Feast Day: June 9
It is commonly believed that Ephrem was born into a pagan family and that they disowned him when he was baptized at the age of 18. He was later ordained a deacon and apparently declined any further advancement, even feigning madness as a way of avoiding episcopal consecration. Nevertheless, the bishop assigned to Ephrem the task of founding a school, and Ephrem remained in that post during attacks by the Persians.
In 363, when Nisibis fell to the Persians, Ephrem, along with the rest of the Christian population, took flight. He settled in Edessa (in present-day Iraq), and retired to a cave. He did not, however, live as a hermit, but made frequent trips into the city to preach and serve the church. Biographers say that his preaching on the end times moved his listeners so deeply that their sobs often competed with his eloquence. Syrians have nicknamed St. Ephrem the “harp of the Holy Spirit” for his spellbinding preaching and especially for his beautiful hymns.
Ephrem was largely responsible for demonstrating that poetry and hymns could be a mode of theological discourse. Though not greatly learned, he was skilled in translating orthodox theology into liturgical hymns, sometimes borrowing melodies from popular songs of the day. Aside from hymns extolling such mysteries as the Incarnation, the Virgin Birth, and the Immaculate Conception of Mary, Ephrem wrote hymns against various heresies.
Within Ephrem’s writings, he defends the primacy of Peter and the popes and he speaks of Mary as being free from any taint of sin. “You and your Mother, Lord, are the only perfectly beautiful ones… There was no stain of sin in your Mother.” One of his favorite topics was death and the Last Judgment. His vivid depictions of heaven and hell later influenced the writings of Dante. St. Gregory of Nyssa said of him: “The splendor of his life and his doctrine illumine the entire universe.”
Ephrem filled his poetry with great empathy for people’s hurt and he made an important contribution to the church through his writings and musical compositions. Heretics employed songs to spread false teachings, so Ephrem decided to imitate their success. He composed Christian hymns and set them to the tunes of the heretical songs. In a short time, the saint’s superior compositions had replaced all of his opponents’ hymns.
Since he is known as St. Ephrem the Deacon, it is likely that he never became a priest, and perhaps never wanted to. About the year 370, Ephrem travelled to Cappadocia to meet St. Basil but the last time he took part in any public activities was in the winter of 373. There was a great famine in the land and Ephrem prevailed on the wealthy to let him distribute their donations. Exhausted from his labors, he died in his cave, shortly after he had spent several years in Egypt administering the distribution of food, money, and medical relief to the poor. His prolific writings are his heritage to succeeding generations of Christians.
“Lord, in your sacrament we daily embrace you and receive you into our bodies; make us worthy to experience the resurrection for which we hope. We have had your treasure hidden within us ever since we received baptismal grace; it grows richer at your sacramental table.” —St. Ephrem
Ellsberg, Robert. “All Saints.” New York: Crossroad Publishing, 2010.
Ghezzi, Bert. “Voices of the Saints.” Chicago: Loyola Press, 2000
Lodi, Enzo. “Saints of the Roman Calendar-Updated and Revised Edition.” New York: Alba House, 2012.