Lives of the Saints
St Ephrem of Edessa Doctor of the Church
A.D. 378
THIS humble deacon was the most illustrious of all the doctors, who, by their doctrine
and writings, have adorned the Syriac church. He was born in the territory of Nisibis, a
strong city on the banks of the Tigris, in Mesopotamia. His parents lived in the
country, and earned their bread with the sweat of their brows, but were ennobled by
the blood of martyrs in their family, and had themselves both confessed Christ before
the persecutors under Dioclesian, or his successors. They consecrated Ephrem to God
from his cradle, like another Samuel, but he was eighteen years old when he was
baptized. Before that time he had committed certain faults which his enlightened
conscience extremely exaggerated to him after his perfect conversion to God, and he
never ceased to bewail, with floods of tears, his ingratitude towards God, in having
ever offended him. Sozomen says these sins were little sallies of anger, into which he
had sometimes fallen with his playfellows in his childhood. The saint himself
mentions in his confession two crimes (as he styles them) of this age, which called
for his tears during his whole life. The first was, that in play he had driven a
neighbors cow among the mountains, where it happened to be killed by a wild beast,
the second was a doubt which once came into his mind in his childhood, whether
Gods particular providence reached to an immediate superintendency over all our
individual actions. This sin he exceedingly magnifies in his contrition, though it
happened before his baptism, and never proceeded further than a fluctuating thought
from ignorance in his childhood; and in his Testament he thanks God for having been
always preserved by his mercy since his baptism from any error in faith. Himself
assures us that the divine goodness was pleased in a wonderful manner to discover
to him, after this temptation, the folly of his error, and the wretched blindness, of his
soul in having pretended to fathom the secrets of providence.
Within a month after he had been assaulted by the temptation of the aforesaid
doubt, he happened in traveling through the country to be benighted, and was forced
to take up his quarters with a shepherd who had lost in the wilderness the flock
committed to his charge. The master of the shepherd suspected him guilty of theft,
and pursuing him, found him and Ephrem together, and cast them both into prison,
upon suspicion that they had stolen his sheep. Ephrem was extremely afflicted at his
misfortune, and in the dungeon found seven other prisoners, who were all falsely
accused or suspected of different crimes, though really guilty of others. When he had
lain seven days in great anguish of mind, an angel appearing to him in his sleep told
him he was sent to show him the justice and wisdom of divine providence in
governing and directing all human events; and that this should be manifested to him
in the case of those prisoners who seemed to suffer in his company unjustly. The
next day the judge called the prisoners before him, and put two of them to the
torture, in order to compel them to confess their crimes. While others were
tormented, Ephrem stood by the rack trembling and weeping for himself, under the
apprehension of being every moment put to the question. The by-standers rallied him
for his fears, and said "Ay, it is thy turn next; it is to no purpose now to weep: why
didst thou not fear to commit the crime?" However, he was not put on the rack, but
sent back to prison. The other prisoners, though innocent of the crimes of which they
were first arraigned, were all convicted of other misdemeanors, and each of them
received the chastisement due to his offense. As to Ephrem, the true thief having
been discovered, he was honorably acquitted, after seventy days confinement. This
event the saint relates at length in his confession. God was pleased to give him this
sensible proof of the sweetness, justice, and tender goodness of his holy providence,
which we are bound to adore in resignation and silence; waiting till the curtain shall
be drawn aside, and the whole economy of his loving dispensations to his elect
displayed in its true amiable light, and placed in its full view before our eyes in the
next life. Though, to take a view of the infinite wisdom, justice, and sanctity which
God displayeth in all the dispensations of his providence, we must take into the
prospect the rewards and punishments of the next world, and all the hidden springs
of this adorable mystery of faith; yet his divine goodness, to excite our confidence in
him, was pleased, by this revelation to his servant, to manifest in this instance his
attributes justified in part, even in this life, of which he hath given us a most
illustrious example with regard to holy Job.
St. Ephrem, from the time of his baptism which he received soon after this accident
began to be more deeply penetrated with the fear of the divine judgment, and he had
always present to his mind the rigorous account he was to give to God of all his
actions the remembrance of which was to him a source of almost uninterrupted tears.
