Friday, May 11, 2012

Sts. Cyril and Methodius: Refutation of a Few Myths and a Note on Language

Today, May 11, the Holy Orthodox Church commemorates the brothers, Sts. Cyril and Methodius, the Apostles to the Slavs.  One of the great accomplishments of the Orthodox church in its history of evangelizing was the conversion of the Slavs as well as ethnic groups that had dominion over them such as the Rus and the Bulgars.  Unfortunately, there are a few myths that surround the brothers and their mission to the Slavs, particularly with regards to language.  I will refute those.

Myth # 1:  The brothers invented the Cyrillic alphabet.  This is false.  Though the Cyrillic alphabet clearly descends from the invention of the two, the Cyrillic alphabet is actually a simplification of the Glagolithic alphabet which the brothers invented.  Cyrillic did not become prominent until about the 10th century in the Bulgar Empire.  This is an important distinction to be made particularly with the next myth.

Myth # 2:  The brothers invented a new alphabet so that the Slavs could have the Liturgy, the Scriptures and the prayers in their own language.  Whereas the Latin Church insisted that its Liturgy and prayers be always in Latin, Cyril and Methodius are heralded as the icons of Orthodox evangelization: in other cultures'  native tongue.  This is the legacy that has been conferred on Cyril and Methodius.  But this is myth.  Cyril and Methodius were NOT creating an alphabet so that the Slavs could have the prayers in their own language.  Their mission and the creation of the alphabet was to help the Slavs pray the prayers and understand the Liturgy in Greek.  The Glalgolithic alphabet was not for liturgical use.

Cyril and Methodius were well aware that the language of the church was Greek.  And this wasn't some chauvinistic or mere cultural preference.  Cyril and Methodius knew that to be a Christian was to be a Greek speaker.  Like it or not, the Church was created out of Hellenism.  The eminent theologian, Fr. Georges Florovsky readily admits that (and he's Russian!).  Christianity is inherently Greek.  Now, that is NOT to say, of course, that English speakers or Russian speakers or Arabic speakers who are Orthodox Christians are somehow less Orthodox than a Greek Orthodox Christian, but the Greek speakers do have an advantage.

I bring this up because in the Orthodox Churches of the United States there is a lot of discussion about language.  Should Orthodox Churches only use English?  Should it be half and half or should it be proportional to the congregation's own ethnic heritage?  These are questions which cannot and will not be settled by Ecumenical Council but by the individual parishes themselves.  Now, most towns that do have an Orthodox Church, have maybe only one.  If a Greek finds himself in a city with a Serbian Orthodox Church which uses very little English but mainly Slavonic and Serbian, should he have the right to say that the Serbs should change their language?  Of course not.

Many people (mainly converts) believe that Orthodoxy in America should strictly be in English.  Typical Americo-centrism.  Such converts believe that Orthodoxy in other languages is suspect, that they are clinging too much to their own culture and need to Americanize.  Those people are wrong.  Such things should be practiced and changed, if needed, organically.  The history of the Orthodox Church has proceeded by organic change.  The use of Slavonic in the Liturgy in the lands of the Slavs did not begin until the 11th century, almost two hundred years after the mission of Cyril and Methodius. And such was not done by decree of a bishop, but was an organic development largely caused by the continued disintegration of the Eastern Roman Empire and the inability of the Patriarch of Constantinople to guide churches directly in lands of his jurisdiction.

But, let us assume that every Orthodox Church in the United States uses English for everything:  Liturgies, Scripture, Prayers, Offices, etc.  Now another problem arises:  which English renderings are to be used?  Problems are inherent here, too.  And again, it is hard to get past the fact that Orthodoxy has been and always will be primarily communicated in the Greek language.  So, which translations to use and discard?

Now the argument becomes one of text.  And that is very dangerous.  We should never ever argue about the Liturgy as text.  Texts are solid, never changing.  People, naturally, will get upset if the text is changed.  I remember one time that I was reading Psalm 50 during a Holy Week Bridegroom Orthros.  The "text" I was using was not the one in the service book (which I do not like--argument for another time) because I know Psalm 50 and prayed it from the heart.  One of the parishioners was so irate with me after the service because I didn't conform to the text and, as a result, took him "out of worship" (I kid you not; his words).  If the "text" is the metric by which we measure the prayers of the church, whether in private or public, whether in the Divine Liturgy or in the Offices, then we cease to pray and focus more on reading.  And there is a natural period of time when one has to read before the reading becomes a natural function of the nous.  But to focus strictly on text and strict adherence to text removes the prayer aspect (that's one reason why I abhor service books).

Fr. Meletios Webber had an interesting suggestion.  He said that Wikipedia might actually serve as a guide.  With Wikipedia (as far as I know and this may have changed) users can alter entries (whether for better or for worse).  Why not apply the same standard with the prayers of the church?  One can make use of the prayers as he knows them and another can alter them, whether for better or for worse.  The prayers could be posted on line and altered accordingly and prayed in the churches. That is far more keeping with the organic development of Orthodox praxis than enforcing one thing on everyone else like the Latin church did. 

As we commemorate Sts. Cyril and Methodius we should remember that every Orthodox Christian should be allowed to pray in the tongue he wishes and/or is most comfortable.  But we should remember that Sts. Cyril and Methodius realized that Greek is the language of Christianity and the more people who know Greek will begin to have their nous opened to the Gospel.  But we don't read and understand the Gospel, we live the Gospel.  Such with the Liturgy: we don't read it, we live it and we pray it.  Understanding is not the means; it is the end and culminates with theosis--becoming like God.

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