Syriac Spirituality

The Syriac Churches (after the Council of Chalcedon 451)

ORIENTAL ORTHODOX (Miaphysite): Syrian Orthodox.

CHALCEDONIAN (Dyophysite): Maronite; Rum Orthodox (Melkite); Syrian Catholic; Chaldean.

CHURCH OF THE EAST (Dyophysite): Assyrian Church of the East; Ancient Church of the East.

Timeline of Main Authors

YEAR SYRIAC ORIENT GREEK EAST LATIN WEST
4th Century Aphrahat (in Persia) Constantine  
  Ephrem (d. 373) Basil, Gregorys, Athanasius Hilary
  "Book of Steps" Evagrius (d. 399) Ambrose
5th Century John of Apamea/the Solitary John Chrysostom Augustine
    Egyptian Monastic Literature Cassian
   

431 Council of Ephesus; 451 Council of Chalcedon

3–way split: Syrian Orthodox (miaphysite),

Greek Orthodox, Catholic, etc (Chalcedonian diophysite),

Church of the East (strict dyophysite)

 
5th/6th Century   Abba Isaiah  
  Jacob of Serugh (d. 521) Sayings of the Desert Fathers  
  Philoxenus (d. 523) Ps. Dionysius the Areopagite Boethius
  'Hierotheos'    
  Sergius of Resh'aina (d. 536)   Gregory the Great
7th Century  Martyrius/Sahdona John of Sinai  

630s: Arab conquests,

cutting off the Middle East

from the Byzantine Empire

8th Century

 

Isaac of Nineveh (the Syrian) Maximus the Confessor Bede
Dadisho'    
Simeon of the Book of Grace    
John of Dalyatha (the Elder) John of Damascus  
Joseph the Seer    
     
     
     

Texts in Translation

Collected texts in translation

Individual Syriac authors:

4th century

Aphrahat1
Ephrem (d.373)2
Book of Steps

5th century

John of Apamea

5th/6th century

Jacob of Serugh (d.521) 3
Philoxenus (d.523)
Stephen bar Sudhaili 

6th/7th century

Shubhalmaran
Babai the Great, Babai the Small 

7th century

Martyrius/Sahdona
Isaac the Syrian4
Simeon d-Taybutheh
Dadisho'

8th century

John the Elder (of Dalyatha)
Joseph the Seer 

Individual Greek authors translated into Syriac

Evagrius (d.399)
Egyptian Fathers 
Macarius, Basil, Gregory of Nazianzus, Gregory of Nyssa, Abba Isaiah, Nilus, Mark the Monk, ‘Dionysius the Areopagite’, John of Sinai (Klimakos).

 

STUDIES

 

 

SELECT THEMES

The role of the heart: prayer as offering on interior altar of heart:

  • Aphrahat, Dem. 4:1, "purity of heart constitutes prayer more than do all the prayers uttered aloud".
  • Matt. 6:6, "Enter the chamber and pray to your Father in secret, with the door closed".
    • Aphrahat, Dem. 4:10, "Our Lord's words thus tell us `Pray in secret in your heart, and shut the door'. What is the door he says we must shut, if not your mouth? For here is the temple in which Christ dwells, just as the Apostle said `You are the temple of the Lord' (1 Cor. 3:16).
  • Ephrem, Hymns on Faith 20:5–7: "Fish are both conceived and born in the sea; if they dive deep, they escape those who would catch them. In luminous silence within the mind let prayer recollect itself, so as not to go astray. Supplication that has been refined is the virgin of "the inner chamber": if she passes the door of the mouth, she is like one who is astray. Truth is her bridal chamber, love her crown, stillness and silence are the trusty eunuchs at her door. She is betrothed to the King's Son: let her not come wantonly out; but let Faith, who is publicly the bride, be escorted in the streets on the back of the voice, carried from the mouth to the bridal chamber of the ear."
    • Cp Ephrem, Nisibene Hymns, 50:1: "While I live I will give praise, and not be as if I had no existence; I will give praise during my lifetime, and not be a dead person amongst the living - for the person who stands idle is doubly dead - just as the earth that fails to produce defrauds him who tills it. In You, Lord, may my mouth give forth praise out of silence. Let not our mouths be barren of praise; let now our lips be destitute of confession. May the praise of You vibrate within us."

