Saint Ephrem the Syrian


"Harp of the Holy Ghost"

    The second man chronologically to be afforded the highest honor of Doctor of the Church was the Syrian born deacon Saint Ephrem. He is also known as both Ephraem or Ephraim and is also considered one of the esteemed Fathers of the Church, among 25 in the 4th Century. He was born in 306 in Nisibis, which at that time was Mesopotamia. Today it is part of Syria. Though originally thought to have born into a pagan family, enough research has collaborated that he was indeed born to Christian parents. He was baptized at the age of eighteen by Saint James of Niibis before entering into religious life. While still studying he accompanied St. James to the First Council of Nicaea. It set him on fire for his faith.

    He never became a priest, remaining a deacon all his life. Many believe it is because he did not feel worthy to be ordained. He was known for his great humility, the kind that made him distrust himself and place total trust in God. He was also a man of deep prayer and the Syrians swear that it was his prayers which delivered their city of Nisibis from the Persian occupation in 350.

    Historians relate that a cloud of insects, mostly flies and mosquitos menacingly hovered over the Persian troops led by Sapor II and this caused them to withdraw, sparing Nisibis. Ephrem's prayers also delivered his people from the ravages of the Roman Emperor Julian, also known as "the Apostate." However, as was the case in those times with the whim of Roman Emperors as we saw last week with Saint Athanasius, Christian Catholics could go from the frying pan into the fire, so to speak. When the Roman Emperor Jovian succeeded Julian he was only too happy to leave the people of Nisibis fending for themselves. In fact, he betrayed Ephrem and his fellow Nisibiites by ceding over to Persia the city of Nisibis, bringing on all kinds of new persecutions in the year 363.

    The harassment was so intense that Ephrem was forced to flee with many followers to the desert where the Holy Ghost greatly inspired him to write for the Syrians considered him the "Prophet of their people," the "Harp of the Holy Ghost" and the "Column of the Church." That last title derived from his association with the hermits who dwelled on plateaus, also known as pillars. Ephrem settled in a cave outside of Edessa and it was there where he first met another Doctor of the Church Saint Basil.

    Later he traveled to Caesarea to meet again with the saint in 370. Though there was not the persecution in Edessa that there was in Nisibis, the former was ripe with heresies, namely ten different heretical sects spreading Arianism and Gnosticism. He fiercely resisted and preached and wrote against these anathemas, gaining many converts and followers.

    St. Ephrem was a consumate poet, his homilies conveyed the truths of the Faith in verse, which in Syrian were seven-syllable gems called memre in Syriac. It was his way of reaching many and of putting it clearly for those confused by the Arian ambiguity and false teachings. Its impact in Syrian were astounding, whereas when translated into English they do not have the same impact, nonetheless retain all the truths he taught. He had a deep, abiding love for the Blessed Virgin Mary and is remembered by the Syrians as a witness to Mary's Immaculate Conception. He staunchly defended Mary's sinlessness and total purity.

    He wrote extensively on the Scriptures, much of which have been lost including his translations and commentaries on the Old and New Testaments. His exegesis was astounding for its thoroughness and his clinging to the literal sense of the Word to preserve the dogmatic integrity of Holy Mother Church. Saint Gregory of Nyssa relates that it was his writings which set him apart as the "Harp of the Holy Ghost," the "Sun of the Syrians" for he brought light into their life - the Light of Christ's truths. The 'harp' reference indicated that he introduced into the Syrian Church the use of hymns and canticles for the particular liturgical season. They have been translated from Syriac into Greek, Latin and Armenian.

    From St. Gregory of Nyssa we also discover that it was St. Basil who ordained Ephrem a deacon. He felt compelled to seek St. Basil out, saying "I whom he went to see at the bidding of the Holy Spirit, 'I am that Ephrem who have wandered from the path of Heaven." Then, as Butler's Lives of the Saints relates, he burst into tears and cried out, "O my father, have pity on a sinful wretch, and lead me on the narrow way."

    Butler's also records that as he lay near death after a great famine in Edessa in which he labored for the poor, touching souls everywhere and never expressing anger in his life, he was always humble.

    "Tears used to stop his voice when he preached. He trembled and made his hearers tremble at the thought of God's judgments; but he found in compunction and humility the way to peace, and he rested with unshaken confidence in the mercy of our blessed Lord. 'I am setting out,' he says, speaking of his own death, 'I am setting out on a journey hard and dangerous. Thee, O Son of God, I have taken for my Viaticum. When I am hungry, I will feed on Thee. The infernal fire will not venture near me, for it cannot bear the fragrance of They Body and They Blood.'"

    He died in Edessa in 373 and was greatly mourned. Twenty years after his death, the great Saint Jerome recalled his holiness and spread his work, even translating some of his works and studying them in detail when he set about translating into Latin the Vulgate edition. Ephrem is greatly honored in the Eastern Church, not as much in the Western Church though his feast day is celebrated traditionally on the day of his death June 18th. In the new liturgy it has been moved up nine days to June 9th. Though he was one of the earliest in the Church to be considered for the honor of Doctor of the Church, he was one of the last to officially be proclaimed a Doctor of the Church which Pope Benedict XV did in 1920. St. Ephrem, intercede and pray for us.


    Doctors of the Church