By Augustin Sokolovsky, Doctor of Theology, Priest
Among the great multitude of wonderful, surprising, unique, large and small Moscow churches that once existed in old pre-revolutionary Moscow, only a very few remained open after the great upheavals of the first half of the 20th century, continuing to function, act, pray and live. One such church that never closed was the church dedicated to the saint Poemen the Great (340-450).
In the liturgical calendar of the Church, the memory of the St. Poemen completes the first decade of the first month of autumn and is celebrated on September 9. It was not so long ago that this was a very important day in the life of our Church. After all, Patriarch Poemen, who was Primate of the Russian Church from 1971 to 1990, was named after this saint in monasticism. On this day the Patriarch celebrated the memory of his heavenly patron, which in the language of the Church is called namesake or, in Russian, “Angel’s Day”.
Those who knew Patriarch Poemen describe him as a kind, humble and deeply spiritual man, particularly drawn to monasticism. The Patriarch loved almost the only surviving monastery of this time, The Trinity Lavra of St. Sergius, and visited there often. The monks reciprocated their Patriarch in kind. An era of a different Church. An era of the persecuted Church, a time which is irrevocably gone and about which, apart from scholarly historians, very few people today remember. At that time, it seemed to many that our Church was experiencing an autumnal age. But it turned out that the era was the eve of a spiritual revival.
Thus, Patriarch Poemen was named after the Venerable Poemen the Great, one of the Founding Fathers of ancient monasticism. Poemen lived in what is known as the Golden Age of the Fathers of the Church. At that time the great Fathers – Athanasius of Alexandria, Basil the Great and Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory the Theologian, Amphilochius of Iconium, Ambrose of Milan, John Chrysostom, Cyril of Alexandria and Augustine of Hippo – lived, prayed, served God, preached and wrote. This was also the time when monasticism was born and flourished.
The era of original monasticism was a unique time for the Church. Of course, every time is unique. But when we talk about the “uniqueness” of that particular time, it is important to understand that when applied to the Golden Age, it is not a rhetorical figure but a reality.
Perhaps imagine that time in any way one needs to have an imagination. For example, imagine modern Moscow and the Moscow region and, at the same time, turn your mental gaze to Egypt and Alexandria at that time. Imagine if in those times everything was as it is now. There were a huge number of people living. In work, in stress, in entertainment. Alexandria of that time was a great Christian City with many churches. But it was still a great pagan capital. A City of Sin.
And this is what was going on “in the Region” back then? All of it was filled with … monks. Everywhere, people of all ages, ranks and backgrounds, the righteous and the sinners, the blameless and the wanted by the police, the healthy and the crippled, a multitude of men sought ways to approach God. They all lived spontaneous monastic lives. After all, even monastic vows did not exist then! A multitude of lonely ascetics – and the word monk simply meant “lonely” – sought God everywhere. Some in the open air; some, like in the Syriac tradition, erected a pillar. Some wandered naked or, like a bird or a beast, lived in caves and trees. The Great Poemen lived in this great and wonderful time.
The Greek name “Poemen” literally means “shepherd”. The “Apophthegmata Patrum”, which are the collections of the holy Fathers’ sayings and which in some ways convey the peculiar world in which he lived, have preserved many of his sayings. One of them is particularly precious. The monks were discussing the question of what to do with a brother who fell asleep during the service. The answers varied: rebuke, expel from the temple; excommunicate, punish in the form of a penitential rule. But Poemen replied: “If I see my brother slumbering in church, I will put his head in my lap”. Another of Poemen’s famous expressions also characterises the worldview that inspired great multitudes to go into the desert in search of a new fraternal monastic ideal is: “He who dwells in monasticism must count all the brothers as one”.
