Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Morning Prayer: Opening our Lips in Praise and Invitation

After the Opening Sentence and Confession, the next part of the Daily Office is technically called the Preces (“The Prayers”) and the Invitatory.

The first thing we do after confessing our sins is, interestingly, admit that even our ability to pray is a gift from God. Gift is at the core of the Christian life, and it makes a deep kind of sense to start the main body of the Office with this admission. We do this by saying: “O Lord, open our lips, and our mouth shall proclaim your praise,” from Psalm 51. 

It is customary to make a small sign of the cross (using the thumb of one’s right hand) on the lips at this point, physically connecting our prayer to our bodies. This is another of the many times when the meaning of the Incarnation (that God became flesh in Christ, and thus hallowed the Creation) connects with our prayer in the Daily Office. We are not just "brains on sticks" walking around in a world of ideas. Our prayer must honor this fact and the fact of the holiness of the physical world as a place of divine encounter.

Following on this idea, we next praise God for being…God. Whenever we offer the Gloria Patri (“Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit…”), we are praising God the Holy Trinity for being God Almighty. This is at the heart of what it means to be a priestly people: to offer God “the sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving.” We will do this a good deal in the Daily Office, as a pattern for the rest of our life. Remember: the Office is not a kind of “holy time-out” from real life. It is much more like a shaft of sunlight on a cloudy day that proclaims the sun is always shining above the storms. The Christian’s progress is, to some degree, measured by how much we live out that knowledge in the squalls and tempests of this life. Another physical action traditionally accompanies this prayer: it is customary to bow during the Gloria Patri, in humble acknowledgement of the Divine Mystery we stand before.

Outside of Lent, the Gloria Patri is followed by the Alleluia as a reminder that we are living in the light of the Resurrection of Christ, whose reconciling and redeeming love makes possible our direct access to God. During Lent it is our custom to fast from Alleluia, brining it back all the more richly at Easter.

This section of the Office continues with the Invitatory. That’s a liturgical word meaning “to invite worshippers into prayer.” At Morning Prayer, three different Invitatories are provided. The first one (and the most universal one in Western Christianity) is Psalm 95, either in part or in full. The first part of this Psalm is a wonderful, joyous invitation to prayer. It bids us to rejoice in the “rock of our salvation,” which Christians from St. Paul’s time have always identified with Christ Himself. The second part of this Psalm, though, is of a more penitential character (reflected on at length in the Letter to the Hebrews). This part may be omitted at various times of the year. My own practice is to offer it on Fridays throughout the year (outside of Easter) and on Wednesdays, Fridays, and Sundays during Lent. Just put another marker on p. 724 of the BCP, where the complete Psalm is found.

The other Invitatories provided are Psalm 100 and a collection of verses on the Resurrection from St. Paul collectively known as the Pascha nostrum, or “Christ our Passover.” I tend to use Psalm 100 during Epiphany and the season following, as its themes go well with this portion of the Liturgical Year. The Pascha nostrum I reserve for Eastertide. Some people use it for Easter Week, some for the period from Easter Day through the Ascension, and others for the full 50 Days of that glorious time.

The Prayer Book provides enrichments for the Invitatory through the use of antiphons (another liturgical word) at Morning Prayer. These are short passages of Scripture used to frame a Psalm or Canticle. Usually, antiphons are said at the start and the conclusion of a Psalm or Canticle; occasionally they are said at points during (this was historically the case with Psalm 95 and by extension, all the Invitatories). That is why the Invitatories all are grouped in paragraphs: the antiphon may be said in between each paragraph, as well.

The antiphons are all listed there, with options for the major seasons, various occasions, and a small collection for “ordinary time.” Take your pick!*

If all this seems confusing, you may choose not to use the antiphons. They are not “required.” Remember, when saying the Office “privately” no one is expecting you to be a liturgical expert. Just begin using the Office and gradually find your way in it. God will open your heart and mind to His loving purpose as you go. So, don’t be self-conscious about the details. Just jump in and pray.

With the conclusion of the Invitatory, we are now into the “thick” of the Daily Office, ready to enter into the towering forest of Psalms, Lessons, and Canticles.

*Note: Antiphons greatly enrich the experience of the Office for many, and are a very ancient part of Christian worship, being essentially more Scripture used to help us interpret Scripture. The BCP (p. 141) explicitly allows one to use antiphons with any Psalm or Canticle from the Bible. If Church Publishing ever decides to re-issue The Prayer Book Office (a thing much to be desired), then a rich treasury of Antiphons will be yours. Until then, one either has to find some alternative form of saying Office with antiphons, or be content with things as they are. For many, the latter will always the case. If not, e-mail me and we can talk about other options. Mostly, I would recommend that you contact Church Publishing (the Episcopal Publishing house) and tell them you would like them to re-issue Howard Galley’s Prayer Book Office in some format or other. I have tried, but I am just one “odd” voice. Perhaps if more apparently normal people would do so, then they would think about it. Another post on this subject would probably be a good idea someday…you can see I have strong feelings about it.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The Poignancy of Truth and the Gates of the Will

Has a nation changed its gods,

   even though they are no gods?

But my people have changed their glory

   for something that does not profit. 

