Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
Let us begin the fast with joy!
Let us prepare ourselves for spiritual efforts!
Let us cleanse our soul and cleanse our flesh!
Let us abstain from every passion as we abstain from food!
Let us rejoice in virtues of the Spirit and fulfill them in love,
that we all may see the Passion of Christ our God,
and rejoice in spirit at the Holy Pascha!
- Vespers, Monday of the First Week of Lent
With these words, the Church opens the door and invites us to begin our Lenten journey
that will lead us to the celebration of the Lord’s Resurrection. As we sing these
words, we are struck by the positive nature of this invitation which expresses the
attitude we are to have as we begin these weeks of prayer and fasting.
Clearly, the Church invites and encourages us to begin the Great Fast with a spirit
of joy. Indeed, as part of the Forgiveness Vespers Service with which we begin Great
Lent, a selection of verses from the Paschal Canon is sung as a reminder of the joy
that awaits us at the end of the Fast.
It is the Day of Resurrection! Let us be radiant, O people! Pascha! The Lord's Pascha!
For Christ our God has brought us from death to life, and from earth unto heaven,
as we sing triumphant hymns!
Let us purify our senses and we shall behold Christ, radiant with inaccessible light
of the Resurrection, and shall hear Him saying clearly, "Rejoice!" As we sing the
As we enter into Great Lent, it’s not unusual, however, for the initial joy we feel
and the sense of anticipation with which we begin the Lenten fast to soon turn to
tedium, to a sense of boredom or burden, or to a longing for the Fast to soon end
so we can return to regular schedules, regular menus, and to “things as usual.” However,
the Church calls our attention to the fact that the joy we feel while also feeling
the weight, soberness, and somberness of the season are not mutually exclusive. Rather,
they easily co-exist. For, in the end, Lent with its penitential practices and emphasis
is really a time for us to recognize who we are and how we stand before the Lord:
sinners who have missed the mark, but also sinners who are redeemed through the
Paschal Mystery of Our Lord Jesus Christ. Lent invites us to embrace the Cross while
looking ahead to the Empty Tomb and the joy of the Resurrection.
May this Great Lent be a time for each one of us to respond to the Lord’s call to
“Repent and believe the Gospel” (Mark 1:15). Through our fasting, prayer, participation
in the Divine Services, and reaching out to those in need, we repent. We grow in
holiness. We turn from sin and turn to Christ. We die to self to rise with Christ.
As we joyfully enter into this Holy Season of Prayer, Reflection, Repentance and
Penance, let us pray for the whole Church, for all our brothers and sisters in Christ
throughout the world. May this Lent be a time of grace in which God leads us, in
union with the Crucified and Risen Lord, through the experience of the desert to
the joy and hope brought by Christ’s Holy Resurrection.
With love in the Lord,
The Lenten Prayer of St Ephrem the Syrian
By Protopresbyter Alexander Schmemann
Of all lenten hymns and prayers, one short prayer can be termed the lenten prayer.
Tradition ascribes it to one of the great teachers of spiritual life - St. Ephrem
the Syrian. Here is its text:
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
This prayer is read twice at the end of each lenten service Monday through Friday
(not on Saturdays and Sundays for, as we shall see later, the services of these days
do not follow the lenten pattern). At the first reading, a prostration follows each
petition. Then we all bow twelve times saying: "O God, cleanse me a sinner." The
entire prayer is repeated with one final prostration at the end.
Why does this short and simple prayer occupy such an important position in the entire
lenten worship? Because it enumerates in a unique way all the "negative" and "positive"
elements of repentance and constitutes, so to speak, a "check list" for our individual
lenten effort. This effort 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.
The basic disease is sloth. It is that strange laziness and passivity of our entire
being which always pushes us "down" rather than "up" -- which constantly convinces
us that no change is possible and therefore desirable. It is in fact a deeply rooted
cynicism which to every spiritual challenge responds "what for?" and makes our life
one tremendous spiritual waste. It is the root of all sin because it poisons the
spiritual energy at its very source.
The result of sloth is faint-heartedness. It is the state of despondency which all
spiritual Fathers considered the greatest danger for the soul. Despondency is the
impossibility for man to see anything good or positive; it is the reduction of everything
to negativism and pessimism. It is truly a demonic power in us because the Devil
is fundamentally a liar. He lies to man about God and about the world; he fills life
with darkness and negation. Despondency is the suicide of the soul because when man
is possessed by it he is absolutely unable to see the light and to desire it.
