Abba Ephraim The Syrian - Part 2
Welcome to the series on the Desert Fathers! If you are just joining us on this journey through the Desert Fathers, please refer back to my initial letter The Desert Fathers; An Introduction explaining the goal and purpose of this series.
The Interior Life
Abba Ephraim understood the need for spiritual nourishment. To him, that nourishment included prayer, Godly sorrow, remembrance of God and death, fasting, and meditating on scripture. He said,
“Just as the body, if it does not take food, cannot live, so the soul, if it does not partake of spiritual wisdom, is dead.”
If the body needed sustenance to survive and grow, so the inner life would reflect the sustenance that was given it. The thoughts that feed the soul will either cause it to grow towards holiness or mire itself in the stench of decay.
The Holy Spirit ever increases its residence in the individual as the way of holiness is practiced. Where love and charity are the foundation of the spiritual life, they lay the bedrock within the heart of man for the Holy Spirit to rest upon.
“Just as incense arouses pleasant feelings in us, so also the Holy Spirit delights in chastity and dwells in a chaste man.”
As Jesus said,
“I will manifest myself to him who keeps my sayings” (John 14:15-21, paraphrased).
The monk who creates an atmosphere of holiness in his heart by feeding the inner life a steady diet of…
“Divine words, with Psalms and hymns and spiritual verse, with readings from Holy Scripture, with fasting, with vigils, with prayer, with tears, and with hope and thought for future good things,”
… will find spiritual enlightenment and nourishment.
Of course, Abba Ephraim understood that cultivating the interior life was a process and would take effort. As soon as the heart is turned towards the Lord, the enemy comes to confuse it with distracting thoughts and disturbing images designed to shatter the fragile faith of the neophyte’s inner life. Anyone who has attempted to make any progress in the interior life knows this to be true. Our mastery of our inner life is pitiful and completely unobtainable outside of the grace of God. Just spend few minutes alone in silence and attempt to string five thoughts together without getting distracted or having something fanciful fill your imagination. Our ability outside of the grace of God is non-existent.
The problem with the interior life is that the thoughts presented to it contain a type of sweetness and allure, regardless of their source. Heavenly thoughts and meditations will draw you towards God and holiness, but base, carnal thoughts have a lust to them that will attract the soul.
“For we should know that if an evil thought manages to enter our soul, it then sweetens the sense of the soul with this evil contemplation; and, since it has not been banished by persistent prayer and fervent tears, it proves to be a deadly snare for such a soul.”
But when the interior life is directed towards God…
“Constant remembrance of God, the rays of which illumine the heart, is sufficient to abide in holiness for those of us who have pure minds.”
And consistent practice will bring greater and greater light. Interior peace is not so much a thing granted as it is the fruit of one’s interior life that has learned the sweet savor of grace.
“When, however, this person stands firm in his faith, then the thoughts gradually begin to quieten, and thus his heart grows calm; and once it has been rendered perfectly pure, it henceforth manifestly receives the overshadowing of the Holy Spirit.”
Practically, faith is increased as the individual consistently resists the carnal and evil thought life. As faith increases, so does calmness of heart.
Abba Ephraim, and many other fathers and mothers laid our specific practices to develop this inner quietude. A consistent refrain in the desert movement is echoed in these words of Ephraim.
“In the evening, when you enter into your heart, reflect and say to yourself: ”Did I anger God in anything? Did I speak an idle word? Was I indifferent to the needs of my brother, or did I irritate him? Did I disparage anyone? Was I chanting hymns with my mouth, while my mind was fantasizing about worldly things? Did some carnal desire come over me and did I accept it gladly? Was I absorbed in earthly cares, having completely abandoned the recollection of God?”
Equally, in the morning the monk should assess the previous night with questions such as, ““How did I pass this night? Did I gain or lose anything?” And also,
“Was I assailed by evil thoughts and, rather than repelling them at once, did I look on them with pleasure?”
If you find that you have succumb to any of these temptations, Abba Ephraim’s advice is simple.
“Groan and weep, beseeching God that you not suffer such losses again.”
He goes on to say,
“…strive to redress the defeat and set a guard over your heart, lest you suffer the same things again. If you always exercise such care, you will preserve your spiritual merchandise by storing it safely in the treasuries of Heaven.”
His method and advice for prayer is practical, remember who God is and prayer will benefit you.
