When I was younger I didn’t like to read. And my parents recognized this. They tried to pay me to read. Didn’t really work. The “Book-It” program didn’t work on me either. I liked pizza, but I liked not reading more. I remember flipping through books and underlining random chunks of text that seemed noteworthy in order to get rid of that crisp brand new book appearance. My favorite technique was to fold the book open with a lot of force so that the front cover didn’t sit flat on my desk when my teacher would stroll by. I would work the book binding back and forth for a couple minutes, and like magic, I had a thoroughly read book that matched the other kids’. Genius.
This pattern of interacting with books made it’s way into my college life, although with much more subtlety or, I guess, “genius”. And so it doesn’t surprise me when I remember venting to anyone who would listen about the horribly dense text that my professor had chosen. It was the type of text that demanded a dictionary close by, or else I would have never understood a thing from it. (Also, I shouldn’t leave out my other close by study tools – my cell phone, iTunes, and Facebook chat.) But the thing that really validated my pissing and moaning was that ALL the other students I talked to were upset about it. And so we nicely concluded that this book was ridiculous.
A different professor overheard our corporate complaining and actually showed some empathy. Professor number two heard our cries and offered some helpful advice by saying, “I think the question becomes is there any way to say what the text says in a simpler way?” Some of us mauled this over for a second, but I immediately thought, “Well I hope so! I’m pretty sure that’s what we’re going to have to do for a grade!” But after our initial reactions, I started to appreciate that advice more. I thought, “Yeah, there’s got to be a way to break this horrible entrée down into pieces that I can actually stomach.” Or maybe a better way to put it is that our task is to take this dense text and say it simply without sacrificing too much of its brilliance. I left there seeing the beauty in simplicity.
The next time our class met Professor number one was actually quite gracious to us, admitting the toughness of the reading assignment. However, Professor number one didn’t mention anything about simplifying the language, instead, the following was said, “This book is like a famous and beautiful painting in that the more you admire and look, the more respect you will have for the painter, or author in this case.” And so Professor number one encouraged us to do the hard work of reading and struggling through the text in order to see the brilliantly placed brush strokes of the text. And so I left there seeing the beauty in complexity.
Saint Ephrem is a highly respected theologian in the eastern Christian world. You know how Western Christians LOVE people like C.S. Lewis and Saint Augustine? Well, I’ve heard that Ephrem is like that for the Church in the East. So, basically twentysomething Christians in Syria put Ephrem quotes on their Facebook statuses instead of Augustine quotes…
He was around in the 4th century and writes what are basically sermons in song version. His hymns are serious. They are deeply rooted in Scripture, but maybe in a way that is weird to you and I. He’s sometimes referred to as the “harp of the Spirit”… so he’s good, very good. But he’s also very old. I mean he’s dead, but his writings are old… so they take a little patience and getting used to. But I’m learning that they are worth the effort that it takes to engage these hymns. For example, part of his hymn regarding the Genesis account:
Joyfully did I embark
on the tale of Paradise-
a tale that is short to read
but rich to explore.
My tongue read the story’s
while my intellect took wing
and soared upward in awe
as it perceived the splendor of Paradise-
not indeed as it really is,
but insofar as humanity
is granted to comprehend it.
With the eye of my mind
I gazed upon Paradise;
the summit of every mountain
is lower than its summit,
the crest of the Flood
reached only its foothills;
these it kissed with reverence
before turning back
to rise above and subdue the peak
of every hill and mountain.
The foothills of Paradise it kisses,
While every summit it buffets.
Both of my professors challenged me to think and speak about that difficult textbook in a different way. When is it best to say it simply? And when is anything but complexity a disservice to the topic? I’m learning that our words are important, especially as they relate to God.
Some questions worth considering:
What is Paradise like? What is it NOT like?
Who is it like? When is it? Where is it?
One of Ephrem’s hymns has a corporate response that is worth meditating upon:
“Blessed is He who was pierced
and so removed the sword from the entry to