Reading from the Commemoration of Cyril and Methodius, Missionaries
Imagine growing up in a place where you knew how to speak the language but couldn’t read or write because there was no alphabet, spelling books or signs to read. Everything you learned you learned by memorizing whatever it was you needed to remember like your family history, stories and poems of heroes and events, even Bible stories.
It’s amazing that while there are about 6,800 languages in the world, there are nearly 700 that have no written form at all. Some languages have very complex pronunciation systems where a word, mispronounced, can mean the difference between a proper word for a situation or a dreadful insult. Navajo (Diné), a language so distinct and complex that it was successfully used in WWII to send and receive coded messages that were never broken. Missionaries began the work of creating a written form of Diné in the early 1900s but it was not standardized until the 1930s with a dictionary following soon after. Today children are taught to read and write in a language their parents and grandparents were punished for speaking.
Cyril (whose name was originally Constantine until just prior to his death)and his brother Methodius were born in Thessalonika, Macedonia, and grew up speaking both Slavic (also called Slavonic) and Greek. They learned to read and write Greek and also spoke Slavic. They had been missionaries to the Khazars when the church at Constantinople sent Cyril and Methodius to the Slavs in response to a request for missionaries. They were chosen because of their experience in the mission field, and also because they were already fluent speakers of Slavic.
One of the keys to control of a people or nation is the control over the language. The Slavic princes were in a contest with the German missionaries and hierarchy claiming control of the area, one of the main reasons Cyril and Methodius had been summoned. It was hoped that having Slavonic-speakers and missionaries would help displace the Germans and would allow the Slavic princes to consolidate their power. Using Slavic in the liturgy was a way of differentiating themselves from the Germans and serving as a unifier with their own people.
At the time of their appointment (860) to this new mission, the brothers began working on a written form of Slavic using Greek characters as well as ancient symbols for sounds that had no Greek equivalent as the basis for a new alphabet which became known as Glagolitic. The brothers used this to translate the Slavonic liturgy into a written form, When they arrived in 863, they used the script to translate the Bible other ecclesiastical works. With some changes, it became Old Church Slavonic and eventually the foundation of the Cyrillic alphabet, named for Cyril, and is used in Russia and some Slavic languages.
Liturgies in Great Moravia (now the Ukraine and parts of the Balkans) were usually done in Latin or Greek, especially since much of the area had been controlled by German missionaries and hierarchy who insisted that nothing but Greek or Latin was proper for worship. The Eastern Church had allowed for liturgies to be in the native speech of the people (the vernacular). In the power struggle for the area, the Germans feared losing control as much as the Slavic princes wanted to gain it. Their mission to Great Moravia had been one part of that struggle,
Some would say, “What’s so special about creating an alphabet? Haven’t children been creating secret alphabets and codes forever?” Yes, kids do that; maybe it’s something to do with watching spy movies or maybe just trying to set themselves apart from anyone who doesn’t have the key to the code. The brothers were not creating a secret code but rather a way to give new life to a language, one that would keep it alive and make it available to the people as a way of coalescing and advancing the civilization. It was done for a purpose, and it has served its purpose since 863. That is a pretty remarkable thing.
Cyril and Methodius are considered saints in the Orthodox tradition as “equal to the apostles.” The Roman Catholic church under Leo XIII added their names and feast day in 1880. Pope John Paul II further declared them to be co-patron saints of Europe, joining Benedict of Nursia. We remember them as missionaries to the Slavs. Their feast day of 14 February is observed by Roman Catholics and Anglicans while the Eastern Orthodox Church celebrates it on May 11. In Russia, the Russian Orthodox Church celebrates it on May 24 as “Slavonic Literature and Culture Day” in honor of their contributions to the Slavic alphabet and culture.
Whatever day we choose to honor these two brothers, we can also celebrate all those who, like them, took spoken languages and created a way to preserve and develop those languages and the cultures that use them. It is a gift not just to one group of people but to the whole world, helping to preserve some of the great diversity that exists among humankind all over the globe.
“Cyril-methodius-small” by Zahari Zograf (1810–1853) Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons