When it comes to the four corrosive spirits identified in St Ephraim’s prayer, surely the fourth – idle talk – is the one that resonates most in our context. If you read the texts of the desert monastics – remember that this prayer comes from that tradition – you will be struck by the number of times the elders have nothing to say when approached for a word by their disciples. This comes from a place of humility: who is to say that the words we are formulating here and now are the right ones for this moment? Should we open our mouths if we are uncertain about what we are about to say? Indeed, there is much to be said for a little more uncertainty in our public utterances. And, although some of the few words they did use found their way into the collections we now treasure, they were not intended for broadcast, but were spoken into a very specific situation that was discerned for the edification of the disciple. You could say that the ‘word’ spoken by the spiritual mother or father was the polar opposite of a social media post, which is more likely to be designed to say something about the author than to edify the seeker.
The warning to pay heed to our speech comes, of course, from the conviction that it is a powerful medium. It has the capacity to heal and encourage as well as to wound or belittle. In the context of spiritual discernment, a well-placed word can open our eyes to the divine or reveal us to ourselves. So the concern about idle talk is partly the need to avoid a careless word that may inadvertently cause harm but it may also be expressing a more general sense that speech per se may be devalued by trivialising it. This is most notably the case when it comes to a disregard for truthfulness in our speech but we might also ask if the sheer volume of unimportant chatter might have a devaluing effect on this precious gift of speech.
More positively, truthful, moderate and edifying speech might be nurtured within us by a more careful attention to silence and to a certain relishing of the life-giving words of scripture that form the basis of our meditations.
In reflecting on this wonderfully compact and challenging Lent prayer, it’s tempting to skip over this phrase and see it as referring only to those who are actually in a position to wield power. This would, of course, be to ignore the fundamental truth that power is always relative and there are far too many instances of those with little formal power in the bigger scheme of things who have used the power they do have negligently or abusively: men over women, adults over children, clerics over laypeople, majorities over minorities. To pray that the Master of our life take from us all lust for power is to pray that our eyes are opened to the way our power or influence is experienced by others so that we use whatever power we do have constructively and compassionately, for the wellbeing of all and in the pattern of the One who emptied himself. Jesus used his power to heal and forgive, and to teach in a way that invited response from his disciples rather than handing down fully-formed teachings. Parables are an example of teaching that empowers the student in the search for the mysteries of the Kingdom of God.
Even if we do not feel ourselves to be people with any significant power to exercise, it may be that we subconsciously strive for a different kind of power – the power of knowledge. We might imagine that the world is what we think it to be, that it conforms to our theories or concepts about it. In this way, we control the world by our preconceptions, potentially closing our mind off to different views. This is also a temptation in the world of faith, where we might conflate our thoughts about God with the reality of God, who is beyond all conceptuality. There is a lovely story in the Apophthegmata Patrum that addresses this problem:
One day some old men came to see Abba Anthony. In the midst of them was Abba Joseph. Wanting to test them, the old man suggested a text from the Scriptures, and, beginning with the youngest, he asked them what it meant. Each gave his opinion as he was able. But to each one the old man said,. ‘You have not understood it.’ Las of all he said to Abba Joseph, ‘How will you explain this saying?’ and he replied, ‘I do no know.’ Then Abba Anthony said, ‘Indeed, Abba Joseph has found the way, for he said “I do not know.”‘
p.4 The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, tr Benedicta Ward, Kalamazoo 1975
One of the ways in which we learn to allow the Master of our life to wean us off our lust for power is to find ourselves more ready to say ‘I do not know’.