The prayer of St. Ephraim the Syrian
March 31, 2008
“O Lord and Master of my life, take from me the spirit of sloth, despair, lust of power, and idle talk.
But grant rather a spirit of chastity, humility, patience, and love to me thy servant.
Yea, O Lord and King, grant me to see my own errors, and not to judge my brother, for blessed art thou unto ages of ages. Amen.”
This is the translation of the prayer of St. Ephraim the Syrian (ca. 306-373 A.D.) with which I am most familiar, and which I cite from memory; it is the version commonly in use in the Orthodox Church in America (OCA), i.e., the former Russian Metropolia, as well as in many other Orthodox churches. It is possible that it is based on what is found in Bishop (now Metropolitan) Kallistos Ware’s translation of the Lenten Triodion; unfortunately my copy of this translation is elsewhere at the present moment, so I cannot check up on this (as readers of this blog may know, I am in the process of moving, and my books are scattered in different places).
The prayer of St. Ephraim is said throughout Lent, and only during Lent, in the services of the Orthodox Church; it is one of the treasures of Orthodoxy, as much so, or rather more so, than any gilded icon. It is one of the “apples of gold in pictures of silver” (or rather, “within silver carvings”) of which King Solomon speaks (Prov. 25:11), a word fitly spoken, applicable directly to the human condition, which is why the Church teaches it to her children. The manner in which the prayer is recited varies from place to place, and from service to service, but the general practice is the following: the prayer is first recited verse by verse, with a full prostration after each of the three petitions; then the supplication “God, cleanse me, a sinner!” is repeated twelve times, each time accompanied by a metanoia, i.e., a bow; then the prayer of St. Ephraim is repeated once in full without interruption, with a single prostration at the end of the prayer. Along with the Hymn of St. Cassiana, and the Great Canon of St. Andrew of Crete, and the Akathist Hymn to the Mother of God, and the Presanctified Liturgy of St. Gregory the Dialogist, and the reading aloud of the Life of St. Mary of Egypt, it is something that marks off the season of Lent, for Orthodox Christians, as a special time, a time of preparation for the great feast of the Lord’s Resurrection, a time for self-reflection and purification and renewed commitment to following Christ with one’s whole heart.
St. Ephraim wrote in Syriac; whether an original Syriac version of this prayer is extant, I do not know. The Greek version of the prayer goes like this:
Κύριε καὶ Δέσποτα τῆς ζωῆς μου, πνεῦμα ἀργίας, περιεργείας, φιλαρχίας καὶ ἀργολογίας μή μοι δῷς.
Πνεῦμα δὲ σωφροσύνης, ταπεινοφροσύνης, ὑπομονῆς καὶ ἀγάπης χάρισαί μοι τῷ σῷ δούλῳ.
Ναί, Κύριε, Βασιλεῦ, δώρισαί μοι τοῦ ὁρᾶν τὰ ἐμὰ πταίσματα καὶ μὴ κατακρίνειν τὸν ἀδελφόν μου· ὅτι εὐλογητὸς εἶ εἰς τοὺς αἰῶνας τῶν αἰώνων. Ἀμήν.
The first thing one notices about this Greek version is that there is a rhetorical structure to it that suggests that it was either composed in Greek originally or had a very artful Greek translator. The four feminine, abstract nouns in the first sentence show what students of rhetoric call homœoteleuton, that is to say, they all have the same ending, -(ε)ίας; this is true also of the four feminine, abstract nouns in the second sentence: they all end in -ης, and the first two, more strongly, end in -φροσύνης.
Furthermore, in comparing this version with the standard English translation given above, one may note certain differences. The first one is trivial; the English version translates μή μοι δῷς, which literally means, “do not give me”, as “take from me”; this is evidently chosen purely as a matter of style on the part of the English translator (although someone might argue that, by translating the expression in this way, the implication is given that “the spirit of sloth, despair, lust of power, and idle talk” is something the worshipper already possesses and is trying to get rid of, which, in the case of most of us, is probably true). Arguably more significant is the translation of two of the abstract nouns, περιεργείας in the first sentence and σωφροσύνης in the second one, as “despair” and “chastity” respectively. The literal sense of περιεργείας is something more like “busybodiness,” “meddling,” “nosiness,” “over-curiosity,” “hyperactivity,” activity directed towards no real end aside from the end of staying active, and which often results in one’s dabbling in business that is not properly one’s own. It may be that the spiritual condition underlying such undirected activity is indeed despair (read Kierkegaard’s The Sickness Unto Death), that the reason one wastes one’s time dabbling in business not one’s own is that one’s own proper business seems empty and pointless, and one engages in hyperactivity primarily to escape the dreaded prospect of being alone with one’s unhappy thoughts. The translation of περιεργείας as “despair” might therefore be said to be lexically inaccurate but spiritually precise. My guess is that both it and the translation of σωφροσύνης as “chastity” testify to the existence of a Slavonic version of the prayer, upon which the translation in use in the OCA would presumably be based.
