Tuesday, November 17, 2009

More Ephrem Than Zacchaeus

Whether you are a MAGNIFICAT subscriber or not, you shouldn’t miss the familiar passage from St. Ephrem the Syrian, which that marvelous little prayer book proffers as its meditation for today (pages 248-9):

“Frightening and terrible is the day of your judgment, O our Savior, when secret sins will be revealed. Therefore I tremble, O Lord, and am embraced by terror, for my sins have exceeded all bounds. Be merciful to me according to your compassion, O good and kind-hearted One! I look, O Lord, at my sins and become agitated, seeing their multitude. Alas, how did it happen that such misery has befallen me? My tongue utters marvelous things, but my behavior is shameful and contemptible. Woe is me in that day when secrets will be revealed!... If I go out for a walk, I step out like a righteous man, like a sage. If I see another sinning, I mock and deride him. Alas, my transgressions will likewise be exposed and I will be ashamed! O, better it were for me not to have been born into this world! Then this transient life would not have corrupted me. If I had not seen it, I would have no guilt; I would not have defiled myself with sins and would not have to fear interrogation, the judgment, and torment. As soon as I vow to repent, I return again and fall into the very same sins. The time I spend in sin gladdens me; I even think that I am doing something praiseworthy. Woe is me! Until now I never considered that gehenna awaits me. An evil will leads me into sin, and when I sin I lay the blame on Satan. But woe is me, for I bring about my sins myself. The Evil One does not use force to make me sin; I sin according to my own will. Be kind to me, O you who are kindhearted to the penitent! Forgive me my transgressions according to the magnitude of your goodness. Accept, O Lord, the tears I bring to you, and cleanse me from sin, as you cleansed the harlot. I realize, O Lord, that I have sinned. Spare me according to your compassion.”

This passage is powerful and honest. Nonetheless or perhaps for that very reason I have to challenge MAGNIFICAT’s title for this quote: “How Zacchaeus May Have Prayed”. Although he certainly may have prayed this way in today’s Gospel, being a tax collector and now convert, this great little man did not find himself in the situation St. Ephrem describes, which is more that of a pious man of the cloth all too aware of his human frailty and of the state of denial we often live in. My title would be “More Ephrem than Zacchaeus” and I’d class both men saints by reason of repentance and firm resolve to sin no more.

A meditation on Ephrem’s self-awareness and his focus on the Day of Judgment are more than appropriate as another liturgical year draws rapidly to a close and thought about the last things should hold pride of place.

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