An Anthology of Syriac Christian Mysticism
Cistercian Publications, Kalamazoo, 2008
This book has had a long gestation. It began with the aim of showing how the pearl was used as a symbol in the eastern churches that have Syriac (Christian Aramaic) as their liturgical language. Thus in the Syriac poem The Song of the Pearl, it represents faith, which is seized from a serpent (the Devil). Saint Ephraim wrote a set of poems on faith, and used the pearl as a multi-faceted symbol of all aspects of Christianity.
I gathered all the materials, translated the chosen extracts from the Syriac mystics, composed an introduction to them all, and submitted it. The previewer gave it a favourable critique.
The publishers delayed the appearance of the book, but they argue that its time is now ripe: Iraq and Iran (where most of the monks lived) are in the news every day; and the Pope has made a pronouncement (not quite a papal bull) that Christianity was not founded in Rome but in the East, and he has singled out such authors as Ephrem the Syrian and Aphrahat the Persian; both of them appear in my book.
This brand-new book (but already you can get "used" copies) is announced on various publishers’ websites.
There is a preface, which bears the title Orientation (since Oriental ecclesiastical literature is the subject), and this tells the readers something about the genesis of the thing, and supplies the names of some important people who have assisted me in the long task of putting it all together. I am not going to repeat myself here.
However, there are quite a few writers (people I never met in person) who had an important influence on me, but are not mentioned there. They were all fillers of my spare time from teaching languages at Scotch College in Launceston in 1964, my year as a Tasmanian.
I will first name John Bagot Glubb (1897-1986), alias Glubb Pasha, whose books on The Great Arab Conquests and The Empire of the Arabs were published at that time. I did not come under the direct influence of T.E. Lawrence till later, but Glubb certainly aroused in my mind a keen interest in Arab history and Islamic culture.
Next, H.V. Morton, Henry Vollam Morton (1892-1979), a Birmingham boy who ultimately became a South African citizen. He was the author of many highly regarded travel-books, notably In the Steps of the Master (1934), an account of his travels in the Holy Land; In the Steps of St. Paul (1936), describing Turkey; Through Lands of the Bible (1938) in which he visits Egypt, Palestine, Syria, and Iraq. That was the one that really stirred me and confirmed me in my devotion to Semitic studies (adding Arabic and Islam to my list of things to learn). That was where I heard about Shi`ites in `Iraq, and their ritual self-mutilation in memory of the martyred grandsons of Muhammad, namely Hassan and Hussein, killed by the Sunnites (Sunnis). I was also fascinated by Morton’s monastery visits. I think it was in that book that I saw a photograph of a monk seated at the refectory table, which was apparently covered with small rocks, but they were actually the year’s supply of bread rolls (the original rock cakes, for dunking in soup I would assume); there is a multitude of false memories swimming around in my brain (if my memory serves me rightly), and I hope that is not one of them.
A book by Jules Leroy is acknowledged in my preface (or Orientation): Monks and Monasteries in the Near East (1963). He gave me the research subjects for my doctor of theology thesis (Nestorian and Armenian Christians in South-East Asia), and for my doctor of philosophy (Syriac Christian mysticism).
William Wright became a partner in my pursuits throughout those years. I paid numerous visits, on foot, to the Launceston public library to consult their old Encyclopaedia Britannica, particularly Wright’s extensive article on Syriac literature (which I copied out by hand); it was also published as a separate book. There I made my first acquaintance with a mystic named John of Dalyatha, or John Saba, and when I moved to Melbourne and started my PhD research on Syriac Christian asceticism and mysticism, my supervisor, Professor John Bowman, suggested I concentrate on this John Saba (“the old man”, or “the elder”, or “the venerable”). He helped me to gather photographs of the relevant manuscripts from the Vatican Library and elsewhere.
Wright had catalogued the Syriac manuscripts of the British Museum (or that part of the Museum now properly called the British Library). I took pleasure hunting through those large tomes in the Baillieu Library of the University of Melbourne, in search of discourses or epistles of John Saba.
Finally, when I discovered the Hymn of Judas Thomas (The Song of the Pearl) in the Syriac Acts of Thomas , Wright’s translation of 1871 was one that assisted me; you can see that I have used it, since some of the lines in my translation have an echo in his (but I am trying to avoid any hint of plagiarism on his part).
