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SAINT EPHRAEM

Confessor and Doctor of the Church, c.306-373

 IT is hard to imagine a more pleasant way of fighting heresy than by singing it down, which is more or less the method used by Saint Ephraem in the fourth century. He was a deacon of the Church in the Mesopotamian city of Edessa, at a time when various gnostic sects were spreading erroneous doctrines by means of simple verses set to popular tunes. Ephraem, who appreciated music but not heresy, promptly wrote the words for a counter-barrage of orthodox hymns ,and had people sing them in the churches. This proved to be a surprisingly effective technique for combating heretical influences, and it also permanently established hymn-singing as a church practice. Many of Ephraem's hymns, which he wrote in Syriac, are still used in the Syrian Church.

 Ephraem had come to Edessa from Nisibis, the place where he was born about 306, after his native town had been surrendered by the Romans to the Persians. One account relates that his parents were Christians. Another says that his father was a priest in the cult of the pagan god Abnil, and had turned Ephraem out of the family home when he became a Christian.

 The bishop of Nisibis gave him refuge and provided for his intellectual and spiritual formation. In due time, he became a teacher and a deacon and in this capacity assisted the bishop until the Persians came into power. Christians had little chance of survival in Nisibis under the pagan Persian government.

 Ephraem took up residence in Edessa in 363. This city was under Roman government, which since Constantine's time had granted tolerance and even support to Christians. At first Ephraem worked as an attendant in the public baths to support himself, but soon followed the counsels of a monk he had met and retired to a desert area to live a monastic life. He chose a cave for his dwelling; austere solitude, not isolation, was his aim, and he kept in close contact with the Christians in the city. He founded in the city a school of theology for the Persian Christians who fled from their pagan persecutors. From his pen came a great mass of writing--scriptural commentaries, moral, theological, and apologetic works-most of it, except the commentaries, in verse. Ephraem may not have been the finest poet of antiquity, but the human warmth and love that he put into his treatment of the tenets of the faith gave his works a lasting attractiveness; his own people, who loved both him and his writings, gave him his title of "the Harp of the Holy Spirit."

 Not much is known of Ephraem's last years; he seems to have made a trip westward in 370, to visit Saint Basil the Great in Caesarea, and in 373 he led the organization of relief services during a severe famine in Edessa. The latter work probably exhausted his energies, for he lived only about a month after returning to his cave that year. Not so familiar to Western Christians as the other Eastern saints of renown, Ephraem nevertheless remains one of the truly prominent figures of the early Church, a fact given recognition in 1920, when Pope Benedict XV declared him a Doctor of the Church.

 

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