Rev. Alban Butler (171173). Volume VII: July. The Lives of the Saints. 1866.
Appendix on the Writings of St. Ephrem
THE FIRST volume of the Vatican edition of this fathers works begins with his sermon On Virtues and Vices. He expresses in it a surprise to see the full seek food from him who was empty, and says he is confounded to speak, seeing every word would accuse and condemn himself. However, trembling, he recommends to his hearers the fear of God; charity, by which we are meek, patient, tender to all, desirous to serve, and give to all; hope, and longanimity, by which we bear all; patience, meekness, sweetness to all; inviolable love of truth in the smallest things, obedience, temperance, &c. and speaks against all the contrary vices, envy, detraction, &c.
His two Confessions or Reprehensions of himself are only effusions of his heart in these dispositions. The first he begins as follows: Have pity on me, all ye that have bowels of compassion. Then he earnestly begs their prayers that he may find mercy with God, though he was from his infancy an useless abandoned vessel. He laments his spiritual miseries in the most moving words, declaring that he trembles lest, as flames from heaven devoured him who presumed to offer profane fire on the altar, so he should meet with the same judgment for appearing before God in prayer without having the fire of his divine love in his heart. He invites all men to weep and pray for him, making a public confession of the failings which his pure lights discovered in his affections; for in these, notwithstanding his extraordinary progress in the contrary virtues, he seemed to himself to discern covetousness, jealousy, and sloth, though he appeared of all men the most remote from the very shadow of those vices; and by tears of compunction he studied more and more to purify his heart, that God might vouchsafe perfectly to reign in it. The second part of this work is a bitter accusation of his pride; which sin, as he adds, destroys even the gifts of God in a soul, blasts all her virtues, and renders them a most filthy abomination; for all our virtues will be tried at the last day by a fire which only humility can stand. He laments how pride infects the whole world; that some, by a strange phrenzy, seek to gratify it in earthly fooleries, and the most silly vanities, on which the opinion of madmen has stamped a pretended dignity and imaginary value. He laments bitterly, that even spiritual men are in danger of sinning, by taking pride in virtue itself, though this be the pure gift of God; and when by his mercy we are enriched with it, we are, nevertheless, base and unprofitable servants.
In his second Reprehension of himself, after having elegantly demonstrated a particular providence inspecting and governing the minutest affairs and circumstances, he grievously accuses himself of having entertained a doubt of it in his youth, before his conversion to God. He condemns himself as guilty of vain-glory, sloth, lukewarmness, immortification, irreverence in the church, talkativeness, contentiousness, and other sins. He fears lest his repentance should be like that of Esau, and begs the pity and prayers of all men for an infamous blind leper. He weeps to see that some men had conceived an esteem for him to whom none was due; and he cries out to themTake off my false covering, and you will see in me nothing but worms, stench, and filth: remove the cloak of hypocrisy, and you will find me an hideous and nauseous sepulchre. He compares himself to the Pharisees, as wearing only the habit of the prophets and saints, to his heavier condemnation; for vice, covered with a mask of virtue, is always more odious and detestable. In another Confession, (t. 3, p. 439,) after accusing himself of sloth, pride, uncharitableness, and other sins, he most movingly entreats all men to weep for him; wishing they could see the extreme miseries of his heart, which could not fail most powerfully to excite their compassion, though they could not be able to bear the hideous sight of the load of his monstrous iniquities.
His treatise On the Passions is of the same nature, a lamentation that from his infancy he had been a contemner of grace, and slothful to virtue, strengthened daily his passions, and groaned in the midst of snares which made him fear to live lest he should go on relapsing into sloth.
He has left us many tracts on Compunction, which, indeed, all his writings breathe. In the first which bears this title, he invites all, rich and poor, old and young, to join him in weeping, to purchase eternal life, and to be delivered from everlasting death: by weeping and crying to see with the blind man in the gospel, the soul will be enlightened to see her miseries. God, the angels, all heaven expect and invite us earnestly to these tears: Gods terrible judgment is at hand; which he describes, and then adds, to prevent its justice we must weep not one day only, but all the days of our life, as David did, in affliction, continual prayer, austerities, and alms. The narrow gate does not admit others; the Judge will exclude those who sought their joy on earth and pampered their flesh. Then it will be too late to trim our lamps, or seek for the oil of good works; then no more poor will stand at any door for us to redeem our sins by alms. He laments our spiritual miseries, especially his sins and sloth continued all his life now to the eleventh hour. He awakes his soul by the short time that remains, and that uncertain too.
