Songs and Prayers Like Incense: The Hymns of Ephrem the Syrian : J. Barrington Bates

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Songs and Prayers Like Incense: The Hymns of Ephrem the Syrian


At the beginning of this century,Roman Catholic scholar CharlesHerbermannsuggested,witha degreeofhauteur,that Literary Taste is noteverywhereand all timesthesame…. In literaturewe admiremostthe of and qualities luciditys,sobriety, varied action. Orientals,on the other hand, never weary of endless repetitionof the same thoughtin slightlyalteredform; theydelightin prettyverbal niceties,in the manifoldplay of rhythmand accent,rhymeand assonance,and acrostic.1

That Ephrem, the fourth-centurytheologian, serves as an appropriatefocusfortheologicaldiscourseat thebeginningofthe twenty-fircsetnturyindicatesa shiftfromthesentimentexpressed

byHerbermann.Ephrem’srelevancecannotbe attributedmerely

to changes in “literary taste,” his inclusion in the Episcopal Church’s LesserFeastsand Fastscalendar,or the use of one of his

hymns(443) inTheHymnal1982. PerhapstheSyriacscholar SebastianBrocksaiditbest:”Ephremprovidesa refreshingcoun- terbalance to an excessively cerebral tradition of conducting


1CharleGs.HerbermanTnh,eCatholic AnInternatiWonoarloknthe Encyclopedia:

ConstituDtiocnt,riDnies,ciplianed,HistoorfythCeathoClihcur(cNhewYork1,909)5,00. 2SebastiaPn.BrockT,heLuminous The WorlVdisionSaint


Eye: Spiritual

of Ephrem

and 2000v,olL.XIXN.o. [AnglicaEnpiscoHpiasltory, 2]

©2000thHeistoricalofthe ChurAchll. reserved. by Society Episcopal rights


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theologicalendeavor by enteringdirectlyintothe mysteryof God.

Ephrem’shymnsprovidejustsuchanentry- andonethatmay seem surprisinglyagreeable to modern feministsyetremains

We knowfewfactsabout Ephrem,save thathe died inJune of

373 inEdessa. Froma rareautobiographicalremarkinhishymns,

modern Westernscholars conclude thatboth his parents were

Christian.3The however,are few.One historian “All specifics, says,

of these materials are veryunreliable…. They contradicteach otherand are fulloflegendarymatter.”4Ephrem,accordingto

competingSyriansources,wasthesonofa pagan priest.He was instructedbyJames(orJacob),bishopatNisibis,whowasknown

as the Moses of Mesopotamia. Ephrem seems to have accompa- niedJacobtotheCouncilofNiceain325..

Commemorated variouslyon 28 January (in the East), on 9 June as a doctor of the church (Roman Catholic),5 and on 10

June (Episcopal Church,U.S.A.), Ephremis held in highesteem by the various branches of the church. In the Church of

England’s newlypublishedcalendar,Ephremreceivesthestatus ofa “commemoration,”on 9June;althoughthelowestrankof any observance in thiscalendar, it is the firsttime he has been included in an Englishcalendar.6

Legends concerningEphrem abound, proclaimingat least his esteemand regardamonglaterhagiographers.On a certainocca-

sion, says one, Ephrem “cursed fromthe citywalls the Persian


the The the TwelvPeoemsSaint , trans. Ephrem Syrian, Harpof Spirit: of Ephrem

SebastiaBnrock(London, 7. 4 1975),

PhilipSchafefd,.,A ReligioEunscyclopoerdDiactionoarfByiblicaHl,istoricanald,

Practical York,
5 Theolo(gNyew 1888),

F.L. Crosse,d.,


theChristCiahnurch 463.In OxfoDrdictionoafry (London1,958),

theRomanCatholCichurch, wasfirsctommemoraotned 1. This Ephrem February

was to 18 hewasdeclareadDoctoorftheChurch Bene- changedJune (when byFbpe

dictXVin andtothecurrendtatein1969 Paul

1920) (under VI).

Ephrem, of Prayer

forinstanicsenotcommemorianttehde1662BookCommon orits

ancestonrso,rinThAelternaSteirvveiBcoeok1980F.or inclusiionthenewcal- Ephrem’s

endarse,eTheChristYiaenarC:alendar, andCollec(Ltosndon1,997)2,8. Lectionary,

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hosts,whereupon a cloud of fliesand mosquitoes settledon the armyofSapor II and compelledittowithdraw.”7One historian describeshisoutwardappearance as thatof”a potter’svessel”8-

thoughtheprecisemeaningofthisintriguingepithetis unclear. ThroughhiswritingE,phremdemonstrateshistripleheritage:

as heirofan ancientMesopotamiantradition,toJudaism,and to theGreekworld.Bywayofexample,in hisproseworks,Ephrem oftenmakesuse ofa formalizedebatebetweentwo a

participants, device thattracesback to Sumerianliteraturein ancientMesopota-

mia.9 Ephrem, of course, inherited the Hebrew Bible; he also employeda numberofthemesindicativeoftheoral traditionof Judaism,suchas thecreativetensionbetweenGod’s graceand righ-

teousacts.AlthoughEphremprobablydid notread Greekhimself, various Greek Christianworkswere available to him in Syriac. SebastianBrocknotesespeciallyEusebius’sworks,suchas theEccle- siastical and latter

History Theophani(athe preservedcompletelyonly

in and TitusofBostra’sTreatise theMan- Syriactranslation), against

icheaeanass documentedexamplesofthisresource.10 Ephremthusservesas a meetingpointofancientculturesas his writingsdo inthisarticle,wherethehymnsoftheancientEast

receivethescholarlyinspectionofthemodernWest.Whatappear as

eccentricitieosf – in his
Ephrem particular, quirkypersonalityp,ara-

digmatic service as a deacon, and remarkable theology- can heighteninterestnotonlyin hisworksbutalso in theman himself. The sectionstofollowwilldiscussthesethreefacetsofhispersonality.

