The Lenten Prayer of Saint Ephraim the Syrian Explained

Beloved brothers and sisters in Christ Our Only True God and Our Only True Savior,

Holy and Great Lent is the most significant spiritual ascesis in our life, for it is a time for cleansing ourselves of all sin. During this holy period, both at church and at the 'domestic church' (the Christian home), in the course of every prayer discipline or rule, the penitential prayer of Saint Ephraim the Syrian is recited by all with faith and humility. According to our Holy Church rubrics, during Holy and Great Lent the prayer is recited on all days other than Saturday and Sunday. This prayer, given by one of the great ascetics of our Church, Saint Ephraim the Syrian in the 4th century, is commonly called the "Lenten Prayer:"

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. Amen.

Father Alexander explains that the prayer-along with the spiritual disciplines of Great Lent (as well as the rest of the year)-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."

The prayer starts by referring to Jesus Christ as "Lord and Master of my life." Elder (Geronda) Porphyrios, a twentieth century Greek monk, teaches that Christians should "love Christ and put nothing before His love," because "Christ is everything. He is joy, He is life, He is Light. He is the True Light Who makes man joyful, makes him soar with happiness; makes him see everything, everybody; makes him feel for everyone, to want everyone with Him, everyone with Christ."

Do you love Christ like this, or are there things that are more important to you than Him? If Jesus Christ is Lord and Master of your life, you will want to pray to Him, receive Him in Holy Communion, and live your life in a way that pleases Him and enables you to grow in union with Him.

After proclaiming that Jesus Christ is Lord and Master, Saint Ephraim then asks Him to "take from me the spirit of sloth." Sloth is laziness and inactivity, and Father Alexander Schmemann explains that "it is the root of all sin because it poisons the spiritual energy at its very source." Sloth makes Christians ask "what for?" when presented with an opportunity to engage in spiritual growth.

Are you spiritually slothful? Do you avoid praying with a half-hearted promise to yourself and God that you'll "do it later?" Do you avoid fasting because it seems too hard and unpleasant? Do you avoid reading the Holy Bible because it seems like a lot of work? If you let sloth control your actions, you are refusing to make Jesus the "Lord and Master" of your life.

Saint Ephraim next prays to be freed from "faint-heartedness." Faint-heartedness means despondency: overwhelming depression and a feeling of hopelessness. The Holy Fathers of the Church warn that despondency is the greatest danger to the soul, because a despondent person is unable or unwilling to see anything positive or good-even in God-and is therefore unwilling to do anything to change his or her life. Saint John Climacus, a 6th century monk on Mt. Sinai, describes despondency:

"Despondency is a paralysis of soul, an enervation of the mind, neglect of asceticism, hatred of the vow made. It calls those who are in the world blessed. It accuses God of being merciless and without love for men. It is being languid in singing psalms, weak in prayer, like iron in service, resolute in manual labor, reliable in obedience."

The "lust of power," next in Saint Ephraim's prayer, doesn't necessarily mean the desire to become an all-powerful dictator that rules a company or nation. Instead, it ultimately refers to selfishness and self-centeredness. Fr. Schmemann teaches:

"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 deeds, my ideas, my desires, and my judgments."

Abba (Father) Isidore, one of the Desert Holy Fathers of the 4th century, simply says, "Of all evil suggestions, the most terrible is that of following one's own heart, that is to say, one's own thought, and not the Law of God."

Saint Ephraim also prays to be freed from a desire for "idle talk." Saint Anthony the Great, the founder of Monasticism in the 3rd and 4th centuries, says, "Know that nothing quenches the Spirit more than idle talk." A simple definition of idle talk is "foolish or irrelevant talk."

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 spending time carelessly. Each human being has God-given talents, talents that should be utilized to benefit our fellow man and to God's glory. O Lord, grant that I not be idle, that I not occupy myself with trivialities, spending my time aimlessly and unwisely.

Saint Ephraim prays that God not give him "a spirit of despondency." One who falls into despondency does not believe in God's Providence, in His unconditional love, and to trust God completely. A despondent person has lost hope and believes that God has abandoned him and that He does not care for him.

The Saint prays that God not give him, "the lust of power." The Lenten prayer teaches us not to desire to rule over others, to control people and order them around, to always be in power, to insist upon our own position, to be proud and egotistical. What gives us power in this life? Some things are money, notoriety, and position. Love of power causes us to move from God-dependence to self-dependence or independence. "For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many" (St. Mark 10:45). Service is characteristic of true greatness.

Our Lord also demonstrated the importance of humility and service by washing the feet of His disciples. "After that, He poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples' feet, and to wipe them with towel with which He was girded. Then He came to Simon Peter. And Peter said to Him, 'Lord, are you washing my feet?' Jesus answered and said to him, "What I am doing you do not understand now, but you will know after this.' Peter said to Him, 'You shall never wash my feet!' Jesus answered him, 'If I do not wash you, you have no part with Me.' Simon Peter said to Him, 'Lord, not my feet only, but also my hands and my head!'...For I have given you an example, that you should do as I have done to you. Most assuredly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master; nor is he who is sent greater than he who sent him..." (Saint John 13:5-16).

To be a leader in the Church, one must be as a humble servant- a reversal of the values of the world.

"But give rather the spirit of chastity." The teaching of chastity comes from the 7th Commandment in the Old Testament (Thou shalt not commit adultery), and from our Lord Jesus Christ's teaching on its deeper meaning. He said that not only is committing adultery a sin (against the 7th Commandment), but so is looking upon a woman with impure thought: "...whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart..." (St. Matthew 5:28)

Our culture unfortunately understand "chastity" as meaning sexual purity; as important as sexual impurity is, the full meaning, as Saint John Climacus says, "is the name which is common to all virtues."

One of the fruits of chastity is humility. Anthimos, a 20th century monk on the island of Chios in Greece, proclaims, "humble-mindedness will bring all the virtues."

(To be continued)

With sincere agape in His Holy Diakonia,
The sinner and unworthy servant of God

+Father George