As time went on, monasticism suffered a great misfortune. It began to turn into an institution. Out of “the promise to God of a good conscience” (1 Pet. 3:21), vows became a mechanism of canonical and therefore – under the laws of the Roman Empire – legal control. In the East, monasticism gradually took over all power in the Church. For many, monasticism came to be seen as a sacrament. But if this were true, and if monasticism were a sacrament, it would mean that whatever way of life a person who had become a monk lived, he would remain a monk despite everything… And this, of course, is wrong. Because theologically speaking, monasticism is permanently ad hoc – here and now before God – in poverty, obedience and purity. The sacrament, on the other hand, is irreversible. For instance, the sacrament of baptism cannot be repealed or annulled. It does not depend on the personal qualities of the priest who administers it. Nor can it be administered again.
Obviously, holiness and its perception are a dynamic reality. Church history and theology have known saints who were formerly highly revered but who are no longer so. Saints who before seemed to be forgotten but who later became highly revered. When this change occurs over the centuries, the explanation lies in the changed structures of society, in theological necessity, in the spontaneous perception by the people of God of a saint. It is more interesting and more difficult to find an explanation when this dynamic of perception of the speciation of holiness manifests itself in a matter of decades and even years.
When the Patriarch of the Russian Church was Poemen, one of the churches that never closed and was constantly in operation at the time, was the church dedicated to the Poemen the Great. This is a very rare name for temples. It combined the antiquity of the first Christian monasticism of the Egyptian “Land of the Pharaohs” with the popular piety and perception of holiness by the Orthodox believers of the late Soviet Period. Our people slept in faithlessness. And the great Poemen laid his head in his lap. So, this dream became the forerunner of awakening and rebirth, a great cause for thanksgiving.
With the coming of autumn, the Church, as a Society of Believers, is called upon to reflect on the season and to give thanks.
“Great art Thou, O Lord, and worthy of all praise; great is Thy power, and immeasurable Thy wisdom. And human wants to praise Thee, a portion of Thy creatures; human who carries with him everywhere his mortality, the witness of his sin and the witness that Thou resistest the proud”. With these words the Carthaginian Father of the Church, Augustine (354-430), begins his work. The work, the title of which is translated from Latin as “Confessions”.
Biblically, autumn is a time of thanksgiving. Each of us has special days dates and occasions for thanksgiving in our lives. Whenever He chooses and grants, the Lord gives freely and lends without expecting a return. But He waits for a personal thankfulness from us all. A personal and unique thanksgiving in return for a personal and unrepeatable gift. The gift of Faith, the gift of Life, the gift of the Kingdom.
Thanksgiving is the very essence of the biblical being of man. According to Scripture, the world was created out of nothingness. Out of nothingness we humans were also brought into the world. The world is our brother. The planet is our sister.
We do not remember our birth, we remember very little of our childhood, and in what we remember of our conscious age, our memories are so selective, that one day or even one look or one gesture can replace years in our memories. “And now my infancy is long dead, but I live”, writes Augustine.
One of the key characteristics of modernity is dissatisfaction. Very often it is dissatisfaction with age. Childhood and youth strive to be older. Having reached, like the characters in Jean-Paul Sartre’s novel of the same name, the Age of Reason, we tend to look younger. The biblical understanding of time says that age is given to learn farewell.
Age as time enters us. Confrontation with time is intrinsic to us. But if in antiquity people could not come to terms with their own temporality, modernity battles with age. “Eternally Young and eternally Old. You renew all things and age the proud” (Confessions 1:4), writes Augustine.
The greatest of the early Church Fathers of early Christian times, Irenaeus of Lyon (+202), whose memory the Church also commemorates in September, wrote that “our Lord has passed through all ages” (2:22,5). Irenaeus claimed that the Lord Jesus was crucified as an “old man”. In doing so he referred to Saint Polycarp of Smyrna (+156) who had studied under John the Evangelist himself.
It seems that what Irenaeus had in mind was the following. Irenaeus was polemicising with the Gnostics. The latter thought knowledge was liberating. Knowledge was secret and accessible to them – perhaps in some way analogous to modern digital technology – offering an explanation of all the mysteries of existence and promising freedom from natural, physical and age-related restrictions. In essence, it meant a disdain for the flesh and age, for every natural human condition… “Gender is relative and its understanding can change. Age is not knowledge and therefore can be disregarded”. One has to wonder how modern Gnosticism was!
