By Sr. Joan L. Roccasalvo, C.S.J. *
Think of a harp. What words come to mind? Heavenly, gentle, ethereal, light and airy, refined? In the movie, “In the Good Old Summertime,” Judy Garland as Veronica Fisher, a salesperson, charms shoppers into buying Irish harps through her delicate touch on the instrument. A harpist can dazzle the eye and the ear, as does Cary Grant in the movie, “The Bishop’s Wife” where he plays the role of Dudley the Angel. A harpist often provides background music at an afternoon tea or soiree. Scripture has it that the young David played the harp (lyre) with its gentle sound to calm Saul’s irascible temper (1 Sam 16:23). Such is the delight of harp.
Who Is “The Harp of the Holy Spirit?”
St. Ephrem, the Syrian, is considered the most important of the Syriac Fathers and the greatest poet of the patristic period. His sacred poetry, sung by female voices, gave such deep satisfaction to its listeners that it was identified with the sound of a harp. A poet participates in the life of God who is the Divine Poiein, the Divine Creator-Poet (Gr. poiein).
Little is known about Ephrem’s formative years except that he baptized a Christian by age twenty. In 363, he was ordained a deacon in a hostile Christian climate, and at Edessa, he was made a bishop. He was never ordained a priest. He founded a church seminary and a university, which taught writing, reading, singing, and commentary on the scriptures. In an age of theological controversies, he avoided philosophical speculations of the day and chose rather to share his vision of faith by proclaiming God’s praises, especially in sermons and poems. In 1920, Benedict XV declared Ephrem a Doctor of the Church. His feast day is celebrated in Syriac and Byzantine Churches on Jan. 28 or Feb. 1; in the Coptic Church on July 9, in the Latin Rite on June 9, and in the Anglican (Episcopal) faith on June 10.
The ‘Brooding’ Holy Spirit
The Syriac concept of God is apophatic: What we say about God is that we cannot say much. The basic symbol in the Syriac tradition is light. Light is goodness, sun, comes from the east, the link between God and creation is light. The experience of Moses on Mt. Sinai is that he climbs up in darkness and leaves radiant, all-aglow. In the Syriac tradition, the Holy Spirit is always brooding like a mother hen, bringing forth new life and new power. Ephrem speaks of having God for our Father and the Spirit for our Mother. The image of creation is that of the Son, the Logos, the voice of the Father.
Ephrem’s Sacred Poetry
Though Catholic dogmas are defined in precise words, their beauty is most often expressed in art and architecture, music, and hymnography. Sacred poetry, like sacred music, is an integral part of the Catholic and Orthodox Churches, and both art forms can be properly appreciated if we consider them in relation to their liturgical function.
The Syriac world view for Ephrem is Semitic. It expresses deep theological ideas through paradox and symbol and not by comparison and contrast. His hymns are often linked to the five senses, which do not become spiritualized but retain their sensate qualities. Still, they are shot through with brilliantly transparency as though they are being transfigured by beauty itself. The Mother of God is “she who carried the universe in her womb.” In two images of the Incarnation, Ephrem speaks of Christ being God, as “security who experiences insecurity,” and of Jesus putting on a body as clothing, that is, “being clothed in the flesh.” The paradoxes of the God-Man and the Virgin-Mother force the imagination to go into shock as two opposites claim compatibility. The following excerpt from Hymns on the Nativity shows Ephrem’s use of paradox with pastoral imagery.
Blessed is the Shepherd, who became the Lamb for our atonement;
Blessed is the Vineshoot, that became the Chalice for our Salvation
. . . Blessed too is the Farmer who became the Wheat which was sown
and the Sheaf which was harvested.
Ephrem is fond of describing spiritual truths in terms of clothing imagery. Such is the case in the following two passages, first spoken by Mary regarding the Nativity, the next summarizing salvation history.
The Son of the Most High came and dwelt in me,
And I became His mother. As I gave birth to Him
– His second birth – so too he gave birth to me
A second time. He put on his mother’s robe
– His body; I put on His glory.
All these changes did the Merciful One effect,
stripping off His glory and putting on a body;
for He devised a way to reclothe Adam
in that glory which Adam had stripped off.
He was wrapped in swaddling clothes,
corresponding to Adam’s leaves,
He put on clothes instead of Adam’s skins;
He was baptized for Adam’s death,
He rose and raised up Adam in his glory.
Blessed is He who descended …
Ephrem wrote a long and beautiful poem entitled “The Pearl: Seven Hymns on the Faith.” It is too long to offer our readers in this column, but the entire poem is provided online by The Saint Pachomius Orthodox Library. Two verses of Hymn 1 are given below:
On a certain day, a pearl did I take up, my brethren;
I saw in it mysteries pertaining to the Kingdom;
Semblances and types of the Majesty;
It became a fountain, and I drank out of it mysteries of the Son.
I put it, my brethren, upon the palm of my hand,
That I might examine it:
I went to look at it on one side,
And it proved faces on all side.
I found out that the Son was incomprehensible,
Since He is wholly light.
St. Ephrem’s hymnography stands as a treasury of theological poetry expressed in familiar images which reveal their own melody. Today, reading poetry and memorizing it seem to be a lost art. If non-religious poetry can uplift the imagination, how much more can sacred poetry sweep the soul upward to the Divine Poiein, the Divine Poet-Creator!
Sr. Joan L. Roccasalvo, a member of the Congregation of St. Joseph, Brentwood, NY, holds degrees in philosophy (Ph.L), musicology (Ph.D.), theology (M.A.), and liturgical studies (Ph.D). She has taught at all levels of Catholic education and writes with a particular focus on a theology of beauty and the sacred arts. Her e-mail address is email@example.com.