I am very pleased that Myrna has asked me to say a few words about the local and vernacular traditions of veneration of Saints in the Eastern Christian community, and St. Demetrius in particular. While Myrna’s book is subtitled “Journey into Byzantium” my comments will deal more with St. Demetrius’ journey out of Byzantium and into our world here and today.
The tradition of veneration of saints, of course, is deeply engrained in Christianity, and Eastern Christianity in particular. This is borne out by the great importance of hagiographies and Zhyttiie in early Slavic literature, with many published collections of the Lives of the Saints continuing into recent times. Its continuing significance is hinted at by the many internet pages along the same lines today.
The veneration of the saints has perhaps decreased in current North American society. I asked my mother, a very religious person with a strong ability to pray, whether she prays specifically to St. Demetrius. She responded that she prays consistently to God the Father, to Jesus, and to Mary, though she doesn’t normally pray specifically to other saints. For her, the words “i vsikh i vse” [and everyone and all] at the end of many prayers is a broad inclusive concept that embraces all the saints and holy people throughout time, and includes their spiritual power into the stream of the meditation. Her prayers are broad, inclusive, and I think powerful.
My brothers Ivan and Bohdan are both priests and Byzantine icon writers. They acknowledged that St. Demetrius is a highly ranked saint in our church. Neither however, has written a St. Demetrius to this point. They agreed that the traditions of venerating specific saints are passed on through various channels in North America. In many cases today, the local tradition of veneration depends greatly on the parish priest. Father Ivan has developed a practice where he encourages each parishioner to “adopt” one of the saints commemorated during the pre-Christmas lenten period, to learn about that saint’s life as much as she/he can, and to venerate him/her over that season. Next year, hopefully, they will “adopt” another, and over time learn about many of these spiritual role models. In some parishes, the attention to particular saints’ days and the emphasis on veneration of the saints is much greater than in others. My brothers also noted that a person may achieve individual and personal engagement with a saint such because of their own Christian name, their parish patron, or some other specific factor. There is certainly a stronger tradition of veneration to saints among the core of more deeply devoted worshipers in any particular spiritual community. They can explore far above and beyond the basic prayers and standard Sunday attendance of the general laiety.
Father Bohdan expressed his feeling that we would all do well to connect with the saints more. He gave the contemporary analogy of laying a hardwood floor. If I want to refloor my house [or get to heaven], I could buy the wood and start nailing it down myself without reading the instructions. Chances are, I could more or less make a flat smooth surface, maybe with a few extra nail holes, crooked or with spaces around the edges. I might end up expending a lot more labour and time, backtracking more often because it’s my first time and I have much to learn. If I do read the instructions, I might have better results. However, if I invite a person with lots of experience in to lead me, my chances of achieving a beautiful result are far greater. When our goals are spiritual, the saints are exactly these experts. Their own experiences and struggles have been documented as being successful. Their lives are models and “instructions” on how we can succeed in our own most important goals.
Judging by the thousands and thousands of people named Demetrius, Dmytro, in Ukrainian, Metro, Dima and many other variations in other cultural traditions, St. Demetrius certainly was significant in this aspect of life. My step-uncle in Vancouver was called “Matt” by almost everyone, and I only recently found out his name was also “Dmytro.”
Also, there are dozens, and possibly hundreds of churches in North America in various Byzantine denominations, dedicated to patron St. Demetrius. The tradition of honouring him was quite strong in the first half of the 20th century, when many of these parishes were set up. My brother Thomas, a Deacon with a passion for Ukrainian churches, made a quick tally of North American parishes, and it seems that somewhere between 3% and 5% of parishes carry this name. A very large and active Ukrainian Catholic church in Etobicoke, near Toronto, chose St. Demetrius as its patron, as did the small rural parish of Cudworth, Saskatchewan, near where my mom grew up. A Ukrainian Orthodox cemetery near Kamsack, Saskatchewan, is located a few miles from where my great-grandfather is buried. Several parishes in the United States and the beautiful Ukrainian Orthodox Cathedral of St. Demetrius in Curitiba, Brazil, illustrate how the tradition of this saint was exported from Eastern Europe in many directions with its emigrants over the past 130 years.
