Ecumenism for Orphans by Carl Hildebrand
Ecumenism for Orphans
“Ut unum sint…”
Zivania—the “dry traditional aperitif” of Cyprus. My American vulgarity wonders how it would go with Coca-Cola. Not as good as Jack and Coke, but I won’t let that get in the way.
Some months ago, I lived off-and-on in Nicosia, the capital of Cyprus, whose current partial occupation by the Turks since 1974 is only the latest chapter in that Levantine island’s storied history of invasion and seizure. Cyprus’ strategic position, jabbing its spindly north-eastern finger of land into the armpit of Asia Minor, made the occupation of Aphrodite’s famed birth-place a sine qua non for any outside powers with pretensions in the Eastern Mediterranean. And, just as its capital today is riven by the barbed and turreted ugliness of a demilitarized zone curated by U.N. troops, Cyprus has often been at the fault-line between “clashing civilizations.” Ethnically Greek since at least the second millennium before Christ, Cyprus’ petty-kings who divided the island amongst themselves in antiquity were principally tributaries of the Achaemenid shahs, whose majesty they served against their fellow Greeks hard by on the Ionian shores with their upstart notions of freedom that kindled the Persian Wars. In his eastward march, Alexander the Great “liberated” Cyprus from the Persian yoke, only to leave her a prey, upon his unprovided death, to the conflicting ambitions of the Syria-based Seleucids and the Egyptian Ptolemies in the wars between his successors. Egyptian sway in Cyprus prevailed for a time, only to be broken by imperial Rome ascendant when the hopes of Cleopatra and Mark Antony went down with their fleets before Caesar at Actium. What was then a department of the Roman Empire—where Saints Paul and Barnabas contended against the Jewish “magus” Elymas for the soul of a Roman consul—ultimately became, with the disintegration of imperial unity, a part of what would come to be the Greek-speaking Eastern Empire called “Byzantine” by modern scholars.
“The rise of Arab sea power,” writes Timothy E. Gregory, meant that “Cyprus became a battlefield between Byzantium and Islam.” By joint agreement of the emperor and caliph “Cyprus seems to have become,” Gregory continues, “a no-man’s-land” between crescent and cross. The Byzantines did succeed in retaking the island in the tenth century. But in the late twelfth century Cyprus was “liberated” once more, this time from the “Roman” imperial yoke, not by a Muslim, but by a Greek rebel named Isaac Komnenos. His rule was not to last, for by then Cyprus was not merely in the thick of a regional conflict; since the fall of Christian Jerusalem to Saladin in 1187, Cyprus, athwart the Levantine coast, had become the front-line in the struggle against Islam known as the Crusades. On his way east Richard the Lionheart landed with force on Cyprus in 1191, quickly crushed Komnenos and occupied the island. The Lionheart married his wife Berengaria in Famagusta, on the eastern side of the island, where today its three-hundred churches—Greek, Latin, Maronite, Armenian, Jacobite, Nestorian—stand silent as broken tombs beneath the Turkish occupation. After an abortive attempt to sell the island to the Knights Templar (who quickly returned the island, with buyers’ remorse, after an indigenous uprising, as far more trouble than it was worth), Richard ultimately settled Cyprus on the Lusignan family, a cadet branch of the French royal dynasty. The Lusignans ruled Cyprus until the late fifteenth century, when the Venetians took their turn for a period of eighty years until the Ottomans seized the island in 1571, flayed the Venetian governor-general alive, and hoisted his stuffed skin aloft a ship’s mast to parade as a trophy—the outrageous opening act in a drama that culminated in the miracle at Lepanto.
Cyprus remained an Ottoman possession until 1878 when the Sublime Porte conceded it to the British Empire. Cyprus became a crown colony, until the restive murmurs of its Greek population longing for enosis, for union with the Greek motherland, chorused into the defiant cry of revolt in the mid-twentieth century. The British ultimately yielded—not without a fight—but Cyprus’ life as a nation independent and indivisible was jinxed by the dream of enosis with Greece. A coup against the Cypriot government masterminded by the military dictators of Greece instigated Turkey, which considered itself the guarantor of the rights of Cyprus’ Turkish minority, to invade in 1974. There followed a nightmare of atrocities against civilians, forced migrations, and the seizure of the northern third of the island up to and including northern Nicosia—a trauma from which the island cannot recover so long as it remains lacerated by the barbed-wire, watchtowers, and landmines of occupying forces. And it doesn’t look like they will be leaving anytime soon. To the contrary, the government of Erdogan, who seems to understand demographics much better than Europeans, is sponsoring the migration of ever more Turkish settlers to the island where the bones of St. Lazarus, “the friend of Christ,” await the Resurrection.
