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.
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 – Yesterday we began to read through this prayer, which is at the heart of the Lenten spirit and liturgy of the Eastern churches, and which we pray at Madonna House at the end of Lauds each day. We looked at the first part of the prayer which concerns the misdirection and dissipation of our human powers and vital energies into various fruitless channels.
‘Grant instead to me your servant the spirit of purity and humility, of patience and love.’ This petition concerns, then, the proper ordering of our humanity, where and how our energies and powers are to be rightly channeled. Let’s look at each of these spirits, then, and what this implies for our humanity.
‘Purity’ is not simply a matter of sexual rectitude, although that is certainly part of it. It is instead a matter of rightly ordered desire. All of us have a mass of appetites, passions, urges, inclinations, for all sorts of things. The physical realities of food, drink, sex. The emotional needs of relationship, intimacy. The psychological needs of security, achievement, self-expression. The spiritual needs of integration and transcendence.
And all of these can be at war with one another, pulling us in all manner of contradictory directions. Even more seriously, they can be utterly detached or even flatly opposed to the need which is beyond, beneath, above, and all-encompassing all these human needs, which is our need for God and our communion with Him which is the whole substance, origin, and goal of our life.
Purity, then, is the putting into order and regulation of all appetite and desire. The immediate physical needs subordinated to the emotional and psychological ones, these in turn subordinated to our fundamental spiritual needs, and these in turn brought under the Lordship of God in Jesus Christ. The whole of our being moving in one direction, moving towards the God who is our life. The fasting of Lent is deeply about this purity of heart, as ‘food’ is a potent symbol (and indeed painfully immediate realization) of our flight from God into seeking our life in created things. ‘Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’
‘Humility’ is very much connected with purity, then. If the work of purity (and we all know that it is an ongoing work, as all the desires of our human flesh and spirit continually surge out of order) is directed somewhat inwards towards our own humanity and its impure state, humility is essentially directed outwards towards a rightly ordered relationship with God.
Humility is the virtue concerned with knowing and remaining within our true limitations, the right and proper boundaries of our humanity. It is not the cringing craven false humility which draws back from the adventure and grandeur of human life—that is actually the vice of pusillanimity which likes to pretend it is humility.
True humility is the virtue that says continually ‘God is God, and I am not’, and directs in a natural, spontaneous, and joyful way, its attentive spirit towards this God who is, that we may become as He is, in Him.
So if fasting purifies, it is prayer that humbles, above all. The constant work of prayer in our lives, in whatever method or means we employ for it, is to do one thing and one thing only. It is to make us bow down and kneel before God, to acknowledge our radical state of poverty and dependence, and place ourselves before the One upon whom our entire being and the fulfillment of our being utterly depends.
Purity and humility are the two ‘spirits’ that are like the two reins upon the horse, guiding, ordering, directing, pointing, channeling the whole of our person into the path of life and goodness, which is also the path of joy and delight, albeit not without a certain amount of sorrow and weeping. And that will lead us directly tomorrow to the next two words of the prayer! To be continued…