Teaching: St Theodora
After writing about St Theodore, I was sent a copy of an icon of St Theodora, whose feast is on 11th September, a very different saint, though, to the Empress found in mosaics around the Church of Agia Sophia in Istanbul. There are very few images of this Theodora. This is my version here-
A few years ago I was in Northern Albania searching for the women who dressed as men in local villages. Maybe they no longer exist, but that tradition goes back some way and seems, from this story, to have Christian precedence. (in contradiction of Deut 22.5 and maybe of 1 Tim 2.9) I think St Theodora is a model for the Twenty-first Century!
St Theodora was an early ascetic from the Fifth Century, during the reign of the Emperor Zeno. She was among 10 women who lived and dressed as men in Oktodeka, one of the many monasteries surrounding Alexandria. The abbot simply assumed she was a eunuch.
At some point, she was accused and presented with a child that she was supposed to have fathered with some serving wench. Together they were expelled from the Monastery. Now, the hagiography makes a great point of telling us that the child was not hers and that the tales were fabricated; it is also not at all clear at thispoint that any of the other monks actually realised she was a woman. However, there is also a story of an adulterous affair that she had while she was still married to her god-fearing husband, Paphnutios. She seemed to have been told by a fortune-teller that if a sin was committed during the dark and that if no one else could see, then God would not see it either. She was distraught and sought the advice of an abbess who heard her confession, and reminded her that Mary had washed Christ’s feet with her tears. It was repentance for this affair that drove her into the monastery in the first place.
A period of repentence passed while she and the child wandered around the desert and they were then readmitted to the monastery. She had brought the child up as her own and while he seems unnamed, he is recorded to have been a godly and good boy in all respects. When she died, the abbot was astonished to find that Theodora was a woman and not a man after all.
What happened to Paphnutios? After his wife’s death, he seems to have been inspired to become a monk as well. Oh! And her “son” ultimately became abbot.
While the story is riddled with holes, it nevertheless makes very good reading and St Theodora emerges rather well as an early Christian version of Victor/Victoria or Mulan. Whether she had illicit sex once or twice does not seem to matter much- she took responsibility for the child who had been given to her (think of the teacher in “the Corn is Green” by Emlyn Williams- do you remember Toyah Wilcox as the naughty girl who leads Morgan Evans astray?) and seems to have kept herself to herself so much that even her supposed gender remained unknown.
It is tempting to see in St Theodora some sort Patron of the modern age, perhaps more clearly than the highly colourful and embellished story of the soldiers St Sergius and St Bacchus (or of Juventinus and Maximus martyred about 50 years’ later). Their story is improbable and the actual text (the passion) is full of anachronisms. Their humiliation when they refused to sacrifice to Jupiter was to be paraded in women’s clothing and beaten to death – that happened to others too. A “John Boswell” from Yale fairly recently suggested that Sergius and Bacchus were in fact lovers, described in a martyrology as erastai. He argues that before their execution, they were married in a rite called adelphopoieis and had received some form of Church blessing. All this is a bit spurious. John Boswell’s claims, nevertheless, make fantastic reading, but that, I am afraid is where it ends. He describes a civil ceremony for the emperor Basil I and a mass gay wedding taking place in the Lateran. Even if his claims were about a Wagnerian-style “Blut–Brüderschaft“, I find it odd that it should ever have taken place in the Lateran. But as the present incumbent of the Lateran might now say, “Who are we to judge?” Indeed!
Teaching Religion part 2
Makarios of Alexandria
There are two great saints called Macarios or Makarios and they were friends in Egypt. It is after these saints that the Archbishop, the First President of Cyprus, the Ethnarth (or father of the nation), was named in the Kykkos Monastery on the Troödos mountains. Later, he was elected Bishop of Kition in absentia while he was still studying on a World Council of Churches’ scholarship in Boston. Two years’ later at the age of only 37, he was the archbishop and de facto “ethnarch”, the leader of the Greek Cypriot community. He is a divisive figure but in fact much of his activity is fairly straightforward and he attracted rather a heavy dose of aggression from the British secret services who peddled fairly unconvincing stories of clerical naughtiness in an attempt to undermine the process of Enosis which by that time he had fairly robustly defied.
It was a difficult time dominated by the rise of the Junta in Modern Greece.
While he remained respected in Grteece, Makarios lost the support of the Cypriot community he governed. The British Prime minister disliked him intensely calling him a “stinker of the first order” and an American official apparently called him “a wold in Priest’s clothing,” branding him the “Castro of the mediterranean”. Part of this was his appeal to Soviet Russia for help during teh Cypriot crisis and also his failure to condemn the large Cypriot communits party, Akel.
