Sunday, July 1, 2012

[TSE] Holiness or Heresy: Evolving Models of Iurodstvo in Medieval Russia

Notes for the Reader
Excerpts will be posted unedited; will post my own commentary at the end. All senior essay related posts will be tagged "Batiushka Ioann". Footnotes will appear at the bottom of each excerpt. Prologue here.
Questions, critiques, and reactions of any kind warmly encouraged; I am looking to strengthen and improve. Please remember that this is essentially a hastily written draft.
Writing about theology and Church history as an inexperienced believer for a secular academic audience is harrowing. Don't ignore weaknesses and errors, particularly if they could be interpreted as heretical or blasphemous, but be cognizant of my constraints.

II. Holiness or Heresy: Evolving Models of Iurodstvo in Medieval Russia

The tradition of holy foolishness, a particularly enigmatic genre of sanctity, originates in the Gospel itself; Paul of Tarsus mentions a connection between foolishness and the Divine several times in his First Letter to the Corinthians, but of particular relevance is this passage: “Let no man deceive himself. If any man among you seemeth to be wise in this world, let him become a fool, that he may be wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God. For it is written, He taketh the wise in their own craftiness.”The lived tradition of foolishness-for-Christ began in Byzantium, but it was in medieval Muscovy that the practice became most well-known. The Russian holy fool (iurodivyi) soon took on a particular role: he was not merely a man conquering pride through madness and humiliation, but “a form of divine control over the state authorities.”This other-worldly rebuke of secular power is famously illustrated in the confrontation between Nicholas of Pskov and Tsar Ivan IV, in which the fool sends the Tsar a piece of bloody meat to chastise him for his massacres. Importantly (in legend, if not in historical fact), Ivan repents, and orders the city spared.

By the seventeenth-century, however, the protective aura of dread and wonder that had largely shielded the iurodivye from institutional persecution had begun to dissipate. Patriarch Iosif in 1646 barred them from entering churches, “since their shouting and squealing prevents Orthodox Christians from hearing the divine chanting, and they come into God’s churches like robbers, carrying sticks…”9  Instructive is the story of another Sergiev, called Ioann the Big-Cap of Moscow, whose life provides an example of the interplay between temporal authority and manifestation of holiness.

He was born around 1670 into a peasant family and spent most of his life wandering from monastery to monastery. Unlike many holy fools, it seems that he wanted to become a monk. Because of Peter I’s ecclesiastical reforms, Ioann, as an illiterate peasant, was prohibited from being tonsured—unless he could convince the highest court to grant an exception and obtain a Synodal dispensation. As Aleksandr Lavrov notes, “one may well wonder how an illiterate could ever have obtained the latter. For most people, therefore, the path to monastic asceticism was simply closed. For this reason, in examining religious recluses…we must consider as motives not only a certain sense of footloose self-determination but also the pressure exerted by the dominant religious culture that forced them to adopt alternative ways.”10  Unlike his forbears in iurodstvoIoann rarely ran afoul of authority, and was generally accepting of whatever treatment he was given: after the signing into law of a new regulation demanding that “there be no truck with anchorites and sanctimonious men with matted locks,” the Bishop of Vologda ordered him shorn, a castigation to which he meekly submitted.11 Nor could he be accused of heresy or schismatic sympathies: he regularly confessed and took Communion, and in spite of the tumultuous Sobor of 1666-7 in which the Old Believers were anathematized, he swore that he “recognized no schism” and “crossed himself with three fingers and not with two.”12 It seems that he was marked as a holy fool only by his heavy chains, iron cap, and aimless wanderings. All this notwithstanding he was captured in 1733 and “returned to his place of registration.”13

