Butler’s Lives of the Saints – Saint Ephrem of Edessa, Doctor of the Church, Confessor

[Saint Ephrem of Syria]Article

A.D. 378.

This humble deacon was the most illustrious of all the doctors, who, by their doctrine and writings have adorned the Syriac church. He was born in the territory of Nisibis, a strong city on the banks of the Tigris, in Mesopotamia. His parents lived in the country, and earned their bread with the sweat of their brows, but were ennobled by the blood of martyrs in their family, and had themselves both confessed Christ before the persecutors under Dioclesian, or his successors. They consecrated Ephrem to God from his cradle, like another Samuel, but he was eighteen years old when he was baptized. Before that time he had committed certain faults which his enlightened conscience extremely exaggerated to him after his perfect conversion to God, and he never ceased to bewail, with floods of tears, his ingratitude towards God, in having ever offended him. Sozomen says these sins were little sallies of anger, into which he had sometimes fallen with his playfellows in his childhood. The saint himself mentions in his confession two crimes (as he styles them) of this age, which called for his tears during his whole life. The first was, that in play he had driven a neighbour’s cow among the mountains, where it happened to be killed by a wild beast; the second was a doubt which once came into his mind in his childhood, whether God’s particular providence reached to an immediate superintendency over all our individual actions. This sin he exceedingly magnifies in his contrition, though it happened before his baptism, and never proceeded further than a fluctuating thought from ignorance in his childhood; and in his Testament he thanks God for having been always preserved by his mercy since his baptism from any error in faith. Himself assures us that the divine goodness was pleased in a wonderful manner to discover to him, after this temptation, the folly of his error, and the wretched blindness of his soul in having pretended to fathom the secrets of providence.

Within a month after he had been assaulted by the temptation of the aforesaid doubt, he happened in travelling through the country to be benighted, and was forced to take up his quarters with a shepherd who had lost in the wilderness the flock committed to his charge. The master of the shepherd suspected him guilty of theft, and pursuing him, found him and Ephrem together, and cast them both into prison, upon suspicion that they had stolen his sheep. Ephrem was extremely afflicted at his misfortune, and in the dungeon found seven other prisoners, who were all falsely accused or suspected of different crimes, though really guilty of others. When he had lain seven days in prison in great anguish of mind, an angel appearing to him in his sleep told him he was sent to show him the justice and wisdom of Divine Providence in governing and directing all human events; and that this should be manifested to him in the case of those prisoners who seemed to suffer in his company unjustly. The next day the judge called the prisoners before him, and put two of them to the torture, in order to compel them to confess their crimes. While others were tormented, Ephrem stood by the rack trembling and weeping for himself, under the apprehension of being every moment put to the question. The by-standers rallied him for his fears, and said, “Ay, it is thy turn next; it is to no purpose now to weep: why didst thou not fear to commit the crime?” However, he was not put on the rack, but sent back to prison. The other prisoners, though innocent of the crimes of which they were first arraigned, were all convicted of other misdemeanors, and each of them received the chastisement due to his offence. As to Ephrem, the true thief having been discovered, he was honourably acquitted, after seventy days’ confinement. This event the saint relates at length in his confessions. God was pleased to give him this sensible proof of the sweetness, justice, and tender goodness of his holy providence, which we are bound to adore in resignation and silence; waiting till the curtain shall be drawn aside, and the whole economy of his loving dispensations to his elect displayed in its true amiable light, and placed in its full view before our eyes in the next life. Though to take a view of the infinite wisdom, justice, and sanctity which God displayeth in all the dispensations of his providence, we must take into the prospect the rewards and punishments of the next world, and all the hidden springs of this adorable mystery of faith; yet his divine goodness to excite our confidence in him, was pleased, by this revelation to his servant, to manifest in this instance his attributes justified in part, even in this life, of which he hath given us a most illustrious example with regard to holy Job.

Saint Ephrem, from the time of his baptism, which he received soon after this accident, began to be more deeply penetrated with the fear of the divine judgment, and he had always present to his mind the rigorous account he was to give to God of all his actions, the remembrance of which was to him a source of almost uninterrupted tears. Hoping more easily to secure his salvation in a state in which his thoughts would never be diverted from it, soon after he was baptized he took the monastic habit, and put himself under the direction of a holy abbot, with whose leave he chose for his abode a little hermitage in the neighbourhood of the monastery. He seemed to set no bounds to his fervour. He lay on the bare ground, often fasted whole days without eating, and watched a great part of the night in prayer. It was a rule observed in all the monasteries of Mesopotamia and Egypt, that every religious man should perform his task of manual labour, of which he gave an account to his superior at the end of every week. The work of these monks was always painful, that it might be a part of their penance; and it was such as was compatible with private prayer, and a constant attention of the mind to God; for they always prayed or meditated at their work; and for this purpose, the first task which was enjoined a young monk was to get the psalter by heart. The profits of their labour, above the little pittance which was necessary for their mean subsistence in their penitential state, were always given to the poor. Saint Ephrem made sails for ships. Of his poverty he writes thus in his Testament: “Ephrem hath never possessed purse, staff, or scrip, or any other temporal estate; my heart hath known no affection for gold or silver, or any earthly goods.” He was naturally choleric, but so perfectly did he subdue this passion, that meekness was one of the most conspicuous virtues in his character, and he was usually styled The meek, or the peaceable man of God. He was never known to dispute or contend with any one; with the most obstinate sinners he used only tears and entreaties. Once, when he had fasted several days, the brother who was bringing him a mess of pottage made with a few herbs for his meal, let fall the pot, and broke it. The saint seeing him in confusion, said cheerfully, “As our supper will not come to us, let us go to it.” And sitting down on the ground by the broken pot, he picked up his meal as well as he could. Humility made the saint rejoice in the contempt of himself, and sincerely desire that all men had such a knowledge and opinion of his baseness and nothingness as to despise him from their hearts, and to look upon him most unworthy to hold any rank among creatures. This sincere spirit of profound humility all his words, actions, and writings breathed in a most affecting manner.

