Daily Reflection June 9 2008: St Ephrem the Syrian, Deacon, Doctor & Poet-Memorial

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About the Saint:

St. Ephrem (also spelt Ephraem) the Syrian was a deacon who wrote his reflections almost exclusively in poetry, in the Syriac Aramaic language which was a dialect of the same language spoken by Our Lord and the apostles. He lived for most of his life in the city of Edessa, and wrote with such beauty on so many topics that he is regarded as one of the Doctors of the Church. Saint Ephrem died in the year 373 AD. His emphatic insistence on the absolute sinlessness of the Virgin Mary makes him an early witness of the Church’s belief in Mary’s Immaculate Conception.

Collect of the Day:
Lord,
in Your love fill our hearts with the Holy Spirit,
who inspired the deacon Ephrem to sing
the praise of Your mysteries
and gave him strength to serve You alone.
Grant this through our Lord Jesus Christ Your Son,
who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever. +Amen.

Today’s Readings:

The First Reading: Colossians 3:12-17
Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassion, kindness, lowliness, meekness, and patience, forbearing one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teach and admonish one another in all wisdom, and sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs with thankfulness in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him.

The Gospel Reading: Luke 6:43-45
“For no good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit; for each tree is known by its own fruit. For figs are not gathered from thorns, nor are grapes picked from a bramble bush. The good man out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil man out of his evil treasure produces evil; for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks.

Reflection: Taken from the Encyclical of Pope Benedict XV promulgated on 5 October 1920, (On St. Ephrem the Syrian), 6-15

6. The birthplace of Blessed Ephrem could have been Nisibi or Edessa. What is certain is that he was connected by blood with the martyrs of the last persecution. His parents brought him up as a Christian. If they did not have the comforts of a wealthy life, they had the far greater and more splendid distinction that “they had professed Christ in judgment.” In his youth Ephrem, as he bewails in his little book of confessions, was languid and remiss in resisting the temptations by which that age is usually troubled. He was hot tempered, easily angered, quarrelsome, and unrestrained in mind and language. But while in prison on a false charge, he began to despise human things and the empty joys of this world. Therefore, as soon as he was exonerated, Ephrem at once put on the habit of a monk and ever after devoted himself completely to the exercises of piety and to the study of the Sacred Scriptures. James, the bishop of Nisibi, one of the three hundred eighteen Fathers of the Nicene Council, who had established a renowned school of exegesis in the episcopal city, became his patron. He not only fulfilled James’ expectations with his diligent and sharp-witted commentaries on the Bible, but even surpassed them. As a result, he soon became the greatest of all commentators of that school, earning the title Doctor of the Syrians. Soon he had to interrupt his study of Sacred Literature because Persian troops threatened the city. He urged on the citizens in their vigorous resistance to the Persians. With the aid of the prayers of James the bishop, they were defeated; however, after his death, the Persians again besieged the city. This time, in 363, it did fall. Because Ephrem preferred exile to serving infidels, he migrated to Edessa. There he diligently exercised the duties of an ecclesiastical doctor.

7. The house on a suburban hill where he lived soon resembled an illustrious academy with a great concourse of men eager to study the divine books. To it came learned interpreters and students of Scripture, including Zenobius, Maraba, and St. Isaac of Amidea, who acquired the title Great because of the profusion and importance of his writings. Because of his learning and holiness, Ephrem’s fame spread from that retreat. Thus when he traveled to Caesarea to see Basil the Great, Basil, learning of his approach by divine revelation, received him reverently and spoke with him about divine concerns. According to report, it was at this time that Basil consecrated Ephrem deacon.

8. Ephrem never left his solitude in Edessa except on fixed days to preach. In his preaching, he defended the dogmas of faith from swelling heresies. If, conscious of his lowliness, he did not dare to rise to the priesthood, he nevertheless showed himself a most perfect imitator of St. Stephen in the lower rank of the diaconate. He devoted all of his time to teaching Scripture, to preaching, and to instructing the nuns in sacred psalmody. Daily he wrote commentaries on the Bible to illustrate the orthodox faith; he came to the aid of his fellow citizens, especially the poor and the stricken. What he sought to teach others, he first did absolutely and perfectly. In this way, he could serve as the example which Ignatius Theophorus proposes to the deacons when he calls them “charges of Christ” and asserts that they express “the mystery of faith in a pure conscience.”

9. How great and how active was the charity he showed his brethren in a time of famine, even though by then he was worn out by age and labor! He left the house where for so many years he had lived a heavenly rather than a human life and ran to Edessa. By that eloquence which Gregory of Nyssa characterized “as a key fashioned by divinity,” to open the minds and the coffers of the wealthy, he castigated those who were hoarding grain and vehemently demanded that they feed the poor from their surplus. And they were touched not so much by the hunger of the citizens, as by the sincerity of Ephrem. With the money he begged, he himself provided beds for those tortured by starvation and spread them in the porticos of Edessa. There he nursed the sick and met the pilgrims who came to the city from round about looking for bread.Truly this man was placed there by divine providence to aid his country! And he did not return to solitude until the next harvest provided abundance.

