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Cheesefare Sunday

The Lenten Prayer of St Ephrem the Syrian
By Fr. Alexander Schmemann
Sloth, Despair, Lust of Power

For the great majority of believers, Great Lent is identified above all with the short prayer named after St Ephrem the Syrian, one of the eastern Christian teachers of the fourth century. This prayer is read at the end of every lenten service, and the faithful read it at home as part of their personal prayers. It expresses most accurately, concisely and simply the meaning and spirit of what Christians have for centuries called Great Lent.

O Lord and Master of my life, do not give me the spirit of sloth, despair, lust of power and idle talk; but give rather the spirit of chastity, humility, patience and love to your servant. Yea, O Lord and King, grant that I may see my own transgressions and not judge my brother, for blessed are You unto ages of ages. Amen.

These are ancient words. But let us try to penetrate behind the ancient surface into their meaning and essence, just as some fifty to sixty years ago scholars first learned how to remove the surface dust and grime from ancient Russian icons. What before was dark (so dark, in fact, that the Russian writer Vasilii Rozanov even entitled his book on the Orthodox Church, Dark Image) was suddenly illumined and enlivened, radiating such striking colors, such joy and light, that everything we had previously understood not only about icons, but about the spiritual tone and style of Orthodoxy and ancient Russian piety, changed forever. The same can and must be done not only with icons, but with other fundamental expressions of faith and religion. Its enemies want to banish religion to museums, to convince people to equate it with the obsolete ideas and perceptions of antiquity, to prove it unnecessary.

But is this true? Let's return to the prayer of St Ephrem the Syrian. Let's listen carefully to this most simple petition of a man who recognizes the falsehood of his life and its content: "Do not give me the spirit of sloth, despair, lust of power and idle talk." First, "do not give me": protect me, defend me, deliver me. From what? From shortcomings that appear so ordinary and trivial, such as the spirit of sloth? "And anyway, what sloth can we possibly confess," says a person in contemporary society, "when everyone of us is exhausted from work, when the pace of life is getting faster and faster all the time, when a little sloth, it would seem, is precisely what we need most of all?" But in this prayer the word "sloth" does not at all mean inactivity or physical rest; above all it means emptiness. "Deliver me from the spirit of emptiness." Here we are immediately shown the first terrible disease of the human spirit: emptiness. Yes, we work, we hurry, we rush around literally from morning till night, but what is the essence, what is the meaning of all this hurry and vanity? Doesn't it sometimes happen that we suddenly stop for a moment, and then in the silence around us the emptiness and meaninglessness of our life become so clear? The words of the poet are frightening in their truth and simplicity: "Life made a loud commotion and then left." This is perhaps why we deafen ourselves with work, and why the whole world around us makes so much noise and thunder, because everyone is trying to hide this abyss of emptiness from themselves and from everyone else. But to what purpose? Where does it lead? Why? "Life made a loud commotion and then left..." So here, in this prayer, entering deeply within ourselves and catching a glimpse of this so very brief gift of life, we ask to be saved and defended, to be delivered from the root of all evil: from emptiness, from meaninglessness, from the terrible bankruptcy of soul in which we so often exist...

The " ... spirit of sloth, despair... " After sloth and emptiness, the inevitable result is despair. Why have all teachers of the spiritual life, all the wise men and women who have meditated on the nature of the human spirit and consciousness, always considered despair to be the most terrible sin, the most intractable evil? What is despair? Isn't everyone of us familiar with that strange erosion in energy of soul, that inexplicable sadness which suddenly descends upon everything around us, so that even the most brilliant sun-filled day becomes needless, empty, useless? We say "I feel listless," and dusk settles on the soul. This is despair. It's good if we can catch ourselves and pull ourselves together. Otherwise we simply drown the despair with whatever is at hand, work, alcohol, anything ... But it comes back, it is always somewhere here, waiting for the opportune moment, threatening from around the corner. It returns because in the deepest, most hidden part of our soul, in spite of attempts to hide it even from ourselves, each of us somehow recognizes the meaninglessness of a life which comes up against death. "We are continually questioning, questioning," wrote the poet Heinrich Heine, "until a lump of earth plugs-up our throat; but could that be the answer?" When that insight pierces to the surface through the noise and vanity of life, then everything around us seems so meaningless, so vain, so needless and fruitless. And from out of this experience comes the prayer: "deliver us from despair." This isn't helplessness or fear, as the enemies of religion suppose; it is the one response worthy of human beings, to look this despair right in the face, not to hide from it, but to seek the means to overcome it...

The "spirit of sloth, despair, lust of power ... " The prayer shifts to another level of human existence, to a different "key" to its tragedy. "Lust of power" does not simply mean love of power and authority over other people, since in this simple and pure form lust of power is perhaps not seen all that often. But in another and much deeper form, it is characteristic of each of us and is the source of terrible injustice in human life. To have lust of power is to relate to another human being as the means to an end, how he or she can be used. In other terms, lust of power is the inner subordination of everyone and everything to myself, looking at them only from the point of view of my needs, of my interests, of me as the highest and only value.

