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, 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.”
The first part of this series reflected upon St. Ephraim’s plea for removal of the spirit of sloth and despair. Both of these afflictions were found to have a common root in acedia, a spiritual state that led one to spiritual indifference, despair and sorrow for spiritual good. This second part reflects upon a healing gift of sorrow, penthos, and its connection to the traditional Lenten practice of fasting and its relation to St. Ephraim’s continued prayer for the removal of lust for power and idle talk.
The desert mothers and fathers found the antidote to the toxic affliction of acedia in penthos. In Penthos: The Doctrine of Compunction in the Christian East, Irenee Hausherr S.J., defines penthos as a mourning that occurs over the prospect of losing salvation. We know that salvation is experienced as more than a static one-time event. It is experienced as a dynamic journey, the unfolding of a deepening relationship between God and His children. Penthos is sorrow for anything that obstructs that relationship. The sorrow of penthos belongs to those who have experienced the burning love of God but realize that the hardness of their hearts precludes them from responding as fully as they would like.
The sorrow of penthos is directly opposed to the sorrow of acedia for as much as acedia is rooted in despair of life, penthos is rooted in hope of our resurrection in Jesus Christ. Those afflicted with acedia experience the world through the lenses of ennui. Thanks to penthos we hope and long for an escape from a world that appears to be repetitive. More than a mere escape, penthos empowers the Christian to take reality, especially the present moment as related to one’s hoped-for eternal salvation, quite seriously.
Empowered by penthos, St. Ephraim prays to be free from the spirit of lust for power and idle talk. Lust for power is a disordered desire that is rooted in the illusion of human power. It is always transitory and contrary to the Christian impetus to seek to serve as Jesus Christ served and not to dominate. Also, slandering a brother or sister reduces the slanderer to speak frivolously, if at all, of spiritual things. By freeing oneself from idle talk, one creates opportunity for silence and space to meditate on the truth of Jesus Christ’s saving power.
Lenten fasting, and all bodily mortification, is a time-tested way to create space in which we more fully experience God’s action in our lives while at the same time amounting to a bodily expression of penthos. Fasting highlights the beautiful truth that human beings are both body and soul, which means that the body too has a role to play as we “work out of salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12). The Church has always stressed the fundamental goodness of creation, especially the human body and we know by Jesus Christ’s resurrection that we, body and soul, are given the hope of resurrection.
The final part of this series will reflect the fact that our lives do not subsist in a vacuum but rather in our relationships with God and one another. Through the help of St. Ephraim, it will unpack something of the mystery of the link between prayer and almsgiving.
Ryan Birjoo ’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.