Monday, May 30, 2011

What I'll Be Reading (for quite a little bit)

Back in December, I listed the books I intended to read over the next few months. That list is now finished, the volumes are on the shelves, and it is time to start the process anew. My current book stack is as follows:


The Ascetical Homilies of Saint Isaac the Syrian
The Cambridge History of the Byzantine Empire, c. 500-1492

RECENT ACQUISITIONS (heavy on Pelikan, Runciman and Byzantine/Georgian anything):

Aristotle East and West by David Bradshaw
Byzantium and the Roman Primacy by Francis Dvornik
Mary Through the Centuries by Jaroslav Pelikan
Jesus Through the Centuries by Jaroslav Pelikan
The Captain of our Salvation by Rowan A. Greer
The Christian Intellectual by Jaroslav Pelikan
The Light of the World by Jaroslav Pelikan
The Ascetic Life, The Four Centuries on Charity by St. Maximus the Confessor
Maximus the Confessor by Andrew Louth
The Eastern Schism by Steven Runciman
Byzantium in the Ninth Century by Lelie Brubaker
The Medieval Manichee by Steven Runciman
The Sicilian Vespers by Steven Runciman
The Fall of Constantinople 1453 by Steven Runciman
Fools for Christ by Jaroslav Pelikan
Byzantine Gospel by Aidan Nichols
Byzantine Style and Civilization by Steven Runciman
The Excellent Empire by Jaroslav Pelikan
Mothers and Sons, Fathers and Daughters by Michael Psellos
The Cave Monasteries of Byzantine Cappadocia by Lyn Rodley
The Last Years of the Georgian Monarchy, 1658-1832 by David Marshall Lang

ON THE LOOK-OUT FOR (should finances permit):

Prince Ioann of Georgia and his "Kalmasoba" by David Marshall Lang
Digenes Akrites by John Mavrogordato
Lasharela: A Georgian Chronicle of the 13th Century by Grigol Abishidze
Landmarks in Georgian Literature by David Marshall Lang
Bread and Ashes: A Walk Through the Mountains of Georgia by Tony Anderson
The Georgian Chronicles
Sanctified Vision by John J. O'Keefe
Stories I Stole by Wendell Steavenson
A Modern History of Georgia by David Marshall Lang

No doubt I will be commenting from time to time on some of these selections, and I would appreciate any advance reader previews that might be offered.

For all the world, it looks as though I am retreating into my Byzantine/Georgian cave. There are worse things, I suppose. It will keep me off the streets for a while, anyway.

Good Reporting on Syria

For those interested in a real insight into the current situation in Syria, I suggest bookmarking the following site and blog:

(h/t to Brad)

Friday, May 27, 2011

St. John the Russian

St John the Russian and Confessor, whose relics are on the island of Euboia
Commemorated on May 27

The Holy Confessor John the Russian was born in Little Russia around 1690, and was raised in piety and love for the Church of God. Upon attaining the age of maturity he was called to military service, and he served as a simple soldier in the army of Peter I and took part in the Russo-Turkish War. During the Prutsk Campaign of 1711 he and other soldiers were captured by the Tatars, who handed him over to the commander of the Turkish cavalry. He took his Russian captive home with him to Asia Minor, to the village of Prokopion.

The Turks tried to convert the Christian soldiers to the Moslem faith with threats and flattery, but those who resisted were beaten and tortured. Some, alas, denied Christ and became Moslems, hoping to improve their lot. St John was not swayed by the promise of earthly delights, and he bravely endured the humiliation and beatings.

His master tortured him often in the hope that his slave would accept Islam. St John resolutely resisted the will of his master saying, "You cannot turn me from my holy Faith by threats, nor with promises of riches and pleasures. I will obey your orders willingly, if you will leave me free to follow my religion. I would rather surrender my head to you than to change my faith. I was born a Christian, and I shall die a Christian."

St John's bold words and firm faith, as well as his humility and meekness, finally softened the fierce heart of his master. He left John in peace, and no longer tried to make him renounce Christianity. The saint lived in the stable and took care of his master's animals, rejoicing because his bed was a manger such as the one in which the Savior was born.

From morning until late evening the saint served his Turkish master, fulfilling all his commands. He performed his duties in the winter cold and summer heat, half naked and barefoot. Other slaves frequently mocked him, seeing his zeal. St John never became angry with them, but on the contrary, he helped them when he could, and comforted them in their misfortune.

The saint's kindness and gentle nature had its effect on the souls of both the master and the slaves. The Agha and his wife came to love him, and offered him a small room near the hayloft. St John did not accept it, preferring to remain in the stable with the animals. Here he slept on the hay, covered only by an old coat. So the stable became his hermitage, where he prayed and chanted Psalms.

St John brought a blessing to his master simply by living in his household. The cavalry officer became rich, and was soon one of the most powerful men in Prokopion. He knew very well why his home had been blessed, and he did not hesitate to tell others.

Sometimes St John left the stable at night and went to the church of the Great Martyr George, where he kept vigil in the narthex. On Saturdays and Feast days, he received the Holy Mysteries of Christ.

During this time St John continued to serve his master as before, and despite his own poverty, he always helped the needy and the sick, and shared his meager food with them.

One day, the officer left Prokopion and went to Mecca on pilgrimage. A few days later, his wife gave a banquet and invited her husband's friends and relatives, asking them to pray for her husband's safe return. St John served at the table, and he put down a dish of pilaf, his master's favorite food. The hostess said, "How much pleasure your master would have if he could be here to eat this pilaf with us." St John asked for a dish of pilaf, saying that he would send it to his master in Mecca. The guests laughed when they heard his words. The mistress, however, ordered the cook to give him a dish of pilaf, thinking he would eat it himself, or give it to some poor family.

Taking the dish, St John went into the stable and prayed that God would send it to his master. He had no doubt that God would send the pilaf to his master in a supernatual manner. The plate disappeared before his eyes, and he went into the house to tell his mistress that he had sent the pilaf to his master.

After some time, the master returned home with the copper plate which had held the pilaf. He told his household that on a certain day (the very day of the banquet), he returned from the mosque to the home where he was staying. Although the room was locked, he found a plate of steaming pilaf on the table. Unable to explain who had brought the food, or how anyone could enter the locked room, the officer examined the plate. To his amazement, he saw his own name engraved on the copper plate. In spite of his confusion, he ate the meal with great relish.

When the officer's family heard this story, they marveled. His wife told him of how John had asked for a plate of pilaf to send to his master in Mecca, and how they all laughed when John came back and said that it had been sent. Now they saw that what the saint had said was true (Compare the story of Habakkuk, who miraculously brought a dish of pottage to Daniel in the lions' den [Dan. 14:33-39], in the Septuagint).

Toward the end of his difficult life St John fell ill, and sensed the nearness of his end. He summoned the priest so that he could receive Holy Communion. The priest, fearing to go to the residence of the Turkish commander openly with the Holy Gifts, enclosed the life-giving Mysteries in an apple and brought them to St John.

