Ephrem the Syrian (306-373) was one of the most significant of early Christian thinkers. Two of the keys to understanding his work are the ideas that God is a mystery, and that we are called to be like God (what Athanasius called ‘theosis’).
God lies beyond time and space, and as these are our ways of anchoring ourselves in the world, it follows He is beyond us; however wise and learned we might be, we can approach God only through prayer, in faith, and love, and in the end, through silence; all theological thinking should be founded in prayer; we can come to Him only through His Grace:
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 in which I can contain it:
praise to this fountain of Yours.
Your fountain, Lord, is hidden
from the person who does not thirst for You;
Your treasury seems empty
to the person who rejects You.
Love is the treasurer
of Your heavenly treasure store.
[Hymn on the Faith 32]
We know of God only what He has revealed, and this includes the whole of creation, for our God is a creator. But only His Word is the very image of the Father and fully knows Him; but since the Word created this world, all of creation symbolises its Creator.
To be human is to be Christ-like in the sense that God intended creation to reach its climax in ‘the Word made Flesh’, and so, thanks to His redeeming work the road to theosis is open; for to be human is to be called to an eternal destiny.
Through our selfishness and disregard for God’s Law, we have erred and strayed, and the image of Him in us is marred and obscured. Christ’s coming allows that process to be reversed, and we can, once again, attain the eternal destiny. We should try to keep our heart pure. Christ is the ‘luminous one’, and Ephrem prays:
Let our prayer be a mirror, Lord, placed before your face
then Your fair beauty will be imprinted on its luminous service …
Let not all sorts of thoughts be imprinted on our prayer;
Let the movements of Your face, Lord, settle upon it, so that, like
a mirror, it may be filled with Your beauty.
Ephrem describes the relationship between prayer and faith thus:
Hidden prayer is for the hidden ear of God, while faith is for the visible ear of humanity … Let prayer wipe clean the murky thoughts, let faith wipe clean the senses outwardly; and let one such man who is divided, collect himself and become one before You.
The process by which we come closer to God is dictated by how we respond to His Grace. We cannot expect all the dirt which mars us to go at once, but we can devote ourselves to knowing what He wants by listening.
The great Welsh poet and mystic, the Rev. R.S. Thomas caught this in his But the silence in the Mind:
But the silence in the mind
is when we live best, within
listening distance of the silence
we call God. This is the deep
calling to deep of the psalm-
writer, the bottomless ocean.
We launch the armada of
our thoughts on, never arriving.
It is a presence, then,
whose margins are our margins;
that calls us out over our
own fathoms. What to do
but draw a little nearer to
such ubiquity by remaining still?
In the words of the Psalmist:
Be still, and know that I am God