On 28 January in the Eastern Orthodox calendar we commemorate those two luminaries of the Syrian church, Saint Ephrem and Saint Isaac. There is so much to say about these two Fathers that I am at a loss for words. I would much rather let their writings speak for themselves.
To begin, I have posted some selections of St Ephrem’s writings here before: St. Ephrem the Syrian on Psalm 1, Perhaps…, Halfway Between Awe and Love, Dreading the Apocalypse, and A Drop of Thanksgiving in a Sea of Glory. Even just those excerpts, short as they are, will win the noetic heart over to a greater love of this Saint of the Church. I would recommend also these several books: A Spiritual Psalter, Saint Ephrem the Syrian: Hymns on Paradise, Ephrem the Syrian: Hymns, The Luminous Eye: The Spiritual World Vision of Saint Ephrem the Syrian, and The Syriac Fathers on Prayer.
I have likewise excerpted from St Isaac’s works in the past: Prayer is…, Inebriated by the mysteries, The Sea of Scriptures, Scripture, Prayer, and Life, St Isaac the Syrian on the Three Degrees of Knowledge, Gehenna is the fruit of sin, Intermonastic rumble!, A prayer of repentance, and A Pearl of a Prayer. Since the state of preservation of this Saint’s writings is somewhat complicated, I have posted a detailed description of the editions available, which include some books of excerpts. The future assuredly will bring forth more of this Saint’s God-inspired wisdom out of Syriac treasuries for the noetic delight of the Anglolinguic. What is available now is already a great spiritual feast.
St Ephrem was born in Nisibis, near the volatile border between the Roman and Persian Empires, in the very early fourth century, most likely to a Christian family, though the Syriac Life of St Ephrem describes his father as a pagan priest. He lived in Nisibis and wrote much of his work there until 363 AD, after the death of Julian the Apostate, when, at the capitulation of Julian’s successor Jovian, the border shifted, and Nisibis was incorporated into the Persian Empire. The citizenry of Nisibis was forced to abandon their city, so they moved westward in Syria, to within the Roman areas that were not under contention. St Ephrem and likely very may others from Nisibis settled in Edessa, the mother-city of Syriac Christianity. St Ephrem continued his literary work here, founding a school for Scriptural and theological studies. He likewise trained choirs of women to sing his many hymns. St Ephrem was ordained a deacon after his arrival in Edessa. On 9 June 373, he fell asleep in the Lord, while in the midst of ministering to those suffering in an outbreak of the plague. From at least the tenth century, St Ephrem has been icongraphically depicted as a monastic, though there is no indication that he was ever a monastic. It is, however, certain that the spiritual light with which his work shines has always been appreciated especially in monastic circles. The monks, in love, have thus claimed him as one of their own. Yet St Ephrem’s writings enrich all of us who are attentive to them:
Who, being a mortal, can tell about the Reviver of all,
Who left the height of His majesty and came down to smallness?
You, Who magnify all by being born, magnify my weak mind
that I may tell about Your birth, not to investigate Your majesty,
but to proclaim Your grace. Blessed is He Who is both hidden and revealed in His actions!
It is a great wonder that the Son, Who dwelt entirely in a body,
inhabited it entirely, and it suffered for Him. Although limitless, He dwelt in it.
His will was entirely in Him; His totality was not in Him.
Who is sufficient to say that although He dwelt entirely in the body,
still He dwelt entirely in the universe? Blessed is the Unlimited Who was limited!
Your majesty is hidden from us; Your grace is revealed before us.
I will be silent, my Lord, about your majesty, but I will speak about Your grace.
Your grace seized hold of You and inclined You toward our evil.
Your grace made You a Babe; Your grace make You a human being.
Your majesty contracted and stretched out. Blessed is the power that became small and became great!
Glory to Him Who became earthly although heavenly by His nature!
From Hymn on the Nativity, 23. Ephrem the Syrian: Hymns, translated by Kathleen McVey, pp 187-188.