Honours and commendations served to increase the saint’s humility. Hearing himself one day praised, he was not able to speak, and his whole body was covered with a violent sweat, caused by the inward agony and confusion of his soul at the consideration of the last day; for he was seized with extreme fear and dread, thinking that he should then be overwhelmed with shame, when his baseness and hypocrisy should be proclaimed, and made manifest before all creatures, especially those very persons who here commended him, and whom he had deceived by his hypocrisy. We may hence easily judge how much the thought of any elevation or honour affrighted him. When a certain city sought to choose him bishop, he counterfeited himself mad.

Compunction of heart is the sister of sincere humility and penance, and nothing seemed more admirable in our saint than this virtue. Tears seemed always ready to be called forth in torrents as often as he raised his heart to God, or remembered the sweetness of his divine love, the rigour of his judgments, or the spiritual miseries of our souls. “We cannot call to mind his perpetual tears,” says Saint Gregory of Nyssa, “without melting into tears. To weep seemed almost as natural to him as it is for other men to breathe. Night and day his eyes seemed always swimming in tears. No one could meet him at any time, who did not see them trickling down his cheeks.” He appeared always drowned in an abyss of compunction. This was always painted in most striking features on his countenance, the sight of which was, even in his silence, a moving instruction to all who beheld him. This spirit of compunction gave a singular energy to all his words and writings; it never forsakes him, even in panegyrics or in treating of subjects of spiritual joy. Where he speaks of the felicity of paradise or the sweetness of divine love in transports of overflowing hope and joy, he never loses sight of the motives of compunction, and always returns to his tears. By the continual remembrance of the last judgment he nourished in his soul this constant profound spirit of compunction.

Saint Gregory of Nyssa writes, that no one can read his discourses on the last judgment without dissolving into tears, so awful is the representation, and so strong and lively the image which he paints of that dreadful day. Almost every object he saw called it afresh to his mind. The spotless purity of our saint was the fruit of his sincere humility, and constant watchfulness over himself. He says that the great Saint Antony, out of modesty, would never wash his feet, or suffer any part of his body, except his face and hands, to be seen naked by any one.

Saint Ephrem spent many years in the desert, collected within himself, having his mind raised above all earthly things, and living as it were out of the flesh, and out of the world, to use the expression of Saint Gregory Nazianzen. His zeal drew several severe persecutions upon him from certain tepid monks; but he found a great support in the example and advice of Saint Julian, whose life he has written. He lost this comfort by the death of that great servant of God; and about the same time died, in 338 (not 350, as Tillemont mistakes), Saint James, bishop of Nisibis, his spiritual director and patron. Not long after this, God inspired Saint Ephrem to leave his own country, and go to Edessa, there to venerate the relics of the saints, by which are probably meant chiefly those of the apostle Saint Thomas. He likewise desired to enjoy the conversation of certain holy anchorets who inhabited the mountains near that city, which was sometimes reckoned in Mesopotamia, and sometimes in Syria. Under the weak reigns of the last of the Seleucidæ, kings of Asia, it was erected into a small kingdom by the princes called Abgars. As the saint was going into Edessa, a certain courtezan fixed her eyes upon him, which when he perceived he turned away his face, and said with indignation: “Why dost thou gaze upon me?” To which she made this smart reply; “Woman was formed from man; but you ought always to keep your eyes cast down on the earth, out of which man was framed.” Saint Ephrem, whose heart was always filled with the most profound sentiments of humility, was much struck and pleased with this reflection, and admired the providence of God which sends us admonitions by all sorts of means. He wrote a book on those words of the courtezan, which the Syrians anciently esteemed the most useful and the best of all the writings of this incomparable doctor; but it is now lost. It seems to have contained maxims of humility.

