09 July 2009

Approach Scripture with love – and you will see its beauty

A view of my room and Staircase H through the arch at the Porter’s Lodge in Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Love is a prerequisite for reading Scripture according to the Syriac Fathers as they were introduced to us this morning by Professor Sebastian Brock, when he spoke at the summer school of the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies in Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, this morning [Thursday 9 July 2009].

The foremost and most influential academic in the field of Syriac language, Dr Brock, is a former Reader in Syriac Studies at the Oriental Institute in the University of Oxford and is currently a Professorial Fellow at Wolfson College.

Dr Brock studied at Cambridge and completed his DPhil at Oxford. With scholars like Professor David Frost, he worked on the Liturgical Psalter, which has been used in the Church of Ireland, the Church of England and other churches throughout the Anglican Communion. He is widely published and his books include The Luminous Eye: The Spiritual World Vision of Saint Ephrem the Syrian and The Syriac Fathers on Prayer and the Spiritual Life.

His paper this morning drew on a Christian tradition that is in danger of being neglected or forgotten by the rest of the Church and the rest of the world. The Syriac tradition is the tradition of many Middle Eastern Christians, including those of Iraq, where half the Christian population has been driven out and is now living in miserable conditions in Syria, Jordan and other neighbouring countries.

Dr Brock described how the Syriac fathers had a tradition of producing sermons in verse, many of them very beautiful poems, and he drew delightfully from sermons and poems by three particular writers – Saint Ephrem, Jacob of Serugh and Isaac the Syrian.

Saint Ephrem lived before the great divisions in Christianity and so is part of the shared tradition of all the churches. Jacob lived at the time of the Chalcedonian divisions but is also regarded as a saint in the Maronite tradition, and so bridges the divide between Chalcedonian and non-Chalcedonian traditions. Isaac is part of the post-Chalcedonian Syriac tradition, but has been translated in Greek, Latin, Slavonic and other languages, so that he both speaks to monastic life today in a very modern way and speaks to all Christian traditions.

Saint Ephrem (306-373) wrote a wide variety of hymns, poems and sermons in verse, as well as prose Biblical exegesis. His writings remained popular for centuries after his death, and he has been called the most significant of all of the fathers of the Syriac tradition.

Saint Ephrem spoke of the divine initiative requiring a human response. There is a chasm between the creator and the created, and only the creator can cross this. If God had not initiated this, we would not have any knowledge about God at all. The first step is taken by God.

A common metaphor in the Syriac tradition is that of taking off one’s clothes and putting on one’s clothes. God is described by Ephrem as putting on words, allowing himself to be described in human terms and descending to our human level.

Humanity is endowed with free will, so God’s self-revelation in not imposed on human beings but is a matter of choice. Yet God remains hidden, and the response of faith is needed to see God in nature and in Scripture. They are symbols pointing to the hidden divine nature, which can only be seen through faith.

Saint Ephrem says the Bible is not to be read literally, and he warns that literal readings misrepresent God’s majesty and are ungrateful. Metaphors should not be taken literally:

“The Scriptures are laid out like a mirror
and the person whose eye is luminous
sees therein the image of Divine Reality.” – Hymns on Faith 67: 8

Ephrem saw the proper balance between truth and love:

“Truth and love are wings which cannot be separated,
for Truth without Love is not able to fly.
So too, Love without Truth is unable to soar up
for their yoke is one of harmony.” – Hymns on Faith 32: 3

In the Syriac tradition, Jacob of Serugh (451-521), “who lived in a backwards part of Syria,” is only second in stature to Ephrem the Syrian – while Ephrem is known as the “Harp of the Spirit,” Jacob is the “Flute of the Spirit.” His prodigious corpus includes more than 700 verse homilies, although so far only 225 of these have been edited and published.

For Jacob of Serugh, love is one of the prerequisites for reading Scripture: love:

“Approach Scripture with love – and you will see its beauty,
for if you do not approach it with love, it will not allow you to see its face.
If you read it with love, you will not get any profit,
for love is the gate through which a person enters into its true understanding.” – Homily 117

Isaac the Syrian, or Isaac of Nineveh, was a seventh century bishop and theologian who is remembered today for his 91 surviving homilies on the inner life. Like Jacob of Serugh, Isaac the Syrian describes the Scriptures as an ocean:

“The readings of Scripture is manifestly the fountainhead that gives birth to prayer – and by these two things [reading and prayer] we are transported in the direction of the love of God whose sweetness is poured out continually in our hearts like honey or a honeycomb, and our souls exult at the taste which the hidden mystery of prayer and the reading of Scripture pour into our hearts.”

This afternoon, Dr Brock spoke about “Christ, ‘the Bridegroom of our souls,’ in the Syriac tradition.’

In the Gospels, Christ speaks of himself as the bridegroom, as in the parable of the wise and foolish virgins in Matthew 25, or in John 3: 29, where Christ is implicitly the Bridegroom. This theme is taken up in Syriac liturgy, including festal and baptismal hymns and the Lenten Troidion for Monday of Holy Week:

“You are the Bridegroom of our souls,
and in You alone do we take delight.
Catch us with the fishing net of Your beauty,
capture us with the sweetness of Your love.” – Fenqitho (Festal Hymnary)

The liturgical texts of all the Syriac Churches include the references o the “Bridal Chambers of Light” or the “Bridal Chambers of Joys” as a regular substitute for the Kingdom of Heaven.

Once again, Dr Brock drew on the writings of the Syriac fathers, including Saint Ephrem and Jacob of Serugh. He quoted from Saint Ephrem who in one of his hymns referred to Christ in these verses:

“The soul is Your bride, the body Your bridal chamber,
Your guests are the senses and the thoughts;
and if a single body is a wedding feast for You,
how great is Your banquet for the whole Church!” – Hymns of Faith 14: 5

Staircase H in Chapel Court, Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

In the morning, Dr Marcus Plested of IOCS spoke on “‘Wounded by Love’: Insights from Scripture and the Fathers,” looking at how three particular Patristic writers, Origen, Gregory of Nyssa and Macarius, treated the Song of Songs.

To end the evening, Father Alexander Tefft offered three observations on the conference theme of Love. Love is relational, love is in its essence impenetrable, and love inspires in us a sense of wonder and awe.

This evening we are invited to dinner in the Old Library at Sidney Sussex, and the summer school comes to an end tomorrow.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute.

1 comment:

margaret said...

Thank you... all the background in your posts about the summer school is amazing and I have been meaning to thank you for days. Your blog kept me well entertained on the tedious train journey home after last week.