"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).

Friday, December 18, 2015

Formation of the Syriac Churches: an Interview with Jeanne-Nicole Mellon Saint-Laurent

As I have often noted on here, Syriac Christianity has been undergoing a period of wholly welcome sustained scholarly attention for more than a decade now, and it is splendid to see younger scholars picking up from the pioneers--Sebastian Brock, Sidney Griffith, Susan Ashbrook Harvey, Robin Darling Young, and others. The Syriac tradition, as Brock famously phrased it, is the "third lung" of Christianity--in addition to the Latin and Greek lungs, these latter two having, until recently, seemed to hog all the attention, scholarly and otherwise. But that has been changing for a while, and we are all the richer for it.

I am delighted to have this interview with a lovely young scholar whom I met briefly at a conference in Washington, DC in 2011. Shortly after that, Marquette, in its great wisdom, scooped up Jeanne-Nicole Mellon Saint-Laurent, a specialist in Syriac Christianity who studied with the Orthodox scholar Susan Ashbrook Harvey at Brown University. Saint-Laurent is the author of Missionary Stories and the Formation of the Syriac Churches (University of California Press, 2015), 232pp. I asked her for an interview about this book, and here are her thoughts:

AD: Tell us about your background

I grew up in southern California and was raised in a Catholic family.  My late parents, George and Michaeleen Saint-Laurent, were both educators.  My father taught Religious Studies at Cal State Fullerton, and my mother taught religion at a Catholic high school.  We travelled extensively, and learning about different cultures, languages, and religions of the world was a formative part of my childhood.  

I went to Gonzaga University, where I studied Classical Languages and Religious Studies.  In college, I studied abroad in Florence, Italy, and my visit to the catacombs outside of Rome led me to want to study the early Church.  I earned in an M.A. in Early Christian Studies at the University of Notre Dame, and it was there that I began my study of the Syriac language and tradition with Prof. Joseph Amar.  I went on a Fulbright scholarship to Salzburg, Austria, and then finished my training at Brown University with Susan Ashbrook Harvey where I finished my PhD in 2009.  She was a terrific mentor. 

I was junior fellow in Byzantine Studies at Dumbarton Oaks in 2008-2009.  I then taught at St. Michael’s College from 2009-2013, and now I teach at Marquette University in the historical section of the Theology Department.  I am married to a wonderful person, Matthew Mellon.  We have a son, Damien, and a poodle, Blaise Pascal.     

AD: What led to the writing of this book, which treats two areas some readers may not be familiar with: hagiography, and then the Syriac tradition.

My interest in hagiography began in graduate school at Notre Dame.  I read monastic hagiography in a class that I took with Dr. Blake Leyerle. I discovered that it was a rich genre to learn about the social history of the early Church.  And so with my interest in the Syriac language, Syriac hagiography was a natural fit, especially when I discovered that so many stories from this rich tradition had never even been translated.  It struck me that this was a field that in which I could make a contribution.  I wanted also to be help the Christians in the Middle East by increasing the knowledge of their heritage.

AD: How did you arrive at the 7 figures you treat--were there others you wanted to look at but had to exclude? Are these 7 the most important? What were your criteria for focusing on them?

I wanted to choose figures whose stories were particularly formative for the Syriac late-antique church. I also had a chronological limit – I did not want to go very far into the Post-Islamic era, since my knowledge of Arabic is so very limited, and so I did not have the scholarly expertise to tackle post-Islamic Christian literature.  I wanted to show the literary and cultural links among these missionary saints and their stories. 

AD: Your introduction notes that hagiography "is a problematic--though entertaining--genre to tackle and study." Tell us a bit more about why you say that. What are the major problems?

The main issue is how to read hagiographic texts.  Should they be treated as literature or history?  If they don’t have “historical” content, should they be dismissed?  Or are overly literary readings of these texts a disservice to the historical context to which the stories point?  There are many methodological hurdles with hagiography.  I still haven’t resolved them, but I made a first attempt with this project.  