Be appalled, O heavens, at this,

   be shocked, be utterly desolate, says the Lord,
            for my people have committed two evils:

   they have forsaken me, the fountain of living water,
   and dug out cisterns for themselves, cracked cisterns

               that can hold no water. – Jeremiah 2:11-13

Just now in the Daily Office, we are making our way through the book of the prophet Jeremiah. This is (often alternatively, sometimes simultaneously) a difficult yet also beautiful book of scripture. It tells us things hard to hear, but its honesty is cleansing and renewing. It is perhaps the perfect Old Testament book for Lent.

Today’s lection ends with one of those phrases standing as a microcosm of Jeremiah’s prophetic ministry. It says, in essence, that we have traded what worked for what is broken. Using the image of trading a spring of fresh, cool water for a cracked rock pit makes quite a point in a land prone to drought.

Lent’s gift to us is frequently the opportunity for God to speak with us honestly. When the difficult conversation takes place—not unlike the difficult conversations we sometimes have to have with a doctor, a lawyer, or (when we let our minds wander while driving) the police—the first thing we are likely to feel is the sting of shame, followed by disappointment in ourselves. The tendency is to blame others, find and excuse, or proudly continue on in the same path through an evermore-refined skill of denial. That decision is ours to make. God has chosen to circumscribe His own Divine Power at the gates of our will.

But God will keep knocking at those gates. God is very persistent. He will continue to put experiences, images, encounters, and opportunities in our minds and lives—all of them gifts of mercy, when rightly understood. The first stage of that understanding is usually when we come to understand that we have become suckers, dupes, for sin. Ouch.

Our God doesn’t want us to be suckers. He doesn’t want us to exchange Life for Death, a continuous fountain for a broken cistern. That is not why we were created. God, the author and creator of Life and Love will never settle for an imitation of these great gifts of Communion with the Trinity: neither may we.

And so Lent’s unique gift and joy, the gift of Truth, is given once more—beginning with the Hard Words of our God spoken through a prophet who lived thousands of years ago in an entirely different part of the world, but continuing in the specifics of our own lives, our own encounters with the God who desires our salvation, our wholeness. Let us open the gates of our will, and let our God in.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

On the Feast of St. Joseph, foster-parent of our Lord Jesus Christ and cherished spouse of the Theotokos

A faithful foster-parent and guardian

This is the general rule that applies to all individual graces given to a rational creature. Whenever divine grace selects someone to receive a particular grace, or some especially favoured position, all the gifts for his state are given to that person, and. enrich him abundantly.

This is especially true of that holy man Joseph, the supposed father of our Lord Jesus Christ, and true husband of the queen of the world and of the angels. He was chosen by the eternal Father to be the faithful foster-parent and guardian of the most precious treasures of God, his Son and his spouse. This was the task which he so faithfully carried out. For this, the Lord said to him, ‘Good and faithful servant, enter into the joy of your Lord.’

A comparison can be made between Joseph and the whole Church of Christ. Joseph was the specially chosen man through whom and under whom Christ entered the world fittingly and in an appropriate way. So, if the whole Church is in the debt of the Virgin Mary, since, through her, it was able to receive the Christ, surely after her, it also owes to Joseph special thanks and veneration.

For he it is who marks the closing of the Old Testament. In him the dignity of the prophets and patriarchs achieves its promised fulfilment. Moreover; he alone possessed in the flesh what God in his goodness promised to them over and again.

It is beyond doubt that Christ did not deny to Joseph in heaven that intimacy, respect, and high honour which he showed to him as to a father during his own human life, but rather completed and perfected it. Justifiably the words of the Lord should be applied to him, ‘Enter into the joy of your Lord.’ Although it is the joy of eternal happiness that comes into the heart of man, the Lord prefers to say to him ‘enter into joy’. The mystical implication is that this joy is not just inside man, but surrounds him everywhere and absorbs him, as if he were plunged in an infinite abyss.
From Sermon 2, on St. Joseph, by Bernardine of Siena, 1450

Collect for the Feast of St. Joseph

O God, who from the family of your servant David raised up Joseph to be the guardian of your incarnate Son and the spouse of his virgin mother: Give us grace to imitate his uprightness of life and his obedience to your commands; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

A Prayer for Japan

A Litany in Response to a Natural Disaster

O God the Father, Creator of heaven and earth,
Have mercy upon us.

O God the Son, redeemer of the world,
Have mercy upon us.

O God the Holy Spirit, Sanctifier of the faithful,
Have mercy upon us.

Holy, blessed and glorious Trinity, One God
Have mercy upon us.

Remember not, Lord Christ our offenses, neither reward us according to our sins.  Spare us, good Lord, spare your people, whom you have redeemed by your cross and passion, and by your mercy preserve us forever.
Spare us, good Lord.

From all natural disasters, from hurricanes, fires, tornados, earthquakes, tsunamis, blizzards and floods,
Good Lord, deliver us.

From all disease and sickness, from famine and violence,
Good Lord, deliver us.

In all times of sorrow, in all times of joy; in the hour of death and at the day of judgment,
Good Lord, deliver us.

Hear our prayers, O Christ our God,
O Christ, hear us.

For the + repose of the souls of our brothers and sisters in Christ who have died in this disaster, that your holy angels may welcome them into Paradise,
O Christ, hear us.

Console all who grieve: those whose loved ones have died, whose families are torn; whose homes have been destroyed, whose possessions have been ruined, who are now unemployed.
O Christ, hear us.

Heal those who suffer from injury and illness, emotional and spiritual distress. Give them hope and encouragement to meet the days ahead.
O Christ, hear us.

Give food to the hungry and drink to the thirsty.
O Christ, hear us.

