Threasures of the Heart
After the news about the coming soldiers had rippled through Biram, the village never quite calmed itself again. Among the adults, I noticed, convesations took on a slightly uneasy edge.
However, the insistent rituals of daily life beckoned. Men went back to their fields and herds, leaving the village square to the dozing grandfathers. Father went to his orchard. Mother and the other women busied themselves with cooking and baking, stopping in at a doorway here or there to ask for a recipe that might help stretch their family's store of flour, grain, sugar and vegetables to feed the extra mouths. The Mothers of Biram were miracle workers when it came to multiplying a little food to feed a multitude. They had to be, for few of them had less than seven children and some had fifteen or more.
As for us children, our main job was to go to school and study. Since few of the adults in Biram could read or write, our education was of great importance.
In the week that followed Father's announcement, I bounded off to school with an eagerness that never ceased to surprise my parents. I had loved school from the first day.
But I never slipped out in the morning without a ritual inspection by Mother.
Stepping into the doorway with an earthen bowl cradled in the crook of one arm, she barred my hasty exit. With the heel of her hand - the only part that wasn't already coated with flour - she smoothed my thick dark hair. She had been up since daybreak, mixing together something delicious. One day it was a confection called "circles", rounded sugarcakes flavored with anisette. Another morning it was bread dough. Lifting my chin between a floury thumb and forefinger, she would smile. "Elias, you're a good student. I'm very, very proud of your schoolwork. Be good in class today, won't you?"
Then Atallah, or one of the others who had been impatiently waiting for me in the yard, would poke his head inside urgently. "The bell is going to ring." "
Better hurry,"Mother would say, "or Abu 'Eed will be upset."
We hurried through the streets, meeting up with cousins and other bands of children on the way, until we burst like the hordes of Asia into the churchyard just as the huge bronze bell began to ring. The first four grades, which included my class, met in the parish house. The men of Biram had built it with their bare hands out of the ever-plentiful supply of fieldstones and clay. The walls were thick and squat, meeting at odd angles, with huge open windows that peered out on the valleys and let in every stray wind. We were all proud of our school, just as we were proud of the lofting church across the small courtyard, which the people of Biiram had also built stone by stone. Pride overruling modesty, they had named the church Notre Dame.
With every child in Biram cramped into one small space, quietness, order and obedience were crucial. We were lined up quickly according to grade. Then we marched into the schoolroom under the all-seeing eye of our teacher; Abu 'Eed.
A kind and small man, Abu 'Eed, had a thick beard that bristled out by his ears like a lion's mane. He was the only priest in our village, a bustling occupation, and he also taught us squirming, younger children math, spelling, reading, geography and the Bible. Since priests were allowed to marry according to our custom, Abu 'Eed had a rather large family, and his gentle fatherliness made him a favorite of mine. If, however, a student foolishly upset the delicate order that held rein on potential chaos, his eyes flashed fiery above the black beard.
It was Abu 'Eed who made school a place of new and wonderful ideas that challenged my imagination. The talk about far away lands needled my sense of adventure. The sound of letters rolling off my tongue as I spelled out a new word - all of it excited me.
Yet I was happier to go home at thee nd of each day - though not, I,m sure, as happy as Abu 'Eed was to see us go - to my real teachers. Mother and Father had always taken our education as their responsibility, not leaving it all up to the school or the church. They were convinced that no one could teach us better than they in such important matters as our heritage, culture and faith.
Every afternoon - on those days when I, myself, was not helping in the fields - I would listen for Mother's return then I would hear it - the merry, tell- tale signal that gave out her approach. For Mother jingled. As a wedding gift, Father had given her a simple chain of tiny brass links, decorated with fish and doves. The fish, which represented Peter's fish in the nearby Sea of Galilee, were cleverly jointed so they swayed back and forth like real fish-jingling, jingling. And the doves, I knew, represented the Holy Spirit as it had lighted upon Jesus at His baptism in the Jordan River. Mother loved that necklace and wore it always.
When she saw me, Mother would say, "Elias, come here. I found something for you today under one of the stones in the field." Those stones! Our lives were so rooted to this land that the stones even found their way into our play. It took someone as gifted as Mother to transform the backbreaking work of clearing stones into a game, a way of teaching. "I found a story," she would say with a tired smile. "Woulld you like to hear it? No answer was necessary - I was already in her lap. Mother stories were always rich and beautiful, spinning out of her uncanny memory.
