The Tree of Life

And he showed me a pure river of water of life, clear as crystal, proceeding from the throne of God and of the Lamb. In the middle of its street, and on either side of the river, was the tree of life, which bore twelve fruits, each tree yielding its fruit every month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.  (Rev. 22:1-2)

I cannot help but mention that this is Earth Day, which reminds me that from the beginning God made us stewards of his garden and all of creation. And I come from Nebraska, the home of Arbor Day, which we set aside to recognize the importance of planting trees. These things struck me as we began our day at the National Presbyterian Church of Aleppo with the planting of an olive tree, but I will return to that later.

Rev. Jim Wood of First Presbyterian Church, Norfolk, Virginia, receives a stone from the demolished Presbyterian church in Aleppo from Rev. Ibrahim Nseir.

As we gathered with our brothers and sisters for Sunday worship, I couldn’t help but think back to a hot August Sunday in 2010, the last time a group from The Outreach Foundation experienced the Lord’s day in this place with these people. It was in a building, which dated to sometime in the mid-19th century. That building was destroyed in November, 2012. We stood in the midst of the rubble of that place today with Rev. Ibrahim Nseir and some of the church’s elders. “Where was the sanctuary, Assis?” we asked. As he stood on the broken stones of the place where he once preached and served the Iraqi refugees who were in his city, he pointed over his shoulder to show us. Broken bits of crystal chandeliers and terrazzo flooring were scattered about with pages of burned books and Sunday school papers with the story of Noah. All of this was hard to see for two of us who had been there before the war, and I could hardly imagine how it was for those who then called it their church home.

Rev. Tom Boone of Bethel Presbyterian Church in Cornelius, North Carolina, preaches while Rev. Nuhad Tomeh, of The Outreach Foundation, translates.

But destruction was not the message we received in their new building today, a building which opened for worship on Christmas day, 2015. Today Rev. Tom Boone told us the story of a Syrian name Ananias, a story we know from Acts 9, where Saul the persecutor has his eyes opened by Ananias, the persecuted. Tom wanted us to grasp what Ananias knew and what the church in Syria knows as well as they serve in this place: If we are in Christ, we are called not to be safe, but to be obedient. God hears our, “Why should I? He wants to kill me,” and answers not with punishment, but with grace because he understands our fear…and yet still he sends us. Just as for Ananias, so for the people of Aleppo church: In courage they stay and serve, because it is not fear that defines them, but hope.

There are many things I could write about in a day that began at 10:00 a.m. and ended at 11:00 p.m. Indeed, it is very late when I write this. I could write of meeting with the leaders of the church ministries and hearing their challenges and dreams. I could write of the challenges facing the elders of the church as they deal with needs that would send most of us back to our beds with the covers pulled over our heads. I could write of imams cleaning up and reconstructing the Great Mosque destroyed just a few blocks from the rubble of the Presbyterian church. I could write about the amazing hospitality we experienced in this place and the food we consumed. And if my fingers and brain had the energy, I would do so.

An olive tree newly planted in hope.

But instead, I will write about hope, for we are a people of hope, and the planting of an olive tree, for that is what we did as the family of God today in Aleppo. In a small yard next to the church building we put our hands on the muddy red root ball of a very young olive tree. After Rev. Ibrahim poured water into the hole prepared to receive it, we lifted the young tree into the hole and pushed the dirt around it.

Who would plant a tree in a place where destruction is all around? Who would go to their persecutor and open his eyes? The people of God, called out of their fears into hope, into life. This small tree is the church of Aleppo, and it has, it does and it will bear fruit, fragile as it seems, and will be a part of the healing of this nation.

Why do I go?

Dear Tom,

You asked me twice why I go to Lebanon and Syria and Iraq, and in my own ineloquent way I tried to answer. In flying off to those lands today I took a book from my shelf of unread books to accompany me on this journey. Mystics was written by Fr. William Harmless, S.J., a former theology professor at Creighton, now deceased. First of all his name is a reminder to do just that: harm less. How could I not take it to a war zone?

Studying the mystics is part of my master of arts in ministry program at Creighton and I spent part of the summer and fall in the readings of Julian of Norwich, Catherine of Siena, Alice of Foligno and others including men. But I didn’t quite grasp the meaning of mysticism in the sense of Christianity until I weirdly grabbed this book at four this morning on my way out the door.

