ENGLISH VERSION: Sermon on the Feast Day of Sts. Barlaam and Josaphat, Prince on India. November 19 / December 2, 2002, by Hieromonk Gregory (Lourie) (now Bishop of Petrograd and Gdov)
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit!
Today we celebrate the memory of the holy anchorite Barlaam and the Venerable Josaphat, who was originally a prince and later became a monastic saint, and also the latter’s father, King Abenner. It is no accident that these saints are so popularly venerated and that many Slavic and Byzantine princes and even one Byzantine Emperor, leaving his throne and becoming a monk, took the name "Josaphat" in honor of Prince Josaphat, who after the death of his father became king, but soon thereafter left the throne and became a monk. The account of their lives – which is not simply a life, but an entire large novel – employed an enormous number of different literary sources. The text that now exists in Greek even cited large chunks of the work of St. John of Damascus, but this is already a later redaction; the original text was written significantly earlier, in the seventh century on Sinai by a monk who it seems was named John. This text has been preserved only in Georgian in a translation from a lost Arabic source, which in turn was translated from a lost Greek source.
This account speaks simultaneously about two things: about the conversion of an entire state to Christianity and about the history of one soul. What state was this? In the account it is called India, but we know that in antiquity and in the Middle Ages they called India what we now call India and the territory on both banks of the Red Sea, namely Arabia and Nubia. It just so happens that in this text it says that the India being spoken of lies between Persia and Egypt. This "India" was in fact Nubia, because it bordered Egypt on one side and the Arabian Peninsula on the other, which in the sixth century was conquered by the Persians. Therefore, it seems evident (although, to be honest, I am so far the only person who thinks so) that the historical state the conversion of which is spoken of in this life (and many details correspond) is one of the three Nubian governments, Makuria, which converted to Orthodoxy in 568, while the two neighboring Nubian governments converted to Monophysitism. However, whether or not this is the case is of no importance to the soul, because there has been no Christianity on the territory of the modern Sudan for many, many years, and only traces of it remain. What is important is the story of one soul.
This life shows the conversion of Prince Josaphat from total ignorance to full acceptance of Orthodoxy, and shows it as a path consisting of several stages, each of which is fundamental for each one of us, and each of which is shown in detail, for which reason it remains an important ascetical instruction for Christians. The account of Barlaam and Josaphat begins with the latter being able to satisfy all the pleasures of life, but something is bothering him, and he suspects that not everything in the world comes down to what he sees before him. He had been placed in such artificial conditions that he was not able to see anything bad: not only had he not seen death, but he had not even seen illness and old age – he even had no idea that they existed. But one day he accidently encounters a blind man, a leper and, later, a sick old man who was about to die. Josaphat begins to question his courtiers, who cannot hide the truth from him, and he begins to understand that life is not what it had appeared and that, essentially, there is nothing lasting in the world. Not long after this the anchorite Barlaam comes to him dressed in worldly clothes in the guise of a merchant to sell him a certain very precious stone. Speaking with the prince he explains that this precious stone is the Orthodox faith, and in a short time Josaphat accepts Holy Baptism from Barlaam.
Later it turns out – and this thought is contained not only in the account of Barlaam and Josaphat, but also in the lives of other ascetics – that an absolutely serious acceptance of Christianity leads to the acceptance of monasticism. Although Prince Josaphat was not able to join the monks immediately and become a desert-dweller, because it took several years to convert the entire state and King Abenner, his father, to Orthodoxy. When King Abenner dies, St. Josaphat leaves the kingdom to a trusted person and becomes a monk. From the very beginning of Prince Josaphat’s conversion to Orthodoxy, however, he accepts it with his entire heart, because if you love God there can be no room for anything but Him in your heart. It is this truth that is perhaps the main idea of the entire account of Barlaam and Josaphat; the account leads to and explains namely this idea. And inasmuch as all truly Orthodox people have always respected the monastic struggle, even if they are family people themselves, Sts. Barlaam and Josaphat have always enjoyed popular veneration among the Orthodox.
Perhaps it needs to be said that in the nineteenth century certain German scholars noticed that very many of the scenes of this tale and various parables have their origins from India, and indeed go back to Indian collections of such parables. Moreover, the very subject matter of a prince who had been raised without knowing anything of suffering in the world because his father artificially concealed them from him is encountered in the Indian account of another prince who came to be known by the name of the Buddha. Therefore the opinion became widespread that this entire account did not in fact concern historical figures, but was simply a Christian retelling of the life of the Buddha, that is, that the historical figure was precisely the Buddha, and Christianity had nothing to do with it (the Buddha, of course, was an historical figure; no one would dispute this). But such an approach is not justified, inasmuch as the use of various motifs from different sources in such accounts was entirely normal for Christians, especially for Sinai in the seventh century, since all Indian literature came through Iran, where it was absorbed by the Zoroastrians, and from them by the local Christians, the majority of whom were Nestorians, and some Monophysites. They then travelled throughout the Mediterranean, spreading this literature with them. It was just at this time that collections of Indian proverbs began to penetrate all of Christian literature; indeed, if one is to speak of the literary history of the tale of Barlaam and Josaphat, it undoubtedly comes from India. It is entirely possible that, for example, details in the biography of Prince Josaphat on his upbringing outside the sorrows of the world do not have a place in historical reality, but actually might have their literary source in the biography of the Buddha. This is of no particular significance, because in any case the very basics of Christian truths are thereby explained, which was something generally accepted in hagiographies of this type. In this case it concerns the story of one soul that, turning to God, completely converts and, as the normal outcome of things, accepts monasticism. Prince Josaphat was initially held back by various external obstacles from accepting monasticism. It happens that some people get married, but the norm of their Christian life remains monasticism. This is the first thing that this account explains in its hagiographical language. The second thing that it explains is one that few people today understand, the story of the conversion of a state to the Christian faith, explained in a language comprehensible to the people, that is, not in the language of historical chronicles, which the people never understood and which therefore can never have a great spiritual impact, but in the language specially used by hagiography in such cases.
Through the prayers of St. Barlaam and St. Josaphat, may the Lord grant us wholly to accept the Orthodox faith, which is this very precious stone.
Hieromonk Gregory (Lourie)