Along the Way Deacon Rohrbacher

Meditating on the prayer of St. Ephrem the Syrian during Lent

By Deacon Charles Rohrbacher

Lent begins for Western Christians on Ash Wednesday, which this year falls on February 26th. In the Eastern Catholic Churches, Lent begins on the evening of Forgiveness Sunday, which falls this year on February 23rd. Three days later, on February 26th, Roman Catholics and other Western Christians observe the beginning of Lent on Ash Wednesday. (The Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox Churches celebrate Forgiveness Sunday and the beginning of Great Lent a week later on March 1st.

The approach of Lent for all of our Churches reminds me of how more than twenty years ago, I first made the acquaintance of “Dr. Banya” and came to love the Prayer of St. Ephrem. As an iconographer, 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 while 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 Yup’ik seminarians, noticing that I was pretty muscle sore, introduced me to “Dr. Banya,” who he assured me, would cure me of all of 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, by comparison, feel like a walk-in freezer.

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 (more to follow). 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, which was recited throughout 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.
Amen. (Prostration)

Since my time in Kodiak, I have found this prayer to be of great spiritual benefit during Lent (I’m afraid at my age, without the prostrations!)

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. Am I truly his servant? 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 follow the commands of another authority over my life?

As we begin Lent, let us ask God to show us the idols that demand our service and to deliver us from the grip of every other power and authority over our lives.

Take from me: the spirit of sloth

In 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, let us 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, let us 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 master, 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 how gossip and slander, however seemingly insignificant, 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 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 to shut out the voice of conscience. Thus, the still, small voice of the Lord is effectively drowned out by ceaseless chatter.

As we begin Lent, 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 through gossip.

But give rather to your servant the spirit of chastity

The second part of the prayer asks God to not only take from us the vices of sloth, faint-heartedness, lust for power and idle talk we are subject to, but to replace them with the virtues of chastity, humility, patience and love.
The Catechism defines chastity as “ the successful integration of sexuality within the person and thus the inner unity of a man or woman in their bodily and spiritual being.” (CCC 2337) Sexuality is truly a gift from God to be thankful for, but a gift that must be lived out in relationship with integrity, self-control and mutual love and fidelity.

As we begin Lent, let us ask the Lord to enable us to live chastely, in accord with our state of life as either single or married persons, as joyful witnesses to Christ and the gospel way of life.

The spirit of humility

In St. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, he begins his famous hymn to Christ’s humility and exaltation with this admonition to his readers: “Do nothing out of selfishness or out of vainglory; rather, humbly regard others as more important than yourselves, each looking out not for his own interests, but [also] everyone for those of others.” (Phil 2:3-4) The spirit of humility then is the opposite of inflated self-regard or vanity. Instead, it means living in the truth of who we are before God, acknowledging both our gifts, strengths and virtues and our limitations, weaknesses and failings.

As we begin Lent, let us ask the Lord to free us from pride and inordinate self-regard and deepen the spirit of humility in our lives.

The spirit of patience

Patience is an often overlooked virtue but essential to our ability to bear with suffering and endure with forbearance the difficulties, annoyances and even injustices of life. The spirit of patience in our lives helps us to avoid the temptation to become offended or even angry with the limitations and faults of others. Just as God is patient and long-suffering with us, he invites us as his disciples to be patient with others.

As we begin Lent, let us ask the Lord for the grace and tenacity to cultivate the spirit of patience in our lives.

The spirit of love

C.S. Lewis, in his book “The Four Loves,” writes about the Greeks had four words for love. Storge: the bond of familial love; Philios: the bond of affection between friends; Eros: the bond of passionate love between spouses and Agape: the bond of unconditional self-giving, self-sacrificial love of God and neighbor. Depending on our state of life, we can ask God to help us live each of these kinds of love with greater fidelity, generosity and intensity, in our families, friendships, marriages and the Church and the world.

As we begin Lent, let us ask the Lord to fan into flame the spirit of love in our lives.

O Lord and King! Grant me to see my own errors

It is always dangerous in the spiritual life to see other’s faults but to be blind to our own. So much prevents us from seeing ourselves as we truly are and from allowing those who love us to gently point out the faults, failings and sins that we struggle to see with great clarity. Yet, if we can see our faults, we will grow in humility and in the ability to view with greater compassion and understanding the struggles that others have mastering their failings and errors.

As we begin Lent, let us ask the Lord to show us how we have fallen short in living out the gospel life.

Grant me not to judge my brother or my sister

It is always dangerous in the spiritual life to judge others, either openly or interiorly, as this promotes within us a spirit of superiority and pride. Even while we may be required to speak out against and oppose those who engage in evil behavior, we are not to judge them. Only God can see fully into the depths of each person’s heart and render judgment. Instead, we are enjoined to imitate Jesus, who from the cross prayed: “Father, forgive them, they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34).

As we begin Lent, let us ask the Lord to help us to be compassionate, merciful and forgiving instead of judging and condemning others.

For You are blessed
forever and ever.
Amen.

Finally, the prayer concludes with the affirmation that God alone, our Lord and Master, is holy and blessed. For the coming forty days, the Lord invites us to a more profound conversion of life, practice and interior disposition in preparation for renewing our baptism into the new life of grace at Easter.

May this Prayer of St. Ephraim the Syrian, Deacon and Doctor of the Church prove a help to you as together we begin our Lenten journey.