When it comes to Lent, we in the Roman Church – despite our belief to the contrary – inhabit a middle ground when it comes to our observances of penitential traditions. To the one side are those who belong to Christian communions who take a more lax approach, one based more on personal piety rather than institutional expectation. To the other side are those groups who take Lenten practices very seriously – very seriously. I refer here to all those in the Orthodox East and all Eastern Rite Catholics.
Every Lent I re-familiarize myself with what it takes to navigate through the penitential waters of those whose ancestors did not come from Western Europe. My desire is to tap into my Slavic side, and live these forty days as my maternal forbearers did. And each year I put into practice the words of Jesus when He found Peter, James and John asleep in the Garden, “the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.”
The first indication that I am in over my head is the name that the East has given to this liturgical season: the Great Lent, the Great Forty Days, or the Great Fast. In addition, there is a two week pre-Lenten fast to prepare for the Great Fast. To ponder all of the various rules and regulations that can be observed would be head-spinning, so let it suffice that it could be said that vegans would find this diet to be a bit too strict. [On a lighter note, amidst the rigorous restrictions on animal flesh of all kinds – land, air, and sea – there is an allowance made for those who enjoy octopus.]
So, rather than resign myself to two days of great austerity and about six weeks of disappointment and shame at my inability to adhere to the Great Fast for more than two days I’ve decided to take a different approach this year. Instead of focusing on the Eastern practices of fasting I am incorporating one of their Lenten prayer traditions – the Prayer of St. Ephrem.
Known as St. Ephrem the Syrian, this monk and theologian of the 4th Century is revered in the East (as well as the West, where he is lesser known), and is for the Byzantine world the patron of spiritual guides. His famous prayer is seen to be the finest summary of the spirit of the Great Lent and its recitation, both in public liturgies and in private devotions, is universally practiced in the Oriental Churches.
There are versions of the prayer in Greek as well as in various Slavonic languages, and no translation seems to be definitive, but in each case the prayer carries the same Lenten message of turning from sin and striving for personal virtue. The prayer’s theme of taking the plank from my own eye rather than concentrating on the speck in the eye of my neighbor is relevant no matter the season, but especially in Lent as we are called to personal conversion and change of heart.
The Prayer of St. Ephrem can be said any time throughout the day, but those in the East make use of this simple devotion at the beginning of each period of daily prayer throughout Lent. Accompanying the prayer is a series of prostrations or bows, and many of the faithful also add the Jesus Prayer (“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner”) to this devotion.
Since all Christians are called to focus on the spiritual life during Lent and since the rigors of Eastern fasting practices are way beyond most of us weaklings in the West, it might not be a bad idea to follow the lead of the Byzantines and include this prayer in our daily Lenten practices. Or, we could do a real penance and order the octopus.
Prayer of St. Ephrem
O Lord and Master of my life,
take from me the spirit of laziness,
meddling, ambition, and vain talk.
But give me a spirit of prudence,
humility, patience, and love.
Yes Lord and King
Grant me to see my faults
And not judge my brother.
For You are Blessed forever and ever. Amen.