Dog Headed Saint

In the book 1421: THE YEAR CHINA DISCOVERED THE WORLD,  the Chinese, 1421 : The Year China Discovered the World by Menzies, Gavin Bantam New Edition (2003)whose empire was expanding, sent sailors to navigate the seas and explore the world.  They brought back to China all kinds of exotic animals from distant lands.  They also spoke of the many different peoples they encountered in the world: the varied races, languages and customs they discovered in their journeys.   The book mentions the Chinese also heard and believed there were even stranger people living in distant and mysterious lands – including dog-headed humans.

Reading that the Chinese in the 15th Century believed that dog-headed humans existed intrigued me since the same legends were bantered about in Byzantium and also believed to be factual.  So much so that reports reached the Byzantine Orthodox that in these distant and mysterious lands, the dog-headed people had converted to Orthodox Christianity.  Stories of their conversion were accepted as true.   St Christopher was the reported name of the first saint of the dog-headed people.  In some versions of his story he is transformed into a human after being baptized.  That means they were willing to accept that a dog-headed person could and should be baptized.  Christ’s salvation extended to every human being no matter how different they may be.

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The Byzantines apparently were not surprised that the dog-headed people converted to Orthodoxy.  They believed Orthodoxy to be the true faith and believed it to be a faith for all people of the world.  It fulfilled a vision of the kingdom of God and of what it is to be human which was not limited to any one people of the world but was part of the new humanity created in Christ.  Recently Pantelis Kalaitzides describes this vision this way:

“In this perspective, the Church is seen as a spiritual homeland, a spiritual genus, in which all the divisions of nature (race, language, culture, gender, social class) are overcome, and the mystery of the unity in Christ and the fellowship of divided humanity unfold.  The Church is a new people, a new nation, which is not identified with any other people, race, or earthly nation since what characterizes it is not blood ties or subjection to the natural state of affairs, but voluntary personal response to the call of God and free participation in the body of Christ and the life of grace.”  (“Church and Nation in Eschatological Perspective”, THE WHEEL #17/18  Spring/Summer 2019, p 54).

All things are made new in this eschatological vision and all old divisions are no more.  As St Paul proclaimed:

… you have put off the old nature with its practices and have put on the new nature, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator. Here there cannot be Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free man, but Christ is all, and in all.   (Colossians 3:11)

Dog-headed depiction of Saint Christopher

And so whatever separated the dog-headed humans from the rest of humanity was  overcome in Christ.  Humans were humans and Christ died and rose from the dead in order to save them all.  They made icons of the saints of the dog-headed people and believed Christ Himself converted them.

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In reality,  the dog-headed humans didn’t exist.  Lives of the saints contained many miraculous embellishments and were not always historical or factual, preferring to emphasize the miraculous.  But it is interesting to note that for the Byzantine Orthodox if such people existed, they could be embraced into the Kingdom of God.  They could be baptized, become saints, have icons of their holy people.  Belief in the dog-headed people may never have become part of mainstream Orthodoxy, but the piety of those Byzantine Orthodox was ready to embrace these people as being God’s creatures and capable of being united to Christ, no matter how strange they seemed.   Christ after all was pantocrator – Lord of the universe, of all living beings.

“When gathered in the Holy Eucharist, the Church realizes and reveals to the world and to history the incorporation of all in Christ, the transcendence of every discrimination and contrast, a communion of love wherein “there is neither male nor female, neither Greek nor Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian or Scythian, slave or free” (Col. 3:11 and Gal. 3:28). In this way, it presents an image of the Kingdom of God, but at the same time also an image of ideal human society, and the foretaste of the victory of life over death, of incorruption over corruption, and love over hatred.”  (MESSAGE OF THE PRIMATES OF THE ORTHODOX CHURCH SYNAXIS-ASSEMBLY AT THE PHANAR CHRISTMAS 2000 AD)

When I was at St Vladimir’s Seminary, a little over 40 years ago, I remember Fr John Meyendorff saying that whatever else the Byzantines were (Hellenistic, triumphalistic, ethnic, xenophobic, nationalistic, phobic of anything “western”) they were not racist.  That seemed to be his professional opinion based on years of research.  His words stuck with me because through the decades it has seemed to me it is hard to differentiate the ethnicism in American Orthodox from the racism which was also present in the same people.  But the Eucharistic and eschatological vision which Kalaitzides is far reaching in its scope and quite inspiring.

