Dance The Night Of The Senses Away

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Whoever wants to become a Christian must first become a poet. – St. Pophyrios of Kavsokalyvia

St. Porphyrios made this statement in the context of love and suffering:

That’s what it is! You must suffer. You must love and suffer–suffer for the one you love. Love makes effort for the loved one. She runs all through the night; she stays awake; she stains her feet with blood in order to meet her beloved. She makes sacrifices and disregards all impediments, threats, and difficulties for the sake of the loved one. Love towards Christ is something even higher, infinitely higher.

This is a rich image of the poet – or what can drive us both to poetry as well as theology. In the history of the Church, a number of the greatest theologians have also been poets. St. Gregory the Theologian, St. Gregory of Nyssa, St. John of Damascus, St. Isaac of Syria, St. Ephrem of Edessa – the list goes on and on – all joined theology to poetic endeavor. When we include the fact that the bulk of Orthodox theology is to be found in the hymns of the Church, we have to admit that the heart of the poet and the heart of the theologian are much the same thing.  (1)

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Let us now feast on some exquisite food of the spirit, let us receive excess of saints’ poetry, let us all get drunk with the Spirit! (cf. Twelfth Night Act 1, scene 1, 1–3). St. Gregory of Nyssa, St. Gregory the Theologian, St John Damascene, and above all, St. Symeon the New Theologian will open out to us vistas of “that unseeable beauty, that unapproachable light, that unbearable glory”, such as we had never known before!

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everything that is hurt,

everything
 that seemed to us dark,

harsh, shameful, 
maimed, ugly, irreparably
 damaged,

is in Him transformed

 and recognized as whole,

as lovely, 
and radiant in His light!

*

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St Gregory of Nyssa

On Virginity

“… What, what is Virtue, but repose of mind?

A pure ethereal calm that knows no storm,

Above the reach of wild ambition’s wind,

Above the passions that this world deform,

And torture man, a proud malignant worm.”

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St. Gregory the Theologian

Prayer

Flee swiftly from my heart, all-crafty one.

Flee from my members and from my life.

Deceiver, serpent, and fire, Belial, sin,

death, abyss, dragon, night, snare, and frenzy,

chaos, manslayer, and ferocious beast!

Thou didst entice into perdition those

first-formed folk, my foreparents, offering them

at the same time the taste of sin and death.

Christ, the Ruler of all commandeth thee to

flee into the billows, to fall upon the rocks,

or to enter the herd of swine, O baleful one,

as once He bade that presumptuous Legion.

Nay, yield forthwith, lest I smite thee with the Cross,

whereat all things tremble;

Oh, flee!

I bear the Cross upon me, in all my members.

I bear the Cross whene’er I journey, whene’er I sleep.

I hold the Cross in my heart. The Cross is my glory.

O mischievous one, wilt thou never cease from

dogging me with traps and laying snares for me?

Wilt thou not dash thyself upon the precipices?

Seest thou not Sodom? Oh, wilt thou not speedily

assail the shameless herds of ungodly heretics,

who, having so recklessly sundered the Almighty

Godhead, have witlessly destroyed and abolished It?

But comest thou against my hoariness? Comest thou

against my lowly heart? Thou ever blackenest me,

O foe, with darksome thoughts, pernicious thoughts.

Thou hast no fear of God, nor of His Priests.

This mind of mine, most evil one, was verily

a mighty and loud-voiced herald of the Trinity.

And now it beholdeth its end, whither it goeth in haste.

Confuse me not, O slimy one, that I might, as pristine,

meet the pure lights of Heaven, that they might

shine like lightning flashes upon my life.

Lo, receive me; lo, I stretch forth my hands.

Farewell, O world! Farewell, thou who bringest woes upon me!

Pity be shown to all that shall live after me.

Dirge

Woe is me! Just now that I press forward

to Heaven, to the place of God, alas!

This body of mine encompasseth me.

Neither is there an end to this much-erring life,

nor yet to loathsome evil, which bindeth me fast

here below, and woundeth me from every side,

smiting me with unexpected cares that consume

the beauty and grace of my soul.