St. Demetrius has been quite popular, though he doesn’t enjoy anywhere near the popularity of Mykolai, Petro, Ivan, Pokrova, Iurii. I sometimes think that perhaps one of the reasons that communities liked Mykolai, Iurii and others more was consideration of the annual praznyk, annual feast day. St. Demetrius’ date of 8 November, is typically a cold and unpleasant time to gather the community to celebrate. I suspect that many parish founders felt that it was better to choose a patron whose feast day falls on the warm seasons. All this makes me eager to check the popularity of this saint in the southern hemisphere.
St. Demetrius and St. George are the two most prominent of several “Soldier Saints.” They are sometimes paired, even painted together iconographically. They are often depicted with spears, St. George killing a dragon, and St. Demetrius, interestingly, stabbing another human being. Theologically, at least for some people, St. Demetrius is a bit ambivalent as a soldier saint. One of the many stories about him is that he encouraged his friend Nestor to battle the famous and powerful gladiator Lyeous. Demetrius fervent prayers for the death of another man helped Nestor defeat Lyeous. This is one of the elements used to support his sainthood, and so it seems the church might actually acknowledge the idea of praying for specific outcomes in contests. I, for one am glad, as I know that there are thousands of people praying intensely now for the Saskatchewan Roughriders to win the Grey Cup. J
My own spiritual growth has been bumpy and challenged, and is related to my intellectual searching. I certainly benefit from Myrna’s style of thinking and writing. I think there is a huge potential for relevance of Eastern Christianity in the western world. I also think that neither our Eastern churches, nor western society in general, is nearly engaged enough in this opportunity, and we are missing much of this potential.
Sacred art is one example that always strikes me when I think of the Eastern Christian church’s strategic intermediary position between Roman Catholic and Protestant Christianity on the one hand, and Eastern Religions on the other. In Islam, for example, beautiful and ornate decorative religious art is central to the tradition, with its rhythmic repetitive lines, curls and other geometric forms. Decorative surfaces are sometimes enriched by aesthetically composed Arabic texts, communicating sacred messages. This art is designed in part to encourage an otherworldly meditative focus. Islamic art tends not to depict the human form. In western Christianity, the tradition is very different, with paintings and statues often representing people and sacred beings, trying to be as realistic and emotionally stirring as possible. This focus on realism and physicality is visible almost everywhere in the west, from Michaelangelo to statues of the Virgin Mary in every corner. Eastern Christian tradition is strikingly intermediary: The norm is for two dimensional images, icons that represent Jesus and the saints, but aspiring to aesthetic norms other than photographic realism and emotionalism. Members of Eastern Christian communities should be able to understand and relate to the traditions of both of our spiritual neighbours. We have a great deal of potential to explain the west to the east, and the east to the west.
A second example of a key potential of Eastern Christianity as an intermediary relates to covering our bodies in the presence of God. Until a generation ago, many adult Ukrainian women in Canada always covered their heads in public. Later, this tradition was softened to covering their heads during ritual events, or specifically in church. Though many of us have worn, or remember our mothers wearing kerchiefs in church, the wearing of head covering is declining strongly in Ukrainian traditions in North America. Like traditional Judaism with its yarmulke and many communities in Islam, our tradition is half way between the western trend of “freedom” where the head (and an increasing number of other body parts) are fully exposed, and the opposite extreme of the hijab and burqa. Again, Eastern Christian traditions can help greatly in generating understanding, which is so badly needed today.
I anticipate that Myrna Kostash’s Prodigal Daughter will explore many other and deeply insightful ideas that engage the connections between the tradition of St. Demetrius and Eastern Christianity and our immediate contemporary world. As she has often done before, I suspect that she will explore deeply inside the box, and also deeply outside the box at the same time. I can’t wait.