Hoping more easily to secure his salvation in a state in which his thoughts would
never be diverted from it, soon after he was baptized he took the monastic habit, and
put himself under the direction of a holy abbot, with whose leave he chose for his
abode a little hermitage in the neighborhood of the monastery. He seemed to set no
bounds to his fervor. He lay on the bare ground, often fasted whole days without
eating, and watched a great part of the night in prayer. It was a rule observed in all
the monasteries of Mesopotamia and Egypt, that every religious man should perform
his task of manual labor, of which he gave an account to his superior at the end of
every week. The work of these monks was always painful, that it might be a part of
their penance; and it was such as was compatible with private prayer, and a constant
attention of the mind to God; for they always prayed or meditated at their work; and
for this purpose, the first task which was enjoined a young monk was to get the
Psalter by heart. The profits of their labor, above the little pittance which was
necessary for their mean subsistence in their penitential state, were always given to
the poor. St. Ephrem made sails for ships. Of his poverty he writes thus in his
Testament. Ephrem hath never possessed purse, staff, or scrip, or any other temporal
estate my heart hath known no affection for gold or silver, or any earthly goods," He
was naturally choleric, but so perfectly did he subdue this passion, that meekness
was one of the most conspicuous virtues in his character, and he was usually styled
The meek, or the peaceable man of God. He was never known to dispute or contend
with any one; with the most obstinate sinners he used only tears and entreaties.
Once, when he had fasted several days, the brother who was bringing him a mess of
pottage made with a few herbs for his meal let fall the pot, and broke it. The saint
seeing him in confusion, said cheerfully, "As our supper will not come to us, let us go
to it." And sitting down on the ground by the broken pot, he picked up his meal as
well as he could. Humility made the saint rejoice in the contempt of himself, and
sincerely desire that all men had such a knowledge and opinion of his baseness and
nothingness as to despise him from their hearts, and to look upon him most unworthy
to hold any rank among creatures. This sincere spirit of profound humility all his
words, actions, and writings breathed in a most affecting manner.
Honors and commendations served to increase the saints humility. Hearing himself
one day praised, he was not able to speak, and his whole body was covered with a
violent sweat, caused by the inward agony and confusion of his soul at the
consideration of the last day; for he was seized with extreme fear and dread, thinking
that he should be then overwhelmed with shame, when his baseness and hypocrisy
should be proclaimed, and made manifest before all creatures, especially those very
persons who here commended him, and whom he had deceived by his hypocrisy. We
may hence easily judge how much the thought of any elevation of honor affrighted
him. When a certain city sought to choose him bishop, he counterfeited himself mad.
Compunction of heart is the sister of sincere humility and penance, and nothing
seemed more admirable in our saint than this virtue. Tears seemed always ready to
be called forth in torrents as often as he raised his heart to God, or remembered the
sweetness of his divine love, the rigor of his judgments, or the spiritual miseries of
our souls. "We cannot call to mind his perpetual tears, "says St. Gregory of Nyssa,
"without melting into tears. To weep seemed almost as natural to him as it is for
other men to breathe. Night and day his eyes seemed always swimming m tears. No
one could meet him at any time, who did not see them trickling down his cheeks." He
appeared always drowned in an abyss of compunction. This was always painted in
most striking features on his countenance, the sight of which was, even in his
silence, a moving instruction to all that beheld him. This spirit of compunction gave a
singular energy to all his words and writings; it never forsakes him, even in
panegyrics, or in treating of subjects of spiritual joy. Where he speaks of the felicity
of paradise or the sweetness of divine love in transports of overflowing hope and joy,
he never loses sight of the motives of compunction, and always returns to his tears.
By the continual remembrance of the last judgment he nourished in his soul this
constant profound spirit of compunction.
St. Gregory of Nyssa writes that no one can read his discourses on the last judgment
without dissolving into tears, so awful is the representation, and so strong and lively
the image which he paints of that dreadful day. Almost every object he saw called it
afresh to his mind. The spotless purity of our saint was the fruit of his sincere
humility, and constant watchfulness over himself. He says that the great St. Antony,
out of modesty, would never wash his feet, or suffer any part of his body, except his
face and hands, to be seen naked by any one.
