Meditation on the Prayer of St. Ephrem | Jim Forest

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

Reflect on the prayer phrase by phrase and let it question you.

“O Lord and Master of my life…”

Who is Lord and master of my life? Me? God? The ideas, slogans, and choices of people around me?

“…take from me the spirit of sloth…”

“The spirit of sloth” refers to laziness, indolence, indifference, or forgetfulness. In a commentary on the prayer, Fr. Alexander Schmemann regards sloth as the “basic disease…that strange laziness that always pushes us down rather than up — which constantly convinces us that no change is possible and therefore desirable. It is in fact a deeply rooted cynicism which to every spiritual challenge responds ‘what for?’ and makes our life one tremendous spiritual waste.” Sloth, says Olivier Clement in another commentary, is “a kind of sleepwalking, whether expressed in hyperactivity or in inertia.” How much of an effort do I make in daily life to try to think of Christ and try to follow him? To be aware of God’s presence in people and in nature? To actively seek the kingdom of God? To respond to God’s grace?

“…despair…”

The word in question is sometimes translated from the Greek as despondency or faint-heartedness. It also suggests discouragement, being cowardly, an aversion to life – suicide of the soul. An important icon shows Saint George in combat with a dragon. The actual George, a martyr of the early Church, never saw a dragon but battled against those fears which, unresisted, make one submit to evil. Not to battle the dragons we meet in life is to submit to despair, to give way to faint-heartedness. Am I easily discouraged? Do I surrender within myself when frightened? Am I cowardly in living my faith? Do I arm myself for spiritual combat with a rule of prayer in my daily life?

“…lust for power…”

This is the spirit of self-importance, the religion of Me. The spirit of domination was the third temptation to which Jesus was subjected during his time of fasting in the wilderness. Christ dismissed Satan with the words, “The Lord your God shall you worship and him alone shall you serve” (Mt. 4:8-11). Lust for power makes an idol of the self. Do I seek to control or manipulate others? To be feared by others? Do I want to have the last word?

“…and idle talk.”

In a word, gossip. This is talk that attacks the social fabric much as termites attack the foundations of a wooden house. Idle talk refers to all chatter, not only mine but the empty chatter of others, including the chatter of television. The poet Carl Sandberg warns his daughter to be careful about what she says: “Words wear tall boots. They go marching off. You can’t stop them when they’re gone.” Christ cautions us that we will render an account “for every careless word” we speak (Mt 12:36). Have I lied or gossiped? Have I maligned or slandered others? Have I cursed anyone? Have I become addicted to noise because I cannot bear silence?

“But give to me, your servant, the spirit of chastity…”

The Greek word sophrosini, often translated as chastity, also means wholeness, self- control, sobriety, moderation, discretion, modesty, overcoming all passions that destroy life. To be chaste is to be pure in thought and conduct, to be free of addictions, to be in communion with God’s purity. It is the wholeness of an interior innocence, a virginal freshness of soul. Chastity exists in marriage when there is an integration of desire in a personal relationship marked by self-giving love. A chaste person, notes Clement, is no longer fragmented. “If we usually mean by chastity the virtue opposed to sexual depravity,” writes Fr. Alexander Schmemann, “it is because the broken character of our existence is nowhere better manifested than in sexual lust – the alienation of the body from the life and control of the spirit.” Do I realize my physical and spiritual life as one thing, not two? Have I used or regarded others as sexual objects? Have I damaged the spirit of chastity in myself by reading or looking at pornography? Have I dressed and behaved modestly?

“…humility…”

Humility is poverty of spirit and meekness. Humility inspires an attitude of listening and of seeking out those who can give good counsel. Humility welcomes correction. A humble person is not proud or arrogant. Humility is not the denial of my value as a human being but rather seeing myself in relationship to God. Humility results from being in a state of gratitude rather than envy, resentment, or bitterness. Do I boast about myself? Do I respect others? Do I listen with attention and a readiness to learn? Do I resent good advice? Do I accept correction with gratitude? Or do I defend myself even when I am in the wrong?

“…patience…”

Patience is calmly bearing or enduring delay, disappointment, pain, and sorrow. It is a deep confidence in God’s providence and the willingness to persevere even in the face of loss and failure. Clement speaks of patience as an “interiorized monasticism.” It is not resignation but the awareness that truly Christ is risen from the dead and is with us moment to moment, no matter where we go or what we are enduring. Do I imagine I am alone? That I am God-forsaken? Do I resent delays? Do I give up when there are too many obstacles? Do I tend to do things in a hurry? Am I easily annoyed with others? Do I get angry when I don’t get my way?

“…and love.”

Love is the quality most needed. In speaking of God, while no word is adequate, none is truer than to say that God is love. “God so loved the world that He sent his only begotten Son,” writes Saint John (Jn 3:16). Love of its nature inspires whole-hearted giving, an eagerness to serve, care of words, humility, and patience. It is self-giving, even a death to self. We are taught by Christ not only to love our friends but also our enemies, for without love there is no way to overcome enmity, as he shows us with his own life. Much more than a sentiment, love is an attitude of caring for the well-being and salvation of others. Do I tend to put my needs and desires first? Do I pray for those I fear or hate? Does it disturb me to think that a person I do not like is also God’s child and bears the Divine Image? Do I look for ways to help others even if they are strangers?

“O Lord and King, grant to me to see my own faults and not to condemn my brother and sister. For you are blessed unto the ages of ages.”

Twice in this prayer God is addressed as Lord, once as Master, and once as King. This is Saint Ephraim’s way of helping us address our Creator in a spirit of respect and obedience. It may not be our desire to serve others or put their needs before our own, but if this is what God asks of us, we work to convert ourselves to living as God wishes. We especially ask God to make us aware of our own faults and sins rather than judge others. After all, at the Last Judgment I will be judged for my own sins, not the sins others committed, except to the extent that others sinned because I sinned. Do I care more about what is wrong with other people than what is wrong with myself? Do I look down on those who appear to have an even less ordered life than mine? Do I regard myself as not so bad because there are others who are worse?

An extract from Confession: Doorway to Forgiveness by Jim Forest (Orbis Books, 2002).
Available at: Amazon.ca | Chapters.ca | Amazon.com | Abebooks.com

Jim Forest website

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