Everything I study is treated as a puzzle to be solved. Cryptcracker is now my cyberspace-name. Although I was almost a failure in mathematics, I still loved doing the problems and getting solutions; unfortunately, in the last examination I did, for matriculation in 1953, I could not complete any of the questions in the time allowed, but I got a bare pass (27%) for all the uncompleted work I had done. That is how it is with me: in my own time, with patience and persistence, I can unravel big mysteries, such as the origins of the alphabet, and the deep meaning of the Syriac Song of the Pearl, better known as The Hymn of the Pearl (when you are googling it).
If you search the internet you will find this beautiful piece of poetry regularly characterized as “Gnostic”, and therefore “heretical” from an orthodox Christian point of view.
After puzzling over this poem for many years I finally came to the realization that it is simply a Christian allegory based on the teachings of Jesus Christ and his Apostles. It has subtle allusions to the Bible all along the way. There are three telling examples: at the beginning, in the middle, and at the end.
At the start the hero of this miniature epic leaves home on a mission to take a pearl from a sea serpent in Egypt. His parents, the king and queen of the East, tell him that when he returns with the pearl he will be heir in the kingdom, together with his elder brother. They gave him an abundance of riches to support him on his journey, but though it was large it was a ‘light load’ [stanza 1]. This is a reference to the easy yoke and light burden that Jesus places on the shoulders of his disciples (in fact the words for 'load' and 'light' here are the same as in Matthew 11:30 in the Syriac New Testament).
The king of kings [stanza 6] is God the Father; the queen is the Holy Spirit (characteristically and grammatically feminine in Syriac language and theology); the elder brother is the Lord Jesus Christ (Hebrews 2:11-13). When the prince comes to seize the pearl, he casts a spell over the sea snake in the name of his family members [stanza 8]. This seems to correspond to the baptismal formula 'in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit' (Mt 28:19). No other order but Father, Son, and Spirit seems possible or permissible, and that is what is found at this point in the poem: 'the name of my father..., and the name of our second in rank, and of my mother the queen of the East' . However, in the letter of awakening that his family sends to him, the order is father, mother, brother [stanza 6], which is a more natural sequence.
Finally, when the prince returns home triumphant, bearing his pearl of faith and wearing his shining robe of knowledge, he is welcomed by a person described as ‘the splendour of my father’ [stanza 13]; this refers to Christ, ‘the effulgence of God’s glory’ (Hebrews 1:3). The usual interpretation is that this is God the Father himself; but this makes nonsense of what follows, because this person conducts the prince into the presence of the king; and so some interpreters blithely remove the last few lines so that this can not happen! The picture the poet is presenting to us is clearly a reflection of the celestial vision in the Epistle to the Hebrews: the believer who has ‘received the kingdom’ (Hebrews 12:28) is ushered into the heavenly Jerusalem and the inner sanctuary by Christ his ‘brother’ (Hebrews 2:11-13; 10:19-22; 12:22-24).
When as a little child I dwelt in my father’s palace in my kingdom,
content I was with the luxury and riches of those who saw to my upbringing.
Then from our homeland the East, my parents sent me forth equipped;
from the riches in our treasure store they made me an abundant load;
large it was and yet so light I could carry it by myself….
They took my shining robe away, which they in their love had made for me,
and likewise the scarlet toga, measured and woven to my stature.
A covenant they made with me, writing it on my heart lest it be forgotten:
If you will go down into Egypt and bring out a certain pearl,
the one in the midst of the ocean, hard by the hissing serpent,
then you shall wear your shining robe again, and the toga that goes over it,
and with your brother, our next in rank, you shall be heir in our kingdom.
I left the East and wended my way down, having two guardians with me….
I went right down into Egypt, and my guides then parted from me.
I made my way straight to the serpent and lodged close by his lair,
waiting till he slumbered in sleep, when I would take my pearl from him.
I was solitary and alone, a stranger to those I lived with.
Then one of my own kind, a freeman, someone from the East, I saw there,
a comely and gracious lad, a consecrated person, who joined me;
I made him my intimate friend, and took him as partner in my pursuits.
I warned him against the Egyptians, against joining with the unclean.
Yet I myself wore their manner of dress, lest they abhorred me
for coming from outside to take the pearl away,
and lest they stirred up the serpent against me.
But by some means they perceived I was not a fellow-countryman of theirs.
They dealt with me deceitfully; they gave me their food to taste.
