May 11, 2019

Saints Cyril and Methodius, the Apostles of the Slavonians (Sebastian Dabovich)

By Sebastian Dabovich


MAY 11

It is with gratitude and reverence that we mention the names of St. Cyril and his brother Methodius, the first teachers of the Slavonic people, who gave us the Word of God in the Slavonian language. “God, in His mercy, gives to every race and time its teachers, and to us He gave Constantine (and his brother Methodius), who enlightened our people.” This is the way in which an old Slavonic history commences to relate the life of the philosopher Constantine (the name Cyril was given him not long before his death, in taking the final vows of an ascetic), who was the inventor of the Slavonian alphabet, and the preacher of the Word of God in the Slavonic countries. Constantine (or Cyril) lived in the ninth century; he was the youngest son of a rich and noted nobleman of the Greek city of Salonica. His father’s name was Leo, and his mother’s Mary. The family was a large one; and it was brought up in all gravity, according to the faith. The Greek emperor installed Methodius, the elder brother, as governor of the Slavonic tribes, which, at that time, lived in the neighborhood of Salonica. But, after a few years, Methodius desired to leave the world. He left the Slavonic principality, after which he settled in Mount Olympus, where he was tonsured a monk, and devoted his days in prayer and the study of the Holy Scriptures.

In the mean time, Constantine was occupied with his studies in the homes of his parents. While yet a little boy, he saw in his dreams that the ruler of the city had once gathered a great many maidens, and told him to select for himself a bride; at that, be selected the most beautiful one; her name was Sofia. Now the meaning of this name is wisdom. Constantine truly did obtain wisdom, for he was clever and diligent in his studies. One of the eminent tutors of the young Emperor Michael, in Constantinople, had heard of the bright lad, Constantine, for he knew the family of Salonica. On securing the parents’ consent, he at once sent for the boy, to study with the young emperor in the palace. Under the guidance of the most learned men of the empire, but especially the celebrated Photius (who after became the Patriarch of Constantinople), the young man made rapid progress in his studies, which gained for him the name of Philosopher. But Constantine was not taken with pride, nor did he make a display of his learning and title.

When he had reached the full age of manhood, Constantine was appointed librarian of the cathedral of Santa Sophia. He did not remain long in this position, however; for, renouncing all ties, he secretly left the city, and became a monk in a monastery not far from the Bosphorus. But he was soon found out, and after the emperor’s personal request, he consented to return to the metropolis. At the age of twenty-four, he was sent as an envoy from the court of Constantinople to the ruler of the Saracens. Constantine’s position was a very dangerous one, as the Mahometans, proud in their victories and growing possessions, and as ignorant fanatics, especially at this time, were most dangerous to the personal safety of Christians. The religious leaders of the Saracens confronted our Christian philosopher with the question: “Why is it, that among you Christians, who worship one God, there are so many differences in faith and in life, while we Mahometans strictly adhere to one law, and do not transgress it?" “Our God,” replied Constantine, “is as a vast ocean, whose depth is immeasurable, inconceivable to the human mind. Many probe into the immense greatness, seeking for the Lord; some, strong in mind and faith, and supported by the grace of God, find riches of wisdom and salvation; others, weak, and deprived of the help of God for their pride and self-conceitedness, endeavor to sail across this vast region, but they fail for the want of strength; they either get lost or exhausted by the hardships. God, having created man, adorned him with a free will. He may select his way; he may rise with his mind, and resemble the angels, serving God and fulfilling His law. He also may lower himself to the equal of animal, feeding his desires, and binding himself in passions. In order to serve God, one must struggle with himself; he must endeavor to grow in perfection, to conquer his passions, and bridle his evil habits; but this is a difficult task. Now, your religion, as a small stream, is comprehensible to any one; everything in it is human, and nothing divine. It does not demand of you any struggles or hardships. It does not make it your duty to constantly advance to a higher perfection, and, therefore, it is easily accessible to any one; without any labor one may fulfill the whole of your law.”

