This is the text of a class given on February 14, 2007, at Christ the Saviour Orthodox Christian Church in McComb, MS.

The Prayer of St. Ephraim
O Lord and Master of my life, the spirit of idleness, of meddling, of love of power, and of idle words, grant me not.
But the spirit of continence, of humility, of patience, and of love, do thou grant unto me thy servant.
Yea, O Lord and King, grant me to perceive mine own offenses, and not to judge my brother; for blessed art thou unto ages of ages. Amen.

The Prayer of St. Ephraim the Syrian is one of the most noticeable and notable additions to the weekday services of Great Lent. In fact, not only is it added to every service at least one time, but it is also added to the daily prayers (both morning and evening) of all Orthodox Christians during the Great Fast. So, here just a few days before the official beginning of Great Lent (with Forgiveness Vespers) we’re going to spend some time looking at the Prayer of St. Ephraim. If the Father’s see this prayer as important enough to add to almost everything during Great Lent, we need to have a good understanding of what we’re praying and why.

The first thing you’ll notice (those of you who have been Orthodox for any length of time) is that the translations we’ll be working from today (and using in our Liturgical services) is slightly different from the one used in most places. We’ll be using Archbishop DMITRI’s translation of the Prayer—and as you’ll see this evening, we’re doing this for accuracy. The most widely used translation is significantly wrong in several places; and instead of just correcting it and having our own translation, we’re going to adopt a translation used more widely in this country. If you visit, or move, other places, you very well may hear a different translation—but this is the one we’ll use here at Christ the Saviour.

Great Lent is counter-cultural in every way—it causes a sort of shock to many converts, especially as they try to live Lent for the first time. Lent opens a gap between us and society; it stops the ceaseless ongoing of society. We focus on our spiritual lives—so we turn off the radio and the television, we don’t go out with friends and party, or spend any more time than absolutely necessary involved in the trappings of modern life in America. And in this silence—both the literal silence and the quieting down of the rapid pace of our lives—we can begin to recall who we are in God. The Father’s choose the Prayer of St. Ephraim the Syrian as the centerpiece, so to speak, of Great Lent, because the Prayer reveals the heart of Orthodox Christian Lent. This simple Prayer gives us the full meaning of Lent. And the Prayer is meant for everyone; we all pray it together for the entirety of Lent, with the purpose of our lives being changed together for Christ.

The prayer is divided into three sentences. The first sentence describes an undesirable spirit in 4 qualities. The second sentence describes a desirable spirit in 4 qualities. And the third sentence completes the prayer with a movement into the incarnation of what Great Lent is all about.

1st sentence—it’s important to firstly to note that the Prayer describes an undesirable spirit, and asks God to “grant me not” this spirit. We don’t pray for God to “take from me the spirit of…” (which is what the more widely used translation says), but rather to preserve us and not to allow us to have the 4 qualities in this first sentence. Why? In the entire Biblical and Patristic Tradition, we have to say that God sends trials, or allows trials to come, to His beloved. [Whether He “sends” or “allows” is an irrelevant semantic difference—He is God and He is in control of everything.] So in this Tradition, we’re praying that the qualities of a proud and undesirable spirit will be kept away from us. What St. Ephraim, and we with him, are praying, is do not give me this spirit because I might not be able to overcome it. It’s a Prayer of ultimate humility. What do we pray to be kept from?

1-spirit of idleness: argia in Greek, often translated sloth, but in the original understanding argia is a total lack of any capacity to act (a + ergia=no work; if you use a Greek lexicon you’ll come up with a work/vacation contrast). It’s not just laziness, which is the connotation of sloth, but a demonic inability essentially to live, to be productive in any way, especially in one’s spiritual life.

