Among my group of girlfriends, the subject of spiritual fathers has come up a lot lately–how to build a relationship with a priest enough to be able to confide in them, confession with priests, reaching out, etc. It’s been a topic of conversation and anxiety for a while, especially as we get increasingly busier with our lives and search for spiritual guidance.
Flashback about three weeks ago. I was talking to a close friend of mine among the said group. I called her to catch up but I admittedly had an ulterior motive. I was having a life-transition crisis and I needed to vent it out. I knew she would offer the perfect guidance as a friend, fellow Christian, and a critic to tell me I needed to chill out–which I very much needed. My rant to her was a flurry of stress and worry over every little decision I had made in the past month. Whether I made the right school choice, career aspirations, why the heck I left Texas (best country out there), etc. etc. (there were a lot of et ceteras). It was a life update turned into a storm of stress and worry and anxiety over every little thing. As I was venting through all this, I did begrudgingly acknowledge that I was worrying about it way more than I was praying about it. I had been so caught up in analyzing of all of it that I just could not get out of my head enough to take a step back and turn to God. Come to think of it, as worried as I was, I did have to admit that I had gotten some cool opportunities since starting school and even got a job opportunity that I would have never gotten if I hadn’t moved. In fact, there were a lot of moments over the past month that were little blessings to keep me going, even though I hadn’t thought to focus on them.
As I was talking this out (I’m very much a talk-it-out person, down to calling my sister at the grocery store about whether to get Ben & Jerry’s or Talenti), my friend laughed.
“You know I had a wise friend once tell me that when things get overwhelming, you just need to step back and P.R.A.Y. And you literally just did that, but backwards.”
The P.R.A.Y. acronym stands for Praise, Repent, Ask for others, and then for Yourself. What’s ironic is that I was the one who had told her about that method (can’t take all the credit; shout out to Gigi Shadid, 2012 CSR Winter Camp speaker). And she was right–I basically used the P.R.A.Y. method but backwards, choosing to count my blessings last instead of first. It was a funny full-circle moment as I sheepishly consented to my backwardness of thought.
Fast forward to a week or two later during our girls’ night discussion. Our topic was spiritual fathers since it had been on all of our minds (this is what we read if you want to know). Throughout the course of our conversation, we came to the realization that, in a way, we were all each other’s spiritual advisors. Don’t get me wrong–friends do not by any means replace a clergy advisor. But we realized that there are a lot more people surrounding us who are leading us on the Path than we really saw because we were so focused on the idea of a “spiritual father” alone, not realizing the countless ways we were advising and guiding each other spiritually.
So here’s my take-away for you. Lean on each other for spiritual guidance and companionship, friends. The people you surround yourself with, whether through OCF or other means, will have more of an impact on you than you realize, and taking this life journey with them makes it so much more comforting and doable. After all, it is said that you come to emulate the five people you spend the most time with. Think of who those five people are and whether you would be proud to reflect them. For me the answer is thankfully a resounding yes.
Hibbah Kaileh is a graduate student at George Washington University studying global security policy. She served as the South Student Leader on the 2015-2016 Student Leadership Board. Among her many talents is the ability to voraciously devour a novel (usually Harry Potter) or a Netflix series (usually The Office) in the span of a few days.
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.”
Well… it is cough and cold season again in America and the steady hacking of the afflicted provides a staccato soundtrack to daily life in schools, offices, and public places. I wouldn’t have imagined it possible to become so easily brought low by the so-called “common cold” in this place (Arizona) of palm trees and citrus groves but the cold virus is no respecter of persons or places.
I made the classic mistake this autumn of waiting too long to visit my doctor since I didn’t want to be a big baby about something as ordinary as a cold and thought it would surely abate in a few days. Weeks later and chronically ill, I belatedly exited the doctor’s office with a fistful of prescriptions to combat my ailments which if treated sooner would have required less stringent remedies!