The internal liturgy of the heart:

  • Book of Steps (4th cent.), on the three churches, in heaven, on earth, in the heart:
    • "In the case of the church in heaven, all that is good takes its beginning from there, and from there light has shone out upon us in all directions. After its likeness the church on earth came into being, along with its priests and its altar; and according to the pattern of its ministry the body ministers outwardly, while the heart acts as priest inwardly. ... Our bodies become temples, and our hearts become altars." [Discourse 12]

Prayer of the heart as sacrifice:

Sahdona (early 7th cent.)
  • "If the commencement of our prayer is wakeful and attentive, and we wet our cheeks with tears stemming from the stirrings of our hearts, then our prayer will be made perfect, in accordance with God’s wish .... and He will take delight in our offering. As He perceives the pleasing scent (Gen. 8:21) of our heart’s pure fragrance, He will send the fire of His Spirit to consume our sacrifices and raise up our mind along with them in the flames to heaven. Then we shall behold the Lord, to our delight and not to our destruction, as the stillness of His revelation (Gen. 15:12) falls upon us and the hidden things of the knowledge of Him will be portrayed in us, and our hearts will be given spiritual joy..." [Book of Perfection, II.8.20]

The heart as mirror:

(i) Simeon the Graceful (late 7th cent.)
  • "Inside the heart there is a spiritual mirror, glorious and ineffable. It was fashioned by the Creator of all natural beings out of the spiritual potential of all natural beings in Creation, visible and spiritual, as a seat of honour for his Image and as a Shekhina, or dwelling place, of his invisibleness. He made it the bond and link and perfection of all natural beings. It is what the Fathers call `the beauty of our true self'; in it resides the Spirit of adoption which we received from holy baptism; and upon it the light of grace shines out. Whoever has cleansed away from this most beautiful mirror the filthy impurity of the sinful passions, whoever has renewed it and set it up in the condition it formerly had when it was created, - this person will see in the sublime rays that emanate from it all the spiritual potential which belongs to natural beings and objects in the created world, both far off and close at hand: it is as though they were all set out and laid bare before his eyes, and he can examine them thanks to the hidden power of the Holy Spirit who resides and works in it, seeing that the natural beings and objects in the created world are arrayed and fixed there. And when Grace overshadows (cf Luke 1:35) the pure souls of the saints, it alights on this mirror and shines out; indeed, so bright is it as a result of the overshadowing of Grace that it surpasses by ten thousand times the effect of the sun's shining on an ordinary mirror. The soul is struck with wonder at its beauty, and in its impassible light it beholds Grace's new light. The mind in turn becomes aware of mysteries both past and future, and through the mirror's light it beholds the light of the New World: it becomes aware of the inheritance of the saints, and it tastes the delights of the revelations of God's mysteries; it rests in stillness, it forgets its pain and tribulation, it rejoices in its hope and gives praise in hidden silence to God who has granted this: `He who dwells in the protection of the Most High...' (Psalm 91:1); `In your light do we see light' (Psalms 36:9)." [A. Mingana, Early Christian Mystics (Woodbrooke Studies 7, 1934), pp.60–61 (adapted)].
(ii) Isaac, Part II.10.29:
  • "The person whose interior mirror effectively reflects God’s love will thereby also reflect God’s love for all human beings: out of the love of God you will arrive at perfect love of all your fellow human beings."
(iii) John the Elder (‘the spiritual Sheikh’), 8th century:
  • "Blessed is the soul which recognizes itself to be a mirror on which it can fix its eyes and see the radiance of Him who is hidden from all ... How great is your love, O God, seeing that those who have tasted of the immensity of its sweetness have become disgusted by every other delight!" (Letter 7:3).
  • "Cleanse your mirror, and then without any doubt the Light of the Trinity will be manifested to you in it; place the mirror in your heart, and you will realize that your God is indeed alive." [Letter 28.2].
  • Contrast Ephrem and most earlier writers, for whom the ‘eye of the heart’ needs to look with clarity upon the mirror of (e.g.) the Scriptures, as Hymns on Faith, 67:8–9:
    • "The Scriptures are laid out like a mirror
      and the person whose eye is clear sees therein the image of Truth;
      in them is placed the image of the Father,
      depicted there is the image of the Son, and that of the Holy Spirit as well."

