18 - 25 minutes readJune 18 – Ephraem the Syrian, Deacon, Confessor, and Doctor of the Church ~ Dom Prosper Gueranger

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June 18 – Ephraem the Syrian, Deacon, Confessor, and Doctor of the Church

Saint Ephraem, monk and deacon, the contemporary of St. Athanasius, St. Basil, St. Gregory of Nazianzen and St. Gregory of Nyssa, was with them one of the glories of the Christian East so rich in testimonies to faith and sanctity during the first centuries. He takes his place in the liturgical cycle among the doctors of the Universal Church. It is only fitting that the ancient piety of Edessa and Nisibis should be represented in the Roman calendar by him who was always held to be tht most illustrious of her sons. St. Ehpraem was honored by the whole Church for the depth and vastness of his doctrine, and the whole Catholic world rejoiced when Pope Benedict XV pronounced him worthy to be placed among the great doctors of the Church both Greek and Latin. No one was more worthy than the celebrated Deacon of Edessa of such an honor. Even during his lifetime men delighted to honor him with such titles as illustrious “doctor of the universe,” “prophet and sun of the Syrians,” “pillar of the Church,” and “harp of the Holy Spirit.” All the Orthodox fathers and doctors from St. Basil, St. John Chrysostom and St. Jerome down to St. Francis de Sales at St. Alphonsus Liguori are unanimous in his praise. Seldom has reputation been more brilliant, authority more universally acknowledged than that of the humble Syrian monk: less than twenty years after his death his writings were read publicly in church after the Scriptures. As theologian, poet and orator his literary work was immense. His writings comprise commentaries on the Scriptures, theological discourses and poems, moral and ascetic treatises, hymns in praise of Almighty God, our Lady and the saints. These form an inestimable treasure where successive generations have found not only weapons wherewith to combat error but also food to strengthen their souls. The works of St. Ephraem, written in Syriac, were at an early date translated not only into Greek, but also into all the languages of the East—Coptic, Ethiopian, Arabic and Armenian—so that his hymns and canticles are to be found in all the liturgical books of the Syriac Church, both Orthodox and Uniate, which thus remains indebted to his fruitful genius.

St. Ephraem was born in Mesopotamia, very probably at Nisibis, on the frontier of the Roman Empire and Persia, at the beginning of the fourth century. Tradition says that hsi father fulfilled the duties of a priest to an idol in that town, but that his mother may have been a Christian [Assemani, Bibl. Orient. i. 26; Lamy, op. cit., iv, p. xxvii; Bouvy, “Les Sources historiques de la vie de saint Ephrem,” Revue augustinienne, Janvier, 1903.]. In any case he does not appear ever to have taken part in idolatrous worship, for we know that in his youth he was a member of the household of James, the bishop of Nisibis, one of the three hundred and eighteen fathers fo the Council of Nicæa. He received baptism, and under the guidance of this bishop gave himself to prayer, to all the practices of Christian asceticism, to reading and profound study of the Scriptures. It was during this time that he acquired his remarkable knowledge and love of the Holy Scriptures so noticeable in all his writings and which is one of his chief characteristics. Later on he said: “He who applies himself with simplicity and purity of heart to the study of the Sacred Books will receive the knowledge of God. Some people glory in conversing familiarly with the great ones of the earth, with princes and kings, but let it be your glory to converse with the Holy Ghost in the presence of the angels of God by reading the divine Scriptures, for it is the Holy Ghost who there speaks to you. Spare no pains to become familiar with this study.”

The first verses of “Hymns of Nisibis” show us what Ephraem was to James and his successors. These poems, the earliest of his that have come down to us, give us a picture of the times in which he lived. James, Babou and Vologesus found him a zealous auxiliary, intent upon upholding their authority, drawing men to them and ardently desirous of reform. His great influence on the people was shown especially when Nisibis was besieged by Sapor, king of the Persians. During those perilous days he incessantly encouraged the citizens to resist the enemy, strengthening the beseiged by his word and example, until his courage and his prayer forced the enemy to acknowledge their powerlessness and retire. Later on, when as a result of the disastrous campaign of the emperor Julian against the Persians, his successor Jovian was forced to cede Eastern Mesopotamia with Nisibis to Sapor, Ephraem joined the emigrants who left forever a town where Christians could no longer dwell in security.