When the insurrection began in 1955 against British rule, Makarios had only just been elected Archbishop. He was young and charismatic, and he was certainly photographed with General Grivas who led the EOKA movement towards enosis(union) with the mainland. Makarios was arrested by the British in 1956 and exiled to the Seychelles. This is what the BBC reported then:
“The archbishop was arrested when he arrived at Nicosia airport to board an airliner for Athens after refusing to denounce the use of violence. Britain has accused him of ‘actively fostering terrorism’.”
His arrest led to a fairly blanket resignation by the Greek policeforce which the British replaced with Turkish-led recruits who were happier to remain under collonial control.
This did not play well, because it led to suspicion that the British favoured the Turkish minority and that they tacitly encouraged the Turkish Resistance movement (TMT) which in turn wanted “taksim” partition and union with Turkey.
Makarios, however, was released from the Seychelles in 1959 and brokered a compromise agreement between Greece, Turkey and Britain, giving up ENOSIS and accepting independence. He was elected Prisident. The BBC recorded: “One of the first people to hail the archbishop’s success was the leader of the Turkish community, Dr Fazil Kucuk, once one of his bitterest rivals but now a staunch ally and soon-to-be vice-president.”
Makarios managed three years before attempting to modify the constitution and provoking a Turkish backlash. A greenline was drawn in Nicosia and UN peacekeepers, Unificyp were introduced in March 1964. By 1967, Turkey and Greece were poised to fight over Cyprus. Dampening down the crisis with an election, Makarios ran on an anti-ENOSIS ticket securing a landslide particularly because AKEL-leaning Cypriots looked warily at the new right-wing Greek junta. With a fresh mandate, Makarios ordered peace-talks between his man Glafcos Clerides and the Turksih leader Rauf Denktash in June 1968.
The junta had other ideas and plotted his assassination in 1970. Miraculously he walked away from his gunned-down helicopter. But the Junta then sent Grivas back to Cyprus to stir up discontent, and clamour against the “betrayal of enosis”, founding Eoka B, committed to the overthrow of the Archbishop.
By 1974, he was convinced that the Junta had infiltrated the National guard. He issued an ultimatum but instead on 15th July at 8. 15 am, the suspect officers launched their coup. Makarios escaped to Paphos and then to London. On 19th July, at the UN Security council, he denonced the coup as “an invasion” which “violated the internal peace of Cyprus” asking the UN for “all possible aid”. In a meeting with the British Prime Minister Harold Wilson, he conceded that the Junta’s actions would force Turkey’s hand: “What practical measures can be taken. It is against the Turkish interests for Cyprus to become part of Greece.”
The junta imposed Nikos Sampson as President and 5 days later, on 20th July, Turkey invaded the North invoking its rights as military guarantor of peace. In Turkish Cyprus this action is called “the Peace Operation”. Sampson lasted 8 days as the Junta in Greece collapsed and Clerides replaced him until Makarios could return.
In February 1977, Makarios signed an accord with Rauf Denktash that effectively sealed the federal solution still in place today. He died unexpectedly in August that year.
St Makarios was really not much less controversial if truth be told! Makarios of Egypt, Makarios the GREAT was one of the founding fathers of Monasticism. Makarios of Alexandria was also a monk, giving up a life in trade and living as a hermit in a cave from about the age of 40. Initiallly he lived in silence among a community of monks but later went off after Makarios the Great to the Wadi el Natrun and el-Rayyan in the Beheira desert towards the north-west of the Nile delta to live alone. There were three main centres of Nitric monks- in Natrun, Nitria proper and Kellia. This particular area is also called “sketis” (Σκήτη) which gives us the name often used on the Holy mountain to refer to the dwelling of a hermit or ascetic, a “skete”.. From the word “Kellia”, though., the Latin church derives the term “cell”.The caves were abandoned in the 6th or 7th centuries.
The area was, incidentally, where the author of the “petit prince” crashed in 1935.
Makarios attracted attention for his extreme asceticism. At one point during Lent, his fellow monks called on the abbot St Pachomius to get rid of him because he seemed neither to eat, drink nor to sit down. He spent his days standing up and weaving baskets from palm leaves.
At the end of his life, he was exiled with Makarios the Great by the Emperor Valens. They were sent to a small island in the Nile delta because of their support of the teachings of St Athanasius the Great against the Arians. A pagan Priest’s daughter suffered terribl;e seizures there and the two Makarii were able to heal her. In gratitude the pagans tore down their shrine and built a church. As a result the authorities recognised that they were punishing holy men and sent them both back to their own caves.