2-spirit of meddling: preiergia in Greek, which literally is the opposite of argia. Argia is no work, no action, and preiergia is hyper work. They are opposite sides of the same coin. This is often translated despair, and despair might come to one who is busy meddling in everything that’s going on around them, but we’re not praying to be kept from despair but rather from uncontrolled meddling and hyper activity. [To be fair, when translating from Slavonic you would be accurate to have faintheartedness or despondency, but this does seem to miss the original intent, and you lose the internal relationship between argia and preiergia] This hyperactivity is not only in our lives of interaction with others, but also in our spiritual lives. If we suffer from argia then we can’t say our prayers and we miss Church and we don’t tithe and we don’t read and study the Bible and the Fathers. When we suffer from preiergia then we’re always looking for some new spiritual experience, we’re always reading and wanting to acquire information—but we don’t live a Christian life any more that the one suffering from argia.

3-spirit of love of power: philarchia in Greek, the hunger to control things. The desire to be in control, to be the one in power. This comes especially from #2; as we’re involved in more and more, our desire to control the things we’re involved in increases. This is obviously a temptation of pride—believing that we know best and need to be in control of everything that we’re meddling in.

4-spirit of idle words: argologia (a + ergia + logia) in Greek. So basically the makeup of the word is “no work words.” Idle talk. Speech that achieves no work. Sitting around running our mouths for no reason other than to hear ourselves speak. And if we remember the words of Christ, we’ll give an account at the Last Judgment for every idle word that we speak. Even spiritual conversations can be idle talk—if we’re just talking to show off what we know and not for the purpose of up building and edifying our brother in Christ.

So that’s the first sentence. And the reason we’re using a new translation of the Prayer are the three significant mis-translations that we saw in this first section. The next two sentences will be structurally almost identical to what we’re more familiar with, but we still need to look at what they say.

2nd sentence—here we ask God to grant us the qualities of a penitential spirit. Of a spirit that is repenting and returning to Christ. So what do we pray to be granted?

1-spirit of continence: sophrosyne in Greek. This word can be translated to mean discretion, moderation, sanity, self-control, temperance, chastity. In the other translation this is “chastity,” but with that you loose part of the fullness of the meaning in the original. The dictionary definition of continence is “control over physical, especially sexual, impulses leading to self-restraint, moderation, or abstinence.” There are two aspects to the spirit of continence—singleness and wholeness. You want a singleness of sight, and a wholeness and a completeness of vision. We’re praying for the ability to control ourselves, to exercise mastery over the passions. This certainly includes physical (sexual) passions [and this aspect the Fathers, including St. Ephraim the author of this prayer, write and comment on a great deal—especially in writing to married people in the world to observe moderation and self-control with their spouses], but it stretches into all aspects of our lives. We walk the middle road, the Golden Path. St. Basil the Great calls it—the path of moderation and self-control, of continence.

2-humility: tapeinophrosyne in Greek. Tapeinos is humility, and phrosyne is the mind as it deliberately chooses something. So the spirit of humility is a petition that our minds voluntary obey the way of humility. And again the inner connection in the prayer—as we voluntarily choose humility, the spirit of continence, of moderation and self-control, can be real in our lives.

3-patience: hypomene in Greek. Patience arises from humility. When you see things as they truly are, and you do it deliberately, then there are never any reasons for stress or impatience. We know that God is in control, that His will is best, and in submitting ourselves to this we naturally become patient. St.Isaac the Syrian wrote “In proportion to your humility you are given patience in your woes.”

4-love: agape in Greek. The last characteristic, really the defining characteristic of a desirable Christian soul, is love. And specifically here we ask for agape—the love of God. In Greek there are different words for different types of love, and agape is specific, in the Patristic literature, to God. We strive to have agape—love that is un-offend-able. That we love everyone no matter what. That our love is never shaken by how others act or anything that’s going on. Christ says that there is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for a friend—we hear agape in the words of St. Paul when he prays that if all could be saved, he would be willing to die and go to hell.

