Saint Ephrem

In connection with the widespread revival of interest in Catholic theology during the current century, many of the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, all but forgotten just a generation ago, are being studied and appreciated anew. Among the Fourth Century theologians of Eastern Christendom, St. Athanasius and St. Basil have received close attention. It must, however, be recognized that their Syrian contemporary, St. Ephrem, although well known to Catholics under his title of “harp of the Holy Ghost,” is little read in our day. That this should be so is understandable enough, for his vast poetic output was entirely in the Syriac tongue, and much of his work has been preserved only in corrupt versions, digests, and Armenian and Greek translations, which are the distress of modern editors. Those portions of St. Ephrem’s writings which are available in English have unfortunately been rendered in a style which makes it difficult to see why it was commonly said of the author that he “gave wings to thought.”

Nevertheless, on literary grounds alone, it is clear that St. Ephrem holds a leading place among the early poets of Syria and possesses a direct appeal to men of every age and clime. Recent scholars who have gone back to the original Syriac texts have been unanimous in praising the suppleness and variety of his rhythms, his rich and sustained metaphors, and his tender pathos. His verse, intended for chanting in choir, lacks, to be sure, the concision and clarity so highly esteemed in the Western tradition, but these defects are more than offset by a wealh of that modal quality of thought which we have come to associate with the Hebrew writings of the Old Testament. If the contemporary reader is occasionally fatigued by St. Ephrem’s frequent repetitions and slow refrains, it would be well for him to remember that the poet wrote for a people unschooled in the subtleties of Greek dialectics, accustomed to learn by ear rather than by eye, and sufficiently at leisure to be delighted by amplifications which we might consider monotonous or prolix.

Except for his Biblical commentaries, which are in prose, nearly all St. Ephrem’s writings, including hymns, homilies, and exhortations, are in verse. Yet his call to be a poet was due not so much to a personal inclination as to the exigencies of his day. He lived in troublous times, when the forces of heresy were rampant. Not only the frightful scourge of Arianism, but also the gnosticism of Marcion and the religious syncretism of the Manicheans had been unleashed upon the Christian world. And the most noxious heresy of all, in the cities where Ephrem lived and wrote, was that of the Bardesanite. Bardesanes, from whom the movement takes its name, and his son Harmonious, had, in the third century, set forth their pernicious doctrines disparaging the dignity of the human body, in popular melodies which were sweeping through the land. In order to defeat this heresy with its own weapons, Ephrem commenced writing hymns which presented the orthodox position in equally appealing form.

The primary vocation of St. Ephrem, and one which he never forsook, was to be a teacher and an exegete. Immediately after his conversion to Christianity at the age of 18 (and his consequent expulsion from the home of his father, a pagan priest), he placed himself under the tutelage of the local bishop, St. James of Nisibis, a city in Upper Mesopotamia. St. James accepted Ephrem as a pupil into his household and gave him an excellent education in which Biblical studies were the dominant feature. Recognizing the extraordinary talents of his young charge, St. James, according to one account, took Ephrem with him to the Council of Nicea, much as St. Alexander brought along his young deacon, Athanasius. Some time before his death in 338, St. James placed Ephrem at the head of the episcopal school of Nisibis, an office which he continued to fill for the next 25 years.

Mosaic in Nea Moni of Chios (11th century) source

During this period at Nisibis St. Ephrem not only taught in the Christian school and expounded the Sacred Scriptures, but also took a lively interest in public affairs. When the city was besieged by the Persian hordes of Shapur II in 338, 346 and 350, St. Ephrem constituted himself a sort of mediator between God and his people. He actively took part in encouraging the Roman armies in the field and, on at least one occasion, is reputed to have worked a miracle to save the city from almost inevitable capture. In his early poems, which appear to date from these years, one can sense the deep patriotism which prompts Ephrem now to ascend to the mountain like another Moses to implore God’s mercy on Nisibis, and now to exhort the inhabitants of that beleaguered city to stand fast in the faith and to do penance for their crimes. Sometimes he reproaches his people for their infidelities in lengthy Jeremiads; at other times he joyfully gives paise to God for sparing them; and yet again attempts to console his people in their distress when the Romans have burnt the crops in order to ward off a new incursion. Nisibis held out against the Persians during each invasion, and stood firm through the religious disorders fomented by Julian the Apostate. But following the defeat of Julian’s armies in 363, the new emperor, Jovian, was compelled to sign a peace which ceded Nisibis to the enemy. In order to escape a cruel persecution from the Persians, the Christian populace made an exodus en masse, St. Ephrem among them.

