Mike Aquilina

Ephrem, Symbolist

Friday June 09th 2006, 5:24 am

Today’s the feast of St. Ephrem of Syria, Father and Doctor of the Church — and perhaps the poet laureate of the patristic era.

Ephraem was instructed in the Christian mysteries by St. James, the famous Bishop of Nisibis, and was baptized in young adulthood. Ephrem took an active role in the local church, and was at some point ordained a deacon. The bishop relied on Ephrem to renew the moral life of the city, especially during the sieges of 338, 346, and 350. One of his biographers tells us how Ephrem’s prayer caused a cloud of flies and mosquitoes to settle upon the vast Persian army of Sapor II, driving the men away. But it was only a temporary relief. And when the Roman Empire, finally, did lose its Eastern provinces, Persia subjected the Church of Nisibis to cruel persecution. The Christians left en masse, settling eventually at Edessa. There Ephrem spent his remaining ten years as a hermit. Even the exile had a happy ending, however. Thanks to the great exodus from Nisibis, Edessa became a great Christian intellectual center for centuries afterward.

Ephrem wrote voluminous commentaries on the Bible. He also wrote reams of verse on biblical themes. Some scholars divide individual Fathers’ biblical interpretation up into one of two camps: the literal or the allegorical. But Ephrem is not so easily categorized. He was a master of both types of exegesis. In his poems he pursued allegory. In his prose, he presented history. His hymns have remained popular in the Eastern churches for well over a millennium, in their original Syriac and in Greek translation. Here’s one that made it into modern hymnals in English.

Many of Ephrem’s works are on the Web. At Christian Classics Ethereal Library you’ll find various and sundry from the Edinburgh edition of the Fathers. The Tertullian Project offers still other works in translation. And you might also enjoy some more recent postings — one with the enticing title “The Cave of Treasures,” and another that’s slightly more intimidating: “The Hymns on Fasting.” (You go that way, and I’ll go this way.)

Meditating on the the wonder of the incarnation, on the feast of the Nativity, Ephrem wrote of Jesus:

He is the Breast of Life and the Breath of Life. . . .
When He sucked the breast of Mary,
He was suckling all with His life.
While He was lying on His Mother’s bosom,
in His bosom were all creatures lying

You’ll find his poems in accessible modern translations here and here. Sebastian Brock has written a profound study of the Sweet Singer of Nisibis, The Luminous Eye: The Spiritual World Vision of Saint Ephrem.