June 9 – Ephrem the Syrian

These weekly “People to Commemorate” posts are a kind of calendar for the commemoration of the saints, reproduced here from a Uniting Church Assembly document which can be found in full here. They are intended for copying and pasting into congregational pew sheets on the Sunday closest to the nominated date.

Images (where provided) are of icons by Peter Blackwood; click on the image to download a high resolution copy of the image.


Ephrem the Syrian, person of prayer

Ephrem has justly been described as the greatest poet of the Early Church.  He wrote in Syriac, a dialect of Aramaic (the language spoken by Jesus), and for most of his life served as a deacon in Nisibis on the eastern border of the Roman Empire.  Ten years before his death in 373 he became a refugee when his town was transferred to the Persian Empire. He ended up in Edessa (modern Sanliurfa in SE Turkey), where he is recorded as having organised food for the poor during a famine shortly before he died.  A considerable number of his poems survive, along with a few prose works, which include Commentaries on Genesis and on a Harmony of the four Gospels.  Most of the poems are stanzaic and were intended to be sung; a later poet, Jacob of Serugh, has a delightful poem describing how Ephrem introduced the practice of having choirs of women (some of his poems are in fact written in the voice of women).  These poems survive in a number collections of varying sizes, ranging from 4 to 87 poems; the collections have general titles, but only rarely (as in the case of the collection ‘On Paradise’) do these correspond to all the poems in them. Thus the large collection ‘On Faith’ ends with a small group of five poems ‘on the Pearl’ and its symbolism.   Two of his narrative poems were translated into Greek (and thence into other languages):  one is on Jonah and the Repentance of Nineveh, while the other is on the Sinful Woman who anointed Jesus (based on Luke 7), where Ephrem introduces into the narrative the Seller of Unguents; a motif picked up in many subsequent literary treatments of the episode.

Besides being a highly accomplished and original poet who uses some fifty different metres with great skill, Ephrem was also a profound theologian, who found poetry a much more satisfactory vehicle than prose for conveying his theological vision of the relationship between the material and spiritual world, and the elaborate spider’s web of multi-dimensional interconnections that a person the interior eye of whose heart is pure and luminous has the possibility of discovering in both Nature and Scripture.

Although Ephrem’s fame as a poet soon spread to the Greek- and Latin-speaking world (in a work of 392 Jerome mentions him), it was only in the sixth century that a biographical account of his life was written.  Since the author wished to present Ephrem to a sixth-century audience he presents him as it were in modern dress:  thus instead of a deacon he has become a monk, and he is credited with visiting both St Basil (in Cappadocia) and St Bishoi (in Egypt).  Though without any historically basis, these episodes can be said to be symbolically true, in that Ephrem’s spirituality has much in common with that of the Cappadocian and Egyptian Fathers.

Sebastian Brock


For further reading:

The Harp of the Spirit:  Poems of St Ephrem the Syrian, Introduction and translation by S.P. Brock (3rd edition, Cambridge [UK]: Aquila, 2013).

St Ephrem the Syrian: Hymns on Paradise, Introduction and translation by S.P. Brock (Crestwood NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1990).

Ephrem the Syrian, Hymns, Introduced and translated by K.E. McVey (Classic of Western Spirituality;  New York/Mahwah: Paulist Press, 1989).

S.P. Brock, The Luminous Eye. The Spiritual World Vision of St Ephrem (Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications, 1992).