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A Lenten prayer

One of the most beloved fathers of the early Church is St Ephrem the Syrian. Born in the city of Nisibis (Turkey) in approximately AD 306, Ephrem was a deacon and a hermit who made enduring contributions to the theology and spirituality of the Christian East.

His voluminous writings include theological treatises, spiritual works and commentaries on the entire Bible. But Ephrem also composed some of the most profound theological poetry for the Church, the most famous of which is arguably this Lenten Prayer.

O Lord and Master of my life!

Take from me the spirit of sloth,

Faintheartedness, 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 judge my brother;

For Thou are blessed unto the ages of ages. Amen.

In this prayer, the venerable father (i.e. a sainted monk), as he is called, whose feast day is celebrated in the Orthodox world on 28 January, asks God to take away and to give.

Ephrem asks God to remove four vices from his life, the first of which is “the spirit of sloth”. Here sloth does not refer to the moments of laziness that all of usif we are honest with ourselves—experience occasionally.

Sloth is a spiritual disease, a condition of the heart and the soul. It is a kind of disinterested lethargy that robs the believer of spiritual vitality and purpose. Sloth is the absence of genuine motivation to love God and serve Him. It makes the life of the Christian one tremendous spiritual waste.

Sloth leads to the next vice we find in Ephrem’s prayer: faintheartedness. Faintheartedness is spiritual despondency—an infirmity of resolve and a lack of courage.

The spiritual writers of the Church down the centuries consider despondency as a great danger to the soul. It robs the Christian of the theological realism that acknowledges the saving presence of the sovereign God in this fractured world.

In short, faintheartedness is a symptom of unbelief. That is why some theologians in the Christian East describe it as nothing less than the suicide of the soul.

Sloth and faintheartedness together bring about the lust for power. In other words, these spiritual diseases pervert the heart, causing it to nurture a depraved and destructive kind of love that the ancient spiritual writers call lust.

The lust for power is thus a form of spiritual depravity, a blinding and toxic self-centredness. The lust for power is blinding because it misleads us into thinking of ourselves as the absolute centre of the world. It is toxic because it causes us to treat others with utter disrespect, and even with contempt.

The final vice in Ephrem’s prayer is idle talk.

In all of God’s creation, only the creatures that have been given the privilege of bearing the image of their Creator have the gift of speech. Like freedom, speech may be regarded as one of the most exalted gifts that we have received from God. But it is for this very reason also the most dangerous.

If the attendant danger in freedom is rebellion, the attendant danger in speech is blasphemy. The spoken word can be the means of human self-fulfilment. But it can also be the means of self-destruction. The spoken word can inspire and save. But it can also deceive and kill.

After dealing with the four vices, Ephrem turns his attention to the virtues: chastity (self-control), humility, patience and love, which is the crown and the fruit of all the virtues.

Space does not allow us to discuss these virtues. Suffice to say that Lent for Ephrem is not just about “putting off” the old nature; it is also about “putting on” Christ (Rom 13:14; Col 3).

The saint ends his prayer with this petition: “Grant me to see my own errors and not to judge my brother.” This prayer safeguards the petitioner from pride, which, according to ancient theologians is the most a subtle and insidious sin.

May Ephrem’s prayer accompany us throughout this season of Lent! May its words urge us to examine our lives and repent of our sinful ways. And may this ancient Lenten Prayer draw us ever deeper into the holy love of God.

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor at the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity (http://ethosinstitute.sg).