Whenever I read the lives of the great ascetic saints, two things always happen in me. First, I feel really inspired to pray more, repent better, and grow in faith. And then I usually feel like there’s no way I’ll ever be able to come close to having the kind of spiritual life that they have. How will I ever keep vigil for hours with the angels when I can barely make time for morning and evening prayers and pay attention through the whole Liturgy? How is it that they can work miracles through their love, and I can barely forgive my best friend?
Over the years, I’ve gotten some pretty good advice on how to make a little bit of progress. Here are a few things I have found most helpful:
1. Accept Where You Are
One great definition of humility I’ve heard is just being ok with where you are. It’s resisting the temptation to think you’re further along the spiritual path than you really are and at the same time not despairing when you see a saint who you know is much further along than you.
2. Take Tiny Steps
It’s tempting to want to try to do everything there is to do in the spiritual life all at once, especially when we begin to be filled with the zeal that comes from really making our faith our own–a process that often happens to us when we go off to college or when we convert to Orthodoxy. And while our zeal to commit more of our time and energy to God is definitely a good thing, there can be so many problems with an I-can-do-anything attitude. For one, it blocks you from seeing where you really are. It can set you up for disappointment and disillusionment when you find that simply making more prostrations doesn’t automatically allow you to walk on water, raise the dead, or even be much nicer to your cranky roommate. It can also be difficult to actually maintain over time and know what is really benefiting you spiritually.
I recently heard Fr. Michael Gillis say on a podcast, “It’s a marathon, not a sprint.” Take little steps in the spiritual life that you can actually commit to doing consistently. Over time, one little thing becomes so ingrained in your life that it doesn’t even feel like you’re doing anything so difficult anymore. Then it’s time to take a few more tiny steps. You’re going to need good advice and spiritual counsel from someone who’s taken more steps than you have down the path to help you along the way (we say all the time, you need a spiritual father).
3. Pray Through the Day
One tiny step you can take to begin to remember God more often throughout your day is to connect prayer to other habits you already have. For example, you might start by making the sign of the cross before you eat or when you get in the car. You might start by remembering to pray, “O Lord, bless,” before the start of an exam. You might commit to praying for someone you love or for an enemy every time you wash your hands. You’re going to do these things anyway, and the physical action of sitting down to the table, getting in the car, entering the classroom, or turning on the faucet can be a tangible reminder to take a few seconds to connect to God.
You can also connect the Jesus Prayer or other little prayers to bad habits. What I mean is you should respond to temptations with little bits of prayer. When you have a bad thought, you respond, “Lord have mercy.” In fact, this is at the heart of the practice of the Jesus Prayer: that we call upon the name of Jesus when we are assaulted by the temptations of the passions and of the demons like Peter crying out for help when he began to sink.
Prayer can redirect your mind and energy and give you the space between a thought that passes through your mind and your acting on that thought. Before you respond to the impulse to pull out your phone and check Twitter, commit to praying one Jesus Prayer for yourself or for another person. You’ll find quickly two things: how often you’re being tempted and how even just a little bit of connection with Christ suddenly puts things back into the right perspective.
These kinds of succinct little prayers throughout the day not only make living a life of prayer seem a lot less daunting, but most importantly, sincerely invite Christ to be present in the everyday. It makes it harder to compartmentalize our lives and relegate our relationship with God only to Sunday mornings or morning and evening prayers when we call upon His name in the most mundane activities like washing our hands.
4. Remember the End Goal
Always keep in mind that the purpose of the spiritual life is not to do more things, but to see more clearly. We need to see ourselves first so that we can repent of the ways we fall short of God’s commandments. Then we can seek to see God more clearly and unite ourselves to His Divine Life by allowing His Spirit to make present His Son within us.
This means that we don’t say more prayers simply to be able to count up at the end of the day how many minutes we spent in prayer; we pray more to invite Christ into our lives more often and to soften our own hard hearts to His transforming grace. We don’t fast simply to make bacon taste better on Pascha or to prove that we can endure forty days of a low iron diet; we fast to give ourselves a chance to refocus our energy away from earthly cares and commit more time and energy to spiritual growth. We don’t give alms so we can get credit for how much we’ve given away, but to encounter Christ in our neighbor and prove our love for Him by loving the person in front of us.
This is most important: whatever you do as you cultivate a life in Christ, remember that our good work is really Christ working in us and for that, we can say, “Glory to God for all things.”