St. Ephraim the Syrian

Although St. Ephraim is commemorated before the beginning of Great Lent, he is more particularly remembered during this time in connection with the well-known prayer he composed:

” O Lord and Master of my life, take from me the spirit of sloth, despair, 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 blessed art Thou, unto ages of ages. Amen.”

This is recited repeatedly in the daily Lenten cycle of services, as it should also be by Orthodox faithful in their private morning and evening prayers throughout this Lenten period. The prayer may be said to capsulize the teaching of this eloquent Holy Father of the Church, who left several volumes of spiritually instructive writings which merited high praise from his illustrious contemporaries, St. Basil the Great and his brother St. Gregory of Nyssa.

The life of St. Ephraim is perhaps no less instructive. St. Ephraim was born early in the fourth century in the ancient city of Nisibis in Mesopotamia, where the Roman Empire bordered on the Persian Kingdom. At one time Mesopotamia belonged to Syria and for this reason St. Ephraim is known as “the Syrian.” He was born of Christian parents before the Edict of Milan was issued (313), establishing official toleration of religion, and, as he later wrote, his ancestors “confessed Christ before the judge; I am related to martyrs.”

When he was still a baby, his parents had a prophetic dream: from the boy’s tongue sprang a lush vine which produced abundant clusters of grapes. The more the birds ate the fruit, the more it multiplied. Later it was revealed that these clusters were his sermons, the leaves of the vine–his hymns.

Remember not O Lord the sins of my youth. (Ps. 25:7)

Judging from his youth, however, one could never have guessed his future greatness. In spite of his parents’ having educated him in Christian precepts, he was impetuous and even rather wild, like an unruly colt which resists the bridle: “I would quarrel over trifles, act foolishly, give in to bad impulses and lustful thoughts …. My youth nearly convinced me that life is ruled by chance. But God’s Providence brought my impassioned youth to the light of wisdom.”

He relates the story of his conversion: “One day my parents sent me out of town and I found a pregnant cow feeding along the road. I took up stones and began pelting the cow, driving it into the woods till evening when it fell down dead. During the night it was eaten by wild beasts. On my way back, I met the poor owner of the cow. ‘My son,’ he asked, ‘did you drive away my cow?’ I not only denied it, but heaped abuse and insult upon the poor man.”

A few days later he was idling with some shepherds. When it grew too late to return home, he spent the night with them. That night some sheep were stolen and the boy was accused of being in league with the robbers. He was taken before the magistrate and cast into prison. In a dream an angel appeared to Ephraim and asked him why he was there. The boy began at once to declare that he was, innocent. “Yes,” said the angel, “you are innocent of the crime imputed to you, but have you forgotten the poor man’s cow?”

When Ephraim saw the tortures to which criminals were subjected, he became terrified. He turned to God and vowed that he would become a monk if God would spare him such a cruel ordeal. The magistrate, however, just laughed at the youth’s tears and ordered that he be stretched on the rack. But just then a servant came to announce that dinner was ready. “Very well,” said the magistrate, “I will examine the boy another day.” And he ordered him back to prison. Providentially, the next time the magistrate saw Ephraim, he thought he had been punished enough and dismissed him. Although he was spared the rack, Ephraim had learned his lesson and, like the Prophet David, he entreated the Lord to overlook his youthful folly. True to his vow, upon his release he went straightway to the hermits living in the mountains where he became a disciple of St. James (Jan. 12), who later became a great bishop of Nisibis.

Born again in repentance

St. James recognized his disciple’s God given talents, and as a bishop he entrusted Ephraim with preaching the Word of God and instructing children in school. In 325 he took Ephraim with him to the First Ecumenical Council in Nicea. Returning to Nisibis, Ephraim continued with his missionary work until 363 when the Persians conquered the city and most of its Christian inhabitants departed.

Born again in repentance, Ephraim began to train as an athlete of virtues, exorcizing himself in the study of the Holy Scriptures and in prayer and fasting. The passionate and wayward youth was transformed into a humble and contrite monk, weeping day and night for his sins and entirely surrendered to God. Ephraim’s earnest resolve pleased the Lord Who rewarded him with the gifts of wisdom; grace flowed from his mouth like a sweet stream, in fulfillment of his parents’ dream.

Ephraim decided to go to the city of Edessa around which monastic life was flourishing. He prayed that there the Lord would send to meet him a man who could converse with him on the Holy Scriptures for his spiritual profit. Upon entering the city gates, he was met by a woman. Disappointed, he turned mentally to God: “Lord, Thou hast disregarded Thy servant’s prayer. For how can she converse with me on Biblical wisdom?” The woman only stared at him. “Why, O woman, are you standing there staring at me?“ asked the Saint. “I am looking at you,” she replied, “because woman is taken from man, but you should look not at me but at the earth from which you were taken.” Ephraim was astonished at the woman’ s reply and gave thanks to God Who had answered his prayer in granting him this soul-profiting lesson.

