Our Most Holy Lady, the Theotokos and Ever-Virgin Mary

by Mario Baghos

The Orthodox Church applies many epithets to the Mother of our great God and Saviour, Jesus Christ. Ἡ Δεσποίνης ἡμῶν, or “Our Lady,” Θεοτόκος, or “God-bearer,” Αειπάρθενε, “Ever-Virgin,” and Παναγία (Panagia), or “All-Holy One,” are just some of the most common, with the latter especially used by the Greek faithful. The Akathist Hymn, written in the seventh century by Saint Romanos the Melodist to celebrate the Virgin’s protection of Constantinople, includes ‘Salutations’ (Χαιρετισμοί) directed to her by the archangel Gabriel. These are full of the most beautiful and paradoxical metaphors that describe her as the one who has “become a King’s throne” and the one “Who bears Him who bears all”[1]—both references to our Lord Jesus Christ—as well as, “Key to the gates of Paradise,” and “Dawn of the mystical day,”[2] which are once again references to our Lord that was born of her. Each Salutation ends with the words, Χαῖρε Νύμφη Ἀνύμφευτε—“Hail, Unwedded Bride!”[3]

The earliest textual references to the Mother of God’s importance come of course from Saint Luke, whose narrative account of the nativity and infancy of Christ focuses on the perspective of Mary, the young maiden whom the archangel acclaims as one “highly favored” with the Lord (Luke 1:28) before saying: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb” (Lk 1:42-43). Saint Mary’s humble acceptance of the Lord’s will for her to give birth to his Son is attested by her humility and obedience, making her a paradigm for all Christians who rightly embrace the holy Virgin’s words in the Magnificat: “For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed” (Lk 1:48). While St Mary humbly and freely chose to be obedient to God, her role in the divine economy—in God’s activity in history—was prophesied in the Old Testament book of Isaiah 7:14, which states: “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a Son, and will call him Immanuel,” to which Saint Matthew, in his use of this quote from Isaiah in chapter 1, verse 23 of his Gospel, adds: “which is translated, ‘God with us.’” In the Old Testament book of Micah 5:2-3, we can discern another prophecy relating to the Virgin giving birth in Bethlehem:

“But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah,
though you are small among the clans of Judah,
out of you will come for me
one who will be ruler over Israel,
whose origins are from of old,
from ancient times.”

Therefore Israel will be abandoned
until the time when she who is in labor bears a Son,
and the rest of his brothers return
to join the Israelites.

The Gospels of Matthew (chs 1-2) and Luke (chs 1-2) address the Mother of God in relation to the nativity, her giving birth to the Lord: the former records the flight of the holy family to Egypt (Mt 2:13-25) and the latter records her anguish after not being able to find the twelve-year old Jesus in Jerusalem during the Passover Feast (2:41-50). In Saint John’s Gospel (2:3-10), we read about her presence at the wedding at Cana, and at her Son and our Lord’s crucifixion (Jn 19:25-27); and in Acts 1:13-14 we read about her presence with the apostles right after the Lord’s ascension. While not featuring any more in the canonical scriptures,[4] the Virgin appears in the apocryphal ones, and usually we interpret the fact that some of the apocrypha has made its way into the Orthodox Church as comprising only those elements that were consistent with its Tradition. Since the Orthodox Church places just as much emphasis on Tradition as it does on scripture—indeed, it sees the scriptures as having their rightful place within Tradition, which is a faithful, integral passing on of representations from the past within a sacred framework[5]—then it can be argued that the details of the Virgin’s life were retained in the Church’s traditional memory and later recorded in the apocrypha. In any case, the apocryphal text in question is the Protoevangelion of James, which fleshes out the early life of the Virgin, such that it outlines her ancestry—that she was the daughter of Saints Joachim and Anna—and her nativity, entrance into the temple, and the Nativity of Christ in a cave instead of a manger.[6]

All of these themes appear, not just in the apocrypha, but in the liturgical tradition of the Orthodox Church. So integral are they to it that of the twelve principal feasts in the liturgical calendar, four are dedicated to the Mother of God. These are: the Feast of the Nativity of the Theotokos on the 8th of September; the Feast of the Entrance into the Temple of our Most Holy Lady the Theotokos on the 21st of November; the Feast of the Annunciation of our Most Holy Lady, the Theotokos and Ever-Virgin Mary on the 25th of March; and the Feast of the Dormition of our Most Holy Lady, the Theotokos and Ever-Virgin Mary on the 15th of August. The latter feast—which is observed with incredible piety and preceded by a fifteen day fast—has textual antecedents in the apocrypha of the early fifth century, including the Transitus Mariae, which describes the Virgin as having been resurrected by Christ after her death[7] (insofar as the Church’s Tradition is concerned, this is precisely what happened to her). In the sixth century, the Byzantine emperor Maurice’s decision to inaugurate the feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos in the Great Church of Constantinople (Hagia Sophia) would resonate throughout Christian Roman Empire of Byzantium and would lead to the adoption of this feast by Rome under Pope Sergius I in the seventh century,[8] and thence throughout the Christian West.

A possible objection could be made—and has been made—by detractors at this point: that so much devotion to the Virgin could obscure the emphasis that should be placed on her Son and our God who—together with the Father and the Holy Spirit—is the only source of divine grace and of our salvation. But this objection can easily be answered by closer inspection at the manner in which the Church celebrates the Virgin, for she is always acclaimed in the Feast-days dedicated to her precisely because of her connection to Christ who has truly elevated her to the rank of the greatest intercessor between him and us. This is very clear from the Feast of the Annunciation, where—by the presence of the Holy Spirit and the overshadowing of God the Father—God the Son and Logos descends into her womb to fashion human flesh for himself, and in the Feast of her Dormition. In the icon for the latter, Christ comes to take Panagia’s soul to heaven before he resurrects her on the third day after her death, an inversion of the ‘Madonna with child’ motif.[9] But what about the Feasts of her Nativity and her Entrance into the Temple? Are they at all connected to Christ? The apolytikia or dismissal hymns for these feasts make clear their connection to God’s divine economy in our Lord Jesus. In regards to her Nativity:

Your birth, Theotokos, has proclaimed joy to all the world, for from you has dawned the Sun of Righteousness, Christ our God; he lifted the curse and gave us the blessing; he destroyed death and bestowed on us eternal life.[10]

And, in relation to her Entrance into the Temple:

Today is the prelude of God’s good pleasure, and the heralding of humanity’s salvation. In the temple of God the Virgin is clearly revealed, and she announces Christ in advance to all. To her let us cry out with mighty voice: Hail, O fulfilment of the Creator’s plan for us![11]

It is clear that in both of these Feasts, the Mother of God is not worshipped, but venerated because of her closeness to her Son; a closeness that abides forever. Saints in the Orthodox Church are venerated, and their icons too, not because of any inherent powers that they might have. They are venerated because, having struggled ascetically in love of Christ and their neighbour, the former has granted—according his will, purpose, and grace—to dwell in them and conform them to his likeness, even in this life. While we are all called to participate in Christ in such a way, for him to spiritually come and dwell in us if and when he chooses to, how much more does this pertain to the Mother of God within whom Christ dwelt both physically and spiritually; to the one who gave birth to him, raised him, watched him die and encountered him as her resurrected Lord and Saviour?

In other words, for the Church, Christ, his Father and the Spirit—i.e. the Trinitarian God—is the only source of salvation. Ten of its twelve major Feasts are explicitly dedicated to Christ, the pinnacle of which is Easter Sunday. Yet in order to demonstrate that God has really dwelt among us in the Virgin—to demonstrate that she is the archetype of the Christian life and that she constantly intercedes in our behalf to her Son whose ‘ear she has’—the Church has bracketed the ten Feasts of the Lord by two Feasts dedicated to the Panagia, which, since she is the Mother of God, are in fact dedicated to Christ also: the Feast of her Nativity on the 8th of September, just eight days after the beginning of the ecclesiastical New Year on September 1st, and on the 15th of August, her Dormition. As we read in the apolytikion of her Dormition:

When you gave birth you kept your virginity, when you fell asleep you did not abandon the world, O Theotokos. You passed into life, you who are the mother of life, who through your intercessions, redeem our souls from death.[12]

This intercessory role of the Panagia is further demonstrated by the fact that in Orthodox churches she is often depicted on the left-hand side of the iconostasis or icon screen cradling her child, with Christ Pantokrator (Παντοκράτωρ), or Master of All, on the right-hand side. She is also often depicted in the apses of traditional domed churches that usually include Christ Pantokrator within the dome representing the firmament which he, in its centre—and thus at the centre of the whole church-structure which is a microcosm—has mastery over. The appearance of the Mother of God in the apse immediately below the dome therefore represents her intercessions in our behalf. Here she is called “Wider than the Heavens” (Πλατυτέρα τῶν Οὐρανῶν / Platytera ton Ouranon), insofar as she contained in her womb the uncontainable One who is the creator of, and therefore circumscribes or contains, heaven and earth.

Moreover, in various services taking place within the ecclesial space, the Mother of God is entreated as first among the saintly intercessors to the Lord. So much so has she been honoured by the Lord and his mystical body, the Church, that in Matins, the Divine Liturgy and other services, we chant the Ἅξιον Ἐστίν (Axion Estin) or ‘Truly it is right’:

Truly it is right to call you blessed, Theotokos, ever-blessed and all-pure and the Mother of our God. More honourable than the Cherubim, incomparably more glorious than the Seraphim, who undefiled gave birth to God the Word, true Theotokos, we magnify you.[13]

The special veneration to the Mother of God is manifested especially in the veneration of icons depicting her: through bowing to them, kissing them, and crossing oneself in front of them, as well as lighting candles and burning incense before them. The incarnation of the Son of God as Christ Jesus, which he wrought through the Virgin, is perhaps best attested to in the iconographic tradition of the Orthodox Church: for the icons, made of material pigments, wood and other elements, are a testimony to the fact that the Son of God, in assuming human nature which is a microcosm, in fact sanctified all matter—cosmically—through his incarnation. We can therefore utilise matter in order to depict him; and we create and venerate icons insofar as they authentically depict—and, by God’s grace—participate in the persons they depict, whether in Christ or his saints. Moreover, since the icons represent Christ, who is God, and the saints who are imbued with God’s grace, then the Lord himself is venerated in each and every icon we kiss and pay homage too; much like the sacred relics of the saints that are imbued with God’s grace. The fact that the Lord and his saints (the latter by his grace) are at work through the icons is made clear by the countless testimonies of miraculous icons that have been venerated in the Church’s history.

Many such icons are of the Theotokos. In Mount Athos, the peninsula in northeastern Greece which has been home to monasteries and the monastic life for over a thousand years, and is considered the Virgin’s ‘garden,’ there are many miracle-working icons of the Theotokos such as the Ἅξιον Ἐστίν or ‘Truly it is right,’ the Παναγία ἡ Πορταΐτισσα (the All-Holy of the Gate), and the Παναγία ἡ Τριχερούσα (the All-Holy of the Three Ηands).

From left to right: the Ἅξιον Ἐστίν or ‘Truly it is right,’ the Παναγία ἡ Πορταΐτισσα, or the All-Holy of the Gate, and the Παναγία ἡ Τριχερούσα, the All-Holy of the Three Hands

These three icons are distinguished by the miracles associated with them. The Ἅξιον Ἐστίν or ‘Truly it is right’ is a title given both to this icon and to a hymn written by Saint Cosmas the Hymnographer in the 700s, which initially began with the words, “More honourable than the Cherubim, incomparably more glorious than the Seraphim.” In the 900s in a cell near the katholikon, or main church, of Karyes on Mount Athos, a monk was conducting a vigil to this icon when suddenly another monk appeared and prefaced St Cosmas’ hymn with the words “Truly it is right to call you blessed Theotokos, ever-blessed and all pure, and the Mother of our God.” The icon began to radiate light, and the anonymous monk who appeared was revealed to be the Archangel Gabriel, who left this hymn, forever connected to this icon, as a reminder of the Panagia’s importance in the Church. The icon can today be venerated in the katholikon at Karyes, and its Feast-day is 11th of June.

The Παναγία ἡ Πορταΐτισσα, or ‘All-Holy of the Gate,’ is attributed to Saint Luke the Evangelist and has a distinctive feature: a gash appears on the face of the Virgin, inflicted by an iconoclastic soldier in Byzantium when the civilisation was plagued by the ‘breaking of the icons.’ After striking the icon, the face of the Panagia began to bleed as though it were made of flesh and blood. The icon miraculously made its way to Mount Athos and can be venerated at the Iviron monastery, where it is renowned for the many miracles it performs. In the 1600s a copy of the Iviron icon was made and sent to Russia, where it was placed in the Iverskaya chapel in Moscow and was also renowned for its miracles; but after the Bolshevik revolution in 1917 the chapel was destroyed, and the icon remains lost. The Feast-day of the original icon is the 12th of February.

The Παναγία ἡ Τριχερούσα or ‘All-Holy of the Three Ηands’ is located at the Serbian monastery of Chilandari on Athos. It is connected with Saint John of Damascus, defender of the icons during the iconoclasm enacted by the Byzantine emperors (his writings in fact helped turned the tide, so that iconoclasm was abolished by the empress Saint Irene, and later empress-Saint Theodora). Accused as being an enemy of the Caliph, St John’s hand was severed, after which he placed it in front of this icon of the Panagia before falling asleep. When he awoke, his hand was fully restored through the intercession of the Virgin, and for a votive offering he placed a silver hand on the icon which makes the Virgin look like she has three hands, hence the name, ἡ Τριχερούσα. The Feast-day of the icon is the 28th of June.

Turning to other Orthodox lands, like Russia, the Mother of God is revered as protectress of various cities precisely through her miracle-working icons, including the city of Vladimir, which housed a special Byzantine icon—the Vladimirskaya Icon of the Mother of God—in the city’s cathedral of the Annunciation that can now be seen in the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow. In the 1100s this icon was sent by the Patriarch of Constantinople to the Grand Duke of Kiev. Later it was taken to Vladimir, and finally Moscow, where, in 1395, it protected the city from Tamerlane’s invading army. In the late 1400s it was also accredited with protecting the Muscovites from the invading Tatars. The icon’s Feast-day is the 6th of July.

The Vladimirskaya Icon of the Mother of God

In St Petersburg, the great Russian author Fyodor Dostoevsky worshipped at a church dedicated to this Vladimirskaya icon. Elsewhere in St Petersburg one can find a copy of the famous Kazanskaya icon, or the icon of the Mother of God of Kazan, which was allegedly procured from Constantinople before the city fell and has been venerated as protectress of various Russian cities, including Kazan. The original icon is in the Epiphany cathedral at Yelokhovo, in Moscow, but there is a copy at another eponymous church, the Kazan cathedral, again in Moscow. The icon’s Feast-days are 21st of July and 4th of November (Julian calendar).

The Mother of God of Kazan

The Mother of God has of course been venerated as protectress of many cities throughout the world. Constantinople regarded the Virgin as its “Mighty Defender and Commander”—Τῇ ὑπερμάχῷ στρατηγῷ—based on the troparion or hymn that appears in the Akathist mentioned above,[14] and Athens in Greece was distinguished by its conversion of the Parthenon—originally dedicated to the goddess Athena—to Παναγία ἡ Ἀθηνιώτισσα, the All-Holy One of Athens.

Historically, there are also relics attributed to the Theotokos. Churches in the suburbs of Blachernae and Chalkoprateia, as well as the Hodegon Monastery were some of the earliest dedicated to her in Constantinople in the fifth century. All of these purportedly contained sacred relics associated with the Virgin: the Blachernae had her robe or funeral garb,[15] the Chalkoprateia, her girdle,[16] and the Hodegon the miraculous icon known as the Hodegitria (Παναγία ἡ Ὁδηγήτρια), or “She who leads the way.” By the end of the fifth century the emperor Leo I had built the shrine of the “Virgin of the Spring, later called the Zoodochos Pege [Ἡ Ζωοδόχος Πηγή]” or the Life-Giving Spring, above a spring on the outskirts of Constantinople—which has been a site renowned for the many miracles the Virgin has wrought there. Later churches such as that of the Theotokos Pammakaristos (Θεοτόκος ἡ Παμμακάριστος) or the All-Blessed God-bearer, the church of the Theotokos Kyriotissa (Θεοτόκος ἡ Κυριώτισσα) or Our Lady the God-bearer, and the church of St Mary of the Mongols (also known as Theotokos Panagiotissa or All-Holy God-bearer), point to the extent of her veneration in the Orthodox Church; a veneration which—as one can discern from the way she is referred to in these churches—was always associated with her Son and our God.

Finally, the role and place given to the Theotokos in Orthodox worship is confirmed by the fact that she has been encountered throughout the generations by saints and faithful within the Church. Stories abound: on Athos and elsewhere in Greece, in Russia, Romania, Serbia, Bulgaria, America—she has been seen throughout the world by those whom God has accounted worthy to see her. But let me end by giving two, prominent examples, from different points in history, one from the early Church and one from early modernity, to drive home this point.

In the fourth century St Gregory of Nyssa wrote a hagiographical text On the Life and Wonders of Our Father Among the Saints, Gregory the Wonderworker. The Wonderworker was instructed both in the philosophical curriculum of late antiquity and Christianity, before moving to Pontus to become bishop of Neocaesarea. There he witnessed to the faith in Christ and performed many miracles before reposing in the Lord around AD 270. In the Nyssen’s life of the Wonderworker, he records that, after being made bishop of Neocaesarea, he yearned to penetrate deeper into the mystery of the Christian faith so that he might better instruct his flock. As he turned over these thoughts in his mind one night, St John the Theologian appeared, accompanied by the holy Theotokos. St Gregory immediately cast down his eyes, not being able to look at these figures who were illuminated by a radiating light. But he heard their conversation: the Mother of God asked St John to reveal to St Gregory the mystery of the faith, which he did so in the form of a creed.[17]

Next, we move to late eighteenth century Russia, to the town of Sarov in the region of Nizhny Novgorod. It was in this town that a young man named Prokhor became tonsured as the monk Seraphim in 1786, which led him on the path of extreme asceticism in his love for and pursuit of Christ. Falling ill with dropsy, Saint Seraphim was visited by the Mother of God, accompanied by Sts John and Peter; and as the young monk lay suffering in bed, she pointed to him and said, “He is of our race.”[18] She then healed him of his malady. These words she repeated to him a second time, many years later, after the saint was beaten mercilessly by bandits and left for dead. Once again accompanied by Sts John and Peter, she appeared at St Seraphim’s bedside, and referring to the doctors, exclaimed: “What of their efforts? He is of our race.”[19] He was to see her many more times—and he also saw her Son, our Lord Jesus Christ[20]—before reposing in the Lord in the 1833.

From these examples, we discern the Mother of God’s continuing activity in the Church in the service of our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ; an activity confirmed by this very truth: that she often visits the saints who are made worthy of her assistance. May the holy Theotokos and ever-Virgin Mary always intercede to her Son and our God for our salvation.

[1] The Akathist Hymn, ed. et al. George Karahalios (Northridge, CA: Narthex Press, 2008), 23.

[2] Ibid., 38, 39.

[3] Ibid., 23 (my translation).

[4] Apart from perhaps the allegorical representation of the “woman clothed with the sun” in Revelation chapter twelve.

[5] Tradition is also dynamic, engaging with aspects of various cultures in order to communicate the Gospel to them.

[6] The Protoevangelium of James 1–8, trans. Oscar Cullman, in New Testament Apocrypha, vol. 1: Gospels and Related Writings, ed. Wilhelm Schneemelcher and R. McL. Wilson (Louisville, KE: Westminster John Knox Press, 1991), 426–29.

[7] Wolfgang A. Beinert, ‘The Relatives of Jesus,’ in New Testament Apocrypha, vol. 1 (cit. above), 485.

[8] Miri Rubin, The Mother of God: A History of the Virgin Mary (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2009), 97.

[9] The ‘Madonna with child’ motif is a conventional term that can be used for icons (or any image) depicting the Mother of God holding the Christ-child.

[10] The Divine Liturgy of our Father Among the Saints John Chrysostom, trans. Committee on the Translation of Liturgical Texts (Sydney: St Andrew’s Orthodox Press, 2005), 127.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid., 135.

[13] Ibid., 79.

[14] The Akathist Hymn, 21.

[15] The robe of the Virgin had been brought to Constantinople by two patricians from Palestine, and in 472 Emperor Leo I ordered it to be placed in a special reliquary and moved to the church of Blachernae. Holger A. Klein, ‘Sacred Relics and Imperial Ceremonies at the Great Palace of Constantinople,’ BYZAS 5 (2006): 77–99, esp. 87.

[16] Cecily Hennessey, ‘The Chapel of St Jacob at the Church of the Theotokos Chalkoprateia in Constantinople,’ in Proceedings of the 7th International Congress on the Archaeology of the Ancient Near East, vol. 2, ed. Roger Matthews, John Curtis et al. (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag, 2012), 351–66, esp. 352.

[17] Gregory, bishop of Nyssa, On the Life and Wonders of Our Father Among the Saints, Gregory the Wonderworker 4, in St. Gregory Thaumaturgus: Life and Works, trans. Michael Slusser (Washington D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1998), 53-54.

[18] Irina Gorainov, The Message of Saint Seraphim [of Sarov]: “The Aim of Christian Life is Acquisition of the Holy Spirit” (Oxford: Fairacres Publication, 1973), 3.

[19] Ibid., 5.

[20] Ibid., 3.

The Life of Saint George

by Mario Baghos

“Wondrous is God in his saints” exclaims the holy psalmist David (Ps 68:36, LXX), and together with him we intone this sacred verse, especially when we consider the life of the holy and glorious Great-martyr George the Trophy-bearer, whom the mystical body of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ—the Orthodox Church—commemorates on the 23rd of April. Born around 280 AD, Saint George was a native of Cappadocia in Asia Minor. The son of well-to-do parents, his father reposed in the Lord when he was just ten years old. His mother was from Lydda in Palestine, and, after the death of her husband, travelled with the young George to her homeland because she had properties there.

God blessed George with wealth, comeliness, and bravery. At the age of eighteen, he enrolled himself in the legions of the Roman Empire and became a standard-bearer. This was a noted position, as the holder of the standard, which bore the emblem of the military unit, was meant to be very courageous: he was the rallying point for the troops in his unit, and was particularly exposed to attacks from opposing forces. George quickly advanced through the military ranks, enjoying the office of tribune and then commander. After he learnt of the repose of his mother in the Lord, he became the sole inheritor of her properties and even more dedicated to the army.

St George’s military prowess—his external bravery and skill against physical foes—can be seen as divinely inspired preparation for his internal bravery and his war against spiritual enemies. For while George belonged to a civilisation that was known for its exultation of heroes, warriors, and generals—and which prized material conquests and the worldly glory that they resulted in—the Christian faith to which he belonged was gradually changing the aspirations of people, especially young men and women. Instead of external battles and wars, Christians were to undertake spiritual warfare, as succinctly expressed by St Paul in his epistle to the Ephesians, 6:10-17:

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armour of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Therefore put on the full armour of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.

Here, St Paul interpreted military attire and weapons allegorically. No longer was armour to be used to defend against attacks from our neighbours of flesh and blood (to whom the Lord exhorts us to ‘turn the other cheek,’ cf. Matthew 5:39), but against the spiritual forces of evil, the demons and the devil. “The belt of truth, “the breastplate of righteousness,” “the shield of faith,” “the helmet of salvation,” and “the sword of the Spirit”: all these are the ‘military gear’ of Christians, protecting them from temptations in their journey towards salvation in Christ. St George was able to transfer the significance of physical armour and weapons to the spiritual warfare that he was called by providence to undertake, especially when he testified to the Gospel through sufferings in imitation of our Lord Jesus Christ. And just as he was a standard-bearer when he began his military career, so too would he become a rallying point for Christians who suffered and were killed under the pagan emperor Diocletian, who instigated the Great Persecution against the Church in AD 303. The burning of churches, sacred scriptures, and the martyrdoms that ensued were particularly frequent in the Eastern territories of the empire, under which St George’s homeland fell.

At the time that the Great Persecution began, St George was serving the military at York in Britain—the same place where the future Christian ruler, St Constantine the Great, would be declared emperor by his father’s troops just a few years later, in AD 306. In these Western territories of the empire, they were not so disposed to persecuting Christians. This could have been because Constantine’s father, Constantius Chlorus, governed these parts: his tolerance of the Church is well known. The governors of the Eastern territories, on the other hand, were overwhelmed by the edict to persecute, since Christians were found there in great numbers, and the martyrs many. They therefore implored Diocletian to put it to an end. Wishing to address this matter in council, Diocletian convened a meeting of the Roman elite where he resided, in Nicomedia in Bythinia. Here he was to press hard for the continuation of the persecution. Around the same time, George departed for Palestine, sold off his property and gave the profits, as well as the money he already possessed, to the poor. He manumitted his slaves, except for his friend Pasikrates, who chose to remain in his service.

Stripped of all worldly attachments and arrayed in the “armour of God” (Eph 6:11), George was prepared for the spiritual contest. Hearing about Diocletian’s council, he went to Nicomedia and faced the emperor, castigating him—in the presence of the Roman elite—for his idolatry and ruthlessness and exhorting him to embrace the faith in God the Trinity. Diocletian, who had regarded George highly, offered him a chance to show his fealty to the empire by sacrificing to its gods. When, like so many holy martyrs before him, St George refused to sacrifice because of his commitment to Christ, he was subjected to various tortures, the providential purpose of which was twofold: first, to manifest the saint’s loving self-sacrifice in imitation of Christ who died in behalf of sinners—even those who put him on the cross—and second; to show forth God’s glory, since the saint’s sufferings were healed by the Lord and were accompanied by miraculous signs. These signs included: suffering a spear wound just like the wound that Christ suffered when he was speared with a lance on the cross (John 19:34); being freed from a wheel covered in knives and miraculously healed of the wounds incurred thereupon; surviving immersion in a lime-pit for three days; being healed of wounds caused to his feet from red-hot iron shoes; incurring beatings and floggings so that his face shone like the sun, which is testified to in his icon (and the icons of all the saints) and indicates the presence of God’s grace; surviving the ingestion of poison; resurrecting a dead man just as Christ raised Lazarus (Jn 11:38-44), the young girl (Mt 9:18-22, Mark 5:35-43, Luke 8:40-56) or the widow’s son at Nain (Lk 7:11-17); and by prayer exposing the demons in the temple of Apollo and shattering the idols there present. The saint was finally decapitated, and it became clear that, throughout his martyrdom, he demonstrated with his patient endurance and reliance on Christ the wonders of God in his saints (Ps 68:36). He converted many to Christianity who were formerly pagans, including Diocletian’s wife, the empress Alexandra, and his life remains a compelling witness to the truth of Christianity even to this day.

St George was martyred in the Lord on 23rd April, AD 303. Fittingly, he is called ‘trophy-bearer’ because he has received the ultimate prize from the spiritual contest that he undertook, which is to be in the presence of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ forever and ever. Pasikrates took his holy body to his mother’s birthplace in Lydda, Palestine, according to the saint’s wishes. Here it worked miracles, and continues to do so; for the saint is a great intercessor to the Lord in our behalf. Since he dwells in the Lord, he continues to perform miracles by the power of Christ through his relics and icons that depict him authentically, as he was in life. Famous throughout the world, and the special patron of many cities and countries, St George has been encountered by many saints throughout the generations, and the Church continues to experience the benefits of his prayers, since, even now, he entreats our Lord Jesus Christ for our salvation.

Icon of Saint George from the Holy Monastery of Vatopedi, Mount Athos

Hesychasm, the Jesus Prayer, and the Komboskoini

by Mario Baghos

Hesychasm is a translation of the Greek word ἡσυχασμός, which in turn derives from ἡσυχία, meaning ‘quiet’ or ‘stillness.’ The practice of stillness is associated with cultivating existential or inner peace. It is characterised by the repetition of the Jesus Prayer—“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner”—as well as respiratory exercises and bodily postures, such as the regulation of breathing while stooping towards one’s navel while seated on a short stool. These practices are supposed to ‘ready’ one for the grace of God that is bestowed upon believers by the latter’s initiative, that is, when and if he chooses. In other words, through this cultivation of stillness and invocation of the Lord Jesus, God, according to his will and purpose, may reveal himself, truly and palpably, to the hesychast. This revelation might take the form of an experience of the divine or Taboric light; a real experience of God in the here and now, just as saints Peter, James and John experienced on Mount Tabor when Christ revealed his glory to them (what we call the Transfiguration described in Matthew 17:1-8, Mark 9:2-8, Luke 9:28-36). Hesychasm has always been part of the Orthodox Church’s spiritual experience, particularly its monastic tradition, and is famously associated with St Gregory Palamas, who had to defend hesychasm against misinterpretations in the fourteenth century. Its practice is addressed at length in the Philokalia (Φιλοκαλία) —which means ‘love of beauty,’ and refers to the love of beauty of the spiritual life—and is a compilation of mostly monastic texts reflecting the Church’s mystical tradition. In the modern translation into English of the Greek Philokalia, the editors importantly stress that

… hesychasm is not something that has developed independently of or alongside the sacramental and liturgical life of the Church. It is part and parcel of it. It too is an ecclesial tradition. To attempt to practise it, therefore, apart from active participation in this sacramental and liturgical life is to cut it off from its living roots. It is also to abuse the intention of its exponents and teachers and so act with a presumption that may well have consequences of a disastrous kind …[1]

Hesychasm should therefore not be undertaken apart from the Church’s life; and should ideally be practised—especially in its more rigid forms or postures mentioned above—under guidance from one’s spiritual Father. Nevertheless, certain aspects of hesychasm, such as focusing on one’s breathing (such as breathing slowly into one’s diaphragm) in order to quiet the thoughts through which temptations come, and the repetition of the Jesus Prayer while standing in front of an icon at set times in the day, is important for all Orthodox Christians, male or female, married or unmarried. This is not the same as meditation, which can be self-centred. Hesychasm instead harnesses the body’s mental and physical rhythms (breathing and control of thoughts) for prayer and is directed towards another person. And this person is God, the Lord Jesus Christ, whom we truly speak to through the Jesus Prayer. Hesychasm is thus humble: while we actively try to focus our mental and physical energies on our Lord Jesus Christ, we must acknowledge our sinfulness and unworthiness in his presence, as indicated by the fact that in the Jesus Prayer we ask the Lord to “have mercy on me, a sinner.”

When we pray, we are often beset by distracting or pernicious thoughts, sometimes because of the mind’s preoccupied or distracted state, sometimes on account of memory, and at other times because of attacks from evil spirits. These thoughts should not disturb us. Instead they should bolster our resolve to continue praying. To assist with focus while saying the Jesus Prayer, Orthodox Christians often use a prayer rope, called a komboskoini (κομποσκοίνι). This rope is usually in the form of a loop, made out of wool, and has at its base a cross. Some prayer ropes have thirty-three knots, representing the years Christ lived on earth. The prayer rope can be used by beginners until, after much experience and by the grace of God, the prayer becomes interiorised in the mind and is said mentally or, in the case of the saints, by the presence of the Holy Spirit.

Believers can say the Jesus Prayer out loud while performing menial tasks, or in front of an icon without a komboskoini: techniques vary in relation to one’s spiritual state and according to the advice one receives from his or her spiritual Father. Finally, it is important to underscore the fact that if we choose to practice the Jesus Prayer, we must not do so with the expectation that God will grant us his grace or visions or anything of that sort, as though the prayer works through cause and effect. This is prideful thinking and could have serious consequences. We must say the Jesus Prayer out of true repentance and desire to participate in Christ out of love for him. In this way, we might be—if God wills it—accounted worthy to experience what the saints have experienced; but this should not be our goal, since it is not up to us, but entirely up to the discretion of our almighty Lord.

Saint Gregory Palamas, defender and practitioner of hesychasm

[1] G. E. H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard, Kallistos Ware (eds and trans.), ‘Introduction,’ in The Philokalia: The Complete Text Compiled by St Nikodimos of the Holy Mountain and St Makarios of Corinth, vol. 1 (New York: Faber and Faber, 1983), 15.

On Envy

by Mario Baghos

Ancient persons, even before the coming of Christ, knew of the forces at work, both human and supernatural, that disrupted interpersonal and institutional relations. Cultures throughout the world still believe in the ‘evil eye’ (βασκανία), which consists in misfortune befalling a person when someone gives them an aggressive or envious stare. The extent to which such a force is considered anchored in the supernatural is ambiguous. In other words, it is unclear whether the evil eye is viewed as a spiritual force, or whether it ‘proceeds’ from the eyes of the one casting it. Perhaps the ‘evil eye’ is a way of explaining just how important it is to positively regulate our perception of things? The Lord Himself affirms, “the eye is the lamp of the body. If your vision is clear, your whole body will be full of light” (Matthew 6:22). Elsewhere, He exhorts us to let our light “shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven” (Mt 5:16). Here, the positive effect of ‘seeing clearly’ can be related to doing good works for the glory of God. Conversely, the Lord warns: “But if your eyes are unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!” (Mt 6:23).

In any case, the ‘evil eye’ was so widespread in the collective folklore of the Balkans and beyond that the Orthodox Church was compelled to compose a prayer against it. (The superstitious accompaniments in the use of this prayer by laypersons could be either ‘magical’ accretions or ‘leftovers’ from pagan practices.) What is interesting is that instead of rejecting wholesale this pre-Christian spiritual phenomenon, the Church, in its pastoral wisdom, met the people halfway by acknowledging that one can be affected by negative thoughts and perceptions—whether from people or evil spirits—and that the only One who can defend us from them is the Lord Christ; the same One who exhorts us and helps us to change our way of viewing the world, people included.

Related to this, in ancient times there was another force that facilitated disunity or chaos and had to be warded off at all costs. This was, in Greek, phthonos (φθόνος)—which was sometimes used interchangeably with βασκανία—what we would translate as ‘envy.’ The Romans personified ‘envy,’ or in Latin, Invidia, as a malevolent entity that was pertinently described by Ovid in his Metamorphoses:

She never smiles, save at the sight of another’s troubles; she never sleeps, disturbed with wakeful cares; unwelcome to her is the sight of men’s success, and with the sight she pines away; she gnaws and is gnawed, herself her own punishment. (Metamorphoses 2)

The role of envy as causing and even embodying unhappiness and suffering (the extent of which are typified in a sort of self-cannibalisation) is a powerful metaphor for the destructive effect of this passion on a person’s wellbeing. Because of the power of this metaphor, it crops up again and again in Greco-Roman historiography. Cassius Dio (Roman History 44) and Sallust (The War with Catiline 5) used it in a similar way to how the ‘evil eye’ has been described above; a tendency towards envy, causing strife. Later, the earliest Christian historians, who modeled their writings on Greco-Roman historiography (but of course infused it with Christian content), appropriated the concept of envy in relation to demonic and human activity that disrupted the unity of the Church. Thus, in his Ecclesiastical History, Eusebius of Caesarea referred to two kinds of envy.

One kind, described aptly in relation to the historical circumstances that prevailed in the Church just before the Great Persecution in AD 303, occurs when there is peace within the Church, where: “increasing freedom transformed our character to arrogance and sloth: we began by envying and abusing each other” (HE 8.1). This reminds us that the external peace and comfort that the Church experiences at various times and places could come with a terrible cost if one drops his or her guard. As St Antony the Great stated to St Poemen, “This is the great work of a man [or woman]: always to take the blame for his [or her] own sins before God and to expect temptation to his [or her] last breath” (Sayings of the Desert Fathers).

In the case described by Eusebius, the lack of circumspection among Christians in a time of ostensible ‘freedom’ made them haughty, so that they turned against one another. This, Eusebius argued, is why the Great Persecution was permitted to take place: it was a sort of divine pedagogy to bring the people of God back to spiritual health. Another kind of envy that Eusebius referred to is in relation to demonic activity. In his Proof of the Gospel, Eusebius described envy as conditioning the demons’ behaviour insofar as it was because of their envy of humankind’s salvation that they fell and turned against God and the saints (PG 4.9). In his Ecclesiastical History, the bishop of Caesarea gives many examples of these attacks against saints and martyrs, in some cases explicitly naming them as motivated by the demon envy (such as in the death of St Apollonius the martyr in EH 5.21).

So far, we have seen that the two kinds of envy referred to in the classical sources, whether in relation to the ‘evil eye’ or as an entity that disrupted unity, are likewise reflected in the writings of the first Christian historian in relation to human beings and demons. The fact that Eusebius deployed envy in his History as a source of division in the same way historians such as Dio and Sallust did points to two things: that envy is seen in all cultures as malignant, with the Church being able to identify this passion as either the result of human behaviour or demonic activity, the latter possibly influencing the former (though not in every case); and that, by using the literary device of envy as a force of division in his History, Eusebius was engaging with readers in the Greco-Roman context who would have been familiar with the writings of classical historians who used the same motif.

This form of cultural appropriation that—in interpreting a term/motif from the ancient world from a Christian point of view—sheds light on the forces at work against the Church, was repeated by subsequent Christian historians. Socrates the Constantinopolitan, whose Ecclesiastical History comprises a continuation of Eusebius’ to his own day, includes a letter from St Pope Julius of Rome on the trials of St Athanasius the Great, concerning which he declared that “our Lord Jesus Christ” protected Athanasius from envy/phthonos in order to restore him to the see of Alexandria after his second exile (EH 2.23). It is not clear if Julius, in referring to envy in the singular, is denoting the envy of the Arians who contrived against Athanasius or the demon envy. Elsewhere, however, Socrates referred to the demon as “insidiously at work in the midst of a prosperous condition of affairs” (EH 1.22). Socrates then ponders “for what reason the goodness of God permits this to be done”—i.e. for envy to attack the Church—whether He wishes to perfect the Church thereby or to “break down the self importance” which often accompanies faith. Either way, the test of such conditions is meant to strip away the pride that can creep up on Christians. Moreover, the humble endurance in the wake of attacks from envy is a testimony of the faithful adherents of the Gospel. This much can be discerned in the life of St John Chrysostom, who, according to an unnamed disciple (whom posterity knows as Ps.-Martyrius and who composed the saint’s Funerary Speech) was attacked by two kinds of envy, both human (FS 13) and supernatural (FS 39), the latter being the source of the former, until the saint’s life came to an end in martyrdom on account of their attacks.

Although I have given a brief outline of the use of envy as a literary device by way of consulting the early Christian historians, in fact this motif is prevalent in Christian spiritual literature. For example, in a sermon Concerning Envy, the fourth century Cappadocian father St Basil the Great related φθόνος and βασκανία in a way that denotes the effect of ‘envy’ (phthonos) on a person, namely by making them ‘evil-eyed.’ Moreover, the saint alluded to Ovid’s description of the self-cannibalising personification of envy, the Latin Invidia, by stating that “the envious [person] consumes himself, pining away through grief,” before asserting that the demons find kinship with, and attach themselves to, envious souls (CE).

Having given a brief account of how envy, or phthonos/indivia, was appropriated by the earliest Christian writers to describe a reality affecting the Church and us all, what lessons can we infer? In the examples given above, the Christian authors cited were concerned with envy as it affected, not the outside world, but the Church. This is because of the concern of these writers for the Church whenever it lapsed into disunity. Did not our Lord Jesus Christ pray that “all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (John 17:21)? Disunity within the Church, caused by envy, is an unfortunate reality: but we must also acknowledge—however difficult it is for us to do so—that it is an affront to the unity between Christ and God the Father and the witness to the Gospel. This is why the demon envy attacks the members of the Church, which is the body of Christ, more violently than anyone (or anywhere) else. And according to the testimonies that we have seen, envy attacks precisely when the Church seems to be flourishing. In such times, no one is immune: both the enactors of envy and its targets become victims of the “father of envy” (FS 39), and the only way it can be overcome is by showing humility, dispassion, and love to all parties involved.

My goal in exploring the cultural appropriation of ‘envy’ in the writings of the early Christians has been twofold. To remind us that this phenomenon is real, and that it continues to afflict us in the Church. The Lord exhorts us to participate in His life through communal fellowship and love for our neighbour, even our enemy. Loving unity in Christ is the polar opposite of the disunity, chaos and pain caused by envy, which makes us, according to St Basil: “sharers in the works of our Adversary … so [that we may] be found condemned together with him” (CE). It is precisely by engendering envy that the enemy foils both our participation in Christ and the witness to the Gospel. But the Lord exhorts us to be agents of light, to have clear vision (Mt 6:22) and to “shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven” (Mt 5:16). In order to get there, we need to cast off the false presumption that we are ever spiritually safe, expecting, to paraphrase St Antony, temptation to our last breath. We need to cultivate a constant vigilance, better still, to “put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armour of light” (Rom 13:12). This armour is described by St Paul in Romans as a change in behaviour, which implies a change in thought. It is also associated with ‘clothing ourselves with Christ’ (Rom 13:14). To get there, let us together—as one Orthodox Christian family—turn our minds and hearts in prayer towards God the Son, our Master and Saviour. Let us imitate Him in loving one another, to the mockery of envy, and for the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Saint George and the Dragon

by Mario Baghos

Generally speaking, traditional cultures and civilisations have a threefold representation of reality comprised of heaven, earth, and the underworld. In the holy Orthodox Church we also have such a representation, with the qualification that these three levels of reality should also be interpreted mystically, in a way that is relevant for our present experience. Seen in this manner, heaven, earth, and the underworld constitute existential states or modes of being: to be ‘heavenly’ is to partake of God’s grace which is above us yet also within all things; to be ‘earthly’ is to be passionately attached to the things of this world (nevertheless, one can be on earth and still live a ‘heavenly’ life, the way the saints do); and the ‘underworld,’ Hades or hell, is how God is experienced by those who have not turned to him in this life—his love is experienced as an unendurable fire.