10. The testament he left for his fellow citizens — memorable for its faith, humility, and singular patriotism — reads as follows. “I, Ephrem, am dying. With fear, but also with reverence, I entreat you, citizens of Edessa, not to bury me under the altar or elsewhere in the house of God. It is not fitting that a worm teeming with corruption be buried in the temple and sanctuary of God. But lay me out in the tunic and mantle which I used and wore daily. Accompany me with psalms and prayers. I had neither pouch nor staff, neither wallet nor silver and gold; nor did I ever acquire or possess anything else earthly. Work diligently at my precepts and doctrines; as my disciples, do not fall away from the Catholic faith. With regard to the faith, be especially constant. Guard against adversaries — I mean evildoers, boasters, and tempters to sin. And may your city be blessed; for Edessa is the city and mother of the wise.” And so Ephrem died, but his memory lives on, to the blessing of the Church Universal. Therefore when his name began to be mentioned in the sacred liturgy, Gregory of Nyssa could say: “The splendor of his doctrine and life illumined all the earth, for he is known in almost every place where the sun shines.”

11. There is no reason to list his many writings. “He is said to have written three thousand myriad poems if one counts them all together.” His writings cover almost all ecclesiastical doctrines. There are extant commentaries on Sacred Scripture and the mysteries of the faith; sermons on obligations and on the interior life; studies on the sacred liturgy; hymns for the feastdays of our Lord and of the Blessed Virgin and of the saints, for the processions of prayers and penitential days, for the funerals of the departed. In all of these, his purity of soul shines forth as a “burning and shining” evangelical lamp. By illustrating the truth he makes us love and embrace it. Indeed when Jerome testifies about the writings of Ephrem in his day, he tells us that they were read in public liturgical assemblies along with the works of the orthodox Fathers and Doctors. He also affirms that he recognized “the sublimity of Ephrem’s genius even in the translations” of these same works from the Syrian into Greek.

12. It is indeed fitting to honor the blessed deacon of Edessa for his desire that the preaching of the divine word and the training of his disciples rest on the purity of Sacred Scripture. He also acquired honor as a Christian musician and poet. He was so accomplished in both arts that he was called the “lyre of the Holy Spirit.” From this, Venerable Brothers, you can learn what arts promote the knowledge of sacred things. Ephrem lived among people whose nature was attracted by the sweetness of poetry and music. The heretics of the second century after Christ used these same allurements to skillfully disseminate their errors. Therefore Ephrem, like youthful David killing the giant Goliath with his own sword, opposed art with art and clothed Catholic doctrine in melody and rhythm. These he diligently taught to boys and girls, so that eventually all the people learned them. In this fashion he not only renewed the education of the faithful in Christian doctrine and supported their piety with the spirit of the sacred liturgy, but also happily kept creeping heresy at bay.

13. The artistry introduced by Blessed Ephrem added dignity to sacred matters as Theodoretus stresses. The metric rhythm, which our saint popularized, was widely propagated both among the Greeks and the Latins. Indeed does it seem probable that the liturgical antiphonary with its songs and processions, introduced at Constantinople in the works of Chrysostom and at Milan by Ambrose (whence it spread throughout all of Italy), was the work of some other author? For the “custom of Eastern rhythm” deeply moved the catechumen Augustine in northern Italy; Gregory the Great improved it and we use it in a more advanced form. Critics acknowledge that that “same Eastern rhythm” had it origins in Ephrem’s Syrian antiphonary.

14. It is no wonder then that many of the Fathers of the Church stress the authority of St. Ephrem. Nyssenus says of his writings, “Studying the Old and New Scriptures most thoroughly, he interpreted them accurately, word for word; and what was hidden and concealed, from the very creation of the world to the last book of grace, he illumined with commentaries, using the light of the Spirit.” And Chrysostom: “The great Ephrem [is] scourge of the slothful, consoler of the afflicted, educator, instructor and exhorter of youth, mirror of monks, leader of penitents, goad and sting of heretics, reservoir of virtues, and the home and lodging of the Holy Spirit.” Certainly nothing greater can be said in praise of a man who, however, seemed so small in his own eyes that he claimed to be the least of all and a most vile sinner.”

15. Therefore, God, who has “exalted the humble,” bestows great glory on blessed Ephrem and proposes him to this age as a doctor of heavenly wisdom and an example of the choicest virtues. And the appropriateness of his example is truly singular today. The frightful war is over and there is something of a new order for many nations, especially in the East. We, along with you and all good men, must endeavor to restore in Christ whatever remains of human and civil culture and to recall the erring society of men to God and to His Holy Church. Though our ancestors’ institutions failed, public affairs are in tumult, and everything human is confused, the Catholic Church alone never vacilates, but instead looks confidently to the future. She alone is born for immortality, trusting in the words addressed to Blessed Peter: “Upon this rock I will build my Church and the gates of hell will not prevail against her.”

Prayer for Strength in Weakness

Lord Jesus Christ, King of kings, you have power over life and death. You know even things that are uncertain and obscure, and our very thoughts and feelings are not hidden from you. Cleanse me from my secret faults, and I have done wrong and you saw it. You know how weak I am, both in soul and in body. Give me strength, O Lord, in my frailty and sustain me in my sufferings. Grant me a prudent judgement, dear Lord, and let me always be mindful of your blessings. Let me retain until the end your grace that has protected me till now.

(St Ephrem of Syria, Deacon, Poet and Doctor)


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