Nonetheless, O my God, King of all,

loose me swiftly from these earthly fetters,

and enroll me henceforth in the celestial choirs. (2)

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St John Damascene

The Funeral Hymns 

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[Icon above: The Astonishment of Sisoes | Contemplating Death, staring over the dead bones of Alexander the Great]

St. Sisoi’s icon (below) is to be found in the Monastery of Varlaam, Meteora (central Greece). It depicts a unique theme, whereby St. Siois is mourning in front of Alexander the Great’s tomb, the most famous Greek king ever to have lived.

“A tomb now suffices him for whom the world was not enough.”  [Alexander’s tombstone epitaph]

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Tone I

Where is the pleasure in life which is unmixed with sorrow? Where the glory which on earth has stood firm and unchanged? All things are weaker than shadow, all more illusive than dreams; comes one fell stroke, and Death in turn, prevails over all these vanities. Wherefore in the Light, O Christ, of Your countenance, the sweetness of Your beauty, to him (her) whom You have chosen grant repose, for You are the Friend of Mankind.

Tone 2

Like a blossom that wastes away, and like a dream that passes and is gone, so is every mortal into dust resolved; but again, when the trumpet sounds its call, as though at a quaking of the earth, all the dead shall arise and go forth to meet You, O Christ our God: on that day, O Lord, for him (her) whom You have withdrawn from among us appoint a place in the tentings of Your Saints;yea, for the spirit of Your servant, O Christ.

Another in Tone 2

Alas! What an agony the soul endures when from the body it is parting; how many are her tears for weeping, but there is none that will show compassion: unto the angels she turns with downcast eyes; useless are her supplications; and unto men she extends her imploring hands, but finds none to bring her rescue. Thus, my beloved brethren, let us all ponder well how brief is the span of our life; and peaceful rest for him (her) that now is gone, let us ask of Christ, and also His abundant mercy for our souls.

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 Tone 3

Vanity are all the works and quests of man, and they have no being after death has come; our wealth is with us no longer. How can our glory go with us? For when death has come all these things are vanished clean away. Wherefore to Christ the Immortal King let us cry, “To him (her) that has departed grant repose where a home is prepared for all those whose hearts You have filled with gladness.”

 Tone 4

Terror truly past compare is by the mystery of death inspired; now the soul and the body part, disjoined by resistless might, and their concord is broken; and the bond of nature which made them live and grow as one, now by the edict of God is rest in twain. Wherefore now we implore Your aid grant that Your servant now gone to rest where the just that are Yours abide, Life-bestower and Friend of Mankind.

 Tone 4

Where is now our affection for earthly things? Where is now the alluring pomp of transient questing? Where is now our gold, and our silver? Where is now the surging crowd of domestics, and their busy cries? All is dust, all is ashes, all is shadow. Wherefore draw near that we may cry to our immortal King, “Lord, Your everlasting blessings vouchsafe unto him (her) that now has gone away. bringing him (her) to repose in that blessedness which never grows old.”

(c) Ferens Art Gallery; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Tone 5

I Called to mind the Prophet who shouted, “I am but earth and ash.” And once again I looked with attention on the tombs, and I saw the bones therein which of flesh were naked; and I said, “Which indeed is he that is king? Or which is soldier? Which is the wealthy, which the needy? Which the righteous, or which the sinner?” But to Your servant, O Lord, grant that with the righteous he (she) may repose.

Tone 6

My beginning and foundation was the form;bestowing Word of Your commandment; for it pleased You to make me by compounding visible and invisible nature into a living thing. out of earth was my body formed and made, but a soul You gave me by the Divine and Life-creating In; breathing. Wherefore, O Christ, to Your servant in the land of the living, in the courts of the righteous, do You grant repose.

 Tone 7

Bring to his (her) rest, O our Savior, You giver of life, our brother (sister) whom You have withdrawn from this transient world, for he (she) lifts up his (her) voice to cry: “Glory to You.”

 Another in Tone 7

When in Your own image and likeness You in the beginning did create and fashion man, You gave him a home in Paradise, and made him the chief of your creation. But by the devil’s envy, alas, beguiled to eat the fruit forbidden, transgressor then of Your commandments he became; wherefore back to earth, from which he first was taken, You did sentence him to return again, O Lord, and to pray You to give him rest.

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[Icon above: The Canon of Pascha, a composition by John of Damascus.]

Plagal of the Fourth Tone

Weep, and with tears lament when with understanding I think on death, and see how in the graves there sleeps the beauty which once for us was fashioned in the image of God, but now is shapeless, ignoble, and bare of all the graces. O how strange a thing; what is this mystery which concerns us humans? Why were we given up to decay? And why to death united in wedlock? Truly, as it is written, these things come to pass by ordinance of God, Who to him (her) now gone gives rest

 Glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit.