According to legend, as a boy, Ephrem stood accused of a crime he did not commit. Having once terrorized and tor-

mented a poor man’s cow to the point of death, he was later accused ofconspiracywithcertainsheep marauders.Aftereighty

days’ imprisonment,Ephrem stood naked and tremblingbeside

7HerbermanCnat,holic , 498. 8 Encyclopedia

ArthuVrööbus, CriticaanldHistoriSctauldiiens the holm1,958)1,12. Literary, EphremSyria(nStock-

9BrockL,uminous 19. 10Ibid,19-21. Eye,

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therack.That theprevioustwoaccused perpetratorswerefound guilty- confessingonlyafterfirsthavingbeen tortured- and thatboth were sentenced to lose theirrighthand mightwell have added to Ephrem’s anxiety.Fortunately,a servantinter- vened to announce thatthe magistrate’ssupper was ready.The

magistrate,a man of clear priorities,dismissed Ephrem so he could attend to his meal, and Ephrem ran offinstantly- to

become a hermitremarkableforhissevereasceticism.

Ephrem was baptized at the age of eighteen, and this may indicate a deviation fromthe modern norm. (Scholars suggest

thatthe practiceofinfantbaptismdeveloped later.)The riteof Hippolytus(C.170-C.236C.E.) presupposed thatmostofthecan- didates would be mature persons, a situation that remained normativein Ephrem’s time.11As his was not an infantbaptism

with sponsors answering by way of proxy, one can assume Ephrem’smatureprofessionoffaithatthetimeofhisbaptism.

Ephremreceivedthetitle”Peaceable Man ofGod” due tohis

“conspicuousvirtueofmeekness.”12Althoughhe receivedno for-

mal education, Ephrem became expert in the most “abstruse

problemsofphilosophy.His styleofwritingwas so fullofglowing

oratoryand sublimityofthoughthathe supersededall thewriters of Greece.”13Yet he chose to communicatenot primarilythrough

argumentor didacticprose- butthroughtheuse ofimagerym, et- aphor,and symbol.

A contemporaryof Basil and GregoryNyssen,Ephrem most probablydied a deacon. Once, when reportedlyelected bishop,

Ephrem “comported himselfso strangelythat the people and clergy,supposinghimtohavelosthismind,choseanotherinhis

place.”14 Ephrem, it seems, preferredto remain in the order to

11CharlePs.PricaendLouisWeil, 107. 12 LiturfgoyrLivin(gSanFrancisc1o9,79),

BrockI,ntroductiion, onParadister,ansS.ebastiaBnrock



18BrockI,ntroductioin, transK.athleeEn. EphremH,ymns, McVey(New

York1,989) HermiaSsozomenusE’csclesiastical A the quoting History:Historoyf

ChurcinhNineBooks 10.



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whichhe feltcalled, the diaconate. He also maintaineda celibate

life, fromthelove of In ofnumerous “exempt vain-glory.”15 spite

temptations,Ephrem,accordingto Sozomenus, “refrainedfrom

lookingupon woman.”16One mightimaginethatEphrembore resentmentto thiscalling,given the somewhatunusual method

withwhichhe discerneda calltothemonastic – butthis

is notthecase. lifestyle to apparently Although “naturally prone pas-

sion,” Ephrem, legend says, “never exhibited angry feelings towards any one from his embracing of a monastic life.”17

Instead, he remained devoted to the celibatelifeand to the dea- con’s responsibilityto Christianservice.

Duringa famineinEdessa,Ephremquithissolitarycell,how- ever, creating what may well have been the firstChristian homelessshelterT.endingallwhosufferedfromtheeffectosfthe famine,Ephrem set up 300 beds in the public galleries forthis purpose. The historianofearlymonasticismPalladius (c. 365- 425 C.E.) tells us in his Lausiac Historythat Ephrem chided the rich, saying “Why do you not have pityon the people who are perishing,instead of lettingyour wealth rot forthe condemna- tionofyourownsouls?”18Further,PalladiussaysEphrem”spent everydayinconstantattendanceon [thehungry],seeingtotheir everyneed withgreatcaring,makinguse ofthe means available to him.This he did withthe ofthosewhomhe had askedtoassist.”19 joyfully, help

“On thecessationofthescarcityh,ereturnedtohiscell;and

afterthe lapse of a fewdays expired.”20Thus Ephrem missed

as a – inserviceofthefaith- categorization martyr i.e.,dying by

lessthana week.Nevertheless,hisworkmodelsthevaluesmod- 15HermiaSsozomenuEsc,clesiastical tranasn,on. 134.

History, PalladiuTs,heLausiac transR.oberTt.

(London1,846), Meye(rWestminsMtear,yland,

16Ibid,133-34. 17Ibid,134.

History, 19BrockIn,troductionn, Paradis1e4,.

1965)1,17. 20Ibid,12.


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ern Christianshold up as paradigmaticof the diaconate: serving all people, particularly the poor, the weak, the sick, and the lonely, studying holy Scripture, and making Christ and his redemptiveloveknownbywordand example.21

Ephrem expressed his theologyprimarilythroughthe vehi- cle of poetry.In this,he expanded theological definitionsand boundaries. To Ephrem, theological definitionswere not only

potentiallydangerous, but theycould even be blasphemous. To delimit or define God would be to contain that which was not

containable, to limitthatwhichhad no limits,to describe that whichcould notbe fullyknown.

