OUR LENTEN WORSHIP
The Prayer of Saint Ephrem
Written by the His Grace Bishop Basil Losten, emeritus bishop of the Ukrainian Catholic Eparchy of Stamford.
O Lord, and Master of my life, give me not the spirit of slothfulness, faintheartedness, lust for power, and vain talking;
Instead, grant to me. Your servant, the spirit of integrity, humility, patience and love;
O Lord and King, grant that I may see my own transgressions, and not judge my brother, for You are blessed. Amen.
Unlike most prayers offered aloud in our services, the priest recites this prayer in a speaking voice, audibly but not very loudly. Customarily we make a prostration after each clause, three in all. We repeat this short prayer at virtually every service on the weekdays of Lent, so the church attaches great importance to it. It is the typical prayer of Lent. Because it is so short, it is easily memorized. If we cannot come to church on a given day, we may offer this prayer in our homes. We may use it quietly throughout the day, wherever we happen to be.
The Meaning of the Prayer
“O Lord and Master of my life.” This short phrase confesses that we depend utterly on Jesus Christ our God. We acknowledge again what we acknowledged at baptism, that our first allegiance is to God, that God has given us life, that we must live in accordance with God’s will, and that it is for God to call us from this earthly life. In these few words we turn away from all idolatry, we reject everything, which might take the place of God.
“Give me not the spirit of slothfulness” or in plain English, laziness! Life, especially the Christian life, is an effort. That does not mean at all that we should never “enjoy life”; Christ promised to give us joy. But real joy has nothing in common with laziness. Laziness steals our time and gives us no joy at all; one only discovers that one has done nothing, neither what one should have done nor what one might have done. Exercise is a good cure for laziness; Lent is a spiritual exercise, to cure us of spiritual laziness.
“Faintheartedness” is a vice or temptation allied to laziness. This is the notion that we cannot accomplish anything anyway, so why bother to try? What for? We will only fail, so why make the effort? Those are the questions of the devil. Even in ordinary life, the person who really never succeeds is the person who never tries. And in the Christian life, there is good news: God does not demand that we must always succeed! When we try, and fail, God is always there to “pick us up” with His love, and help us try again. A sinful Christian, who has tried all his life to lead a Christian life and thinks that he has never really succeeded but still keeps trying will have a place of honor in the Kingdom of Heaven. But that is only part of the good news. God is with us, and God is there to help us. The help does not come on our schedule, but it comes. When we make the effort persistently, even though we fail. God replaces our failures with Christ’s Victory! In the long run, if we will only try. God will give us the success that we cannot achieve for ourselves. So, deliver us from faintheartedness, and give us the strength to make a beginning and try again!
“Lust for power.” Most of us would say at once “that’s not me; I’m not important enough to be lusting for power!” Well, think again. The original temptation to the sin that deprived the human race of paradise was the lying promise of Satan “you shall be as gods!” And the ambition to be gods is still one of the most basic temptations of the human soul. In our fallen state, each individual wants to be the center of the universe. Even an infant wants the whole world to revolve around him. How often, if we are honest, do we not find ourselves trying to manipulate other people into doing what we want? How often do we not abuse other people? How often do we not abuse creation? All this is lust for powerю Repentance, with the grace of God, can undo the original sin for each of us, as Jesus Christ has undone original sin for all of us. But we must ask God’s help to put aside this lust for power, this ludicrous desire to be the center of the universe, and instead we must allow God to be truly “the Lord and Master of my life,” all day, every day.
“And vain talking”! This gets right down to business. How much damage do we do by idle chatter, let alone deliberately vicious slander? Ask the bishop, if you wish, and I will tell you that I cannot begin to count the harm done to families, to parishes, to communities, and to individuals by foolish words, often spoken in haste. How truly does the Epistle of James teach that anyone who does not sin in speech must be perfect! Vain talking also involves vain listening, at least most of the time. How much idle listening do we do? How often do we watch television or listen to the radio, not to learn something, not to enjoy something, but just “to kill time.” God gives us time to use, not to kill. Lent is a good occasion to begin to keep track of the “idle talk” that comes in through our eyes and ears, as well as the idle talk we generate ourselves. Consider also the reverse: what is more precious than a reputation for speaking the truth, with love and respect for others? How much do we admire people who never speak slightingly of others?
So we ask God to deliver us from these four sins and temptations. We also ask for specific virtues: “Integrity.” We all admire this virtue. When we call someone a person of integrity, we are paying a high compliment. Integrity is the virtue by which we recognize God’s plan for us and do our best to live in accordance with that plan. By the virtue of integrity, we understand that sin not only damages other people, but that sin damages the sinner. When I commit sin, the very act of sin diminishes me. God, however, can restore me to my lost integrity, and is willing, even anxious, to do so if I will only ask it and cooperate with His grace.
