What follows here is a translation of a long poem by a great saint of the Eastern Church who lived in the sixth century. It can be seen as his commentary on the internecine warfare among Christians in his day and on the dangers of a religious zeal that has not understood the true nature of God. The translation is based on the text edited by Paul Maas and my teacher, Constantine A. Trypanis: Sancti Romani Melodi Cantica: Cantica Genuina (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1963).
ST. ROMANOS THE MELODE, KONTAKION ON ELIJAH translated by L. Wm. Countryman revised 12/7/2016 Proem: Foreseer and foreteller of the great deeds of our God, Elijah of great name—you that halted by your mere word the water-filled clouds— intercede for us with the only Lover of humankind. 1: Seeing the great lawlessness of people and God's great love of humankind, the prophet Elijah shook with passion and stirred up words without compassion against the Compassionate One, shouting, "Get angry, Most Righteous Judge, with the people who mock your authority!" But not in the least did he stir the Good God's mercies toward punishing those who ignored him. For God is always waiting for the conversion of all— the only Lover of humankind. 2: When the prophet saw the whole earth in its transgressions and the Most High not altogether angry but remaining patient, he was moved to madness. He calls the Merciful One to witness: "I'll take the authority myself and punish the impiety of these people who are making you angry! For these people have all scorned your prolonged patience. They've not regarded you as a merciful Father. But you, the Lover of children, pity your sons, you the only Lover of humankind. 3: "Now I'll give judgment on behalf of the Creator and wipe out the impious from the earth. I'll cast the vote for punishment. But I fear the divine goodness. For it takes only a few tears to make the Lover of humankind back off. How, then, am I to counteract so much goodness? Aha! I'll put a stop to mercy by confirming my judgment with an oath, so that the Righteous One, shamed by this, will not undo such a decision but confirm my judgment as the Rule, the only Lover of humankind." 4: The oath takes precedence over the judgment—becomes the preamble for the sentence. But, if you like, let's hurry to the book and learn the words. For the prophet says in anger, as it is written, "As the Lord lives, no dew or rain will come down except by my word." But at once the King answered Elijah, "If I see conversion and tears welling up, I cannot refuse to offer compassion to the people—I the only Lover of humankind." 5: At once the prophet speaks up and urges the justice of the oath: "Against you," he says, "the God of all, I have sworn, All-holy Master, against rains being given except by my word. When I see the people transformed, I'll intercede with you. So you see, it's not in your authority, Most Righteous One, to undo the punishment from the oath I've taken. Respect the oath. Put your seal to it. Pull in your compassion, you the only Lover of humankind." 6: So famine laid siege to the land, and the inhabitants were being destroyed, wailing and stretching out their hands to the All-Merciful. But the Master was hemmed in on all sides by these events. God opened his compassion to his supplicants and moved quickly toward mercy, but he is embarrassed for the prophet and the oath he swore—and gives no rain. But he contrived a pretext, constraining and tormenting the prophet's soul— the only Lover of humankind. 7: The Master, seeing the Tishbite puffed up against the people of his own tribe, decided to punish the righteous man with famine alongside the rest, so that, wrung by lack of food, he might think more kindly about his sworn sentence and halt the punishment. Dreadful indeed is the stomach's inexorable demand, and God keeps watch over every living thing, rational and irrational alike, with divine wisdom by providing food— the only Lover of humankind. 8: The stomach defended nature and secretly applied its laws, practicing on the old man to produce change. But he, like a stone, remained unfeeling, possessed of zeal instead of any food—and content with that. When the Judge saw it, he tempered the distress to his starving friend, not thinking it just for the just man to starve with the unjust and lawless— the only Lover of humankind. 9: So the All-Merciful prepares food for him with surpassing wisdom, for he orders the ravens, creatures without compassion, to take him his food. Now the tribes of the raven have not a particle of compassion. They don't bring food even to their nestling children, which are fed from heaven. And since Elijah had taken on the manners and purpose of a hater of children, God used these child-hating ravens to minister to this misanthrope. How wise of the only Lover of humankind! 10: "Let not your great love of the divine" (God spoke with Elijah) "give you a misanthropic disposition. Consider the ravens: they are always hostile even to their own nestlings. Suddenly, as you see, they're quite generous with you; they're transformed now. They've revealed themselves to be servants of my compassion in providing you with food. But as I perceive, I cannot forcibly change your nature toward people, I the only Lover of humankind. 