It was not original to him, but the late Pope John Paul II popularized the concept of the Church breathing with “two lungs”—what older textbooks call simply “Latins” and “Greeks” (or sometimes “Byzantines”). The problem with this metaphor, commendable though it was for obvious ecumenical reasons, is that it overlooks a third equally venerable tradition, the Syriac. This led the great Oxford Syriacist Sebastian Brock rightly to say Christianity really had, and has, three lungs: Latin, Greek, and Syriac.
Most Western or Latin Catholics (and Protestants) know little about the Greek and Byzantine traditions, and fewer still have even heard of the Syriac. To remedy that, there is no finer spokesman for his tradition than the man whose feast occurs this week on the Byzantine calendar: St. Ephraim/Ephrem/Efraim (etc.), known universally as “the Syrian.” Born c. 306 in Nisibis, in northern Syria, he died in Edessa in 373. In between he bequeathed to us many works (scholars estimate 3 million lines), some of exceptional profundity.
Universality of Cult
Ephraim is singular in many respects, not least in the universality of his cult and the appeal he has to Christians across traditions who recognize not just his theological brilliance and creativity but also his holiness. It is unusual to find someone canonized by, and his feast day firmly established in the sanctoral cycle of, every apostolic church and several Protestant communities also:
- Byzantine: January 28.
- Syriac: on the first weekend of Great Lent
- Assyrian: Friday of the 5th week post-Theophany.
- Latin: in 1920, Pope Benedict XV proclaimed Ephraim a “Doctor of the Universal Church” with a feast fixed on June 9 (when much of the Anglican Communion also honors him).
- Coptic: July 22
- Armenian: October 27 and December 22
Sun of the Syrians, Son of Israel
Ephraim’s feast forms a bridge between Syriac Christianity and other traditions. But perhaps even more important, and a point to underscore in every age—for anti-Semitism lives in every age—Ephraim is also a strong link to the Semitic roots of Christianity. He reminds us—as we can never fail to remind ourselves—that Jesus was and is a Jew, and his mother was and is Jewish, and all the apostles, too. As the late, great Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe once put it, Christians are “a people in the Jewish tradition.”
Ephraim wrote in Syriac, which is a dialect of Aramaic, Christ’s own tongue. Ephraim did so in pre-Hellenized Asiatic Christian culture relatively untouched by European philosophical forms. For those who struggle with the admixture of Greek metaphysics into Christianity, Ephraim offers a refreshingly different voice and method.
Diaconal and Poetical Charisms
Ephraim is unique for his capacity to live a particular charism without what one might call institutional supports or recognition. Thus most scholars do not regard him as having been officially a monk but he nonetheless lived a life of strict eremetical asceticism. Similarly, he wrote hymns and prayers and treatises but unlike his published contemporaries and theological equals, all of whom were bishops (e.g., St. Basil the Great, as well as Chrysostom, Nyssa, and Nazianzus, whom I wrote about briefly here), Ephraim seems to have been, at most, a deacon, probably ordained to that order by Basil. Unlike Basil especially, Ephraim is relatively indifferent to power-plays in the hugely important councils of the fourth century.
Ephraim was not confined to prose. His creative endowments from the Lord included the exceedingly rare gift of theological poetry. The scholar Robert Murray has said of him that he is “the greatest poet of the patristic age and, perhaps, the only theologian-poet to rank beside Dante.”
Ephraim resorts to poetry because of his realization that God cannot be described or contained by reason alone: the fluidity of poetry, with its pressures on boundaries and precise definitions, and its abundant use of metaphor, subtle doubling and parallelism, and paradox, is more amenable to the mind’s feeble attempts to describe and know God, the uncontainable one beyond all systems and logic chopping.
Themes and Genres
The poetry is a superb vehicle for conveying the sense of freshness to Ephraim’s vision and almost a proto-modern understanding of the role of the feminine, the centrality of the body (not least in the Incarnation), and a reverence for all creation—themes much in abundance during the last three papacies. The sheer materiality of love, expressed in creation, among creatures, and between Creator and creature, is well conveyed in Ephraim’s earthy writings.
An enormously prolific writer from whom we have many hundreds of compositions extant (with many more lost or still untranslated), he was translated into many languages, notably Armenian and Greek. Among his major works are:
- Homilies (Repentance, The Lord, The Sinful Woman)
- Commentaries on Scripture
- Hymns (Nisibene, On the Nativity, On Theophany, etc.)
One common theme in these writings, reflective of Ephraim’s strong asceticism, is the centrality of penthos, including the “tears of repentance” that many Desert Fathers and other spiritual writers call for:
Even though there is only one baptism for the whitening of stains, yet there are two eyes which, when filled with tears, provide a baptismal font for the limbs. For the Creator knew well beforehand that sins multiply in us at all times, and though there is only a single baptism, he fixed in the single body two fonts that give absolution (Hymns on the Ascetic Abraham).
Ephraim, as so many of the Desert Fathers did (cf. e.g. Evagrius on the logismoi), spares no-one, least of all himself, from his introspection and ruthless psycho-spiritual honesty. Which of us can avoid accusing ourselves at every line in this searing examination of conscience?
I am worthless, but think much of myself. I lie constantly but get angry with liars. I condemn those who fall, but myself fall constantly. I condemn slanderers and thieves, but am myself both a thief and a slanderer. I walk with bright countenance, although I am altogether impure. In churches and at banquets I always want to take the place of honor. I see hermits and act dignified; I see monks and I become pompous. I strive to appear pleasing to women, dignified to strangers, intelligent and reasonable to my neighbors, superior to intellectuals. I do not want to know those who are higher than I, and I scorn those who are lower. If I refrain from eating, I drown in pride and arrogance. If I am wakeful in prayer, I am vanquished by irritability and wrath. To all appearances I am wise in humility, but in my soul I am haughty. I seem not to be acquisitive, but in reality I suffer from a mania for possessions. I appear to have forsaken the world, but in fact I still think about worldly things all the time. Such is my life! With what vileness do I obstruct my own salvation!
Prayer of St. Ephraim the Syrian
Perhaps the best-known of all of Ephraim’s works is this prayer of his which Eastern Christians recite several times a day, especially during the Great Fast of Lent which will soon be upon us this year. It is a prayer all Christians can and should use, and every day, too:
O Lord and Master of my life,
Keep from me the spirit of sloth, despair, lust of power, and idle talk. (Prostration)
But bestow upon me, Thy servant,
the spirit of chastity, humility, patience, and love. (Prostration)
Yes, O Lord and King,
grant me the grace to perceive my own transgressions,
and not to judge my brother or sister,
for blessed art Thou unto ages of ages. Amen. (Prostration)
If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!