A Tailor’s reflections on the prayer of St. Ephraim
Kh. Krista West · April 1, 2008
Kh. Krista gives some reflections on the prayer of St. Ephraim from a tailor's point of view.
Hello and welcome to “The Opinionated Tailor Talks Shop”.
Today, I’d like to take a slight departure from my usual topics of vestments, garment history, and beauty in the Church. Since it’s Lent my mind has been turning towards the services and prayers of the Church during this time. It’s also the busiest time of the year for me as an ecclesiastical tailor since there are two major vestment changes within six short weeks. I always find Lent to be somewhat of a juggling act and I frequently quip that I’m the only Orthodox Christian praying for a longer Lent! How am I supposed to balance the sheer volume of work at my busiest time when I’m called to be more prayerful, more reflective, more at peace? Just how does that stress and peace thing work anyways?
I can’t think I’m alone in this as I gaze around the faces at an evening service and see the parishioner who I know has to start his day at 5:30am, but stays for all of Great Compline, or the young mother looking tired as she patiently explains part of the service to her small child. When Lent rolls around each year, we continue through it with the same things we do every day—the same struggles, the same commitments, the same issues. But, paradoxically, we want to have Lent be a time of contemplation and meditation at the very time we are given more responsibilities and demands on our time and resources. I frequently encounter people who seem somewhat wistful and discouraged as if they’re not “getting it” because Lent is still feeling difficult and stressful. That, somehow, if they just mastered Lent, then they would be walking around in a rosy-tinted haze of spiritual refreshment and joy.
I got to thinking more about this topic this past week when my husband looked up the prayer of St. Ephraim the Syrian in Greek. I’ve been studying modern Greek for the last year and he thought I would appreciate seeing the prayer in Greek. Something in the first phrase caught our eyes,
To remind us of the prayer of St. Ephraim, I’ll read the first phrase in English:
“O Lord and Master of my life, take from me the spirit of sloth, meddling, lust of power, and idle talk…”
Now, if you’ll forgive me my very beginner accent, in Greek: kurie, kai despota tns zwhs mou, pneuma argias, periegias, filapcias, kai argologias mn moi dws.
Now, in the first section, there is the word, “argias”, which is a combination of the alpha privitive (don’t worry, this is as technical as I’m going to get!), the alpha privitive “a”, which means “non-” or “the opposite of”, like the English words “atypical” or “asymmetrical”. Now this “a” comes in front of “rgias”, which comes from the ancient Greek word, “ergon”, which means “work”. So the first part of the prayer that is often translated “sloth”, has the connotation of “the opposite of work”, or “non-work”. Think of non-dishwashing or non-cooking or non-driving and you get the idea. The next word, “periergias” we often translate “meddling”. But, in Greek, “peri” means around, like the word “perimeter” and “ergias” means work as we have already seen. So, we’ve got this idea of working around. It’s literally “working in circles” or, as one of my clients, Fr. Patrick O’Grady, pointed out, “working around everything but the real work you’re supposed to be doing”. St. Ephraim is beseeching God to save him from this. Notice that he’s not asking God to save him from work itself, rather he is asking God to hone his working focus by taking from him “non-work” and “working in circles”. If you take away these distractions, then what is left is pure, focused work.
What I was so struck by when reading this in the Greek was St. Ephraim’s foundational assumption that there is work and that work is so important to our spiritual life that we ask God to remove from us anything that keeps us from true work. How many of us have said to each other, “Boy, Lent is work!” and it’s almost as if we have the idea that Lent should be more restful than other times of the year. That spiritual growth and leisure go hand in hand, but, alas, they do not. Spiritual growth and work go hand in hand, which is made abundantly clear by St. Ephraim’s prayer. By now, most of you are aware that it’s Lent. You’re a little hungry, maybe struggling to remain cheerful, and starting to feel stretched, both physically and spiritually. Guess what, you’re working! And this is a good thing, it is as it should be.