A 15th century theologian named Jean Gerson offered a definition that was very helpful to me as a strong feeler on the thinking-feeling spectrum of the Myers Briggs assessment. “Where scholastic theology focused on the mind, mystical theology sprang primarily from the heart, the affectus.” (Pg. 6 – I love that, affectus…affect us…touch our heart!) “…the way he says that mystical theology offers a knowledge of God that comes from love.”

And Fr. Harmless used this wonderful analogy of marriage to explain that, words that were so life-giving to me this morning that I texted them to Steve, a man who shows me God’s face every day:

Think about the knowledge that married people have of one another. They have not read books about one another. They have not studied each other academically. They know one another through the union of their lives, an intimacy that touches heart and mind and body…it is not what we would call an intellectual knowledge. It is certainly not theoretical. Instead it is a love-wrought knowledge. (6)

After that text I emailed Wendy Wright, my theology professor who introduced me to the mystics as part of our coursework, I was so grateful!

(I am getting to why I go, by the way, it just has to run its course through the journey I have had with this book this morning. That’s what I do best. Blather.)

So as I was contemplating love-wrought knowledge and “the embrace of unitive love,” (as Gerson put it, that whole affectus thing) Fr. Harmless began with a chapter on a modern mystic, Thomas Merton, a man who converted to Catholicism during college and eventually became a Trappist (of the Benedictine tradition) monk and priest. He was a prolific writer (and now I need to get some more books…), but Fr. Harmless quoted from one in particular, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander. The title of the book alone might be a partial description of why I went the first time. But it was the quotation that said, “Julie, here are the words you needed to say to Tom. Get to Houston and write him!”

From a man who had decided the world we live in was a place to escape from, came this:

In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all these people, and they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness. The whole illusion of a separate holy existence in a dream. Not that I question the reality of my vocation, or of my monastic life; but the conception of “separation from the world” that we have in the monastery too easily presents itself as a complete illusion: the illusion that by making vows we become a different species of being…And I suppose my happiness could have taken form in the words: “Thank God, thank God that I am like other men, that I am only a man among others.” … It is a glorious destiny to be a member of the human race, though it is a race dedicated to many absurdities and one which makes many terrible mistakes; yet, with all that, God Himself gloried in becoming a member of the human race. (30-31)

He went on and it just got better:

A member of the human race! To think that such a commonplace realization should suddenly seem like news that one holds the winning ticket in a cosmic sweepstakes. I have the immense joy of being man, a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate…There are no strangers!

Here it comes, this is what I tried in my own feeble, stumbling words to say to you about why I go:

Then it was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts [affectus!] where neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality, the person that each one is in God’s eyes. If only they could all see themselves as they really are. If only we could see each other that way all the time. There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed… (31)

The Aziz family, refugees from Iraq living in Aleppo, Syria, August, 2010.

It was on that first trip back in 2010, as I told you. We were in Aleppo, invited into the home and to the dinner table of the Aziz family, displaced to Syria from Iraq by our war. We could see the depth of pain in their manner, in their eyes, in their reduced circumstances. Where there should have been hatred and shunning directed at their American visitors, there was an invitation to the table, the table of grace. The Lord’s table.

And that is why I go. My eyes have been opened to see the other, to see me, to see us all as we really are: Beloved children of God.

Affectus. Let it affect us. It has affected me.

Thanks be to God.

Soli deo gloria.

I believe in the remnant

The old olive tree at AUB still sprouting branches of life.

Since we are still in Beirut awaiting in the visas to Syria that we trust will come, we have some extra non-programmed moments. Today Steve and I, like others have done, strolled down through the campus of the American University of Beirut (AUB). It is a lovely campus and if you go far enough west, you will come to the side that is right on the Mediterranean. We don’t have views like this in Omaha! Today we came across this ancient olive tree. Bearing the scars of a long life, it grew there in the spot it must have been planted in long before Presbyterian missionaries founded this school, and even centuries before that. At first appearance, it seemed lifeless, as there were no spreading branches like the other trees we had seen. But it begged the photo as there were these little sprigs of new growth that said, “Wait! I am not done with life yet. I am still here and green and growing.” I tried to find out information about such old olive trees and here is the result:

Tucked away in the village of Bechealeh, Lebanon, 16 olive trees have witnessed 6000 years of political unrest, plagues, diseases, varying climatic conditions and changing civilizations. In fact these “trees of Noah” are considered by locals to be a living miracle because nature, as we all know, is often silent and passive in the face of hardship, greed and violence so the fact that these arcane olive trees have managed to skirt 6000 years of climatic shifts, hacking axes and diseases…“The Sisters” olive trees remain one of the great unresolved and virtually unexplored pre-Biblical mysteries; common folklore and a few Biblical Scholars believe that these are the trees from which the dove took the branch back to Noah when the deluge subsided.

