St. Ephraim the Syrian on Love, Psalmody and Prayer
These three short discourses belong together and also to two others on Repentance and on The Coming Judgement. The style of the third is in places reminiscent of that of the Ladder of St John of Sinai and in the first there is what looks very like a quotation from the Theotokion that follows the Eothinon at Lauds on Sundays in the Byzantine office.
Rightly did the Lord say, ‘My burden is light’. For what sort of weight is it, what sort of toil is it to forgive one’s brother his offences, which are light and of no importance, and to be pardoned for one’s own, and immediately justified? He did not say, ‘Bring me money, or calves, or goats, or fasting, or vigils’, so that you could say, ‘I have none, I cannot’, but he ordered you to bring what is light and easy and immediate, saying, ‘Pardon your brother his offences, and I will pardon yours. You pardon small faults, a few halfpennies, or three pennies, while I give you the ten thousand talents. You only pardon without giving anything, I nevertheless both grant you pardon and give you healing and the Kingdom. And I accept your gift, when you are reconciled to the one who is your enemy, when you have enmity against no one, when the sun does not go down on your anger. When you have peace and love for all, then your prayer is acceptable, and your offering well-pleasing, and your house blessed and you blesséd. But if you are not reconciled with your brother, how can you seek pardon from me? You trample on my words, and do you demand pardon? I, your Master, demand, and you pay no attention, and do you, a slave, dare to offer me prayer, or sacrifice, or first fruits, while you have enmity against someone? Just as you turn your face from your brother, so I too turn my eyes from your gift and your prayer.’
Again I entreat you, brethren, since God is love, he is not well-pleased by things that take place without love. How would God accept prayer, or gifts, or first fruits, or offering from a murderer, unless they first repented in accordance with God’s word? But you will no doubt say to me, ‘I am not a murderer.’ And I will prove to you that you are, or rather John the Theologian will convict you, when he says, ‘Every one who hates their brother is a homicide.’
So then, my beloved brethren, let us not prefer anything, let us not hasten to obtain anything more than love. Let no one have anything against anyone, let no one repay evil for evil. Do not let the sun go down on your anger, but let us forgive our debtors everything and let us welcome love, because love covers a multitude of sins.
Because what gain is there, my children, if someone has everything, but does not have love which saves? For just as if someone were to make a great dinner in order to invite the King and the rulers, and were to prepare everything sumptuously, so that nothing might be lacking, but had no salt, would anyone be able to eat that dinner? Certainly not. But he would have lost everything he had spent and wasted all his hard work, and brought ridicule on himself from those he had invited. So it is in the present instance. For what advantage is there in toiling against winds, without love? For without it every deed, every action is unclean. Even if someone has attained complete chastity, or fasts, or keeps vigil; whether they pray or give banquets for the poor; even if they think of offering gifts, or first fruits, or offering; whether they build churches, or do anything else, without love all those things will be reckoned as nothing by God. For the Lord is not pleased by them. Listen to the Apostle when he says, ‘If I speak with the tongues of Angels and of humans; if I have prophecy and know all mysteries, and have complete knowledge, so as to move mountains, but do not have love, I gain nothing’. For one who has enmity against their brother and thinks they offer something to God, will be as though they sacrificed a dog, and their offering will be reckoned as the wages of prostitution.
Therefore never want to do anything without love, because love covers a multitude of sins. What good we despise! Of how many good things, of what joy are we deprived when we have not acquired love! Judas did not wish to acquire it and went from the midst of the choir of the Apostles, abandoning the true Light, his own Teacher, and hating his own brothers he walked in darkness. And so Peter, the prince of the Apostles, said, ‘Judas transgressed and went to his own place.’ And again, John the Theologian says, ‘One who hates their brother is in darkness, and walks about in the dark, and does not know where they is going, because darkness has blinded their eyes.’
