Last week, I wrote about the problems we have in our culture talking about sin. I ended the post saying that I think a helpful way forward in developing our ability to talk about it is to reclaim the biblical metaphors that underlie unhelpful translations like ‘sin’ and ‘wickedness’. As I was contemplating this, I couldn’t help being reminded of the list of vices in St. Ephrem’s Lenten Prayer, which I wrote about for my sacred practice post last week. As I wrote there, three of the words share a common root and “a sense of futility, of things that don’t work. … We are praying against a listless, pointless, and meaningless life.” This seems like a helpful expansion on the biblical metaphor of sin as missing the mark: life, actions and words that are going astray.
The common root among the three words is εργ-, ‘work’, the root from which we get words like ergonomics and ergative. I was surprised by this metaphor when I first studied the prayer. Surely there must be more fitting ways to look at sin than through the lens of its relationship to work. What’s going on with this metaphor? How does ‘work’ relate to sin? And more interestingly, how might it relate to holiness? I think it’s worth investigating.
First in the list is ἀργία (ἀ ‘not’+ εργ-), ‘not-working’, hence ‘laziness.’ It’s a state of apathy marked not only by the lack of productivity but also by the lack of motivation to do anything. The lazy among us don’t bear the good fruit God calls us to produce, not because they are ‘bad,’ but because they don’t try and don’t care. Second in the list is περιεργία (περι ‘around’+ εργ-), traditionally translated in the prayer as ‘despair,’ but better thought of as distraction. A distracted person doesn’t bear good fruit because their attention is on busy-work or their neighbours’ business rather than on what they are called to do and be. The last vice in the list is ἀργολογία (ἀ ‘not’+ εργ- +λογία ‘speech’), ‘speech that doesn’t work,’ hence ‘idle talk’. What’s so wrong with idle talk? We all fill our days with it — not only gossip but, especially here in North America, small talk. But while sometimes we can certainly use small talk as a way of building to a meaningful conversation, most of the time, idle talk ends up being little more than filling empty space and is therefore wasted breath. In calling attention to this as sin, the prayer reminds us that our lives are supposed to be as full and meaningful as possible, and idle talk is a wasted opportunity.
The petition is really a call to live an intentional and effective life: Not to be lazy, but to put in the work required to bear good fruit; not to scatter our attention and efforts where they don’t belong, but to focus on the task at hand; not to waste our words, but to use them for genuine connection and to bless others. This isn’t necessarily a call to do more — in fact it may be in some cases a matter of doing less — but to greater care and effectiveness in what we do. We have a limited amount of energy (another εργ- word: εν ‘in’ + εργ-, ‘in-working’, hence ‘activity,’ ‘operation,’ ‘effectiveness,’ or ‘force’). We need to invest it well.
Indeed in the tradition, it is not works (ἔργα) that are the opposite of laziness, distraction, and wasteful words and actions, but precisely this coming together of effectiveness and energy (they are the same concept in Greek, ἐνέργεια). And this is very interesting because, in the Eastern Church — where St. Ephrem’s prayer originates — the entire theology of God’s manifestation in the world, and therefore of grace and our salvation, is understood within the framework of the ‘Energies of God.’ Just as the Sun by its nature showers the Earth with energy, which manifests as warmth, light, life, and growth, so too does God, by God’s nature as Love, shower us with the divine energies of grace. And while our own energies might wane or be wasted, God’s never miss their mark: they are, to co-opt the words of the Epistle to the Hebrews, “living and effective, sharper than any double-edged sword” (4.12). Our efforts at tilling the soil of our lives to produce the good fruit we are called to bear are simply us joining our own energies to the the energies of God already working in us. In this way, not only are we energized by God’s grace, but we also become God’s fellow-workers (another εργ- word: συνεργοί, συν ‘with’ + εργ- , ‘working together’), working in synergy with God (1 Cor 3.9).
The vision of holiness that emerges from this reminds me of the teaching of the eighteenth-century French spiritual father Jean-Pierre de Caussade. In his master work, Abandonment to Divine Providence, he wrote: “The designs of God, the good pleasure of God, the will of God, the operation of God, and the gift of His grace are all one and the same thing in the spiritual life. It is God working in the soul to make it like unto Himself. Perfection is neither more nor less than the faithful co-operation of the soul with this work of God, and is begun, grows, and is consummated in the soul unperceived and in secret.” While this uniting of our energies with
God’s will may happen “in secret,” but like a city set on a hill, it sends forth its light — it bears its good fruit — into the world for all to see. And thank God for that.
“Now to Him whose power working in us can do abundantly more than we can ask or imagine, be glory, for ever and ever. Amen” (Eph 3.20f).