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St. Ephrem the Syrian: “The Harp of the Holy Spirit”

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More than 400 of the hymns written by this 4th-century saint still exist.

A 4th-century saint known as the “Harp of the Holy Spirit” supposedly had an awful voice, but worshiped God in song anyway. In fact, St. Ephrem the Syrian may have been one of the most creative and prolific writers/composers in all of Church history

St. Ephrem came from the city of Nisibis in Mesopotamia. He was born at the beginning of the 4th century and there is some confusion as to his upbringing. Some accounts have him being born to a father who was a pagan priest who kicked Ephrem out of his home when he was a boy. Other accounts say his family was well to do and others say he was born into a family of poor farmers.

Evidence indicates that Ephrem was, indeed, raised by pious parents. Whether they were rich or poor is of no consequence. It also seems that early on in life he was known for having a quick temper and being a bit hasty and impulsive in his decisions. He was accused of stealing a sheep and was thrown into prison. Ironically, of that crime he was actually innocent.

While in his dank cell he realized that the fights he had been getting into and his ongoing thoughtlessness would require repentance and forgiveness. He began to pray. Shortly thereafter, the judge discovered Ephrem’s innocence and released him. He thanked the God above and continued to turn his life around.

Realizing that his freedom was a gift from God, he went into the mountains and joined the hermits. Soon Ephrem came under the influence of the well-known ascetic, St. James of Nisibis, and became one of his disciples. Under the guidance of St. James, Ephrem shed his self-centeredness and developed the virtues of humility and fortitude, and became willing to accept God’s will without question or complaint. Ephrem had thought that everything happened by chance. He finally had realized how wrong he was. Once he turned his life over to God, he never looked back.

St. James educated and nurtured the once unpredictable young man and Ephrem blossomed into a humble monk. St. James soon had Ephrem preaching, teaching and instructing children in the faith. He so highly regarded Ephrem that he took him along to the First Ecumenical Council at Nicea. The year was 325.

Ephrem stayed obedient to St. James until James’ death in the year 338. That is when he went to a monastery near the city of Edessa. There were many ascetics living there and their dwelling places were small caves. The living conditions were harsh and the food they ate was local vegetation. Ephrem never wavered and kept his resolve.

While in Edessa, Ephrem was ordained a deacon but declined to become a priest. He had a true gift as a writer and his words delved deeply into Scripture displaying a great knowledge of this subject. He wrote about redemption and was able to explain realistically the connection between humanity and redemption. It was said that Ephrem’s poetic account of the Last Judgment inspired Dante.

The great historian, Sozomen, credited Ephrem with having written more than three million lines of philosophy, science and theology. However, the most important of his works were the lyrics and hymns he wrote. These hymns were “teaching” hymns and were written to combat early heresies and to defend the faith. They were filled with imagery gleaned from the Bible, tradition and even other religions and philosophies. More than 400 of these hymns still exist.

Ephrem’s most influential work is probably his “Hymns Against Heresies.” These hymns were filled with doctrinal teachings and were written to guide the fledgling Catholic/Christians of the time in the truths of the faith. Ephrem’s main instruction regarded Christ’s human and divine natures.

Ephrem the Syrian is not only venerated in the Roman Catholic Church, but also by Eastern Catholics and the Orthodox, as well as the Anglican Communion. Ephrem is recognized as a saint in all of them and has five separate feast days during the year.

On October 5, 1920, Pope Benedict XV declared St. Ephrem a Doctor of the Church. From one of Ephrem’s hymns comes these words: “You (Jesus) alone and your Mother are more beautiful than any others, for there is no blemish in you nor any stains upon your Mother.” 

Besides being a Doctor of the Church, St. Ephrem is called: “The Sun of the Syrians,” “Pillar of the Church,” and, most importantly, “The Harp of the Holy Spirit.” Quite the accomplishment for one poor hermit. 

St Ephrem, please pray for all of us.

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