Malankara World

Church Fathers

St. Ephrem, Harp of the Holy Spirit

by George Aramath

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Part 4

As mentioned earlier, St. Ephrem is known as the Harp of the Holy Spirit, which is shown in the above icon by a dove shining light upon the blessed saint. The main difference between this Syrian icon and the earlier Byzantine icon is seen in their backgrounds. In this Syrian icon, one does not see imageries of seclusion, but a scene in the valley of civilization. The saint is shown as being a part of society, living within towns and villages, and not outside them.

In looking at the works of St. Ephrem, one can categorize them into four areas. (8) First, a few of his writings are in straight prose. This includes his polemical works and prose commentaries on biblical books such as Genesis. The second category includes his artistic or rhythmic prose. This would include, for instance, his letter to Publius focusing on the Last Judgment. The third category would fall into verse homilies such as those on Faith, which were written in 358 A.D. The last, but not certainly the least, would be his many hymns. These hymns use over fifty different syllabic patterns, meant to be sung. It is upon these hymns, which include over four hundred, that St. Ephrem acquired his reputation as a great poet.

St. Ephrem's writings and popularity only spread much later due to two main reasons. During his lifetime, he was not held in the same regards as St. Athansius or the Cappadocian Fathers. First of all, St. Ephrem wrote in Syriac, not Greek or Latin, which were the two common language of that period. This made his writings less assessable for others. Besides writing in Syriac, his texts are in verse or poetic form, not prose. Many people during his time did not see value in learning theology through poetry. But it is these two factors that have placed greater interest on St. Ephrem today. (9) His neglected writings are being translated, making it accessible, and many find spiritual insight by reading his poetry.

St. Ephrem writes about why he prefers poetry form. One can see how western education system tends to, at times, think of theology as dogmatic definitions. They seek to find understanding in theology. For St. Ephrem, he avoids and abhors definition. They are boundaries that set limits in contrast to his poetries, which uses the method of paradoxes and symbols. "For by trying to 'define' God one is in effect attempting to contain the Uncontainable, to limit the Limitless" (10). On the other hand, one should not, by these words, assume that St. Ephrem is an anti-intellectual. For him, God can be studied and evaluated in as much as He has revealed Himself to us. This idea is referred to as the hidden and revealed. God is hidden in so far as He allows Himself to be revealed, mainly through His incarnation. But this revelation is only partial. St. Ephrem speaks of this concept elegantly,

Look, Lord my lap is now filled with the crumbs from your table, there is no room in the folds of my garment, so hold back your gift as I worship before you; keep it in Your treasure house in readiness to give it to us on another occasion. (11)

All St. Ephrem desires is the small crumbs from God's table, for this is all the knowledge and revelation that he can take. These words show the awesome majesty of God's limitless knowledge that humans can only partially comprehend.

From these words, one appreciates the splendid power of words in poetry. St. Ephrem says, "It is not at the clothing of the words that one should gaze, but at the power hidden in the words" (12). His writings are becoming popular today because of the beautiful choice of his words. Even though it was written several centuries ago, it still retains freshness for the modern reader because he draws images from the Bible and human experiences. For instance, the above text that speaks of crumbs in the table depicts the human experience of hunger and clothing. This method of writing provides a timeless character.

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