Global Catholics – St. Ephrem, the ‘Sun of the Syrians’


There is no place more on the global radar in the last few weeks than Syria. And yet, many American Catholics seem not to realize that we have more than a disengaged relationship with the history and people there through the centuries. That is not meant to be a political commentary on the differing and legitimate prudential options concerning American engagement in that country, but merely a historical and theological one.
The Apostles’ Creed teaches us that we have an unbreakable connection with the communion of saints. And we often say prayers or sing hymns that remind us as believers to pledge to maintain such a web of relationships: “Faith of our Fathers, holy faith. We will be true to thee till death.”
Theologians claim that such communion is both synchronic (“at the same time,” reaching across international boundaries to other Christians living today) and diachronic (“through time,” tying us to our ancestors, both biological and spiritual).
If we then take these assertions seriously, we have a bond not only with our brothers and sisters today living in the desperate and war-torn situation in Syria, but also with one of the region’s most famous “Fathers in the Faith,” Ephrem the Syrian.
A Doctor of the Church and a loose contemporary of St. Augustine, St. Ephrem lived in the ancient Levant, or Eastern Mediterranean basin, moving around the Roman province of Mesopotamia in modern-day Turkey and Syria. In fact, he is so connected with the area that he is often referred to as the Sun of the Syrians, in addition to his more famous moniker, the Harp of the Spirit. It is claimed that he wrote as many as 3 million verses praising, explaining and defending Christian discipleship. He is revered not only by Catholics of the East and West, but by many Orthodox and various Middle Eastern Christian denominations as well.
Ephrem’s hymns, prayers and poetic stanzas called madrase are incredibly moving and rich in theological depth and insight. Composed in ancient Syriac, a language rather close to the Aramaic which Jesus himself spoke, some of the works attributed to him are still frequently used in Eastern Christian liturgical settings, although these are often translated into other languages.
One of his most famous is the following prayer which is part of daily Eastern Lenten observances for many Orthodox believers, where its repetition is surrounded by bows and prostrations. In English it reads:

O Lord and Master of my life, give me not the spirit of sloth, meddling, lust for power and idle talk. But grant unto me, Thy servant, a spirit of chastity, integrity, humility, patience and love. Yea, O Lord and King, grant me to see mine own faults and not to judge my brother. For blessed art Thou unto the ages of ages. Amen.

St. Paul tells us that the divisions and distinctions among us fade in light of our shared heritage in baptism and our collective ultimate destiny with God. Reflecting upon the Sun of the Syrians in these times may help us prayerfully break through the darkening clouds of pain and sadness that envelop our fellow Christians (and all innocent sufferers) in a land which may seem geographically far away, but which is really rather close to us from an eschatological and ecclesiological point of view. With or without military intervention, fleets of our prayers need to cross the Atlantic. Perhaps they can be accompanied and guided by this brilliant Sun.

Michael M. Canaris, Ph.D., of Collingswood, is a Research Associate at Durham University’s Centre for Catholic Studies in Northeast England.