January 28 – Ephraim the Syrian; Thomas Aquinas

Icon of Ehraim the Syrian, iconographer unknown, 2005.Ephraim the Syrian (ca. 306–373) was sired by a pagan priest in Nisibis (now split between Nusaybin, Turkey, and Qamishli, Syria) and baptised at 18 (or 28). He immediately began to compose hymns and metrical sermons in his native Syriac. He is especially known for didactic hymns against various heresies: Arianism, Manicheeism, Marcionism, Bardaisanism, and Gnosticism (in that order). Nisibis was on the frontier between the Roman and Persian Empires, and frequently the scene of war (one hesitates only slightly to call it “the Poland of Mesopotamia”). Once Ephraim’s curses, no doubt in beautiful metric verse, unleashed a plague of stinging insects upon the Persian armies, forcing them to withdraw. (If Burns could write an ode to a louse, surely Ephraim could write to stinging insects.)

Eventually, though, the ineptitude of Julian the Apostate (aka Julian the Really Lousy Military Strategist) forced the Empire to cede a swath of eastern Syria, including Nisibis, to the Persians. The Christian population of the town fled to Edessa (modern Şanlıurfa, Turkey), which was traditionally—according to the Turkish Ministry of Culture and Tourism and they should know—home of the prophet Abraham (wait, wasn’t that Ur? maybe they don’t know). There Ephraim continued to write verse and argue against the local heretics. He died of the plague while nursing its victims. His hymns are still widely used many churches (Roman Catholic, Syriac, Marionite, etc.), although not, sadly, the one about the insects[1].

Painting of Thomas Aquinas by Carlo Crivelli, 1476Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274) was a Neapolitan noble on both sides (subtract five points if you started singing Joni Mitchell). In an interesting twist on the “I’m going to become a monk and you can’t stop me” theme, he bucked his family’s desire to make him a Benedictine, and declared his intention to join the Dominicans. In their company he headed off toward Paris, but when they got to Rome he was kidnapped by his brothers, hauled back to Naples and imprisoned on the family estate. He spent the next two years there, studying and tutoring his sisters. His family even went so far as to hire a prostitute to tempt him (people succumbing to prostitutes automatically become enrolled in the Benedictines, or something—I was unable to suss their logic), but he drove her away (or rather gave her the keys to the family Buick and let her drive herself away[2]). Finally his mother (clearly not being tutored along with her daughters) suddenly considered that this imprisonment thing might bring disrepute to the family, and arranged for his escape[3].

This time he made it to Paris and began studies under Albertus Magnus (later made a saint (Nov 15) despite advocating for the peaceful coexistence of science and religion), eventually becoming master of students at the school there. In 1259 Pope Clement IV called him to Rome, then universitiless, where he opened shop and taught moral and religious philosophy. While there also he began his greatest work, the Summa Theologica, intended as an introductory work for beginning students. Graduate students have been bruising their brains against it ever since.

The Dominicans then contracted Itchy Feet Syndrome by Proxy and sent Thomas careening between Paris and Rome for some while. When they finally allowed him to go wherever he wanted, he returned to Naples, teaching and continuing work on the Summa. After a mystical vision, however, he retired from teaching, declaring that everything he had written hitherto seemed to him to be made of straw. He died from injuries sustained in a collision with a tree branch while riding an ass to a council meant to reconcile the Orthodox and Catholic Churches, where he was to have delivered a conciliatory address titled, On the Errors of the Greeks[4]. He was canonized a mere 50 years after his death, and has a broad patronage, including universities, scholars, publishers, and (I kid you not) pencil manufacturers.


[1] I won’t say this bugs me, because that’s a terrible pun and I don’t do terrible puns.
[2] I will not insult your intelligence by saying “just kidding.”
[3] Why she didn’t just open the door and let him out, we are not told.
[4] One can’t help being skeptical as to whether that would have led to reconciliation.