Reflection on a Saying of a Desert Christian: St. Ephraim

“My brothers, we are spiritual merchants. Indeed, we resemble the merchants of this present life, who each day take account of their profits and losses; and, when this accounting confirms that they have suffered a loss, they reflect and see how they can rectify the loss.

“You, too, my beloved, must act this way; every day, morning and evening, you must take precise account of your business activities. In the evening, as a nightly self-inspection and collection of your thoughts, reflect and converse sincerely with yourself, saying: ‘Was I perhaps lax in some instance, annoying God? Did I perhaps fall into idle talk? Did I perhaps fail to show concern for the spiritual welfare of my brother, or irritate him? Did I maybe speak ill of someone? I wonder if, when my lips were singing hymns to God, perhaps my mind was thinking of worldly vanities. Perhaps carnal desires troubled me and I gladly accepted this trouble. Perhaps I was absorbed by bodily concerns and I completely abandoned the memory of God.’

“Think about these and similar things, in the nightly collecting of your thoughts, and if you discover that at some point you have suffered a loss, take care to rectify that loss. Groan and cry, persistently asking God to help you, so that you will never again suffer losses in the same things.

“And when morning comes, when taking account, think about the following and say: ‘I wonder how I passed this night. Did I gain something from it, or did I incur a loss? Did my mind also slumber, along with my body? Did I have spiritual tears? Perhaps I fell asleep while kneeling. Did I perhaps accept the attack of evil thoughts and not hasten to repulse them, but receive them in a voluptuous way?’

“Examining yourself carefully in this way, if you then note that you have been overcome somewhere, struggle to make amends for your defeat and to establish a guard in your heart, so as not to become a victim of the same thing again.

“If you always take care thus, you will preserve your spiritual merchandise, making it secure in the treasury of heaven” (Saint Ephraim).

If we desire to have Christ increase within us, then we also need to see how we must decrease. If we want Jesus at the center of our hearts, then we must take note of what else is in our hearts that might prevent Jesus from being at the center.  If we want to live holy lives, in other words, we must become aware of that which is unholy within us.

St. Ephraim recommends a twice daily examination.  His evening examination is, I believe, self-explanatory. We review our day, look for that of which we must repent and also for which we must give thanks.

The morning examination intrigues me. It’s a new idea for me. When I awake, I want my first thought to be, although it all too often is not, “Thank you, God, for this new day. How may I serve You today?”  Sadly, my first thought is usually “Groan.  I want to sleep some more” or I start listing all the things I need to do, most of which I forget by the time I’ve brushed my teeth. I generally remember after a couple of cups of tea.

But to ask myself the questions St. Ephraim recommends? I hope I passed the night in a restful, restorative sleep. St. Ephraim seems to think the mind doesn’t sleep, that the mind is vigilant while the body sleeps and while modern science, doesn’t 100% understand the mind, we do know it too needs some rest.  But maybe God spoke to us in our dreams? That would certainly be worth noting, wouldn’t it?

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