March 26, 2022

An Interpretation of the Lenten Prayer of Saint Ephraim the Syrian: On Despondency (3)

By St. Luke, Archbishop of Simferopol and All Crimea

"Lord and Master of my life, give me not a spirit of despondency."*

What is the spirit of despondency? This is what is called discouragement. People who do not understand Christianity at all, who do not understand our spiritual life, think that the entire Christian religion is full of a spirit of despondency. Looking at the monks walking around in black clothes with downcast eyes and turning the prayer rope, they think that the whole religion is dull, like the monks. This is not so at all. This is contrary to the spirit that permeates all of Christianity, for tell me, can a person with a spirit of despondency have the spiritual strength, spiritual vigor necessary to walk along the narrow path, tirelessly struggling with demons? Of course not.

Our religion is not a religion of despondency, on the contrary, it is a religion of cheerfulness, energy, willpower, strength of character. Our religion does not have despondency as its fruit, but something completely opposite, what the Apostle Paul says: “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance. There is no law against such” (Gal. 5:22-23).

This is the true spirit, the essence of our religion: not despondency at all, but righteousness, peaceful joy in the Holy Spirit. Can one who possesses this joy be despondent? Of course not.

People often make mistakes when judging a person's appearance. A true Christian does not look like people who indulge in the joys of life. He is always peaceful, often appears to be deeply thoughtful, walks with his head down, indulging in his thoughts. Does this mean that he is despondent, discouraged? This means that the joys of the world, which other people appreciate, are far from Christian, alien to him, just as children's games and amusements are alien to an adult.

The thoughts of a Christian are focused on the eternal, on the Kingdom of God, turning to the Lord Jesus Christ, therefore he is always serious and thoughtful. Sometimes it happens that even Christians become despondent, there comes a decline in spirit. They, having already gone far along the path of Christ, the path of renunciation of the world, sometimes return in their thoughts to their former path; it seems to them that they have strayed from this path in vain, that it would be good to follow the wide beaten path along which most people go. Then they fall into despair.

This is the state of those people who have come to know the great mysteries of Christ, have left the wide path of the temptations of the world, have followed the path of suffering for Christ. They are seduced by the devil, stopped by legions of demons, prevented from walking along the path of Christ, presenting pictures of the joyful life that they left, a picture of family happiness, the bliss of friendship, they are pulled away from the great path to go back to this path.

And often demons manage to achieve their goal: a person falls into despondency, loses his spirit, loses his zeal for the Lord Jesus Christ, and this despondency is a great danger that lies in wait for every Christian on his path for Christ, this is a devilish temptation. All the saints were subjected to these slanders of the spirits of darkness, and in the vast majority of cases, by prayer, fasting, and vigil, Christians defeated the spirit of despondency cast by the devil. But there were also those in whose souls the spirit of despondency grew and grew, and they left the path of Christ. And when they left, they felt abandoned by God, the emptiness and heaviness of life became unbearable for them, and they often ended their lives by suicide.

That is why all the saints considered despondency to be a great danger, a great misfortune, and directed all their powers to the struggle against the spirit of despondency.

Even saints can fall into despondency. Why, where? No longer from Satan, nor from the spirits of darkness. Despondency arises when they are temporarily abandoned by God's grace. This happened to all the saints; this is a necessary test for everyone who strives in piety. It is necessary that a person does not attribute to himself, to his strengths, to his merits, everything that he has already achieved. He needs to be reminded that he did not achieve this on his own, but only by God's grace.

When a person reaches a high spiritual life, he sometimes thinks about himself, and God's grace leaves him for a while. Then he falls into a heavy, unbearable state of mind, his heart immediately becomes empty. Instead of the warmth sent from God, cold settles in the heart; instead of light, impenetrable darkness sets in; instead of joy, deep despondency. The Lord does this in order to remind the ascetic that he walks the path of Christ not by his own strength, but by the grace of God.