After his return home, Constantine went to live with his brother Methodius, in Mount Olympus. Away from the vanities of the world,they constantly strengthened themselves in wisdom and in the faith, going deeper into the study of Christ’s law. Not a very long time went by thus, when the holy brothers were called forth to live and work among the people. They were sent as missionaries by the Church at Constantinople to convert the people living along the northern coast of the Black Sea, and who were called Chozars. It took considerable time for them to master the language. The missionaries worked incessant1y. Their labors were made the heavier for the opposition that the Jews and Samaritans showed them, who also greatly strove to convert the inhabitants. St. Cyril was constantly occupied in sharp disputes; but St. Methodius aided none the less, by his fervent prayers to God. And God blessed the work of the brothers. The prince of the Chozars believed, and was baptized. A large number of people immediately followed his example. When Sts. Methodius and Cyril were about to return to Constantinople, the prince would have them accept rich gifts; but they refused to accept anything in return for the grace of God in the Gospel, which they had brought to the people, and in place of the gifts, they requested that some Greek captives be given their freedom. On their way, the brothers visited another tribe living by the Sea of Azov. This people they also brought to Christ. The missionaries were triumphantly greeted in Constantinople as apostles. These true servants of the Saviour would accept no honors or dignity. St. Cyril took up his living by the Church of the Holy Apostles, and St. Methodius became the abbot of a monastery.

It was about this time that the sisterof Boris, the king of Bulgaria, had returned home from Constantinople, where she was held a captive. Being now a Christian, she prevailed upon the king to at least apply to Byzantium for learned teachers in the faith. St. Methodius at once went over to Bulgaria, and in a comparatively short time had converted Boris, who, through his sister, was already acquainted with the teaching of the Gospel.

Soon after this, Rostislav and Sviatopolk, princes of Moravia, and Kotsel, a prince of Blaten (i.e. in Pannonia, which is the country we know now as Hungary), petitioned the emperor of Constantinople to send them a bishop and teacher. The emperor referred the matter to the patriarch, who at that time was the celebrated Photius. At a council of bishops it was decided to give this great undertaking to the charge of Sts. Cyril and Methodius, as to such who were from Salonica, and consequently who knew the Slavonic language. Notwithstanding his failing health, St. Cyril agreed to go to those who were seeking the truth. He was anxious that the Christian religion should take a firm hold upon the many kindred tribes of a young but great race of people. For this purpose he put to the emperor the question: “Have not the Slavonians any letters? ” “ Both my grandfather and father sought for them, but did not find any," answered the emperor. “ How can I preach to them?” said St. Cyril; “it is the same as though one wrote upon the waters. If I should invent letters myself, I fear I may be called a false teacher.” “ The Lord will guide thee and give thee His help,” replied the emperor.

Firm in the hope of obtaining God’s blessing for his labors, St. Cyril set himself to the task of constructing an alphabet for the Slavonic people, that they may retain the Word of God written down for them, as teaching by word merely could soon become forgotten. He very earnestly prayed, besides putting himself under an obligation of fasting for forty days; and shutting himself in his cell with a few disciples, who were to share in his future apostolic journey, he commenced the work of inventing letters. In this way the Slavonic alphabet had its origin. The language now being adapted to writing, St. Cyril translated the Gospel of St. John for the first book. The first words written in the Slavonian language were these: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

When this great work had been accomplished, A. D. 862, the whole religious council, at a grand public praise, gave thanks to the Lord. The philosopher Constantine was now consecrated a bishop, and, in company with his brother Methodius and several disciples, he went to the Slavonic countries. He carried a letter to Prince Rostislav from the Emperor Michael, which read as follows: “The Lord, who commands every one to learn the truth, hath wrought a great work by showing your language in letters. We send to you the same honorable man through whom the Lord gave this writing, a philosopher both religious and very learned. He carries to you a gift more valuable than gold and precious stones. Help him to confirm and promote your language, and seek God, not minding the labor of any undertaking; and thyself, having brought thy people to the mind of God, wilt receive thy reward in this age, and in that which is to come.”

The brothers’ teaching went on prosperously. During four years and a half they went through all Moravia and Pannonia, calling on the people to believe in the one true God, and explaining for them His law. Prince Kotsel himself began to learn to read and to study the Slavonic language, while he recommended fifty young men to study with St. Cyril. This new apostle, untiring in labor for the benefit of his neighbors, translated the Book of Psalms, a part of the Bible, and all the Church services into the Slavonic language. Now divine worship was offered in the Slavonian countries in a language which was understood by all, while in the Roman Catholic countries the Latin language is used in the Church services up to this day. As it was before, in converting the Chozars, likewise on this occasion St. Cyril would take no gifts or acknowledgments from the new Christians for his labors; but he begged Prince Kotsel to liberate nine hundred captives.

Such was the beginning of the spread of Christian learning by the newly invented literature of the Slavonic language. The gram— mar of this language was formed principally for the purpose of explaining and spreading the Word of God; from its birth it was the instrument of true civilization. When St. Cyril entrusted this most precious gift (i.e. the Word of God) to the Slavonian people in their own language, he said to them in his preface to the Gospel: “Ye Slavonian peoples, hear ye the Word which feeds the soul of man, the Word which strengthens the heart and mind.” God grant that our literature always remains worthy of its holy origin; that it may serve a good purpose in explaining the law of God, science, and true wisdom!