Saint Ephrem lived at Edessa, highly honoured by all ranks and orders of men. Being ordained deacon of that church, he became an apostle of penance, which he preached with incredible zeal and fruit. He from time to time returned into his desert, there to renew in his heart the spirit of compunction and prayer; but always came out of his wilderness, inflamed with the ardour of a Baptist, to announce the divine truths to a world buried in spiritual darkness and insensibility. The saint was endued with great natural talents, which he had improved by study and contemplation. He was a poet, and had read something of logic; but had no tincture of the rest of the Grecian philosophy. This want of the heathenish learning and profane science was supplied by his good sense and uncommon penetration, and the diligence with which he cultivated his faculties by more sublime sacred studies. He learned very accurately the doctrine of the Catholic faith, was well versed in the holy scriptures, and was a perfect master of the Syriac tongue, in which he wrote with great elegance and propriety. He was possessed of an extraordinary faculty of natural eloquence. Words flowed from him like a torrent, which yet were too slow for the impetuosity and multitude of thoughts with which he was overwhelmed in speaking on spiritual subjects. His conceptions were always clear, his diction pure and agreeable. He spoke with admirable perspicuity, copiousness, and sententiousness, in an easy, unaffected style; and with so much sweetness, so pathetic a vehemence, so natural an accent, and so strong emotions of his own heart, that his words seemed to carry with them an irresistible power. His writings derive great strength from the genius and natural bold tropes of the Oriental languages applied by so great a master, and have a graceful beauty and force which no translation can attain; though his works are only impetuous effusions of an overflowing heart, not studied compositions. What recommends them beyond all other advantages of eloquence, is, they are all the language of the heart, and a heart penetrated with the most perfect sentiments of divine love, confidence, compunction, humility, and all other virtues. They present his ardent, humble, and meek soul such as it was, and show how ardently he was occupied only on the great truths of salvation; how much he humbled himself without intermission, under the almighty hand of God, infinite in sanctity and terrible in his justice; with what profound awe he trembled in the constant attention to his adorable presence, and at the remembrance of his dreadful judgment, and with what fervour he both preached and practised the most austere penance, labouring continually with all his strength “to prepare himself a treasure for the last hour,” as he expresses himself. His words strongly imprint upon the souls of others those sentiments with which he was penetrated: they carry light and conviction; they never fail to strike, and pierce to the very bottom of the soul. Nor is the fire which they kindle in the breast a passing warmth, but a flame which devours and destroys all earthly affections, transforms the soul into itself, and continues without abating, the lasting force of its activity. “Who that is proud,” says Saint Gregory of Nyssa, “would not become the humblest of men by reading his discourse on humility? Who would not be inflamed with a divine fire by reading his treatise on charity? Who would not wish to be chaste in heart and spirit, by reading the praises he has given to virginity?”

The saint, though most austere to himself, was discreet in the direction of others, and often repeated this advice, that it is a dangerous stratagem of the enemy to induce fervent converts to embrace in the beginning excessive mortifications. Wherefore it behoves them not to undertake without prudent counsel any extraordinary practices of penance; but always such in which they will be able to persevere with constancy and cheerfulness. Who ever laid on a child a burden of a hundred pounds weight, under which he is sure to fall?

Saint Ephrem brought many idolaters to the faith, and converted great numbers of Arians, Sabellians, and other heretics. Saint Jerom commends a book which he wrote against the Macedonians, to prove the divinity of the Holy Ghost. He established the perfect efficacy of penance against the Novations, who, though the boldest and most insolent of men, seemed like children without strength before this experienced champion, as Saint Gregory of Nyssa assures us. Not less glorious were his triumphs over the Millenarians, Marcionites, Manichees, and the disciples of the impious Bardesanes, who denied the resurrection of the flesh, and had in the foregoing century spread his errors at Edessa, by songs which the people learned to sing. Saint Ephrem, to minister a proper antidote against this poison, composed elegant Catholic songs and poems which he taught the inhabitants both of the city and country with great spiritual advantage. Apollinaris began openly to broach his heresy a little before the year 376, denying in Christ a human soul, which he pretended that the divine person supplied in the humanity: whence it would have followed that he was not truly man, but only assumed a human body, not the complete human nature. Saint Ephrem was then very old, but he opposed this new monster with great vigour. Several heresies he crushed in their birth, and he suffered much from the fury of the Arians under Constantius, and of the Heathens under Julian, but in both these persecutions reaped glorious laurels and trophies.

It was by a divine admonition, as himself assures us, that about the year 372, he undertook a long journey to pay a visit to Basil. Being arrived at Cæsarea, he went to the great church, where he found the holy bishop preaching. After the sermon, Saint Basil sent for him, and asked him by an interpreter, if he was not Ephrem, the servant of Christ. “I am that Ephrem,” said he, “who have wandered astray from the path of heaven.” Then melting into tears, and raising his voice, he cried out: “O, my father, have pity on a sinful wretch, and lead me into the narrow path.” Saint Basil gave him many rules of holy life, and after long spiritual conferences dismissed him with great esteem, having first ordained his companion priest. Saint Ephrem himself never would consent to be promoted to the sacerdotal dignity, of which he expresses the greatest dread and apprehension, in his sermon on the priesthood. Being returned to Edessa, he retired to a little solitary cell, where he prepared himself for his last passage, and composed the latter part of his works. For, not content to labour for the advantage of one age, or one people, he studied to promote that of all mankind, and all times to come. The public distress under a great famine called him again out of his retirement, in order to serve, and procure relief for the poor. He engaged the rich freely to open their coffers, placed beds for the sick in all the public porticos, visited them every day, and served them with his own hands. The public calamity being over, he hastened back to his solitude, where he shortly after took ill of a fever. He wrote about that time his seventy-six Paræneses, or moving exhortations to penance, consisting in a great measure of most affective prayers; several of which are used by the Syrians in their church office. His confidence in the precious fruits of the holy sacrament of the altar raised his hope, and inflamed his love, especially in his passage to eternity. Thus he expresses himself: “Entering upon so long and dangerous a journey, I have my viaticum, even Thee, O Son of God. In my extreme spiritual hunger, I will feed on thee, the repairer of mankind. So it shall be that no fire will dare to approach me; for it will not be able to bear the sweet saving odour of thy body and blood.” The circumstances of our saint’s death are edifying, and deserve our notice; for nothing more strongly affects our heart, or makes on it a more sensible impression than the behaviour and words of great men in their last moments.