The 3rd and final sentence of the Prayer of St. Ephraim is the culmination of what Great Lent is all about. “Grant me to perceive mine own offenses”—let me see myself the way God sees me. And not just see, but also understand what my state of sinfulness means. The Father’s say that to see ourselves as we really are is the greatest miracle, greater even than raising someone from the dead. So we pray for the ability to see ourselves as we truly are—and only when we can honestly look at ourselves in our sin can we begin to achieve the mind of Christ. And as we’ve seen through the first two sentences of the Prayer, we’re asking to be preserved from the mind of Satan, and to be filled with the mind of Christ. So we pray to see ourselves as we truly are, “and not to judge my brother.” Seeing ourselves in our sin leads naturally to not judging others. On what basis are we judging another when we see ourselves (in the words of St. Paul) to be the worst among sinners? We’re so quick to judge and to blame other, this really is one of the characteristics of our society—we’re on a trend to blaming anything but the person for their actions. In the Christian mindset, we’re always to blame. In humility and patience and love for our brother we always accept the blame, and we’re called to never judge another.

And this is really the point of everything we’re getting ready to do for Great and Holy Lent—to soften ourselves, to make ourselves receptive to the grace of God, so He can show us where we are and how to move to where He wants us to be. So as you pray this Prayer of St. Ephraim the Syrian over the course of the next 7 weeks, I encourage you to really think about the words you’re saying. When we offer our prayers, we can’t do it mindlessly—we have to enter into the prayer as much as possibly can. So I encourage you to meditate on the things we’re praying to be kept from, and praying to be given—and in doing this we’ll begin to see ourselves in the way that Christ sees us.

Appendix
Life of our Father among the Saints Ephraim the Syrian (taken with slight modification from oca.org)