King David’s Repentance. Image from Wikimedia
Kinda like confession… Physical ailments cannot be ignored for long without escalating into more serious conditions, and spiritual ones seem to linger and linger if we don’t exercise the same care for our souls as for our bodies. “Routine” physicals are scheduled to assess the overall well-being of the patient as the vital signs (pulse, blood pressure, temperature, weight, etc.) are checked for potential issues and abnormal readings often prompt further rounds of testing.
And we accept this as necessary to promote and maintain health and vitality. But how eagerly do we embrace spiritual assessments of our souls through the ministrations of Holy Confession? How often should we go and how specific should we be in describing our spiritual maladies to the Physician of our souls? The answer to this depends on admitting to ourselves how healthy or unhealthy we want to be in our spiritual lives.
Health and Well-being expenditures in America run into the billions of dollars. A broken fingernail can be the ruination of an otherwise calm and peaceful day. Diets are tightly monitored to avoid sugar, HFCS, gluten, wheat, antibiotics, hormones, etc., and all for good reason. Yet we ingest numerous spiritual, emotional, and psychological substances which are as lethal to our souls as the above listed are to our body.
Holy Confession enables the penitent (that’s us!) to be cleansed from within of our sins and to be made well. The impurities to which we have been exposed, spiritual viruses like lust, envy, pride, anger, bitterness, etc. are flushed out through the grace of the Holy Spirit and our souls are detoxified of these lethal influences which, if left unchecked, can bring about spiritual death.
As a rule, I believe it is helpful to come to confession whenever the Church is fasting, e.g., Great Lent, the Apostles’ fast, the Dormition fast, and the Advent fast. However, inasmuch as Holy Confession is about wellness and not judgment, there may be periods in our lives when more frequent confession is needed. God’s grace flows into the hearts of the humble along with clarity and wisdom. There really is no downside here!
Likewise, the degree of specificity of what we confess correlates to how well we want to become. We ought to be at least as honest in confession as we are in the doctor’s office. Hence, one who has embezzled vast sums would be ill-advised to mutter a word or two about greed! And because God is a righteous and merciful Judge, He stands ready to forgive and to heal and (this is important) strengthen us to wage war against those temptations that threaten to wreck our spiritual health!
So as we approach the Lenten Spring together, may we all take advantage of the spiritual wellness “program” offered to us in our parishes through the Holy Mystery of Confession!
Love and blessings,
Fr. Apostolos Hill
About the Author
This is a guest post from Fr. Apostolos Hill at Holy Trinity Cathedral in Phoenix, AZ. Fr. Apostolos has been active in OCF in a variety of areas; hosting regional retreats, leading OCF Real Break trips to Greece, Guatemala, and Skid Row, and in the College Conference West.
Disclaimer: Orthodoxy is not a minimalist faith (“God has a checklist of stuff for me to do. What is the minimum I can do to be saved?”) but a maximalist faith (“God and the experience of God is inexhaustible. There is always more I can do to love more purely, repent more earnestly, pray more fervently.”). This means that no list of five things can encompass the spiritual life. These five things are intended simply to cultivate the beginnings of the right kind of attitude to live a life of prayer.
1. Find a Spiritual Guide
Christianity is not a religion meant for the individual–we’re meant to be in communion with Christ, and that includes His Body. It’s so important to having an authentically Christian life to live within the community of believers (and yes, that includes the ones you don’t like or don’t get along with, too). But all relationships within the Church are not equal: having Christ-centered peers is imperative, but having a spiritual guide, someone who is further along the path than you, who sees you in a different light than you see yourself, who can understand your struggles and show you the right direction, is essential to a healthy spiritual life. You really can’t do this for yourself. It’s just not possible. It’s like trying to be married to yourself–it doesn’t make any sense, doesn’t allow for love of another, and it’s a bit delusional.
This passage from the Wisdom of Sirach (which I highly recommend for college students–it’s between the Wisdom of Solomon and Hosea in your OSB) says it all:
Stand in an assembly of the elders,
And who is wise? Attach yourself to him.
Desire to listen to every divine narrative,
And do not let proverbs of understanding escape you.
