By Deacon Charles Rohrbacher
This year Western and Eastern Christians celebrate Easter (and thus the forty days of Lent) on the same Sunday. This common observance of Lent reminds me of how almost twenty years ago I first made the acquaintance of “Dr. Banya” and came to love the Prayer of St. Ephrem.
I had been invited to give a week of retreat conferences to the seminarians at St. Herman’s Orthodox Seminary in Kodiak. The subject was the holy icons and the occasion was the first week of Lent, beginning with Forgiveness Sunday.
It was in Kodiak that I discovered why Eastern Churches don’t have pews or chairs: they only get in the way of kneeling and full body prostrations, which, it turns out, is a major activity during the first four days of Lent. It was also in Kodiak , three days into the retreat that one of the Yu’pik seminarians, noticing that I was pretty muscle sore, introduced me to “Dr. Banya” who he assured me, would cure me of all my ills. “Dr. Banya” turned out to be not a person but a tiny structure behind the seminary, a steam bath that the seminarians fired up after night prayers that made a sauna feel like a walk-in freezer by comparison.
Two aspects of how Orthodox Christians and Eastern Catholics observe Lent made a profound impression on me while I was at the seminary. The first was the recitation of the Prayer of St. Ephrem. The second was discovering how truly out of shape I was as I joined the seminarians and the congregation in what seemed to be an endless repetition of full body prostrations while reciting this Lenten prayer. It was recited pretty much throughout every one of the many services celebrated each of the four days that I was in Kodiak.
The Prayer of St. Ephrem the Syrian
O Lord and Master of my life!
Take from me the spirit of sloth, faint-heartedness,
lust of power, and idle talk. (Prostration)
But give rather the spirit of chastity, humility,
patience, and love to Your servant. (Prostration)
O Lord and King!
Grant me to see my own errors
and not to judge my brother or my sister;
For You are blessed forever and ever.
I have found this prayer to be of great spiritual benefit during Lent (with or without the prostrations). I experience it as a way of identifying and taking responsibility for the sins I have allowed to take hold in my life and the virtues I still need to acquire or practice better so my actions will become more pleasing to God.
I also have found that this prayer is a beneficial way to begin the season of Lent.
O Lord and Master of my life!
The prayer begins by acknowledging that Jesus is the Lord and master of my life. He is my Lord and master, I am his servant? Or am I? Just as those seeking citizenship are required to renounce every other political allegiance, I cannot remain a dual citizen of the world and the Kingdom of God. During the days of Lent I need to honestly examine if this is true. Are my appetites and passions the true Lord of my life? Have my fears and anxieties mastered me? Do I truly desire to think like Jesus, judge like him and act like him? Is Jesus the one whose commands I obey or do I obey the commands of another authority over my life?
As we begin Lent we ask God to show us the idols that demand our service and to deliver us from the hold of every other power and authority over our lives.
Take from me
…The spirit of sloth
In the spiritual life sloth is more than laziness. To be spiritually slothful is a kind of inner sleepiness and indifference to holiness. I have no energy for the things of God, for prayer, for the word of God, for the Eucharist. Ultimately, the vitality of my love of God and neighbor just drains away.
But sloth is also a kind of deep distraction, in that I find myself acutely interested in everything except the spiritual life. In this part of the prayer we are asking God to help us to face our spiritual laziness and to deliver us from the creeping paralysis of indifference.
As we begin Lent, we ask God to rouse us from the drowsiness of indifference and to deliver us from the power that spiritual paralysis and sloth have over us.
…The spirit of faint-heartedness
The spiritual life requires us to confront and overcome with God’s grace, everything in our lives that is not pleasing to the Master. Yet we struggle to overcome the inertia of discouragement and faint-heartedness. It is just too difficult to do anything. How can I expect life to be any different. Discouragement defeats us before we even begin.
So as we begin Lent we ask God to deliver us from the spiritual power that discouragement has over us.