I forgot I was a son of kings, and I served a king of theirs;
I forgot as well the pearl for which my parents had sent me.
With the heaviness of their foodstuffs, I sank deep into sleep.
But all the things that befell me my parents perceived, and they grieved over me.
Proclamation was made in our kingdom, that all should hasten to our gate,
the kings and princes of Parthia, and all the nobles of the East.
They drew up a plan for my sake, that I might not be left in Egypt;
and then they wrote a letter to me, and each noble signed his name to it.
From your father, the king of kings, and your mother, mistress of the East,
and from your brother our second in rank, to you, our son in Egypt, greeting!
Awake and rise up from your sleep, and listen to the words of our letter.
Remember you are a son of kings; look at your bondage to the one you now serve.
Call to mind the pearl, for which you were sent into Egypt.
Be mindful of your shining robe, and think of your splendid toga,
which you shall put on to adorn yourself, when your name is called in the honour roll,
when you and your brother our viceroy are together again in our kingdom….
I remembered I was a son of kings; my free-born nature asserted itself.
I remembered too the pearl, for which I had been sent into Egypt.
So I commenced to work enchantments on the fearsome hissing serpent.
I hushed him and lulled him into slumber, pronouncing my father’s name over him,
and the name of our second in rank, and of my mother, queen of the East.
I snatched up the pearl, and turned to go home to my father.
Their filthy abominable clothing I stripped off and left in their country;
I directed my course to bring me to the light of our homeland, the East.
My letter, which was my awakener, I found ahead of me on the way;
and as with its voice it had woken me, so now with its light it was leading me.
Enwrapped in silk as it was, it shone before me with its form,
while with its voice and with its guidance, it encouraged me to make haste,
and with its love it drew me on.
My shining robe which I had taken off, and my toga with which it was covered,
from the heights of Hyrcania [in Parthia, Iran]my parents had sent to me there,
by the agency of their treasurers, whose honesty they could trust.
I had not remembered its fashion, having left it with my father in childhood;
suddenly, as I encountered the garment, it seemed like a mirror of myself.
I beheld its all in my own all, and I encountered my own all in it;
for though we were two in distinction we were still one, in one likeness.
The image of the king of kings was all embroidered over it;
and like the sapphire jewel were its manifold colours.
And now I saw that all over it impulses of knowledge were stirring,
and I saw it preparing itself to give forth utterance.
I heard the sound of its tones, as it murmured on its way down:
I am his who is diligent in doing, for whom I was brought up before my father;
truly I have been aware in myself that my size has been growing with his labours.
Moving in its regal manner it was giving itself completely to me,
and on the hands of its presenters, it was impatient for me to receive it.
For my part I was impelled by love to run to meet it and take it.
I stretched out my hand and accepted it; I decked myself out in its beauteous colours;
my toga with its lustrous colours I wrapped right around myself.
Thus clothed I made my way up to the gate of greeting and homage;
I bowed my head and made adoration to its sender, the splendour of my father;
for I had carried out his orders, and he had done what he had promised.
Standing at the gate of his princes, I mingled with his noblemen,
for he rejoiced and welcomed me back, and I was now with him in his kingdom.
With the voice of glorification all his servants were praising him,
and he promised I would once again be brought
with him to the gate of the king of kings,
and with my present and my pearl, I would appear with him before our king.
Basically, the Song of the Pearl combines the themes of two parables: the prodigal son, with a young man leaving home, getting into trouble, then returning repentant to his father and receiving a rich robe (Luke 15:11-32); and the merchant who discovered a magnificent pearl beyond price, and sold everything to purchase it (Matthew 13:45-46).
The precious pearl, said to represent the Kingdom of God, was a luminous symbol in the minds of the Syriac mystics. One of the earliest, Ephrem or Afrem, found it very profitable.
Ephrem was born in Nisibis (in Persia) and lived in Edessa (now in Turkey) in the fourth century. In the West he is hailed as a doctor of the Church. He is famous for his homilies and hymns.
In his Hymns on Faith he has a section on the pearl motif.
Blessed be he who compared the Kingdom of the Most High to a pearl. [Mt 13:45-46]
On a certain day, my brethren, heirs of the Kingdom*, I picked up a pearl; *[cp. Song of Pearl]
I saw in it symbols, images, and types of that Majesty, and it became a well
wherein I drank symbols of the Son [of God].
