Eastern Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Christian celebrate his feast on Jan. 28.
Ephrem was born in the city of Nisibis in approximately 306. Traditions differ on the question of his family background, with some attesting that his father was at one time a pagan priest. Other sources suggest his family either was, or later became, entirely Christian.
During his youth, and prior to his baptism at age 18, Ephrem committed certain sins that continued to trouble him in later years. In one incident, he caused the death of a neighbor’s cow by chasing it into an area where it was killed by a wild animal. Another source of shame was his temporary doubt regarding God’s providential direction of events.
A sense of God’s care for him, however, was reinforced by an incident in which he was falsely accused of theft and imprisoned. An angel appeared to Ephrem, informing him that he would be shown an example of God’s providence. Through a complex series of events, Ephrem’s innocence was ultimately vindicated, in fulfillment of the angel’s words.
Soon after this ordeal, Ephrem received baptism and began to consider the salvation of his soul more seriously. He embraced an ascetic lifestyle under the direction of an elder, who gave him permission to live as a hermit. Ephrem supported himself with manual labor, making sails for ships, while living in a remarkably austere manner with few comforts and little food.
Ephrem’s spiritual director and friend, Bishop James of Nisibis, died in 338. Soon after, Ephrem left his solitude and moved to Edessa in present-day Turkey. Ordained as a deacon in Edessa, he was known for sermons which combined articulate expressions of Catholic orthodoxy with urgent and fruitful calls to repentance.
The deacon was also a voluminous author, producing commentaries on the entire Bible as well as the theological poetry for which he is best known. Ephrem used Syriac-language verse as a means to explain and popularize theological truths, a technique he appropriated from others who had used poetry to promote religious error.
An effective evangelist and opponent of heresy, Ephrem was also known as a compassionate spiritual director, who warned new converts not to attempt excessive works of penance.
Late in his life, he made a pilgrimage to the city of Caesarea, where God had directed him to seek the guidance of the archbishop later canonized as St. Basil the Great. Basil helped Ephrem to resolve some of his own spiritual troubles, giving him advice which he would follow as he spent his final years in solitary prayer and writing.
Near the end of his life, Ephrem briefly left his hermitage to serve the poor and sick during a famine. His last illness came in 373, most likely from a disease he contracted through this service.
Other feast days
SS. Marcellinus and Peter (June 2)
Martyrs of Uganda (June 3)
St. Boniface (June 5)
St. Norbert (June 6)
St. Anthony Mary Gianelli (June 7)
St. Medard (June 8)
St. Columba of Iona (June 9)
St. Margaret of Scotland (June 10)
St. Barnabas, apostle (June 11)
St. Leo III (June 12)
St. Anthony of Padua (June 13)