by Evyenia Pyle
A couple years ago in Sunday school, my mom, who was our teacher, challenged the class to give an elevator pitch about Orthodoxy. We were asked to come up with a 30-second pitch that might spark someone’s interest in the church.. I never thought too far into it. I think I used Psalm 135 in high school to say that if His mercy endures forever, that is a comfort and reassurance. It wasn’t until a recent OCF meeting at my school that I was asked a new question. “Why are you Orthodox?” My answer was that back in November of 2000 my parents allowed me to get dunked under water and that was that. The discussion leader didn’t think it was as funny as I did but nudged me further and said, “Okay, but why are you Orthodox today?” Why am I Orthodox today? I could give my elevator pitch, but at the time my elevator pitch didn’t make sense. I didn’t know what to say.
I was sitting there thinking, there are few times I can be rendered speechless and this was one of them. Then I realized why I was Orthodox. “I hit rock bottom” I said. Everyone looked at me. “I had to hit rock bottom, to realize that I needed to choose Orthodoxy.” Now at the time I didn’t have the time to share what that meant. I have had a few days to reflect and I wanted to tell other OCF people about my experience. Rock bottom does not mean I was sitting in a corner crying rocking back and forth not knowing what to do, I mean I did that, but way before rock bottom. Rock bottom was when I realized there was nothing else that could fill my heart like God. I was trying to find anything to self-medicate and fill this hole in my heart. I was searching for a love that I couldn’t find surrounding myself with friends, strangers, family, and the only thing that could fill the hole was not on my mind. It was God. Everyone has their struggles in life, and while my specific struggles are beyond the scope of this post, I’d like to share my thought process with you.
I needed to start to pray, but I didn’t know where to start, but if I could just say the Jesus prayer, maybe that would help. So over and over again I said the Jesus prayer until the words started to sink in, and then it hit me. “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me the sinner”. Have mercy on me the sinner. I went from that to the pre-communion prayer, “I believe O Lord and I confess that you are truly the Christ who did come into the world to save sinners, of whom I am first.” It was then that I thought about St. Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 4, that we are the garbage of the world, but we are everything in the eyes of God. I looked in the mirror at that moment and said, “I am the garbage of the world, but I am everything in the eyes of God”. In that moment I felt myself begin to cry. As the sudden realization that as the first among sinners, the garbage of the world, and the sinner God still loved me to an extent I could never imagine. God still loved me, a broken and hurt soul, because in His eyes I am everything. I thought about John 3:17 where it says, “For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved.” Not only did that help me remember that God loves me, but that He doesn’t want to punish us, He wants to save and love us. Then I looked up at my icon wall and I saw my icon of the Good Shepherd. I have two versions of this icon, of course I have the one with Jesus holding the sheep, but then I have another one where Jesus is carrying a man. At that moment I knew that Christ would carry me while I was broken.
The overwhelming emotion that I experienced of being loved by the One who is love is something indescribable. The distractions of social media and earthly cares that I used to hide my own brokenness never lasted. It was like putting a band-aid on during open heart surgery to stop the bleeding. It didn’t hold and it would never hold. The only thing that filled my heart and healed it was Christ. The only person who would always truly love me even at my worst was Christ. So, there I was, at rock bottom, in my room, waiting for an answer, to discover that I had it all along. If you asked me today what my elevator pitch is for Orthodoxy, I would tell you that it is the most healing medicine there is. The Church is the greatest hospital in which to realize that in my brokenness, Christ will still love me. Even if I was the garbage of the world, even though I was the sinner, and the first among sinners, God sees me as His perfect creation. How could I have forgotten something so fundamental to our faith. Why do I choose Orthodoxy? I choose Orthodoxy because it is through my faith in Christ that I can deal with whatever life throws at me. It is through the most healing hospital of Christ that I can be beautifully broken and put together by God. I choose Orthodoxy because I can be broken, and I can be the garbage of the world, but no matter what, I am everything in the eyes of God.
Publications Student Leader
Hi, I am Evyenia Pyle, and I am the publications student this year! I am in my second year of college studying speech and hearing sciences! I play 12 instruments as of right now, and in my free time I play with my dog. I am really excited about this upportunity. Never hesitate to reach out with questions, comments, or if you are interested in writing a blog! firstname.lastname@example.org
“Pray the Jesus Prayer!” my friend shouts.