So there are ancient olive trees here in Lebanon. And maybe, just maybe, one of them is the tree from which the dove gave a sign to Noah that there was dry land: deliveranc, life to come. I want to share with you some of the olive branches that have come with our three days (one still to come) with the pastors of Syria who came to us because, as of yet, we have not been able to go to them. Here are their words, not mine.

Rev. Ibrahim Nsier, Aleppo Church

I have grown through the crisis, not because of the crisis, but because I really touched the work of God. From family members, from the community outside we are asked: why stay? What it means to be a minister was made more mature in me during this time. There were challenges, but it wasn’t negative. What it means to have ministry, to look to those who are surrounding you. The spirit of God was with me whenever I was speaking, or taking actions, or building relationships. “All things work for good,” was experienced by me and my family. Although they were threatened, this was true. (Rev. Ibrahim Nsier, Aleppo Church)

I am called to serve here so I will do that. The most difficult thing is when you can’t do the thing that is asked for: meeting needs, favors from the government, etc. Not all problems could be solved, but we tried always to listen and be inclusive. Sometimes that is the only thing you can do: hug someone when they are crying. (Last week he and Sunday school leaders spent three hours with 200 young cancer patients, trying to spread joy and smiles.) We won’t be the followers of Jesus Christ if we took care only of our members. “I was thirsty, I was hungry, I was sick…and you didn’t.” I challenge us all that our role goes beyond walls. (Ibrahim)

Rev. Boutros Zaour, Damascus Church

Even with all the hardships of crisis: On the plus side, we built more intimate relationships with each other. For example, the women’s group increased day by day. Children in Sunday school increased. We sent two buses to bring people in the suburbs into worship. We need each other. We are one family, the church. (Rev. Boutros Zaour, Damascus Church)

We are the people of life, of resurrection. We should live and continue living without stopping. I see the feedback through their faces and their participation in church activities. There is a good, healthy experience in the church. They see the need to do things for the coming generations. (Boutros)

The church tries to bring healing to the bodies and souls of those affected. (Rev. Maan Bitar, Mahardeh Church – There are 80 martyrs from this village, including six killed in the last three weeks)

The Presbyterian church has good reputation in Aleppo. We should care for that reputation by giving as much as we can, and working in the coming generation about being involved in the intellectual conflict with terrorists. End the ideology that excludes the other. Jesus had problems with political, religious and economic authorities in the Bible. This should be our message as well, not to be in conflict but to speak the truth. The church is one. When we speak of being evangelical or orthodox or catholic, we are hurting Jesus Christ. (Ibrahim)

Rev. Michael Boughos, Yazdieh Church

Many families led by widows: The government gave space for small shops that they give to these women to manage. We provided them with items to sell in the shops. So they are still giving some food aid, doing these small projects and providing medical aid where they can. Teaching them how to fish. (Rev. Michel Boughos, Yazdieh Church)

Many thanks: First to God, who never left us. Emmanuel was not just a word, but an experience in our community. Second to partners who work through the synod. We hear about partners a lot, for us a community in Aleppo, we have a unique partner in The Outreach Foundation, not just for money but for compassion, for prayer. We are the first concern of your minds. You will go out of the iPhone to be with us in Aleppo itself. (Ibrahim)

Rev. Firas Ferah, Qamishli Church

How do the church folk feel about investing in their property (with renovations and improvements) when others are taking control of the area? It is an encouraging step for our members and the other Christians. A sign that we are trusting God to stay in this place. The others are happy as well because they send their children there (to our school) as well. 90% are Arab Muslim and Kurds. It is good to develop ministry as it gives us wider impact. (Rev. Firas Ferah, Qamishli Church)

I think I am still in that season of newness as I return here. God is continuing to do a new thing in and among us. It is good to see and talk with you. Newness is a part of what God does. This brand new day for instance. The newness of the relationships and the renewal of same. As I turn to scripture, the text for my Sunday back in Valparaiso is the call of the disciples and the new thing God will do by bringing men and women together to proclaim the gospel. (Rev. Mark Mueller, Valparaiso, Indiana)

