Appreciation is an art; one that I’m not very practiced at. I have had a lot of experiences of feeling inadequate to the task of appreciating that which is before me at a given moment. There’s a lovely scene in Prince Caspian where Lucy gets up in the midst of the night to find that the trees are almost, but not quite awake. I’ve had a few experiences of that sort as well. My parents say: you don’t judge great books; they judge you. Often that seems true of other forms of beauty as well; art, music, sunsets, churches, even flowers. I tend to land on the “tried and found wanting” side of things, so that I wonder if it’s alright that I’m there looking at that beautiful thing, while all the while being distracted by my own insufficiently poetic relation to it. “That castle! It’s beautiful, grand, old, and mighty; why must it be so opaque to me?” I might be inclined to wonder. For this reason traveling tends to be a fairly challenging task, and pilgrimaging all the more so. Challenging in a different way than work. Suppose I’m going to help build a house for someone. I have no idea what I’m doing, and so will be slow and not very good at it, but at least I can plug away at it and know at the end that I’ve done something: look, I stuccoed that wall!
All this is sort of going through the back of my mind, usually subconsciously, as we get sent around to visit various sites, and became more obviously apparent in Homs. After breakfast on Tuesday June 4th, the fourth day of our pilgrimage-road trip, we left Palmyra for an hour and a half or so drive to Homs, and arrived late in to morning to greet the bishop of that area, have coffee in his salon, and go on an ancient church walking tour. There was the bishop’s cathedral of the 40 Martyrs, the church of St Ilian, the church of Om al-Zenar, and the church and museum of the Dormition of the Theotokos, all to see before lunch. Then we went off to SaidNaya, another hour or so away, to visit the monastery of the Theotokos, St George monastery, and the Cherubim monastery, where we stayed the night.
Each place is certainly worth seeing, but I must admit it to be a hard thing to walk through so many churches without a service or a public prayer said the whole day through. The cathedral of the 40 Martyrs is lovely — I think partly old and partly new. The church of St Ilian is about a 15 minute walk away, the way we walk (in a sauntering sort of mode), and is also lovely. They gave us an icon and a little book about him, and I’d like to post about his life sometime, because he’s a saint peculiar to Homs, and hardly known elsewhere. He was a third century martyr, and his tomb is inside the church in a little arched room next to but separate from the alter. The church is very nicely painted inside, and it feels like St Ilian visits there. Second church of the day: very lovely.
Then we walk another ten minutes or so to the Syrian Orthodox church (not to be confused with the Antiochian Orthodox church) of Am al-Zenar, where they say the sash of the Theotokos is. It’s also a lovely church in a “why did you cover everything with strings of light-bulbs?” kind of way, very old, and, besides, they have the belt of the Theotokos. The person there told us about a spring that miraculously burst through the stones in the church right in front of the alter in a time of need for the city (perhaps they were under siege), took us down into a catacomb under the church where the church used to be, which is still in the process of being archeleogized, and told us a fairly exciting story I can’t remember all of about how the sash was hidden in a glass jar under the stones of the alter because of foreign invaders, and then someone put a letter about it in one of the books, so that several centuries later someone was reading the book, found the letter, and then got the sash back out — so now it’s still rolled up in glass, and is set inside a round Catholic-looking silver disk thing. Third church, also very lovely.
Next we walked to the church of the Dormition of the Theotokos, where they had turned the AC on for us (very thoughtful), where they have some lovely mosaics and a museum up where the choir loft might have been. There are a number of beautiful old icons, as well of books and some alter implements of various kinds up there; they cage us a postcard/calendar book with photos of their icons. Fourth church, lovely, cool, nice guide, beautiful old icons. Unfortunately, our group-wide powers of appreciation were at this point deteriorating rapidly. Ach! We haven’t eaten, it’s four in the afternoon, it’s hot and sunny out there, how many icons can we really appreciate in one afternoon? So we were grumpy, then went and ate. It’s difficult to eat in the style we did at nearly every meal when one is grumpy, because it involves multiple courses and perhaps an hour of socializing, followed by a lengthy outing to the ice cream shop to purchase sweets for the road.
Syria doesn’t have very many well known “must-see” places, but apparently the women’s monastery to the Theotokos in SaidNaya is one of them. It’s the only place, for instance, people have asked me if I’ve gone to besides Damascus. Apparently in the 6th century the Emperor Justinian was riding through the area for a hunt, and began chasing a beautiful gazelle, which turned into the Theotokos. She asked him to build her a monastery in that place. they also apparently have the icon that Saint Luke painted of the Theotokos. It was one of the peculiarities of our trip that, in contrast with, for instance, trip that are put on by evangelicals or aimed at the young and unknowing, we were mostly left to find out about places, or not, according to whoever was there to tell us or our own research, which in my case was nonexistent.
o We show up at this monastery near dark, walk up the steps, and on the way pass a bit of concrete in the shape of the Virgin Mary, surrounded with a little cage that has strings tied to it, which a barefoot girl in blue pours a bit of oil on to make more clear, then up the rest of the way to the monastery. We get to the top, and are directed to a door in front of which we’re asked to take off our shoes. We go in and there’s a little room with icons of the Theotokos, followed by a little hallway, followed by another little rounded room with a lot of ancient icons, vigil lamps, a table I don’t quite know the reason for, and a set of doors people would prostrate before and kiss. Those I was with tried asking Fr Isaac where we were, and he said that it was important, there was a vision, and sang something in Arabic. We said a prayer, kissed the doors, looked at the icons, and went to have coffee in the salon. The abbess talked about the monastery, but I didn’t understand her well enough to remember much of what she said. It was lovely and I’m very glad we went, but is also a somewhat haphazard introduction to really great places. I don’t know if there’s anything for me to make of that or not.
From there we went to St George Monastery in SaidNaya, where we visited their church and an underground cave, then had coffee and cherry cordial with the abbot in his salon and he talked about being Christian and that they found the converts in America very encouraging. We drove up a series of hills to the Cherubim monastery and got in quite late Cherubim monastery — I felt kind of bad for our hosts because we were tardy and a bit loud and loopy from the long day. It’s a beautiful monastery, with a fantastic view of the area.
Vision Monastery in Kounetra
Wednesday 2 June – We got up early again, went to Orthros and breakfast at the Cherubim monastery, and were on the road again at 10 or so. On our way to the Golan Heights we went to the Monastery of the Vision along the road from Jerusalem to Damascus, which is, as the name implies, built in honor of Saint Paul’s vision while traveling the road. There is one heiromonk there who had us for coffee in his salon, told us something about the churches in the area, then gave us a tour of the church grounds. They are growing olives and figs, which were given them by the government, and digging around an old column, The church was built by the Russians not so very long ago, and has a lovely mosaic of Christ on the church and a large statue of St Paul.
Other posts on Syria
Opening travels — Dubai, Damascus, Sweida, Phillipi, Bosra
Road Trip part 1 — Damascus, St Thekla’s Monastery, Valley of the Christians (St George Monastery, Crusader Castle)
Road Trip part 2 — Latakia, Palmyra
Road Trip part 4 — Golan Heights, Revolution Museum
Back in Sweida — Mounted icons, Tissia, meeting people, candles, Izra