St. Ephraem ‘Faith Adoring the Mystery’ – Mary C. Sheridan

Posted by on Oct 24, 2012 in Articles, Library | Comments Off on St. Ephraem ‘Faith Adoring the Mystery’ – Mary C. Sheridan

It should be noted that Orthodox scholars and students will find this article to contain material that is well known and well researched by Orthodox authors, most notably Sebastian Brock. However, to scholars and students of the West, St. Ephraem is known by a few scholars such as Sidney Griffith and Kathleen McVey but for the most part is barely known if at all. Therefore, the purpose of this article is not to be an informative piece for the Orthodox. The purpose of this article is to shed some initial light on one of the writers in the very early Church for students/scholars of the West who have not been introduced to Eastern religious studies; hopefully, some glimpse into the wealth, beauty, and abundance of scholarship of but one of the writers in the very early centuries of Christianity will be the result of this article.

In the last several years there has been a renewed interest by Western scholars in the “recovery of Syriac Christianity.”[1] The Latin and Greek Fathers in the Western Church have been a “major field of patristic research” and have become a “long-plowed acreage.”[2] However, there is also a “large body of Christian literature in Syriac and Coptic” that throws “much light on the history, liturgy, and institutions of the early Church and, as yet, to a large extent [is] an unworked field”[3] for Western scholars. In fact when these early Christian texts are studied and considered, a “far richer picture emerges of how…[Christianity] developed: not only is the breadth of geographical scope striking, but…the sheer wealth of constancy as well as variation in Christian literature, practices, and spirituality” can be appreciated.[4] In addition the importance of Syriac texts underscores the fluidity of cultural boundaries in antiquity, and the profoundly interactive quality of the late antique world.”[5]

The importance of the work of the Syriac Fathers is threefold: First, Syriac is a dialect of Aramaic” and thus an idiom of the language spoken by Christ and all those “fishermen, peasants, and tax collectors”[6] who gathered to hear Christ speak. Thus Syriac Christianity “represents a continuous Christian tradition” of the “new faith of the Messiah” that was spread along the “great trade routes of the Roman Orient.”[7] One author goes so far as to say that the Syriac language was “adopted as the vehicle for the spread of Christianity in the East.”[8]Second, the work and writings of Ephraem[9] among several early Christian writers and Fathers “touch with currents of Christian and pre-Christian, Jewish” thinking that “extended back into the Palestine of the first century AD and before.”[10] Third, these studies and “currents” serve to “shed light from new angles on Christian origins, including the books of the New Testament…and…on the formation of classic Christian doctrine, spirituality, and liturgy.”[11]

Ephraem lived during the first eight decades of the 300s AD[12] “one of the most significant periods in the formulation of the classic statements of orthodox doctrine.”[13] (One author lists his years of life from 300 to 375, another from 306 to 373.[14] Scholars seem to agree on the exact date of Ephraem’s death as June 9, 373.) He was a deacon of Nisibis for the most part of his life. He spent the last 10 years of his life in Edessa where he was exiled when Nisibis was given to the Persians by the Romans in a peace treaty.[15] Having spent most of his life in Nisibis, it follows that his mentor–Jacob, Bishop of Nisibis–came from that town.[16] He served “under a series of remarkable bishops”–Jacob of Nisibis (one of the “Fathers” of the council of Nicea), Babu, Vologeses (who built a baptistery in 359-360 that still stands today where Ephraem must have himself had “witnessed its construction and worshipped in it”), and Abraham.[17]

He had a “reputation as a holy man, poet, and theologian of note [and] was widely proclaimed well beyond the borders of his native Syria and the territories where Syriac was spoken.” Ephraem was a “bishop’s man, a single person in God’s service, a minister in the local churches of Nisibis and Edessa…who was also one of the most insightful exegetes of the Bible in the fourth century.” Ephraem called the group within which he lived a ” ‘fold of herdsmen,’ ” individuals who worked with the “chief shepherd of the local Christians.” Yet he was not a member of a monastic group but lived as a single person in service most likely as a deacon to the ” ‘sons of the covenant.’ “[18]

