Adapted from Butler’s Life of the Saints by SCTJM
Ephrem: "productive" (that gives fruit). Deacon, Doctor of the Church, ecclesiastic writer. Called “the Harp of the Holy Spirit”. Saint Ephrem gained fame as a teacher, speaker, poet, commentator and defender of the faith. He was the only one from the Syrian fathers who received honor as a Doctor of the Universal Church, named as such in 1920. In Syria, all Catholics and non-Catholics call him the “Harp of the Holy Spirit” and they all have used his homilies and hymns to enrich their own writings. Even though he didn’t receive a formal education he was very knowledgeable of the Sacred Scripture and the mysteries of the faith.
Saint Basil described him as “speaker that knows all that is true”. Saint Jerome, when compiling the names of the great Christian writers, mentions him with these terms: “Ephrem, deacon of the Church of Edessa, wrote many books in Syrian and he came to have be so well known that his writings are read in public in some churches, after the Sacred Scriptures. I read in Greek one of his books about the Holy Spirit; even though it was only a translation, I recognized in his writing the magnificent genius of the man”.
Saint Ephrem narrates that in one dream he saw that from his tongue was growing a shrub of grapes that were expanding to all regions, taking a bunch to each of them. This dream came to be prophetic from the propagation of his writings.
Thanks to Saint Ephrem we have the introduction of the Sacred Canticles in the public services of the church as an important part of the rite and a way of instruction.
Ephrem was born in the year 306, in Nisibis (today known as Nusaybin, Turkey), a region dominated by Rome . It is uncertain if his parents were Christian. He recognized that in his youth he did not gave too much thought to religion until his time of trial. He received baptism until he was eighteen years old and he remained with the famous bishop of Nisibis, San Jerome, with whom he went to the Council of Nicaea in 325. After the death of Saint Jerome, Ephrem maintain a close relationship with the next three bishops.
An account of three Persians invasions of the city Ephrem, can be found in some of the hymns that he wrote. In them we can find descriptions from the danger the people were in, the defense of the city and the final defeat of the enemy in the year 350. It is true that the Persians could not directly take Nisibis, but eventually this was given to them as the price of peace paid by the emperor Jovian after his defeat and the death of Julian. The arrival of the Persians maked all Christian flee and Ephrem took refuge in a rocky open cavern. He lived there in an absolute austerity, without any food except for a little rye bread and some vegetables; it was in that loneliness where he wrote most of his spiritual writing. He was an ascetic, and it was apparent even in his figure. According to the chronicals, he was of short height, nearly bald, his skin was leathery, hard, dry and dark as dried mud; he wore round glasses; he cried too much and never smiled.
It is true that the secluded cave was his dwelling, but he was not imprisoned in it and would frequenntly go down to the city to take care of other business that affected the church. He called Edessa "the blessed city" and he had a great influence there. He preached frequently, and when talking about the second coming of the Christ and the final judgment, he used such a strong eloquence, that the groan and lamentations from the auditorium would smother his words.
Some biographers give the idea that Saint Ephrem rejected any kind of joy and kindness. The bishop called upon him to be the city's director of the school of religious chanting. There he formed many teachers, who would in turn go to other parishes to bring greater solemnity to the liturgy. He stayed there for 13 years (from 350 to 363).
There is no influence of any Trinitarian controversies in any of his writing: probably this is because he did not understand Greek. Rather, he concentrated himself on the defend the old doctrine through poetry. Bardaisan and others used his songs and popular music to spread false doctrines. Ephrem understood the importance of these means and he valued the sacred canticles as a complement to the public worship. He decided to imitate the tactics of the enemies and, undoubtedly thanks to his personal prestige, but most importantly thanks to the quality of his compositions, he obtained permission to change from the Gnostics hymns to his own hymns, and had them sung by a wwomen's chorus .
He became a deacon at a very old age. His humbleness made him refuse the ordination and the fact that he is known as deacon confirms the affirmation from some biographers that he never got the highest ecclesiastical rank. However, in his writing there are certains passages that suggests that he was a priest.
Around the year 370, he embarked from Edessa to Cesarea in the Cappadocia, with the intention to visit Saint Basil, of whom and from whom he had heard so much. Saint Ephrem mentions that interview, as well as one with Saint Gregory of Nyssa, Saint Basil's brother, who wrote a tribute to the venerable Syrian. One of the chronicles declare that Saint Ephrem extended his trip to visit Egypt, where he remained for some years, but that declaration is not supported for any authority and does not match with any of his life's well known chronological.
Man of Charity
The last time he part took in any public affair was during the winter between 372 and 373, right before his death. There was hunger in the country and Saint Ephrem was profoundly sadden by the sufferings of the poor. The wealthy of the city refused to open their barns because they thought there was no one they could trust to make a just distribution of food and alms. For that reason the Saint offered his services, which were accepted. To the satisfaction of everybody, he administered considerable amounts of money and food that were entrusted to him; he also organized an aid service that included the provision of 300 beds to carry the sick . He knew how to hear the words of the Lord: "For I was sick and you looked after me: I was hungry and you gave me something to eat. Take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world". (Mt 25, 40). Finishing his mission in Edessa, he returned to his cave and he lived there only thirty more days. The "chronicles" of Edessa and the highest authorities of the matter appoint the year 373 as the year of his death, but others authors affirm that he lived until the year 378 or 379.
From the writing that have come to us, some are in the original Syrian and others were translations to Greek, Latin and Armenian. They can be grouped together as exegesis writings, controversy, doctrine, and poetry, but all of them,with the exception of the commentaries, are in verse. Sozomen affirms that Saint Ephrem wrote thirty thousands lines. His most interesting poems are the "Nissibian Hymns" of which seventy two are preserved from the seventy six , as well as the stations' canticles, that are still sang in the Syrian churches. His commentaries comprehend all the Old Testament and many parts of the New. About the Gospel he did not used more than the only version that was circulated throughout Syria. It was called Diatessaron,and only the Armenian translation remains.
Even though we lack so much knowledge about the life of Saint Ephrem, his writings help us a great deal to formulate an idea about the type of man he was. What is most impressive to the reader is the realistic spirit and cordially human manner with which he discusses the great mystery of the Redemption. It is known that to this is attributed the attitude of devotional emotion at the physical sufferings of the Savior, which did not begin to manifest themselves in the west before the time of Saint Francis of Assisi.
Benedict XV declared him a Doctor of the Church in 1920.
Lord, send your Holy Spirit and stir up in us the passion for you as manifested by Deacon Saint Ephrem!
Butler, Life of the Saints.
Salesman, Life of the Saints, II.
We give thanks to all the contributions from Vicenç Garcia Tomàs
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