"I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else."
C. S. Lewis

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Meditation for Friday of the Third Week in Lent on the Prayer of St. Ephraem

Friday of the Third Week in Lent

O Lord and Master of my life, grant me, Your servant, a spirit of chastity!

f any spirit is to be obtained from above by prayer, it is assuredly that of chastity: for in order to cherish this virtue we have to fight with our own individual nature; and, in the words of a great and good man, “where our nature is overcome, there must be present the virtue which has overcome it. In vain you will strive to drive from your own heart the spirit of carnal lust by the arguments and the contradictions of philosophers: because that spirit can present itself with equal reason on its side, and will contend with us with arguments ad hominem. The man, therefore, who wishes to overcome his flesh in his own strength, exerts himself in vain. But rather, let him lay before the Lord the inability of his human nature; and let him acknowledge before Him his utter weakness, and then that man will insensibly receive from the Lord the gift of chastity." 

He who wishes to be chaste, must, after the advice of holy men, not only attend public prayer as often as he can, but also have always ready at hand a short prayer for purity, against every temptation to sin. But namely, when, say they, you feel in your heart the rising of some carnal desire, through either your eyes, your ears, or even your own nature, then turn at once your thoughts towards Christ in prayer for help, and continue therein, until you have received support from Him. Having in this way withdrawn your attention from that spark of sin, which had fallen into your heart, you will yourself take from it the breath that would have fanned it into a flame; and it will go out. And then a dew of blessing will fall on you, for the temptation that is overcome. 

Next to prayer, nothing tends to preserve chastity so much as fasting and labor. In fact, take away the fuel from under the pot, and the fire will go out of itself: take away from a body given to luxury, food, and satiety, and the love of sensuality will go. The body when wearied with labor and not with the working of passions, seeks quiet and repose. On the contrary, however, idleness and self-indulgence are the never-failing source of sensuality. The man, therefore, who imagines that he can preserve his chastity in the midst of the indulgence and the luxury to which he is disposed, might as well lie down in the mire, and expect to rise from it without a spot. He may, it is true, succeed in daily life in preserving the purity of his body; but, as to that of his soul, he loses it without a doubt. 

For the same reason, he who wishes to preserve the cleanliness of his body and he who strives to keep his soul pure, both embrace the same opportunities to flee from whatever would evidently soil either: therefore, after the example of the holy man Job, we must make a covenant with our eyes, our ears and all our senses. For, it is not in vain that the Prophet calls our senses inlets, through which sorrow enters into our soul. All sins love to enter in at those inlets; but no sin does it so readily as the lust of the flesh: therefore those openings ought to be well guarded; and not opened at random. And since it can only be that we must both see and hear what offends us, it behooves us to have ready by us a spiritual antidote, to be used on such occasions. By these means at the time when anything happens that is an offense to us, let us at once, not only pray from the heart, but also think devotedly of the cross of Christ and of the wounds made on Him His body there for the cleansing of our souls from sin; or else let us think of His actual death and burial. Thus the presence of that scandal is left surely and quickly without power in us. 

A humble disposition of heart and spirit, the holy Fathers teach us, is also a high fence put around our chastity; because, perhaps, the Lord always favors most those that are of a humble spirit; and where His presence is, there is His grace and His blessing, and from these flee at once every cause of offense and every sin. Or it may be, because the very nature of humility is to pull down and to crush altogether whatever in man transgresses its proper limits; consequently, the rejoicing of flesh and blood in him. On the contrary, however, persons tried by spiritual conflict, have remarked that pride and haughtiness, which generally unite in us to condemn our neighbor, subject the man apparently perfect sooner than any other, to temptations from the lusts and filthiness of the flesh; until he no longer can think highly of his virtue, when he sees such a fearful wound inflicted upon him. 

Dwelling on spiritual subjects, and the love for those subjects which flows from them, especially love for our Lord and Savior, for His sufferings and His cross, are also powerful means of guarding the purity of our soul and body. "The man who is chaste," says a holy man, "repels love by love; and puts out the fire of the body with that of his soul." 