A word about Monophysitism and Nestorianism and their “placement” in relation to Ephraem. The Monophysite position of their being only ” ‘one incarnate nature of God the Word’ ” was disavowed at the Fourth Council of Chalcedon of 451. The Nestorian position of declining to call Mary Mother of God maintained she was mother only of the human “side” of Christ. This teaching was rejected by the Council held at Ephesus in 431. Thus Ephraem (and even the Syriac Church and Fathers discussed above) preceded the definitive rejection of either/both of these theological positions.[19] Furthermore, Ephraem likely encountered intense theological debate on the many “controversies… raging at the time”[20] only after he was in Edessa. His work concentrated less on the intellectual issues of debate and more on the spiritual/mystical aspect of the Scriptures. Much of the work that is attributed to Ephraem that has a polemical character is attributed, at least by one writer, to his admirers who most likely established a “certain school tradition” where works were written by others in his style and attributed to him because of his popularity.[21]

Scholars consider that it is “felt to be impossible to account for Byzantine hymnology and monastic literature without recourse to Syrian Christian poetry and ascetic writings.” Ephraem, of all the “writers of the Syriac-speaking churches” is “immediately recognized…among those who treasure…the teachers of the east in the formative centuries of Christian thought.” Ephraem has a “lengthy bibliography of hymns, homilies, and biblical commentary” that speaks to his “pastoral work…whose discourse was Aramaic to the core.” His style was “deeply contemplative” with an “eye to the mystic symbol” and would be calledlectio divina in the West. [22]

A note of interest to today’s scholars–particularly women scholars: Ephraem “insisted women take their rightful place in the church’s choirs” and was referred to by Jacob of Serugh as a ” ‘second Moses for women.’ “[23] In another place Brock notes that Ephraem contributed much of value where the feminine in theology was neglected. Brock states that “Ephrem’s hymns were written specifically for women’s choirs.” He had an “interest in and a sensitivity for” women, and he used “extensive…feminine imagery in his poetry.” When so little was “heard about the role of women in liturgical worship in the early Church, Ephrem’s activities in writing hymns for them to sing became all the more remarkable.”[24] Brock notes that “Ephrem…wrote specifically for women” and translates these passages:

O daughters of the nations, approach and learn a new form of praise…/

through your sister Mary, [your voice] has been opened to give praise./…

to Him who, by being born, caused you to acquire freedom of speech.[25]

Ephraem’s “particular genius…flower[ed] in the poetic… ‘homilies’ and ‘hymns’ ” he wrote. These homilies and hymns were often recited “after scripture lessons in the divine liturgy,” “chanted to…the lyre,” and bear “a close formal resemblance to the…Hebrew Psalter.”[26] This paper will attempt to take an approach to the work of St. Ephraem described by Lossy: “The eastern tradition has never made a sharp distinction between mysticism and theology; between personal experience of the divine mysteries and the dogma affirmed by the Church…. Far from being mutually opposed, theology and mysticism support and complete each other.”[27] Thus this paper will approach Ephraem’s works only from such a standpoint.

Beggiani details in his book topics on which Ephraem wrote: the hiddenness of God, creation and sin, revelation, incarnation, redemption, divinization of the Holy Spirit, the Church, Mary, Baptism and Chrismation, the Eucharist, escatology, and faith. Brock himself has translated from the original Syriac Hymns on Paradise: St. Ephrem; in The Luminous Eye he gives a complete overview of Ephraem’s life, historical times, works, theological approach, and significance in present times. But this article will concentrate only on an attempt to introduce Ephraem’s works to Western Rite readers and not make any attempt at either an informational stance or an inspirational stance for Eastern Rite(s) readers.

Much of Ephraem’s writing had a “pastoral setting” with large quantities of his work being “produced as choral responses” to what were scriptural lessons in the liturgy.” His own work has a “Jewish connection.” Thus his work used the Hebrew works rather than the Septuagint and gives a “certain continuity of thought and imagination with the Jewish world” not found in commentaries one or more steps removed from the original Hebrew writings. His works have their roots in origins that may have been lost through the millennia. Griffith mentions three “ideas” Ephraem concentrated on in his contemplative works: 1) “Nature and Scripture bear witness to the Creator.” 2) The verses of scripture provide a “bridge to Paradise.” 3) “[B]eyond the written or proclaimed words of the Bible, the attentive mind gains access to the luminous heights, the summit of all blessings.”[28]

Nature and Scripture

The writings this paper is concerned about are Ephraem’s contemplative writings. His “poetry is profoundly theological in character,” expresses the “sacramental character of the created worlds,” and the “potential of everything in the created world to act as a witness and pointer to the creator.” His point of view is that of an “inherent link” between the “exterior physical” realm and the “interior spiritual” realm considering an inherent link between these two a point of view “very far removed” from many Christian writers who “tend to denigrate the value of the material world.” [29]