What happened in the 150 years separating Nicholas and Ioann? Despite late Muscovy’s low literacy rate (Gary Marker, estimating generously, pegs it below ten percent), highly public liturgical services combined with mass migration spurred by the Time of Troubles to disseminate tales of iurodstvo throughout and across cities and villages.14 As popular veneration grew, the Church became increasingly wary, striking names from prayer-books and speaking out publicly against the visible and behavioral markers characteristic of the iurodivye.15 Their renown was beginning to spread beyond her reach, and not in ways she welcomed. In Holy Fools in Byzantium and Beyond, Sergey Ivanov quotes the testimony of many foreign travelers to Russia who were surprised by the free reign given the iurodivye; some, like Isaac Massa, openly pitied the Russians for their gullibility: “…if I was the tsar I would order the last rite for her before it was my turn; but these Muscovites consider her holy; which is not surprising, since—alas—they are still mired in ignorance. May God enlighten them!”16

More serious are scenes from the iurodivye vitae in which they commit unpredictable acts of violence, such as Prokopii of Viatka killing an infant “to resurrect it later” and holding a knife to his confessor’s throat, or Simon of Iurevets strangling a priest with his bare hands.17 While in some sense these stories warn the faithful of the fundamental incomprehensibility of the fool’s actions, in another they are deeply subversive: “regardless of how the hagiographer tries to explain it—aggression against the priest is semantically significant as a sign of rebellion against the Church.”18

Here we see the tension between hagiography and mere narrative. The earliest holy fools were relatively isolated examples of eccentric holiness, fantastic aberrations that inspired awe and served as a kind of memento mirari, but as stories of their exploits were collected into vitae and became reified into a particular model for communing with the Divine, they took on the normativity of other saints’ lives, opening the door for ever increasing numbers of feral, bullheaded vagrants to roam the kingdom. Ivanov notes that “the emergence of at least one local iurodivyi almost inevitably called forth a wave of imitators.”19

While the prelates struggled to manage the destabilizing effects of popular iurodstvo, the iurodivye themselves were transforming. The first iurodivaya (female holy fool) appeared during the reign of Boris Godunov (1585-1598); like Nicholas of Pskov, she was wholly unafraid of anyone, including the tsar, and would often foretell future events.20 Despite the similarities, the modern observer must understand the strangeness of an isolated sixteenth-century woman taking on what had been an exclusively male role, particularly in an era still so concerned with sorcery that an explicit renunciation of it was included in the oath of allegiance to the tsar.21 Around the same time we also see hermits and nuns counted among the iurodivyethe inclusion of hermits is especially bizarre, since perhaps the defining characteristic of a holy fool is that he be among people—whether to humiliate himself, rebuke those around him, warn them of danger, or even simply arouse in them confusion or astonishment, but he that works to shut himself away from others, whether sane or mad, cannot properly be named among the iurodivye.

To more thoroughly understand how the holy fool changed throughout the seventeenth-century, it is instructive to break him down into his constituent parts. As previously established, he must be among people(“the world would rather have nothing to do with this madman, but he keeps on imposing himself on the world,”), he must be fearless (although he need not be aggressive or violent), and he may have special powers of prophesy, which he will use to warn the faithful, rebuke the sinful, prompt all to repentance, and, upon the fulfillment of prophesies, build confidence in his special relationship with God.22 His is a curious, worldly asceticism—he is almost always utterly impoverished and completely reliant on the charity of those around him, often rejecting it even when offered. He may starve himself, walk about naked or in chains, or incite violence upon himself. Typically he does not form close relationships with anyone, but he may have a spiritual confessor in whom he trusts and around whom he is at peace (though, as noted earlier, there’s no guaranteeing the safety of such confessors). He may wander across entire regions or stay within a particular village, but he does not own property, and incredibly rarely would he have any rank to speak of. He may or may not be schismatic; he may or may not be literate (though the latter is admittedly quite rare).

