Saint Ephrem the Syrian, often referred to as the “lyre” or “harp” of the Holy Spirit, is known in the Orthodox tradition as the author of that pious and penitent Lenten Prayer which bears his name. He lived before the time that the Syriac-speaking Church was overcome by Hellenization, and thus he may be one of the great representatives of Semitic Christianity. Saint Ephrem was a friend of the Cappadocian Fathers, especially Saint Basil who even ordained him as a deacon and who had great respect and appreciation for him. Saint John Chrysostom wrote that Saint Ephrem was a “habitation and resting place of the Holy Spirit”. It is a fact that the golden age of Syriac literature which lasting from the fourth to the seventh century, produced a great proliferation of religious poetry, unusual in comparison with that of the Greek and Latin Churches at that time. Saint Ephrem is even considered the greatest poet of the patristic age. Like the Greek Fathers, Saint Ephrem treated the Bible with an attitude which was essentially creative, namely that the divine inspiration did not freeze in the past, but rather by the hidden presence of the Holy Spirit it continues to be a reality in the ongoing process of revelation and communion between God and man. For this reason, perhaps, throughout the centuries all the east-Syrian school of thought has been characterized as poetic, mystical and contemplative.
Saint Gregory the Great informs us that Saint Ephrem was himself so filled by inspiration of the Holy Spirit that sometimes he even prayed for a pause in its flow: “Restrain, O Lord, the tide of your grace!” In the same manner, Saint Ephrem describes the Holy Spirit as a fragrant air that descended upon the apostles at the Pentecost and “delighted the preachers, through whom the guests were to be instructed and come to the wedding-feast.”
Saint Ephrem writes: “The Spirit will come with his tongues / and the Paraclete with his revelations / A new speech will dwell in you; / the wings of the Spirit will be folded upon you, / they will fly (down) from high / and they will dwell upon your mouth; / upon your lips shall dwell the fire / and your mouth in flame. / The mouth is closed yet swallows fire; / the tongue is silent, yet it conceives. / The bodily tongue is not consumed by the tongue of flame, / just as the bush in the desert / was not consumed by the burning flame. / the disciples received a tongue of fire / a new speech not native to them …”
Thus, through the power of the Holy Spirit, Christ enabled the Apostles to preach the divine Word, inasmuch as He Himself was dwelling in each of the Apostles, by the Holy Spirit. In the same Spirit who opens the eyes of the faith to the Christians so that they might see the heavens everywhere, through the means of unveiled symbols. The symbolism of Saint Ephrem’s poetry is more devotional-liturgical, but a theological teaching is also implicitly contained under the veil of images. Though neither Saint Ephrem nor the Syriac Church developed a sound and systematic theological doctrine of the Holy Spirit, they produced indeed great fruits of the Spirit. Thus, although Saint Ephrem’s hymns and writings use in general the freedom and richness of the inspirational kind of typologies and imagery, basically his doctrinal understanding of the Gospel remain closely related to that of the evangelical counsels. Thus, Saint Ephrem sets the world of symbols and types in order to bear of the Biblical truth and to make it palatable to the mind of the people. According to him, the man, the creation and the Scriptures are all brought, filled and made alive and new by the ever-presence of the Holy Spirit. The “type”, a category very much used by Saint Ephrem is one of the symbols of the Bible and of the Early Fathers of the Church, whereby every name given to the things is seen as having a true significance, hidden, but revealed also to us by the Holy Spirit. The term symbol in itself in Syriac can be translated as “mystery” and together with that is called “type” in the saint’s poetry provides us with the key to understand both the Bible and the real relations between this world and the heavenly world.
The inspiration by the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Truth is a “sine qua non” condition of the existence of both our true faith and the right expression of our beliefs. Thus, although Saint Ephrem stood against heresies by being outside the controversial issues his theological substance is very close to the Orthodox doctrine, however due to his abundant poetical imagination, his metaphorical language may sometimes overflow the stricter orthodoxy of the canonical terminology. In fact, throughout the centuries all of the East-Syrian school of thought has been characterized as exceedingly poetical, mystical and contemplative and less “ad literam” within the boundaries of the established speculative and systematic theology of the Orthodox Church. For example, in one of his prayers to the Holy Spirit, Saint Ephrem acknowledges the Trinitarian formula of the Cappadocian Fathers by saying: “O Lord, Heavenly King, Comforter, Spirit of Truth … I shall worship, praise and glorify Thy most honorable Name, with the Father and His only-begotten Son, now and ever, and for all ages. Amen.” Many times, however, using the Saint Basil’s term “gnoma” to equate hypostasis, person, Saint Ephrem never calls the Holy Spirit God. Moreover, the Holy Spirit formula “ignis et spiritus” is used by Saint Ephrem as an expression to characterize the angels. The Holy Spirit, according to the Saint Ephrem is like the angel’s burning coal, yet higher in dignity than the angels and the members of the Church.