Saint Ephrem was always filled with grief, indignation, and confusion when he perceived others to treat him as a saint, or to express any regard or esteem for him. In his last sickness he laid this strict injunction on his disciples and friends: “Sing no funeral hymns at Ephrem’s burial; suffer no encomiastic oration. Wrap not my carcase in any costly shroud: erect no monument to my memory. Allow me only the portion and place of a pilgrim; for I am a pilgrim and a stranger as all my fathers were on earth.” Seeing that several persons had prepared rich shrouds for his interment, he was much afflicted, and he charged all those who had such a design to drop it, and give the money to the poor, which he in particular obliged a rich nobleman, who had bought a most sumptuous shroud for that purpose, to do. Saint Ephrem, as long as he was able to speak, continued to exhort all men to the fervent pursuit of virtue, as his last words sufficiently show, says Saint Gregory of Nyssa, meaning the saint’s testament, which is still extant genuine, and the same that was quoted by Saint Gregory, Sozomen, etc. In it he says: “I Ephrem die. Be it known to you all that I write this testament to conjure you always to remember me in your prayers after my decease.” This he often repeats. He protests that he had always lived in the true faith, to which he exhorts all most firmly to adhere. Deploring and confessing aloud the vanity and sinfulness of his life, he adjures all present that no one would suffer his sinful dust to be laid under the altar, and that no one would take any of his rags for relics, nor show him any honour, for he was a sinner, and the last of creatures. “But,” says he, “throw my body hastily on your shoulders, and cast me into my grave, as the abomination of the universe. Let no one praise me; for I am full of confusion, and the very abstract of baseness. To show what I am, rather spit upon me, and cover my body with phlegm. Did you smell the stench of my actions, you would fly from me, and leave me unburied, not being able to bear the horrible corruption of my sins.” He forbids any torches or perfumes, ordering his corpse to be thrown into the common burying-place among poor strangers. He expresses most feeling sentiments of compunction, and gives his blessing to his disciples, with a prediction of divine mercy in their favour; but excepts two among them, Aruad and Paulonas, both persons famed for eloquence; yet he foresaw that they would afterwards apostatize from the Catholic faith. The whole city was assembled before the saint’s door, every one being bathed in tears; and all strove to get as near to him as possible, and to listen to his last instructions. A lady of great quality, named Lamprotata, falling at his feet, begged his leave to buy a coffin for his interment; to which he assented, on condition that it should be a very mean one, and that the lady would promise to renounce all vanities in a spirit of penance, and never again to be carried on the shoulders of men, or in a chair; all which she cheerfully engaged herself to perform. The saint having ceased to speak, continued in silent prayer till he calmly gave up his soul to God. He died in a very advanced age about the year 378. His festival was kept at Edessa immediately after his death. On it Saint Gregory of Nyssa soon after spoke his panegyric, at the request of one Ephrem, who having been taken captive by the Ismaelites, had recommended himself to this saint his patron, and had been wonderfully delivered from his chains and from many dangers. Saint Gregory closes his discourse with this address to the saint: “You are now assisting at the divine altar, and before the Prince of life, with the angels, praising the most holy Trinity; remember us all, and obtain for us the pardon of our sins.” The true martyrology of Bede calls the 9th of July the day of his deposition; which agrees with Palladius, who places his death in harvest-time, though the Latins have long kept his festival on the 1st of February, and the Greeks on the 28th of January. His perpetual tears, far from disfiguring his face, made it appear more serene and beautiful, and his very aspect raised the veneration of all who beheld him. The Greeks paint him very tall, bent with old age, of a sweet and beautiful countenance, with his eyes swimming in tears, and the venerable marks of sanctity in his looks and habit.

Saint Austin says, that Adam in paradise praised God, and did not sigh; but in our present state, a principal function of our prayer consists in sighs and compunction. Divine love, as Saint Gregory observes, our banishment from God, our dangers, our past sins, our daily offences, and the weight of our own spiritual miseries, and those of the whole world call upon us continually to weep, at least spiritually, and in the desire of our heart, if we cannot always with our eyes. Every object round about us suggests many motives to excite our tears. We ought to mingle them even with our hymns of praise and love. Can we make an act of divine love without being pierced with bitter grief and contrition, reflecting that we have been so base and ungrateful as to have offended our infinitely good God? Can we presume without trembling to sing his praises with our impure affections, or to pronounce his adorable name with our defiled lips? And do we not first endeavour, by tears of compunction, to wash away the stains of our souls, begging to be sprinkled and cleansed by hyssop, dipped not in the blood of sheep or goats, but in the blood of the spotless Lamb, who died to take away the sins of the world? If the most innocent among the saints weep continually from motives of holy love, how much more ought the sinner to mourn! “The voice of the turtle hath been heard in our land.” If the turtle, the emblem of innocence and fidelity, make its delight to mourn solitary in this desert, what ought not the unfaithful soul to do? The penitent sinner, instead of the sighs of the turtle, ought to pour forth his grief in loud groans, imitating the doleful cries of the ostrich, and in torrents of tears, by which the deepest sorrow for having offended so good a God, forces his broken heart to give it vent.

On the Writings of Saint Ephrem

The first volume of the Vatican edition of this father’s works begins with his sermon On Virtues and Vices. He expresses in it a surprise to see the full seek food from him who was empty, and says he is confounded to speak, seeing every word would accuse and condemn himself. However, trembling, he recommends to his hearers the fear of God; charity, by which we are meek, patient, tender to all, desirous to serve, and give to all; hope, and longanimity, by which we bear all; patience, meekness, sweetness to all; inviolable love of truth in the smallest things, obedience, temperance, etc. and speaks against all the contrary vices, envy, detraction, etc.