From Nisibis St. Ephraem went to Edessa, which name is forever associated with his. On the west of the town there rises a hill on whose rocky slopes are numerous caves and tombs in which lived many anchorites. St. Ephraem in his turn came to seek, among the rocks of the holy mountain, a retreat which would enable him to devote himself to prayer, study and penitential exercises. His knowledge of sacred sciences, however, could not long remain hidden, and disciples soon began to gather around him. This was the period of his literary activity, which was so great as to be almost miraculous. It was during the ten years that he passed in the capital of Osrhoene that he wrote most of his works. It was also the period of his greatest activity in religious affairs, and it seems certain that the School of Edessa, famous under the name of the Persian School, owes to him, if not its existence, at least a great part of its renown.

However, Edessa could not escape the ravages to which the spread of the heresies of Arius, Manes, Marcion and other sowers of discord subjected the whole world, and we owe a great number of St. Ephraem’s theological discourses and poems to his solicitude in combating heresy under all its forms, and to his care in safeguarding the purity of faith among the Christians of the town. In obedience to the inspiration of divine grace, he left his solitude for a time to pour forth to the faithful exhortations so rich in imagery, so full of unction and of doctrine, that to this day the heart of the reader is moved. The holy doctor inveighs with much vigor against the Arians, who deny the Divinity of Christ. The following passage occurs in one of his sermons on the Passion: “The King of kings who is above all kings is the only Savior Jesus, who sits at the right hand of his Father. He is his Word, his strength, his mighty arm; he descended from the height of heaven. He came down in secret, he ascended into heaven. He came down in secret, he ascended openly, he came down as the Word, he ascended with a human body, he descended and ascended according to his own will. Blessed be he who has acted according to his power. Men should be astonished and should admire the providence of the author of all grace who has abased himself even to us. Blessed be he who in his goodness has drawn from the ocean of his mercy the life that he has bestowed upon us. The Son of God is God, and God of God, he descended from heaven and conversed upon earth, he the power of preaching. The consuming fire which fell from heaven has become a dew for mankind, he who is all on fire has hidden his flame, the vehement God has restrained himself, there is no thunder in his voice nor lightning in his movements, the terrible God has hidden his majesty, the power God his force, wholly in heaven, he was wholly upon earth. When you consider him in heaven there is nothing to which you can liken him; when you consider him upon earth he seems to you to be simply a man. If you look towards heaven millions of angels serve him, and seraphim without number cry before him, Holy, holy, holy. If you look towards earth he is confined in a human body. ‘The foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests, but he who is the Son of God has not where to lay his head.’ Indeed, where could he, who is the refuge of all, have sought shelter? Where could he have rested his head, he who is the pillar that sustains the universe, who upholds the earth and the heavens in either hand, and who in the hollow of his hand holds the seas and the world?”

With equal energy and with remarkable doctrinal precision, St. Ephraem asserts the prerogatives of St. Peter. In the person of our Lord speaking to Simon Peter, he says: “I have established you, Simon my disciple, as the foundation of holy Church. Formerly I called you Peter because you upheld my building, you are the overseer of those who construct the Church upon earth. If they wish to build that which is evil, you, who are the foundation, will prevent them. You are at the source of my doctrine, you are the chief of my disciples, it is through you that I will quench the thirst of all nations, the quickening sweetness that I give belongs to you, I have chosen you as the firstfruits of my disciples to be the inheritor of my treasures. I have given you the keys of my kingdom; I have given all my treasures into your power.”

It is interesting to receive such testimony from the mouth of him whom all the Eastern Christians reverence as their greatest doctor and consider their special glory. But few of the fathers of the first centuries of Christianity have spoken so explicitly on the subject of the Holy Eucharist as the Deacon of Edessa. He discredits in advance all the sophistry put forth at the time of the Reformation, and thus comments on the words of the institution of the Sacrament of the Body and Blood of our Lord: “Do not believe that what I have just given to you is bread, receive it, eat it, do not crumble it away. That which I have called my Body, truly is so. The smallest morsel is sufficient to sanctify millions of souls and suffices to give life to those who receive it. Receive and eat with faith, do not waver, for it is my Body, and he who partakes of it with faith partakes of the fire of the Holy Spirit. It seems to him who partakes without faith to be but ordinary bread, but to him who with faith partakes of the Bread consecrated in my name, if he be pure it preserves his purity, if a sinner it obtains his pardon. Let those who reject, despise or outrage this Bread know that of a certainty they do outrage to the Son, who has called and has made bread to be his Body. Take and eat, and by it partake of the Holy Spirit, for it is truly my Body, and he who eats thereof has eternal life. It is the Bread of heaven come down from on high unto us. The manna which the Israelites ate in the desert, the manna which they gathered and which they despised although it fell from heaven, was a figure of the spiritual food you have just received. Take ye all of it and eat, in eating this Bread and eat my Body, the true source of the redemption.”

