Treatise of Zera Yacob, Chapter IX
November 16, 2012 § 3 Comments
I know that God answers our prayers in another way, if we pray to him with our whole hearts, with love, faith and patience: during my childhood I was a sinner for many years, I neither thought of the work of God nor prayed to him; I made many sinful acts that rational nature forbids; because of my sins I fell into a trap from which man cannot free himself [by himself;] I began to be despondent and the terror of death overcame me. At that time I turned to God and I began to pray to him that he free me, for he knows all the ways of salvation. I said to God: “I repudiate my sin and I search for your will, O Lord, that I may accomplish it. But now forgive me my sin and free me.” I prayed for many days with all my heart; God heard me and saved me completely; I for my part praised him and wholeheartedly turned to him. And I said Psalm CXIV [116:1]: “I love! For God listens to my entreaty.” I thought that this psalm was written for me. I then said: “No, I shall not die, I shall live to recite the deeds of God.”
There are people who constantly accused me in the presence of the king and said: “This man is your enemy, and the enemy of the Frang;” and I knew that the king’s wrath was inflamed against me. One day the king’s messenger came to me, and said: “Come quickly to me; thus spoke the king.” I was very much frightened, but I could not flee, because the king’s men were guarding me. I prayed the whole night with a grieved heart; in the morning I rose and went up to the king. But God had made his heart soft, he received me well and mentioned nothing of the things I was afraid of. He only questioned me on many points concerning the doctrine and the [sacred] Books and he said to me: “You are a learned man, you should love the Frang, because they are very learned.” I answered: “Yes, they truly are;” for I was afraid and the Frang are really learned. After this the king gave me five measures of gold, and sent me away peacefully. After leaving [the king,] as I was still marvelling [at my fate,] I thanked God who had treated me so well. When Walda Yohannes accused me, I ran away, but I did not pray as before that [God] rescue me from the peril, because I was able to flee; man ought to do everything possible without tempting God needlessly. Now I praise Him; because I fled and am now living in a cave, I find ample opportunity to turn myself wholly to my creator; I am able to think of those things which eluded me previously and to know the truth that gives great joy to my soul. And I say to God: “I deserved the affliction which made me know your judgement.” I have learnt more while living alone in a cave than when I was living with scholars. What I wrote in this book is very little; but in my cave I have meditated on many other such things. I praise God for the wisdom he gave me and the knowledge of the mysteries of creation; my soul is drawn by him and despises everything except the meditation of God’s work and of his wisdom.
Everyday I recited the Psalter of David with a heart dilated [with joy;] and this prayer helps me considerably and raises my thoughts to God. And when in the Psalter of David I encounter things that do not agree with my thought, I interpret them and I try to make them agree with my science and all is well. While praying in this manner, my trust in God grew stronger. And I said: “God, hear my prayer, do not hide from my petition. Save me from the violence of men. For your part, Lord, do not withhold your kindness from me! May your love and faithfulness constantly preserve me. I invoke you, O Lord; do not let me be disgraced. So I shall always sing of your name, that day after day you will fulfil my desire. Turn to me and pity me. Give me your strength, your saving help, to me your servant, this son of a pious mother, give me one proof of your goodness. For the sake of your name, guide me, lead me! Rescue me from my persecutors, for the goodness you show me. Let dawn bring proof of your love, for one who relies on you. Protect me and lead me into the land, do not let me fall into the hands of my enemies. Let me hear [your] joy and exultation; do take away my hope. Counter their curses with your blessing, and let them know that you have done it.” I was praying day and night with all my heart this and other similar prayers.
This chapter is more autobiography and testimony than philosophy, but I have a few remarks nevertheless.
The first paragraph, in which Zera Yacob says that sin can bind us so that we can no longer free ourselves from its influence, and that we then require God’s intervention, and that God did so intervene in his life, is reminiscent of Augustine’s account of his conversion in Book VIII of the Confessions:
For the law of sin is the violence of custom [i.e. habituation], whereby the mind is drawn and holden, even against its will; but deservedly, for that it willingly fell into it. Who then should deliver me thus wretched from the body of this death, but Thy grace only, through Jesus Christ our Lord? (VIII.v.12)
I cast myself down I know not how, under a certain fig-tree, giving full vent to my tears; and the floods of mine eyes gushed out an acceptable sacrifice to Thee. And, not indeed in these words, yet to this purpose,
spake I much unto Thee: and Thou, O Lord, how long? how long, Lord, wilt Thou be angry for ever? Remember not our former iniquities, for I felt that I was held by them. I sent up these sorrowful words: How long, how long, “to-morrow, and tomorrow?” Why not now? why not is there this hour an end to my uncleanness?
So was I speaking and weeping in the most bitter contrition of my heart, when, lo! I heard from a neighbouring house a voice, as of boy or girl, I know not, chanting, and oft repeating, “Take up and read; Take up and read. ” Instantly, my countenance altered, I began to think most intently whether children were wont in any kind of play to sing such words: nor could I remember ever to have heard the like. So checking the torrent of my tears, I arose; interpreting it to be no other than a command from God to open the book, and read the first chapter I should find. For I had heard of Antony, that coming in during the reading of the Gospel, he received the admonition, as if what was being read was spoken to him: Go, sell all that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven, and come and follow me: and by such oracle he was forthwith converted unto Thee. Eagerly then I returned to the place where Alypius was sitting; for there had I laid the volume of the Apostle when I arose thence. I seized, opened, and in silence read that section on which my eyes first fell: Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying; but put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh, in concupiscence. No further would I read; nor needed I: for instantly at the end of this sentence, by a light as it were of serenity infused into my heart, all the darkness of doubt vanished away. (VIII.xii.28–29)
“What I wrote in this book is very little; but in my cave I have meditated on many other such things.” I always this this passage is so tragic—if only Zera Yacob had written more!
The final paragraph contains a whole series of quotations or paraphrases from the Psalms: 55:1; 40:11; 31:17; 61:8; 86:16–17; 31:4; 142:6–7; 143:8; 109:27–8. Looking at the sources, I’m reminded of Paul’s manner of quoting in his letters: the quotes are not exact, and are drawn from various places and then joined or fused together. In other words, Zera Yacob, like Paul, is drawing at will on his profound knowledge of scripture rather than looking things up. (But I should say that it’s hard for me to judge the accuracy of Zera Yacob’s quotations very well, since some of the apparent discrepancies may have to do with translation or variations in manuscripts.)
It is particularly clear in this chapter that, although he is not a Christian, Zera Yacob is a devout man.