Today I take a tour of some of the glorious medieval churches of the Troodos mountains. These are the famous “painted churches” of Cyprus. Holy images pulsating with ineffable and dignified pathos covering every inch of a tiny chapel. Images of the God whom the Greeks call “the Lover of Mankind”—above all I think of the icon called Akra Tapeinosis in which we see the dead face of God, murdered by the men He had created and come to save, the “Supreme Humiliation”—that reveal the maudlin holy card with its saccharine Christ, so familiar as the litter of Catholic pews and bookstores, as the sham it really is.
At the church St. John Lampadistis, I meet a very kindly Romanian priest. He is young. He doesn’t have much to do, it being winter, and he is a bit suspicious that I am taking pictures. I confess that his suspicions were not unfounded. Meanwhile I am drawn, characteristically, to an image of Final Retribution and Damnation adorning what had once been the narthex of this peculiar church that had once served a monastery, a church in which the so-called “Latin Chapel,” decorated in a style synthesizing the worlds of Byzantium and the Italian Renaissance, sits beside another nave painted in a more strictly “Greek” fashion. In the image I’m looking at, a river of fire surges out from beneath the feet of a grim and enthroned Christ. There are inscribed the horrible words, “Depart, ye accursed, into the fire prepared from the beginning of world for the Devil and his angels,” uttered by the inexorable Judge to a wriggling school of sinners gasping in the flames. Within that company of diversely adorned ne’er-do-wells, I spot what looks to me like a papal miter. Why not give the Romanian priest a chance to vent against the Latins? I ask him if the damned soul in question might not be a pope consigned to the flames, undoubtedly by the hand of some ornery Greek iconographer. The priest very correctly tempered my enthusiasm by pointing out that the monastery’s iconic program was influenced by Western art and culture. In other words, a damned cleric with a pointy hat reflects the artist’s notions of clerical garb in general (and those notions might have been influenced by his knowledge of Latin clerical dress) rather than any specific anti-Latin animus on his part. After all, damned clerics were also indispensable in Western visions of hell, in which even popes not uncommonly figure.
Eventually this priest and I got to chatting a bit. Still talking about the picture, he mentioned to me—for what reason I am not exactly sure—that the Latin theory of “purgatorium” had no place in Orthodox theology, which taught that the faithful can, nevertheless, “pray people out of Hell and into Heaven” (which, in my view, essentially amounts to the same thing as Purgatory, but I’m no theologian and I just nod my head).
A bit later he is occupied with some bewildered Muslim sight-seers who, shuffling together through the nave, huddled and silent, eyes wide with the jeweled idols and the bones of the saints menacingly gleaming at them by candlelight in the darkness, abruptly bailed out altogether and made for the door. I wonder what they were expecting to see? Maybe they go into Christian churches because they enjoy being frightened, like children in haunted houses. I know that when I want to be depressed I go into a mosque that used to be a Christian church, such as St. Sophia in Nicosia.
As I had been meanwhile trying to place a kiss on the top of an exposed fragment of the skull of St. John the Baptist, I had probably helped to enhance our Pakistani friends’ thrill ride. But not only they had seen me. After they had fled the house of idolatry (or been miraculously expelled from the house of God), the Romanian priest approached me.
“You are Catholic?” Not an accusation. A friendly question.
“Yes… how did you know?”
“I saw you, from the corner of my eye,” he smiles, “venerating.” That’s how it is over here. If you have pale skin and don’t look like a Slav and kiss holy images, they assume you are Catholic, which is fine with me because over here they are generally free of those idiotic pretensions and crypto-Protestant prejudices present in so many converts to Orthodoxy in the West. Rather, in the main, they seem more prepared to accept Catholicism—yes, in spite of its eccentricities and even its heretical innovations—as the legitimate representative of traditional Christianity of the West. "
I blunder inarticulately trying to say that being in the Greek East, amidst these churches, is balm on a soul irritated by the cheap and ugly sentimentality of liturgy and art in the modern Christian West, born of its obsession with intelligibility, which is to say its bizarre and un-Christian intolerance of mystery.
“Yes,” he responds, “It would seem that in the West the most important thing in Christianity is philanthropy.”
