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Saints of the East: St. Ephrem the Syrian

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Literature, as well as Christianity, owes a tremendous debt to St. Ephrem, for it was his graphic description of the Last Judgment which inspired Dante.

Often referred to as the “Harp of the Holy Spirit,” this learned theologian and Doctor of the Church was born in Nisibis, Syria (modern Nusaybin, Turkey) in the year 306. He spent much of his life in preaching and writing hymns and poems dedicated to combating the heresies of Gnosticism and Arianism. He was baptized by Bishop James of Nisibis – a man who greatly influenced his life.

A poet and writer, Ephrem had a complex and artistic personality marked by a strong tendency to be hot-tempered. But with tremendous self-control, he dominated his fiery nature and devoted his life to asceticism.

Ephrem taught in Nisibis until the city was ceded to the Persians and he was forced, with other Christians, to emigrate to Edessa (now Urfa, Turkey). There, Ephrem continued his teaching at the famous School of Edessa whose reknown, and even founding, has been attributed to him.

An aspect of Ephrem’s unusual personality is evident in the fact that, although ordained a deacon, he never became a priest – avoiding consecration by feigning madness. Although no certain explanation can be found for this behavior, some biographers believe it was due to a feeling of unworthiness.

Ephrem’s literary legacy includes writings on the Virgin Mary for whom he had great devotion, as well as treatises on the primacy of Peter, original sin, free will, and the Immaculate Conception – all of which strongly influenced later theologians.

St. Ephrem died at age 67 in 373. His feast is celebrated on January 28 in the East and June 9 in the West.

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