A SPIRITUAL CHECKLIST
Orthodox Christians recite a prayer during Great Lent that is described by Fr. Alexander Schmemann as a “check list” for our spiritual lives. This prayer, given by St. Ephraim the Syrian in the fourth century, is commonly called the “Lenten Prayer:”
O Lord and Master of my life! Take from me the spirit of sloth, faint-heartedness, 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 errors and not to judge my brother; For Thou art blessed unto ages of ages. Amen.
Fr. Alexander explains that the prayer – along with the spiritual disciplines of Great Lent (as well as the rest of the year) – is “aimed first at our liberation from some fundamental spiritual diseases which shape our life and make it virtually impossible for us even to start turning ourselves to God.”
Let’s go through the prayer of St. Ephraim to see how it can help order your spiritual life.
The prayer starts by referring to Jesus Christ as “Lord and Master of my life.” Elder Porphyrios, a twentieth century Greek monk, teaches that Christians should “love Christ and put nothing before His love,” because “Christ is Everything. He is joy, He is life, He is light. He is the true light who makes man joyful, makes him soar with happiness; makes him see everything, everybody; makes him feel for everyone, to want everyone with Him, everyone with Christ.”
Do you love Christ like this, or are there things that are more important to you than Him? If Jesus Christ is Lord and Master of your life, you will want to pray to Him, receive Him in Holy Communion, and live your life in a way that pleases Him and enables you to grow in union with Him.
After proclaiming that Jesus Christ is Lord and Master, St. Ephraim then asks Him to “take from me the spirit of sloth.” Sloth is laziness and inactivity, and Fr. Alexander Schmemann explains that “it is the root of all sin because it poisons the spiritual energy at its very source.” Sloth makes Christians ask “what for?” when presented with an opportunity to engage in spiritual growth. Lorenzo Scupoli, a sixteenth century Christian, warns against spiritual sloth:
“Having once tasted the pleasure of inaction, you begin to like and prefer it to action. In satisfying this desire, you will little by little form a habit of inaction and laziness, in which the passions for doing nothing will possess you to such extent that you will cease even to see how incongruous and criminal it is; except perhaps when you weary of this laziness, and are again eager to take up your work. Then you will see with shame how negligent you have been and how many necessary works you have neglected, for the sake of the empty and useless ‘doing what you like’.”
Are you spiritually slothful? Do you avoid praying with a half-hearted promise to yourself and God that you’ll “do it later?” Do you avoid fasting because it seems too hard and unpleasant? Do you avoid reading the Bible because it seems like a lot of work? If you let sloth control your actions, you are refusing to make Jesus the “Lord and Master” of your life.
St. Ephraim next prays to be freed from “faint-heartedness.” Faint-heartedness means despondency: overwhelming depression and a feeling of hopelessness. The Church Fathers warn that despondency is the greatest danger to the soul, because a despondent person is unable or unwilling to see anything positive or good – even in God – and is therefore unwilling to do anything to change his or her life. St. John Climacus, a sixth century monk on Mt. Sinai, describes despondency:
“Despondency is a paralysis of soul, an enervation of the mind, neglect of asceticism, hatred of the vow made. It calls those who are in the world blessed. It accuses God of being merciless and without love for men. It is being languid in singing psalms, weak in prayer, like iron in service, resolute in manual labor, reliable in obedience.”
Have you ever thought that there is no point in participating in the spiritual life of the Church because “I’ll never be a saint?” Do you believe that you’ll never be able to overcome some of the sins with which you struggle? If so, then you are engaging in despondency, and implicitly denying God’s ability to reach and transform you.
The “lust of power,” next in St. Ephraim’s prayer, doesn’t necessarily mean the desire to become an all-powerful dictator that rules a company or nation. Instead, it ultimately refers to selfishness and self-centeredness. Fr. Alexander Schmemann teaches:
“If my life is not oriented toward God, not aimed at eternal values, it will inevitably become selfish and self-centered and this means that all other beings will become means of my own self-satisfaction. If God is not the Lord and Master of my life, then I become my own lord and master – the absolute center of my own world, and I begin to evaluate everything in terms of my needs, my ideas, my desires, and my judgments.”
Abba Isidore, one of the Desert Fathers of the fourth century, simply says, “Of all evil suggestions, the most terrible is that of following one’s own heart, that is to say, one’s own thought, and not the law of God.”
Every sin – every evil act, every refusal to follow God’s will – is a demonstration of the lust of power.
St. Ephraim also prays to be freed from a desire for “idle talk.” St. Anthony the Great, the founder of monasticism in the third and fourth centuries, tells us, “Know that nothing quenches the Spirit more than idle talk.” A simple definition of idle talk is “foolish or irrelevant talk.”
Our words can be used for good or evil. Unfortunately, we too often engage in idle talk that is more than simply irrelevant: it is hurtful and destructive. Do you gossip about others? Are you frequently critical of others? Do you tell dirty jokes that not only make a mockery of the morality demanded by God, but even demeans the humanity of people of both genders? If so, you are engaging in destructive idle talk.
The Lenten prayer moves from asking God to free us from specific sinful attitudes and behaviors to asking for the empowerment and inclination to good attitudes and behaviors. As you can see, the first part of the prayer deals with areas in which we harm our relationships with others; the second part deals with building and restoring relationships.
