Please accept this offering of an explanation of the Lenten Prayer of St. Ephraim the Syrian in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. This is to be prayed every day during Lent at the end of our Morning and Evening Prayers with a prostration at the end of each verse:
O Lord and Master of my life! Take from me the spirit of sloth, faintheartedness, lust of power, and idle talk. (Prostration)
But give rather the spirit of chastity, humility, patience, and love to Thy servant. (Prostration)
Yea, Lord and King! Grant me to see my own errors and not to judge my brother, for Thou art blessed unto ages of ages. Amen. (Prostration)
When we cry out "O Lord and Master of my life!", we are begging our Divine Savior to grant us His mercy. Mercy is forgiveness that is not deserved. In the Divine Liturgy, we continually beseech Christ and say "Lord have mercy!" The Church Fathers and Mothers who are the saints and spiritual masters of the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church have universally taught that humanity cannot attain eternal life in Christ through our own efforts because it was mankind who brought sin and death into the world. There is nothing we can do to save our own souls. Our salvation can only come from our Lord's mercy at the time of the departure of the soul from the body when we face our Particular Judgment. During a pandemic, it is clear to see that the entire body of creation itself is in need of Christ's mercy. So let us cry out and say with joy and hope, “Lord have mercy!”
"Take from me the spirit of sloth..." Sloth is the English equivalent of the Greek word ἀκηδία which means a state of restlessness and inability either to work or to pray. After the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise, mankind has been required to work and pray in order to have earthly and heavenly sustenance for body and soul. The necessities of life that were freely gifted to us by God in Paradise before our exile will now only be granted after the Last Great Judgment and the creation of the new heaven and earth. And while this is true, our Lord, in His Divine mercy, grants us the Holy Mysteries or Sacraments that lead to eternal life in the midst of our fallen world because Paradise has been regained for our souls. During this difficult time, it could be easy to fall into the sin of sloth. When despair sets in or when we begin to feel sorry for ourselves these emotions will often result in us becoming slothful. When times are tough, it is precisely the time that we must combat the sin of sloth through diligence in all our actions. If there was ever a time to diligently work and pray in recent history, the time is now.
"Take from me the spirit of faintheartedness..." Faintheartedness is the absence of courage. When things are uncertain we must be courageous. Courage is the mental or moral strength to venture, persevere, and withstand danger, fear, or difficulty. As Christians, we can be courageous during this pandemic by knowing that we have eternal life in Christ. If we have faith in the immortality of the soul, we can know with absolute certainty that bodily death is the beginning of eternal life. Death is a transition into a new state of existence. It is not to be feared if we have confessed our sins, begged for God's forgiveness, and tried our best to love Him and our neighbors. If we love God and neighbor and are willing to forgive all things, we have nothing to fear. Love and forgiveness take extreme courage. Love is courageous because it makes us vulnerable. Forgiveness is courageous because in it we must confront deep pain and hurt.
"Take from me the spirit of the lust for power..." Lust is an inordinate craving for the pleasures of the body. Power, in this context, is the inappropriate desire to have control over other people. St. Ephraim is telling us that we should never abuse others in order to receive gain or pleasure. To do so is a grave sin. During times of uncertainty, it is easier to abuse others if we are in a position of power because people are desperate. Lent is precisely the time that we are to lay aside the seeking of power and desire for bodily pleasure in order to realize that it is the eternal life of our soul that matters most. In caring for our own souls, we should not seek to have power over others because the life of repentance and the act of changing ourselves is extremely difficult. During this pandemic, we also see how powerless we truly are before the forces of God and Nature.
"Take from me the spirit of idle talk..." Words have power and meaning. Today, people often speak grossly and without exactness. In ancient times, being silent was expected. Silence is a form of self-control that allows us to learn from those whose life experience and intelligence are beyond ours. And when someone did speak in past generations, the expectation was that their words were to be polite, accurate, and for the greater good of all. St. Paul says in letter to the Ephesians 4:29, "Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear." During Lent and a pandemic, silence is necessary to experience God and to truly reflect and contemplate how we can be a conduit for God's love and grace in our lives and the lives of others. And when we speak in times of desperation and uncertainty, we must choose our words wisely.
The second line of the Lenten Prayer of St. Ephraim the Syrian says:
"But give rather the spirit of chastity, humility, patience, and love to Thy servant." (Prostration)
In the first verse, we ask the Lord to take from me (us) "the spirit of sloth, faintheartedness, lust of power, and idle talk" and grant us "chastity". Chastity is faithfulness. In marriage, we are to be chaste towards our spouse. In friendship, we are to be loyal to our friends. At our baptisms, we promised to be chaste towards God. Chastity is faithfulness towards goodness in all our relationships. Chastity is the total orientation of our lives towards the Lord. During this time of great uncertainty, we need to be chaste or faithful in our relationship with God and neighbor so that good thing may blossom forth from this tragedy.
