Saturday, April 2, 2011

The spirit of the great lent (invited post)

According to one taoist legend Duke Mu of Chin was looking for exceptionally good horses for his stable. A wise man - Po Lo - recommended Chiu-Fang Kao as the best expert. Master Kao traveled many miles on behalf of the duke and finally brought to him what he believed to be the best horse in the empire. "What kind of horse is it?" asked duke, "It's a grey mare, your majesty" replied Kao, but when he brought in the horse it turned out to be a black stallion. "Why did you make me hire this simpleton? This man knows nothing about horses! He can not even tell their colour and sex!" asked duke angrily. "This is how good he is, your majesty" replied Po Lo. "He only sees what is essential and completely forgets homely details. He looks at the things he ought to look at and neglects the things that need not be looked at." The horse turned out to be the best of its kind indeed and won its master many races.[1]

We live in a complicated world where information flows faster then the waters of Nantahala. We are drowning in the myriads of tasks, goals, appointments, meetings, places to go, things to see and do. To do lists are getting longer, calendar events denser. Everybody wants to be successful (you have to work hard to become successful), have a lot of fun (you deserved it, you worked so hard to become successful), see "1000 places you have to see before you die", watch "1000 movies you have to see before you die", try "1000 casseroles you have to eat before you die" ... The list goes forever. "What do people gain from all their labors at which they toil under the sun? ... All things are wearisome, more than one can say.  The eye never has enough of seeing, nor the ear its fill of hearing" (Eclessiastes:1:3,8). Meanwhile, we think less and less about the ultimate questions that get diluted in everything else that we have to think and worry about; The essential questions that humans have been contemplating on for millennia. Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going to? Is there a meaning to life?  What ought I do? Why is there so much suffering and what can I do about it? "I saw the tears of the oppressed‚Äî and they have no comforter; power was on the side of their oppressors‚Äî and they have no comforter.  And I declared that the dead, who had already died, are happier than the living, who are still alive.  But better than both is the one who has never been born, who has not seen the evil that is done under the sun" (Eclessiastes:4;1-3).

Saint Ephrem the Syrian, a fourth century hymnographer and theologian, has written many hymns, poems and sermons. One of the surviving prayers attributed to him says "Κύριε καὶ Δέσποτα τῆς ζωῆς μου, πνεῦμα ἀργίας, περιεργίας, φιλαρχίας, καὶ ἀργολογίας μή μοι δῷς.Πνεῦμα δὲ σωφροσύνης, ταπεινοφροσύνης, ὑπομονῆς, καὶ ἀγάπης χάρισαί μοι τῷ σῷ δούλῳ. Ναί, Κύριε Βασιλεῦ, δώρησαι μοι τοῦ ὁρᾶν τὰ ἐμὰ πταίσματα, καὶ μὴ κατακρίνειν τὸν ἀδελφόν μου, ὅτι εὐλογητὸς εἶ, εἰς τοὺς αἰῶνας τῶν αἰώνων. Ἀμήν."; In English: "O Lord and Master of my life, give me not the spirit of sloth, periergia, lust for power and idle talk.  But grant unto me, Thy servant, a spirit of chastity, humility, patience and love. Amen" For long time I did not know what the word periergia meant. Only recently did I discover that periergia in ancient Greek means over-exactness (or over-elaboration, or futility, or curiosity about useless details).[2] In orthodox tradition, this prayer of righteous Ephrem is considered to be the crispest summary of the spirit of great lent. Every morning, on weekdays, during great lent, Practicing orthodox christians all around the world recite the prayer of righteous Ephrem during services and ask God to help them not to succumb to periergia and not to lose site of the questions and issues that are of ultimate importance.

written by Lado Samushia

[1] I borrowed this legend from "Raise high the roof beam high, carpenters" by J. Salinger.
[2] In modern Greek the word periergia means curiosity and has positive connotation.