Monthly Archives: January 2009

Fallen, fallen . . .


The ruins of Babylon.

Fallen, fallen is Babylon; and all the images of her gods lie shattered on the ground.
Isaiah 21.9

The ruins of Nineveh.

Nineveh is devastated; who will bemoan her?
Nahum 3.7

The outline of the ancient Neo-Assyrian walls of Nineveh is clear, even though the suburban sprawl of Mosul has resulted, shockingly, in a swath through the middle of the city being built over. Nearly nothing architectural survives. On the palace mound, a corrugated metal roof protects what’s left of the Assyrian throne room. Good riddance.

The ruins of Babylon are likewise encroached upon, though with more sinister implication. The three round shapes are artificial conical hills that the late, unlamented ruler of Iraq built to accomodate a few palaces for himself, with a view of ancient Babylon’s ruins, which he intended to resurrect to glory. The outline of the ziggurat is perhaps the most striking feature: it is now simply a sodden pit, as after Alexander the Great removed the bricks in order to facilitate its rebuilding, he died, and it was never rebuilt. (I am of the opinion that the ziggurat itself was the “Hanging Gardens of Babylon,” as ziggurat terraces were planted with trees and other greenery; the religious purpose of this structure was later unknown or unimportant and thus romanticized by later storytellers.) The glazed and fired bricks were then looted to build various structures nearby. The walls and remains of the ancient suburb to the west across the river are now obliterated, though the moat around the city proper does trace the remnants of the walls.

In both cases, cruel as their masters were, two of the greatest, most beautiful, wealthiest cities in the ancient world are now heaps of mud and sand, ugly, unimportant, and uninteresting aside from their pasts. Who could help but think of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s most famous poem?

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said : Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear :
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings :
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
Percy Bysshe Shelley, Ozymandias, 1817.

Ozymandias is a corruption of the praenomen of Ramesses the Great, Usermaatre, which in his own time would’ve been pronounced something like “Usermaria.” Shelley, here, was indulging in a bit of poetic hyperbole. The statue is indeed fallen, but Ramesses’ statues invariably show him with a slight, mysterious smile, never a “wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command.” The shattered statue which inspired the poem is now known as the Ozymandias Colossus and stands not where “lone and level sands stretch far away,” but in the very impressive ruins of the Ramesseum, which is the mortuary temple of Ramesses the Great in the necropolis of Thebes.

Lastly, this post is filed in the category Poetry, not only for the poem quoted immediately above, but for the poetic justice meted out to the capital cities of the Assyrians and Babylonians, from which was directed the ruin of so many cities of so many tribes and nations.

Posted in Poetry | 2 Comments

Forcing the Scriptures

These instances have been just touched upon by me (the limits of a letter forbid a more discursive treatment of them) to convince you that in the Holy Scriptures you can make no progress unless you have a guide to show you the way. I say nothing of the knowledge of grammarians, rhetoricians, philosophers, geometricians, logicians, musicians, astronomers, astrologers, physicians, whose several kinds of skills are most useful to manking, and may be ranged under the three heads of teaching, method, and proficiency. I will pass to the less important crafts which require manual dexterity more than mental ability. Husbandmen, masons, carpenters, workers in wood and metal, wood dressers and fullers, as well as those artisans who make furniture and cheap utensils, cannot attain the ends they seek without instruction from qualified persons. As Horace says:

Doctors alone profess the healing art
And none but joiners ever try to join.
Ep 2.1.115-16

The art of interpreting the Scriptures is the only one of which all men everywhere claim to be masters. To quote Horace again:

Taught or untaught we all write poetry.
Ep 2.1.117

The chatty old woman, the doting old man, and the wordy sophist, one and all take in hand the Scriptures, rend them in pieces and teach them before they have learned them. Some with brows knit and bombastic words balanced one against the other, philosophize concerning the sacred writings among weak women. Others—I blush to say it—learn of women what they are to teach men; and as if even this were not enough, they boldly explain to others what they themselves by no means understand. I say nothing of persons who, like myself, have been familiar with secular literature before they have come to the study of the Holy Scriptures. Such men when they charm the popular ear by the finish of their style suppose every word they say to be a law of God. They do not deign to notice what prophets and apostles have intended but they adapt conflicting passages to suit their own meaning, as if it were a grand way of teaching—and not rather the faultiest of all—to misrepresent a writer’s views and to force the Scriptures reluctantly to do their will. They forget that we have read centos from Homer and Vergil; but we never think of calling the Christless Vergil a Christian because of his lines:

Now comes the Virgin back and Saturn’s reign,
Now from high heaven comes a Child newborn.
Eclogue 4.6-7

Another line might be addressed by the Father to the Son:

Hail, only Son, my Might and Majesty.
Aeneid 1.664

And yet another might follow the Savior’s words on the cross:

Such words he spoke and there transfixed remained.
Aeneid 2.650

But all this is puerile, and resembles the sleight-of-hand of a mountebank. It is idle to try to teach what you do not know, and—if I may speak with some warmth—it is worse to be ignorant of your ignorance.

