Doctors of the Church: St. Ephrem the Syrian

Mor_Ephrem_iconOur next saint and Doctor of the Church is one of my personal favorites, St. Ephrem the Syrian. He was born around 306 in Nisibis, which would have been on the southern border of present-day Turkey. Not much is known about his family or young life. Some traditions hold that his parents were both Christians and part of the growing Christian community in Syria, while others say that his father was a pagan priest.

We do know that St. Ephrem served as a deacon in the Church in Edessa. In one of his writings, Ephrem stated that if his bishop was the “shepherd,” then he was the “herdsman” of the flock. He showed a great desire to serve the Church in cooperation with the bishop, even as our deacons at Ascension do today. There is some question whether he at any time lived as a monk, but one thing that is certain is that he lived the monastic virtues of chastity and poverty.

St. Ephrem is a different sort of Doctor of the Church. As we remember that “doctor” primarily means “teacher,” it is very easy to infer that the Doctors were predominantly focused on writing tracts and treatises on doctrine. Ephrem was certainly very knowledgeable and orthodox in his theology, but his primary means of propagating it was through beauty. Certainly, some of his works are commentaries and treatises, as we would expect, but most of his works consist of poetry and hymns. In fact, St. Ephrem even used to write his homilies in verse, and sing them to his congregation (and you thought my homilies could be long!). Thus, Ephrem is fittingly nicknamed the “Harp of the Spirit.”

St. Ephrem’s poetry and hymns are very strong in Incarnational and Marian theology. Proponents of Arianism (which, you might recall, was very influential at the time) would deny Jesus’ divinity, and thus would deny Mary’s dignity as the Mother of God. One collection of Ephrem’s works, therefore, was called the Hymns against the Heresies, in which he would draw from hymns and tunes used by the various heretical sects and change the words to preach orthodoxy! It’s along the same lines as “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee” being drawn from the tune for “God Save the Queen,” but about theology!

Many of his writings against these heresies were very strong in praise of Mary, because praise of Mary is first and foremost praise of Christ. In one of his hymns, St. Ephrem comes very close to articulating the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, which doesn’t seem like a big deal until you consider that it was 1500 years before the doctrine was solemnly declared by Pope Pius IX in 1854!

St. Ephrem certainly helps us grow in our appreciation for the beauty of our faith and the beauty of truth. As we draw to a close, I invite you to reflect on one of his hymns on the Nativity of Jesus:

“The belly of your Mother changed the order of things, O you who order all! Rich he went in, he came out poor: the High One went into her [Mary], he came out lowly. Brightness went into her and clothed himself, and came forth a despised form. He that gives food to all went in, and knew hunger. He who gives drink to all went in, and knew thirst. Naked and bare came forth from her the Clother of all things [in beauty].”

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