St Ephraim the Syrian was a fourth century deacon, hymnographer and theologian. He wrote on a variety of themes and was extremely prolific. His hymns alone cover topics ranging from the Nativity to refuting heresies, and his prose writings on the books of Genesis and Exodus are still read.
Before closely analysing the words of this Lenten Prayer, it is necessary to go into why this Prayer is recited during the Lenten period. Our Church understands that this Prayer captures the penitent aspect of the spirit of Great Lent, and this is prayed in the weekday Lenten services.
This analysis draws heavily upon that done by St Luke, the Doctor and Archbishop of Crimea. He, living in the 20th century under a Communist regime in the Soviet Union, shows in his examination of the Lenten Prayer of St Ephraim an understanding of the modern and post-modern world. Living in the anti-religious environment of the Soviet Union, he is uniquely placed to help us in our day and age.
Let us turn to the Prayer:
O Lord and Master of my life!
Like many other prayers, this Lenten Prayer starts with a direct address to the Lord. When praying, we follow the example of the Publican in the Temple who humbled himself in prayer, commemorated on the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee in the pre-Lenten Triodion period. We acknowledge that we have our Lord as a master and address Him as such, and that all aspects of our lives are under His control. We pray that the Lord may use us, and that we are willing to be used, in whichever way the Lord wishes.
Take from me the spirit of sloth, faint-heartedness, lust of power, and idle talk.
We make our first request of the Lord here, seeking that we have these four passions taken away from us. The first passion, sloth, is a major enemy on our path to life. If allowed to grow unchecked it can take away all of our desire to do good deeds and to pray. If we cannot be bothered, it is symptomatic of a lack of true and genuine faith within us that we do not value prayer, church services and the good of our neighbour over our own comfort. St John Climacus, whose Ladder of Divine Ascent is read during Great Lent, at step twenty on vigil equates sleep with laziness, and writes that “The lazy monk is famous and skilled at talking; but when reading is about to begin, he cannot keep his eyes open. At the sound of the trumpet the dead will rise, and when idle talk is afoot those who were asleep come to themselves.”
St Luke, the Archbishop of Crimea, writes on idleness, ‘Whoever does not work with his hands brings his arm muscles to a state of flabbiness. The body’s strength wanes when physically inactive. The same can be said of the soul’s abilities. If a person does not pray he loses the ability to pray. Whoever does not watch after his spirit and heart will become dissolute in the spiritual sense.’
Turning to faint-heartedness, this refers to the lack of courage that we Christians have. We fear in a couple of ways. We can be afraid to take the true leap of faith that is required for true Christian living. This is the inability or unwillingness to follow the commandment to love God with all of our hearts, minds, souls and strengths, and inability to subsequently live a life which reflects that love. We can also be afraid to witness our faith in our everyday lives through our conduct and our examples.
Translated from the Greek as faint-heartedness in this version of the Prayer, periergia can also mean “boastfulness” and “intermeddling”. These sins have many things in common. They involve letting ourselves go, to quote Fr Lawrence Farley. He says that periergia is when “I fail to restrain myself, when I give in to the temptation to dominate conversation, win every argument, and generally show the world how spectacularly clever I am”.
St Luke the Doctor translated periergia as despondency.
Lust for power is a virtue which is not compatible with a Christian life. It seeks after the fleeting power of this world, after the power with which Satan attempted to tempt Christ (Luke 4:1-13) as opposed to the power and majesty of the Trinity. Seeking power, of any kind, is a consequence of an attachment to the things of this world. We recall the example of John Chrysostom, who was only made Patriarch of Constantinople after being kidnapped from Antioch and forced into the role by the Emperor. St John Climacus has the renunciation of the world as his first step on the Ladder, and without this we can do nothing.
St Luke provides a solution. He advises that ‘We have all been shown the path to honour, an honour above all honours, with which no earthly achievements can compare. It is the path to the Kingdom of God, where we can become friends, children of God. We will achieve this goal only by striving to fulfil all the commandments of Christ.’
Idle talk is the final passion which we seek to have taken away from us by the Lord. Idle talk can take many forms. It can take the form of pointless speech which does not advance us in our spiritual or even our earthly life. Such “small talk” was frowned upon by the Fathers, who valued silence and hesychia for their ability to lead us closer to Christ and to foster more diligent prayer. Another form of idle talk is gossip. This is worse than mere “small talk”, because with most small talk the topics of conversation are not harmful in and of themselves. With gossip, our words condemn others and in doing so condemn us as well. This is a difficult sin to from which to break free, as this gossip is not only external (through how we speak of others), but also internal (how we think of others). We should try at all times to judge not lest we too be judged. It was not for nothing that the admonition of choice for the Pharisees was “Hypocrites”!
