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Unsaintly Saints

cyrilModern historians and popularizers of history for television and movies are not easy on ancient Christians. My first contact whatsoever with anything Orthodox was a book I purchased as a tween about Byzantium. Now it’s been a few years since I read the book, but I found it both enthralling as a youth and revolting in places – Byzantium could be a wonderful and horrible place. Government, especially during that time period, was messy and violent. And since the church was wedded to the Empire it is easy to conflate the sins of one with the institution of the other.

Today I watched a historical documentary on the ancient city of Alexandria and came across a particularly unflattering event in its history, no doubt much more familiar to some of you: the murder of Hypatia. It was an event that was recently depicted in the film Agora and is quite troubling, to say the least.

Now granted, I wasn’t taking notes at the time, but this is the general narrative I got from the documentary: Hypatia was a wise, popular, attractive woman who made many contributions to philosophical and scientific thought. She taught at an Alexandrian school and was well-loved by all (Christians and pagans alike). However, she got caught up in an unfortunate political power struggle between a local secular leader named Orestes and the Evil Cyril, a Christian bishop who was involved in a power grab. Cyril wasn’t satisfied with ecclesiastical authority – he wanted secular authority, too. However, Orestes tried to stop Cyril, and Hypatia sided with Orestes. So in order to remove this barrier to achieving his goal, Cyril accused Hypatia of being a witch (her use of an astrolabe and her secular learning made this quite easy). A furious Christian mob immediately rose up, grabbed Hypatia, and tore her literally to shreds, with pieces of tile and stones, and then burned her dismembered body.

This was troubling to me.

First of all, any kind of violence is troubling for me. But the most troubling thing is that Cyril is still regarded as not only a saint but as a pillar of the Early Church. The Orthodox still honor St Cyril of Alexandria every year. How can they honor a man who contributed to the vile murder of an innocent woman?

This led me to consider the 2000 years of Christian saints that are honored in the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches. In all that time, is it not possible that some really bad guys slipped through the cracks and were eventually called saints? Is it possible that not all saints recognized by the church are actually good men and women? Most of all, do I have to affirm the goodness of every saint recognized by the church?

These are heavy questions for me. I have a particular sensitivity to violence, especially mob violence, and also have a hypersensitivity to war and oppression. I am aware that the church is often accused (sometimes rightly) of being complicit in these events. But I think I am also well aware that Christians who act un-Christlike don’t prove Christianity wrong, they prove it right. We can’t lay the worst violence committed by members of a church at the feet of the religion itself, unless the religion’s teachings are to blame. And certainly, the message of Jesus was not violent.

However, interestingly enough, I came across this link by the illustrious David Bentley Hart regarding the murder of Hypatia. This should not have been surprising to me, but the way that Hypatia’s death is usually portrayed is simply not very accurate, nuanced, or fair to the parties involved. On closer readings, there had been mass violence on both sides of this struggle, there is little evidence that Cyril directly instigated Hypatia’s murder, and she was not murdered on the grounds that she was a witch. And, by the way, it wasn’t a mob of ignorant Christians that burned down the Great Library either, but that is beside the present point.

However, the point remains. Is there room for a faithful Orthodox to decide that a Saint did not exemplify behavior worthy of sainthood? Does the church infallibly declare the worthiness of a Saint, such that it is binding on all members to accept? Everywhere I’ve seen, it is an Orthodox “no-no” to imply that you are sure a person is in Heaven or Hell – but isn’t that what declaring sainthood means?

Any takers on this?

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3 thoughts on “Unsaintly Saints

  1. It has been my experience that, upon further digging, the secular portrayal of events in the history of Christianity are often skewed. Hart’s book “Atheist Delusions” is good on this subject. That being said, if we found indubitable evidence that a saint had done horrible things it would indeed be a troubling discovery, but perhaps we can take comfort in the reality that brutal saints like St. Moses and perhaps St. Cyril found their way into God’s graces in spite of their failings.

  2. One could say the same for Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, no? If the message is independent of the morality of the messenger. St. Cyril was one of the “Doctors of the Church” who left a strong imprint on early church theology.

  3. I think there is some strength to your point; however, Cyril was just one of many Christian bishops in the Church. If he had been a prophet and leader of his faith as a whole like Muhammad, Smith, or Young, then I do believe his actions (if they happened) would be more troublesome. I think the collegial structure of the early Church was advantageous for this reason. In the end I must admit that if St. Cyril truly did act as horrendously as is claimed his beatification is troubling.

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