by Fr. Joseph Amar
We know very little about the life of St. Ephrem. He was born around 305, in or near the Syrian city of Nisibis, and died around 373. He tells us nothing about his family background, upbringing, or education. He had no reason to. In a place like Nisibis, everyone knew everyone else. Ephrem never expected his home-grown verses to outlive him.
The fact that so little is known about Ephrem’s life encouraged the creation of all sorts of stories—some inspiring, some not. He may have been a deacon, but he was never a monk, as later tradition portrayed him.
At first glance, it seems like Ephrem comes from a time and place very different from our own. In fact, just the opposite is true.
Ephrem lived during a time of enormous political and religious upheaval. Traditional beliefs and values were under attack from every side. Society was coming apart at the seams, and nobody seemed to care. All that mattered was winning the latest high-profile, public debate.
Ephrem did not mince words: “God’s flock is starving; it has been left to graze on fields of words.” Religion and politics had become hopelessly entangled, and the result was toxic.
The church was torn between two rival factions. On the one side, a new breed of Christian philosophers reduced God to a concept—“an idea.” On the other, the rigidly pious spiritualized God. They kept him safely in heaven, far from the nastiness of everyday life. As Ephrem saw it, the remedy for both groups was the same—“a return to the simple words of the Apostles.”
God was not a monarch ruling from a distant throne. He was a person who revealed himself in his Son. “Jesus is the Bridge,” Ephrem taught, “who leads us back to the source of our life.”
Ephrem was a poet and a teacher. But he taught like no one else. Educated people of his day wrote and spoke Greek. They went to school in places like Antioch and Athens. Ephrem was a very different sort of person. He wrote exclusively in Syriac, and never left his native land. In place of human credentials, he prayed to be filled with the spirit of the Gospels. And his prayers were answered.
People who heard Ephrem speak nick-named him the “Harp of the Holy Spirit.” They could hear God’s music in his words, and it was a breath of fresh air. It was the same reason his earliest Arabic biography, written around 750, calls him al-Nabi al-Suryani– “the Syriac Prophet.” Ephrem breathed life and hope back into faith.
We cannot read Ephrem without becoming aware of the profound respect he had for the power of words, especially the words of scripture. He describes opening the Bible as a homecoming: “The words ran out to meet me. They flung their arms around me, took me by the hand, and led me in.”
The lessons scripture taught were simple and clear. God did not play favorites. His love was bigger than all the controversies people invented to divide and destroy: “Our Lord,” Ephrem reminded anyone who would listen, “spoke gently to teach his followers the power of gentle words.”
Ephrem called Jesus “the Medicine of Life” for an ailing world. If people lowered their voices and opened their eyes, they might see the wonder of creation—a wonder they were part of. They would know that life is a privilege and a blessing not to be squandered on man-made conflicts.
Popular wisdom held that self-interest was at the root of human problems. Ephrem saw things differently. If people were really self-interested, if they really cared about their well-being and happiness, they would not waste their lives. Ephrem put it bluntly: “We wear ourselves out hording power and working for personal advancement. It only adds to our insecurity and makes us unhappy. The Lord taught us in the Gospel that creation has blessings enough for everyone. He said, ‘Look at the birds of the air and the lilies of the field’? When will we look?”
Ephrem was celebrated for his writing because he brought deep insight to what it meant to be human. Commenting on the Gospel, he wrote: “The things our Lord wants to teach us are simple, but they’re hard.” “This,” Ephrem concluded, “should tell us how well our Lord knew human nature.” But even with his divine knowledge, the Lord responded with compassion, not judgement. It’s what made him Lord. Quoting John’s Gospel, Ephrem reminded his hearers of Jesus’ words, “I have not come to judge the world, but to save it.”
Ephrem’s vision inspires much of Maronite liturgy, but his poems are hard to translate. Modern English is not the best fit for ancient Syriac. In other ways, though, we may be in a better position to appreciate him than the people of his own day who called him “Harp of the Holy Spirit.” In a world aching to hear again “the simple words of the Apostles,” Ephrem may be the whole orchestra.
Rev. Joseph P. Amar, professor emeritus of Notre Dame University, is a Maronite priest and a linguist trained in Semitic languages and in the histories, religions, and cultures of the Middle East.