Contrary to the Gnostics, Irenaeus theologised from Christological dogma. Early on, even before the relevant dogmatic disputes, he theologically worked on the axiom: “What is not adopted is not healed”. This axiom meant that God in Christ Jesus saved everyone. The Lord Jesus possessed, for he perceived them – because of the Incarnation – a human body, soul, spirit, mind, will, energy and action. He was a very human, actual, real person. This also means that the Lord accepted and redeemed every age. The Lord redeemed all that He perceived. Having lived every age, He made everyone capable of the Kingdom. “All that exists accommodates Thee. And I exist; why do I ask Thee to come to me: I would not exist if Thou were not in me. For I am not yet in the underworld, though Thou art there. And even if I descend into hell, You are already there,” writes Augustine again in the Confessions (cf. Psalm 139).
At the end of the first autumn month, on 27 September the whole Christian world remembers the Universal Exaltation of the Cross. If for Western Christianity this day over the centuries has become a mere remembrance, for Orthodoxy the Exaltation is a truly great celebration to this day.
In the year 326 the Cross on which the Lord Jesus was crucified was found by the Empress Helena in Jerusalem. In 629, after a brief but historically very significant Persian captivity, the Cross of Christ was returned to the Holy City by Emperor Heraclius. Both events are combined in the feast.
This means that the origin and significance of the Exaltation is both historical and ideological. The latter reflects the fact that Christians were once persecuted and then the imperial power of the Roman Empire itself believed in Christ. The empire became Christian, began to patronise the Church and protect Christians exclusively.
Some saw greatness in the transformation of the Roman Empire into a Christian power, others saw it as a prophecy of defeat. The writer, historian and Father of the Church Eusebius of Caesarea (+340) was convinced that the Christianisation of the Empire fulfilled the promises of the Bible. In his “Church History”, and especially in his “Praise of the Emperor Constantine”, Eusebius extolled the Christian Roman Imperial Authority as the new eternal Kingdom of the Cross.
In turn, Augustine of Hippo thought otherwise. In his work “On the City of God” Augustine warned that states and empires are transient, what is most important in them, as in human beings: truth, righteousness, virtue, values. In other words, the Christianisation of the Empire is a good thing. But every earthly good is ambiguous, can be distorted, and is capable of distortion.
Luke’s account of the trial of the Lord Jesus contains a very important episode with deep meaning (Luke 23:1-12). Two irreconcilable enemies, Pilate and Herod, suddenly “became friends” after they judged Christ one by one. The gospel never says anything accidentally. By His silent presence, the Lord Jesus reconciled two former enemies, but this reconciliation served neither of them well. The Lord reconciled the two foes without saying anything to them. A reconciliation and blessing from the Lord that turned into a real curse. The Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross is essentially a reminder of our entire Christian history, a reminder of how in her existence the Church has often proved unable to discern the spirits and see the signs of the times.
There is one particular exception to the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. Usually, the Church does not celebrate the saints on the great feasts, but it was on the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross that John Chrysostom died in 407. Therefore, the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross is also the Feast of this great saint.
One of the greatest holy pastors of all Christian History, John was twice expelled by the Imperial Authority from his bishop’s throne and died in exile. The death of John Chrysostom was the result of an unjust interaction between the empire and the Church of Alexandria (thus Egypt again!), whose archbishop Theophilus, wishing John’s death, saw in John a dangerous enemy. John was loved and protected only by the people of God. On the Feast of the Cross, the Church, in this uncommon crisis, an incomprehensible and, in many senses, autumnal time, the Church, the Society of the Faithful, asks the Lord to forgive her those moments of neglect that have befallen her on the Paths of History. She asks for the prolongation of the being of the world, she asks for the teaching of gratitude. She longs for learning thanksgiving.