"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Friday, December 16, 2011

Steven Hawkes-Teeples on Symeon of Thessaloniki

Previously I drew attention to the publication of St. Symeon Thessalonika, The Liturgical Commentaries. This major work was translated and edited by the Jesuit priest and scholar Steven Hawkes-Teeples, whom I was able to interview. Here are his thoughts: 

AD: Tell us about your background, including other research and scholarly interests.

I was born in 1953 and grew up in San Antonio, Texas. I was baptized into the Catholic Church during my first year at San Antonio College. I completed a BA and an MA in French literature at the University of Texas Austin. I entered the Society of Jesus in 1982 and was ordained a priest in the Byzantine-Ruthenian Church in 1993. Studying under Archimandrite Robert Taft, I completed a doctorate in Eastern Christian liturgy in 1998 with a dissertation on the liturgy in the commentaries of St. Symeon of Thessalonika. From 1997 to 2001, I was director of the Diaconal Formation Program of the Byzantine-Ruthenian Church in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. I also taught at Canisius College in Buffalo, New York and at Regis College in Toronto. Since 2001 I have been teaching liturgy at the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome.

AD: Tell us a bit about St. Symeon of Thessalonika's life and work, and speculate if you will why you think he wrote these commentaries.

Symeon was born in Constantinople some time around 1384. He entered a monastery in the capital and was a hieromonk (priest-monk) until he was chosen to be archbishop of Thessalonika. He arrived as the new archbishop in either 1416 or 1417. He had a rather turbulent time as archbishop since the city was under threat of the Ottoman Turks during most of his episcopate. Many wanted to peacefully surrender to the Turks, which meant that most of their social and civic structures would remain intact under Ottoman rule. A military conquest on the other hand brought on three days of pillaging by the conquerors. Symeon sternly demanded that the city must never yield to the Turks. He was also frequently sick. To Symeon’s great disappointment, the Byzantine emperor handed over Thessalonika to Venice in 1423. Symeon died in 1429, just six months before the final fall of the city to the Ottomans, when much of the city was destroyed and virtually the entire surviving population was enslaved.

Symeon lived into his mid-forties, so his many writings suggest someone who wrote easily. Some of his writings, ones that I would judge his later works, frequently have a certain disorganization in them. My guess is that they were dictated to a secretary.
The two commentaries are "Explanation of the Divine Temple" and “On the Sacred Liturgy.” The first is a separate work and better organized. I suspect that it was begun before Symeon became archbishop. In the lengthy title he says that it is sent “to the pious people in Crete, who requested it.” The second commentary, in which he refers to the earlier book, is just one section of an enormous work, The Dialogue in Christ, which deals with all the services of the Orthodox Church. Both works intend to pass on and expand the tradition of mystagogy, the Church’s explanation of the Church’s rites. At the time, Symeon is also very eager to prescribe exactly how certain actions should be done in church.

AD: What led you to work on Symeon and to translate his Liturgical Commentaries?

One of my professors, Fr. Miguel Arranz, suggested that Symeon is an interesting author, worthy of further study. So I started reading his works in the existing edition, published by Jacques-Paul Migne in the 1800s. But as soon as I started reading, I found some very strange things. For instance, the chapter headings don’t fit the text. It’s as if Symeon forgot what he was going to write about after he wrote the titles. For instance, chapter one is “What is the effect of sacred baptism?” The chapter that follows mentions baptism, but is not even one complete sentence. Chapter two is “What is holy chrism?” Chrism is mentioned in the conclusion of that sentence, but the chapter goes on for pages and chrism never comes up again. There were other strange twists and turns that made me aware that there were gigantic problems with the text.

I began looking at some manuscripts and began to find some answers. It turns out that Symeon’s secretary, who wrote down his dictated text, decided to add questions in the margin to make Symeon's works more like Latin theological treatises of the time that had a question-and-answer format. When Symeon was first published, the secretary's marginal questions were inserted into the text as chapter titles.

There were a number of other cases in which the early editors just didn’t understand some of Symeon’s late Byzantine Greek. They corrected Symeon’s Greek in a number of passages, but corrected many of them mistakenly. So I needed to redo many of those “corrections.”

Finally, and most excitingly, I discovered that there is a very important manuscript in Zagora, a small seaside village near the city of Volos. To the best of our knowledge, it is the only manuscript, which has Symeon’s own corrections and additions in his own handwriting, added to a secretarial manuscript. I first got some photocopies, but eventually went to Zagora in 1996 and worked on the manuscript in person. Together with many interesting corrections, all the new material added up to several more pages of the commentaries, particularly the second one. Clearly, someone needed to do a new edition of Symeon’s commentaries on the Divine Liturgy because there was so much new material. I didn’t want to do it at first because I had never studied how this is done. Eventually friends and colleagues pushed me and helped. It took many years, but eventually I managed to put together a new edition of Symeon’s commentaries in Greek.

