July 28, 2011
Wisdom for All Ages
A wise man's heart guides his mouth, and his lips promote instruction. ~ Proverbs 16: 23 NIV
How can we live the Christian life well? Is it dependant on nebulous feelings of doing good? Thankfully, there's more guidance than that. Cultivating the cardinal virtues is one concrete way to live a solid Christian witness. The four cardinal virtues are: wisdom, justice, courage, and temperance.
Let's examine what one virtue looke like in the life of someone committed to Christ.
If someone asked me to draw a picture of wisdom when I was a child, I would have drawn an old, wrinkly, robed man meditating in a tent. I imagined wisdom as something that belonged to those focused on the "higher things," people isolated from the day-to-day grind of life. But this is a faulty understanding of wisdom. True wisdom contains both clarity of insight and the ability to apply that insight to real life situations
In my recent reading of the book The 33 Doctors of the Church, I came across an ancient Christian who exemplified both aspects of wisdom. While his name is not well-known, God worked through St. Ephrem to greatly influence the early Church.
Ephrem was an eastern Christian, born in Syria during the 4th century. His native language was Syro-Chaldaic -- the same language Jesus, His family, and His apostles spoke in everyday life. Born of Christian parents, Ephrem developed a thirst for God's Word early in life. He soaked in the Scriptures line by line, delving into the nuances that came more easily to him than you and me today.
Ephrem's deep study of Scripture inspired him to employ his gift for language by writing countless poems, hymns, and homilies for God's glory. Unlike most writers, he never seemed to be at a loss for words. Bishop Gregory of Nyssa, a contemporary of Ephrem's, joked that if you needed a cure for writer's block, you should just ask Ephrem for an idea he already "prayed away."
In some ways the studious, poetic Ephrem resembled that old, robed man in the tent because he lived as an unmarried hermit. But Ephrem hardly isolated himself. He often wrote to instruct the confused and played an active role in shepharding youth.
One of his more famous uses of his poetic talent came in response to a heresy spreading among the local community in the form of a collection of popular hymns. He witnessed young people embracing the songs' messages and falling away from godly living. In response, Ephrem borrowed the melody and wrote new lyrics. Ephrem's version of the hymns, superior in artistry and taught with fatherly love, ultimately became so popular the old hymns were all but forgotten.
Ephrem's love for God's Word also inspired him beyond his writing and music. He often pitched in to help the local community during times of need, and he was loved even by bishops abroad. Ephrem was a sensitive, kind man known for joyfully weeping with those who rejoiced and sorrowfully weeping with those who mourned. He died from exhaustion in his 60's after assisting his suffering community during a famine.
Ephrem's legacy continues to resonate with the modern world. He lived in a time and place not unlike our own, surrounded by war, sadness, confusion, and even rebellious youth. He could have thrown his hands up and said, "What difference can a poet make?" Yet he did not shun the surrounding culture but wisely employed his gifts to engage those around him. In fact, Ephrem's gift for hymnody was so great, many churches around the world continue to sing his hymns today.