10 February 2009

'Pay Attention, All Who Are Learned'—St Ephraim the Syrian

Today, 28 January on the Church’s calendar, we celebrate the memory of our Venerable Father, Ephraim the Syrian. The eminent scholar of Syriac literature, Sebastian Brock, tells us, ‘As both poet and theologian St Ephrem is unsurpassed among Syriac writers and he has justly been acclaimed as “the greatest poet of the patristic age and perhaps the only theologian-poet to rank beside Dante”’ (The Syriac Fathers on Prayer and the Spiritual Life [Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian, 1987], p. 30, citing Robert Murray, Catholic Dictionary of Theology, ed. J.H. Crehan [London, 1967] II:222). One can read accounts of his life here, here, and here.

I shall give two examples of St Ephraim’s inspired words. The first is taken from the ‘Life of Our Venerable Father Ephraim the Syrian’ in the Menology of St Demetrius of Rostov (‘The Life of St Ephraim’, trans. Br Isaac E. Lambertsen, A Spiritual Psalter, or Reflections on God, excerpted by Bishop Theophan the Recluse from the works of our Holy Father Ephraim the Syrian, arrnaged in the manner of the Psalms of David, trans. Antonina Janda [Liberty, TN: St John of Kronstadt, 1997], p. 254):

I swear by Him Who descended upon Mount Sinai and spake from the stone; I swear by the mouth which cried out: ‘Eloï!’; I swear by the might of Him who was smitten on His cheeks and by the greatness of Him who deigned to be spit upon; I swear by the three fiery Persons and the one divine Essence and the one Will, that I have not separated myself from the Church and have not rebelled against the omnipotence of God. If in mind I have exalted the Father higher than the Son, let Him not have mercy upon me. If I have thought the Holy Spirit to be less than God, let my eyes be covered with darkness. . . . If I am saying this hypocritically, let me be in the place with the wicked, to burn in the flame. If I am saying this in order to please man, let the Lord not hearken to me at the judgement . . .

The second example I’d like to give is from the hymns preserved in Armenian (Brock, pp. 36-8):

1. Open up the treasury door for us, Lord, at the prayers of our supplications; let our prayers serve as our ambassador, reconciling us with Your Divinity. Listen, all who are wise, pay attention, all who are learned, acquire understanding and knowledge, seeing that you are instructed and wise, I will relate before you the accomplishments of holy prayer.

2. Prayer divided the Red Sea, allowing the People to cross through its midst; by the same prayer the sea was reunited once more, swallowing up Pharoah, the rebellious and impious. Prayer brought down manna from heaven, prayer brought the quails from the sea, prayer struck the rock in the desert, causing water to gush forth for the thirsty.

3. Blesed is the person who has consented to become the close friend of faith and of prayer: he lives in singlemindedness and makes prayer and faith stop by with him. Prayer that rises up in someone’s heart serves to open up for us the door of heaven: that person stands in converse with the Divinity and gives pleasure to the Son of God. Prayer makes peace with the Lord’s anger and with the vehemence of his wrath. In this way too, tears that well up in the eyes can open the door of compassion.

4. Come, let us look at those warriors who conquered, who excelled in both faith and prayer. Prayer caused the sun to stop in its course at Gibeon and the moon at the field of Ayyalon; it overturned the sevenfold walls of Jericho that mighty city; it brought devastation to Amalek with its king, it slew Sisera along with Madon, Sihon, Og and all their princes, giving their land as an inheritance to Israel, the People of God.

5. I will show you, my brethren, what faith and prayer have effected: the prayer which held back the sun at Gibeon can hold back evil from us: He who held back the moon at the field of Ayyalon, who overthrew the sevenfold walls of Jericho that mighty city, who drove off Amalek along with its king, will drive off and break into pieces the might of Satan.

6. Prayer gave manna to the people, and by the same prayer the just are nourished. The prayer that bound the heavens released them too, just as it had first bound them. Prayer brought down from heaven the fire that devoured the sacrifice and licked up the water; prayer seized and finished off the four hundred and fifty priests of Baal.

7. For forty days prayer accompanied the prophet in the recesses of his cave on Horeb; he openly conversed with the Deity. Fiery chariots were harnessed and descended, they took him up, ascending with him to the God whom he loved. The Watchers on high rejoiced at the ascent of the prophet to heaven in his body.

8. Prayer shut up and fettered the mouths of lions inside the pit, so that the just Daniel was not harmed. Prayer preserved the Three Children in the Furnace of fire. Prayer opened up the wombs of barren women, providing them with heirs. Such are the wonders that prayer and faith have continuously brought about—and there are others even greater than these.

For those who don’t know, aside from those works of St Ephraim that are definitely genuine (and according to Brock, there is ‘an element of doubt’ attached to this one [p. 31]), there are many that are likely not. Most of the works attributed to St Ephraim that have survived in the Greek language and form the basis of his literary reputation in the Orthodox Tradition fall into this category, and in a fascinating article on these works, Archimandrite Ephrem (Lash) refers to the author as ‘Greek Ephrem’ or ‘Ephrem the Greek’ (‘The Greek Writings Attributed to Saint Ephrem the Syrian’, Abba, The Tradition of Orthodoxy in the West [Festschrift for Bishop Kallistos (Ware)], ed. Fr John Behr, et al. [Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary, 2003], pp. 86, 98). Fr Ephrem points out that these writings are prescribed to be read at every weekday Matins during Lent (p. 82), and on the basis of their place in the liturgical tradition, concludes that they ‘should form part of the regular diet of non-biblical spiritual reading not only for monastics, but also for Orthodox Christians in general’ (p. 83). Fortunately, to facilitate such reading, Fr Ephrem himself has been translating the ‘Greek Ephrem’ on his website. It is hoped that more Orthodox will avail themselves of these writings, for as John Wesley once wrote, ‘Surely never did any man, since David, give us such a picture of a broken and contrite heart’ (qtd. in Fr Ephrem, p. 90).

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