monophysites, nestorians and ecumenical councils
In 1279 Bar 'Ebroyo wrote his "Ethicon", which is basically a treatise on how to live a Christian life. It contains a discourse on prayer, seven concise chapters which include illuminating quotations from Church fathers. The reader will find that there is much in common with the Philokalia, an interesting point, because many of the writings in the Philokalia would not have been available to Bar 'Ebroyo.
In the third chapter we are told that there are external and internal reasons for thoughts to wander during prayer. Externally "...sounds beat against the ears and fantasies trouble the eyes... stealing thoughts which, in turn, become the thieves of new thoughts and therefore cause wandering." To safeguard his thoughts against external distraction the novice "must close his senses, especially when he prays with a congregation or in a place full of icons. In other words it is much better that he prays in a dark house or against a wall." Bar 'Ebroyo adds: "The learned ones prayed in a dark cell until, with instruction and practice, they excelled. For by degrees they were able to pray in a crowd, not knowing who was on their right or who was on their left. And many achieved further, controlling their senses not only in prayer, but in all their behaviour."
This part of the text is illustrated by an anecdote about Zachariah, a monk from Mt Sinai who, when ordered to irrigate the monastery garden, did so with his head buried deep inside his cowl, his eyes staring only at the ground. When asked by a fellow monk why he did this Zachariah replied: "So that my eyes may not see the trees, for then my mind would become lost among them and forget its work of prayer."
The internal causes for the wandering of thoughts during prayer are much stronger than the external causes, because they belong to attachment to the world. Here "nothing is gained by closing off the senses." Great inner struggle is required. "Such a man must force his thoughts by necessity and compulsion. He shall press his reasoning and focus his thoughts on the meaning of the words of his prayer." Bar 'Ebroyo explains that "We have two wills which resemble one another:one of the body and one of the soul...It is not possible to mix them with one another..." Therefore it is vital that whoever wishes to pray properly "empties his heart in advance... from every worldly thought. If he is not able, he is not redeemed, unless the purgative medicine is very strong." Bar 'Ebroyo explains that thoughts are attracted to worldly desires in the same way that flies are attracted to filth, and "genuine poverty purges the heart... This is a healing medicine for every disease, and it is bitter and very much loathed." Yet despite poverty being bitter medicine, it is the only sure remedy.
The chapter is summed up with: "Even with all our diseases we should not stop from praying. If we wander, and if we have an infirmity, a disease, all this we must entrust to God. He, by His grace, will gather us into his harbour of salvation."
Chapter Four concerns "the six spiritual practices in which pure prayer is perfected."
The first and most important is purity of thoughts;
The second is to understand the meaning of the words of each prayer;
The third is awe, by which "he who stands in prayer thinks about the grandeur of the One before him, and thinks of the humility of his own nature";
The fourth is fear, "which comes from the knowledge of the strength and power of the Almighty";
The fifth is shame, which comes when we remember our sins;
The sixth is hope, which comes from "the knowledge of the mercy of God, [creating] in the soul an unspeakable happiness".
If anyone is under the delusion that prayer is the work of monks and clergy only, Bar 'Ebroyo devotes the sixth chapter to "The Practice of Ordinary Prayer", explaining that this simple office can be said not only in church, but also "at home, on the road, on a mountain top, or on board a ship at sea," warning that "there is not a single excuse for a lazy man to neither complete nor pursue it."
Bar 'Ebroyo outlines an office of prayer which is the backbone of public and private prayer to this very day.
The worshipper must stand facing the East, arms folded across his chest, thoughts gathered away from worldly cares, to evoke the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, proclaiming the One True God's glory,
asking for His eternal mercy and compassion. Bar 'Ebroyo enumerates the number of bows and prostrations, the number of times the Cross is signed as the worshipper proceeds from proclaiming "Heaven and earth are filled by Your glory - Hosanna in the highest!", through the thrice-said
Trisagion which, in the Syriac Orthodox Church, always includes each time the phrase "Crucified for us, have mercy on us," to the Lord's Prayer, which is followed by personal supplications to God, the office being concluded by the recitation of the Creed. Bar 'Ebroyo adds the warning:
"Unless he does this, he will be with the unbelievers on the day of judgement."
Finally, with thanks to Solly and all the others who have read through this brief presentation about the great saint, Mor Bar 'Ebroyo, I would like to conclude with some of his most stirring words:
"When people think of death they put into their minds catastrophe and the end. This is not how things are. Death is a stage and a starting point. It is
neither the end, nor a catastrophe. It is a change of circumstance. It is a birth."