Early Syriac Monasticism: Prayer, Reflection, and Mission
He said to them, “Come follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” At once they left their nets and followed him. - Matthew 4:19-20
Preface: Defining the term “Syriac”
The Syriac language emerged from Middle Aramaic which had close association with the Galilean dialect of Aramaic spoke by Jesus Christ.1
Is should not be assumed that the term “Syriac” carries with it an agreed understanding of institution and history, like the terms Latin Christianity, or Byzantine Christianity. In fact in most languages the term Syrian is used, or a translation thereof.
In the English speaking world the term Syriac has become the term to express the expansive world of Syriac language used in the late Ancient and Medieval Christian influenced world. This allows for a distinction from the geographical area known as Syria, as well as a distinction from the Aramaic Christian (non-Syriac Aramaic) regions of Palestine, Samaria, etc., of the same period.
Also, it is important to remember that there were two distinctive Syriac traditions that emerged and remain today (within a variety of Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Ancient Oriental Orthodox, Church of the East, and Protestant Churches); the West Syriac Tradition and the East Syriac Tradition.
The Advent of Monasticism
Every man and woman who has committed their lives to the monastic life, have heard the apostolic calling: “come follow me” (Matthew 4:19). As the pagan stadiums drenched with the blood of the first Christian martyrs began to recede into the collective memory of the Church. The next generation of those filled with Christian zeal and the desire to die to self, embraced their share of the cross in the monastic life.
Christian Monasticism began in the ancient Near East of Egypt, Greater Syria, and Greater Persia. St. Anthony the Great, of Egypt (251-356AD) who was himself a disciple of St. Paul of Thebes (d.339AD), began a spiritual movement that later became known collectively as that of the Desert Fathers; remembering that women were also part of this vast movement. St. Athanasius of Alexandria who wrote of the life of Anthony, tells us that so many men and women followed him into the monastic life that, “the desert became a city.”2
St. Anthony began what could be called the first of the Three Pillars of Monasticism, that of being a hermit or solitary (eremitic). Eventually the three types of monastic life in the East would comprise that of the eremitic, the cenobitic3, and the skete: hermit life, communal monastic life, and hermitages at short distances allowing for limited communal interaction and prayer.
The Expansive Reach of Syriac Monasticism
Yet, it would be misleading to see the manifestation of Syriac Monasticism as merely an outgrowth of the Desert Fathers of Egypt.4 The influences upon Syriac Monasticism will become much greater, and the influence of Syriac Monasticism in the first millennium Christian world will be far beyond the Syriac speaking world. By way of example is the Chinese city of Si-Gan-Fu (officially today Sian Fu), the capital of the province of Shen-si, in Northwest China. There thrived a community of Chinese Christians, who were evangelized by Syriac monastics. In 1625AD a tablet was unearthed 71ft. high on which was written Christian doctrine, and an account of the Olopan, a Chinese language form for Monk or Rabban, who had arrived in 635AD with permission from the Imperial government allowing him to preach, all written in both Chinese and Syriac.
Syriac monasticism as we have seen, was not only a life of prayer, poverty, and obedience, making it a life of asceticism; but also missionary, taking the gospel of Christ to India, China, Indonesia and many parts of the Asian continent. Indeed, the Syro-Malabar and Syro-Malankara Churches, often called the St. Thomas Christians of India are a lasting testimony to their missionary activity. These monks not only built churches, but were responsible for educating and fostering a greater knowledge of the world for those peoples where they evangelized. Indeed, in the first millennium of Christianity, the greatest territorial reach of missionary activity was achieved by Syriac missionary activity, which was primarily the work of Syriac monasticism.
The Theological Heritage of Syriac Monasticism
Very little Syriac writing is available to us outside of translations of parts of Scripture until the fourth century. With Aphrahat and St. Ephrem there emerges the unique poetic expressions of the first Syriac theologians.
