27 December 2010

Homily on Advent & St Nicholas

At last, here is my lone Advent homily, preached on Monday, 6 December. I’ve been lacking in much enthusiasm to post it because that week was a bad one in many ways, and I received a quite discouraging response to the homily from one parent. But here it is anyway, and readers can judge for themselves whether I have, as was alleged, claimed that ‘Santa Claus’ doesn’t exist.

Second Sunday in Advent

Epistle: Romans 15:4-13
Gospel: St Luke 21:25-33

Whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning, that we through patience and comfort of the Scriptures might have hope (ἵνα διὰ τῆς ὑπομονῆς καὶ διὰ τῆς παρακλήσεως).

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

It is particularly fitting at this time of year that in today’s Epistle we are reminded of things ‘written aforetime’, for it is of course the season of Advent – a period when we frequently think back to the ancient prophecies of Christ’s coming. Likewise, it is meet and right that we ask ourselves what is the ‘patience and comfort of the Scriptures’ of which St Paul speaks, and what is the ‘hope’ we have through them.

The answer to the first question is suggested by the very next verse – where St Paul refers to the ‘God of patience and consolation’ (θεὸς τῆς ὑπομονῆς καὶ τῆς παρακλήσεως). ‘Consolation’ here is the KJV translation of ‘paraclesis’: the same word that is used in verse 4 and there translated ‘comfort’. Elsewhere, Christ refers to the Holy Spirit as ‘the Paraclete’, ‘the Comforter’ – in other words, God Himself is the comfort of the Scriptures. The ‘God of patience and comfort’ is also the ‘patience and comfort of the Scriptures’.

This is further confirmed when we note the patristic teaching that before the Incarnation, Christ became ‘incarnate’ in Scripture. The 7th-c. Byzantine theologian, St Maximus the Confessor, for example, writes:

The Logos [or Word] of God is called flesh not only inasmuch as He became incarnate, but in another sense as well. . . . [W]hen he draws near to men who cannot with the naked mind come into contact with noetic realities in their naked state, He selects things which are familiar to them, combining together various stories, symbols, parables and dark sayings; and in this way He becomes flesh. Thus at the first encounter our mind comes into contact not with the naked Logos but with the incarnate Logos, that is, with [the] various sayings and stories [of Scripture]. [1]

So the ‘patience and comfort of the Scriptures’ gave to the righteous men of the Old Testament the hope that the Word of God incarnate in those Scriptures would one day become incarnate as a Man. This was the Advent which they so eagerly anticipated, as when the Psalmist says, ‘O God of hosts, return again; and look down from heaven and behold, and visit this vineyard, and perfect that which Thy right hand hath planted’ (79:15-16 LXX). Thus, it is appropriate that during the season of Advent we recall their longing.

But – having ‘received the promise’ – we are now able to receive the Second Advent: the coming of Christ into our hearts and souls. A mediaeval French Cistercian, Guerric D’Igny, writes:

Assuredly He comes to us [in our hearts] now to ensure that His first coming will not have been in vain, and to avoid having to meet us at the last [coming] in wrath. In this middle advent He is intent on reforming our spirit of pride and patterning us anew on the humility He showed forth at His first coming . . . This personal visitation, which imparts to us the grace of the first advent and holds promise of the glory of the last, should be the object of our heart’s desire, the goal of all our striving. [2]

Thus, it is through the ‘patience and comfort’ of Christ dwelling in our hearts and of our continual prayer before Him there, that the great hope of His Third Advent is kindled within us. For Guerric’s words also serve as an excellent reminder of today’s Gospel. In this passage of Luke 21, Christ speaks of His third and final Advent, that is, His return to judge the quick and the dead. Incarnate in Scripture, Christ’s voice is humble and quiet – we must read attentively if we are to recognise Him there. Similarly, incarnate as a Babe in the manger, as the Man of Many Sorrows, Christ is again humble and quiet – we must have Faith to recognise who He is and to understand God’s revelation in His Son. But commenting on Christ’s words, ‘[T]hen shall they see the Son of man coming in a cloud with power and great glory’, Bl Theophylact writes:

All shall see Him, both those who believe and those who do not believe. . . . [A]nd both He and His Cross will shine more brightly than the sun and will be recognized by all. [3]

Thus, of those who did not attend to the two Incarnations – in Scripture and in the flesh – St Gregory the Great writes, ‘They are going to see in power and majesty Him Whom they chose not to hear in a state of humility.’ And, as if thinking himself of the reference in today’s Epistle to ‘the patience and comfort of the Scriptures’ and ‘the God of patience and comfort’, St Gregory writes, ‘To the extent that they do not now submit their hearts to His patience, they will then experience His power more exactingly.’ [4]

That this be not so with us, as Guerric of Igny says, let us welcome Him into our hearts today, and attend with eagerness to His words and example for us as we prepare to celebrate His wondrous Nativity according to the flesh. For, in Guerric’s words, ‘just as, at His Second Coming, we shall run towards Him with physical energy and joy, so do we hasten to Bethlehem with jubilant heart and spirit.’ [5]

We are helped by the Church to do this on this day in particular, which on the Gregorian calendar is dedicated to the memory of St Nicholas the Wonderworker, Bishop of Myra, later known as ‘Santa Claus’. Of St Nicholas, one modern Benedictine writer has noted:

At the outset of Advent, a season that speaks to us deeply of hope because ‘the Lord is near’, as the Liturgy announces, we celebrate the feast of St Nicholas. His feast is an important pause on our Advent journey, for his life is an example of Gospel living for Christians of all times and places. [6]

Perhaps the most famous illustration of this is the very first story ever told about St Nicholas giving gifts in secret at night. A once wealthy man had lost his fortune and was soon going to have to sell his three daughters as slaves so that they would be taken care of. Hearing of this, St Nicholas went through the dark streets of Myra, and secretly left a bag of gold inside the man’s house. He did this two more times, and on the third occasion, the man waited up and found the compassionate Bishop hurrying away so he would not be seen. But this is only one instance among many of St Nicholas’s devotion to Christ’s words and example. As St Demetrius of Rostov says in his Menology:

For the character of the saint was as a child-loving father, and his countenance shone with Divine grace like an angel of God. From his face, as from the face of Moses, emanated a bright ray, and to him who only looked at him there was great benefit. For him who was burdened with some kind of passion or affliction of soul, it was enough to fix his gaze on the saint in order to receive consolation in his sorrow; and he who conversed with him already improved in good. [7]

Of course, in our day St Nicholas has been largely transformed into a cartoonish figure with little connection to the historical Bishop of Myra, much less to the Christian faith. But as Christians we must not forget that the great Wonderworker, as great a figure as he is, only desires to point us toward Christ, whose Incarnation he proclaims. May we prepare for the Feast with sobriety and celebrate it with joy.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[1] St Maximus the Confessor, ‘Second Century on Theology’ [§60], The Philokalia: The Complete Text, Vol. 2, ed. St Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain & St Macarius of Corinth, tr. G.E.H. Palmer, et al. (London: Faber, 1990), p. 151.

[2] Guerric of Igny, ‘The Second Sermon for Advent’, The Cistercian World: Monastic Writings of the 12th Century, tr. & ed. Pauline Matarasso (London: Penguin, 1993), p. 131.

[3] Bl Theophylact, The Explanation by Bl Theophylact of the Holy Gospel According to St Luke, tr. Fr Christopher Stade (House Springs, MO: Chrysostom, 1997), p. 274.

[4] I got these comments from the notes appended to this passage in Vol. 2 of The Orthodox New Testament published by Holy Apostles Convent. I shall add the exact reference when I return to school and have my copy of this book in front of me.

[5] Guerric, p. 130.

[6] Victor-Antoine d’Avila-Latourrette, OSB, A Monastic Year: Reflections from a Monastery (Dallas: Taylor, 1996), p. 12.

[7] Service, Akathist, Life & Miracles of St Nicholas the Wonderworker (Jordanville, NY: Holy Trinity Monastery, 1996), p. 83.

24 November 2010

Eucharistic Ontology: An Addendum on Fr Nicholas Loudovikos in English

In this post from the Spring of 2009, I strongly recommended the theology of Protopresbyter Nicholas Loudovikos of the University Ecclesiastical Academy of Thessaloniki. At that time, I wrote that ‘none of Fr Loudovikos’s work has, to my knowledge, yet been published in English’, but added, ‘If I remember correctly, an English translation of another book, Η Ευχαριστιακή Οντολογία (Athens: Domos, 1992), is in the works...’ I’m afraid I must admit that around the time that I wrote the original post, at least one of Fr Nicholas’s articles—a fine critique of some of the theological positions of his former teacher, the renowned Metropolitan John (Zizioulas) of Pergamon—was already being published in English under the title, ‘Person Instead of Grace & Dictated Otherness: John Zizioulas’ Final Theological Position’, The Heythrop Journal XLVIII (2009), pp. 1-16. I should have noted this and at least written an addendum to the original post some time ago.

Well, as many of you may know already, the second statement has proved to be correct, and the said translation having been completed, the first statement is now doubly if not triply untrue. Holy Cross Press has published this book, which when I talked with him in 2007 Fr Nicholas spoke of often as one of his more important, under the title, A Eucharistic Ontology: Maximus the Confessor’s Eschatological Ontology of Being as Dialogical Reciprocity (Brookline, MA: Holy Cross, 2010). Here is Fr Andrew Louth’s blurb about the book as posted on Amazon:

In this remarkable book, Fr Nikolaos Loudovikos brings his profound knowledge of the greatest of Byzantine theologians, St Maximus the Confessor, into dialogue with the recent currents of philosophy and theology in the West. This in itself is rare enough, but his central claim—that who we really are is disclosed in our final destiny in God—is one that he shows is rooted in our participation in the Eucharist. This is an intellectually demanding work, but in it Fr Loudovikos never loses sight of the fact that what he has to say bears directly on how we understand what it is to live as a Christian in the twenty-first century.

I myself have not yet read the book in Greek, much less English (though if there remain any generous readers out there willing to help a brother out, I would be delighted to find a copy in the mail!), but I have little doubt that it will prove to be very much worthwhile. The title may sound a bit unwieldy and pretentious, though it doesn’t strike me as nearly so bad in Greek, but Fr Loudovikos is a theologian who really must become better known in the English-speaking world. Order this book now!

