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Century IV, Chapter XXI

CHAP. XXI.
EPHRAIM THE SYRIAN.

Some other persons, who lived in this century, will, on several accounts, deserve a more distinct attention. I shall begin with Ephraim the Syrian, who was born at Nisibis in Mesopotamia, of Christian parents, and was educated with great care from his infancy. His turn of mind from childhood was devout, studious, and contemplative, to an extreme degree. And since few persons in that age knew how to unite the real Christian life with the practice of all the duties of society, it is not to * Du Pin. Cave.

he wondered at, that the solitary taste prevailed much in Ephraim. It' is rather a proof of uncommon good sense or charity, or of both, that at length he could be induced to quit his solitude*, and live in the great city of Edessa, for the sake of enjoying the benefit of Christian assemblies, and of rendering: himself useful to his fellow-creatures. He

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wrote much on the Scriptures, and composed various devotional pieces in the Syriac, his native tongue ; which in his own lifetime were translated into Greek, and were much admired by all the eastern churches. He never was advanced further in the ecclesiastical state,- than to the office of deacon, and once he took a very extraordinary method to avoid being preferred to the office of a bishop. He feigned madness ; and escaped. The reader will recollect something similar in the conduct of Ambrose, and may take occasion to lament the unhappy extremes of opposite kinds, which in different ages, have disfigured the Church. In Ephraim's days, the pastoral character appeared to good men awful beyond measure, requiring little less than angelical virtue. In our days, is not conveniency and love of gain frequently the principal motive, and decency of character the principal qualification ?

A noted heretic, named Harmonius, the son of Bardesanes, industriously employed himself in composing religious hymns for the use of the Syrians, in which he interspersed his father's heretical notions, and the philosophy of the Greeks. Ephraim, whose views of the fundamentals of Christian faith were strictly sound, and to whom the faith of the Gospel was precious, made himself master of the measures and tunes, and, in the use of them, composed Christian hymns, which were well received by the Syrians, and sung to the same tunes as those of Harmonius. He wrote also a discourse on the utility of psalmody, and exploded idle songs and dancing. * Sozom. B. III. c. i6.

Let this be regarded as a proof of his zeal and in- Cent. dustry. Not long before his death, he gave an - TM- . instance of charity that deserves to be recorded. A severe famine raged in Edessa, and many indigent persons died for want. He waited some time, to see if any would step forth to relieve them # ; but finding little appearance of this, the compassion of his heart at length broke through all the unhappy monastic restraints, by which, even in Edessa, he had precluded himself from doing much good to the church ; and going among the rich and wealthy, he vehemently reproved their inhumanity. They did, what persons of the same character do in all ages ; they cleared themselves of avarice, but excused themselves, on account of the difficulty of finding a proper person, whose discretion and fidelity might be trusted in the distribution of their alms. Do you think me competent to this office ? replied Ephraim. All owned it without hesitation. " Then I will undertake it." Receiving their contributions, he caused three hundred beds to be brought into the public cloisters of the city, and the infirm to be placed on them, and he furnished them both with food and medicine. He took care also of strangers, and of those whom want had driven out of the country, and provided them all with necessary accommodations, till the dearth was abated.

How much is it to be regretted, that mistaken kleas of piety, into which young converts are very apt to fall, should have deprived the Christian world of so much benefit, as might have arisen from the talents and virtues of Ephraim ! In this occasional sally, we see the outlines of A General Infirmary, drawn and brought into practice by a monk! That men, who mix with the world continually, should be covetous and selfish, will surprise no man, who knows human depravity. And what advantage did Satan gain, in these times, * Sozom.B. III. c. 16.

when the best and most excellent men hid thero, selves from the world, and as much as possible attended only to the cultivation of private virtues! A strong proof this, of the low and reduced state of Christian knowledge. And as I know nothing more worth recording of the life of Ephraim, let us take a short view of his writings, in order to discover, if we can, the spirit of his religion. If I mistake not, we may see by a few quotations, which will serve instead of many, in a case where the character is exceedingly uniform, that his Christian love was much greater than his light, and that few men were better furnished and prepared for the very best use of evangelical consolation, if the theology of his time had afforded him easy access to it.

Speaking of love, he says, " Blessed is the man who possesses love, and with it departs to God; for He, knowing his own, will receive him into his bosom; he shall be a companion of angels, and reign with Christ. By love, God the Word came upon earth ; by it, paradise has been opened to us, and an entrance has been shown to all into heaven. Being enemies to God, by love we were reconciled. We may justly say, that God is love, and he that dwelleth in love, dwelleth in God *."