His two Confessions or Reprehensions of himself are only effusions of his heart in these dispositions. The first he begins as follows: “Have pity on me, all ye that have bowels of compassion.” Then he earnestly begs their prayers that he may find mercy with God, though he was from his infancy an useless abandoned vessel. He laments his spiritual miseries in the most moving words, declaring that he trembles lest, as flames from heaven devoured him who presumed to offer profane fire on the altar, so he should meet with the same judgment for appearing before God in prayer without having the fire of his divine love in his heart. He invites all men to weep and pray for him, making a public confession of the failings which his pure lights discovered in his affections; for in these, notwithstanding his extraordinary progress in the contrary virtues, he seemed to himself to discern covetousness, jealousy, and sloth, though he appeared of all men the most remote from the very shadow of those vices; and by tears of compunction he studied more and more to purify his heart, that God might vouchsafe perfectly to reign in it. The second part of this work is a bitter accusation of his pride; which sin, as he adds, destroys even the gifts of God in a soul, blasts all her virtues, and renders them a most filthy abomination; for all our virtues will be tried at the last day by a fire which only humility can stand. He laments how pride infects the whole world; that some, by a strange phrenzy, seek to gratify it in earthly fooleries, and the most silly vanities, on which the opinion of madmen has stamped a pretended dignity and imaginary value. He laments bitterly, that even spiritual men are in danger of sinning, by taking pride in virtue itself, though this be the pure gift of God; and when by his mercy we are enriched with it, we are, nevertheless, base and unprofitable servants.

In his second Reprehension of himself, after having elegantly demonstrated a particular providence inspecting and governing the minutest affairs and circumstances, he grievously accuses himself of having entertained a doubt of it in his youth, before his conversion to God. He condemns himself as guilty of vain-glory, sloth, lukewarmness, immortification, irreverence in the church, talkativeness, contentiousness, and other sins. He fears lest his repentance should be like that of Esau, and begs the pity and prayers of all men for an infamous blind leper. He weeps to see that some men had conceived an esteem for him to whom none was due; and he cries out to them—“Take off my false covering, and you will see in me nothing but worms, stench, and filth: remove the cloak of hypocrisy, and you will find me an hideous and nauseous sepulchre.” He compares himself to the Pharisees, as wearing only the habit of the prophets and saints, to his heavier condemnation; for vice, covered with a mask of virtue, is always more odious and detestable. In another Confession, (t. 3, p. 439,) after accusing himself of sloth, pride, uncharitableness, and other sins, he most movingly entreats all men to weep for him; wishing they could see the extreme miseries of his heart, which could not fail most powerfully to excite their compassion, though they could not be able to bear the hideous sight of the load of his monstrous iniquities.

His treatise On the Passions is of the same nature, a lamentation that from his infancy he had been a contemner of grace, and slothful to virtue, strengthened daily his passions, and groaned in the midst of snares which made him fear to live lest he should go on relapsing into sloth.

He has left us many tracts on Compunction, which, indeed, all his writings breathe. In the first which bears this title, he invites all, rich and poor, old and young, to join him in weeping, to purchase eternal life, and to be delivered from everlasting death: by weeping and crying to see with the blind man in the gospel, the soul will be enlightened to see her miseries. God, the angels, all heaven expect and invite us earnestly to these tears: God’s terrible judgment is at hand; which he describes, and then adds, to prevent its justice we must weep not one day only, but all the days of our life, as David did, in affliction, continual prayer, austerities, and alms. The narrow gate does not admit others; the Judge will exclude those who sought their joy on earth and pampered their flesh. Then it will be too late to trim our lamps, or seek for the oil of good works; then no more poor will stand at any door for us to redeem our sins by alms. He laments our spiritual miseries, especially his sins and sloth continued all his life now to the eleventh hour. He awakes his soul by the short time that remains, and that uncertain too.

In his second he relates, that going out of Edessa early one morning, accompanied with two brethren, and beholding the heavens beautifully spangled with bright stars, he said to himself—“If the lustre of these luminaries be so dazzling, how will the saints shine when Christ shall come in glory! But suddenly the thought of that terrible day struck my mind, and I trembled in all my joints, and was seized with convulsions, and in an agony of fear, sighing and overwhelmed with a flood of tears, I cried out in bitter anguish of mind: How shall I be then found! How shall I stand before that tribunal! A monster infected with pride among the humble and the perfect, a goat among the sheep, and a barren tree without fruit. The martyrs will show their torments, and the monks their virtues; but thou, alas! O sinful, vain, and arrogant soul, wilt only bear thy sloth and negligence.” His two companions, moved by the excess of his tears, wept with him.

In his Discourse, that we ought never to laugh with a worldly joy, but to always weep, he enforces the obligation of perpetual compunction and tears.

In his ascetic Sermon, he says grief and zeal compel him to speak, but his unworthiness and his sins persuade him to be silent, his eyes delight only in tears to bewail night and day in floods the wounds of his soul, and above all that pride which conceals them from him. He laments tepidity and love of earthly things should be found among the monks, and that some interrupt their mortifications, weeping one day and laughing the next, lying one night on the ground, the next on a soft bed, whereas all our life ought to be a course of penance; he extols the humility and constant mortification of the ancient and all true monks, like shining diamonds in the world. The rest of this long discourse is a vehement exhortation of the monks to fervour and zeal, this life being a time of traffic, and very short, and a nothing; the recompense immense, and the rigour of God’s justice terrible to all. He pronounces woes to himself in the confusion he expected in the last day before all who esteemed him here. Begs earnestly all to pray for him. One of the principal means to preserve this fervour, is a strict examen every night and morning. A trader casts up every day his losses and gains, and is solicitous to repair any losses; so do you, says he, every morning and night make up your accounts carefully; examine yourself: Have I to-day spoke any idle words, despised any, etc.? Have I this night watched, prayed, etc.? He advises not to undertake too much in austerities, but such as the soul will not relax in, than which nothing is more pernicious.

