Medieval Bulgars

Medieval Bulgars

Pope Nicholas I: Responses to the Questions of the Bulgars A.D. 866 (Letter 99)

Note: previous chapters are available here, here and also here.

Chapter LV.

Now then, as for your assertion that the Greeks forbid you to receive communion without belts, we have no idea with what witnesses from sacred Scripture they are shown to have rightly forbidden this, unless perhaps by the one in which the Lord commands, saying: Let your loins be girded.[cf. Lk. 12:35] But it is fitting that this testimony of the holy gospel be fulfilled not through the letter, but through the spirit. For if it was commanded in order that it would be kept in that way, why are things which follow not equally done, that they be like “burning lights”, and, as is commanded to those eating lamb, that they hold a staff in their hands?[cf. Ex. 12:11] For these things have their own mystery and are clear to those who understand them in such a way that they are preserved more in the meaning which befits them. For in the girding of the loins, chastity is indicated; in the staff, pastoral rule; in the burning lights, the splendor of good works, about which it is said: Let your works shine forth.[Mt. 5:16] Therefore we should lead the rustic minds of the faithful to such things,” as the holy and excellent defender of the church Pope Celestine writes, whose words we have changed to summarize them; for they should be taught rather than played with, and the commandments should not be imposed on their eyes but rather infused into their minds.[17]

[17] In his Ep. to the bishops of Gaul §14, in the Dionysius Exiguus, Collectio Decretorum Pontificum Romanorum, PL 67, cc. 274-278 at 274-5.

Chapter LVI.

You say that you wish to know, if in a time of drought you are allowed to command all of your people to pray and fast to summon the rain. Of course you are allowed to do this, because prayer and fasting are great virtues, and your exhortation has a great effect by having these performed constantly. It is more fitting, however, if these things are done by the decision of the bishops, for they are the ones who receive the power of binding and loosing, and it is at the sound of their voice that the camps of the people of God are moved and come to rest; without them, you will seem to be without a head and will procede like wandering sheep who do not have a pastor. Indeed, in such matters, in ancient times, the decree and every ordination of the priests went first (a practice which the holy Church also keeps today) and then the assent of the rest of the people followed; consequently, the outcome of the wish was granted, while due order was maintained and unanimity preserved by God’s gift.

Chapter LVII.

You claim that the Greeks forbid eunuchs to kill your animals, so that they declare that anyone who has eaten from animals killed by them has committed a grave sin. This sounds truly strange and silly to us. But since we have not heard the reasoning of those who say these things, we are unable to decide anything definitively regarding their assertion, since it is not yet fully known. Nevertheless, we do know one thing, and that is that if eunuchs keep God’s commandments, the cutting off of one of their members can offer no obstacle to their receiving the celestial kingdom, since, according to the Apostle, in the resurrection we shall all be present as a perfect man,[cf. Eph. 4:13] and through the prophet the Lord promises some happy things to eunuchs, if they observe His commandments.[cf. Is. 56:4-5] Indeed, even that eunuch Ethiops is called a man by the holy evangelist Luke because of his strength and integrity, when he says: And behold, the man Ethiops, the powerful eunuch of Queen Candace.[Acts 8:27]

Chapter LVIII.

As to whether a woman should stand in the church with her head veiled or unveiled, the Apostle teaches: If a woman prays or prophesies without her head veiled, she brings shame upon her own head; indeed, it is the same as if she is bald. For if a woman is not veiled, she might as well have her hair cut off. But if it is shameful for a woman to have her hair cropped or made bald, let her veil her head;[I Cor. 11:5-6] and again he says: Hence a woman should have a veil over her head because of the angels,[I Cor. 11:10] i.e. the priests; and once again he says: Judge for yourselves: Is it fitting for an unveiled woman to pray to God? Doesn’t nature itself teach you that if a man tends his hair, it is to his shame; but if a woman tends her hair, it is to her glory, since her hair has been give to her as a veil.[I Cor. 11:13-15]

Chapter LIX.