“Philanthropy, but they have neglected mystagogy.”
“But that is the most important thing.”
We speak a little more, and his eye catches the flash of my wedding band as I gesticulate.
“You are married.” He observes.
He smiles, a little mischievously. “Then you are not a priest.” Yes, I see, he is showing that he knows how “it works” in the West.
“No,” I concede, “though I did spend a little time in seminary. You are married?” I ask, showing I know how “it works” over here.
“Yes, I am married.”
“And you have children?”
“Yes, two boys.”
“Oraia!” I compliment him for his masculine prowess in begetting two male children, and myself: “I have two boys too.”
He warms me with a twinkling Romanian smile and priestly benediction:
“May God bless your two children.”
Not every conversation struck up between a Western tourist and Eastern clerics within the sacred precincts of a Cypriot monastery or hermitage has been concluded so amiably. One conversation, begun nearly eight hundred years ago when a Dominican inquisitor from abroad, Master Andrew, and his accomplice dropped in on a community of Greek monks who had acquired a reputation of sanctity for their practice of rigorous asceticism in a hermitage near the fortress of Kantara, ended at the pyre. The exchange began cordially enough, but took a deadly turn when the subject of the Holy Eucharist was raised. The Latins confected the sacrament in unleavened bread—which had aggrieved the Greeks for centuries—and the monks let their Dominican guest know, in no uncertain terms, that they regarded the Latin sacrifice as an aberration from the Scriptures perpetrated by the ignorant in bad faith against the truth of Christ. Master Andrew was enraged by what he could not but understand as unprovoked blasphemy. After all, he was not asking the Greeks to renounce their own practice, much less take up the Latin one, but merely to render to the sacrifice of the Roman Church the same basic recognition that all learned Western opinion had given to the Greek Eucharist in leavened bread for centuries. But the monks, steeled by the exhortation of the patriarch of Constantinople to the Cypriots to resist the Latins unto bloodshed—how easy for him to urge martyrdom on others from the comfortable distance of the court of the Nicaean emperor—insisted that the Latin Eucharist was a travesty. According to a roughly contemporary Dominican source, these “new martyrs of the devil” had claimed that “the Sacrament of the Latins is mud (lutum) and not a sacrament, and those sacrificing it or eating it sacrifice to demons in the manner of heathens.”
Bring us fire!—the monks dared the inquisitor—and let us all enter the flames together so that God can decide between thee and us, between thy sacrifice and ours.
Master Andrew had heard enough. The monks were apprehended and thrown into a dungeon in Nicosia. There they remained for three years and, in keeping with standard inquisitorial procedure, were given multiple opportunities to recant their blasphemous statements about the Eucharist. Naturally, they refused every chance for survival. They were ready to die for their orthodox faith which, evidently, entailed insulting the Latin faith. And so, every ruse of the inquisitors and every entreaty of local sympathy exhausted, on May 19th of 1231, the thirteen monks of Kantara were led forth to die.
First the monks were tortured: dragged behind the tails of horses over the lacerating rocks of the bed of the river Pedieos, gone dry in the summer. Then they were given over to the flames. They thus obtained what they had so ardently desired, the fiery trial that—despite the attempts of the Latin authorities to quash any nascent cult by the unsanctimonious dispersal of their ashes—has proved them, down the centuries and in the sight of Eastern Orthodox Christians, as martyrs. The Orthodox Church remembers them on the anniversary of their execution, May 19th.
It could be justifiably claimed that the stumbling block barring the way to union between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches is the obstinate Past. But that’s not quite right. It is rather the different ways in which Eastern and Western Christians remember—or forget—that Past. More than any bloodless debate about the procession of the Holy Spirit or the entitlements of the heir of St. Peter, it is about History. For instance, relatively few Orthodox today would get very worked up about the lack of yeast in their Western counterparts’ Eucharistic host, although some of the most dynamic thinkers in the Eastern tradition considered this to be the principal sin of the Latin West—sometimes even more grievous than the Filioque, as can be observed in the case of the 1054 fiasco. Rather, they brood upon putative past “misdeeds”: The Crusades including the sack of Constantinople in 1204, the subsequent Latin conquest of the Greek East and its subjection to the yoke of papal Rome, the burning monks of Kantara—instances allegedly demonstrating the intrinsic tendencies of the Christian West to persecute and colonize its brethren in the East, violence justified upon shaky theological premises. But this apparently heightened sensitivity to the past has often found little reception in the Christian West, where shallow memories recollect the dawn of history with the Allied victory in World War II and the Second Vatican Council—under such circumstances, Eastern grievances go without proper satisfaction, the grudge is nursed and the schism is hardened.