Jesus said, you give them to eat. I don’t know how we will do this. My wife Huda said, “God will do it.” The paralyzed man needed four people to lower him to Jesus. We in Syria are holding him from one side, and you and others are holding the other side to bring him to Jesus. (Michel)

Marilyn Borst with Mathilde Sabbagh, pastor of Hasakeh Church

These have been astounding days, to sit and listen to the stories of the Presbyterian church family in a place so far from our own homes. Mathilde Sabbagh, the newest member of this clerical community, is serving the church of Hasakeh in the far northeast corner of Syria. When she arrived on a three-month assignment after graduating from seminary about eighteen months ago, she found a worshiping community of eight. After three months of difficult work were completed, they surveyed what they had to work with and said, “Let’s go! I believe in the remnant!” Unlike the olive tree that might have stayed passive in times of hardship, these churches have been actively engaged in ministry. Like the olive tree, they are scarred and battered, with the broken branches of those who have left. But, oh my, that remnant is pushing out from that scarred trunk, rooted deep in the soil where God has planted it. As members of The Outreach Foundation team, waiting patiently for visas which may never come, we celebrate joyfully as the dove brings these branches of hope to us. There is dry land. There is life to come. Thanks be to God.

 

Waiting for Aleppo

 

2015 with the Nsier family in Lebanon. Elinor (now 16), Assis Ibrihim, Tami, Matthew (now 14) and Lutha (now 10)

I flew to Beirut with The Outreach Foundation team one week ago. We boarded our planes in our home cities of Omaha, Valparaiso, Hemingway, Allentown, San Diego and Atlanta, and made our way seven, eight and ten hours to the east. We came with the expectation of spending days with the church in Lebanon and then heading into Syria and reconnecting face-to-face with the churches there. One year ago I was part of a team that spent ten glorious days in Latakia, Yazdieh, Safita, Homs, Mhardeh, Fairouzeh and Damascus. We worshiped, we fellowshipped, we shared life in the body of Christ. We were hoping for the same this year. A similar trip with many of the same destinations plus one additional.

Aleppo.

I have longed to set foot in Aleppo for second time. I was there in August, 2010, on a similar trip. In Aleppo I witnessed the love and care that the Presbyterians of that city extended to the Iraqi refugees who had fled from the American war for safety and the hope of moving to new places. I walked the ancient streets. Ascended the steep and slippery-from-wear steps of the citadel. I shopped in the souk, enjoying tea while a spice vendor measured out precious saffron to take home for Steve. I was able to bring home stories of amazing neighborhood outreach to inspire my own church in Omaha.

Aleppo.

Three years after that trip, two years into the war that continues toward a seventh anniversary in March, I heard Pastor Ibrihim’s voice on the phone. We were in Beirut and he was in Aleppo, caring for the people of his church and his community. In a city that is now 72% destroyed he and his family have stayed. Hearing the voice of the man who had now become for me the epitome of what a pastor looks like, was the closest we could get.

Aleppo.

Two years after that, as part of another team we took part in the annual women’s conference of the National Evangelical Synod of Syria and Lebanon in the mountains above Beirut. A van full of Aleppo women was the last group to arrive that year. After a 15-hour trip along dangerous roads and through countless checkpoints, they tumbled out of the van into the embraces of the larger community of women who had prayed them in. Their joy was infectious, and it was almost as if life was normal and there was no war. The stories that came out as the week went on reminded us that life back home was not normal and the war still raged. Bombs fell. Bullets whizzed through the air and many times found their mark in human flesh.

And so Aleppo has been on my mind for years now. The lovely Syrian Orthodox Archbishop Yohanna Ibrahim, whom we met in 2010 and then was kidnapped in 2013 along with his Greek Orthodox colleague Boulos Yazigi, has never been heard of again. The souq where I purchased my beautiful matched set of Arabic coffee cups and saucers was destroyed long ago, as was the Presbyterian church where we worshiped. And this man Ibrihim whom I so admire continues to show me what a deep and abiding faith looks like, a faith with feet planted deep. His words: “I have grown through the crisis, not because of the crisis, but because I really touched the work of God.”

Aleppo.

Rev. Salam Hanna of Latakia, me, Steve, Rev. Ibrihim Nsier of Aleppo, Marilyn Borst of The Outreach Foundation, my leader and mentor.

