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 Syriac Book of Steps1 describes in detail the two principal levels of a 4th c. Christian community in Sasanian Zoroastrian Persia (present-day northeast Iraq) – the Upright (kīnē) and the Perfect (gmīrē) – but talks most of the time about the Perfect. The Upright, committed laity serving the needy, are mentioned only in diminutive contrast to the superior Perfect, celibates who have renounced the world and pray unceasingly.
The Upright are worldly Christians, measured finitely. The author assigns them numbers and limited expectations: they are expected to pray five times a day, but not expected to do all of the will of God, nor know all of God’s ways. Among other standards, they are not to curse or call someone stupid, nor lie against anyone. The Perfect, on the other hand, live with no limitations on the edge of infinity. They pray the whole day, know and do all of God’s will and ways, and indeed live with the Lord in the Garden of Eden. Going well beyond simply not cursing someone, they honor and bless everyone.
A funny thing happened on the way to Perfection. Perfection wasn’t perfect, and Uprightness wasn’t so imperfect. The author had constructed a new world and way of life around the specific roles and attitudes by which the Upright and Perfect could develop and maintain the vitality of the Gospel. But somehow human nature and the nature of a congregation got in the way – not unlike our own congregations – and the life of faith moved in different directions than the author expected it to go. An unsolved aspect of The Book of Steps is how was this collection of 30 mīmrē compiled? The language and literary style appears genuinely to be the work of one person. There was an editor who wrote the short preface, referring to the author in the third person, but he gave no clues as to whether he was the compiler. The Book of Steps appears to be the collected work of this spiritual leader-author, not unlike a long-term pastor’s sermons, newsletter messages, definitely a set of rules and standards for the Upright and Perfect, Biblical interpretations, and written responses to inquiries and challenges about his ideas and practices. No time-line is indicated, although the traditional order of the mīmrē may be loosely construed as chronological with some homilies indeterminable in relation to the others.
After beginning with the qualifications and rules for these Upright, the author seldom mentions them, focusing on the faults and failings of the Perfect. It is only in the last six homilies that he earnestly begins to praise the Upright – notably no longer mentioning the Perfect. The Perfect seem to have lost their orientation in the Perfect way of life, no longer feeling they need to rigorously follow the ascetical practices, but quite comfortable with the authority and privilege they believe Perfection has granted them – certainly not an uncommon development in congregations throughout the millennia of Christianity.
The disappointed, even discouraged and depressed author starts looking more closely at the faithful Upright who continue in their appointed callings. Something seems to change as he starts to encourage the Upright, stating several times that they are almost Perfect, and if only you would become celibate, you would be! The reader is not told, but there is no evidence that very many of the Upright followed his advice.
I believe that now the author perceived the nature of the Christian way of life in a new way. The Upright – while married, owning property and having jobs – were helping all kinds of people with physical and spiritual needs. Being continually told that they were inferior to the Perfect, humility did not allow them to think that highly of themselves. All this produced Christians who were worshiping and praying regularly and serving others selflessly. They had become through discipline over time, in fact, almost Perfect, perhaps better than the Perfect.
The Book of Steps abruptly ends before we hear how things finally worked out between the Upright and the Perfect. The 30th and last mīmrō refers to a great deal of conflict, turbulence and violence in the author’s community. The date of writing of The Book of Steps is still debated with little evidence from which to measure. Being situated in the Sasanian Persian Empire that during the fourth century was not often friendly to the Christians, the author was writing either during, after, or even before the terrible persecutions of Christians by Shapur II. There was internal conflict as well within the Christian community which must have pierced the author’s soul.2
The author’s language is saturated with Biblical imagery and stories, and in the last section of this last mīmrō he retells the familiar tale of the tax-collector Zacchaeus who climbs a tree in order to be able to see Jesus. Zacchaeus, reversing his unethical profiteering from vulnerable people, promises to repay those he has cheated and give one-half only of his wealth to the poor. Jesus assures him that he will receive salvation that day. And the author drives home the point that Jesus did not ask him to fulfill all the requirements for Perfection, not even to divest himself of his money and possessions. The author is as blunt as he can be – you do not have to be Perfect to be saved. Uprightness is good enough.3
Had the Upright/Perfect experiment failed? The author’s idealized depiction of the Perfect which he attempted to implement had essentially died before The Book of Steps ended, but the two levels of Christian life evolved and morphed for centuries more. Philoxenos of Mabbug employed the kīnē/gmīrē in his sermons to the monastic communities of late 5th-early 6th c. Syria.4 The Upright occasionally and more often the Perfect are depicted throughout a commentary on the Paradise of the (Desert) Fathers by Dadisho Qatraya in the late 7th c. Church of the East.5
There is virtue in being imperfect, which the author eventually realized through the words and actions of Jesus. The steady practice of prayer, worship, helping others in need out of a humility that recognizes that everyone else is better than you is almost Perfect.