St Jerome, excerpt from Epistle 53 to St Paulinus of Nola. As presented in F. Sadowski, The Church Fathers On The Bible: Selected Readings (Alba House, 1987).

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Pre-Raphaelite Art

I have only just become aware that The Delaware Art Musem has placed online a site which very nearly renders me speechless (or typingless, to be sure): The Samuel and Mary R. Bancroft Collection of Pre-Raphaelite Art. The collection houses the largest collection of Pre-Raphaelite art outside of England, but art in its widest sense, including jewelry, pottery, and other ephemera, in addition to the paintings and drawings and poetry that most who are familiar with the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood might think of. Enjoy the implications of that for a moment, let your imagination take wing, and then, look at the beautiful pictures of the collection.

I do not believe that a person is truly civilized who does not appreciate the art of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Only beasts and demons could despise such beauty, and barbarians who ride the former and are ridden by the latter. Let your eyes take their rest from the ugliness of the world around you, and enjoy these intimations of another, lost, world. The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood attempted, in the face of a creeping secularism, to foment a return to a world in which the best of Christian symbolism permeated all, from wallpaper to earrings. Now their works are glittering reminders that touch . . . something . . . in us and remind us of a modern world that just might have been. There is a gentle melancholy to most of the art which I don’t think I imagine, but which may reflect the very Christian (one must specify “high church Anglican” if not “Anglo-Catholic”) disappointment with the late Victorian and early Edwardian ages: the latter the continuation of the former’s spiritual failures, the concretization of the capitulation of that spiritual war being found in the beginning of the Great War, the “war to end all wars.”

In any case, I’ve often showcased the poems and some prose of Christian Georgina Rossetti, sister of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, the most well-known of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood’s artists. She’s one of the greatest of English poets, yet seldom gets the attention she deserves. Why? Because the vast majority of her work is explicitly Christian, and the modern litterati (mere barbarians, mind you) cannot abide it.

And whether you, dear reader, agree with all or any of the above or not, the images of the collection show us some beautiful creations sprung from the vastly inventive imagination and the skillful hand of humanity, and surely are to be admired. Enjoy.

Posted in Culture & Arts | 10 Comments

Two Syrian Pearls

On 28 January in the Eastern Orthodox calendar we commemorate those two luminaries of the Syrian church, Saint Ephrem and Saint Isaac. There is so much to say about these two Fathers that I am at a loss for words. I would much rather let their writings speak for themselves.

To begin, I have posted some selections of St Ephrem’s writings here before: St. Ephrem the Syrian on Psalm 1, Perhaps…, Halfway Between Awe and Love, Dreading the Apocalypse, and A Drop of Thanksgiving in a Sea of Glory. Even just those excerpts, short as they are, will win the noetic heart over to a greater love of this Saint of the Church. I would recommend also these several books: A Spiritual Psalter, Saint Ephrem the Syrian: Hymns on Paradise, Ephrem the Syrian: Hymns, The Luminous Eye: The Spiritual World Vision of Saint Ephrem the Syrian, and The Syriac Fathers on Prayer.

I have likewise excerpted from St Isaac’s works in the past: Prayer is…, Inebriated by the mysteries, The Sea of Scriptures, Scripture, Prayer, and Life, St Isaac the Syrian on the Three Degrees of Knowledge, Gehenna is the fruit of sin, Intermonastic rumble!, A prayer of repentance, and A Pearl of a Prayer. Since the state of preservation of this Saint’s writings is somewhat complicated, I have posted a detailed description of the editions available, which include some books of excerpts. The future assuredly will bring forth more of this Saint’s God-inspired wisdom out of Syriac treasuries for the noetic delight of the Anglolinguic. What is available now is already a great spiritual feast.

