A Syriac world view of ecological conversion

Greetings from Darug Country.

In 2015 Pope Francis wrote his encyclical Laudato Si, it is in my view prophetic. 

The science is clear, in coming years the world is facing ecological crisis. We are approaching a time when many will be living in great fear and as the science tells us, the most vulnerable and the poor will be exposed to this crisis more than anyone else. 

This is a time when the Church can lead in a world that will be panicked and uncertain. This will be an area which can unite. If the Church seizes this opportunity, and works with others, including the secular, our First Nations People, other Christian denominations and other faith groups, this will be a time when we can unveil to others the beauty of our Church. It will be a time when the Church can offer an alternative to the degradation and decline both of nature and of faith. 

In my own Syriac spiritual tradition, it is emphasised that nature and the natural word stand side by side with Scripture as witness to God. Ecological conversion is not just about climate change, it infuses every aspect of our physical and spiritual being. We are called to stand in wonder and in gratitude of the natural world as it is God’s own revelation to us. We are called to look the natural world with reverence, as in it, are the symbols of God. Our attitude towards Creation is demonstrative of our attitude towards God and each other. Like Adam and Eve in the Garden, when sin enters Paradise, it disturbs the balance and the harmony of things. A balance and harmony that Christ the Gardener came to restore. 

Human injustice goes beyond its own injustice. Our greed, our waste our turning away from God and our rejection of him in our own mistreatment of our neighbours and Creation impacts beyond the moment. It disturbs the natural order of things.  As we have already begun to see, the rising seas have an impact on our neighbours in Oceania and the warming of the earth has an impact  on our people in the bush. For me in this moment, the words of St Ephrem, a deacon and giant of spirituality in the Syriac Church are ringing louder than ever:

‘Because the mouth of human beings had condemned Him, 

The Voice of creation cried out to proclaim him innocent.

Men were silent, so the stones cried out.’

God’s revelation in nature is crying out. It is reminding us that God is still here, that Christ is still in our midst and that we must join our voices with the stones crying out and the mountains shaking, like they did at the time of the crucifixion  and profess Christ to the world. Let us not be a Church that is reactionary, rather let us be the leaders in this moment so that the world might know that truth is in Christ. If we begin now, then in the decades to come the world can recover and it will be certain that that recovery was in Christ.

Theresa Simon

St Helena and St Constantine

May 21 marks the feast of St Helena and Constantine the Great, emperor of Rome.

St Helena is said to be born in Drepana, Asia Minor, modern day Turkey around 248AD. She came from humble beginnings and was called a good stable-maid.

She met Constantius while he was serving in Asia Minor. He saw her as his soulmate. They got married and Helena gave birth to the future emperor Constantine around 270AD.

Constantius divorced Helena in pursuit of a wife that would elevate his rising status. Constantine never left Helena and was very loyal to her. They were sent to Diocletian, Nicomedia where Constantine became a member of the inner circle. He kept Helena close to him.

Helena never remarried.

Constantius died in 308 and Constantine became emperor. He elevated his mother’s title to Augusta and minted coin in her image. She was given free reign over the treasury.

Helena converted to Christianity and convinced Constantine to stop the persecution of Christians. This was the beginning of the Roman Catholic Church. Helena was around 65 years old at the time of her conversion.

For the next 15 years, she built churches and discovered many relics, the greatest of them to be the one true cross of Christ. She had a fondness for the Holy Land and had the church of the nativity in Bethlehem built as well as the Church of Eleona at the Mount of Olives, the site of the Ascension.

Helena destroyed the temple of Venus in Jerusalem then began excavation projects to find the True Cross. Workers found 3 crosses. Helena brought a woman with a terminal illness, she touched the first and second cross. She was still sick. When she touched the third cross, she was cured.
St Helena declared the 3rd cross to be the True Cross of Christ.

St Constantine ordered the church of the Sepulchre to be constructed over the site of the findings.

St Helena continued to find relics throughout her life such as the nails of the cross, Christ’s tunic and pieces of the rope to tie Jesus to the cross.

Eusebius described her as follows: “Especially abundant were the gifts she bestowed on the naked and unprotected poor. To some she gave money, to others an ample supply of clothing; she liberated some from imprisonment, or from the bitter servitude of the mines; others she delivered from unjust oppression, and others again, she restored from exile.”

