THE CONVERSION OF THE SLAVS


The disputes of the early eighth century between the Byzantine emperor and the pope concerned more than iconoclasm; they were also arguments over ecclesial jurisdictions, and specifically over the question of whether Rome or Constantinople should wield authority over Calabrian Italy and over the peoples of the Balkans (for episcopal authority could not be severed from political authority). And in the ninth century, as the conversion of the Slavs progressed, these disputes over regional prerogatives only intensified, and served further to embitter relations between East and West, especially during the controversy surrounding the appointment of Patriarch Photius in Constantinople.


[An Orthodox icon depicting Saints Cyril and Methodius. The brothers are venerated in eastern Orthodox Christianity and given the title 'Apostles to the Slavs'. They were canonized by the Roman Catholic Church in 1880]



Considered in themselves, however, rather than in the light of their political ramifications, the ninth-century Christian missions to the Slavic world were not only enormously successful, but in many respects astonishing, not least in their civilizing effects.


Cyril and Methodius


The most famous of the missionaries to the Slavic world were two brothers from Thessalonica, St Cyril (c.827-69) and St Methodius (c.825-84), the great 'Apostles to the Slavs'. Both were theologians of considerable range, but their principal qualifications for evangelizing the pagans of the north were their special scholarly gifts, and most particularly their abilities as linguists. Few Greek or Latin theologians could speak Slavonic, and few Slavs could speak Greek or Latin; moreover, Slavonic was not a written language, and so the dissemination of Christian texts in the native tongue of the Slavs was impossible.


Cyril had taught philosophy in Constantinople at the Patriarchal University, and had once, thanks to his mastery of Arabic and Hebrew, conducted a state embassy to the caliphate. Methodius was abbot of the great Polychron Monastery. In 860, the two brothers had been commissioned by the emperor to evangelize the Khazars north of the Black Sea (although the mission was a failure, as the Khazars ultimately adopted Judaism as their national faith). The two brothers began their mission to the Slavs, however, in 862, when Prince Ratislav (d. after 870) of Great Moravia sent to Constantinople, requesting missionaries capable of preaching to his people in their own language. Western priests had already penetrated into the region, but they insisted on preaching and celebrating the mass in Latin.


The emperor — in part, no doubt, out of a desire to establish Byzantine rather than Latin Christianity in Moravia, and Greek rather than Frankish rule — sent Cyril and Methodius to Moravia in 863. The brothers translated the Byzantine liturgy into Slavonic, but in order to do this were obliged first to devise an alphabet for the language — the old Glagolitic alphabet, in all likelihood. (The later Cyrillic Slavic script, which is named after St Cyril, may also have been the invention of the two brothers, and in form it more nearly resembles the Greek alphabet than does the Glagolitic.) They began conducting worship in the vernacular, which was the Eastern Church practice in any event, and preaching in a language the local people could understand.


Soon, however, their vernacular liturgy aroused the hostility of the German archbishop in Salzburg and the German bishop in Passau. They saw these Byzantines as interlopers in a mission field they regarded as theirs by right, and they accused the two Greeks of theological impropriety on the grounds that Roman canons recognized no legitimate liturgical languages apart from Latin, Greek and Hebrew.


To settle the dispute, Pope Nicholas I (c.820-67) requested in 867 that Cyril and Methodius come to Rome. They complied and, on arriving in the city in 868, soon convinced the new pope, Adrian II (792-872), of the legitimacy of their mission. Cyril, however, died during the visit to Rome; and so it was Methodius alone who returned to Moravia, in possession now of a papal commission and an appointment as archbishop of Sirmium (the archdiocese that comprised all of Great Moravia, Pannonia and Serbia).


The Germanic priests of the region, however, did not relent in their intrigues. In 870, on purely spurious charges, they arrested, tried, beat and imprisoned Methodius; and no doubt he would have died in prison had not Pope John VIII (d.882) - whose pontificate began in 872 - demanded his release. From 873 to 879, he presided over his archdiocese, and in 880 returned to Rome to renew papal support for the Slavonic liturgy. But his Swabian suffragan bishop Wiching continued to conspire against him, and after Methodius' death in 885, Pope Stephen V (d.891), a timid and incompetent pontiff, authorized the suppression of the Slavonic rite and the expulsion of Methodius' followers from Moravia.


The Prince of the Rus 


It was at the end of the tenth century - tradition says 988 — that Russia (or, at any rate, its people, the Rus) became Christian, under Prince Vladimir the Great (c.956—1015), monarch of Kiev and Novgorod, who secured unchallenged rule over his dominions in 980. During the early years of his rule, which were occupied with enlarging and consolidating his realm through conquest, he was a confirmed pagan, who erected temples to the various gods of the Rus, commissioned numerous idols,


[Detail of rite Monument to the Millennium of Russia (1864), a representation of Prince Vladimir the Great, which stands in the ancient Slavonic city of Veliky Novgorod]


cultivated a special devotion to the thunder-god Perun (of whom he had a statue cast in gold, with a moustache in silver) and kept hundreds of concubines in addition to his seven wives.


According to a 12th-century chronicle, however, Vladimir sent out envoys in 987 to investigate the faiths of neighbouring races. Those who visited the Muslim Bulgars returned with reports complaining of the joylessness of a religion that prohibited alcohol; and those who visited German churches of the Latin rite reported that the worship was arid and graceless; but those who attended a glorious Divine Liturgy at Hagia Sophia reported that, during the worship, they no longer knew if they were in heaven or on earth, so ineffably beautiful was all that they saw and heard - whereupon Vladimir adopted Byzantine Christianity.