AD: These commentaries are particularly focused on the hierarchical or pontifical liturgy. Could you briefly describe how the pontifical liturgy in Symeon's day was celebrated?

For the most part, the development of the Byzantine Divine Liturgy stopped in 1526 with the publication of printed versions of the liturgy. For the first time in history we actually had not two or three texts, but hundreds of them with exactly the same words in the same place, and at a price that allowed them to circulate. From then on, the liturgical changes have been fairly minor and easy to trace. As we might expect, Symeon’s liturgy in the early 1400s is similar to the modern liturgy. It is a pontifical, or hierarchal, liturgy, so rather more elaborate that an ordinary priestly liturgy as in present-day usage.

AD: Robert Taft's foreword notes that Symeon is an author of "the first importance" who has nonetheless not often been studied or translated. Why do you think that is?

There are a couple of issues involved here. First, liturgical history is a fairly new discipline. Symeon is overwhelmingly involved in questions of how the services are done. Until the study of how the services developed became a major field of study, Symeon wasn’t seen as very important. Next, Symeon can be a bit “prickly” at times. He had strong prejudices. He disliked Roman Catholics and really hated the Armenians although he doesn’t seem to know much about them. Symeon’s theology became very popular in Russia through the writings of Archbishop Venjamin Rumovsky-Krasnopevkov. His book, The New Tablet, published in 1803, is at times a translation of passage after passage of Symeon from Greek into Russian. In the end, doing serious scholarship on a late Byzantine liturgist is just hard work and there are not that many people who are interested enough to trudge through it.

AD: Taft also notes a relationship between Symeon and Maximus Confessor and Pseudo-Dionysius. Could you elaborate a little bit on those relationships? Who else was influential upon Symeon?

Syemon is a part of the whole tradition of Christian mystagogy, explaining the Church’s liturgical services. It has it roots in the Old Testament explanations of the Jewish rituals. In Christian literature, we find mystagogical discussions in many of the fathers, including St. John Chrysostom. Theodore of Mopsuestia really developed a very rich symbolic mystagogy, as did the Pseudo-Dionysius a bit later. By Symeon’s time, there was a whole tradition of Greek Byzantine commentaries from Maximus Confessor to Nicholas Cabasilas. Symeon worked out of and built on this tradition of commentaries. But, above all, Symeon’s favorite theologian without any doubt is certainly the Pseudo-Dionysius. He sometimes mentions other figures, but the anonymous author claiming to be Dionysius the Aeropagite is the only one Symeon cites repeatedly.

AD: Taft further argues that some often overlook or look down upon the genre of mystagogy and liturgical commentary. Why would that be? What role does a liturgical commentary play? How would you characterize it as a text--more as "history" or more as "theology" or something else?

From the eighth century on, Byzantine mystagogy tended to become “contemplative” and not very participatory. As something to see and contemplate, rather than be involved in, liturgy tended to take on very rich symbolic interpretations. Some of this symbolism is not connected with the deeper theological meaning of the liturgy. This is a genuine problem that shouldn’t be overlooked.

On the other hand, we also have to say that Christian mystagogy is an act of Christian faith. Some people who want to do a ritual history or ritual analysis of Christian liturgy without a faith perspective may be uncomfortable with mystagogy.

In most ways, every generation has to do its own mystagogy. How we understand and how we participate in the liturgy is always changing. We should build on our past, but we can’t live in it.

Symeon’s commentaries are a sort of snapshot of the liturgy and the mentality surrounding it at one particular moment in the history of Byzantine Christians. Symeon gives a lot of information about how the liturgy was done in his day, what he and others thought it meant, and how he thought it ought to be done right; occasionally he also tells us about practices he disapproves of. 
Symeon really doesn’t fit into any of our modern categories. He was a writer of his own time, using other structures. For instance, Symeon doesn’t organize his thought in paragraphs. He sees it as a continuous flow. One of his most common expressions in Greek means roughly, “and on that basis it follows that…”

AD: Translators, it seems to me, are often the unsung heroes of scholarship. Take us behind the scenes, as it were, into the world of theological translation, particularly of old manuscripts. What is that process like? What are the difficulties you face, and how do you overcome them?

