Saint Ephraem, who hails from the eastern lung of the Church, was born in Nisibis in Mesopotamia in the year 306 A.D. He was instructed in the mysteries of the Christian faith by Saint Jacob, Bishop of Nisibis, and at the age of eighteen was baptized by him as well. After his baptism, he traveled with St. Jacob to the first ecumenical council of the church in 325 A.D. – the Council of Nicaea.
At the death of St. James, three different men succeeded him as bishop; St. Ephraem found favor with all three and is thought to have run a school, which he founded with St. Jacob, for the three bishops over a variety of years. During these years in Nisibis, the Persians tried to capture the city a variety of times. As these attacks were occurring over many years, Ephraem wrote his Nisibene Hymns about the war the city endured, the defense of the city, and the eventual final defense of the city in 350 A.D. Finally, after thirteen years of attacking the city, and through the negotiation of Emperor Jovian, the city of Nisibis was taken by the Persians. Many of the Christians left the city and fled to nearby regions where they found refuge.
Along with the Christians, Ephraem left and found a new home in a cave overlooking Edessa. In this cave, he lived the life similar to a monastic, eating small amounts of barley bread and vegetables. While living in this cave, his life was very ascetic. We know that he was a small man. His skin was wrinkled and dry, possibly from the exposure to the elements. The clothes he wore were dirty and filled with holes. He often cried and rarely laughed.
Along with the many great spiritual works, which were composed through a synthesis of theology and poetry, he also was a profound preacher. He was often found in Edessa preaching and teaching the people about the great mysteries of the faith. On top of his great spiritual works, he also wrote many sacred songs for use in the liturgy. He was able to substitute his magnificent sacred hymns through a woman’s choir for the gnostic hymns that found their way into the church.
Below is an excerpt of his hymn titled, On the Nativity of Christ –
The Lord entered her, and became a servant; the Word entered her, and became silent within her; thunder entered her, and his voice was still; the Shepherd of all entered her; he became a Lamb in her, and came forth bleating.
The belly of your Mother changed in order of things, O you who order all! Rich he went in, he came out poor: the High One went into her [Mary], he came out lowly. Brightness went into her and clothed himself, and came forth a despised form…
He that gives food to all went in, and knew hunger. He who gives drink to all went in, and knew thirst. Naked and bare came forth from her the Clother of all things [in beauty].
Later in his life, Saint Ephraem was ordained to the diaconate. As a deacon of the church, he embraced poverty and virginity. Although some claim that he was elevated to the priesthood, it seems that because of his humility, he never desired such a role in the church. It is because of this claim that he has always been known as St. Ephraem the Deacon.
In the year 370 A.D., Ephraem took a trip from Edessa to Caesarea to visit the Cappadocian Father, St. Basil – the Father of Eastern Monasticism. Ephraem had heard many wonderful things about Basil and desired to meet him.
A few years before his death, a massive famine and plague broke out in the area and Ephraem was forced to care for the poor and suffering like no time in his life before. He gave out large sums of money to the poor and developed the means to raise more money for the continual distribution that was needed. He organized a relief service that built 300 litters to carry the sick. In 373 A.D., he died of the same plague in which he cared for so many.
St. Ephraem the Deacon was a famous teacher, preacher, poet, and defender of the faith. He is the only deacon and Syrian to be named a Doctor of the Church. Because of his many great hymns and homilies given to the Church, both Catholics and Orthodox call him the “Harp of the Holy Ghost.” In the Latin Church, his feast day is celebrated on June 9.
This blog post is dedicated to the Syrian Christians who continue to suffer each day and those who have been martyred for believing in Jesus Christ. May the Theotokos protect you and keep you safe in her bosom always leading you to Our Lord and Savior.
This post is also dedicated to the Diocese of Phoenix Diaconate Cohorts 2014, 2016, and 2018.
Benedict XVI, Pope. Church Fathers. Ignatius Press., 2008.
Hoever, Rev. Hugo. Lives of the Saints. Catholic Book Publishing Co., 1989.
Walsh, Michael. Butler’s Lives of the Saints. HarperSanFrancisco, 1991.