Volume 44, No.1 - Spring 1998
Editor of this issue: Antanas Klimas
ISSN 0024-5089
Copyright © 1998 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.


The Ohio State University

The Little Book
Itself Speaks to the High Lithuanians and 
Low Lithuanians

Everyone in the field, and many laymen Lithuanians, are familiar with the famous opening words of Mažvydas' Introduction to his Catechism of 1547:

Brothers, sisters, take me and read me,
And reading, consider this:
Your fathers fervently desired to have this doctrine
But were not able to obtain it in any way.

The aim of my presentation is to deepen our familiarity with this work to some extent by observing its structure and its intertextual associations.

First of all, we may note the literary convention that the ostensible speaker is not Mažvydas but a book, the short catechism, implicitly one of a number of "little books" that Mažvydas hints, would be coming to their readers. Addressing the people with open arms as "brothers and sisters," the book comes not as dead letter but as a poetic persona, open, brotherly, not condescending from some rhetorical heights, but simple and on equal footing with everyone. In thus presenting the Word as if a person Mažvydas immediately creates the foundation for the inverse metaphorical personification of Christ as his Word. In some sense, as an act of communication, this coming of the book draws a parallel with the act of communion - the sharing together of the living flesh and blood of Jesus Christ, as it is affirmed in the brief Catechism itself: "We should believe with strong faith that the real and true body is in that form of bread and that in that form of wine is the real blood of our Lord Jesus Christ" (p. 39). Here Christ's "real and true body" is the persona-book of the Catechism.

On this intimate and personal level, one can see Mažvydas' Protestant concern, even in the first two lines, that the word of God should come directly into the hands of the faithful. And it is important that this word should come not a s an urbi et urbi proclamation, but a text that must be read and comprehended. The act of personal reading and understanding is the act of faith and in this directly the condition of - salvation. From this one might deduce one of the most important thematic layers of this interdiction - a veiled challenge to the Catholic Church which, according to the typical Protestant perception of the time, has built a wall of authority and ecclesiastical hierarchy between the Word of God and the people.1

The third and fourth lines both confirm this theme and transfer it to a much broader historical and universal plane. The word "fathers" in effect represents generations upon generations that have lived in darkness without direct access to the Word of God. Because that word is the Gospel, the "Good News" of Christ, this stretch of darkness indicates the hopeless condition of humanity before the Redemption, when the Word of God one would hear was only the Old Testament, a testament that was the law. It was brought to fruition only by the great sacrifice of Christ, his gift of grace. This dichotomy between law and grace is, of course, an ancient issue. At first it marked the difference between the heathen, who lived in the darkness of their pagan law until the God of Abraham brought them salvation and grace. Then, with the arrival of Christianity, the Old Testament began to function as law, and Christ's message became grace. This is attested to in many discourses on theology. We might mention one as an example: the "Word On Law and Grace" in old Russian literature, by the Metropolitan Hillarion "For the law was the predecessor to and the servant of grace and truth - and truth as well as the law are servants to the future, to life eternal. (...) Which is higher? Law? Or grace? First the law, then grace; first the shadow, then the truth."2 Transferring this law and grace confrontation from the time of Christ to the present of Mažvydas' time, the representative of the law becomes the old Catholic Church, and of the grace -the Word of the Lord become a book, read and comprehended and living among us in direct personal communication. When Mažvydas says "Your fathers fervently desired to have this doctrine / but were not able to obtain it in any way," the implication is that the Catholic church, by not permitting direct access to the Gospel, is denying grace to the faithful.

In this way, in only four lines, Mažvydas encompasses the salutary, and, to him as a Protestant, rational meaning of the act of faith on the entire universal historical scope of man's fall and redemption. The fifth and sixth lines:

They wanted to see it with their eyes
And also to hear it with their ears.

introduce one more semantic layer - the words of Christ himself "lest at any time they should see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and should understand with their heart, and should be converted" (St. Matthew 13,15). Then the presentation of the book becomes a dramatic event of both revealed sight and insight because Christ himself is now the implicit ultimate speaker from within the book that speaks as his metaphor, and the comprehension of the text accomplishes the peoples' conversion. In this context, lines seven and eight: "Now what your fathers never saw / Now all this has come to you" become replete with the meaning of the preceding dramatic moment as they also point to the gospel again: "But if I cast out devils by the Spirit of God, then the kingdom of God is come unto you" (Matthew, 12, 28). Lines nine, ten and eleven:

All men, look and pay attention,
Look the word of the kingdom of heaven is coming to you.
Receive this word graciously and with joy

immediately intensify the drama of this moment as they open before us the grand vista of the coming of the Word as if in a joyful and gloriously festive procession.3 This created panorama immediately reminds us again of the Gospel describing the coming of Christ into Jerusalem:

And when he was come nigh, even now at the descent of the mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to rejoice and praise God with a loud voice for all the mighty works that they had seen (St. Luke, 19, 37).

