by St. Ephraim the Syrian
Our father among the saints, Ephraim was a prolific Syriac language hymn writer and theologian of the 4th century. He is venerated by Christians throughout the world, but especially among Syriac Christians, as a saint. Here Ephraim presents his “counsel of life”, warning against various sins such as greed, pride, fornication, and slander.
1. Not of compulsion is the doctrine; of free-will is the word of life. Whoso is willing to hear the doctrine, let him cleanse the field of his will that the good seed fall not among the thorns of vain enquirings. If thou wouldst heed the word of life, cut thyself off from evil things; the hearing of the word profits nothing to the man that is busied with sins. If thou willest to be good, lore not dissolute customs.
First of all, trust in God, and then hearken thou to His law.
2. Thou canst not hear His words, while thou dost not know thyself; and if thou keepest His judgments while thy understanding is aloof from Him, who will give thee thy reward? Who will keep for thee thy recompense? Thou wast baptised in His Name; confess His Name! In the Persons and in the naming, Father and Son and Holy Spirit, three Names and Persons, these three shall be a wall to thee, against divisions and wranglings. Doubt not thou of the truth, lest thou perish through the truth. Thou wast baptised from the water; thou hast put on Christ in His naming; the seat of the Lord is on thy person and His stamp on thy forehead. See that thou become not another’s, for other Lord hast thou none. One is He Who formed us in His mercy; one is He Who redeemed us on His cross. He it is Who guides our life; He it is Who has power over our feebleness; He it is Who brings to pass our Resurrection. He rewards us according to our works.
Blessed is he that confesses Him, and hears and keeps His commandments! Thou, O man, art a son of God Who is high over all. See that thou vex not by thy works the Father Who is good and gracious.
3. If thou art wroth against thy neighbour, thou art wroth against God; and if thou bearest anger in thy heart, against thy Lord is thy boldness uplifted. If in envy thou rebukest, wicked is all thy reproof. But if charity dwell in thee, thou hast on earth no enemy. And if thou art a true son of peace, thou wilt stir up wrath in no man. If thou art just and upright, thou wilt not do wrong to thy fellow. And if thou lovest to be angry, be angry with the wicked and it will become thee; if to wage war thou seekest, lo! Satan is thy adversary; if thou desirest to revile, against the demons display thy curses. If thou shouldst insult the King’s image, thou shalt pay the penalty of murder; and if thou revilest a man, thou revilest the image of God. Do honour to thy neighbour, and lo! thou hast honoured God. But if thou wouldst dishonour Him, in wrath assail thy neighbour!
4. This is the first Commandment,—Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart and thy soul, and with thy might according as thou art able. The sign that thou lovest God, is this, that thou lovest thy fellow; and if thou hatest thy fellow, thy hatred is towards God. For it is blasphemy if thou prayest before God while thou art wroth. For thy heart also convicts thee, that in vain thou multipliest words: thy conscience rightly judges that in thy prayers thou profitest nought. Christ as He hung on the height of the tree, interceded for His murderers; and thou (who art) dust, son of the clay, rage fills thee at its will. Thou keepest anger against thy brother; and dost thou yet dare to pray? Even he that stands on thy side, though he be not neighbour to thy sins, the taint of iniquity reaches unto him, and his petition is not heard. Leave off rage and then pray; and unless thou wouldst further provoke, restrain anger and so shalt thou supplicate. And if he (the other) is not to encounter thee ill fury, banish rage from that body, because it is holden with lusts.
5. Thou hast a spiritual nature; the soul is the image of the Creator; honour the image of God, by being in agreement with all men. Remember death, and be not angry, that thy peace be not of constraint. As long as thy life remains to thee, cleanse thy soul from wrath; for if it should go to Sheol with time, thy road will be straight to Gehenna. Keep not anger in thy heart; hold not fury in thy soul; thou hast not power over thy soul, save to do that which is good. Thou art bought with the blood of God; thou art redeemed by the passion of Christ; for thy sake He suffered death, that thou mightest die to thy sins. His face endured spitting, that thou mightest not shrink from scorn. Vinegar and gall did He drink, that thou mightest be set apart from wrath. He received stripes on His body, that thou mightest not fear suffering. If thou art in truth His servant, fear thy holy Lord; if thou art His true disciple, walk in thy Master’s footsteps. Endure scorn from thy brother, that thou mayest be the companion of Christ. Display not anger against man, that thou be not set apart from thy Redeemer.
