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A Lenten Series by: Ryan Birjoo ‘11
“O Lord and Master of my life grant me not the spirit of sloth, despair, lust for power or idle talk. But grant on to me, Thy servant, and a spirit of chastity, humility, patience and love. Yea, o Lord and King, grant me to see mine own fault and not to judge my brothers. For blessed art Thou unto ages of ages.”
This prayer, traditionally attributed to St. Ephraim and often accompanied with prostrations, is a Lenten staple of Catholic and Orthodox churches that use the Byzantine Rite. It is a microcatechism of beautiful spiritual fruits that can be cultivated in the Lenten season. St. Ephraim (306-373 A.D.) was a deacon in Edessa (currently Urfa, Turkey) whose musical genius led to the composition of many beautiful hymns and poems that promoted orthodox Christian belief. After a colorful youth, he spent the majority of his life in a state of joyful penitence, a state which encapsulates a Christian’s experience when Lent is fully embraced. (Many of St. Ephrem’s hymns have survived and some can be found at http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/3702.htm)
In the first part of this reflection, I would like to touch on the topic of Lent as a “sacred time”. Why does the Church set aside this time, year after year, age after age for the faithful to prepare for the Paschal mystery that will unfold during the Easter season? There are many answers to this question but I believe that the first petition of St. Ephraim’s prayer, which asks for release from sloth and despair yields an answer that is particularly suited to the temperament of our age. St. Ephraim would have recognized that both sloth and despair have their root in acedia, a vice deemed by the desert fathers to be the most toxic of spiritual afflictions.
In “Acedia and Me: A Marriage, Monks and a Writer’s Life”, spiritual writer Kathleen Norris defines acedia as a state of spiritual indifference that ultimately leads one to despair rather than hope and claims that this “sorrow of the world” (St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica II-II Q. 35 www.newadvent.org/summa/3035.htm) is characteristic of our own times. In joining our will to St. Ephraim’s petition for the removal of sloth and despair, we can see that Lent ultimately reminds us that God is the Lord of time and is present at all times and places. Lent restores to us the virtue of hope by making present the God who through the humanity of Christ Jesus entered time and whose Spirit vivifies and renews creation.
In the forthcoming two parts of this reflection, I will attempt to mine the spiritual nuggets contained within the prayer of St. Ephraim and share them as lenses for making sense of each of the traditional Lenten practices of prayer, fasting and almsgiving. Ultimately, I would like to show that Lent is about making space for the Lord to remove the barriers that separate us from Him and each other so that we can fully live out the Christian vocation to love God and neighbor.
Ryan Birgoo ’11 is an engineering major who is now a graduate student slated to graduate in June. He was confirmed at Aquinas House. He originally hails from Trinidad and Tobago.