St. Ephraim prays for the “spirit of chastity.” Our culture unfortunately understands “chastity” as meaning sexual purity; as important as sexual impurity is, the full meaning, as St. John Climacus says, “is the name which is common to all virtues.” Fr. Alexander explains that chastity should be:
“Understood as the positive counterpart of sloth. The exact and full translation of the Greek sofrosini and the Russian tselomudryie ought to be whole-mindedness. Sloth is, first of all, dissipation, the brokenness of our vision and energy, the inability to see the whole. Its opposite then is precisely wholeness.”
One of the fruits of chastity is humility. Anthimos, a twentieth century monk on the island of Chios in Greece, proclaims, “Humble-mindedness will bring all the virtues.” The fourteenth century saint, Gregory of Sinai, teaches us to cultivate humility:
“True humility does not say humble words, nor does it assume humble looks, it does not force oneself either to think humbly of oneself, or to abuse oneself in self-belittlement. Although all such things are the beginning, the manifestations and the various aspects of humility, humility itself is grace, given from above. There are two kinds of humility, as the holy fathers teach: to deem oneself the lowest of all beings and to ascribe to God all one’s good actions. The first is the beginning, the second the end.”
St. John Chrysostom explains that we are to emulate the longsuffering of God in our interactions with others:
“God, whilst He is treated with as great, and still greater contempt than this, every day; and that not by one, or two, or three persons, but by almost all of us; is still forbearing and longsuffering, not in regard to this alone, but to other things which are far more grievous. For these things are what must be admitted, and what are obvious to all, and by almost all men they are daringly practiced. But there are yet others, which the conscience of those who commit them is privy to. Surely, if we were to think of all this; if we were to reason with ourselves, supposing even that we were the cruelest and harshest of men, yet upon taking a survey of the multitude of our sins, we should for very fear and agony be unable to remember the injury done by others towards ourselves. Bear in mind the river of fire; the envenomed worm; the fearful Judgment, where all things shall be naked and open! Reflect, that what are now hidden things, are then to be brought to light! But shouldest thou pardon thy neighbor all these sins which till then await their disclosure are done away with here; and when thou shalt depart this life, thou wilt not drag after thee any of that chain of transgressions; so that thou receivest greater things than thou givest.”
Patience is the opposite of despondency: as Evagrius, one of the Desert Fathers, teaches, “Man’s patience gives birth to hope; good hope will glorify him.”
St. Ephraim also prays for a spirit of love. St. Paul describes true love:
“Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up; does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil; does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails” (1 Corinthians 13:4-8).
St. John Chrysostom summarizes the necessity of defeating sin with love:
“Love for one another makes us immaculate. There is not a single sin, which the power of love, like fire, would not destroy. It is easier for feeble brushwood to withstand a powerful fire than for the nature of sin to withstand the power of love. Let us increase this love in our souls, in order to stand with all the saints, for they, too, all pleased God well by love for their neighbors.”
It is for this reason that St. Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna in the second century, says, “He that has love is far from every sin.”
The greatest commandment of God is, “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind” (Matthew 22:37; Deuteronomy 6:5). St. Tikhon, an eighteenth century bishop of Zadonsk in Russia, teaches how you can determine if you love God more than yourself:
1. God Himself indicates this, saying, “He that hath My commandments and keepeth them, he it is that loveth Me” (John 14:21). For the true lover of God will preserve himself from everything that is repugnant to God, and hastens to fulfill everything that is pleasing to God. Wherefore he keeps His holy commandments.
2. A manifest sign of love for God is a heartfelt gladness in God, for we rejoice in what we love.
3. The true lover of God disdains the world and all that is in the world, and strives toward God, his most beloved. He counts honor, glory, riches, and all the comforts of this world which the sons of this age seek, as nothing. For him only God, the uncreated and most beloved good, suffices. In Him alone he finds perfect honor, glory, riches and comfort.
4. The true lover of God keeps God ever in mind, and His love toward us and His benefactions.
5. One who loves, desires never to be separated from the one he loves… Likewise the true lover of Christ is he who abides with Christ in this world, and cleaves to Him in his heart, and uncomplainingly endures the cross with Him, and desires to be with Him inseparably in the age to come.
6. A sign of the love of God is love for neighbor. He who truly loves God also loves his neighbor.
The second great commandment is, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:38; Leviticus 19:18). St. Maximos the Confessor explains the impact that our love for others has on our relationship with God:
“Let us love one another, and we shall be loved by God. Let us be longsuffering toward one another, and He will be longsuffering toward our sins. Let us not render evil for evil, and He will not render to us according to our sins. We shall find remission of our transgressions in forgiving our brethren; for God’s mercy toward us is concealed in our mercifulness toward our neighbor. This is also why the Lord said: Forgive, and ye shall be forgiven. And if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. After this, our salvation is already in our power.”
St. Ephraim’s final request is the ability to see his own errors, and to refrain from judging others. In the article, “Am I Judgmental?” you can see this quotation from Lorenzo Scupoli:
“Never allow yourself boldly to judge your neighbor; judge and condemn no one…rather have compassion and pity for him, but let his example be a lesson in humility to you; realizing that you too are extremely weak and as easily moved to sin as dust on the road, say to yourself: ‘He fell today, but tomorrow I shall fall.’“
The purpose for all this is stated at the very end of the prayer: to participate in a full relationship with Him Who is “blessed unto ages of ages.”