St. Ephrem spent many years in the desert, collected within himself, having his mind
raised above all earthly things, and living as it were out of the flesh, and out of the
world, to use the expression of St. Gregory Nazianzen. His zeal drew several severe
persecutions upon him from certain tepid monks, but he found a great support in the
example and advice of St. Julian, whose life he has written. He lost this comfort by
the death of that great servant of God; and about the same time died in 338 (not
350, as Tillemont mistakes) St. James, bishop of Nisibis, his spiritual director and
patron. Not long after this, God inspired St. Ephrem to leave his own country, and go
to Edessa, there to venerate the relies of the saints, by which are probably meant
chiefly those of the apostle St. Thomas. He likewise desired to enjoy the
conversation of certain holy anchorets who inhabited the mountains near that city,
which was sometimes reckoned in Mesopotamia and sometimes in Syria. Under the
weak reigns of the last of the Seleucidae, kings of Asia, it was erected into a small
kingdom by the princes called Abgars. As the saint was going into Edessa, a certain
courtesan fixed her eyes upon him, which when he perceived, he turned away his
face, and said with indignation: "Why cost thou gaze upon me?" To which she made
this smart reply: "Woman was formed from man; but you ought always to keep your
eyes cast down on the earth, out of which man was framed." St. Ephrem, whose heart
was always filled with the most profound sentiments of humility, was much struck
and pleased with this reflection, and admired the providence of God which sends us
admonitions by all sorts of means. He wrote a book on those words of the courtesan,
which the Syrians anciently esteemed the most useful and the best of all the writings
of this incomparable doctor, but it is now lost. It seems to have contained maxims of
humility.
St. Ephrem lived at Edessa, highly honored by all ranks and orders of men. Being
ordained deacon of that church, he became an apostle of penance, which he preached
with incredible zeal and fruit. He from time to time returned into his desert, there to
renew in his heart the spirit of compunction and prayer; but always came out of his
wilderness, inflamed with the ardor of a Baptist, to announce the divine truths to a
world buried in spiritual darkness and insensibility The saint was endued with great
natural talents, which he had improved by study and contemplation. He was a poet,
and had read something of logic; but had no tincture of the rest of the Grecian
philosophy. This want of the heathenish learning and profane science was supplied by
his good sense and uncommon penetration, and the diligence with which he
cultivated his faculties by more sublime sacred studies. He learned very accurately
the doctrine of the Catholic faith, was well versed in the holy scriptures, and was a
perfect master of the Syriac tongue, in which he wrote with great elegance and
propriety. He was possessed of an extraordinary faculty of natural eloquence. Words
flowed from him like a torrent, which yet were too slow for the impetuosity and
multitude of thoughts with which he was overwhelmed in speaking on spiritual
subjects. His conceptions were always clear, his diction pure and agreeable. He spoke
with admirable perspicuity, copiousness, and sententiousness, in an easy unaffected
style; and with so much sweetness, so pathetic a vehemence, so natural an accent,
and the strong emotions of his own heart, that his words seemed to carry with them
irresistible power. His writings derive great strength from the genius and natural bold
tropes of the Oriental languages applied by so great a master, and have a graceful
beauty and force which no translation can attain; though his works are only
impetuous effusions of an overflowing heart, not studied compositions. What
recommends them beyond all other advantages of eloquence, is, they are all the
language of the heart, and a heart penetrated with the most perfect sentiments of
divine love, confidence, compunction , humility and all other virtues. They present his
ardent, humble, and meek soul such as it was, and show how ardently he was
occupied only on the great truths of salvation; how much he humbled himself without
intermission, under the almighty hand of God, infinite in sanctity and terrible in his
justice; with what profound awe he trembled in the constant attention to his adorable
presence, and at the remembrance of his dreadful judgment; and with what fervor he
both preached and practiced the most austere penance, laboring continually with all
his strength; to prepare himself a treasure for the last hour," as he expresses
himself. His words strongly imprint upon the souls of others those sentiments with
which he was penetrated: they carry light and conviction; they never fail to strike,
and pierce to the very bottom of the soul. Nor is the fire which they kindle in the
breast a passing warmth, but a flame which devours and destroys all earthly
affections, transforms the soul into itself, and continues, without abating, the lasting
force of its activity. "Who that is proud," says St. Gregory of Nyssa, "would become
the humblest of men by reading his discourse on humility. "Who would not be
inflamed with a divine fire by reading his treatise on charity "Who would not wish to
be chaste in heart and spirit, by reading the praises he has given to virginity?"
The saint though most austere to himself was discreet in the direction of others, and
often repeated this advice, that it is a dangerous stratagem of the enemy to induce
fervent converts to embrace in the beginning excessive mortifications. Wherefore it
behooves them not to undertake without prudent counsel any extraordinary practices
of penance; but always such in which they will be able to persevere with constancy
and cheerfulness. Who ever laid on a child a burden of a hundred pounds weight
under which he is sure to fall?