Sebastian Brock puts a question in Ephrem’s mouth, and, while this is undoubtedly a cultural projection of the West, it

helps us to comprehend somethingof the implicitunderstand- ing of the East:

Ifdefinitionsoffaithappear toconfinewithinboundariesthe

boundless God, how then should the theologian tryto pro-

ceed? The search fortheologicaldefinitionsa, heritagefrom Greek philosophy,is of course by no means the only way of

conductingtheologicalenquiry.Ephrenťs radicallydifferent approach is by way of paradox and symbolism,and for this purpose poetryprovesa farmoresuitablevehiclethanprose,

seeing that poetryis much bettercapable of sustainingthe essential dynamismand fluiditythat is characteristicof this

sortofapproach to theology.22

This is not to say thatEphrem was an extremistin his time,in any way heretical,or soughtto change the common understand- ing of the divine. Ephrem was, firstand foremost,an orthodox

theologian.He tookforgrantedthatGod’s name was FatherS,on, and Holy Spirit, even as he sought to provide rich and colorful


21FromtheOrdinatiofna York1,977)5,43.

22BrockL,uminous24. Eye,

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inTheBook Common
Deacon, [1979(]New

of Prayer



ForthefirstpersonoftheTrinityf,orinstance,Ephrempro- vided the followingalternativenamings: Eternal One, Creator, Good One, Just One – saying “he is also named and called ‘father.”E’phremwrote:

The scripturesare thecrucible; whydoes thefoolgainsayit?

Contemplatein hiscrucibles, hisnamesand distinctions.

For he has names,

perfectand exact, he also has names

metaphoricaland transient. Have a care forhis names

perfectand holy, forifyou deny one

theywillall flyaway.23

Thus,thecreatorGod whoisthefirstpersonoftheTrinityisboth

“Father”andthe”GoodOne”- andbothare names. meaningful

The theologyEphremespoused was thatofthe”eternalnow.”

Hisconceptofsacredtime- asdistinguishedfromordinary,or linear,time- allowedhimtopursueparadox,tension,andjuxta- position withoutconceding to a contradiction.The individual

could merge into the collective,an example into the concept it represents,and our timeinto all time.This fluidityof thought

allowed Ephrem to pursue metaphoricalallusionsforGod, who wastohim- andatsomeverybasiclevel- unknowable,inde-

scribable, and undefinable. Ephrem was comfortable, for instance,withthecontradictorystatementthat”our Lord has brother-s andyethehasnone,forheistheOnly-begotten.”24

Ephremqu,oted Sidney Griffith,AdoringMysteRreya:ding

in H. Faith the thBeible

witSht. the 28. 24EphraemSyria(Mnilwauk1ee9,97),

onFait,hNo.82,inBrockT,welPvoeem3s2. EphremH,ymns ,

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Ephrem was, however,aware ofone clear distinction:that between the Creator and his creation. He speaks of this as a “chasm,”acrosswhich”whatismade cannotreachitsMaker.”25 Through thisunderstanding,Ephrem is able to maintaina basic assumptionabout thenatureofbeing: thattheintellectthathas

knowledge of somethingmustbe greaterthan the object of its

knowledge.26Whileonemightquibblewiththis- allowingfor partialknowledgeofGod,forinstance- onecannothelpbutsee

in it an adherence to conventionalwisdom and understanding. Ephrem,thereforew,asnoheretic.

Challenging heretics was, in fact,one of Ephrem’s notable occupations. Some ten hereticalsectswere activein Edessa, and

Ephrem contendedvigorouslywithall ofthem.A significantseg- ment of his opus, including many of his hymns, fall into the categoryof refutationsof heresies. “How much Marcion lied I willshow,forhe speaksnotfromthetruefoundation,”Ephrem said in a Gospel commentary.27Another hymncontained the refrain,”Blessed is He Who blottedhim out and has afflictedall thesonsoferror!”28Heretics,toEphrem,includedboththeolo-

gians and politicians,and he contended as vigorouslywiththe

EmperorJulianas withiconoclastictheologies.29
Thus, Ephremheldtoa fundamentalassumptionoforthodox faithH.edidnotseektocreateanewbelief heheldto

systemr;ather, eternaltruths.Only afteraccountingforthisessence offaithdid

Ephremconsiderexploringpoeticalimagesand metaphors.While hisworkmayhelpexpand theWesternimageand understandingof God, itin no waydeviatedfromtheeternalcatholictruthsheld by thechurch.




Ephrem,Expositoifon Gospel, George Egan(Louvain1,968),

An the trans. A. 1.

EphremH,ymangsainJstulian, EphremH,ymns,

No.2,in 234.

E.g.H,ymangsainJstulianEphremH,ymns, Hymangsainst

Heresies availabilne
(notcurrently Englisthranslation).

in andthemortehan50

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The Syriantraditionupheld theimportanceofa theological and liturgicalsynthesi-s as a glimpseoftheinvisibleachieved

throughthevisible- includingtextand tune,wordand action,

contentand “The natureofthe signification. precise

‘mystery(‘a favoriteword of Ephrem’s) of the Incarnationwas totallybeyond

the probingsof man, and could onlybe approached by means of

the of and- most – language metaphor, important

in thecontext ofprayerand wonder.”30In otherwords,totheSyrian,humans

could nottrulyknowGod, butonlycatcha glimpseofGod’s glory.

Accordingto WolfhartPannenberg,ifthe divine realitycan-

notbe then”itcan be of in an experienced directly, spoken only

indirectmanner,viz.,byspeakingabout whateverworldlybeing itisthroughwhichtherealityofGod manifestsitself.”3T1hiswas

Ephrem’sperspective,that”everythingisofsignificanceand has the potentialofbeing a pointerto Christ:all thatis required is theeyeoffaithtosee thesehiddenlinks.”32

These invisibletetherswereparticularlyevidentinthehymns on the nativityby Ephrem, possiblybecause the Incarnation is the place where the divine and the human meet and even coex- ist. Ephrem claimed that “the Deity imprinted Itself on humanity,so thathumanitymightalso be cutintotheseal ofthe

Deity.”33The nativityhymnsalso focusedon Mary,themotherof God, and in thisone can recognize a prototypeof later catholic

piety: “In the sphere of religion we can dimly recognize the germ of our own religious practices,not merelyin the liturgy,

thepenitentialpsalm,theantiphon,theprecentor,theincense, and therest,butinthematerdoloros.a”34

30SebastiaPn.Brock”,ThePoetas Sobornosnto.4 244. 31 Theologian,” 7, (1977):

Wolfhart and inBasic in Vol- Pannenbe”rAgn,alogyDoxology,” QuestionTsheology,

umIe,trans. H. Kehm 212. 32 George (Philadelph1i9a7,0),

Brock”,Poeats 245.


