Tuesday, October 10, 2017

The Spiritual Meaning of Columbus’s Voyage

Pres Reagan made some noteworthy comments in a proclamation regarding Columbus Day:

Christopher Columbus, whose life and exploits we commemorate each October, is one of the true heroes of our Nation's history.

He is justly admired as a brilliant navigator, a fearless man of action, a visionary who opened the eyes of an older world to an entirely new one. Above all, he personifies a view of the world that many see as quintessentially American: not merely optimistic, but scornful of the very notion of despair.

Nearly five centuries have passed since the fateful day on which Columbus changed the course of history. But his adventurous spirit lives on among us, challenging us to emulation and abiding with us as we too press forward on our voyage of discovery.

 . . .

What is worth noting is his linking of the cure for despair with the concept of continually making new discoveries.  This restlessness is actually not a virtue to be praised but is rather a very old spiritual sickness, which the Holy Fathers call acedia (listlessness, despondency).  This inversion of virtues and vices is fairly typical of life in the post-Schism West.  But about acedia in particular St John Cassian writes,

1. Of Accidie

Our sixth contending is with that which the Greeks call κηδία, and which we may describe as tedium or perturbation of heart. [5] It is akin to dejection and especially felt by wandering monks and solitaries, a persistent and obnoxious enemy to such as dwell in the desert, disturbing the monk especially about midday, like a fever mounting at a regular time, and bringing its highest tide of inflammation at definite accustomed hours to the sick soul. And so some of the Fathers declare it to be the demon of noontide which is spoken of in the xcth Psalm [Ps 90:6 LXX].

When this besieges the unhappy mind, it begets aversion from the place, boredom with one’s cell, and scorn and contempt for one’s brethren, whether they be dwelling with one or some way off, as careless and unspiritually minded persons. Also, towards any work that may be done within the enclosure of our own lair, we become listless and inert. It will not suffer us to stay in our cell, or to attend to our reading: we lament that in all this while, living in the same spot, we have made no progress, we sigh and complain that bereft of sympathetic fellowship we have no spiritual fruit; and bewail ourselves as empty of all spiritual profit, abiding vacant and useless in this place; and we that could guide others and be of value to multitudes have edified no man, enriched no man with our precept and example. We praise other and far distant monasteries, describing them as more helpful to one’s progress, more congenial to one’s soul’s health. We paint the fellowship of the brethren there, its suavity, its richness in spiritual conversation, contrasting it with the harshness of all that is at hand, where not only is there no edification to be had from any of the brethren who dwell here, but where one cannot even procure one’s victuals without enormous toil. Finally we conclude that there is not health for us so long as we stay in this place, short of abandoning the cell wherein to tarry further will be only to perish with it, and betaking ourselves elsewhere as quickly as possible.

Towards eleven o’clock or midday it induces such lassitude of body and craving for food, as one might feel after the exhaustion of a long journey and hard toil, or the postponing of a meal throughout a two or three days fast. Finally one gazes anxiously here and there, and sighs that no brother of any description is to be seen approaching: one is for ever in and out of one’s cell, gazing at the sun as though it were tarrying to its setting: one’s mind is in an irrational confusion, like the earth befogged in a mist, one is slothful and vacant in every spiritual activity, and no remedy, it seems, can be found for this state of siege than a visit from some brother, or the solace of sleep. Finally our malady suggests that in common courtesy one should salute the brethren, and visit the sick, near or far. It dictates such offices of duty and piety as to seek out this relative or that, and make haste to visit them; or there is that religious and devout lady, destitute of any support from her family, whom it is a pious act to visit now and then and supply in holy wise with necessary comforts, neglected and despised as she is by her own relations: far better to bestow one’s pious labour upon these than sit without benefit or profit in one’s cell. . . .

The blessed Apostle, like a true physician of the spirit . . . busied himself to prevent the malady born of the spirit of accidie. . . . ‘Study to be quiet . . . and to do your own business . . . and to work with your own hands, as is commended you’ [I Thess. 4:11]. . . .

