12 December 2014

The time I met the Patriarch

One of the things I enjoy most in English teaching is the opportunity to introduce my favorite bits of English-speaking culture to a captive audience.  Last Friday afternoon I was sitting in the entrance hall of St. Peter’s Seminary giving a student some ideas for Christmas reading when two men in clerical garb walked into the seminary and sat down on some couches across the room.  I could tell they were important by the hush that preceded them, so I tried to restrain the eagerness in my voice as I discussed the respective merits of “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” and “A Wrinkle in Time.”

When the student finally managed to disentangle himself from my childhood reminiscences, one of the two men who had entered the room asked me what I was doing in Iraq.  I explained that I was the English teacher at the seminary and also worked at Mar Qardakh, a church school.  When I told him I was American, he mentioned that he had spent a year living in New York finishing his theological training.  “Americans are warm and generous and sincere,” he said.  I agreed, and then said the thing that liberal American do-gooders abroad are supposed to say, “Yes, but they are ignorant about the world.”  He nodded and replied, “America is all economy and no philosophy.”

Before I left I went over to where he was sitting, shook his hand, and asked his name.  “Louis,” he said.  “I am the head of this Institute.”  When I told him my name, he replied “Oh, the prophet!  And who is your David?”  Not wanting to implicate anyone in murder and adultery, I demurred.  “I don’t know yet.  Maybe I don’t have one.”  As I walked home, I thought, “What a pleasant man.  I wonder what he meant about being the head of the institute?”  

The beautiful grounds of St. Peter's Seminary, just outside Ankawa.  The Seminary relocated from Baghdad to Ankawa in 2007 and 2008 because of instability in Baghdad and targeted violence against Christians.   

The next Monday, I was hanging around the seminary after classes ended early thanks to the Feast of the Immaculate Conception (or “The Feast of Getting Pregnant,” as one of my students put it).   Father Fadi, the rector of the seminary, waved me over to sit by him on a sofa. “This is the Patriarch’s secretary,” he said, pointing to the man beside me, "and in a few minutes, the Patriarch will join us as well."  I tried to act the way I imagine you’re supposed to act around a Patriarch’s secretary.  (Mostly this meant quietly drinking my tea.)  After a few minutes—to my surprise, but probably not yours—the man I had met on Friday walked over and sat down with us.  “Ah, the professor!” Patriarch Louis Sakho said with a wink and a smile as he shook my hand.  

I’m not sure if he was being coy in our earlier conversation, or if he thought I wouldn’t know what a Patriarch was, or if he assumed I would piece together his hints.  At any rate, the Chaldean Patriarch is a warm and generous person, and not lacking in philosophy.  Centralized leadership works well as long as you have the right people in the right places, and it seems like in this case, the Chaldean church does.