In his second he relates, that going out of Edessa early one morning, accompanied with two brethren, and beholding the heavens beautifully spangled with bright stars, he said to himselfIf the lustre of these luminaries be so dazzling, how will the saints shine when Christ shall come in glory! But suddenly the thought of that terrible day struck my mind, and I trembled in all my joints, and was seized with convulsions, and in an agony of fear, sighing and overwhelmed with a flood of tears, I cried out in bitter anguish of mind: How shall I be then found! How shall I stand before that tribunal! A monster infected with pride among the humble and the perfect, a goat among the sheep, and a barren tree without fruit. The martyrs will show their torments, and the monks their virtues; but thou, alas! O sinful, vain, and arrogant soul, wilt only bear thy sloth and negligence. His two companions, moved by the excess of his tears, wept with him.
In his ascetic Sermon, he says grief and zeal compel him to speak, but his unworthiness and his sins persuade him to be silent, his eyes delight only in tears to bewail night and day in floods the wounds of his soul, and above all that pride which conceals them from him. He laments tepidity and love of earthly things should be found among the monks, and that some interrupt their mortifications, weeping one day and laughing the next, lying one night on the ground, the next on a soft bed, whereas all our life ought to be a course of penance; he extols the humility and constant mortification of the ancient and all true monks, like shining diamonds in the world. The rest of this long discourse is a vehement exhortation of the monks to fervour and zeal, this life being a time of traffic, and very short, and a nothing; the recompense immense, and the rigour of Gods justice terrible to all. He pronounces woes to himself in the confusion he expected in the last day before all who esteemed him here. Begs earnestly all to pray for him. One of the principal means to preserve this fervour, is a strict examen every night and morning. A trader casts up every day his losses and gains, and is solicitous to repair any losses; so do you, says he, every morning and night make up your accounts carefully; examine yourself: Have I to-day spoke any idle words, despised any, &c.? Have I this night watched, prayed, &c.? He advises not to undertake too much in austerities, but such as the soul will not relax in, than which nothing is more pernicious.
His parænetic Sermon is also addressed to young monks, whom he advises to the continual presence of God in their minds most earnestly under temptations. Against sloth he observes, this succeeding fervour by fits makes a life one chain of risings and falling again; building by mortification, and destroying again by relaxing. He bids them have this inscription in the beginning of their book: Sloth banished for ever and ever from my soul.
His two sermons on the Fathers deceased, are also to monks, showing and lamenting their tepidity by the fervour of their fathers in the deserts. His Hypomnisticon is an exhortatory epistle to the same.
Next follows his book in Imitation of Proverbs, in definitions and strong sentences on all virtues, in which he teaches tears in prayer are the beginning of a good life; vain-glory is like a worm in a tree. He speaks much on humility, presumption, charity, tears out of the desire of eternal happiness, and weeps to consider his own wretchedness and poverty.
That on Penance is a pathetic exhortation to sinners to return by the mercy of God, who expects them before the dawning of the day of life which is coming on; by the comfort which the angels will receive, and from the frightful trial at the last day, against which he prays for himself.
In his Tetrasyllabus he explains how the devil vanquished by the fervent, always says, I will then go to my friends, the slothful, where I shall have no labour, nor want stratagems. I have but to fetter them in the chains with which they are pleased, and I shall have them always willing subjects. He exhorts all therefore to constant fervour. In another place he exhorts all continually to repeat to themselves against sloth: Yet a little of thy journey remains and thou wilt arrive at thy place of rest. Then take thy rest not now on the road.
In his book on those works, Attende Tibi, to a monk, he presses the precept of being always fervent, never relaxing, in every virtue, especially in purity; and adds the example of St. Antony, who, as St. Athanasius relates, notwithstanding his great mortifications, which he never relaxed from his youth to his old age, would never bathe or so much as wash his feet, or even suffer any part of his body to be seen, except his face and hands, till after his death.