But if you say, ‘I may not love my brother, but I love God’, he convicts you when he says, ‘If someone says, "I love God" and hates his brother, he is a liar. For someone who does not love his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God, whom he has not seen?’ Therefore one who has love for his brothers and has no enmity for anyone, who fulfils the word of the Master, ‘Do not let the sun go down on your anger’, truly loves God, is a disciple of Christ who says, ‘By this all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another’.
It is clear then that the disciples of Christ are recognized by this, by true love. One who has hatred against his brother and thinks he loves Christ is a liar and deceives himself. For the Apostle John says, ‘We have this commandment from him, that one who loves God should love his brother.’ And again the Lord says, ‘You are to love the Lord your God, and your neighbour as yourself’. And he adds, wishing to show the power of love, ‘On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets.’
What a remarkable wonder, that one who has unfeigned love fulfils the whole of the Law. For the fulfilment of the Law is love, as the Apostle says . O unfathomable power of love! O infinite power of love! Nothing is more precious than love, neither in heaven nor on earth. That is why the Apostle Paul, having learned that nothing is worth as much as love, wrote and despatched to the ends of the inhabited world these words, ‘Brethren, owe no one anything, except to love one another, to lay down your lives for one another’. It is love that is the fulfilment of the Law. Love is unerring salvation. It dwelt from the beginning in Abel’s heart; it was Noë’s helmsman; it worked with the Patriarchs; rescued Moses; made David the dwelling of the Holy Spirit; made its tabernacle in the Prophets; gave strength to Job. And why should I not mention the greatest of all? It brought the Son of God from heaven down to us. Through love the One without flesh became flesh, the One without time entered time for us, the Son of God became son of man. Through love all things were ordered for our salvation; death was destroyed, Hell cast down, Adam recalled and Eve set free. Through love the curse was abolished, Paradise was opened, life was revealed, the Kingdom of heaven was promised. Love caught the fishers of fish in its net and made them fishers of men; competed alongside the Martyrs and gave them strength; turned the deserts into cities; filled mountains and caves with chanting; made mortals into angels; showed men and women how to tread the narrow and difficult way. But where should I stop pursuing what cannot be grasped? Who is capable of recounting the love’s achievements? I think even the Angels cannot recount them as they deserve.
O blessed love, giver of all good things! O blessed love, who make those who long for you blessed! Blessed and truly thrice blessed the one who has acquired love from a pure heart and conscience.
When you hear about love, you are not to understand worldly and carnal love, one concerned with taverns and drinking parties, whose belly and repute is their God, whose love is defined by the table, whose love is hostile to God. There they invite friends and not enemies, there the poor are not present, there are laughter, hand clapping and tumults, there drunkenness and disgraceful behaviour. Of this the Apostle said, ‘Whoever thinks they are a friend of the world, becomes an enemy of God.’ Of this love [agapi], or rather deception [apati], not to say more, where God does not visit, God said, ‘The heathen do the same. For if you love those who love you, what grace is that to you, or what reward do you have?’
We are not speaking of such love, we do not proclaim it or pursue it, but rather that which is without pretence, without blame, unspotted, incomparable, which holds all things and whose name is given to every good thing, which the Lord showed when he said, ‘That one should lay down one’s life for one’s friends’. And the Lord himself taught this and did it, and laid down his life, not only for his friends, but also for his enemies. For ‘this was how God loved the world, he gave his only begotten Son’ for us. Through this love the Apostle Paul, who had this divine love, said, ‘Love does not work evil for one’s neighbour, does not repay evil for evil, not insult for insult, but is always patient, is kind, is not jealous, is not provoked, does not reckon up evil, does not rejoice in injustice, but rejoices with justice. It supports all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Such love as this never fails.’
One who has this is blessed both in the present age and in the one to come. One who has this blessed love is not proud, not envious, never hates anyone, does not ignore a pauper, does not turn away a beggar, does not neglect an orphan, a widow, a stranger. One who has this not only loves those who love them — for the heathen do this too — but also those who afflict them. Stephen, the first martyr, because he had this divine love, prayed for those who were stoning him and said, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them.’