16 November 2010

A Homily on the 'Inheritance of the Saints in Light'

Here’s the latest homily, which I gave yesterday, 15 November. The readings were Colossians 1:3-12, and St Matthew 9:18-26. Again, I’ll try to remember to add the—in this case, few—references later.

12 Giving thanks unto the Father, which hath made us meet to be partakers of the inheritance of the saints in light:

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

The verse I quoted is the twelfth verse of the first chapter of Colossians—the last verse of today’s Epistle reading. I’d like to talk about what St Paul means when he refers to being made ‘partakers of the inheritance of the saints in light’.

First of all, the use of the word ‘partakers’ by the King James translators is reminiscent of 2 Peter 1:4, where St Peter refers to our becoming ‘partakers of the divine nature’. Partaking of the divine nature, via the uncreated light or energies of God, has marvellous effects in our lives, and we can get a glimpse of these effects in the various miracles of Christ’s earthly ministry.

Two examples can be seen in today’s Gospel, from St Matthew 9:18-26: first, the healing of the woman with an issue of blood—the miracle story within the miracle story; and second, the raising of the ruler’s daughter from the dead—the pièce de résistance.

Of the woman with an issue of blood, the Greek text literally says, ‘I shall be saved’, ‘thy faith hath saved thee’, and ‘the woman was saved’. The translators of the King James Version, however, chose the expression ‘made whole’, which is of course a beautiful and rich expression in its own right. Now, what’s so suggestive about these descriptions of a healing from a physical malady is that physical illness can be seen as a metaphor for sin—the sin and the sinful passions that afflict us are in fact illnesses of the soul. The ‘issue of blood’, in fact, is a particularly apt metaphor for sin. I am reminded of one of the famous stories of the Desert Fathers, wherein St Moses the Black used a leaky jug to illustrate the way our sins ‘run out’ behind us and we do not see them.

But in the raising of the ruler’s daughter we see perhaps the most dramatic effect of partaking of the divine nature, that is the inheritance of the Saints in light—deliverance from death. St Paul writes in I Corinthians 15:26, ‘The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death.’ And later on in that chapter, inspired by the power of Christ’s Resurrection, St Paul actually taunts death when he writes, ‘O Death, where is thy sting’ (I Cor 15:55)?

The various raisings from the dead in the Gospels—such as that in today’s reading, or that of Lazarus—are a foretaste of this final destruction, of which Shakespeare wrotes, ‘And Death once dead, there’s no more dying then’ (Sonnet 146). This destruction of death has been effectively accomplished in Christ, ‘who gleams like lightning in the unapproachable light of the Resurrection’, and this is the inheritance of the Saints, of which St Paul says we partake. Until Christ’s return, ‘there’s no more dying’ in sin if we repent and follow Him. Bl Theophylact, commenting on the last verse of today’s Gospel reading, Mat 9:26, writes, ‘And you, O reader, who are dead in sins, He will also resurrect when He puts outside the crowd and its tumult and takes you by the hand so that you might act.’ But when Christ returns, ‘there’s no more dying’ in the body, since we are transformed.

Although it’s not part of today’s Epistle reading, in verse 13 of Colossians 1 St Paul contrasts the light imagery of verse 12 with what he calls ‘the power of darkness’:

13 Who hath delivered us from the power of darkness, and hath translated us into the kingdom of his dear Son:

The two healings in today’s Gospel illustrate vividly this deliverance from the power of darkness. St Gregory of Nyssa identifies the ‘garments of skin’ with which the Lord clothes Adam and Eve in Genesis 3:21 with the physical and spiritual effects of the Fall, in other words, the power that darkness has over us. But Christ ‘hath clothed mortality with incorruption’, and St Gregory, speaking of the future condition of the Church in the final Resurrection, says, ‘If we will not be wearing that skin, how shall we preserve the conditions which come from it?’

Now, in our own day, those conditions may seem formidable, even insurmountable. It may seem impossible that we should ever overcome sickness and death, particularly in the last one hundred years when it has finally become physically possible to wipe out all human life on this earth. This state of things can be worrisome and disturbing. Indeed, one of the great but lesser-known spiritual figures of the twentieth century, the Russian theologian Fr Sophrony of Essex, was deeply troubled by this as a young man. Fr Sophrony prayed with anguish of soul for God to deliver him from despair, and in reply he was vouchsafed to be a partaker ‘of the inheritance of the saints in light’. He writes, in We Shall See Him as He Is, tr. Rosemary Edmonds (Platina, CA: St Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 2006):

And lo, on Easter Saturday, . . . the Light visited me after I had taken communion, and I felt it like the touch of Divine Eternity on my spirit. Gentle, full of peace and love, the Light remained with me for three days. It drove away the darkness of non-existence that had engulfed me. I was resurrected, and in me and with me the whole world was resurrected. The words of St John Chrysostom at the end of the Easter Liturgy struck me with overwhelming force: ‘Christ is risen and there are no dead in the grave’. Tormented hitherto by the spectre of universal death, I now felt that my soul, too, was resurrected and there were no more dead . . . If this is God, then quickly let me abandon everything and seek only union with Him [ellipsis in the original]. (p. 178)

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

21 October 2010

A Homily for St Luke the Evangelist

I recently preached again at school, this time for the Western feast of St Luke the Evangelist. Here once more is a readable text fashioned, and ever so slightly embellished, from my speaking notes. The readings were 2 Timothy 4:5-14 and St Luke 10:1-7. Unfortunately, I am a bit less pleased with this one than with the St Matthew homily. I hope to improve next time!

Today we celebrate the memory of the Holy Apostle and Evangelist Luke, who was sanctified by his labours for Christ’s sake and attained everlasting glory as the author of the third Gospel as well as the history of the Acts of the Apostles.

St Luke was not Jewish by birth, but may have converted to Judaism before later coming to Christ. He was a native of Antioch, which according to the Synaxarion, was ‘renowned [at that time] for the flourishing state of the arts and sciences . . . [There] Luke had developed his intellect with various scholarly studies. . . . He indubitably received an excellent education in general, for the quality of the Greek language of his writings is far more pure and correct than that of the other NT writers.’[1]

According to Bl Theophylact, St Luke ‘had a great knowledge of natural philosophy’, meaning the science of his day, ‘but . . . was also much practiced in Hebrew learning’. In Colossians 4:14, St Paul calls him ‘the beloved physician’, so we know that he was a doctor. He was a great writer who ‘knows and uses conventions’ of Greek and Roman history and novels, [2] but the prologue of his Gospel ‘rings with the poetry of prophets and psalms’. [3] Thus, he was a first-rate theologian and historian, but according to Church tradition St Luke was also a skilled artist who painted some of the first Christian iconography. He was a Renaissance man.

Some believe St Luke was also one of the two disciples who met the Lord on the road to Emmaus, but he is certainly identified as one of the Seventy Apostles sent out by Christ. It is for this reason that the passage from his Gospel in which Christ exhorts the Seventy forms the second lesson today.

After his conversion to Christ, St Luke travelled with St Paul to Greece to preach the Gospel, and there he worked diligently to establish the Church at Philippi. Next he went to Corinth to collect alms for the Palestinian Christians, who were undergoing persecution (II Cor 8:18-19). Upon his return to Palestine, St Paul was imprisoned for Christ, but, the holy Evangelist Luke remained by his teacher’s side. Indeed, he accompanied the great Apostle on the difficult voyage to Rome for his trial.

It was during St Paul’s imprisonment in Rome that St Luke, at urging of the Holy Spirit and St Paul himself, wrote his Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles. Thus, according to Eusebius (in Ecclesiastical History 3.4.6), who alludes to St Luke’s profession as a doctor:

So he has left us examples of the art of healing souls which he learnt from [St Paul and the other apostles] in two divinely inspired books, the Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles. The former, he declares, he wrote in accordance with the information he received from those who from the first had been eyewitnesses and ministers of the word, information which, he adds, he had followed in its entirety from the first. The latter he composed not this time from hearsay but from the evidence of his own eyes. [4]

St Luke’s Gospel includes many of the most beloved stories of the New Testament—the story of Christ’s birth, which we read every year at Nativity, the parable of Prodigal Son, a beautiful story of repentance, the parable of the Good Samaritan, and story of the Road to Emmaus, which as I have mentioned may have told from an eyewitness perspective. The Gospel of St Luke has a special emphasis on the Gentiles becoming part of God’s people. St Ambrose of Milan says of it, ‘But, truly, St Luke kept, as it were, a certain historical order, and revealed to us more miracles of the Lord’s deeds, yet so that the historiry of his Gospel embraced the virtue of all wisdom.’ [5]

At this point, it seems fitting to consider in some detail today’s Gospel reading, from St Luke 10. This lesson was not only written by St Luke, but presumably tells us something about him as well, thus prompting the decision to use it as the Gospel for his feast. Christ’s instructions to the Seventy, as interpreted by the Holy Fathers, suggest virtues which characterise St Luke himself, and I am sadly conscious as well that they should characterise all who would preach or teach in the Church.

First, in St Luke 10:4, we read, ‘Carry neither purse, nor scrip.’ St Ambrose of Milan points out that Christ ‘explained clearly elsewhere why no purse is to be carried, for Matthew wrote that the Lord said to the Disciples, “Do not possess gold, or silver” (St Matthew 10:9).’ [6] Thus, we see that the minister of the Gospel is to practice non-acquisitiveness.

As for the injunction to wear no shoes or sandals, the Fathers observe that since leather is the skin of a dead animal, apart from the literal meaning shoes can be seen as a symbol of mortal cares. According to St Gregory the Great: ‘It is not fitting that he who undertakes the task of preaching should burden himself with worldly affairs, lest, engrossed in such matters, he forget the business of eternal life.’ [7] St Luke was unhampered by the concerns of this world, and so should we be.