On the other hand, the man of a chaste spirit, wards off from himself troubles in this life and the fire of hell. Hereafter that fire will burn of itself, but at present it may be cooled and saved from the fire of the passions, when we think of it in earnest. One champion for the faith, not satisfied with the picture of that fire in his mind, determined to make his body feel beforehand all its intensity, "You incite me to sin," said he, "let me see if you are able to bear the torments that are threatened against sin." So saying, he placed one of his fingers over a burning candle. The pain from that fire extinguished the flame of the flesh. 

The very thing which kindles the lust of the flesh, may be used with advantage, like a remedy against the passions. "Does the flesh allure you in the grave," asks S. Demetrius Rostobski [St. Dimitri of Rostov], "by wounding you with the beauty of the bodily form? No. Then, when that beautiful living form begins to smite your heart, think of it lying in the grave, hideous, a prey to worms and corruption, and it loses all attraction for you." 

"Vain and empty is the world that seduced me, when as yet I was not aware of its snares!" says a woman on her death-bed; 

"It appeared to me desirable and lovely; like a flower in early spring, and I did not think the time was coming when that flower would wither and die in the summer heat.

"I was enticed and drawn into the net by the flower of youth, like a dove that is caught with grain set in the snare.

"But now my youth, lovely as it was, and my childhood that knew no sorrow, are both laid low by death, and both together go down into the grave. 

"O you who delights in apparel, look at me, and blush! You who art vain of your jewels of gold and silver, look at me, and put on mourning! 

"You who have a lovely countenance, and an elegant figure, look at your beauty in my corruption. 

"O you who art seduced by beauty, and whose heart is given to adorning yourself, come and behold me on the day of my death, and then despise the beauty of your vain attire." (Hziteh dargig, etc. S. Ephraem, Funer. H. xxxi. p. 287)

It behooves us, brethren, to guard our selves by such and like measures, from all attacks of carnal lusts and appetites. We ought, if it be necessary, to strive against them, even unto blood, so that we may come forth victorious from the conflict. And, in very deed, it behooves us to conquer ; "for God hath called us," as the holy Apostle says, "not unto uncleanness, but unto holiness" (1 Thess. 4:7). "Neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, shall inherit the kingdom of God" (1 Cor. 6:9). And forasmuch as such persons like in general to deceive themselves in thinking that their sin is not great; that they only obey the calls of their human nature; that if they hurt in any way, it is themselves alone, and not others; and that with all that they often have a tender heart, full of sympathy for others, and other good qualities, whereby they try to quiet themselves as well as by the thought of God's clemency: the holy Apostle having all that in view, says to them, "do not flatter yourselves!" You hope, he says, without considering the filthiness of your flesh, that by the aid of some of your virtues, ye will escape the wrath of God, and that you will be received into His pure and holy kingdom; but no; it is a lamentable mistake and self-deception; do not flatter yourselves, neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, shall inherit the kingdom of God. Why not? Because nothing filthy or impure can enter into it. And do you observe where the Apostle places fornicators and adulterers in particular? Side by side with idolaters; as if all those vices were of one and the same nature; and verily they are of the same nature; for the idolater is an adulterer, since his heart which ought to be given to the only true God, by Whom he was created, is made over to an idol; whereby he violates his bond of love and of faithfulness. Thus also is the adulterer an idolater, in that instead of giving his heart to God his Creator, he gives it to the creature, and makes of it for himself an idol of shame. 

We will then, beloved brethren, before all things, keep our mind pure; so that our heart being kept from lust may keep our flesh from all uncleanness. We will not rely upon any firmness or purity of our own. "Do not trust to the frailty of your flesh throughout your whole life," says S. Lestvitchnik [St. John Climacus], "and hope not in its endurance until you appear before Christ." There only—where we shall have no more enemy of any kind—in heaven, with our Lord Christ, shall we rest in perfect peace; but here, as long as we are in life, we walk among snares; and therefore we must ever be on the watch. 

