Speaking the faith

Daily Reading for February 14 • Cyril, Monk, and Methodius, Bishop, Missionaries to the Slavs, 869, 885

Even before Prince Ratislav’s request for Byzantines to counter the influence of Frankish clergy operating in his territories, the brothers had embarked on an enterprise of great significance for the future: they devised an alphabet in which Slav language usage could be accurately conveyed. It was given the name Glagolitic, from an Old Slav word for “sound” or “verb.” Constantine and Methodius did more than create a method of writing, because they also put a great deal of thought into creating an abstract vocabulary out of Greek words which could be used to express the concepts which lie behind Christianity. The Glagolitic alphabetic system is to say the least idiosyncratic, with only surreal resemblances to any other alphabetic form in existence, and . . . another scholar devised a simpler alphabetic system, much more closely modeled on the uncial forms of the Greek alphabet. It was named Cyrillic, in honour of Constantine, but in reference to the monastic name he adopted right at the end of his life, Cyril. That was an adroit piece of homage, which apart from the graceful tribute it embodied no doubt eased the new alphabet’s acceptance in place of the holy pioneer’s less user-friendly script.

Glagolitic did have a long-term survival, but mainly in relation to Slavonic liturgical texts. . . . Both alphabets were specifically intended to promote the Christian faith. They and the Christianized Slavonic language which they represented were to be used not simply to produce translations of the Bible and of theologians from the earlier centuries of the Church, but with a much more innovative and controversial purpose. They made it possible to create a liturgy in the Slavonic language, translating it from the Greek rite of St. John Chrysostom with which the brothers Constantine and Methodios were familiar. This was a direct challenge to the Frankish priests working in Moravia, who were leading their congregations in worship as they would do in their own territories, in Latin.

Although there was clear East-West confrontation in the Moravian mission, there was a significant contrast with the Bulgarian situation, thanks to the diplomatic abilities of Constantine and Methodios. They were not themselves priests, and they deliberately set out to integrate their mission (albeit on their own terms) with the Church in Rome, seeking ordination for some of their followers from the Pope. While journeying to Rome, they attempted in Venice to defend their construction of a vernacular Slavonic liturgy, in a debate of which a rather partisan version survives in the Life of Constantine. Opponents objected that there were “only three tongues worthy of praising God in the Scriptures, Hebrew, Greek and Latin,” on the grounds that these were the three languages affixed to Christ’s cross. “Falls not God’s rain upon all equally? And shines not the sun also upon all?” retorted Constantine.

From Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years by Diarmaid MacCulloch (New York: Viking, 2009).

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