St John glorified the Lord, received the Body and Blood of Christ, and then reposed. The holy Confessor John the Russian went to the Lord Whom he loved on May 27, 1730. When they reported to the master that his servant John had died, he summoned the priests and gave them the body of St John for Christian burial. Almost all the Christian inhabitants of Prokopion came to the funeral, and they accompanied the body of the saint to the Christian cemetery.

Three and a half years later the priest was miraculously informed in a dream that the relics of St John had remained incorrupt. Soon the relics of the saint were transferred to the church of the holy Great Martyr George and placed in a special reliquary. The new saint of God began to be glorified by countless miracles of grace, accounts of which spread to the remote cities and villages. Christian believers from various places came to Prokopion to venerate the holy relics of St John the Russian and they received healing through his prayers. The new saint came to be venerated not only by Orthodox Christians, but also by Armenians, and even Turks, who prayed to the Russian saint, "Servant of God, in your mercy, do not disdain us."

In the year 1881 a portion of the relics of St John were transferred to the Russian monastery of the holy Great Martyr Panteleimon by the monks of Mount Athos, after they were miraculously saved by the saint during a dangerous journey.

Construction of a new church was begun in 1886, through the contributions of the monastery and the inhabitants of Prokopion. This was necessary because the church of the holy Great Martyr George, where the relics of St John were enshrined, had fallen into disrepair.

On August 15, 1898 the new church dedicated to St John the Russian was consecrated by the Metropolitan John of Caesarea, with the blessing of the Ecumenical Patriarch Constantine V.

In 1924, an exchange of the populations of Greece and Turkey took place. Many Moslems moved out of Greece, and many Christians moved out of Turkey. The inhabitants of Prokopion, when they moved to the island of Euboia, took with them part of the relics of St John the Russian.

For several decades the relics were in the church of Sts Constantine and Helen at New Prokopion on Euboia, and in 1951 they were transferred into a new church dedicated to St John the Russian. Thousands of pilgrims flocked here from all the corners of Greece, particularly on his Feast, May 27. St John the Russian is widely venerated on Mount Athos, particularly in the Russian monastery of St Panteleimon.

St John's help is sought by travelers, and by those transporting things.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Some Books (7, and last)--Flannery O'Connor's Radical Reality

Flannery O'Connor's Radical Reality, edited by Jan Nordby Gretlund and Karl-Heiz Westarp, is definitely a book for those who just can't get enough of this author--such as myself. I readily admit that O'Connor is not for everybody, though partisan that I am, I believe she should be.

This is nice, wide-ranging collection of essays by a number of scholars familiar with her work. I particularly enjoyed "Flannery O'Connor's Challenge as Thomistic Maker," by Marion Montgomery, a Georgia professor who actually knew her. Without delving into the particulars of his essay, I do want to simply pass along a couple of O'Connor anecdotes, as well as a related quote, to-wit:

There is an anecdote concerning what we might take as her attempt to generous-spirited to an old naive friend. The friend had come home from Greenwich Village, way up there in New York City, all excited by what she had seen and heard and done. Thus enlightened, she was home for a visit and came out to Andalusia to share her adventures with Flannery, whom she supposed entrapped by the provincial South. Calling on her old acquaintance and friend out at the farm, the tow of them talked and rocked on the front porch, the friend recounting high adventure among poets and artists. The visitor at least fell silent for a spell, the two of them still rocking. The, looking out over the pines and pastures, peacocks and chickens pecking about the yard--perhaps even seeing the jackass O'Connor had bought for her mother as a Mother's Day present--she exclaimed, "Oh, Flannery! If only I could take you out of all this!" And Flannery rocked a minute before responding in her nasal voice, "Out of all what?"

There is another story, shared by a mutual friend and complementary of this challenging visitation upon Flannery by a friend--New York imported to central Georgia. this mutual friend arrived by bus from southern Georgia for a visit. She was let out at the dirt road leading up to Andalusia only to find Flannery meeting her half way down the road, hobbling on her crutches, to share an encounter of an act of country charity the day before. she could not wait to share it. A man, visiting Miss Regina, Flannery's mother, on farm business, was walking and talking with Mrs. O'Connor when he realized that Flannery was trailing along behind them on her crutches. The visitor felt obligated to include her, poor cripple that she was. He stopped, reached down at his feet, and caught up one of Flannery's chickens. The he threw it high up in the air, and the chicken, squawking and fluttering, managed to land safely a few yards away. Turning to Flannery like a considerate uncle, he said, " It don't take much to give a chicken a good time."

And then there is this on O'Connor and Allen Tate and their views on provincialism:

Provincialism, Tate "a state of mind in which regional men lose their origin in the past and its continuity into the present, and begin every day as if there had been no yesterday"....For both Tate and O'Connor, no solution is whole that does not embrace the material and legal order within a spiritual vision. Programs and rulings in the name of the common good are but temporary--temporal--solutions always in decay, requiring an acknowledgment of the spiritual dimension to any viable hope for the common good. Otherwise provincialism obtains. Such provincialism is to be seen, Tate says, in contrast to "the classical-Christian world, based upon regional consciousness, which held that honor, truth, imagination, human dignity, and limited acquisitiveness, could alone justify a social order, however rich and efficient it may be. We have become largely provincials," Tate adds, and so we "do not live anywhere," having committed ourselves "to seeing with, not through, the eye.

The Sovereign State of Denial and the Delusional Republic

This gets it about right.

For all the talk back and forth in recent days about the vaunted "two-state" solution, I'm afraid the moment for that scenario has already passed by.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Some Books (6)--Early England and the Saxon-English by William Barnes (1869)

I have commented before on William Barnes and his work in preserving Anglo-Saxon lore and language, here. This 1869 volume presents a general overview of the Saxon English, their culture and society, with particular attention given to the Saxon tongue and its wearing-away in recent centuries. Barnes contends that after the Norman Conquest, the introduction of Latin, Greek and French words into the lexicon needlessly confused and corrupted the language, leaving it harder to understand and learn.

English has become a more mongrel speech by the needless inbringing of words from Latin, Greek, and French, instead of words which might have been found in its older form, or in the speech of landfolk over all England, or might have been formed from its own roots and stems....

It may be thought that Latin and Greek-English is more refined and lofty than pure Saxon-English; but refinement and loftythoughtedness must be in the thoughts, and it is idle to put words for wit.

An example of what he is talking about is seen in the connection between the Saxon terms "year" and "yearly," understandable to all levels of their society. But with the arrival of the Normans, new terminology such as "annual" was introduced. To the common Saxon English, this was not understable, as they had no knowledge of the Latin root of the word--annus. Barnes does not contend that there was anything wrong with these words, but rather that they were totally unneccessary when perfectly Saxon expressions were already in use.

