Welcome to the series on the Desert Fathers and Mothers. This week I’m featuring Part 1 of Abba Ephraim the Syrian.
“They slapped Him, buffeted Him, mocked Him, nailed Him to the Cross, gave Him vinegar with gall to drink, and pierced His side. He endured all of this for our salvation, and yet we cannot endure a small insult for His sake?”
“The beginning of the bearing of fruit is the flower, and the beginning of humility is submission in the Lord; for he who acquires submissiveness is compliant, readily obedient, gentle, and accords honor to both small and great; and I believe that such a one will receive eternal life as a reward from the Lord.”
Abba Ephraim the Syrian is one of those men counted with lofty praise as a doctor of the historic church. Sharing company with Basil the Great, John Chrysostom, and Gregory of Nyssa, Ephraim influenced the church through songs, hymns, and spiritual writing. He was a prolific author, imaginative poet, innovative evangelist, and kind spiritual father.
Ephraim was born around the year 306 AD. His family lineage is not entirely clear to us, though the most reliable sources claim he was born to pagan parents who turned him out as a young man when he turned his heart to Christ. He was taken in by a well-known bishop in the city of Nisbis in Turkey who trained him in the art of the spiritual life.
Though he lacked the scholastic education of men like Basil and Gregory, his intellect was no less keen. He was fed a steady diet of scripture, prayer, and service in the church. The bishop took special care to teach and train Ephraim.
As a young boy, Ephraim had a dream that would prophesy the call on his life. Upon falling asleep, he dreamt that a vine sprung from his mouth, filled the heavens, and was laden with fruit. The birds of the air flocked to the vine and fed themselves on the delicious fruit. The more the birds ate, the more the fruit increased. The dream spoke to his coming influence and teaching on the spiritual life. He would bear abundant fruit that would feed spiritual people heavenly things.
While he served under the bishop, a young woman became pregnant by another man named Ephraim. The young woman accused Ephraim and he accepted the accusation without defending himself. The bishop of Nisbis was not convinced of his guilt. Ephraim bore the guilt until the child was born. He brought the child to the front of the church and begged the people to forgive him for his failure. After a few days, he perceived the scandal that his response had brought to the church. Ephraim brought the child once again to the front of the church, only this time, to his benefit, the child miraculously spoke the name of its actual father. Ephraim was exonerated.
When the Persian army laid siege to the city of Nisbis, Ephraim served the people until the Christians were driven from the city in the middle of the 4th century. Ephraim retired to a life of solitude to a cave overlooking the city of Edessa in Turkey. It is there that he entered into the monastic life. He spent his time in prayer, fasting, silence, and contemplation. Silence is where he discovered his true purpose: to defend the church from false and erroneous teaching, and to help the church mine the depths of the spiritual life.
Though solitude in a cave became his home and practice, he was not inactive in church matters. Ephraim welcomed visitors, composed hymns, and wrote theological treatises. Seeing a unique opportunity, Ephraim wrote alternative versions of hymns that had popularized gnostic heresies. He exchanged the erroneous words with Christian theology and teaching. His songs, set to the same music, became far more popular than the original and served to educate the people about true Christian theology. He frequently traveled to Edessa where he taught and preached, often leaving the people weeping.
Abba Ephraim became known as a man gifted in knowledge, with the ability to illumine the depths of the spiritual life to his visitors. Though he had garnered considerable influence, he made time to entertain those that visited him for spiritual instruction. His writings show his profound awareness of the human heart, and the process of redemption in Christ.
Around 370 he left his cave outside of Edessa to visit Basil the Great, and some sources also report a visit to Egypt to learn from the fathers there, notably Abba Paisios the Great. Though he exerted notable influence, and discoursed with other notable fathers, he never lost his desire to care for those entrusted him by Christ.
“Brother, do not say to yourself that ’today I will commit a sin and tomorrow I will repent,’ for you cannot be sure about the next day; concern for the morrow belongs only to God.”
The Spiritual Life
Abba Ephraim taught that the spiritual life should engender an entire change from one lifestyle to another. In the secular life, the individual is concerned about being seen by others, but the spiritual life forfeits present recognition for eternal intimacy. The monk ought to live alone for God, “He who wants to become a monk first renounces the world, and then his own will, and takes up his cross and follows our Savior Christ.”
