27 June 2018

A gift of words from afar

I have rarely had the feeling that, in translation, I was getting less than half of the meaning implied in a work. But such was the case with The Ways of Childhood, the book by Metropolitan Georges Khodr of Byblos and Botrys. Though it is a work of epistolary and biographical non-fiction, about a dear friend in exile of the Metropolitan’s who remains anonymous without, I have few words to describe this work other than ‘prose poetry’, and even then the words I could spend on its description would hardly be equal to the task of praising it.

I’ve been praised for my writing before, on this blog and elsewhere. But reading the Metropolitan’s work I was suddenly put in mind of being a callow untrained tyro in the school of a world-renowned martial arts master, such was the lyrical craft of his sentences. In a few short phrases he could transmit the breath and life of an image, an event, an emotion, a habit. At times, a profound theological truth could be expressed in a mere seven or eight words – a breath, but to unpack it would already be to do it violence, like plucking a flower to examine its petals. The chapter titles themselves are examples of this: ‘Friendship Is the Place That Leads to God’, ‘Men Are Always Wounded by History’, ‘The Majority of Christians Have Not Yet Been Born’ and ‘Creation Is the Breath of Life’. If such is the effect of a translation, I have to marvel at His Eminence’s command of Arabic!

It’s hard to introduce this book, in part because it is so far-reaching, and in part because it describes the life of a certain delicate but deeply-sensitive Arabic worker-intellectual from his childhood on, in ways that touch upon every aspect of human life, from work to worship, from sex to friendship to national and civilisational belonging. Sayyidna Georges offers us a brief biography of his friend from his early childhood up to his sudden departure for a foreign country, followed by excerpts from nine of his ‘letters from exile’. What emerges is a touching portrait of an inner life touched from an early age by the light of Orthodoxy, and its attempt to live that light in a world which is as yet only ever imperfectly (at best) receptive to it.

The eponymous ‘child’ grows up surrounded by Muslims, impacted deeply by the Muslim calls to prayer, takes on a Western education, flees to a certain mountain village that has been impacted by a century and more of war and imperialism, undertakes a semi-eremitical existence, returns to the city life, is enchanted and disenchanted with church and nation, joins the labour movement and its struggles against capital and the police, falls in love with a woman, and then suddenly leaves the country without saying a word. The state of his inward life is revealed subsequently through his letters to Sayyidna Georges, who takes from them certain excerpts to do justice to his friend.

One can take a look at certain facets of this inward life. There is, on the one hand, a deep and passionate thirst for justice and hospitality for the downtrodden, which is not satisfied with nationalism or even anti-authoritarianism, but which insists emphatically on a ‘confrontation’ with the ‘new society’ and all its manifestations (not least of which those within our own psyches). ‘It is hypocritical to denounce only one kind of violence; by remaining silent about other kinds, we become objective accomplices. But woe to him by whom the offence comes!’ On the other hand, there is the deep sorrow with which he chastises the œcumenical movement, which he feels has cheapened the depth of the word of the Gospel in favour of ‘monotonous bureaucracy’, ‘boring papers’ and corporate ‘double-talk’. (And for one who treats the Word – the Living Word and the spoken word both – with such great awe and respect, that is no mere quibble.) He values education – he doesn’t disdain it or relativise it or individualise it the way modern American homeschoolers do; nor does he treat it as a mere instrument toward political or cultural indoctrination – instead, he sees it as a way of bearing forth the light of the Resurrection. At the same time, he sees the end of education a kind of simplicity and singleness of heart; at the same time as he acknowledges the dangers to both in becoming educated in the wrong way. ‘Reason is inseparable from our plunge into the body of the world… Æternal life is not the domain of intellectuals and scholars, but of those who are wounded and disfigured.

He develops a particularly strong bond with the Russian émigrés who, like him, lead a life in exile in which they are burdened intolerably (as Mother Maria Skobtsova would have it) with a kind of boundless freedom, the freedom to become (if they choose) Christ-bearers in exile. There is a kind of brotherhood he expresses between his own Arabic soul and those of his Russian fellow-expats. This brotherhood is expressed through the natural Russian sympathy with the deprived and the poor. The Russian priest he meets in exile he holds up as a model of the self-sacrificial parish priest, giving himself ‘on behalf of all and for all’ as he gives to all his parishioners of the chalice he bears.

He is broad, seeing the value even in the Muslim tradition and its spiritual graces, without being relativist. ‘Christ is the æstuary into which flow the virtues and beauties dwelling within every religious tradition.’ Having been sickly from his youth, he pays special attention to the prayers of the Church for the sick, and treats sickness and health themselves as bearing witness to certain spiritual truths about the human soul and its indelible relationship to the body.

Reading back over this, it looks like I’ve given only the barest of possible overviews of this book, and haven’t done it justice at all. Presented here by Sayyidna Georges is no hectoring preacher, no new Victorian moralist: merely a living, suffering and sensitive human soul who has been wounded, and who speaks from a hidden fullness that is belied by and which comes from his wounds. Being as it is so deeply biographical and epistolary, it seems strange to call this a ‘spiritual’ or a ‘religious’ book, even though its perspective is profoundly Orthodox (and specifically Antiochian). I did indeed enjoy this book, but at the same time felt a strange kind of sweet sadness in reading it, the kind of sadness which comes of receiving a letter from a friend one has not seen in years.

Sayyidna Georges (Khodr)

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