Brock notes that Ephraem chose poetry as his “vehicle” for expressing his experience rather than prose because poetry “is able to preserve a fluidity and dynamism” in contrast to prose which uses “definitions” and is “inherently static.” Ephraem’s works emphasize “imagery and symbolism” that have an “immediacy and freshness” today that not many other early writers have.[30]

Reading Genesis, Ephraem’s approach was that of a “sense of awe,” particularly in his Hymns on Paradise.” [31]

In his book Moses

described the creation of the natural world,

so that both Nature and Scripture

might bear witness to the Creator”…

These are the witnesses

which reach everywhere,…

The eye as it read

transported the mind;

in return the mind, too,

gave the eye rest

from its reading,

for when the book had been read

the eye had rest

but the mind was engaged…

I began to wander

amid things not described.

This is a luminous height,

clear, lofty and fair.

Ephraem considered both nature and Scripture the “twin sources of revelation.”

Once Nature and Scripture had cleaned the land

–they sowed in it new commandments

in the land of the heart, so that it might bear fruit,

praise for the Lord of Nature

glory for the Lord of Scripture.

He called Nature, the Old Testament, and the New Testament three lyres used in singing the Word of God. He says:

The Word of the Most High came down

and clothed himself in

a weak body with two hands.

He took up and balanced two lyres,

one in his right hand and one in his left.

A third he put in front of him,

to be a witness for the other two;

for it was the middle lyre corroborating

that their Lord was singing to their accompaniment.

Ephraem considers the Old Testament and the New Testament as “integral scriptures” with Christ as the focal point:

In the Torah Moses trod

the Way of the ‘mystic symbols’ before that People…

But our Lord in his testaments,

definitively established the path of Truth…

All the ‘mystic symbols’ thus traveled

on the Way which Moses trod

and were brought to fulfillment in the Way of the Son.

Let our mind then become

cleared land for that Way.

Ephraem, considering the verses of the Bible with the “types and images and their fulfillment in Christ” considers Christ as the “bridge and the gate to paradise.” Ephraem continues the imagery pointing out the prophets and the apostles are “milestones and inns…on the Way of Life,” all leading to Christ who then reveals the Father.

The Bridge Over the Chasm

Ephraem considers the “scriptures, and Christ himself,” as a bridge provided by God’s love over a chasm that “separates” God from his creatures by reason of the very nature of the difference between the being of God and the being of humans. He states:

Let us take the measure of our mind, and gauge our thinking…

as for our knowledge, let us know how small it is, and too contemptible to scrutinize the Knower of all.

And again:

As for “Deity,”

what man

can search it out?

There is a chasm between him

and the Creator…

there is love between it

and the creatures.

Ephraem is careful to specify that the chasm is one of knowledge, not love. He sees scripture as a bridge over the chasm between God and man. This bridge brings the human mind, “by way of the Incarnate Son to the Godhead itself:”

He clothed Himself in our language, so that He might

clothe us

in His mode of life.

Thus according to Ephraem the “incarnate Word of God is…himself the ultimate bridge to the Father.” Ephraem makes this point “clearly in a prayer” he addresses to Jesus. This prayer is a hymn/poem “which ends with the middle letter of the Syriac alphabet, yodh, [which is] the first letter of the name ‘Jesus’ (Yeshu).”

O Jesus, glorious name,

hidden bridge which carries one over

from death to life,

I have come to a stop with you;

I finish with your letter yodh.

The Mind Enters Within

According to Ephraem, when an individual reads the Scriptures the “mind enters within” and “wanders among indescribable” things. He states in one of the Hymns on Paradise:

Far more glorious than the body

is the soul,

and more glorious still than the soul

is the mind, (spirit)

but more hidden than the mind (spirit)

is the Godhead.

Ephraem says the Scriptures are akin to a “mirror which God has set up for the mind’s eye” where God can be seen:

The Scriptures are set up

like a mirror;…

depicted there

is the image of the Son,

and of the Holy Spirit.

Ephraem points out that “nature and the Scriptures” are the types and symbols in which God discloses Himself to the minds of people allowing these people to recognize the Word of God:

In every place, if you look his symbol is there.[33]

In another place Ephraem says:

Nature and the Scriptures

together carry

the symbols of his humanity

and of his divinity.

Ephraem points out that the Scriptures teach human beings what they can know of God:

The scriptures are the crucible…

Contemplate in his crucibles,

his names and his distinctions.