In short, he bears within him elements of the charismatic, ascetic, monastic, pastoral, apocalyptic, thaumaturgic, martyric—all that seem to be missing are the hermetic and the hieratic, curiously enough two opposite poles themselves, and yet their marked absence circumscribe who may or may not be called a holy fool. Now when in the seventeenth-century iurodivye adopt the wearing of fetters, a particular Russian modification to the tradition, we can contextualize the innovation somewhere between wholly irrelevant and paradigm shattering. Ivanov writes, “Byzantine holy fools did not wear fetters. That fetters came to seem necessary is a measure of the fading of that special aura which had earlier surrounded indecency and hooliganism in themselves. Thus later holy foolery sought new forms of legitimation.”23

That a holy fool might not only desire legitimation, but consciously hit upon how to secure it, might reasonably elicit no small degree of suspicion about the whole enterprise. However, when understood in light of, say, his prophetic role, it makes sense that somewhere he maintains a sense, not of dignity, but of whether and to what degree he is fulfilling his purpose.

Just as the iurodivye may seek irons to brace their message and purify themselves for their mission, the hagiographers understand that they, too, must bear the responsibility of effective communication, instead of hoping dumbly that they will be understood. Thus is explained, for example, the replacement of archaic names with more familiar ones in the seventeenth-century reprinting of a particular story about a monk and the Archangel Michael.24 Archbishop Feofan (Prokopovich) of Novgorod, Peter I’s chief apologist, likewise understood the potentially subversive power of the saints: hoping to marginalize what he deemed unacceptable models, regardless of existing traditions of veneration, he “ridiculed not only the holy fools of his day but even those already extolled by the Church as having been pleasing to God.”25

And so the reader of the hagiography is not one, but at least three conceptual steps from the saint himself—his idea of the saintly model is based on the text, but colored by his own associations and biases; the text is whatever happens when the hagiographer’s particular knowledge, abstract ideal, and writing skill intersect, and alone of the three that particular knowledge itself is nothing more than the memory of how the saint chose to present himself, he himself mediating his holiness through his preconceived ideas of piety, sanctity, and the good. Throw in hundreds of years between subject and scribe, or thousands of miles, or both; let the writer be ineloquent, uneducated, and myopic—or selfish, manipulative, and bright, or anything but a saint himself, and one might wonder how it is the Church has consistent models at all not drawn directly from Scripture (not that that isn’t fraught either, as some Protestants will attest). Hieromonk Makarios of Simonos Petra explains:
But the life of a saint cannot be reduced to an article in a Dictionary of Biography or to a chapter in Church History; it is a verbal icon of the saint that, while telling the story as accurately as possible, lets the hidden aspect of the work of the Grace of God in the saint shine through. Just as an icon can only be venerated in the context of worship with the appropriate dispositions, so the life of a saint can only be read in the Church with the eyes of faith and not according to the criteria of secular scholarship. … Although in the life of ascesis and inner prayer (noera prosevchi) all forms of imagination are excluded, our tradition, seeing how strong imagination and representation are within our nature in its fallen state, makes its own their power, which for man without God is a source of division, and transfigures them in iconography and in hagiography, so that they become a genuine means of entering into communion with God and with His saints.26
The Church therefore protects her models, but does so through active contemplation and consciously particular forms of veneration. Archimandrite Justin Popovich calls the lives of the saints “applied dogmatics… In reality they are the testimonies of the Acts of the Apostles, only continued throughout the ages.”27 Veneration of a saint takes many forms, as Hieromonk Damascene (Christensen) writes, “Besides our private prayers for them, the Church offers us many other ways of communing with them as our friends and honoring them as our preceptors. We sing their troparia, we venerate their icons, we perform services to them, and with a blessing from a Bishop we can even compose services in their honor.”28