6. Thou art a man, the dust of the earth, clay, kinsman of the clod; thou art the son of the race of beasts. If thou knowest not thy honour; separate thy soul from animals, by works and not by words. If thou lovest derision, thou art altogether as Satan; and if thou mockest at thy fellow, thou art the mouth of the Devil; if against defects and flaws, in (injurious) names thou delightest, Satan is not in creation but his place thou hast seized by force. Get thee far, O man, from this; for it is altogether hurtful; and if thou desirest to live well, sit not with the scorner, lest thou become the partner of his sin and of his punishment. Hate mockery which is altogether (the cause of weeping), and mirth which is (the cause of) cleansing. And if thou shouldst hear a mocker by chance, when thou art not desiring it, sign thyself with the cross of light, and hasten from thence like an antelope. Where Satan lodges, Christ will in nowise dwell; a spacious dwelling for Satan is the man that mocks at his neighbour; a palace of the Enemy is the heart of the mocker. Satan does not desire to add any other evil to it. Mockery is sufficient for him to supply the place of all. Neither his belly nor yet his purse can (the sinner) fill with that sin of his. By his laughter is the wretch despoiled, and he knows not nor does he perceive it. For his wound, there is no cure; for his sickness, there is no healing; his pain, admits no remedy; and his sore, endures no medicine. I desire not with such a one to put forth my tongue to reprove him: enough for him is his own shame; sufficient for him is his boldness. Blessed is he that has not heard him; and blessed is he that has not known him. Be it far from thee, O Church, that he should enter thee, that evil leaven of Satan!
7. Narrow is the way of life, and broad the way of torment; prayer is able to bring a man to the house of the kingdom. This is the perfect work; prayer that is pure from iniquity. The righteousness of man is as nothing accounted. The work of men, what is it? His labour is altogether vanity. Of Thee, O Lord, of Thy grace it is that in our nature we should become good. Of Thee is righteousness, that we from men should become righteous. Of Thee is the mercy and favour, that we from the dust should become Thy image. Give power to our will, that we be not sunk in sin! Pour into our heart memory, that at every hour we may know Thy honour! Plant Thou truth in our minds, that we perish not among doubts! Occupy our understanding with Thy law, that it wander not in vain thoughts! Order the motions of our members, that they bring no hurt upon us! Draw thou near to God, that Satan may flee from thee. Cast out passions from thy heart, and lo! thou hast put to flight the enemy. Hate thou sins and wickedness, and Satan at once will have fled. Whatsoever sins thou servest, thou art worshipping secret idols. Whatsoever transgressions thou lovest, thou art serving demons in thy soul. Whensoever thou strivest with thy brother, Satan abides in peace. Whensoever thou enviest thy fellow, thou givest rest to Devils. Whensoever thou tellest the shortcoming of others who are not present, thy tongue has made a harp for the music of the devil. Whensoever hatred is in thy soul, great is the peace of the Deceiver. Whensoever thou lovest incantations, thy labour is altogether of the left hand. If thou lovest unseemly discourse, thou preparest a feast for demons. For this is the worship of idols, the working of the lusts (of the flesh).
8. If so be thou givest a gift in pride, this is not of God. If thou art lifted up by reason of thy knowledge, thou hast denied the grace of God. If thou art poor and proud, lo! thy end is in thy torment. If thou art haughty and needy, lo! thy need is toward thy destruction. If thou art sick and criest out, lo! thy trouble is full of harm. If thou art in need of food, yet thy mind longs for riches; thy distress is with the poor, but thy torment with the rich. If thou shalt look unchastely, and shalt desire thy neighbour’s wife, lo! thy portion shall be with the adulterers, and thy hell with the fornicators. Let thine own fountain be for thyself, and drink waters from thy well. Let thy fountains be for thyself alone, and let not another drink with thee. Require purity of thy body as thou requirest of thy yoke-fellow. Thou wouldst not have her commit lewdness, the wife of thy youth, with another man; commit not thou lewdness with another woman, the wife of a different husband. Let the defilement of her be hateful in thine eyes; keep aloof from it altogether. Chastity beseems the wife; purity is as her adornment; law becomes the husband; justice is the crown for his head. Desire not thou the bed of thy neighbour lest another desire thy bed. Preserve purity in thy marriage, that thy marriage may be holy. His conscience reproves the man, who corrupts the wife of his neighbour. He fears, and deceives through terror, whoso has engaged in fornication. Darkness is dearer to him than light, whose manner of life is not pure. Every hour he stands in dread, who commits adultery secretly. The adulterer is also a thief who breaks into houses in darkness. The very place reproves him, where he does the evil and wickedness. He enters the chamber and sins; in the darkness he does his will. The time will come when it shall be disclosed, when his secret deeds shall be manifested. With what eyes dost thou look towards God in prayer? What hands dost thou raise when thou askest pardon? Be ashamed and dismayed for thyself, that thou art void of understanding. If when thy neighbour see thee, thou art ashamed and dismayed, how much more shouldst thou be ashamed before God Who sees all? Thou art like the sow, thy companion, that wallows altogether in mire. Even in seeing, thou mayest sin, if thy mind is not watchful; and in hearing thou mayest transgress, if thou dost not guard thy hearing. The fornicator’s heart waxes wanton through speech that is full of uncleanness. The passion hidden in the mind, sight and hearing awaken it.