When Christ says ‘salute no man by the way’, Bl Theophylact tells us, ‘He adds this command to them, Salute no man along the way, so that they do not become preoccupied with greetings and civilities, and thus be hindered from preaching.’ [8] St Cyril of Alexandria adds the comment—‘let that which is well pleasing to God be preferred by you to all other things; and so practising an irresistible and unhampered diligence, hold fast to your apostolic cares.’ [9] And finally, St Ambrose notes, ‘. . . [W]hen divine commands are given, human obligations are surrendered for a while. . . . Therefore, even honorable acts are prohibited, lest the grace of ceremony deceive and hinder the ministry of the task, delay in which is sinful.’ [10] Thus, St Luke was single-minded in his devotion to God’s work and was not distracted even by natural pleasures.

Bl Theophylact explains St Luke 10:5, ‘And into whatsoever house ye enter, first say, Peace be to this house’, in the following way: ‘The Lord forbids them to salute anyone along the way, but it is different when they enter a house. . . . He shows that the words, Peace be to this house, are not only a greeting, but a blessing.’ [11] Thus we learn that the minister of the Gospel is called to bless those with whom he comes into contact.

Finally, when in St Luke 10:7, our Lord says, ‘And in the same house remain, eating and drinking such things as they give: for the labourer is worthy of his hire’, Bl Theophylact comments: ‘As wages you will have your food and keep; do not expect to be fed and then, in addition, to receive a wage, but consider your food to be your wage.’ [12] We can be sure that St Luke was content with what God provided for him.

In short, all of these virtues—non-aquisitiveness, freedom from earthly care, single-minded devotion to God’s work, blessing others, and contentment with what God provides—are enjoined by the Gospel to all of us, but especially to the clergy, and as we can see from the testimony of his life, they are certainly characteristic of St Luke himself.

To return now to that testimony, St Paul was eventually released for a time, but at last under the emperor Nero he was imprisoned again. At last, facing certain death, the great Apostle writes to St Timothy in today’s Epistle: ‘Do thy diligence to come shortly unto me: for Demas hath forsaken me, having loved this present world, and is departed unto Thessalonica; Crescens to Galatia, Titus unto Dalmatia. Only Luke is with me’ (2 Tim 4:9-11). Concerning this striking testimony, the great Chrysostom observes, ‘Luke adhered to Paul inseparably. . . . He was a lover of labors and learning, and a man of endurance and perseverance. Of him Paul writes that his “praise is in the Gospel throughout all of the churches” (2 Cor 8:18).’ [13]

After St Paul’s martyrdom by beheading at Rome, St Luke went on to spread the Gospel in Italy, Dalmatia, Gaul, Egypt, and especially Greece, where he spent the bulk of his remaining years planting churches. At last, the ‘beloved physician’ himself was martyred in Greece at the age of 84 by being crucified on an olive tree. He was buried in Thebes, the setting of some of Greece’s greatest tragic plays, but his precious remains were later transferred to Constantinople with great honour.

Some of St Luke’s most interesting ‘posthumous fame’, however, is in the artistic and literary use of the angelic creature with which his Gospel has been traditionally identified. The four creatures of Ezekiel 1:4-14 and Revelation 4:6-8—one like a man, one like a lion, one like an ox, and one like an eagle—have long been identified with and used as symbols of the four Evangelists. St Luke’s emblem is the one with ‘the face of an ox’—which St Irenaeus of Lyons tells us is because his Gospel ‘is of priestly character, [since it] begins with the priest Zechariah sacrificing incense to God (St Luke 1:9), for the fatted calf was already prepared, to be sacrificed for the recovery of the younger son (St Luke 15:23, 30)’ in the Prodigal Son parable. [14]

It is in this from that Dante in the Purgatorio (29.91-3) describes seeing St Luke’s Gospel: ‘with green foliage crowned’ and following the 24 elders ‘As star succeeds to star within the round / Of heaven’. [15] Furthermore, the angelic ox is followed shortly thereafter by the Book of Acts in the form of an aged man who ‘seemed a member of the craft possessed / By the great Hippocrates [the famous physician of antiquity], whom Nature made / To help those creatures whom she loves the best’ (Purg. 29.136). [16] Thus, we see that St Luke, renowned for his literary craftsmanship, found a special place in one of the greatest works of literature in Christian history.

I shall conclude with a Byzantine hymn, known as a ‘kontakion’, written in honour of St Luke:

Let us praise the divine Luke, the herald of true piety, the orator of ineffable mysteries, the star of the Church; for the Word, Who alone knoweth the secrets of man’s heart, hath chosen him with the wise Paul to be a teacher of the nations. [17]

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[1] The Lives of the Holy Apostles, tr. Isaac E. Lambertsen & Holy Apostles Convent (Buena Vista, CO: HAC, 2001), p. 259.

[2] Wayne Meeks, The Origins of Christian Morality: The First Two Centuries (New Haven, CT: Yale U, 1993), p. 203.

[3] John Drury, ‘Luke’, The Literary Guide to the Bible, ed. Robert Alter & Frank Kermode (Cambridge, MA: Harvard U, 1987), p. 419.

[4] Eusebius, The History of the Church from Christ to Constantine, tr. G.A. Williamson (NY: Barnes & Noble, 1995), pp. 109-10.

[5] St Ambrose of Milan, Exposition of the Holy Gospel According to Saint Luke with Fragments on the Prophecy of Isaias, tr. Theodosia Tomkinson (Etna, CA: Center for Traditionalist Orthodox Studies, 1998), p. 2.

[6] St Ambrose, p. 255.

[7] The Orthodox New Testament, Vol. 1: The Holy Gospels, tr. & ed. Holy Apostles Convent (Buena Vista, CO: HAC, 1999), p. 329, n. 205.

[8] Bl Theophylact, The Explanation by Bl Theophylact of the Holy Gospel According to St Luke, tr. Fr Christopher Stade (House Springs, MO: Chrysostom, 1997), p. 109.

[9] ONT 1, p. 330, n. 206.

[10] St Ambrose, p. 259.

[11] Bl Theophylact, p. 110.

[12] Bl Theophylact, p. 110.

[13] The Orthodox New Testament, Vol. 2: Acts, Epistles, & Revelation, tr. & ed. Holy Apostles Convent (Buena Vista, CO: HAC, 1999), p. 374, n. 23.

[14] Against Heresies 3.11.8; Robert M. Grant, Irenaeus of Lyons (London: Routledge, 1997), p. 132.

[15] Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy 2: Purgatory, tr. Dorothy L. Sayers (London: Penguin, 1955), p. 300.

[16] Dante, p. 302.

[17] Lives, p. 267.

20 September 2010

A Homily for the Apostle Matthew the Evangelist

Over the summer, the principal at the classical school where I am teaching asked if I would be willing to deliver a homily in chapel once every three or four weeks. With the blessing of my spiritual father, I agreed, and a couple of weeks ago I preached for the first time in my life. As it was the day before the Feast of the Apostle Matthew on the Western calendar, the lectionary selection (from the Book of Common Prayer) on which I spoke was Matthew 9:9-13. Here are my notes for the homily, worked up into a readable text:

Feast of St Matthew homily

2 Cor. 4:1-6
Matt. 9:9-13

In verse 9 of today’s Gospel we read, ‘he said to him, “Follow me.” And he rose and followed him.’ Now, when this takes place, St Matthew is ‘at the tax office’, i.e. he’s at work, yet he rises immediately. Why? What would make a man abandon his job to follow someone he doesn’t know?

Well, when I have questions like this while reading the Scriptures, I turn to the Fathers of the Church. They spent years studying the Scriptures and they come up with some pretty inspired answers to such things.

First, I'd look to like at a commentary by Blessed Theophylact, a learned Byzantine who was archbishop of the Bulgarians in the eleventh and twelfth centuries and produced a commentary summarising the exegetical wisdom of the Fathers. Bl Theophylact writes, ‘That Matthew is converted by word alone is the work of God.’ In other words, it was God’s grace that inspired him to leave his job and follow Christ. But there’s more: ‘The words, “I am not come to call the righteous” He spoke ironically. That is, “I have not come to call you who consider yourselves to be righteous, but I have come to call sinners. I do this, not so that they remain sinners, but in order for them to repent.”’ [1] In other words, St Matthew was a humble man, he was not one of those who considered themselves to be righteous, and his humility has prepared him for Christ’s call.

Next, I’d like to consider some comments by the Venerable Bede, whom some of you may have learned about in history. He lived in the eighth century, and was a learned Englishman, a monk of Northumbria, and a renowned historian. He is famous for his history of the English Church, but he also wrote many homilies on the Gospels. St Bede writes:

We should not marvel that a publican, upon first [hearing] the Lord’s voice ordering him, left the earthly gains that he cared about. Disregarding his property, he attached himself to the band of followers of one whom he perceived to have no riches. For the Lord himself, who outwardly called him by a word, taught him inwardly with an invisible impulse so that he followed [him]. He poured into his mind the light of spiritual grace, by which he could understand that the one who was calling him from temporal things on earth was capable of giving him incorruptible treasures in heaven. [2]

In connection with St Matthew’s call, St Bede even quotes that peculiar saying of St Paul in Ephesians (5:14): ‘Arise, you who are asleep, and rise from among the dead, and Christ will enlighten you.’ [3] This reference to Christ ‘enlightening’ us is reminiscent of verse four of today’s Epistle: ‘[T]he god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the likeness of God.’ And verse six tells us that God ‘has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.’

This reference to ‘the face of Christ’ is important. We may be inclined to read it in a metaphorical sense, as St Paul simply using a figure of speech. But in the Gospel reading which this Epistle accompanies, St Matthew really did see Christ’s face physically, with his own two eyes.

The grace that enlightens, however, that calls people to abandon the things of this world and follow Christ, can be seen at work in very similar ways throughout sacred history:

In Hebrews we read of the Patriarch Abraham, ‘By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place which he was to receive as an inheritance; and he went out, not knowing where he was to go’ (Heb. 11:8).

In the Life of St Anthony the Great, written by St Athanasius the Great (for whom our ‘Athanasius House’ is named), we read of St Anthony that when he was in Church and heard the Gospel passage, ‘If you wish to be perfect, go and sell everything you possess and give it to the poor and come, follow me and you will have treasure in heaven’ (Matt 19:21-2), ‘He immediately went home and sold the possessions he owned.’ [4] The rich young man did not follow, but over 200 years later, St Anthony did.