My prayer is that we will still get there before we return home eight days from now, but so far no visas have been extended to us. Our beautiful plan A of eight days in Syria has now become plan B and Syria has come to us. Instead of spending time in Yazdieh and Homs and Fairouzeh and Damascus and Mhardeh and Aleppo, the pastors of the churches have come to us. We had four hours today to sit and listen to the situation in their cities, and tomorrow and the next day we will hear of what has happened and is happening in their churches. I spent the evening with two of them at dinner hearing of their families whom I know well. One of them was Ibrihim. Steve and I even got to spend some Facetime minutes with his beautiful wife Tami who sang “happy birthday” to Steve.

There are days when I think the time spent with my sister head-injured sister Jana has taught my how to be patient, to take life in very slow steps to match hers. To wait upon the Lord, for his ways are good and true. But…

…Aleppo is calling me and I am tired of waiting.

Please, God.

Aleppo.

The family gathers

“Why were you searching for me?” he asked. “Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?” (Luke 2:49 NIV)

I love that story of the young Jesus. I’m not a parent so I cannot appreciate the worry they must have when a child turns up missing, but I can appreciate that this child wandered to the place where God would be: His father’s house, gathered together with those who could teach him about the Father.

I love family gatherings! Indeed on the weekend before my 59th (egad!) birthday just one week ago, my siblings gathered as family with assorted spouses and children in a big house in the sandhills of Nebraska to celebrate our Christmas. It’s the only way the Colorado Prescotts and the Nebraska Prescotts can meet halfway in neutral territory where no one has to host, but everyone contributes.

It is reminiscent of Christmases in our youth when we would gather at Grandpa Piskac’s house with all the cousins. When the George Prescott clan grew to seven children, that gathering was eventually moved to the George Prescott house. When the family kept expanding with grandchildren and cousins and second cousins, and the responsibility of hosting grew ever larger, it moved to the house Jana and I purchased for just that reason on Chicago Street. That tradition eventually disappeared as families kept expanding and wanted to start their own Christmas traditions.

Over all those years we lost so many of the familiar faces who would make those gatherings so special. Bubby Piskac. Grandpa Piskac. Aunts and uncles and eventually our own dad who left us in 2007, and our own sister Cathy, the baby of our family, in 2013.

For the six of the George Prescott children who remain after the loss of our Cathy four years ago, it is still important that we do gather. And so we meet at the lake. We cook. We eat cookies! If the weather is good like it was this year, we hike. We look for eagles. We laugh. We hug. We gather. The family gathers.

I know of other families who gather as well, and they gather in the Father’s house. I have watched over the last two days as the family of God has gathered in Basra, in Homs, in Aleppo, in Mahardeh, in Hasekeh, indeed all over Syria and Iraq. With all of the loss they experienced though years of war, they still gather in the house of the Father, light the Advent candles, sing the carols, lift the prayers, and welcome the Christ child into their homes, their lives, their hearts. They follow the star to where it leads…the incarnation of God lying in the manger.

For me, it is the family gathering at church on Christmas Eve, that is the best gift of Christmas. For my church, West Hills in Omaha, this has been a difficult year. Though a difficult transition in leadership, many have left. Elders like Steve, who built so many VBS sets that transformed the building into castles and swamps and airfields. Leisha, who traveled with Steve and I to Germany on our honeymoon mission trip. Gene, Janet and Barb, who all served in worship and music. Oh! How their voices are missed in the choir. Henry and Paul who worked so hard on making our building welcoming and well kept. So many others, too numerous to mention…all missed and not gathered with us on the twenty-fourth as we lit the candles.

When the family gathers, we miss the ones who are not present, even as we revel with the ones who are. Sitting in the choir loft last night before the service began, I was feeling the joy of that night just as I have for so many years. And then the gift appeared. Melissa, whose family had departed back in the early spring, came up on the chancel to hug our organist. I blinked twice to clear my eyes. Yes! It was Melissa! Which meant that Kevin was there as well. When the service was over, I found them all for Christmas hugs, and thanked them for being there.

“Where else would be on Christmas Eve?” Kevin asked. “Truth be told, it was Mia. Mia is why we came.”

Mia is Kevin and Melissa’s high school senior daughter. She had been raised at West Hills and confirmed there just a few years before. This is the church – the family – that she has spent Christmas Eve with for as long as she could remember. Where else should they be, but the Father’s house?

As we know, Christmas is not about the presents. It’s about the presence. And as the family gathers, presence is a gift.

So eat the cookies. Light the candles. Follow the star…to the manger, to Grandpa’s house, to the Father’s house.

