A Visit to Dayro d-Mor Ephrem (December 8-10, 1995)
The author with H.E. Mor Yulius and Dayroyo Eliyo (December 9, 1995)
From sunny California I had reached the Netherlands glaced with ice about nine hours back. I was quite exhausted after the whirlwind tour of the Netherlands, which would be the envy of a packaged tour operator, taking me from Schipol Airport at Amsterdam to Den Haag (The Hague) and beyond to Rotterdam. As the train whistled through the darkness across the Netherlands, I was comfortably resting in the heated compartment, relieved from the burden of the uncomfortable jacket and muffler I could not do without during the day. I tried hard to take a nap, but didn't quite succeed although I was worn out. I was headed towards Losser, a small town on the border of Netherlands and Germany, to Dayro d'Mor Ephrem (St. Ephrem's Syrian Orthodox Monastery) on its outskirts. The train would take me to Enschede. I was apprehensive about getting to my destination in the dark, with the temperature below freezing. An old gentleman sitting next to me assured me that I couldn't miss Enschede. "That is far as this train will take you," he said, in his thick Dutch accent.
My mind wandered as the train sped across from the East to the West of the Netherlands, a country smaller than all of Southern California. As a native of Kerala, the southwestern coastal state of India, I pondered on the indelible mark left by the Dutch on our history. The Dutch palace at Mattancherry, the Bolghatty palace, and other historical monuments are silent testimonials to the bygone days of Dutch influence in the 18th century AD. Unlike their predecessors--the Portugese and their successors--the British, the Dutch are remembered perhaps more kindly. In the few hours that I had been in the Netherlands, I had discovered how friendly the Dutch were and wondered whether that would explain the benevolence of their ancestors to their colonies. At the Rotterdam Maritime Museum, I had the opportunity to see one of the ships that had sailed to India and Indonesia in those days. It evoked a feeling of connection with the past, a sense of history that provoked me to reflect on the bygone days that bear a lasting influence on the culture of our society to this day. The colonial days are behind us. Yet, interestingly enough for me, the Netherlands was much more than another European country which colonized our part of the world, being home today to one of the most prominent Syrian Orthodox monasteries--Dayro d-Mor Ephrem (St. Ephrem's Monastery) and a flourishing Syrian Christian diaspora, that was cruelly evicted from South-east Turkey, the land of its ancestors. For a Syrian Orthodox Christian, who takes pride in the heritage of this ancient church, the St. Ephrem's monastery is sacred and very special, being one of the few institutions today that are dedicated to preserving the great traditions of the church. It was founded by the Archbishop of Central Europe, His Eminence Mor Yulius Yeshu` Çiçek in 1981. To this day, the monastery has published about 80 books on Syrian Orthodoxy in Syriac, Arabic, German, Dutch, English, etc. As a young boy, I had met H.E. Mor Yulius in 1982, when he accompanied H.H. the Patriarch of Antioch to Kerala. The melodious tune of the Syriac hymns he chanted during the public reception at our church fourteen years ago swept back to my memory. Later, while several Malankara Syrian Orthodox Christians in Kerala complained and lamented about the lack of educated and dedicated clergy in the church, His Eminence took a step that the church in Kerala can never forget—founding and funding a seminary in Udayagiri that has grown considerably in the past few years. I eagerly looked forward to meeting His Eminence at the St. Ephrem's monastery he built so painstakingly. I had planned to spend a couple of days at this monastery.
I had another equally important purpose for my trip. The Holy Virgin Mary Cathedral at St. Ephrem's is the resting place of the late Mor Athanasius Samuel, the first archbishop of the Syrian Orthodox diocese of North America and Canada. For Malankara Syrian Orthodox Christians who immigrated to the US, Mor Athanasius was our beloved bishop for years, whom we loved and admired. His ties to Malankara date back to the early 30s when he accompanied the late Patriarch of blessed memory Mor Ignatius Elias III as his secretary. His role in the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls is a matter of pride to every Syrian Orthodox Christian. When he was called to eternal rest on April 16, 1995, civic bodies in the US refused to grant the permission to afford his mortal remains a burial according to the Syrian Orthodox traditions in the sanctuary of a church. According to his last wishes, his mortal remains rest today in a majestic masoleum under the sanctuary of the Virgin Mary Cathedral in St. Ephrem's monastery. I wished to pay respects at the tomb of our beloved departed archbishop.
