Sailing to Byzantium: Part I: the life and mission of Saints Cyril and Methodius.

Author:Hala, Peter

Spivam, jak hroznu Svatopluk na Karolmana ved'el Vojnu; i jak vit'az, seba aj svoj od jeho vladi Oslobodiv narod, nepodl'ehli stal sa panovnik; A zmuzilich velke zalozil kralovstvo Slovakov.

I sing how Svatopluk fought a terrible against Carolman War; and as a victor, himself and his own from his rule Liberating nation, became a free sovereign; And founded a great kingdom of valiant Slovaks.

Every Slovak pupil memorizes these haunting opening lines of the monumental epic written by the great national poet Jan Holly (17851849), a Catholic priest who first wrote in modern Slovak language. It is a long and magnificent poem describing physical battles and spiritual war with the powers of darkness, in which King Svatopluk frees the Slovak nation from the tyranny and arrogance of the Germans and Franks after God Himself finally answers the prayers of Saints Cyril and Methodius and reveals the glorious future of Slovaks.

The 2013 Year of Faith was proclaimed to commemorate the Second Vatican Council. Sadly, a crucial part of Christian faith and history was neglected by the Western Latin world. The focus, ironically, was meant to be on the Nicene Creed; yet the historical circumstances of the origins of Christianity, as well as its "other lung" as Pope John Paul II called the Byzantine or Eastern Rite, did not receive much attention. (1)

Unbeknownst to many Western Christians, the Year of Faith was also significant because the Christian world, and especially the grateful Slavic nations, remembered the coming of the co-patron saints of Europe, Cyril and Methodius, to Great Moravia in the year 863, this being the seminal occasion which defined the faith of many Christian nations east of Rome and Prague.

What both these events 1100 years apart have in common is not only the strengthening of faith of both Western and Eastern Christianity, but also the significantly redefined and enlarged propagation of faith and culture eventually leading to the birth of humanism. The Western Renaissance was strongly influenced by the Byzantine scholars who revealed to the half-awakened Latins the ancient Greek treasures hidden in the Byzantine libraries. The holy Mass or liturgy which the saints brought to the Slavs became the source of a deep conflict, and later one of the crucial points of Reformation that finally got attention at the Second Vatican Council.

The great scholar and historian T. G. Masaryk, the father of Czechoslovakia, concluded that the aim of the history of every nation is the realization of its ideal of humanity, and it is precisely how the history of the Slavs and their neighbours unfolded. In a way, this has been the quintessential conflict which defined the central history of mankind. It was Duke Rastislav's wish, his legacy for posterity, that other nations imitate the humble Christian faith of the Slavs.

The Byzantine apostles brought not only language, culture, and religion to the backward pagans, but their mission was instrumental in defining the existence of practically all Slavic nations. Moravians, Slovaks, Czechs, Poles, Croats, Serbs, Bulgarians, Russians--all benefited greatly from this momentous event. Other nations, such as Hungarians, Romanians, Slovenes, and the Baltic nations, also profited directly or indirectly. Ukrainians, the foremost Slavic carrier of the original Byzantine culture until today, have benefitted the most, since the Ukrainian language, script, culture, and liturgy have all retained a close tie to the original Byzantine spirit and religion.

For most of their history (at least a millennium), the culture and art of the Slavs was intimately and exclusively associated with religion and faith, and much of the modern Slavic art is still of the Eastern religious nature. The separation of church and state is a modern concept but even here the saints' Byzantine legacy still challenges the artificial social constructs of modern enlightenment. Both humanism and democracy are Greek in origin and the Slavs, especially the Bohemians, became the foremost champions of democracy and humanism, demanding a meaningful and long overdue reform in the Church. (2)

Finally, after centuries of struggles and doubts, the coming of the Byzantine saints to the West and their visit to Rome legitimized for all times the papal supremacy which was repeatedly challenged both in the East and in the West.

When one of the best poets in the English language, Irish-born William Butler Yeats, published his 1928 poem Sailing to Byzantium, he prefigured the sentiment that was born at the Second Vatican Council. By his own admission, this mystical poem, the apex of Yeats' poetry and thought, was meant to describe the spiritual and intellectual journey of his soul. But in a larger sense the poem beautifully illustrates the conflict and the history that existed between the Western and Eastern worlds since the very beginnings of Christianity, and all the neglect that Byzantium has been subjected to by the jealous and proud Latin West. What is even more important, the poem shows the way towards solving the conflict, as it ends on an optimistic note, prophesying what is to come:

That is no country for old men. Caught in that sensual music all neglect Monuments of unageing intellect. Monuments of its own magnificence; And therefore I have sailed the seas and come To the holy city of Byzantium. O sages standing in God's holy fire As in the gold mosaic of a wall, Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre, And be the singing-masters of my soul. Once out of nature I shall never take My bodily form from any natural thing, But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make Of hammered gold and gold enameling To keep a drowsy Emperor awake; Or set upon a bough to sing To lords and ladies of Byzantium Of what is past, or passing, or to come. The dual history of the Church with its Greek and Roman roots originated in the fateful decision of Emperor Constantine to move the capital of the Roman empire to Constantinople. Repeatedly plundered by Goths, ruined and depopulated, Italy was a pitiful sight caught in a "falling world" as Pope Pelagius...

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