29 January 2010

'Observer of the Divine & Author of Wonders'—St Romylos of Ravanitsa

Today, 16 January on the Church’s calendar, we celebrate the memory of the Holy Romylos (‘Romulus’ or ‘Romilo’) of Ravanitsa (1300-1376), disciple of St Gregory of Sinai. Anthony-Emil N. Tachiaos credits him with the introduction of the 14th-c. hesychast movement into Serbia. [1] St Romylos’s own disciple and biographer, Gregory of Constantinople, addresses him as ‘O father of fathers, adornment of ascetics, trainer of solitaries and fairest nursling of the desert, summit of quietude and ardent worker of contrition, observer of the divine and author of wonders’. [2] The account of St Romylos’s life in the Prologue is exceedingly short: ‘Born in Vidin, he was a disciple of St Gregory the Sinaite, and lived the ascetic life in several monasteries. St Romil entered into rest at Ravanica in Serbia in about 1375.’ [3] Thus, I decided to translate the Life in the Synaxaristes of Fr Makarios of Simonopetra from the Greek text online here:

St Romylos was born in 1300 in the Danubian town of Vidin to pious parents—a Greek father [‘a Roman’] and a Bulgarian mother. In holy Baptism he was named ‘Rajko’ [‘Man of Paradise’]. From his early years he displayed a lust for learning and his teachers, amazed at his wisdom and prudence, called him ‘childlike elder’. When he became a man, in order to avoid the marriage his parents had planned for him, he departed in secret to a monastery in the region of Trnovo. There, after the canonical testing, he was clothed in the small schema with the name Romanos, and served with great reverence in the church as ecclesiarch.

At the same time St Gregory of Sinai (6 Apr.) withdrew with his disciples from the Holy Mountain and came to reside at Paroria (Strandzha), [note on location] at the Byzantine-Bulgarian border. When Romanos heard about this teacher of noetic prayer and the hesychastic life, he asked for a blessing from his abbot to place himself under his guidance. He took with him another brother, Hilarion.

St Gregory received them with great joy and, since Romanos was powerful, with a strong constitution, he assigned to him the hardest and most burdensome duties, which he fulfilled with absolute obedience. He hauled wood and rocks from the mountain, water from the river which flowed in the foothills, and prepared clay for the dwellings. At the same time he served in the kitchen and the cellar of the monastery and had the care of the infirm brothers. The nursing of one aged monk was entrusted to him, sick and cranky, who because of his illnesses had to eat only fresh fish. Romanos served that difficult elder with wondrous meekness and long-suffering, and fished in the river for him. In wintertime, when the water was frozen, he would brake the ice and with bare feet in the frigid water he would fish with a net. In this way Romanos became a martyr in will, since he sacrificed his life at each moment for the love of neighbour.

With the death of the sick elder and of St Gregory, Romanos, whom everyone called ‘Kaloromanos’ [‘Good Romanos’], submitted together with Hilarion to another elder. Bandits, however, who pillaged in those parts and tyrannised the monks, obliged them to withdraw to Stara Zagora in Bulgaria, where their elder soon reposed.

From that time Romanos submitted to Hilarion, because he was greater in years. When the Bulgarian Tsar John Alexander (1331-1371) prosecuted the bandits, they returned to the desert hesychia of Paroria, in order to converse with God through noetic prayer. By the virtues, which had become to them second nature, and unceasing prayer Romanos was vouchsafed by God to receive many gifts, particularly the gift of ever-flowing tears.

Later with the blessing of Hilarion he withdrew into perfect solitude, in order to indulge without distraction in divine contemplations. Since he lived for many years in this way, he was clothed in the great schema with the name Romylos. The Turks however in their raids destroyed the monastery, and Saint Romylos with his disciple Gregory fled to the Holy Mountain, where they settled at Melana, near the Great Lavra. The Athonite monks soon recognised his virtues and visited him for the profit of their souls. They cut off however his beloved hesychia, and he was obliged to withdraw to a more secluded cell, in the foothills of Athos.

At that time, after the defeat of the Serbo-Bulgarian general John Uglesha by the Ottomans and his death at the Battle of the Hebrus ([also know as the Battle of] ‘Maritsa’ [or Chernomen], 1371), there followed the invasion of irregular Ottoman troops into Thrace and Macedonia. Then many monks, fearful of the general insecurity of the times, left the Holy Mountain. Thus spurred on, St Romylos too departed to Avlona [Valona or Vlorë], Alabania. During the time that he lived there he reformed the perverted morals of the inhabitants and taught them the true Faith, because they had departed far from Christianity. Longing however for hesychia, he departed for the Monastery of the Theotokos, at Ravanitsa in Serbia. This place was his final earthly residence, because after a little time he went to the Lord. His tomb, in which his disciples placed his much-exercised body, gives off an unspeakable fragrance, for it continually produces many miracles and healings for those who approach in faith. [4]

