19 July 2013

Bringing out treasures old and new
from the ‘third lung’ of Christianity

In the chapel in Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Patrick Comerford

On the closing day of the IOCS summer school in Cambridge this morning [Friday 19 July 2013], Dr Sebastian Brock “brought out treasures old and new,” as Professor David Ford acknowledged.

In a morning filled with poetry, Dr Brock was speaking at the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies summer school in Sidney Sussex College on ‘The Syriac Tradition I: Angels and Their Roles.’

Dr Brock, who was known to many us for his work on translating the Psalms, is a former Reader in Syriac Studies at the Faculty of Oriental Studies in Oxford and a Professorial Fellow of Wolfson College.

His current projects include editing unpublished Syriac texts, Greek words in Syriac, diachronic aspects of Syriac word formation, and Syriac dialogue poems. His recent publications include From Ephrem to Romanos: Interactions between Syriac and Greek in Late Antiquity (Aldershot, 1999), and Treasure-house of Mysteries (Crestwood, 2012).

The cloisters in Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Dr Brock said we often think of Christianity as Latin West and Greek East, and that one Pope had recently referred to these as the “two lungs” of Christianity. However, he offered the Syriac tradition of the East as the “third lung” of Christianity.

This is a unique but oft-neglected tradition in the Church, whose insights include a tradition of doing theology in poetry.

In the Old Testament, it is not always clear who is an angel and who is a messenger, he said, and just as this is a problem for translators of the Septuagint it is a problem too for translators into Syriac.

Angels became revealers in the Book of Daniel; in the apocryphal Book of Jubilees, an angel who mediates the Law to Moses on Mount Sinai; and angels interpret visions and apocalyptic messages. The Dead Sea Scrolls show too that they became associated with the Heavenly Liturgy.

The Syriac canon does not include II Peter, Jude and Revelation, so there is less speculation about angels in the Syriac tradition.

In Hebrew, the word for angel is the same as the word for a messenger (mal’ak), and the same way there is double usage in Greek (Ἄγγελος, angelos). However, Syriac differentiates between mal’aka (angelos) and ‘ira (waker or watcher, Greek εγρηγορός, egregoros).

Genesis 1 does not mention the creation of angels. When are they created? Why is it not mentioned in the creation accounts?

In his lecture, Dr Brock drew on a wide range of works and writers, including Aphrahat, writing in the early fourth century outside the Roman Empire, in the Persian empire in what is now Iraq; Ephrem, who died in 373, a poet; the Book of Steps (Liber Graduum), in the second half of fourth century; John the Solitary, a monastic writer in the early fifth century and a great spiritual writer who has recently been rediscovered; Jacob of Serugh (died 521), a wonderful exegete of Biblical texts who preached his sermons in poetry – of his 763 homilies, half have been translated; the Cave of Treasures from the sixth century; Martyrius, who wrote The Book of Affection in the early seventh century; Dadisho‘ and Isaac of Nineveh (Isaac the Syrian), in the late seventh century; and Joseph the Seer in the eighth century.

These all worked in what was the Persian Empire, including present-day Syria, Iraq and Iran.

He also drew on Isho’dad of Merv, ninth century; Barhebraeus (died 1286); and Solomon of Bosra’s Book of the Bee from the 13th century.

Many of these writers said the angels were created on the first day, along with heaven and earth.

They offered Hierarchies of Angels, which were similar those listed by Dionysius the Areopagite (ca 500), who gives nine hierarchies of angels, in three groups of three, but which can be traced in Saint Paul’s Letters.

For example, Isaac of Nineveh gives slightly different orders, but again he lists them in three groups of three.

Human beings, unlike angels, are created in the image of God. Ephrem points this out in his Hymns of Faith:

The Seraph could not touch fiery Coal with his fingers,
the coal only just touched Isaiah’s mouth;
the Seraph did not hold it, Isaiah did not consume it,
but us our Lord has allowed to do both!

Or, as Joseph the Seer wrote in his pre-Communion Prayer:

It is a matter of great awe, Lord, that Your Body and Your Blood, O Christ our Saviour should be consumed and drunk with that same mouth which receives ordinary food and drink. Lord, you did not give to the Spiritual Beings what I am receiving now!

In the Syriac tradition, Satan’s fall is due to his envy of humans being created in the image of God. In the Book of Job, Satan is simply the accuser, not the devil. But later in the Syriac tradition, he turns aside, and so rebelled against God.