And yet this problem is not as simple as it may appear. It is not merely a problem Western neglect of history. After all, when Westerners do bow their heads and smite their breasts for the transgressions of their coreligionists bygone—think of Pope John Paul II’s unfortunate apologies for the Crusades—and the Orthodox stand apart and smugly pray “O God, I give thee thanks that the Orthodox are not like the rest of Christians, violent, unjust, self-serving, as also is this Catholic; I fast twice a week…”—have we come one inch closer to union? The problem is not merely Western historical amnesia. It is also a problem of Eastern Christian historical myopia. Consider those aforementioned alleged “misdeeds,” for instance the view of the Crusades as deliberate attacks of the papal West upon the Christian East, with the conquest of Constantinople in 1204 as the crown of evils.
Of course there is an historiographical backstory to all this. Just as Sir Edward Gibbon, or his ideas second-hand, fueled prejudice against the Middle Ages (including Byzantium) amongst generations of educated Westerners, many people—especially in the Anglophone world—have been influenced, whether they know it or not, by the late Sir Steven Runciman’s account of the Crusades and the East-West Schism. A gifted writer, Runciman was an out-and-out partisan of the Byzantine Empire and accepted uncritically the biases of its intellectual class against the Latins. (The interested reader can find an excellent critical treatment of Runciman’s place in Crusades historiography in the seventh chapter of Christopher Tyerman’s The Debate on the Crusades, 2011). At the end of his three-volume history of the Crusades he considered that “the [Western] destruction of Byzantium was the result of deliberate malice.” As for the Fourth Crusade and the sack of Constantinople by Latin forces in 1204, Runciman claimed that “there never was a greater crime against humanity than the Fourth Crusade.”—An astounding statement since, as Tyerman writes, when Runciman “[p]ublished [these words] in 1954…it was less than a decade after Hiroshima; the concentration camps; the Holocaust; and the Nuremberg trials that first defined crimes against humanity.” Runciman was obviously playing to the biases of respectable and well-educated liberals (i.e., anti-Catholics) in his own time. But his views resonate no less, really, with many today, for whom it is fashionable to treat “Crusade” as a dirty word, the ultimate distortion of Jesus Christ’s example.
Runciman helped establish the trend of dating the schism between the Churches to 1204 and its aftermath rather than 1054, although that date—with its infamous tussle between Cardinal Humbert and Patriarch Michael over the lack of yeast in the Latin Host–is still frequently encountered today in popular histories. Aside from the aforementioned allure of the victim narrative, Runciman’s “correction” has found a ready hearing with modern audiences alienated from pre-modern Christian sensibilities but thoroughly indoctrinated in the mysteries of Marx and, accordingly, who understand violence—of the most crude, physical sort—as the only lever upon which the world turns. Interestingly, the extant polemics of Byzantine critics hardly identify the Crusades as the principal sin of the Latins, and never as the cause of the schism. For anyone interested in history rather than fantasy, this silence of the sources speaks volumes.
Runciman wrote over a half-century ago, but the victim narrative to which his prejudices contributed is alive and well. I remember an Orthodox who told me—with a straight face—that when Western Christians acquired Eastern icons, but hesitated to venerate them, he felt like he was experiencing “the Fourth Crusade all over again.” Poor guy—judging by his phenotype I would guess that his ancestors were more likely the ones that had been crusading as opposed to being crusaded upon. Then there was the young convert who told me, just as earnestly, that the main difference between Eastern and Western Christians is that whereas the latter had a knack for building and running empires (I think this was a circumlocution for “bullying other people”) the former had “always been at the margins of empire.” Oh, really. Tell that to the Byzantines and Muscovites.
