San Lazzaro is Half East and Half West
By J. HACOBIAN
" ROME even Wier' ates a bearded and a married clergy I " Most of us can remember the quotation from a non-Catholic source that provided G.K.C. with the spring board for his usual wit and buoyant wisdom.
But many readers of the CATHOLIC HERALD might not be aware that in the lagoon of Venice, hidden between the broad sweep of the Lido with its millionaires' palaces on the one hand and the spires and domes of the city upon the other, is the lovely convent of San Lazzaro. bearded, Eastern, and yet in full communion with the Church of Rome. Ever since the Order of the
Mechitarian Monks was founded by Peter of Sebaste in the year 1701, this unique convent, am model of its kind, has demonstrated to the western world that
those constant accusations of the over-centralisation of the Latin element of the Church are not entirely true.
SAN LAZZARO is completely Armenian and completely Catholic. Its formulae, its ceremonials, its feast-days and the altar furniture and sacred vessels are all native and not borrowed. Indeed. the first intention of Peter Mechitar himself — a second Newman to his own
people — was to preach reunion with his dissident brethren in the Turkish hinterland and bring back that ancient nation, the first to accept Christianity, into active participation of Catholic life that can only be realised by the accepting of cardinal principles.
That he was papal cannot he denied. The supremacy of the Pope is as important in the East as in the West. That he was Latin is refuted by the fact. San Lazzaro testifies to the spirit of Catholicity that gathers within its orbit whatever is good and worthy of all peoples and of all nations.
HIS championship of the claims of the Pope (expressed in terms of charity and love. rather than acrimonious controversy) soon raised up a hornet's nest against him, and active persecution drove him first to the Venetian islands of the Mores from Constantinople itself (in which city the first institute had been drawn up and the Order of Mechitarian Monks founded) where he built active monastery in the city of Modon and finally to Venice when the Murea fell to the Turks in the year 1715. The Most Serene granted to this dogged Armenian a disused and half-ruined island of San Lazzaro, once a Benedictine leper asylum stretching back into the first half of the 12th century but with the gradual elimination of that scourge from Europe (partly, it is thought. by the excellent quarantine measures introduced and enforced by the Venetian Government) no more than an uninhabited breakwater against the wrath of the Adriatic. Without another thought, save gratitude for the splendid gift of God. Peter Mechitar built his dream convent, trowel in hand and brick by brick. In 30 years (and learning his architecture from a book) the convent of San Lazzaro was complete. and from that day to this it has gone forward from glory to glory.
THUS, with the air full of the expectant hope of the forthcoming Ecumenical Council. San Lazzaro is a pointer beacon to the fact that re-union with the East is not just another pipe-dream of the wistful Catholic. The convent stands halfway between Europe and Asia; it is Armenia in Italy and Italy in Armenia.
Mechitar's rule, approved by the Pope, was a modification of the Rule of St. Benedict, so that it is pleasant to realise that the earlier tradition of prayer and service by the pious monks of the great St. Benedict has in no wise been severed by the arrival of these "bearded and foreign" monks. Rather has it been intensified and under continued, for uer their tutelage and providence the island has grown and grown so that to-day it is more than three times its original size when Mechitar and his little band of companions stepped ashore from the gondola.
The motto of the Mechitarian monks is worthy of the founder and fulfills in a striking way the command given by Our Blessed Lady to the little Shepherdess of Lourdes: "Adopted sons of the Blessed Virgin—preachers of the penitential life" . . and the Mechitarian emblem is a Cross and the Antonine Arms—the flame. the bell, the staff, and the Gospel.
THE habit of the Mechitarian monks is the simple habit of the Benedictines with the addition of a rough leather belt. and in choir, where gown is
applicable. the Doctor's g worn. But the beards are truly Assyrian in their extent and splendour; indeed they. more than any other feature, tend to indentify the good Fathers as coming from the isola degli Armeni, as the Venetians have christened San Lazzaro, rather than the foreign language and the difference of dress.
Naturally the Order is restricted solely to Armenians but it is threefold in purpose.
First of all, like every religious es
order, the convent was established for the sanctification of its members. Secondly,for the preservation of Christianity among the Armenian people surrounded by an aggressive and violently hostile form of Turkish Islam.
Thirdly, for the furthering of Armenian culture and the spread of Armenian education and basic Christian principles.