He lists a number of these new "foreign" words alongside the Saxon words they replaced. A few are still in use, though most have been worn away with time. I find that there is a poetic naturalness to the Saxon words. In our coarse, vulgar age, incorporating a few here and there into our speech might not be a bad thing. Some examples, as follows:




















Accumulate--Upheap, upgather





















Saturday, May 21, 2011

Some Books (5)--Christianity and Culture by T. S. Eliot

Being generally unread in T. S. Eliot, and largely allergic to poetry (sorry), I thought I would try out this thin volume of essays. Eliot is fine, I suppose, but I doubt that I will become any better read from here on out. Christianity and Culture is very much a product of its time and place, in this case, Britain just before the advent of the Second World War. Even so, a few passages caught my attention--

I am not concerned with the problem of Christians as a persecuted minority. When the Christian is treated as an enemy of the State, his course is very much harder, but it is simpler. I am concerned with the dangers to the tolerated minority; and in the modern world, it may turn out that the most intolerable thing for Christians is to be tolerated.

The Anglo-Saxons display a capacity for diluting their religion, probably in excess of that of any other race.

In an industrialized society like that of England, I am surprised that the people retains as much Christianity as it does.

We have no assurance that a democratic regime might not be as inimical to Christianity in practice, as another might be in theory....Those who consider that a discussion of the nature of a Christian society should conclude by supporting a particular form of political organisation, should ask themselves whether they really believe our form of government to be more important than our Christianity; and those who are convinced that the present form of the one most suitable for any Christian people, should ask themselves whether they are confusing a Christian society with a society in which individual Christianity is tolerated.

To justify Christianity because it provides a foundation of morality, instead of showing the necessity of Christian morality from the truth of Christianity, is a very dangerous inversion...

It is not enthusiasm, but dogma, that differentiates a Christian from a pagan society.

But we have to remember that the Kingdom of Christ on earth will never be realised, and also that it is always being realised; we must remember that whatever reform or revolution we carry out, the result will always be a sordid travesty of what human society should be--though the world is never left wholly without glory.

The term "democracy" ... does not contain enough positive content to stand alone against the forces that you dislike--it can easily be transformed by them. If you will not have God (and He is a jealous God) you should pay your respects to Hitler or Stalin.

Some Books (4)--The Message in the Bottle: How Queer Man Is, How Queer Language Is, and What One Has to Do with the Other by Walker Percy

The novelist Walker Percy remains a continuing interest of me. Several years back, I posted on his Love in the Ruins, and am slowly reading through his body of work. This collection of essays, written between 1954 and 1975, address his "recurring interest...[in] the nature of human communication and, in particular, the consequences of man's unique discovery of the symbol." Many of the chapters are a bit esoteric for my taste, but two in particular grabbed my attention: "The Loss of the Creature," and "Notes for a Novel about the End of the World."

Percy explains "the loss of the creature" by way of the modern practice of tourism. This idea was of particular interest to me. Many of my postings here have been of travel and traveling, and one day I may even pull it together into something a little more substantial.

Using the Grand Canyon as an starting point, he imagines the experience of the first Spanish explorer who stumbled upon it. And he follows that "to no one else is it ever as beautiful--except the rare man who manages to recover it, who knows that it has to be recovered." In this case, he notes that the canyon, "the thing as it is, has been appropriated by the symbolic complex which has already been formed in the sightseer's mind....Where the wonder and delight of the Spaniard arose from his penetration of the thing itself, from a progressive discovery of depths, patterns, colors, shadows, etc., now the sightseer measures his satisfaction by the degree to which the canyon conforms to the preformed complex....The highest point, the term of the sight seer's satisfaction, is not the sovereign discovery of the thing before him; it is rather the measuring up of the thing to the criterion of the preformed symbolic complex....Seeing the canyon is made even more difficult by what the sightseer does when the moment arrives, when sovereign knower confronts the thing to be known. Instead of looking at it, he photographs it...He waives his right of seeing and knowing and records symbols for the next forty years. For him there is no present; there is only the past of what has been formulated and seen and the future of what has been formulated and not seen."

Percy acknowledges that there are ways in which "the thing," can be recovered. One can leave the beaten path by avoiding all of the facilities provided for seeing the thing (though even this quickly becomes institutionalized and programmed, i.e. Lonely Planet, etc.) One can engage in a dialectical recovery of the thing, "which brings one back to the beaten tract but a a level above it." Finally, a "breakdown of the symbolic machinery by which the experts present the experience to the consumer," or even a national disaster may present opportunities for the real recovery of the thing.

Percy observes the tendency (particularly among American travelers,) to feel let-down in they do not capture the "it" of wherever they are going. An example of this would be the American tourist couple traveling in Mexico, becoming hopelessly lost and stumbling onto a remote Indian village where they remain several days and witness a religious festival complete with corn dance. They both know that "this is it," the authentic, defining experience. According to Percy, "their hope has something to do with their own role as tourists in a foreign country and the way in which they conceive this role." The author puts his finger on something I have long felt, but was unable to really articulate. In my travel posts of past years, I include photographs of places, but rarely did I include pictures of people, unless it happened to be those with whom I was traveling. In Georgia, on a number of occasions, I passed on opportunities to photograph farm workers, harvesting crops much as they had done for millennia--by hand, with horses and wagons. I instinctively knew that what they were doing was of far more significance than what I was engaged in. To objectify them, to treat them as quaint curiosities that would entertain my friends at the coffee shop--or look good on a blog post, was demeaning to them, as well as being a cheapening of the moment for me. Percy would describe this as a loss of sovereignty over the experience. I carry the image in my mind, and that is sufficient.

Percy ends the chapter, as follows:

The loss has come about as a consequence of the seduction of the layman by science. The layman will be seduced as long as he regards beings as consumer items to be experience rather than prizes to be won, and as long as he waives his sovereign rights as a person and accepts his role of consumer as the highest estate to which the layman can aspire....the person is not something one can study and provide for; he is something one struggles for. But unless he also struggles for himself, unless he knows that there is a struggle, he is going to be just what the planners think he is.

In the other chapter noted above, Percy writes of those novelists who write about the End of the World. By this, he does not mean anything in the latest end-times fantasy or science fiction, but rather those writers who have "an explicit and ultimate concern with he nature of man and the nature of reality where man finds himself. Instead of constructing a plot and creating a cast of characters from a world familiar to everybody, he is more apt to set forth with a stranger in a strange land where the signposts are enigmatic but which he sets out to explore nevertheless." These authors betray "a passionate conviction about man's nature, the world, and man's obligation in the world."

Percy makes some interesting, and astute, generalizations about authors. "The nineteenth-century Russian novelists were haunted by God: many of the French existentialists are haunted by his absence. The English novelist is not much interested one way or the other....American novels tend to be about everything. Moreover, at the end, everything is disposed of, God, man, and the world." To Percy, these authors know that "something is wrong here," exhibiting a "single strain...a profound disquiet." He asks, "Is it too much to say that the novelist, unlike the new theologian, is one of the few remaining witnesses to the doctrine of original sin, the imminence of catastrophe in paradise?"

