I heard the story of St. Tekla (Taqla) while having tea and coffee with my traveling companions in Damascus, Syria, this past January. We had journeyed to Lebanon as partner churches of the National Evangelical Synod of Syria and Lebanon from the U.S., Sweden and Switzerland, to hear how the church is dealing with the war in Syria, now in its fourth year. As part of this encouragement trip, sixteen of us traveled to Damascus on the highway from Beirut. As you can imagine, the journey was a lonely one with very little traffic, most of it going the other way to leave Syria.
When we arrived at the immigration station just outside of Damascus, we were met by the Minister of Protocol for President Assad. We enjoyed dark, sweet Arabic coffee and sweets with him before making our final journey to our hotel in Damascus. It is simply the Middle East hospitality which you find everywhere. Indeed, when we had a meeting with President Assad himself the next day, we were served the best tea in beautiful china cups as we had 72 minutes of question and answer with him, all in regard to the status of the church. But I digress from St. Tekla…
On a walking tour of the Christian quarter of Damascus, we visited the house of Ananias. This is the very same place mentioned in Acts chapter 9, where Saul of Tarsus is baptized and renamed Paul. This Paul would go on to be a great apostle of Jesus, starting churches all over what is now Turkey. Paul himself discipled many, and the story is that young Tekla was one of these students. She professed her faith, and as many in those first centuries were, was persecuted for it. She was marked for death by her family and by the man they wanted her to marry. She escaped, as legend tells it, through a miraculous opening in a mountain into a place now known as Maaloula in Syria. There is a monastery there bearing her name, Mar Taqla, and her remains are said to be entombed there. Considering the value of a woman in those days, it was a wonderful story for this woman of faith to hear. (Maaloula might have been a refuge for St. Tekla in the first century, but it is not a refuge anymore. Just Google Maaloula and you can find stories of what happened there.)
Just like the coffee, tea and sweets at the border and in the president’s office, this story was told over coffee and tea at a table on the street outside the house of Ananias. Some of our cohort had been shopping for local crafts in a small craft store right next to the house of Ananias. Indeed, we had shopped there more than three years earlier on another trip, that one made just months before the Arab Spring and all its aftermath, including the war in Syria.
On that trip we had shopped in that same store, and as it was small, after making our purchases left the store to make room for others. My friend Sue and I walked just across the narrow street to another craft shop and met Elias, who showed us how they make the beautiful wood inlay on boxes and crosses and backgammon sets, souvenirs to bring home from this ancient city. I bought a box for my husband and had Elias sign the bottom. It is a treasured possession!
As we were sitting out on the street, enjoying the tea and coffee served by the friendly shopowner, it struck me that he and the shop looked familiar. It was the same shop! Our server was Elias, the woodworker, only now due to the war there are no tourists to buy his wares, just some random Christians from another land sitting at his table while mortars exploded in the distance. His life has been reduced to selling coffee and tea to area residents who wander by. I was so excited to see him again that I jumped up and overwhelmed him with an embrace. His smile spoke volumes and though I don’t speak Arabic and he doesn’t speak English, we both understood the other.
As we continued to sit and enjoy the beverages, Elias went back in the shop and brought out a dusty laminated icon. Yes. It was St. Tekla. That was how I heard her story. I wanted to pay him for it and he refused. It was a gift. Another in the party suggested I could get an authentic icon at an antique shop. But that’s not what I wanted. I had been given this gift by my brother in Christ and therein was its value.
Because of this brother, I learned St. Tekla’s story. And now you know his story. And his name…Elias.