This view of reality is especially relevant when considering the dragon, which appears in many cultures and civilisations—and most emphatically, in the hymnographical and artistic representations of the Church—as an agent of chaos or evil. This reptilian creature, usually depicted with wings, or sometimes merely as a serpent, is facing downwards, towards the earth. Unlike human beings whose calling to godliness is manifested in their upward posture, the serpent crawls on its belly and eats dust from the ground (Genesis 3:14), thus symbolising ‘earthliness’: a passionate attachment to worldly desires which—on account of the selfishness which such attachments exacerbate—lead to wrong choices, and thus to evil which is an outcome of our misuse of our freedom. The dragon, or serpent, strives to create the conditions for a life not lived in accordance with heaven (remember the Lord’s prayer, “your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven,” Matthew 6:10). This is why in Genesis the devil—who is actually an archangel which fell through its misuse of freedom of choice—is depicted as a serpent (Gen 3:1-5, 13-15): it leads Adam and Eve away from the heavenly life in Eden by exhorting them to disobey the commandment not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Adam and Eve’s free choice to embrace this temptation led to their exile from Eden, their fall from the heavenly life, which introduced sin and death into the world.

But, for Christians, the fall was undone when the Son of God, our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, freely chose obedience to the will of God the Father for the plan of salvation, thereby succeeding where the old Adam had failed. Our Lord Jesus Christ is therefore the New Adam, who, through his self-sacrificial love, defeats the state of death inaugurated by the old Adam by rising from the dead. He defeats the devil also, by plundering Hades while reposed in the tomb; and with his resurrection from death he opens up the gates of paradise—and re-establishes the heavenly life—for all those who participate in his body, the Church, in the here and now and in the age to come.

Since the devil has already been defeated, then why is it that we depict saints, like the archangel Michael or George the Trophy-Bearer, as defeating the devil in the form of a dragon, in icons in the Orthodox Church? In relation to the archangel Michael, it is because this great general of the angelic hosts was tasked with throwing the dragon and his demons out of heaven when they pridefully turned against God. In relation to St George, an answer can only be found if we dwell more on the work of Christ himself. While we have seen that the devil/dragon has indeed been defeated by Christ, this, it must be acknowledged, has occurred mystically within the Lord who is the alpha (Α) and omega (Ω), the beginning and the end, the first and the last, of all things (Rev 1:8,17, 22:13). Hence, because the Son of God who rose from the dead two-thousand years ago is also the creator of the universe (together with the Father and the Holy Spirit) and the One who will return at the second coming to judge the living and the dead, then all that he accomplished in his ministry—including the defeat of sin, death, the devil and the inauguration of his kingdom on earth in the Church—has occurred objectively within him. That is why, in order to benefit from what the Lord has lovingly accomplished for us, we need to be baptised into his body, the Church, and we must partake of his body and blood in the Eucharist, which is a participation in his very life which has defeated death forevermore. Subjectively, therefore, we still sin, are tempted, and die, until we are—if we strive in the Church and God wills it by his grace, initiative, and purpose—totally conformed by grace to his presence in the age to come. The important qualification, however, is that the saints actually participate in his kingdom in the here and now, and, while still liable to temptation, sin, and death, nevertheless are transferred to his eternal kingdom when they pass from this life to the next, where they pray to God in our behalf.

In summary, Christ has objectively defeated the dragon forever in his person, and this defeat needs to happen subjectively in our lives, as we journey—by God’s grace—to his kingdom. The Lord even allows us to be tempted by the devil and his demons so that we might realise our sinfulness and be led through these temptations back to Christ. This is what we observe in the lives of the saints, and this is what we can discern in St George’s encounter with the dragon. The slaying of the dragon is often described as taking place before the saint’s encounter with the emperor Diocletian that led to his martyrdom; it can even be said to have been a preparation for his Christ-pleasing death.

The story is set in various places, in Asia Minor, in Lebanon, or in Libya, and describes a pagan king, a persecutor of the Christians, whose territory is menaced by a man-eating dragon. This dragon makes a nest near the local lake, from where the inhabitants of that land get their water. The king, under the advise of his pagan priests, decides that in order to placate the dragon’s hunger, all families should sacrifice one child each to the beast by drawing lots. When the lot fell on the king to sacrifice his only daughter, he lamented his decision greatly, for she was beautiful and he loved her very much. Nevertheless, in accordance with his prior judgement, he took her outside the city gates and offered her up as a sacrifice. Providentially, it happened that St George, who was returning from a campaign, passed by that region and encountered the young maiden in distress. She told him all that was about to happen to her, and the saint compassionately decided to defend her against the beast. When it emerged to devour its prey, the holy George prayed to the Trinitarian God before lancing the dragon and taking it captive. The saint instructed the girl to drag the creature into the town by her belt. Exposing the dragon’s powerlessness in the face of God the Trinity, with whose help St George defeated it, the inhabitants of the city followed the example of the king and his daughter and received baptism; right after the saint dispatched the beast for good.

This story is full of important symbolism that relates directly to the life of St George and his martyrdom. The dragon is here an image of the devil, for we have seen that it is described as a dragon in the book of Revelation, and perhaps manifests itself as such, for we know from the lives of the saints that it can take various forms. The city could be any city of the ancient world, for during St George’s lifetime the Roman Empire that governed most of the European continent and the Near East had not yet become Christian. The idol worship inherent to paganism, practiced by the king and the inhabitants of the city, is shown to be self-defeating; to worship idols is ultimately to be enslaved by the devil, the dragon, which terrorises the pagans and eats their offspring—it is antithetical to life. The young maiden is a victim of this idol worship, which exacerbates the passions—the ‘earthly’ way of life described above—and leads to our being attacked by the enemy, the dragon. When St George comes to her aid, he is able to defeat the dragon but only because he humbly invokes God the Trinity. (Indeed, the fact that God comes to his aid shows that he is already close to God.) The maiden, empowered by the example of George and the grace of the Trinitarian God, demonstrates her victory over idolatry and the passions when she drags the dragon by her belt. The victory over the earthly way of living engendered by paganism is then transferred to the whole city and to its king when they embrace Christ and receive baptism, which means to receive—and to strive to undertake—a heavenly way of life.

Thus, the story of St George killing the dragon is relevant to his time and place and to Christians everywhere. We need to partake in the life of God the Trinity in the Church so that the dragon, which has once and for all been defeated by Christ, might be defeated in our own lives. That the dragon was defeated by St George (with God’s help) in his life is organically connected to his death as a martyr, for this story is often recounted before the depiction of the ordeals he had to endure for the sake of Christ and in imitation of him. The saint was able to endure them because of his victory over the enemy, which, from the account of his martyrdom, we know he had power over by the grace of God (for instance, when through prayer he exposes the evil spirits in the temple of Apollo, and their idols come crashing to the ground). In fact, many icons depicting George as a dragon-slayer show him being blessed by Christ and as receiving a crown of martyrdom from the hands of an angel sent by the Lord; meaning that this important story should be interpreted through the lens of Christ’s ultimate victory over the dragon, which he also accomplishes in the saints in whom he comes to dwell.

The Life of Saint Antony, Father of Monasticism

by Mario Baghos

Monasticism has been a hallmark of Orthodox Christianity since early times. The desire among some people to partake intensely in God’s kingdom in the here and now often involved their departure from ‘the world.’ Leaving behind family, friends, jobs, cities, and other attachments, they would go into deserts, forests, and other places in nature that lacked human habitation. Here, they devoted themselves to prayer and asceticism, including fasting, manual labour, reading, and other work. The goal of these ascetical practices—accompanied by ceaseless prayer—was to control the passions, those selfish attachments that cause us to sin. Intense spiritual warfare and temptation would accompany their strivings, but the end result—according to God’s will and purpose—would be communion with God.

Monastic practices predate Christianity, but in Christianity they find their final form. This is because our Lord Jesus Christ blessed monasticism. He did this not only through his own celibate life, but by accepting to be baptised by the desert-dweller, his cousin, St John the Forerunner. There are various forms that monastic life can take. Historically, these have included: monks or nuns attached to a church or an ascetic household; itinerant ascetics; hermits in isolated cells; anchorites living with a few disciples; and coenobites, monks and nuns living in a centrally organised monastery, under an abbot or abbess. While many of these monastic practices flourished within the Church, they were given permanent structure by the reforms of holy bishops like Basil the Great, who organised coenobitic communities under their respective abbots within the ecclesial framework.

Of the monks that flourished in the early Church, perhaps none is so distinguished as Saint Antony the Great. He has been called the ‘Father of Monasticism,’ not because he invented this sacred practice, but because his ascetic strivings, his virtuous life, and his nearness to God became a standard for all other monks and nuns to follow. Born in AD 251 in Egypt, Antony’s parents were well born and possessed much property. Together with his younger sister, Antony was raised a Christian, and practiced the virtue of obedience to his parents while reading the scriptures often. His parents died when he was young, so that at around eighteen or twenty years of age he had to take care of his sister by himself. Six months after the death of his parents, he was contemplating how the apostles left everything to follow our Saviour Jesus Christ, and how in the book of Acts they sold their possessions and distributed the profit to those among them in need (Acts 4:32-37). When on one occasion he entered the church and heard the Lord say in the Gospel, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell all your possessions and give to the poor, and come and follow me, and you will have treasure in heaven” (Matthew 19:21), and, on another occasion, “Do not be concerned about tomorrow” (Mt 6:34), he sold everything he had and entrusted his sister to the care of ascetic women.

Antony then travelled the surrounding villages to learn the life of asceticism from experienced spiritual Fathers. In this we can see his humility and another hallmark of Orthodox Christianity, that of spiritual discipleship, whether it be to one’s bishop, priest, or spiritual elder. For it is only by entrusting ourselves to the will of God and his presence in the lives of those who have walked the ascetic path before us—and who are therefore near to God—that we can grow spiritually.

As Antony grew spiritually, the devil, who is the enemy of Christians and all people—especially when they practiced goodness—attacked Antony with various temptations, ranging from a longing for his family and possessions, to lustful fantasies. With prayer and fasting, Antony, with God’s help, was able to reject these temptations.

After the initial wave of attacks, Antony redoubled his ascetic efforts, even going as far as to live in a tomb near his village. Among the graves, he contemplated the fleeting nature of life on earth, and how we must keep our focus on our ultimate dwelling place, which is the kingdom of heaven. The enemy could not stand Antony’s growing closeness to God, and, having failed to defeat him by tempting him with thoughts, he attacked him physically. Having been beaten mercilessly by demons on two consecutive occasions, Antony recited psalms and prayed, constantly evoking the name of the Lord until Christ himself—who did not forget Antony’s struggle—intervened. Saint Athanasius the Great, bishop of Alexandria in Egypt, describes the Lord’s intervention as follows:

Looking up, Antony saw the roof [of the tomb] appear to open and a beam of light descended upon him. Suddenly the demons vanished and the pain in his body immediately ceased … Antony perceived the Lord’s help, and when he took a deep breath and realized that he had been relieved of his suffering, he entreated the vision that had appeared to him: ‘Where are you? Why did you not appear at the beginning so you could stop my sufferings?’ And a voice came to him: ‘Antony, I was here, but I waited to see your struggle. And now, since you persevered and were not defeated, I will be a helper to you always and I will make you famous everywhere.’[1]

This appearance of the Lord to Antony took place when he was about thirty-five years old. From the saint’s struggle we learn that the Lord permits temptations to occur in order to strengthen us spiritually, this means, to help us overcome our pride and to remember that we need to call upon him in order to be saved. After this experience, Antony left the tomb and went to Mount Pispir, where he found a deserted barracks that he made into his home. Here, he was attacked by the demons, but was not defeated by them, for he received constant visions from the Lord who was always with him. After spending almost twenty years in the barracks, entirely on his own, the crowds—out of a sincere desire for spiritual consolation—demanded to see him. Having reached a high level of dispassion and participation in God, St Antony emerged from the barracks to compassionately heal those who were suffering from diseases; to give solace to people through the comfort of his spiritual words; to reconcile enemies into friends; and to encourage people to place nothing above our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us so that we might have eternal life.

As a result of the saint’s example and instruction, many monasteries were set up throughout Egypt. Antony became the encourager of the monks, teaching them how to persevere in monasticism and how to recognise all the tricks and temptations of the evil one. During the persecution of the Christians that occurred under the pagan Roman Emperor Maximinus Daia between 308-313, Antony ministered to the confessors and the martyrs in the mines and prisons. When the persecution ceased, he returned to his cell and continued his asceticism, but the crowds continued to come to him. Concerned about either falling into pride or that some would praise him undeservedly, at the age of sixty-two he departed for the ‘inner mountain’ in the Upper Thebaid. While remaining mostly in isolation, from then until his repose in the Lord he often travelled between the outer and inner deserts, casting out demons, healing the sick, and instructing the faithful, all by the grace and power of our Lord Jesus Christ. His travels included a significant visit to the city of Alexandria, where, in support of St Athanasius and other holy Fathers, he gave his approval to the doctrine of the council of Nicaea, that our Lord Jesus Christ is “one essence (homoousios)” with God the Father, in other words, fully God. Even the first Christian emperor, St Constantine the Great, together with his sons, wrote letters to him and sought his council—so much had his fame spread throughout the Church and the world at the time.

In this way St Antony lived a God pleasing life. Learning from God, at the age of one hundred and five, that he was about to die, Antony informed the monks, who embraced him with sadness. But Antony was like one returning home from a long voyage, and he joyfully encouraged the monks to continue in their asceticism and their pursuit of God’s kingdom. He informed them to distribute his clothing: his sheepskin coat and tunic to St Athanasius, and his other sheepskin coat to St Serapion, bishop of Thmuis. The monks were to keep his hairshirt, and all these items were imbued with God’s grace that dwelt in the saint. After falling asleep in the Lord in AD 356, St Antony the Great was buried secretly, according to his wishes. The Father of Monasticism remains a guiding light for all who strive to undertake asceticism within the holy Orthodox Church, and continues to intercede to the Lord for our salvation.

[1] St Athanasius the Great, The Life of Antony: The Coptic Life and The Greek Life, trans. Tim Vivian and Apostolos N. Athanassakis (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1994), 83, 85.

The Fathers and Mothers of the Church as Spiritual Guides

by Chris Baghos

It is impossible to heal our spiritual infirmities without attempting to build an intimate relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ, in whose image and likeness we have been fashioned. In his altruistic compassion, the Lord has already offered us a remedy to all such afflictions via his assumption of our nature, his establishment of the New Covenant by means of the Eucharist, his founding of the Church through the Apostles. Yet one cannot hope to know the Lord by reading certain books of the New Testament in isolation as certain Christian denominations espouse. We know that the Orthodox tradition preceded the composition of the Gospels, not merely their compilation. More precisely, knowledge of the Lord and the customs which he established had been directly transmitted from holy elders to their disciples before the Church was ever compelled to leave any records for posterity. The reasons for her eventual expression of the faith in writing need not worry us. What matters is that tradition was first embodied by certain people, namely those who made a genuine effort to interiorise Christ’s commandments and imitate his lifestyle.

The Scriptures served as a means of ensuring the successful continuation of such imitation, though not alone. The Divine Liturgy, the Eucharist, and the remaining sacraments (e.g. baptism, holy unction, marriage and ordination) were essential to the life of the Church from her humble beginnings. With the passing of time we had the convening of Councils, the formulation of doctrines, the composition of canons. Moreover, the Church developed its own art through icons and hymns while at the same time emphasising the significance of personal prayer – especially the Jesus Prayer – for our spiritual transformation. Undeniably, our Church preserves and develops these various aspects of the faith in obedience to our Lord Jesus Christ, from whom they ultimately proceed and to whom they finally direct us. She does so by appealing to the Holy Fathers and Mothers, in whom Christ is revealed and to whom the various aspects of tradition are first entrusted.

There is an informal distinction on the part of the Church between our local fathers (e.g. confessors, monks, and parish priests) and mothers (e.g. abbesses, nuns, and pious female elders), and those whom she universally celebrates as such because of their having attained the state of holiness. We call upon the latter Fathers and Mothers collectively at every liturgy, most famously in our concluding prayer («Δι’ εὐχῶν τῶν ἁγίων Πατέρων ἡμῶν, Κύριε Ἰησοῦ Χριστὲ ὁ Θεός, ἐλέησον καὶ σῶσον ἡμᾶς»).[1] We commemorate them individually on their respective feast days. They are depicted on the walls of every church, serving as our faithful companions during the celebration of each sacrament. The Church, in her wisdom, has adopted terms that emphasise our unity as a family. We are called to recognise and embrace God’s holy ones as our loving guardians, as examples of how we should live.

Other Christian denominations sometimes appeal to the apparent prohibition of the term ‘Father’ by the Lord in the Gospels as a means of criticising us: e.g. “And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father – the one in heaven” (Mt 23:9 NKJV). By recognising the wisdom of past generations, however, we know how to correctly interpret this passage. To be sure, St Jerome of Stridon, a formidable exegete and theologian of the mid-fourth to early-fifth century, rushed to the defence of the monks of Palestine who had been questioned for reverently calling each other ‘Fathers’ by those who did not comprehend the nuances of Scripture. Having acquired discernment by means of ascetic effort, on the one hand, and training under spiritual leaders like St Gregory the Theologian, on the other, Jerome affirmed that God the Father must lovingly be referred to as such with respect to his nature since he is our maker and master. He stated that our spiritual elders should be acknowledged as ‘Fathers’ and ‘Mothers’ not on account of any innate qualities but because the Lord himself has enabled them to make progress in the holy life. It is only fitting that we should show them reverence and affection by using such appellations, thus cultivating humility with a view to our salvation.[2]

There is an arbitrary categorisation of the Fathers and Mothers on the part of scholarship which limits their existence to either the second century (the last of the ‘Apostolic Fathers,’ the immediate successors of the Lord’s Disciples) or the eighth century (the Second Council of Nicaea in 787). The Church recognises the ‘patristic’ (from pater, patris, the Latin translation of πατήρ, πατρός) phenomenon as ongoing owing to its conviction that men and women throughout the ages have known Christ face-to-face. The Church emphasises that the saints have responded to the Lord’s loving call through their obedience and self-denial, their affection towards Him and all humankind. Always belonging to the ecclesiastical framework, they have become ‘little Christs’ entrusted with its growth, preservation and, at certain times, admonition. It is noteworthy that the saints of the past are alive in Christ, joining those of today in their performance of such tasks.

From the fourth to sixth centuries, after the legalisation of Christianity by St Constantine the Great, many among the faithful still desired to imitate the early martyrs whom they believed shared in Christ’s triumph over death because of their detachment from worldly interests. They subsequently ventured to the deserts of Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Asia Minor where they disciplined their bodies to strengthen their souls. Because of the physical and spiritual struggles that they encountered in the wilderness, these ascetics – both men and women – were highly revered by the Church. It was believed that their prayers facilitated the welfare of the entire world, especially the cities. As indicated by St Jerome, they often referred to their pious elders as either ‘Father’ (ἀββᾶ/ἀββᾶς) or ‘Mother’ (ἀμμά -ᾶς). The stories and sayings of these saints were eventually recorded by their disciples. Two collections survive (i.e. the alphabetical and the thematic). They remain an important source of guidance and consolation for us Orthodox Christians.

The two collections are largely complementary because of their depictions of men and women with the same existential goal, namely deification, and living encounter with Christ. Nevertheless, they attest to different spiritual practices and attitudes among the Greek, Egyptian, and Syriac monks and nuns. This is especially evidenced by a certain story concerning Sts Arsenius the Great and Moses the Ethiopian. In short, there was a monk who wished to visit Arsenius, a former teacher of the imperial family much admired for his ascetic rigour and spiritual fortitude. The monk, however, did not wish to stay long with Arsenius upon meeting him, uncomfortable with his silence and introversion. He therefore left immediately with the brother who had escorted him to the saint’s cell. The monk then asked his brother to take him to Moses, a former thief who likely never received an education but nevertheless displayed much wisdom and grace. In contrast to Arsenius, Moses proved to be an enthusiastic and joyous host. The monk was compelled to confess his preference for the company of the Ethiopian. Another Father soon heard this story and sought an explanation from God in prayer as to why the one ascetic should flee from men for His name’s sake while the other should embrace them. “Then two large boats were shown to him on a river and he saw Abba Arsenius and the Spirit of God sailing in the one, in perfect peace; and in the other was Abba Moses with the angels of God, and they were all eating honey cakes.”[3]

It is noteworthy that the means of travel and the location are the same for both saints despite their unique temperaments and ethnic and social backgrounds. The one has been granted profound peace, the other overwhelming joy. The boats can be taken as an image of the ascetic life, the river, the Kingdom of Heaven. Indeed, it should not surprise us that very different holy men and women have cooperated throughout the ages for the benefit of the Church. For instance, St Athanasius of Alexandria, a hierarch well-versed in Greek rhetoric, enlisted the help of St Anthony the Great, an unordained hermit with what was likely a very basic education, to refute the heretic Arius who denied the divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ by considering Him a creature. Athanasius revered Anthony for the wisdom that he had acquired through ascetic struggle. Anthony respected Athanasius for his learning and status as a bishop.

Judging from the lives the saints, the Lord wants all of us to be saved regardless of our gender, ethnicity, upbringing, marital status, occupation, and level of education. He has therefore inspired men and women of various backgrounds, with different dispositions and interests, to imitate him. The Church in turn promotes their memory for the sake of catechetical instruction and conversion in fulfilment of the Lord’s command to make disciples of all peoples (Mt 28:18-20). It is important to note that the saints never criticised or condemned one another on account of their differences. The Church is truly the one body of Christ with each member having their own unique function, as St Paul tells us (1 Co 12:12-27). Carrying this analogy further, the Church features both unity and distinction like the very person of Christ, who is fully God and fully man. Our unity (not uniformity) is best evidenced by our saving confession, neatly articulated in the ‘Prayer of the Presentation’ that we recite together during the liturgy: “Deacon: Let us love one another, that with one mind we may confess: / People: Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Trinity of one essence and inseparable.”[4]

The Church Fathers and Mothers occupy a central place within tradition. In cooperation with Christ, it is they who have: determined the canonical corpus of Scripture (e.g. St Irenaeus of Lyons); interpreted it correctly on our behalf (e.g. St John Chrysostom); composed the sacred songs of the Church (e.g. Sts Andrew of Crete and Kassiani the Hymnographer); structured the liturgy and outlined its meaning for our sake (e.g. Sts Maximus the Confessor and Nicholas Kabasilas); given us the theological justification for the use of icons (e.g. Sts John Damascene and Theodore the Studite); defended, comforted, and safeguarded the Church during times of crisis (e.g. St Mark of Ephesus). This is in addition to their formulation of doctrine and innumerable contributions to the Church’s understanding of the world, the human person, and the artistic creativity of humankind.

The Church Fathers and Mothers demonstrate that we can all be saved if we respond to Christ’s loving call. We may identify our own strengths and weaknesses, our hopes and fears in them. They comfort and encourage us not only in their writings but through the examples of their lives. Is anyone we know struggling with the loss of a loved one? Let’s point them to St Gregory of Nyssa, who related in his treatise On the Soul and the Resurrection how he was comforted by his dying elder sister, St Macrina the Younger, upon having lost their brother, St Basil the Great.[5] Has any sister in Christ been belittled because of her gender? Let her remember Sts Syncletica of Alexandria and Sarah of the Desert, who each proved wrong those that doubted their fortitude by becoming models of asceticism and spiritual luminaries. Is any parent being grieved by a disobedient child that has strayed from the Church? Is any child struggling to return to the fold? Let’s provide both parent and child with a copy of St Augustine of Hippo’s Confessions, in which the theologian relates how the Lord rewarded his pious mother Monica for her patience by compelling him to fully commit to the Christian life in his thirties with tears of compunction.[6] That such radical transformation is open to all is demonstrated by the Life of St Mary Egypt, a prescribed reading for Lent. This hagiography describes how a naïve though very virtuous monk, St Zosimas of Palestine, encountered a former harlot, Mary, in the desert and learnt about her miraculous transformation into a ‘little Christ’ through the intercession of the Theotokos.

Our forebears found the time to learn about the saints despite their countless physical hardships, lesser educations, and comparative lack of leisure. We must ask ourselves what’s more important for our salvation: the latest updates on social media regarding the most recent political scandal, last night’s football game or a highly anticipated film, or those proverbs and stories that teach us how to pray, how to engage in asceticism, how to nurture and practise the virtues? Let’s make the most of our time. Let’s attend the fellowships of our respective parishes. Let’s register for the public talks offered by St Andrew’s Greek Orthodox Theological College. Let’s visit the website of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of Australia to see whose feast it is and learn something about them, something that will surely enrich our lives. A new year is fast approaching. Let’s dedicate it to the study and imitation of our Holy Fathers and Mothers.

Icon celebrating all the saints of the Church

[1] The Divine Liturgy of Our Father Among the Saints John Chrysostom, ed. and trans. Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of Australia Committee on the Translation of Liturgical Texts (St Andrew’s Orthodox Press: Sydney, 2005) 110.

[2] St Jerome, Commentary on Matthew, trans. Thomas P. Scheck, The Fathers of the Church 117 (Washington D. C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2008) 260-61.

[3] The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, trans. Benedicta Ward (Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications, 1975) 17-18.

[4] The Divine Liturgy of Our Father Among the Saints John Chrysostom, 65.

[5] St Gregory of Nyssa, On the Soul and the Resurrection, trans. Catharine P. Roth, Popular Patristic Series 12 (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1993) 27.

[6] St Augustine of Hippo, Confessions, trans. R. S. Pine-Coffin (London: Penguin Books, 1961), 170-79.

Saint Peter as a Model of Repentance

by Chris Baghos

There is a misconception on the part of certain denominations that repentance simply consists in sorrow and guilt. There is, of course, an inherent danger in this mentality since it can lead to listlessness, self-loathing, and self-harm. On the other side of the spectrum, there are those who joyously proclaim that they are already ‘saved’ whilst making very little effort to overcome their sinful habits. This attitude is synonymous with pride, an inflated ego which prevents any conformance to Christ through transformation of the passions.

The extreme positions highlighted above are clearly foreign to Orthodoxy, the living experience of Christ evidenced throughout the ages by the astonishing variety of saints; men and women of every social class and ethnic background (Gal 3:28). This experience continues to be facilitated through personal effort, such as repetition of the Jesus Prayer and asceticism, as well as participation in the wider life of the Church, especially the sacraments.

It is noteworthy that the New Testament has been composed in the Greek language, whose term for repentance is μετάνοια.[1] This noun stems from μετανοέω, which is comprised of a prefix denoting change and a verb signifying ‘I think’ and / or ‘I intend’.[2] Rather than mere regret, repentance in the Greek Orthodox Church thus denotes a thorough transformation of one’s perceptions and motivations, namely for the purpose of making oneself more receptive to Christ’s salvific ministry and, in turn, worthy of His Kingdom (Mt 3:2, 4:17; Mk 1:14-15).

The Church teaches us that the major prerequisite for any spiritual change is humility, that we must first admit our limitations to God. Certainly, the meek fisherman, Simon, the son of Jonah, demonstrated this in one of his initial encounters with Christ (Mt 4:18-22; Mk 1:16-20; Lk 5:1-11). When he miraculously caught a large number of fish at the Lord’s command in a spot that he knew to be empty – having just laboured there all night – Simon immediately confessed that he was a sinner. Profoundly aware of his own faults, the fisherman was terrified in the presence of Christ, to the extent that he even begged Him to leave (Lk 5:8). Due to his meekness and honesty, however, the Lord recruited Simon as a ‘fisher of men’ (ἁλιεὺς ἀνθρώπων). So began his lifelong dedication to the Lord, one which would make him not only a saint but a ‘Pillar of the Church’.

Even in this early encounter with Christ we can detect a pattern that recurred throughout Simon’s life, specifically humble acknowledgement of his sinful nature and a subsequent call to action. Granted, owing to his ardent faith, Simon was the first amongst the Disciples to recognise Jesus as God. This was shown at his saving confession, an event which marked the establishment of the Church, and which earned him the honorific ‘Cephas’ / ‘Peter’ (Mt 16:13-20; Mk 8:27-30; Lk 9:18-20). It was also demonstrated at the Transfiguration, which he was deemed worthy to witness together with the ‘Sons of Thunder,’ saints James and John (Mt 17:1-8; Mk 9:2-8; Lk 9:28-36).

Yet there were also times when Simon became too confident in his own abilities whilst neglecting to trust in Providence, even though he had been exalted as Peter, the ‘Rock of Faith’. For instance, he almost drowned whilst attempting to walk on water in imitation of Christ (Mt 14:22-33). He also attempted to discourage the Lord from facing His Passion, as though he knew what was best for Him (Mt 16:22; Mk 8:32). Moreover, he hastily proclaimed that he had the fortitude to stand by Christ during His suffering (Mt 26:31-35; Mk 14:27-31; Lk 22:31-34; Jn 13:36-38). As we know, Peter went on to repeatedly deny the Lord in the courtyard of the high priest, despite having been explicitly warned of this (Mt 26:57-58, 69-75; Mk 14:53-54, 66-72; Lk 22:54-62; Jn 18:15-18, 25-27). It should be noted that Peter’s denial during Christ’s trial was complete as suggested by the number of times that it was repeated (three signifies fulfilment in our tradition). Moreover, the Apostle contradicted his saving confession by referring to Christ as a mere ‘man’ (ἄνθρωπος), even cursing and rejecting any association with Him (Mk 14:71).

Nevertheless, Peter immediately demonstrated his spiritual maturity through tears of compunction. In fact, he eventually displayed the bravery required of all Christians by running to the Lord’s tomb upon hearing news of the Resurrection (Jn 20:3-4, 6-7). Furthermore, following John’s recognition of the Lord as He called out from the shore, Peter exhibited his consuming love for Him by plunging into the waters without a second thought (Jn 21:7). It ought to be emphasised that these external actions were the result of an inner conversion, a change of awareness and intention on the part of the saint (i.e. repentance in the manner outlined above). Christ, following the Resurrection, became the lens through which Peter viewed the world, his very reason for being.

The Lord soon recommissioned Peter as the leader of the Disciples via a threefold confession of love, as recorded in Jn 21:15-19. It is often assumed that the Lord’s three questions to Peter hurt him by reminding him of his denials, namely on the basis of John’s affirmation that the Apostle was ‘grieved’ (ἐλυπήθη). Yet is it not more likely that Christ’s restoration would have caused Peter to rejoice, whatever form it might have taken? Once again, we are obliged to turn our attention to the original Greek text. Here, we discover that Peter’s heart was wounded because he perceived that he was not able to offer the self-emptying and self-sacrificial love that the Lord had displayed towards him and all of humanity through His Passion, as signified by the word ἀγάπη. More to the point, he recalled the Lord’s declaration at the Mystical Supper that: “Greater love (μείζονα ἀγάπην) has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends (Jn 15:13 NKJV).” Indeed, in Jn 21 Christ uses the word ἀγαπάω the first two times that he asks Peter, “Do you love me?” He ultimately concedes to the simpler devotion that the Apostle can offer using φιλέω; a verb which denotes the casual affection shown amongst friends (φίλοι).[3]

It is significant that the first and last letters of ἀγαπάω are the very same with which the Lord Jesus has identified Himself as the beginning and end of all things (Rev 21:6). Since Christ is of the same essence as God the Father, and the Father is love (1 Jn 4:7-21), it follows that love is our eternal foundation and ultimate destiny. Love is essential for deification, a major means by which we may share in the life of the Holy Trinity. Christ therefore remedied Peter’s grief by reassuring Him that he would become a ‘god by grace’ in displaying his supreme love for the Trinity and the Church through his eventual martyrdom (Jn 21:18-19).

Nevertheless, Peter fell at least once more according to tradition, that is, when he cut himself off from a large portion of the Church in Antioch by refusing to eat with its Gentile members. The Apostle’s motivation in this regard was to appease certain visitors from Jerusalem who maintained the old dietary laws (Gal 2:11-21). In other words, Peter prioritised the old Jewish Law over the two commandments upon which it rested; i.e. love God with all your heart and your neighbour as yourself (Mt 22:35-40; Mk 12:28-34; Lk 10:25-28). This was despite the fact that he had been explicitly shown that the former dietary restrictions had been rendered obsolete through Christ’s establishment of the New Covenant (Acts 10:9-16). As is well known, St Paul of Tarsus publicly rebuked Peter for prioritising what had become an ethnic custom above those of the Church.

The incident at Antioch was the subject of some debate amongst Sts Jerome of Stridon and Augustine of Hippo, two prominent theologians and interpreters of Scripture of the fourth century. In short, Jerome believed that Peter and Paul feigned a dispute in the city so that they might pacify and unite its Jewish and Gentile Christians. The Church Father maintained that Peter condescended to the weaknesses of the visitors from Jerusalem to avoid offending them and thus keep them from separating themselves from the faith community. Peter therefore offered his co-worker, Paul, the opportunity to remedy his Jewish followers’ divisive attitude through his own chastisement, reconciling them to their offended, former pagan, siblings.[4]

Whilst respectfully challenging Jerome’s interpretation, Augustine insisted that Peter was genuinely afraid of offending the visitors and subsequently mistaken in attempting to impose on others an ethnic custom that he was merely pretending to observe. He nonetheless extolled the Apostle for his humility in publicly accepting correction, asserting that he proved to be the “more admirable and difficult to imitate” in allowing himself to be admonished by a junior for the benefit of the Church.[5] For Augustine, it was a matter of defending the authenticity of the Scriptures, which he argued should not be interpreted as justifying any acts of deceit lest the authority of its doctrinal and practical exhortations be questioned.[6] He eventually convinced Jerome of his position.[7]

Moving on to another possible instance in which the Apostle fell, in the apocryphal Acts of Peter we read that he initially attempted to flee his martyrdom. The Acts relate that Peter had in fact escaped execution in Rome under the pretext of preaching elsewhere when he suddenly met the Lord walking towards the city. According to the anonymous author, Christ told Peter that He was going to be crucified again, thus bringing him to his senses and compelling him to bear the ultimate witness to the Gospel. Having gladly returned to the city to be executed, Peter demonstrated his characteristic virtue of humility by requesting to be crucified upside down in a manner evocative of his fallen nature rather than the Lord’s divinity.[8]

Whatever the authenticity of the Acts, we may be confident that Peter demonstrated throughout his life that humility is a major requirement for genuine repentance. The Apostle accepted correction from both his Master, Christ, and his junior, Paul. He never attempted to hide his faults, allowing even his greatest moments of weakness to be related to the Church, to every generation of the faithful. We may ask why the Pillar of the Church was permitted to fall in the first place. St Gregory the Great, a celebrated hagiographer and the bishop responsible for the first mission to the Anglo-Saxons, has provided us with a moving answer. In his Homilies on the Gospels, the Church Father affirms that Peter was permitted to fail owing to his vocation as a chief shepherd, so that he might have compassion on his flock: “that he might perceive from his own weakness how mercifully he ought to put up with the weaknesses of others.”[9] This interpretation no doubt serves as a consolation for us, teaching us that our greatest spiritual challenges are intended to engender sympathy for our weaker brothers and sisters in Christ.

At this point, it is worth evaluating Peter’s legacy as a penitent as tacitly reflected in the sayings of the Desert Fathers and Mothers. We see that the Apostle never gave in to despair and listlessness, even when he denied the Lord. This is in stark contrast to Judas, who did not attempt to repent in the appropriate manner and therefore took his own life (Mt 27:3-10). These figures thus typify the two forms of grief defined by St Syncletica of Alexandria. According to Syncletica, the first, positive form stems from the recognition of one’s own weaknesses and those of their fellow Christians, namely, to remind oneself of life’s true purpose and attach oneself to God. The Church Mother emphasised that the other, destructive form “‘comes from the enemy, full of mockery’” and “‘must be cast out, mainly by prayer and psalmody.’”[10]

What is more, we are called to recognise from Peter’s life that we will likely fall countless times on our journey to the Kingdom, notwithstanding our respective charisms. However, we must always attempt to get back up, remembering that we have the power to renew ourselves at any given moment by God’s grace. When asked by St Moses the Ethiopian whether it is possible for a believer to lay a new spiritual foundation every day, St Silvanus of Scetis affirmed that: “‘If he works hard, he can lay a new foundation at every moment.’”[11] To be sure, when asked by a brother who was struggling to redeem himself how many times he should continue to rise, St Sisoes the Great responded: “‘Until you are taken up either in virtue or in sin. For a man presents himself to judgement in the state in which he is found.’”[12] Elder Thaddeus of Vitovnica, a renowned spiritual guide of Serbia during the twentieth century, wonderfully reiterated Sisoes’ instruction, adding that: “Even if we fall a hundred times a day it does not matter; we must get up and go on walking toward God without looking back.”[13]

Undoubtedly, Peter serves as one of our most important models of repentance. We are incredibly blessed to comprise his greatest legacy, the Orthodox Church. The Church is truly the body of Christ, providing us with the best means of mending ourselves: e.g. the sacraments of Confession, Holy Unction, and the Eucharist. Her holy mysteries enable the genuine imitation of Peter, including his personal repentance. Moreover, the Church makes it possible for us to celebrate and directly communicate with the beloved Chief of the Apostles and similar paragons through the beautiful hymns of her liturgical services. May we all attain Peter’s faith, humility, and perfect love for the Lord that we may contribute to the life of the Church in a manner which makes him proud.

The Lord's restoration of Saint Peter

[1] For a critical edition of the Greek text, see: Novum Testamentum Graece, 28th edn, ed. the Institute for New Testament Textual Research Münster/Westphalia under the direction of Holger Strutwolf (Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 2012).

[2] A Greek-English Lexicon, ed. Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, and Henry Stuart Jones (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996) s.v. μετά G VIII 1109; s.v. νοέω I (3) and III 1177.

[3] St. Athanasius Academy of Orthodox Theology, The Orthodox Study Bible (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2008) 1467. Scripture taken from the New King James Version ®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

[4] St Jerome, Commentary on Galatians, trans. Andrew Cain, The Fathers of the Church 121 (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2010) 105-110.

[5] St Augustine, Commentary on the Letter to the Galatians 15.7-10 in Augustine’s Commentary on Galatians, ed. and trans. Eric Plumer (Oxford University Press, 2003) 144-45.

[6] St Augustine, Select Letters, trans. James Houston Baxter, Loeb Classical Library 239 (London: William Heinemann Ltd, 1930) 60-67.

[7] For evidence that Jerome finally shared Augustine’s perception of the incident at Antioch, see: Against the Pelagians 1.22 in The Principal Works of St. Jerome, trans. W. H. Fremantle, G. Lewis, and W. G. Martley, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers Ser. 2 Vol. 6 (New York: The Christian Literature Company, 1893) 460.

[8] The Acts of Peter 35-39 in The Apocryphal Acts of Paul, Peter, John, Andrew and Thomas, trans. Bernhard Pick (Chicago: The Open Court Publishing Co., 1909) 114-20.

[9] St Gregory the Great, Forty Gospel Homilies 21, trans. Dom David Hurst (Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications, 1990) 160.

[10] The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, trans. Benedicta Ward (Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications, 1975) 235.

[11] Ibid. 224.

[12] Ibid. 220.

[13] Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives: The Life and Teachings of Elder Thaddeus of Vitovnica, trans. Ana Smiljanic (Platina, CA: Saint Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 2015) 104.

Orthodoxy and Truth

by Mario Baghos

The Orthodox Church is the holy body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:27), of the heavenly kingdom. It is not just a mirror reflection of that kingdom. The kingdom of God is not so distant from the Church on earth—the Church triumphant not so foreign to the Church militant—that they are only tentatively related. The Orthodox Church is the body of Christ precisely because there is a correspondence between what occurs in the heavenly places and what takes places in the liturgy and other sacred services in our local parishes; in our local congregations that mystically make up Christ’s sacred body.

The Orthodox Church therefore participates in the Truth concerning who God is. And that Truth is a Person, the second person of the Holy Trinity, our Lord Jesus Christ, who said concerning Himself: “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). In our increasingly relativistic society, some might feel uncomfortable with these words, and might ask themselves: ‘Does the Orthodox Church have a monopoly on Truth?’ or ‘can Truth not be found outside of the Church?’