A novice among the monks often begged of St. Ephrem some direction. The saint extols his zeal and humility in desiring advice from a sinner, whose intolerable stench infects all his works. His first lesson to him is that he always remember the presence of God, and avoid all unnecessary words. He recommends then to him, in ninety-six lessons, perfect obedience, abstinence, silence, solitude, which frees a man from three dangers, viz. of the eyes, ears, and tongue; never to have so much compassion for any novice as to offend God, and so perish with him; if he be tepid, it is better he should perish alone than you also by condescension; never to speak to a superior in favour of an expelled brother, without most evident proofs of his perfect conversion; for a little spark falling into a barn, easily destroys all the labours of the whole year: to avoid frequent long conversations with any young man about piety or other things, for fear of fond love; never to desire anything great or public, for Gods honour, but rather to love to be hid and unknown; many in dens and deserts were the greatest saints, but without humility the most glorious virtues and the greatest actions are lost; never to seek the care of souls, but to employ in it the utmost diligence, if it be laid upon him: always to walk in the narrow way of compunction and mourning. His other lessons conduce to humility and other virtues.
His fifty-five Beatitudes comprise the happiness of all virtues, as of ever glorifying God, which is to be as the cherubim and seraphim. He closes them bursting into tears at the reflection how far he is from any of them by his sloth under a holy garb, and how distant from the holy servants of God, who persevered some in sackcloth and chains, others on pillars, others in enclosure and fasting, others in obedience, &c. He adds twenty other beatitudes.
His book of one hundred chapters on humility, consists chiefly of short examples; as, a certain novice always kept silence. Some said to him, He is silent because he knows not how to speak. Others said, No, but it is because he has a devil. He, hearing all this, gave no answer, but glorified God in his heart.
In the second volume we have the life of St. Abraham; a long panegyric on the Patriarch Joseph; a sermon on the Transfiguration; one on the Last Judgment, and on the necessity and advantage of spending this life in tears; a treatise of ninety chapters on the right way of living; fifty paræneses or exhortations to the monks, on obedience, humility, &c.; a most pathetic sermon on the second coming of Christ, in which he expresses himself as follows: Beloved of Christ, lend a favourable attention to what I am going to say on the dreadful coming of our Lord.Remembering that hour, I tremble with an excess of fear; for who can relate those horrible things? what tongue can express them? When the King of kings, arising from his throne of glory, shall descend, and sit the just judge, calling to an account all the inhabitants of the earth.At this thought I am ready to swoon away: my limbs quake for fear, my eyes swim in tears, my voice fails, my lips shrink, my tongue falters, and my thoughts are wrapt up in silence. I am obliged to denounce these things to you; yet fear will not suffer me to speak. A loud thunder now affrights us; how then shall we stand at the sound of the last trumpet, louder than any thunder, summoning the dead to rise! Then the bones of all men in the bowels of the earth, hearing this voice, shall suddenly run, and seek out their joints; and, in the twinkling of an eye, we shall see all men risen and assembled to judgment. The great King shall command, and instantly the earth quaking, and the troubled sea shall give up the dead which they possess, whether devoured by fish, beasts, or fowl. All in a moment shall appear present, and not a hair will be wanting. He goes on describing the frightful fire consuming all things on the earth; the angels separating the sheep and the goats; the standard of the great King, that cross on which he was nailed, shining bright, and borne before him; men standing to meet this tremendous majesty, revolving their own deeds; the just with joy, the wicked worse than dead with fear; the angels and cherubim appearing, singing, Holy, Holy, Holy; the heavens opened, and the King of kings revealed in such incomparable glory, that the heavens and the earth will fly from before his face. Who then, says he, can stand? He places before our eyes the books opened, and all our actions, thoughts, and words, called to an account. He then cries out: What tears ought we not to shed night and day without intermission, for that terrible appearance! Here the venerable old man was no longer able to break through his sighs and tears, and stood silent. The auditory cried outTell us what more terrible things will follow. He answered, Then all mankind will stand with eyes cast down, between life and death, heaven and damnation, before the tribunal; and all degrees of men shall be called to a rigorous examination.Woe to me! I desire to tell you what things will follow, but my voice fails me through fear, and I am lost in confusion and anxiety; the very rehearsal of these things is most dreadful. The audience repeated again: Tell us the rest, for Gods sake, for our advantage and salvation. He therefore proceeded, Then, beloved of Christ, shall be required in all Christians the seal of baptism, entire faith, and that beautiful renunciation which they made before witnesses, saying, I renounce Satan, and all his works; not one, or two, or five, but all the works of the devil. In that hour this renunciation will be demanded of us, and happy is he who shall have kept it faithfully as he promised. Here, he stopping in tears, they cried again: Tell us also what follows this. He answered: I will tell you in my grief, I will speak through my sighs and tears; these things cannot be related without tears, for they are extremely dreadful. The people entreated again: O servant of God, we beseech you to instruct us fully. The holy man, again striking his breast, and weeping more bitterly, said: O my brethren, beloved of Christ, how sorrowful, and how frightful things do you desire to hear! O terrible hour! Woe to me, woe to me! Who will dare to relate, or who will bear to hear this last and horrible rehearsal; all you who have tears, sigh with me! and you who have not, hear what will befal you; and let us not neglect our salvation. Then shall they be separated, without hopes of ever returning to each other again, bishops from fellow-bishops, priests from fellow-priests, deacons from fellow-deacons, subdeacons and lectors from their fellows; those who were kings as the basest slaves; children from parents; friends from kindred and intimates. Then princes, philosophers, wise men of the world, seeing themselves thus parted, shall cry out to the saints with bitter tears: Farewell eternally, saints and servants of God; farewell parents, children, relations, and friends; farewell prophets, apostles, and martyrs; farewell Lady Mother of God; you prayed much for us that we might be saved, but we would not.Farewell life-giving cross; farewell paradise of delights, kingdom without end, the heavenly Jerusalem. Farewell ye all; we shall never more behold one of you, hastening to our torment without end or rest, &c.