She visited churches and donated great sums. She contributed greatly to the spread of Christianity throughout the empire.

She died in 330 with Constantine by her side.

Constantine continued to support the Catholic Church financially, built basilicas, placed Christians in high office, returned property that was confiscated during persecution and legislated that Sunday is a rest day for all citizens.

He summoned the first council of Nicaea which dealt with Arianism and the institution of the Nicene creed.

Constantine was only baptised on his deathbed in 337. He hoped that he would be absolved of sin before death.

St Helena and Constantine, pray for us

St Hilarion – 21 October

St Hilarion was a hermit that spent most of his life in the desert, taking from the example of St Anthony the Great. St Hilarion is considered to be the founder of Palestinian monasticism.

He was born in 291AD in Tabatha, South of Gaza in Palestine to pagan parents. He studied in Alexandria, Egypt and it was there he was converted to Christianity. After his conversion he rejected all worldly pleasures of the day and spent all his time at church.

He heard of St Anthony and at only age 15, Hilarion went to live with him in the desert but returned after 2 months since the hermitage was preoccupied with healing visitors who were sick. Hilarion returned to find his parents had died. He gave his inheritance to his brothers and the poor. He left for the wilderness. He took a shirt of coarse linen, a cloak of skins given to him by St Anthony and a coarse blanket.

He led a nomadic life, fasting and only eating a prudent meal after sundown. He lived a life of hardship and simplicity in the desert where he also experienced many temptations and desolation.

He became well known in Palestine after 22 years of living in the wilderness, the sick came and asked him for help. This drove Hilarion to retreat to more remote locations, but people still trekked out to see him. He went to St Anthony’s retreat in Egypt, Sicily, Dalmatia and then to Cyprus where he died in 371.

Miracles that he is associated with are curing a barren woman in Palestine, he cured 3 children of a fatal illness, he healed a paralysed charioteer and expelled many demons.

St Hilarion by Basil II c.1000 Vatican Library

The Sinful woman, a Church of action

On this fifteenth week of Pentecost, we hear of yet another woman as part of the collection of Pentecost Gospel’s.  She is the sinful woman who found repentance through Christ. (Luke 7:36-50).

As we highlighted last week, the Maronite Pentecost lectionary gives as a typology of women, Brides of the Groom, to inspire us to the Church we are called to be. A Church on a missionary journey who is accompanied and healed by Christ himself. 

The sinful woman came to Christ begging for his forgiveness. One of the most beautiful literary techniques used in Syriac literature is that of dialogue. The dialogues usually draws on a moment of tension from the Gospel and then two speakers conduct an argument in alternating verses. One of these is between Satan and the Sinful women. In this stunning dialogue the author draws out, through Satan, the tension he imagined would have been going through the sinful women’s mind in approaching Jesus.

The poem starts with a beautiful introduction in which we are told that God sent his Son clothed in his humanity as the Compassionate doctor who could heal. The Sinful Woman had heard of his healing and knew he was at Simeon the Pharisees house, she had resolved to go to him for forgiveness of her sins. As witness that the early Syriac writers saw this woman as the Church, the woman states to Satan:

I am indeed brazen and impudent,
And debauched men have loved me
But Christ the Bridegroom has betrothed me,
And he has made me holy, to be with Himself

We hear this theme of the Church being the Bride of Christ throughout the Maronite Pentecost liturgy:

Jesus is the faithful Groom
and we are the Church, his Bride.

In the poem, Satan is an externalization of what the writer imagines are the sinful women’s innermost thoughts. The poem highlights the sinful women’s struggles in detaching from her former life and gate crashing the party to meet Jesus. Her worst self and all that is bad about her is being portrayed by Satan who gives her all the reasons to stay away from Jesus, including:

SATAN: I can see that you’ve gone out of your mind,
You don’t know what you are saying.
You’ve never read the Scriptures,
And yet here you are expounding their words!
WOMAN: I can see that you are ashamed,
For the Son of God has condemned you.
Up to today I belonged to you,
But from now on I reject you and your friends.
SATAN: You’d be better off, my girl, if you stayed back
And didn’t go off to Mary’s son.
Perhaps, unbeknown to you, he’s already scowling at you,
And if he sees you he will be angry.
WOMAN: What could be happier than today
If I go and approach Mary’s Son?
I be better off even if HE killed me,
For I’d escape from you, the enemy of everyone.

