The Syrian Penitential Spirit The Witness of Saints Ephraim and Isaac (Part 3)
Similarly, the third quality—in Greek, hypomone, meaning “patience”— is best understood as arising from humility. St. Isaac perfectly states this connection in the same Homily 42: “in proportion to your humility you are given patience in your woes” (212). In other words, just as humility incarnates sophrosyne, so it gives rise to patience. In the same way that— in the first sentence—sloth and crazed busyness produced the condition for the hunger to control things (philarchia), so, too, sophrosyne and humility together yield patience as their fruit. But note again the difference in movement between the two sentences. In sentence 1, the sequence may rightly be characterized as vicious: whipsawing from sloth to busyness, then to domination and submission. Here, in sentence 2, the sequence is incarnative, with each quality—or pathway—giving itself wholly to the actualization of the next. Sophrosyne gives itself into humility, and together they become incarnated in and as patience. This incarnative movement thus perfectly expresses the action of kenotic, or self-emptying, love. Thus, the fourth and final quality of this beautiful spirit is stated: agape, or love. A later homily of St. Isaac’s possesses this sentence: “Love is the offspring of knowledge, and knowledge is the offspring of the health of soul; health of soul is a strength which comes from prolonged patience” (62:298). Isaac’s sequence here thus interestingly matches Ephraim’s sequence in the prayer, for in both, the endpoint of love fulfills the whole sequence. Even the differences between Isaac’s and Ephraim’s formulations can be understood as harmonic and not divergent. For St. Ephraim’s sophrosyne is a superb reading of St. Isaac’s “health of soul,” while St. Isaac’s “knowledge” perfectly fits St. Ephraim’s “humility of mind.” And again, the sequence of the second sentence is the movement of incarnation and kenotic love, the divine becoming always more fully realized in our flesh as we become always more divinized in God. Then the prayer’s third and final sentence emerges. Here St. Ephraim prays that God give him the sight to see fully his own transgressions. We may understand this sight as completing the prayer’s movement into incarnation. That is, St. Ephraim prays that he may see himself fully in the way that God sees him: in all his sinfulness. St. Ephraim also prays that he be given not to judge his brother in this awareness of his own sinfulness, not to blame another even slightly for his own sin. And in so praying, St. Ephraim makes the second great sentence of the prayer become fully incarnate. To be able to withstand—for even an instant—fully knowing one’s own sinfulness without even remotely blaming another for any of that sinfulness: here is the heart and mind of the Orthodox Lent. For such knowledge would be akin to seeing ourselves in the way God beholds us: seeing our transgressions and never judging another. To Syriac Orthodoxy, such seeing is the supreme end of all ascetic labors. For such knowledge, Saints Isaac and Ephraim are saying, would yield in us the immense fruitfulness of actual loving: of God and of one’s brother or sister in God. In Homily 62, St. Isaac asks, “What is knowledge?” and then answers: “The perception of life immortal.” “And what is life immortal? Consciousness in God” (298). In this way, then, the third sentence of St. Ephraim’s prayer moves the penitent’s mind into the mind of God, and we achieve what St. Paul calls the mind of Christ (1 Cor 2:16). And from within the mind of Christ, St. Ephraim beholds Christ’s eternality: “for blessed art Thou, unto ages of ages.” From this perspective, St. Ephraim’s prayer—“Grant me to see my own transgressions”—can be understood to incarnate, in and as repentance, what Our Lord prays in John 17: “I am no longer in this world . . . and I come to You, Holy Father” (John 17:11). To achieve genuine sight of one’s sinfulness without blaming others is to be with God. “Now I come to You,” Our Lord continues, “and these things I speak in the world, that they may have My joy fulfilled in themselves” (John 17:13). Note very carefully: as Christ says this great priestly prayer, He is “no longer in this world” at the very moment He is speaking “these things . . . in the world.” In other words, this prayer of Christ’s is spoken at the boundary between worlds, where heaven and earth touch, combining within Himself the life here and the life there. And at this boundary, Christ gives all His joy to be incarnated and made full in us. Just so, in its final phrase the Prayer of St. Ephraim achieves the blessedness of heaven—and the penitent gives all this blessedness to his brother in the action of surrendering all his judgment of him. Here is the fullest incarnation of humility and patience; here is the deepest heart of Orthodox Lent.
Sheehan, Donald. The Grace of Incorruption: The Selected Essays of Donald Sheehan on Orthodox Faith and Poetics (pp. 19-20). Paraclete Press. Kindle Edition.