Saturday, January 14, 2012

Saintly Saturday: The Holy Fathers slain at Sinai and Raitho

Today is the feast of the Holy Fathers slain at Sinai and Raitho, which are a pair of monasteries in the Sinai Peninsula. This feast actually remembers two separate events where monks were slaughtered by nomadic tribes. One massacre happened at the end of the fourth century and the other occurred in the middle of the fifth century.

This feast is very personal to me. In the ancient church, one of the primary places that Christians would gather to worship was around the grave sites of saints — particularly the martyrs. During those periods where it was legal for them to build churches, they often did so where they had worshipped — over the relics of the saints. This is where the tradition of naming church buildings after saints comes from. In order to keep a connection to this practice, the Orthodox Church places relics of a saint within the altar table at the consecration of a church. I have only had the privilege of taking part in one consecration. The relics of one of the Fathers of Sinai and Raitho was placed in the altar — an altar at which I worshipped for many years.

What I find interesting about this feast is that the hymnody plays up a thematic trope that lies very close to the heart of D&D and the pulp fantasy that inspired it — Civilization versus the Wilderness:
Greatly did you struggle, O Saints of God: while courageously enduring the barbarians’ attacks, you laid down your very lives with eager zeal before their swords... — From the Stichera of Vespers

The desert you made a city through devotion to God… — From the Kathisma of Matins
Thus, Civilization is personified by the monks and the Wilderness not only by the violence of the barbarians, but also by the desert in which the monks built their monasteries.

In the geography of Genesis, the Tree of Life is at the center of a fenced garden which lies in the middle of a plain (Eden). Across from Eden lies the Wilderness (Nod). In the Wilderness demons reside — one interpretation of the scapegoat (literally for Azazel) in Leviticus 16:8 is that it is sent out into the desert where the demon Azazel lives to be devoured.

The Greek word for wilderness and desert is έρημος which literally means a desolate and lonely place. It is the root for both hermit and eremitic — that type of monasticism practiced by hermits. Thematically, therefore, monastics are Christian adventurers who go out into the Wilderness to fight the monsters that live there. The monasteries that they build are akin to the Keep on the Borderlands — outposts of civilization.

Both monastics and the typical D&D adventurer represent the people who have the requisite temperament and skills to make the Wilderness safe for the rest of us. They are the ragtag front line that take the fight to the dangers that live just across the way in the Land of Nod.

In other words, the classic pattern of D&D where parties of adventures go deep underground or out into the lands dominated by beings of evil and Chaos is a metaphor for the monastic endeavor of living in the desert, because monasticism — seen in terms of the geography of Genesis — is a metaphor for Civilization vs. the Wilderness.


Conrad Kinch said...

Very interesting post Padre.

I was recently given a St. Michael's medal while I was out on the beat by a retired policeman who felt that my need was greater than his. Anglicanism at least as it is practiced here is relatively Saints light.

Dave Przybyla said...

Intriguing analogy. I bet I can use this idea in an adventure.