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Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary

“Well-versed” in Patristic preaching? Look again.

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Aug 18, 2023 | In Reviews

Mike Aquilina gets what my title means by the term “well-versed”, and if you have been following his Way of the Fathers podcast, you just might get it, too. For a big hint, see episode 28, Ephrem, Symbolist. In this episode you will learn something that is quite startling to us: There was a Syrian Catholic tradition of preaching in verse.

It turns out that St. Ephrem, a particularly brilliant theologian and defender of the Faith, was a poetic dynamo in his teaching and preaching. His poetry is considered by many to be second only to Dante’s. But he was no less eloquent through Christian deeds such as his establishment of hospitals and his heroic death while ministering to the sick. Born in 306 AD, Ephrem spent most of his life in Nisibis (now Nusaybin, Syria), barely in Roman territory, a city that was besieged three times during his lifetime by the neighboring Persian empire. When the Roman Emperor in Constantinople was finally forced to cede Nisibis to his enemies in 363 AD, Ephrem moved 150 miles to Edessa. At about age 57, he took up the same work in the Catholic community there.

As a deacon, St. Ephrem was a leader in setting up catechetical schools and women’s choirs, in the Syrian Catholic tradition of musical versification on religious themes. We still have access to more than 500 of his hymns today. But again, the more astonishing fact is that many Syrian Catholic preachers delivered their sermons in verse as well. Here Ephrem was likely the very best at what was then a common homiletic method.

Yet his competence at many things also created challenges for the Saint, for it was frequently the case that accomplished deacons were the preferred material for the episcopate (or even for the papacy). Sometimes early ordination as a priest was a signal that a candidate lacked the administrative ability to run a diocese. In Ephrem’s case this took a strange turn: He did not want to be a bishop, but he had to feign madness at one point to escape selection. One wonders what songs he sang then!

The occasion for my turn to Ephrem today is not Mike’s highly-engaging podcast episode (which, though still as fresh as the day it was born, was recorded nearly three years ago). Rather, I am intrigued by a new book just out from Catholic University Press of America by Andrew Hofer, OP: The Power of Patristic Preaching. Fr. Hofer explores the preaching of seven of the Fathers: Origen, Ephrem, Gregory of Nazianzus, John Chrysostom, Augustine, Leo the Great and Gregory the Great. This is a scholarly study of nearly 400 pages, but for those who will welcome greater depth, it makes a nice companion volume to the more accessible work by Fr. Aidan Nichols which I reviewed just last month (Patristics: Fr. Nichols’ astonishing Singing-Masters).

Fr. Nichols used the phrase “singing masters” for the Church Fathers in his study because of the resonance of Patristic theology in souls uplifted to God. But St. Ephrem was literally both poet and singing master, possessing a genuinely Patristic theological depth in a soul born to poetry and praise. And now, you see, I have worked in my own alliterative phrase (possessing…patristic…poetry…praise), which is of the same type as used in Fr. Hofer’s own title, The Power of Patristic Preaching. Without recommending my own too-facile prose, I think we ought not to take such poetic enhancements lightly. The great Syrian preachers, exemplified by St. Ephrem, did anything but.

Sing praise!

Fr. Hofer is himself influenced by St. Ephrem, or perhaps simply by all great preachers, to select passages for his discussion which showcase, as much as possible in English, a poetic respect for both sound and sense. Since Ephrem exemplified this poetic turn in the highest degree, it is to our loss that we cannot enjoy either his songs or his versified preaching in their original language. Translators, after all, can give us only a taste, and much of the poetic character of the original language is necessarily lost by even the best of them. Still, Fr. Hofer does provide some excellent examples, and I will very much enjoy sharing them.

Much of Ephrem’s exposition of the Scriptures focuses on the Divine humility, the sublime self-emptying of God Who never ceases to stoop to our level in order to raise us up. Fr. Hofer acknowledges that Ephrem himself, while he highly valued the virtue of humility, was quite capable of removing it from center stage when refuting the errors of those who attacked or distorted Catholic teaching in the name of Christ (as has been done in so many heretical movements from the very first). Nonetheless, he most often mirrored the Divine humility in his own life, and he made it a staple of his theology.

