The Great Prayer of St Ephraim the Syrian&
The Moral Person
O Lord and Master of my life,
Take from me the spirit of sloth, despair,
lust of power and idle talk;
But give rather the spirit of chastity, humility, patience, and love to Thy servant.
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. (1)
This prayer, written by St Ephraim the Syrian in the 4th century, is a regular part of the Orthodox Christian’s prayer “diet” during the Great Fast (Lent).
The first part of The Prayer bids God, “the Lord and Master of [our] life,” to take certain “spirits” from us. Then follows a petition for the Lord to give certain “spirits.” The Prayer concludes by bidding the Master to grant sight and self judgment. Thus, we bid God to take, give, and grant. Underlying the petitions of The Prayer are several admissions. The first admission is that we have a Master, who is God. We come face to face with the God of the living at the outset of The Prayer.
In beseeching the Lord to take certain things from us, we are admitting that we currently possess them. The first spirit to be removed is “sloth” (2). Whether the ascetic exercise is prayer, fasting, or alms giving, sloth leads to an abundance of sins. This has been true in all ages. However, it seems that sloth is currently viewed as the means and end of the modern person. What would the Lord ask of those who sit idly in front of the TV for hours on end? Or, how about our sloth in areas of charity, hospitality, prayer and good works? Thus, we must begin by asking God to deliver us from this spirit of sloth in order to practice good works, watchfulness, and vigilance. St. Mark the Ascetic warns us of three giants: spiritual ignorance, forgetfulness, and laziness. He claims that if these three are slain “all other powers of the evil spirits are removed” (3). It must be added, however, that a person might be extremely busy, productive, and active – all the while neglecting the things that are needful. This is also a form of sloth.
The next spirit is variously translated as “despair” or “meddling” (4). What do despair and meddling have to do with each other? Despair is often the result of failed pride. And what causes most meddling? Pride and the belittling spirit of superiority. It should go without saying that these never cease to fail us in the moral life.
Besides that, they learn to be idlers, gadding about from house to house, and not only idlers, but gossipers and busybodies, saying what they should not (5).
We should, rather, strive for hope and joy. This is the goal of the spiritually moral person. Despair is of the devil.
St. Symeon the New Theologian, an experienced spiritual physician, recognized that long and untimely sorrowing of the heart ‘darkens and disturbs the mind,’ it banishes pure prayer and compunction from the soul and creates a painful pining of the heart which results in hardness and painful callousness. This is how the demons bring about despair (6).
In admitting the defeating sin of despair and meddling, we are able to open our eyes to the Sovereign Lord of Hope and Joy. Note the words of St. Paul:
Finally, brethren, whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praise-worthy — meditate on these things (7).
How can we avoid the “lust of power” (8) when our culture makes of it a supreme goal? This moral self-love is advertised by our media and taught by our culture to such an extent that it seems archaic to criticize it.
But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them (9).
What of the moral person?
It shall not be so among you; but whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave; even as the Son of man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many (10).
It is our high calling to be servants to our fellows and slaves to God. Allowing God to be our Lord and Master is a humbling experience.
The next section of the prayer should cause fear and trembling for us all. Here we ask the Lord to take from us the spirit of “idle talk” (11). Here we connect our tongue with the sin of sloth.
I tell you, on the day of judgment men will render account for every careless word they utter; for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned (12) .
Instead, giving in to the spirit of idle talk, we speak to make ourselves look better, which leads us to be judgmental and slanderous. We live in an age of unprecedented, unbridled, unadulterated idle talk. The modern person fills the hours with radio, television, phone, internet, and gossip. The moral person should practice self-criticism, examination of conscious, and silence.
We now come to the second part of St. Ephraim’s prayer wherein we ask the Lord and Master to give us certain “spirits.” The first gift besought is “chastity” (13). Chastity is synonymous with faithfulness. It is self-control, whole-mindedness, and the opposite of a broken character — which is caused by the sin of sloth.
