Saint of the Day: St. Ephraim the Syrian

(Welcome to our Saint of the Day series! Each weekday, we present you with an excerpt from Fr. George Poulos' Orthodox Saints series, published by Holy Cross Orthodox Press.Today's saint, St. Demetrios of Constantinople, comes from Volume 1 of the series.)

Saint Ephraim the Syrian

One saint whose holiness of life was recognized unanimously by every sector of Christendom was a humble Syrian named Ephraim. He is revered not only by the Orthodox Church, but also by the Roman Catholic and the Eastern Rite of Syria as well. Although he was born in Syria in 306, Ephraim’s impact on the Christian religion was such that sixteen centuries later, in 1920, Pope Benedict XV decreed that this pious Syrian be listed among the “Fathers of the Church.” This is a distinction which is reserved for the most deserving of the untold numbers who have toiled in the service of Christ. This unheralded and relatively unknown saint left a legacy of prose and lyrical hymns which are treasured by the Orthodox Church. Ephraim’s prayers and hymns are as much a part of the worship of the Church as are the icons themselves.

Although Ephraim’s father was reported to have been a pagan priest, he evidently did not object when Ephraim’s mother embraced the Christian faith. Thus, even though his father was a pagan priest, Ephraim was raised as a Christian. In spite of this difficult and sometimes embarrassing situation, Ephraim became completely absorbed in the study of the Christian faith with such dedication and objectivity as to place him among the Fathers of Christianity. 

The intellectual powers of Ephraim came to the fore when he was a student of Bishop Iakovos, a teacher with considerable influence in the city of Nisibus, Syria. Bishop Iakovos delighted in the literary and musical talent of his gifted pupil and fellow Syrian and greatly encouraged him.

After intensive study of all fields of knowledge, including philosophy, theology and hymnology, Ephraim turned to creative efforts in literature and music. This established him as one of the most gifted and prolific contributors to sacred expression in the annals of the Christian Church. Not one to stray from his high purpose, Ephraim did not turn from his creative work in order to acquire a mastery of other languages. As a result, all his masterful dissertations and beautiful hymns had to be translated from the Syrian tongue.

Tonsured as a monk by his friend and confidant, Bishop Iakovos, he was eventually ordained a deacon. Despite this prominence in church affairs, he chose no advancement in the hierarchy, preferring the monastic life which afforded him greater opportunity to express himself in word and in song.

Ephraim was reported to have attended the First Ecumenical Synod in Nicaea (325) with Bishop Iakovos. Later he became director of a Syrian theological school, where his genius as teacher, lecturer, writer and hymnographer earned him a worldwide reputation.

When the persecution of Christians intensified in 363, he was forced to seek refuge in the community of Edessa on the banks of the Euphrates. There he continued to develop his creative talents for the glory of God and consequently the people of Edessa referred to him as “The Lyre of the Holy Spirit.” The quiet reticence of St. Ephraim might have kept him out of the public eye, but in his case he was so immersed in the all-consuming light that emanates from a divine gaze that he was unquestionably among the leading Orthodox theologians of his time.

Throughout his lifetime Ephraim continued to write works of poetic beauty in which he expressed his Christian faith. Furthermore, according to St. Gregory of Nyssa, Ephraim had “written commentaries on the Old and New Testament with such insight and wisdom as had no other Father of the Church.” Among those who concurred with this opinion was St. Gregory’s brother, St. Basil. In spite of the accolades which he received during his own lifetime for his great accomplishments in Christian expression, Ephraim preferred the simplicity of monasticism, eschewing the pomp and trappings of high office. He died on January 28, 373.

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