We consider what you asked about pants (femoralia) to be irrelevant; for we do not wish the exterior style of your clothing to be changed, but rather the behavior of the inner man within you, nor do we desire to know what you are wearing except Christ — for however many of you have been baptized in Christ, have put on Christ [Gal. 3:27] — but rather how you are progressing in faith and good works. But since you ask concerning these matters in your simplicity, namely because you were afraid lest it be held against you as a sin, if you diverge in the slightest way from the custom of other Christians, and lest we seem to take anything away from your desire, we declare that in our books, pants (femoralia) are ordered to be made, not in order that women may use them, but that men may. But act now so that, just as you passed from the old to the new man, [cf. Eph. 4:22-24; Col. 3:9-10] you pass from your prior custom to ours in all things; but really do what you please. For whether you or your women wear or do not wear pants (femoralia) neither impedes your salvation nor leads to any increase of your virtue. Of course, because we have said that pants are ordered to be made, it should be noted that we put on pants spiritually, when we restrain the lust of the flesh through abstinence; for those places are constrained by pants in which the seats of luxury are known to be. This is why the first humans, when they felt illicit motions in their members after sin, ran into the leaves of a fig tree and wove loin cloths for themselves.[cf. Gen. 3:7] But these are spiritual pants, which you still could not bear, and, if I may speak with the Apostle, you are not yet able; for you are still carnal.[I Cor. 3:2] And thus we have said a few things on this matter, although, with God’s gift, we could say many more.

Chapter LX.

To you, who are asking if it is permitted to eat a very little bit despite the time of fasting, we respond that we neither recollect nor find in any monuments that any of our fathers has eaten before the third hour of the day nor that the holy Church has received any tradition of taking food before this hour. On the contrary, we find some of them fast until evening, others until the ninth hour of the day, still others until the sixth hour, but we have found no one who took any food in the morning, since we read instead that “Woe” was said to those who eat in the morning. Therefore, desiring that you be not subject to this curse, we exhort you to consume no corporeal food at all before the third hour of the day even on the noteworthy festivals; for what festival can be more sublime than Pentecost, on which the Holy Spirit descended upon the apostles and thereby men merited to receive the Lord in themselves? Of course, on this day the holy apostles along with some others are found to have been fasting at the third hour of the day, since to those hearing and wondering at the apostles who were filled with the Holy Spirit and speaking in the tongues of all the nations, and those saying falsely that those present were filled with new wine, Peter, prince of apostles, responded, saying: They are, in fact, not drunk, as you think, since it is the third hour of the day.[Acts 2:13] Here it should be noted that not only the apostles but all who was there with them, i.e. one hundred and twenty men, upon whom the Holy Spirit descended, are found to be fasting at the third hour. It should also be noted that the blessed Peter did not simply say: They are not drunk, as you think, but added: since it is the third hour, as if he was clearly saying: “You yourselves clearly know that it is not customary for them to stop fasting before the third hour; therefore you vainly suppose that they are drunk.” Imitate them, so that the Holy Spirit, upon finding you fasting at the third hour of the day, if not later, may also fill you with the inspiration of his grace, just as it filled them.

Chapter LXI.

You also indicate that you wish to know how many times a day a lay person should pray. In this matter, it is appropriate for you to know that no one has been excepted from what the Lord says in the Gospel: It is proper to pray always and never fail,[Lk. 18:1] and the Apostle says: Pray without ceasing,[I Thes. 5:17] a statement which, as the aforementioned St. Augustine teaches most clearly, is understood thus, namely that on no day should certain times of prayer be passed by. But what these certain times of prayer are, which should be not skipped on any day, seek and you shall find.

Chapter LXII.