When I began learning to make vestments, I experienced a real change in my creative life. Before, I could tinker at this, or tinker at that, and never really had a deadline. If I felt like working on something, then great; if not, no biggy. But once I started making vestments professionally, there came a distinct sense of accountability for my work. I had to finish a project within the agreed-upon time and suddenly, whether or not I felt like doing something, had very little to do with the task at hand.
Once I had a young family, I was constantly struggling with scheduling my work around my family’s and my parish’s needs. I came up with a solution accidentally when I had a particularly full week and I decided to work a 15-hour day to get everything done. Now, I grew up with the 40-hour work week/weekends off work model, so even the idea of a 15-hour day seemed ludicrous, but, I thought it would be a one-time thing, and so I woke up early and got going. When I finally sat down at 10pm that night, I had the most exhilirating feeling of satisfaction that I had ever experienced. I had never worked that hard or that long in my life and it was as if I had crossed into a new country. I had strengths, or rather Christ in me, gave me strength I never knew was possible. I felt as if I had moved beyond “me” and my limited capabilities, and into a place where Christ could work through me. In the past, I had heard of people’s spiritual experiences and amazing peace and all that, but being a rather high-energy person, I had never sat still long enough to find it myself. I had always felt that I was somehow a second-class Christian, because I couldn’t “Be still and know the presence of God”. But, here, amazingly, was a way for me to get out of the way and experience Christ through work. Since then, I’ve talked about this phenomenon with other seamstresses and we all seem to experience it at some point or another. Some of us call it “getting in the zone” or “getting in the groove”, but it’s a definite sense of work as a freeing action towards prayer. Of work as a letting go and being swept up into something much larger than yourself.
Now, this is certainly not something that happens every time I work, but it’s important to note that St. Ephraim thinks it can! He’s asking God to give him pure, focused work so that he can move towards constant prayer. So that he can go deeper and deeper into himself and meet Christ. Once I became aware of this concept of work and prayer going hand-in-hand, I began looking for evidence of it in the saints lives like a detective looking for clues, and I was elated to find many stories and illustrations. The Desert Fathers making reed baskets while they prayed, the poignantly beautiful story of Fr. Arseny, a Russian priest sent to a hard labor camp in Siberia during the Communist Regime, cleaning out toilets and making the sign of the cross with his eyes. Pretty much after reading about Fr. Arseny, I knew that work, any kind of work, could be holy. It really had to do with effort and attitude, not the actual work itself.
Which gets us back to St. Ephraim. He asks that he be saved from “non-work”, but he also asks that he be saved from “working in circles”. This is the kind of distracting work that masquerades as real work. Pushing the broom, but not really cleaning anything up. Making a half-hearted effort, not throwing yourself into it. Just sort of feebly patting work on the back rather than giving him a bear hug. Along with St. Ephraim we are praying to embrace work. To go out of our way to work during Lent, understanding that this can be an effective path to “theosis” or union with God.
This idea of working and working hard can seem extremely counter-culture in modern-day America. I was perusing the audiobook titles at my library when one caught my eye—“Work Less, Make More”. It’s the American Dream to work as little as possible. But, as Americans, we’ve got it all backwards—if working less is so great, then why do we have so many people who seem so discontent with their lives? I think one of the most surprising things to happen once I figured out that work was good, was that I realized that work made me happy. I don’t mean “on a spiritual mountain-top, gazing down at the hoy-poloy”, but just plain happy. My physical stamina increased and it seemed that my requirements for happiness decreased—little jobs around the house or at church brought me satisfaction. Plus, it gave me a sense of comraderie with people—there’s something very human about working side-by-side with others. I learned things from other people, especially from the pious Middle Eastern women in my parish. I learned to say, “By the power of the Cross” when taking things out of the oven or lifting something heavy. I began to learn how to work hard by watching these women who excelled at integrating their faith and their work—the two were completely seamless and these women could not pick apart the one from the other.
Now, as with any spiritual discipline, training yourself in the discipline is a continuum, not a one-time event. You make progress, little bit by little bit, pushing yourself a little more at each opportunity. You stop saying, “I’ll get through this” and began saying, “With God’s help, I’ll get through this.” You don’t give in to discouragement, because discouragement and despair are “working in circles”—they are distractions. We’ve all heard children go, “la la la la la”, when they don’t want to hear something. Work is our spiritual “la la la la” response to discouragement and despair. If you’re busy working, then there’s just not a whole lot of time to sit around and get into trouble.