In such juxtaposition between the disciples in the gospel and the brothers and sisters of Mažvydas' vision, the simple Lithuanian folk whom he addresses will become in a sense themselves a sacral people, the people of the Holy Writ, if in their act of faith they shall accept the coming of his "little book." From this it clearly follows, in Mažvydas' Protestant view, that such people should themselves become the teachers of the Word,4 thus assuming the function that the Catholic Church has reserved for the specially anointed estate of priesthood. Lines twelve through eighteen seem to extend this confrontation further by establishing a proper ecumenical hierarchy of authority in this new spiritual world of grace: the Holy Writ, representing God as both Father and Son; the head of the family, and then all its members in the house of the faithful. In this sequence, the pastor, although not specifically referred to until later, lines ninety-two to one hundred, appears more as an equal in function and authority to the head to he household, indeed, as much a "brother" to the people as the personification of the Catechism, the "little book," itself.5 Such a structure is in implicit contrast with the religious-political hierarchy of the Orthodox and Catholic churches in the Tsarist state where God came first, then the tsar, then the church, then the landowner, and finally the head of the family. Since Mažvydas, as a Protestant, was addressing his fellow Catholic Lithuanians under the Tsarist rule, this passage might be read as a polemic against that establishment, with the possible hope of turning his audience toward Protestantism.6

On the other hand, the intense conviction that the Holy Writ be a constant companion in every home reflects the standard Protestant concern with a direct, personal dialogue between God and man aside form any polemical purposes. In this Mažvydas echoes the Introduction to his book by Fridericus Staphylus, Rector of the University of Königsberg, who said that confiding the possession of sacred scripture within very narrow bounds amounts to an intolerable injury: „what, I ask, can be worse than the people being excluded from common sacraments from which no one, nevertheless, can be absent without the loss of his soul and eternal life?" (p. 7).

It appears now that this opening segment of Mažvydas' poem, lines one thorough eighteen, speaks in many voices arising from the realm of faith and creates intertextual references to other, albeit related, levels of discourse, from the simple metaphor of a book become person, become Christ, to complex and broad historical and Biblical references that permeate the plain and friendly address to "brothers and sisters" with profound and rich emotional, mythical and religious layers of meaning. In principle, in addition to the religious purposes of Mažvydas, this brief introductory segment is also a literary achievement of high order. Albeit that in Mažvydas' time the rhetorical attributes of religious writing were much more important than the aesthetic, one still might say, with reference-to Roman Jakobson's concept of "the dominantą," according to which "a poetic work is defined as a verbal message whose aesthetic function is its dominant"7 that here, in Mažvydas opening lines, whatever their message, the process of encoding it in images and ideas itself is paramount.

From this point on, the relative weight of importance shifts to the message itself - an impassioned plea to any potential addressees to read and assimilate the catechism and the Christian doctrine it contains, The devices used to encode this message are simplified and move in their turn from the artistic realm to that of rhetoric. For the most part, we have two devices: references to other parts of the book, particularly the brief preface by Staphylus whose line of argument Mažvydas follows closely as a model for his own discourse,8 and reiteration along the progress of the discourse of points made in previous passages.

The link between the introductory passages and the translated catechism itself is reflected in passages such as in lines twenty-three and twenty-four: "If anyone wishes to sing a holy song, / He should have me under his eyes." The reference here is not primarily to hymns in general but to the eleven hymns translated by Mažvydas into Lithuanian and placed at the end of the catechism, itself a translation from Polish versions of Luther's Catechism. More than mere reference, a particular relationship sometimes emerges between Mažvydas' poem and the hymns. For instance, the words of the opening passage: "the word of the kingdom of heaven is coming to you" (line 10) can be read as fulfillment of the prayer to the Son of God (p. 61): "We ask you, o son of God, / That you give us your / Holy word so that we may now / Learn it well." These connections, however, are rather incidental compared with the subtext of Staphylus' Introduction which plays a much larger role, sometimes almost to the point of literal repetition. Lines thirty-nine through forty-two, directed against surviving pagan beliefs:

Give up sprites, gnomes, and gnomes guarding the fields
Abandon all diabolic goddesses.
These goddesses cannot give you any good
But must destroy all eternally

directly echo Staphylus' accusation:

...many both practice and openly profess manifest idolatry: some worship trees, others rivers, others serpents, still others worship something else, showing divine honor. There are those who make vows to Perkūnas, by some people, Laukosargas is worshipped on account of grain and Žemėpatis on account of cattle. Those who apply their mind to evil arts profess as their gods flying goblins and sprites (p. 9).

