Book Review by Dr Andrew Mellas: Archbishop Makarios of Australia, Lord and Master of my life: Reflections on spiritual alertness (Sydney: St Andrew’s Orthodox Press, 2020)
There are moments in our lives when everything falls apart, when the world we have known betrays us and when those whom we trust might abandon us. It is in the midst of this dark night of the soul that even the very first word of the prayer of St Ephraim the Syrian, “Lord”, can set us on a path to the mystery of salvation. This prayer, which is our constant companion during Great Lent, which comforts us and guides us on the journey to Pascha, is the subject of a marvellous and insightful book by Archbishop Makarios: Lord and Master of my life. His Eminence carefully unlocks the spiritual meaning of every word in this prayer for his readers, inviting us to experience the compunction, tears and repentance the prayer awakens, and bidding us to feel its deeper yearning for the divine love of God that awaits us at every twist and turn of our life.
The word “Lord” might seem like a stock honorific for Jesus Christ. However, as Archbishop Makarios shows us, this unadorned cry of a contrite heart, this plea from a son and daughter who have travelled so far away from their homeland, reveals an awareness of the fallenness of the human condition, a recognition of our estrangement from the grace of our Creator, and an ardent desire for a return to our ancient dignity. Yet it also signifies a truly courageous decision in the adventure of human freedom: “We leave everything to Christ. We entrust our life to God because the Christian believes that nothing belongs to himself. With this deep faith he is liberated, freed from his anxieties and worries…because for him exists He who is eternal, his Lord and Master of his life” (p. 33). The awesome mystery of God may seem beyond all understanding, and yet the Lord of the universe and the ages is not a stranger to the human condition: “For we do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in every respect tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15). The “Lord and Master” of our life is the God who loved us so much that he became human and was crucified “for the life of the world” (John 6:51).
Archbishop Makarios eloquently portrays the beauty of this relationship between Creator and creation. Our Lord is not a tyrant. He is the Master of our life because he is the source of life, the giver of life and the one who transforms our life. And it is with this realisation that we begin to glimpse why the core of the prayer of St Ephraim is concerned with our emotions—or, as they were known in Byzantium—our passions. His Eminence warns us of how dangerous and destructive these passions can become: “When people take God out of their life, they become enslaved to their passions and desires. They become trapped in their created form and lose their freedom and the beauty of life” (p. 36). However, His Eminence also points to the power of holy passions that are born from a divine desire. As St Macrina tells St Gregory of Nyssa: “if a person uses emotions according to their right principle, receiving them into himself without falling into their power, he will be like some king who, by using the many hands of his servants for assistance, will easily accomplish his virtuous purpose.” As a wise shepherd, Archbishop Makarios guides us away from depraved passions that seek to entrap and enslave us—from idleness, curiosity, love of power and idle talk—and leads us to the blessed passions (μακάρια πάθη) that will transform our life: prudence, humility, patience and love. In doing this, His Eminence reveals how interrelated these passions are, how idleness can give birth to curiosity, and how these two passions can arouse a love of power. He draws on the writings of the saints of our Church, the desert and the Holy Mountain, shedding new light on the Lenten prayer he is exploring and weaving together a spiritual manifesto that has timeless significance.
Perhaps the most striking chapter is the one concerned with the final petition in the prayer of St Ephraim: “Grant me to see my own faults and not condemn my brother.” An ancient proverb suggests that to see one’s own sin is a greater miracle than raising someone from the dead. That is why Archbishop Makarios tells us: “The ability to see the deeper reality of oneself is ultimately a gift from God.” However, that is why we pray to God for this gift, that is why the prayer of St Ephraim reminds us that we are at every moment entirely dependent on God, and that is why we seek this gift of self-knowledge: “it is salvific self-knowledge” (p. 108). Moreover, as His Eminence shows us, this gift becomes even greater when it is united with a deep respect for our neighbour. Our neighbour must not be “a stranger, an enemy, an opponent, but a brother and a friend” (p. 110). In short, our neighbour is our salvation: “Even if we see, with our own eyes, someone sinning, we will not judge them, but we will quietly cover their failings in a spirit of tenderness” (p. 111). While the prayer of St Ephraim calls us to embark on the adventure of asceticism, it also teaches us to yearn for God’s grace: “We need the divine fire, which can only be lit within us by Christ” (p. 115).
These are extraordinary times. A pandemic has changed so many things that we take for granted. A microscopic virus has shaken the very foundations of our society, threatening economies and health systems around the world. However, this pandemic cannot touch the reality of salvation. As Archbishop Makarios counsels us, it is impossible “to experience the Resurrection if, previously, we had not experienced the event of the Cross” (p. 113). At every Divine Liturgy of St John Chrysostom, our Archbishop addresses the following prayer to Christ our Lord during the Eucharist: “You brought us out of non-existence into being, and when we had fallen you raised us up again, and left nothing undone until you had brought us up to heaven and had granted us your Kingdom that is to come.” The ultimate purpose of the spiritual reflections in this gem of a book is to make us sharers of this Kingdom. This book is a wonderful companion in our journey to this Kingdom, teaching us the transformative power of repentance and revealing to us the salvific love of the Lord and Master of our life.
Lord and Master of my life can be purchased from the Bookstore of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of Australia: (02) 9690 6122; https://www.greekorthodoxbookshop.com.au/