Ephrem of Syria
Ephrem of Syria (born 306, died 373) wrote hundreds of hymns and poems on the faith that inspired the whole Church. His hymns are still used today and have found a place in liturgical traditions outside the East Syrian Church. Ephrem led an austere life, living in a small cave overlooking the city of Edessa, sustained only by a little barley bread and a few vegetables. Ordained a deacon, he was described by his contemporaries as the 'Harp of the Spirit'. Had a great devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Ephrem was a poet, teacher, orator, a defender of the faith and the only Syrian Doctor of the Church. A title held by just thirty-three individuals in the 2000-year history of Christianity.
Born in Nisibis, Mesopotamia, then under Roman rule. Ephrem stated "I was born in the way of truth: though my childhood was unaware of the greatness of the benefit, I knew it when trial came." Much is not known about his family. He may have been the son of a pagan priest. He was baptized at eighteen years old and became famous as a teacher in his native city. Ephrem was instructed in the Christian mysteries by St. James, the famous Bishop of Nisibis. Because of his great knowledge of the Church and doctrine, Ephrem was put in charge of a school of theology in Nisibis. He lived at a time when the Romans were battling Persians. Fleeing from his home, he settled in Edessa. Rome wrote a treaty giving up the Eastern provinces conquered at the end of the third century; among the cities, Nisibis.
Eprhrem vigorously defended Christian doctrines against the heresies of his day. He had a prolific pen and his writings best illumine his dedication to Christian doctrine. Ephrem wrote countless poems and hymns in his native Syriac, close to the Aramaic language spoken by Christ. He addressed his works against the Arians, the Bardesanes, the Gnostics, the Novatians, and others. He insisted on the true knowledge of Christ's divinity and perfect humanity, unified in the one Person of Christ. His works were translated into Greek, Armenian, Coptic, Arabic, and Ethiopic. In later centuries, they were also translated into French, German, Italian, and English.
Ephrem heard of the great reputation of St. Basil and resolved to visit him at Caesarea. St. Basil made him a Deacon and offered him the priesthood, which he rejected. Humility had made him shrink from ordination. He recognized the potentialities of sacred song. Ephrem is given credit for awakening the Church to the important of music and poetry in spreading and fortifying the faith. He wrote on many topics, such as the love of God, morals, the Incarnation, the Eucharist, and original sin. His works were described as "a storehouse of treasures." His great love for the Church attracted many. In his day, no other preached the love for Mary more than Ephrem. He called devotion to her "the unlocking of the gates of the heavenly Jerusalem." He wrote of her virginity, of her being the Mother of God, of her many qualities given to her by Christ. In one example, penned in 370, he wrote: "Thou and Thy Mother are the only ones who are in every way perfectly beautiful, for in Thee, O Lord, there is no stain; no stain also in Thy Mother." His works became so famous that his writings are publicly read in some churches after the Sacred Scriptures. From the Syrian and Byzantine Churches, the fame of Ephrem spread among all Christians.
Ephrem died in Edessa in the year 373, ministering to victims of the plague. He was buried in a cemetery "of the foreigners". Armenian monks of the monastery of St. Sergius at Edessa claim to possess his body. Proclaimed Doctor of the Church in 1920 by Pope Benedict XV.