St. Ephrem brought many idolaters to the faith, and converted great numbers of
Arians Sabellians, and other heretics. St. Jerome commends a book which he wrote
against the Macedonians, to prove the divinity of the Holy Ghost. He established the
perfect efficacy of penance against the Novatians, who though the boldest and most
insolent of men seemed like children without strength before this experienced
champion, as St. Gregory of Nyssa assures us. Not less glorious were his triumphs
over the Millenarians, Marcionites, Manichees, and the disciples of the impious
Bardesanes, who denied the resurrection of the flesh, and had in the foregoing
century spread his errors at Edessa, by sonar which the people learned to sing. St.
Ephrem to minister a proper antidote against this poison, composed elegant Catholic
songs and poems which he taught the inhabitants both of the city and country with
great spiritual advantage. Apollinaris began openly to broach his heresy a little before
the year 376 denying in Christ a human soul, which he pretended that the divine
person supplied in the humanity: whence it would have followed that he was not truly
man, but only assumed a human body, not the complete human nature. St. Ephrem
was then very old, but he opposed this new monster with great vigor. Several
heresies he crushed in their birth, and he suffered much from the fury of the Arians
under Constantius, and of the Heathens under Julian, but in both these persecutions
reaped glorious laurels and trophies.
It was by a divine admonition, as himself assures us, that about the year 372, he
undertook a long Journey to pay a visit to Basil. Being arrived at Caesarea he went to
the great church, where he found the holy bishop preaching. After the sermon, St.
Basil sent for him, and asked him by an interpreter, if he was not Ephrem the servant
of Christ. "I am that Ephrem," said he, "who have wandered astray from the path of
heaven." Then melting into tears, and raising his voice he cried out- "O my father,
have pity on a sinful wretch, and lead me into the narrow path." St. Basil gave him
many rules of holy life, and after long spiritual conferences dismissed him with great
esteem, having first ordained his companion priest. St. Ephrem himself never would
consent to be promoted to the sacerdotal dignity, of which he expresses the greatest
dread and apprehension m his sermon on the priesthood. Being returned to Edessa he
retired to a little solitary cell, where he prepared himself for his last passage, and
composed the latter part of his works. For, not content to labor for the advantage of
one age, or one people, he studied to promote that of all mankind, and all times to
come. The public distress under a great famine called him again out of his retirement
in order to serve, and procure relief or the poor. He engaged the rich freely to open
their coffers, placed beds for the sick in all the public porticos, visited them every
day, and served them with his own hands The public calamity being over, he
hastened back to his solitude, where he shortly after sickened of a fever. He wrote
about that time his seventy-six Paraeneses or moving exhortations to penance,
consisting in a great measure of most affective prayers, several of which are used by
the Syrians in their church office. His confidence in the precious fruits of the holy
sacrament of the altar raised his hope and inflamed his love, especially in his
passage to eternity. Thus he expresses himself: "Entering upon so long and
dangerous a journey, I have my viaticum, even Thee, O Son of God. In my extreme
spiritual hunger, I will feed on thee, the repairer of mankind. So it shall be that no
fire wilt dare to approach me; for it will not be able to bear the sweet saving odor of
thy body and blood." The circumstances of our saints death are edifying and deserve
our notice. For nothing more strongly affects our heart, or makes on it a more
sensible impression than the behavior and words of great men in their last moments.
St. Ephrem was always filled with grief, indignation, and confusion when he perceived
others treat him as a saint, or express any regard or esteem for him. In his sickness
he laid this strict injunction on his disciples and friends: "Sing no funeral hymns at
Ephrems burial; suffer no encomiastic oration. Wrap not my carcass in any costly
shroud; erect no monument to memory. Allow me only the portion and place of a
pilgrim; for I am a pilgrim and a stranger as all my fathers were on earth." Seeing
that several persons had prepared rich shrouds for his interment, he was much
afflicted, and he charged all those who had such a design, to drop it, and give the
money to the poor, which he in particular obliged a rich nobleman, who had bought a
most sumptuous shroud for that purpose, to do. St. Ephrem, as long as he was able
to speak, continued to exhort all men to the fervent pursuit of virtue, as his last
words sufficiently show, says Saint Gregory of Nyssa, meaning the saints Testament,
which is still extant genuine, and the same that was quoted by Saint Gregory,
Sozomen, &c. In it he says: "I Ephrem die. Be it known to you all that I write this
Testament to conjure you always to remember me in your prayers after my decease."
