Holy Father Ephraim the Syrian (373)
He is often called "The Harp of the Holy
Spirit" for the sublimity of his writings. Ephraim
was born in Nisibis of Mesopotamia about the year
306. He embraced the Christian faith while young and for this was driven from
his home by his father, a pagan priest. He came under the care of St James of Nisibis (January 13), who was one of the bishops at the
Council of Nicaea. Ephraim took up a strictly
ascetical life, renouncing all possessions and denying himself all comforts. It
is said that his eyes constantly flowed with tears: tears of compunction for
his own sins, or tears of joy as he contemplated the wonders of God's grace.
He was baptized at the age of twenty and withdrew to
the desert, then settled in Edessa. Once, as he was walking to the city, a harlot
approached him. Pretending to accept her proposition, he took her to the city's
public square and suggested that they lie together there, in plain view.
Horrified, the woman rebuked him, saying 'Have you no shame?' The Saint
answered, 'Poor woman, you are afraid of being watched by other people; buy why
are you not afraid of being seen by God, who sees everything and, on the last
day, will judge all our actions and most secret thoughts?' The woman repented
and, with the Saint's help, embarked upon a new life.
The Saint returned to the desert for a time, then to Nisibis to aid the Persian Christians, persecuted because
they were seen as allies of the Romans. When Nisibis
finally fell under Persian rule, St Ephraim and his spiritual father St James
both settled in Edessa. At that time Edessa was troubled by the gnostic
heretic Bardaisan, one of whose devices was to
compose attractive hymns, which became popular and enticed many away from the
truth. Taking up Bardaisan's own weapons, St Ephraim
composed a number of hymns, beautiful in word and melody, which poetically set
forth the true Faith.
Hearing of the sanctity of St Basil the Great, St
Ephraim travelled to Cappadocia to meet him. It is recorded that at their first
meeting, St Basil greeted him: 'Art thou the Ephraim who hath beautifully
bended his neck and taken upon himself the yoke of the saving Word?'; to which St Ephraim replied, 'I am Ephraim who hinder
myself from travelling the way to heaven.' After discoursing with the Syrian
Saint for some time, St Basil cried out 'O, if only I had thy sins!' Basil then
ordained St Ephraim to the diaconate. He would have ordained him a priest but
St Ephraim, feeling unworthy, refused to be ordained, then and for the rest of
The Saint returned to a life of solitude; but
when a famine broke out in Edessa in 372, he came forth to rebuke the wealthy for
failing to share their wealth with the poor. Some replied that they knew no one
whom they could trust with their goods, so St Ephraim persuaded them to give
their alms to him for distribution to the poor. A true deacon, he cared for the
sick with his own hands. The following year, he reposed in peace.
St Ephraim was the first to use hymnody and song to
express the teaching of the Church, and so might be called the Church's first hymnographer. His works were probably an inspiration to St Romanos the Melodist, also a Syrian. He is said to have
written more than three million lines of verse in Syriac, in addition to many
homilies and treatises. Sadly only a fraction of his work has been translated.
A beautiful selection of St Ephraim's writings
can be found in A Spiritual Psalter, a collection edited by St Theophan the Recluse, available in English.
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