The monastery of St Makarios lies about 92 km to the west of Cairo. It has been undergoing restoration since the late 1960s on the orders of Patriarch Cyril V. Relics of St John the Baptist and the Prophet Elisha have been found there. Regarding the life of the monastery, the abbot is on record saying “we never divide the material and spiritual. Our whole life, even in its most material details, must contribute towards the spiritual progress of each monk and the whole community towards the worship of God, ‘to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ’ (Eph. 4:12). It is our deep conviction that we attain our heavenly vocation through the carrying out of these commonplace tasks on earth.
“This unity between the material and the spiritual in our lives is an important principle in our spirituality, and is the reason why the spiritual father’s direction is not restricted to the inner life, but extends to every detail of material, psychological and physical life. It is also the reason why we have no strict timetable separating times for prayer from times for work. However diverse our occupations during the day, we believe that we all have before us one essential task to which we must constantly address ourselves, whether we be at work, in our cells or in church, and that is to offer ourselves up as a sacrifice of love to the Lord Jesus, lifting up our hearts in unceasing prayer, and remaining continuously at peace, even in the midst of hard work, with the peace of Christ that passes all understanding (Phil. 4:7).”
There is a third Makarios, “the younger” who spent 23 years atoning for a murder. During this time, he never spoke. This places him alonside Myra Hindley and Ian Brady rather than the saints but there we are!
Iconography in Palestine
There was an article in The Telegraph a few days’ ago about Ian Knowles who runs the two-year old icon-teaching centre in the West Bank. His work is on the israeli wall that divides the land and also in cathedrals and churches around the globe. The West bank centre began in a Coptic Church, is now housed in the Bethlehem university near the Church of the Nativity and is funded almost completely by private donations.
As I understand it, the Bethlehem school was an outreach programme from the British Association of Iconographers, for the most part a Catholic-inspired organisation centred around the benedictine Abbey of Our Lady of Peace in Bedfordshire.
Some years ago, I was taught how to gild and my gilder’s cushion is to hand even as I am typing in my office this evening! Gold is an essential part of the iconographer’s trade, but I am afraid that I have taken the Icon form cautiously into the digital realm: I explained many years ago to Metropolitan Kallistos that I had a plan to animate icons in some way and he was rightly suspicious. He did not completely dismiss my plans but -“I do not think I could pray to a cartoon”, he memorably said. I have not given up this idea, however, though I am aware of the time it takes to realise the detail of an Icon in a new medium, quite apart from the technical issues of trying to move in an inverted perspective. For now, I see my work as an academic exercise and I am currently writing a short course which I believe I will deliver at the Moscow State University sometime later this year. I will use animation simply to define the differences in posture and the significance of the arrangement of characters in traditional iconography. I will also, I hope be able to demonstrate on screen exactly what inverse perspective means and what it does to objects like tables and chairs. While Icons are religious artifacts, they are also an art form telling very specific stories with layered meanings. I see the Icon as the perfect combination of art and religion, so perfect indeed that even with the advances of the Renaissance, and the influence of Western art on both Greek and Russian culture in the 19th Century, the revival of the traditional icon by Photios Kontoglou in the 1950s continues to be a powerful force across the Orthodox world and beyond. It is now not uncommon today, for example, to see Icons in both Catholic and Anglican churches.
On 22nd January according to the Greek Calendar, and on 26th January (transferred from 24th) in the Catholic Church, is the feast of St Timothy, my patron saint.
Basil the Great
St Basil, whose feast is on 1st January, is important because of his principle of tolerance, often called “economy”. It should be taken to heart today- we are much in need of it. The continued squabble over the Council of Crete could do with some “economy” as indeed could the gathering Brexit debate.
Basil was fairly aggressive with a group of Asian Bishops in his disapproval of schismatics and heretics, insisting that they should be rebaptised. He was simply following St Cyprian of Carthage who said much the same a century earlier and this was a precise interpretation of the law (akrebeia). The text is to be found in the 1st Canon. However, he says that for the sake of “economia”(οικονόμια), he will accept the decision of the Asian Bishops. Economy is the discretionary power given to the apostles and specifically to Peter to “bind and loose”(Mtt 16:19, 18:18) and is echoed in the Acts with the line: Acts 15:28, “it seemed good to the Holy Spirit, and to us”. Laws need to be adjusted and updated. That is why we have parliament and frankly why the Churches have councils.
Economy is about maintaining concord while we build the house of God, or simply accepting that God’s mercy goes beyond the written law. The principle, I think, is a good one- that, no matter how severe or restrictive the rules, when faced with real people and real situations, we should be prepared to bend the rules, adapt them or sweep them aside in the interest of kindness. Kindness may well be abused, but that should not stop us trying.
In Russia, I saw a sign condemning the Ecumenical movement. How absurd is that! Mindless, insular, and out of step with the way things work.