And so the wise Fathers in Egypt would in no way suffer the monks, especially the young, to be idle, measuring the state of their heart and their progress in patience and humility by their steadiness at work; and not only might they accept nothing from anyone towards their support, but out of their own toil they supplied such brethren as came by, or were from foreign parts, and did send huge stores of victuals and provisions throughout Libya, a barren and hungry land, and to those that pined in the squalor of the prisons in the towns. . . . There was a saying approved by the ancient Fathers in Egypt; that a busy monk is besieged by a single devil: but an idle one destroyed by spirits innumerable.

So when the abbot Paul, revered among the Fathers, was living in that vast desert of Porphyrio secure of his daily bread from the date palms and his small garden, and could have found no other way of keeping himself (for his dwelling in the desert was seven days journey and more from any town or human habitation, so that more would be spent in conveying the merchandise than the work he had sweated on would fetch), nevertheless did he gather palm leaves, and every day exacted from himself just such a measure of work as though he lived by it. And when his cave would be filled with the work of a whole year, he would set fire to it, and burn each year the work so carefully wrought: and thereby he proved that without working with his hands a monk cannot endure to abide in his place, nor can he climb any nearer the summit of holiness: and though necessity of making a livelihood in no way demands it, let it be done for the sole purging of the heart, the steadying of thought, perseverance in the cell, and the conquest and final overthrow of accidie itself. [6]

With this passage in mind, we are ready to consider the meaning of Columbus’s voyage itself, seeing in it a manifestation of acedia.  From an essay by Father Andrew Phillips:

 . . .

Gradually then, over 600 years, the Muslim Yoke was thrown off. But before this Portugal would have to face up to another tragedy, for the Re-conquest of 1064 had been sponsored by a new and foreign ideology - that of Roman Catholicism. By the 1080's this ideology, developed by the aggressive Pope Hildebrand and using French influence, had almost completely suppressed the much-loved Hispanic or Mozarabic liturgical rite which had conserved the old Roman and Western Orthodox liturgy of the first centuries. By 1147, when Lisbon was finally taken back from the Moors, it was clear that the liturgical conquest of Portugal and all Iberia was complete: the old Roman-Mozarabic Orthodox spirituality of the first ten centuries of Iberian history was gone. The age of the Muslim Yoke was all but over, but so too was the age of Portuguese spiritual greatness. It had been replaced by a new papal ideology spread by the elite from France, an ideology which grew ever stronger through the Middle Ages. The Portuguese faithful thus found themselves deprived of the faith of their forebears, in that state of spiritual deprivation which has been the bitter heritage and disease of Western Europe all these long years ever since the eleventh century.

By the thirteenth century then, the Portuguese soul and Portuguese history had been captured by a new ideology and a yearning for an absent Holy Spirit, for a lost Paradise, which their forebears had yet known, grew up among Portuguese people. Thus, with the Muslim Yoke ended, at this time began the third period of Portuguese history, which reached its apogee in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. This is the period of great explorers, such as Henry the Navigator, Bartholomew Dias, Vasco da Gama, Alphonse of Albuquerque, Pedro Alvares Cabral, Ferdinand Magellan, when Portuguese influence spread not only to Africa and Brazil, but also as far as China and Japan. This period of great discoveries would end in the sixteenth century when Portugal began its sudden and enigmatic decline, the fourth period of its history. The enigma of this fourth period, of Portugal's decline, can only be understood against the background of the third period of worldly greatness. What was it that urged Portuguese and even non-Portuguese explorers, caught up by the same Portuguese spirit, to set out from Portugal to search for the unknown and thus lay the foundations of Colonial Empires? To understand the spirit of these explorers and why they set out, we can do no better than look at the most famous example, that of a non-Portuguese, who set out with Spanish backing - Christopher Columbus.

