There is a legend, ancient and beautiful, about a Syrian monk living in the desert in the fifth century. The monk's name was Simeon Stylites. He was the son of shepherds. He encountered Christianity at the age of 13, and when he was 18, Simeon left his family to join a company of desert monks.
The early monks of the desert, living in Syria, and Egypt, and Arabia, are known in Christian history as the Desert Fathers. They were converts, often, who encountered Christianity and fled from society to pray in solitude. They were ascetics and mystics, scholars and poets. They were, many of them, saints.
The prayers and monastic life of Syrians were the incubators of Christian spirituality.
Simeon Stylites lived for a time among them. He lived simply, spending his time reading Scripture, praying, and fasting. He became known for wisdom, and prudence, and extraordinary judgment. People from across the Middle East came to seek his wisdom.
But Simeon wanted only to pray. So he moved from the monastery to the top of a tall pillar, hewn from a cliff, on which he lived in solitude for thirty years. He saw visitors each day, and offered them spiritual counsel.
The legend says that one day a fierce dragon approached Simeon, ready to attack. But Simeon noticed that the dragon was blind. That his rage was borne in the confusion of his blindness--the dragon struck at what he neither knew nor understood. Simeon could not defend himself from a rage like that. Defense would only provoke. And so he spoke to the dragon. He spoke truth, boldly, and with compassion. He promised that the dragon could find peace.
Simeon's words calmed the dragon. And, through his prayer, the dragon was cured of blindness.
More than a fifteen hundred years after Simeon's death, Syria seems to be fighting blind dragons again. The country is mired in chaos--besieged by outbursts of thuggish assaults and corruption beyond the rules of war. Syria is besotted with violence. And like Simeon's blind dragon, the rage seems borne in blindness--the combatants lash out without reason or explanation, angry at factors far beyond their control.
Christians and other religious minorities are bearing the brunt of Syria's violence. Opposition groups are rounding up Christians, kidnapping them, and slaughtering them. When the government retaliates, Christian neighborhoods are often destroyed. The attacks on Christians are unprovoked--but the rage of Syria's dragons, in the government and among the opposition, seems to know no bounds.
I am not a politician, or a military strategist. I am only a pastor. But I know that we cannot solve the violence of Syria with more violence. The country's problems are real, and interminable. Real people are suffering. Over 100,000 have been killed in recent months. And a solution must be found.
But to choose sides in a conflict where no side can be trusted is unreasonable. Neither dictators nor thugs masquerading as democratic reformers should be our partners. Adding to the violence in Syria escalates a war with very little hope of resolution, with no clear goals and no definition of victory. Battling with blind dragons rarely leads to peace.
Instead, we must find a way to offer words of peace to the warring factions of Syria. We must speak the truth boldly, and with conviction. We must work for real solutions. We must insist on an end to the systematic persecution of Christians, and to violent attacks on women, children, and minorities.
Today, Catholics around the world are joining Pope Francis in prayer and fasting for Syria. Our prayer effects real change. May our prayer, and yours, calm the blind, raging, intemperate dragons of Syria. May our prayer bring real and lasting peace.
The Most Rev. James D. Conley is the Bishop of the Lincoln diocese.