The family gathers.

Merry Christmas!

O Holy Night

15740751_10211438722274199_4657497256410435989_nIt’s 12:55 a.m. on Christmas morning. I just came home from the late Christmas Eve service at the church next door to our house, a tradition I began about nine or ten years ago when the services at our church were moved to earlier times. It’s a short walk to Dundee and I love being an anonymous worshiper in a church where I know practically no one. It is always a blessing to see the people I do know, Meri and Ron Crampton, and to give them a Christmas hug. Tonight I walked out of the church with another Ron I know. His wife Tami was sick, so if you think about it, please say a prayer for her healing.

Christmas at West Hills was bittersweet. There were glorious moments of praise on this night as we sang “Joy to the World,” “Silent Night,” and other familiar carols which take me back to the earliest Christmases I can remember. Our dear Michael Dryver soloed on “O Holy Night,” and did it in a way that would have put you right there in Bethlehem. It is my favorite Christmas carol, and I especially love the third verse: Truly he taught us to love one another. His law is love and his gospel is peace. Chains shall he break, for the slave is our brother, and in his name all oppression shall cease. The bitter came as I reflected that this would be the last Christmas Eve service I would get to share with Nicole and Mike Geiler. There they were, seeing to all the details of a wonderful service. They didn’t miss a beat. They love Jesus and they have helped us celebrate his incarnation for all these years. I don’t even want to think about next year. Steve, Jana and I were the Advent candle lighters and readers for this night. And I know in the bitter and the sweet that lighting that center Christ candle is the visual symbol that he is the light of the world and the darkness does not overcome it.

And that reminder came in the sweetest of forms as I watched the global church celebrate Christmas in the hours before I did. Nine hours east of Omaha came the posts from Basrah, Iraq. Merry Christmas Zuhair Fathallah and all the faithful there! And in the darkest of places on the world stage these days, in places where I have been praying for God’s gospel of peace and for the ceasing of all oppression, came the posts from Syria. Mathilde Michael Sabbagh leading in the children to the sanctuary in Hasakeh singing pa-rum-pa-pum-pum. And there was Assis Salam Hanna of Latakia soloing in a bass voice on O Little Town of Bethlehem, and I didn’t know he could sing! Elias Y. Ousta Jabbour was playing the keyboard, and that song had an awesome beat. Tami Dekrmnjian Nseir had posted a video earlier of the church in Aleppo singing “Silent Night.” Can you imagine? A silent night in Aleppo.

So here it is Christmas in Omaha and I am celebrating the reality that the word was made flesh and moved into our neighborhood, into Basrah, into Hasakeh, Latakia and Aleppo, and indeed the whole world. That word was the light of the world and all the darkness in it yesterday, today and tomorrow, cannot and will not overcome it.

O holy night, the stars are brightly shining. It is the night of the dear savior’s birth.

Merry Christmas!

Holy Tears

This is my final reflection paper from my recently completed mini-class in my master’s program at Creighton University. The class was the first part of three on the history of Christian spirituality, and was appropriately titled “Martyrs and Monks.”

I first traveled to the Middle East, Syria specifically, in August, 2010. This was before the war in Syria, and the country was intact. Muslims and Christians lived together in a secular, mostly peaceful society. I visited a number of places, and one that struck me deeply was St. Simeon, the ruins of a fifth century church near Aleppo built around the pillar that St. Simeon the Stylite sat on for most of his life, praying to God. I had quiet moments of contemplation as I thought about this saint and his life and his attitude of prayer. But the highlight of my trip in 2010 was a visit to Aleppo and the Presbyterian church. This church had an amazing outreach to refugees from the American-led war in Iraq, which had begun in 2003. I met a woman named Nawal, a faithful and prayerful saint of her church, who chastised us (and rightfully so) for what our country had done to the Iraqi people. I have never forgotten Nawal, and had the chance to reconnect with her this past summer in Lebanon, but I will reflect on that later. We also had the chance to share a meal with an Iraqi refugee family in the less than modest apartment they could afford.

As a member of a group of women traveling together to learn about our sister Presbyterian church in Syria, we were each given the opportunity to lead devotion. I had chosen this passage in Acts: “All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people” (2:44-47a). As I began to read, I was overwhelmed with tears and could not get through to the end. Hearing Nawal’s words to us about what we had done to the Iraqis, being welcomed into the home of an Iraqi refugee family who shared the bounty of their poverty with us in the hospitality that is the hallmark of Middle Eastern culture, I was utterly convicted of the corporate sin my people committed against the Iraqis. It was this memory that grabbed my heart as I read the readings for this class.

