In the fourth century, Christianity emerges from the catacombs, and illustrious saints mark history. Saint Ephrem, the Syrian; deacon and Doctor of the Church, was one of them.
Newsdesk (June 8, 2021 18:10, Gaudium Press) We have little reliable data about his childhood. According to some of his biographers, his mother was a Christian. But his father, a pagan priest, forbade her to educate him according to the laws of the Gospel. However, he could not prevent a deep inclination for Christianity from blossoming in the boy’s soul, so he threw him out of the house.
Disciple of a Bishop and Saint
Ephrem went then to the bishop, Saint James, who welcomed him as a son. He imparted to him a deep catechetical formation and baptized him. The Saint noticed with joy how much the boy excelled for his intelligence and wisdom. Therefore, when he was 18 years old, he ordained him to the diaconate.
Shortly after, between May and June of 325, the First Council of Nicaea took place. That was a historical landmark in the fight against the insidious doctrines of Arius. Saint James participated in it, and some believe that the young deacon also attended as secretary to the holy bishop.
When the assembly was over, Ephrem began to give classes in the theological school that opened in Nisibis. The school was a way to combat the heresies that proliferated in those streets and squares.
He dedicated his body and soul to this task. In a short time, he succeeded in raising the level of his students’ education. With great discernment and wisdom, he waged an unrelenting battle in defense of the true Faith. The result did not take long: many souls returned to the path of salvation.
The three sieges of Nisibis
Ephrem’s reputation for sanctity was growing, as well as the admiration of his fellow citizens. Meanwhile, Sapor II, a Persian king, an enemy of the Cross of Christ, was anxious to take the city from the hands of the Romans. He tried three times to besiege it, and all three times, the Christians repelled him. During one of these sieges, the people witnessed Deacon Ephrem climb the city walls and resolutely trace a big sign of the Cross, with which he cursed the troops of the invading king.
Then, as if guided by an invisible hand, clouds of flies and other insects swarmed over the enemy army. They entered the trunks of elephants, the ears and nostrils of war horses and beasts of burden, and caused such a commotion that the troops had to retreat.
The arrogant military efforts of the Persians failed to succeed. But a few years later, Emperor Jovian effortlessly handed over to them the land as part of the price of a peace treaty.
The Christians, forced to choose between exile, slavery, or death at the hands of the pagans, had to leave their land.
Theology and poetry converge
Ephrem left for Edessa and settled in a cave on a nearby cliff. He was determined to dedicate himself entirely to contemplation and asceticism.
In this privileged place, he wrote most of his works. They were all of great theological wealth and adorned with a peculiarity: poetry.
It didn’t take long for the ecclesiastics of Edessa to notice the uncommon wisdom and holiness of that hermit. They soon invited him to establish the developing theological school in the city. Seeing the devastation caused to its inhabitants by the heretical sects that abounded there, the holy ascetic accepted.
Thus began a new stage in his apostolate. In a short time, he gathered numerous disciples, to whom he committed himself to give a solid formation.
Scitarist of the Holy Spirit and bard of Mary
The struggle of the holy deacon against heresies was not easy, and the initial results were few. However, the Saint continued without losing heart and, inspired by the Holy Spirit. He found an effective means to propagate doctrine in the dispute against the heretics: through the liturgy.
Full of eloquence, wisdom, and sanctity, he composed poetry and songs. They were filled with beauty, doctrinal richness, and supernatural unction and sung in the assemblies.
He gathered a group of Christian virgins, favored by exceptional musical gifts, and taught them to recite the poems and sing the hymns he had composed. Soon, these poems and songs resounded melodiously throughout the city.
In this way, the perfume of evangelical teachings spread to all corners of Edessa. Although his verses were simple and accessible to the people, they were to be sung by the whole world. They had such charm, beauty, and density of doctrine that St. Ephrem has passed into Church history as the zither of the Holy Spirit.
He often directed these magnificent poetic and musical gifts to a luminous Star that shone with a special brightness in Ephrem’s mind and heart: Mary Most Holy.
He nurtured a deep and tender devotion for her, which accompanied him at every step. Ephrem composed countless prayers and melodies in praise of the Virgin Mother. They proclaimed, already in those remote times, the glories and privileges of Mary that the infallible Magisterium of the Church would later define.
The meeting of two great saints
Along with St. Ephrem, three other great luminaries of the Church’s history, the Cappadocian Fathers, shone at this time: St. Basil the Great, St. Gregory of Nyssa, and St. Gregory Nazianzen. These were three bishops who dedicated their lives to defend the flock under their care from the errors of heresy as the Deacon of Edesa did.
Echoes of the fame of sanctity of one of them, St. Basil, reached Ephrem. He undertook a long trip to Caesarea of Cappadocia to meet him personally.
And the holy bishop, for his part, was filled with enthusiasm on seeing the glowing holiness of his visitor. From this meeting came a close friendship that united the two men of God forever.
Several times Basilio wanted to ordain the deacon as a priest and even raise him to the dignity of a bishop. But the bishop did not succeed because Saint Ephrem considered himself unworthy of such a high ministry.
A splendor that spread throughout the world
Around the year 378, God sent Ephrem one last trial, intended to magnificently crown his entire life of tireless struggle on behalf of the Holy Church.
A terrible plague ravaged Edessa. It brought many of its inhabitants to eternity and left many others prostrate on their beds of pain.
These circumstances opened up a new battlefield for the holy deacon, one in which he would generously consecrate himself to Christ: the care of the sick.
He, who up to then had done much for souls, began to take care of bodies as well. He dedicated himself with admirable commitment to the hard work of helping those unfortunate people.
He attended to their needs, encouraged them in their sufferings, comforted them in their anguish. Untiring in such charitable work, one morning, he felt the symptoms of the plague within himself. Within him, the voice of Our Lord Jesus Christ was calling him to receive in Heaven the “prize too great” (Gen 15:1).
Overcome by grief, his disciples assisted him during the illness. Already on the threshold of death, the holy teacher gives them one last lesson.
He asked them that instead of funeral honors, they should offer something much more valuable: holy prayers. That is the sweet aroma of the spiritual incense that rises to God in favor of his soul. It is the greatest good for the one who stands before the divine judgment.
Thus Ephrem crowned a life marked by the complete surrender in favor of the true doctrine, the salvation of souls, and finally, the glorification of the Holy Catholic Church.
Text adapted from the magazine Heralds of the Gospel n.162, June 2015.