St Luke again comes in with a solution: ‘Start with bridling the tongue, and if you achieve this goal, you will achieve perfection and bridle your whole body. And once you have bridled your whole body you will be pure and righteous before God.’
Knowing how we fall in these four areas, we should pray yet more fervently that we may have these passions taken away from us by our “good and loving God”, as the priest says before the Small Entrance in the Divine Liturgy.
But give rather the spirit of chastity, humility, patience, and love to Thy servant.
Just as there is one source of the spirit of “sloth, faint-heartedness, lust of power, and idle talk”, so there is also one spirit and one source of “chastity, humility, patience, and love”. In this part of the prayer we seek that God might in His grace bestow these virtues upon us. Note that the Greek word used for “give” here differs from the word used previously in relation to the passions. The word used, charisai, has the same root as the Greek word for grace and is the basis for the English word “charity”. This shows that these virtues are not merely given to us in the same manner as a unit of study outline is given to you by a lecturer. On the contrary, these virtues are only ours (if we indeed have them) through the grace of God and would not exist in us without Him. We seek these virtues 'rather' than the vices and we can see that these virtues are the opposite of the passions.
Chastity is merely one translation of the Greek word sophrosyne. Others include self-control and moderation. This self-control can be seen as the opposite of the passion of sloth, which is the absence of self-control and laziness. Chastity of the body is the self-control exerted over the passions of the body. This happens through refraining from sinful acts. Chastity of the mind is control over one's thoughts, preventing one from even considering sin. Chastity of the body ordinarily comes before chastity of the mind. One of the fruits of chastity is purity, and Jesus in the Beatitudes says, “Blessed are the pure in heart; for they shall see God” (Matthew 5:8). This chastity is cultivated through prayer and through reflection on one's thoughts and actions, and can be found throughout the lives of the Saints.
St Luke the Doctor is very strong on this point: ‘Didn’t he [St Paul] say that our body is a temple of the Holy Spirit (cf. 1 Cor. 6:19)? And if it is a temple, then it should be pure. To destroy the temple of the Holy Spirit, to make our bodies the members of a harlot, as the apostle exclaims, God forbid! (cf. 1 Cor. 6:15). We have to remember what the prophet David said in Psalm 136: Blessed is he who takes the infants and dashes them against the rock (cf. Ps. 136:9). The infants are our lusts and passions, and we have to war with them right away, before they have grown strong, before they have taken over our hearts.’
Humility is one fruit which arises through the pursuit of chastity. It is to crucify one's desires (Galatians 5:24), to love oneself in perfect measure and to put oneself last that we may be first (Matthew 20:16). The crucifixion of desires is to take what is evil within us and to kill it violently, and it is this struggle to which Christ referred when He said that “the Kingdom of Heaven suffers violence, and the violent take it by force” (Matthew 11:12). We do not love ourselves too much, lest we fall into the sin of pride. Yet again that means casting aside all of our earthly desires in pursuit of our one heavenly desire, which is to bring ourselves closer to God. St Ignatius Brianchaninov in The Arena writes to “regard only yourself as a sinner and all the brethren without exception as angels”. St Ignatius writes here in the context of a monastery, but it is this level of humility which is required of us in our everyday lives. Humility here can be seen as the virtue which is sought to counteract the vice of lust for power from earlier in the Prayer.
St Luke the Doctor explains, ‘Only those who walk the path of Christ and who learn from Him spiritual lowliness think about humility. Only the saints are truly humble. The basis of their sanctity consists in the fact that they never exalt themselves over others, but judge only their own hearts.’
Patience is the opposite of faint-heartedness. It is strength in the face of pressures, and the result of wholehearted belief in God's love for humanity. It goes hand in hand with obedience, and one cannot exist without the other. In one story from the Evergetinos, St John the Short was given a dry stick by his elder to water until it bore fruit, and had to walk for hours just to get water. After three years of this, the stick budded and produced walnuts. The elder took the walnuts to the other monks and said: “Take and eat of the fruit of obedience”. This is true courage and true patience.
St Luke writes, ‘How can we acquire patience? We need to get used to enduring, trying not to complain, and of course, asking God for help. If we will ask God persistently, then it will happen with us according to Christ’s words: If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your Father which is in heaven give good things to them that ask him? (Matthew 7:11).’
