Monday, March 10, 2014

A Pointed Prayer, Of Course

O Lord, Master of my life, grant that I may not be infected with the spirit of slothfulness and faintheartedness, with the spirit of ambition and vain talking.

Grant instead to me your servant the spirit of purity and humility, of patience and love.

O Lord and King, bestow upon me the grace of being aware of my sin, and of not judging my brother, for you are blessed forever and ever. Amen.

O God, purify me a sinner and have mercy on me (3x)

O Lord and King, bestow…
The Lenten Prayer of St. Ephrem the Syrian

Reflection – This prayer is one of the great liturgical additions to our Madonna House Lenten life. While I am not familiar enough with the Byzantine liturgy to know where exactly it fits there, I know it is vital part of their daily Lenten exercise.

In MH, we append it to the end of Lauds, after the Our Father and before the final blessing and dismissal. The prayer involves bodily movement as well as words—a prostration after each sentence, a metany (the gesture of bowing and touching the floor then making the sign of the cross) accompanying each ‘O God, purify me…’

It encompasses, then, the whole underlying spirit of the Lenten program, then—the negative aspect of turning from core sinful attitudes, the positive one of turning towards virtue and holiness, the call to both contrition and non-judgment—knowing one’s own sin, and not regarding the sin of the other—and the essential crying out for mercy from God.

Not a bad prayer to pray, then, from Monday-Friday for these forty days of Lent. I would like to spend a few days with the petitions of this prayer, packed as they are with meaning and depth. The writers I mentioned on Saturday—Schmemann and Hopko—devote whole chapters to each word of the prayer. I won’t do that, but we can talk about it for a little while, at least.

O Lord, Master of my life, grant that I may not be infected with the spirit of slothfulness and faintheartedness, with the spirit of ambition and vain talking.

So we start with a frank and simple acknowledgement of two realities—the Lordship of Christ, his absolute sovereign authority in our lives, and the simple fact that we are utterly reliant on his grace and help to escape from the tendrils of sin that wrap around our hearts and minds. We can try and try (and indeed should, must do so, since that is a needful part of God’s action in us), but the victory over sin, the world, the flesh, the devil, comes from God’s granting of it, not from our own heroic efforts.

Slothfulness and faintheartedness, ambition and vain talking. These may not seem to be the most obvious choices of vices to headline. There is an alternate version of the prayer which I prefer (the Greek as opposed to the Slavonic) which reads ‘meddlesomeness’ instead of ‘faintheartedness’. I have never been able to quite hold in my mind what faintheartedness is, but I sure know what meddlesomeness is!

As I read it (especially as I read it in Greek, where it becomes even more acute), this first sentence of the prayer is all about our energy, the powers of our human person, and being spared from directing them wrongly, vainly, uselessly. 

Sloth is the collapse of our energy into torpor and futility; meddlesomeness or distraction is the dissipation of our energies in a hundred wrong directions that have nothing to do with God and his will for us; ambition is the turning of our energies to the one solemn project of our life which is the attaining of a higher place in the world for our supreme selves; and vain talking is the deployment of that one sacred power in particular which is so godlike—the power of rational speech, of the uttered word, the power to give voice to truth—for no good end, for emptiness and meaningless chatter.

This first sentence of the prayer, then, is an acknowledgment that human beings have power, have energy, are given some store of vital force each day—some more, some less—and have a profound freedom to dispose of it as we choose. And we can choose badly, go very badly astray indeed in how we deploy our forces each day.

We can go nowhere and do nothing (which may look, actually, like being very busy indeed), go everywhere that we shouldn’t, go with laserlike precision and obsessive force to the ceaseless servicing of our own ego and its ambitions, or just expend ourselves in a pointless flow of chattering, babbling, foolish spate of empty words.

Because we are really marvelous creatures, endowed with such natural graces as freedom, rationality, and all that flows from our being image and likeness of God, and because we can go so very badly astray with all of this, we beg God to take full lordship of our life and direct our energies rightly, to protect us from the spiritual sins that pull us hither and yon and nowhere good.

It is important, precisely because we are such marvelous and powerful creatures. Nobody cares much if a rubber band is snapped and goes flying off in one direction or another. We care rather more if a nuclear missile goes flying off in one direction or another. Our lives matter—we can, each of us, do great good or great harm in the world, much more than we realize, much more than what the world would tell us is possible. And so Lent is a time to get ourselves ‘pointed’ in the right direction, and to clear up any vices that pull us off course repeatedly. The first sentence of the Prayer of St. Ephrem is about that, and the second sentence is about the right direction of our lives. To be continued…

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