March 7, 2023

Saint Ephraim of Antioch as a Model for our Lives

 By Protopresbyter Fr. George Papavarnavas

Saint Ephraim lived in the 6th century AD. He came from the city of Amida, which is located near the Tigris River. He was count of Antioch, in the years of Emperor Justin of Thrace. For his education, and above all for his virtue, he was elected Patriarch of Antioch, and he fought, as Saint Photios the Patriarch of Constantinople says in his work "Myriobiblos", with all his might against the heresy of Monophysitism. With his fiery sermons and his powerful written word, as well as with the miracles he performed with the power of the Triune God, he managed to convert many Monophysites to the Orthodox faith. Among them was an austere monk, who was sitting on a pillar. Therefore, he visited the Stylite monk with the aim of helping him to renounce the heresy and confess the Orthodox faith, so that he would not lose the labors of his strict and long-term asceticism.

At first, the Saint tried to convince him with theological arguments, but he did not want to listen and remained stubbornly unconvinced. Then he proposed to him something bold and seemingly illogical, which only a saint can propose, that is to light a fire and enter into it, and whoever remains unharmed, this will mean that his faith is the true one. The ascetic agreed, but when he saw the fire, he was afraid and did not come down from the pillar. On the contrary, Saint Ephraim made the sign of the Cross and entered the fire, which, however, went out immediately, with the result that he remained unharmed. Then the ascetic, shocked by the miracle, came down from the pillar, repented to the Saint and confessed the Orthodox faith.

After shepherding his flock out of divine love for eighteen consecutive years, he had a peaceful end.

His life and his conduct give us the occasion to emphasize the following.

First, the pastoral care of the "good shepherd", the imitator of the Archpastor Christ, is unrelenting. Because he truly loves his flock sacrificially, that is why he does not give "sleep to his eyes, and to his eyelids sleep and to his temples rest," according to the words of the Prophet David, but he works unceasingly for his divine advancement. This means that in parallel with the struggle he does for his own salvation, he also takes care of the salvation of the rational sheep entrusted to him by God through the Church. And this pastoral concern and care of his is not human-centered, but Christ-centered, which means that he makes sure to connect people not with himself, but with Christ and the Church. That is, he does not seek to create followers, whom he will exploit for his own purposes, but people who are healthy "in matters of faith" and citizens of Paradise. And he does not sense them to be as his property, as something that belongs to him, but as children of God, as rational sheep of His flock, who were entrusted to him to shepherd them in a godly manner and to lead them "into saving pastures."

Of course, there is no shortage of difficulties either, since apart from the invisible enemies, the demons, who cause obstacles in his work, there are also those people who do not understand his love and do not appreciate his efforts, his agony and his struggles which he endures daily, in order to preserve the faith pure and unadulterated and for Christ to dwell in the hearts of the faithful, with the result that they have a hostile attitude towards him. The reason for this is mainly human passions, but also the pain caused by spiritual healing, which is not without pain, just as it happens with physical healing, during which some patients, because they are in pain, react intensely, and many times in a cruel and violent way, to the point, in fact, that they consider the doctor as their enemy.

Thus, even the spiritual father and physician, in his effort to help the believers to be "born from above" and to let Christ dwell in their hearts "through the Holy Spirit", experiences pain, since it is a spiritual birth, as the Apostle Paul emphasizes in his epistle to the Galatians, where he writes: "My little children, of whom I am in labor again, until Christ be formed in you." Also, in his other epistles, the Apostle himself expresses his pain and his complaint, because at critical moments of his life he was abandoned by his associates, who were also his spiritual children. However, as he himself confesses, Christ never left him, but always strengthened and comforted him.

Convincing someone that he is delusional, schismatic or heretical is not easy, unless he is well-intentioned and prays humbly, because then God will enlighten him and help him in various ways to understand that he has strayed from the true path of His will. By God, he will return. The miracle is not caused by faith, but is the fruit of faith, despite this, however, God sometimes performs the miracle, after the prayers of the saints, in order for the truth to shine and to benefit the well-intentioned.

Second, asceticism is not an end in itself, but a means to achieve the goal, which is union with God, and asceticism by itself, no matter how strict it is, does not help a person, if he does not keep the faith unadulterated, he does not live by repentance and does not obey the Church. After all, faith without repentance, humility and obedience to the will of God is also possessed by the demons, who "believe and fear", but are not saved.

What heals man spiritually and contributes to his spiritual rebirth and salvation is faith in the decisions of the Local and Ecumenical Synods, repentance and obedience to the Church, since God works and acts through the Church. And there is no Church without Christ, but neither is Christ without the Church, since Christ is the Head of the Church, and the Church is the blessed Body of Christ.

Therefore, what leads to spiritual rebirth and salvation is pure and unadulterated faith, as handed down by the Prophets, Apostles and Holy Fathers, as well as repentance and obedience to the blessed Institution of the Church.

Source: Translated by John Sanidopoulos.

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