“When I was a little child and lay in my mother’s bosom, I saw (I was as in a dream) a vine-shoot growing on my tongue, and it increased and reached unto heaven; it yielded fruit without measure, leaves likewise without number,” the saint recalled about his life as he neared death. “It spread, it stretched wide, it bore fruit: all creation drew near. And the more they were that gathered, the more its clusters abounded. These clusters were the homilies; and these leaves the hymns. God was the giver of them: Glory to Him for His grace! For He gave to me of His good pleasure from the storehouse of His treasures.”
Ephrem (circa 306-373), also known as Ephraim, wrote hymns, poems and sermons in verse, as well as prose biblical interpretation. All these works were crafted to lift up the Church during the troubles of his times. The saint’s life and significance are, indeed, defined by the context of these times.
He lived in the waning days of the Roman Empire, when it was at times ruled by one emperor, then by two. To the north were various pagan Gothic tribes, to the east the Zoroastrian Persian Empire.
Ephrem was born in the eastern Roman Empire in Nisibis (today Nusaybin, Turkey), a port town bordering Assyria almost at the spot where the eastern Mediterranean coast turns sharply from an east-west to a north-south orientation. The saint’s hymnody suggests that both his parents were part of the growing Christian community, in a city that also included pagan religions, Judaism and early dissident Christian sects. Later biographers wrote that his father was a pagan priest. In Ephrem’s day, the inhabitants of Nisibis spoke dialects of Aramaic, and the Christians favored the Syriac dialect, in which he wrote.
He was baptized as a youth and almost certainly became a “son of the covenant,” a title given in the Syriac church to men and women committed to sexual abstinence and service, in a kind of proto-monasticism. Jacob, the second bishop of Nisibis, appointed in 308 and recorded as a signatory at the First Council of Nicaea in 325, named Ephrem a teacher (malpana in Syriac), a title that still carries respect among Syriac Christians) and ordained him a deacon.
He began to compose hymns and write biblical commentaries as part of his office. In his hymns, he often refers to himself as a “herdsman,” to his bishop as the “shepherd” and to his community as the “fold.” Ephrem is credited with founding the School of Nisibis in 350, which later became a center of learning of the Syriac Orthodox Church and is regarded in Orthodoxy as the first university, because it had departments teaching theology, philosophy and medicine.
What might have been a serene life of devotions, learning and service was abruptly interrupted by Shapur II, the 10th king of the Sasanian (or Neo-Persian) Empire. The kingdom, which traces back to the Parthian and early Persian nations, was emerging as a world power. At one point it grew to encompass all of today’s Iran, Iraq, Eastern Arabia (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatif, Qatar, United Arab Emirates), the Levant (Israel, Jordan Lebanon, Palestine, Syria), the Caucasus (Abkhazia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Dagestan, Georgia, South Ossetia), Egypt, large parts of Turkey, much of central Asia (Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan), Yemen and Pakistan. Eventually, it was overrun by Arab Islamists.
Shapur laid siege to Nisibis in 338, 346, 350 and 359. In 363 the Roman emperor Jovian was forced to surrender the city. One of Shapur’s conditions was the expulsion of the entire Christian population, since the city was in his officially Zoroastrian kingdom. Ephrem, along with Amida, one of the most distinguished teachers of the Nisibis school, left to settle in the inland town of Edessa (modern Şanliurfa), where, already in his late 50s, he dedicated himself to ministry in the new church and continued his work as a teacher in the renamed School of Edessa.
Once again, peace of mind eluded him. Edessa had always been at the heart of the Syriac-speaking world and was full of rival philosophies and religions. Ephrem remarked that orthodox Nicene Christians were simply called “Palutians,” after a former bishop of the city. Meanwhile, a disturbing array of sects—Arians, Bardaisanites, Manichees, Marcionites and various Gnostics—each claimed to be the true Christian church. This led Ephrem to compose a large number of hymns defending Nicene orthodoxy. They were set to Syriac folk tunes and sung by all-female choirs in the city’s forum.
Ephrem was in his 60s when he succumbed to the plague as he ministered to its victims. He died in Edessa, on June 9, 373.
Ephrem left behind an enormous number of hymns, of which 400 are still extant, most of them highly regarded in the Syriac Orthodox Church, in particular those against heresies. He also wrote homilies in verse (or memres).
Better known and most highly regarded are his lyric teaching hymns (madrases), whose imagery draws from the Bible, folk tradition and other religions and philosophies. They are gathered into various hymn cycles—including his Carmina Nisibena (Song of Nisibis), On Faith, On Paradise, On Virginity and Against Heresies—that were sung in his day by all-women choirs with an accompanying lyre.
Ephrem’s prose work includes a biblical commentary on the Diatessaron (a single gospel harmony of the early Syriac church) and his Commentary on Genesis and Exodus. Some fragments exist in Armenian of his commentaries on the Acts of the Apostles and Pauline Epistles.
He is also regarded as the author of The Life of Saint Mary the Harlot, the story of a woman of his time who flees the temptation of incest, becomes a prostitute and eventually regains her faith and virtue. Some scholars dispute his authorship, but surviving copies contain at the end the following prayer widely accepted as written by Ephrem:
Have mercy upon me,Among Syriac Christians, Ephrem is called the Harp of the Spirit, the Deacon of Edessa, the Sun of the Syrians and a Pillar of the Church. Pope Benedict XV proclaimed Ephrem a Doctor of the Church (“Doctor of the Syrians”) in 1920. His Catholic feast day is June 9, but on the liturgical calendar of the Episcopal Church (USA) it is June 10.
You who alone are without sin,
and save pitiful me:
for beside You, Father most blessed,
and Your only begotten Son who was made flesh for us,
and the Holy Ghost who gives life to all things,
I know no other, and believe in no other.
Now be mindful of me, Lover of men,
and lead me out of the prison-house of my sins,
for both I and the prison are in Your hand, O Lord,
the moment You bid me go out from it elsewhere.
Remember me that I am without defense,
and save me, a sinner,
and may Your grace, that was in this world
my aid, my refuge, and my glory,
gather me under its wings
in that great and terrible day.
For You know, You who try the hearts and reins,
that I did shun much of evil and the byways of same,
the vanity of the impertinent and the defense of heresy,
not because of myself, but of Your grace
wherewith my mind was lit.
Therefore, holy Lord, I beseech You,
bring me into Your kingdom,
and deign to bless me with all that have found grace before You,
for with You there is magnificence, adoration, and honor,
Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.