As for σωφροσύνης, this is one of those Greek words for which it is difficult to find an exact English equivalent. The standard translation is “prudence,” but this somehow lacks the power and immediacy of the Greek word. The reason for this, I suspect, is to be seen in the way the Greek word is structured: it is clearly and visibly built upon the verb σώζω, “to save, preserve,” and the noun φρήν, “mind” (originally, the region around the heart, conceived of as the seat of thought and of passions). Literally and visibly, therefore, the word signifies “that which saves the mind.” The clear implication of this word is that we are in danger of losing our minds, and we need a certain quality — σωφροσύνη — in order to preserve our minds and keep us from going mad. Somehow “prudence” fails to convey that sense of imminent danger. The translation of σωφροσύνης as “chastity” probably testifies to the human experience that it is the sexual passions that are most easily productive of madness. Thus, in the Old Testament, the word “fool” (nabal) is often synonymous with “libertine”; see, e.g., the story of Ammon and Tamar, 2 Samuel ch. 13, where Tamar tells her half-brother that, if he proceeds in his intention to rape her, he will be as “one of the fools in Israel” (2 Sam 13:13). There are, of course, many forms of foolishness; one reason why the book of Proverbs is read during Lent is that it catalogues, as it were, the various kinds — not that the Church has any bibliographical devotion to cataloguing as such, but it provides us these examples so that we may recognize, in these various forms of mindlessness, our own specific illnesses. Still, the sexual kind has a kind of primacy of dishonor among them all; and it is doubtless for this reason that the translation “chastity” has been adopted for the Greek σωφροσύνης, again perhaps through a Slavonic intermediary.
So the general structure of the prayer is as follows: The first sentence presents a list of four spiritual qualities (vices) that one wishes to avoid and asks God to remove from oneself; the second sentence presents a list of four spiritual qualities (virtues) that one wishes to acquire and asks God to grant; the final sentence might be said to sum up all that has preceded it, specifying both an essential desideratum and an essential thing to be avoided, followed by a concluding doxology: “Yea, O Lord and King, grant me to see my own πταίσματα (“errors,” more properly, “stumblings,” “failures,” “failings”), and not to judge my brother, for blessed art thou unto ages of ages. Amen.” The essential desideratum is the gift to see one’s own shortcomings; the essential “evertendum” is the habit of finding fault with others. It is a clear echo of the Sermon on the Mount:
Judge not, that ye be not judged.
For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.
And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?
Or how wilt thou say to thy brother, Let me pull out the mote out of thine eye; and, behold, a beam is in thine own eye?
Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye: and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye.
Apparently, Jesus thought that this issue of judging one’s brother was a sufficiently serious one in the life of faith to warrant his returning to it time and again. It is what polluted the prayer of the Pharisee, when he saw the sleazy taxcollector at the back of the church and congratulated himself on being not like him; it is what hardened the heart of the elder brother in the story of the Prodigal Son, so that we are left not knowing if that brother ever actually came in to celebrate his brother’s return; it is what shocked the morally upright members of the community when Jesus associated with harlots and other disreputable persons in his will to call “not the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” It is evidently a continuing problem for all of us. Some will perhaps say that, given the present conditions of society, the opposite problem is more compelling; that is, there is a prevalent philosophical assumption, which has filtered down into popular culture, that holds that there is no real basis for moral judgment at all; that all moral judgments are the result of one’s freely and arbitrarily choosing certain “values” over certain others, and all imposition of one’s chosen values upon other people, who may not themselves share them, is inherently an act of violence. (Of course, if there is no real basis for moral judgment, then there is also no real basis for condemning an act of violence. The anti-moral argument, if it attempts to take a moral high ground, finds itself floating in empty space; it is self-contradictory.) The danger of moral relativism is real, and Jesus, who came not to destroy the law, but to fulfill it, is no exponent of such a philosophy. But could it possibly be that the contrary temptation, which is to see Christianity as simply identical with the moral law, is more insidious and dangerous? St. Paul makes it very clear that, if a law could have been given that, in itself, gave life, then salvation, righteousness, would have been by that method (Galatians 3:21). St. Augustine’s whole polemic against Pelagius was precisely about this very point, that Christianity is not just the moral law with a divine example added to give us an extra incentive. Christianity is the life, love, and power of God, communicated to us through the atoning death and victorious resurrection of God’s Son and the indwelling in us of God’s Holy Spirit. The offer of that life, love, and power of God is extended, not only to the righteous, but to sinners like you and me, so that in Christ we might become righteous. The evidence of a life lived in Christ is of more concrete value to persuading a cynical world of the truth of the gospel than is any philosophizing or theologizing or social criticism; the people who are potentially to hear the word of life want to know if we, who claim to know the Lord, have truly been changed by him; i.e., do we in fact love one another? Undoubtedly, most of us show, in countless ways, that we have not been changed, and are incapable of love; Great Lent provides us an opportunity to work on that. The prayer of St. Ephraim the Syrian is a time-honored, valuable tool in that labor. May God bless that work, may he cast out the beam from our own eyes, so that, as the Lord commands us, we may love our neighbor as ourselves, and be reckoned children of God and sons of peace.