Born in 1451 in Genoa but almost certainly of Iberian Jewish origin, Columbus, or Colón as he preferred to be known, knew the Mediterranean very well as a sailor and was renowned as a cartographer. Aged 25 he settled in Portugal, took a Portuguese wife, and lived for some time in newly discovered Madeira, on whose shores he would often find driftwood and plants from some mysterious country to the west. From Madeira and Portugal he sailed to Africa, to England, where sailors told him of Newfoundland, to Ireland and to Iceland, where he again heard of lands to the west. From the 1480's on, Columbus became fascinated by the idea of exploring to the west, becoming convinced not only that he would find there a new land, but a New World, the Earthly Jerusalem. Of unstable character, sometimes verging on insanity, this man of Jewish origin, felt chosen by God as a Messiah for the mission to discover a New World. In this he was driven by a prophecy from the Book of Isaiah 11, 10-12, which reads:

'And in that day there shall be a root of Jesse, which shall stand for an ensign of the people; to it shall the Gentiles seek: and his rest shall be glorious. And it shall come to pass in that day, that the Lord shall set his hand again the second time to recover the remnant of his people from the islands of the sea. And he shall assemble the outcasts of Israel, and gather together the dispersed of Judah from the four corners of the earth'.

Columbus was further inspired by many writings and traditions, some of which dated back to Ancient Greece. Apart from the most ancient of these, there was the well-known legend in the sixth-century life of the Irish St. Brendan the Navigator, that he had sailed to a land to the west across the Atlantic, the entrance to the earthly Paradise. This land was called 'Brazil', meaning in Gaelic 'the great island'. Secondly, Columbus well knew from Portugal the story of Antilia, the Island of the Seven Cities, whither had fled seven bishops after the invasion of the Moors in 711. Thirdly there was the fact that in A.D. 1492 (the symbolic year 7000 from the Creation of the World, which Columbus understood not symbolically but literally), the Re-conquest of the Iberian Peninsula had been completed and many were looking to further this Re-conquest by taking Jerusalem and thus beginning the eighth and final millennium in which the world would end.

Indeed it was in 1492, the first year of the eighth millennium, that Columbus went out to find 'the New World', discovering what we now call the West Indies. In 1493-4 he returned there with seven vessels and over a thousand colonists. Columbus was convinced that in these islands he had found not only 'Antilia', the Island of the Seven Cities, but also 'Cipango' (Japan) and India. It is on account of these errors that the name 'West Indies' was given to these islands, that the word 'Indians' was used for all the native inhabitants of the Americas and that the West Indies are also known as the Antilles. On a third expedition, in 1498, Columbus discovered South America. Finding a huge gulf of fresh water at the mouth of the Orinoco, he decided that this was one of the four rivers flowing from Paradise, as described in the Book of Genesis: 'And a river went out of Eden to water the garden; and from thence it was parted, and became into four heads. The name of the first is Pison: that is it which compasseth the whole land of Havilah, where there is gold; and the gold of that land is good' (Genesis 2, 10-12). Returning to Spain, from 1500 on Columbus became more and more obsessed with finding this Paradise, the earthly Jerusalem, whose discovery would be followed by the end of the world. In 1502 he set out on a fourth expedition, seeking a non-existent passage through what is now Panama into what lay beyond - Paradise. In 1504 Columbus would return, exhausted and bitterly disappointed, not having found that Paradise. The settlers who had gone with him had revolted against him, finding gold in insufficient quantities, and slaughtering and exploiting the primitive Indian peoples. Columbus had not lived up to his name: Christopher Colón - the Christbearing Colonist.

Even though he had not himself been born in Portugal, Columbus illustrates Portugal's historic tragedy, the result of a number of specific factors. Firstly, as a result of losing the Orthodox Christian Faith, Portugal lost the Holy Spirit, the Spirit Whom had been brought to the Portuguese territory by St. James the Apostle. Secondly, Portugal had for centuries been frustrated in its ambitions by the Muslim Yoke. And thirdly, its geographical position was such that at the extremities of Europe it had always looked out with curiosity to the setting sun across that mysterious Atlantic Ocean, the source of so many legends. And not least of these legends is that the Old Faith of Portugal was still to be found across it, among the seven bishops in the Island of the Seven Cities. The national idea and spiritual ideal of the soul of Portugal, a pilgrim soul ever since the age of St. James the Apostle, came to fruition in the fifteenth century when it set out in a quest for the Holy Spirit, for Jerusalem, for Paradise. Deprived of spiritual orientation and without guidance, it confused the earthly and the heavenly, and those who set out found not Paradise, but gold, power and the lands of primitive peoples. They found not Jerusalem but Babylon, they found not an Empire of the soul, such as the great St. Martin of Braga had once described to them, but an Empire of the earth.