Since Truth is a person, the Son of God and Godman Jesus Christ, and since that person transcends time and space together with God the Father and Holy Spirit, then Truth cannot be circumscribed or limited by anything or anyone. It is this Truth who created the universe and all human beings in His Image and Likeness (Genesis 1:26), who as Logos of God before His incarnation planted seeds of Himself in the rational faculty[1]—and in the hearts[2]—of all human persons, to lead them to Him. (Some Greek philosophers and many of the Hebrew prophets, even reached Him by His grace.)[3] It is for this reason that many saints of the Church insisted on apophaticism in terms of what we can say about God, for He totally transcends our understanding, and when the saints experience Him even their best analogies fall short of describing what they have seen or heard.[4]

Yet despite the apophaticism rendered duly to this mysterious and transcendent God, the same God is nevertheless paradoxically immanent. He transcends all things and yet is within all things. More than that: His Son was sent to us, or rather came down to us, to become one of us as our Lord Jesus Christ, and to establish the Orthodox Church as His mystical body on earth for our salvation. And while we do not preclude that God can and does inspire people even outside of the Church’s sacred precincts (for the whole cosmos is His, and all persons are made in His Image), nevertheless within the Church we have this inspiration and participation in Him—which intensifies according to the degree of one’s assimilation to Christ by God’s grace—as a guarantee. In the Orthodox Church, the Son reveals to us who God is—and while the Trinitarian God ultimately transcends the ‘words’ we use to describe the three divine persons who are united in essence as one God—nevertheless, Christ referred to Himself as ‘Son,’ and to His ‘Father’ and to the ‘Spirit,’ revealing these terms as applicable to God in a sacred and permanent manner, which is why we begin all of our prayers in this name. When the Godman, our Lord Jesus Christ, defeated death in our behalf when He rose from the dead, He initiated mortal beings into the life of this Trinitarian God, by grace and not by nature; and He did this precisely in His sacred body, the Orthodox Church. The Orthodox Church therefore intimately participates in the Truth, and can therefore be said to be True, since its members belong to the One who is Truth Himself, our Lord Jesus Christ. Admittedly, the perception of this Truth grows according to one’s closeness to Christ in the Church, e.g. I do not experience this Truth in the same way what the saints experience it, but that does not mean that it is not there. And we are all called, by God’s grace, to experience it, to experience Christ the way that the saints do.

Thus, while Truth is a transcendent person (or rather, three divine persons united in essence, the one God) who created the universe and human beings, the Orthodox Church is the special repository of this Truth, where Truth has been revealed and actualised in the members of the Church, who participate in Truth—in Christ—when, for example, we are baptised and chrismated—when we ‘put on Christ’ (Galatians 3:27) and are sealed with the Holy Spirit— and when we partake of Christ’s body and blood in the Eucharist. Through these and other sacraments (or mysteries)—marriage, ordination, unction—and the prayers directed to Christ and asceticism and good works undertaken in imitation of Him, we are led by Him to the kingdom, both in the Church on earth, and in heaven, where the kingdom exists for ever and ever. The proof of all of these things can be discerned in those persons whose struggle against the temptations, passions and sins—whose love for others is perfected more and more by the grace of God in the Church—and who become, by God’s grace, saints in this life. These persons are offered glimpses of that future kingdom in the here and now, communicating with saints who have long reposed, with God’s holy mother, the Godbearer and Ever-Virgin Mary, and even with the Lord Himself. By God’s grace, these saints are made existentially compatible with Christ: this is why they see Him and others who dwell in that kingdom; a kingdom that can only be entered by those who have become Christlike, gods with small ‘g’ or christs with a small ‘c.’

The Orthodox Church both is that kingdom and facilitates participation in that kingdom, and we know this because of the saints whom we venerate. And we are all called to become like them by God’s grace, no matter how much we fall short of this sacred calling. This calling is in fact a divine imperative—a mandate (Psalm 81(82):6, Matthew 5:48)—but it is constantly frustrated both by our own shortcomings and by the activity of the devil, conquered by Christ with His resurrection yet permitted to tempt us so that we—ever stubborn in our own self-will—might realise our selfishness and pride and repent; thereby returning to Christ’s love in humility, love and selflessness (in other words, in imitation of Him). These temptations can afflict us at any time, but they can be especially virulent when we are at prayer, even at church. For example: how often have we heard our brothers and sisters complain in church about the chanting—either its length or language—or about the elderly who, ostensibly, at one moment cross themselves and the next gossip about others. Sadly, people do not realise that such criticisms are hypocritical, because, even if some church-goers do in fact judge others (and many of us are guilty of this, to our shame), when we judge the ‘judgers’ we are guilty of exactly the same thing; and we do this in the house of the One who alone is judge, our Lord Jesus Christ (Romans 12:19).

Just as problematic for us is that such thoughts—such temptations—disrupt us from prayer, which is what we should be doing when we are in church, and they are incredibly deceptive, creating a false impression out of what really takes place during the divine services. For despite our human frailties, weaknesses, and sins (and concerning the latter, only our own sins should concern us), the Church remains the body of Christ on earth. Its hierarchs and priests are God’s appointed ministers through apostolic succession. Its chanters are singing hymns, written by saints, that we are all called to participate in together, as one family. The beautiful icons that adorn the walls have more than just an aesthetic purpose (although this is also important): they authentically depict and mystically participate in the persons depicted in them, so that veneration given to these icons is by God’s grace transferred to the saint or to Christ Himself. One can go on: the sweet-smelling incense represents our prayers rising to heaven; the respective feast days regarding persons and events of sacred history are dramatised so that our loving God, who transcends all times and spaces, might transport us to these events by His grace, thereby making us participants in the stories of the saints which are modelled—in reality and not figuratively—on the story of Christ Himself. Finally, the sacred gestures and movements of the liturgy are also a sacred narrative, culminating in the mystical supper of our Lord Jesus Christ with His disciples when he established the New Covenant with us in the Church, a participation in His sacred body and blood, for our salvation.

One can go on. But I conclude with the reflection and exhortation that since our Lord Jesus Christ is the Truth, and the Church is His sacred body, then the Orthodox Church discloses to each and every one of its faithful this Truth throughout the generations. This is a message that we the faithful all need to be reminded of from time to time; and it is a message that should be urgently communicated to the Church’s children who may have wandered from the path, and to this world which, until the day of the Lord (1 Thessalonians 5:2), is constantly in travail.

Icon of Christ Pantokrator (“The Ruler of All”), St Catherine’s Monastery, Mt Sinai

[1] St Justin Martyr, The First Apology 44 in The First and Second Apologies, trans. Leslie William Barnard (New York: Paulist Press, 1997) 53-54.

[2] Epistle to Diognetus 7 in The Apostolic Fathers, trans. Bart D. Ehrman (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005) 144-45.

[3] We know that this is the case in relation to the Hebrew prophets like Isaiah and Daniel since they are venerated as saints in the Orthodox Church. For Greek philosophers such as Socrates and Heraclitus as inspired by the God the Logos we rely on the disposition of saints like Justin Martyr, see The First Apology 46 (Barnard 55).

[4] Apophaticism as a way of theologising facilitates a frame of mind that does not impose rational concepts or images upon the inexhaustible mystery of God, which is ultimately beyond human comprehension. But this should not be understood at the expense of kataphaticism, the converse of apophaticism, which consists of positive terms, concepts, and images that have indeed been revealed to us by God and express certain truths about Him.

Sacred Music in Late Byzantium

by Andrew Mellas

Fourteenth-century Byzantium saw the convergence of Eastern Christianity’s mystical tradition of contemplative monasticism—Palamite Hesychasm—and the summit of melismatic liturgical music—St John Koukouzeles. How did the sacred ritual of the Late Byzantine all-night vigil unveil the emotive universe of Christianity during what Sir Steven Runciman called the last Byzantine renaissance? The historical context of kalophonic chant and Hesychasm during the fourteenth century was that of an empire on the brink of collapse and destruction. History had betrayed the Byzantines. The Fourth Crusade severely weakened Constantinople, ushered in a period of decline, and ended its reign as a political and economic superpower. With the body of the empire so humbled and the Byzantine ideal of a kingdom embodying heaven on earth shattered, feelings of disillusionment prevailed and the quest for a lost unity began.

Melismatic chant represented the final frontier of the Byzantine liturgical world and its mystagogy. Far from espousing a disembodied form of prayer and song, St Gregory Palamas and St John Koukouzeles presented Hesychasm and kalophonic chant as a participation of body and soul in divine life, cultivated through asceticism and liturgical life. Hesychasm invited a mystical devotion to serenity—a journey of purification, illumination and deification—that entailed more than just an ever-expanding interiority. Rather than being a radical departure from Christian tradition, Palamas’ portrayal of Hesychasm was a perpetuation and renewal of Christian mysticism. It was a personal articulation of a living tradition that was scattered across the spiral of history and included the mystical experience of the first-created humans, the divine participation of a life of holiness and the eschaton.

The hesychasts’ ultimate concern was imageless prayer and wordless contemplation of the uncreated light, but their spiritual vision entailed a transformation of the whole human person. Palamas argued that a hesychast “seeks to circumscribe the incorporeal in his body” and cited the luminous face of Stephen the first martyr as an example:

Such are the realities or mysterious energies brought about in the bodies of those who during their entire life have devoutly embraced holy hesychasm.[1]

The “transformation of our human nature” bestowed “a divine power on the eyes of the apostles” that enabled them and all who embrace Hesychasm to behold the uncreated light.[2] Palamas portrayed the hesychast experience and the paradisal bliss of Adam and Eve as identical. Of course, it was Palamas’ insistence on the deification of the body and his belief in a vision of the uncreated light that provoked Barlaam of Calabria. Barlaam denounced the hesychasts’ claim they could “see the divine essence with the eyes of their body” and sparked the hesychast controversy.

Gregory Palamas had visited Mount Athos around 1316 and learnt from a hesychast monk at Vatopedi before moving to the Great Lavra. It was there that he probably came across a monk known as John Koukouzeles who famously instigated a Byzantine renaissance in liturgical music. However, this was not a new form of art that radically departed from the Christian tradition of the first millennium. It renewed the tradition of Christian art by looking upon it not with the gaze of nostalgia but through the prism of the eschaton. Koukouzeles’ reform of the agrypnia is apparent in the musical anthologies known as akolouthiai. These anthologies became the catalyst for a new repertory of music: kalophonic chant, which renewed the psalmody and hymnody of the past. The musical artistry of kalophonic chant was marked by its florid style, dramatic vocal leaps, melismatic creativity, and even wordless vocalisation known as a kratema or teretism. Of course, the old syllabic repertories were not done away with; they were juxtaposed with new compositions in the ritual of the agrypnia. The Late Byzantine agrypnia was a combination of Stoudite hymnography, the ceremony of Constantinople’s cathedral rite and kalophonic chant. It typically began on Saturday evening with vespers and culminated in the liturgy on Sunday morning.

Psalm 2

Certain akoulouthiai transmit a repertory of kalophonic verses for Psalm 2. The most extensive repertories are compositions by Koukouzeles. Not only does Koukouzeles rework the Psalm text through the repetition of syllables from a word in the text (for example, “παρέστησαν” becomes “παρέ…παρέστησαν”), often he interposes fragments from other lines of a verse (or even from other verses altogether) between words in a given line of the Psalm. Most astonishingly, he entirely reconstructs a verse of the Psalm by using these techniques and adding wordless melisma. For example, in the fourteenth-century manuscript Athens 2622 (folios 26r–27v) the verse “ἴνα τί ἐφρύαξαν ἔθνη” becomes as follows:

ἵ | teretism | να τί | ἴνα τί ἐφρύαξαν | ἐφρύαξαν ἔθνη

ἴνα τί λαοὶ κενὰ ἐμελέτησαν | ἐμελέτησαν κενὰ

ἴνα τί

ἴνα τί παρέστησαν

ἴνα τί | teretism | ἐφρύαξαν

Ἀλλη | teretism | ἀλληλούια | ἀλλη | ἀλλη | ἀλλη | ἀλληλούια.

The manuscript images are reproduced in the next few pages. I thank Dr Arsinoi Ioannidou who kindly shared images of this section of the manuscript with me.

As a text, the second Psalm had prophetic, Christic and eschatological significance. Although it was written for the coronation of the Davidic king, it foreshadowed the manifestation of Christ as the Messiah and foretold the Last Judgment. In Byzantium it also had a political dimension as the anointed one could be identified as the Emperor—God’s viceroy on earth. However, Koukouzeles’ composition refashioned the text and allowed all these meanings to converge and diverge. Even the melody of the second Psalm, which was traditionally set in the plagal fourth mode of Byzantine music, shifted from the plagal fourth mode, to the fourth mode and the plagal first mode. Koukouzeles dramatically disrupted the balance between words and melody in this composition.

The melodic beauty and wordless vocalisations did more than enrich the hymn; they added a mystical dimension to hymnody in an attempt to imitate the wordless chant of the angels. Indeed, this link between earthly hymns and heavenly song was apparent in early Christianity: “Wherefore theology has transmitted to those on earth the hymns sung by the first rank of angels whose gloriously transcendent enlightenment is thereby made manifest.”[3] After all, sacred songs were not only pedagogical but anagogical. And, despite appearing as strange-sounding bedfellows to modern sensibility, there was a curious interplay between the musicality of the agrypnia and the quietude of Hesychasm. The imageless prayer and wordless contemplation of the hesychasts found an ally in melismatic song, which elevated hymns beyond the verbosity of the kanon and its nine odes. The intense musicality and linguistic economy of kalophonic chant disassembled logic and provoked introspection through an emotive performance of the drama of human salvation.

As a sacred play and a complex cultural construct, the Byzantine liturgy enacted the biblical narrative of divine economy, tracing the eternity it foreshadowed through the ephemeral and material. The all-night vigil amplified this sacred drama and invited the faithful to experience it not as spectators but as protagonists. Language, music and movement were inextricable, and interiority was not merely an allegorical construct; hymnography and holy ritual evoked godly passions.

The all-night vigil transformed passions and placed them within an eschatological context through the participation of the entire human person in the liturgical event. Sacred ritual, with all its symbolic activity—entrances, processions, gestures, interactions—blurred the boundaries of earthly existence and the heavenly. The historical present collapsed into the biblical events of creation, exile from Eden and the coming of the true light, which shines in the darkness and cannot be comprehended by darkness, placing the faithful at the centre of a cosmic drama and engendering a desire for a paradise lost. Within a historical climate of decline and amidst a shattered empire, this nostalgia for a lost unity became all the more pronounced. And the synthesis between Hesychasm and melisma became the space and sonic environment where that lost unity could be experienced.

Psalm 103

Psalm 103 is the hymn of cosmic praise that inaugurates every liturgical day and enacts the biblical narrative of Genesis: “There was evening and there was morning, the first day.”[4] Vespers takes us to that first evening when God opened the first-humans’ eyes to see the beauty and the glory of the temple in which they would dwell. The performance of Psalm 103 on Mount Athos in the fourteenth century can be reimagined from the settings of Koukouzeles transmitted in various manuscripts. Koukouzeles’ compositions of the final verses of this psalm, what we know today as anoixantaria, were creative for his time, exhibiting significantly expanded vocal ranges, ornate melisma and elaborate doxa tropes, which acted as a kind of refrain for the faithful. His settings were a watershed in Byzantine chant, overshadowing the traditional settings of the past, and paving the way for various new compositions in the late fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. They also disrupted the balance between word and melody. In Koukouzeles’ settings, music embodied the act of creation to a greater degree than the words of Psalm 103.

One could compare this composition to C. S. Lewis’ The Magician’s Nephew where the “melismatic jubilus” of the Christ-like Aslan gives birth to Narnia.[5] The gullies, the hills and the trees become the material manifestation of immaterial song. The transfiguration of music brings forth the created world. In the tale of Narnia, as the Lion moves over the face of the land and sings, the stars his voice fashioned respond with their own song. Similarly, the refrains for the final verses of Psalm 103 invited the faithful to be part of the act of creation and to feel the love of Christ who created the world in an act of freedom.

Koukouzeles intensified this emotion by changing and expanding the somewhat traditional refrains for the final verses of Psalm 103—“Glory to you, O God”—by means of tropes. He added new settings to the repertory, played with text of the simple refrain through the repetition of its elements and introduced a bolder melodic range, changing the refrain to such a degree that it even overpowered the Psalm text both in length and import. It sought to remind the faithful that the church in which they stood represented the entire created world and beyond. In the act of thanksgiving and glorification, the new song that was interwoven with the ancient hymn of cosmic praise, the believer was invited to become themselves, to dwell once again in the bliss of Eden through the liturgical world that sacred ritual evoked and become once again a priest of creation.

[1] Triads II.2.12.

[2] Triads III.1.15.

[3] St Dionysios the Areopagite, Celestial Hierarchy 7.4 in Corpus Dionysiacum II: Pseudo-Dionysius Areopagita. De Coelesti Hierarchia, De Ecclesiastica Hierarchia, De Mystica Theologia, Epistulae, ed. Günter Heil and Adolf Martin Ritter (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2012), 31. The English translation is my own.

[4] Genesis 1:5.

[5] Conomos, “C. S. Lewis and Church Music,” in Rightly Dividing the Word of Truth: Studies in Honour of Metropolitan Kallistos of Diokleia, ed. Andreas Andreopoulos and Graham Speake (Oxford: Peter Lang, 2016), 231. Of course, it was Augustine who famously wrote about jubilation: “Sing in jubilation. For this is to sing well to God, to sing in jubilation. What is it to sing in jubilation? To be unable to express in words what is sung in the heart [...] For God is ineffable whom you cannot speak. And if you cannot speak him, yet ought not to be silent, what remains but that you jubilate; so that the heart rejoices without words and the great expanse of joy has not the limits of syllables?” In Psalmum 32.

Martyrdom, the Eucharist, and the Courage of the Saints

by Chris Baghos

It is to Him, as the Son of God, that we give our adoration; while to the martyrs, as disciples and imitators of the Lord, we give the love they have earned by their matchless devotion to their King and Teacher. Pray God we too may come to share their company and their discipleship. The Martyrdom of Polycarp 17 (second century AD).[1]

The initial persecution of our Christian forebears was partly a result of their expulsion from the Jewish synagogues, which had been declared beforehand by our Lord and Saviour (Jn 16:1-4).[2] Consequently, the Church was excluded from the religious traditions permitted by Roman law, which also encompassed numerous pagan cults and philosophical schools. In fact, the faithful were originally perceived by the wider world as constituting a treacherous sect; a view which gained currency through a variety of slanders on the part of both pagans and Jews. The situation was further aggravated by the various gnostic factions; exclusivists who appropriated aspects of Christianity within eccentric and absurd belief systems, and with whom the Fathers had to contend for centuries.

The mad emperor, Nero, was among the first and worst opponents of the early Church, having used it as a scapegoat for a certain fire in Rome which he probably started himself. The Church thus did not acquire a crucial privilege that had been granted to the Jewish people, namely, exemption from participating in the ruler cult. The living emperors of Rome after the reign of Augustus were actually worshipped as gods, and it became widely accepted that their veneration through oaths and offerings of incense and slaughtered animals ensured the peace of the inhabited world.[3] The faithful were clearly faced with a major problem; to participate in the pagan ritual practices contradicted the Church’s fundamental tenets (Ex 20:1-6; Dt 5:6-10), yet failure to do so would result in ruthless persecution by the state.

While the oppression of Orthodoxy was sporadic in the Roman world until the accession of St Constantine the Great, countless followers of the Son and Word of God – Greeks and Jews, slaves and freedmen, men and women – were unjustly executed over the first four centuries. This led to numerous eyewitness accounts of major instances of martyrdom that took place throughout the Greek East and Latin West, especially during the reigns of Antoninus Pius, Marcus Aurelius, and Diocletian. Many of these records have managed to survive – albeit with varying degrees of literary embellishment for the purpose of catechetical instruction and conversion – disclosing the relationship between the early Church and the pagan empire.

The leaders of Rome were initially uncertain how to respond to Christianity, which they understood as a ‘new’ religion, having had no interest in the fulfilment of the Jewish prophecies. Pliny the Younger, a legate to Pontus-Bithynia on the southern shore of the Black Sea, therefore decided to contact his emperor, Trajan, via letter to determine how to best manage those who refused to attend pagan temples and purchase sacrificed meat. In refusing to perform these tasks, the faithful were also seen to be deliberately undermining the economy of the empire.[4] In his letter, Pliny described the procedure which he used to identify and condemn Christ’s followers:

I asked them whether they were Christians. If they admitted it, I asked a second and a third time, threatening them with execution. Those who remained obdurate I ordered to be executed, for I was in no doubt, whatever it was which they were confessing, that their obstinacy and their inflexible stubbornness should at any rate be punished.[5]

Trajan directly replied that Pliny was to punish those who were reported but pardon anyone who denied their faith by offering prayers to the pagan gods, in this manner defining the empire’s custom with regard to the treatment of fervent Christians.[6] Yet the reasons behind the alleged ‘obstinacy’ of the Orthodox can be inferred from the books of the New Testament, which were compiled in this period. For the Church, Christ remained: “the faithful witness, the firstborn from the dead, and the ruler over the kings of the earth (Rev 1:5 NKJV).” It was inconceivable for the saints to denounce the Lord in favour of an idol, hence the refusal on the part of many to purchase and eat meat sacrificed to the emperor and other pagan deities (which abstinence was ultimately promoted by St Paul for the sake of compassion and unity, 1 Co 8:4-13). Instead, they openly confessed Christ, knowing that they would be declared righteous by Him in the presence of the angels (Lk 12:8-9).

It is necessary to emphasise that the martyrs were not motivated by fear of eternal punishment, but by their perfect love for Christ. St Polycarp, the second-century bishop of Smyrna and direct disciple of St John the Evangelist, is a notable example in this regard. Polycarp was one of the many martyrs sentenced to be consumed by fire in public display. His execution was committed in the arena of his city, in which he was brought for trial by the proconsul (i.e. governor) of the wider region. The official insisted that the Church Father deny Christ, adhering to a method similar to that stipulated by Trajan. Despite the proconsul’s threats of wild beasts and flames, Polycarp refused to deny the Lord.[7] His motivation is wonderfully reflected in the following assertion that he made while on trial: “‘Eighty and six years have I served [Christ], and He has done me no wrong. How then can I blaspheme my King and my Saviour?’”[8] Other forms of punishment that were practiced against the faithful at the time included beheading, crucifixion, and being thrown to wild animals for mauling and live consumption. Those who were captured had the reassurance of the Holy Spirit, knowing that they would act accordingly when brought before the authorities. Certainly, they knew that Christ Himself had foretold their circumstances when He had sent out His Apostles (Mt 10:17-20).

The Gospels were undoubtedly a major influence on the Church’s understanding of martyrdom, especially the accounts of Christ’s saving Passion. Parallels between the capture and sentence of a believer, on the one hand, and the Lord’s betrayal, trial, and crucifixion, on the other, were taken as signs of Divine Providence. Serenity and humility were among the most important similarities. Members of the Church were thus discouraged from actively seeking out the authorities to attain a heroic death. This is evidenced by the account of Quintus the Phrygian in the Martyrdom of Polycarp 4. In short, Quintus surrendered himself to the authorities when Polycarp was being sought for arrest. His zeal was such that he managed to compel others to follow him yet, in the end, his “courage failed him at the sight of the beasts” which were to carry out his execution. And so, at the behest of the proconsul, Quintus took the customary oath to the emperor, also offering the required incense before his image.[9]

Polycarp “showed not the least sign of alarm” at the news of the warrant for his capture. Yet he was convinced by his friends to withdraw from his city and take refuge at a nearby farm. Displaying no fear at the prospect of being tried and slayed, he used the situation to ceaselessly pray “for churches all over the world, as it was his usual habit to do.”[10] Yet the author of the martyr act relates that Polycarp attempted to escape the authorities once more.[11] This does not imply that he was afraid of death but seeking to adhere to the Lord’s exhortation: “‘When they persecute you in this city, flee to another’ (Mt 10:23 NKJV).” In other words, the saint was attempting to carry out his apostolic work for as long as was possible despite his advanced age. Polycarp eventually resigned to the authorities in a manner reminiscent of our Lord’s submission. Like Christ, the saint was betrayed by his own (Mt 26:14-16; Mk 14:10-11; Lk 23:3-5).

Polycarp’s older friend, St Ignatius of Antioch, likewise displayed the compassion and altruism characteristic of the early martyrs.[12] On the way to his trial and execution in Rome, where he was fed to lions, Ignatius prioritised his responsibility of maintaining harmony throughout the Church. For instance, he wrote a letter to the flock in Smyrna informing them that peace had been restored to the Church in Antioch. He therefore exhorted the Smyrnaeans to send someone to congratulate their Antiochian brothers and sisters, namely to bolster affection between the two communities.[13] More importantly, the Church Father emphasised the certainty of Christ’s bodily Passion and Resurrection to fortify them against the heretics plaguing their city, namely the Docetists who falsely taught the Lord was an incorporeal spirit which only seemed to be human.[14] The saint therefore comforted the faithful in Smyrna while emphasising the reality of the Incarnation, insisting that his ability to endure persecution for the sake of the Gospel was inspired by the genuine physical trials experienced by Christ Who had risen and was empowering him.[15]

Sadly, there are many intellectuals who argue that there was some justification for the cruelty displayed towards the early Church since it refused to adhere to formal edicts. The reality is that the faithful were erroneously perceived as threats to the stability of what had until that time been a worldly kingdom largely characterised by superstition (the philosophical schools constituting a notable exception).[16] The Church ultimately favoured obedience to God Who was revealed in the person of Jesus Christ, not the emperor. In this respect, martyrs such as Polycarp and Ignatius did not go out of their way to defy the authorities or provoke their own deaths any more than the Lord Himself had. At any rate, it is not a matter of whether the martyrs ‘deserved’ to die. Rather, it is a matter of evaluating why they were and continue to be celebrated by the Orthodox.

The martyrs throughout the ages have imitated Christ and His Apostles, who resisted all manner of dissuasion when confronted by the authorities. This has been made even more evident by their physical sacrifices. As a matter of fact, their deaths have benefited the entire world by rendering them mediators to God in aid of all creation. Interestingly, the Church’s worldwide adoration for the saints was anticipated by the (largely unknown) authors of the Martyrdom of Polycarp, Marcion and Evarestus, who stated that the faithful vied to touch their subject’s body and garments owing to his angelic life. Furthermore, the authors emphasised that Polycarp became like baking bread producing the aroma of incense while at the stake, that he was shown to be a very image of the Eucharist.[17]

Truly, the Martyrdom of Polycarp reveals that adversity, contempt, and even death were approached and patiently experienced by our forebears. The same can be inferred from Ignatius’ Letter to the Romans 4. Here, the Church Father has presented martyrdom as a sacrament using the language of Holy Communion, suggesting that it similarly ensures direct participation in the Lord’s Passion and Resurrection.[18] The saints understood that the genuine body and blood of the Lord offered during the Divine Liturgy obliged them to imitate His immense love for humankind, best demonstrated by His sufferings.

To be sure, St Cyprian of Carthage, a martyr and renowned theologian of the third century, affirmed in a letter to the faithful in Thibaris (modern-day Thibar, Tunisia) that Holy Communion would prepare them for looming persecution, enabling them to endure it “with an incorrupt faith and robust courage” as “soldiers of Christ…” [19] A righteous death – voluntarily accepted, not presumptuously sought out – in the name of the Lord and for the sake of the Gospel may therefore be considered the most authentic realisation of the Eucharist, first offered to humankind on the eve of the Passion (Mt 26:26-30; Mk 14:22-26; Lk 22:15-20). Cyprian eventually met such a glorious end during the savage persecution instigated by Valerian, bravely exclaiming “Thanks be to God!” (Deo gratias) when sentenced to be beheaded in public at Carthage by the proconsul, Galerius Maximus, on 14 September, 258.[20]

Martyrdom and the Eucharist are undeniably associated as expressions of thanksgiving. Ignatius thus described his life as a libation being poured upon an altar, pointing to Christ as his sole desire and expressing his disdain for worldly things.[21] Similarly, Polycarp has been depicted as both a sacrificial ram and a whole burnt offering by Marcion and Evarestus.[22] In fact, the authors have presented the Church Father as progressing through the pattern of the anaphora – the central aspect of the Liturgy, consisting in thanksgiving, petition, and doxology – during his final prayer in the flesh.[23]

Ignatius, Polycarp, and Cyprian subsequently challenge us to establish consistency between our participation in the Liturgy and our daily lives, having emphasised that earnest participation in the sacraments will lead to true love for the Lord that extends to the wider community – a love which knows no compromise. Through their words and deeds, the hierarchs and martyrs have shown us that the Church’s holy mysteries transform all who partake of them with ardent faith into ‘little Christs’. Perhaps most significantly, they continue to remind us that we have nothing to fear in this world despite its inevitable physical and spiritual sufferings, which may result from a wide range of factors: e.g. religious discrimination, tyranny of the state, and even ignorance on the part of our dearest ones. Indeed, what cause have we to be afraid if even death – the worst possible outcome for our struggles in this world – has been utterly defeated by our Lord and Saviour?

The martyrdom of Saint Ignatius

Acknowledgement: I am indebted to my brother, Dr Mario Baghos, for his useful insights concerning the phenomenon of martyrdom and the account of Polycarp’s passion.

[1] The Martyrdom of Polycarp 17 in Early Christian Writings, trans. Maxwell Staniforth (London: Penguin Books, 1987) 131.

[2] Veselin Kesich, Formation and Struggles: The Birth of the Church AD 33-200 (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2007) 139.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid. 141.

[5] Pliny the Younger, Complete Letters 10.96.3-4, trans. P. G. Walsh (Oxford University Press, 2006) 278.

[6] Ibid. 10.97.1-2, 279.

[7] The Martyrdom of Polycarp 9-10, 128-29.

[8] Ibid. 9, 128.

[9] Ibid. 4,126.

[10] Ibid. 5, 126.

[11] Ibid. 6, 126-27.

[12] Ignatius was a fellow disciple of John according to tradition and his letter of counsel to Polycarp is full of affection. Polycarp’s reverence for Ignatius is evidenced by his hortatory epistle to the Philippian Christian community, in which he refers to his friend as a paragon of the faith, informing them that he will forward all the correspondence which he has received from him in accordance with their request. See: St Ignatius of Antioch, The Epistle to Polycarp 1-8 (esp. 1-3 and 7-8) in Early Christian Writings 109-112; St Polycarp of Smyrna, The Epistle of Polycarp to the Philippians 9 and 13 in Early Christian Writings, 122, 124.

[13] St Ignatius of Antioch, The Epistle to the Smyrnaeans 11 in Early Christian Writings 103-4.

[14] Ibid. 1-7, 101-3.

[15] Ibid. 4, 101-2.

[16] Indeed, Marcus Aurelius – who is widely celebrated today for his Meditations as a Stoic philosopher – superstitiously blamed our Christian forebears for the outbreak of plague and the flooding of the River Tiber during his reign. For an analysis of one of the Church’s major reactions to his oppression, see Chris Baghos, ‘The Apologetic and Literary Value of the Acts of JustinPhronema 34:1 (2019) 25-54.

[17] The Martyrdom of Polycarp 13-15, 129-30.

[18] St Ignatius of Antioch, The Epistle to the Romans 4 in Early Christian Writings 86; Raymond Johanny, ‘Ignatius of Antioch’ in The Eucharist of the Early Christians, ed. Willy Rordorf et al., trans. Matthew J. O’Connell (Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1990) 63-64; Finbarr G. Clancy, ‘Imitating the Mysteries That You Celebrate: Martyrdom and Eucharist in the Early Patristic Period’ in The Great Persecution: The Proceedings of the Fifth Patristic Conference, Maynooth, 2003, ed. D. Vincent Twomey and Mark Humphries (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2009) 110-13.

[19] St Cyprian of Carthage, Letters 1-81, trans. Rose Bernard Donna (Washington D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1981) 163; Clancy, ‘Imitating the Mysteries That You Celebrate’ 123.

[20] The Acts of St. Cyprian (Acta Proconsularia Sancti Cypriani) 4 in The Acts of the Christian Martyrs, ed. and trans. Herbert Musurillo (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972) 172-73.

[21] St Ignatius of Antioch, The Epistle to the Romans 2, 85-86; Clancy, ‘Imitating the Mysteries That You Celebrate’ 110.

[22] The Martyrdom of Polycarp 14-15, 129-30; Clancy, ‘Imitating the Mysteries That You Celebrate’ 114-15.

[23] The Martyrdom of Polycarp 14, 129-30; Clancy, ‘Imitating the Mysteries That You Celebrate’ 114-17.

St Andrew of Crete’s Adaptation of the Scriptures

by Chris Baghos

Without a doubt, our Byzantine forebears acknowledged the centrality of the Scriptures within tradition. Yet they also demonstrated flexibility in their interpretive approach, exploring various ways in which the Old and New Testaments may be reiterated for our salvation. Besides composing Biblical homilies in imitation of the early Church Fathers (such as St John Chrysostom), Byzantine theologians developed short hymns known as troparia from the Scriptures and incorporated these within the liturgical framework, specifically in the hope of further enlightening the faithful. St Andrew of Crete, a celebrated hymnographer, homilist, and hagiographer of the late-seventh to early-eighth centuries, is a notable example in this regard. The monastic bishop composed his Great Canon of Repentance as an invitation for us to consider numerous figures of salvation history as symbolising many facets of our respective spiritual lives. It is reasonable to assume that the Church Father made the hymns succinct so that we may effectively memorise them, thus absorbing their salvific content.

When we perform Andrew’s liturgical poetry in the first and last weeks of Great Lent, we repeatedly declare ourselves among the worst sinners that the world has ever known, confessing our sins to the Lord so that He may heal our spiritual infirmities. It ought to be emphasised that Andrew has ensured that his work is ultimately uplifting, comforting us as early as the twelfth troparion of the first ode. Here, the Church Father brilliantly associates the Parable of the Lost Son with St Paul’s description of the Incarnate Lord as the epitome of God’s mercy and affection: “Although I have sinned, O Saviour, yet I know that thou art lover of man: your chastisement is merciful, and fervent your compassion: you see the tears and hasten, as the Father, calling the prodigal (Lk 15:11-32; Tts 3:4).”[1]

Andrew encourages us to return to Christ in a spirit of meekness throughout the Canon. For example, he imitates the humility of the Apostle Paul in the third troparion of the second ode, together with that of King David: “I have sinned above all men, alone I have sinned against you: but as you are God, O Saviour, have pity on your creation (1 Ti 1:15; Ps 50:6 LXX; Mt 9:6).”[2] The Church Father subsequently challenges us to seek redemption in the manner of the tax collector, at the same time warning us against the pride and hardheartedness of Pharisees such as Simon (Lk 7:36-50, 18:9-14).[3] The former aspect is illustrated in the twenty-fourth troparion of the second ode: “Be merciful, as the Publican, I cry unto you, O Saviour, be merciful to me: for there is none out of Adam, who has sinned, as I have, against you (Lk 18:13).”[4]

Penance for Andrew consists in humble introspection, his Canon constantly compelling us to identify our sinful habits and our postlapsarian tendency towards irascibility and concupiscence. The hymnographer assists us in this endeavour by offering other examples of reformed sinners and saints featured within the Holy Writ, ranging from the Patriarch Abraham (a symbol of resolution) to the penitent thief on the cross (an image of ardent faith).[5] Exemplars like the latter especially console us by reminding us that our fallen condition is not unique; that we are all subject to the same temptations, yet capable of overcoming these by the grace of the Godman. As a matter of fact, Andrew explicitly identifies his pastoral aim within the twelfth troparion of the eighth ode, and in the fourth hymn of the ninth. The saint affirms that our Church is defined by moral standards, forever promoting “the pious deeds of the righteous,” which obviously involve a certain degree of diligence.[6] According to Andrew, it is not a matter of cultivating accidie (i.e. listlessness that leads to despair) when we fall (as it may be today for other denominations), but of regaining “the mercy of Christ, through prayer and fasting, purity and soberness (Mt 9:15; 1 Pt 4:7).”[7]

The didactic function of the Great Canon is demonstrated in the seventh troparion of the first ode, where the saint equates our misuse of the gift of freewill with self-destruction. In this verse, in which Andrew has appealed to the language of St Peter, we are exhorted to ponder discernment as the ultimate victim of irrational impulses inevitably expressed in action: “I have walked in the footsteps of blood-thirsty Cain, by deliberate choice, giving life to the flesh, becoming the murderer of the conscience of my soul and warring upon it by my evil deeds (Gn 4:8; 1 Pt 2:11).”[8] The hymnographer intimates that unbridled anger and desire (typified by Cain) hinder genuine examination of the soul called to be innocent (tacitly represented by Abel), thus separating us from Christ, our prototype.

The Church Father identifies the Lord as our existential model in the fifth hymn of the ninth ode while citing the self-emptying and self-sacrifice love that He illustrated through His birth and ministry: “Christ became a child, associated to me in the flesh, and he fulfilled by will, all that pertains to nature, save sin alone: a pattern for you, O soul, and image presenting his condescension (Mt 1:25; Lk 2:7; Heb 2:17, 4:15).”[9] ‘Condescension’ is the literal English rendering of the Greek noun synkatabasis, expounded upon by Chrysostom in relation to our Saviour. It is not at all patronising, instead denoting God’s gracious acceptance of our limitations; i.e. our mortality through the Incarnation, and our limited capacity to describe Him as the eternal Word (together with the Father and the Holy Spirit) following revelation, as with the Scriptures.[10] We are therefore called to be patient with ourselves, always remembering Christ’s longsuffering towards humanity.

It significant that the holy hierarch ultimately disapproves the state of guilt, presenting it as something unwelcome and unpleasant, a direct result of unnatural behaviour. More precisely, in the twentieth hymn of the ninth ode, he warns the soul not to show itself “worse through despair” but to have “the faith of the Canaanite woman, through which her daughter was healed” and cry to the Lord “save me also, Son of David (Mt 15:21-28).”[11] Andrew undoubtedly maintained that excessive remorse can result in accidie for those who do not recognise God’s benevolence, having been influenced by his ascetical forebears during his formation at the monastery of St Sava in Jerusalem.

Throughout the Canon – which offers public confession to the entire congregation – the Church Father juxtaposes regret with hope, as in the verse: “Have mercy, O Lord, have mercy upon me, I cry to you, when you will come with your Angels, to render to all in the measure of their deeds (Mt 16:27).”[12] It is important to bear in mind that the courageous cry of such a humbling petition on the part of the blind beggar, Bartimaeus, caught the attention of the Lord among the crowds on the road to Jericho, and led to the restoration of his sight (Mk 10:46-52; Lk 18:35-43). Hence, in the sixteenth troparion of the ninth ode, Andrew credits the salvation of the publican and the purification of the harlot with the alabaster jar of myrrh to its heartfelt recitation (Lk 7:47-50, 18:10-14).[13] His approach towards grief is entirely consistent with that of the Desert Fathers of Late Antiquity, especially Abba Hyperechius, who affirmed that the devoted Christian (represented by the figure of the monk): “‘transforms the night into day by keeping watch and assiduously persisting in prayers. Goading his heart, he pours forth tears and calls forth mercy from on high.’”[14]

God-inspired compunction is but one aspect of the Great Canon. There are also moral exhortations drawn from the stories of the Old and New Testaments urging the reader to flee from sin. Take, for example, the fifteenth troparion after the second Irmos (i.e. thematical and metrical link) of the third ode, which pertains to bodily desires: “As Lot did the fire, so you my soul flee from sin: flee Sodom, and Gomorrah, flee the flame of every inordinate lust (Gn 19:15-22).”[15] Another call to action is featured within the fifth ode, where Andrew instructs us to approach Christ despite our uncleanness just like the bleeding woman who had likely been ostracised from her community owing to the ceremonial defilement presented by her affliction (Lv 15:25-30).[16] More precisely, the Church Father adjures: “Follow, O wretched soul, the woman with an issue of blood: run quickly, grasp the hem of Christ, that scourging the stream [of sin] you may hear from him: your faith has saved you (Mt 9:20-22; Mk 5:25-34; Lk 8:43-48).”[17]

Andrew formed his Great Canon from the Scriptures because they present existential paradigms essential for our journey to the Kingdom, their historicity notwithstanding. I have barely scratched the surface of this work, which is among the longest of our liturgical services. Much can be said concerning its significance for Great Lent, and of its theological and exegetical import more generally.[18] My intention has been to demonstrate that our Byzantine forebears successfully interiorised the Word of God, using both the Old and New Testaments to enrich other forms of artistic expression, thereby imbuing the minds of the faithful with their unique imagery and phraseology. It must be noted that such appropriation has not been limited to liturgical poetry throughout the ages, having extended to biography, history, and the visual arts.

Due to the ascetical and literary efforts of paragons like Andrew, the Word of God continues to rehabilitate and reassure us in ways that are both practical and aesthetically engaging. Those who have not earnestly participated in our liturgical services cannot understand the significance of this development in the history of worship. Overemphasising the historical dimension of the Scriptures – and having no grasp of the spiritual due to a severe lack of askesis and contemplation – many other traditions sadly do not appreciate our use of them as a language of devotion. We are in fact very blessed to comprise the Orthodox Church, which affords us not only the proper context in which to repent our sins and celebrate our intercessors before Christ, but also the correct manner. This largely consists in the appropriation of the Scriptures in moving melodies, as promoted by Andrew. Let us therefore remember to attend the Divine Liturgy on our beloved Father’s feast day (4 July) so that we may joyfully liken him to the Psalmist for having composed “a new song in the assembly of the righteous” and “thundered forth […] hymns of grace and the Word of righteousness for our salvation …”[19]

St Andrew of Crete, the Hymnographer

[1] St Andrew of Crete, The Great Canon in The Great Canon of St Andrew of Crete and The Life of Saint Mary of Egypt, trans. Abbes Thekla and Mother Katherine, ed. Fr Christopher Wallace (Finnan Books, 2013) 48.

[2] Ibid. 52.

[3] Ibid. 95.

