In September, 1996, the World Council of Churches, which had designated the years from 1988-1998 as Ecumenical Decade of Churches in Solidarity with Women, invited me to serve as a resource and spokesperson at the meeting of Orthodox Christian women to be held in Damascus in October, 1996. The theme of the meeting was "Discerning the Signs of the Time," which focused on the life of women within the life of the Orthodox Church.
As a Syrian-American who had never had the opportunity to visit the Middle East, I accepted the invitation. I had hesitated because I had recently moved from Boston to Los Angeles and all I could see before me was living out of a suitcase while being in a foreign land for two weeks without my husband. He, my family, and my friends encouraged me to accept this blessing and participate in the conference. In spite of their support, I still felt unprepared for another transition. However, I soon remembered that when God calls us, He provides us with all that is necessary to complete the ministry He asks of us.
With my husband's assistance, I prepared for my role in the meetings. He even packed my suitcase. I boarded the plane in tears (which lasted the entire two weeks!). I already missed him, yet I looked forward to being in an exotic milieu and to the new people I would meet in Syria.
Their speech flowered with words of praise: 'Nishkur'allah' or 'thank God'
follows most conversational responses.
What a joy to be with them!
A close friend of ours arranged for me to stay with his family in Sahnaia, Syria, for a week before the conference. Their way of life enabled me to understand, possibly for the first time, the meaning of the hospitality for which Middle Easterns are renowned. The family could not do enough to make me feel welcome, comfortable, and at home. Every aspect of their life seemed eucharistic, an attribute perhaps best expressed in the common plates from which we ate our meals. Their speech is flowered with words of praise: "Nishkur'allah" or "thank God" follows most conversational responses. What a joy to be with them!
Together, we visited the grave site of St. Thekla, Equal-to-the-Apostles and companion of St. Paul. At the shrine of Mar Thekla (Arabic for St. Thekla), I was overwhelmed by her life story and her struggles for the faith. This great woman theologized with St. Paul, evangelized, and taught the gospel to many. I felt privileged to be in her presence. The Holy Spirit awakened a prayer in me, "Please, Holy Thekla, pray for us, that we, too, may be faithful doers of the Word of God!"
As I went through the villages and visited pious natives, I was struck by their simple life of hard work and prayer. They live in a land rich in history, a land which saw the origins of Christianity. Theirs is a life untainted by high technology and consumerism. Monasteries are usual, not unusual, here. Amidst the strong presence of Judaism and Islam, Syrian Christians have fought for their faith, and they manifest their victory in the boundless generosity and gratitude they extend to each other and to visitors. In a short time, they make a visitor one of their own.
With my hosts, I also visited several monasteries, including the Sadnaya monastery and orphanage. The simplicity and stillness of the antiquated beauty left me reeling with joy and feeling inadequate. The forty-five children, who have the Theotokos as their mother, humbled me. They welcomed me into their classrooms with laughter and song. I took each one of them home with me in my heart. Venerating the icon of the Mother of God, I fell to the ground and cried, "Heal me!" Peace and joy enveloped my whole being.
a prayer in me,
'Please, Holy Thekla, pray for us,
that we, too,
may be faithful doers of the
Word of God!'
Every step of my journey was filled with love, beauty, and the affirmation, "Who is so great a God as our God? He is the God of wonders!" I was ready to embrace the conference with faith and hope.
I spoke on a panel about "Orthodox Women and Daily Pastoral Praxis," for which my theme was "Women in Orthodox Theological Education." I also facilitated small groups and served on the team that wrote the final report for the conference. The work will be published and presented as a part of a larger work on the WCC's Decade of the Churches in Solidarity with Women.
This special, blessed gathering allowed us to see the unity of Orthodox Christian women in spite of the differences in the expression of our faith. The multiplicity of these expressions and the variety of gifts which the Holy Spirit had given us strengthened and enriched us. We offered material for the theological education of women doing social and spiritual work for the faithful in their communities. Our time together, finally, enlivened our faith and furthered our goal to make Christ manifest in all ways to the Glory of God.