Saint Ephrem and Dante

The Harp of the Holy Spirit

In the course of trying to remember a quote from Saint Ephrem (or Ephraim or Ephraem) that I read twenty years ago I surfed a lot of sites about Saint Ephrem. Top quote about him?

“the greatest poet of the patristic age … perhaps, the only theologian-poet to rank beside Dante”

That quotation is from the Catholic Dictionary of Theology, Vol. 2, London, 1967, p. 222 and the article is by Robert Murray, a Jesuit who studied Saint Ephrem’s writings. I found it in an Encyclopedia.com article about Ephraem of Syria.

So why the comparison?

Ephrem was born in the city of Nisibis (now Turkey, close to the border with Syria around 306 and died around 373. He wrote hymns, sermons, and biblical commentaries that were used in his role as a deacon. A key point here is that his educational responsibilities were to the Syrians so he wrote in Syriac, not in Greek as most learned people of the time did. All the articles I read said that translating from Syrian is complex and lots of beauty is lost.

Dante also wrote in his local language, trying to reach his neighbors first, and took heat for not writing in Latin.

Ephrem and his Christian community were forced out of Nisibus when the Roman emperor lost a fight with the Persians. The terms of the surrender demanded that the Christians leave the city and go into exile. Ephrem ended up in Odessa.

His writings always had the purpose of defending the faith but Saint Ephrem was specifically trying to counter other religions and philosophers who were proselytizing with poetry themselves.

According to Orthodox.wiki, he engaged with Greek science and philosophy; Dante definitely was engaged with the science of his time.

An example of Saint Ephrem from that wiki:

“Whenever I have meditated upon you I have acquired a veritable treasure from You; whatever aspect of You I have contemplated, a stream has flowed from You; there is no way I can contain it. Your foundation, Lord, is hidden from the person who does not thirst for You.” (Faith 32:2-3) https://orthodoxwiki.org/Ephrem_the_Syrian

The loveliest article I read was from a Maronite publication, which pointed to another similarity between Saint Ephrem and Dante. Both lived in a time when “religion and politics had become hopelessly entangled, and the result was toxic.” **https://www.maronitevoice.org/articles/2019/6/21/st-ephrem-the-syrian-harp-of-the-holy-spirit

Dante is very Biblical and Saint Ephrem even more so. According to the article Saint Ephrem said that when he opened the Bible, “The words ran out to meet me. They flung their arms around me, took me by the hand, and led me in.” I read lots of bits of Saint Ephrem’s poetry and these lines are classic. Saint Ephrem takes a familiar picture (for example of the Prodigal Son) and applies it in a new and surprising way that is still incredibly beautiful.

Saint Ephrem …

“God’s flock is starving; it has been left to graze on fields of words.”

Canto 29, Paradiso, Dante …

As fables such as these, that every year
Are shouted from the pulpit back and forth,

In such wise that the lambs, who do not know,
Come back from pasture fed upon the wind,
And not to see the harm doth not excuse them.

Christ did not to his first disciples say,
‘ Go forth, and to the world preach idle tales,’
But unto them a true foundation gave;

…….

Now men go forth with jests and drolleries
To preach, and if but well the people laugh,
The hood puffs out, and nothing more is asked.

More of Saint Ephrem’s poetry can be found at https://www.tserkovnost.org/stephrem/

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