By Sebastian Brock
It is sometimes asked, “Where does the term ‘hidden pearl’ come from? What does it signify? And why, specifically, a pearl?” An answer to such questions is best given in two parts, starting with the last, “Why a pearl?”
In the ancient Middle East, pearls came mainly from the Gulf and were highly prized; since not all oysters contain pearls, there arose various theories about how a pearl that did turn up inside the bivalve of an oyster had originated. Speculation gave rise to various theories, two of which were current in the early centuries of the Christian era. According to one theory, a pearl was “born” when a drop of dew fell on an oyster’s opened bivalve when it periodically came up to the surface. This theory was already known to the Latin author Pliny in his work on Natural History, toward the end of the first century A.D., and this was the explanation favored in the Medieval West, where symbolism surrounding the pearl flourished, above all in poetry.
In the Greek-speaking East of the Roman Empire a different theory was current, according to which a pearl was “born” when lightning struck an oyster. The concept of the conjunction of two opposite elements, fire and water, that effects the “birth” of the pearl in the oyster, was served as an open invitation to explore the symbolic possibilities of the image of the pearl, and this invitation was taken up by Syriac writers of all ages. Thus the pearl already features in the Acts of Thomas, in the “Hymn of the Pearl,” where a royal father and mother in the heavenly world send their son on a mission to Egypt (representing the present world) in order to retrieve the pearl that is guarded by a dragon. Many different interpretations of how to interpret the poem and of what the pearl symbolizes have been offered, but perhaps it is a mistake to look for one single interpretation, and instead allow for a multiplicity of meanings. This certainly is the approach of St. Ephrem when he ponders on the various symbolic meanings for the image of the pearl in a group of five Hymns at the end of the collection Hymns on Faith:1
|I.1. One day, my brethren, I took a pearl|
into my hands; in it I saw symbols
which told of the Kingdom, images and figures
of God’s majesty. It became a fountain
from which I imbibed the symbols of the Son.
|Refrain: Blessed is He who likened the Kingdom on high to a pearl.||Mt. 13:45|
|2. I placed it, my brethren, in the palm of my hand|
in order to contemplate it. I turned to look at it
from one side, but it had facets
on every side: so it is with enquiry into the Son,
it cannot be done, since it is entirely Light.
|3. In the luminosity of the pearl I beheld the Luminous One|
who cannot be perturbed; in its purity
is a mighty symbol – the Body of our Lord,
wholly unsullied. In the undivided nature of the pearl
I beheld Truth, which is not divided.
|4. There was Mary, whose pure conception|
I beheld there; there was the Church,
with the Son within her. Like a cloud
is she who carried Him, and like the heaven
is she from whom flashed His glorious Ray.
Ex. 16:10; Is. 19:1
|5. I saw in the pearl the trophies of His exploits|
and of His triumphs; I saw His assistance
with all its benefits, both hidden
and manifest. To me it grew greater
than the Ark, absorbed as I was with it.
|6. I saw in the pearl hidden places, that had no shadows,|
for it is the Luminary’s daughter.
In it types are eloquent, although they have no tongue;
symbols are uttered, but without the help of the lips;
the silent lyre, though it has no sound, has given forth songs.