St metropolitan Philaret of New York echoes St Basil: “God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham” (Luke, 3:8), would He not show economia and accept into His Kingdom (His Church) those on whose behalf we beseech His mercy? To say that this is not possible is to deny God’s boundless mercy, to attempt to bind God by the Laws given to us to observe. “( I ) will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy.” (Exodus 33:19)
With the principle of “economy” we have an excuse to hold two completely conflicting views at the same time. That is the only way forward. It is neither irrational nor irresponsible. It is simply practical.
Here is a picture of the Icon of St Basil the Great according to the Greek tradition. I am following the descriptions of Photios Kontoglou.
Theology of the Icon
The Icon is a major feature in the Orthodox Church. Unlike religious images and statues in Catholicism, however, the Greek Icon has a position in liturgy and doctrine that is cemented by the 7th Ecumenical Council in 787 and which goes beyond the purely decorative and helpful. In this way, however, any Icon, has a position in the liturgy that is paralleled by the Catholic crucifix (with the depiction of the body of Christ) – a Liturgy without Icons is no liturgy just as a Mass (as stated in the Roman Missal, no 308) celebrated without a Crucifix is regarded as illicit. Of course, both Catholics and Orthodox would wax lyrical about the efficacy of the sacrament with or without the attendant iconography, and both, I hope, would warn against applying the canons too strictly.
The Icon has a bizarre history and seems to defy the ruling in the 10 commandments, “You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God” (Ex. 20:4-5), but this ruling say the Fathers of the Church is overturned by the fact that The New Testament celebrates God made man and the Invisible Godhead is manifest in the true Icon of his Son, Christ – “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father”.
The first sunday of Lent in the Orthodox calendar celebrates the Triumph of Orthodoxy. St John Damascene demonstrated that the Icon was the celebration of the Theosis, the divinization of humanity and the Icons in the church act as windows through which the heavenly Church is brought into direct contact with the Church on earth. “The icon” says Archimandrite Zenon, “does not represent anything, it rather reveals something.” St John says the Icon particularly represents what Orthodoxy is about: “If one of the heathens comes to you saying: show me your faith… you will take him to church and put him before all kinds of holy images.” The veneration of Icons is simply a greeting made by the worldly Church with the Church in Heaven and in the words of St Basil the Great, “the honour paid to the image passes on to the prototype”. Outside the Church and the liturgy, the Icon, always an image of great beauty and often valuable in its own right, is in danger of losing its theological meaning and of course it could degenerate, simply, into a form of Ecclesiastical comic strip. (much of what I am writing about the care of religious art could equally apply to the Tibetan Thangka Paintings and frankly could be adapted to the care of the Torah scrolls and the Koran)
For the Catholic church and many Anglicans, Religious art is a Gospel for the illiterate, as defined by Gregory the Great, “Images are used in churches so that the illiterate could at least look at the walls to read what they are unable to read in books.” and Damascene goes along with this understanding, “The image is a memorial, just what words are to a listening ear. What a book is to the literate, an image is to the illiterate. The image speaks to sight as words to hearing; through the mind we enter into union with it” :he is joined by Theodore the Studite and the canons of the 7th Ecumenical council in identifying the Icon as a form of teaching: “What a word communicates through hearing is what art shows silently through an image”.
St John of Damascus goes a bit further and turns the 2nd commandment round, “It is obvious that at that time [before Christ] you could not make an image of the invisible God, but when you see the Formless One become man for your sake, then you will make images of Him in His human form. When you contemplate God becoming man, then you can depict Him clothed in human form. When the invisible One becomes visible to us, you may then draw His likeness…Paint everything with words and colours both in books and on boards”. In other words, the Icon becomes the way to demonstrate the revelation of the New Testament and the Icon represents a person in a transfigured state.
There are many conventions- only those not venerated, for instance are depicted in profile, the idea of inverted perspective and the light of Mount Tabor, the fact that the Virgin is always pointing to her son, and so on. I have a bit of an issue with one aspect of icongraphy that seems to be gaining ground- there is a tendency to talk about “writing” rather than “painting” an Icon. I think this is a bit precious and as far as I can see, the two words in Greek and Russian, γράφειν and писать, are both ambiguous and can mean both “write” and “paint”, (the russian word is more likely to mean “paint” as a technical term and tends only to be used in the sense of “write” in modern Russian but, if the stress is misplaced, it can also have a slightly more vulgar meaning redolent of the astonishingly crass Councillor- now thankfully suspended, Dominic Peacock)
We should use English in a more direct way. But in a noisy world, the Icon remains a silent testament to a different kind of life. That must be valuable whether we have a belief or not. A celebration of the beautiful.