The clock struck 9:00 pm as the train pulled into Enschede. As characteristic of the Eurail system, the train had arrived precisely on the minute scheduled. Before I left from LA, I had written to His Eminence Mor Yulius. However, since he was away at Jerusalem, I had not received a reply. I had talked to a monk at the monastery over the phone. However, due to difficulties in communicating in English, I was not quite sure that they were prepared for my arrival that night. A bus dropped me a short distance away from the monastery. I slowly walked towards the monastery trudging through the snow. I chuckled to myself, "the pilgrim's progress!" I could recognize the building as I approached it having seen a photograph in the monastery publications.
A middle aged woman dressed in black answered the door. She greeted me saying "Shlomo!" (Syriac for "Peace"). I was shown my way to a large living room. The door was partially closed but I could hear conversations in what I later understood to be in Turoyo, a colloquial dialect of Syriac. It sounded familiar but was beyond my comprehension. I had a letter of introduction from Rev. Dr. Tarzi, the vicar at the St. Ephrem's Syrian Orthodox church in Burbank, Los Angeles, which I managed to fish out from my baggage. Disheveled as I appeared after the long flight from LA and the train journey, dressed in faded jeans, I was a little diffident about the first impression I would make. I tidied myself up and gently knocked at the door. I heard a response from the inside which I assumed beckoned me in. The door opened into a rather large living room. At the opposite corner sat His Eminence. He looked more of a graceful senior bishop than the young bishop with a cherubic face that I could remember from the pictures. Two priests and a few others were seated on sofas around the room. I went straight across, kissed the hand of His Eminence and presented the letter of introduction. His Eminence said that he had received my letter but he was away at Jerusalem, having been recently appointed as the acting Patriarchal Vicar of Jerusalem. Very warmly he asked me sit down and make myself comfortable. One of the priests beckoned me to sit near him. As I walked over, I feared that I could be soiling the plush Persian carpet on the floor with my shoes dripping water from the melting snow. Carefully I walked over trying to avoid the carpet. The room was furnished with ivory inlaid furniture that I quickly recognized to have come from Kerala. On the walls were hung several exquisite carpets. His Eminence inquired about my journey, my purpose for being in Holland, my occupation, among other things. He had spent two years in the US in the 70s. Somebody served me Turkish coffee which was delightfully hot. The conversation continued in Arabic. Frequently, His Eminence would ask me a question in English so that I would not feel left out from the conversation. The priest sitting next to me, Abuna Yuhannon, also exchanged pleasantries. I realized that His Eminence was addressed Sayyidna (Arabic), just as I had heard Syrians in Los Angeles address late Mor Athanasius and His Holiness, the Patriarch. It was already eleven in the night. Sayyidna rose to retire for the night and took me to the abbot of the monastery, Dayroyo Eliyo, a monk in perhaps fifties or early sixties. As Sayyidna left, he told me, "The morning prayer begins at 9 am in the monastery chapel."
Dayroyo Eliyo had a rather serious face which broke into a graceful smile as he greeted me and shook my hands. I was asked to sit in the small office as he prepared to retire upstairs for the night. A few of the other monks introduced themselves to me. Malphono Sait (Malphono is Syriac for teacher) , a monk of a rather short frame with a face golden as an apple, told me that he was the one who spoke to me over the phone. Dayroyo Saleebo introduced himself as the youngest among the monks and a shamshono (full deacon). Dayroyo Eliyo, overhearing our conversation, smiled and told him, "(In India) they say chemmachan." Dayroyo Saleebo also told me that there were four monks and a nun at the monastery. I also learned that monks who live in a Dayro are addressed Dayroyo.
Dayroyo Eliyo took me upstairs to a room on the second floor. All the rooms are large enough to accommodate two cots each, a refrigerator, a closet, and a shower. The room was furnished in a spartan style befitting a monastery, yet comfortable and well kept. On the wall was a picture of Mor Ephrem, the patron saint of the monastery and another of the Patriarch and all the bishops of the church in the Middle East. Dayroyo Eliyo showed me around the floor and reminded me that the morning prayer starts at 7 am. With the jet lag and my rather strenuous tour of the Netherlands, I was worried that I would oversleep and be late for morning prayer. I requested Dayroyo Eliyo to give me an alarm clock. When he went downstairs to fetch the clock, I stepped out into the hallway. On the wall were several pictures, neatly arranged. There were several copies of illustrations of the Gospel from a 12th century Bible in Deir ez-Za`faran, in Turabdin, Turkey. There were several pictures of Syrian Orthodox churches in Germany, Holland, Austria and Belgium. Also on the walls were several pictures of the Patriarch's visit to Kerala in 1982.