11: "Only show some respect, prophet, and imitate the ready obedience of the irrational animals, transformed at once, merciless though they are, out of respect for me, the Compassionate. I honor your friendship, and I am not overruling your decision. But I cannot bear the lamenting and tribulation everywhere among the people I have made. How am I to endure the wailing of infants and their tears, yes, and the speechless bellowing of the beasts as well? For I suffer with them all as their Shaper, the only Lover of humankind." 12: At these words, the prophet went wild—and answered the Master, "Don't send the raven servants to feed me, O Master. I would rather be destroyed by famine, All-Holy One. I will still punish the impious, and it will give me surcease. I don't hesitate to die along with those who reject you. Don't pity me. Don't spare me as I starve. Just wipe the impious out of the land, you the only Lover of humankind." 13: The Creator, honoring these words, transfers the prophet from that place, commanding the birds not to bring him food as before. He sends him to Sarephtha, to the starving widow, saying, "I'll tell a woman to feed you." God was hatching a clever plan. For the woman to whom God sent him was a widow and a Gentile—and she had children to care for. Hearing the gentile woman's name, Elijah would cry out, "Send the rains, you the only Lover of humankind." 14: It was not at all permitted at the time for Jews to eat with people of other nations. This is why God was sending Elijah off to a foreigner, so that, revolted by the food she offered, he would immediately demand rain from the Lover of humankind. But Elijah did not make an issue of his exile among the Gentiles. He runs right up to the woman, asking food of her in a completely rude way: "I'm ordered to collect what you owe, woman, to God the only Lover of humankind." 15: But hearing this, the widow quickly answered the prophet, "I don't have so much as a biscuit—just a handful of flour. I'm going indoors to bake it and eat it with my children. Beyond my handful of flour there lies only death." But Elijah was moved by the woman's voice and felt sympathy with her, thinking, "This widow is more wasted than I and suffering in the famine—unless God does something, the only Lover of humankind. 16: "Now her situation oppresses me. If I am hungry, I'm on my own. But the widow with whom I find myself is starving with her children. Let me not, as guest, become ambassador of this woman's death. Let me not be reckoned a child-murderer in this hospitable house. Let me look toward mercy now. Though I behave hostilely to all people, with this woman I am different. I'll get my soul used to taking pleasure in mercies. After all, the Cause of all things is merciful, the only Lover of humankind." 17: The prophet answered the widow, "You have, as you say, a handful of flour and the jug you keep it in will not run out. And the flask of oil will keep bubbling forth." With such words, Elijah gave a blessing, and the Creator, generous and merciful, at once added to his words the deed itself. The All-Wise spoke, fulfilling the prophet's intent, and, undertaking what is truer than the most beautiful of words, bestowed on the widow great bounty— the only Lover of humankind. 18: God bowed to the prophet's words and provided food for him and the widow. But Elijah was not wholly given to compassion, but remained unbending. And when the Compassionate One saw the people being destroyed and the prophet refusing to obey, God, being just, moved on to another, wholly wise device. God presented the widow's son as dead so that, once he saw the widow's tears and the rest of her situation, Elijah might call out, "Give the rains, only Lover of humankind." 19: When the widow saw her son dead, she rose up against the prophet, saying, "I wish I had died of the famine before I laid eyes on you! For it would have been better for me to have been long dead of starvation and not seen my son laid out in your presence. Are these the wages of the beautiful reception I gave you? I was replete with children before you came, fellow. But you came and left me childless with all your talk of the only Lover of humankind." 20: The man who held power over clouds and rain found himself in a widow's grip; the man who constrained all people with a word was held back by one woman. And an utterly wretched woman, without a shred of power, grasps this man who thought he grasped the heavens by word and power—grasps him like a criminal. With a crazy wrestling hold, she dragged him like a murderer into court, shouting out, "Give me the child you killed! I don't need your flour! Don't feed me and play host, you 'only Lover of humankind.' 21: "You sowed bread in my belly, and my womb's fruit and branch you uprooted. You sold me edible gifts <at the price of my son>. You worked out your little scheme: a life for some flour and oil. But I'm suing you to overturn the contract and give back what you took. Are you not satisfied with the deaths of your own people that you were so eager to get a grip on my household? Release my son's soul! Take mine instead of his! And become a Lover of humankind." 