Saint Cyril and Saint Methodius
Article abstract: Through their spiritual commitment, Cyril and Methodius expanded Christianity in central and eastern Europe and established the foundations of Slavic culture and literature with the development of the Glagolitic alphabet.
The brothers Constantine (Cyril was a religious name taken just before his death) and Methodius were born in the Greek city of Thessalonica (modern Salonika). At the time, Thessalonica was the second most important city of the Byzantine Empire and the provincial capital of the region to the west of Constantinople. Their father Lev (Leo) was a high-ranking military officer in the province and a man of some importance; he was known at the imperial court in Constantinople. Of the two brothers, Constantine, the younger, was the more gifted intellectually and socially. Certainly, he was better known. Methodius, by contrast, functioned in Constantine’s shadow until after the latter’s death in 869, despite his own considerable talents and intelligence. This lesser position is suggested by the facts that much more has been written about the early life of Constantine than has been about that of Methodius and that whenever their activities are discussed, Constantine is always cited first.
Following the death of his father in 841, Constantine was sent to Constantinople, where he became the protégé of Theoctistus, the legothete or imperial chancellor to the Byzantine empress Theodora. Impressed with Constantine’s intellectual and linguistic capabilities, Theoctistus arranged for him to study at the imperial court academy. There Constantine studied philosophy and theology under the tutelage of Photius, the most important Byzantine philosopher and theologian of his time and a future patriarch of Constantinople. By 849, Constantine had acquired not only a reputation as an outstanding scholar of philosophical and theological matters but also the exalted title “Philosopher.”
Cognizant of Constantine’s extraordinary skills, Theoctistus sought to utilize those talents for the empire by offering him a place at the imperial court and marriage to his adopted daughter. Constantine, however, spurned these worldly opportunities and opted instead for a life of spiritual piety. Undaunted, Theoctistus proposed to ordain Constantine as a deacon in the Church and to appoint him to the office of chartophylax (librarian) or secretary to Ignatius, the last of the Byzantine iconoclastic patriarchs. Although initially accepting this offer, because of his disagreement with Ignatius’ iconoclast policies, Constantine mysteriously disappeared. Finally, in 850, he was named professor of philosophy at the imperial academy where he had previously studied. He was only twenty-three years of age. Constantine remained at the academy until 855, when he retired to join Methodius in a monastery on Mount Olympus, near the Sea of Marmora in northwestern Turkey, which was the center of monastic life in the ninth century.
As to Methodius, very little is known of his early life. There are only brief references to his activities prior to 863; nothing exists to illuminate his formative years or his education. It is recorded, however, that he did serve as a provincial governor in the region where he was born. Despite this eminent position, however, Methodius tired of the vicissitudes of worldly life. He became a monk and entered a monastery on Mount Olympus, where he would be joined by Constantine.
Constantine and Methodius’ main achievement centers on their activities among the Great Moravians of central Europe between 863 and 885. The focus of this effort was primarily religious and linguistic in that they sought to develop a Slavonic liturgy and to train an ecclesiastical hierarchy to support the emerging Christian church in Moravia. From the outset, their work was enmeshed in the religious and political rivalries involving the Byzantines, the German Franks, and the Papacy during the ninth century. Despite these difficulties, the brothers achieved their goals; their success gave rise to the later appellation “Apostles to the Slavs.”
In 862, Rostislav, the King of Great Moravia, appealed to the Byzantine Emperor Michael III for a group of missionaries to develop a liturgy and to train an ecclesiastical hierarchy for Moravia. In making this petition, Rostislav specifically requested the inclusion of Constantine and Methodius, since their reputations as scholars and linguists had spread well beyond Byzantium. Although Rostislav couched his plea to Michael in religious terms, he was motivated by his own political interests. At issue was his desire to reduce or even eliminate the influence of the Bavarian Franks in his kingdom, since their presence threatened Moravian independence. To achieve this goal, however, Rostislav needed to reduce Moravian dependence upon the Franks’ ecclesiastical leadership. For their part, the Byzantines were not oblivious to the political and religious advantages of Rostislav’s overture. It offered the prospect for expansion of the Byzantine rite into central Europe, where Rome and Constantinople were rivals for religious authority. At the same time, it presented an opportunity to forge an alliance with Moravia against Bulgaria, whose activities threatened Byzantium. Such were the circumstances confronting...
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