In St. Ephraem’s time the people of Edessa still took pleasure in the poetical compositions of Bardesanes and his son Harmonius. A hundred and fifty years previously these impious men had spread abroad the errors of Gnosticism by means of these writings, and therefore St. Ephraem, in his indefatigable zeal for the purity of the faith, resolved to defeat the heresy with its own arms. “When he saw how the inhabitants of Edessa delighted in songs,” says his biographer, “he instituted plays and dances of his own for the young folk. He established choirs of nuns, whom he taught to sing hymns having a refrain between the verses. These hymns embody beautiful thoughts and spiritual instruction on the Nativity, the Baptism, the Fast and deeds of our Lord, the Passion, Resurrection and Ascension, as well as on the confessors, on Penance and the faithful departed. The religious came together on Sunday, on great feasts and on the festivals of the martyrs, and he in the midst of them like a father accompanied them on his harp. He divided them into two choirs, so that they might sing alternately, and taught them the various musical airs with such success that the whole town came to listen. Thus his adversaries were put to shame and disappeared.”

Readers of the Liturgical Year will have often noticed and admired the spirit of faith and tender piety which fills the poems of St. Ephraem, whether he celebrates the mystery of the birth of our Savior and borrows the voices of the Shepherds and Magi to render homage to the Infant God, or whether he extols the humility of St. John the Baptist, or, again, in order to console mourners, he sings of the happiness of young children caught up to heaven in their innocence. But never does this harp of the Holy Ghost sound forth in more harmonious tones than when it sings of Mary and extols her incomparable virginity, her divine maternity or her merciful protection of mankind. It is well known that the eloquent Deacon of Edessa was one of the earliest of the fathers whose testimony to the privilege of the Immaculate Conception fo the Blessed Virgin was brought forward. He addressed our Lord and his Mother in these words: “Thou, O Lord, and thy Mother are the only ones who are perfectly beautiful in every respect, for in thee, O Lord, there is no blemish, and in thy Mother there is no stain.”

The last years of St. Ephrem’s life were marked by a heroic act which seems to have made a great impression upon his contemporaries. There was a terrible famine in Edessa, which brought many other evils in its train. Moved by so much suffering, the holy anchorite left his cell for a time and took up his abode in the town. By his fervent exhortations he implored the rich to come to the help of their less fortunate fellow citizens, and he knew how to call forth abundant alms, which he himself distributed. At the same time, by his arrangement, all who were sick were brought together, and night and day he labored to procure for them such assistance and relief as the nature of their case demanded. He did not abandon his charitable ministrations until the city again enjoyed food in plenty.

St. Ephraem returned once more to his solitude, and, feeling that his end was near, he composed for his disciples his last testament, a touching discourse of considerable length in which the dominant features of his character shine forth—his faith, hope, charity, humility, and zeal for the orthodox belief. We quote a few passages which reveal the characteristics of the soul of this great monk. “I, Ephrem, am dying, and I am writing a last testament so that I may leave to each one a souvenir in order that my friends may remember me even if only on account of my words. Alas! my life is finished and the term of my years is ended. The warp is finished and the threads must be cut. The lamp is nearly empty of oil, my days and my hours are fled away. The hired soldier has completed his year, the stranger has finished his time. My guards and executioners surround me on all sides. I groan and there is none to hear; I ask mercy and there is none to deliver me. Woe is thee, Ephraem, because of the judgment when thou wilt appear before the tribunal of the Son and thine acquaintance will stand on either side of thee. There will be thy shame; woe to him who shall be confounded there. O Jesus, be thou the Judge of Ephraem; do not hand him over to another to be judged, for he whom God will judge shall receive mercy at the tribunal.

“I swear by him who descended from Mount Sinai, and who spoke upon the rock, by his mouth who said Eloi, and the bowels of the earth were shaken, by him who was sold by Judas and scourged in Jerusalem, by the might of him who was buffeted and by the majesty of him who was spit upon, by the three fiery names and by the one authority and will, that I have never separated myself from the Church nor have I ever doubted the power of God. If in my mind I have ever magnified the Father more than the Son may I be deprived of his loving mercy, and if I have ever lessened the authority of the Holy Spirit may blindness come upon me. If my life has not been in conformity with my speech may I be cast into exterior darkness, and if I speak hypocritically, may I burn with the ungodly. If I recount these things through pride may our Lord condemn me at the judgment …