St Augustine of Hippo (for whom ‘Augustine House’ is named) gives us two examples in his Confessions—one of which he learns from his friend Ponticianus, and one from his own personal experience. First, in a conversation with St Augustine, Ponticianus quotes another friend who abandoned a political career after reading St Anthony’s Life: ‘Now have I broken loose from those our hopes, and am resolved to serve God; and this, from this hour, in this place, I begin upon. If thou likest not to imitate me, oppose not.’ [5]

Later on, St Augustine writes of his own conversion own conversion: ‘For I had heard of Antony, that coming in during the reading of the Gospel, he received the admonitions, as if what was being read was spoken to him: . . . and by such oracle he was forthwith converted unto Thee.’ Then, when St Augustine has his own encounter with the Scriptures, he writes, ‘No further would I read; nor needed I: for instantly at the end of this sentence, by a light as it were of serenity infused into my heart, all the darkness of doubt vanished away [italics mine].’ [6]

Notice the reference to ‘a light’ being ‘infused’ into the Saint’s heart. Again, this may sound like only a metaphor, but St Augustine reminds us of the illumination mentioned by St Paul and the Venerable Bede as a component of conversion. It is the grace of illumination. This grace inspires and enables what the Fathers call xeniteia, i.e. ‘being a stranger’, or ‘exile’. St John Climacus, who lived at Mt Sinai in the seventh century, wrote about this ‘exile’:

Exile means that we leave forever everything in our own country that prevents us from reaching the goal of piety. Exile means modest manners, wisdom which remains unknown, prudence not recognized as such by most, a hidden life, an invisible intention, unseen meditation, desire for humiliation, longing for hardship, constant determination to love God, abundance of love, renunciation of vainglory, depth of silence. [7]

This brings us back to St Matthew, for he too lived out this exile. The Scriptures don’t tell us how he ended his life, but the story passed down in the early Church relates that when the Apostles set out to preach the Gospel, St Matthew went eventually to Ethiopia to preach to the African people. There the local ruler sent soldiers to arrest him, but they were blinded by a light shining from his face, just like the Prophet Moses after he descended from Mt Sinai. St Matthew was finally tortured and killed, but we can see from the end of his life that he had carried with him for all those years the light that shone in his heart that day when he first followed Christ. It had continued to shine there, and had become so bright that in the end Christ’s light shone from his face as well. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[1] Bl Theophylact, The Explanation by Bl Theophylact of the Holy Gospel According to St Matthew, tr. Fr Christopher Stade (House Springs, MO: Chrysostom, 1994), pp. 77, 78.

[2] St Bede the Venerable, Homilies on the Gospels, Book 1: Advent to Lent, tr. Lawrence T. Martin & David Hurst, OSB (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian, 1991), pp. 207-8.

[3] St Bede, p. 208.

[4] Carolinne White, tr. & ed., Early Christian Lives (London: Penguin, 1998), p. 9.

[5] St Augustine, Confessions, tr. Henry Chadwick (Oxford: Oxford U, 1992), p. 152.

[6] St Augustine, pp. 161-2.

[7] St John Climacus, The Ladder of Divine Ascent, rev. ed., tr. Archim. Lazarus (Moore), rev. Holy Transfiguration Monastery (Boston: HTM, 1991), p. 14.

05 September 2010

Kidnapped & Classical Education

Well, dear readers, I’m afraid I must apologise for the rather long hiatus since my last post. I have of course been busy with beginning full-time teaching, [1] but I must admit I was also a bit discouraged by some comments I received last time, as a result of which I have now set Logismoi comments to be moderated. [2] I truly hope that particular reader has moved on, as he is certainly no longer welcome to comment here. I also hope that I may be inclined and have sufficient time to begin posting at least semi-regularly again, though likely not every day. To mark my return, I would like to post a little piece I have written for my school newsletter, which deals with the first book I have assigned my sixth-grade literature class: Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped.

The 6th-grade literature class is beginning a wonderful new year with Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic adventure story, Kidnapped. In some ways, an exciting tale like Kidnapped may seem to fit ill into a classical Christian reading list, and Stevenson himself may contribute to this perception in his dedication of the first edition when he writes:

‘This is no furniture for the scholar’s library, but a book for the winter evening schoolroom when the tasks are over and the hour for bed draws near; and honest Alan, who was a grim old fire-eater in his day, has in this new avatar no more desperate purpose than to steal some young gentleman’s attention from his Ovid, carry him awhile into the Highlands and the last century [the 18th], and pack him to bed with some engaging images to mingle with his dreams.’ [3]
At first glance, this statement of purpose confirms our suspicions that Kidnapped is exactly opposite to the sort of book we want in a classical Christian school. Stealing attention from Ovid! We can’t have that, can we?

Or can we? We might recall that C.S. Lewis has called Ovid ‘that cheery old reprobate’ (in The Four Loves), and sure enough, in his preface to the Modern Library edition, Barry Menikoff has noted the irony of Stevenson’s testimony. He observes that Ovid—a prolific writer of erotic poetry, whose Ars amatoria is a satirical treatise on the art of seduction—‘represents a racy and even titillating writing, . . . and the thought of drawing the boy’s attention away from libidinous delights and directing it toward a realistic exploration of Scottish history can hardly be viewed as a treat, and certainly not as a favor.’ [4] Menikoff concludes:

‘In brief, Stevenson is doing precisely the opposite of what he claims: rather than turning his reader away from study and enticing him into the world of pleasure, he is closing the classical pages of pleasure and opening a book with a potentially powerful instructional value.’ [5]
We will discover the specific virtues of Kidnapped over the next few weeks, but this should serve as a reminder that an ancient publication date may usually, but doesn’t always ensure a work of greater morality or educational potential!

[1] I am teaching 3rd- and 4th-grade Latin, and 6th-grade Bible, history, grammar, and literature at a Christian classical school.

[2] I must also apologise to those whose comments have been awaiting moderation for some time. I didn't realise I had to log into Blogger to see the comments, and I hadn't bothered logging in since I changed the setting!

[3] Robert Louis Stevenson, Kidnapped, ed. Barry Menikoff (NY: Modern Library, 2001), pp. 5-6.

[4] Barry Menikoff, ‘Editor’s Preface’, Stevenson, p. xxxiii.

[5] Ibid., p. xxxiii.

08 August 2010

The Perfect Imitatio: C.S. Lewis, Hagiography, & Literature

A couple of months ago, I mentioned a promising book by Thomas J. Heffernan entitled, Sacred Biography: Saints & Their Biographers in the Middle Ages. Unfortunately, I still have not read it through, but I continue to find good things throughout the first chapter, ‘From Logos to Canon: The Making of a Saint’s Life’. Here is one of Heffernan’s many insightful comments on the hagiographic tradition:

The author must also construe a life which will illustrate the exemplary behavior of the subject—what we should call the ethical dimension—to a community which has definite expectations concerning the outcome of this biographical record. . . . Thus, the new sacred model reclaims past models and in turn is authenticated by them as these past lives are reintroduced in the present. By virtue of this constitutive or ethical imperative, the individual sacred biography continually renews for the faithful a tradition of great antiquity. . . . In this pattern of figural repetitions the singular character of sacred biography—what makes it different from, say, the way Dante uses Vergil—lies in the medieval understanding that the saint’s life is the perfect imitatio Christi. Hence these repetitive mimetic patterns have as one of their primary objects the reconstitution of the divine in new historical dress. [1]

The Saint’s life as ‘the perfect imitatio Christi’, of course, reminded me of St Justin of Chelje’s ‘Introduction to the Lives of the Saints’: ‘Therefore, the Lives of the Saints are nothing else but the life of the Lord Christ, repeated in every saint to a greater or lesser degree in this or that form.’ [2] But the literary dimension of Heffernan’s comments in this passage reminded me of an underappreciated [3] essay of C.S. Lewis entitled, ‘Christianity & Literature’. Observing that in the New Testament—including St Paul’s teaching in I Thess. 1:6 that Christians are ‘to imitate St Paul and the Lord’ and in I Cor. 11:1 that they are ‘to imitate St Paul as he in turn imitates Christ’—‘the art of life itself is an art of imitation’, Lewis asks, ‘can we, believing this, believe that literature, which must derive from real life, is to aim at being “creative,” “original,” and “spontaneous”’? [4] He then goes on, courageously, to observe:

Applying this principle to literature, in its greatest generality, we should get as the basis of all critical theory the maxim that an author should never conceive himself as bringing into existence beauty or wisdom which did not exist before, but simply and solely as trying to embody in terms of his own art some reflection of eternal Beauty and Wisdom. Our criticism would therefore from the beginning group itself with some existing theories of poetry against others. It would have affinities with the primitive or Homeric theory in which the poet is the mere pensioner of the Muse. It would have affinities with the Platonic doctrine of a transcendent Form partly imitable on earth; and remoter affinities with the Aristotelian doctrine of μίμησις and the Augustan doctrine about the imitation of Nature and the Ancients. It would be opposed to the theory of genius as, perhaps, generally understood; and above all it would be opposed to the idea that literature is self-expression. [5]

[1] Thomas J. Heffernan, Sacred Biography: Saints & Their Biographers in the Middle Ages (NY: Oxford U, 1992), p. 20.

[2] St Justin (Popovich), ‘Introduction to the Lives of the Saints’, tr. M.J., Orthodox Faith & Life in Christ, tr. & ed. Fr Asterios Gerostergios, et al. (Belmont, MA: Institute for Byzantine & Modern Greek Studies, 1994), p. 36.

[3] At least by Leland Ryken: he calls it ‘an inferior essay’ with no explanation (Triumphs of the Imagination: Literature in Christian Perspective [Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1979], p. 225).

[3] C.S. Lewis, ‘Christianity & Literature’, The Collected Works of C.S. Lewis (NY: Inspirational, 1996), p. 176.

[4] Ibid., p. 177.