Ephremqu,otedby McVey EphremH,ymns

KathleeEn. inherintroducttion (MahwahN,ewJerse1y9,89)3,1.


MusiAc:ncieantdO.riental vol. ed. Wellesz
naroyf Musk, I, Egon (London1,9572),54.

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Ephrem insistedon multiplepossibilitiesofinterpretationfor


of In one he said, scripture. commentary,

Iftherewere[only]one meaningforthewords[ofScripture], the firstinterpreterwould find it, and all other listeners would have neither the toil of seeking nor the pleasure of finding.But everyword of our Lord has its own image, and each image has manymembers,and each memberpossesses its own species and form.Each person hears in accordance withhiscapacity,and itisinterpretedinaccordancewithwhat has been givento him.35

Thus, a multivalent characterof Ephrememphasized symbolic scrip-

ture,inspecifica,nd theologyingeneral- preferringtoembracea

of ratherthan multiplicity appropriatetheologicailmages, resorting

to one correct or definitive
any explanation single interpretation.

In the southeastern portion of modern Turkey lies the city once knownas Edessa and nowknownas Urfa.Itislessthantwo hundred milesinland fromancientAntioch(now called Antakya) andunderfiftymilesfromthecurrentSyrianfrontierT.hesite ofNisibis- thetownwhereEphremwasborn,nowalsowithin Turkish borders- is approximately another hundred miles inland, to the east of Edessa.36

In Edessa as in his nativeNisibis,Ephrem lived not onlywith

Christiansbut among Arameans,Arabs,Greeks,Jews,Parthians, Romans,and Iranians.37Babyloniangods,Hellenisticand Roman deities,and Arab cultsall existed Gnosticand Man-

icheanformsof substantial at Christianiteynjoyed followings Edessa,

as well.AlthoughConstantinosreign(306-337 C.E.)broughtrelative peace, Ephrem and his fellowNisibianscame under Persiansiege

Ephremqu,oted AdoringMystery,

36 Geographical

eds. 11ff. (London1,958),

37KathleeEn. (NewYork1,989)5,.

inGriffiFtahit,h the 32.



mannA,tlaosfthe ChristWianorld, F.HedlunadndH.A. transa,nd Early May Rowley,

in the trans. McVeyIn,troductionE,phrem SyrianH,ymns, McVey

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severaltimes,includingthecaptureofNisibisin 363, an eventthat caused Ephremtorelocatetoa cavenearEdessa.38

In Ephrem’s time,a lifeof austere simplicitywas held in high

regardamongSyrianChristians.Those livingsucha lifewereno

mere monastics, but true hermits living a life of severe self-

denial. “In thefourthcentury,thelifeoftheanchoritehad been

thenormfora longtimeforthosewhowishedtopursuea rigor-

ous of and a communallifewas more style Christianity, monastic,

the exception than the rule.”39
This reclusive lifestylewas a way of livingout not so much a

vocationtolead a solitarylifeas theneed ofeach person”given overtothelifeofperfectiontofinda suitableexpressionofhis

or her individual style.”40Attaining this perfection- or har- monywithGod and withGod’s creation- was an ambitionof

everycommittedChristian,each in his or her own verypersonal manner. To these fourth-centuryChristians,we are week and

imperfectas human beings,and attainingperfectionbecomes a

life-longgoal. Bywayofexample,EphremcomparedGod’s per- fectionwithhuman weakness in thisverygraphic stanza from

one ofhisHymnsonParadise:

All thatwe eat

the body eventuallyexpels in a formthatdisgustsus;

we are repelledbyitssmell. The burdenoffooddebilitatesus,

in excess itprovesharmful, butifitbejoy

whichinebriatesand sustains,

38J.O. BiographDicicatlion(aErdyinburgh,

460. 1984),

39BernarMdcGinand eds.C,hristian tothe JohnMeyendorff, SpiritualOitryig:ins

TwelfCtehntu(rNyewYork1,992)1,53. 40Ibid,154.

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how greatlywillthe soul be sustained on thewavesofthisjoy

as itsfacultiesuck
thebreastofall wisdom.41


Jacob of Nisibis, Ephrem’s firstbishop, “lived out of doors, except in winter,when he lived in a cave. He did not eat food thathe or othershad workedfor;whathe ate, he ate raw,and he wore only primitive clothes.”42 Ephrem referred to Jacob

directly,describing”reverentlyand repeatedly…certainascetic labors.”43This veryindividualisticbehaviormayseem,tomod-

erneyes,odd indeed fora memberofthehistoricepiscopate,

butitwas hiswayofapproachingtheelusivegoal ofperfection. The individualismoftheSyriantraditionofChristianitycould

sometimes express itselfin an overemphasis on personal reli-

gious experience and prayer at the expense of the sacraments and moreinstitutionalaspectsoftheChristianlife.Syrianshad

littleuse forconventionalrelationships,includingmarriage.In

fact, thefourth in “itwas
by century SyrianChristianity, thought

thatthesexual componentofmarriedlifemade itimpossiblefor

the lay Christianto approach perfection.”44
Withinthe contextof thisindividualism,Syrianspiritualityin

thefourthcenturyis characterizedbya wayofseeingand medi-

tating upon the things of God that can loosely be called “symbolic.”Itentailedakindofdoublevisionthatsaw- simulta-

neously- thevisible,physicalworldand thehidden realitiesof God concealed withinit.These hidden realitieswere conveyed throughscripture,Christ,thechurch,and thesacraments,by meansoffaithandtheHolySpirit.Thisparadoxicalview- i.e.,