Sts. Cyril and Methodius, as other Christian evangelists, suffered not a little from calamities and persecutions. German and Latin bishops, who also preached to this people, envied the work of the orthodox brothers, and they arose against the translation of the Holy Scriptures into the Slavonic tongue. They said that the Gospel should be read only in the three tongues, which writings were nailed to the cross of Jesus Christ, viz: Hebrew, Greek, and Latin. St. Cyril replied that, as the Lord came upon the earth for the salvation of all people, consequently all should glorify and thank Him, and strive to understand His will. He said that God, in His mercy, gives the air and rain for all, and commands the sun to shine for all; thus, therefore, He does not desire to deprive any one of a greater gift, i.e. to know and understand His will.

But the bishops would not accept this answer, and they complained to the Pope against the teachers of the Slavonians. It was about this time that the great division in the Church began to show itself. The Greek Church, which remained faithful to orthodoxy, did not approve of the innovations introduced into the Latin Church, and opposed chiefly an unnecessary and heretical addition to the Creed itself, and the tendency of the Roman clergy to attain temporal power. Besides this, there was a misunderstanding between the Patriarch of Constantinople and the Pope of Rome concerning the young Church of Bulgaria; but as yet there was no open rupture, and the Church now as before continued to recognize, not the power of the Roman bishop, but his precedance, as the first among equals. Therefore, Sts. Cyril and Methodius, obeying the summons, went to Rome for an explanation. They took with them a part of the relics of St. Clement, who was one of the first bishops of the early Church in Rome. These relics the holy brothers brought from the shores of the Black Sea, where St. Clement was drowned by order of the Emperor Trajan. On their way the missionaries taught the Slavonian people in their own language, and in Venice they were challenged to dispute with the Latins.

In the mean time Pope Nicholas had died. His successor, Adrian IL, who endeavored to restore harmony and peace to the Church, did not' give ear to the accusations brought against the Slavonian teachers. On the contrary, he said that those who maintained that the Gos' pel should be read in three languages were not right, and they preached a new heresy. When the Pope heard that the brothers were nearing Rome, and that they were bringing the relics of St. Clement, he went out of the city, with all the clergy and a multitude of people, to meet them. Sts. Cyril and Methodius were greatly honored during their stay in Rome. Adrian, the patriarchal bishop of the West, showed them every attention.

The long journey and many hardships in a laborious life told on the health of Cyril. While in Rome his health completely failed him. He understood that his time now had come to its close; therefore, he made preparations, and he wished to take the final vows of an extreme recluse. He awaited the end in calm repose, with a happy conscience. His illness continued for two months. Although he left the world without sorrow, yet the success of the work he had commenced was near to his heart. To Methodius, his brother, he expressed his last will in these touching words: “ We two, brother, have been as a contented yoke of oxen, working the same field; and now I fall in the harness, having early finished my day. Thou hast desired the quiet of Mount Olympus, but, I pray thee, leave not the work commenced; for in this labor thy salvation may be secured the sooner.” The dying philosopher and pastor for some time continued in prayer, asking for the grace of firm conviction in the faith for all the many people he visited, after which he peacefully gave up his soul to the Lord, at the early age of forty-two years — we might say, on the threshold of complete life of a man, but overcome by labors and sickness. He died on the 14th of February, A.D. 869.

Adrian, the bishop of Rome, with all the prelates and dignitaries of the Western Capital, with a great throng of Christians, carrying lighted candles, attended the funeral of the sainted teacher of the Slavonians, following the holy remains to their place of rest in the Church of St. Clement. Methodius desired to carry the body of his brother to their native country, in accord with the last will of their mother, but the Church of Rome would not consent to it.