9. He puts on garments of shame who desires to commit fornication, that from the lust of raiment, lewdness may enter and dwell in his heart. Make thou not snares of thy garments for that which is openly wanton. Speak not a word in craftiness, nor dig thy neighbour’s well. Look not after the harlot; be not snared by the beauty of her face. She is even as the dog that is mad, yea, much more bold than it. Modesty is removed from her face, she knows not what shame is. With spitting accept her person; with reviling meet herself; with a rod pursue her like a dog, for she is like one, and to be compared with such. Reject the sweetness of her words lest thou fall into her net. She empties purses and wallets, and her gains are without number. Flee from her, for she is the daughter of vipers, that she tear not in pieces thy whole body.
10. Thou shalt not slander any man, lest they call thee Satan. If thou hatest the name, go not near to the act; but if thou lovest the act, be not angry at the name Count thyself rebuked first of all by the beasts and birds, how that every kind cleaves to its kind; and so agree thou with thy yokefellow. Rejoice not in men’s dishonour, that thou become not a Satan thyself. If evil should happen to him that hates thee, see thou rejoice not, lest thou sin. If thine adversary should fall, be thou in pain and mourning. Keep thy heart with all diligence, that it sin not in secret; for there is to be a laying bare of thoughts and of actions. Employ thy hands in labour, and let thy heart meditate in prayer. Love not vain discourse, for discourse that shall be profitable alike to the sold and the body lightens the burden of thy labour.
11. Does the poor man cry at thy door? Arise and open for him gladly: refresh him when he is wearied; sustain his heart, for it is sad. Thou knowest by experience the affliction of poverty: receive not others in thy house, and drive not out the beggar. Have thou also a law, a comely law for thy household. Establish an order that is wise, that the abjects laugh not at time. Be careful in all thy doings, that thou be not a sport for fools; be upright and prudent, and both simple and wise. Let thy body be quiet and cheerful, thy greeting seemly and simple; thy discourse without fault, thy speech brief and savoury; thy words few and sound, full of savour and understanding. Speak not overmuch, not even words that are wise; for all things that are overmany, though they be wise are wearisome.—To them of thy household be as a father. Amongst thy brethren esteem thyself least, and inferior amongst thy fellows, and of little account with all men. With thy friend keep a secret; to those that love thee be true. See that there be no wrangling; the secrets of thy friends reveal not, lest all that hear thee hate thee and esteem thee a mischiefmaker, With those that hate thee wrangle not, neither face to face nor yet in thy heart. No enemy shalt thou have but Satan his very self. Give counsel to the wife thou hast wedded; give heed to her doings; as stronger thou art answerable that thou shouldst sustain her weakness. For weak is womankind, and very ready to fall. Be thou as a hawk, when kindle (to anger), but when wrath departs from thee, be gladsome and also firm, in the blending of diverse qualities. Keep silence among the aged; to the elders give due honour. Honour the priests with diligence, as good stewards of the household. Give due hon-our to their degree, and search not out their doings. In his degree the priest is an angel, but in his doings a man. By mercy he is made a mediator, between God and mankind.
