Malankara World

Church Fathers

St. Ephrem, Harp of the Holy Spirit

by George Aramath

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Part 1

Considered by many to be the greatest poet and theologian of the Syriac Orthodox Church, St. Ephrem or Aprem holds a special place in the traditions of both Oriental and Eastern Orthodox Churches. His other names include Prophet of the Syrians, Orator of the Syrians, Great Malpan, and Aprem the Great. These titles are a reflection of how St. Ephrem lived his life and the legacy he left behind. On the other hand, the Oriental and Eastern Orthodox traditions hold different viewpoints on the monastic life of St. Ephrem.

St. Ephrem was born around 306 A.D. at Nisibis, near the border of modern day Turkey and Syria. Many thought that he was a son of a heathen priest. The story went that the father threw him out of the house when he found that his son consorted with Christians. But Ephrem's own writing contradicts this belief. He writes, "I was born in the way of truth: though my boyhood understood not the greatness of the benefit, I knew it when trial came" (1). One can assume that St. Ephrem speaks here of the Christian faith and of how he knew the value or jewel of it only when he faced trials. He left his parents as a child to eventually join Mar Yacob, bishop of Nisibis. He would have the privilege of accompanying this bishop to the first ecumenical council in Nicea. There, St. Ephrem would get his first-hand exposures to the heresies of the time, especially Arianism. Upon his return, Mor Yacob would appoint him as a teacher or malpānā, in Syriac. This title would later become prestigious in the Syriac Orthodox Church, only to be used for the great teachers of the church. It was during this time that St. Ephrem would begin his many works that would bring about his fame.

As a deacon and teacher, some of those around him became jealous of his holiness. They tried to belittle him in many ways. One story goes that a woman claimed that St. Ephrem was the father of her child. Ephrem did not argue with her but simply accepted the boy and raised him. One day he took the baby with him to church and prayed for the truth to be revealed. He then asked the baby to open his mouth and identify his father, whereupon the baby spoke and said, "Aprem the Sexton". The illegitimate child was the son of the sexton and not the pious Ephrem, the deacon. The people then realized that St. Ephrem was indeed a holy man and they dared not question him again. (2)

Though St. Ephrem considered his home to be Nisibis, the king of Persia would eventually force all Christians to leave. After the death of Constantine, the Roman Empire faced many hardships. Times of peace would disappear. Jovian, the Roman Emperor, would be killed in battle in 363 A.D. and a peace treaty was signed with Sapor II, King of Persia.(3) For Ephrem and all other Christians, this would essentially mean that Nisibis would again become a part of the Persian Empire, forcing them to move elsewhere. Most would settle in Edessa, the capital of the Roman province of western Mesopotamia. It was here that St. Ephrem would come in contact with many others who claim to be Christians but hold different beliefs. He would eventually write against the heresies of the time such as the "followers of Marcion, Bardaisan, Arius, Eunomius, the Anomoeans, the Manichaeans and many others" (4). Ephesus would also become the home of St. Ephrem for the last ten years of his life.

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