June 8, 2017

Saint Ephrem, "the Harp of the Holy Spirit"

Saint Ephrem

Although Saint Ephrem (or Ephraim) lived in the 4th century, there is much about him and his life that strikes a contemporary note. Born in Nisibis, Mesopotamia (present day Syria) around the year 306, he is the only Syrian recognized as a Doctor of the Church. His background, which was Asian/ African rather than Greek, afforded him a different worldview than many of his contemporaries, one of whom was St. Athanasius. His theology and insights into the faith were just as profound, but his unique outlook was often expressed in poetry, rather than the “systematic” form that was prevalent in the writings of other theologians.

St. Ephrem, like many who have lived in that part of the world, saw troubled times. In his late fifties, he became a refugee when his native city was conquered and subsequently ceded to the Persians in 363. Under threat of persecution Christians, including Ephrem, fled the area en masse. By the year 364, St. Ephrem resided in Edessa, where he lived his final years as an ascetical hermit.

He was renowned for holiness, but it was his poetry that set Ephrem apart as a Doctor of the Church. He was a staunch defender of orthodoxy and, to counter false teachings – particularly Arianism – he devised a unique rebuttal technique. Using the melodies of the songs and hymns of the heretics, he would rewrite the lyrics so that they now expressed the true teachings of the Faith. In fact, Ephrem was one of the first to introduce song into the worship of the Church, to be used as a catechetical tool. This earned Ephrem the sobriquet “Harp of the Holy Spirit.”

His writings, like his hymns, reveal his poetical understanding of the mysteries of God and his deep reverence for Scripture. He was especially moved by and had a great devotion to the humanity of Jesus, and some have said that his depiction of the Last Judgment served as an inspiration to the Italian poet Dante Alighieri.

Though he lived apart in a cave above Edessa, Ephrem was not aloof from the needs and sufferings of the people who inhabited the town. According to tradition, when a famine struck that place in 372, some people, as might be expected, began to hoard food, leaving others to starve. When Ephrem learned of this, he confronted them and demanded to know why they were doing such a thing. They replied that they could find no honest person who would see that the food was distributed fairly, whereupon Ephrem offered himself as that person. Because of his reputation for holiness and the deep respect the people had for him, they turned over all that they had to him. Then he and a handpicked group of helpers proceeded to make sure that the needy did not go hungry.

The following year, the famine came to an end and Ephrem, now an old man, died shortly after. The exact date of his death is not known, but June 9, 373 is the date accepted. In “The Testament of St. Ephrem,” we see both the humility and the poetry of this 4th century saint: “Lay me not with sweet spices, For this honor avails me not, Nor yet use incense and perfumes, For the honor befits me not. Burn yet the incense in the holy place; As for me, escort me only with your prayers…instead of perfumes and spices, Be mindful of me in your intentions.”

St. Ephrem’s feast day is June 9th. Pour into our hearts O Lord, we pray, the Holy Spirit, at whose prompting the Deacon Saint Ephrem exulted in singing of your mysteries and from whom he received the strength to serve you alone. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who reigns with you and the Holy Spirit Amen.

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