St. Ephrem the Syrian – Lyre of the Holy Spirit

The Paraclete not only spoke through his mouth, but also sang in harmonious tones through his vocal chords, making grace resonate in the souls of those who heard his hymns.

Fourth century: Christianity emerges from the catacombs, illustrious Saints mark history; nevertheless, heresies also break out with force and dynamism in the East, in a vain attempt to shroud the Holy Church with their tenebrous shadows.

It was into this historical setting that Ephrem the Syrian, deacon and Doctor of the Church, was born in Nisibis, on the embattled frontiers of the Roman Empire. He was a light destined to shine brilliantly in the firmament of the Church.

Disciple of a Bishop and Saint

There is little to be known about his childhood. According to some biographers, his mother was a Christian, but his father, a pagan priest, forbade her from raising their son according to the Gospel Law. Seeing himself incapable of preventing a profound affinity with Christianity from flourishing in the child’s soul, he expelled him from the house.

Ephrem then turned to the Bishop, St. Jacob, who welcomed him as a son, gave him a thorough catechetical education and administered holy Baptism to him. Noting, with satisfaction, how the young man stood out for his intelligence and wisdom, he ordained him a deacon at age 18.

Shortly thereafter, between May and June of 325, the First Council of Nicaea was held—a historical landmark in the fight against the insidious doctrines of Arius. It is known that St. Jacob participated in this council, and it is believed that the young deacon was also present, serving as the holy bishop’s secretary.

When the assembly ended, Ephrem began giving classes in the theological school opened in Nisibis, as a means of combating the heresies that were spreading throughout its streets and squares. He dedicated himself soul and body to this task, and soon raised the formation of his students to a high level. With perspicacity and wisdom, he waged a relentless battle in defence of the true Faith, with the result that many souls soon returned to the way of salvation.

The three sieges of Nisibis

While the fame of Ephrem’s sanctity grew—along with the admiration of his fellow citizens—Shapur II, Persian King and an enemy of the Cross of Christ, plotted to capture the city from Roman hands. He made three attempts to besiege it and each time was driven back by the Christians.

It was during this period that Ephrem composed the famous Carmina Nisibena — Nisibene Hymns —, in which “he sings in biblical terms and figures the gests and exploits carried out in the city of Nisibis to defend the Catholic Faith and to escape from succumbing to the dominion of the Persian pagans.”1

It is said that during one of these sieges, the people saw Deacon Ephrem climb onto the city walls and resolutely trace a large Sign of the Cross, with which he cursed the troops of the invading king. Subsequently, as if guided by an invisible hand, clouds of flies and other insects descended over the enemy army. They entered the trunks of the elephants, and the ears and nostrils of the warhorses and beasts of burden, provoking such upheaval that the troops withdrew.

However, what the arrogant military forces of the Persians failed to obtain, fell to them some years later, through the Emperor Jovian, as part of the price of a peace treaty… Forced to choose between exile, slavery, or death at the hands of pagans, the Christians found themselves obliged to evacuate their land.

Theology and poetry converge

St. Ephrem the Syrian

Ephrem went to Edessa and settled in a grotto opened in some cliffs on the outskirts, determined to fully dedicate himself to contemplation and asceticism. In this privileged place, he wrote most of his works which are of deep theological richness and adorned with a distinctive characteristic: poetry.

On the uniqueness of St. Ephrem’s work, Benedict XVI pointed out in a general audience that “It is the fact that theology and poetry converge in his work which makes it so special. If we desire to approach his doctrine, we must insist on this from the outset: namely, on the fact that he produces theology in poetical form. Poetry enabled him to deepen his theological reflection through paradoxes and images.”2

The ecclesiastics of Edessa soon noted the uncommon wisdom and sanctity of this hermit and invited him to organize the incipient theological school of the city. Having witnessed the devastation caused among the inhabitants by the heretical sects that abounded there, the holy ascetic accepted.