I placed it, brethren, in the palm of my hand to consider it;
I set to looking at it from one side, but it had faces on all sides;
so it is with examining the Son; both are unsearchable, being all light.
In its clearness I saw the Clear One who is unsullied;
and in its purity the great mystery, the body of our Lord, which is spotless;
in its undividedness I saw the truth that is undivided. . . .
When I asked the pearl if there were in it yet other symbols . . .
it answered me saying: A daughter am I of the immense sea;
and vaster than that sea from which I have risen
is the treasure of mysteries in my bosom;
you may search the sea but you can not search the Lord of the sea.
Unclothed men dived to bring you up, O Pearl;
kings were not the ones who first presented you to human beings,
but the unclothed, symbolic of the poor, and of fishermen and Galileans.
For they could not, with bodies clad, come to you; but they came unclothed,
like new-born babes, entombing their bodies and descending to you;
you welcomed them and took refuge with them, who so cherished you.
APHRAHAT THE PERSIAN [40-46; 116-117]
Aphrahat (Greek Aphraates, Persian Farhad) was a fourth-century monk and bishop in Persia. During the period 337–345, Aphrahat produced a collection of twenty-three Syriac discourses or ‘demonstrations’. These are arranged acrostically: each of the twenty-three homilies begins with a successive letter of the Syriac alphabet (which has twenty-two signs); the twenty-third sermon is an appendix, commencing with the first letter of the alphabet (’alaph).
Aphrahat downgrades marriage; he sees it as a betrayal of God, in that anyone who ‘leaves father and mother’ (Gen 2:24, Mk 10:7) to enter into wedlock is really deserting ‘God his father and the Holy Spirit his mother’ (Demonstration 18). Here again we see the typical Syriac image of the Spirit as divine mother, as in the Song of the Pearl.
He refers us to the parable of the pearl merchant [Mt 13:45-46]:
Let us sell all our possessions, and buy for ourselves the pearl, so that we may be rich. [Demonstration 6]
He takes us through the Beatitudes from the Sermon on the Mount, moving the mystical one into first place (Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God)
Let us purify our heart from iniquity, so that we may see the Lofty One in his glory. [Demonstration 6]
ADELPHIOS OF EDESSA [50-56, 56-68; 121]
Adelphios of Edessa was a disciple of Julian Saba, whom he accompanied on a journey to Egypt sometime before 363.
Philoxenos of Mabbug (in his letter to Patrikios, 127, 108–110) says that in Egypt young Adelphios met some of the illustrious fathers, including Antony the Great.
From them he learned, according to Philoxenos, ‘that the intellect has contemplations after being purified, and that the soul can through the grace of God be made worthy of impassibility, when it sheds its old passions and stands in the original wholeness of its nature, and is as if in the kingdom of God, while still having its habitation in this life’.
Adelphios returned to Edessa, and though still a young man he set himself up in a hermitage. There he engaged in austerity and prayer, but without humility, Philoxenos adds. This left him a prey to Satan, who appeared to him in the form of light and claimed to be the Paraklete-Spirit sent by Christ to reward his labours with the desired impassibility and contemplations. After being accorded adoration by the deceived solitary, the disguised Devil filled Adelphios with demonic hallucinations. The monk then ceased mortifying his body and struggling against his passions. Adelphios thus became the founder of the Messallian heresy, Philoxenos tells us.
I suggest that even though Adelphios was excommunicated, his mystical teachings were passed on in the Syriac text known as The Book of Degrees (or Steps). Here is a quotation I have included in the anthology, which shows that this is a manual of asceticism (battling with evil spirits and Satan) and mystical spirituality (enjoying the beatific vision).
Blessed is the person who enters the celestial church, upon which our Lord shines openly, as the visible sun shines upon the visible church and upon these temples that are our bodies. No matter how often the sun may set on these, the church above never loses the light of the countenance of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ….
Those who have fought with Satan and have overcome him, become worthy of this church which is above all, upon which our Lord shines openly, and they experience the glorious light of his countenance. For our Lord said: Blessed are those who are pure in heart, for they shall see God. [Mt 5:8] [XVIII]
JOHN THE SOLITARY [68-74; 122-125]
John the Solitary (John of Apamea) lived in the second half of the fifth century in Apamea, in Syria.
At all times you should be offering to Christ constant thanksgiving out of the fullness of the love in your soul; for he has deigned to accomplish in you his glorious parable: The Kingdom of Heaven is like a merchant who sought fine pearls, and when he discovered a very precious pearl he went and sold all he had, and bought it [Mt 13:45f ].