Idle Talk

Idle talk seems to be such a small, insignificant shortcoming. What really is so terrible about this? Banter, wisecracking, chit-chat. .. We are all people, we are all human beings, we all engage in these transgressions, but certainly there must be sins a lot more terrible than these. That's how it appears to us and how we've become accustomed to thinking. But the gospels say that "men will render account for every careless word they utter" (Mt 12:36), and therefore we begin to wonder if "idle talk" is as simple and innocent as it seems ...

Each of us, if we think carefully and concretely about our own life, and not just in terms of abstract theories, will be convinced immediately that words, either spoken to us or by us, have without question caused the most suffering, the most bad blood, and poisoned more minutes, hours and days than anything else. Slander, incrimination, betrayal, treachery, lies, rumors– all of these are frightening phenomena, and all of them occur exclusively by means of words; this alone should be enough for us to feel their terrible power. True, words can express and create goodness, beauty, and wisdom. But they also destroy goodness, beauty and wisdom. A word can poison the soul and fill it with suspicion, fear, malice, hatred and cynicism. And this of course applies beyond our personal life, for we live in an age where "idle talk" is truly of cosmic proportions. Newspapers, radio, television, books, schools, all of these are the instruments and almost symbols of a grandiose, continuous, incessant "idle talk," whose duty is to hammer at our heads and fill them with strange ideas, and force us to think in step with "thought police." We can say without any exaggeration that the world has been poisoned by "idle talk," which in the final analysis is always a lie.

Christianity considers the gift of words to be one of the highest, truly divine gifts bestowed upon humanity, setting us as verbal beings apart from nonverbal beings. It calls God himself "the Word," saying in the gospel, "In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God" (Jn 1:1). But it is precisely because Christianity values the word so highly and endows it with such great creative power, that it looks with such horror at the empty word, "idle talk," the word's betrayal of itself– when instead of being an instrument of goodness and light it becomes an instrument of evil and darkness... " Men will render account for every careless word they utter; for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned" (Mt 12:36-37). Everyone of us would pay dearly if only that life-poisoning word could be taken back as if never said ... It is necessary to recall and feel all this in order to understand why the Prayer of St Ephrem the Syrian puts "idle talk" together with sloth, despair and lust of power as one of the four basic sins and fundamental evils. When the word is purified and restored to its first-created power, then life itself begins to be purified, restored. We speak of "weighing every word." Yes, precisely weighing, not only on the scales of caution, usefulness and calculation; but also weighing every word on the scales of justice, goodness and truth.

Chastity, Humility, Patience

In the prayer of St Ephrem the Syrian we ask God to give us a "spirit of chastity, humility, patience and love." Let's consider each of these concepts, which taken together are the foundation and source of goodness, according to Christian spiritual experience since ancient times, just as the negative petitions of the lenten prayer are the basis of sin and evil.

The spirit of chastity. The word "chastity" [tselomudrie], which originally was one of the deepest, most beautiful words in human language, gradually lost its "fragrance," so to say, or at any rate its meaning has shrunk. For the vast majority it now refers almost exclusively to sexual purity, as the antithesis of sexual license and debauchery. But the original meaning of the word chastity is immeasurably broader and deeper. The key to this meaning is found in two concepts which are joined together in the one Russian word tselomudrie (chastity): tselostnost or "wholeness," and mudrie or "wisdom." "Chastity" is thus one of the most Christian of words, for it expresses Christianity's central experience, that goodness– the good, righteous, and authentic life– is precisely wholeness, and therefore wisdom. Wholeness stands opposed to evil, which is always a rupture, a division, a corruption of the original wholeness, and thus a departure from wisdom. The spirit of chastity is therefore that wholeness outside of which, by definition, nothing else remains. It is a return to life as wholeness. It is the joy of newly acquired wholeness, or in other terms, the peace and harmony of spirit, mind, heart and body, the joy of wisdom, the joy of "whole-wisdom."

After chastity comes "humility" [smirennomudrie]. And once again, notice that it is not merely humility [smirenie], but literally "humble wisdom" [smirennomudrie], for the word humility, like chastity, can be understood in a variety of ways. It can have a subservient tone to express a person's disdain for themselves as a human being, and so disdain for human beings in general: "I am so so small, so bad, so weak." No, none of this self-contempt has anything in common with true Christian humility, which is rooted in the experience of life's boundless depth. This humility comes not from ignorance and weakness, but from awe, from wisdom, from comprehension– and so it is truly from God. It is precisely fallen man who continually feels the need for pride, for self-exaltation, for self-affirmation, for a smoke screen to hide his shortcomings from others and even from himself. Those who are genuinely good, genuinely wise and genuinely alive have no need of pride, since they have nothing to hide, and therefore they are humble. Christ, the Son of God says, "Learn from me, for I am gentle and humble of heart" (Mt 11:29). And therefore in humility, as in wholeness, genuine wisdom is revealed, radiates and triumphs as "humble wisdom" [smirennomudrie].