Saint Ephraim the Syrian, a teacher of repentance, was born at the beginning of the fourth century in the city of Nisibis (Mesopotamia) into the family of impoverished toilers of the soil. [He had the good fortune to be born into an important and ancient city, into a free and thriving Orthodox Christian community] His parents raised their son in piety, but from his childhood he was known for his quick temper and impetuous character. He often had fights, acted thoughtlessly, and even doubted God’s Providence. He finally recovered his senses by the grace of God, and embarked on the path of repentance and salvation. Once, he was unjustly accused of stealing a sheep and was thrown into prison. He heard a voice in a dream calling him to repent and correct his life. After this, he was acquitted of the charges and set free. The young man ran off to the mountains to join the hermits. This form of Christian asceticism had been introduced by a disciple of St Anthony the Great, the Egyptian desert dweller Eugenius. St James of Nisibis (January 13) was a noted ascetic, a preacher of Christianity and denouncer of the Arians. St Ephraim became one of his disciples. [There is some debate over whether St. Ephraim was actually a monastic, or a lay deacon perhaps under the guidance of St. James.] Under the direction of the holy hierarch, St Ephraim attained Christian meekness, humility, submission to God’s will, and the strength to undergo various temptations without complaint. St James transformed the wayward youth into a humble and contrite monk. Realizing the great worth of his disciple, he made use of his talents. He trusted him to preach sermons, to instruct children in school, and he took Ephraim with him to the First Ecumenical Council at Nicea (in the year 325). St Ephraim was in obedience to St James for fourteen years, until the bishop’s death in 338. After the capture of Nisibis by the Persians in 363, St Ephraim went to a monastery near the city of Edessa. Here he saw many great ascetics, passing their lives in prayer and psalmody. Their caves were solitary shelters, and they fed themselves with a certain plant. He became especially close to the ascetic Julian (October 18), who was of one mind with him. St Ephraim combined asceticism with a ceaseless study of the Word of God, taking from it both solace and wisdom for his soul. The Lord gave him a gift of teaching, and people began to come to him, wanting to hear his counsel, which produced compunction in the soul, since he began with self-accusation. Both verbally and in writing, St Ephraim instructed everyone in repentance, faith and piety, and he denounced the Arian heresy, which at that time was causing great turmoil. Pagans who heard the preaching of the saint were converted to Christianity. He also wrote the first Syriac commentary on the Pentateuch (i.e. “Five Books”) of Moses. He wrote many prayers and hymns, thereby enriching the Church’s liturgical services. Famous prayers of St Ephraim are to the Most Holy Trinity, to the Son of God, and to the Most Holy Theotokos. He composed hymns for the Twelve Great Feasts of the Lord (the Nativity of Christ, the Baptism, the Resurrection), and funeral hymns. St Ephraim’s Prayer of Repentance, “O Lord and Master of my life…” is recited during Great Lent, and it summons Christians to spiritual renewal. From ancient times the Church has valued the works of St Ephraim. His works were read publicly in certain churches after the Holy Scripture, as St Jerome tells us. At present, the Church Typikon prescribes certain of his instructions to be read on the days of Lent. Among the prophets, St David is the preeminent psalmodist; among the Fathers of the Church, St Ephraim the Syrian is the preeminent man of prayer. His spiritual experience made him a guide for monastics and a help to the pastors of Edessa. St Ephraim wrote in Syriac, but his works were very early translated into Greek and Armenian. Translations into Latin and Slavonic were made from the Greek text. In many of St Ephraim’s works we catch glimpses of the life of the Syrian ascetics, which was centered on prayer and working in various obediences for the common good of the brethren. The outlook of all the Syrian ascetics was the same. The monks believed that the goal of their efforts was communion with God and the acquisition of divine grace. For them, the present life was a time of tears, fasting and toil. “If the Son of God is within you, then His Kingdom is also within you. Thus, the Kingdom of God is within you, a sinner. Enter into yourself; search diligently and without toil you shall find it. Outside of you is death, and the door to it is sin. Enter into yourself, dwell within your heart, for God is there.” Constant spiritual sobriety, the developing of good within man’s soul gives him the possibility to take upon himself a task like blessedness, and a self-constraint like sanctity. The requital is presupposed in the earthly life of man, it is an undertaking of spiritual perfection by degrees. Whoever grows himself wings upon the earth, says St Ephraim, is one who soars up into the heights; whoever purifies his mind here below, there glimpses the Glory of God. In whatever measure each one loves God, he is, by God’s love, satiated to fullness according to that measure. Man, cleansing himself and attaining the grace of the Holy Spirit while still here on earth, has a foretaste of the Kingdom of Heaven. To attain to life eternal, in the teachings of St Ephraim, does not mean to pass over from one realm of being into another, but rather to discover “the heavenly,” spiritual condition of being. Eternal life is not bestown on man through God’s one-sided efforts, but rather, it constantly grows like a seed within him by his efforts, toils and struggles. The pledge within us of “theosis” (or “deification”) is the Baptism of Christ, and the main force that drives the Christian life is repentance. St Ephraim was a great teacher of repentance. The forgiveness of sins in the Mystery of Repentance, according to his teaching, is not an external exoneration, not a forgetting of the sins, but rather their complete undoing, their annihilation. The tears of repentance wash away and burn away the sin. Moreover, they (i.e. the tears) enliven, they transfigure sinful nature, they give the strength “to walk in the way of the Lord’s commandments,” encouraging hope in God. In the fiery font of repentance, the saint wrote, “you sail yourself across, O sinner, you resurrect yourself from the dead.” St Ephraim, accounting himself as the least and worst of all, went to Egypt at the end of his life to see the efforts of the great ascetics. He was accepted there as a welcome guest and received great solace from conversing with them. On his return journey he visited at Caesarea in Cappadocia with St Basil the Great (January 1), who wanted to ordain him a priest, but he considered himself unworthy of the priesthood. At the insistence of St Basil, he consented only to be ordained as a deacon, in which rank he remained until his death. Later on, St Basil invited St Ephraim to accept a bishop’s throne, but the saint feigned madness in order to avoid this honor, humbly regarding himself as unworthy of it. After his return to his own Edessa wilderness, St Ephraim hoped to spend the rest of his life in solitude, but divine Providence again summoned him to serve his neighbor. The inhabitants of Edessa were suffering from a devastating famine. By the influence of his word, the saint persuaded the wealthy to render aid to those in need. From the offerings of believers he built a poorhouse for the poor and sick. St Ephraim then withdrew to a cave near Edessa, where he remained to the end of his days. [It is believed he died of the plague around the year 393.]

Through the prayers of St. Ephraim, Lord Jesus Christ our God, have mercy on us and save us!

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