Of course, all of the wonderful detail of this summary of St Romylos’s Life is based on the eyewitness testimony of his disciple, Gregory of Constantinople (also known as ‘Gregory the Younger’ and ‘Gregory the Calligrapher’). The latter’s Life and Partial Story of the Miracles of Our Holy Father Romylos, the Modern is well worth reading, and is available online (here) in an English translation by Mark Bartusis, Khalifa Ben Nasser, and Angeliki E. Laiou. [5] There are a couple of passages from this Prima Vita that are worth posting. First, Gregory provides some interesting comments concerning St Romylos’s spiritual struggles in solitude after his return to Paroria from Zagora:

He spent the next five years there, separated from all association with men except when through some need he approached the monastery of the Holy Sinaite. But who is able to describe the weeping and wailing of this long period, and the struggles with demons and those terrors which he suffered from the demons, as he himself described to us? For the blessed man said that without God’s help no one, while still in the body, is able to wrestle with demons. ‘From my arrival in the interior of the mountain,’ he said, ‘the demons, suffering out of jealousy, created many visions and terrors to entice me to depart from there; sometimes displaying lights, sometimes lightning and thunder, sometimes great noises, and sometimes shouting all together. The ravines of the mountains echoed the roars so that I thought that the trees themselves were shouting. But I, he said, fought them off with the name of the Lord and regarded those terrors as if they were childish playthings.’ [6]

One cannot but be reminded here of the example of St Anthony the Great’s famous struggle with the demons in Vita Antonii 8-9, as well as of his homily in §§16-43. [7] In §28, he emphasizes that if the demons had any real power they would have ‘no need of hordes, nor of visible apparitions, nor of crashing sounds and rattling noises’, [8] and in §40, St Anthony tells us that ‘speaking the name of Christ I made an attempt to strike’ one of the demons. ‘I seemed to have hit home, and at once, with the mention of the name of Christ, this giant figure vanished, along with all his demons.’[9]

St Romylos does not seem to have been the man of letters that many of the other important 14th-c. hesychasts were. The one work that is attributed to him has not to my knowledge been translated, [10] and I know of him being directly connected with the copying of only one manuscript, which he commissioned while living on the Holy Mountain. [11] But fortunately Gregory does offer ‘a portion of his counseling . . . for the benefit of those who read’ the Life [12]:

16. ‘My brothers and fathers,’ he said, ‘let us keep a pure conscience toward our neighbor, and let us preserve a heart pure from evil thoughts which tend to corrupt the miserable soul. But we cannot obtain this unless we have the soul’s three parts according to nature. I speak of these three parts: Reason, Spirit and Appetite. For the all¬-good God has put these things into the soul of man, just as if they were a fortress or citadel, so that man, using them according to nature and as it pleases God, may live his life peacefully and without passion, as our holy fathers instructed us through their wise and holy teaching and even more so through their deeds. The Theologian said to set your spirit only against the Serpent through which you fell. Direct all your desires toward God, not toward anything treacherous or perilous. Let reason preside over all, and do not let the better be drawn down by the worse. Rather, whenever we arm the Spirit against its perceptible enemies, that is, against demons or passions, as the holy man said, but also against all those things which go contrary to the salvation of the soul, then we act according to nature. In this way we are able to love God and our neighbor with our entire soul as the Holy Gospel teaches (Mk 12:30-31). When Reason moves contrary to nature, we grow angry with our brothers, giving precedence to an earthly desire within us, hedonism perhaps, or glory or greed. Hence, there arises anger, vindictiveness, envy of one's neighbor and, in the end the product of envy, murder. And when we preserve the Appetite according to nature and as it was given to us by God, we eagerly desire the eternally good things which no eye has ever seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of impassioned and bodily man conceived, and which God has prepared for those who love Him (I Cor 2:9). And for these things we endure all bodily and spiritual suffering, undertaking with delight such virtuous acts as fasting, vigilance, poverty, purity of the body, and incessant prayer. To put it simply, day and night we practice everything which contributes to the salvation of the soul. When the Appetite moves contrary to nature and in a beastly fashion, we behave most irrationally, as the Scriptures say: “But man abideth not in honor: He is like the beasts that perish” (Ps 48:12). And from this we desire earthly and ephemeral things, luxury and glory, gold and silver, and the impurity which comes from them, and because of these we grow angry with men, as it has been said, and going astray we are always vindictive. Since Reason, which is the rational part of the soul, was set over everything to preside over them as if it was the ruler, when it guards the gift: given to it by God according to His image and likeness, man lives his life always thinking good things. He chants and prays, he studies and reads, and his delight lies in the law of the Lord (Ps 1:2), day and night, thinking good things about every pious man. But if Reason should turn aside from the better things, need one speak of what irrationality fills man? Talkativeness, slander, abuse and all kinds of sinful acts will dominate man the insensibility of his reason, even if one, in his insensibility, believes that he is living sinlessly. He who has the said three parts of the soul according to nature possesses a safe and sound conscience which indicates good and evil to him, like a natural law given to man from the beginning. And it advises man to preserve good and to throw off evil. Because of this we will be (rewarded for our good deeds and) justly punished for the evil ones as rational and free men. Therefore, every demonic assault customarily attacks these three things. We are not blamed because of the attack; rather, we receive a reward from God for being virtuous if we, from the beginning, cast away the seeds sown by the devil. But if we, from the first assault, accept these hostile seeds, we will come to an alliance with the devil, and from there to a pact. From this we are led to evil acts, and therefore we shall be justly condemned, as has been foretold.’ [13]