You say that a stone was found among you before you had accepted Christianity, and if someone took some of this rock on account of some illness, it used sometimes to offer a remedy to his body, but at other time to remain without benefit. But surely this is certain to happen even to those who never consume some of that stone, namely that some will in fact receive the remedy of health from their illness, while others waste away in theirs. Therefore, when you ask whether this should be done or rejected from now on, we respond and judge that every use of this rock should be completely forbidden and refuted in every way as the tinder of error; and that the hope of all human salvation be placed upon that one stone alone, our Lord Jesus Christ, whom the builders rejected, and who has become the cornerstone,[Mt. 21:42] and that the remedy for recovering our strength be expected from the strongest of all. The first of the apostles, the most blessed Peter, exhorts you through his letter to approach Him and place all your trust in Him, when he says: Approach that living stone, rejected to be sure by men, but elected and honored by God, and you yourselves shall be built as living stones into a spiritual house.[I Peter 2:4-5]

Chapter LXIII.

You also ask if a husband is permitted to have intercourse or sleep with his wife in the daytime or night time on Sunday. To this we respond that if one should cease from all worldly labor on Sunday, as we taught above,[17] how much more should one beware of carnal pleasure and every sort of bodily pollution, especially since the name “the Lord’s day” shows clearly that the Christian should do nothing on this day except what is the Lord’s. Furthermore, the same thing goes for the night time on Sunday as was judged concerning the daytime. For it is one day, which consists in day period and night period, having twenty-four hours. For unless a day existed as much in the absence as the presence of the sun, Scripture would never have said: Night and morning happened, one day.[Gen.1:5] Now then, as to whether one should just sleep with one’s own wife at this time, we have already intimated in summary form what we think in chapter fifty of these responses. Finally, if I may use the words of the Apostle, I say this for your own good, not in order to lead you towards a trap, but towards what is honorable and offers you the capacity to beseech the Lord without impediment.[I Cor. 7:35]

[17] Cf. above Chapter X.

Chapter LXIV.

For how many days after a woman gives birth to a child a man should abstain from her, is stated not by our opinions but in the words of the Roman Pope and apostle of the English nation, Gregory of blessed memory, who, when he writes to Bishop Augustine, whom he had sent to Saxony, says among other things: A woman’s husband should not approach to lie with her until the infants, to whom she has given birth, have been weaned. But a depraved custom has arisen in the behavior of married people, that women despise nursing the children whom they have born and hand them over to be nursed by other women; and this seems to have happened solely because of incontinence, since those who refuse to restrain themselves, despise nursing those to whom they have given birth.[18]

[18] Gregory I, Register XI.56 §8.

Chapter LXV.

Now then, no one is rightly permitted to receive the communion of Christ, if he is not found to be fasting. For if he is so given over to gluttony that he thinks so little of the mystical table, he seems to break the fast by first consuming secular food (cibi laici).[19] Furthermore, because he does not distinguish between the venerable body and precious blood of Christ and all the other food, he is known to place them not ahead of every human meal but rather behind. Indeed, the body of Christ is the health-bringing remedy against sin, and whoever does not consume it with veneration before eating all other things, does not desire to be healed but rather weakened. And certainly we see doctors everyday drinking their potions on an empty stomach; and if this is done for the health of the body, how much more should it performed for the salvation of the soul. Now then, no rule teaches why a person whose blood flows from their nostrils or mouth should not receive the body and blood of Christ. For the fact that someone suffers something involuntarily, should not be considered their fault, and therefore he should not be prevented from sharing in so great a remedy; for we know that when a woman who was suffering from a flow of blood, humbly came up behind the Lord and touched the edge of his clothing, the infirmity immediately departed from the woman.[Cf. Mt. 9:20-22; Lk. 8:41, 44] Thus, if this woman, who was placed amidst a flow of blood, is not judged unworthy of touching the Lord’s clothing, nay the Lord Himself, for He Himself said: Someone touched me, why is someone who sustains a flow of blood from the mouth or nostrils not permitted to receive the health-bringing sacraments of Christ.

[19] I have translated cibum laicum here as “secular food” because the focus of Nicholas’s contrast is not on that between the food of laypeople and that of clerics, but rather between the spiritual food of the Mass and the secular food of daily life.

Chapter LXVI.