EphremH,ymns (Crestwood,

NewYork, 144. 42 1990),


McGinand Christian 154. 43 Meyendorff, Spirituality,

ArthuVrööbus, ofAsceticiisnmthe
“History SyriaOnrientC,”orpuSscriptorum

ChristianoOruiemntali1u8m4, 142. 44 (1958):

McGinand Christian 156. Meyendorff, Spirituality,

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the tension between the fundamentallyantitheticalconcepts of the visible and the hidden – found a particular richness of

expressionin thevocabularyofthesolitarycelibateEphrem. Ephrem and his fellow monks “lived a life which reduced

themto a stateofwildanimals.They livedwithanimals,ate grass with them, and perched on the rocks like birds.” Monks of

Ephrem’s ilkdespised lifeitself,nottakinganyprecautions againstsavage animalsand snakes,livinglives”dreadfullydisfig- ured byhunger,”45and performingruthlessactsofchastisement

and mortification, themwrecks.In short, and making Ephrem

his fellowreligious sought to accentuate the distance between human weaknessand divineglory.

If Ephrem reallywas the greatestSyriac-speakingwriterof them all, perhaps it was because his writingspoke so powerfully oftheparadox ofdivinemajesty”made totallyavailabletoa sin- gle, frailhuman being,…a whole Christiansociety…rendered visiblein thefigureoftheVirginholdingtheRulerofAllon her

knees. All [our] deepest hopes and fearsabout the access of the

weak to the powerful, of humanity to God, [are] clustered around thecribat Bethlehem.”46

Through theindividualisticvehicleofhishymns,Ephrem


dictions.He thatGod’s in all its could accepted nature, mystery,

not be understood through human investigation or rational

argument. Ephrem was also aware, on the other hand, that the deity had made himselfavailable in the incarnation, so that through faithand love believers could “walk in the spiritual countries.”47Ephrem’sworkwasdoxological- thatis,grounded in the praise of God. Speaking to Mary ofJesus, Ephrem said, “He drankfromyourbreastvisiblemilk,buthe drankfromHis

45Vööbus, ofAsceticiisnmthe Orient1,”52. 46 “History Syrian

McGinand Christian 439. 47Ibid,158. Meyendorff, Spirituality,

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bosom hidden mysteries.”48These hidden mysterieswere the

objectofEphrem’sreverenceand praise.

EarlyChristianmusicincluded psalmody,hymns,and spiri- tual songs, and stemmed from a variety of roots. Neither

psalmody- thesingingofJewishpsalmsand ofthecanticlesand doxologiesmodeledonthem- norspiritualsongs- suchasalle- luias and other chants of a jubilant or ecstatic character-

appeared inEphrem’sworks,althoughbothundoubtedlyhad voice in his time. It was, however,through Ephrem’s hymns-

songsofpraiseofasyllabictype- thathegainedareputationas leader ofa literarymovement.49

By the time the Christianfaithwas introduced in the East, a

richpagan literatureinthevernacularalreadyexisted.Bothspe-

cificpoetic syllabicpatternsand formsofmusical notation

existed in the pre-ChristianEast. Syrian poetryof the period

consistedofthree memrâ and and forms, , madrâshâ, ,

major sogîthâ Ephrem wrote in all three forms.Various less prevalent forms

also existed,includingbriefpoems interpolatedbetweenpsalm versesand qâlâ (whichis,curiously,translated”tune”),or poems of several stanzas withno refrain.Some small number of these intended to be sung at funeralsare also attributedto Ephrem.

Scholars suggest, however,that most Syriac hymnswere such

qâlâ- intendedtobe”sunginalternatingstrophesinterpolated betweentheversesofthepsalmsor canticles.”50

homiliesserveas illustrationosfmemrâas con- Ephrenťs , they

sistmostlyoflinesoffivesyllables.Five,seven,or twelvesyllables per line are all legitimateexpressionsof thisform.Scholars sug-

thesememrâwerechanted a solovoiceratherthan

gest , allthe by The of sung togetherby assembly. system

being punctuation

clearlyindicatesphrasesforsuch chanting.

EphremH,ymnsVirginity25, Hymns,

on ,No. in 371. 49Wellesz, ChristiManusic2,”-8.

50 “Early

HeinricHhusman, Church in
“Syrian Music,”StanleSyadiee,d., NewGrove

MusiacndMusiciavnosl,.18 477. Dictionoafry (London1,980),

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The sogîthâform,however,findslittleexpressionin theworks

ofEphrem.These aredramaticpoems,probablysungbytwo soloistsand twochoirs.Frequently,thisformappeared in situa-

tionswhere a biblicalcharacterspeaks in a kind of dialogue with

a narrator.Based on Greek models, thesogîthâwas connected

withSyriacliterature,even ifEphrem did not seem to preferit. Ephremwasa masterofthemadrâshâstyle;infact,one scholar-

even credits him with its invention.51 This kind of strophic

poem,frequentlysungbya soloist,includeda kindofantiphon, or congregational refrain.Ephrem used the madrâshâform”in

theologicalcontroversyto refutethe argumentsof his opponents and to inspire his followers;at a later stage he turned it into a

lyricalformand gave itthecharacterofa hymn.”52

This informationmaylead us tobroaden our definitionofthe

– term”hymn,”asitsuggeststhatearlyhymnicmaterial intheSyr-

ian atleast- wasnot metrical restrictetdoa vein, stricdy (i.e.,


number or patternof syllables),may not have been sung by the entirecongregationgathered,and oftendid not conformto any

schemeof This madrâshfâormis a of
rhyme.53 category independent

strophichymn,inwhicheachstropheisfollowedbya shortrefrain, whosemelodyis generallythatofthefirsthalfofthestrophe.54