The lowly parish priest, however, has rarely been recognized as one of the “gold and precious stones that adorn the raiment of the Bride.”29 If he is considered it all, it is only in light of the necessity of his function. He is a man with a job, in fact, a man constituted solely of his job—one that is sometimes sacerdotal, sometimes pastoral, but nothing of particular interest. The historical Orthodox white priest is reduced broadly to the political and ecclesiological regulations circumscribing his sphere of influence and setting the boundaries of his quality of life. The much-noted absence of glorified white priests prior to Father John’s certainly contributes to this—there are no vitae, no folk stories. But what did the priests themselves make of their vocation, particularly if, as (Saint) Justin Popovich explains, “the Lives of the Saints contain in themselves Orthodox ethics in their entirety,”?30 The intense debates surrounding the nature of the clerical caste beginning in earnest in the early nineteenth century show a church wrestling with the nature of the sacerdotal genre: trying to overcome its lowly status, arrive at an agreed upon mission and purpose, and make of a hodgepodge of canon law and worldly regulation a relevant and inspiring model.
- - - - - - - - - -
7. The King James Bible, I Cor 3:18-19.
8. Ivanov, Sergey. Holy Fools in Byzantium and Beyond. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006: 285.
9. Ivanov, Sergey. Holy Fools in Byzantium and Beyond. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006: 311.
10. Lavrov, Aleksandr. "Witchcraft and Religion in Russia, 1700–1740." Russian Studies in History 45.4 (2007): 23.
11. Lavrov, Aleksandr. "Witchcraft and Religion in Russia, 1700–1740." Russian Studies in History 45.4 (2007): 26.
12. Lavrov, Aleksandr. "Witchcraft and Religion in Russia, 1700–1740." Russian Studies in History 45.4 (2007): 24.
13. Lavrov, Aleksandr. "Witchcraft and Religion in Russia, 1700–1740." Russian Studies in History 45.4 (2007): 26.
14. Marker, Gary. "Literacy and Literacy Texts in Muscovy: A Reconsideration." Slavic Review 49.1 (1990): 89, Moon, David. "Peasant Migration and the Settlement of Russia's Frontiers, 1550-1897." The Historical Journal 40.4 Dec. (1997): 859-893.
15. Ivanov, Sergey. Holy Fools in Byzantium and Beyond. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006: 309-311.
16. Ivanov, Sergey. Holy Fools in Byzantium and Beyond. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006: 312-313.
17. Ivanov, Sergey. Holy Fools in Byzantium and Beyond. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006: 324-327.
18. Ivanov, Sergey. Holy Fools in Byzantium and Beyond. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006: 326.
19. Ivanov, Sergey. Holy Fools in Byzantium and Beyond. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006: 318.
20. Ivanov, Sergey. Holy Fools in Byzantium and Beyond. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006: 312.
21. Ivanits, Linda. Russian Folk Belief. Armonk: M. E. Sharpe, Inc, 1992: 87.
22. Ivanov, Sergey. Holy Fools in Byzantium and Beyond. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006: 357.
23. Ivanov, Sergey. Holy Fools in Byzantium and Beyond. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006: 344.
24. Ivanov, Sergey. Holy Fools in Byzantium and Beyond. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006: 332.
25. Lavrov, Aleksandr. "Witchcraft and Religion in Russia, 1700–1740." Russian Studies in History 45.4 (2007): 27.
26. Makarios of Simonos Petra. The Synaxarion: The Lives of the Saints of the Orthodox Church. Vol. 1. Chalkidike: Indiktos Publishing Company, 1998. 6 vols.
27. Popovich, Justin. Orthodox Faith and Life in Christ. Belmont: Institute for Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies, 1994.
28. Christensen, Damascene. "The Place of Lives of Saints in the Spiritual Life." The Orthodox Word 37.6 Nov. (2001): 261-281.
29. Makarios of Simonos Petra. The Synaxarion: The Lives of the Saints of the Orthodox Church. Vol. 1. Chalkidike: Indiktos Publishing Company, 1998. 6 vols.
30. Popovich, Justin. Orthodox Faith and Life in Christ. Belmont: Institute for Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies, 1994.
- - - - - - - - - -
Commentary
These notes serve two main purposes: to remind me what to fix when I go back and edit, and to seek your input on specific issues of concern to me. They will not always be interesting. 

- I could read and write about holy foolishness all damn day.

- draw parallels between "popular" religion of (some) of the holy fools and Fr John's "populist" liturgical style?

- dissemination of tales of iurodstvo contra various forms of press coverage as Fr John gained nororeity?

