From Fr Lawrence Farley's blog - “A Presence that was Not Theirs”
The year is 1868; the place, Damascus. A self-taught mystic calling himself Abd el Matar left his wife, family, and home to found a group of disciples in Damascus, the Shazlis, basing it on a Sufi brotherhood established in the middle ages. About forty or so people gathered about him to pray and seek God. In the words of Isabel Burton, wife of the Sir Richard Francis Burton, the consul of Damascus at the time, these Syrian peasants were praying “for enlightenment before the throne of God”. Finally, (to quote Isabel again), “they became conscious of a presence amongst them that was not theirs. At length they became assured by a vision that it was the religion of Christ which they were seeking.” In particular, “after prolonged devotional acts, all of them fell asleep, and our Lord was pleased to appear to all of them separately. They awoke simultaneously, and one, taking courage, recounted his vision to the others, when each responded, ‘I also saw Him.’ Christ had consoled and exhorted them to follow His faith, and they were so filled with a joy that they had never known that they were with difficulty dissuaded from running about the streets to proclaim that Christ is God.” Others joined their number, so that at length about 25,000 Shazlis declared themselves ready for baptism.
This was a problem, for in that Islamic country conversion from Islam to the Christian Faith brought certain death. In vain the consul Burton offered to buy land for them outside Damascus and resettle them there. In vain he petitioned his British government to intercede on their behalf with the Turkish power then ascendant in the region. Burton was recalled to Britain, sacked without notice, honour, or severance. The Shazlis, some of whom had already been imprisoned for their new Faith, were left to their fate.
All the principal players in this lost drama are now dead, including the nameless and impoverished Syrian peasants under Abd el Matar who sought the face of God and found the Presence of Christ. The very name “Shazlis” is lost, and a Google search, after asking if you didn’t mean “shallis”, “shazly”, or “shezelles”, offers as its first Google submission, “WHEEEE, take a journey through the computer tubes of legend to hear the SourceFed team sing their hearts out!” Further Googling will turn up the reference in Burton’s memoirs cited above. That is all. The Shazlis have vanished, forgotten by all but the Christ whose Presence they unknowingly sought and unexpectedly found.
I mention the Shazlis now not only because all martyrs deserve some recognition from the Church, but also because their experience reveals that Christ loves everyone. We give lip service to the parable of the lost sheep, and happily read about the good shepherd leaving the ninety-nine in the wilderness and searching for the one straying sheep until He has found it (Lk. 15:3-6). We are more surprised to find the good shepherd actually searching. We too often imagine that the initiative in these things is all on our side; that Christ sits in heaven waiting for us to find Him. For us, religion is presented as a personal choice, as something that we choose, like items from a menu. Will we choose this item, or that; this religion, or that one; Christianity or Islam? We are the ones who do the choosing. We are not prepared when we sometimes find that Christ is the one doing the choosing, and that He does His choosing in what strikes us as odd places.
That is, we often think of the world in terms of “Us” and “Them”: “Us Christians” and “Them Muslims”; “Us North Americans” and “Them People Everywhere Else”. We are the ones who are loved by God, and theyare the ones who are, if not unloved by God, are at least ignored by God. For God to really love them, they have to become Christians and become one of “us”. Admittedly our Orthodox theology doesn’t tell us this, but CNN and Fox Network often do.
It is just here that the experience of the Shazlis is so instructive. Here were a group of people unlike us in almost every conceivable way. We are affluent; they were poor. We are North Americans; they were Syrians. We are educated; they were not. We are Christians; they were Muslims. Yet, because they genuinely and earnestly sought the face of God (they would’ve called Him “Allah”), and because they really, really wanted to know the truth, Christ appeared to them, and appeared to them in supernatural power. They received a revelation, a dream, a vision. I have never received a revelation, or a dream, or a vision, and suspect that you haven’t either. But they did. That was not, I think, because they were more worthy than we are, but simply because that was what they needed at the time. They needed a vision; we don’t, and because they needed it, they got one. Their revelation, of course, confirmed our own Faith, for they no sooner awoke from the visionary dream than they concluded that Christ was God, and sought for baptism.
But what I would like to focus upon is not the thought, “See? We Christians were right”, but rather “See? Christ loves everyone and will manifest Himself to anyone who truly seeks Him”. Christ does not simply sit in heaven and wait for people to choose His religion. He is not sitting idly at the right hand of the Father, patiently drumming His fingers and hoping that we take the initiative to find Him. He searches even now for the lost sheep, whether that sheep be a secularist, or a Jew, or a Muslim, and often the sign that He is closing in on the lost sheep is that the sheep itself begins to seek Him. It is as the prophet Jeremiah said long ago: “You will seek Me and find Me, when you seek Me with all your heart” (Jer. 29:13). That promise did not just hold good for the children of Israel in Jeremiah’s day. It also held good for everyone ever after. And as history shows, it held good for the Muslim Shazlis of Damascus. They sought for God with all their heart, and found Him. It no doubt surprised them quite a bit to find that the God they sought was called Jesus, and that bore in His hands the print of the nails that He suffered when He died for them. But find Him they did, and they found Him not only because they sought Him with all their heart, but also because He was seeking for them. This is what St. Paul meant when he said that God was not the God of the Jews only, but also the God of the Gentiles (Rom. 3:29).
This, I suggest, is the most important fact about our non-Christian neighbour, whether that neighbour be secular, Jewish or Muslim, whether that neighbour be across the street, or in far-away Damascus: God is searching for them. The true God is their God, and Christ even now is actively seeking them. They are not so much enemies as potential brethren and fellow-communicants. Who in Damascus in the early 1860’s would’ve thought that the Muslim Sufi Abd el Matar would soon be confessing Christ as God, and heading towards the crown of a Christian martyr? With other Muslims, he sought God with all his heart, and this crowd soon found among themselves “a presence that was not theirs”. That presence was the Presence of the good shepherd, searching for His lost Sufi sheep. The Shepherd continues that search for all His lost sheep to this present hour.