06 August 2010

Sympathy for Orthodoxies

I mentioned in this post that I managed to score a few free copies of some of ISI’s ‘A Student’s Guide’ series at the ACCS conference a while back. One that I grabbed—just because it was there—was Wilfred M. McClay’s US History, but at the time I had little interest in the subject and was not in a hurry to read it. I have since been asked to teach US history, among other things, thus bringing my employment up to full time (and unfortunately, much more severely limiting available time for blogging). Thus, I opened McClay’s book in a state of panic, and found this gem:

Avoid using the term ‘political correctness’ to describe an argument or positions that seems to you contrived or ideologically motivated. First, because it is a kind of argumentum ad hominem, which fails to engage the issue at hand on rational terms, preferring instead to cast doubt on the motives of the one who offers it. This kind of argument can rebound on those who use it, and eventually render discussion impossible. Second, because the use of such a term relies upon the lamentable assumption that all orthodoxies are ipso facto coercive and illegitimate. And that is false. It is a particularly strange development when campus conservatives, who are generally thought to look with sympathy upon orthodoxy, end up branding their opponents’ views as attempts to impose an orthodoxy. This is a lazy and uncivil way of arguing, even when it is accurate (as, alas, it usually is). The emphasis should not be on the inherent wrongness of any orthodoxy per se, but the wrong of the particular ideas that a particular orthodoxy is advocating. These days, defending the possibility of a reasoned orthodoxy may be the most radical position of all. [1]

[1] Wilfred M. McClay, A Student's Guide to US History (Wilmington, DE: ISI, 2009), p. 87.

28 July 2010

Auctoritas in Hugh's Didascalicon

Per Joseph Patterson’s recommendation, I bought (for less than $6!) and am now reading Ivan Illich’s fascinating In the Vineyard of the Text: A Commentary to Hugh’s Didascalicon. Though I am already nearly finished, I couldn’t resist the urge to go back to the very first chapter for a brief post. There, Illich discusses the first sentence of the Didascalicon of Hugh of St Victor: Omnium expetendorum prima est sapientia, in qua perfecti boni forma consisti. In Jerome Taylor’s translation, which Illich calls ‘a masterpiece’, this is rendered, ‘Of all things to be sought, the first is that Wisdom in which the Form of the Perfect Good stands fixed.’ [1]

First, Illich points out, ‘By connecting wisdom with “the form of the perfect good”, [Hugh] signifies that he accepts the meaning of Varro’s definition [of the good], but as it was received and changed and handed on by Augustine.’ [2] But of course, the statement itself comes most immediately from Boethius, ‘who subtly but significantly modified Augustine’. [3] So in De consolatione philosophiæ III.10 we read, Omnium igitur expetendorum summa atque causa bonum est, [4] which Illich quotes as, ‘Of all things to be sought the first and the reason why all others [sic] things are pursued is the Good . . .’ [5]

But the most interesting bit to me was at the end of this section on the opening sentence, where Illich introduces the mediæval idea of auctoritas. He writes:

For the contemporary reader the incipit was immediately recognized as an auctoritas, a sentence worthy of repetition. When Cerimon the Lord of Ephesus in Shakespeare’s Pericles ‘by turning o’er authorities’ has ‘built such strong renown as time shall ne’er decay’ (Pericles, act 3, sc. 2, lines 33, 48), he does not say that he had subverted established power, nor that he had consulted weighty authors, but that reflecting on a number of authoritative sentences he had established his reputation of mighty wisdom. Authorities, in this now obsolete sense, are sentences which created precedents and defined reality. When Hugh picks this auctoritas as his keynote, he does not appeal to Boethius for his prestige. The sentence states an obvious truth precisely because it had been disembedded from the discourse of this or that particular author; it had become a free-floating statement. As such a verbal institution, the auctoritas quoted by Hugh became an exemplary testimony to untouchable tradition. [6]

It may not be that they disagree entirely, but I find Illich’s focus on the notion of auctoritas a significant difference from C.S. Lewis’s references to the notion of the auctour in The Discarded Image. Lewis speaks of ‘the overwhelmingly bookish or clerkly character of medieval culture’, calling the Middle Ages ‘the age of authorities’, and noting, ‘Every writer, if he possibly can, bases himself on an earlier writer, follows an auctour: preferably a Latin one.’ [7] Lewis in this passage certainly seems to be speaking of ‘weighty authors’ and not ‘authoritative sentences’, and certainly, as an illustration of the ‘bookish or clerkly character of medieval culture’, it is far from Illich indeed. A significant part of the latter’s thesis is that what he calls ‘the new clerical culture’ was a rather late development (mid-1100’s) and it seems that the shift of focus from words to their authors could be part of that development. [8] Perhaps when Lewis speaks of ‘medieval culture’ he really means, or is speaking more truly of, late mediæval culture.

But at any rate, I find the idea of ‘authoritative sentences’ serving as ‘exemplary testimony to untouchable tradition’ a fascinating one which seems to demonstrate the continuity of the earlier part of the Western Middle Ages with the culture of the Desert Fathers (as described, for instance, in Douglas Burton-Christie’s The Word in the Desert).

[1] Jerome Taylor, tr., The Didascalicon of Hugh of St Victor: A Medieval Guide to the Arts (NY: Columbia, 1991), p. 46.

[2] Ivan Illich, In the Vineyard of the Text: A Commentary to Hugh’s Didascalicon (Chicago: U of Chicago, 1996), p. 9.

[3] Illich, p. 12.

[4] Boethius, Tractates, The Consolation of Philosophy, tr. H.F. Stewart, E.K. Rand, & S.J. Tester (Cambridge, MA: Harvard U, 2003), p. 282.

[5] Illich, p. 12.

[6] Ibid., p. 13.

[7] C.S. Lewis, The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval & Renaissance Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge U, 2002), p. 5.

[8] Illich, p. 84.

25 July 2010

Newman on the Saints

Logismoi has long been a particularly hagiocentric blog, and the figure of the Saint in the Tradition of the Church, in scholarship, and in literature at the centre of my concerns. Thus, I offer a brief selection on the Saints from the great John Henry Newman as a short little Sunday post:

The Saints are the glad and complete specimens of the new creation which our Lord brought into the moral world, and as ‘the heavens declare the glory of God’ as Creator, [1] so are the Saints the proper and true evidence of the God of Christianity, and tell out into all lands the power and grace of Him who made them. [2] What the existence of the Church itself is to the learned and philosophical, such are the Saints to the multitude. They are the popular evidence of Christianity, and the most complete and logical evidence while the most popular. It requires time and learning, the powers of attention and logical consecutiveness, and comprehensiveness, to survey the Church of all ages and places as one, and to recognize it, as to the intellect, it is, and must be distinctly recognized, as the work of God alone; to most of us it is the separate portions and in one sense incomplete of this great phenomenon which turn our minds to Catholicism; but in the life of a Saint, we have a microcosm, or whole work of God, a perfect work from beginning to end, yet one which may be bound between two boards, and mastered by the most unlearned. The exhibition of a person, his thoughts, his words, his acts, his trials, his fortunes, his beginnings, his growth, his end, have a charm to every one, and when he is a Saint they have a Divine influence and persuasion, a power of exercising and eliciting the latent elements of Divine grace in individual readers, as no other reading can claim. [3]

I’m not entirely certain of the implications of Newman’s observation, ‘What the existence of the Church itself is to the learned and philosophical, such are the Saints to the multitude’, though he seems to be trying to explain it in the next couple of sentences. But I thought this a good description of the power of the Saints’ Lives. It is not for nothing that Newman was considered ‘the most eminent religious thinker in the British Isles’ of his time. [4]

[1] Psalm 18:1 (LXX).

[2] It is interesting to note that verse 5 of Psalm 18 (LXX), to which Newman alludes in the last part of this sentence, is used as a Prokeimenon text on the feasts of certain Saints in the Orthodox Church.

[3] Vincent Ferrer Blehl, ed., The Essential Newman (NY: New American Library, 1963), pp. 334-5.

[4] Jaroslav Pelikan, Christianity & Classical Culture: The Metamorphosis of Natural Theology in the Christian Encounter with Hellenism (Gifford Lectures at Aberdeen, 1992-1993) (New Haven, CT: Yale, 1993), p. 5.

23 July 2010

'The Largest & Most Lightsome Jewel'—St Benedict of Nursia

Today, 11 July on the Church’s calendar, we celebrate the memory of St Benedict of Nursia (480-547), Father of Western Monasticism. (See the opening paragraph of this post for an explanation of the date.) In the words of Frederick Artz, ‘Benedict is by no means the founder of monasticism, but he is its great legislator and is easily the most important figure in the monasticism of the West.’ [1] Alban Butler writes:

Being chosen by God, like another Moses, to conduct faithful souls into the true promised land, the kingdom of heaven, he was enriched with eminent supernatural gifts, even those of miracles and prophecy. He seemed like another Eliseus, endued by God with an extraordinary power, commanding all nature, and, like the ancient prophets, foreseeing future events. [2]

Finally, according to Basil Hume, OSB, ‘St Benedict, like all great saints of every age and culture, can still speak to us today, for his life and teaching are an illustration and an expression of the principles and doctrines of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.’ [3]

I have posted extensively on St Benedict before (see the ‘St Benedict’ label at the bottom of this post or on the sidebar), including a two-part post based on St Gregory the Great’s famous Vita last year (here and here). Consequently, some of my best material has already been used. But I will go ahead and post one or two things here owing to the importance of this feastday for me and my parish. First, here is the account of St Benedict’s life in the Prologue:

Born in Nursia in Italy in 480, of rich and eminent parents, he did not persevere long with his schooling, for he realised himself that he could, through book-learning, lose ‘the great understanding of my soul’. And he left school ‘an untaught sage and an understanding ignoramus’. He fled to a monastery where a monk, Romanus, gave him the habit, after which he withdrew to a craggy mountain, where he lived for more than three years in a cave in great struggles with his soul. Romanus brought him bread and dropped it over the wall of the crag on a rope to the mouth of the cave. When he became known in the neighbourhood, he, to flee the praise of men, moved away from that cave. He was very brutal with himself. Once, when an impure rage of fleshly lust fell on him, he stripped bare and rolled among nettles and thorns until he had driven out of himself every thought of a woman. God endowed him with many spiritual gifts: insight, healing and the driving out of evil spirits, the raising of the dead and the ability to appear to others from a distance in a dream or vision. He once discerned that he had been given a glass of poisoned wine. He made the sign of the Cross over the glass and it broke into pieces. He founded twelve monasteries, each having twelve monks at first. He later compiled the specifically ‘Benedictine’ rule, which is today followed in the Roman Church. On the sixth day before his death he commanded that his grave, already prepared as the saint had foreseen that his end was near, should be opened. He gathered all the monks together, gave them counsel and gave his soul to the Lord whom he had faithfully served in poverty and purity. His sister, Scholastica, lived in a women’s monastery, where, guided by her brother and herself practising great asceticism, she came to great spiritual perfection. When St Benedict set his soul free, two monks, one on the road and one at prayer in a distant cell, had at the same moment the same vision: a path from earth to heaven, curtained with precious cloth and illuminated at the sides by ranks of people. At the top of that path stood a man of indescribable beauty and light, who told them that the
path was prepared for Benedict, the beloved of God. After that vision, the two brethren discovered that their beloved abbot had gone from this world. He died peacefully in about 550 and went to the eternal Kingdom of Christ the King. [4]

