Alcuin vs. Ephrem of Edessa

In the first and only Saturday match-up of Lent Madness, we get Dueling Deacons! Alcuin of York vs. Ephrem of Edessa. With the emphasis on diaconal service we can only imagine these two standing around saying "After you." "No, after you." Nonetheless, you must decide which of these holy men will move on and which will be left to wallow in the lavabo bowl of defeat.

Yesterday Julia Chester Emery trounced Charles Henry Brent 73% to 27% in the Six-Name Showdown and will go on to face the winner of David of Wales vs. F.D Maurice. Speaking of the bracket, you may not know this but Lent Madness Bracket Czar, Adam Thomas, updates the bracket after each victory. Be sure to click the link, print it out, and/or post it on your living room wall and adore it for 24 hours before tearing it down and putting up the new one. [Please note: The Supreme Executive Committee does not generally condone the killing of trees].

You'll also notice that underneath the bracket but above the match-up calendar, Adam posts the results and a link to each completed battle. This will come in especially handy in subsequent rounds as saints advance and you want a quick biographical refresher before casting your next vote.

After today's vote is concluded, the next pairing will be posted on Monday morning as Joseph of Arimathea faces Anna Cooper. Even with a single day off, you may experience a phenomenon known as LMW (Lent Madness Withdrawal). Please stay calm; help is on the way. The "good news" is that we lose an hour of sleep this weekend so Lent Madness will return even sooner than anticipated!


Alcuin of York (735 - 804), deacon and later Abbot of Tours, was a Renaissance man. The Carolingian Renaissance of learning in eighth-century Europe was greatly influenced by him.

Born in Northumbria (England) and educated by a disciple of the Venerable Bede at the cathedral school at York, he became master there, expanding the school into an international center of learning, complete with a fantastic classical library. Charlemagne invited Alcuin to join his Frankish court in 781 and put him in charge of implementing widespread, radical educational reform. Schooling for everyone came under the purview of the church, and Alcuin created a liberal arts curriculum consisting of the trivium (grammar, logic, rhetoric) and the quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, music, astronomy) primarily to educate clergy, who were then required to establish free schools in their parishes. Alcuin wrote many textbooks for these schools, including a math book of river-crossing problems. Charlemagne, his wife, and sons were among Alcuin’s students.

Alcuin also established scriptoria (places for writing) throughout the empire to copy ancient manuscripts using Carolingian miniscule, a new kind of cursive writing that facilitated faster copying and standardization of letters. He may have developed new punctuation symbols too, including the previously unknown question mark. Given more time, he might have invented the emoticon. Using his techniques, much of ancient Roman literature and Greek mathematical works were thus preserved in a world threatened with destruction from repeated “barbarian” invasions. His significant moral influence over Charlemagne inspired the emperor to eventually abolish his law requiring everyone to be baptized or face execution, reasoning that forcing people into baptism wouldn’t make them Christians.

Alcuin was also a liturgical reformer, revising the lectionary and adapting the Gregorian (Roman/Italian) Sacramentary to include and preserve Gelasian (French/German) liturgies and ancient prayers. This effort expanded official liturgical resources to include saints’ feasts, the blessing of the Easter font, and other prayers, including the Collect for Purity still used today. He also standardized the text of the Vulgate (St. Jerome’s Latin Bible), which had accumulated many scribal errors over 400 years of copying. He continued developing plainchant for use in worship and re-introduced singing the Creed.

Among his theological writings is a celebrated treatise against the heresy of Adoptionism, the belief that Jesus was merely human until his baptism. Alcuin’s many extant letters are important historical sources, and his (admittedly mediocre) poems include a poignant and rather graphic lament on the Viking destruction of the holy monastery at Lindisfarne.

Collect for Alcuin
Almighty God, who in a rude and barbarous age raised up your deacon Alcuin to rekindle the light of learning: Illumine our minds, we pray, that amid the uncertainties and confusions of our own time we may show forth your eternal truth, through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

-- Penny Nash

ephremEphrem of Edessa

Ephrem of Edessa was a deacon, teacher, prolific poet, and defender of orthodoxy in the fourth-century church of Syria.

He was baptized as a young man and joined a covenanted Christian community in Nisibis. This community was a forerunner to monasticism. The community was a small, urban group committed to service and abstinence. At some point following his baptism, Ephrem was ordained deacon and also formally appointed to the office of teacher, which still holds great distinction for Syriac Christians.

Ephrem is thought to have attended the Council of Nicea with his bishop. He is beloved for his defense of orthodox Christianity through his composition of popular songs, a tactic he learned from the Gnostic opposition, which employed it with great success. These teaching hymns, called madrašê in Syriac, were possibly sung by all-women folk choirs and accompanied by the lyre. We do not know if there was liturgical dance to go with these hymns, but if so, the choreography is thankfully lost in the dustbin of history.

