Ephrem (or Ephren or Ephraim or Ephrain) of Edessa was a teacher, poet, orator, and defender of the Faith. (To English-speakers, the most familiar form of his name will be "Ephraim." It is the name of the younger son of Joseph, son of Jacob (see Genesis 41:52 "The second he named Ephraim, ‘For God has made me fruitful in the land of my misfortunes.’" ), and is thus the name of one of the largest of the twelve tribes of Israel.) Edessa (now Urfa), a city in modern Turkey about 100 kilometers from Antioch (now Antakya), was a an early center for the spread of Christian teaching in the East. It is said that in 325 he accompanied his bishop, Jacob of Nisibis, to the Council of Nicea. Certainly his writings are an eloquent defense of the Nicene faith in the Deity of Jesus Christ. He countered the Gnostics' practice of spreading their message through popular songs by composing Christian songs and hymns of his own, with great effect. He is known to the Syrian church as "the harp of the Holy Spirit."
Ephrem retired to a cave outside Edessa, where he lived in great simplicity and devoted himself to writing. He frequently went into the city to preach. During a famine in 372-3, he worked distributing food to the hungry, and organizing a sort of ambulance service for the sick. He worked long hours at this, and became exhausted and sick, and so died.
From St. Ephraim the Syrian, Hymns on the Faith
To Christ on the Incarnation, the Holy Spirit, and the Sacraments
1. Lord, you have had it written:
'Open your mouth and I will fill it'
See, Lord, your servant's mouth and his mind are open to you!
Fill it, O Lord, with your gift, that I may sing your praise according to your will.
Refrain: Make me worthy to approach your Gift with awe!
3. Though your nature is one, its expressions are many;
they find three levels, high, middle, and lowly.
Make me worthy of the lowly part, of picking up crumbs from the table of your wisdom.
4. Your highest expression is hidden with your Father,
your middle riches are the wonder of the Watchers [i.e. angels]
A tiny stream from your teaching,
Lord, for us below makes a flood of interpretations.
8. In your
Bread is hidden a Spirit not to be eaten,
in your Wine dwells a Fire not to be drunk.
Spirit in your Bread, Fire in your Wine, a wonder set apart,
[yet] received by our lips!
17. See, Fire and Spirit in the womb that bore you!
See, Fire and Spirit in the river where you were baptized!
Fire and Spirit in our Baptism; in the Bread and the Cup, Fire and Holy Spirit!
18. Your Bread kills the Devourer [death]
who had made us his bread,
your Cup destroys death which was swallowing us up.
We have eaten you, Lord, we have drunk you, not to exhaust you, but to live by you.
22. See, Lord, my arms are filled with the crumbs from your table;
there is not room left in my lap.
As I kneel before you, hold back your Gift;
Keep it in your storehouse to give us again!
[translation by R Murray, Eastern Churches Review 3 (1970), copied from T.M.Finn, "Early Christian Baptism and the Catechumenate: West and East Syria", The Liturgical Press, Collegeville, 1992]
Other hymns are available at: http://www.voskrese.info/spl/XefremSyria.html.
Among Orthodox he is best known for a fasting prayer:
The Prayer of St. Ephraim the Syrian
O Lord and Master of my life, do not give me the spirit of laziness, meddling, self-importance and idle talk.
Instead, grace me, Your servant, with the spirit of modesty, humility, patience, and love.
Indeed, my Lord and King, grant that I may see my own faults, and not condemn my brothers and sisters, for You are blessed unto ages of ages. Amen.
(Twelve deep bows, saying each time: O God, be gracious to me, a sinner.)
written by James Kiefer
Pour out on us, O Lord, that same Spirit by which your deacon Ephrem rejoiced
to proclaim in sacred song the mysteries of faith; and so gladden our hearts that
we, like him, may be devoted to you alone; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives
and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.