Secret Agents for Byzantium

Secret Agents for Byzantium

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Party like it’s 7523. That’s Etos Kosmou, time of the cosmos, on the Byzantine New Year, Sept. 1, also the start of the ecclesiastical year for the Orthodox Church (and if you missed it on the new calendar, it is coming up soon again on the old calendar).

Not coincidentally, it’s also proclaimed by the Ecumenical Patriarchate as the day of prayer for “the protection of the environment,” of the cosmos and ktisis (creation) given us by God. For the time of the cosmos, the beauty and adornment of Creation by God, is also implicitly the time of the oikumene or inhabited household of the world, which overlapped the Christian Roman Empire that we now call Byzantium. And the economia by which God governs the household of creation can also be related to what the secular world today calls ecology, translatable with the roots of oikos and logos as “the story of home,” as well as to the economy or society’s “household laws.’

These terms are separated in the secular world, although His All-Holiness Bartholomew II in effect gathers them together, in an Orthodox sense of sustainability, in his recent announcement of our new year.

As Orthodox Christians, we long for our home in Paradise but also are called to care for our home given us by God and governed by Him, “on earth as it is in heaven.” Byzantine emperors considered their Orthodox society as overlaying the oikumene, or the whole inhabited world, whether their political territory or not. If ancient Confucian China was “the empire of heaven,” Christian Byzantium in a sense aspired itself to be the empire of the world as a household under God, and measured its time accordingly from the calculated time of Creation according to the Septuagint Bible. But with the fall of Byzantium, and later of the Russian Empire, the Orthodox amid diaspora were left with the household of the earth, but no empire.

But the intersection of oikumene, ecology, economy, and economia arguably remains the Orthodox sense of sustainability, based in our faith’s sense of society as a household, and intersecting spiritual, social, and environmental meanings of sustainability today.

Celebrating the new ecclesiastical year with remembrance of the Byzantine era is not to romanticize any earthly empire. We, however, can appreciate the Orthodox monastic communities and patristic cultures that the Christian Roman Empire often sheltered, and the development within its thousand-year-long society of Christian approaches to the oikumene such as the invention of the hospital, the orphanage, and the university in forms we still appreciate today, while being aware of the empire’s flaws.

But we also can consider what the legacy of a vanished Orthodox empire can symbolize for us in what is sometimes called a secular American empire today, within which dwell many Orthodox households living in the world but not of it.

Outside our townhouse, we often fly a Byzantine flag, amid a neighborhood historic district where many houses fly American flags (as we also do sometimes too, such as on the Fourth of July and Memorial Day). Ours perhaps stands tribute to an invisible empire, rather than nationalistic sentiment. It does offer an alternative to the 13-star revolutionary flag flown sometimes by our Tea Party neighbors on one side, and the LGBT rainbow-striped re-make of the U.S. flag flown by a local politically liberal elected official on our other side.

On a deeper level than our counter-cultural flag, with no Orthodox Emperor in the world today, it is in the family household, the parish, and the monastery that in different ways the old Byzantine idea of oikumene, the encounter of the Church and the world, lives on—in, for example, the “little church” and “little kingdom” of husband and wife crowned both as martyrs and family rulers in the marriage ceremony in the Church. We are not called to abandon our larger community, but to protect others in the oikumene as best we can and as we are led, against caliphates of all types, cultural as well as military.

Today in the Orthodox oikumene of earth, entering a new year, maybe we will consider ourselves “secret agents for Byzantium,” a bit like the Rangers in The Lord of the Rings, and echoing Harry Turtledove’s Agent for Byzantium stories.

But with a vanished empire, we serve no earthly ruler, and as Christians, our resolutions must strive with God’s grace for the paradoxical glory of diaspora and exile, one of the first steps in St. John Climacus’ Ladder of Divine Ascent, while dwelling in the household of God’s economia.

When I first converted to Orthodoxy, our long-suffering parish priest allowed us converts to form a social group called the Varangian Guard, named for the Northern European bodyguards to the Byzantine emperors. The group’s song parodied the old TV show theme song “Secret Agent Man” , the reconstructed refrain of which ran something like:

“Secret Agent for Byzantium
Secret Agent for Byzantium
They took away his empire but not his baptismal name…”

Please forgive us!