In his verse homilies (mimre) St. Jacob of Serugh not infrequently makes use of the image of the pearl, and this is in two main contexts: first is that of the Eucharist where the pearl represents the consecrated Host, as in the following passage from his Mimro 125 on Ezekiel’s Chariot:
(the Holy Spirit) proceeds from the Father and,
tabernacling and dwelling (on the Bread),
makes it the Body, making from it precious pearls.2
Alternatively, the pearl may represent fallen Adam/humanity, created in the Image of God; in this case Christ is envisaged as the pearl diver who descends into the murky waters of Sheol in order to rescue the lost Image:
(At the Descent Christ) groped around in the mud of the departed,
searching for the pearl that had fallen away from Him;
Taking it up, He ascended to His Begetter.3
Surprisingly, it is in one of his Letters that Jacob has the most extended discussion of the image of the pearl and its symbolism; the passage is remarkable and deserves to be quoted in full. In it Jacob, like Ephrem, addresses the Pearl directly, and it answers him at some length.4 Jacob is contrasting faith and love: the latter can be added to, or subtracted from, whereas this is not the case with the former; he then goes on to cite the analogous case of the pearl and gold. Christ is depicted in the pearl, since the description of him does not accept the additions of the disputatious (daroshe). The pearl is then addressed:
Where do you come from, O Pearl? Where have you come from? Whom do you resemble? Who resembles you? Whose daughter are you? Where is your home? What is the likeness (tapnika) of this fair image of yours? Your person is rich in the symbols of light, and for this reason radiance is your covering. The depiction of the King’s Son/Royal Son is marked out in you; for this reason splendor surrounds you. Something magnificent is concealed in the proclamation of you;5 for this reason the epiphany of your beauty is powerful (in its effect) on beholders. You are clothed in types, and shine out: with them, your value is precious among the wares of merchants. Look how you are chaste, while being naked; you are modest, while being displayed. Many are your facets, and you have no rear side, for your beauty is on the right side, and you have no wrong side. Merchants desire you, for the sight of you can never be sated. They sold their possessions and purchased you so that, with your wealth, they might forget their (other) possessions. Speak with us in your silence, for the sight of you greatly astonishes us.
The Pearl speaks:
I am the daughter of Light, for the image of Light is depicted in me. I have come from the supernal heights, I have descended and felt around in the depths. I am a drop of the spring rain, and I am born from a mighty womb. Lightnings flashed before me, and thunder-claps were my attendants. The racing clouds escorted me, the winds bore me along: I was concealed in dense clouds of light, and I descended from my Father’s house to the deeps. The sea desired me, and received me; the depth embraced me into its bosom. I dived down into the water, but my beauty was not harmed. The dark womb conceived me, while my radiance was not hidden. I became embodied, and ascended, for the depth was not sufficient for me to dwell there. Craftsmen saw me and disfigured me, for they thought it was not I who had descended: they saw me as a bodily object, and I was insignificant in their eyes; they prepared for me sufferings, having taken me in their hands. They wanted to add to me – but they could not do so; (they wanted) to take away from me, but I did not accept it. O cunning craftsmen, allow me to remain as I am: I do not accept being engraved: gemstones are engraved, but I do not belong in the company of engraved (stones): I have descended from on high; I am not like gemstones, I am neither carved nor engraved. I shine forth with the beauty with which I was born. I do not accept being polished, like chalcedony or jacynths. I did not come up from the depths in the claws of a bird of prey, but descended from on high on the breath of the wind. I am born, but not engraved in any way. I am conceived and born without marriage or intercourse. I was not conceived amid the lust of intercourse, for I am clothed with the splendor of holiness from the womb. Jewelers beheld me and were amazed at me: they turned me over in their hands, but they could not contain my beauties. They took hold of me and confined me, because I had become a bodily object. They directed at me sharpened iron, and deliberated concerning me in their cunning skill. They soldered me and fixed me onto a diadem. Now I shall stand at the summit of a crown, and will cry out forcefully to the disputants: “You have investigated Christ enough, you have researched into the Only-Begotten enough. It is sufficient for you to have engaged in battle with fire, it is sufficient for you to have dared to overthrow the flame.”
He sent me from His supernal height; He received me in the lowest depths. He depicted in me His image so that I might tread out a path before Him. He gave me His types to manifest to the world His truth. He wafted down from His abodes of light and came and resided in a dark womb. The Most High willed it, and He came down and became one below. His Father indicated in a hidden way, and the angels quaked with fear. Gabriel ran before Him and brought the tidings of the Virgin. He traveled on the wings of the wind and made His way straight to the Maiden. The Spirit sanctified Mary, and the Hidden One resided in her womb. The fiery Being encountered the young woman, and extended to her the Peace. The Word entered by the ear, and He who was to be born was conceived. For this reason (women) hang me on their ears so that I might be a crown for the race of women, who have been held worthy to receive with their hearing that Word – the Pearl – which His Father had granted to their hearing, and so (brought) salvation to the world.
