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"Today the concept of truth is viewed with suspicion, because truth is identified with violence. Over history there have, unfortunately, been episodes when people sought to defend the truth with violence. But they are two contrasting realities. Truth cannot be imposed with means other than itself! Truth can only come with its own light. Yet, we need truth. ... Without truth we are blind in the world, we have no path to follow. The great gift of Christ was that He enabled us to see the face of God".Pope Benedict xvi, February 24th, 2012

The Church is ecumenical, catholic, God-human, ageless, and it is therefore a blasphemy—an unpardonable blasphemy against Christ and against the Holy Ghost—to turn the Church into a national institution, to narrow her down to petty, transient, time-bound aspirations and ways of doing things. Her purpose is beyond nationality, ecumenical, all-embracing: to unite all men in Christ, all without exception to nation or race or social strata. - St Justin Popovitch

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Saturday, 6 April 2013

THE FALL OF AN EMPIRE - THE LESSON OF BYZANTIUM


This video is well worth watching.   It gives the story of the fall of the greatest empire the world had ever seen,   When the West was given over to wars and disorder,with a complete lack of education except among the clergy,  Byzantium had universal education, and a high cultural life for a thousand years.   Its fall is very sad; and this video gives a detailed and nuanced account of the process by which a strong, well- governed society crumbled from within before it ever fell to the Muslim hoards.   It sends us a warning because, what happened to Byzantium could happen to us.

However, there is something else that is sad.  This Russian Orthodox video only sees Rome and Western Europe as they behaved towards Byzantium and shows no awareness of other aspects of Western life.  Of course, there is no reason why the video should explore these other aspects; but lack of awareness of the other dimensions can lead to false conclusions, even about the Fall of Byzantium. 

It makes sweeping statements about the West, that it was all war and pillaging.   That is so sweeping as to give a very incomplete picture.   There is no mention of western monasticism, the rise of the great monasteries, the evangelization, the saints, the holiness of common people. In fact, you only have to go to Wales with its holy wells and to Belarus with its holy wells to realise that the common people on both sides of the divide had a faith and practice very similar to one another, whatever pope or patriarch may have said, and whatever fate Byzantium may have been preparing for itself   The "megahistory" may have been different, but the "microhistory",  the real history, the history of souls in East and West, all of which have been paid for by the Precious Blood of the Lamb, was and is startlingly the same.   

As these details are not considered, the Orthodox can use the account to re-inforce the "us and them" approach, hanging on to the illusion that in dealing with Roman Catholicism, they are dealing with a completely different species of animal, and seeing the West as the source of all its ills.   The archimandrite says in the video that the Fall of Byzantium is a key to understand the modern world.

The video does not realise that the warring, pillaging and disorder in the West was far more of a threat, because it was constant, to the western Catholic Church than it was to Orthodoxy which lay secure within the boundaries of the Byzantine Empire, until, of course, it collapsed.   The Catholic Church had to build up defences against chaos and protect the unity of the Church in spite of centrifugal forces directed by half-converted bandits and rogues.   To bring about reform, to save western Christian civilisation and the unity of the Church in very difficult circumstances, successive popes and their allies built up a centralised papacy. To survive as a single unit, the Church had to become self-sufficient     Many saints were involved in the process and in the reforms that this centralised papacy brought about or encouraged. On the whole, those who opposed it were also opposed to reform, and they probably used argumentsto defend their corrupt ways  like the ones that later were heard from the Orthodox for very different reasons.  As Catholicism judged Orthodoxy by western standards and Orthodoxy judged Rome by eastern standards, this led to each side completely misunderstanding each other's motives.



To understand the motives behind the growth of papal power, you have only to look at St Peter Damian.   Born in Ravenna, he became a hermit, but was called from his hermitage to serve the pope.   His theology was thoroughly patristic, his ecclesiology thoroughly eucharistic, his spirituality thoroughly monastic; but his main task was to lay the basis in Canon Law for a centralised papacy.   He did so out of  reforming zeal  because church reform was impossible across boarders and corruption was protected by kings and warlords.   For the same reason, local churches queued up to get the privilege of having their bishops chosen by the pope, because, in that way, they could escape the heavy hand of the local lord every time there was an election.


Unfortunately, when the western popes came to interpret the reactions of the eastern bishops, the only model they knew was their own experience with western bishops who opposed their centralisation plans. Also, the Orthodox viewed the growing self-assertiveness of the popes as the result of unChristian  pride.  Neither could see that both positions arose from two highly Christian responses to two very different cultural realities.   Each was sure of the rightness of its own intentions: neither could interpret correctly the intentions of the other. The tools for examining the effect of environment on Christian belief and practice simply had not yet been invented: hence, differences hardened into schism.  

 I believe that this schism was something far worse than the Fall of Constantinople.   Empires come and go, but the Church continues until the Second Coming.   Never has the devil had such a good time, from the beginning of the world until now, as when Catholicism and Orthodoxy fell into schism.

Perhaps the diabolical temptation began after the conversion of Constantine, when Christians dreamt of an empire that would include the whole universal Catholic Church.   It was diabolical because it was unrealistic.   The first victims of this dream were the Christian churches of the Persian Empire who were not invited to the Council of Ephesus but were required to accept its conclusions.   They refused to do so and became Nestorians.   Then the Egyptians wanted to become independent, and this got mixed up with theological debate; and they became Monophysites.   One big problem was that the Byzantine Empire could not function in the West because it did not have the resources.  The Legend of King Arthur and the Round Table comes from the time after the retreat of the Roman Empire from Britain.   The allegience pf the Catholic Church to the Empire began to disappear when that entity was unable to protect it, to keep order or to fulfil any other function of an Empire.   Pope St Gregory the Great had to take charge in Italy; and, in time, the West had to choose its own emperor: there was no choice. The Church in the West had to organise itself without the Byzantine Empire, while Orthodoxy clung to it: hence the schism.   Instead of being a unifying factor, the Byzantine Empire became a source of division; perhaps because it was an unrealistic dream on which some Orthodox are still hooked.

Nevertheless, the video is well worth watching.   It is thoughtful and a lesson for all of us. 

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