The first stage of the spiritual life is service towards others: “After you have cast off your old ways and humbled your thoughts, gather unfailing wealth through serving your brothers and bearing spiritual fruits.” The foundation for the spiritual life is serving others. “For while prayer and fasting are good, these things are crowned by charity, in keeping with the Divine Will: ‘I will have mercy, and not sacrifice.’” Charity, service and love lay a lasting foundation for intimacy with God. Prayer without love lacks transformative power, it is merely empty meditation. As the Apostle James said, faith without works is dead.
However, charity and love are to be their own reward. The one who does deeds in order to be recognized in this life is like the man who built his house on sand. The one who keeps their eyes on men will eventually succumb to pride because his self esteem will be driven by the opinion of others. The truly spiritual one will have no need for the glory of recognition for love and charity. Their reward is eternal, and thus has no impact on this present life. Abba Ephraim said, “My brother, if you renounce the world…do not seek to make a name for yourself…but say to your mind and to other men what the Prophet said, ”I am poor and needy” (Psalm 86:1) and God will help you and exalt you.”
In fact the spiritual life cannot be practiced while looking to earn the reward of men. If you keep your eyes fixed on the adulation of men while in public, you will keep your eyes fixed on the adulation of men while in private. It is in silence that we experience the most profound moments of God’s presence, yet if we have practiced the praise of men in public, we will miss the intimacy of God in private. “A house built on sand will not stand; and ascesis (spiritual discipline) mingled with the desire to please men will not last. He who does his work with the fear of God will not lose his reward.”
“It is not the tonsure (a religious hair style) or the clothing that make the monk, but the longing for heavenly things and a life in accordance with the Will of God.” The spiritual life is communicated not by outward dress or spiritual habits, but in how one loves and serves another. The true lover of Christ will be known as the one who loves others deeply.
Abba Ephraim laid out the qualifications for the spiritual life much the same way Paul would have in one of his letters. He wrote that depth of the monk would be seen by these traits:
- He does not quarrel, curse, swear oaths, or denigrate anyone
- He has self-control and is not prodigal
- He has for friends those who serve God as he does
- He does not grieve or wrong anyone; rather, when he is wronged, he endures it with gladness.
- He is not overcome by the madness of acquiring wealth
- He does not look for glory from men, nor does he give himself over to airs, but as much as possible he humbles himself even more greatly
- He is helpful and accommodating to all
- He mourns and weeps in the most secret place of both his dwelling and his soul, begging God to forgive his sins
- He does not pray only for himself, but also for the whole world.
- He does not busy himself with vain theories, but studies the lives of holy men
- He resists all bodily pleasures, bearing in his mind the bitterness of the eternal punishments that await those who seek after pleasures
- He blesses those who mock him, urges on those who curse him, and is longsuffering towards those who slander him
To Ephraim, the foundation you laid was vitally important: “My beloved, if you make a good beginning, you will also conclude your old age in a pleasing manner; and you will be as a lamp that enlightens many on the path of the Lord. Lay a strong foundation, then, so that your work may be exalted.” A strong foundation of love and service will enable the monk to excel in the spiritual life. His name will be seen in the longevity of his love, not in the height of man’s praise.
Success in the spiritual life will be partly dependent upon who those that you surround yourself with. “My brother, do not step in mud, and remove yourself from men who strut around without fear of God…Imitate those who are fervent in spirit and tread the narrow way of affliction, so that you may attain to eternal life.” If you hang around with those who wallow in the mud, you will eventually be covered with the same stains that mark their life. Refuse the company of men and women that would drag you down to the depths of their own inner depravity.
Finally, if you find the intensity of the spiritual life waning, honestly assess your heart: “Then examine yourself closely, in case you have become occupied once again by earthly cares and concern over bodily needs, about which you were commanded not to be anxious. Should this turn out to be the case, you spoke falsely when you said that you believed in the future life.” If this should be the case, the response is simple, re-commit your life to the passionate pursuit of Christ.