’, which John Binns in his note suggests are probably the ‘the leaves of the desert asphodel, a bitter plant not usually used for food’ (p. 260, n. 7). Trusting in God, however, that they would be nourished by these bitter leaves and being willing to endure, when St Cyriacus and his disciple boiled them the squills immediately became sweet, ‘and they continued to eat of them for a period of four years’ (p. 250). At one point, the anchorites were brought a gift of bread, but when it ran out were forced to return to their squills.

St Cyriacus was forced to relocate twice, however, when miracles and healings performed for the inevitable travellers brought by God’s providence spread his reputation and attracted more supplicants. He eventually settled for seven years at Sousakim, ‘a place that was pure desert and hidden away’ (p. 251), located at the confluence of two deep ‘watercourses’ said to be the ‘rivers of Etham’ which the Prophet David refers to in Psalm 73:15 (LXX). After seven years, however, St Cyriacus yielded to the entreaties of the fathers of Souka and, in 485, settled there in the cave of St Chariton (commemorated yesterday).

It appears that the Lord’s purpose in bringing St Cyriacus back to Souka was to combat some teachers of Origenism who had taken over St Sabas’s New Lavra. It was at this point that Cyril himself met the old man, having been sent to him by the abbot of St Euthymius’s lavra to ask his intercessions against the Origenists. St Cyriacus prophesied the downfall of the heretics, and furthermore, spoke against them at length in words recorded by the young Cyril:

12. . . . ‘The doctrines of pre-existence and restoration are not indifferent and without danger, but dangerous, harmful and blasphemous. . . . They deny that Christ is one of the Trinity. . . . They say that the holy Trinity did not create the world and that at the restoration all rational beings, even demons, will be able to create aeons. They say that our bodies will be raised etherial and spherical at the resurrection, and they assert that even the body of the Lord was raised in this form. They say that we shall be equal to Christ at the restoration.

13. ‘What hell blurted out these doctrines? They have not learnt them from the God who spoke through the prophets and apostles—perish the thought—but they have revived these abominable and impious doctrines from Pythagoras and Plato, from Origen, Evagrius, and Didymus. I am amazed what vain and futile labors they have expended on such harmful and laborious vanities, and how in this way they have armed their tongues against piety. Should they not rather have praised and glorified brotherly love, hospitality, virginity, care of the poor, psalmody, all-night vigils, and tears of compunction? Should they not be disciplining the body by fasts, ascending to God in prayer, making this life a rehearsal for death, rather than meditating such sophistries? But (the elder added) they did not wish to follow the humble path of Christ, but instead “they became futile in their thoughts and their senseless heart was darkened; saying they were wise, they became fools” (Rom 1:21-22). . . .’ (pp. 253-4)

Cyril notes that St Cyriacus became quite happy and friendly on learning that the young man was from St Euthymius’s monastery, ‘the same cenobium as myself’, and at that time told him ‘many of the facts about Saints Euthymius and Sabas that I have placed in the two works I have already written about them’ (p. 255).

In 546, when their leader died and the Origenists were expelled, St Cyriacus withdrew once more to his blessed retreat at Sousakim, where he lived for another eight years as a solitary. Cyril speaks of visiting him there and discovering that, like his early elder, St Gerasimus, the old man had attracted a friendly lion who guarded the Saint’s herbs from wild goats. Here Binns notes:

Sousakim has a lower rainfall than the monasteries founded by Euthymius and Sabas, being further south. The deep ravine which it overlooks provided shelter from the sun, and the careful collection of the winter rain [described by Cyril on p. 256] enabled Cyriacus to maintain a small vegetable garden. (p. 260, n. 14)

Cyril notes that two years before the death of St Cyriacus, seeing that he ‘had attained extreme old age’ at 107 (p. 258), the fathers of Souka ‘came and after much persuasion’ brought him back to St Chariton’s cave to live out his remaining years (p. 259). Having visited him often during this time, Cyril writes, ‘But despite being such an old man, he was strong and zealous, standing for the office of psalmody and serving his visitors with his own hands. He was not in the least debilitated but was able to do everything, since Christ gave him strength’ (p. 259). Eventually, however, the great Saint was ‘stricken by bodily weakness and summoned all the fathers of the laura’ (p. 259). He blessed them and reposed peacefully, ‘committing his soul to the Lord and receiving from him the crown of righteousness which he promised to those who love him (cf. 2 Tim 4:8)’ (p. 259).

St Cyriacus’s retreat at Sousakim can still be seen—Chitty describes it as a ‘stark cave with its rock-ledge for a bed, walled along its front, and with a square domed cell built without mortar at its mouth, looking down on the meeting of the two wadis’ (p. 131). The Skete of St Chariton is apparently being restored by the Russian Ecclesiastical Mission in Jerusalem, under the Russian Church Abroad.

Here is the Kontakion of the Saint, in the Eighth Tone (The Great Horologion, trans. Holy Transfiguration Monastery [Boston: HTM, ], p. 263):

The sacred lavra doth at all times rightly honour thee * as a sure helper and support and mighty champion, * and it annually observeth thy holy mem’ry. * And since thou, O righteous Cyriacus, dost possess * boldness with the Lord, protect us from our enemies, * that we may cry to thee: * Rejoice, O thrice-blessed Father.

