cannot reside with me in one house, for as Christians we may not marry more than one woman. As long as my wife is alive, I shall marry no other.’ The Caliph was amazed that a man could turn down three beautiful Byzantine girls. Anyone else wouldn’t have hesitated to bed them together.”
The monks and nuns roared with laughter. Some covered their heads with their sashes out of embarrassment and delicacy.
Then the knockabout, merry Father Charbel went on: “There’s another amusing story about this physician. The Caliph had once invited him to convert to Islam. ‘Convert and I guarantee you Paradise,’ the Caliph told him, but the physician was bold enough to answer: ‘I am content to join my forefathers, whether in Heaven or in Hell.’ The Caliph marvelled at him and praised and rewarded him, saying over and over: ‘O Christians, you are the dearest of all people to us.’”
Father Charbel would debate with the other Assyrian monks about the origins of monasticism and the memorization of the Psalms and the New Testament, which had been the basis of a Christian education in the early and medieval periods, though was not a process of rote learning, but a contemplative, intellectual exercise undertaken by the student.
“That’s true, Father, I agree with you about that, and it’s proved by the fact that they rejoiced in the words of the Lord and took pleasure in reading The Monks’ Garden as they sat to eat in the monasteries.”
Then he turned to me: “Father Ishaq, during the Byzantine period, the monasteries became repositories of ancient knowledge; indeed, they were responsible for preserving the heritage of the past, fearful lest it slide into lightless anonymity.
“Saint Pachomius himself, the first to draw up rules for the monastic life, made laws to protect the books and libraries, and copying rooms sprung up in the monasteries. He regarded copying manuscripts as a sacred duty in which monks and abbots must work together.”
“Have you heard of the monk copyists?” asked Father Joseph. “Ibrahim, Herax, Marallus and Saint Melania?”
“The copyists are blessed and their work is sacred, which is why a special prayer is said for the copyist, “The Copyist’s Chamber”: ‘O Lord, look kindly on and bless this copyist on behalf of Thy ser-
BANIPAL 53 – SUMMER 2015 33