St Ephrem was born in Nisibis, near the volatile border between the Roman and Persian Empires, in the very early fourth century, most likely to a Christian family, though the Syriac Life of St Ephrem describes his father as a pagan priest. He lived in Nisibis and wrote much of his work there until 363 AD, after the death of Julian the Apostate, when, at the capitulation of Julian’s successor Jovian, the border shifted, and Nisibis was incorporated into the Persian Empire. The citizenry of Nisibis was forced to abandon their city, so they moved westward in Syria, to within the Roman areas that were not under contention. St Ephrem and likely very may others from Nisibis settled in Edessa, the mother-city of Syriac Christianity. St Ephrem continued his literary work here, founding a school for Scriptural and theological studies. He likewise trained choirs of women to sing his many hymns. St Ephrem was ordained a deacon after his arrival in Edessa. On 9 June 373, he fell asleep in the Lord, while in the midst of ministering to those suffering in an outbreak of the plague. From at least the tenth century, St Ephrem has been icongraphically depicted as a monastic, though there is no indication that he was ever a monastic. It is, however, certain that the spiritual light with which his work shines has always been appreciated especially in monastic circles. The monks, in love, have thus claimed him as one of their own. Yet St Ephrem’s writings enrich all of us who are attentive to them:

Who, being a mortal, can tell about the Reviver of all,
Who left the height of His majesty and came down to smallness?
You, Who magnify all by being born, magnify my weak mind
that I may tell about Your birth, not to investigate Your majesty,
but to proclaim Your grace. Blessed is He Who is both hidden and revealed in His actions!
It is a great wonder that the Son, Who dwelt entirely in a body,
inhabited it entirely, and it suffered for Him. Although limitless, He dwelt in it.
His will was entirely in Him; His totality was not in Him.
Who is sufficient to say that although He dwelt entirely in the body,
still He dwelt entirely in the universe? Blessed is the Unlimited Who was limited!
Your majesty is hidden from us; Your grace is revealed before us.
I will be silent, my Lord, about your majesty, but I will speak about Your grace.
Your grace seized hold of You and inclined You toward our evil.
Your grace made You a Babe; Your grace make You a human being.
Your majesty contracted and stretched out. Blessed is the power that became small and became great!
Glory to Him Who became earthly although heavenly by His nature!
From Hymn on the Nativity, 23. Ephrem the Syrian: Hymns, translated by Kathleen McVey, pp 187-188.

The date of St Isaac’s birth and of his falling asleep in the Lord are both unknown. It has, however, been determined that he wrote his Ascetical Homilies somewhere around 680 AD. The following excerpt from a West Syrian Life of Saint Isaac (unfortunately, the date and author are unknown) contains just about all we know of him:

Further we record the history (or indeed the triumph) of the blessed Father Mar Ishaq (Isaac), which declares his homeland, his way of life, and how he was bishop of Nineveh, but afterward forsook this and went to a monastery and composed five volumes of instruction for monks. This Mar Isaac of Nineveh was born in the region of Beit Qatraye [=Qatar] beneath India. When he had become versed in the writings of the Church and the commentaries, he became a monk and a teacher in his own region. But when Mar Giwargis (George) the Katholikos came to his region [in 676 AD], he took him to Beit Aramaya [=the central lands of the Persian Church, in the area around the Tigris River] because one of his relatives was Mar Gabriel the scriptural interpreter of the Church. Mar Isaac was ordained bishop of Nineveh in the Monastery of Beit ‘Abe. But because of the acuteness of his intellect and his zeal, he could only endure the pastoral care of his city for five months; then he retuned to his stillness. He persuaded the Papa [=the Katholikos] to dismiss him, and the Papa gave him the command to depart. Then he left and dwelt in stillness in the mountain of Beit Huzaye [=Huzistan, in modern southern Iran] together with the monks who lived thereabouts. Finally he became blind and the brethren wrote down his teaching. They called him the second Didymos, for indeed, he was quiet, kind, and humble, and his word was gentle. He ate only three loaves a week with some vegetables, and he did not taste any food that was cooked. He composed five volumes, that are known even until this day, filled with sweet teaching…. Thereafter, when he had grown old and advanced in years, he departed unto our Lord, and he was placed in the monastery of Mar Shabur. May the prayer of the Theotokos Mary and his prayer and that of all the saints be with us! Amen. The Ascetical Homilies of Saint Isaac the Syrian (Holy Transfiguration Monastery edition), pp lxv-lxvii.

From the words of Saint Isaac himself, gain edification:

As a handful of sand thrown into the great sea, so are the sins of all flesh in comparison with the mind of God. And just as a strongly flowing spring is not obstructed by a handful of dust, so the mercy of the Creator is not stemmed by the vices of His creatures. As a man who sows in the sea and expects to reap a harvest, so is he who remembers wrongs and prays. As the flame of fire cannot be checked from rising upward, so the prayers of the merciful are not hindered from ascending to Heaven. The current of a stream runs swiftly in a narrow place, and likewise the force of anger whenever it finds a place in our mind. The man who has acquired humility in his heart is dead to this world. He who is dead to the world had died to the passions. For to the man who has died in his heart to his kinsmen, the devil is dead. He who has found malice, with it has found him who originally found it.
Ascetical Homilies of Saint Isaac the Syrian, from Homily 51, HTM edition, page 244.