In Edessa, Ephraim earned a humble living in the service of a bath keeper. He used his free time in preaching the Word of God to the unbelievers. Angered’ by Ephraim’s successes, the devil set his traps to catch the servant of God. Once, for example, as the Saint was preparing his dinner, a woman gazing from the window of an adjacent dwelling conceived a desire to seduce him. “Bless me, sir,” she shouted at him. “The Lord bless you,” replied the Saint. “What do you need for your food?” she continued. Discerning the true purpose of her conversation, Ephraim answered, “Three stones and some sand to block up your window.” “I want to lie with you,” said the woman shamelessly, “but you are refusing from the first word.” “In that case ,” replied Ephraim, “you cannot do so in any other place than the middle of the city.” “Shall we not be ashamed of the people?” asked the harlot, surprised. “if we are ashamed of men ,” the Saint replied, “how much more ought we to be ashamed of, and also to fear God Who knows all the secrets of men! For He will judge the whole world and will reward everyone according to his deeds.” By God’s grace his words moved the harlot to repentance and she begged him to guide her to the path of salvation. Having received from him basic instruction in the Christian Faith, she entered a convent.

After living for some time in Edessa, the Saint was advised by a holy elder to go into the wilderness. He settled in a cave of the nearby “Mount of Edessa,” where he gave himself up to prayer, fasting and the study of Holy Scripture. There occurred an incident which illustrates the Saint’s dispassion. Once, after a long fast, his disciple was bringing him a meal, when the dish of food fell and broke. Seeing the brother’s shame and consternation, the Saint said simply: “Never mind, if the food will not come to us, we shall go to the food.” He sat down on the ground by the broken dish and proceeded to eat the meal as well as he could. It was said of him that although he was naturally prone to passion, he never exhibited angry feelings towards anyone from the time of his embracing the monastic life.

St. Ephraim once had a revelation regarding St. Basil the Great. He saw in a vision a pillar of fire reaching to heaven, and he heard a voice: “Ephraim, Ephraim! Such as you see this pillar of fire, so, too, is Basil!”

The vision inspired Ephraim with the desire to see this great Teacher of the Church, and, taking with him an interpreter (for he spoke no Greek), he journeyed to Caesarea in Cappadocia. There the holy hierarch greeted the desert-dweller with a corresponding enthusiasm and admiration: “I now see that what I heard about you is true. . . It is written in the Prophet David: Ephraim is the strength of my head (Ps. 59:9). These prophetic words refer truly to you, for you have led many to [he way of virtue and strengthened them in it. And your meekness and dispassion of heart shin e for all, like the light.”

Then Basil the Great asked:

“Why, venerable father, do you not receive consecration to the order of priesthood, as befits you?”

“Because I am a sinner, my lord!” answered Ephraim through the interpreter.

“O, if only I had your sins!” said Basil, and added: “Let us make a prostration to the ground.”

Consecrated to the Diaconate by St. Basil the Great

But when they were bowed to the ground, St. Basil laid his hand on St. Ephraim’s head and recited the prayer of consecration to the diaconate. That is how St. Ephraim was made a deacon. He was at that time about sixty years old.

It was the Saint’s desire to continue in the hermetic life, hut such was his talent as a preacher that the Lord would not have his light hidden under a bushel. Obedient to the Lord’s will as revealed to him by an angel, Ephraim returned to Edessa where he began again to instruct people in the Faith. There he also established a college which later produced many teachers of the Syrian Church.

When the heretic Apollinaris was creating havoc in the Church with his erroneous teaching concerning the nature of Christ at His Incarnation, St. Ephraim tricked Apollinaris’ servant into lending him the two books in which these teachings were set forth. After gluing all the pages together, he returned the books to the unsuspecting servant and then challenged Apollinaris to a public debate. When Apollinaris Found himself unable to open his books to quote from them, he became thoroughly confused and retired in shame. His heresy soon died out.

Not only was St. Ephraim an eloquent and powerful teacher, he was also a prolific writer. Although he lacked a formal education, he comprehended with ease the most abstruse problems of philosophy, and his commentaries On the Old Testament books of Moses impressed even the most scholarly men of his time. But if his writings spoke to the mind, they were more greatly to be praised for the effect they had on the soul. As St. Gregory of Nyssa writes:

“Who that is proud would not become the humblest of men, reading his discourse on humility? Who would not be influenced with a divine fire, reading his discourse on charity? Who would not wish to be chaste in heart and soul by reading the praise he has lavished on virginity? Who would not be frightened by hearing his discourse on the Last Judgment, which he has depicted so vividly that nothing can be added to it?”

In spite of the gifts which God so lavishly bestowed upon him, St. Ephraim remained deeply humble. He even feigned madness so as to avoid being consecrated bishop and the glory that attends that position. Doubtless, his humility was guarded by the remembrance of the sins of his youth and by his contrite spirit which followed upon this remembrance. But while tears of repentance constantly flowed from his eyes, Ephraim’s face was bright and shone with joy. As St. Gregory writes: “Where Ephraim speaks of contrition, he lifts our thought to the Divine goodness and pours cut thanksgiving and praise to the Most High.”

On January 28, 373, after a brief illness, St. Ephraim reposed from his labors and was received into the heavenly habitations. The citizens of Edessa called him a “lyre of the Holy Spirit.” Now, centuries later, his works still sing to the soul, inspiring it with the sweet fruit of repentance.

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Source: St. Ephraim the Syrian / OrthoChristian.Com; used by permission

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