Homily One on the Prayer of St. Ephrem

I picked up a new book the other day-homilies of St. Luke (Voino-Yasenetskii), Archbishop of Simferopol, on the prayer of St. Ephrem the Syrian. As I’ve seen very little of St. Luke’s work in English I’ve added this book to the translations for lent list so hopefully I’ll get in one or two a week.

O Lord and Master of my life, a spirit of idleness, despondency, lust for power and idle talk give not unto me.
A spirit of chastity, humble mindedness, patience and love grant unto me, Thy servant.
Yea, O Lord and King, grant me to see mine own faults and not to condemn my brother. For blessed art Thou unto ages of ages. Amen.

You know that this is the prayer of St. Ephrem the Syrian about whom I’ve already told you and a few excerpts of whose great works I have read. Why does the Holy Church devote such an unusually important place to this prayer in the services, and why is it repeated so many times during the services of Lent? This is not without reason; you yourselves feel with your heart the reason. This prayer penetrates into the heart as no other, and you feel its special, exceptional divine power.

Why is this? Because of the fact that it was poured out from a completely purified, perfect, holy heart, from a mind enlightened by the grace of God, which became a participant in the mind of Christ. Therefore this wonderful prayer has such a power, such a mysterious action on the heart of a Christian.

Firstly, it is an extremely important fact that St. Ephrem asks God that He would deliver him from all depravity, which is opposed to God, so that the Lord would grant him virtues, the most important and greatest virtues.

Why does he ask for this? There are people, and they were especially present in the former, pagan times, who in everything depended on themselves and thought that everything is possible with the power of their mind and senses. There are also people now who don’t understand that a lot, and, moreover, the most important, the most precious, the most cherished is not accessible to our mind or senses.

People who understand this remember what the Apostle Paul said, “For what I am doing, I do not know. For what I will to do, that I do not practice; but what I hate, this I do” (Rom. 7:15). So says the great chief of the apostles, admitting his powerlessness to walk according to the path of the good, deeply understanding that his flesh, which pulls him down and does not allow his heart to ascend to God, has huge power over him. He was melancholy and suffered in soul that he did not perform that good which his soul thirsted for, but served that evil which he did not want.

St. Ephrem, deeply aware of this, prayed to God that he would deliver him from the vices and give him the power to do good. We only receive the power to do good from God, and we are only delivered from the vices by God. The soul of every Christian vaguely realizes this and, therefore, the prayer of St. Ephrem so moves them.

Delve deeper into this prayer and think of why he does not simply ask that God would deliver him from such and such a vice and give him such and such a virtue. Why does he say, “a spirit of idleness, despondency, lust for power and idle talk give not unto me”? Why he speaks about a spirit of vice and a spirit of virtue is important to understand.

You know that things have their own smell characteristic of them. If in your room remain your things, your various dishes, all that you used when you lived in it, and the room is locked, then your smell will remain, that is, the smell* of those things. You know that if a fragrant substance is poured into a container, and then it is drained and cleaned, then the aroma will remain for some time; and, conversely, if you pour something foul-smelling then that smell* will remain for a long, long time. The same happens in the human soul. In people’s soul, all vices, with which they sin, leave their fragrance*, their trace. On the other hand, all good that they does leaves its light. If a person always did bad deeds, if their soul was always fed by vices, then in their soul remains forever the fragrance* of those vices. If a person lives a good life and does much good, if they constantly sanctifies their soul with prayer, then they are imbued with the fragrance* of prayer, the fragrance* of virtue, and the fragrance* of righteousness.

We know by experience that we can, after a short acquaintance, sometimes at the very first meeting, sense of what spirit* a person is. [Luke 9:55] If we meet with a person, wallowing in sin, you will sense of what spirit* they are. This is similar to how a dog seeks by smell, which even remain in the tracks of a person, and leads to that person.

Every person has their own spirit*; and here St. Ephrem the Syrian asks God not only that He would deliver him from vice and give him virtue, he asks that the Lord would give him the spirit* of virtue and deliver him from the spirit* of vice, so that there would not even be a trace or smell of vice, that he would be fragrant with Christ.

It is necessary to know that it is much easier to rid oneself of individual vices than rid oneself of the spirit* of those vices. Their spirit* very firmly holds on to our heart and to completely rid oneself from a vicious spirit* is only possible gradually, with prayer to God for help that He would deliver us from that malicious spirit.* This is how we need to understand the words of Ephrem the Syrian. Maybe even more directly can they be understood.

We always live and act under a spiritual influence of two types. On the one hand is the holy, blessed influence of God Himself, the holy angels, and, especially, our guardian angel. On the other hand, the dark torrent of the spirit of Satan and the demons is always vented on us. And as among the angels of light there are bearers of particular holy virtues, so among the demons are bearers of particular sins which at all times influence us. So, St. Ephrem asks God that the Grace of God would drive out the dark, evil, demonic spirits, who lead us into sin.

Now you see what these deep words of Ephrem the Syrian mean. Ask conscientiously that we would be freed from the very spirit of impiety, malice, and all the vices which is extremely difficult as the power of the demons over us is very strong. Remember that you aren’t able with your own strength to evade the dark, deadly influence of these spirits, and humbly pray to God as Ephrem the Syrian teaches:

O Lord and Master of my life, a spirit of idleness, despondency, lust for power and idle talk give not unto me.
A spirit of chastity, humble mindedness, patience and love grant unto me, Thy servant.
Yea, O Lord and King, grant me to see mine own faults and not to condemn my brother. For blessed art Thou unto ages of ages. Amen.

St. Luke (Voino-Yasenetskii) of Simferopol

*Translator’s note: In Russian this is a slight play on words as “smell/ fragrance” and “spirit” are the same word. All instances of this ambiguity are marked with an asterisk.

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