It’s a warm August day; I’m about eleven years old at the time. A number of my church friends and I are in a rowboat—probably too many of us in one boat, maybe a little too young to be out unsupervised.
“I’ve never had to row in wind this strong before,” a friend calls over the chaos of panicking kids.
“Um, okay, I guess let’s all try praying, guys,” I say quietly.
O Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.
Three short years later, I am sitting in a dark hospital waiting room for what seems like the thousandth time. In my hands, I am holding the back brace that will turn me from a confident tomboy to a self-conscious teenager.
Credit to Art4TheGloryOfGod via flickr
“Walk up to the X-ray machine and stand straight,” I heard the familiar voice of the technician.
O Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.
Fast forward another six years, and now I am teaching Sunday School. “Okay, everyone, today we are going to learn about the Jesus Prayer. Do you all know it? It goes like this: O Lord Jesus Christ…” “Have mercy on me a sinner!” I hear the group of six- and seven-year-olds say. I look up and smile, knowing that the Jesus Prayer is one of the first things we teach kids when they start Sunday School at age three.
You might be wondering why, at my church, children learn this prayer at such a young age, when they are probably too young to understand its meaning. Yes, it is in part because the prayer is short, but there is so much to it than that.
Earlier I mentioned two stories that have happened in my life where, momentarily, I genuinely felt afraid and alone. Remember the rowboat story? My friend’s older brother swam over and helped us row to shore, and moments later it seemed as though nothing had happened. And the hospital story? The X-ray clinic is a fading memory.
Likely some of you reading this right now are enduring trials much worse than the ones I have mentioned. Maybe, right now, you are living through some of the worst years of your life. I don’t know. Everyone faces different struggles in their lives.
The Jesus Prayer is so important to me because I associate it with God’s enduring work in my life over the years—the work of a God who was present somewhere even during the darkest moments, a God who will never abandon us. The words are so simple but so profound at the same time: O Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner. When I pray these words, I am also reminded of these words from the book of Deuteronomy: God will never leave you nor forsake you. If your heart is open to Him, of course God will have mercy on you! I hope this prayer can be a constant reminder to us of God’s enduring love for humankind.
Of course, praying is not magic, as several of my fellow Blog Contributors have dutifully reminded us over the past few weeks. I don’t pretend to understand how God works, and I don’t pretend to understand why it might sometimes seem as though our prayers go unanswered. But, all the experiences that I have associated with the Jesus Prayer over the past few years remind me that, despite moments of genuine fear and pain, we have a loving and merciful God, and that all our trials shall some day pass.
Anastasia Lysack in her third year of her Music degree at the University of Ottawa. She attends Christ the Saviour Orthodox Church in Ottawa, where she teaches Sunday School and sings in the choir. In her spare time, she enjoys reading, volunteering, and visiting just about any coffee shop in the city of Ottawa.
If there’s one thing that can be said for the demons, it’s that they are persistent. They never rest from their attempts to get us sidetracked from the Way, and they’re relentless in bombarding us with distractions of every type, anything to keep us from focusing on Christ in our hearts. If we’ve been decently formed by the Church and are earnest in our pursuit of Christ, we’re often quick to notice the big temptations they hurl at us, even if sometimes in our weakness we still fall prey to them. So, of course, the demons get all the more tricky (have you read The Screwtape Letters?), and find ways to worm their way into our hearts and minds disguising their nonsense as “normal” thoughts or even “godly” thoughts.
One of these demons I noticed running around at College Conference this year was what I like to call the “What-If” demon. This annoying beast spends his time making us ask ourselves, “What if this thing I want to have happen never happens in my life?” “What if I had done this one thing differently?” “What am I going to do if some-thing-in-the-future-that-hasn’t-happened-but-could happens to me?” It seems he especially likes to pester young Orthodox Christians with all sorts of what-if’s about dating, relationships, marriage, and monasticism. Illustrative to this point are some of the questions we received from students in our question box:
What if we do not come to the realization to be married or enter the monastic life?
What if I don’t know by the time I’m 25 if I should get married or be a monastic? Does that mean I should automatically become a monastic if there is no one I can marry by 25?
