Sunday, June 27, 2021

Κύριλλος Ἀλεξανδρείας

 Today was the feast of St. Cyril of Alexandria, Doctor of the Church. Born in the town of Didouseya in the Nile Delta, his uncle Theophilus was Patriarch of Alexandria as well as one of the most ruthless and competent ecclesiastical politicians of his day, for which Theophilus was nicknamed by his enemies 'the Pharaoh'. In truth, to survive any kind of politics in rough-and-tumble, collapse-into-rioting-at-the-drop-of-a-hat Alexandria, you had to be hard as nails and as wily as a cat. Theophilus excelled at it, as seen in his complete outmaneuvering of St. John Chrysostom, and Cyril was in much the same mold. He followed in his uncle's footsteps and became Patriarch of Alexandria after him.

Alexandria, again, was notorious for its continual political melee, and Cyril was immediately locked into multiple political struggles just by becoming Patriarch. He repeatedly came to loggerheads with the prefect Orestes. At one point, one of Cyril's go-to men, suspected (on very little evidence) of trying to incite the Jewish community to riot, was tortured in public by Orestes in an attempt to make clear to Cyril who was in charge; Cyril responded by threatening to have the Jewish quarter set to flame if Orestes did not stop harassing the Christian community; ruffians from the Jewish community in Alexandria responded by ambushing and murdering a crowd of Christians; Cyril sent Christian gangs from synagogue to synagogue to hunt out the perpetrators, but seeing that this was spiraling out of control, confined himself to throwing them out of town. Orestes was furious at Cyril's unilateral usurpation of what he regarded as his own authority, and the feud between them went on (although Cyril did make several attempts to cool things down, none of which were successful). What is difficult to convey is how completely ordinary this was, that this was not some unusual eruption; this was a particularly notorious case because both the prefect and the Patriarch eventually appealed to the Emperor over it, which didn't usually happen, but if you read anything about Alexandrian politics in the period, this is the way it was all the time. There were major riots on a semi-regular basis, and between the riots you had turf wars between gangs from each of Alexandria's sizeable pagan, Jewish, and Christian communities, all of whom were able to handle themselves in everything from brawl to murder. In addition, every so often you'd get an influx of troublemakers from outside the city -- violent monks from the desert were a common problem in Alexandria -- and everybody pretty much ignored the law when it was convenient for them. It was not an accident that Theophilus had been such a formidable juggernaut able to use any political means available and outmaneuver less fire-forged politicians, and it is not accident that Cyril was much the same. It's also not surprising that he made enemies; almost everything we know about Cyril outside of Cyril's own writings is known only from people who hated him with a passion.

Rome was the uncontested principal see of the West, but the East had two candidates for the position, Constantinople and Alexandria. Constantinople was the see of the imperial capital; Alexandria was more deeply entrenched and had a longstanding alliance with Rome.  The two were also culturally very different, and on almost everything there was a continual struggle for whether the Alexandrian or Constantinoplitan vision of it would dominate. Theophilus at one point had gone all the way to Constantinople and deposed St. John Chrysostom, who was Patriarch of Constantinople at the time; in the strategic long term it was a mistake, since it was the first thing to instill a suspicion in Rome that perhaps Alexandria was not completely to be trusted, but of course, the Pharaoh did it just to make quite clear to Constantinople that he could. Chrysostom, a brilliant preacher with an abhorrence of politics of any kind, never stood a chance. But the struggle was structural, and continued.

Enter Nestorius. Refined, urbane, sophisticated, bureaucratic, pedantic, high-handed, elitist, and apparently quite charming Nestorius, a politician as opposite to an Alexandrian politician as anyone could be. Alexandrians like Cyril were in the thick of the crowds, from a city where half of politics was done by rough-handed men in the streets and you literally couldn't survive unless you could handle a mob. Nestorius, who was from Antioch, made his political career the Constantinopolitan way, making fine speeches for important people and networking with movers and shakers behind closed doors, away from any rowdy crowd. In 428 Nestorius climbed to the top, becoming Patriarch of Constantinople, and he very much thought of it as the top; the Nestorian vision of the Church was of standing synods and committees making the decisions under the leadership of the Patriarchs, and in the East, the Patriarch of Constantinople.

