Syriac Christianity amongst crises…

1.jpg by ergamenis
Meeting with Zdravka Mihaylova – awarded translator of Greek literature into Bulgarian – at the opening of our photo exhibition “From Nubia to Sudan” has led to a fine cooperation that already bears fruit: first, it was an interview hosted by “Greek Reporter” online journal; and now, a text that she prepared for the Medieval Sai Project for an outstanding academic event that took place in the end of January in Athens: four seminars on Syriac Christianity by a leading figure in Syriac Studies, Professor Emeritus S.P. Brock.

Our interest in the topic is easy to understand, taking into consideration the very important role of Syriac Christianity in the formation of Eastern Christianity in general, but also in the literary forms that became the foundations of Christian faith in the East. And perhaps, there is always a belief that Syriac Christianity has influenced Nubian Christianity too. Was it not that the Baghdadi book seller of the 10th century Ibn an-Nadim reported that “the Nub(i)a(ns) make use of Syriac, Greek and Coptic alphabets in their religious documents” !?! (cfr. Fr.G. Vantini, Oriental Sources Concerning Nubia, 1975, p. 179).

Let’s read Zdravka’s impressions of the seminars in Athens (illustrated with photos selected by herself too) and we will eventually return to the links between Nubian and Syriac Christianity at another context…




The Greek Foundation ‘Artos Zois’ (‘Bread of Life’) offers to the Athenian academic world manifold activities in Biblical Studies. These include publishing, scientific research, scholarships, and educational seminars; for example, in Biblical Hebrew taught by Mr. Manolis Papoutsakis who is on a sabbatical in Athens for the academic year 2011-2012 from his post as Lecturer in Syriac and Classical Armenian Languages and Literatures, Department of Near Eastern Studies, Princeton University, USA. The Foundation is also organizing annually a conference, coordinated by the president of its Committee, Mr. Stavros Zoumboulakis, where biblical theologians and secularly oriented scholars discuss various subject. The proceedings of the first conference (2010) on “The Messianic Idea and its Metamorphoses. From the Old Testament to Twentieth Century Political Messianisms” have already published and will be followed by the proceedings of the second conference on “The God of the Bible and the God of the Philosophers” (organized in December 2011) thus promoting Biblical studies in the domain of public space of thought.

This year, ‘Artos Zois’ organised in Athens between the 24th and the 27th of January four lectures by the most influential academic authority in the field of Syriac language and literature, Sebastian Paul Brock. In the last fifty years hundreds of academic publications bearing his signature have shed light on various aspects of this remarkable but less known Christian tradition. In a way, S.P. Brock has personal links to Greece, since his wife Helen Hughes-Brock is an archaeologist specializing in Minoan Crete and Mycenaean Greece.
All who attended the course, among them a fair number of Syriac Orthodox monks studying or residing in Greece, are indebted to the Foundation’s president Mr. Stavros Zoumboulakis and to Mr. Manolis Papoutsakis (a student of Professor Brock) who offered the audience a rare spiritual and intellectual feast by inviting Professor Brock.
S.P. Brock was born in London in 1938. He is a former Reader in Syriac Studies at the University of Oxford’s Oriental Institute, Professor Emeritus at the University of Oxford, and a Fellow of the British Academy. Sebastian Brock completed his BA degree at the University of Cambridge, and a DPhil at Oxford. He is the recipient of a number of honorary doctorates and has been awarded the Medal of Saint Ephrem the Syrian by the Syriac Orthodox Patriarch and the Leverhulme Prize and medal of the British Academy. A widely published author on Syriac topics, his best selling books are The Luminous Eye: The Spiritual World Vision of Saint Ephrem the Syrian and The Syriac Fathers on Prayer and the Spiritual Life.
Paraphrasing the quotation “All Roads Lead to Rome” Abou Zayd Shafiq writes in “Sebastian Paul Brock: Life and Work” that “the Syriac heritage owes much to Sebastian Brock”, as all aspects of Syriac studies lead one way or another to his inspired figure. “His voluminous work on Syriac, and related fields, is unique in our modern times.”