No manuscriptsofSyrianmusicofthisperiod exist,and some scholars suggest much of it was never writtendown. Modern

chantisbased on a measured and hasa character Syrian rhythm,

muchmorerhythmicand syllabicthanGregorianplainsong.To thedegree modernSyrianchantrelatestoearlychantisa matter

ofconjectureand dispute,however,and one mustexercisecau-



53While schemaersecentrtaolmosmt odern isnota rele- rhyming hymnrsh,yme

vant atleasitnWestern beforteheLatin ofAmbrosSe.eRich- concept, poetry, hymns

ardH. MedievMalusic 34-36. j4 Hoppin, (NewYork1,978),


theancestoorf the wellknownto American Byzantinkeontakion, Episcopalians

itsuseintheburiaolfficSee.eTheBook Common orThe through of Praye4r9,9, Hymnal


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1969)7,27. 56Ibid8,29.



tionwhenmakinganysuchcomparison.55Indeed, giventhe texts that survive, it is difficulto imagine that Ephrem con-

cerned himselfwithanythingeven remotelylike the strictly metricalcharacterofmodern Syrianchant.

Ephrem drew on his own tradition,including the popular (thoughheretical)composersofhistime.One characteristictrait ofSyrianmusicis the”use ofstandardmelodiesfora numberof differentpoems of a similar verse pattern,”56and Ephrem excelledatthis.He sethisowntextstothetunesofBardesanes, whose metricalpsalms were popular in Ephrem’s time,and still

untilthefirsthalfofthefifth Bardesanes
sung century.57 (properly

“Bar-Daisan,” 154-222 C.E.),whoseGnosticdoctrineEphrem

“stronglydenounced,”58 earned the titleof Father of Syrian Poetrythroughhismetricalpsalms.Whatlittleis knownofBarde- sanes’s theologywaslearned mostlyfromitsrefutationin Ephrem’s work.59 In retribution for Bardesanes’s heresies, Ephrem, one historiantellsus, composed new psalms based on thesamemeterand withthesameverseand stanzastructure.In spiteofthisretributiveborrowing,mostofEphrenťs melodies were,infact,originaltohim,discreditingthemedievaltradition thatearlyChristianhymnwritersfrequentlyused “secular or pagan melodiesinordertowintheheartsofthepeople.”60″One can onlyregret,thereseemstobe no wayofrestoringthemusical melodies,whichhe doubdesslycomposedalso,and whichwerean

ofhismeditationon the ofthefaith.”61 integralpart mysteries

55Willi Harvard 2nded.
Apel, DictionaorfyMusic, (CambridgMe,assachusetts,

57DimitCroinomo”sB,ardasian in TheNewGrov2e:150. 58 [Bardesanes],S”adie, ,

ThomeandCollocoCth,ambers 94. 59 BiographDicicatlionary,

Netherlan1d9s6,1)3,. 60Husman”S,yriaCnhurcMhusici,n”SadieT,heNewGro,v1e8:478. 61JohnMeyendorPfrfef,acien,EphremHy,mn1s.,

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H. W. Bardaisan transG..E.van
J. Drijvers, ofEdessa, Baaren-Pa(pAessen,




musicalnotation a of chant, Syrian employed system ecphonetic

not unlike the systemused forGregorian chant. Through the interpretationof signs known as “neumes,” one understands, even centuriesafteritsbeing writtendown, how to sing a plain-

song melody. Such ecphonetic notation was employed in the “solemnreadingofthelessonsand thesignsused toregulateits

performancein all theeasternchurches.”62In thisnotation,nine signs- consistingofdotsand dashesinsertedwiththetext(above, below,before,afterwords)- regulatethepitch,inflection,and

breathing. In such neumatic notation, each syllable is set to a neum-e or group ofsigns,correspondingto as fewas one or as many as fiveor more notes.63The neume notationwas used to indicatechange in pitchand, especially,to markmelismaticsec- tionsoftext.Such neumaticnotationmayhave servedonly”as a

kindofmemoryaid fora singerwhoalreadyknewthemelody.”64

wrote in that his Ephrem primarily isosyllabiconstruction; is,

verses have an equal number of syllables, without regard to

poeticmeterand regularstresspattern.65One scholarsuggests the deviationsin stressoccur “to avoid monotony;”thisfeature

makes it “difficulto adopt a regular musical meter” for such texts,as “metricalvariantsin the poetrywould upset the musical scheme, and the placement of accents might shiftfrom one stanza to another.”66

In summary,muchofSyriacmusicofthefourthcenturywas intended forsingingin a liturgicalcontext- and sometimesin

particular positions (such as the proclamatoryfunctionof the homily)whereone would notconsidersingingnormativetoday.


63RicharHd. MedievMalusic York, 78. 64Ibid5,9. Hoppin, (New 1978),

Isosyllabic Syriapcoetry dayh,aving

constructiisocnharacteriosftic tothis “an

influenocnethesacred ofotheorrientanldoccidental aswell.S”ee poetry liturgies

The Model andTheiProetMicetertsr,ansL.ouis StepheDnouayhi, Syriac Strophes Hage


66 Hoppin,


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Mathew&sAmar 152:3. 68 (Louvain1,955),



The musicalnotationwas- bymodernstandards- bothsimple (in that it did not use a staffor key signature) and complex (in thatsubtletiesoftextand stressinformedtheperformance).

