Harp of the Holy Spirit: St. Ephrem, Deacon and Doctor of the Church

Saints Ephrem the Syrian and Bonaventura by Francesc Labarta (1960); Adobe Stock

“In every place you look, [God's] symbol is there … For by Him were created all creatures and He imprinted His symbols upon His possessions when He created the world … This Jesus created so many symbols that I have fallen into them as into the sea!”

By Kimberly Bruce

Saint Ephrem, Deacon and Doctor of the Church, whose feast we celebrate on June 9, was one of the first to use written songs and hymns for Catholic evangelization. Dubbed the “Harp of the Holy Spirit,” the “Column of the Church,” and “Sun of the Syrians,” he is revered not only by Roman Catholics, but by Eastern Orthodox and Syriac Orthodox Christians as well.

Known for his great oratory skills, he never neglected the importance of preaching repentance to sinners nor of expressing God’s great mercy.

A staunch defender of the faith, St. Ephrem chose to combat the plethora of heresies circulating in the fourth century, particularly through his use of song. He authored biblical commentaries, wrote poetry, and composed sacred hymns to evangelize the faithful, as well. The songs that he wrote were filled with sound doctrine to counter the heretical songs in his day. Often, he even used the same melodies for his songs as their popular heretical counterparts! The saint’s songs were based on biblical truths, and he was popular amongst the masses.

Spiritual stream
Born in Nisibis, under Roman rule, in approximately 306 A.D., St. Ephrem’s father was known to be a pagan priest of the goddess Abnil or Abizal. Saint Ephrem was educated under the Bishop of Nisibis (the future St. James of Nisibis) and was baptized. In adulthood, he undertook an austere lifestyle as a hermit, ate little food, and lived quite modestly.

In 363 A.D., he fled to Edessa (modern day Turkey) with many other Christians when the Persians overtook Nisibis and its Christian emperor, Jovian. It was in Edessa that he was ordained a deacon in the Church. He declined becoming a priest and feigned madness to avoid being consecrated. His main love was teaching. He lived a life of radical poverty, and refused ecclesiastical honors.

From St. Ephrem’s mouth was said to flow a “spiritual stream.” A holy elder, who reportedly had a dream about St. Ephrem, said it was revealed to him in his dream that what issued forth from Ephrem’s lips was, indeed, from the Holy Spirit.

Saint Ephrem was known to recognize the hand of God everywhere through symbols indicating Christ’s presence. He saw these “symbols” in Scripture and within creation. Said St. Ephrem, “In every place you look, His symbol is there … For by Him were created all creatures and He imprinted His symbols upon His possessions when He created the world … This Jesus created so many symbols that I have fallen into them as into the sea!”

Later in his life, St. Ephrem took a pilgrimage to Caesarea and sought spiritual direction from the archbishop, St. Basil the Great. It was St. Basil who encouraged St. Ephrem to spend the rest of his life writing and in prayer.

Man of mercy
In both word and action, St. Ephrem was a man of mercy. He described how Adam lost the “robe of glory” through the fall. Our Savior, conversely, “is He who descended, put Adam on and ascended.” He continued, “Blessed be the fruit Who bowed Himself down for our hunger … enriched all of our poverty and filled our need.” His words and hymns recall the Lord’s mercy.

Saint Ephrem’s actions, particularly witnessed at the end of his life, were filled with merciful kindness. During famine, he sought to help those who were starving. When a plague hit his city, he decided to care for the sick, not counting the cost to himself. He contracted the disease, too, and passed from this life in June of 373.

After his death, word of St. Ephrem’s holiness spread. Saint Jerome said of him in his Catalogue of Christians, “Ephraem, deacon of the Church of Edessa, wrote many works [opuscula] in Syriac, and became so famous that his writings are publicly read in some churches after the Sacred Scriptures. I have read in Greek a volume of his on the Holy Spirit … I recognized therein the sublime genius of the man” (De viris illustr., c. cxv).

Saint Ephrem was officially declared a Doctor of the Church by Pope Benedict XV in 1920. And in 2007, during a general audience address, Pope Benedict XVI extolled the saint, saying his hymns and writings are “unparalleled” in their praise of God.

Saint Ephrem, Doctor of the Church, pray for us!
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