Syriac writers have a unique literary genre, the disputation dialogue in poetic form, adapted to a Biblical context. He drew our attention to some of these including the Dialogue of the Angel and Zechariah, the Angel and Mary, Satan and the Sinful Woman, the Cherub and the Repentant Thief, and Death and Satan in Saint Ephrem. There are more examples in his recent book, Treasure-house of Mysteries (Crestwood, 2012).

Angels above the choir stalls in the chapel in Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

In his second lecture this morning, Dr Brock spoke on ‘The Syriac Tradition II: Imitating the Angels.’

A “watcher” in Syria means someone who is awake, in a state of wakefulness. The Syrian Orthodox Liturgy includes in the Sunday Lilyo (Night Office) the prayer:

Awaken our drowsiness out of submersion in sin so that we may give thanks to Your wakefulness, O Waker who does not sleep; revive our dead state out of the sleep of death and corruption so that we may worship Your compassion; O Living One who does not die, make us worthy to praise you and bless you together with the glorious assembles of the angels in heaven who give you praise, for You are glorious and blessed in heaven and on earth, O Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Angels are a model of how to live the ascetic life, and a model of how to give praise to God.

John the Solitary (John of Apamea) wrote:

Holy people, even though their nature is inferior to that of angels in this world, nevertheless in the spiritual world their nature is increased, so that they become like angels of God; then they will see the angels in the course of associating with them.

The heavenly liturgy was seen as a model for the earthly liturgy in the Dead Sea Scrolls:

The Cherubim prostrate themselves before God and bless [cf Ezekiel 1]. As they arise a whispered voice is heard, and there is a roar of praise. When they drop their wings, there is a whispered divine voice. The Cherubim bless the image of the throne-chariot above the firmament, and they praise the majesty of the luminous firmament beneath His seat of glory.

In the Qedushah at the Morning Synagogue Service:

Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts (Isaiah 6: 3): the whole earth is full of His glory. And the Ophanim and holy Hayot with a noise of great rushing lift themselves up towards the Seraphim and offer praise saying, ‘Blessed be the glory of the Lord from His place’ (Ezekiel 3: 12).

This idea is taken over from Judaism into Early Christianity.

He spoke too of the three Churches – the Heavenly Church, the Church on Earth and the Church of the Heart.

The Syriac writers say the same liturgy should be taking place in the altar of the heart as is taking place in heaven and at the altar in the Church. But the same idea can also be found in Isaiah 6: 3 in the Aramaic Targum:

‘Holy’ in the heavens on high, in the home of His Shekinna; ‘holy’ on earth, the handiwork of His might, ‘holy’ in the age of ages, Lord of hosts; all the earth is full of the radiance of His glory.

This year’s summer school concludes this afternoon with a Service of Thanksgiving in the Chapel of Sidney Sussex College.

Leaving the chapel in Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Finding an Irish archbishop on
a college building in Cambridge

Archbishop John Colton, and an angel with the coat-of-arms of Armagh, on the side of Saint Michael’s Court in Trinity Street, Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Patrick Comerford

During my daily walks in Cambridge this week, I kept my eyes open for images of angels to illustrate the lectures at the IOCS summer school in Sidney Sussex College.

On my way back from the early morning Eucharist in Saint Bene’t’s Church yesterday [18 July 2013], I had decided to return to breakfast in Sidney Sussex College along King’s Parade, Trinity Street, and Green Street.

Walking along Trinity Street, I was surprised to find a statue of Archbishop John Colton (ca 1320-1404) of Armagh on the side of a building, and above him an angel holding his coat-of-arms as Archbishop of Armagh.

Archbishop Colton was a leading political and church figure in 14th century Ireland, and held the offices of Treasurer of Ireland, Lord Chancellor of Ireland and Archbishop of Armagh. He is best remembered, perhaps, for his Visitation of Derry (1397).

But what, I wondered, was he doing on the side of a building owned by Gonville and Caius College?

John Colton, or John of Tyrington, was born in Terrington St Clement in Norfolk ca 1320, and began his career working for William Bateman, Bishop of Norwich. Some say he had a degree in theology from the University of Cambridge, and that in 1348 he received a degree of Doctor of Canon Law (DCL) when he became the first ever Master of the new Gonville Hall, now Gonville and Caius College.