The Gospel also highlights Simon the Pharisee was outraged that the Sinful woman touched Jesus and we hear Jesus say to him:

Simon, “Do you see this woman? I came into your house. You did not give me any water for my feet, but she wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet.You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet. Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven—as her great love has shown. But whoever has been forgiven little loves little.”

Our faith is demonstrated by our actions and not our condemnation. Here we would like to address something relevant to our times. 

Social media can be used as a wonderful resource for evangelisation, however used incorrectly, it can also drive people away from the Church. Our Maronite Church can reach out in a very unique way to those who may not know Christ. People are not going to be attracted to a negative Church, one that is unhappy and focused on consistently debating and judging. People are not going to be attracted to an angry mob.  The Church is not going to be attractive if the people in it are morally outraged, full of self-righteousness or judgemental like Simon was.

Before you share, post or comment, think about the overall objective and whether it will bring those in need of God’s mercy to the Church. The dialogue between Satan and the Sinful woman highlights the voices that might drive people away. The need to win an unnecessary argument or correct in the short-term can drive others away. People are looking for something that gives them peace, not a fight.  For God is not the author of confusion but of peace, as in all the churches of the saints. 1Co 14:33

Observers seeing people confusion and chaos will not find the Church attractive. A discussion that descends into argument, heated debate and attacks will not bring anyone to Christ. There are times when it is actually prudent to say nothing. 

Collectively we are part of the Church. How one of us behaves can have an impact on the Church as a whole. People who may be seeking Christ could be watching. The faith is not an ideology, it is a living example and we are witnesses to it.

Do not share things you can not verify yourself or believe them just because a ‘friend’ told you so. Next time you want to post, comment or share, think about the bigger picture. Think about whether it is necessary and whether it will bring you or others closer to Christ.

We shall conclude with the same prayer of the dialogue between the Sinful woman and Satan.

‘O Son of God, who opened Your mouth
And forgave the Sinful woman her sins
Forgive us our sins too, just as you did her
For we have sinned just as she did.
And as the Sinful Woman was forgiven
Because she kissed your feet in Simeon’s house
So you forgive Your Church
Which, at the altar consumes Your Body and Blood.’

Amen

Responding to Institutional Abuse

Certain allegations have emerged about abuse within Mission De Vie which is under the auspice of the Maronite Church in Lebanon. We are in no position to know the truth of any of those allegations and can’t comment on them.  However, experiences from around the world have demonstrated how sinister abuse in institutions can be.  In many parts of the world the Catholic Church is still dealing with the devastation amongst many of the religious orders and institutions in which these crimes have been committed. There have been a number of important lessons that have been learnt from situations in other countries which have uncovered institutional abuse against children and others forms of abuse around the world that we think are useful to be reminded about now.

  1. As a Church we must demand the highest standards of ourselves, especially when it comes to child protection. We must take complaints seriously and ensure the highest regulations of ourselves. We must also submit to the independent regulations which have been put in place for the protection of children in the civil societies we live in. Abuse does happen in the Church and it is unacceptable
  2. Voices calling out abuse must be supported, and we must demand they be heard. Natural justice, investigation and transparency are essential to uncovering the truth. Political interference in the judicial process and trial by media must be avoided. The media in particular must be careful in reporting witness testimony before it has been given in court and before investigations are concluded so as not to taint evidence or cause the victim further pain. We must remember that everyone deserves the right to due process and natural justice, including those accused. That is fundamental to uncovering the truth and protecting victims, and potential victims. Due process also requires that the judiciary is free from political and other influences and corruption. We accept that things become difficult when the allegations involve people of high profile and when the media and others are ready to decide cases even before the law has. Legislators must refrain from interfering with any process before investigations are concluded.
  1. What matters is the truth and it matters beyond reputations, including the reputation of the Church. Investigations of institutionalised abuse have revealed that so often the abuse continued because victims, especially children were not heard, because those that knew about the abuse remained silent, because those who reported it were not believed or because complaints were never investigated. Even more often, it was because people in power were more concerned about their own reputation and the reputation of the institution or the Church, than concerned with doing what was right and protecting children or victims.
  1. Abuse, especially at the hands of those in positions in power is nothing new and is not confined to the walls of the Church. Institutions are susceptible to it for all sorts of reasons which we are now learning about. It is made even worse in those developing countries that lack regulations or where there is lack of enforcement or where institutions are closely aligned to the political or judicial system and can influence it. It is also shocking, for some beyond belief and it challenges everything they have ever trusted. For the faithful, it is a huge betrayal and it takes time to process. Education is key.
  1. We must avoid defensiveness and the rhetoric of defensiveness. To the amazement of many, sometimes even ourselves, we stay in our Church, even when we are surrounded by the stench that is overwhelming us. We believe the Church and our spiritual lives transcend beyond the stench and beyond the actions of individuals. The collateral damage is the people who leave the Church because of the deep sense of disgust and betrayal they feel and we don’t judge them for that. But for those of us that remain in the Church, this is no time to remain silent. Avoid seeing things as an attack or a persecution of the Church. Rather anything that reveals the truth in fairness and in process must be welcomed. We must demand it before anyone, because that is what Christ demands of us – to protect those who cannot protect themselves and be a voice for those who are not heard and are hurt or marginalised.
  1. Today we pray for all those who have experienced sexual abuse, especially by those in positions of power in our own Church. We pray for all those who have to endure the consequences of it in fear and we pray, in this season of the Birth of Our Lord, we pray that the infant babe will protect all children.