[4] Ibid. 54.

[5] Ibid. 61, 96.

[6] Ibid. 88.

[7] Ibid. 92-93.

[8] Ibid. 47.

[9] Ibid. 93; Magnus Canon (PG 97, 1381A).

[10] Robert C. Hill, trans., ‘Introduction’ to John Chrysostom, Homilies on Genesis 1-17, Fathers of the Church 74 (Washington D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1986) 17-18.

[11] St Andrew of Crete, The Great Canon 95.

[12] Ibid. 62.

[13] Ibid. 95.

[14] The Book of the Elders: Sayings of the Desert Fathers, The Systematic Collection, trans. John Wortley (Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press, 2012) 32.

[15] St Andrew of Crete, The Great Canon 62.

[16] St. Athanasius Academy of Orthodox Theology, The Orthodox Study Bible (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2008) 1284.

[17] St Andrew of Crete, The Great Canon 73.

[18] See, for example, the following chapter by His Eminence Archbishop Stylianos of thrice-blessed memory: ‘Ποίηση καὶ Δόγμα εἰς τὸ ἔργο τοῦ ἁγίου Ἀνδρέου Κρήτης’ in Ὁ Ἅγιος Ἀνδρέας, ἀρχιεπίσκοπος Κρήτης ὁ Ἱεροσολυμίτης, πολιοῦχος Ἐρεσοῦ Λέσβου (Μυτιλήνη: Ἱερά Μητρόπολις Μυτιλήνης, 2005) 316-27.

[19] The Hours, ed. Fr. Joseph Irvin, Orthodox Service Books 6 (Fr. Joseph Irvin, 2019) Kindle edition, location 5365.

The Liturgical Journey to Pascha

by Andrew Mellas
The hymns we sing during Great Lent, the hymns of the Triodion, invite us to reflect, ponder and pray. These hymns are sacred because they are sung not for our enjoyment, but for our salvation. The story of salvation is familiar. We know how it begins, we know its twists and turns, we know its heroes and its wrongdoers, and we know how it ends. However, in experiencing the liturgical songs that tell us this story, we do not just listen, we enter this sacred narrative, and we become part of the story of salvation. The hymns of Great Lent, collected in the liturgical book known as the Triodion, invite the Orthodox faithful to embark on a sacred journey to Pascha. In singing these sacred songs, we experience the entire story of salvation. We stand beside Adam and Eve in Paradise, and we cry with them as we are exiled from the Garden of Eden. We travel to faraway lands and feel nostalgia as we weep for our homeland. We feel the hope of the Annunciation of the Theotokos and the love of God who became human. We suffer with Christ as he willingly embraces his passion. We are crucified with him, we descend into Hades with him and we arise with him on the day of the Resurrection—a day which has no evening. Before Great Lent begins, the hymns of the Triodion prepare us for the journey ahead. We are taught how to pray, how to fast, how to cry, how to act. The first of these Sundays, the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee, is devoted to the Gospel story of a tax collector and a self-righteous man. We know how the Pharisee boasted about his good deeds and prayed with himself, while the Publican could not even raise his eyes up to heaven and prayed for God’s mercy. However, the hymns for this day take us deeper into this story, asking not to pray with the prideful voice of the Pharisee but to emulate the humility of the Publican: Almighty Lord, I know how powerful tears are. They brought Ezekias up from the gates of death. They delivered the sinful woman from the sins of many years. They justified the Tax Collector above the Pharisee. And so I pray, “Numbering me with them with them, have mercy on me.” For whoever exalts themselves will be humbled, but whoever experiences the power of tears, compunction and repentance, will find the grace of God in abundance. The Gospel passage for the Sunday of the Prodigal Son, the story of the younger son who demands his father give him his inheritance. The son journeys to a faraway country, squanders his inheritance and becomes poor and hungry. But when he comes to himself, he arises and returns to his father who shows compassion on him, ordering that he be clothed in the best robe and be given sandals and a ring. The hymns in the Triodion amplify and interpret this parable, portraying sin as exile from one’s homeland, orphanhood and enslavement to depraved passion: Of what great blessings, wretch that I am, have I deprived myself! From what a kingship in my misery have I fallen! I have wasted the wealth that I received, I have transgressed the commandment. Alas, O unhappy soul! You are now condemned to eternal fire. Therefore, before the end cry out to Christ our God, “God, receive me as the Prodigal Son and have mercy on me.” However, the journey home that begins with the prodigal son’s tears is the salvation that every person created in the image of God desires. The prodigal son is an icon of repentance. The faithful are invited to make the voice of the Prodigal Son their own voice. As they sing the words of the hymn, the repentance and restoration of the Prodigal becomes their own journey of salvation. The theme of the Sunday of the Last Judgment is taken from the gospel passage assigned for that day: Matthew 25:31–46. The faithful remember the Second Coming of Christ, who sits on a throne and places the righteous on his right hand and the wicked on his left hand: When thrones are set up and books are opened, and God sits in judgment, O what fear there will be then! When the angels stand with fear in your presence and the river of fire is flowing, what shall we humans, guilty of many sins, do then? When we hear him calling the blessed of his Father into the Kingdom, but sending sinners away to punishment, who will withstand that fearful condemnation? But, O Saviour, only Lover of humankind, King of the ages, before the end comes turn me back through repentance and have mercy on me. They are told how they did or did not feed Christ when he was hungry, clothe him when he was naked and visited him when he was sick. And when they cannot fathom how this was possible, they realise that inasmuch as they did or did not do these things to the least of their brothers and sisters, it was as if they did or did not do it to Christ. How amazing is this mystery? How can we learn to see Christ in our very neighbour? And how can we remember the Second Coming as having taken place in the Sunday of Last Judgment when it is yet to transpire? By remembering the Second Coming as an event that was already taking place liturgically in the hearts of the faithful, the hymns of this Sunday invite the Orthodox to experience the Last Judgment and to feel compunction. The origin of Cheesefare Sunday is ancient. It is more commonly known as the Sunday of the Exile from Paradise because in the hymns of the Triodion, we remember the fall of Adam and Eve and their banishment from the Garden of Eden. The tears that Adam and Eve weep before the closed gates of Eden are connected with the forty-day fast of Christ in the desert. They mark the beginning of Great Lent by portraying it as exile from paradise. The faithful cry out to God: “Do not turn your face away from your child, for I am afflicted.” But the hymns also evoke the hope of redemption as the faithful sing: “Your grace has shined forth O Lord.” The Typikon of the Great Church assigns Matthew 6:14–21 for Cheesefare Sunday to alleviate the sombre mood with the forgiveness that is afforded to the faithful by God if they too forgive their neighbour. On the evening of Cheesefare Sunday during the vespers of compunction, sometimes called the vespers of forgiveness, a set of hymns beginning with Θεοτόκε Παρθένε, O Virgin Theotokos, is chanted in the plagal first mode. They ask the Mother of God, the Baptist of Christ and all the saints to pray for our salvation. During Great Lent, the Salutations to the Virgin Mary and the Saturday of the Akathist Hymn are special occasions that comfort us with the joy of Archangel Gabriel’s message—“Rejoice, highly favoured one, the Lord is with you; blessed are you among women!”—and the mystery of the Incarnation. One of the hymns chanted during these occasions is especially beloved by Orthodox Christians everywhere: To you my champion and commander, I, your City saved from disasters dedicate, O Mother of God, hymns of victory and thanksgiving; but as you have unassailable might from every kind of danger now deliver me, that I may cry to you: Rejoice, Bride without bridegroom! The Birth-giver of God, the Virgin Mary, becomes the dwelling place of the Creator of the universe. However, the hymn also recalls Mary’s role as protectress of Constantinople, as the champion of Byzantium. After the first instalment of the Salutations to the Mother of God, the faithful arrive at the first Sunday of Great Lent. Although from 843 A.D. this Sunday was known as the “Sunday of Orthodoxy” and celebrated the victory over Iconoclasm, this was an addition to the more ancient commemoration of the prophets Moses, Aaron, David and Samuel. The salient theme that emerges is of a journey towards the passion, crucifixion and resurrection of Christ. Similarly, while in Late Byzantium the Second Sunday of Lent became known as the Sunday that commemorated the fourteenth-century defender of Hesychasm, Gregory Palamas, according to the Typikon of the Great Church it originally celebrated the feast of the second-century martyr known as Polycarp of Smyrna who was an exemplar of the ascetic struggle. The hymns for this day also revisit the theme of the prodigal son and his repentance. The third Sunday of Lent is dedicated to the veneration of the precious Cross. Indeed, over a millennium ago in Byzantium, the faithful could physically venerate the Cross on which Christ was crucified in the Cathedral of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople. This liturgical event foreshadowed the passion of Christ in Holy Week: O Christ our God, of your own will you accepted Crucifixion, for the common restoration of humankind. Taking the reed pen of the Cross, out of love for humankind, in the red ink of royalty with bloody fingers you signed our absolution. Do not forsake us, who are in danger once again of being parted from you. Take pity on your people in distress, for you alone are longsuffering. Rise up and fight against our enemies, as you are all-powerful. The fourth Sunday of Lent is dedicated to St John Climacus who wrote the famous treatise known as the Ladder of Divine Ascent. The hymns for this day invite the faithful to a life of holiness: Come, let us work in the mystical vineyard, producing fruits of repentance within it, not labouring for things that are eaten or drunk, but in prayer and fasting attaining the virtues. Through such works the Lord of the labour, being pleased, grants the denarius, by which He redeems souls from the debt of sin, the one who alone is abundantly merciful. The fifth and final Sunday of Lent commemorated Mary of Egypt, a fifth-century saint who exemplified repentance in the Byzantine tradition. Before she left Jerusalem to dedicate herself to asceticism in the desert beyond the Jordan, Mary was a notorious harlot. However, when Mary is prevented from entering a church in Jerusalem during “the holy feast of the Exaltation of the Cross” by an invisible force, she describes the feeling of compunction that pierces her heart: Only then did I realize the cause which prevented me from laying eyes on the life-giving cross, for a salvific word touched the eyes of my heart, showing me that it was the filth of my deeds that was barring the entrance to me. Then I began to cry, lamenting and beating my breast, raising sighs from the depths of my heart. While this Sunday is the final Sunday of Lent, what soon follows is the beginning of Christ’s Passion: Palm Sunday and Holy Week. However, we will explore this chapter in the journey to Pascha at another time.
The Ladder of Divine Ascent Holy Monastery of St Catherine, Sinai (12th century)

St Justin, the Martyr and Philosopher

by Chris Baghos

On the 1st of June, we commemorate our Father among the saints, Justin, the Martyr and Philosopher. As his honorific titles suggest, Justin’s defence of Orthodoxy was as fearless as it was brilliant. Drawing on his literary-rhetorical and philosophical training, this saint of tremendous importance gave his life in systematically refuting insults and rumours against the Church on the part of both pagans and Jews; callous assertions that were causing numerous atrocities against the faithful. Subsequently, he was instrumental in defining the medieval Christian attitude towards Classical culture.

Justin was born in Flavia Neapolis, Palestine (modern-day Nablus), during the late-first or early-second century, and very likely descended from Greco-Roman colonists judging from the names of his father and grandfather (Priscus and Bacchius, respectively). The Church Father probably proceeded through the Classical education system typical of Late Antiquity, which consisted in the analysis and memorisation of major poetical, historical, and oratorical works, including the literary figures and tropes featured therein.[1] He was certainly a seeker of wisdom prior to his adoption of Christianity, having earnestly attempted to become a Stoic, a Peripatetic, a Pythagorean, and a Platonist. Interestingly, Justin revealed that only his Platonist teacher offered him any knowledge of God and intelligible realities; the Stoic having considered such information unnecessary, the Peripatetic having been more concerned with payment, and the Pythagorean having demanded that he first learn music, astronomy, and geometry.[2]

Justin’s conversion to Christianity occurred when he met a mysterious sage during one of his habitual meditative walks near the sea. In short, the mystic convinced Justin that he had fallen into grave contradictions with respect to his understanding of the human soul and its relation to God. When Justin realised that his cherished Platonists had failed to apprehend such realities, he asked the old man which teacher or method he ought to follow. The sage directed him to the Old Testament Prophets, specifically their noble manner of life, their writings, and their miracles; how they exalted God the Father through such means and, just as importantly, made the Son known to humankind.[3]

Andrew Hofer convincingly argued that the Church Father implied in his account of this event that the old mystic was, in fact, our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, albeit mystically concealed. This is because there are at least fifteen parallels between Justin’s description of his encounter with the mysterious figure and that of Cleopas and his companion with the Godman on the road to Emmaus (Lk 24:13-35). These include (among other things): initial feigned ignorance on the part of the teacher intended to expose the false thinking of their listener/s; the former’s mysterious appearance and vanishing; and an interpretation of the Old Testament leading to illumination, warmth in the heart, and a desire to proclaim the Gospel. Moreover, the mystic can be taken as the ‘Ancient of Days’ referred to in the Scriptures, traditionally identified as the Lord Jesus by the Church (Dan 7:9-10, 13-14, 22; Rev 1).[4]

Having encountered Christ face to face, Justin immediately devoted the remainder of his life to the defence and dissemination of the Gospel. This is evidenced by his surviving works, particularly his first and second Apologies. These texts are not admissions of error or guilt as the term ‘apology’ typically suggests today. They are instead sophisticated justifications of the Christian faith and rituals for which countless were being persecuted throughout Late Antiquity, especially during the reign of Marcus Aurelius.[5] Of relevance to our discussion is the Church Father’s articulation of the logos spermatikos doctrine. Appealing to the complementary understanding of reason (λόγος) featured in the Stoic, Middle Platonist, and Johannine traditions – let us recall the opening passage of the Gospel of St John – Justin described how Christ (ὁ Λόγος τοῦ Θεοῦ) is the rational principle that gives order and meaning to the entire creation. He therefore proclaimed that whichever pagans had lived virtuously and arrived at accurate perceptions of reality – including the famous philosophers, Socrates and Heraclitus, as well as the lesser known Gaius Musonius Rufus – were ultimately indebted to Christ, Who implants the gift of reason within every human being.[6] According to the apologist, this gift has moral implications, its proper use resulting in a lifestyle consistent with that of the Logos Incarnate.[7]

It is significant that Justin did not repudiate his Greco-Roman heritage, choosing instead to appropriate various aspects of different philosophical traditions for the purposes of catechetical instruction and conversion. To draw and convince crowds in Palestine and Rome (and possibly Ephesus), the Church Father preserved not only the philosophical vocabulary that both he and they had inherited but even the customary cloak typically worn by the Hellenic seekers of wisdom – at least until he was arrested, tried, and executed in Rome with his disciples for refusing to offer sacrifices to the pagan gods.[8]

The saint’s mission did not instantly lead to a fusion between Christianity and Greco-Roman culture. It took another century and a half before St Constantine the Great granted state protection to the Church.[9] Nonetheless, his attitude was generally adopted by the faithful throughout the Greek East and Latin West, which likewise preserved his memory through the continued publication of his works, as well as in martyr acts, treatises, and the hymns of his feast day.[10] We are greatly indebted to Justin for his wise and nuanced approach, which helped justify the use of Greek philosophical concepts and terms for all later Church Fathers, especially in their development of Orthodox Christology and cosmology. Justin’s lasting influence on the Greek Orthodox Church in particular – mediated through Byzantium – can be discerned today at the Holy Monastery of Great Meteoron located in Central Greece. Above the monastery’s entrance doors there is an icon of the Lord, from Whom proceeds a vine that ties together the Prophets. Flanking the doors on either side are Justin and St Paul the Apostle accompanied by ancient Greek poets, philosophers, and historians. These include Homer, Thucydides, Aristotle and Plato, in addition to Solon, Pythagoras, and Socrates. Each of the ancient figures carries a scroll featuring a passage from their works that points to Christ’s Incarnation and ministry.

There is much we can learn from Justin, and it is incumbent on us to both explore his writings and celebrate his feast day. What the Church Father undoubtedly expects from us is that we do not bury the unique talents that we have received from Christ (Mt 25:14-30; Lk 19:12-27), whether these be of a practical or contemplative nature. We must preach the Gospel using whatever gifts the Lord has bestowed on us while displaying compassion towards all, even our enemies. In this secular age – where Christians are generally being persecuted, intellectually if not physically – we are often called to bear witness at the expense of our respective reputations. So long as we remember to pray to Justin and similar intercessors, we will surely find the strength to act accordingly. Furthermore, bearing in mind the great saint’s behaviour in his wider society and his written teachings, we must not be afraid of those aspects of secular culture that are compatible with the Gospel – Christ is indeed the source of everything rational and noble in this world. It is therefore essential for us to seek common ground with unbelievers for the sake of mission, whether this be in relation to art and culture or the hard sciences. We certainly have a wonderful intercessor before Christ who will assist us in this undertaking, having dwelt in a world remarkably similar to our own and experienced many of the same challenges.

St Justin, the Martyr and Philosopher

[1] St Justin Martyr, Ἰουστίνου ἀπολογία ὑπὲρ Χριστιανῶν πρὸς Ἀντωνίνον τὸν Εὐσεβῆ [i.e. First Apology] 1.1 in Justin, Philosopher and Martyr: Apologies, ed. and trans. Denis Minns and Paul Parvis (Oxford University Press, 2009) 80-81 (hereafter referred to as 1A); Thomas B. Falls, ‘Foreword’ to St Justin Martyr, The First Apology, The Second Apology, Dialogue with Trypho, Exhortation to the Greeks, Discourse to the Greeks, The Monarchy or The Rule of God, Fathers of the Church 6 (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1965) 9; Minns and Parvis, ‘Introduction’ to Justin, Philosopher and Martyr 32; L. W. Barnard, Justin Martyr: His Life and Thought (London: Cambridge University Press, 1967) 5; Robert J. Penella, ‘The Progymnasmata in Imperial Greek Education’ Classical World 105:1 (2011) 77; J. N. D. Kelly, Golden Mouth: The Story of John Chrysostom – Ascetic, Preacher, Bishop (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1995) 6; Chrysostomus Baur, John Chrysostom and His Time, vol. 1: Antioch, trans. M. Gonzaga (Westminster, MD: The Newman Press, 1959) 10-11; John A. L. Lee, ‘Why Didn’t St Basil Write in New Testament Greek?’ Phronema 25 (2010) 10.

[2] St Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho 2.3-6, trans. Thomas B. Falls and Thomas P. Halton, ed. Michael Slusser, Selections from the Fathers of the Church 3 (Washington, D. C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2003) 5-7. Hereafter referred to as Dial.

[3] Dial. 3-8.2 (Falls and Halton 7-15).

[4] Andrew Hofer, ‘The Old Man as Christ in Justin’s “Dialogue with Trypho”’ Vigiliae Christianae 57.1 (2003) 1-21.

[5] Chris Baghos, ‘The Apologetic and Literary Value of the Acts of Justin’ Phronema 34:1 (2019) 46-48; Henry Chadwick, The Early Church, The Penguin History of the Church 1 (London: Penguin Group) 28-29. Justin addressed his Apologies to Marcus Aurelius and the similarly intolerant ruler, Antoninus Pius. See 1A 1.1 (Minns and Parvis 80); Minns and Parvis, ‘Introduction’ to Justin, Philosopher and Martyr 36-37.

[6] 1A 5.4, 46.2-4 (Minns and Parvis 90-91, 200-1); St Justin Martyr, [Pars Secunda] τοῦ αὐτοῦ ἁγίου Ἰουστίνου φιλοσόφου καὶ μάρτυρος ἀπολογία ὑπὲρ Χριστιανῶν πρὸς τὴν Ῥωμαίων σύγκλητον Α [i.e. Second Apology] 7(8).1, 7.3, 10.8, 13.3, 13.5 in Justin, Philosopher and Martyr 296-99, 312-13, 320-21 (hereafter referred to as 2A). See also: Minns and Parvis, ‘Introduction’ to Justin, Philosopher and Martyr 61, 65-66; Mario Baghos, ‘Hellenistic Globalisation and the Metanarrative of the Logos’ in Thinking Diversely: Hellenism and the Challenge of Globalisation, A Special Edition of Modern Greek Studies, Australia and New Zealand: A Journal for Greek Letters, ed. Elizabeth Kefallinos (Dec. 2012) 31; Barnard, Justin Martyr 89; Basil N. Tatakis, Christian Philosophy in the Patristic and Byzantine Tradition, trans. George Dion Dragas (Rollinsford, NH: Orthodox Research Institute, 2007) 29.

[7] 1A 46.4 (Minns and Parvis 200-1); 2A 7(8).1-2 (Minns and Parvis 296-99).

[8] Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 4.18.6 in Ecclesiastical History, Volume I: Books 1-5, trans. Kirsopp Lake, Loeb Classical Library 153 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1926) 370-71; Dial. 1.2 (Falls and Halton 3). See also Minns and Parvis, ‘Introduction’ to Justin, Philosopher and Martyr 32-33; Barnard, Justin Martyr 12-13; Thomas P. Halton, trans., ‘Introduction to This Edition’ of Dial. xii. Three recensions of Justin’s martyr act have been transmitted to us, the latest of which dates from the early-fifth century. See Herbert Musurillo, ed., ‘Introduction’ to The Acts of the Christian Martyrs (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972) xvii-xx. For a thorough assessment of the most authentic versions and their theological and cultural significance, see Baghos, ‘The Apologetic and Literary Value of the Acts of Justin’ 25-54.

[9] Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 10.1-4 in Ecclesiastical History, Volume II: Books 6-10, trans. J. E. L. Oulton, Loeb Classical Library 265 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1932) 391-97.

[10] A Calendar of Orthodox Saints and Feast Days, ed. Joseph Irvin, Orthodox Service Books 9 (Fr. Joseph Irvin, 2019), Kindle edition, location 3808; St Jerome of Stridon, On Illustrious Men 23, trans. Thomas P. Halton, Fathers of the Church 100 (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1955) 43-46.

The Saints of Early Ireland and Britain

by Chris Baghos

I pray You, noble Jesu, that as You have graciously granted me joyfully to imbibe the words of Your knowledge, so You will also of Your bounty grant me to come at length to Yourself, the Fount of all wisdom, and to dwell in Your presence for ever. – St Bede the Venerable, A History of the English Church and People 5.24.[1]

The first evidence for the presence of the Church in Britain dates from the third century, when the Orthodox Christian faith was introduced by Roman imperial administrators and soldiers to the native British elite who had surrendered to the Continental superpower during the reign of the emperor Claudius.[2] It is significant that the Romano-British faithful were subjected to sporadic persecution under the pagan imperial authorities just like the remainder of the Church, as evidenced by the martyrdoms of Sts Aaron, Julius, and Alban in the mid-third century, later recorded by St Bede the Venerable and his major historical influence, St Gildas the Wise.[3] Culturally, the Church transmitted written law to Britain via the Latin language, in addition to Classical and patristic literature. As concerns the structure of the early British Church, the first dioceses were based on Roman civil structures. Subsequently, bishops from London, York, and Lincoln/Colchester attended the Council of Arles in c. 314, which was intended to remedy the division caused by hardhearted heretics known as the Donatists, and which served as a prototype for the first Ecumenical Council convened by St Constantine the Great.[4] The Romano-British Church gradually contracted after the withdrawal of the imperial forces in 409, and the subsequent Irish, Pictish, and Germanic invasions. By the fifth century, it became limited to the areas of modern-day Scotland and Northern England, specifically Strathclyde and Cumbria, in addition to Wales, Devon, and Cornwall.[5] An important source for this period is Gildas’ hortatory treatise On the Ruin of Britain. In short, the Church Father recorded the history of his people as a means of censuring their vices and turning them back to the Lord, thereby resembling the prophets of the Old Testament while at the same time anticipating charismatic figures of Byzantium like St Symeon the New Theologian.

The British Church went on to influence Ireland through trade and migration, and it is likely that the faithful from its Western region helped establish the first Christian community on the Emerald Isle during the fifth century.[6] Palladius, a deacon from Auxerre in Gaul, was soon commissioned by St Celestine of Rome to shepherd the early Irish and combat a heresy stemming from a cleric named Pelagius, who was possibly a native of Wales originally named Morgan.[7] In short, Pelagius argued that a person can attain salvation entirely through their own efforts, thereby contradicting the testimony of St Paul the Apostle with respect to the importance of divine grace in our spiritual development.[8] Palladius was ordained the first bishop of Ireland, working primarily in its south-east territory where he also established the first Celtic monasteries.[9] He was followed by one of the most celebrated saints in history, namely, Patrick the Enlightener and Equal-to-the-Apostles, who was directly inspired by God to convert the Irish of the north, especially within the regions of Ulster and Connacht. Christians from Gaul likely aided Patrick in his evangelic work, and it is noteworthy that the positive relationship between the missionary and monastic networks of Ireland and the Continent continued for a number of centuries.[10] Patrick was from a Christian family from north-west Britain, somewhere around Carlisle. His father was a deacon, his grandfather was a presbyter, yet he himself did not surrender to Christ until he was captured by pirates and taken to Ireland as a boy. In captivity, he spent his days tending sheep in constant prayer in direct conversation with God, thus foreshadowing the hesychasts of Byzantium. Although he managed to escape slavery with the assistance of Divine Providence, he was compelled to return to Ireland as an adult after having been ordained, namely on account of a vision from God.[11] Patrick has described his outstanding apostolic enterprise in his written Confession/Testament, which serves as a strategic reply to his jealous critics, a formal declaration of his adherence to the central tenets of the faith (such as the doctrine of the Holy Trinity), and a wondrous means of preaching the Gospel, by movingly attesting to God’s active presence within his life.[12]

A synod was eventually held in Ireland in the late sixth century. This was later attributed to Patrick, attesting to his immense popularity as the island’s patron saint. The canons produced by the gathering indicate that the Church in Ireland was initially governed by bishops in dioceses based on the territories of the Indigenous tribes.[13] Around this time, numerous monasteries and lay communities were established throughout the Emerald Isle by the beloved miracle worker, St Brigit of Kildare, who was also admired for her wisdom and compassion.[14] This was in addition to St Finnian of Clonard and his disciples, traditionally referred to as the ‘Twelve Apostles of Ireland’.[15] Among these disciples were Sts Columba of Iona and Brendan of Clonfert, otherwise known as the Navigator. The latter is the subject of a fascinating text titled The Voyage of Brendan, a Christian equivalent to Homer’s Odyssey and Virgil’s Aeneid that went on to influence the renowned fantasy author, J. R. R. Tolkien.[16] By the seventh century, the territorial dioceses of Ireland were partly superseded by monastic networks known as paruchiae, so that abbots had significant authority within society. In fact, bishops worked largely from monasteries while willingly submitting themselves to their respective abbots for the purpose of retaining their humility.[17] Yet the ecclesiastical structure of Ireland was eventually made more consistent with that of Western Europe in the eleventh and twelfth centuries through the influence of monastic reforms originating from Burgundy, in addition to the conquests of the Anglo-Normans.[18]

Columba, of royal descent, began his apostolic vocation by founding monasteries in the regions of Derry and Durrow. He was eventually compelled to leave his native home in 563, either to avoid dynastic politics or repent his involvement in what has been described as the first world’s copyright dispute, one which inspired his kin to take arms against the reigning high king.[19] Whatever the case may be, through his ascetic life in exile, Columba became a wonderworker and even greater missionary, founding a monastic community off the Scottish coast at the isle of Iona, from where he set out with his disciples to convert the Picts.[20] The Orthodox faith thus came to dominate the Western part of Scotland through the Latin and Irish languages, with Iona eventually becoming the head of a large network of highly learned Christian communities that extended to central Ireland, East Anglia, and Northumbria.[21] These communities produced some of the most wonderful manuscripts in history, such as the illustrious Book of Kells.[22] The life of Columba – who wondrously shepherded his Irish and Pictish flocks as a prophet, miracle worker, converser with angels, and experiencer of the divine light – has been eloquently recorded by his holy relative and monastic successor, Adomnán.[23] The latter happens to be one of the most significant authors of ecclesiastical canons and state legislation, having promulgated the famed ‘Law of Innocents’ (Lex innocentium), which defended the rights of women, children, and clerics during times of conflict.[24]

By the sixth century, most of Britain had come under the control of pagan Anglo-Saxons. The incredibly influential bishop of Rome, St Gregory the Great, therefore established a mission to Kent, entrusting it to an Italian Benedictine monk by the name of Augustine who eventually became the first bishop of Canterbury.[25] With the assistance of St Bertha, the Frankish wife of King Aethelberht of Kent, St Augustine of Canterbury had considerable success. Gregory therefore announced Augustine’s baptism of more than ten thousand people on a single Christmas day in a letter to Bishop Eulogius of Alexandria in July of 598.[26] Augustine’s mission temporarily lost ground during the period in which Eadbald, Aethelberht’s successor, reverted to paganism. Nonetheless, Augustine had an enduring legacy, having founded Christ Church Cathedral and the monastery of Sts Peter and Paul in Canterbury, in addition to the episcopal sees of London and Rochester. To be sure, numerous other monasteries were soon established in these locations. Meanwhile, outside of Kent, bishops were appointed to individual kingdoms, thereby creating vast dioceses.[27] St Theodore of Tarsus – a Greek contemporary of St Maximus the Confessor and fellow defender of Christ’s two wills (i.e. the human and the divine) – was sent to Canterbury by St Agatho of Rome in 669, from where he established more conventional dioceses throughout England.[28] Furthermore, Theodore was tasked with convincing the Celtic Christians to forsake an obsolete method for the dating of Easter and adopt that used by the wider Church, principally for the sake of spiritual unity. He successfully accomplished this at the Synod of Whitby in 664, which marks the fusion between the Celtic and Anglo-Saxon Christian communities.[29] Hence, this unique aspect of the Church of the first millennium is now commonly referred to as ‘Insular’ in the positive sense, that is, as pertaining to the British Isles. In addition, it is worth mentioning that Theodore established scholarly rigour within the Insular clerical ranks, to which he bestowed many writings of the Byzantine Fathers.

The Gregorian mission initially enjoyed greater success in the north, especially since King Edwin of Northumbria married the Christian princess Ethelberga, daughter of Bertha and Aethelberht. St Paulinus, a Roman monk sent to England by Gregory and the first bishop of York who had laboured tirelessly in Kent, accompanied Ethelberga to Northumbria, where he baptised the king.[30] Sadly, St Edwin was eventually defeated by a tyrannical rival, so that his immediate successors split his kingdom and reverted to the old religion. The Christian faith therefore declined in Northumbria until the accession of the Bernician prince, St Oswald, who was highly praised by Bede owing to his piety. Oswald reunited the kingdom and turned to Columba to provide him with a bishop. While the first candidate proved unsuitable, the second, St Aidan, was instrumental in restoring Christianity within Northumbria. Aidan founded a monastic centre off the Northumbrian coast at Lindisfarne, where he combined evangelistic and pastoral activities with a contemplative ascetic life, likewise to the admiration of Bede.[31]

At Lindisfarne, Aidan likely preached to a key figure in the Insular history of our Church, namely, St Cuthbert the Wonderworker.[32] Cuthbert was called to experience holiness at a young age after a brief career as a soldier, eventually becoming an ascetic paragon and beloved patron of the poor and animals. On entering the Holy Monastery of Melrose, also constructed by Aidan, he became the spiritual son of its prior (i.e. the second in charge after the abbot), St Boisil.[33] The Venerable Bede has revealed that Boisil acquired the gifts of discernment and foresight from the Holy Spirit, at one time revealing to Cuthbert the entire course of the young monk’s virtuous life.[34] It is relevant to our current experience that there was an outbreak of plague during this period; the contagious bacterial disease was quite common throughout the Middle Ages, usually consisting in fever and delirium in addition to the formation of buboes and severe infection of the lungs. Sts Boisil and Cuthbert both contracted the illness, the former finally reposing in the Lord on account of it, yet – it must be emphasised – still retaining his characteristic spirit of joy.[35] The latter recovered and went on to perform numerous prophecies, healings, and exorcisms as a prior, missionary, hermit, and bishop, even recalling to life a dying youth during a tour of the outer villages of his diocese. Indeed, he gained the ability to heal those who had the plague by God’s grace, a major instance of which has been described by Bede as follows.

At the same time there suddenly arose in those parts a most grievous pestilence, and brought with it destruction so severe that in some large villages and estates once crowded with inhabitants, only a small and scattered remnant, and sometimes none at all, remained. So the most holy father Cuthbert, diligently traversing his diocese, did not cease to bring the ministry of the word and the help of much-needed consolation to the poor few who remained. Coming to one village and having helped by his exhortations all whom he found, he said to his priest: “Do you think that anyone is left in these parts who needs to be visited and exhorted by us; or have we seen all who are in trouble and can we now pass on to others?” The priest, looking round everywhere, saw a woman standing at a distance who, having lost one son a little while before, was now holding his brother in her arms at the point of death; her eyes, streaming with tears, bore witness both to her past and her present troubles. The priest pointed her out to the man of God, who did not delay but, approaching her and giving her his blessing, kissed the boy and said to the mother: “Do not fear nor be sad; for your infant will be healed and will live, nor will anyone else be missing from your home through this plague.” The mother herself and her son lived long afterwards to bear testimony to the truth of this prophecy.[36]

It is significant that that this wonderful saint, whom we affectionately hail as Wonderworker, eventually contracted a debilitating illness; one so severe that it greatly prevented it him from moving his body for the three weeks leading up to his repose, which he foresaw and courageously prepared for through prayer.[37] Bede, citing a witness named Herefrith, affirms that God also cut him off from his flock for five days at this point, in which he was assaulted by the Enemy, alone. The Church Father reveals that God’s purpose in testing Cuthbert was to completely purify him and demonstrate to his adversaries that nothing could prevail against his faith. The holy ascetic thus serves as an example to us in this period of trial and temptation seeing that he never asked to be freed from his affliction, trusting instead in God’s mercy and love while prioritising the needs of others. His compassion and altruism are evidenced by the fact that healed a disciple from chronic dysentery during his final days in the flesh with a mere touch. Moreover, he took the opportunity to educate and comfort his disciples, as well as return all the gifts that he had received from his friends. And so, on the 20th of March, 687, after receiving Holy Communion from Herefrith, he gave up his soul to the Lord while praising Him for all things.

Likely from a wealthy family, Bede was sent by his parents at the age of seven to be raised and educated by St Benedict Biscop at the monastery which the latter had founded at Wearmouth in Northumbria.[38] Benedict had been on many pilgrimages throughout the Continent and endowed his monastery with various writings of the Fathers, consequently establishing one of the greatest libraries in the West during the Middle Ages.[39] While we only have scant information from Bede regarding his own formation and monastic tonsure, we can assume that he eagerly embraced the ascetic life owing to his later emphasis on the importance of discipline and obedience, as well as his clear love of knowledge.[40] On becoming a monk, Bede devoted himself to study of the Scriptures, observing something akin to the popular Western monastic rule formulated by St Benedict of Nursia. He later moved with his warden and the former assistant of Benedict Biscop, St Ceolfrith, to a new community at nearby Jarrow. He worked diligently between Wearmouth and Jarrow, approximately eleven kilometres part, before he was ordained a deacon at the age of nineteen and presbyter when thirty.[41] Like Cuthbert, he was once forced to endure pestilence and famine because of the plague. Interestingly, the written Life of Ceolfrith mentions that only one small boy – most likely Bede – remained fit enough to chant at Jarrow for some time.[42] Besides labouring in the scriptorium as a copyist and original author, he spent his life with his brethren in regular performance of the Divine Office, which included recitation of the Psalms and corporate prayers in addition to biblical readings. Moreover, he undertook arduous manual work to cultivate humility and master his emotions and impulses.[43]

Unknown to most people, Bede was far more than a chronicler of the Church, having composed numerous Lives of saints, multiple commentaries on the Scriptures, and even treatises on grammar and the philosophy of time.[44] He had masterful knowledge of the Classical authors and, more importantly, the Byzantine and Continental Fathers of the Church, being an expert in Latin rhetoric with some skill in the Hellenic tongue. His native language was Old English, specifically the dialect spoken in Northumbria. It is quite striking that this key figure in the history of the Church – and one of the most celebrated minds of the medieval world – did not advance to the rank of bishop or travel abroad, preferring to live humbly in poverty at the Holy Monastery of Sts Peter and Paul encompassing Wearmouth and Jarrow. In fact, he has hardly mentioned himself with his vast written corpus, and we are indebted to a disciple named Cuthbert for his final moments in the flesh in 735. In short, about two weeks before Pascha, Bede became ill and had trouble breathing. He remained cheerful despite his weakness, continuing to teach his students and chant the Psalms while remembering the positive attitude of the Fathers towards death. Imitating Cuthbert the Wonderworker, he also distributed whatever gifts that he had received throughout his life to his fellow monks.[45] During this time, Bede hoped to finish a selection of extracts from the writings of St Isidore of Seville, as well as an Anglo-Saxon translation of the Gospel of St John the Theologian. On the eve of the feast of the Ascension, aware that the hour of his repose was near, he exhorted his disciples to record his dictation of the Gospel’s final chapters. Unable to accompany his brethren during a procession of holy relics, Bede was left with a young scribe named Wilbert. According to the relevant primary source, the Church Father declared:

“If it be the will of my Maker, the time has come when I shall be freed from the body and return to Him Who created me out of nothing when I had no being. I have had a long life, and the merciful Judge has ordered it graciously. The time of my departure is at hand, and my soul longs to see Christ my King in His beauty.” […] Then the same lad, named Wilbert, said again, “Dear master, there is still one sentence still unfinished.” “Very well,” he replied, “write it down.” After a short while the lad said, “Now it is finished.” “You have spoken truly,” he replied: “It is well finished. Now raise my head in your hands, for it would give me great joy to sit facing the holy place where I used to pray, so that I may sit and call on my Father.” And thus, on the floor of his cell, he chanted, “Glory be to Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit” to its ending, and breathed his last.[46]

By the late-seventh century, owing to the efforts of the Church Fathers described above, most of England had embraced the Orthodox faith. Remarkably, the faithful of rival kingdoms in Britain and Ireland acknowledged each other’s saints. This is demonstrated by King Ælfwald of East Anglia, who commissioned the Life of St Guthlac despite the fact that its subject came from Mercia. It has been posited that the saint was of interest to the ruler since he had established his hermitage in the borderland known as Crowland. Furthermore, the favourable portrayal of King Æthelbald of Mercia in the Life suggests that relations between the two realms were positive at the time.[47] Judging from the wider hagiographical tradition, it is, in fact, apparent that Ælfwald’s active interest Guthlac stemmed from a common understanding of holiness among the Byzantine, Continental, and Insular Christians of the first millennium.

St Guthlac of Crowland was an inspirational penitent, a famed counsellor to both royalty and commoners, and – like Cuthbert the Wonderworker – a beloved patron of animals.[48] The young Guthlac, of royal descent, won fame at the head of a Mercian war band while fighting the British on the borders of Wales, having been inspired by his pagan ancestors.[49] At the age of twenty-four, however, after reflecting on the common fate of worldly heroes, namely corruption and death, he was moved in his spirit to turn to Christ – the Way, the Truth, and the Life (Jn 14:6). On entering the double-monastery at Repton, where he was trained by its holy abbess, Ælfthryth, he immediately became distinguished for his piety and asceticism, his incomparable gentleness eventually earning the affection of his jealous brethren.[50] In c. 700, Guthlac was stirred by the stories and sayings of the Desert Fathers to retreat to the wilderness to foster a more intimate relationship with our Lord through practical asceticism and contemplation.[51] He made his way to the marshland in the Eastern region of England known as the Fens, which constituted the border between the rival kingdoms of Mercia and East Anglia. Much like the deserts of Egypt, Asia Minor, and Mesopotamia, the Fens were a notorious breeding ground for demonic activity. The brave Guthlac set out to exorcise this ghostly wasteland in imitation of his saintly predecessors, building a shelter by cutting into the side of a Roman or British burial-mound where he lived austerely for the remainder of his life.[52]

With the assistance of the angels and his beloved patron, St Bartholomew the Apostle, Guthlac overcame ghastly demons which took the shapes of disfigured men and wild animals, thus becoming the Mercian equivalent to Sts Anthony the Great and Cuthbert.[53] Guthlac soon became a healer and a prophet, his fame spreading throughout the different kingdoms of England only a generation later, thus contributing to their spiritual unity. His transformation from chieftain to hermit is indeed quite striking. Rather than lead armies into battle to gain earthly treasures, Guthlac remained largely isolated from men in the company of angels and animals to arrive at union with God. He gave up the engraved armour and splendid garments to which he was entitled, preferring to wear simple tunics of hide. Instead of feasting at lavish banquets, he ate mere scraps of barley bread and drunk muddy water strictly after sundown.[54] He chose not to plunder his neighbours, but to trample on Satan and his servants through prayer and self-restraint. By the grace of God, even his temperament changed, his altruistic compassion substituting his ambitions and extending to the timidest creatures, such as little hirundines. The following story demonstrates how Guthlac arrived at the God-intended state of humanity before the ancestral fall, namely as a tender lord of creation.