Thus began a new step in his apostolate. In short order he gathered numerous disciples, to whom he strove to give a solid formation. In a letter addressed to one of them, he counselled: “My son, adhere to humility and the virtues of God will accompany you. […] The beauty of the humble man is unfathomable. There is no passion, whatever it may be, capable of dominating such a man, and there are no limits to his beauty.”3

Lyrist of the Holy Spirit and bard of Mary

The holy deacon’s fight against heresies was not an easy one, and the initial results were meagre. But he forged ahead, and, inspired by the Holy Spirit, found an efficacious means of spreading good doctrine in the dispute against the heretics: through the liturgy. And he was not mistaken, as Pope Pius XI teaches, “For people are instructed in the truths of faith and brought to appreciate the inner joys of religion far more effectually by the annual celebration of our sacred mysteries than by any official pronouncement of the teaching of the Church.”4

These commemorations are born and “in the course of ages these festivals have been instituted one after another according as the needs or the advantage of the people of Christ seemed to demand: as when they needed strength to face a common danger, when they were attacked by insidious heresies, when they needed to be urged to the pious consideration of some mystery of faith or of some divine blessing.”5

With eloquence, wisdom, and sanctity, he composed poetry and hymns imbued with beauty, doctrinal richness, and supernatural unction, to be sung in the assemblies. To accomplish this, he gathered a group of Christian virgins favoured with musical gifts, and taught them to declaim the poems and sing the hymns he composed. These poems and hymns soon resounded melodiously throughout the city. The compositions were so ingenious that people readily memorized them.

In this way, the sweet aroma of evangelical teachings spread to all corners of Edessa. Despite the simplicity and accessibility of St. Ephrem’s verses, made to be sung in common settings, they were so charming, beautiful, and doctrinally rich, that he has gone down in Church history as the lyre of the Holy Spirit. It could be said, comments Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira, “that the Holy Spirit not only spoke through his mouth, but also sang through the harmonious tones of his vocal chords and made grace resonate in souls, to the tune of the lyre with which he sang.”6

These magnificent poetical and musical gifts were often directed toward a luminous Star who shone with special brilliance in the mind and heart of Ephrem: The Virgin Mary. He fostered a deep and tender devotion to her, who accompanied his every step. In praise of the Virgin Mother, he composed countless prayers and melodies which proclaimed, in those remote times, the glories and privileges of Mary which the infallible Magisterium of the Church has since officially defined.

Ephrem turned to the Bishop, St. Jacob, who welcomed him as a son and administered holy Baptism to him
Church and tomb of St. Jacob in Nisibis, present-day Nusaybin (Turkey)

The meeting of two great Saints

Alongside St. Ephrem, three other great lights in Church history shone at that time. They are known as the Cappadocian Fathers: St. Basil the Great, St. Gregory of Nyssa and St. Gregory Nazianzus. These three bishops, like the deacon of Edessa, were dedicated to defending the flock entrusted to their care from the errors of the heresies.

Echoes of the reputation for holiness of one of them, St. Basil, reached Ephrem, who undertook a long voyage to Caesarea of Cappadocia to meet him. The holy bishop, for his part, was filled with enthusiasm when he beheld the eminent sanctity of his visitor. A close friendship formed from this meeting, which united the two men of God forever.

St. Ephrem derived much spiritual benefit from this sojourn with St. Basil and returned to Edessa giving thanks to Divine Providence for having granted him that great grace. On several occasions, Basil expressed his desire to confer priestly ordination to the deacon, and even to elevate him to the episcopal dignity, but without success, for the latter considered himself unworthy of the lofty ministry.

A light that shone throughout the world

He was, in the words of St. John Chrysostom, “scourge of the slothful, consoler of the afflicted”
St. Ephrem – Mosaic from the Monastery of Nea Moni of Chios (Greece)

Around the year 378, God sent Ephrem one last trial, destined to magnificently crown his life of untiring combat in favour of the Holy Church. Edessa was in the grip of a terrible plague, which was carrying off many  inhabitants, and leaving many others bed-ridden. These circumstances opened a new battlefield for the holy deacon, upon which he would generously devote himself to Christ, assisting the sick.

Ephrem, who had done so much for souls, now turned to caring for bodies. He dedicated himself with admirable zeal to the humble task of aiding those poor victims. He ministered to their needs, encouraged them in their sufferings, and comforted them in their anguish. In the midst of this tireless work of charity, he awoke one morning feeling the onset of the symptoms of the epidemic. It was the voice of Our Lord Jesus Christ in his soul, beckoning him to receive his “reward exceeding great” (Gn 15:1) in Heaven.