So it is with you, our dear friend. After you had set out to seek much wisdom and had found the knowledge of the mystery of Christ, which is more glorious, more exalted, and more abundant in great virtues than any other wisdom, you then forsook all other knowledge and kept only the knowledge of Christ within your soul. Through him you have become rich, and you reign in his magnificent Kingdom of God. . . . [XIX]
In his teachings on the mystical way, John used a novel framework for the stages and states. The three stages were based on body, soul, and spirit, so they are somatic, psychic, and pneumatic; the body achieves purity, the soul attains serenity, and the spirit comes to perfection.
Around the same time, another mystical system was propagated by a Syrian mystic, whose works were published in Greek under the pseudonym Dionysios the Areopagite, the name of a convert of Saint Paul in Athens (Acts 17:34). This was adopted in the West. It has three stages, designated purgation (purification), illumination (enlightenment in visions), and union (unification). The climax of perfection and deification comes in the cloud of unknowing, which Moses entered on Mount Sinai.
Here is an epiphany of John the Solitary:
God almighty, perfect and complete in himself, is himself the Kingdom,
the sheen of his splendour, the majesty of his sway,
the honour of his glory, the tranquillity of his person,
the immensity of his power, the loftiness of his truth,
the fullness of his substance, the vision of his loveliness,
the tabernacle of his joy, the blessedness of his rest;
his riches are not present without him, his secrets not without his wisdom,
his appearing not without his knowledge, his likeness not without his fullness.
He himself is the appearing, the secrets of his knowledge,
the wealth of his treasures, the restfulness of his will,
the sphere of his being, the realm of his glory.
He is in his perfection single and unique; there is no duality in him . . .
His might is incomparable, his beauty indescribable,
his love immeasurable, his serenity inexpressible,
his worth incomprehensible. [XIX]
ISAAC OF NINEVEH [88-92; 134-140]
Isaac bishop of Nineveh, known in the Eastern Orthodox churches as Isaac the Syrian, was born in Qatar, a peninsula on the Arabian side of the Persian Gulf.
After his monastic training in Mesopotamia, he was ordained bishop of Nineveh (Mosul) by the Katholikos Mar Giwargis (660-680). He lasted only five months in this office, abruptly retreating to the solitary life in the mountains of Huzistan in south-western Iran. He lived to a great age but eventually suffered blindness, for which his ardent reading was blamed, and thereafter he dictated his books to his disciples.
Here are some passages in which he compares monks to pearl-merchants and pearl-divers.
When the merchant has completed his season of business he makes haste to return home. While the monk still remains in his time of service he is distressed about departing from the body; but when he realizes in his soul that he has redeemed his time and has received his pledge, he yearns for the world to come. [XXXI]
The mind that has found spiritual wisdom is like a man who has found ready at hand in the midst of the ocean a ship on which to embark, to take him from the ocean of this world and bring him safely to the islands of the world to come. Thus the apperception of things to come in this world is like a small island in the midst of the ocean, and whoever has attained to it will no longer be agitated by the storms of transitory illusions. [XXX]
The diver plunges naked into the sea to find a pearl, and the wise monk will go naked through the desert places to find the Pearl, Jesus Christ himself. When he has found it he will not wish to acquire anything else. A pearl is kept in an inner room; the solitary takes delight in silent seclusion. [XXXIV]
A dog licking a file is drinking his own blood, but he does not notice his injury because of the sweet taste. A solitary who stoops to lapping up glory is sapping his own life without giving thought to his injury, because of the momentary sweetness. [XXXV]
Are dogs really so stupid?
Isaac affirms that the union of faith and knowledge is the goal, and this reminds us of the uniting of the prince’s pearl of faith with his shining robe of knowledge.
When knowledge is united to faith and becomes one with it, through faith it is clothed in fiery impulses, and it glows spiritually; it acquires the wings of impassibility [passionlessness] and is lifted up from the service of earthly things to the place of its creator. . . . [XL]
JOSEPH THE VISIONARY [93-96; 141-148]
Yausep Hazzaya (Joseph the Seer) was born early in the eighth century, of Zoroastrian parents, his father being a Magian priest. At the age of seven he was captured and enslaved by Arabs. After serving an Arab master for three years, he passed into the service of a Christian. When Joseph received baptism he was released by his master, and this left the young man free to enter a monastery in the Qardu region of northern Iraq. Eventually Joseph took up the solitary life, but returned to be the abbot of a monastery. A further sojourn in the desert was followed by another period of abbacy in a different community of monks. He died at an advanced age.
