Saturday, June 11, 2011

Saintly Saturday: Axion Estin

It is truly right to bless thee, O Theotokos,

ever blessed, and most pure, and the Mother of our God.

More honorable than the cherubim,

and beyond compare more glorious than the seraphim.

Without corruption thou gavest birth to God the Word.

True Theotokos, we magnify thee. — Axion Estin

Today the Orthodox Church celebrates the revelation of the hymn Axion Estin (It is truly right) by the Archangel Gabriel to a monk on Mt. Athos. This particular monk was a disciple of an elder who instructed him to read the prayers of the services one Saturday night while the elder went off to the cathedral of the Karyes monastery on Mt. Athos.

His prayers were interrupted by a knock on his door, where he found another monk calling himself Gabriel who wished to pray with him. This they did. During the Matins service, there is a poetic style of hymns called the Canon, which has nine odes. Each of these odes is based upon a hymn found in scripture. The ninth ode is based upon the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55). This hymn is often sung with the refrain More honorable than the cherubim (the last four lines above).

When the monk and Gabriel came to the ninth ode, Gabriel sung the refrain with these two additional lines:
It is truly right to bless thee, O Theotokos,

ever blessed, and most pure, and the Mother of our God.
Deeply moved by the beauty of the hymn, the monk asked Gabriel to write it down. When the monk could not produce any paper or any device to write with, Gabriel took up a roof tile and etched the hymn into the rock with his figure as if the tile were made of soft wax. After giving the monk the instruction to have the whole Orthodox world sing this hymn, the angel disappeared from sight. Orthodox Christians have been singing Axion Estin ever since.

Even in the brilliantly wonderful corner of the blogosphere that is the OSR, I am acutely aware that the cleric is not exactly a popular class. I think only the lowly thief has earned more ire; however, next in line for an overhaul or an outright elimination is the cleric.

Part of this is the mechanical rather than archetypal origin of the class. Another has to do with the very strong affiliation with Christianity in its genesis (remember, there were no "holy symbols" in the early editions, only crosses). Once TSR decided to try and be more PC in the face of being accused of promoting satanism etc., the cleric class lost its moorings and in an ironic twist, lost all connection it had with its Christian origin. Recently, though, I have been wondering if it isn't because of that sticky word that is at the root of everything the cleric is about: faith.

I think this word is greatly misunderstood, in part because in English it is anemic in comparison to the Greek that it tries to translate. The Greek word is pistis (noun) or pistevo (verb). In addition to faith, these Greek words can be translated as belief, loyalty and trust. The difficulty comes in that it really means all three at once. To have faith in God means to believe in Him, to be loyal to Him and to trust in Him.

Our example par excellence for faith is the Virgin Mary (known in the Orthodox world as the Theotokos or the Birth-Giver of God). It is truly right to call her blessed because she believed, she was loyal and she trusted.

So, for those who are looking to tweak the class, I encourage you to consider the real definition of faith, and look to the Virgin. She'll show you the way.


AndreasDavour said...

You know what Dave? Even when your posts dwell more on your faith than the game, I get a lot out of them. Thanks!

FrDave said...


Thanks, I am glad you are enjoying them as much as I do sharing them...

Unknown said...

"Another [reason for Clerics being targeted for overhaul] has to do with the very strong affiliation with Christianity in its genesis (remember, there were no "holy symbols" in the early editions, only crosses)."

I would agree here, though perhaps for different reasons: It's too limiting. Being able to reverse the law-aligned spells only goes so far in meeting up with the expectations set by the priests found in REH's material, for instance. Those examples are far more like Magic-Users than they are DnD Clerics.

It's not that they lack Archetypes, it's that they model the wrong one: High Priests turn into giant snakes before getting their heads chopped off by Arnie, they don't walk around in full plate whacking things with a mace.

There's a huge place for Christianity inspired classes, locations, monsters, gods (heh, there's some irony there, I'm sure of it) and relics in DnD (St. Cuthbert anyone?), it's just that there's also room for much, much more and being the only class with an implied background is positively jarring with the open-framework nature of the other classes.

Basically, the Cleric's problem is that he's not generic enough.

FrDave said...

@J. Random
Those examples are far more like Magic-Users than they are DnD Clerics.

So, why not make the REH inspired priests Magic-Users? The irony here is that, from a Christian and Biblical POV, the priestly archetype you are looking for is the Magic-User. The priests of such pagan gods as Baal in the Bible are not getting their spells from God...their magic is seen to be some kind of man-made trickery. These guys are Magic-Users who use their skills to convince others that they are priests.

This concept is also found in in pulp greats like CAS & HPL. The Necronomicon isn't a clerical artifact, it is a necromantic one. Those who wish to use it are not Clerics, but Magic-Users.

Unknown said...

Funnily enough, that's exactly what I did in my game. :D I eliminated the Cleric class entirely. Gone. Poof. Put all the cleric spells in the M-U pool, and enforced some spell rarity rules based on differing 'traditions'. In my game, magic is magic is magic, BUT, magic is not a science - what works for one tradition would be disasterous for another tradition.

I leave the question open as to whether or not priests-as-M-Us who pray to cast their spells are getting their power from their patron or internally.

As a side note, I'm seriously thinking of stealing DCC's new game's magic patron system, I like my DnD more S&S than High Fantasy. That would make EVERY magic-user an invoker of some sort, which is great for flavor. We'll see how easy that is to adapt.

FrDave said...

@J. Ransom
I have no problem with that. In fact, I prefer your solution to the pagan version of the cleric in later editions. Personally, as should be obvious, I prefer my games with clerics; however, I would not characterize my games as high fantasy. My campaigns can get pretty gritty. I take as much, if not more, inspiration from HPL and CAS as I do from Anderson, C.S. Lewis and Tolkien. I find it quite challenging and fun to juxtapose the Christianity-inspired cleric with the REH-inspired priest. In fact, I have never had as much fun or as much success as a Referee than I have when I finally became comfortable with the cleric-as-Christian and intertwining my faith and my hobby.