Though Mother could not read or write, she had only to hear a story or poem once or twice and it belonged to her. She knew by heart many of the long epics of Arabic literature. Stanza after stanza, she would weave the tale of some prince or sultan, holding me on her lap as some tragedy or romance or comedy poured out.
The stories she loved best and told with the most vivdness, were those from the Bible. Her words set my imagination soaring. I heard the snap-and- whizz of David's sligshot as he toppled the giant Goliath; felt the roaring Red Sea split and heave aside in towering waves, letting Moses and the people escape the Egyptian chariots, and I envisioned the dark, lovely, perfumed Queen of Sheba bearing exotic gifts to the foot of Solomon's gold and ivory throne. Mother had chosen to name me Elias - a variation of Elijah - after the fiery prophet who was fed by ravens. Each story formed a familiar footpath of sounds and images in my head. Yet, only one man in the Bible fully captured my awe and love.
The stories about Jesus were, to me, the most wonderful and alive. Jesus, in my young mind, was a flesh-and -blood hero who may have walked the dusty roads into our own village. Mother said He had come to Galilee first, to our hills and our people, after His temptation in the wilderness. It was from His lips that we first heard the good news: God and man were reconciled. Perhaps some forefather Cahcour had eaten bread and fish miraculously multiplied by Jesus' hand. Maybe a Chacour boy or girl felt the brush of His fingerstips when He blessed the little children, or watched as He healed the sick and the blind. These wonders were real to me, for they had occured on streets and in homes like those I saw every day.
For instance, I could picture vivdly the New Testament story of the men who could not sqeeze their paralyzed friend inside a crowded house to meet Jesus. The Lord, as I pictured Him, was seated inside a simple Galilean home just like ours with two rooms and a loft where children slept. In the cold mouths meals were cooked and eaten in the largest room where children played and guests were welcomed. There were two doors. One led out to a stable where cows, donkeys, goats and chickens were kept in winter. The other led to a small room behind the house used to store hay for the animals' winter feed. Its wooden tiles were easily removed so the hay could be pitched in from the outside.
Jesus, as an honored guest, would have been seated against the rear wall of the house next to the storage room. So the men were not rude, but clever when they removed the roof tiles and lowered their paralyzed friend right down to the Master's feet. Jesus, of had honored their faith and healed the man's stiff, uselss limbs. In my imagination, the miracle could have happened on the very spot where Father often rested in the evening, his back against the cool stone.
In this way Jesus became the hero of my whole, real world of stones, sparrows, mustard plants and vineyards. I could easily imagine Him stopping at our house or walking with his disciples though the cool shade of Father's fig orchard.
What Mother treasured most dearlyy were the words Jesus to the crowd of Galileans on a hill very near to our house - the hill Mother loved- the Mount of Beatitudes.The Beatitudes were, to Mother, the very essence of all Jesus teaching, like the rare extract of a perfume. I would sit on her lap, quitly fingerling the doves and fishes of her necklace, listening to the strangely beautiful words:
Blessed are the poor in spirt, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be conforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled . . .
Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice, be very glad, because your reward in heaven is great, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who came before you."
What did He mean? I puzzled. How can you be blessed - or happy- if you are poor or in mourning - if someone insults or persecutes you? How can you be hungry and thirsty for righteousness? What is a peacemaker?
These things were a mystery to me. What I understood about Jesus, what attracted me, was His strong, sometimes fiery nature: the way He erupted into the temple courts, driving out the greedy merchants and scattering the coins of the money changers; His habit of helping the crippled and blind, even if he broke the laws and offended the overly-pious religious leaders. Sometimes I thought He was the only one who could understand a small boy who also threw himself into situations - somewhat blindly - a boy whose tongue sometimes got him into trouble, too, like the time I committed a capital crime in Abu 'Eed's classroom.
The older students were struggling with a difficult mathematical equation one morning while Abu 'Eed turned to us, his first-graders, for simple addition. He spewed out several numbers and asked for a quick sum. Most of the heads were still bowed, pencils scratching and erasing, when my cousin Charles shot up his hand. Mine shot up a split second later.
Abu "Eed nodded to Charles who announced his aproudly: "Eight."
