A 5th century Christian poet speaks from the dust

03.03.2017 | The Maxwell Institute

The Institute’s Carl Griffin recently published two landmark books on the Christian poet Cyrillona. In this post he introduces us to one of his striking poems.
Who was the poet? Cyrillona was an early Christian author who wrote around 400 AD. We know nothing about him except for what we can glean from his writings, a small collection of sermons and related texts written in Syriac. We see from his works that he was above all a caring pastor, but his precise ecclesiastical position is unknown. The manuscript containing his works gives him the title Mar, an honorific used of bishops, but it’s also used generally of ecclesiastical leaders and holy men. He probably lived in Syria or Mesopotamia, in a part of the eastern Roman empire where Syriac, an Aramaic dialect, was the vernacular language. As was the distinctive custom of early Syriac-speaking authors, he delivered his sermons in verse. So he was a poet, though not a poet in the usual modern sense. Why is Cyrillona significant when we think of early Christianity? Cyrillona is actually one of the earliest Syriac authors whose works have at all survived. That fact alone makes him very significant; his writing gives us a rare window into Syriac Christian thought at the turn of the fifth century. And even his works just barely survived. They are preserved in a single early manuscript housed in the British Library. It was soon after the manuscript was acquired, in the 19th century, that Cyrillona’s work was first discovered by western scholarship. In particular, an eminent German scholar, Gustav Bickell, happened to peruse his work when surveying this manuscript for another project, and he was so excited by what he found that he soon published a German translation. Bickell regarded Cyrillona as a supremely gifted poet, second only the greatest of Syriac poets, Ephrem the Syrian. Subsequent scholars have been likewise enthusiastic. So Cyrillona’s work is important not only as a rare witness to early Syriac theology, biblical exegesis, and homiletics, but also as an example of the high artistry that Syriac poetry attained in its early, golden age. Give us an example of his poetry, with some comments about what the poem is trying to do. It’s a privilege to be able to finally make Cyrillona available to English readers. I might note that Syriac poetry is based on meter, not rhyme. And while my translation is in prose, I have kept the original stichometry of the Syriac, which in turn preserves the brisk pace and punchiness of Cyrillona’s short lines. So while some poetic features are of course lost in translation, even a translation preserves much of Cyrillona’s feel. The five surviving works of Cyrillona cover a few different subjects, but three works coincide in elaborating upon the events of the Last Supper and Jesus’s last discourse to his disciples (see John 13-17). One characteristic of Cyrillona is that he vividly dramatizes the interactions between Jesus and the Twelve, at times expansively reimaging what Jesus might have said to them, or at least what his words should be understood to mean. In doing this Cyrillona was entirely unafraid to go far beyond the biblical text. In the following passage Cyrillona imaginatively expands upon Simon Peter’s alarmed reaction to Jesus when he, the very Lord of all creation, approaches to wash Peter’s feet (see John 13:8-10). Note that of all the blessings that Peter stands to lose by this refusal, including the keys to the kingdom, the final and most serious forfeiture will be his participation in the Eucharist. This is because the washing of the feet is a symbol of baptism, which is necessary for the reception of the Eucharist. To refuse one sacrament is to refuse both, and to refuse salvation. Cyrillona, On the Washing of the Feet 87-126
[Jesus] came to Simon, and (Simon) was pricked in his heart.
        He arose before him and asked him:
“The feet of the watchers, out of fear,
        are covered in heaven lest they be burned,
and you have come to take in your hand, my Lord,
        the feet of Simon, and to serve me?
All of this you have made manifest to us,
        your humility as well as your love.
In all of this you have honored us;
        do not alarm us again now, my Lord.
The seraphim have never even touched the hem of your garment,
        and see how you wash the feet of lowly men!
You, my Lord, are washing my feet for me—
        Who may hear of it and not be pricked?
You, my Lord, are washing my feet for me—
        What land is able to bear it?
This report of what you have done
        will strike awe in all creation.
This news of what has happened on earth
        will strike terror into the assemblies of heaven.
Depart, my Lord, leave, for I shall not permit this!
        I worship you, for I am a debtor.
On the surface of the sea I walked at your order
        and at your command I traversed the waves,
and was not this first thing enough for me?
        This latter thing which you endow me with, even greater—
It’s not possible, my Lord, that this should happen!
        The report of it alone strikes terror in creation.
It’s not possible, my Lord, that this should happen!
        For it is a great burden beyond measure.”

[Jesus replied:]
“If this is not possible,
        you have no share with me on my throne.
If this is not possible,
        give back to me the keys which I committed to you.
If this is not possible,
        your authority is also taken from you.
If, as you have said, this is not possible,
        you are not able to be a disciple.
If, as you have said, this is not possible,
        you shall never taste a portion of my body.”
  [The banner image is from a manuscript of Cyrillona]