Saint Ephrem the Syrian, Deacon and Doctor of the Church

Praying Through Song

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The Church of Saint Ephrem the Syrian. Athanasios Gioumpasis / Getty Images

Saint Ephrem the Syrian was born sometime around the year 306 or 307 in Nisibis, a Syriac-speaking town located in the southeastern part of modern-day Turkey. At that time, the Christian Church was suffering under the persecution of the Roman Emperor Diocletian. It was long believed that Ephrem's father was a pagan priest, but evidence from Ephrem's own writings suggests that both of his parents may have been Christians, so his father may have converted later in life.

Quick Facts

  • Feast Day: June 9
  • Type of Feast: Optional Memorial
  • Dates: c. 306 or 307 (Nisibis, in modern-day Turkey)-June 9, 373 (Edessa)
  • Patron of: spiritual directors; spiritual leaders
  • Canonization: by acclamation, very soon after his death; proclaimed a Doctor of the Church by Pope Benedict XV on October 5, 1920
  • Prayers: The Prayer of Saint Ephrem the Syrian, Prayer of Praise to the Blessed Virgin Mary (written by Saint Ephrem)

The Life of Saint Ephrem

Born around 306 or 307, Saint Ephrem lived through some of the most tumultuous times in the early Church. Heresies, especially Arianism, were rampant; the Church faced persecution; and without Christ's promise that the gates of Hell would not prevail against it, the Church might not have survived.

Ephrem was baptized around the age of 18, and he may have been ordained a deacon at the same time. As a deacon, Saint Ephrem assisted priests in providing food and other aid to the poor and in preaching the Gospel, and his most effective tools for helping Christians understand the true faith were the hundreds of deeply theological hymns and biblical commentaries that he composed.

Not all Christians have the time or the opportunity to study theology in any depth, but all Christians join in worship, and even children can easily memorize theologically rich hymns. In his lifetime, Ephrem may have written as many as three million lines, and 400 of his hymns still survive. Ephrem's hymnography earned him the title "Harp of the Spirit."

Despite commonly being portrayed in Orthodox iconography as a monk, there is nothing in Ephrem's writings or in contemporary references to suggest that he actually was one. Indeed, Egyptian monasticism did not reach the northern borders of Syria and Mesopotamia until the latter decades of the fourth century, shortly before Ephrem's death in 373. Ephrem was, by his own testimony, an ascetic, and most likely a representative of a Syriac Christian discipline in which both men and women, at the time of their baptism, would take a perpetual vow of virginity. Later misunderstanding of this practice may have led to the conclusion that Ephrem was a monk.

Spreading the Faith Through Song

Fleeing westward from the Persians, who were ravaging Turkey, Ephrem settled in Edessa, in southern Turkey, in 363. There, he continued to write hymns, especially defending the teaching of the Council of Nicaea against the Arian heretics, who were influential in Edessa. He died tending plague victims in 373.

In recognition of Saint Ephrem's accomplishment of spreading the faith through song, Pope Benedict XV in 1920 declared him a Doctor of the Church, a title reserved to a small number of men and women whose writings have advanced the Christian Faith.