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St. Ephrem the Syrian


We have very little information about the life of St. Ephrem. What we do know is that St. Ephrem was born in 306 to Syrian Christian parents, in Nisibis, Mesopotamia. Whilst growing up he was influenced by the ascetism of his bishop, James of Nisibis. He probably taught catechism in what came to be known as the "School of the Persians". His education included basic mesopotamian knowledge, Syrian Christianity and in part the rabbinic tradition. He devoted himself to pastoral work and teaching within the Church. Ephrem was ordained to the rank of deacon and refused any higher office within the Church. He escaped being made a bishop by feigning madness.

As a monk he practiced all the virtues, virginity, poverty, continence, humbleness, and love for others. Although he led a strictly ascetic life very little of it was actually spent in the desert, but mainly in the city a where served the Church with his teaching, poetry and music. Many of his compositions were anti-heretical in nature. He wrote popular hymns exposing the cacodoxies of Marcion, Bardesanes and other gnostics. This was perhaps necessary as the gnostics Bardesanes and Harmonios had created a musical, poetic tradition within Syria. The great popularity of St.Ephrem's hymns earned him the name "Harp of the Holy Spirit". His poetry held sway within the Church until the arrival of Roman the Melodist many centuries later. The great majority of his work was written with a strong sense of rhythm, using syllables of equal length, half-rhymes and parellelisms. However, much of it could tire the modern ear because of his extensive use of metaphor, allegory, typology and repetition.

St. Ephrem was a very prolific writer. The historian Sozomen tells us that Ephrem had composed over a 1,000 texts, all in all about 3,000,000 lines. Apart from his hymns and poetic sermons Ephrem wrote Bible commentary on the books of Genesis and Exodus and annotated the Diatessaron , the Syriac-Greek version of the New Testament.

In 363 his home town of Nisibis was invaded by the Persians and he fled, together with the great majority of Christian residents, for Edessa. His activity for the Church reached its peak there. He taught at the new academy there, the "school of the Persians" which me have already mentioned, and was a great influence on the Church in the area. He fell asleep in the Lord on the 9th of June 373. The Church remembers him on the 25th of January each year.

Perhaps one of the best known verses of St.Ephrem is the prayer of St. Ephrem which is recited at the end of all the weekday offices throughout the Great Fast of Lent.

   © The CyberDesert 1998 by Marina M. Robb

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