Saints Cyril and Methodius: What You Thought You Knew

Saints Cyril and Methodius: What You Thought You Knew

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Saints Cyril and Methodius, brothers who, in addition to being very pious and devout, were brilliant and talented men, were, we all know, responsible for the creation of the Cyrillic alphabet that enabled Prince Vladimir to educate his people in the Christian faith so very long ago.

But the work the brothers did wasn’t done for St. Vladimir or for what became Russia. They worked almost a hundred years before the Russian people were ready for the Orthodox faith. Additionally, their work was almost destroyed before it really gained a foothold in eastern Europe. If they hadn’t been so talented in rhetoric and debate, as well as all their other gifts, it’s likely their innovations would have died with them.

The issue centered around what languages were appropriate for use in liturgy, and in writing about God and our knowledge of Him. Like most Orthodox, Cyril and Methodius had grown up listening to the liturgy in Greek, but they knew, and as adults, experienced their worship in lots of other languages. So when Prince Ratislav wrote to the Emperor Michael about having books and services translated into Slavonic, it wasn’t regarded as terribly unusual, except that somebody was going to have to come up with an alphabet in order to do the written translations.

St. Cyril, the younger of the two brothers, had a gift for languages, while St. Methodius had a great deal of experience in government and administration. Both brothers had, at some point in their lives, learned Slavonic, so they were the logical choice to send to Moravia to devise the alphabet and teach people how to write, and to begin the translations from Greek into the newly minted Cyrillic writing.

However, they weren’t the only ones interested in teaching Moravia about the faith. The western, German bishops from Bavaria were outraged that Prince Ratislav had rejected their offers to educate the people and were even more annoyed when it became clear that the people were going to learn about the faith in their own language.

According to the west, there were only three languages that were fit to celebrate the liturgy in, or to talk about God in. They were Latin, Hebrew, and Greek. Nothing else should ever be used for anything relating to faith, the bishops believed. They hounded and annoyed and berated the brothers as the work went forward.
Cyril and Methodius did their best, but eventually, they had to write to the Pope at Rome and ask for his intervention in order to call off the German bishops. They made time to travel down to Rome, and while on their way, stopped in Venice (don’t forget, they couldn’t just hop on a plane – it took weeks, if not months, to travel from the middle of Eastern Europe down to Rome.)

While they were in Venice, someone organized a debate on the topic of liturgical languages, and had scribes and stenographers write down the arguments.

The German bishops said that because Pilate had written the sign above Jesus’s head in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, that those were the only languages that were sacred and holy enough to use when speaking about God, or in the services of worship of God. And that was, basically, their entire argument, at least that’s come down to us.

But Cyril and Methodius countered by pointing out that on the day of Pentecost, the apostles and disciples had spoken in a huge number of languages, that Par’thians and Medes and E’lamites and residents of Mesopota’mia, Judea and Cappado’cia, Pontus and Asia, Phyrgia and Pamphyl’ia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyre’ne had all understood the words Jesus’s followers had spoken. (Note that Latin and Greek don’t even make the list!) They related that in their part of the world, the liturgy was said in Syriac, Aramaic, Georgian, Armenian, Macedonian. Even the barbarians, the Goths, the Vandals, and the Visigoths, just to name a few, said the liturgy in their own tongues.

Then they began citing the older Scriptures, and reminded the bishops that David had told all the earth to make a joyful nose (Psalm 96, 98), and that all nations should praise God (Psalm 66 and 117). He didn’t specify what language people were to praise God in, only that they were to praise God. Not only that, they said, but even the Lord himself had told the apostles to go and teach all nations (Matthew 28:18). Surely the Lord of all knew that people spoke in different tongues! And please note, the brothers, said, He didn’t say that it should only be in Hebrew, or Latin, or Greek! How then could it be that only three languages could praise God?

When the Pope read the reports of the debate, he was so impressed by the brothers’ arguments that he decided in favour of them, and authorized the use of Slavonic for Moravia. The German bishops and their rulers retreated to lick their wounds.

It wasn’t the end of the controversy – eventually, Moravia lost the fight, and Methodius and his followers were exiled, but they settled near Lake Ohrid, and continued the work. From there, the written Slavonic and the Eastern faith spread. Eventually, Prince Vladimir, on the advice of his messengers, became Orthodox, and established the services in the Slavonic language, using the books and the alphabet that Cyril and his brother had devised over a hundred years previously.


Posted by the Orthodox Christian Network. You can find the Orthodox Christian Network on Google+

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Bev Cooke

Bev. Cooke has been writing for publication since 1989. Her first love is writing for young adults, and she has three YA books on the market: Keeper of the Light, a historical fiction about St. Macrina the Elder in 2006. Royal Monastic, a biography of Mother Alexander (Princess Ileana of Romania), also published by Conciliar came out in 2008. Feral, an edgy mainstream novel was released by Orca Book Publishers in 2008. Her latest publication is a departure from her regular work - an Akathist to St. Mary of Egypt, published by Alexander Press in 2010, which was written partly as a response to the seventy missing women from downtown Vancouver's east side, and as a plea to St. Mary of Egypt to pray for those women, and the men and women who live on the streets.

Bev. and her husband live in Victoria, BC where they enjoy two seasons: wet and road construction. They have two adult children, two cats and attend All Saints of Alaska parish.

Bev's very out of date webpage is bevcooke.ca and her blog is http://bevnalabbeyscriptorium.wordpress.com/. It's a little more up to date than the webpage. Bev is planning to blog more and update her webpage very soon, so keep checking back to them and be sure to "Like" her FB page: Bev. Cooke, writer.