Reflection on a Saying of a Desert Christian: Saint Ephraim the Syrian

“Saint Ephraim the Syrian, the renown teacher of asceticism, once decided to leave, for a time, his beloved silence in the desert and go down to the city. He desired to venerate the holy relics which were then found in Edessa, as well as to meet with men of the church, so as to discuss doctrinal truths with them. He lived in an age when the correct faith was assailed on all sides by fearful heresies.

“Lord,” he prayed before setting out, “Put before me a person to instruct me, when I pass through the city gate.”

“But at the moment that he reached the populous city of Edessa, the first person that he encountered on his way was a woman of the street, who stood and stared at him shamelessly. The Saint complained to the Lord that He had deigned to let him find the opposite of what he had asked for. Afterwards, he turned to the woman and, to evoke some shame in her, told her brusquely: “I am amazed that you do not turn red with embarrassment for daring to stare at me so persistently.”

“She promptly told him: “I am doing that which suits me. Being created from your rib, I should look at you. As for you, however, who were created from dust, you would do well to have your gaze constantly fixed on it.”

“Receiving such an exact response, the Saint thanked God with gratitude. A more beneficial lesson than this he surely could not have wanted.”

Let us give credit where it is due.  This anecdote is not very flattering to St. Ephraim, yet he must have shared it with others.

His desire to venerate holy relics shows a good heart willing to admire the holy lives of those who have gone before him in the faith. Why did he desire to discuss doctrinal truths with men of the church? We don’t know that.  I know when I was in college and seminary I used to love the intellectual stimulation of a debate over some or other teaching of the church. Still do. Not so sure how that is helpful to me or anyone else. If I glean something of the nature of God or where I need to do better, perhaps there is merit. But All Too Often my desire was to show off and have my ego flattered.

“He lived in an age when the correct faith was assailed on all sides by fearful heresies.” One of my very best professors in seminary told us something very interesting as part of our studies of the Post-Apostolic Age. He told us there were many ideas, concepts, thoughts floating around in the Early Church but we had to be careful not to be anachronistic. “A heresy is not a heresy,” he said, “until the church, meeting in council, declares it to be a heresy.  Before that, it is simply what some Christians believed.  If we are to be accurate, historically.”  Those words have long been a source of wisdom for me because it provides a context for compassion for those who believe differently.

Be that as it may, I think we can infer from the saint’s encounter with the harlot that his motives in discussing doctrinal truths may have been less than pure. Ephraim clearly has an idea of what kind of person would be the sort to best instruct him, however humble his prayer may appear to be.  That his prayer for an instructor was not humble in motive is evident in his reaction to the prostitute. He chastises her for staring at him.

Her response is delicious. Just delicious. Also, in a manner he cannot fault.  Women, we are told, were created from Adam’s rib while Adam was made from dust and God’s spit, mud, as it were. So she says, we look at that from which we were created.

What a lesson in humility it is to be reminded that we must look at that from which we were created.  We were created from God’s love. Let us look on that.


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