The subject of the postmodern novel is a man who has very nearly come to the end of the line. How very odd it is, when one comes to think of it, that the very moment he arrives at the threshold of his new city, with all its hard-won relief from the sufferings of the past, happens to be the same moment that he runs out of meaning!

Which will be more relevant of the "lost" man of tomorrow who knows he is lost: the new theology of politics or the renewed old theology of the Good News? What is most noticeable about the new theology, despite the somber strains of the funeral march, is the triviality of the post-mortem proposals. After the polemics, when the old structures are flattened and the debris cleared away, what is served up is small potatoes indeed.

Walker Percy, who died in 1990, knew a thing or two about what was coming.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Let's Sit This One Out

The "Arab Spring" seems to be lengthening out into a long, hot summer. The simmering unrest in Syria has attracted some attention in this country, with calls for sanctions and intervention to some degree. To this I say, Please, No.

Make no mistake, Bashar al-Assad is a nasty piece of work. Gangly, weak-chinned and sporting a cheesy moustache, he looks every bit the mild-mannered ophthalmologist he once was. Due to the death of his older brother, Bashar fell heir to the family dictatorship at his father's death in 2000. Hopes of him harboring reformist tendencies have born precious little fruit, and the government's response to the recent street demonstrations have shown that Bashar al-Assad has no intention of giving up the family business.

That said, Syria is not Egypt and neither is it Libya. Yes, the educated Syrian populace is frustrated with their lack of economic opportunity, as well as corruption (though it hardly rises to Egyptian standards.) But there is no widespread opposition and hatred of the Assad regime, heavy-handed as it can be. And the myriad minority groups (of which Assad himself is a member) are fearful of the Sunni majority gaining the upper hand. And Assad is a known quantity in the region, a fact that even his arch-enemies, the Israelis, can appreciate.

One of our parish families spent 3 weeks in Aleppo in April. At that time, at least, nothing was happening there. Another parish member, along with her two young daughters, is in Damascus now visiting family. She reports life is normal, with no disruptions. Of course, both of these examples are from Syrian Christians, who have more to fear from Assad's fall than anyone else. But then I recently heard from my Muslim friend in Aleppo. His words, in broken but clearly understandable English were: "as lately you had maybe in American news about Syria and what is going on but it is all wrong ."

But with demonstrations in the street against autocracy, surely we, the original Revolutionaries, have to do something, don't we? Actually, no. Charles Glass, in an excellent article, here, agrees with the old French saying that there is an "urgent need to do nothing."

Syria is a complex and diverse society in which outside do-gooders risk destroying all they claim to support. The first victims of a war in Syria will be the religious minorities. These include the Alawites and the Christians, who comprise about ten percent of the population and have prospered under the Assad regime. The government, despite the Ottoman-era practice of defining citizens by religious sect, is explicitly secular.

As in Iraq, chaos would mean the mass emigration of the Christian communities who have lived there for two millennia. Syria, following the American invasion of Iraq with its concomitant anarchy and sectarian conflict, took in over a million Iraqi refugees, including more than 300,000 Christians. Where would they and Syria’s indigenous Christians find refuge? Do Washington’s holy warriors want them to leave and for Syria to be as purely Sunni as its favorite Mideast statelet, Saudi Arabia?

Here is what Marco Rubio, the telegenic new senator from Florida and 2012's inevitable GOP vice-presidential nominee has to say about our response to Syria:

Here is the reality. We either believe the founding principles of this nation or we do not. The founding principles of the United States are simple, and that is that our rights don’t come from our laws or from our government. They come from our creator, and that these rights extend to all men. And any government who denies these rights is an illegitimate government.

Anywhere in the world where that is challenged, the United States has to speak out against it. Otherwise, the very essence of our founding, our purpose for existing as a nation and our founding, is gone. This is an important issue. ~Marco Rubio

The dependable Daniel Larison takes this nonsense to task, here, finding this "the most egregious sort of meaningless moral posturing with some flourishes of American nationalism."

And in the combox is this perceptive observation:

For one thing, the fall of Assad would very likely lead to great pressure on the ancient Christian communities of Syria. Are the Christians of the Levant endowed by their Creator with inalienable rights, or are those rights confined to landholding American Deists?

In another post, Larison continues:

[The President] is the chief magistrate of a federal republic. He is not a cheerleader or motivational speaker for the world’s dissidents. Giving protesters encouragement without any intention of lending them real support is a good way to keep getting protesters killed.

“Speaking out” in support of protesters is a phony pledge of solidarity that America is with them, when they know full well that America is not with them....Lending false hope to opposition movements in Syria and elsewhere is not admirable or principled. It is much more like a cruel trick.

It hasn’t even been two months since the Libyan war started, and already we have people agitating for starting the same process all over again. When it seemed that Obama had no intention of ordering military attacks on Libya, critics argued that he had to back up his demand that Gaddafi “must go” with action. Soon enough, Obama opted for intervention, and continues to insist that Gaddafi “must go.” If Obama addresses the Syrian crackdown in his speech on Thursday, will he refrain from making grandiose statements about the regime’s legitimacy, or will he issue another demand for an end to the current regime? All signs currently point to the administration’s unwillingness to make that demand, which is why it may be better if Obama says nothing or as little as possible about Syria.

Denunciations change nothing, so soon enough there will be agitation for “actions, not words,” and then there will be calls for “more decisive action” until people begin promoting the unthinkable and ridiculous option of launching attacks on government forces. As pressure builds, the government eventually adopts increasingly aggressive and confrontational policies. What everyone acknowledged to be “madness” yesterday soon becomes an unavoidable matter of preserving our “credibility.”

And finally, Justin Raimondo has some good thoughts here:

When you're hungry, and out of a job, familiar humiliations become intolerable. Israel's propagandists are telling us the Syrian government is behind the protests at the formerly quiet border between Syria and the Golan Heights: the Syrians are supposedly trying to divert attention from the Ba'athists' domestic atrocities. On the other hand, Damascus sounds a similar note, ascribing anti-government protests in its own streets to the work of the Mossad. These two may fight it out on the field of public diplomacy, and denounce each other as evil incarnate, yet both Tel Aviv and Damascus are basically on the same side – fighting against a human tide that threatens their carefully-constructed prison societies, once thought to be escape-proof and now revealed as rather rickety.

