Prayer of St Ephraim – Sloth and Despondency

The Prayer of St Ephraim(see previous post) is a reliable and concise companion for Lent, an embodied act of penitence and faith and a simple guide to the ascetical life. It puts its finger on some of our most stubborn problems and offers for their healing some of the most life-giving virtues. So I’m going to offer some reflections on these problems and remedies over the next few weeks.

Today, we visit the first two problems identified in the prayer – sloth and despondency. They are the noon-day demon of akidia – listlessness or torpor – and my guess is that, if you’re anything like me, it’s a demon that’s been hanging around rather a lot recently. I think that the combination of constant, low-level anxiety, much reduced social interaction, disrupted routines and lack of access to so many of the things that nourish us that are the result of a pandemic and its necessary mitigating measures can be the breeding-ground for the sluggishness and inertia that characterise akidia. As well as inertia, akidia can manifest itself in restlessness, a desire to be anywhere but here, an inability to sit still, as Evagrius points out in his Praktikos (ch 12). St John of Sinai, in The Ladder of Divine Ascent, described it as one the the deadliest of all vices and that it seems to set in whenever we begin the work of prayer, which is particularly tricky as prayer is one of the chief remedies he recommends against it! Alongside prayer, he recommends the singing of psalms, manual labour and, above all, ‘a firm hope in the blessings of the future’. I suppose that one of the causes of this despondency is a narrowing of our horizons, a turning in on oneself, so the ability to see beyond the current circumstances begins the process of lifting us out of our listlessness.

St John also describes the root causes of this affliction as lying in our disobedience, or lack of commitment to the path we have chosen. As a spiritual affliction, the remedy then lies in the regular remembrance of our fundamental choice to follow in the way of prayer. We can do this by offering short but regular moments of prayer in the course of a day, perhaps requiring only the recitation of a line from the Psalms at frequent intervals. This may then pave the way for longer times of prayer as the despondency begins to leave us. We will know when it passes because we will feel energised, not exhausted, by being just where we are, drawn once more to the stillness in prayer that we know to be life-giving.

The Prayer of St Ephraim

Lord and Master of my Life:

Take from me the spirit of sloth,

Despondency, lust for power, and idle talk. (bowing low)

And give your servant instead

A spirit of chastity, humility, forbearing, and love. (bowing low)

O Lord my King,

Grant that I might see my own shortcomings

And not judge my fellows:

For blessed are you to the ages of ages. (bowing low) Amen.

Text from John McGuckin’s Prayer Book of the Early Christians

Check in to the Field Hospital

Travoys Arriving with Wounded at a Dressing Station at Smol, Macedonia, September 1916

The painter Stanley Spencer served in the ambulance brigade in the Balkans in the Great War and he depicted a scene from his experience in a painting with the less-than-memorable name; ‘Travoys Arriving with Wounded at a Dressing Station at Smol, Macedonia, September 1916’. Spencer was deeply religious, as you will probably be aware, and there can be no mistaking the references in his painting to a nativity scene, with animals looking in on a lit central focal point. But in this case, the animals are stretcher-pulling horses rather than the ox and ass, and the central scene is not a birth, but a kind of re-birth being worked by surgeons attending to a wounded soldier. Other wounded soldiers wait their turn on the travoys lined up in the foreground.

This image came to mind when I first heard Pope Francis use one his favourite metaphors for the church, which is that of a field hospital. It’s a vivid and compelling image, especially when combined with Spencer’s painting, because it is not merely a place of healing, but a place of healing situated in the most extreme context – the battlefield. This accentuates the urgency of the need for healing and the gravity of the injuries that are presented there, injuries sustained in the fray of human violence and human failure, in the place where our longed-for peace has been forsaken. It feels like an extreme image, but I think its intensity is needed to wake us up to the wounds that cry out for attention in our day. What are these wounds? I would suggest, on a corporate level, they are the wounds of our separations and disconnections from one another, the wounds that result from insular or self-serving thinking, wounds that manifest themselves in the refusal to see our actions as having any impact on the lives of those who do not appear to be like us. They are the wounds of inequality, chauvinistic nationalism, persistent misogyny, structural racism and, perhaps above all, the failure to recognise the image of God in the other.

In many respects, these wounds are the ones suffered by the leper who came to Jesus in today’s Gospel. On top of the undoubted physical dimensions of his condition are the communal ones. He is shunned, distanced, separated, excluded, reviled, and, in the religious context, regarded as unclean – perpetually incapable of participating in the life-giving and restorative rites of the temple. That’s why Jesus, moved with urgent, gutsy and angry compassion, sends him to the priests to shame them for their shrivelled, petty sense of purity.

There are other kinds of wounds, and many of them are the result of internalising the stigmas the come from sources we feel to have authority over us. For the leper, his experience of having been excluded from normal human interaction may well have taken root deep within his own sense of self, leading to a sense of unworthiness and shame. He may even have blamed himself for his abased position in society. Jesus overcomes this with two powerful movements that flow from his infinite mercy: he reaches out and he touches. He transgresses the isolated position he is given by religious social norms and declares the leper to be a brother, an equal, a beloved child of God – and all of that with a simple touch.

For us, these internalised wounds are legion: low self-esteem, lack of confidence, self-loathing, resentment, self-righteousness, deep insecurity. They eat away at us from the inside and inhibit our free interaction with others. These wounds, no less than the ones that manifest themselves in our bodies, are crying out for a field hospital where they may be tended and soothed, put into remission so that our lives may not be dominated by their constant presence.

I think it is this category of injury that Lent addresses most powerfully. If the church is a field hospital, then Lent is the time of that hospital’s greatest therapeutic activity. We are reminded at this forthcoming time of blessed restoration that the word for salvation might just as appropriately be translated as healing. And if the church is more of a field hospital than a courtroom, then we need not fear the pain that might come from allowing our wounds to be exposed to the healing light and the fresh, invigorating wind of the Spirit. Think less of the hot breath of an accusing judge and more of the cool breeze of an alpine sanitorium. We know that some cures may sting a little, but their pain is fleeting and gives way to relief. In the same way, the church offers some simple practices that bring us inner healing: confession, self-awareness, humility, fasting, resolute silence in prayer that chooses to stay put rather than give way to the myriad distractions that lay claim to our attention.

Lent will be upon us in a couple of days. I invite you to check in to the field hospital for some restoring therapy. The prescription is for slow reading, moderated consumption, much silence, constant prayer, steady resolve, and the willingness to be touched by the one who reaches out to us in love, the one who says to us, ‘I do choose. Be made clean!’