Today, continuing in his catechesis on the Early Church Fathers, Pope Benedict introduced us to Aphraates the Sage:
In our excursion into the world of the Fathers of the Church, I wish today to guide you to a little-known part of this universe of faith, into the territories in which the Churches of the Semintic language flourished, before the influence of Greek thought.
These churches, throughout the fourth century, developed in the Near East, from the Holy Land to Lebanon and Mesopotamia. In that cnetury, which was a period of formation at the ecclesiastical and literary levels, these communities were characterized by an ascetic-monastic phenomenon with autocthonous characteristics which did not come under the influence of Egyptian monasticism.
The Syriac community of the fourth century thus represented the Semitic world from which the Bible itself had come, an expression of a Christianity whose theological formation had not yet come in contact with various cultural currents, but lived on in their own forms of thought.
They are churches in which asceticism under various eremitic forms (in the desert, in caves, reclusess, stylites) and monasticism in the form of community life exercised a role of vital impotrance in the development of theological and spiritual thought.
I wish to present this world in the great figure of Aphraates, also known as The Sage, one of the most important as well as most enigmatic personages of Syriac Christianity in the fourth Century.
A native of the Nineveh-Mosul area, now in Iraq, he lived during the first half of the fourth century. We have little information about his life, but he maintained close rapport with the ascetic-monastic circles of the Syriac Church, which kept records of his work and to which he dedicates part of his reflections.
According to some sources, he was the head of a monastery before he was consecrated a bishop. He wrote 23 dscourses known as Expositions or Demonstrations, in which he deals with various themse of Christian living, like faith, love, fasting, humility, prayer, the ascetic life itself, and even the relationship between Judaism and Christianity, between the Old and New Testaments.
He wrote in a simple style, with brief sentences, parallelisms which usually pointed out contradictions, but he produced a coherent discourse with a detailed development of the various issues that he confronts.
Aphraates was part of an ecclesial community which was on the frontier between Judaism and Christianity. It was closely related to the Mother Church in Jerusalem, and its bishops were traditionally chosen from among the so-called ‘familiars’ of Jacob, ‘the Lord’s brother’ (cfr Mk 6,3): thus, they were persons linked by blood and faith to the Church of Jerusalem.
Aphraates’s native language was Syriac, a Semitic language like the Hebrew of the Old Testament and like the Aramaic spoken by Jesus himself.
The ecclesial community in which Aphraates lived was a community that sought to remain faithful to the Judaeo-Christian tradition, of which it felt it was a daughter. Thus, it kept close ties with the Jewish world and its sacred books.
Significantly, Aphraates defined himself as ‘a disciple of Sacred Scripture’, of the Old and New Testaments (Exposition 22,26), which he considered his only source of inspiration, referring to it so much as to make it the center of all his reflections.
Dear brothers and sisters, to conclude, let us return to Aphraates’;s teaching on prayer. Acccording to this ancient Sage, prayer is realized when Christ lives in the heart of the Christian and invites him to a consistent commitment to love of neighbor.
“Give relief to the defeated, visit the sick.
be concerned about the poor: that is prayer.
Prayer is good, and its works are beautiful.
Prayer is accepted if it gives relief to one’s neighbor.
Prayer is answered when it also forgives offenses.
Prayer is strong when it is filled with the power of God.”
With these words, Aphaates invites us to prayer which becomes Christian living, a life realized, a life penetrated by faith, by an opening to God and therefore, to love for our neighbor.