Fr Daniel Rogich points out that St Romylos ‘spent over twenty years as the disciple of Gregory of Sinai’, [14] and it is through him that St Gregory’s teachings spread to Serbia. Pavlikianov writes, ‘Being a follower of Gregory of Sinai and one of the founders of the well-known monastic centre at Paroria, in eastern Thrace, he was one of the most eminent and fervent supporters of the hesychast theological doctrine, as it was developed in the middle of the 14th century.’ [15] Subsequently, according to Tachiaos, St Romylos’s disciple, Gregory of Constantinople, ‘settled in Gornjak Monastery’ in Serbia, which the Tsar-Martyr Lazar had given him. ‘There Gregory built up a monastic centre of upholders of Gregory of Sinai’s Hesychast tradition, and these monks became known in Serbian history as “Sinaites”.’ [16]

In conclusion, here are the Troparion and Kontakion of the Saint:

Troparion, Tone 8

The streams of thy tears made fertile the barren wilderness, and thy deep sighing from thy struggles produced fruit a hundred-fold, as thou becamest a Star of the universe sparkling with miracles, O our Father Romilos; therefore, pray to Christ God to save our souls.

Kontakion, Tone 1

O Holy Father Romilos, Jewel of the Holy Mountain, Pillar of true Orthodoxy, divine follower of Righteous Gregory, and glory of Ravanitsa, come and heal us who in faith run to thee, for we celebrate thy memory in love. [17]

[1] Anthony-Emil N. Tachiaos, ‘Gregory Sinaites’ Legacy to the Slavs: Preliminary Remarks’, Cyrillomethodianum 7, 1983, pp. 121-2. See Tachiaos’s full remarks about St Romylos in this post on his Serbian disciples.

[2] Gregory of Constantinople, Life and Partial Story of the Miracles of Our Holy Father Romylos, the Modern, tr. Mark Bartusis, Khalifa Ben Nasser, Angeliki E. Laiou, ‘Days & Deeds of a Hesychast Saint: A Translation of the Greek Life of St Romylos’, Byzantine Studies/Etudes Byzantines, 9:1 (1982), pp. 24-47. The quote is from §25.

[3] St Nicholas (Velimirović), The Prologue from Ochrid, Vol. 1, trans. Mother Maria (Birmingham: Lazarica, 1986), p. 66.

[4] My translation from Νέος Συναξαριστής της Ορθοδόξου Εκκλησίας, Vol. 1, by Hieromonk Makarios of Simonopetra, (Ίνδικτος), pp. 198-200. (here)

[5] As grateful as I am to them for this translation, I would quibble with one of their notes. To Gregory’s statement in §14, ‘For the holy man had great faith in God and opened his compassionate heart equally to all, not only to men, but to the birds, snakes and wild beasts’, they have appended the footnote, ‘Compassion toward birds, reptiles and wild beasts is a characteristic which brings to mind St Francis of Assisi, and is not common in Byzantine hagiography’ (n. 45).

While it is true that Byzantine hagiography does not seem often to dwell on such things, I see no warrant for invoking Francis of Assisi, and much for recalling St Isaac the Syrian’s famous definition of the ‘merciful heart’: ‘It is the heart’s burning for the sake of the entire creation, for men, for birds, for animals, for demons, and for every created thing; and by the recollection and sight of them the eyes of a merciful man pour forth abundant tears’ (St Isaac the Syrian, The Ascetical Homilies of St Isaac the Syrian, trans. Dana Miller [Boston, MA: HTM, 1984], p. 344-5).

[6] From Gregory, §12.

[7] St Athanasius the Great, The Life of Antony & the Letter to Marcellinus, tr. Robert C. Gregg (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist, 1980), pp. 43-64.

[8] Ibid., p. 53.

[9] Ibid., p. 61.