It is also pleasant to describe a spiritual miracle of Guthlac the most blessed servant of God. For it happened that on a certain day, while a venerable man named Wilfrid, who had long been bound by the bonds of spiritual friendship to Guthlac the man of God, was talking with him as was his custom, by chance two swallows suddenly entered his house: showing every sign of great joy, they opened their beaks and sang a song from their supple throats, as though they had arrived at their accustomed abode; without any hesitation they settled on the shoulders of the man of God Guthlac, and then chirping their little songs they settled on his arms, his knees, and his breast. Wilfrid was indeed amazed and, begging permission to speak, he began to ask how birds from the wild solitudes, unused to the approach of human beings, had the confidence to come near him. St Guthlac answered him and said: “Have you not read how if a man is joined to God in purity of spirit, all things are united to him in God? and he who refuses to be acknowledged by men seeks the recognition of wild beasts and the visitations of angels; for he who is often visited by men cannot be often visited by angels.” Then, taking a certain basket he placed one straw in it; and when the birds perceived this, as though they had been instructed by a familiar sign, they began to build a nest in it. And after about an hour had passed, when they had gathered together odds and ends and established a nest, St Guthlac then placed the basket under the eaves of the dwelling in which he was sitting; and there the birds began to settle, having, as it were, acquired their own place of residence; but they did not presume to choose a nesting-place without the permission of the man of God; and each year they came and sought from the man of God a sign to tell them where they were to dwell.[55]

In summary, there is much we can learn from the magnificent Celtic and Anglo-Saxon saints of our tradition. For instance, we can strive to imitate Cuthbert’s steadfast patience and abounding compassion in times of personal illness and medical crises while imploring him to intercede for us, especially on his feast day, the 20th of March. Our Father among the saints, Bede the Venerable, certainly expects us to do so given that Cuthbert was his beloved patron in this world, for whom he wrote no less than three biographies, including one in metrical verse.[56] Let us therefore remember to honour him too – particularly on the 27th of May – while following the example of his humility and spiritual discipline, as well as his full exploitation of his God-given charisms. Not all of us have been called to become staunch practical ascetics or highly eloquent contemplatives. Nonetheless, Bede, who is in the loving presence of God, will help us discover and use, for the benefit of the entire Church, our spiritual gifts – whether these are of a practical or contemplative nature – through his intercessions. By asking Bede and his Insular forebears to pray for us, we will no doubt increase the likelihood of being taken up by our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ, in a similar splendid manner at the respective ends of our lives. Moreover, we will appreciate the sheer blessing that it is to be children of God by adoption in a world called to be transfigured by His grace, as in the case of Guthlac. According to Felix, the eloquent East Anglian monk who composed Guthlac’s Vita, the name of the Lord was always on the holy hermit’s joyful lips, while his heart was filled with piety and his spirit was characterised by peace and mercy.[57] We should thus remember to commemorate our Holy Father, Guthlac, on the 11th of April, that we may receive but a fraction of his contentment, as well as his affection for animals and the environment. On a final note, let us proudly celebrate all our Insular Fathers and Mothers and reclaim their wonderful contributions to Orthodoxy and wider humanity, including their literary, artistic, and administrative prowess, their apostolic fearlessness, their mystical insight, and, most importantly, their perfect love for God and neighbour.

All Celtic and Anglo-Saxon Saints

[1] St Bede the Venerable, A History of the English Church and People 5.4, trans. Leo Sherley-Price (Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1955) 331.

[2] A History of the English Church and People 1.2-3, 40-42; Marilyn Dunn, The Emergence of Monasticism: From the Desert Fathers to the Early Middle Ages (Carlton, Victoria: Blackwell Publishing, 2000) 138; Oliver Davies, trans., Celtic Spirituality, The Classics of Western Spirituality 96 (New York: Paulist Press, 1999) 20.

[3] A History of the English Church and People 1.6-7, 43-47; St Gildas the Wise, The Ruin of Britain 10 in Gildas: The Ruin of Britain, Fragments from Lost Letters, The Penitential, Together with the Lorica of Gildas, ed. and trans. Hugh Williams, Cymmrodorion Record Series 3 (London: David Nutt, 1899) 24-27.

[4] Dunn, The Emergence of Monasticism 139; Davies, Celtic Spirituality 20.

[5] Davies, Celtic Spirituality 21-22.

[6] Dunn, The Emergence of Monasticism 142; Davies, Celtic Spirituality 16.

[7] Dunn, The Emergence of Monasticism 142-43; Davies, Celtic Spirituality 16; Donald E. Meek, The Quest for Celtic Christianity (Boat of Garten, Scotland: The Handsel Press, 2000) 128-37.

[8] Peter Holmes, ‘Preface to Volume I. of the Edinburgh Edition’ of Augustin: Anti-Pelagian Writings, trans. Peter Holmes, Robert Ernest Wallis, and Benjamin B. Warfield, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, series 1, vol. 5, ed. Philip Schaff (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 1995) 3.

[9] Dunn, The Emergence of Monasticism 142.

[10] Dunn, The Emergence of Monasticism 143-44; Davies, Celtic Spirituality 16-17.

[11] Patrick’s Declaration of the Great Works of God 1-25, esp. 23-27, trans. Thomas O’Loughlin in Celtic Spirituality 67-73.

[12] Davies, Celtic Spirituality 28-29.

[13] Davies, Celtic Spirituality 17.

[14] The Life of St. Brigit the Virgin by Cogitosus and The Irish Life of Brigit in Celtic Spirituality 122-54.

[15] Richard Woods, ‘Ireland: History’ in Encyclopedia of Monasticism, ed. William M. Johnston and Christopher Kleinhenz (London: Routledge, 2000) 658.

[16] The Voyage of Brendan in Celtic Spirituality 155-90; Davies, Celtic Spirituality 34. For a complete collection of the medieval works on the ascetic and missionary, including a modern commentary, see Brendaniana: St. Brendan the Voyager in Story and Legend, ed. and trans. Denis O’ Donghue (Dublin: Browne and Nolan, 1895).

[17] Dunn, The Emergence of Monasticism 147-48; Davies, Celtic Spirituality 17-18.

[18] Davies, Celtic Spirituality 20.

[19] Richard Sharpe, trans., ‘Introduction’ to St Adomnán of Iona, Life of St Columba (London: Penguin Books), eBook edition, locations 30-38; Tim Clarkson, Columba (Edinburgh: Birlinn, 2012), eBook edition, locations 32-39.

[20] A History of the English Church and People 3.3-4, 141-45; Sharpe, ‘Introduction,’ locations 60-64.

[21] Davies, Celtic Spirituality 18.

[22] See, for example, The Book of Kells: Forty-Eight Pages and Details in Color from The Manuscript in Trinity College, Dublin, Selected and Introduced by Peter Brown (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1980).

[23] Adomnan’s Life of Columba, ed. and trans. Alan Orr Anderson and Marjorie Ogilvie Anderson (Edinburgh: Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1961).

[24] A History of the English Church and People 5.15, 293-95; John Marsden, ‘Prologue’ to The Illustrated Life of Columba, trans. John Gregory, illus. Geoff Green (Edinburgh: Floris Books, 1995) 11-28; Adomnán of Iona: Theologian, Lawmaker, Peacemaker, ed. Jonathan M. Wooding, Rodney Aist, Thomas Owen Clancy, and Thomas O’Loughlin (Dublin: Four Courts Press).

[25] St Gregory the Great, Registrum epistolarum 6.51 and 59 (Patrologia Latina 77, 836A-B, 842C-843B); A History of the English Church and People 1.23-33, 66-91; Cristina Ricci, ‘Gregory’s Missions to the Barbarians’ in A Companion to Gregory the Great, ed. Bronwen Neil and Matthew Dal Santo, Brill’s Companions to the Christian Tradition 47 (Leiden: Brill, 2013) 47-55.

[26] Registrum epistolarum 8.30 (PL 77, 931C-934A).

[27] Dunn, The Emergence of Monasticism 195.

[28] For a summary of the Church Father’s life and activity in Edessa, Constantinople, Rome, and Canterbury, see James Siemens, The Christology of Theodore of Tarsus: The Laterculus Malalianus and the Person and Work of Christ, Studia Traditionis Theologiae: Explorations in Early and Medieval Theology 6 (Turnhout: Brepols, 2010) 1-20.

[29] The influential historian of Insular Christianity, Thomas O’Loughlin, rightly contended that the Celtic patristic and hagiographical authors considered themselves part of the broader Latin ecclesial framework and would have been scandalised by the notion of a distinct ‘Celtic Church’. Thomas O’Loughlin, Celtic Theology: Humanity, World and God in Early Irish Writings (London: Continuum, 2000) 10, 14, 17-18. See also, Clare Stancliffe, ‘The Irish Tradition in Northumbria After the Synod of Whitby’ in The Lindisfarne Gospels: New Perspectives, ed. Richard Gameson (Leiden: Brill, 2017) 19-42.

[30] A History of the English Church and People 2.9, 14, 16-17 and 20, 112-15, 126-27, 129-31, 135-36.

[31] For more on Sts Oswald and Aidan, see A History of the English Church and People 3.1-3 and 3.5-6, 138-42, 145-48; Bertram Colgrave, ed. and trans., ‘Introduction’ to Two Lives of Saint Cuthbert (Cambridge University Press, 1940) 5-6; Dunn, The Emergence of Monasticism 195-96.

[32] Colgrave, ‘Introduction’ 6.

[33] Vita Sancti Cuthberti Auctore Anonymo [hereafter The Anonymous Life of St Cuthbert] 1.3-7, 2.3 and 5, 3.5, 4.2-7 in Two Lives of Saint Cuthbert 64-73, 78-87, 100-3, 112-23; Vita Sancti Cuthberti Auctore Beda [hereafter The Life of St Cuthbert by Bede] 1-5, 10, 12, 20, 25-26, 29-33 in Two Lives of Saint Cuthbert 154-72, 188-91, 194-97, 222-25, 238-43, 252-61).

[34] The Life of St Cuthbert by Bede 6, 172-75.

[35] The Life of St Cuthbert by Bede 8, 180-85.

[36] The Life of St Cuthbert by Bede 33, 258-61.

[37] The Anonymous Life of St Cuthbert 4.11-13, 128-31; The Life of St Cuthbert by Bede 34, 37-39, 260-61, 270-85.

[38] A History of the English Church and People 5.24, 328-31; Michelle P. Brown, ‘Bede’s Life in Context’ in The Cambridge Companion to Bede, ed. Scott DeGregorio (Cambridge University Press, 2010) 5-6.

[39] For more on the great monastic founder and patron, see St Bede the Venerable, Lives of the Abbots of Wearmouth and Jarrow 1-14 in The Age of Bede, trans. J. F. Webb, ed. D. H. Farmer (London: Penguin Books) eBook edition, locations 334-62. Concerning the libraries at Wearmouth and Jarrow, see Rosalind Love, ‘The World of Latin Learning’ in The Cambridge Companion to Bede 43-46.

[40] Brown, ‘Bede’s Life in Context’ 5-6.

[41] A History of the English Church and People 5.24, 328-29; Brown, ‘Bede’s Life in Context’ 6-7.

[42] The Anonymous History of Abbot Ceolfrith 14 in The Age of Bede, location 384; Brown, ‘Bede’s Life in Context’ 8.

[43] Brown, ‘Bede’s Life in Context’ 7-9.

[44] For the Church Father’s complete bibliography, see ‘Notes on Editions and Translations’ in The Cambridge Companion to Bede xii-xiii.

[45] The Letter of Cuthbert to Cuthwin, translated by Sherley-Price and featured in his ‘Introduction’ to A History of the English Church and People 18-20.

[46] Ibid. 20.

[47] Felix, Vita Sancti Guthlaci [hereafter Life of St Guthlac] 40, 49, and 51 in Felix’s Life of Saint Guthlac, ed. and trans. Bertram Colgrave (Cambridge University Press, 1956) 124-27, 148-51, 160-63. For a summary of the Mercian king’s life, see Simon Keynes, ‘Æthelbald’ in The Wiley Blackwell Encyclopedia of Anglo-Saxon England, 2nd ed., ed. Michael Lapidge, John Blair, Simon Keynes and Donald Scragg (West Sussex: Wiley Blackwell, 2014) 13-14.

[48] For a summary of the holy ascetic’s historical context, see Colgrave ‘Introduction’ to Felix’s Life of Saint Guthlac 1-7.

[49] Life of St Guthlac 16-18, 80-83.

[50] Ibid. 19-23, 82-87.

[51] Ibid. 24-26, 86-91.

[52] Ibid. 27-28, 90-95.

[53] Ibid. 29-34, 94-111.

[54] Ibid. 28, 92-95.

[55] Ibid. 39, 120-23.

[56] Bedas metrische Vita sankti Cuthberti, ed. Werner Jaager (Leipzig: Mayer and Müller, 1935). For an analysis of Bede’s original verse composition, see Michael Lapidge, ‘Bede’s Metrical Vita S. Cuthberti’ in St Cuthbert, His Cult and His Community to A.D. 1200, ed. Gerald Bonner, David Rollason and Clare Stancliffe (Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 1995) 77-94.

[57] Life of St Guthlac 51, 162-63.

The Legacy of the Latin Fathers

By Chris Baghos

Many of us are undoubtedly familiar with the primary reason for the distinction between the Greek East and Latin West in relation to the history of Christianity, that is, the sad departure of the Roman see from the Orthodox Church in 1054, otherwise known as the ‘Great Schism’.[1] While the oppositional categories of ‘Greek East’ and ‘Latin West’ have merit when applied to history of the Church in Europe from the beginning of the second millennium to the early modern period, it is important for us to consider that Rome and its various jurisdictions actually constituted a bastion of Orthodoxy – a bulwark of the one holy, catholic, and apostolic Church – throughout the first thousand years following our Lord’s ministry. For this reason, there are a myriad of saints from regions such as Gaul (i.e. modern-day France), Italy, Britain, Ireland, Germany, and even Scandinavia within our Orthodox liturgical calendar, practically each day of every month.

His Eminence Archbishop Stylianos of thrice-blessed memory often used to summarise the first Christian millennium as an age of glory, a period in which the Gospel was bravely disseminated by our spiritual forebears from Africa and Asia Minor to the Germanic and Celtic lands within the space of a few centuries. Thanks to the valiant efforts of men and women of the Latin world in full communion with those of Byzantium – bishops, monastics, missionaries, and even simple settlers – the checkerboard of pagan kingdoms that rose to power after the fall of the Western Roman Empire were gradually baptised into Christ and thus cleansed from their pagan vices, while their unique native charisms were refined and properly revealed.[2] Take, for example, the intimate relationship with nature characteristic of the Celts, or the assertive and adventurous spirit of the Germanic peoples. Such admirable qualities were transformed by the Church for the benefit of all humanity through the moral instruction stemming from its living encounter with the Risen Lord. Hence, such striking traits can be seen in their purest forms within the written Lives of many Western saints, including those of Cuthbert the Wonderworker of Lindisfarne and Guthlac the Hermit of Crowland.[3]

The conversion of the various Western peoples, and indeed their social welfare, was due to native Latin speakers in areas such as Italy and Gaul who managed to retain many literary and administrative forms of the Roman Empire even after the capture of the old capital during the fourth century. In the same way that the Greek East had its spiritual luminaries and exemplars regardless of its historical vicissitudes, so too did the Latin West, at least until 1054. For example, Byzantium consistently celebrated the Alexandrian and Cappadocian Fathers as great defenders of Orthodoxy against a range of heresies, including Arianism, which denied our Lord and Saviour’s equality with God the Father as concerns His divinity. Yet so did the Western adherents of the Orthodox Church throughout the first millennium, even adding profound theologians to this number such as St Hilary of Poitiers. Hilary came to be known as Malleus Arianorum, that is, ‘Hammer of the Arians,’ by contending against the aforementioned heretics and their imperial patrons, as well as ‘Athanasius of the West’ due to his imitation of the renowned Alexandrian, whom he courageously defended.[4]

The fourth and fifth centuries of the Latin Orthodox Church, in particular, produced some of the greatest minds and most loving hearts the world has ever known. This is especially true with respect to Sts Ambrose of Milan, Jerome of Stridon, Augustine of Hippo, and Gregory the Great. The well-educated Ambrose first enjoyed fame as a just governor of the city of Milan, where he displayed tremendous proficiency in law and rhetoric. The people of Milan admired him so much for his prudence that they providentially forced him to succeed the Arian bishop, Auxentius, after the latter’s death; Ambrose having attended the episcopal election to prevent any violence from breaking out between the different factions.[5] Although he attempted to reject the appointment because of his humble rank as a catechumen, Ambrose graciously conceded to the wishes of the populace in order to restore Nicene Orthodoxy within the province, which he successfully accomplished through his influential Exposition of the Christian Faith.[6]

As bishop, Ambrose’s generosity to the poor was such that he not only gave them all his personal property, but also sold the Church’s sacred vessels to pay ransoms for Christians that had been captured by barbarian invaders.[7] Moreover, the Church Father’s conviction that Christ was the ultimate ruler of the earth was so authentic that he humbled Emperor Theodosius I for his massacre of certain rioters, barring the ruler from entering his cathedral and preventing him from partaking of the Eucharist until he displayed genuine repentance in public over the course of multiple months.[8] In addition, Ambrose displayed the gifts of wonderworking in his altruistic compassion, even calling a dead boy back to life through the grace of God.[9] He also enjoyed friendly correspondence with St Basil the Great.[10]

Augustine of Hippo needs no introduction. His ardent love for the Lord and extreme humility are widely celebrated because of his Confessions, as well as his (near countless) treatises, sermons, letters, and biblical commentaries. The Confessions happen to constitute the first systematic autobiography and thorough exploration of the soul in the history of world literature. It is movingly framed within an earnest prayer to God, in which the Church Father narrates his fall and redemption in a manner that reflects the fate of wider humanity. In short, Augustine wrote his Confessions after certain rigorist and hardhearted heretics known as the Donatists intercepted and published a list of his former errors recorded by a certain cleric, namely, to tarnish his reputation and thereby silence his righteous criticisms of their failures. The saint responded to his critics – some of whom also came from within the Church, having remembered his former errors and questioned his ordination – by announcing to everyone in writing every major sin that he had committed until the moment of his conversion. This included his adherence to the fundamentally pagan religion known as Manichaeism in defiance of his holy mother, Monica.[11] Moreover, he wished to demonstrate to his admirers that whatever positive transformation he had accomplished in terms of character stemmed from God’s mercy.[12]

Of particular importance is Augustine’s account of his gradual transformation thanks to: the prayers of his saintly mother; the eloquent interpretation of the Scriptures and spiritual counsel offered by Ambrose; and, finally, Divine Providence, particularly upon hearing an account of simple soldiers who were compelled to become monks after learning the story of St Antony the Great.[13] It is a great tragedy that certain people appeal to the later Western overemphasis on flawed aspects of Augustine’s immense thought – which are, in fact, incredibly limited when considering his vast body of work – to discredit the saint, thus denying themselves an illustrious intercessor before God and essential model of virtue and piety, as emphasised by St Photios the Great.[14] Undoubtedly, it is near impossible for the discerning Christian to read Augustine’s description of the defining moment of his conversion – that is, the sudden burst of compunction which led him to read and internalise St Paul’s exhortation to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ” (Ro 13:14) – without being moved to tears.[15]

Jerome, who earned the title Vir ecclesiasticus or ‘Man of the Church,’ was granted such spiritual insight and intellectual charisms by the Lord that one cannot deny his attainment of the state of holiness. The Church Father was born in the city of Stridon on the border between Pannonia and Dalmatia, in what is now Bosnia and Herzegovina. He later went to Gaul to become a monk and soon returned to his native homeland to care for his siblings after their parents’ repose. As a young man, he travelled to Rome, where he was first educated in the pagan classics, eventually studying theology in Trier. He later trained in Constantinople under St Gregory the Theologian, whom he deeply cherished as a divinely inspired teacher, as demonstrated by his positive references to the Cappadocian within his written corpus.[16]

After returning to Rome, the Church Father soon became weary of the city’s moral failings, which he boldly denounced. He eventually forsook Rome and ventured to the Holy Land where, living in a cave in Bethlehem near the site of our Lord’s nativity, he became: a defender of monks, an interpreter of Scripture, a formulator of doctrine, a chronicler of past saints, and a master translator, exercising his skill in Latin, Greek, Hebrew, and Chaldean.[17] Yet he likewise displayed great humility on the journey towards deification. This is verified, for instance, by his constant effort to curb any potential preference for style over content on the part of his more refined readers, chiefly by accusing himself for excessive interest in Classical literature.[18] It is, indeed, quite striking that he never allowed his ascetical stamina or literary prowess – both of which were largely unparalleled – to hinder his relationship with Christ, his firm foundation, having once described himself as follows: “I am like the sick sheep that strays from the rest of the flock. Unless the Good Shepherd takes me on His shoulders and carries me back to His fold, my steps will falter, and in the very effort of rising my feet will give way.”[19]

Gregory the Great proved to be one of the most influential people in history, having saved Western Europe from falling into chaos after the Lombard invasion of Italy and the ascension of various pagan and Arian kingdoms throughout the West. Gregory was born to an aristocratic family which had long since participated in the administration of the city of Rome; a family so pious that it produced a holy bishop for the prominent see, namely, Felix III. Gregory’s mother, Sylvia, also became a saint, instilling profound moral and spiritual values in her gifted son from a young age. Gregory acquired the advanced literary-rhetorical education of the time and it was hoped by his peers that he would eventually become a civil leader, but he instead chose to commit himself to Christ after the repose of his father. Remarkably, he used his inheritance to establish no less than six monasteries, including one dedicated to the Holy Apostle Andrew, the First-Called, on the Caelian Hill. Gregory was nonetheless called by Pope Pelagius to serve the Church in an administrative capacity, becoming a representative of the Roman see in Constantinople for a number of years, where he continued to live as a monk despite his many social responsibilities.[20] Tradition maintains that he was inspired by the Byzantine liturgies that he attended in the great city to establish what continues to be known as ‘Gregorian’ chant. Additionally, through his spiritual fortitude, Gregory made the time to compose his Moral Lessons on the Book of Job, which is among the longest and most multifaceted writings by the Church Fathers.[21]

Following the repose of Pelagius, Gregory was unanimously elected bishop of Rome, an appointment which he attempted to flee for many months likely owing to his desire to retain the spiritual heights that he experienced in the state of contemplation. He eventually conceded to the wishes of the Church when the Lord made him realise that even contemplation must be postponed for the sake of apostolic work and pastoral care when the labourers are few.[22] He lovingly guided the Church and the wider society in this capacity for over a decade, helping Rome survive disastrous famine and plague; the latter by zealously mobilising his flock in prayer. What is more, Gregory established the first mission to the Anglo-Saxons, which he entrusted to the industrious and influential apostle, St Augustine of Canterbury.[23] All the while the great saint suffered from debilitating fevers and pain caused by untreatable gout, thus teaching us that faith can ultimately eclipse every illness, allowing us to achieve wonders for the Church whatever our physical condition may be.[24]

On a related note, it is important for us to bear in mind that the see of Rome was for the most part Orthodox throughout the first millennium, producing many eminent theologians, among them Sts Theodore and Martin the Confessors. In imitation of their predecessor and significant expositor of Christ’s two natures, St Leo the Great, the fearless hierarchs contended against the Monothelite heresy, whose proponents denied our Lord’s human will to establish unity with the Monophysites. In an outstanding collaboration with St Maximus the Confessor and his monastic cohort from Byzantium, Theodore and Martin defied both a heretical emperor and patriarch of Constantinople, emphasising that the Incarnate Lord must have a human will if we are to be saved (remembering that Christ graciously healed whatever He assumed in His humanity).[25] Theodore, Martin, and Maximus were eventually vindicated when the emperor and hierarchs of Constantinople returned to the Orthodox faith. This may largely be attributed to St Agatho of Rome, who reiterated their position at the Sixth Ecumenical Council.[26]

We could also discuss the influential monks and miracle workers of the Late Antique and early medieval Latin West – including Sts John Cassian, Martin of Tours, and Benedict of Nursia – who transmitted the spiritual experience of the hermits and coenobites of Egypt, Asia Minor, and Mesopotamia to the forests of the European Continent, and, in turn, the Irish bogs and English marshlands.[27] For now, let us content ourselves by reflecting on the fact that we have a similar calling to our Latin Fathers and their immediate followers, primarily, to assimilate and internalise the spiritual treasures first developed in Byzantium and subsequently transmit these to our Western compatriots, enriching them through our own asceticism and prayer. Furthermore, we must remember that we have numerous intercessors before Christ whose writings are widely accessible in English translation, and whose legacies needs to be re-examined in the light of Orthodoxy (which rightly claims the genuine preservation of their general spirituality). Let us therefore join our loving Latin Fathers in celebrating our Lord’s victory over death, proudly exclaiming with them: “Christus resurrexit! Vere resurrexit!” (Christ has risen! Truly He has risen!)

​From L to R: Sts Ambrose, Augustine, Jerome, and Gregory

[1] For a summary of the ‘Great Schism’ and the increased departure of the Western ecclesiastical tradition from that of the East during the High Middle Ages, see John Anthony McGuckin, The Orthodox Church: An Introduction to Its History, Doctrine, and Spiritual Culture (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2008) 20-23.

[2] St Gregory the Great was especially significant in the conversion of the Western kingdoms. For an overview of his missionary activity, see Cristina Ricci, ‘Gregory’s Missions to the Barbarians’ in A Companion to Gregory the Great, ed. Bronwen Neil and Matthew Dal Santo, Brill’s Companions to the Christian Tradition 47 (Leiden: Brill, 2013) 29-56.

[3] Two Lives of Saint Cuthbert, ed. and trans. Bertram Colgrave (Cambridge University Press, 1940); Felix’s Life of Saint Guthlac, ed. and trans. Bertram Colgrave (Cambridge University Press, 1956).

[4] For the earliest account of Hilary’s defence of Orthodoxy, see Sulpicius Severus, Chronicles 2.39, 42 and 45 in Sulpicius Severus: The Complete Works, trans. Richard J. Goodrich (New York: The Newman Press, 2015) 166-67, 169-70, 173-74. For a summary of the Church Father’s life and works, see D. H. Williams, trans., ‘Introduction’ to St Hilary of Poitiers, Commentary on Matthew, Fathers of the Church 125 (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2012) 3-10. His direct (and highly significant) contributions to Christian doctrine are available in English translation. See St Hilary of Poitiers, The Trinity, trans. Stephen McKenna, Fathers of the Church 25 (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1954); idem, On the Councils, trans. E. W. Watson and L. Pullan, in Hilary of Poitiers, John of Damascus, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, series 2, vol. 9, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 1995) 4-29.

[5] Paulinus, Life of St. Ambrose 2, trans. John A. Lacy, in Early Christian Biographies, ed. Roy J. Deferrari, Fathers of the Church 15 (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1952) 34-36. This Life was composed by a direct disciple of Ambrose at the request of St Augustine of Hippo.

[6] St Ambrose of Milan, Exposition of the Christian Faith in Ambrose: Select Works and Letters, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, series 2, vol. 10, trans. H. De Romestin, E. De Romestin, and H. T. F. Duckworth, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 1995) 201-314.

[7] Life of St. Ambrose 9, 56; St Ambrose of Milan, De officiis 2.70-71 in Ambrose, De officiis, Volume 1: Introduction, Text, and Translation, ed. and trans. Ivor J. Davidson (Oxford University Press, 2001) 136-43.

[8] Life of St. Ambrose 7, 46-48.

[9] Life of St. Ambrose 8, 50.

[10] St Basil the Great, To Ambrose, Bishop of Milan (i.e. Letter 197) in Letters, Volume II (186-368), trans. Agnes Clare Way, Fathers of the Church 28 (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1955) 42-45.

[11] Henry Chadwick, trans., ‘Introduction’ to St Augustine of Hippo, Confessions (Oxford University Press, 1991) xi-xii.

[12] R. S. Pine-Coffin, trans., ‘Introduction’ to St Augustine of Hippo, Confessions (London: Penguin Books, 1961) 12.

[13] Confessions 1.1, 3.12, and 8.6-12, trans. Pine-Coffin, 22, 69-70, 166-79.

[14] St Photios the Great, The Mystagogy of the Holy Spirit 65-71, trans. Joseph P. Farrell (Brookline, Massachusetts: Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 1987) 90-94.

[15] Confessions 8.11-12, 175-79.

[16] See, for example, Jerome’s summary of his teacher’s career and writings. St Jerome of Stridon, On Illustrious Men 117, trans. Thomas P. Halton, Fathers of the Church 100 (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1955) 151-53.

[17] For a brief biography of the Church Father, see Thomas P. Scheck, ‘Introduction’ to St Jerome, Commentary on Matthew, Fathers of the Church 117 (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2008) 3-12.

[18] See especially Jerome’s account of the dream in which he saw the Lord accusing him of being a Ciceronian, rather than a Christian. St Jerome of Stridon, To Eustochium (i.e. Letter 22) 30 in The Letters of St. Jerome, trans. Charles Christopher Mierow, Ancient Christian Writers 33 (New York: Newman Press, 1963) 166.

[19] St Jerome of Stridon, To Theodosius and the Other Anchorites Living in Residence with Him (i.e. Letter 2) 2 in The Letters of St. Jerome 28.

[20] There are at least three traditional Christian accounts of Gregory’s life ranging from the late seventh to early ninth centuries (two of which are available in English translation). The Earliest Life of Gregory the Great by an Anonymous Monk of Whitby, ed. and trans. Bertram Colgrave (Cambridge University Press, 1968); St Bede the Venerable, A History of the English Church and People 2.1, trans. Leo Sherley-Price (Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1955) 93-99; Paul the Deacon, Sancti Gregorii Magni Vita (Patrologia Latina 75, 41A-242B). The renowned editor and translator, Bertram Colgrave, produced a useful summary of the Church Father’s formation, career, and historical context. Colgrave, ‘Introduction’ to The Earliest Life of Gregory the Great 19-31.

[21] St Gregory the Great, Moralia in Iob, Libri I-X, ed. Marcus Adriaen, Corpus Christianorum Series Latina 143 (Turnhout: Brepols, 1979); idem, Moralia in Iob, Libri XI-XXII, ed. Marcus Adriaen, CCSL 143A (Turnhout: Brepols, 1979); idem, Moralia in Iob, Libri XXIII-XXXV, ed. Marcus Adriaen, CCSL 143B (Turnhout: Brepols, 1985).

[22] Although Gregory experienced grief in being taken from his contemplative life within the context of a monastery, he nonetheless went on to underscore the necessity of heeding the call to ordination and elevation, even when one may be inclined to refuse on account of humility. See: St Gregory the Great, Registrum epistolarum 1.5 (PL 77, 448A-450C); St Gregory the Great, Pastoral Care 1.6-7, trans. Henry Davis, Ancient Christian Writers 11 (New York: Newman Press, 1950) 32-34.

[23] For more on Gregory and Augustine’s tremendous mission to the Anglo-Saxons, see A History of the English Church and People 1.23-2.3, 66-102.

[24] For a recent assessment of the Church Father’s affliction, see John D. Hosler, ‘Gregory the Great’s Gout: Suffering, Penitence, and Diplomacy in the Early Middle Ages’ in Where Heaven and Earth Meet: Essays on Medieval Europe in Honour of Daniel F. Callahan, ed. Michael Frassetto, Matthew Gabriel and John D. Hosler (Leiden: Brill, 2014) 11-32.

[25] For the earliest accounts of the suffering endured by Martin and Maximus, see Record of the Trial, Dispute at Bizya, and Commemoration in Maximus the Confessor and His Companions: Documents from Exile, ed. and trans. Pauline Allen and Bronwen Neil (Oxford University Press, 2002) 48-74, 75-119, 148-71. For a summary of the Monothelite controversy, and the central role of Theodore, Martin and Maximus in the defence of the doctrine of the Lord’s two wills, see Allen and Neil, ‘Introduction’ to Maximus the Confessor and His Companions 1-21.

[26] The Sixth Ecumenical Council –The Third Council of Constantinople, A.D. 680-681 in The Seven Ecumenical Councils of the Undivided Church, trans. Henry R. Percival, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, series 2, vol. 14, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 1995) 328-41.

[27] For evidence of the Continental transmission of the Byzantine monastic experience, see: St John Cassian. Conferences, trans. Colm Luibheid (New York: Paulist Press, 1985); Sulpicius Severus – Writings, trans. Bernard M. Peebles, Fathers of the Church 7 (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1949) 101-251; St Gregory the Great, Dialogues 2, trans. Odo John Zimmerman, Fathers of the Church 39 (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1959) 55-110. The Life of St Benedict constitutes the entire second book of Gregory’s celebrated Dialogues on the saints of Italy. Interestingly, the latter became known within the Byzantine tradition as ‘the Dialogist’ owing to the popularity of this work in Greek translation (made by Bishop Zacharias of Rome, the last of the ‘Greek popes,’ c. 741-52). Andrew Louth, ‘Gregory the Great in the Byzantine Tradition’ in A Companion to Gregory the Great 343-58, esp. 344.

St Martin of Tours, Our Witness to Christ, and His Disciple, Sulpicius Severus

by Chris Baghos

There is so much that we can say in relation to the Holy Fathers and Mothers of the Latin West from the first millennium of the undivided Church; the wondrous saints who flourished in the European Continent and the British Isles before the ‘Great Schism’ of 1054. Elsewhere, I have discussed how much we can gain in reclaiming the legacy of the valiant martyrs, ascetics, missionaries, and clergymen who dwelt in the West before the sad departure of the Roman see from our holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.[1] We may uncover, for example, their literary, artistic, and administrative prowess, their apostolic fearlessness, their mystical insight, and, most importantly, their perfect love for God and neighbour. To this end, we can examine the lives of great saints like Cyprian of Carthage, Benedict of Nursia, and Brigit of Kildare. Yet I am compelled to limit this discussion to one figure who is dear to me personally, and whose experience became paradigmatic for our Western Christian forebears throughout the Middle Ages, namely, St Martin of Tours.

I will not be examining the phenomenon of martyrdom per se, at least not what has come to be known as ‘red’ martyrdom; the torture and execution for the sake of the Lord and His Gospel suffered by Cyprian and similar figures. Rather, I will be discussing an eminent example of ‘white’ martyrdom; a notion first developed by St Athanasius of Alexandria in his Life of St Antony the Great, and which Evagrius of Antioch transmitted to the West through his Latin translation of this celebrated work. To be more precise, ascetic renunciation and labours, including vigils and contemplation, as well as the preservation of one’s chastity, were considered forms of martyrdom throughout the Greek East and Latin West by the fourth century; together, these practices constituted a daily death which led to a new life in Christ. The popularity of this perception had as much to do with missionary work and pilgrimage on the part of holy ascetics as it did the translation of key ascetical and hagiographical works from Greek into Latin, including the Sayings of the Desert Fathers by the hand of St John Cassian, and original compositions inspired by the former, such as St Jerome of Stridon’s Life of St Paul the Hermit.[2] To be sure, the Eastern and Western ascetics – beginning with Paul and Antony – likewise hoped to imitate the martyrs, whom they believed shared in Christ’s triumph over sin and death as a result of their complete detachment from secular interests. Because of the physical and spiritual struggles which they encountered in their respective rural and wild locales, the first anchorites and coenobites were highly extolled by the Church. It was believed that their prayers facilitated both ecclesial and civil welfare; a deep conviction still prevalent amongst us Orthodox.[3]

Moving on to our subject, Martin was born to pagan parents in Sabaria, capital city of the Roman province of Pannonia, in either 316 or 336AD. He was raised in Pavia, Italy, where his father served as a Roman military tribune. Martin was in fact forced by his father to serve in the imperial army at the age of fifteen, that he might be deterred from his growing commitment to the Orthodox Christian faith, especially his interest in the eremitic life.[4] Martin was stationed in the Roman province of Gaul until one day, at the gates of the city of Amiens, he met a poor man waiting naked by the road, seeking alms. By this point, Martin’s clothing had been reduced to his armour and cloak thanks to his continued commitment to Christ, best manifested in his humility, poverty, and charity. It was the middle of a harsh winter when many had been perishing from the cold. All who passed by the pauper as he pleaded for compassion chose to ignore him. Martin, however, already being filled with the grace of God, saw that this circumstance had been providentially arranged to test his virtue. Having already devoted the rest of his clothing to similar purposes, he drew his sword and cut his cloak in two. The young soldier then gave one part to the poor man, modestly dressing himself with the other. Some of the bystanders began to laugh at the now awkward figure of Martin whilst others felt great shame, realising that they might have easily clothed the pauper without stripping themselves in the freezing cold. That night, deep in sleep, Martin beheld our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ, accompanied by the angels, clothed in the part of the cloak which he had given to the poor man. Martin was bidden to look attentively upon the Lord, to recognise the garment which he had generously bestowed at the city gates, with Christ proudly exclaiming that it was He Who had been clothed by Martin, a mere catechumen, in accordance with His exhortation in Mt 25:40.[5]

This vision of Christ had such a profound effect on Martin that he immediately sought baptism, eventually forsaking his military career and seeking out the profound theologian, St Hilary of Poitiers; his future spiritual father.[6] Hilary came to be known as Malleus Arianorum, that is, ‘Hammer of the Arians,’ by contending against the aforementioned heretics, who denied Christ’s equality with God the Father as concerns His divinity. He also earned the title ‘Athanasius of the West’ due to his imitation of the renowned Alexandrian, whom he courageously defended.[7] After many years in asceticism in Italy and Gaul, in perfect obedience to Hilary and Christ, Martin became so popular amongst the laity that he was elected Bishop of Tours; his ordination probably taking place on 4 July 371.[8] On 8 November 397, Martin reposed in the city of Candes in Gaul whilst on a tour of his diocese at the age of 81 or 61 depending on the chronology. He was buried in Tours three days later. His feast is thus celebrated amongst the Orthodox traditions alternately on 11 or 12 November.[9]

It is noteworthy that the wider Roman world was beginning to abandon paganism and embrace the Christian faith by Martin’s time. Thanks to the heroic efforts of many bishops, most towns and their immediate vicinities were being converted to Orthodoxy throughout Egypt, Mesopotamia, Asia Minor, and the European Continent. Interestingly, Martin was amongst the first to venture out to the Western rural communities, where Roman and Celtic pagan beliefs were still quite prevalent.[10] This does imply that the Church attempted to displace the old ways entirely. Indeed, the traditional Roman civic institutions throughout the West were increasingly being challenged by Germanic tribes during this period, and it was the Church which valiantly managed to preserve the positive cultural legacy of the Roman Empire even after the fall of the old capital; specifically, those Christians who drew upon the ancient poets, prose writers, and rhetoricians to disseminate the Gospel to their wider society. Each of these authors has made an indelible contribution to the Orthodox and wider Western literary canons, amongst whom is Martin’s beloved disciple, Sulpicius Severus.

Sulpicius Severus was born around the year 360. He came from a distinguished family in Aquitanian Gaul, eventually acquiring a thorough literary-rhetorical education at Bordeaux for the purpose of becoming a lawyer. Sulpicius gained some renown in this vocation before marrying the daughter of a noblewoman named Bassula. Upon the early death of his wife, Sulpicius began to embrace Christian asceticism together with his mother-in-law, receiving baptism in 390 with his friend, Paulinus. Both men foreswore their riches and secular fame; Suplicius having already made the acquaintance of Martin by this point. Paulinus was soon ordained a priest in Barcelona, subsequently moving to the Campanian town of Nola in southern Italy, where he was elevated to the rank of bishop. Paulinus managed to maintain his friendship with Sulpicius, eventually becoming recognised as a saint within our Church.[11]

After spending some time at Eluso (modern Elsonne, near Toulouse), Sulpicius retired with Bassula to a country estate known as Primuliacum – likely near Beziers or Perigueux – which he developed into a monastic community. The fifth-century presbyter and historian, Gennadius of Marseilles, revealed that Suplicius was at some point ordained to the priesthood. Moreover, the historian affirmed that Sulpicius, advanced in years, fell victim to a common heresy of the time known as Pelagianism, which falsely proclaimed that humanity could attain perfection without the assistance of divine grace. This may account for why he has not been enrolled into the calendar of saints. However, it is important to note that Sulpicius earnestly repented according to Gennadius. More precisely, to remedy the loquaciousness which he felt had led to his fall, Sulpicius maintained absolute silence until his repose, which was likely between c. 411-20. One can imagine that that this was a severe form of penance for Sulpicius given the joy that he took in having conversations throughout his life; first as a legal orator, then as the leader of a monastic community in which it was his custom to vigorously discuss the lives of the saints.[12] At any rate, it is important to note that Martin appointed Suplicius as his major historical witness. This is evidenced, for instance, by their first encounter, in which Martin washed Sulpicius’ feet in a manner echoing our Lord’s same action towards his disciples at the Mystical Supper. More precisely, this humble service on the part of the saint suggests that he perceived Suplicius as one who would carry on his legacy after his ascension to heaven.[13] Moreover, Martin’s affection for Sulpicius is suggested by the fact that he chose to reveal himself to the latter in a dream at the very moment in which his soul was being called to God.[14]

Sulpicius has related the conversion, mission, and repose of Martin in multiple works representing different genres, namely: a conventional Life (c. 396-97), three surviving epistles (c. 397-404), and certain Dialogues (c. 404).[15] Sulpicius’ depiction of Martin is most nuanced within the Dialogues, in which he has explicitly likened the monastic bishop to his Byzantine counterparts. The Dialogues are essentially a stylised version of a discussion on Martin held between Sulpicius, a fellow disciple named Gallus, and their friend, Postumianus at Primuliacum.[16] In short, the Dialogues initially feature Postumianus as the principle narrator as he seeks to discover more about Martin’s heroic feats whilst at the same time relating wonders involving Eastern ascetics that he has witnessed and heard about on a recent tour of Egypt and Palestine. Gallus then takes on the responsibility of describing Martin’s accomplishments beyond those featured in Sulpicius’ Life.[17] Whilst Postumianus and Gallus serve as the major speakers within the Dialogues, Sulpicius ultimately takes credit for their composition and theological themes.

