Wednesday, June 18, 2008

The Harp of the Holy Ghost

Glory to God on this, the feast of St Ephræm, or Ephraim, the Syrian, Deacon, Confessor, and Doctor of the Church. As befits this Syriac Father, he has three names in three sacred tongues: Mor Afrêm Sûryāyâ, Ἐφραίμ ὁ Σῦρος and Ephræm Syrus. And best of his sobriquets is that of Harp of the Spirit (Kenārâ d-Rûḥâ, Spiritus Sancti cithara).

How the Holy Ghost, Consubstantial with the Father and the Son, favoured him with illumination and inspiration, that he became so great a singer of divine mysteries! Thus was fulfilled in him the words of our Saviour: from within the heart of the believer in Christ shall spring forth streams of living water, the very Holy Spirit (cf. St John vii, 38-39; iv,14). May St Ephræm intercede for us, that we not grieve the Spirit, but rather be exalted by Him as His docile instruments, pouring ourselves out, handing over to others the fruits of contemplation (cf. Aquinas), shining as lights before men - and, moreover, living out in our actions these fine words, spending ourselves in sacrificial love usque ad mortem! How appropriate that in God's providence this saint died while nursing the victims of plague, making himself a willing, living sacrifice, and so in that his last and greatest teaching emulating Christ Who willingly laid down His life for love of us sinners, Who preached His most eloquent sermon wracked upon the infamous gibbet. Give us at least the desire for this desire (as a later saint would say), obtain for us, St Ephræm, this gift and grace from the Holy Ghost.

Whence came his astonishing eloquence? After the Holy Ghost, from His Holy Writ, the Sacred Scriptures, which he diligently searched, that he might find Christ, the Way, the Truth and the Life (cf. St John v, 39; xiv, 6): "He who applies himself with simplicity and purity of heart to the study of the Sacred Books will receive the knowledge of God. Some people glory in conversing familiarly with the great ones of the earth, with princes and kings, but let it be your glory to converse with the Holy Ghost in the presence of the angels of God by reading the divine Scriptures, for it is the Holy Ghost who there speaks to you. Spare no pains to become familiar with this study." (Thus St Ephræm himself, as quoted by Guéranger from a Latin translation of one of his sermons on patience and the end of the world.) What could better explicate those sacred words psallite sapienter?

His life (c.306-373) was lived mainly in the Roman border fortress-town of Nisibis, until its evacuation by treaty with the Persians in 363; he spent his last years in Edessa. Both cities were the locus of his teaching and preaching as deacon and doctor of the Faith; famously, he composed many hymns for the encouragement and instruction of the faithful, the better to guard them against the seductions of heresies and their devilish songs of false devotion, and even wrote metrical homilies.

It was good Pope Benedict XV, of happy memory, who exalted this humble ascetic as a Doctor of the Church, a worthy Syriac among the Greek and Latin Fathers his brethren: his encyclical so declaring, Principi Apostolorum Petro.

Our Most Holy Lord, Pope Benedict XVI, had things marvellous and wise to say about St Ephræm at a General Audience back on the 28th of November 2007.

Here is the collect for our saint:

Deus, qui Ecclesiam tuam beati Ephræm Confessoris tui et Doctoris mira eruditione et præclaris vitæ meritis illustrare voluisti: te supplices exoramus; ut, ipso intercedente, eam adversus erroris et pravitatis insidias perenni tua virtute defendas. Per...

(O God, who hast wiiled to enlighten Thy Church by the wondrous learning and shining merits of the life of blessed Ephræm Thy Confessor and Doctor; bowing down we humbly pray Thee, that, he himself interceding, Thou defend her, by Thine eternal power, against the snares of error and wickedness. Through...)

The Byzantine Rite glorifies "our Venerable Father Ephraim the Syrian" on the 28th of January; these praises may be read at Anastasis.

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