The heart as a womb:

Sahdona (early 7th century):
  • "Blessed is that person of love who has caused God, who is love, to dwell in his heart. Blessed are you, O heart so small and confined, yet you have caused Him whom heaven and earth cannot contain to dwell spiritually in your womb, as in a restful abode. Blessed is that illumined eye of the heart which, in its purity, clearly beholds Him before whose sight the Seraphs veil their faces." [Book of Perfection, II.4.8].

Key New Testament Passages

  • Luke 1:35 episkiasei, ‘overshadow’ and John 1:14 eskēnōsen, ‘dwelt’; Syriac ‘tabernacled’ in both passages (aggen; background of verb is Exod. 12 in Palestinian Targum, ~ Hebr. pasah).
  • Beatitudes (NB different emphasis between Matthew and Luke).
  • Matt. 5:3 Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of heaven.
  • Luke 6:20 Blessed are the poor, for yours is the Kingdom of heaven.
  • Mark 10:21 (Syriac), etc "If you would be perfect, go sell what you possess, and take up your cross and follow me.
  • John 15:19 You do not belong to the world.
  • Rom. 13:14 Put on our Lord Jesus Christ.

Gospel of Thomas (2nd century): MONAXOC = Ihidaya

  • Logion 16 "There shall be five in a house, three shall be against two, and two against three, the father against the son, and the son against the father, and they will stand as solitaries (MONAXOC)."
  • Logion 49 "Blessed is the solitary (MONAXOS) and elect, for you shall find the Kingdom."
  • Logion 75 "Many are standing at the door, but the solitaries (MONAXOS) are the ones who will enter the bridal chamber."

 

Ascetic life within the Christian community

  • The bnay qyama; ascetic life in isolation - the abile/ "mourners" (based on Matt. 5:4), "who love the wilderness" - the "Holy Men" of Theodoret (and Peter Brown).

The tripartite pattern: John the Solitary (of Apamea) 

  • Three modes of Christian lifestyle (for terminology, cp I Thess. 5:23):

    • of the body: stripping away of possessions. External "self-emptying" (msarrqutha, based on Phil. 2:7, "he emptied himself"). Applies to "outer person".
    • of the soul: stripping away of bad thoughts, passions, etc. Internal "self-emptying". Applies to "inner person".
    • of the spirit: (momentary) interior anticipation in this world of "the New World", "New Life" (Peshitta Rom.6:4), "post-Resurrection life".

Compare other tripartite schemata:

  • Clement of Alexandria
    • slave - faithful servant - child of God.
  • Evagrius
    • praktike - natural contemplation - theologia.
  • Dionysius the Areopagite
    • purification - illumination - perfection.

Isaac of Nineveh on Gehenna

  • (end of II.39.2) "Knowing them and all their conduct, the flow of His grace did not dry up from them: not even after they started living amid many evil deeds did He withhold His care for them, even for a moment. If someone says that He has put up with them here on earth in order that His patience may be known ‑ with the idea that He would punish them there mercilessly, such a person thinks in an unspeakably blasphemous way about God, due to his infantile way of thinking: he is removing from God His kindness, goodness and compassion, all the things because of which He truly bears with sinners and wicked men. Such a person is attributing to God enslavement to passion, supposing that He has not consented to their being chastised here, seeing that He has prepared them for a much greater misfortune, in exchange for a short‑lived patience. Not only does such a person fail to attribute something praiseworthy to God, but he also calumniates Him."

