by Kirk Yacoub West
On April 22nd, 2006, the Saturday of Easter week, I was baptised into the Syriac Orthodox Church.
It may seem strange that a 53 year old Englishman should choose baptism into a church whose liturgical language, Syriac, is not the easiest language to learn for a westerner to learn, and Father Tuoma, priest of the parish of St Jacob Baradaeus in London, responded to my request with surprise. He had never received such a request before. When he asked me the inevitable question why?, I began to explain that I had read St Ephrem… but Father Tuoma immediately interrupted me with the blunt question, “Do you believe that Jesus Christ is God?” I confessed that Jesus Christ is God, learning an important lesson: Christianity is not an intellectual exercise, it is a matter of faith.
From the bitterest cup…
I was born in a country which is materially rich, but impoverished spiritually, a country where God is either denied, mocked or ignored. So-called “religious education” at school did not help because it was provided by that strange form of Protestantism which seeks to rationalize everything – the Virgin Birth, Christ’s miracles, even the Resurrection and the transformation of bread and wine into the actual Body and Blood of Christ during the Mysteries – into mere metaphors (though what of and why is never explained) which mortally undermines and destroys faith.
I was a member of a sleep-walking herd of non-believers, lost in the desert of self-indulgence. Eventually the fruit of the tree of selfishness began to taste bitter. I became aware of an aching emptiness inside me, the emptiness of unbelief. Then, a number of apparent coincidences happened in quick succession – “accidentally” discovering a book which contained hymns by St Ephrem, “accidentally” coming across a book of photographs of Syriac communities in the Middle East; “accidentally” finding an old edition of the New Testament and Psalms in Syriac – all of which led me to the conviction that the Syriac Orthodox Church should be my home.
But there are really no “coincidences” in a chain of events which pulls someone out of the abyss and into the light, and I am convinced that it is not we human beings who seek after Truth, but rather it is Truth which seeks after us. Christ seeks us. God became incarnate not in order to hide in corners, hoping to be discovered, but to openly establish His Church. By the very existence of the Church, the Holy Mysteries, and prayer, the Truth of Christ reaches out to us. Even when apparently silent the Church is a vibrant pole of attraction which awakens and draws towards itself sinners, who then seek within the Truth of Christ.
I was able to throw away the cup of disbelief which contains the bitterest taste.
… to the Waters of Life
I prepared myself, not only by reading the Scriptures, but also by reading Syriac Church Fathers such as St Ephrem, St Jacob of Serugh and Bar ‘Ebroyo in English and French translation, by praying twice a day the prescribed prayers (in English translation) and, of course, by beginning the study of the Syriac language.
I attended my first Church service on Good Friday, and a whole new world opened up to me: incense, prayers and hymns that were sung or chanted in the language of Christ (to hear Syriac in Church is to be pierced to the depths of heart), the slow procession of the coffin that bore the Cross, the solemnity of the commemoration of the Crucifixion which, however, was gently underscored by the unspoken knowledge of the Resurrection to come. Every word and act bore witness to the fact that the tree of the Syriac Orthodox Church has grown directly from the fecund Apostolic seed.
The following day, the Cross still interred, I entered a church building as a sinner and left washed clean by the baptism into the living Church which is the Body of Christ.
I had read the text of the baptismal service in French translation and knew just what a profoundly serious ceremony it is, not being a mere metaphorical washing, but an actual cleansing by the Spirit in the Waters of Life that our Lord had blessed during His baptism by John. Well aware that part of the ceremony includes the expulsion of wicked spirits, when called upon to renounce and denounce Satan and all his works I did so with an immense feeling of relief which brought me close to tears.
On Easter Sunday, now bearing the baptismal name of Yacoub, I partook of our Lord Jesus Christ’s Holy and Life-giving Body and Blood for the first time. The solemnity of Good Friday had been replaced by the joy of celebrating the Resurrection. The triumphant displaying of the Cross, the sight of the faithful hurrying to kiss it in thanksgiving was yet another extraordinarily moving moment. I felt part of a family, not only the family of those believers around me, but also, because of the power of the ancient Tradition that was being enacted around me, I also sensed being part of a family which includes the faithful departed.
“Create in me a clean heart, O God…” (Ps 51:10)
The inner sensations and responses to baptism and the participation in the Holy Mysteries for the first time cannot be expressed adequately in words, they can only be understood in the heart. All I can say is that I felt something akin to a gentle re-assembling of myself in that inner chamber into which Christ exhorts us to enter in order to pray. And this is a process which is still continuing, for being a sinner I stain the cleanliness given to me at baptism and need frequent recourse to prayer, self-examination, and the sacrament of confession.
So, whilst reciting Psalm 51, not only do I find succour in being told that God does not despise a broken and contrite heart (v. 17), but also I am able to implore God strongly to create a clean heart in me.
I thank God for the Syriac Orthodox Church, for its tenacious clinging to Christ, to the Gospel, to the Traditions of Orthodoxy, and for its preservation of Syriac, the language of Christ, during even the most terrible periods of persecution.
Many lament the diaspora, the scattering of Syriac communities across the world, and all of us have a duty to help preserve the faith in those lands in which the Syriac faith grew up, but at the same time the transplantation of Syriac Christianity to North America and Europe has brought the beacon of light and hope in Christ to countries where millions live in spiritual darkness. The Syriac Orthodox Church can expect more conversions, because the Church offers to suffering mankind the opportunity to drink at the very source of the Christian faith.God bless you all!