This is one source of discouragement. What other sources are there? I spoke to you about idleness, you should understand that idleness is one of the mothers of despondency. Idle people, not working and completely secure, drowning in luxury, people who are satiated with the blessings of life, lose their taste for life, they get bored with everything, everything becomes uninteresting, boring, they do not find joy in anything, their hearts are filled with despondency - this heavy and dangerous enemy of our salvation.

Another source of discouragement: there are people who tend to see everything in a gloomy light, they are called pessimists. They tend to be in such a mood, to focus their thoughts on the dark, the sinful. They raise the question: where is the justice of God, where is the truth, if the poor but pious suffers, and the unbeliever is rich, walking on crooked paths, blessed?

If a person is inclined to notice in life only the dark, only the bad, the despondency that seizes him grows and grows, it comes to the point that the person does not see anything good and commits suicide. So strong is the spirit of despondency. This is the second time I said how it can bring to suicide.

There is another source of despondency, the most frequent source. These are sorrows, unfortunate cases that we experience in life. A loved one will die, a child, a husband, a mother will die. The person falls into despair. The world is not dear to him, he thinks only of his dear one who has died, and the poor man wanders in thought near the grave, imagines his loved one lying in a coffin and decomposing. Despondency becomes deeper and deeper.

What is the remedy for this despondency? No need to wander around the grave with your thoughts, remember the past and shed tears. It is necessary to fly away to where the dear one, beloved with all the power of thought, has gone. Know that his soul is before God and the angels, rejoicing in his liberation. If you focus not on the dark, but on the light, not on the perishable, but on the eternal, the spirit of despondency will go away.

Serious bodily illnesses sometimes plunge into despondency. There are many people who impatiently bear diseases. And there were saints who lay bedridden with illness all their lives and praised God for it. It is necessary to remember such people and be able to accept the illnesses sent from God. There is no need to refuse the help of a doctor, for the wise son of Sirach says: “God created the physician to help people” (Sir. 38:1-12).

A doctor is a servant of God who can relieve suffering and drive away the spirit of despondency.

These are the sources and causes of discouragement. The main means of dealing with them is prayer. This is a remedy that has been tested by all the saints for many, many centuries. There is no more effective means than prayer, a constant request to God for help.

When you enter into a conversation with God, He comforts you, drives away the spirit of despondency. When you come to the temple of God, where everything is so far from worldly fuss, listen carefully to the hymns, and your spirit will leave the dark region of despondency and soar.

And if you proceed to the powerful means of combating despondency, which the Lord Jesus Christ gave, if at confession you open your heart before the pastor of the Church, and if after that you partake of the Body and Blood of Christ, you will feel relief and joy, and then the spirit of despondency will be driven out of you.

Do not focus your thoughts on the gloomy, on the sinful, on the heavy, but, lifting up the spirit of grief, with your heart abide with God, in the halls of heaven, where there is no access for dark spirits that bring despondency.

This is what every Christian needs to know about despondency.

And what can be said about people who hardly know Christ, who follow the path of the world, who seek joy and consolation from the world? In appearance they often seem contented, cheerful, happy, as if they have no despondency. Don't think that it is like this in reality, don't be tempted by how they appear, but consider avoiding this path. If only they knew what was going on in the depths of their hearts. In the depths of their souls, the denunciation of conscience never ceases. No one can hear the conscience. The inner man raises his head at times and begins to yell. This is the constant suffering of those who pursue worldly prosperity. The Apostle Paul says: “Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death” (2 Cor. 7:10).

If you do not turn from sorrow for the world to sorrow for God, you will perish. Remember the severity of despondency, remember that the heart of a Christian should be filled with joy in the Holy Spirit, the joy of striving for the light, should be alien to the sorrow that fills the hearts of sinners.

Always remember this, and may the Lord God have mercy on you, and may Saint Ephraim assist you with his prayers. Amen.


* The Greek version of the prayer does not contain the word "despondency", but "curiosity". "Despondency" replaced "curiosity" in the Slavonic translation of the prayer.