This he often repeats. He protests that he had always lived in the true faith, to which
he exhorts all most firmly to adhere. Deploring and confessing aloud the vanity and
sinfulness of his life, he adjures all present that no one would suffer his sinful dust
to be laid under the altar, and that no one would take any of his rags for relics, nor
show him any honor, for he was a sinner and the last of creatures. "But," says he,
"throw my body hastily on your shoulders, and cast me into my grave, as the
abomination of the universe. Let no one praise me; for I am full of confusion, and the
very abstract of baseness. To show what I am, rather spit upon me, and cover my
body with phlegm. Did you smell the stench of my actions, you would go from me,
and leave me unburied, not being able to bear the horrible corruption of my sins." He
forbids any torches or perfumes, ordering his corpse to be thrown into the common
burying place among poor strangers. He expresses most feeling sentiments of
compunction, and gives his blessing to his disciples, with a prediction of divine mercy
in their favor; but excepts two among them, Aruad and Paulonas, both persons famed
for eloquence; yet he foresaw that they would afterward apostatize from the Catholic
faith. The whole city was assembled before the saints door, every one being bathed
in tears; and all strove to get as near to him as possible, and to listen to his last
instructions. A lady of great quality named Lamprotata, falling at his feet, begged his
leave to buy a coffin for his interment; to which he assented, on condition that it
should be a very mean one, and that the lady would promise to renounce all vanities,
in a spirit of penance, and never again to be carried on the shoulders of men, or in a
chair; all which she cheerfully engaged herself to perform. The saint having ceased to
speak, continued in silent prayer till he calmly gave up his soul to God. He died in a
very advanced age about the year 378. His festival was kept at Edessa immediately
after his death. On it, St. Gregory of Nyssa soon after spoke his panegyric at the
request of one Ephrem, who having been taken captive by the Ismaelites, had
recommended himself to this saint his patron, and had been wonderfully delivered
from his chains and from many dangers. St. Gregory closes his discourse with this
address to the saint: "You are now assisting at the divine altar, and before the prince
of life with the angels, praising the most holy Trinity; remember us all, and obtain for
us the pardon of our sins." The true Martyrology of Bede calls the 9th of July the day
of his deposition; which agrees with Palladius, who places his death in harvest time,
though the Latins have long kept his festival on the 1st of February, and the Greeks
on the 28th of January. His perpetual tears, far from disfiguring his face, made it
appear more serene and beautiful, and his very aspect raised the veneration of all
who beheld him. The Greeks paint him very tall, bent with old age, of a sweet and
beautiful countenance, with his eyes swimming in tears, and the venerable marks of
sanctity in his looks and habit.
Saint Austin says that Adam in paradise praised God and did not sigh; but in our
present state, a principal function of our prayer consists in sighs and compunction.
Divine love, as St. Gregory observes, our banishment from God, our dangers, our past
sins, our daily offenses, and the weight of our own spiritual miseries, and those of
the whole world call upon us continually to weep, at least spiritually and in the desire
of our heart, if we cannot always with our eyes. Every object round about us suggests
many motives to excite our tears. We ought to mingle them even with our hymns of
praise and love. Can we make an act of divine love without being pierced with bitter
grief and contrition, reflecting that we have been so base and ungrateful as to have
offended our infinitely good God? Can we presume without trembling to sing his
praises with our impure affections, or to pronounce his adorable name with our
defiled lips? And do we not first endeavor by tears of compunction to wash away the
stains of our souls, begging to be sprinkled and cleansed by hyssop dipped, not in
the blood of sheep or goats, but in the blood of the spotless Lamb who died to take
away the sins of the world? If the most innocent among the saints weeps continually
from motives of holy love, how much more ought the sinner to mourn! "The voice of
the turtle hath been heard in our land." If the turtle, the emblem of innocence and
fidelity, makes its delight to mourn solitary in this desert, what ought not the
unfaithful soul to do? The penitent sinner, instead of the sighs of the turtle, ought to
pour forth his grief in loud groans, imitating the doleful cries of the ostrich, and in
torrents of tears, by which the deepest sorrow for having offended so good a God
forces his broken heart to give it vent.