22: Elijah was pierced by these words as if they were thorns. He was ashamed to have the screaming widow browbeating him as if he had himself wrenched away her son's life. Though he wanted to appease her, he could not do it with words. He knew she would not believe him if he defended himself, for she was weeping without pause. But looking into heaven, the blameless witness cried out, "Alas, Lord, for this woman who accepted me as her house mate. It's you that's stirred her up to demand the child of me, you the only Lover of humankind. 23: "I don't believe, all-powerful Savior," the prophet cried to God, "that death has befallen this child in the course of nature, as it comes to all. This is the device of your wisdom, Sinless One; you've engineered against me a merciful necessity so that when I ask you, 'Raise up the widow's dead son,' you can answer me straightway, 'Pity my son Israel, now in torment—and all my people,' for you are the only Lover of humankind." 24: Wanting to save the land, the All-Merciful quickly answered Elijah, "Hearken now quite clearly to my words and hear me as I speak. I lament and am eager for an end of the punishment. My deep wish is to give food to all the starving, for truly I am compassionate. When I see their streams of tears, I am pulled down like a father. I have pity on those drained by want and tribulation. For I want to save sinners through conversion— the only Lover of humankind. 25: "So listen, prophet, with an open heart and mind. I am truly eager for you to know that all humans beings carry with them the signed warrant of my mercy, the document of my covenant—that I don't want to behold the death of those who sing off-key, but rather their life. So don't make them see me as a liar. Instead, accept my prayer. I give you an embassy. Only the widow's tears have touched you. But I am, for all of them, truly Lover of humankind." 26: Mind and will and ears, then, Elijah subjected to the words of the Most High and submitted his soul and decked it with words and said, "Your will be done, Master. Bring both the rains and life for the dead boy. Bring all things to life. God, you are life and resurrection and redemption. Give your grace to humans and to animals. For you alone can save all things, the only Lover of humankind." 27: As soon as the prophet said these things, the Merciful One answered him, "I accept your decision and I praise it—and I am quick to honor you. On their behalf, I accept the grace from you; but be, yourself, the mediator and conduct the chorus of my grace. For I cannot bear to be reconciled without you. But go and announce the gift of the rains so that all may cry aloud, 'The one who used to be merciless has now suddenly proved to be, for all, a Lover of humankind.' 28: "Go quickly, then, prophet! Appear to Ahab and tell the good news while I give orders to the clouds to give drink to the land with their waters. Make known the provision of these things, my friend, and I'll confirm your announcements and honor your cooperation." As soon as he heard this, he bowed low to the Most High and cried to the Merciful One, "I know you as having great mercy. I recognize that you are truly generous, my God, the only Lover of humankind." 29: Reverencing the command, then, the prophet runs to Ahab and declares good news to him as the Compassionate One said. And at once the clouds, at their Maker's behest, big with water, swam through the air, gushing with the rains. And the land rejoiced and glorified the Lord. The woman received her boy, risen from death. With all things, the land delighted and blessed the only Lover of humankind. 30: And still, as time passed, Elijah saw the evil of humanity and took it in mind to issue a sentence of heavier punishment. And when the Compassionate One saw it, he answered the prophet, "The zeal you have for righteousness I understand; and I know your intention. But I feel with sinners when they're punished beyond measure. You get angry, blameless as you are, and you cannot endure it. But me! I cannot endure for any to be destroyed, I the only Lover of humankind." 31: Then, when the Master saw how severe Elijah was toward human beings, he took thought for our race and separated him from the earth: "Come away, my friend, from the dwelling of humanity, and I'll go down to them in compassion, having become human myself. Come up, then, from the earth, since you cannot endure their stumblings, but I, the Heavenly One, will be with sinners and rescue them from those stumblings, I the only Lover of humankind. 32: "If, as I've said, O prophet, you cannot live with people who sound wrong notes, come over here and inhabit the sinless territories of my friends. And I—strong enough to carry the strayed sheep on my shoulders—I'll go down and call to the stumbling, 'All you sinners running at full speed, come to me and rest. For I have come not to punish those whom I have made, but to snatch them back from their irreverence, the only Lover of humankind.'" 33: And so, you see, Elijah, taken up to heaven, was revealed as the pattern of things to come. The Tishbite was taken up on a chariot of fire, as it is written, and Christ was taken up with clouds and powers. And Elijah dropped his sheepskin cloak to Elisha from the heights, and Christ sent down to his own apostles the Comforter, the Holy One, whom we all received when we were baptized and through whom we are being made holy. So teaches the only Lover of humankind.