AN APPROACH TO THE PRAYER OF ST. EPHRAIM THE SYRIAN
excerpts from texts of the Monk Moses the Hagiorite (from Mt. Athos ) and Ioannis Kornarakis, University Professor
A strong challenge
We live, unfortunately, in a world with a revolted will; a world that nowadays, as never before, is not "a heaven on earth, without fights, without wars, without insurrections, with abundance and peace, without hurt and sins." This makes us consciously and deeply realize the importance of the Great Lent.
Our existence in a world confused and contradictory in its quests, oppressing and grueling in the daily situations that it creates, is certain to follow the path of bad transformation. Contemporary man, who uncontrollably and irresponsibly lives the daily experiences of life, is continuously alienated not only from God but his own self as well. For this reason, man's salvation depends on the ability acquired to realize the quality of life that they experience and express every moment. Strong challenges are, therefore, needed so that man can be awaken and look for the true path of life.
Such a strong challenge – awakening for the religious consciousness is the devout prayer of St. Ephraim the Syrian:
"Lord and Master of my life,
Take from me the spirit of sloth, vain curiosity, lust for power, and idle talk.
But give rather, to Thy servant, the spirit of chastity, meekness of mind, humility, patience, and love.
Yea, O Lord and King, grant me to see my own transgressionsand not to judge my brother or sister ."
This holy spiritual prayer awakens the human spirit and urges us to ascend the grades of fulfilling our humanity and the spiritual quality of our lives.
Although St. Ephraim lived 1,600 years ago, he communicates perfectly with contemporary man because his words are inspired. He is the teacher who invites and challenges us with all his strength to enter deep inside our souls in order to find the power God gave us and have an honest dialogue with Him so as to realise ourselves.
Let us cross ourselves and go forward to the personal encounter with St. Ephraim's prayer. Thus, each one of us will take secretly and discreetly whatever it is he/she is asking which cannot be found anywhere else in such a mature, whole and complete way.
The great saint is fully aware of why he places sloth on the first step of passions. Sloth is a heavy cloud covering the soul and not letting it breathe. It darkens the mind and does not allow it to see things clearly. The slothful is continuously vulnerable due to despair. Sloth is, therefore, a fearful treacherous coveter of our lives.
The Fathers of our Church consider sloth the mother of numerous evils. Basil the Great presents it characteristically as the cause of all crimes and Holy Chrysostom as the spring of all sins. The other passions that we are lured by are complications of sloth because it erodes our attention and opens the entrance to the related and akin passions which imprison us.
Sloth is the fertile soil for the thorns of foul thoughts, of improper deeds and evil remembrances to flourish. Man loses, thus, their seriousness, their dignity and decency. They feel bored, angry, stressed; they fall into melancholy or are led to wandering, verbosity, facetiousness and irony.
The Archbishop of Chersona, Innocent, says that the spiritual man exclaims: "Do not let the days of my life, Lord, which are so few and brief, go by following the vanity of secular thought and idleness. Do not let me bury the gifts you trusted me with to the world of forgetfulness and sloth."
The more the state of sloth advances the more serious the illness becomes. The soul can easily be led to decline and despair, the two demonic conditions.
Unfortunately, the number of souls that their internal resistance ceased for reasons and causes is quite big. They were seized by the feeling of dissatisfaction and desolation, boredom, tedium and grief became the friends of their hearts.
The feeling of despair born due to the spirit of sloth, the harmful sloth of not serving God's orders, hinders us from starting a spiritual course.
Man's call is to become a saint. The fact that all of us do not reach the state of holiness is due to sloth which is completely adverse to the development of spiritual man; sloth is the negation of our personal growth, the waste because of immobility.
St. Nikodemos the Hagiorite in his valuable work "Spiritual exercises" is analytical and very descriptive. He says that the daemon, when seeing that he did not have the time to give lessons of evil, set up a school of guiles in this world and put sloth as the teacher; there the worse become his best disciples.
On idle curiosity
St. Ephraim mentions idle curiosity as a second passion condemned by the ascetic tradition. St. Kassianos of Rome says that sloth gives birth to idle curiosity; idle curiosity to disorder; and disorder to all evil. Idle curiosity is, therefore, connected with sloth and follows it loyally. According to St. John of the Ladder, it is "the glue that keeps us adhered to earthly affairs."
It is true that the slothful and idle person wants to get involved with easy things so as to justify their existence and presence. By not observing the serving of God's orders, they search and find an illusive activity getting involved with the others and earthy affairs; they see the interest for the others and the questions to this effect as completion and they fear and systematically avoid painful issues.
Idle curiosity and laziness characterise, according to the Fathers, the worker of passions. Idle curiosity also shows the vanity of man as well as their pride; the one possessed by this passion continuously deals with the others and never with themselves.
Abba Dorotheos talks about a rarer case of curiosity. He says: "It sometimes happens that someone suspects something which in the end turns out to be true. This is why he claims that he is trying to correct himself when he acts with mistrust and curiosity while thinking: "If I hear anyone speaking against me, I will understand my mistake for which I am accused, and will correct myself."
The great abba immediately condemns the one that follows this path of thought and says that these thoughts are the works of the evil one. If man wants to be corrected, he should repent when his mistake is highlighted and not increase and, thus, justify his idle curiosity.
On the lust for power
The third passion is the terrible lust for power which made angels fall from heaven; angels who were living in paradise and who were gleefully removed from their abode by this lust. A passion which transformed the wise into non-wise; a passion that can deceive the petty ones that they will acquire greatness.
The person that lusts for power is voracious, sick, dangerous, unwise and impatient. This lust differentiates our behaviour towards our neighbour. We see him as a stepping stone so that we can ascend. We transform him, that is, into a thing or a tool to be used according to our needs. Real human relations, though, are not based on exploitation, deceit and transaction, but on the sanctity of offering and ministration.
The thirst to dominate over the others is harmful for us, the people. This is why the prayer asks the Lord to free us from this spirit for the lust for power, a demonic spirit existing more or less in all of us. Where this spirit for the lust of power exists, the spirit of the humility of the Lord is absent as well as the spirit of ministration and the spirit of the true love for God.
If God is not the Lord and Master of our lives, then our ego becomes our lord and master; it becomes the absolute center of the world and we start evaluating everything on the basis of our needs, our ideas, our wishes and our judgement.
On idle talk
If sloth and idle curiosity lead us to spiritual destruction, the lust for power and idle talk conclude the work of destruction with the spiritual murder of our brothers and sisters. Man's talk is a precious gift and is so valuable that upon the Day of Judgment we are asked to account for its use. It is a pity to use this gift of divine nobility and origin carelessly; to let language, this gold link connecting people , be skilfully laxing, wilfully imperfect, cleverly altered, adroitly deceitful and impudently false. Words stay in people's memory and are processed in moments of peace bringing correspondingly sadness or pleasure. How careful our expressions, and even more our characterisations and judgement must be!
Obsessed sensationalism, disgraceful libel and accusation, hated by God, always start from the superfluity of words. St. John of the Ladder characterises verbosity as the throne of vanity, a sign of ignorance, an entry to reprehension, a guide to nonsense, a cause for lies, a break-down of the spiritual euphoria of prayer. St. Nikodemos the Hagiorite continues in the same tone characterising it as the coldness of devout warmth.
Abba Dorotheos makes a significant observation: "many times our discussions are based on a tendency for idle talk. We may say something, perhaps without wanting to, it will slip our tongues and we will make our brother sorry. When someone, however, pays attention to what he says and speaks to the benefit of the other person with an original loving feeling, God will not allow the other to be disturbed by his words." And he goes on: "just as we abstain from food, our tongue should abstain as well; it should be away from bad words, lies, idle talk and, in general, any sin of the tongue." Abba Sisoes repeated the following for thirty years in his prayer: "Lord Jesus Christ save me from my tongue."
Sloth kills consciousness towards God; idle curiosity kills consciousness towards earthly things which we use for our destruction and not for our salvation; lust for power, which does not take man into consideration, kills consciousness towards the other person and idle talk kills consciousness towards ourselves by wasting the divine word.
This is why St. Ephraim chose only these four passions out of the three hundred mentioned by St. Peter of Damascus in Philokalia. Because they are so powerful that they can easily deaden the soul without our realising it.
The awareness of our sinfulness
"There has never been a sin or act or vice in life that I have not committed, O Savior. I have sinned in mind, word and choice, in purpose, will and action, as no one else has ever done."
We see troparia with the meaning of this one belonging to the Great Canon in many liturgical texts of our Church. Many troparia present the praying man confessing or accepting an absolute and unique sinfulness.
We know from many narrations from the Gerontikon (Stories from the Desert Fathers) and the lives of Saints that many men, saints of God, having endured a long history of harsh disciplines and spiritual fights, still feel that they are sinners even at the critical moment of their exit, prior to their dormition; this feeling was the proof of their great holiness and their pleasure in God.
The awareness of sinfulness in an absolute way is perhaps the most devastating characteristic of the life of an original holy person. And when we see ourselves in the devastation created by the awareness of unique and absolute sinfulness, we are strongly challenged in the depth of our self-knowledge. How do we react to this self-knowledge, however?
When we read or hear the troparia that express the awareness of absolute sinfulness, we may think that they do not concern us. Because the information provided by ourselves does not paint such a despairing picture. We cannot accept in an absolute way that we are the only sinners. At the same time, though, we are thinking that this sinfulness must not describe the holy man of God who composed such a despairing troparion confessing such an absolute sinfulness. Where does the truth lie, therefore? Are the troparia with the absolute and unique awareness of sinfulness authentic as regards the existential functionality of man or are they exaggerations offered for pedagogical reasons? This question challenges our self-knowledge and picks on our Christian consciousness as a thorn that causes pain. The solution to this question is given by the devout prayer of St. Ephraim.
" Yea, O Lord and King, grant me to see my own transgressions."
This holy spiritual prayer validly asserts that the real viewing of our sins and, in general, of our sinful nature can only be seen as a gift of God's Grace.
The people on their own cannot be aware of their sinful selves in all dimensions and the secret and multi powerful mechanisms. The people on their own cannot acquire authentic self-knowledge, a complete and proper knowledge of themselves. We have to beg God to strengthen us so that we can enter our hearts, says St. Philotheos of Sinai: "Enter thy heart with the grace of God; there is God, Angels, life and kingdom."
St. Gregory Palamas says that a basic stage prior to repentance is the knowledge and awareness of our sinfulness, "which is a big cause for redemption." Man must first realise his own "transgressions" in order to reach repentance; he repents in front of God to whom he resorts with a broken heart, putting himself at His vast mercy. Man believes as the prodigy son that he is unworthy to be forgiven by God and be called His son.
These patristic empirical truths clearly show that we, as human beings, have to abandon some things that are evident if we sincerely want to advance in spiritual life. We all say that we know ourselves. But for whom is this true? We all confess that we repent. But are we ready to demolish the self-evident of repentance?
The history of life, the daily routine, the alienation of the sacrament of repentance and confession prove that we are not very mature to accept these truths or at least that we have not thought about them and we are ignorant.
The evangelical life of the Church on this issue is distinguished for its harshness. Whatever is done within this part of our soul as an attempt to learn our own selves is directly connected with tears, pain and the blood of the soul. The spiritual fighter is not a free person fighting against external enemies. He is, above all, a man embracing his brother, the old man. He has the enemy inside him. This is why he must fight against himself. "The Lord demands from you to get angry with yourself and fight against your mind…" The Lord Himself requires man to become his own enemy.
The knife of prayer
What can help within this conflict so that there can be a genuine clearing is the knife of prayer. Of course this phrase seems strange, and why not, even incomprehensible, for our inapt mind. We, the Christians, have formed inside us the representation of the meaning of prayer. Therefore, we understand the prayer as a calm psychic and spiritual function. As a movement of the soul which is expressed with silence, contemplation and quietness. This is, without question, one of the aspects of the functions of prayer.
In the evangelical version, though, the prayer is really the knife. A spiritual function with an incomprehensible effectiveness. The prayer is the tool of the internal dialogue which gives the ability to man to face themselves; their true and genuine selves. You see such kind of concerns do not usually interest the Christian with the "given" spirituality. This person sees some things as self evident. The more self-evident he considers them to be, though, the more he is away from the truth.
Most of us, as people who are deprived of the possibility of authentic self-knowledge (such as the one of the saints), create in our imagination an image about ourselves as we want it to be or, more exactly, as we wish it to be. We close our eyes when we face the imperfections and weaknesses of ourselves (we justify ourselves, something that we do not easily do for the other person) and we stay attached to the image of ourselves that we desire. Our identification with the desired image is a spring of illusions and fantasies in the field of existence.
The fundamental issue, therefore, is what I am and who I am. In order to survive these answers that create pain and personal rejection, the spiritual conditions are necessary.
Unfortunately, our self-knowledge is many times an incurable delusion. This is why we are repeating together with St. Ephraim, together with our brothers the prayer: " Yea, O Lord and King, grant me to see my own transgressions."
Indeed. Regardless of how far advanced we are in our spiritual lives, we can never trust the judgment of ourselves to ourselves. The "human bad demon" of deceit and delusion – the old man- interferes with the field of spiritual life. This is why the prayer of St. Ephraim is really a strong challenge for religious consciousness.
The self-knowledge that saves is a gift of God's Grace. Therefore, by extension, to feel a sinner in the true dimensions of your sinful nature is also a gift of God, an action of the Holy Spirit.
There is only one holy spiritual answer to the prayer "Lord, the King...": "I alone have sinned against Thee, sinned above all men. O Christ, my Saviour, spurn me not."
The path of good transformation
The only escape from the imprisonment of passions is the ecclesiastical life and action. The restoration, the good transformation, the change of man is achieved through the sacraments of the Church, God's grace and the practice of virtues. Let us walk along the mystic Grace of the Church wisely, humbly, patiently and with love by living simply as the child at the hands of his Father. Trusting God within our weakness is a continuous prayer with positive results and many blessings.
Let us progress and walk and realize our sinfulness, the true dimensions of our sinful nature, because in order to become Christ we have to meet the Adam who abides within us.