His parænetic Sermon is also addressed to young monks, whom he advises to the continual presence of God in their minds most earnestly under temptations. Against sloth he observes, this succeeding fervour by fits makes a life one chain of risings and falling again; building by mortification, and destroying again by relaxing. He bids them have this inscription in the beginning of their book: Sloth banished for ever and ever from my soul.

His two sermons on the Fathers deceased, are also to monks, showing and lamenting their tepidity by the fervour of their fathers in the deserts. His Hypomnisticon is an exhortatory epistle to the same.

His treatise on Virtue is to a novice; he tells him obedience has no merit unless in hard and harsh things, for even wild beasts grow tame by mild treatment.

Next follows his book in Imitation of Proverbs, in definitions and strong sentences on all virtues, in which he teaches tears in prayer are the beginning of a good life; vain-glory is like a worm in a tree. He speaks much on humility, presumption, charity, tears out of the desire of eternal happiness, and weeps to consider his own wretchedness and poverty.

His treatise for the Correction of those who lived wickedly, is full of zeal, humility, and an extraordinary contempt of himself, and spirit of compunction.

That on Penance is a pathetic exhortation to sinners to return by the mercy of God, who expects them before the dawning of the day of life which is coming on; by the comfort which the angels will receive, and from the frightful trial at the last day, against which he prays for himself.

His discourse On the Fear of Souls, is a lamentation and prayer for himself at the sight of the heavens, still in stronger expressions and tears.

His sermon On the Second Coming of Christ, shows the joy of the blessed, and exaggerates the severity of that trial from the immensity of God’s benefits to us.

In his Tetrasyllabus he explains how the devil vanquished by the fervent, always says, I will then go to my friends, the slothful, where I shall have no labour, nor want stratagems. I have but to fetter them in the chains with which they are pleased, and I shall have them always willing subjects. He exhorts all therefore to constant fervour. In another place he exhorts all continually to repeat to themselves against sloth: “Yet a little of thy journey remains and thou wilt arrive at thy place of rest. Then take thy rest not now on the road.”

In his book on those works, Attende Tibi, to a monk, he presses the precept of being always fervent, never relaxing, in every virtue, especially in purity; and adds the example of Saint Antony, who, as Saint Athanasius relates, notwithstanding his great mortifications, which he never relaxed from his youth to his old age, would never bathe or so much as wash his feet, or even suffer any part of his body to be seen, except his face and hands, till after his death.

He has left us an excellent long prayer for a soul to say in time of any temptation; another for grace and pardon of sins.

A novice among the monks often begged of Saint Ephrem some direction. The saint extols his zeal and humility in desiring advice from a sinner, whose intolerable stench infects all his works. His first lesson to him is that he always remember the presence of God, and avoid all unnecessary words. He recommends then to him, in ninety-six lessons, perfect obedience, abstinence, silence, solitude, which frees a man from three dangers, viz. of the eyes, ears, and tongue; never to have so much compassion for any novice as to offend God, and so perish with him; if he be tepid, it is better he should perish alone than you also by condescension; never to speak to a superior in favour of an expelled brother, without most evident proofs of his perfect conversion; for a little spark falling into a barn, easily destroys all the labours of the whole year: to avoid frequent long conversations with any young man about piety or other things, for fear of fond love; never to desire anything great or public, for God’s honour, but rather to love to be hid and unknown; many in dens and deserts were the greatest saints, but without humility the most glorious virtues and the greatest actions are lost; never to seek the care of souls, but to employ in it the utmost diligence, if it be laid upon him: always to walk in the narrow way of compunction and mourning. His other lessons conduce to humility and other virtues.

His fifty-five Beatitudes comprise the happiness of all virtues, as of ever glorifying God, which is to be as the cherubim and seraphim. He closes them bursting into tears at the reflection how far he is from any of them by his sloth under a holy garb, and how distant from the holy servants of God, who persevered some in sackcloth and chains, others on pillars, others in enclosure and fasting, others in obedience, etc. He adds twenty other beatitudes.

His book of one hundred chapters on humility, consists chiefly of short examples; as, a certain novice always kept silence. Some said to him, He is silent because he knows not how to speak. Others said, No, but it is because he has a devil. He, hearing all this, gave no answer, but glorified God in his heart.

