If St. Ephrem the Syrian (c. 306-373) had been born in either the Latin or Greek tradition, he probably would be recognized as one of the greatest poets of all time, or at least as well-known as his contemporaries St. Basil and St. Gregory of Nazianzus.
St. Ephrem wrote in Syriac and primarily wrote poetry. In his introduction to St. Ephrem’s Hymns on Paradise, translator Sebastian Brock suggests that these are the main reasons he is not as well-known as his fellow Doctors of the Church, St. Basil and St. Gregory, who wrote in Greek.
It hasn’t always been so. Translator Kathleen E. McVey notes in her introduction to Ephrem the Syrian: Hymns that St. Ephrem’s hymns have been influential in both Eastern and Western traditions. He was read and known, she states, in: “Greek, Coptic, Ethiopic, Armenian, and, later Arabic” traditions. She adds that not long after St. Ephrem’s death, St. Jerome wrote of him.
That St. Ephrem, a deacon, chose to express his theology in hymns seems to surpass even his language as an obstacle to his being widely known and read today.
As Brock notes, “We do not expect to find serious theology expressed in poetic form.”
Pope Benedict XVI sought to remedy this misconception. In his general audience on St. Ephrem, included in the collection Church Fathers: From Clement of Rome to Augustine, he calls St. Ephrem “Christianity’s most important Syriac-speaking representative” and praises him as a writer who “uniquely succeeded in reconciling the vocation of theologian and poet.” He further states that “It is the fact that theology and poetry converge in his work which makes it so special.”
Collections of St. Ephrem’s hymns edited and translated by Brock and McVey reveal St. Ephrem as an inventive and imaginative poet and a highly serious theologian with a heart and mind formed by the reading of Scripture and the teachings of the Church.
In Hymns on Paradise, translated by Brock, St. Ephrem writes of the Garden lost through the sin of Adam and Eve in a manner similar to how the Romantic poet William Wordsworth writes of the self in The Prelude. But St. Ephrem is not interested in romantic visions of self. Instead, he seeks the hidden meaning Scripture reveals to those seeking God’s truth, not man’s.
In the second stanza of the first of fifteen hymns, St. Ephrem tells us that a “yearning for Paradise” led him to meditate on “what was revealed in Scripture,” and that “The aim of my search was to gain profit,/the aim of my silence was to find succor.”
His meditation on the saints in heaven and Adam and Eve, in stanza nine of “Hymn 6,” perfectly illustrates the convergence of theology and poetry noted by Pope Benedict. Here, he explores the symbol of the white robe of righteousness worn by the newly baptized to represent rebirth in Christ, a symbol still dominant in the East. The saints in heaven wear this same symbolic robe of glory, “for they have found, through our Lord,/the robe that belongs to Adam and Eve.”
Just as we see Paradise and Adam and Eve in new light through St. Ephrem’s poetry, a light greater I believe than that found in the seventeenth century poet John Milton’s Paradise Lost because of St. Ephrem’s theology, we see the Holy Theotokos and virginity in a new way in “Hymns on Virginity,” included in McVey’s collection Ephrem the Syrian: Hymns.
In “Hymn 24,” Mary is the “heavenly sparrow/whose nest was on the cross of light” and “the castle of the King.” Through her virgin womb, the serpent, “the defiled one,” is “put to shame.”
We see the same in “Hymns on the Nativity,” also translated by McVey. In “Hymn 16,” Mary sings to the Christ child:
“I shall not be jealous, my Son, that You are both with me/and with everyone. Be God…so that You might save all.”
The words of the Benedictine monk Smaragdus of St. Mihiel (c. 760-c. 840), quoted by Mariano Magrassi in his masterful Praying the Bible: An Introduction to Lectio Divina, perfectly illustrate the profit and succor St. Ephrem gained through his reading of Scripture:
“For those who practice it, the experience of lectio sacra sharpens perception, enriches understanding, rouses from sloth, banishes idleness, orders life, corrects bad habits, produces salutary weeping and draws tears from contrite hearts…curbs idle speech and vanity, awakens longing for Christ and the heavenly homeland….Reading Sacred Scripture confers on us two gifts: it makes the soul’s understanding keener, and after snatching us from the world’s vanities, it leads us to the love of God.”
We too can gain such profit from reading St. Ephrem’s meditative hymns. He teaches us how to read Sacred Scripture with the eyes of the soul.