[10] That is, the Rules Recommendable for Proper Monastic Behaviour, discovered in a Hilandar manuscript by K. Ivanova and P. Matejic in 1993 (Kl. Ivanova-P. Matejic, ‘An Unknown Work of St Romil of Vidin (Ravanica)’, Palaeobulgarica 17/4, 1993, pp. 3-15.). It is interesting, however, to note Cyril Pavlikianov’s observation, in a very interesting article on ‘The Athonite Period in the Life of St Romylos of Vidin’, Byzantina Symmeikta 15, pp. 247-55 (here), that in his Life of St Romylos, Gregory includes in a narrative form the main points of the Rules:

Analysing St. Romylos’ Rules and the passages of his Life referring to his Athonite period [§§12-21 in the English tr. of the Greek Life], one can easily figure out that their content is extremely similar; the two texts, despite the fact that they belong to two different literary genres, deal with the virtues required by the monastic life and how they must be cultivated. In the Rules, of course, the instruction is direct, while in the Life it is concealed behind a series of everyday events in which the saint is the moral protagonist. Being a commonplace in all the Byzantine hagiographical literature, in the case of St Romylos’ Life this type of narration does not extol his own monastic feats or miracles, but underlines his care about the proper instruction of the younger monks. In other words, what St. Romylos’ biographer, the Athonite monk Gregory the Calligraphier, emphasizes, while describing his personal experience as a disciple of the saint on Mount Athos, is in fact a modified reproduction of the basic points of the only literary work ascribed to his spiritual father. (p. 254)

[11] According to Pavlikianov, it was discovered by the Serbian scholar Lj. Stojanovic at the Bibliothèque nationale de France in Paris (Pavlikianov, p. 249), and was copied at St Romylos’s commission by a group of Bulgarian monks living near the Great Lavra in the foothills on the north side of the Athonite peak (ibid., p. 250). The tell-tale Slavonic inscription reads (in my poor translation), ‘Dionysius the sinner wrote [this] at Kakiplatsa on Athos. There I lived (?) with my Father, Kyr Theoctistus and with my brothers Simon and Thomas in obedience to our Father and Lord, Kyr Romylos, the Starets’ (ibid., p. 250).

[12] Gregory, §15.

[13] Gregory, §16. Fr Daniel Rogich includes part of this homily in Serbian Patericon: Saints of the Serbian Orthodox Church, Vol. 1 (January-April) (Platina, CA: St Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 1994), pp. 126-7, as well as St Romylos’s words to the disciples of other elders from §19 of Gregory’s Life (Fr Rogich, pp. 127-8).

[14] Ibid., p. 124.

[15] Pavlikianov, p. 248.

[16] Tachiaos, p. 122.

[17] Fr Rogich, pp. 118, 131.


David.R said...

How interesting! And what a beautiful icon! Thank you for this story.

aaronandbrighid said...

It was my pleasure! Fr Makarios is actually very easy to translate, and I was fortunate to find the translation of the Greek Life on the Medieval Sourcebook (not to mention Pavlikianov's fascinating article!).

John said...

Aaron, I am reading through "Lives of the Bulgarian Saints." Doing this as something of a daily reading, the accounts can (unfortunately) begin to run together a bit. Not so with St. Romil. His story stood out, in my mind, and I particularly remembered the passage you quote. Thanks for posting this.

aaronandbrighid said...

Glad you liked it, John. I have been fascinated by St Romylos for quite some time now. I was fortunate to find some good sources.

With the aim of improving my coverage of the Saints, I plan over the next year to concentrate on acquiring a few more hagiographical sources like the Bulgarian Lives, the Georgian Lives, Lives of the New Martyrs of the Turkish Yoke and of the Soviet persecution, as well as a book of primary sources on some of the important Western Saints. I lack only the budget for some of these!

John said...

Lives of the Georgian Saints is one of the best I've seen. The Lives of the Bulgarian Saints is nicely done, as well, though occasional problems in translation make the English a bit stilted at times. It is still a great book. Thanks for the reference to the book on the New Martyrs of the Turkish Yoke. This is one to put on my want list. Which books do you recommend for primary sources on the Western Saints?

aaronandbrighid said...

On the Western Saints, the book I was mainly thinking of was Soldiers of Christ: Saints & Saints' Lives from Late Antiquity & the Early Middle Ages, by Thomas F.X. Noble. It contains Lives of Saints Martin of Tours, Augustine of Hippo, Germanus of Auxerre, Boniface of Crediton, Strum, Willibrord, Benedict of Aniane, Leoba, Willehad of Northumbria, and Gerald of Aurillac, as well as the Hodoeporicon of Saint Willibald. I would also really like a copy of The Age of Bede by J.F. Webb, and a translation of St Gregory's complete Dialogues.

aaronandbrighid said...

Of course, those are just a few of the books I want but don't have. If you want a recommendation for Western Saints from the books I do have, I'd start with Carolinne White's Early Christian Lives, St Gregory of Tours's Vita Patrum (trans. by Fr Seraphim), and St Bede's Ecclesiastical History.