Bid the older men to be temperate, serious, sensible, sound in faith, in love, and in steadfastness (14). Yet woman will be saved through bearing children, if she continues in faith and love and holiness, with modesty (15).
By these examples from Scripture, we can see that the meaning of chastity is more than fidelity. It is fidelity to the Truth. Truth is a Person, Jesus Christ. Thus to be chaste, we must be in a relationship where we keep our hearts and minds on Christ. This fidelity is required in the moral Christian life.
The second gift is “humility” (16). In contrast to Greek literature where humility is viewed as a weakness, Scripture celebrates it as a cardinal virtue (17). However, as with Greek literature, this virtue is missing from the paradigm of modern man. It is the model of the Saviour: “And being found in the human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross” (18) . It is our calling as Christians.
Finally, all of you, have unity of spirit, sympathy, love of the brethren, a tender heart and a humble mind … (19) serving the Lord with all humility and with tears and with trials which befell me through the plots of the Jews … (20) with all lowliness and meekness, with patience, forbearing one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace (21). Do nothing from selfishness or conceit, but in humility count others better than yourselves (22).
Our society views pride as a virtue. Yet pride is residual of the fall of Lucifer and his angels from the heavenly realm. As Vlachos writes, “Of course when a person’s heart has been purified, he must not be proud of it, for no creatures are purer than the bodiless ones, the angels, and yet Lucifer, by exalting himself, became the devil and is unclean (23). The enemy of souls is pride incarnate. The opposite of pride — humility — is the very essence of the Holy Incarnation.
The discipline of the moral person requires “patience” (24). Yet, it is inherent in our fallen nature to be impatient, quick to judge and condemn.
By your endurance you will gain your lives (25). More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given us (26) … for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking nothing (27).
The fruit of the moral life is “love” (28). “That is to say, when a person lives naturally, he wants to know God completely, he desires only God, and he struggles to attain God, that is, to attain communion with God. The fruit of this pursuit is love. A person united with God acquires the blessed state of love, since God is love” (29). Contrast this with what could seemingly be a definition of our own age:
These are blemishes on your love feasts, as they boldly carouse together, looking after themselves; waterless clouds, carried along by winds; fruitless trees in late autumn, twice dead, uprooted; wild waves of the sea, casting up the foam of their own shame; wandering stars for whom the nether gloom of darkness has been reserved for ever (30).
Next, we beseech the Lord and Master to “grant” us two things: sight (31) and non-judgmentalness (32). Is there a difference between the words “give” (33) and “grant?” (35). We ask God to give us “the spirit of chastity, humility, patience and love.” We then ask Him to grant us “to see [our] own transgressions and not to judge [our] brother.” Isn’t it possible that the difference lies in that with which we are familiar and that which is foreign to us? For instance, we’re not all that familiar with chastity, humility, patience, and love. True, we may experience them from time to time. Yet for most, familiarity with these virtues is uncommon. On the other hand, we are all too familiar with seeing transgressions and being judgmental! In The Prayer we ask God to transform this very sight and judgment. We ask the master to help us to see our transgressions and not our brothers’. This last part of The Prayer is key to our soul’s petition for transformation. All that precedes this section mirrors our current state and our needs. However, attainment of this high calling is impossible lest we, with God’s help, work out our own salvation with fear and trembling — judging, not our brother, but ourselves.
Jesus looked up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you? Neither do I condemn you (36).
The cornerstone of the Prayer of St. Ephraim is relationship “O Lord and Master of my life.” Unlike the “individual”, who is self-centric, a “person” is someone who is in relationship — in this case, to the Lord Jesus Christ. From the outset of The Prayer, we are turning over our lives to the One who is to be at the center of our life, Jesus Christ. By our very words (in The Prayer) we invite discipline and imply obedience, both of which are missing in the self-centered modern person.
To humble oneself before God is to admit one’s weakness and dependence, God’s power and goodness, and one’s trust and hope in God. This disposition (described in Mic. 68 as one of the principle requirements of a “good” life) is expressed in obedience and repentance (James 46-10). Such humility is a chief characteristic of the OT heroes of faith (e.g., Gideon, Hannah, David, and Solomon) and a virtue celebrated repeatedly in wisdom literature (37).