In the second volume we have the life of Saint Abraham; a long panegyric on the Patriarch Joseph; a sermon on the Transfiguration; one on the Last Judgment, and on the necessity and advantage of spending this life in tears; a treatise of ninety chapters on the right way of living; fifty paræneses or exhortations to the monks, on obedience, humility, etc.; a most pathetic sermon on the second coming of Christ, in which he expresses himself as follows: “Beloved of Christ, lend a favourable attention to what I am going to say on the dreadful coming of our Lord.—Remembering that hour, I tremble with an excess of fear; for who can relate those horrible things? what tongue can express them? When the King of kings, arising from his throne of glory, shall descend, and sit the just judge, calling to an account all the inhabitants of the earth.—At this thought I am ready to swoon away: my limbs quake for fear, my eyes swim in tears, my voice fails, my lips shrink, my tongue falters, and my thoughts are wrapt up in silence. I am obliged to denounce these things to you; yet fear will not suffer me to speak. A loud thunder now affrights us; how then shall we stand at the sound of the last trumpet, louder than any thunder, summoning the dead to rise! Then the bones of all men in the bowels of the earth, hearing this voice, shall suddenly run, and seek out their joints; and, in the twinkling of an eye, we shall see all men risen and assembled to judgment. The great King shall command, and instantly the earth quaking, and the troubled sea shall give up the dead which they possess, whether devoured by fish, beasts, or fowl. All in a moment shall appear present, and not a hair will be wanting.” He goes on describing the frightful fire consuming all things on the earth; the angels separating the sheep and the goats; the standard of the great King, that cross on which he was nailed, shining bright, and borne before him; men standing to meet this tremendous majesty, revolving their own deeds; the just with joy, the wicked worse than dead with fear; the angels and cherubim appearing, singing, Holy, Holy, Holy; the heavens opened, and the King of kings revealed in such incomparable glory, that the heavens and the earth will fly from before his face. “Who then,” says he, “can stand? He places before our eyes the books opened, and all our actions, thoughts, and words, called to an account.” He then cries out: “What tears ought we not to shed night and day without intermission, for that terrible appearance!” Here the venerable old man was no longer able to break through his sighs and tears, and stood silent. The auditory cried out—“Tell us what more terrible things will follow.” He answered, “Then all mankind will stand with eyes cast down, between life and death, heaven and damnation, before the tribunal; and all degrees of men shall be called to a rigorous examination.—Woe to me! I desire to tell you what things will follow, but my voice fails me through fear, and I am lost in confusion and anxiety; the very rehearsal of these things is most dreadful.” The audience repeated again: “Tell us the rest, for God’s sake, for our advantage and salvation.” He therefore proceeded, “Then, beloved of Christ, shall be required in all Christians the seal of baptism, entire faith, and that beautiful renunciation which they made before witnesses, saying, I renounce Satan, and all his works; not one, or two, or five, but all the works of the devil. In that hour this renunciation will be demanded of us, and happy is he who shall have kept it faithfully as he promised.” Here, he stopping in tears, they cried again: “Tell us also what follows this.” He answered: “I will tell you in my grief, I will speak through my sighs and tears; these things cannot be related without tears, for they are extremely dreadful.” The people entreated again: “O servant of God, we beseech you to instruct us fully.” The holy man, again striking his breast, and weeping more bitterly, said: “O my brethren, beloved of Christ, how sorrowful, and how frightful things do you desire to hear! O terrible hour! Woe to me, woe to me! Who will dare to relate, or who will bear to hear this last and horrible rehearsal; all you who have tears, sigh with me! and you who have not, hear what will befal you; and let us not neglect our salvation. Then shall they be separated, without hopes of ever returning to each other again, bishops from fellow-bishops, priests from fellow-priests, deacons from fellow-deacons, subdeacons and lectors from their fellows; those who were kings as the basest slaves; children from parents; friends from kindred and intimates. Then princes, philosophers, wise men of the world, seeing themselves thus parted, shall cry out to the saints with bitter tears: “Farewell eternally, saints and servants of God; farewell parents, children, relations, and friends; farewell prophets, apostles, and martyrs; farewell Lady Mother of God; you prayed much for us that we might be saved, but we would not.—Farewell life-giving cross; farewell paradise of delights, kingdom without end, the heavenly Jerusalem. Farewell ye all; we shall never more behold one of you, hastening to our torment without end or rest,” etc.

A Sermon on fraternal Charity, and on the Last Judgment, in which his tears again hindered him from pursuing his subject. Nothing can be more terrifying or more moving than these discourses, or than the next on Antichrist, or that after on the Cross, or that of Interrogations.—There follow his Testament, his Sermon on the Cross and on Charity, in which he salutes and honours that holy instrument of our redemption in the strongest words and highest epithets, which, as he says, all nations adore, and which saving sign we mark on our doors, foreheads, eyes, mouths, breast, and our whole body. His Sermon against heretics on the precious margarite, to prove the Virgin Mary mother of God; that on the vice of the tongue; his Panegyric on Saint Basil; his Sermon on the Sinful Woman in the gospel; on the Forty Martyrs; on Abraham and Isaac; on Daniel and the three children. Sermons on the eight capital bad thoughts; gluttony, fornication, avarice, anger, sadness, sloth, vain-glory, and pride; on perfection, on patience and suffering; and many small tracts to monks. One contains a relation of a holy virgin in a monastery of three hundred, who was never seen eating, but worked washing the dishes and cleaning the scullery, feigning herself a fool, and bearing blows and all insults without murmuring or answering a word; called by derision, Salla or Sallop. Saint Pityrumus, an anchoret, was admonished by an angel to go and see in her one who surpassed him and the others in virtue: having seen all the nuns he found not her, she being left behind in the kitchen. At his desire, which all laughed at, she was brought out. The anchoret immediately fell at her feet, crying, “Bless me, Amma,” (i. e. spiritual mother.) She also fell at his feet. The nuns said to him, “Don’t incur such a disgrace; this is Salla.” “No, (said he,) you are all Salæ.” Upon this all honoured her, and one confessed, that she had thrown on her washings of the dishes; another had struck her; another had thrust mustard up her nostrils, etc. She not bearing esteem, retired thence unknown, and was never more heard of.

The third volume contains many Sermons and Discourses, chiefly on the judgments of God and the last day; on penance, compunction, prayer, charity, and other virtues; and on vices and passions. Also the life of Saint Julian the anchoret. Pious poems and several panegyrics of, and prayers to the Blessed Virgin, whose virginity and dignity of mother of God he clearly asserts.

The fourth volume consists of his Commentaries on the five books of Moses, on Joshua, Judges, and the four books of Kings. Saint Gregory of Nyssa says, he studied and meditated assiduously on the holy scriptures, and expounded them all from the first book of Genesis to the last in the New Testament, with an extraordinary light, with which the Holy Ghost filled him. Many other Oriental writers testify the same. His exposition is very literal, full, and learned; nothing escapes him in them.