Hear him mourn over himself, and judge what a sense he had of natural depravity. " From my childhood I have been a vessel unprofitable and dishonourable. Warning others, I have fallen myself into their evils twofold. Wo is me !—whence Can there be any refuge, unless the mercies of God shine quickly upon me. Nor is there any hope of salvation from works : While I speak of purity, I am thinking of uncleanness: While I am uttering rules for the conquest of the passions, my own are inwardly raging night and day. What excuse can I make? Alas ! what a scrutiny must I undergo! I have had the form without the power of godliness. * Ephraim's Works. Oxon. C

I fear, lest fire from heaven should consume me, as it did the two sons of Aaron. Shall I then despair of salvation ? By no means: this the adversary desires, in order to destroy me. I do not throw away myself; for I confide in the mercies of God, and your prayers for me. -I pray thee, cast me not away. Thou knowest the wounds of my soul; heal me, O Lord, and I shall be healed.—What shame will seize me, when those, who now count me holy, shall see me condemned, and when all secrets shall be laid open * !"

However defective his views of evangelical doctrine were, his ideas of that humility, which enters into the essence of the experience of them, are just and deep. " Vain," says he, " is every endowment without humility. Pride labours to domineer over all, and lays a snare for every one in that way which is peculiar to each. The wise, the strong, the beautiful, the ingenious, are each exposed to danger from that in which they excel. The Lord, knowing our danger, hath set humility as our guard, saying, ' When ye have done all, say we are unprofitable servants.' Do those who labour abundantly in the ministry glory over those of a more still and quiet turn; behold, the Lord commends Mary sitting at his feet, as having chosen the good portion. Are the sedate inclined to glory over the active; behold the Son of man came to minister.—To be lifted up, is to have a fleshly mind ; and if ye live after the flesh, ye shall die.—When thou canst bear grievous things, against thy will, yet willingly, know that thou hast made proficiency in humility.— Through pride, the Pharisee was condemned ; through humility, the Publican was exalted ; with whom may the Lord deign to rank us in his kingdom with all the justf."

Observe how divinely he exhorts, though his manner of speaking evinces his ignorance of the

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Chap, true distinction between moral and natural inability: *** . " He might have healed all the wounds of our souls, and compelled us violently to goodness; but he does not choose that method, that our choice may have its praise. Do we neglect to call for his help, when he loves and pities us ? Hath he redeemed and enlightened us ? He hath given us to see and taste of his grace; that we might seek him without ceasing. Happy he, who hath tasted of his love, and prepared himself to be always filled with it. Filled with this love, he admits no other. Who would not love such a master, worship him, and confess his goodness ?—From his immense height and the blessed bosom of the Father did he not descend to us ? The Invisible became visible—O wonder, full of fear and trembling! A hand of clay, formed of the dust, smote the Creator of heaven and earth; and we, poor dust and ashes, cannot bear the contradiction of a word—What wilt thou say to Him in that day •?"

Speaking of the day of Judgment, he says, " An innumerable multitude, each raised from the dead, and clothed with his own body, exclaim, ' Glory to Him who hath raised us and gathered us together by his loving kindness.' Blessed is he, who shall be counted worthy to see that hour, in which all that loved the immortal Bridegroom are taken up into the clouds to meet him.—I remembered the day, and trembled, and, groaning, wept till I had no more power to weep.—My days have passed on, and my iniquities have been multiplied. Wo is me, my beloved ! What shall I do in the shame of that hour, when my friends, who now see and bless me in this garb of piety, may behold me full of iniquity within ?—O gracious Lover of souls ! by thy compassions I conjure thee, place me not at the left hand with the goats; but by thy kindness, I implore thee, give me a contrite spirit, and purify me, that I may be a temple of thy grace. Sinner as Cent. I am, I knock at thy door without ceasing; slothful though I be, yet I walk in thy way."

Will the reader hear the devotion of this brokenhearted saint* ? "I beseech thy goodness, heal my wounds, and enlighten my understanding, that I may see thy gracious dispensations towards me. When my heart is infatuated, let the salt of thy grace season it.—Thou alone knowest, how my soul thirsts after thee, as a dry land.—As thou hast ever heard me, neglect not now my petition : my mind is as a captive, yet seeking thee, the only true Saviour. Send thy grace, that I may eat and drink, and be satisfied.—Distil one drop of thy love, that it may burn as liquid fire in my soul, and consume its thorns, even evil lusts f."

Were I to quote the very strong description which he gives of his own sinfulness J, persons unacquainted with the power of in-dwelling sin might suspect that this man, who was remarkably strict and circumspect in his manners from youth, must have been a man of gross wickedness. For similar reasons, St. Paul, on account of the strong description of his internal corruptions, in the seventh chapter to the Romans, has been thought to have been speaking only of his life before conversion, though he evidently speaks of himself at the time of writing. It was deep humility of soul, and a large acquaintance with the propensity of the natural heart itself, which led both of them to describe themselves as so very evil. The difference is, that Ephraim's inferior knowledge of gospel-grace, prevented his attainment of that strength and joy, in which the Apostle abounded. Yet his faith, clouded as the grounds of it were, was sound. " I know that the multitude of his mercies exceeds the multitude of my sins.— In baptism he hath given me remission of sins; yet I need to be healed of sins committed after baptism; * A(. + Mc. t i

VOL. II. S

but he who raised the dead is able to heal me also *." Is not this the very frame of an humbled soul, bowed down within-dwelling corruption? "I desire to rise, but cannot; the weight of sin presses me down. I see, but I walk in much darkness. I move my hand, but I am as a paralytic f."

