Sunday, September 24, 2006


Maybe you are expecting the word “magical” rather than “mystical” in that expression (which I have heard again today), but my trip was spiritual, though it had some moments of pure “magic”, in encounters with other people.

Like Rama (, I have just returned from a short visit to the southern part of my country. Rama started his blog just before mine came into being, but his is flourishing prolifically while mine is languishing unloved on a bed of idleness.

A major hindering factor is that I have been frittering my life away endeavouring to set up a website. For a couple of years now, I have been trying to open the webspace that my internet provider offers me for no extra charge. The problem is that (being a marginal person)I use Macintosh computers. Generally I am relentless in searching for solutions to problems, but I finally gave up last Saturday night, and went to for a free trial run (but it will cost me US$100 a year eventually). In two minutes I was established, as “Collesseum”. That will be my main outlet for issuing lengthy screeds about scripts and scriptures.

Apart from the weather (neither too hot nor too cold, no stimulation, inducing lethargy, and blame-shifting) the main reason for my lack of productivity in this place is that I am not trying to give a logbook of my life but rather to record my life’s work in solving puzzles. However, blogs are supposed to be ego-trips, and this time I will tell “Dear Diary” (I doubt that many or any others are reading this) some of my recent comings and goings and doings.

Yes indeed, on Tuesday morning I turned my back on my three computers (all iMacs in various stages of decomposition, and not much getting composed on them). I went out the door, dragging my miniscule luggage behind me on wheels, and carrying only one book (plus a few magazines and newspapers with cryptic crosswords and codecracker puzzles). Doggedly setting my face towards the bus-station, which is miles away from my home, I walked the distance in 50 minutes, for my daily exercise.

Passing through our city’s Esplanade (public gardens and forest walks) I was stopped in my tracks as the road became an avenue of cherry-trees, their pink blossoms filling my retina and stirring my heart with a response to their beauty. Actually, I had some dried cherries in my bag, because I am sentimentally partial to them. But I guess these trees are like my writing, flowery with no fruit.

The bus took me to the capital city, Wellington, where the wind blows, not seasonally but perennially. There I found I had lost the earpieces for my little radio (so I would be abstaining from fine music); and my sunglasses were missing, too.

The ferry Aratere (“quick way”) took me across the sea between the two islands of Aotearoa/ New Zealand, and the voyage was wet, windy, and wavy.

My home is in a land-locked region, and I wanted to go and see the sea. On the ship I met a retired couple from a whole country that is remote from the ocean, namely La Suisse, Switzerland. They speak French, and so I showed them my book, written in French. They were taking turns to go out onto the forecastle (the fo’c’s’le) and I happened to be reading a page which talked about falling out of the boat and drowning. But the author was speaking figuratively and spiritually, about falling into sin and perishing.

The book I had taken with me, to study closely, away from distractions, is entitled: *L’enseignement spirituel de Jean de Dalyatha* (Paris, 1990, 523 pages), an account of the mystical teaching of an eighth-century Syriac Christian monk known as John Saba of Dalyatha, who lived mostly as a hermit, in `Iraq. The author of this treatise is Robert Beulay, a Carmelite priest and teacher, who also lives in `Iraq (though I don’t know how he is surviving in the present mess). Well, that is also the subject of the doctorate thesis I worked on at Melbourne University (1966-1968), and everybody said I had chosen a safe topic, because nobody else in the world could be pursuing such an obscure subject.

However, at the end of 1967 I published an article , “Le mystère de Jean Saba” (“The mystery of JS”), and that is one reason why that word appears in the title of this posting. An urgent hand-written air-mail message arrived from Baghdad, announcing: “It is interesting, I am doing the same thesis”. Father Beulay and I had to negotiate about dividing up the treasure: I would continue with my work on editing and translating our mystic’s discourses, and he would do the letters, and complete a thesis on the teachings. He eventually published three books: his edition and French translation of the epistles; a general introduction to the Syriac mystics; and the book I was transporting across land and sea this week (in an oil-skin bag, or a plastic waterproof one).

At the port of Picton, I stayed at the Sequioa on Nelson Square, with the backpackers; but I had my own room with water facilities. The Tuesday-night free treat was chocolate pudding with icecream (I dined on that, adding some of my hoard of dried fruit and nuts); breakfasts were muesli and home-made bread; and on Wednesday it was soup and bread. I am so grateful to the trio of Robyn, Laurel, and Beryl (they had all been workmates at the information centre) for meeting my needs.

When I went for a walk on the Wednesday afternoon, I saw a Chinese couple sitting at Shelly Beach, with two ducks asking to be fed. I went over and produced a piece of communion bread from my pocket (I drink the grape-juice but save the morsel to feed God’s creatures). The couple turned up at the same lodge, later, and I greeted them; but when I encountered him and waved to him on Friday at Wellington station, he did not recognize me (it can’t be that Chinese people think all non-Chinese people look the same, surely).

On the way back from the beach and the hill, as I was getting close to Nelson Square, but not certain that I was on the right track, a lovely girl from Queen Charlotte College hailed me, reassured me that I was nearly there, and asked me about the book. That’s my cue to tell you more.

The mystery of John Saba is his identity. Some of the things he said were considered heretical by the bishops of The Church of the East, and they banned his writings. So they were circulated anonymously. One of his fundamental ideas was based on the “beatitude” saying of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God”. Logically, this means that if one purifies one’s “heart” one will have a vision of God (in one’s heart and mind, not with one’s eyes, as his critics wrongly assumed).

One of the schemes of mystical stages, transmitted to the West in the writings of the Syrian Pseudo-Dionysios, was: *purgation (purification), *illumination (“seeing the light”), and *unification (mystical union with God the Holy Trinity). John’s system is close to this, but scholars can have hours, years, and lifetimes of fun poring over his details.

Another set of puzzles he sets us is: tracking down all his Biblical quotations and allusions (he does not give us book, chapter, and verse for them).

On Thursday night I went to the opera, to watch Gounod’s *Faust*, in which the virtuous heroine Marguerite goes to Paradise in a grand grand finale.

It is time for me to finalize this ramble. There were green leaves among the cherry blossoms in that paradisiacal garden when I returned to Palmerston North. Life is sweet. I had made a voyage to seek Paradise away from home, and came home to find Nirvana was here all the time.

And my sunglasses were on my desk, sitting on top of the draft of the book I am writing on John of Dalyatha. Spooky.

I can also report that the bus-driver found my earphones, and I was eventually reunited with them, some weeks later.

Now that I am back into the swing of things, I may become effusive, and you will need a flood-warning, as with Ogden Nash’s tomato-sauce bottle: first none’ll come, then a lot’ll.

1 comment:

Farid said...

Dear Mr. Colless,
Thank you for your book THE WISDOM OF THE PEARLERS. Do you know if an English translation of Discourses of John of Dalyatha (John Saba)are available? If so, how can I purchase them?
Thank you
Farid Chalaby