SIXTY years after Peter Mcchitar's holy death, Lord Byron made his way to San Lazzaro and immediately fell in love with the convent. His first visit only terminated with the closing of the convent gates for the night, and before he left the little port of San Lazzaro in his gondola he had managed to extract a promise from the Abbot that he might stay in San Lazzaro itself as
a guest of the monks. He did stay, and his sojourn at the Convent is still remembered by the Armenian monks of today. Byron felt completely at home with these pious hermits. He learnt Armenian, he was taught the history of Armenia, he gave car to the story of Christian heroism and Christian martyrdom and expressed himself at length apropos his new experiences to Murray. Three months passed by with the eagle still in its nest, and by that time Byron had even managed to father an Armenian Grammar with the following characteristic rubric: "The English reader will probably be surprised to find my name associated with a work of the present description. and will be inclined to give me more credit for my attainments as a linguist than they deserve.
mYarrival at Venice in, the year 1816 I was much struck—in com mon believe with every other traveller—with the Society of the Convent of San Lazzaro which appears to unite all 'he advantages of the monastic system. without any of its vices. These monks are well fitted to strike the man of the world with the conviction that there is another and a better, even in this life. "They are the priesthood of an oppressed and a noble nation which has partaken of the proscription and bondage of the Jews and of the Greeks without the sullenness of the former or the servility of the latter It would be difficult perhaps to find the annals of a nation less stained with crimes than those of the Armenians. whose virtues have been those of peace and whose vices those of compulsion. "II the Scriptures are rightly understood it was in Armenia that Paradise was placed. in Armenia that the flood first abated and the dove alighted. But with the disappearance of Paradise itself may be dated almost the unhappiness of the country. for, though long a powerful kingdom. it has scarcely ever been an independent one, and the Satraps of Persia and the Pashas of Turkey have alike desolated the region where God created Man in His Own Image."
LORD BYRON remained the entire winter at the Convent translating fragments of his poems into Armenian and rendering into English certain apocryphal scriptures that arc found only in the Armenian. The little mound in the Convent garden upon which he would sit brooding of an evening can still he seen the monks have plans in hand to turn it into a small but not inelegant Byron Memorial. The links connecting England with San Lazzaro arc surprisingly many, as a few names from the visitors' book will testify: lames Morier, Lord Paget, Rider Haggard, Hansard, Sir lames Campbell. C I a r a Novello, William Archer, lames Bryce, Lord Granville. Lord Acton, Cardinal Howard. Ellen Terry. Sir Henry Irving. Edward Lear. Outram, Harrison Ainsworth. Robert and Elizabeth B. Browning. Dr. Alford, Princess Maud. King Edward VII. Sidney Webb, Oscar Wilde, Frank Harris. Alfred Austin, Turner, Ruskin. and G.B.S.
ALTHOUGH the Oriental Church in n with R full communion has "a ea brded and a married clergy" it is the general custom throughout the Eastern Church for all who aspire to teach or to take higher order to be celibate. Thus all the Fathers of San Lazzaro, being Vartapiets in their own rite, are celibate. and as Vartapiets (Doctors) are invested with the crozier of the doctorate by the Abbot on their departure for the mission field.
All English visitors to Venice. especially Catholic visitors. are advised to visit this ancient and most beautiful convent and, if
they have the opportunity, to attend a solemn High Mass in the
ancient Armenian rite. climax This clim of devotion is offered up in the convent church every Sunday at 10.30 a.m. The choir sings (usually a capella) the ancient Armenian ch a n t that attracted the enthusiasm of both Puccini and later Stravinsky when both these famous composers made their way to San Lazzaro.
THERE is also an upto-date printing press. garden, fruit orchard, a thriving apiary, a scientific and zoological museum. an 18th dynasty mummy (pronounced by Howard Carter as the finest that he had ever seen), and. most famous of all, a manuscript room containing some 2,000 unique Armenian manscripts that arc without parallel in all Europe.
The Fathers make most exemplary guides and there is provision for English visitors speaking no Italian or French as well. From the Catholic angle it is most pleasant to learn that this great achievement of Peter Mechitar is looked upon by the dissident Armenians no less with pride than by the Catholic Armenians, and that it was the dream and hope of the holy founder of this monastery that the rift between the two parties might one day disappear. and that Armenian Christianity, so long the sole surviving witness to the truths of Christ in the Levant, might by the strength and solidarity of union fitted upon the blood of the martyrs and erect the Turkish Church to be.