However the idea of “dog headed” people played out in Byzantine Orthodoxy, it does show that they really had an expansive view of what it is to be human.   They were not racists, even though they allowed slavery.   Slaves could even work their way up in the world in certain positions.  They accepted eunuchs in the society – people whose gender identity was altered by force or choice (though eventually forbidding making eunuchs within the borders of the Empire).  Several eunuchs rose to high positions in Byzantine society and some became saints in the Orthodox Church.  Can Orthodoxy hold to this vision today as it deals with Trans-people as well?    Certainly some Patristic theologians thought gender was not essential to humanity, and some saw it as belonging only to the fallen world but not to eternal life.  We are challenged today with thoughts about what it is to be human which do have precedents in Orthodox history.  God’s love is given to all who are human which the Byzantine Orthodox understood and applied to others no matter how differerent they imagined them to be.

The Human, The Male, The Theotokos

Man is called not to the implementation of rules but to the miracle of life. Family is a miracle. Creative work is a miracle. The Kingdom of God is a miracle. 

The Mother of God does not “fit” into any rules. But in Her, and not in canons, is the truth about the Church.

Inasmuch as a man is only a man, he is, above all, boring, full of principles, virile, decent, logical, cold-blooded, useful; he becomes interesting only when he outgrows his rather humorous virility. A man is interesting as a boy or an old man, and is almost scary as an adult; at the top of his manhood, of his male power.

A man’s holiness and a man’s creativity are, above all, the refusal, the denial of the specifically “male” in him.

In holiness, man is least of all a male. 

Christ is the boy, the only-begotten Son, the Child of Mary. In Him is absent the main emphasis, the main idol of the man – his autonomy. The icon of the infant Christ on His Mother’s lap is not simply the icon of the Incarnation. It is the icon of the essence of Christ. 

One must know and feel all this when discussing the issue of women in the Church. The Church rejects man in his self-sufficiency, strength, self-assertion. Christ proclaims: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9).

(Fr. Alexander Schmemann, The Journals of Father Alexander Schmemann, p. 272)

Freedom: To Love as God Loves

A man is truly free when he exists as God exists; and this way of being is relational. In the words of Metropolitan John Zizioulas, it “is a way of relationship with the Word, with other people and with God, an event of communion, and that is why it cannot be realized as this achievement of an individual, but only as an ecclesial fact.” Communion makes beings “be” and freedom constitutes true being. True freedom does not lie in our ability to make choices – this only manifests the dilemma of necessity – but in our ability, by grace, to love as God does unconditionally, to overcome the fears, anxieties and limitations of our mortal biological existence, and to conquer death. (Alkiviadis C. Calivas, Essays in Theology and Liturgy, p. 78)

Heaven and Earth are Full Of God’s Glory

By the word of the LORD the heavens were made, and all their host by the breath of his mouth.   (Psalms 33:6)

The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.  (Psalms 19:1)

His glory covered the heavens, and the earth was full of his praise.   (Habakkuk 3:3)

One of the most wonderful things to contemplate from the Scriptures are relationships.  We have of course the mysterious relationship between Creator and creation.  Then within the Godhead there is the relationship of the Three Persons of the Holy TrinityFather, Son and Holy Spirit.  Each of the Persons of the Trinity has a relationship with creation.  In Genesis 1:1-3, the Spirit (the Breath of God) hovers over the face of the earth and when God speaks the Word (the Son of God), Light comes into existence, but not the light of the sun which does not yet exist.

“It is a sign forever between me and the people of Israel that in six days the LORD made heaven and earth . . .”   (Exodus 31:17)

Then there is the relationship between heaven and earth and the relationship of both heaven and earth to the Creator.   Heaven is the mysterious abode of God, and yet it is related to the rest of creation, all of it together is “not God” but created by God.  According to Christ, “Heaven and earth will pass away” (Matthew 24:35), they are not eternal and yet God the Eternal One fills them with His glory and becomes united to them.   Heaven and earth are both dwelling places.  Dwellings are temporary places, and yet significant to our eternal God.  We see the mystery in these two statements by father and son.  King David declares part of the wonder and glory of God on earth, while his son Solomon realizes the inadequacy of the earth for fulfilling its role.