The fifth volume gives us his Commentaries on Job and on all the prophets. Eleven sermons on several passages of holy scripture, in which he exhorts principally to avoid all occasions of sin, and to perpetual tears and penance. Thirteen sermons on the birth of Christ; and fifty-six polemical sermons against heresies, viz. of the Marcionites, Manicheans, especially their judiciary astrology; of the Novatians, Messalians, etc. His zeal was moved seeing these errors spread in his country. He employs the Church’s authority, scriptures, and reasons to confute them.

The sixth volume gives us ninety other polemical Discourses against the Arian and Eunomian heretics or Searchers, as he calls them, because they attempted to penetrate the divine mysteries, and the incomprehensible nature of God himself. They are equally solid and strong; not dry, as most writings of controversy, but full of unction and of the greatest sentiments of devotion, and an inexpressible ardour to ever love and praise our great God and Redeemer. His sermon against the Jews is no less remarkable.

His Necrosima or eighty-five funeral canons, were wrote on Death and God’s judgments, which he had always before his eyes. He teaches evidently in them the use of ecclesiastical funeral rites and prayers at burials; that the souls of the departed immediately are judged by a particular judgment; the good immediately admitted to the enjoyment of God; those who die without having expiated venial sin, suffer in the flames of purgatory till it be satisfied for, but are relieved by the sacrifices, prayers, and other pious works of the faithful on earth. Of these fifty-four are short funeral discourses on the death of bishops, monks, and persons of all conditions. They are full of his extreme fear of the divine judgment, and a great contempt of the vanity of the world. He says in the eighty-first canon, “Entering on so long and dangerous a journey, I have my viaticum, thee, O Son of God; when hungry, I will eat thee, repairer of mankind; so it shall be, that no fire will dare approach my members, for it will not be able to bear the sweet saving odour of thy body and blood,” etc. He uses the same motive of confidence of immortality, from being fed with the body and blood of Christ, and employs that endearing divine grace to move God to have mercy on him. He repeats the same prayer in his thirteenth Parænesis. Nothing can be clearer than the texts collected by Ceillier (t. 8, p. 101,) from the writings of Saint Ephrem, in favour of the real presence of the sacred body of Christ in the holy eucharist.

Here follow four sermons on Freewill; also seventy-six moving Paræneses or exhortations to penance. In the forty-second he tells us, that when he lay down to take a little repose in the night, he reflected on the excessive and boundless love of God, and instantly rose again to pay him the tribute of the most fervent praise and thanks he was able. “But being deterred,” says he, “by the remembrance of my sins, I began to melt into tears, and should have been disturbed beyond my strength, had not the thief, the publican, the sinful woman, the Canaanean, the Samaritan, and other examples of mercy, given me comfort and courage. He says that at other times, when he was going to fall asleep, the remembrance of his sins banished all thoughts of giving rest to his wearied body, and made sleep yield to sighs, groans, and floods of tears, to which he invited himself by the example of the penitent David, washing his bed with briny torrents; for the silence of night is the most proper season for our tears. It appears he composed this work, at least part, a little before his death; for in the forty-third Parænesis he writes: “I Ephrem am now dying. I write my last will and testament to all lovers of truth, who shall rise up after me. Persevere night and day in prayer. The husbandman reapeth a great crop by assiduous labour; so will you, if you never interrupt your devotion. Pray without ceasing.”

His book in fifteen elegant discourses on the Terrestrial Paradise, explaining its history in Genesis, and comforting himself with the name and happiness of the good thief on the cross, makes a transition to the heavenly Paradise, on the felicity of which he speaks with incredible joy and pleasure. In his eighth discourse he teaches that the soul cannot perfectly see God before the resurrection; but means by the perfectly, complete enjoyment, for he is very express, (loc. cit. supra,) that the blessed behold God immediately on their death; as Muratori demonstrates against Burnet, in his dissertation on Paradise.

Eighteen very devout sermons on divers subjects close his works: on Christ’s Nativity and Resurrection; on Prayer, on Humility, which he teaches is the weapon our Redeemer conquered hell by, and has put into our hands as our principal and only armour against our spiritual enemies. The works of this father demonstrate the uniformity in faith of the Syriac Church in the fourth century, with that of the universal church of all ages.

Several of Saint Ephrem’s works were translated into Latin, and published at Rome in 1589, by Gerard Vossius or Volkens, provost of Tongres. A Greek edition of the same was printed at Oxford in 1709, by the care of Mr. Edward Thwaites. A more complete edition of this father’s works was given to the public at Rome in six volumes in folio, in 1732 and 1743, under the direction of Cardinal Querini, librarian of the Vatican, and Monsignor Joseph Assemani, first prefect of the same library. In this we have the original Syriac text of a good part of these works, and the ancient Greek version of the rest. The Latin translation is the work partly of Gerard Vossius, partly of F. Peter Benedetti, a Maronite Jesuit who lived at Rome; and in the last volumes of Stephen Assemani, archbishop of Apamea, who also published the Chaldaic acts of the Martyrs, and is nephew of the aforesaid Joseph Assemani. The Greek text in the last volumes, especially in the sixth, is published very incorrect.

MLA Citation

  • Father Alban Butler. “Saint Ephrem of Edessa, Doctor of the Church, Confessor”. Lives of the Fathers, Martyrs, and Principal Saints, 1866. CatholicSaints.Info. 12 July 2013. Web. 23 August 2017. <>