Following chastity and humility comes the spirit of patience. Why does Christianity put this on such a pedestal? What is the virtue of patience? These are important questions, because Christianity and religion are accused by their opponents of preaching patience above all else. By preaching patience here, they say, and promising in return a reward there, you religious people are diverting people from fighting for freedom, you're resigning them to evil and injustice, you're turning them into obedient slaves. But they have missed the point: we are not speaking of that kind of patience. Here, in the lenten prayer, patience is an outcome of faith, trust and love; this is quite the opposite of dismissing everything with a wave of one's hand and telling oneself "I can't do anything except be patient." No, patience means first of all God himself, who did not "wave us aside," but continues to believe us, to believe in us. And this patience only comes from faith that good is stronger than evil, that love is stronger than hate, and finally, that life is stronger than death ... It is for this divine virtue, this divine gift of patience, that we pray, so that we would not be shaken in our trust, nor give in to indifference, aloofness, or that dismissing wave of the hand ... About both of these last qualities, humility and patience, we will have more to say in the next talk.

Humility, Patience, and Love

When you say aloud the word "humility," you feel at once how foreign it is to the spirit of modern life. What humility can we speak of when all life today is built exclusively on self-admiration and self-praise, on enthusiasm for external power, greatness, authority and so forth. This spirit of self-praise has permeated from top to bottom not only our political and government life, but our personal, professional, social, and literally every aspect of life. We teach our children to take pride, but rarely do we call them or ourselves to humility. What's more, one of the main accusations militant atheists continually level against Christianity is that it teaches people that being humble is the primary Christian virtue. Christianity therefore, according to them, teaches servility and submission, it humiliates and belittles human beings and their dignity.

What is most striking in these accusations is that no one ever explains what humility really is. What is Christianity teaching when it speaks about humility? Why, and in what sense does humility degrade human beings? Christ, for example, says about himself, "I am meek and humble of heart" (Mt 11:29), but it would never enter anyone's mind to claim that this is evidence of his indifference to evil, his blind submission to anyone and everyone, or his servile fear before the powers of this world. Indeed, He stands before Pilate and telIs him very simply, "You would have no power over me if it had not been given you from above" (Jn 19:11). Apparently, then, not all humility is the same; so before denouncing it, one needs to explain which humility is under discussion.

What is Christian humility? Above all, of course, it is the feeling of truth– truth, in the first place, about myself. Truth never degrades or humiliates, but raises and purifies. Furthermore, humility means honesty about the truth, refusal to exaggerate about ourselves in any way, aversion to fogging the truth about ourselves in front of others. Humility is finalIy the knowledge of one's place, one's abilities and limitations, the courageous acceptance of myself as I am ... This is why, like chastity, humility is the beginning of wisdom, and why we ask in prayer for the gift of humility. Only someone who does not lie, who does not exaggerate, who does not seek "image" over "being," who peacefulIy, soberly and courageously accepts and does his work– only that person possesses wisdom. When seen from this perspective, Christianity's preaching of humility, far from demeaning human beings, elevates and, most importantly, respects them. For only someone lacking something needs self-praise, only someone ugly needs to cover up, only someone weak needs to boast of strength. Where there is freedom, there is no need for propaganda; where there is genuine strength, there is no need for threats; where there is genuine beauty, there is no need for "impoverished excess of dress." This is why humility is in such short supply in today's world and today's human beings, and why it is that even unknowingly, exhausted in a sea of lies and self-praise, they long for humility more than for anything else ...

After humility in the prayer of St Ephrem the Syrian comes patience, and here again we come up against one of the main accusations against religion. Yet in preaching patience, Christianity does not undermine man's ability to protest, to fight, to defend his rights, to yearn for a better, more just world. Here too, as with humility, it is best to look at the example of Christ. Yes, he teaches patience, "in patience you will save you souls" (Lk 21:19), but what Christ calls patience is just as far from the caricature of patience in atheist pamphlets, as Christian love is from that love of a distant and impersonal colIective in whose name millions of people have been deprived of freedom.

Christian patience has its source not at all in indifference to evil, but, as strange as this may sound, in the active feeling of trust in human beings. No matter how far people fall, no matter how much they betray what is best in themselves, Christianity calIs us to believe that man's essential being does not consist of evil and fall. It believes that human beings can always stand up once again, that they can return to their bright essence ... In the end, patience is faith in the power of goodness.

FinalIy, we ask in the prayer of St Ephrem for the spirit of love. Love is the resolving chord of the prayer. In essence, the whole prayer leads toward this petition and fulfills itself here. For if we ask for liberation from sloth, despair, lust of power and idle talk, we are asking for the removal of barriers to love, barriers that prevent love from entering our heart. And chastity, humility, and patience are the building blocks, the roots, the first shoots of love. Therefore, when the word love finally falls upon our ears as if from heaven itself, we already know that love is not simply from God, but is God himself who enters our hearts, which are now cleansed and adorned with chastity, humility and patience, are now prepared to be a temple through the presence, light and all-conquering power of God's love. Love is at once both the hidden motivation of our life and its goal. Through love all is alive, toward love all is directed, and through love we come to know that God is Love.

 


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