– Ephremwroteinseveralfairlyrigidstructures muchofitisos-

yllabicin construction.
Ephrem once said he was “compelled by the love of friends”

in his vocation as a writer.67His writingswere known to both John Chrysostomand Jerome.68While the Lausiac Historysays

SchafRfe,ligious 1:742. 69 Encyclopaedia,

PalladiuLsa,usiac 117. 70 History,


left”some – mostofwhichPalladius writings”

considers”worthyofattention”69 scholarshiptellsus that,ofall



the Patristicfathers,onlyJohn Chrysostomhas more surviving materialthanEphrem.70Ephremwasindeedprolific,producing more than 1,000 sermonsand tracts,exegetical,dogmatic,and ascetic,accordingtoone accountcontemporaneoustohim.71

His writingswere held in high esteem in his time,being read

nexttothescripturesinsomeplaces.72Ephrem’sSyriacoriginals were translatedintoGreekwhile”he was stilliving,or at leastnot

longdead”73- andalsointoArabic,Ethiopian,andlaterSlavonic

and Latin and fromthese into French, German, Italian, and

English.Thus, hispoetryhas a fargreaterimpactthanifithad

remained available in Syriaconly.Ephrem also composed many

exegeticalwritings,based on a scripturalcanon resemblingour own.74 Ephrem is described thus as an exegete: “sober,

exhibiting]a preferencefortheliteralsense,…discreetinhisuse 67R. M.TonneauS,ancti inGenesiuetminExodům trans.

commentarii, Kathleen GeneraInltroductionn, SelectPerdose trans.

SchafRfe,ligious 1:743. 72 Encyclopaedia,


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McVey, Ephrem,

EdwarGd.Mathews,and P Amar
71 Jr. Joseph (Washingt1o9n9,4),

SamueNl.C.Lieue,d.,Introducttion 3,”From to Chapter CtesiphonNisibis,”

inThe andPolemic 99. EmperJourlianP:anegyric (Liverpoo1l9,86),

73Farme”rM,usiocfAncient 254.




of allegory; in a word he inclines stronglyto the Antiochene school.”75While the distinctionbetweenAlexandrianand Antio- chene theology is a much later one (made clear only with the

controversieosfthefifth one can christological- century), recognize

certainfactors suchas Ephrem’semphasison thehumanityof Jesus- asattributablteotheAntiocheneschoolofthought.

Of Ephrem’s survivingprose works,mostfallintotwocatego- ries: (1) refutationsofheresiesand (2) commentarieson various

books of the Bible.76 Ephrem was a prolificcommentator on

scripture,writing- legend boasts- a commentaryon each and everybook in the Bible. Survivingworksinclude commentaries

on Genesis and Exodus, various homilies, and miscellaneous otherminorworks.

In his homilies, Ephrem does not employ a verse-by-verse

methodofexplicationand exposition,relyinginsteadon a dis- cussion oftextsofparticulartheologicalinterestto him. In his

ExpositionoftheGospel,forinstance,Ephrem broadly compares

the teachingofJesus to garments,which”keep the cold and heat and outrages fromall who maybe clothed withthem.”77He

seems particularlydrawn to textswhose “orthodox interpreta- tion needs to be reasserted in the face of contemporary heterodoxideas.”78His exegesisavoidstherigidityand precision

“that generallycharacterizedcontemporarytheological inquiry

informedbyHellenisticphilosophicalcategories.”79In exegetical

works,Ephrem generally”proceeds likean Antiochene,propos-

to commentfirst and then This kind ing literally ‘spiritually/”80

ofsimpleyetloose structurecharacterizeshisprosework.

75HerbermanCnat,holic 499. 76 Encyclopedia,


77 EphremEx,position,


McVey, Ephrem, Works,

GeneraInltroductionn, SelectPerdose 43. 79Ibid4,7.

80Robert Churacnhd 47. MurraSyy,mbofls Kingdo(Cmambridg1e9,75),

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His work,in short,remainsflexible, even fluid- prose graceful,

and unconfinedbymoreexactinganalyticstructuresor schemes. EvenEphrem’sproseworksholda kindofpoeticalcharacter- for

theyare mostfrequentlywrittenin an unvaryingisosyllabicpat- tern,theso called”meterofEphrem”offourteensyllablesperline, in two groups of seven each.81″Elaborate rhetoricalfiguresand

devices witha Semiticloveforboth and stylistic joined – parallelism

paradox” characterizehiswritings furthereinforcingthenotion

thateven hisproseis,bysomedefinitionp,oetic. Ephrem’spoetry,likehisprose,also fallsintotwoclearcatego-

ries:(1) versehomilies,whichscholarssuggestedwererecited, and (2) hymns,consistingofstanzaswhichwereclearlyintended forsinging.Brockdescribeshishymnsas “soakedinscripture.”82 In his hymnody,Ephrem constructedthe stanzas of individual

hymns on a single syllabic pattern.83Fiftyor more patterns appear in his survivinghymns.84Rhymeappears onlyrarely,and

then only for special effect.This makes a study-in-translation more feasiblethan mightotherwisebe possible,as somethingof the richness of the imagery can be maintained in translation,

even ifsome ofthesubtletyofexpressionis necessarilylost.

Ephrem wrote hymn cycles On Virginity(consisting of 52

hymns),On theNativity(28), Against[EmperorCaesar]Julian (4), and On Paradise (15). These and another 11 miscellaneous

hymnsare currentlyavailablein EnglishtranslationI.n addition, hymnsexist on various other topics: On Nisibis,On theChurchy

HeresiesOn and OnthePaschalSeason. Against , Lent,

Ephrenťs hymnshave a characterofcomplexityabout them. Theymakefreeuseofsuchdevicesastypologyw,ordplay,para- dox, repetition, and metaphor to convey to the listener the richnessof the realityhidden in the visibleraze’ (symbols,sacra-

81 McVey,

GeneraInltroduct4io2n., 82SebastiaPnBrockT,he Fatheorns andthe

Syriac Prayer SpirituLaifl (eKalamazoo, 85Brockin, EphremPa,rad,is3e6.

31. Michiga1n9,87),

the McVey, hymnsEphrem

GeneraInltroducti4o1n.S,everahlundred of survivteo present.