Give rest to weary and peace to the restless.
O Christ, hear us.

Give strength to the governments of affected regions and all others in authority and leadership; grant them wisdom and power to act in accordance with your will.
O Christ, hear us.

Guide those who work to avert nuclear disaster, and protect all those vulnerable to its effects.
O Christ, hear us.

Bless the bishops [especially Bishop John Kato, Bishop of Tohoku], clergy and people in areas of danger and destruction who strive to do your service in the midst of their own grief and pain.  Give them fortitude to serve as you would serve.
O Christ, hear us.
Grant your people grace to witness to your word, to open their hearts in love, and to give generously from their abundance, that they may bring forth the fruits of your Spirit.
O Christ, hear us.

Forgive us Lord, for all negligence and hardheartedness, for an over-reliance on technology and a lack of preparedness that result in bitterness and strife, in injury and death.
O Christ, hear us.

In the midst of incomprehensible loss, grant us eyes that see, ears that hear and hands that work so that we may discern how you would have us respond.
O Christ, hear us.

We give you thanks, Lord God for all agencies and individuals who assist in relief efforts; continue in them the good work you have begun, through them your presence is made known.
We thank you O, Lord

You are our refuge and strength
Our very present help in trouble

In you Lord is our Hope
And we shall never hope in vain

Glory to God whose power, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.
Glory to him from generation to generation in the Church, and in Christ Jesus for ever.

O merciful Father, you have taught us in your holy Word that you do not willingly afflict or grieve the children of men: Look with pity upon the sorrows of the people of Japan, especially our sisters and brothers in Christ, for whom our prayers are offered. Remember them, O Lord, in mercy, nourish their souls with patience, comfort them with a sense of your goodness, lift up thy countenance upon them, and give them peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

Lord of mercy, God of compassion: send your aid speedily to those who minister to the afflicted, suffering, and grieving in Japan. Grant that in responding at the darkest hour, they themselves will not be overcome by sorrow. May the light of your countenance strengthen them in their service, and by your grace may we who live far away recommit to the value and power of prayer; through our great High Priest and Intercessor, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

This litany was adapted from the work of the Reverend William Stokes of St. 
Paul’s Episcopal Church in Delray Beach, Florida.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh on Lent

Talk given at a meeting of the Fellowship of Sts. Alban and Sergius, an organization promoting Anglican-Orthodox dialog.

Contrary to what many think or feel, Lent is a time of joy. It is a time when we come back to life. It is a time when we shake off what is bad and dead in us in order to become able to live, to live with all the vastness, all the depth, and all the intensity to which we are called. Unless we understand this quality of joy in Lent, we will make of it a monstrous caricature, a time when in God's own name we make our life a misery. 

This notion of joy connected with effort, with ascetical endeavour, with strenuous effort may indeed seem strange, and yet it runs through the whole of our spiritual life, through the life of the Church and the life of the Gospel. The Kingdom of God is something to be conquered. It is not simply given to those who leisurely, lazily wait for it to come. To those who wait for it in that spirit, it will come indeed: it will come at midnight; it will come like the Judgement of God, like the thief who enters when he is not expected, like the bridegroom, who arrives while the foolish virgins are asleep. This is not the way in which we should await Judgement and the Kingdom. Here again we need to recapture an attitude of mind which usually we can't manage to conjure up out of our depth, something which had become strangely alien to us: the joyful expectation of the Day of the Lord - in spite of the fact that we know this Day will be a Day of judgement. 

It may strike us as strange to hear that in Church we proclaim the Gospel - the 'good news' - of judgement, and yet we do. We proclaim that the Day of the Lord is not fear, but hope, and declare together with the spirit of the Church: 'Come, Lord Jesus, and come soon' (cf. Rev. 22.20). So long as we are incapable of speaking in these terms, we lack something important in our Christian consciousness. We are still, whatever we may say, pagans dressed up in evangelical garments. We are still people for whom God is a God outside of us, for whom his coming is darkness and fear, and whose judgement is not our redemption but our condemnation, for whom to meet the Lord is a dread event and not the event we long and live for. Unless we realise this, then Lent cannot be a joy, since Lent brings with it both judgement and responsibility: we must judge ourselves in order to change, in order to become able to meet the Day of the Lord, the Resurrection, with an open heart, with faith, ready to rejoice in the fact that he has come. Every coming of the Lord is judgement. 

The Fathers draw a parallel between Christ and Noah. They say that the presence of Noah in his generation was at the same time condemnation and salvation. It was condemnation because the presence of one man who remained faithful, of just one man who was a saint of God, was evidence that holiness was possible and that those who were sinners, those who had rejected God and turned away from him, could have done otherwise. So the presence of a righteous man was judgement and condemnation upon his time. 

Yet it was also the salvation of his time, because it was only thanks to him that God looked with mercy on mankind. And the same is true of the coming of the Lord. There is also another joy in judgement. Judgement is not something that falls upon us from outside. Yes, the day will come when we will stand before God and be judged; but while our pilgrimage still continues, while we still live in the process of becoming, while there still lies ahead of us the road that leads us towards the fullness of the stature of Christ, towards our vocation, then judgement must be pronounced by ourselves. There is a constant dialogue within us throughout our lives. 

