Updated: Aug 19
After much thinking about a new topic to write about, I’ve decided I should start sharing the lives of the Saints of the east. I’ll start with the more famous and slowly start moving to the more obscure.
In this article, I want to share the lives of Saint Cyril and Methodius.
Chances are you at least recognize the names. St Cyril and Methodius were two brothers who were born in 826 a.d. and 815 a.d.. They were born to a minor noble family in the region of Thessalonica in the Byzantine Empire. Their father was a droungarios which was a low-rank aristocratic military position.
The brothers lost their father while teenagers but went on to receive a high-class education befitting their family’s standing. Cyril studied at the newly established University of Magnaura where he later went on to be a professor. Both brothers entered the clergy with Cyril being ordained a priest and Methodius a deacon until later on in life.
The first missionary activity from the pair is their expedition to the Khazars. The Khazars were an odd group. They were Turkish nomads that oddly converted to Judaism in the 8th century. The Turks requested Christian scholars to debate their Rabbis, so Emperor Michael III sent Cyril to educate the Turks about Christ.
There isn’t much information about their trip to the Turks but we do know he stayed long enough to learn their language. Upon their return, Cyril became the head professor of Philosophy at the university while his brother ran a monastery.
Though they probably were enjoying their dignified stations in the empire, they were once again called to missionary work. In 862 a.d. Price Ratislav requested clergymen from the empire. This request wasn’t the same as Saint Vladimir’s or of King Boris I. The prince and his lands were already Catholic. The prince simply didn’t want to be under the influence of the German Clergy.
So the brothers were off to Greater Moravia, modern-day Czechia. Upon arriving they started the work that they would be most known for, the creation of the Glagolitic Alphabet. This creation is probably one of the most important moments in Slavic history. This Alphabet which was Greek-based was specifically made for the peculiarness of the Slavic tongue. This allowed it to be mass adopted by the Slavic world and allowed them to have a sort of cultural independence from the Latin influenced Alphabet but also free from Greek influence.
The brothers used this alphabet to create the liturgical language of Church Slavonic. Church Slavonic was incredibly important to the conversion of the Slavic peoples. Its creation helped the Bulgars and the Rus to convert since before that all eastern liturgies were Greek and the West Latin, this allowed the Slavs to incorporate their faith more easily into their cultural identity. It’s still used today by many Orthodox and Eastern Catholic Churches. The brothers translated the bible and helped to codify Slavic legal codes which brought Moravia into the greater European world.
However, conflict arose with the bishops of Germany. The Bishops viewed the territory as their jurisdiction and refused to ordain anybody using Church Slavonic.
The brothers wanted to avoid conflict so they traveled to Rome to gain Papal approval. They arrived in 868 a.d and gained the support of Pope Nicholas I. The pair stayed in Rome for a while until Cyril passed in 869 a.d..
Now alone, Methodius continued his mission of spreading Church Slavonic now with Papal Support. The following years of his life were a mess of political intrigue from the German Bishops and surrounding kings. Methodius keep defending the liturgy until his death in 885. After the brother’s death, Church Slavonic was harshly superseded by Latin officials but flourished in the eastern jurisdictions.
So why are these two saints important?
They might not have been great evangelists in pagan lands like St Boniface or St Augustine of Canterbury, but their humility and care toward the Slavic people eventually lead to the mass adoption of Slavonic Christianity by millions of Slavs. For these reasons, they have been named co-patrons of Europe and in the eastern churches, they are named equal to the Apostles.
Here is a quote from St Cyril that I think perfectly explains the brother’s mission:
“However tired and physically worn out I am, I will go with joy to that land; with joy I depart for the sake of the Christian faith.”