Thursday, October 15, 2015

Mary on the Fringes: The Case of Germanos I

Though her Biblical role is primarily that of Jesus' mother, Mary is also often thought of as a kind of mother for His followers. This tradition goes back, in some sense, all the way to the Gospel of John, where Jesus commends the Beloved Disciple to Mary while on the cross to act as her son in His stead (John 19:26): as Mary adopted the Beloved Disciple, so she adopts the entire community of Christians after the Crucifixion. Mary's role as Mother of the Church extends throughout much of the Christian tradition of Marian devotion, from the fourth-century writings of St. Ambrose to the seventeenth-century Memorare to the Mater Ecclesiae of Vatican II.

Like any good mother, Mary loves her children - even those that don't necessarily fit the definition of a "good" or "average" child. As we saw in the miracle tales of Jacobus de Voragine, she is no stranger to defending those who do not necessarily have a spotless record (like the thief who prayed to her regularly, but never stopped actually stealing things, or the lady who abducted the statue of the Baby Jesus as hostage for the safe return home of her own son). Other medieval collections of works of Marian devotion show similar themes: in the Cantigas de Santa Maria, Mary chastises wayward priests who love her but doubt in Jesus, and then lovingly corrects their errors. She is, after all, the Mother of Mercy and the Refuge of Sinners, our Advocate in Heaven. She is also known as the protector of those on the margins of society: Mother of the Poor, Queen of Martyrs, Mother of Orphans.

The case of Germanos I, Patriarch of Constantinople, combines these two aspects of Mary's patronage intersect in several - perhaps unexpected - ways.

Though we meet him in the important position of Patriarch of Constantinople, Germanos did not always occupy such illustrious office. Even by the time he became Patriarch, he had suffered a long succession of calamities. His father was on the losing side in a typical Early Byzantine bout of political intrigue (the murder of Constans II in 668) and was executed in Germanos' mid-thirties; Germanos himself was castrated and banished to a monastery at about the same time. He was eventually rehabilitated sufficiently enough to gain the position of Bishop of Cyzicus, but under the Iconoclastic persecutions of Leo III (r. 717-741) he either resigned or was deposed for his support of icons. Germanos was summarily replaced by the more tractable Anastasios, and retreated to his family estates, where died in 741 at around a hundred years old.

One of the recurrent themes of Germanos' sermons is the difficulty of expressing the ineffable. Many of the sermons we've read on Mary - including those by Germanos - use paradoxical language and imagery to describe her role in the Incarnation. Everything happens "mystically" - that is, in a way at least partly visible to us through earthly actions, but in a way imitative or reminiscent of heavenly ones. (Mystical representation of heavenly actions and entities was a key theme of the liturgies at which these homilies would have been delivered: the Cheroubikon hymn, part of the Divine Liturgy for at least a century by Germanos' time, "mystically" identifies the worshippers with the Cherubim, and Germanos himself draws attention to Mary's "mystical" role at several points.) Mary's status as the mystical nexus of humanity and divinity, as emphasized in Germanos' sermons, links the temporal, secular world with the glorious hereafter in a way few media can reproduce.

This connection, as we saw in Germanos' works, is capable of inspiring great emotion. After a life full of tumult as Germanos' had been, the emotional and spiritual outlet offered by veneration of the Theotokos must have been appreciated. Though we read only a small selection from Germanos' oeuvre, his highly emotional relationship with Mary is evident throughout. Over a thousand years after his death, Benedict XVI used Germanos as an (admittedly rather obscure) example of emotional Marian piety. He did so, however, explicitly in the context of Germanos' defense of icon veneration - accepted after his death as good Orthodox practice, but a politically charged and potentially subversive statement during his lifetime. Those who argued against icons did so on the basis of the Second Commandment: icons, in this view, were a slippery slope that could (and did) lead to idolatry, which in turn made the empire vulnerable to Divine Retribution (usually at the hands of invading barbarians). Iconophiles, however, often cited the Incarnation - and, implicitly or explicitly, Mary's role in bringing it about - as a justification for depicting Christ. Because He acquired a physical body through Mary (an idea touched on in some of our previous readings), it was acceptable to depict that physical body - or the mother who provided it, or the saints who interacted with it - in icons.

The political marginalization that resulted from Germanos' support of icon veneration is perhaps difficult to imagine for the modern observer. Harder still to imagine would be the effect of Germanos' castration and subsequent monastic exile. Byzantine attitudes towards eunuchs are generally dismissive or even outright hostile, especially in the context of religion: they were associated with the secular court in Constantinople, or at least with the imperial bureaucracy (with all its accompanying associations of corruption); at best, they could be thought of as having a unique capacity for virtue (albeit one acquired through a kind of cheating), but at worst, they were an example of humanity at its worst, vulnerable, weak-willed, and inherently prone to sin. Those like Germanos, whose castration had come as a political punishment, were perhaps of even more suspicious character than average.

Yet Germanos seems to defy these expectations. Not only did he rise from the ignominy of exile to become the Patriarch of Constantinople, he used this influential position to advocate for orthodoxy against an impious emperor. His orations on Mary's Presentation and the Annunciation contain great (and unique) emotional content. His tantalizingly understated requests to Mary to be reunited with a beloved woman - a friend, relative, or perhaps even a wife? - offer insight to the emotional and social world of a man who had theoretically been cut off from many emotional and social relationships. Likewise, his sermons on the Presentation seem to reveal particular attention to Mary's ability to relieve sterility - both in that she was the proof of such relief for Anna and Joachim, but also for her ability to miraculously grant children to other barren couples. Germanos (or at least the Germanos of the works we read here) never explicitly asks for such a miracle himself, but it is not much of a stretch to imagine why he might have felt drawn to the source of such miracles.

Unfortunately there's little space left here to further consider the implications of this relationship, but it nevertheless raises some interesting questions. Is Marian devotion (necessarily) gendered? Is it (necessarily) available to those on the margins of society? What about those for which these categories may intersect? If (as Germanos himself says) Mary is truly "wider than heaven," it logically follows that she is able to encompass all those who show devotion to her - but I'm not familiar enough with non-Byzantine traditions to have much context for this idea.

-- F. S.

1 comment:

  1. Although perhaps not as wide as heaven, the internet--and thus the space on this blog--is fully wide enough for you to have said more! You do a lovely job here contexualizing Germanos's homilies and give a rich sense of what was at stake for him as both a eunuch and an iconophile in celebrating Mary with the imagery that he does. I would have loved to hear more about what you saw in his homilies in answer to your questions. What do you think he would have said about the gendering of devotion to Mary? About how available she was to those on the margins? Your own analysis suggests something of the way in which devotion to Mary in fact ignores margins and yet redraws them--what is it to be inside the one who contained him who could not be contained? RLFB