Joseph wrote a letter at the request of a friend, in which he summarized the stages and states the earnest monk traverses along the path to perfection and union with God. But it must be done in a business-like manner.
Now just as Christ has said: The Kingdom of Heaven is like a merchant who sought after many pearls, and having found one of great price he went and sold everything he had and purchased it (Mt 13:45f), so, my very dear friend, having looked around everywhere, I have perceived that the aim of your thinking was that your commerce should bring in a return several times above the investment. Like an astute merchant you have asked me for something limited as regards extent but large as regards profit. You have said: Write to me by letter briefly on these subjects, namely on silence and the solitary life in the cell, on the temptations which come upon those who perform spiritual exercises in silence, and on the visitation of grace that is bestowed on them through the mercy of Our Lord…. [XLIII]
Joseph the Visionary does this, using the categories of John the Solitary: the stages relating to the body, the soul, and the spirit, and the states of purity and serenity.
He gives details of the daily devotions performed by the solitary in his cell; sometimes these are interrupted and the monk is surprised by inexpressible ineffable joy.
Truly I know a brother who, when one day he prostrated himself before the divine Gospel with hands and eyes directed to heaven, had his heart opened and filled with an ineffable light. . . . That brother declared to me: For two days I took neither food nor sleep; my thoughts were carried away from this world and everything in it. All I know is that my mind was lifted up and that I saw and heard, but what I saw and heard I cannot express to you, as these are mysteries that cannot be spoken by a tongue of flesh, or cannot be written by pen and ink; for they are the pledge of those ineffable rewards which God the Lord of all will grant after the resurrection from the dead; those things which Saint Paul contemplated, as it were in ecstasy, saying: That which eye has not seen, and ear has not heard, and has not entered into the heart of man, is what God has prepared for those who love him (1 Cor 2:9). [XLVI]
JOHN OF DALYATHA [96-99; 149-170]
John Saba came from Beth Nuhadra, in northern Mesopotamia, north of Mosul (Nineveh). As a child he read all the books in the local libraries, and as soon as possible he became a monk. He had two brothers, who also entered the monastery, and when he moved on into the solitary life he sent his thoughts, written on scrap materials, to his brothers; these writings were eventually combined into a book. He lived in the mountains of Beth Dalyatha, and later in the hills of Qardu, where he set up a monastery. He died at a great age and was buried in the monastery.
Like Francis of Assisi he had a reputation for being at ease with animals. Wild beasts would not harm him because they sniffed the scent of their Creator on him, he being so close to God. And he was an expert on how to overcome the evil spirits that aroused the various passions: he wrote discourses on the demons of gluttony, lechery, anger, distraction, distress, pride, and blasphemy.
The passionate man, the irascible man, the lover of glory, the miser, the glutton, the man engrossed in worldly things, the self-seeking person, the gabbler, the vehement man, the emotional person, all these grope about in the darkness outside the place of light and life, because this is the inheritance of the meek and the gentle and those that are pure in heart. [LXIV]
He continually harps (lyrically!) on the theme of purifying the heart and soul of passions in order to see God within oneself (Mt 5:8), to behold Christ ‘the splendour of the Father’.
He who holds his mouth back from talking preserves his heart from passions.
He whose heart is purified of passions sees God perpetually.
He who perpetually meditates on God drives devils away
and destroys the seed of their evil.
He who fixes his gaze within himself continually, his heart will exult in revelations.
He whose contemplation is collected within his mind
sees there the splendour of the Father.
He to whom all pleasures are contemptible will see his Lord within his heart. [LIX]
John Saba has a passage that parallels the close of the Hymn of the Pearl, with its great assembly of spirit-beings; he confirms again that Christ is the ‘splendour of the Father’ who welcomed the pearl-prince on his return home.
The habitat of the person whose soul is pure is within him, and the sun that shines there is the light of the Holy Trinity; the air breathed by its inhabitants is the Holy Spirit the Paraklete; his fellow-dwellers are the holy spiritual natures; and their life, their pleasure, and their exultation is Christ, the splendour of the Father. Moreover, this person is always exulting over the sight of his soul and marveling at its beauty, a hundred times more glorious than the orb of the sun. This is Jerusalem and the Kingdom of God concealed within us, in the words of our Lord, this place which is the Cloud of God’s Glory, which only the pure in heart may enter to behold the face of their Lord, and to have their mind made resplendent in his dazzling light.