Over and over in the stories of the desert harlots – of Mary Magdalene and Mary of Egypt specifically – there are waterfalls of tears. Anselm’s prayer to Mary Magdalene captures it well:

St. Mary Magdalene,
You came with springing tears
To the spring of mercy, Christ…
How can I find words to tell
About the burning love with which you sought Him
Weeping at the sepulcher
And wept for Him in your seeking?…
For the sweetness of love He shows Himself
Who would not for the bitterness of tears.[1]

In his gospel, Luke tells us that a woman (possibly Mary Magdalene) who was a sinner, washed the feet of Jesus with her tears and dried them with her hair in an act of repentance (7:37-38). Mary of Egypt tells us, “Thus I understood the promise of God and realized how God receives those who repent…‘you will find rest.’ When I heard the voice say this, I believed it had come because of me, and I cried out weeping…”[2] As she tells Zossima her story of her prostitute’s life and the temptation to return to it she tells him, “When such thoughts grew in me, I would fling myself on the ground and flood the earth with weeping.”[3] When she asks Zossima to pray for her, he falls to his knees and his prayers and tears flow together.[4]

The connective tissue of tears and prayers in these stories resonated deeply with me and my experiences in the Middle East in 2010 and continuing for nine more trips through this past summer, including time in Lebanon, Iraq, and the now war-torn Syria, all places where the desert fathers and mothers actually lived. Why do the tears flow so easily, and especially in times of their prayers and mine? “Tears connect us with a part of ourselves and an expression of our deepest feelings that is far beyond our words or even our thoughts. Tears are a way that our bodies express our hearts.”[5] Said another way, “Tears are an outward manifestation of a biological release that is usually triggered by a profound emotional sensation.”[6] Being able to express emotion instead of suppressing it is a way for me to be real. On the thinking-feeling spectrum of the Myers-Briggs assessment, I register an absolute zero on thinking and am off the chart on feeling. To not express my feelings, especially to God in prayer, would violate the very meaning of prayer, according to Mother Maria. “It is only if we are rooted and grounded in reality, if we have found our own ‘heart,’ if we do not hide, that we can truly pray. All true prayer is a prayer of the heart, because it is the heart – not our physical heart but the deepest centre of our being – where we are touched by the divine, where we are fully ourselves, fully alive, fully one…present before the face of God.”[7]

As I have read through these texts, I have been thankful for what my friends have called my prayer language, which is tears of the heart. In further reading, I discovered St. Catherine of Siena and her great question to God: what is the reason and the fruit of tears?[8] Reading about the six kinds of tears God explained to her, I find that mine fall somewhere between level three and four:

Sweet tears of imperfect love: These are the sweet tears of those who have abandoned sinful ways and are beginning to serve God because they have begun to know and love him; however, their love is still imperfect, causing their tears to be imperfect as well. The person’s life is then characterized by exercising virtue, acknowledging God’s goodness, practicing self-discovery in the light of God’s goodness, and moving away from fear and toward hope in God’s mercy.

Sweet tears of perfect love: Perfect tears of mature love come from those who have developed perfect love for their neighbor and learned to love God without regard for themselves. These are the people who live the words of the Great Commandment: to love God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength; and to love your neighbor as yourself.[9]

Between those two levels is a maturing, a growth in love and in humility; a growth in the knowledge that it is only God’s love and goodness that invites us closer to him and his mercy, and away from our own sins and fears. I think those tears of mine somewhere between the imperfect and the perfect fall into the same place that St. Benedict described: “With growth in humility came ever-deeper awareness of one’s own sinfulness, as well as compassion and tears for the sins of other people. Such mindfulness meant deep feeling, and deep feeling meant tears.”[10]

As Mother Maria talks about the prayer of the heart, I discovered that my tears open my heart to the love of God. My heart moves from a heart of stone to a heart of flesh, which is what God promises in Ezekiel 36:26. Tears are a part of that process of heart softening, making real meaningful prayer possible. Abba Poemen says it this way: “The nature of water is soft, that of stone is hard; but if a bottle is hung above the stone, allowing the water to fall drop by drop, it wears away the stone.”[11]

With the Presbyterian church in Aleppo, Syria, August, 2010.