You remember the parable in which Christ says: 'Make your peace with your adversary while you are on the way' (Mt. 5.25). Some of the spiritual writers have seen in the adversary not the devil (with whom we cannot make our peace, with whom we are not to come to terms), but our conscience, which throughout life walks apace with us and never leaves us in peace. Our conscience is in continuous dialogue with us, gainsaying us at every moment, and we must come to terms with it because otherwise the moment will come when we finally reach the Judge, and then our adversary will become our accuser, and we will stand condemned. So while we are on the road, judgement is something which goes on constantly within ourselves, a dialogue, a dialectical tension between our thoughts and our emotions and our feelings and our actions which stand in judgement before us and before whom we stand in judgement. 

But in this respect we very often walk in darkness, and this darkness is the result of our darkened mind, of our darkened heart, of the darkening of our eye, which should be clear. It is only if the Lord himself sheds his light into our soul and upon our life, that we can begin to see what is wrong and what is right in us. 

There is a remarkable passage in the writings of John of Kronstadt, a Russian priest of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century, in which he says that God does not reveal to us the ugliness of our souls unless he can see in us sufficient faith and sufficient hope for us not to be broken by the vision of our own sins. In other words, whenever we see ourselves with our dark side, whenever this knowledge of ourselves increases, we can then understand ourselves more clearly in the light of God, that is, in the light of the divine judgement. 

This means two things: it means that we are saddened to discover our own ugliness, indeed, but also that we can rejoice at the same time, since God has granted us his trust. He has entrusted to us a new knowledge of ourselves as we are, as he himself always saw us and as, at times, he did not allow us to see ourselves, because we could not bear the sight of truth. Here again, judgement becomes joy, because although we discover what is wrong, yet the discovery is conditioned by the knowledge that God has seen enough faith, enough hope and enough fortitude in us to allow us to see these things, because he knows that now we are able to act. 

All this is important if we want to understand that joy and Lent can go together. Otherwise the constant, insistent effort of the Church - and of the word of God - to make us aware of what is wrong in us can lead us to despair and to darkness, until finally we have been brought so low that we are no longer capable of meeting the Resurrection of Christ with joy, because we realise - or imagine that we realise - that the Resurrection has nothing to do with us. We are in darkness, God is in light. We see nothing but our judgement and condemnation at the very moment when we should be emerging out of darkness into the saving act of God, which is both our judgement and our salvation. 

The Orthodox Church introduces Lent with a series of preparatory weeks in which the readings of the Gospel lead us step by step from outer darkness, as it were, to the point of judgement. I would like to remind you quickly of these stages. The first, dramatic stage in which we find ourselves consists in the fact that we are blind and yet are unaware of our blindness. We are in darkness and are unaware that this darkness is within and around us. Our eye is dark and darkens all that is inside us, while we remain unaware of it. 

The first reading from the Gospel that confronts us with this aspect of our preparation for Lent is the story of Bartimaeus, the blind man at the gate of Jericho, a man who either had lost his sight or was born blind, but was left there in the darkness, in the outer darkness. There was no light for him, there was no life for him, either, and there was no joy for him. He probably had come to terms with his distress. He continued to exist, since he could not live. He continued to exist day after day thanks to the cold, indifferent charity of passers-by. But one thing made his misery both dramatic and tragic: he lived in the time of Jesus. More than once Bartimaeus must have heard of this man of God who had come to the world, who was healing and renewing people and things, a man who had opened the eye of blind men, who had given sight to the man born blind. The presence of the possibility of salvation, of an impossible healing, must have made his darkness even darker. Possible it was, if God came his way, yet impossible, because how could he find the itinerant preacher and healer who never was still, never in the same place? How could a blind man keep pace with him? Darkness came into his awareness because there was a possibility that he might see. His despair became deeper than ever before, because there was hope. And so, when Christ came near him he could ask for healing from the very depth of his despair and from the very depth of a total, passionate longing for salvation. The coming of God had made him aware of darkness as he had never been before, aware as never before of the tragedy which he lived. This is the first step, which we must accept and which we find so difficult to accept: we must face our true situation, not consoling ourselves with the thought that we have some sort of life within us that can replace divine life. We must accept that we are in darkness as far as the light of God is concerned. 

And then we must do something about it. First of all we must become aware of the fact that without light we are lost, because the darkness in which we are left is death, the absence of God. But when it comes to doing something, there are two things that stand in our way. First of all, we will not act unless we are aware that we are in a desperate situation. If we are not aware that it is really a question of life and death, of the only thing that matters, then we will do nothing. We will pray God to do something. We will hope that even though we are not even praying, he will come and act. But it is only out of a sense of deadly urgency that we can begin to act, like Bartimaeus, whom no one could stop from crying out, shouting for help, since he knew that this was the decisive moment. Christ was passing by. In a minute he would be gone and the darkness would become permanent, irremediable. 

Another thing that prevents us from doing something is the way we are afraid of people. I remember a man in prison who told me how marvelous it was to be found out, because, as he said, 'So long as I had not been found out, I spent all my time, an my effort, trying to look as though I was alright. The moment I was caught I felt, "Now I can choose: I can either remain what I was, a thief and a cheat, or else I can change. Now I am free to become different, and no one will be any more surprised than they were to discover that I was a thief."' As long as you have appearances to maintain it is terribly difficult to change, and this is what the parable of Zacchaeus, which follows the story the Blind Man, brings out so clearly. The problem of Zacchaeus was this: he wanted to see Christ. Would he take the risk of being ridiculous or not? To be ridiculous is a lot more difficult than to be disapproved of, because when we are sharply disapproved of we can hide behind our own pride. We feel that we stand against the whole world, even if this world is so small that it is not even worth noticing. But to be laughed at, to be ridiculed, is something which is beyond the courage of most of us. Can you imagine a bank manager in a small town climbing a tree in the midst of a big crowd, with all the boys whistling, pointing at him with their fingers, making cat-cries and the rest, just for the sake of meeting Christ? Well, that was the position of Zacchaeus, the rich man. But for him meeting Christ was so essential, such a question of death and life, that he was prepared to disregard the ridicule, the humiliation, attached to his action - and he saw Christ. 