You claim that the Greeks forbid you to enter the church with the linen turban that you wear on your head. We, too, forbid this, though perhaps not for the same reason; for the oft-remembered and often to be remembered apostle Paul says: Every man who prays or prophesies with his head veiled, dishonors his own head,[I Cor. 11:4] and again: A man should not veil his head, because he is the image and glory of God.[I Cor. 11:7] Now then, what is said concerning the veil, we think should also be observed concerning a quantity of wrapping.

Chapter LXVII.

You say that you had a custom that whenever you decided to oblige someone for some matter by swearing an oath, you brought a sword into the center of the gathering and swore an oath by it. Now however, you ask to be instructed by us on what thing you should swear by. We, however, consider it completely unfitting to swear not only by a sword but by any other man-made object. For by whomever someone swears, so, too, does he love and venerate this person and commends his trust to him with firm stability. Therefore, one should swear by God, Whom people should love and venerate, in Whom all hope and trust should be placed, and from Whom all creatures should always expect aid. For when the Lord commands someone not to swear by heaven, earth, one’s head or Jerusalem, nothing else is forbidden except to swear by something created.[cf. Mt. 5:32-34] But that we are ordered to swear by the name of God, we learn from Him teaching us. Clearly we can swear at least by those created things which have been assigned to the divine cult, i.e. the temple and the altar, and someone who swears upon them, also swears upon the very people who live in them, if there are any such things there. Therefore, one should rightly swear by the Gospel, for whatever is contained therein is clearly recognized to be no one’s if not God’s, Who is written and read to be in it. This, indeed, is our law, this our testament, which the Lord our savior, bearer of the law and maker of the will, has assigned to His elect, and if we love it, we also swear by it; for everyone who speaks the truth swears by the one whom he loves. Therefore, if we swear by the Gospel, we are proven to love both the testator and the testament itself and we indicate beyond all doubt that we do not wish to depart from His commandments.

Chapter LXVIII.

You desire to know how many days must pass after a woman has given birth before she can enter a church. In this matter, following in the footsteps of our predecessor the blessed Pope Gregory, we decree the same things which Gregory said (among other things) when he wrote to instruct a new nation, just as we are doing now: If a woman in the very same hour in which she has given birth, enters the church to give thanks, she is weighed down by no burden of sin; for it is fleshly pleasure, not suffering, that is the fault. There is pleasure in the commingling of the flesh, but wailing in the bearing of a child. Hence it is said to the very first mother of all: “You shall give birth amidst suffering.”(Gen.3:6) Therefore, if we forbid a woman in childbirth from entering the church, we consider her very punishment as a crime.[20]

[20] Gregory I, Register XI.56 §8.

Chapter LXIX.

You ask how many times in a year baptism should be celebrated and if on this day it is permitted to eat meat or how many days [after baptism] one should abstain from this. Now then, according to the canons, the notable and solemn times of the year on which baptisms are celebrated are two, namely Easter and Pentecost. But as far as we are concerned, there are no times which should be kept absolutely in baptizing, just as such things are not observed regarding those who desire to be purged with so great a bath, because they fear the danger of their approaching death; it is undoubtedly fitting for those who have been baptized on the holy Sabbath or on holy Pentecost to abstain from meat on this day, but during the following seven days, which were called the “days of unleavened bread” by the ancients [cf. Acts 12:3] and are rightly celebrated in connection with the day of the Lord’s resurrection, if someone desires at some point to eat meat, it is much more appropriate that he eat it.

Chapter LXX.

You decided that you should ask our advice on whether you should maintain a priest who has a wife or cast him from you. On this matter we respond, that, although these men are truly reprehensible, nevertheless it befits you to imitate God, Who, as the Gospel attests, makes His sun rise over the good and evil alike and He rains upon the just and the unjust.[Mt. 5:45] You therefore should not cast him from you, since the Lord did not expel Judas from the number of the apostles, even though he was a lying disciple. But regarding priests, whatever sort they may be, you, who are laymen, should neither judge nor investigate anything concerning their way of life, but this, whatever it is, should by all means be reserved to the judgment of the bishops.

