June 2008


11. Our prayer has become like a hidden taste within our body, but let it richly give forth the fragrance of our faith: fragrance acts as a herald for the taste in the case of that person who has acquired the furnace which tests all scents.

12. Truth and Love are wings that cannot be separated, for Truth cannot fly without Love, nor can Love soar aloft without Truth; their yoke is one of amity.

17. Let prayer wipe clean the murky thoughts, let faith wipe clean the senses outwardly; and let one such man who is divided collect himself and become one before You.

St. Ephrem, Hymns on Faith, No. 20

Our family has been sharing a large vegetable garden with our neighbors, which has helped alleviate rising food prices. I missed the planting and most of the tending due to my sojourn in North Africa; I’ve gotten to help out with the harvest however, and will continue to do so until I leave for graduate school in a month and a half. While corn is growing more expensive by the week, we’re well supplied with our own stocks; in a couple weeks the tomatoes and beans will be coming in, and perhaps in tandem with them the figs, which are in abundance this year.

Below are a few photos from the garden:

But what I remembered was the torso in the square, the baby on its mother’s lap. They had not been warned; they had not been sufficiently important. And if the parade had taken place would they have not been there just the same, out of curiousity, to see the soldiers, and hear the speakers, and throw the flowers? A two-hundred-pound bomb does not discriminate. How many dead colonels justify a child’s or a trishaw driver’s death when you are building a national democratic front?

Graham Greene, The Quiet American

“An anecdote had it that he [‘Ali an-Nashi’, d. 976] was once engaged in a disputation with al-Ash’ari… The disputation was in progress when, for no reason at all, he slapped al-Ash’ari’s face. Taken aback, Ash’ari demanded the reason for his opponent’s unprofessional conduct. Nashi’ said: ‘That is God’s doing, why get angry with me?’ Beside himself, Ash’ari exclaimed, ‘It is you doing alone, and it is bad conduct exceeding the bounds of decency in a disputation!’ Whereupon Nashi’ replied triumphantly: ‘You have contradicted yourself! If you persist in your doctrine, then the slap was God’s doing; but if you have shifted from your position, then exact the equivalent!’ Whereupon the audience broke in peals of laughter; Nashi’ had made his point that humans are responsible for human acts.”

The Rise of Colleges, Makdisi

I suppose that many of my readers will be familiar with the perennial debates in Christian traditions over the nature and extent of God’s knowledge and determination of human actions. As the above story should demonstrate, the same sorts of questions early on arose in Islam, and became topics of heated debate- and at least one very clever “visual aid.”

Swirl and swarm, the swallows
Fling themselves, they thrust and pary
The air, flee the ramparts, and swim
The crowds in the great square.
I catch a spiral, a rising gyre, and my eye
Follows the dust of the city up,
On a bird’s wings, it flies, skirts
The white-washed minaret, up past the
Gates, and there it meets, on swallows’ tails
The sun’s last rays: earth and
Heaven mingle, whirl-
Still the swallows gyre on-
Losing sense and sight of which
Is which.

This is the line that no-one spans
But for leaving or for passing through-
Going in, only to visist the elderly and to bury the dead,
And none but the dead return to reside.

We thought- speeding by,
At the edge of the land-
What liquid names, such an ooze of memory
Hanging in the air over worn-out prairie
And pine flecked hill
Like something, we said,
Out of a Faulkner novel
(Which, of course, we never read
All the way to the end.)

Said the bird to the thorn tree
There’s nothing left to sing
That virgin is long gone
Cracked skin torn, thrown
Into corners and refuse piles,
And in what I’ve salvaged for a bower-
These few things I remember

We came, riding that escalating wave
The borderland ever reclining
On the haze of the setting sun
It was, then, good land, wild, free, and
Violent in its wealth.
So we were, for a time and a half time,
Violent in the spending.

Then
The world ceased to spread.

So we stopped with it, and for a long while
We needed no more momentum,
Content in our endings.
But things change,
The river wears the chalk bluffs down
Forest reclaims every field,
And grass every grave.

Yet, for all of it,
The river still flows.
The low hills glow in embers
Before the quick winter sun,
And wait for the solstice.

Now it says in the prophet: This is my rest; give rest to the tired (Isaiah 28:12). Therefore effect this ‘rest’ of God, o man, and you will have no need to say ‘forgive me.’ Give rest to the weary, visit the sick, make provision for the poor: this is indeed prayer…

Watch out, my beloved, when some opportunity of ‘giving rest’ to the will of God meets you, you say ‘the time for prayer is at hand. I will pray and then act.’ And while you are seeking to complete your prayer, that opportunity for ‘giving rest’ will escape from you: you will be incapacitated from doing the will and ‘rest’ of God, and it will be through your prayer that you will be guilty of sin. Rather, effect the ‘rest’ of God, and that will constitute prayer.

Listen to what the Apostle has to say: If we were to judge ourselves, we would not be judged (I Cor. 11:31). Judge in yourselves what I am going to tell you: suppose you happen to go on a long journey and, parched with thirst in the heat, you chance upon one of the brethren; you say to him, ‘refresh me in my exhaustion from thirst,’ and he replies, ‘It is the time for prayer; I will pray, and then I will come to your aid’; and while he is praying, before coming to you, you die of thirst. What seems to the better, that he should go and pray, or alleviate your exhaustion? …

For our Lord, in his description of the time of judgment when he separated out those who were to stand on his right and on his left, said to those on his right: I was hungry and you gave me to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me to drink, I was sick and you visited me, I was a stranger and you welcomed me in (Mt. 25:35). He spoke in the same sort of way to those on his left, and because they had done none of these things, he sent them into torment, while those on the right he sent into the Kingdom.

Prayer is beautiful, and its works are fair; prayer is accepted when it provides alleviation, prayer is heard when forgiveness is to be found in it, prayer is beloved when it is pure of every guile, prayer is powerful when the power of God is made effective in it.

Aphrahat, Demonstration IV, On Prayer, in The Syriac Fathers on Prayer and the Spiritual Life

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