Amen


Warning:

We understand that some readers may themselves have experienced sexual assault.
Be careful about disclosing your experience on social media. Others may not understand the issue causing you further distress. If this article causes you distress seek help from a rape or abuse service provider in your area.

What the Lebanese Revolution can teach us on this Renewal Sunday

This Sunday in the Maronite Church we commemorate Renewal Sunday in preparation for the start of the liturgical year.

Over the past 24 days we have been witnessing a revolution in Lebanon. As a child of the diaspora, I know well that the problems in Lebanon stretch back further than 30 years. I was born in Australia and my story is a familiar one. My father, like many of his generation, came to Australia nearly 50 years ago, even before the civil war, for a better life and greater opportunities.

One of the triggers of the Lebanese revolution were bushfires. Anger raged among the people as it was revealed that the Lebanese government had failed to maintain the air equipment that was needed to fight the fires. In the last month fires have also raged in the Amazon and California. This week in already drought-stricken parts of Australia we have also witnessed bushfires. In NSW over 150 homes have been lost, three people killed and almost an entire native koala population has been wiped out.

Creation is God’s revelation to us and right now Creation is crying out in pain for the damage we are causing to it. In the developed world, we continue to live in denial of the damage we are causing.

Something has awoken in the Lebanon. It is no secret that developing countries will be the first to feel the effects of climate change, pollution and degradation. Already Lebanon is experiencing an increased rate of environment related cancers and is drowning in its own waste.

Over the past two weeks, the world has witnessed as this small nation rises and demands better of its politicians. Collective voices are demanding change which will bring an end to the corruption and the exploitation of people and the environment. We have watched as people take their own initiatives to clean waste and recycle. Lebanon has become a message to all of us around the world. The entire world needs change and renewal, because all around the fires of destruction are raging.

Indigenous Australian’s long managed the environments using fire. They controlled fire rather than letting it control them. They used fire as a means to renew the bush rather than destroy it. We are all looking to Lebanon and are watching and willing, that in peace control the fires of rage and transform it into genuine change. The revolution is giving us all hope to demand the changes that all the world needs.

On this Renewal Sunday, let us pray and seek renewal from the burning fire of the Holy Spirit. Guided by the Spirit’s wisdom, let us seek renewal for ourselves, our families, our Church, our nations and most importantly Creation.

Women in the Pentecost Gospels

A Maronite lesson in the Church we are called to be

Pentecost marks the birth of the Church and throughout the season we hear Gospels and Epistles with messages to the Church. As Pentecost comes to an end, we hear a series of Gospel’s whose central characters are women. While the Gospel’s can speak to each of us individually about the kind of person we should be, these Gospel’s are chosen to speak to us collectively about the Church we are called to be, a Church that is called to decrease in order to increase.

In the Syriac Rabbula Gospel icon for Pentecost, we see the inclusion of Mary in a prominent position.  Mary is not specifically mentioned in the scene in Acts 2, however she is mentioned as being with the Apostles earlier in Acts 1:14. In Syriac thought, Mary herself is a type of  Church. As the Pentecost Gospel’s unfold, we see other women in the Gospels are also types of Church.