Of course, much of St Benedict’s enduring importance is tied up with the Rule he bequeathed to the Church. In the words of St Gregory the Great, Dialogues II.36, ‘However I would not wish it to be unknown to you that the man of God who became famous in the world by so many miracles was also very well-known for his words of doctrine. For he wrote a rule for monks, remarkable for its discretion [5] and elegant in its language.’ [6] Charles Williams has aptly summarised the wisdom of St Benedict’s Rule in his unique ecclesiastical history, The Descent of the Dove:

He modified the extreme austerities [of Eastern monasticism]; he reconciled even the monk to a life in time; he discouraged fantasies; he taught peace. He pledged his brethren to remain in the abbey of their situations, and he pledged the half-saveage emulation of individual eccentricity to the decent obedience of holy order. He too taught the rule of co-inherence after a particular manner; the brethren were to know none but Christ in each other and in all. The Rule spread; it met and overcame the harsher Rule of Columban, and the most dedicated of lives rooted themselves in localities and quiet. It was the frontier of Christendom which held most stable through all the terrible centuries. [7]

Similarly, Christopher Dawson writes, ‘Thus, in an age of insecurity and disorder and barbarism, the Benedictine Rule embodied an ideal of spiritual order and disciplined moral activity which made the monastery an oasis of peace in the world of war.’ [8] It is for this reason that philosopher Alisdair MacIntyre has famously observed of our own day, ‘We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another—doubtless very different—St Benedict’ (see my thoughts on this comment in this post). [9]

Finally, it is interesting to note that St Benedict has had the good fortune to appear in one of the greatest works of imaginative literature of all time—Dante’s Divine Comedy. Dante describes him as ‘the largest and most lightsome jewel’ of the sphere of Saturn, and the Saint begins addressing the Pilgrim as follows:

. . . ‘If you could see the flame
of charity we burn in, as I do,
you’d have expressed your thoughts and felt no shame.

I would not have your pilgrimage be slow:
that waiting may not hold you from the goal,
I’ll reply to the thought you’ve guarded so.

That mountain with Cassino on its spur
was thronged with worshipers in pagan time,
people disposed to evil and deceived

By cheating gods. I am he, first to climb
that peak to bring His name who brought the earth
the truth that raises us to the sublime;

With radiant grace so far above my worth,
I drew each of the villages around
from the impious cult that had seduced

The whole world. All these other flames were bound
in contemplation, kindled by the heat
engendering the flowers and holy fruit:

Romualdus and Macarius are here,
and my good brothers who, within the close,
held their hearts steadfast where they held their feet.’ [10]

[1] Frederick B. Artz, The Mind of the Middle Ages: An Historical Survey, AD 200-1500, 3rd rev. ed. (Chicago: U of Chicago, 1980), p. 185.

[2] Qtd. in Henry Wadsworth Longellow, tr., The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri: Paradiso (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, n.d.), p. 302, n. 40.

[3] Cardinal Basil Hume, OSB, In Praise of Benedict: 480-1980 AD (Petersham, MA: St Bede’s, 1981), p. 78. Hume adds, ‘There are, as we know, ancient spiritual values of fundamental importance which are always new and always contemporary in any age.’

[4] St Nicholas (Velimirović), The Prologue from Ochrid, Vol. 1, tr. Mother Maria (Birmingham: Lazarica, 1985), pp. 283-4.

[5] It is interesting to note that concerning the word discretio, rendered here by its English derivative, the infallible Adalbert de Vogüé has suggested that ‘discernment’ might be a better translation. Based on St Gregory’s reference to RB 58 in his Commentary on Kings, de Vogüé believes that this famous recommendation of the Rule in Dialogues II ‘is less concerned with the moderation of the Rule—as it is usually understood—than with its rigor’ (St Gregory the Great, The Life of St Benedict, tr. Hilary Costello & Eoin de Bhaldraithe, commentary by Adalbert de Vogüé (Petersham, MA: St Bede’s, 1993), p. 177).

[6] St Gregory, p. 174.

[7] Charles Williams, The Descent of the Dove: A Short History of the Holy Spirit in the Church (Vancouver: Regent College, 2002), p. 91.

[8] Christopher Dawson, Religion & the Rise of Western Culture (Gifford Lectures Delivered in the University of Edinburgh, 1948-1949) (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1958), p. 48.

[9] Alisdair MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, 2nd ed. (Notre Dame, IN: U of Notre Dame, 1984), p. 263.

[10] Dante Alighieri, Paradise, tr. & ed. Anthony Esolen, illust. Gustave Doré (NY: Modern Library, 2007), p. 237.

17 July 2010

Review of a St Elisabeth Biography

Today, 5 July on the Church’s calendar, we celebrate the memory of the New Martyr Elisabeth of Russia. In honour of St Elisabeth, patron of my daughter as well as my mother (and likely, many, many other convert women as well!), I thought I would post a little review—written years ago in a reader’s journal I used to keep—of a secular biography of the New Martyr: Hugo Mager’s Elizabeth: Grand Duchess of Russia (NY: Carroll & Graf, 1999). I have made one or two minor editorial changes, and added page references where I could still find them.

The first problem I have is the author’s utter ignorance of Orthodoxy. After repeated remarks about the ‘rottenness’ of the relics of St Seraphim of ‘Sarovo’ [sic], Mager concludes that this ‘should have barred him from sainthood’; [1] but a brief look into the glorification of saints in the Orthodox Church would have shown that incorrupt remains are not required by any means. He claims that all startsy (which he translates imprecisely as ‘holy men’) are ‘semiliterate, eternal wanderer[s]’; some of them ‘fastened chains to their legs as a sign of asceticism’, or ‘claimed to possess powers of healing’. [2] He gives a dramatic description of some schema-monks without apparently realising what they are. He consistently uses imprecise, western language to describe Orthodox things: ‘High Mass’, ‘Te Deum’, ‘Monsignor’. He repeatedly refers to the Roman Catholic ‘saint’ Elisabeth of Hungary, an ancestor of the New Martyr, as ‘St Elizabeth’ without noting that she was not Orthodox (a legitimate ‘bar to sainthood’ in the Orthodox Church). [3] He mentions ‘the monastery at Mount Athos’, apparently unaware that there are twenty. [4]

More importantly, the ignorance of Orthodoxy in particular seems to be aligned to a deeper ignorance of and lack of interest in what it means to be a believer, period. The spiritual life seems to him to consist mostly of consolations, feelings and sentiments, except where it’s expressed in charitable works—which, to his credit, he covers admirably. But the account of St Elisabeth’s life in the Ss Martha and Mary Convent is given short schrift in favour of a sensationalistic and historically questionable account of the fall of the autocracy. Even clothes, jewelry, and balls are given more attention than spiritual things.

But even from a secular perspective the book leaves something to be desired. First of all, there are quite a few typographical and grammatical mistakes (he spells podvignodvig’!). Then, there’s the historiography. Although it doesn’t give any credentials, the jacket refers to the author as ‘historian Hugo Mager’, and indeed, the appendix (‘Documentary Evidence of the Last Journey & Death of Grand Duchess Elizabeth & the Removal of Her Remains to Beijing’) shows him to be pretty good at doing historical scholarship when he wants to be. [5] But the rest of the book makes matter of fact assertions about the nature and motivations of various people’s thoughts, feelings, and actions about which—having read other accounts—I sometimes felt rather dubious. At the very least, how can Mager claim to know some of the things he does? He does not provide extensive reasoning or documentation behind much of it, probably because he intended the book as a popular biography and not a work of scholarly historiography. But some of the more extraordinary claims (like the allegation of Grand Duke Sergei Nikolaievich’s homosexuality, or perhaps more importantly, the ‘cool’ sexual relations which provide the basis for the allegation) could have done with a good deal more well-documented evidence (although sexuality might have been left entirely unmentioned in any case). In numerous cases, it is clear to someone a little bit acquainted with the subject that much of what is presented is founded on more or less unreliable testimony, including, in at least one or two places, that of witnesses whom Mager himself has discredited. Furthermore, serious scholars of the Revolution would disagree with the central rôle he assigns to Rasputin in the story. The latter certainly didn’t help matters, but didn’t Vladimir Lenin have at least something to do with it, not to mention well nigh irresistable historical forces?

Another problem is the author’s obvious biases: for Britain and liberal politics, against Pobedonostsev, Grand Duke Sergei Nikolaievich, the Russian peasants, the Tsaritsa-Martyr Alexandra, and certainly Rasputin (who, despite the testimony of multiple witnesses, is made to seem closer to the Tsaritsa-Martyr than anyone else she knows). One friend of the Tsaritsa-Martyr’s who was an admirer of Rasputin is consistently referred to as ‘plain and unintelligent’, and even ‘fat’, whenever she figures into the narrative. [6] The author’s opinions on politics are constantly interjected. Whenever someone becomes drunk, it is said to be in ‘typical Russian fashion’. He always describes the Tsar-Martyr—in typical biographer fashion—as ‘weak’ and ‘indecisive’.

But most annoying, I think, is Mager’s apparent determination to play up a dramatic contrast between the New Martyr Elisabeth and her sister, the Tsaritsa-Martyr Alexandra. St Elisabeth is presented as the warm, saintly, reasonable sister who does everything she can to save Russia, St Alexandra as the cold, self-centered, hysterical sister who does everything she can to ruin it. The author seems quite satisfied—often basing himself on the testimony of witnesses he himself elsewhere calls unreliable—to pronounce their relationship as being at distressing odds and ending in complete coldness.