…The spirit of lust of power
If Jesus is truly the Lord and Master of my life, then I should want to do the will of the one who came, not to be served but to serve. The goal of the spiritual life is to love Jesus with an undivided heart and to become more and more like him. Yet if I am honest with myself, I struggle with the temptation to impose my will on my brother and sister, either directly by intimidation or indirectly by manipulation. Our will to power inevitably leads us away from God, whose power was made most manifest in the kenotic self-emptying of Jesus on the cross.
As we begin Lent let us ask God to deliver us from the spiritual hold that the desire to dominate others (even if for their own good!) has over us.
…The spirit of idle talk
Pope Francis has had a lot to say about the ways in which gossip and slander , however seemingly minor, wounds the Body of Christ. It is easy to habitually, that is, without thinking, get caught up in idle talk and gossip at work or at home. Jesus commands us not to judge each other, but a spirit of idle talk and gossip inevitably leads us to judge and condemn others (if only interiorly).
Idle talk isn’t always gossip. It can also be a way of keeping ourselves distracted in order to shut out the voice of conscience. Thus, the still, small voice of the Lord is effectively drowned out by ceaseless chatter.
As Lent begins, let us ask the Lord to help us silence the interior and external chatter that leads us to ignore the voice of God and to condemn our faltering brothers and sisters.
But give rather to your servant…
The spirit of chastity
Chastity is that virtue of single-minded purity of heart required of everyone, married and single. It is not only about the necessity for chaste exterior behavior, especially regarding the gift of our sexuality, but about the interior attitudes, desires and appetites that form or deform how we live. If our character can be defined as how we behave when no-one is watching, in praying for chastity we are asking God for single-hearted integrity in our thoughts, desires and actions, especially in secret.
As we begin Lent, let us ask the Lord to give us the grace of chastity, so by living lives of integrity we may be more credible witnesses to Jesus and the Good News.
…The spirit of humility
Humility is popularly (and inaccurately) regarded as self-abasement. But humility is actually simply living in the truth. A humble person is comfortable acknowledging their strengths and weaknesses, virtues, talents, faults and failings. True humility grows out of a profound experience of being loved by God, which casts out the need to pretend to be other than we who are before Him and before our neighbor.
As we begin Lent, let us ask the Lord to give us courage to acknowledge without fear our sins and failings as well as our virtues and accomplishments, confident in His compassion and mercy.
…The spirit of patience
God, who has no patience for sin and injustice, is infinitely patient with sinners, that is, with each of us. Yet how easy it is for us to be impatient with those who merely inconvenience us. For us to be patient with our neighbor is to participate in a small way in the divine omni-patience.
As Lent begins, let us ask the Lord to cultivate the spirit of patience in our daily lives by letting go of our response of impatience, annoyance or anger when offended by the limitations and faults of our neighbors.
…The spirit of love
Our natural capacity to love is so limited. All too often, even at our best our love of others is partial and conditional, calculated to get us what we want and expect for ourselves. God’s love is not self-serving, for God needs nothing from us. He loves us entirely for our sake. In this final petition, we ask for the grace to love as God loves, and thus to enter into the communion of divine love which is the Kingdom and eternal life.
As Lent begins, let us ask the Lord to transform us entirely in His love, so that we too may wholeheartedly seek the good of others in word, deed and thought, not for our benefit but for theirs.
O Lord and King!
Grant me to see my own errors and not to judge my brother or my sister.
It’s easy to observe the faults and failings of our neighbor and to harshly criticize and judge them. Yet we struggle to see our own failings and errors: those we do notice we judge with understanding and compassion. In the spiritual life, it should be just the opposite, to judge our own failings severely and to be understanding and compassionate with the failings of our brother or sister. Jesus again and again in the gospels commands us not to judge each other. Each of us is called to become the mercy and not the judgment of God.
As we pray this simple but powerful prayer during Lent, let us ask the Lord for the grace to see our own sins clearly and to repent of them, and to abandon the arrogant pride that convinces us that we are entitled to judge our neighbors.
Deacon Charles Rohrbacher is the Office of Ministries Director for the Diocese of Juneau. Phone: 907-586-2227 ext. 23. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org