It could end in a new Arab Enlightenment, the restoration of a high civilization that fell into Ottomanized decay and eventual ruin, or it could climax in a orgy of self-immolation and a regional war that will plunge the Middle East back into the darkness. Yet it is possible to draw at least one conclusion from the current chaos, and it is this: the US must get out of the way.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Some Books (3)—The Pllar and Ground of the Truth: An Essay in Orthodox Theodicy in Twelve Letters by Pavel Florensky

This is a monumental work, written when Florensky was merely 26. A Russian polymath executed by the Soviets in 1937, he is known as "Russia's DaVinci." And while I heartily recommend this book, I find it impossible to summarize. It is much like reading Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy. The author goes off on tangents that may be delightful to some, but incomprehensible to others, such as myself. But the work is well worth the effort, with hidden gems of incredibly lucid insight scattered throughout. The endnotes and comments alone run 160 pages, and make fascinating reading in and of themselves. Florensky has much to say about (and against) western notions of rationality in the context of faith. He also speaks at length about friendship, perhaps in ways that may be uncomfortable to some. I also found intriguing his explication of antinomies. Beyond that, I won’t attempt to say. A few selections follow:

Catholicism and Protestantism…in both cases, life is truncated by a concept….If in Catholicism one can perceive the fanaticism of canonicity, then in Protestantism one can perceive the equally great fanaticism of scientism. The indefinability of Orthodox ecclesiality…is the best proof of its vitality….The Orthodox taste, the Orthodox temper, is felt but it is not subject to arithmetical calculation. Orthodoxy is shown, not proved. That is what there is only one way to understand Orthodoxy: through direct Orthodox experience….one can become a Catholic or a Protestant without experiencing life at all—by reading books in one’s study. But to become Orthodox, it is necessary to immerse oneself all at once in the very element of Orthodoxy, to begin living in an Orthodox way. There is no other way. (pp. 8-9.)

The faith by which we are saved is the beginning and the end of the cross and of co-crucifixion with Christ. But so-called “rational” faith, faith with rational proofs, faith according to Tolstoy’s formula…such faith is a harsh, cruel stony growth in the heart, which keeps the heart from God. Such faith is a slander against God, a monstrous product of human egotism, which desires to subordinate even God to itself. There are many kinds of atheism, but the worst is the so-called rational faith. It is the worst, for, besides the rejection of the object of faith…it is hypocritical, accepts God but rejects His very essence, His “invisibility,” i.e., His suprarationality. (p. 48)

Something is lacking. My soul—wishing to be liberated and to be with Christ—longs for something. And something will come: “It doth not yet appear what we shall be.” (1 John 3:2). And the more acutely one feels what is being prepared, the closer and more intimate will the connection with the Mother Church become, and the easier and simpler it will be to endure out of love for Her the dirt that is cast upon Her. What will be will be in Her and through Her, not otherwise. (p. 95)

But precisely because sin is rationality par excellence, it makes God’s entire creation and God Himself absurd, depriving Him of the perspective depth of grounding and tearing Him from the Soil of the absolute. It places everything in a single plane, making everything flat and vulgar.(p. 133)

Holiness is a preliminary self-perception of one’s own freedom, and sin is preliminary slavery to oneself. (p. 160)

The philosopher leaves behind his cloak, all the learned nonsense that clutters up his soul, his ignorance, arrogance, empty words, lies, and sly questions together with his muddled intellectualizing. In other words, he leaves behind the vanity, insanity, and pettiness that consist of gold coins, shamelessness, life without restraint and idleness, deceit, airs of importance, a belief in one’s own superiority, and finally, his beard, frowns, flattery, and so on. Face to face with eternity, everyone must take off everything corruptible and become naked. This makes the emptiness of a soul that has lost most of its content understandable. (p. 173)

What does salvation consist in? It consists in being a stone in the tower that is being built; it consists in real unity with the Church. (p. 248)

To arrive at the Truth, it is necessary to free onself from one’s self-hood, to go out of oneself. But, for us, this is impossible, for we are flesh. But, I repeat, how precisely, in this case, can one grasp hold of the Pillar of the Truth? We do not know and cannot know. We know only that, through the yawning cracks of human rationality, the azure of Eternity is visible. This is unfathomable, but it is so. And we know that “the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, not the God of the philosophers and scholars," comes to us, comes to our place of nocturnal rest, takes us by the hand, and leads us in a way we could not have conceived of. (p. 348)

Monday, May 09, 2011

Quick Trip to Arkansas

I am now down to two aunts--one by marriage in Fort Worth, whom I visit every January, and one by blood in Arkansas, whom I visit every May. I enjoy my annual overnight jaunt into the Ozarks and back. My aunt, now almost 88, remembers her happy central Texas childhood in great detail. I hear many of the old stories every visit, but there are always a few new ones thrown in for good measure. I had never heard her tell of the wheat harvesting in the community, or her experience in the Church of Christ Tabernacle with the preacher (and kinsman) who reminded her of Ichabod Crane, or of the time one of my uncle's caused the evacuation of the Copperas Cove High School (as well as ending his school career) by opening a bottle of skunk essence. She enjoys talking of old times--and of the Jehovah's Witness faith she has clung to these last 40 years. Obviously, I try to keep the conversation directed towards family matters (sigh.)

I will have to admit that I have even warmed-up to Arkansas. I have always harbored a Texan's instinctive disdain for our neighboring states. Our view of the westward migration is that anybody with any gumption did not linger in Louisiana or Arkansas, but came on to Texas, as any right-thinking person would do. But it is true, Arkansas is one beautiful state. The key for my changing attitude has come about by 1) avoiding the south-central portion of the state, and 2) staying completely off the Arkansas interstate highway system. My favorite regions are the Delta, from Memphis south, and the western third of the state, from Texas to Missouri.

Staying on the back roads as I do, I spend about 7-8 hours winding my way up to my aunt's. If you are looking for stereotypical hillbillyiana, well there is plenty of that, to be sure. But this sells the region short, for there is more beautiful, productive farmland than you might think. This trip, I kept my eyes opened for any interesting churches I passed along the way. For a few, I stopped to snap a picture.

The white church at the top is the old Boxley church, school and community center, a few miles down the road from my aunt's. Newton County is perhaps the most mountainous in Arkansas, and Boxley Valley is the only area where any real farming can be realistically accomplished. The narrow river valley is a protected area, spotted with white two-storey farmhouses with even larger barns, and all the accouterments of an on-going agricultural culture. This landmark is one of my favorites, but far from the only one of this nature in the area.

Crossing the Arkansas River, I came across this rather substantial red-bricked church out in the middle of nowhere. I was surprised to find a Catholic church out here in the middle of nowhere. The Church of Sts. Peter and Paul was constructed in 1917. A few miles down the road, I understood a little better. The Subiaco Abbey and School, a Benedictine institution, crowned an Arkansas hilltop. This neighborhood is obviously a Catholic enclave. Next trip, I plan to stop and look around a bit more.

In Paris, AR, I slowed down to take a picture of the impressively solid and fortress-like First Christian Church. After reading When Church Became Theatre (3 posts previous), I understand the context of this particular take on church architecture.