We ask the Lord to grant us "humility". Humility is the ability to see ourselves as we truly are in relation to God. Humility is a difficult virtue to cultivate because the more humble we become, the more we see how fallen we are when juxtaposed to God's glory. Our wills are often imperfect. Yet God's will is pure. We often place conditions on love. God places none because He is Love (1 John 4:8) itself in His essence. The greatest of saints know how fallen they are from God's glory which is humility. And in their humility, the Lord grants the saints all His mercy by allowing them to experience the energy of His unconditional love even though they are still working towards perfection. If we hope that our souls will be saved at the moment of bodily death we must become humble. If we genuinely love God we must love each other. People need to feel God's unconditional love right now through us for God's love is indisputable in times of uncertainty.
We ask the Lord to grant us "patience". Patience is the resolve to endure hardships and evil without sadness or resentment in conformity with the will of God. Everything God does he does for our salvation. The Lord desires to bring us into His Love. During this pandemic, we must endure the evil of sickness and all the difficulties that come with it. Even if we have our health, our lives have profoundly changed. Life, as we knew it yesterday, is not the life we are living today. We must do all things to exercise the virtue of patience. Without it, we will be miserable and we will make others miserable.
We ask the Lord to grant us "love". Love is the virtue by which we love God above all things for His own sake and our neighbor as ourselves for the love of God. So many in Western Civilization have misplaced love. Quite frankly, they don't love. Love is not a humanistic emotion but the energy and essence of God. Love is God becoming a man for the salvation of the work of His hands. "In this, the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another" (1 John 4:9-11). While we could lose all material assets, we can only lose love if we choose to. Now is the time to love.
The third line of the Lenten Prayer of St. Ephraim the Syrian says:
"Yea, Lord and King! Grant me to see my own errors and not to judge my brother, for Thou art blessed unto ages of ages. Amen." (Prostration)
"Yea, Lord and King… "is a declaration and statement of faith that only God can grant us His divine and salvific grace. All goodness comes from God because the Lord is goodness in His essence. Of course, as Christians, we can participate in God’s goodness, but goodness originates in the Godhead. There is no goodness independent of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Lord is also the only true King just as Christ is the only true priest. Noble earthly rulers have shared in the Lord’s Kingship just as priests share in His ordained priesthood and the laity share in His royal priesthood. This is also a declaration that as eternal souls we have a destination and our “kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36). During this pandemic, all of society must change the way they think and turn back towards God. We must usher in the Kingdom of God “on earth as it is in heaven” (The Lord’s Prayer).
"Grant me to see my own errors and not to judge my brother." As Christians, we are not to be self-righteous or to have delusions of grandeur. A self-righteous person is convinced of one's own righteousness especially in contrast with the actions and beliefs of others. A self-righteous person refuses to see their own sins or errors due to the deadly vice of pride. Pride is the inordinate desire or view of one’s own excellence and an over-estimation of one’s own worth. As eternal souls, our worth is found only in relation to God who grants us eternal life because “God is Love” (1 John 4:8). We have eternal life in order to be loved by God and love and serve God in return. Before God’s glory, we are nothing unless we choose to participate in His energies. Apart from God, we are nothing and powerless. This is why people who suffer from pride are afflicted with delusions of grandeur. Since we are not God, we are sinners and imperfect to one degree or another. And the more saintly one becomes, the more imperfect he or she sees themselves because they are deeply experiencing God's perfect love and unrivaled mercy. This is why we are to judge no one. During these troubling times, it is best that we worry about our own shortcomings while forgiving others and extending the Lord’s mercy to them.
"…for Thou art blessed unto ages of ages. Amen." Blessed means God is holy and worthy of our love, adoration, devotion, and worship. He is such unto ages of ages because there was never a time when the Lord did not exist. The Godhead is eternal. We are immortal by grace whereas the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are immortal in Their supernatural common Divine essence. Amen means that not only is it “true” that the Lord is blessed unto ages of ages, but the entirety of the Lenten Prayer of St. Ephraim the Syrian is “true”. As a civilization, we have collectively lost our way. So many people for so many generations now have sought power and pleasure apart from God. “No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be loyal to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon” (Matthew 6:24). It is impossible to serve God when we only serve ourselves. May this pandemic be a time of collective repentance and a turning back to having a relationship with the Lord. St. John Chrysostom says, “God often afflicts the body for the transgressions of the soul, so that through the pain experienced by the lower entity (he means the body), the superior entity, that is the soul, may also be healed” (On John). We know God corrected civilization with the flood (Genesis Ch’s. 6-9). Let us accept this pandemic for what it is and turn towards God and seek His love and mercy. Good things can come from this if enough people make room for the Lord in their lives again.