Ephrem the Syriac was a saint in the remote eastern edge of the Roman Empire in the fourth-century. And yet, with modern translations, his words are often timeless. This morning in my Unitarian Universalist church, a tradition that was formed by American idealism and Enlightenment philosophy many centuries after the time of Ephrem, I lit our worship candle to these words of his from Hymns on Paradise:
Learn too from the fire
how the air's breath is all-nourishing;
if fire is confined
in a place without air,
its flame starts to flicker
as it gasps for breath.
Who has ever beheld
a mother give suck
with her whole being to everything?
Upon her hangs the whole universe,
while she depends on the One
who is that Power which nourishes all. (Brock, Paradise, 141)
Ephrem was in love with Christ but also in love with the myriad ways he could find to describe God. In the above passage, he cleverly compares a candle going out, to a mother suckling her child. The mother is both a simple metaphor of God taking care of us, but also she hints at Mary, at mother church and the air we need to breath. The Baby is us, but also Jesus and also 'everything' in our dependent universe and the flame. While Ephrem creates the jump from fire to mother, he is using feminine imagery in an unselfconscious way that describes our usually powerful, male, father God as a nursing mother. If we asked Ephrem about it, he would probably answer with the fourth-century equivalent of 'so what is the problem with that?' If we tried to do this ourselves, with our centuries of male tradition, it might look a little forced.
All we can do is say thanks Ephrem for showing us how it is done.