The Lenten Prayer of St Ephrem the Syrian
By Protopresbyter Alexander Schmemann
Prayer of St. Ephrem the Syrian
O Lord and Master of my life! Take from me the spirit of
sloth, faint-heartedness, lust of power, and idle talk. But give rather
the spirit of chastity, humility, patience, and love to Thy servant.
Yea, O Lord and King! Grant me to see my own errors and not to judge my
brother; For Thou art blessed unto ages of ages.
This prayer is read twice at the end of each lenten
service Monday through Friday. At the first reading, a prostration
follows each petition. Then all the participants bow twelve times saying: "O God,
cleanse me a sinner." The entire prayer is repeated with one final
prostration at the end.
Discussion on Prayer of St. Ephrem the Syrian
Why does this short and simple prayer occupy such an
important position in the entire lenten worship? Because it enumerates,
in a unique way, all the "negative" and "positive" elements of repentance
and constitutes, so to speak, a "check list" for our individual lenten
effort. This effort is aimed first at our liberation from some
fundamental spiritual diseases which shape our life and make it
virtually impossible for us even to start turning ourselves to God.
Negative Elements of
First, we will look at the "negative" elements of
repentance as enumerated in the prayer. Obviously, our aim for lent as
well as prayers should be to get rid of these elements from our lives.
The basic disease is sloth. It is that strange laziness
and passivity of our entire being which always pushes us "down" rather
than "up" – which constantly convinces us that no change is possible and
therefore desirable. It is in fact a deeply rooted cynicism which to
every spiritual challenge responds "what for?" and makes our life one
tremendous spiritual waste. It is the root of all sin because it poisons
the spiritual energy at its very source.
The result of sloth is faint-heartedness. It is the
state of despondency which all spiritual Fathers considered the greatest
danger for the soul. Despondency is the impossibility for man to see
anything good or positive; it is the reduction of everything to
negativism and pessimism. It is truly a demonic power in us because the
Devil is fundamentally a liar. He lies to man about God and about the
world; he fills life with darkness and negation. Despondency is the
suicide of the soul because when man is possessed by it he is absolutely
unable to see the light and to desire it.
Lust of Power
Lust of power! Strange as it may seem, it is precisely
sloth and despondency that fill our life with lust of power. By
vitiating the entire attitude toward life and making it meaningless and
empty, they force us to seek compensation in a radically wrong attitude
toward other persons.
If my life is not oriented toward God, not aimed at
eternal values, it will inevitably become selfish and self-centered and
this means that all other beings will become means of my own self
-satisfaction. If God is not the Lord and Master of my life, then I
become my own lord and master -- the absolute center of my own world,
and I begin to evaluate everything in terms of my needs, my ideas, my
desires, and my judgments.
The lust of power is thus a fundamental depravity in my
relationship to other beings, a search for their subordination to me. It
is not necessarily expressed in the actual urge to command and to
dominate "others." It may result as well in indifference, contempt, lack
of interest, lack of consideration, and respect.
It is indeed sloth and despondency directed this time at
others; it is complete spiritual suicide with spiritual murder.
Of all created beings, man alone has been endowed with
the gift of speech. All Fathers see in it the very "seal" of the Divine
Image in man because God Himself is revealed as Word (John, 1:1). But
being the supreme gift, it is by the same token the supreme danger.
Being the very expression of man, the means of his self -fulfillment, it
is for this very reason the means of his fall and self-destruction, of
betrayal and sin. The word saves and the word kills; the word inspires
and the word poisons.
The word is the means of Truth and it is the means of
demonic Lie. Having an ultimate positive power, it has therefore a
tremendous negative power. It truly creates positively or negatively.
When deviated from its divine origin and purpose, the word becomes idle.
It "enforces" sloth, despondency, and lust of power, and transforms life
into hell. It becomes the very power of sin.
These four are thus the negative "objects" of
repentance. They are the obstacles to be removed. But God alone can
remove them. Hence, the first part of the lenten prayer contains this
cry from the bottom of human helplessness.
Positive Aims of
The prayer now moves to the positive aims of repentance
which also are four.
If one does not reduce this term, as is so often and
erroneously done, only to its sexual connotations, it is understood as
the positive counterpart of sloth. The exact and full translation of the
Greek sofrosini and the Russian tselomudryie ought to be whole
-mindedness. Sloth is, first of all, dissipation, the brokenness of our
vision and energy, the inability to see the whole. Its opposite then is
precisely wholeness. If we usually mean by chastity the virtue opposed
to sexual depravity, it is because the broken character of our existence
is nowhere better manifested than in sexual lust – the alienation of the
body from the life and control of the spirit. Christ restores wholeness
in us and He does so by restoring in us the true scale of values by
leading us back to God.
The first and wonderful fruit of this wholeness or
chastity is humility. We already spoke of it. It is above everything
else the victory of truth in us, the elimination of all lies in which we
usually live. Humility alone is capable of truth, of seeing and
accepting things as they are and therefore of seeing God's majesty and
goodness and love in everything. This is why we are told that God gives
grace to the humble and resists the proud.
Chastity and humility are naturally followed by
patience. The "natural" or "fallen" man is impatient, for being blind to
himself, he is quick to judge and to condemn others. Having but a
broken, incomplete, and distorted knowledge of everything, he measures
all things by his tastes and his ideas. Being indifferent to everyone
except himself, he wants life to be successful right here and now.
Patience, however, is truly a divine virtue. God is patient not because
He is "indulgent," but because He sees the depth of all that exists,
because the inner reality of things, which in our blindness we do not
see, is open to Him. The closer we come to God, the more patient we grow
and the more we reflect that infinite respect for all beings which is
the proper quality of God.
Finally, the crown and fruit of all virtues, of all
growth and effort, is love -- that love which, as we have already said,
can be given by God alone-the gift which is the goal of all spiritual
preparation and practice.
All this is summarized and brought together in the
concluding petition of the lenten prayer in which we ask "to see my own
errors and not to judge my brother." For ultimately there is but one
danger: pride. Pride is the source of evil, and all evil is pride. Yet
it is not enough for me to see my own errors, for even this apparent
virtue can be turned into pride.
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.
Prostrations are not limited to the Prayer of St. Ephrem but constitute
one of the distinctive characteristics of the entire lenten worship.
Here, however, their meaning is disclosed best of all.
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. The catastrophe of sin lies precisely in the victory of the
flesh – the animal, the irrational, the lust in us -- over the spiritual
and the divine. But the body is glorious; the body is holy, so holy that
God Himself "became flesh."
Salvation and repentance then are not contempt for the
body or neglect of it, but restoration of the body to its real function
as the expression and the life of spirit, as the temple of the priceless
human soul. Christian asceticism is a fight, not against but for the
body. For this reason, the whole man - soul and body – repents. The body
participates in the prayer of the soul just as the soul prays through
and in the body.
Prostrations, the "psycho- somatic" sign of repentance
and humility, of adoration and obedience, are thus the lenten rite par
Source: SOCM Forum
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