In fourth-century Edessa, the existence of several groups of Gnostic schismatics threatened the stability of the Christian faith. The Lord raised up in the Church a certain Biblical exegete, deacon, and proto-Dominican to contend with the heretical sects, a man who did so patiently, yet with a firm grasp of orthodoxy.
St. Ephrem the Syrian, now a Doctor of the Church, would use hymns to proclaim the truths of the faith. His works, which deal with topics ranging from Heaven to heretics, defy easy characterization. At the same time he was producing these beautiful and theologically rich writings, Ephrem was serving the poor and sick of the area, doing so until he himself contracted a certain illness that eventually led to his death. His most famous prayer, profound in its ability to provoke contemplation, is traditionally said by the Eastern Churches several times a day throughout Lent.
Some years ago during Great Vespers in an Orthodox Church, I heard this prayer for the first time. Its steady rhythm, natural beauty, timeless relevance, accompanying prostrations, and final series of Jesus prayers compelled me to learn it immediately. Every day since, I have made this prayer the first I say each morning:
O Lord and Master of my life, grant not unto me a spirit of idleness, of discouragement, of lust of power, and of vain speaking.
But bestow upon me, Thy servant, a spirit of chastity, of patience, of meekness, and of love.
Yea, O Lord and King, grant that I may perceive my own transgressions and judge not my brother, for blessed art Thou unto ages of ages. Amen.
The first line immediately strikes one as seemingly odd: no one thinks of God as a giver of idleness, discouragement, etc. We know Him as the giver of all things, yes, but of all good things. Yet, just as we are not expecting harm in the Our Father when we say “lead us not into temptation,” so in St. Ephrem’s prayer we aren’t anticipating these certain impediments to virtue. In both instances, instead, we’re asking for a spirit that isn’t disposed to such destructive paths. We seek fortitude against the marks of fallen nature that incline us to desire too much or too little of what is truly good.
We then ask for certain virtues that are seemingly the hardest to come by naturally. Chastity, patience, meekness, and love, like any virtue, grow in the soul primarily through the gift of grace and secondarily through their exercise. The evangelical counsels come to mind whenever I hear this short list recited. While not exclusive pairings, vowed obedience is sure to try our patience and meekness; the vow of poverty frees us to love purely; and chastity has its obvious match.
The prayer then comes to an appropriate close. After once more revering the Lord, we ask for the fruit of that spirit which was described all along. That is to say, if we are truly chaste, patient, meek, and loving, we can’t waste our time judging others. If we do not distract ourselves with idleness, discouragement, lust of power, or vain speech, it’s impossible for us to shy away from the reality of our own sins.
In this prayer, St. Ephrem communicates that it is only by radical honesty with God and ourselves that we are left with the realization of our utter dependence on the Lord and Master of our life. He, the patient, meek, and loving God, gives us Himself and allows us to share in His life. We, souls poor and wanting, seek a blessed life from Him to truly live. It is fitting, then, that at the end of the prayer, the congregation concludes with some form of the Jesus prayer, asking the one thing we need for these spiritual hopes to become lived reality:
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.
Image: Icon of St. Ephrem the Syrian