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Posts Tagged ‘Eastern Orthodoxy’

I owe this episode of Obscure Saint Blogging to Twelve Byzantine Rulers, a podcast I’ve been listening to on my runs lately and enjoying the crap out of. As a half-assed classicist, my understanding of Roman history goes something like: lots of detail, names and dates up through about 69 CE; something about Trajan and Hadrian; organized Christian persecutions; Marcus Aurelius and Commodus, Diocletian splits the empire into four; Constantine loves Jesus and moves the capital to Constantinople; lots of stuff; Rome gets sacked in 410CE and then it happens about every ten years until the last Western emperor just gives up in 476CE; more stuff, Constantinople falls in 1453CE. Nuanced, yes? Suffice it to say, there are some gaps in my knowledge.

Irene of Athens, born in 752CE, was the only woman emperor the Byzantine Empire had. She was chosen for the future emperor Leo IV, possibly in a bride show as apparently she was a total hottie, and had a son, Constantine VI.

Irene’s story is partly the story of the iconoclastic movement, which is a big hairy, complicated deal but this is a blog so I’ll keep it simple. Christianity has a really weird relationship with pictures of people they consider holy, coming mostly out of Judaism like it did, and of course the second commandment says no making pictures of God. Now, Christians generally pick and choose which parts of the Old Testament they feel like following–no other gods? Got it. No bacon cheeseburgers? Yeah, about that…

Additionally, the neighboring Arabs had just gotten religion in the form of Islam, which has similar views to Judaism about when you make pictures of God (never), and they started knocking on the door in the mid-seventh century, taking Egypt and the Levant from the Byzantines, and probably having an influence on the Christian theological discussions of the day.

As a result of these two things, the Byzantines got into a big fight over whether it was okay to make and venerate icons, which, to be fair, are always pictures of Jesus or a saint, and one asks for the saint’s intercession with God on one’s behalf, not directly to the saint. This useful Orthodox Information page likens icon veneration to how Americans treat our flag (with important differences, but if praying to an American flag ever cures anyone of leprosy, I would really like to know about it). Shades of gray. Those against the icons were the iconoclasts; those in favor were the iconodules.

Leo IV’s father, Constantine V, was a fervent iconoclast who was reported to have crapped in the baptismal font at the Hagia Sophia during his coronation. Since history’s written by the winners, and the iconoclasts didn’t win (spoiler!) I am guessing that didn’t really happen, but it’s a good story. He convened a council of bishops to declare icon veneration heretical, then forced monks and nuns to marry since monasteries were notorious locations of icon veneration. Bishops got lynched in the streets, and by the time he died he was against all relics and prayers to saints. Two hundred years after he died, he was dug up again and thrown into the sea, just to make he didn’t forget he wasn’t welcome.

Leo IV, who became emperor when Constantine V died in 775 CE, didn’t care so much about who people did with icons at first. According to legend, the iconoclast Leo found two icons in Irene’s possession, and afterwards cut off all sexual relations with her, which really must have been a huge loss because he sounds like a fun dude. Possibly in reaction to this, he slowly got more intense about the iconoclasm, but then died before long, leaving his four-year-old son Constantine VI (Byzantium suffered from a severe shortage of first names) nominal emperor.

When you’re four and the emperor, mama really rules the empire, and that’s just what Irene did. She reinstated icon veneration, much to the delight of most people, and then fucked the empire seven ways from Sunday. The Arabs attacked. The Franks attacked. Everyone hated her for one reason or another, including her kid who was nearly an adult. He tried to overthrow her twice, nearly succeeded the second time and she had him thrown in jail. Then, in an act shocking even to the Byzantine empire, she had him blinded so brutally that he died from his wounds several days later.

After this slight whoopsie, she went ahead and declared herself Emperor (not Empress), and everyone freaked the hell out. No one really liked her to begin with, and since there was no man on the throne the Pope in the west decided the Byzantine empire didn’t have a ruler and just crowned one himself, so Charlemagne became the first Holy Roman Emperor. Yeah, I didn’t know an empire that ruled for a thousand years was based on sexism, either. Shockingly this deepened the rift between the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches, although it was rumored that Irene accepted a marriage offer from Charlemagne in order to fix all her problems. Before that could happen, though, one final big conspiracy unseated her and she was exiled to the island of Lesbos and someone else put on the throne. She died a year later, after ruling as sole Emperor for five years.

