During Great Lent, all of our daily liturgical prayer in the Byzantine churches instills in us the desire to repent for our sins and to crucify our passions more deliberately than at any other time of the year.
To assist us in knowing and correcting our sins, each weekday we pray the Prayer of St. Ephrem and read The Ladder of Divine Ascent by St. John Climacus, a powerful combination of works by two Church Fathers and saints.
If you are not praying the Prayer of St. Ephrem and reading The Ladder already, you still have time to add them to your Lenten prayer.
The prayer of the fourth century saint and Doctor of the Church, St. Ephrem, helps you to knock so that you might receive. The reading of the sixth-seventh century saint, St. John Climacus, lets you reflect deeply on how to know and attack your sins and with the grace of God change your life.
If you pray each of the services of the Byzantine Divine Office and non-canonical Morning Prayer found in prayer books, you recite the Prayer of St. Ephrem ten times during the day. In reciting this prayer, you make four prostrations and bow twelve times in almost all of the services.
Most will pray this prayer two or three times a day, but you will benefit even if you pray this prayer well only once a day during Lent.
While the prostrations and bows remind you of Our Lord’s suffering, the words of the prayer draw your attention to four vices and four virtues. Together, the physical movement and the words unify your body, mind, soul, and thoughts in a reflection on what it means to be in union with Our Lord.
With the first sentence of prayer we make a prostration and pray:
“O Lord and Master of my life, grant that I many not be afflicted with a spirit of sloth, inquisitiveness, ambition and vain talking.” (Publican’s Prayer Book)
We start this prayer, therefore, acknowledging our proper relationship to Our Lord and that a Christian puts his life in the hands of the Master. We ask the Lord to prevent our becoming afflicted with four worldly sins. And we recognize as well that if what we ask of the Lord is for our salvation he will grant it.
The prayer also teaches us about how we sin. The slothful are wasters of time, and so have a difficult time following Christ. Those who are inquisitive, ambitious, or vain talkers fill up the day with their impulses, their worldly desires, and so are focused on themselves, others, and things rather than on giving themselves to Christ.
With the second sentence of the prayer we make another prostration and petition, this time asking the Lord to grant us the gift of four virtues:
“Instead, bestow upon me, Your servant, a spirit of purity, humility, patience and love.”
As servants of the Lord, we strive to be pure, humble, patient, and motivated, as he was, by love for God and neighbor.
These virtues have a connection with the vices of the prayer, since, for example, a humble person is not ambitious, a patient person is not inquisitive, and a loving person will not be slothful or a vain talker. A vain talker also in not humble, St. John Climacus reminds us, since a vain talker is conceited.
We prostrate a third time and pray:
“Yes, O Lord and King, grant me the grace to see my own sins and not to judge my brethren. For you are blessed forever and ever. Amen.”
After this petition we pray the following twelve times, with twelve bows from the waist, the hand touching or nearly touching the floor:
“O God, forgive me the sinner, and have mercy on me.”
We then end by praying the third petition a second time and making a fourth prostration.
With St. Ephrem’s prayer, we focus on the log in our own eye instead of the splinter in the eye of our neighbor. In praying well, we become like the Publican rather than the Pharisee. But we also recognize, as we pray in the Byzantine Divine Office of Lent, that the goodness of the Pharisee surpasses our own.
A section of The Ladder of Divine Ascent, divided into thirty chapters called steps, is read at the third, sixth, and ninth hours of prayer on weekdays for the six weeks of Lent.
The opening step concerns renunciation of the world, and the final step the “linking together of the supreme reality among the virtues” or the “three that bind and secure the union of all: faith, hope, love; and the greatest of these is love, for God himself is so called.” (Holy Transfiguration Monastery translation)
In between, St. John Climacus discusses topics such as talkativeness and silence, vainglory, meekness, simplicity, and guilelessness. Although he writes about and for monks, what he says easily can be applied to all.
Each day of reading, you most likely will leave your reflection with at least one piece of guidance that will help you to live Lent more fully. One good reminder in the step on purity and chastity (Step 15:18) concerns the fast itself:
“Do not trust because of abstinence you will not fall. One who had never eaten was cast from Heaven.”
A similar comment about why we pray and fast is in the chapter on vainglory (Step 22:8):
“Every lover of self-display is vainglorious. The fast of the vainglorious person is without reward and his prayer is futile, because he does both for the praise of men.”
Another good reminder is in the step on cowardice (Step 21:13):
“The lazy monk is experienced in loquaciousness; but when the hour of prayer arrives, he cannot keep his eyes open.”
The Ladder helps us to understand our sins and what is required of the Christian, but it also helps us to reflect more fully on St. Ephrem’s profound prayer.
Excellent guides alone, they are even better prayed together. Together, they help us to turn away from sin and the world and turn instead toward Jesus Christ and heaven.