Like an image of the Light depicted on a lintel, I am suspended on the ears of young women, so that the ear, which had become the entrance for the Word, might be held in honor.
When He wished to reside in the Maiden, He placed me as guardian of the door outside the entrance of the ear, so that the abode wherein He resided might be held in honor as a result of the rays of the light that surround me.
I have come from the height to the depth, and I have trodden out a path before Him; I rose up from the depth to the height, and I have depicted an image for His exaltation (mashqleh).
I hastened to the door of the ear and I hung on its lintel before Him. My course escorted Him with my (various) staging posts, since He wished to depict His types in (created) natures. I descended and I ascended, and proclaimed that He who has ascended is He who had descended. I ran before Him, since He sent me, and He who is before me came after me. He entered and resided in a virgin staging post, in a womb that had not experienced intercourse. He became embodied from the Virgin, acquiring limbs and, taking on the likeness of a servant, He came forth to the world: He was born in a second birth, He whose first birth had no beginning.
Among later Syriac authors, mention should be made of “Abdisho” of Soba (Nisibis) in the late thirteenth century, whose short treatise setting out the Christology of the Church of the East is entitled Marganitha, “The Pearl.”
It so happens that none of the Syriac authors mentioned above actually employ the adjective “hidden” in connection with the pearl. The combination “hidden pearl,” however, is already hinted at in the Gospels, for the term combines two parables in the Gospel of St. Matthew, both to be found in chapter 13: in verse 44 Jesus likens the Kingdom of Heaven to “a treasure hidden in a field” (ܣܝܡܬܐ ܕܡܛܫܝܐ ܒܩܪܝܬܐ), while a couple of verses later, in verse 46, the comparison is made with “a pearl of great price” (ܡܪܓܢܝܬܐ ܚܕܐ ܝܩܝܪܬ ܕܡ̈ܝܐ). It is not known who first brought the two parables together to create the term “hidden pearl.” In the context of the Syriac tradition it was chosen by the late Syrian Orthodox Metropolitan of Middle Europe, Mor Julius Cicek (1942-2005), for the three-volume documentary with the subtitle The Syrian Orthodox Church and its Ancient Aramaic Heritage (2001), which was in practice designed to be of relevance to all the Syriac Churches, and which was only specific to the Syrian Orthodox Church in some of the chapters in the third volume. Since the term “hidden” in the title suggests something that was once familiar and well known, but which subsequently, for whatever reason, became forgotten, it is pre-eminently suitable that it should now be applied to the Maronite branch of the Syriac heritage, whose past glories have all too often been forgotten, or indeed in Europe and America, are virtually unknown and waiting to be discovered.
1 There are several modern available translations: E.G. Mathews, “St. Ephrem, Hymns on the Pearl”, St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly 38 (1994), 45-72; J.T. Wickes, St. Ephrem, The Hymns on Faith (Washington D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press 2015); and S.P. Brock, St. Ephrem on the Pearl and its Symbols (Ausar Slawotho 6; Kottayam, 2019); the last of these also provides texts with both East and West Syriac vocalization.
2 Homily 125, on Ezekiel’s Chariot, ed. Bedjan IV, p. 597.
3 Homily 53.8, ed. Bedjan II, p. 599.
4 Translated from G. Olinder, Iacobi Sarugensis Epistulae quotquot supersunt (CSCO 110, Scriptores Syri 57; Louvain, 1937), pp. 74-7; for a French translation and discussion, cf. F. Graffin, ‘Le thème de la Perle dans une lettre de Jacques de Saroug’, L’Orient Syrien 12:3 (1967), pp. 355-70.
5 mashqleky; lit. ‘your taking up’; the precise sense of the term here is unclear.