In preparing an edition like this, the translation is the final part, after all the hard work is done. The real work is figuring out what text itself means in Greek. What was Symeon really trying to say? Greek manuscripts don’t have modern punctuation, so one has to decide how many clauses to string together before adding a period. Maybe these two sections are so connected that we will separate them with a semi-colon.
This manuscript especially presented big problems with Symeon’s writing. His secretary wrote in a very clear black script with what was probably a metal pen. Symeon’s additions and corrections are in a reddish-brown ink and likely done with some sort of reed. Symeon’s writing is sometimes squeezed in between the lines and at other times in the margins. When the Zagora manuscript was bound, they trimmed the pages and cut off some of Symeon’s notes. The real struggle was to recover every last bit that I could of what Symeon wrote.

In the introduction of the book I discuss some of the work involved in producing the book. I wouldn’t want to say that the translation was easy. There certainly were moments when I sweated over it. Still, getting the Greek right was the much harder task.

For a serious scholar, translations are like encyclopedias: they are a good place to start. Once you get seriously into a topic, you can’t rely on a translation. You have to go to the original. Having a translation saves you a lot of time in reading through a lot of material quickly. It can help you find the sections that you need to look at carefully. Once you get there, then you need to read the original. There are all sorts of translations, but in the end, a translation is only someone else’s idea of what he thinks it means. Shakespeare has been translated into most of the written languages of the world, but a Shakespearean scholar reads Shakespeare in English, just as a real Dostoevskij scholar reads The Brothers Karamazov in Russian.

AD: What other works by Symeon are extant but still untranslated into, say, English?

To my knowledge, the only other thing by Symeon out in English is a weak translation of Symeon’s commentary on the liturgy of the hours. So everything is out there to be done.

However, as with the commentaries on the Divine Liturgy, the first thing we need to do in most cases is first produce a good Greek text of what Symeon was actually saying. Only once we have a good text does it make much sense to do a translation.

AD: Taft notes that Symeon's influence continues to live on--an example of Byzance après Byzance. Where is that influence most notable in the centuries since his death?

Much of the way the Divine Liturgy is still explained today in the Byzantine Catholic and Orthodox Churches is still very much dependent on Symeon’s mystagogy. In talking with friends in Russia, it is obvious that for many Orthodox in present-day Russia the real authority on the meaning of the Divine Liturgy is Archbishop Venjamin’s The New Tablet and that is simply Symeon recycled. Nikolai Gogol’s Meditations on the Divine Liturgy is dependent on Symeon directly and indirectly through Archbishop Venjamin. In point of fact, no one has really come up with another system, focused more on our participation in the liturgy. So without anything new, we continue to use the older system.

AD: If a graduate student today were looking for unexplored or untranslated authors and areas in Eastern liturgiology to work on, which would you recommend?

Serious liturgical research is an awful lot of very hard work. One has to learn the needed languages of the original texts, and one also has to be able to read contemporary scholarship at least in English, French, and German although recent studies in Russian and Italian are very important. So, first and foremost, one has to choose something that interests you at the beginning. It will get dull later on, but if you start with something that is boring to you at the beginning, you’ll never finish it.

There is so much to be done in Eastern liturgical studies that one can’t possibly name it all. Fr. Taft is working on finishing up his book on the anaphora and that will be his fifth book on the 
Byzantine Divine Liturgy from the Cherubic Hymn to the end. I am inclined to think that those will be the definitive books on that topic for some time. So I don’t recommend to anyone to work on that part of the Divine Liturgy because I doubt that you will easily find anything new and worthwhile to say. Other than that and a few other areas that have been done very thoroughly, it’s pretty much a wide open field. The other sacraments? Sure. Liturgy of the hours? Certainly. There is a ton of stuff to be done on the earlier parts of the Divine Liturgy.

If one is adventurous and hardworking, one could investigate other non-Byzantine liturgies that have been studied much less. The connection between the three Syriac liturgical traditions (Assyro-Chaldean, Syro-Antiochene, and Maronite) is a fascinating point to sort out. Especially the Ethiopic liturgical tradition has only just begun to be studied. If one has the patience, the brains and the interest, the sky is the limit.

AD: Having completed The Liturgical Commentaries: St. Symeon of Thessalonika, what are you at work on now?

I am currently working on two editing projects. First, I am preparing for publication the papers from the third congress of the Society of Oriental Liturgies held in Volos, Greece in 2010. I am also trying to finish up editing, indexing, organizing and often re-translating an English version of Juan Mateos’ book on the first half of the Byzantine Divine Liturgy.

When I finish those tasks, I hope to do more work on the Prothesis, the preparatory rites of the Divine Liturgy. With that I would also like to produce improved and updated versions of some of Symeon’s other writings.

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