The Prayer of St. Ephraim – Part 1: Negatives in the prayer of St. Ephraim

After 15 years in the Orthodox Church, I have seen the prayer of St. Ephraim come up on the Lenten horizon and sink behind Pascha often enough to know it without looking at the cheatsheet:

O Lord and Master of my life,
Take from me the spirit of sloth, despair, lust of power, and idle talk,
But give rather the spirit of chastity, humility, patience, and love to your servant.
Yea, O Lord and King, grant me to see my own faults and not judge my brother,
For you are blessed unto ages of ages.
Amen.

During Lent, it’s prescribed for every prayer time and — as if the Church Fathers weren’t sure we’d really get it — more than once at a lot of them. And, of course, there’s no rule against saying it the rest of the year.

The words, especially of the second and third lines, always seemed to hide some profound understanding of the spiritual life, the way those 3-D pictures a few years back purported to show a hidden picture if you held the thing up to your nose and crossed and uncrossed your eyes.

I never did see a hidden picture, but I think I’ve found a pattern in the “Take from me” line: sloth, despair, lust of power, and idle talk.

  • Sloth is the idea that nothing I do matters. It’s the sin of the parsimonious servant in the Parable of the Talents, the one who says to the Master, “What do you need me for? You can get everything you want by your own power. Here’s yours back. Take it and leave me alone” (paraphrased).

    The Master is angry, not because of the small return on investment (he apparently didn’t expect — or ask — much of the servant, if the disparity in the investment capital is any indication), but because of the servant’s lack of commitment and lack of trust.

  • Which leads to the second item — despair — the idea that, in the words of the third Psalm, “there is no help for him in God.”

    The servant not only believed he dare not do anything to increase the holdings; he also feared the master’s hardness, expecting brutal treatment from him, and certainly not help, so he was left on his own, to handle his own problems.

  • Which leads to lust of power. One response to the frustration of having no meaningful role to play in life (the illusion that is sloth) and expecting no help from God (the illusion that is despair) is to try to take over the world oneself. It would be as if the faithless servant buried his own treasure in the ground and then tried to tell the other two what to do with theirs.
  • And if that doesn’t work, there’s always idle talk — both outward and inward. It’s the senseless chatter — fruitless plans and imaginary arguments and self-justifications on the inside, meaningless bilge on the outside. (Some trivial conversation is part of the process of building relationship, so I’m not talking about that, but it’s important, but not always easy, to discern the difference.) We use idle talk to shut out true thought, true understanding, which can be painfully revealing. In some ways idle talk is the opposite of lust of power; in other ways, it simply alternates with it, passive and aggressive reactions to sloth and despair.

Sloth is a sin we don’t talk about much these days, because it’s so often translated “laziness,” giving us a picture of a man sitting in a hammock chewing a grass stalk and watching a creek flow. But we’re too busy running around, making money, and controlling the world to be lazy in that way, and we’re too full of inward chatter to be able to do nothing in that way.

So spiritual laziness is not rest — the Psalmist also writes, in the same Psalm, “I lay down and slept. I awoke for the Lord sustained me.” In other words, he gave himself over to the vulnerability of sleep, even in the midst of being under attack, and trusted in God to protect him. And God blessed his trust.

But if sloth is not rest but a belief that nothing we do matters, then it can lead to laziness — being a couch potato, for example, is both sloth and idle talk — or to horrible crimes — armed robbery can be a combination of sloth and lust for power. It can cause someone to say, “I can’t provide a million dollars to fund that school, so the $20 I have to give is worthless.”

Or, “I can’t be a great evangelist, so being a good cook is meaningless,” or alternatively, “I can’t cook worth beans (heh), so my gift for opening spiritual discussions with strangers is of no use to anyone.” In other words, it can cause us to deny the value of our own talents (what is with that pun anyway? does it work in any languages beside English?) instead of seeing them as a unique and infinitely valuable contribution to the whole.

The Psalmist again (same Psalm) answers the whole line of the prayer: “But You, O Lord, are a shield for me, my glory and the one who lifts up my head.”

