My book Why Religions Work explores religious tolerance issues. It could not be more relevant at the moment with the world in its present state.
This blog has concentrated recently on the wonderful pilgrimages I have been on - to the Holy Land and to Turkey and more recently to Holy Georgia , Greece "In the Steps of St Paul" , Ethiopia and most recently my experiences in Iran.

"If I was allowed another life I would go to all the places of God's Earth. What better way to worship God than to look on all his works?" from The Chains of Heaven: an Ethiopian Romance Philip Marsden

Sunday, 17 November 2013

Mor Gabriel monastery: experiencing the Syriac Christian Orthodox liturgy

We are woken up by the loud bell in the bell tower near our room. It’s only 5.30 in the morning and it’s very cold! We grab some warm clothes, tie our scarves over our heads and make our way across the quadrangle to the church for the first liturgy of the day. As women tradition says we should sit on the left hand side and the men sit on the right. The nuns come to join us, sitting behind us at the back of the church. The church is gloomy, the atmosphere subdued. I think we’re not quite awake yet! Boys start to appear and gather around the two lecterns at the front of the church to each side, north and south, left and right. Soon they begin to chant or intone – antiphonally – first from one side, then the other. They stand with arms folded, all around the lecterns, so that some are reading the book on the lectern from the side or upside down! The shorter boys stand closer to the lectern. The liturgy is in classical Syriac - so we have no idea what is being said. More boys drift in, and the monks, over the next ten minutes or so – and they take their places at the lecterns - the time keeping seems quite relaxed, no one seems bothered if you are “late”. Every so often the boys and monks step over to carpets on the floor, where they kneel facing the sanctuary and prostrate themselves, all together, as they chant prayers, reminding us that the prostration for prayers which we think of as a Muslim way of prayer in fact originated before Islam in the Orthodox Christian worship.

Then the thurifer appears, the boy carrying the thurible or incense burner. He is dressed in a white alb, with crossed sashes perhaps denoting his seniority? He stands in front of us and swings the thurible in four directions, north, south, east and west, rotating on the spot as he does so. Then he goes around the church, censing the font and the several colorful hangings around the walls, called Sutore (sutoro singular). These hang on the bare walls and there is also a large one hanging from a curtain pole separating the sanctuary from the congregation. This is pulled open at various stages in the liturgy to reveal the sanctuary. On the altar a paten and chalice are in a state of readiness to celebrate the eucharist at any time. The liturgy proceeds like this for the best part of an hour. We get into the rhythm, standing whenever the incense is being used, and whenever the prostrations tell us that prayers are being said. Otherwise we sit.

the sanctuary sutoro
The atmosphere becomes increasingly charged with the incense, giving a sense of mystery and wonder to the proceedings. Finally the monk in charge, or on this occasion at Mor Gabriel the Archbishop, resplendent in his bright crimson habit, takes his position in front of the sanctuary. We queue to walk to the front of the sanctuary to where the Bible is placed – kiss it, and make our way back, touching the hand of the monk to receive a blessing from him. There is an order of hierarchy to this – men first, in order of seniority, followed by the boys, then the women, ordained first… where does a female priest place herself here? Does she join her male priest colleagues? The monks think not! Do we respect their attitude towards women? Or assert our priestly position, female or not? This is tricky and views inevitably vary!
There is just about enough time for a shower before breakfast. The total service has taken a little over an hour.

The process is repeated when we return to the monastery after our day out, when we join the boys and monks for Ramsho, the evening liturgy. After that liturgy we walk out into the evening sunshine, in time to see one of the boys drawing water up from the well just outside the church.
Time soon for supper and bed. After such an early start to each day no one seems to object to going to bed early, at 8 or 9 pm at the latest. That suits me just fine!

For further detail there is an excellent paper Monasticism in Tur Abdin: A Present Day Account by Mark DelCogliano in Cistercian Studies Quarterly 41.3 2006 p. 311

No comments:

Post a Comment