John uses some startling imagery: an example is the possession of milk-laden breasts by all three members of the Godhead. In the following extract Repentance is personified as a mother who hands the child over to the Father to be nourished and nurtured, and to be deified (deification as the goal of mystics is also taught by Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, the patron of the Cistercians, who published this book of mine).
Glory be to you, O Father of all, for giving us repentance as a new mother for a new birth; for though our infancy pollutes us entirely with filthiness, she cleanses, purifies, beautifies, and cherishingly shelters under her wing those who are born of her, until they come through to you enlightened and dearly loved, to be gods and kings, and sons of your possession, to take their delight freely at your breast, in the breath of the nostrils of your Holy Spirit, to be made resplendent in your glory, to see your likeness as their own likeness, and to be changed through your Spirit into your glory. [LVIII]
John the Venerable’s collection of discourses is truly a treasury of precious pearls. Indeed he gave me the idea of Syriac mystics being ‘pearlers’, that is, merchants and divers seeking fine pearls.
Blessed is he who constantly dives into the endless sea to gather up pearls from its treasures. His is happiness beyond compare. Blessed is he who gazes within himself and sees the glorious ineffable light of the Holy Trinity and rejoices in it with infinite joy. [LVI]
These precious pearls are gathered and stored among the treasures of his mind by the merchant who is occupied with prayer. For truly he is swimming in the sea of life and cleansing himself in the mighty floods, to be purified and beautified so as to become a garment of purple for Christ the eternal King.
This is the strenuous diver captivated with desire for the sea that washes him. He would be delighted if he never had to come out of it. [LXVII]
Nevertheless, we have to come up for air now. We must not expect to abide in a constant state of bliss and ecstasy.
You may have heard already that the great book distributing corporation in the Amazon jungle made an offer you could not refuse (though I did): you can buy this book, The Wisdom of the Pearlers by Brain [sic] Colless, and receive a digital video disc of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Their brainy computer matched my word ‘mysticism’ (which means spirituality, for me) with ‘magic’. The offer has now been withdrawn, but I had my moment of fame: being associated with J.K. Rowling. She is having another of hers right now (June 2008), giving Harvard University’s graduation day commencement address. Maybe W.S. Gilbert was serious when he put on the executioner’s list “that singular anomaly, the lady novelist”. JKR’s books are allegedly teeming with magic, murder, mayhem, and sex.
I once did a spot check on a page of a Harry Potter novel: the scene was set in a schoolgirls’ lavatory. Horrible. Why, in my day Dorothy and the Wizard, Biggles and Ginger, the Swallows and Amazons, and especially the Famous Five, never went to the toilet; they were above that sort of thing.
However, John Saba happily admits that he did; he describes the ascetic labours of a certain monk (possibly himself): starving himself, standing out in the midday sun (in `Iraq!), burying himself in snow, standing up to his neck in freezing water. Consequently he felt proud of himself, and he thus became prey to the demon of arrogance. So he devised a stratagem against the evil devil, to plunge himself into humility.
I got myself a large pot, poured water into it, and then got some of the brothers’ excrement and urine and poured it in; and by the reek of the water’s foulness my body was shaken and benumbed. For a period of three years I drank some of it every day for the humiliation of my abominable self.
Then God took pity on him and the lights were turned on again in his soul.
Well, that’s a choice selection from my next book, the mystical discourses of John of Dalyatha. It will also have lots of lyrical passages describing his ecstatic experiences. It will have a generous index, as this book does, and if you are looking for ‘sex’ it will direct you to ‘celibacy’ and ‘chastity’.
Here is my final contemplative reflection. About me as a writer (a holy word which can only be applied to a person by others, like the title ‘saint’), and about making money. The text for meditation is from Simon Taibutheh, who has not been mentioned yet.
Come and marvel at a merchant who trades with a purse that has holes in it. [XXVIII]
J.K. Rowling has made pots of money out of her pottery books, and she is living like royalty.
In my humble case, I have gone potty mingling with these blessed monks and their chamber pots; I have received no royalties; and I am certainly not rolling in it.
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