It seems interesting, however, that Mažvydas prefers to speak of "diabolic goddesses" instead of Perkūnas or Žemėpatis. The strength of pagan survivals is equally manifest in the ignorance among the people of even the most fundamental articles of Christian faith. Staphylus complaint:

Then I relate not without great grief how in comparison with all other nations our nation is ignorant and uneducated and devoid of all piety and of the Christian religion; how you will find few of the people who rightly hold - I shall not say - the whole doctrine of the Catechism, but who can recite even the first syllable of the Lord's Prayer (p. 9).

is strongly elaborated upon by Mažvydas in lines sixty-one through eighty-one, where witchcraft and, again, the worship of a hundred goddesses is contrasted to the people's ignorance of even "one word of the commandment of God" or "at least two words of the Lord's Prayer."9 Incidentally, Staphylus' complaint about ignorance of the Catechism among people relates directly to Mažvydas letters to Albrecht, Duke of Brandenburg, where he also says:

I ask of them, as of Christians that are novices to religion for the simple words of the Catechism, but they, not knowing any, run away and, if it were only possible, would pay big money to avoid knowing the catechism... For they are afraid that I might catch them not knowing the very simplest matters of the Christian religion and might reproach them for this their corruption.10

The role of the pastor in such a community of innocents, or, if you wish, ignoramuses, as described by Staphylus:

O pastors, it was your duty to place this puerile doctrine (as the ancients called the Catechism) before the less cultivated people: to repeat it and thus to inculcate it so that the hearts of the ignorant might at least be filled with these rudiments of the Christian religion (p. 9).

is again echoed by Mažvydas in lines eighty-two to one hundred and four. Mažvydas, however, makes two additional and in some ways rather interesting points. One is a direct appeal to the powers that be in lines eighty-two to eighty-seven:

O lords, all of you have mercy on the people.
Send people to pastors and disciples.
Order them to go to church every Sunday.
Urge pastors to teach the people.
Ask preachers and pastors with one voice.
Beg very much that they not hide this doctrine.

One can hear in this the echoes of the ancient principle "cuius regio eius religio' where earthly power was adamantly employed to assure the subject masses an entry to the kingdom of heaven by way of the faith of the ruler. Paradoxically, whatever Mažvydas implied polemics with the Tsarist and Orthodox policies, he appears here to uphold the same principle and the same function for the ruling classes as in mother Russia.

The other point seems in a way directly opposite to the one just made in that, instead of emphasizing the rulers' power, it brings them to a position of familial equality with those they govern. Mažvydas says (lines eighty-eight and eighty-nine): "If pastors should be too lazy to preach this doctrine themselves, / You will be able to teach people in their homes." This, in a way makes the ruling classes equivalent to the good book, the word of the kingdom of heaven itself come down to us metaphorically as a person and brings them down directly into people's homes, where the "Lords" in effect become the surrogates for both the pastors and the heads of private families and thus very much their equals in Christ. This also highlights once more the Protestant principle that we are all, in God's eyes, priests and brothers to each other, whatever our worldly standing. All this is curiously reminiscent of some conservative Russian attitudes to matters of the Gospel in the relationships between landowners and their serfs, with perhaps some important differences. If, for instance, we turn to the nineteenth-century Russian writer Nikolay Gogol' and look at his Selected Passages From correspondence With Friends (1847), we find admonitions to the landowning class which at first glance look curiously similar to those of Mažvydas:

Tell them [the peasants - R.Š.] the whole truth: that God will hold you responsible for every last scoundrel in the village, and that for this same reason you will try even harder to make sure they will work, not only for you but also for themselves, because you know as well as they do that once a peasant becomes lazy, he is capable of anything - will become a thief and a drunkard, and will bring his soul to perdition, and will bring you, too, to answer before God. And confirm everything you will say right there by the words of the Holy Writ; point directly with your finger to the very letters where this stands written.11

The similarity is that here, too, the landowner is expected to sit down to the Gospel together with his serfs. The difference is, however, that, instead of enlightening his peasants in the knowledge of their faith through the direct word of God, Gogol' expects the landowner to demonstrate to them by this same word of God the righteousness of their servitude to him.

The cornerstone of Protestant theology - that we are saved by the grace of the Lord alone, is articulated by Mažvydas in lines forty seven to fifty, to the effect that God:

...alone can help every man
He can give salvation and blessing.
This God wishes to love all men greatly.
He wishes to give the kingdom of heaven as a gift.

This reiterates Staphylus' point: "This also should be taught, that God demands the fruit of faith ad repentance from those who trust that they are redeemed freely by the kindness of Christ alone" (p. 11).