10 October 2009

'With Their King They Honoured God'—St Wenceslas of the Czechs

Today, 28 September, we celebrate the memory of the Holy Martyr Wenceslas (Vatslav, Vyacheslav), King of the Czechs (c. 907-935). St Wenceslas is the Czechs’ patron Saint, and they have a legend that he will return one day to defend their country, much like King Arthur. His father was converted to Christianity by the renowned Apostles to the Slavs, Ss Cyril and Methodius. Here is the account of his life in the Prologue (St Nicholas [Velimirović], The Prologue from Ochrid, Vol. 3, trans. Mother Maria [Birmingham: Lazarica, 1986], p. 386):

The grandson of St Ludmila, he lived as king in spiritual striving in the Faith like the great ascetics, and strengthened the Orthodox faith among his people. He took care when sitting in juddgement that no innocent man should suffer. In his zeal for the Christian faith and his love for his neighbour, holy Vatslav bought pagan children who had been sold as slaves and immediately baptised them, bringing them up as Christians. He translated St John’s Gospel into Czech and brought the relics of St Vitus and his grandmother, Ludmilla, to Prague. His brother Boleslav invited him to stay and killed him at his court. Immediately after this, Boleslav began to make German priests and to have the Liturgy celebrated in Latin. Holy Vatslav suffered in 929. His relics are preserved in Prague.

St Nicholas has also written a lovely ‘Hymn of Praise’ in the Prologue in honour of St Wenceslas:

From a wicked mother, good fruit was born:
St Vatslav, who pleased God.
His wicked mother gave him only a body,
But his grandmother-light and faith and hope.
The glorious grandmother, pious Ludmilla,
Nurtured Vatslav's soul.
As a white lily, Vatslav grew,
And adorned himself with innocence.
As the king reigned, the people rejoiced,
And with their king they honored God.
Yet the adversary of man never sleeps or dozes,
Laying sinful snares for every soul,
And he incited Boleslav against Vatslav.
‘For what, my brother, do you want my head?’
Vatslav asked, but was still beheaded!
But the evildoer did not escape God.
The soul of St Vatslav went
Before the Most-high God, the Just,
The One he had always adored,
And with Ludmilla, Vatslav now prays
For his people, that they be strengthened in faith.
St Vatslav, beautiful as an angel!

But of course, in the English-speaking world, St Wenceslas is best known from John Mason Neale’s 1853 Christmastide carol, ‘Good King Wenceslas’ (on which, see this page). Here is Mason’s telling of the legend behind the carol, in his 1849 book, Deeds of Faith (taken from this site):

The holy Christmas-tide was drawing nigh. The Church was already far advanced in Advent; and was now bidding her children to look forward to the coming King. Winter had set in over Germany with unusual severity; hedges, fields, and ways, were blotted out in the deep soft snow; the creaking of the rude waggons was silent; the labourer was idle; the plough was in the shed; the spade and mattock in the tool-house.

King Wenceslaus of Bohemia sat in his palace. He had been watching, from the narrow window of the turret-chamber where he was, the sunset, as its glory hung for a moment on the western clouds, and then died away over the Erzgebirge, and the blue hills of Rabenstein. Calm and cold was its brightness; the colours that but now were of ruby and jasper, faded into purple, and were lost in grey; a freezing haze came over the face of the earth; the short winter day was swallowed up of night. But the crescent moon brightened towards the south-west; and the leafless trees in the castle gardens, and the quaint turrets and spires of the castle itself, threw clear dark shadows on the unspotted snow.

Still the King gazed forth on the scene, for he had learnt to draw lessons of wisdom from all these daily changes that we so little regard; and he knew that God speaks to us by this beautiful world; he was able, in a very true sense, thus to make the nights and days, the summer and winter, to bless the Lord, and to praise Him and magnify Him for ever. And so, in that sunset, he saw an emblem of our resurrection; he felt that the night would come, the night in which no man could work; but he knew also that the morning would follow, that morning which shall have no evening.

The ground sloped down from the castle towards the forest. Here and there on the side of the hill, a few bushes, gray with moss, broke the unvaried sheet of white. And as the King turned his eyes in that direction, a poor man—and the moonshine was bright enough to show his misery and his rags—came up to these bushes, and seemed to pull somewhat from them.

‘Without there!’ cried King Wenceslaus. ‘Who is in waiting!’ and one of the servants of the palace entered, and answered to the call.

‘This way, good Otto,’ said the King. ‘You see that poor man on the hill-side. Step down to him and learn who he is, and where he dwells, and what he is doing; and bring me word again.’

Otto went forth on his errand, and the King watched him down the hill. Meantime the frost grew more and more intense ; the east wind breathed from the bleak mountains of Gallicia; the snow became more crisp, and the air more clear. Ten minutes sufficed to bring back the messenger.

