Malankara World

Church Fathers

St. Ephrem, Harp of the Holy Spirit

by George Aramath

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Part 5

In examining St. Ephrem's poetries and hymns, these writing can further be split into these major topics: (13)
 

Against Heretics 56 hymns
Virginity 52
The Church 52
The Nativity 28
Unleavened Bread 21
Crucifixion 5
Resurrection 9
Paradise 15
Fast 10

These hymns include over three million lines. Through these hymns, one learns of the theological teachings of the saint. For instance, a common theme is virginity. One of the main questions of the day dealt with the mystery of God becoming human. How can the Ruler of the universe, whom the entire created order is unable to contain, have been contained in a single, small human womb? St. Ephrem writes,

The power that governs all dwelt in a small womb. While dwelling there, He was holding the reins of the universe. His Parent was ready for His will to be fulfilled. The heavens and all the creation were filled by Him. The Sun entered the womb, and in the height and dept His rays were dwelling. He dwelt in the vast wombs of all creation. They were too small to contain the greatness of the Firstborn. How indeed did the small womb of Mary suffice for Him? It is a wonder if anything sufficed for Him.

Of all the wombs that contained Him, one womb sufficed; the womb of the Great One Who begot Him. The womb that contained Him, if it contained all of Him, is equal to the wonderful womb that is greater than the womb of His birth. But who will dare to say that a small womb, weak and despised, is equal to the womb of the Great Being.

He dwelt there because of His compassion, and since His nature is great,
He was not limited in anything. (14)

This choice of words, through a wonderful use of imagery, partially explains the virginity of the blessed St. Mary. St. Ephrem's play of words is exceptional. For instance, he speaks of the "Sun entering the womb", but the reference to the "Son" also comes to mind. Contrasting words include small vs. greatness and equal vs. greater. The beauty of St. Ephrem's writings is not merely in his impressive use of words, but more importantly, how these words convey theological teachings. For instance, besides explaining the teachings of the incarnation, the above passage also delves into his views of St. Mary, the divinity of Christ, and Christ's nature. The combination of including complex theological teaching within poetic writings shows the immense value of St. Ephrem's works.

In this example and many others, one also gets an indication of how St. Ephrem views theology as an experience instead of viewing it as an understanding. The beauty of this experience is not just in reading, but one is continually rewarded each time it is reread. The above text only shows a glimpse of this if it is reread once again. The Syriac Orthodox Church understood the value of this truth by including the hymns of St. Ephrem in their evening prayer. The Common Prayers of the church use one of his hymns before bedtime. This hymn includes twenty stanzas. The first two are included below:

Lord have mercy upon us
Kindly accept our prayers
Grant us mercy, redemption
From Thy treasury above

Let me Lord, before Thee stand,
Wakeful my watch I'd keep,
Should I fall to slumber's hand,
Guard me from my sinful sleep (15)

Each time one sings this hymn and concentrates on the words, the insights they receive are many. As it is sung every evening, the person can be enlightened to many theological teaching of the church, but more importantly, they can experience theology through St. Ephrem's compelling use of words in poetry.

In comparing the works of St. Ephrem to other writers, Dr. Murray writes that he is "the greatest poet of the patristic age and perhaps the only theologian-poet to rank beside Dante." (16) Dante, an Italian poet, is considered by many to be one of the greatest writers of literary classics. Though Dante's writings do not hold the same authority in Christology when compared to St. Ephrem, some have claimed that his writings on the last judgment were influenced by the poetry of St. Ephrem. In looking into this claim, one discovers similarities in their general themes. As a small example, one can see how Dante, in describing Paradise, uses St. Ephrem's imagery of the "fountain of sweetness" (17) to describe the "fountain of all truths" (18). Another broader example deals with the theme of human free will, which plays an important role in St. Ephrem's thinking. He writes that free will is necessary to accept the gifts of God. He says, "Our own free will is the key to your treasury" (19). St. Ephrem then goes on to say that it is by this free will that one can enslave themselves to sin. He uses a medical analogy:

If a sick person should say to you that the taste of sweetness is bitter, observe how strong his sickness has grown, so that he has abused the sweetness, the source of delights.

If again some impure person should say to you that the power of free will is feeble, observe how he has cut off his hope by impoverishing free will, the treasure that humanity possesses. (20)

Dante's most famous work, Divine Comedy, presents the idea of judgment being a choice of the individual soul. God sends no one to Hell. Hell is what each person chooses. They essentially blind themselves to the nature of their choices. They desire it though they do not know the full nature of the choice that they make. Dante writes in Canto III of Inferno: "...and they are eager to cross the stream, for Divine Justice so spurs them that their fear is changed to desire" (21). The character of Minos clearly shows how this works. The souls of the dead approach Minos and announce their sins to him, and Minos assigns them to the proper circle by winding his tail around himself the appropriate number of times. Damnation or salvation is what each soul chooses, out of free will, and God only confirms this choice. One sees here how Dante takes St. Ephrem's thoughts on human free will a step further in his depiction of the Last Judgment. Like St. Ephrem, Dante uses various symbolisms in poetry to express and explain complicated themes of humanity in such a way that the reader can relate to it and understanding it.

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