AD: You note that one way of trying to analyze and understand hagiography is to view it as similar to painting or "works of art." Tell us a bit more about what you mean.

Art and story go together in the formation of religious memory.  One need only look a church from the early Christian period to see how pictures told stories for the faithful.  Both use religious symbolism in important ways.  Very often the hagiography of a saint’s life is influenced by the depictions of that saint or vice versa.  In both artistic presentations of a saint’s life and hagiography, bold images are used to create a memory of person’s life. Both artistic and narrative representations are non-linear ways of creating a communal memory of a holy person.  In both art and story, saints are clothed with symbols of holiness that represent the ideals of a particular community.        

AD: Skeptics today might dismiss hagiography as just a lot of pious folk-tales nobody should take seriously. But is there not an argument to be made that many, perhaps most of us, nonetheless create hagiographies all the time--whether about some movie star, or football player, or politician? Is hagiography, in other words, something of a universal impulse in humans?

That is an interesting idea! It is certainly true that modern media enjoys embellishing people’s lives, accentuating their admirable traits and “forgetting” their flaws!  I suppose that what is universal is our desire to romanticize (and demonize) our heroes or foes.  What we learn through studying cultural idealizations of our heroes often tells us more about ourselves than about the subject who is admired. Through attending to a society or community’s heroes (whether religious, athletic or political), we learn about what is valued in that particular historical or cultural milieu.  In hagiography, for instance, military saints might become popular in times or war – medical saints in times of plague, and so on.    

AD: Very recently I've been working on questions of memory in the formation of Orthodox-Catholic conflicts, especially around the papacy. Thus I noted with great interest that your "book considers hagiography's role in the creation of religious memory" (p.13). Tell us a bit more about how you see the relation between hagiography and a community's shared memory.

Synaxis of the Syriac Fathers by Fr. Vladimir Lysak 
Saints are created within the context of a community.  What is remembered about a person’s life, and what is forgotten, are the impressive or outstanding features that distinguish him or her. It is the community, the hagiographer, who determines what it is about a person that makes that person an exemplar of holiness. A hagiographer chooses the ideals of that person’s life with which he wants his community to identify.  Often many versions of a saint’s life circulate, each with different details about the saint; one community will not tell the same story of a saint as the next.  That is why it is important to do comparative studies of hagiography to see how the lives of these persons were diffused and translated.  Shared motifs as well as absences in competing forms of a saint’s life teach us how particular communities crafted a saint’s memory.  Typically, later versions of saint’s story become more embellished as he or she achieved a higher status in a community’s religious memory.   

AD: Sum up the book and your hopes for it. Who especially should read it?

My hope for the book is to bring a greater awareness of the richness of Syriac hagiographical tradition. I also hope that readers can find a model in my work for using hagiographical sources in their historical interpretations of the past.  I hope that it can be useful for specialists in Syriac studies as well non-specialists with an interest in late antiquity or hagiography.  

AD: Having finished the book, what projects are you at work on now?

I am currently working with Syriaca.org as the co-editor (with David Michelson) of a two-part digital database on Syriac hagiographic literature: the Gateway to the Syriac Saints. The first volume is entitled Qadishe, and it is an on-line database featuring information on holy people venerated in the Syriac tradition. 

The second database is called the Bibliotheca Hagiographica Syriac Electronica.  It features bibliographic data on over 1000 saints’ lives in the Syriac tradition.  We have encoded all of the data in TEI, or Text Encoding Initiative.  This will make it open, free, and linkable, so that other libraries and databases can access our work and use it for their own resources.  We hope that this project will be a useful tool for specialists and non-specialists alike.  It will be published in the coming months.  You can see a draft form here.

Finally, my friend Kyle Smith and I are producing a translation and commentary of a 12th-century Syriac hagiography, Behnam and Sara, for the series from Gorgias Press entitled the Persian Martyr Acts in Syriac.   

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