Likewise, many young people who do feel called to marriage wonder, “What if I don’t meet the right person? What if I never get married?” Now, this is not to say that it’s not important to answer questions of how one should go about discerning one’s vocation. But the nasty What-If demon twists this necessary and spiritual undertaking into an anxiety-ridden, paralyzing question filling us with guilt, worry, and fear.
The What-If demon does his best to keep us looking anxiously to the future or mulling over the past, and this murky cloud of what-has-been and what-might-be is his greatest weapon. It swirls around us, becoming so encompassing, dark, and ominous that we can’t see clearly–we can’t see the present moment. And it is only in the present moment that we can meet Christ, hear His calling, and answer obediently.
In fact, C.S. Lewis in The Screwtape Letters (really, you should read it) says it perfectly. Coaching his nephew on the ways of temptation, the demon Screwtape writes:
The humans live in time, but our Enemy destines them to eternity. He therefore, I believe, wants them to attend chiefly to two things, to eternity itself and to that point of time which they call the Present. For the Present is the point at which time touches eternity. Of the present moment, and of it only, humans have an experience analogous to the experience which our Enemy has of reality as a whole; in it alone, freedom and actuality are offered them. He would therefore have them continually concerned either with eternity (which means being concerned with Him), or with the Present–either meditating on their eternal union with, or separation from, Himself, or else obeying the present voice of conscience, bearing the present cross, receiving the present grace, giving thanks for the present pleasure.
The present moment is the place where time and eternity meet and where God enters into our lives. In an important way, the present moment is the only moment for the Christian. Do you say “yes” to Christ in this moment with this breath? Are you listening for His call in your heart right now? Can you see Him in the person or situation that’s right in front of you?
We must do battle with the What-If demon as we do with all temptations. First, we have to recognize him for what he is. We can’t confuse his what-if’s with repentance for the past or discernment about the future. Don’t let him convince you that his imaginary situations where he replays your past with anguishing regret are the same as contrition or the images he throws before you with terrorizing anxiety of futures that haven’t happened need to be addressed to find God’s will.
His cloud is just that: a cloud. A cloud that is blown away by the Holy Spirit when we call upon the name of Jesus Christ. And once we have recognized the What-If demon for who he is and called upon Christ to banish him away, we can be free to see clearly the present moment in which Christ dwells.
If the What-If demon becomes too strong in our lives, he can wreak all sorts of havoc on our hearts, giving rise to anxiety, fear, and depression. If he is pulling too strongly, it’s important that we bring to light this struggle in the sacrament of confession. Confession is a time to be open and honest about the demons that pester us, especially when we feel convinced by their nonsense.
And watch out because just as you start to name the What-If demon and try to escape from his distractions, he’ll send in his cousin the Don’t-Repent demon who will try to convince you that you should feel shame for your anxiety, you are helpless, and you don’t deserve God’s love and forgiveness. Don’t listen. He’s lying.
The best thing we can do when we are tempted by the What-If demon is to remember that he is actually powerless as long as we refuse to give him any of our time and energy. When he comes to distract us, instead of letting him drag us away from Christ in the now, we can answer with the Prophet,
Behold, God is my Savior and Lord. I will trust in Him and be saved by Him. I will not be afraid, for the Lord is my glory and my praise. He has become my salvation. –Isaiah 12:2, OSB
Starting a rule of prayer can be quite intimidating–and keeping one quite discouraging. It helps when we understand that a rule of prayer (in Greek, κανόνας προσευχής) does not mean ‘do this or else’ or ‘follow this rule so you don’t get punished’. Κανόνας here means a measurement, more like a ruler than a rule. So a rule of prayer is a goal that we strive for each day which we believe, with the guidance of our spiritual father, is actually do-able. We are creatures of habit. Whether we are conscious of it or not we are continually developing either good or bad habits. Developing a habit of daily personal prayer is the best way to counteract the three giants (forgetfulness, laziness, and ignorance) which continuously seek to overcome us. Conversely, we can think of our prayer rule as our ‘tithe’ each day which we offer to the Lord so that He will bless the remainder of it. If even Jesus needed to go off alone and pray to His Father at set intervals, how much more do we need to do this as well?
When should we pray?
