Revisiting Some Archived Articles that Have Not Been Lost, but May Have Been Forgotten and Are Worth a Fresh Read
Original Post Date: April 1, 2014
Easter is almost upon us! But before we can celebrate Easter we must first pass through the forty days before Easter, known as Lent. Recently, I was reading a book by Alexander Schmemann titled Great Lent: Journey to Pascha and in this book Schmemann describes Lent as a season of preparation. We prepare ourselves to join Christ at the Passover, die with Him on the cross and rejoice in the regenerate man in the resurrection. So the question arises: what could I possibly need to purge from myself before I can participate in Christ’s Passover, crucifixion, and resurrection? Well, luckily we can look to some Lenten traditions for the answer.
St. Ephrem’s prayer is often noted as one of the most significant prayers of the Lenten season and it goes something like this:
O Lord and Master of my life!
Take from me the spirit of sloth,
faintheartedness, 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.
The reason this prayer is so significant in Lent is because it embodies the spirit of purging sin and seeking righteousness. The vices and virtues listed in this prayer initially seem random and scattered, but if you really take time to consider each of the vices and virtues it becomes apparent, the massive gravity this prayer has on us as Christians.
The first vice we will mention is sloth. Now sloth is considered by the church fathers to be the basic disease of the soul (Schmemann 34). Sloth is defined as passivity and laziness of the soul that literally asks, “What for?” In the face of spiritual challenges it does not see the point in pursuing anything uncomfortable. Sloth is the beginning of a swift decline into faintheartedness, which is the second of the vices.
Faintheartedness is where things get nasty. A result of faintheartedness is despondency and the church fathers consider despondency to be the greatest danger of the soul (Schmemann 35). The church fathers thought this because whenever we lose strength of heart and sink into despondency, we lose the ability to seek the light and desire it.
Lust of power is what naturally proceeds from the combination of sloth and faintheartedness. Because we are humans we do not stop looking for something with which to fill ourselves even when we can no longer see the light. Rather than acknowledging our own brokenness we seek fulfillment in power. A consequence of this lust for power is the subordination of all other beings to us and our desires. If God is not the Lord and Master of my life then I become the lord and master of my life, the center of my own universe in which I am superior to all other beings. Everyone becomes a means to an end for my own satisfaction.
The final vice of which we cry to be cleansed is idle talk. Many of the church fathers saw speech as a divine seal on mankind, as a seal of sanctification. The gift of speech is an incredible blessing for mankind and has power to build up life and to encourage; unfortunately, when we are caught up in these vices our speech becomes idle, it becomes destructive; worst of all, when we speak idly, it reinforces the other three vices in our lives.
Before we move into the virtues that we long for, it is important to take a moment to acknowledge our brokenness. These vices are what we are. These vices are fallen man. Alone we cannot motivate ourselves out of sloth, we cannot strengthen our own faint hearts, we cannot quench our own lust for power. We are broken. This is the beginning of the Lenten season. This is the acknowledgement of our need, our overwhelmingly unnoticed, exceedingly underestimated fallenness that we cannot overcome. But there is good news. God has made a way for us through His Son, a way to respond to the call, “Be ye holy, for I am holy” (1 Peter 1:16, KJV).
The first of these virtues is chastity. Chastity in our culture often bears connotations of a sexual nature—chastity as the opposite of sexual depravity (Schmemann 36). However, chastity is so much more than that. Chastity actually means something closer to complete wholeness of body and spirit, the opposite of a slothful being.
The first virtue that proceeds from chastity is humility (Schmemann 36). Humility is the first fruit of utter wholeness in our being restored. Humility is the victory of truth in our hearts; the removal of all the lies in which we choose to live. It is knowing that we do not know. Only with humility can we embrace the next virtue.
The third virtue is patience. Natural or fallen man is impatient, he is quick to judge and condemn others (Schmemann 37). Now, get this next quote, “Having but a broken, incomplete, and distorted knowledge of everything, he measures all things by his tastes and his ideas.” How many things do you think you know? In patience we can truly see things for what they are because God clears us of our standards of reality and substitutes them for His. The result of this is an infinite respect for others, because we see them as God sees them. This is the opposite of lust for power.
Finally, the crowning virtue is love. Love is the pinnacle of all Christian virtue, toward which all the other virtues point. It is the ultimate fulfillment of the law that Jesus lays down in the New Testament: to love the Lord our God and our neighbor. Love seems to me not so much a virtue in and of itself, but the consummation of all other virtues, the fullness of the kingdom of God—that is love.
During this season of Lent, I challenge you to remember the sacrifice that your Savior made for you. Also, I challenge you to sacrifice all of these vices and strive for purification in the knowledge of a gracious God who hears our cries, is whole in our brokenness, and calls us to be holy as He is holy.