Dozens of men and women from the Armenian Church and the Syrian Orthodox Church gathered together last Saturday, May 13 for a day of learning, prayer and fellowship dedicated to the great fourth-century saint, composer of hymns, commentator of sacred Scripture and theologian, St. Ephrem the Syrian. The conference,St. Ephrem the Syrian: Theology in Poetry, Music, Word and Color, was organized by St. Nersess Seminary and hosted by St. Mark's Syrian Orthodox Cathedral in Teaneck, NJ.
Saint of the Universal Church
The day began with morning prayers led by a delegation of St. Nersess seminarians and Armenian clergy. Fr. Daniel Findikyan then introduced the day's events calling St. Ephrem "truly a saint of the universal church; a saint who has had a profound impact in particular on the Armenian and Syrian Orthodox Churches."
Archbishop Mor Cyril Afrem Karim, Patriarchal Vicar of the Syriac Orthodox Archdiocese of the Eastern United States welcomed all of the speakers and participants. "St. Ephrem's life has given so much to the Syrian churches in particular and to the Christian churches in general." The Archbishop noted that the exact date of St. Ephrem's birth is not known. It is believed that he was born sometime between 303 and 307 AD. "We are therefore in the period of St. Ephrem's 1700th anniversary," he said.
Soorp Yeprem Asori
Dr. Edward G. Mathews Jr., currently Visiting Scholar at St. Nersess Seminary, is acknowledged as one of the world's authorities on the writings of St. Ephrem, especially as they have been preserved in Armenian translations of the so-called "Golden Age" of Sts. Sahak and Mesrob. His presentation, Soorp Yeprem Asori: Ephrem in Armenian Dress, highlighted the overwhelming influence that the saint's writings, thought and theological vision had on the theology of the Armenian Church.
"But even this vast number of St. Ephrem's works translated into Armenian is not the full measure of his authority in the Armenian Church," he said. "When Armenian Church fathers examine a theological issue, St. Ephrem is regularly quoted as the primary authority."
At the end of his presentation, Dr. Mathews invited St. Nersess seminarian Deacon Nishan Baljian forward to sing the Armenian hymn (sharagan) dedicated to St. Ephrem. To hear Dr. Mathews' lecture and the hymn Vor hamanman medzeen Yeghiayee sung by Deacon Nishan Baljian click here [38 min, 18MB].
The morning's third speaker was Rabban Awgen Aydin, a doctoral student from Princeton Theological Seminary specializing in the field of early church history and ecumenics. Fr. Awgen was born in Nisibis, the town in present-day Turkey that was home to St. Ephrem. He is also a monk of the historic Syrian Orthodox monastery of Mor Gabriel in the Tur-Abdin region, the heart of the Syrian Orthodox Church and people.
Fr. Awgen's topic was "A Wedding Feast of Song: St. Ephrem and the Singing Ministry of Women in the Church." Illustrating his presentation by singing several hymns of St. Ephrem, Aydin spoke about the women's choirs which St. Ephrem founded and for which he composed. These women had an active and visible role in the liturgy, something quite extraordinary for the times. To hear Fr. Aydin's lecture hymns of St. Ephrem in Syriac click here [15min, 7MB].
Dr. Thomas Buchan III of Gorgias Press and Drew University led the participants more deeply into the theology of St. Ephrem in his afternoon talk, "Victory Over Temptation, Victory Over Death: St. Ephrem on Christ's Descent into Sheol."
"More than any other ancient writer," Buchan stated, "St. Ephrem makes repeated reference to Christ's descent into hell following his crucifixion." Reading numerous passages from the saint's writings, Buchan showed how Ephrem regularly compared two pillar events in Christ's life: his retreat into the wilderness after his baptism, where he refuted Satan's temptations; and his descent into hell after his crucifixion, where he scored victory over death. St. Ephrem conceives of the history of mankind's salvation in these twin moments, which he elaborates profusely in his hymns and biblical commentaries. To hear Dr. Buchan's lecture click here [45min, 22MB].
The Contemplative Life is Possible for All
Brother Christopher described the three monastic communities of New Skete--monks, nuns and married couples called companions. The inspiration for this interpretation of the monastic ideal is already suggested in St. Ephrem's thought. "The human archetype of the monk is present in all humans. It's in you. It's part of the human condition," he said, adding, "St. Ephrem shows us that the contemplative life is possible for all." To hear Brother Christopher's lecture click here [27min, 5MB].
Theology in Poetry in Imagery
"If you want to learn the iconographic language, read the works of St. Ephrem," he said at the outset of his presentation. What ties icons, hymnography, the liturgy and the writings of the church fathers together is an appreciation for rhetoric. "The fact that St. Ephrem writes theology exclusively in poetry is not exceptional, it's typical," said Schneider. To hear Dr. Schneider's lecture click here[50min, 9MB].
"I thought this was an absolutely wonderful day," said one participant from New Jersey. "The presenters were fantastically prepared and spoke directly to all present--no one became too academic or too basic...Oh, the food was absolutely delightful as well!"
Hear another Syriac hymn of St. Ephrem [3min, 1MB].