Some years ago, one of our Oblates, a deacon in the diocese of Tulsa to whom I gave the name Ephrem, wrote me asking if I might help him learn more about Saint Ephrem the Syrian, Deacon and Doctor of the Church (309-373). I recommended that he purchase The Doctors of the Church, Thirty-Three Men and Women Who Shaped Christianity, by Bernard McGinn. These books contain an excellent introduction to Saint Ephrem’s life and works, but also a presentation of the thirty-two other Doctors of the Church.
The Collect for today’s feast of Saint Ephrem is noteworthy. Here it is in my own translation from the original Latin:
Graciously pour forth into our hearts, O Lord, the Holy Ghost, by whose breath Thy deacon, Saint Ephrem, rejoiced to proclaim Thy mysteries in song, and by Whose power he served Thee alone Through our Lord Jesus Christ, Thy Son, who liveth and reigneth with Thee in the unity of the Holy Ghost, God, forever and ever.
A number of years ago, for the feast of Saint Ephrem, in the place of a homily, I offered a commentary on some of his sayings. Brother Ephrem and other readers may want to ponder these teachings today:
Saint Ephrem the Syrian on Prayer
Not to sin is truly blessed; but those who sin should not despair, but grieve over the sins they have committed, so that, through grief they may again attain blessedness.
It is good, then, to pray always and not to lose heart, as the Lord says, and again the Apostle says, ‘Pray without ceasing’, that is by night and by day and at every hour, and not only when coming into the church, and not bothering at other times. But whether you are working, lying down to sleep, travelling, eating, drinking, sitting at table, do not interrupt your prayer, for you do not know when he who demands your soul is coming. Don’t wait for Sunday or a feast day, or a different place, but, as the Prophet David says, ‘in every place of his dominion’.
Whether you are in church, or in your house, or in the country; whether you are guarding sheep, or constructing buildings, or present at drinking parties, do not stop praying.
When you are able, bend your knees, when you cannot, make intercession in your mind, ‘at evening and at morning and at midday’.
If prayer precedes your work and if, when you rise from your bed, your first movements are accompanied by prayer, sin can find no entrance to attack your soul.
Prayer is a guard of prudence, control of wrath, restraint of pride, cleansing of malice, destruction of envy, righting of impiety.
Prayer is strength of bodies, prosperity of a household, good order of a city, might of a kingdom, trophy of war, assurance of peace.
Prayer is a seal of virginity, fidelity in marriage, weapon of travelers, guardian of sleepers, courage of the wakeful, abundance for farmers, safety of those who sail.
Prayer is an advocate for those being judged, remission for the bound, consolation for the grieving, gladness for the joyful, comfort for mourners, a feast on birthdays, a crown for the married, a shroud for the dying.
Prayer is converse with God, equal honour with the Angels, progress in good things, averting of evils, righting of sinners.
Prayer made the whale a house for Jonas, brought Ezechias back to life from the gates of death, turned the flame to wind of moisture for the Youths in Babylon. Through prayer Elias bound the heaven not to rain for three years and six months.
See, brethren, what strength prayer has. There is no possession more precious than prayer in the whole of human life. Never be parted from it; never abandon it.
Saint Ephrem the Syrian on Psalmody
Let psalmody be continually on your mouth, for when God is being named he puts the demons to flight and sanctifies the singer.
Psalmody is calm of soul, author of peace.
Psalmody is convenor of friendship, union of the separated, reconciliation of enemies.
Psalmody attracts the help of the Angels, is a weapon in night-time fears, repose of the day’s toils, safety for infants, adornment for the old, consolation for the elderly, most fitting embellishment for women. It make deserts into homes, market places sober.
Psalmody is the ABC for beginners, progress for the more advanced, confirmation for the perfect, the voice of the Church. It makes festivals radiant; it creates mourning that is in accordance with God, for psalmody draws tears even from a heart of stone.
Psalmody is the work of the Angels, the commonwealth of heaven, spiritual incense. Psalmody is enlightenment of souls, sanctification of bodies.
Let us, brethren, never stop making psalmody our meditation, both at home and on the road, both sleeping and waking, speaking to ourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs.
Psalmody is the joy of those who love God. It banishes idle chatter, brings laughter to an end, reminds us of the judgement, rouses the soul towards God, joins the choir of the Angels.
Where there is psalmody with compunction, there God is, with the Angels.
Where the songs of the opponent are, there is God’s wrath, and ‘woe!’ is the reward of laughter. Where sacred books and readings are, there are the joy of the just and the salvation of the listeners. Where there are harps and dances, there is the darkening of men and women, and a festival of the Devil.
Saint Ephrem the Syriam on Poverty and Hospitality
Be thou a lover of poverty, and be desirous of neediness. If thou hast them both for thy portion, thou art an inheritor on high.
Despise not the voice of the poor and give him not cause to curse thee. For if he curse whose palate is bitter, the Lord will hear his petition. If his garments are foul, wash them in water, which freely is bought. Has a poor man entered into thy house? God has entered into thy house; God dwells within thy abode. He, whom thou hast refreshed from his troubles, from troubles will deliver thee.
Hast thou washed the feet of the stranger? Thou hast washed away the filth of thy sins. Hast thou prepared a table before him? Behold God eating [at it], and Christ likewise drinking [at it], and the Holy Spirit resting [on it]: Is the poor satisfied at thy table and refreshed? Thou hast satisfied Christ thy Lord. He is ready to be thy rewarder; in presence of angels and men He will confess thou hast fed His hunger; He will give thanks unto thee that thou didst give Him drink, and quench His thirst.
Saint Ephrem the Syrian Proposes a Rule of Life
Have thou also a law, a comely law for thy household. Establish an order that is wise, that the abjects laugh not at time.
Be careful in all thy doings, that thou be not a sport for fools; be upright and prudent, and both simple and wise.
Let thy body be quiet and cheerful, thy greeting seemly and simple; thy discourse without fault, thy speech brief and savoury; thy words few and sound, full of savour and understanding.
Speak not overmuch, not even words that are wise; for all things that are over many, though they be wise are wearisome.
To them of thy household be as a father. Amongst thy brethren esteem thyself least, and inferior amongst thy fellows, and of little account with all men.
With thy friend keep a secret; to those that love thee be true. See that there be no wrangling; the secrets of thy friends reveal not, lest all that hear thee hate thee and esteem thee a mischiefmaker.
With those that hate thee wrangle not, neither face to face nor yet in thy heart.
No enemy shalt thou have but Satan his very self.
Give counsel to the wife thou hast wedded; give heed to her doings; as stronger thou art answerable that thou shouldst sustain her weakness. For weak is womankind, and very ready to fall.
Be thou as a hawk, when kindled (to anger), but when wrath departs from thee, be gladsome and also firm, in the blending of diverse qualities.
Keep silence among the aged; to the elders give due honour.
Honour the priests with diligence, as good stewards of the household. Give due honour to their degree, and search not out their doings. In his degree the priest is an angel, but in his doings a man. By mercy he is made a mediator, between God and mankind.
Search not out the faults of men; reveal not the sin of thy fellow; the shortcomings of thy neighbours, in speech of the mouth repeat not.
Thou art not judge in creation, thou hast not dominion over the earth. If thou lovest righteousness, reprove thy soul and thyself. Be thou judge unto thine own sins, and chastener of thy own transgressions.
Make thou not inquiry maliciously, into the misdeeds of men. For if thou doest this, injuries will not be lacking to thee.
Trust not the hearing of the ear, for many are the deceivers. Vain reports believe thou not, for false rumours are not few.