“Let prayer within wipe clean the murky thoughts,
let faith wipe clean the senses outwardly,
and let one such man who is divided
collect himself together and become one before You.”
— St. Ephrem the Syrian
Christianity has a long history in the land east of Jerusalem, the land from which Abraham sojourned on his way to what is now Israel. The land where once mighty powers emerged such as the Sumerian, Babylonian, and Assyrian empires. In part due to the Muslim conquests of the seventh century but also due to the vast geographic and cultural distance, many in the west are unaware of the rich spiritual and cultural heritage of the church east of the Holy Land. In the past few years there has been awareness only through tragedy, as we continually witness the destruction of churches and monasteries in Syria and Iraq and the displacement of a Christian population that has existed there for over two millennium.
This long history began soon after the resurrection of Christ as the faith spread from Jerusalem and Antioch east toward Syria and Mesopotamia. As recorded by the church historian Eusebius, the apostle Thomas sent one of the Seventy, a man named Thaddeus, to the city of Edessa in Syria soon after Pentecost to preach the gospel. By the second century, there were enough Christians in Edessa to support the construction of a church.
Thus began the Syriac tradition whose golden age spanned the fourth through eighth century. During this time, great centers of learning flourished in Edessa, Nisibis, and Nineveh. Sacred sites such as the tomb of the prophet Jonah in Nineveh were set apart and venerated by pilgrims. A great number of monasteries and churches were built. Saints such as James of Nisibis, who was one of the 318 Bishops at the First Council of Nicaea in 325, Saint Jacob of Serugh, Saint Isaac the Syrian, and an untold number of great ascetics and martyrs labored for Christ in this land. But of all the saints, none contributed more to this tradition than the one who was there near the start and is today seen as its pillar, Saint Ephrem the Syrian. From his life we can learn much about this time period.
Ephrem was born in the eastern Roman frontier of Mesopotamia during the early fourth century, close to the start of the reign of the Emperor Constantine. His parents lived in the town of Nisibis and there Ephrem also lived for most of his life.
According to several accounts, one night his parents had a dream in which they saw a vine spring up from their son’s tongue. The vine grew until all under the heavens were filled by it. From the vine hung clusters of grapes and all the birds of the sky came and ate of its fruits. His parents no doubt wondered what this could mean, especially in light of their son’s youthful behavior.
As Ephrem later wrote, “I was born in the path of truth, even though in my childhood I was unaware.” For even though born into a Christian family, Ephrem spent his early years in reckless fashion, guided more by prodigal thoughts and a fiery temperament rather than by good judgement. As he later recalled,
“My youth would almost have convinced me that what happens with us in this life occurs but by chance; but the providence of God brought hot-blooded youth to its senses.”
And so according to the providence of God one day a citizen falsely accused Ephrem of stealing sheep. Ephrem sat in prison for days lamenting what he saw as a random and unjust occurrence. But one night while he slept, an angel spoke to him saying that the punishment was due to his many sins and that once freed he should return home and repent. This spurred in him a thorough self-examination and upon release he withdrew to the neighboring hills where several hermits lived. He became the disciple of Saint James and from him learned much about the Bible and the ascetic life.
Several years later James was named the Bishop of Nisibis and Ephrem continued with him as his assistant. Ephrem served first as a reader and then as a deacon and catechetical teacher. Now a devout Christian, Ephrem fully committed himself to a life of service to God and others in the church. He spent much time in study and shared what he learned through teaching and writing. It seems fitting that what remains to this day of Ephrem’s time in Nisibis is the baptismal font where he helped guide many into the faith. It can still be seen in the Church of St. Jacob.
Ephrem is best remembered today as the great poet of the Syriac language — the predominant language in the region and a dialect of middle Aramaic. With Nisibis being a meeting place between east and west, Ephrem’s style developed under the influence of the Mesopotamian literary tradition, Judaism, and Hellenism. His blending of theses influences created works filled with extended metaphors, profound theological insight, and beautiful rhythms. He wrote across genres — including standard and rhythmic prose, versified homilies, narrative and lyric poetry, and a great number of hymns that are still in use today.
His most well known work is the prayer of St. Ephrem, now used in Orthodox church services during Great Lent and no doubt a product of his own repentance and ascetic labor:
“O Lord and Master of my life, give me not the spirit of sloth, idle curiosity, meddling, lust for power and idle talk. But grant unto me, Thy servant, a spirit of chastity, integrity, humility, patience and love. Yea, O Lord and King, grant me to see mine own faults and not to condemn my brother. For blessed art Thou unto the ages of ages. Amen.”
Ephrem probably expected to remain in Nisibis for the rest of his life but in 363 the Emperor Julian died in battle and the peace treaty that followed gave control of Nisibis to the Persians. Ephrem became a refuge in his late 50’s and, along with much of the displaced Christian population, moved some 100 miles further west to Edessa. But even this became a blessing for him as the final decade of his life in Edessa was also his most fruitful period.
In Edessa, Ephrem combated a number of heresies, including those of the Marcionites and Arians. As in Nisibis, he won the love and respect of those he served. He even encouraged women to chant, becoming as St. Jacob calls him a “second Moses for women.”
Ephrem also intensified his asceticism during this period. Although not a monk in the traditional sense, he lived a similar way of life. In the Syrian tradition at this time, organized monasticism such as was seen in the deserts of Egypt and Palestine had not yet fully developed. Rather, many like Ephrem lived in a community of ascetics who remained celibate and devoted to God but also remained active within the church and community. Ephrem spent much time in service to the sick and the poor.
In 373, a great famine plagued Edessa. Ephrem noticed the wealthy hoarding grain and so he challenged them:
“How long will you fail to pay attention to God’s compassion, allowing your wealth to be corrupted, to the condemnation and damnation of your own souls?”
Rightly convicted, they entrusted Ephrem with their grain and he did much in Edessa to feed the hungry and care for the sick during the famine. When the famine ended in 373, he returned to his cell and a month later reposed in peace.
Ephrem left behind a large corpus of writing in Syriac that is still being translated to this day. Though many hymns have been lost, over 400 still remain. Because of the great beauty, eloquence, and wisdom found in his writing, Ephrem is now known as the “harp of the Holy Spirit” … confirming the prophetic dream that his parents once had when he was but a child. His work — like the many clusters of grapes in the dream — fed the faithful in the east and enriched the spiritual and cultural heritage of the Syriac church.
Today, that heritage is being destroyed. As we witness today the stream of refugees from Syria and Iraq, the destruction of churches and holy sites, and the execution of many Christians, let us remember both the long history of the church in this region and also pray for those affected by this great tragedy. Let us continue to remember saints like Ephrem, James, and Isaac, so that even if all that remains in their world is destroyed, we still keep them alive in our memory.
Video produced by Efstratios Papageorgiou
Written by Michael Gavalas