Again I say, and I will not stop saying, ‘Blessed is one who has despised all earthly and perishable things and acquired love.’ Such a person’s reward increases every day. Such a person’s reward and crown has been prepared, the Kingdom of heaven has been given them. All the Angels call them blessed; all the Powers of heaven praise them; the choirs of the Archangels receive them with joy. For them the gates of heaven will be speedily opened, and they will enter with boldness1, take their stand by the throne of God, be crowned by God’s right hand, and will reign with him for endless ages.
Who is more blessed than this? Who higher than this? Who more honoured than this? See to what height love carries those who possess it. Rightly did the Apostle say that we should owe no one anything, except to love one another. For ‘God is love, and one who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in them’ to the ages. Amen.
All this and much more could be said about love. But let us return to the subject and speak of repentance and the coming judgement. For we should always meditate on these things, because the day of the Lord is coming like a thief in the night. Therefore by night and day, look to your last hour and meditate on the law of the Lord day and night. Say many things to God and few to humans. If you stretch out your hand to work, let your mouth sing psalms and your mind pray. Let psalmody be continually on your mouth, for when God is being named he puts the demons to flight and sanctifies the singer.
Psalmody is calm of soul, author of peace. Psalmody is convenor of friendship, union of the separated, reconciliation of enemies. Psalmody attracts the help of the Angels, is a weapon in night-time fears, repose of the day’s toils, safety for infants, adornment for the old, consolation for the elderly, most fitting embellishment for women. It make deserts into homes, market places sober. It is the ABC for beginners, progress for the more advanced, confirmation for the perfect, the voice of the Church. It makes festivals radiant; it creates mourning that is in accordance with God, for psalmody draws tears even from a heart of stone. Psalmody is the work of the Angels, the commonwealth of heaven, spiritual incense. Psalmody is enlightenment of souls, sanctification of bodies.
Let us, brethren, never stop making psalmody our meditation, both at home and on the road, both sleeping and waking, speaking to ourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs. Psalmody is the joy of those who love God. It banishes idle chatter, brings laughter to an end, reminds us of the judgement, rouses the soul towards God, joins the choir of the Angels. Where there is psalmody with compunction, there God is, with the Angels. Where the songs of the opponent are, there is God’s wrath, and ‘woe!’ is the reward of laughter. Where sacred books and readings are, there are the joy of the just and the salvation of the listeners. Where there are harps and dances, there is the darkening of men and women, and a festival of the Devil.
O the wicked cunning and contrivance of the Devil! How he trips each one through craft, and deceives them and persuades them to do evil as though it were good! Today they decide to chant, tomorrow they dance with enthusiasm. Today they are Christians, tomorrow heathens. Today of good repute, tomorrow pagans. Today servants of Christ, tomorrow rebels against God. Do not be deceived. No one can be servant of two lords, as it is written. You cannot serve God and dance with the Devil.
As true servants of Christ, let us serve him, let us worship him, let us devote ourselves to him, let us stay by him until our last breath, and let us not obey the Devil, for he goes about like a roaring lion seeking whom he may swallow up, whom he may deceive. Resist him stoutly, as soldiers of Christ, serving him and staying by him. Do not chant today and dance tomorrow. Do not repent today for your sins and tomorrow dance for your destruction. Do not read today and play the harp tomorrow. Do not be master of yourself today and come forward tomorrow reeling and dizzy and the laughing stock of all.
Do not, brethren, let us lose like this the moment of our salvation, by playing about and being played about with. Be like a good farmer, working and taking care. My brother, do not make light of the provisions for eternal life. Do not reject fasting2, do not desert vigil, do not be despondent about sleeping on the ground, do not abandon psalmody. For these things and things like them escort you to life and joy and gladness and eternal repose. Love silence rather than wicked conversation. Conversations about worldly things separate the mind from God.