On the twelfth Sunday of Pentecost we are introduced to the Canaanite woman (Matthew 15:21-28). The Gospel begins with Jesus leaving “that place” and going to the region of Tyre and Sidon. The place he was leaving was where he had been challenged by the Pharisees and teachers of the law about the breaking of the traditions of the elders (Matthew 15:1). The leaders and experts of the Church are burdened and preoccupied with the laws and  it is against this exchange, that we are introduced to the Canaanite woman, a foreigner. The Canaanite woman’s call to Jesus demonstrates immediately that she knew who he was. She recognised he is Lord, the Son of David and that he is the one that can heal her demon possessed daughter who is suffering terribly. The disciples tell Jesus to send the woman away and Jesus, in what can only be regarded a humiliating rebuke, tells the woman that he was sent only for the lost sheep of Israel.

When our faith is challenged and we are

humiliated our instinct is to react and demand justice for ourselves. Instead, even when the Canaanite women was compared to a dog and humiliated and marginalised, her concern remained for her daughter’s healing. She knew that Christ was the path to that healing and she continued to beg him for it.

In the season of Pentecost,  the Canaanite woman becomes an example to us all about the Church we are called to be. The Canaanite woman is not preoccupied with the law, rather she understands the law and with that understanding approaches Christ in love, faith and humility.

With so much happening in our world today, it is easy for us to consider ourselves persecuted and react with anger and demand justice for ourselves, forgetting those who are suffering terribly. It is easier to speak of the “rules” like the Pharisees and teachers of the law and demand that they not be broken. The Canaanite woman does not react this way, instead she unravels her beauty in humility and meekness and becomes an example of faith. She kneels before Christ and begs him, not for herself, but for her daughter who needs healing. To be the Canaanite woman is counter intuitive to how we think the Church should conduct herself in society. Why shouldn’t the Church stand up and defend itself? Against our intuition, we as a Church do not need to demand justice for ourselves, rather we need to have faith that our love and humility can lead others to be healed by Christ.

On the thirteenth Sunday of Pentecost, in the Gospel of Luke 8:1-15 we hear about the women who were accompanying Jesus, including Mary Magdalene, Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward, Susanna ‘and many others who provided for them out of their resources.’

These were women who were healed by Christ are now devoting their resources to accompany Christ, preaching and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God.

The mission of the Church is a central theme in Pentecost. The Church is called to devote its resources to preaching and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God. The women in this Gospel are testimony to the fact that Christ came for all of our healing and salvation. This is the very mission of the Church, to proclaim that good news.  In the season of Pentecost, we are reminded that the Holy Spirit has been sent to give us the wisdom to take the message of redemption to the world. As a Church, the message is simple, Christ came for our healing and our salvation and like the women who were healed, we as a Church also stand witness to that and are called to proclaim that. These women have left everything to be with Christ and join him on his mission.

Similarly, on the fourteenth Sunday of Pentecost we hear the story of Mary and Martha. Mary leaves everything to be with Christ. Like the other Gospels, Luke 10:38-42 opens with Christ, accompanied by others, continuing a journey.

Martha like the Pharisees in Matthew’s Gospel is burdened, “anxious and worried about many things” even though Christ came to lift that burden and fulfil the law.

The message to us as a Church, is we need to avoid getting caught up in anxiety for the future, of losing our rights and way of life. Christians trust God to provide for them. The Church is more than an ideology. When as a Church, we become disciples of the ideology and are consumed by anxiety, we forget the very essence of who we are. Christ is at our centre and as a Church, like Mary, all we need is to be with him.

This year, the liturgical cycle did not proceed to the fifteenth week of Pentecost, yet in that week we would hear the Gospel of the sinful woman who found repentance through Christ. (Luke 7:36-50)

The Maronite  Pentecost lectionary gives as a typology of women to inspire us to the Church we are called to be, a Church of faith, love and humility. A Church on a missionary journey who is accompanied and healed by Christ himself.

In the words of the Liturgy at Pentecost let us remember:

Jesus is the faithful Groom
and we are the Church, his Bride.
He loves us and keeps us in the palm of his hand.
Our betrothal prophets blessed,
and our vows apostles wrote,
and when martyrs shed their blood
the promise was sealed.

Amen