Here we conclude with the kontakia of these two Saints, particularly beloved to monastics, in English translations from The Great Horologion (another publication of Holy Transfiguration Monastery):

Kontakion of Saint Ephraim
Second Tone. Thou soughtest the heights

At all times didst thou
foresee the hour of reckoning
and pricked in thy heart
thou ever didst lament with tears;
and, O righteous Ephraim, thou was a mighty teacher in works and deeds.
Hence, O Father for all the world,
thou didst rouse the slothful unto change of heart.

Kontakion of Saint Isaac.
Plagal of Fourth Tone. To thee, the Champion Leader

As an ascetic and God-bearer great in righteousness
and an instructor of monastics do we honour thee
thou revealer of things sacred, and our protector.
But, O Isaac, since thou has great boldness with the Lord,
intercede with Him for all of us who sing thy praise
and who cry to thee:
Rejoice, O Father most wise in God.

May you sleep well and dream of Saints tonight!

Posted in Patristics | 7 Comments


Metropolitan Kyrill [Gundyaev] of Smolensk and Kaliningrad has been elected Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia.

Αξιος! Αξιος! Αξιος!

Εις πολλα ετη Δεσποτα!

Posted in Eastern Orthodoxy | 2 Comments

Waiting for the Typhoon

A middle-class district. The hammers tapping
All day, and all the radios talking of so many
Metres per second, and all the aerials flapping.
Cans and candles have vanished from the shops.
The price of timber, for boarding the windows,
Has gone up and up. The tapping never stops.

The worst since—when was it? Oh damn it all,
It is always the worst something since sometime—
The worst rainy season, the worst A-bomb, the
Worst H-bomb, the worst political scandal, the
Worst harvest, or the worst outbreak of sex-crime.

Listening to the hammers and the chattered warning,
Watching the tethered trees and the urgent clouds—
       tonight or tomorrow morning?
One thinks of those who are truly embarrassed,
Whose houses would faint at the sight of a hammer,
Whose homes, tomorrow, will have fallen down
       in the worst way since last time.

Even the cicadas begin to sound a little harassed.
       Turning a desperate somersault,
A small green insect shelters in the bowels of my
       quivering typewriter—
Good reason for me to call a halt.

D. J. Enright, from Bread Rather Than Blossoms, 1956. Available in Collected Poems: 1948-1998.

For Doug, on the way to Japan. Highly recommended. All of the Bread Rather Than Blossoms poems were written while Visiting Professor at Konan University in Kobe.

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ESV with Apocrypha

New blogger Theophrastus at What I Learned From Aristotle (which looks like it’ll be a really great blog: his name and title rock, and among his first posts are some on lipograms and new editions of Dracula!) makes note of a new edition of the English Standard Version Bible with Apocrypha. Oddly, it’s published by Oxford University Press, USA, rather than Crossway. The apocrypha in this Bible are apparently the RSV Apocrypha only very lightly reworked (Theophrastus was unable to find any differences in a quick spot-check of various passages). Unfortunately, it sounds as though the physical attributes of this edition are of unacceptably shoddy quality. Both Theophrastus and a blogger he links to mention negatively the extremely thin, non-opaque paper used in this edition. Bleed-through is the bane of all heavy readers. Also, the Apocrypha section is placed at the back of the book, after the NT. Granted, my Oxford Annotated Bible (first edition with the RSV) also has the Apocrypha at the back, but it’s just as odd there, too. So, I’m going to pass on this particular edition. If they release an edition of better quality, I’ll consider it, but it’s not at all compelling. I enjoy the Apocrypha in the NRSV more than those of the RSV, particularly the GII text of Tobit and the full text of Greek Esther. Overall, it sounds like a real non-plus, which is disappointing. These days, I’m much, much happier with another Oxford Bible: the New English Translation of the Septuagint. The work that the translators went to in order to represent in English the peculiar literalistic rendering of the Hebrew in the Greek is simply astounding. Also, having the so-called apocryphal books interspersed in their traditional localtions amongst the other books in the NETS is a real plus. The introductions are without compare, and necessary reading for anyone interesting in the Septuagint.

So, many thanks and welcome, Theophrastus!

Posted in Biblical Studies | 4 Comments