His disciples sorrowfully assisted him in his illness. On the threshold of death, their holy teacher gave them a final lesson. He requested that instead of funeral honours they offer something of much greater value: holy prayers, the sweet aroma of spiritual incense that would rise up to God in benefit of his soul—the greatest service that can be rendered one who is to appear at the divine judgement.

It was thus that Ephrem crowned a life marked by total self-giving at the service of true doctrine, the salvation of souls, and the glorification of the Holy Catholic Church. He was, in the words of St. John Chrysostom, “scourge of the slothful, consoler of the afflicted, educator, instructor, and exhorter of youth, mirror of monks, leader of penitents, goad and sting of heretics, reservoir of virtues, and the temple and dwelling place of the Holy Spirit.”7

The splendour of his sanctity spread swiftly worldwide. In fact, as St. Gregory of Nyssa affirmed, “he is known in almost every place where the sun shines.”8


Hymn of St. Ephrem to the Virgin Mary

She Gave Us a Fruit Filled with Sweetness

The Virgin invites me to sing the mystery that I contemplate with wonder. Give me, O Son of God, Thine admirable gift, by which I may tune my lyre and portray the image of Thine all-beautiful and well-beloved Mother.

Remaining a virgin, the Virgin Mary gave the world her Son, she nourished Him Who feeds the nations, and carried in her chaste womb the One Who sustains the universe. She is Virgin and Mother, what is wanting to her?

Holy of body and radiantly beautiful of soul, pure of spirit and upright of intelligence, endowed with perfect sentiments, chaste, faithful, of pure heart, proven; she is full of all virtue.

Our Lady with the Child Jesus Mosaic in the Basilica of Sant’ Apollinare, Ravenna (Italy)

Let the entire race of virgins rejoice in Mary, for one among them gave birth to Him Who sustains all of creation, Who delivered the human race from servitude.

Let the old Adam, wounded by the serpent, be filled with joy in Mary, for she gives him a posterity that enables him to crush the accursed serpent and to heal his own mortal wound.

Let the priests rejoice in the Blessed Virgin. She gave to the world the eternal Priest, Who is both Priest and Victim. He put an end to the ancient sacrifice, offering Himself as the Victim that placates the Father.

Let all the prophets rejoice in Mary. Their visions are fulfilled in her, their prophecies accomplished; their oracles confirmed.

Let all the patriarchs exult in Mary. In the same way that they received their blessing that had been promised to them, she likewise made them perfect in her Son. By Him were the prophets, the righteous, and the priests purified.

Whereas Eve plucked the bitter fruit from the fatal tree, Mary gave men a fruit filled with sweetness. And, behold, the whole world delights with the fruit of Mary.

The Tree of Life, hidden in the midst of Paradise, grew in Mary and extended its shade over the universe, sending forth its fruits to nations both distant and near.

Mary wove a garment of glory and gave it to our first father. Among the trees he hid his nakedness, and now he is adorned with modesty, with virtue, and with beauty. He, overthrown by his spouse, is raised by his Daughter; sustained by her, he arises like a hero.

Eve and the serpent fixed a snare and Adam fell; Mary and her royal Son condescend to free him from the abyss.

The virgin vine produced a lush cluster whose sweet wine restored joy to the bereft. In their anguish, Eve and Adam tasted of the wine of life, and with it were fully consoled.

AMANN, Émile. Le dogme catholique dans les Pères de l’Église.
2.ed. Paris: Gabriel Beauchesne, 1922, p.221-223.



1 BREYDY, Miguel. San Efrén Siro. In: ECHEVERRÍA, Lamberto de; LLORCA, SJ, Bernardino; REPETTO BETES, José Luis (Org.). Año Cristiano. Madrid: BAC, 2004, v.VI, p.212.

2 BENEDICT XVI. St. Ephrem the Syrian. General Audience, 28/11/2007.

3 ST. EPHREM OF NISIBIS. Epístola a un discípulo. In: Congregação para o Clero:

4 PIUS XI. Quas Primas, n.20.

5 Idem, n.21.

6 CORRÊA DE OLIVEIRA, Plinio. Conference. São Paulo, 6 Nov. 1972.

7 ST. JOHN CHRYSOSTOM. Orat. de consumm. sæc., apud Benedict XV. Principi Apostolorum Petro.

8 ST. GREGORY OF NYSSA. Vita S. Ephrem, apud Benedict XV, op. cit.



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