Lust of power! Strange as it may seem, it is precisely sloth and despondency that
fill our life with lust of power. By vitiating the entire attitude toward life and
making it meaningless and empty, they force us to seek compensation in, a radically
wrong attitude toward other persons. If my life is not oriented toward God, not aimed
at eternal values, it will inevitably become selfish and selfcentered 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. The lust of power is thus a fundamental depravity
in my relationship to other beings, a search for their subordination to me. It is
not necessarily expressed in the actual urge to command and to dominate "others."
It may result as well in indifference, contempt, lack of interest, consideration,
and respect. It is indeed sloth and despondency directed this time at others; it
completes spiritual suicide with spiritual murder.
Finally, idle talk. Of all created beings, man alone has been endowed with the gift
of speech. All Fathers see in it the very "seal" of the Divine Image in man because
God Himself is revealed as Word (John, 1:1). But being the supreme gift, it is by
the same token the supreme danger. Being the very expression of man, the means of
his self-fulfillment, it is for this very reason the means of his fall and self-destruction,
of betrayal and sin. The word saves and the word kills; the word inspires and the
word poisons. The word is the means of Truth and it is the means of demonic Lie.
Having an ultimate positive power, it has therefore a tremendous negative power.
It truly creates positively or negatively. When deviated from its divine origin and
purpose, the word becomes idle. It "enforces" sloth, despondency, and lust of power,
and transforms life into hell. It becomes the very power of sin.
These four are thus the negative "objects" of repentance. They are the obstacles
to be removed. But God alone can remove them. Hence, the first part of the lenten
prayer; this cry from the bottom of human helplessness. Then the prayer moves to
the positive aims of repentance which also are four.
Chastity! If one does not reduce this term, as is so often and erroneously done,
only to its sexual connotations, it is 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. If we usually mean by chastity the virtue opposed to sexual depravity,
it is because the broken character of our existence is nowhere better manifested
than in sexual lust -- the alienation of the body from the life and control of the
spirit. Christ restores wholeness in us and He does so by restoring in us the true
scale of values by leading us back to God.
The first and wonderful fruit of this wholeness or chastity is humility. We already
spoke of it. It is above everything else the victory of truth in us, the elimination
of all lies in which we usually live. Humility alone is capable of truth, of seeing
and accepting things as they are and therefore of seeing God's majesty and goodness
and love in everything. This is why we are told that God gives grace to the humble
and resists the proud.
Chastity and humility are naturally followed by patience. The "natural" or "fallen"
man is impatient, for being blind to himself he is quick to judge and to condemn
others. Having but a broken, incomplete, and distorted knowledge of everything, he
measures all things by his tastes and his ideas. Being indifferent to everyone except
himself, he wants life to be successful right here and now. Patience, however, is
truly a divine virtue. God is patient not because He is "indulgent," but because
He sees the depth of all that exists, because the inner reality of things, which
in our blindness we do not see, is open to Him. The closer we come to God, the more
patient we grow and the more we reflect that infinite respect for all beings which
is the proper quality of God.
Finally, the crown and fruit of all virtues, of all growth and effort, is love --
that love which, as we have already said, can be given by God alone-the gift which
is the goal of all spiritual preparation and practice.
All this is summarized and brought together in the concluding petition of the lenten
prayer in which we ask "to see my own errors and not to judge my brother." For ultimately
there is but one danger: pride. Pride is the source of evil, and all evil is pride.
Yet it is not enough for me to see my own errors, for even this apparent virtue can
be turned into pride. Spiritual writings are full of warnings against the subtle
forms of pseudo-piety which, in reality, under the cover of humility and self-accusation
can lead to a truly demonic pride. But when we "see our own errors" and "do not judge
our brothers," when, in other terms, chastity, humility, patience, and love are but
one in us, then and only then the ultimate enemy--pride--will be destroyed in us.
After each petition of the prayer we make a prostration. Prostrations are not limited
to the Prayer of St. Ephrem but constitute one of the distinctive characteristics
of the entire lenten worship. Here, however, their meaning is disclosed best of all.
In the long and difficult effort of spiritual recovery, the Church does not separate
the soul from the body. The whole man has fallen away from God; the whole man is
to be restored, the whole man is to return. The catastrophe of sin lies precisely
in the victory of the flesh -- the animal, the irrational, the lust in us -- over
the spiritual and the divine. But the body is glorious; the body is holy, so holy
that God Himself "became flesh." Salvation and repentance then are not contempt for
the body or neglect of it, but restoration of the body to its real function as the
expression and the life of spirit, as the temple of the priceless human soul. Christian
asceticism is a fight, not against but for the body. For this reason, the whole man
- soul and body - repents. The body participates in the prayer of the soul just as
the soul prays through and in the body. Prostrations, the "psycho-somatic" sign of
repentance and humility, of adoration and obedience, are thus the lenten rite par