Feast Day of Saint Ephraim the Syrian
St. Ephraim was born early in the fourth century in the ancient city of Nisibis in Mesopotamia, where the Roman Empire bordered on the Persian Kingdom. At one time Mesopotamia belonged to Syria and for this reason St. Ephraim is known as “the Syrian.” He was born of Christian parents before the Edict of Milan was issued (313), establishing official toleration of religion, and, as he later wrote, his ancestors “confessed Christ before the judge; I am related to martyrs.”
When he was still a baby, his parents had a prophetic dream: from the boy’s tongue sprang a lush vine which produced abundant clusters of grapes. The more the birds ate the fruit, the more it multiplied. Later it was revealed that these clusters were his sermons, the leaves of the vine–his hymns.
Remember not O Lord the sins of my youth. (Ps. 25:7) Judging from his youth, however, one could never have guessed his future greatness. In spite of his parents’ having educated him in Christian precepts, he was impetuous and even rather wild, like an unruly colt which resists the bridle: “I would quarrel over trifles, acted foolishly, gave in to bad impulses and lustful thoughts. My youth nearly convinced me that life is ruled by chance. But God’s Providence brought my impassioned youth to the light of wisdom.” He relates the story of his conversion:
“One day my parents sent me outer town and I found a pregnant cow feeding along the road. I took up stones and began pelting the cow, driving it into the woods till evening when it fell down dead? During the night wild beasts ate it. On my way back, I met the poor owner of the cow. ‘My son,’ he asked, ‘did you drive away my cow?’ I not only denied it, but heaped abuse and insult upon the poor man.”
A few days later he was idling with some shepherds. When it grew too late to return home, he spent the night with them. That night some sheep were stolen and the boy was accused of being in league with the robbers. He was taken before the magistrate and cast into prison. In a dream an angel appeared to Ephraim and asked him why he was there. The boy began at once to declare that he was, innocent. “Yes,” said the angel, “you are innocent of the crime imputed to you, but have you forgotten the poor man’s cow?”
When Ephraim saw the tortures to which criminals were subjected, he became terrified. He turned to God and vowed that he would become a monk if God would spare him such a cruel ordeal. The magistrate, however, just laughed at the youth’s tears and ordered that he be stretched on the rack.
But just then a servant came to announce that dinner was ready. “Very well,” said the magistrate, “I will examine the boy another day.” And he ordered him back to prison. Providentially, the next time the magistrate saw Ephraim, he thought he had been punished enough and dismissed him. Although he was spared the rack, Ephraim had learned his lesson and, like the Prophet David, he entreated the Lord to overlook his youthful folly. True to his vow, upon his release he went straightway to the hermits living in the mountains where he became a disciple of St. James (Jan. 12), who later became a great bishop of Nisibis. Born again in repentance, Ephraim began to train as an athlete of virtues, exorcizing himself in the study of the Holy Scriptures and in prayer and fasting. The passionate and wayward youth was transformed into a humble and contrite monk, weeping day and night for his sins and entirely surrendered to God. Ephraim’s earnest resolve pleased the Lord Who rewarded him with the gifts of wisdom; grace flowed from his mouth like a sweet stream, in fulfillment of his parents’ dream.
In spite of the gifts which God so lavishly bestowed upon him, St. Ephraim remained deeply humble. He even feigned madness so as to avoid being consecrated bishop and the glory that attends that position. Doubtless, his humility was guarded by the remembrance of the sins of his youth and by his contrite spirit which followed upon this remembrance. But while tears of repentance constantly flowed from his eyes, Ephraim’s face was bright and shone with joy. As St. Gregory writes:
“Where Ephraim speaks of contrition, he lifts our thought to the Divine goodness and pours cut thanksgiving and praise to the Most High.”
On January 28, 373, after a brief illness, St. Ephraim reposed from his labors and was received into the heavenly habitations. The citizens of Edessa called him a “lyre of the Holy Spirit.” Now, centuries later, his works still sing to the soul, inspiring it with the sweet fruit of repentance.
~Website of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America, http://www.antiochian.org/saint_ephraim.