12. Search not out the faults of men; reveal not the sin of thy fellow; the shortcomings of thy neighbours, in speech of the mouth repeat not. Thou art not judge in creation, thou hast not dominion over the earth. If thou lovest righteousness, reprove thy soul and thyself. Be thou judge unto thine own sins, and chastener of thy own transgressions. Make thou not inquiry maliciously, into the misdeeds of men. For if thou doest this, injuries Will not be lacking to thee. Trust not the hearing of the ear, for many are the deceivers. Vain reports believe thou not, for false rumours are not few.
13. Regard not spells and divinations, for that is communion with Satan. Love not idle prating, not even in behalf of righteousness. Discourse concerning thyself begin thou not, even in behalf of what is becoming. Flee and hide thyself from wrangling, as from a violent robber. See that thou be not a surety in a loan, test thou sin. According as thou hast, assist him,(even) the man that is poorer than thou. Mock not the foolish man; pray that thou be not even as he. Him that sins blame not, lest thou also be put to confusion. To him that repents of his sins be a helper and counsellor, and encourage him that is able to rise. Let him hold fast hope in God, and his sin shall be burned as stubble. Visit the sick and be not wearied, that thou mayest be beloved of men. Be familiar with the house of mourning, but a stranger to the house of feasting. Be not constant in drinking wine, lest thy shortcomings multipIy. Cast a wall round thy lips, and set a guard upon thy mouth; endure suffering with thy neighbour and share also in his tribulation. A good friend in tribulation is made known to him that loves him. In charity follow the deceased, with sorrow and with offerings, and pray that he may have rest in the hidden place whither he is going.
14. When thou standest in prayer, cry in thy soul: Have mercy on me, I am a sinner and weak; be gracious, 0 God, to my weakness, and grant strength to me to pray a prayer that shall be pleasing to Thy Will. “Punish Thou not mine enemies, take not vengeance on them that hate me; but grant them in Thy grace that they may become doers of Thy Will.” At the time of prayer and petition, in contemplations such as these continue thou. Bow thy head before the Mighty One.
15. Do not thou resist evil, for he is evil from the Evil One, whoso resists evil. Keep not back aught from any man, that if he perishes thou mayest not be blamed. Change not thy respect for a man’s person, according to goods and possessions. Make all things as though they were not and God alone were in being. If thou shalt ask of thy neighbour and he shall not give thee according to thy wish, see that thou say not in anger a word that is full of bitterness. Oppose not thou[fit] seasons, for many are the changes. Put sorrow far from thy flesh, and sadness from thy thoughts; save only that for thy sins thou shouldst be constant in sadness. Cease not from labour, not even though thou be rich, for the slothful man gains manifold guilt by his idleness.
16. Be thou a lover of poverty, and be desirous of neediness. If thou hast them both for thy portion, thou art an inheritor on high. Despise not the voice of the poor and give him not cause to curse thee. For if he curse whose palate is bitter, the Lord will hear his petition. If his garments are foul, wash them in water, which freely is bought. Has a poor man entered into thy house? God has entered into thy house; God dwells within thy abode. He, whom thou hast refreshed from his troubles, from troubles will deliver thee. Hast thou washed the feet of the stranger? Thou hast washed away the filth of thy sins. Hast thou prepared a table before him? Behold God eating[at it], and Christ likewise drinking[at it], and the Holy Spirit resting[on it]: Is the poor satisfied at thy table and refreshed? Thou hast satisfied Christ thy Lord. He is ready to be thy rewarder; in presence of angels and men He will confess thou hast fed His hunger; He will give thanks unto thee that thou didst give Him drink, and quench His thirst.
17. O how gracious is the Lord! O how measureless are His mercies! Happy the race of mortals when God confesses it! Woe to the soul which He denies! Fire is stored up for its punishment. Be of good cheer, my son, in hope; sow good[seed] and faint not. The husbandman sows in hope, and the merchant journeys in hope, thou also lovest good[seed]; in the hope look for the reward. Do not thou aught at all without the beginning of prayer. With the sign of the living cross, seal all thy doings, my son. Go not forth from the door of thy house till thou hast signed the cross. Whether in eating or in drinking, whether in sleeping or in waking, whether in thy house or on the road, or again in the season of leisure, neglect not this sign; for there is no guardian like it. It shall be unto thee as a wall, in the forefront of all thy doings. And teach this to thy children, that heedfully they be conformed to it.
