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Who are the Heroes of Orthodoxy? – St. Ephrem the Syrian

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September 6, 2017

         Who are the Heroes of Orthodoxy? – St. Ephrem the Syrian

We continue a series that we started a while ago, entitled Who are the Heroes of Orthodoxy? This time, we will study together the life of a man who enlightened a countless number of believers and positively affected many generations of Christians even until this very day. What is remarkable is that this person was simply a devout Christian who loved His God so much that he dedicated His life to worshiping the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and to sharing this love with all those around him through the talents God had given him. This person is the great St. Ephrem the Syrian.

St. Ephrem was born in the very early fourth century, approximately in the year 306 A.D., in the city of Nisibis, which is the modern Turkish town of Nusaybin, on the border with Syria. As for his parents, we are not entirely sure if they were Christian faithful or not. Some traditions, and even some of his writings, lead us to believe that St. Ephrem’s parents were Christian, but more recent writers of the lives of the saint claim that his parents were pagan. In eastern traditions, it is said that his parents had a dream where they saw their son and from his mouth sprang a large and fruitful vine, which produced abundant clusters of grapes. From these grapes, all sorts of animals ate and were filled. Later on, we discover that this dream was to foretell of the enumerable amounts of people who would feed off the divinely inspired teachings of this great saint.

However, the same eastern traditions tell us that the saint lived a very unruly life as a youth. St Ephrem himself said: “My youth nearly convinced me that life is ruled by chance. But God’s Providence brought my impassioned youth to the light of wisdom.” In his life story, we are told that at some point he was falsely accused of stealing a sheep and was imprisoned for it. He later realized through divine inspiration that this was God’s way of setting him on the right track. He eventually was released from prison and the Lord saved him from any additional punishment from the crime he was falsely accused of. He then devoted his life to ascetical living in the mountains with a group of hermits. He became the student of St. James, the first bishop of Nisibis. By the grace of God, St. James taught St. Ephrem, discipled him, baptized him and entrusted to him many responsibilities of teaching Christian believers. St. James is recorded to have been in attendance at the first ecumenical council of Nicea in the year 325, and we believe that he took St. Ephrem with him.

St. Ephrem lived a pious and ascetic life and dedicated much of his time to prayer, fasting, and the study of Holy Scripture. The Lord rewarded him with an unparalleled talent of creative expression. He wrote hundreds of sermons, prayers and hymns, many of which are written in poetic fashion. He adopted the method of poetry and song when writing as a means to have the common people memorize the words, sing along, and in the process be taught the orthodox faith of the One true God. All sorts of people were attracted to his writings and in this way, the dream that his parents once had came true: from the mouth of St. Ephrem came forth a vine of wisdom whose fruit fed the souls of thousand and thousands of people.

St. Ephrem lived in a time where chaos and turmoil were always around the corner. His hometown of Nisibis was targeted serval times by the Persian rulers and ultimately, the Christians of that area were forced into exile. St. Ephrem, along with many of the believers, settled in the city of Edessa. If the political problems that caused him to leave his hometown were not enough, St. Ephrem also found himself in a time where the Church and her faith was under the attack of many heretical ideologies. Edessa was a city that was full of rival philosophies and religions. All of these false beliefs were all claiming to be the one and only truthful way of life. In all this confusion, St. Ephrem would write a great number of hymns defending the Orthodox faith. It is believed that he even had a group of women form choirs to sing his hymns in the public squares as a means to spread the faith.

Tradition also tells us that St. Ephrem, before his death, would encounter other great saints of the Church, among whom are St. Basil the great, as well as St. Pishoy the great Egyptian monk. These acquaintances that he had with such godly men reveal to us the stature of this great saint from Syria. St. Basil supposedly attempted to ordain St. Ephrem first to become a priest, and another time to become Bishop, but in all cases, he humbly refused claiming to be unworthy of such holy orders. The only rank St. Ephrem is known to have held among the clergy is the rank of deacon. After many years of serving the Lord and his flock, he reposed in peace and left behind a wealth of writings and teachings that would forever influence generations of Christians.

Let us look at how lovely and enriching some of his writings were.

In this passage, he speaks of the Lord Jesus Christ:

“Glory be to You Who clothed Yourself in the body of mortal Adam, and made it a fountain of life for all mortals. […] Come, let us make our love the great censer of the community, and offer on it as incense our hymns and our prayers to Him Who made His cross a censer for the Godhead, and offered from it on behalf of us all. He that was above stooped down to those who were beneath, to distribute His treasures to them.” (Homily on Our Lord : 9)

Another time, he writes on repentance and the grace of God:

“Of You, O Lord, of Your grace it is that in our nature we should become good. Of You is righteousness, that we from men should become righteous. Of You is the mercy and favour, that we from the dust should become Your image. Give power to our will, that we be not sunk in sin! Pour into our heart memory, that at every hour we may know Your honour! Plant truth in our minds, that we perish not among doubts! Occupy our understanding with Your law, that it wanders not in vain thoughts! Order the motions of our members, that they bring no hurt upon us! Draw near to God, that Satan may flee from you. Cast out passions from your heart, and lo! You have put to flight the enemy. Hate sins and wickedness, and Satan at once will have fled.” (Homily on Admonition and Repentance: 7)

What we have here is a man who truly tasted God and his goodness, and although he was never an official monk, priest, or bishop, he is deserving to be named among the Holy Church Fathers, and for all that he has contributed to the faith, we consider him a Hero of Orthodoxy!

May we all benefit from the beauty of his teachings, the sweetness of his poetry, and gift of his love to the Lord our God.

Remember, know your faith, live your faith, and teach your faith.

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