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.
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.