Harp of the Holy Spirit: The Life of Saint Ephrem the Syrian

February 19, 2020 0 By William Hollis


Christianity has a long history in the
land east of Jerusalem. The land from which Abraham sojourned on his way to
what is now Israel. the land where once mighty power is emerged such as the
Sumerian Babylonian and Assyrian empires in part due to the Muslim conquests of
the seventh century but also due to the vast Geographic and cultural distance
many in the West are unaware of the rich spiritual and cultural heritage of the
church east of the Holy Land in the past few years there has been awareness only
through tragedy as we continually witness the destruction of churches and
monasteries in Syria and Iraq and the displacement of a Christian population
that has existed there for over two millennium this long history began soon after the
resurrection of Christ as faith spread from Jerusalem and Antioch east toward
Syria and Mesopotamia as recorded by the church historian of Savio’s the Apostle
Thomas sent one of the seventy a man named Thaddeus to the city of Edessa and
Syria soon after Pentecost to preach the
gospel by the second century there were enough Christians in Odessa to support
the construction of a church thus began the Syriac tradition whose golden age
spanned the fourth through eighth centuries during this time great centers
of learning flourished in Odessa miss IBAs and Nineveh sacred sites such as
the tomb of the prophet Jonah and Nineveh were set apart and venerated by
pilgrims a great number of monasteries and churches were built saints such as
James of naseeb as’ who was one of the three hundred and eighteen bishops at
the first Council of Nicaea and 325 st. Jacob of Sarov Saint Isaac the Syrian
and an untold number of great ascetics and martyrs laboured for Christ in this
land but of all the saints none contributed more to this tradition than
the one who was there near the start and is today seen as its pillar Saint Ephrem
the Syrian from his life we can learn much about this time period efrem was born in the Eastern Roman
frontier of Mesopotamia during the early fourth century close to
the start of the reign of the Emperor Constantine his parents lived in the
town of Macias and their Ephraim also lived for most of his life according to
several accounts one night his parents had a dream in which they saw a vine
spring up from their sons tongue the vine grew until all under the heavens
were filled by it from the vine hung clusters of grapes and all the birds of
the sky came in eight of its fruits his parents no doubt wondered what this
could mean especially in light of their son’s youthful behavior as Ephraim later
wrote I was born in the path of truth even though in my childhood I was
unaware for even though born into a Christian family Ephraim spent his early
years in reckless fashion guided more by prodigal thoughts and a fiery
temperament rather than by good judgment as he later recalled my youth would
almost have convinced me that what happens with us in this life occurs but
by chance but the Providence of God brought hot blooded youth to its senses
and so according to the Providence of God one day a citizen falsely accused
Ephraim of stealing sheep Ephraim sat in prison for days lamenting what he saw as
a random and unjust occurrence but one night while he slept an angel spoke to
him saying that the punishment was due to his many sins and that once freed he
should return home and repent this spurred in him a thorough
self-examination and upon release he withdrew to the neighboring hills where
several Hermits lived he became the disciple of st. James and from him
learned much about the Bible and the ascetic life several years later James
was named Bishop of Miss IBAs and Ephraim continued with him as his
assistant Ephraim served first as a reader and then as a deacon and
catechetical teacher now a devout Christian Ephraim fully committed
himself to a life of service to God and others in the church he spent much time
and study and shared what he learned through teaching and writing ephraim is
best remembered today as the great poet of the Syriac language the predominant
language in the region and a dialect of Middle Aramaic with Miss IBAs being a
meeting place between East and West Ephraim style developed under the
influence of the Mesopotamian literary tradition Judaism and Hellenism his
blending of these influences created works filled with extended metaphors
profound theological insight and beautiful rhythms he wrote across genres including
standard and rhythmic prose versified homilies narrative and lyric poetry and
a great number of hymns that are still in use today his most well-known work is the prayer
of Saint Ephrem now used in Orthodox Church services during Great Lent and no
doubt a product of his own repentance and ascetic labor Oh Lord and Master of
my life give me not the spirit of sloth idle
curiosity meddling lust for power and idle talk
but grant unto me thy servant a spirit of chastity integrity humility patience
and love yay Oh Lord and king grant me to see my
known faults and not to condemn my brother for blessed art thou unto the
ages of Ages all men Ephraim probably expected to remain in Missy bus for the
rest of his life but in 363 the Emperor Julian died in battle and the peace
treaty that followed gave control of naseeb as’ to the Persians Ephraim
became a refugee in his late 50s and along with much of the displaced
Christian population moved some 100 miles further west to Odessa
but even this became a blessing for him as the final decade of his life in
Odessa was also his most fruitful period in Edessa Ephraim combated a number of
heresies including those of the Martian nights and Aryans as in Macias he won
the love and respect of those he served he even encouraged women to chant
becoming as Saint Jacob calls him a second Moses for women Ephraim also
intensified his asceticism during this period although not a monk in the
traditional sense he lived a very similar way of life in the Syrian
tradition at this time organized monasticism such as was seen in the
deserts of Egypt and Palestine had not yet fully developed rather many like
Ephraim lived in a community of ascetics who remained celibate and devoted to God
but also remained active within the church and community Ephraim spent much
time in service to the sick and the poor in 373 a great famine plagued Edessa
Ephram noticed the wealthy hoarding grain and so he challenged them how long
will you fail to pay attention to God’s compassion allowing your wealth to be
corrupted to the condemnation and damnation of your own Souls rightly
convicted they entrusted Efrem with their grain and he did much in Edessa
to feed the hungry and care for the sick during the famine when the famine ended
in 373 he returned to his cell and a month later reposed in peace Ephram left behind a large corpus of
writing in Syriac that is still being translated to this day though many hymns
have been lost over 400 still remain because of the great beauty eloquence
and wisdom found in his writing Ephram is now known as the harp of the Holy
Spirit confirming the prophetic dream that his parents once had when he was
but a child his work like the many clusters of grapes in the dream fed the
faithful in the east and enriched the spiritual and cultural heritage of the
syriac church today that heritage is being destroyed as we witness the stream
of refugees from Syria and Iraq the destruction of churches and holy sites
and the execution of many Christians let us remember both the long history of the
church in this region and also pray for those affected by the great tragedy let
us continue to remember saints like ephraim james and isaac so that even if
all that remains in their world is destroyed we still keep them alive in
our memory