For much of this post I will be relying on the writings of St Ephraim the Syrian. St Ephraim is a 4th century Church Father from Mesopotamia. Unlike the Greek Fathers, St Ephraim read and wrote in Syriac, a dialect of Aramaic. And although he treats on many of the same theological issues as the Greek Fathers, he does so primarily in the same Semitic poetic idiom which is prevalent in the Hebrew Scriptures. In these, and particularly Genesis and the prophets, St Ephraim demonstrates a great fluency, mining them for rich imagery which he employs in theological meditations on a number of subjects.
|St Ephraim the Syrian, Legacy Icons|
Although he is little-known in the West, St Ephraim has over 300,000 lines of verse attributed to his hand (some of these are probably pseudoepigrapha, but it remains a fact that his poetic output was prodigious). He is probably best-known for the lenten prayer attributed to him, which the Eastern Orthodox Church uses many times a day during the season of Great Lent:
O Lord and Master of my life, take from me the spirit of sloth, despair, lust of power, and idle talk.
But give rather the spirit of chastity, humility, patience, and love to Thy servant.
Yea, O Lord and King, grant me to see my own transgressions, and not to judge my brother, for blessed art Thou, unto ages of ages. Amen.
One of St Ephraim's most significant works is the Hymns on Paradise, a series of 15 hymns which together form a meditation on Genesis 2-3. In these hymns Ephraim draws on a deep well of the Hebrew scriptures, Second Temple Judaism, Syriac rabbinical traditions, and early Christian understandings of the Cross, the Tree of Life, and Paradise to express the sacramental character of the created world, and the Triune God as the ultimate source of all beauty.
Following a very old interpretive tradition which predates Christianity, St Ephraim (in keeping with the prophet Ezekiel) understands Paradise, or Eden, as both mountain and sanctuary, seeing in it the basic pattern on which Moses' tabernacle was later modeled. In this he is perfectly in keeping with a Second Temple Jewish tradition concerning God's command to Moses:
And look that thou make them [the fittings and furnishings of the Tabernacle] after their pattern [in the Septuagint Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures this word is typos], which was shewed thee in the mount. (Exodus 25:40)
Today we would probably be inclined to understand pattern as something like a set of blueprints which Moses was shown, and then commanded to execute. Second Temple Judaism, as well as later rabbinical traditions and the early Church Fathers, all understood this to mean that Moses has been shown the heavenly sanctuary which Isaiah, Ezekiel, and John the Revelator saw, and commanded to build an earthly image of the heavenly original. There exists a truly staggering amount of rabbinical and Patristic commentary on the detailed instructions for the Tabernacle found in these chapters.
All of this forms the backdrop for the direct parallels which St Ephraim draws between Paradise and the structure of the Tabernacle/Temple. To quote from the excellent edition from SVS Press which I have linked to above:
The Paradise Hymns provide us with a number of topographical details which, taken together, can give us some idea of how St Ephrem conceptualized this Paradisiacal mountain. We learn that the mountain is circular (I.8) and that it encircles the "Great Sea (II.6), enclosing both land and sea (I.8-9). The Flood reached only its foothills (I.4), and on these foothills is situated the "fence" or "barrier"...guarded by the Cherub with the revolving sword (II.7, IV.1, based on Genesis 3:24). This fence demarcates the lowest extremity of Paradise. Halfway up is the Tree of Knowledge which provides an internal boundary beyond and higher than which Adam and Eve were forbidden to go (III.3); this Tree acts as a sanctuary curtain hiding the Holy of Holies, which is the Tree of Life higher up (III.2). On the summit of the Mountain resides the Divine Presence, the Shekhina...
In this structure St Ephraim saw the model for the Old Testament Tabernacle and Temple, as well as for the physical layout of the Christian Church--but also (as I shall discuss in the next post in this series) the threefold structure of the human person. There are also frequent comparisons made to the progression of Moses up Mount Sinai (an important image in Christian thought, cf. the Epistle to the Hebrews, St Gregory of Nyssa's The Life of Moses). Expanding on one of the charts found in the SVS edition, I would make a feeble attempt to plot the relationships between these hiearchies thus:
|Paradise||Sinai||The Tabernacle/The Temple||The Christian Church||Human Person|
|summit:||Shekhina/Tree of Life||the Glorious One||Shekhina/The Mercy Seat/Cherubic Throne (Holy of Holies)||The Cross (new Tree of Life) and its fruit (the Eucharist)/The "Warm Mercy Seat"||divinity (1 Cor 16:19)|
|heights:||Tree of Knowledge||Moses||Sanctuary Veil||Iconostasis/Templon||intellectual Spirit|
|lower slopes:||Thorn Tree||tribes||Porch/Outer Court||Narthex||body|
As noted in my previous post, the idea of barriers or veils within a hierarchy is something which is likely to raise the hackles of those raised in a democratic, individualistic society. Since we are looking at hierarchy as a source of beauty, I am going to take the liberty of a somewhat long (and theological) digression to consider how these barriers function.
|The Sanctuary Veil, credit: https://steve-creitz-kreh.squarespace.com/|
This moment is best understood in light of the Genesis narrative. Following his rabbinical and Second Temple sources, Ephraim and other early Church Fathers interpreted the Tree of Knowledge as something which had been placed in the Garden as both a test and a reward for mankind. If Adam and Eve obeyed the command to abstain from the Tree, they would be given to eat of it, and their "eyes would be opened" to see the Tree of Life, allowing them to progress further up the mountain, into closer communion with God, becoming in fact "like God." The Serpent promises them this godlikeness on their own terms, and being deceived, they partake of the fruit. The Tree of Knowledge works as intended and the veil is torn, but where the vision of the inner sanctuary ought to have given them joy, now it gives them only sorrow, and they are driven outward beyond the Fence of Paradise in order to prevent their seizing the Tree of Life on their own terms:
|Templon at Church of St. Eleftherios in Athens, photo credit Wikipedia|
The moment of Christ's crucifixion is thus shown, by the rending of the temple veil, to be the moment of revelation, revealing the new "Tree of Life"--the Cross, made available to us by the obedience of the Second Adam [note: the Cross as the Tree of Life is one of the most fertile subjects for hymnody within the Eastern Tradition of the Church, and it is an image to which St Ephraim returns over and over again]. Whether this moment of revelation is a source of joy or sorrow depends, as it did for Adam, on the disposition of the viewer.
|The Nave and Iconostasis of St Seraphim Orthodox Cathedral, Dallas, TX|
For Christians worshiping in the Eastern Rite (myself included), the opening and closing of the Holy Doors of the iconostasis (or the opening/closing of the veil of a templon) functions in this way. The presence of the barrier reveals the Sanctuary as holy. For the Faithful, the opening of the doors at particular moments in the Liturgy (most of all during the consecration of the Eucharist) reveals the promise of greater joy, deeper communion, the way made free to go "further up and further in." For the penitent, the excommunicated, the vision is one of sorrow--what is denied and must be reclaimed.
But someone reading St Ephraim closely--or for that matter, anyone who has ever attended a Mass or read a good story--will realize that while beauty uses hierarchy as a framework, the hierarchy alone is not inherently beautiful. Movement--up and down, in classical terms "comedy" and "tragedy"--is necessary for beauty to be found and experienced.
In the next post we'll examine the series of contrasts and movements in Paradise, and find them in the layout, iconographic scheme, and Liturgical movements of the Church. In the post that follows that, we will consider how the same grammar of beauty is present in a Western dialect in Rogier van der Weyden’s Seven Sacraments.
Currently reading: Hymns on Paradise, St Ephraim the Syrian
Current audio book: The Silmarillion, Tolkien