There are good things to be said about the book. The author certainly reveres St Elisabeth. He also appears to respect Christianity, monarchy and, to some extent, Ss Nicholas and Alexandra. Passages like the note contrasting the ‘repression’ of Tsar Alexander III’s reign with that of communism—concluding, ‘Compared with its Soviet successor, Alexander III’s empire was a remarkably free country’—are really nice. [7] But Mager’s politics, his preoccupation with Grand Duke Sergei’s sexuality (about which he himself acknowledges that there is ‘no firm evidence’), [8] his ignorance of Orthodoxy and superficial notions of spirituality, and his exaggerrated antinomy between the two saintly sisters are all very annoying, and detract greatly from an interesting story. More importantly, Mager clearly lacks the experience and insight to do any kind of justice to the spiritual life of a great Saint. His Victorian psychologising is a poor substitute, not compensated for, in the end, by his attention to detail in presenting an in-depth story.

Those who want to read about St Elisabeth should stick with the Life by Lubov Millar, Grand Duchess Elizabeth of Russia: New Martyr of the Communist Yoke (Richfield Springs, NY: Nikodemos, 1991), only venturing toward Mager’s book for superficial and extraneous details about things like the Hessian grand duchy or Queen Victoria. Those interested in St Alexandra should never open Mager’s book, but stick with A Gathered Radiance: The Life of Alexandra Romanov, Russia’s Last Empress (Chico, CA: Valaam Society of America, 1992), by Mother Nectaria (McLees).

Addendum: Mary Mansur has just informed me that Nikodemos has recently published a new, expanded edition of Millar's biography of St Elisabeth, featuring all new materials. It can be ordered for $26.95 + $4 s&h. Just send a check to Nikodemos Orthodox Publication Society, PO Box 383, Richfield Springs, NY 13439-0383.

[1] Hugo Mager, Elizabeth: Grand Duchess of Russia (NY: Carroll & Graf, 1999), p. 200.

[2] Ibid., p. 226. True startsy, or ‘elders’, of course, may well be educated, are rarely wanderers, would never display an external ‘sign of asceticism’, and would never claim to ‘possess powers of healing’.

[3] Ibid., pp. 19-20, 240.

[4] Ibid., p. 227.

[5] Ibid., pp. 343-9.

[6] Ibid., pp. 235, 255, 277.

[7] Ibid., p. 80. The final paragraph of this lengthy note deserves to be quoted in full:

However, these enormous powers [of the tsarist political police] were used with remarkable leniency. During Alexander [III]’s repressive reign only four thousand persons, out of a population of nearly a hundred million, were detained or interrogated in connection with political offenses; only forty-four, all assassins or potential assassins, were executed for political crimes. The right to travel abroad and property rights, even those of expatriate revolutionaries, were scrupulously respected. The vast majority of criminals were tried fairly, by jury. Censorship was little more than a nuisance: between 1867 and 1894 only 158 books, not including Marx’s Capital, were forbidden to circulate in Russia. Compared with its Soviet successor, Alexander III’s empire was a remarkably free country.

[8] Ibid., p. 74.

14 July 2010

Disenchantment with Modernity: Tolkien, Lovecraft, & G.H. Dorr, Ph.D.

At the Mythopoeic Society conference I attended last weekend, the Inklings—and it seemed Tolkien especially—were naturally first and foremost in the attendees’ thoughts, writings, and conversation. But at least once or twice, perhaps largely at my instigation, the name of H.P. Lovecraft was also mentioned. In a paper I heard on the to me previously unknown works of our Author Guest of Honour, Tim Powers, a plot description at one point reminded me slightly of Lovecraft’s masterpiece, ‘The Call of Cthulhu’. When I ventured later to ask the author himself about this, receiving confirmation of the accuracy of my ‘Lovecraft antennae’, I also asked his opinion whether Powers thought that Charles Williams might have been able to convert the notorious atheist Lovecraft to Christianity. An affirmative reply led to more discussion later in the evening.

At any rate, all of this is merely to preface an extraordinary discovery I made just today. Amy Sturgis, whose name I thought I recalled coming across at MythCon and who edited the book Past Watchful Dragons: Fantasy & Faith in the World of C.S. Lewis, published by The Mythopoeic Press, has a fascinating article on her website entitled, ‘The New Shoggoth Chic: Why H.P. Lovecraft Now?’. [1] Although it does not mention him in the title, Tolkien is also a major subject of the article, which is essentially a comparison and contrasting of the two authors.

To get to the point, the most interesting point of comparison to me was the basically anti-modern posture they shared. Sturgis writes:

Modernity, that nebulous and abstract force of the dawning 20th century, meant various things to Lovecraft and Tolkien at different times in their lives. One thing remained constant: both were against it. To Lovecraft, modernity primarily meant entropy, the gradual decay of time-honored habits, traditions, and even people into confusion and decrepitude. . . . His racial and nationalistic assumptions fueled his disgust with the way in which industrialization and urbanization threw unlike people together in the most squalid conditions, ensuring (to his mind at least) that their most negative traits would come to the fore. He found an example of his worst fears realized when he lived, for a short time only, in New York City.

On this subject, Sturgis then quotes the semi-autobiographical story ‘He’:

But success and happiness were not to be. Garish daylight showed only squalor and alienage and the noxious elephantiasis of climbing, spreading stone where the moon had hinted of loveliness and elder magic; and the throngs of people that seethed through the flumelike streets were squat, swarthy strangers with hardened faces and narrow eyes, shrewd strangers without dreams and without kinship to the scenes around them, who could never mean aught to a blue-eyed man of the old folk, with the love of fair green lanes and white New England village steeples in his heart. [2]

Sturgis then comments:

Though charged with what we today would call racism and xenophobia, Lovecraft’s description implies more than simple fear or dislike of the Other: these others are overcrowded, literally ‘teeming’, unattached to their setting or community, isolated and atomistic, uncommunicative and ‘hardened’. Lovecraft contrasted such scenes with his native Providence, Rhode Island, where generations remained in the same place and were known by their family name and traits, and where the community as a whole tended to share what Augustine called ‘loved things held in common’. [3] Lovecraft feared a humanity cut adrift from such grounding tradition and identity, left vulnerable to outside forces of superior power and unwholesome design.

For Tolkien, modernity primarily meant technology—‘The Machine’, as he called it—and its triumph at the expense of nature. Where Lovecraft idealized his hometown of Providence, Tolkien revered the English countryside, and believed the growth of cities and factories to be a direct threat to its survival. By creating the fictional Shire and the Hobbits who populate it, Tolkien praised the rural values of decentralization, artisanship, stability, and familiarity over the urban qualities of centralization, mass production, disposability, and anonymity.

Sturgis then quotes ‘On Fairy-Stories’, calling it ‘as anti-modern’ as Lovecraft:

Not long ago—incredible though it may seem—I heard a clerk at Oxenford declare that he ‘welcomed’ the proximity of mass-production robot factories, and the roar of self-obstructive mechanical traffic, because it brought his university into ‘contact with real life.’ He may have meant that the way men were living in the twentieth century was increasing in barbarity at an alarming rate, and that the loud demonstration of this in the streets of Oxford might serve as a warning that it is not possible to preserve for long an oasis of sanity in a desert of unreason by mere fences, without actual offensive action (practical and intellectual). I fear he did not. [4]

Sturgis continues:

Both authors’ anti-modernism, as well as other intellectual ideas and personal traits, led them to feel out of place in a world of tremendous change and upheaval, economic depression and world war. For his part, H.P. Lovecraft felt himself to be an old man in a young man’s body, and, to use his words from ‘The Outsider’, ‘a stranger in this century’. Tolkien’s similar certainty that he was not at home came as much from his religious perspective as his disgust with all things ‘progressive’. . . .

. . .

It would be a mistake to assume that the two men were similar only in their dislikes and disappointments. Although they looked to the future with no little trepidation, they looked to the past with real fascination and affection. Lovecraft and Tolkien shared a fervent kind of antiquarianism. Lovecraft’s self-confessed ‘love of the ancient and permanent’ can best be seen in his absorption with and knowledge of early American architecture, which he used to great effect in his precise and evocative descriptions. . . . Tolkien nurtured his own love of ancient texts and national epics from Beowulf and the Kalevala to the Icelandic Eddas and family sagas. He studied the original languages of the stories and incorporated ingredients of the tales into his own work. . . .

In short, both Lovecraft and Tolkien were on a quest for something permanent, meaningful, and binding in a changing modern world, fueled by a desire for identity and community in a time in which they felt displaced and marginalized, and a thirst for structure and civilization in the face of what they saw as entropy and barbarism. Paradoxically, these concerns, while isolating each author to a certain degree, also made Lovecraft and Tolkien exemplars of their age, men of remarkable insight and sensitivity who articulated the concerns of an entire era with unusual eloquence and urgency.

Reading these comments today, I am also curiously reminded of Tom Hanks’s charactre in the Coen Brothers remake of The Ladykillers: the Southern dandy, Goldthwaite Higginson Dorr, Ph.D. One evening, Dorr’s black landlady, Mrs Munson, says to him, ‘You are a readin’ fool, aren’t you, Mr Dorr?’ Dorr responds:

Yes, I must confess I often find myself more at home in these ancient volumes than I do in the hustle-bustle of the modern world. To me, paradoxically, the literature of the so-called ‘dead tongues’ holds more currency than this morning’s newspaper. In these books, in these volumes, there is the accumulated wisdom of mankind which succours me when the day is hard and the night lonely and long.

Things take a closer turn toward the Lovecraftian when Mrs Munson remarks, ‘Wisdom of mankind, huh? What about the wisdom of the Lord?’, and Dorr replies:

Oh yes, the ‘Good Book’, hm? I have found reward in its pages. But to me there are other ‘good books’ as well: heavy volumes of antiquity, freighted with the insights of man’s glorious age. And then, of course, I just love love love the works of Mr Edgard Allan Poe.

Mrs Munson says, ‘Oh, I know who he was—kinda spooky!’ But Dorr laughs and ‘corrects’ her, in words reminiscent of Lovecraft’s ‘Randolph Carter’ stories: ‘No, my, no, no! Not of this world, it is true. He lived in a dream, an ancient dream.’ Dorr then quotes the first two stanzas of ‘To Helen’:

Helen, thy beauty is to me
Like those Nicean barks of yore,
That gently, o’er a perfumed sea,
The weary, way-worn wanderer bore
To his own native shore.

