In a series of public audiences at Saint Peter’s between March 2007 and December 2010, Pope Benedict XVI elucidated the life and teachings of some key Christian thinkers from the early Church up to the Middle Ages (he starts with Saint Clement of Rome, and ends with Julian of Norwich). In November 2007, he focused on Saint Ephrem the Syrian, a key Eastern thinker of the early Church, who, apart from living a life of great selflessness and charity (he died of the plague in 373 while caring for people in Edessa afflicted by the disease), had a notable gift for exploring and expounding Christian doctrine in the forms of poetry and hymnody. The following example illustrates the way in which Saint Ephrem tapped into some rich Old Testament imagery (in this case the sixth chapter of Isaiah) in order to explore the great mystery of the Eucharist:
‘In your bread hides the Spirit who cannot be consumed; in your wine is the fire that cannot be swallowed. The Spirit in your bread, fire in your wine: behold a wonder heard from our lips.
The seraph could not bring himself to touch the glowing coal with his fingers, it was Isaiah’s mouth alone that it touched; neither did the fingers grasp it nor the mouth swallow it; but the Lord has granted us to do both these things.
The fire came down with anger to destroy sinners, but the fire of grace descends on the bread and settles in it. Instead of the fire that destroyed man, we have consumed the fire in the bread and have been invigorated.’
Hymn De Fide 10, 8-10, taken from Great Christian Thinkers (2011), p.96, Fortress Press.
Comparing the burning, all-consuming fire of Isaiah’s vision to the action of the Spirit in the Host creates an invigorating and daring sense of the awesome reality of the Real Presence, and reminds us just what a marvellous thing the Eucharist is. In Pope Benedict’s words, Saint Ephrem ‘…made ample use of contrasting images because they served to emphasise the mystery of God’ (ibid, p.95) and by drawing these images together he produces a beautiful account of just how wondrous a thing it is that happens (and is happening) on altars all across the world, as well as somehow allowing for the reader/listener to enter deeper into that mystery. It is perhaps only by using such means as poetry, which by its very nature is always trying to grasp at something indescribable in its essence, that we can hope to imaginatively enter into the great mysteries of the Faith. Dogma and doctrine are essential, insofar as they provide the outlines and details – showing how far one may or may not go in a certain direction – as well as the positive grounds for belief, but to really gain some appreciation of how tremendous the gifts are that we have been given, the talents of Saint Ephrem and others like him are a great resource for and blessing on the Church as a whole. To make more use of these riches that we have available to us can only serve to bring us closer to God, and to know His love more fully.