We often refer to the saints as “blessed”, recognizing that they have reached a degree of purity and goodness that most of us struggle merely to aspire to. In his Sermon on the Mount, we hear our Lord’s description of the spiritual “rewards” for those who reach this state of blessedness, and in the life of St. Ephrem of Syria, we see one who has undoubtedly received those rewards.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.”
Ephrem was born around the year 306 in the city of Nisibis in Mesopotamia. Some accounts say that his father was a pagan priest; whether or not this was true, he was born into a world in which Christianity was not yet established. Despite pagan influences around him, the boy sought diligently for God and became convinced of the truth of Christianity. He was baptized around the year 324 and became an ardent pupil of Jacob, bishop of the city of Nisibis. He may even have accompanied Bishop Jacob to the Council of Nicea in 325., listening to the debates and theological discourse on the nature of Christ. Ephrem had a gift with words, and during this time, he began writing poetry to express Christian truth and refute heresies.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
Before Bishop Jacob died, and during the tenure of two of his successors, the city was besieged numerous times by the Persian army, which eventually flooded the area by damming the nearby river. Ephrem used this disaster to write a long poem likening the city to Noah’s ark. The people attributed the saving of the city to the prayers of this holy man, who was truly “poor in spirit” – dependent on God alone.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”
When in 363, Nisibis was turned over to the Persians as part of a peace treaty, the terms of the treaty required that all Christians leave the city. Ephrem – who was by now nearly 60 years old – and his fellow Christian refugees moved to the city of Edessa, about 100 miles away. Here the saint continued to pursue the ascetic life, he was ordained deacon, and he continued to offer his gift with words to God. He wrote treatises on many of the books of the Bible and continued to write poems, hymns and prayers. One of the most famous of these is the Lenten prayer of one who mourns for his sins:
O Lord and Master of my life, give me not a spirit of sloth, vain curiosity, lust for power, and idle talk, but give to me Thy servant a spirit of soberness, humility, patience, and love. O Lord and King, grant me to see my own faults and not to condemn my brother: for blessed art Thou to the ages of ages. Amen.
“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.”
A great famine occurred in Edessa around the year 372. There was a drought, the crops failed and many of the city’s residents were dying of starvation. There was no municipal system for handling such an emergency, and so St. Ephrem, the Deacon, volunteered to gather the people who were in need, to distribute what food could be found, to comfort the dying and to arrange for the burial of the dead. He did this untiringly and showing forth the love and mercy of God.
“Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God.”
Shortly after the famine ended, St. Ephrem, having returned to hs cave “cell”, fell asleep in the Lord. From his baptism to his death, this holy man of God had devoted himself wholly to the pursuit of “blessedness” through writing to teach and turn the hearts of men, through acts of mercy and kindness to those in need; and through a quiet and peaceful life of prayer and fasting amidst controversy, war, and exile. We have Christ’s assurance that St. Ephrem the Syrian has been satisfied, that he has come to the kingdom of heaven, has been comforted and has obtained mercy. We know that he now sees God and we ask that he intercede for us at the heavenly throne.
[Sources: Poets and Hymnographers of the Church, by Constance J. Tarasar; St. Ephrem the Syrian: Hymns on Paradise, introduction and translation by Sebastian Brock; The Harvest of Antioch, compiled by Bishop BASIL; The Oxford Dictionary of Saints by Hugh Farmer, The Prologue from Ochrid, by Bishop (St.) Nikolai Velimiroviċ]