The intertextual references to Staphylus' Introduction do not so much expand or deepen the meaning of Mažvydas' poem as they reinforce it, serving as indirect repetitions of the author's points. As similar iterative function is performed by passages that point back to earlier parts of the poem. Lines twenty-seven to thirty-two, for instance, speak of the darkness that was also the condition of the fathers and forefathers referred to in lines three and four. At the same time, however, Mažvydas develops his theological argument to bring out the responsibility of the faithful to adhere to the Good Book. If the previous generations, subject to the law, could not help being in the state of darkness, the present readers, offered the state of grace, are responsible for accepting it. Ignorance of the word of God under law was a mere condition; chosen ignorance in the presence of grace becomes transgression. We could say that the newly-gained freedom to choose has reversed the usual order of things: while the law does not judge, grace does punish.

In conclusion, it seems evident that Mažvydas' catechism is noteworthy not just because it is the first published book written in Lithuanian but also, and perhaps more importantly, because it is in part the original work of a talented writer, firm in his faith and highly skilled both in religious rhetoric and the use of complex artistic devices that bring his book to a high level of artistic achievement.


Irena Žviliuvienė / Bookplate commemorating 450th anniversary of the publication of the first Lithuanian book


1 In other writings, Mažvydas' hostility to the Catholic church was not so "veiled" at all. In his letter to Duke Albrecht of Brandenburg (1551) Mažvydas complains about his flock, that they still "hold to the revolting things broadcast by the Pope," especially when they take part in festive indulgences upon the occasion of some saint's day in various parts of Lithuania: "those parishioners of mine, who like these ceremonies introduced by the Pope, go there and sin as the most repulsive heathens." See letter V to the Duke of Brandenburg in Martynas Mažvydas. Pirmoji lietuviška knyga, Vilnius: Vaga, 1974, pp. 276, 278-9.
2 See: Anthology of Old Russian Literature, A.D. Stender-Petersen, editor. New York: Columbia University Press, 1954, p. 110. The translation is mine - R.Š.
In the present instance, the Preface written for Mažvydas' Catechism by Fridericus Staphylus, professor of theology and rector of the university of Königsberg, affirms a similar point: "Indeed, one must flee to the mercy of the eternal Father with faith in Christ our Savior alone. For he redeems from the curse of the law, from the wrath of God...," p. 11. Page references here and elsewhere in the text are to Gordon B. Ford, Jr., trans.. The Old Lithuanian Catechism of Mažvydas (1547), Assen: Van Gocum &Comp. N.V.,1971.
3 The Lithuanian word "dabakietese," translated by Ford as "pay attention" also has connotations of "mark it" or "take it in," as one would a spectacle, or written text.
4 The same principle is vigorously reiterated in the Exhortation to the Catechism, p. 57.
5 The function and responsibilities of the pastors are vigorously spelled out by Fridericus Staphylus (p. 9) in his Introduction that also serves as a significant subtext to Mažvydas' poem. The statements of both Mažvydas and Staphylus are grounded in the principles articulated in the Catechism, Part Five, dealing with the duties of the bishop of the church. The Catechism itself, according to Gordon B. Ford (p. XIII) is "Mažvydas' translation of Seklucjan's 1545 Polish version and Malecki's 1546 Polish version of Martin Luther's Small Catechism." Recent reports say that Jan Seklucjan's version, the "Katechizmu tekst prosti dla prostego ludu" has been found in the library of the Lithuanian Academy of Sciences. The publication may have been brought to Lithuania in 1945-6 by members of the Academy of Sciences' expedition to Königsberg, under Jonas Jurginis.
6 Indeed, the Latin dedication of the book is addressed specifically to the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, and not only the people, but to those in power, urging them to "Receive with a devout mind these commandments of God."
7 See Roman Jakobson, "The Dominantą" in: Ladislaw Matejka and Christina Pomorska, editors, Readings in Russian Poetics. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1971: "the intentions of a poetic work are often closely related to philosophy, socialdidactics, etc. Just as a poetic work is not exhausted by its aesthetic function, similarly aesthetic function is not limited to the poetic work (p. 83). A poetic work is defined as a verbal message whose aesthetic function is its dominant" (p. 84).
8 Some think that Staphylus' Preface was actually written by Mažvydas himself and only read and approved by Staphylus. See Martynas Mažvydas, op. cit., p. 57.
9 Mažvydas' parishioners, nature's children, in their blessed ignorance of book-learning theology very much resemble the old Herdsman Lapinas, an expert in all things that come from nature and in all the pagan spirits of the earth, in the story by Vincas Krėvė-Mickevičius called 'The Herdsman and the Linden Tree" where the ancient herdsman, desiring to marry in his antediluvian age, is driven away by the priest because he didn't know the catechism and thought that, maybe, a man's soul could actually die. See Vincas Krėvė The Herdsman and the Linden Tree, Albinas Baranauskas et al., translators. New York; Manyland Books, 1964, p. 95.
10 Martynas Mažvydas, Pirmoji lietuviška knyga, op. cit., p. 181.
11 See H. B. Гоголь Полное собрание сочинений. Tом восьмой. Статьи. The USSR State Publishing House, 1952, p. 322. Translation mine, R.Š.