Damascus Road: Pre-War

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In Damascus, people whisper when out in public. When a waiter arrives at a table, people stop talking…

Then he said what I kept hearing over and over on this trip: “Syrians cannot do this to other Syrians.”

(Janine di Giovanni, “Seven Days in Syria”)

In the days before spring burst in war,
some still danced and lazed in pools.
Some saw the lion on the prowl,
and others stood beside him.

The food was fine still, and the wine.
The poetry was rich; the fruit
was ripening on the trees. Yet some
saw wolves lurk on the fold.

The wolf was in us before we knew;
the lamb was our first and last chance.
The older, younger Noah’s son
bought sunshine with His bow.

And on the hills we see an ark
where lion, lamb and wolf lie down.*
Yet only when true peace is prized
and no-one hides from truth.

*after Ephraim the Syrian, “Hymns on the Nativity: Hymn 7”

Damascus Road: Paris Interlude

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http://www.aljazeera.com

Now it happens
in places with names we know:
near streets we have walked,
in stadiums and concert halls,
in coffee shops,
where violence never breathed before,
where we were safe.

Now we look for signs of links
to Syria, to al-Assad,
ISIL, and cells which fire.
Nothing has prepared us, yet
to others this has brewed for long.
The boundaries ever shifting say
that nothing was ever safe.

When French Charlie can’t say his name
without all heads turning at once,
the times are only waving a sign.
Once, when peasants were offered cake,
no-one ate to celebrate
Today, remember: Damascus’ streets bustled before,
and in the days of Noah men ate and drank
and no-one saw the rain.

Damascus Road Prayers: Prologue

Landscape with olive trees and yellow flowers, Serjilla, Syria www.flickr.com
Landscape with olive trees and yellow flowers, Serjilla, Syria
http://www.flickr.com

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one true God.

Glory be to Him; and may His grace and mercy be upon us for ever. Amen.

Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty, by whose glory, the heaven and the earth are filled; Hosanna in the highest. 

Blessed is He who has come, and is to come in the name of the Lord; glory be to Him in the highest.

(Prologue for daily prayer, Syriac Orthodox Church)


It is a wild and rainy day in Melbourne as I sit down to write this first post, God willing, of a new series – and the rain is fitting, because my poem for today takes inspiration from a hymn by 4th century poet and theologian, St Ephraim the Syrian, a prayer focused on the story of Noah.

O God of mercies Who didst refresh Noah, he too refreshed Thy mercies. He offered sacrifice and stayed the flood; he presented gifts and received the promise. With prayer and incense he propitiated Thee: with an oath and with the bow Thou wast gracious to him; so that if the flood should essay to hurt the earth, the bow should stretch itself over against it, to banish it away and hearten the earth. As Thou hast sworn peace so do Thou maintain it, and let Thy bow strive against Thy wrath!

Wrath is not a concept that our world likes to hear about, but in the context of Syria as it stands today the words seem to have a powerful immediacy. We can easily imagine Syrian believers today joining the congregation of Ephraim’s day responding to the priest with:

Stretch forth Thy bow against the flood, for lo! it has lifted up its waves against our walls!

As communities of Christian believers who have stood strong in Syria for nearly 2000 years leave their homes, possibly never to return, we need to stand with them in this prayer: a prayer for a land sorely besieged by the floods around it, desperately in need of our prayers and our solidarity with them.

In aid of this, and inspired by Johnnie Moore‘s call for the Western church to tell the stories of our Syrian brothers and sisters, I have decided to put together a series of poems structured around the ancient Syriac Orthodox daily prayers and the hymns of St Ephraim: an attempt to unearth some of the rich beauty of Syria’s Christian history, to remind us what is threatened, and what a powerful contribution the Syrian church has made to the Christian world.

So here is my first offering. I hope it might be a blessing to you as you read it today.


Damascus Road Prayers: Prologue

Father –

the bow is in the sky, but the floods fall still.

Our walls have stood, but now they totter.

The olive branches are wilting;

no doves fly here any more.

Father –

Noah turned away wrath with his prayer, with his sacrifice.

We are the sacrifice. We have stood, and stood.

Father, where –

where is mercy’s refreshing?

Heaven and earth are full; we are pouring

libation on broken ground, our pots empty.

Father, the mercy

which turned its bow upward…

Turn in Your mercy. We turn now to You.

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Catechism 44

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What is baptism?
Baptism is the washing with water in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit; it signifies and seals our adoption into Christ, our cleansing from sin, and our commitment to belong to the Lord and to his church.
(New City Catechism)

Why water? First
He hovered, spirit, above the depths,
divided water in sky from land,
said, “Here shall your proud waves be stopped,
here go no further.”

Yet then, when earth
had sickened and man had withered His image,
He took out the stopper and let the waves pour forth.
Now He bids

water flow over bodies
and into hearts, cleansing, reversing
the tides of shame, of uncreation; now pours
Spirit flooding with life, where only
death once hovered.

Take the waves, take
the plunge. Life beckons.
Still His Spirit hovers and breathes
into the dead, still He makes
and remakes and remakes.