The last, and most fruitful, decade of Ephrem’s life was passed in Edessa (the modern Urfa), a city which not only enjoyed great material prosperity thanks to its thriving armament industry, but one which was also a vital center of Christian asceticism. Ephrem, upon his arrival here as a poor and unknown exile, resolved to follow the example of the apostles by living from the work of his hands. He therefore became an employee at the public baths, and during his free time engaged in public disputes with the infidels, to whom he preached the glories of the Christian faith. One day, not long after his arrival at Edessa, a hermit from the neighboring countryside chanced to overhear one of Ephrem’s discourses, and, deeply impressed by his learning and his piety, besought Ephrem to follow him into the desert. Ephrem accordingly established himself in a cave in the hills above the city, where he proceeded to write a series of commentaries on the books of the Old Testament. These he intended to publish anonymously upon their completion, but his manuscript was stolen from him and circulated about the city. Before long, great crowds of admirers began to come out in search of Ephrem. His first impulse was to flee, but as he prepared to depart, an angel admonished him not to hide his light under a bushel. Ephrem, therefore, consented to return to the city, and quickly became head of the Schola Persarum, an episcopal school for Chistian refugees similar to that which he had conducted at Nisibis.

To this period in Edessa must be assigned the majority of St. Ephrem’s choral hymns, which are probably his most beautiful works. “Knowing,” as his biographer tells us, “how great was the love of the inhabitants of Edessa for music and song, and wishing to divert them from profane amusements, Ephrem formed choirs of virgins and taught them odes full of sublime thoughts about baptism, fasting, the Resurrection, and the Passion and Ascension of Our Lord. To these he added hymns on penance, on the martyrs, and on the dead. The girls dedicated to God went to the church on the solemn feasts of the Lord, at the panegyrics of the martyrs, and every Sunday of the year, and Ephrem, like a father, stood in the midst of them and as leader of the choir directed the voices at the same time as he supervised the harmony of the instruments.” The homilies which Ephrem delivered on these feasts became so popular that they lived on for future generations and many of them have found their way into the divine office recited in certain Eastern rites.

The sermons and exhortations of St. Ephrem became so popular that not only the Christian population, but great numbers of Pagans and Jews, gathered to hear him. The heretics and unbelievers, alarmed by his influence, soon conspired against him and, by threats of physical violence, compelled him to take refuge in the mountains with his former companions, the cenobites. Once again, therefore, he established himself in a grotto outside the city, this time bringing with him a small group of disciples. During this exile, his influence, like that of St. Athanasius in the Egyptian desert, became greater than ever. His hymns reechoed from church to church, his sermons were disseminated through the whole province.

Legend has it that in the latter part of 370 St. Ephrem made a pilgrimage to Caesarea in Cappadocia to hear the great St. Basil, who received him with joy, ordained him to the diaconate, and subsequently urged him in vain to accept the priesthood and episcopacy. While this encounter between the two celebrated doctors cannot be positively denied, the details with which the account is surrounded are so unlikely that most historians have thought it best to disallow the entire trip. More probably, as related by another chronicler, St. Ephrem had been made a deacon many yeas before by St. James of Nisibis. He is the only Doctor of the Universal Church who never became a priest.

During the last year of his life, St. Ephrem labored in the city of Edessa to alleviate the effects of a severe famine. He was charged with the distribution of alms to the poor and with the organization of medical and other assistance to those in need. After the spring harvests had been gathered in, St. Ephrem considered his mission accomplished and retired for the last time to his cave outside the city. There he died, aged about 70, in June 373, the same year that winessed the passing of St. Athanasius.

Much of the influence of St. Ephrem seems to have been due to the simplicity and force with which he exemplified his own teaching. Contemptuous to an extreme of the riches and honors of the world, he lived in the most abject poverty and sternly refused every ecclesiastical preferment. As to his manner of life, his anonymous biographer informs us that “from the time he became a monk until the end of his life his only food was barley bread and sometimes pulse and vegetables; his drink was water. And his flesh was dried upon his bones like a potter’s sherd. His clothes were of many pieces patched together, and the color of dirt. In stature he was little. His countenance was always sad, and he never descended to laughter. And he was bald and beardless.” The sadness of St. Ephrem’s disposition is also noted by St. Gregory of Nyssa, who in his panegyric of St. Ephrem declares that weeping was for him as natural as breathing for other men.

