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Aphraates, "the Sage"
(Spanish translation and links to other translations follows after the English text below)



Saint Peter's Square
Wednesday, 21 November 2007

Aphraates, "the Sage"

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

In our excursion into the world of the Fathers of the Church, I would like to guide you today to a little-known part of this universe of faith, in the territories where the Semitic-language Churches flourished, still uninfluenced by Greek thought. These Churches developed throughout the fourth century in the Near East, from the Holy Land to Lebanon and to Mesopotamia. In that century, which was a period of formation on the ecclesial and literary level, these communities contributed to the ascetic-monastic phenomenon with autochthonous characteristics that did not come under Egyptian monastic influence. The Syriac communities of the fourth century, therefore, represent the Semitic world from which the Bible itself has come, and they are an expression of a Christianity whose theological formulation had not yet entered into contact with different cultural currents, but lived in their own way of thinking. They are Churches in which asceticism in its various hermitic forms (hermits in the desert, caverns, recluses, stylites) and monasticism in forms of community life, exert a role of vital importance in the development of theological and spiritual thought.

I would like to introduce this world through the great figure of Aphraates, known also by the sobriquet "the Sage". He was one of the most important and at the same time most enigmatic personages of fourth century Syriac Christianity. A native of the Ninive-Mossul region, today in Iraq, he lived during the first half of the fourth century. We have little information about his life; he maintained, however, close ties with the ascetic-monastic environment of the Syriac-speaking Church, of which he has given us some information in his work and to which he dedicates part of his reflection. Indeed, according to some sources he was the head of a monastery and later consecrated a Bishop. He wrote 23 homilies, known as Expositions or Demonstrations, on various aspects of Christian life, such as faith, love, fasting, humility, prayer, the ascetic life, and also the relationship between Judaism and Christianity, between the Old and New Testaments. He wrote in a simple style with short sentences and sometimes with contrasting parallelisms; nevertheless, he was able to weave consistent discourses with a well-articulated development of the various arguments he treated.

Aphraates was from an Ecclesial Community situated on the frontier between Judaism and Christianity. It was a community strongly-linked to the Mother Church of Jerusalem, and its Bishops were traditionally chosen from among the so-called "family" of James, the "brother of the Lord" (cf. Mk 6: 3). They were people linked by blood and by faith to the Church of Jerusalem. Aphraates' language was Syriac, therefore a Semitic language like the Hebrew of the Old Testament and like the Aramaic spoken by Jesus himself. Aphraates' Ecclesial Community was a community that sought to remain faithful to the Judeo-Christian tradition, of which it felt it was a daughter. It therefore maintained a close relationship with the Jewish world and its Sacred Books. Significantly, Aphraates defines himself as a "disciple of the Sacred Scripture" of the Old and New Testaments (Expositions 22, 26), which he considers as his only source of inspiration, having recourse to it in such abundance as to make it the centre of his reflection.

Aphraates develops various arguments in his Expositions. Faithful to Syriac tradition, he often presents the salvation wrought by Christ as a healing, and thus Christ himself as the physician.
Sin, on the other hand, is seen as a wound that only penance can heal: "A man who has been wounded in battle", Aphraates said, "is not ashamed to place himself in the hands of a wise doctor...; in the same way, the one who has been wounded by Satan must not be ashamed to recognize his fault and distance himself from it, asking for the medicine of penance" (Expositions 7, 3). Another important aspect in Aphraates' work is his teaching on prayer, and in a special way on Christ as the teacher of prayer. The Christian prays following Jesus' teaching and example of oration: "Our Saviour taught people to pray like this, saying: "Pray in secret to the One who is hidden, but who sees all'; and again: "Go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you' (Mt 6: 6).... Our Saviour wants to show that God knows the desires and thoughts of the heart" (Expositions 4, 10).

For Aphraates, the Christian life is centred on the imitation of Christ, in taking up his yoke and following him on the way of the Gospel. One of the most useful virtues for Christ's disciple is humility. It is not a secondary aspect in the Christian's spiritual life: man's nature is humble and it is God who exalts it to his own glory. Aphraates observed that humility is not a negative value: "If man's roots are planted in the earth, his fruits ascend before the Lord of majesty" (Expositions 9, 14). By remaining humble, including in the earthly reality in which one lives, the Christian can enter into relationship with the Lord: "The humble man is humble, but his heart rises to lofty heights. The eyes of his face observe the earth and the eyes of his mind the lofty heights" (Expositions 9, 2).

Aphraates' vision of man and his physical reality is very positive: the human body, in the example of the humble Christ, is called to beauty, joy and light: "God draws near to the man who loves, and it is right to love humility and to remain in a humble state. The humble are simple, patient, loving, integral, upright, good, prudent, calm, wise, quiet, peaceful, merciful, ready to convert, benevolent, profound, thoughtful, beautiful and attractive" (Expositions 9, 14). Aphraates often presented the Christian life in a clear ascetic and spiritual dimension: faith is the base, the foundation; it makes of man a temple where Christ himself dwells. Faith, therefore, makes sincere charity possible, which expresses itself in love for God and neighbour. Another important aspect in Aphraates' thought is fasting, which he understood in a broad sense. He spoke of fasting from food as a necessary practice to be charitable and pure, of fasting understood as continence with a view to holiness, of fasting from vain or detestable words, of fasting from anger, of fasting from the possession of goods with a view to ministry, of fasting from sleep to be watchful in prayer.