But in spite of myself and such distraction, with God’s grace and help from many, including guidance by a holy monk, I was delivered from a mire of secular nihilism to baptism on Sept. 1, 15 years ago. This was followed a few years later by marriage in the Church, and then baptism of our children as Orthodox. Thus, in a sense, our household sailed to Byzantium, into the different sense of space and time implicit in the Orthodox sense of oikumene, symbolized by the new ecclesiastical year leading us on its eighth day to the birth of the Theotokos, Mother of God, Second Eve, our exemplar both of theosis and economia, identified with both the earth and the Church.

In this new year, patience remains a primary virtue for anyone seeking the countercultural role of secret agent of Byzantium, an agent for a deeper sense of sustainability than the world knows. The Texan Orthodox Christian Dr. Herman Engelhardt wrote of this with humor in the conclusion to his The Foundations of Christian Bioethics:

“As every young Texian Christian of school age knows, Austin shall surely be the fourth Rome, and if not Austin, then Dallas or perhaps even Abilene. Or, when Texas is restored to its rightful boundaries, then Santa Fe, the city of the Holy Faith. The patriarch of all the Texans will then bear the weight of that priority among the bishops which is the Primacy of St. Peter that will be preserved by that Church, that future diocese of Santa Fe. As the capital of the Empire of Holy Texas, it will preside as first in loving care for all true believing and worshiping churches. The first Rome fell to heresy, the second to the Mohammedans, and the third to the Bolsheviks. Once all is put in order, the Empire can be reestablished and the populace of Texas baptized in the Brazos de Dios. Then the Orthodox Mounted Posse can saddle up and ride out to the Second Rome to restore the Hagia Sophia, Christendom’s great temple, carrying the Bonnie Blue Flag next to the Empire’s banner of gold with the proud double-headed eagle. The Posse would have to decide whether to depart from Galveston or Indianola. Needless to say, when riding through Europe, they would have to stop to baptize the pope of the first Rome in the waters of the Tiber. All this is vivid in the millennial hopes of the young and the dreams of old men. All of this will some day surely take place, God willing, of course. In the meantime, Christians are as always required to be patient—the day of the Last Emperor and then the restoration of all things lies, for all we know, in the very distant future. For the time being…. Christians will need to learn to be Christian in a world growing ever more hostile to their way of life.”

As the Lord said, “in patience possess ye your souls.” In this new year season, may all secret agents for Byzantium put not their trust in princes, but in that Emperor of Emperors, Christ our Lord and God.

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

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Dr. Alfred Kentigern Siewers

Dr. Alfred Kentigern Siewers has a Ph.D. in Medieval English literature from the University of Illinois and M.A. in Early British Studies from the University of Wales at Aberystwyth. He teaches English and Environmental Studies at Bucknell University, where he is incoming Chair of the English Department and Associate Professor. His research includes work on nature in early literature, especially in the writings of John Scottus Eriugena, and in modern fantasy and nature writing, drawing in part on Estonian ecosemiotics. He is the author of Strange Beauty: Ecoritical Approaches to Early Medieval Landscape, editor of Re-Imagining Nature: Environmental Humanities and Ecosemiotics, and co-editor of Tolkien's Modern Middle Ages, and he is a co-editor of the Stories of the Susquehanna Valley project. He was baptized into the Orthodox Church in 1999. His wife Olesya is originally from Russia and they have two sons. They are members of the Chapel of the Holy Spirit mission (OCA) in central Pennsylvania, regularly visit Agia Skepi Monastery (GOARCH) nearby, and are also long-distance member-supporters of St. Herman of Alaska Church mission (ROCOR) in northern Virginia. He studies in the Pastoral School of the ROCOR Midwest Diocese and serves on the Steering Committee of the Orthodox Fellowship of the Transfiguration. Formerly he worked as urban affairs writer for the Chicago Sun-Times and Midwest correspondent for The Christian Science Monitor. He prays that his unworthy views here are Orthodox and do no harm, but they otherwise are his own.