“O Lord and Master of my life, take from me the spirit of sloth, despair, lust of power, and idle talk.”
With these words begins the prayer of St. Ephrem the Syrian, which is prayed during the season of Lent. The prayer begins with the acknowledgement that Christ is the Lord over our lives. He is our Master; an unused and unpopular term perhaps but one that needs recovering. After all, St. Paul refers to himself as a slave of Jesus Christ, and if St. Paul is comfortable with that language then we should be as well. Christ is our Lord and we, out of love and gratitude, endeavor to obey his commandments.
The prayer then asks that the spirit of a specific list of hurtful things be taken from us. Before we can ask for these things to be taken, we first need to acknowledge their presence. Even if we protest that we may not struggle with them, usually they are hiding just below the surface in our hearts. Sloth, or laziness, can be present in either physical or spiritual forms when we do not take time for prayer, or when we neglect to fulfill our daily responsibilities at home and at work. Despair is an issue that many people face and experience in the form of depression. Lust for power can manifest itself in the highest echelons of power or in the office of a church secretary. Idle talk and gossip is a sin to which most of us are prone. It can be disguised as concern: “Pray for Bill, I heard from Sue that he struggles with lust.” Or it can be blatantly expressed openly as harassment on social media.
“But rather give the spirit of chastity, meekness of mind, patience, and love to thy servant.”
It is not enough for us to ask the Lord to remove hurtful and sinful behaviors from our hearts, we need to replace them with something of the divine. If we do not then we will fall back into the same destructive patterns of acting, thinking, and being that we are asking to be delivered from in the first place. It is not a coincidence that St. Ephrem’s prayer mimics St. Paul’s list of the Fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22-23.
Chastity is the antidote for the desires of the flesh. It helps us to tame our physical desires that are wrongly ordered and to bring them in line with what God intended for them. Meekness of mind, or humility, is the antidote to pride and entering into the spiritual struggle of fasting and prayer, or attending services, can lead one to pride. C.S. Lewis helpfully said, “Whenever we find that our religious life is making us feel that we are good – above all, that we are better than someone else – I think we may be sure that we are being acted on, not by God, but by the devil.” Patience is needed because we should not expect to be transformed overnight. Becoming more and more like Christ is something that occurs over a lifetime, not in a sudden fit of religious ecstasy. There are no shortcuts to Christlikeness. Lastly, love is the most important of all. Love for God and love for our neighbors is what will help us as we ask and strive for: charity, humility, and patience.
“Yea, O Lord and King, grant me to see my own transgressions, and not to judge my brother, for blessed art Thou, unto ages of ages. Amen.”
The prayer closes with another acknowledgement of Christ as our Lord and as our King. He rules over us seated at the right hand of the Father, and he makes intercession for us as our sympathetic high priest, as the author of Hebrews wrote.
In the Gospel of St. Matthew our Lord Jesus says, “Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.” It is easier to point out something that we think is wrong in another person rather than address the shortcomings, sins, and personal weaknesses that we are prone to fall into ourselves. If we can spend our time focusing on others then we never have to take a hard look inward at what God is trying to heal in us.
This Lenten season may the words of this prayer echo in our minds and in our hearts as we move towards the remembrance of our Lord’s sacrifice and participate in his call to repentance, as his kingdom, that is not of this world, has come near.
C.S. Lewis quote from: http://www.timesandseasons.org/The_Great_Sin_condensed.pdf
Prayer of St. Ephrem from: http://www.antiochian.org/saint_ephraim
Matthew 7:3-5 from: http://www.esvbible.org/Matthew%207/