[Ephrem] remained a deacon all his life,
and to escape episcopal consecration
he is supposed to have feigned madness.
Joseph N. Tylenda, S.J.
Ordained a deacon late in life, St. Ephrem the Syrian declined the priesthood and escaped being ordained a bishop by pretending to be mentally disturbed.
I like him for that. He did not seek higher “rank” within the Church, finding his service as a deacon – as a servant – as his calling, his vocation. The diaconate as a permanent state is something that many people here in Honduras don’t understand – even some clergy. They are so accustomed to the diaconate as something transitional – and therefore not as important.
Saint Ephrem distinguished himself in many ways. He wrote commentaries on much of scripture and was renowned for his preaching – so much so that he was called the Harp of the Holy Spirit. He is also acknowledged as a Doctor of the Church, the only deacon so named.
As a deacon, he instructed the people in the faith with words but also with songs. He knew the value of music and how it forms us. About 500 of his hymns survive and some are still used in the Syriac liturgy.
He came to write some of his hymns – and set them to popular melodies – in response to a Gnostic sect that set its teaching to such melodies. He had no qualms in taking secular tunes to sue for his hymns. His hymns were often sung in church by a choir of women!
The liturgy was very important to Saint Ephrem, but he did not neglect charity. Though he lived in a cave outside Edessa, he did not separate himself completely from the world. In fact, a few months before he died he organized a major relief effort for famine victims. He left his cave and went to help the victims, because the people asked him to oversee the distribution of grain because they trusted no one else with the task.
He was a diakonos, a servant of the Word, the Altar, and Charity. What all deacons should be.
I especially treasure his prayers.
He wrote a prayer which is used during Lent among Eastern Catholics and the Orthodox and which expresses the spirituality of a servant of God:
O Lord and Master of my Life,
give me not a spirit of sloth, lust for power,
and idle talk.
But give me, your servant,
a spirit of charity, humility, patience, and love.
O Lord and King,
grant me to see my own faults
and not judge another,
for blessed are you forever.
There is not madness in such a prayer – but much wisdom.
In 1975 I encountered another prayer. I had sent a donation to the Catholic Worker and received a thank you card back. On it is written this prayer, taken from Helen Waddell’s Desert Fathers:
Sorrow on me, beloved! that I unapt and reluctant in my will abide, and behold winter hath come upon me and the infinite tempest hath found me naked and spoiled and with no perfecting of good in me. I marvel at myself, O my beloved, how I daily default and daily do repent; I build up for an hour and an hour overthrows what I have builded.
At evening I say, tomorrow, I will repent, but when morning comes, joyous I water the day. Again at evening I say, I shall keep vigil all night and I shall entreat the Lord to have mercy on my sins. But when night is come I am full of sleep.
Behold, those who received their talent along with me, strive by day and night to trade with it, that they may win the word of praise and rule ten cities. But I in my sloth hid mine in the earth and my Lord makes haste to come, and behold my heart trembles and I weep the day of my negligence and know not what excuse to bring. Have mercy upon me, thou who alone are without sin, and save me, who alone art merciful and kind.
I still have that card and occasionally pray this prayer. I keep the card in a book of the Grail translation of the psalter, at Psalm 51, the psalm of repentance.
In many ways, his service of the Altar with his hymns, his service of the Word with his preaching and commentaries, and his service of Charity with his care for famine victims and others exemplify what a deacon is and what a deacon does.
Saint Ephrem, pray for all deacons and all God’s people.