Sulpicius’ purpose in composing these works, collectively referred to as the Martiniana, was to present his subject as the ideal Christian, a source of inspiration and consolation for clergy and laity alike. In the Life of Martin 1, Sulpicius asserts that he thinks it “worthwhile” (operae pretium) to write down “the life of a most holy man” (vitam sanctissimi viri) so that his audience is encouraged towards “true wisdom, and heavenly warfare, and Godlike virtue” (veram sapientiam et caelestem militiam divinamque virtutem).[18] However, it has come to light through recent scholarship that Sulpicius’ motivation was also polemical. To be more exact, Sulpicius intended to replace the pagan religious and moral values of Roman society – especially military valour and imperial authority – with the Christian virtue of humility.[19] He thus continued the work of his subject, who was amongst the first conscientious objectors in history.

It is noteworthy that Sulpicius directly challenged the prevailing Greco-Roman literary values, employing Latin rhetoric to highlight Martin’s unique Christian qualities. Sulpicius emphasises from the outset of the Life that he has no intention of ensuring a lasting legacy for himself; unlike the Classical authors, he prioritises the eternal life that may be acquired through the commemoration and imitation of a holy person.[20] This is despite the fact that he had extensive knowledge of the pagan classics, the Scriptures, and numerous martyrologies and hagiographies, including Evagrius’ translation of the Life of Antony.[21] Indeed, Sulpicius consciously based the epilogue of the Life of Martin on that found within the Vita Antonii as concerns its structure and grammar.[22] Subsequently, it is highly likely that such nuanced adaptation of the Life of Antony on the part of Sulpicius influenced his thinking more generally, hence his modesty, which should not be dismissed as a mere literary trope. The influence of this celebrated text also accounts for his depiction of practical asceticism and contemplation as the means by which Martin arrived at union with Christ.

In the Life of Martin 2, Sulpicius describes his subject’s birth in Illyria and early life in Italy.[23] After relating that Martin was first a soldier and military tribune during the reigns of Constantius and Julian the Apostate, the hagiographer turns to the topic of his subject’s youth. He affirms that the saint chose to become a Christian at the age of ten despite the protests of his pagan parents.[24] It is significant that Sulpicius asserts that Martin set out to become an ascetic in the wilderness when he was twelve years old but was prevented from doing so on account of the weaknesses characteristic of his age.

With respect to Martin’s formation, the hagiographer does not provide an account of the saint’s education, emphasising instead his practical virtues as a soldier and catechumen.[25] Later, in the twenty-fifth chapter, Sulpicius marvels at the eloquence displayed by Martin as a bishop despite the fact that he had been “an unlearned man” (homo illitteratus).[26] This indicates that the ascetic received no formal training in either rhetoric or theology.

Regarding his subject’s practical virtues as a solider and catechumen, Sulpicius states that Martin continued to live as a rigid ascetic, even treating his sole servant as his master, humbling himself by cleaning the latter’s boots.[27] The hagiographer emphasises Martin’s “kindness” (benignitas), “love” (caritas), “patience” (patientia), “humility” (humilitas), and “temperance” (frugalitas) towards his fellow soldiers,[28] before describing how he tended “the suffering” (laborantes), “the distressed” (miseri), “the very poor” (egentes) and “the naked” (nudi). Interestingly, Sulpicius affirms that Martin kept “nothing for himself from his payments for his military service except his daily food.”[29] These virtues represent practical asceticism in the tradition of the Desert Fathers, with most constituting individual chapters in the systematic collections of the latter’s Sayings.[30]

In the Life of Martin 6, Sulpicius relates how the Arians persecuted his mentor during his missionary tour of Illyria. The hagiographer affirms that Martin returned to Italy and settled in Milan, where he established his first monastery.[31] According to Sulpicius, the ascetic was further harassed by the city’s Arian bishop, Auxentius. Besides the hagiographer’s testimony that Martin was in fact a confessor for the faith – that is, one who was tortured for Christ and His Gospel, yet not to the point of death – the hagiographer’s description of Martin’s consequent withdrawal from the monastery to the island of Gallinara off the coast of Albenga, Italy, is of relevance to our discussion.[32] Sulpicius states that the saint lived at this remote location for some time on a diet of herb roots until he mistakenly ate the poisonous hellebore plant. The author asserts that Martin would have died had he not immediately resorted to prayer, through which he was healed.[33]

In the above story, Sulpicius tacitly presents his subject in an Edenic state that anticipates his future vocation as a redeemer of creation. Martin is able to survive in the wilderness on a diet of plants and not permitted to perish owing to his commitment to God’s law, here signified by orthodox doctrine.[34] The passage subtly evokes Gn 2:16-17, in which Adam is told that he will be able to live on every tree in the garden of Paradise except that containing the knowledge of good and evil. A thorough analysis of the Tree of Knowledge is not necessary here. May it suffice to state that Sulpicius, in his summation of salvific history from the act of creation to his own time (known as the Chronicle), was content with interpreting the tree as the single law upon which Adam and Eve’s residing in Paradise depended. Unsurprisingly, his interpretation of Scripture is entirely consistent with that of Athanasius, whose work he knew through translation.[35]

Sulpicius has clearly depicted Martin as having advanced in the spiritual life through prayer, otherwise termed ‘contemplation’. As a matter of fact, Sulpicius depicts Martin in a state of prayer numerous times throughout his works. Most of Martin’s prayers constitute petitions, namely to: (i) heal or resurrect the faithful; (ii) ward off or pacify hostile forces (especially the devil); and (iii) dramatically abolish pagan places of worship, thereby converting the people of Gaul.[36] Of particular relevance is Sulpicius’ affirmation that: “Never did any hour and a moment go by in which he might not be either concentrating on prayer or diligently pursuing his reading; however, even during the act of reading, or if he was doing something else by chance, he never released his heart/mind from prayer.”[37] Similarly, within his Letter to Bassula, the hagiographer emphasises that Martin, even as he suffered from the violent fever that led to his repose, spent the night “in prayers and vigils” (in orationibus et uigiliis).[38] Martin’s desire for solitude to pray is especially evident in the tenth chapter of the Life, where Sulpicius describes his quality of life as a bishop.[39] The hagiographer affirms that when Martin took on the episcopal role in Tours:

Eadem in corde eius humilitas, eadem in vestitu eius vilitas erat; atque ita, plenus auctoritatis et gratiae, implebat episcopi dignitatem, ut non tamen propositum monachi virtutemque desereret. Aliquamdiu ergo adhaerenti ad ecclesiam cellula usus est: dein, cum inquietudinem se frequentantium ferre non posset, duobus fere extra civitatem milibus monasterium sibi statuit. [40]

The same humility was in his heart, the same poverty was in his vesture; and so, full of authority and grace, he fulfilled the office of a bishop, yet not that he might forsake the resolution and virtue of a monk. Therefore, for some time he made use of a cell close to the church; then, when he was not able to bear the restlessness of those who were frequently visiting him, he set up for himself a monastery approximately two miles outside of the city.

Sulpicius goes on to state that: “[The] place was so hidden and remote that it might not require the solitude of the wilderness. For, from the one side it was encircled by the precipitous cliff of a high mountain; the river Loire had closed the remaining plain a little bit with its receding bay…”[41] It is reasonable to assume that Martin’s secluded locale was intended for much more than rest from apostolic labours and the pressures of episcopal administration. The monastic bishop’s retreat from crowds posing a distraction to the spiritual life is akin to that of the Desert Fathers, Arsenius and Sisoes, thus further testifying to the early transmission of the Eastern ascetic ideal.[42] Similarities between Sulpicius’ description of Martin’s monastery – later titled Marmoutier on the basis of the Latin appellation, Maius monasterium – and a typical Eastern lavra have in fact been noted by scholars.[43] I therefore posit that the saint deliberately chose Marmoutier (and, earlier, Gallinara) for the purpose of natural contemplation, that is, the genuine perception of created beings in relation to God and each other; the attempt of the rational mind, the spiritual intellect, and the senses to discern the divine Presence, Will, and glory in the material world.[44]

On a related note, Sulpicius has depicted Martin as an imitator of our Lord Jesus, Who went up a mountain to pray after ministering to the multitudes in Galilee (Mt 14:23; Mk 1:35; Lk 5:16). He has therefore tacitly suggested that a certain degree of peace and solitude are required for genuine contemplation. It is evident that Sulpicius maintained that practical asceticism and contemplation led to true theology as understood by the Byzantines: an undefinable relationship with God, Who is above all knowledge. This is in contradistinction to the mere syllogisms formulated by most contemporary academics, including yours truly.[45] According to Sulpicius, it is precisely this mysterious association which enabled Martin to perform his many Christ-like feats, whatever his vocation happened to be at the time. I must emphasise that the holy ascetic’s commitment to, and resulting participation in, the Lord is evidenced by a wide range of miracles within the Martiniana, including striking exorcisms and deeply moving resurrections. We shall limit our discussion to those signifying his restoration of the condition of creation before the ancestral Fall.

Sulpicius’ letter to his mother-in-law, Bassula, is known for its moving account of Martin’s repose and burial.[46] His description of the holy bishop’s final journey is highly relevant to our analysis.[47] The hagiographer relates how Martin ventured with his disciples to a certain parish at Candice (in what is now central France) to restore peace amongst its clergy, having also foreseen his repose at this location. On the way, the bishop spotted certain birds diving into the River Loire, catching fish. Martin likened the ravenous birds to demons, which similarly ambush and capture unwary prey. He subsequently commanded the birds to leave the fish alone and depart to a dry and deserted land (i.e. a place typically associated with evil in hagiographical literature).[48] Sulpicius affirms that Martin “used that command with which he was accustomed to drive out the demons.”[49] The scattered birds immediately formed a flock and departed, causing Martin’s disciples to marvel at his power.

Sulpicius’ general audience no doubt interpreted Martin’s rebuke of the birds as just punishment for their demon-like gluttony. However, the audiences of Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages would have also appreciated Sulpicius’ simultaneous depiction of Martin as a master of the sensible/material and intelligible/immaterial realms as represented by the birds and demons, respectively.[50] Furthermore, the sense of wonder that Sulpicius attributes to Martin’s companions deliberately echoes the Twelve Disciples’ reaction to Christ’s rebuke of the winds (Mt 8:23-27; Mk 4:35-41; Lk 8:22-25). Sulpicius has thus presented Martin as capable of inspiring the same wonder as God the Son by virtue of his imitation of (and resulting participation in) Him.

In the Dialogues 2.9, the hagiographer, citing Gallus, relates how Martin encountered a heifer afflicted by a demon as he once returned home from Trèves.[51] According to Sulpicius, the animal posed an immediate danger to the people living nearby, and “had already harmfully pierced many.” The monastic bishop, “after raising his hand, ordered the hostile beast to stand still[,]” then rebuked the fallen angel that he alone could see riding on its back.[52] The ascetic displayed compassion for the animal, which he perceived as naturally “innocent” (innoxium). [53] As to be expected, both the cow and the demon instantly obeyed the bishop.[54] Sulpicius accordingly hints once more at Martin’s fulfilment of Adam’s role as a God-appointed arbiter of the sensible and intelligible realms, here typified by the animal and a being which was formerly part of the cosmic harmony as an angel. Interestingly, the cow is described as having prostrated itself before the saint, who then instructs it to re-join its herd. The story thus echoes Christ’s compassionate dismissal of the Gerasene demoniac (Mk 5:1-20; Lk 8:26-39) whilst at the same time demonstrating Sulpicius’ conviction that Martin’s spiritual feats stemmed from his cooperation with God (as established through practical asceticism and contemplation, rather than any innate power).

At the end of the chapter, Sulpicius, again referring to Gallus, describes Martin’s encounter with certain hunters during a tour of the parishes in Gaul. According to the bishop’s disciple, Martin chanced upon the hunters’ dogs in pursuit of a hare. Pitying the latter’s desperate attempt to escape death, he ordered the canines to cease. The narrator emphasises the animals’ sudden stop, as though they had been chained or rooted in their tracks. [55] This story is somewhat unusual in hagiographical literature, since the rescued animal is allowed to remain wild and free without rendering any service to the saint.[56] Yet this supposed peculiarity stems from Sulpicius’ desire to underscore the bishop’s Christ-like care of all creatures, even those which may be considered minor.

In the Dialogues 2.3, Sulpicius describes how Martin was attacked by certain imperial officials during another tour of the Gallic churches.[57] More to the point, the bishop happened to startle the mules guiding their vehicle as he proceeded beyond them, thereby causing the animals to rush sidewards and tangle their traces. This incident revealed the true character of the officials, who savagely beat Martin for delaying their journey, finally rendering him unconscious before returning to their vehicle. The mules, however, refused to move, remaining “fixed in the earth, […] as if they were bronze statues.”[58] Unsurprisingly, the officials turned their anger to the animals, repeatedly whipping them to urge them forward. Eventually, the officials discovered from passers-by that the traveller whom they had abused was none other than Martin, renowned for his holiness. Consequently, they set out on foot in search of the bishop who had since been revived by his disciples and was continuing his journey. When they eventually caught up to Martin they genuinely pleaded for his forgiveness, begging to be released. Sulpicius relates that Martin displayed his characteristic altruism and the gift of foresight before restoring the officials’ control over the mules.

Two further aspects of this story are of interest to us. Firstly, it is suggested that the mules were startled at the sight of the holy ascetic; their haste in moving aside is not meant to be attributed to their wild nature but their awe in the presence of Martin. Indeed, the mules’ fidelity to God – evidenced by their patient endurance of violence, identical to that of the monastic bishop – is tacitly contrasted with the officials’ frustration, savage conduct, and “stupid heads” (bruta pectora). Secondly, the saint himself does not forbid the mules from assisting the officials. Rather, the animals are held back “by a divine will” (diuino numine).[59] More precisely, it is suggested that God displayed his anger with the officials by restraining creatures which ultimately belonged to him. In fact, Sulpicius, reiterating Gallus, affirms that the officials recognised that the earth itself could have reacted against their abuse of Martin by swallowing them alive.[60] This assertion likewise attests to Martin’s role as a Christ-like ruler of creation.

In the Dialogues 3.9.4, Sulpicius relates how, during another journey, Gallus and a presbyter named Refrigerius witnessed Martin ordering an “wicked beast” (mala bestia), that is, a serpent, to reverse its course as it swam across a river towards them.[61] Interestingly, Sulpicius recalls Gallus’ affirmation that Martin sighed at the fact that whilst such creatures heard him, most people did not.[62] This story functions as a tacit criticism of those who do not obey Martin’s teachings, which, I must add, were taken to ultimately proceed from Christ.[63]

Let us on move on to the final story by Sulpicius attesting to Martin’s role as Christ’s co-worker in the preservation and renewal of the created order. In the Dialogues 3.10.1-4 the hagiographer summarises Gallus’ account of a miraculous catch of fish at Martin’s exhortation during a certain Paschal cycle. [64] According to Sulpicius, the monastic bishop once requested to eat a pike during this sacred season, as was his custom. Cato the deacon (who served as the administrator of Martin’s monastery and was responsible for fishing) replied that neither he nor the local merchants had been able to catch any from the nearby river. The holy ascetic nevertheless instructed the deacon to cast his net, their fellow monks looking on with every hope of success. Sulpicius in turn affirms that Cato immediately caught a huge pike. Interestingly, Sulpicius has borrowed language from Statius’ Thebaid in his reiteration of Gallus’ story.[65] Notwithstanding the stylistic influence of the Latin classics, this account closely resembles Peter’s miraculous draughts of fish at Christ’s call, both before and after the Resurrection (Lk 5:1-11; Jn 21:1-14). Indeed, Gallus, as presented by Sulpicius, eventually affirms with respect to Martin that: “Truly, this disciple of Christ – a zealous imitator of the virtues borne by the Saviour, which He set forth as an example to His saints – showed Christ working in himself; Who, always glorifying His saint, bestowed onto the single person gifts of different [spiritual] charisms.”[66]

In summary, Sulpicius has consistently depicted Martin as a compassionate lord of the natural and inhabited worlds on account of his imitation of Christ, Antony, and other Eastern monks. The author continues to challenge his audiences to attain Martin’s level of faith and commitment to the Gospel. We are in fact called by Suplicius to participate in the redemption of the universe as initiated by our Lord and Saviour through His Incarnation, Passion, and Resurrection, and carried on by His saints through their similar perfect conduct, whatever their respective contexts. As indicated above, this requires a certain method according to Sulpicius, namely, progression through practical asceticism, contemplation, and the resulting communion with God, regarded as a constant, iterative process. This experience certainly is not limited to monks and nuns, hence Sulpicius’ publication of the Martiniana for all of Christendom.

The influence of the Martiniana in the history of hagiographical literature can hardly be underestimated. Sulpicius’ writings were disseminated by Bassula, Paulinus, and St Niceta of Remesiana, amongst others. The Life subsequently served as a model for numerous Latin hagiographies throughout Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages, beginning with that on St Ambrose of Milan commissioned by St Augustine of Hippo. It exerted particular influence on St Adomnán of Iona’s magnificent Life of St Columba.[67] The work eventually reached Byzantium, as evidenced by its summation on the part of the fifth-century historian, Sozomen.[68] The Dialogues, too, enjoyed great renown, undoubtedly inspiring St Gregory the Great to compose a similar work on the numerous ascetics of Italy. Most importantly, the example of Martin led to countless more saints of similar stature in the Latin West, his legacy being comparable to that of Antony in this regard. In fact, Sulpicius states in a letter to a deacon named Aurelius that Martin, had he been given the opportunity, would have born witness to Christ to the point of death just like the Apostles and many others amongst the faithful during the reigns of Nero and Decius. However, it was his destiny to endure a bloodless martyrdom, specifically through his ascetical and pastoral labours.[69] In fact, as Sulpicius makes clear from his wider literary corpus, Martin, like Antony, was not simply a witness to Christ; our Lord made Himself known in the person of the saint, thus inspiring countless generations of our Western forebears to follow Him.

On a final note, let us reflect on the fact that the Orthodox Christian experience was common to the Greek East and Latin West throughout the first millennium, extending from the deserts of Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Asia Minor through the Woods of the Continent to the Irish bogs and English Marshlands. This was a tremendous feat on the part of countless men and women from amongst the clergy and laity, especially if we bear in mind the constant danger posed by natural disasters, untreatable illnesses, and malevolent human forces, including heretics, barbarians, and bandits, to those who dared to travel during this time. Moreover, we have a loving intercessor before the Lord, our holy father Martin of Tours, who will no doubt assist us in attaining his abounding humility, ascetical fortitude, and compassion for the entire creation if we but pray to him. This was certainly the intention of the incredibly influential and eloquent hagiographer, Sulpicius Severus, in composing the Martiniana. Let us show him the honour in reading, and taking to heart, his works.

St Martin the Merciful clothing a beggar at the gates of Amiens

[1] Chris Baghos, ‘The Saints of Early Ireland and Britain,’ Website of the Holy Monastery of St George, Yellow Rock (June 2020),; idem, ‘The Legacy of the Latin Fathers,’ Website of the Holy Monastery of St George, Yellow Rock (June 2020),

[2] Clare Stancliffe, ‘Red, White and Blue Martyrdom,’ in Ireland in Early Medieval Europe: Studies in Memory of Kathleen Hughes, ed. Dorothy Whitelock, Rosamond McKitterick, and David Dumville (Cambridge University Press, 1982), 30-31.

[3] Henry Chadwick, The Early Church (London: Penguin Books, 1993), 177; Benedicta Ward, trans., ‘Introduction’ to The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks (London: Penguin Books, 2003), viii.

[4] Sulpicius Severus, Vita Sancti Martini episcopi 2.1-8, in Sulpicius Severus’ Vita Martini, ed. Philip Burton (Oxford University Press, 2017) 96-97. Hereafter referred to as Life of Martin. See also Andre Mertens, The Old English Lives of St Martin of Tours: Edition and Study (Universitätsverlag Göttingen, 2017), 5-7.

[5] Life of Martin 3.1-5 (Burton, 96-99).

[6] Life of Martin 4.1-5.3 (Burton, 98-101).

[7] For the earliest account of Hilary’s defence of Orthodoxy, see Sulpicius Severus, Chronicles 2.39, 42 and 45, in Sulpicius Severus: The Complete Works, trans. Richard J. Goodrich (New York: The Newman Press, 2015), 166-67, 169-70, 173-74. For a summary of the Church Father’s life and works, see D. H. Williams, trans., ‘Introduction’ to St Hilary of Poitiers, Commentary on Matthew, Fathers of the Church 125 (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2012), 3-10. His direct (and highly significant) contributions to Christian doctrine are available in English translation. See St Hilary of Poitiers, The Trinity, trans. Stephen McKenna, Fathers of the Church 25 (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1954); idem, On the Councils, trans. E. W. Watson and L. Pullan, in Hilary of Poitiers, John of Damascus, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, series 2, vol. 9, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 1995), 4-29.

[8] Life of Martin 9.1-7 (Burton, 104-5); Mertens, The Old English Lives of St Martin of Tours, 6, 11-12.

[9] Sulpicius Severus, Epistula secunda, ad Aurelium diaconum 1-19, in Vie de Saint Martin, tome 1, ed. Jacques Fontaine, Sources Chrétiennes 133 (Paris, Les Éditions du Cerf, 1967), 324-35. Hereafter referred to as Letter to Aurelius the Deacon. See also Mertens, The Old English Lives of St Martin of Tours, 6, 14.

[10] Life of Martin 13.1-15.4 (Burton, 108-113); James McSherry, Outreach and Renewal: A First-Millennium Legacy for the Third-Millennium Church, Cistercian Studies Series 236 (Trappist, Kentucky: Cistercian Publications, 2011), 106.

[11] Bernard M. Peebles, trans., ‘Introduction’ to Sulpicius Severus: Writings, Fathers of the Church 7 (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1947), 80-81; Mertens, The Old English Lives of St Martin of Tours, 14-15

[12] Peebles, ‘Introduction’ to Sulpicius Severus, 81-83.

[13] Life of Martin 25.1-8 (Burton, 124-27); Christian Tornau, ‘Intertextuality in Early Latin Hagiography: Sulpicius Severus and the Vita Antonii,’ in Studia Patristica, Vol. XXXV – Ascetica, Gnostica, Liturgica, Orientalia, ed. M. F. Wiles and E. J. Yarnold (Leuven: Peeters, 2001), 165-66.

[14] Letter to Aurelius the Deacon 1-6 (Fontaine, 324-27).

[15] For more on the purpose of these works, as well as their respective structures and occasions, see: Jacques Fontaine and Nicole Dupré, ed. and trans., ‘Introduction’ to Gallus: Dialogues sur les «vertus» de saint Martin, Sources Chrétiennes 510 (Paris: Les Éditions du Cerf, 2006), 17-96; Peebles, ‘Introduction’ to Sulpicius Severus, 86-89; Goodrich, ‘Introduction’ to Sulpicius Severus, 8-20; Burton, ‘Introduction’ to Sulpicius Severus’ Vita Martini, 4-6; Mertens, The Old English Lives of St Martin of Tours, 14-31; Clare Stancliffe, St. Martin and His Hagiographer: History and Miracle in Sulpicius Severus (Oxford University Press, 1983), 71-107. For a thorough exploration of the chronology and historicity of the Life in particular, see Fontaine and Dupré, ‘Introduction’ to Gallus, 171-310; Burton, ‘Introduction’ to Sulpicius Severus’ Vita Martini, 9-25. For a comparative analysis of the chronology of Martin’s life as presented by Sulpicius and St Gregory of Tours, see Stancliffe, St. Martin and His Hagiographer, 111-33.

[16] Clare Stancliffe identified Postumianus with the same figure that Paulinus recommended to Sulpicius by letter. Stancliffe, St. Martin and His Hagiographer, 49.

[17] Burton, ‘Introduction’ to Sulpicius Severus’ Vita Martini, 4-5; Peebles, ‘Introduction’ to Sulpicius Severus, 87-89; Goodrich, ‘Introduction’ to Sulpicius Severus, 17-20. Citing Karl Suso Frank, Mertens incorrectly perceived the Dialogues as a defence of Western monasticism against that of the East, with Martin as a foil to the latter. This presupposes that Sulpicius perceived the two traditions as fundamentally at odds, yet his reiteration of Postumianus’ positive discussion of the Eastern ascetics (including his own admission that their deeds are holy) proves that this certainly was not the case. As noted above, the hagiographer consistently drew on Eastern sources to depict his subject. Subsequently, it is apparent that Sulpicius intended to present Martin as part of the same tradition although worthy of more praise than many of his Eastern counterparts since he managed to perform the same feats despite the hostility that he encountered from jealous critics numbered amongst the Gallic clergy. See Sulpicius Severus, Gallus sive Dialogi de virtutibus sancti Martini [hereafter Dialogues] 1.24.1-26.8, in Gallus: Dialogues sur les «vertus» de saint Martin, 198-210. Cf. Mertens, The Old English Lives of St Martin of Tours, 28.

[18] “Therefore (lit. ‘whence’), what I am about to do seems to me worthwhile, supposing that I will have written down completely the life of a most holy man that is soon going be, by means of example, for others; so that readers will be spurred on by all means toward true wisdom, and heavenly warfare, and Godlike virtue” (Unde facturus mihi operae pretium videor, si vitam sanctissimi viri, exemplo aliis mox futuram, perscripsero, quo utique ad veram sapientiam et caelestem militiam divinamque virtutem legentes incitabuntur). Life of Martin 1.6 (Burton, 94).

[19] John P. Bequette, ‘Sulpicius Severus’ Life of Saint Martin: The Saint and His Biographer as Agents of Cultural Transformation,’ Logos 13:2 (2010), 56-78.

[20] Life of Martin 1.1-8 (Burton, 94).

[21] Stancliffe, St. Martin and His Hagiographer, 55-70; Burton, ‘Introduction’ to Sulpicius Severus’ Vita Martini, 25-81; Peebles, ‘Introduction’ to Sulpicius Severus, 84-86; Goodrich, ‘Introduction’ to Sulpicius Severus, 6-8; Mertens, The Old English Lives of St Martin of Tours, 17-19; Tornau, ‘Intertextuality in Early Latin Hagiography,’ 158-66.

[22] Notwithstanding their similarities, Tornau emphasised that the Life of Martin cannot be reduced to a mere copy or imitation of that concerning Antony. Tornau, ‘Intertextuality in Early Latin Hagiography,’ 161-62. For an exploration of the various features common to both works (and saints’ Lives generally during Late Antiquity), see: John M. McCulloh, ‘Confessor Saints and the Origins of Monasticism: The Lives of Saints Antony and Martin,’ in The Middle Ages in Texts and Texture: Reflections on Medieval Sources, ed. Jason Glenn (University of Toronto Press, 2011), 21-32.

[23] Life of Martin 2.1-4 (Burton, 96).

[24] Sulpicius relates that Martin eventually converted his mother whilst still a young monk, having been inspired by God in a dream to preach in his native homeland. Life of Martin 5-6 (Burton, 109-112).

[25] Life of Martin 2.5-4.9 (Burton, 96-98).

[26] “it is a marvellous thing that not even this charism had been lacking from an unlearned man” (mirum est homini illitterato ne hanc quidem gratiam defuisse). Life of Martin 25.8 (Burton, 126).

[27] Life of Martin 2.5 (Burton, 96).

[28] “great was that man’s kindness/mercy with respect to his comrades, astonishing [his] love/esteem, and also, in truth, [his] patience and humility were beyond human measure. For instance, it is not necessary that the [quality of] temperance within him be commended; he practised it in such a manner so that, already at that time, he might be considered not a solider, but a monk” (multa illius circa commilitones benignitas, mira caritas, patientia vero atque humilitas ultra humanum modum. nam frugalitatem in eo laudari non est necesse, qua ita usus est ut iam illo tempore non miles, sed monachus putaretur). Life of Martin 2.7 (Burton, 96).

[29] “of course, he was attending to those who were suffering, offering assistance to those in distress, feeding the very poor, clothing the naked, keeping nothing for himself from his payments for his military service except his daily food” (assistere scilicet laborantibus, opem ferre miseris, alere egentes, vestire nudos, nihil sibi ex militiae stipendiis praeter cotidianum victum reservare). Life of Martin 2.8 (Burton, 96).

[30] See the following chapters from the Greek and Latin systematic collections: Περὶ ἀγάπης/De charitate (17), Περὶ ἀνεξικακίας/De patientia (16), Περὶ ταπεινοφροσύνης/De humilitate (15), Περὶ ἐγκρατείας καὶ ὅτι οὐ μόνον ἐπὶ βρωμάτων ταύτην παραληπτέον ἀλλὰ καὶ τῶν λοιπῶν τῆς ψυχῆς κινημάτων/De continentia (4). Apophthegmata Patrum, Collectio Graeca systematica, in Les Apophtegmes des Pères, collection systématique 1, chapitres i-ix, ed. and trans. Jean-Claude Guy, Sources Chrétiennes 387 (Paris, Les Éditions du Cerf, 1993), 184-238; Apophthegmata Patrum, Collectio Graeca systematica, in Les Apophtegmes des Pères, collection systématique 2, chapitres x-xvi, ed. and trans. Jean-Claude Guy, Sources Chrétiennes 474 (Paris, Les Éditions du Cerf, 2003), 284-416; Apophthegmata Patrum, Collectio Graeca systematica, in Les Apophtegmes des Pères, collection systématique 3, chapitres xvii-xxi, ed. and trans. Jean-Claude Guy, Sources Chrétiennes 498 (Paris, Les Éditions du Cerf, 2005), 12-36; Verba Seniorum (Patrologia Latina 73, 864D-873C, 953B-978A).

[31] Life of Martin 6.4 (Burton, 100-2).

[32] Life of Martin 6.5-6 (Burton, 102). The island’s appellation stems from its native birds (gallinae rusticae). See Peebles, Sulpicius Severus, 112 n. 5.

[33] Cf. Dialogues 1.15.2, in which Postumianus describes the anchorites of the deserts of Egypt who relied on the same food. Dialogues 1.15.2 (Fontaine and Dupré, 162). Interestingly, in the Dialogues 1.16.1-3, Postumianus relates the story of an anchorite who lived in the wilderness near Syene (modern Assuam) and had, as a novice, accidently ingested a poisonous herb root. To recover from the effects of the poison, and later distinguish between edible and dangerous roots, the anchorite appealed to an ibex. The cooperation of this creature presupposes a certain degree of holiness on the part of the ascetic. Dialogues 1.16.1-3 (Fontaine and Dupré, 166-68). Peebles, Sulpicius Severus, 183 n. 1.

[34] Burton identified a typological connection between Martin, the Prophet Elijah, the Prophet Elisha, and St John the Baptist in the depiction of the coarse food. More precisely, the scholar affirmed that Martin’s consumption of the hellebore and other plants’ roots is reminiscent of John’s diet of locusts and wild honey (Mt 3:4; Mk 1:6), as well as Elijah’s being fed by ravens and angels (3 Ki 17:4-6, 19:5-8). Furthermore, Martin’s neutralisation of the poisonous effects of the hellebore evokes that of Elisha with respect to wild gourds (4 Ki 4:38-41). Burton, ‘Introduction’ to Sulpicius Severus’ Vita Martini, 33.

[35] Sulpicius perceives Paradise (paradisus) as distinct from “our land” (nostram terram) in his Chronicle 1.1, as in the case of Athanasius. It is noteworthy that Athanasius defines Paradise as the saints’ participation in God the Word owing to their preservation of the divine image (Gn 1:26-27). Drawing on Wis 6:18, Athanasius emphasises that the immortality characteristic of Paradise can be reattained through contemplation and obedience. The Church Father thus identifies Paradise as a distinct topos owing to a particular tropos (i.e. mode of being). The same can be said of Sulpicius as evidenced by his depiction of Martin. Sulpicius Severus, Chronica (i.e. Chronicle) 1.1, in Chroniques, ed. Ghislaine de Senneville-Grave, Sources Chrétiennes 441 (Paris, Les Éditions du Cerf, 1999), 92; St Athanasius of Alexandria, The Incarnation of the Word of God 1.3-4, in On the Incarnation, ed. and trans. Religious of C.S.M.V, intro. C. S. Lewis (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1993), 27-30. For a summary of the positive reception of Athanasius by the early Latin Fathers (specifically Hilary, Ambrose, Jerome, Augustine, and St Leo the Great), see Thomas G. Weinandy and Daniel A. Keating, Athanasius and His Legacy: Trinitarian-Incarnation Soteriology and Its Reception (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2017), 74-77.

[36] Life of Martin 6.6, 7.3-6, 10.6-7, 14.4, 22.1, 26.3 (Burton, 102, 107, 110, 120, 126); Sulpicius Severus, Epistula prima, ad Eusebium 13, in Vie de Saint Martin, tome 1, 322; Sulpicius Severus, Epistula tertia, Sulpicius Severus Bassulae parenti venerabili salutem (i.e. Letter to Bassula) 14, in Vie de Saint Martin, tome 1, 340; Dialogues 2.4.7, 3.2.5, 3.8.7, 3.9.1, 3.15.5 (Fontaine and Dupré, 236, 294, 320, 322; 352).

[37] Numquam hora ulla momentumque praeteriit, quo non aut orationi incumberet aut insisteret lectioni, quamquam etiam inter legendum aut si quid aliud forte agebat, numquam animum ab oratione laxabat. Life of Martin 26.3 (Burton, 127).

[38] “passing the night in prayers and vigils, he forced his exhausted limbs to obey his soul, as he lay down on that noted bed of his, in ashes and sackcloth” (pernoctans in orationibus et uigiliis fatiscentes artus spiritui seruire cogebat, nobili illo strato suo in cinere et cilicio recubans). Letter to Bassula 14 (Fontaine, 340).

[39] Life of Martin 10.1-3 (Burton, 106).

[40] Life of Martin 10.2-3 (Burton, 106).

[41] Qui locus tam secretus et remotus erat ut eremi solitudinem non desideraret. Ex uno enim latere praecisa montis exclesi rupe ambiebatur, reliquam planitiem Liger fluvius reducto paululum sinu clauserat. Life of Martin 10.4 (Burton, 106).

[42] Apophthegmata Patrum (i.e. Greek alphabetical collection of the Sayings of the Desert Fathers) (Patrologia Graeca 65, 98D-100C, 401A-B); Mathieu Bosivert, ‘Origins: Comparative Perspectives,’ in Encyclopedia of Monasticism, ed. William M. Johnston and Christopher Kleinhenz (London: Routledge, 2000), 961-62.

[43] C. H. Lawrence, Medieval Monasticism: Forms of Religious Life in Western Europe in the Middle Ages (Oxon: Routledge, 2015), 11-12; Edward James ‘Archaeology and the Merovingian Monastery,’ in Columbanus and Merovingian Monasticism, ed. H. B. Clarke and Mary Brennan, BAR International Series 113 (Oxford: British Archaeological Reports, 1981), 36; Peebles, Sulpicius Severus, 117 n. 2.

[44] Jonah Paffhausen, ‘Natural Contemplation in St. Maximus the Confessor and St. Isaac the Syrian,’ in Toward an Ecology of Transfiguration: Orthodox Christian Perspectives on Environment, Nature, and Creation, ed. John Chryssavgis and Bruce V. Foltz (NY: Fordham University Press, 2013), 48.

[45] Aidan Nichols, Byzantine Gospel: Maximus the Confessor in Modern Scholarship (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1993), 193.

[46] Burton, ‘Introduction’ to Sulpicius Severus’ Vita Martini, 5; Peebles, ‘Introduction’ to Sulpicius Severus, 87; Goodrich, ‘Introduction’ to Sulpicius Severus, 13; Mertens, The Old English Lives of St Martin of Tours, 26-27. Taken at face value, this letter appears to have been published without the author’s consent. Sulpicius asks Bassula within the opening paragraph not to read it to anyone, playfully charging her with intercepting and disseminating writings that he has intended for others (Letter to Bassula 1-5 (Fontaine, 334-36). However, given the letter’s significant subject matter it is highly likely that he intended it to reach a wider audience. Sulpicius has expressed similar reluctance with respect to the publication of his Life of Martin, partly to the subvert the prevailing Greco-Roman literary values.

[47] Letter to Bassula 6-16, esp. 7-8 (Fontaine, 336-42).

[48] Letter to Bassula 8 (Fontaine, 338).

[49] “Then, with a powerful expression he ordered (lit. ‘orders’) that they should make for dry and deserted regions, abandoning that eddy on which they were floating; evidently, among those birds he used that command with which he was accustomed to drive out the demons” (Imperat deinde potenti uerbo ut eum cui innatabant gurgitem relinquentes aridas peterent desertasque regiones, eo nimirum circa aues illas usus imperio quo daemones fugare consueuerat). Letter to Bassula 8 (Fontaine, 338).

[50] For a thorough exploration of the Christian education offered in Late Antique Gaul, see, Theodore Haarhoff, Schools of Gaul: A Study of Pagan and Christian Education in the Last Century of the Western Empire (Oxford University Press/Humphrey Milford, 1920), 180-87. As concerns the continuation of the Latin rhetorical curriculum within the region, see Ralph W. Mathisen, ‘Bishops, Barbarians, and the “Dark Ages”: The Fate of Late Roman Educational Institutions in Late Antique Gaul,’ in Medieval Education, ed. Ronald B. Begley and Joseph W. Koterski (NY: Fordham University Press, 2005), 3-19.

[51] “when Martin was returning from Trèves, a cow was made hostile which a demon was tormenting” (Martino a Treueris reuertenti fit obuiam uacca quam daemon agitabat). Dialogues 2.9.1 (Fontaine and Dupré, 258).

[52] “That [animal], after abandoning its herd, was being led into people and, butting with its head, had already harmfully pierced many. Martin, after raising his hand, ordered the hostile beast to stand still” (Quae, relicto grege suo, in homines ferebatur et iam multos noxie petulca confoderat. Martinus eleuata obuiam manu pecudem consistere iubet). Dialogues 2.9.1-2 (Fontaine and Dupré, 258).

[53] “‘Depart, o calamitous one, from the beast,’ he said, ‘and cease to torment an innocent animal’” («Discede, inquit, funeste, de pecude, et innoxium animal agitare desiste»). Dialogues 2.9.3 (Fontaine and Dupré, 258).

[54] Dialogues 2.9.4. (Fontaine and Dupré, 258).

[55] Dialogues 2.9.6 (Fontaine and Dupré, 260).

[56] Dominic Alexander, Saints and Animals in the Middle Ages (Woodbridge, Suffolk: The Boydell Press, 2008), 3, 16, 39, 118, 128.

[57] Dialogues 2.3.1-10 (Fontaine and Dupré, 226-30).

[58] “When all those [mules], fixed in the earth, had stiffened as if they were bronze statues – when the drivers more deeply brought forth a cry, and their whips resounded from different directions – through and through, they were not set in motion at all” (Quae cum omnia solo fixa ac si aenea signa riguissent, adtollentibus altius uocem magistris, flagris hinc atque inde resonantibus, nihil penitus mouebantur). Dialogues 2.3.6 (Fontaine and Dupré, 228).

[59] “The miserable men did not know what they might do, nor could they now further ignore that, however much with their dull minds, they should acknowledge that they themselves were being restrained by a divine will” (Quid agerent infelices homines nesciebant, nec iam ultra dissimulare poterant quin, quamlibet brutis pectoribus, agnoscerent diuino numine se teneri). Dialogues 2.3.7 (Fontaine and Dupré, 228).

[60] Dialogues 2.3.9 (Fontaine and Dupré, 230).

[61] “A serpent cutting across the river towards the bank, on which we had stopped, began to swim near: ‘In the name of the Lord,’ said he [i.e. Martin], ‘I order you to turn back.’ Thereupon, the wicked beast cast itself back at the word of the saint and, before our eyes, went over to a more distant bank. When we all perceived that (not without wonder), he [i.e. Martin], uttering a sigh more deeply, affirmed: ‘The serpents listen to me, and men do not listen!’” (Serpens flumen secans ad ripam, in qua constiteramus, adnabat: «In nomine, inquit, Domini iubeo te redire.» Mox se mala bestia ad uerbum sancti retorsit et in ulteriorem ripam, nobis inspectantibus, transmeauit. Quod cum omnes non sine miraculo cerneremus, altius ingemiscens ait: «Serpentes me audiunt, et homines non audiunt!»). Dialogues 3.9.4 (Fontaine and Dupré, 322-24).

[62] This lament is echoed by Postumanius within the Dialogues 1.14.8 (Fontaine and Dupré, 160).

[63] Alexander, Saints and Animals in the Middle Ages, 36.

[64] Dialogues on Martin 3.10.1-4 (Fontaine and Dupré, 324-26).

[65] Peebles, Sulpicius Severus, 238 n.2.

[66] Vere Christi iste discipulus, gestarum a Saluatore uirtutum quas in exemplum sanctis suis edidit aemulator, Christum in se monstrabat operantem. Qui, sanctum suum usquequaque glorificans, diuersarum munera gratiarum in unum hominem conferebat. Dialogues 3.10.5 (Fontaine and Dupré, 326).