Reading his poetry, one can well believe that St. Ephrem was abundantly endowed with the gift of tears. A deep pathos penetrates his verse, which manifests itself here in solemn lamentations over the ingratitude of Christians, and there in heartfelt sympathy for the poor and afflicted. Particularly touching are his poems on death, a theme which may be called one of his specialties. In numerous funeral elegies he celebrates the virtues of deceased bishops, priests, clerics, and solitaries. In these he omits no occasion to point out how death the leveler erases all worldly dignities and puts an end to the vanities to which many consecrate their lives. He dwells on the inexorable cruelty with which death severs the most cherished family ties. In one poem he shows us a group of children gathered by the bed of their dying mother, pleading with her through their tears: “O, mother, why are you silent? Has death bereft you of speech? Come, give us your hands! Extend your arms! Embrace your sons for the last time! Give then one final kiss!” In another of his moving elegies he treats of the death of a child, whom he compares to a springtime flower, of which death has withered the tender petals with its breath, hotter than the noonday sun. “Your songs, my little one, caressed my ear, and their harmony was my delight. I still remember the sweet melodies which you sang. I remember your words, and as my soul repeats them silently my thoughts fly up to the choirs of the Blessed, where, rapt in admiration, they hearken to you singing triumphant hosannas with the angelic hosts.”

The grief which Ephrem experiences at the thought of death is always moderated in his poems by a note of consolation and joy stemming from the promise of immortality. Death, it is true, has triumphed over all, but Christ has triumphed over death. In a dramatic dialogue between Death and the soul of Christ in limbo, St. Ephrem pictures Death as boasting that he is unconquerable: “I have despised the money of the rich; I have been incorruptible to their bribes. Never have the masters of slaves been able to persuade me to take the servant in place of the master, or the poor for the rich, or the child for the old man’…And Death ceased his insulting speech. And the voice of the Lord resounded in hell; it cried out and the sepulchres opened one by one. Death was struck with fright.” Death, then, becomes humbled, and only Satan, in his proud obstinacy, continues to struggle against Christ and to seduce men by his wiles to worship false idols and turn aside from the path of truth.

Idolatry and false worship are treated by St. Ephrem with a hatred no less intense than his love for piety and truthfulness. In many of his poems one senses that he considered himself one appointed by God for the defense of truth. “Woe unto us,” he writes, “if, distracted by the disputes of the innovators, we stand idly looking on while our faith is endangered!” The Christian believer is, to his mind, a warrior obliged to take up spiritual arms whenever the supremacy of truth is challenged. “Alas, sad spectacle, the tongue has become a sword! It is the steel which strikes and overturns. And because blood is not shed in this struggle, it does not frighten men. The coward does not tremble before these arms. Even the blind man knows how to strike with his tongue, and does not concern himself about the wounds which his blows inflict.”

It is the Arians who have seized the reigns of temporal power and who seek to intimidate the true believer into concealing his faith. “Abject souls,” as St. Ephrem puts in, “have alleged zeal for truth as an excuse for their conduct. In reality, they desire only the first places. Under the mask of truth they were able to seduce a few companions, and when the number of adepts increased, the leaders of the sect got a hearing with the princes. One after another they were drawn into error — generals, tribunes, centurions, decurions…” In the presence of such forces, St. Ephrem’s attitude is one of militant opposition. “I will defend my faith,” he proclaims, “against the heresy which has newly arisen, which believes in the Father and denies the Only Son. And since the investigators have occupied the high places I will defend my faith in the humble citadel of truth…If evil comes to us from this, let us hear it with resolution. Whether our soul suffer violence, or our body be burned, or our life be taken from us, we are determined not to yield before any suffering…Faith has never been silent — never has it ceased to make the word of truth heard to its people. Like the bugle, faith hates silence.”

The Arians are attacked by Ephrem under the contemptuous title of investigators (scrutatores) because of their audacity in devising new doctrines as to the relations between God the Father and God the Son. In answering them, St. Ephrem repeatedly expounds the orthodox view as to the unity, co-eternity, and co-equality of the Three Persons of the Blessed Trinity. Penetrating though his comments are on the relations of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, he does not attempt to explain what is, in the last analysis, inexplicable. Instead, he calls upon men to prostrate themselves in adoration before this inscrutable mystery. “Happy is he, whosoever he be, who in the midst of rash disputes in the public squares concerning the Divine generation, considers it better to remain silent than to say what none can understand.”