Shedding light on what actually the Syriac Orthodox Orient is, Professor Brock referred to the ecumenical dialogue with Chalcedonian and Non-Chalcedonian churches embracing large populations in modern Syria, Iraq, Eastern Turkey, part of Iran, the Caucasus (Armenia and Georgia) and a huge diaspora in the West. He traced the Semitic background of Greek civilization, usually considered the prestige culture of the Mediterranean. Syriac, a dialect of Palestinian Aramaic (the language spoken by Jesus Christ – with biblical Hebrew it belongs to the family of Northwestern Semitic languages) and literature written in it were addressed by Mr. Broch in four lectures:

Syriac Spirituality, 4th-8th centuries: An Overview,
  St Ephrem and his “Sea of Symbols / Mysteries “,
  St Isaac the Syrian on Divine Compassion,
  Some Central Themes: Prayer of the Heart and the Spiritual Mirror.

In his concluding remarks he commented on the current difficult conditions of life for Christians in the Arab world, especially on fanaticism and persecution in Egypt and Syria. Commenting on the future of Syriac Orthodox communities he stressed that what is needed most of all is a stable government in these countries. Many members of the Syrian Christian communities in the Middle East are fleeing insecurity in their native countries in search of a safer life. Not widely known, the Syriac tradition is a third realm, differing from both the Greek East and the Latin West, grounded in the Middle East (with the Euphrates River as a cultural barrier between the Greek and Syriac worlds and their forms of Christianity). The three traditions have as a common background the Old Testament and Judaism. Syriac, a language that has been marginalized and almost extinguished since the 9th century, has left an exquisite legacy of poetic flourishing in the Chalcedonian tradition.

St. Ephrem, one of the greatest Syriac poets, hymnographers and theologians ever, who already enjoyed a huge reputation in his lifetime, belongs to the Syriac proto-monastic tradition (4th c.). After elaborate but accessible talks before an ‘uninitiated’ audience on baptismal context, the Syriac term Ihidaya (translating the Greek Monogenis), the antedecents of the term “monk”, Christ as Bridegroom (betrothal to Christ) in Ephrem the Syrian’s Hymns of Faith (“The soul is your bride, the body your bridal chamber”), baptism as potential return to paradise, imagery of the Robe of Glory, and the angelic life, Professor Brock’s visit to Athens was capped by the lecture on “The Role of the Heart: Prayer as Offering on Interior Altar of the Heart” (Matt.6:6 “… go into your inner room, close your door, and pray to your Father who is in secret”). The internal liturgy of the heart, the harp of the spirit, praying in luminous silence, the body as a temple and our hearts as altars, the relation between the mind and the heart as opposed to the Aristotelian division between body and soul, were paths to higher states of religious experience in Syriac scriptures and poetry. The Book of Steps (4th c.) outlines the three churches: in heaven, on earth, in the heart, with prayer of the heart as sacrifice. The ideal of returning to Paradise, the particularly Syriac sermons in verse, and the connection between Syriac and Neoplatonic interpretation were dwelled on too.

Simeon the Graceful (7th c.) teaches that there is a spiritual mirror inside the heart, glorious and ineffable. St. Ephrem (500 poems written by him have come down to us) speaks of the mirror of the heart and the revelation of God’s mysteries. ‘The person whose interior mirror effectively reflects God’s love will thereby also reflect God’s love for all human beings: out of the love of God one will arrive at perfect love of all your fellow human beings’, said Professor Brock. In antiquity mirrors were made of metal not of glass, thus the metaphor of a mirror of the heart kept in a high stage of polish or purity was often used in Syriac poetry.

When the interior eye is filled with the light of faith, wonder and praise magnify God. “Prayer does not consist in learning, or knowledge, or words, but in the emptying of the mind and an intellect that is serene and alert, recollected and at peace as a result of the silence and the faculties of the senses, whether this means the complete whipping out of thoughts or the stripping away of every care”, was how the lecturer defined this most personal communication with God in the Syriac tradition. Prayer consisting in love is a never-ceasing fountain, irrigating the soul with peace and joy. This is when the heart’s fountain is inflamed with the fire of love, and when the mind bursts into flame as it meditates on all that is good. Prayer is the inner gaze which becomes illuminated in the Spirit. Oneness of self is also advantageous at the time of prayer, so that one can converse with God without any intermediary veil. We were partaking of precious knowledge with ancient roots transmitted by a scholar with a saintly image, humble in his awareness of the great tradition he interprets, his luminous aura reminiscent of a stylite in the Syrian desert.