A Sermon on fraternal Charity, and on the Last Judgment, in which his tears again hindered him from pursuing his subject. Nothing can be more terrifying or more moving than these discourses, or than the next on Antichrist, or that after on the Cross, or that of Interrogations.There follow his Testament, his Sermon on the Cross and on Charity, in which he salutes and honours that holy instrument of our redemption in the strongest words and highest epithets, which, as he says, all nations adore, and which saving sign we mark on our doors, foreheads, eyes, mouths, breast, and our whole body. His Sermon against heretics on the precious margarite, to prove the Virgin Mary mother of God; that on the vice of the tongue; his Panegyric on St. Basil; his Sermon on the Sinful Woman in the gospel; on the Forty Martyrs; on Abraham and Isaac; on Daniel and the three children. Sermons on the eight capital bad thoughts; gluttony, fornication, avarice, anger, sadness, sloth, vain-glory, and pride; on perfection, on patience and suffering; and many small tracts to monks. One contains a relation of a holy virgin in a monastery of three hundred, who was never seen eating, but worked washing the dishes and cleaning the scullery, feigning herself a fool, and bearing blows and all insults without murmuring or answering a word; called by derision, Salla or Sallop. St. Pityrumus, an anchoret, was admonished by an angel to go and see in her one who surpassed him and the others in virtue: having seen all the nuns he found not her, she being left behind in the kitchen. At his desire, which all laughed at, she was brought out. The anchoret immediately fell at her feet, crying, Bless me, Amma, (i. e. spiritual mother.) She also fell at his feet. The nuns said to him, Dont incur such a disgrace; this is Salla. No, (said he,) you are all Salæ. Upon this all honoured her, and one confessed, that she had thrown on her washings of the dishes; another had struck her; another had thrust mustard up her nostrils, &c. She not bearing esteem, retired thence unknown, and was never more heard of.
The third volume contains many Sermons and Discourses, chiefly on the judgments of God and the last day; on penance, compunction, prayer, charity, and other virtues; and on vices and passions. Also the life of St. Julian the anchoret. Pious poems and several panegyrics of, and prayers to the Blessed Virgin, whose virginity and dignity of mother of God he clearly asserts.
The fourth volume consists of his Commentaries on the five books of Moses, on Joshua, Judges, and the four books of Kings. St. Gregory of Nyssa says, he studied and meditated assiduously on the holy scriptures, and expounded them all from the first book of Genesis to the last in the New Testament, with an extraordinary light, with which the Holy Ghost filled him. Many other Oriental writers testify the same. His exposition is very literal, full, and learned; nothing escapes him in them.
The fifth volume gives us his Commentaries on Job and on all the prophets. Eleven sermons on several passages of holy scripture, in which he exhorts principally to avoid all occasions of sin, and to perpetual tears and penance. Thirteen sermons on the birth of Christ; and fifty-six polemical sermons against heresies, viz. of the Marcionites, Manicheans, especially their judiciary astrology; of the Novatians, Messalians, &c. His zeal was moved seeing these errors spread in his country. He employs the Churchs authority, scriptures, and reasons to confute them.
The sixth volume gives us ninety other polemical Discourses against the Arian and Eunomian heretics or Searchers, as he calls them, because they attempted to penetrate the divine mysteries, and the incomprehensible nature of God himself. They are equally solid and strong; not dry, as most writings of controversy, but full of unction and of the greatest sentiments of devotion, and an inexpressible ardour to ever love and praise our great God and Redeemer. His sermon against the Jews is no less remarkable.
