Saint Cyril of Jerusalem

While digging through old files in the High Doganate, with the intention of creating space (at the expense of time), I discovered notes and doodles for one of the innumerable projects I conceived in my early Anglican days. This was when I was young, naïve, and ambitious. Perhaps add stupid to that list. But my hand was steadier than it is now.

Here were comps for the typography of one in what was imagined as a long series of books — hundreds in the same basic format. The design shows the heavy influence of the Swiss typographer, Jan Tschichold, still a hero of mine for his uncompromising traditionalism — the gentle symmetries and elegant classicism of his mature style (after his own wild, sans-serif youth). Thus my page grids much resembled Tschichold’s for the “classic” Penguins of the 1950s — e.g. no boldface ever, all headings centred, carefully spaced small caps without showy drop-letters, sharp simple emblems, et cetera. I was also at pains to specify a thin, cream, “bible paper”; the manner of stitching; the buckram for the cover boards, gilt letterings for the spines. Et cetera.

But the content was also important. My thought was that, it would be a mitzvah if some publisher would contrive to make the Fathers of the Church available to the modern reader — in durable volumes of pocket size. The sample volume I’d sketched was for Cyril of Jerusalem, his twenty-three Catechetical Lectures, which I’d projected for about six hundred 40-line pages.

These lectures were delivered in the middle of the fourth century, in the Holy Sepulchre at Jerusalem — the first eighteen to adult candidates for baptism, through Lent, ending on the night of Good Friday; the last five, “mystagogic lectures,” for Easter Week, after they had been fully received. They make an enthralling read, from the personal warmth and wit of an amazing teacher; or at least I thought they would if put in sharp modern English, with background supplied, and all references explained — for then the “intelligent general reader” would be freed to appreciate flashes that might make him think of a Lewis or a Chesterton. These lectures give us the actual instruction to ancient catechumens, directly, and not the indirect instructions to catechists we read in other Church Fathers (including Augustine). This alone makes them more accessible. Moreover they are delivered in the very setting of Christ’s earthly life, and at a glorious time when the shrines had been recovered, and the first great Byzantine churches were being erected all over the Holy Land.

As a child, Cyril had witnessed the physical removal of the Temple of Venus, which the pagan Romans had built purposely over Golgotha and Christ’s tomb; and then the laying of foundations by the Empress Helena (mother of Constantine the Great) for a basilica of “wondrous beauty.” Parallel work was proceeding at Bethlehem, a few miles away, on the Church of the Nativity. But Saint Cyril lived, too, through the great age of the councils (Nicaea and those following), when the Church was struggling within, against what would have seemed a “modernizing” wave of Arian and similar fashionable (as well as dark, gnostic) heresies. Cyril was himself a major figure in the recovery of Christian orthodoxy, through frightening challenges.

It is thrilling for intelligent readers (and there are some) to realize as they go along that Saint Cyril is teaching exactly the faith in which orthodox Catholics have been raised through all the intervening centuries; and to students who would risk their lives to maintain it. Though Bishop of Jerusalem, he was driven out of his patriarchate for a time, and hounded through years when the Church liberals of that era — devils in human flesh like our own — enjoyed their season of triumph and depravity. For decades it was touch and go; the contemporary faithful could not know whether the Catholic Church, in her moment of delivery from pagan persecution, had not disintegrated in warring factions. But in the end, such voices as Cyril’s (like an ancient Cardinal Burke) rose loud and clear, repeating the words of Christ we still echo in the Gospel for today’s Old Mass (from Matthew, chapter 10):

“Fear them not; for nothing is covered that shall not be revealed; nor hid that shall not be known. That which I tell you in the dark, speak ye in the light; and that which you hear in the ear, preach ye upon the house-tops.”

My thought, those years ago, was that the Cyril of Jerusalem volume would be enhanced, after a life of the author by a leading scholar of real cultural breadth, with an illustrated archaeological essay outlining the recent and continuing spade work that had brought us back into sight of the environs of Jerusalem in the fourth century; and which had confirmed the factual veracity of many little things Edward Gibbon and the lads had been sneering at since the later eighteenth century. When, for instance, Cyril speaks of the house of Caiaphas, and the praetorium of Pilate as still standing in his day, in desolate ruin, it is good to know that he is not speaking figuratively.

Also, an historical essay, with perhaps a chronological table, that would put the reader in the swing of events, happening all over Christendom in Cyril’s lifetime. It would focus especially on the active relation between the churches at Jerusalem and Alexandria, giving a vivid picture of a world that was not static but intensely in motion, full of personalities and “breaking news.”

John Henry Newman’s remarkable Preface to the Cyril translation by Dean Church, in the old Library of the Fathers (1840), should surely be reprinted in the volume, together with excerpts from other great authorities writing on Cyril through the centuries. Indeed, that old Tractarian translation would serve as the first draught or groundwork for the new version — carefully revised under an editor who understood that the English language lives and breathes, and must move with grace and poetry; as did the Greek which it must re-embody.

There would be notes, too: some dry textual, but most fascinating expository notes, at the back of the book, with longer “additional notes” on points of special interest. Example: Saint Cyril’s dexterous and almost winking avoidance of certain “politically incorrect” theological terms, that were likely to be contested by the Arian thought police — while supplying exactly the same meaning in other words. And what this costs in misunderstanding, when it comes to the attention of the habitually grumpy Saint Jerome. There is lesson within lesson here, for Christian rhetoric in every generation.

Too, a good glossary, explicating all the key Greek terms, with cross-references. And, a thorough English general index, that has been carefully checked and proofread.

Fine typography I have mentioned, but also the commission from, say, a leading engraver (I was thinking at the time of the Frenchman, Pierre Gandon) of an iconic frontispiece, perhaps in three or four colour layers. And perhaps a signature (16 pages) of crisp black-and-white photographs to go with the archaeological essay. And a couple of fold-out maps. And a few sparkling plates reproducing great works of art associated with Cyril and his themes.

For as every other in the series, the book would be something beautiful to see, and hold in the hand; something to be prized in more than one generation. Portable, to be taken on walks, and read on voyages. From every angle it should draw the reader in, opening its wings to say, “Read me, read me!”

Of course all this attention to detail would make it a little expensive, but the costs could be partly defrayed, first by consolidating the “overheads” for the entire series, one department helping to carry another. Second, wealthy Christians, who might care for the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, would provide generous subsidies when they saw how wonderful these volumes would be. Third, we would pray: for all good works involve a mendicant activity, and all such flourish with prayer.

No book is complete without a colophon, and for this we might commission our engraver to impart, within a decorative flourish:

“Saint Cyril of Jerusalem, pray for us.”