[67] Peebles, ‘Introduction’ to Sulpicius Severus, 92-96, esp. 92-93.

[68] Sozomen, Ἐκκλησιαστικὴ ἱστορία 3.14.38-41, in Histoire ecclésiastique, Livres iii-iv, ed. J. Bidez, trans. André-Jean Festugière, Sources Chrétiennes 418 (Paris, Les Éditions du Cerf, 1996), 134-38.

[69] Letter to Aurelius the Deacon 8-14 (Fontaine, 328-33).

St Maximus the Confessor on Love and Deification

by Chris Baghos

For nothing is more truly Godlike than divine love, nothing more mysterious, nothing more apt to raise up human beings to deification. For it has gathered together in itself all good things that are recounted by the logos of truth in the form of virtue, and it has absolutely no relation to anything that has the form of wickedness, since it is the fulfilment of the law and the prophets. St Maximus the Confessor, Letter 2: On Love.[1]

Our Father among the saints, Maximus, was born to a wealthy family in Constantinople in the late sixth century. After receiving an eminent education, he served as the private secretary of the Emperor Heraclius and his grandson, Constans II. The Confessor abandoned his administrative career when he perceived that members of the Byzantine court were lapsing into heresies that denied our Lord’s full humanity to contrive union with a large group of schismatics located on the Eastern fringe of the empire. In short, these false teachings culminated in what is known as Monothelitism, which contradicted our Lord’s saving dispensation: i.e., His assumption and healing of the faculty of the will and, therefore, everything that pertains to human nature (while remaining free from sin). Maximus found refuge in the Holy Monastery of Chrysopolis (Skutari), where he became abbot and served the wider flock through his profound letters and theological treaties. He was eventually forced to migrate to Africa owing to the infamous invasion of the Persians. Maximus ultimately succeeded St Sophronius of Jerusalem in the Orthodox refutation of Monothelitism, obtaining assistance in Rome from Sts Theodore and Martin (whom we likewise celebrate as Confessors). The Church Father was eventually captured by the Monothelite authorities and condemned to death in exile in what is now Georgia (after his tongue and right hand were cruelly severed).[2] His position was formally vindicated by the Church in Constantinople at the Sixth Ecumenical Council.[3] Having had a tremendous influence on the spiritual life and doctrinal understanding of every subsequent generation of the Church, he remains the pride of the Byzantine tradition and a central figure in the history of Orthodoxy more generally.[4]

The striking passage cited above attests to the relationship between deification and altruistic conduct. It is deeply associated with Maximus’ understanding of asceticism and the Lord’s reiteration of the greatest commandments: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind” and “You shall love your neighbour as yourself’ (Mt 22:37-40 NKJV).” Maximus addressed the letter to certain spiritual children of his in Constantinople.[5] He begins the epistle by commending his disciples for maintaining a loving disposition towards God and among themselves in his absence.[6] It is noteworthy that love – that is, agape – is the surest path to God according to Maximus. It is in no way a passive condition but a call to action.[7] This attitude is reflected elsewhere in the Confessor’s writings, specifically in his Four Hundred Texts on Love, where he states that the compassionate disposition “may be recognized in the giving of money, and still more in the giving of spiritual counsel and in looking after people in their physical needs.”[8] Maximus perceives love as the goal and content of preaching, the height of asceticism, and the perfection of the mind/soul.[9] Interestingly, Maximus also reveals in this letter the significance of kind-heartedness for those of us hoping to remedy the egocentrism, conflict, and loneliness characteristic of our secular society:

Love alone, properly speaking, proves that the human person is in the image of the Creator, by making his self-determination submit to reason, not bending reason under it, and persuading the inclination to follow nature and not in any way to be at variance with the logos of nature. In this way we are all, as it were, one nature, so that we are able to have one inclination and one will with God and with one another, not having any discord with God or one another…[10]

One may ask at this point what Maximus meant by the expression “divine love” referred to above. In short, the Confessor has identified multiple gradations of love in his works, the most commendable (and, indeed, holy) being that which is entirely selfless and therefore directed towards everyone, including a person’s enemies.[11] The importance that the Confessor places on loving all people equally is also reflected in his Four Hundred Texts. Having outlined how God, in His goodness and freedom from passion, loves all people to the same extent as His creatures – but glorifies the righteous – the Church Father asserts: “Similarly, a man of good and dispassionate judgement also loves all men equally […]; and he loves the sinner, too, because of his nature and because in his compassion he pities him for foolishly stumbling in darkness.”[12] The saint’s general understanding of love appears to be based on the Lord’s Sermon on the Mount:

You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven; for He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust […]. Therefore, you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect (Mt 5:43-45, 48 NKJV).

We may therefore conclude that Maximus believed that being godlike/deified consists in loving all people equally regardless of their righteous or sinful conduct. The Confessor maintained that all people deserve to be respected insofar as they have been created in God’s image and likeness (Gen 1:26-27). More to the point, everyone has been called to participate in God’s grace and the sinfulness that we may perceive in each other – whilst it is to be eschewed in every way – is not ours to condemn. Once again, this understanding can be related to our Saviour’s exhortations, chiefly: “be merciful, just as your Father also is merciful (Lk 6:36 NKJV).” Subsequently, the Confessor held that those who continue to distinguish their brothers and sisters in Christ based on their respective merits and flaws have not yet risen to the Paradisal/perfect state and egalitarian outlook that this entails, namely as concerns the inherent existential value of every person owing to their common nature and origin.[13]

Yet love, according to Maximus, no longer comes naturally due to the ancestral Fall (Gen 3). It is now the result of ascetical labour and prayerful contemplation, which help us rise above earthly distractions, and which the Confessor himself intensely experienced as a devoted monk. Monastic life no doubt informed Maximus’ entire thought.[14] The link between the ascetical/virtuous life, love, and deification in the Confessor’s writings may once again be verified by his Four Hundred Texts: “He who has genuinely renounced worldly things, and lovingly and sincerely serves his neighbour, is soon set free from every passion and made a partaker of God’s love and knowledge.”[15] In other words, the Confessor taught that we are called to transform our passions through practical asceticism – considered in terms of the rejection of base interests, on the one hand, and selfless conduct, on the other – that we may no longer harbour the feelings of resentment that prevent us from exercising mercy and compassion; that preclude us from imitating and coming to know our Lord Jesus Christ.

Subsequently, the Confessor teaches us that asceticism is not to be undertaken simply for the benefit of one’s self. It is most certainly essential for our salvation; however, it is not a goal in itself. Neither does it imply a state of serenity for the human person in which they become aloof to the anxieties, needs, and spiritual struggles of others. Love for Christ and compassion for our fellow human beings manifested in prayer and action are the means by which we may redeemed in conjunction with God’s grace.[16] We may thus appreciate why the Confessor insists in Letter 2 that the human and the divine converge “through the unifying function of love [which is] the greatest of goods…”[17] Maximus certainly demonstrated this throughout the course of his life, even during the mock trial that he endured at the hands of the Monothelites. In fact, the Record of the Trial (Relatio motionis) defines Christian identity in terms of altruistic behaviour and unerring loyalty to the Lord even amid persecution through its depiction of the Confessor and his disciple, St Anastasius the Monk.

In brief, the anonymous author of the Record has related how Maximus prostrated himself and wept before his accusers throughout his ordeal without ever displaying signs of anger.[18] At one point the Confessor even stated that he would submit to punishment if the accusations of treason made against him could be proven.[19] This was in sharp contrast to his major accuser, the finance minister of the imperial capital, whose irascible behaviour was reminiscent of the pagan authorities of Late Antiquity.[20] For the modern reader, the Confessor’s weeping may seem confusing, particularly in light of the fact that the text highlights his innocence. Crying is not typically considered a heroic trait in our society, often reflecting a person’s guilt or cowardice. However, this was not commonly the case for our Orthodox forebears. In the Sayings of the Desert Fathers, for instance, weeping is considered a sign of meekness; an indication that a person is holy and will thus “inherit the earth (Mt 5:5 NKJV).” This is demonstrated in the following story concerning two of the greatest ascetics from the mid-fourth to mid-fifth centuries, Sts Arsenius and Poemen:

It was said of him [i.e., Arsenius] that he had a hollow in his chest channelled out by the tears which fell from his eyes all his life while he sat at his manual work. When Abba Poemen learned that he was dead, he said weeping, ‘Truly you are blessed, Abba Arsenius, for you wept for yourself in this world! He who does not weep for himself here below will weep eternally hereafter; so it is impossible not to weep, either voluntarily or when compelled through suffering.’[21]

It is known that the tradition of the Desert Fathers was highly valued by Maximus.[22] It is possible that the enigmatic disciple who recorded the Confessor’s hearing was aware of how it had influenced him. In any case, it is reasonable to assume that they intentionally portrayed the saint as a successor to the early martyrs and monks by drawing attention to his meekness and unshakable love for Christ; the latter best evidenced by his gracious yet resolute defiance of those who would dare to question the existence the Lord’s human will. It is noteworthy that the Confessor was charged with hating the Monothelite authorities during his trial. Appealing to the Lord’s instruction regarding the proper attitude that we should display towards our enemies, Maximus responded that he actually loved his heretical opponents on the basis of a shared language (and, by extension, culture), knowing full well that they would torment and exile him.[23] We see, then, how the great Byzantine theologian’s teachings stemmed from authentic ascetical experience and Christomimesis. May we remember his discernment, courage, and perfect love for God and neighbour, both now and always.

Icon of St Maximus the Confessor and Philosopher

[1] St Maximus the Confessor, Letter 2: On Love (i.e., ‘To John the Cubicularius’), in Maximus the Confessor, ed. and trans. Andrew Louth (London: Routledge, 1996), 85.

[2] The Life and Conduct and Martyrdom of Our Holy Father and Confessor Maximus, in The Life of Maximus the Confessor, Recension 3, ed. and trans. Bronwen Neil and Pauline Allen, Early Christian Studies 6 (Strathfield, NSW: St Pauls Publications, 2003), 38-185; Cf. Louth, ‘Introduction’ to Maximus the Confessor, 3-18; Pauline Allen, ‘Life and Times of Maximus the Confessor,’ in The Oxford Handbook of Maximus the Confessor, ed. Pauline Allen and Bronwen Neil (Oxford University Press, 2015), 3-18.

[3] Pauline Allen and Bronwen Neil, ed. and trans., ‘Introduction’ to Maximus the Confessor and His Companions: Documents from Exile (Oxford University Press, 2002), 29-30.

[4] As attested to by the Church Father’s prominent place in The Philokalia: i.e., the collection of texts by Greek masters of the hesychastic tradition ranging from the fourth to fifteenth centuries. See: The Philokalia: The Complete Text, Compiled by St Nikodimos of the Holy Mountain and St Makarios of Corinth, Volume 2, trans. G.E.H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard and Kallistos Ware (London: Faber and Faber, 1981), 48-305.

[5] Louth, ‘Introduction’ to Letter 2: On Love, in Maximus the Confessor, 84.

[6] Letter 2: On Love, 85.

[7] Basil N. Tatakis, Christian Philosophy in the Patristic and Byzantine Tradition, ed. and trans. George Dion. Dragas, Orthodox Theological Library 4 (Rollinsford, NH: Orthodox Research Institute, 2007), 106.

[8] St Maximus the Confessor, Four Hundred Texts on Love 1.26, in The Philokalia, Volume 2, 55.

[9] Susan Wessel, ‘The Theology of Agape in Maximus the Confessor,’ St Vladimir's Theological Quarterly 55:3 (2011): 322.

[10] Letter 2: On Love, 86-87.

[11] Wessel, ‘The Theology of Agape in Maximus the Confessor,’ 324-25.

[12] Four Hundred Texts on Love 1.25, 55.

[13] Wessel, ‘The Theology of Agape in Maximus the Confessor,’ 326.

[14] John Meyendorff, Byzantine Theology: Historical Trends and Doctrinal Themes (New York: Fordham University Press, 1974), 72; Normal Russell, The Doctrine of Deification in the Greek Patristic Tradition (Oxford University Press, 2004), 262.

[15] Four Hundred Texts on Love 1.27, 55.

[16] Meyendorff, Byzantine Theology, 71-72.

[17] Russell, The Doctrine of Deification in the Greek Patristic Tradition, 265.

[18] Record of the Trial 2, 4, and 7, in Maximus the Confessor and His Companions, 52-55, 64-65.

[19] Record of the Trial 1, 50-51.

[20] Record of the Trial 1, 2, and 4, 48-51; 58-59.

[21] The Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Alphabetical Collection, trans. Benedicta Ward (Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications, 1975), 18.

[22] Andrew Louth, ‘Recent Research on St Maximus the Confessor: A Survey,’ St Vladimir's Theological Quarterly 42:1 (1998): 73.

[23] Record of the Trial 11, 70-71.

St Gregory of Nyssa on Asceticism and Spiritual Guidance

by Chris Baghos

And if we recognize Christ as ‘sanctification,’ in whom every action is steadfast and pure, let us prove by our life that we ourselves stand apart, being ourselves true sharers of His name, coinciding in deed and not in word with the power of His sanctification. St Gregory of Nyssa, On Perfection.[1]

St Gregory of Nyssa was born to an aristocratic family in Cappadocia during the early fourth century. This was a turbulent time in the history of our Church, when heretical sects descending from Arianism were continuing to deny our Lord Jesus Christ’s equality with God the Father as concerns His divinity. Gregory – a younger brother of St Basil the Great – proceeded through the Classical education system typical of the age in the Eastern cities of Neocaesarea and Caesarea, acquiring masterful knowledge of oratory, multiple philosophical schools, and even medicine. Following in his father’s footsteps, Gregory became a professional rhetorician while serving as a Reader of the Church. He also married a certain Theosebeia, at the same time maintaining a special reverence for monasticism and close contact with his family (most of which had pursued the angelic life by this stage). Gregory then heeded his brother Basil’s call to become a presbyter in defence of the Orthodox faith (no doubt owing to his own spiritual experiences, including a vision of the Forty Martyrs of Sebaste).

Gregory was soon elevated to the rank of bishop of the newly established see of Nyssa. However, owing to political contrivances on the part of the ‘Homoian’ group of Arians, he was subjected to exile for several years. The confessor providentially returned to his bishopric where he took on the salvific mission of Basil in the East following the latter’s repose. Gregory not only combatted the prevailing heresies in a manner reminiscent of Basil but also defended and built on his brother’s written corpus, always referring to him with the utmost respect. He thus played an essential role in outlining the relationship between our Lord’s human and divine natures, on the one hand, and that between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, on the other. The Church Father also strove to establish ecclesial unity throughout Asia Minor, Arabia, and Jerusalem, as evidenced by his participation in a local Council of Antioch, in addition to the Second Ecumenical Council in Constantinople. Moreover, the Church Father was a renowned pastor, preacher, and promoter of the veneration of the saints during his own lifetime.[2]

As revealed in his philosophical and spiritual works on the current and Paradisal constitution of the human person – namely, On the Making of Man and On the Soul and the Resurrection – the Nyssen contributed to the Orthodox Church’s conviction that we must rationally master our concupiscible and irascible appetites (i.e., our desire and anger). More precisely, he held that we must transform these drives by reorienting them from our selfish vices to the selfless virtues manifested by our Lord and Saviour, precisely that we may be saved.[3] Gregory taught that this transformation leads to the restoration of the divine image (Gen 1:26-27) within us, which he claimed consists of “purity, freedom from passion, blessedness, alienation from all evil, and all those attributes of the like kind, which held to form in men the likeness of God…”[4] Among these qualities is liberty of choice, which the Nyssen termed ‘proairesis’.[5] The Church Father maintained that each of us is required to actively coordinate our proairesis and inclinations to the same noble ends to attain the Godlike existential mode intended for us by the Holy Trinity from the outset of creation.[6]

It is significant that, for Gregory, the self-mastery defined above cannot be achieved solely through the study of ascetical writings. Neither can it be accomplished in isolation. The Church Father insisted that asceticism requires the guidance of a spiritual elder who genuinely lives out the Gospel. This is demonstrated in the twenty-third chapter of his treatise On Virginity, in which he encourages Christians who desire celibacy to: “search out a fitting guide and master of this way, lest, in their present ignorance, they should wander from the direct route…”[7] Gregory subsequently criticises those who engage in ascetical practices entirely on their own, listing the various ways in which they fall. For instance, he asserts that some place false confidence in dreams while others fast excessively and tragically extinguish their lives.[8] In the subsequent chapter, the Church Father praises the fact that there are many saintly role models from among his own generation whom his readers generally – regardless of their marital status – can aspire to imitate and thus come to know Christ.[9] To be sure, the saint developed a timeless portrait of the ideal ascetic and spiritual guide, advising us as follows:

If you see a man so standing between death and life, as to select from each helps for the contemplative course [...]; – a man who remains more insensate than the dead themselves to everything that is found on examination to be living for the flesh, but instinct with life and energy and strength in the achievements of virtue, which are the sure marks of the spiritual life; – than look to that man for the rule of your life…[10]

The Nyssen’s depiction of the eminent Orthodox role model is all the more authoritative when we consider that it was directly influenced by Sts Basil the Great and Macrina the Younger, the two greatest contributors to his Christian formation.[11] Basil certainly needs no introduction, being widely acknowledged within our Church as the ideal pastor, theologian, monk, hierarch, and humanist. Our Holy Mother Macrina, however, is less known although equally important in the history of our tradition. In short, the blessed ascetic was the elder sister, childhood teacher, and spiritual guide of both Basil and Gregory. She was named after the pious siblings’ heroic grandmother; a disciple of St Gregory the Wonderworker (after whom the Nyssen was named) and brave survivor of the late-third/early-fourth century persecutions of the Church. Yet Macrina also bore the name ‘Thekla’ privately since her mother, St Emmelia, had seen the eponymous martyr, virgin, and disciple of St Paul the Apostle in a dream while pregnant with her. Following the death of her fiancé, Macrina chose not to marry and aided her widowed mother in raising the other children of the family. In her capacity as spiritual adviser, Macrina helped Emmelia bear the accidental death of her son, St Naucratius, as well as establish a monastic community on the grounds of her estate with her serving-women.[12]

Gregory especially praised Macrina’s fortitude and wisdom, as evidenced by On the Soul and the Resurrection, which consists in a dramatic dialogue between the two regarding the psychosomatic makeup of the human person and its eventual transfiguration through the grace of God. As evidenced by his Platonic representation of his sister, Gregory considered Macrina the Christian equivalent to Socrates. Such pronounced admiration for a woman on the part of a bishop of Late Antiquity, a man whom tradition considers a ‘Father of the Fathers,’ attests to the egalitarian aspect of Orthodoxy; that the state of holiness, including the divine knowledge which this entails, is open to all. Certainly, as early as the first chapter of the dialogue, Macrina – regardless of being a woman – manifests the signs of holiness articulated by Gregory in the above passage from On Virginity, admonishing him for experiencing grief upon seeing her mortally ill while appealing to the hope in the next life espoused by Paul (1 Th 4:13).[13] The Nyssen’s numerous writings thus remain relevant to our common experience as Orthodox Christians since they underscore the need for us to seek out spiritual masters who have denied themselves and therefore reveal what it means to know and love God. Gregory’s own tremendous example demonstrates that we must also cultivate humility to recognise such teachers in the first place, whatever our respective talents and virtues may be.

The ‘Father of the Fathers,’ St Gregory of Nyssa

[1] St Gregory of Nyssa, On Perfection, in St Gregory of Nyssa: Ascetical Works, trans. Virginia Woods Callahan, Fathers of the Church 58 (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1967), 103.

[2] Pierre Maraval, ‘Biography of Gregory of Nyssa,’ in The Brill Dictionary of Gregory of Nyssa, ed. Lucas Francisco Mateo-Seco and Giulio Maspero, trans. Seth Cherney, Supplements to Vigiliae Christianae 99 (Leiden: Brill, 2010), 103-16.

[3] For instance, the Church Father has spoken of the transformation of “anger” into “courage,” “terror” into “caution,” “fear” into “obedience,” and “hatred” to “aversion from vice.” St Gregory of Nyssa, On the Making of Man 18.5, in Select Writings and Letters of Gregory, Bishop of Nyssa, trans. William Moore and Henry Austin Wilson, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Ser. 2, Vol. 5, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace (Grand Rapids, Michigan: WM. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1976), 408; St Gregory of Nyssa, On the Soul and the Resurrection, trans. Catharine P. Roth (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1993), 56-60.

[4] On the Making of Man 5.1, 391

[5] For more on this concept, see: Giampietro Dal Toso ‘Proairesis, προαίρεσις’ in The Brill Dictionary of Gregory of Nyssa, 647-49.

[6] Paul M. Blowers, ‘Gentiles of the Soul: Maximus the Confessor on the Substructure and Transformation of Human Passions,’ Journal of Early Christian Studies 4.1 (1996): 64.

[7] St Gregory of Nyssa, On Virginity 23, trans. William Moore and Henry Austin Wilson, in Select Writings and Letters of Gregory, Bishop of Nyssa, 369; Blowers, ‘Gentiles of the Soul,’ 63.

[8] On Virginity 23, 369.

[9] On Virginity 24, 369.

[10] Ibid., 370.

[11] Maraval, ‘Biography of Gregory of Nyssa,’ 104.

[12] St Gregory of Nyssa, The Life of St. Macrina, in St Gregory of Nyssa: Ascetical Works, 163-91.

[13] On the Soul and the Resurrection, 27.

The Timeless Wisdom of the Life of St Mary of Egypt

by Chris Baghos


Mary of Egypt (sixth century) is one of the most celebrated saints of the Orthodox tradition whose memory survives thanks to our holy Father, Sophronius, Patriarch of Jerusalem (late sixth to early seventh centuries).[1] Despite being known from only one work, Mary is commemorated multiple times throughout the year, specifically, April 1 and the Fifth Thursday and Sunday of Great Lent. The Life of St Mary is in fact read during the Thursday’s Matins service, with half of it being recited after the third ode of the Great Canon of Repentance composed by St Andrew of Crete (mid seventh to early eighth centuries).[2] To be sure, the enigmatic ascetic, Mary, features as a chief intercessor among the saints in this masterful liturgical work. What is more, she is the only other woman besides the Theotokos to be given special reverence on Mt Athos.[3] The reader may fairly ask why this should be the case given that there are many other saints who have contributed more directly to the Church’s practices and doctrines. To answer this question, we need to systematically explore the Life of St Mary, whose popularity was such among our Christian forebears that it was translated into Latin and, in turn, numerous Romance, Germanic, Celtic, and Slavic languages.[4] But first, a brief assessment of the Life’s renowned author is required for us to make sense of its wider spiritual and literary contexts.

St Sophronius of Jerusalem

Sophronius of Jerusalem is one of the most important figures in the history of the Church, having led the Orthodox resistance against the imperial imposition of the heretical doctrine known as ‘Monoenergism’.[5] As concerns our interpretation of the Life of St Mary, Sophronius’ formation is of crucial importance. In short, the Church Father was born at Damascus in c. 550. He was formally trained as a rhetorician and became a pupil of St John Moschus, a Palestinian monk and hagiographer. After witnessing the ascetical practices of the Orthodox Egyptians during his travels with John, Sophronius embraced the angelic life at the Holy Monastery of St Theodosius in Palestine. He also spent ten years at Sinai with his mentor before returning to Palestine, specifically the New Lavra in Judea. He was then forced back to Egypt due to the infamous Persian invasions of the Byzantine Empire. From Egypt, the Church Father travelled to Rome, where he gained allies against Monoenergism. After the repose of John, whom he buried on Mt Sinai, Sophronius went to North Africa, where he spent some time with Greek monks, among them his spiritual son, St Maximus the Confessor. Having beseeched the Patriarch of Constantinople, Sergius, to rebuke Cyrus of Alexandria – the major proponent of the aforementioned heresy – Sophronius at last made his way back to Jerusalem, where he was elevated to the status of Patriarch and continued to fight for the Orthodox faith despite the eventual capture of his city by Arab Muslims.[6]

Throughout his travels, Sophronius used his literary-rhetorical training to compose a variety of panegyrical, poetical, polemical, and hagiographical works. As concerns his composition of saints’ Lives, the Church Father was no doubt influenced by his mentor, John, who, just prior to his response, had finished compiling a number of sayings and stories regarding the wonderworking monks of Palestine.[7] Concerning the Life of St Mary specifically, Sophronius was indebted to an anonymous source that received the story from the successors of her discoverer, St Zosimas of Palestine.[8] Our tradition has never denied the historicity of the Life; however, it is evident that Sophronius has framed the narrative in a manner reminiscent of the spiritual classics of his time. He was no doubt exposed to the latter as a learned monk travelling around the major centres of the Roman Empire. We thus find echoes of the Sayings of the Desert Fathers, John’s Spiritual Meadow, St Jerome of Stridon’s Life of St Paul the Hermit, and Cyril of Scythopolis’ Life of St Kyriakos in the Life of St Mary.[9] Sophronius’ purpose in alluding to these works is to place Mary and her interlocutor, Zosimas, in a tradition of holy elders that stem as far back as the second century. Moreover, we can assume that – as a saint with the charism of discernment – he has chosen to emphasise whatever aspects of the story he feels most benefit the faithful.

Prelude to the Life and the Introduction of Zosimas

Sophronius begins by reflecting on his responsibility to “reveal gloriously the works of God” (Tob 12:7), admitting his fear to hide the story which he is about relate, represented as a “talent” given by the Lord (Mt 25:18-25).[10] The Church Father introduces the protagonist and ultimate source of the story, namely, Zosimas the hieromonk: “a man renowned for his way of life and gift of words; from the days of his infant swaddling clothes he was reared in monastic trials of asceticism and good works.”[11] Sophronius notes that Zosimas excelled in the ascetical life in one of the monasteries of Palestine; a region renowned for its saints, as emphasised by John Moschus in his Spiritual Meadow. According to Sophronius, Zosimas is just as proficient in practical asceticism as he is in contemplation, so that many come to him for spiritual counsel. He not only knows the Scriptures by heart but embodies their teachings. Through naivety, or perhaps through pride, he begins to wonder if there is any monk on earth who remains to teach him something about the spiritual life. The thought serves as the catalyst for Zosimas’ adventure; an angel appears and bids him to go to a secluded monastery beyond the Jordan River, that he may recognise various other, more striking and difficult, ways that lead to salvation.[12]

Zosimas’ Preparation

Zosimas immediately displays courage and the virtue of obedience, leaving the only home that he has ever known. He reaches the said monastery and is welcomed by the abbot (later identified as ‘John’ – not to be confused with Sophronius’ mentor). He relates that he has come seeking spiritual profit, having heard of the abbot’s skill in drawing souls to God. The abbot humbly admits him to the monastery, praying that Christ and the Holy Spirit will guide them both accordingly. The monastery consists of elders who are in fact more advanced in the spiritual life than Zosimas by all accounts. They keep constant vigil while standing, even throughout the night; they never speak an idle word; they have no worldly possessions or cares; they feed on bread and water and are for the most part sustained by the Word of God. Zosimas is edified in their presence, displaying the humility and courtesy characteristic of genuine monks. He dwells for some time in the monastery, which is generally locked; it is “a desert and not only out of reach for most of the neighbouring monks but even unknown.”[13]

Into the Wilderness

Great Lent arrives and God’s purpose in sending Zosimas out on his quest is made manifest. Following Holy Communion and a modest meal consisting of Lenten food, the brothers gather in the church, pray with prostrations, and then kiss and ask one another for forgiveness. Having received the blessing of the abbot, all but two monks venture out into the wilderness, chanting Psalm 26. The two who remain are not meant to guard any property – since there is not much to speak of – but to ensure that the Divine Liturgy will continue to take place in the katholikon of the monastery. Most take with them the basic portion of food that their body requires; bread, figs, dates, and wheat soaked in water. A few skilled in foraging, or perhaps more spiritually advanced, take nothing, choosing instead to rely on the plants of the desert. The brothers scatter and follow their standard rule in the wilds throughout Great Lent until Holy Week. More precisely, they do not talk to each other, neither do they enquire into how they are going to fast or survive. If the brothers happen to see each other during this time, they run in opposite directions, choosing instead to live alone with God. This rule is comparable to Byzantine xeniteia and Irish peregrinatio. Zosimas imitates the example of his new brothers, secretly hoping to find a Desert Father who may enlighten him further.[14]

Meeting an Angel in the Flesh

Zosimas travels and prays for twenty days, racing on as if he is going to a specific place. He takes small breaks from his journey by praying on his knees while facing the East at set times of the day. As he is praying at the sixth hour, he suddenly sees a figure to the right of the hillock that he is standing on. The figure is naked with short white hair and skin darkened by the sun. Zosimas crosses himself and sets out in pursuit of the stranger, believing that he has found a holy elder in the tradition of St Macarius of Egypt. As he is gaining on the stranger, he asks why they are running from him, “an old man, a sinner.”[15] He implores the stranger for the sake of the love of God to explain what they are doing in the desert. The stranger reveals that she is a woman and cannot turn to face Zosimas for the sake of pious modesty. She thus asks for his cloak, calling him by name.[16]

Zosimas is overcome with fear, realising that the person whom he is speaking to has the gift of foresight. Having covered herself, the female hermit asks Zosimas what he should want to see, hear, or learn from her, particularly given his own progress in the ascetical life. This second indication of the hermit’s spiritual insight prompts Zosimas to offer a prostration and ask for her blessing. The woman likewise bows low, so that they both lie prostrate asking each other for a benediction. The hermit reminds Zosimas that it is his responsibility to offer the blessing and pray since he has been dignified by the order of the priesthood and preparing and distributing the body and blood of Christ for many years. She eventually consents to Zosimas’ wish out of obedience and humility. Nevertheless, the hermit considers herself subject to his authority.[17] In highlighting this aspect of the ascetics’ encounter, Sophronius is reminding us that the saints are always part of the hierarchical framework of the Church, and never seek to assert their authority above it. At the same time, the wider Church acknowledges the fact that Christ works directly through His saints, and they are subsequently in a position to console, correct, and intercede for the faithful. In other words, the hierarchical and the charismatic/prophetical traditions ultimately work in perfect harmony for the salvation of the world.

Mary’s knowledge of Zosimas’ name, vocation, and spiritual progress compels tears of compunction from him. Tears of compunction are indeed a sign of holiness according to the tradition of the Desert Fathers.[18] We thus have here two saints in conversation. After both figures rise to their feet, the hermit again asks why Zosimas should wish to see someone not just sinful but “stripped of every virtue.”[19] She nonetheless suggests that he has been sent to her through the grace of the Holy Spirit, to perform a special service for her in due course. Interestingly, the holy hermit enquires into how the kings are faring, and how the Church is being guided. Zosimas responds that there has been lasting peace for both the Church and the Empire thanks to her prayers of intercession.[20] By emphasising this particular aspect of the encounter, Zosimas is reiterating the Church’s conviction that the inhabited world, commonly termed oikoumene in Greek, is preserved through the prayers of the saints and the monks more generally. The monastic tradition is never isolated from the Church or wider society.[21]

Zosimas asks the hermit to pray for him, prompting her to kindly protest once again that it is actually his responsibility as a presbyter. She nonetheless consents once more in obedience to his priestly authority. The hermit’s prayers are inaudible and take quite long. Zosimas is thus compelled to lift his eyes from the ground. He sees the holy ascetic levitating from the ground and, consumed by terror, is tempted to think that she is actually an evil spirit. The hermit, however, has the gift to read people’s hearts. She turns and raises Zosimas, reassuring him that she is a human being, albeit a sinful one, by crossing her forehead, eyes, mouth, and heart. According to ascetical and hagiographical literature, the sign of the cross is a sure means of combatting demonic forces, hence our frequent use of it in our daily lives.[22] Moreover, the saint’s proximity to the Lord during prayer accounted for her being elevated from the ground, thereby defying the natural laws of the fallen world.

The hermit implores God to defend humanity from the intense hatred of the ancestral enemy. Zosimas then beseeches her to reveal her story, stressing that God has sent him into the desert to find her, and that she is obliged to reveal her story according to His will – otherwise she would have remained anonymous. She is persuaded to reveal her story yet first emphasises the shameful nature of her past life, asserting that she was the “vessel of the devil.”[23] She also asks Zosimas to pray for her. He weeps as she begins to narrate the course of her life.

From Harlot to Holy Hermit – The Fall of Mary

The hermit reveals that she is a native of Egypt who renounced her loving parents at the tender age of twelve and went to Alexandria. We have here a trajectory all too familiar; a simple (likely village) life rejected for the so-called splendour and the temptations of the city. With shame, the ascetic recalls how she was immediately corrupted by the demon of lust. She engaged in fornication with many men unreservedly for seventeen years, considering this sad mode of being – whose ultimate outcome is death – “life…”[24] Despite her extreme poverty, she offered her body freely. We need to bear in mind that sexual promiscuity was not merely taboo but widely condemned during the Middle Ages. The maiden’s passion therefore compelled her to become a social outcast. Certainly, it is a tremendous crime that lustful conduct is not merely tolerated in our day and age but widely celebrated. Lust serves as a means of social inclusion, while chastity is largely mocked. In fact, the only legitimate context for physical relations – that is, marriage between a man and a woman – is rapidly being dispensed with by non-Orthodox. This situation makes Mary’s story all more the relevant to us, especially our youth, which is exposed to lustful imagery in an unprecedented manner by the entertainment and fashion industries.

Returning to the story, the hermit goes on to relate how, during a certain summer, this catastrophic mode of existence was radically disrupted. In short, she saw a large throng of Libyans and Egyptians running towards the sea, venturing to Jerusalem for the feast of the Exaltation of the Precious and Lifegiving Cross. Tragically, she took this sacred celebration as an occasion to satisfy her sinful desire by corrupting young sailors. With much heartache, the hermit relates that she forcefully corrupted many men on the voyage, using her body as a means to pay for it. The holy ascetic expresses her amazement that God allowed the boat to survive the journey yet at the same time speculates that the Lord mercifully permitted it with a view to her salvation. She underscores that the Lord “does not want the death of a sinner, but generously waits for [their] conversion.”[25] Having arrived in Jerusalem, the young maiden continued to ensnare young men in the days leading up to the feast, both locals and foreigners.

From Harlot to Holy Hermit – Mary’s Salvation

Finally, the feast of the Exaltation arrived. The young maiden followed the crowd to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. She struggled to make her way through the crowd until she reached the entrance. Strikingly, although everyone around her entered the church freely, the maiden was stopped in her tracks. An invisible force prevented her from moving beyond the doors. She tried to enter again three or four times after being brushed aside by the crowds, to no avail. She ultimately gave up on the porch.[26]

We can take it for granted that our Lord Himself was directly behind the aforementioned ‘force,’ bearing in mind that it was His church, and it was He Who sanctified the object of veneration to which the crowds were flocking. Truly, He used this object to effect our salvation. And yet the Lord was displaying great mercy in barring the entrance. His intention appears to have been to compel her to seek out His Mother, that she might pray to Him for her sake. Sure enough, the young maiden realised this, having been moved in the heart by the Logos of salvation to weep, lament, and beat her breast while sighing from the depths of her heart before the icon of the Mother of God.[27]

The young maiden humbly entreated the Theotokos – her polar opposite in every way – for assistance, acknowledging her own unworthiness before the great Virgin. Interestingly, in her prayer to Panagia, the maiden demonstrates her knowledge of Christ’s sacrifice and His purpose in suffering for our sake. Later, the hermit implies that she had never entered into a church before this time, so we can attribute such knowledge to word of mouth. At any rate, she vows to the Virgin that she will give up fornication entirely as soon as she may be permitted to venerate the holy cross, and that she will renounce the world and go wherever the Holy Mother should lead her.[28]

Surely, this came to pass, and the maiden returned to the icon to thank the Theotokos and fulfil her vow. She heard a voice from heaven saying: “If you cross the Jordan, you will find glorious peace.”[29] Trusting wholly in the Theotokos, she set off on her journey. As she was leaving the city, a pious and mysterious stranger gave her three coins, which she then used to purchase three loaves of bread for her flight. In short, she received some directions from the baker to get her started and ran towards the Jordan with tears, eventually finding the way from passers-by. She visited the Church of St John the Baptist on the banks of the Jordan – where she partook of the Holy Eucharist – before entering the wilderness. Having spent the night on the bank, and consumed half of one of her loaves, she found a small boat and crossed the river. All the while, she continued to pray to the Theotokos, her glorious patron. The hermit points out that she has remained in the wilderness alone since then, clinging to God.[30]

Zosimas is amazed to discover that the hermit has been living in the wilderness for forty-seven years, surviving initially on the limited loaves then whatever herbs she managed to find and, most importantly, contemplation. She also bravely endured the elements after her clothes completely wore out. Moreover, the hermit reveals all the temptations that she has experienced in the desert, including a longing for food, water, wine, and secular songs, as well her former lustful conduct. More importantly, the holy ascetic reveals how she was able to overcome such temptations, that is, through tears of compunction, prostrations, and prayers. In fact, she would lie prostrated for the duration of a whole night when needed. In such instances, she always threw herself before the Theotokos and – owing to the latter’s intercessions – was consoled and encouraged by God’s uncreated energies in the form of divine light.[31] She explicitly identifies her mystical sustenance: “I feed on and cover myself with the [W]ord of God, Lord of all. For not by bread alone will man live and all those having no clothes will be clothed in stone, having discarded the outer covering of sin (Job 24; Heb 11:38).”[32]

Noting how the hermit has reiterated the Scriptures, Zosimas asks whether she has read the Psalms and related books. The hermit replies that she has never learnt from books, nor heard from anyone for several decades. Rather, the Word of God – Christ Himself – has directly instructed her.[33] We have an example of what scholars have termed ‘experiential epistemology’ on the basis of St Maximus the Confessor’s teachings and those of the enigmatic homilist of the fifth century known to posterity as ‘Macarius’. In short, the monastic tradition has long maintained that genuine knowledge of God and His ways can be arrived not only through discursive reasoning but through practical asceticism – consisting of fasting, prostrations, and acts of charity – and contemplation – including vigils and constant repetition of the Jesus Prayer.[34]

Zosimas is moved to bow down before her upon the conclusion of her story. Ever mindful of his sacred office, and her own need to cultivate humility, the hermit raises him once more, and begs him not to relate their encounter. Instead, she asks that the hieromonk not return to same spot the following year during Lent, nor sojourn in accordance with the custom of the monastery. In fact, she affirms that he will not be able to, displaying her gift of foresight again. Instead, she asks him to come to the banks of the Jordan the next year at sunset during Holy and Great Thursday, and to bring the presanctified body and blood of the Lord (which she has not received since that lifesaving moment when she entered the wilderness). She also instructs him to inform his abbot, John, to look to himself and the brothers after their next encounter when God should inspire him. The hermit asks for Zosimas’ prayers and departs. He then bows down upon the spot where she stood before returning to the monastery.[35] Zosimas’ reverence for the holy ascetic should not surprise us; he recognises Christ working through the saint, and the Holy Spirit dwelling in her.

The Final Encounters with Mary

Zosimas keeps silent for the next year, longing to see the saint once more. When Great Lent comes, he is detained by an illness, thus fulfilling the hermit’s prophecy. He recovers by Holy Thursday and makes for the banks of the Jordan at sunset, as per instruction. The hieromonk takes within him the presanctified gifts, together with a few figs and soaked lentils. When he reaches the banks of the river, he sits down and waits for the hermit. When she is late in coming, he begins to pray. Zosimas starts to doubt and is disturbed to realise that there is no boat with which the hermit may cross the river. As soon as these thoughts begin to fester, he sees the holy ascetic on the other side of the water.[36]

The hermit makes the sign of the cross over the Jordan, which is well lit by the moon. She begins walking across the surface of the river towards him.[37] The reference to the sign of the cross indicates that the hermit’s power stems from Christ. The saints accomplish nothing by themselves. Their virtue stems from their utter surrender to Christ and their fulfilment of His will.

