Thursday, March 13, 2014

A Short Catechism on Love

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 – We have been reading through this prayer bit by bit this week (much slower than I had planned, to be honest – it turns out I have a lot to say about patience!). And so we come to the word that is not only at the heart of the prayer but the heart of all reality, the word that is the governing principle, the source, the summit, the pattern, the meaning of all that is and ever will be.

And that of course is the word love. Give me a spirit of patience and love. This is our topic today. I wrote yesterday that these two are related as essentially negative and positive responses to living in a broken world. By ‘negative’ I do not mean bad, of course. Rather, that patience comes into play when there is little or nothing that can be done to right a wrong, and gentle endurance is called for, rather than bitterness, complaining, vitriol, and the like.

Patience is the necessary negative background for the great positive energy in our life, which is the action of love. There is so much good that we cannot do, so many harms and hurts and evils that are beyond our power to cure; let us do, then, the good that is in our power. I cannot do anything but pray for the people of the Ukraine, but I can strive to receive every guest in Madonna House as Jesus Christ, can strive to do my work with generosity and care, doing it as well as I can. Does it help Ukraine, or Syria, or whoever? I hope so. At any rate, it is all the good that I can do, today.

The work of love always comes down to that—what good can I do now, in my real concrete situation? 
The whole energy of the human person is to be directed towards no other end. This is why we are to fight against slothfulness and distraction, ambition and vain talking—because these wrong uses of our energies sap our love, make us less loving, more selfish.

This is why we are to strive for purity and humility. Love is itself not properly ordered if our desires are undisciplined and chaotic, and we can easily fool ourselves that love means doing what our passions or emotions dictate to us. But love is only true love if it is in the truth, and truth comes through purity of heart, all our desires ordered towards the desire for God and our destiny of living in and with Him.

Love is also the reason for striving for humility, since the first thing we learn when we are trying to live a life of love is that perseverance in love is utterly beyond the capacity of the human person, broken by sin. If I want to love today, I have to pray today. If I want to be good to my brothers and sisters, I need the goodness of God to descend upon me, period. Cuz I don’t got nearly enough goodness of myself to propel me very far at all.

Love is (finally) deeply intertwined with patience. I think many people get tripped up in their efforts to love precisely by a lack of patience-patience with themselves and their own weakness, patience with others and the fact that try as you might to do good and help make the world a better place, the world does not appreciably become all that different in any dramatic fashion through your and my little efforts. Or not so little efforts. Things tend to go on the way they go on, you know?

Patience is a great backdrop for the work of love, a sort of floor of acceptance and steady gentleness upon which we can do that which is our duty of love today. Without patience, we give up quickly, get frustrated with those no-good so-and-sos who don’t appreciate my hard work, get deeply disappointed with ourselves for being such so-and-sos who aren’t nearly as nice as we thought we were before we really started trying to love other people… and so on.

The work of love is the work of our lifetime, the only real and lasting work, the only work worth giving a life for, the Work of God in the universe. The first two sentences of the Prayer of St. Ephrem lay out for us in their petitions that which is needed for us to succeed in this work. In a few short phrases, it is a whole catechesis of love and the path of Christian action and discipleship in this world.


  1. Dear Fr. Dennis,
    I have to ask what follows after the 3 periods? - "O Lord and King, bestow…"
    All the various texts I have searched through stop with the "Amen".
    Your words are profound meditations on this prayer and I thank you for them.
    Kindest regards - John Lynch.

    1. Oh, sorry! It is a reiteration of the petition of knowing one's own sins and not judging one's brother. I'm not sure what the provenance is of that repetition in our liturgical usage, but I have to assume we got it from one or the other Byzantine rites to do it that way. Thanks for the kind words - I always get as much out of these meditations on familiar texts as anyone else does!


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