- Do I footnote too obsessively? I was never really taught any norms on when not to footnote.

- Every bloody time I read this sentence I have to read it twice to get it right: "Despite late Muscovy’s low literacy rate (Gary Marker, estimating generously, pegs it below ten percent), highly public liturgical services combined with mass migration spurred by the Time of Troubles to disseminate tales of iurodstvo throughout
and across cities and villages." Need to just rewrite it already.

- really like the idea of exploring the tensions between hagiography and narrative/folklore and/or biography. revisit later in paper, expand, something?

- proud of coining the phrase memento mirari. just saying.

- holy fools bred imitators, Fr John (unwittingly) spawned cultist devotees. explore/theorize about difference? social status, press, liturgical role, rural v urban, thaumaturgy.

- parallelism: break down what an Orthodox priest is later in the paper in the way a holy fool is broken down here? not enough focus on what the priesthood is, not enough of a sense of how the paradigm is broken in later sections.

- still love that the wearing of irons is a specifically Russian mod.

- do I veer too much into apologetics?

- should I explain what
sainthood means in Orthodoxy? probably.

- the enthusiasm of this quote always makes me smile: "We sing their troparia, we venerate their icons, we perform services to them, and with a blessing from a Bishop we can even compose services in their honor." Is it wrong to picture a hieromonk jumping up and down at the thought of writing a service for a favorite saint, or even while reflecting that his Church might allow him to? Took restraint not to make that period an exclamation point.
- do I need to explain that "glorification" and "canonization", and sometimes "veneration", in context of discussion of saints, mean the same thing? is it on me to explain how Orthodox theology of sainthood differs from the Catholic understanding? ergh. the differences aren't even constant across decades and Churches. 

5 comments:

  1. Yes, explain how sainthood works in Orthodoxy. TvTropes has it right: Christianity is Catholic, so you do need to do a compare and contrast.

    And when you rewrite, split that problem sentences into more.

    And not that I didn't enjoy the whole paper when I read it, but after hitting this section, I was bitterly disappointed that the whole paper was not about holy fools. Please write more essays on this. Or have a "TKB drinks and talks about holy fools" podcast.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Two questions from a deeply uneducated reader: 1. Were there ever married holy fools?
    2. How did hagiographers generally treat the people _around_ & harassed by the holy fools? Are they basically instrumentalized? The fool's pride is quenched through humiliation but I wonder what that does to/for the souls of those who witness or participate in that humiliation.

    Super excited to read the rest.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I would disagree w/Leah re: explaining Orthodox concept of sainthood in terms of how it differs from Catholic conceptions. I think Orthodox writers in the West, understandably, tend to use Catholicism as a kind of backboard off of which to bounce their own thing. That often leads to misreadings of Catholicism and anyway I think it's an overdone rhetorical form. But I'm sure there are ways of talking more about what sainthood means in Orthodoxy which would avoid those problems--I think maybe just talking more about what "glorification," "canonization," and "veneration" mean in and of themselves, on their own terms, would get you what your readers might want.

    (Possible language-learning parallel: I'm trying to switch from thinking in terms of "this Russian word MEANS this English word" to thinking in terms of "you use this Russian word this way." Staying within the Russian-language framework as much as possible. You have to do "X-Russian = X-English" during the early stages of learning but it's not really TRUE and also not as interesting....)

    ReplyDelete
  4. argh SORRY to comment thrice, but I wanted to add a revision to previous comment: You're giving us basically free awesomeness with these posts, so I shouldn't whine! If it's easiest for you to explain what you want to explain using Catholicism as a backboard I will manfully suppress myself. I realize the perfect can easily become the enemy of the good here.

    ReplyDelete
  5. You may want to get Bruce Charlton

    charltonteaching.blogspot.com

    to take a look at your essay. He is a Professor, Christian convert, considers Holy Orthodoxy to be the pinnacle of Christianity, and Constantinople the pinnacle of civilisation, and is extremely honest, astute, and well-informed.

    His blog is perhaps the best on the net.

    ReplyDelete