Zosimas’ resulting attempt to prostrate himself, however, he is rebuked by the hermit, who reminds him that he is carrying the body and blood of Christ. We have the Church Mother constantly prioritising the sacraments and the priestly office above her own prophetical and wonderworking talents. She asks a trembling Zosimas to bless her. The Church Father marvels at the fact that purification coupled with God’s grace has the power to transform the believer into a ‘little Christ’. He at last realises how far he is from perfection.[38]

The ascetics recite the Symbol of Faith and Lord’s Prayer together and perform the customary kiss of peace. Mary also recites St Symeon’s prayer – “Lord, now let your servant depart in peace…” – before asking Zosimas to return to his monastery.[39] She requests that he come to the place where they first met to see her again according to God’s desire. The hieromonk expresses his pious affection for the saint, offering her some food. She takes merely three lentil pieces, affirming that the Holy Spirit nourishes and guards the substance of the soul. She asks Zosimas to pray for her. This repeated request on the part of the hermit shows that even the saints are dependent on the prayers of others. As is fitting, Zosimas asks her to pray for the Church, the Empire, and himself. The holy hermit leaves just as she came. Zosimas returns to the monastery filled with joy yet regretting the fact that he has neglected to ask the saint her name.[40]

Another year passes and Zosimas ventures out into the desert again. He reaches the spot where he first met Mary but sees no sign of anyone. The hieromonk raises his eyes to heaven and prays for the Lord to reveal the saint. He then sees the body of the departed hermit on the opposite bank of the river, her face turned towards the rising sun. Her hands are crossed according to custom, and her face is turned to the East, the cardinal point associated with the Resurrection. Zosimas runs up to the body and sheds tears over her feet. He also kisses them, not daring to touch any other part of the sacred vessel. The Church Father weeps for a long time before reciting the appointed psalms. Having read the relevant prayers for the departed, he asks himself whether he should bury the saint.[41] He then sees some words traced on the ground by her head:

bury in this place the body of humble Mary, return dust to dust, having prayed to the Lord for me who died on the first day of the Egyptian month of Pharmuti, called April by the Romans, on the self-same night as the Lord’s Passion, after making her communion of the Divine and Mysterious Supper.[42]

One may presume that the holy hermit was given the name ‘Mary’ with the sacrament of baptism early in life, hence her capacity to partake of Holy Communion immediately following her conversion. Her name may also account for her special connection with Panagia. At any rate, Zosimas is happy to discover the name and moved to learn that the saint was mysteriously transported from the Jordan to the place of her repose – a spot twenty days away by his reckoning – as soon as she partook of the divine mysteries.[43]

Zosimas is faced with another challenge, that is, how to dig a grave in the dry and solid ground without an appropriate tool; all he has at his disposal is a small piece of wood left behind by some desert traveller. After a fair amount of toil, Divine Providence intervenes, and a lion comes to venerate Mary’s body. This was by no means a new phenomenon. St Anthony the Great witnessed the same thing when attempting to bury his elder, St Paul the Hermit. Zosimas is initially gripped by terror, recalling that Mary had said that she had never encountered any animals in the wilderness. He nonetheless draws courage from her holy relics and commands the animal to assist him. In a manner reminiscent of Paul’s burial, the lion digs a hole deep enough for the body.[44]

The miracle just described reflects the restoration of fallen human nature on the part of both Mary and Zosimas in and through Christ. In short, St Gregory of Nyssa, St John Chrysostom, and other Church Fathers have outlined how the animals imitated the disobedience of Adam and Eve after the fall. Humans thus lost their privileged status as lords of creation when they introduced sin and death into the world. This was remedied by the Logos, Who assumed and healed our humanity, and placed it on the right hand of God the Father in fulfilment of His divine plan. The Lord then invited us to participate in His restoration of the cosmos more generally, and this has been reflected in the lives of many holy hermits from the ‘Greek East’ and ‘Latin West’ throughout the centuries, particularly their paradisal relations with animals and the elements. In drawing a lion to her departed body, Mary can be considered a ‘New Eve’ like Panagia. In commanding a lion to bury the body, Zosimas may be considered a ‘New Adam’ like Christ. Indeed, the lion expresses affection for both saints, revealing them to be true stewards of the created order.[45]

Before laying Mary’s body in the grave, Zosimas washes her feet with his tears. He then calls on her to pray for all. The lion goes off into the desert like a lamb while Zosimas returns to his monastery, glorifying our Saviour. He then reveals his encounters with Mary to Abba John and the brethren, repeating her warning to the former. Sophronius relates that John went on to correct the brothers with God’s help before disclosing how Zosimas departed this world near the age of one hundred. Sophronius affirms that the following generations of monks have preserved the story, which he is the first to transcribe. Before the text concludes with a doxology by a second, anonymous scribe, the righteous hierarch offers the following benediction: “And may God, who renders great things to those who seek Him, grant benefit to those who read this story as a reward for him whom He ordered to write it…”[46]

Concluding Remarks

In recording the encounters between Sts Zosimas of Palestine and Mary of Egypt, St Sophronius of Jerusalem has offered us two great intercessors before our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ. Mary in particular serves as the paradigm for penitents par excellence. This applies to those who have been raised in the Church and often fall despite their best attempts to remain faithful, and those who have converted to Orthodoxy at a mature change and continue struggle against the bad habits cultivated in their past lives. Zosimas too can inspire us by his humility, best evidenced by his willingness to acknowledge how a former harlot has surpassed him in virtue because of her ability – through God’s merciful initiative and guidance – to renounce her sinful ways and depend entirely on the Lord and Panagia for her survival.

Furthermore, by framing the narrative of the encounter in the manner described above, and by drawing on the wider hagiographical genre and his own insights as a holy hierarch, Sophronius reminds us that there are personal and corporate dimensions to our salvation. On the one hand, like Mary, we need to cultivate a living relationship with our saintly intercessors in order to overcome our wicked habits and temptations and arrive at union with God. On the other hand – whatever progress that we may happen to make in this respect notwithstanding – we are obliged to honour and submit to the hierarchical framework of the Church to retain our humility, acknowledging that it is inherently sacred since it has been established by Christ Himself. Most importantly, we are utterly dependent on the sacrament of Holy Communion for our spiritual and physical sustenance, bearing in mind that the body and blood of the Lord will admit us into His eternal kingdom, as it did the holy hermit. If Mary was unwilling to depart this life without receiving the Eucharist despite her experience of divine light and her ability to read men’s hearts and walk on water how much more should we desire it! On a final note, let us remember to imitate the zealous asceticism of Mary and Zosimas that we may cultivate the same ardent affection for the Lord and His saints, especially our Panagia. May we have their loving prayers before the throne of Christ!

St Zosimas of Palestine offering Holy Communion to St Mary of Egypt

[1] Nectaria McLees, ‘The Marvelous Life of Patriarch Sophronius I, His Company of Saints, and the Fall of Byzantine Jerusalem,’ Road to Emmaus 43 (2010): 61.

[2] Mother Thekla and Mother Katherine, ed. and trans., ‘The Life of Saint Mary of Egypt,’ in The Great Canon of Saint Andrew of Crete and The Life of Saint Mary of Egypt, revised by Christopher Wallace (Finnian Books, 2013), 100; ‘Sunday of St. Mary of Egypt,’ Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, accessed April 16, 2021,

[3] I am indebted to the Melbourne based Serbian Orthodox iconographer, Mr Petar Stefanovic, for this insight.

[4] McLees, ‘The Marvelous Life of Patriarch Sophronius I,’ 61.

[5] In short, this teaching – aimed at union with the Monophysites – undermined the Church’s belief in the Lord’s complete assumption of our nature (with the exception of sin) while fully retaining His divinity. More precisely, proponents of Monoenergism asserted that the Lord had only one (fairly loosely defined) ‘theandric’ activity, rather than one fully human and one entirely divine. This was problematic insofar as the Church Fathers maintained on the basis of divine revelation that the Lord healed whatever He assumed in His humanity. The notion of one ‘activity’ or ‘energy’ in Christ had all sorts of negative implications and led to the disastrous notion that the Incarnate Lord had only one divine ‘will’. ‘Monothelitism,’ as it came to be known, was eventually defeated by Sophronius’ disciple, St Maximus the Confessor. Pauline Allen, ed., Sophronius of Jerusalem and Seventh-Century Heresy: The Synodical Letter and Other Documents (Oxford University Press, 2009), 23-34; Pauline Allen and Bronwen Neil, ed., ‘Introduction’ to Maximus the Confessor and His Companions: Documents from Exile (Oxford University Press, 2002), 1-21.

[6] Allen, ed., Sophronius of Jerusalem and Seventh-Century Heresy, 15-21.

[7] Allen, ed., Sophronius of Jerusalem and Seventh-Century Heresy, 21-23; St John Moschus, The Spiritual Meadow (Pratum Spirituale), trans. John Wortley, Cistercian Studies Series 139 (Michigan: Cistercian Publications, 1992).

[8] St Sophronius of Jerusalem, The Life of Hallowed Mother Mary of Egypt, in The Great Canon of Saint Andrew of Crete and The Life of Saint Mary of Egypt, 138.

[9] Ronald E. Pepin and Hugh Feiss, trans., Saint Mary of Egypt: Three Medieval Lives in Verse, Cistercian Studies Series 209 (Michigan: Cistercian Publications, 2005), 8-9.

[10] The Life of Hallowed Mother Mary of Egypt, 106.

[11] Ibid., 108.

[12] Ibid., 109.

[13] Ibid., 109-111, esp. 111.

[14] Ibid., 111-13. In short, peregrinatio was largely a Western monastic phenomenon that consisted in perpetual exile from the comforts of this world, all of which were believed to pose a distraction to the spiritual life. It was therefore considered a type of martyrdom in which the faithful died to the world that they might live in and for Christ. It was particularly austere in the Irish context given the high value which the general society placed on familial ties, as well as its powerful sense of patriotism, predominately landed wealth, and various legal restrictions with regard to travel. See Meredith D. Cutrer, ‘Early Irish Peregrinatio as Salvation History,’ in Prophecy, Fate and Memory in the Early and Medieval Celtic World, ed. Jonathan M. Wooding and Lynette Olson, Sydney Series in Celtic Studies 18 (Sydney University Press, 2020), 76-90. The Byzantines developed a similar notion of “wandering for the sake of God (ξενιτεία διὰ Θεόν).” However, both they and their Continental counterparts came to discourage this form of asceticism, likely owing to the increased use of the Rules of Basil and Benedict, which emphasised the importance of remaining within the context of a community for spiritual growth and stability. The Byzantine critics of such ascetical wandering termed its adherents “gyrovagues (κυκλεταί/gyrovagi).” See: John McGuckin, ‘Aliens and Citizens of Elsewhere: Xeniteia in East Christian Monastic Literature,’ in Strangers to Themselves: The Byzantine Outsider, Papers from the Thirty-second Spring Symposium of Byzantine Studies, University of Sussex, Brighton, March 1998, ed. Dion C. Smythe (Oxon: Routledge, 2016), 23-38, esp. 29; Sergey A. Ivanov, Holy Fools in Byzantium and Beyond, trans. Simon Franklin (Oxford University Press, 2006), 64. St Mary of Egypt, who roamed the desert and shunned all human contact until otherwise compelled by Divine Providence, is the most notable exception in this regard.

[15] Ibid., 113-16, esp. 116.

[16] Ibid., 116.

[17] Ibid., 117-18.

[18] Take, for instance, the following story concerning St Arsenius the Great (late fourth to mid fifth centuries): “It was said of him that he had a hollow in his chest channelled out by the tears which fell from his eyes all his life while he sat at his manual work. When Abba Poemen learned that he was dead, he said weeping, ‘Truly you are blessed, Abba Arsenius, for you wept for yourself in this world! He who does not weep for himself here below will weep eternally hereafter; so it is impossible not to weep, either voluntarily or when compelled through suffering.’” The Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Alphabetical Collection, trans. Benedicta Ward, Cistercian Studies Series 59 (Michigan: Cistercian Publications, 1975), 18.

[19] The Life of Hallowed Mother Mary of Egypt, 119.

[20] Ibid., 118-19.

[21] See, for example: St Serapion of Thmuis, Letter to the Monks, in Serapion of Thmuis: Against the Manicheans and Pastoral Letters, trans. Oliver Herbel, Early Christian Studies 14 (Strathfield, NSW: St Pauls Publications, 2011), 70-71; Letter 569, in Sts Barsanuphius of Gaza and John the Prophet, Letters, Volume 2, trans. John Chryssavgis, Fathers of the Church 114 (Washington D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2007), 146-47.

[22] St Athanasius of Alexandria, The Greek Life of Antony, in The Life of Antony: The Coptic Life and The Greek Life, trans. Tim Vivian and Apostolos N. Athanassakis, Cistercian Studies Series 202 (Michigan: Cistercian Publication, 2003), 89, 91.

[23] The Life of Hallowed Mother Mary of Egypt, 119-21, esp. 121.

[24] Ibid., 121.

[25] Ibid., 121-23.

[26] Ibid., 123-25.

[27] Ibid., 125.

[28] Ibid., 125, 130.

[29] Ibid., 126.

[30] Ibid., 126-27.

[31] Kallistos Ware, The Orthodox Way (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1986), 169-77.

[32] The Life of Hallowed Mother Mary of Egypt, 127-29, esp. 129.

[33] Ibid., 130.

[34] See, for example, Basil N. Tatakis, Christian Philosophy in the Patristic and Byzantine Tradition, ed. and trans. George Dion. Dragas, Orthodox Theological Library 4 (Rollinsford, NH: Orthodox Research Institute, 2007), 118-20; Frederick D. Aquino, ‘The Philokalia and Regulative Virtue Epistemology: A Look at Maximus the Confessor,’ in The Philokalia: A Classic Text of Orthodox Spirituality, ed. Brock Bingaman and Bradley Nassif (Oxford University Press, 2012), 240-51; Marcus Plested, ‘The Ascetic Tradition,’ in The Oxford Handbook of Maximus the Confessor, ed. Pauline Allen and Bronwen Neil (Oxford University Press, 2015), 164-176, esp. 171-72.

[35] The Life of Hallowed Mother Mary of Egypt, 130-31.

[36] Ibid., 131-33.

[37] Ibid., 133.

[38] Ibid.

[39] Ibid.

[40] Ibid., 133-35.

[41] Ibid., 135-36.

[42] Ibid., 136.

[43] Ibid.

[44] The Life of Hallowed Mother Mary of Egypt, 136-37; Cf. St Jerome of Stridon, Vita beati Pauli monachi Thebaei [i.e., Life of St Paul the Hermit] 16, in Trois vies de Moines, ed. Edgardo M. Morales, Sources Chrétiennes 508 (Paris: Les Éditions du Cerf, 2007), 176-80. In short, Jerome records in the Life of St Paul the Hermit 16 that two male lions hurried to the subject’s cell upon his death as Antony mourned that he did not have the necessary tools with which to bury him. The lions display great reverence for Paul’s body and accomplish the task of digging his grave. Jerome describes how Antony was initially terrified at the sight of the animals but managed to perceive them as harmless as doves as soon as he focused his mind on God. The lions then seek Antony’s blessing with prostrations, causing the Egyptian monk to praise Christ that even “mute animals (muta animalia)” acknowledge God’s existence. Antony recites a brief prayer which emphasises Christ’s compassionate care over trees and birds before blessing and dismissing the creatures.

[45] Chris Baghos, ‘Sainthood, Animals, and Techne from Byzantium to Britain,’ PhD dissertation, The University of Sydney (forthcoming).

[46] The Life of Hallowed Mother Mary of Egypt, 137-38, esp. 138.

St Mitrophan the Martyr and the Boxer Rebellion

by Chris Baghos

[Christians] love all men, and are persecuted by all. They are unknown, and yet they are condemned; they are put to death, and yet they give proof of new life. They are poor, and yet make many rich; they lack everything, and yet in everything they abound. They are dishonoured, and their dishonour becomes their glory; they are reviled, and yet are vindicated. They are abused, and they bless; they are insulted, and repay insult with honour. They do good, and are punished as evil-doers; and in their punishment they rejoice as finding new life therein. The Epistle to Diognetus 5.11-16.[1]


The above passage is from a formal defence of the Christian faith composed by an enigmatic author of the second century known only as ‘Mathetes’. In short, the author is keen to emphasise how his faith community maintains its spiritual integrity despite the various hardships which it must endure at the hands of its pagan authorities. Mathetes suggests that the Church’s steadfastness is best demonstrated by its loving disposition towards its enemies. Owing to its moral earnestness – which has been directly inspired by the Triune God – the Church is markedly different from the remainder of the world. And yet, as the body of Christ, it paradoxically serves as the true life of the fallen cosmos, much like the soul does with respect to the body. According to Mathetes, although the soul and the Church are both unjustly despised by their respective environments for denying them illicit pleasures, they nonetheless mystically sustain them in their obedience to God.[2] This profound observation applies to the Church in every epoch, every civilisation. In what follows, I shall attempt to outline how the phenomenon of martyrdom extended to the Far East during the early modern era, paying close attention to the greatest paragon of the Orthodox faith in this region, that is, our righteous Father Mitrophan Chi Sung, the first indigenous Chinese presbyter and holy martyr of the Boxer Rebellion.

History of the Orthodox Church in China Leading Up to the Boxer Rebellion

The Chinese were initially exposed to aspects of the Gospel by schismatic groups – predominantly East Assyrians and Nestorians – during Late Antiquity. For this reason, it is no surprise that the Christian faith did not take root in China as it did throughout Asia Minor and the European Continent, where Orthodoxy had for the most part triumphed during the first millennium. The schismatic groups in Asia were in fact persecuted during the ninth century by the Chinese authorities and were eventually extinguished in the High Middle Ages, specifically during the latter’s fierce conflicts with the Mongols (among whom the Nestorians in particular had enjoyed great success). The material evidence pertaining to these communities was for the most part destroyed by the Buddhist and pagan Chinese authorities, on the one hand, and later Roman Catholic missionaries, on the other.[3]

The Orthodox Christian faith was introduced to China in the early modern period. The first Orthodox Christians known to have entered the Oriental superpower were Russians that adhered to our Greek tradition, and who served in the ranks of the Western Army of the Mongols. When the Western Army returned to China in 1240, the Greek Orthodox Russians established a small church whose whereabouts have sadly been forgotten. Around this time, goldsmiths from Russia were invited to the Chinese imperial court to fashion what is known as the ‘Elephant’s Tooth Throne’. These were likely men of faith, although we are not certain how long they stayed in China or what social influence they had. Orthodoxy reappears in the historical records of China in 1671, when a church dedicated to the Resurrection was constructed in the North Eastern province, Yakela. This territory had long been fought over by the Russians and the Chinese and was to prove instrumental in God’s plan for the Far East.[4]

Between 1681 and 1685, the Chinese authorities captured no less than ninety-nine Russian Orthodox Christians in the aforementioned territorial dispute. At least forty-four of these were Cossacks, members of one the self-governing, soldiering communities that had originated in the steppes of Eastern Europe, in particular the Dnieper, otherwise known as the ‘Wild Field’. They were taken from a fort at Albazin along the Amur River, which forms the border between the Russian Far East and Northern China. More precisely, the men were brought to the imperial capital, Beijing, where they were soon pardoned by the Kangxi Emperor of the Qing Dynasty. Many of them took Chinese wives while preserving their Christian faith, also serving as the emperor’s bodyguards.[5] It should be noted that our Most Holy Lady Theotokos displayed great mercy to the people of Albazin during these years of arduous conflict, regularly defending them against raids and sieges; particularly through her wonderworking icon, ‘The Word Made Flesh.’ This icon had been brought to the region by a certain Elder Hermogenes from the Monastery of the Holy Trinity at Kirensk in Irkutsk Oblast.[6]

Providentially, a priest happened to be among the captives turned citizens, that is, Father Maxime Leontiev, who established and served at Beijing’s first Orthodox church. The structure was gifted to the faith community by the Kangxi Emperor when it elected to stay after the armistice declared by the latter. Interestingly, the building had hitherto functioned as a pagan temple dedicated to the Chinese god of war, Guandi.[7] It now served the Prince of Peace, that is, our Lord Jesus Christ (Isa 9:6). Following the ancient Orthodox custom, the temple was reconsecrated as a church dedicated to Holy Wisdom with the blessing of the Holy Metropolitan Ignatius of Tobolsk. It was later re-founded as the Church of the Holy Dormition and continued to be served by Fr Maxime who – in a manner attesting to the favourable relations between Beijing and the budding Russian diaspora – was granted the title of ‘Imperial Official of the Seventh Rank’ by the emperor. The presbyter was also encouraged to proclaim the good news of salvation to the wider society by His Metropolitan, and an additional church was soon constructed and dedicated to St Nicholas.[8]

Following Fr Maxime’s repose in 1712, Father Hilarion Lezhaisky, an Archimandrite, was sent by the Russian Patriarchate to tend the small flock in Beijing. Fr Hilarion’s mission commenced in 1715 and was more formal since it was the result of a peace treaty between Tsar Peter the Great and the Chinese ruler. The mission itself features in official ecclesiastical and imperial records after 1727. In short, its chief purpose was to serve the Russian diplomatic staff that visited and resided in China. Interestingly, the faith community was referred to as ‘Greek Orthodox’ by the Chinese, who thereby acknowledged its Byzantine origins. While another treaty concerning the rights of the Orthodox Church allowed for the residence of only four priests and six students in Beijing, the mission continued to expand, particularly among the descendants of the seventeenth century prisoners and the increasing number of tradesmen and merchants arriving from Russia. Thus, another church was opened in 1732 and, almost a century and a half later, there were approximately five hundred Orthodox Christians residing in Beijing. It is noteworthy that the Archimandrites who led the mission during this time also represented the Tsar and were therefore required to actively engage in treaty negotiations and other forms of political diplomacy.[9]

Interestingly, the Russian mission eventually introduced Chinese literary classics into Europe while strengthening ties between its native and adoptive homelands at the political level. Subsequently, during the nineteenth century, following the change of the Russian ecclesiastical legation, the mission began to reach the indigenous Chinese population. This largely owed to the pastoral care and cultural sensitivity of Fathers Hyacinth Bichurin and Palladii, both of whom managed to master the Chinese language and translate Orthodox literature for the wider populace. Not only did they produce the first ever copy of the New Testament in the Chinese language, but they also set up multiple catechetical centres in Beijing and elsewhere. They also allowed services to be partly held in the native language so that, by 1871, ten to forty Chinese people were embracing Orthodoxy annually. [10]

Such blessed work continued under Father Palladii’s successor, Archimandrite Innocent (later elevated to the office of Metropolitan), so that there were daily Orthodox services in Chinese by 1897. This was in addition to various pastoral programmes, including almsgiving. The mission also extended to the surrounding rural communities.[11] Merely a year or two later, however, the mission was to encounter a devastating challenge in the form of a populist and nationalistic movement directed against foreigners and their growing social influence, chiefly those who claimed to be Christian.

St Mitrophan (Chi Sung) and His Family

Mitrophan was born ‘Chi Sung’ on December 10, 1855, to a family associated with the Russian Orthodox mission in Beijing. We know of his life and martyrdom from Archimandrite Innocent, as well as another priest of equal rank by the name of Abraham. In short, Mitrophan lost his father as a child, and was subsequently raised by his mother, Marina, and grandmother, Ekaterina. By all accounts, he was shy and modest, and devoted to the mission from a young age. His virtue was such that he would bare the greatest of insults without ever attempting to justify himself. Mitrophan was also very generous throughout his life, so that many took advantage of him. He was invited to be ordained many times by the mission’s authorities, but often refused on account of his humility. According to Fathers Innocent and Abraham, Mitrophan would assert that he could not accept the prestigious rank since he lacked the required virtues and charisms.[12] Indeed, he is remembered by contemporary Orthodox in Shanghai to have said, “I am just a simple, uneducated man, how can I become a priest? How can I stand before the fearful altar of God?”[13] Nevertheless, in 1880 he consented to the wishes of both the clergy and laity among his community. At the behest of the industrious missionary, Archimandrite Flavian, he went to the celebrated Russian Bishop of Tokyo, St Nikolai of Japan, to be baptised and ordained. The renowned Church Father and missionary happened to be visiting China at the time. Chi Sung thus became the first native Chinese priest of the Orthodox Church and received the name ‘Mitrophan’ before returning home.[14]

It is noteworthy that Mitrophan was married to an Orthodox woman from the mission’s Li family named ‘Tatiana’. They had three sons, namely, Isaiah, Serge, and John. Isaiah served in the military and was married to a fellow Chinese Orthodox of the Beijing mission whose Christian name was ‘Mary’. Serge followed in his father’s footsteps and became an Archpriest. John was much younger than his brothers and perhaps the most favoured by the Lord, since he received the crown of martyrdom at the tender age of eight.[15]

For the fifteen years following his ordination, Mitrophan worked tirelessly for the mission under Father Flavian, translating and proofreading liturgical books. Tragically, he was looked down upon by many of his contemporaries – both Chinese and Russian Orthodox – who criticised his ostensibly poor theological education and chanting skills. Fathers Innocent and Abraham nonetheless celebrated his work, as well as his ability to endure contempt and harm from people everywhere.[16] True to his temperament and faithful to the Lord’s exhortations, Mitrophan continued to preach, serve, and translate peacefully. He was eventually struck with a mental illness, which current Orthodox from Shanghai speculate was an affliction related to memory. He therefore retired from the mission to a place nearby, receiving half of his former salary as his pension.[17]

The Boxer Rebellion and the New Chinese Martyrs

At the beginning of the twentieth century, China was experiencing numerous calamities, including poverty, natural disasters, and foreign aggression in and around its territories. This led to social unrest in the north especially, which had a reputation for its religious sects and martial societies. A revolt was therefore initiated by the self-proclaimed Yihetuan, that is, ‘Militia United in Righteousness,’ which harboured resentment to all foreign powers owing to the socio-economic factors mentioned above, as well as pagan superstition and cultural and legal disputes on the local level with the Catholic and Protestant denominations. The uprising came to be sponsored by the last ruler of the Qing Dynasty, Empress Dowager Cixi, who declared war with the British Empire, Russia, Japan, France, Germany, the United States, Italy, and the Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary. Subsequently, the rebellion was not against the established government or leader of China, but the tradesmen and missionaries which had settled in the land. The uprising led to a large-scale conflict, which in turn resulted in one hundred thousand civilian and military deaths, among them countless Orthodox, Roman Catholics, and Protestants of different ethnic backgrounds, in addition to indigenous Chinese.[18]

The Yihetuan movement came to be known in English as the ‘Boxer Rebellion’ because many of those who comprised it practiced martial arts, otherwise referred to in this period by Westerners as ‘Chinese Boxing’. Yet the Yihetuan were not concerned with martial arts per se. Rather, they constituted a religious cult since they performed a series of rituals in which they sought to be taken over by one of the pagan gods in the Chinese pantheon (i.e., the demons) that they might become immune to Western types of weaponry. They subsequently entered trances in which they violently wielded swords and spear while dancing wildly. The rituals originated from peasants in the Yellow River floodplain and were transmitted from village to village in Northern China, resulting in what may be considered mass shamanism. This was literal – not simply ideological – possession on the part of hundreds of thousands of people.[19] Archimandrites Innocent and Abraham described the chilling days in which the Orthodox, Catholics, and Protestants were hunted down in Beijing, the most significant of which was June 10, 1900. In short, leaflets were distributed in the streets on this day demanding the execution of Christians and anyone who attempted to hide or defend them. The Boxers ran throughout Beijing with torches, laying waste to Christian houses and seizing their occupants. Many Orthodox, Catholics, and Protestants were forced to deny our Lord by offering incense before the pagan Chinese idols. Some, however, confessed the Saviour, and were thus subjected to being torn open, decapitated, or burnt alive. The killings continued the next day, when the Christians were brought to the temples of the Boxers to be interrogated. Those that remained faithful to the Lord were burnt at the stake.[20]

The destruction spread to the cities of Kalgan and Tung-Tingan.[21] There is an obvious parallel here between the experience of the first Orthodox in China and our common forebears in the Roman Empire. While the violent suppression of Orthodoxy was sporadic until the accession of St Constantine the Great, countless followers of the Son and Word of God – Greeks and Jews, slaves and freedmen, men and women – were unjustly executed over the first four centuries. Again, this was due to social resentment and pagan superstition sanctioned by the state. The types of murder were often the same as those that took place in China during the awful uprising, as were the forms of torture aimed at compelling denial of our Saviour. Indeed, the offering of incense to the pagan gods was first established by the Romans as a means of acquittal.[22] Moreover, the spiritual fortitude described in the early martyr acts is identical to that attributed to the Chinese faithful by Fathers Innocent and Abraham. Take, for instance, Paul Wang, the catechist who openly prayed as he was being executed, and Ia Wang, the schoolteacher who experienced martyrdom twice; first, by being slashed by swords and buried alive; next, after being bravely rescued by a non-Christian attendant, through torture. There were also many descendants of the Albazinians who – in imitation of St Stephen the Protomartyr – fearlessly confessed our Lord while imploring Him to forgive their executioners. Clement Kui Lin, Anna Chui, and the brothers Matthew Chai and Witt Tsuang are among those still remembered by name.[23]

Earlier, on the evening of June 1, the Boxers had set the central site of the Beijing mission on fire. This included its library, whose resources had been prepared with much love and toil.[24] Several Orthodox therefore gathered and sought refuge at Mitrophan’s house, among them those who had earlier mocked the saint. Mitrophan accepted them all graciously and encouraged those that were falling into despair by reminding them of the inevitable tribulations which all Christians must face. Movingly, he would venture out with courage to the burnt remains of the mission several times per day, to gaze at the cinders of his church and salvage what he could. On June 10, at about 10pm, Boxers surrounded his house accompanied by state soldiers, many of whom were Muslim. Seventy people had remained inside – mostly women and children, together with Mitrophan – all of whom were martyred. Ironically, the physically strongest members were the ones that chose to flee.[25]

Mitrophan humbly faced the Boxers while sitting in his yard. He refused to deny his faith for their misguided sense of patriotism, recognising the Heavenly Kingdom as his true and lasting abode. He viewed Orthodoxy as the sole faith which unites all people. The Boxers thus seized him and proceeded to stab his chest so savagely that it appeared like a beehive. He subsequently fell under a date tree and gave up his soul to Lord.[26] The degree of Christomimesis on the part of Mitrophan is remarkable. The Church Father attempted to save and console his flock even though it had rejected him, knowing full well that this act of mercy would cost him his own life. He was even willing to risk the lives of his wife and children for the sake of his enemies. It is also striking that he died under a tree. According to the sixth century Italian poet, Arator, the tree that is our Lord’s Cross – the image of perfect obedience to the will of God the Father – removed the sin and death that entered the world through the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil – the most powerful symbol of humanity’s disobedience. The tree on which our Lord was humiliated for our sakes also destroyed Satan.[27] We see, then, that Mitrophan providentially fell under a tree to show us that he participated in our Lord’s final victory over evil. He completely conformed to and attained Christ, the Tree of Life Who joins heaven and earth in His very person. He partook of the same cup out of perfect love for God and neighbour (Mt 20:22-23).

Returning to Mitrophan’s family, Tatiana had managed to escape with Mary’s help, but on the next morning was captured and beheaded with other Orthodox faithful. Isaiah – who was known as a Christian among his fellow soldiers – had already been beheaded on June 7 on the main street near the Ping-tse-Min gates. On June 8, Mary returned to the house of her father-in-law. She refused to leave the place where she had been born because it was close to the Church of the Mother of God, her glorious patron. Mary was killed with her father-in-law two days later.[28]

It must be emphasised that Mitrophan could have sought refuge at the Russian embassy, while Mary had been given the chance to escape with Serge.[29] The good shepherd instead chose to remain with his sheep that it might not scatter, while his daughter-in-law and disciple valiantly imitated his example. The same is true for his little boy, John, whose nose, ears, and toes were chopped off by the Boxers. His shoulders and legs were also pierced three inches deep. Owing to God’s grace, however, the child felt no pain and dispassionately endured the mocking and callous treatment of his neighbours. The latter would not even offer him something to drink upon request. Although Mary tried to hide him in an outhouse prior to her own martyrdom, the boy was apprehended once more and taken to be executed. He showed no signs of fear.[30]


The tragic events of the Boxer Rebellion gave our Church numerous martyrs; two hundred and twenty-two by one estimate, four hundred by another.[31] The Boxer Rebellion was, in fact, an ominous sign of the persecution and heartache that the Church was to experience soon under the communists in Russia and what was to become the Soviet Union. However, it also functioned a prelude to the period of greatest expansion of Orthodoxy throughout China in a manner consistent with the famous assertion of the second century apologist, Tertullian, that the blood of the martyrs constitutes the seed from which the Church grows.[32] Following the violent suppression of the Rebellion by the Western powers, the Church managed to flourish again in China so that by 1914 there were at least thirty-two Orthodox mission centres scattered throughout the nation comprised of five to six thousand clergymen and laypeople. The centres included monasteries, schools, and chapels. More Russian Orthodox eventually fled to China owing to the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, thereby enriching the Orthodox community which, by the 1940s, extended from Beijing to Wuhan, Harbin, Henan, Hubei, Shanghai, Xinjiang, and Manchuria.[33]

Largely owing to Russia’s neutral position with respect to China throughout most of World War II, the Orthodox Church managed to survive and even flourish in the Far East until the early 1950s. In 1950 specifically, the Metropolitan of Moscow consecrated the first ever indigenous Chinese hierarch, His Grace Bishop Symeon (born ‘Du Run-chen’), a survivor of the Boxer Rebellion. Bishop Symeon was given authority over Tianjin then Shanghai, where he served as an industrious pastor and apostle. In 1955/1956, the Russian Patriarchate granted semi-autonomous status to the Orthodox Church in China, that it might continue to prosper unaffected by the communist authorities at the centre of the Soviet Union. During this time, there were probably more than one hundred thousand communicants, two hundred presbyters, and sixty parishes in Northern China, in addition to two monasteries and a seminary. There were another two hundred thousand Orthodox Christians and one hundred and fifty parishes throughout the remainder of the country.[34]

The expansion described above underscores the even greater tragedy which the Chinese Orthodox Church experienced in 1966 with the Cultural Revolution initiated by Mao Zedong. This specific uprising attempted to preserve the recently introduced Chinese form of communism by purging society of all remnants of its agelong traditions, on the one hand, and capitalism, on the other. The churches throughout the nation were closed, desecrated, or destroyed, while all clergy and congregations were punished in some way. A great number of Christians were once again killed by the crowds. [35] Bishop Symeon was spared from witnessing this senseless destruction on the eve of the revolution, having reposed on account of ill health made worse by poverty.[36]

Concluding Remarks

Since the Cultural Revolution of 1966, the Chinese communist state has refused to re-acknowledge and legally sanction Orthodoxy. Nevertheless, a heroic remnant of the Church struggles to preserve the faith while celebrating and imitating the example of Mitrophan and the New Chinese Martyrs. Orthodox parishes can still be found in Beijing and certain parts of North Eastern China, in addition to Shanghai, the Guangdong Province, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. The Russian Orthodox Church of Sts Peter and Paul resumed services in Hong Kong a little more than a decade ago.[37] Moreover, in 1996, the Holy and Great Synod of the Ecumenical Patriarchate founded the Metropolitanate of Hong Kong and South East Asia. The jurisdiction of the Metropolitanate extends to areas of China, Taiwan, Macao, the Philippines, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Myanmar, and Mongolia.[38]

The experience of the Orthodox Church in China demonstrates how our Lord was true to His word when He said that His Gospel would be proclaimed “in all the world as a witness to all the nations (Mt 24:14).” Much like their forebears in Africa, Asia Minor, Egypt, Syria, and the European Continent, the Chinese Orthodox were destined to experience the phenomenon of martyrdom; the first instance of which was due to populism, the second, socialism. Both cases are highly relevant to our times, in which the wider Church must exercise altruistic compassion while navigating between the dangerous extremes of the far right and the far left. As concerns Mitrophan and the New Martyrs specifically, we recognise that they did not belong to this world, and that the Lord chose them out of the world – hence why the world hated them. Indeed, the Lord revealed Himself through them (Jn 15:18-25). They perfectly conformed to Christ in displaying love for their enemies even to the point of death. Subsequently, they were persecuted just as Christ was, remembering his exhortation: “be of good cheer, I have overcome the world (Jn 16:33 NKJV).” May we have the loving intercessions of the New Chinese Martyrs and let us imitate especially the meekness and profound courage of Mitrophan.

St Mitrophan and the Holy New Martyrs of China

[1] The Epistle to Diognetus 5.11-16, trans. L. B. Radford (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1908), 64-65.

[2] The Epistle to Diognetus 6 (Radford, 66-68).

[3] Kevin Baker, ‘Wise Men from the East: The Influence of Eastern Christianity in China, 635-1986,’ Phronema 8 (1993): 49-51; John A. McGuckin, ‘China, Autonomous Orthodox Church of,’ in The Encyclopedia of Eastern Orthodox Christianity, vol. 1: A-M, ed. John Anthony McGuckin (Chichester, West Sussex: Blackwell Publishing, 2011), 112; Ioasaph Yaokum and Ioannis Chen (Interviewees), ‘Beyond the Great Wall: Orthodoxy in China,’ Road to Emmaus 4:2 (2003): 3.

[4] Baker, ‘Wise Men from the East,’ 52.

[5] Baker, ‘Wise Men from the East,’ 52; McGuckin, ‘China, Autonomous Orthodox Church of,’ 112; Yaokum and Chen, ‘Beyond the Great Wall,’ 3-4.

[6] ‘Icon of the Mother of God, “Albazin” or “The Word Was Made Flesh,”’ Orthodox Church in America, accessed 29 March, 2021,

[7] Baker, ‘Wise Men from the East,’ 52; McGuckin, ‘China, Autonomous Orthodox Church of,’ 112; Yaokum and Chen, ‘Beyond the Great Wall,’ 4.

[8] Baker, ‘Wise Men from the East,’ 52; McGuckin, ‘China, Autonomous Orthodox Church of,’ 112; Yaokum and Chen, ‘Beyond the Great Wall,’ 4.

[9] Baker, ‘Wise Men from the East,’ 52-53; McGuckin, ‘China, Autonomous Orthodox Church of,’ 112-13.

[10] Baker, ‘Wise Men from the East,’ 53; McGuckin, ‘China, Autonomous Orthodox Church of,’ 112-13.

[11] Baker, ‘Wise Men from the East,’ 53.

[12] Dale A. Johnson, Searching for Jesus on the Silk Road (New Sinai Press, 2013), 185-90, esp., 187; Kevin Baker, A History of the Orthodox Church in China, Korea, and Japan (Lewiston, NY: The Edwin Mellen Press, 2006), 144.

[13] Yaokum and Chen, ‘Beyond the Great Wall,’ 11.

[14] Johnson, Searching for Jesus on the Silk Road, 185; Yaokum and Chen, ‘Beyond the Great Wall,’ 11.

[15] Johnson, Searching for Jesus on the Silk Road, 185, 188; Baker, A History of the Orthodox Church in China, Korea, and Japan, 144-45.

[16] Johnson, Searching for Jesus on the Silk Road, 187.

[17] Johnson, Searching for Jesus on the Silk Road, 187; Yaokum and Chen, ‘Beyond the Great Wall,’ 11; Baker, A History of the Orthodox Church in China, Korea, and Japan, 145.

[18] Baker, A History of the Orthodox Church in China, Korea, and Japan, 135-44; Joseph W. Esherick, The Origins of the Boxer Uprising (University of California Press, 1987), 167-205; ‘Beyond the Great Wall,’ 11 n. 2.

[19] Esherick, The Origins of the Boxer Uprising, xiii-iv, 206-40.

[20] Johnson, Searching for Jesus on the Silk Road, 186.

[21] Baker, A History of the Orthodox Church in China, Korea, and Japan, 143; idem, ‘Wise Men from the East,’ 53-54.

[22] William E. Dunstan, Ancient Rome (Plymouth, United Kingdom: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 2011), 35; Helen Rhee, Early Christian Literature: Christ and Culture in the Second and Third Centuries (Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 2005), 88-89.

[23] Johnson, Searching for Jesus on the Silk Road, 186-87; Baker, A History of the Orthodox Church in China, Korea, and Japan, 148-51.

[24] McGuckin, ‘China, Autonomous Orthodox Church of,’ 113.

[25] Johnson, Searching for Jesus on the Silk Road, 187-88; Baker, A History of the Orthodox Church in China, Korea, and Japan, 144-47.

[26] Johnson, Searching for Jesus on the Silk Road, 188; Baker, A History of the Orthodox Church in China, Korea, and Japan, 146.

[27] Arator’s On the Acts of the Apostles 1, ed. Richard J. Schrader, trans. Joseph L. Roberts and John F. Makowski, Classics in Religious Studies 6 (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1987), 30.

[28] Johnson, Searching for Jesus on the Silk Road, 188; Baker, A History of the Orthodox Church in China, Korea, and Japan, 146-48.

[29] Yaokum and Chen, ‘Beyond the Great Wall,’ 11-12.

[30] Johnson, Searching for Jesus on the Silk Road, 188-89; Baker, A History of the Orthodox Church in China, Korea, and Japan, 147-48.

[31] McGuckin, ‘China, Autonomous Orthodox Church of,’ 113; Baker, ‘Wise Men from the East,’ 54.

[32] Tertullian, Apology 50, trans. S. Thelwall, in Latin Christianity: Its Founder, Tertullian. Three Parts: I. Apologetic; II. Anti-Marcion; III. Ethical, Ante-Nicene Fathers 3, ed. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 1994), 55.

[33] McGuckin, ‘China, Autonomous Orthodox Church of,’ 113; Baker, ‘Wise Men from the East,’ 54.

[34] Baker, ‘Wise Men from the East,’ 54-55; Yaokum and Chen, ‘Beyond the Great Wall,’ 5-6.

[35] Baker, A History of the Orthodox Church in China, Korea, and Japan, 209-14; idem, ‘Wise Men from the East,’ 55; Yaokum and Chen, ‘Beyond the Great Wall,’ 6-7.

[36] Baker, A History of the Orthodox Church in China, Korea, and Japan, 211; Yaokum and Chen, ‘Beyond the Great Wall,’ 6.

[37] McGuckin, ‘China, Autonomous Orthodox Church of,’ 113-14.

[38] ‘About Us,’ Ecumenical Patriarchate Orthodox Metropolitanate of Hong Kong and South East Asia, accessed 29 March, 2021,

Reflections on the Saints and Various Aspects of Orthodoxy by Friends of the Monastery