‘Well, and who is it?’ inquired King Wenceslaus.

‘My liege,’ said Otto, ‘it is Rudolph the swineherd, he that lives down by the Brunweiss. Fire he has none, nor food neither: and he was gathering a few sticks where he might find them, lest, as he says, all his family perish with cold. It is a most bitter night, Sire.’

‘This should have been better looked to,’ said the King; ‘and a grievous fault is it that it has not been. But it shall be amended now. Go to the ewery, Otto, and fetch some provisions, of the best; and then come forth, and meet me at the wood-stacks by S. Mary's Chapel.’

‘Is your Majesty going forth?’ asked Otto.

‘To the Brunweiss,’ said the King; ‘and you shall go with me; wherefore be speedy.’

‘I pray you, Sire, do not go yourself. Let some of the men-at-arms go forth. It is a freezing wind; and a league it is at least to the place.’

‘Nevertheless,’ said Wenceslaus, ‘I go. Go with me, if you will; if not, stay; I can carry the food myself.’

‘God forbid, Sire, that I should let you go alone. But I pray you to be persuaded.’

‘Not in this,’ said Wenceslaus. ‘Meet me, then, where I said; and not a word to anyone besides.’

The noblemen of the court were in the hall, where a mighty fire went roaring up the chimney, and the shadows played and danced on the steep sides of the dark roof. Gaily they laughed, and lightly they talked, and they bade fresh logs be thrown into the chimney-place; and one said to another, that sp bitter a winter had never been known in Bohemia.

But in the midst of that freezing night, the King of Bohemia went forth. He had put on nothing to shelter himself from the nipping air; for he desired to feel with the poor, that he might feel for them. On his shoulder he bore a heap of logs for the swineherd's fire; and stepped briskly on, while Otto followed with the provisions. He, too, had imitated his master, and went in his common garments; and over the crisp snow, across fields, by lanes where the hedgetrees were heavy with their white load, past the frozen pool, through the little copse, where the wind made sweet melody in summer with the leaves, and rivers of gold streamed in upon the ground, but now silent and ghastly—over the stile where the rime clustered thick, by the road with its ruts of mire, and so out upon the moor, where the snow lay yet more unbroken, and the wind seemed to nip the very heart.

Still the King went on first: still the servant followed. The Saint thought it but little to go forth into the frost and the darkness, remembering Him Who came into the cold night of this world of ours; he disdained not, a King, to go to the beggar, for the King of Kings had visited slaves; he grudged not to carry the logs on his shoulder, for the LORD of all things had carried the Cross for his sake. But the servant, though he long held out with a good heart, at each step lost courage and zeal. Then very shame came to his aid; he would not do less than his master; he could not return to the court, while the King held on his way alone. But when they came forth on the white, bleak moor, his courage failed.

‘My liege,’ he said, ‘I cannot go on. The wind freezes my very blood. Pray you, let us return.’

‘Seems it so much?’ asked the King. ‘Was not His journey from Heaven a wearier and a colder way than this ?’

Otto answered not.

‘Follow me on still,’ said S. Wenceslaus. ‘Only tread in my footsteps, and you will proceed more easily.’

The servant knew that his master spoke not at random. He carefully looked for the footsteps of the King: he set his own feet in the print of his lord's feet.

And so great was the virtue of this Saint of the Most High, such was the fire of love that was kindled in him, that, as he trod in those steps, Otto gained life and heat. He felt not the wind; he heeded not the frost; the footprints glowed as with a holy fire, and zealously he followed the King on his errand of mercy.

Here are the complete lyrics of Mason’s carol, taken from Gordon Giles, O Come Emmanuel: A Musical Tour of Daily Readings for Advent and Christmas (Brewster, MA: Paraclete, 2006), pp. 105-6:

Good King Wenceslas looked out
On the feast of Stephen,
When the snow lay round about,
Deep, and crisp, and even:
Brightly shone the moon that night,
Though the frost was cruel,
When a poor man came in sight,
Gath’ring winter fuel.

‘Hither, page, and stand by me,
If thou know’st it, telling.
Yonder peasant, who is he?
Where and what his dwelling?’
‘Sire, he lives a good league hence,
Underneath the mountain,
Right against the forest fence,
By Saint Agnes’ fountain.’

‘Bring me flesh, and bring me wine,
Bring me pine-logs hither:
Thou and I will see him dine,
When we bear him thither.’
Page and monarch, forth they went,
Forth they went together;
Through the rude wind’s wild lament
And the bitter weather.

‘Sire, the night is darker now,
And the wind blows stronger;
Fails my heart, I know not how;
I can go no longer.’
‘Mark my footsteps, good my page;
Tread thou in them boldly:
Thou shalt find the winter’s rage
Freeze thy blood less coldly.’

In his master’s steps he trod,
Where the snow lay dinted;
Heat was in the very sod
Which the Saint had printed.
Therefore, Christian men, be sure,
Wealth or rank possessing,
Ye who now will bless the poor,
Shall yourselves find blessing.

Finally, I encourage interested readers to have a look at this page dedicated to St Wenceslas.