18. Yoke thyself under the law. that thou mayest be a freeman in very truth. Work not the desire of thy soul apart from the law of God. How many commandments must I write, and how many laws must I engrave; which, if thou desirest thy freedom, thou canst learn all from thyself? And if thou lovest purity, thou wilt teach it to others also. Let nature be thy book, and all creation thy tables; and learn from them the laws, and meditate things unwritten. The sun in his course teaches thee that thou rest from labour. The night in her silence cries to thee that a limit is set to thy works. The earth and the fruit of the tree cry that there is a season for all things. The seed thou sowest in the winter, in the summer thou gatherest its harvest. Thus in the world sow seeds of righteousness, and in the Resurrection gather them in. The bird in its daily gleaning reproves the covetous and his greed, and rebukes the extortion that grasps the store of others. Death, the limit of all things, is itself the reprover of all things.
19. Take thou refuge in God Who passes not away nor is changed. Restrain laughter by suffering, and mirthfulness by sorrow. Console suffering by hope, and sadness by expectation. Believe and trust, thou that art wise, for God is He Who guides thee; and if His care leaves thee not, there is nothing that can harm thee. If one man by another man, the lowly by the great, can be saved, how much more shall the refuge of God preserve the man that believes? Fear not because of adversaries who with violence come upon thee. He will watchfully guard thy soul, and hurtful things become profitable. No one shall lead thee by compulsion, save only where there is freedom. No one falls into temptation, that passes the measure of his strength. There is no evil in chastisement, if so be that freedom is willing. The doings are not perverse of freedom, its will is perverted.
20. To men that are just and upright, temptations become helps. Job, a man of discernment, was victorious in temptations, Sickness came upon him, and he complained not; disease afflicted him and he murmured not; his body failed and his strength departed, but his will was not weakened. He proved perfect in all by sufferings, for as much as temptations crushed him not. Abrabam was a stranger, from his place, his race[and his kindred]. But by this he was not harmed; nay rather he triumphed greatly. So Joseph from the house of bondage was made to rule as king of Egypt. They of the company of Ananias and Daniel delivered others from bondage. See then, O thou that art wise, the power that freedom possesses; that nothing can injure it unless the will is weakened. Israel with sumptuous living waxed fat, and kicked, and forgot his covenant. He worshipped vain gods, and forgot the nature of his creation. The bondage that was in Egypt he forgat in the repose of the desert. As often as he was afflicted, he acknowledged the Lord alone; but when he was dwelling in repose, he forgot God his Redeemer. Seek thou not here repose, for this is a world of toil. And if thou canst wisely discern, change thou not time for time; that which abides for that which abides not; that which ceases not for that which ceases; nor truth for lying; nor body for shadow; nor watching for slumber; nor that which is in season for that which is out of season; nor the Time for the times. Collect thy mind, let it not wander among varieties which profit not.
21. No one in creation is rich but he that fears God; no one is truly poor but he that lacks the truth. How needy is he, and not rich, whose need witnesses against him that even from the abject and the beggars he needs to receive a gift. He is truly a bondman, and many are his masters: he renders service to money, to riches, and possessions. His lords are void of mercy, for they grant him no repose. Flee, and live in poverty;(as) a mother she pities her beloved. Seek thou refuge in indigence, who nourishes her children with choice things; her yoke is light and pleasant, and sweet to the palate her memory. The sick in conscience alone abhors the draught of poverty; the fainthearted dreads the yoke of indigence that is honourable. Who has granted to Thee, Son of man, in the world to find repose? Who has granted to thee, thing of dust, to be rich amidst poverty? Be not thou through desires needy and looking to others. Sufficient for thee is thy daily bread, that comes of the sweat of thy face. Let this be(the measure of thy need, that which the day gives thee; and if thou findest for thyself a feast, take of it that which thou needest. Thou shalt not take in a day(the provision) of days, for the belly keeps no treasure. Praise and give thanks when thou art satisfied, that therein thou provoke not the Giver to anger. In purity strengthen thyself, that thou mayest gain from it profit. In everything give thanks and praise unto God as the Redeemer, that He may grant thee by His grace, that we may hear and do His Will.
Thou to whom I have given the counsel of life, be not thou negligent in it. From that which is other men’s(doctrine) have I written to thee; see thou despise not their words. And if I depart before thee, in thy prayer make mention of me. In every season pray and beseech that our love may continue true. But as for us, on behalf of these things let us offer up praise and honour to Father, to Son, and to Holy Spirit, now and for ever. Amen.