On desperate seas long wont to roam,
Thy hyacinth hair, thy classic face,
Thy Naiad airs have brought me home
To the glory that was Greece
And the grandeur that was Rome. [5]

Somewhat alarmed at Dorr’s enraptured delivery of these lines, Mrs Munson asks, ‘Who was Helen? Some kind of whore of Babylon?’ To which, slightly angered, Dorr replies, ‘One does not know who Helen was! But I picture her as very very . . . extremely . . . pale.’

[1] Originally published in Apex Science Fiction & Horror Digest, 1.4 (December 2005).

[2] H.P. Lovecraft, ‘He’, The Tomb & Other Tales (NY: Del Rey, 1987), pp. 58-9. I was astonished how much this last line reminded me of Tolkien!

[3] St Augustine, de civ. Dei XIX, 24; cf. The City of God, tr. Marcus Dods (NY: Modern Library, 1950), p. 706: ‘But if we discard this definition of a people, and, assuming another, say that a people is an assemblage of reasonable beings bound together by a common agreement as to the objects of their love, then, in order to discover the character of any people, we have only to observe what they love.’

[4] J.R.R. Tolkien, ‘On Fairy-Stories’, The Tolkien Reader (NY: Ballantine, 1966), pp. 80-1.

[5] Edgar Allan Poe, ‘To Helen’, The Complete Tales & Poems of Edgar Allan Poe (NY: Modern Library, 1965), p. 1017.

12 July 2010

Why Read Njegoš?

I have mentioned Petar II Petrović-Njegoš a number of times at Logismoi already, primarily in connection with the paper I was preparing to present at the Mythopoeic Society conference in Dallas on Saturday (a presentation which was poorly attended but nevertheless received positive comments from those who did attend). As Michael Petrovitch has observed, at first glance Njegoš seems ‘suited to one of those dull dissertations about obscure figures whom some apprentice scholar is always grateful to dig up for the price of a doctorate’, but he was an ‘extraordinary ruler and poet of an extraordinary country’. [1] Just to dispel any lingering suspicions among fellow Orthodox, however, that Njegoš’s work is merely an obscure academic subject, I thought I would post a few comments on him from Serbian theologians. It was they, after all, who convinced me actually to read his work in the first place. First, here in full is the brief foreword to Clarence Manning’s translation of The Rays of Microcosm by St Nicholas (Velimirović):

The Prince Bishop of Montenegro Petar II Petrovich Negosh (1813-1851) is the greatest Serbian poet. His drama ‘The Mountain Wreath’ has been translated into many European languages. There are three German translations. The best English translation is by Dr James Wiles. Negosh’s deepest and most spiritual creation ‘The Rays of Microcosm’ (Lucha Mikrokosma), however, appears now for the first time in English thanks to Professor Dr Clarence Manning of Columbia University in New York.

The theme of this poem is the same as that of Dante’s ‘Divina Comedia’, Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’, and Klopstock’s ‘Messias’. All these three great poets are Westerners, whereas Negosh with a similar work stands alone for the Eastern Europe [sic]. We do not think that all his thoughts in this poem are dogmatically in harmony with the doctrine of the Orthodox Church, as for instance the pre-existence of Adam as the one [sic] of the great and leading angels, but poetry is poetry. The privilege of a poet consists in the freedom to add to the common reasoning his imagination which gives more life and color to the accepted facts. Negosh’s vision of the enormity of the created Universe in height, depth, width, and length; of many suns and galaxies of stars, ruled by various angelic hosts, is very striking. It reminds the reader of the Mount Palomar’s giant telescope, and the quite modern astronomic discoveries. There is no telescope which can beat the spirit and imagination of a great poet.

The spiritual value of this work, as the reader will see for himself, is beyond doubt great and unusual. It is all spirit, religion, and dramatic victory of God over Satan.

The language of Negosh is lapidary and charged with ideas and arcanas. Yet, Professor Manning succeeded to translate it well; not in each case literally though, but on the whole clear and well done in a choice English. [2] We hope that ‘The Rays of Microcosm’ will help the English speaking people toward a deeper insight into the soul and heart of the Serbian people, always suffering for Christ and never feeling defeated. [3]

Second, and following in the spirit of St Nicholas’s comments, Fr Daniel Rogich has included Njegoš alongside St Nicholas himself under the category of ‘soul-profiting reading’, that is, ‘works that do not directly deal with the spiritual life but that “enlarge” the heart and refine the soul”’. [4]

Finally, in a lecture in which he treats at length Milton’s Paradise Lost, Bishop Athanasius (Jevtić) writes:

Our Serbian poet, Bishop Njegosh, in his poem Rays of the Microcosm, which is to some extent similar to John Milton’s poem mentioned earlier, partially succumbed to the influence of Milton and other philosophers and poets who similarly viewed and interpreted the fate of man and mankind predominantly in a theological-cosmological manner. However, in the last part of Rays of the Microcosm, Njegosh, an Orthodox bishop and a man with Church experience through which he observed both the Bible and its pronouncements about man, made a radical turn toward the eschatological Messiah, Christ Incarnate and Resurrected, Who in terms of Milton’s logic regarding justice, unexpectedly enters into human history and saves man personally through Himself, thus changing man’s established fate, which until then was harsh and inescapable because of sin. [5]

[1] Michael B. Petrovitch, ‘Introduction’, Njegoš: Poet, Prince, Bishop, by Milovan Djilas, tr. Michael B. Petrovitch (NY: Harcourt, 1966), p. xiii.

[2] Although St Nicholas commends Manning’s translation, a double review by Ante Kadić convinced me to read the Savić-Rebac translation of The Ray instead. See Ante Kadić, rev. of The Rays of Microcosm, tr. Clarence A. Manning, & The Ray of the Microcosm, tr. Anica Savić-Rebac, American Slavic & East European Review 18.1 (Feb. 1959), pp. 129-33.

[3] St Nicholas (Velimirović), ‘Foreword’, The Rays of the Microcosm, by Petar II Petrović-Njegoš, tr. Clarence A. Manning (Munich 1953), pp. 7-8.

[4] Fr Daniel Rogich, ‘Introduction’, Serbian Patericon: Saints of the Serbian Orthodox Church, Vol. 1, illust. Lillian Tintor (Platina, CA: St Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 1994), p. 23. This is a widely varied category. It is worth noting that Fr Rogich also includes—

ecclesiastical writers such as St Ignatius Brianchaninov, St Theophan the Recluse, St John of Kronstadt, the epistology of the Optina Elders, Theophan of Poltava, and writers of Mt Athos such as the Russian Seraphim the Hagiorite (his letters), or secular writers of world literature who contributed to the formation of the Orthodox way of life as opposed to the anti-Christian growth of secular values of the modern man of the post-French Revolution: Charles Dickens, Victor Hugo, Dostoevsky, Leskov and Gogol. (p. 23)

[5] Bishop Athanasius (Yevtich), ‘The Holy Fathers & the Holy Scriptures’, tr. Sr Michaela, Christ: The Alpha & Omega, ed. St Herman of Alaska Monastery (Alhambra, CA: Western American Diocese, 2007), pp. 28-9.

08 July 2010

Some Confusion about Njegoš's Angelology

Although there is much in it that is insightful, in an interesting article entitled ‘The Dark Side in Milton & Njegoš’, Roland Clark makes some odd comments. First of all, he writes, ‘As is typical of Orthodox angelology, [Petar II Petrović] Njegoš [in his poem, The Ray of the Microcosm] relies completely upon Michael and Gabriel, who were equal in rank to Satan before his fall, to act as the opposites of Satan, rather than placing Christ himself in this rôle.’ So, he seems to be suggesting that this aspect of Njegoš’s angelology is Orthodox, right?

But then in the very next sentence, Clark writes, ‘This is a defining feature of Bogomilism, one of the many traditions that appear to have influenced Njegoš.’ [1] Really? So the very angelology that he has just told us is Orthodox, is also ‘a defining feature’ of a dualistic heresy? How can that be?

I’m also a bit annoyed because right after the word ‘fall’ in the first sentence, he has a footnote citing Njegoš and then suggesting, ‘For more on this convention in Orthodox angelology see Cyril Mango, Byzantium: The Empire of New Rome (London, 1980), p. 154.’ [2] So, naturally, I pull out my copy of Mango to see if he does indeed support the apparent meaning of the first sentence that the angelology Clark has described is Orthodox. But the only passage I find on p. 154 of that book that is at all relevant reads:

As for the archangels, only two, namely Michael and Gabriel, had a firm place in popular devotion; the others, including Raphiel and Uriel, appear mostly in prayers and incantations of an occult character. St Michael was the commander-in-chief, the archistrategos, of the celestial host, and had several cult centres in Asia Minor, the most famous being at Chonai (Colossai) in Phrygia, where he was believed to have split a rock and diverted the course of a torrent. [3]

I found this disappointingly impertinent. Perhaps the article we are led to by the footnote to the sentence suggesting Bogomilism in Njegoš’s angelology [4] would be more helpful, but unfortunately, I do not have a copy. It is by Zdenko Zlatar, is entitled ‘Archangel Michael & the Dragon: Slavic Apocrypha, Bogomilism, & Dualist Cosmology in the Medieval Balkans’, and is found in Encyclopedia moderna 2 (38), 1992, p. 267.

Although I don’t really need answers to these questions beforehand, tomorrow I leave for Dallas to present my little paper on cosmological conflict in Njegoš at the Mythopoeic Society conference, MythCon 41. On the off-chance that there will be any blog readers at MythCon, please try to find me. I also plan to attend Divine Liturgy at St Nicholas ROCOR parish in McKinney, TX, on Sunday.

[1] Roland Clark, ‘The Dark Side in Milton & Njegoš’, Sydney Studies in Religion 6.1 (2004), p. 107. It can be found online here.

[2] Ibid., p. 107, n. 4.

[3] Cyril Mango, Byzantium: The Empire of New Rome (London: Phoenix Giant, 1994), p. 154.

[4] Clark, p. 107, n. 5.