  • “You, O Lord, are a shield for me . . . .” The shield, naturally, is protection, specifically from the many enemies in the Psalm (“Many are they who rise up against me; many are they who say of me, ‘There is no help for him in God'”). But the “shield of faith” comes up again in Ephesians: “above all, taking the shield of faith with which you will be able to quench all the fiery darts of the wicked one.” The fiery darts of the wicked one include both inner and outer dangers, just as broadening the interpretation of the Psalm includes both inner and outer voices saying, “There is no help for him in God.”

    With the shield of faith, the slothful servant would have overcome his fear of the Master’s wrath, just as the Psalmist, tempted to despair, overcomes his fear that God might abandon him.

  • “You, O Lord, are . . . my glory . . . .” Glory is fame, respect, good reputation. It’s exactly what the lazy servant refused the master in calling him a “hard man,” reaping where he doesn’t sow, and exactly what we promise — and, at our best, give — to God every time we sing,”Glory to you, O Lord, glory to you.”

    So if God is our glory, it’s a reminder that if our task seems small — or our investment capital insignificant — it’s God who glorifies us. Or that our reputation doesn’t depend on people, many of whom say, “There is no help for him in God,” but on God’s declaration that we are “good and faithful servants.”

  • “You, O Lord, are . . . the one who lifts up my head.” I try to be careful with drawing too much of a conclusion from biblical gestures, because they can be so dependent on languages and translations, and something that has a perfectly obvious meaning in one cultural context can mean nothing or exactly the opposite in another. Nevertheless, I’ll go out on a limb here and guess that throughout human society and history, a drooping head comes with sadness or depression. When someone is “downcast,” we might say, “Chin up,” or “Things are looking up”; we gently lift a child’s chin and tell her to cheer up.

    But the Psalmist says it’s God himself who does this for his despondent children. This is not a master who is a “hard man,” as the mistrustful servant says, but a God of lavish compassion.

The reality is that we do tumble through the sins of this line from St. Ephraim — sloth, despair, lust of power and idle talk — which is why I prefer the translation “take from me” rather than “give me not,” even though I’ve heard from people whose Greek is much better than mine that “give me not” is more accurate.

The answer, again, comes from the third Psalm — a simple prayer: “Arise, O Lord. Save me, O my God.” If it can save the Psalmist from “ten thousands of people who have set themselves against me all around,” it can save me from my lone worst enemy — myself.

God’s answer to the Psalmist and to everyone who calls on him ends the Psalm: “For you have struck all my enemies on the cheekbone; you have broken the teeth of the ungodly. Salvation belongs to the Lord; your blessing be upon your people.”

The next line contains what I’m calling the positives: “Give rather the spirit of chastity, humility, patience and love to your servant.” I had expected to find that the positives filled slots left by departing negatives or that there would be some kind of neat parallel between the lines. Instead the reality is much richer and more complicated.

The word “chastity,” in the way most people understand it, has come to be entirely sexual, and in the licentious general culture of our time, “chastity” even has a connotation of being unhealthy or ridiculous. But the Greek word is sofrosini, “wholeness.”

To be whole is to “have it together,” to be complete, integrated — drawing on the related Latin root, to have integrity. St. Paul told the Corinthians that sexual promiscuity joins a person to various sexual partners, leaving him scattered, and we have a bit of understanding what that means when we say out our attention is scattered — we’re here and there, but not present where we are.

In this moment is the only place my life is happening, and I lose too much of my life by being elsewhere while appearing to be here. In Charles Williams’ novel War in Heaven, there’s a stone that gives its holder whatever he wishes for. One character thinks he can go into the future and make a killing at the stock market or something, and as a test, he wishes himself a half hour into the future. What really happens is that he moves his decision-making capacity out of the present time and spends the rest of his life reacting to what he’s already done — in this instance having killed a man. Williams’ description of the character’s vague memories of having done the murder exactly fits my vague memories when I’ve interacted inattentively.

My mind travels here and there — off into fears and expectations about the future, regrets about the past, what I might have done, should have done differently, where I might be if I weren’t here right now — and then I come to myself and realize that I haven’t been in the only place I have any influence over — this moment. One of the Desert Fathers, I believe, talked about the mind being like a wheelbarrow full of monkeys, and that’s a good description. He instructs us to keep collecting the monkeys and putting them back into the wheelbarrow, in essence returning our attention, our sofrosini, to the present moment, the now.