Further along, outside of Driggs, I encountered a sign for the Clark Chapel Church of God of the Abrahamic Faith. I had no idea what a Church of God of the Abrahamic Faith would look like, exactly, so I turned down this dirt road to check it out. Four miles on, I still had not reached the chapel, and realizing that I really needed to be heading in a southerly direction, I turned back. Again, a project for a future trip. I couldn't help chuckling a bit though, and thinking of my friend Milton's alter ego, the Rev. Buford T. Smeets, Pastor of the Gum Springs Tabernacle Greater Apostolic Church of the Final Thunder.

Fortified by a real hamburger at Mena's Skyline Cafe (since 1922,) I pushed on. South of Mena, one encounters a patch of what you might describe as stereotypical Arkansas. I made a u-turn after a caught a glimpse of this metal yard. The owner had constructed elaborate biblical quotes and spiritual admonitions out of heavy iron chains. The one pictured is only the main one at the scrap yard entrance--the other iron-clad makeshift billboards lined the entire front of the property. In her day, Flannery O'Connor could have made good use of this. I was kind of impressed myself.

DeQueen is the next town of any size south of Mena. With the dearth of any signs downtown en ingles, I think they probably should just go ahead and rename it de Reina. I turned off here, and headed west. A few miles before the Oklahoma border, I turned up Brooks Road, and stopped at All Saints of America Orthodox Mission, a sight even rarer in these parts than the rural Catholic church above.

This is a ROCOR church located on a beautiful country homestead. Fr. George walked across from his woodshop and greeted me. The farmhouse was his grandmother's and he retired here a number of years ago. The present church started out as a family oratory. While small, it held 45 for Pascha, with some driving from as far away as Little Rock. The walls are covered with icons, and the small dome is a real one, not a tacked-on affair. A nice hall, guesthouse and bells round out the picture. Fr. George invited me to visit sometime and stay in the guesthouse. I may take him up on that. We had a nice talk about current events in American Orthodoxy before I left.

It was now past 4:00 in the afternoon, and I was still a long way from home. I pushed on home and arrived with some daylight left to check on my garden and chickens. A satisfying outing, all the way around, I would say.

My One-And-Only Post on the Late Unpleasantness in the Orthodox Church in America (A Mild Rant)

Back when I was working on my graduate degree, I remember an anecdote from one of my history professors. In mock seriousness, he asked us if we knew why infighting within academic departments was so vicious. We were all a little intimidated of him, so no one answered. After a long pause, he replied because the stakes are so small. That's kind of how I feel about the latest sideshow within my particular Orthodox jurisdiction, the OCA. I do not mean to imply that one's salvation is small stakes, but as one commentator wryly noted, there are more model train enthusiasts in America than there are members of the OCA.

I have heretofore refrained from addressing the situation. Mine is not an "Orthodox blog," so to speak, but one where I may occasionally express my own Orthodox slant on contemporary happenings. I avoid publicly addressing "issues" within the Orthodox community. Also, I know I have visitors to this site who are outside Orthodoxy, to whom recent events would seem nigh incomprehensible. Well, hell--it should be equally incomprehensible to any right-thinking Orthodox. But with so much going on, it seems perversely head-in-the-sandish not to acknowledge the situation.

Let's just say there has been a little something for everybody in this year's imbroglio: attempted coups and counter-coups, plots within plots, machinations within machinations, leaked e-mails and stolen emails, dueling blogs, pettiness, jealousy, more plotting, occasional appearances by our royal family trying to keep everyone in line, de facto governance by blog post, sordid sexual allegation upon sordid sexual allegation complete with hierarchical condo hide-a-ways, formerly respected priests throwing their reputations away in vicious attacks, demonization on all sides, etc.

The world of the OCA is a small one. Basically, we all know each other. So it is not unusual that I would have some familiarity with a few of the parties involved, and why I find objectionable the cheap allegations and demonization against those I love and respect. I have been taken aback, as well, by the glee some take in all these troubles. But the Synod has met and decreed. Entrenched mediocrity has been confirmed, and the status quo ante affirmed. On our diocesan level, things are still roiling down here as perhaps the OCA's most vibrant parish, just for good measure it would seem, has been thrown on its back. I am convinced more than ever that the OCA's days are numbered, its vaunted autocephaly an increasingly impolite fiction--whether there is a Great Council or not. But God is still on His throne, and Orthodoxy, thankfully, is far larger than our little OCA. Back in my Protestant days, I saw "church problems" destroy the faith of some. And I have seen it in previous scandals within Orthodoxy. In a strange way, this has done nothing to weaken my faith. Any reality-based reading of Church history clearly shows the faithful plodding on, while bishops may plot and scheme. Simply put, if the Church were not what she claimed to be, such behavior would have sunk it centuries ago. This is all the more reason to keep my head down and tend my own garden here on the parish level. But in doing so, I am reminded of the line from Fiddler on the Roof, which has some applicability to our present situation:

May God bless and keep the Tsar... far away from us!

Sunday, May 08, 2011

Some Books (2)--Lives of the Mind: The Use and Abuse of Intelligence from Hegel to Wodehouse

George Orwell believed that there were "some ideas so absurd that only an intellectual could believe them." Roger Kimball takes this line of reasoning and has some fun with it in his Lives of the Mind: The Use and Abuse of Intelligence from Hegel to Wodehouse, published back in 2002. The dust-jacket promises "a delicious study of genius and pseudo-genius," a study which asks "When does a love of ideas become a dangerous infatuation?" or "What antidotes are there for the silliness of unanchored intellect?"

Frankly, I have never read much in the way of intellectual history. I can aspire to becoming a scholar, and I may have a certain knack for piecing together tidbits of history into a coherent picture. Intellectualism, however, is beyond me. My mind just does not work that way. If given a choice, I have always chosen to keep my head buried in the likes of Herodotus, or Carlyle, or Parkman, or Thucydides, or Prescott, or Macaulay, or Gibbon, or Comnena, or Runciman, or Lukacs and the like. I never gave any attention to intellectual historians and their theories--the ideas of Descartes, or Hegel, or Schopenhauer, or Marx, or Kierkegaard, etc.

That is why Kimball's book was such a satisfying read. For example, I now have some vague idea of the meaning of the term "Hegelian" without having to (God forbid) actually read Hegel. (Were this term removed from the vocabulary of intellectuals, I firmly believe most would be rendered mute.) On the whole, Kimball's essays cover an interesting lot, and both he and his subjects are eminently quotable. A selection:

Kimball on Aron: Busyness-that curiously modern bane that mistakes movement for progress.

Aron: Marxism is undoubtedly a religion, in the lowest sense of the word.

Kimbell on Aron on Hegel: His was a sober and penetrating intelligence, sufficiently curious to take on Heel, sufficiently robust to escape uncorrupted by the encounter.

Bagehot: Nothing is more unpleasant than a virtuous person with a mean mind.

Scruton on Hegel: His work is like a beautiful oasis around a treacherous pool of nonsense, and nowhere beneath the foliage is the ground really firm.

