Field of Blackbirds

Yes, and from Jerusalem, O from that holy place,
A great gray bird, a taloned falcon flew!
And in his beak he held a gentle swallow.
But wait! it’s not a falcon, this gray bird,
It is a saint, Holy Saint Eliyah:
And he bears with him no gentle swallow
But a letter from the Blessed Mother.
He brings it to the Tsar at Kosovo
And places it upon his trembling knees.
And thus the letter itself speaks to the Tsar:
‘Lazar! Lazar! Tsar of noble family,
Which kingdom is it that you long for most?
Will you choose a heavenly crown today?
Or will you choose an earthly crown?
If you choose the earth then saddle horses,
Tighten girths- have your knights put on
Their swords and make a dawn attack against
The Turks: your enemy will be destroyed.
But if you choose the skies then build a church-
O, not of stone but out of silk and velvet-
Gather up your forces take the bread and wine,
For all shall perish, perish utterly,
And you, O Tsar, shall perish with them.”
And when the Tsar has heard those holy words
He meditates, thinks every kind of thought:
“O, Dearest God, what shall I do, and how?
Shall I choose the earth? Shall I choose
The skies? And if I choose the kingdom,
If I choose an earthly kingdom now,
Earthly kingdoms are such passing things-
A heavenly kingdom, raging in the dark, endures eternally.”
And Lazarus chose heaven, not the earth,
And tailored there a church at Kosovo-
O not of stone but out of silk and velvet-
And he summoned there the Patriarch of Serbia,
Summoned there the lordly twelve high bishops:
And he gathered up his forces, had them
Take with him the saving bread and wine.
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The historic and, for the Serb people, spiritual center of gravity of Kosovo is the great Battle of Kosovo in 1389, when the Serbian kingdom fell to the Ottoman Turks, and were enslaved for the next half millenium. It’s a story with a lot of tension in it, both between the temporal and the eternal, and, perhaps more importantly, between seeing a historical tragedy simply as tragedy, and seeing it as the will of God, in which God is glorified and His people saved.

So far I’ve encountered two very different interpretations, first from Rebecca West in her excellent history/travelogue, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon (1941), then in the form of a dramatization of the death of Tsar Lazar in The Mystery and Meaning of the Battle of Kosovo (St. Nikolai Velimirovic, 1919). Ms. West encounters the traditional song (quoted above) as she stands on the field of Kosovo, and meets it with dismay verging on anger. She writes as an Englishwoman on the brink of World War II, and brings to her reflections her own experience with pacifist groups in England (and her travels are sometimes charged with perplexed dislike of the Germans she meets in Yugoslavia as well).

“Lazar was wrong” I said to myself. He saved his soul and there followed five hundred years when no man on these plains, nor anywhere else in Europe for hundreds of miles in any direction, was allowed to keep his soul. [. . .] I do not believe that any man can procure his own salvation by refusing to save millions of people from miserable slavery.  [. . .] The important thing was not that he should be innocent but that he should be defeated. (Kindle loc. 17624)

She then goes on to talk about how she sees Prince Lazar as belonging to “a company loving honor and freedom and harmony,” similar to those in her own time who speak in defense of things like equality, justice, and mutual respect between people groups. Why can’t these people triumph over those on the side of brutality and hatred? These people, who’s intentions she finds so worthwhile, do not really believe that they can triumph, rule, and remain innocent. “They want to be right, not to do right. They feel no obligation to be part of the main tide of life, and if that meant any degree of pollution they would prefer to divert themselves from it and form a standing pool of purity.” Some of her thoughts are reminiscent of Solzynitzen’s  thoughts on Tsar Nicholas. He was a good man and a good father, but some of the very things that made him privately virtuous resulted in poor statecraft. Ms. West continues about those of good intention that “not one of them, even the greatest, has ever been a Caesar as well as his kind self; and until there is a kind Caesar every child and woman is born in peril.” It strikes her as terrible that good people are often more willing to die for their beliefs than to fight, and succeed at fighting, for them.

“If this be so,” I said to myself, “if it be a law that those who are born in to the world with a preference for the agreeable over the disagreeable are born also with an impulse toward defeat, then the whole world s a vast Kossovo, an abominable blood-logged plain, where people who love go to fight people who hate, and betray their cause to their enemies, so that loving is persecuted for immense tracts of history, far longer than its little periods of victory.

I wish that she would have treated the Christian tension concerning earthly power as more of an explicit set of beliefs than a psychological  phenomenon.

St Nicolai’s dramatic retelling was written shortly after the First World War (but I don’t think Ms. West read it). As Tsar Lazar is wounded, captured, and awaiting death, he begins to second guess his choice of the heavenly kingdom over the earthly. What right does he have to inflict such misery upon his people for generations to come? An angel and the Prophet Amos (Tsar Lazar’s familial saint, on who’s feast day the battle is taking place) are sent to reassure him that he made the right choice, and most of the story is taken up with speeches from the angel on why that’s the case. Lazar questions him about this: “why was my country destined to fall?” “How will my choosing the heavenly kingdom benefit my people?” “Why has [God] permitted these fair generals to perish, along with so many others?” “Will not the activity of my people be stifled by slavery?””I set out with my knights to battle for the honorable cross and golden freedom. The Asiatic Sultan came with his hordes to our hearth for the purpose of pillaging and destruction. I do not understand, O great servant of God, why the will of the Most High is inclined to grant victory to those, who ridicule the cross and deprive a baptized nation of its freedom?”

The angel responds with a series of philosophical treatises. Serbia is destined to fall because it has grown old through the corruption of its nobles. Defeat and servitude will turn them away from reliance on their own strength and seeking after earthly things, and their gaze will be directed toward God, in whom is the only true freedom. “There was a danger that the soul of the people would be reduced to earth, ashes, and death by the spirit of wickedness. Only a great terror, like a mighty wind, could have blown away this foul spirit and save God’s people from destruction.” The people had begun to look at the contents of creation merely as things that could be possessed or used by them — as consumers — and had become blind to the symbolism and beauty created therein by God. Through oppression and suffering their souls will be purified and illumined, and they will enter the Kingdom of God.

They’re good speeches, and good theology; there are a few places, as when the angel seems to go a little gnostic in taking about the benefits of the death of the flesh as a kind of release, but St Nicolai (author of the Prologue of Ochrid, the most commonly used compilation of the lives of the saints) knew his theology, and is Orthodox, even if it has a different emphasis than some of the writers I feel more affinity for. He’s also expressing a very Orthodox understanding of history, wherein everything s permitted by God, and so it’s possible to give thanks and glorify God in everything, no matter how much of a disaster it seems in our own judgement.

Nonetheless, the explanation that defeat was necessary for the salvation of the people is hard to accept when the reports have mostly been of atheism, nihilism, oppression of neighbors and the minorities in their own territory, the conversion of those neighbors to Islam and ultimately atheism and the start of a world-wide, brutal war. Perhaps I need a better perspective to understand St Nicholai’s assertions?


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