His Necrosima or eighty-five funeral canons, were wrote on Death and Gods judgments, which he had always before his eyes. He teaches evidently in them the use of ecclesiastical funeral rites and prayers at burials; that the souls of the departed immediately are judged by a particular judgment; the good immediately admitted to the enjoyment of God; those who die without having expiated venial sin, suffer in the flames of purgatory till it be satisfied for, but are relieved by the sacrifices, prayers, and other pious works of the faithful on earth. Of these fifty-four are short funeral discourses on the death of bishops, monks, and persons of all conditions. They are full of his extreme fear of the divine judgment, and a great contempt of the vanity of the world. He says in the eighty-first canon, Entering on so long and dangerous a journey, I have my viaticum, thee, O Son of God; when hungry, I will eat thee, repairer of mankind; so it shall be, that no fire will dare approach my members, for it will not be able to bear the sweet saving odour of thy body and blood, &c. He uses the same motive of confidence of immortality, from being fed with the body and blood of Christ, and employs that endearing divine grace to move God to have mercy on him. He repeats the same prayer in his thirteenth Parænesis. Nothing can be clearer than the texts collected by Ceillier (t. 8, p. 101,) from the writings of St. Ephrem, in favour of the real presence of the sacred body of Christ in the holy eucharist. See on them the judicious remarks of an able critic, Mém. de Trev. Jan. 1756, p. 55.
Here follow four sermons on Freewill; also seventy-six moving Paræneses or exhortations to penance. In the forty-second he tells us, that when he lay down to take a little repose in the night, he reflected on the excessive and boundless love of God, and instantly rose again to pay him the tribute of the most fervent praise and thanks he was able. But being deterred, says he, by the remembrance of my sins, I began to melt into tears, and should have been disturbed beyond my strength, had not the thief, the publican, the sinful woman, the Canaanean, the Samaritan, and other examples of mercy, given me comfort and courage. He says that at other times, when he was going to fall asleep, the remembrance of his sins banished all thoughts of giving rest to his wearied body, and made sleep yield to sighs, groans, and floods of tears, to which he invited himself by the example of the penitent David, washing his bed with briny torrents; for the silence of night is the most proper season for our tears. It appears he composed this work, at least part, a little before his death; for in the forty-third Parænesis he writes: I Ephrem am now dying. I write my last will and testament to all lovers of truth, who shall rise up after me. Persevere night and day in prayer. The husbandman reapeth a great crop by assiduous labour; so will you, if you never interrupt your devotion. Pray without ceasing.
His book in fifteen elegant discourses on the Terrestrial Paradise, explaining its history in Genesis, and comforting himself with the name and happiness of the good thief on the cross, makes a transition to the heavenly Paradise, on the felicity of which he speaks with incredible joy and pleasure. In his eighth discourse he teaches that the soul cannot perfectly see God before the resurrection; but means by the perfectly, complete enjoyment, for he is very express, (loc. cit. supra,) that the blessed behold God immediately on their death; as Muratori demonstrates against Burnet, in his dissertation on Paradise, c. 2.
Eighteen very devout sermons on divers subjects close his works: on Christs Nativity and Resurrection; on Prayer, on Humility, which he teaches is the weapon our Redeemer conquered hell by, and has put into our hands as our principal and only armour against our spiritual enemies. The works of this father demonstrate the uniformity in faith of the Syriac Church in the fourth century, with that of the universal church of all ages.
Several of St. Ephrems works were translated into Latin, and published at Rome in 1589, by Gerard Vossius or Volkens, provost of Tongres. A Greek edition of the same was printed at Oxford in 1709, by the care of Mr. Edward Thwaites. A more complete edition of this fathers works was given to the public at Rome in six volumes in folio, in 1732 and 1743, under the direction of Cardinal Querini, librarian of the Vatican, and Monsignor Joseph Assemani, first prefect of the same library. In this we have the original Syriac text of a good part of these works, and the ancient Greek version of the rest. The Latin translation is the work partly of Gerard Vossius, partly of F. Peter Benedetti, a Maronite Jesuit who lived at Rome; and in the last volumes of Stephen Assemani, archbishop of Apamea, who also published the Chaldaic acts of the Martyrs, and is nephew of the aforesaid Joseph Assemani. The Greek text in the last volumes, especially in the sixth, is published very incorrect. See Mémoires de Trevoux for January, 1756, p. 146.