Much to my dismay, the podcast was wrong and Irene’s not actually a saint in the Orthodox church, but lots of Western sources think she was. She did reinstate icon veneration, which the Eastern Orthodox church is really into. On the other hand, she was a terrible emperor and had her only child blinded in a particularly gruesome manner. You win some, you lose some. Since she doesn’t actually have a saint day, you can ask a picture for a favor and then do something truly awful any time you damn well please.

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Here’s a fun author factoid: my parents almost named me Alexis, but for the character of the same name in Dynasty, which was super popular around the time I was born. (Video hint: it gets great around 1:50. Alexis Carrington Colby, in case you are my age or younger, is in the white pantsuit-thing.)

I got the second-choice name, so St. Alexis of Rome, also known as Alexius or Alexios, isn’t my namesake but it’s close. He was born to a wealthy Christian family in Rome sometime in the 5th century CE. He was an only child and into Christianity from a young age. His parents, on the other hand, wanted their only kid to have a normal secular life rather than one devoted to the church. As he was agonizing over these decisions, he had a vision of St. Paul, who quoted Jesus the Gospel of Matthew and told him, “He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me: and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.” (Matthew 10:37, KJV) Christ: no so much a family man.

Alexis did something that’s always a good idea and ignored what Paul had said in his vision, agreeing to a marriage with a young woman from a wealthy family despite his numerous misgivings. The versions I’ve read differ slightly on what happened next: according to one, immediately after the church marriage ceremony, he looked up at the statue of Christ above the altar and walked out of the church without saying a word to anyone. In others, he left “on his wedding night,” in one explaining his disappearance to his wife. Either way, he’s getting a “douchebag in the name of God” tag.

He escaped off to Edessa, selling his possessions along the way and giving the proceeds to the poor, keeping only enough for himself. He either joined an ascetic monastery or became a beggar right next to a monastery, giving away his earnings to the poor and keeping only enough for himself to stay alive. His poor parents sent many people looking for him, including his former servants, but none recognized him and he even begged money from his own servants, which sounds too New-Testament-feel-good to be true.

He carried on this way for seventeen or eighteen years, news of his holiness spreading ever farther. The head of the monastery he was living in / in front of had a vision of Mary, Mother of God in which she singled out Alexis as a “Man of God,” a big holy deal. Not enjoying the attention, he set sail for Tarsus, birthplace of St. Paul.* On the way, a storm blew the ship far to the west, so they decided to head for Rome, and Alexis would stay with his family.

Meanwhile in Rome, his family had grieved over his loss for seventeen years, including his wife who was now living with his parents. The modern retellings want this to be because of how much she loved him, but I for one am skeptical. Arranged marriage, people. Instead I spent an hour looking around the internet for info on divorce laws in the late Roman Empire. I couldn’t find anything exact, but it looks like the Christian emperors made divorces pretty hard to get, especially if you were a woman. She might have stayed with his parents more out of necessity than anything–being jilted at the altar couldn’t have been good for your reputation back then.

When he arrived, nobody recognized him, but they granted him a cell in the courtyard where he continued to do holy stuff for a while. Before he died–I guess asceticism shortens your lifespan–he wrote a note to his family, telling them who he was. The bishop of Rome at the time interred him in St. Peter’s, and the family home became a church.

Along with OG obscure saint Wilgefortis, Alexis was taken off the worldwide saint roster in 1969, because his legend is weird, confused, and doesn’t show up in the West until the tenth century. There’s a church in Rome, on the Aventine, named after him, and my best guess is that he was originally a Syriac ascetic who someone decided was actually Roman after his church there went up.

I recommend running away BEFORE the wedding on March 17.

*No, the geography does not really make any sense. Some version say he was in a Syrian monastery, which would be ok, but Edessa is landlocked. I gave up.

Wikipedia

Catholic Encyclopedia

Orthodox Wiki

The Orthodox Church in America

Matthew 10

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Why do all Russian dudes look like Rasputin?

Why do all Russian dudes look like Rasputin?

Sometimes I purposefully pick a saint that doesn’t seem to have too much weird stuff going on in the hopes that I can post on him or her in a quick, timely fashion. I’m never right. There’s always too much interesting historical stuff in the way.

St. Nicholas of Japan was, in fact, a Russian. Although I tend to think of Russia as “Eastern Europe” and Japan as “East Asia,” it turns out that Russia is really big and they’re right next to each other, and as such they’ve had lots of contact throughout history. His birth name was Ivan Dimitrovich Kasatkin, and he was born in 1836 to a Russian deacon. He went through the usual priest school, and then volunteered to serve at a chapel in Japan. He went there in 1861.

