Saturday, 9 April 2011

Ephrem the Syrian

We continue to use the Prayer of Saint Ephrem in prayer during the fast: O Lord and Master of my life, take from me the spirit of sloth, meddling, lust of power, and idle talk. But give rather the spirit of chastity, humility, patience and love to thy servant. Yea, O Lord and King, grant me to see my own transgressions and not to judge my brother, for thou art blessed unto ages of ages. Amen.

Ephrem was born around the year 306 in the city of Nisibis (the modern Turkish town of Nusaybin, on the border with Syria). St James (Mar Jacob), the first Bishop of Nisibis, was appointed in 308 and Ephrem grew up under his leadership of the community. He was baptised as a youth and James appointed him as a teacher. He was ordained as a deacon and began to compose hymns and write biblical commentaries as part of his educational office. Though St. Ephrem was probably not formally a monk, he was known to have practiced a severe ascetical life, ever increasing in holiness. In Ephrem's day, monasticism was in its infancy in Egypt. He seems to have been a part of a closeknit, urban community of Christians that had "covenanted" themselves to service and refrained from sexual activity. Some of the Syriac terms that Ephrem used to describe his community were later used to describe monastic communities, but the assertion that he was monk is probably anachronistic. Ephrem is popularly believed to have taken certain legendary journeys. In one of these he visits St. Basil the Great. This links the Syrian Ephrem with the Cappadocian Fathers, and is an important theological bridge between the spiritual view of the two, who held much in common. Ephrem is also supposed to have visited Abba Bishoi (Pisoes) in the monasteries of the Wadi Natrun, Egypt. As with the legendary visit with Basil, this visit is a theological bridge between the origins of monasticism and its spread throughout the church. The most popular title for Ephrem is Harp of the Spirit (Syriac Kenârâ d-Rûhâ). He is also referred to as the Deacon of Edessa, the Sun of the Syrians and a Pillar of the Church. With the Tradition of the Church, Ephrem also shows that poetry is not only a valid vehicle for theology, but in many ways superior to philosophical discourse. He also encourages a way of reading the Holy Scripture that is rooted in faith more than critical analysis. Ephrem displays a deep sense of the interconnectedness of all created things, which leads some to see him as a "saint of ecology." Over four hundred hymns composed by Ephrem still exist and the church historian Sozomen credits Ephrem with having written over three million lines.