I had a good night's sleep but got up in time to get to the chapel for prayer. Sayyidna was up early. He asked me to go the monastery chapel and proceeded to his office next to it. The monastery building has two wings one two storied and the other three storied, connected together by a bridge building. The chapel is on the upper floor of the two storied wing. It is fairly large, paneled entirely with wood. A huge chandelier hung in the center. On the walls were beautiful oil portraits of the four evangelists, Mor Ephrem, Patriarch Antonios Rabo, Morth Shmuni and her children among others. The chapel had three altars. Most curiously for a Malankara Syrian Christian, there was no prayer table in the center. The Gospel lectern stood in a portion of the sanctuary projecting out into the nave beyond the veil, with an ornate Bible placed on it. On both sides of the kesthrumo (the space between the sanctuary and the nave) were similarly shaped stands with prayer books on them. I proceeded to stand on the left side facing the altar. Shortly, the woman who had greeted me at the door came in and motioned to me to go over to the other side. I was rather puzzled, given that in Malankara Syrian Christian churches, men stand on the left side and the women on the right. I stood on the other side very close to the center in case I had misunderstood her and had to go back.
A few minutes before seven, Dayroyo Malke, one of the monks I had not met the previous night, chimed the bell. Almost instantaneously, all the residents of the monastery were in the chapel. I was joined by a few laymen assuring me that I had not made a mistake in standing on the right side of the nave. The morning prayers began.
Two groups of monks (including a nun), priests, and others assembled around the two prayer tables. The prayers and hymns are chanted between the two groups, a tradition going back to St. Ignatius of Antioch. Syriac chanting has various styles. Sometimes there is a long pause between one stanza and the next; in others the first line of one stanza is chanted by one side before the last line of the previous one is finished by the other. Sometimes the last line is repeated by the other side. Between the prayers for the different hours, the Lord's prayer and Hail Mary are said silently. There is a divine perfection to the chanting. I could broadly follow the pattern of prayers, but wish I could understand the words to fully appreciate its beauty.
I stepped out of the chapel after kissing the hand cross of the archbishop at the end of the prayer. I could recognize many of the faces from the previous night. Dayroyo Malké warmly shook my hands. He appeared to me to be quite a hermit with a thick black beard flowing down. He had recently come from Mor Gabriel monastery. Dayroyto Hanna was a nun from the Holy Land. She was dressed in the same black robes as the monks and an eskimo (black headdress with 13 crosses). There are also three young students from Germany who are there to study Syriac, Mikhail, Yuhanon and Moshe. Apparently, many boys spent a year following their school education at the monastery. Moshe was considering a monastic life. Mikhail and Yuhanon couldn't even entertain the thought. There were also a few prior students of the monastery who came from Germany to spend the weekend. One of them, Elias, could speak English well enough to become my interpreter. At the monastery few are fluent in English. It seemed to me that they were more comfortable with German or Dutch. Sayyidna could communicate with me in English well. Others could in a limited way. But after a while, once I had struck a chord with them, language ceased to be a barrier. All of those whom I met in the monastery were immigrants from Turabdin in South East Turkey. Today there are 40 churches in the central Europe diocese, 15 of them near the monastery, others mostly in Germany and also in major cities like Amsterdam, Berlin, Vienna, etc. Sayyidna also told me about a monastery that he recently acquired in the Swiss Alps.
There was a hum of activity at the dining room in the basement of the three storied wing. I noticed that everyone including the priests were helping set up the dining table. A bell rung and the men assembled around the dining table. Sayyidna walked in, sat at the head of the table. The Lord's prayer was said before the breakfast in Syriac. The food was continental. While the conversation was in the Turabdini dialect of Syriac, Sayyidna made sure that I didn't feel left out by translating important parts of the conversation for me. Some of the clergy had visited Kerala with Sayyidna. As soon as everybody finished with the breakfast, Sayyidna said the concluding prayer. Immediately everybody got up, cleaned the table after them and left. Except for the visitors, no one seemed to be around till noon. Everybody was engrossed in their work. Dayroyo Eliyo took me to the library and asked me to go through their publications and take any book I was interested in. While there were many in German, only a few were in English. He also spent some time explaining to me the sources of pictures in the hallway from an ancient bibles manuscript in Deir ez-Za`faran monastery in east Turkey. After prayer at noon, we had lunch. Sayyidna was apologetic that everybody was busy in the morning with work and had no time for me. He was working on a report to send to the Patriarch. He uses an IBM PC to do his work. I assured him that I was doing fine. He gave me a book on Jerusalem to read. Later I went around the monastery compound which was covered with snow to take some pictures. The monastery has about 200 acres of land. Prior to 1981, it was apparently a Catholic monastery. Outside the gate I found two Dutch neighbors with whom I picked up a conversation. They seemed to be quite happy to have the monastery in their neighborhood, quite unlike some cities in the US where Syrian Christians are looked upon with suspicion due to their ethnicity. They asked me whether I had seen the beautiful cathedral behind the monastery. Inside the compound I could see one of the students, Mikhail, strolling in the snow learning the Gospels from a Syriac Peshitto version of the Bible. Mikhail spoke for the most part in German and interestingly enough both of us could follow each other. He had come from Turabdin just about three years ago. He had an affinity for Syrian Christians from India since he believed that all of us were very devout. I cautioned him against being na´ve, which I don't believe he quite understood. He later took me to the cathedral, about 10,000 sq. ft. in size, covered with marble and granite, heated floors, stained glasses, etc. I don't remember having seen such an exquisite Syrian Orthodox church before. He took me down to the tombs of bishops and priests below the sanctuary, where late Mor Athanasius Samuel rests. I spent some time in solitude before the tomb. The memorable visits of the late archbishop to our tiny parish in Los Angeles came back to my mind. When I took leave of him at the Mar Ignatius Church in Carrolton, Texas in 1993 following the annual convention of Malankara churches, I had not imagined that I would be visiting his tomb in the Netherlands two years later.