This is something particular to each person and their daily schedule, however, the beginning and end of each day seem to work best. The Jews would bring ‘the first fruits’ of the harvest as an offering to the temple so that the Lord would then bless the remainder of their harvest. Similarly, we have the example of those in monastic life who arise at the very early hours of the new day to be alone with God, even before gathering together for common prayer. By praying when we first wake up (and by making ourselves go to bed at a reasonable hour so that we will get enough rest!) we prioritize our relationship with God over any other relationship or activity. Before the cares of each day rush in we turn to the Lord and surrender it into His capable hands. At the close of each day we can thank Him for all that has come about by His Divine Providence that day; ask His forgiveness for the specific ways in which we strayed from His Holy Will for us, and raise up before Him our concerns and wishes for the morrow.
A spiritual father on the Holy Mountain once told a pilgrim, “If you pray ( specifically the Jesus Prayer) for one hour a day, in six months your life will be completely transformed.” Can we each find an hour a day to give the Lord? “I don’t have another hour in my day,” you respond. Let’s look at it this way. The saintly bishop Gerasimos from Holy Cross in Brookline once stated simply, “We can’t give to others what we haven’t first received from God.” In other words, we really can’t afford not to pray either if we want the Lord to bless our interactions throughout each day with others. St. John of Kronstadt even wrote in My Life In Christ that a half an hour of sincere prayer at night is worth three hours of sleep! Still not convinced? Try this. Keep a detailed log of what you do each day for one week. Isn’t quality face-time with God more essential than all those hours of social mediating?
Photo from Wikimedia Commons
Okay, how does this work?
The Lord taught us, “But you, when you pray, go into your room, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly.” The Fathers of the Church tell us that what is most essential is that our prayer is sincere and from the heart. This doesn’t mean that we do not use prayers that others have written. It simply means that we need to focus our efforts on being real with God. Prayer starts with the lips, moves to the mind, and then moves on to the heart. When our minds wander (which they do continuously) we gently but firmly bring our attention back to the actual words we are praying. St. John of Kronstadt said for beginners that we should listen for a corresponding “echo” of understanding with each line of a prayer. At some point, when God wills, the prayer of the mind descends into the heart and we are more consciously aware of God’s presence and that He is communicating to us through each word. Then prayers become prayer.
What prayers should we be using?
Most good prayer rules have a combination of five sources: the prayers of the Church, the Psalter, Holy Scripture, noetic (single thought) prayer, and intercessory prayer. We use the prayers of the Church (which are mostly taken from the Divine services) since we are never praying in isolation from the Church even when we are all alone. These prayers, written by saints of the Church whose experience of God is more intimate than our own, act as signposts to safely guide us to approach the fearful throne of God with the right attitude. The psalms are the prayer book of the early Church and express every disposition of man in relation to God. By reading Holy Scripture, we open up our minds and hearts so the Lord can speak directly to us through the sacred texts. We also read the writings of the Holy Fathers which are all simply insightful and pastoral commentary on Holy Scripture. Noetic or contemplative prayer is the most powerful moment in our rule fulfilling the command to, “Be still and know that I am God.” Having acquired a boldness before God we end our pray rule by raising others up in prayer as their intercessors while asking the intercessions of the saints on our behalf.
Photo from Wikimedia Commons
What is our goal?
Our goal is to be vanquished by God’s love in prayer. Our goal is to remember to not just say our prayers to get them out of the way but to allow ourselves through prayer to be reacquainted with our Maker and Savior each day and His immeasurable love for each of us. It is to receive our spiritual hug for the day in the Holy Spirit. We know our prayer rule is working when we don’t want to stop praying; when we feel the peace that comes from having handed our list of things that need to be accomplished that day over to Him. Our goal is to come to the transformative realization that even the thought to pray each day is already the awakening of our soul to the mystical presence of the Lord for He is the one who initiates prayer with us by giving us each day the thought to say our prayers. In the words of St. Gregory of Nyssa, “God is prayer,” because through prayer He takes up His abode in our hearts and rules as our King and our Lord. Come Lord Jesus!
A parish priest for twenty-two years, Fr. Theodore Petrides has served Holy Cross Greek Orthodox Church in Stroudsburg, PA. for the past nineteen. He and Pres. Cristen have six children and two grandchildren (so far). He regularly travels in America as well as Greece (especially the Holy Mountain), Cyprus, and the Holy Land as a pilgrim, guide, and speaker. He has also taken six work groups to Project Mexico since 1999. He is very enthused about the staff and leadership board of OCF!
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.”