Only this poison can explain why, after two centuries of heroic exploits between 1384 and 1580, Portugal went into rapid decline. Portugal found not the Holy Spirit, but gold, power and territory, Portugal found not the spiritual, but the material and so forgot and forsook its pilgrim soul, betraying its spiritual ideal and essence, its heavenly pilgrimage becoming a mere earthly attachment. Portugal stopped developing, stopped working on itself, losing its great idea, its spiritual destiny and insight, and declined, becoming the nation forgotten by Europe.

 . . .

Source:  http://orthodoxengland.org.uk/oeportug.htm, opened 10 Oct. 2017

The West since the Great Schism has been unable to find any kind of inward peace, so she stays in constant motion.  Life must be a continual ‘voyage of discovery’ (whether about new worlds or about the earth) or else her sundering from God will overwhelm her and drive her into despair.  Archimandrite Zacharias adds,

All the sciences of our times are a product of the akedía of Medieval monks, who forsook the path of prayer, and gave themselves to experiments and observations of natural phenomena.  Of course, they made discoveries and furthered the cause of science, but they themselves lost out in spiritual terms (The Enlargement of the Heart, Mount Thabor Publishing, 2012, p. 50).

Blessed John Jacob of Neamts (+1960) describes the modern fruit of the acedia of the West:

 . . .

Modern science has given man the possibility to fly in the air and travel on the water in floating fortresses (enormous ships the size of towns). Science has given man the wings of a bird and legs of iron so that he would hurl along the path of vanity, but it has blocked to him the path of prayer. On the road to church modern science has built gigantic buildings, while it has paved with asphalt the road of lawlessness and sprinkled it with flowers. (In the Holy Land, the simple folk can no longer get to the church as they did before, and on feast days they arrange vain assemblies, entertainment and parties, so that people would no longer go to church.)

Thanks to the speed of cars the distances between countries has shortened, and people’s ears have gotten closer thanks to telephones and radio. New arts have pampered bodies and brought them closer today, but they have distanced God from the hearts. The mind has progressed, but the heart has grown cold. The sciences are enriched, but faith has suffered a loss. Today’s civilization has shortened people’s clothing, cut their beards and hair, and then wiped the holy monasteries off the face of the earth.

Thus, to speak briefly about this danger—civilization (or progress), then here is what those born of earth have to boast: Like never before it has flooded the earth with tears, horrifyingly expanded the graveyards in wars, carpeted the horizon with the exhaust from motors, and filled the sky with gigantic birds with metal beaks, ready to vaporize the world.

And in order to win time for the completion of the “Tower of Babel” (that is, scientific inventions), the brokers of fattened countries constantly call peace congresses. But God, seeing their craftiness, has confused their minds as He confused the Babylonian tongues, and they can no longer understand each other.

Source:  http://orthochristian.com/106787.html, opened 10 Oct. 2017

The orientation of the post-Schism West, as with Columbus and the other Western European explorers, is always westward, which in Christian sacred geography represents the fallen world outside Paradise into which man was cast when he disobeyed God and refused to repent.  If she stays on this path, she will ultimately meet with her own dissolution.  Only a reorientation to the East, toward Paradise, to the horizon from which the Lord Jesus Christ will come again at the end of the age, will save the West - which is to say, only her re-union with the Holy Orthodox Church of her forefathers will save the West from the death that has been overtaking her for the last 1,000 years.  What Fr Andrew Phillips writes of Portugal, he writes of all the West as well:

 . . .

And today all this is recalled not only by the Portuguese word 'saudade', meaning the nostalgic yearning and sorrowful longing of a people whose pilgrim soul is caught between the earth and the sky without the Holy Spirit, but also by the haunting and melancholy yearning of traditional Portuguese music, of the 'fado'. And yet we believe that when the Portuguese soul does awake to its Old Faith, then great will be the feats of its pilgrims as they find anew the Faith of St. James the Apostle and that of the seven bishops on the Island of the Seven Cities.


Holy Ælfred the Great, King of England, South Patron, pray for us sinners at the Souð, unworthy though we are!

Anathema to the Union!

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