Aphrahat (c.270-c.345AD): The “Persian Sage” seems to have been a member of the Sons of the Covenant an early Syriac monastic community, if not, he was most probably a monastic hermit. Possibly a convert to Christianity, he witnessed the persecutions of the religiously Zoroastrian, Persian ruler Shapur II, who feared that his Christian subjects might be influenced by the Roman Emperor Constantine’s move to favor the Christian religion.
The collective works of Aphrahat are the twenty-three Demonstrations, sometimes referred to as The Homilies. His intention seems always to be, with the use of referencing the Sacred Scriptures, to explain the Christian faith to his Syriac readers and listeners. He writes in a style that is unique to his time and place, in that he draws upon the Jewish rabbinical style of argumentation and scriptural elaboration, rather than the Hellenistic (Greek) or Latin schools of thought.
He writes in his Demonstration on faith:
Faith is compounded of many things, and by many kinds is it brought to perfection. For it is like a building that is built up of many pieces of workmanship and so its edifice rises to the top. And know, my beloved, that in the foundations of the building stones are laid, and so resting upon stones the whole edifice rises until it is perfected. Thus also the true Stone, our Lord Jesus Christ, is the foundation of all our faith. And on Him, on [this] Stone faith is based. (Demonstration I: Of Faith)5
Ephrem (c.306-373AD): The “Harp of the Holy Spirit” was a deacon, refusing in humility to become a priest, and a monastic hermit; yet very much involved in defending the enduring faith of the Church against heresy. He was a prolific theological poet and hymnographer; the historian Sozomen claiming Ephrem wrote over three million lines of philosophy, science, and theology. More than four-hundred of his teaching hymns or poems still exist. He is considered a saint in the Catholic Church, Eastern Orthodox Church, Syrian Orthodox Church and Anglican Communion. In 1920 Pope Benedict XV, declared him a Doctor of the Church.
Living some two centuries after St. Ignatius and the Apostolic Fathers (those Fathers who knew the Apostles or disciples of the Apostles), St. Ephrem not only sees Mary in relation to doctrine and apologetics, but also as the object of spiritual devotion. This is illustrated in the following quote:
Only you (Jesus) and your Mother
are more beautiful than everything
For on you, O Lord, there is no mark;
neither is there any stain in your Mother6
Some have held that St. Ephrem is one of the first Christian writers to explicitly refer to the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. He writes:
In Mary, as in an eye,
the Light has made a dwelling and purified her spirit,
refined her thoughts, sanctified her mind, and
transfigured her virginity.7
Syriac Christianity formed the “Light of the East.” Within its dynamic Monasticism which only became stifled in its expansive missionary activity by the rise of Islam in the seventh and eighth centuries; there was given the witness of countless men and women who followed the call of the Lord to come and follow him. Through lives of simplicity, prayer, theological reflection, and missionary activity, they carried the gospel to the ends of the earth.
- (Rev.) David A. Fisher
1 - Cf., Allen C. Myers, ed. (1987), "Aramaic". The Eerdmans Bible Dictionary. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans. p. 72. ISBN 0-8028-2402-1.
2 - Chryssavgis, John; Ware, Kallistos; Ward, Benedicta (2008). In the Heart of the Desert: Revised Edition: The Spirituality of the Desert Fathers and Mothers (Treasures of the World's Religions). Bloomington, Ind.: World Wisdom. p. 18
3 - Cenobitic Monasticism become the most popular form of Monasticism in the West. It was brought to Western Christianity by St. John Cassian (ca.360-ca.435) from Palestine. The great North African, St. Augustine (354-430), and the Roman, St. Benedict of Nursia (ca.480-547) are also founders of Western Monasticism.
4 - Cf., The Origin of Monasticism in Mesopotamia, by Arthur Vööbus, in Church History, vol.20, No.4, 19 51, pp.27-37
5 - Demonstration 1 (Of Faith), Aphrahat, New advent.Org
6 - Corpus scriptorum Christianorum orientalium, Paris-Louvain.1903. p.219.
7 - Hymns of the Church 36, 2 St. Ephrem; CSCO 199,88.