King David says: “O LORD, I love the house in which you dwell, and the place where your glory abides.”  (Psalms 26:8)

King Solomon says: “But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built!”  (1 Kings 8:27)

The exact relationship of God the Creator to God’s own creation defies easy explanation and yet we still can experience it, as we sing in the Liturgy:

“Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of Hosts, heaven and earth are full of your glory. Hosanna in the highest. Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest. “

Heaven and earth, though created, are full of God’s glory.  Both heaven and earth are full of God’s glory and both proclaim God’s glory to all beings who are capable of hearing and seeing.

 Do I not fill heaven and earth? says the LORD.  (Jeremiah 23:24)

Not only does God’s glory fill heaven and earth, the Lord God fills heaven and earth.  God’s glory is not something other than God.   Creation, that which is “not God” is filled by God’s glory by God’s existence.  The relationship between God and that which is “not God” is a mystery indeed.  For how can God in whom we live and move and have our being (Acts 17:28) fill the heaven and earth which are created and circumscribed by God?  We are in God and God is in us! A relationship fully exemplified by Mary the Theotokos.  Mary like Christ, each in their own way, personify the mystery of the interpenetration of Creator and creation.

Then we have St Irenaeus saying: “The glory (shekinah) of God is a human being fully alive.”  So how can heaven and earth be full of a human being?  The mystery deepens for  it is Christ as the incarnate God  who fills the universe with Himself.  So St Paul can write:  “and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith . . . that you may be filled with all the fulness of God.”  Christ fills not only the entire universe but each of us.

all the earth shall be filled with the glory of the LORD   (Numbers 14:21)

Blessed be his glorious name forever; may his glory fill the whole earth.  Amen and Amen.   (Psalms 72:19)

Above him stood the seraphim; each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.”  (Isaiah 6:2-3)

Our very existence makes us part of the mystery of God’s own relationship with all of creation.  We experience the glory of God, perhaps most intently and clearly in the Liturgy, but that should open our eyes to seeing God’s glory in all of creation including in our fellow human beings.  It is also why the Fall, sin  and the fallen world are so painful to us for they obscure the glory of God reducing everything to mere materiality void of its natural spirituality.

Yours, O LORD, are the greatness, the power, the glory, the victory, and the majesty; for all that is in the heavens and on the earth is yours; yours is the kingdom, O LORD, and you are exalted as head above all.   (1 Chronicles 29:11)

Pentecost: The Fullness of the Feast of Feasts

34358291504_beaf717427_nIn the Creed which we recite at every Liturgy, we confess our belief that Jesus Christ became incarnate… for us [humans] and for our salvation.”  The Creed professes a belief that all that Christ did was for the salvation of all humans, not just for Christians or for the Orthodox.  We repeat this same line on feast days in the Orthodox Church  when at the final dismissal the priest blesses the congregation saying, “may He who for us (humans) and our salvation, Christ our true God…”   Orthodoxy is very clear that Christ Jesus did everything for the life of the world, for the salvation of all humans – for all who are created in God’s image and likeness, whether everyone believes that  or not.

This sense that everything is moving us toward this salvation is also clear in the Church’s celebration of PaschaAscensionPentecost.  All three events are for our salvation and necessary for our salvation.  In the resurrection, Christ unites even the dead to God, filling all things with Himself, even the place of the dead.  Christ raises the dead with Himself, and then ascends bodily into heaven, bringing our created nature into the Kingdom, into God’s presence.  Then Christ sends the Holy Spirit upon all flesh at Pentecost, restoring the Holy Spirit to humanity.  We are thus not saved just by the death of Christ on the cross, but by the continuous work of Christ who lifts us from Hades to Heaven.  Both the incarnate Word and the Holy Spirit restore humanity’s union with divinity.   We sing about all of this throughout the Pascha-Pentecost cycle of services.  On the Monday of the Holy Spirit, one hymn proclaims:

COME, O FAITHFUL, LET US CELEBRATE THE FEAST OF THE FIFTIETH DAY,
THE DAY WHICH CONCLUDES THE FEAST OF FEASTS;
THE DAY ON WHICH THE PRE-ORDAINED PROMISE IS FULFILLED!
THE DAY WHEN THE COMFORTER DESCENDS UPON THE EARTH IN TONGUES OF FIRE;
THE DAY OF THE DISCIPLES’ ENLIGHTENMENT!
THEY ARE REVEALED AS INITIATES OF HEAVENLY MYSTERIES,
FOR TRULY THE LIGHT OF THE COMFORTER HAS ILLUMINED THE WORLD!

