The Tree of Life

J. Alan Burdick

© Copyright 2005 by J. Alan Burdick


James felt somewhat out of place as he entered the church of St Mary’s in Addis Ababa with Dr. Simons. Dr Simons acted as the head of the theological seminary. It was strange that an Indian theologian traveled here to Ethiopia by the order of His Imperial Majesty. True, the two churches (of Ethiopia and India) had some things in common. More to the point, however he planned an ongoing effort to remove the church in Ethiopia from the Coptic one in Egypt. Simons (obviously a son of Shem, not Ham) was a much darker color of brown than the Amharas about him. James, on the other hand, wore western clothes and being fair, both of hair and skin (which had greeted the African sun only recently) and his eyes showed blue, with some green and gray.

He  jumped at the chance when the invitation to go to an Ethiopian church service came up in his conversation with Dr. Simons. The church of St Mary’s was not the most grand in the city, but it had close ties with the seminary that Simons headed. The congregation stood during the service in a large open central room with an alter and no seating at all. Since the service was several hours long everyone used “resting sticks” so they could rest one leg at a time. The one given to James was tipped with  silver and fitted nicely under the arm. He was placed in place reserved for the Duke of Harer ,and because of this ,was seen by the congregation as their honored guest.. All appeared to be Amharas. The lay people wore a fine graceful white cloth (the Shama) that looked similar to the roman toga. People stood apart , without conversation. Among those slender white clothed bronzed people were priestly figures that could easily pass as Coptic.

Some priests moved about the altar. James was looking about the quiet and dark interior while the service began, almost unnoticed. The priests pulled a heavy curtain about the altar, hiding it and the priests from view. After a time , some members of the congregation (lay and priests) went singly forward and received the host from the priests behind the curtain.

 Dr. Simons whispered: “Only those who had fasted and prepared themselves for communion are allowed to go to the altar.”

Slowly, one by one, the people went to the altar and received communion. At the end altar priests went behind the curtain to eat the entire host that was unconsumed. They washed the vessels with water. The curtain was opened, and a priest with a vessel of this water moved toward the honored guest. Dr Simon said to drink this water! Now ,living in the tropics, James knew that to do this was complete madness. He could almost see the lively little amoebas in the water!

Ah well, with a fervent prayer, he drank some and then passed the cup back to the solemn man. Then the priest repeated the offer to Dr.Simon, who also drank with apparently more ease .The service being over, and  in the courtyard outside music began.  Walking from the dark quiet chapel out into the sunlit courtyard almost blinded James. The courtyard was full of people in lively conversation. There was a group of priests in a corner (in shade) playing instruments and singing the songs of Solomon in Geez.  There were several types of drums. One man, with a drum tucked under his arm, danced as he played. The stringed instruments moved in joyful sound with flutes, punctuated by the sistra . The result, pleasing, yet alien, awoke a memory deep in James’ mind of alternative, (perhaps rejected and lost) Christian traditions.

            Singing in a fine tenor, one of the men wore the dark leather cape and clothes of a Galla. His hat was a Coptic crown, but also of leather. His eyes were that clear gray that many of the Amhara  have.  James thought he would like to know more about the theology that formed the basis of this man’s religion. Basic ethical considerations were radically different from his own Yet these traditions had been dominant in the past, and still were a living dogma today. For example, this man believed a different story of creation completely!

Who is the man in the leather cape?”, James asked Dr. Simons.

He is a holy man (an Afa Nebura’ed,sometimes called Abba Hasan) from the Macca Gamati region. He has taken the name of ‘Brother Hasan’. Hasan lived about 1850 and converted the Galla in that region to Islam. Brother Hasan is welcomed into both Islamic prayers and Christian gatherings. The Amhara count him as Christian , mainly because he fasts as a Christian , not as a Moslem.”, Dr. Simons explained.

Would you like to talk with  him after the songs? I will have one of the students translate for us if you do.”

And so, presently, Dr. Simons, his student, Brother Hasan, and James gathered into a small alcove. Brother Hasan spoke in Amharic and his eyes danced with glee when he started to tell the story of creation.

