Beyond Virtues & Vices: Ephraim’s Lenten Prayer – Bradley Jersak

In the forty days leading up to Pascha (the Eastern Church’s Passover celebration of Christ’s Passion and Resurrection), we take up the daily discipline of praying “St. Ephraim’s Lenten Prayer.” As I write this post, we’re only just now preparing for the Nativity Feast but Ephraim is on my heart. Upon the recommendation of my godfather, David Goa, I pray these words year-round because they invite me to lean into my freedom in Christ and participate in his grace.

St. Ephraim’s Lenten Prayer

O Lord and Master of my life,
deliver me from a spirit of idleness, despondency, ambition, and vain talk [prostration].
But rather, a spirit of purity, humility, patience, and love bestow on me, your servant. [prostration].

Yea, O Lord and King, grant me to see my own faults and not to judge my brother,
for blessed art though unto the ages of ages. Amen [prostration].

O God, cleanse me a sinner (12x)
[with 12 ‘reverences’ – bowing at the waist with the sign of the cross].

O Lord and Master of my life,
deliver me from a spirit of idleness, despondency, ambition, and vain talk [prostration].
But rather, a spirit of purity, humility, patience, and love bestow on me, your servant [prostration].

Yea, O Lord and King, grant me to see my own faults and not to judge my brother,
for blessed art though unto the ages of ages. Amen. [prostration].

My commentary on this prayer considers the subtle pairings within the prayer, which remind me of the way the church traditionally paired virtues and vices. In the Catholic church, the seven heavenly virtues are chastity, temperance, charity, diligence, patience, kindness, and humility, which are reminiscent of the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5. And these virtues oppose the ‘seven deadly sins of wrath, greed, sloth, pride, lust, envy, and gluttony. Many of these virtues and vices are simply opposites. But in the Lent Prayer of St. Ephraim, I detect subtle truths between the lines of his four appositions. Seeing these does indeed call for my cleansing through the work of the Holy Spirit.

  1. Idleness vs. Purity — Idleness or sloth frequently makes space for mischief in my mind and heart. And in our day, these vices need not be seen as mere inactivity. In my case, idleness can include the search for distractions amid a frenetic pace or overwhelming workload. Rather than seeking authentic rest when I’m weary, I may slump into its counterpart—idleness, which opens the door to impurity. So we pray for deliverance from the spirit of sloth itself, because that’s the soil where cravings and addictions seek to take root. The solution is not willpower or doubling down on busyness. Rather, we ask the Lord for the gift of purity, cleansing the cup from the inside out and filling our minds with whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things (Philippians 4:8).
  2. Despondency vs. Humility — Despondency (also called ‘acedia’ or ‘the noon-day demon’) is sometimes experienced as feelings of depression or apathy. I won’t speak for others, but my own sense is that despondency is better thought of as the kind of lethargy that’s connected to feeling depleted and defeated. There are times when we grieve and are in touch with our sadness. But despondency feels more dangerous to me—as in those times where we numb out and can’t care. I love St. Ephraim’s solution. You don’t dig your way out of the pit of despondency by trying to be your own cheerleader. Fake it ’til you make it isn’t the best route. Instead, it’s more authentic and requires less of your depleted soul strength if instead, you make a lateral move to humility. We confess our need, then open our hands and our hearts to divine mercy.

  3. Ambition vs. Patience — Did you know ambition is a sin? Of course, we understand the goodness of setting goals, showing initiative, venturing out, expanding our horizons, growing forward and upward, and creatively accomplishing good things in our lives and world. That’s all good. But ambition in this context seems connected to impatience, prematurity, pushiness, the need to ‘get ahead’ and to step past, over, or on others to do it. Grandiosity tells us we should be heard more broadly, taken more seriously, and that our brand should be ever-expanding. When we feel that anxious ambition, it’s time to take a deep breath and welcome patience. It really is possible to outrank your own character. Better that we should let our spiritual feet grow before we jump into shoes that are far too big for us and find ourselves taking a nosedive.
  4. Vain Talk vs. Love — What constitutes vain talk? Sure we engage in trivial conversations, fruitless arguments, and coarse jesting. We likely all need to be mindful about how we use speech. But specifically, Ephraim sets ‘vain talking’ over against love. In other words, through years of praying these words, I’ve grown to assume that the primary offense of vain talking in my life is when speaking in unloving ways to or about others. Vain talking includes gossip, slander, judgment, condemnation, and generally what I wouldn’t want to be said about me. Instead, I’d love my speech about others to communicate some aspect of love, even if it’s the self-control of biting my lip.

Those who know me well will recognize that these four points are not areas where I imagine I have arrived. They aren’t virtues I’ve achieved or attained. Rather, they are my frequent petitions, adopted for myself because they are my way of inviting the Holy Spirit’s deliverance and cleansing into my heart and mind. I recognize the truth that I’ve been forgiven, but I am also actively welcoming transformation in the way of my being. These prayers function as a kind of ladder of descent to where I’m able to experience the beginnings of my transformation.

Picture of Brad Jersak

Brad Jersak

Bradley Jersak is an author and teacher based in Abbotsford, BC. He serves as a reader and monastery preacher at All Saints of North America Orthodox Monastery. Read More