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Salvation, the restoration of human communion with God, fully occurs in all of the events of Pascha-Ascension-Pentecost and as we participate in these events through life in the Church, especially through baptism and the Eucharist.  In Christ, we are saved from sin and death and by the Holy Spirit we are enlivened and enlightened.  We are thus saved – restored to being fully human – by both the work of the Son/Word of God and the Holy Spirit.

With Pentecost we see a full restoration of what was lost by our sins.  In Genesis 6:3, the grieving Creator says of us humans, the focal point of His creation:

“My spirit shall not abide in man for ever, for he is flesh, but his days shall be a hundred and twenty years.”

God withdrew the Divine and Holy Spirit from us, and with this separation from God’s Spirit, death became part of our condition on earth.

With the coming of Christ, this ‘curse’ is lifted from us as John the Baptist bears witness:

The next day John the Baptist saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks before me, for he was before me.’ I myself did not know him; but for this I came baptizing with water, that he might be revealed to Israel.” And John bore witness, “I saw the Spirit descend as a dove from heaven, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him; but he who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God.”  (John 1:29-35)

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In the incarnate Word of God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit also remains on a human, which was the sign for John the Baptist that Jesus is the Savior of the world.  At Pentecost, that Spirit which came to dwell in Jesus and remain on Him, comes to dwell on all humanity.  The curse from Genesis 6:3 is lifted, and humanity is restored to full communion with God.  The salvation of us humans is brought to completion in this complete cycle of incarnation, resurrection and the giving of the Holy Spirit to humanity.

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The Motherhood of Every Believer

Fr Alexander Schmemann held to particular ideas about the differing natures and roles of women and men.  His ideas about what it is to be male and female were certainly based in the world in which he grew up (and this socialization created his “man box” some would say).  Indeed, some today have questioned his assumptions (see for example Vol 16 of The Wheel) and have offered some justifiable criticism of his assumptions about what it means to be male or female.  In quoting him here, I’m not defending his assumptions about the nature and role of women.  I do think it is possible, to bracket those criticisms, accepting them as valid, and to read Schmemann for the point he was making even if his assumptions and perspective no longer satisfy the ideals of the 21st Century.  In the quote below, I think his point is that all humans to be fully human must be capable of being receptive to God’s action, so all humans need what he considered to be a feminine quality.   Whereas he attributes this receptivity to being a feminine characteristic, nevertheless his point is still that all of us, females and males, need this characteristic in order to respond to God’s salvation – in order to be fully human.  In effect, we all need to learn “motherhood” in order to be fully human and Christian.  And so naturally he sees the Virgin Mary as being a model for all Christians as the perfect human, not just a perfect woman.  In his thinking she shows us what this perfect motherhood is – being receptive and obedient to the Word of God.

Fr Alexander wrote:

True obedience is thus true love for God, the true response of Creation to its Creator. Humanity is fully humanity when it is this response to God, when it becomes the movement of total self-giving and obedience to Him.

But in the “natural” world the bearer of this obedient love, of this love as response, is the woman. The man proposes, the woman accepts. This acceptance is not passivity, blind submission, because it is love, and love is always active. It gives life to the proposal of man, fulfills it as life, yet it becomes fully love and fully life only when it is fully acceptance and response. This is why the whole creation, the whole Church—and not only women—find the expression of their response and obedience to God in Mary the Woman, and rejoice in her. She stands for all of us, because only when we accept, respond in love and obedience—only when we accept the essential womanhood of creation—do we become ourselves true men and women; only then can we indeed transcend our limitations as “males” and “females.”

