War and Peace: Aphrahat and Ephraim
No new thing
War in the Gulf area is no new thing. It was as troubled in the fourth century as now and certainly the Christians in the Roman Empire and beyond had a hard time. The Syriac Fathers sought to rally their flock. Aphrahat, a converted Persian nobleman, become bishop, wrote his Demonstrations (337–345) entitling No 5 Of Wars. He expounds the battles and intrigues of the Old Testament, with his own insightful comments and stresses that the immanent war of his own time and place was not outside the providence of God, even though it was the result of human sinfulness:
The times were disposed beforehand by God. The times of peace are fulfilled in the days of the good and just; and the times of many evils are fulfilled in the days of the evil and transgressors.
That present time, Aphrahat claimed, was the moment of the Evil One, with pride in the ascendant, and reminds us: ‘Everyone who exalts himself will be abased’ – everyone note, on whichever side of the conflict. He repeats this again at the end, remarking that even in victory (or defeat) there will also be judgement – a salutary note for the present:
even if the forces shall go up and conquer, yet know that it is a chastisement of God; and though they conquer they shall be condemned in a righteous judgement.
However, we are not to despair, for the forces of evil will one day be defeated and in the interim we must beg the mercy of God:
But yet be thou assured of this: that the beast shall be slain at its (appointed) time. But do thou, my brother, at this time, be earnest in imploring mercy, that there may be peace upon the people of God.
Ephraim the Syrian, probably a younger contemporary of Aphrahat, lived in Nisibis at the great but indecisive siege of that city by the Persian ruler Sapor II in 350. Some Nisibene hymns were written in that context. Like Aphrahat, Ephraim acknowledges human sinfulness as the real cause of war, although it appears that God permits it to happen, without wilfully desiring the suffering entailed:
We know that the Blessed wills not the afflictions that have been in all ages; though He has wrought them, it is our offences that are the cause of our troubles. No man can complain against our Creator; it is for him to complain against us, who have sinned and constrained Him, to be wrathful though He wills it not, and to smite though He desires it not.
During the persecutions that followed the siege, Ephraim describes vividly the shrewd and unscrupulous timeservers who manage to line their own pockets come what may. Nothing changes:
Wrath came to rebuke the greedy, who in the midst of peace, bargained, defrauded and plundered. In calamity the greedy have waxed rich. What was theirs they have scattered, what was not theirs they have gathered.
Ephraim adds the prayer: ‘Give peace, O Son, to our land!’ At the conclusion of The Pearl, Seven Hymns on the Faith, he condemns the clergy for condoning war and inciting the secular rulers to fight when they should have been working and praying for peace:
Instead of the priesthood praying for royalty that wars may cease from among men, they teach wars of overthrow, which set kings to combat with those round about.
Such evils, sadly, are not entirely absent today. Ephraim’s prayer can become our own: ‘O Lord, make the priests and kings peaceful; that in one Church priests may pray for their kings, and kings spare those round about them.’ Ultimate peace is not ours to achieve, as Ephraim knew. We can add our heartfelt Amen to his prayer: ‘And may the peace which is within Thee become ours, Lord, Thou that art within and without all things! Amen!’
A Sister of the Community of the Holy Cross, Rempstone.