The date of St Isaac’s birth and of his falling asleep in the Lord are both unknown. It has, however, been determined that he wrote his Ascetical Homilies somewhere around 680 AD. The following excerpt from a West Syrian Life of Saint Isaac (unfortunately, the date and author are unknown) contains just about all we know of him:
Further we record the history (or indeed the triumph) of the blessed Father Mar Ishaq (Isaac), which declares his homeland, his way of life, and how he was bishop of Nineveh, but afterward forsook this and went to a monastery and composed five volumes of instruction for monks. This Mar Isaac of Nineveh was born in the region of Beit Qatraye [=Qatar] beneath India. When he had become versed in the writings of the Church and the commentaries, he became a monk and a teacher in his own region. But when Mar Giwargis (George) the Katholikos came to his region [in 676 AD], he took him to Beit Aramaya [=the central lands of the Persian Church, in the area around the Tigris River] because one of his relatives was Mar Gabriel the scriptural interpreter of the Church. Mar Isaac was ordained bishop of Nineveh in the Monastery of Beit ‘Abe. But because of the acuteness of his intellect and his zeal, he could only endure the pastoral care of his city for five months; then he retuned to his stillness. He persuaded the Papa [=the Katholikos] to dismiss him, and the Papa gave him the command to depart. Then he left and dwelt in stillness in the mountain of Beit Huzaye [=Huzistan, in modern southern Iran] together with the monks who lived thereabouts. Finally he became blind and the brethren wrote down his teaching. They called him the second Didymos, for indeed, he was quiet, kind, and humble, and his word was gentle. He ate only three loaves a week with some vegetables, and he did not taste any food that was cooked. He composed five volumes, that are known even until this day, filled with sweet teaching…. Thereafter, when he had grown old and advanced in years, he departed unto our Lord, and he was placed in the monastery of Mar Shabur. May the prayer of the Theotokos Mary and his prayer and that of all the saints be with us! Amen. The Ascetical Homilies of Saint Isaac the Syrian (Holy Transfiguration Monastery edition), pp lxv-lxvii.
From the words of Saint Isaac himself, gain edification:
As a handful of sand thrown into the great sea, so are the sins of all flesh in comparison with the mind of God. And just as a strongly flowing spring is not obstructed by a handful of dust, so the mercy of the Creator is not stemmed by the vices of His creatures. As a man who sows in the sea and expects to reap a harvest, so is he who remembers wrongs and prays. As the flame of fire cannot be checked from rising upward, so the prayers of the merciful are not hindered from ascending to Heaven. The current of a stream runs swiftly in a narrow place, and likewise the force of anger whenever it finds a place in our mind. The man who has acquired humility in his heart is dead to this world. He who is dead to the world had died to the passions. For to the man who has died in his heart to his kinsmen, the devil is dead. He who has found malice, with it has found him who originally found it.
Ascetical Homilies of Saint Isaac the Syrian, from Homily 51, HTM edition, page 244.
Here we conclude with the kontakia of these two Saints, particularly beloved to monastics, in English translations from The Great Horologion (another publication of Holy Transfiguration Monastery):
Second Tone. Thou soughtest the heights
At all times didst thou
foresee the hour of reckoning
and pricked in thy heart
thou ever didst lament with tears;
and, O righteous Ephraim, thou was a mighty teacher in works and deeds.
Hence, O Father for all the world,
thou didst rouse the slothful unto change of heart.
Kontakion of Saint Isaac.
Plagal of Fourth Tone. To thee, the Champion Leader
As an ascetic and God-bearer great in righteousness
and an instructor of monastics do we honour thee
thou revealer of things sacred, and our protector.
But, O Isaac, since thou has great boldness with the Lord,
intercede with Him for all of us who sing thy praise
and who cry to thee:
Rejoice, O Father most wise in God.
May you sleep well and dream of Saints tonight!