Chapter LXXI.

Since you ask whether or not you should receive communion from a priest who has either been caught in adultery or splashed with only the rumor of this, we respond: No one, no matter how much he has been polluted, can pollute the divine sacraments, which are the purging remedies of all contagions, nor can a ray of the sun, even though it passes through sewers and latrines, attract any contamination from there. Consequently, whatever sort of person the priest may be, he cannot pollute things which are holy; therefore, communion should be received from him until such time as he is reproved by the judgments of the bishops. For evil men only wound themselves in administering good things and the burning wax torch does damage to itself, but offers light to others in darkness and that from which he offers comfort to others, presents a loss to himself. Therefore, boldly take the mysteries of Christ from every priest, because all things are purged in faith. For, as St. Jerome teaches, it is faith which conquers this world,[cf. I Jn. 5:4] and because it is not up to the giver but to the receiver to believe that baptism is perfect in every soul and the body of Christ is perfect in every priest.[21] And again, in agreement with sacred Scripture, he says: Before you hear, “Do not judge anyone nor suspend anyone from your communion before the accusation brought against him is proven, since someone who is accused is not immediately guilty, but rather he is criminal who is convicted.[22]

[21] Jerome, On the Seven Orders of the Church (= Ep. 12) §6, PL 30, c.160.

[22] Ibid., c.154.

Chapter LXXII.

You ask, if it is permitted for a patriarch to be ordained among you. We cannot say anything diffinitive on this issue before our legates, whom we send to you, have returned and reported to us what a multitude and unanimity of Christians there is among you. In the meantime, have a bishop and when Christianity has spread there with an increase in divine grace and bishops have been ordained in each church, then one among you should be elected, who should be called, if not patriarch, then certainly archbishop; to him all shall come and ask his advice in more serious matters, since the apostolic rules command and state this same thing: It is fitting that the bishops of each nation know who among them is considered first, whom they consider as their head and treat nothing as greater except their own conscience etc.[23]

[23] Apostolic Canons, canon 35.

Chapter LXXIII.

You also ask by whom a patriarch should be ordained. Know then that in a place where no patriarch or archbishop has been constituted, he should be installed for the first time by the greatest bishop, since, according to the Apostle,[cf. Heb. 7:7] the lesser is blessed by the greater. But then, once permission and the use of the pallium has been received, from then on he himself ordains the bishops for himself who are able to ordain his successor. But, whether you ask that a patriarch or an archbishop or a bishop be ordained for you, you can wish to have this person ordained by no one more fitting than the pontiff of the see of Peter, from whom the episcopacy and the apostolate took its beginning. In this matter, this order should be preserved, namely that now a bishop should consecrated for you by the bishop of the apostolic see, who, if the people of Christ increase under his leadership, may receive through us the privilege of the archepiscopacy and so finally he may constitute bishops for himself, who may elect his successor when he dies. And because of the length of the journey, let whoever is elected no longer come here to be consecrated before he receives the pallium from the seed of Rome, as all the archbishops of the Gauls and Germany and other regions are shown to do.

Chapter LXXIV.

You inquire as to what you should do if, after a prayer has begun, a messenger comes concerning an enemy and you are therefore unable to finish the prayer. What else should you do, of course, than complete the good which you have begun wherever you happen to have traveled? Indeed, for Christians, there is no one place of prayer, as Jerusalem was for the Jews and as there was for the Samaritans on Mt. Garizin, but rather [we pray] everywhere, as the Apostle also says: I therefore want you men to pray everywhere by raising pure hands.[I Tim. 2:8] Furthermore, the person who perseveres in good work to the end,[cf. Mt.10:22] shall be saved, especially when against the hostile attacks of his enemies; indeed, as we have stated above,[24] triumph over the enemy should be expected from prayer rather than from arms.

Source: Translated by W. L. North from the edition of Ernest Perels, in MGH Epistolae VI, Berlin, 1925, pp.568-600.

Leave a Comment