Malankara World

Church Fathers

St. Ephrem, Harp of the Holy Spirit

by George Aramath

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Part 2

The circumstances around his death only reconfirm his legacy. It is believed that a great famine struck Edessa, leaving many poor and hungry. St. Ephrem discovers that some were hoarding food all to themselves. When St. Ephrem questions them, they reply that they cannot trust anyone to distribute the food fairly. So St. Ephrem himself volunteers to do it. By not rejecting this offer, it also shows the amount of respect and credibility held by others for St. Ephrem. It is said that his death followed shortly thereafter in 373 A.D.

In looking at the vita of St. Ephrem, one sees a difference in how the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox first perceived of this saint. This difference can best be explained by examining his icons. In the Byzantine tradition, St. Ephrem was generally seen as a hermit. They viewed him living inside a cave, producing his many works in pray and solitude.

This icon is known as "The Repose of St. Ephrem". It strikingly shows the last scene of the saint's burial. One sees caves in the background, an allusion to the saint's secluded way of life. In addition, Byzantine tradition includes writings of legendary journeys of St. Ephrem that reinforces this viewpoint. One of these visits included a trip to see St. Basil, whom he shared many common beliefs. Another visit involved Abba Bishoi (Pisoes) in the monasteries of the Wadi Natun, Egypt. (5) These legends strengthen the idea that St. Ephrem lived the monastic life and came in contact with those who also practiced it.

On the other hand, the Syrian tradition looks at St. Ephrem from a different perspective. He does, as held by the Eastern tradition, lead a life set apart for God that includes among many other things, a consecrated life of virginity and celibacy. As mentioned earlier, he was assigned to be a teacher by Mor Yacob and is also seen as a caretaker and advisor to the bishops he served. In fact, he would be in the company of the bishops for over seventy years of his life. From this, one can classify St. Ephrem to be a "public monk", meaning that he lived the life of a monk within the social settings of the day.

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