“Let us bring to mind before Whom it is that we stand when we pray, and let our whole soul be inclined towards Him, without imagining any other thing.” Eventually, as we continue, we can expect to grow in Godly wisdom: “Be patient, then, and listen to the Holy Scriptures, so as to be benefited. For just as a cold glass of water is pleasing to a traveller when the weather is hot, so Divine words bedew the soul. If you wish to hear, be patient; and if you listen, you will become Wise.”
To the desert fathers and mothers, tears of sorrow for a necessary component for growth in the spiritual life. The monk must recognize what he lacks and his distance from God. If he considers these things, tears ought to be the natural response of the individual who has fallen away from Godly virtue every other second. Those who have been broken before the Lord recognize and welcome conviction and repentance, viewing the correction of God as the proof of his care.
Godly sorrow, to Ephraim was not to be something that left a man with no hope and full of anxiety and depression, but it was the constant invitation to renew the vigor of the spiritual life. Godly sorrow gives the individual strength to carry on.
“Sorrow according to God does not assail man, but says to him with sweetness: Be not afraid; come once more, resume your toil for virtue. Knowing man to be weak, this sorrow strengthens him.”
The western, modern world has lost the value of tears and Godly sorrow. We weep when the screen of our phone cracks, yet fail to recognize our distance from God. Were we to consider that we are to abide in God and are far from it, tears of remorse and sorrow would benefit us tremendously. Abba Ephraim prayed,
“Grant me tears of contrition, I beseech Thee, O Lord, Who alone art good and compassionate, that I may thereby bewail myself and implore Thy compassion. Cleanse me of the filth of sin.”
When we come to grips with our inner life, tears of contrition will flow. Abba Ephraim said, “The beginning of contrition is for one to know himself.” When we have come face to face with out inner reality, we recognize that at any second we can fall away from God, and but for his grace, we are but a few decisions away from failure.
Abba Ephraim taught that true leadership was an outflow of the progress the monk had made in God. If one was to grasp at leadership they would inevitably do more harm then good. God breaks the individual in order to make the individual a leader. True leadership is not dictatorial, it is born from softness of heart.
“If you want to live with other brothers, you should not desire to give them orders, but rather to become an example for them of good deeds, being obedient to them in everything they say to you.”
A leader must be broken of his own will.
“Do not hound your brother out of love of power. If this thought of yours-that is, to become a master and leader of others-is not from God, nothing will come of it.”
Ultimately, the leader will be the one who learns to honor.
“Do not disparage a layman in your mind, O monk; for the Lord alone knows the secrets of the heart. Honor all men for the sake of the Lord, that the Lord of all might also honor you.”
If we lack care for those that are entrusted to us, how can God care for our own heart? If we fail to recognize that God alone knows the secrets of their heart, how can we hope to have the secrets of our own heart revealed?
Abba Ephraim recognized that the greatest leaders led by the example of their lives.
“He who trains himself trains the one who follows him, and he who teaches himself teaches his neighbor.”
One of the weightiest moments in any leader’s life is when they realize that what they have allowed into their own heart has justified those they lead to allow the same thing into their own. A leader is responsible for the care of the flock entrusted to them by the Lord.
The leader must also recognize that not all men and women are gifted in the same capacity. What is required from one person should not be required of everyone. Ephraim said,
“My brother, examine carefully the power of spiritual application and the measure of bodily strength of each of your disciples, having always in your mind the infallible truth which was uttered by the Lord: that “some (cultivate) an hundredfold, some sixtyfold, some thirtyfold” (Matthew 13:8).
A harsh leader expects perfection, a good leader expects faithfulness.
Lastly, a leader should never turn away someone who has fallen.
“If a brother should leave the coenobion (community), on whatever pretext, and should become ill or return repentantly, you should not reject him or show him indifference, but receive him with tender concern and love, considering him a member of your body. For indeed, though he may have erred by departing from and abandoning the coenobion (community), you should nonetheless show him compassion, for the sake of the Lord, Who said: “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least these my brethren, ye have done it unto me” (Matthew 25:40).
How you treat those you lead is a direct reflection on how you treat Christ.
One of the last acts of Abba Ephraim’s life was to convince the wealthy patrons in the city of Edessa to give their resources to Ephraim as a steward during a great famine. For a year he dedicated his life to caring for the sick and nursing them back to health, caring for and burying those who had succumb to the famine, and distributing goods throughout the city to the starving. After spending himself helping the people recover he retired to his cave and passed away within a month,
“God having provided him this opportunity of gaining a crown just before his end.”
Abba Ephraim the Syrian passed away around 375 AD.