Dear brothers and sisters, to conclude, we return again to Aphraates' teaching on prayer. According to this ancient "Sage", prayer is achieved when Christ dwells in the Christian's heart, and invites him to a coherent commitment to charity towards one's neighbour. In fact, he wrote:

"Give relief to those in distress, visit the ailing,
help the poor: this is prayer.
Prayer is good, and its works are beautiful.
Prayer is accepted when it gives relief to one's neighbour.
Prayer is heard when it includes forgiveness of affronts.
Prayer is strong
when it is full of God's strength" (Expositions 4, 14-16).

With these words Aphraates invites us to a prayer that becomes Christian life, a fulfilled life, a life penetrated by faith, by openness to God and therefore to love of neighbour.

Other translations
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Afraates el sabio persa

Queridos hermanos y hermanas:

En nuestro recorrido por el mundo de los Padres de la Iglesia, hoy quiero guiaros hacia una parte poco conocida de este universo de la fe, es decir, a los territorios en los que florecieron las Iglesias de lengua sem??tica, sobre las que todav??a no hab??a influido el pensamiento griego. Esas Iglesias se desarrollaron a lo largo del siglo IV en Oriente Pr??ximo, desde Tierra Santa hasta el L??bano y Mesopotamia.

Durante ese siglo, que fue un per??odo de formaci??n a nivel eclesial y literario, en dichas comunidades se manifest?? el fen??meno asc??tico-mon??stico con caracter??sticas aut??ctonas, que no experimentaron la influencia del monaquismo egipcio. Por tanto, las comunidades sir??acas del siglo IV representan al mundo sem??tico, del que sali?? la Biblia misma, y son expresi??n de un cristianismo cuya formulaci??n teol??gica a??n no hab??a entrado en contacto con corrientes culturales diversas, sino que viv??a de formas de pensamiento propias. Son Iglesias en las que el ascetismo bajo varias formas erem??ticas (eremitas en el desierto, en las cuevas, recluidos y estilitas) y el monaquismo bajo formas de vida comunitaria desempe??an un papel de vital importancia en el desarrollo del pensamiento teol??gico y espiritual.

Quiero presentar este mundo a trav??s de la gran figura de Afraates, conocido tambi??n con el sobrenombre de "sabio", uno de los personajes m??s importantes y, al mismo tiempo, m??s enigm??ticos del cristianismo sir??aco del siglo IV.

Originario de la regi??n de N??nive-Mosul, hoy en Irak, vivi?? en la primera mitad del siglo IV. Tenemos pocas noticias sobre su vida; en cualquier caso, mantuvo relaciones estrechas con los ambientes asc??tico-mon??sticos de la Iglesia sir??aca, acerca de la cual nos transmiti?? algunas noticias en su obra y a la cual dedic?? parte de su reflexi??n. Seg??n algunas fuentes, dirigi?? incluso un monasterio y, por ??ltimo, fue consagrado obispo. Escribi?? veintitr??s discursos conocidos con el nombre de Exposiciones o Demostraciones, en los que trat?? diversos temas de vida cristiana, como la fe, el amor, el ayuno, la humildad, la oraci??n, la misma vida asc??tica, y tambi??n la relaci??n entre juda??smo y cristianismo, entre Antiguo y Nuevo Testamento. Escribi?? con un estilo sencillo, con frases breves y con paralelismos a veces contrastantes; sin embargo, logr?? hacer una reflexi??n coherente, con un desarrollo bien articulado de los diversos temas que trat??.

Afraates era originario de una comunidad eclesial que se encontraba en la frontera entre el juda??smo y el cristianismo. Era una comunidad muy unida a la Iglesia madre de Jerusal??n, y sus obispos eran elegidos tradicionalmente de entre los as?? llamados "familiares" de Santiago, el "hermano del Se??or" (cf. Mc 6, 3), es decir, eran personas unidas con v??nculos de sangre y de fe a la Iglesia jerosolimitana.

La lengua de Afraates era el sir??aco; por tanto, una lengua sem??tica como el hebreo del Antiguo Testamento y el arameo, hablado por Jes??s mismo. La comunidad eclesial en la que vivi?? Afraates era una comunidad que trataba de permanecer fiel a la tradici??n judeocristiana, de la que se sent??a hija. Por eso, manten??a una relaci??n estrecha con el mundo jud??o y con sus libros sagrados. Afraates, significativamente, se defin??a a s?? mismo "disc??pulo de la sagrada Escritura" del Antiguo y del Nuevo Testamento (Exposici??n 22, 26), que consideraba su ??nica fuente de inspiraci??n, recurriendo a ella tan a menudo que la convierte en el centro de su reflexi??n.

