Today is the fourth Sunday of Lent and it's time for a check-up to see how we're doing. I'm not going to ask how many worship services you've been to or if you came to the retreat or if you've made an appointment for Holy Confession. Let me instead offer you a special prayer to be prayed daily during Great and Holy Lent.
It is the Lenten Prayer of St. Ephrem the Syrian. Do you know the prayer? Do you pray it? This prayer is given to us because it instructs us about some basic principles for the spiritual life. Listen to the words:
O Lord and Master of my life, do not give me a spirit of idleness, curiosity, love of power and idle talk.
But grant to me Your servant, the spirit of prudence, humility, patience and love.
Yes, Lord and King, grant that I may see my own faults, and to not judge my brother,
For You are blessed to ages of ages. Amen.
Let's look closely at what the prayer means.
- Lord a person who has authority, control, or power over others; a master, chief, or ruler.
- Master is a person with the ability or power to use, control, or dispose of something.
- Of my life refers to our whole life, not part of our life, or just our religious and spiritual life.
- Do not give me... Why would God give us a spirit of something that is not good? It reminds of the OT, where God often 'hardened the heart' especially of Pharaoh (Exodus 4:21). Here's how it works: It's like saying, even though I deserve to because of my words, actions, thoughts and feelings, don't give it to me anyway.
- Spirit. The root of sin is spiritual. Sinful words and actions are born within our heart. "Pneuma" (Greek for "spirit") literally means breath. It is the animating life force in our heart, mind and soul. It motivates our behavior and is the lynch pin for everything we do. What we do not want, and later in the prayer--what we do want, is the fountain or source of life.
- Idleness is sloth or laziness, not doing anything or at least not doing what we should. I cannot think of anything that epitomizes idleness as much as watching television. Turn off the TV for the rest of Lent. Instead, pray, read, worship.
- Curiosity. Sometimes we stick our nose into other people's business not to help them as much as to feel important because we know something about someone else. This curiosity exists because of a basic emptiness and impotence within us. It often leads to other vices. During Lent, let's mind our own business, we've got enough to worry about.
- Love of Power. The desire to feel or be in control is essentially a seeking for security. It translates into a raw ambition for whatever gives us more power. What gives us power in this life? Some things are money, notoriety, and knowledge. Love of power causes us to move from God-dependence to self-dependence or independence. Power and control are illusions. Anything we have has been given to us from above. Truly, in life we have little or no control over anything or anyone even ourselves. During Lent, make a conscious effort to turn towards Jesus Christ for help in all things.
- Idle talk is empty words, chatter, talking to talk. If silence is the highest form of prayer, what is the opposite? In order to listen, to God and to others, we must stop talking. In Proverbs it says that foolishness is manifested in many words. Idle talk is idle because it does not accomplish any good. Gossip is an extreme form of idle talk because it does damage. During Lent, keep talk to a minimum, to only what is necessary.
- Prudence in Greek means "common sense or wisdom". In English the word means "careful or cautious". Wisdom is the ability to see things as they are and to make correct choices based on that perception. Wisdom is directly related to faith in Christ as Proverbs says, "The beginning of wisdom is the fear of the Lord". Proverbs also says there is wisdom in much counsel. During Lent, follow the lectionary and read Proverbs to gain wisdom.
- Humility. We must consider ourselves lower than everyone else, especially God. Humility is the antidote to all sorts of sin because it is the opposite of pride which is at the root of many, if not most, sin in our lives. When we are humble, we do not expect anything because we see ourselves as deserving of nothing. There is no sense of entitlement and therefore we are not offended or upset by every little thing that does not go our way. During Lent let us practice humility by seeking opportunities to serve God and other people.
- Patience means long-suffering. In our world today we are so used to getting immediate service or feedback, we have difficulty being patient. Waiting a few extra seconds for our computer to boot-up or refresh a page can be irritating. Patience is the opposite of the "I want it now!" attitude. Patience is accepting things as they are, not as we want them to be. Patience is being on God's time, not our own. During Lent change synchronize your clocks with God's.