In a Hymn dedicated to the Holy Spirit, Saint Ephrem uses the comparison of the Holy Trinity as the interaction between Sun, Rays, and Warmth. In his opinion, the Holy Spirit is like the warmth which gives life and inspiration. In the same manner, the Holy Spirit is envisioned like the angel’s burning coal … Saint Eprhem also accepts the belief which is typical of the Syrian Fathers that Mary’s conception by the Holy Spirit was actually accomplished by the entrance of the Word “through her ear.” Thus, Saint Ephhem explains this miraculous act, making an analogy with the effects of the light which entered in Mary’s eyes but did not make her blind, on the contrary, this light, being the power and the grace of the Holy Spirit, made her capable of seeing much more clearly and even enabled her to radiate that same light. The Holy Spirit came to Mary as a gift towards the Incarnation, but also to make Mary the model of the perfect Christian, completely obedient in faith to the will of God. Unfortunately, Saint Ephrem, like other Syriac Fathers as well, goes too far with his imagery depicting the Holy Spirit as being Mother-Spirit. This poetic image and theological idea are remote from the concept used by the Fathers when calling the Church to be our Mother. The Syriac Fathers’ theology itself contains the symbolic vision and representation of the Holy Spirit as feminine, a motherly principle of the Trinity. Such imagery is, however, not an invention of Syriac Fathers, it has some roots in the Exodus, where the Spirit of God was hovering above the face of the waters, the Holy Spirit descending like a dove at the baptism of Jesus. Origen, Jerome, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, as well as the Gnostics also equated “wisdom” and “spirit” considering them as feminine principles. There were even some trends in the philosophical writings of some of the Orthodox writers of the 20th century who speculated about the Holy Spirit as being a feminine spiritual power which is mediating to the world through Mary seen as the incarnation on the earth of the divine Sophia. In fact not a new idea, the same imagery is used in some of the Gnostic heretical teachings and especially in the Valentinian system which confused even Christ with a partner of Sophia/Holy Spirit.
For Saint Ephrem the same Spirit is the power which makes possible the mystery of Creation, of Incarnation, of the true baptism and communion in the Body of Christ: “Fire and Spirit are in the womb of her who bore You, / Fire and Spirit are in the river in which you were baptized, / Fire and Spirit are in our baptism / and in the Bread and Cup is Fire and Holy Spirit.” For the Saint the Lamb of God “has entered into fulfillment of the symbols by the Holy Spirit.” (Hymns on Unleavened Bread, Hymn 5) Also “In Thy bread is hidden a Spirit not to be eaten / in Thy wine dwells a fire not to be drunk / Spirit in thy bread, fire in Thy wine, a wonder set apart, (yet) received by our lips !” Through the descent of the Holy Spirit the Bread and Wine are to become the Body and the Blood of Christ. Here we find the same theology characteristic to the Early Syrian Fathers in which to the Holy Spirit is given the power to fill and to anoint all, but also He is the one who consecrates the bread and wine. The Holy Spirit comes upon the Christians also, but with the condition that the man with his “ungrateful will” shall cooperate with Him. Because Christ joined us by taking a body from us, the mankind, in this way He gives to everyone individually the Spirit to work in us what He has begun until we may pledged to the individual resurrection.
Through Christ’s incarnation the new people of God are finally called to be temples of the Holy Spirit not only to worship in “the temporal tabernacle” as the Old Israel did. However, the Body of Christ is not seen as a communion of people in whom Holy Spirit dwells. The Spirit is a divine indwelling but only individually in the sense shown by Saint Paul in I Corinthians 3:16 and 6:19. The same union applies for our personal union with Christ in the Holy Spirit. For it is a general characteristic of the Syriac Fathers to read John 1:14 as “The Word become body”. This is a weakness of such a thinking and interpretation that although they did not deny but even contemplate the Spirit’s material and sacramental functions they understand that every man as a Christian is only individually indwelled as a temple. However, they did not realize enough that the Church as the Body of Christ is in whole indwelled by the same spirit. Therefore, although Saint Ephrem even stressed the reality and presence of the Holy Spirit in both the sacraments of the Church and upon the man who receives these sacraments, a direct reference of the role of the Holy Spirit as the power and principle of unity in the mystical Body of Christ remains only peripheral. Nevertheless in one place Saint Ephrem describes the Holy Spirit as a fragrant air that descended upon the apostles at the Pentecost and “delight the preachers, through whom the guests were to be instructed and to come to the wedding-feast”. A similar allusion is to be found in the “Hymns for the Feast of the Epiphany”: “The Spirit came down from the high, / and hallowed the waters by His brooding / In the baptism of John He passed by the rest and abode on One; / but now He has descended and abode / on all that are born of the water. / Out of all that John baptized / on One it was that the Spirit dwelt; / but now He has flown and come down / that He may dwell on the many; / and as each after each comes up / He loves him and abides on Him.”