These symbols and names, for Ephraem, are the “very idiom of his own religious discourse,” and the “basic elements of the narratives of the prophets read through the lens of the Gospel and the person of the incarnate Word.” They, in turn, become the “paradigms for the Christian’s own understanding” of God and the world, the Incarnation, Christ, the sacraments, the Church, humanity, and the final destiny of man. Griffith points out, quoting Brock, that Ephraem’s approach thus cited is in “contrast” to “Greek or Latin modes of thought, not to mention modern systematic theology.”[34]

Ephraem’s use of “symbols, types, names, and titles in his thought” was meant to facilitate one’s understanding of the images and words, not the reality itself. Thus, “religious thought,” even “theology” consists of “contemplation” of the “mystic symbols” used by God to reveal Himself and the world to human beings. Ephraem goes beyond what one normally thinks of the sense in which the Old Testament foreshadows the New Testament. Ephraem includes in these “foreshadowings” nature, the teachings of the apostles, and the life of the Church, specifically, the sacraments. For Ephraem all these point to the Incarnate Word. Some point forward from nature and Scripture to Christ and to the Father; others point from the liturgy and the sacraments back to Christ, thus revealing to the person of faith the “ultimate fulfillment of all creation in the economy of salvation.”

Ephraem’s “favorite” figure of speech is that of Christ as painting a self-image. Speaking of the Jewish law, the Gospels, and nature, Ephraem says:

You have mixed them together as paints for

your portrait; you have looked at yourself,

and painted your own portrait.

Here is the painter, who in himself has painted

his Father’s portrait,

two portrayed, the one in the other…

you in your coming brought it to completion.


Ephraem himself did not follow a logical/intellectual approach to his biblical exegesis. Rather, using the “suggestive intricacy of his rich imagination, he insisted on “multiple possibilities” of every scriptural passage. He says that “every word of our Lord has its own image….Each person hears in accordance with his capacity, and it is interpreted in accordance with what has been given to him.”[35]

For Ephraem the Old Testament and the New Testament as an integral whole were the “constant measure of his thought.” He considers the scriptural/literal sense of the Old Testament/New Testament and particularly the spiritual sense, the “blessings” one might take and use in the “unfolding…[of the] history of salvation.”

Not only does Ephraem remember the types and symbols from the Old Testament but he finds their reference in the New Testament. For Ephraem the Old Testament is fully revealed in the New Testament and the life of the Church. But he does not stop with this concept. He sees nature and Scripture and the symbols incorporated in them as carrying the “human mind by way of faith into the very depths of the mystery that is the Incarnation.” So for Ephraem reading the Bible “carries the contemplative mind…to the brink of faith and prayer.”

Ephraem makes clear the role of faith in a mystical union with God:

Then, in this reality [of faith],

mankind can

bind himself

to the heavenly ones…

In faith,

love and wisdom,

he is united with

the Godhead

and is configured into its image.

One can conclude, then, that for Ephraem, when one reads the Bible, one does not engage in theology “in the Augustianian sense of fides quarens intellectum,” but in a theology of contemplation, “fides adorans mysterium.” The point of reading the Bible for Ephraem is to “induce silence in response to the awesome wonder.”

[1] Griffith, Sidney H. ‘Faith Adoring the Mystery’: Reading the Bible with St. Ephraem the Syrian. Marquette University Press, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 53201-1881, 1997, p. iv. It should be noted that Griffith’s work here quoted was one lecture in a series of Pere Marquette Lectures in Theology given under the “auspices of the Marquette University Department of Theology.” p. iii.

[2] Ibid.

[3] O’Leary, Rev. De Lacy. The Syriac Church and Fathers: A Brief Review of the Subject. Gorgias Press, 2002, p. v.

[4] Brock, Sebastian P. and Harvey, Susan Ashbrook. Holy Women of the Orient, Updated Edition. University of California Press, Berkeley, Paperback printing, 1998, pp.xiii-xiv.

[5] Brock, p. xiv.

[6] Griffith, pp. iv-v.

[7] Op. cit., p. v.

[8] Beggiani, Seely J. Early Syriac Theology with Special Reference to the Marionite Tradition. University Press of America, Lanham, Maryland, 1983, p. xi.

[9] Ephraem’s name is variously spelled, Ephraem or Ephrem, depending on the author quoted. Thus in this paper, since the bulk of the material in this article will concern Griffith’s work where he spells the name Ephraem, that spelling will be used unless quotations are from authors who use the spelling Ephrem.

[10] Griffith, p. v.

[11] Ibid.