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ments)and remze(signs).85Ephrem’s hymns,however,seem to assume a foundationofliteralcommentaryand oftenbegin from

a spiritualand metaphoricalperspective.In his hymns,he fre- quently employs doctrinallyexpansive concepts, withoutany


on the for as Ephrem’s Hymns Nativity, instance, they

on Mary,revealsomethingofthedepthand insightofEphrem, who was not afraid to make use of feminineimagery.By way of

example, Ephrem makesfrequentreferenceto God’s womb,viz.:

If anyone seeks Your hidden nature

behold it is in heaven in the greatwomb

of And if seeks Divinity. anyone

Your revealed body,behold it restsand looks out fromthe small womb of Mary!86

Twenty-eighthymnsconstitutethe cycleofHymnson theNativ- ity- as large a collection of related material as survives in

Ephrem’s extantworkavailable in Englishtranslation.87Unlike various other collections of Ephrem’s hymns,some of which appear tobe randomlyassembledbylatereditorsand named for the subject of the firsthymnin the collection only,the cycle of

HymnsontheNativityhas itsown thematicintegrity.

Ephrem saw the church in history as the intermediary

“betweentheformertypesand theeschatologicalfulfillment.”88

In this,the Incarnation plays a significantrole, of course. The

birthofJesusprovidesa certainfocusas thebeginningeventof

thisfulfillment. the a

85McGinand Christian 157.

nativityhymnsplay significant Meyendorff, Spirituality,

EphremH,ymns Nativity,13, 7, EphremH,ymns,

onthe No.

Stanza in 138.

Although cycle Hymns Virginity hymns

the of on containmsoriendividual than

the onthe closer reveatlshathe inthat have Hymns Nativity, inspection hymns cycle

littlreelatiotnoeachotheTr.he title toderivferomthe of “Virginity”appears subject

thefirst and ofthe arerefutationfhseresieasnd hymn, many subsequehnytmns

othemratteurnsrelatteod se.



virginpiteyr MurraSyy,mbols,

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89 McVey,



role in Ephrem’s opus.The core of thisparticularcollectionis a

setofsixteenhymnsprobablygatheredand entitled”lullabyes”

(in Syriac,nwsrť)by Ephrem himself.89Four other hymnswere

added byan anonymoussixth-centuryeditor,and eightothers on the subject of the birth of Christ included by a modern

scholar.The entirecollectionisavailableinmodernEnglish,and

one hymn,at least,existsin various Englishtranslations,allow- ing foranothersortoftextualcomparison.

In HymnsontheNativit,yEphrememployedan extraordinarily richmetaphoricalvocabularyH.edescribedGodasthe”voicethat

becamea body,”90andJesusas “theBabe whoismoreancientthan hisbearer.”91Father,Son, and Holy Ghostmaybe God’s name to

theOrthodox,butthisdid notpreventEphremfromtakinggreat freedom in the use of epithets. In fact,in most of his hymns Ephremneverused sucha formalname.Whilehismotivationfor evadingdirectreferencetotheTrinitymayelude modernreaders ofhiswork,one can his in a context

imagine hymnsung liturgical already fullof trinitarianlanguage. Perhaps he considered such

explicit referencein a hymnredundant. In any case, Ephrem expanded our idea ofGod bytheuse ofsuchnamesas “thePleas- antOne,” “theHidden One,” and “theCompassionateOne.”

Ephrem also engaged the Incarnationwithexplicit,graphic, and even precariousimagery,sayingofthebabyJesus,

He wasloftybuthesuckedMary’smilk and fromhisblessingsallcreationsucks.92

In numerousofEphrem’snativityhymns,Marysanga mother’s simple song to her baby,bidding tenderlyto the infantGod, for instance, “Come and rest and be quiet in the lap of your


90 EphremH,ymns,

4:143. 91Ibid,12:1.


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mother.”93But Ephrem also affirmedthe essential paradox of the Incarnation,saying

Mary’slap astonishesme thatitsufficedforyou,myLord, and embracedyou.

The entirecreationwas too smallto hide yourmajesty.94

Thus, Ephrem’s poetry points us to the awesome majesty of God’s workingin theworld,acknowledgingtheimmanenceof

the holyin thisworldwhileembracinga vastdiversityofimages, metaphors,and symbolsfortheultimatemysterythatisGod.

Ephrem’s hymnsare but one positive archetype of the rich traditionfromwhichwe descend, albeitan archetypethatsetsa

standard forexcellence. His hymnsare notjust “embellishments

totheservice,asameansofedificationforthepeople whilest

[sic]otheractivities[are] in progress.”95Hymnsofsuchqualityas

Ephrem’shaveanintegralrelationshiptoliturgyT.heyaremore thanembellishmentsbecause theyprovidea correctivetoliteral-

ism and definitions, which Ephrem regards as “static and deadening in theireffect.”9T6o Ephrem,God simplydefiesdefi-

nition, in spite of our need to explain, and Ephrem’s hymns resound thebeautyofthisparadox.

Bates is enrolledinthedoctoral in currently program

J. Harrington
liturgicatlheology TheologicaSleminar,y

at theGeneral New York.

95AlanDunstan, inChristian in

“Hymnody Worship,”CheslyJnonesG,eoffrey

andEdwarYdarolde,ds.,The 463. Wainwright, StudoyfLiturg(NyewYork1,978),

DunstasnummarizesDearmewrh,ostatetshabtetween and is”an Percy Epistle Gospel

excellent fromthe ofviewt”o a “becausteherieshere place liturgipcaolint sing hymn,

an intervaSle.”eDearmeTrh,eParsonH’sandbook 220f.

necessary (London1,921),

96SebastiaPn.Brock”,The in SyriaTcradition,”CheslyJnonesG,eoffrey

andEdwarYdarnoledd,s.T,he 206. wright, StudoyfSpiritua(lNiteywYork1,978),

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