Or we could say sofrosini is like being a grownup driving a school bus. In the back, feelings and passions, fears and wishes and expectations, nostalgia and regrets vie for the bus driver’s attention. They want to stop here or go faster or change direction. There may be a reason to stop, speed up or change direction, but I need to keep my adult decision-making capacity, in harmony with the Holy Spirit, as the driver.

Once chastity, sofrosini is in place, the rest of the positives follow.

Humility makes its natural and sometimes painful appearance when I realize how often I’ve let the kids drive the bus. But beyond that, thinking through this line of the prayer, I made a list of the things that tempt me away from sofrosini. It was a short, unscientific survey, but I learned how often the voices in the back of the bus were saying, “I don’t want to be [there],” or “I don’t want to do [that],” or “I don’t have time for [that].” Humility doesn’t say, “I deserve better.” Humility doesn’t say a lot, in fact, except maybe to repeat St. Paul’s description of love, “Love suffers long and is kind . . .” (1 Cor. 13:4-8). Humility doesn’t keep us from working to improve our situation, but it begins here, in this moment, with the reality at hand.

Patience also follows sofrosini, and, oddly, not so painfully. Without sofrosini, the effort to be patient is a battle of will against hurry, a sort of teeth-gritting, watch-watching, “Will you hurry up?” on the inside and a tight smile on the outside. But when I do have the adult driving the bus, each moment has its own purpose, and having to slow down is a gift to at least one of the kids in the back of the bus — so I can enjoy that short sense of leisure.

St. Paul’s description of love is worth repeating here, because it captures the interplay of the positives in this line: “Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up; does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil; does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails.” To be centered in the moment and to give my attention to the person before me is the place where love can happen, because if my mind is elsewhere, I’m not even seeing this person, but a concoction of my own mind.

Finally, a few words on the next line of St. Ephrem’s prayer: “Grant me to see my own faults and not judge my brother.” Seeing one’s own faults is an aid to humility, but I’ve learned something new about judging.

I’ve always thought that warnings against judging one’s neighbor have to do with negative judgments — and misunderstanding the meaning and effect of “judgment,” tended to narrow it to judging someone’s eternal disposition. But my search for sofrosini has taught me that even positive or neutral judgments can damage a relationship. I heard a fairly famous author say, “You don’t meet people at zero anymore. They think they know things about you, and they project things on you.” This is not about the poor, misfortunate author — she wasn’t even complaining, just saying — but an illustration of how even positive expectations can interfere with truly seeing a person.

In another example, I had classified a woman I know as “not very adept with mechanical things.” I had put her in that box in order to overcome a tendency toward impatience with her mistakes with mechanical things, so it was well meant — and possibly true — but I was glad I happened to be working on sofrosini when she asked me a computer question one evening, because it reminded me to be still and listen to her question — in other words, to open the box and see if she really fit in it. She didn’t, actually, and the conversation was more interesting and profitable to both of us than it would have been if I hadn’t bothered to open the box.

I suppose it’s necessary to say that I’m confident that St. Paul and St. Ephrem are not asking us to deny history, to disregard proven dangers or to ignore the intuition that is one of the voices sofrosini should pay attention to in the back of the bus. But most of the time, what I’m afraid of is not actual danger, but rather discomfort or embarrassment or something that won’t do me any lasting harm at all.

What I’ve learned from short forays into sofrosini is that it’s not just a moral good — “good for you,” like some nasty medicine — but an existential good — adventurous, exciting, sometimes scary, and dotted with delightful surprises — “life and more abundantly,” as Christ said. Another thing is that it doesn’t take years of disciplined practice; it takes only this moment and my undivided attention. I’ve been surprised to find that St. Ephrem’s prayer — rather than being something dour and self-flagellating — can be a door into the richness and potential of the moment.

So here it is, a discovery that most people probably figured out the first time they read St. Ephraim’s prayer. Apologies for the length of this post. I’m like a driver who learned how to get to a destination by a circuitous route and, when trying to give directions to the place, gives all the twists and turnings of that route because it’s the only one I know.