There are two ways out of our dependence upon human opinions and human judgements. We must either do what Zacchaeus did, accept humiliation because it is essential to be saved, or we can let our hearts be hardened, and accept the pride that will negate the judgement of others. There is no third way. There is only the spontaneous oscillation which we all experience, knowing what is right, knowing what is wrong, and never deciding for either right or wrong because whenever we turn to the wrong we are afraid of the judgement of God, while whenever we turn to the right we are afraid of the judgement of men. Pride or humility are the only two paths by which we can leave this situation. 

And then there is the problem of God's judgement. The story of Zacchaeus shows how we can oscillate between the judgement of men and the judgement of God. Now comes the opportunity for another move. Isn't it time, when we are confronted with life and death, for us to judge ourselves and not be completely dependent upon others? We see this in the Publican and the Pharisee - the first, sharp, definite judgement which is both human and divine, because both coincide. If we ask ourselves how it is possible that the Pharisee could be so proud in spite of knowing so much about God and things divine, how it was that the Publican could be so truly humble in spite of being simple, I think we can find the answer in this: the terms of reference for the Pharisee were found in the law, the letter of the law.  One can always be right as far as the law and the letter is concerned. One can always fulfil rules and commandments. One can always have 'done one's duty' and feel irreproachable. 

The terms of reference of the Publican, however, were different. He was not a good man. What he knew of the law was this: certain aspects of the law condemned him because he knew what he was like. Certain other aspects of the law he could use in order to extort whatever he wanted out of other people. The law for him was a powerful, cruel, hard instrument in his hands or in the hands of God. And as he knew life, he knew perfectly well that the only salvation from the law was human mercy, human compassion, a human approach and attitude to one another. That was the only thing that could save a debtor from prison or save an extortioner from the judgement of the magistrate: a human touch. 

And so his terms of reference were in tension between a law which was inexorable, implacable, always a power that could not be fulfilled because he was too weak for it and, on the other hand, a law that could be used with such cruelty against others - and then the human relationship that could redeem all. The Publican's terms of reference were people, his neighbours, including that invisible neighbour, God. This is why he could stand at the threshold of the temple and beat his breast, though hopelessly: in spite of all the logic of things, he knew that in his world of hard, cruel, implacable men there were moments when all things become possible, for a man can be a man even when he is hardened and cruel. And so it was with God. The law was there to condemn him, but God was 'someone'. He was not only the law-giver. He was not only the one who made sure that the law is observed. He was free within his law to act with humanity. 

This knowledge made the Publican humble before God, because his terms of reference contained hope, and the object of his hope was mercy, pity, charity. This made all things possible, in spite of the fact that it is so humiliating to be loved and to be saved by love. 

The same truth appears in another way in the next parable, that of the Prodigal Son. Here again we find two men, one who is righteous and another who is unrighteous. The Prodigal Son is in a way another aspect of the Publican, and the elder brother is the same as the Pharisee. But here we are confronted not only with the tension between a law that is objective, and therefore dead, and mercy, which is subjective because alive and personal, but we are confronted with the theme of sin itself. 

What does it mean to be in sin? It can be clearly defined in terms of the short conversation between the son and the father at the beginning of the parable. And if you want to put it in words more modern and cruder than the Gospel, it really amounts to this: 'Father, I want to live, and you stand in my way. As long as you are alive the goods are yours. Die, for all intents and purposes. Let us suppose that you are already dead. I have no time to wait until you die in fact. Let us agree that as far as I am concerned I have no father left, but I have his goods because I have inherited them'. 

This is the sort of speech which we find, with the same or perhaps lesser hardness, on so many occasions between children and parents, between people who are related to one another in one way or another. It really involves saying: 'As a person you do not matter. You stand in my way. The only thing that is of value to me is what I can get out of you. And so that I may get all I can from you, you must surrender even your existence. You must accept not to be'. This is sin, sin with regard to God, and sin with regard to man. With regard to God we are happy to take everything he gives and then turn him out of our lives. We are happy to go into a strange country to spend all he has given, while denying his existence with the same ruthlessness with which, in Holy Week, the soldiers covered the eyes of Christ so he could not see, so that they would be able to laugh at him more freely. The same is so often true of our relationships with people. And this is also sin. This is the very point: to rule the other out because he doesn't matter. What matters are things - and the use I can make of them. 

And then there is another aspect in this parable: hunger, distress, loneliness, all those things which we so hate in life, and yet which come to us as our only salvation, because as long as we are surrounded with comfort, we don't notice our true situation. We prove unable to move inward and to see that we are lonely in the midst of this crowd and that we are poor in the midst of all this richness. It is important for us to realise that all that comes our way which is bitter, which is hard, which is difficult, which we hate with all our greed and with all or fear - that is our salvation. To be deprived is essential for us. And if we are not deprived, we must learn to deprive ourselves to the point of becoming aware that we are face to face with the living God in the final, total nakedness and dereliction which is man's condition when he does not hide behind things. We misjudge our situation so badly in this respect. 

