St. Ephrem the Deacon, and other Saintly Deacons

There are many deacons who have left their imprint on both the Church and the world.

St. Ephrem the Deacon
St. Ephrem the Deacon (photo: Wikimedia Commons)

St. Ephrem the Deacon is the only Eastern deacon who is a Doctor of the Church, and was known even during his own lifetime as “The Harp of The Holy Ghost” — mainly for his ability to set theological teachings to music, and especially for his inspired poetry.

I’ve written before about deacon-saints and it’s a pretty impressive collection: St. Francis of Assisi, St. Stephen the Protomartyr, St. Laurence of Rome, St. Philip of the Acts of the Apostles, St. Vincent of Saragossa, St. Quodvultdeus, Deogratias and Cardinal Reginald Pole.

However, there are other deacons who have left their imprint on both the Church and the world. Perhaps first and foremost, at least as the study of history is concerned, is St. Alcuin of York (735-804). Although he is a “blessed” in the Catholic Church, the Anglicans revere him as a saint, and both Britain and Rome can be proud and thankful for this eminent churchman.

Alcuin made his mark as court adviser and friend of the emperor Charlemagne. He was, by every standard, a man of genius. Even during his lifetime he was acknowledged as “the most learned man anywhere to be found.” His expertise included not only theology and philosophy, but mathematics, calligraphy (which he perfected, making it more readable) and poetry. Also, even though “only” a deacon, he was made Abbot of Tours, France, where he died.

However, it was for his ability to teach and explain that he was so widely known and respected — since, when one thinks about it, what good is it to be genius if you cannot share that knowledge?

Another deacon who contributed to the medieval Church is one of Alcuin’s companions at Charlemagne’s palace school, and a friend of Charlemagne as well — Paulus Diaconus (or more simply “Paul the Deacon”). He came from Lombardy and among his important works to legacy of western civilization is his book, History of the Lombards. About the same time that his teacher was made the Abbot of Tours, Paulus retired to the motherhouse of all Benedictine abbeys, Monte Cassino, then a great center of learning. Renowned for his knowledge of Greek, he, like Alcuin, was also a poet. He wrote a moving elegy of Charlemagne’s young daughter simply entitled, “Adelheid”:

Within this sepulcher

A little girl lies buried;

She was called at baptism Adelheid.

Charles was her father, Charles the Mighty,

The bearer of two diadems.

Nearing the Rhone

She was snatched from the threshold of life.

Far distant

Her mother’s heart was stricken with sorrow.

She died, never beholding

The triumph of her father,

And now in the kingdom of the blessed

The infinite father

Has her.

I mentioned above the famous deacons, St. Stephen the Protomartyr and his companion, St. Philip, who triumphantly converted the Ethiopian Eunuch of Queen Candace’s court. But what of the other five deacons (Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicholas of Antioch) who were ordained with them, according to Acts 6:5?

According to the Roman Martyrology, Prochorus died on April 9 at Antioch as a martyr and had been wondrous “in faith and miracles.” If we add legend into the mix — and often with the earliest saints of the Church, we must — he may have been the nephew of St. Stephen. Also, he may have been ordained bishop of Nicomedia by St. Peter himself. In the Eastern Church he is usually yoked to St. John the Evangelist as that apostle’s scribe. A final legend has it that he was the bishop of Antioch at the time of his martyrdom.

Nicanor, again per the Roman Martyrology, died Jan. 10 at Cyprus — “admirable for his faith and virtue, he received a glorious crown.” It does not say whether his death was by martyrdom, but the general consensus is that he did die a violent death for the faith and as a missionary.

If little is certain of the life and death of St. Nicanor, even less is known of his confrère, St. Timon, whom the martyrology relates his demise on April 19 and “that he first took up his abode at Berea, and, spreading the word of the Lord, then came to Corinth. There, as tradition records, he was cast into flames by the Jews and the Greeks, but being in no wise hurt, he at last completed his martyrdom by crucifixion.”

St. Parmenas, another of the original seven deacons from Acts 6, died Jan. 23 in Philippi in Macedonia. He is reported to have been martyred under the persecution of the emperor Trajan, though the exact year of his death is unknown. He is reputed to have lived to the age of nearly 100 and was either the bishop of Soli in Cyprus, or Soli in Cilicia (modern-day Turkey).

The deacon Nicholas does not appear in the canon of the saints, perhaps because he was maybe mistakenly lumped into the heretical sect called the Nicolaitans, who had commandeered his name to give their heretical movement some credence. As late as the time of the great Doctor of the Church St. Isidore of Seville, it was remarked that, “The Nicolaitans are so called from Nicolas, deacon of the church of Jerusalem, who, along with Stephen and the others, was ordained by Peter. He abandoned his wife because of her beauty, so that whoever wanted to might enjoy her; the practice turned into debauchery, with partners being exchanged in turn. Jesus condemns them in the Apocalypse, saying (2:6): "But this thou hast, that thou hates the deeds of the Nicolaitans.”

While one is loath to disagree with the Doctor of the Church — and St. Isidore is joined by Sts. Irenaeus and St. Hippolytus — the name “Nicolaitans” may simply mean “Victory of the Laity” and the heresy may not have anything to do with the one of the earliest deacons of the Church at all.