Our Lenten Worship: The Prayer of St Ephrem
This prayer is considered, in the Byzantine tradition, to be the most succinct summation of the spirit of Great Lent and is hence the Lenten prayer of the highest quality, prayed during all Lenten weekday services, and many more times in private.
O Lord, and Master of my life,
give me not the spirit of slothfulness, faint-heartedness,
lust of power, and vain talking;
but instead grant to me, Your servant, the spirit of integrity,
humility, patience and love;
O Lord and King, grant that I may see my own
faults, and not judge my brother,
for You are blessed unto the ages of ages. Amen.
The priest recites this prayer audibly, unlike most prayers offered aloud in our services. Customarily, we make prostrations after each clause, three in all. The prayer is repeated at virtually every service on the weekdays of Lent. We (or rather, the pious among us) say this prayer several times a day, wherever we happen to be.
The prayer begins with a reaffirmation of our acceptance of God as our Lord and Master over our entire life, all that we are, have and do:
"O Lord, and Master of my life"
At the same time, we come to Him acknowledging our sinfulness and the great sins to which all humanity is inclined as a result of our fallen state - sins that lead us to commit all others, in fact:
"the spirit of slothfulness, faint-heartedness, lust of power, and vain talking"
Slothfulness - i.e. laziness! The Christian life is an effort (which does not mean to say we cannot enjoy life). Christ has promised to give us joy, but joy - real joy - has nothing in common with laziness. Laziness steals our time and gives no joy, one discovers only one has done nothing. Exercise is a good cure for laziness - and Lent is a spiritual exercise.
Being faint-hearted is to ask "Why should we try? What for? We will only fail, so why make the effort?". It is a notion that we cannot accomplish anything. God does not demand success; God is always there to pick us up with His love when we fail.
Lust of power is not only something that characterizes military dictators and control freaks but it is also the foundation of "spiritual independence" to which it ultimately leads. The way of humility and obedience is based on our sense of "need" for God, our dependence on Him and the means He has placed at our disposal to achieve union with Him, by means of and in His Church.
Vain talking - the Spiritual Fathers of the Philokalia, the great teachers of the spiritual way rooted in the constant invocation of the Name of our Lord Jesus, take extra care to warn us of this sin! The harm done to individuals, families and communities by foolish words, often spoken in haste, is countless. Christ in the Gospels warned the people of His day who were very concerned with the sins committed by what went into the mouth that what comes OUT of the mouth is what should be guarded against.
All four of these sins represent the four corners, so to speak, of the fundamental "window" that leads us into sin and spiritual tragedy.
We also ask for specific virtues:
"the spirit of integrity, humility, patience and love"
As God's servants, we ask God to reflect in us His Grace through the virtues that run counter to the four vices we enumerated in the first verse.
Integrity is the virtue by which we recognise God's plan for us and do our best to live in accordance with that plan.
We often think of "humility" as the opposite to integrity. Genuine humility is not at all undignified - humility is freedom from illusion. Humility is being prudent. Humility is being clear-sighted. Humility is ultimately realizing that we are called to sanctification and Divinization in Christ, as He demonstrated on Mount Tabor.
Patience comes from the Latin "patient" - "to suffer". It also means not losing hope that God will answer us and keep His Promises to us, no matter what befalls us now. Suffering, in fact, far from being something to be shunned, is an experience that teaches us how truly dependent we are on God and His Mercy.
We ask for the gift of real, authentic love. Christian love is not a sentiment nor an emotion - it is an act of the will, a virtue. It is a gift of God's grace, but we must make the effort to exercise that gift of grace.
After praying for these 4 virtues, we make two more requests:
"grant that I may see my own faults, and not judge my brother"
We can only truly answer for our own sinfulness, for our own intentions. Only God may judge others. This is why we never say, in public prayer, "have mercy on us sinners" but only "have mercy on me a sinner".
The Bible asks us, "who are you that you should judge another man's servant? (Romans 14:4)" Each of us shall answer to the Lord; God forbid that we should judge each other. Christ warns us, "For with what judgment you judge, you will be judged! (Matthew 7:2)"
Instead of judging, let us pray to God to make us always merciful, as He is merciful to us.