Sunday, September 4, 2011

Baptized By Fire In Bulgaria in the Seventeenth Century

In 1640 [the Archbishop of Sofia Peter] Bogdan wrote a very full report on his visitation of the Bulgarian countryside.  Besides much interesting comment on the country and the people, this account is the richest source of information on the Bulgarian 'Paulians.'  In some villages near Trvono Peter Bogdan found considerable numbers of unbaptized heretics - mostly very primitive people, living in abject poverty.  He also encountered most obstinate sectarians who greeted the preacher's words with ridicule.  On the whole however this heretical community which had been surrounded by the hostility of the Orthodox for generations, was more ready to seek the support of Rome.  Indeed the declaration of the 'Paulians' themselves, that their faith is of Rome, is recorded.  All the reports which are sent from Bulgaria to Rome are agreed on that point.  Reading them we cannot fail to see that what they say about the 'Paulian' heretics is always factual and definite and that the information is never contradictory, but complementary.  The fundamental feature of their heretical faith, stressed in all reports, is their violent hatred of the Cross as the instrument of the death of Christ.  Together with the cross they rejected the worship of holy pictures as 'idolatry.'  Instead of the usual church baptism, they had a ceremony of their own, during which the 'priest' touched the candidates head with a candlestick symbolizing 'baptism by fire.'  Peter Bogdan describes this rite, which was connected with the Epiphany Day, the only day they went to church.  Philip Stanislavov also spoke of 'Paulian baptised by fire.'  Bogdan also mentions a simple marriage ceremony.  Apart from this the heretics received no sacraments and made no sacrifices, but celebrated some sort of sacrificial feast with singing and dancing.  There were neither altars nor pictures in their churches, but they kept fast-days and also observed Sundays and other holidays, including some of which were peculiar to them.

While it was unknown for the faithful of the Orthodox Church in Bulgaria to read the Bible, the Bulgarian heretics had preserved the Gospels, the Epistles of St. Paul, the Acts of the Apostles and Apocalypse, handing them down for generations. They read these New Testament texts from ancient manuscripts written in Cyrillic. These books were of Bosnian origin, and for this reason the well-informed Peter Bogdan believed that the heretics had come from Bosnia. He did not however accept the explanation put forward by the historian Orbini of Dubrovnik who derived them from the Patarenes driven out of "the whole of Italy", who had passed through Priuli into Bosnia, whence some went even further and reached Nikopol. In the spirit of the Byzantine writers attacking the Paulicians, the Catholic priests also connected contemporary "Paulians" with the teachings of Paul of Samosata. According to one of the early reports, glosses deriving from this ancient heresy were written in the margins of their New Testament manuscripts. It was the visible signs of heresy that held the attention of the missionaries, however, and so far as we know none of them attempted to define the substance of the heresy, perhaps hidden in those marginal notes.

The heretics themselves, whose language did not differ from that of the rest of the population of Bulgaria, knew absolutely nothing about the Paulician sect under Basil I, John Tzimisces or Alexius I. Nevertheless their particular their particular reverence for the Apostle Paul connects them to the sect. The name Paulini which they themselves used seems to suggest this link. (In their reports the missionaries used the forms Paulini, Pauliani, Paulianistae, at will.) As late as 1730 there is evidence of the tradition, still alive among them, that they had been converted to Christianity by the Apostle Paul himself. This is attested in a letter from some "Paulians" already converted to Catholicism, who had been moved to Rumanian Banat.* There were still remnants of the sect in Plovdiv at the beginning of the eighteenth century, however. In 1717 Lady Mary Wortley Montagu passed this way, accompanying her husband who had been appointed ambassador to Constantinople. This learned Englishwoman, whose mind was in some respects ahead of her time, wrote some of her remarkable letters on her journey through the Balkan peninsula. In a letter sent from Drinopole in the spring of 1717 we read penetrating comments on the state of religion under Turkish domination. There is also a reference to a Christian sect she found in Plovdiv. They called themselves Paulines, and shewed an ancient church where they said St. Paul had preached. She added that the Apostle was their "favourite" saint, as St. Peter was that of Rome, and that they gave him preference over the rest of the Apostles. This is surely proof of the remarkable strength of this tradition, still persisting." [Milan Loos, Dualist heresy in the Middle Ages, Volume 10 p. 338 - 339]

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