St. Methodius returned to the Slavonian countries again to superintend the great work of Christianizing and developing the new literature. Very soon the need of a bishop for the Slavonic people compelled him to return to Rome. This minister of Christ, while spreading the Gospel, endeavored to remain true to the characteristics of a great race, we might say, left to his guardianship, by preserving its history, native culture, and future identity. For this reason he was anxious to obtain letters of authority from the Pope of Rome, who presided in the West, whence came a number of foreign Latin missionaries into his spiritual field. Accordingly St. Methodius was consecrated bishop by the Pope of Rome. Now he came back to his people with power from the West, as St. Cyril had done before, coming from the East, having been consecrated bishop in Constantinople. At this time the Church of Rome was in communion with the Orthodox Church, and this fact proved to be a blessing, coming from the different ancient Apostolic Churches to the young Slavonic Church, insuring her peace and future progress. But by Providence the Slavonic Church was destined to prove her faith in many difficult trials after a. little peace. By this time the German war-loving emperors had made their arms felt in southern Europe, and when Rostislav was conquered, in whose stead Sviatopolk gained the ascendency, thanks to the protection of the Germans, the German bishops interfered with the work of St. Methodius in a more arrogant attitude than ever before. They even sought the life of the saint. Prince Kotsel would save him, but in vain. At last, in order to retain for himself the favor of the Germans, Sviatopolk banished Methodius to Shwabia (i.e. present Germany). Our apostle was a. prisoner for two years, until Pope John VIII, influenced by the example of his predecessor, Adrian, as well as by the constant appeals on the part of the Slavonian Christians, demanded the liberty of Methodius. The Pope went so far as to excommunicate those German bishops who were the cause of the Slavonic teacher’s overthrow, until his freedom was secured.

Methodius returned to his Church. It seemed as though he worked now with greater zeal than before. God blessed his efforts for the Gospel. The Slavonians in their contentment prospered not a little. Christian faith, hope, and love was taking a hold on many large provinces. In the mean time, false reports followed one after another to Rome. It must be understood that the new doctrine concerning the procession of the Holy Ghost, which was the cause of the new word filioque, that was introduced into the hitherto orthodox creed, had been spread throughout nearly all the churches of the West. Pope John himself did not recognize this innovation. Nevertheless, he sent for St. Methodius on pretext of examining his faith, but in reality it was the Pope’s intention to set forth as an example the submission of Methodius and the recognition of papal authority. After questioning him as to the orthodoxy of his teaching, the Pope let him go with a warm commendation. When the enemies of our teachers discovered that they had failed in Rome against him, they now accused St. Methodius before the Emperor of Constantinople, Basil the Macedonian, saying that he was unfaithful to the Orthodox Church, and that he adhered to Rome. The hoary—haired bishop had now to make his way to Constantinople, to defend the work of his glorious brother, and to save their dear Slavonian Church. Our saint’s envious intriguers failed again, for he was received with much attention by the emperor and the Patriarch of Constantinople. The patriarch gladly accepted the Slavonic books brought by Methodius; for he desired to use them in converting the Bulgarians. Once more the people of Pannonia and Moravia were rejoiced to see their beloved pastor. The triumphs of Methodius helped to raise the energy of his disciples, who were continually preaching and translating. Just before the day of St. Demetrius of Salonica, Methodius had completed the translation of the Old Testament, and on the day of the patron saint of his native city he held a grand celebration, all the services being sung in the Slavonic language.

Now the Slavonians from Dalmatia and Croatia to Poland had the privilege of learning the law of God, and hearing His Word, and praising Him in their own tongue. During the sixteen years of his episcopal service, Methodius traveled through all the Slavonian provinces, and, with saintly patience, spread the faith. In Bohemia, for instance, he baptized the Princess Ludmila. While German warriors and Latin monks went through Europe together with fire and sword, St. Methodius labored hard here and there, in small communities, establishing his disciples as teachers and pastors. On another occasion, when the Cheh people, together with their prince, Borivai, of Bohemia, were prepared, they were baptized by Methodius himself.

Sviatopolk, together with the German bishops, by this time feared the great influence of the holy man; but, they waited for his death, in order to persecute his disciples. St. Methodius for several days foretold his own death. He made preparations, and selected a religious and learned man, whose name was Gorazd, to continue the work as his successor. The burial service of the great missionary was held in the Slavonian, Greek, and Latin languages. The loss of their dear teacher was keenly felt by all the people, who wept much. Sviatopolk was about to wreak his vengeance against the disciples of Sts. Cyril and Methodius, when they fled, most of them finding protection and a home in Bulgaria, under King Simeon. From here, they continued to spread enlightenment to many Slavonic countries. They founded schools, and sent out missionaries. Unfortunately, a few provinces, like Poland, for instance, came entirely under the influence of the German bishops and foreign culture. As other Slavonian peoples, Russia likewise owes much to the translations of Sts. Cyril and Methodius, and also to the work of the disciples of these two great teachers. And Russia, so richly blessed with temporal power and spiritual prosperity, openly acknowledges her sincere gratitude. We also, thank God, have the privilege of praising the blessed names of Cyril and Methodius, who were the beacon-lights of a race whose descendants are now your and our guides in the path of orthodoxy.

From The Lives of the Saints: And Several Lectures and Sermons.