"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Monday, September 23, 2013

Syriac Stairmasters: Burn those Mental Carbs!

One of the happy developments in Eastern Christian studies in the last decade or two has been the increasing emergence of scholarly works on the Syriac tradition, which Oxford's Sebastian Brock famously called the "third lung" of Christianity, often, until recently, overlooked. Set for release at the very end of this year is a book that will continue to deepen our understanding of this rich tradition, sometimes referred to as a more "Semitic" Christianity prior to the Hellenization of theology: Kristian Heal and Robert Kitchen, eds., Breaking the Mind: New Studies in the Syriac Book of Steps (Catholic University of America Press, 2013), 304pp.

About this book we are told:
Among the earliest writings in Syriac literature is the collection of 30 memre or discourses entitled the Book of Steps or Liber Graduum, mostly probably written in the late fourth century inside the Persian Empire (modern Iraq). The author, who deliberately withheld his name, wrote extensively on the spiritual life and exploits of two groups of committed Christians—the upright and the perfect—that flourished in a period prior to the development of monasticism. Deeply immersed in the exegesis of the Bible as a means of defining and guiding an ascetical lifestyle, the author defends celibacy, absolute poverty, the vocations of prayer, teaching and conflict resolution, as well as insisting that the perfect should not work. In an unparalleled manner for ascetical literature, by the end of the collection the author encourages the predominantly lay "upright group" to keep striving for the status of perfection as he is disappointed in the failings of the senior group he calls "the perfect." This collection of sixteen new critical essays offers fresh perspectives on the Book of Steps, adding greater detail and depth to our understanding of the work’s intriguing picture of early Syriac asceticism as practiced within the life of a local church and community. The contributors offer perspectives on the book’s historical context in the midst of the Persian-Roman conflicts, the influence of Manichaeism, dietary images, sexuality and marriage, biblical exegesis and the use of Pauline writings and theology, as well as explorations of the Book of Steps’ distinctive approach to the ascetical life.

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