A wonderworker

Pontus is that country, within modern Turkey, that follows the south-east Black Sea shore, and inland is enclosed as by an amphitheatre of mountains. It is the more interesting, archaeologically, for having been often by-passed, in the movements of conquering nomads and armies, from Hittites and Hurrians to Arabs and Turks. The Greeks took it, because they came by sea. They kept it, till late in the day; so that even after Constantinople fell to our short-sighted Franks (in 1204), the Empire of Trebizond immediately formed, and Byzantium persisted in Pontus, as in Crimea and elsewhere, until it could be restored at its centre.

They became Christian early, and remained Christian late, just as the Assyrians and others now in the news — finally expelled from, or slaughtered within, the Dar al-Islam (“domain of peace”). This word I use, “Christendom,” embraces all these brothers of ours. For some we can now search only in deep time; or in the facial features and little habits of their distant descendants. But this does not mean they have ceased to exist; only that they have been deprived of their birthright.

We are trapped in the temporal view, so that we think of eternity as somehow in the future. We look forward as if to some earthly Utopia, when all on this planet may be made well. Or, to an “end time” in which this earthly utopian is prefigured, as if in another “war to end all wars.” We cannot see that it is with us now, and has always been with us, within, but also outside our chronologies. For we can look only forward, to death, until our eyes are adjusted to see beyond it. Yet even in death — on a certain day, of a certain month, of a certain year — is every man’s apocalypse, not to be gainsaid; the narrative climax of his own temporality.

God, however, would have another point of view, necessarily beyond our understanding. To us, He is somewhat Chinese. That is to say, the tenses we use in our language are not used in His speech, which is uninflected. (Part of the extraordinary condescension of Christ, in his descent from Heaven, was this divine concession: this agreement to participate in our own “before and after.”) Coming-to-be is an earthly affectation. I’m sure the angels understand the poetry of it, but have no need of the philosophy. It is but a small part of the “is” within the Kingdom of Being.

Yet strangely, it is beloved from on high.

Christendom comes and goes; and comes again and goes again, like one of those uncontiguous states within the Holy Roman Empire. We occupy this patch, here; other patches are scattered through space and time; and patches within patches, as worlds within worlds.

Pontus would be an example. Christians flourished there, for so many centuries; lived, died, and were translated from their native Greek, into that Heavenly Chinese. (“Eternity is in love with the creations of Time.”) Also Colchian, Lan, Svan, and what else was spoken into the Abkhazian mountains and gorges of its east, as we proceed towards the ancient and modern civilization of Georgia.

We sing, in the old liturgy today, of Saint Gregory Thaumaturgus (“the wonderworker”), mysterious figure from the third century when, under Roman rule, the Pontians suffered the persecution of Decius. (Our saint outlasted him, however). Those Romans were good news and bad. They kept the roads open; they often kept worse and more murderous pagans at bay. (But they weren’t doing such a good job of that in Gregory’s time and geographical vicinity.)

This Gregory was figure in a world in many ways more cosmopolitan than our “globalized” one: with more (real) variety and diversity, and yet in which one could wander about. He had obviously travelled. He was, we know, a disciple of Origen’s school, then predominant in Palestine; and an opponent of the heretical Paul of Samosata; he was an episcopal pillar in the Church of his age. As to his miracles — the wonders he worked for which he was famous — what can we say?

He had that faith which moves mountains. I will leave this at, “you had to be there,” and mention only my inclination to prefer the testimony of those who were there, over those who weren’t; especially when the latter are wearing that smug smile of self-satisfaction, which is the distinguishing mark of a liberal imbecile.

For me, a saint’s day like this is, in addition to the commemoration itself, an opportunity to hail our distant brothers, from parts of our material Christendom long compressed. Yet, as we will surely discover, in the moment we step out of time ourselves, were better than neighbours — living, as they were, in the same house. And through the Mass, we have dined together.