[12] For the sake of consistency BC and AD will be used in this article rather than BCE and CE. Several books used in this paper were written before BCE and CE came into more recent use by scholars.

[13] Op. cit., p. 1.

[14] See Griffith, p. 7, Beggiani, p. 1, and Brock, Sebastian, The Luminous Eye: The Spiritual World Vision of Saint Ephrem. Revised edition. Cistercian Publications, Kalamazoo, Michigan, 1992, p. 16.

[15] Brock, The Luminous Eye, p. 16.

[16] O’Leary, p. 86.

[17] Hymns on Paradise: St. Ephrem. Introduction and Translation by Sebastian Brock. St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press. Crestwood, New York, 10707. 1998, pp. 9-10 and Brock, The Luminous Eye, p. 16.

[18] Quotations in this paragraph are from Griffith, pp. 1 and 3; the last two quotations are from p. 9.

[19] Ware, Timothy. The Orthodox Church, New Edition. Penguin Books, London, 1997, pp. 24-26 and p. 348.

[20] Brock, The Luminous Eye, p. 16.

[21] Griffith p. 14.

[22] Quotes from this paragraph are from Griffith pp. v, 1, and 8.

[23] Griffith., p. 12-13. Regarding Jacob of Serugh who lived in the 500s: Although he was a member of the “Monophysite body,” he [Jacob of Serugh] “does not appear to have been actively involved in the trouble of the times.” See O’Leary, pp. 113-114.

[24] Brock, The Luminous Eye, p. 168-169.

[25] Brock, Hymns on Paradise, pp. 23-24.

[26] The quotations in the first two sentences of this paragraph are from Brock,Hymns on Paradise, pp. 9-10.

[27] Lossy, Vladimir. The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church. St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, Crestwood, New York, 10707, 1998; p. 8.

[28] Quotations in this paragraph are from Griffith, pp. 13-19.

[29] These quotations are from Brock, Hymns on Paradise, p. 39.

[30] All quotes from Op. cit., p. 40.

[31] Quotes from this point on are from Griffith, pp. 17-35 unless otherwise indicated.

[32] The original Syriac word Ephraem used for mind/spirit is Tarita. Brock in Hymns on Paradise translates this word as “spirit,” Griffith translates it as “mind.” Griffith states he used the word “mind” “as more communicative of the meaning Ephraem intended to convey.” See Griffith, p. 54, footnote 89.

[33] This writer’s emphasis.

[34] Griffith, p. 29. See also Sebastian Brock, “The Poet as Theologian,”Sobornost 7 (1977), pp. 243-244 cited in footnote 98, Griffith, p. 54.

[35] Griffith, p. 32, quoting the English translation from Carmel McCarthy,Saint Ephrem’s Commentary, p. 139.


Beggiani, Msgr. Seely J. Early Syriac Theology: With Special Reference to the Marionite Tradition. Lanham, Maryland: University Press of America, 1983.

Brock, Sebastian P. and Harvey, Susan Ashbrook. Holy Women of the Syrian Orient. Updated Edition with a New Preface. Berkeley, California: University of California Press, First Paperback Printing 1998. (1987 by The Regents of the University of California)

Brock, Sebastian. Hymns on Paradise: St. Ephrem. Crestwood, New York 10707: St. Vladmir’s Seminary Press, 1998.

________. The Luminous Eye: The Spiritual World Vision of Saint Ephrem the Syrian. (Cistercian Studies Series, Number 124) Kalamazoo, Michigan: Cistercian Publications, 1985.

Griffith, Sidney H. ‘Faith Adoring the Mystery’: Reading the Bible with St. Ephraem the Syrian. Milwaukee, Wisconsin 53201: Marquette University Press, 1997.

Lossky, Vladimir. The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church. Crestwood, New York 10707: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1998.

O’Leary, The Rev. De Lacy. The Syriac Church and Fathers: A Brief Review of the Subject. Piscataway, New Jersey, 08854: Gorgias Press, 2002 (based on the 1909 edition.)

Ware, Timothy (Bishop Kallistos of Diokleia). The Orthodox Church. New York, New York 10014: Penguin Putnam, Inc., 1997.


Brock, Sebastian P. “The Holy Spirit as Feminine in Early Syriac Literature,” in J. Martin Soskice, Ed. After Eve: Women, Theology and the Christian Tradition. London, Collins, 1990: pp. 73-88.

McVey, Kathleen E. Ephrem the Syrian: Hymns. Mahway, New Jersey 07430: Paulist Press, 1989.

St. Ephraem ‘Faith Adoring the Mystery’