St. Ephrem’s esteem for simple, childlike faith is nowhere better illustrated than in his sequence of seven hymns on the Pearl. The Syrian term for “word” being the same as that which means “pearl,” these poems celebrate Christ, the Eternal Word of God, as well as the virtue of faith, the “pearl of great price.” In its silent discourse, the Pearl instructs St. Ephrem on the limitations of the human intellect. “I am the daughter of the immense sea,” it declares; “I bear, enclosed in my bosom, a treasure, — the treasure of the secrets of the Ocean which engendered me. As for you, abide in the waters which it was given you to abide in; respect your Lord; do not try to sound the Ocean of the Godhead.” The Pearl, in its mysterious and immaculate origin, represents the double generation of Christ in the bosom of the Father and in the womb of the Virgin Mary. In contemplating the Pearl, the poet is enlightened concerning numerous other mysteries of faith; “The brilliance of the Pearl and its unequalled splendor represented for me the superior nature (of the Son of God), whose brightness is not veiled by any shadow, and whose peace is troubled by no war. Its marvelous whiteness was also for me a symbol of the most pure body of the Lord; its nature, one and indivisible, testified that truth, likewise, is one. Yes, I beheld in it the image of the Church…”

If St. Ephrem regards the Arian heresy with scorn and anger, his attitude toward Bardesanes and his disciples is characterized rather by horror and anguish of heart. “The book of Bardesanes,” he writes, “fell into my hands and for some time sadness seized my soul! And the purity of my ears was soiled, for they served as passages for blasphemous speech.” The Bardesanites taught that the body was essentially evil and, in its destiny, controlled by the stars; that Christ has assumed a human body in appearance only; and that there would be no resurrection of the dead. In answer to these and other heretics affected by a Manichaean distaste for matter, St. Ephrem repeatedly extols the mystery of the Resurrection and points how, even in this life, the body participates in the commendable actions of the soul. “Let the body and soul sing Thy praises, O Lord, in Thy Paradise…The life of the soul reverberates in the members of the body. The movements of its thought palpitate in our senses…By the mouth the soul has offered up its prayers to Him Who heareth all; by the hand it has distributed alms to Him Who rewardeth all; by the eyes it has read the Scriptures; by the ears it has heard the divine promises; by the feet it has brought itself to the portals of the House of God…Praised be He Who created the needs of the soul so as to glorify its companion, the body.”

St.Ephrem, deeply appreciative of the honor conferred upon human flesh by the Incarnation, makes no secret of his impatience with those who seek to undermine the doctrine of the hypostatic union. In language similar to that which St. Cyril of Alexandria was to use against the Nestorians in the following century, he insists on the intimate marriage of the human and divine natures in the Person of Jesus. “Praiseworthy and wise is He Who united and mixed the divinity and the humanity. The two natures, one from on high and the other from below, he mixed as do pharmacists, and became the God-man.” “He was one in divinity and humanity without distinction. Believe that our humanity was spiritual in Him Who clothed Himself with a body, and that He is not two but one, from the Father and from Mary. He who divides Him in two will not enjoy Eden with Him.” St. Ephrem’s choice of words, however, was such as would give comfort to the Monophysites, who in a later generation attempted to deny the distinctness of the human and divine natures in Christ. “That one,” writes St. Ephrem, “who was present in these circumstances was not one but rather two. There was not present only the humble nature, nor only the sublime, but two were the natures, of which one was mixed with the other, the sublime with the inferior. Therefore these two natures expressed their own thoughts, so that by the thoughts of two, men might perceive that they were two.”

Because of his loving comprehension of the mystery of the Incarnation, St. Ephrem was prompt in recognizing the unique honor which pertains to Mary as the Mother of God. With great tenderness and delicacy he dramatized, in dialogues which foreshadow the mystery plays of the middle ages, the beautiful role played by Our Lady in the joyous events at Bethlehem and later at the foot of the Cross on Calvary. Observe with what gracious humility, in one of these dramas, Mary addresses the Magi who have come from the East to adore the Son of God: “My son has no armies,” she says, “not legions, nor cohorts. He lies there in his mother’s poverty, and you call him King!” To which the Magi reply, with a magnificent profession of faith, “The armies of your son are on high. His knights move about the heavens as stars of fire.”

In view of St. Ephrem’s surpassing devotion to the Blessed Virgin, it is not surprising that he should have affirmed more explicitly than any of the other Christian Fathers, including St. Ambrose and St. Augustine, the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. “Thou alone, O Lord,” he declares, “and Thy mother are they who in every respect are wholly beautiful; for there is no spot in Thee, O Lord, nor any stain in Thy mother.” Mary, then, is an exception to the universal rule whereby all the children of Eve are conceived in the state of original sin. In this respect she is the only woman who can be compared to Eve, the mother of all mankind according to the flesh, as constituted in the state of original innocence: “Two women were pure and two simple: Mary and Eve; they stood on a level. But one was the cause of our death, the other of our life.” In consequence of her exemption from the effects of original sin Mary was, as St. Ephrem affirms in another passage, spared from the pains of labor in bearing the Christ-child. In his appreciation of the place of Mary in the economy of our salvation, St. Ephrem represents the tradition of the early Syrian churches — a tradition which did not come into its own until the definition in l854 of the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception.