This week was the first full week of Lent, and so I wanted the practice for this week to be a specifically Lenten practice. And, since I first encountered it twelve years ago, no practice has jumped out at me as being ‘more’ Lenten, than the Lenten Prayer of St. Ephrem the Syrian. The famed Eastern Orthodox theologian Fr. Alexander Schmemann once wrote of it that of all the hundreds of Lenten prayers in the Eastern tradition, only this prayer “can be termed the Lenten prayer.” And I agree. Every Lent, this prayer bursts into my soul like a battering ram. And so, I was excited to welcome it once again this year and reflect on it in this space.
This simple three-line prayer is attributed to St. Ephrem (or Ephraim) the Syrian, one of the most important hymnographers and theologians of the fourth century. Syria was a major crossroads among the civilizations and traditions of the Near East, and so St. Ephrem was well placed to weave together these disparate traditions — Jewish logic and rhetoric, Greek philosophy, and the forceful symbolism of Persia and Mesopotamia — in a rich, Christian, tapestry. He became such an important and beloved figure in the life of the Church that over the decades and centuries, many other, later compositions came to be associated with his name. While there is likely no way ever to be sure, it seems probable that the Lenten Prayer is one of these later compositions (which are known as pseudepigrapha).
Beyond its traditional attribution to St. Ephrem, there is little information about the history of the prayer, but over the centuries, the tradition developed to say it twice at all of the daily services during the weekdays of Lent in both public and private prayer. And so for Orthodox Christians around the world, this prayer has come to symbolize, both in its content and its practice, the Lenten season like no other.
What is it?
The prayer itself is very simple. The most common English translation (I will include the Greek text at the bottom of the post for those who are interested) reads:
O Lord and Master of my life, Take from me a spirit of laziness, despair, love of power, and idle talk.
But give your servant a spirit of chastity, humility, patience, and love.
Yea, O Lord and King, grant me to see my own sins and not to judge my brother.
For You are blessed for ever and ever. Amen.
There are also bodily movements associated with the prayer. It is customary to pray the prayer twice. The first time through, one does a full prostration (knees and forehead on the ground) after each of the three petitions. Then, bow (deeply, from the waist) twelve times, praying: “O God, cleanse me a sinner.” The prayer is repeated, this time without breaks, with one final prostration at the end.
Before moving on, there are three quick issues with this ‘received’ translation that I’d like to address, because I think they can mislead in ways that might make the prayer less palatable. First, the word translated as ‘despair’ (περιεργία) does not mean depression or refer to anything like it. The word has a range of meanings that includes ‘being a busybody’, ‘excessive curiosity’, ‘meddling’, and ‘over-sharing’. The sense is that you are making yourself busy without accomplishing anything. I think an appropriate simple translation would be something like ‘distraction’ (which is, in my opinion, the most dangerous sin of the smartphone age). Second, and this is a common problem in works translated from Greek to English, is that in contemporary English, ‘chastity’ has an almost wholly sexual connotation. This entirely misses the point of the Greek word σωφροσύνη, which refers to having a sound mind and whole heart, and exercising good judgment and self-restraint. We might call it ‘applied wisdom’. While someone with σωφροσύνη would certainly be understood to show sexual restraint, this is a consequence of the concept, not its focus. Thirdly, just to make it explicit, ‘brother’ is intended to be gender-neutral.
As I mentioned in the introduction, this prayer has been part of my Lenten life for a long time now. That doesn’t mean it’s always easy, especially with the physical component to the prayer. But that’s part of its value. The Lenten prayer requires intentionality. Despite not being time-consuming, it’s hard to do on the fly or when you’re feeling lazy. You can’t do this practice on your way out the door. You need to stop what you’re doing in order to do it. I ran up against all of these issues this week: being busy, being distracted, being lazy. And yet the challenge was good for me, as I know it will be every year.
I love this prayer. I find it convicts me, energizes me, and rights the ship of my heart when it starts to take on water. But why? There isn’t really anything special about the prayer itself. It’s one petition asking God to take away characteristics we don’t want (that is, vices), one petition asking God to give us characteristics we do want (that is, virtues), and one petition asking God to help us to see our own faults instead of those of our brothers and sisters.
Normally with these kinds of catalogues of virtues and vices, the best practice is to take them as a whole rather than getting lost in the weeds of the individual things mentioned. This is probably why the translation issues I mentioned above only really bother me when I’m studying the prayer and not when I’m praying the prayer. I think this idea of taking the petitions as a whole is supported by the Greek text for the list of vices, which uses common roots and sounds to give the petition a hypnotic feel, as though reminding us that sin is boring and repetitive (altogether it sounds something like: arGHIas.perierGHIas.filarKHIas.kairgoloGHIas), as opposed to the boundless creativity and energy of holiness. It reminds me of the refrain in the Book of Ecclesiastes: “Vanity! Vanity!” — chasing after things that aren’t really there and don’t do what they are supposed to do. This sense is echoed by three of the four vices (laziness, distraction, and idle-talk), which come from the same Greek root and share a sense of futility, of things that don’t work. And so, we are praying against a listless, pointless, and meaningless life.
The opposite of that is an intentional life, full of whole-hearted, practical wisdom (that ‘chastity’ word), humility, patience, and love, which are all rightly understood to be gracious gifts of God. And lastly, lest we be deceived by any sense of spiritual pridefulness, we ask God to gift us with the ability to see our own sins rather than those of the people around us. This, of course, hearkens to Jesus’ famous words: “Why do you see the speck in your neighbour’s eye, but do not notice the plank in your own eye?” It’s hard to judge your neighbour when you realize that not only “there but by the grace of God go I” but also “there even with the grace of God go I anyway.”
While much more could be said about the text of the prayer, for me, it’s the physicality of this practice that has made it so important in my life.
When I first met this prayer as a young man, I was very disconnected from my body. This disconnection had a couple of causes: first, I had always been a rather stereotypical intellectual, far more comfortable in my head than in my body; but also, as a non-affirming gay man (as I was at the time), my body and its messages were a very dangerous place for me, filled with my worst fears and anxieties. While it hadn’t been intentional, over the years, I disconnected from my body. When I first encountered Orthodoxy, the physicality of the worship — crossing myself, processions, the sweaty-oily-crumbly-mess of it, the fasting, the feasting, the bowing, and especially the prostrations — quite shockingly lurched my head back into communion with my body. And no practice symbolized this change to me more than St. Ephrem’s prayer. This connection is so important. While the specific causes may vary from person to person, I think much contemporary Western Christianity suffers in its own way from a breakdown of this union, and can live either excessively in the head (twisting faith into intellectual acceptance of theological propositions), heart (twisting faith into sentimentalism or emotional manipulation), or body (twisting faith into either social activism, empty ritualism, or a graceless legalism). But a healthy faith, a faith that works, cannot pick and choose in this way: theology is important because beliefs have consequences; the emotional life is important because we must be able to relate to one another (and ourselves) with empathy; and justice work, liturgy, and lifestyle are all important in their own ways because faith must be lived out in concrete actions that can speak louder than words. But none of these things is It. They’re all only bits and pieces. And for me, St. Ephrem’s prayer taught and restored in me the connection amongst them in a profound, intimate way. And so, every Lent, I welcome this practice again as a grateful reminder of this hard-won lesson in my life that I believe is so important.
While the physicality of the prayer is itself powerful, the specific act of prostrating oneself is deeply meaningful as well. In it we are exposed, blinded, and vulnerable, truly a rich symbol of our humble approach to God in the Lenten season.
With all this said, it should come as no surprise then that I love this practice and this prayer and welcome it as an old friend every year.
How about you? Have you prayed the Lenten Prayer of St. Ephrem? What practices have helped you develop a unity of heart, mind, and body in your faith?
Text in Greek:
Κύριε καὶ Δέσποτα τῆς ζωῆς μου, πνεῦμα ἀργίας, περιεργίας, φιλαρχίας, καὶ ἀργολογίας μή μοι δῷς.
Πνεῦμα δὲ σωφροσύνης, ταπεινοφροσύνης, ὑπομονῆς, καὶ ἀγάπης χάρισαί μοι τῷ σῷ δούλῳ.
Ναί, Κύριε Βασιλεῦ, δώρησαι μοι τοῦ ὁρᾶν τὰ ἐμὰ πταίσματα, καὶ μὴ κατακρίνειν τὸν ἀδελφόν μου, ὅτι εὐλογητὸς εἶ, εἰς τοὺς αἰῶνας τῶν αἰώνων. Ἀμήν