…without the First-born no-one is able to approach Being, for he alone is capable of it.
(Saint Ephraim the Syrian, Hymns of the Nativity)
Do we forget who we are?
Clamouring for prizes, for profit, for land,
The spaces we contest constrain us.
Who was Herod when he feared a baby?
Who was the baby when he taught Herod truth?
Let us bring right gifts to the right honoured guest;
Let life know itself in the truest Light.
Vaster than under heavens, grander than all ego,
True being lies helpless among cattle.
Behold all that are asleep, awake and rise to sing praise…
(From Psalm 148, Midnight Prayer liturgy, Syriac Orthodox Church)
Could we have seen it coming?
Was our slumber too deep?
Midnight’s for sleeping, yet You do not sleep,
nor did You sleep
as boundaries changed and names were rearranged.
You did not sleep as serpents hatched their eggs.
As feet kicked against the goads, awake, You rose.
Do You sleep?
We lie now as wide-eyed at midnight as at midday,
yet every praise that You ordain spells death to faithful lips.
And waken us to see the grace
that lies here with us,
While my body silent lies, May Thy power keep vigil; Let my sleep in Thy presence Be like the rising incense.
(St Ephraim the Syrian).
What can we offer?
The day is proud in its confidence;
night is helpless.
If they come, our shelters are weak,
our bags packed, our feet ready –
yet the shadow shelters too, here and in exile,
and the silent vigil is constant.
From threats which stalk without, within, we are kept:
though we are as mud-drops in an ocean,
the ocean protects.
Unknown the direction, unseen the foes;
yet we drift – tonight, tomorrow – in You,
sea of mercy, protecting light,
everything when nothing.
No flights to Damascus
and if there were
Safety would fly in the face of Intention.
Where knowledge is danger, is ignorance bliss?
I cannot walk Straight Street and know the vision
that blinded Saul, or see the home
where scales fell from well-meaning eyes.
That much is past; no flights can take me
where not even the locals go.
And would I even know, if by
some sudden wind, I found myself
on cobbled stones of Sunni blood,
and if I saw where churches fell
and watched the flight of history –
what could I know? What Qantas knows
is where the terminals make way,
not who lost home or who lost hope
or where the life is found.
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
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.
Noah turned away wrath with his prayer, with his sacrifice.