Dear Friends in Christ,
As I write this message, we’ve already celebrated two Sundays of Lent, and the Sunday of the Holy Cross is approaching. Lent is thus almost halfway over. Lent is truly a time of joyful mourning, where we are reminded through fasting and penance of our sinful nature, while at the same time anticipating the joy of Pascha, where all things are renewed, and we experience a foretaste of the Resurrection that we all shall experience at the end of time.
During Lent, we add a special prayer to the end of our morning and evening prayers, called the Prayer of Saint Ephraim. This prayer is a succinct summary of the goal of our Lenten struggles. I’d like to quote it in its three sections, with some humble observations.
O Lord and Master of my life, a spirit of idleness, curiosity, ambition, and idle talk give me not.
Christ the Lord is the Master of all creation; the same God who said “Let there be light” (Genesis 1) was present in the Burning Bush speaking to Moses (Exodus 3). “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament proclaimeth the work of His hands” says David in Psalm 18 (19). “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” testifies St. John of Christ. St. Thomas exclaimed to Christ, “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28). St. Paul testifies that “For in him dwelleth all the fulness of the Godhead bodily” (Colossians 2:9). This God who took flesh suffered on the Cross for our sake, and shows himself to be a suffering servant (Isaiah 53). We are given free choice to follow Him and place our trust in Him; we are called to model our life on His. For this reason, the Prayer of Saint Ephraim starts off by asking God to remove some obstacles to our attaining the likeness of Christ.
Idleness is a common problem in our world. We always hear about people being busy, but often this is the product of our attempts to hide the true state of things through needless activity. We are often idle at home, watching hours of television. We might procrastinate. Our pursuits are idle if they do not lead towards the goal of union with God. This is not to say that we can never relax; but rather, our rest should be a rest from work that is pleasing to God at all times, and which contributes to our salvation.
Curiosity is the bane of our modern world. Reality TV is infectious, and while some offerings are neutral, many of the programs we see are doctored, increasing the dramatic factor. We live vicariously through those who are more intrepid, and we are always interested in what others are doing. We know it’s a sin to “keep up with the Joneses,” but one would not feel compelled to keep up with them if he did not already have an unhealthy curiosity in the Joneses to begin with.
Ambition here refers not to a strong work ethic, but to attaining more property, often at the expense of others. Christ lived a life of excellence, as did His Apostles. St. Paul worked a vocation. But their ambition was always towards Christ; towards winning souls. If we do not feel a stronger compulsion to purify ourselves of sin and bring our friends in to the Church, then we are falling short and misplacing our ambition. Ambition is never satisfied with the current blessings, but always is looking for future material rewards. In this, we shall find no peace.
Idle talk is on the rise in this time of instant communications. Many of us use applications such as Facebook, myself included. But we must be careful how we express ourselves and what we say. Sometimes, it is better to say nothing. There is not always a need to be commenting or speaking. The key is to be judicious in our speech, restrained and choosing when to speak. In this way we will be in full control of our tongue, and not fall in to gossip.
But rather a spirit of chastity, humility, patience, and love bestow upon me Thy servant.
Now having addressed some obstacles, the prayer sets forth the vision. Chastity is the great virtue of being in full control. Moderate in speech, in food, restrained in our use of God-given sexuality. We hear, “everything is good in moderation.” No, it is not. Some things are good, and some things are bad. The good must be enjoyed in moderation, and the bad must be avoided completely. The conscience is our guide, along with frequent confession and communion. Chastity produces virtue; a person whom we recognize as being truly alive, and not subject to the whims of this world. Any young people who read this, reflect on the self-image you present in your school, to your friends, and online. Strive to be the person that everyone looks up to as a model of stability.
Humility and patience go hand in hand; to be truly humble we must be patient, and to be patient we must humble ourselves. Remember that you are not the true Master of your life, and that God is in control. Treat each person with love, even when they hurt you (without, however, giving in to abuse). Humility is knowing when to stay quiet even when we are wronged. Patience is waiting for someone to turn around.
When we have chastity, humility, and patience, then love will be bestowed on us. Love is a self-sacrifice, the gift of God to mankind. This love will allow us to work harder for our children’s sake; it will allow us to wake up early on Sunday to come to the Church and help out; it will provoke us to give freely of our resources to help others. Love is the opposite of lust; lust involves our desiring something for ourselves, while love is our desire to share ourselves for others’ sake.
Yea, O Lord King, grant me to see my own failings and not to condemn my brother, for blessed art Thou unto the ages of ages. Amen.
Finally, having seen the obstacles and the vision, the nuts and bolts are presented. We will achieve the vision and avoid the obstacles, by looking at our own failings, and not noticing others’. God looks past our failings every day, and if we want to be saved, we must forgive others. Let us not be like the wicked servant, who was forgiven and did not forgive (Matthew 18). When someone falls, let’s reach out our hands to them and pick them up, not scorn them. There is no place for, “I told you so!” in Christianity. There is only a place for the Shepherd, who stopped at nothing to find the lost sheep (Luke 15). Christianity is not a simple belief system; but its tenets can be practiced by all easily. We have three more weeks in Lent; let’s say the Prayer of Saint Ephraim twice (or more) a day, and put it in to practice. We do not condemn others, but bless God in so doing.