Editor’s Note: June 9 is St. Ephrem the Syrian’s date of death. His feast day is celebrated on different days by different churches.
O Lord and Master of my life, take from me the spirit of … what? Sloth, yes. Sloth, lust, something, and idle talk, something, something and idle talk.
I am driving down Western Avenue in Chicago trying to remember a prayer by heart. I drive this way most days. It’s a speedy through-route to points of interest south of me. Northbound, however, is a nightmare, ever since they decided to take out the bridge that crossed Belmont.
They took out that bridge in a weekend leaving piles of rubble and rock, straggling metal rebar, and miscellaneous signage littering the remains. It took a weekend to demolish the bridge, and bring it down, but so far, it has taken several months to clean it up and start to re-route the confused traffic. Suddenly, the overpass that took the brunt of that traffic is gone, and we are left with one, wide road. The middle lanes are closed to rebuild. We drive on the outer roads, either side of the construction zone, banked up against the chain link fences that keep us out, and the workers in, I suppose.
O Lord, and Master of my life, take from me the spirit of sloth, lust…is it lust? Something, something, idle talk. Yes, idle talk and then give to me something, is next. Give to me, what? Patience perhaps? Why can I not remember it?
I sit in the traffic going north on Western today, and I am stuck in the mash of cars inching along because I forgot. I simply forgot how bad the construction zone was, or maybe I remembered and somewhere in the back of my brain I hoped for something, hoped that perhaps it was better now. I hoped it would be clear. Maybe it would be brand new. What if it’s brand new? How miraculous would that be?
This prayer of St. Ephrem ought to be familiar enough for me to know by memory by now. I have said this prayer every day for the last three years, standing at my prayer corner with candles lit, and sometimes incense burning. I read it from a laminated card with the prayer on one side and the icon of St. Ephrem on the other. He looks stern here, but I know he has a poet’s heart. He has written countless lines, poetry and hymns, sermons, prayers, everything.
St. Ephrem was born during the fourth century in the region of Assyria, what we know today as northern Iraq, northwestern Iran, southeastern Turkey, and eastern Syria. He is a significant figure in the history of the faith, doctor of the Church, theologian, deacon, hymnographer.
In the times during which he was writing, the Christian faith was still relatively young, with only 300 years or so under its religious belt. It seems like a long time — until you place it on a line chart with some of the centuries-old religious practices of the age: Judaism, Hinduism, the pantheism of the early Greeks and Romans.
Old ideas of God were lying in the road still, new roads being shaped and made clean and new. The lines were blurry, the plan uncertain, the traffic was terrible. The work of St. Ephrem — prayers, hymns, poems — were like sign posts for the weary Christian traveler. Here is the road. Keep moving. Have a sip of cool water to keep yourself hydrated. Be patient. Be persistent.
Why can’t I remember it? I should be able to have these words come to me easily, falling from my lips without thinking but I have to think, and the more I try to think of it the less I seem to remember. In the Orthodox Church, we use this prayer during Lent. Each time we say it during Liturgy or Vespers we drop to our knees in full prostrations between each stanza:
O Lord and Master of my life, take from me the spirit of sloth, despair, lust of power, and idle talk. Sign of the cross, forward bow, drop to the knees, forehead to the floor and press back up to standing…
But give rather the spirit of chastity, humility, patience, and love to Thy servant. Sign of the cross, forward bow, drop to the knees, forehead to the floor and press back up to standing…
Yea, O Lord and King, grant me to see my own transgressions, and not to judge my brother. Sign of the cross, forward bow, drop to the knees, forehead to the floor and press back up to standing…
For blessed art Thou, unto ages of ages. Amen.
The prayer comes to us in Lent because it is a season of preparation. We are making ready for this deconstruction and reconstruction, bridges coming down and road opening up. Here is the road. Keep moving. Have a sip of cool water to keep yourself hydrated. Be patient. Be persistent. I say the prayer year round, though, every morning, candles lit, hope springing forth.
I’m frustrated that I forget the words and that I forget things so often. I forget when I’m driving and turn down the wrong street or when I’m at the grocery store and don’t have the list written down before me, or when I’ve missed an appointment because it failed to show up in my calendar. But there, on the small shelf of my prayer corner, I light the candle in the morning, greet the stern face of St. Ephrem of Syria, the one with the poet’s heart, and I read the words aloud, words written at least 1,700 years ago.
The reality is that we are always navigating a kind of spiritual or emotional construction, with rubble and traffic and confusion. It is the prayers that bring us back and show us the way. Of course, Lent is particularly well designed for this practice, but I’d be deceiving myself to think that I’m ever fully free of the confusion. When I lose my way, it’s the practice of prayer that brings me home. Prayer is the water for the parched spirit, the brain that forgets. It points me home again.
Here is the road. Be patient. Be persistent.
I think I’ll get it one day, with time and just enough practice. One day that thought, that prayer, that confusion and congestion will ease, and the road will open up, candles lit, and hope springing forth. And then what if I’m repaired, remade, reconciled? What if I am brand new? How miraculous would that be?