Who is the first of sinners?

Prayer of St. Ephraim

Every year when I announce the subjects of the Pro-Life Action League’s annual Lenten Prayer Challenge, the response is generally very positive. My fellow pro-life Christians eagerly pledge to pray and fast for the three individuals involved in abortion selected for the Challenge.

However, there are always some who react negatively, as evidenced yesterday when I announced that this year we are praying for three actresses who are part of the “shout your abortion” campaign. Here are some examples:

  • “I can not and will not pray for people who murder and won’t repent”
  • “They are so evil and disgusting.”
  • “I’m not praying for them, they can rot in Hell”
  • “I say your [sic] all selfish bitches and god will take care of you”
  • “I pray that they burn in hell.”

This last comment is especially troubling. Is there greater blasphemy than to pray someone will be damned?

Again, the vast majority of comments are positive. And my point here isn’t to cast judgment on the people who reacted with spite. I understand where they’re coming from! As I said in the video invitation for the Challenge, it’s hard to pray for women who use their celebrity to promote abortion.

But I thought it might be helpful for us all to reflect on some words from the Prayer of St. Ephrem, a fourth century Syriac monk:

O Lord and King, bestow upon me the grace to see my own sins, and not to think evil of those of my brethren.

In the Byzantine Catholic tradition that I belong to, we pray this prayer frequently throughout Lent. It’s even part of the Divine Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts celebrated on Lenten Wednesdays and Fridays.

It’s a challenging prayer! That is to say, it’s a challenging thing to do: to focus strictly on my own sins, and not to stand in judgment of anyone else’s. Not to even think about them. That’s why we pray for the grace to do it.

But I believe this kind of attitude towards sin is essential — especially if we strive to obey our Lord’s commandment to “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”

It’s very difficult, if not impossible, to pray for someone you despise. And on the flip side, it’s hard to despise someone you’re praying for.

In fact, I’ve learned that if I find myself resenting someone, the first thing I need to do is to pray for them. Those prayers soften my heart, and prepare the way for reconciliation — whether we’re talking about someone I merely find annoying, or someone who has truly betrayed me.

None of this means that we pretend our enemies aren’t our enemies, or that they’re not sinners (like each of us is). But we don’t put the focus there. We don’t worry about their sin. We worry about our own sin, and leave it to God to mete out judgment and mercy.

Not only Sacred Scripture but 2,000 years of lived Christianity reveal that no one is beyond redemption. Nor is anyone so secure in their faith that they’re safe from falling into the deepest pit of sin.

That’s why, at every Byzantine Divine Liturgy each one of us calls himself the “first” of sinners in the prayer offered immediately before receiving the Eucharist.

It’s hard not to pray that prayer without the thought intruding that there are all kinds of people who are far worse sinners than me. But in reality, I can’t read anyone else’s heart.

Sure, moral theology explains how specific acts are objectively sinful, and can even rank the seriousness of sins to some degree. But it doesn’t reveal how well formed the sinner’s conscience was, or what constellation of factors may have made temptation harder to resist for them.

On the list of sinners whose hearts I can read, I truly am the first. Because I’m the only one on that list.

So I invite my brothers and sisters in Christ to reflect during Lent on the Prayer of St. Ephrem. Here it is in full:

O Lord, Master of my life, grant that I may not be infected with the spirit of slothfulness and acquisitiveness, with the spirit of ambition and vain talking.

Grant instead to me your servant the spirit of purity and humility, the spirit of patience and neighborly love.

“O Lord and King, bestow upon me the grace of being aware of my sins and of not thinking evil of those of my brethren, for You are blessed for ever and ever. Amen.

Have a blessed and holy Lent!

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