Ephrem the Syrian
The most recent Commonweal features an article by Professor Joseph Amar about the fate of Syrian Christians in the current violence in that country. In a short space, Amar discusses the political situation of contemporary Syria and the relationship between the Syriac churches and the West. Amar also gives a brief introduction to St. Ephrem the Syrian, who is arguably the greatest Syriac poet and theologian and one of the greatest of all Christian poets and theologians. (Only Gregory of Nazianzus and Dante can claim to be as important as theologians and poets.)
I was introduced to Ephrem and to the Syriac language in graduate school, and so I thought I might offer a few things for those intrigued enough by Amar’s article to learn more about this vital Christian tradition.
First, here is a brief video of Professor Sebastian Brock, the foremost authority on Syriac literature in the English-speaking world. Here Prof. Brock discusses some aspects of Syriac theology and spends some time talking about Ephrem and St Isaac the Syrian.
Second, I hope that Verdicts readers will want to pick up a volume that Prof. Brock translated, St. Ephrem the Syrian, Hymns on Paradise. This volume is part of St. Vladimir Seminary Press’s Popular Patristics series, which is edited by the very talented Prof. Fr. John Behr, himself an Orthodox priest and expert on second-century Christianity, especially Irenaeus of Lyon. These volumes are pocket-sized and relatively inexpensive, and they somehow thread the needle between being resources for scholars and laypeople alike. Each volume is, in its own way, a spiritual treasure.
That is certainly the case for Hymns on Paradise. The volume contains fifteen hymn-homilies that Ephrem gave on Genesis 2-3. In these hymns, Ephrem links creation to judgment, the old covenant to the new, and Adam to Christ. As Prof. Brock notes (and this is a point Prof. Amar made in his article), “because Ephrem’s theology is not tied to a particular cultural or philosophical background, but rather operates by means of imagery and symbolism which are basic to all human experience … his theological vision, as expressed in his hymns, has a freshness and immediacy today that few other theological works from the early Christian period can hope to achieve” (p. 40). Brock’s introduction to the volume offers an excellent introduction to Ephrem’s theology, his verse, and his context.
Let me offer just a taste of one of Ephrem’s homilies. (This is the second stanza of the first homily in the volume.)
I took my stand halfway
between awe and love;
a yearning for Paradise
invited me to explore it,
but awe at its majesty
restrained me from my search.
With wisdom, however,
I reconciled the two;
I revere what lay hidden
and meditated on what was revealed.
The aim of my search was to gain profit,
the aim of my silence was to find succor. (p. 78)
The space between awe and love is the space that all Christian theology should inhabit. Ephrem’s theology has much to teach contemporary Christians about how they can respond to the invitation that comes from yearning for Paradise. Thanks to this volume, we can learn from Ephrem’s meditations, profit from his search, and find succor, not in his silence, but in his words.