In the Early Syrian Church it was considered that when Christ was baptized in the Jordan all the water was sanctified. However, each personal baptism is considered only a re-enactment of that sanctification for this time effected by the Holy Spirit. Through baptism each Christian enters already in Paradise, because the Holy Spirit produces that transformation of the fallen creation into the primordial paradisiac state. Thus, the newly born in Spirit is raised up to a plane where the Holy Spirit is allowed to effect sanctification in both that person as in the material world around him. That man has passed already from death to life has become “a mirror” of God’s glory. In the Syriac Church of the 4th Century existed even the rite of “initiation” which usually begun with singing a spiritual song and it was followed by the anointing of the whole body as unction of the Holy Spirit. After this rite the baptism was performed then took place the reception of the Eucharist. Saint Ephrem considers that through this ritual and baptism by the way of water and oil it will be “touched up” the image of the fallen man and transforms him by giving the imprint of the mark of Christ’s ownership. It gives new birth to them “with triple pangs, accompanied by the three glorious names, of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” For “like a signet ring whose impression is left on wax, / so the hidden seal of the Spirit is imprinted by oil on the bodies / of those who are anointed in baptism.” The action of the Holy Spirit in the Baptism and Eucharist is compared to what happened to the Virgin Mary when she was overshadowed by the Holy Ghost. The same power was given by Christ to the Apostles to preach the divine Word, inasmuch as Christ Himself was dwelling in each of the Apostles: “The Spirit will come with his tongues / and the Paraclete with his revelations. / A new speech will dwell in you; / the wings of the spirit will be folded upon you, / they will fly (down) from on high / and they will dwell upon your mouth; / Upon your lips shall dwell the fire / and your mouths in flame. / The mouth is closed yet swallows fire; / the tongue is silent, yet it conceives. / The bodily tongue is not consumed / by the tongue of flame, / Just as the bush in the desert / was not consumed by the burning flame / The disciples received a tongue of fire, / a new speech not native to them / Through the tongue of the “watcher” Mary / received a new conception, strange to her / the tongues of the spirit came down upon the tongues of bodily flesh, / and there came the divine conception / to the fleshly womb of the daughter of man.” To the disciples was promised that they would be enabled with that power so to speak “like birds on high; these are the things that warmth effects, / and those of the Holy Spirit has accomplished / who is able to express it...” or “when the Holy Spirit breathes, than the summer comes.”
In some places, Saint Ephrem refers to the Holy Spirit just as warmth. This spirit is sent by the Father as the rays of the sun to warm and cloth the holy gifts as in the beginning Adam was closed with glory. The same spirit passed through the apostles who were sent in the entire world to fulfill the holy mission: “Even so the Spirit / as it sent them forth / upon their task / clothed the naked / Apostles to the four winds / By means of warmth / as by the Spirit /all things ripen, / all are sanctified, / a transplant symbol.” Here too, everything seems to be more symbolical than a matter of visible reality and faith. Thus, using the same naturalistic imagery, Saint Ephrem wrote that as the sun makes warm and brings to life all that was frozen before in the winter, so the Holy Spirit dissolves the carapace and the chain of darkness and sin so that a new springtime came into the Church: “Warmth awakens the womb of the silent, as the Holy Spirit awakens Holy Church.” This miraculous fire of the Holy Spirit cannot be described and its ineffability brings silence for the lips: “then speaks the mouth / and also the tongue, / as by the tongues of fire which rested / upon the disciple. / The Holy Spirit with its warmth by means of tongue banished silence from disciples.”
To Saint Ephrem the nature in spring time is a symbol of resurrection, a co-witness to God as Creator, as long as in the creation everything is clothed by the Holy Spirit with a new meaning. In a hymn directed against the astrological determinism Saint Ephrem brings as witness the nature symbols for the true faith: Trinity and Cross. These symbols give the direction and inspiration to the Church which is seen like a boat pushed to the shore by the power of the Holy Spirit: “No man ever saw a ship in mid-ocean / drifting alone without a sailor, / steering itself, self-controlling / Like ships, all things have their needs: / the soul, of freedom; / creation of the Creator; / the church of the Savior; / the altar, of the Holy Spirit.” The Cross “in the name of the Three” is delivering “its inhabitants” and “the Spirit in the place of the dove was to minister its anointing, and the symbol of his salvation.”
In one of his teachings “that the soul of man is not blood”, Saint Ephrem, in the theological line of the Syriac Fathers, writes against the “trichotomizing” account presenting man as tripartite body/soul/spirit whole. It is only by the power of the Holy Spirit that man can be raised to the “trinity”. The Holy Spirit is also the One who opens the eyes of faith to the Christians so that they might see the symbols of heavens unveiled and everywhere. It is therefore not in vain that Saint Ephrem the Syrian was referred by the Church Fathers as the “lyre” or “harp” of the Spirit, or “habitation and resting place of the Holy Spirit”.