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55 Beatitudes
To the Monks of Egypt
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On Abraham and Isaac
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SAINT EPHREM THE SYRIAN

Icon of Saint Ephrem the Syrian

ASCETICAL AND OTHER WRITINGS
EXTANT ONLY IN GREEK

INTRODUCTORY NOTE

The ascetic writings in Greek attributed to St Ephrem the Syrian [† 373] are some of the basic texts of Orthodox monasticism. The Triodion lays down that they are to be read at Matins each weekday morning in Lent, after the first two readings from the Psalter. Together with the Lausiac History of Palladios, prescribed to be read after the third reading of the Psalter and the third Ode of the Canon, the Ladder of St John of Sinai and the Instructions of St Theodore the Studite, they should form the regular diet of non-biblical spiritual reading for Orthodox Christians.

The large corpus of Greek texts that go under the name of St Ephrem the Syrian have been greatly neglected by scholars. The only full editions are those published in the 18th century by Thwaites, in Oxford [1709], and by Assemani, largely based on Thwaites, in Rome [1743]. Mercati began a critical edition in 1915, but only one fascicle of the first volume ever appeared. In 1988 a corrected reprint, based on the two eighteenth century editions, together with a translation into Modern Greek, began to be published in Thessaloniki. It was brought to completion late in 1998 with the publication of the seventh, and final, volume.  This final volume contains a number of texts that do appear in either of the 18th century editions.The whole is extremely useful, though it is not a critical, but rather a practical, edition.

Some of these texts seem to be translations of Syriac metrical homilies, but the majority of them are almost certainly original Greek works and most of these the product of Byzantine coenobitic monasticism. They are of different dates and by different authors. A number of them are written in the metre called in Syriac the ‘metre of St Ephrem’, but do not appear to be translations. Some of them seem to have been known to St Romanos the Melodist in the sixth century and one large collection of fifty ‘Exhortations to the Monks of Egypt’ is mentioned by St Photios the Great [c.810-c.895] in his ‘Library’.

The best known of these Greek texts is the prayer of St Ephrem the Syrian, which is prescribed for use in all the Lenten offices of the Church and is one of best loved prayers of Orthodox Christians. The vices there listed are those typical of coenobitic communities, which leads one to suggest that the prayer is unlikely to be by St Ephrem himself, though whether its origin is Greek or Syrian is harder to say. There is one intriguing difference between the Greek and Slavonic texts of the prayer. Where the Greek has ‘idle curiosity’, periergia, the Slavonic has ‘faint-heartedness’, which in Greek is akedia, the classic monastic sin. Does this go back to a different original, or is it a reflection of differing national temperaments?

These Greek writings attributed to St Ephrem have never been translated into English and so I hope on this page to begin to fill a yawning gap in the spiritual reading of English speaking Orthodox Christians. The translations are not ‘scholarly’, since no critical edition of the originals exists, but ‘practical’.

The icon of St Ephrem was painted for me at the Monastery of the Holy Paraclete, Oropos, Attica in Greece in 1982.


The Introductions, Notes and Translations on these pages are all by Archimandrite Ephrem, 1997.


 

All texts and translations on this page are copyright to
Archimandrite Ephrem

This page was last updated on 03 November 2008