"My flesh is weak," says S. Ephraem, "may it be strengthened with Your power. Break in pieces the shafts of the deceiver, and reckon me among Your elect, O most Mighty! 
"Grant me, O Lord, that I may be Yours at all times, and that I may do what is well-pleasing toward You without grudging. 

"And grant that, when I have once begun to strive after excellence, I may receive strength from You, and endure unto the end. 

"For Yours is the power, and in You they overcome who fight manfully; by You they are exalted to the highest things, and it is Your love that supports the weak and fainthearted. And grant that no part of my life, O Lord, may be spent without fruit." (Wamhil pagrodili, S. Ephr. Exh. xxii. Vol. III. Syr. Lat. p. 455.)

"O God, Who has called us in Your grace that we may draw near to You and not perish; O You, good One, Who has promised saying: Call upon Me and I will answer you: I knock at the door of Your grace; O save me; answer me, You good God in Your great mercy, and look not on all my trespasses against You. Spare me, O Lord, O spare me through Your gracious compassion. 

"Your hands, O God, created me and formed me after Your own image and similitude, by Your great grace towards me. They taught me the way of life, and also showed me the path that leads to hell. The wicked in his envy laid snares for me, he led me astray from Your paths, and he has plunged me into the sins by which he shows his hatred for me. Woe is me, O Lord, for I have offended against You! O spare me, and I shall live through Your grace in me. 

"The wily robber of souls who takes men captive has robbed me of my liberty; he has caused me to go astray and has laughed me to scorn. He caught and bound me with the vision of my eyes; he seduced me, and breathed into my heart wicked thoughts of sin. I then thought within myself, and conceived lust. I looked and then offended. My hand worked iniquity, and I fell and perished in all that is within me. Woe is me, for the fire already threatens me! Spare, O spare me, O Lord, that I not die . 

"O Lord, hold out to me the right hand which You did extend to Your disciples that they should not be swallowed up quick into the sea. Yea, extend also to me Your right hand, that I may not sink in the sea of sins which is around me. May the Baptism I received of You, O Lord, as a clothing to my members, be to me a plea of acceptance and a refuge, that I may live. Save me through it, O Lord, and draw me out of the deep waters that overwhelm me!" (Alloho daqron, etc. S. Ephr. Exh. xxiii. Vol. III. Syr. and Lat. p. 456.)

What then, do you ask, is the man to do, who has the misfortune of being given to the lusts of the flesh, and is held captive by sinful habits? That, beloved brethren, which we do when fallen into some deep and rugged chasm; we look about to see where we are; then placing ourselves under the protection of the cross of Christ, and calling for the help of God and of our guardian angel, we begin to come forth from there; we climb, as best we may, with hands and feet, it is true; but still we are coming out; —we get covered with crumbling earth and gravel; but still we are coming out: we feel sore and weary in all our members; but still we are coming out: we slip and at times we fall, but at last we are out of danger. When we act in this manner, and make use on our part of every means in our power; then, be sure, a strength and a power against which nothing will avail, will come forth in us; a hand we do not see upholds us, and a help which we can see often comes to our aid, sent by Him Who leaves the ninety and nine sheep and seeks in the wilderness the one that was lost. Amen. 

"Heavenly Father, and God of truth, Who didst send Your beloved Son to seek the sheep that was lost, I have sinned against heaven and in Your sight, receive me back like the prodigal son, and put on me the first robe of innocence which I loft by sin. And have mercy on me a great, great sinner. Amen." (Hair yergnavor, etc. S. Nierses, Pr. 3.)

O  O  O

Meditations For Every Wednesday and Friday in Lent on A Prayer of S. Ephraem, Translated from the Russian, to which are added Short Homilies For Passion Week, From S. Chrysostom, S. Severian, and S. Ephraem, trans. Rev. S. C. Malan, M.A. (London: Joseph Masters and Co., 1859) 90-104.

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