 

The Syriac proto-monastic tradition (4th cent.)

The baptismal context:

Ephrem

  • Hymns on Epiphany 
    • 4:1, Go down (into the baptismal font) and put on our Lord.
    • 8:17, The person who is baptized puts on (Christ) the Ihidaya.

Ihidaya

  • (1) Syriac term translates Greek Monogenes (John 1:18). (2) > Ascetic follower of Christ: Aphrahat, Demonstration 6:6 "The Ihidaya from the bosom of His Father (Jn 1:18) gives joy to all theIhidaye"; 6:4 "my beloved Ihidaye, who do not marry...".
  • Development: "unique, individual" > "follower of Christ the Ihidaya/Only-Begotten", + "single/celibate" + "single-minded"; (only later > "solitary, hermit").

Antecedents of the term ‘monk’ (Greek MONAXOC)

  • (1) non-Christian: "unique of its kind, individual"; "solitary, isolated from others of its kind"; "simple, unified" (as opposed to "multiple, divided").
  • (2) Eusebius, Commentary on Psalm 67(68):7, "God causes the yahid (unmarried, single) to dwell in a house" (LXX Monotropous; Aquila, Monogeneis; Symmachus, Theodotion, Monachous; Syriac Peshitta, Ihidaya). Eusebius (c.330/40) "this refers to the order of those who advance in Christ, the monks". (First known occurrence of monachos = "monk" is in a papyrus petition dated June 324).

The baptismal "covenant, agreement" (Syriac: qyama):

All Christians

  • Cp. Theodore of Mopsuestia, Catechetical Hom. 13:13 (at baptism; acknowledgement of Christ) "I establish a covenant (qyama) and believe...”)
  • Cp sunthekai in John Chrysostom.

Those taking ascetic vows at baptism

  • Aphrahat, Demonstration 6, addressed to Bnay Qyama (lit. children of the covenant) = IhidayeBook of Steps 19:2 "If you have believed the words of Jesus and have established a covenant (qyama) with him that you will listen to his words and keep his commandments...". 
  • Book of Steps: "Lesser commandments" for the "Upright", but "Greater commandments" for the "Mature/perfect".

Ascetic models:

Christ as Bridgroom; betrothal to Christ

  • Ephrem, Hymns on Faith 14:5 "The soul is Your bride, the body Your bridal chamber".
  • Martyrdom of Martha, a "daughter of the covenant" and "the betrothed to Christ" (S. P. Brock and Harvey, S. A., Holy Women of the Syrian Orient, vol. 13. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987. , p. 70).

Parable of the Virgins (Matt. 25:10 "wedding feast" > "bridal chamber")

Baptism as potential return to Paradise (anticipation of eschatological Paradise)

  • Imagery of the Robe of Glory (lost at Fall, deposited by Christ in Jordan, put on in potential at Christian baptism, in reality at the Eschaton).

The angelic life

  • Syriac ‘ira = Watcher/Angel (Daniel: ‘irin and qaddishin, "Watchers and Holy Ones"); ‘irutha = wakefulness.
  • Matt. 26:41 "be wakeful and pray". Aphrahat, Dem. 23:52 "Let us be wakeful each day to utter praise..".
  • Luke 20:35 "those who have become worthy of that world and that resurrection from the death do not marry..., for they have become equal with the angels, as children of God". Ephrem, Hymns on Nativity 21:4 "The Wakeful One (Christ) came to make us wakeful here on earth".

Specialized sense of qaddishaqaddishutha "holy, holiness" > "marital continence"

  • Based on Exodus 19:10, 15. Aphrahat, Demonstration 6:8 "I am writing what befits the Ihidaye, the "children of the covenant", the virgins (m & f), and qaddishe"; Dem.7:20 "the whole qyama of God.. who have chosen for themselves virginity and qaddishutha".