When we returned, Sayyidna was waiting for me. He was to go to a nearby church that was being constructed. He asked me to go with him. Abuna Yuhanon drove us over. I didn't realize that we were crossing international borders. I had only my camera with me. After we crossed a rail line, Sayyidna casually said that we were in Germany. I panicked for a moment realizing that I didn't have my passport with me, but then nobody seemed to care. The church he took me to was as big as the one at the monastery with an equally big parish hall. Apparently about 1.5 million dollars were spent on it. Several people from adults to little children were arranging marble and granite flooring material. As soon as Sayyidna got down from the car the children crowded around him. He playfully gave them key-chains and crosses from Jerusalem hiding them in his palm and asking them to choose a hand. In the process, I also got a key chain. This was of course the first of the many things he gave me. After we returned, His Eminence gave me a Byzantine icon of St. Mary with child, again from Jerusalem. I spent the rest of the afternoon with Abuna Yuhanon. In the evening, I accompanied him and others to the cemetery adjacent to the cathedral to offer prayers at the tombs of the departed. We had evening prayers in the cathedral followed by dinner. Sayyidna spend some time talking to me and later asked me to join him in his private room with others to watch the evening news. I was initially sitting close to the TV. Sayyidna sensing that I was not able to see the screen properly, got up from his sofa and moved to another and asked me to sit where he was. I was embarrassed but he insisted. We then watched a video of Jerusalem after which Sayyidna left. I spend some more time talking to the Mikhail and Yuhanon there about their schooling system, future plans and so on. I had initially thought that they were contemplating priesthood, but they had no such plans. They were there just for a year's study to be able to serve as deacons.
On Sunday morning, as I stepped out of my room, Sayyidna walked past the hallway. I realized that his living quarters were just a couple of rooms down the hallway. He told me that he had to be in a nearby church for services and asked me to attend the Holy Mass in the cathedral. Abuna Shmuel, the vicar of the church at Amsterdam officiated. Though on several occasions, both in India and the US, I had heard Bishops from the Middle East officiate, this was the first time I was attending a mass entirely in Syriac. Morning prayers started at 8:00 am and the Holy Mass was over at 10:30 am. Sayyidna returned from the church he had visited while we were at the breakfast table. After breakfast he gave me a few other things he had brought over from Jerusalem despite my protests. Later he sat down on the floor to pack several beautiful portraits of Mor Ephrem and of Bar `Ebroyo (the 13th century Maphryono of Tigris and great scholar of the Syrian Church) for me to give to friends. He pointed to the doors of the monastery and told me that they are always open and that I should come next time during summer when it is beautiful in Netherlands. I took leave of His Eminence and others at the monastery thanking them for their hospitality. They saw me off at the door. I was disappointed that this enjoyable stay had come to an end so soon.
Elias and two of his friends dropped me at the Enschede railway station from where I took a train to Amsterdam.
Dayro d-Mor Ephrem is an exemplary Syrian Orthodox monastery, an institution that gives hope for a brighter future for the Syrian Orthodox Church. Those who lament about the state of the Syrian Orthodox church should visit the monastery to experience its spiritual vibrance. While the future of most of the ancient Syrian Orthodox monasteries look bleak, being in locations where political turbulence and related social factors prevent the fulfillment of their mission, St. Ephrem's monastery promises to be a beacon light in the future of the Syrian Orthodox Church. I pray that God Almighty bless and strengthen His Eminence Mor Yulius and others in that monastery in their mission. I look forward to an opportunity to spend some time at St. Ephrem's again.
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