In his last will and testament, his humility appears mixed with superstition and dejection of spirit. A mind like his, truly sensible of sin, and not fully and steadily discerning the Lord Jesus, its only righteousness, will flee to vain refuges. Thus Ephraim has some recourse to prayers and offerings to be made for him after his decease. The value of clear Christian light hence appears inexpressible J.

His reverence toward the blessed God appears in a book which he wrote against those, who would pretend to search out the nature of the Son of God. In the second chapter § he says, " Unhappy, miserable, and most impudent is he, who desires to search out his Maker. Innumerable myriads of angels glorify with reverence, and trembling adore: while men of clay, full of sins, dispute without fear, concerning the Divinity. Their body trembles not, their mind is not disconcerted ; but, secure and loquacious, they speak of Christ the Son of God, who suffered for me an unworthy sinner, and of his two-fold generation: nor do they feel how blind they are in the light."

The remarks which might be made on this holy man have been anticipated, for the most part. Undoubtedly the best state of Christianity is that of a saint, humbled under a sense of sin all his days, yet rejoicing in Christ Jesus, and bringing forth fruit with charity and patience. This requires an evangelical knowledge, both of the Law and of the Gospel. And an experimental acquaintance with this science is generally very simple and strong, in * i>. 146.. J r(,.

§ See Dr. Owen's Preface to his Xj»ro^»yi«.

both its parts, under the effusion of the Holy Cent. Spirit. On the declension of this, toward the latter . ^ end of the third century, a lower form of Christianity, even in real saints, obtained; and our history is still travelling through the twilight. The taste of this lower form was to know the Law in its spirituality, but not the Gospel in its consolations.— Of this form was Ephraim, one of the most holy men in this period; and I scarcely have found a saint, who had better views, since the days of Cyprian, unless we except Ambrose of Milan. But by far the greater part of real good men, in this whole century, and in the latter part of the last, lived comparatively, in bondage, looking to Jesus, sincerely, though confusedly. One person, however, was training up under the special guidance of God, in the latter part of this century, whose superior light was appointed to illuminate the next, as we shall see by and by. But how does the piety, the humility, the conscientiousness of such men as Ephraim, with all their abject superstition, rebuke the pride and care- Ephraim lessness and levity of many now evangelized in the d"^ a^ut head, and not in the heart, who trifle with the * Q' light, and live in sin, because they conceive grace to abound!

I shall dismiss this Saint, after I have taken a little Abraham, notice of one of his companions named Abraham, the Axet"' whose life he has written, and whom he admires extremely. For fifty years he lived an Ascetic, in the strictest observation of monastic rules, and confined himself principally to his cell; though the intelligent reader will think he acted most like a Christian in those intervals, when he left it; in one of them particularly, to which alone I shall confine my attention. There was a great desert in the neighbourhood of the city (Edessa, I suppose) in which the inhabitants were all idolaters to a man *; and though many presbyters and deacons had been sent

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Chap- to them by the bishop of the city, yet they had all XXI- , returned without effect, unable to bear the persecution of the Pagans. One day, the bishop observed among his clergy, that he knew of no person so devoted to God as Abraham, and therefore he would ordain him as an evangelist of these Pagans. At first he entreated him, but in vain; Abraham begged to be permitted to bemoan his own evils. The bishop, however, insisting on the obedience which he owed to authority, and observing how much better it was to be employed in the salvation of many, than of one soul only, Abraham at length submitted. He beganhis work with fervent prayer for the divine blessing, and having erected a church, he supplicated in it, for the convers;on of the people. His next step appears not so proper ; he threw down the idols and altars of the Pagans; the consequence of which was, that, with much ill usage, he was expelled from the country. He returned, however, to the village, and resumed his work of prayer in the church, to the astonishment of the Pagans. When these came to him from time to time, he began to exhort them to turn from idols to the living God, on which he was worse treated than before. For three years, he bore their insults and a constant series of persecution. His patience, however, and meekness, were admirable, and at length the people began to be softened, and comparing his preaching with his practice, they concluded that God must be with him, and offered themselves voluntarily to receive his doctrine. The saint, rejoicing at the event, desired them to give glory to God, who had enlightened the eyes of their hearts to know him. In fine, he gathered them into a church, daily opening to them the Scriptures. At length, when he saw them confirmed in the faith of the Gospel, and bringing forth the fruits of it with steadiness, he abruptly retired from them to his former solitude. The work, however, remained firm and strong, and the bishop

visited and exhorted them from the word of God, Cent. and ordained pastors from among themselves. L IV

How much better would Abraham have been thus employed during the fifty years of his solitude! But such were the times. While the world proceeded in its usual wickedness, those who were best calculated to reform it had a strong tendency to live a recluse life; and false fear and bondage kept many from the pastoral office, who might have been its brightest ornaments. The mischief of this was inexpressible; the extension of the Gospel was checked ; and every circumstance showed, that the Spirit of God was no longer poured out, in his fulness, among men.