Love. The thirtieth and final step on the Ladder of Divine Ascent. It is the basis of the two most important commandments as explained by Christ: To love God with all of one's heart, mind, soul and strength, and to love one's neighbour as oneself (Mark 12:28-34). In loving God, we cannot possibly sin against humanity which is made in his image and likeness (Genesis 1:26). This is the opposite of “idle talk”, which is to the detriment of our neighbour and often leads to judgement, another antithesis of love. Without love for God and for our neighbour, our works can become works of pride and lead us away from the heights.
St Luke the Archbishop of Crimea writes, ‘Love is what all the saints cultivated in their hearts, what is given from God as His supremely great gift of grace for fulfilling the commandments of Christ. Even if a person was born with a meek heart, he has to endure very much and pass through the path of the cross of suffering so that an ever greater flame of Christlike love might burn in his heart; so that the love he was given from his birth would ever multiply.’
As stated earlier, we have God as our master and we must humble ourselves to willingly become his servants. When we partake of the mysteries we are called servants of God, proving that a true Christian life is impossible without being a servant of God.
Yea, Lord and King! Grant me to see my own errors and not to judge my brother,
“Yea, Lord and King” is an affirmation of what was said previously and also of what is to come. It shows that we really want God to take away our passions and give us these virtues. “Yea” can also be translated simply as “Yes”. By acknowledging God as our “Lord and King”, we accept Him as ruler over us in our entirety. We accept to be subject to His will in all things, and this admission is of importance in strengthening our humility and obedience during Great Lent, a time in which we aspire to cultivate these virtues through sacrificing our desires.
As stated previously, we ask God to grant us virtues. Where the Greek word used previously was charisai, this time the word dorisai is used. There is a slight difference in meaning in the words, with the former having its root in the idea of grace and the latter having the same root as the Greek word for gift, doron. What is the significance of this difference in meaning in relation to the Prayer? This slight difference is because of the difference in the things sought. Where before a spirit of virtues was sought, something only attainable through grace, now gifts are being sought relating to our catharsis. Both, however, are impossible without God.
We now turn to the gifts sought by us when we pray. Asking God for the ability “to see my own errors” is asking for the ability to self-examine and the humility of the Publican. Self-examination is an essential aspect of Christian living. Without it we would be like a blind surgeon, trying to fix the maladies without being able to see what they are or where they are. With self-examination and the self-knowledge which results from it, we are able to find our weaknesses and act on them. It is for this reason that monks traditionally confess their sins to the elder of the monastery every day. Through both their own and their elder’s examination of their weaknesses, they are able to remedy them.
Self-examination is like fishing where the waters are replete with fish. All we need do is cast the net and something will be brought to the surface. We know that our sins are there, but we need to drag them so that they are front and centre of our mind. And so, knowing that our sins exist, we must remember to be humble like the Publican and not fall into the trap of the Pharisee. We must remember that we too have these errors.
And in this spirit of humility, we ask that we not judge our brother. Fr Alexander Schmemann writes that ‘Spiritual writings are full of warnings against the subtle forms of pseudo-piety which, in reality, under the cover of humility and self-accusation can lead to a truly demonic pride. But when we "see our own errors" and "do not judge our brothers," when, in other terms, chastity, humility, patience, and love are but one in us, then and only then the ultimate enemy--pride--will be destroyed in us.’
After each petition of the prayer we make a prostration. To quote Fr Alexander yet again, “In the long and difficult effort of spiritual recovery, the Church does not separate the soul from the body. The whole man has fallen away from God; the whole man is to be restored, the whole man is to return.” One thing which this Prayer reinforces for us on a daily basis during Great Lent is that we cannot separate our spiritual life, how we think and how we feel, from the sensual, how we act, what we put into our mouths and, in this instance, how we pray.
for Thou art blessed unto ages of ages
The final part of the Lenten Prayer is a very typical ending to an Orthodox prayer, but is full of meaning. We do not pray without thanking or praising God, and this is detailed in the Ladder at step 28, where an ascetic is told by an angel how to pray. He is told to first thank God, then confess his sins, and then to seek what he wants from God. Here we praise God for all that he has already done by calling Him “blessed unto the ages of ages”.
That phrase “ages of ages” is one which is Hebrew in origin. It signifies completeness, with God being blessed not just in the current age, itself many millions of years if we were to think about it, but ages worth of these ages. It is like the Holy of Holies, the God of gods, the Lord of lords, all referred to in the Old Testament and the Psalms. It shows God’s greatness.