“Humility.” In common speech, this might sound like almost the opposite of integrity. When we say that someone is a person of integrity, we imply that this person has great dignity. Yet we often think of humility as lacking dignity. Genuine humility is not at all undignified; as I said above, humility is freedom from illusion. Humility is clear-sightedness. Consider a very simple, homely example. Some people waste money by purchasing overpriced merchandise because they do not know the real value of the goods, and because they wish to display their wealth. Prudent people who do know the value of the goods, and who shop carefully, will receive real value for money. The careful, informed shopper who obtains good value is far more dignified than the show-off who ostentatiously wastes money. So, likewise, if we have an accurate view of life, spiritual and temporal; if we have the humility from God to enable us to see ourselves and everything else with realism, we have authentic dignity instead of pretentiousness.
“Patience.” What an essential virtue, and what a difficult one! We naturally want everyone and everything to run on our own schedule. Yet reality does not run on our own schedule. We must be patient with God, we must be patient with others, and we must even be patient with ourselves. To be patient with God: for how many years have I not asked people to pray for the persecuted Church in Eastern Europe? And as the years went by, it grieved me to hear, sometimes, the answer “Bishop, please don’t ask us that. We have prayed, and it does no good. God is not listening to our prayers!” This is a frightful temptation, and a very painful one. God always hears our prayers, and responds to them. But there is no guarantee that the response will be what we happen to want at the time. God knows better than we do when He shall do this and when He shall do that. We are not forbidden to ask Him to hurry, and indeed the Gospel teaches that God shortens the time of trial for the sake of His faithful. But we must be patient, as God is patient with us, and we must know that God’s schedule is not our schedule. God is the Author of times and seasons; He is not bound by them. And, conversely, we must be patient with God! When God did reveal that He had heard our prayers, and brought down the Communists, and restored freedom to the Church, what did I hear then? “It’s too fast!!” Again, sometimes God moves too fast for our convenience. We must believe that God knows better than we do, and we must adjust our schedules accordingly! We must be patient, whether God seems too slow or too fast. We must be patient with each other. There is almost no need to elaborate; it’s remarkable how quickly people sometimes excuse their own faults but nevertheless require the highest standards of behavior from those around them! Lent is especially a time when we should practice patience towards one another. A good test of our fasting is our behavior towards each other. If we find ourselves becoming more irritable and cross with one another, our fasting is doing us no good and we should look again, very carefully, at how we are keeping Lent. And, strange as it may sound, we must be patient with ourselves. That is to say, we must persevere in the effort of repentance, the effort of virtue and Christian living, even though we fall many times. We must be convinced that we can do better, and that God loves us and values our effort. When we seem to be getting nowhere, when we are tempted to believe that we are as good as we are ever going to be, we must be patient with ourselves and keep trying!
“Love”! We ask for the gift of real, authentic love. Christian love is not a sentiment or an emotion; Christian love is an act of the will, a virtue. Christian love is a gift of God’s grace, but we must make the effort to exercise that gift of grace. We must love God, and we must love one another. If we do that we shall live according to the law of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Whoever wishes to know what Christian love is should read the thirteenth chapter of the First Epistle to the Corinthians. In two thousand years, no one has ever improved on Saint Paul’s discourse on love. I could wish that we all knew it by heart, and that this passage were written indelibly upon our souls as well.
After praying for these four virtues, we make two more requests of God: “O Lord and King, grant that I may see my own transgressions, and not judge my brother,” How often do we not do the reverse? We overlook our own transgressions completely, or cover them with lame excuses that we would never accept from anyone else, and then we turn around and judge other people by the very highest standards, never thinking of mitigating circumstances, and of the likelihood that we are quite wrong anyway.
I need to see my own transgressions for two good reasons: to teach me to know myself honestly, without dissembling, and to enable me to improve my Christian life. If I conceal my sins from myself, I will never overcome them. A person who has convinced himself that he has never told a lie in his life is unlikely to become more truthful! And so it goes. A serious examination of conscience, in the light of God’s loving truth, is an indispensable part of repentance, just as a serious physical examination is an indispensable part of good medical treatment. We must know what is wrong before we can put it right.
“And not to judge my brother” – The Bible asks us “who are you that you should judge another man’s servant?”Each of us shall answer to the Lord; God forbid that we should judge each other. We should be afraid ever to judge others, because Jesus Christ himself warns us: “Judge not, that you be not judged. For with what judgment you judge, you will be judged!” When we realize how harsh we are in judging other people, it is terrible to think that God might judge us in the same way.
So instead of judging, let us pray to God to make us always merciful, as God is merciful to us.