Cyril and Methodius

Among the best known saints in the Orthodox calendar are the brothers Cyril and Methodius, who are remembered for devising the Cyrillic alphabet and thus opening the way for the conversion of all the Slavic peoples to the Christian faith.

Like all stories about saints, this encapsulation is only partly true, and it manages to obscure the massive talents and the unique contribution each brother made to the work that had such a tremendous effect upon so many people.

The men were brothers, born about ten years apart. Methodius, who was baptized Michael, we think was born between 815 AD and 820 AD, and was the oldest of seven children. Cyril, who was baptized and known as Constantine for most of his life, was the youngest member of the family, born about 827 or 828 AD.

The two were children of a midranking Byzantine military and bureaucratic official who lived in Thessalonica. There are legends that say that their mother (or alternatively their father) was Slavonic and this is how the men learned the language. However, the legend that one of their parents was Slavonic didn’t appear until the twelfth century, so were they? It’s doubtful.

Given the evidence, it’s clear that Cyril (Constantine) at least was gifted in languages and could have picked up Slavonic simply by being exposed to it at any point in his life. Thessalonica was a major trade city and is close to the Balkans, so it’s not beyond reason that the boys could have been exposed to the language and the dialects in childhood.

Michael followed in his father’s footsteps for a time and became a military/government official, and achieved the rank of Archon or Prefect. He lived and worked in Bulgaria, where he could have learned Slavonic or refined his already acquired knowledge. He, like his father, became experienced in political and administrative skills, and learned how to manage people and events. After about ten years, he left the imperial service and retired to a monastery in Bithynia, a short distance from Constantinople in what is now Turkey. It was here that he took the name Methodius when he was tonsured. He soon rose to become abbot and continued to exercise his administrative and personnel skills both in the monastery and in consultation with the government.

Constantine/Cyril, after the death of his father (when Constantine was only 14), was taken under the wing of a powerful Byzantine official and educated with the emperor Michael by some of the most gifted teachers of the time, including the future Patriarch, Photius. Constantine showed himself to be not only talented in languages, acquiring over the years Slavonic, Syriac, Hebrew, Khazar, and Arabic among others, but in all the subjects he studied. He committed the writings of St. Gregory the Theologian to memory and excelled in mathematics, astronomy, dialectics, and rhetoric.

His mastery of Arabic and Hebrew qualified him for his first mission to the Abbasid Caliph Al-Mutawakkil to discuss theology and the principle of the Trinity with Arab theologians as well as to improve relations with the Caliphate. His next mission, to the Khazar Khanganate, was not so successful. He was given the job of curtailing Jewish expansion, but in spite of his efforts, the Khan and his people adopted the Jewish faith. Upon the completion of his assignments, he returned to Constantinople and attempted to enter a monastery. However, his guardian and the emperor persuaded him that his talents would be wasted there, and convinced him instead to accept a position at the university, teaching philosophy (which in those days was what we now call theology).

In 862, when Methodius would have been around forty and Constantine about thirty, the emperor received a letter from Prince Rastislav of Greater Moravia. Contrary to popular legend, this was not a request for education in the faith so that his people could be converted from their pagan beliefs. Greater Moravia already had Christian missionaries and had been exposed to the faith. The problem was that the missionaries who were there insisted on teaching the people in Latin, and demanded that liturgies, services, and faith and theological writing be in Latin or Greek. The prince wanted people to be able to learn about their faith and worship God in their own language, so he wrote to the emperor and the Patriarch Photius (Constantine’s old teacher) to request teachers and a bishop. The only problem with the project was that Slavonic didn’t have a written component. It was an oral language, with knowledge and learning handed down from mouth to ear.

Knowing of Constantine’s facility with languages, and his brother, Methodius’ skill in administration, the emperor assigned the two to travel to Moravia, come up with an alphabet, and begin translations into the new written language for the Prince and his people, and to educate them in the Orthodox Christian faith. That’s exactly what they did, gathering around them a group of apprentices who were trained in the newly minted alphabet and who worked hard at translating and copying the Gospels, liturgies, and other books that Prince Rastislav wanted. It’s likely that this is where Methodius’s talents and gifts came in handy – he would have had the experience to be able to organize the training and systems of work to allow their students to translate and produce the books needed for the priests and people.

The missionaries from the West were outraged by this work. In their view, there were only three languages appropriate for use in worship: Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, the languages that Pilate had posted over Christ’s head at His crucifixion, and they tried to ban the brothers’ work. The controversy continued even as Constantine and Methodius prepared to travel to Rome at the invitation of the Pope, Nicholas I. On their way, they stopped in Venice, where the debate continued and where the same arguments were put forward against using languages other than Greek, Latin, and Hebrew. Cyril and Methodius countered the charges and rationale by asking, “Does not God’s rain fall upon all equally? And does not the sun shine also upon all? And do we not all breathe air in the same way? Are you not ashamed to mention only three tongues, and to command all other nations and tribes to be blind and deaf?” They pointed out that in the East, it was standard for the services and the books to be written in the language of the people, that the Armenians, Persians, Abkhazians, Iberians, Sogdians, Goths, Avars, Turks, Khazars, Arabs, Egyptians, and many others all had their own liturgies, their own poetry and hymns and theological books written in their own tongues. Then they began quoting scripture and reminding the German missionaries that David told all the earth to make a joyful nose (Psalm 96, 98), and that all nations should praise God (Psalm 66 and 117). How then could it be that only three languages could praise God?

The Pope (Adrian II, since Pope Nicholas had died in the meantime) was very impressed, and the gift of St. Clement’s relics (one of the first Roman Popes) undoubtedly didn’t hurt the brothers’ standing with him, so he authorized the use of the brothers’ liturgy. But before the brothers could return to Moravia, Constantine fell ill, and, knowing his end was near, finally took the monastic vows he’d longed to take for so many years, adopted the name Cyril, and shortly after his profession, died.

Methodius returned to Moravia with his students and continued his work, but politics intervened, and it wasn’t long before his work was condemned and he and his fellow workers had to settle in another place. In an effort to bolster his authority, Pope Adrian consecrated him an archbishop, but in spite of this he was dethroned and imprisoned in Germany until the Pope himself intervened to re-establish Methodius. After his death in approximately 885, the translators were banished and it seemed as if their work would be wiped out entirely.

But they settled in the First Bulgarian Empire and continued their work. In about 926, an independent Patriachate was established in Bulgaria, and gradually the Orthodox faith, in Slavonic and written in Cyrillic, spread throughout the area, and eventually to what, in the fullness of time, became the Empire of Russia.

The brothers, by insisting on the tradition they had inherited – that the language of the people, of the nation, was an acceptable language in which to worship God – helped to solidify that tradition so that even as late as 1792, when the first Christian missionaries set foot in the new world of North America, it was to establish the Orthodox Christian worship not in Latin or Greek or Hebrew, or even Russian, but in Yupik, Unangen and Aleut – the language of the people who lived and worked and worshipped in the new world.

Saints Cyril and Methodius: Examples of Evangelism and Christianisation:

Saints Cyril and Methodius: Examples of Evangelism and Christianisation

Sts. Cyril and Methodius:
The Unknown Mission of Sts. Cyril and Methodius:

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Bev. Cooke has been writing for publication since 1989. Her…
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