Ephrem’s writings were practical theology intended to instruct Christians during a tumultuous time of conflicting doctrine. He skillfully drew on a multitude of influences, including early Rabbinic Judaism, Greek science and philosophy, and the Persian mystical tradition. Ephrem was so admired and his writings considered so authoritative that Christian authors wrote works in his name for centuries after his death. The best known of these works is the Prayer of Saint Ephrem, still recited during fasting periods in Eastern Christianity today.

In 363, the Roman Emperor was forced to surrender his home city of Nisibis to Persia, and the entire Christian population was expelled. Ephrem moved to Edessa, where he lived for ten years. In his sixties, he succumbed to an epidemic as he ministered to its victims.

Ephrem is often called “The Harp of the Spirit.”

Collect for Ephrem of Edessa
Pour out on us, O Lord, that same Spirit by which your deacon Ephrem rejoiced to proclaim in sacred song the mysteries of faith; and so gladden our hearts that we, like him, may be devoted to you alone; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

-- Amber Belldene


Alcuin vs. Ephrem of Edessa

  • Alcuin (77%, 4,139 Votes)
  • Ephrem of Edessa (23%, 1,218 Votes)

Total Voters: 5,355

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199 comments on “Alcuin vs. Ephrem of Edessa”

  1. Gotta love a churchman who writes math books and helps priests educate their people! Go Alcuin!!

    1. Begging the pardon of the SEC, but a deacon wouldn't have said "after your." A deacon would have said, "let's go, we have the gospel to spread."

    2. Reformer vs. Traditionalist forever connected by an invisible thread tug and pull the spiritual mind between what has been and what will be. Our parish school partnership with St. Cyprien in Haiti inspires allegiance to those of a Renaissance nature: Alcuin, be our example while working in Haiti.

      Comment in French Creole: Formés vs tradisyonalist pou tout tan konekte ak yon Tug moso twal kamwazi envizib e ki rale tèt ou nan espirityèl ant sa ki te epi li ki sa yo pral. Ant lekòl pawas nou yo ak St Cyprien an Ayiti enspire fidelite bay moun nan yon nati Renesans: Alcuin dwe egzanp nou an pandan l ap travay an Ayiti.

      1. "We do not know if there was liturgical dance to go with these hymns, but if so, the choreography is thankfully lost in the dustbin of history."
        A feeble attempt at humor? I'm with you-its sad.

  2. Congrats to the celebrity bloggers for making this such a tough choice! Both are clearly direct descendants of both of today's saints!

    1. Exactly! Especially popular songs. We all learn theology through singing hymns; singing them is at least as formative as listening to good preaching, IMHO.

      1. Great play on words, John, bur Alcuin also blessed the Carolingian miniscule font, and that's way better than Helvetica -- I even have it on my computer.

      2. Can;'t help but love learning by singing... I can forget what I ate for breakfast, but never a song

  3. I not only have two deacons to chose from, but gained some clarity to my own call. I have found that writing and teaching have become a large part of what I am doing. Since I walked into the diaconate with open hands, it was a surprise. As a harpist and composer, I have to go with Ephrem even though I am most grateful for Alcuin's contributions.

  4. Those Northumbrians are the best! Love Alcuin, Bede, Cuthbert, and all those northern saints.

    1. Have you ever read Michael Wood's In Search of England? Fabulous book that focuses on these early English church ancestors and the history of England. I absolutely fell in love (agape, of course!) with Bede while reading it!

  5. Oh, sometimes it's better not to read about the one you don't know. A deacon from the North of England, an early Syrian monastic during this time of such violence and pain in modern day Syria....this is one of those days when Nature and Nurture do mighty battle-when Instinct and New Knowledge are wrestling for domination!

    1. it says he possibly invented the question mark...yes-i think that's a great reason to vote for him! i did! will we remember him tomorrow?

      1. The question mark may be due to Isidore of Seville. See "Shady Characters" (which is about the history of punctuation, not about persons of dubious character) by Keith Houston (Norton, 2013), page 11.

  6. ."His significant moral influence over Charlemagne inspired the emperor to eventually abolish his law requiring everyone to be baptized or face execution, reasoning that forcing people into baptism wouldn’t make them Christians." Think how many wars prevented if his influence had lasted.

    1. A tough choice for me, but Alcuin's support of freedom of conscience won my vote.

      1. Scott, surely you taking a sabbath day from this Lent Madness madness??? (extra question marks in honor of Alcuin)

      2. Oops! I must turn myself in. Somehow I did what I didn't know was possible: I voted twice. I think both times for Alcuin. I'm not sure of that because I didn't know my cat could actually vote by walking across my keyboard. I'm not even certain a vote recorded. I just know the cat danced and the page changed. Mea culpa.

    1. At the end of the second biography, you will see it say "Vote! Alcuin of York vs. Ephrem of Edessa" and below that title you will see two "buttons," one for Alcuin and one for Ephrem. Click on the one you want. You can read comments or view results before voting, if that helps you decide. There are no wrong choices!

    2. right above all these comments and below the brief biographies of the "Saints" are the names with litle circles by them. Click on the one you want, and then click on vote. If it works, you should shortly see vote totals with percentages for both candidaes.