Until 1873, Christianity was technically illegal in Japan, or at least, proselytizing wasn’t allowed. For some reason, I was surprised to find out that a largely Buddhist nation has a long history of religious persecution. It was first outlawed in the 1500’s, partly to avoid the religious wars Europe was having at the time. The Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu also claimed it was because he feared the Christians would have a greater loyalty to each other than to the Shogunate–sort of like another big empire I can think of.

In 1880, Nicholas became the bishop of Revel, Russia, which he never actually visited.

Nikolay Alexandrovich Romanov–later Nicholas II of Russia and the last Czar–visited Japan in 1891, and St. Nicholas was around for it. At the time he was tsarevich, which is like the Russian Prince of Wales. While he was there, one of his police escort attacked him with a saber and his cousin, the Prince of Greece and Denmark, saved him by blocking the blow with his cane. It left a huge scar on his forehead, and he ended up cutting his visit short. It’s now known at the Otsu Incident.

The Japanese totally freaked out when this happened. One town forbade use of the attacker’s family name. 10,000 telegrams were sent. A seamstress named Yuko Hatakeyama slit her throat in front of a government building as an act of public contrition, and the media praised her patriotism. Obviously I’m not a Japanese or Russian history expert, so I can only make stabs at why the Japanese reacted that way. Clearly it’s a big deal to almost have a foreign leader assassinated on your watch, but the Japanese army was also MUCH smaller than Russia’s at that point.

Fourteen years later, the Russo-Japanese war began. It was an imperialist deal, mainly over Korea and Manchuria. Basically, all imperial Russian wars start when someone important says, “You know, guys, we could really use a port that isn’t frozen over half the year.” This time they wanted one on the Pacific.

Being a Russian in Japan, the war was hard on Nicholas. On the one hand, he was Russian; on the other, part of his job was to pray for the Emperor of Japan publicly. The Orthodox liturgy at this time demanded that one pray not only for one’s sovereign, but for the explicit defeat of the sovereign’s enemies. Nicholas didn’t participate in public church services during the war.

He also helped Russian prisoners of war, at one point discovering that 90% of them couldn’t read, and dispatching nuns and priests to help sovle the problem. His attitude and manners during the war impressed everyone, including the Emperor Meiji. Russia lost the war pretty badly, which contributed to the Russian Revolution of 1905.

After all this, in 1907, Nicholas was elevated to the Archbishop of All Japan by the Holy Russian Synod. He was also the first to translate the New Testament and parts of the Old into Japanese–translations which are still used today. He’s considered the first saint of the Japanese Orthodox Church, and his saint day in February 16 if you’re old school, 3rd if you can handle that the earth goes around the sun.

Wikipedia

Orthodox Wiki

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This week we’ve got our first Armenian saint, St. Blaise. He’s probably the least obscure saint I’ve covered yet–at least one former Catholic I asked had a vague idea of who he was.

Blaise was also hugely popular in the Middle Ages, because he was one of the Fourteen Holy Helpers/ Martyrs, a group of saints who specialized in healing and were called upon largely because of the Bubonic Plague.

Getting to the bottom of his history is a little shaky; the first mention of him happens in late versions of the Martyrology of St. Jerome, dated to the late 700’s; the Acts of St. Blaise are dated to the mid-700’s. Since he is reported to have died in 316 CE, that’s plenty of room for error.

According to the legend, he was born to a noble family as a Christian, became a physician, and later the Bishop of Sabastea. Under the governor Agricolaus and the Emperor of the East Licinius, Christians were being persecuted again, and Blaise received a message from God telling him to go hide in the wilderness.

Later, some hunters out looking for beasts to kill Christians in the amphitheatre came upon Blaise in his cave, surrounded by sick wild animals he was healing. He was captured and taken to the jail to be starved, and on the way, he saw a wolf with a pig belonging to a poor woman in its jaws, and convinced the wolf to release the pig. The pig’s owner was so grateful that she secretly brought him food and water in jail. Possibly she was feeding him the pig.

While in jail, he miraculously healed a child who was choking nearly to death on a fish bone, making him the patron saint of not choking on things. He was first tortured with iron carding combs–what they use to make wool–and then beheaded.

St. Blaise’s feast day is February 3 for Roman Catholics and February 11 for Eastern Orthodox; that’s also the day you can get your throat blessed by having candles pressed against it by a priest.

St. Blaise at New Advent

St. Blaise at Catholic Online

St. Blaise at American Catholic

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