by Rev. Fr. Eugen Rose
After the Lord’s Prayer, the prayer of St. Ephraim is one of the most perfect and beautiful of the Church’s prayers. In simple and yet comprehensive words, the prayer reminds us about what is necessary in our relationship with God and with our neighbor. One could say that the prayer is a Philokalia* in miniature, valid for monks and laymen, for men and women, for old and young, for everyone and everywhere, just as the “Our Father” is a universal prayer.
Let’s consider this great prayer:
0 Lord and Master of my life,
Take from me the spirit of laziness, despair, lust of power and idle talk.
But give rather the spirit of chastity, humility, patience and love to your servant.
0 Lord and king, grant me to see my own sins and not to judge my brother, for blessed are you to the ages of ages. Amen.
We ask for help that we might be able to fight with the spirit of laziness. This spirit fights against work. Through our work we must gather our daily food. This spirit wants to separate us from God “who always works.” Also, it is said: “My Father is working still, and I am working” (John 5:17); and St. Paul says: “If anyone will not work, let him not eat” (II Thessalonians 3:10). This ‘spirit’ drives us to the exploitation of other men’s work, then to robbery and crime.
We ask to fight with the spirit of despair, which tries to disperse and scatter our attention to unimportant things, thereby ignoring the “one thing needful” (Luke 10:41). Jesus revealed this to Martha in the house of Lazarus in Bethany. This ‘spirit’ wastes our minds and hearts, making us slaves of our daily cares.
We ask for help to fight the spirit of the lust of power. This spirit removes humility from us and deludes us into believing that we have the right to govern others. Thus, we begin to feed our egotism, vanity and double-dealing. Jesus told James and John who asked to govern with Him in the eternal kingdom: “You do not know what you are asking” (Mark 10:38). They thought that He was speaking about an earthly kingdom. “Whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave” (Matthew 20:26-27). This spirit attempts to pull man from communion with God and people.
We ask to fight against the spirit of idle talk. “Let your ‘yes’ mean ‘yes’ and your ‘no’ mean ‘no’. Anything more than this comes from the evil one” (Matthew 5:37). St. Paul warns against this spirit, saying that all who listen and follow this spirit are “liars, wicked beasts, gluttonous idlers” (Titus 1:12) and “inclined to wander into myths” (ii Timothy 4:4)
On the other hand, we ask for the spirit of chastity, humility, patience and love. By “spirits”, we mean angels who have the power to help our minds and our feelings, and give us enough power to protect ourselves from the evil spirits which attack us.
The spirit of chastity is guardian of the mind and body against the earthly sins, those which first of all are made in the mind and stain the soul. The spirit of chastity is the way to confession, to purification of the soul and the heart. We ask for the spirit of chastity in order to cleanse our own soul’s house for victory over the spirit of impurity.
We pray for the spirit of humility, for our protection against vanity and double-dealing. The humble thought is exactly that which recognizes the limits which it cannot pass over. Humility allows people to be open. From humility alone springs the pure water of modesty. From lowly modesty, no one can fall.
The spirit of patience encourages us in illness, when we are insulted and when others walk over us. Patience is the last weapon and power of the downtrodden. It is not a sign of cowardice, nor of despair, but it is the sign of wisdom. The spirit of patience is a good brother of the spirit of wisdom.
We ask to obtain the spirit of love. Love is the Divine part of man, received directly from the Creator, because “God is love” (I John 4:8). Without love, our lives lack sense. Through love, people become strong, they grow together, and they help each other, as St. Paul says in his beautiful hymn of love from I Corinthians 13:1-13.
We ask to see our own sins. This appeal refers to our readiness to confess our hidden sins and be healed.
We ask not to judge my brother. It is hard, but sometimes we forget. The hardest this to do is to not compare ourselves – “God, thank you that I am not like other men…” (Luke 18:11). Who among us can escape from comparisons? When we do something good, we are immediately ready for a comparison, and even condemn someone else who doesn’t do what we do. Often, we classify ourselves as the best, but the ladder of virtues is broken especially when we think and believe that we are on the top.
We recognize in St. Ephraim the Syrian a very good ‘specialist’ of the human soul, and his prayer is a real psychological manual. We feel the prayer’s help; and, it offers us the right way to purify our souls, teaching us to examine ourselves through the most simple words, but also the most sublime words full of the grace of the Holy Spirit. The requests of this prayer are real doors to repentance, reform of life and entrance into the kingdom of heaven.
*The Philokalia (“the love of the beautiful, the exalted, the excellent, understood as the transcendent source of life and the revelation of Truth” – definition from the introduction of Palmer, Sherrard, and Ware’s translation of the original Greek) is a collection of texts by spiritual fathers of the Orthodox Church, writing from the fourth to the fifteenth centuries on the disciplines of Christian prayer and a life dedicated to God.