Today, June 10, is the feast of St. Ephrem of Syria, deacon, teacher, poet, orator, and defender of the faith. St. Ephrem was born around 306 and died in 373. He is said to have accompanied James, Bishop of Nisbis to the Council of Nicaea in 325.
St. Ephrem retired to a cave outside Edessa, where he lived in great simplicity and wrote most of his spiritual works. His writing was often in the form of hymns and poetry. He is known in the Syrian Church as “The harp of the Holy Spirit.”
He frequently left his cave to go into the city to preach. During a famine in 372-373 St. Ephrem distributed food and money to the poor and organized a sort of ambulance service for the sick. He died of exhaustion, brought on by his long hours of relief work.
St. Ephrem is well known in the Eastern Church for the following Lenten prayer:
O Lord and Master of my life!
Take from me the spirit of sloth, despondency,
lust of power, and idle talk;
but grant rather the spirit of chastity,
humility, patience, and love to thy servant.
Yea, O Lord and King!
Grant me to see my own transgressions,
and not to judge my brother;
for blessed art Thou unto the ages of ages.
The following two excerpts are from his Hymns on Faith XX:
- “To you, Lord, do I offer up my faith with my voice, for prayer and petition can both be conceived in the mind and brought to birth in silence, without using the voice.”
- “In a single body are both Prayer and Faith to be found, the one hidden, the other revealed; the one for the Hidden One, the other to be seen. Hidden prayer is for the hidden ear of God, while faith is for the visible ear of humanity.”
Faith and prayer form an inseparable pair. Prayer is the interior and invisible aspect of faith. Faith is the visible and exterior manifestation of prayer. St. Ephrem is describing our life as sacramental – an outward and visible manifestation of inward and spiritual grace. Humanity has the potential to and is intended to be a sacrament. In that regard the spiritual journey is, at least in part, about integrating our inner and outer lives that they might reflect and reveal each other.
St. Ephrem views prayer and faith as things to which the Christian gives birth. The voice is to give birth to the utterance of faith and the heart is to give birth in silence to prayer. Failure to do so results in death. Hear what St. Ephrem says:
If the womb holds back the child, then both mother and child will die; may my mouth, Lord, not hold back my faith with the result that the one perish and the other be quenched, the two of them perishing, each because of the other.
Prayer and faith – the hidden and the revealed – inform and form each other. If our inner practice of prayer does not manifest itself in the world, in our actions, and in our relationships then our prayer is just idle chatter to ourselves. And if our actions and relationships are not grounded in and arising out of our prayer then life becomes the chaos and emptiness of “busy work.”
How is your prayer? How is your faith? These are not two separate questions. They are one and the same question and that one question is, “How is your life?”