This article on Ephrem the Syrian is based on a presentation which Br. Thomas gave in the novices’ Dominican History class. In the first semester, they are expected to study the history of religious life in general, with an eye to Dominican life, and in the second, they will be given an overview of the history of the Order proper.
The name of Ephrem the Syrian, up until very recently, has not been a familiar one in Western Christian devotion or even in notable Western academic work. This is a thoroughly unfortunate fact, because Ephrem the Syrian may be one of the most influential theologians of the Patristic period. He is a significant figure in the history of monastic development, and especially so to the Dominican Order, because many of the developments of monastic life we see in his own history are things which we would later recognize in our own Dominican life; and, in and of itself, the character of his life provides for some fascinating reflection on the importance of preaching in the Church. Ephrem would come to be known as “the Harp of the Spirit” for his remarkable devotion to the True, the Good, and the Beautiful, as they are found in the Divine Person of Our Lord, Who is Truth, Goodness and Beauty Himself.
It is worth noting that Ephrem’s relatively unknown character in the West should be attributed to a general lack of understanding shown by his critics of the fact that, not reading his work in the original Syrian, they were effectively unable to see why he was so important. Translated into English, his verse reads like a slightly poetic theology dispute; but in Syrian, when sung, his verse comes alive in a way much English poetry does not. As a result, he has only within the last century and really the last few decades begun to get the scholarly attention he deserves. Nevertheless, his devotion has happily been kept alive and well in the Syrian strands of Christianity.
Tuning the Harp: The Circumstances of Ephrem’s Growth
Ephrem was born in Nisibis (in modern Turkey, Nusaybin, on the Syrian border) sometime around the year 306. (It is a peril for the modern historian that the exactitude readers of more recent history have come to expect is simply impossible in many cases during the Patristic period; the chroniclers of the time were less concerned with how old a person was than with what they did with the time God gave them.) His parents, according to some indications in his hymns, were Christians of that city; there was a growing Christian community in Nisibis, in part owing to their saintly Bishop, St. Jacob of Nisibis, also known as “Mar Jacob.”
Nisibis had been a Persian city until the year 298, very close to the time of Ephrem’s birth. The Persians were not at all interested in the growing community of Christianity, and were in the habit of exiling and killing Christians found in their own cities, so that the Roman possession of Nisibis under Constantine I (the same Constantine who made Christianity the official religion of Rome) made it possible to plant a Christian community there. Of course, the Edict of Milan, forbidding the persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire, was not signed until 313; the Roman rule was not without its difficulties at the time of Ephrem’s young childhood. Nevertheless, some persecution was to be preferred to wholesale expulsion or slaughter.
Nisibis was, following its unstable political situation, composed of a hodgepodge of cultures. There were Jewish, Persian and Christian communities, and there was perpetual infighting among them. There is probably something to Heraclitus’ statement that “war is the father of all things”, though, because the strife became the purgation that produced great saints (like Mar Jacob and Ephrem) capable of defending the Faith with their words, their deeds and, if necessary, their lives.
Polishing the Pearl: Ephrem’s Early Ministry
Despite the bad feelings which no doubt persisted against the Roman Empire among the large Persian community still at Nisibis, and the concomitant bad feelings toward the Christian community introduced as a side effect of Roman occupation, Ephrem chose to be baptized at either age 18 or 28; the histories are not clear. What is clear is that immediately upon being baptized, he was made a deacon.
This detail is particularly important to us Dominicans, since in addition to the office of baptizing, providing for charitable works, and proclaiming the Gospel, deacons are able to be given the ecclesiastical duty of preaching in the context of the Mass, given a commission to do so for a certain purpose by the Bishop. Ephrem, in other words, was appointed as a communal preacher, and even given a title, “malpana” (or “teacher” in Syriac) which continues to have great significance among Syrians today. And like many Dominicans, he was even a professor! In 350, Mar Jacob founded the School of Nisibis, a sort of proto-university in which theology, philosophy and medicine were taught. (In other words, the perfection of the Faith, the perfection of natural studies, and the care of the body; philosophy was something of a catch-all for all studies according to natural reason even as far back as the time of St. Paul.)
Part of his duties, it is clear, was the instruction of the Christian Faith to the community in Nisibis. But this does not mean at all that he would deliver dry lectures. Ephrem composed a great many beautiful hymns in Syriac, all of which illustrate in poetic meter the beauty and truth of the Word of God, Whom we receive in the written word of the Scriptures and the Sacrament of the Eucharist. He also wrote a number of Scriptural commentaries, expounding in prose the Faith which He received. In other words, what he was doing was preaching, but preaching to the converted.
There is a great misconception nowadays about the character of preaching; when someone is seen to be telling another what to do based on morality, they are said to be “preachy.” Yet preaching is not only the act of admonishing (and even this act is sometimes necessary!) Rather, it is the act of transmitting Christ to another, or, to put it another way, of introducing the soul to its truest beloved. This is precisely what Ephrem did: by composing hymns, he united the truth (the Faith inherent in the hymns) to the goodness (the moral flourishing that taking the hymns to heart provides) and beauty (of the hymns themselves) which really belong to no other context than that Truth Who loved us into existence. This is what we, as Dominicans, ideally strive to do: to unite, in our lives, the true, the good, and the beautiful, as perfectly and integrally as possible, through the observation of the evangelical counsels.