Gonville and Caius (pronounced “Keys”) is the fourth oldest college in Cambridge. It is said to own or have rights to much of the land in Cambridge, and several streets, such as Harvey Road, Glisson Road and Gresham Road, are named after alumni ... although it seems remiss that there is no street on Cambridge named after the first Master who become Archbishop of Armagh.

Gonville and Caius College is the fourth oldest college in Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

The founder of Gonville Hall, the Revd Edmund Gonville, was Rector of Terrington St Clement in Norfolk, where he had been Colton’s neighbour in his home village. However, when Gonville died three years later, he left a struggling institution with almost no money.

Colton’s patron, William Bateman, Bishop of Norwich, was the executor of Gonville’s will, and stepped in, transferring the college to the land close to the college he had just founded, Trinity Hall. He renamed it the Hall of the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and endowed it with its first buildings.

Despite the claims by his biographers, there is no record in Cambridge showing any work for a degree by Colton. His short time as Master of Gonville was divided between the original site in Lurthburgh Lane and the present site, which was acquired through an exchange of land in 1353. A licence to build a chapel was granted by the Bishop and Prior of Ely that year, although the chapel was not completed for many years so that college probably used Saint Michael’s Church at the beginning.

He appears to have been absent in Avignon in the mid and late 1350s, although he continued to hold office as Master of Gonville Hall until at least 1360, perhaps even until 1366, when it was noted again that he was absent from Cambridge.

An angel holding Archbishop Colton’s coat-of-arms as Archbishop of Armagh (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2103)

John Colton first came to Ireland as Treasurer, in 1373, and became Dean of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral the following year, although the Patent Roll shows he was still only a deacon. Colton was also Vicar of Saint Mary’s, Wood Street, London, and in 1377 he was also appointed a Prebendary of York Minster, although he appears to have held that office for only a year.

He was Lord Chancellor from 1379 to 1382, and became Archbishop of Armagh in 1383. He accompanied the Justiciar of Ireland, Edmund Mortimer, 3rd Earl of March, on an expedition to Cork in 1381. Mortimer died on that expedition and Colton briefly replaced him as Justiciar.

He was held in high regard by the Crown and was sent by King Richard II on a special mission to Rome in 1398. Later, in an acknowledgment of his fidelity and loyalty, he received a grant of money from the Crown.

Like most Crown officials at the time, including clerics, Colton was also expected to perform military duties, and he seems to have been a competent soldier: in 1373, at his own cost, he raised a troop for the defence of Dublin.

Colton is best remembered for writing or commissioning the Visitation of Derry, although the actual author was probably his secretary, Richard Kenmore. This is an account of his ten-day tour of the Diocese of Derry when the see was vacant.

Colton took the opportunity to assert his metropolitan authority over the diocese in all matters of religion and morals. The visitation itself is remarkable because the mediaeval Archbishops of Armagh were usually English and found Ulster a foreign and hostile province. They lived in Dundalk or Drogheda, with a summer house in Termonfeckin, Co Louth, but they rarely even visited Armagh, and seldom went further afield in their province to places such as Derry.

Colton entered the Diocese of Derry at Cappagh with a large band of followers, and they then proceed moved on to Derry and Banagher. The only potential trouble was the refusal of the Archdeacon of Derry and the Cathedral Chapter to recognise Colton’s authority. But, faced with a threat of excommunication, they quickly submitted.

Colton was busy as archbishop, reconsecrating churches and graveyards, settling a bitter property dispute and hearing matrimonial causes. His most colourful action may have been his injunction to the Abbot of Derry instructing him to refrain from cohabitating with his mistress “or any other woman.”

Archbishop Colton died in Drogheda on 27 April 1404 and was buried in Saint Peter’s Church, Drogheda. He was described as “a man of great talent and activity, of high reputation for virtue and learning, dear to all ranks of people for his affability and sweetness of temper.”

Archbishop Colton’s statue, with the angel holding his coat-of-arms stands as Archbishop of Armagh, can be seen on the side of Saint Michael’s Court, owned by Gonville and Caius. Saint Michael’s Court stands opposite the main college building and Trinity Lane on the corner of Rose Crescent and Trinity Street, once the High Street of Cambridge, on land surrounding Saint Michael’s Church. Saint Michael’s Court was built in 1903 by the architect Aston Webb, and was completed in the 1930s.

Saint Michael’s Church on Trinity Street, Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)