The death which You have endured, O Lord, is become the harbinger of deathlessness; if You had not been laid in Your tomb, then would not the gates of Paradise have been opened;wherefore to him (her) now gone from us give rest, for You are the Friend of Mankind.

 Both now and ever and to the ages of ages. Amen.

Virgin chaste and holy, Gateway of the Word, Mother of our God, make supplication that his (her) soul find mercy.

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Listen to a selection of these Funeral Hymns chanted in a Mt Athos, Byzantine style by Apostolos Hill (Hymns of Paradise) at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qSBh6Iabe68 , https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2vtNuI8Wj3g , https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y7iXu2yO7Lc

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[Icon above: Cure of Saint John Damascene]

The story behind the texts of the Funeral Service is very moving: St. John was once a powerful and wise member of the royal court. He however abandoned all this and became a monk. “Only once did John disobey the instructions that were his rule of life in the monastery. A fellow monk had lost his brother and could not be consoled. Knowing of John’s ability to compose music and poetry, he begged him to write a funeral hymn for his dead brother. Because his elder had left the monastery for a few days, John refused, for he had agreed to do nothing without the elder’s direction and consent. Finally, however, he felt so sorry for the bereaved monk that he consented, and wrote one of his most beautiful hymns–which has become part of the Orthodox funeral service. The monk was very moved by the lovely hymn and thanked John for helping him in his grief.

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But when the elder returned and heard of John’s deed, he wanted nothing more to do with him for he had disobeyed his rule. John begged the elder to forgive him, but to no avail. The other monks also petitioned the older monk to take him back, even if it meant giving John a penance. The elder finally relented. He gave him the worst job in the monastery, cleaning the lavatories, and also forbid him to write any more hymns. John accepted gratefully and willingly carried out all his duties.

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One night the elder had a vision. The mother of God appeared to him in a dream and said: “Why have you sealed the spring of fresh water for which the whole world is thirsty? Let it pour freely and comfort those in need. Let John praise God through his songs.” The elder then realized that he had dealt wrongly with John and hurried to him, asking forgiveness for his sternness and bluntness. He knelt and bowed low before John to beg his pardon. The talent which had been given to John could now be used to the glory of God.”

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There is also another very moving story about St. John Damascene and the Icon of Theotokos with three Hands! St. John Damascene was the great defender of icons. Because of his defense of the holy images and because of his great ability as a writer, the order was given by the iconoclasts that his right hand be cut off at the wrist. St. John asked for the severed hand and prayed before the icon known as the Hodegetria or She Who Shows the Way. Asking fervently that his hand might be restored, he fell asleep exhausted.

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Virgin Mary came to him in a dream; when awoke his hand was miraculously restored with only a red line showing.  In gratitude, St. John composed the hymn “In thee, O Full of Grace, all creation rejoices” The icon before which St. John prayed exists to this day on Mount Athos in the Hilander Monastery. It is called Tricherousa, or Panagia “Of  Three Hands” due to the silver hand which St. John placed on the icon as a testament to the above miracle.

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St. Symeon the New Theologian

How are You at once the source of fire

How are You at once the source of fire,

how also the fountain of dew?

How at once burning and sweetness,

how a remedy for all disease?

How do You make gods of us men,

how do You make darkness light?

How do You make one reascend from Hell,

how do You make us mortals imperishable?

How do You draw darkness to light,

how do You triumph over night?

How do You illumine the heart?

how do You transform me entirely?

How do You become one with men,

how do You make them sons of God?

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In the midst of that night, in my darkness

by Symeon the New Theologian

In the midst of that night, in my darkness,

I saw the awesome sight of Christ

opening the heavens for me.

And he bent down to me and showed himself to me

with the Father and the Holy Spirit

in the thrice holy light

–
a single light in three,

and a threefold light in one,

for they are altogether light,

and the three are but one light,.

And he illumined my soul

more radiantly than the sun,

and he lit up my mind,

which had until then been in darkness.

Never before had my mind seen such things.

I was blind, you should know it,

and I saw nothing.

That was why this strange wonder

was so astonishing to me,

when Christ, as it were,

opened the eye of my mind,

when he gave me sight, as it were,

and it was him that I saw.

