Saint of the Day – 9 June – St Ephrem of Syria – Father & Doctor of the Church – Also known as: Ephrem of Edessa, Ephrem the Syrian, Ephraem…, Ephraim…, Ephraem Syrus, Deacon of Edessa, Harp of the Holy Spirit, Jefrem Sirin, Sun of the Syrians/Venerable Father. Deacon/Confessor/Exegesist/Writer/Poet/Hymnographer/Theologian/Teacher/Orator/Defender of the Faith/ – declared Doctor of the Church in 1920 by Pope Benedict XV. Born – c306 at Nisibis, Mesopotamia (in modern Syria) – Died on 9 June 373 at Edessa (in modern Iraq) of natural causes. His tomb is in an Armenian monastery, Der Serkis, west of Edessa. Patron of Spiritual directors and spiritual leaders. Attributes – hermit sitting on a column, deacon’s vestments and thurible, man composing hymns with a lyre, man in a cave with a book, man with a cross on his brow, pointing upwards, vine and scroll.
Born in Nisibis, Mesopotamia, he was baptised as a young man and became famous as a teacher in his native city. When the Christian emperor had to cede Nisibis to the Persians, Ephrem fled as a refugee to Edessa, along with many other Christians. He is credited with attracting great glory to the biblical school there. He was ordained a deacon but declined becoming a priest as he felt he was unworthy.
He had a prolific pen and his writings best illumine his holiness. Although he was not a man of great scholarship, his works reflect deep insight and knowledge of the Scriptures. In writing about the mysteries of humanity’s redemption, Ephrem reveals a realistic and humanly sympathetic spirit and a great devotion to the humanity of Jesus. It is said that his poetic account of the Last Judgment inspired Dante.
Over four hundred hymns composed by Ephrem still exist. Granted that some have been lost, Ephrem’s productivity is not in doubt. Church historians credit Ephrem with having written over three million lines.
The most important of his works are his lyric, teaching hymns. These hymns are full of rich, poetic imagery drawn from biblical sources, folk tradition and other religions and philosophies.
Particularly influential were his Hymns Against Heresies. Ephrem used these to warn his flock of the heresies that threatened to divide the early church. He lamented that the faithful were “tossed to and fro and carried around with every wind of doctrine, by the cunning of men, by their craftiness and deceitful wiles.” He devised hymns laden with doctrinal details to inoculate right-thinking Christians against heresies such as docetism. The Hymns Against Heresies employ colourful metaphors to describe the Incarnation of Christ as fully human and divine. Ephrem asserts that Christ’s unity of humanity and divinity represents peace, perfection and salvation; in contrast, docetism and other heresies sought to divide or reduce Christ’s nature and, in doing so, rend and devalue Christ’s followers with their false teachings.
Ephrem is popularly believed to have taken legendary journeys. In one of these he visits St Basil of Caesarea. This links the Syrian Ephrem with the Cappadocian Fathers and is an important theological bridge between the spiritual view of the two, who held much in common. Ephrem is also supposed to have visited Saint Pishoy in the monasteries of Scetes in Egypt. As with the legendary visit with Basil, this visit is a theological bridge between the origins of monasticism and its spread throughout the church.
St Ephrem eventually settled in Edessa (modern Şanlıurfa) in 363. He was in his late fifties then and in Edessa he applied himself to ministry in his new church and seems to have continued his work as a teacher, perhaps in the School of Edessa. Edessa had always been at the heart of the Syriac-speaking world and the city was full of rival philosophies and religions. Ephrem comments that orthodox Nicene Christians were simply called “Palutians” in Edessa, after a former bishop. Arians, Marcionites, Manichees, Bardaisanites and various gnostic sects proclaimed themselves as the true church. In this confusion, Ephrem wrote a great number of homilies and hymns defending Nicene orthodoxy. After a ten-year residency in Edessa, in his sixties, Ephrem succumbed to the plague as he ministered to its victims. The most reliable date for his death is 9 June 373.