- Love. Agape is self-sacrificial love. Love is not the touchy, feely sentimental love that is more about fulfilling our own needs than truly caring and sacrificing for the good of the other. Every time we do for Christ or someone else that requires us to give up something of our own, we are exercising true love. During Lent let's show our love for God and for each other.
- See my own faults and offenses. To see my own faults, I must conduct a self-examination. I must look at my own words and actions and see where I have fallen short of God's commands and living up to Christ's example. I must look into my own heart and mind and see what spirit is in there motivating and directing me. I probably will need help doing this. During Lent I need to talk to my spiritual father and go to Holy Confession.
- Not to judge. Judging is not self-examination but "other examination" and in turn usually self-exaltation. Christ sternly warns us not to judge others lest we be judged with the same strictness and unforgiving attitude. During Lent, do not judge, rather forgive those who have trespassed against us.
- Brother. This refers not to just blood relatives but to everyone. Our neighbor is our close sibling, another child of God, whether he believes in Him or not. This helps us see our duty, loyalty and responsibility to everyone.
- Blessed means to extol as holy, to glorify. During Lent we need to bless God as the most holy person and glorify Him. This is the antidote to idolatry-to making gods out of anything else in our life.
Pray the Lenten Prayer of St. Ephrem and with it give yourself a check-up, not just during Great and Holy Lent but every day of the year. Amen.
Biography of St. Epraim
Saint Ephraim was born in Nisibis of Mesopotamia some time about the year 306, and in his youth was the disciple of Saint James, Bishop of Nisibis, one of the 318 Fathers at the First Ecumenical Council. Ephraim lived in Nisibis, practicing a severe ascetical life and increasing in holiness, until 363, the year in which Julian the Apostate was slain in his war against the Persians, and his successor Jovian surrendered Nisibis to them. Ephraim then made his dwelling in Edessa, where he found many heresies to do battle with. He waged an especial war against Bardaisan; this gnostic had written many hymns propagating his errors, which by their sweet melodies became popular and enticed souls away from the truth. Saint Ephraim, having received from God a singular gift of eloquence, turned Bardaisan's own weapon against him, and wrote a multitude of hymns to be chanted by choirs of women, which set forth the true doctrines, refuted heretical error, and praised the contests of the Martyrs.
Of the multitude of sermons, commentaries, and hymns that Saint Ephraim wrote, many were translated into Greek in his own lifetime. Sozomen says that Ephraim "Surpassed the most approved writers of Greece," observing that the Greek writings, when translated into other tongues, lose most of their original beauty, but Ephraim's works "are no less admired when read in Greek than when read in Syriac" (Eccl. Hist., Book 111, 16). Saint Ephraim was ordained deacon, some say by Saint Basil the Great, whom Sozomen said "was a great admirer of Ephraim, and was astonished at his erudition." Saint Ephraim was the first to make the poetic expression of hymnody and song a vehicle of Orthodox theological teachings, constituting it an integral part of the Church's worship; he may rightly be called the first and greatest hymnographer of the Church, who set the pattern for these who followed him, especially Saint Romanos the Melodist. Because of this he is called the "Harp of the Holy Spirit." Jerome says that his writings were read in some churches after the reading of the Scriptures, and adds that once he read a Greek translation of one of Ephraim's works, "and recognized, even in translation, the incisive power of his lofty genius" (De vir. ill., ch. CXV).
Shortly before the end of his life, a famine broke out in Edessa, and Saint Ephraim left his cell to rebuke the rich for not sharing their goods with the poor. The rich answered that they knew no one to whom they could entrust their goods. Ephraim asked them, "What do you think of me?" When they confessed their reverence for him, he offered to distribute their alms, to which they agreed. He himself cared with his own hands for many of the sick from the famine, and so crowned his life with mercy and love for neighbor. Saint Ephraim reposed in peace, according to some in the year 373, according to others, 379.
Fr. Richard Demetrius Andrews is the pastor of St. George Greek Orthodox Church in St. Paul, Minnesota. Fr. Andrews is the past president of Minnesota Eastern Orthodox Christian Clergy Association (MEOCCA), and a volunteer chaplain with the St. Paul Police Department.