With the Presbyterian church in Aleppo, Syria, August, 2010.

So as I end this reflection, I want to return to my story of Nawal in Aleppo. Sitting on the porch of the Carslow Building at Ain Al-Kassis (which translates to “fountain of the father,” an appropriate description for how my tears flow!) in the mountains above Beirut, Lebanon, I was waiting for some of the Syrian women to arrive for the annual gathering of Presbyterian women in the Synod of Lebanon and Syria. A young woman came and sat on the porch with me, and as it turned out, we were Facebook friends although we had never met. Her name is Nisryn, and she lives in Paris, France. She had come to the conference because her mom was making the long and dangerous journey from Aleppo to be there as well. She told me it had been six years since she had seen her mother. As we sat and talked, I realized who the woman she was talking about was. “I know your mother!” I exclaimed. I jumped up to get my laptop and found this picture from my 2010 trip. I am standing behind the little boy in the front row, and Nisryn’s mom Nawal is to the right of me in the blue dress. Nisryn’s mom is the same woman who gave me pause to weep as I read the text from Acts about sharing everything, and no one was in need. She was the woman who showed me what the hands and feet of Jesus look like when serving the refugees of war. And now she was living in Aleppo still, a victim of another war and was coming to experience Sabbath at the women’s conference. Here I was, sitting with her daughter, and together we prayed at the fountain of the father for her safe travel…and our tears flowed as we came into the presence of God together and brought Nawal there with us.

Nawal, me, Nisryn, Ain al Kassis, Lebanon, July, 2016

Nawal, me, Nisryn, Ain al Kassis, Lebanon, July, 2016

It is only because we long for the presence of God, for a glimpse of his perfect beauty, for holiness, for ceaseless prayer, for union of love, for Paradise, that our hearts break with sadness when we realize how far away from it we are. It is this sadness – this “affliction” – which, I think, the Fathers called “compunction” and why they called the life of prayer – the life of trying to pray – “white martyrdom” – a way of pain. Without the longing, without repentance, without the breaking of the heart, there can be no practice of prayer and no true prayer on earth at all.[12]

These two weeks of reading the stories of the desert fathers and the harlots of the desert have touched a deep place in my heart. The message I took was so clear. My life of praying with tears is a gift I take with me in my experiences of ministry with and for the people I am privileged to journey with in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq. In repenting – in turning to God – in this way, I am my true self. I have found my heart, and it has been softened with tears of mercy and compassion. I know I have many more to shed.

Bibliography

Kangas, Billy. “The Role of Tears in the Spiritual Life: Lessons from the Desert Fathers.” The Orant. Entry posted May 2, 2011. http://www.patheos.com/blogs/billykangas/2011 /05/the-role-of-tears-in-the-spiritual-life-lessons-from-the-desert-fathers.html (accessed November 2, 2016).

Sheetz, Jenny. “The Gift of Tears: A Reflection.” stjosephinstitute.com. http://www.stjosephinstitute.com/_Assets/pdf/jennysheetz/The%20Gift%20of%20Tears.pdf (accessed November 2, 2016).

Stewart, Columba. Prayer and Community: the Benedictine Tradition. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1998.

Ward, Benedicta. Harlots of the Desert: a Study of Repentance in Early Monastic Sources. Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1987.

Zeleski, Irma. Encounter with a Desert Mother, 108-126.

Footnotes

[1] Benedicta Ward, Harlots of the Desert: a Study of Repentance in Early Monastic Sources (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1987), 20.

[2] Ibid, 48.

[3] Ibid, 50.

[4] Ibid, 51.

[5] Billy Kangas, “The Role of Tears in the Spiritual Life: Lessons from the Desert Fathers,” The Orant, entry posted May 2, 2011, http://www.patheos.com/blogs/billykangas/ 2011/05/the-role-of-tears-in-the-spiritual-life-lessons-from-the-desert-fathers.html (accessed November 2, 2016).

[6] Jenny Sheetz, “The Gift of Tears: A Reflection,” stjosephinstitute.com, http://www. stjosephinstitute.com/_Assets/pdf/jennysheetz/The%20Gift%20of%20Tears.pdf  (accessed November 2, 2016), 1.

[7] Irma Zeleski, Encounter with a Desert Mother, 110.

[8] Sheetz, 3.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Columba Stewart, Prayer and Community: the Benedictine Tradition (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1998), 49.

[11] Sheetz, 4.

[12] Zeleski, 125.