On each of the next three Wednesdays (including today), I will be posting a short reflection on the Prayer of St. Ephraim the Syrian. This is the first of the reflections.

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.

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.