There is a beautiful passage in the Tales of the Hassidim translated by Martin Buber, in which he tells about a man, a rabbi, who lived in appalling misery and yet every morning and every evening thanked God for his generous gifts. One of those who heard his prayer said to him, 'How can you be so hypocritical? Don't you see that God has given you nothing?' And he said, 'No, you are mistaken. God looked on me and thought, "This man, to be saved, needs hunger and thirst and cold and loneliness and illness and dereliction." And he has given me these things in abundance'. This is the true, Christian attitude, the attitude of a believer for whom the soul really matters. 

And this is what the return of the Prodigal Son to himself shows us. It also shows us another thing. The Prodigal Son comes back, having rehearsed his confession, and says: 'I have sinned against heaven and against thee. I am no longer worthy to be called thy son. Let me be like the hired servants'. But the father does not allow him to say the last words. Each of us can be a prodigal son, a prodigal daughter, an unworthy son, an unworthy daughter, an unworthy friend. What no one can do is to adjust himself to a relationship, however worthy, below his rank. No one who is an unworthy son can become a worthy hireling. We cannot step down from our birthright, from the right which love gave us in the first place. 

And therefore we are not to look for compromise and for legal readjustments with God and say, 'I can't give you my heart but I will behave well. I can't love you but I will serve you', and so forth. This is a lie, a relationship which God is not prepared to accept and will refuse to accept. 

The last step on our way towards Lent is one which is shown to us in the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats. It sets before us the following problem: what are we going to judge and to be judged about? And the answer is absolutely clear. In all this process of judgement we may have thought that we will be judged on whether we have a deep knowledge of God, whether we are theologians, whether we live in the transcendental realm. Well, this parable makes it absolutely clear that God's question to us, before we can enter into any kind of divine reality, is this: have you been human? If you have not been human, then don't imagine that you will be able to become like God-become-man, like the God-Man Jesus, who is the measure of all things. This is very important, because the type of judgement which we are constantly making is a falsified judgement. We notice how pious we are, how much knowledge of God we have, questions belonging to the realm of what an English writer has called 'Churchianity' as contrasted with Christianity. 

But the question which Christ asks us is this: Are you human or sub-human? In other words, are you capable of love or not? I was hungry, I was thirsty, I was naked, I was in prison, I was ill. What did you do about it? Were you able to respond with your heart to my misery, were you able to respond at a cost and with all your humanity - or not? At this point we must remember what we have said before concerning the Pharisee and the Publican. Christ does not ask us to fulfil the law. He will not count the number of loaves of bread and of cups of water and the number of visits we pay to hospitals and so forth. He will measure our heart's response. And this is made clear from the words of Christ in another part of St John's Gospel, where he says, 'And when ye shall have done all those things which are commanded you, say, we are unprofitable servants'. The doing means nothing. We become human at the moment when, like the Publican, like the Prodigal Son, we have entered into the realm of broken-heartedness, into the realm of love which is a response both to divine love and to human suffering. This cannot be measured. We can never, on that level, say, 'I am safe. I will come to the judgement and be one of the sheep', because it will not be a question of whether or not we have accomplished the law, but whether this law has become so much ourselves that it has grown into the mystery of love. There, at that point, we will be on the fringe, on the very threshold of entering into that spring of life, that renewal of life, that newness of all things, which is Lent. 

We will have gone through all these stages of judgement, and will have emerged from blindness and from the law into a vision of the mysterious relationship which may be called 'mercy' or 'grace'. And we will be face to face with being human. But we must remember that to be human does not mean to be 'like us' but 'like Christ'. With this we can enter Lent and begin to experience through the readings of the Church, through the prayers of the Church, through the process of repentance, that discovery of the acts of divine grace which alone can lead us towards growth into the full stature of the likeness of Christ. I have brought you to the gate. Now you must walk into it. 

Thursday, March 10, 2011

The Lenten Prayer of St. Ephrem the Syrian

Detail from an icon of St. Ephrem

Below is an article written by one of the great 20th century spiritual writers: the Russian Orthodox priest and liturgical/theological scholar Alexander Schmemann. It deals in depth with the meanings of a prayer generally seen as expressing the spirit of Lenten penance better and more succinctly than any other. This prayer, while used almost exclusively in the Christian East, should become a part of Western Christian practice, as well. May this introduction serve to open one's mind and heart to the richness of this spiritual treasure.

The Lenten Prayer of St Ephrem the Syrian
By Protopresbyter Alexander Schmemann

Of all lenten hymns and prayers, one short prayer can be termed  the lenten prayer. Tradition ascribes it to one of the great teachers of spiritual life - St. Ephrem the Syrian. Here is its text:

