There’s likely no silver lining to be had anywhere in the Middle East as a result of all this chaos. Yet, if we are to salvage even a shred of inspiration it has to be in the work of the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library at Saint John’s University. Despite logistical nightmares and the possibility of genuine danger, teams of photographers from HMML have worked for nearly a decade to capture the images of manuscript pages from sites in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Turkey and elsewhere. The result is a vast trove of images that will serve scholars for generations to come. But of even greater significance, these images will remind us of a culture and a Christian community of ancient lineage that will soon disappear.
HMML began its work in 1965, in response to a plea by Pope Pius XII. Noting that we could restore buildings destroyed in war, he encouraged the Benedictines — any Benedictines — to preserve the manuscript heritage of Europe before the next war obliterated everything. So it was that the Library began its efforts in Austria, and from there it expanded into Spain, Portugal, Germany, Malta and Ethiopia.
With the specter of instability lurking on the horizon, HMML turned its efforts to the Middle East, and the results there have been beyond impressive. Yet, despite the great accomplishment, there is a sad note. Who would have imagined that events would prove the value of that initiative so quickly? Teams in places like Syria and Iraq worked at a fevered pace, and they managed to finish their work just as violence began to erupt all over the place. Now, with images safely stored away on servers at Saint John’s and elsewhere, worry has shifted to the safety of HMML’s local partners across the region. Some have barely managed to escape the carnage, at least physicallly unscathed. Others have not been so lucky.
During my last year as director of HMML, I had the chance to visit Lebanon and Syria for what likely will be the only time in my life. This was twelve years ago, and Lebanon was still recovering from its civil war. Syria, by contrast, was the picture of serenity. It was enjoying the peace that often comes in an absolute dictatorship. Still, I recall vividly our party of three’s astonishment when an armor-plated car and two armed guards met us planeside on the tarmac in Beirut. Of course we were surprised by the lavish reception by our hosts. But eventually I began to wonder. Have they gone overboard on the security business just to impress us? Or might there be a genuine need for such a vehicle? Back then I wasn’t sure. Today, in answer to the second question, I would give a resounding “Yes!” Still, I recall when the reality of it all registered for the first time. One day I had a chance to open the car door all by myself, before either of the guards had a chance to jump out and get it for me. “I’m not that helpless yet,” I thought to myself. But I couldn’t get the thing to budge even an inch. It was just too heavy. “This is our little secret,” explained the genial driver.
If there was a peak moment that has stuck in my memory, it was a visit with the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch, Ignatius IV. There I was, chatting with him in his study, astonished that I sat alone with the successor of Saint Peter in a community whose roots went back into the Acts of the Apostles. But that day, years before civil war would come to Syria, there was even then a grim foreboding in the words of the Patriarch. Antioch, one of the five great patriarchates of the Church and once a distinguished city in Syria, has for generations rested within the borders of Turkey. As a result, he scarcely got to go to visit his see city. Meanwhile, much of his flock was scattered across Syria and Lebanon. But he could see the writing on the wall. For more than a generation increasing numbers of the Syrian Christian community had been relocating to places like Argentina and the United States. What was to become of those who remained? With resignation written all over his face, he knew there would be a day when he might be the only one left. Of course at that moment he scarcely imagined how quickly things would spiral out of control, and how suddenly his worst fears would materialize.
My one memento of that visit is a framed picture of the two of us, and it now hangs in my office at Saint John’s. Patriarch Ignatius died two years ago, but he lived long enough to see the Christian exodus accelerate. He also lived long enough to see his concern about the survival of their cultural heritage diminish somewhat by the work of HMML. At that time he wondered aloud about the safety of their manuscripts and where they would go when the people had left. Today it’s likely that no one knows the fate of all of those collections and their contents. But at least the images on those pages have endured, thanks to the dogged effort of the staff of HMML. And thanks too to their local partners in Iraq and Syria, who now must flee for their very lives.
Even the shortest reflection on the Middle East makes one wonder about the fragility of civilization. With barbarism at the gates, cultural life can vanish almost in an instant. So it is that the cradle of civlization that was once the Middle East now seems poised to throw away thousands of years of creativity. Likewise, we are not far from the day when the only Christians to be found in the homeland of Christianity are tourists.
There’s a range of emotion that comes calling in such a meditation. Depression is one of them. Horror is another. But indifference and resignation are unforgivable. They are not options in the Middle East nor in any of the other challenges that we encounter in life. And I believe this to be so because in the worst of situations there’s always some glimmer of hope and some faint opportunity to which thoughtful people can hold tightly. Happily, our colleagues at HMML have done their bit, against steep odds. That in itself serves as an example of the power that dedicated and determined people still have.
And what ought we to do when life throws us our own curve balls? Something. That’s why God gave us brains, imagination and energy. They are among the most precious of the gifts we have. But of course all gifts come with the obligation to do more than store them away. God actually expects us to use those gifts, in whatever endeavor we are engaged. Not only is that the least we can do, it is exactly what God calls us to do.
+On September 25th and 26th I participated in the meetings of the Board of Trustees of Saint John’s University, in Collegeville.
+On September 27th I gave a talk on the spirituality of the Order of Malta at the orientation for candidates for membership in the Western Association, held in Los Angeles, CA.
+On September 28th I was in Oklahoma City to take part in the celebration of my mother’s 90th birthday. I had the chance to visit with cousins I had not seen in ages, and enjoyed meeting the next generation of relatives whom I had yet to meet. Some eighty people attended the reception, held at our parish church of Christ the King.
+This last summer the staff of the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library vacated their offices, while a destruction and construction crew came in and completely rebuilt the interior of the Library. The results are nothing short of astonishing, as the pictures in today’s post suggest. They are a preview of the renovation of Alcuin Library, in which HMML is located. They show what you can do with a building that is in desperate need of renewal.
+If you are wondering how I managed to make the flight schedule implied in the travels above, I too wonder. This was not the best of weekends to travel, but it all worked. Despite disruptions due to the fire at the air traffic control center in Chicago, I managed to make it to everything on time. The kid in the seat behind me made the trip to Los Angeles particularly memorable. He kicked my seat for much of the way. At the last judgement may God have mercy on his soul. By then I’m sure he will have built up quite a resumé. Finally, I vowed years ago never to take the red-eye again. But that’s exactly what I had to do to make it from Los Angeles to Oklahoma City in time for my mother’s birthday. Never again.