About a week ago I attended a Women’s Retreat at our local women’s monastery. I love going to the monastery, so when a friend offered to drive, I packed my bag, shipped my daughters off to their aunty’s and was ready to go. There are two things I love most at the monastery and no, it’s not the services or the beauty of the surroundings, although I do enjoy both of those. It’s that I don’t have to answer the phone and I get to be in the presence of some really intense lives. I always find it amusing when someone refers to the monastic life as one of contemplation and peace, as if the sisters are sitting around singing “Kum-ba-yah”. When I first started going out to the monastery years ago, I was quite surprised to see the sheer volume of work that the sisters perform—they make candles and incense, bake pastries, feed all of the pilgrims, clean, take care of animals and on top of all this, pray the services with unfailing regularity and keep a personal rule of prayer! I had begun to understand the symbiotic connection between work and prayer and it was with a sense of relief that I viewed their lives—here were our Orthodox Christian version of Olympic athletes—and they were working and working hard!
Seeing the sisters work gave me the same kind of “coming home” feeling that I had when I converted to Orthodox Christianity. This work and prayer thing really worked and here were the sisters to prove it! It was as if I was being wholly accepted by the Church for the high-energy, not sitting-still type that I was, and not only accepted, but given a way of faith. I no longer felt like a second-class Christian, but that the Church was embracing me and showing me a way to prayer. It was utterly compelling and I still feel this thanksgiving and wonder when I am at the monastery.
Now, though I do love work, even I can have too much of it, and I came home from my recent trip to St. Vladimir’s and St. Tikhon’s seminaries and “hit the ground running” as they say. Purple orders needed to be completed, orders for Pascha needed to have supplies ordered and be scheduled to arrive by Holy Friday. I was also working on a new project with an embroidery firm in India which was taking much longer than I expected and I certainly felt that my plate was full. In fact, I was starting to feel that my plate was “too” full. The question “How am I going to manage?” keep popping up in my mind and I began to feel a sort of creeping despair. I started to say to myself, “I’ve reached my limit” and I wasn’t sure how I was going to proceed. It almost became a mantra and I found myself saying, “I’ve reached my limit” many times throughout the day.
So, when I had a chance to go out to the monastery, even for 24 hours, I jumped at it. I knew if I could see the sisters for an hour or two, then I would be revitalized as I always am when I am there. The speaker of the retreat was Mother Cassiana of the Protection of the Holy Virgin Monastery in Lake George, Colorado and her theme was “Return to Paradise”. Now, being the not-very-good-at-sitting-still person, I always sit in the back at a speaking event and I bring my knitting. So, I’m sitting there, enjoying Mother Cassiana’s firm grasp of Orthodox theology and her excellent presentation style, when I suddenly hear her saying the exact words that have been zooming around my head, “So, what do you do when you feel that you’ve reached your limit?”. It was one of those startling moments, when you think to yourself, “Did I just say that out loud?”. I looked around, a little sheepish and embarrassed, as if the question was a neon sign emblazoned on my forehead.
And then she said the most simple and profound thing: “When you feel that you’ve reached your limit, somehow your limit will expand.” I immediately thought of the scene in C.S. Lewis’ “The Last Battle” in which the children have died and are in Heaven, but Heaven looks like the Narnia they know and love, and Aslan is saying to them, “Go farther up and farther in” and as they do so, the Narnia—Heaven becomes larger and more full of life. They find themselves running effortlessly through an ever-increasingly beautiful land.
It is this that Lent and the work of Lent brings us to—right up to our limit and then sailing past it and beyond. It’s a heady sense of spiritual freedom and the grace and mercy of our Lord and we just don’t get there unless we’ve put the work in. God knows this and so did St. Ephraim.
So through the remainder of this Lent, I would like to wish you all “Kali Dynami”, “Good strength”!