“When I think of my past life my knees tremble and my teeth chatter, and when I call to mind my deeds I am overcome with horror. For I have never done anything good, nothing worthy of praise since the day of my birth. Do not embalm me for burial, such honor is not due to me; do not place sweet perfumes upon my body, I am not worthy of such distinction. Burn the incense in the sanctuary, but encompass me with your prayers. Offer sweet perfumes to God and chant psalms for my soul. Instead of pouring sweet perfumes and sweet savors over my body remember me in your prayers, for of what use are sweet odors to a dead man who has no senses with which to perceive them? Carry your incense to the house of God and there burn it that others may benefit thereby. Do not bury that which decays in silk which is useless to it, but rather leave in the pit that which cannot appreciate honors. Luxury belongs to the rich, the dunghill to the poor. Authority belongs to the royal family, but abjection and humility to the stranger and wayfarer …

“Come, brethren, hearken unto me, for it is decreed that I may live no longer. Help me on my journey by your prayers, psalms and sacrifices. When the thirty days are over make a memento of me, brethren, for the dead are helped by the masses offered by the living …

“The one thing that gives me courage and hope before God is that I have never insulted my Savior and no blasphemy has ever been uttered by my lips. Those who hated thee, Lord, I have hated and have abhorred thy enemies. Write my words upon your hearts and be mindful of what I say, for after I am dead evil persons will come among you in the clothing of sheep, but inwardly they are ravening wolves. Their speech is sweet, but the desires of their hearts are bitter; they have the appearance of good, but they are the messengers of Satan. Fly from them and from their doctrines; do not go near them, for you know that whoever is found in a place where outrage has been offered to the king has to come into court to be questioned according to law. Even if he can prove he was not guilty he will be condemned for want of zeal. Do not sit with heretics nor associate with apostates. It would be better to dwell with a demon than with a renegade. For if you abjure the demon he will flee, for he cannot stand before the name of Jesus, but even were you to exorcise the apostate ten thousand times he would not cease from his wickedness nor renounce his folly. It would be better to teach demons than to try to convince heretics. Demons bore witness, saying, ‘Thou art the Son of God,’ but infidels and heretics daily contend pertinaciously that he is not the Son of God. Satan himself who dwells in them confesses the truth, but they assiduously deny it …

“O my disciples, hear my precepts and be mindful of my words. Do not depart from my faith nor be untrue to my lessons. When you hear of seditions and tumults in the world be constant and hold fast to the truth and your faith …

“Farewell, my friends, and pray for me, my beloved. The time has come for the merchant to return to his own country. Woe is me, my merchandise is gone and my riches are all spent. No one weeps over the death of the holy, because they pass from death to life; but weep for me, brethren, for we have wasted our days and hours in idleness. May peace abide on the earth and may her sons be joyful. May peace abide in the Church and may the persecution of the malicious cease. May the wicked become just and be converted from their sins.

“Hail, O angel guide, who leadest the soul out of the body, parting them asunder that they may remain separated until the general resurrection …”

Let us now read the account given of the illustrious Deacon of Edessa by the Church in her office of matins. The lessons record the chief features of this fruitful life.

