Any visit to Damascus would be incomplete without a stroll down Straight Street, so we began our morning with it. In Acts 9, the home of Ananias was found here. Today, it’s home to every church that can squeeze in, with boulevards containing stones excavated from the Roman-era road. In other words, the streetside gardens contain rocks from “Paul’s Straight Street”.
Our primary stop was just off Straight Street, at a church marking the site of the home of Ananias. The fact that the story of Acts 9 takes us to Judas’ house, as opposed to Ananias’, seems misplaced, but the spot commemorated Ananias’ place in Saul’s awakening, all the same.
In my mind, this is when the trip began.
Charles quoted Karl Jung as saying something like, “If you’re invited to America, you must go. But insist on going by ship. Otherwise, your body arrives only to be followed by your psyche some time later. But if you travel by ship, they arrive together.”
Sitting in the basement chapel of Ananias’ house, my psyche arrived. This was certainly helped by a fantastic presentation by Dr. Paul Spilsbury, about the power involved in Paul’s experience of awakening. If the day had ended here (and it certainly didn’t), it would have been enough for me.
A few key thoughts landed direct hits on me. One concerns Paul’s zeal. Certainly, his zeal was beyond question—even he alludes to it himself. Some see in Paul a continuation of a “zeal thread” in Scripture that shows itself earlier in figures like Phinehas and Elijah and even in the inter-testamental story of the Maccabees. It was pointed out that zealous individuals don’t easily change their minds. Even our discussion yesterday day with the Mufti in Damascus had clearly revealed how some questions in today’s Middle East are not to be asked. And some insinuations are not to be made. In short, a breakthrough of some sort will be necessary. Mere logic will be insufficient. Little short of a divine act will yield any fruit at all. Even for Paul, one senses that he didn’t truly “see the light” on the road to Damascus. Perhaps enlightenment on this new reality unfolded in his three days of silent blindness. Or it may have even taken him up to three years in the Arabian wilderness (see Galatians 1) to see the challenge of transformation through.
All of this leads us to a question of: How does one really change? Along with that, one wonders: What role must spiritual experience play in anyone’s conversion process? Churches like the Methodists have finely tuned theologies to speak of the place of experience in conversion. I cannot claim my heritage to have any such language. If we do, we don’t speak it often enough. For the hundredth time, I am pushed to pay more attention to the work of the Holy Spirit. How does He speak to us? How does He lead? While we don’t deny His role, we certainly minimize it. That need not be an indictment on anyone; it’s bad enough that we lose greatly by this stance. We need not add to the loss by casting blame on anyone. While I have guesses on how we arrived here, it is sufficient to say that I don’t want to stay here. To think of the Christian life apart from the direct and heavy involvement is to neuter the whole thing of its power. Minus the Spirit, one is left with the letter. And the apostle Paul diagnosed that condition with one line: “The letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.”
There is much more to chew on here, but suffice it to say that I have been engaged today. And all this before 10:00 AM!
This was followed by a brief stop at St. Paul’s Church, before hitting the open road for Malula. Malula is a village of only a couple thousand people, but it has the distinction of being one of very few places where Aramaic, the language of Jesus, is still used. Known to be a dying language, Malula is the site of a recent school development where Aramaic is taught to school children, even in written form. Our guide Hanna is from this village, and he commented yesterday when we saw an Aramaic tablet at the National Museum, that he could not read it. But his daughter could! While here, we stopped at a church, the Church of Sts. Sergius and Bacchus. It’s claimed to be one of the oldest church buildings in the world, built in 325 AD. Legend says that Sergius was a Roman legionary who converted to Christianity and subsequently refused to make sacrifices to Jupiter. He was executed for his stand. While we were there, a priest led us into the chapel. There, he prayed the Lord’s Prayer for us—in Aramaic. He caught me off guard to the extent that I failed to get it recorded. But later, I tracked him down, at which point he led me to his very quiet office and gave me the chance to record this treasure. My first souvenir!
A hike through a site linked to St. Thecla, a woman from the apocryphal book of the Acts of Paul, ended our time in Malula. A couple hours on the bus delivered us to Krak des Chevaliers, one of the most famous Crusader Castles in the Middle East.
This is an impressive site: Large in size and very European in appearance. I’ve never toured any castles in Europe, but today was close. Built in 1031-1099, T.E. Lawrence called it “the finest castle in the world”, and one Arab historian of the day referred to it as “a bone in the throat of the Arabs”, in speaking of its unconquerable nature. Charles summed up its design today as a castle within a castle within a castle. And it’s no easy task to take a structure like that! Interestingly enough, this site proves its strategic location by the fact that this was also the venue for the battle of Kadesh (1274 BC, thought to have involved 5000-6000 chariots!) between the Hittites and Egyptians many centuries before the Crusades took place.
Beyond Krak des Chevaliers, Charles had heard two people—our guide Hanna AND the Canadian Ambassador to Syria (yes, he KNOWS people!)—comment that their favourite castle in Syria was Saladin’s Castle, which he’d never visited before. Some schedule tweaking got us there, but not early enough to go inside. We walked the area and admired some spectacular views of this once-thought-to-be unbreachable fortress. Saladin, the legendary Arab ruler, proved that assumption wrong, and has his name forever attached to it, for his efforts.
It’s now 8:10 PM and we’re on the way to our hotel in Lattakia for supper and rest. We’re officially rolling now. Or more accurately, I am now officially rolling. A good sleep tonight should push me even further into full engagement tomorrow as we trek to Aleppo.