The other key to The Prayer is sight. We pray that God will grant us to see of our own transgressions. This is a plea for our own salvation. St. Seraphim of Sarov “Find inner peace, and thousands around you shall find their salvation.” How can we continually see the demons in those round us when our own passions condemn us?
Why do you see the speck 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 a 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 (38).
Our eyes are filled with the modern “judges” of the media: news anchors, politicians, talk show hosts, and all the other “talking heads” of the air waves. The moral person must guard against the promiscuous judgments spewed forth daily from the media.
The lamp of the body is the eye. If therefore your eye is good, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness, If therefore the light that is in you is darkness, how great is that darkness! 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 (39).
No one can serve two masters. Herein lies the key to understanding the prayer of St. Ephraim the Syrian as a moral tool for the Christian life. We pray that God take from us the spirit of the world and give us, rather, His spirit. Within this short prayer lies the essence of our struggle known as spiritual warfare.
1) Although the Prayer was originally written in Syriac, I’ve defined the terms by use of the Greek text merely as a matter of clarification as there exists various English translations. Greek translation taken from Greek Orthodox Holy Week and Easter Services, comp., George L. Papadeas, (Daytona Beach, Florida: Patmos Press, 1994); p.107.
2) αργιας (αργος): inactive, unemployed; idle, adverse from labor; unprofitable, hollow; to be unemployed, to be inoperative, to linger. NB: All Greek term definitions taken from The Analytical Greek Lexicon Revised, ed., Harold K. Mouton, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1978).
3) Vlachos, Hierotheos. Orthodox Psychotherapy (The Science of the Fathers). Greece: Birth of the Theotokos Monastery, 1994; p.255.
4) περιεργιας (περιεγος): over careful; officious, a busy body.
5) 1 Timothy 5:13.
6) Vlachos, p.179.
7) Philippians 4:8.
8) φιλαρχιας (φιλ – αρχη, αρχω, αρχων): first place, headship; high estate, eminence; authority; a principality, prince, of spiritual existence; to be first; to govern; one invested with power and dignity, chief, ruler, magistrate.
9) Matthew 20:25.
10) Matthew 20:26-27.
11) αργολογιας (αργο – λογιας): idle talk.
12) Matthew 12:36.
13) σωφροσυνης (σωφρωη, σωφροσυνη): sanity, soundness of mind, a sane mind; female modesty.
14) Titus 2:2.
15) 1 Timothy 2:15.
16) ταπεινοφοσυνης (ταπεινοφρων, ταπεινοφροσυνη): humble minded; lowliness or humility of mind and deportment, modesty.
17) Jeffrey, David Lyle. A Dictionary of Biblical Tradition in English Literature. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992; p.366.
18) Philippians 2:8.
19) 1 Peter 3:8.
20) Acts 20:19.
21) Ephesians 4:2.
22) Philippians 2:3.
23) Vlachos, p. 200.
24) υπομονης (υπομονη, ης; εν υπομονη & δι υπομονης): patient endurance; patient awaiting; a patient frame of mind, patience; perseverance; endurance; constantly, preservingly; an enduring of affliction; the act of suffering; undergoing.
25) Luke 21:19.
26) Romans 5:3-5.
27) James 1:3, 4.
28) αγαπης (αγαπε, ης): love, generosity, kindly concern, devotedness; love-feasts.
29) Vlachos, p.250.
30) Jude 12-13.
31) οραν (οραω): to see, behold; to mark, observe; to be admitted to witness [with εον = to reveal one’s self, to present one’s self].
32) πταισματα (πταιω): to cause to stumble; to stumble, stagger, fall; to make a false step; to err, offend, transgress.
33) give: to make a present of. Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 10th Edition.
34) grant: to consent to carry out for a person allow fulfillment of. Ibid.
35) John 8:10, 11.
36) Jeffrey, p.366.
37) Matthew 7:3-5.
38) Matthew 6:22-24.