Thursday, 9 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.

Who was Lady Sidney Sussex?

Frances Sidney, Countess of Sussex ... her portrait hangs in the Hall of Sidney Sussex College, to which she gave her name

Patrick Comerford

Each day during the IOCS summer school at Sidney Sussex we have worshipped in the beautiful college chapel, and three times a day we have been well-fed in the Hall, sitting beneath the portraits of Oliver Cromwell, past Masters of the college, and Lady Sidney Sussex, the founder of the college who gave her name to Sidney Sussex.

But who was Lady Sidney Sussex? Who was the woman with the unusual name that is still recalled over 500 years after her death? How did she give her name to the college that stands on the corner of Sidney Street and Sussex Street?

Frances Radclyffe, Countess of Sussex (1531-1589), was born Frances Sidney, the daughter of Sir William Sidney of Penshurst Place, Kent, and his wife, the former Anne Packenham. Her father was a prominent courtier during the reign of King Henry VIII and Lord Chamberlain to King Edward VI. She was a sister of Sir Henry Sidney, and the aunt of the famous poet Sir Philip Sidney and of the 1st Earl of Leicester.

She was a Lady of the Bedchamber to Queen Elizabeth I in 1555 when she married – as his second wife – Thomas Radclyffe, Viscount FitzWalter, a senior courtier and soldier. He was appointed Lord Deputy of Ireland in 1556 and who succeeded his father as the 3rd Earl of Sussex in 1557.

At Elizabeth’s court, she was an adviser and patron of literature and music. In later life she lived at Bermondsey near the royal palace at Greenwich, and at the magnificent New Hall at Boreham, Essex. At Boreham, her neighbours were the Mildmay family who founded Emmanuel College, a Protestant foundation in Cambridge.

Frances and Thomas Sussex had no children, and so in her will, Lady Sussex left the then small fortune of £5,000, as well as with some plate, to establish a new college at Cambridge “to be called the Lady Frances Sidney Sussex College.”

Lady Frances’s will was written just after the Armada, five years after her husband’s death. He had been a loyal Catholic under Queen Mary and was a fierce rival of Leicester and his protégé, Lady Frances’s nephew, Sir Philip Sidney.

Why did she leave this money to found a college in Cambridge? Was it her own idea, or was she prompted to do so by her theological mentor, the Archbishop of Canterbury, John Whitgift, and his circle?

Archbishop Whitgift had been Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity in Cambridge, and had successively been master of Pembroke and Trinity. As a moderate Calvinist, he was a confirmed enemy of radical Puritanism, and so wanted a serious transformation of the training of English priests. Sidney Sussex College would have been an ideal opportunity to support this as an “advance guard” in the creation of the new nation.

In the fraught political atmosphere of the 1580s, Lady Frances believed others were “complotting” her ruin. A libellous pamphlet by Arthur Hall – a notorious rogue MP who tried to woo her – was burned by her nephews the Harrington family in 1588. Was it because of these accusations and plots that she adopted her motto, Dieu me garde de calomnie, which became the college motto? Was it these libels that moved her to ensure she would be remembered in grand physical monuments? Did she plan her funeral monument at Westminster Abbey and a second “goodly and godly” one at Cambridge to help repair her reputation? And what exactly were the accusations against her?

Lady Frances died in 1589 and her main executors, supervised by Archbishop Whitgift, were Sir John Harrington, who was guardian of the doomed Princess Elizabeth, and the lawyer Henry Grey, Earl of Kent. Without these men, Sidney Sussex would never have been founded.

Lady Sidney Sussex wanted her new college to be a Puritan foundation, “some good and godlie moniment for the mainteynance of good learninge.”

It would have bee easier for the executors to give her money to Clare, as the will allowed. Their plans also faced stiff opposition from the Master and Fellows of Trinity College, which had been founded by Henry VIII, who gave Trinity the freehold to the site, which was once Grey Friars’ House.

So why did these men persist despite the difficulties they faced between the reading of the will in 1589 and Saint Valentine’s Day 1596, when the deed was signed?

Eventually, Queen Elizabeth intervened on their behalf with the Master and Fellows of Trinity College and building work began in 1595, following the plans of the Cambridge architect, Ralph Symons. By 1598, Hall Court, including the Hall and the Master’s Lodge, was ready for occupation.

Today, Sidney has one of the few master’s lodges that is still in heart of the old college. In all, 200 students live on the main college site, and in term-time, meals are served for fellows and students three times a day in the Hall.

Around 1750, the original hall, which was an Elizabethan tie-beamed hall, was extensively remodelled on classical proportions by the Cambridge scholar and architect, James Burrough, who gave it its fine plaster ceiling, the musicians’ gallery. It is a pity, perhaps, that the surviving huge roof is now obscured to view.

The hall was repainted in 2002, and can now be appreciated as one of the finest rococo interiors of Cambridge. Three times a day, as we eat in the hall, the portrait of Lady Sidney Sussex looks down on us benignly.