For man can be truly man—that is, the king of creation, the priest and minister of God’s creativity and initiative—only when he does not posit himself as the “owner” of creation and submits himself—in obedience and love—to its nature as the bride of God, in response and acceptance. And woman ceases to be just a “female” when, totally and unconditionally accepting the life of the Other as her own life, giving herself totally to the Other, she becomes the very expression, the very fruit, the very joy, the very beauty, the very gift of our response to God, the one whom, in the words of the Song, the king will bring into his chambers, saying: “Thou art all fair, my love, there is no spot in thee” (Ct. 4:7). (Fr. Alexander Schmemann from For the Life of the World, found in Building an Orthodox Marriage, p. 25)

If we can lay aside our concerns about whether Fr Alexander’s prejudices about the nature of male and female are correct, it is possible to hear his message about what it takes for each of us to be fully human.  All of us need to be receptive to God’s Word and salvation.  He is calling us to rise above the limitations which he himself understood to be true about the nature of males and females.  Only when we receive God into our lives can we also incarnate Christ by becoming members of the Body of Christ.  Then we bring forth the spiritual fruit like Mary the Theotokos did.

Whether or not Fr Alexander’s ideals of what it is to be male and female are current or correct, he still makes a point about what it takes to be human.  Mary is the model human in her obedience to God and accepting God’s Word.  She receives the Word into herself and incarnates that Word.  Her life becomes the model for every human who wants to love God.  When we each follow Mary’s lead, we transcend the limits of male and female and become the humans God intends us to be.  The feminine and motherhood are thus categories which transcend gender and belong to our shared humanity.

So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.   (Genesis 1:27)

there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.   (Galatians 3:28)

Spiritual Training: Overcome Evil

God cares for man’s freedom as the most precious principle that he possesses, and so in humility draws the soul to His love. But on the path to this love man comes up against the violator, the devil. The Lord allows that it should be so. God trains man’s soul, not by removing evil from his path by giving him the strength necessary to overcome all evil.

(St. Silouan the Athonite, p. 220)

The Salvation of the Body

This glory of the body, however, does not belong only to the End but is foreshadowed at various moments throughout salvation history. Before the fall the bodies of Adam and Eve shone with light in Paradise , and they were “covered with God’s glory in place of clothing” (Homilies 12:8).

Once they had fallen into sin, this robe of glory was taken away from them and they were left naked (cf. Genesis 3:7). Then at Moses’ descent from Mount Sinai, after the giving of the Law, the final restoration of our bodily glory was briefly anticipated when his face shone so brightly that he had to cover it with a veil (cf. Exodus 34:29–35): “He went up as a mere man; he descended, carrying God with him….The Word of God was his food and he had a glory shining on his countenance” (H. 12:14). A far more significant foretaste of the eschatological glory came at Christ’s own transfiguration: “As the body of the Lord was glorified when he climbed the mount and was transfigured into the divine glory and into infinite light, so also the bodies of the saints are glorified and shine like lightning” (H. 15:38). What happened then to the Savior will happen to all true Christians in the age to come.

In so far as anyone, through faith and zeal, has been deemed worthy to receive the Holy Spirit, to that degree his body also will be glorified in that day. What the soul now stores up within shall then be revealed as a treasure and displayed externally in the body…. The glory of the Holy Spirit rises up from within, covering and warming the bodies of the saints. This is the glory they interiorly had before, hidden in their souls. For what they now have, that same then pours out externally into the body (H. 5:8–9).

(Kallistos Ware, from Pseudo-Macarius: The Fifty Spiritual Homilies and the Great Letter, p. XVI-XV)

What is Sin?

The essence of sin consists not in the infringement of ethical standards but in a falling away from the eternal Divine life for which man was created and to which, by his very nature, he is called.

Sin is committed first of all in the secret depths of the human spirit but its consequences involve the individual as a whole. A sin will reflect on a man’s psychological and physical condition, on his outward appearance, on his personal destiny. Sin will, inevitably, pass beyond the boundaries of the sinner’s individual life, to burden all humanity and thus affect the fate of the whole world. The sin of our forefather Adam was not the only sin of cosmic significance. Every sin, manifest or secret, committed by each one of us affects the rest of the universe.”

(St. Silouan the Athonite, p. 31)