Kierkegaard: The curious fact that those who do not bore themselves usually bore others, while those who bore themselves entertain others.

Kimball on boredom: The dark side of a life devoted to amusement, pleasure, diversion. What happens when amusement palls and pleasure fails to please? Boredom yawns before one, a paralyzing abyss.

Kierkegaard: A passionate tumultuous age will overthrow everything, pull everything down; but a revolutionary age, that is at the same time reflective and passionless transforms that expression of strength into a feat of dialectics--it leaves everything standing but cunningly empties it of significance.

Bertram Russell on sex to first fiancee: As to frequency, I am sure it ought not to be great.

David Stove: Not to understand religion is ...not to understand nine-tenths of human history.

Stove on Darwin: Darwinism says many things, especially about our species, which are too obviously false to be believed by any educated person, or at least by an educated person who retains any capacity at all for critical thought.

Wodehouse by way of Jeeves to Bertie after a close brush with matrimony: It was her intention to start you almost immediately upon Nietzsche. You would not like Nietzsche, sir. He is fundamentally unsound.

Peguy: Everything begins in mysticism and ends in politics.

Kimball is good at this sort of thing. I remember his work back when I used to read the New Criterion. And yet, I group him with Theodore Dalrymple, another writer I admire. Both are excellent at chronicling our slow descent. None are better in the Decline-of-the-West genre. And yet, both pull back in the end, watching and tabulating as the vines of our age pry loose the bricks of our edifice, one by one. Neither will acknowledge the true nature of the Crisis before us, or its remedy.

Monday, May 02, 2011

Some Books (1)--When Church Became Theatre

I have been making good progress in winnowing-down my book stack. I am anxious to finish with them so I can begin on the next pile, which already awaits my attention. In the next week or so, I hope to report on a few of the books enjoyed over the last few months.

Anyone who looks at the contemporary side-show of American mega-churchdom and wonders how Christianity came to such a pass will gain valuable insight from When Church Became Theatre: The Transformation of Evangelical Architecture and Worship in Nineteenth-Century America by Dr. Jeanne Halgren Kilde. As the title indicates, this is not simply an architectural study, but an overview of evolving patterns of Protestant worship during the 1800s, and specifically how this was shaped and transformed by purposeful innovations in the traditional worship space. She "explores the complex relationships between space and worship, architecture and meaning, religion and society." This is a masterful work, and essential reading for an understanding of 19th-century American religiosity. As Kilde demonstrates, the calculated "revisioning of Protestant worship space," as well as the "reinvention" of a Christian past gave shape to a number of dynamic trends within Protestantism that are in evidence even today.

Briefly put, since the early 1800s, popular American church architecture has gone through four phases: the Gothic Revival, the neomedieval auditorium, the Late Gothic Revival, and finally, today's auditorium church. On the Gothic Revival:

"The hegemony of the Gothic as the generic Christian style was overwhelming at midcentury despite the fact that it seemed to contradict evangelical history and ideology in several ways....With its nave, chancel, choir and transepts, [the Gothic church] was ideal for establishing and maintaining the mystery of the Mass and the power of the clergy in the Eucharistic sacrament. It was inimical, however, to Protestant worship that focused on the sermon."

But as Kilde notes, "in their search for Christian coherence, evangelical Protestants separated the architecture from its liturgical function and imagined (emphasis mine) a generic Christian origin....Gothic design...was hailed as the only truly Christian building style precisely because it embodied Christian (i.e., generic Christian) principles...that these were pre-Reformation Christians did not greatly trouble [them.]" These churches "looked to a newly reconstructed past for their legitimacy, which a historicized Christian architectural style, the Gothic, provided," and "the appropriation and reinterpretation of the past for the purpose of reshaping and reformulating the Protestant church to respond to contemporary situations."

As one Christian writer noted in 1858: "The tendency of the structure must be continually upwards...leading the mind to the infinite above, which conveys the idea of the presence of God...Its interior must ...elevate the mid above all earthly thoughts; its forms must be filled with a spirit which in its development leads the mind toward the high undefinable ideas of that All-seeing and unseen God..."

To the Orthodox mind, this is strange and abstract language. I am not qualified to speak authoritatively about the significant of Orthodox architecture, but I do know enough to contrast it with the view above. There is no sense of pulling our thoughts upward, to some "infinite above," for the Triune God is there with us. The dome symbolizes the heavens, to be sure, but Christ Pantocrator is there, looking down on us. And with the iconography of the church, one has a sense of being literally enveloped into the mystical worship and adoration before the Throne.

I am reminded of Father Stephen Freeman's series of lessons (and now, book) on the "Two-Storey Universe" where, according to Protestant thought, God is imagined as "up there somewhere," on the second storey.

By mid-century, Gothic Revival had been largely abandoned in favor of the neomedieval auditorium churches which abandoned downtown for suburban locals, where they "strove to preserve and maintain the goodwill of wealthy members." Concern for the poor and needy often gave way to programs for "the family, " as they "adapted more fully to the growing consumer-oriented industrial culture." Kilde noted a process that "transformed audiences into voyeurs."

By late century, the pendulum had swung again, away from the neomedieval to the Late Gothic Revival. At this point, Kilde asks an important question:

"One must ask whether evangelical religion was simply colonized by capitalism during the peak of the U. S. industrial revolution. Were these churches merely the gilded totems of a capitalist age? Were they artifacts that furthered the ideology of wealth and consumption, bathing it in a glow of sanctified virtuosity and thus justifying it and the materialistic lifestyle it encouraged as sacred?"

Saint Tamar

Commemorated on May 1

In 1166 a daughter, Tamar, was born to King George III (1155–1184) and Queen Burdukhan of Georgia. The king proclaimed that he would share the throne with his daughter from the day she turned twelve years of age.

The royal court unanimously vowed its allegiance and service to Tamar, and father and daughter ruled the country together for five years. After King George’s death in 1184, the nobility recognized the young Tamar as the sole ruler of all Georgia. Queen Tamar was enthroned as ruler of all Georgia at the age of eighteen. She is called “King” in the Georgian language because her father had no male heir and so she ruled as a monarch and not as a consort.

At the beginning of her reign, Tamar convened a Church council and addressed the clergy with wisdom and humility: “Judge according to righteousness, affirming good and condemning evil,” she advised. “Begin with me--if I sin I should be censured, for the royal crown is sent down from above as a sign of divine service. Allow neither the wealth of the nobles nor the poverty of the masses to hinder your work. You by word and I by deed, you by preaching and I by the law, you by upbringing and I by education will care for those souls whom God has entrusted to us, and together we will abide by the law of God, in order to escape eternal condemnation…. You as priests and I as ruler, you as stewards of good and I as the watchman of that good.”

