By Robert Kitchen
Robert J. Kitchen, a renowned scholar in Syriac studies, began reading The Book of Steps (ܟܬܳܒܳܐ ܕܡܰܣ̈ܩܳܬܳܐ) in 1974 with Professor Fr. Alexander DiLella in the Semitics Department of The Catholic University of America. Robert earned a BA from Springfield College, Springfield, Massachusetts; M.Div, Pacific School of Religion, Berkeley, California; MA in Syriac, Semitics Department, The Catholic University of America; and D.Phil, University of Oxford, studying with Sebastian P. Brock.
He is a retired United Church of Christ and United Church of Canada minister, serving for 43 years in Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota and Saskatchewan until 2016. He is a Senior Lecturer in Syriac Patristics, Sankt Ignatios Theological Academy, Södertälje, Sweden; and Visiting Professor in Syriac New Testament Exegesis, MA in Syriac Theology program, University of Salzburg, Austria. He has translated The Book of Steps and The Discourses of Philoxenos of Mabbug, both for Cistercian Publications. He and his wife, the Reverend Mary-Ellen McGreal Kitchen, reside in Regina, Saskatchewan.
The intentionally anonymous author of the fourth-century Book of Steps (ktōbō d-massqōtō)1 does not explicitly tell us about his motives, but it appears that he was attempting to fashion and shape a new way of being the Church of Christ. Unlike many attempts throughout Christian history, he did not intend that his would be the Perfect Church, but it would necessitate some of its members being Perfect. The author insisted that the Church is to include all people, some Perfect, others good but not Perfect, and others perhaps not always good.
What is striking about The Book of Steps is his construction of an elite level of Christians which he calls the Perfect (gmīrē), and to be Perfect by his standards is not easy. He persistently describes how they should be living the Perfect life, but from time to time admits how imperfect they are. Lots of us still yearn to shepherd the Perfect Church, so in the fourth century here is a long story of some Christians who tried very hard to be Perfect.
How do you become Perfect? The author does not say how they were chosen, and there are no overt qualifications for being Perfect or the lower level, called the Upright (kīnē). The Book of Steps simply mentions they are there. Perhaps the author discerned who would be a worthy candidate for the gmīrē and approached them, or maybe some people volunteered for either level. When the author begins writing to us, the story has already started.
The first qualification is that the person had to be celibate, not married, and must remain that way. There are no women mentioned among the Perfect, although one could assume that there were female Upright, even though they are always referred to as the kīnē, the masculine plural. The Book of Steps does mention the bnay qyāmā, the Sons of the Covenant,2 and there always were bnāt qyāmā, Daughters of the Covenant.3 The author is generally addressing the gmīrē and the kīnē, so we read only what he thinks needs to be explained, because living then you already know the unexplained.
The second most important characteristic of a Perfect is not to own anything: no possessions, no property, no place to lay down one’s head. These are not unusual in monastic and clerical orders throughout the history of Christianity.
What is unusual is the other more important characteristic, that the Perfect person does not work, which means in the first place that one does not earn a wage since having money encourages one to possess things. There are lots of problems with not working, as I am certain you can already imagine, but let’s delay discussion for the moment.
How can this be the Perfect way to live? Because, in Syriac and other traditions, it is the way it is supposed to be. The author is modeling the way of the Perfect in his community after Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. To be saved and redeemed is depicted by entering the Kingdom of Heaven, but even more so in Syriac ascetical works by re-entering the Garden of Eden. I mentioned this in my previous article (“The Second Syriac Book to Read”), but I would like expand a little here.
Celibacy implies a choice, but Adam and Eve lived without the concept of sexuality. They had no possessions, because everything they needed was given to them, most of the time before they knew they needed them. They had a home, but it was the world as they knew it. And since everything was provided to them, they did not need to work or even know what work is.
The author of The Book of Steps wanted to recreate the Garden of Eden and its citizens somewhere near the Lesser Zab River.4 He probably did try to discern who would be the best people to cultivate Perfection, and gave them the rules and taught the Scriptures that support such a way of life. He seemed to forget or ignore one important piece of salvation history – Adam and Eve failed despite being given a head start on the Perfect Life. Were the gmīrē supposed to outdo Adam and Eve, to be better than they were in avoiding the mistakes of the first couple? How well they performed is found in between the lines of the mīmrē, and in the occasional complaints and accusations of the author directed at the Perfect who were not quite Perfect.
The gmīrē of the Christian community of The Book of Steps lived well after the events of Genesis, and so had to construct and develop their way of life surrounded by an imperfect world, not unlike what we have to do today in our churches. The normal human question for any human society is: what did they do? The author lists the important things: a life of unceasing prayer, wandering about teaching (because they have no home or possessions), mediating conflicts in other towns (because they were perceived as neutral to local prejudices and factions), and that they did no work. It is hard work not to do any work, and eventually the complaints of the author about the behavior of the gmīrē reveals that they had difficulty doing nothing.
The author spends the earlier mīmrē describing the Perfect way of life, especially how it was different and quite superior to the good kīnē or Upright members of this faith community. The forlorn kīnē must have had inferiority complexes, although towards the end of The Book of Steps, the author works hard to make up for this denigration and lauds the kīnē in tones unlike he ever used for the gmīrē. What were and are the problems with being Perfect?
The first one is that they did not work, and consequently in order to survive, somebody else had to supply their needs – food, clothing, shelter. The author only mentions in passing several times that it is the responsibility of the Upright to provide these necessities to the Perfect. This became old very fast for the Upright and in the final 30th mīmrō, there are indications that there was resentment and even violence between the two levels.5 Being told you are inferior to a supposedly elite group who are waiting for you to serve them has never been a successful formula in any society.
In the 10th mīmrō, the author refers to some of the gmīrē who now believe the theology about them, and think that not only are they perfect, but that being perfect they are above all these physical disciplines.6 If fasting is supposed to enable a person to build a proper relationship with God, and the Perfect already have in hand that relationship, why bother fasting or perhaps even praying? The last deadly sin to emerge among the saintly is pride, and these gmīrē have accumulated an ample share.
Besides this, the gmīrē do not understand what they are supposed to do, and doing nothing by worldly standards, they become bored and figure they should do something useful. Some of them began to plant gardens to feed the hungry, and another built a small cabin for wayfarers and travelers, hospitality for strangers and foreigners. The author tells them in no uncertain terms that these are the tasks of the Upright, not of the Perfect – and besides that is work, not only to plant and build, but also to distribute the fruits and host the travelers.7 The author knows that for the Perfect to become anxious and entangled in such practical affairs with all the human conflicts along the way disrupts and even destroys the contemplative life.
The precise boundaries laid down by the author between the two callings were good for organization and hierarchy, but became difficult to maintain in daily living. The Book of Steps happened before the establishment of monasticism, so as best as we are able to read, the gmīrē did not live in an isolated location or even live together. They were part of the community in which the kīnē and other Christians and non-Christians lived. They lived the Christian way of life in pretty much the same way we do today in our parishes, and we know that it is not always easy.