O Lord and Master of my life! Take from me the spirit of sloth, faint-heartedness, lust of power, and idle talk.  But give rather the spirit of  chastity, humility, patience, and love to Thy servant. Yea, O Lord and King! Grant me to see my own errors and not to judge my brother; For Thou art blessed unto ages of ages. Amen
Why does this short and simple prayer occupy such an important position in the entire lenten worship? Because it enumerates in a unique way all the "negative" and "positive" elements of repentance and constitutes, so to speak, a "check list" for our individual lenten effort. This effort is aimed first at our liberation from some fundamental spiritual diseases which shape our life and make it virtually impossible for us even to start turning ourselves to God.       
The basic disease is sloth. It is that strange laziness and passivity of our entire being which always pushes us "down" rather than "up" -- which constantly convinces us that no change is possible and therefore desirable. It is in fact a deeply rooted cynicism which to every spiritual challenge responds "what for?" and makes our life one tremendous spiritual waste. It is the root of all sin because it poisons the spiritual energy at its very source.        
The result of  sloth is faint-heartedness. It is the state of despondency which all spiritual Fathers considered the greatest danger for the soul. Despondency is the impossibility for man to see anything good or positive; it is the reduction of everything to negativism and pessimism. It is truly a demonic power in us because the Devil is fundamentally a liar. He lies to man about God and about the world; he fills life with darkness and negation. Despondency is the suicide of the soul because when man is possessed by it he is absolutely unable to see the light and to desire it.     
 Lust of power! Strange as it may seem, it is precisely sloth and despondency that fill our life with lust of power. By vitiating the entire attitude toward life and making it meaningless and empty, they force us to seek compensation in, a radically wrong attitude toward other persons. If my life is not oriented toward God, not aimed at eternal values, it will inevitably become selfish and selfcentered and this means that all other beings will become means of my own self-satisfaction. If God is not the Lord and Master of my life, then I become my own lord and master -- the absolute center of my own world, and I begin to evaluate everything in terms of my needs, my ideas, my desires, and my judgments. The lust of power is thus a fundamental depravity in my relationship to other beings, a search for their subordination to me. It is not necessarily expressed in the actual urge to command and to dominate "others." It may result as well in indifference, contempt, lack of interest, consideration, and respect. It is indeed sloth and despondency directed this time at others; it completes spiritual suicide with spiritual murder.

Finally, idle talk. Of all created beings, man alone has been endowed with the gift of speech. All Fathers see in it the very "seal" of the Divine Image in man because God Himself is revealed as Word (John, 1:1). But being the supreme gift, it is by the same token the supreme danger. Being the very expression of man, the means of his self-fulfillment, it is for this very reason the means of his fall and self-destruction, of betrayal and sin. The word saves and the word kills; the word inspires and the word poisons. The word is the means of Truth and it is the means of demonic Lie. Having an ultimate positive power, it has therefore a tremendous negative power. It truly creates positively or negatively. When deviated from its divine origin and purpose, the word becomes idle. It "enforces" sloth, despondency, and lust of power, and transforms life into hell. It becomes the very power of sin.

These four are thus the negative "objects" of repentance. They are the obstacles to be removed. But God alone can remove them. Hence, the first part of the lenten prayer; this cry from the bottom of human helplessness. Then the prayer moves to the positive aims of repentance which also are four.

Chastity! If one does not reduce this term, as is so often and erroneously done, only to its sexual connotations, it is understood as the positive counterpart of sloth. The exact and full translation of the Greek sofrosini and the Russian tselomudryie ought to be whole-mindedness. Sloth is, first of all, dissipation, the brokenness of our vision and energy, the inability to see the whole. Its opposite then is precisely wholeness. If we usually mean by chastity the virtue opposed to sexual depravity, it is because the broken character of our existence is nowhere better manifested than in sexual lust -- the alienation of the body from the life and control of the spirit. Christ restores wholeness in us and He does so by restoring in us the true scale of values by leading us back to God.       
The first and wonderful fruit of this wholeness or chastity is humility. We already spoke of it. It is above everything else the victory of truth in us, the elimination of all lies in which we usually live. Humility alone is capable of truth, of seeing and accepting things as they are and therefore of seeing God's majesty and goodness and love in everything. This is why we are told that God gives grace to the humble and resists the proud.      
Chastity and humility are naturally followed by patience. The "natural" or "fallen" man is impatient, for being blind to himself he is quick to judge and to condemn others. Having but a broken, incomplete, and distorted knowledge of everything, he measures all things by his tastes and his ideas. Being indifferent to everyone except himself, he wants life to be successful right here and now. Patience, however, is truly a divine virtue. God is patient not because He is "indulgent," but because He sees the depth of all that exists, because the inner reality of things, which in our blindness we do not see, is open to Him. The closer we come to God, the more patient we grow and the more we reflect that infinite respect for all beings which is the proper quality of God.        
Finally, the crown and fruit of all virtues, of all growth and effort, is love -- that love which, as we have already said, can be given by God alone-the gift which is the goal of all spiritual preparation and practice.      
All this is summarized and brought together in the concluding petition of the lenten prayer in which we ask "to see my own errors and not to judge my brother." For ultimately there is but one danger: pride. Pride is the source of evil, and all evil is pride. Yet it is not enough for me to see my own errors, for even this apparent virtue can be turned into pride. Spiritual writings are full of warnings against the subtle forms of pseudo-piety which, in reality, under the cover of humility and self-accusation can lead to a truly demonic pride. But when we "see our own errors" and "do not judge our brothers," when, in other terms, chastity, humility, patience, and love are but one in us, then and only then the ultimate enemy--pride--will be destroyed in us.   

An Act of Penitence

An Act of Penitence

Adapted from the private prayers of Bishop Lancelot Andrewes, edited by F.E. Brightman. To be used as Lenten or Friday devotion, or in preparation for making a private confession.