Ephraem, genere Syrus, Nisibeno patre natus est. Adhuc juvenis ad sanctum Jacobum episcopum se contulit, a quo baptizatus, brevi ita sanctitate et doctrina profecit, ut in schola Nisibi, Mesopotamiæ urbe, florente magister fuerit constitutus. Post Jacobi episcopi mortem, Nisibi a Persis capta, Edessam profectus est: ubi primum in monte inter monachos consedit, deinde, ut plurimos ad se confluentes homines vitaret, vitam duxit eremiticam. Edessanæ Ecclesiæ diaconus ordinatus, et ob humilitatem sacerdotium recusans, omnium virtutum splendore enituit, et pietatem et religionem vera sapientiæ professione sibi comparare sategit. Spem omnem in solo Deo defixam habens, quævis humana ac transitoria contemnens, divina ac sempiterna assidue concupiscebat. Ephraem was of Syrian descent and son of a citizen of Nisibis. While yet a young man he betook himself to the holy bishop James, by whom he was baptized, and he soon made such progress in holiness and learning as to be appointed master in the school of Nisibis in Mesopotamia. After the death of the bishop James Nisibis was captured by the Persians, and Ephraem went to Edessa, where he settled first among the monks in the mountains. Later, to avoid the company of those who flocked to him, he adopted the eremitical life. He was made deacon of the church of Edessa, but refused the priesthood out of humility. he was rich in all virtues and strove to acquire piety and religion by the following of true wisdom. He placed all his hope in God, despised all human and transitory things, and was ever filled with the earnest desire of those which are divine and eternal.
Cæsaream Cappadociæ, divino ductus spiritu, cum petiisset, ipsum ibi os Ecclesiæ Basilium vidit, et uterque mutua consuetudine opportunum in modum usus est. Ad innumeros errores refellendos, qui tunc temporis grassantes, Ecdclesiam Dei divexabant, atque ad mysteria Domini nostri Jesu Christi sedulo illustranda, plurimas edidit lucubrationes, Syro sermone compositas, et fere omnes in linguam Græcam versas; atque, teste sancto Hieronymo, ipse ad tantam venit claritudinen, ut, post lectionem Scripturarum, publice in quibusdam Ecclesiis ejus scripta recitarentur. He was led by the Spirit of God to Cæsarea in Cappadocia, where he saw Basil, the mouthpiece of the Church, and they obtained benefit from their mutual intercourse. In order to refute the many errors which troubled the Church at that time, and to expound the mysteries of Jesus Christ, he wrote many books in the syrian tongue, almost all of which have been translated into Greek. St. Jerome bears witness that he attained such fame that his writings were read publicly in the churches after the reading from the Holy Scriptures.
Universa illius opera, tam splendido doctrinæ lumine referta, effecerunt, ut idem Sanctus, adhuc vivens, tamquam Ecclesiæ Doctor, magno honore habitus fuerit. Metrica quoque cantica composuit in laudem beatissimæ Virginis Mariæ ac Sanctorum: quam ob causam a Syris Spiritus Sancti cithara merito fuit appellatus. In mirifica ac pia devotione erga eamdem Virginem Immaculatam primum excelluit. Meritis plenus, Edessæ, in Mesopotamia, decimo quarto Kalendas Julii, decessit sub Valente principe: eumque, instantibus pluribus sanctæ Romanæ Ecclesiæ Cardinalibus, Patriarchis, Archiepiscopis, Episcopis, Abbatibus et religiosis familiis. Benedictus Papa decimus quintus, ex Sacrrorum Rituum Congregationis consulto universalis Ecclesiæ Doctorem declaravit. On account of his works, so full of the light of heavenly doctrine, he was greatly honored even during his lifetime as a Doctor of the Church. He composed a poem in praise of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the saints for which he was called by the Syrians the Harp of the Holy Ghost. He was noted for his great and tender devotion towards the immaculate Virgin. He died, rich in merits, at Edessa in Mesopotamia, on the fourteenth of the Kalends of July, in the reign of Valens. Pope Benedict XV, at the instance of many Cardinals of the holy Roman Church, patriarchs, archbishops, bishops, abbots and religious communities, declared him by a decree of the Sacred Congregation of Rites to be a Doctor of the Universal Church.

Thy glory, O Ephraem, shines henceforward throughout the whole world. Let us join our feeble praise to that of East and West, which, in admiration of thy virtue, rises to thee this day. But we know that this praise will not be pleasing to thee unless we follow thy teaching and example in our lives. Help us to walk in those paths which thy writings and deeds have marked out so clearly for us, and above all strengthen our faith. Thou hast said that there is no richer man that he who has the faith. At a time when everything seems to conspire to diminish or obscure the truth, when ignorance joins with false doctrine to lessen its brightness and deter souls, obtain for us a holy eagerness to receive the doctrine of the Church, the expression of eternal truth; help us to be earnest in our search and zealous to keep and uphold it in all its purity. Inspire in us that hatred of error with which thy burning words inflamed the hearts of the faithful of Edessa, and which at thy death thou didst leave to them as thy last counsel and most precious gift.

O holy anchorite, help us to acquire all the Christian virtues, encourage within our souls the interior life, the sources of which, as thou hast taught us, are to be found where Christ himself has placed them—“that is, in the Sacraments, in the observance of the precepts of the Gospel and in the various exercises of piety which the liturgy affords and which the authority of the Church recommends to us.” We pray that by these means the virtue of charity, that is above all others, that is characterized by all the dispositions especially dear to Almighty God and is unable to exist without the presence of many other virtues, may ever be increasing in our souls. For, according to one of thine own graceful comparisons, even as the royal diadem lacks lustre if one of the gems is missing, so love of God and our neighbor cannot be perfect unless it be united in the other virtues.

In order that we may dwell in charity and may safeguard our weakness from error and vice, we will live in fear of the last judgment, that terrible day thou hast described so eloquently, when the earth, sea and sky will be burned up by a spark from the divine fire, when all men will be called upon to undergo a searching examination into each thought, word and deed. By thine assistance may we be faithful to our baptismal promises, so that on the last day we may be found worthy to take our place among the elect.

O holy doctor, who now before the divine altar and the Ruler of life art, with the angels, adoring the Blessed Trinity, be mindful of us and obtain for us the pardon of our sins, that we may rejoice in the eternal happiness of the heavenly kingdom.


This text is taken from The Liturgical Year, authored by Dom Prosper Gueranger (1841-1875)