Los temas que Afraates desarrolla en sus Exposiciones son muy variados. Fiel a la tradici??n sir??aca, presenta a menudo la salvaci??n realizada por Cristo como una curaci??n y, por consiguiente, presenta a Cristo mismo como m??dico. En cambio, considera el pecado como una herida, que s??lo la penitencia puede sanar: "Un hombre que ha sido herido en la batalla ???dec??a Afraates??? no se averg??enza de ponerse en manos de un m??dico sabio (...); del mismo modo, quien ha sido herido por Satan??s no debe avergonzarse de reconocer su culpa y alejarse de ella, pidiendo la medicina de la penitencia" (Exposici??n 7, 3).

Otro aspecto importante en la obra de Afraates es su ense??anza sobre la oraci??n y, en especial, sobre Cristo como maestro de oraci??n. El cristiano ora siguiendo la ense??anza de Jes??s y su ejemplo orante: "As??, nuestro Salvador ha ense??ado a orar, diciendo: "Ora en lo secreto a Aquel que est?? en lo secreto, pero ve todo"; y tambi??n: "Entra en tu aposento y ora a tu Padre, que est?? all??, en lo secreto; y tu Padre, que ve en lo secreto, te recompensar??. Entra en tu aposento y ora a tu Padre, que est?? en lo secreto, y tu Padre, que ve en lo secreto, te recompensar??" (Mt 6, 6) (...). Lo que quiere mostrar nuestro Salvador es que Dios conoce los deseos y los pensamientos del coraz??n" (Exposici??n 4, 10).

Para Afraates, la vida cristiana se centra en la imitaci??n de Cristo, en tomar su yugo y seguirlo por el camino del Evangelio. Una de las virtudes m??s convenientes para el disc??pulo de Cristo es la humildad. No es un aspecto secundario en la vida espiritual del cristiano: la naturaleza del hombre es humilde, y es Dios quien la eleva a su misma gloria. La humildad ???observa Afraates??? no es un valor negativo: "Aunque la ra??z del hombre est?? plantada en la tierra, sus frutos suben hasta el Se??or de la grandeza" (Exposici??n 9, 14). Si es humilde, el cristiano, incluso en la realidad terrena en la que vive, puede entrar en relaci??n con el Se??or: "El humilde es humilde, pero su coraz??n se eleva a alturas excelsas. Los ojos de su rostro observan la tierra; y los ojos de su mente, la altura excelsa" (Exposici??n 9, 2).

La visi??n que tiene Afraates del hombre y de su realidad corporal es muy positiva: el cuerpo humano, siguiendo el ejemplo de Cristo humilde, est?? llamado a la belleza, a la alegr??a y a la luz: "Dios se acerca al hombre que ama, y es justo amar la humildad y permanecer en la condici??n de humildad. Los humildes son sencillos, pacientes, amados, ??ntegros, rectos, expertos en el bien, prudentes, serenos, sabios, tranquilos, pac??ficos, misericordiosos, dispuestos a convertirse, ben??volos, profundos, ponderados, agradables y deseables" (Exposici??n 9, 14).

En Afraates la vida cristiana se presenta a menudo con una clara dimensi??n asc??tica y espiritual: la fe es su base, su fundamento, pues transforma al hombre en un templo donde habita Cristo mismo. As?? pues, la fe hace posible una caridad sincera, que se manifiesta en el amor a Dios y al pr??jimo.

Otro aspecto importante en Afraates es el ayuno, que interpretaba en sentido amplio. Hablaba del ayuno del alimento como una pr??ctica necesaria para ser caritativo y virgen, del ayuno constituido por la continencia con vistas a la santidad, del ayuno de las palabras vanas o detestables, del ayuno de la c??lera, del ayuno de la propiedad de los bienes con vistas al ministerio, y del ayuno del sue??o para dedicarse a la oraci??n.

Queridos hermanos y hermanas, para concluir, volvamos una vez m??s a la ense??anza de Afraates sobre la oraci??n. Seg??n este antiguo "sabio", la oraci??n se realiza cuando Cristo habita en el coraz??n del cristiano, y lo invita a un compromiso coherente de caridad con el pr??jimo. En efecto, escribe: "Consuela a los afligidos; visita a los enfermos; s?? sol??cito con los pobres: esta es la oraci??n. La oraci??n es buena, y sus obras son hermosas. La oraci??n es aceptada cuando consuela al pr??jimo. La oraci??n es escuchada cuando en ella se encuentra tambi??n el perd??n de las ofensas. La oraci??n es fuerte cuando est?? llena de la fuerza de Dios" (Exposici??n 4, 14-16).

Con estas palabras, Afraates nos invita a una oraci??n que se convierte en vida cristiana, en vida realizada, en vida impregnada de fe, de apertura a Dios y, as??, de amor al pr??jimo.

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