"No, Charles", Abu 'Eed replied, shaking his head. Check your work more carefully."
I waved my hand desperately, bursting with the right answer. Whin Abu Eed called on me, I blurted, with a smug look at Charles, "Nine. The right answer is nine."
Abu 'Eed smiled at me and was about to give another set of numbers. But I could not bear the temptation. Charles was usually a faster, better student, and now it was my turn to gloat. Foolishly, in a stage whisper that ricocheted off the old stome walls, I hissed, "See that, Charles? You're a donkey!"
The quiet, contained classroom split open with laughter. Abu 'Eed strode toward me, like a storm blown up from the Mediterranean, thundering for silence in the room. His stinging chastisement left me teary-eyed and embarrassed in front of everyone. Even worse, I was afraid that a wagging tongue - in the mouth of who knew which brother, cousin or aunt - would report the incident to Mother and Father.
When school was out, I fled from the mossy courtyard and ran all the way to Father's orchard. The quiet orchard was my special hideaway, my sanctuary where I often went to pour out my small, troubled heart. And who else could I pour it out to but my Champion, Jesus? If Mother's stories taught me anything, it was that He cared for us and He was always eager to listen.
I waded in the cool grass beneath the fig boughs, telling Jesus with all sincerity, "I didn't mean to upset Abu 'Eed. And I didn't mean anything bad when I called Charles a donkey. It just came out ..." Was He listening? Did He care?
A peculiar stillness seemed to engulf the orchard, althought a breeze was rustling the leaves. A sudden sense of awe swelled inside, a feeling of majesty and holiness and - what was it? Friendship. My heart skipped. The sense could hardly have been more real if Jesus Himself had physically fallen in pace beside me.
I simply went jabbering on, imagining the understanding smile. The sense of His presence, the possibility that He had time to listen to my troubles, did not seem at all unusual. So many times before, I had sought Him in my orchard retreat, or in the hills, and there poured out my childish dilemmas, that it seemed most ordinary. Imagined or real, I cherished these times. For then, unknowingly, I first discovered the slim, strong thread of inner peace.
I was thankful that my classroom blunder was not reported to Mother and Father - not that time, at least. Deeply repentant, I hoped I might learn how to harness my tongue.
While Mother captivatedme with her Bible stories, Father was the one who forged an unbroken chain of history that led from Jesus and His followers to our own family. Like Abraham or Noah in the Old Testament, Father wanted to be sure his children knew their rare and treasured heritage. After all, our family were Melkite Christians. We were not like some weed newly sprung up after rain, but our spiritual heritage was firmly rooted in the first century.
Night after night, Father would gather all of us under the open stars or around a low fire as the winter wind beat at our door. For the thousandth time he would carry us back through the dim ages with his brilliant histories. I loved every delightful word. After Jesus' crucifixion, we learned, the flame of His Spirit continued to burn brightly in our villages - though our ancestors were forced to meet in secret for fear of the religious leaders. James, the brother of our Lord, became the spiritual overseer of the believers in Jerusalem.
Not very long after James and the other apostles died, the Church was split, nearly destroyed by acreeping, cultic darkness. A certain groups, the Gnostics, claimed that Jesus was a mystical being, and not a man at all. Just when it seemed that these false teachers, would scatter the flock like wolves, the king of Byzantium, newly a Christian, took a strong stand of the side of the early apostles, asserting that Jesus was the God-Man; He had bridged the chasm between God and mankind, bringing peace when He took on our frail, human nature. My family, among many others, sided with the king. Their angry detractors dubbed them with the derogator name, "Melkites'' - or "king's men'' - "melech'' being the Arabic word for "king." It was these early Melkites who united the splintered churches.
Our Melkite family belonged to a spunky group, it seemed. Many centuries later, after the Crusaders fought bloody wars to implant the influence of Rome in our soil, the Melkites stood firmly against such foreign authority. They remained a separate group of believers, holding to the simple, orthodox teachings of the early church, which angered several popes. Several centuries later, the Melkites built bridges of reconciliation with Rome. This ability to reconcile opposing powers seemed to be an historic hallmark of our Church fathers.
Should Father stray from the familiar trail, all of us would clamor for the whole story. One part we loved, with that strange, gruesome tendency of children, was about the horrifying fate of a certain Chacour generations back.