Does this sort of narrative sound familiar to you? It might to anyone who has undergone any degree of indoctrination into the mysteries of white or western guilt celebrated at every level of our formal education. Narratives of victimhood—as the scholarly fetish of “colonialism” is—are powerful. That power arises, in large part, from their monochromatic simplicity, wherein we view the pathetic spectacle of the white-hatted historical “others” whom the black-hatted brutalizers (whites, males, westerners, Christians) perpetually clobber. We vicariously suffer with the afflicted and grow strong from the righteous rage we feel on their behalf. It goes without saying that the Runcimanian narrative is a kind of victim narrative, a species of the colonial narrative, wherein we watch the black-hats (in this case, white-male-western-Christians, a powerful combination of oppression!) beat up the white-hatted Eastern Christians, exotics whose marginality is insured by the general ignorance of today’s consumers of this victim narrative, who know next to nothing about medieval Eastern Christians. This ignorance is evidenced, for instance, in the lack of differentiation made in this narrative between different groups of Eastern Christians—who are all lumped in together into one monolithic mass of bleeding flesh beneath the iron fists of the crusaders, friars, and other agents of malign papalism. Such blinkered perceptions of the Past constitute the ideal breeding ground for the innocent “Noble Savage” or Orientalist fantasy in the minds of the naïve.
Narratives like this are powerful because they are simple. Needless to say, history is much more complicated. This article isn’t the place to justify the Crusades— but how many Christians who indulge in the “papal-plot-for-domination-of-the-East-theory” of Crusading have read the letters of Pope Gregory VII (r. 1073-1085) who, before Urban II’s famous appeal at Clermont, grieved over the injuries suffered by the Eastern Christians at the hands of the infidels and desired to defend their lives by the sword—that is, by Crusade? Could a father have done any less for his children, and so should we expect any less of the man who considered himself to be the heir of St. Peter and the father of Christendom? Given the claims of the Roman Church, the Crusades were a reasonable response to the challenges of the time. (What requires explanation, then, is the lack of meaningful action from the Vatican today in favor of the persecuted and fast-dwindling Christian East). Then there’s infamous 1204 and its conquest of Constantinople. But this was largely the result of internecine strife and intrigue among incompetent Byzantine dynasts, whose sorry regime, incidentally, was ushered off history’s stage to the jeers of the Constantinopolitan underclass only too pleased to see them go. Meanwhile, the only soldiers who put up any sort of competent defense of the hapless Emperor Alexios V Mourtzouphlos were of the Varangian Guard—warriors of Western Christian provenance. It’s also worth noting that the contemporary documents containing the most graphic accounts of the wayward Crusaders’ behavior—which is condemned in strong terms—were letters issued by a shocked and disgusted Pope Innocent III.
I’m not trying to hassle the Orthodox about their historical sensibility, much less their cult of saints. There’s far too much sense of identity bound up in all of that, and so much undeniable holiness. Certainly, as a Catholic, if an Eastern Christian confronted me with the example of the monks of Kantara as “martyrs of the Orthodox faith,” I would point out that this “Orthodox faith” apparently included cursing the Western Eucharist to the Latins’ faces (in the phrase of medievalist Christopher D. Schabel, which is taken from the title of his excellent study of this episode, it was a case of “[Latin] Intolerance of [Greek] Intolerance [of the unleavened Eucharist]”—but then, sure, have your icons of the burning monks. My point here is, simply, to urge caution and fellowship. The note of caution: victim narratives are apparently empowering, but unless that narrative is endorsed and backed by the armed might of the modern State, that empowerment is illusory. Worse: it is enervating, and not only because it involves a glorification of weakness and victimhood. To be sure, central to Christianity is Christ’s victimhood. But insofar as Orthodox are using these narratives to get a seat at the Leftist Grievance Table presided over by Leviathan, they will soon find themselves out in the cold, or worse. Because the modern secular state doesn’t care about your saints, it hates your God, and wants to annihilate the memory of your faith from the face of the Earth. Meanwhile, the fabrication of slanted historical recollection and manufactured grievance deepens the divisions between the branches of Christianity. These divisions make us Christians—Catholic, Orthodox, or Protestant—more manageable by that state.
It need not be like this, nor need we forget ourselves, our identities, our pasts in order to come together against the enemies of Christ. What we need is vigorous, honest, and historically-grounded exchange—carried on without cringing pandering and impotent whining. This, precisely, is the basis for a true ecumenism, more meaningful than low-testosterone meetings where churchmen get photographed signing documents. We can do better, members of the Fleming Foundationf can do better, and, if we fall short of the fulfillment of Christ’s prayer to His Father on the night He was betrayed, then let’s at least drink beer (or zivania, or slivovitz…) together in the corners that have still been left to us by the Prince of this World. And since our time is short and the hour is at hand, let’s look each other in eye and speak frankly, as brothers would, for we are all together orphans of Christendom.