Prayer before Penitential Devotions

“O Lord, my heart is ready!” say the words of the Psalm.
But, Lord, I fear that mine is not:
I desire indeed, and I grieve if it is not.
Would God it were ready! Pity me that it is not.
O Lord, I desire to be open and prepared:
            help me in my closed heart and supply my unpreparedness.
I will set my sins before me, so that they be not before you.

The Lord’s Prayer.

Holy God, Holy and Mighty, Holy Immortal One: have mercy upon us.

I have sinned.
I am a sinner, for my life betrays me.
I confess my sin to you, for if I try, I cannot hide it from you, O Lord.
Only you can bring a clean thing out of an unclean thing.

I have sinned, I have done what is wrong and dealt wickedly.
I have betrayed my covenant with you, sealed in Holy Baptism.
I have rejected your law.
I have refused correction.
I have vexed the Spirit.
I have walked after my own will.
I have chosen to sin again and again.
I have not feared you.
I have not returned to you,
            Even when you called to me in the midst of my sin,
                        But I have instead grown hard of heart.
I have provoked you.
And all these things you have seen and have held your tongue.

I have sinned in
            Necessities and luxuries;
            By what I have done, and what I have not done;
            Inwardly: in my heart and mind
            Outwardly: by word and deeds
I have sinned against
            My own body

I have sinned
            Long ago,
            At each stage of my life,
            When angry,
            When coolly calculating,
            Before I responded to you,
            And after,
In ways I remember,
And in ways I have forgotten.

In whatever way:
            From childhood even until now,
            Even until this moment,
            Known or unknown,
            Within or without,
            Sleeping or waking,
            In words, deeds, thoughts,
            Through the fiery darts of the enemy,
            Through memories,
            Through unclean desires of the flesh,
That I have sinned against you,
Have mercy on me, O God, and forgive me.

I am penitent, sorry for the wound
Ashamed of the spot, stain, and filth
Grieved and indignant from the guilt
Afraid of the punishment
Weary of the yoke of sin.

Holy God, Holy and Mighty, Holy Immortal One: have mercy upon us.

O, remember of what I am made; that I am
            Dust and ashes
            Grass and a flower
            Flesh and a wind that passes away
Like a stranger and a wayfarer,
            Dwelling in a house of clay,
            Days few and evil,
            Today and not tomorrow,
            In the morning and not so long as till evening,
Now, but not abiding,
            In a body of death,
            In a world of corruption,
                        Lying in wickedness.
Remember this, O Lord.

Holy God, Holy and Mighty, Holy Immortal One: have mercy upon us.

Two things I recognize in myself, O Lord;
            The nature which you have made,
            The sin which I have added.
I confess that by my fault I have disfigured nature:
            But remember that I am a wind,
                        That passes away and comes not again.
For of myself I cannot escape sin.
            Let not my wickedness destroy what your goodness has redeemed.
O Lord my God, if I have done what makes me a criminal in your eyes,
            Could I go so far as not to be your servant?
If in my sin I have done away with my innocence,
            Have I also destroyed your mercy for me?
If I have worked my own condemnation,
            Have you lost your desire to save me?
My conscience, O Lord, deserves condemnation;
            But your mercy is greater than any offense.
Spare me: for it is not above your power, beyond your mercy, outside your loving-kindness.
You have created and redeemed me, do not destroy or condemn me.
You have created me by your goodness, do not let your work be destroyed by my iniquity.
Acknowledge in me what is yours,
            Let not your work perish by my sin.
Recognize in me what is yours;
            And take away from me what I have done to your gift.

Holy God, Holy and Mighty, Holy Immortal One: have mercy upon us.

Let no sinful or guilty pleasures oppress me.
Let no sinful habit crush me.
From evil and unlawful desires,
From vain, offensive, and unclean thoughts,
From deceits of evil spirits,
From pollutions of mind and body,
Deliver me, O Lord.

Holy God, Holy and Mighty, Holy Immortal One: have mercy upon us.

You can forgive more than I can commit sin.

Holy God, Holy and Mighty, Holy Immortal One: have mercy upon us.

Remember and think upon your servant as you have taught in your Word, wherein you have caused me to put my trust.
Establish me according to your Word, that I may live, not being disappointed in my hope.
You will not always be chiding, neither do you keep your anger for ever.
You will not deal with us after our sins, you do not reward us according to our iniquities.
You are so merciful that you forgave us our sins, so as not to destroy us.
Your mercy triumphs.

“Come now and let us reason together,” said the Lord:

“Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be like wool.”
“When you turn and groan, then you shall be saved.”
“The Lord will wait, that he may be gracious to you.”
“I am he that blots out your transgressions for my own sake, and will not remember your sins.”
“I have swept away your transgressions like a cloud, and your sins like mist; return to me, for I have redeemed you.”
“Let the wicked forsake their way, and the unrighteous their thoughts;
let them return to the Lord, that he may have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.”

Holy God, Holy and Mighty, Holy Immortal One: have mercy upon us.

Lord, hear my prayer.
And let my cry come unto you.

Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing you have made and forgive the sins of all who are penitent: Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of you, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.  Amen.

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Note on using this prayer
This form of prayer is meant to be offered with the full person: body and soul. When the Trisagion (“Holy God, Holy and Mighty, Holy Immortal One, “&c.) is said, the pattern is first to stand, then to offer the Trisagion three times, each time bowing deeply (or making a full prostration) and blessing one’s self with the sign of the cross, followed by kneeling again to continue the prayer.