Whether or not this tale is entirely credible, what most definitely is true is that in 988 Vladimir — like many of the barbarians of the east, a rapt admirer of Byzantine civilization — petitioned Constantinople for the hand of Anna, sister of Emperor Basil II (957—1025). Such a marriage would probably have been unthinkable had Vladimir not been so powerful a prince and had Basil not so keenly desired a military alliance with him in order to suppress a Byzantine insurrection. The marriage of a Christian princess to a pagan was impossible, of course, but Vladimir accepted baptism, took the Christian name Basil in honour of the emperor, and married Anna. He then mandated the baptism of all his subjects and had all the idols of the Russian gods destroyed; the resplendent statue of Perun he had thrown into the River Dnieper.


['Then we went to the Greeks [Constantinople] and they led us to the place where they worship their God, and we knew not whether we were in heaven or earth, for on eaith there is no such vision nor beauty, and we do not know how to describe it; we only know that God dwells among men. We cannot forget that beauty.'] Anon. Primary Chronicle (c.986) of the delegation sent by Prince Vladimir op Kiev-Rus to Constantinoim.


Champion of the Faith


Apparently Vladimir took his new faith rather seriously. Not only did he build monasteries and a great many churches, some of them quite magnificent; he devoted himself quite earnestly to creating a Christian Kievan culture on the Byzantine civic model, which required rather substantial social reforms: he built schools, hospitals, almshouses and orphanages; he established ecclesiastical courts and monastic shelters for the aged and infirm; he instituted laws designed to protect the weak against the powerful; and he came to be known as a friend of the poor, a just and gentle ruler and a fervent champion of the faith. And it is as St Vladimir that he is remembered in Orthodox tradition.


The first, Kievan age of Russian Christianity was something of a golden age — or so it is remembered in Russian lore. The capital city — Kiev — grew and prospered, it became a centre of trade and manufacture, its decorative arts flourished, its silversmiths were famed for their skill, and its churches (numbering in the hundreds) were renowned for their opulent loveliness.


The Kievan period came to an end in the early 13th century — after more than a century of declining fortunes and power - with the invasion of Russia by the Mongols under Batu Khan (c. 1205-55), grandson of Genghis, in 1238. In 1240, the city was destroyed, and its people massacred. Thereafter, the centre of Russian Christianity shifted north, to the free — but considerably less civilized — city of Moscow.


(SO  WE  SEE  THAT  AMID  THE  FALSE  POPULAR  THEOLOGY  THAT  ROSE,  SOMETIMES  MANY  GOOD  WORKS  WERE  DONE  BY  SOME  LEADERS.....  MAKING  IT  OF  COURSE  MORE  POPULAR,  AND  APPEARING  RIGHTEOUS,  IT  WOULD  GROW  AND  GROW  -  Keith Hunt)



THE PASSION-BEARERS


The willingness of Boris and Gleb to die rather than use violence, in imitation of Christ's passion, is among the most cherished stories of the Russian Church.


(THERE  WERE  INDEED  SOME  WHO  DID  NOT  BELIEVE  IN PHYSICAL  VIOLENCE - AGAIN  GIVING  CREDENCE  TO  THIS  BEING  THE  TRUE  CHURCH  OF  GOD  ON  EARTH  -  Keith Hunt)


Among the most beloved of Russian saints are the two sons of Vladimir, Boris and Gleb.They are commemorated by the Orthodox Church as the holy 'passion-bearers', because of the Christlike manner in which they met their deaths.


According to "The Lives of Boris and Cleb," an 11th-century work, both were murdered by their ambitious and pitiless elder brother Svyatopolk 'the Accursed'. Prince Vladimir had divided his kingdom among his sons before his death, and Svyatopolk, as the eldest, was made prince of Kiev; but Svyatopolk coveted his brothers' principalities as well.


Supposedly, Boris was advised by his courtiers to march on Kiev before Svyatopolk could strike, but Boris was unwilling to use violence against his own brother solely for the sake of worldly power - an attitude shared by Gleb. Svyatopolk, burdened by no such scruples, sent assassins to kill Boris. When the killers arrived, they found Boris at his prayers in a tent; Boris supposedly implored God for the fortitude to face his fate without fear or anger, prayed that God would forgive Svyatopolk, and then lay down upon his sleeping couch, where the assassins promptly stabbed him several times. As his body was being carried to Kiev later, however, he was found still to be breathing, and so one of his brother's agents drove a spear into his heart.


Svyatopolk then sent for Gleb, claiming that their father was gravely ill. While Gleb was travelling to Kiev by boat, however, he discovered that his father was already dead and that Boris had been murdered by assassins. As he was weeping with grief, Svyatopolk's paid assassin - who turned out to be Gleb's personal cook - cut Gleb's throat with a kitchen knife and left his body in a thicket on the river bank.


That, at any rate, is the story preserved in sacred legend. Some historians question its veracity, not only in particular details, but as a whole; some even doubt Svyatopolk had any hand in his brothers' deaths. Whether accurate or not, though, the story of two princes who chose to die in Christ-like meekness rather than to wage war entered deeply into the spiritual imagination of Russian Orthodox tradition.


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TO  BE  CONTINUED


THIS  SHOWS  SOME  KNEW  THAT  KILLING  WAS  WRONG,  THAT  IT  WAS  NOT  "CHRISTIAN"  TO  KILL  AND  WAGE  WAR  UNDER  THE  NAME  OF  CHRIST.  WE  MUST  REMEMBER  SOME  KNEW  MORE  TRUTH  THAN  OTHERS,  THOUGH  STILL  UNDER  DECEPTION  IN  MANY  OTHER  THEOLOGICAL  ISSUES  -  Keith Hunt

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