Monday, March 06, 2006

Positives of St. Ephrem

O Lord and Master of my life,
Take from me the spirit of sloth, despair, lust of power and idle talk,
But give rather the spirit of chastity, humility, patience and love to your servant.
Yea, Lord and King, grant me to see my own faults and not judge my brother,
For you are blessed unto ages of ages.

A while back, I wrote about the negative line of the Prayer of St. Ephrem, and my parish priest challenged me to get to the positives before Lent. I thought it was unlikely, given that I'd taken 15 years to learn the negatives, but I have collected a few thoughts.

Here's the line I'm referring to as the positives: "Give rather the spirit of chastity, humility, patience and love to your servant." I had expected to find that the positives filled slots left by departing negatives or that there would be some kind of neat parallel between the lines. Instead the reality is much richer and more complicated.

The word "chastity," in the way most people understand it, has come to be entirely sexual, and in the licentious general culture of our time, "chastity" even has a connotation of being unhealthy or ridiculous. But the Greek word is sofrosini, "wholeness."

To be whole is to "have it together," to be complete, integrated -- drawing on the related Latin root, to have integrity. St. Paul told the Corinthians that sexual promiscuity joins a person to various sexual partners, leaving him scattered, and we have a bit of understanding what that means when we say out our attention is scattered -- we're here and there, but not present where we are.

In this moment is the only place my life is happening, and I lose too much of my life by being elsewhere while appearing to be here. In Charles Williams' novel War in Heaven, there's a stone that gives its holder whatever he wishes for. One character thinks he can go into the future and make a killing at the stock market or something, and as a test, he wishes himself a half hour into the future. What really happens is that he moves his decision-making capacity out of the present time and spends the rest of his life reacting to what he's already done -- in this instance having killed a man. Williams' description of the character's vague memories of having done the murder exactly fits my vague memories when I've interacted inattentively.

Chastity is like being a grownup driving a school bus. In the back, feelings and passions, fears and wishes and expectations, nostalgia and regrets vie for the bus driver's attention. They want to stop here or go faster or change direction. There may be a reason to stop, speed up or change direction, but I need to keep my adult decision-making capacity, in harmony with the Holy Spirit, as the driver.

Humility makes its natural and sometimes painful appearance when I realize how often I've let the kids drive the bus. But beyond that, thinking through this line of the prayer, I made a list of the things that tempt me away from sofrosini. It was a short, unscientific survey, but I learned how often the voices in the back of the bus were saying, "I don't want to be [there]," or "I don't want to do [that]," or "I don't have time for [that]." Humility doesn't say, "I deserve better." Humility doesn't say a lot, in fact, except maybe to repeat St. Paul's description of love, "Love suffers long and is kind . . ." (1 Cor. 13:4-8). Humility doesn't keep us from working to improve our situation, but it begins here, in this moment, with the reality at hand.

Patience also follows sofrosini, and, oddly, not so painfully. Without sofrosini, the effort to be patient is a battle of will against hurry, a sort of teeth-gritting, watch-watching, "Will you hurry up?" on the inside and a tight smile on the outside. But when I do have the adult driving the bus, each moment has its own purpose, and having to slow down is a gift to at least one of the kids in the back of the bus -- so I can enjoy that short sense of leisure.

St. Paul's description of love is worth repeating here, because it captures the interplay of the positives in this line: "Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up; does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil; does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails."

Finally, a few words on the next line of St. Ephrem's prayer: "Grant me to see my own faults and not judge my brother." Seeing one's own faults is an aid to humility, but I've learned something new about judging.

I've always thought that warnings against judging one's neighbor have to do with negative judgments -- and misunderstanding the meaning and effect of "judgment," tended to narrow it to judging someone's eternal disposition. But my search for sofrosini has taught me that even positive or neutral judgments can damage a relationship. I heard a fairly famous author say, "You don't meet people at zero anymore. They think they know things about you, and they project things on you." This is not about the poor, misfortunate author -- she wasn't even complaining, just saying -- but an illustration of how even positive expectations can interfere with truly seeing a person.

In another example, I had classified a woman I know as "not very adept with mechanical things." I had put her in that box in order to overcome a tendency toward impatience with her mistakes with mechanical things, so it was well meant -- and possibly true -- but I was glad I happened to be working on sofrosini when she asked me a computer question one evening, because it reminded me to be still and listen to her question -- in other words, to open the box and see if she really fit in it. She didn't, actually, and the conversation was more interesting and profitable to both of us than it would have been if I hadn't bothered to open the box.

I suppose it's necessary to say that I'm confident that St. Paul and St. Ephrem are not asking us to deny history, to disregard proven dangers or to ignore the intuition that is one of the voices sofrosini should pay attention to in the back of the bus. But most of the time, what I'm afraid of is not actual danger, but rather discomfort or embarrassment or something that won't do me any lasting harm at all.

What I've learned from short forays into sofrosini is that it's not just a moral good -- "good for you," like some nasty medicine -- but an existential good -- adventurous, exciting, sometimes scary, and dotted with delightful surprises -- "life and more abundantly," as Christ said. Another thing is that it doesn't take years of disciplined practice; it takes only this moment and my undivided attention. I've been surprised to find that St. Ephrem's prayer -- rather than being something dour and self-flagellating -- can be a door into the richness and potential of the moment.

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