Sermon by Father Macarius
12 April 2011
Understanding the Lenten Prayer
Sermon by Father Macarius
First Saturday of Great Lent
Great Martyr Theodore the Recruit
March 26, 2011
Holy Trinity Church in Astoria, NY
In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
[...] We’ve just finished the first week of Lent and it’s a time of increased spiritual awareness and, of course, the fast restriction in certain foods and so forth. But it should be one where prayer and introspection is paramount.
Of all the lenten hymns and prayers, one short prayer could be termed the Lenten Prayer. It is traditional, and probably one of the great teachers of spiritual life is Saint Ephraim the Syrian. Here is the text:
“O Lord and Master of my life, take from me the spirit of sloth, faint heartedness, and lust for 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 the ages of ages. Amen.”
This prayer is read twice at the end of each Lenten service Monday through Friday, not on Saturdays and Sundays because on these days on Sundays we celebrate the Resurrection and Saturdays the Sabbath and the fast is restricted. At first reading of this, a prostration follows each petition and at the end we bow also 12 times and say, “O God, cleanse me a sinner.” And the entire prayer is repeated with one final prostration at the end.
And why does this short 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 say, a checklist for the individual Lenten effort. This effort is aimed first at our liberation from such fundamental spiritual diseases which shape our life and make it virtually impossible for us to even to start turning ourselves to God. Getting back to the word prostration, in the Greek, metania, means to change one’s mind. So by passing from an erect position to one bowing you are changing your mind also with your body. The basic disease of speaking of sloth which is a strange combination of laziness and passivity and our entire being which always pushes us down rather than up which constantly convinces us no change is possible, and therefore desirable. It is a fact that deeply-rooted cynicism which to every spiritual challenge responds, “What for?” and makes our lives difficult at its very source. The result of sloth is faint-heartedness – this is a state of despondency which all spiritual fathers consider the greatest danger for the soul. Despondency is the impossibility for man to see anything good or positive. It is a 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 a suicide of the soul because when man is possessed by it, he is unable to see the light or desire it. Also it matches his lust for power. Strange as it may seem, it is precisely sloth and despondency that fill our life with lust for power by vitiating the entire attitude to our life and making it meaningless and empty, they force us to seek compensation and a radically wrong attitude towards other persons. If my life is not oriented to God nor aimed at eternal values, it will inevitably become selfish, self-centered and this means that all things 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 judgment. The lust for power is thus a fundamental depravity in my relationship to other beings, a search for their subordination to me. It does not necessarily express the actual urge to co-manage others and may result as well in indifference, contempt, lack of interest and respect. It is indeed sloth and despondency directed this time at others that 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 the Fathers see it as the very seal of the divine image in man because God himself has revealed his Word as in the first chapter of the Gospel of John. But being the supreme gift, it is by the same token the supreme danger being the very expression of man. The means of his fulfillment is for this very reason the means of his fall and self-destruction of a trail of sins - the word saves and the word kills, the word inspires and the word poisons, the Word is the means of Truth and is the means of demonic lie. Having ultimate positive power is, therefore, tremendous negative power. It creates negatively when it deviates from its divine origin and purpose. The word becomes idle and forces sloth and despondency, and lust for power, and transforms life into 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 described 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 often and as erroneously done only to sexual connotation, it is understood as the positive counterpart of sloth. Exact and full translations of the Greek sofrosini and the Russian tselomoodrie ought to be whole-mindedness. Sloth is the 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 use to mean by chastity the virtue opposed to sexual depravities, it is because the broken character of our existence is nowhere better manifested than in sexual lust, the alienation of the body from the light that controls the spirit.
Christ restores wholeness in us and He does so by restoring to 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 seeing God’s majesty and goodness in love and everything. That’s 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 condemn others. Having but a broken, incomplete and distorted knowledge of everything, he measures all things by his tastes and ideas, being indifferent to everyone except himself, he wants life to be successful right here and now. Patience, however, is a truly divine virtue. God is patient not because he is indulgent, but because he sees the depth of all that exists and 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 a proper quality of God.
Finally, the crown of all virtues, all of growth and effort is Love. That love, 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 to the concluding petition of the Lenten prayer in which we ask to see our own errors and not to judge my brother.
But, ultimately, there is but one danger – pride. Pride is the source of evil and all evil is pride. 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, are the cover of humility and self-accusation and can lead to a truly demonic pride. 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, we make a prostration. As I said, prostrations are not limited to the prayer of Saint Ephraim, but can consequently be the distinctive characteristic of the entire length of 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, of 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 an expression and light of spirit. As a temple, the price is the human soul. To be a Christian, in a sense, 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. Prostration is a sign of repentance and humility, of adoration and obedience are thus a lenten rite of par excellence. And in the Pre-Sanctified Liturgy a hymn reads: “Let us abstain from sin as we abstain from food.” Amen.