In the 1700s, a cruel Turkish sultan named Jezzar Pasha spread his rule over our land all the way to the Mediterranean. When he took the city of Akko on the seacoast, he decided to raise a fortified wall against foreign warships. Its design called for secret labyrinthine escape routes through the enormous stones. One Chacour was among those forced to work on these sea- walls. While the last bit of mortar was still drying, Jezzar Pasha rewarded them for their backbreaking labors: every one of the builders was buried alive beneath the wall. And so the sultan's defense secrets were guarded forever.
This was Father's most effective way of teachimg us two things. First, we should love and respect our Galilean soil, for our people had long struggled to survive here. We were rooted like the poppies and wild, blue irises that thrust up among the rocks. Our family had tilled this land, had worshiped here longer than anyone could remember. And second, our lives were bound together with the other people who inhabited Palestine - the Jews. We had suffered together under the Romans, Persians, Crusaders and Turks, and had learned to share the simple elements of human existence - faith, reverence for life, hospitality. These, Father said were the things that caused people to live happily together.
Fathr told his story unvaryingly. At seven, I did not understand much of it, to be sure, but it fascinated me.
And Father taught us something even more valuable than our colorful history. He taught us, in a quite, subtle way about character. Whether I knew it or not, many of the attributes I imagined in Jesus, my unseen Champion, most likely came from this other hero in my life.
Whenever Father was wronged, for instance, he handled it in a way that amazed me - and caused me to chuckle. One time, he had traded away a huge number of figs and got a very bad piece of merchandise in exchange. The swindler was ling-gone when Father realized he had been cheated. But Father never cursed. With a placid tone, and a wry smile on his face, he said, "May God bless that man - and take him to heaven!"
Father's Gentle spirit had an influence far beyond our immediate family. One man that father influenced was a certain Father Maximus, who often visited in our home. Over the usual cup of steaming, thick coffee, he would politely inquire about our family, then probe Father for a solution to some touchy, upcoming debate among the Church heirarchy. He continued his visits after he became Bishop Maximus. Later, he would become Patriarch Maximus IV, a famous reformer in the Vatican Councils. This great man recognized that Fathers opinion was not subject to changes of emotion, or the pressure of other men.
Even news about soldiers coming to Biram with guns could not unsettle Father. Since the announcement of their coming, the soldiers had sent word to the village mukhtars that they would stay for only a few days and they would take nothing. They were just looking over the land. Father accepted their word as gentleman. If need be, these Jews from Europe could settle in our village and farm the land that lay open beside our own fields.
But my brother Rudah was alarmed at the talk of machine guns. A few days after Father first told us the news, Rudah shocked us all by bringing home a rifle - one of the two or three guns in all of Biram, a rusted antique used for shooting at wolves that came to prey on the village flocks. The wolves were in little danger of being hit.
When Father saw the rifle he erupted in a rare show of anger. ''Get it out of here! I won't have it in my house." Mother and the rest of us stood frozen and mute.
Poor Rudah was wide-eyed, stunned. ''I - I thought we might need a gun to protect ourselves in case - "
"No!" Father would not hear more. "We do not use violence ever. Even if someone hurts us." He had calmed a bit, and he took the gun.
"But Father," Rudah persisted, anxiously, "Why do the soldiers carry guns?".
Slipping his arm around Rudahs shoulders, Father replied, "For centuries our Jewish brothers have been exiles in foreign lands. They were hunted and tormented - even by Christians. They have lived in poverty and sadness. They have been made to fear, and sometimes when people are afraid, they feel they have to carry guns. Their souls are weak because they have lost peace within."
"But how do we know the soldiers won't harm us?'' Rudah pressed him.
Father smiled, and all the tension seemed to relax. "Because,"he said, "the Jews and Palestinians are brothers - blood brothers. We share the same father, Abraham, and the same God. We must never forget that. Now we get rid of the gun".
It is extraordinary how a voice from our childhood, even one word spoken at a crucial moment, can bury itself inside only to reveal its simple wisdom in a crisis our adult minds cannot begin to fathom. Then our whole life is re-fashioned.
I listened to the exchange between Father and Rudah, and watched as they went out to dispose of the gun. Then the incident passed, was locked somewhere inside me with the other jewels of heritage and faith that Mother and Father had carefully hidden there. The time was soon coming when I would have little else to hold onto but these treasures of the heart.