Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Lent with St Ephrem

I’d like to invite St Ephrem the Syrian to help us with some Lenten meditations. There is a special prayer of his we pray at all the Offices during Lent, and maybe we’ll look at that sometime soon, but for now I’d like to use some other prayers of his. We’ll begin with a few excerpts: “O only wise and merciful Physician, I beseech your benevolence; heal the wounds of my soul and enlighten the eyes of my mind, that I may understand my place in your eternal design! And inasmuch as my heart and mind have been disfigured, may your grace repair them… What shall I say to You, O Knower of the heart, who search the heart and the inner workings of men?... Impart to me just one drop of your grace, that the flame of your love may begin to burn in my heart and, like a fire, may it consume evil thoughts like thorns and thistles!... From your treasury pour out upon us restoration to heal our sores… Accept the tears of us sinners and…establish peace in our souls.”

The first point to reflect upon is St Ephrem’s petition “that I may understand my place in your eternal design.” How often do we think of this? There’s no such thing as a generic human being. We each have a place, a unique one, in God’s eternal design. And He expects us to fulfill it, for He gives us the grace to do so. We have to ask ourselves if we are responding to this grace, if we are earnestly seeking to know God’s will for our lives. Each of us has his own interior life and unique relationship to God. How does He want you, specifically, to fit into his plan, both for your sanctification and the salvation of souls? What is He asking of you in order to fulfill your mission? We cannot please God without a deep and fervent seeking of his face, and a conscious, persistent striving to grow in his grace and be all He created us to be—even at the cost of personal self-renunciation.

The next point from St Ephrem’s prayers is the great love and mercy of God by which our souls are healed, and love is enkindled in our hearts. He prays for the healing of inner wounds and spiritual “sores,” for the repairing of inner disfigurements and the burning up of evil thoughts. We all have these needs and must daily bring them to God. By the grace and love God, we seek healing and purification. But this does not come as an unsolicited miracle or something that happens to us without our co-operation. God’s love must enkindle love in us, and it is through our love for the Lord that our desire to be free from all that hinders our communion with Him must increase and be continuous. When we see how much Jesus suffered out of love for us, our hearts ought to be moved to repentance and to a longing to love Him with our whole heart, mind, soul, and strength.

So we pray with St Ephrem: “Accept the tears of sinners…”—the tears which Jesus’ ineffable sufferings draw from our repentant hearts. Meditation on the passion of Christ is therefore an important element of our Lenten spirituality, for it is at the heart of Christian life as such. It is for your sins and mine that Jesus willingly underwent his unspeakable agony. God loves us so much, yet we offer Him so very little in return, even when we are capable of more. The Pope’s theme for this Lent is “they shall look upon Him whom they have pierced,” and this ought to be for us a stimulus to greater love and deeper repentance and conversion.

Finally, let us look not only to our own spiritual lives but to the world in which we live. We live in a “post-modern” world, one in which many traditional beliefs and world-views have been rejected: in education, politics, social life, morality, and even in religion. Some of the scenarios of “futuristic” novels like Brave New World, 1984, and CS Lewis’ That Hideous Strength are actually coming to pass, and are being approved by the government and society in general. We have to break out—in our conscious awareness—of the small and often petty world we build out of our selfish desires or concerns. We need to pray, but even that is not enough. What is needed is that our lives become wholly conformed to Christ, in all their dimensions, if our prayer is to bear abundant fruit for the salvation of souls. We must acquire Jesus’ humility, obedience, compassion, sacrificial love, his wisdom, his peace, his profound concern for mankind’s salvation.

All of the above is meant, as St Ephrem prays, “to establish peace in our souls.” To do the will of God is to know peace. We’ll conclude with another of his prayers:

“Like the apple of your eye preserve me, O Lord God; defend me and beneath your wings shelter me from temptations. Be the guardian of the eye, that it might not look about in the manner of a thief; be the guardian of the ear, that it might not perceive falsehood. Be the guardian of the lips, so that slander, judgment, criticism, and idle words might not come forth from them. Be the guardian of the heart, that it might not be inclined to evil and might not work iniquity. Grant us, O Lord, knowledge, both of what we should do and of how to set about it… Grant us, O our Lord, that we may love You and renounce the world…

“Grant us, O our Lord, to bring You three choice gifts…to burn three aromatic censers before You. Grant us, O our Lord, to light for You three brightly burning lamps: the spirit, the soul, and the body, these three gifts for the One Trinity… Grant us, O our Lord, to rejoice in You, and may You rejoice in us in the last day. To You is praise, from the spirit, soul, and body. And to us be your mercies. Amen.”