The morning chill, cold enough at this altitude to merit leather, Now the day  warmed in the bright sun, and the personal  odor of the monk was apparent.  James caught and removed a biting flea from his white sock and crushed it between his thumbnails. The monk started to chant (in a way very much like an Imam) this tale:

And when Ormuzed, Ahura Mazda, and the others were defeated, Ashaklum who was the son of the King of Darkness, killed and ate half of them and gave the rest to Nekbael, who ate them with greed. The defeated beings were not truly dead for they contained a soul (nefesh)m within a spirit (ruah) and a supersoul (neshamah). Then did Ashaklum and Nekbael join together in lust, and from that pairing came, first Adam and then Havva. The nefresh of the beings of light, as well as the ruah, were passed totally on by this action to Adam and Havva, and would be passed on undiluted to the flesh of their children. The neshamah, on the other hand, departed from them and started a seemingly endless and goalless search.

.and after Demiurge ,who some know as YHWH, had allowed Adam to tell the angles their names He said:

Bow down to Adam

and all did.

But there was Iblis and number of Jinn that heard God and said:

We were first and made of fire, not dust .We  will not bow down, for dust is nothing, and fire is light.’

And God said:

Oh foolish ones, you are mischievous and you know not. My spit was mixed with that dust…and there is no “first”and no “last”, for both are the same. Go and teach Adam by learning your fault.’

Now Iblis said to his two elder brothers: ‘Go into the land outside of Eden and rule the heat.’ The first Jinn went into the dry land and there ruled a heat that would kill man by stealing his water. The second went to places of water, and there created a heat that would torment man with sweat.”

            Stopping at this point, Brother Hasan asked if we understood him. Simons said “yes” and thanked the student for such a quick and accurate translation. James wondered if Dr. Simons could really judge this as his Amharic was not all that good and the chanting was Geez.

            Dr. Simons, turning to James, his dark eyes filled with the zeal of a teacher, said:

This is a creation myth that is almost at odds with every point that you find in your King James Bible! It is a very early Jewish account, probably brought to Axum in the first wave at the time of Menelik. Given the Gnostic turn during the time of Jeremiah when a second group of Jews joined the first. There was a third and final migration about 70AD from Saba.

            The story points out the strong differences between the Eastern Church and those that developed in the West. It was the grace of God that had us choose gnosis (in India we call it ‘bodhi’ …wisdom). The West followed ‘pistis’ (faith). The relationship between God and man in the East was an either/or condition, not a process, as it so often is in the West. “

James watched Brother Hasan as Simons spoke. The student was translating into Amharic for him as both squatted, African style, on the floor. Hasan was interested but seemed content to listen to Dr.Simons without needing to comment or correct.

Dr.Simons continued:

to an Amhara Christian the desired condition between God and himself is more a personal one than a social one. Ethics and social law or custom are not the center of theology as they seem to be to a protestant. In the West, one becomes a Christian, joins a church…starting a process where the Christian life is gradually revealed. Ethiopia is a country that is about equally divided between Islam and Christianity , with many tribes still pagan and speaking their own language. War has been common here, but it fails to have, for the most part, religious justification.

I give that as a background.

The creation myth that Brother Hasan gave was not one of any one theological position, but a good example of the basic difference of opinion that existed in the early church. This difference has reappeared through out its history. In the one view, the god of creation was a good and all powerful one. This would lead logically (for example) to such dogma as the resurrection of the body. In most Gnostic traditions, the god of creation is one of two or more gods.He wars with the god of light by capturing and imprisoning pieces of the Word in flesh. This makes the practice of celibacy and the withdrawal of self from the community consistent.”

After some social niceties, the group broke up, and James went back to his father’s compound driven by the  driver who brought him. The day was beautiful. The little rains had just passed, leaving  the country green and lush.  The drive back from the road to the compound was lined with banana trees. The compound itself overlooked the deep canyon formed by the Great Rift and the Awash River. While troops of baboons sometimes invaded from the canyon , it appeared no humans lived between the compound and the river. The main house was a single story with the houses for the servants along the back wall. Ethiopia claimed to be the home of man, where he made tools for perhaps the first time. It stirred ancient memories in the deepest part of James’ mind, a beautiful land haunted by too much past.

