St Ephrem of Syria

Deacon and Doctor (entered heaven this day in 378)

Dear Sara,

As you begin a summer of research and hard intellectual work (at least, I hope you do some hard work – I would hate to think that my bright young niece was using her NEH Fellowship as an excuse for having a lazy summer break), I would like to offer a small piece of avuncular advice.  Don’t become an intellectual busybody.  Busybodies are always in an urgent rush about things that have little importance.  Too many men and women dedicated to the life of the mind tend to be that way about their respective areas of expertise.  Trust me, it is better to master the major truths through and through than to simply fill your mind with “all the latest research”.  This was the secret of today’s saint (though, admittedly, not in your field of International Relations).

Ephrem was born on the banks of the Tigris River, in modern day Iraq.  His parents were devout Christians who consecrated him to the Lord when he was an infant, although in accordance with the custom of the times he wasn’t baptized until much later.  Early on he felt a call to dedicate himself completely to the pursuit of divine wisdom and the exercise of penance, for which purpose he retired to a hermitage and put himself under the direction of a nearby Abbot.

God honored his sincere devotion, and Ephrem grew in humility, prayer, and all the Christian virtues, such that he was revered by many and persecuted by not a few (mostly envious monks).  Here he began his writing career as well.  Later, his inspired and voluminous output (written in a vibrant and exceedingly eloquent Syriac style) was to win him the honor of Doctor of the Church.

When his spiritual director died and a general persecution arose in Persia, he led a company of pilgrims to Edessa (also in modern day Iraq), where he was hailed as a holy man and ordained a deacon.  From this point on he dedicated himself to preaching and serving the poor, both of which tasks he performed with supernatural alacrity and effectiveness.  He left a colossal wake of converted (or defeated) heretics, enlightened pagans, repentant Christians, and fervent disciples.  The entire city gathered around his deathbed to bid him goodbye at the end of his long, blessed life.

Through it all, in his extensive writings, preaching, and guidance, he always returned to one great truth of the faith, which served as the point of reference and jumping off point for everything he lived and achieved: the Last Judgment.  This great truth of our faith, along with the compunction for sin that it spawned in his mind and heart, impressed him so deeply and constantly that he was always found with tears in his eyes – tears that showed his sorrow for sin, for his and his flock’s many offenses against God.  This one truth served as a natural spring for the torrent of doctrine and holiness that poured forth from this humble, holy deacon.

Your intellectual life will be authentically fruitful – both in the world’s eyes and in God’s – if you follow suit (mutatis mutandis, of course).  It isn’t a question of knowing everything; it’s a question of sincerely seeking the truth, of plumbing all the depths of the few issues you feel yourself called to tackle and not resting until you really understand them.  I admit it isn’t the way to become a know-it-all, but I guarantee it’s the path to becoming truly wise.

Your loving uncle,


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