If you see a man who has understanding,
Rise early in the morning
And let your foot wear out the threshold of his door. 6:34-36
Having a spiritual guide is way more than having someone to go to when you mess up. It’s about seeking after someone who lives a godly life in a manner you can strive to imitate. One my dearest spiritual guides is a mother who exemplifies Christian love and prayer in the way she wipes up boogers, does her dishes, and greets her guests. She’s someone whose threshold I cross as often as is possible, whose narratives and proverbs I cling to.
2. Try Not to Make Excuses
It can be so easy and so tempting in the midst of life’s goings-on to start to make little excuses on not-so-little things. We tell ourselves, “It’s been such a busy week, and I have so much going on right now, there’s just no way I could make it to church/wake up and pray/go to OCF/etc.,” or we tell ourselves, “We’re all human. Everybody makes mistakes. That little one I made was really no big deal in the grand scheme of things. It could’ve been way worse.” The latter excuse sounds a lot like some guy we’re gonna hear about this Sunday in church, and let’s just say, that he’s not the guy we want to imitate. The problem with the former excuse is that, over time, a one-time thing becomes a habit. If we’re willing to make the excuse occasionally, we’re likely to slip into habitual laziness and forgetfulness.
Now, this isn’t saying there aren’t legitimate reasons that one might miss church, but our priorities have to be in order, and we have to be truly honest as to what our motivations are. Being honest with where we are and not making excuses for ourselves and our mistakes requires a constant process of reevaluating ourselves and our intentions (see #1 for assistance in this area).
3. Focus on Yourself
Every person is on their own journey, even those of us in the Church who are trying to follow the one True Way. It is completely fruitless, then, to compare yourself to other people or spend time mulling over what everyone else is or isn’t doing or try to “fix” other people. Just don’t do it. It’s the beginning of judgement of others, despair, and spiritual delusion. We only have complete dominion over own thoughts, words, and actions, and it is there that we should focus our time and energy. I always remind myself that I have enough problems and passions hiding in the corners of my heart to last me a lifetime; there’s no time for me to wonder why someone else is eating meat on a Friday.
4. Have Hope
I think a particular struggle of college students today is the feeling that the world has become overwhelmingly bad and that we are helpless to do anything about it. People can seem so divided against one another over the smallest of things, and yet we are constantly told to use our own virtue and skill (yikes) to help heal humanity. But the truth is God is always present, and it is He who cares for all things–from our tiniest personal struggles to the wars and rumors of wars that plague our world. Offer up earnest prayer on behalf of all, and take solace in the words of the psalmist:
Blessed is he whose help is the God of Jacob;
His hope is in the Lord his God,
Who made heaven and earth,
The sea and everything in them,
Who keeps truth forever,
Who executes justice for the wronged,
Who provides food for the hungry.
The Lord frees those bound.
The Lord restores those broken down.
The Lord gives wisdom to the blind.
The Lord loves the righteous.
The Lord keeps watch over resident aliens.
He shall adopt the orphan and the widow.
But He shall destroy the way of sinners. 145:5-9
5. Keep Doing a Little
Becoming a saint doesn’t happen overnight, and there are no shortcuts. Now, this can cause us to throw up our hands and give up or it can be an invitation to patience, with God, with ourselves, and with others. In the meantime, keep doing a little. Go to church. Make your cross before you eat. Say your morning and evening prayers. Read a little Scripture. Get to know the saints. Find little ways to pray through your day, one little thing at a time.
I know someone who told me that a few years ago, when she was having a lot of bad dreams, she started making the sign of the cross and reciting “Let God arise, and let His enemies be scattered,” right before she fell asleep, and now, it’s become such a habit that she doesn’t fall asleep without saying that little prayer. Another person shared with me that whenever he hears a siren of a police car, ambulance, or firetruck he crosses himself and says, “Lord have mercy on those in harm’s way.”
Perhaps in such a simple manner–and with hope, humility, earnestness, and guidance–our lives can become unceasing prayer.