In keeping with the name Addis Ababa (“new flower”) were the newly established groves of Eucalyptus trees giving the thin air a pleasant smell of Vicks.

His father was the Director of the Imperial Highway Authority and had learned that Ethiopia was indeed an empire with Haile Sallasie  as “king of kings”. Each Ras of a region could aid or stop the projected highway, and sometimes did. One of the ways of producing good will was to have a Western doctor, with medicines, travel on the highways giving free treatment to all that asked for it. Later, in the house, his father said to James:

I have arranged for you to travel south with Dr. Walh tomorrow on the roads. It will be a three day trip and you will stay with Mr. Pajoli overnight as his guest. I wouldn’t bother asking Walh about the war. The same goes for Mr. Pajoli. He was a very rich man when the Italians took over the country. I do know that the Galla kept him from the British and the Amharas when the Italians left. He still has a lot of influence there and runs a sawmill now.”

On a bright and clear morning James met Dr. Wahl. He was blond and blue-eyed, tall, straight ,and thin. He drove the cream-colored VW van that was his field hospital into the compound.  He  exchanged polite conversation with James and his mother, and then drove James out of Addis, on the blacktop road south.  The two lane blacktop soon became a one lane gravel road which wandered through the uplands.

We will stop for a picnic lunch next to lake Shala. When we stop , I’ll let you carry the 22 rifle. You’re in the country controlled by the Oromo peoples now, and here, in the bush, a man is not seen as a man if he doesn’t carry some sort of weapon. The 22 wouldn’t stop much of anything , but it has good symbolic value.”, said Dr. Wahl as he turned off the gravel road into a landscape bare of any sign of humans.

 The VW bus threaded its’ way about islands of trees and bush, surrounded by lush grass.

Lake Shala suddenly came into view, crystal clear and a shocking blue under the noon-day African sun. They were still on the  high plateau and it was not hot. The air, heavy with the smells of earth and lake, had a musky, mildly fishy smell. The most striking feature of the place, however, were the flocks of birds of all kinds and sizes that were on the lake, shore, and trees.

Taking the 22, James went around a clump of trees to relieve himself. As he pulled up his pants, a young leopard lopped around a near by clump, and disappeared into the bush, leaving a shaken James. Just as he reached for the 22 a very large mongoose followed the cat leisurely. There was no thought of shooting! Both animals looked at him with some mild interest so there seemed little danger.

After lunch, as they returned to the van, disturbing a noisy flock of tiny green parrots that flew into the tree above them. A beautiful place, full of life.

Pajoli’s house within a walled compound, had plaster/concrete walls. The walls were an Italian combination of white and soft pastel shades. A formal garden grew in the center. Papaya trees stood along one wall, heavy with ripe fruit. A mango stood green and tall, over the entrance. The sawmill was over a mile away, near a Galla village.

The round thatched houses of the Orono tribe are very different from their Amaha neighbors to the north. There seemed to be an agreement that no roads should go through a village here.

The evening meal was of wot and enjarha. Enjara is a flat sour gray bread that is quite moist. It is dipped into the wot , which is a spicy meat sauce, usually made with chicken. The fiery nature of wot is truly amazing.     The wot , made “mild” for James, found that it still burned his mouth badly. The meal ended, however, with a sideboard of European cheeses and fresh tropical fruit, so he didn’t go to bed hungry and cooled the burning.

That night, with the window open to the night sounds of Africa, James thought. What a beautiful and strange country! The conflict between the story of creation as presented by  Brother Hasan and the story of creation he learned in Sunday School were impossible to fit together. It reminded him of the differences in the  right/left structure of the brain which were so difficult for him to see as useful. He fell asleep.

 Given the gift (?) of seeing the future, he would have seen the Pajolis sent into “reeducation camps” and then to disappear as so many did during the Red Terror. Ah , but perhaps there is a merciful God, he had no such foreshadowing.

Many years later, on a bright early Sunday morning, as the cabin gazed out over mudpuddle lake , James closed his eyes  and listened to the clear sound of a horn.

All appeared lost, but the Word raised Adam unto the tree of life, and he picked a fruit which was like a peach, and from it he did eat.

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