  7. O the agony of conflicting feelings! These deacons are both wonderful, in both senses of the word. It's time for prayer to clear the spirit and heart...and maybe a run to clear the head (if the icy roads have thawed). Who will move on to the Saintly Sixteen?

  8. A math textbook containing river crossing problems - would probably help me with my 10 year old grandson's math homework!

  9. I decided that I better look up the Prayer of Ephrem before I voted. (These teachers obviously wanted us to do our homework.)

    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.

    Nice! but I decided to cast my vote for the preservation of the Collect for Purity instead.

    1. Is the word "integrity" in parentheses meant as an alternative wording for those of us who would rather not be chaste? (Thanks, Alcuin, for that question mark!)

      Ephrem's story is certainly inspiring, but I'm voting for Alcuin because I can't imagine what the state of learning would have been in the Middle Ages (and subsequent eras) without Alcuin and scholars like him.

        1. After reading an explication of this prayer by Fr Schmemann a couple years ago, I wrote my own paraphrase and it has become my Lenten prayer:

          O Holy Spirit!
          Take from me the spirit of
          sloth, faint-heartedness, lust for power, and idle talk.
          But give rather the spirit of
          whole-heartedness, humility, patience, and love.
          Grant me to see my own errors,
          and not to judge my sisters and brothers;
          For Thou art blessed unto ages of ages.

      1. I found another translation that used purity instead of chastity or integrity. Perhaps the original language indicates a chaste life - as in simple or plain or pure, rather than what we moderns tend to obsess on.

    2. Beth Ann, I also looked up the prayer, and it was just what I needed today. So, my heart and mind may go with Alcuin, but my spirit is with Ephrem.

  10. I had to vote for Alcuin for all of his educational contributions. Didn't know he invented the question mark, though, till now.

  11. As much as I love music and song, as a member of a family of teachers I must vote for Alcuin. Tough choice.

  12. As someone who can still sing the preamble to the US Constitution 40 years later, I vote for the one who wrote songs to teach!

    1. As someone who writes about the Constitution for a living, I'm glad! I waited to read the comments this time before voting. Although initially predisposed toward Alcuin (questions, freedom of conscience, education), I must vote for that beautiful Lenten prayer of Ephrem's. And his wisdom to use music to teach.

  13. Alcuin won me the minute I learned he invented the question mark. Plus he set up Proto-Kinkos for holy writings and preserved saints' feasts (building the legacy that would one day become Lent Madness). As a poet who aspires to mediocrity, I admire a kindred spirit. But the slam dunk was the Collect for Purity, that beautiful prayer that has opened so many services and so many hearts. A great match up of great men today, but for me it's all Al.

  14. Penny Nash - I LOVE YOUR WRITING! "Given more ime, (Alcuin) might have invented the emoticon". Too funny. Love the reverence, and tongue in cheek. Is there an emoticon for that? 😉

    1. Aww, thanks, Susaan! And just think, without Alcuin and his contributions, we might not have had that great 60's band ? and the Mysterians who gave us such hits at "96 Tears."

  15. Although I appreciate the better poetry by Ephrem, I just cannot pass up voting for Alcuin who had such an impact on the education of priests. We priests need all the help we can get.

  16. Wow, the SEC is demonstrating its proclivity for difficult choices .. ok. In the absence of Fred Rogers, my vote goes to Alcuin.

  17. The comments of modern day saints are every bit as edifying and enchanting as are the Lent Madness Saints of yore. I'm all for the river crossing math problems and the question mark.

  18. My vote has to be for Alcuin. My daughter has spent lots of time on river-crossing-problems and she is excellent at math! We are also great at questioning things??? Here is a vote for learning!

  19. Of Course Alcuin. The ? is one of the truely great symbols of faith and Episcopalians would never be understood without it.

    1. Living in Yorkshire and in York today, marveling as I always do at the beauty of York Minster which presumably Alcuin knew, though not in its current form its seems natural to vote for Alcuin. I particularly like the fact that he invented the ? - that quintessentisally mark of the Church of England...

      But whats taken me the other way is the poetry thats been posted in the comments - the Madrashe posted by Fr Tony and the Prayer of its Ephrem (also as a Brit I am conditioned by nature and nurture to vote for the underdog)

  20. I'm a musician myself so regret not voting for Ephrem. But Alcuin's influence of Charlemagne towards compassion, his extraordinary educational vision, and the beautiful Collect for Purity, leave this a much clearer vote for me than yesterday's. Above all, as one who also practices Buddhism and has been deeply moved by Ramana Maharshi's penetrating inquiry, "Who am I?", I honor Alcuin for his invention of the question mark. To me, the ability to question one's beliefs is at the root of compassion and is essential to discernment.

  21. This was a difficult choice, as I wanted to vote for Ephrem because of the music and Alcuin because of his work with curriculum and schools. As a former teacher, he has my vote, but I love music and singing so I am sorry to Ephrem.