He is Light within Light,

who appears
 to those

who contemplate him,

and contemplatives see him in light

–
see him, that is, in the light of the Spirit…

And now, as if from far off,

I still see that unseeable beauty,

that unapproachable light,

that unbearable glory.

My mind is completely astounded.

I tremble with fear.

Is this a small taste from the abyss,

which like a drop of water

serves to make all water

knowing all its qualities and aspects?…

I found him, the One

whom I had seen from afar,

the one whom Stephen saw

when the heavens opened,

and later whose vision blinded Paul.

Truly, he was as a fire

in the center of my heart.

I was outside myself, broken down, lost to myself,

and unable to bear

the unendurable brightness of that glory.

And so, I turned

and fled into the night of the senses.

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O totally strange and inexpressible marvel!

by Symeon the New Theologian

O totally strange and inexpressible marvel!

Because of my infinite richness I am a needy person

and imagine to have nothing,

when I possess so much,

and I say: “I am thirsty,”

through superabundance of the waters

and “who will give me,”

that which I possess in abundance,

and “where will I find,”

the One whom I see each day.

“How will I lay hold of,”

the One who is within me,

and beyond the world,

since he is completely invisible? (4)

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The fire rises in me

by Symeon the New Theologian

The fire rises in me,

and lights up my heart.

Like the sun!

Like the golden disk!

Opening, expanding, radiant —

Yes!
     a flame!

I say again:

I don’t know

what to say!

I’d fall silent

If only I could

but this marvel

makes my heart leap,

it leaves me open mouthed

like a fool,

urging me

to summon words

from my silence.

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We awaken in Christ’s body

by Symeon the New Theologian

We awaken in Christ’s body

as Christ awakens our bodies,

and my poor hand is Christ,

He enters
 my foot,

and is infinitely me.

I move my hand,

and wonderfully

my hand becomes Christ,

becomes all of Him

(for God is indivisibly 
whole,

seamless in His Godhood).

I move my foot,

and at once
He appears

like a flash of lightning.

Do my words seem blasphemous?

Then 
open your heart to Him

and let yourself receive the one

who is opening to you so deeply.

For if we genuinely love Him,

we wake up inside Christ’s body

where all our body, all over,

every most hidden part of it,

is realized in joy as Him,

and He makes us, utterly, real,

and everything that is hurt,

everything
 that seemed to us dark,

harsh, shameful,
maimed, ugly, irreparably
 damaged,

is in Him transformed

 and recognized as whole,

as lovely, 
and radiant in His light

he awakens as the Beloved

in every last part of our body.

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You, oh Christ, are the Kingdom of Heaven

by Symeon the New Theologian

You, oh Christ, are the Kingdom of Heaven;

You, the land promised to the gentle;

You the grazing lands of paradise;

You, the hall of the celestial banquet;

You, the ineffable marriage chamber;

You the table set for all,

You the bread of life;

You, the unheard of drink;

You, both the urn for the water

and the life-giving water;

You, moreover, the inextinguishable lamp

for each one of the saints;

You, the garment and the crown

and the one who distributes crowns;

You, the joy and the rest;

You, the delight and glory;

You the gaiety;

You, the mirth;

and Your grace,

grace of the Spirit of all sanctity,

will shine like the sun in all the saints;

and You, inaccessible sun,

will shine in their midst

and all will shine brightly,

to the degree of their faith,

their asceticism,

their hope

and their love,

their purification

and their illumination

by Your Spirit.

 

Sources:

(1) For the full article “The Poetry of God” by 

(2) Our Father among the Saints Gregory of Nazianzos, the Theologian: Selected verses from his poetry translated metrically into Modern Greek by Alexandros Moraïtides (in Greek) (Athens: Ekdosis I.N. Sideres, n.d.), Vol. II. [The original poems are found in Patrologia Græca, Vol. XXXVII, cols. 1399A-1401A (Poem LV); cols. 1384A-1385A (Poem XLIX) — trans.]

(3) The hymns by St. John of Damascus, taken from http://www.goarch.org/chapel/liturgical_texts/funeral2

(4) Original Language Greek; English version by George A. Maloney, S.J., Ivan M. Granger, Stephen Mitchell. Source: http://www.poetry-chaikhana.com/Poets/S/SymeontheNew/

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