The Church and the royal court chose a suitor for Tamar: Yuri, the son of Prince Andrei Bogoliubsky of Vladimir-Suzdal (in Georgia Yuri was known as “George the Russian”). The handsome George Rusi was a valiant soldier, and under his command the Georgians returned victorious from many battles. His marriage to Tamar, however, exposed many of the coarser sides of his character. He was often drunk and inclined toward immoral deeds. In the end, Tamar’s court sent him away from Georgia to Constantinople, armed with a generous recompense. Many Middle Eastern rulers were drawn to Queen Tamar’s beauty and desired to marry her, but she rejected them all. Finally at the insistence of her court, she agreed to wed a second time to ensure the preservation of the dynasty. This time, however, she asked her aunt and nurse Rusudan (the sister of King George III) to find her a suitor. The man she chose, Davit-Soslan Bagrationi, was the son of the Ossetian ruler and a descendant of King George I (1014-1027).

In 1195 a joint Muslim military campaign against Georgia was planned under the leadership of Atabeg (a military commander) Abu Bakr of Persian Azerbaijan. At Queen Tamar’s command, a call to arms was issued. The faithful were instructed by Metropolitan Anton of Chqondidi to celebrate All-night Vigils and Liturgies and to generously distribute alms so that the poor could rest from their labors in order to pray. In ten days the army was prepared, and Queen Tamar addressed the Georgian soldiers for the last time before the battle began. “My brothers! Do not allow your hearts to tremble before the multitude of enemies, for God is with us…. Trust God alone, turn your hearts to Him in righteousness, and place your every hope in the Cross of Christ and in the Most Holy Theotokos!” she exhorted them.

Having taken off her shoes, Queen Tamar climbed the hill to the Metekhi Church of the Theotokos (in Tbilisi) and knelt before the icon of the Most Holy Theotokos. She prayed without ceasing until the good news arrived: the battle near Shamkori had ended in the unquestionable victory of the Orthodox Georgian army.

After this initial victory the Georgian army launched into a series of triumphs over the Turks, and neighboring countries began to regard Georgia as the protector of the entire Transcaucasus. By the beginning the 13th century, Georgia was commanding a political authority recognized by both the Christian West and the Muslim East.

Georgia’s military successes alarmed the Islamic world. Sultan Rukn al-Din was certain that a united Muslim force could definitively decide the issue of power in the region, and he marched on Georgia around the year 1203, commanding an enormous army.

Having encamped near Basiani, Rukn al-Din sent a messenger to Queen Tamar with an audacious demand: to surrender without a fight. In reward for her obedience, the sultan promised to marry her on the condition that she embrace Islam; if Tamar were to cleave to Christianity, he would number her among the other unfortunate concubines in his harem. When the messenger relayed the sultan’s demand, a certain nobleman, Zakaria Mkhargrdzelidze, was so outraged that he slapped him on the face, knocking him unconscious.

At Queen Tamar’s command, the court generously bestowed gifts upon the ambassador and sent him away with a Georgian envoy and a letter of reply. “Your proposal takes into consideration your wealth and the vastness of your armies, but fails to account for divine judgment,” Tamar wrote, “while I place my trust not in any army or worldly thing but in the right hand of the Almighty God and the infinite aid of the Cross, which you curse. The will of God--and not your own--shall be fulfilled, and the judgment of God--and not your judgment--shall reign!”

The Georgian soldiers were summoned without delay. Queen Tamar prayed for victory before the Vardzia Icon of the Theotokos, then, barefoot, led her army to the gates of the city.

Hoping in the Lord and the fervent prayers of Queen Tamar, the Georgian army marched toward Basiani. The enemy was routed. The victory at Basiani was an enormous event not only for Georgia, but for the entire Christian world.

The military victories increased Queen Tamar’s faith. In the daytime she shone in all her royal finery and wisely administered the affairs of the government; during the night, on bended knees, she beseeched the Lord tearfully to strengthen the Georgian Church. She busied herself with needlework and distributed her embroidery to the poor.

Once, exhausted from her prayers and needlework, Tamar dozed off and saw a vision. Entering a luxuriously furnished home, she saw a gold throne studded with jewels, and she turned to approach it, but was suddenly stopped by an old man crowned with a halo. “Who is more worthy than I to receive such a glorious throne?” Queen Tamar asked him.

He answered her, saying, “This throne is intended for your maidservant, who sewed vestments for twelve priests with her own hands. You are already the possessor of great treasure in this world.” And he pointed her in a different direction.

Having awakened, Holy Queen Tamar immediately took to her work and with her own hands sewed vestments for twelve priests.

History has preserved another poignant episode from Queen Tamar’s life: Once she was preparing to attend a festal Liturgy in Gelati, and she fastened precious rubies to the belt around her waist. Soon after she was told that a beggar outside the monastery tower was asking for alms, and she ordered her entourage to wait. Having finished dressing, she went out to the tower but found no one there. Terribly distressed, she reproached herself for having denied the poor and thus denying Christ Himself. Immediately she removed her belt, the cause of her temptation, and presented it as an offering to the Gelati Icon of the Theotokos.

During Queen Tamar’s reign a veritable monastic city was carved in the rocks of Vardzia, and the God-fearing Georgian ruler would labor there during the Great Fast. The churches of Pitareti, Kvabtakhevi, Betania, and many others were also built at that time. Holy Queen Tamar generously endowed the churches and monasteries not only on Georgian territory but also outside her borders: in Palestine, Cyprus, Mt. Sinai, the Black Mountains, Greece, Mt. Athos, Petritsoni (Bulgaria), Macedonia, Thrace, Romania, Isauria and Constantinople. The divinely guided Queen Tamar abolished the death penalty and all forms of bodily torture.

A regular, secret observance of a strict ascetic regime--fasting, a stone bed, and litanies chanted in bare feet--finally took its toll on Queen Tamar’s health. For a long time she refrained from speaking to anyone about her condition, but when the pain became unbearable she finally sought help. The best physicians of the time were unable to diagnose her illness, and all of Georgia was seized with fear of disaster. Everyone from the small to the great prayed fervently for Georgia’s ruler and defender. The people were prepared to offer not only their own lives, but even the lives of their children, for the sake of their beloved ruler.

God sent Tamar a sign when He was ready to receive her into His Kingdom. Then the pious ruler bade farewell to her court and turned in prayer to an icon of Christ and the Life-giving Cross: “Lord Jesus Christ! Omnipotent Master of heaven and earth! To Thee I deliver the nation and people that were entrusted to my care and purchased by Thy Precious Blood, the children whom Thou didst bestow upon me, and to Thee I surrender my soul, O Lord!”

The burial place of Queen Tamar has remained a mystery to this day. Some sources claim that her tomb is in Gelati, in a branch of burial vaults belonging to the Bagrationi dynasty, while others argue that her holy relics are preserved in a vault at the Holy Cross Monastery in Jerusalem.

St. Tamara is commemorated on the Sunday of the Myrrh-bearing Women in addition to her regular commemoration on May 1.