January 28, 2023

Saint Ephraim the Syrian, the Ascetic Bishop

By Alexandros Christodoulos

Saint Ephraim, who is called "the wonderful" by Symeon the Metaphrastes, was born of poor parents in the city of Nisibis in Mesopotamia, around 306. His ancestors confessed Christ during the persecution of Diocletian, that is why he writes that "I am a relative of martyrs". He himself continued this family legacy of love for Christ. During his childhood he was taught about Christ by his parents but also by the holy bishop James, the great Hierarch of Nisibis. He quickly left the world and departed for the mountains with the anchorites, where he became his disciple. He taught him the love of virtue and the uninterrupted study of the word of God. He became a vessel of the gifts of the Holy Spirit after spiritual struggles and his advancement in purification and sanctification.

At the end of his life, he acknowledged that he had spoken no ill word of anyone, nor had he let any vain talk escape from his mouth. Deprived of worldly wisdom, he becomes a sharer of divine wisdom and received from God the gift of the grace of teaching. According to the testimony of Basil the Great, the holy Ephraim excelled among all the men of his time. Struggling during the day against hunger and at night against sleep, clothing his actions and words with the holy humility of Christ, he received from God the gift of compunction and incessant tears. He was incessantly mourning his sins or the sins of others and sometimes, when he reflected on the wonderful things God had done for us humans, his tears would turn into tears of joy.

During the siege of Nisibis by the Persians, the Saint participated in the defense of the city by strengthening the people. When the city later fell into the hands of the raiders, he went with many Christians to Edessa. He began to teach faith and piety orally and in writing, and he opened a Didaskalion, where many great teachers of the Syrian Church studied.

After some years in Edessa, Saint Ephraim returned again to the desert. He had heard the virtues of Basil the Great praised, and God revealed to him in a vision that the bishop of Caesarea was like a pillar of fire connecting earth to heaven. Without delay he started for Cappadocia. He arrived in Caesarea on the day of the Theophany and entered the temple at the moment when the Divine Liturgy was being celebrated. Although he did not understand Greek, he felt awe as he watched the great hierarch preach, for he saw a white dove perched on his right shoulder, whispering divine words into his ear. This same dove revealed to Basil the Great the presence among the crowd of the humble Syrian ascetic. He sent for him, talked with him a little in the back of the sanctuary and in response to his request, God allowed Ephraim to suddenly start speaking Greek, as if it were his mother tongue. Then Basil ordained him a deacon and let him return to his homeland. Out of humility he always refused to rise to the rank of presbyter.

When he was not busy teaching for the establishment of faith against heathens and heretics, he placed himself humbly at the service of all, as a true minister, imitating Christ, who became our "servant." The steadfastness of the Edessians in Orthodoxy even after his death testifies to his struggles for the truth.

When in 372 there was a great famine in the city of Edessa, he organized for the social welfare of the city. When the difficult time of the famine was over he retired to his cell and surrendered his soul to God on June 9, 373, at the age of sixty-seven. Because he felt that the end of his life was approaching, he gathered his disciples and many residents of Edessa to announce to them his last bequests, which are preserved in his Testament. He begged all who loved him not to honor him with a glorious funeral, but to put his body in the ditch reserved for strangers and offer him, instead of flowers and perfumes, the support of their prayers.

Source: Translated by John Sanidopoulos.

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