And Ephrem clearly had this in mind, because preaching was not, for him, a mere “9 to 5.” In service of his job of teaching the Faith, he became part of the peculiar monasticism known as “covenanting” which at the time was unique to Syrian Christianity. Members would be known as sons or daughters “of the covenant”; they would observe perpetual celibacy and asceticism of possessions, as well as a loving obedience to their local Church, with which they would work as closely as possible; their poverty was thus subordinated to their obedience, for the purpose of religious perfection. Dominican readers of this part are no doubt nodding their heads, because this is like the understanding of the Dominican Order of the evangelical counsels, on a more universal level. And like the Dominican Order, this (among the men, at least) was subordinated to the purpose of performing spiritual works of mercy: instruct the ignorant, counsel the doubtful, admonish sinners. Thus the members of the “covenant” would devote their lives to study, which feeds all these, and which presents yet another major similarity to the Dominican Order. This was Ephrem’s ministry for the whole time he spent in Nisibis.
Body and Spirit Threatened: Exile and Edessa
Ephrem was not going to remain there permanently. In the year 359, during the tenure of Ephrem’s second Bishop, Vologeses, the now-Emperor Julian the Apostate (who for all his ambition as to the revival of Roman paganism was not adept at reading the many bad omens that appeared surrounding his military attempts) attempted to attack the Persian capital of Ctesiphon. This failed, despite the Roman tactical advantage, in such a way that the Romans were made to retreat along the same road by which they approached; Julian himself was mortally wounded in the retreat. Nisibis, along with a few other cities, was given back to the Persians; this meant death or exile for the Christian population.
Ephrem, being a fairly important leader of the congregation in his own right, led the exodus from Nisibis to the west. They passed through Amida (now Diyarbakir), but had to leave owing to pressure from the impending Persian military advance. Ultimately, they settled in Edessa (modern Sanliurfa). To Ephrem’s dismay, though, Edessa was already haunted by a band of heretics, among them Bardaisan and his son Harmonius. There were Arians, Manicheans, Marcionites, and Bardaisan’s own peculiar heretical strand, the Bardaisanites, and Bardaisan had caught on to Ephrem’s own insight, that music is an effective teaching tool. As a result, Edessa was filled with songs promoting various heresies. Ephrem, seeing this, realized that one must fight fire with fire, and began to compose hymns of his own against the heresies prevalent. The analogy of fire is very fitting, in fact; Bardesan notably claimed that fire pre-existed creation and was in some way Divine in itself, while Ephrem insisted that it was created by God:
If fire and water are Beings and not creatures,
Then before the earth was,
Where were their roots hid?
Whoso would destroy his life,
Opens his mouth to speak concerning everything.
Whoso hateth himself,
And would not circumscribe God,
Holds it great impiety that one should think himself
And if he thinks he has said the last thing
He has reached heathenism,
O Bar-Daisan, Son of the River Daisan,
Whose mind is liquid like his name!
He composed a great many hymns, utterly defeating the heresy in his area and cementing the Syrian Christians in right doctrine. It is practically unavoidable here to make a connection between Ephrem and Dominic. Dominic, upon encountering the ascetical and rigorous appearance of the Albigensians, which made them such effective preachers to the poor in their hatred of the body, decided that he would adopt the same practices – but as a sign of tremendous and sacrificial love for the human, bodily nature which, of all natures, the Word Himself deigned to assume in the Incarnation. Thus he turned the weapons of heretical preaching against the heretics, and so Ephrem did with the heretical hymnody of Edessa, making his mark on nearly all Patristic theology from the area.
Conclusion: A Poet, A Doctor, A Scholar, A Saint
The character of his influence was so marked that in 1920 Pope Benedict XV declared Ephrem a Doctor of the Church (and, notably, the more scholarly editions of Ephrem’s work had not been published at the time.) He deserves the respect and gratitude of the Church for his loving service to the truth, and he points out to us Dominicans the effectiveness of our own way of life, in addition to providing an example of a religious mendicancy ahead of its time. Among the more contemporary praise of Ephrem is the claim by Robert Murray that Ephrem is “the greatest poet of the patristic age and, perhaps, the only theologian-poet to rank beside Dante.” As a Dante fan myself, I would consider myself biased; but to Ephrem’s credit, Dante had the advantage of having read the work of Dominicans.
In light of the recent unrest in his beloved Syria, and especially the persecution of the Christians there, to whom Ephrem devoted his life, it is fitting that we should ask him to intercede on their behalf, and on our own as well.
St. Ephrem, holy preacher, melodious Harp of the Spirit,
You whose heart was tuned to sing the wondrous grace of Christ,
Bring us to the Father. Stir our souls with your song,
O instrument of the Divine Love,
And revive the spirits of God’s faithful through the grace of the Holy Spirit.
Help, we beseech you, your country and your people;
Bring them into the harmony of the Spirit of the Word Incarnate.
Through Jesus Christ Our Lord, Who lives and reigns for ever and ever,