Not to sin is truly blessed; but those who sin should not despair, but grieve over the sins they have committed, so that, through grief they may again attain blessedness. It is good, then, to pray always and not to lose heart, as the Lord says, And again the Apostle says, ‘Pray without ceasing’, that is by night and by day and at every hour, and not only when coming into the church, and not bothering at other times. But whether you are working, lying down to sleep, travelling, eating, drinking, sitting at table, do not interrupt your prayer, for you do not know when he who demands your soul is coming. Don’t wait for Sunday or a feast day, or a different place, but, as the Prophet David says, ‘in every place of his dominion’.
Whether you are in church, or in your house, or in the country; whether you are guarding sheep, or constructing buildings, or present at drinking parties, do not stop praying. When you are able, bend your knees, when you cannot, make intercession in your mind, ‘at evening and at morning and at midday’. If prayer precedes your work and if, when you rise from your bed, your first movements are accompanied by prayer, sin can find no entrance to attack your soul.
Prayer is a guard of prudence, control of wrath, restraint of pride, cleansing of malice, destruction of envy, righting of impiety. Prayer is strength of bodies, prosperity of a household, good order of a city, might of a kingdom, trophy of war, assurance of peace. Prayer is a seal of virginity, fidelity in marriage, weapon of travellers, guardian of sleepers, courage of the wakeful, abundance for farmers, safety of those who sail. Prayer is an advocate for those being judged, remission for the bound, consolation for the grieving, gladness for the joyful, comfort for mourners, a feast on birthdays, a crown for the married, a shroud for the dying. Prayer is converse with God, equal honour with the Angels, progress in good things, averting of evils, righting of sinners. Prayer made the whale a house for Jonas, brought Ezechias back to life from the gates of death, turned the flame to wind of moisture for the Youths in Babylon. Through prayer Elias bound the heaven not to rain for three years and six months.
See, brethren, what strength prayer has. There is no possession more precious than prayer in the whole of human life. Never be parted from it; never abandon it. But, as our Lord said, let us pray that out toil may not be for nothing, ‘When you stand in prayer, forgive if you have anything against anyone, that your heavenly Father may forgive you your faults’.
Do you not see, brethren, that we toil for nothing when we pray, if we have enmity against someone? And again the Lord says, ‘If you offer your gift at the altar, and there you remember that someone has something against you, leave your gift before the altar, and go first and be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift’. Therefore, it is clear that if you do not do this first, all that you offer will be unacceptable, but if you do the Master’s bidding, then implore the Lord with boldness, saying, ‘Forgive me my debts, Master, as I have forgiven my brother, so fulfilling your commandment. I, weak though I am, have forgiven’. For the Lover of mankind will answer, ‘If you have forgiven, I too will forgive. If you have pardoned, I too will pardon your sins. For I have authority on earth to forgive sins. Forgive and you will be forgiven’.
See God’s unfathomable love for humankind. See God’s unbounded goodness. Hear instant salvation of your souls.
1 Literally ‘freedom to speak’, the privilege of the ancient Athenian democracy and later of those with privileged access to the Emperor, but in Christian theology it was Adam’s before the fall and is restored by Baptism. Cf. Ephesians 3,12; 1 John 3,21; 4,17; 5,14.
2 Literally xerophagia, or ‘dry eating’, that is uncooked food, as prescribed on many fast days and a feature of the more rigorous ascetic life.
(© Archimandrite Ephrem, taken from: http://web.ukonline.co.uk/ephrem/3disc.htm)
For the life of St. Ephraim, see: http://goarch.org/chapel/saints_view?contentid=406, http://www.johnsanidopoulos.com/2010/01/st.html.
For many works of the Saint, see: http://www.voskrese.info/spl/XefremSyria.html.
For selected prophecies of the Saint, see: http://full-of-grace-and-truth.blogspot.com/2010/01/selected-prophecies-of-st-ephraim.html.
May St. Ephraim intercede for us all and help us! Amen!