09 June 2009

Saint Ephrem

Icon of Saint Ephrem

June 9 is the optional memorial of Saint Ephrem, Deacon and Doctor of the Church. He has been popularly referred to as the "Harp of the Holy Ghost." You may have heard of St. Ephrem before, but I had not until looking through my breviary recently.

Saint Ephrem is the only Syrian that has been given the title of Doctor of the Church, which was proclaimed by Pope Benedict XV in 1920.

Ephrem was born in the year 306 in the City of Nisbis, just after that area came into the Roman Empire in 298. (Today, the area is in the Turkish town of Nusaybin, near the Syrian border.) Ephrem's parents are believed to have been a part of the growing Syriac Christian community, although it was sometimes reported that Ephrem was the son of pagan priest. Ephrem was baptized as an adult. Jacob, the first bishop of Nisbis, appointed Ephrem as a teacher and Ephrem was ordained as a deacon, either at his baptism or later.

Through his early life (until his fifties) Nisbis was held under seige a number of times and was otherwise caught in armed conflicts. Upon the expulsion of Christians from Nisbis, when the city was surrendered to the Persians, Ephrem eventually settled in Edessa.

In his late fifties, Saint Ephrem dedicated himself to the ministry of his church in Edessa. In his writings he refers to himself as a "herdsman" and his bishop as the "shepherd" and his community as a "fold." After about ten years in Edessa (in 373), Ephrem died of the plague as he ministered to its victims.

Ephrem is known for his prolific writings. More than 400 hymns that Ephrem penned still are in existence. It is reported that Saint Ephrem used all female choirs to sing his hymns, set to Syriac folk tunes. The most important of Ephrem's works are his lyric teaching poems. Saint Ephrem also wrote a colorful Hymns Against Heresies and verse homilies. In addition Saint Ephrem wrote biblical commentaries. His writing was done exclusively in Syrian, but some of his works today exist only in the translated form, which are still used in the liturgies of the Syrian Catholic Church.

In Hymn Against Heresies, Ephrem wrote that Christ's unity of divinity and humanity represents peace, perfection, and salvation, responding to docetism and other heresies of his day.

While Ephrem was sometimes reported to be a monk, it appears that he was really a member of a community that covenanted itself to service and chastity. While some writers have painted Ephrem as an extreme ascetic, he appears from his writings to have been actively engaged in the Church.

Prayer of St Ephrem
O LORD, Master of my life, grant that I may not be infected with the spirit of slothfulness and inquisitiveness, with the spirit of ambition and vain talking.Grant instead to me, your servant, the spirit of purity and of humility, the spirit of patience and neighborly love.
O Lord and King, grant me the grace of being aware of my sins and of not thinking evil of those of my brethren.

For you are blessed, now and ever, and forever.


Lord Jesus Christ, King of Kings, You have power over life and death. You know what is secret and hidden, and neither our thoughts nor our feelings are concealed from You. Cure me of duplicity; I have done evil before You. Now my life declines from day to day and my sins increase. O Lord, God of souls and bodies, You know the extreme frailty of my soul and my flesh. Grant me strength in my weakness, O Lord, and sustain me in my misery. Give me a grateful soul that I may never cease to recall Your benefits, O Lord most bountiful. Be not mindful of my many sins, but forgive me all my misdeeds. O Lord, disdain not my prayer — the prayer of a wretched sinner; sustain me with Your grace until the end, that it may protect me as in the past. It is Your grace which has taught me wisdom; blessed are they who follow her ways, for they shall receive the crown of glory. In spite of my unworthiness, I praise You and I glorify You, O Lord, for Your mercy to me is without limit. You have been my help and my protection. May the name of Your majesty be praised forever. To you, our God, be glory.


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