For example, after referring to the human condescension of teaching speech to a bird (such as a parrot, I presume), Ephrem wrote:

The Essence, exalted above all in all,
Bent down his height lovingly and acquired our habit.
He labored in every way to turn all to himself. [p. 96]

In a stunning passage. Ephrem reminds us that we emphasize God’s transcendent majesty only at our peril if we do not recall his immanent humility:

If someone concentrates his attention solely
on the metaphors used of God’s majesty,
he abuses and misrepresents that majesty
and thus errs
by means of those metaphors
with which God clothed himself for his benefit,
and he is ungrateful to that Grace
which stooped low
to the level of his childishness;
although it has nothing in common with him,
yet Grace clothed itself in his likeness
in order to bring him to the likeness of itself. [96-7]

The proper response to this Divine condescension is not pride and complacency but humility and praise, for:

God, in his mercy, called
Mortals gods, by grace. [97]

Fr. Hofer explains that St. Ephrem has, in effect, given us a “soteriology of humility” which is closely tied to our creation as embodied persons:

The weak body which he came down and put on,
His names and his actions are like it.
And just as it was necessary for him to be hungry,
And it was necessary for him to pray,
And just as all his hunger was of the body,
And all his want was of the body,
Do not die because of the names
That Life put on to make all live.
The Great One has put on
Needy names out of love for you, because of the body. [98]

In considering the supreme reality of humility in the Incarnation of Our Lord, Ephrem writes:

The womb of your mother overthrew the orders:
The Establisher of all entered a Rich One;
He emerged poor. He entered her a Lofty One;
He emerged humble. He entered her a Radiant One,
and he put on a despised hue and emerged.
He entered a mighty warrior, and put on fear
inside her womb. He entered, Nourisher of all,
and he acquired hunger. He entered, the One who gives drink to all,
and he acquired thirst. Stripped and laid bare,
He emerged from [her womb], the One who clothes all. [102-3]

In another place, noticing that Christ, in his humility, did not presume to debate with Satan when Satan tempted Him, Ephrem points out: “He merely quoted again and again, and the evil one wailed to see that he took refuge in simplicity” (103). Then the saint drew a highly personal conclusion for us: “Our pride is not able to put on the armor of your humility” (103).

In commenting on the Samaritan woman at the well (Jn 4:1-42), however, he versifies the glory we can attain through an imitation of this humility:

O, to you, woman in whom I see
A wonder as great as in Mary!
For she from within her womb
in Bethlehem brought forth his body as a child,
but you by your mouth made him manifest
as an adult in Shechem, the town of his father’s household.
Blessed are you, woman, who brought forth by your mouth
light for those in darkness. (110)

But woe to those who test God

Despite (or, really, perhaps because of) the beauty of his praise of God’s humility, and his insistence that we must imitate it, Ephrem could be very severe with those who seek, in effect, to seize control of Revelation in accordance with their own human lights—to redefine God or the Church through their own alleged power to “investigate” God. Thus:

The one who is able to investigate
Set limits upon it.
A knowledge that can
Limit the Knower-of-all
Is greater than he, for it can
Measure all of him.
Whoever has investigated the Father and the Son
Is greater than both.
God forbid that
The Father and the Son would be investigated
And dust and ash would be exalted. (111)

With all the Fathers, St. Ephrem understood that God’s self-revelation is preserved and protected only by the Church Christ established to extend His Presence until the end of time. Rather than presume to investigate God for ourselves, in this sense, the most poetic of Church fathers praises again the Divine humility:

Glory to the One who saw that we had been pleased
to resemble the animals in our rage and greed
and [so] he descended and became one of us that we might become heavenly,
Glory to him who never needs us to thank him.
Yet he [became] needy for he loves us, and he thirsted for he cherishes us.
And he asks us to give to him so that he may give us even more. [113]

Father Hofer has done us a service in exploring “the power of patristic preaching” in all seven of the towering figures he covers in his book, but a special wonder will be prompted in his readers by his exploration of the largely lost Syrian tradition of not only singing but praying and preaching in verse. St. Ephrem was named a Doctor of the Church quite recently, in 1920 by Pope Benedict XV, so perhaps interest on the part of Roman Catholics is still growing. I am reminded that the Old Testament is also marked by poetic beauty, particularly in the Psalms. The New Testament sparkles with it here and there, most famously in the cases of Zechariah, Mary and Simeon, but also in some ancient quotations in Paul’s letters and the most exalted passages by St. John, not to mention the ecstatic songs of the Book of Revelation.

Today the Catholic liturgy tends toward unadorned simplicity, which has its own kind of nobility, but contemporary sacred music is sadly often banal. Even if we do not wish our homilists to preach in verse, we might benefit from the occasional flight of reverent rhetoric. In any case, St. Ephrem is a good lesson for us. Our souls must magnify the Lord—and so our use of words ought to magnify the Word.

Andrew Hofer, OP, The Power of Patristic Preaching: The Word in Our Flesh. Catholic University of America Press, 2023. 400 pp. Paperback or ebook, $34.95.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: Jefesabella1011 - Aug. 19, 2023 2:30 AM ET USA

    For those not familiar with, or having had the privilege to hear some of Father Leo Patalinghug’s homilies, he often uses thought-provoking alliteration and word “smithery” to educate and inform. Some of the best, most powerful homilies I’ve heard lately were given by Fr. Leo.