I called Nestorius 'pedantic', and this is the single most obvious trait he has, shining through pretty much every source we have, including his own works. When one of Nestorius's friends from Antioch preached a sermon arguing against calling Mary the 'Theotokos', the God-bearer, an already popular designation, the laity complained to Nestorius. Nestorius's response was lectures about how the priest was technically right, in which the continual resort to fine distinctions made people impatient. (At one point in the scandal that erupted, whenever Nestorius tried to talk to large groups, people would start heckling him by saying things like, "Strictly Speaking, Strictly Speaking!") The scandal spread, and in 429, Cyril's Easter letter to his priests and monks warned them against Nestorius's claims. The letter eventually made it back to Constantinople, where Nestorius preached a sermon against it. And let us just say that picking a fight with an Alexandrian is not a wise move.

A letter war erupted between them, and eventually tensions between sees allied with Constantinople and sees allied with Alexandria became so severe that the Emperor called a Church council at Ephesus in 431. It actually may have been Nestorius's idea: call a council, condemn Cyril, victory for Constantinople. But wily Cyril did two very Alexandrian things for which Nestorius was wholly unprepared:

(1) Early in the letter war, Cyril had discussed the matter with Rome, which had no patience for Nestorian pedantry, and, on the basis of the longstanding alliance between Rome and Alexandria, got authority to speak for both. Constantinople and Antioch were significant players, but they were not a match for Rome and Alexandria together. Cyril went into the dispute knowing that he could win in the long run. And when the Council was called, Cyril knew that the papal legates, who would be arriving late, would back him on the essential point; he was also willing to gamble that until they did arrive, he could for all practical purposes speak for Rome himself on any matter that came up.

(2) He brought his own crowd, a large pack of fifty, mostly 'desert bishops', monks who had episcopal ordination but whose jurisdiction was mostly to administer desert ascetics and hermits. Strictly speaking, he was only supposed to bring his most important suffragans. But, first, Alexandrians didn't think of the hierarchy in quite the same terms as the Constantinopolitans, so Cyril had no problem interpreting that rule generously, and second, Alexandrian politics, ecclesiastical or otherwise, was a kind of politics in which rules were not regarded as strict boundaries but as things that told you how far you could go before you would have to be prepared to fight your way through. And Ephesus, which leaned strongly toward Cyril on this particular point, could of course draw on all of its suffragans as needed. Nestorius, in contrast, arrived with 16 bishops.

It took a while for all the bishops to arrive, and in fact when the date that had been set for the opening of the Council came, there were still so many bishops arriving and yet to arrive that the Imperial representative didn't open the Council yet. So Cyril decided to open the Council himself. The first order of business: summon Nestorius to stand judgment. Nestorius, of course, ignored the summons. The Imperial representative showed up with a number of bishops pointing out that it was illegal to open the Council without the reading of the Imperial decree. Wily Cyril agreed to wait to open the Council, but he asked the Imperial representative some questions about what the decree technically said, so that they could be sure to do it properly. The Imperial representative then read the decree, and Cyril and his bishops noted that the decree had been read, so the Council had now officially begun. First order of business: since Nestorius hadn't obeyed the summons, ratify Celestine's judgment that Nestorius's claims were heretical.

The bishop of Antioch, John, had a sprawling jurisdiction, so it had taken him some time to gather his bishops; he arrived a little under a week after all this. He and the pro-Nestorian bishops formed their own council and condemned both Cyril and Memnon, the bishop of Ephesus. Meanwhile, the papal legates arrived and put their support behind Cyril. The Council sent a letter to the Emperor with its conciliar decision and asking for permission to go home. (Sending the letter was trickier than it sounds, because of course, they couldn't hand it over to the Imperial representative; so instead they had someone dress up as a beggar and smuggle it out in a walking stick.) Of course, that would take some time, so next order of business: summon John of Antioch to stand judgment. Of course John refused, so he was excommunicated, but not, like Nestorius, deposed. A few jurisdictional claims were adjudicated, and after a little more than a month of action, the Council closed.

The Emperor, of course, was completely unprepared for these events, none of which had gone at all like he had expected. Memnon and Cyril were arrested. Cyril escaped, of course, and managed to stir up through his connections a massive popular protest outside the Emperor's palace; and, as a large number of pro-Cyril sees, including Rome itself, sent envoys to the Emperor over the matter, the Emperor gave in and recognized the Council of Ephesus as the true council. Nestorius retired, Cyril came out of hiding and returned to Alexandria, where he died in 444. He was raised to the calendar of saints quite quickly, not because he was some kind of gentle soul and marzipan picture of holiness, but because he was the right fighter for the right cause at the right time.